WORDS: HELENE FURJÁN & LEE NENTWIG | IMAGES: PHILLIP STEARNS
Phillip Stearns objects to the belief that technology is neutral. A mixed media artist whose works experiment with creative coding, physical computing, interactive design, circuit bending and computational weaving, Stearns’ primary interests lie not on the particulars of what a given technology can do, but on understanding the socio-political atmosphere from which new things arise. As a systems thinker, he ponders the cultural, political, economical, and social biases that give form to emergent technologies, viewing each new technological output as a manifestation which embodies the ‘will of a society at large’.
"Initially, I wanted to do something with the arts but I just didn’t really have the outlet to do it. I also really loved the sciences and I was really good at them. They were a place for me to be creative. I think that there is a lot of creativity in the kind of research that scientists are doing, especially in theoretical physics."
Stearns was born in Austin, Texas to a family of medical professionals on one side and engineers on the other. Although he was encouraged from an early age to think and act creatively, even directed by his parents to take up a musical instrument, he was raised under an aura of family pressure which obscured any aspirations he may have had towards a future in the arts. He became passionate about music, but the notion of one day becoming a professional artist seemed an unviable pipe dream. Instead, he steered towards a more lucrative career working in the sciences, engineering, or medicine.
While attending the University of Colorado Stearns majored in physics and engineering. His adolescent love of music and the materiality of sound provided the basis to these choices. He recognized music as an immaterial expression projected through material hardware; sound recorded through microphones, calibrated inside of a mixing board, and transmitted through the circuits of amplifiers into a physical environment to be received by listeners. In his studies, he explored electricity and concepts of the physical world through experimentation, learning and tinkering with electronics and their circuits to perform analysis.
After two years of studies Stearns re-concentrated on audio-engineering. Physics and engineering had grounded him in the science of sound and understanding the technology of music production. The physics behind a microphone, the circuitry of an amplifier, the chips inside a mixing board, the algorithmic compression of audio files—all of these concepts of adding sound waves together were the same as adding electric signals together.
An MFA in Music Composition and Integrated Media at CalArts enabled Stearns to further explore his artistic drive through the theory and technology of sound. A videographics class at CalArts with John Hawk introduced him to the visualization of sound. In a basement room jam-packed with analog video gear Hawk encouraged his students to tinker and Stearns’ imagination ran wild. On an exchange program in Sweden, Tom Dunston, impressed by Stearns’ engineering abilities, recommended that he look into composition programs and generative sound art. Dunston introduced Stearns to PureData, the programming language of audio engineering.
“Now that I’ve got the technological foundation, how can I be creative with it?”
Just prior to his return home from Sweden, Stearns stumbled across an interview with sound artist Reed Ghazala, the father of circuit bending—rewiring, short-circuiting, contorting, and soldering the hardware of existing electronic instruments to generate new sonic or visual output. In the interview, Ghazala describes how alien sounds emitting from a toy amplifier whose circuits had shorted inspired the idea in the late 1960’s. The bizarre noises awakened what might be possible if short-circuiting was a deliberate inventive technique. Ghazala began dissecting the innards of electronic instruments and soldering them together to entangle and recombine them, and went on to devise audio electronic equipment was used by such notable musicians as Tom Waits, Peter Gabriel, and King Crimson.
Circuit bending resonated with Stearns’ interest in unconventional approaches to music-making, giving expression to a philosophy of working with, and thinking through, technology. It was about the inner working of electronics, breaking systems apart, understanding them from the inside-out, and being able to synthesize new connections. This was more than a creative exercise; it was a mindset which transcended electronics and could be applied towards any system of any scale, “electronic and beyond.”
Stearns became interested in the material conditions of a given medium, realizing what Marshall McLuhan had so famously argued in Understanding Media, the significance of the medium itself as message. McLuhan saw that messaging happens at the level of system architecture: both medium and message are signifiers that can be read and interpreted. He was interested in the effect of the medium, not just the meaning of the message (the content). The socio-political functioning of the medium, its organization as a system, and its operations as a machinic assemblage move attention away from the binds of representation (meaning as the only thing that matters).
He became interested in technology as “embodiments of the will of a society at large,” learning to see things like music, art, and invention as artifacts of a larger dynamic system of relationships rather than the work of individual genius. In the essay Error, Noise Glitch: The Art of Algorithmic Unconscious, Stearns writes, “If the fashioning of a complex tool can be understood as the manifestation of the dreams guiding those desires and intentions into a technological object, then it can be inferred that encoded and inscribed within the physical form of the technological object are the ideas, the bodies of knowledge, and deeper still the cultural values and structures of belief which form a dynamic relationship between a society and its environment (conditions of existence).”
All technologies evolve within society, just as much as society evolves within technological environments and not with them. Rather than a collection of tools, technologies make up an environment, implicated in the socio-political context from which they emerge, and which they shape. Understanding the contextual surroundings and conditions from which a technology emerges is critical to understanding how it shapes us, and how we might productively intervene in that shaping.
