Open Air – Art Angel

Open Air; 25 – 29 March 2013

As any fule kno, you mess with Radio 4 at your peril. I missed the first of Art Angel’s “playful and surprising Open Air audio interventions“, but the Today programme was kind enough to play it again this morning.

The spokesman from Art Angel tried gamely to justify what has been described by several listeners as “sonic vomit“, by explaining that it is the role of an artist to disrupt and shake us (ie the non artists, presumably) out of our comfortable complacency. At first sight, Radio 4 would appear to be a prime target for artists like Jeremy Deller, who is quoted on the Art Angel website. I’ll wager, however, that he doesn’t actually listen to the station on a regular basis.

As Gillian Reynolds pointed out in her riposte this morning, yesterday’s opener actually felt quite old fashioned and not very surprising at all. In fact, it was an entirely obvious route to take to mash up various audio clips of news and interviews. Radio 4 comedy programmes have been doing this for over twenty years (Radio Active, The Day Today, Sunday Supplement… I could go on).
Fair play to Art Angel for securing £1 million to deliver this project. They clearly talk a good talk. The problem is that they have clearly made certain assumptions about the radio station and it’s listeners and have not bothered to investigate whether their prejudices and assumptions actually stand up.

Radio 4 is at the cutting edge of speech and audio broadcasting and this aural invasion is completely unnecessary. Reynolds is correct when she challenged the idea of artists ‘taking ownership’ of the airwaves for three minutes: it is not theirs to take. That aural space is owned by the listener and any radio programme occupies it only with the listener’s consent.

However, the real reason projects like this are domed to failure is that they are deaf to cultural attunement. In this case, the artists (and Art Angel) have failed to understand what Radio 4 represents to its listeners, have made assumptions about who those listeners are, and have given scant consideration to how and why people consume radio programmes. The fact that the Today programme was chosen for this experiment sends out an interesting message; clearly, Art Angel knows that it will be targeting radio’s most sophisticated and culturally aware audience. What the commissioning editors at Today were thinking is anybody’s guess. I wonder if they would still have run the piece if the news yesterday morning had been filled with reports of another 9/11 or 7/7? And, if not, what implications would that have raised for the importance and/or appropriateness of an ‘art intervention’ into a nation’s flagship radio news programme?

There are some suggestions on an open thread on the Guardian website that this ‘intervention’ could be an appropriate substitution for Thought for the Day. Now that’ s an idea and would be doing something really radical. I shall listen to the rest of the week’s offerings with interest.

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