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FM Treasures: Datscha Radio Taipei
May 1st, 2019Type: Sound Scene
Author: Gabriele de Seta , Rikey Tenn (translator) Editor: Rikey Tenn
Note: In early 2019, Datscha Radio Taipei is a pirate radio project initiated by German artist Gabi Schaffner in Treasure Hill Artist Village with the help of the author. This broadcasting project, one episode per week, each episode from 1 to 4 hours, is the negotiation of "a tricky equilibrium of materials". But for a small occasional community of artists, musicians, curators and cultural workers, participation is a fundamental part of experiencing the similarities between gardening and broadcasting...

This track is about laundromats, it was commissioned by Taiwan Women Theatre Festival. I was invited to do an installation with two of my friends, and we could choose any area of the National Theater, so we picked the laundromat room because, as female artists, we wanted to talk a little bit about women and labor, and washing machines are a metaphor for that…


I am negotiating a tricky equilibrium of materials: a portable radio needs to be balanced on a wooden railing with a plastic bag covering it – except for its metal antenna, which pokes out of a tiny hole – all the while both the frequency selector and the volume wheel need to remain in their finely tuned position. Also: it’s raining, the plastic bag is sticky, the wood railing soaked and slippery, and the humidity seeping into the cheap grey plastic box of the receiver colors the broadcast sounds with a crackling hiss. A small mound of fresh soybean sprouts next to the contraption are definitely enjoying the rain more than me. I can’t really hear the details of Hsu Yen-ting’s laundromat composition from outside, as clustered raindrops drum on the corrugated awnings hanging over Gabi Schaffner’s artist studio windows; I reach for the next small radio receiver, remove the duct tape around it, wrap it in a plastic bag, and secure it back onto the thin tree at the end of the stair steps coming up the hillside. The whole system seems to work, including the web address livestreaming the broadcast from a server somewhere in Germany.


Only five minutes? Only five minutes!? Usually people bring fifteen-, twenty-minute tracks, so I can press play and just go have a break! Today we have only short tracks, no time to relax.

This is the fifth weekly episode of Datscha Radio Taipei, and the today’s theme is “Women in the Field.” On a small drawer there is tea, whiskey, plum wine, pineapple cakes, and red bean buns. Along with Taiwanese sound artist Hsu Yen-ting, Gabi has invited musicians Huang Sze-ting and Huang Hsuan-jung, publisher Ora-Ong Chakorn, and other local artists and curators to share experiences related to gender issues in Taiwan and South-East Asia. Week after week, there are a couple of observations that keep coming up as the broadcasts unfold over the afternoon hours. The first is most commonly offered by guests and occasional audiences: this radio doesn’t feel like a radio, but more like an event. Given its scheduling and location – once per week, each week on a different day, perched on a small terrace halfway up Treasure Hill – this isn’t surprising. The reduced range of Gabi’s FM transmitters and the semi-private setting, combined with the fact that participants and audiences almost always overlap, result in a peculiar pirate radio scaled down to intimate performance. The second observation is that, in Taipei, outdoor events need a contingency plan, which in the case of today’s rainy weather involves setting up the small table with laptop, mixer, microphones and transmitters indoors, in the middle of Gabi’s tiny artist studio. There will hardly be visitors stumbling across the terrace, anyway.


I was so afraid that you girls would send me a message right before the beginning of today’s episode telling me that you couldn’t come because the weather is so bad today…


In setting up Datscha Radio Taipei, Gabi has been driven by the wish to encourage the practice of “hanging out”, which seems to her something difficult to achieve in the busy city. “Everyone here is really nice, but people rarely happen to just stay around and hang out, right? Do you think it is because they are busy, or shy?” I don’t have a clear-cut answer. As one of the other artists-in-residence hosted by the Taipei Artist Village program, I myself have been hanging around Gabi’s studio, trying to help figuring out how to plug equipment in the most optimal way to achieve the complex signal loops required by the project with the reduced equipment at our disposal: microphones and other inputs mixed together, monitored via both headphones and speakers, transmitting over both FM and the internet, and broadcasted by the portable receivers placed around Gabi’s studio. Datscha Radio is usually based in Gabi’s cottage in the outskirts of Berlin (the German word datscha, borrowed from the Russian да́ча, means ‘countryside house’), where she has a crew of collaborators lending hands to the project. This residency in Taipei is the first time that Gabi sets up and runs the radio on her own, out of a couple of suitcases.

