30 January 2001
Date: 1.30.2001
From: Mathew Kabatoff (
Subject: interview with Germaine Koh
Keywords: radio, public space
Mathew Kabatoff: Can you talk about the use of mediated devices in your 

work? How did you decide to use only popular mass media formats?

Germaine Koh: I have great faith in the power of commonplace things to 

tell us about ourselves, how we live and how we relate to each other. I 

think that the minor things that mediate our everyday lives inevitably 

bear a residual meaningfulness, and much of my work has been an effort 

to allow these things to speak quietly back to us. I would characterize 

my work as a whole as an attempt to be attentive to the poetics of daily 

life by focusing on those phenomena that shape everyday experience, 

often slightly below the threshold of notice (and, yes, value). I would 

like to create moments in which the commonplace, the mundane and the 

ubiquitous are rendered remarkable again. To this end, ambiguity is 

indeed a strategy I employ consciously. I am interested in points of 

ambiguity as junctures at which viewers/receivers/interlocutors are 

required to weigh for themselves not only various potential meanings but 

also their own predilections, and thus are points at which the processes 

of communicating, of making sense and of reckoning with things, are 

drawn out (extenuated?).

Since my earliest projects I have been committed to working with already-

existing phenomena. Part of this was a simple utopian principle of not 

adding new objects to an already-saturated world, but it also arose from 

a more general interest on my part in observing the world as it already 

exists around us. The self-effacing nature of my work and the fact that 

it is often phrased in the form of experiments, are related to an 

attempt to step back in order to observe the world unfolding, if that 

doesn't sound too corny. 

MK: Your most recent project entitled "by the way," part of Arte in 

Sita/La Torre de los Vientos, was installed inside the Le Torre de Los 

Vientos--tower of the winds. How has the space been appropriated by 

artists, and what is its signification to Mexico City? 

GK: La Torre de los Vientos, by the Uruguayan sculptor Gonzalo Fonseca, 

is one of a series of monumental concrete sculptures erected alongside 

the peripheral highway in Mexico City at the time of the 1968 Olympiad. 

Specifically, it is a 15-metre-high, more-or-less conical structure 

which, unlike the other sculptures that make up this "Ruta de la 

Amistad" (Route of Friendship), is also an inhabitable building. About 

five years ago a young curator-artist, Pedro Reyes, began to invite 

local and international artists to use this very idiosyncratic building 

for site-specific interventions, and the resulting series of projects 

have included some thoroughly remarkable pieces (see documentation on 

their website at The structure and site 

present a number of challenges. Bounded by the Periferico and on- and 

off-ramps, its site is marked by the rumble of passing traffic. Within 

the structure, which is enclosed but for small apertures in its walls 

and an overhead oculus, there is a certain sensory disorientation due to 

its blindness to the outside and its prominent echo. Inside there are 

also five fixed concrete elements that suggest some kind of a 

spectatorial situation.

Following on my first working trip to Mexico, for which I had produced 

the site-specific piece "En busca del nivel del lago" at Ex Teresa Arte 

Actual, Pedro and Antonio OutÛn, another curator-artist, invited me to 

develop a new project for La Torre. The resulting piece, "by the way," 

recognizes that the commuters passing by the building are the most 

regular users of the site. Within the structure a live audio-video feed 

monitors the passing traffic. The audio feed is processed by an effects 

unit to resemble gusts of wind that correspond to each passing car. This 

transformed sound is retransmitted, in real time, as a localized FM 

radio broadcast borrowing the frequency of an existing radio station 

known for its frequent traffic reports, so that the commuters passing by 

can listen to their own passage, transformed into wind. The character of 

the transmission varies throughout the day, as a real-time measure of 

the flow of vehicles. It is a kind of alternative traffic report, one 

which tends to become the weather report at the same time. I was hoping 

that in that city infamous for its congestion and pollution, the project 

might provide a quiet opportunity to imagine a more open space and 

condition for passage.

