After a flat, circular artifact reminiscent of a compact disc had been found in Vienna’s Auer-Welsbach Park back in June of 2019, it took quite some analytical work to determine that it was indeed a digital data medium containing a lengthy message of unclear origin.1, 2 The interpretation of this fragmentary message, encoded as a digital audio recording, has to this day remained a rather fuzzy affair. Without knowledge of this recording’s context, translation attempts must necessarily remain mere approximations.
The ongoing permeation of human beings’ living environment with media messages, messages mostly of a digital nature and for all manner of purposes, will confront the archaeologists of future generations with new challenges. The material and cultural contexts (such as those embodied by natural languages) of finds from human history are supplemented or even supplanted by short-lived technological contexts (such as those embodied by algorithms for the encoding of digital information). These result in new forms of temporal transformation ranging all the way to degradation and deterioration, affecting aspects of both materiality and interpretation.
Since 2018, before the find described above, the artistic research project Rotting Sounds has been dealing with the causes, mechanisms, and effects of such deterioration-related phenomena in the context of digital sounds. This theme’s interdisciplinary nature is reflected in the team of project partners: Thomas Grill (mdw, electroacoustic and experimental music/Artistic Research Center), Till Bovermann (University of Applied Arts Vienna, art and science), and Almut Schilling (Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, conservation and restoration). Their research project, designed to run for a total of four years, is being sponsored by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) as Project AR445 of its PEEK programme.
In the project’s explorations thus far, a number of artistic experimental designs have been realised—largely in the unrestored lecture hall once used by the University of Veterinary Medicine and currently known as the Auditorium of Rotting Sounds. In a variety of different ways, the various sonic works make a theme of time as a formative element. This is not about deliberate narrative design in a traditionally compositional sense but rather about the inexorable and often implicit effects of time’s progress on dimensions of sound and of visual and sculptural appearance. In the conception as well as the appearance of the artistic prototypes, a dialogue unfolds between the employed materials (be they physical or symbolic), the transformational forces at work on them, and artistic positing in the sense of an aesthetic or epistemic stance.
The strictly experimental artistic research thus pursued begins with the fundaments: the form in which sound is represented, the technological means that are used, the ways in which musical and intermedial processes of composition can be understood and shaped, and how sound and music interrelate. All of this is at issue and is questioned critically in the context of this project.
One radical approach examines the representation of sound as a 1-bit stream, in which audio signals are portrayed as a pure sequence of binary states. Here, the actual sounds are embedded in noise whose frequency spectrum actually lies far above the threshold of human hearing. Such a representation of sound can be played digitally or using analogue technology, entailing permeability of the border between the digital and the analogue. The author’s work Reference Tone makes a theme of this: a sinusoidal tone at a frequency of 1 kilohertz of the type traditionally used as a calibration tone in the realm of audio technology was printed using 1-bit code in the shape of a spiral on a paper disc and placed for a month on the floor of Vienna’s Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) in a walk-through area. While observation at a microscopic scale shows a random noise pattern, the interference that arises from the tracks’ being positioned in close proximity to each other reveals the periodic pattern of a sine wave when viewed from farther off. Though initially a near-perfect representation of the sinusoidal tone, the printed sound-image’s acquisition of scratches and dents through its ongoing interaction with visitors lends it a specific patina that manifests as an erosion of the sonic representation: the “reference tone” is transformed within its own context.
Almut Schilling developed the notion of “digital patina” in a contribution to the 2021 SAR Conference3 as a poetic narrative for data-bearing material in its temporality—and the specific aesthetics of degradation in digital technology can be experienced in an exemplary manner in an installation by her and by Till Bovermann entitled CD-R(ot), which consists in a “Hi-Fi tower” built from eight CD players that, ever since 2019, have been playing eight compact discs produced as identical copies. Over the course of time, the heat from the scanning laser beam as well as mechanical influences have left various traces in the data media and playing devices. Despite the CD’s original marketing promise of “pure, perfect sound—forever”, its audible sound in fact changes continually and individually until the original material can no longer be recognised.
Instrumental compositions can also exhibit such a patina. In the digital music printouts that have now become common, composers’ handwriting has been succeeded by software technologies. This opens up points of attack for mechanisms of digital corrosion, as in the case of the commissioned composition rill (erosion) for ensemble by Adam McCartney, which will be premiered at the mdw’s FAL Sound Theatre on 12 November as part of the festival Wien Modern. McCartney works with algorithmically generated musical notation that has been continuously subjected to the simplest conceivable form of digital decay (stochastic bit flips). More and more notational errors, i.e. unplayabilities, arose and required corrections by the performers. An analysis of these erosive effects showed that their results are not erratic; instead, certain formal elements of the music are repeatedly reinforced or exposed, with a specific patina being the result.
All of the experimental designs to be heard in the Auditorium of Rotting sounds are continually streamed over the Internet, with one minute of material being automatically recorded each hour. Random samples are then taken from this sonic archive, which now encompasses around 200,000 fragments, and physically inscribed into the space: the robotic installation Inscriptions from the archive (created in collaboration with Hannes Köcher) uses a laser to engrave graphical representations of the sounds into the rows of wooden benches as spectrograms together with their associated metadata. These serve as a protocol of the research processes, and/or also—with an eye to the more distant future—as a potential archaeological memory.
The Symposium of Rotting Sounds will take place on 24 September at the mdw4 with keynotes by Carolin Bohlmann (Academy of Fine Arts Vienna) and Martin Kunze (Memory of Mankind). Kunze’s contemplations regarding the future of cultural legacies and Bohlmann’s expertise on the artist Dieter Roth are of special relevance to this research project. Taking a cue from Roth’s (in)famous Schimmelmuseum [Mould Museum], the remaining months of this project will see the works it has generated disseminated far and wide from the auditorium through the formation of spores: fragments of objects and media will leave this experimental space, thereafter becoming findable in public places and inviting both analysis and reflection.
- Till Bovermann, Almut Schilling, Thomas Grill und Tobias Leibetseder: „voicings of an auralist“. In: Knowing in Performing, hrsg. von Annegret Huber, Doris Ingrisch, Therese Kaufmann, Johannes Kretz, Gesine Schröder und Tasos Zembylas- Transcript Verlag 2021, S. 89–110.
- ORF Ö1 Kunstradio am 21. März 2021: http://www.kunstradio.at/2021A/21_03_21.html