Close to the Machine: Composing Digital Materiality through a Sonic Archive Practice
University of the Arts, London
Supervisor: Professor Cathy Lane and Professor Angus Carlyle
Contemporary IT infrastructures estrange users from the digital material of their everyday lives. As technology becomes increasingly ubiquitous, smaller, and quieter for the user in the form of handheld mobile devices, the need for remote, ‘cloud storage’ increases exponentially. This hidden space of ‘the cloud’ is physically manifest in the remote and undisclosed locations of monolithic data centres scattered across the globe. Technology allows us to feel increasingly connected to one another through a process of digital mediation but simultaneously, this technology distances us from the material and mechanical consequences of our expanding digital world. My thesis objective is to investigate the ecology of hidden, obscure and redundant digital machines that have shaped our technological and cultural progress towards the ‘Information Age’ (Alberts and Papp 1997). The project has three key objectives: to develop a critical framework with reference to media archaeology and digital materialism for the production of sonic archives of computing; to produce a sonic archive of computing technologies through fieldwork; to determine new ways of exploring digital materialism through the production of a number of autonomous sound works using the archived material. My central research question concerns how artistic experimentation with media archives can help us understand the ways technology shapes perceptions and builds platforms for social relations, work, entertainment and identity (Parikka2012). How can an archive of sounds function as a tool for composition? How do we record the sounds of digital material? How have the sounds produced by computing changed over time? How does our sensory perception of computing within our environment change over time? How do we record the relationship between digital material and ourselves?
A Sonic Archive of Computing Technology
Following a period of two months at The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, I recorded and archived over 100 sounds from the historic collection of computers within the museum. The Imitation Archive, was submitted to The British Library Sound and Vision Archive
to act as a permanent repository of the sounds of 70 years of computing history, starting as far back as the first ever programmable digital computer, Colossus.
Using the archived materials, I have composed ten unique pieces of musical composition that reflect my experiences of late nights and long days enveloped in the sounds of computer history as well as the stories behind the objects.
The compositions reflect the ‘always on’ durational nature of many of the machines from their operational heyday, the clunking masses of early relay based machines are juxtaposed by the whirring monoliths of the 1980’s mainframe era and the high frequency whir of modern day server units. Devices that are closely associated with the Bletchley Park history of code-breaking flutter in and out to reflect the story and significance of the operations that were undertaken at the park during the second world war, which ultimately led to the rapid progression in computer technology.
The Imitation Archive is 34 minutes of computer glitch, crunch, hiss and whir that commemorates 70 years of computing, produced at the birthplace of computing, Bletchley Park.