Real-time web sculpture



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REAL-TIME WEB SCULPTURE

PRODUCING A COLLAGE OF TEXT taken from real-life communication is now a common praxis in experimental literature and has been advocated as one of the essential features of, for example, a Dada poem. If these ready-made texts are presented on screens, one may still consider such collage as experimental literature. If they are taken from the Internet and are sufficiently extensive so as to form a message, one might consider these collage pieces as documentation of online conversation and thus a mirror of society. Such a mirror would be somewhat distorting, given that the text snippets are taken out of context and presented in a partial, and partially unreadable, manner. Moreover, when a piece is described as captivating, hypnotic, and sublime, this will not be due to the content of the text; it is a function of its appearance. This is where we have to look for the actual meaning of Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin's Listening Post (2000-2001).

As has been discussed in the previous chapter on mapping art, not everything mapped and transformed necessarily translates into art. As a rule of thumb, we may say that a focus on the accuracy of data visualization does not impart the status of art. The data presented in Listening Post are as accurate as those presented in We feel fine (started in 2005) by Jonathan Harris and Sepandar Kamvar, which is another project assembling utterances from the Internet. However, the differences begin to be significant when we consider the number of screens. A total of 231 screens arranged as a grid in a darkened room versus one screen on a computer gives a different impression of the scale of virtual communication. Moreover, the theatrical setup-a shaded room with chairs in front of the curtain of screens-suggests that the text has dissolved into a sonic and visual environment. Close to the screens, people may read the actual text and imagine its context. If they step back to take everything in, the text becomes

a visual and sonic emblem of the virtual communication, in all its vastness. Listening Post lives the double life as (experimental, documentary) literature and as a (real-time, ready-made) sculpture or installation with its own aesthetic effects. It is up to the audience members to choose-according to their position in the room vis-a-vis the installation's displays-the life they prefer.

From this point of view-a position that most of the piece's reviewers do not advance-one may venture further in revealing a deeper meaning. Our critical pathway passes by another installation that desemanticizes text mined from the Internet-Paul DeMarinis's The Messenger (1998 /2005)-and leads us back to issues discussed in the first chapter: "consuming" the text by depriving it of its linguistic value. Although DeMarinis is determined to underline the inherently democratic character of the Internet, as critics, we also have to take into account an interest-based online distinction between Internet information as the Daily Me or the Daily We. This undermines a shared culture of discourse essential for a democratic society. Moreover, the transmutation of text from meaningful utterance to sensational event-as undertaken in DeMarinis's Messenger-must be seen as another threat to a culture of democratic discourse. Listening Post features both inclinations, the separation within communication and the invalidation of its linguistic meaning, and combines them in an implicit political utopia. The different, diverse, often conflicting statements one is confronted with when reading the texts fuse and unite once the utterances are no longer distinctly recognizable. The meaningless murmur symbolizes the end of ideology and the neutralization of all dissent. It is a happy ending insofar as it makes people begin to see what they have in common: the search for answers. That the answers themselves-different and potentially divisive-are neglected in favor of an intensive moment of their conjoined murmuring signals a shift from the hermeneutic paradigm to the paradigm of erotics, as discussed in the introduction. As always, however, the embrace requires that its participants forego distance.

Collage and Collaboration in Literature

Imagine a text compiled out of chunks of online conversation, presented as an endless flow of words written by people whose names remain unknown and who have no idea that their texts are assembled in such a way. This text group would have no clear structure and no specific author. It would be a collage of texts taken from real life. Would it also be literature

or a linguistic artwork? Why not? There are predecessors for both text as collage and text as the result of collaboration.

The patchwork of text was advocated as early as 1920 when Dadaist Tristan Tzara, in his famous manifesto "How to Write a Dada Poem," proposed producing a poem by cutting out words from a newspaper and putting them together in random order.

Take a newspaper. Take a pair of scissors. Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem. Cut out the article. Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag. Shake it gently. Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag. Copy conscientiously. The poem will be like you. And here you are a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.

With this proposition, Tzara only applied to literature the collage technique already used by visual artists, among them his Dada colleagues Kurt Schwitters, John Heartfield, and Hannah Hoch. The result was a surprising juxtaposition of text segments, which of course did not resemble the author at all; nor did it really express her sensibility. Tzara's instruction to make a poem this way, however, did express the intention of Dada to reject bourgeois attitudes. Nonsense was considered the ultimate opposition, materializing, for example, in the sound poems and optophonetic poems by Hugo Ball, Kurt Schwitters, Richard Huelsenbeck, and Raoul Hausmann (Hausmann 1994).' What in Dada was part of a radical protest against the conventional understanding of art, and against bourgeois culture in general, came to new life and artistic reputation in the 1960s with William Burroughs's cut-up technique. Interestingly, again, the source for this example of experimental literature was visual art. The painter Brion Gysin introduced Burroughs to this technique, which Burroughs (2002) then extended to his fold-in method.2 Since the 1960s, cut-ups became an alternative strategy for dealing with words, a writing aid. However, this strategy and aid was not used to produce nonsense, but to surpass the limits of the

author's creativity, to overcome his personal perspectives. The central aim of the poetics of chance art was the creation of unexpected but meaningful combinations.

