[Idc] Interview with artist and educator Ralf Homann

Trebor Scholz trebor at thing.net
Wed Nov 10 06:51:10 EST 2004

Ralf Homann is an artist and director of the Experimental Radio Program at
Bauhaus University, Weimar

Interview with Ralf Homann by Trebor Scholz

TS: Please introduce the "Experimental Radio Program" at Bauhaus University
and its history.

RH: The Experimental Radio was founded in 1999 at Bauhaus University. The
new Department of Media was set up two years ago based on the realization
that the common understanding of media as 'video', or 'computer'
or 'TV' was not complete. 'Video didn't kill the radio star.'
If what used to be called 'new media' were to be transformed to
regular media, then the terms 'old' and 'new' would have lost all
meaning. This is especially true in the context of the arts. For example:
Are etching, sculpture, painting and radio really old media? Or do new
media start with 'electronic,' 'mechanical' or 'digital'
processing? All these definitions fail because they are based on tools. In
contemporary art after The Bauhaus the 'tool follows the function.' I
understand radio as a global, worldwide phenomenon, a tool which is
'public domain' just like screws, wood, or stones but more global like
TV, phone or the internet. Radio is 'pilot media' following the theory of
time-based electronic communication because it was always first. It was
set up before TV and before video streaming became popular. The
Experimental Radio at Bauhaus University uses radio as a tool for the
fine arts just as it uses it as a tool for sound sculpture, journalism and
sound design. This relates back to the Bauhaus idea that the fine arts,
applied sciences and design should come together to create an artwork. We
have our own radio studio and local FM frequency, and a streaming media
server for net radio. We also have a studio for projects that are based on
sculpture, installation, performances, actions or interventions in public
space. Perhaps it is necessary to explain some German traditions to
understand the special significance of the Experimental Radio. After World
War II the West German media were organized by the Allies to guarantee a
democratic development of society. Print media were organized as private
property, but the electronic media networks are based on 'mother' BBC
as a public, non-state, and non-private system. This goes against the
grain against of the German understanding of public space and public
sphere, which is either state or private. The idea of common property
declined about one hundred years ago and Radio and TV in Germany were
highly regulated in Nazi Germany and then again during the Cold War.

For example, producing or merely possessing a radio transmitter in Western
Germany without license could be punished by five years in jail. In East
Germany high school students who use an illegal transmitter were killed by
the state in the 1950s. The Experimental Radio was set up in the 1950s
when Thuringia (the state within the Eastern part of Germany where the
Bauhaus-University is located) allowed private and also free and community

My first project at the Bauhaus-University was the
'Micro-Radio-Party.' I realized it together with the Tokyo-based
artist Tetsuo Kogawa. I invited him to present the Micro FM Movement in
Germany. He also gave a workshop about the making and use of small FM
transmitters. His performance dealt with the body: In our bodies the
building and use of radio transmitters is inscribed as fear, as a heavy
offense and complicated technical challenge, a secret, and esoteric
practice. Working with him we dealt with ideas of micro politics. A
party or picnic, for example can have a political dimension and power.
During the performance students were standing on the dance floor,
surrounded by DJs working on turntables. People gathered there and around
a sofa with a small FM transmitter-- we called it 'radio sofa.' From
the sofa a report about the event was broadcasted to the neighborhood. A
goal of this micro-radio-party in the stairways of the department's main
building was to give the building we were in with its ugly
nazi-architecture a new connotation. This first project gave an
introduction to the idea that radio is not necessarily better if it has a
larger audience. The position that radio is only a mass medium refers to
the history of radio in the era of Fordism-- the idea of large target
groups. The term target group alone shows its context situated in the
decades between WWI and WWII when radio became so popular.

The next project in 2000, was the internet radio festival called
'type=3Dradio~border=3D0.' We set up simulcasting, ether and internet,
and collaborated with artists like radioqualia and other radio stations
around the globe including a local self-organized initiative of migrants
and refugees called 'The Voice.' We had several points to get across.
On the one hand we wanted to say that radio is not a local but a global
medium. On the other hand, we discussed the fact that digital data and
digital currency can be moved around the world (type=3Dradio is the
button you use to charge a credit card). But when migrants encounter heavy
restrictions when they want to physically follow these data.

