Essay by Lauren Hanson
A sound designer and visual artist, Ben Rubin is a central figure in contemporary media art. He successfully interlaces the sonic with the visual, creating dynamic electronic works that engage the viewer in real time and space. Rubin’s work is concerned with communicating patterns of information, thought, and language via electronic media. With a background in computer science and semiotics (the study of signs and symbols and their use), Rubin creates diverse multisensory works that range from large-scale public projects to small, intimate environments.
Born in Boston in 1964, Rubin studied computer science and semiotics at Brown University and earned a master of science in visual studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab. He studied under some of the great figures in documentary film, minimal music, and video art, including Richard Leacock, Steve Reich, and Beryl Korot. While at Brown, Rubin also studied film production with renowned cinematographer and documentarian John Terry at the Rhode Island School of Design. Applying his background in semiotics to the study of film, Rubin researched the theory behind film editing, exploring how computer programs might determine cinematic sequences. These investigations renewed his longstanding interest in the patterns of language—the interchangeable units, syntax, and grammatical structures that continue to inform his work.
Rubin’s grandfather, who worked as a classical DJ and impresario in Los Angeles during the 1940s, was among his earliest musical influences. With music as an important presence in his upbringing, Rubin developed a keen ear and sensitivity to rhythms and phrasing—skills that were further developed as a technical collaborator for composer Steve Reich’s and video artist Beryl Korot’s acclaimed multimedia opera, The Cave (1990–93). During those formative years, Rubin incorporated many of Reich’s notions regarding musical structures, phrasing, and repetition into his own audiovisual works.
Rooted in video art, performance, and even happenings, Rubin’s contemporary work realizes the artistic potential of electronic media. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, artists Wolf Vostell and Nam June Paik were among the first artists to incorporate televisions into their installations, thereby using televisual technology and new means of communication as sources for creative expression. Moreover, the interaction between the body and its surrounding space in Rubin’s work recalls Allan Kaprow’s happenings, in which the viewer’s participation and immediacy are essential. Privileging rhythm and nonlinearity over tonality, while also incorporating the element of chance, John Cage’s body of work also serves as an important precedent for Rubin’s own new media work.
Soundplay (1993) is an early example of Rubin’s engagement with multisensory, responsive environments. In the installation, the visitor stands on a small platform connected to a computer program. The interactive piece translates the visitor’s movements into sound—a contracted muscle or slight twist of the torso results in sonic feedback. By translating bodily tension or motion into projected audio, the work heightens the participant’s awareness of his/her body as an instrument in the environment.
In 1993 Rubin founded the New York–based EAR (Electronic Arts Research) Studio, a collaborative work environment that has realized projects with Ann Hamilton, Diller + Scofidio/Renfro, Renzo Piano, Bruno Latour, and Laurie Anderson. Rubin and his longtime collaborator Mark Hansen gained notoriety for the project Listening Post (2002), for which they received the Ars Electronica Golden Nica Prize in 2004.
Listening Post is an audiovisual installation that presents strings of text from live chat rooms. Participants converse online, unaware that Rubin and Hansen have used computer software to mine data from their interactions in order to recontextualize their words. The data is organized into a series of six choreographed “scenes,” analogous to the movements of a symphony. Text fragments from the chats stream across a suspended grid of more than two hundred small LED screens, while a voice synthesizer simultaneously reads the text aloud. Infinite permutations based on real-time data result from the controlled system, generating a sense of immediacy for the viewer while raising questions about authorship and privacy.
Whether creating a work of intimate or monumental scale, Rubin begins by constructing parameters to convey patterns of thought or behavior. He composes algorithms and computational systems, often relying upon a selected data source to generate nonlinear results. The transformation of the familiar into the unexpected, captured through gracefully simplified forms, results in works that are quietly provocative and that gently turn viewer into participant.
And That’s The Way It Is
Visible every evening in the Walter Cronkite Plaza, And That’s The Way It Is projects an interwoven grid of text from televised news broadcasts. Rubin’s own software, which scans for various patterns in speech and grammatical constructions, selects the sequences of text. The work acquires its content from two sources: closed caption transcripts of live network news and archival transcripts of CBS Evening News broadcasts during the Cronkite era, including those housed at the university’s Briscoe Center for American History. Rubin visually distinguishes these sources by using two typefaces that evoke the technologies of their respective eras. Courier, a monospaced font developed for IBM’s line of electric typewriters, represents the Cronkite material. For the live broadcasts Rubin uses Verdana, a digital typeface originally designed for its legibility on a computer screen.
The light projection weaves a tapestry of information into two- to three-minute scenes, each of which has its own compositional rhythm, visual presentation, and internal logic. Projected on an architectural scale, the work offers streams of language that suggest the media-based activities transpiring inside the communication building. To realize the installation, Rubin worked closely with his EAR Studio collaborators, including architect Michele Gorman, data artist Jer Thorp, and statistician Mark Hansen.
And That’s The Way It Is translates the spoken language of televised evening news into written fragments. Borrowed words and phrases underscore familiar media devices and readily trigger personal associations with newsworthy events. Shifting sensory input from the aural to the visual, Rubin thereby presents televised news in ways that are altogether new. The layering of information—textual and visual, contemporary and historical, immediate and distant—evokes an awareness of current news trends and intellectual patterns. Thus, the work engages the viewer in multiple ways: cerebrally, as a distilled source of information, or viscerally, as a purely visual experience of luminescent crescendos and decrescendos. The speed and immediacy of real-time fragments heightens the viewer’s anticipation from one composition to the next, while the insertion of historical phrases activates a dialogue between the past and the present. The motion and cadence as well as the rise and fall of movement and thought presents endless discovery in the new, tempered by evocations of the past.
Lauren Hanson is a doctoral candidate in Art History at The University of Texas at Austin, specializing in 20th-Century European and American Art. Her research interests include exhibition practices post-1945, memory and artistic practice, constructions of artistic identities, and intersections of art and politics. She is currently completing her dissertation, Creating a Scene: Art and Experimentation in Düsseldorf circa 1958, which addresses how a network of artists, curators, and critics navigated the post-war environment in West Germany.