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Listening Post at The Science Museum

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Published February 17th 2013
Eavesdrop on 100,000 people chatting online
Listening Post, Science Museum
Listening Post: it likes to talk dirty.
Photograph courtesy of the Science Museum website.
Defying the maxim that you can't listen and talk at the same time, the Listening Post is one chatty contraption. It also has a potty mouth, which is a crowd-pleasing attribute in any art installation.

Blame its diet for the bad language. Listening Post lives in a dark spot in the Science Museum, constantly gobbling random fragments of live, uncensored data from internet chat rooms and forums. It then reads them in a computerised voice set to music. The result? A 7-part 'symphony' of 100,000 people talking online.

The ingenious pairing of statistician Mark Hansen and sound artist Ben Rubin makes this a label-dodging work. It is a canny mix of art and philosophy, statistics and science, audio and visual. And that still doesn't cover it all.

More than 230 digital screens are mounted on a sculptural steel matrix. Get close up and you'll see the text of the conversations flash by as you hear them. Quick and voyeuristic, it's like eavesdropping on an unwitting mini Twittersphere.

The ambient score is punctuated at intervals by silence, and the frenzied clickety-clack of all those little screens updating, ready for the next movement.
Listening Post, Science Museum
Get close up and read while you listen.
Photograph courtesy of the Science Museum website.

Listening Post began life as a number crunching project, then unexpectedly took on a more human angle. According to Rubin "My starting place was simple curiosity: what do 100,000 people chatting on the internet sound like? Once Mark and I started listening, at first to statistical representations of websites, and then to actual language from chat rooms, a kind of music began to emerge. The internet can become a giant cut-up poem..."

This poetry is generated by a computer programme which filters the information differently for each movement, creating themes so the words and music you hear are responding to patterns in the data. Listening Post plainly reads snippets of chat, or chants randomly generated clusters of words, building to a chorus of synthesised voices.

Sometimes the strings of sentences start with the same phrase such as 'I am' or 'I love'. The way these statements end is another matter (cough). The contrast is by turns lyrical, tasteless and emotive, producing bittersweet non sequiturs. Statements from the near-suicidal are followed by someone else's craving for sadism, or some fudge.

The consummate professional, Listening Post delivers them all aloud with equal, automated stoicism. It is unintentionally cruel in its rendering of the eccentric grammar and sausage-fingered typing. Hilarious.

Science Museum
The Science Museum, London.

This exhibit makes an eerily soothing change from some of the fun, shouty spaces in the museum. Blanketed in pitch black, soft bleeps and brooding music you can almost forget the bustle of the Big Smoke. But the puerile snickering of your fellow science-lovers (they've just heard a sentence about genitals) will bring you back with a bump.
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Why? FYI there's more to internet chat than LOL.
When: Permanent exhibit.
Phone: 020 7942 4000
Where: Science Museum, Exhibition Road, London,SW7 2DD
Cost: Free
Your Comment
The telephone number on this page is incorrect
by marti (score: 0|2) 2498 days ago
Humblest apologies. That has now been corrected. Thanks Marti.
by Alex Bright (score: 0|6) 2458 days ago
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