What does the internet sound like?


You may think this is an unusual question to ask. But every day, millions of people visit internet chat albeit by typing rather than by speaking aloud. Ben Rubin (a New York artist) and Mark Hansen (Associate Professor of Statistics at UCLA) were intrigued by the idea of what would happen if they took a momentary snapshot of what people were talking about online (in public chatrooms, forums and bulletin boards), translating and constructing it into a real-time audio-visual experience a dynamic portrait of online communication. The result was Listening Post, an acclaimed piece of electronic art, on show now at London's Science Museum.

Made up of 231 digital displays, with five panning speakers in front and three behind the audience, the installation itself looks as futuristically basic as it can be. But what happens when the 'performance' begins is mesmerising. Hansen's computer program records and replicates fragments of phrases from thousands of public and unrestricted online chatrooms, using Rubin's synthesised voice to turn them into audible snippets. They aren't always comprehensible, either due to misspellings on behalf of the typists, or due to the shorthand people use on the internet (Gr8 does not sound like 'great'; it sounds like G-R-8. Ne1 does not sound like 'anyone', but 'neh-one'), and there is no intonation to the voice. But the melange of sound one hears (and reads simultaneously on one or more of the screens) is fascinating and hypnotising.

Rubin says that he wanted to "hear inaudible phenomena" and "map the observable world into the sound domain." The most banal conversations mingle with the most profound, most abstract and most serious, creating an audio-visual cacophony which is enthralling. I sat there for a good 30 minutes, listening to sentences which melded together to form the following, as an example (spellings and punctuation as viewed):

'Cinderella is calling me lifeless / Ne1 want to chat with 19 yr old Aussie boy? / And it took a stand against mouse abuse / See the 16th chapel / She's bag face for sure poor thing / Send me some but not on my tab / You are such an off White night / Please only speake English here / I could be handsome Daisy I could clean up for you / Lol kyrie I love it when you stalk me all stalkerlike'

The beauty and ingenuity behind Listening Post isn't just the fact that it relies totally on unwitting contributors and our constant need to connect and communicate, nor is it the manner in which it gathers, samples, displays and voices these random snippets from internet chatrooms. It has a remarkably ordered structure to it which renders it almost symphonic in form. The ever-changing 'piece' is split into seven separate 'scenes', each of which has its own internal logic, sifting, filtering and ordering the text in various ways to make a digital and artistic audio-visual tapestry.

One section has a synthetic musical descending sequence which accompanied the reading out of usernames, from 'Little Indian' to 'Horny Jack' to 'Wizard2000'. Then another section was based on the common 'I like' or 'I love' statements, which are filtered specifically for that section of the piece. So I listened to several real-time minutes of people all over the world saying, 'I like/love: cricket, movies, war, my chow mein, Guinness light, USA but I hate Bush, mad coyote, squirrel movies, my women to stand up for themselves, you sweetheart xxx, french onion soup, Israel too, petite lesbians, to destroy, the old black and whites, igloos in the winter, Zeus.'

Read in isolation, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this looks like gobbledegook. But it's the manner in which Rubin and Hansen manipulate, display and essentially perform these real-time phrases (albeit digitally and without direct or immediate personal input) which make it a hypnotising, multi-sensory portrait of online communication. They provide a cross-section of what is 'now', what is relevant to people at this very second in time, all of whom want to reach out and tell someone about it. Their likes, their loves, their hates, their fears, their beliefs nothing is off the radar, nothing is censored. Listening Post is what the online world is talking about right now; a technological, voyeuristic, philosophical and artistic comment or representation of our immediate online environment.

'Anyone who types a message and hits 'send' is calling out for a response,' say Hansen and Rubin. 'Listening Post is our response.'

You can see a clip of Listening Post here, based around the statement "I am". It's much better live, though, so if you're in South Kensington one day, I recommend a (free) visit to the Science Museum:

by Ashley Morrison

Ashley is a blogger, copywriter and editor

Follow me on Twitter @Ashley_Morrison


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