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New Movements : Sound Tracks and Data Footprints
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Sound Tracks and Data Footprints
Stalking the footfalls and echoes of the wireless invisible
by tobias c. van Veen

Dreams of the Displaced
In 1906, Reggie Fessenden transmitted the first voice of the airwaves, and in only a few short years, the tenor of Enrico Caruso graced the delicate ether of 1910. Radio was born, the first wireless art. The wireless dream heralded with much suspicion by Walter Benjamin and Kurt Schwitters, Nikola Tesla and Kurt Weil, is all but forgotten today, even as the sites of contestation remain much the same. In the much heralded but often historically vacant "new media" technologies, the sparks of radio's history are re-broadcast: debates over interactivity, over commercial and corporate control, over access and cost. Bertolt Brecht summarized the problem with radio in 1932 when he said: "But quite apart from the dubiousness of its functions, radio is one-sided when it should be two-."1

Today, we have two-sided, if not multi-sided, communication potential with handheld, mobile wireless devices - from cell phones to laptops, PDAs, and wireless networks - that stream data of all kinds, including video, audio, software, and text. These apparatuses, aware of their geographical location using GPS (Global Positioning Systems), are now striving for contextual awareness, seeking the ability to distinguish good from bad information, useful from inefficient, in the information overload known as the semantic web. But for what purpose? Take the British artist collective Blast Theory. [www.blasttheory.co.uk] Utilizing handheld devices to investigate virtual data which is "mapped" onto existing urban topographies, players of these entertaining and inquisitive games demonstrate that the primary direction of play remains the same magnetic desire that overcoded radio's compass: corporate usage, primarily in the realms of advertising and videogame industries.

When what is "useful" is defined in terms of its market, when GPS directions lead to the nearest McDonald's, then wireless art becomes yet another pervasive intrusion, a one-way dictation. The ephemeral terrain of wireless art in all its forms is a floating, multicast struggle where the century old battles of radio are being re-played out. Yet - this time with Open Source software and technologies; with artist-driven hardware development; with a programmer's technique and a hacker's verve; and, like a hive, with a collective approach to anticipating the enemy's moves on the global level. This machine aims to engage the participant in the game: encouraging the step of becoming a content-creator rather than just a passive receptor, disrupting the sender/receiver model of communication, the fortress of static/noise, of what defines efficiency and usability. The target of producing ever new and publicly-oriented ways of engaging life through the tendrils of technology is in sight. This disruptive yet productive desire has been a persistent dream since the avant-garde encountered radio one hundred years ago.

Locative Limbo

Wireless rules out a certain range of senses in a most startling way... And yet nothing is lacking! (Rudolf Arnheim, In Praise of Blindness, 1936)2

In the visual arts, wireless means invisible, disappearance - yet "out of sight" is just the requirement of retuning one's senses, often to sound. Data-driven wireless arts return to an obsession with geography, with the locative - as in location, and as in the locative case. Contemporary wireless art is infused with the locative - tied to geography, yet processing what "geography" becomes when made porous with transactive networks of data that twist and distort time (speeding up time in the accessibility of information; becoming lost in the time of virtual immersion).

The Locative Media collective, a loose organization of artist-programmers that radiates globally, has been working toward realizing independent locative media by designing interfaces for mobile geography. These applications would allow for interactive media annotations of the physical environment. For example, with a high-tech cell phone or wireless PDA, one can encounter and interact with data that is left in the landscape, as well as paint one's own traces, such as the "virtual graffiti" envisioned by Marc Tuters' Geograffiti project [http://gpster.net/geograffiti.html]. Almost all locative media takes the task of embedding information in the world around us in interactive and open ways - and to do this requires a technical knowledge of programming, of attempting to get one code to talk to another, often through barriers complicated by intellectual property rights and regional hardware incompatibility. Yet now that this is becoming possible, what explorations of force, of content are taking place? What constitutes art in the non-place of the transient locative? And, especially, in the case of sound - sound, beyond the genre of "sound-art", as the mark of transience, space and time through its spinning flows? Sound is the medium and the metaphor for the shift of art into locative transience - the will to disappearance that is nonetheless sensible.

