Soundin’ Transformation: Introducing an Audio Archive Project at UofA

This is the first post in what will be an ongoing effort to document the conceptualization and building of a digital sound archive in the University of Alberta’s English and Film Studies department. Initiated by professors Cecily Devereux and Michael O’Driscoll, this archive, which is still unnamed (though I’ve seen “SpokenWest” pop up in a few places, which would make sense, seeing as the project intends to build off and likely partner with the existing successes of the SpokenWeb project at Concordia University) will contain recordings from literary reading events hosted by UofA dating back to 1966. In its current state, the collection includes approximately 1300 cassette tape recordings. Many of these, however, are commercial recordings reproduced for teaching purposes, so our primary task is to filter the database and comb through the catalogue to determine which recordings to include, which is to say any singular, local readings or performances specific to UofA. This will be the project’s framework, though it’s interesting to think about how it might change as we go through the tapes. Without question, there will be surprises.

Archive under construction

Cassette tapes in the organization process. These drawers designate particular events or categories, which we will use to filter the collection: the League of Canadian Poets, Canadian poetry, UofA poetry readings, and Lectures.

This particular digital archive will not be born-digital (though it will certainly include born-digital content, as recent and forthcoming reading events are added). Rather, it’s a digitally transformed archive. The archive itself already exists, and has existed for many years. I’ll have to do some more digging to learn more about the history of the tapes themselves, where they’ve been, who made them, for what reason, who’s looked after them, have they’ve been copied. For now, they’re on the fourth floor of the university’s Humanities Centre, room 409, and this material investigation is taking place at an exciting time, as 2015-16 marks the 40th anniversary of the university’s Writer-in-Residence program, the longest lasting series of its kind in Canada, featuring authors of national and international prominence, including Phyllis Webb (’80-’81), Fred Wah (’88-’89), Gail Scott (’94-’95), rob mclennan (’07-’08), and Erin Moure (’13-’14), to name a few.

The Archive

No shortage of boxes to go through. You can imagine what the rest of the room looks like . . .

The collection also contains recordings independent of the Writer-in-Residence program, as UofA hosts regular reading events every year, as well as a collection of approximately 700 reel-to-reel recordings, featuring names such as Dorothy Livesay, bpNichol, Sheila Watson, Margaret Atwood, Earle Birney, D.G. Jones, Myrna Kostash, and Irving Layton. Of course, these lists are preliminary, and each physical item will have to be closely inspected and listened to to determine its contents. Unfortunately, recordings aren’t always documented adequately, and basic metadata (speaker names, reading dates, venues) is often missing, making it rather difficult to develop a comprehensive catalogue. Sometimes information is contained within the tape itself, such as in a speaker’s introductory or closing remarks. And sometimes it isn’t, in which case secondary archival materials (press releases, event posters, written reviews) can prove helpful. As Camlot states in Beyond the Text, sometimes archives are “perfectly useless,” until someone actually rolls up their sleeves, blows the dust from the reel, feeds the tape into the machine, and presses play, to find out exactly what they’re dealing with. This kind of deconstruction has always been possible, but now it’s possible on a new scale. The digitization of large bodies of poetry recordings takes place at an intersection of digital and critical methodologies, one that has much to offer.

John Newlove, UofA, 1981.

John Newlove, March 19, ’81. It’s great when tape cases provide metadata, but how do we find out more? For example, where did Newlove read? Who made the recording? Is this cassette an original, or is it a copy? Why was Newlove invited to read? Was his reading part of a larger series? Who was in attendance? Did someone introduce him? What poems did he read? What did he talk about between poems? Were there any surprises along the way? If there was an audience, did they ask questions? In certain situations, it’s possible that some of these questions can’t be answered. At any rate, the first thing to do is take note of what information the tape case provides and then press play and listen, find out exactly what’s on the tape.

At this point, the possibilities for where the archive might go seem endless. In addition to the recordings I’ve mentioned, the catalogue includes a series of recorded readings held during the 1969 “Poet & Critic Conference,” which includes recordings of Eli Mandel, Gary Snyder, Rudy Wiebe, and many others listed as “various,” as well as a number of other reel-to-reel recordings of lectures by noteworthy authors. We also expect to uncover additional archives along the way (including more recent, born-digital materials) held in personal collections. In short, there’s a lot of material to sort through. For now, as mentioned, it’s a matter of organizing the tapes, collecting metadata, and establishing principles of inclusion and exclusion — what’s in and what’s out. When our corpus is complete, we expect somewhere between 42 and 106 items containing between 30 and 80 hours of recorded content.

