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As We May Network

Shifting sound and media art practices

Text originally published in Cheap Meat Dreams and Acorns: Ken Gregory since 1993 by Plugin Editions. Published here with the kind permission of Plugin ICA and the writer Tapio Mäkelä.

A few years ago a Tasmanian newspaper wrote about Ken Gregory as a prairie artist, which is not exactly the same thing as a media artist but it was closer to the critic’s field of experience than what Ken had said: I work with sound and media art and I come from the Canadian prairies, Winnipeg.

This anecdote seems almost like a random seed fed to an algorithm to generate sound, or text in this case, yet it expresses a starting point for unraveling its remote significance. How did Ken end up exhibiting in Tasmania, and myself, how was I witness to it? The article was printed during the Solar Circuit workshop in Tasmania, Australia, which in turn was a consequence of three Polar Circuit media art workshops I had realized in Finnish Lapland and which Ken had attended.

There is more to be said about these workshops, but the aspect relevant here is that media artists like Ken often work and collaborate through networks and how physical, social, critical creative times in the same location are fundamentally important to our practices. “Remote significance” points out also how artists from geographical edges can form besides networks, also cutting edges in new media art practices. Besides being in the middle of the networked media arts practice, Ken has been a very important figure in sharing his knowledge and artistic vision to other practitioners.

The position I write from about Ken’s practice is primarily from the point of view of a person who has seen it evolve from remote locations, in transit, in residence and in dialogue. On the other hand, I am writing as a new media culture and theory writer, event organizer, moderator and currently the programme chair of ISEA2004, a significant media art and culture symposium. I was also director of artist association Muu in Helsinki, when Ken showed Under the Influence of Ether in the Muu Gallery.

Ken Gregory at Solar Circuit residency in Australia
Ken Gregory at Solar Circuit residency in Australia. Photo by T. Mäkelä.

Engineering Ether

In the early days of radio, engineers like Guglielmo Marconi and Nevil Maskelyne were publicly debating on which radio technology was “safe and sound”. The competing engineers went to such lengths that when doing a public demonstration of the Marconi syntonic tuning system, Maskelyne interfered with the transmission and sent the word “rats” in Morse to an audience of experts. The ether has become since then overcrowded and the uses of radio technology controlled and its expressive genres rather limited. In the tradition of pirate radios and independent radio practice Ken Gregory’s Under the Influence of Ether points out how radio practices still can take alternative shapes as the artist chooses different strategies and æsthetics to involve listeners.

When the piece was shown at Muu gallery, I thought that we’d never get a permission to broadcast. Ken’s transmitter was enclosed into a plastic video cassette box. To my surprise the Finnish radio officials who are in charge of the licensing praised Ken’s transmitter as having better quality than the ones you can buy from the shop! Hence the Helsinki town centre was under the influence of ether.

In this sound installation a Mac running a composition using Max software was hooked up to a modem and an answering machine. Listeners who heard the sound over radio (within a 5 km radius of the gallery) could modulate the soundscape by touching the dials. Also they could leave messages to an answering machine, played back by the system on the air. In this work Ken Gregory integrates sound arts and engineering to re-vision and re-sound the very perception of radio and what the ether can mean for a particular location. Engineering ether involves re-conceptualizing radio both from the perspective of sound generation and its transmission.

Even though Ken is always very modest about the things he builds, he would smile and show you what the newest version in development does, how it reacts and sounds like. A particular sound æsthetic takes very long to develop, and often it is a combination of working hands deep in electronics, hooking up sensors, taking transmitters to the roof, programming hours on end to get the right feeling and the subtleness of the user/listener interface happening. Media art in Ken Gregory’s hands is a combination of working conceptually and tuning the work at hand through iterative loops of tinkering, recording and programming.

With a successful end result, many details and intricacies of the process become invisible, yet audible. Many of Ken’s projects produces instruments that the audience either plays or watches perform. In the project Divination by Oscillation he created an instrument for his own performance, a cross-over between a pendulum, a hammer (for throwing) and an aboriginal instrument, the Bullroarer. Spun first slowly and then with intense velocity, this very physical piece would generate a stunning ambient audio landscape, or as the title suggests, a dream through position and acceleration of divination.

