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The Thing About Things
One of the core debates in science and technology studies is over defining the relationship between human and technology. Since the Enlightenment, Western thought has tended to portray humans as masters over nature, where technology acts as the prosthesis of human will. Under this conception, technology is a neutral, mute tool whose meaning is given by human agency. 'Man' is distinguished from animals as the sole tool-user, and accordingly, the society with the most complex tools is deemed the most civilized, or most advanced.

A decidedly deterministic streak has characterized media art at various points since the early twentieth century. Technologies, particularly related to electronic media, were conceived as newly discovered natural resources that serve to extend human faculties and elaborate on basic needs such as food, shelter, and security. Technological determinism claims that though humans create technology, technology in turn transforms human society beyond human will; thus the boundaries of the human are irrevocably altered by technological development. The optimistic end of such thinking is occupied by avant-garde Futurists to the ecstatic pronouncements of Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s, who believed that technological innovation represented the evolution of human consciousness. The dystopic end of deterministic thinking considers technology a potential Pandora's box that may bring about the total annihilation of human being.
The machine is not an it to be animated, worshipped, and dominated. The machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment. [...] We are responsible for boundaries; we are they.

Donna Haraway, A Manifesto for Cyborgs, 1991: 180
Bruno Latour's conception of humans as always already socio-technical challenges the fundamental categories of human and object that drive instrumental and deterministic thinking about technology. He notes that ongoing studies of animals and insects reveal that humans are not unique in our use of technology compared to other species (there are many animals from birds to mammals to insects that also employ tools), so mastery over technology is no longer a defining human trait. He writes that the increased mix of human and non-human (where human/non-human does not reduce to a subject/object dualism) represents "the hallmark of a civilized life." (Latour, 2004: 180) Latour describes the fear of dehumanization through mingling of subject and object as a misplaced modernist anxiety. For Latour, modernity is prefaced upon the illusion that humans ('human' defined as the liberal humanist subject governed by logic and reason) and objects would grow more distinct from one another; he claims that this will never and has never been the case: that our humanity resides in relationships between the social and the technical.

Though there has been a theoretical return to the body as a site of knowledge and identity construction, and to a performative understanding of subjectivity and identity, what has been missing from the discussion is a robust engagement with the things to which the body relates. As Donna Haraway also earlier asserted, assemblages of material agents are defined and shaped by embodied practices, but bodies are in turn framed, defined, and disciplined by participation in such ensembles, exchanging "energy, properties, and competence" with things (Olsen, 138). Thus things are not described only by human use, but are also actants, with a thing-ness outside of as well as within the human sphere.

Jane Bennett's work on what she terms 'vital materialism' expands on this discussion of the liveliness of things. Even though her intentions are to intervene in debates about environmentalism with a less human-centric notion of the world, Bennett's writing is particularly appropriate to a discussion about objects which are animated and affected by electro-magnetism. She extends Latour's arguments by theorizing thing-ness as something which is "as much force as entity, as much energy as matter, as much intensity as extension," a definition which also neatly describes the ephemeral yet material nature of electronic media such as radio or sound making devices (Bennett, 2010: 20). Bennett decenters humans to be just one of many actants in potentially vast aggregates; a shift in subject-object relations which she claims requires a concomitant shift in ethics: "If matter itself is lively, then not only is the difference between subjects and objects minimized, but the status of the shared materiality of all things is elevated." (Bennett, 13) Thus technological interactions are always already a many-to-many field of relations. Rethinking media, then, ceases to be a question of innovation, but one of effecting changes in operations and hierarchies of power among actants.

Materiality, Collaboration, Performance
Material Sounds is a program of works by artists who are neither masters of nor mastered by technology, but for whom media matter, in the material as well as the critical sense. The selected artists engage with everyday, overlooked, discarded or obsolete objects such as domestic lamps, mass produced alarm clocks, old AM radios, reel to reel tape recordings from police scanners, vinyl records, dot matrix printers or the incidental objects and surfaces in a room or studio. These sonic explorations of the signals and vibrations of and by things reveal relationships not only between people and things, but amongst things themselves. The works demonstrate a degree of shared authourship--things make sound, things play sounds, things are the performers/conductors. Unstable and/or temporary circuits result, so that a stack of AM radios emits a series of harmonic oscillations that can be shaped with the help of human gesture to function as an ersatz theremin, or outdated office technology conducts itself in symphony. They affirm that every technical act is also social in nature, where human sociality is intertwined with a social life of things, and the liveliness of things, particularly electronics, is highlighted. Thus “human thought as [takes] place within extended cognitive systems in which artifacts carry part of the cognitive load, operating in flexible configurations in which are embedded human thoughts, actions, and memories.” (Hayles, 2006: 138). Bodies are sounding and recording devices, be they human or non-human.