Access to deeper levels of human consciousness was also the intention of collaborative writing experiments undertaken by the surrealists, such as ecriture automatique. Here the limits of the author were exceeded by multiplying the author, as in Cadavre exquis ("exquisite corpse"), where several people write in turn on a sheet of paper, fold it to conceal part of the writing, and then pass it to the next person for further contributions. Since then, both the technique of collage and collaboration belong to the repertoire of experimental literature. The poetics of collage has been taken up in Marc Saporta's novel Composition No. 1 (1962), which offers 150 unbound, unpaginated pages, or in Konrad Balder Schauffelen's novel deus ex skatola (1964), which offers aphorisms on small paper rolls, and has later gained popularity as a fundamental technique of computer-aided hyperfiction. With the arrival of the World Wide Web, the poetics of collage found new life in the various forms of collaborative writing projects online.

In this light, we understand that the text collage can be traced back to visual art. However, we do not have difficulty understanding a collaboratively created text, such as the one imagined above, as a linguistic artwork rather than any other kind of art. One could call it the jabber of the Internet, captured by a computer program. Does this interpretation change with the way such text collage is presented?

Text as Sculpture, Music, Cinema

The text collage imagined above exists, not on paper but on screen, on 231 miniature text display screens. The installation is called ListeningPost and was created by the statistician Mark Hansen and sound designer and multimedia artist Ben Rubin in 2000-2001 (Figure 22).3 It has been exhibited, among other places, at the Whitney Museum in New York City (2003) and at Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria (2004), where it won the Golden Nicas at the Prix Ars Electronica competition.

The screens are organized on aluminum poles on a suspended curved grid of 11 rows and 21 columns with overall dimensions of 21 x 14 x 3 feet. Several computers analyze data from thousands of Internet chat rooms, bulletin boards, and other public forums. The culled text fragments are fed

to a statistical analysis server, which selects certain phrases to be displayed across the grid of screens and read aloud by computer-generated voices.

Figure 22. Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin, Listening Post (2000-2001). Photo by David Alison.

The piece is organized into a repeating seventeen-minute sequence of separate compositions, each consisting of six movements with different data processing logics and arrangements of visual, aural, and musical elements. While in the first movement cycles of text wash in from right to left over the entire grid of 231 screens, rendering text as mere visual, illegible object, in the second movement the text snippets are presented in a readable way distributed to the 231 screens. The texts are organized by topic clusters; for example, phrases starting with "I am," "I like," or "I love." In the third movement the text scrolls within each screen at high speed, stopping from time to time, thus allowing the reading of a snippet of the captured conversation. The fourth movement begins with blank displays that eventually fill out completely with texts spoken by a voice synthesizer generating a cacophony of overlapping voice streams. Movement five is visual and silent, presenting sets of four screen names that appear on a single screen, scrolling bottom to top, from the edges to the center. Movement six presents four-character words scrolling downward and then fading upward. Rubin explains the intention behind Listening Post:

My starting place was simple curiosity: What do 100,000 people chatting on the Internet sound like? Once Mark and I started listening, at first to statistical representations of web sites, and then to actual language from chat rooms, a kind of music began to emerge. The messages started to form a giant cut-up poem, fragments of discourse juxtaposed to form a strange quilt of communication. It reminds me of the nights I spent as a kid listening to the CB radio, fascinated to hear these anonymous voices crackling up out of the static. Now the static is gone, and the words arrive as voiceless packets of data, and the scale is immense. And so my curiosity gave way to my desire to respond to this condition. (Hansen and Rubin 2001)

The cooperation between Rubin, the artist, and Hansen, the statistician, is described as one with almost no disciplinary divides: "Ben had as much input in data collection and modeling as I did on questions of design and aesthetics."4 This interest in a partner's particular concerns and approach is an essential condition for a successful collaboration between art and technology. There was also a mutual understanding between Rubin and Hansen that their projects should have a strong social component, which is why they used data from online chats rather than from a Web site. As Rubin says in an interview, "Internet chat is a strange mirror to look at society. It reflects something about our society but I am not always sure what" (Abumrad 2002). Steve Johnson, in an interview with Studio 360, compares Listening Post with Google's zeitgeist portraits, which show the most prevalent search requests over the year and hence gives an idea of user search behavior and contemporary culture (Abumrad 2002). Jad Abumrad (2002), in his feature for Studio 360, sees Listening Post as mirroring "the mood of the web in that moment." Sex, the war on terror, the space shuttle-everything that is obsessing people on the Internet at that moment enters the room in a stream of text and sound. However, this installation is more than simply documentation, which already becomes clear from the fact that only some of the movements listed above allow actual reading of the texts. As Roberta Smith (2003) notes, Listening Post "operates in the gaps between art, entertainment and documentary." There are specific aesthetic qualities that overwrite this installation's function as mirror to the zeitgeist.

