Listening Digital paper presentation at symposium on ‘Approaches to the Born-Digital Challenge in Art and Design Archives’, organised by Arlis (Art Archives Committee) 11.11.09

Listening Digital: some ideas on digital knowledge and sound

In my brief statement to this presentation I suggested that I will propose two things:

firstly that sound is proto-digital, an observation that is articulated through its relationship to reality, virtuality, and to possible or indeed impossible worlds as they are proposed by David K. Lewis; and secondly, and based on this conception, that digital platforms are an interesting listening place for Sound Art that surpasses the architectural constraints of the gallery and brings the nostalgia of the wireless into the networked age.

I will try to outline what I mean by sound as proto-digital in order to use the aesthetic sensibility of such a sonic virtuality to argue why the internet, understood through an actual listening effort (a conceptual digitality) rather than through an actual digitality, is an interesting place for sound art. And conversely I will seek to sketch out why digital works, understood via a conceptual listening effort, reveal their real complexity.

Software and hardware availability is a crucial aspect of the evaluation of digital knowledge. Issues of ownership of the digital production and perception platforms are very relevant and go hand in hand with the themes discussed here. However, for the purpose of this talk I want to leave these issues to one side and  focus on the experience of work on-line, assuming that the issues of ownership, licences, copy-right etc. are understood to linger in the background, often throwing into doubt any joy that might be had on a purely aesthetic level.

Sound as Proto-Digital.

The digital ‘image’, if I can call it that as a stand in term to facilitate the discussion of what it is I experience when looking at a digital object, or phenomenon rather, is a temporal organisation of language. A chain of commands in time. It is speech, rather than written language, and complies with the personalisation and temporality of the spoken word. The digital phenomenon is a complex event of terms organised in time rather than matter in space. It is iterative, forever moving away from a closed form and definition. The digital commands are discrete words, rather than words as signs related to the totality of a visual language understood as a signifying system.

The digital phenomenon is abstract duration, is time itself. Repeating its command stabilises its object, but only as long as the repetition goes on. Its material stability is perpetually a matter of time rather than of a physical spatial certainty. If I switch the computer off its material folds inwards and disappears into the temporal void of its actuater. What we perceive on-line, the visual appearance of the digital object/phenomenon, is but a temporal surface hiding much more complex potentialities of engagement, which transcend spatial restrictions along potentially never ending time dimensions, offering an infinity of actual formations in a digital conceptuality.

It is this digital as concept, forging a digital sensibility, rather than the actuality of the digital that I am interested in. Because this digital condition demands a re-consideration of what we term reality and what we out of habit and convention expect the real to be.

The digital phenomenon is continually produced by ‘spoken’/temporal, commands. It is in the articulation of this fragility of continuously present ‘spoken-materiality’ that I position the notion of the conceptual digital strategy of production, and it is the demand of this production that we suspend our habitual perception to understand the digital phenomenon not just simply as a representation of the real but as a production of a real virtuality.

Its ‘language-image’ is not a whole set of visual signs from which we dissociate individual words and make sense of them in relation to the whole they are dissociated from, but are spoken, abstract commands that make meaning in their abstraction in time. Its iterative materiality performs the phenomenological process of reduction: of bracketing the whole to get to the essence of the thing as sensorial thing rather than as meaning. Conversely its perception demands a reduced engagement, not to recognise the whole but to engage in the whole from its pixel.

In other words the digital demands not a (post-)structural reading but a phenomenological engagement that generates the digital life-world and our complicity in its production. I am referring here to Edmund Husserls notion of epoche, the bracketing of the whole in order to experience the essence rather than the relations of the perceived. Such an effort of perception will get us to the essence of the digital as digital concept rather than as analogue concept in digital shape.

