This short article examines contemporary artistic use of walkie-talkies across two projects: Saturday (2002) by Sabrina Raaf and Walk That Sound (2014) by Lukatoyboy. Drawing on Dominic Pettman’s notion of sonic intimacy, I argue that both artists incorporate walkie-talkies as part of their explorations of mediated wandering, and in ways that seek to capture sonic ambiances and intimacies. One thing that is striking about both these works is that they rethink what’s possible with walkie-talkies; both artists use them not just as low-tech, portable devices for one-to-one communication over distance, but also—and more strikingly—as (covert) recording equipment for capturing, while wandering, snippets of intimate conversation between passers-by and the “voice” of the surrounding environment. Both artworks strive to make the familiar strange. They prompt us to question our preconceived perceptions of, and affective engagements with, the people and places around us, to listen more attentively to the voices of others (and the “Other”), and to aurally inhabit in new ways the spaces and places we find ourselves in and routinely pass through.
The walkie-talkie is an established, simple communication device, consisting of a two-way radio transceiver with a speaker and microphone (in some cases, the speaker is also used as the microphone) and an antenna (Wikipedia). Walkie-talkies are half-duplex communication devices, meaning that they use a single radio channel: only one radio on the channel can transmit at a time, but many can listen; when a user wishes to talk, they must turn off the receiver and turn on the transmitter by pressing a push-to-talk button (Wikipedia). In some models, static—known as squelch—is produced each time the push-to-talk button is depressed. The push-to-talk button is a feature of both projects: in Saturday, it transforms the walkie-talkie into a cheap, portable recorder-transmitter. In Walk That Sound, rapid fire exchanges of conversation using the push-to-talk button feature strongly.
Interestingly, walkie-talkies were developed during World War Two. While they continue to be used within certain industrial settings, they are perhaps best known as a “quaint” household toy and “fun tool” (Smith). Early print ads for walkie-talkie toys marketed them as a form of both spyware for kids (with the Gabriel Toy Co. releasing a 007-themed walkie-talkie set) and as a teletechnology for communication over distance—“how thrilling to ‘speak through space!’”, states one ad (Statuv “New!”).
What is noteworthy about these early ads is that they actively promote experimental use of walkie-talkies. For instance, a 1953 ad for Vibro-Matic “Space Commander” walkie-talkies casts them as media transmission devices, suggesting that, with them, one can send and receive “voice – songs – music” (Statuv “New!”). In addition, a 1962 ad for the Knight-Kit walkie-talkie imagines “you’ll find new uses for this exciting walkie-talkie every day” (Statuv “Details”). Resurgent interest in walkie-talkies has seen them also promoted more recently as intimate tools “for communication without asking permission to communicate” (“Nextel”); this is to say that they have been marketed as devices for synchronous or immediate communication that overcome the limits of asynchronous communication, such as texting, where there might be substantial delays between the sending of a message and receipt of a response. Within this context, it is not surprising that Snapchat and Instagram have also since added “walkie-talkie” features to their messaging services. The Nextel byline, emphasising “without asking permission”, also speaks to the possibilities of using walkie-talkies as rudimentary forms of spyware.
Within art practice that explores mediated forms of wandering—that is, walking while using media and various “remote transmission technologies” (Duclos 233)—walkie-talkies hold appeal for a number of reasons, including their particular aesthetic qualities, such as the crackling or static sound (squelch) that one encounters when using them; their portability; their affordability; and, the fact that, while they can be operated on multiple channels, they tend to be regarded primarily as devices that permit two-way, one-to-one (and therefore intimate, if not secure) remote communication. As we will see below, however, contemporary artists, such as the aforementioned earlier advertisers, have also been very attentive to the device’s experimental possibilities.