First of all, one may wonder whether the cut-up method, in which the text is assembled, and the collage form, in which it is presented, really provide an accurate reflection of ideas communicated on the Internet. Taking text snippets out of their context resembles rather a distorting mirror.

This aspect of the piece is underlined in the third movement, when only a very small part of the scrolling text becomes readable, which actually reenacts the underlying technique on the screen and underlines-as pars pro toto-the decontextualized status of the presented text.

Apart from the questionable documentary value of the text assemblage, the way the text appears distracts from its reading. The text is "flying by like blood racing through a vessel, accompanied by the chittering sound of a rainstorm," report Pop Fizz and Melanie McFarland (2002). Peter Eleey, in a 2003 review, speaks of the "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." "At one point," Eleey continues, "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 addition, the sonic and visual arrangement of the text contributes to the aesthetic thrill: the darkened gallery space features text pulses of soft blue light and accompanying waves of synthetic voices and sonorous Glassesque musical chords. There are eight computer voices emanating from different speakers around the room separately or in unison, in call-and-response or round robin. The computer voices make the messages taken from the Internet sound like messages from outer space, as if aliens, not human beings, were behind it. Such a connotation may not be in the interest of the artists for whom Listening Post is a "mirror to look at society" (Abumrad 2002), which is supposed to give "a real sense of what people are talking about" (Coukell 2004). Nevertheless, the alienation of the voices draws attention to itself rather than to the content of messages and creates a distance between senders and listeners in the gallery. It is as if aliens are staging human life; it sounds as if they mock the banality of it, even if the subject is the war in Iraq or Bush's presidency. The computerized voices evoke the Turing test: What if all those messages in Listening Post are created by computers, rather than human beings? The artists may not have had the intention of triggering such associations. However, they decided to implement the text-to-speech feature, taking the risk that the inevitable synthetic tone causes undesirable connotations. It may be difficult to resist the temptation of having the text read in real time by computer voices, if one is particularly interested in the medium of sound and searches, as Rubin does, for "new ways of hearing inaudible phenomena and of mapping the observable world into the sound domain."5

One wonders whether the result is worth this risk, and to what extent the state of the art simply gets in the way of the artist's purpose in this instance.

However, the sonification of the text is in line with the general aesthetics of the piece, namely its theatrical effect, which is reinforced by the location of benches in front of the "text curtain." The theatricalization makes the text part of a larger event-that is, dissolves it into the experience of the sonic and visual environment. This experience has been compared with "watching graffiti out of a window of a moving car" (Abumrad 2002), or looking at a modern painting whose canvas consists of a curtain of computer screens (Gibson 2003). Rubin himself compares the "giant cut-up poem" Listening Post with "a kind of music."6

This appearance and arrangement of text lets visitors experience the installation as "beguiling, sublime" (Schmader 2002); as "almost irresistible, like magic" (Smith 2003); as "meditative, sublime and elevating ... hypnotic and captivating," making it easy "to be lulled into a trance-like state, forgetting the passage of time and the surroundings" (Huhtamo 2004a). One may conclude that, in the end, the set up of the installation overshadows the text it presents and actually (mis)uses words as ornament. It will become clear that this "misuse" is the actual artistic merit of Rubin's and Hansen's work.

Turning Linguistic into Visual Art

At the end of her review, Roberta Smith (2003) wonders whether Listening Post "is simply the latest twist in the familiar modernist tradition of making art from chance arrangements of everyday materials, and is more a result of technological progress than genuinely new thought." Smith's concern is a valid one because there are many examples of applied technology that have been labeled art, although they are missing a genuine idea or artistic statement beyond their actual application. As seen in chapter 5, this is especially true for mapping art. I argued that not everything mapped and transformed consequently transformed into art. As a rule of thumb, one may say that the more the transformation focuses on the accuracy of data presentation and the less it focuses on a symbolic description of the data presented, the smaller the likelihood that it will be perceived as art. What is the situation with regard to Listening Post?

As Christopher DeLaurenti (2002) notes, Rubin and Hansen "do what composers have done for centuries: transform ordinary, overlooked means of expression into art." Listening Post certainly participates in the project

of transformation and beautification of found everyday data that is significant for mapping art. However, the piece is not a naturalistic mirror of reality; it has a mesmerizing effect because of the way the data are presented. Does this represent a message beyond the pseudo function of documentation?

