The Possibilities of Limits
‘We believe that [the] ...reduction in functionality opens up a multitude of creative possibilities [i].’
The history of sound art and radical experimental music has long been defined and shaped by its complex relationship with technology - a relationship simultaneously located within dual discourses of progress and decline: from the celebration of industrial soundscapes (Futurism) to the pushing of existing sonic technologies beyond their intended means (Musique Concrete); the expansive exploration of limited means (Onkyo), to the development of technologies that expand the possibilities of sound as both a subject and medium for art (Generative Music).
The examination, deconstruction and recontextualisation of commercially outmoded analogue and digital technology constitutes a burgeoning area within contemporary art practice. Whether in relation to the glitch aesthetics of Mark Amerika or the Danset installations of Phillip Jeck, contemporary artists are not simply questioning the apparent speed at which the innovative becomes the antiquated, but also pointing to the overarching role that market forces play in the perceived obsolescence of recent technologies.
Owl Project critically respond to and interrogate such ideas. Their work is intellectually and philosophically located within the context of key moments and paradigms within the history of sound art, from electronic music, indeterminacy, bioacoustics and generative music, to approaches to sound that examine the relationship between audience and artwork, technology and artist. This essay will explore the work of Owl Project within such social, cultural and art historical frameworks, critically examining their practice within the context of art historical and current debates about sound art and experimental music.
Responding to Nicholas Negroponte’s declaration that, ‘the digital revolution is over
[ii],’ electronic composer Kim Cascone has identified a tendency within contemporary electronic music which he defines as ‘post-digital.’ According to Cascone, the ‘post-digital’ sits alongside notions such as glitch aesthetics and responds to the realisation that digital technology is no longer revolutionary – that the widespread proliferation of digital devices and software, together with their market-driven propagation, has resulted in the end of ‘the revolutionary period of the digital age [iii].’
Cascone suggests that this change in attitudes amongst some radical contemporary artists has inevitably led to the development of a practice or genre defined by its critical attitude towards the digital – a focus upon and exploitation of the cracks, failures, inefficiencies, flaws and problematics that digital technology presents.
‘…many of the arts in the late twentieth century remind... us that our control of technology is an illusion... revealing digital tools to be only as perfect, precise and efficient as the humans who build them [iv].’
In 2012, Owl Project and Ed Carter completed Flow: a purpose-built tide mill located on the river Tyne which contained a series of specially-designed, custom-made sonic devices. Not only were these synthesisers, samplers, processors and sequencers made using a combination of digital technology and pre-industrial methods of construction, but they were also designed to independently generate sound in response to the constantly evolving tidal activities and compositional changes of the river. Flow epitomises not only some of the central themes and methodologies that help to define Owl Project, but also the complex range of issues and discourses within which their work is located.
In 1996 Brian Eno declared that:
‘One of my long term interests has been the invention of ‘machines’ and ‘systems’ that could produce musical and visual experiences. Most of these ‘machines’ were more conceptual than physical: the point of them was to make music with materials and processes I specified, but in combinations and interactions that I did not [v].’
In one respect, Flow can be located within the historical context of both chance operations and generative music, setting into motion a scenario and situation whereby the aural outcomes cannot be entirely predicted or controlled. It echoes John Cage’s belief that Experimental Music is ‘an act the outcome of which is unknown [vi],’ an idea which Brian Eno pursued further through ever-evolving, self-generating compositions that ranged from Discreet Music in 1975 to his work with the software company SSeyo in the 1990s. Outlined in the seminal short essay Generative Music, Eno’s specific definition of Generative Music is founded upon his discovery of Sseyo’s generative ‘authoring tool’ Koan. Partly as a result of this, Generative Music is a discrete practice almost wholly associated with the computer and computer software:
‘…Koan and other experiments like it are the beginning of something new. From now on there are three alternatives: live music, recorded music and generative music ...Like live music, it is always different. Like recorded music, it is free of time-and-place limitations [vii].’
The interdependency of Generative Music and the computer is something that has been examined further by David Toop. In an email conversation with Toop, the programmer Richard Ross questioned, ‘…what constituted generative music, and were computers necessary? [viii]’ In response, Toop suggests that such a point raises:
‘…some of the core issues challenged by 20th century music, and 20th century thought in general: the relationship of the composer to the audience …the construction of …self-generating mechanisms and adaptive mechanisms that shape sound; the exertions and abdication of control of a musical result; the modeling of music based on eco-systems and similar complex environments and the setting in motion of events that question the definition of music as a cultural production distinguished from noise or unorganized sound by human agency and intentionality [ix].’
