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Friday, August 2, 2002

++ La Selva Digital: Dataesthetics And Infomersion

"Many new media objects do not tell stories; they do not have a beginning or end; in fact, they do not have any development, thematically, formally or otherwise that would organize their elements into a sequence. Instead, they are collections of individual items, with every item possessing the same significance as any other." — Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media

"In migrating to a computer environment, the collection and the navigable space were not left unchanged; on the contrary, they came to incorporate a computer's particular techniques for structuring and accessing data, such as modularity, as well as its fundamental logic — that of computer programming. So, for instance, a computer database is quite different from a traditional collection of documents: It allows one to quickly access, sort, and reorganize millions of records; it can contain different media types, and it assumes multiple indexing of data, since each record besides the data itself contains a number of fields with user-defined values." — Ibid.

Ironically, though we've stopped calling them "albums," recordings on compact discs are a lot more like the classic definition of the word — a book-format collection, as with a photo album — than their vinyl, gatefold predecessors were. Records, after all, lent themselves to linear, sequential listening, whereas CDs mimic the collection's browsability. Indeed, as per Manovich's definition, CDs, perhaps even more than PCs, marked our entry into database culture, reformulating the album as a non-hierarchical collection of songs or tracks. The advent of the CD represented a significant shift in listening habits, away from the conventional linearity of records and cassette tapes; this shift was intensified with the introduction of the "shuffle" feature and multiple CD trays. Applications like RealPlayer and Apple's iTunes, which allow users to create complexly structured databases of their entire audio collections, only reinforce this randomized method of interacting with recorded media. (Even my 62-year-old mother, until recently a hardened technophobe and now suddenly a devotee of the digital camera and OSX, speaks in enraptured tones about reorganizing her CD collection in iTunes and burning her own custom CDs. Grandma-Master Flash, anyone?)

It would be impossible to think about digital music without reference to data. The manipulation of data is at the heart of every computer-music process: not only the degree-zero binary operations behind every digital function, but higher levels of abstraction expressed as numerical terms — using double-digit values to express a waveform shape, for instance. Many applications, like Propellerhead's Reason, mask such number-crunching behind a GUI (Graphical User Interface) designed to mimic the functions of traditional analog gear, but even those keyboards functioned largely by virtue of tweaking numerical parameters. Likewise, the logic of the database also determines the producer's choices. Beneath Reason's virtual hood sits a massive database of sounds; using the drum sequencer, for instance, the user can select snare after snare from a bank of hundreds or even thousands of possible variations.

Contemporary music ever more self-consciously highlights its own mode of production. Hip-hop scratching foregrounds the materiality of vinyl, artists like Oval and Disc ground their compositional processes in skipping CDs, and all manner of post-techno music incorporates the glitches and pops of digital signal processing. Kim Cascone has referred to the latter style as an "aesthetic of failure," but just as important is the overarching aesthetic of technicity. If an '80s noise-pop band could cheekily call itself We've Got a Fuzzbox and We're Gonna Use It, many contemporary digital musicians, with their penchant for pixel-rich design and alphanumeric track titles that read like file extensions, could just as well adopt an updated version of the moniker: We've Got a G4 and We're Gonna Use It.

It's no surprise, then, that both data and database have crept into contemporary digital music as stylistic tropes. Head Slash Bauch, by AGF (the Berlin composer Antye Greie-Fuchs), represents a fusion of expressive musical form with technical signifiers, creating what might be called a dataesthetic. Skirting more conventional forms of pop and techno, AGF strings together numerous sequences of beats and tones, looped and duplicated in irregular, staccato form according to the cut-and-paste style often referred to as "clicks and cuts." Avoiding conventional song structures and cutting abruptly to a new track every few minutes, Head Slash Bauch seems less like a traditional, meticulously sequenced album than a non-hierarchical collection of audio documents to be accessed at random. Adding to the album's techno-centric content are Greie-Fuchs's vocals: dreamily intoned fragments of code interwoven with scraps of speech. Data and methods of structuring it become a metaphor for expression, a point made clear in Greie-Fuchs's own description of her process, in which she describes this fusion of text and code as "manual language:" "I've been reading so many [software] manuals that I just started thinking like this. It's what everybody's doing — talking about humans like computer systems."

But electronic music's engagement with its technical underpinnings doesn't end at the level of metaphor. As composers move outside the boundaries of commercially available, "shrink-wrapped" applications, the database increasingly comes into play as a compositional element and an enabling structure. Just as Reason's drum sequencer utilizes a database stocked full of percussion sounds, Silophone, an architectural installation by the Montreal duo [The User], incorporates an ever-expanding collection of audio files as an integral part of the artwork. The heart of Silophone is an empty chamber in an abandoned Montreal grain silo; a microphone and speaker placed in the cylinder are connected to another microphone and speaker outside the building, through which users can speak, whistle, or howl, and hear their voices bounced back to them, filtered through the silo's remarkable acoustics. But Silophone also exists as a networked artwork, and visitors on the Web can upload sounds, or select from a user-populated database, for playback through the system. Here, the database is as much a part of the "instrument" as is the silo's enormous chamber itself.

