Second First Committee Hearings

Heath Bunting Testimony Transcript

Heath Bunting

Tom McCarthy: Your work has always been about cutting into areas of information and communication that have been designated as private, or at least as controlled, and hauling them over into the public domain, or at least relocating them, recontextualising, repurposing them. We understand you used to ride around on a bike armed with a radio scanner picking up police frequencies. This seems to be where all of this took off from. What were you doing with these frequencies? What was your interest in doing this?

Heath Bunting: At the time I was engaged in semi-illegal activities... skip-raiding and graffiti - and...

TMcC: Skip-raiding and...?

HB: Graffiti.

TMcC: Yes.

HB: And I was basically listening out for any tracking of myself by the police or security organisations in central London. Unfortunately they never took any notice of me; they were more interested in petty burglars. So I'd take pleasure in trying to track the criminals, or find the criminals, before the police did. So I was on my bike, which, bicycles are generally faster than cars through traffic. So...

TMcC: So it was just a sort of challenge: can I get there before they do?

HB: Well not necessarily. There was that, but there was also the position that I'd find myself in, face to face, or not necessarily very close, but in the proximity of a criminal who was about to be pounced on by the police force, and I was in, had the dilemma of should I inform them where they're coming from or just to let it happen and be very voyeuristic about it.

TMcC: So you'd go and check out what they were doing and then make your own decision: 'Well, do I approve of this crime of do I disapprove? Shall I let official justice run its course or shall I institute my own...'?

HB: It never really evolved into too formal analysis of that. But I often, on several occasions, found myself in that situation.

TMcC: So, you set up, you set up several radio stations. One of the earliest ones was EMI, or Electro-Magnetic Installation. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

HB: That was a radio station based in Bristol. We only transmitted at weekends. We transmitted over a period of one and a half years.

TMcC: That's a very long time to go without being closed down. I mean, it was illegal, right? It was a pirate station?

HB: Yes. We were being tracked at that stage. We had good evidence that we were being bugged and followed. But we were, as I say, realistic about that. Other stations were being closed down every couple of months, so we deployed disinformation about who we were and what we did.

TMcC: What form did this disinformation take?

HB: We would lie to people. Because that's, you know, the grapevine I guess it's called is one of the most efficient forms of communications in closed social system.

TMcC: But what about... Would you lie to friends?

HB: Yes, we would lie to everybody. And also we would put up fake, or posters for fake radio stations. So every week there'd be a new set declaring a new station opened. It would be on the same frequency. All that people needed to know was the frequency and that it would be the weekend. But we were basically aiming to change the perception of the human element of the authoritative repressive apparatus. So they could have all the technology they wanted screaming at them that it's the same radio station that is on now that was on last week, the same people, but if we were persuasive enough we would look like a totally new station that they wouldn't have to do anything about for three months.

Zinovy Zinik: When you say that you wanted to counterbalance the influence of other radio station, whatever the word, is it not the, kind of the same business? Just what I am saying is that radio is a dictatorial form of communication anyway: one person sitting in front of the mike and dictating it to others, basically.

HB: I think it's...

ZZ: What's your ethical stance on it?

HB: I think it's historically proven that people enjoy being dictated to, otherwise we wouldn't have an audience here and a panel of three dictators and one person being enquired of. So radio is a very similar form. It takes responsibility out of people's hands for production and dissemination, and that is often a pleasurable release.

TMcC: But if I understand what you were doing with EMI correctly, there was a different procedure going on, because you'd often take other radio stations and rebroadcast them.

ZZ: So you're helping, for example, rebroadcasting the BBC even?

HB: Yes, we did that.

ZZ: Did it improve the quality of the BBC broadcasting?

HB: That's not for me to say. I think that's for listeners to say.

TMcC: If we can move on a bit: you've done hundreds and hundreds of projects that...

HB: Sixty-seven actually...

TMcC: One of them was BBS, the Bulletin Board System. What did this involve?

HB: I'd have to refer you to my cultural counsellor on that matter, Rachel Baker.

Rachel Baker [from public gallery]: The Bulletin Board was...

rachel baker [left]
Photo: Eugenie Dolberg/INS

TMcC: Do you want to take the mike?

RB: No. I'll stand up though.

TMcC: Okay.

RB: The Bulletin Board was sitting in our client's kitchen as a server, and he would invite people to log in and contribute images. It was all in text format, although you could post up files, image files and audio files if you were particularly sophisticated. But there weren't many sopohisticated users of the BBS at that point. So, yes, as I said it was called Cybercafé and it was hosted on a computer that was sitting in Heath's kitchen. I was an early member of the Cybercafé political...

