THE 21ST CENTURY MUSEUM: Interview with Anna Ramos, Ràdio Web MACBA manager

By Cristina Álvarez Cañas. January 25, 2013


Ràdio Web MACBA (RWM) is a project by Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Barcelona; it was born from the idea of including stories to give some context to the exhibitions held. It currently goes much further, taking advantage of all the possibilities offered by the Internet and digital communication. It is coordinated by Anna Ramos and she has spoken with visualMAG about these seven years of culture broadcasting and sound investigation and about their challenges for the future.

One day The Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona (MACBA) decided to bring radio to the museum and the museum to the radio. Almost seven years have passed since then. Can we consider MACBA a pioneer in this field, within Spain?

I would say so; we were the first museum in Spain that was committed to starting up a non-profit online radio project offering content free of charge. Ràdio Web MACBA was founded in 2006 by the museum's web department as an experiment with podcasting. The idea was simply to try and take advantage of the constant flow of brains into the museum to write an audio report about what was happening, and extend this activity and flow of ideas to the internet. However, it has only been through actually doing this project for close to seven years that we have realised the potential the format has and how well it fits in with the MACBA project.

What happens is that that format – the internet – distorts and virtualises, in the best sense, the origins of radio. As a result, the possibilities are multiplied.

Working with a hybrid format that brings the web and the radio together has enabled us to reach the point we initially envisioned - to provide reports on the here and now . At the moment, we find ourselves in the fuzzy but fascinating frontier at which a radio show can be conceived as an exhibition space for sound, and can also be experienced as an auditory essay or as radiophonic/sound art. A few years ago we also realised that we were gathering very interesting material during our research processes that was just being stored on our hard drives. For a couple of years now, we’ve therefore been making special efforts to publish this material in written format through transcriptions, essays and conversations. The scale and nature of the project grants us certain flexibility and the ability to experiment with several formats at the same time. Having accumulated over 250 podcasts and lots of textual material has meant that, for a while now, we have seen ourselves as more than just an online radio project. We are now in this somewhat undefined space, somewhere in between an online collection, an archive and an anarchive.

What would you say is the main characteristic of institutions immersing themselves into podcasting?

For me, the main thing is that in Spain different institutions have taken an interest in the possibilities offered by podcasting but they all have approached it in their own ways. At the moment, therefore, each project has its own idiosyncrasies. Initiatives outside of the institutional context are also popping up more and more. Last year, for example, for our presentation at FIEC II, we put together a kind of portrait of the current local scenario on a Pinterest board.

When you are ahead of your time on any matter, it’s difficult to find a guide you can follow. In spite of that, what were your reference points when you were starting out, and what are they now?

When we started out, there weren't many case studies we could have a look at but Ubuweb was a huge influence then and still is now. The added value of the project is that one person (a Mr Kenneth Goldsmith) is undertaking work that institutions, which should have taken on that role, have not been able to do for various reasons. I highly recommend the two interviews we've published with Kenneth Goldsmith, in which he talks about Ubuweb and his private sound collection, as well as the conversation we have as part of the research process. Although what we do differs, he is a truly inspiring example. At the moment, rather than calling them points of reference, we could say that there are projects we connect, converse, and where possible, collaborate with - from Ubuweb to Radio Boredcast, WFMU, Resonance FM, certain NPR programmes, and of course, in Spain, RRS, SONM, Hots!radio, Ars Sonora and a long etcetera.

The extra knowledge and experience, which disseminating art over the waves can give rise to, is a very valuable tool for the 21st Century museum. How do you view this responsibility?

We work in a very flexible arena in terms of the time and space restrictions of the galleries. We can make anything from very short recordings to podcasts lasting several hours. I love it when we start a project and somebody asks, 'So... how long should this be?' My face lights up. It can last as long as we want, as long as the content requires, as long as the listener can bear. Each project determines the length. A radio project within an art centre is an elastic space. We can work on voice, narration, or go to the opposite extreme and experiment sound. We can also be a report, a document or incorporate fiction, utopia, or dystopia. At the same time, voice creates a sense of proximity to the people who are at the other end of the microphone and opens up a small window to their thoughts. We sit down for a chat with philosophers, artists, curators, activists, writers, and much more in our improvised studio. The drastic changes we are experiencing on many levels can alter access to knowledge and even the internet. For that reason, whenever we can, we take on these sorts of projects – online radio initiatives and archives that offer more than just a collection of data. We offer carefully edited and curated work, we make our research processes visible and, above all, we share our stories that only filter through to current media sparingly because of restrictions on time and financial profitability.

