Saturday, September 18, 2010

Bending sound: art to the ears

Since the first mechanical recording by Edison in 1877 artists of the auditory medium have moulded and layered audio elements producing something of immaterial quality, yet able to evoke feeling and transport the inner being. 

Fast forward (pun intended) to today and we are at liberty to access technology that can digitally reproduce and distort sound.  It comes to us without a prerequisite to understand the technical evolution from gramophone to cassette to sound files, and all that is in between.  However, to trace the progress of recording technology would emphasise the significance of the ingenuity of today’s software and hardware.  It has evolved through the insightful and determined imaginings of mavericks in fields of science and art progressing technical capabilities.  The power of software packages such as Pro Tools is a galaxy away from recording beginnings where the first medium to reproduce a sound was the technology of wax paper being etched – the first visual depiction of a sound being recorded (Milner 2009).

Although not speaking of sound directly, Valery’s predictive analysis of impending transformations in notions of art due to the growth in sophistication of techniques is applicable:

“Our fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours. But the amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful....We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bring about an amazing change in our very notion of art.”

– Paul Valery, PIECES SUR L’ART, ‘La Conquete de l’ubiquite,’ Paris.

While the ability to create music without the need to master an instrument would be considered by Valery as ‘profound,’ another significant, more philosophical development is demonstrated through a recent installation by sound artist Stephen Vitiello titled The Sound of Red Earth at Sydney Park Brickworks.  The location of this installation is significant because it is hundreds of thousands of kilometres removed from the source of the sound recordings – the Kimberley region in Western Australia.  By capturing, manipulating and recombining sounds from remote Australia, Vitiello aims to transmogrify the atmosphere in the brickworks kilns and thereby transform the participants experience. Instead of imagining the labour intensive activities that the brickworks were once intended for, the soundscapes produced by Vitiello aim to produce a simulacrum of the Kimberley’s environment.

The reproductive nature of art has been considered as a short fall by Benjamin who chooses to recognise the deficiency of a reproduction by juxtaposing it to the experience of presence: ‘Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.’ (Benjamin 1935: p.214). However, he goes on to recognise‘… technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself.’ (Benjamin 1935: p.214).  In the case of Vitiello’s The Sound of Red Earth installation, the digital recordings borrow from the Kimberley’s and are introduced to an altogether removed location. It is an example of ‘…the desire of contemporary masses to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly’ (Benjamin 1935: p.217).  However, Vitiello is perhaps clumsy in his choice to fit out the kilns with sound equipment that is visually obvious.  Wires, cords, speakers and recording hardware are on display, when it need not be. Technological options of today provide alternatives where the technical hardware aspect of an artwork can be concealed through the use of WiFi devices. 

Without doubt this installation evokes a sense of the Kimberley’s, however not the Kimberley’s precisely.  In the absence of descriptive catalogues explaining the motive and inspiration of this installation, one could imagine any remote area.  In a visually dominated society the non-visual elements of this digitally remediated art work evokes a sensory experience, thereby achieving its ambition of encouraging the creation of a personally imagined experience.



Benjamin, Walter. (1935) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproductions’. In Benjamin, W. (1992) Illuminations. London: Fontana Press. p.214, 217.

Valery.P (1964) Aesthetics, ‘The Conquest of Ubiquity’. In Benjamin, Walter. (1935) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproductions’. In Benjamin, W. (1992) Illuminations. London: Fontana Press. P.211

Friday, September 17, 2010

In the beginning: John Whitney and the genesis of his computer art

An inventor, computer-artist, and a media revolutionary.  These are all aspects of John Whitney. Early on he observed the potential in borrowing logic from other subject areas and applying it to invent ‘… abstract cinema art that would look the way music sounded.’ (Whitney 1980, p.21).  His unabashed account of drawing inspiration from various disciplines is significant to the remediated nature of today’s artistic culture: ‘No medium today, and certainly no single media event, seems to do its cultural work in isolation from other media, any more than it works in isolation from other social and economic forces.’ (Bolter & Grusin 1999).