TMcC: And what was the function of it? What was the purpose of the Bulletin Board System?

RB [to HB]: Do you want me to continue?

Anthony Auerbach: Or is there a shift of interest from this, the one-to-many communication that radio offers to this many-to-many situation that you can get through internet communication bulletin boards and... obviously there is a shift, but what's the meaning of that shift for you?

HB: I think there's more opportunities for cruelty when you go from one-to-many to one-to-one or many-to-many.

TMcC: Sorry, we didn't... Opportunities for...?

HB: Cruelty.

TMcC: Why do you choose that word?

HB: I think art is often cruel to the general populace. I think that it's intended to be so but often hidden. I think, well for instance a lot of my work is designed to disrupt people's daily lives and their usual thoughts and behaviour. That's cruel.

TMcC: Well, one of your projects is called 'Communication Creates Conflict'. Is that right?

HB: Yes. That is true, Your Honour.

ZZ: Why do you want to disrupt people's lives?

HB: Why? Because, well, several reasons. If you take the enlightenment point of view you could say that you could enhance people's lives by disrupting them, or if you take a selfish, paranoid view you could say that I'm getting my own back.

ZZ: Did you use ever the sound of the alarm clock to disrupt people?

HB: No, not yet. That's a very good suggestion.

TMcC: But... This question about the relationship between the political and the artistic... I mean, where would you see that... Would you see there even being a line, or is that a rather conservative distinction to make? In terms of your work: I mean, do you see yourself as a political activist, an artist, or are they both the same?

HB: Well, I think it's known, it's been known as the Golden Triangle. In trading for thousands of years always have three areas of market or speciality, and circulate commodities between them. So I'd say my three areas of speciality are computers, art and activist politics. And you can always play, or have a flow between one and the other.

TMcC: A sort of feedback, relay...

HB: Yes. So, you know, a good analogy would be the, I think, was it the Golden Triangle of slaves, tobacco and sugar that was based in Bristol in I think the seventeenth century.

TMcC: Yes.

AA: But so, is... But it's quite strong to make the link between those things: cruelty, the cruelty to your friends in one-to-one communication; cruelty to many through annoying them through the radio; or... well maybe you could fill in the other gaps. But can you expand a little bit on this notion of sort of causing pain, it seems, as being an ambition which you understand as artistic and political?

HB: No.

TMcC: What about the obscene phone call re-routing project? I mean, that probably has some bearing on this. Because it's not just about inflicting cruelty on people: there's a... again, it's about inviting people into a feedback loop, or a triangle, in which cruelty is détourned, to use a Situationist term, you know, is redirected. And sort of détourned away from a, you know, a reactionary...

HB: Yes, the phone sex is... I think it was entitled 'Phone Sex for Women', because it was a very simple mechanism to point out that... two things really: the, I guess, simple sexism that existed in general society, but also that money was the real legislator. So for instance if... I was led to believe that if women received phone calls from men without pre-arranging that that that would be somehow an annoyance, whereas my general understanding of men was that if they received sexually explicit phone calls from women without previous arrangement they would enjoy that. So the idea was to reverse this sudden explosion of phone sex services that were being advertised on the internet that were targeted towards men, and reverse that as services for women, and basically offer the ability that they could subscribe to be called and have erotic conversations at any time in the week, or surprise times, and that that would somehow be okay, because a financial transaction would be taking place.

ZZ: Have you been recording these conversations?

HB: No, I neglected to document a lot of my work or the results, but there is some anecdotal evidence, if that is admissible here... We, the phone number that we offered was that of Backspace, in London I think... [to Rachel Baker] Do you have anything to say about them?

RB: No, that's operational data.

heath bunting on screen
Photo: Eugenie Dolberg/INS

HB: Well, I think I'll break my, sack my counsellor on this case. But I think someone called Geo would take pleasure in receiving phone calls from women offering him money to be obscene to him, obscene to them down the phone, and that happened on several occasions.

ZZ: Did you find, did you try the same person with different women?

HB: I wasn't actually behind the screen manipulating the situation.

ZZ: I'm talking about the identity of, identity of the voice producing the same effect. I mean, do different voices producing the same effect, or the same voice producing different effects?

HB: Oh, the female voices?

ZZ: Yes.

HB: No. They were actually genuine callers. It wasn't myself.

ZZ: Right.

