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Draft 1: The Aesthetics of Cybernetics

February 6, 2011

I generally do not like posting half-baked pieces, but ITP encourages and requires the documentation of one’s process, so I am going to be as free about treating this category as a sketchbook as I can.  Herewith, I post the first draft of my final document, with the working title The Aesthetics of Cybernetics 1.

In the introduction, I state, “For many calculations and communications, an approximation is good enough: you only need to be so precise.”  Last Thursday, Despina asked me for examples where this is true, and I of course rattled off pi, but stopped there.  She suggested I come up with more, perhaps especially those that relate to human perception, communication, emotion and feeling.  Nik suggested singing compared to speaking.  Chris added the mania for higher and higher megapixel counts in our digital cameras, where such a numerical precision never existed for consumer film cameras.  These are good launch points to continue this list.

Compression Algorithms

Compressed sound and images vs. analog recordings vs. the unrecorded original.

The debate as to whether vinyl or CDs sound better is at this point an old one.  It is the case that if you compress the analog signal enough, the human ear can hear many artifacts–it sounds choppy, lacks depth, and probably many other qualities I do not have the expertise to discuss.  But CD recordings are not typically compressed that much, nor with that lack of skill.  The algorithms are designed to optimize the qualities readily apparent to the human ear, discarding those that are not.  At least, that is the aim.  The same can be said of image compression technologies, but as Eric Rosenthal takes great pains to show in his course at ITP, Digital Imaging: Reset, these technologies are not typically optimized by those with the greatest expertise in human perception.  Artifacts can certainly abound in jpeg’s, so if one regards those as the tip of the iceberg, it is likely that we could train our perceptions to notice ever more artifacts.  Certainly, as we grow accustomed to a technology, less impressed by the initial display of technological prowess, we become more critical and able to spot defects.

I would still step back, though, and ask how much it really matters.  I cannot hear many of the higher quality differences between an analog and digital recording, but I am not an audiophile.  To be honest, the details that make me attached to a particular recording are not what I think true audiophiles would regard as “qualities”.  I love Glenn Gould’s humming as he plays his piano.  I have a recording of Beethoven’s 7th symphony conducted by Herbert Von Karajan in Berlin in 1943.  It is beautiful in its slow pace, and I have to admit having a hard time listening to more quickly paced versions.  Seiji Ozawa conducted it at Boston Symphony Hall in the 1990s, and I have to confess a good deal of discomfort at how much faster it moved.  So there I am giving preference to a recording over a live experience, but the story gets worse.  I have also heard digital recording of other performances where the pacing is not the issue, but where I find all kinds of layers missing.  Not layers I believe audiophiles would consider good ones, either: tape hiss, noise, the coughs and rustling of the audience.  To me the last is probably the most important: it’s a layer of history.  There were likely people in that audience that have gone down in history as some of the greatest criminals of the 20th century, and their ghosts continue to haunt the recording, profoundly affecting the mood of the piece, certainly in no way the composer intended.

I have never heard a digital recording of that particular performance, however, so I am clearly not comparing apples to apples.  I doubt it has been committed to a CD, though, because it has too much of what would typically be considered noise.  I have another example, though: a 120-minute cassette recording of the three Rolling Stones albums, Beggar’s Banquet, Aftermath, and Flowers, and I also have the CD’s.  My aunt made that cassette tape for my dad sometime in 1969.  It’s 42 years old, it’s been eaten by most of my cassette players and taken apart, taped and rewound many many times.  It warbles, skips spots at the tape, ends abruptly where I once had to re-tape it and actually rewind it onto the spool.  The recording was obviously made off vinyl records, and you can tell my aunt didn’t dust them too well: there are static pops.  They might even have already been warped, because there is that characteristic sound of the needle bobbing up and down.  There’s tape hiss.  And yet, when I listen to the CD’s they are missing all of that.  They are too clean.  I love the taped version, and will sorely miss it when I can no longer repair that cassette.  It is perhaps time to make a back-up.

As Warren Weaver noted in his discussion of Claude Shannon’s Mathematical Theory of Communication, the total message meaning at the destination is equal to the message meaning plus the signal noise.  One might argue that the noise I am talking about in these two recordings is mere noise to them, and adds no meaning for them.  I certainly agree, but I would counter that perhaps it is the story I am telling about the noise that is not meaningful to them, and that they need to create their own.  I keep coming back again to Henri Bergson’s notion that disorder is simply order we cannot see.  The information is there, the question is what we do with it, and we only need to be as precise as necessary to achieve the end we desire.

The argument is not a new one.  The impressionists turned their back on the realism before them, excited in some ways by the scientific ideas of the day about how we process the world visually.  We do not focus on all the data streaming into our eyes: we are selective.  Allied with processing ability are circles of confusion–the scale of detail at which we perceive items as sharply in focus.  As we move further away, those circles grow larger.  Stand far enough back from Monet’s Haystacks in Winter or his Water Lilies, and they resolve themselves perfectly.  Up close, they are abstractly composed colors and shapes.  The further in time we are removed from the Impressionist movement, the more these paintings simply look like what they represent.  They are no longer as abstract as they once seemed, because we know what they are.  They have been named.  Of course, Leo Steinberg demolished the wall between naturalism and abstraction back in 1953 in his essay The Eye is Part of the Mind:

“Thus the art of the last half-century may well be schooling our eyes to live at ease with the new concepts forced upon our credulity by scientific reasoning.  What we may be witnessing is the gradual condensation of abstract ideas into images that fall within the range of sensory imagination.  Modern painting inures us to the aspect of a world housing not discrete forms but trajectories and vectors, lines of tension and strain.  Form in the sense of solid substance melts away and resolves itself into dynamic process.  Instead of bodies powered by muscle, or by gravity, we get energy propagating itself in the void.  If, to the scientist, solidity and simple location are illusions born of the grossness of our senses, they are so also to the modern painter.  His canvases are fields of force; his shapes the transient aggregates of energies that seem impatient to be on their way.  In the imagery of modern art waves of matter have usurped the place of tangible, visible things.” (p. 305, collected essays, Other Criteria.)

This is the clearest articulation of what I seek to do in this project.  Todd Holoubek asked me his famous question last Thursday, “What is your sentence?”   I seek to reveal some scientific principles within the sleekly designed packages of modern consumer electronics that aid us so wonderfully in computation and communication, but which remain magical black boxes to most.  He cautioned me against putting the technology first.  He suggested that I decide whether I aim to be practical or expressive, and I responded that I hope to do both.  He suggested then that I identify and solve a need, and that the expression will follow.  In the revelation of the steps and processes taken between input and output, new aesthetic qualities will show themselves, and it will be important to be aware of them and try to articulate them.  As Todd pointed out, Daniel Rozin did not set out to achieve the sound of the clicking wooden shutters in his wooden mirror: it was a by-product, but it is a very important by-product.  It calls to you as you pass it by, and as you grow accustomed to it, you can tell if it is fully functioning, or if it needs a tune-up, much as Shannon Mattern noted that employees of the New York Public Library talked of being able to tell if the building was functioning by listening to the pneumatic tubes.

I talked to him about the possibility of my piece being something of a technological “mash-up”, but questioned whether that would result in any very serious inquiry.  I learned a good deal last year from building the Rube Goldberg Egg-Breaking Machine for Mechanisms, and my Acoustic Zoetrope: revealing the steps taken by the device gives it personality and character.  He suggested that if I pushed the piece and the train of components to be metaphors for everyday devices, I might learn still more.  They might go further to making us think about the world we have created around us.

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From → Document, Drafts, Thesis

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