French economist Jacques Attali’s Noise: A Political Economy of Music (first published in English in 1985) opened Stearns to how art is developed by a confluence of socio-economic structures, technologies, and forms of cultural production, not just by artists. Music as a cultural form is as influenced by its modes of transmission and reception as by the technologies that produce, record and disseminate it. Writing in 1977, Attali may not have foreseen the generative effects of electronic and digital music, the complete overthrow of the music industry enabled by digitization, or the ways in which sampling, remixing, scratching, and other recombinant forms would arise to undermine the idea of the composer itself. But he did recognize the impact of new forms of composition by musicians like John Cage (whose visual scores upend traditional music-making), or emerging rock and roll (he mentions the Rolling Stones), which, like circuit-bending, were radically changing the ways we define music.
“It’s not just like you’re understanding the process of invention. You’re going through and understanding all of the choices that have to be made in order for a thing to come into existence, all of these forces come together in decision-making processes.”
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For artists like Stearns, corrupting or hacking a system to create more noise is seen as a way to help bring about productive change. Glitch, like circuit bending, is generated by using a system’s own structure against itself, pushing up against the limit conditions of the system’s logic, structure, or materiality. The glitch is a space for translation, decipherment, misreading, and mutation, a rupture that unleashes “the wild forces latent within the world,” drawing attention to the nature—and limitations—of the medium. Rifts and anomalies born out of re-conjuring the framework of software, systems, circuitries and scripts challenge normative perception and expand possibility. As Stearns explains, “This forced rendering of 'unconventional' (altered, corrupted, format inappropriate, or mismatched) data can reveal the architecture of the machine; the grid work of the algorithmic unconscious is revealed (Error, Noise Glitch)." It is also in some sense the creativity embedded in the machine: “error” has no meaning from the perspective of the device, it is simply a shift in logic or new computation (hence “bending”). Glitch art, which Stearns has become known for, is an artifact of these moments of rift between perception and reality, an index of the ephemeral occurrence.
In recent years, working as both an artist and teacher, Stearns has developed a fascination with surveillance. If glitch exposes (flaws in) the system, surveillance is its optimum functioning: the perfect expression of the power of media, everywhere and always. From technologies used by intelligence services to everyday monitoring practices and micro-targeting that have become an integrated part of our lives, constant surveillance, and the demand for constant self-exposure, become an everyday reality. French philosopher Michel Foucault, in Discipline and Punish (1975), once described a “generalized surveillance” that was the extension of a disciplinary power over all aspects of society, and that emerged with the invention of institutions in the C18th and C19th (prisons, barracks, schools, factories, hospitals). These pervasive forms of power objectified, applied to the body and to behaviours rather than people (disciplining bodies), using exhaustive methods of recording information that classified, categorized and hierarchized (a knowledge that forms disciplines):
“This power had to be given the instrument of permanent, exhaustive, omnipresent surveillance, capable of making all visible, as long as it could itself remain invisible. It had to be like a faceless gaze that transformed the whole social body into a field of perception.”
- Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, Panopticism
Disciplinary power has today been replaced by the digitization of surveillance systems—and, as Paul Virilio notes, the removal of the human eye from the process of observation, recording, and analysis. Gilles Deleuze termed this the power of “control societies,” which replace the individual with a code (password), gates and ports with screens and portals, discipline with influence (trolling and fake news), knowledge with intelligence, and information (Big Data) with its destruction, theft or even alteration. Stearns follows the ways information—its secrets and its hacks—has become the backdrop of our current political landscape, never more starkly than in the manipulation of social media content by forces linked to Russian intelligence to help elect President Trump during the 2016 US presidential election.
“Control is short-term and rapidly shifting, but at the same time continuous and unbounded, whereas discipline was long-term, infinite, and discontinuous. A man is no longer a man confined but a man in debt.”
- Gilles Deleuze, PostScript on Control Societies
Stearns also points to Vault 7, the largest ever publication of confidential documents released by WikiLeaks on the CIA, which demonstrated that by, the end of 2016, the CIA's hacking division had produced more than a thousand hacking systems, trojans, viruses, and other "weaponized" malware. They devote large resources to locating hackable security flaws in the coding of digitally-controlled devices, from smartphones to vehicles, which they don't disclose to the device makers. The CIA's Embedded Devices Branch (EDB), working with the United Kingdom's MI5/BTSS, developed "Weeping Angel" to infest Samsung smart TVs, transforming them into microphones to record conversations and send them over the Internet to a covert CIA server. These governmental operations are a mirror to the Dark Web, all equally opaque, illicit, and inaccessible to the average person.
Combining critical research with the installation, A Chandelier For One of Many Possible Ends (2014) was inspired by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster on March 11, 2011, when the plant was flooded by a tsunami triggered by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake. The installation subtly engages the memory of nuclear catastrophe, composed of 92 light elements, each representing an electron in the Uranium atom, connected to its own Geiger counter. Light is emitted in a brief flash, along with an audible click, when ambient radioactivity is detected
How do we develop responses, rather than simply ignoring such conflicts, or drowning in their overwhelming complexity? How does the collective confront entrenched power without being subsumed by it? The answer, in Stearns’ view, requires a leap of faith into something new—not just looking at the past to understand the present, but transcending the system to move forward, something the system itself can never do. Stearns understands how the politics of design reflect our attitudes towards each other and why we must argue for broader democratic participation in technological choices. It is important to understand not just who makes technology, and why; but what meanings and social values are inscribed into technology, who it empowers, and who it may disenfranchise. Code is never neutral.