Raul Keller is an artist who made his debut with sound installations and sound art in early 2000s Tallinn, being one of the few people on the Estonian art scene who continues to work unremittingly in his this niche. Focusing mainly on site-specific sound installations, sound performance, musical improvisation and radiophonic experiments, his body of work can be summed up with the keyword “radio.” In the most general sense, sound is what Keller is interested in, of course – but specifically transmitted, mediated or reproduced sound, sound that has been passed through a technological filter. Sound as a signal, sound as noise – information and lack thereof, static of the “empty” frequencies that we hear as noise.
The undermining potential of sound and/or noise transmitted using technology has been of interest not only to individual artists and musicians but also to political powers, especially during military conflicts. Radio jammers were used in the 20thcentury to confuse bomber pilots, intentionally sow disinformation in the enemy’s civilian population, resistance and dissident movements etc. In the interests of historical correctness, it should be noted that Keller, who was born in the Cold War era Soviet Union (1973), is more influenced by culture jamming and DIY culture ideologies and other sources that are, more often than not, American. Yet the roots of his interest in radiophonic sound do not lie in the derivative nature of the 1990s post-Soviet sphere.
Keller knows very well that during Soviet times, three jammers – the “Three Sisters” – located on Virmalise street in Tallinn kept undesirable broadcasts (such as Voice of America) from reaching the radio receivers of the Soviet people. Today, two of the “sisters” have been dismantled and the third one is used as a communication tower. One of his earliest outstanding projects dealt with this very phenomenon. “Jammer” (2002) consisted of a radio programme broadcast on 18 December 2002 over a low-powered monophonic transmitter at 105.8 MHz FM in Tallinn. The experiment on the airwaves lasted about three hours and the medium was completely open to anyone, as Keller described it later. Everyone was encouraged to bring various acoustic instruments and sound-emitting objects and enter into a dialogue with the other participants. The objective was to offset the commercial FM programming services, which paper the Estonian frequency bands with set playlists and standardized blather from the mouths of radio show hosts. Instead, a low-fi democratic environment would explore the artistic and technical possibilities of the radio airwaves without media and technology censorship. In short, complete freedom on the air. Keller was thus relying on a Soviet method to undermine capitalist methods – it’s obvious that the project contains no end of historical and ideological paradoxes to analyze.
Perhaps Keller’s best known and most exhibited project is “Radio – That’s Really Simple!” (2002), which is essentially a diagram for DIY construction of a radio receiver and a series of different electronic components. The work takes its title from a book by a renowned French radio enthusiast, Eugène Aisberg: “La Radio? ... mais c’est très simple!,” which was also translated into Estonian in 1969. It’s written in the form of a dialogue between an experienced radio amateur and a beginner about how their modern radio receiver was built and how it functions. It’s a book for everyone who wanted to learn about the basics of radio technology, and Keller’s installation from half a century later had the same approach. All this inevitably leads us to historically charged ideas that debunk the myth of isolated East and West during the Cold War. The engineer’s moral of Keller’s work lies in the fact that anyone CAN build a working radio if they want. The information is freely available and thus there’s no reason why people living under the yoke of capitalism should make neo-Marxist talk of a lack of independent choices. Actually we CAN break the chains of our standardized consumer reality – this is what Keller appears to be confirming to us as he fiddles with the knobs of his receiver.
Keller’s radio art concert performances with LokaalRaadio (with Katrin Essenson and Hello Upan) led them all the way to the São Paulo Biennial in 2012, where LokaalRaadio took part in Knut Aufermann and Sarah Washington’s mobile radio project that consisted of six days of live broadcasts. Keller is also a member of the experimental electronic music group Eesti Elekter (with other members: Taavi Kerikmäe, Tõnis Leemets, Maike Lond, Heikki Tikas, Kalle Tikas). Keller has not been untouched by all those postmodernist identity games, as at times he has appeared on stage under his pseudoidentity as Anglo-American musician Paul Cole, performing burlesque Americana rock. Keller is also active in recording (e.g. the Project Unison), being a co-founder and director of the experimental music record label MKDK (Dynamic Collective of Music and Arts), which put out its first release in 1998.
Oddly enough, Keller’s education has been absolutely “unradiophonic” and “unmusical.” He studied art education and drawing for many years at Tallinn University (BA, art teacher, 1999) before defending his master’s thesis at the Estonian Academy of Art (interactive multimedia, 2002). In the context of the local art world, he is more of an outsider, as attested to by his solo exhibitions in venues that are conspicuously “not quite an art gallery”: a giant horse sculpture made from found materials and a functioning tape recorder, “Feast During the Plague” at Cultural Factory Polymer (2004) or the retrospective exhibition of his work, “KLANG!” at the Estonian Maritime Museum Gunpowder Depot (2012), which gave an exhaustive overview of his audio objects and sound installations from the second half of the 2000s.
On the Estonian art scene, Keller has been closely linked with the so-called Oughties generation, and the only one of his work to have been acquired by a museum is found in the collections of the Estonian Museum of Contemporary Art (EKKM), an institution that has operated along the lines of a squat since 2007. It appears that he has been a relatively neglected phenomenon among his contemporaries, compared to, say, Kristina Norman, who represented Estonia at the 53rdBiennale di Venezia in 2009, and whose bachelor’s project “Mystic Radio” (2004) defended at the Academy of Arts comes from precisely the same slice of spacetime as Keller’s first manifestations. Will state museums and private collectors eventually accept Keller’s sound art? Time will tell. And Keller even has a creative forefather role model to draw on from recent Estonian art history, in Kaarel Kurismaa’s kitschy-absurd sound objects. So don’t touch that dial.