The post-digital condition – nomadism, fluidity and micromaterialism towards listening in the contemporary age

Originally published at Italian Magazine Blow-up. Translated by Laura Domínguez.

“The digital revolution is over”

It’s almost fifteen years now since Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT Media Laboratory in Cambridge, declared the trigger effect of radical transformation generated by digital cultures in contemporary times exhausted, analyzing the future developments of a global scenario in which the addiction to digital technologies would have become increasingly invisible, to the point of declaring its disappearance: “Now that we’re in that future, of course, plastics are no big deal. Is digital destined for the same banality? Certainly. Its literal form, the technology, is already beginning to be taken for granted, and its connotation will become tomorrow’s commercial and cultural compost for new ideas. Like air and drinking water, being digital will be noticed only by its absence, not its presence”[1]. Considerations that in his own way expressed a kind of separation of promotions and unstoppable flow of digital cultures, and would become in some years into the reference point for a range of needs and concerns that were manifesting especially in the aesthetic field (sound, art, design), with specific reference to some forms of resistance to the unconditional and uncritical use of digital. Trends, the latter, which deepen its roots in a critical view of new technologies being developed at various levels (cultural, economic, social), as suggested already in the first years of the past decade in Kim Cascone’s analysis: “With electronic commerce now a natural part of the business fabric of the Western world and Hollywood cranking out digital fluff by the gigabyte, the medium of digital technology holds less fascination for composers in and of itself.”[2]

After Negroponte, it is the same Cascone who uses the term “post-digital” in the margin of a complex reflection on today’s glitch and microsounds invading the landscape of computer music in the new millennium. Artists like Carsten Nicolai / Alva Noto, Ryoji Ikeda, Oval or Christian Fennesz, sometimes not musicians in the strict sense of the word, but knowledgeable experts of musical software, or coming from the field of visual arts, focus one’s attention on processes errors, in the bug, in system failures of digital machines, approaching them as living materials, as sounds to incorporate within their own musical compositions. His work, emphasizes Cascone, reminds us that “the control of the technology that we intend to have is an illusion, revealing how digital instruments are perfect, precise and efficient, in the same way of the humans who have created them”. In the course of that which begins to take shape as a true and proper theory of the post-digital, the contribution of Ian Andrews, Australian sound artist and media, which used the term in question as part of a comprehensive aesthetics of post-digital that rejects the idea of a digital “progress” in terms of a “teleological movement towards perfect representation.” In short, both Cascone and Andrews, both consider the notion of post-digital, first of all as a kind of antidote respect to a techno-Hegelian or, if you want, “modernist” view in the history of the digital, in which this is considered in terms of a linear “progress”. A reaction, then, about a time in which it is intended to identify as “digital” the maximum amount of consumer goods, according to a logic that defines them as part of a new and superior technology. Is this, then, the conceptual framework in which the notion of “post-digital” falls, not a linear-Hegelian ascent (as an inevitable progression of cultural and intellectual history), but in the sense of a critical reflection of subtle, complex cultural mutations which are accurate reflections on the (re) definition of economic or political power relationships on a global level.

If the deep transformations imposed by the global digitization have irrevocably altered the social, cultural, economic horizon in which artists work, there are those among them who do not renounce to the attempt of forcing themselves from the domain of new technologies without achieving completely free from it. This is the case for example of those who choose to use a low-tech approach with low technological impact, or those who pass the limits of analog: they are, in fact, new art forms that emerge beyond the border, in the post-digital. These are paths in which can be read footprints in many contemporary sound works dating between the end of the 90’s and the beginning of 2000 become analyzed by critics (Mark Fisher, Simon Reynolds), occupied in retaking the Derridean concept of “hauntology” in order to apply it to research of artists and labels (Ghost Box, for example) that use obsolete technologies or rescue instruments and languages belonging to the origins of the digital, with the aim of evoking the symbols a non-invasive technology, free of compulsive and obsessive aspects.

Who performed post-digital aesthetic practices, uses art (and basically sound) as a critical device capable of calling into question the idea of digital versatile process as the only way to process information. In other words, it is to question the concept of computer as universal machine and the notion of digital computing devices as multi-media.