Bridging locative media and radio, as well as offering a critical and feminist voice, is the work of Anna Friz [www.kunstradio.at/BIOS/frizbio.html] and Annabelle Chvostek [www.annabelle.org]. Their performance piece Automated Prayer Machine [www.annabelle.org/prayer.html (link no longer active)] seeks to "proactively change the function of radio" by integrating radio speakers into (what was) the audience, thereby "activating acoustic listening space that also has a radio quality... making one aware of being out in the audience, in an immersive radio experience."3 Mixing live radio samples, shortwave noise, fundamentalist talk radio, and prayers sent via voicemail and email, Chvostek and Friz are reinserting community voices and empowering wireless practice and discourse by spanning the tradition of radio with an awareness of context and location that addresses the crucial tensions of the wireless arts. For Friz, "radio addresses the same subjects new media tried to address. The hopes are and were the same, the barriers are the same: Who are you when you are in this mediated state? What is it that you want? How profound is this communication, and through the distance and nearness of geography? In new media, the tool still leads the work: beware the tool that leads."

Pause for a moment. It is time to say that "new media" is a term long dead: it is neither new, nor necessarily media; it now exceeds its status as a simple tool, medium, or device. Technology is ubiquitous, and in the broader sense, always has been with the mark of the sign. And today, sound is no longer alone: sound art and radio art have merged with the technology arts to form a broader spectrum of "digital cultures", an aspect emphasized in particular at this year's MUTEK [www.mutek.ca] festival of experimental electronic music and sound in Montreal. Director Alain Mongeau explains that, "Since they had access to more readily available technologies, sound cultures are now invading new territories. In the process they are creating digital culture. We're maybe not even at the beginning of new media. Everything is still to-come. If you want to know where the future is leading us, in relation to image culture, look to where sound culture is now."4

To return: Perhaps, as a genre, the "new media" parallel project to Friz and Chvostek's location-based radio performance is the cell phone symphony Dialtones: a Telesymphony by Golan Levin. [www.flong.com/telesymphony] As summarized by curator Patrick Lichty, "Dialtones is a large-scale concert performance whose sounds are wholly produced through the carefully choreographed ringing of the audience's own mobile phones."5 Levin writes how "Dialtones makes the ether of cellular space viscerally perceptible."6 And what carries the movements of the imperceptible to the sensible, in both cases, are waves of sound - still invisible, but nonetheless tangible and palpable. One might also say that this movement happens from the almost unimaginable, or impossible, to the wireless potential.

Drifting the Urban Data
Enter psychogeography. In the invisible, ubiquitous ear of technology, the topography of the city serves as the canvas of contemporary wireless exploration, wherein techniques of psychogeography, stolen from the Situationist International (SI) and rebooted with software and code, are providing a way to walk - and hear - the "digital city". Call this: "data dérive". Psychogeography, minus the critique of Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle, but remixed with the surrealist and playful entendres neglected in the wake of the SI's endless purges.7

To "dérive" in data: Is to drift today still to walk? Or is there a drift at all in the regimented forms of digital, binary code? This is a question raised by Wilfried Hou Je Bek and his .walk ("dot-walk") project, [www.Socialfiction.org] which won the 2004 Transmediale prize for Software, despite the fact that it runs on no operating system save for the grid of the city itself. The .walk is a search not for the backwater or eddy, the uncanny space or niche, but a transversal of meatspace (the movement of the flesh) that registers its esoteric, numeric traces upon the digital realm. The .walk calls for a group of people to walk the city according to a set of computer instructions: two blocks left, one block right, exchange data, etc. The algorithmic walk results in the creation of a sequence of generative numeric data derived from this peripatetic (walking) computer.

Hou Je Bek and myself have theorized that by utilizing the numbers compiled from .walk's algorithmic "drifts", sound can be manipulated in computer software to geo-annotate the movements of the walk. This provides a method to manipulate the form and shape of the sound in accordance with the terrain, a kind of sonic resonance invoked by walking computer code. However, Hou Je Bek claims that the .walk is an impossibility: "THE TECHNOLOGY WILL FIND USES FOR THE STREET ON ITS OWN," he writes.8 A level of surrealism is found in his technique, which baffles the pragmatism of the artist-programmers. For the .walk is only (some would say merely) movement. But as movement it is more than "simply" movement. The motions of the parts (the regulated walking of the participants) operate for the imagination of a future where the potential of the .walk calls forth a movement that exceeds the sum of its parts: the peripatetic computer. There is logic in the programming of this motion, a desire of the machinic toward self-actualization initiated by its parts - a desire toward its own imaginary - that is nonetheless exceeded in the impossibility of the imaginary. This impossible dream ruptures its status as imaginary in the process (the reality) of becoming "artificial intelligence". Yet .walk holds no goal of artificial intelligence, only its potential, insofar as it is impossible, yet immanent, "in theory".