Rubin describes his position as an artist with respect to Listening Post as follows: "As an artist right now with the whole prospect of war it's a very difficult thing to know how to conceive of a response. And this piece has no political message per se but it is listening. It is at least an open space" (Abumrad 2002). Rubin's words-proposing like Whitelaw (2008) the idea of "open space"-explain and justify the withdrawal of the artist and the abdication of a personal message symptomatic of naturalism and applicable to the postmodern condition, as I discussed it with respect to the mimetic variety of mapping art in chapter 5. Listening-that is, collecting data from real life-is favored over voicing a political message. In this light, Listening Post seems to embody the same disorientation and lack of message that is characteristic for many of the mapping art examples. It seems to belong to the same type of Web mapping as Jonathan Harris's and Sepandar Kamvar's We feel fine, an "exploration of human emotion, in six movements" that, since 2005, searches a large number of WVeblogs for sentences containing the phrases "I feel" and "I am feeling" and presents them as a collection of colored, animated, and clickable particles representing single feelings, posted by a single individual (Figure 23).7 The growing database (increasing by 15,000 to 20,000 new feelings per day) is searchable according to a list of about 5,000 preidentified feelings, to gender, age, weather, location, and year." The single utterances link to their origin on the Web. Although We feel fine is a sophisticated and interesting example of data mining and data representation, in light of the discussion of chapter 5, it is questionable whether it is also art, as its authors claim.9 The difference becomes clear if one compares We feel finewith Listening Post, which not only listens-or transmits the data collected-but also speaks to its audience, providing a specific message through the way the data are presented, turning, to apply the distinction made in chapter 5, data into information. As mentioned above, one aspect of its specific manner of presentation is the (undesirable) connotation of the computer-generated voices. Another aspect is the trancelike experience, which overwhelms the overt message of the data presented. There are more metaphors to be taken into account.

Debra Singer, curator at the Whitney Museum, points out that participating in a chat room is, while ostensibly social, actually solitary and

isolating-"just the lone person, you in front of your keyboard"-and holds that Listening Post gives "a sense of that collective global buzz. It sort of makes visceral the diversity and the scale of Internet conversations and exchanges" (Balkin 2003). Singer is absolutely right in that Listening Post indicates the magnitude of virtual communication. One could say that the "lonely crowd," once withdrawn to the TV, groups together and becomes

visible again, thanks to the Internet as a bidirectional medium.10 As Rita Raley notes, "`Listening Post' is the crowd, or least a representation of the crowd" (2009, 31). However, it is an artificial crowd created by Hansen and Rubin because Listening Postmakes data public that are "private to a particular community," as Raley also notes (27), referring to the element of surveillance in this piece. The texts are taken from communities resembling salons rather than crowds on the street. The crowd presented in Listening Post is the result of the collage Hansen and Rubin generate. The crowd represents individual groups rather than a crowd unified by the same opinion and intention. Only the combination of all the more or less private communicative communities creates the sense of a crowd. The scale of Internet conversations, the sense of the "collective global buzz" that Listening Post provides, according to Singer, is the result of a collage of different communications making obvious their diversity rather than their unity.

Figure 23. Jonathan Harris and Sepandar Kamvar, We feel fine (2005). Web site opening (top). Text of a specific item (bottom).

Even though Hansen and Rubin consider the "creation of a kind of community from the informal gathering of thousands of visitors to a given Web site" to be a by-product of their Web traffic sonification (Hansen and Rubin 2001, 12), the correlation between the crowd and the individual, the social and solitary is perceived as the underlying subject of Listening Post. Although the piece funnels communication from thousands of chat rooms into the installation space, one wonders whether this space is another room: thousands plus one. How does the exhibition space connect to the online world? How does Listening Posttalk about its own audience? There is anecdotal evidence for the relationship between both spaces: "Hansen recalls one showing that amused a silent audience when the installation's strange song began with a short solo that loudly asked, 'Are there any bisexuals in the room?"' (Fizz and McFarland 2002). At least after bringing to mind the given exhibition situation, the audience knows it is not the addressee for this question. Nevertheless, the ambiguity of its situation of communication points to the difference between both spaces. The audience of Listening Post is listening (it is assumed silently) to the presented collection of text snippets, while people out there are sending messages. The latter sit separately behind keyboards connecting to other people via the Internet; the former come together in a room, most likely not connecting to one another in person. Listening Post addresses two completely different situations of crowd or groups. The text from the Internet-and not only the quoted particular question-asks people in the gallery who they are and how they connect to each other. The answer may

be that they too connect via chat rooms to other people, which would only affirm the advantages of the virtual room over the real.