TS: The Bauhaus in Weimar is the first university in Germany, which
founded a Faculty of Media. At The Bauhaus the first MFA program in
Germany is in the process of being consolidated. The program in
Experimental Radio is the only one of its kind in Germany, which teaches
radio in the context of the arts. It seems unavoidable to ask about the
linkage between the educationalist tradition of the Bauhaus and your
current educational practice. Do you draw connections between industry and
the university in the way Walter Gropius propagated it?

RH: Walter Gropius demanded an educational practice in the arts, which
educated the artist also in economics very early on as freshmen. The
Faculty of Media at the Bauhaus included several chairs for media
management and the department has its own MBA line of study, which focuses
on the economics of creative works, and the culture industry. At the
moment we try to set up a chair for the creative commons. Lectures by
these professors are open to BFA and MFA students in Media Art and Design.
We collaborate on exhibitions, offer internships and support residencies
for our students. Gropius' idea was ground breaking back then. Today it is
simply reflected in our regular program. Gropius' demanded an education
in economics that was motivated by the urge to close the gap between art
and life. We know these ideas also from other artists and movements.
Gropius said that the concept of the traditional German Art Academy
separated the artist from daily life. He claimed that it creates a gap
between art for art's sake on the one hand and the people on the other.
For him, 'the industry' was part of daily life of the people. Gropius also
emphasized that German art academies produced artists who were not able
to make a living. Gropius thought of the artist as a polished, perfected
craftsman. But in Modernism the industry has taken over the role of the
crafts. We must analyze this situation and draw our own conclusions.

The Bauhaus University is of course the place where the Bauhaus was
founded. But it is also the location from which the Bauhaus people were
exiled. Last year we organized a demonstration of students against some
restrictions by the City of Weimar. The students showed up in front of
town hall with a banner saying: 'Tomorrow Dessau, the next day
Chicago.' They pointed to the corporatization of education
American-style in Germany and the fact that many teachers at the Bauhaus
had to flee Germany and founded a Bauhaus in Chicago. There is always a
deep awareness of tradition which is important. Bauhaus University is not
a museum or a kind of fancy seal of the old Bauhaus. We understand Bauhaus
University as the place where new ideas and concepts emerge. Perhaps we
can create a new, electronic Bauhaus. Gropius' demands on economics mean
something different today. The educational principles of Bauhaus
University are centered around practice. Our so called 'projects'
are more important than classical lectures or a thoughtless curriculum
that teaches tools. Students find solutions for real problems. Our classes
in media art and design do not stop with the demo design. We always
realize the projects. We cannot hide from the fact that students can't
be fired. We live in an era of globalization, which means that form
follows economics. But if form follows function, then we must think about
the function of the arts. When Gropius demanded to close the gap between
art and industry, between daily life and art, then we must ask if this
gap is real or if it has disappeared long ago. What we need now is perhaps
a new distance between art and industry. But which industry are we talking
about anyway? I do not agree with Gropius' slogan that the artist is the
polished craftsmen as this could be misunderstood simply as mastership of
tools. I'm not interested in prolonging the classification between
practice and theory. We are accustomed to think in both these
categories. Contemporary art is theory and the theory is its own practice.
We need the arts to reflect the practice of theorists and the theorists to
reflect the production of artists.

TS: What is the professional future of students graduating from your
Experimental Radio program?

