Just off Newmarket Rd, just past the Abbey Stadium on the way out of town, near the swimming pool, there's an ordinary house on an ordinary street on an ordinary estate. This particular street used to be known for having the scout hut at the end, just on the bend. In recent times it's become known for having a black cab parked in the front garden of the ordinary house next to the scout hut. Pretty ordinary? The taxi is an art gallery. Yes.
Kirsten Lavers lives in the ordinary house on the ordinary street on the ordinary estate, and from there she curates the extraordinary Taxi Gallery in her garden. She's also caretaker of the scout hut but, but that's another story. This story is the one where the Taxi gets turned into a radio station. An art radio station, a community project, a global broadcast. Translocal, they called it, and contributions came in from the other side of the world and the other side of the road. 209radio, Cambridge's community station, helped on the technical side by streaming the station on the web and engineering much of the live broadcast.
Radio Taxi broadcast on 87.7 FM across Cambridge on 27-31 May and 3-5 June. After a desperately-needed break, Kirsten reflected on it with us.
At what point did you say we could turn the Taxi Gallery into a radio station?
Do you know, as I was making the tea I was thinking you were going to ask that. It really was as bananas as "hey, wouldn't it be crazy to turn the taxi into a radio station?" Radio Taxi was a collaboration between me and Cris Cheek who is my partner and who I work with as an artist as opposed to the more curatorial way I work on the Taxi Gallery.
Cris has a radio and sound background - he was involved in the early days of Resonance FM -and so it's not so surprising that the idea of it being a radio station should come up. Neither of us knew anything about the nuts and bolts of how you do it and where you apply, the whole kit and caboodle of Ofcom and licences and transmitters.
The other piece in the jigsaw was that last year, when it was still just a little idea, I was curating an exhibition for Artworks on Victoria Road to coincide with Open Studios and I'd put out a call for artists to submit exhibition proposals in the Eastern Region and Simon Keep, the other key person in the Radio Taxi team, got in touch with a proposal for some sound pieces. Which wasn't right for that exhibition but I met him and he'd had some experience of pirate radio and he was sound obsessed and was up for it and had got lots of energy and he could fill some of the gaps in our knowledge.
So on those two flimsy bits of energy - we went for it - I applied for the money and obviously I did some research and got in touch with Kelly Large who's done a few arts RSLs. She gave me some advice on how to fill the forms in, what you need for a basic studio, put me in touch with the guy who'd provided a transmitter for her RSL. That's how it happened. I'm not a specialist, I'm a Jill of all trades and I go "that'd be a nice idea but I don't know how to do" it so I'll just learn enough to wing it.
With hindsight now, if Karl at 209 hadn't have picked up on the story on us in the Cambridge Evening News I don't know how the hell we would have done it. But we would have done. That's the way I work - you put yourself out and say "we're doing it"
It was clear when we first met at 209 that you had no idea, 6 weeks before broadcasting, how you were going to get on-air.
We were just going to do it.
It's a nice philosophy - if you build it, they will come.
And we did. And they did, so we were proved right.
But the motivation for the station, to get back to the question, is rooted in the Taxi Gallery and what we were trying to do. Quietly, slowly, there's been these bizarre things happening in this taxi as an art gallery in a very residential street. Gradually the word has been spreading. It's now nearly three years and people are beginning to refer to it as a landmark, it's filtering out in that way but still it's very static. The idea of a radio station is that it could put itself out there.
I've never been very interested in galleries as an artist because you're constantly speaking to an audience who've already decided that they want to be an art audience. And that's fine, it's perfectly valid and I went to a gallery myself this afternoon. I wanted to have that kind of experience and I went and had it. But that's a very different interaction to the one you have with an audience who just happen to be passing on their way to the swimming pool or something.
It seems to me that radio has that potential and I know that happened during Radio Taxi, usually they were looking for Radio Two and they'd suddenly hear something that'd hook them in, and that's really exciting. I'm just more interested in that way of producing work for an audience.
For me that's the beauty of radio. You can be doing something else and still be listening, but find yourself immersed in it.
Absolutely. That's the magic thing, that moment when you're driving the car and you're slowing down so that you can hear the end of something before you get to where you're going. Or you pull over because it's so great.
Did you view Radio Taxi as an art project in itself or was it a vehicle for art, a gallery?
That's an interesting one. It used conventions of a gallery but I see it as an artwork as a whole, as opposed to a vehicle for a collection of artworks, although of course it did contain a number of other pieces of art. The putting-together of those, made it the whole thing. It's kind of like a Russian doll in a way.
