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<nettime> abroeck: Reseau/Resonance
Andreas Broeckmann on Fri, 17 Jan 2003 14:10:03 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> abroeck: Reseau/Resonance


(This text was first presented as a talk at the artmedia 8 conference,
Paris, on 29 November 2002. Artmedia was co-organized by University of
Salerno, CFCE (Centre Français du Commerce Extérieur), the ENS (Ecole
Normale Supérieure) and Leonardo/Olats that hosts the web site and
publishes the proceedings online http://www.olats.org/artmedia8.html.
Thanks to Annick Bureaud.  Comments welcome. -abroeck)



Andreas Broeckmann

Reseau/Resonance - Connective processes and artistic practice

feels like I'm falling into this stream of sound / going back and 
coming forward / backwards and forwards, caught on the wave of a wave
(Jeff Noon, Needle in the Groove)


1. Into the Wire

Most internet art projects use the net solely as a telematic and
tele-communicative transmission medium that connects computers and servers
through which artists, performers and users exchange data, communicate and
collaboratively create files and events. At the same time, some artists
are exploring the electronic networks as specific socio-technical
structures with specific forms of social and machinic agency related to
them, in which people and machines interact in ways unique to this
environment. Recent projects by Knowbotic Research, Marko Peljhan and
Carsten Nicolai, Ulrike Gabriel, and Atau Tanaka, use the net as a
performative space of social and aesthetic resonance in which notions of
subjectivity, action and production are being articulated and re-assessed.
This text discusses the notion of ’resonance' in order to think through
these approaches to network-based art practices.

Resonance is, first and foremost, a phenomenon of sound. The acoustical
instruments that we know, from the flute and the trumpet to the guitar and
the piano, use the resonance activated by hitting the strings or blowing
into them to bring about the instruments' sounds. The sound of the guitar
are the waves effected in the body of the guitar by the vibrating strings
that have been struck or plucked by the player. These vibrations transform
into the rich an full-bodied sound of the acoustic guitar.

An art project that articulates the notion of resonance in relation to the
Internet is the Global String, a recent project by Paris-based artist Atau
Tanaka and his colleague Kaspar Toeplitz. Tanaka has explored the
performative and acoustical qualities of network structures in many
performances of the Sensorband, in which he is joined by the two sound
artists Edwin van der Heide and Zbigniew Karkowski. Global String is a
network installation which consists of two steel strings, up to 12 metres
in length, placed in two separate locations which are connected through an
Internet connection. Each of the strings ends in an interface that is able
to pick up the vibration of the string and transform it into a signal that
can be sent across the Internet. Additionally, there is a magnetic
actuator which can activate the string according to the signal received
from the other string. The two parts of the Global String can thus be
thought of as the two ends of a single string, connected to each other
through the virtual space of the network. The signal travelling from one
end to the other is not transmitted in its pure form, but is modulated by
the number of hops it has to take through the Net's server space, the
amount of traffic it encounters on the server nodes, and the delay time
that it experiences on its journey. The parameters chosen for the
modulation of the sound are defined by these technical conditions. Like in
a physical, acoustical instrument, the physical technological
infrastructure of the Internet modulates the sound that can be heard at
one end of the string when it is hit or plucked at the other end. Global
String uses the Net and its infrastructure as a tuned resonant body and is
thus both an interactive, telematic installation and an electro-acoustical
instrument.

One of the aims of this essay is to ascertain in how far the notion of
resonance can, beyond such a literal application of the concept of
resonance in the network, function as a useful metaphor and concept for
describing specific aspects of an aesthetics of network-based art.


2. Making Things Hum

The US-American artist Mark Bain has dealt with the phenomenon of
resonance in a most radical way. In his series of ’resonant
architectures', Bain seeks out the resonant frequencies of built
structures like houses and bridges. Each structure has its own frequency
at which it starts to resonate, making it possible to veritably ’play' a
building by mechanically exciting it. Thus, the building itself can be
made to act as a resonant body, as the body of an over-sized acoustical
instrument.

Bain has studied the properties of resonance in depth. He writes:

'The basic idea is that when a system is stimulated with a
self-reinforcing method of activation, then a kind of self-propelled
resonance can occur. As I've described with some of my work on buildings,
this resonance becomes a kind of ringing of the architecture; a complex
grouping of structural elements coupled to an acoustic activator which
feeds the system.  A similar concept is the 'standing wave', where all the
elements along with the provocative force combine into a stable
situation.'

