Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin: Listening Post
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
San Francisco, CA
From its position in a darkened room at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Listening Post, a collaborative project by statistician Mark Hansen and artist Paul Rubin that allows viewers to visually and aurally monitor real-time chat-room activity, looks a bit like a sci-fi command station. There are over 200 small LED screens, stripped of their casings and positioned in a vertical grid that gently arcs through the middle of the room. Three simple benches are placed in front, positioned as though reverent observers might receive a message from the oracle.
A taunting blip of blue soon blinks on one of the screens, evoking the coy and ominous flashing cursor from that ‘80s movie War Games (“Would-you-like-to-play-a-game?”). Then cleverly patterned waves of text stream across the grid. Listening Post (2002-2006) is collected from live chat rooms, generated by unwitting participants sitting behind unseen screens somewhere in the rhizomatous web-universe. The viewer is voyeur to innumerable, embarrassing self-categorizations and Cartesian proclamations culled and displayed with stock market ticker frequency. Revealed is the real-time existential state of the nation (now we are fetishists, now we are farmers, now we are linguists, now we seek love, now we seek a spanking, now laughter, now pain…).
In the so-called “War on Terror,” a McCarthyist mentality of paranoia prevails, with each log-on to a computer risking identity theft and unseen dangers. Nonetheless, despite warnings against sexual predators posing as naïve adolescents, desperate foreigners seeking bank account information to deposit funds from a dead relative, and hackers who pilfer passwords and Social Security numbers, the Internet remains an irresistible forum for communication. A desperate need to reach out and text someone, to put oneself on the line in order to assert identity, to be known—but not directly, persists. Countless users seem to be on an oxymoronic mission to seek and announce their subjectivity through the anonymizing filter of the Internet.
The text for Listening Post offers bemusing commentary on how these innominate authors choose to define themselves. Incessantly repeated phrases such as “I like…,” “I am…,” “I want…,” and “I think…,” alternate with usernames that are often more telling than the declarations. The messages are full of the misspellings, contractions, acronyms and other linguistic shortcuts that are characteristic of cyber diction, yet seem incongruous to the desperate quest to articulate one’s true character and find empathy.
Listening Post presents a seductive, theatrical experience with each actor an avatar indexed by his or her screen name. Hansen and Rubin deftly frame and represent chat-room language in a compelling and symphonic spectacle, accompanied by music and periodic computer vocalization of specific words or phrases. The display of language on LED screens forms visual and temporal patterns that lull the viewer into a hypnotic state analogous to watching images on a TV screen. The precision of the programming and sleek, glowing technology of the LED grid command silent admiration.
Not long ago the NSA admitted to having tapped millions of private phone calls. Now Congress is trying to protect the government’s right to direct access to Internet chatter as well. Despite a public outcry against these broad powers of surveillance, viewers of Listening Post raptly eavesdropped on snippets of others’ conversations when given the opportunity to do so without consequence.
When I whispered to my friend to discuss the piece during the streaming display, we were met with admonishing glares and shaking heads. I was immediately reminded that technology still commands awestruck reverence, as though it has more power over us than we do it. It certainly seems more acceptable to speak in front of a painting than a computer screen. How ironic that one should have to be silent in front of an artwork based on chat rooms. But it was, after all, a listening post.
Micol Hebron is a media artist living behind the LED curtain.