The Art Fund presents the UK premiere of 'Listening Post'

  • 19 February 2008

Live and uncensored: "What would 100,000 people chatting online sound like?" The Science Museum and The Art Fund present the UK premiere of 'Listening Post'

The UK premiere of a groundbreaking piece of electronic art, described as a unique portrait of the internet, opens to the public on Tuesday 19 February 2008.

‘Listening Post’, which allows audiences to eavesdrop on the online world in real time by trawling thousands of public chatrooms and bulletin boards, has been purchased for the Science Museum’s contemporary art collection with a grant of £110,0001 from The Art Fund. It will form a free exhibition at the Museum for the next two years. 

‘Listening Post’ is a collaboration by sound artist Ben Rubin and statistician and artist Mark Hansen who began with the question “What would 100,000 people chatting online sound like?”  The result can best be described as a ‘dynamic portrait’ of online communication.  The piece samples live text from thousands of unrestricted internet chatrooms, message boards and other public forums, culling fragments for a visual and sonic display over a curved, suspended lattice of 231 small electronic screens standing approximately 4m high and 5m wide.  The text fragments are accompanied by the rhythm of computer-synthesized voices reading, or ‘singing’, the uncensored and unedited words which surge, flicker, appear and disappear over the screens.

Artists Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen said: “We are thrilled and humbled to be able to show ‘Listening Post’ at the Science Museum.  To be seen alongside iconic classics such as Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine and the Museum’s extensive collection of artefacts from antique and modern telecommunications systems is an incredible context for our work.”

David Barrie, Director of The Art Fund, said: “’Listening Post’ is an extraordinary meeting of art and technology, and an exciting new departure for the Science Museum.  Its interest lies, not only in its almost mesmeric visual and auditory impact, but in the poetry it generates from the often banal traffic on the internet.  It’s a powerful and thought-provoking piece that The Art Fund is delighted to present to the Science Museum.”

Hannah Redler, Head of Arts Projects at the Science Museum, added: “We are excited to have acquired this seminal work which offers a new context for people to question and understand the impact virtual communication is having on us.  With ‘Listening Post’ Hansen and Rubin offer us an insight into the constant chatter of this virtual ‘public square’ of online social spaces.  It is an awe-inspiring ‘portrait of chat’ that reveals people’s most personal thoughts and most universal concerns.

“As a snapshot of the text-based internet, ‘Listening Post’ may also have a finite lifespan inviting intriguing questions about the present and future of internet and web technologies, and even perhaps the nature of museum objects.  ’Listening Post’ emerged from the messaging phenomenon of the solely text-based era of the internet over five years ago.  Now, changes to forms of expression online, such as the proliferation of video and animation, will change the content source that ‘Listening Post’ relies upon, perhaps even rendering it silent one day.”

Hansen’s computer programmes collect, sample, process and analyse thousands of live online public conversations which are then sorted and filtered to become the raw material for the piece.  Rubin programmes a voice synthesizer and creates other tones and sound effects that respond to shifts in the data-streams, gradually building up a mesmerising musical score of online activity.  The finished artwork harnesses the two artists’ approaches to play out through a series of seven cycles, lasting around 25 minutes in total, which each bring together different arrangements of aural and visual elements each with their own data processing logic.

‘Listening Post’ debuted in late 2002 in New York, and has since proved a success with critics and audiences following a series of exhibitions across the USA and in Europe.  In 2004, ‘Listening Post’ received the Ars Electronica Golden Nica for Interactive Art, one of the highest honours that can be awarded to a work of media art.  ‘Listening Post’ has been purchased by the Science Museum with generous support from The Art Fund.

Read coverage from the National press:

The Independent

BBC News Online