“Bodies Are Always Transmitting”: An Interview with Radio Earth Hold

Kareem Estefan

Artwork: Noise Echoes - By: Sarah Saroufim

Kareem Estefan in conversation with Rachel Dedman, Arjuna Neuman, and Lorde Se-lys.

The broadcast opens with a command from an unknown source, addressed to a confined listener: Lie very still. It is the summer of 2020 and I am this confined listener, absorbed by my headphones, seated at my desk, in the same position I have spent hours, weeks, months, since the spread of SARS-CoV2 placed much of the world under lockdown. You are about to enter an MRI, the voice continues, heightening the sense of medicalized captivity and dread of a feared diagnosis. But the broadcast is not about the COVID-19 pandemic. Its capacity to nonetheless speak to this moment underscores qualities unique to the radio voice: directly addressing you as if from nowhere, it both interpellates you and assimilates into the context of your listening.

Radio Earth Hold 001: The Colonial Voice, an incisive thirty-three minute radio-essay produced collaboratively by Rachel Dedman, Arjuna Neuman, and Lorde Selys for the 2018 Qalandiya Biennial, explores subjects including the history of radio in occupied Palestine, indigenous water protection at Standing Rock, experiences of birth and the womb, and the ways that sound structures subjectivity. Linking together these diverse topics is an inquiry into the philosophical and political implications of what I called the radio voice, above, but which is in fact a more generalized and consequential phenomenon—acousmatic sound, and specifically, the acousmatic voice, the voice without visible or traceable origin. For Radio Earth Hold, this is the voice of authority, the voice of the Biblical God, the voice of settler-colonial, patriarchal power—a kind of sonic analog to and political precursor of the Panopticon. Yet the acousmatic also carries a more ecological and egalitarian potential, manifesting in the interdependent and coextensive sensory experience of a mother and child or in the planetary reverberations of natural radio (low frequencies produced by disturbances within the earth’s atmosphere). “The Colonial Voice” closes with a hopeful challenge to attune ourselves to the sonic fact that, across species and scales, and bridging the subject-object divide, “bodies are always transmitting.”

I recently spoke with the Radio Earth Hold collective about the themes of “The Colonial Voice,” asking them to further explain their political analyses of acousmatic sound. Below is an edited transcription of our Zoom conversation.

Kareem Estefan: In “The Colonial Voice,” you explore colonial and patriarchal authority in large part through your research into the history of radio in Palestine, from the British Mandate–era Palestine Broadcasting Service to the post-Oslo Palestine Broadcasting Corporation. Given your varied individual practices of artmaking, curating, and writing, how did the three of you decide to collaboratively explore social and political histories in relation to sound and radio? And how do struggles around Palestinian broadcasting in particular inform your sense of the political potential of radio?

Radio Earth Hold: Our entry into radio began while Rachel was in Birzeit curating a show for the Palestinian Museum on embroidery, dress, and textiles. The exhibition included a slightly strange object, an embroidered pouch. The collector explained to Rachel that it was a pouch for a transistor radio, which a shepherd would have carried in the fields in the 1930s or 40s and listened to as he was tending his sheep. The woman in his life had embroidered it beautifully, and the pouch was included in a portion of the show about men and their relationships to embroidery.

The three of us had already been discussing questions of international solidarity, colonial legacies, Palestine, and indigeneity since we first met at Ashkal Alwan’s 2013-2014 Home Workspace program, and we shared an interest in sound and the politics of listening. So we found ourselves compelled to further research the historical context for the radio pouch Rachel had come across.

As we began tracing the history of radio in Palestine, we found that in its colonial origins lie the more contemporary manifestations of telecommunications control as part of the infrastructure of the occupation. Radio in Palestine began in the British Mandate, when it was a sort of extension of the BBC. At the time, it was split into Arabic, English, and Hebrew broadcasting and defined by colonial ideology. It was not a place for politics, but a medium to inform and entertain British émigrés and Jewish settlers, and edify some of the “poor Arabs.”

Pirate radio stations immediately sprang up in response, on the Palestinian and Zionist sides alike. There’s a paucity of material on the Palestinian stations, but during the Great Revolt of 1936-1939, radio was likely used as a tool for organizing among Arab workers and fellaheen. Then, after the Nakba, Palestinian radio became decentralized or pushed offshore to Jordan. Palestinians listened more to radio from Beirut, Cairo, and so on.

The use of radio as a tool of resistance, however, has persisted. It was present during the First Intifada, at a time when Palestinians had to wait as many as seven years just for the Israeli phone company to install a phone line in the West Bank. Today, the architecture of telecommunications occupation and resistance continues in different ways. The Oslo Accords gave Palestinians the rights to telecommunicative agency, but placed infrastructure under Israeli control. So the lack of 3G technology in the West Bank until as recently as 2018, and the continued destruction of Palestinian radio stations and phone masts have stymied communication. Palestinians have found creative ways around this, however, and radio, because its technology is so simple, remains a basic tool that carries the potential for communication on a far-reaching level.

KE: Palestinian cultural resistance, through radio or otherwise, is generally met with harsh repression. Likewise, Frantz Fanon wrote that during the Algerian revolution, French authorities were constantly monitoring the frequencies and jamming the broadcasts of the revolutionary Voice of Free Algeria, resulting in a situation that he called “sound-wave warfare.” Can you speak about the ways that Israel has constrained the possibilities for Palestinians to build a national media network in the absence of a state? Has there been analogous sonic warfare in Palestine in recent years?