Transforming and Performing Interactivity

Media artists push the boundaries of consumer electronics and software. Ken calls this DIY interface design. It simply means that when one is not satisfied with the consumer electronics and software position for the experience of interaction or how the tools of the trade behave in performance, you make your own.

To again return to Solar Circuit workshop, Ken traveled from Canada carrying a solar panel and a rechargeable battery. He would charge the unit in the piercing Australian sun and work at night on a laptop PC to program a Parallax Stamp processor. The conceptual starting point had to do with investigation of sustainable solar powered systems; and in particular, how would a solar powered sound recording and an engineered insect or a bird change the behaviour of a habitat in the local forest? Intricate designs of electronics appeared on a testing board, a soldering iron hissed away and one could soon marvel sound of an e-bird from a tiny circuit board as a flashlight pointed at the small solar panel setting the electrons in motion.

These animals Ken called “sun suckers”, machines that are classified “in the order Real Artificial Life.”

Sun Suckers have stout flat bodies with one pair of wings. The wing spans of the different species range from about 7 cm to 15 cm. The wings  are photovoltaic cells and usually shiny although in a few species they are dull and opaque. The wings are flexible but Sun Suckers can not fly.

Anne Nigten from the V2 organisation in Rotterdam calls artistic research and development as “Art’n’D”. In these processes one often encounters unforeseen material qualities, which in the long run turn into new sonic or interactive experiences. This is where residencies and workshops come to play a central role. In discussing and sharing processes with colleagues, each learns from the other: the dialogues around conceptual implications of these discoveries often spark ideas for new art work. For example, at one of the polar circuits we had a long dialogue about mail art and creating decorative, translucent electronics into sound postcards. Soon enough, Ken would come up with a prototype: You mean something like this?

He developed a very interesting idea of a networked mail-sound-art project, beautifully engineered Electronic Mail Cards. Unfortunately the timing of the project was to happen right after September 11th, after which sending electronic circuits that are active over the post became a rather risky endeavour in North America. He also produced Sonic Boom, a form of non-physical sonic terrorism to be sent to curators and other gatekeepers in contemporary art — also not sent via post due to changed conditions.

Ken often uses discarded technologies and familiar household objects to construct intricate installation pieces. Climate Control: or How to Predict the Weather Using a Pig Spleen consisted of several weather prediction pieces. Part of them were about measuring weather with instruments, yet most were playing with ideas around everyday life relationships with weather. A tea kettle as a automated humidity generating machine sensing visitor presence and humidifying the gallery space (on wheels of course!). A networked projection of temperature data on a block of ice, melting away, reminds the visitor of global warming in a tangible way. In an earlier project, Cheese Harp, he turned a discarded houseware to a music machine:

The Cheese Harp was found years ago in a large BFI garbage bin behind an apartment block I used to live in in downtown Winnipeg. With some screws, a piece of wood and some spare electric guitar parts, I changed what was originally some kind of manual food processor into a multi-stringed musical instrument capable of great expressive qualities.

One of the central aspects that I really appreciate in Ken’s work is that it offers many handles and tangents that one can relate to from an everyday life experience point of view. Too often sound art lives in a modernist vacuum of form and purity. Ken’s work is, while carefully constructed, performed or installed, full of winks of the eye to look at and listen to something familiar in a different manner.

One of the goals of DIY interfacing is expressed in a title of an earlier piece done in collaboration with Lori D. Weidenhammer, Cranking Out Paradigms. The artists used a gramophone as an interface to both video and sound. The handle of the gramophone was used as if one would pull memories from a Rolodex card system. “This interface links the body to data as fixed memory which in turn stimulates imaginative memory.” Coincidentally it was Rolodex type of cards that initiated Vannevar Bush to think about “memex” a hypertextual machine, a kind of a desktop computer, which he described in a famous essay “As We may Think.” Besides challenging current mainstream ways of engineering, software design and genre thinking, the importance of DIY approach to interfacing is to make interactive systems also subject to cultural critique. This way they may become sites of innovation and offer profoundly new types of experiences in media art and beyond.

