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Hiaz.VeniceFrankfurtTorinor1.1 - 05 Jul 2005 - 13:17 - TWikiGuesttopic end

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Venice - Frankfurt -Torino

three projects by farmersmanual involving network sonification and visualization in different contexts/environments

A little more than a year ago, someone asked us to do a project at the Venice Biennale. Our original plan was to do an installation piece, but it was turned down only a week before the opening, so I took my time to travel there and see for myself what could be done instead. There is something very particular about Venice: on this island, there are no motorbikes or cars – they are forbidden. So the place is very quiet — just people walking and navigating small boats. The boats can be noisy but if you are in a larger piazza at eight in the evening when everyone sits down for dinner, it is dead quiet. I tried to put together a performance instead of the installation piece, but it is very difficult to use large sound systems and so our solution to this whole problem was to get onto a boat and do a performance on a boat. There are no laws dealing with this issue, maybe because so far no one has complained about another boat playing excessively loud music. Although this project was one of the hardest I have ever tried to organise, it was also one of the most rewarding.

One thing that was very interesting was just the experience of being on a boat together with a small group of people, and people who do not know each other very well. The boat was half the size of this room and fifteen people spent four days on it, from morning until evening. We were forced to deal with each other because there is no way of escape. This created a very interesting atmosphere, where the smaller groups fuse into a larger group in a very short time.
Also, the place is so famous with so much happening around the official Biennale that the one problem during the opening days is getting people to your event. With the boat we could do the opposite: we could go wherever the people were. We were able to produce very loud volumes and the first people to call up the water police were the Italian navy marine school next to the Giardini, because they had the impression that some of their gun ships had been stolen! The worst thing about the project was that we had nobody to whom we could actually communicate who we are and what we are doing to our involuntary audience, and thus few people ever found out about us.


My friends who also work on farmersmanual eventually left Vienna for other cities because they had better opportunities there to earn money. We were forced to collaborate by using the Internet and we would only meet when we were invited to do a presentation. Because of this, as well as the ‘90s hype about the Internet, we were very positive about actually continuing our collaboration online and releasing all our material on the web for free download. After two or three years, we realised that it can be very difficult to work together online: exchange is heavily slowed down and once you need to work at the same time on the same project it can be less intimate than a phone-call, because there a just a view text messages coming through every now and then. And while we were performing abroad we also realized that only few people had the infrastructure to download all the free material on our servers. The “true democratic impulse of the internet” is not worth as much when you are not part of the rich, technologically literate, first-world elite as we are ourselves. Luckily we found an approach to use the network environment as the natural environment for our music: we decided that the communication between computers on the network should be become the score for our software instruments.

Let me try to explain this: A lot of the research being done today is in areas that we cannot sense. People have to find ways to look at or experience the results of their experiments by turning them into something that they can access. A lot of this work is visual, and what you can see here is a project by a New York architectural office called Asymptote Architects. The New York Stock Exchange asked them to design a virtual three-dimensional building that is constructed out of the stock market information, because part of their obligations is to monitor compliance with regulations by brokers and companies. To give you an idea about what they are facing - they have a unit to describe what happens, called Messages per Second, which I think basically means people buying and selling different stocks, currencies or options. This is already quite old information and has probably doubled by now, but at the time they had 343 messages per second. You can imagine that if you have an 8-hour working day, then this adds up to quite a lot of material. The scientific term for the process of making any kind of data visible is visualisation, so you visualise data that is in your computer. There is another term, sonification, which means converting data into audible rather than visual information. Here you can see we have almost 7000 search hits for this term and one reason for this is that our hearing works so differently from our seeing: Although we have quite a large field of view, we only have one focal point, so we have a rough idea what is happening around us, but there is only one spot that we can really follow precisely.

Some of you might have experienced the sensation of having bright spots in your vision when you are physically unwell – your energy levels and the oxygen going around your body are down. The first sensual experience to break down is vision, because it by far constitutes the largest amount of information that our brains are trying to decipher. This might give us the idea that what we hear through our ears is less than the information that we perceive through our eyes. Therefore, it’s possible for the brain to analyse it a lot faster. You could say that our ears have a higher resolution than our eyes and further there is no focal point in hearing. We are able to listen to sounds coming to us from different sources at the same time, from machines, from the weather, from people talking to us. We are able to take it all apart and listen to it in relation to each other. So we have this composed sound in several layers that we are easily able to tell apart. We have a focal point only in the sense of the present moment they occur in.