How does all this improve and complement a visit to MACBA?

In several ways. We started with the idea of expanding the visit through the narration and contextualisation of an exhibition or public programme by the curators, artists, speakers, and others, themselves. However, by 2008 we already saw that we could go beyond that. We therefore set out to extend stories, artistic movements or concepts that are insinuated or mentioned in the different intineraries visitors take through the physical space. The most interesting challenge from our point of view has been working with the people who pass through the museum in order to create a parallel narrative rather than go over the same ideas that are already documented in the galleries or on our website. You can find many examples of the latter under our Specials. Lastly, it's important to mention that RWM has also developed its own lines of work and research relating to topics ranging from sound appropriation, the creative possibilities and problems involved in transmission, sound collecting, generative music, or the collapse of tonality in the 20th Century.

We don't see a sole protagonist at Ràdio MACBA, instead we can see a very large whole composed of many parts. However, the listener is curious - who makes up Ràdio Web MACBA and how do you all work together?

Our usual recording studio is the museum's auditorium (in other words, the quietest and most acoustically dry space in the house), a digital recorder and a microphone. The magic is in the recipe – we work with curators, artists, musicians and researchers. That is what brings character to the project. The project is like a choral space with many singers, from those who put themselves in front of the microphone to those who are behind it. It might seem like a contradiction in terms but it's a very small team with a big voice. For example, any colleague at the museum who has a suitable radio voice or who has a voice that is right for the project in question could do a voiceover. You can get an idea of the scale of our work from our collection of snapshots.

Sound art is a field that hasn’t been explored as much as others but which, thanks to the informative capacity of the internet, is of interest to increasing numbers of people. How closely would you say you’re linked to this discipline?

The fact that we work with sound artists is certainly one of our defining features, but sound art is not what we do. Sound art and music deserve a certain space and proper acoustic conditions, which we obviously can't offer over the radio. What we do is to play with the language of radio. And we like to think that, in the process, sound art or radio art eventually occur, but it would be wrong to say that this is sound art just because it's audio stuff that happens in a museum. Another thing worth mentioning is how problematic the term ‘sound art' is for us.

We've talked about a lot of disciplines and matters discussed on Ràdio Web MACBA, I imagine that they relate to the type of listener that your platform reaches and would like to reach.

Our users have different interests and profiles, from contemporary art and thought to sound art or experimental music and they see us and consume us as a medium or a space in which they find content that is not easy to come by. We like to distort the rules of radio and take advantage of the possibilities the format offers. The most obvious and fundamental of these is the time restriction. During our marathon interviews, duration is not usually a concern; we are more concerned with the content or what the person can explain. At the same time, working with sound artists on the production leads you to question certain conventions and gives us a certain je ne sais quoi.

Owing to the fact that, as a digital platform and a platform that is changing, you are subject to various alterations and to an almost constant state of metamorphosis, what goals has Ràdio Web MACBA set itself for the future?

The most immediate one is re-designing our website’s interface and information architecture in order to facilitate transversal routes through and serendipity in its navigation. As far as the long term is concerned, we aim to continue to work and experiment at the margins – that undefined territory between the repository, the collection and the archive; between the radio show, the audio essay and radio art; between the chronicle of the present and about critical analysis.

To conclude and so that the reader hurries off to listen to one of your programmes, would you do us the honour of being our privileged connoisseur? Which content would you recommend to someone who has found out about the project through visualMAG?

The project is so diverse that there are many ways to get into it. I would suggest that novices start, for example, with the miniseries by Serge Guilbaut entitled Radiowaves, in which we analyse the effects of the Cold War on music (1946-1956). It features an irresistible soundtrack (swing, be-bop, jazz) and Guilbaut's charming French accent. Another route to take would be the special on Tropicalism – a movement that is often reduced to a kind of 'Made in Brazil psychedelia' although it was actually a reinvention of Brazilian pop music that incorporated local as well as foreign, modern and traditional elements. For fans of contemporary experimental music, essential items include a series called Composing with process made by sound artists Mark Fell and Joe Gilmore, or Probes by Chris Cutler. Another project we felt we did important research for is Variations by Jon Leidecker. It covers the history of sound appropriation from Charles Yves to the present day. Lastly, my favourite show out of those we've published recently is the interview with Catalan artist Perejaume and the miniseries about the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design. It brings together the small utopia that came about in Ibiza in 1971, by means of research spanning several years and an audio puzzle featuring the voices of its main protagonists.

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