Reverie: Noise City
by Peter Courtemanche, May 2005

 

Reverie is a virtual city on the Web. It is inhabited by sound artists from around the world who arrive, navigate through the streets, choose locations, and build venues for their work. From September 2004 to January 2005, this virtual city provided a context to explore a number of artist residency projects, streaming events, collaborations using the Internet, and an international exchange-art festival. This festival took place over four days in twenty-three venues around the world and was the main peak of activity in the virtual city. It was timed to coincide with the annual Art's Birthday [1] celebrations on January 17th - a day that has become synonymous with furious activities of Telematic art exchanges. This publication is a document of the project and also an audio CD release. The CD is composed of short segments of audio recordings from nine of the twenty-three physical locations that were involved. Most of these recordings were done with a live audience during Art's Birthday festivities, January 15 - 18, 2005. The CD loosely follows the thread of Kunstradio's program in Vienna - weaving around their action performances and announcements. A global sound collage evolves - a series of excerpts that take the listener on a rapid journey through the streaming venues from Japan, Canada, U.S.A. and Europe.

Reverie was produced by the Western Front Society and aaeol.ca in Vancouver, Canada with the support and collaboration of artists and artist organizations around the world. The Western Front is an interdisciplinary artist-run-centre that was founded in 1973. From its inception the organization has promoted ideas of cultural exchange and cross-discipline pollination through artist residencies, networks, and working to create connections between artists around the world. Early network projects included Mail Art, artists traveling as part of collaborative projects, gatherings such as the Decca Dance [2] in Hollywood on Art's Birthday 1974, and the use of Slow Scan TV [3] on long distance telephone lines starting around 1979. In the late 1990's, with the advent of streaming technologies, the long distance networks moved to the Internet.

On the Web, Reverie is situated at http://projects.front.bc.ca/2005/reverie/. This virtual city is an imaginary space set up for artistic expression and exchange. The Web interface, designed by Elizabeth Fischer, consists of an abstracted map - a collaged urban landscape constructed of Web-sourced images from around the globe. This map leads to nine poetic regional indexes. Each index leads the browser to locations in the city: sound art venues and anonymous spaces. Artists locate themselves within the lines of poetry and define the characteristics of their own virtual environment and sound venue. Over time, the growing collection of audio art venues has defined a structure of neighbourhoods and communities in which artists plan time-based events and engage other inhabitants in collaboration and exchange.

The title, Reverie, comes from a novel entitled "The Artificial Kid" [4], by Bruce Sterling. The Kid, who is the protagonist in this story, is the focal point of a futuristic reality TV show. He moves around as an actor in a disjointed urban landscape - traveling from regions of neglect, violence and industrial decay to the mansions of wealth and power. Sterling puts forth the idea that when you take on or wear a virtual personality for a length of time, it becomes a real personality. To a degree, the actor who plays a long-standing role "becomes" the character and the distinction between real and virtual breaks down. The book is both an exploration of virtuality and a comment on the voyeuristic attitudes of the middle and upper classes towards poverty, violence, and abandoned spaces within the contemporary North American urban environment. The project also refers to William Gibson's "Walled City" [5] and other non-fictional on-line virtual communities (MUDs, chat groups, networked gaming groups, BLOGS, etc.). "Walled City" exists as a distributed network game that requires continuous human interaction to keep it alive and functioning. The players adopt a persona and take responsibility for maintaining different parts of the city. These parts are then passed from player to player as the participants log-in and out of the game. In a similar fashion, Reverie imagines a city that is activated purely through the ongoing activities and exchanges of sound-artists. This project was initially inspired by an early version of antarti.ca (a map of Antarctica that acted as an interface to organizations and information on the Web) and Alien City (http://alien.mur.at) an artwork by Alien Productions created by Austrian artists Martin Breindl, Norbert Math and Andrea Sodomka, that explores the concept of the city as a dynamic, evolving place for exchanges and cultural practice.

An early proponent of the virtual city, within the context of communications technology, was Hank Bull who invented Wiencouver [6]. Wiencouver is a virtual city in space that was developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s before the advent of the Internet. It became the basis for one of the first consistent series of Telecommunications events that linked artists around the world. Developed as part of a network that included Robert Adrian, Roy Ascott, and many others, it has inspired and instigated many connections since its inception and in many ways, Reverie is the latest architectural piece in this long term utopian space. As I write this Introduction, Heidi Grundmann (the inventor and founding director of Kunstradio/Radiokunst [7]) has been in residence at the Western Front attempting to encapsulate the history of Wiencouver with the confines of a Web-site.

