This essay was commissioned by California Institute of the Arts' Center for Integrated Media. It was published in the Center's Lament Project.
Haints in the Stream:
Networked Music and Art
Keith + Mendi Obadike
Mmmmm, standin' at the crossroad,
I tried to flag a ride.
Standin' at the crossroad,
I tried to flag a ride.
Didn't nobody seem to know me.
Everybody pass me by.
from "Crossroad Blues" by Robert Johnson
The traveler at the crossroads in Robert Johnson's song finds himself at one node of a network where wanderers from far off encounter strangers. He hopes to meet a friendly soul who will take him to his desired destination, but instead night falls at this junction and the wrong traveler diverts him from his path. Encounters between people from different parts of a network often involve such combinations of uncertainty and hopefulness. When the encounter is a meeting in cyberspace, travelers are often even more hopeful, but also more uncertain. The terrain is new, the routes cannot be seen, and the other travelers you meet could take you anywhere.
When we first set out to tell stories streamed over the Internet, the nature of these interactions figured in both the plot and the formal elements. We began to compose our Internet opera The Sour Thunder in 1996, entwining an autobiographical story with a speculative one. The speculative story told of a character named Sesom, who travels from a world where the primary means of communication is through scent to a world where the primary means of communication is through spoken language. On the other side was an autobiographical narrative of Mendi's experience as an English-speaking black traveler in the Dominican Republic, learning Spanish and seeing herself anew through that language. Both stories dealt with language, migration, and the parts of identity that emerge in new cultural and linguistic contexts. Through this double-sided story we explored the idea of language as an older form of technology.
As we began working on The Sour Thunder, Keith was studying digital imaging with the painter Acha Debela, who was on his way to the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana. Debela was about to begin developing a digital arts curriculum and suggested that we go with him to take some art classes in the College of Art. That summer we went to Ghana and planned to interview artists about arts and technology in Ghana. At the University we met a number of students working in graphic design, painting, and sculpture and had a brief lesson with the great musician Koo Nimo, also known as Daniel Amponsah. Koo Nimo is an internationally recognized folk singer who plays in the highlife musical style, plays in the palm wine style, and has worked as a band leader as well. For many years, when he wasn't touring, his day job was in the Chemistry Department at the University. At the time of our meeting, Koo Nimo had been working in music and chemistry for more than 30 years, so he had seen many changes and he had many interesting ideas about relations between music and technology. He also had a few interesting ideas about Thelonius Monk, J.S. Bach, sonic vibrations, and music therapy. We were most interested when he began to talk about the idea of the "bush telegraph" in Ghanaian music.
What Koo Nimo called the "bush telegraph" was the practice of transmitting messages by way of drummers who played across long distances using tonal patterns based on spoken language. Sometimes a message might be sent from one town to the next and then to a third in a "daisy chain" fashion. The patterns are usually based on short phrases in the language broken down in to a drum specific syntax. While this concept is now a familiar one for many non-Africans, this is a code that is difficult to understand for many Americans (even if you speak a little Twi) because our language (American English) is not tonal. This system requires fluency with the code before you engage with the network. It is also important to note that this technology is not unique to Ghana (it is prevalent throughout West Africa) nor is it a recent development. This very old idea of a musical/communication network has informed much of our work since.
In the mid- to late-nineties, in the United States as well as in Ghana, much was being made of the great new potential of the Internet and in our small community of American new media artists we all had high hopes for Internet art. However, what seemed to be conspicuously absent from many of our conversations about the new Internet music, art, and performance was an informed perspective on the history of music/art/communication transmitted through a network. What kinds hopes and concerns did artists have in early electronic network experiments?
In the late 1800's and early 1900's there were many attempts at making opera available to subscribers by using telephone lines. Perhaps the best-known and most successful enterprise is the Telefon-Hirmondo. This was a subscription service based in Hungary that transmitted musical performances as well as other information to 6,200 subscribers by using telephone lines (Lunenfeld and Denison). A similar service was developed in Paris. In the U.S. in 1897 Thaddeus Cahill developed the Telharmonium. This device was an early additive synthesizer, and its intended use was to transmit sound into hotels and restaurants via telephone lines ("Thaddeus Cahill's 'Dynamophone / Telharmonium'").
Many of these projects were short lived and not yet practical, but these early commercial efforts by inventors anticipate the trajectories of many artists and corporations in the late twentieth century. In the 1960s, media theorist Marshall McLuhan used the term "global village" to describe how new communications technologies could bring communities closer together and raise our level of global consciousness. He writes, "As electrically contracted, the globe is no more than a village. Electric speed at bringing all social and political functions together in a sudden implosion has heightened human awareness of responsibility to an intense degree" (McLuhan 5).
