Hovering in the multimedia background

John Potts draws attention to sound at ISEA96 in Rotterdam

Sound is catching up with multimedia, or rather multimedia is catching up with sound. This was one of the impressions left by the Seventh International Symposium On Electronic Art (ISEA96) held in Rotterdam in September. Although sound in multimedia was not a privileged theme at the symposium, it made its presence felt (as always, both literally and figuratively) during the week of conference discussion and artistic events.

While most attention—and funding—has so far been directed to the visual field of text and graphics, the potential of sound in the multimedia interface is becoming increasingly evident. The one conference paper to directly address this issue was presented by Sean Cubitt, from John Moores University in Liverpool. Sound, “the repressed partner in most areas of audiovisual space”, has for the most part been under-used at the interface, filling the roles of vocal instruction or musical mood-enhancer. Cubitt argued that the reliance on the visual has produced an impoverished interface, based on the office design of typewriter and monitor. The resultant emphasis on individual experience is also a limitation, Cubitt pointed out, extending the user’s sense of disappointment at the multimedia experience into the field of networked communication.

Cubitt’s paper, “Online Sound and Virtual Architecture”, posited sound as a potential remaker of the interface. In contrast to the individuated screen, sound has always constituted a social space. It is both more communal and more subversive. (This latter characteristic was attested to by audience members accustomed to working under audiovisual surveillance at high-tech research centres: workers will tolerate video surveillance but will turn off the audio, leaving them free to mutter to colleagues while preserving a dutiful facial expression.)

While Cubitt’s proposal remains idealistic due to current technical limitations to online sound, it is, as he hoped, an inspiration to move between “what we currently have and the possibilities which constitute any possible future”. Large-scale interfaces mediated through sound would be collaborative practices, stretching across actual and virtual dimensions.

If a prototype for this ideal interface exists, it would be something like Anonymous Muttering, the latest project from Knowbotic Research. This striking installation was part of the Dutch Electronic Art Festival, running concurrently with ISEA96. Built on top of the Netherlands Architecture Institute, it could be heard from many blocks away. Drawn in by the booming electronic sound, listeners could also use their visual sense to locate the site. Pulses of light were flashing around the apparatus, which could be reached by climbing up to the roof. Standing inside this large audio-visual field was an intense experience, to say the least. Intoxicating or disorientating, or both: responses depend on your reactions to strobe light, ferocious sound, and a forced disconnection between mind and body. It was like having parts of yourself separated and scattered around the force-field of sound and light.

Such a dismembering experience had its parallel in the construction of this electronic event. The Knowbotics team took sounds produced by various DJs at party events, processing them in real time into fragments of digital information. This digital material could be manipulated by visitors to the installation by means of a tactile interface: a silicon membrane. This pliable, transparent device could be bent and folded, as it was passed around like contraband at a party. The result: the sounds shooting around the apparatus were bent and folded in sympathy, and the strobe light was also triggered. As both the speakers and light-banks encircled the installation, the visitor was wrapped in an audio-visual felt of their own (partial) making.

But there’s more! There were other inputs to the sound and light show. The digital material could also be manipulated via an interface on the website, and could be followed live with RealAudio software. With so many at the controls, it’s impossible to determine who produces which effects. Anonymous Muttering is a communal interactive space, operating on both virtual and actual planes.

If the Knowbotics project was the most challenging application of virtual and audio technologies, other works exhibited in Rotterdam made more modest contributions. Anyone walking up the steps to the World Trade Centre, the central ISEA96 site, was confronted by A Music Machine Balancing at the Edge of Order and Chaos. This work by Peter Bosch and Simone Simons, otherwise entitled The Electric Swaying Orchestra, comprised six parametrically forced pendulums—that is, pendulums made to swing in unpredictable motions. Each pendulum had either a microphone or loudspeaker attached to its end; a computer controlled both the electro-motors driving the pendulums and the musical process. However, because irregularity is built into the pendulums’ movements, the musical output is also unpredictable. The computer interprets the sounds received by the three swaying microphones, playing notes through the speakers in response. As a result, the computer, as its programmers put it, is “constantly listening and responding to itself”.

This injection of chaos into the digital order of a computer-operated system is now a familiar element of the electronic arts. In defiance of the military-industrial precision expected of such systems, artists introduced a dose of anarchy which is itself now becoming predictable through overuse. The Knowbotics project at least pushed beyond the order/chaos paradigm; its multiple inputs played across the terrain of will and chance, with an unfolding audio text of unknowable authorship.

Enigmatic authorship of audio works was one of the topics pursued by Heidi Grundmann in her presentation to ISEA, “Radio The Next Century”. Austria’s Kunstradio is now on-line, vigorously promoting Internet radio through such projects as Family Auer, a sitcom on radio and internet. The writing is done by a host of “pool authors”, while the narrative is also shaped by internet users. Other telematic radio-events include the composition of a multimedia music score, with the presiding composer collecting samples offered by other composers on line. Radio The Ne(x)t Century is a project instigated by two Swiss artists whose fictional premise is of a disastrous web crash, leaving SOS TNC to webcast for surviving fragments of debris. This and other ongoing works revel in the demise of the finished work of art; bits and pieces are re-contextualised into ever-shifting amalgams.

A similar project using more modest technology was articulated by Ian Pollock and Janet Silk: phone-based art. Although it’s seldom mentioned, the phone was the first instrument of cyberspace, generating many of the effects now claimed for the internet. Its democratising network cuts across space, class and race, without excluding the poor and computer-illiterate. As well, being built on the voice, it is an extremely intimate mode of communication. As the two speakers pointed out, attempts to market “picturephones”, active in the US since 1927, have always failed: the addition of visuals would destroy all of these advantages. Pollock and Silk have instigated several phone-art projects from their San Francisco base, deploying group phone links, voice mail and other techniques. The phone, they assert, is one network guaranteed to permeate social structures.

Back in the actual world of Rotterdam, several installation works added the sense of touch to the audio-visual dimensions. The physicality of sound found a partner, in these cases, in the pleasure of getting your hands on the works. The most intriguing was Jaap de Jong’s Crystal Ball. Sticking out invitingly from a portal in the gallery wall, this glass ball responded to touch by producing a flurry of images and sounds taken from live TV channels. Mixed by computer, the images were spread across many small lenses, the sounds were shards of contemporary culture. Confusing at first, this work was an enchanting kaleidoscope in three senses.

Jill Scott’s installation Frontiers of Utopia also added the tactile sense to image and sound. Its eight female characters converse with each other, and the visitor, across time; extra interest is added by the invitation to use real, old-fashioned objects like keys to invoke certain responses. While the work is let down by the banality of some of the monologues, the interface is an engaging use of touch and sound, in particular.

There were other works on display which foregrounded sound, but these I’ve described were the most effective. The concert performances at this ISEA were disappointing, with only Mari Kimura maintaining her usual high standard in new works for violin and interactive computer. The most interesting aspect, from an audio perspective, was the impression that sound is hovering in the multimedia background, waiting to make its presence more sharply felt.

RealTime issue #15 Oct-Nov 1996 pg. 10

© John Potts; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 1996