10:41 p.m. 7.Sep.99

Welcome to the Terrordome
David Hunt on Sound Drifting

It’s day 4 at the Ars Electronica festival and I think I caught a glimpse of Helmut Lang on the second floor of the Bruckner House scouting out fashions for his new Fall line. Black is the new black, and cargo isn’t just for container ships any more. chess playerFor a community that spends so much time critiquing military hierarchies, it’s kind of ironic that epaulets and jack boots are the uniform of the day. I kid you not that a 40 year old Austrian guy just walked by me wearing a red quilted vest with a Public Enemy logo on it. Fitting, since Chuck D is distributing the latest PE album exclusively on the web.

No doubt, “Welcome to the Terrordome” would be an appropriate subtitle for the OpenX forum since nerves appear to be fraying after all the coffee and cigarettes consumed at the day’s end. A bunker mentality has definitely begun to set in as haggard net collectives compete with each other to pitch their demos to the few lingering people strolling through the exhibits. The experimental composer and soundtrack go-to guy, Michael Nyman (remember The Piano?), is about to hit the stage and all the German and Austrian biotech execs are sporting their Sunday best, trying to make nice with their younger, edgier counterparts in the technology world. Life in the digital sandbox has never been so civilized.

Meanwhile, I spent another day at the OK Center, giving a second look, and a second chance, to the admittedly slim pickings on display. I kicked it on the sundeck with the Sound Drifting project, which actually encompasses 16 international remote broadcasts ranging from Belgrade to the UK. Colorful beach chairs are dispersed haphazardly for your lounging pleasure, while 40 speakers blast recuperated static from god knows what mechanized origin. For all I know, Sound Drifting could be the percussive strains of a Javanese Gamelan digitally remastered and played back through a synthesizer. Didn’t Stewart Copeland do this way back on the soundtrack to Rumble Fish, when he recorded a typewriter solo and passed it off as proto drum and bass?

Sound Drifting strikes me as the Martha Stewart of immersive sound experience in that it seems to cook up an acoustic recipe that draws on every digital touchstone, every interactive chestnut from the past 3-4 years, rather than reveling in a simple surround-sound experience. “Overdetermined” is the perjorative buzzword among neo-traditionalist naysayers. Not to rain on anyone’s parade, but techniques and their attendant metaphors abound in Sound Drifting--from the unwieldy press release: “a 9 day long continuous on line, on site, on air sound installation” to the quaint, but hoary dusting off of an old quote by Marinetti that hopes to lend some theoretical legitimacy to the project.

“I Silenzi Parlano Tra Loro,” or “the silences talk to each other,” is culled from Marinetti’s score to a radiophonic theater piece. It goes without saying, although the press release tells us, that the Futurist founder dreamed of an art “without space and without time.” Goes without saying because the whole utopian subtext of Ars bristles with decentralized and non-hierarchical control-sharing platitudes. In fact, you could make a small fortune setting up a vendor table and selling Che Guevara’s “Motorcycle Diaries.”

I’m all for enlisting the cooperation of over 50 artists in 12 cities and 3 continents, as Sound Drifting claims to do, but decoding audio streams from 14 remote locations in a videostudio at OK, and making it available for simultaneous consumption on the web and in person, does not immediately confer the aura, or burden, for that matter, of art. No more so for the border-eroding title of Sound Drifting, which seems dead on arrival considering the Situationist drift has been conscripted into the “digital derive,” popping up in recent art projects, from Kalamazoo to Katmandu.

“Water water everywhere and not a drop to drink” might be a fair description of the slim pickings to be found at the OK Center, especially in light of the collaboration of diverse minds, access to the latest audio equipment, and generally high production values. And let’s not forget that audio is not the only thing streaming in the Sound Drift installation—cash seems to be hemorrhaging too.