Perhaps the best known (if possibly apocryphal) example of artistic use of walkie-talkies is by the Situationist International as part of their explorations in urban wandering (a revolutionary strategy called dérive). In the Situationist text from 1960, Die Welt als Labyrinth (Anon.), there is a detailed account of how walkie-talkies were to form part of a planned dérive, which was organised by the Dutch section of the Situationist International, through the city of Amsterdam, but which never went ahead:
Two groups, each containing three situationists, would dérive for three days, on foot or eventually by boat (sleeping in hotels along the way) without leaving the center of Amsterdam. By means of the walkie-talkies with which they would be equipped, these groups would remain in contact, with each other, if possible, and in any case with the radio-truck of the cartographic team, from where the director of the dérive—in this case Constant [Nieuwenhuys]—moving around so as to maintain contact, would define their routes and sometimes give instructions (it was also the director of the dérive’s responsibility to prepare experiments at certain locations and secretly arranged events.) (Anon.)
This proposed dérive formed part of Situationist experiments in unitary urbanism, a process that consisted of “making different parts of the city communicate with one another.” Their ambition was to create new situations informed by, among other things, encounters and atmospheres that were registered through dérive in order to reconnect parts of the city that were separated spatially (Lefebvre quoted in Lefebvre and Ross 73). In an interview with Kristin Ross, Henri Lefebvre insists that the Situationists “did have their experiments; I didn’t participate. They used all kinds of means of communication—I don’t know when exactly they were using walkie-talkies. But I know they were used in Amsterdam and in Strasbourg” (Lefebvre quoted in Lefebvre and Ross 73). However, as Rebecca Duclos points out, such use “is, in fact, not well documented”, and “none of the more well-known reports on situationist activity […] specifically mentions the use of walkie-talkies within their descriptive narratives” (Duclos 233).
In the early 2000s, walkie-talkies also figured prominently, alongside other media devices, in at least two location-based gaming projects by renowned British art collective Blast Theory, Can You See Me Now? (2001) and You Get Me (2008). In the first of these projects, participants in the game (“online players”) competed against members of Blast Theory (“runners”), tracking them through city streets via a GPS-enabled handheld computer that runners carried with them. The goal for online players was to move an avatar they created through a virtual map of the city as multiple runners “pursued their avatar’s geographical coordinates in real-time” (Leorke). As Dale Leorke explains, “Players could see the locations of the runners and other players and exchange text messages with other players” (Leorke 27), and runners could “read players’ messages and communicate directly with each other through a walkie-talkie” (28). An audio stream from these walkie-talkie conversations allowed players to eavesdrop on their pursuers (Blast Theory, Can You See Me Now?).
You Get Me was similarly structured, with online players and “runners” (eight teenagers who worked with Blast Theory on the game). Remotely situated online players began the game by listening to the “personal geography” of the runners over a walkie-talkie stream (Blast Theory, You Get Me). They then selected one runner, and tracked them down by navigating their own avatar, without being caught, through a virtual version of Mile End Park in London, in pursuit of their chosen runner who was moving about the actual Mile End Park. Once their chosen runner was contacted, the player had to respond to a question that the runner posed to them. If the runner was satisfied with the player’s answer, conversation switched to “the privacy of a mobile phone” in order to converse further; if not, the player was thrown back into the game (Blast Theory, You Get Me). A key aim of Blast Theory’s work, as I have argued elsewhere (Wilken), is the fostering of interactions and fleeting intimacies between relative and complete strangers. The walkie-talkie is a key tool in both the aforementioned Blast Theory projects for facilitating these interactions and intimacies.
Beyond these well-known examples, walkie-talkies have been employed in productive and exploratory ways by other artists. The focus in this article is on two specific projects: the first by US-based sound artist Sabrina Raaf, called Saturday (2002) and the second by Serbian sound designer Lukatoyboy (Luka Ivanović), titled Walk That Sound (2014).
