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LISTENING

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					LISTENING POST
Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin
http://www.earstudio.com/projects/listeningpost.html

Ben Rubin: Artist's Statement
I used to wonder whether it might be possible to hear the sounds of ancient
potters chatting by "playing" the grooves formed on pots thrown a thousand
years ago. For years, I have thought about ways to hear inaudible phenomena,
ways to map the observable world into the sound domain.

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.

Anyone who types a message in a chat room and hits "send" is calling out for a
response. Listening Post is our response -- a series of soundtracks and visual
arrangements of text that respond to the scale, the immediacy, and the meaning
of this torrent of communication.

Every word that enters our system was typed only seconds before by someone,
somewhere. The irregular staccato of theses arriving messages form the visual
and audible rhythms of the work. The sound-generating systems are constructed
almost as wind chimes, where the wind in this case is not meteorological but
human, and the particles that move are not air molecules but words. At some
level, Listening Post is about harnessing the human energy that is carried by all
of these words, and channeling that energy through the mechanisms of the
piece.

Listening Post represents the most significant outcome so far of my collaboration
with Mark Hansen, the only artist I know whose medium of expression is
statistics. Since we began working together, my conceptual vocabulary has
grown to include notions like clustering, smoothing, outliers, high-dimensional
spaces, probability distributions, and other terms that are a routine part of Mark's
day-to-day work. Having glimpsed the world through Mark's eyes, I now hear
sounds I would never have thought to listen for.

Mark Hansen: Artist's Statement
5:45am, 11/29/01, Chinatown. On this rainy morning, I am alone in Ben's studio
putting the various pieces of Listening Post through their paces. It takes four
computers and as many operating systems to generate the pulses of soft blue
light and the accompanying waves of synthetic sounds and voices. After a little
more coffee I'll check on the data. Thousands of people are waking up and
signing on, greeting friends in chat rooms, posting messages, and sparring for
the inevitable online debates that will take place once the rest of their world
revives.

I met Ben two years ago at a workshop organized by BAM and Lucent
Technologies. The event was held in the upper floors of a building at the
southern tip of Manhattan. There, with all of Brooklyn spread before us, Ben told
me about his life with sound. Given the subject of Listening Post, it seems fitting
that this initial conversation took place high above the city. From that vantage
point it's hard not to be drawn to the pedestrians, the taxis and subway trains, all
in motion - the flow of thousands of lives.

At the workshop, Ben told me about his interest in translating data into sound. He
described a community of researchers tapping the human auditory system for
new ways to make meaningful observations about data. Can we hear certain
patterns in a data set that are difficult to recognize with traditional visualization
tools? Ben's eloquence and conviction were hard to dismiss, and so our
collaboration began. Our proposal for the BAM/Lucent program was primarily
about "data sonification"; it seemed like a natural first step for a statistician and a
sound artist.

At that point, my research focused on modeling how people made use of
information systems. Think Web sites, search engines and WAP phones. I was
accustomed to discovering users through the traces of their activities left behind
in (massive) log files captured by various servers in the network. Early in our
work together, Ben and I agreed that our projects should have a strong social
component. As we considered various data sources, I remember suggesting chat
as an ideal candidate. After a couple weeks of observing the dynamics of active
online forums, we knew we were onto something. Over the next few months, we
refined our ideas through public performances and academic talks and
publications.

From its conception, Listening Post has been a product of our combined talents.
The space is as much about an artistic expression as it is data analysis. There
were no (well, few) disciplinary divides in the process that produced the space
you are about to enter. Ben had as much input in data collection and modeling as
I did on questions of design and aesthetics.

And that's how I come to find myself sitting here this morning, in the company of
so many stray thoughts, appearing and disappearing on the displays, resonating
in sound and voice. This installation, its physical presence as well as the
underlying intellectual questions, are new for me, as they are for Ben. I suppose
it's the mark of a genuine collaboration, that the participants are led in directions
they could never have imagined apart.

To the architects of the BAM/Lucent program, Wayne Ashley and Marah
Rosenberg, I offer my deepest thanks. I also want to mention my friend and
Department Head, Diane Lambert, who gave me the freedom to pursue this

				
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posted:9/6/2011
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