When cities sleep, what dreams may come?
by Anna Friz, 2005


"For these ports I could not draw a route on the map or set a date for the landing. At times all I need is a brief glimpse, an opening in the midst of an incongruous landscape, a glint of lights in the fog, the dialogue of two passers-by meeting in the crowd, and I think that, setting out from there, I will put together, piece by piece, the perfect city, made of fragments mixed with the rest, of instants separated by intervals, of signals one sends out, not knowing who receives them. If I tell you that the city toward which my journey tends is discontinuous in space and time, now scattered, now more condensed, you must not believe the search for it can stop." - Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities [1].

"The city is the realization of that ancient dream of humanity, the labyrinth." - Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project [2].


In the dream there is a city seen from many directions at once. We observe from the outskirts, and we are surrounded. Through the haze there are pagodas and gardens, low-level office buildings, cobbled, asphalt, and aqueous arteries traversing sprawling districts, streets like creeks wearing their way through steep canyons of skyscrapers, apartment blocks rolling sideways into coastal treelines, banks and temples that open and grow cavernous as we watch. Things near and far next to one another. A dream eye unfocused, a city without a centre. But there are markers on this map, and we follow them; they read "an achingly sincere faith in goodness", "a permanent nostalgia for the present", "everything transforming itself over and over." [3]

We are led to places above and below ground, to places that promise, pause, or radiate. The city has become a series of windows: to enter it is to navigate a database built on the associations of dream logic. Each opens onto a brief frame where much or little is glimpsed and heard: the audible life of an apartment over the course of a weekend, the sharp edges of old computer hardware scraping together, a ruler slapping a table, a reverberant tunnel, a slice of pavement, small resonant objects gently colliding. We peer in and out, we listen to live sound or find sonic fragments that have been left behind.

Reverie: Noise City is a city asleep and temporarily inhabited by dreamers who doze fitfully; in their dreams they are unable to open eyes more than a little, and so must rely on what is audible for an impression. There are gatherings here: dreamers transmit from halls and cafés, galleries and studios, homes and streets. Virtual flâneurs promenade and peer through windows, sometimes finding storefronts inhabited and open for visitors, while at other times the city is full of ghosts who leave tokens behind and the venues are under renovation. Signals converge and the city is made.


Reverie: Noise City is a place imagined through the performative sonic activities of a group of artists in residence at the Western Front and remote collaborators from across Canada, Europe and Japan. Beginning in November 2004 and peaking with the main event of Art's Birthday festivities January 14-17, 2005, Reverie is an ongoing inhabitation of a piece of virtual - on-line and chimerical - real estate. In Vancouver, Art's Birthday was celebrated in a series of concerts of solo and collaborative works created by present and remote residents, and attended by both present and remote audiences.

As the title suggests, Reverie: Noise City is an experiment in creating and activating a virtual city in sound, and reflecting upon experiences in and conceptions of many kinds of cities at once. Reverie evolved through the activities of its very eclectic residents to become a city whose features flow from poetic association, whose architecture is constructed through temporal gestures, whose interface is characterized by lush composite cityscapes, and whose memory is a database of audio visual traces. Our work in Reverie is also an installment in the (by now) long tradition of artistic exchange via communications media for the Fluxus holiday of Art's Birthday, and particularly in the ongoing relationship between the Western Front and ORF Kunstradio, Vienna, dubbed Wiencouver. Wiencouver is another virtual city-space that took shape in 1979, defined by the activities of artists in Vienna and Vancouver involved in Telematic network projects.


The Eternal Network

Art's Birthday is a manifestation of Robert Filliou's ideal of "permanent creation": an art practise embedded in and inseparable from practises of daily life. More than a move to release art production and diffusion from the restrictive and competitive institutions of the art world, Filliou believed permanent creation would saturate life with creative inquiry and interaction while reducing and eventually eliminating the divide between artist and audience. Bound up in the idea of permanent creation was a desire for continual self-renewal through exchange and collaboration. On January 17, 1963, Filliou called for an international holiday from work, school, and daily routine, declaring that people should devote the day to eating cake and making art for Art's Birthday. He proposed that the following year Art's Birthday would be celebrated over two days, the year after that three, then four days and so on, until every day is Art's Birthday and art and life are completely integrated. 42 years later, Art's Birthday often stretches over several days to accommodate time zones and schedules, and provides an excuse to engage in networked activities with a growing group of international artists who participate each year.