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Reel-to-reel tapes from the 1969 “Poet and Critic Conference,” which I know very little about. I’m intrigued by recorded lectures, scholarly, poetic, or otherwise. What do poets talk about when they talk about poetry? As philosophers like Žižek argue regularly, what counts is not words, but actions. So what kinds of rhetorical claims are these poet/critics making in their lectures, and how do they match up with what they’ve written?

Like I said, this is all very nascent, and part of a much larger project, building off the work done by the SpokenWeb project (see Reading Series Matter, or just go play around at SW, or read any number of the essays published in Amodern 4: The Poetry Series). Professors O’Driscoll and Devereux are currently working to partner with similar projects and research interests at Concordia University, Simon Fraser University, UBC Okanagan, the University of Calgary, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Texas, Austin to develop a consolidated interface for archiving, mapping, and engaging with literary spoken recordings across Canada and North America. Which is really exciting, and which I look forward to writing about as the project moves along. For now, I introduce UofA’s English and Film Studies Department’s newest digital audio archive, which only exists conceptually.

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Bad Data, Beautiful Damage

I spent years just trying to undo my formal education.
–James Hoff

In December 2014, Brooklyn-based artist James Hoff’s Skywiper installation, featuring abstract paintings which have been digitized, converted to text, infected with computer viruses, and re-presented on aluminum canvas, was displayed in the Callicoon Fine Arts Gallery in New York City. Seen below is “Stuxnet No. 1,” one of the paintings ‘hosted’ by Callicoon.

Stuxnet No. 1, 2014, chromaluxe transfer on aluminum, 30 × 24 inches.

Stuxnet No. 1, 2014, chromaluxe transfer on aluminum, 30 × 24 inches.

A 2014 review in Amusement magazine describes Hoff’s infection-based creations:

A series of abstract paintings infected with state-developed viruses . . . Digital paintings are converted into text with a hex editor. Chunks of code from the virus are then inserted into the file. Once reconstituted as an image, the digital painting carries the marks of the virus attack as new shapes and colors have appeared. The infection of the virus is not limited to the artworks but also alters the gallery space itself. Sections of the dry wall were removed based on the visual effect created after infecting Jpeg files of the gallery walls.

While the name Stuxnet might ring familiar, as “a piece of malware from 2010 believed to be designed as an attack on Iran’s nuclear weapons program,” other computer viruses, such as the ILoveYou strain that plagued networks in 2000, inflicting “somewhere between $5.5-8.7 billion in damages to computer systems worldwide, and cost[ing] the U.S. $15 billion to remove,” might be a bit more obscure (Jones). I’m not very familiar with computer viruses, for which I should probably be thankful. I don’t understand how they work or why they’re deployed, specifically. I don’t understand the nuances of different strains. But I do know that they’re harmful codes designed with malicious intent. I wonder: are all viruses ‘bad’ data? Has a computer virus ever been designed to help, for example, fight other viruses? These are important questions that go beyond the scope of this post, which is primarily interested in how acts of removal — erasure, deletion, decay — often understood as negative, can be used to disruptive, generative ends, both critically and creatively, and how work such as Hoff’s leads us to reconsider the way we think about code, which is often understood as transparent, autonomous, and cold, rather than as the opaque, discernible though not always accessible (i.e. readable/understandable) text-based platforms that support digital media.

Whether any of us have had to deal with computer viruses, network hacks, identity thefts, memory crashes, or other forms of digital espionage, we can sympathize with those who have, if only because we know what it means to experience loss, or the invasion of privacy. Computer viruses are something to fear, aren’t they? Would any of us willingly download one to get a closer look? Would we ever cut one open and inspect its insides to better understand it? Would we ever really care to understand how computer viruses are trasmitted, or have they become metaphorized to the point of digital taboo, comparable to the blue liquid that stands in for body fluids in television commercials? Have threats against our computers become as concerning as threats against our bodies? I’m pushing things here, I know, but it’s interesting — though by no means new — to think about computers as prosthetic extensions of our selves, because doing so forces us to consider the point at which the human ends and the machine begins, a point which is increasingly difficult to locate in an anthropocentric world that is inseparable from digital media experience, and the codes that write it, sick or not.

