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this blog is nina wenhart's collection of resources on the various histories of new media art. it consists mainly of non or very little edited material i found flaneuring on the net, sometimes with my own annotations and comments, sometimes it's also textparts i retyped from books that are out of print.

it is also meant to be an additional resource of information and recommended reading for my students of the prehystories of new media class that i teach at the school of the art institute of chicago in fall 2008.

the focus is on the time period from the beginning of the 20th century up to today.

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>> Golan Levin, "Dialtones", 2001

from the project's website: http://www.flong.com/storage/experience/telesymphony/index.html

Dialtones ented sonic phenomena and musically interesting structures. Moreover, by directing our attention to the unexplored musical potential of a ubiquitous modern appliance, Dialtones inverts our understandings of private sound, public space, electromagnetic etiquette, and the fabric of the communications network which connects us.

Dialtones was presented in two consecutive concerts in September, 2001, as a co-production of Golan Levin and the Ars Electronica Festival, and in seventeen performances in May/June 2002 at the Swiss National Exposition.

Dialtones begins with a brief preparation phase prior to its performance, during which the members of the audience register their wireless telephone numbers at a cluster of secure Web kiosks. In exchange for this information, the participants receive seating assignment tickets for the concert venue, and new "ringtones" are then automatically downloaded to their handsets. During the concert itself, the audience's mobile phones are brought to life by a small group of musicians, who perform the phones en masse by dialing them up with a specially designed, visual-musical software instrument. Because the audience's positions and sounds are known to the Dialtones computer system, the performers can create spatially-distributed melodies and chords, as well as novel textural phenomena like waves of polyphony which cascade across the crowd; these musical structures, moreover, are visualized by a large projection system connected to the performers' interfaces. Towards the end of its half-hour composition, Dialtones builds to a remarkable crescendo in which nearly two hundred mobile phones peal simultaneously. It is hoped that the experience of Dialtones can permanently alter the way in which its participants think about the cellular space we inhabit.


Wireless telephony has quickly become an indispensable aspect of modern life. Today, one out of ten people on the planet possesses a mobile phone; over the next three years, according to the industrial analysis firm The Gartner Group, this market is expected to increase by almost a billion new users [1]. Ironically, the astonishing eagerness with which we have adopted mobile phones is matched by our almost equal repulsion on the occasion of a cell phone's ringing. Mobile p
hones now infuse our theaters and public spaces with the least welcome details of our neighbors' intimacies, and perforate our private lives with the sonic machinery of electronic commerce. Our emotional reactions to these interjections can even outstrip the veneer of our professional identities: when ringing mobile phones interrupted keynote speakers at a recent telecommunications conference in Finland, the conference manager became enraged and threatened to get a radio-frequency scrambler to silence the din [2]. Caught between adoration and irritation, we have come to regard our intimate communications apparel with a deep ambivalence.

In the hype, hate and hypnosis surrounding the mobile phone, its potential as an ingredient of art has been largely overlooked. As with the proverbial fish who would never discover water, we take for granted that we are immersed in cellular space, our imaginations dulled by the extraordinary ubiquity of our wireless devices. Announcers at every modern-day concert command us to turn off our cell phones, but what Cagean aesthetic possibilities might we discover in leaving them on? What deranged beauty might we find, or what might we learn about our interconnected selves, in their high, pure tones? The mobile phone's speakers and ringers make it a performance instrument. The butt
ons make it a keyboard and remote control. Its programmable rings make it a portable synthesizer. Yet, although no sacred space has remained unsullied by the interruptions of mobile phone ringtones, there is no sacred space, either, which has been specifically devoted to their free expression. In the context of this lack, and in the context of our society's contradictory attitudes towards wireless communication technologies, Dialtones is proposed.

If our global communications network can be thought of as a single communal organism, then the goal of Dialtones is to indelibly transform the way we hear and understand the twittering of this monumental, multicellular being. One of Dialtones's strategies for doing so is the musical reification of this organism's sprawling and enveloping omnipresence. By placing every participant at the center of a massive cluster of distributed speakers, Dialtones makes the ether of cellular space viscerally perceptible. In a rejoinder to the eminent electronic composer Iannis Xennakis— who once complained that all electronic music sounded alike, because it would inevitably emanate from the same pair of speakers —Dialtones's radical surround-sound is at once musically and phenomenologically unique.

