How Large is an Atom of Music? A Tour through Today’s Spectral Music and Software at UCSD

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Well, the short answer is .093 seconds. That’s about the shortest amount of time mathematicians need to generate a full analysis of a sound’s component frequencies.

On an even smaller scale, computers typically store sound information in 44100 samples per second. This makes up the typical waveform view of sound that most are accustomed to seeing. However, each sample only gives information about amplitude (or volume), which is a pale portrait of sound. Sound in the physical world is essentially an unfolding of waves over time. Therefore, when translating from physical to digital, frequency information over time is essential to give a meaningful atomic definition of any sound.

A waveform view plots time vs. amplitude. A spectrogram plots frequency vs. time with color representing amplitude

Armed with the calculus technique of the Fast Fourier transform, mathematicians typically take the amplitude values from a mere .093 seconds of sound and draw a complete audio portrait. This portrait consists of the volumes of each component frequency that makes up a complex sound.

Thus, the Fourier transform is the key tool for spectralists, a loosely related group of composers and scientists whose goal is to analyze and resynthesize sound using sound’s most basic digital elements. Spectralists literally rip apart sound into its tiniest grains and develop diverse strategies to reconfigure those microsounds into a new sound barely resembling its original form. Between the two poles of granular analysis and synthesis, musicians have only begun to chart a new world of expression.

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Radical Ethology: Jussi Parikka's Insect Media

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In a fundamental sense, technology is deeply non-human. While we might apply a humanist logic to the function and workings of technological systems, and view technological objects as extensions of the human body and its capacity for adaptive prosthesis, the very purpose of technology is to be that which the human is not or to achieve that which the human could not otherwise do. As such, technology exists beyond the humanist understanding of the individual, the body, and the subject, particularly in contemporary network culture in which technology is in part transformed from concrete and material objects into molecular, adaptive, and often invisible systems. Much as with the animal world, technology seems to suggest a mode of communication and media beyond that of human language, a mode of being or becoming that exceeds our own.

Diagramming the figure-eight wing movements of insect flight.

In Insect Media (University of Minnesota Press, 2010),1 Jussi Parikka traces an archaeology of non-human media. More specifically, he is interested in the relationship between animal and machine, and the unique history of the insect as a technological model from the late 19th century through to the present. While insects are often viewed as models for contemporary media practices such as swarming, smart mobs, and collaborative forms of production, Parikka makes insects the object of his media historical project, transforming "media as insects," into "insects as media."

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Interview with James Voorhies of Bureau for Open Culture

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Opening reception for "Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven" on April 5, 2011 at Bennington College

James Voorhies is the Director and Chief Curator of Bureau for Open Culture (BOC). BOC operates through exhibitions, screenings, performances, and informal discussions that happen in and outside of the gallery space. Working with a variety of collaborators, Voorhies has sought to question the role of institutions in the dissemination of various art practices. I got to know Voorhies when we collaborated on the BOC’s The New Administration of a Fine Arts Education, a conversation series with leading individuals of contemporary art that took place at the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio. This spring and summer, BOC will present two projects. Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven, from April 5-29th at Bennington College, and I Am Searching for Field Character, presented at Mass MoCA this summer. Incorporating a series of public conversations, performances, installations, workshops and a beer garden, BOC will be bringing artists, writers, designers and thinkers to North Adams, Massachusetts to explore the economic and social character of the cultural laborer. I took this opportunity to talk to him about BOC and his hopes for the future of his organization.



How would you describe the mission of Bureau for Open Culture?

The mission is to reconsider the art exhibition as a new kind of learning site. We don’t necessarily prioritize the gallery as a site for engaging with art or seek to provide an absolute conclusion to the ideas exhibitions raise. To do this, BOC welcomes people from disciplines outside of the usual visual arts⎯landscape architecture, literature, philosophy, design and activism⎯to intermingle. We produce projects that take place in storefronts, gardens, libraries and unused industrial spaces within a wider consideration of the nature of contemporary art and culture.