TMcC: There seems to be this issue running through your work of identity versus anonymity. I mean, you said earlier you never gave out... on lots of your radio stations you never identified yourself. I don't mean just personally: the station never identified itself. With the obscene phone call re-routing there's a similar issue about... I mean, this is implicit in the radio anyhow, but you seem to want to foreground this. Is that fair to say?

HB: I think, well you have... People like to be taken away from their everyday life. So, for instance we have a radio station, automatic radio station in Canada that doesn't ever announce its identity. So you can go into the town and you talk to the people and say: 'Oh, what's this you're listening to?' like a taxi driver, and they're like: 'Yes, it's good, yes we listen to it all the time, but, you know, it's not really a radio station, it's some kind of atmospheric effect, you know.' And they'd been listening to radio from Japan that's been brought across the internet and then rebroadcast locally. But they don't know that mechanism, and it somehow helps to mystify and give those people more pleasure to think that those radio signals are floating halfway around the world and only occurring in their valley due to geological and electromagnetic anomalies.

TMcC: Well, that opens up into another thing about your work, which is there seems to be a continual sort of reorganising of the... I like this idea of triangles: the triangle between sort of space and perception and transmission. I mean, in the Cellular Pirate Listening Station project you effectively... Well, you a) mapped London's pirate stations but b) sort of streamed it over the internet, so that the whole idea of a pirate radio, sort of local radio, was then completely transcended, because you could listen to the, you know, the Hackney Massive vibes in, you know, Tokyo and so on and so on. I mean, there seems to be a continual preoccupation with space via information systems going on in your work.

HB: Yes, I like to, I used to say 'collide'...

TMcC: Collide?

HB: Yes: collide, which has a kind of implication of bloody accident, the international electronic with the very local, you know, physical. So that's what I attempted in Tokyo. And also there's a bit of, a little of that play with the pirate radio scanner, whereby the people sitting in their, you know, flats, council flats in Hackney, broadcasting, who are thinking: 'Oh well, I'll reach down the street', they receive a phone call from Canada saying: 'Well, yes, you know, big shout out to, you know...' and they're like: 'Well, hold on! You can't pick us up in Canada, can you?' And: 'Yes, yes, we're listening on the net!' 'Oh!' You know, because these people: they like to think they're running things, don't they? You know, a lot of these pirate stations are run by gangsters and street people...

AA: So you subvert their authority by rebroadcasting it where they don't expect?

HB: Yes.

AA: And there's also this... So you're, in your campaign to annoy as many people as possible you're quite even-handed in terms of annoying the broadcasters who think they're little dictators of their domain and the receivers who think they're privileged in getting some kind of weird transmission from...

HB: Well, you know, I am a publicly funded artist, and as far as I'm aware everybody is still a member of the public. I think that's being changed at present. So I'm there to annoy everybody.

TMcC: Where do you... We touched on this with Manu and Mukul earlier: where do you see the future of this... There is a sort of Manichean battle going on, as many would see it, between public ownership of the air and private ownership. I mean, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the outcome?

HB: Both.

TMcC: Yes.

HB: Yes, but as I said I would like to question and provoke all sides, even the idea that public is good. It is another construct. I was brought up in a National Socialist, fascistic town: modernist Stevenage, which is the back-up set for A Clockwork Orange. So a lot of my beliefs, things that I fight for, I would say are highly questionable. But that's my indoctrination, that's my inclination.

TMcC: What are you working on at the moment?

Clare Carolin [from public gallery]: Excuse me: A Clockwork Orange was filmed in Thamesmead, not Stevenage.

HB: I thought it was filmed in Harlow. But if you'd like to rewind the tape I said 'the back-up set'.

TMcC: We'll just, we'll edit that one out. What are you working on at the moment?

HB: I'm currently working at finishing off the Border Crossing Guide, which is a guide to crossing borders without papers in Europe and expanded Europe. I've done twenty-six borders so far and another... no, eighteen borders so far and another eight to go.

TMcC: So how do you go about this?

HB: Look on a map, go to the place, cross the border, don't get caught, write a report about it, yes.

ZZ: You mean you go under, or you crossing over?

HB: Well, sometimes I go under. I crossed the border between Belgium and Germany underground. Because some of these borders, I mean most of them are anachronistic, irrelevant to me, being a European white male; so I tried to make them a bit more challenging. So I went through an active railway tunnel that had goods trains going through it.

ZZ: Did you record the experience? Did they have different audible acoustics?

HB: No, I haven't used audio at all in the documentation. It's just photographic and text.

TMcC: We've got to... we should wrap that up, because we've really got to be out by six. But thank you very much for coming in. And thank you Rachel for your counsel.