Although today these projects use the Internet as their backbone and primary medium of exchange, Telematic art from the Western Front and other progenitors of this form ultimately refer to (and sometimes include) other mediums of exchange: old communications technologies that are "semi-simulated" on the Web, radio networks, pirate broadcasting, telephones, satellite transmission, etc. Each medium or method of sending sound and image over long distances has its own peculiarities and its own history in terms of its use by artists. Early Telematic works used text, single-line telephone connections and modem tones to transmit video images (approximately 1 frame every 8 seconds using Slow Scan Television transceivers), and MIDI information (musical notes encoded as digital information). Telephone Music I and II, in the early 1980s, encouraged artists to compose music that fit within the frequency limitations of the phone line. In 1991, Text Bombs and Video Tape - a reaction to the Gulf War - had one of its most interesting manifestations as Fax-Art: collages and hand drawn protests, scattered around the world by Fax, often altered and sent onwards. In the mid 1990s artists working with Telematics shifted from using telephone lines and video phones to using the Internet as a conduit for Web-cams and various audio streaming technologies. On the Internet, software and software development become a key feature of this type of work. In my own practice, in 1998 and '99, I wrote some browser software to simulate the SSTV scanning style for use with Web-cam transmission. In 2002 I produced .. devolve into II .. with Roberto Paci DalÚ and Kunstradio. This piece used an elaborate framework and database system to record and recycle live image and audio streams from 13 participating artists. In 2003 the Western Front produced Scrambled_Bites, a network project that played with the idea of a "data stream" which connected robotic devices, sensors, and noise makers in different locations around the world. Here the idea was not to become transfixed with the Web as the focus of network activity, but instead to use the Internet as a means of shipping data from one location to another, to be activated in a space with a live audience.

Reverie is almost a reversal on this theme. It exists largely on the Web for the Web - with the condition that all the content is created live in a physical space, that is then fictionalized (or not) and described on the Web-site. As an interface to sound art and sound art communities, Reverie is unusual in its obsession with beauty. Visually the Web-site is inspiring and luscious. The graphics and design by Elizabeth Fischer are painterly, poetic and multi layered in the approach to the image and the navigation. In any Web work there is a balance between function and beauty. Function satisfies the browser's thirst for clarity and instant gratification, while beauty seduces and encourages the browser to stay for a while and experience the environment in greater depth. In this way, the Web-site - Reverie - becomes a seductive immersive audio-visual environment on-line even while being composed of text-based HTML structures.

In the space of a few months, Reverie has gone from inception, through rapid growth, and into the realm of historical architecture - a process that takes a real city many decades, often centuries, to complete. Following the frenetic events around Art's Birthday, Reverie has become increasingly static and at the same time increasingly dense; the live events taper and the number of archived sounds and images grow. As time passes and technology evolves, the city will slowly decompose. The sounds will become incompatible with new software and the design will shift with browser obsolescence. This is a metaphor that the artists discussed in the early phases of the project - the idea that at some point the city would crumble into digital dust. Like many experimental contemporary practices, Reverie is ephemeral. It is an intervention into a public (yet virtual) space that is intended to make passers by stop, look, and experience something out of the ordinary before continuing on with their daily activities. From looking at the Web server logs, it appears that most people arrive, stop, and get lost for an hour or two - an appropriate way to experience any new city.

 

Footnotes

[1] Art's Birthday is an annual event first proposed in 1963 by French fluxus artist Robert Filliou. He suggested that 1,000,000 years ago, there was no art. One day, on the 17th of January, "Art" was born. According to Filliou, it happened when someone dropped a dry sponge into a bucket of water. Filliou proposed a public holiday to celebrate the presence of art in our lives. In recent years, the idea has been taken up by a loose network of artists and friends around the world. Each year the Eternal Network evolves to include new partners working with the ideas of exchange and telecommunications art.

[2] The Decca Dance, January 17, 1974, was organized by Image Bank, Lowell Darling, Willoughby Sharp, Ant Farm, General Idea and the Western Front. It was a celebration of Art's Birthday and a Mail Art Awards Ceremony that took place in Hollywood with a host of correspondence artists from across North America. Documentation is available on video in the collection of the Western Front Society.

[3] Slow Scan Television (SSTV) was a method for transmitting video images over radio or telephone lines. In black and white it took about 8 seconds to send an image, and in Colour, it took from 12 seconds (low-resolution) to 48 seconds (hi-resolution).

[4] Artificial Kid by Bruce Sterling, New York: Harper and Row, 1980.

[5] "Walled City" was described in Idoru by William Gibson, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons,1996.

[6] Wiencouver was postulated by Hank Bull as a utopia or futuristic meeting space between artists in different cities.

"Wiencouver is an imaginary city hanging invisible in the space between its two poles: Vienna and Vancouver. Seen from Europe, both cities are at the end of the road, one on the Pacific rim of North America, the other just 65 km from the Soviet Bloc. They are each on the edge of the art world's magnetic field, able to observe from a distance, and equally able to turn the other way, one toward the far east and one toward the near east. Vienna and Vancouver are wealthy, regional cities with international perspectives. This, coupled with their linguistic and historical differences, makes them ideal for correspondants." - Hank Bull.

There were four initial projects from 1979 - 1983. A catalogue was produced: Art Telecommunications, edited by Heidi Grundmann, Vancouver: The Western Front Society, and Vienna: Blix, 1984.

[7] Kunstradio/Radiokunst is a program on Austrian National Radio that has been dedicated to radio-art and radio-based telecommunications and network projects since 1987. http://kunstradio.at