The exhibitions are made with an awareness of the effect that an art institution⎯as a physical space and a concept⎯has on how art is produced and how people experience it. A lot of my interests in the structural behavior of the art institution come out of watching organizations like Office of Contemporary Art Norway, Shedhalle in Zurich and IASPIS in Stockholm. These are institutions of critique that have taken up the kind investigations of institutions found in artistic practices like those of Michael Asher, Hans Haacke and Andrea Fraser. These institutions were not long ago categorized loosely within a term called “New Institutionalism.” But, I don’t think that term is used so much today.

Using alternative spaces, Bureau for Open Culture tends to mediate more strongly or maybe less didactically between visitors and art. Moving the action out of the gallery is one way we do this, but I also care about what viewers will get out of a connection with a visiting artist or a talk. For example, the collective artist Claire Fontaine participated in the exhibition Descent to Revolution. Part of their contribution to the exhibition was to give a talk related to Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy. I organized a weekly reading group for Lyotard’s book with about 10 to 12 participants who discussed the book, which is really difficult to grasp, alongside images of work by Claire Fontaine. We had participants from all sorts of backgrounds⎯students of philosophy and comparative studies, activists and visual artists. We did this over the course of five to six weeks in a kind of preparation for Claire Fontaine’s visit to Columbus. While we did not devour the book as much as one could, the reading group created an investment and interest in Claire Fontaine. We had an incredible turnout for their talk, a great conversation. The talk took place in an unused storefront space where other projects and actions were occurring during the course of the exhibition. It was late October and the rundown space with its leaking ceiling and lack of heat helped reduce the formal effect of the institution to put audience and artists on closer levels. I really liked the whole experience.

There are also lots of private moments between visiting artists and the community. Those moments, to me, are as important as the public engagement. So, all of this combined is what I mean by rethinking the exhibition as a new kind of learning site.

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Terminal Convention Takes Flight

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Exterior of the Cork International Airport (Credit: Mike Hannon Media)

What is an airport? There are few buildings as strictly controlled, commercially exploited and emotionally embedded in the contemporary word. Junctions of humanity, they are sites of equal boredom and threat. Airports are dynamic spaces, with flows of people and capital yet they are as susceptible to the effects of socio-economic and political changes as they are to extreme weather changes. Filled with ubiquitous surveillance, continual identification and suspicion, what happens when they loose this function and just become buildings again?

Terminal Convention was a contemporary exhibition and symposium housed in the decommissioned terminal building of Cork International Airport in the Republic of Ireland. The old terminal stands in the shadow of its new, bright, open and airy, off-the-shelf 21st century airport successor, and the decommissioned terminal has remained a virtually untouched unknown wonderland for international artists to transform.

What is striking about this particular airport ex-terminal is its friendly persona, at times more akin to a bizarre extended living room than an airport, with its fireplaces and fish tanks in the baggage reclaim area. Striped of its function and control, the space is deadened and immobile without the continuous hums and flows of international travel. The description ‘decommissioned’ implies something more than simply the staff moving out and locking the door – the building has been stripped of all its symbolic authority. The new freedom to roam, unchecked, through the once tightly controlled spaces provides a small thrill, the ‘no entry’ signs remain in place, but are now rendered obsolete.

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Video Vortex #6: Beyond YouTube

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The sixth Video Vortex conference was held in Amsterdam at Trouw, a building that used to house the printing presses where the eponymous newspaper was created. These days, Trouw is a restaurant and club and occasional conference venue. The venue’s former purpose reinforced the passing of the torch from old news media to the online media being discussed, alongside other relevant topics, at Video Vortex. Michael Strangelove, the first speaker of the day, referred to the “holocaust of capitalism” and how online video enables a subversion of the notion of culture as private property. As newspapers struggle to redefine themselves in this online era - the New York Times’ new paywall being a prime example - the war of ownership over content resonated not only throughout the conference sessions but even in the venue’s inkstained floors.

The initial speakers of the day, Michael Strangelove and Andrew Clay, made salient points about the notion of “compulsory visibility” (Foucault, via Strangelove) online, the “douchebag effect” induced by online video platforms (Strangelove), and the communities and revenue streams which develop around online smash hits such as Annoying Orange (Clay). Talk of douchebag effects and inane chattering fruit was unfortunately juxtaposed with the gravity of the tragic earthquake and tsunami in Japan, unfolding at the very same time. All morning, YouTube quickly populated with shocking videos of the damage, and it seemed immediately inappropriate to ponder how many millions Annoying Orange makes.