The concept that gives shape and direction to the analysis of the art projects by Raaf and Lukatoyboy and their use of walkie-talkies is that of sonic intimacy. This is a concept of emerging critical interest across media and sound studies and geography (see, for example, James; Pettman; Gallagher and Prior). Sonic intimacy, as Dominic Pettman explains, is composed of two simultaneous yet opposing orientations. On the one hand, sonic intimacy involves a “turning inward, away from the wider world, to more private and personal experiences and relationships” (79). While, on the other hand, it also involves a turning outward, to seek and heed “the voice of the world” (79)—or what Pettman refers to as the “vox mundi” (66). Pettman conceives of the “vox mundi” as an “ecological voice”, whereby “all manner of creatures, agents, entities, objects, and phenomena” (79) have the opportunity to speak to us, if only we were prepared to listen to our surroundings in new and different ways. In a later passage, he also refers to the “vox mundi” as a “carrier or potentially enlightening alterity” (83). Voices, Pettman writes, “transgress the neat divisions we make between ‘us’ and ‘them’, at all scales and junctures” (6). Thus, Pettman’s suggestion is that “by listening to the ‘voices’ that lie dormant in the surrounding world […] we may in turn foster a more sustainable relationship with [the] local matrix of specific existences” (85), be they human or otherwise.
This formulation of sonic intimacy provides a productive conceptual frame for thinking through Raaf’s and Lukatoyboy’s use of walkie-talkies. The contention in this article is that these two projects are striking for the way that they both use walkie-talkies to explore, simultaneously, this double articulation or dual orientation of sonic intimacy—a turning inwards to capture more private and personal experiences and conversations, and a turning outwards to capture the vox mundi. Employing Pettman’s notion of sonic intimacy as a conceptual frame, I trace below the different ways that these two projects incorporate walkie-talkies in order to develop mediated forms of wandering that seek to capture place-based sonic ambiances and sonic intimacies.
Sabrina Raaf, Saturday (2002)
US sound artist Sabrina Raaf’s Saturday (2002) is a sound-based art installation based on recordings of “stolen conversations” that Raaf gathered over many Saturdays in Humboldt Park, Chicago. Raaf’s work harks back to the early marketing of walkie-talkie toys as spyware. In Raaf’s hands, this device is used not for engaging in intimate one-to-one conversation, but for listening in on, and capturing, the intimate conversations of others. In other words, she uses this device, as the Nextel slogan goes, for “communication without permission to communicate” (“Nextel”).
Raaf’s inspiration for the piece was twofold. First, she has noted that “with the overuse of radio frequency bands for wireless communications, there comes the increased occurrence of crossed lines where a private conversation becomes accidentally shared” (Raaf). Reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Conversation (1974), in which surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) records the conversation of a couple as they walk through crowded Union Square in San Francisco, Raaf used a combination of walkie-talkies, CB radios, and “various other forms of consumer spy […] technology in order to actively harvest such communication leaks” (Raaf). The second source of inspiration was noticing the “sheer quantity of non-phone, low tech, radio transmissions that were constantly being sent around [the] neighbourhood”, transmissions that were easily intercepted. These conversations were eclectic in composition and character:
The transmissions included communications between gang members on street corners nearby and group conversations between friends talking about changes in the neighbourhood and their families. There were raw, intimate conversations and often even late night sex talk between potential lovers. (Raaf)
What struck Raaf about these conversations, these transmissions, was that there was “a furtive quality” to most of them, and “a particular daringness to their tone”.
During her Saturday wanderings, Raaf complemented her recordings of stolen snippets of conversation with recordings of the “voice” of the surrounding neighbourhood—“the women singing out their windows to their radios, the young men in their low rider cars circling the block, the children, the ice cream carts, etc. These are the sounds that are mixed into the piece” (Raaf).
Audience engagement with Saturday involves a kind of austere intimacy of its own that seems befitting of a surveillance-inspired sonic portrait of urban and private life. The piece is accessed via an interactive glove. This glove is white in colour and about the size of a large gardening glove, with a Velcro strap that fastens across the hand, like a cycling glove. The glove, which only has coverings for thumb and first two fingers (it is missing the ring and little fingers) is wired into and rests on top of a roughly A4-sized white rectangular box. This box, which is mounted onto the wall of an all-white gallery space at the short end, serves as a small shelf. The displayed glove is illuminated by a discrete, bent-arm desk lamp, that protrudes from the shelf near the gallery wall. Above the shelf are a series of wall-mounted colour images that relate to the project. In order to hear the soundtrack of Saturday, gallery visitors approach the shelf, put on the glove, and “magically just press their fingertips to their forehead [to] hear the sound without the use of their ears” (Raaf). The glove, Raaf explains, “is outfitted with leading edge audio electronic devices called ‘bone transducers’ […]. These transducers transmit sound in a very unusual fashion. They translate sound into vibration patterns which resonate through bone” (Raaf).
