When Listening Post, a collaboration between New York artist/designer Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen, a Bell Labs statistician, was installed at On the Boards last fall, an enormous, stupid oversight prevented me from seeing it. The very day after it closed, I began to hear what an amazing thing I'd missed. My pique at missing Listening Post (and annoyance at all the scolding) was somewhat mollified by knowing that so many people turned out to see it. On occasion Seattle audiences do not disappoint.
What Rubin and Hansen had done was transform the incessant chatter of the Internet into a sculptural entity. At any given moment, of course, it's possible that gazillions of people are making themselves heard in chat rooms, on topics as various as the day is long, but this implied noise is something we sense rather than experience, so that the full implication of what it means to broaden the scope of communication remains utterly abstract. Listening Post made this concept physical and aural, in the form of a screen, curved like the sky (or like a stage), with 231 digital screens across which flashed real-time messages taken from chat rooms all over the web. A British-inflected voice read these messages out loud, giving body, however digital, to the bodiless words, and then the words were translated (probably via algorithms much too complicated for my wee brain) into sonorous chords; when messages were being posted with greater frequency, there was more noise and the letters flickered faster, and when Internet activity slowed down, so did Listening Post, so that the whole thing rose and fell, on waves of sound and light, creating an experience layered with sound and information inextricably tied together.
This is heady stuff--never mind the questions of public and private domain, anonymity, and human contact that this raises. And these are issues that arise in Rubin's other work, not just in art but in functional design, sound and video consultant work, and other projects that mix genres--both artistic and commercial--so freely that they don't yet have names. One of his recordings appeared at the Henry's 2001 VOLUME: Bed of Sound (originally at P.S.1 in New York); he has worked with artists Laurie Anderson and Ann Hamilton, the architects Diller + Scofidio, and has done a few projects for the public art organization Creative Time in New York, such as 2000's 917: A Code Without an Area, in which New Yorkers attending an art fair could meet other fairgoers by calling a cell-phone number--like meeting in a chat room, sort of.
So I won't be making the same mistake with Rubin's Bumbershoot installation, Spin, which makes a landscape out of rotating orange disks that spin at different speeds, forward and backward, in groups and individually, and play different sounds depending on what they're doing. What drives this installation is not, as it was in Listening Post, external information, but something more like choreography, what Rubin describes as "compositionally driven." That is, the movement of the disks depends on a sequence of choreographed options that loop and remix over time, never repeating in exactly the same way. The music played by these disks is composed, according to Rubin, of "sounds that try to physicalize the disks as much as possible, sounds that have a texture to them, to give you the feeling these things are alive and have personality."
What makes Spin such an obviously good conceptual fit for Bumbershoot is the idea of sound translated into shape, and information translated into sound--a fitting meditation for a festival that focuses on music (for a more literal take on this idea, visit Flatstock 3, a huge sale of music posters in the Center House). What Rubin does is explore sound as a physical experience as well as an aural one, not quite in the way that Christian Marclay does (with his impossible instruments) or even in the way Tim Bavington does (with his slightly vacant paintings, which give each note of a guitar solo a bright, garish stripe). Spin is more meditative, more trancelike, more about the effect of music than the actual act. It's closer in spirit to the work of John Cage: randomness, properly encouraged, creating unexpected beauty.