My approach to making Radio Taxi happen and my approach to making the Taxi Gallery happen is not that different from the way I'd approach making a sculpture or a drawing or an installation. It's just more complex because I'm allowing other people to get involved in it, other artists, other participants.
It seems to be a largely administrative task but we left some things to chance - big gaping holes in what would be necessary to make it happen - for something to come in, and that's very similar to how I might approach a drawing. Y'know it might be that I knock a coffee cup over and it makes a stain that becomes part of the drawing. Equally that could be a complete disaster. Something about chance and coincidence and laying the ground and allowing other stuff to come in is a very creative, artistic process that I've brought to the project.
That's a really good answer. If you'd started out with a radio background you wouldn't have ended up with the same station because you'd have been schedule-driven.
That was the really interesting moment about four hours before we went on air when Karl realised that we didn't have a schedule and had no fucking intention of having a schedule and you could see that he was thinking "these people are bonkers." The idea of having a schedule would have been just impossible. It would have removed all the creativity and being able to work in the moment.
It was like an artist who knows their palette. You don't at that point start plotting "I'll have a blob of that here, and that there." At that point you know your material and you play with it. It was particularly spontaneous on the second weekend because we weren't under pressure in terms of our commitment to artists who'd made work. The first weekend we'd selected a range of works and we felt duty bound to make sure that each of these pieces was played at least once. The second weekend, we could we spontaneous and say "this would be fantastic after that, let's go for it." Or someone would come into the studio or something had happened and we could be really playful.
For the first weekend we had mapped out territories that we wanted each part of the day and evening to occupy and we had certain people who were coming in, for instance DJ Skunk had said he'd like to do something so we'd scheduled him in Saturday evening so we knew that that was fixed and so there was probably a sense in the two hours running up to that that we could steer the mood towards his set.
Then there were certain themes that we'd actually laid out to artists who'd submitted works, things like neighbourhood and everyday, and we'd sketched out which parts of the weekend would focus on each of those. Maybe we'd already grouped a body of five or six pieces that were all in, say, the neighbourhood section.
Every two hours or so, we'd sit down and think about what we were going to do for the next two to three hours. You can only do this kind of thing in the short-term, it was about seizing the opportunity and just going for a long weekend and then a short weekend. You can sustain it for that time and we had a large pool of material and a great deal of energy. There were lots of people around who also had the energy to pick up and run with an idea, so someone had walked in with a recording of frogs from their gardens by going, "oh yeah, I've got this, he's got such and such.." and playing with it for half an hour.
And that frees up someone else to go and work with the Radio Club [a group of kids from the local school] on a piece. There were pieces being made all weekend, pre-records that were responding to what was going on and then getting slotted in. It was maximising the potential of that level of energy and commitment from people and just going for it.
I think there are things that could be transferred to an aspect of a long-term radio station and that's what I'm interested in, in terms of working with 209 in the future. You couldn't sustain 24-hour, week on week programming in that way, and it wouldn't be very good for the audience either because it's actually quite nice to know that at 6 o'clock you're going to hear whatever.
I think Resonance have a good compromise between schedules and freeform. I like the way that community radio can be free to juxtapose quite different programmes, more like a magazine. If you don't like this, turn the page - wait ten minutes - and you'll get something else.
You described Radio Taxi as translocal. Why, and how did you balance the local and global?
I suppose that's a continuation of the way the Taxi Gallery has been. Because Taxi Gallery has a website and has quite a broad audience that doesn't live in this country - Australia, Hawaii, America - who are on the mailing list and want to hear about the Gallery, they go and visit the site every time there's a new exhibition and they feel like part of the Taxi Gallery community even though they've never actually been to Cambridge or to the Taxi Gallery.
So there's that extreme and then there's Hazel over the road and Marge next door who live right on top of it and have to deal with it and overhear drunk kids at night commenting and laughing and screaming about it. Taxi Gallery has always held those two different audiences in mind in terms of what it does. That's been tricky at times because in terms of curating I might think about the extended audience and think conceptually it's a fantastic idea but there's no way I could square that in terms of the tolerance of my neighbours.
Was there a tension in the station?
It didn't feel like there needed to be a conflict. One of the things that was fantastic about it, one of the things that I was most excited about was the Night On Earth series, knowing that there was going to be an extended audience in different time zones and knowing that we'd need to sleep. So we had an issue about what we'd put on over night and the large audience for which that would be their main listening time. So that resulted in the Night On Earth call for works which I thought were fantastic and although the brief originally asked for hour-length recordings we got a whole mixture of things from really quite short to longer than an hour. Actually the translocal commitment and the potential for conflict and tension resulted in a problem with a really nice, and creative, solution.
