Focus Artistic Research

Rotting Sounds

Project lead: Thomas Grill, University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna, Department of Composition and Electroacoustics
Project partner: Till Bovermann, University of Applied Arts Vienna, Art & Science
Project partner: Almut Schilling, Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, Conservation - Restoration
Duration: 01.05.2018 - 31.10.2021
Austrian Science Fund (FWF): AR 445 Programm zur Entwicklung und Erschließung der Künste (PEEK)
Rotting sounds – Embracing the temporal deterioration of digital audio

Most of today’s media output, be it audio or video, is produced and stored in the digital domain. Although digital data are adorned by the myth of lossless transmission and migration, everyday experience does prove the existence of degradation and, ultimately, data loss in various forms. This pertains to the physical nature of storage media and playback devices as well as to media formats and software in the context of their technological infrastructure. The project strives to elaborate on the causes, mechanisms and effects of such deterioration, specifically in the context of digital audio.
Since degradation cannot be avoided on principle, it is our general aim to unearth latent degrees of freedom pertaining to the artistic practice in the omnipresence of decay.
How can degradation effects be understood, actuated, reproduced, directed and harnessed within sound art? Which are the mechanisms and implications of obsolescence concerning hard- and software? How can we model the process of decay in the digital domain, and what are its products and residues? What is the impact of the environment and human interaction? To which extent are artworks products of their material sources or their symptoms of decay?
To set up the project, we will conduct formal research on the fundaments and mechanisms of data degradation, and we will also organize five topical workshops in order to generate novel ideas and concepts. We will develop a low-level digital audio toolkit on which we will base our experiments on deterioration, potentially in all conceivable forms, pertaining to technical components such as data carriers, electronic circuits, algorithm logic and language, as well as to aesthetics and meaning in the form of musical content. A selection of experimental prototypes will be produced as artworks, and exposed to the public in the form of  performances and exhibitions over long durations and/or in demanding environments. Written publications and a symposium will reflect on the concepts, results and repercussions of the project.
We envision our endeavor to function as a lighthouse project, deepening the awareness of largely unexplored properties of digital sound as a major component of contemporary art and prevalent technology. We hope to raise the conscience regarding the materiality, fragility and socio-economic contextuality of digital data in general by discussing and disseminating these topics in the broader artistic and scientific public. Our approach is basically inverse to a typical technological or scientific methods: Instead of researching means to overcome a commonly understood defect, we propose to recognize and integrate this defect, so that its potential damage is transferred into a benefit.