My interest lies not so much with the digital as an actual iteratively constituted immateriality but rather in its conceptuality: in how it shifts and manipulates perception. This Is because I understand the digital as concept, as sensibility, rather than as technological-immaterial actuality, to imply certain consequences for the certainty and knowability of reality - virtual and real. And, as I will try to demonstrate, it is this metaphysical provocation that is interesting in relation to art and particularly in relation to sound art. Or rather it is sound art, the emergence of sound within the visual arts throughout the 20th Century that conceptually and in terms of sensibility pre-cedes and possibly enables the digital imagination and the digital possibilities as we are discussing them today.  And it is from a sonic sensibility that we can glean and understanding and use of digital works and platforms that does not simply pitch them as a progression of an analogue world, realising an analogue conceptuality in digital shape, but provokes us into the possibility of other worlds.

The ability of sound, not to represent, not to simply sound a source but to invent anything, the unimaginable even, makes it a ‘real virtuality’. A virtuality that is not defined and constraint by what are after all still analogue ‘real’ world soft- and hardware components, but a wholly different world, a virtuality that is real, since it is autonomous from the constraints of the computer command, and whose refrain is ever different, never the same, defying expectation through the vagaries of individual perception rather than upholding a standard through the perfect temporality of computer iteration.

Digital works do not necessarily surpass analogue works in terms of their fragmented, temporal complexity, and so they do not really break with an analogue sensibility, but they call attention to how we inhabit the material to build the work from its fragments. And it is this inhabiting, our attitude towards the perceived, that is really at stake in this discussion.

        The Legible City (1989-1991)

I want to consider a relatively old, but nevertheless very illustrative work by

Jeffrey Shaw to make my point hopefully a bit more accessible.


In Jeffrey Shaw’s The Legible City, a work created between 1989 and 1991, I can cycle through three different cities, deeper and deeper into their architecture, manifest by big looming letters, replacing urban architecture with fictional stories from notes in the city’s archive. These letters stand in for the cities, in size and shape, building them in their own spoken fragility. Most of the information about the work I gain from the catalogue rather than the piece itself, which in the context of the Museum looks like a bicycle in front of a projection screen, nothing more nothing less. This description explains the work’s outer parameters. It reads like a manual of how to look at this thing and what to expect from it, implicitly acknowledging its awkwardness in the exhibition space. The work itself is not its immediate self. It is not what I see, but is the invisible links made and the trajectories projected. It is neither about the bicycle nor about the letters looming large in front of me, letting me through and drawing me into an urban ‘science-fiction’ landscape that I build and navigate at the same time. It is not about the screen, a known protagonist in installation art, nor the monitor, another familiar face. It is about invisible relationships: the relationships of the bicycle to the Museum, to the effort of my own tautological cycling, perpetually moving more to move more. It links this space to outside spaces, to real motion, to the city as concept, as a what I will insist is essentially a sonic concept.

Digital works construct space and time beyond physical objects in the virtual world, whose intersubjectivity is not only suggested and invited but programmed as facets of technological interactivity. My cycling. In this virtual life-world I generate the site and my trajectory through the site in the time of my surfing, or in this case my cycling in it. I build houses, unfold them, shed light into them. I stop cycling the houses collapse, the city does not exist anymore, at least as far as I am concerned.

However, digital interactivity is not intersubjective: the cyclist only pretends reciprocity. In fact the subject that comes back at him is the technological subject, measured and shaped by the tools of interactivity. The digital life-world is ruled by its programming devices rather than his experiential imagination. It curtails the imagination to its technological parameters. The work in its technological actuality is limited by the commands of the programme, the screen technology and the actual possibilities of cycling.  It most definitively remains an ‘actual world’ rather than what David Lewis terms a ‘possible world’: a world that has no indexical link to an actual reality.

‘The (possible) worlds are something like remote planets; except that most of them are much bigger than mere planets, and they are not remote. Neither are they nearby. They are not at any spatial distance whatever from here. They are not far in the past or future, nor for that matter near; they are not at a spatial distance whatever from now.’  David Lewis, On the Plurality of Worlds, (Oxford: Basil Blackwells, 1986)

The intersubjective perception as concept, not as real, as actual interactivity, allows entrance not into the computer built cities of Manhatten, Amsterdam and Karlsruhe, but into the city of my own built. This is a city of a possible world that emerges out of my generative perception and uncovers layers of reality that are as possible as those we pragmativelly refer to as the real but that remain hidden under the functionalism of a visual reality.

