Many of the people around me have an iPhone; I don’t. Sometimes you see a handy app which makes you think that it would be nice if you did have one. Myself, I am looking forward to the iPhone that will be delivered to my door one of these days. In the best case, our gadgets make life more pleasant. For instance, with them you know to the minute what track that late train is going to come in on, even before the information echoes through the station on the PA system, so that you can be certain you will still catch your train. And you will never again have to ask for directions in a strange city. In addition to all these conveniences, there are slowly artistic tools being developed too, useful or amusing.
The exhibition Cloud Sounds shows contemporary artists and musicians who make use of re-mix techniques and shared (opensource) software. In addition to giving them another way of producing and distributing their work, this also changes their relation with their audience. The public become a part of the artwork: sometimes beforehand, sometimes during the exhibition, and sometimes even later on. Not only the field of music, but also in visual art – often via application for mobile interfaces – visitors are challenged to go to work themselves, alone or with others.
One playful i phone/iTouch/iPad application, by the Austrian audio artist Jörg Piringer, is called abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz. The alphabet appears on your telephone screen, surrounding an empty square. You can select letters with your finger and drag them into the square. Each letter generates a sound: for example, the letter ‘a’ goes ‘aaahhh...’ Making their sound, these letters slide across the screen, and can collide with one another; for instance, the ‘a’ with the ‘r’. That creates an ‘aaahhh... rrrrr...’ tone rhythm that you can expand as you please, with other letters and other movements. Thus you have a small musical instrument in your telephone, with which you can play with letter sounds by having them bounce around, or by clustering letters, or letting the letters wander around. Aside from the sound, the game is also interesting graphically: the letters remind one of little bugs swarming over the screen, changing in shape and influencing each other. Jörg Piringer use this application in performances and exhibitions. In addition, the user can experiment with it on his or her own mobile telephone.
As well as the exhibition, performances, presentations and workshops will also be taking place during the 5 Days Off Festival. WOW! (Write On Wall) is a digital graffiti all that responds to light. You can draw or write on the wall with any sort of small light source, but with an iPhone app you can use different colors. Some visitors make real art project of it, working away happily for hours with their telephone or clip-on bicycle lamp. In the Melkweg you can play with sounds on a meters-large PCB. Imagine: a gigantic printed circuit board with copper lines, like small roads, on the surface. With Offener Schaltkreis (Open Circuit) the public can put small loudspeakers on the lines on the PCB so that sounds which were previously recorded there are reproduced. In this way the visitors can put together compositions with each other.
Some artists ask for contributions from the public before they start. Harm van den Berg recorded lullabies in different languages from people in his circle of acquaintance,then used them for his installation. Other artists ask for contributions via the Internet. It is not without reason that the exhibition in The Netherlands Media Art Institute is called Cloud Sounds. The ‘cloud’ refers to the information, the data, that people everywhere are constantly asking for, and sharing, via internet.
Someone who works primarily with an on-line audience is the American artist Aaron Koblin. The Johnny Cash Project, which Koblin is showing together with Chris Milk, is an artwork that was made on and for the web. As a result of the many contributions by amateur and professional artists worldwide, a video clip of Johnny Cash singing ‘Ain’t No Grave’ becomes a painting in motion. After seeing the video clip, visitors to the website are given the choice of manipulating one of three frames. They can go to work with their mouse and a drawing program. The resulting picture is placed into the clip. As it now exists, the video clip is comprised of thousands of drawings by as many different artists, and resembles a moving comic book – all as an homage to Johnny Cash.
This form of crowdsourcing (contributions by the crowd) is nothing new. The Dutchmen Roel Wouters and Jonathan Puckey used crowdsourcing for the video clip project ‘One Frame to Fame’, to which the public contributes by providing webcam photos, and thus all worked on one clip. Now, at 5 Days Off, Wouters and Puckey are doing a large audience project with evidently failed flash photos. For previous art projects Koblin made use of Mechanical Turks: people who, for small sums of money, perform commissions that they receive via internet. Anyone can do this sort of work-from-home. There is work in various languages, from writing reviews to assigning key words to describe the contents of photographs. Early in 2006 Koblin asked Mechanical Turks to draw a sheep with its head facing left, and thus collected ten thousand sheep. He offered US$ .02 (two cents) per drawing; so the artwork cost him US$ 200. He collected the sheep over a period of forty days. People spent an average of 105 seconds on each drawing, which means that on the average they earned ,069 cents per hour. A selection from all these doodles can be found on Koblin’s website. Together they make up the artwork The Sheep Market: thousands of sheep in black lines, sometimes depicted felicitously, sometimes awkwardly drawn. Other projects by Koblin/Milk and Wouters/Puckey demonstrate that people are also prepared to contribute even if they don’t get paid for it. If the idea – and its visualization – appeals enough to the imagination, people are ready to participate in online artworks, even without remuneration.
Even today it is still the case that in most ‘white cubes’ or museal spaces, you are not allowed to touch things. When I was a child that was even true at home. Until into the 1980s the television and radio were controlled only by my parents: “that’s no toy, it’s too expensive for you to play with.” Over the course of time this paradigm has been reversed: now parents ask their children for help in operating a computer or mobile phone. This revolution is also to be found in the museum world: in ‘old-fashioned’ museums you are welcome to browse around but not touch; young curators and artists on the other hand seek out ways in which the public can be given an active role. ‘Do not touch!’ has changed into ‘Join in!’
Ine Poppe is an Amsterdam based director, journalist and writer specialized in digital culture, technology and art.