MK: "by the way" was your first use of low-power FM radio. If you think 

about radio as somewhat paradoxical (it's free, it's always on, it 

appears to have no commercial value, it informs citizens about current 

events, and steers them according to certain ideological underpinnings), 

it seems to fit right into your work.

GK: Radio is certainly a medium to which I feel a kinship. I have been 

drawn to it precisely for this omnipresent-yet-elusive quality, the fact 

that physically it exists everywhere around us and is related (separated 

only by degrees) to so many other electro-magnetic phenomena that make 

the world go 'round, and that socially it is, and has historically been, 

a means to make connections, to incite and to arouse. Really, it's an 

ideal conceptualist medium (this is basically the practical message I 

distilled from McLuhan). There's something about the medium that is 

paralleled in the structure of my work: it is a matter of focusing 

thought by means of fine-tuning phenomena already existing in the 


MK: Could you talk about your "Teams" buttons piece in which visitors at 

both YYZ in Toronto and at the Sydney Biennial were given buttons that 

designated which "team" they were on? How do you feel this piece 

addressed the concept of "transmission"? 

GK: Actually, the buttons were available for the taking, rather than 

given to people. This is important, because it was a matter of setting 

up a situation that seemed like it could be significant. This is one of 

the pieces that function as experiments. There were quantities of blank 

publicity buttons, in two different colors, which visitors could take, 

or not. I imagined that as participants walked away wearing or carrying 

a button, they would become points in a tenuous network of chance and 

association held together only by the innocuous circumstance of having 

made the same choice in the same place. The people wearing the buttons 

became beacons marking a shifting set of relations spreading and 

dispersing across the city. The piece innocently mimics some of the ways 

in which communities define themselves and individuals stake 

allegiances, by adopting signs of difference and identity. There is also 

suggestion of gamesmanship, in which one establishes one's position in 

response and relation to others'. Yet, at the same time, it is a 

deliberately light proposition: while seeming to translate a simple 

choice into a potentially meaningful gesture, it really draws no 

conclusions. I imagine that there may have been passing moments of 

recognition and even absurd but inevitable comradeship when one spotted 

others wearing a similar button. Two years later, I still very 

occasionally see people wearing the buttons.

There is another project related to the radio piece which is worth 

talking about in terms of transmission and dispersal. The piece 

"Prayers" (1999) was an intervention into an office computer network. I 

installed a computer which essentially spied on a standard office 

computer, capturing all the keystrokes entered on this other computer. 

This data was translated into Morse code, in real time, and re- 

transmitted - broadcast - as Morse-encoded smoke signals to the outside 

of the building, to disperse into the surrounding atmosphere. It was a 

way of giving an appropriately-ephemeral physical form to the minor 

hopes and mundane expectations embedded within the daily industry of an 

office, and channeled through its apparatus. I was thinking of people 

sitting at their computers sending e-mail messages out on "the wing of a 

prayer." I imagined this intervention as a sort of exhaust system for 

the daily activity occurring within the building, showing increasing 

activity during certain times of the day and becoming quiet at others. 

The piece also recalled the links between our current technologies for 

communicating and connecting across distances, and previous 

communications revolutions, associated variously with Morse code (that 

initial binary language), steam power, and smoke signals.

For many of the pieces that unfold in the real world (as opposed to 

gallery space, which I'm still committed to as an apparatus for focusing 

attention), I privilege the unexpected encounter. For example, the 

classified ad project (my usually-quite-banal personal journal that 

appears in the section of the classified ads used to seek long-lost 

relatives) is completely anonymous, and to me the primary audience for 

the piece are the people who might encounter it by chance, as they carry 

and read their newspapers around with them in the course of the day. 

These people are the ones who might wonder about the monumentalization 

of mundane activities, who might recognize the situations I describe as 

ones also lived by themselves or others they know, and who might be 

compelled to become regular readers. That is, they are the audience who 

will find themselves reckoning with an unexpected and lightly-altered 

familiar situation in a way that the already-informed audience might 

not. Likewise, for the piece "Poll," which is a simple metal fence post 

planted in the middle of a well-worn walking path, the real community 

for the piece is not the people who go to look at the post as a piece of 

art (though I love the absurdity of that as well), but rather the 

regular users of the site, who are the ones who, through their daily 

passage through the space, eventually shift the path around the pole. 