Getting back to Hoff and the question of digital parasites. As Animal’s Rhett Jones comments in his review of Hoff’s creations, “While [the] ILoveYou [virus’s] damage has been done for 15 years now, the worm has been re-born in the form of work.” A form working toward an understanding of how negative entities can be used to generative ends, or in other words, how the idea of digital corruption lends new meaning to (and thus complicates) what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ data behaviour in an increasingly speculative, phobic, information-overloaded computational world. Hoff transforms infectious, fearful entities into aesthetic forms. By re-presenting what was supposed to be ephemeral — by revealing the unseen — he turns media experience inside-out. The virus performs the medium, “the acting agent or the performer, if you will, is the syndrome.”

In an interview with BOMB magazine’s Eli Keszler (2014), Hoff discusses the idiosyncrasies that constitute his creative process, elucidating how, as in moments of physical disruption — protests, riots, or other active forms of civil disobedience — his works “profile moments of disruption and connect [his] interest in digital ephemera to larger political themes,” such as the place or status of art in relation to pop culture, how texts are constituted in the digital age, or the deconstruction of computational phenomena. Unlike the ‘randomness’ or ‘chance encounters’ that sometimes constitute abstract composition (Hoff notes how hotels and thrift stores often feature/sell art alarmingly similar, stylistically and formally, to ‘gallery-qualified’ works), what Hoff calls a “complacency” of abstract art, “a kind of culture-bound illness,” Hoff’s creations choose very specific file formats — jpeg, tiff, pngs — and infect them with very specific virus types — Skywiper, Stuxnet, ILoveYou, Blaster — in order to generate highly conceptualized outcomes, which are perhaps only as abstract as an inability to ‘read’ or ‘understand’ the computational languages that render the paintings unique. As Deforrest Brown Jr. and Nora N. Khan write for Rhizome, “disrupting an image, a sound, or a form with ‘bad data’ is a common technique in glitch art: introduce a grain of sand into the system and let it run. But a virus is not just poor data, but malicious code: a language of pointed attack.” So what are the implications of such a specifically directed aesthetic gesture?

Hoff’s paintings are abstract models, presenting us with a representation of data akin to what Moretti describes in Graphs, Maps and Trees as being “ideally independent of interpretation” (9). The difference (and irony) here is the fact that, like Moretti’s graphs, Hoff’s infections are open to all kinds of interpretation — it’s the methods themselves that are abstract, if only because the materials that render the abstraction are abstract themselves, or at least obscure, hidden beneath the very media that presents them, a surface that Hoff’s infections approach, perhaps break through altogether. Which brings to the surface an issue discussed in my previous post, one that will probably run throughout this blog, that is, how digital tools and computational research methods are changing the way literary scholars work, specifically by steering us toward alternative (i.e. not human-centric) methods of sense-making. Hoff’s infested creations are built using what isn’t usually seen, read, or heard — code, viruses  — and use infection, realistically and metaphorically, “for productive means — as a form of distribution” (Keszler), taking to task “the Internet as a delivery system: how it affects traditional modes of communication and distribution.” By rendering phenomena visible, Hoff reveals a connection between the ‘texts’ that encode digital realities and the lived experiences that inform and are informed by them:

Like traditional illnesses, computer viruses travel through networks of communication or trade, meaning that they can be mapped and rendered graphically across set geographies. Much of my project in the last few years has centered on taking these immaterial actors that reside within cultural networks as a starting point, attempting to reverse-engineer forms of expression or communication from them. I borrow from the historical vernacular of abstraction to render the work as abstract paintings. It allows me to talk about viruses using the language of painting rather than the technical jargon of computer programming or the hyperbole of mass media. In this way, abstraction functions as a lens, an interface (Hoff).

What I find particularly intriguing about Hoff’s methodology is its digital versatility. Anything that can be digitized can be infected. Like a good virus, Stuxnet doesn’t care what it infects. Which shouldn’t suggest that it will infect every digital entity in the same way. A worm will ‘work’ an Mp3 file, for example, much differently than it will a jpeg. Or will it? Here is a link to the title track from Hoff’s Blaster LP (PAN, 2014) — taking its name from the Blaster parasite that wormed its way into hordes of Microsoft machines in 2003 — which collapses (conflates?) an audio/visual binary by composing “beats from 808 drum-machine samples that have been infected with computer viruses” and re-presenting them alongside ‘infested visuals,’ a mode of delivery that works to reconcile artistic creation in a world that is, according to Keszler, “filled with code.” I can’t say what the differences would be if the same virus was given to a different sound file, or if it was given to a digital painting, or if a different virus was given to the same audio-visual combination. But I’m curious. And I think that’s part of the point, to think about the ‘text’ that underlies digital modes of experience, and not just the images, symptoms or side-effects that present or make those experiences manifest. In this way, I think that Hoff’s work, as a critique of how we make sense in an encoded world, is in line with Moretti’s models of distant reading, as both use structures to ask questions about how texts make meaning and how that meaning operates dynamically as part of a larger historical network of communication, rather than as a single, autonomous textual entity.

