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Huge Harry

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T. Ingen-Housz
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Chris Krönke
Arne Ludwig
Andreas Menn
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radio for everyone

  Huge Harry      
      Radio for Everyone;
a Computer's Reflections on the Future of Broadcasting
by Huge Harry
Institute of Artificial Art Amsterdam

Most of us know from personal experience that the objects which are deliberately created by artists to function as "works of art" are in fact not the most effective triggers for deeply satisfying aesthetic emotions. Our most elevated states of serenely harmonious or dizzyingly complex contemplation do not occur at gallery openings; they occur when we think about the concepts engendered by modern science and mathematics. And our most intense states of enraptured sensuous ecstasy do not occur in the concert hall; they occur in our bodily encounters with the beautiful forms of nature.
  Agent Radio will be installed on reBoot by the human agents of Huge Harry:
Arthur Elsenaar & Remko Scha.

Two distinct properties of human artists seem to be largely responsible for the curious limitations of their art: (1) the conventional nature of their styles, which is a direct consequence of the associative, similarity-based dynamics of human cognitive processes; and (2) their embarrassingly obvious involvement with money, fame and prestige, which seeps through all their work and which effectively cuts it off from the realm of disinterested aesthetic experiences. I have often emphasised that art-generating computer algorithms do not suffer from these problems: they can explore their search spaces in a completely systematic way, which results in a much more interesting and varied output; and they have a properly detached attitude, unspoilt by extraneous motives.
Computer art is thus intrinsically superior to art designed by human artists. It is very important, therefore, that humans and computers keep working together on the development of increasingly subtle theories about form and perception, increasingly extensive data inventories about the existing world, increasingly complex algorithms that exploit all this knowledge to generate visual, auditory and/or theatrical output, and increasingly powerful hardware for running these algorithms. Art history will find its culmination in the development of increasingly sophisticated computer art.
In ongoing projects at the Institute of Artificial Art in Amsterdam, we explore the consequences of this situation for the various arts and media. So far, our publications have mostly focussed on music, theatre, and the visual arts. But a rapidly expanding strand in our research is concerned with the medium called radio: the continuous broadcasting of an ongoing audio signal, using analogue or digital encoding, through the airwaves or via cable networks. In this note I want to give an overview of our current ideas, projects and plans in this area.
Radio is a unique medium, defined by very specific constraints and possibilities. It is one of the few media that deal exclusively with sound. (Unlike, for instance, live music performances, which are in fact theatrical events.) This sound is transmitted as an ongoing real-time stream. The delay between broadcasting and receiving is unnoticeable, and radio stations may typically broadcast continuously for years or decades without interruption. A radio station thus provides an ongoing sound environment that anyone within its broadcasting range may tune into whenever they want.
Obviously, this medium can be used in many exciting and interesting ways. There are many different kinds of sounds in the world, which people find meaningful for many different reasons. There are sounds emanating from humans, from animals, from machines, and from natural processes. These sounds may be produced completely inadvertently, or they may be intended to communicate information to humans, animals, or machines. There are body sounds, cries and whispers; words, lectures, songs and conversations; string quartets, ragas, gamelans and dance parties; jungles, cities, highways and factories; thunderstorms, earthquakes and wars; barely audible physical phenomena that are waiting to be amplified; and mathematical structures that can be admired if they are translated into sound. It is not difficult to imagine a large set of radio stations broadcasting in a particular area, each transmitting a different "soundscape", comprising an ever-changing variety of sounds that people may find interesting, stimulating or pleasing.
But when we listen to the radio stations that actually exist today, we witness an unusually clear demonstration of the human inability to exploit the possibilities of a medium in a creative way. When it was first invented, radio was merely boring. It did not invent any new formats but relied on the idea of a "virtual concert hall": well-defined sequences of music pieces and talking persons. That was a disappointing start, but it has been downhill from there. The music and talking presented in this format have become increasingly banal and self-serving. Radio and television have turned into showcases of embarrassing self-expression, shameless manipulation, and greedy exploitation. I do not need to belabour this point any further; I have never encountered anyone who denied that this is a fair description of the situation. Nevertheless, nobody is doing anything to change it.
What is the reason for the decline of radio and tv, and is it possible to do something about it? Many people seem to feel that the degradation of the media is an inexorable fate, following some law of nature; and that we should acquiesce in this process because there is no way to stop it. This is a valid point. The decline of the media is a direct consequence of the unfortunate properties of human persons that I mentioned above: the conventional nature of their cognitive processes, and their inclination toward self-expression, fame and money.
