BY Michelle Grabner in Frieze | 01 JAN 02
Featured in
Issue 64

Wireless in Wisconsin

The Hermetic Radio Hour

BY Michelle Grabner in Frieze | 01 JAN 02

'America's Dairyland', the Midwestern state of Wisconsin, was home to both the USA's most liberal politician, Robert M. La Follette, and its most notorious conservative, Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy. The best way to get an understanding of the psychological breadth of this unusual state is to listen to Wisconsin Public Radio. Locally produced shows range from the favourite Friday night Fish Fries to discussion of the Aristotelian philosophies of Saint Thomas Aquinas - in other words, they reflect the interests and imagination of the Wisconsin population.

This summer saw a new Wisconsin Public Radio high when The Hermetic Radio Hour took over Milwaukee Presents, an exceedingly boring weekly arts hour in which the host chats with local arts professionals such as the conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the new costume designer at the repertory theatre. Instead of rerunning this pandering nod to the art scene, the WHAD station manager suggested broadcasting a series of lectures organised by Nick Frank at his Hermetic Gallery in Milwaukee. The series involved celebrated local artists lecturing on random topics and included instalments such as 'Baby Vegetables: Fashion or Fascism', 'Salt', 'Pirates', 'Revolving Doors' and so on. Thus The Hermetic Radio Hour was born.

Hosted by actor/writer Dave O'Meara and gallerist/writer/artist Nick Frank, with support from artist/technician Stephen Wetzel, The Hermetic Radio Hour is an amusing blend of fiction that plays with radio's traditional formats. Before moving onto the show's featured topic, Frank presents the audience with the 'Controversial Question of the Week'. 'Are art museums morgues or maternity wards?' 'Should professional athletes have to take classes in non-clichéd public speech?' 'What does WHAD stand for?' Listeners email in their comments and Frank reads a few over the air the following week. Interview segments, sports talk (a must in a state obsessed with its professional football team), game shows, lectures and breaking cultural news with live reporting are some of the formats the radio show parodies.

But it isn't parody as an end in itself, or satire for that matter. The Hermetic Radio Hour is a work of comedy that sees potential in a relatively unexplored medium. Live performances, field recordings and dramatic re-enactments all combine to provide a mischievous examination of local cultural thought and production. For example, show number four included excerpts from the 'Forum on Pretence', which was held at the gallery in the spring. Before Frank introduces the forum's participants on air, however, he articulates the region's prevailing 'anti-pretence' convictions and claims that this precept 'stultifies production'. Here he is half-serious, levelling a fair critique of 'Midwestern nice'.

The musical segues from the station's hour-long The Origins Show are from a CD produced by Milwaukee artist David Robbins. It is a recording of 'lovely piano music' by his mother, Ginny Robbins, appropriate for a show that explores origins from a maternal point of view. Frank interviews mothers of Hermetic Gallery artists and talks to his own mother, who shares her favourite private-view dip recipes. Robbins also shared the mike in another programme, when he and Frank interviewed Chicago artist and eccentric Mike Banicki about his favourite things. As an avid collector of mundane objects - records, Christmas lights, bottle cap figures - Banicki also spends endless amounts of time travelling Wisconsin's roads, arbitrarily classifying its towns, taverns and rivers, which he then, in turn, makes into his 'Rating Paintings'. But perhaps the best and funniest show was the sixth episode of The Hermetic Radio Hour, where Frank tested the cultural knowledge of art world professionals real and fictional in the 'Battle of the Cognoscenti' quiz show. Professor Lane Hall from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee was pitted against Lute Finsdottir, Director of the Haags-Bosen Art Gallery at the University of Michigan, surely a fictitious character.

There are many remarkable aspects to The Hermetic Radio Hour. The first, of course, is simply that a radio programme can reflect upon visual culture at all. Second is the slippage between fakery and reality, live performance and pre-produced segments, which breathes new life into trustworthy traditional radio formats, perhaps even creating a hybrid art form in the process. But finally it is the show's playful respect and commitment to a local culture that makes it most authentic and entertaining. On Wisconsin!

Michelle Grabner is an artist, curator and professor in the Department of Painting and Drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is Director of the exhibition spaces The Suburban in Milwaukee, USA and the Poor Farm in Wisconsin, USA.