Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA

Many artists have used randomness as a determining function in their work, with John Cage's compositions being perhaps the most recognized application of this technique in sound. Listening Post (2001-2), a seductive collaboration between statistician Mark Hansen and artist-designer Ben Rubin, continues in this vein, aiming to provide a sonic and visual environment through which the voice of the Web can express its contours and complexity. But the piece marks a distinct turning-point within this tradition, largely because technological advances in data-mining techniques have allowed Hansen and Rubin to work with real-time information, and let it mostly speak for itself. At a stroke Listening Post fulfils the promise of most Internet-based art, affecting a simultaneous collapse and expansion of time and space with implications ranging from notions of private and public space to individual thought and its role in group dynamics - and it advances all of this within a form that finally allows net art to compete with the more sensual pleasures we associate with sculpture.

Hansen and Rubin's collaboration began as a sound-based research project three years ago, after they met at a conference for artists and researchers facilitated by the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and Lucent Technologies, for whom Hansen works. (The visual component of the piece was introduced after a presentation at The Kitchen in New York.) An earlier version of Listening Piece was first presented at BAM in 2001 and, in an evolved form, at On the Boards in Seattle in late 2002 before coming to a small, hot room on the Whitney's first floor. Hansen and Rubin have written a programme that culls communication from chat rooms and other virtual spaces, identifying the prevailing themes and topics of discussion, and funnelling them to a concave, hanging grid of 231 small digital screens of the type usually found in cash registers. They arranged six formal acts through which the chatter expresses itself visually on the screens and aurally via eight male, British-tinged computer voices from speakers installed around the room. The communications appear as either whole or truncated phrases that include statements about nationality, age, gender, sexual preference, religion, politics or everyday life. At particularly striking moments the text washes rapidly across the screens in patterns akin to the topologies created by the movement of wind across a wheat field (also evoked by the soundtrack) before clicking to a legible halt. At one point, what begins with one phrase builds into a cacophonic deluge of communication, suggesting a kind of horror vacui in the human psyche. During another act the text bursts across the screens like a flock of birds alighting, crawling in a Holzerian manner, like stock quotes. In this act the words move most slowly across the middle of the grid, creating an illusion of perspectival depth. The very form of Listening Post's curved proscenium adopts theatrical conventions, which are reinforced by the location of benches and speakers that place visitors against the wall, within its focus.

The theatrical effects of the piece stem equally, however, from the responsive, dramatic soundscape that Hansen and Rubin have created beneath the spoken text. Appropriately, the timbre and tone of their sounds give one the feeling of being inside a tiny submarine, with the weight of an unspeakably vast ocean pushing in on the space where one sits listening. In places this sonic landscape flips and expands to suggest a huge and sonically wet room: one can imagine a billion droplets of sound overhead, engorging and waiting to fall and be heard. The vocabulary Hansen and Rubin have created for this score - which, unlike its behaviour, is not dependent on real information - evokes the drama of our technological lives as we've come to understand them by way of television advertising for computer systems and other devices. (Whether Hansen and Rubin intend this connotation ironically or not seems to be beside the point.) The achievement of Listening Post begs a fundamental question that has been nagging for some time: from here on, how convincingly can art be made using virtual information, in all its visual and physical impoverishment, without such seductive theatrics?

Visiting Listening Post immediately after the worldwide protests against the pending American invasion of Iraq, it was startling to witness the appearance of a phrase such as 'I am a Muslim and am afraid of nothing', which could have been intended as stoicism or aggression. Here, in a room only blocks from where thousands of New Yorkers had gathered as part of a global groundswell of dissent the day before, one could be party to the same transcendent feeling of connection on a grand scale, regardless of what one actually had in common with any of the voices materializing in the installation. In this artwork the thrill is provided by the excitement of recognition, the discovery of something legible or poignant in what could be a foreign and distant utterance, or simply coming from the room next door. In a perfectly timed Foucaultian twist Listening Post brought to the people a version of the knowledge the government collects on a sublime scale - along with its attendant power, fear and pleasure. Whether the piece ultimately serves more as assuaging entertainment than as provocation is irrelevant to its evaluation, but a fascinating question nevertheless.

Issue 75

First published in Issue 75

May 2003

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