Black Brain Radio (a voice that dims the bliss of union)
By Sarah Pierce


Radio is provided with its cloak of invisibility, like any other medium. It comes to us ostensibly with person-to-person directness that is private and intimate, while in more urgent fact, it is really a subliminal echo chamber of magical power to touch remote and forgotten chords.1 – Marshall McLuhan


Picture in your mind’s eye, a reserve of land that extends out from the edge of a metropolis towards the sea. Along the southeast stretch, running adjacent to the mouth of a wide river, the land curves in the direction of a broad strand. Before the strand is a low man-made hill, the landfill of a retired dump, covered in wild flowers. Beyond it industrial docklands stretch out in the distance where skeletal cranes hover over low-lying cement beds. In this terrain vague, urban space disperses into what we name the outskirts, the periphery, the fringes. The places farthest from the city centre where boroughs meet unclothed and unprotected. Pasolini’s Roma. Stripped bare. This is where the city is its most essential – water, gas, waste, concrete. Architecture, always the more obvious, celebrated intervention is neither revered nor lasting here. Structures divested of glory, organs exposed, limbs raw. Cables, towers, drains. Our will to reconstruct our surroundings infiltrates the land, the air, the sea. Unseen energies concentrate and expand, channelling our existence. Through invisible wavelengths, we tune in.2


* * * * *


In a history of radio, the story goes that the world’s first radio broadcast took place in 1916 upon the Irish Easter Rising when rebels used wireless telegraphy to transmit a mass message, informing anyone who might be listening, in Morse Code, that an Irish republic had been claimed in Dublin.3 Forty-eight years later, in 1964, Marshall McLuhan wrote, “Radio is not only a mighty awakener of archaic memories, forces and animosities, but a decentralizing pluralistic force...”4 Radio, like all media, has the power to form opinion, but it does so along local lines, tapping communal principles as opposed to universal ones. It is the nature of radio to dissent, to deviate, to interrupt and disrupt, especially in times of violent implosion. Unlike television, the mighty pacifier, radio incites both fascism and revolt. It has global appeal, yet no globalising tendencies – in India, in Asia, in Africa, in Europe, in South America it works to solidify boundaries, to nativise, to recuperate. Radio speaks the tribal drum. The more we identify with its cadence, the more localised we become. Radio unites us in blindness; where voices go unheard it amplifies. The symbolic and real effects of radio on the 20th century, and its ties in the 21st to the most intimate, private and small communities leads us to the world of Black Brain Radio.


1 Marshall McLuhan “Radio: The Tribal Drum”, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, sixth edition, New York: Signet (The New American Library) 1964, p. 263
2As a point of passing interest, this description wittingly echoes Phelan’s portrayal of the Irishtown Nature Reserve in The Electro Skylark, a site of daily walks where he has done recordings, and where he did much of his thinking about Black Brain Radio.
3Peter Mulryan, Radio Radio, Dublin: Borderline, 1988, p. 2. See also McLuhan, Understanding Media, p. 266
4McLuhan, Understanding Media, p. 267


The role of radio in Garrett Phelan’s work traces back to 1994. In collaboration with artist Mark McLoughlin, Phelan established A.A.R.T5, located temporarily in the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. The station broadcast for a ten-day period, reconfiguring again in 1999 over a four-day live transmission from Arthouse in Dublin’s city centre. Set up as an alternative arts programme relative to national Irish radio, A.A.R.T. introduced the work of some two hundred artists to the Irish airwaves, including many well-known international artists using sound in an expanded media.6 The meaning of these broadcasts was invariably impacted by the ‘medium’ content of the project, which was bound up in the modality of radio. Exercising official (licensed) and high tech means of production, A.A.R.T. arose out of a do-it-yourself mutiny against the powers-that-be who monopolise art’s dissemination, especially in relation to types of expression that are not easily absorbed into an official canon. The context for these early broadcasts was an exhibition that attempted to highlight alternative or peripheral practices. One must question whether this type of strategic sanctioning by museum curators opens up the canon to its fallacies and fallibility, or re-establishes its precepts by ghettoising what remains ‘outside’. A truly cynical position claims that these temporary infusions actually change the way we experience art.


In a significant return to radio in 2006, Phelan presented a month-long artwork entitled Black Brain Radio on 89.9fm in Dublin.7 The pre-recorded broadcasts, read aloud by the artist, are the result of compiled media sources – shortwave and longwave radio, cable link, newspaper articles, webcasts, etc. – translated into two-minute audio segments. Phelan spent approximately two months collating and editing the information, ending up with 30 days of material; roughly three hours of content per day in ninety two-minute segments, that repeat several times over a 24-hour broadcast. Using an MP3 player to randomly shuffle the segments, the artist recited each three-hour broadcast back into a recorder, in effect reducing the various formats into one streamlined verbal message. Phelan’s working methodology, at once automated and manic (described by Phelan as “days of nothingness”8) calls to mind an endless ingestion of information that simultaneously repeats and expels. As a result, the form of public address initiated by Black Brain Radio moves beyond the familiar pace of talk radio into a kind of disengaged semi-conscious state of autism. Big Bang-quicksand-Uganda-Jesus Christ-warfare. The two-minute segments shift without warning, with no perceptible tonal segue between subject matters, so that any interpretation of content requires listeners to follow unusual, disjunctive, at times obsessive, patterns of thought that are not fully established or developed.


