[-empyre-] final questions for Patrick and Jason: the visual and indexing networked information

Jason Freeman jason at jasonfreeman.net
Tue Oct 27 02:01:45 EST 2009

Helen: thanks for your thoughtful post. Let me try to summarize my  
somewhat curmudgeonly take on sonification here (and forgive me in  
advance for being a bit of a curmudgeon).

Sonification is not a new idea in either the pragmatic or artistic  
arenas: think of Charles Dodge's Earth's Magnetic Field (1970), a  
geiger counter or metal detector, the earcons built into most modern  
computer operating systems that make a crumpling noise when we empty  
the trash and so on. We could even say that Charles Ives' Yale- 
Princeton Football Game, an orchestra piece from 1905, is a  
sonification of a football game (the zigzag and wedge strategic  
formations of the teams are visually reproduced on the score). I'm  
sure we could come up with even earlier examples of "sonification."

As a formal field, of course, sonification is much more recent. The  
first ICAD conference took place in 1992 (to fix at least one  
important date). Of course, sonification has always played second  
fiddle to visualization (sorry about the pun!), but I'd argue that may  
be for good reason. It's really tough to learn as much about data from  
listening to it as from seeing it. It's hard to show absolute (not  
just relative) measurements with sound. It's hard to compare two  
disparate elements in a sonification when they are displaced far away  
in time. The perceptual resolution of many aspects of sound is low in  
resolution. Sonification is a young field of research, and there are  
lots of people working on some pretty interesting solutions to some of  
these problems. So returning to Anna's original question: yes, I think  
sonification is often obscured by the dominance of visualization,  
but...sonification practice needs to mature significantly before we  
can lay all the blame for that on visualization.

As artists, I also think it's important to clarify our motivations for  
using sonification in the first place; I mention this because it is a  
problem I see with my students again and again. As a student delves  
into the details of a sonification project, they often find themselves  
balancing between remaining true to the data (and trying to  
perceptually represent it) and making compelling music or sound. I ask  
them if it's important to them to be true to the data, if the role of  
the data is more important conceptually to them than in the resulting  
sound of the work, or if the data is ultimately just a way to get  
started making music (a data source to defy writer's block). The  
answer, of course, depends on the student. But to me these all seem to  
be fruitful approaches to sonification for artists. I wonder if the  
same holds for visualization (and I'd defer to more knowledgeable  
people than I to answer that)?


On Oct 25, 2009, at 9:39 PM, Helen Thorington wrote:

> Hi Anna:
> Re your question to Jason: has the dominance of visualisation of  
> networks obscured more interesting potential sonifications?  I  
> remember the Ars-Electronica jury in 2007(?)  writing about the  
> overwhelming number of visualization projects they had been forced  
> to review. Their concluding words were: there must be something else  
> out there!  I  agree:  and there is. But
> visualizations continue to appear in overwhelming numbers; thanks to  
> information aesthetics, new ones arrive in my email every day, .
> On the.  other  side, however, musicians and composers have been  
> slow to pick up on sonification.   Scientific researchers have  
> looked on it as s a valuable tool , allowing them to study complex  
> sets of scientific data and perceive variations and trends   
> invisible by other techniques,  but its use has been pretty much  
> limited to  disciplines like chemical analysis, economic analysis,  
> seismology, medicine. (see: sonification in wikipedia)  Until  
> recently.
> So for musicians and composers, sonification is pretty much of an  
> emerging interest.
> That said,  turbulence's   networked_music_review  contains a number  
> of truly fascinating works  that introduce new and/or extra-audible  
> sounds, thus broadening the potential source material for sound and  
> musical work.  Miya Masaoka's Pieces for Plants (2002) is an  
> interactive sound installation for laptop, synthesizer, and the  
> American semi-tropical climbing Philodendron. Versions of the piece  
> have been presented in a musical setting in which the plant  
> participates as a member and soloist within an instrumental  
> ensemble. In both installation and performance, the plant’s real- 
> time responses to its physical environment are translated to sound.   
> “The Cloud Harp” installation by Nicolas Reeves sonifies  
> astronomical phenomena. It uses an infra-red laser beam and a  
> telescope that share the same optics to convert the height, density  
> and structure of clouds into sounds and musical sequences in real- 
> time.  Daniel Joliffe and Jocelyn Roberts  developed an installation  
> that produces music in real time by following the azimuth, elevation  
> and signal strength of the twenty-seven Global Positioning System  
> (GPS) satellites developed by the US military.
> I could go on... Have visualizations obscured this work?  A  
> different  question: Has the hegemony of vision been broken?
> -- Helen 
> On Oct 25, 2009, at 5:25 PM, Anna Munster wrote:
>> I'm about to bring our last lot of guests on board for October but  
>> before I do, I'd like to ask Patrick and Jason about the use of  
>> visualisation and its relation to information overload and writing/ 
>> reading.
>> Patrick you touch on the need to index using some kind of visual  
>> system....
>> Jason, you use the example of Aaron Koblin's work, which has also  
>> delved into the visualisation realm (ie The Sheep Market) and  
>> which, for different reasons uses visual display to make its point.
>> In my article I am wary of what visualisation gives form to ie  
>> patterns of behaviour in a networked economy.
>> We are all aware of the  mot obvious forms of visual indexing of  
>> networked information eg tag clouds etc - to what extent do these  
>> reduce or enhance flows? And to what extent are they shaping a  
>> homogenising behaviour in networks (this has been referred to in  
>> Yvonne's posts as well)?
>> Jason, I wonder if the dominance of visualisation of networks  
>> abscures more interesting potential sonifications?
>> Following from this, what role might artists take up (speaking of  
>> artists broadly here as online art/designers) in breaking up this  
>> homogeneity? Or put more concretely - which artists/designers/ 
>> visual examples are doing this now?
>> cheers
>> Anna
>> A/Prof. Anna Munster
>> Director of Postgraduate Research (Acting)
>> Deputy Director Centre for Contemporary Art and Politics
>> School of Art History and Art Education
>> College of Fine Arts
>> P.O. Box 259
>> Paddington
>> NSW 2021
>> 612 9385 0741 (tel)
>> 612 9385 0615(fax)
>> a.munster at unsw.edu.au
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