But for still another line of investigation, data and database are not merely thematic or structural elements: they constitute the primary compositional material itself. Tobias Frere-Jones's clinically titled composition "F-Hz (#190736, 1996)", for instance, turns a temperature log into an aesthetic object by making a simple translation of values from Fahrenheit to Hertz, which then becomes the "score" of the piece. He describes the process:

"F-Hz (#190736, 1996) deals in a deliberately mundane subject — the weather. The high and low temperature for each day in 1996, as recorded at Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory in Milton, Massachusetts, is converted to audible form. For each of the seven hundred and thirty-two readings, the unit of measure is switched, Fahrenheit to Hertz. With one-tenth of a second for each reading, F-Hz (#190736, 1996) recounts an entire year of climate in a sequence of sine waves. Aside from the one-tenth second interval, every aspect of the composition is 'found,' written by the natural world."

What is surprising, then, is how "musical" the results sound, rendered as a regularized patter of insistent, hammering bass tones and high-end squiggle. It's not too far from traditional, dance-floor-oriented techno, really, driven forward by its nasally walking bassline and chattering, percussive thwack. On Traceroute, the quartet of Ulf Bilting, Edwin van der Heide, Zbigniew Karkowski, and Atau Tanaka, recording as UBSB, has attempted a similar translation of data to audio, but instead of the neatly ordered content of a temperature log, they take raw and unruly network traffic data as their source material. They explain their process thus:

"Data harvested from the Internet in early 1999, from a research center in Scandinavia. This data is rendered to analog to protect the original data from being reverse engineered or reconstructed. We created a Unix software agent that sat along a high bandwidth backbone pipe, essentially eavesdropping, gathering data, writing out a soundfile of everything it saw. Ethernet data packets were consecutively written out to a file with no timestamp. Later the file header was hacked to open it in an audio editor. The different tracks represent different states of the network — at different times, and different kinds of data passing by."

In contrast to Frere-Jones's clean, rhythmic pulsing, UBSB's approach generates harsh, dissonant noise. It "sounds like data," if that makes any sense: it is grinding and robotic in the way that modems are, alternately recalling a hoarse lawnmower or dying doorbell, and we recognize it as the "natural" sound of information flowing. But where the trace of Frere-Jones' transposed temperatures remains latent in the musical work, here all data result in seemingly arbitrary, or at least illegible, output: signal succumbs to noise. The artists point out the uninterpretable quality of the work when they explain the blocks in place against reverse engineering of the source data. Couched dramatically in the language of piracy and espionage, the statement downplays the fact that the data has been rendered meaningless. Indeed, the whole project could be an elaborate hoax, and the listener would never be the wiser. (Conceivably, with enough time on her hands, the listener could reverse engineer Frere-Jones's sonata for thermometer.) Traceroute presents itself as an almost maddeningly meaningless listening experience — it is neither beautiful nor instructive, neither sensuous nor sensible — but on closer inspection, its actual intent may lie in this very failure to communicate.

In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich describes the shift from narrative to database structure in terms of a series of oppositions, including surface/depth, representation/action, and information/immersion. The latter set of terms drives much of the digital music that concerns itself with data and databases; moreover, I would argue, many of these works represent an attempt to reconcile these conflicting impulses.

AGF's Head Slash Bauch is beautiful, but it fails to account for the way that code in the service of expression becomes merely ornamental, shorn of any functional role. UBSB's Traceroute addresses exactly this incongruity between information and expression by creating an unpleasant and bewildering translation of everyday data. It's worth considering UBSB's choice of data: Internet traffic, the silent hum of bits that wraps the world in a perpetual flow of information. Traceroute's very unpleasantness seems a response to information's ubiquity, a way of pricking through the web that blankets us, or scratching at an itch that lies beneath.

Three of UBSB's artists — van der Heide, Karkowski, and Tanaka — routinely perform together as the trio Sensorband, and their performances in this context may also shed light on Traceroute's subtexts. In recent concerts, the trio has performed on laptops (often networked across vast distances, with two members in San Francisco, and the third in Paris) with the image of their linked desktops projected behind them, depicting an application written in Max/MSP. They "play" this application by moving virtual sliders controlling various pitch values. As the sliders move, meters displaying numeric values rise and fall. But despite the purported transparency of their process, there's little to relate the mundane roll of the digits with the earsplitting rumble that erupts from the speakers. This, however, seems precisely the point: the sheer force of the noise overwhelms its datasource. Placed alongside Traceroute, this strategy suggests a means of grappling with an explosion of code by creating an environment of immersion. If you can't understand it, perhaps, at least you can bathe in it.