Indeed, as recently noted by Florian Cramer, one of the most lucid critics of new media, says about the concept of post-digital that “prior to its broad application in audio-visual signal processing and as the core engine of mass-media consumer technology, computation had been used primarily as a means of audio-visual composition.”[3] Here you enter in the history of the passage from the audiovisual computing as a means of production to a means of reproduction, put into action for research of companies like Philips, who founded an electronic music studio in the fifties, before participating in the development of audio CD technology at the beginning of the eighties. On the other hand, Cascone’s post-digital opposition to digital hi-tech playback echoes to forms of resistance regarding formalistic and mathematical models developed in the field of production and musical composition, meaning the reaction to serialism in contemporary music of the last century put in act by John Cage, LaMonte Young and Terry Riley, perfected later by groups such as AMM, Live Electronic Music and Cornelius Cadew’s Scratch Orchestra. After all, as Cramer notes, “the serialism of Stockhausen, Boulez and their contemporaries was ‘digital’ in the most literal sense of the word: it broke down all parameters of musical composition into computable values which could then be processed by means of numerical transformations.”[4]

However, so much of serial music was not electronic, but written on paper with pencil and performed by orchestras. It is a lucid demonstration that, despite the sense with which the term “digital” is used in the artistic and humanistic scope, its technical-scientific meaning can be used to describe devices considered only analog or post-digital.

Even when the forms of resistance to digital by the artists seem to assume the raw contours of a radical “activist” position, these never reflect a nostalgic or critical closing dye, but find their reason of being in opposition to mass consumption patterns affirmed through digital media in recent years. It’s the case of Terre Thaemlitz, who distinguishes between online culture and digital culture, considering the first and dangerously contaminated by stereotypes and degenerations of distribution systems for digital content (music, movies) in the network. “Even when the Internet was only for governmental and educational objectives, I have always considered a producer of digital media,” explains Thaemlitz, engaged in a series of projects that seek to “critically analyze the logic of distribution of audiovisual content dictated by the industry giants and its related listening practices. ” With “Soulnessless”, album published by Comatonse in 2012, Thaemlitz pushes his research beyond the physical boundaries of the digital format, offering over 30 hours of piano music, compressed to the point of saturating the maximum capacity of the MP3 format, 4GB i.e., a cup of 320kbps. It is a non “physically” exportable album and unable to be used in MP3 players, because of the current technological limits of reproduction. In a way, it is a first step to create a community of listeners ready to participate in an alternative model of consumption compared to those imposed by the business models released in the network. “It begs”, says Thaemlitz “a more specific audience willing to participate in a form of digital media consumption that differs from the online business models of late. It remains explicitly digital without romantically conflating ‘offline’ with ‘analogue’.[5]

The post-digital listening: Budhaditya Chattopadhyay and Saout Radio

What is the condition of listening in the post-digital era? In what way can this act be declined in relation to the changes suffered in contemporaneity in which we are immersed, from perceptive, aesthetic, geographic, political point of view? To focus these transformations means mostly to focus on nomadism linked to the continuous intersection of physical and corporeal places evoked by the intense mobility of the (post-)global contemporary. It is a prospective that takes account of the processes that regulate our dwelling places that we physically occupy and inside which we are located according to the way they meet together. This experience transcends the mere physical dimension to reach hybrid and syncretic environments, as Budhaditya Chattopadhyay has put in evidence in his theorization of post-digital listening.

“For example,” as Chattopadhyay says, “my Smartphone records sounds from one place and sends them anywhere whoever through applications such as WhatsApp. A place merges with another which I am listening to a sound through Skype, while I talk to someone far away, then I move, migrate and navigate from one place to another, more mentally than what I do physically. Sound interactions with these multiple places through which I move and overlapping places in which I land tend to be disconnected rather than having a specific structure.” [6]

The extensive mobility that characterizes the active condition of listening into spaces, places and landscapes that transcend the boundaries between global, local and discrete digital environments, takes the sound condition impossible to be positioned in the inner of a specific physically located source. At the same time no type of “locative” identity can be deduced from the sound, because of its constant transitory nature. The result is that when this nomadic single movement increases, it becomes impossible to relate to one single place at one time and every sense of eradication dissolves in what Chattopadhyay defined as ” itinerant sonic interaction with semiknown and/ or unknown places and pseudolocales perceived in the mind”[7]. Ultimately, we move into a deterritorialized universe, fluid, flexible, built on our listening and generated not by the location of of sonic content sources, which materializes a number of issues relating to the transposition and transfer of real and imaginary spaces, putting into question the traditional notion, developed in historical soundscape studies of R. Murray Schaefer, soundscape as “specific sound environment.”