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Big Reality

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Eddo Stern, Creative Anachronism, 2004

“From Nethack to play-by-post forums on the WWW,” an Ars Technica blogger wrote in 2009, “the first thing that computer geeks do upon inventing a new medium is play Dungeons and Dragons with it.” With this half-joking riposte to conventional wisdom that new communications media are appropriated first by pornographers, the blogger introduced a roundup of instructions for adding dice rollers to Google Wave to make it a platform for turn-based role-playing games. Of course, links between computing and RPGs predate networked technology. Some of the earliest computer games were made by programmers who played D&D; and saw the connection between dice and digits. Another parallel might be drawn between the do-it-yourself culture around computing in the 1970s and the amateur storytelling demanded by RPGs. Even while computer use leaves less to the imagination today than it did thirty-five years ago, it still shares more characteristics with RPGs than older forms of entertainment do. The creator(s) of a novel, movie, or drama have combined details into a whole by the time it reaches an audience; those media come with spatial and temporal guidelines for consumption. But just as network connections are constant and pervasive, RPGs are open-ended, played with regularity and long-term commitment. Gaming (like, say, tweeting) doesn’t have the same distance between medium and audience as reading or film-going – there is a constant awareness of the self’s participation in a bigger system, and a feeling of contribution to it. RPGs, like internet use, move at the speed of life.

I think this affinity is what has prompted many artists to include allusions to RPGs in their works. Whether they adapt the forking structures or the surface details of fantasy and science fiction, whether those references are direct or oblique, references to the culture around RPGs can be shorthand for reality’s mediation by immaterial systems. Some examples: Brody Condon’s remakes of medieval paintings with game graphics, Eddo Stern’s animation of a gaming-forum flame war, Deb Sokolow’s choose-your-own-adventure drawings, the arcane protests of the Center for Tactical Magic, Sterling Crispin’s scrying devices, and the occult forms behind altar .gifs on dump.fm. These artists a have relationship to fantasy that’s distinctly different from ones who make monster portraits and fantastic battle scenes – a genre that’s also become more visible in contemporary art the last few years. (That trend, I’d say, comes because popular and critical approval for Peter Saul and Tim Burton has emboldened a younger generation of “outsider artists” who grew up with RPGs.) Indie fantasy art, like the illustrations in novels and gaming manuals, that inspire it, is about virtuosic draftsmanship and imagination. It showcases fine renderings of dragon scales and weaponry. The examples I listed above have rough edges where processes of imagination and play visibly collide with other frames of reference. Often, they achieve this by bringing technology to the foreground.

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An Interview with READ/WRITE Curators Caitlin Denny and Parker Ito

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Mitch Trale, Analog Environments, 2009

This Thursday night, March 17th, the online curatorial platform Jstchillin.org will celebrate the last year and a half of their programming with a large group exhibition involving all thirty-five of the artists who have developed special projects for the site. Opening at 319 Scholes in Brooklyn, the show, entitled "READ/WRITE," will remain on view until March 30th. Begun in October 2009 by Parker Ito and Caitlin Denny, Jstchillin.org has emerged as one of the most playful and innovative destinations for internet-based art. I interviewed Parker and Caitlin over email in January 2011. This interview appears in the catalog for "READ/WRITE," available for purchase here.


The experience of running an online platform for art, like Jstchillin, has its own set of challenges and advantages, in terms of the flexibility of display, a potential for a large, diverse audience, serendipitous reception and circulation. I’m wondering if you can talk more about your experience with Jstchillin, and how this may have lead to some of the key themes in READ/WRITE.