Bain continues

'Resonance seems to straddle a knife-edge between stability and
instability depending on the motivating factors.  One element that can't
be left out though is that of the self-referential or feedback.  This is
where the system is self-sensing or feeling its own output in order to
align the proper input and therefore reinforcing the output again.  This
sensing line back to itself is required for any kind of suitable resonance
to occur.  As you can see in this arrangement, potentials for things to
lose control are great.  (...) Essentially though this destabilized form
is always looking for stability (imagine atomic and molecular structures),
but of course it may have to destroy everything in its path first.
Resonance also has a kind of efficiency, which makes it seem that the sum
of the parts is much greater than what is put in originally.' (M. Bain,
private communication, October 2002)

Much earlier, John Cage has pointed out the fact that the human body can
also function as a resonant object which produces its own continuous
soundscape that envelops us. Cage describes how he was trying to find a
fully silent space and entered an anechoic room at Harvard University
where, as he recalls, “I heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I
described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that one was my
nervous system in operation, the low one was my blood circulation. Until I
die, there will be sounds." (1961, cit. Sherburne, Parachute 107, p.68).

These examples illustrate that resonance is an intensely analogue
phenomenon which is immediately tied to the physical properties of an
object, body or structure, properties which range from the molecular
micro-structure to the overall macro-structure and the configuration of
the materials in space. When taken from an electronic source, resonance is
the material transformation of the wave form in electronic currents into a
physical experience or event. Resonance is the agitated response of matter
to the immaterial call of the electronic wave.

The transmutation of electrical currents into material wave forms already
surprised the researchers of electricity in the 18th century, who were
exploring the wonderous continuity between the visible and the invisible
world of the yet hardly understood phenomena of the electrical current.
The Hungarian-German researcher Ernst Florens Friedrich Chladni published,
in 1787, a book called the ’Theory of Sound'. In this book he presented
research that he had done on the effect that physical excitation would
have on a glass plate covered by graphite. Chladni would use the bow of a
violin to stroke along the side of these glass plates, discovering that
depending on the material of the plate and the speed of the stroke, the
graphite would form very distinct star-shaped patterns which were a
remediation of the sonic vibration as an image. Chladni's ’sound figures'
are a visible manifestation of standing wave resonance on the material
surface of the glass plates. They illustrate the physical continuum
between the waves constituting the experiences of light, sound and matter
whose existence as specific, separate events of perception depend on the
perceptive system which categorises them as optical, acoustical or
material.

Another master of these explorations, Nikola Tesla, not only did an
experiment which precisely prefigures Mark Bain's experiments in resonant
architecture, when Tesla fed back the resonant frequency of a skyscraper
in New York to the building until it started vibrating and almost
collapsed. Tesla also did extensive research about infrasonic waves and
thus laid the basis for the research about acoustic weapons which in turn
target the human body as the aim of their penetrating sound waves.

Resonance thus becomes the medium for sculpting with the hidden acoustic
and material potentials of all things material.


3. With the Flow

The question is in how far we can speak of electronic network space as a
resonant space. Although constituted by material technical objects, the
network system is characterised by the discontinuity of its parts and the
discreetness of the digital signals that flow through it. In a practical
sense, it will hardly be possible to make a network connection hum in the
same way as a telegraphic wire may hum in the wind, or the way Mark Bain's
Live Room resonated through the walls as well as the bodies of its
visitors.

Networks, however, resonate in a different sense of the word which is
worth exploring. Philip Sherburne, for instance describes the increasing
liquidity of the digital soundscape:

The digital object seeps between the cracks of matter, spills out of the
grooves of the vinyl or aluminium disc and becomes liquid. In this model,
a model so nascent we can hardly recognize its true impact, music ceases
to be a question of objects and becomes an issue of pure circulation -
hence the burgeoning culture of peer-to-peer trading, and also remixes,
bootlegs, versions and repackaging underground hits as car commercials and
writing concertos for the turntable." (ibid., p.68-9)

This understanding of excitation, of liquidity and resonance departs from
a narrow physical understanding of resonance and its foundation in the
transformation of waves. In a technological infrastructure like the
digital networks, the material of transformation and propagation, the
carrier of waves can also be strings of digital code and information
segments. Atau Tanaka's project Global String refers to such
trans-mediations between the analogue vibration of the string and the
digital representations of this vibration through the actuators and their
tuned transmission.

A highly modular, heterogenous disposition was presented by the
telecommunications artist Marko Peljhan and sound artist Carsten Nicolai
in their installation project POLAR which was first presented by the now
defunct Canon ArtLab in Tokyo. POLAR constitutes a complex interface to
the network which it approaches as a quasi-animated organism of knowledge.
Data streams, zones of intensity and information structures are
represented by different visual and acoustic modules which can be modified
interactively by the visitor.  The installation is not concerned with the
knowledge stored and represented in the network, but with the technical
infrastructure of the network which is the object of this aesthetical
investigation. As a reminiscence to the intelligent ocean in Andrej
Tarkovski's film Solaris, POLAR speculates about a complex and unbounded,
autonomous technoid intelligence into which the visitor is allowed partial
insights. Requests sent through the network are fed back as transformed,
amplified, fragmented experiences that immerse the visitor in a resonant
environment that treats text, sound and technology as a continuous matrix
connecting semiotic with self-expressive strata.