The episodes keep getting longer! The first one was two hours, the second was three, and today we got to four. But why not? If we have the material, I feel like it’s worth to play all of it.


As a privileged participant observer, I witness Datscha Radio’s episodes take shape as the weeks go by and Gabi meets artists, musicians, curators and cultural workers around the island. It is a thankless editorial process graced by fortuitous resonances. The first broadcast, put together without a strongly set theme, coalesces into a smooth blend of Taiwanese “flower songs,” traditional Chinese music, assorted field recordings, and an interview with Gabi’s residency neighbor, the Thai poet Rewat Panpipat; other episodes shift around the schedule according to the prospective guests’ availability. One week Yilan-based artist Yang Hauyu is talking, via recorded discussion, about organic farming and snail killing; a week later Filipino composer Maria Christine Muyco is explaining how she created an electro-acoustic piece inspired by the clashing croaks of invasive frog species; after I offer unstructured thoughts about the role of sound in ethnographic research, Taiwanese sound artist Lu Yi showcases her circuit-bent Buddha machines. A wild aster that Gabi picked on Treasure Hill sits in a small pot on the broadcasting table.


The traffic noise is quite unescapable here… I thought the village would be more silent, but you can’t really avoid it… the highway is just over there, it’s terrible.

During the second week of programming, as we listen to a recorded interview of Mr. Hu – the village’s oldest resident – Gabi shares with me her doubts about the role that Datscha Radio can play in Treasure Hill, and notes the distance between the imagined idyll portrayed on promotional materials and the place she is now residing in. The former illegal settlement is a community nested on a hillside in the Gongguan area, an urban village inevitably caught in-between historical and geographical circumstances: sandwiched between two cities (Taipei and New Taipei), enveloped by the traffic of two massive bridges over the Jingmei river, and criss-crossed by the lives of multiple constituencies – local residents, students, tourists, and artists. It is impossible not to encroach upon someone’s terrace or backyard while walking around. Over the speakers, Mr. Hu is loudly reminiscing about his youth in the settlement: “It was different here, before… I came from Northern Jiangsu, in the Mainland… I moved to Chongming Island for a while, then arrived in Taiwan. The economy is not good in Taiwan today, But China is powerful now, they can go to the moon, aya…” His words reverberate downhill, and Gabi wonders if they are reaching his house before they meld into the noise of the bridge traffic.


The mixer hum was driving me crazy, so I finally bought a new power brick; now everything sounds better. Well, I guess I had to make this first attempt, now I feel more ready to take Datscha Radio somewhere else.


Much of the labor required by this sort of project is hidden in-between public events: scheduling, editing, documentation, and maintenance. Besides planning and hosting each episode, Gabi records it, mixes it, uploads it, sums it up in a blog entry, and shares it on social media; there are always e-mails and messages to send, and reports and proposals to be written. Is it all worth it? Pirate radio isn’t a thing in Taipei anymore – the country’s strict broadcasting regulations were defied by underground stations in the nineties, some of which are reportedly still active in the South – and its niche has been partly occupied by digital mixtapes, livestreamed DJ sets and web-based community radios. Local residents hardly walk around with radio receivers, and very few guests and audience members have ever experienced being on air. But for a small occasional community of artists, musicians, curators and cultural workers, participation is a fundamental part of experiencing the similarities between gardening and broadcasting – “The process of radio making – otherwise quite a hidden event – becomes transparent in the datscha’s winter garden.”

As the project description reads. Packing her suitcases back with microphones, cables, mixers and transmitters, Gabi Schaffner notes how this season’s harvest gave her the confidence necessary to bring the format to other contexts and climates. “After all, doing this radio is in itself an experimental ethnography,” she concludes. Looking back at how this tricky equilibrium of materials came together, it is hard to disagree.

See Also
datsch radio