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Prix 1987 - 2007

Ars Electronica Linz & ORF Oberösterreich

Listening Post
Mark H. Hansen, Ben Rubin

Listening Post consists of a computer-controlled audiovisual environment. At the Whitney Museum, it was installed in a specially constructed room measuring about 6m x 13m. A curved, suspended mesh of 231 electronic text displays (small vacuum-fluorescent display panels mounted on specially designed circuit boards) forms the glowing visual center of the room. Anyone who types a message in a chat room and hits “send” is calling out for a response. Listening Post is our response—a series of soundtracks and visual arrangements of text that reflect the scale, the immediacy, and the meaning of a dynamic, global conversation.

The advent of online communication has created a vast landscape of new spaces for public discourse: chat rooms, bulletin boards, and scores of other public online forums. While these spaces are public and social in their essence, the experience of “being in” such a space is silent and solitary. A participant in a chat room has limited sensory access to the collective “buzz” of that room or of others nearby — the murmur of human contact that we hear naturally in a park, a plaza or a coffee shop is absent from the online experience.

The goal of Listening Post is to collect this buzz and render it at a human scale. Listening Post draws on real-time exchanges from tens of thousands of online forums. We use sound, text, motion and space to create sensual encounters with this data, abstracting the communication spaces away from their familiar on-screen presence. Taken together, public online communications represent an enormous outpouring of realtime data, and this data is filled with complex structure.

Topics emerge in response to current events and daily activities in cycles that vary hour-to-hour, day-to-day, and season-to-season. Emerging issues transcend the boundaries of the online landscape: a local knitting circle in Australia and a political discussion group on Yahoo may both react to news of a political scandal, a war, or a world cup victory. Our goal is to distill the content and the structure of this collective communication and to present it in ways that are accessible and compelling. Every word that enters our system was typed only seconds before by someone, somewhere.

The irregular staccato of these arriving messages form the visual and audible rhythms of the work. The sound-generating systems are constructed almost as wind chimes, where the wind in this case is not meteorological but human, and the particles that move are not air molecules but thoughts and words. Listening Post is about harnessing the human energy that is carried by all of these words and channeling that energy through the mechanisms of the piece.