But there is more. The meaning of Listening Post also lies in the texts' dissolve into sound or background music. The decontextualization that ListeningPostis undertaking-Rubin calls the piece "a big de-contextualization machine" (Coukell 2004)-makes it hardly reliable as documentary. This very fact, however, underscores its potential as an interactive story. Rubin explains that when everything is pulled out of its original context, he tends to project around the fragments he hears, to imagine the conversation the fragment came from (Coukell 2004). When people listen to messages such as "I am fifteen," "I am alive," "I am lonely and sad too," "I am cooking now for my son," "I am sexy but not mature," "I am getting tired of Muslims," "I am back," to quote only from the "I am" proclamations, they wonder what these messages mean, what their context may be, and to whom they are addressed, as well as what they are responding to and how they may have been answered. Thus, Listening Post actually has its audience doing more than listening. It prompts them to fill in the gaps. The listeners are provoked to use their imagination; they become coauthors in a kind of delayed collaboration with the unknown authors from the Internet.

This is true at least as long as the text is presented in a readable way, and as long as the audience stays with the text and moves through it as reader. The moment the listeners-or visitors-step away from the text is the point where the linguistic phenomenon eventually leaves the center of attention, giving space to the experience of sonic and visual effects no longer based on deciphering the text. Which brings us back to our initial question: Is Listening Post linguistic or visual art?

Eric Gibson, in his 2003 review in the Wall Street Journal, compares the experience of Listening Post with the experience of a painting: "The viewer relates to Listening Post much as he does [to] a traditional painting, that is, by alternating between the part and the whole. One may back up to take everything in, then move in to scrutinize a detail-in this case a message on the screen." Gibson's comparison of the installation to the traditional medium of painting may intend to furnish the former with the dignity of the latter, but it is nonetheless misleading. Although Gibson only sees a quantitative change between the part and the whole, there is a qualitative change between two completely different modes of perception. The alteration between the part and the whole is an alteration between reading

and watching. The audience redirects its attention from the text conveyed to the installation conveying it. The installation takes on its own life, which is more than the sum of its parts.

One may compare the transformation of the parts to a whole with Robert Silvers's Christ II, a photomosaic image of Christ composed of images of six hundred ancient Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts of papyrus and leather known as the Dead Sea Scrolls shaping the image of Christ.11 Paying attention to the parts, one deals with hymns, commentary, and apocalyptic writings. Paying attention to the whole, one sees Christ's face formed out of these various pieces of text. The literal transformation of text into image or of linguistic signs into visual ones is a strong metaphor and the actual point of this artifact: Christ consists of nothing else than what is passed on by text.

What would be the meaning of the transformation from reading to watching-or "taking everything in," as Gibson (2003) phrases it-in the case of Listening Post? Pop Fizz and Melanie McFarland (2002) describe this change of experience as follows: "Close to the screens, voices and content color the experience more than if you take it as a whole from farther away, a perspective that makes it look like a raging river." What has been text, with its particular linguistic meaning, becomes the image of a raging river when one steps away. This change from reading the single text to taking it (in) as a whole is not only a change between two modes of perception regarding the language of signification. It also changes the perceived mood. Reading the single text stimulates us to imagine its context. In this situation, the reader deciphers the text and connects with it like a detective or archeologist. The reader feels herself to be the agent of this undertaking. Stepping away from the texts, the letters become a "raging river," to which the visitor feels subjected and inclined to surrender. The sensation of having control gives way to the overwhelming, "hypnotic and captivating," "trance-like," "sublime" experience reported above.12

Listening Post lives a double life as a "document" of online communication-or rather a "giant cut-up-poem" (Hansen and Rubin 2001)-and as a sculpture or installation with its own aesthetic value. As a document or poem, the piece presents text in a readable way. As a sculpture-a gigantic curtain of screens with ever-changing compositions of dissociated messages-it uses text as visual and sonic icon to convey the magnitude and immediacy of virtual communication. Close to the screen, Listening Post therefore may be considered an example of experimental literature. Farther away, when letters turn illegible, it becomes visual and sonic art;

it exists outside the linguistic paradigm and has to be read like a sign in visual art or an action in a performance. This transmedial transition is the effect of walking. Perceiving Listening Post either way lies in the hands (or rather the feet) of the audience.

One may go one step further in understanding the symbolic power of Listening Post. Although it is debatable to what extent the work mirrors "the mood of the web in that moment" (Abumrad 2002), it can be argued that the work tells the story of its history: walking away from the curtain is walking in time. At its beginning, the Internet consisted only of words appearing as green letters on a black screen-pretty much the way text is presented in Listening Post. What Michel Joyce said about the hypertext as an essential feature of the computer-"the word's revenge on TV" (1995, 47)-was equally true for the Internet. However, with the arrival of the World Wide Web, people observed the "breakout of the visual" (Bolter 1996, 258) and recognized "the constant threat of hypermedia: to suck the substance out of a work of lettered art, reduce it to surface spectacle" (Coover 2001).

