The first in a series of Moving Image Commissions premiered in the Walker during Cinema and released June 1 for a limited run online, James Richards new 8-minute film, Radio at Night (2015) responds to the legacy of late British filmmaker Derek Jarman. Here, Bentson Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap discusses the mechanical mediations of sensuality and flow.
A painter, writer, queer political activist, and filmmaker, Derek Jarman (1942–1994) took a synthetic approach to his art. His dexterous approach to composition, as well as his ability to blend the painterly aspects of celluloid film with the nascent technologies of video, reveals his integrationist thinking. Jarman’s films especially are characterized by the sensual interplay of human figures and the environments they inhabit. Candidly probing representations of bodies, relationships and aesthetics, his legacy continues to have a profound effect on the creation and future possibilities of queer cinema.
Artist James Richards frequently cites Jarman as an inspiration for his own work, and Radio at Night is an explicit expression of the late filmmaker’s influence. Echoing Jarman’s collage techniques and inverted color palettes, as well as revealing Richards’ own embrace of sound as a complex force that might govern the behavior of an image, the contemporary artists’ new 8-minute video is a spectral meditation on the human figure as a space of sensual integration.
Radio at Night is a work suffused with openings, holes and voids: eyes, mouths, viewfinders, geysers (as well as violent openings: surgical incisions and bullet holes). Whether literal or metaphorical, bodily apertures are both the subject of the work and the tools for its reception. Here, sound and image relentlessly commune to remind the viewer of their materiality. These are substances that are, in essence, physical; they flow into our aural and retinal cavities prior to recognition, sense and interpretation.
“I wanted to create a sense of the material as something channeled,” says Richards of Radio at Night, “rather than something taken.” Channeling—perhaps more usefully reinscribed as “flow”—is central to the artists’ work, and especially to Radio at Night. “Flow” not only articulates the artist’s continuous circulation of sound and image throughout this work and others (Richards’ often recycles and adapts material from one video to the next, drawing from his growing stockpile), but also describes the absorption, integration and transmission of material. The diversity of Richards sources—home movies, pornography, instructional videos, spoken word records, and the artists’ own burgeoning collection of self-shot footage—are unmoored from their original contexts and synthesized into a different logic. And yet the appropriated material always retains a single element or trace residue for which it was first gleaned by the artist: a specific noise, gesture, color or mood.
The American artist Steve Reinke, a previous collaborator of Richards’, describes the latter artist’s approach to source material as one of “narrative and affect suspension.” Rerouted from their initial context, materials transition from one state to another, repurposed not into another narrative but an environment in which the original footage is a complicit collaborator. So, too, one is subjected to Radio at Night as one is subjected to an environment. In an environment, sound is resonant, while vision is evident. In the video, the former consistently dominates the latter; switches in tone precipitate cuts or inversions of video action, and tonal pauses remove the presence of the image altogether.
Philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy has described the relationship between sound and the body as a sonorous event: “a time that opens up, that is hollowed out, that is enlarged or ramified, that envelops or separates, that becomes or is turned into a loop, that stretches or contracts.” Nancy’s evocative and metaphorically anal description operates under the premise that one submits to a sonorous event. In other words, one can close one’s eyes, but not one’s ears. The sonorous event is an environment rather than a score and, in this way, it finds striking similarity to the intentions of ambient music, a genre that seeks to favor atmosphere over structure. For Radio at Night, this parallel is significant. Not only does its soundtrack give a nod to the ambient output of experimental music group and regular Jarman collaborators, Coil, but it also conceptually echoes Coil’s central inquiry, which was emblazoned on the sleeve of their 1984 debut album, How to Destroy Angels: “How sound can affect the physical and mental state of the serious listener.” Whether by accident or design, Coil emphasize sound’s power to affect materiality first, and perception second.
In Richards’ work, sound subjects the listener to specific acoustic architectures in order to influence the reading of onscreen images, especially those that indicate the human figure. In Radio at Night, as well as its precursor Raking Light (2014), the soundtrack includes familiar sounds of digital technologies that occur in close proximity to the body—namely, the sounds of “personal devices”: a small camera and its microphone scraping along the surface of a table, the noise of a hard drive “thinking,” a hard wind rushing into an unshielded microphone, for example. These sounds are frequently paired with the typically depersonalized imagery of instructional videos, documentary films, and medical photographs. Nearness and anonymity are thus bridged and paired. So too the title of the work infers such a hierarchy. In a reference to a text by Richards’ late friend and artist Ian White (1971–2013), the phrase “radio at night” captures the idea of an atmosphere authored by sound that is mediated and brought into being by technology. Radio is, after all, a transmission that is public in broadcast, and yet private in reception.
In contrast to his earlier output, which is largely characterized by sonic dissonance and the unhinged emotional turbulence that such atonality brings, Richards’ audio for Radio at Night operates out of a definitive engagement with musical harmony. The soundtrack is entirely composed in the key of C Minor, blending fragments of found sound with passages sung by a female vocal ensemble. (The artist commissioned the ensemble to perform excerpts from ‘The enemies of She Who call her various names’ a 1972 poem by American feminist, lesbian activist, and poet Judy Grahn. Excerpts of Grahn’s poems and voice have previously appeared in Richards’ Misty Suite, 2009 and Not Blacking Out, Just Turning The Lights Off (2001–2012). This C-minor key sustains a register of sonic coherence from beginning to end—from the opening scene, where a low thrumming sound of two interchangeable notes accompanies a constrained shot of trees inside a viewfinder, through to the complex and hypnotic arrangements of choppy samples that stutter together in the central section of the video. Radio at Night’s unified quality is not entirely hermetic, however. Like the open holes, cavities, and apertures it depicts on screen, the video itself is a porous structure: disparate materials become interchangeable within a rhythmic whole, sounds and images flow in and out as if elements of a bridge or chorus.
A feeling of seamlessness permeates Radio at Night. Disparate material is regulated and conditioned into coherence. Simple interventions—namely, Richards’ use of the imposition of the loop and the frame—skew a source’s original sense of scale or duration, and integrates a controlled mechanical process into physical mannerisms. (This is not to say that human gesture is purely rendered as a mechanized artifact, but rather the situation is reciprocal: the loop gives a human image to the mechanism.) “The video frame acts less like a window and more like a surface in which activities happen and are divided,” says Richards. “These are images pumped out as if from a small bandwidth, personal but distant.”
In his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin described cinema as a function to “train human beings in the apperceptions and reactions needed to deal with a vast apparatus whose role in their lives is expanding almost daily.” Radio at Night emerges from and also depicts a contemporary moment in which the human figure is seamlessly blended with its technological environment. Here, apperception is not simply an instructive coping mechanism, but an aesthetically elevated form of visceral engagement that draws out emotional correspondences between unlikely entities: a “thinking” hard-drive that looks back at us, the melancholia of a crowd disappearing into the darkness. It is this space and sound between the physical moment and a perceptual one that Radio at Night attempts to render.