The pole is not the object; rather, it points out processes around it-- 

in this case observing the quiet force of pedestrian flow.

For "by the way," the actual building housed the electronic equipment, 

openly arranged with visible wires, including the cable running from the 

transmitter up through the skylight to the transmitting antenna. There 

was a monitor with a live video feed of the passing traffic, with the 

transformed wind-like audio playing simultaneously on several radios and 

through the video-monitor speakers. These were dispersed around the 

space on the various concrete blocks (which are already seat-like), 

creating listening stations. The acoustics of the space somehow 

amplified the sound.

MK: Has your thinking been affected by the Internet? Do you see yourself 

addressing that medium more so in the future?

GK: I'm mildly interested in the Internet as a relatively free medium, 

although it is too mediated--not direct enough--for my liking. The one 

piece I have done for Internet, "for you," dealt with the medium in the 

only way I could think of at the time, by addressing that very aspect of 

mediated, over-determined interaction with others. It was another social 

experiment, in which visitors to the site 

( are asked to write an 

anonymous fortune which a future visitor to the site will receive. After 

doing so, he or she is invited to click on a fortune-cookie icon which 

will generate a fortune for him/her from those previously submitted. The 

project poses a simple question about how people will react when given 

the freedom to interact anonymously with other strangers, and the 

submissions are quite telling. As one might expect, most are rather good-

natured, but some are quite vicious.

MK: Can you talk about your choice of transforming the ubiquitous sound 

of traffic, in "by the way," into the equally common sound of wind?

GK: Another recurring feature of my work is a desire to propose, in very 

modest ways, some kind of connection of individuals to larger forces, 

whether social or natural. This arises not out of wacky new-age 

sentimentality (trust me on this), but rather a search for the street- 

level poetics of everyday life. Thus there is a business card piece 

("Exchange," 1996) that suggests a possible relation between the mundane 

exchange of contact information with the vagaries of fate and fortune. 

The bronze "Token" project translates natural forces of erosion into the 

minor friction and fretting of objects carried in one's pocket. 

Similarly, installations such as "by the way," "Prayers" and "En busca 

del nivel del lago" somehow relate social activity with things more 

elemental or intangible. I think that the escape from language that you 

mention is important. One of the reasons I make visual art is that I 

think that ideas often have to be experienced physically, and although 

some people think that my work is strictly conceptual, in fact it is 

always rooted in a physical encounter with the material of the world.

MK: How did you get a radio station to let you use their frequency? Was 

there any feedback from the drivers who passed the Tower and experienced 

the sound of their own car as wind?

GK: I did not ask permission to use the existing frequency, but rather 

transmitted over top of it, so that in the rather localized area of my 

transmission, the commercial station's transmission would give way to 

mine, without explanation. I didn't get any feedback from unknown 

drivers. However, I should say that part of the emotional charge of 

pieces like this and the classified ad piece is the process of imagining 

how it they are received unexpectedly. An important aspect of both 

pieces is the fact that they are anonymous and non-commercial. Both 

reclaim rather frenetic commercial space in order to insert gentle 

reminders into other spheres and speeds of activity.

I have generally at least superficially "played by the rules" when I 

have used existing modes of dissemination. That is, I pay for ad space 

in the newspapers, I negotiate the placement of my postcards, and I 

distribute objects through existing channels, while drawing attention to 

aspects of these distribution systems. The strategy of doing work while 

passing unnoticed is one that is quite dear to me, and I'm convinced it 

can be an effective political operation.

However, I am beginning to talk with some other people specifically 

about doing more "public" radio work (i.e. regularly-scheduled 

programming that would be more likely to interfere in an ongoing way 

with the programs of existing stations), and I suppose at some point we 

will need to make clear decisions about how to position our 

transmissions. In terms of radio, there is a great tradition of activist 

low-power and community broadcasting that I'm quite willing to learn