An off-grid festival wants you to experience true darkness

Head into the forests of south west Scotland, and you might see something strange. This month a free art event is going to explore darkness and technology, taking place in a remote dead zone, without internet connection or phone signal. One of the artists involved wants people to send him their experiences of remoteness and silence, which he’ll then transmit across the site between two short-range radio masts.  

As part of Sanctuary 2017, Tim Shaw is inviting members of the public to send him images, audio files and video clips, responding to the ideas of darkness, remoteness and silence. The idea is that this material – sent online via the custom REACH portal – will be turned into sound as they leave the first radio tower, and then converted back into their original form as they reach the second tower. Screens at both locations will broadcast the results.

Except, the results won’t be the same as the original image or clip. They will be distorted by natural interference between the two radio towers; from temperature and humidity to the ambient sound of the event itself. Shaw says he is very much interested in this “natural distortion”, and that he wants to use the “precarious nature of radio” to alter the material as it travels across the forest.

Shaw’s Radio Television project is one a number of installations taking place in the Galloway Forest Dark Skies Park, which is both “electronically dark” and low in light pollution. Among the other artworks is Dark Outside FM, a “hyper-local radio station” that artists will use to broadcast sounds to visitors’ handheld radios (there is no sound system on the site). After the event is finished, the setup will be destroyed so that no-one else will hear the transmissions.

The event comes at a time when there is a growing interest in “going dark”. From a building awareness of the negative mental effects that 24-hour social media can have, to the surge in profile of festivals like Burning Man – which pitch themselves as experiences outside of everyday connectivity – there seems to be a flourishing appreciation (and, arguably, fetishisation) of disconnectivity.  

I talked to Shaw about his project, and his interest in exploring natural distortion as a means to interrogate the systems we increasingly rely on.

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What was the initial impulse behind the Radio Television piece?

As an artist I have been interested in radio for a long time. It’s a rich medium, both as something that is present in our everyday lives and as a technology itself. I’ve performed extensively using radio, sometimes as a method to generate chance encounters. I’ve also broadcasted my own short-range radio channel within a performance space, receiving it with small radio receivers dotted around the environment. This exploration got me thinking about what other things could be transmitted via radio and onto the idea of broadcasting images.

“To me, Radio Television is like a slow internet”

Recently there has been lots of talk of slow media; slow television and radio. To me, Radio Television is like a slow internet – each image takes around five minutes to transmit. Making this work has made me think about the different creative possibilities within these infrastructures.

Why did you set about using radio technology to transmit images, as opposed to digital signals?

I think the line between digital and analogue signals is a blurry one, and there are some digital processes going on in the Radio Television piece, but it gets really interesting when you take into account the environment in which these signals are transmitted. For Sanctuary Festival there will be two radio towers each fitted with a screen, one transmitting the image and the other receiving it. What happens in between is the really interesting bit, the part of the system which is uncertain and ever-changing.

What we see in the received image is a live consequence of the immediate surroundings.

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Is there an intentional conflict between the technologically reliant manner of submissions, via the REACH online portal, and the “dark site” of the artworks’ eventual exhibition at Sanctuary?

Yes, absolutely, and I think this is one of the most interesting things about this project and Sanctuary Festival more generally. Everything that happens at Sanctuary stays within the site: there is no live stream and there’s no attempt to make the site “connected”, and the only real way to experience it is to be there in person.

For five years, Dark Outside FM has been actively exploring this. They receive submissions from all over the world and transmit them once a year as a site specific event. They keep no record of this; the only place you can hear that radio station and the sound it transmits is to be in Galloway Forest Park. The idea for REACH was to extend this idea to allow other forms of contribution, other ways to engage audiences with Sanctuary and this type of activity.

With the spread of digital networks, do you think we’re becoming less aware of the “natural distortion” you mention? To what degree does this alter the way we think about the landscape and the place of our data within it?

I think distortion can happen in all types of systems, both digital and analogue, and again the line is blurry. One thing I am interested in is revealing these often hidden structures. I recently did a piece called Ring Network, which explored the relationship between acoustic and recorded sound and network latency. Three bells were placed in a gallery space and, as they rang, the sound was recorded through a microphone onto the disk of the local computer. These sound files were then sent to different servers in Korea, Iceland and the USA. Once they reached the remote servers, they were then sent back to the exhibition space and played through a speaker at the time they took to travel around the world and back.

Here, the latency, the time it took for the sound to go through the whole system, was the creative material of the work, and formed a type of liveness. I hope that this work makes us think about our geographical relationship to the internet and how these technological infrastructures have a very material quality. This line of thinking has been furthered for the work I will present at Sanctuary.

Sanctuary 2017 runs from 23-24 September. More information is available on the festival’s website.

Image credits: Santuary, Mark Bolem, Tim Shaw

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