When artists began to take up the idea of transmission-based work they often took it up with a new kind of sanguinity rarely displayed by the early inventors working with similar technology. Russian Futurist Velimir Khlebnikov epitomized this hope when writing about radio as early as 1921: "The Radio of the Future - the central tree of our consciousness - will inaugurate the new ways to cope with our endless undertakings and will unite all mankind" (Edidin). From 1975-1977, with support from NASA and the NEA, artists Kit Galloway & Sherrie Rabinowitz created their Satellite Arts Project, A Space With No Geographical Boundaries (Diamond and Electronic Café International). This interdisciplinary performance work was a section of a larger project called "Aesthetic Research in Telecommunication". Their transmissions featured dancers and musicians linked only by Satellite image.
British artist and teacher Roy Ascott was one of the first artist-theorists to codify what he called a telematic artistic practice (Ascott). He was thinking about the potential for this work as early as the mid-1960s and made one of his seminal works in 1980 appropriately titled Terminal Art. In Terminal Art the collaborating artists communicated from their studios in California, New York, and London via remote, text-only computer terminals with a modem (Shanken). Around this same time the American sound artist Bill Fontana was starting to not just record his multi-channel soundscapes but to construct systems for live transmissions of unprocessed sounds in order to relocate an aural environment to a new location like a Duchampian readymade recontextualized in a gallery. In 1980 he transmitted sounds of cars driving over a bridge from 8 microphones to a plaza next to the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. Fontana's interest later focused more and more on unaltered recordings of natural environments (Fontana). Video and performance artist Ulysses Jenkins created telematic works in the early 1990s, bringing together artists from northern and southern California (Diamond).
While there had clearly been an interest in this kind of work for some time, very few artists had taken these ideas to as large an audience as the late video artist and composer Nam June Paik. Paik famously brought about the notion of the new electronic superhighway connecting us in the 1970's (a term sampled by President Bill Clinton in crude, P. Diddy-like fashion). Later, Paik made hopeful, star-studded performance pieces using satellite transmissions like Good Morning Mr. Orwell (1984) and Bye Bye Kipling (1986), with both projects refuting Orwell's dystopic predictions for television and Kipling's notion (east is east and west is west) that distance cannot be overcome (Diamond). Around the same time, Paik wrote about the possibilities of networked art in his essay "Art and Satellite", where he argued that the multiplication of chance, mysterious encounters with "others" (by which he could mean both others of a different sort or simply other individuals) should be the "main nonmaterial product of postindustrial society" (Paik in Selz and Stiles 436). He also likened the work of the satellite to the ninja's art of shortening distances by "shrinking the earth". These projects seem to have grown out of a utopian vision for this approach to art making. However, many artists and critics have made work that alludes to the downside of transmission.
Even in Paik's mostly optimistic essay "Art and Satellite", the call for global consciousness was paired with a warning of the problematic aspects of satellite communications: "The satellite's amplification of the freedom of the strong must be accompanied by the protection of the culture of the weak or by the creation of a diverse software skillfully bringing to life the qualitative differences in various cultures". However one identifies "the culture of the weak" or what needs protecting, Paik's fears about transmission art are clear: the shrinking of the earth means that important cultural differences could be leveled out if we're not careful.
Just as the traveler of Robert Johnson's "Crossroad Blues" fails to catch a ride to some other, better place, many other artists who move between the nodes of the network have characterized it as problematic as well. In their song "Get off the Internet" the feminist band Le Tigre identifies their desire as from the 1980s or early 90s. They ask listeners to meet them "in the street", where more potent action and more useful communication happen. Here, the Internet is a place where not meeting allies face-to-face equals not knowing where friends are, where political action dies without the visible, moving physical bodies to propel it.
Artists working in new media have also questioned the utopic visions of new media. Keith Piper's works on surveillance point to the reasons why we might not want to be touched by the Internet's extended reach. The CD-Rom Caught Like a Nigger in Cyberspace, for example, invites participants to click on a photograph of a black man, with the words "click on to interrogate". In one area of the project, the interrogation includes statements such as "looks like your KeyUpScript just keyed down" and "read the fucking manual" (Hansen). In another area structured as a video game, participants have to point the cross hairs of a rifle over the body of a black man in order to move from one part of the game to the next (Gary Stewart in "Digital Diaspora"). Piper defines the parameters of the "range of pathways which one can choose or not choose to follow," effectively requiring participants to "navigate through ready-made layers" of a raced encounter mediated by technology (Piper in "In the Cut-and-Mix"). While some new media artworks imagine cyberspace as a place where the limitations of the physical world can be overcome, this work conceives of the Internet as a place where the challenges of real-time are amplified.
