It started in Daly City in 1994. Juan Carlos Mendizabal, a Salvadoran composer and electronic musician began publishing music made through a collaborative process. Passed between two fellow artists and himself, the work was completely centered around the process of its creation rather than focused on a final result. By adding one artist’s ideas on top of another, the sound became a creative journey, with each artist’s contributions leading to a different place in mood and momentum.
That’s the idea Radio Free Clear Light is based on: by concentrating on the process of creating rather than the finished work, as a group they’re able to continually gather inspiration from one another in a method of constant making. Members have come and gone, and the group’s repertoire expanded beyond music to include photography, poetry, performance art and varying combinations of all of them. Their name comes from the idea that the group is a “living radio built of human components,” with each viewer or participant becoming a part of the radio for however brief a time they’re consumed with the work.
For the past five years, RFCL has consisted of Juan Carlos with artists Etanna Zak, and Lydia Harari. When I visited their studio last Saturday night, Etanna used “Dread Pirate Roberts” in The Princess Bride as a comparison for “Radio Free Clear Light” — the name is representative of the process rather than belonging to any one member. And they like it that way.
Rather than getting wrapped up in recognition, the members of Radio Free Clear Light are constantly creating, cycling thousands of drawings, Photoshop files, and electronic music works between them every month.
Group collaboration is difficult when artists have different ideas on where a work should go, but with RFCL, the collaboration is always additive — each artist actively preserves the work done by the last, and no one keeps any preconceived notions about what a piece should look like when it’s finished. Most works cycle through the three artists’ hands only once, twice at the most.
The group estimates that at any one time, Radio Free Clear Light is loosely comprised of three dedicated members with three to five in the periphery, and they’re always on the lookout for new artists interested in collaborating.
“At the core, we’re storytellers,” Etanna said.
And how they tell the story doesn’t matter as much as the story itself. Processed photographs become comic books, where text and layout take the narrative even further. Music joins with photographs and poetry in web installations that make the viewer a participant as she scrolls through the work.
RFCL wants the viewer participating as much as possible in everything they create. In their performance pieces, they pull audience members into the dance, and don’t even like the term “audience” in the first place since it implies a sense of watching and not doing.
“We want them to be as creative with it as we are,” Juan Carlos told me.
Even my studio visit was more participatory than any other I’d ever had. We started in Photoshop, where they took a photo of me and let me select a bunch of others to collage into a RFCL work. They each took turns at the computer, spending five minutes adding their own style of filters and edits before the next artist sat down. By the time Juan Carlos was done with the collage, its style was indistinguishable from the other prints hanging on the walls:
Next we tried music. Juan Carlos’ day job at Pandora and his background in composition led to different experiments in creating music collaboratively. Downstairs they had three keyboards hooked up to one computer, and using software built by RFCL, the three keyboards played together made only one sound. Juan Carlos told me the idea is based off a type of 15th century Japanese puppetry called bunraku, where three different puppeteers control a single puppet.
The three keyboards regulated the music’s events, velocity and quantizer, or rather the notes, volume and rhythm. Each key on the quantizer keyboard indicated a different length of note, and each key on the velocity keyboard indicated a level of loudness, and both were applied to the notes played on the events keyboard simultaneously.
When played together, the music had an experimental electronic sound with a sense of deliberateness about it as Lydia and Etanna watched my fingers and played their own keys accordingly. I could hear the notes I played on the events keyboard come through, but only when the quantizer and velocity keyboards allowed them.
When I played the quantizer, the length of the notes I was selecting would sometimes build up and slow the sound until the notes played rapid-fire all at once. At the end, Etanna shouted the funniest quote I’ve probably ever written down: “There’s a flurry in the quantizer!”
They’ve named this collective electronic music process “Pluribus” and are in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign aimed at raising funds to expand the project. RFCL publishes their music as the label Black Note, and they release new tracks on Soundcloud every week.
Their comic books are published as Fourth Way Comics, and besides using their own photography as the images, they also invite other artists to tell a story visually before adding their own text.
After getting in on the collaboration myself, Radio Free Clear Light seems more like a belief system. The artists sincerely believe the collective is greater than the individual, and it’s the additive back-and-forth with each work — the constant creating that constitutes art. The end result is just the record of a collaboration that happened at that particular point in time, and if it happens to stop people in their tracks, all the better.
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