Caitlin Denny: JstChillin started with ambitious goals, and now we're seeing it all come together even better than we had imagined. It’s been somewhat surreal to reflect on the process, people and conditions of the project. It had originally been a Rhizome proposal that got rejected called "Cosmos" that included a small group of friends, some of whom are a part of JstChillin. I wanted to keep going with the project even after we got rejected, and it seemed Parker was the only one on the same page as me. We developed our ideas and mission for the project very loosely when we made "An Essay About Chillin'", a screen capture movie of a staged AIM conversation. After that, we started our now year and a half long exhibition on our site called "Serial Chillers In Paradise" which is what we have become most well known for. We were fans of surf clubs and the like, but wanted to do something more immersive that would almost abolish the body yet make one hyper aware of their own physicality. We chose to let the artists take over our site every two weeks instead of using a blog-like style to highlight work. We weren't interested in highlighting just any art we liked at the moment, we were interested in commissioning new works made especially for our site. This, I think, stands us apart from a lot of other online exhibition sites. We also wanted to create a seemingly naive and simple charisma to our project that over time would unfold the complexities of our digital condition. I think we've been successful so far. Reading Brian Droitcour's essay on us, first published on Rhizome's blog, made me realize that we had accomplished something, whether people liked it or not. I was somewhat blind, and probably still am, to who our audience is. I imagine it is mainly people involved in an online art community of sorts, but I frequently get hints and clues to other worlds of people who see the site. I like this ambiguity, that's what the internet is to me. I don't want to know facts or numbers, I want to keep the internet wild and mysterious… but it seems now we are getting closer and closer to the limits of the internet. I've felt these changes in my own surfing and online time - it is harder to discover the vast net terrain more than ever. Not that there isn't anything to discover, but the way I surf the net is so much different, and so much more boring, than I ever used to. I am definitely more in the Tim Berners-Lee camp than the Tim O'Reilly camp - the web was made as a read/write vehicle, a vast anonymous space for interaction and discovery. With Web 2.0, the enchantment of the net is slowly disintegrating. We need the Jim Henson of the internet to step up and tell us what's up.





Parker Ito: JstChillin is always framed as a curatorial project. I feel kind of weird saying that at times. It's more like a performance of curating. For me, it's just about hanging out online and looking at what people are doing and it's really hard to know who's seeing what, but at least with our site people can sorta respond and be like "I really like so and so's project." A lot of the Surf Club era artists used, and still use Delicious to spread stuff they're excited about, or get out the word about a new project. JstChillin in my mind is an extension of that. It is a crazy ambitious project, a year and half exhibition, that is kinda insane now that I think about. Reflecting on the project now, I don't really know what to say, it's a really overwhelming feeling. The themes for the show occurred very naturally. This show will never live up to the beauty of my daily interaction with people online, it's just an opening paragraph in a really really long essay. There's a lot of power to be harnessed.

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Out in Public: Natalie Bookchin in Conversation with Blake Stimson

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Natalie Bookchin, My Meds, from the series Testament, 2009

This interview originally appeared Video Vortex Reader II: moving images beyond YouTube (Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam, March 2011) edited by Geert Lovink and Rachel Somers Miles. The Video Vortex Reader II launches this week in conjunction with the Video Vortex #6 conference at TrouwAmsterdam in Amsterdam on Friday March 11th and Saturday March 12th.


Natalie Bookchin and Blake Stimson first met in New York in the early 1990s when they were both affiliated with the Whitney Independent Study Program. This exchange took place over email, for the most part between their respective homes in Southern and Northern California during the summer of 2010.

Although she has a rich and varied artistic background, one theme that has regularly come to the fore in Natalie Bookchin’s work is a concern with documentary. In some of her early work, this concern seemed to emphasize the inhumanity of recording machines in the way that Andy Warhol’s, or perhaps Gerhard Richter’s, work did. In a different way, the entire ‘found object’ tradition associated with Duchampian indifference, and still so manifest in much contemporary art, also seemed to feature in Bookchin’s work. Here, we might recall an early piece for which Bookchin photographed everything she owned, object by object, down to the last paperclip; or perhaps, in a different sense, the Universal Page she created with Alexei Shulgin in 2000, which promised an algorithmically derived objective average of all web content. In one sense, her recent work of gathering videos from the internet might be said to continue in this vein—at least insofar as she is functioning as an aggregator of existing content drawn largely from YouTube, in a way similar to a service like Digg or any of the many interest or attention measuring functions of the web (not the least being Google and other search engines).

