Astonishing Science. Spectacular museum.
Read about the artwork
Image Graham Peet
Location: Science Museum Arts Projects gallery, first floor
Listening Post is a 'dynamic portrait' of online communication, displaying uncensored fragments of text, sampled in real-time, from public internet chatrooms and bulletin boards. Artists Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin have divided their work into seven separate ‘scenes’ akin to movements in a symphony. Each scene has its own ‘internal logic’, sifting, filtering and ordering the text fragments in different ways.
By pulling text quotes from thousands of unwitting contributors' postings, Listening Post allows you to experience an extraordinary snapshot of the internet and gain a great sense of the humanity behind the data. The artwork is world renowned as a masterpiece of electronic and contemporary art and a monument to the ways we find to connect with each other and express our identities online.
Listening Post features uncensored fragments of text from live chatroom data. It may occasionally include content that is unsuitable for children or which some visitors may find offensive. The material is not produced or solicited by the Science Museum, so the Museum is unable to accept responsibility for the nature of the content that the work may extract from these sources.
Read the curatorial statement
Ben Rubin (born 1964) is a sound designer and multimedia artist and Mark Hansen (born 1964) is an artist and statistician. They have been collaborating since 1999 and have received critical acclaim for Listening Post, including the Ars Electronica/ORF Austrian Broadcasting Prix Ars Electronica Golden Nica prize for interactive art in 2004.
Monument to the present(*) - the sound of 100,000 people chatting
Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin's Listening Post immerses us in a rhythm of computer-synthesised voices reading, or singing out, a fluid play of real-time text fragments. The fragments are sampled from thousands of live, unrestricted internet chatrooms, bulletin boards and other online public forums. They are uncensored and unedited. Stray thoughts resonate through the space in sound and voice as texts surge, flicker, appear and disappear, at varying sizes and speeds, across a suspended grid of over 200 small electronic screens. An ambient soundtrack accompanies the activity with isolated pulses reminiscent of computer modems, clatterings, footsteps and the beeping of mechanical answering machines. At intervals darkness and silence take over, creating momentary pauses before Listening Post continues with its next movement.
The artists' starting place for Listening Post was simple curiosity - what might 100,000 people chatting online sound like? Hansen and Rubin agreed that the project should have a strong social component, so whilst initial research centred on statistical representations of websites, they rapidly moved towards concentrating on actual language from chatrooms, 'from which a kind of music began to emerge... the messages started to form a giant cut-up poem'.
The piece responds to a special moment in history. At no other time since the birth of communications technologies have ordinary people - independent of news channels, corporations or political parties - had the opportunity to exchange views so immediately and on such a large scale.
Every day, at every hour, hundreds of thousands of us go online to meet friends, exchange news and share thoughts. Listening Post interrogates this phenomenon by continually drawing down fragments of these online discussions, including them in its cycle of orderings, siftings and filterings - so that, in the artists words, it turns 'public chat room data into an experience that conveys the yearnings of people out there to connect with each other'.
The patterns identified by the artists allow Listening Post to build up a multi-sensory 'portrait of chat'. Some of its movements concentrate on the most common first words of new postings - 'I am...', 'I like...', 'I love...' - which themselves speak volumes for the ways in which we choose to identify ourselves online. Others list least-used words or work in topic clusters, arranging selections from thousands of simultaneous conversations by content and revealing emerging topics of the day, the hour, or indeed the moment. From the profound to the frivolous or personal, from the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center to the disappearance of British toddler Madeleine McCann, Listening Post presents us with whatever is occupying our collective thoughts right now.
The result presents a 'sculpture' of the 'content and magnitude' of online chatter. Through Listening Post Hansen and Rubin provide us with insights into the vast scale of online social activity, and the gradations of human expression which exist within it. Our assertions, opinions, hopes and dreams, extracted from their original contexts but otherwise unaltered, are given sharper, different and wider meanings which range from the poignant to the absurd. The mundane is rendered monumental and the monumental mundane as Listening Post levels the politically volatile with the light-hearted, lecherous, plaintive, expressive and banal.
The power of Listening Post emerges from the artists' skill in pooling their combined philosophical, artistic and technological interests to achieve an exceptional distillation of collective interests as well as 'the content and patterns evident in different information channels'. Mark Hansen's computer programmes collect, sample and process thousands of live online public conversations which are then sorted by theme, while Ben Rubin's voice-synthesiser tones and sound effects respond to shifts in the data streams, carefully building up the musical score. Together these activities go beyond simple redisplay or reinterpretation of data patterns, to create something 'that expresses the meaning of data gathered from the internet'.
As a work of art and a piece of technological ingenuity in its own right, Listening Post is hard to categorise. An extraordinary investigation into the meaning and malleability of statistics, it combines a Minimal art aesthetic with the elements of chance and randomness common to experimental art from the early 20th century to the present day. But its engagement with media technologies and sophisticated data-analysis techniques differentiates it from traditional visual art. It relies not on the found objects of Modern Art but on found data and extracted thoughts - the very unstill lives of a hundred thousand active minds. Listening Post is an acknowledged masterpiece of electronic art; it references issues and themes central to software and interactive art, while subverting notions of interactivity. By anonymously drawing from active public places on the internet for its raw material, using thousands of expressions from thousands of unwitting online contributors, it repositions the point of interaction to the point of source rather than the point of encounter. It is itself as much a voyeur as the gallery audiences to whom it performs its findings.
Listening Post has a finite life span. The messaging phenomena that it feeds upon were enabled by the evolution of networks and mass access to continual bandwidth over HTML bulletin boards and internet relay chat (IRC). Changes to the text-based nature of these environments - the proliferation of video, graphics and animation - are in turn bound to radically change the content sources that Listening Post relies on, perhaps even rendering it silent one day.
For now, and as long as the sources it depends upon are available to its constant trawling, Listening Post remains an astonishing, awe-inspiring and strangely humbling 'instrument of mass, if random, surveillance and a chapel to the human need for contact'(**). Hansen and Rubin's creation can at times seem like a modern-day oracle, a snapshot of the text-based internet as we know it today or a monument to the ways we find to connect with each other online.
Hannah Redler, Head of Arts Projects
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