Crowdsourced Beats

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Moniker for Light Light, “Do Not Touch” screenshot, 2013. Crowdsourced music video.

Responses to recent developments over at the National Security Agency (NSA), and growing concerns about privacy in general, point to our desire for a certain amount of control over our online activities. Crowdsourced artworks give users some authority, if even just a little, and the creators are usually transparent about how user participation gets tracked. Sometimes, that’s part of the fun. Following are some thoughts and observations on two recent crowdsourced sound works that provoke questions about virtual engagement.

Do Not Touch

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Moniker for Light Light, “Do Not Touch” screenshot, 2013. Crowdsourced music video.

Created by the Amsterdam-based design and technology firm Moniker, the crowdsourced music video Do Not Touch (2013) was made to accompany “Kilo,” a song by the European band Light Light. “After 50 years of pointing and clicking,” says the website, “we are celebrating the nearing end of the computer cursor with an ever-changing music video where all our cursors can be seen together for one last time.” Upon clicking the play button, the viewer is presented with a frenetically moving mass of arrow cursors, representing the users who participated in the video’s creation. Text at the top of the screen shows the instructions they received on how to move their cursors, reading for instance, “Catch the Dot” or “Stay in the Green Zone.” When presented with a map, users were given questions like “Where are you from?” and “Where would you like to go?”

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Moniker for Light Light, “Do Not Touch” screenshot, 2013. Crowdsourced music video.

The language prompts, which play a huge role in how users interact throughout, are, maybe problematically, only offered in English. The lyrics “fight against the current” suggest that the listener and user too are subjects in a controlled environment. At work here is Moniker’s larger objective to explore our relationship with technology. Do Not Touch serves to comment on how we engage with other users online, and also tells us something about our different ways of following instructions or not. My favorite part of the video instructs the viewer not to touch the nude model. However, a few users were compelled to cover her private parts, or at least point to them. Do Not Touch gives us a glimpse at how people move with or against a crowd. But how much control does the user really have?

Seaquence

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Ryan Alexander, Gabriel Dunne, and Daniel Massey, “Seaquence” screenshot, 2013. Crowdsourced soundscape.

Seaquence (2013), “an experiment in musical composition,” also invites users to become co-producers. Designed by artists Ryan Alexander, Gabriel Dunne, and Daniel Massey at Gray Area Labs (part of Gray Area Foundation for the Arts in the California Bay Area), the trio created a virtual environment where users “can create and combine musical lifeforms” in a Petri dish. The user has the ability to build an entire ecosystem from the sound waves, which resemble tadpoles. Although Seaquence is based on a specific script, resulting in a variety of tones and sounds, it is ultimately the participant who creates a unique musical composition.

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Ryan Alexander, Gabriel Dunne, and Daniel Massey, “Seaquence” screenshot, 2013. Crowdsourced soundscape.

What drew me to Do Not Touch and Sequence is the focus on the user as the producer of content—people are actually needed to create the work. In my recent research and writing, I’ve focused on “digital colonialism,” or technology as a form of control as we increasingly rely on digital devices. Do Not Touch and Sequence emphasize the artists and designers role in perhaps decolonizing the user by inviting him or her to take action. But the projects bring me to question the limits of engagement with audiovisual artworks online. Are they really liberating? Or are they restrictive? How have these works encouraged you to think about our relationship with technology, and the viewer as content creator?

Dorothy Santos is Art21’s blogger-in-residence through August 30, 2013.

Contributor
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Dorothy Santos is a freelance writer, blogger, curator, visual and critical studies geek. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree at California College of the Arts, where she is researching computational aesthetics, programming, coding, and open source culture and their effects on contemporary art. Born and raised in San Francisco, she holds bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and psychology from the University of San Francisco. As arts editor and curator of Asterisk San Francisco Magazine + Gallery, and blogger for ZERO1: Arts and Technology Network and Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, she enjoys writing about artists and engaging with art communities. Her writing has also appeared in Art Practical, Stretcher, Creative Applications Network, Daily Serving, and Planting Rice.
  1. Michelle says:

    “Digital colonialism” is an interesting phrase – and I’m intrigued with the notion of “touching.” But I want to ask the designers why it was only a woman’s naked body (unless there was a man’s that’s not been mentioned). I think about how the internet is seen as a sort of man’s domain, particularly an anonymous man’s domain, who can comment and leave rape threats on any woman’s page. How can this new frontier be opened to more gender equality and respect?

    Reply

    Dorothy Santos Reply:

    Michelle, thanks for the comment. Digital colonialism is an idea I’ve been grappling with as I start my thesis year. I’m looking at postcolonial media theory (which is a bit of hybrid between electronic media theory and postcolonial theory). I’ve been reading through a lot of theory lately and the blog postings I worked on for the art21 BIR forced me to interrogate images, first and foremost. I tried my best to provide a concise visual analysis of the Do Not Touch and Seaquence projects. Visually, the works are not overtly about colonizing bodies BUT they can be considering they both implicate our involvement or interaction.

