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Remixing the Ether
Samples from the Acoustic Space Lab
by Sylvie parent, translated byTimothy Barnard
At the base of every remix lies the question of sampling - the choice of materials, the collection of fragments separated from their sources - which can vary considerably according to the artist's aesthetic inclinations. Naturally, this confrontation with the material is defined by the artistic discipline or disciplines in which the activity is carried out, whether it is a part of the aural or visual domain or (as is increasingly the case) of the multimedia world of the digital. In our day, sampling most often implies a degree of instrumentation, a panoply of pick-up, sensing, and receiving devices which act as technological prostheses, extending our sensorial apparatuses. While such tools interpose themselves between the artist and the world, they also make it possible for the artist to attain this world to an extent that would be inconceivable without them. Think of the Net and the tentacular avenues it opens up to the user, of the boundless and eclectic content it renders immediately available, beyond the limits of geography.
Access to Technology
The choice of technology used in sampling depends, of course, upon an aesthetic stance. But it also depends upon the accessibility of various forms of technology, upon the extent that they have penetrated the culture at large, and upon their state of development. The history of new media art, we know, goes hand in hand with the history of technology. As well, we must note here how widespread access to a technology has a direct impact on that technology's appropriation by artists. Without this widespread access, artists incorporate technology by alluding to it; technology infiltrates the subject of their work, but it doesn't become a part of the artist's working method in the strict sense of the term. The computer is a good example: its history goes back several decades, but it did not really invade artistic activity until the arrival of the personal computer in the 1980s.
Nevertheless, it can happen - thanks to chance, unusual circumstances, or sometimes stubborn determination - that certain artists gain access to a technology that had heretofore been the domain of a happy few working in areas in which "the benefits justified the expense" (such as medical research, defence, or entertainment). A favourable situation of this sort presented itself in Latvia in 2001, when it became possible for a number of artists to gain access to one of the most powerful radio telescopes on the planet.
It's beyond anybody's imagination to be able to climb around on a multi-million-dollar machine like this and play with it.
- Robert Adrian X, new media artist (quoted from www.ambienttv.net)
The existence of Little Star - a directional parabolic antenna thirty-two metres in diameter, located in Irbene, near Ventspils, in Latvia - was for a long time unknown to the civilian population, because it was part of the equipment installed by the Soviet army in a secret space communications centre. When the military quit the site in 1994 they left everything behind, and partially destroyed this equipment which had served mainly to spy on satellite transmissions between Europe and North America during the Cold War. The antenna was later repaired by a team of Latvian radio physicists from VIRAC (Ventspils International Radio Astronomy Center), but it has been very little used since: Because its existence was unknown to government, funds were not allocated for its upkeep and use.
Although they lacked financial means, the local scientific community (having unexpectedly inherited this instrument) became enthusiastic about the challenges it posed. At the same time, a group of artists at the RIXC Center for New Media Culture (a new media centre in Riga which is particularly active in the field of Internet radio broadcasting, and in new forms of satellite communication) began to follow the fate of the device, hoping to use it for artistic purposes. It was in this unusual context that these two communities, artistic and scientific, came to share a common interest in an instrument whose fate was not at all certain.
Art and Science
In August 2001, Rasa Smite and Raitis Smits of the RIXC organized a workshop at the site of the antenna, and dubbed it the Acoustic Space Lab (http://acoustic.space.re-lab.net/). It was attended by more than twenty artists. Dmitrijs Bezrukov, a radio physicist associated with VIRAC, also lent this group of explorers and artistic broadcasters his technical expertise, making it possible to utilize the full range of Little Star's data reception and handling capacities. This kind of encounter between artists and scientists, founded on a shared enthusiasm for the parabolic antenna's potential, would certainly not have been possible under other circumstances.
Three working groups were established to gather and handle the information obtained from the antenna. The first group of artists was interested in the immediate sound environment created by the antenna: Buzzers, creaking noises generated when the device was moved, and other sounds it emitted were recorded, and served as material for future aural art works. Other artists, inspired by the antenna's military past, intercepted (among other sources) communications between cellular phones, emmissions from air and sea traffic, and radio broadcasts. A third group used the antenna to gather signals transmitted by celestial bodies (such as Jupiter, Venus, and the sun) using the device's radio-astronomical capacities with a frequency band of 11 GHz.
VIRAC director Edgars Bervalds expressed his delight that the antenna had been explored in so many ways, adding that, though the antenna ought to be used primarily for science, "Artists can use it to fill the vast spaces in our Universe that science cannot reach."