Flow can be considered within this critical framework: ‘a floating building on the River Tyne …[that] houses electro acoustic musical machinery and instruments which respond to the constantly changing environment of the river, generating sound and data[x].’ Such work provides a model for Generative Music that not only negates the necessity for computer technology, but invites dialogue between Generative Music and Bioacoustic works. The concept of Bioacoustics provides an interesting historical and theoretical framework for works such as Flow: from Alex Hay’s Grass Fields (1966), where the artist’s inaudible biological functions were amplified and processed through oscillators and sine waves, to the use of plants and bioactivity translators by artists such as Michael Prime (e.g. L-Fields, 2000) and Mamoru Fujieda (e.g. Patterns of Plants, 1997).
Prime describes his Bioacoustic work as being located within a ‘hinterland between composition, improvisation and process/generative music,’ and it would be persuasive to suggest that such a description is equally relevant to the instruments that were devised for Flow. Turbidatron, for example, generated sound ‘according to the “turbidity” or “muddiness” of the water, and the SSS-12 (the Salinity Sequencer Sampler) stored and played ‘...the last 12 hours of river samples [xi]’ manipulating pitch in response to the salt levels of the water.
While Bioacoustics and Generative Music represent one useful framework within which to engage with the work of Owl Project, it nevertheless fails to reflect the wider scope, scale and critical contexts within which their activities should be positioned. Flow in itself has been described as spanning artforms, ‘...blending contemporary and traditional methods, combining sculpture, cutting edge technology, hand crafted wooden instruments, architecture, precision engineering and electronic music [xii],’ although even this is only part of the story.
Writers and theorists such as Ihab Hassan associate contemporary culture with characteristics such as knowingness, cynicism, playfulness and a critical attitude towards notions of progress, all of which are present in one way or another in the work of Owl Project.
‘…hybridity, play, parody, pastiche, an ironic, anti-ideological stance ...we have begun to build a family of words ...we have begun to create a context [xiii].’
The iLog, for example, provides an astute commentary on the multi-national, multi-billion dollar marketing and selling of personal sound-reproducing devices. As Owl Project explain:
‘The iLog series began as reflection on our relationship with consumer technology. Their design strongly echoes contemporary products such as iPods and advanced mobile phones. However their basic material and minimal functionality subverts these complex devices [xiv].’
The knowing adoption of clichéd advertising rhetoric on their original website is significant in this regard, highlighting the absurdity of many of the claims advertisers make on behalf of their products (e.g. ‘...down-to-earth ease of use. Out-of-this-world performance and looks. Log1k is great for the home or the forest... [xv]’). It also brings into focus the extent to which market forces, rather than any other tangible factor, dictate the perceived lifecycle and eventual obsolescence of a given device or product.
Characteristics such as intertextuality and parody are also evident in the early performances of Owl Project, and the Log1k performances can be seen to constitute a critique of the seriousness and elitism of sound artists performing electronic sets by the glow of a laptop in an art space. The relevance of such a satirical gesture is interestingly underpinned by misreadings of their work: ‘As well as balaclavas, logs appear integral to the Owl’s performance: their laptops are sandwiched inside them in blithe disregard of the all too real threat of woodworm infiltration [xvi].’ Nevertheless, as Owl Project highlight on their website, ‘The log1k was originally designed and constructed as a complete alternative to using laptops and live audio performances [xvii].’
The Log1k performances are significant in another respect however, and contribute to a wider and more pressing critical dialogue which – as evidenced in the question posed by Richard Ross earlier - confronts the centrality of computers in contemporary electronic music, particularly within a performative context. In such performances, the intangible and almost mysterious production of electronic laptop-generated sound is equally matched by the static, minimal and impenetrable presence of the performer. Here the relationship not only between art and audience comes into question, but also that between art and artist, artist and audience. As David Toop suggests:
‘Many debates about contemporary performance in the world of electronic and improvised music begin and end with the laptop computer: live, there is nothing interesting to watch; the relationship between action and sound is hidden from the audience; if the musician died on stage, or fell asleep, the computer would simply go on playing [xviii].’
Sound Lathe provides a bold, dynamic and distinctly material response to this scenario, presenting the audience with not only a real, physical, sculptural object, but also a clearly visible and observable process of production - offsetting the intangibility of digitally produced/performed sound. ‘Sound Lathe explores the relationship between the crafting of physical objects and the shaping of sound [xix].’
