Thursday 21 April 2011

A thousand monkeys punching holes

Datametrics [ver 2.0], Barbican, London

SPILL Festival


It feels, at times, like being tasered. The fierce walls of sound – some low and heavy blows, others high, stabbing jabs – hit your chest as hard as your eardrums. Often, you find yourself braced; pinned back in your seat, arms wrapped around your chest just as an aeroplane emergency leaflet instructs. The air is knocked out of your lungs a little. Your throat tightens. A muscle in your chest starts to spasm. You start to wonder whether it’s all quite safe, what this might be doing to your insides, to your pulse rate.

And, then – mercifully – it relents. A moment of relative calm, a single note or silence, in which your body can unwind and fall out.

In his datametrics series, Ryoji Ikeda’s music is composed entirely from data. I say ‘music’ and, while I do mean it, it does take me a while to accept it as such. Ikeda distils complex trains of code down into their binary equivalents and sets them to electronic sounds, turning them on and off accordingly. A symphony in Morse Code. It’s often densely layered, parts flickering with rampant speed as others creep by. Beeps, ticks and deep electronic groans combine. It sounds like R2D2 having an aneurism.

And yet, even at this sensory level, there’s something rather joyful about it. At each pause, a single voice to the left of the auditorium lets out a pristine whoop. Ironic, perhaps, but oddly appropriate, resembling as it does the sort of noise a thrillseeker might let out as adrenaline overcomes nervous tension. To my right, someone’s nodding their head to a rhythm I can’t even make out.

Ride through the initial oddity, however, and it starts to twist and contort. You can make out crickets and gunfire, scratchily at first, but increasingly familiar. Then rain, a torrential downpour hammering at a roof. A vast flock of birds. The melting cracks at end of an ice-age. Applause. Crackling vinyl. Aggressive fridges. From these rigid rhythmic patterns, something natural and imperfect emerges. The density overreaches the system’s perfection, or else, any system fades from view, too complex for perception.

On a screen, a series of computerised graphics accompany the sound. There are barograph charts and constellations, running lines and webs of numbers, mostly in black and white. Perhaps they represent the noise, perhaps they cause it. One can’t be sure.

Again the urge to seek narrative or likeness is strong. The data contained therein is itself unrecognisable. We have no key and, even if we had, we would like be none the wiser. Instead we see galaxies or drag races, the imagery of computer hacking. Atomic structures from which emerge stick figures, ballerinas and free-runners and gymnasts.

More often, though, you see black and white. Patterns of movement that catch the eye and drag it one way or the other. Lines seem to change direction. Circles throb. Nothing is quick solid or still and, as such, the optical illusion so often consumes the image. The effect is quite dizzying and, eventually, one falls into its flicker. For me, it induced a light trance, semi-conscious (no-one could sleep through the noise) of the thoughts and images thrown together, but in a hazy dreamspace, governed by the subconscious. An overload of information here short-circuits the brain.

Who, then, are we, the audience? Why have we come to listen and glaze over? It still feels thrillseeking, but also paradoxically serene, flipping inside out like a mobius loop. There is something cultish about our collective presence, but we remain an audience, connected to every audience that has come before. Isn’t datametrics the logical extension – perhaps the end of the line – for audio and visual material. It is reduced to the barest of essentials, a cacophony of single threads that are either on or off. Sensory material construction not to express anything, but as the result of arbitrary selection. The original codes from which Ikeda builds these sequences are musical readymades. This, you sense, is the work of a thousand monkeys punching holes in the electronic equivalent of a player piano score. And it is intensely exciting.


Run over. SPILL continues till 23 April 2011.


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Resources


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

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