Mar 29, 2018

Radio Silence, or Art of the Impossible

by: Laura Kochman

We’re continuing the countdown to the Radio Silence podcast series with another essay excerpt, this one from writer Frances Richard. On April 15, join the Philadelphia listening party, or tune in through WPPM PhillyCAM, Public Radio Exchange, iTunes, or the Radio Silence website—but until then: explore the project website, where seven writers have reacted to the project and the performance.


“Speak to Porousness: On Seven Statements by Michael Rakowitz,” by Frances Richard (excerpt) 

It’s radio, so we can’t see their faces. But at one point in the show, a cascade of male and female voices repeat “I am Bahjat Abdulwahed”: They are veterans, refugees, musicians, cooks—the Philadelphians participating in Michael Rakowitz’s performance Radio Silence (2017). I think of Tony Curtis and the rest of the oppressed throng leaping to their feet in a dusty valley, each shouting “I’m Spartacus!” while Laurence Olivier, the Roman general, looks on in dismay and Kirk Douglas sheds a manly tear. But that is an uneasy analogy. Hollywood’s saga glorifying slave revolt was released in 1960, when other rebellions were hardly receiving the heroic treatment in pop culture; it was the year that U.S. Special Forces arrived in Vietnam, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was founded. None of this correlates neatly to Rakowitz’s performance and radio series in memory of Abdulwahed (1939–2016), the newscaster once known as the Voice of Iraq.

The audience at the live Radio Silence performance on Independence Mall. July 30, 2017. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Yet Radio Silence, like Rakowitz’s other experiments in historical-communal narrative, solicits coincidences and resonances like these. The results are inevitably half-finished, often improbable, made coherent by their commitment to revelatory relationship. “It’s art,” says Rakowitz, “because it’s impossible for this to exist in the world.”

“This” being reconciliation across difference, restitution without closure, a pleating of time and space in which a figure like Abdulwahed can be dead and alive, Iraqi and American at once; and soldiers and displaced persons can collaborate; and every listener–viewer tracks her own associations, however fleetingly; and the lusciousness of what we see—or taste, smell, touch, hear, think—cannot be separated from ways in which such sensual traces simultaneously mark the destroyed, the imaginary, the unthinkable.



Major support for Radio Silence has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, with additional support from The National Endowment for the Arts, and the Hummingbird Foundation. Project collaborators and partners include a host of agencies and nonprofits that work on refugee and veteran issues, as well as independent community-driven media nonprofits.

Last updated: Mar 29, 2018

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