Today, instead of another onslaught of with poorly-lit FO images, I’ll be participating in Ada Lovelace Day. I’d like to write (or, uh, copy and paste from my undergraduate thesis) about Sabrina Raaf, a decidedly badass artist who frequently works in the new media sphere. My favorite piece of hers is Saturday. This work might be the one piece that truly cemented my interest in new media art, and it continues to knock me aback conceptually as well as technologically. I’ll let Lucy-3-or-4-years-ago take it over now. (Warning: this excerpt mostly discusses Saturday in the context of Sadie Plant [another Ada Day worthy]’s Zeros + Ones: Digital Women in the New Technoculture – excellent reading, if a little dated.)
Sabrina Raaf’s installation piece Saturday addresses many of the same issues as Plant’s text, but in a more pragmatic, perhaps pessimistic, way. The installation consists of gloves equipped with bone transducers, a light box of photographs, and a set of recordings. The recordings were captured with a variety of wireless technologies, including “walkie talkies, CB radios, and various other forms of consumer spy (or ‘security’) technology.” They consist of cell phone conversations, “non-phone, low-tech, radio transmissions,” and external sounds—sounds that were semi-consciously released into the public sphere as car radios and conversations.
The captured audio is made accessible through the bone transducers in the finger of the gloves — a technology that allows users to hear through vibrations in the bones of the skull that mimic the function of the hammer and anvil system which usually allows humans to hear. As a result of this unique mode of sound transmission, the user is the only person who can hear the sounds produced and mixed (or woven) during each particular session. The user becomes a master of information, a dictator of sound who is cut off from all others at the point of perception. Like Stelarc, Flanagan, and Orlan, Raaf is using medical technology for artistic ends. The difference here is that the user/interactor is allowed use of the technology, not relegated to the sidelines. He or she is given an active role in creating the artwork (one might say that they are being implicated in its creation) and directly experiencing the effects of a nonstandard communication technology.
The “ooh-ah” effect of much new or obscure technology often serves to divert the user from the implications of interactive digital art. It would seem that calling attention to this effect is one of the goals of Raaf’s piece—it produces an increase in the user’s awareness of the workings of technologies both artistic and mundane. While the method of transmission is certainly the more glamorous of the technologies in this piece, the use of spy technology is equally important. When engaging in conversations, whether over a seemingly private phone line or on a street corner, most people do not consider the various ways in which they might be overheard, recorded, or exploited for the gain—artistic or otherwise—of others. This knowledge, while always unconsciously held, becomes shocking when one must face it head-on as an artistic presentation and commentary on community.
The presentation of the public in Saturday is troubling, to say the least. Are they being conceived of as dupes, as careless participants in a system that they (or we) don’t understand, as technological and artistic crusaders, as some combination of these, or as something else entirely? This question can only be answered by the user, of course, as Raaf has left these distinctions up to the judgment of those who experience the piece. However, the method of presentation does shed light on the meaning inherent in Saturday. By presenting these sound snippets in a flat, nonhierarchical setting, Raaf provides a level playing field for the juxtaposition and recombination of conversations. It would seem that organization takes place on the user’s terms, there are no foregone conclusions. The routes of connection are left to be defined by the user and no sound-node has any inherent supremacy over or connection to another (at least, in terms of presentation).
Both Zeros + Ones and Saturday present visions of rhizomatic communities by reflecting on the modern state of connectivity, albeit in very different ways. While both works deal with the possibility of flat organization, Raaf’s piece showcases the more sinister implications of the existence and transmission of “free information,” exemplified by the use of readily available technology to capture and appropriate both public and presumably private sounds. While Plant seems to envision the “new technoculture” as something of a utopia, characterized by unlimited possibility, Raaf highlights the continued persistent reality of control and order. Plant argues for the rise of disorder, of a society spiraling out of rigid control and into undifferentiated entropy. However, she neglects to assess the outcome of what is presented as an inevitability, or even to provide an opinion on the possibilities created by the emergence of a purely rhizomatic organization.
What Saturday brings to the forefront is the fact that, even with seemingly-liberating technologies, there exists the possibility of exploitation and re-hierarchization. Zeros + Ones is presented in the form of a woven text. Narratives are interlaced and equally influential; the words of other authors are integrated with Plant’s own, their attributions provided at the end of the work. However, she still assumes the place of authority and the savior of Ada Lovelace’s legacy, the keeper of she who acts as the sage of Plant’s technoculture. Saturday confronts the problem of authority more directly than Zeros + Ones by making the user acutely aware of the mastery they assume over the subject matter sensory input. Of course, the user is simultaneously confronted by the fact that they, too, are vulnerable to invasions of their supposed privacy. Raaf, too, is conspicuously occupying the position of the omniscient master by “harvest[ing]…communication leaks” and making them available to the user through a singular medium, as well as by determining the exact way that users are to access the information she has so carefully reaped.
As Raaf notes, “[t]his piece permits a new way of listening.” The user is put in a position of mastery, but it is also somewhat disempowered and isolated, as the technology allows for only one person at a time to hear a particular sound collage. The user is made to feel entirely isolated, a being imbued with many voices, but only one consciousness. Raaf’s community is literally all in the user’s head, a figment or a chimera.