Possible Public and Private Narratives

Brian House (brianhouse.net) is an artist working through the material ecologies of sound and data. By constructing embodied, participatory systems, he explores how computational temporalities negotiate with the rhythms of everyday life. Recent works address questions around surveillance, labour, and the contingencies of the body in ways that often occupy states of unresolved tension or not-knowingness.

In this conversation with Interventions co-editor Johanna Linsley, House reflects on three projects: Conversnitch (2014), Joyride (2011), and Open Capture (2014). Each of these projects deals with a particular configuration of the public and private in relationship to data, tapping into some of the most significant of contemporary anxieties. Below, House discusses what it means to treat humans like software, how stealing a phone might be considered an impersonation, and how to sample everyday social gestures to create an ephemeral database.

Conversnitch (with Kyle McDonald), 2014

Conversnitch automatically tweets overheard conversations, bridging the gap between (presumed) private physical space and public space online.

A small “light bulb” plugs into any standard fixture, and via a microphone and wifi connection audio is streamed to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, where it is transcribed by anonymous workers and posted to Twitter.

 

Johanna Linsley: How did Conversnitch come about?

Brian House: It was through conversations with Kyle, my collaborator, who came up with the initial idea of building something like a live Tweet box. The full implications of that project took shape as we talked it out, particularly thinking about the physical form of it.

JL: And the physical form of it is that it’s a light bulb you can install in public places.

BH: Right. I was interested in these objects that serve metaphorical purposes as well as completely utilitarian ones. A light bulb is at once an entirely quotidian thing that’s ubiquitous, but it is also tied into a certain industrial history. A core part of my work is an interest in rhythmic cycles throughout everyday life; the light bulb changed those in radical ways. Then you have a tie-in to illumination and enlightenment. A light bulb is above you and is shining down, and it allows a particular type of perspective or work. It’s a very visual apparatus. So that began to seem like the perfect point to intervene and ask what if this is actually an audio device?

Another part of that for me is the notion of transcription. The project starts with speech and phenomenological sound and then is turned into inscription. That translation speaks to what became the most noticed aspect of the project which is the surveillance aspect. That plays into a cultural context where you have the Snowden archive released, you have these people freaking out about this unresolved state between safety and security, and personal privacy and fear of exposure. The aesthetic and affect with which we deal with those things in large part inherits from a post-World War II paranoid perspective – it’s the idea of a malicious government keeping personal tabs on you. I think that’s problematic. Today we have to ask what it means to have collective surveillance. Massive data collection is no longer personal, and what emerges is a conflation of government and state power with corporate power, or the public with the private. What is the difference today between surveillance as state control and surveillance as market research? All that is to say, I think transcription is really important here. It’s the idea that you say something on your phone and that can be intercepted and turned into text, which is then subject to review. The permanence of text, the on-the-record-ness of text is part of the surveillance aspect of the project.

JL: One of the interesting things in this work is that you’re questioning how labour is part of this. There’s an economy around the transformation from the seemingly ephemeral to something that’s inscribed.

BH: Exactly. That’s another dimension of this project, what I think of as encapsulation. So you have the spoken, and you have the transcribed. What is happening in that intermediate step? What is the actual cultural practice that makes that happen? Maybe historically it’s writing. On the other hand, media archeologists talk about what it is to inscribe on a hard disk, and the actual materiality of the apparatus of the computer. Reading bits: what is that as inscription technology? What contingencies arise?

In the case of Conversnitch, there’s this labour dimension. We put recordings up on Mechanical Turk, which is a tool that allows you to treat humans like software. It exists because there are difficult things for machines to do, like audio transcription. So you have a human do that part, but the whole interface, the whole way you interact with that human, it’s as if they were software. So from our perspective, our code posts the job and gets a response and puts it on Twitter, but of course on the other end there’s a human somewhere in the world with whom there’s an exchange of labour. It’s deeply problematic. There is a complete division between their work and the fruits of their labour, but also between our whole social engagement. And this is below minimum wage stuff, and I don’t know where this person is. It’s global – a lot of English transcription ends up coming from South Asia. There’s a really problematic exchange there.

Conversnitch is not a positive project in the sense that it doesn’t try to resolve any of these inconsistencies. There’s not a thesis. It sits between multiple levels: spoken/transcribed, public/private and human/machine labour. Using Mechanical Turk was at once a technical solution to make this project work, but it’s also a deeply difficult and oscillating thing, which plays into the project itself.