As Whitney pursued his ambition to create a visual that was music for the eyes, he became acutely aware that his concept was not in fact original.  Earlier attempts including  Leonardo’s exploration into relationships between music and colour and Walter Puttman’s films named after symphonies shared a similar premise.  Abstract film art was also recorded as being explored as early as the 1920’s in Viking Eggeling’s work  Horizontal Vertical Orchestra and Diagonal Symphony, as well as Anaemic Cinema by Marcel Duchamp (Le Grice 1974) .  Although Whitney eventually drew the conclusion that prior attempts had failed because the tools employed were a limitation to the sophisticated concepts trying to be achieved, he too experimented with the devices of the day.  Using cinematic techniques borrowed from Schoenberg he sought to create, what he came to term as, a visualisation of ‘liquid architecture’ (Whitney 1980, p.22). Refusing to allow the inadequacies of current tools and mediums to compromise his vision he instead declared that a new medium was in need of invention.

Fortunately, research into art and technology was beginning to gather some support through various committees in the 1960s.  However, it was through the support of research grants by IBM that Whitney’s work began to gather momentum.  His concept:

‘…I thought that any visual art, structured in time, would need some generative building block – an alphabet or scale. I asked repeatedly what visual elementals might match the scales of tones of music with which numberless musical constructs can be treated, or the alphabets by which an infinity of ideas is constructed. Now that I was free to explore, I soon found that for the first time in history, visual periodicity and harmonics were accessible to dynamic manipulation through the instrument of computer graphics.’ (Whitney 1980, p.p. 29-30)

As his research continued, the politics of achieving a harmonious, collaborative relationship between the fields of art and science deepened. According to Whitney, attitudes needing to be mediated included those who believed the computer to only be capable of ‘sterile mechanisation’ (Whitney 1980, p.31) and those who simply feared the computer’s potential to control society. Interestingly, in contrast to Whitney’s own account of the apprehensions of that time, Darley describes the mood of the day as more optimistic: ‘The dominant tone of this thinking was of intense optimism: technology, was invoked as a panacea for the ills of the present.’.

Whitney saw artists like Jackson Pollock as posing interesting questions that were to become his resolve to research and answer. The relationship between motion, emotion, time and visualisation were all things Whitney wanted to depict visually.  His logic on how to achieve patterned motion took, for the most part, from music. He transposed the idea of music’s tonal patterns and chord formations: ‘…if one [graphical] element were set to move at a given rate, the next element might be moved two times that rate…Each element would move at a different rate and in a different direction within the field of action.’ (Whitney 1980, p.38).  In such descriptions we can observe the mathematical relationships that are applied to music being the foundation of Whitney’s concepts.  Today, software graphics programs like Adobe Illustrator are also based on a mathematical vector foundation, where ‘vectors’ are geometric coordinates that form computer graphics.

While computer art and associated software has experienced exponential advancements  since Whitney’s inventions we are reminded of his contributions through the default pattern imagery in Media Player.  By no means is this retrospective of John Whitney comprehensive, it does highlight some of his major influences that contributed towards his explorations and inventions in computer art – forays which were the impetus, however small, for graphic developments since.

Of equal significance are his intellectual contributions on theorising the emerging role of the computer in fields of art. A fitting summation of his fundamental position being

 ‘…I am on the side of Joseph Weizenbaum…as to whether or not computers will “…write really good music or draw highly meaningful pictures…” Flatly I will express aloud my disbelief at the implication of these words. Computers will do no such thing, of themselves – not ever! Indeed art is a matter of , “judgement – not calculation.” (Whitney 1980, p.124)


Bolter. J.D. & Grusin, R.A. (1999) Remediation: Understanding New Media, Cambridge, Mass; London: MIT Press p.15

Darley, Andrew. 2000. ‘A Back Story: Realism, Simulation, Interaction’ in Andrew Darley. Visual Digital Culture: Surface Play and Spectacle in New Media Genres, London and New York: Routeldge, p.13

