Monday, November 18, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

E-mail article     Print

Pop Fizz / Melanie McFarland

Listening Post gives bits, bytes the sound of music

Ping. "Think real hard about what you just posted. Horse's arse."

Oh, if only the author of this sentence knew the resounding wisdom of this statement.

Yes, it's far from eloquent, and the Fizz has no idea what the subject is talking about. It could be in reference to a political or religious declaration, a mean boy or a cute girl, any number of strange sexual proclivities. We are talking about the Internet here.

Further, said author could be anywhere on the planet. I'm seeing his words at On the Boards, disembodied, out of context. They slowly roll up a small screen that should be on a cash register, hanging with 230 other screens, all with different messages blessed with more intellectual poignancy or cursed with less.

First a gentle bell tone sounds, then a computer vocalizes the sentence in a flat robot voice affected with a British accent. Sitting in the dark, staring at the gushing stream of chat-room content before us, a few of us watch 231 sentences gleaned from Internet chat rooms in real time march before us as a computer translates them into music. It creates a songbook whose melodies are ever-changing, with verses that don't repeat.

Then silence, and the another scene begins, a slow climb up each column of Web handles like Pizzaface, gigamugged and cancer_gurl. Next is a gushing flood of chatter, text flying by like blood racing through a vessel, accompanied by the chittering sound of a rainstorm.

This is Listening Post, an art installation being workshopped at On the Boards before heading to the Whitney Museum in New York for a three-month stay. It is driven by the simple notion that the Internet has a musical sound all its own. Not just in terms of that strange electronic voice, but based on the raw data of messages, turning bytes and bits into corresponding notes.

In general, high culture has not quite figured out what to make of art born of the Internet. Even to acknowledge such a thing exists is somewhat revolutionary; computer-based content is a tool, yes. A plaything, a helpmate, a means to any variety of ends. But if you can't hang it on a wall or hear it, is it art?

This installation chortles yes, in millions of words each hour. As it evolves, word is getting out on the project, and it may one day be considered a vanguard in the realm of visual computer-produced art. It's also serving as a vehicle for the public's introduction to Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen, quiet bespectacled Easterners who appear to excel in dreaming to the edge of various possibilities, then slaving to make their thoughts tangible.

Rubin has exhibited his work around the world, and collaborated with the likes of Arto Lindsay and Laurie Anderson, and he's one of a very few who even think about what the Web, and the human voices connecting through typefaces within it, might sound like.

This is a man, after all, who once tried to fathom whether it was possible to play ridges on ancient pots to hear their creators' dialogue.

Playing pots might not seem like a worthwhile quest, but straining melodies from the silent cacophony of the Internet absolutely is. Harmonies exist in the ambient noises all around us at any given time, and if you really bend your ear, you can hear them.

Listening Post makes exploring this mystery even more personal, breathing warmth into the millions of lone-standing typed voices by blending all into a crazed choir as notes sound behind them. The combination can be dissonant or soothing. Sometimes it approaches patterns that sound like they were intentionally scored.

Rubin and Hansen created the installation after meeting at a workshop by the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Lucent Technologies in 1999. Since then, they have built the installation from a small concept into a ceiling-to-floor bank of screens that sing, individually at first, then slowly layering voices on top of each other into a babbling symphony of chat-room ephemera.

Casting their computers' net into an infinite number of chat rooms, they pull up content, processed in text form by the viewer and in surging bytes and bits by computers, which look for patterns onto which they assign an individual note. The author's words don't matter to the machine, but the combination of vocalization, melody and content can strike the viewer as beautiful, bizarre and occasionally comedic.

Listening Post is also completely unfiltered, resulting in some interesting blurts that may make you wonder if computers blush. 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?"

What does it mean? Depends on what an individual's brain processes. 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.

Had the above chat-room skulker known that his retort was destined to be part of the groundbreaking installation Listening Post, would more eloquent words have been chosen? Would the person care that, for a few seconds, the sentence had been incorporated into an art installation destined for a renowned museum? Before it can be considered further, the words are gone in a blink. Forever.

With pleasant ping, another directive replaces them: "Be happy."

From the standpoint of both cynic and computer, the words are meaningless. Nice music in them, though.

Thought bubbles: On its first day, Listening Post, which runs 5-8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and 1-8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, cycled through four sections, with a total running time of about 10 minutes. Rubin and Hansen hope to have added more content before the end of its Seattle run this Sunday. The visit is free, so you might want to revisit On the Boards, 100 W. Roy, toward the end of the week.

E-mail your melodious text to Pop Fizz at


Get home delivery today!