This development is reenacted in Listening Post by walking away from the curtain. The walk communicates the history of the Internet in two ways. First is that the scale of communication changes. Stepping back widens and deepens the perspective; the single-text screen comes into sight as part of a grid of 231 screens, demonstrating the organic growth of the Internet. Second is that the way of communication changes. Stepping back shifts the attention from the text as linguistic sign to the audiovisual environment demonstrating the development of the Internet from textual toward multimedial signs. In this perspective, Listening Post is not only about the content transmitted on the Internet, but also about the way content is transmitted online. It is a linguistic artwork that turns into a sculpture and allows the audience, in this transmedial transition, to experience time by experiencing space. Walking backward from the screen is going forward in the history of the Internet.13

It has become clear by now that Listening Post offers the data it gathers in a special way that differentiates this work from the aesthetics of naturalism demonstrated by other examples of mapping art. Rather than aiming at an accurate presentation of data, Listening Post generates an image-or sensation-that prompts reflections about these data. Having laid out some directions for this reflection, I want finally to compare Listening Post with a similar installation, whose differences with Listening Post may disclose even more aspects of this work.

Balkanization and Orchestration of Text

In chapter 1, I discussed various forms of "eating" the text through its presentation as an asemantic object. Text Rain (1999) by Camille Utterback and RomyAchituv and RE:PositioningFear (1997) by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer both present text to the audience in such a way that is more or less deprived of its linguistic value. In both cases, the linguistic value of the text can be reestablished only through a separate step of perception dislocated from the installation venue: the audience must look up the poem used in Text Rain in a book or the discussion presented in RE:PositioningFear on a\Veb site. In ListeningPost, however, the text enjoys both its states simultaneously as linguistic and visual-sonic object at the installation venue. Its turning into an asemantic object depends on the audience's engagement with the piece; stepping away from the text "devours" it. It is a subtle example of text cannibalism, and because the installation consists of so much text taken from the Internet, one may miss the work's consumption of the text."

This potential materializes itself much more obviously in another installation, which could be called the younger sister of Listening Post, although it is actually its older brother. Two years after Listening Post, Ars Electronica's Golden Nica 2006 in the category of interactive art was awarded to an installation that also takes its content from online conversation. 15 Paul DeMarinis's The Messenger (created in 1998; developed version through 2005) distributes e-mails that DeMarinis received to three systems of bizarre output devices, on which they are displayed letter by letter (Figure 24). There are twenty-six talking washbasins, each intoning a letter of the alphabet in Spanish; there is a chorus line of twenty-six dancing skeletons, each wearing a poncho with a letter, and there is a series of twenty-six electrolytic jars with metal electrodes in the form of the letters A to Z that oscillate and bubble when electricity is passed through them. Thus, the compiled text is presented to the bodily senses; the linguistic message has been transformed into sound, light, and performance.16

The Messenger pushes the transmedial transformation seen in Listening Post much further by turning text into unintelligible signs. As the description of the work provided on the Ars Electronica Web site states, "The installation is the end of the line for messages that had traveled around the world to meet their demise here.""The message of this end of all messages is, despite the fascinating, playful output of the installation, described in a rather pessimistic tone: "The installation thus becomes an allegory for

messages whose final destination is a total void-a phenomenon that has become a standard component of everyday life in the modern world."',, Although the installation does give those messages an audience, it also enforces this void by depriving them of their linguistic meaning. The installation becomes an allegory of the annihilation of linguistic meaning, which has become a standard component of visual culture in modern society.

Figure 24. Paul DeMarinis, The Messenger (1998/2005). Photograph by Paul DeMarinis.

However, The Messenger is also a media archeological exploration in the history of electronic transmitted communication. In an essay about The Messenger, DeMarinis recalls the Catalan scientist Don Francisco Salva i Campillo's proposal at the end of the eighteenth century of a system of rapid signaling across distances using static electricity. This system used a separate wire for each letter of the alphabet, a Leyden jar to transmit a spark across these wires, and twenty-six people connected to the wires to call out their corresponding letter upon receiving a sensible shock. "A twenty seventh person, presumably literate, was to write down the message so shockingly spelled out" (DeMarinis 1998). Salva's proposal-an absurd performance of Stelarcian quality19-not only explains how DeMarinis got the idea for his output devices, but it also raises questions, as DeMarinis suggests, about the relationship of technology and democracy.

Erkki Huhtamo, in his symptomatic reading of DeMarinis's installation, interprets the collective human telegraphic receiver in Salva's system as

the ultimate manifestation of a society based on slavery: "The identity of a slave/servant has been reduced to his/her voice uttering a letter, a mere phoneme, physically solicited by electricity. Reduced to enouncing [sic] a single letter, the human individual has been denied the right to meanings. Meanings emerge only as the result of the collective action of the dehumanized human telegraphic `relays' (and ultimately, only become evident when traced on paper)" (2004b, 35). Huhtamo stresses that this scheme not only signifies the past, but is also reminiscent of the female telephone operators literally connected to the switchboard for hours on end, excluded from the meanings they transmitted.