So-called "ambient" electronic music has always been about immersion, but certain forms of digital music reframe this as immersion in the world of data. This attempt to experientialize data — to create an experience of infomersion — is by no means limited to the sphere of music. "The Matrix" offered a canny representation of the will-to-data in the striking image of cascading ASCII characters. First glimpsed during the title sequence, the vision of a world rendered as pure data is realized when Neo finally masters the Matrix, observing the contours of the physical world as a three-dimensional flow of ASCII code. A bit obvious, perhaps, but a useful metaphor nonetheless for what seems to be an increasingly expressed desire in data-rich culture.

Examples of infomersion abound in digital music and sound art. One of the most intriguing is The Conet Project, a four-CD set collecting two decades' worth of amateur recordings of "numbers stations" — inexplicable shortwave broadcasts of numerical data, documented across Western Europe since the dawn of the Cold War. On one level, the set is merely a documentary curiosity, a collectors' trophy for conspiracy theorists, cryptophiles, and fans of arcana. On another level, though, the recording — which collects hours of examples of the coded broadcasts in several languages — represents a typological study of the kind that the photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher have been pursuing for years in their methodical documentation of grain elevators, blast furnaces, water towers, and other industrial structures. Each recording is a variation on a theme, yet ultimately inscrutable in itself. As a sound recording, though, The Conet Project cannot help but become almost spookily engrossing: when listened to in sequence it spills out of its database structure and offers a bewildering, mind-numbing data overload, flitting constantly between signification and pure sonority.

Oddly, at least one nature recording functions in a similar way. The Smithsonian Folkways classic Sounds of North American Frogs may present an audio database of amphibian calls, but Francisco López's La Selva steps out of the laboratory to present an altogether different experience of wildlife audio. Where the Smithsonian collection offers a catalogue, La Selva offers a blur — and a bewilderingly oppressive one at that. Unlike straight phonography or field recording, La Selva is constructed of a montage of recordings from the jungle — mostly insect-buzz amphibious drone — as a means of facilitating the composer's ideal of "absolute concrète music." López forgoes objective facticity (what the jungle "really sounds like") in favor of expressivism. The disc goes far beyond mere exoticism, however: the jungle is presented as a massive dataset, where every chirp is both a signal and a parameter — but of what? To the untrained ear, the values are meaningless, and the code collapses into claustrophobia. (On his soundtrack to Matthew Barney's Cremaster 2, Jonathan Bepler attempts an even more explicit fusion of the database and the natural world when he "plays" 200,000 honeybees by programming their buzzing into an audio sequencer, setting their undifferentiated buzz in counterpoint with the swarming rolls of Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo.)

Stephen Vitiello's Sounds Building in the Fading Light, exploring the same opposition between data and expression, offers a more contemplative example of infomersion. Recorded in the fall of 1999, the record is a document of field recordings made high up in the World Trade Center. Vitiello explains:

"Sounds Building in the Fading Light is a mix of sounds recorded during a 5 month 'WorldViews' residency on the 91st floor of The World Trade Center, floating above the lights of New York City and the void of New Jersey. Inexpensive contact microphones were fixed to the windows and routed into a mixing board, tweaked by equalization and a Sherman Filter Bank. Additional experiments were done at night with an amplified photocell placed into the eye of a telescope. The result was the chance to listen to the building and to all that passes it by: airplanes, helicopters, people on the streets below, wind, the intensified movement of the building after Hurricane Floyd."

As a "documentary" work, it's almost meaningless: no traffic, nor voices, nor distinct sounds are discernable — only a low, ominous drone. (It goes without saying that the record is doubly ominous, and inexpressibly poignant, in hindsight.) It simply wraps you in a liquid rumble and presses some intangible essence of the place upon you. As a document, it bears witness — though to nothing in particular. It carries the facticity of "I was there," but it could have been made anywhere, indeed, using almost any electronic means. With the five-month duration of the project compressed into a single, undifferentiated blur, the recording is caught somewhere between the documentary impulse and something much trickier — something false, useless, and wishful all at once.

At the software company where I used to work, the data analysts loved to say, "There are lies, there are damn lies, and there are statistics." Statisticians, of course, can tell fantastic stories out of numbers — yarns as expressive as they are cryptic. Infomersive music aims at both these ends simultaneously: to interpret and subvert, to translate and hoard meaning. It highlights the essential opposition between data and expression, sense and nonsense, signal and noise — and mikes the friction where they join.

++ This week's column — "La Selva Digital: Dataesthetics and Infomersion" — will also appear in Issue #3 of SMAC!, a publication of the San Francisco Media Arts Council, which will be distributed at DATABASE(D), a free panel discussion on August 22 at SFMOMA. Moderated by SMAC program chair Marisa S. Olson, the panel will feature filmmakers Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, the Kitchen's media arts curator Christina Yang, and Neumu contributing editor Philip Sherburne. The event is free, but attendees should RSVP to mediaarts@sfmoma.org.

DATABASE(D) begins at 7 p/m, August 22, in the Schwab Room at SFMOMA. A cash bar is available from 6 to 7 p.m.

++ Next week's Needle Drops: Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth, Part II


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