The idea of the two curators is that “a soundscape can recreate, from the acoustic point of view, mental and imaginary settings, more than just physical or real places,”[8] as Anna Raimondo states. “This work sets a listening time composed exclusively for each taxi, which evokes physical locations, but builds and generates landscapes that do not exist on the maps. The result is a plurality of formats and approaches: phonography, field recording, chanting collections, sound compositions, sound poetry, inventive, radio art, alternative narratives, vocal experimentations, etc.”, says the Neapolitan sound artist currently based in Marseille. On board in the taxis, passengers physically walk the streets of Morocco, but could be anywhere, in any of the 97 sound universes selected by curators and transported by taxis. A collection of sound compositions or conceptual soundscapes that are not located on any map, as in “Toward Imaginary Scapes” or the sound cards (“Polaroid sound” as Anna Raimondo calls them) by Peter Cusack, Emeka Ogboh and Angus Carlyle. An evocative journey through different temperatures, landscapes, between ice and winds in “Through Climates and Temperatures”, or alternating tones of musicality of languages, the stories, the poems in “For in a Soup of Languages”. But the stories told in these works are really a lot. Stories that restore the sense of an aesthetic practice that is informed by a constant problematization of the dialogue that occurs between artist, audience and local community: “It was very important for us,” stresses Anna Raimondo, “to participate directly in the cab drivers project, without simply imposing our sound and without claiming to be the authority of the artistic project. We have spent much time with them and was almost a pedagogic moment. We close our eyes and listened to them. I asked them about what they heard and each made a selection. Each cab became a “ephemeral museum” of sound art in motion, and each driver was a mediator.”[9]

The work curated by Saout Radio emphasizes not only on the levels of mediation related to the separation of sound from its leasable specificity, across multiple receptions and interpretations of the sound phenomenon beyond the place, time and context. At the same time, it reflects in processes these generative mechanisms of perceptions, receptions and reworkings move in the listener’s imagination. In a work like “Here. Now. Where?”, the identification of a sound event can be understood through their subjective interpretation, in terms of an “augmented” hearing situation. And the reflection of the condition of the post-digital listening is organized essentially with the continuous transience of these listening situations “amorphous but fertile from the space-time point of view” as Chattopadhyay notes. “It is evident that,” concludes the Indian artist, ” in this milieu of sound’s explosion of substance into subjective interpretations, the production and reception of sounds over greater mobility and interactivity leads to the transf ormation of the epistemic structure of the sounds beyond their objecthood in the postdigital condition.”[10]

Sonic micromaterialism: Miguel Isaza.

In certain sense, the post-digital approach refers to works that question the uncritical acceptance of the popularization of the so-called digital revolution. As it concluded regarding the reflection of Kim Cascone in the early two thousands, this view leaves stereotypes of purity towards sound and image, and the perfection of the copies linked to digital, focusing instead in the errors and “glitches”. In fact, as Ian Andrews has noted, in the same way that will happen to the concept of post-modernism, that refers “it refers to the continuation or completion of that trajectory.  Post-digital music incudes a number of sub-genres: glitch, clicks & cuts, microsound, headphonics, etc. All are, more or less, concerned with the foregrounding of the flaws inherent in digital processes. This valorisation of what previously would have been seen as noise: a by-product, bearing an external relation to the work, would be one of the characterising marks of a post-digital aesthetic.”[11] An aesthetic built by tiny particles of sound, clicks, glitches, vibration, whistling and light noises, imperfect loops and clouds of granular pixels. The microscopic dimension of sound becomes a key component of the post-digital listening, above all musical terms. It is a vastly investigated theme through contemporary aesthetic practices of digital sound and which finds an original theoretical and practical approach, directly connected to the views of this writing, in the work of the Colombian sound artist Miguel Isaza. His studies on molecular listening focus on a possibility of establishing relations between what is infinitely large and infinitesimal units, as a precondition to analyze micro-events and microsonic processes in terms of a kind of molecular activity of sound materials. Is this what will come for micro-rhythms locked in a second, as “cellular scaffolding whose entire life can be just some milliseconds,”[12] as the Medellin-based artist writes. In the case of sound, exploring what happens in these imperceptible environments means to relate to the territories in which microsounds limit with silence. Isaza specifies that “we need to enter into a particular way of thinking about silence, which is the tool that allows not only to isolate and extract elements of sound but also to listen to them, to be able to print their images in our reality”[13]. When then the neighboring territories of silence, of the inaudible sounds, in the intersection with absolute stillness, beyond any musical or visual context, silence does not represent the “absence of sound, but the beginning of listening”[14] as recently noted by Salomé Voegelin.