RH: The Experimental Radio program offers a wide range of skills and
qualifications depending on how long the student is in the program and
which individual career she has in mind. Each student individually plans
for her study guided by a mentor. The minimum is that students take
courses in Experimental Radio only for one segment of their study in order
to get an overview. They then use these skills for other concentrations
such as TV, public relations, interface or sound design, composition,
journalism, sculpture, management, cultural studies, or media sciences. At
Bauhaus University it is possible to study architecture and take courses
in Experimental Radio to get qualified to produce urban radio
documentaries. What's wrong with that? The maximum length of the program
is five years. A student could finish her BFA in three years and then get
an MFA in another two years. The Experimental Radio program is based on
three segments for students who want to finish with a BFA or MFA in
Experimental Radio. These three parts of study give undergraduate students
the possibility to get involved in projects of other concentrations. They
can decide on their own strategy to get ahead. They can, for example,
combine different skills from web design, TV, photography, interactive
media or sculpture. At the moment, Bauhaus University is the only place in
Europe's German speaking area where you can study radio from scratch at
university-level. Other universities offer radio only on a postgraduate
level or as small part of journalism or literature programs or as an
additional offer of a conservatory or a drama school. Radio education in
Germany is mostly based on training at public radio networks or small
private stations. There is no established academic education in this
field. The Experimental Radio at Bauhaus University qualifies the student
for a professional future in the public or private radio networks: as an
author, journalist, producer, director, music editor, anchorman, or link
man. There is only one job we cannot prepare for, which is that of the
sound engineer as this profession is regulated differently by German
law. But we do have two apprenticeships for sound engineers at the
department. Our focus is always on the individual plan of the student.
Some examples: There are students in the program who see their future as
DJ, owner of a record label and composer in the field of electronic dance
floor. Other students want to work as freelancers in radio journalism, as
director in radio drama, or as artists who are interested in audio works.
Again, other artists use the projects to question strategies of
intervention in public space. And there are students who are more
interested in creating new software using the courses of Experimental
Radio to be challenged and find real problems that they will need to
solve. Sometimes filmmakers or club VJs visit our lectures because
Experimental Radio is more linked to pop culture or tactical media than
other departments. This heterogeneous crowd gives our classes a special
spirit because this kind of mixed scene is what you will find also outside
the university in the professional field. We teach radio in the context of
the fine arts. This concedes newer developments in contemporary art and
goes beyond the traditional 'German Hoerspiel' (radio play) which is
rooted in theater or literature before the 1960s. This tradition was
transformed by the likes of Klaus Schoening who curated the Ars Acustica
at documenta 8 (an international art exhibition) or Heidi Grundmann at
Austrian radio ORF. Another example is the department of Radio Drama and
Media Art at the Bavarian Broadcasting Corporation. This focus on fine
arts educates students to use radio as a tool for their art, as a strategy
in public space, for actions or interventions but also to create objects,
environments or performances in the white cube, sound installations,
acoustic images, documentaries or radio dramas. The Experimental Radio, in
particular, offers contexts to develop such artworks. Students get a
chance to develop individual strategies, transfer their skills across
media or expose their work to a new kind of public audience. This is part
of the education in media art and the professional field of the students

TS: Between the techno-optimism of the 1990s and the techno-skepticism put
forward by more traditional cultural theorists, which approach to
technology do you propagate?

RH: Nice question. For me technology is part of the so-called 'natural
world.' We must live with this fact. It is possible to make radio without
technology, because radio is the idea to make radio and imagine
technology. Walter Klingenbeck's group is a very good example because
their radio never started, but the group was working in the German
resistance. You could find more examples of pirate radio stations or radio
fans who never broadcast but who create small groups of people who meet
in the street. That's a phenomenon of radio. The aim of our radio
program is always to bring people together face-to-face. We cannot
broadcast faces so we are careful not to loose this aspect of the medium.
There are some programs which are rooted in the authoritarianisms ruling
the world, at times when radio was set up similar to the news, or the time
signal, which organizes a virtual mass in front of the unique sender or
leader. But the basic message of modern programs including the commercial
one is that you are not alone, you are part of a group and please go out,
and meet this group or at least face our product in the supermarket. The
argument that radio diverts or lulls the listeners is wrong. I do not
approach technology in categories of optimism or skepticism. I am
interested in an analysis of uses of technology for freedom. I was not a
fan of the 1990s idea that the internet will make the world automatically
better or that it will create some kind of truly digital democratic
society. We could only observe that the internet was going opposite ways
than Radio or TV. Radio and TV were highly regulated by the state through
technical standards. Now we have the experience of tactical media. We now
see a lot of initiatives to get regulations in place and to limit the old
systems of distribution. Have a look at what has happened with Indymedia
over the last few days in the UK. It's back to radio. I prefer this
technology because radio is a dancing media. Moving around the body is
always better off than sitting in front of a screen or being pinned down
in a cinema seat. I prefer the digital wired, the analogue wireless
solution, because nobody can control who listens.

