Friday, December 23, 2005

Wish List

All I want for Christmas is more evocative Internet based art! Last December, I was lucky enough to see Listening Post at the Skirball Cultural Center. The installation, which previewed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music shortly after the September 11th terrorist attacks, was designed by statistician Mark Hansen and sound artist Ben Rubin. Rubin was also involved in an interesting installation about the proprietary software of Diebold voting machines.

For an Internet cyborg like myself, the experience was more gratifying than prose can render. The Skirball "Listening Post" consisted of over two hundred screens that channeled words from nearly live feeds pulled from thousands of Internet chatrooms registering activity predominantly in English. The glowing patchwork of words and phrases displayed as undulating text, and periodically the visitor heard a symphony (or cacophony) of voice-synthesized readings of these screens aloud. After capturing the flotsam and jetsam of cyberspace, Hansen and Rubin used algorithmic compositions to organize the chat into "scenes" to "allow the data to speak intelligibly." The project was designed to "zoom in" and "zoom out" on specific news events and syntactical constructs of grammatical agency, like "movements" organized around the phrases "I am" or "I like." Yet these staccato sound bites could only begin to boast, mourn, announce, explain, blame, lecture, hector, and apologize before being replaced by other fragments from the Internet.

Hansen and Rubin credit composer Xenakis and his work on "political crowds" as inspiration. They also recently did an installation called Sign Language that displayed texts from online news sources, which were particularly evocative after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Hansen is currently working on "slogging" or the way that art installations, scientific projects, community initiatives, and even political states can record information from individual sensors to create a record of collective activity. I admire Hansen's work, but I still resist the idea of such a total information awareness environment. It sounds too much like the Army's "Every Soldier is a Sensor" campaign (described in this snappy promotional video).

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