On the other hand, Bookchin’s work possesses a strong, even impassioned, activist element of the sort consistent with the reportage tradition extending back to John Heartfield and Sergei Tretiakov, or Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine before them. For example, in the interview Bookchin and Shulgin published in conjunction with the exhibition of Universal Page, Bookchin spoke of that time as one that demanded ‘superactivity’ because ‘there are vitally important things that need to be done’ to ‘resist total corporate, technological, and institutional takeovers’. In addition, her multiplayer game agoraXchange was created in collaboration with the political theorist Jackie Stevens, and called for ‘an end to the system of nation-states, the demise of rules rendering us passive objects tied to identities and locations given at birth’, and the elimination of ‘those laws requiring us to live and be seen largely as vessels for ancestral identities’. And finally, there was her very funny announcement, in 1999, of her intention for a journal titled BAD (standing for Burn the Artworld Down) that was ‘committed to the documentation of acts of terrorism and agitation against the institutional art world’. All of these works have performative dimensions to them, and as such call up a sense of tongue-in-cheek detachment from the subjects they purport to represent. Yet, to varying degrees, they also seem earnest and forceful political statements.

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Interview with Herbologies/Foraging Networks

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Photo of a plant from Herbologies/Foraging Networks expedition to Kurzeme (Photo: Bartaku)

In Bernard Stiegler’s Technics and Time, I: The Fault of Epimetheus, Stiegler makes the following statement, “Innovation is inevitably accompanied by the obsolescence of existing technologies that have been superseded and the out-of-dateness of social situations made possible...adapt or disappear.”1 Applying this statement to the current network systems that we engage with on a daily basis, one might say that online network culture has transformed our relationship with people as much as industrialism had done so with the land, mediating our experience of each other through data, text messages, and on-demand catalogues of our personalities. But, the flow of information through network systems is not a new instance. In Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s Linked: The New Science of Networks, Barabasi cites the spread of Christianity as a major instance of social networks at play – albeit all executed orally.2 If this is true, it begs the question: how does today’s incarnation of network systems transform oral technologies? Does it render them outdated, or does it have the potential to take on a new incarnation?

The Herbologies/Foraging Networks occupies a critical space in trying to transform oral traditions/knowledge associated with foraging for what would seem to be increasingly disinterested generations. Initially instigated by Andrew Gryf Paterson as a Scottish man’s way of learning about the cultural heritage of his resident country of Finland (as well as the connections between the surrounding Baltic region), Paterson and cohorts Ulla Taipale and Signe Pucena have established an open architecture project that has included iterations of the WindowFarms workshop to exploratory installations on folk pharmacy.

You might ask yourself why focus on oral traditions and foraging? Foraging has previously been an important cultural touch point for Nordic countries, illustrating many social and political relations. The displacement of this knowledge marks a fundamental change in the socio-economic conditions at hand as the following discussion between Paterson, Taipale and Pucena further explains.

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The Search for a Center: Vito Campanelli's Web Aesthetics

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"Why look at Gustave Courbet when you can download free porn?" is a question posed by one of the animated characters in Parker Ito's sardonic Artist Statement (2009), a piece that both mocks and celebrates a selection of trite, blanket statements regarding media art. Ito's humorous animation is one of the many projects enmeshed within the dense weave of Vito Campanelli's new book Web Aesthetics: How Digital Media Affect Culture and Society (NAi Publishers), a sprawling examination of post-web visual culture and the cultural implications of various forms of digital media. While the last decade has yielded a considerable amount of scholarship judging and qualifying online interactions, tracking the transformation of identity and contemplating the changing nature of attention, Campanelli's writing project extends beyond these stock investigations and sets out to identify how the web has altered our means of experiencing and evaluating contemporary art and media. The browser, internet mailing lists, peer-to-peer networks, spam, MP3 files, vernacular video and numerous other everyday platforms and protocols are put under the microscope in the interest of cultivating a broad aesthetics of digital media. While these topical, episodic investigations are generally quite successful, Web Aesthetics is not lacking in fundamental structural and stylistic idiosyncrasies.

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