Knight Arts Challenge Detroit winner 143FM brings drive-through audio collages to the Motor City

Photo: Jon Brumit intends to use these raw materials for a mobile version of the Knight-backed project Sound House. Image courtesy of the artist.

Jon Brumit is an original thinker, to say the least. A Detroit-based musician, sound and installation artist, Brumit is unlimited by convention or media, creating inputs and outputs wherever he sees fit. In this interview, Brumit discusses his progress on 143FM, a Knight Arts Challenge-winning sound installation that combines his passion for audio transmissions, circuit-bending and, above all, collaboration or spontaneous interaction with his fellow humans.

In 2013, you won a two-year grant in the Knight Arts Challenge Detroit to support a citywide radio project. Whats the status of it? The radio project is behind. I’m only just now getting started, really. My first cluster site, I know where it’s going to be, and I’ve got funding to do it. I’m trying to nail down what technology to use so it works the best.

Tell us about the logistics. The project was to have clusters all over town—it’s short-range FM radio transmitters that endlessly broadcast this looping radio program. Every transmitter in each cluster will be on the same frequency, so it’s like a drive-through audio collage. You drive through zones of audio programming, so you have a totally different experience every time you experience that cluster, or that one zone. You may not hear the same audio, unless you drive very slowly, or lurk, or park. I mean, I’m talking about cars—this is the place with cars.

Right, and cars have radios. They still have radios, which is so awesome. Radios are powerful. It’s still kind of magic, you know? It’s like the black-and-white photography of media.

Jon Brumit’s sound installation, “Escape from Weed Mountain,” for Art X 2015 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. Photo by Rosie Sharp.

It is like black-and-white photography because it’s really low-fi, but really high-tech at the same time. In every post-apocalyptic futurescape, radio is still working—that’s the one technology left. Yeah, it’s simple and pretty low buy-in. When I was working with Lee Montgomery and Michael Trigilio on NPR [a collaborative public-media project whose acronym stands for Neighborhood Public Radio], we were pirate radio, but we were doing it in public spaces. We felt like, why should public access to this medium be so cost-prohibitive or restrictive? We felt like, we’ll broadcast whatever craziness—people talking, people telling stories, people having a political agenda, people doing kooky stuff that we have no idea what it is. I think it was Lee that came up with the motto, “If it’s in the neighborhood and it makes noise, we’ll put it on the air.” So these clusters of radios around town–imagine each cluster is like a gallery space. The programming can change, and we can use this structure to curate an experience, to play music, to share stories, to project future neighborhood or past neighborhood into this space. We can use it as a multidirectional, multi-dimensional sort of thing. Some clusters will have pure sound—just sound or music—and in others it will be much more heavily narrative, and much more about what did or what could happen in this place. It’s basically getting the structure in place that allows for other things to happen. We spend time in the place and draw others to the place, to be open to experiencing the place in a new way that’s largely invisible. Then you turn it on, and it’s like light, in a way. We can’t control the light, but we can have an effect on the spectrum.

It’s interesting to think about it as something that’s there, and you have the option to tune into it or not, but it exists around you. To me, that’s a cool way to make public art.