- Mukul, new media artist (quoted from www.ambienttv.net)
Coordinated by Derek Holzer (himself a sound artist with ties to the net.radio milieu), the temporary media laboratory set up near the antenna made it possible to create, handle, exchange, archive, and broadcast samples - both in live and pre-recorded form. Many of the artists brought together for this workshop had ties to a network previously established through the RIXC's Xchange broadcast list (see http://xchange.re-lab.net/), and were part of the very dynamic net.radio community. The members of this community included Radioqualia (Australia/Great Britain), Kunstradio (Austria), Makrolab (Slovenia), www.ambienttv.net (Great Britain), and Radio 90 (Canada). A number of the audio, video, and Internet remix projects developed using samples collected during the workshop are available on the Acoustic Space Lab Web site.
Many of these projects are sound-based, combining the "terrestrial" sounds emitted by the antenna, samples of intercepted communications, and the audio signatures of astronomical radio wave data to create atmospheric works: aural landscapes that incorporate and transform these source materials. A suggestive example is that of ACOUSTIC.SPACE.SET #2, a sound work devised by the group Clausthome, and broadcast by Kunstradio as part of the ACOUSTIC.SPACE.SET, a series of sound programmes curated by Rasa Smite and Raitis Smits.
Among the other, multimedia-based projects developed at the workshop is firmament by L'audible (Zina Kaye and Mr Snow; see http://laudanum.net/firmament/), which consists of an audio-visual display created with the help of a Java application. It uses data from signals emitted by cosmic bodies (such as Venus and Jupiter) and gathered by the radio telescope. Numerous video projects documenting the workshop and the antenna are also available on the Acoustic Space Lab Web site.
The Space Lab Open Source Sampling Project is a long-term project: Kunstradio, an Austrian organization that broadcasted the original workshop live on the Internet, continues to include sound projects created during the initial event in its programming. But the scope of the Acoustic Space Lab now surpasses that of the workshop, with sample-exchange projects, long-distance collaborations, and live streaming broadcasts constantly taking place. Samples recorded during the workshop are stored on an ftp server, and can be retrieved at will. The sampling project has now acquired a life of its own; a decentralised existence that grows naturally. The original samples circulate freely, beyond any control, and can be adapted by anyone who wishes to use them. In this way, they have become the material for multifarious remixes. The spread of these samples today is a result of the spirit of exchange that is typical of the net.radio community, and of the desire for unhindered access to the ether.
Among their future projects, Acoustic Space Lab's organizers plan to establish a permanent Internet link with the antenna, enabling users to collect samples from a distance whenever they wish. They are also planning to create software that would make it possible to monitor the antenna's movement, on-site or by Internet. The goal of these projects is to continue to improve access to this unusual device, and to stimulate the creation, broadcast, and distribution of innovative projects.
There is still need to make people understand that the spectrum is material, that it has an enormous incalculable value and that in the last extent, it should not be controlled by anybody.
- Marko Peljhan, new media artist (from an interview with Rasa Smite and Raitis Smits; see http://rixc.lv/01/nodalas/intervi.html)
It is interesting to recall that radio astronomy is a direct descendent of amateur radio. In the 1930s, radio engineers like Karl Jansky and Grote Reber accidentally intercepted signals emitted by cosmic bodies when they attempted to carry out long-distance communication using short wave radios. It is fascinating to think that net.radio artists today, many of whom are amateur radio hams themselves, can now have access to a radio telescope, thereby creating a "natural" continuity between these two worlds.
We must emphasize here the effort spent by the Acoustic Space Lab's organizers, Rasa Smite and Raitis Smits, in making this initiative possible, and in creating bonds between the scientific and artistic communities. To be presented with the opportunity to use such technology is something in itself. But it is something else again to realize the opportunity, become determined to seize it, and then to bring the experience to fruition.
The imperatives into which new technologies are born (for example the commercial, military, and political functions of radio telescopes) often deny artists early access to that technology, and tend to include the participation of scientists only in so far as they help others to exploit the new technology's power. This context drives a wedge between two communities - artistic and scientific - that actually have much in common.
The Acoustic Space Lab project brought artists and scientists together in a spirit of discovery and dialogue. It opened up new possibilities of exchange and creation for both communities. In so doing, it demonstrated the fusion of creativity and inquiry qualities that rest at the heart of both science and art.
Sylvie Parent is the French Editor of HorizonZero.