Listening is such a phenomenological activity that does not build the cities from soft- and hardware components but in the auditory imagination, beyond the visual image. It generates the work in an intersubjectivity not constraint to the technological interactivity by its operators, but expanded only by my auditory imagination, which, as suggested earlier has the ability nnot to represent, not to simply sound a source but to invent anything. To engage in the work of Shaw via a conceptual listening produces Manhatten, Amsterdam and Karlsruhe not as a representation from its archive but as a sonic life-world. A world that I cannot read but in which I exist as a sonic, ephemeral and passing, self and which I produce in my experience of myself as such a sonic self vis-à-vis the ephemerality of my world. In other words if I understand my cycling as a quasi-listening activity then it is not what I come to see in my building but the unheard sounds of its imaginary potentiality that is the work and that implicates me in its production.

Listening as a conceptual activity produces a sonic life-world as a possible world, one not tied to the logic and consequences of the visual world but questioning its supremacy and expanding its logic. Such a conceptual sonic engagement practices a proto-digital consciousness, realising a digital virtuality as a real rather than programmed virtuality.

This is the reason that listening, as a sonic concept and mode of engagement, can illuminate and reach the iterative complexity of digital works and gets us to the experience of real virtuality, as a possible world, rather than to simply complexify the representational relationship to the ‘real’ anlogue world. In this sense to engage in digital works via a sonic sensibility encourages the perceptual production not of representation nor of re-presentation of reality but of the production of the reality of possible and even impossible worlds that are not accessible through a visual digital sensibility. In other words conceptual listening provides us with a sensibility that makes senseable, in the sense of available to sensation, the immaterial, the invisible machinations of the actual digital command, to make us understand it through its experience rather than its technological materiality.

I am not visiting Manhatten, Amsterdam or Karlsruhe, the place is not there, it is here, where I produce and experience it. The letters produced in my cycling are but another façade, in motion but nevertheless stable and impenetrable. The digital technology that facilitates their generation outlines permanence, however virtual and fleeting, that is contradicted by the motion of cycling, which confirms the far more transitory presence of the inhabitant on which the concept of the work hinges. The work is its movement. It is my moving through it. Temporality and spatiality expand from my body and on my body. I am at the centre of this expansion the immaterial concept myself.

The Legible City is not relational but makes relationships available for muscular appropriation. My cycling mimics the motility of listening: Manhattan, Amsterdam and Karlsruhe become sonic cities in the sense that they are produced by my sensory-motor gestures towards the computer programme.

It is the sonic conceptualisation of Shaw’s textual city that creates the work as a produced event and allows me to engage in its fragmented and immersive complexity. Sound as concept allows me to understand work, sonic or otherwise, through a sonic sensibility: to grasp and be grasped by sensorial simultaneity; to appreciate it out of the darkness, rather than sublimate it to a visible source; and to engage in the temporospatial complexity that immerses me. A sonic sensibility transcends the technological pragmatism as well as the visual drive to know the work and invites a more visceral engagement: that we should all sweat to build our cities, which remain forever ephemeral - words only, iterative, fleeting through streets built by those very words.

A sonic sensibility, the actual and conceptual listening to the work, enables this complex and intertwined understanding. Which then admittedly has to struggle back to language to make its mark on aesthetic discourse. But that is another question.

The reason this all is important is that if digital platforms are just seen as a quasi-analogue, but cheaper and more convenient distribution and storage mechanisms, and if equally digital processes of production are simply used to produce conceptually analogue work, then the digital does not fulfill its potential. To fulfill this potential would mean to challenge us to suspend our habits of perception and to engage in work through a different, what I suggest as a sonic sensibility, which allows us to experience it beyond expectations of recognition and the real, and invites our imaginary perception, through which we generate the work and ourselves vis-à-vis the work.