In his more recent explorations, Mark Bain is on a similar trail. He
writes:

'Lately, I have been working with data networks and the audification or
sonification of data streams.  Using 'sniffer' agents to capture and
listen to pure data signals allows you to hear on a certain base level,
the activity of a signal without using the usual modes of perception.  
There are sniffing agents that are also designed to analyze the Internet,
showing you peaks and nodes of activity and connection, providing a better
understanding of what and where things are happening.' (ibid.)

The network environment in which these signals travel is made up of
machines as much as of the people who use them for all different types of
communication and data transfer. Bain continues:

'(Sometimes) the Internet feels sluggish and the bits don't get through,
user peak and slow death.  But then alternate connections develop,
rerouting to other locations and thus disturbing normal traffic that was
already there, expanding, propelling, growing, and speeding to the
shortest point possible.  You see it in the way the time of day plays a
factor in who's online and where, like an electronic horizon moving across
the earth in clockwork motion.  And when networks crash, a system
provocateur.  Feedback and ripple effects also occur due to the very
nature of the nets medial form.  Self-generating Spam, virus hoaxes, news
events, hackavism, all lead to these peaks in flows. - Ultimately, net
resonance resides in the users.  The net is just the connective tissue
allowing the flow to occur.  And where you have flow, dynamics and action,
resonance effects will be endemic to that system.' (ibid.)

You can see us entering a different terrain when we think of the net as a
resonant space in which the vibrato of the spammer, the wave of a small
yet powerful computer virus spread and resonante with particular ease
across the world of Windows and Microsoft Outlook.  The spam-driven grunge
of Lagos, the smooth glitch of Redmont, spinning on our hard-drives,
tickling the wires, jumping from node to node.

The material basis of network-based resonance is uninterrupted
connectivity, a machinic continuum that has its own properties burnt into
processors and software configurations. As in the models of architectural
resonance quoted earlier, this digital resonance is based on the
generative qualities of software which is able to multiply its effects in
a favourable network environment where through feedback it can acquire an
uncontrollable, at times destructive dynamics which will lead to a
temporary stabilisation on another plane. And it is this instability which
is creatively used by the artists practicing net activism: The politics of
the Net are inseparable from the technological and juridical regimes that
rule it. The trick, as in Bain's resonant architecture, is to find the
resonant frequencies that make networked computers hum ...

This kind of feedback has featured prominently in the artistic work of
Japanese artist Seiko Mikami who implicates the perceptual system of the
installation visitor into strongly involving techno-physiological feedback
loops. Similarly, German artist Nikolas Anatol Baginsky has built
intricate dispositions in which neural networks serve robotic
installations to react with ever more simulated intelligence and precision
to a visiotor's presence.

We encounter an even more direct confrontation with the physical
efficacity of networked data realities in Ulrike Gabriel's project Sphere.
This project is based on the construction of a data body which is an
abstract and externalised representation of the Internet user. This
’sphere' can be used as a kind of tele-bomb to shoot down the network
terminal of another user. The trajectory of this projectile moves across
IP-space of the Internet which is mapped back to the geographical
coordinates of the globe. On a precisely calculated orbit, the projectile
of the data-sphere effects electro-magnetic turbulences on the computers
it passes on its route, before the sphere forcefully hits its target and
temporarily disturbs the electrical field on computer screens, in
projections and light sources. As in other works of Ulrike Gabriel, we
experience an intense and violent articulation of technology and
perception, of cybernetic systems and physiological experience. The
network is the site at which digital presence is constituted, medialised
and consumed. The medialisation of this confrontation is the
electro-magnetic resonance of the data-body on its trajectory through the
physical space of the network. The subject of this medialisation emerges
from the sharp, edgy interface between body, information and trajectory, a
phylum which resonates at the frequency of fear.


4. In the Guts

When a heavy sound hits us, it reminds us of the physical nature of the
sound wave, and of the material presence of our bodies in space.  Think of
the moment when you are sitting somewhere inside and a truck waiting
outside turns the whole building, including yourself, into a resonating
instrument. The sound is, at the same time, disembodied and
non-directional, as well as penetrating deep into our guts.

In electronic music and sound art, the relationship between technology,
space and the human body as it is sculpted by resonant sounds has been
explored in depth. The visually and sonically excessive performances by
Granular Synthesis overwhelm the viewers and deliberately blur the
boundaries between image, sound and body in aggressively immersive spatial
configurations. Quite differently, La Monte Young's long-term installation
Dream House (1993-2003) which can still be seen at the Melafoundation in
New York until next year, finely sculpts a sonic environment which
envelops the visitor and gives him a strong sense of space, place, and the
effect that his own movements in the space are having on the sonic
conditions of the space.

