Network Connection

By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Director of  Academic Computing and User Services

When Computers Sleep, Do They Dream?

Technology and the arts have long had an established relationship. In fact, the history of the arts is linked to the technology of the times, with new arts growing up around new technologies. Photography was a technology before it was an art. Or to go back even further, someone had to invent paint before they could do cave paintings.

Technology and the arts have been an active area of creative pursuit here at UNT for many years. I studied and worked with a number of people involved in the creation of the Center for Experimental Music and Intermedia in the UNT College of Music. Recently, a group of faculty have come together to form a new research initiative around arts and technology. Digital sound generation and digital image and video generation have shown the value of computing technology to the process of artistic creation.

The Internet and the arts

While some technologies have generated new artforms, the Internet doesn't seem to be among them. However, the Internet has had a role in promoting and distributing works of art since early in its existence. Some very early sites served as online art museums. This activity even predated the World Wide Web with resources offered via Gopher servers. (In fact, at one time long ago, UNT partnered with the Dallas Museum of Art to make available images of some of its paintings via our Internet presence.)

The Internet has also had a dramatic impact on the music world. Napster changed the way we thought about acquiring music. iTunes has changed the way we buy music. MySpace influenced the way we learn about music. YouTube keeps us supplied with music videos as well as all sorts of other things we might or might not want to watch.

Freed from the tyranny of physical media

What the Internet has changed most about arts and music is the distribution method. Digital media and communications free us from the tyranny of the physical media (do you still play your 8-track and BetaMax tapes?) But the Internet hasn't had much of an impact on how we create art, with a couple of exceptions. The Internet2 project has long been enamored with masterclasses held over an Internet video connection, but there's not much innovation regarding the use of the technology -- given the availability, such activities could and probably were done via satellite television links. Folks from Google supported assembly of a YouTube orchestra, but only the audition process was via an online video submission. For the performance, the musicians were assembled very traditionally in Carnegie Hall in New York City. For the audition, they could have just as easily mailed in a BetaMax.

Crowdsourcing a choir, and more

Recently, I ran across what may be the first really cool use of Internet technology and newly composed music that I've seen in a while. The composer Eric Whitacre, with some assistance, has created and published performances of a couple of his choral works done by a virtual choir composed of singers from around the world who have submitted their individual performances of a vocal part (SATB) of the work. Whitacre created a process to recruit singers, provide music, and to conduct an artistic performance of his choral work, Lux Aurumque (Light and Gold), with instructions and direction via a YouTube video. The resulting individual performances were put through an audio mixing process to form the sound of a true choral performance. The delivery method is a YouTube video that also combines the individual performance videos submitted by the performers so that you can watch the chorus and move your attention between individual performers, much as you might do at a live choral concert.

The concept of turning to the Internet community to solve a problem or provide resources has been labelled crowdsourcing. Another possibly artistic use of crowdsourcing is the production of a Star Wars Episode IV homage or parody (depending upon your point of view) assembled from 15-second clips produced, with varying levels of sophistication, by Internet fans of the movies.

Electric Sheep?

More abstract is the collaborative artwork produced by a project called Electric Sheep after Philip K. Dick's novel novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. The site offers software that can be installed on a PC or Mac. According to the web site, "When these computers sleep, the Electric Sheep comes on and the computers communicate with each other by the internet to share the work of creating morphing abstract animations . . . ."

The something new that the Internet can do ...

The something new that the Internet can do is to bring people together and combine the resources of a global community in order to achieve a common goal. This is the model that sustains open source software (such as the Apache web server on the Linux operating system that serves up the Drupal site where you are reading this article.) Eric Whitacre's virtual choir is the first instance I've seen where this power of Internet community has been harnessed to produce a truly moving performance of an artistic work. It moves beyond use of the Internet as a distribution medium and makes the Internet an integral part of the creative process and that is something new.