In this light, DeMarinis's installation first of all underlines the waste of human resources in the process of communication and the exclusion of people from the meanings they transmit. It is obvious that the situation is different today. People are not literally connected to the wires or to the switchboard. On the contrary, as DeMarinis points out in his essay, with the Internet "as inherently democratic," people have become messengers themselves; freedom of speech is increasing; democracy and electricity "have mounted their horses and are once again coming to deliver us" (DeMarinis 1998). The mechanisms and metaphors of The Messengernonetheless may serve to remind us, as DeMarinis concludes his essay, "that there is no inherent bi-directionality in electrical communication, that a body can be a telegraph as well as a recipient of a message, that who is transmitting what to whom is often lost in the speed and coded immateriality of electricity."

DeMarinis's words sound euphoric and anxious at the same time. They may also serve to remind us that the democratic access to communication media does not warrant democratic communication. It is debatable how inherently democratic the Internet really is. From the perspective of political science, concerns have been voiced about the fact that the substitution of place-based communities with interest-based communities, information personalization, and group polarization online do not promote the exposure to a diverse set of topics and opinions. As a result, it has been argued, rather than fostering a culture of discussion, the Internet allows for the exclusion of the other, thus undermining the foundation of democracy. Hence, despite (or rather because of) its bidirectionality, the Internet also poses a threat to democracy.20

The consideration of the Internet as threat to democracy is not new. From early on, the Internet has been considered not only a modern form

of agora but also the perfect panopticon.21 Because The Messenger-as well as Listening Post-pulls its material from Internet communication, it is not surprising that it is also discussed in terms of surveillance and privacy.22 Rubin himself lends weight to such an analysis, saying that with his work he wants to provoke "questions as to the shifting boundaries between our public and private lives."23 Although in neither The Messenger nor in Listening Post are data used to profile a person, one is made aware of the fact that they easily could be used to this end.

The question of surveillance and privacy is highlighted whenever an art installation takes its content from real-life communication or uses in public art data that have been recorded in public spaces. Besides many mapping artworks, many interactive installations works-such as David Rokeby's Seen (2002), Simon Biggs's Habeas Corpus (2006-7), Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's Under Scan (2005), and even Scott Snibbe's Deep Walls (2003)-bring up the question of to what extent surveillance technology is whitewashed by art by making the audience accustomed to it. The answers vary depending on the underlying benefit from and expressed opposition to the technology of surveillance. However, the issue of surveillance should not make us overlook other equally important threats to democracy brought up by artworks like The Messenger and Listening Post.

One such threat is the downgrading-or cannibalization-of text, which has been associated with the World Wide Web and the general shift of digital media from textual to media of images, sound, and animation. The reference to the illiterate servants who once, in Salva's proposal, transmitted a message without understanding it and without "the right to meanings," prompts the question of what access to and interest in meaning and reasoning the users of contemporary media enjoy. The problem begins with the portioning of text in small pieces. Thus, in his essay "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint," Edward Tufte (2003) maintains that "slideware" often reduces the analytical quality of presentations and weakens reasoning. However, while text presented within the aesthetics of bulleted lists may result in simplistic thinking, depriving text of its linguistic dimension means to generally corrupt its value as a source for thought, dispute, and search for agreement or compromise and turn it into ornament or spectacle. The transformation of the text into a sensual object undermines the culture of discourse essential to a democratic society, as does the exclusion of parts of the population from this discourse, or as does the separation of discourses, the fragmentation of the communication market into the Daily Me of shared interests.

Listening Post speaks about both invalidation and separation through its presentation of different voices and their transformation into a visual-sonic object. This doubling of the threat to democracy eventually gives rise to the utopian image of a unified society. The crucial point is the audience's movement along the curtain of screens as well as away from it.

The curtain combines different voices from different places and juxtaposes different, often conflicting statements. The combination of diverse utterances-Raley reports the sequence "I like peach pie" and "I like to masturbate and torture small animals"-simultaneously invites identification and the refusal of identification. Raley concludes, "It is impossible to stabilize the mood, the sentiment, the affect of this piece, just as it is impossible to stabilize the mood of the Web. The pleasure of the quotidian, the amusement of the odd-these can quickly be superseded by mistrust and distaste as viewers gasp, laugh, and recoil from the articulations of self and desire" (2009, 30). To this extent, at least, Hansen's and Rubin's work mirrors the mood of the Web. Moreover, this is important for my point: it mirrors the mood of the world, of which the Web is a condensed extract. By bringing together different people, the curtain brings together diverse and separate threads of communication. It sheds light on atomization and difference, and it indicates the lack of dialogue and understanding among the individual speakers.

