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Listening to art.
Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

Hansen and Rubin’s “Moveable Type” at New York Times (NYC)

Heading across Manhattan via Times Square on Tuesday earlier this week, I took a shortcut through the brand new building that houses the New York Times, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano. According to the building’s website (yes, the building has a website: newyorktimesbuilding.com), it had officially opened for business just the day before.

In one hallway-like space of the Times’s public lobby there has been installed a multimedia spectacle by statistician Mark Hansen and artist Ben Rubin, the same duo who created the work “Listening Post,” which has gotten several mentions here (disquiet.com). Like “Listening Post,” this piece plucks data live from the Internet and displays it (thanks to a variety of artful algorithms) on a suspended, panoramic grid of small LED-style displays.

Whereas “Post” was a single grid, this new work consists of two facing grids, one on each wall; and whereas the former pulled information from the Internet at large, the latter restricts itself to time-sensitive material from the New York Times itself. The Times-commissioned piece is titled “Moveable Type,” after an earlier revolution in information technology.

As I approached “Moveable Type” from the east side of the corridor, it seemed that it had stopped mid-process. On the far side of the corridor I saw Rubin, who explained apologetically that the piece had been put on pause that afternoon to allow for some photography. While the photographer set up his equipment, Rubin introduced me to Hansen. He also explained some details about both “Post” and “Type.” In addition to the small but visible speakers in both works, there are tiny speakers embedded in the rear of each individual screen — and it is those speakers, not the screens themselves, that emit the little clicking sound that accompanies any change in what text is displayed.

Those sonic punctuations are an essential part of how the flow of data in “Listening Post” is impressed upon the work’s audience. Since “Type” was on pause, I couldn’t listen to the piece myself. I did ask Rubin if it’s the case, as a recent story in the Times seemed to state (nytimes.com), that the sounds in “Moveable Type” were limited to ones that suggested a vast pool of typewriters. I asked because part of the appeal of “Listening Post” is its melodic component, an entirely hummable underlay of synthetic tones. I wondered if the public setting of “Moveable Type” might have required — or even introduced the idea of — reducing the aural component.

First he clarified that despite evident structural similarities between the two works, “Post” and “Type” are significantly different from each other. He then explained that there are, in fact, additional, if subtle, other sound elements in “Type.” I hope to visit again in the near future.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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