Joyride, 2011

Joyride presents the path of a stolen iPhone, over five days, reconstructed with images from Google Street View.

 

BH: Joyride wasn’t pre-conceived as an art piece. It is a project that exists in the play between media representation and physically experienced reality that doesn’t quite mesh properly. There is an idea that we have that our devices are an extension of our personalities – our mobile phone in some sense is part of who we are – and that the data that is produced by these things reflects our sense of selves. You look at Google Maps, you see the dot, and that ties into this huge history of Cartesian representation. ‘You Are Here’. I’m a dot going this way, and I’m actually walking and seeing things move.

So yeah, here was this serendipitous situation, if you want to call it that. After her iPhone was stolen, we were tracking Sue’s location [Sue Huang, the owner of the iPhone, and a longtime collaborator with House]. We were tracking ‘Sue’, but suddenly it wasn’t her. Someone else had the phone. Suddenly the dot on the map had taken on a life of its own.

It’s almost like a kind of identity theft, or an impersonation, that goes along with the property theft. And I’m more interested in that impersonation element. It’s like someone has stolen your shadow and is running with it. In a way I think Sue felt exposed, being stripped of this device but having it continue on without her. It’s like someone wearing your clothes.

Then the representation step in this art piece is attaching that to Google Street View. We can actually have this vision into what’s happening with this phone. But of course it’s this Frankenstein vision, this Frankendata using all of Google’s many eyes. That video and the sense of the thief traveling – those are all just pieces from photographs taken by this massive surveillance apparatus that Google has employed. Temporal aspects then come up. All of those images were taken prior to the thief traveling that path. So this is a past representation of – as we were watching it – a present situation. But there is an anticipation element as well. Our linear time was scrambled. From a new media perspective, there is an idea of having all possible combinations latent within the system, ready to go, and then as something happens the narrative can be played. That’s a fundamental aspect of new media: there are all possible narratives available. Or at least there is an aspiration to all possible narratives. It’s the totalizing vision that a corporation like Google claims. So watching the car drive down the highway, we’re within that Google world and all the weirdness that comes with it. It’s a half-physical, half-virtual world where we’re seeing time unfold but it’s already unfolded. It’s this suspended kind of zone.

JL: One of the things that feels hopeful or political about that representation, though, is that within the idea of this totalized Google map of the world, there are discontinuities and gaps. There’s this sense that maybe there are ways out of that seamless smoothness.

BH: Because you can never be all-encompassing. There are always these contingencies at the points where the data meets the body that screw it up. Google is telling one story through the data, but then there is this other story of Sue and her phone. Despite me making an art piece, she also wanted her phone back. And she did get it back, and it was a funny situation. She met up with the guy who claimed he wasn’t the one who stole it, but he wanted money for it. Sue was pregnant at the time, and the guy was carrying a copy of On the Road. As they’re having this exchange, Sue looked over to where he parked his car, which was apparently in an illegal zone, and the car was getting towed. There’s a specificity to that.

JL: Yes! That would be hard for Google to predict.

BH: Exactly. That wasn’t included in all the possible narratives. That particular situation. That’s interesting to me.

Open Capture, 2014
With Open Capture, observers watch for particular behaviors in the crowd. When they see it, they click—sounding out the museum’s architecture and shaping it into a data center of sorts.

 

JL: In all of these projects, the body is implicated at some level. You’ve talked about rhythm, and this final project is also about gesture.

BH: I’m always very interested in the body as material, and as a privileged site for how we engage with the world. As much as I’ve been engaging with materialist theories, and I’m very interested in a kind of non-human approach, the body still remains the critical site. A lot of my work deals with sound, where the body is entangled in acoustic phenomena. It’s something that happens because of our particular bodies and the way we perceive the world. Sound is not out there. It’s not electromagnetic radiation, for instance. It’s a relationship of touch between our bodies and a space, and our psychological perception of that. So to me, in Open Capture I was trying to create an analog of a database, but highlighting the relational and temporal aspects of it. It’s essentially a more sonic approach to the database.

With data there is an actual point where reality is being sampled. The data I’m talking about here could be anything. Whether it’s audio or video or text, there’s this moment where something that’s happening in the physical world is being measured and those measurements are happening on a clock cycle. So they’re these slices of physical reality that are turned into representative data and stored somewhere. And that rupture, that intervention into continuous time by a digital clock – that’s one of the fundamental aspects of digitality, of the computer, of that shift between a totally contingent and relational world and this notion of data or database where it can all be spread out before you in a non-temporal, visual way.

