September 27, 2018
Some artists work in oils, say, or marble. Amanda Dawn Christie works in radio. Not radio in the sense of performing on air. But radio in the sense of the giant cultural and technological phenomenon that is broadcasting, and specifically shortwave broadcasting.
For decades, shortwave was the only way to reach a global audience in real time. Broadcasters such as the BBC World Service and Voice of America used it to project “soft power.” But as the Internet grew, interest in shortwave diminished.
Christie’s art draws from shortwave’s history, representing it in sculpture, performance, photography, and film. Her focus is the life of the Radio Canada International (RCI) transmitter complex, located in Sackville, New Brunswick, near Christie’s hometown. The transmitter was in operation from the 1940s until 2012. “Those towers were always just a part of the landscape that I grew up around,” says Christie. It took a radio-building workshop to spark her interest: “I built a radio out of a toilet-paper tube…. I thought I did a great job because I picked up Italian radio. It turned out I did not—I was just really close to this international shortwave site.”
She began talking to locals about the complex. “Some people would hear the radio in their sink, or their fridge…. I was jealous because my sink didn’t play the radio,” she says. Research led her to the rusty bolt effect, in which corroded metal acts as a radio diode, something that engineers normally strive to prevent. “I thought, ‘My gosh, if there’s instructions on how to stop this, I should be able to reverse engineer and create it.’ ”
This led to The Marshland Radio Plumbing Project, in which Christie attached a sink to a long loop of copper pipe, with a wonky solder joint as the diode. She took it to the salt marsh surrounding the RCI transmitters and got to know the engineers on-site: “We looked at topographical maps to see where I could take the sink and at what time it would be likely to pick up a signal.” Christie’s sink radio turned out to be about 40 meters too short in the pipe department, but soon she was hearing all kinds of stories about RCI from neighbors. For example, “in the 1950s, there were two dairy farms, [and anytime there was a broadcast to Africa] their lights would come on, not all the way, but just sort of glow,” she says. Christie began recording these stories, which led to her next major radio-inspired work, a 2016 film called Spectres of Shortwave. The film is made up mostly of the recordings played over footage of the RCI site’s 13 masts.
Christie also began using contact microphones to record the sounds of the masts vibrating in the wind. These droning tones were filtered to create a musical scale. The masts were finally demolished in 2014, and at the end of Spectres of Shortwave, Christie uses these drones as an affecting chorus that gradually stills as each mast falls.
The unusual nature of Spectres of Shortwave has meant that Christie has had difficulty showing it. “It’s too experimental for mainstream festivals, and it’s too narrative for experimental festivals!” she says ruefully. (Readers in Montreal between 15 November 2018 and 26 January 2019 can catch screenings at the Dazibao art center.)
The tower sounds led to performances. For Requiem for Radio: Pulse Decay, Christie plays a theremin rigged to sound the different drones and trigger images of the masts. This solo piece was also incorporated into a complex, three-person 2017 performance called Requiem for Radio: Full Quiet Flutter.
Although the RCI site is gone, Christie’s art is still focused on radio waves: “I just built a cello that has a loop antenna and AM transmitter instead of a resonating body. I’m looking forward to refining it and composing music for it.”
This article appears in the October 2018 print issue as “The Radio Elegist.”