In interactive experience, affect, emotional response, is particularly grey territory for those technologically driven. Made of fire alarm bells, the installation 12 Motor Bells is a beautiful example of how the experience of something familiar is emotionally shifted from alarming to soothing sound, a concert of as if an array of Tibetan singing bowls as an automaton. There is something very gentle about the engineering of these bells, as brushes touch their surfaces and generate a forest of chimes, hovering above passers by in the exhibition hallway. The subtlety of interaction, far from the immediate action-reaction scenario, is very impressive here:

The motor bells resonate harmonically with each other. As bodies move through the room, the sound is subtly modulated by their presence as the human body absorbs sound and radiates heat. As the temperature rises in the viscinity of the sensors, the computer responds with more “alarming” activations of the motor bells.

Networks and Art and What Not

Sometimes at a party, Ken dresses up and mixes martinis or daiquiris: he is a true talent in this art form. At the networked Art’s Birthday in January 2004 Ken came up with a drink mixer, Cocktail-O-Matic, that poured drinks according to sensors and different inter-connected parties. The ingredients were “ice, ladder, bottles of liquor, mix, relays, solenoid valves, network.” Needless to say, it looked and tasted beautiful (experiencing it from a distance unfortunately).

Real-time encounters via the net, workshops and meetings, and more continuous chat, talk and exchange form a networked condition, which has fundamentally changed the way one relates with different locales and is able to work in collaboration. As the exhibition is somehow still a teleological form of contemporary art environment, I felt the need to talk about this aspect of how things and people come together in the sound and media art scene.

There is one conclusion of this narrative social fabric that I wish to offer, not as an explanation nor a critique, but as a soft semi-transparent wrapping that one can at will put around something Ken does to touch and listen. For artists working with old and new technologies, the social realities of the very physical contemporary lives with and through technology are a much more important context than “how the technology works.” While being very skilled at tools of the trade and anti-trade, media and sound art at its best works in the field of technology but is driven by cultural and social contexts. Of the many sound artists whose work I have seen I think Ken strikes a perfect balance, with a twist and a glitch.

One night as I was writing this text I tuned into a Calgary Flames game in the Stanley Cup finals (no more Winnipeg Jets to tune into). The on-line broadcast of a commercial radio advertised “Big meat cheap snacks” and SUVs and I think BIG was mentioned 30 times per hour. It is against this cultural radiophonic milieu and the wide open landscapes of Winnipeg, where the next cultural centres are an air fare away that I think about the title of Ken’s website and that of the exhibition, Cheap Meat Dreams and Acorns. The title, he says, is “not a person, not a company, not a band, not a label but … a way of life!”

Tapio Mäkelä in Delhi, 2006
Tapio Mäkelä in Delhi, 2006. Photo by S. Sengupta.

Even though it is rather different here in Helsinki, a city north of the southern tip of Greenland at the edge of Europe, the way of seeking often remote connections rather than tuning to your nearest station is what has made this location also tick. As we may network, it is possible to shift sound and media art practices translocally. This means learning from local scenes, of the stories such as how Ken has managed to construct an alternative sonic space and lifestyle in the middle of the prairies.

“As We May Network” was originally published by Plugin Editions. Published here with the kind permission of Plugin ICA and the writer Tapio Mäkelä.

Cheap Meat Dreams and Acorns: Ken Gregory since 1993
Plugin Editions
2004, 90 pages, 0-921381-27-1, $15.00 CAD.

Other Articles by the Author

Audio Publications by the Author

Cheap Meat Dreams and Acorns: Ken Gregory since 1993. Book and CD. Winnipeg: Plugin Editions, 2004. 90 pp. ISBN 0921381271, $15.00 CAD.

under the influence of ether (1995). Included on CD accompanying S:ON Sound in Contemporary Canadian Art. Nicole Gingras, ed. Montréal: ARTEXTE Editions, 2003. 240 pp. ISBN 2980287091, $34.95 CAD. Dur. 06:56 (excerpt from installation).

Sonic Waking. CD: collaboration with Steve Heimbecker and Shawn Pinchbeck; live concert recording from November 21, 1998. Winnipeg:, 2005. Dur. 50:00.

untitled (2004). On the CD included with BlackFlash 24.2 (Winter/Spring 2007), “Sound Site, Silence.”
Saskatoon: Dur. 07:04.

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