Employing this technique, Raaf explains, “permits a new way of listening”:
The user places their fingers to their forehead—in a gesture akin to Rodin’s The Thinker or of a clairvoyant—in order to tap into the lives of strangers. Pressing different combinations of fingers to the temple yield plural viewpoints and group conversations. These sounds are literally mixed in the bones of the listener. (Raaf)
The result is a (literally and figuratively) touching sonic portrait of Humboldt Park, its residents, and the “voice” of its surrounding neighbourhoods. Through the unique technosomatic (Richardson) apparatus—combinations of gestures that convey the soundscape directly through the bones and body—those engaging with Saturday get to hear voices in/of/around Humboldt Park. It is a portrait that combines sonic intimacy in the two forms described earlier in this article. In its inward-focused form, the gallery visitor-listener is positioned as a voyeur of sorts, listening into stolen snippets of private and personal relationships, experiences, and interactions. And, in its outward-focused form, the gallery visitor-listener encounters a soundscape in which an array of agents, entities, and objects are also given a voice. Additional work performed by this piece, it seems to me, is to be found in the intermingling of these two form of sonic intimacy—the personal and the environmental—and the way that they prompt reflection on mediation, place, urban life, others, and intimacy. That is to say that, beyond its particular sonic portrait of Humboldt Park, Saturday works in “clearing some conceptual space” in the mind of the departing gallery visitor such that they might “listen for, if not precisely to, the collective, polyphonic ‘voice of the world’” (Pettman 6) as they go about their day-to-day lives.
Lukatoyboy, Walk That Sound (2014)
The second project, Walk That Sound, by Serbian sound artist Lukatoyboy was completed for the 2014 CTM festival. CTM is an annual festival event that is staged in Berlin and dedicated to “adventurous music and art” (CTM Festival, “About”). A key project within the festival is CTM Radio Lab. The Lab supports works, commissioned by CTM Festival and Deutschlandradio Kultur – Hörspiel/Klangkunst (among other partnering organisations), that seek to pair and explore the “specific artistic possibilities of radio with the potentials of live performance or installation” (CTM Festival, “Projects”). Lukatoyboy’s Walk That Sound was one of two commissioned pieces for the 2014 CTM Radio Lab. The project used the “commonplace yet often forgotten walkie-talkie” (CTM Festival, “Projects”) to create a moving urban sound portrait in the area around the Kottbusser Tor U-Bahn station in Berlin-Kreuzberg. Walk That Sound recruited participants—“mobile scouts”—to rove around the Kottbusser Tor area (CTM Festival, “Projects”). Armed with walkie-talkies, and playing with “the array of available and free frequencies, and the almost unlimited amount of users that can interact over these different channels”, the project captured the dispatches via walkie-talkie of each participant (CTM Festival, “Projects”). The resultant recording of Walk That Sound—which was aired on Deutschlandradio (see Lukatoyboy), part of a long tradition of transmitting experimental music and sound art on German radio (Cory)—forms an eclectic soundscape.
The work juxtaposes snippets of dialogue shared between the mobile scouts, overheard mobile phone conversations, and moments of relative quietude, where the subdued soundtrack is formed by the ambient sounds—the “voice”—of the Kottbusser Tor area. This voice includes distant traffic, the distinctive auditory ticking of pedestrian lights, and moments of tumult and agitation, such as the sounds of construction work, car horns, emergency services vehicle sirens, a bottle bouncing on the pavement, and various other repetitive yet difficult to identify industrial sounds. This voice trails off towards the end of the recording into extended walkie-talkie produced static or squelch. The topics covered within the “crackling dialogues” (CTM Festival, “Projects”) of the mobile scouts ranged widely. There were banal observations (“I just stepped on a used tissue”; “people are crossing the street”; “there are 150 trains”)—wonderings that bear strong similarities with French writer Georges Perec’s well-known experimental descriptions of everyday Parisian life in the 1970s (Perec “An Attempt”). There were also intimate, confiding, flirtatious remarks (“Do you want to come to Turkey with me?”), as well as a number of playfully paranoid observations and quips (“I like to lie”; “I can see you”; “do you feel like you are being recorded?”; “I’m being followed”) that seem to speak to the fraught history of Berlin in particular as well as the complicated character of urban life in general—as Pettman asks, “what does ‘together’ signify in a socioeconomic system so efficient in producing alienation and isolation?” (92).