5 Audio Artists Radio Transmissions
6 For more on the early use of sound and radio in Phelan’s work see Caoimhín Mac Giolla Leith, “Communication Breakdown” in Garrett Phelan: MADE, Dublin: Garrett Phelan, 2004. See also Annie Fletcher, “Knowledge and Life”, same volume.
7 Black Brain Radio, Temple Bar Gallery & Studios and in partnership with the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA). The transmission was broadcast around the clock over a thirty-day period from 19 January – 17 February 2006 to listeners within the greater County Dublin area on a frequency of 89.9fm.


The manner of output in Black Brain Radio triggers associations to other projects by Phelan, both collaborative and solo where the seat of technology is communication.9 Or is it the other way around? From Kippure (1995), Time is, Time Was, Time is Past, (Phelan/McLouglin1996) and Scum of the Earth (2002) to recent works that comprise Formation of Opinion (2003 – ongoing) we come to understand communication as technology, as an amalgamation of hidden, coded, obscure, specialized languages that inscribe all forms of transmission. As such, ‘discovery’ in Phelan’s work more often yields a ‘failure to assimilate’ than any type of interactive, friendly, sociable encounter, and we frequently find ourselves utterly alone amidst the communal systems at play. In large-scale installations such as NOW:HERE (2003), LUNGLOVE (2004), and GOD ONLY KNOWS (2005) the immediacy of text and drawing as ‘technologies’ correlates to the complex acoustic and visual material of works that precede Formation of Opinion, such as RACER (1997-2003). Seeing and hearing in RACER are closely connected – eye and ear are hyperaesthetic, hypersensitive and charged.10 This synthesis of sound and vision as magnetic, powerful forces, foreshadows Formation of Opinion’s first phase, aptly referred to as “reception of information”. 11 Despite what is at times a visual surplus, it is interesting that in much of Phelan’s work we enter a darkness, an infused privacy where we strain to see or where vision is conditional. Invisible elements beacon, like a compass that allows us to focus, to hone in. Likewise, images of blindness and speechlessness signify subjective shifts between impairment and agency, surrender and resurrection in works such as Scum of the Earth and, more recently, in a10-minute radio performance, where the artist himself is blindfolded as he simultaneously listens to and recites a pre-recorded script.12


8 Phelan during a private interview with the author on January 8, 2007 at Trinity College, Dublin. Listening to Black Brain Radio we can detect background noises – typing, a telephone ringing, occasional behind-the-scenes conversation – which dramatise the artist’s tendency to ‘multi-task’ in order to cope with the tedium of recording the daily broadcasts. See also David Bell’s introductory remarks in The Cybercultures Reader: “My experience of machines is always mediated by cultural factors; I’m never just sat at my computer, typing, without simultaneously logging on to all the ideas and images that clutter the mediascape and my own mindscape.” David Bell, “Introduction I, Cybercultures Reader: a user’s guide,” in The Cybercultures Reader, ed. Bell and Kennedy, London: Routledge, 2000, p. 8
9 It is important to note that Black Brain Radio contains several outputs besides radio broadcasts, including gallery installations, daily drawings, and a weblog. Phelan anticipated that many people listening to Black Brain Radio would tune in by accident.
10 Phelan’s preoccupation with electromagnetics is analogous to McLuhan’s: “If the human ear can be compared to a radio receiver that is able to decode electromagnetic waves and recode them as sound, the human voice may be compared to the radio transmitter in being able to translate sound into electromagnetic waves.” McLuhan, “Spoken Word: Flower of Evil?”, Understanding Media, p. 83
11 Phelan charts out Formation of Opinion in four chapters: 1) Reception of Information (the works NOW:HERE, LUNG LOVE, GOD ONLY KNOWS, BLACK BRAIN RADIO), 2) Cognition, 3) Action, and 4) Success and Failure.
12 A Regurgitated Conversational Monologue of Little Political Consequence, in Enthusiasm!, curated by Sarah Pierce and Grant Watson in association with Resonance 104.4fm, London, Frieze Art Fair, 12-15 October 2006.

In her work on subjectivity and virtual reality, Margaret Morse writes, “Subjectivity can never be real or full, as it is always based on simulation.”13 The spatial and temporal divisions between you and me, here and now, are fictive gaps that we use to smooth out the contradictions “between the world and language.” Our tacit agreement with one another is to enact a process of simulation, or what Algirdas Julien Greimas calls the “enunciative fallacy” – a fictitious reality based on proximity, contiguity, and simultaneity. Through language we approximate the world. What surfaces again and again in Phelan’s work is a tendency for language to disrupt, for memory to dislocate, and for technology to destabilise our sense of reality as we receive, anticipate, and recover information. Speech in Black Brain Radio is an act of simulation, a way to re-present already selective ‘realities’. Phelan reads each text, committing it to his voice, thereby acting as an intermediary for the multiple subjectivities of Black Brain Radio. The very seamlessness of this narrative actually produces ruptures or gaps in the text, moments of suspension that, again, rely on a certain blindness, or blindsidedness. We are ‘in the dark’, without reference points or footnotes, without points of origin or coordinates in which to orient ourselves. We receive blindly. Dissociated information accumulates, leading us nowhere.