In an appropriate acoustic environment, the sporadic triggering of calls to mobile phones can evoke the placid chirps and trills of crickets, cicadas, frogs and birds. If hundreds or even thousands of mobile phones were to ring simultaneously, by contrast, the result would be an unimaginably seething, engulfing cacophony. Between these two textural extremes lies an enormous terrain of more musically familiar possibilities: gently shifting diatonic chord progressions, distributed and aggregate melodies, roving clouds of spatialized sound-clusters, and pointillistic hyper-polyphonies. Over the course of its half-hour duration, Dialtones explores sequences and combinations of each of these possibilities, scaffolded throughout by a set of recurring harmonic themes and slowly-evolving melodic phrases. Ultimately, the exact composition of Dialtones is a function of both the scored performance produced by the project's staff, and the specific settings of the phones brought by the concert's attendees.

In Dialtones, the phones, and not their owners, speak to one another. By summoning a communication between communications technologies in which there is no interlocutor, Dialtones invites its participants to perceive an order in what is otherwise disorganized public noise, and ratify it as a chorus of organized social sound. Thus the overdetermination of the world of Work is countered with an equally determined Play, as the ringing of mobile phones—ordinarily, the noise of business, of untimely interruptions, of humans enslaved to technology—is transformed into a sound of deliberate expression, startling whimsy, and unconventional beauty.


Dialtones' technical realization is broadly divided into three distinct software subsystems: (A) the means by which the audience's mobile phones were registered (prior to the performance) into a networked database; (B) the means by which the audience's cell phones were computationally dialed (and thereby performed) during the concert itself; and (C) the telephony middleware which communicated the dialing requests from the performance system to the infrastructure of the local Mobile Switching Center. In addition, two special optical subsystems added visual and diagrammatic dimensions to the performance: (D) a vertical video projection system, in which spots of light were cast from above onto actively ringing audience members; and (E) an assembly of autonomous miniature lights which visually augmented the audience's highly-localized cellular activities. In this section, each of these mechanisms is treated in turn.

A. Prior to the Dialtones concert, audience participants register their mobile phone numbers (and model numbers) at special Web-based terminals placed outside and around the performance venue. ASP-based CGI scripts are used to store this information in a SQL database. At the same time, the scripts also use a ticketing algorithm to issue the audience member an assigned seat in the concert auditorium. Depending on the make and model of the participant's phone, it can be possible to programmatically modify its ringtone at this time; if so, a specially-composed ringtone is encoded in the RTTTL (ringtone text transmission language) data format and transmitted to the user's phone as an SMS message. The Dialtones staff composed more than 100 customized ringtones for the concert, wrote special software to convert these ringtones from MIDI sequences into RTTTL, and created a special CGI system to transmit these tones automatically to the audience's phones. In the Linz performances, a small number of preconfigured phones were also available as temporary loans for phoneless participants.

B. After the participants' phone numbers and models have been collected and stored in a database, Dialtones itself is performed live on a custom software instrument which makes use of this database. This performance system consists of an interactive graphical software interface, which represents each mobile phone in the audience as a spatialized cell in a visual grid. During the performance, the performers place "animated paint" into specific cells in the visual grid; these actions trigger the ringing of the corresponding mobile phones in the audience. It is important to emphasise that all of the phone dialings are executed "by hand"; that is, they are set into motion by the direct action of a human performer. The performance instrument is implemented as an OpenGL-based Windows application.

C. The Windows-based performance software transmits dialing requests over a TCP/IP LAN to a nearby Linux-based telephony server. This machine uses an Aculab telephony card to convert these requests into actual phone calls. The Aculab card transmits the phone calls over two dedicated E1 lines (primary-rate 2Mbit ISDN connections), directly into the Mobile Switching Center (MSC) of the local mobile service provider (in Linz, A1 Mobilkom Austria; at the Swiss National Exposition, Swisscom Mobile). The local Base Transceiver Station (BTS, or cell antenna) in the location of the concert venue was specially modified by the provider in order to allow at least 60 simultaneous signalling channels.

D. The audience-orchestras at the two Linz performances each consisted of 200 participants, who were arranged in a 20x10 seating grid. The performers' grid-based graphical interface is projected onto the audience from above, and carefully registered with their seats. As a result, each participant is lit up by a personal spot of light whenever their handset is rung. The concerts performed in Linz used a 12000 ANSI Lumen Barco ELM R12, with a special wide-angle lens, for the projection of these spotlights.

