Mark Hansen, Ben Rubin, “Listening Post: Giving Voice to On-Line Communication,” Proceedings of the 2002 International Conference on Auditory Display, Kyoto, Japan, July 2-5, 2002 (pdf)
Listening Post is a multimedia art installation designed to convey the magnitude and diversity of online communication. This unique space provides a meaningful rendering of a massive data stream consisting of thousands of simultaneous conversations. In this article, we explore specifically how the audio component of the installation provides a structure that enables visitors to make sensible inferences from this complex, dynamic data. Listening Post makes use of a multi-layer audio display consisting of mechanical noises (relay clicks), sampled sounds, and synthesized voices. We illustrate how these components, together with a very simple visual display, combine and interact to give visitors a sense of the topics being discussed in thousands of chat rooms, all in real time. Finally, we discuss some of the systems and software infrastructure necessary to create the complex audio display.
The sequence of tones selected also follows a kind of self-organizing principle. The pattern that emerges is musical, and the visitor can begin to predict likely “next pitches”. This prediction is not completely accurate, however, because we are not simply cycling through a fixed sequence of pitches. The prevalence of topics fuels the rate of matches which in turn drives the rhythm and mix of pitches in the room.
Subjectively, it seemed as though it was possible to selectively attend to a given utterance even when there may have been as many as forty simultaneous voices in the room. This degree of stream segregation was surprising to us, and we suspect it is due to a combination of several factors:
• The pitching of the voices and the musically-arranged sequence in which pitches were chosen;
• The creation of compound events composed of three types of sounds together (click, tone, voice);
• The use of multiple sources of sound in space
Because of its power as a compositional tool, Max is responsible for determining values for aesthetic parameters governing the audio display. For inter-process communication, we make extensive use of the Open Sound Control (OSC)  protocol originally developed for Max. We wrote a general purpose OSC client in Perl  so that Max can communicate with the other pieces of the system. We created a sequence of OSC devices that specify scene type and parameter values. Messages sent to Max included start/stop indicators for the scenes, tickers to record specific events within each scene, and activity monitors that kept Max informed of the activity on the display. As an example, consider the “content” scene explained in Section 4. When an agent identifies a sample to display, several events are triggered simultaneously: 1) the relay on the display makes a loud clicking noise; 2) Max generates a pitched tone, and 3) the TTS engine reads the content displayed on the screen in a monotone voice pitched to match that of the introductory tone. Here is the sequence of events that take place to create this. To start the scene, the controller on the Linux PC sends an OSC message to a port on the NT computer corresponding to this scene. The message specifies how long the scene should run for. When the scene starts, the program on the NT computer sends Max an OSC message indicating that the scene has begun. It also starts a single agent scrolling on the display, and gradually introduces more as the scene progresses.
When Max receives notification that this scene has begun, it sends the TTS engine an OSC message specifying the pitch and volume that the next voice should speak at. These messages are of the form /lp/content/pitchvol p v where p and v are integers. (In terms of the OSC protocol, the first string is a symbolic address that we structure to represent the project, lp, the scene, content, and the parameter names, p and v.) When one of the agents finds a match in the data stream, it sends the message to the display along with the specification that a loud click be issued. It also sends signals to Max and the TTS engine. The latter message consists of the text the TTS engine is to speak (at a pitch and volume previously specified by Max). The notice to Max is of the form /lp/content/pulse. Periodically, Max will also receive messages that record the “activity” on the display; that is the number of text units that currently hold content. Max uses this to adjust the volume of the voices in the room. The OSC message is now of the form /lp/content/activity a, where a is an integer from 0 to 110. When Max receives notice that a match happens, it plays a sample with the pitch sent previously to the TTS engine. It also sends an OSC message to the TTS engine, giving it the volume and pitch of the next voice.
As can be seen from this example, each of the computers involved in creating a Listening Post scene speaks more or less directly to each of the other computers. OSC is the substance of this communication.
Martha Buskirk, “Original Copies,” The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art, MIT Press, 2003, pp. 59-105 (pdf) Further material
Douglas Eklund, “The Pictures Generation,” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Introductory essay plus slide show entries.
Gary Indiana, “These ‘80s Artists Are More Important Than Ever,” T Magazine, The New York Times, February 13, 2017.
One of the least helpful clichés of recent years has been the declaration that some phenomenon or person is “on the wrong side of history”; the presumption that history is headed, with occasional setbacks, toward a much-improved, even utopian state of things could only be endorsed by someone unfamiliar with history. Mistaking the perfection of our devices for the perfection of ourselves relieves us of responsibility for what happens to the world: It will just naturally turn out O.K., sooner or later. But technology can easily outrun our comprehension of what it does to us, even while it incarnates our wishes, fears and pathologies. (What could be more pathological than a nuclear weapon?)
The Pictures artists, so-called, were born in Cold War America, during the schizoid cultural meshing of unparalleled national prosperity with the daily threat of looming nuclear annihilation. They grew up with Hollywood movies, low-def network television and ad-heavy pictorial magazines like Look and Life as the audiovisual wallpaper of their childhoods, mostly in American suburbs.
They were intellectuals as well as artists, a disfavored combination throughout most of American art history: Artists weren’t supposed to think about the implications of what they were doing, or the overall context in which it appeared.
Above all else, these artists addressed power, especially patriarchal power, at its quotidian level of social engineering, as well as in its grip on art history.
Photographs could be staged to emphasize the look of artfully subtle, unremarked female stereotypes in movies (Cindy Sherman), or to picture toy housewives in miniature home interiors, evoking the pathos of domestic imprisonment (Laurie Simmons). Photos could be excavated from the morgues of bygone magazines and science journals, blown up and bannered with jarring, sardonic captions (Barbara Kruger). Images could be scissored out of National Geographic and Vogue, and repatriated to blocks of strident primary colors, where their fetishistic weirdness became hilariously disturbing (Sarah Charlesworth). A photo could present art in the settings it occupies after it’s sold, on walls of rich collectors, corporate offices and other privileged venues — today, typically, a billionaire’s storage facility (Louise Lawler).
But above all else, the Pictures artists addressed power, especially patriarchal power, at its quotidian level of social engineering, as well as in its grip on art history. If we are to think of the Pictures Generation as an art movement, then it was the first one in history that included a substantial number of women artists. Much of the early resistance to it was flagrantly misogynistic, though its male artists came in for their own share of ridicule from newspaper and magazine critics, whose favorite dismissive word for this art was “brainy.”
It’s no accident that we are giving these artists a careful second look now. Whatever progressiveness was afforded by the Obama era has come full circle to an isolationist longing where an unpredictable celebrity president speaks directly to an electorate that is collectively backlit by technology’s artificial glow. The emotional resonance of the Pictures Generation has accrued over time, strengthened by its curious suitability to the present.