Le Grice.Malcolm (1974)  Computer Film as Film Art in Computer Animation, Focal Press p.p 161-168. Retrieved from

Whitney.J (1980) Digital Harmony On the Complementarity of Music and Visual Art, Byte Books; University of Michigan p.21, 22, 29, 30, 31, 38, 124

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Critiquing motive – digital art installation depicted through alternative mini series

Without entering the contentious argument of ‘what is art’, digital art can be narrowly described as unique for the electronic mediums it employs to exercise artistic expression. Like other forms of art it has as much potential to provoke as it has to infringe ethical and moral boundaries. This precarious milieu of provocative artist and exploited subject is demonstrated in a scene of the mini series L word, foregrounding issues already present within our digital era, which include - but are not limited to - surveillance, reputation and privacy.

To contextualise these arguments, a brief background of the unfolding drama within the mini series needs to be understood. Season four and five depicts Bette, a valedictorian, art critic, and current Dean of California University School of the Arts ending her relationship with artist in residence Jodi Lerner. Citing reason for ending their relationship as being unaligned core values, Bette reunites with a former partner while Jodi is left to her own artistic devices to filter and process a break up with a lover who had been emotional astray for some time.

With an impending exhibition, Jodie finds refuge, and more poignantly revenge in objectifying the unaware Bette to demonstrate the theme of her exhibit – titled ‘Core’ representing core values of love, loyalty, honesty and commitment. By engaging various digital techniques the installation is a running film sequence of disjointed periods in time and space where the subject, Bette, is now victim of surreptitiously recorded moments in private settings. This artistic example of remediation via technological devices extracts reality and places it within an altered context: ‘…the sight of immediate reality has become an orchid in the land of technology.’ (Benjamin: 1935 in 1992 p.226).

Compiling distorted sounds with aesthetic permutations, images of a temporally displaced Bette are projected onto geometrically protruding walls while warped sound compounds and heightens the emotive visual effects. Creating greater impact still the visual and audio sequence disregards the one directional screen projection setup and instead beams onto every surface of the space in which the art viewer occupies, evoking a powerful sense of claustrophobia. To view this particular scene go to

Conceptually, an artwork that intends to challenge the conventional power relationship between artist, their work and the art critic is profound. This is precisely the interpretation of the art community, acclaiming it for its demonstration of judging the art critic who is traditionally the judge. However, this installation has deeper, personal intent. In the knowledge of their past relationship we understand the artists’ agenda is not for arts’ sake. Instead this opportunity to repossess power in a vulnerable situation is thus identified as a breach of moral and ethical proportions - identical to the arguments being fought and debated in the all pervasive digitalised culture of today.

Through a public space installation, private boundaries are contravened. The techniques employed to record the subject for this piece mirror the same issues associated with a surveillance society, where privacy and consent cannot be assumed and misrepresentation is beyond our control. Like CCTV the deployment of recording devices in a clandestine manner encroach the privacy of an individual. With the aid of multimedia software the artist has constructed a portrayal of the subject with potentially damaging implications to reputation. While ‘the proliferation of personal data on the Internet can have significant effects on people’s reputations’ (Solove 2007 p. 234) so too can the remediation of identity distributed through mediums where captive audiences await influence.

Whether this scene has been inspired by fact, or simply concocted for dramatic effect, it is an invitation to contemplate the power of surveillance devices when driven by human ill motive. The ability to put to use such devices for the purpose of information gathering, is able to be achieved, irrespective of a subject’s consent. Tagg’s (1988) observation of photography as a technology which ‘…varies with the power relations which invest it’ applies, as is demonstrated by this scene, to all instruments of multi media. As an extension of the technology of photography this example displays the new ability to remediate reality with hardware and software for unethical means. To be clear, this is not accusing technology of being unethical. Rather, it provides an example of the seemingly invisible, yet intrusive nature of nano technology, capable of collecting information on a subject, which, when in the hands of a remediating Svengali, is capable of reconstructing the reputation of that subject which inevitably has the ability to influence audiences in positive and negative ways.