Wireless sound resonates with potential. The potential of transferring one media to the other in the experience of data flows is the potential of the wireless arts, and it is this potential that is explored in a subtle yet incisive manner by Michelle Teran. Teran's ongoing project Life: a user's manual [http://ubermatic.org/misha] consists of a series of public performance walks and online mappings that explore the hidden stories captured by private wireless CCTV (Closed Circuit Television). Dressed as a homeless woman, Teran pushes a shopping cart containing, under rags and discarded objects, a mobile computing system that snatches surveillance broadcasts from the surrounding airwaves. Along with the images displayed in real-time on screens that are visible on the side of the shopping cart, the captured sounds are broadcast, weaving a narrative of the unseen eyes and ears of private policing as Teran navigates both the real and virtual urban landscape. Here, the artist acts as an unseen repeater, a figure of transience in a world of paranoiac monitoring and territorial control. She taps the potential of the invisible by giving it exposure to the world, rendering the impossible as the new wealth of experience and questioning for all to hear and see.

To Dream Beyond the Code
It's all becoming code. The twentieth century is over, now we write "21C". And in the 21C, artists are rewinding the issues that besieged radio in a terrain that is dissimilar, if not alien - a multilevel, virtual topography that swallows the centralized broadcast tower, both metaphorically and literally. It is a struggle not only over the tower itself, but over the ways in which the apparatus is given force and form, the ways it comes to operate at levels both technical and semantic. Digital, wireless art that grasps sound - and its transformations and extensions to video, code, into all data - tends toward a form of art that intuitively forces a relation of the artist to not only the production of aesthetic experience, but also to the means to create that experience. In a classical sense, artists are once again confronting the means of production in an unclassical dreamworld: one in which tactics and technologies are rendered ubiquitous, distributed, embedded, disseminated, digital, invisible, wireless, and dimensional - at levels of hardware and in terms of learning complex code languages. Creating art with digital and wireless tools requires the programming of new codes and the building of new hardware. Art as a vehicle for intervention requires not only creativity, but engineering. And the engineers require art. Art is a necessity and an impossibility: it is to dream beyond the code of our time.

While it is impossible to expect the artist to become everything, a digital and wireless world reintroduces a new urgency: that of collaboration, between artists and engineers, programmers, and content producers. A collaboration of divergence, where the wireless and the weird are given play. Repeat and rewind - it's impossible for the artist to become everything, so the artist fragments and multiplies into the imaginary and the surreal. Just like the dreams that fuelled radio and continue to fuel wireless digital art, the desire remains for a collaborative, open world. To drift in these waters will require daring imaginations that grasp impossibility as the first challenge to hearing the potentials of collective technology.

tobias c. van Veen is a writer and a sound and Net-artist. He is also proficient in the use of turntables and mixes a mean absinthe martini. He is currently the Concept Engineer at the Society for Arts and Technology (SAT), a Doctoral candidate in Communication and Philosophy at McGill University, and Sonic Scene Project Director for the Mobile Digital Commons Network. His blog can be found at: www.quadrantcrossing.org/blog

Notes :
1. Bertolt Brecht, The Radio as an Apparatus of Communication, in: Neil Strauss (ed), Radiotext(e), New York: Semiotext(e), 1993.

2. In: Neil Strauss (ed), Radiotext(e), New York: Semiotext(e), 1993.

3. tobias c. van Veen, interview with Anna Friz, May 6, 2004.

4. tobias c. van Veen, interview with Alain Mongeau, May 6, 2004.

5. See: www.voyd.com. Also see Lichty's discussion of curating fluid media at: http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/cgi-bin/webadmin?A2=ind0404&L=new-media-curating&T=0&F=&S=&P=1427

6. See: www.flong.com/telesymphony/#background

7. See: www.quadrantcrossing.org/blog/C277523597/E1540987349/index.html

8. See: Wilfried Hou Je Bek, The Technology Will Find Uses for the Street On Its Own, www.socialfiction.org/dotwalk/dummies.html

Recommended Links :
Audio Files: ArtForum

New Adventures in Sound Art


Janek Schaefer's Links

Sonic City

City of Sound

Receiver Vodafone

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