These concerns are also present Ricardo Dominguez' and Coco Fusco's net performance Dolores from 10h to 22h, which reenacts the experience of a woman who was "accused of unionizing the plant and was punished by being locked in a room without food, water, bathroom access or telephone for twelve hours to terrorize her into signing a letter of resignation" (Fusco in Vanhatalo). Fusco and Dominguez note that the story portrays an event that no one has seen (Fusco). The streaming video of this performance implies that the surveillance camera view is the only perspective from which the worker's experience could have been documented for future discovery; it is the only possible proof of the event. However, the camera view also underscores the ubiquitous policing of workers and the use of surveillance to shut down political activity. In this narrative, the element of video is both necessary to document the problem and part of the problem it is documenting. Fusco expressed her concerns about the nature of creative culture in the network in a post to the Nettime listserve: "Maybe it would be better to see net.culture as an art work itself, a project by the telecommunication industry, software giants, and European and American governments using arts funding to revive their post-industrial economies whose message will probably resonate for quite a while after this wave of net.art is over."
In Robert Johnson's "Crossroad Blues", the common American interpretation of that story is that the traveler is trapped at the Crossroads where he later makes a terribly disadvantageous deal (the sale of his eternal soul) with the devil to become a great musician. However, those who know the African origins of Robert Johnson's myth know that there is no devil in the crossroad. In the original myth, the crossroads is a place where travelers find Elegba, the trickster god whose temptations challenge the traveler to weigh the options. He is not inherently evil; though it is possible to make a bad decision when faced with one of the routes Elegba offers, his tricks push those who encounter him to learn how to make better decisions. The traveler's fate, then, is of his own making.
The question, for those who see this story of the crossroads as linked to the reality of networked art, is where do we go from this juncture? The seemingly conflicting relationships to the transmission of networked music and art shape the space in which we perform. The competing ideas of the network as a system destined to fulfill utopian dreams as well as the fear that the creative work online is completely under the control of software giants and the government both seem to share the assumption that the artist in the network is a haint, a kind of ghost in the machine, who can create a fleeting ripple on the surface of the stream but never be the stream, itself. For better or for worse, the artists and audiences in the network are inseparable from the network. The direction of work made with the network's tools (its systems of expression), is no different from the trajectory of humanity at the crossroads. In the end, the world of networked performance is neither utopia nor dystopia. We run into perils and pleasures all along the way, at the least expected times. It is how we travel that determines the nature of the network.
Mendi + Keith Obadike
For further reference:
Ascott, Roy. "Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace?" 1989. Telematic Connections: The Virtual Embrace. 2001.
Denison, Thomas S. "The Telephone Newspaper". 1901. United States Early Radio History. March 3, 2006.
Diamond, Sara. "Hello, Hello: A Short History of Networked Performance Art". 2004. Horizon Zero. March 3, 2006.
"Digital Diaspora: Young People, Technology, and Contested Spaces, An Interview with Gary Stewart." Community, Culture and Globalization. Eds. Arlene Goldbard and Don Adams. New York: Rockefeller Foundation, 2002.
Edidin, Peter. "Confounding Machines: How the Future Looked". The New York Times. August 28, 2005.
Electronic Café International. "Telecollaborative Art Projects of ECI Founders Galloway and Rabinowitz, 1977 to Present". Accessed Feb 27, 2006. <http://www.ecafe.com/getty/SA/index.html>
Fontana, Bill. "Borrowed Landscapes: The Sound Sculptures of Bill Fontana 1975 to 1996". Resoundings. 1996.
Fusco, Coco. "Dolores from 10h to 22h". Coco Fusco's Virtual Laboratory. Accessed March 1, 2006.
Hansen, Mark B. N. "Digitizing the Racialized Body or The Politics of Universal Address". SubStance. 33.2 (2004): 107-133.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: Mentor, 1964.
Lunenfeld, Peter. "In Search of the Telephone Opera: from communications to art -- critiquing the world wide web as an art form". Afterimage. July-August 1997.
LookSmart. March 2, 2006. Keyword: "In Search of the Telephone Opera.
Paik, Nam June. "Art and Satellite". Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings. Eds. Peter Selz and Kristine Stiles. Berkeley: U of California Press, 1996.
Piper, Keith. "In the Cut-and-Mix: Possibilities in Collage, Multimedia and Digital Technologies." panel discussion with Gary Stewart and Keith Piper, chaired by Kobena Mercer. London: International Institute of Visual Arts, 1997.
"Thaddeus Cahill's 'Dynamophone/Telharmonium'". Accessed March 2, 2006.
Shanken, Edward. "Technology and Intuition: A Love Story? Roy Ascott's Telematic Embrace". Leonardo. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997.
Vanhatalo, Juha-Pekka. "Coco Fusco - Life under surveillance". Kiasma Magazine. November 22, 2001. <http://www.kiasma.fi/www/viewresource.php?