Coming back to what I was trying to say, what we decided to do for this installation in Venice was to take information out of this network environment we were working in and translate it into something audible and also visual. It’s a very technical project at first viewing, but when you start doing it, it becomes interesting because it’s very much like translating between two languages, two worlds. It has a very artistic quality to it.


In Venice, we ended up on the boat and it was totally impossible for anyone else to see what we were doing, so we continued with the project. When we got an invitation to participate in an exhibition in Frankfurt earlier this year, we actually got a space, a typical white cube. We were connected to the office network and started to make sounds and produce visuals from it. We still made a lot of mistakes, and in the end the installation became something very misleading. The people who experienced it and the information that accompanied it added up to something that could only have confused them about our intentions.
Here you can see us in the white cube. During setup it became obvious that all the other works had physical qualities, there was some kind of object that would force you to keep a certain distance and to have respect for. Our piece was just virtual – nothing really existed. I wanted to overcome this lack of physicality by setting something up that would recognise people stepping into the projection, because you could just walk straight into it. When I finally got it working and was ready to test it, the programme was drawing a green border around the intruder. We had so much fun with it that in the end we actually encouraged people to play with it, but they would hardly influence the sounds and music around them that were drawn from network activities in the office downstairs.

We finally managed to give the people who came to see it an idea about what was really happening. We did another project in an Internet café because we wanted to have an environment where it is very normal to have a network connection. What happened was that we took over one of the rooms, rearranged it and set up our machines and started to work. One of the things we did was to track the websites that people were looking at, so we were able to download the same images that people were looking at and we would project them onto the walls. Eventually porno images would turn up and people started to become curious about what was happening. When we explained to them what was happening, they also started to work with the music because they could perform just by surfing the net. These people could find out about the network technology without getting into any technical descriptions. They just had to experience the fact that they are being watched, that they leave traces. It was the first really successful version of this project. We were able to get people to question their relationship with technology.



One of the things we did as part of the sonification was to use a multi-channel system. In this way you have several speakers and you set them up in a room and you can start moving the sounds around the space. You can use the position and movement of a sound to give you information about what just happened. Experimenting with these systems, we found that the shape of the room always has its own dynamics, its own laws, so if you start setting the speakers up, you get reflections and reverberations. Sound travels everywhere and the idea we want to get across becomes hard to decipher depending on the shape of the room. Therefore I started to look for a way to bring a certain room with us that we could set up within the space that we were provided with.

There is a very interesting person who lived in the 20th century called Buckminster Fuller, who was influential in many areas. He developed a certain kind of architecture that is very different from most buildings. His idea was to make a structure that would not only push downwards but that would also pull itself together. So he would use opposing forces to build something. It was a very good idea and a few of his students helped him to develop it further. The structure you saw before, this skeleton ball, is an example of such a structure. The fact that these structures have so many angles helps to improve the acoustics or limit the reverberations and reflections. I tried wrapping this ball with very cheap foil that you use to wrap fruit, for example, and after five layers of foil, the ball would develop its own acoustics, its own sound-space.
In the future I want to work on a setup that uses a bucky ball in combination with the web-terminals we had in Torino to have even more people performing together. This way, the ball will become the media interface with sounds coming from it and projections onto it. It should be rotatable so it becomes like a looking glass where the media inputs coming from the web-terminals get recombined and mixed together in different ways.

online material:

-- HiazHhzz - 19 Jun 2003
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Attachment Action Size Date Who Comment
Venice-spread-preview.jpg manage 50.5 K 19 Jun 2003 - 15:26 HiazHhzz  
fm_schirn.jpg manage 11.2 K 19 Jun 2003 - 15:26 HiazHhzz  
fm_BIG_Torino_2002_real.jpg manage 36.2 K 19 Jun 2003 - 15:27 HiazHhzz  
fm_BIG_Torino_2002_set.jpg manage 36.8 K 19 Jun 2003 - 15:27 HiazHhzz  

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