With Open Capture, I wanted to pull sampling out of the box. Instead of the digital-audio converter that sits within a microphone, or a computer somewhere, I wanted to make that conversion from action to data a performative intervention.

The project happens in a space where all different kinds of things are happening: everyday life things, minor gestures of social interaction. I have a bunch of samplers in this space. The samplers are humans and they have eyes and they’re watching. So again, it’s this visual surveillance. And they’re codifying what they see, whether it’s taking a drink from your wineglass or putting your hand forward to indicate a point or stroking your beard or shifting foot to foot – all of these ways in which the body marks time in casual gestures of social interaction. By observing those and then clicking, they’re sampling. They’re turning it from a performed act into a representation. And in the process, they’re making both a database and a disruption. In this case it’s not a digital database off in the sky somewhere. It’s an ephemeral database that exists in the space itself. It’s taking the temporal act, sampling it with a click, and then you hear this sound from a guitar amp that actually defines the spatial aspect of it. And it’s annoying. You’re having a conversation and every time you do something there’s someone there clicking and it throws you off because it’s a loud click. In the middle of conversations, click, click. It disrupts your thought pattern a little bit. Part of the idea was that it would not be entirely benign. People were getting frustrated with it, but they were also like, oh, but it’s art. It was tolerated but not enjoyed. And I liked that. That was the point.

I was thinking about Robert Rauschenberg’s Open Score, from 1966, which is where the title came from. In that work, people are playing tennis inside the Armory in New York City. The tennis rackets are hooked up with microphones so it’s this very loud sound art piece. But what happens in digital culture is we’ve got these performances that turn into representations that then fold back into our everyday. This piece is just making that entire turnaround. It’s no longer deferred.

JL: Because presumably the more agitated people get the more they gesture and produce clicks?

BH: Well there was a funny aspect of this project in that certain people would try to figure out the logic of it. It was clear that the performers were responding to certain things, but it was not clear exactly what the triggers were. That was intentional – the performers could switch off from things they were looking for. And some of the triggers were more obvious than others. If they’re watching for people shifting their weight from foot to foot, that’s tricky for an outside observer to decode and decipher what’s happening. If someone’s taking a drink, that’s a little more visible. So people who noticed that relation were going up to performers and taking a drink and trying to get it to trigger, with the idea that they could reverse engineer the systems once they understood the logic. But that was frustrated by how the piece was constructed. To have it work for a second, and then to have the performer switch their logic and then it doesn’t work provided this additional frustration. The logic of the database turns into something inaccessible, into this privileged perspective.

Then in terms of the theatre of it, all of the performers were wearing black jumpsuits. But at this event there was also catering, and the caterers were all wearing all black also. This was a fancy event, so you have a service economy and a relationship between the privileged attendees and this group of people who are all wearing the same thing in order to be unnoticed in a particular way. They’re excluded and part of the architecture. The performers ended up taking on the same kind of identity of providing a service in a way. But it was a fraught service. It’s not necessarily a welcome service. So that ended up being ambiguous. I don’t know exactly where that lands with the idea of labour, if you think about this as an artwork and artists as labourers. In this case, also, I was the artist producing the piece and I hired people to take on this performance, so there was a labour relationship there.

JL: You were operating as management.

BH: But then also there is a metaphor in there about service platforms and code and databases. These types of services used in this context are mapped onto all these other aspects of data gathering and exploitation, both of the people providing data and the people gathering it. It moves both ways.

JL: Right, who’s being alienated? Is it the observed or the observer?

BH: The ways bodies are being implicated is interesting and unresolved. We’re talking about thresholds and liminal spaces, unclear power relationships, things flowing in both directions in an uncertain way. I think that’s all in play.

 

Johanna Linsley is an artist, researcher and producer of performance. Her work is iterative and research-based and she often makes projects with multiple versions or outcomes. With the London-based performance collective I’m With You, she investigates encounters between queerness, domesticity, private life and public space. She has a long-standing interest in documentation and documentary, and is a founding partner of UnionDocs, a centre for documentary arts in Brooklyn, NY. She is a research associate on the Wellcome Trust-funded project Challenging Archives at the University of Bristol, and she also works at the University of Roehampton.

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