But also, the idea that why should something that's very local like Marge and Peg sitting in the taxi and reminiscing about the street or what they used to like to go and see at the cinema, why should that only be of interest to people who know them? Because actually if it's really well recorded and if the conversation is steered in an interesting way and the liveness and genuiness and excitement of those people in participating in it, the chance to be on the radio, why should that only be of interest to people who live locally? Why shouldn't it be, and in fact it was, extraordinarily exciting to people listening around the world on the web?
Would you have done a different station if you hadn't had the web stream?
It was never an option that there wouldn't be the web stream. Really, web radio is way way much easier and cheaper..
From this end it is, but not from the listener's end.
That's true. It was a fantastic tension to really not be sure about who was listening and why and where they'd come across it. How does that influence your decisions about what to put on next? On what basis do you make those decisions? You kind of imagine an audience.. We were constantly being surprised about who was listening. There were some people we knew like Keith Jordan, the local community worker, was listening a lot because he kept responding and you gradually think "there are people like this listening" and you're suddenly in the ludicrous position [laughs] of making a programming decision for one person who's bothering to get in touch. But really, having a broad enough range of material that it permits you to go where your listeners' responses take you is great.
How heavy was the Coleridge involvement and why?
Coleridge is the local secondary school and I'd made strong links with the local primary school but nothing with Coleridge. The real landmark piece that came out of the collaboration was the recording of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. We suggested it almost flippantly at the initial meeting and were proposing it really as a device that would introduce the radio project to the whole school and give everybody some involvement. We were clear we didn't want to do class-based projects, we wanted to work with students out of school time, with students who were doing it because they wanted to be involved. So we knew we'd only be able to work in an intensive way with a few students. We weren't that hopeful of it being a fantastic piece of work, really. Now we're getting Friends of Coleridge society wanting to buy copies and I'm about to send it off to a publisher and there's a real buzz about it, it's turned into a quite extraordinary piece of work.
It was a fantastic experience and it worked brilliantly in terms of connecting with the whole school and getting people excited about what was happening. Through the recording process we made links with particular students who'd got enough about them to say they wanted to get involved and they formed the Radio Club. They were just a great bunch of students and the energy and drive came from them. I had to kick them out at the end of each session. It all came from them, it was about finding them and giving them a context and skills to get on with it. It was revealing to expose them to things they wouldn't normally be exposed to. One of the things we made, we called it Suite Sixteen, they were allowed to choose two tracks each. They all chose, with the exception of one, mostly US bands, all of them kind of 70s and 80s.
Is the Radio Club still in existence?
I'm hoping to pick up with some of them once my role in 209 is clarified. Some of them have gone on to sixth form now. There's nothing formal in place but I think probably half of them have got the taste for it now. They were doing everything, on the mixing desk, cueing in, introducing and interviewing guests. They can go into any radio studio now and basically understand what's going on, and their ears have been widened too.
There were some extraordinary moments. Cris Cheek played a piece called Presque Rien, which means "almost nothing" in French, it's a recording of a French Village waking up at dawn. It's a beautifully composed and immaculately recorded piece but it is really subtle. It requires you to seriously listen. It was on, it's about 20 minutes, and there were loads of people here and the transistor was in the garden and Alistair was hanging out there with his mates but he came wondering in and said "what is this?" and then Cris started talking about it and Alistair went kind of "oh yeah, ok." Then the next week it was on again at our party evening and Cris went out and said "Alistair, what's playing?" and he remembered. Two months before he wouldn't have even registered that it was there because it's so subtle. So everybody's ears were really affected.
That was the key thing about Radio Taxi, it was about listening in a really broad way. Just kind of focussing on sound. Most people kind of walk out and they're not even aware that they're hearing things. We're bombarded by sound and we're very good at screening it out. Most people would recognise that they're bombarded with images and visual stimuli but they wouldn't recognise that they're bombarded with sound and desensitized to it.
There's a project I really want to do with silence and setting people the task of recording silence. Just so that they realise there really is no such thing. We never experience silence.
the silence in your life with the sound of Radio Taxi from their archive
at www.radiotaxi.org.uk which
includes two web based sound pieces made for the project. The Taxi
Gallery website is at www.taxigallery.org.uk
and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner recording is available from www.coleridgerime.info.
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