Sound Lathe is also evocative of a motif or tendency within certain contemporary practices, which employ a return to what would conventionally be defined as craft or traditional making skills. As outlined in John Roberts’ The Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art After the Readymade (2008), the current cultural landscape presents a situation whereby art is often defined by and engaged with according to its intellectual and theoretical content. As Donald Kuspit slightly cynically points out, ‘nobody believes in art anymore, so craft skills have filled the vacuum [xx].’ In this context, ‘the postmodern return to craft’ represents, in populist terms, a return to more traditional, quantifiable values in art - values that rely upon craftsmanship, making skills, and the deft and learned technical proficiency of the maker.
However, as demonstrated by visual artists from ranging from Judy Chicago to Grayson Perry, this ‘return to craft’ in contemporary art is by no means sentimental or nostalgic, but has a very clear cultural and socio-political agenda, and it is within this critical framework that the work of Owl Project can be positioned.
Electronic Music has usually always centred historically upon the creation of new technologies, the celebration of new technologies, or the expanded/innovative application of new technologies. Owl Project both embrace and reject such notions. Their bringing together of the organic, the digital, the pre-modern and the postindustrial firmly and knowingly within the context of contemporary sound art, constitutes a practice that succeeds in being complex and critical, engaging and uncompromising in equal measure.
‘The tendrils of digital technology have in some way touched everyone. With electronic commerce now a natural part of the business fabric of the Western World and Hollywood cranking out digital fluff by the gigabyte, the medium of digital technology holds less fascination for composers in and of itself. [...T]he medium is no longer the message; rather, specific tools themselves have become the message [xxi].’
[i] Owl Project description of iLog. available at http://www.owlproject.com/iLogs (last accessed 12 February 2013)
[ii] Nicholas Negroponte (1998) ‘Beyond Digital’ [Internet], in Wired. Available from: http://web.media.mit.edu/~nicholas/Wired/WIRED6-12.html [Last Accessed 29 December 2012]
[iii] Kim Cascone (2000) ‘The Aesthetics of Failure: “Post-Digital” Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music.’ In Christopher Cox and Daniel Warner (eds.) Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, Continuum, London, p.393
[iv] Kim Cascone, op. cit., p.393
[v] Brian Eno (1996) A Year with Swollen Appendices, Faber & Faber, London, p.330
[vi] John Cage (1973) Silence, The Pitman Press, Bath, P.13
[vii] Brian Eno, op. cit., p.331
[viii] Richard Ross, cited in David Toop (2001) ‘The Generation Game: Experimental Music and Digital Culture.’ In Christopher Cox and Daniel Warner (eds.) Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, Continuum, London, p.240
[ix] David Toop (2001) ‘The Generation Game: Experimental Music and Digital Culture.’ In Christopher Cox and Daniel Warner (eds.) Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, Continuum, London, p.240-1
[x] Owl Project description of Flow, available at http://www.owlproject.com/flow (last accessed 12 February 2013)
[xi] Owl Project, see note vii
[xii] Owl Project, see note vii
[xiii] Ihab Hassan (2001) ‘From Postmodernism to Postmodernity: The Local/Global Context’ in Philosophy and Literature, [INTERNET], Volume 25, Number 1, April 2001, pp.1-13. Available from: http://www.ihabhassan.com/postmodernism_to_postmodernity.htm [last accessed 19 December 2012)
[xiv] Owl Project, see note i
[xv] Owl Project description of Log1k, available at http://www.owlproject.com/iLogs (last accessed 1 February 2013)
[xvi] Owl Project, review of Log1k performance at Scala, 6 June 2004, available at http://www.owlproject.com/node/84 (last accessed 7 February 2013)
[xvii] Owl Project, see note xii
[xviii] David Toop (2004) Haunted Weather, Serpent’s Tail, London, p.224
[xix] Owl Project description of Sound lathe, available at http://www.owlproject.com/SoundLathe (last accessed 5 February 2013)
[xx] Donal Kuspit (2000) Redeeming Art: Critical Reveries, Allworth Press, New York
[xxi] Kim Cascone, op. cit., p393
Dr Mat Gregory is an artist, writer and lecturer in contemporary art history and theory at the University of Central Lancashire, Preston. His research focuses upon encounters between sound, music and the visual arts, examining and exploring radical sound art praxis within the context of social, cultural and historical interactions. He completed his PhD in 2006, which examined the history of radical experimental music in Japan. As an artist and musician his work has been published by Audio Research Editions and Deltasonic Records, and he has toured, performed and presented work nationally and internationally. His on-going research continues to interrogate notions of creative independence, identity and cultural autonomy in contemporary sound art and experimental music.
This writing has been produced as part of the Owl Project organisational development programme, which has been kindly supported by Grants for the arts from the Arts Council of England and the Jerwood Charitable Foundation.