REH: There’s ample evidence of jamming, disruption, and the active effort to undermine and prevent Palestinian telecommunication freedoms or rights. In “The Colonial Voice,” we sampled sounds of the IDF raiding and destroying Palestinian broadcasting stations and taking down radio masts. The Israeli army also listens constantly to phone lines, as evidenced by extrajudicial house demolitions in Gaza. The “roof knock” of a little bomb that falls to let you know that your house will be demolished is preceded by a phone call telling you to get out. That phone call is enabled by this architecture of power over telecommunications infrastructure. And that sense that you’re constantly being surveilled, listened to, spied on, carries over into Lebanon, where Israel has tried to hack Hezbollah’s Al-Manar network and people’s phones.

The Algerian example is great. In her work on the use of radio during Algerian liberation movements, writer and curator Yasmina Reggad describes a fireside-chat style of listening to the radio from inside one’s house and the intimate relationship that radio sets up within its community. The feelings of communion and kinship that radio produces, all over the world, is particularly charged in contexts of resistance.

KE: A conception of bodies as transmitters recurs throughout “The Colonial Voice.” Can you speak about the relationship between radio and embodiment, as it emerges in your research? What can sound reveal about our bodies, and the interrelations and connections among our bodies, that other human senses cannot? And what do you mean by the concepts of ‘reverb without a cause’ or ‘echo without a source,’ which you describe in terms of the colonial voice, but also in relation to the experience of the baby in the womb?

REH: This may not answer your questions directly, but we became very interested in natural radio, a phenomenon in which sounds of thunder from one side of the planet are echoed back, bouncing against the ionosphere, and then picked up on telephone lines as a distinct sonic signature. In a sense, natural radio works acousmatically, since the origin of thunder is untraceable; we liked the idea that it prefaced all telephone communications, in the sound you hear when you pick up an analogue telephone handset. Prior to fiber optics, all remote communication was engulfed by these planetary acoustics traversing the hemispheres. Each time someone uttered the words “I… I… love… you,” each pause was, and still is, suspended in the acoustic atmosphere of natural radio, the sounds of thunder claps echoing back from outer space, filling those pregnant gaps. It’s so intimate and so vast at the same time.

The concept of “reverb without a cause” comes from studying the acoustic space of the mother and unborn child. The fetus hears both internally and externally, and this is the first sensory experience of most mammals. External sounds of, say, the mother singing reverberate back into the womb, and the fetus simultaneously attributes them to the mother and unborn child (a kind of multiple self), and to an alien or acousmatic sound. As we researched this surprising but universal experience, we realized that our first sensations of the self are much more complex and less individual than classical explanations like the Lacanian mirror phase, which ascribes the severance of the individual from the mother to a function of the eyes. We prefer to emphasize the monstrous, which is to say the multiple being that we all begin life as—both more than one but less than two. While such an experience is alien to Western, individualist notions of birth, in indigenous and radical midwifery practices, a conception of collectivity from birth—and throughout life—is ancient and deeply respected.

In theorizing the colonial voice, we also note that the Genesis story hijacks the fetal experience of sound by representing the biblical voice of God, which is also acousmatic, as issued from some elevated position, and redeploys it as the omnipresent, unquestionable voice of authority—the telephone before the bomb drops, the loudspeaker you can’t reply to, the bureaucratic voice that never leads you to a human. We try to return acousmatic sound to its multiplicity, in the mother-child assemblage and also in planetary natural radio.

KE: How do you theorize authority differently by focusing on the sonic? I’m thinking of how power and knowledge are often conceptualized, especially in Western thought, by association with vision. Ocularcentric models posit the all-seeing as all-knowing. We say that seeing is believing, and we imagine state authority through models like the Panopticon. Since Plato, the written word has been granted primacy over the spoken…

REH: Our eyes are the main emphasis of the Enlightenment project; optical certification and observation are how truths are verified. We are engaging with critiques of the coloniality of ocularcentrism, and for us, sound is more interesting in terms of resistance. Our critique of sight is meant to open space for sound, to ask speculative questions about how we would understand the world differently if the sonic were more central to epistemology.

It is also worth noting that sound is not directional, whereas sight is the most directional sense, and for that reason it is quite predatory. Biologically speaking, our front-and-center eyes define us as predatory, compared to the eyes of prey, which are located on the side of the head to allow a wider field of vision.

KE: In Palestine, in Lebanon, and in other places your research traverses, a host of online community radio initiatives—Radio Al-Hara, Radio al Hay, Radio Karantina, and others—have emerged since the Covid-19 pandemic has enforced difficult periods of isolation. What do you see as radio’s potential at this moment of global crisis?

REH: The lockdown has revived our daily connection to radio and to the online stations you mentioned, which has been a grounding and soothing experience. Whatever the exact technology, the act of broadcasting music, voices, or other sonic content in real time to a more or less distantiated community has an obvious connective effect. You’re in your own body, and at the same time you feel, at some level, as if you are with others—much like dancing. Everyone is feeling certain bass frequencies in their stomach at the same time. There’s a simultaneous, visceral experience of the walls of your stomach and other people’s stomachs reverberating collectively.

The fact that these are internet stations enables radical programming from people all over the world. They enact an internationalism that’s intimate—another instance of radio operating at multiple scales.

You can listen to Radio Earth Hold 01: The Colonial Voice here : https://soundcloud.com/user-854660269-405465536/radio-earth-hold-colonial-voice