Microsounds feed and demand the listener’s acoustic perception, immersing him/her in an atmosphere minimalism and silencem and stimulating what Isaza defines as ” a special state of consciousness that requires profound attention and immersion, faculties obtained in the act of resting in listening, a meditative practice for “embodied self-awareness””[15]. The prospective of the Latin American artist and researcher brings up one of the main issues of the micro-sonic aesthetics, that is, listening, thinking or observing it through an active experience that gets introduced into a sound domain of silence .

The micro-cosmos of sound become objects of research through aesthetic practices by Isaza in some of its projects, such as “The Atomic Valley”, real and own microsonic monitoring of an area of the city of Medellin, Antioqua, effected through a series of theories inspired by the science of quantum particles, which is translated into sound composition through the extrapolation of frequencies and grains from the soundscape that are used to create new environments. Also in this work, which takes up and extends the results of “The Invisible Valley” precedent of sonic exploration in the Valley of Aburrá in Antioquia, in which involve others besides Isaza, such as Alejandro Henao, Diego Molina, Jorge Cano, José Santamaria and others, the research on silence becomes a creative element that allows to redesign and rebuild the sound in delicate and ephemeral environments. “A mind that is in search of “sonic silence” and not just sound, is near to an ideal state of listening,”[16] says Miguel Isaza, who also on his recent album “Uji” (Eilean Records, 2014) continues this miniaturistic and minucious work of inquiry into the subtlety of sound and harmonic microscales. Built under the same Zen concept developed by Dōgen master, “Uji” is focused on “a dialogue of suspension and transformation within the temporality of nature, in which fleeting sounds that fluctuate in an ocean of transience emerge”[17]. It is a work in which the combination of different sound layers emerge: field recording, sine waves, and acoustic instruments (charango, pan flute, harmonica, music box) in a reflection about the dynamics of interaction between artificial processes and nature of acoustic phenomena. “On this album I wanted to address a series of philosophical problems allusive to the nature of listening and sound,” concludes Isaza, “influenced by the landscape of Carolina del Príncipe, a place secluded and far from the internet and any technological connection with the rest of the planet, to which I went to work for some time. In that way, I had time to think on many elements: for example, how one can be influenced, when working with machines, by the sound of a landscape of sunset or night; to give an organic sense to the work. Or even, how a situation can help to define the notion of texture and the diversity of detail to a level of micro-listening. I lived quite unique situations, immersing myself in the night soundscape of nature that surrounds me and trying to compose something that will not alter the mood of the time. I tried to interact with the environment through an approach that favored the possibility to demolishing the border between acoustic instruments, field recording and neighboring landscapes.”

References

[1] http://web.media.mit.edu/~nicholas/Wired/WIRED6-12.html (accessed 24 Aug 2015)

[2] K. Cascone, “The Aesthetics of Failure: “Post-Digital” Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music”, Computer Music Journal 24 no. 4, 2000.

[3] F. Cramer, What is ‘Post-digital’?, in APRJA 3, no. 1, 2014.

[4] Ibid.

[5] http://www.thewire.co.uk/in-writing/essays/collateral-damage_terre-thaemlitz?SELECT%20*%20%20FROM%20request_redirect (accessed 24 Aug 2015)

[6] Audio Interview with Budhaditya Chattophadhyay, 17 October 2014

[7] B. Chattopadhyay, ‘Object-disoriented Sound: Listening in the Post-digital Condition’, in APRJA 3, no. 1, 2014

[8] Audio interview with Anna Raimondo, 03 March 2014

[9] Ibid.

[10] B. Chattopadhyay, ‘Object-disoriented Sound: Listening in the Post-digital Condition’, in APRJA 3, no. 1, 2014

[11] I. Andrews, Post-digital Aesthetics and the return to Modernism. MAP-uts lecture, 2002: http://www.ian-andrews.org/texts/postdig.html (accessed 24 Aug 2015)

[12] M. Isaza, “Infinite sound in the silence of a grain”, 2014: http://infinitegrain.com/infinite-sound-in-the-silence-of-a-grain/ (accessed 24 Aug 2015)

[13] Ibid.

[14] S. Voegelin, Listening to Noise and Silence: Toward a philosophy of sound art. New York, Bloomsbury 2010, p. 81

[15] M. Isaza, “Infinite sound in the silence of a grain”, 2014: http://infinitegrain.com/infinite-sound-in-the-silence-of-a-grain/ (accessed 24 Aug 2015)

[16] Ibid.

[17] Audio interview with Miguel Isaza, 07 Sep 2014