Four-Letter Fugue

I visited the “Listening Post” installation one last time before it closed on November 1 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. This was the eighth or thereabouts occasion I’d sat in a darkened room and watched the massive grid of tiny screens swirl a slurry of data pulled from the web, each sequence adhering to one of a handful of algorithms constructed by the piece’s creators, tech-artist Ben Rubin and statistician Mark Hansen. It was the only time I haven’t been completely taken in. It was also the most obscene “Post” performance I’d ever witnessed.

There’s nothing like your first time. “Listening Post” is a masterful multimedia artwork, much of its content a kind of generative sound art. The first time I sat in front of the “Post,” for over half an hour — maybe an hour, I honestly don’t remember — I was so consumed by what Rubin and Hansen had accomplished that I didn’t recognize how the constant flow of visual and sonic information was affecting me. I left that room with what I can only describe as a somewhat mild case of data poisoning. Part nausea, part headache, part disorientation, part sensory overload, it was the mental equivalent of having not known when to stop eating guacamole or chocolate ice cream. This was at the San Jose Museum of Art, where “Listening Post” is part of the permanent collection, though it’s not always on view.

At Yerba Buena this summer and early autumn, “Post” was part of a group show titled Dark Matters, a show with surveillance at its curatorial core. But for all the show’s political concerns — there were pieces about government secrecy and invasion of privacy — there’s something inherently titillating about surveillance, and on this particular visit, “Listening Post” didn’t disappoint, at least not as far as sex is concerned.

Obscenities are inevitable in “Listening Post,” if only because one of Rubin and Hansen’s algorithms — one of the parameters by which the installation selects and displays data — involves parsing the data and displaying any four-letter words contained therein. There is also a sequence in which only text that begins “I am ”¦” and “I love ”¦” is displayed, and both those phrases can lead to ”¦ well, you can probably guess. Those words and phrases appear on the myriad screens, and are heard spoken by a voice that brings to mind the sentient computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Occasionally during a “Listening Post” run — each sequence lasts for about 30 minutes — the room is filled with a soft, synthetic melody.

Anyhow, it was neither the “I am”/”I love” section nor the four-letter section that yielded the obscenity in question during the viewing I’m recounting here. It was another movement entirely (the work has, I believe, seven distinct movements). Someone somewhere on the Internet had typed a lengthy obscenity and, presumably for emphasis, placed a space between each letter, and then repeated the word several times. “Listening Post” interpreted these letters as individual words, and thus read each aloud in sequence.

Now, not every word or phrase is treated equally in “Listening Post.” Some are repeated more often than others, and only a select few in any given movement are read aloud by that computer voice — and of those, fewer still are heard overlapping. This phrase was, at random, selected for the most prominent usage in the movement. The repetition was emphasized even further when, by either coincidence or human error, the same phrase appeared with one of the words preceded by a random letter — as a result the spoken repetitions overlapped and the room was filled, for a few moments, with an obscenity fugue. And all the while, Fdreamy techno lullaby played in the background. (It’s not for no reason that at both the Yerba Buena and the San Jose Museum a warning to parents was posted outside the installation.)

Rubin and Hansen have a new piece, a descendant of “Listening Post,” now on display in the lobby of the New York Times in Manhattan. I’m hoping to check it out during one of two upcoming visits to the city this month. Whereas “Listening Post” pulls from the broad Internet, the New York Times installation — it’s named “Moveable Type” — pulls only from the newspaper’s website. I look forward to witnessing what phrases get stuck in its gears.

I wrote up the Dark Matters show back in August ( The image above is from a gallery of "Listening Post" material housed at Rubin's website, More info on Yerba Buena at and SFMOMA at, and on the New York Times's "Moveable Type" installation at (still images) and (video documentary).

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