    The idea of touching fascinates me as well. I love Moniker’s exploration into the slow obsolescence of touching content with mere cursors. We see this more and more…our bodies merging with machines (i.e., touch screens, holograms, etc.). But this does present some complications with question you raised. It’s bad enough that “in real life” (IRL), some spaces remain incredibly gendered. So, virtually, we can only imagine what gender and identity construction would look like. Your question is a great one and one of my favorite new media artists, Micha Cardenas is incredibly well versed and well read on this particular topic. As a matter of fact, she has a SXSW talk and a few projects that explore the transgendered body in both physical and virtual spaces. Elizabeth Grosz is theorist that also addresses questions of gendered virtuality/virtual spaces.

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  2. I love “Do Not Touch” and I think it’s really exciting to have works that are so reliant on the audience for thorough enjoyment/success. I wonder what factors might have changed the emergent patterns? Do you think if something had been changed, like the music, audience, or the prompts that the patterns that have been forming on the screen would be very different? As you mention the prompts are really important… just a thought.

    Reply

    Dorothy Santos Reply:

    I think it’s interesting to think about emergent patterns. The unfortunate thing is that you don’t really know what they are until after the fact.

    You brought up something that definitely changes interactive works…language! The prompts for the Do Not Touch video are imperative to its success. But that’s the thing, it already assumes something about the viewer/participant (that they speak, read, and/or write in English). Is is a possibility that the stray cursors are those individuals that do not speak, read, and/or write in English. Can’t say but it’s interesting to think about, for sure. Seaquence, on the other hand, relies solely on the way we work with elements of sound. The visual becomes secondary (even though we see first). I think that’s the reason why I value audio-visual works falling in the new media arts genre. As I’ve mentioned, I have a fascination with the way the body and our senses are implicated in the works.

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  3. Aimee Suzara says:

    Thanks for this post and for exposing me to these art works. I am, too, interested in the role of the audience or viewer as co-creator of the art experience, as theater and live performance enable. I am curious about the experiences or feedback of the viewers who co-created “Do Not Touch.” What kinds of feedback did the viewers give when asked “did you like it?” (Interesting that it is a yes/no question.) My question is whether the viewer truly is participating – of his or her own volition – while following instructions. It seems to comment, to me, on the ways in which we are constantly taking instructions from technology: click here, don’t click here, look here, don’t look here. While it has the viewers following simple instructions and creating a swarm of participation, with only few outliers, it also draws our attention towards the cognitive filtering required of us in our everyday lives – our eyes bombarded with ads we are used to ignoring. In fact, the simplicity of text instruction seems to cut through the multiple messaging we have to endure on a regular basis.

    I was able to participate in “Seaquence” and really appreciated this piece. It’s akin to a Garage Band or other sequencing machine but more fun, pre-set, with the fascinating visual metaphor of the petri dish that we are watching unfold. I love music-making and feel that perhaps it is even more primal – making sound necessitates no instrument but our bodies. This process is more independent, although in the end we are collaborating with the creators of the art piece. I created this one: http://seaquence.org/5jwx.

    The questions you pose are ones that floated through my mind as I engaged with these works: are they liberating? Or restrictive? These are definitely important questions for us all as generations are born with cell phones in their hands, their minds hard-wired to laptops and other devices. Thanks again for this provocative article.

    Reply

    Dorothy Santos Reply:

    Aimee, thanks for reading and you’re welcome. Glad to hear it. You bring up great points. With theater and live performance, I imagine the notion of the 4th wall and recognition of the audience, which I’ve been seeing happen in some of the theater pieces I’ve seen in the past year. Technology, specifically crowd sourced interactive works, fascinate me because I wonder if people return to these same works. Humans get bored (especially nowadays). It takes a lot and for something overtly representational, such as the Do Not Touch video, the text prompts play an integral role in the experience. As you mentioned, we are told constantly what to do. Perhaps, this explains the short attention span of younger generations. They are told where to swipe and what button to press to reach a specific end.
    Checked out your Seaquence piece! You definitely brought something up that technology cannot replace, which is the use of the body in making music. It is a primal activity and it doesn’t always necessitate an instrument, device, or machine to be made. But having developers and engineers create applications, games, and devices that “ease” the creation of music making makes me think it can be restrictive. You know, I read an article a few months ago…the elderly were able to tell the difference between music played on a record player versus music played digitally. While my research is in arts and tech and I love technology for its capacity to help educate and disseminate information, music, and news…I hope we don’t lose sight of the things that brought us to the technology we seem to depend on. Thanks again. I totally rambled but I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts!!

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