Another 'NPR' Crops Up at Whitney Biennial

The curators of the Whitney Biennial have helped set up a temporary radio station two doors down from the Whitney Museum's building in New York City. Neighborhood Public Radio producers and hosts see their station as a way to give everyday people access to the airwaves.

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SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

Next, the art show that everybody loves to criticize: the Whitney Biennial. It started in 1932 as a showcase for current American art. But since then, it's gotten freighted with the notion that somehow it reflects the pulse of the contemporary American arts scene.

The current biennial opened earlier this month at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. And as usual, there's been plenty of the good, the bad and the mediocre. Reporter Karen Michel saw the show, and she found something of special interest.

KAREN MICHEL: As usual at the Biennial, the Whitney is filled with installations, rejections, paintings - though not so many of those - that the curators identify as art and that may cause visitors to wonder how that term applies.

For this biennial, the curators expanded beyond their walls to the armory nearby in a former shoe shop two doors down.

Unidentified Man: Are we on the air?

MICHEL: The shelves that once displayed shoes are now filled with CDs, T-shirts, cables, a boom box. The stuff of a temporary radio station. And on its first day on air on Madison Avenue, it's a bit chaotic.

Unidentified Man: I mean, it's streaming but it's also, we're broadcasting on a transmitter locally.

MICHEL: This is NPR, Neighborhood Public Radio. Two microphones and a small mixer are set up in the window of the storefront. There's a host to interview passersby, and on this NPR, pretty much anything goes.

Ms. CARMEN FONSALLI(ph) (Security Guard): So President Lincoln, somebody kill because he do a lot of stuff.

MICHEL: Security guard Carmen Fonsalli just needed to talk.

Ms. FONSALLI: If I was president, I help poor people.

MICHEL: Nothing is censored. It's all about providing access to the air, something the founders of Neighborhood Public Radio say is missing from National Public Radio. Of the six members of the NPR collective, Lee Montgomery is the only one with actual public radio experience.

Mr. LEE MONTGOMERY (Neighborhood Public Radio): We would hope that NPR would realize that we're not trying to take them down, we're not trying to take anything away from them. We're just trying to say that there's more options out there, and there should be more possibilities out there when we're talking about public media.

Unidentified Woman: Hello. I am calling from a basement apartment with no windows in San Francisco. And to be honest, I haven't had too many states of mind since I started these meds a couple of weeks ago, other than foggy and disconnected.

Mr. MONTGOMERY: Kind of loose-ended, all over the place.

MICHEL: This project called State of Mind was broadcast to a small audience in the San Francisco Bay area last year. It's not part of the Whitney Biennial, but visitors can check out this NPR's archives when they visit the station or online.

Back home, Neighborhood Public Radio broadcasts as an unlicensed, very low power FM station. Michael Tragillio(ph), a tattoo circling his right forearm of a composition by avant-garde composer John Cage, specializes in building the gear.

Mr. MICHAEL TRAGILLIO (Builds Gear for Radio Station): When we show people how to make their own little legal radio transmitters, and they connect a little microphone to it, and we have a radio set up across the room, every single time they point to the radio and they go, look, I'm on the radio. And it's - they're young, old, all kinds of people come in and there's something kind of magical and beautiful and exciting, and they realize: In my apartment building I can have a radio station in which we share recipes. It's not news, it's not journalism, it's not music, it's recipe sharing that's on the radio.

MICHEL: NPR has installed transmitters in neighborhoods. Residents were asked to talk about their worst neighbors ever. One man went on at length about the couple who lived next door who had come into his backyard to have sex. Lee Montgomery acknowledges that the quality varies.

Mr. MONTGOMERY: A lot of stuff on our airwaves is crap. We don't editorialize.

MICHEL: Okay, fine. But this is in the Whitney Biennial, implying - no, asserting - that it's art, that attention must be paid. Henrietta Huldisch co-curated this biennial.

Ms. HENRIETTA HULDISCH (Co-Curator, Whitney Biennial): Well, my co-curator, Shamim, and I felt that NPR was very emblematic of a kind of artistic activity that expands beyond the space, the conventional space of the gallery or the institution.

MICHEL: So, I wondered what the difference was between, say, a pirate radio station and Neighborhood Public Radio, other than that the folks who operate NPR call themselves artists.

Ms. HULDISCH: I'll have to think about that one. I just have to come up with a good answer to that one.

MICHEL: For the record, Huldisch never did.

For the other NPR, for NPR News, I'm Karen Michel in New York.

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