Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Ben Rubin: Language As Data

Last night I saw Ben Rubin present his art for the Art Technology and Culture talks at U.C. Berkeley. I had seen "Listening Post," probably Rubin's most well-known work, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts a couple years ago. At the time I hadn't heard about scraping the web, and the piece felt to me like it was tapping into our collective consciousness.

Influenced by Noam Chomsky's theory of language, most of Rubin's work consists of applying computer algorithms to a body of text (the Internet, the NY Times, Shakespeare), to parse from it phrases, which an algorithm reorganizes and displays on vacuum fluorescent displays. The display units, arranged into arrays, light up like old-fashioned tickers in choreographed patterns. Or, in the case of the "Shakespeare Machine," the text is arranged as colliding vectors in space.

His work intrigues me in a few potent conceptual ways which make it an admirable example of new-media art. First, it's a lovely example of art as data analysis of things that would otherwise not be analyzed. (Some of his other work is based in the sonification of data.) Information as aesthetic object is so hip right now.

Second, it carries forward the thread of art that has been exploring semiotics (so postmodern!) into the digital technology. I've been reading Wittgenstein and I see Rubin's work as decontextualizing language by rendering it into pieces then recontextualizing it in a new language game. The meaning of the related phrases is created by the viewer. Rubin experimented with having performers deliver the phrases, and found that it didn't "work" as well, though he had trouble articulating why. It seems to me that the Art in his work lies there, in the viewer creating the meaning. When an actor reads the phrases, they are interpreting the phrase and creating the meaning and delivering it to the audience, which as series of nonsense is uninteresting.

Third, the process of his work is related to conceptual strategies of Dada, Fluxus, and Sol Lewitt, in that is a systematized method of art-making relying heavily on randomness. Those artists used those methods to remove their own aesthetics from their art-making.

Rubin makes the distinction that in his work the words are not chosen randomly (like John Cage), rather, systematically by a computer. He chooses among the algorithms (applying his sense of aesthetic) by how well they work to create meaning or generate feeling. The meaningfulness is the aesthetic criterion.

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