However, the differences are fused, the individuals are united once the various utterances are no longer recognizable. The "virtually unintelligible murmurs of the crowd" (Raley 2009, 31) are a symbol for unity-as Raley puts it, a "community without community" because it is not based on identity or consensus but heterogeneity and dissensus. The murmurs blend the multitude and diversity in the utopian image of an orchestra, where many different instruments are found together. This unity is comparable to the "data points" in We feel fine (Figure 23), whose "teeming multiplicities" display "what might be called uniform diversity" and "encode a kind of idealistic humanism of equality and diversity, harmonious multiplicity, and fundamental (emotional) commonality" (Whitelaw 2008). It may seem strange to understand the meaningless murmur-or the democratic presentation of diverse expressions-as a symbol for a desired unity between the individual and the diversity. Shouldn't one expect a happy ending in dialogue rather than in murmur? Is the interface of similar dots strong enough to serve as an image of idealistic humanism? With respect to the murmur in Listening Post, I consider it of philosophic significance, for it exceeds the mere representation of uniform diversity. If unintelligibility is

understood as the absence of information, as invalidation of the message, it is also the end of ideology, politics, religion, and ethics, none of which can operate without language. The murmur is a harmonious neutralization of every possible message. It is, to push Raley's reading even further, the melting pot that Listening Post evokes after it has called up all kinds of different utterances. The emphasis lies on "after" in two ways.

It is crucial that every possible message is heard (that is, public) before it is suspended by something that is above meaning and whose meaning is reconciliation. A society of tolerance and coexistence cannot be established by suppressing certain subject positions, but only by looking for the quality all humans share beyond their specificities. One principle of universalization is the principle of discourse, prominently advocated in Jurgen Habermas's discourse ethics according to which the unforced force of the better argument prevails. This concept represents the belief of modernity in reason, truth, and progress and may undermine its impartiality through its implicit demand for a reason informed by the standards of Western civilization (enlightenment, rationalism). Habermas's theory leads, as Gianni Vattimo puts it, to the "colonization of the lifeworld by a specific form of action, the scientific-descriptive, surreptitiously adopted model" and actually requires "a category of experts ... who decide which communications are to be considered distorted" (1997, 33). An opposite approach, prominently advocated in Jean-Francois Lyotard's ethics of difference, gives up the idea of universal value and truth and requests to accept and live with dissent. This concept is informed bypostmodern theory according to which universal values can only be established at the expense of devaluing and suppressing the diverse. From this perspective, there is agreement only beyond meaning. Following this position, the only universal language is the ability of all humans to feel pain and humiliation, as Richard Rorty concludes in his 1989 book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.24 Put in different words with the same result, there is only agreement before content. We may also refer to Charles Taylor, who, in his discussion of the politics of recognition, considers the "universal human potential"-rather than "anything a person may have made of it"-"a capacity that all humans share" (1994, 41). In the case of the politics of difference, Taylor suggests, "a universal potential is at its basis, namely, the potential for forming and defining one's own identity, as an individual, and as a culture" (42). With respect to Listening Post, we may say that the only thing all people in this

compilation of messages have in common is to have a message. All of them search for answers to the same questions: Who am I? How shall I live?

The magnitude of communication that Listening Post represents can finally be seen as commensurate with life. We all are searching for meaning in life; this fact lies above all utterances. Because of our different cultural and personal backgrounds, we will find diverse, often conflicting answers. According to the theory of discourse ethics, these conflicts are solvable through reasoning, that is, listening and speaking. The aesthetics of Listening Post, with its juxtaposition of the diverse, rather incline to an ethics of dissent that suggests no happy ending on the cognitive level. Listening Post, with its shift of text into an unintelligible object, nonetheless does provide a happy ending on the sensual level, which points back to the discussion of meaning and the sensual in the introduction to this book.



The transformation of text in Listening Post-the shift from meaningful, diverse, and conflicting utterances to a magic, irresistible, elevating experience-corresponds to the shift from the culture of meaning to the culture of presence, or, vis-a-vis Susan Sontag (1966, 14), from hermeneutics to erotics. In its unintelligible form, when Listening Post does not confront us with specific meanings but symbolizes-a "raging river," as Fizz and McFarland (2002) put it-the magnitude of the Web, the concept of listening changes. One does not listen to the words while trying to understand their meaning and judging their message; one "listens"-taking "everything in," as Gibson (2003) says-to the generated visual-sonic event. It is a shift from interpretation to appreciation-appreciation of the sensation presented, of the presence marked by pure intensity. It is a shift that recalls the aesthetic positions of Sontag, Lyotard, and Gumbrecht. In the moment the audience of Listening Post only hears the murmur of the diverse utterances, it experiences the utopia of unity. Listening has shifted from a hermeneutic paradigm to an erotic one.

This shift may be the message Listening Post utters beyond the utterances from the Web it documents. When the messages from the Web become unintelligible, the message of the artwork becomes visible. The crucial point is that the murmur only becomes visible as the utopian image of a unified society after one has become aware of the diversity that the various utterances signify. One has to understand the murmur as an answer to the premurmur state. One has to be close to the screens and endure the distance of reading before walking away and giving in to the immersion. The very fact of the shift from listening to embracing becomes clear only as a result of interpretation.

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