This annual Art's Birthday network demonstrates another Fluxus idea: the Eternal Network or La fête permanente. Filliou and collaborator George Brecht expanded their notion of creativity through non-expert art making in everyday life with the idea of continual exchange. After working together for some years, Brecht and Filliou found themselves in different cities, and felt that their spirit of collaboration could continue without being together in the same location. By extension they imagined a network as a means of continuing artistic endeavours with others over time and space. The postal system became the initial communications conduit through which the Eternal Network was realized internationally, giving rise to a flurry of correspondence art among a growing number of self-styled artists. More recently, contemporary media artists whose work is largely supported through artist-run centres and informal associations have revived Art's Birthday as an opportunity to continue network art experiments and to throw local and virtual parties.

With these ideas in mind, Reverie is a city in the signals sent and received from these many locations, with Western Front artists in residence taking the lead in inhabiting on-line venues. The web interface serves as map and portal, but the city itself is not confined to these online structures. Reverie, like the Eternal Network, is more generally manifest in the actions and exchanges between artists, in the participation of people logging on or attending local events, as well as in the signals of radio stations around the world who broadcast some part of the Art's Birthday festivities. Thus the virtual city is electronic and radiophonic, digital and analogue. No city, real or imaginary, has a fixed or static form - but unlike cities in which we physically live, Reverie is truly extra-territorial and unstable as network participation fluctuates. Reverie does not engage in networks of economic trade or political alliance, being instead a city devoted to experimentation and play. This network among remote participants is also based on friendship and ongoing social relations, as many artists remain interested and involved in part because of face-to-face contact over the years as well as ongoing mediated dialogue.

Filliou notes that the Eternal Network is not limited to organized events but includes all public life:

"The artist must realize also that he is part of a wider network, La fête permanente, going on around him all the time in all parts of the world. We will advertise also, as alternative performances such things as private parties, weddings, divorces, lawcourts, funerals, factory works, trips around towns in buses ..." [4]

Thus the Eternal Network describes daily social reality as inherently performative, while also applying the mindfulness and attention of art-making to all aspects of public life. Reverie residents fused art and life partly through the performative life of the virtual city, and partly through individual contributions that brought private real life actions and sounds to the public ear. In one such action, Jean Routhier streamed the ambience of his Vancouver apartment for a weekend, so that listeners could eavesdrop on whatever was going on there - whether he was talking on the phone, visiting with others, eating, sleeping, or absent altogether. Routhier's piece reminds us that all private and public sites are broadcasting sounds, weak or strong, and that these sounds intersect and overlap constantly to create the audible cityscape.


Noise City

James A. Connor, writing on James Joyce's convoluted Finnegan's Wake, points to a section of book II chapter 3 where dreamers are connected by radios, and their dreams are made of signals sent and received. Connor further proposes that the bodies of the dreamers themselves become radios: "While the dreamers are connected by dream radio, their bodies are themselves bound into the circuit ... The dreamer does not merely listen. The dreamer is the signal, the message, and the noise. The dreamer sends and receives." [5] Thus transception, the ability to send and receive, lies not so much in the technology as in the interplay of the dreams of the people themselves. Joyce's dreamscape is erratic and dynamic, powered by strange radio technology: "... getting and connected by the magnetic links of a Bellini-Tosti coupling system with a vitaltone speaker, capable of capturing skybuddies, harbour craft emittances, key clickings, vaticum cleaners, due to woman formed mobile or man made static and bawling the whowle hamshack and wobble down in an eliminium sounds pound?eclectrically filtered for allirish earths and ohmes." [6] In a similar vein, Reverie's venues were often crackling with static and amplified glitches, as well as cityscapes (interior or public), filled with the hum and flow of distant traffic. Reverie's dreamers included their bodies in the circuits of streamed transmissions across continents, using voice, playing instruments, eating cake, making all manner of loud and soft sounds through gestures, all while sampling one another. And in this dream the radio sang "happy birthday to you" over and over.