TS: Three years ago you helped put together the "bauhaus radio reader."
The widely acknowledged current crisis in new media arts education is in
part grounded in the need to find texts with tolerable expiration dates.
Which texts do you read with your students?

RH: The project of 'bauhaus radio reader' deals with this problem,
because at the moment we cannot find a good compilation of texts. This
project is not finished, it is more a crawl over the screen and a never
ending story. In my opinion radio is a medium for illiterates. We can make
it without texts. Especially in Germany we find a lot of texts about radio
dealing with problems we never faced. It's a pity because in former
times German Radio theory was very interesting. But perhaps after
Adorno's denunciation of the medium nobody was really interested to work
hard on contemporary radio theory. Now you mostly get fights between high
culture and pop or the people who try to protect children by demanding
regulations for censorship. For the foundations year in Media Art and
Design we use a fine compilation, edited by my colleagues at the
Department of Media Culture Klaus Pias, Joseph Vogel, Lorenz Engell,
Oliver Fahle, Britta Neitzel, which is called "Kursbuch Medienkultur."
This compilation gives a good overview about media theory from Brecht to
Baudrillard. French philosophy is very important. In the basic program of
Experimental Radio we use LaRoche's and Buchholz' "Radio
Journalismus," and Michael Dickreiter's "Handbuch der Tonstudiotechnik."
Those are the German standards for working in professional Radio. We also
use Douglas Kahn's and Gregory Whiteread's compilation "Wireless
Imagination" and Neil Strauss' and Dave Mandl's "Radiotext(e)." Apart
from that we read Tetsuo Kogawa and of course Geert Lovink's books
dealing with radio and tactical media. To discuss ideas of free radio we
use a compilation from the Swiss "Klipp and Klang Group" called "Kurze
Welle, Lange Leitung," which was published by the Zurich art space
Shedhalle. We also read Hakim Bey's "Radio Sermonettes" in the
foundations program and Gerald Raunig's compilation "Transversal, Art
and the Critic of Globalization," and Marius Babias' compilation "Im
Zentrum der Peripherie, Kunstvermittlung und Vermittlungskunst in den 90er
Jahren," which deals with art movements in the 1990s. In addition, we
use professional magazines from media politics and media research to pop
music and contemporary art. For Students who are in the program for a
longer time I offer a seminar in which we read texts or discuss articles
from recently published catalogues, but also some texts from the US free
radio movement.

TS: Which proposals do you have for alternative structures in new media
arts education?

RH: Dealing with media always means that we can loose sight of our goals.
The worst case is when you end up working mainly to find sponsors for your
next project. We need a space where it is possible to reflect and test
drive differences in order to find the next utopian position. Technology
and economics are the basics but do not get us a better world. I remember
that picnic was the tool to get a brick into the Iron Curtain. We need
such picnics for new media education and perhaps we need more parties.

TS: How do you foster cooperation in the classroom and beyond?