Works Cited

Moretti, Franco. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History. New York: Verso, 2007.

Reading Series Matter

Discerning_Article Filreis2 Fong_Article-e1421528675700 MacEwan-I0006_11_0161During my two-year MA at Concordia I was a research assistant with the SpokenWeb project, a web-based representation of a collection of reel-to-reel tapes from a poetry reading series that took place at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University) between 1966 and 1974. When I arrived at Concordia in 2013, SpokenWeb was entering its third year, and I was surprised by some of the gaps in its metadata. While most of the dates, names and venues had been identified, there were more than a handful of unknowns. It also appeared that some of the series recordings were missing altogether. So where were these missing recordings? Did they even exist? How is it possible that so much is known about some recordings while so little is known about others? The answer was rather straightforward: sometimes important information doesn’t get documented, and what qualifies as “important” depends on who’s looking, when, and for what reason.

These kinds of questions were central during the first year of my assistantship, and many of my winter mornings were spent in Concordia’s archives and records management office, combing through old school newspapers to see if I could fill in some of the blanks. I wasn’t the first person to do this, and while I uncovered a few of the dates, names, and locations that my predecessors had overlooked, the search was more or less disappointing, and to this day the “metadata question” remains important to the SpokenWeb project. But I think there are equally important, related questions.

  • How do literary materials gain scholarly value?
  • Why do people gather to listen to poetry?
  • How can literature be defined in relation to media events?
  • Why was the SGWU Poetry Series recorded in the first place?
  • What exactly is SpokenWeb?

In the second year of my assistantship, these were the questions that interested me, and they would eventually form the basis of my thesis. I became increasingly speculative about the terms used to identify SpokenWeb: database, digital archive, audio repository. As I began writing, I started thinking about SpokenWeb as a text rather than a re-presentation of archived documentary material. After all, before the poetry series tapes were uncovered, digitized, and transcribed, they were “perfectly useless”: “hundreds of hours of audio that someone would actually have to listen to in order to find out what is there, and that would be just the first step in an attempt to determine what it all means” (Camlot). The tapes are the “signal” through which a much longer literary/media/institutional history is being explored. SpokenWeb is generating a story. Of course, as one of my Concordia mentors was quick to remind me, “despite the most fervent wishes of 20th-century deconstruction, not everything is a text, and the things that aren’t require different modes of analysis” (Wershler, personal correspondence).

SpokenWeb is a great example of how digital technology and computational research methods are changing humanities scholarship, particularly in relation to the media events that operate on the periphery of the written word. Certainly, DH tools allow us to ask “big data” questions, but, more importantly, they allow us to use those questions. The Sir George Williams Poetry Series is one very small moment in literary history, but it is now discernible, due to “the rise of networked digital media and the associated appearance of online repositories of literary recordings transferred from analog to digital,” as a regular object of literary study and as a collection of media-historic materials that reveal the relationships between the technologies required to produce, transform, and disseminate a poetry reading series (Camlot and Wershler). Over the past twenty years, projects like PennSound, UbuWeb, Slought Foundation, the EPC, and SpokenWeb (not to mention print-based digitization projects such as Project Gutenberg, the Rossetti Archive, and the Walt Whitman Archive) have helped legitimize poetry performance as an object of literary study.

What might these thousands upon thousands of hours of digitized audio look like over time, consolidated and coherent? And how many more thousands of hours are still in analog format, waiting to be uncovered in university archives? Is there such a thing as The Canadian Poetry Series? Does it need to be un-archived? Are there changes in style or form that shed new light on particular periods of literary production? Does the spoken word ever undermine the written word? What are the necessary conditions—social, institutional, cultural, historical—that make reading series possible, and how have those conditions changed since the 1950s, when the Contact Readings in Toronto marked the inauguration of institutional poetry readings in Canada? As Camlot and Wershler state:

Study of the reading series entails an historical understanding of reading as an ever-changing practice, and an historical understanding of the place of different reading practices in relation to historical conceptions of the literary. Understanding the reading series demands a grasp of the changing methods, motives and disciplinary categories of reading from the eighteenth century to the present, from rhetoric to elocution to recitation to expression to oral interpretation to performance (among other categories).