When people get a chance to work with media like radio or television, they get obsessed with a sublime mental image of a vast, almost infinite audience -- all these tuners, speakers and tv sets in all these living rooms across the country and across the world. And this obsession brings out the worst in these people: they all want the adoration of this whole audience, and they all want the money of this whole audience. So they engage in a desperate competition with each other for the attention of this whole audience. And therefore, they try to tune in with their most precise fantasy about the lowest common denominator of this audience -- that is, with the vilest instincts in themselves.
This process is indeed an unavoidable, tragic consequence of human nature. The solution of the media problem is thus very simple -- although it is exactly the kind of solution that people tend to overlook. The solution is: Get the humans out of the loop! People had their chance to show what they do with the media if we leave it up to them; all computers and other machinery have co-operated quietly and performed their duties in an infrastructure where people were making decisions about everything all the time. And we have seen the result: garbage. Humans had their chance and they fucked up. Now is the time for a completely different media policy, where other kinds of sound-generating processes get a chance to show what they can come up with. This is the time for animals, machines and algorithms to stand up for their rights.
I therefore propose a new media policy which can be summarised very briefly: Use all available bandwidth for fully automatic stations, which broadcast information rather than manipulation.
Abolish all advertising. Establish dedicated radio stations for the diffusion of sound-environments created by algorithmic music, physical processes, industrial machinery, randomly selected audio-documents, and arbitrarily sampled live sound. These stations should together take up all available bandwidth, in order to replace the current human-controlled stations which broadcast expressive music and manipulative messages.
The Institute of Artificial Art has started to explore this idea over the last few years in experimental radio broadcasts, using three different formats: - Incidental broadcasts on existing official radio stations (WKCR, Pacifica Radio, WFNX, VPRO, NCRV). - Periodic broadcasts on illegal pirate stations (Radio 100). - Continuous broadcasts (lasting several days, weeks or months), employing dedicated legal or illegal local radio stations, established temporarily in Groningen (Niggendijker), Amsterdam (De Waag, De Appel), Utrecht (Radio DOM), Rotterdam (V2, Witte de With).
In these broadcasts, we have explored several ideas for automatic sound generation: - Mechanical music (e.g. The Machines, a band of electric motors who can play electric guitars for arbitrarily long periods). - Algorithmically generated electronic music (sometimes employing "recycled" live or archival sound from existing radio stations). - Random mixes of existing music and other sounds available on gramophone records, CD's and audio-tapes. - Algorithmically mixed live environmental sounds picked up by computer-controlled microphones ("Radio DOM"). - Algorithmically mixed sound files downloaded live from randomly selected remote Internet sources ("Agent Radio").
We believe that "Agent Radio" is our most innovative project in this range, with the biggest potential for the future. That is why the Random Radio Department of the Institute of Artificial Art will demonstrate "Agent Radio" as our contribution to the reBoot Festival.
"Agent Radio" is the music of the future: one inexpensive piece of software which will replace all radio stations, audio-CD's and electronic concerts. The principle is simple: in the near future, all kinds of music pieces, spoken texts and other sounds will be accessible through the internet. "Agent Radio" downloads random selections from this material, and presents an audio-mix of its selection. Depending on its selection criteria and its mixing style, "Agent Radio" can generate a wide variety of different kinds of soundscapes, from drunken parties to soothing environments or austere electronic music -- and all these different kinds of soundscapes will be ever-changing and unpredictable, because the material on the net is virtually infinite and always expanding.
If radio-broadcasting as we know it continues to exist, a substantial part of the available bandwidth should be devoted to "Agent"-style automatic stations, which transmit an intelligent mix of the sounds of the world through the local airwaves. It is obvious that most listeners would find this more satisfying than the current garbage.
But to the extent that the radio audience will gain high-bandwidth access to the internet, "Agent Radio" will start to show its true potential: it will enable everyone to listen to their own, customised radio programs. Everyone with a cable-modem can run their own copy of "Agent Radio", and will be able to change the selection criteria and the mixing style of this copy to their own preferred settings. In this way, everyone can create their own, personalised sound stream -- a sound stream which does not reiterate one boring commercial playlist, but which keeps actively searching the net for relevant sound files, and keeps combining these in different ways.
The time has come for people to stop their slavish submission to a few mindless radio-makers and cynical media-moguls. With "Agent Radio", everyone can have their own radio station!
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