RH: We have no classroom, only a studio for the art works and a radio
studio for the live broadcast. In the first place we are always focused
on production. In our studio you can make programs as a lonesome cowboy
but that's boring. Mostly there are teams creating programs: authors,
anchormen, music editors or DJs, directors and producers. It's always
more than one person working in the studio. Commonly this is necessary
simply to use the complex tools. You need support from other students who
read more tutorials. There is one central meeting for each project. Here
we discuss all questions and set up working groups and teams for an
exhibition, an excursion, the production of a radio drama or a magazine of
the weekly program. Especially the final presentation at the end of a
period must be organized within teams. At Experimental Radio teamwork is
common and every second summer I offer a special project dealing with
collaborative work between artists or groups to discuss structure,
problems of communication or secret hierarchies. One project included an
excursion to the opening of the Venice Biennial. Such excursion must be
prepared by students and forces cooperation and group-building. Bauhaus
University is located in the small downtown of Weimar. Most students live
in flat-shares and there are some clubs in town, mostly visited by
students. As part of our final presentation we organize special programs
at these places where we stream media. Weimar is situated in the middle of
Germany, Berlin is near, big cities like Frankfurt, Munich, Hamburg or
Prague are not far away either. Students come from all over Germany not
only the surrounding cities. It is very common for students to travel
around, to make excursions to important festivals, concerts or exhibitions
to create their own network to realize their projects. They support each
other with their experiences and varying skill sets. Graduate students
have the right to make so called "free projects." This means that students
can set up their own group or collaboration with students at other
universities, or work together with professionals and get my advice. My
program runs several mailing lists and a server to support communication
when students are not in town. Usually we involve students who are abroad
as part of a student exchange in our weekly program with reports via
streaming media or help them by organizing small-budget collaborative

TS: How do you make use of social software in your radio programs? Please
give examples of the way you used streaming audio and video in educational

RH: We use software to organize group work, to set up collaborations. We
prefer mailing lists for all lectures and we use web logs for technical
support, uploads and downloads to exchange files. We try to use open
source software for all applications but it is not always possible. We
can't ignore the fact that we educate students for their professional
future, and if outside the university there is no professional application
of open source, then we can't teach it inside the university either. To
encode our streams we created our own open source software, called
o-stream, which uses the ogg vorbis file format. Last year as part of
our collaboration with the French art school Villa Arson we had a workshop
in Nice, which we streamed as well. I prefer open source because it
allows us to twist the software according to our needs. The issue of
software licenses, or creative commons is part of education. We made
documentaries for example and organized an exhibition that dealt with so
called open culture. The course was taught by the artists Cornelia
Sollfrank and Laurence Russel. It included an excursion and a workshop
about the "Wizard of Oz" conference in Berlin where Lawrence Lessig of
Stanford University presented his notion of the creative common license.
We use streaming media; of course for internet radio. In our weekly radio
program we use simulcasting, ether and internet. Beside this line of
production we foster audio streaming for special events. We focus on the
esthetic possibilities of the tool such as delay or noise. We use it to
realize our collaborations in the city and with other places, like the
collaboration with Tetsuo Kogawa in Tokyo. We also did a stream with your
students at The Department of Media Study. From 2000 until June 2004 we
had a collaborative program, called pingfm. The students of this group
broadcasted every Sunday together with Amsterdam-based artists like Toek
from Radio100. Until June we had our own studio for pingfm with its
streaming sessions but now the students stopped because they are about to
graduate. I started audio streaming in 1999 when I came to Weimar. I
started by involving a student team in the Net Aid Campaign to support
Radio B92 in Belgrade during the Balkan war. Streaming video is not my
favorite. As an artist I create a lot of visual works but as part of my
teaching at Experimental Radio I demand that the time-based and
broadcasted programs are without pictures. Students sometimes use web
cams or create great visuals in the context of VJ-ing parallel to the
audio stream but I do not encourage that. If we use visuals than they
should be received like radio or act like paintings in a gallery: You can
pass by, the body should have all options in the space where you show it.

TS: Thank you for the interview.

This interview was conducted in the context of a series of events on new
media arts education by the Institute for Distributed Creativity


Studio B11- Experimental Radio

pingfm - a netbased platform for audio/video experiments

Transit~wellen is a project by schleuser.net, which is situated in the area
of contradictory communication about public space.

Experimental Radio, Ralf Homann

Wizards of OS conference, Berlin
The Future of the Digital Commons

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