In sum, Walk That Sound is a strangely moving exploration of sonic intimacy, one that shifts between many different registers and points of focus—much like urban wandering itself. As a work, it is variously funny, smart, paranoid, intimate, expansive, difficult to decipher, and, at times, even difficult to listen to. Pettman argues that, “thanks in large part to the industrialization of the human ear […], we have lost the capacity to hear the vox mundi, which is […] the sum total of cacophonous, heterogeneous, incommensurate, and unsynthesizable sounds of the postnatural world” (8). Walk That Sound functions almost like a response to this dilemma. One comes away from listening to it with a heightened awareness of, appreciation for, and aural connection to the rich messiness of the polyphonic contemporary urban vox mundi.
The argument of this article is that Sabrina Raaf’s Saturday and Lukatoyboy’s Walk That Sound are two projects that both incorporate walkie-talkies in order to develop mediated forms of wandering that seek to capture place-based sonic ambiances and sonic intimacies. Drawing on Pettman’s notion of “sonic intimacy”, examination of these projects has opened consideration around voice, analogue technology, and what Nick Couldry refers to as “an obligation to listen” (Couldry 580).
In order to be heard, Pettman remarks, and “in order to be considered a voice at all”, and therefore as “something worth heeding”, the vox mundi “must arrive intimately, or else it is experienced as noise or static” (Pettman 83). In both the projects discussed here—Saturday and Walk That Sound—the walkie-talkie provides this means of “intimate arrival”.
As half-duplex communication devices, walkie-talkies have always fulfilled a double function: communicating and listening. This dual functionality is exploited in new ways by Raaf and Lukatoyboy. In their projects, both artists turn the microphone outwards, such that the walkie-talkie becomes not just a device for communicating while in the field, but also—and more strikingly—it becomes a field recording device. The result of which is that this simple, “playful” communication device is utilised in these two projects in two ways: on the one hand, as a “carrier of potentially enlightening alterity” (Pettman 83), a means of encouraging “potential encounters” (89) with strangers who have been thrown together and who cross paths, and, on the other hand, as a means of fostering “an environmental awareness” (89) of the world around us.
In developing these prompts, Raaf and Lukatoyboy build potential bridges between Pettman’s work on sonic intimacy, their own work, and the work of other experimental artists. For instance, in relation to potential encounters, there are clear points of connection with Blast Theory, a group who, as noted earlier, have utilised walkie-talkies and sound-based and other media technologies to explore issues around urban encounters with strangers that promote reflection on ideas and experiences of otherness and difference (see Wilken)—issues that are also implicit in the two works examined. In relation to environmental awareness, their work—as well as Pettman’s calls for greater sonic intimacy—brings renewed urgency to Georges Perec’s encouragement to “question the habitual” and to account for, and listen carefully to, “the common, the ordinary, the infraordinary, the background noise” (Perec “Approaches” 210).
Walkie-talkies, for Raaf and Lukatoyboy, when reimagined as field recording devices as much as remote transmission technologies, thus “allow new forms of listening, which in turn afford new forms of being together” (Pettman 92), new forms of being in the world, and new forms of sonic intimacy. Both these artworks engage with, and explore, what’s at stake in a politics and ethics of listening. Pettman prompts us, as urban dweller-wanderers, to think about how we might “attend to the act of listening itself, rather than to a specific sound” (Pettman 1). His questioning, as this article has explored, is answered by the works from Raaf and Lukatoyboy in effective style and technique, setting up opportunities for aural attentiveness and experiential learning. However, it is up to us whether we are prepared to listen carefully and to open ourselves to such intimate sonic contact with others and with the environments in which we live.
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