In order to more clearly show how the spots of light play across the audience— indicating which people are ringing at any instant— a very large, multi-panel Mylar mirror (6x12 meters) is erected at an angle above the crowd.

Of the 200 participants in Linz—whose phones hailed from 13 different countries—as many as sixty could be dialed at any one instant. Each performance lasted approximately 28-30 minutes, and entailed the placement of more than 5000 phone calls. The seventeen concerts presented at the Swiss National Exposition used orchestras of 99 participants [9x11], of whom any 60 could be dialed simultaneously.

E. The last visual subsystem consisted of a set of two hundred small keychain lights, which were distributed to the audience-participants at the time of their pre-concert registration. These inexpensive and autonomous devices, which are sensitive to energy in the 800-1900 mHz radio band, illuminate a small red LED when they are within one meter of a ringing mobile phone. Despite their small size, the darkness of the concert hall made it possible to observe the flashing of these lights, which were also reflected in the large suspended mirror.

Generally speaking, these keychain lights would flash about two seconds prior to the ringing of a nearby mobile phone, while the overhead video projection system would typically enable its corresponding spotlight within half a second after the phone had begun to ring. These minute differences in timing
had the effect of diffusing events over time, creating micro-anticipations and multilayered syncopations between the light and sound of the performance.

The combined effect of the telephone rings with their synchronized visual phenomena was to render each participant as an audio-visual pixel, a twinkling particle in an audio-visual substance—and the visitors, as a group, could at once be audience, orchestra and (active) score.


The Dialtones composition consists of three major subsections, or "movements", each approximately ten minutes long. The first section is produced entirely through the ringing of the mobile phones of the 200-person audience; these phones were completely unamplified by any means. The second section, a "solo" movement, is performed by Dialtones staff member Scott Gibbons on ten amplified (but otherwise unmodified) mobile phones. In the third section, the soloist plays together with the ensemble.

The goal of Dialtones' three-part structure is to introduce the contrasting aesthetic possibilities of virtuosic real-time cellphone performance ("mobile phone jockeying") on the one hand, with coordinated-ensemble handheld-music on the other. In addition to yielding a variety of sonic contrasts, this structure also allows for the exploration of a broad range of musical interaction-models: from the deeply practiced (e.g. Gibbons' solo performance), to the entirely visual (e.g. the graphical interface controls used by Levin and Shakar to interactively perform the audience phones), to a lightweight model of consumer participation (e.g. through one's selection/purchase of a phone model, negotiation of its ringtone, and manner of displaying it during the performance).

Within each of the three movements, the composition is structured as a sequence of sound-textures. These texture-segments are realized as interestingly distinct combinations of ringtones; while the sound of one texture resembles a forest full of twittering birds, another consists of pure drones, and recalls the sound of a pipe organ. There are about fifteen sound-textures in all, each approximately two minutes long. Although the order and duration of these sound-textures is explicitly scored, the moment-to-moment details within each texture are left to the improvisation of the Dialtones performers.

The final movement of the Dialtones concert concludes with a climactic crescendo involving both orchestra and soloist. During the course of this section, the Dialtones soloist Scott Gibbons initiates the "ringing" of a phone's vibrator, transduced by a flat piezoelectric microphone and amplified by a subwoofer. At the same time, increasingly greater numbers of phones are introduced until the maximum possible number of simultaneous rings (60) is achieved. At this point, louder phones are swapped with quieter ones, and the selection of rings shifted around the orchestra until, within the space of a few seconds, all 200 of the audience phones have been triggered.

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... is a Media Art historian and independent researcher. She is currently writing on "speculative archiving && experimental preservation of Media Art" and graduated from Prof. Oliver Grau's Media Art Histories program at the Danube University in Krems, Austria with a Master Thesis on Descriptive Metadata for Media Arts. For many years, she has been working in the field of archiving/documenting Media Art, recently at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Media.Art.Research and before as the head of the Ars Electronica Futurelab's videostudio, where she created their archives and primarily worked with the archival material. She was teaching the Prehystories of New Media Class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and in the Media Art Histories program at the Danube University Krems.