A set recently played at the dis-patch Festival in Belgrade (Cinema REX,
23 Oct. 2003) by Swedish musician Andreas Berthling and a trio called Tape
travelled precisely on the boundary between pure resonance and the coded
sound of music. With his computer, Berthling created very lush, standing
sound waves which turned the performance space into a single continuous
sound object, whereas his co-musicians played different acoustical
instruments that were able to break the continuous envelope and define
time, place and musical meaning through their rhythmic and partly melodic
play. The performance oscillated between the disembodied and subjectless
experience of the resonant sounds, and the structured musical
interventions. It was possible to experience that music is the
representational mode of sound, transcending the purely physiological
impact of the sound waves on to a semiotic level. Resonance is a function
of the disposition coupling space, sound, technology and bodies into a
heterogenous machine. In contrast, music works with the separation and the
decoupling of space, sound and body through rhythm and melodic structures
which subjectify the listener by placing him in a context of semiotic
systems and modes of socially meaningful sonic representations.

Is the contrast between resonance and music homologuous to that between
’becoming machine' and ’becoming subject'? The electronically induced
resonant wave forces a transgression which can be described as cyborgian,
as was attempted by British music theorist Kodwo Eshun when a few years
ago he talked about the vocoder as a technico-musical instrument for
narrowing the gap between human and technological music machines.

In one of the most impressive pieces of network-based art so far, the
group Knowbotic Research created the installation Anonymous Muttering
which was first presented in Rotterdam in 1996. In their self-developed
connective interfaces, Knowbotic Research have, for many years, explored
the possibilities and the conditions of networked action and cooperation.
Anonymous Muttering is their most radical gesture as yet in the direction
of a dramatisation of the interface in which dislocated subjects resonate
in a translocal, techno-social environment. For this installation, the
music from DJ-events is transmitted, digitised and cut up by a computer
into small, granular sound units which are in turn recomposed in a
felt-like sound surface according to parameters of probability. These
sounds are projected in the installation which is delimited by two circles
of stroboscopic lights and a loop of loudspeakers. A silicon membrane,
through which the data flow, is placed in the installation.  It can be
bent, turned and folded by the visitors who thus fold and modulate the
felt of sound. A similar, net-shaped JAVA interface on the website of the
project can be pushed and pulled in a similar fashion by visitors of the
website who can thus interact in realtime with the same sound events that
are also projected into the on-site installation and follow it through a
live-stream on the net. The productive tension between local and
trans-local possibilities of intervention, between human and technical
agents can be experienced as an irritating and overwhelming oscillation
between order and sheer perceptive, de-subjectified sublimation. Anonymous
Muttering sends bodies spinning, with eyes and ears, humming and hovering
in a space that is all light and sound, without boundaries. Resonating in
perception.


5. On a Different Note

I would like to end on a note that is different from this rather romantic
fantasy of immersion and transgression. In their most recent work, Minds
of Concern, the group Knowbotic Research invite gallery visitors to choose
from a list of selected NGOs whose Internet servers are subsequently
port-scanned in order to discover potential security risks on those
servers. The results of these port-scans are published in a news-ticker on
the website, though in encrypted form.  The project Minds of Concern seeks
to raise awareness around the contested public space of the electronic
networks in which the most progressive agents often run the greatest risk,
and it wants to point to the dilemma that the enlightened, liberal NGO
world needs to protect itself and police the technological boundaries of
the very zones of liberty that it opens up.

In our present context, Minds of Concern is relevant because it rejects a
notion of resonance, in which the wires would start to hum, and instead
uses the principle of syncopation, the hard rhythm of the exploitation
tools scanning and attacking the outer shells of the Internet server.
While network resonance is a fascinating and potentially beautiful
phenomenon to study, the urgency of the political situation, in which the
war that was declared in the days after September 11th continuous to rage
and penetrate deeper and deeper into our lives, in this situation we may
not want to seek the immersion of resonance but the syncopated
subjectivation of port-scan reality.



Online references

Nicolas Anatol Baginsky - http://www.provi.de/~nab
Ulrike Gabriel: Sphere - http://www.codelab-berlin.de
Paul Garrin: Name.Space - http://name-space.com
Knowbotic Research - http://www.krcf.org
Seiko Mikami - http://bionet_org.tripod.com
Marko Pejhan/Carsten Nicolai: POLAR - 
http://www.canon.co.jp/cast/artlab/artlab10/
RTMark - http://www.rtmark.com
Atau Tanaka: Global String - http://www.sensorband.com/atau/
Herwig Weiser: zgodlocator - http://www.zgodlocator.org
La Monte Young: Dream House (1993, NYC, The Mela Foundation)
http://melafoundation.org/dream02.htm




Berlin/Paris, 29 November 2002



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