Contemporary audio art is often concerned with noise; noise variably defined as surplus sound, as pollution, as an interruption of the regularly scheduled programme, as potential, as a revelation. For noise is in the ear of the beholder, or: "It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear." [7] Noise is never meaningless, even if it might make for difficult listening. The ubiquitous surge of traffic in so much of the urban soundscape indicates the primacy of car culture. Static on the radio dial is a granulated signal too distant to be decoded, but also points to a frequency available for pirate radio activity. As media art historian Douglas Kahn notes: "Of all the emphatic sounds of modernism, noise is the most common and the most productively counterproductive." [8]

Reverie artists engaged in a variety of approaches to creating with sound, including field recording, contact mic-ing, electro-acoustic composition, radiophonic intervention, found sound and found object improvisation, bruitism, generative systems, and silence, to name a few. This eclecticism is especially interesting as various venues perform in contrast and complement to one another. These aspects of audible city life, real or imagined, conjure the city as composite, much like the images that make up its map interface. The dream ear is as decentralized as the dream eye is unfocused. Here is where a kind of simultaneity is understood, where the city is heard both inside and out, where small sounds are amplified and rendered audible next to louder events, where artists 9 hours apart in Vancouver and Vienna engage in concurrent action. Some venues highlight locality - a specific sound from a particular place and time - while others suggest flows of activity through space over time. Signals converge and the city is made.

Importantly, Reverie's Internet presence provided not just a venue for audio streams to be exchanged, but instant documentation of these time-based events. The difficulties in documenting dispersed network projects such as Art's Birthday cannot be overstated, so one intention behind the Reverie architecture was to allow artists to leave audio, text and image traces in the venue history, whether or not the venues are later "renovated" to accommodate new audio events.


Dream Redux

"With cities it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else." [9]

The virtual city is not a new idea, and long predates the invention of electricity and conceptions of electrical space. Cities imagined, cities in memory, cities told - these are as virtual as any on-line manifestation, for we cannot physically eat or sleep in them. Part of my attraction to this project was the chance to think about cities on many levels - in my case to link field recordings documenting specific urban locations with more ethereal cities in radio and memory. Many Reverie artists pushed the boundaries of the rubric of city, also challenging the "where" of the virtual city through sonic engagement with the physical computer hardware whose circuits store the interface. Reverie is informed by all our experiences with cities - the ones we sleep in and the ones that haunt our sleep.



[1] Calvino, Italo. Invisible Cities. William Weaver, trans. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1974. pp. 164.

[2] Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, trans. Cambridge, Mass: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999. pp. 429.

[3] Fischer, Elizabeth. Titles from the Reverie website, 2004. http://projects.front.bc.ca/2005/reverie/

[4] Filliou, Robert. Teaching and Learning as Performing Arts. Köln/New York: Verlag. Gerbl. König, 1970. pp. 204.

Also quoted in Perkins, Stephen. "Utopian Networks and Correspondence Identities" in Alternative Traditions in the Contemporary Arts: Subjugated Knowledges and the Balance of Power. Estera Milman, ed. The University of Iowa Museum of Art, The University of Iowa Libraries. 1997. http://sdrc.lib.uiowa.edu/atca/subjugated/two_5.htm

[5] Connor, James A. "Radio Free Joyce: Wake Language and the Experience of Radio" in Sound States: Innovative Poetics and Acoustical Technologies. Adalaide Morris, ed. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. pp. 21.

[6] Joyce, James. Finnegan's Wake. London: Penguin Books, 1992. pp. 309.

[7] Calvino, pp. 135.

[8] Kahn, Douglas. Noise Water Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2001. pp. 20.

[9] Calvino, pp. 44.