Media Archaeology Trilogy


Introduction (1919-2007)

Since 2007, I have actively explored the history of certain obsolete audio/visual media technologies, following a very specific line of inquiry:

What sort of utopias and dystopias of their time were these devices designed to address, at what point and for what reason were they discarded, and have their inevitable replacements addressed these concerns any more or less completely?

This has led to a number of media archaeological re-enactments which place these discarded technologies in a contemporary context, coupled with a healthy skepticism of the idea of technological progress.

The three technologies chosen represent distinct moments in the uneasy partnership of utopian cultural-technological aims and dystopian military-technological goals, in the eras previous to, during, and just after the Second World War. These technologies are the optical sound transducer (as found in any sound film projector from 1919 up until the advent of digital cinema), the voice-encoder (AKA the vocoder, as found in mid-20th Century telecommunications electronics), and the vector graphics display (as found in visual computer interfaces from the 1950’s up to the start of the 1980’s).

Part One: TONEWHEELS (2007-14)

TONEWHEELS is an experiment in converting graphical imagery to sound, inspired by some of the pioneering 20th Century electronic music inventions such as the Light-Tone Organ (Edwin Emil Welte, DE 1936), the ANS Synthesizer (Evgeny Murzin, USSR 1937-57), and the Oramics system (Daphne Oram, UK 1957). Transparent tonewheels with repeating patterns are spun over light-sensitive electronic circuitry to produce sound and light pulsations and textures, using only overhead projectors as light source, performance interface and audience display.

Technically, TONEWHEELS uses the same kind of optical sound transducer as any normal movie film projector. In the projector, areas of transparency and shadow on the film encode sound as a modulation of light which falls on a phototransistor, which converts the instantaneous amount of light it sees into an electrical current which can be used to move the membrane of a loudspeaker. In this sound-synthesis system, the linear filmstrip has been replaced with a number of rotating disks, whose speed and design create waveforms of different frequencies and timbres.

TONEWHEELS was performed live in over 14 countries, and was supported by residencies at Tesla (Berlin DE, 2007) and STEIM (Amsterdam NL, 2008).

Part Two: DELILAH TOO (2014-15)

Taking it’s name from the advanced speech security system developed by Alan Turing in the Second World War, DELILAH TOO is based on the voice-scrambling capabilities of the vocoder–a device far better known for its role in the history of electronic music than for it’s cryptographic potential. It took the form of a sound art installation employing voice encryption as a method to protect privacy while still speaking in the public sphere, all the while keeping in mind the personal narratives of Turing (a persecuted British homosexual) and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (an imprisoned Soviet dissident), each of whom could very much have benefited from the use of this device themselves.

A vocoder works by filtering the input signal into a number of frequency bands, measuring the amount of energy present in each band, and transmitting only those measurements along to be resynthesized on the receiving end. While this method saves in the overall electrical bandwidth needed to carry a voice signal, the voice can also be “scrambled” by transposing the information between the different bands. Only if the order of transposition is known, can the signal be unscrambled. In this short demonstration sketch below, we first hear the original voice reading Fernando Pessoa’s I’ve gone to bed with every feeling, then the scrambled signal, and finally the unscrambled, resynthesized signal.

DELILAH TOO existed as an installation during the CTM Festival (Berlin DE, 2015), and was supported by a working grant from the Foundation of Lower Saxony and a residency at the Edith-Russ-Haus for Media Art (Oldenburg DE, 2014).

Part Three: VECTOR SYNTHESIS (2015-Present)

While TONEWHEELS used graphics and light to create sound, VECTOR SYNTHESIS uses audio signals to create light images on an analog vector graphics display. It draws on the historical work of artists such as Mary Ellen Bute, John Whitney, Nam June Paik, Ben Laposky, and Steina & Woody Vasulka among many others. It also investigates the history of the computer as a military calculator dedicated to more efficient ways to drop bombs on other human beings, which was slowly appropriated into the service of artistic expression.

As opposed to conventional video monitors, which rasterize an image into a series of pixels along a succession of scan lines, vector monitors (like their close cousin the oscilloscope) employ the unconstrained vertical and horizontal movement of a single beam of light to trace shapes, points and curves with near-infinite resolution. Vector monitors represent an early phase of the development of video technology, and were initially used to visualize the calculations of analog computers. As Cathode Ray Tube monitors are rapidly replaced by more efficient flatscreens, the look of the CRT becomes an icon at the same time as the object itself becomes e-waste.

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VECTOR SYNTHESIS has been performed live in nine countries, and was largely developed during studies at the Media Lab of Aalto University (Helsinki FI, 2016-18).

ADDENDUM: In October of 2018, I co-organized a conference and festival of experimental vector graphics in Zagreb and Ljubljana which you can read more about here.

Conclusion (2018-2048)

My own personal interest in media archaeology isn’t merely retro-for-retro’s-sake. Rather, it is an exploration of a once-current and now discarded technology linked with these specific utopias and dystopias from another time. The fact that many aspects of our current utopian aspirations (and dystopian anxieties!) remain largely unchanged since the dawn of the electronic era indicates to me that seeking to satisfy them with ideas of new-ness and technological progress alone is quite problematic. Or as Rick Prelinger puts it, “the ideology of originality is arrogant and wasteful.” [On the Virtues of Preexisting Material, 2007/2013] Therefore, an investigation into tried-and-failed methods from the past casts a new kind of light on our current attempts and struggles—and those of the coming decades as well.

–Helsinki, 05 JAN 2018