In a remarkable encounter entitled, The Instant of My Death/Demeure: Fiction and Testimony, Maurice Blanchot and Jacques Derrida each deliver texts that, coupled together, profoundly explore the philosophical and political implications of narrating personal experience. The first essay, by Blanchot, is a short piece in which he recounts a moment when a young man who has been brought before a firing squad during World War II suddenly finds himself released, just at the moment of his death. The incident, written in third person, is suggestively autobiographical – owing to the title and several remarks in the text, and also to a letter Blanchot once wrote about a similar incident in his own life. Insofar as The Instant of My Death raises questions about what such an experience might mean, near death becomes, in the instant that the man is released, a symptom of a life he no longer possesses. The second text is an extended critical essay by Derrida, whereby he asks, through exegesis of Blanchot’s text, what it means to write about an experience that one cannot claim as one’s own. Testimony, always public, has as its condition, an event that cannot be rendered communicable. To retell is to lose the singularity of “what happened to me, to me, to me alone.” 14 While Black Brain Radio does not rely exclusively on testimony, it is distinctly presented in first person, in one voice, Phelan’s. Yet, we know his voice is not his alone; that in essence the voice of Black Brain Radio is plural.


When testimony is shared, when a secret is no longer one’s own, when the ‘personal’ transitions into the public, into community, into the world, we arrive at the fundamental problem of the political. To whom, to what, does my life belong? If we consider Black Brain Radio within terms of literature, as a narrative that both claims and subsequently displaces Phelan’s ownership or authority over the text, we can begin to understand its political relevance as a process of transposing singular beings into plural meanings.15 To rephrase Margaret Morse’s description of subjectivity: community can never be real or full, as it is always based on simulation; community is an enunciative fallacy based on proximity, contiguity, and simultaneity. Here, Black Brain Radio enters a discussion of globalization. From our cars, our homes, our places of work, we receive a stream of migrating references, a temporal interplay more akin to a map of ‘incidents’ than a map of geographies. If globalization is the reality of being interconnected, and captures the speed at which these connections occur, then Black Brain Radio offers an opposing logic. It is the reality where we emerge not as a globalised network, but as code inconnu. Paulo Pasolini often used the word ‘sacred’ to describe the images that he excluded from the frame. What we see is merely one part of reality – the truly essential remains unseen. Just as Pasolini adapts the filmic frame, Phelan exploits our frame of reference, and what we hear is not the whole story. Black Brain Radio reverses globalism’s pretext of cause-and-effect, and in doing so conceals one secret to reveal another.


13Margaret Morse, Virtualities, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998, p. 11
14Jacques Derrida, “Demeure. Fiction and Testimony”, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000, p. 43 N.B. Parts of this essay alter and adapt an earlier text by Pierce on Phelan’s work, entitled “Species of fiction: Fieldcraft and The Electro Skylark”, Mother’s Annual, Dublin: Mothers Tankstation, 2006. The author originally applied this analysis to Fieldcraft and The Electro Skylark; both deal directly with observation through first-person narration.
15See Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000. In every singular expression or interpretation, Nancy hears a multiplying of voices. The voice is shared. Every voice is in itself opened, plural, exposing itself to the outside world. It addresses itself to another, an outside. “We do not have meaning anymore because we ourselves are meaning – entirely, without reserve, infinitely, with no meaning other than ‘us’.” p. 1


In order to appreciate Black Brain Radio in relation to its primary medium, it is necessary to understand that it radically relinquishes radio to multiple inputs, leaving us denativised. A kind of apositivistic epistemology is at play, where information disorganises us; fills ‘us’ with uncertainty. McLuhan’s tribal drum gives rise to sporadic messages rife for misinterpretation. Black Brain Radio is site-specific, yet specifically un-sited. We connect through an ungroundedness, which carves out commonalities that are difficult to manage under any guise of the ‘global’. There is no mythical communality to our togetherness. We are the depth of our misery, the mendacity of our conceits, our fickle bonds, our exceptional divergences, our boredom, our violence, our mistakes.


A black brain. Dense yet penetrable. Masking the very subjects it represents. Its content is absence. A nervous void where each synapse has the potential to paralyse or liberate. The incongruities of those moments when we reveal ourselves to the world are precisely when we exceed a singular existence. Every experience from birth to death is recorded somewhere in the brain. An electrical circuit, amidst countless billions, there, simply waiting to be remembered. Black Brain Radio is our experience. Black Brain Radio is us.
© Sarah Pierce / Garrett Phelan