m+k::ya heard: sounds from the rhizome artbase

curated by mendi + keith obadike



Ya Heard is an online exhibition of Internet based sound works. This was the first in a series of permanent online exhibitions organized by Rhizome.org. Read Mendi + Keithís curatorís statement below.

curator's statement

When invited to curate an exhibition from the Rhizome Artbase, we were delighted to comb through the archived projects. Over the years we have been surfing the Artbase, watching the evolution of Internet art. The styles of interactivity and narrative have changed from moment to moment. But as artists who make sound art and net.art, one thing that has always fascinated us is the intersection of what some might consider separate fields. How we listen, when we listen, and where we listen are as important as what we hear in sound art. What effect does the web have on our experience of listening? In an essay called "What's Wrong with Sound Art" Ian Andrews implies that sound art is a craft still looking for its medium: . .

[P]erformed in front of an audience [sound art] can too easily be perceived as music or theater. If sound art happens on radio it becomes radiphonics or, again, music. So sound art ends up in the heavily culturally coded environment of the art gallery. . . . [T]he pieces which attain the position of highest importance in the hierarchy usually have a strong visual presence . . .

Attention to the visual also unnecessarily dominates discussions of net.art. Writing about Internet art often depends on screenshots to identify artworks. However, many of the works are more conceptual than visual and many are more formally concerned with audio than images. As a medium, the Internet is visual, literary, and aural. Art made for the net may engage any or all of these elements. When we talk about audio on the net, many discussions gravitate towards the tension between the commercial distribution and the illegal exchange of music on the web. But there are also musics made for and from the web itself.

In the 1995 book Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte explores the Internet as a site for musical exchange. "If Herbie Hancock released his next piece on the Internet," he writes, "it would not only be like playing to a theater with 20 million seats in it, but each listener could transform the music depending on her personal situation" (223.) In fact, today - nearly ten years later - what seems to be most interesting about sound online is not just the notion of the Internet as a theater but also as an instrument to be played and sculpted by the artists in the audience.

The sound art represented in the Artbase includes instruments, avant-garde music, documents from webcast performances, and radio art. The works we feature from among them depend on the network - on the Internet as a medium for making sound and as a place where audiences listen. In almost all of these works, the participants are given control over the nature of the listening experience. Many invite participants to become DJs of a sort. The artist provides sounds and the participant mixes them. In "One Day on the Air," for example, the participant can move the mouse over shifting, layered images and a collage of "sixteen radiophonic bits" recorded by Nicholas Clauss on French radio. In Eric Bunger's "Let Them Sing It for You," participants type in lyrics of their choosing and the words are sung to them in the voices of many sampled pop stars. In these pieces, the emphasis is on reinterpreting sounds from another context - radio and pop music, respectively. Other pieces that involve found sounds are not necessarily focused on the original context. In "Errata Erratum", participants may select and mix sounds and images provided by the artist, Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky. The voice of Marcel Duchamp is mixed in a sea of beats and whirs. Miller's soundscape might be the realization of Duchampís quest for non-retinal beauty. "Soundbox" is a piece that Michiel Knaven has been developing since 1999. It is a series of virtual instruments containing short samples and phrases and allowing the control of pitch, volume, speed, repetition, and direction. With both "Soundbox" and "Errata Erratum", the emphasis is on the mix created by the participant rather than the recognition of the sound's source.

The interfaces differ greatly from piece to piece. In "Stereo" Michael Sellam explores how we process combinations of sight and sound with a microsound-inspired net version of a 19th century stereoscope. William Duckworth's site "Cathedral features a number of virtual instruments, sound pieces, and documentation of live performances of the band by the same name. Online since 1997, "Cathedral" allows participants to collaborate with others online by playing an number of virtual instruments. These collaborations can also be incorporated into the Cathedral band's live performances. Somewhere between Detroit techno and the visual jazz of De Stijl is Conor O'Boyle's "Looptracks." Participants alter the sounds in this club music inspired piece by dragging an icon and clicking on brightly colored shapes. Not all of these works function as instruments, however. The audio of Mark Amerika and Erik Belgum's PHON:E:ME is a long, sonic essay on the smallest unit of speech. While there are interactive visual elements, rather than requiring participants to make audio, PHON:E:ME provokes the audience to listen and to think about listening. The number, range, and types of sound art works online today were unimaginable ten years ago, when Negroponte imagined the Internet as a theater. Therefore, so is the way we listen. In the projects exhibited here, the line between instrument and artwork is blurred and the permutations on the mix seem limitless. Because the place where we listen is the Rhizome Artbase, we are positioned to think about the sounds of the Internet in complex and ever-expanding ways.

Mendi+Keith Obadike