Mysterious Noises & Electrical Disturbances:
Using radio to make sense of our universe
Our understanding of our world and our cosmos has been transformed by the study of radio waves. With the invention of telecommunication technology at the end of the 19th century, radio became a tool for rethinking the world we live in. Radio collapsed geographical distance, crossed borders and cultures and became a powerful catalyst for commerce. From the 1930s onward, radio enabled scientists to study the cosmos in entirely new ways. Radio has, in effect, created an electromagnetic ‘portrait’ of our world. We can not only look at this portrayal, but by employing the very technology which Marconi and Tesla brought into being, we can also listen.
This paper will begin by tracing the twin histories of radio telecommunications and radio astronomy from Hertz’s work on the radio wave, to Penzias & Wilson’s ‘accidental’ discovery of radiation from the Big Bang, demonstrating how radio has been used to deepen scientists’ understanding of our universe. It will continue by illustrating how radio has been used to reveal the hidden aural attributes of the electromagnetic spectrum, citing the works of radio hobbyists such as Stephen P. McGreevy. Drawing on the taxonomies of sonification developed by Gregory Kramer, the paper will suggest that as well as being a Brechtian “apparatus of communication”, radio is also “an instrument of audification”. Weaving together these discussions, the paper will outline how artists can utilize the science of the electromagnetic wave to make astronomical space audible. Referring to the r a d i o q u a l i a project, Radio Astronomy (2004 – present), the paper will show how radio can reveal the sonic character of objects in our Universe, and in the process make these phenomena more tangible and comprehensible.
Honor Harger was born and educated in New Zealand and has lived in Europe since 1999. She is an artist and curator with a particular interest in artistic uses of new technologies. She is currently a PhD researcher at Z-Node a facility based at the University of Plymouth, and the Hochschule für Gestaltung und Kunst Zürich in Switzerland. She is currently director of the AV Festival <http://www.avfest.co.uk> in
Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough in the UK. From 2000 – 2003 she was curator of Webcasting for Tate <http://www.tate.org.uk>, and curated events and concerts which focused on art and technology at Tate Modern. She has worked as a freelance curator on many exhibitions and events, including art.net.uk/now
<http://radioqualia.va.com.au/artnetuknow/> for the British Council in
India in 2002 and Dots & Lines <http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/cutandsplice/online_ex.shtml> for the BBC in 2005.
She has lectured widely including at the European Space Agency, the Centre
Pompidou, the National Museum of South Africa, California Institute of the
Arts, the University of Westminster and the American Film Institute.
Honor’s artistic practice is produced under the name r a d i o q u a l i a together with Adam Hyde. Their work has been exhibited at festivals, museums and galleries around the world. In August 2004 they were awarded a UNESCO Digital Art Prize for the project, Radio Astronomy <http://www.radio-astronomy.net>.
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