These works explicitly aim to reframe existing or trailing edge media and things, revealing or re-imagining human relationships to and within technological systems. They express both the technocratic and dehumanizing aspects of collaboration with systems of data exploitation and command/control, and effect a positive decentering of the human will/master in favour of hearing a proletariat of clocks ticking, or a muster of house lamps, or an incidental electric heater. The aesthetics of such collaborations between humans and things are necessarily various, often following the characteristics and tendencies of mass produced items once they have been enlisted to make sound art. Glitches, static, hiss and compression do not detract from the work, but further the expression of distance, age, material components and real networks. TACLERON 1999 (a title based on the acronym for tactical electronic warfare squadron) by s• begins with the physicality of the reel-to-reel recorder in a deliberate composition of analogue machinic clicking and clunking, acting as a pointed contrast to the sounds of the wireless police communications network which follow—documents of the coordination of suppression and control of a public political demonstration. This dystopic application of telephonic communications infrastructure is characterized by signature low-fidelity reproduction and compression of the human voice through small speakers in telephones or walkie talkies. Nancy Tobin's sampling practice from old vinyl records does not yield a steady 4/4 beat, but instead offers an off-kilter accidental quality to the samples, emphasizing the crackles and analogue pitch control inherent to the medium, and through an alternately accumulative and deconstructive loopiness reminds of needles uneasily stuck in their grooves rather than choral voices repurposed to house music. This method reframes the orchestral elements as well as the recordings themselves as artifacts, reminding that cultural objects are also things, while playing with the feeling of the Baroque genre initially recorded onto the vinyl.

Both Music for Lamps (Adam Basanta, Julien Stein, and Max Stein) and Kristen Roos use tactile transducers to transform everyday surfaces and objects into speakers, such that a group of lamps or the walls and windows of a fieldhouse become the playback devices. Roos describes this as a process of awakening the space by recording all its aspects (acoustic and electro-magnetic) and then replaying these sounds through the surfaces of the building itself. In addition to turning lamps into speakers for music, Music for Lamps also sonifies the electrical field fluctuation as the lamp lightbulbs are turned on and off.

Hertzian space, or the space of electro-magnetic activity is a central concern for Absolute Value of Noise, Andrea-Jane Cornell, Gambletron, and Kristen Roos. From developing specialized antennae and transmitters operating in the Extremely Low or Very Low Frequency bands, to reception, modulation and broadcast on the AM and FM bands, these artists work sculpturally and improvisationally with the unpredictability of signal and electro-magnetic fields. Wireless collaboration with radiogenic things also reveals the degree to which we spend our days saturated by signal and immersed in fields. Human bodies carry capacitance in these circuits, and contribute to the embodied relationships between things and people in a given transmission ecology.

Very few of the pieces selected were composed in studio (Nancy Tobin's Barok Soundscapes and TACLERON 1999 by s* are the exceptions). They were initially presented as live performances (Music for Lamps) or 'performed installations' (Kristen Roos' Thrum), live radio (Andrea-Jane Cornell's Constriction), or single take recordings of a series of actions (Addendum to Coincidence Engines by [The User] and Filter by Gambletron). Often the sounds of the room, site, and audience members are audible, thereby transmitting the performativity and 'liveliness' of each unique situation, and highlighting the variety of interactions between things, spaces, and artists. These live situations in turn could be composited into a composition for broadcast (as with Andrea-Jane Cornell's Constriction and Café ELF by Absolute Value of Noise). The recordings we will listen to, therefore, are not of the flawlessly controlled studio ilk, but documents of process and activity in collaboration with electro-magnetic fields, temporary situations, site-specific parameters (for instance, the qualities of an architectural space or of a broadcast signal), with a little air and hiss in the mix. This is an important conceptual and methodological aspect of what Canadian sound artists are up to, particularly as it points to the necessarily ephemeral nature of such work.

Works cited:

Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Haraway, Donna J. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature.
New York: Routledge.

______. 1997. Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium: FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouseTM. New York, NY: Routledge.

Latour, Bruno. 2004. "A Collective of Humans and Non-Humans." In Readings in the Philosophy of Technology. Edited by David Kaplan. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc.

______. 2005. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Olsen, Bjørnar. 2010. In Defense of Things: Archaeology and the Ontology of Objects. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.