The Hearing Machine

Here’s a paper I wrote for Norman Klein’s class, “Electronic Civilisation.” It’s a response to Paul Virillio’s book, “The Vision Machine,” which is about the history of photography and it’s relationship to surveillance and cultural ideas of security. It’s really a bit complex to sum up in a sentence. So I talk about how ideas of visual modelling relate to sound, how lasers fit into that idea, and notions of light and security during my brief residence in Los Alamos.

Virillio and the Hearing Machine
by Arthur Kegerreis

Submitted for Norman Klein’s Class, “Electronic Civilization”

Synopses: Because the class covered diverse subject matter and the topic for a final paper was never clarified or really discussed, this paper offers reflections on Paul Virillio’s book, “The Vision Machine,” which examines the history of photography and it’s implications to our society. Virillio is concerned with the relationship between surveillance and military developments in photography and imaging; the class also talked about the desire to use technology as an extension of the body, and how the body is perceived as increasingly obsolete. My reflections orbit around the topic of sound and the transference of Virillio’s observations to developments in recorded sound technology.

The body 
Summer 1976— or earlier. 
I am in the back seat of my parents car driving through Yellowstone National Park. My parents discover that I cannot read the license plate of the car in front of us, and suggest, nonchalantly, that I might need glasses. Stifling back tears in the back seat, I see myself confined to a life of lenses and metal frames.

December 1994 
I enter a hospital and am injected with anesthesia. While under, I am told that a small hole was cut in my abdomen and a camera was inserted through the hole. Two small other holes were cut off to each side, and through these holes, a small retaining piece of gauze was inserted inside the most intimate recesses of my abdomen, effectively  “repairing” a hernia. Thanks to this camera, it was not necessary to cut a much larger hole through the muscle wall, and the healing time was reduced.  The doctor is pleased that I consent to this type of surgery, I imagine because he will learn a new procedure. A number of interns are brought in to witness the successful results of my surgery.  Has the spectacle now entered the skin itself? On late night television today, the Learning Channel televises heart surgery, plastic surgery. Pehaps it has.  On numerous talk shows, people have their marital troubles scrutinized by an incredulous television audience. The mundane has become a spectacle.

Light and Sound 
The recurrent question in this class has been how can ideas about new media inform and direct our work as artists. As an artist working in multiple disciplines, but principally sound,  I initially wonder about the relevance of the “focus” on light and the camera. Until I walk into Tom Erbe’s class in Advanced Sound Design, and he tells of of current research into sound spatialization, funded by NASA and the military. Whereas much research had based on reflected sound waves, the new work was attempting to model the absorptive qualities of the air and materials in the environment. The mental parallel arises; the modelling of sound is simply an adaptation of the modelling of light; moving from ray tracing and reflected light to progressive refinement radiosity algorithms. Whereas the ray tracing algorithm models the reflectance of each “ray” of light off of different materials in a room, radiosity (a process developed at Cornell in the mid-80’s) models the diffusion and absorption of the air in the room. The famous photo of a boiler room using this technique is frighteningly lifelike.

In 1983 and 1984 I lived in Los Alamos, New Mexico. I had moved there to learn electronics, lasers, and computer graphics. Sickeningly enchanted by the idea of living in Los Alamos during the year made famous by Orwell, I had grandiose fantasies of utilizing the research of the military for peaceful artistic ends. Los Alamos, I was told, had, per capita, the most churches, the most alcoholism, and the highest rate of wife-swapping of any place in New Mexico. Perched at the edge of some of the most beautiful mountains I had seen, I would routinely wonder whether the road I was travelling down on my bicycle was contaminated with radioactivity. Some areas were fenced in with signs that said, “Contaminated Area: Keep Out.” This at the edge of a parking lot for one of the labs. Stories were told of undetonated land mines around the mesas. Occasionally these would claim the life of some unfortunate child. Fences were taken seriously in this town. I rented a room in the house of a divorced woman whose children ran around playing spies and shooting at each other. Somehow these childish games took on a different meaning in this town. Despite the occasional jokes of opening a nuclear sub shop in town, this was a town where everyday life had apocalyptic overtones, where the rumour of an apocalypse had metamorphosed into a spectre that overshadowed everyday life. The bomb had been born here, and nearby had been passed into the hands of “the enemy” under a bridge, at  the hands of a spy. I had spent my adolescence in anti-nuclear protests, and here I was living in the town where, shrouded in secrecy, it had come into being.

I wondered here how much the police knew of what I and my neighbors did. Occasionally I would take the commuter bus between Sante Fe and Los Alamos. On it I heard tales of people being warned. A lab worker was approached by someone, presumably the FBI. He was told that had heard that Soviets were talking with him about his research. They wanted him to know that it would be in his best interests not to pursue or even think about pursuing these conversations. Another worker died and his widow’s house was visited by warrant brandishing crew of “men in black.” Apparently he had taken work and notebooks home with him which had the contents of top secret studies he had been working on. His home office was combed and cleared of its contents.

I visit a Linear Accellerator facility in the lab, at the invitation of a friend. I am given a small badge which contains a small piece of film. My friend tells me he’s sure that these things don’t work worth a damn, but a man he knows is no longer able to work in this building because his changed color. “I’ve had this one since I started working here, and I’m sure it should’ve changed color three times over, but it hasn’t,” he says. The accellerator is cooled by water circulated around it. High intensity electron beams are focused on materials to see what happens to them in such a condition, and the results are recorded photographically. On the badges as well as in so much of the scientific research I see going on around me, the reality of the photographic image is more real than life itself, offering clues of forces which we can’t comprehend with our bare eyes. “What happens to the contaminated water?” I ask. “Oh, we just dump that in the canyon out back,” He says. “But isn’t it still radioactive?” I ask. “Yeah, but they do that with everything.” The canyons of Los Alamos flow down to the Rio Grande river, a 20 minute bicycle ride down “the hill,” as Los Alamos is affectionately known by it’s inhabitants and employees.

This was the year of Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) fantasy, which Virillio mentions in passing.  What could be more Orwellian? In our Introduction to Lasers class, we build a 25 watt Carbon Dioxide laser. This laser, which creates an invisible beam of coherent light, is fired in pulses. In the classroom, the firing sounds like a firecracker. Someone pokes their head in to see that everything is all right.

Across the mesa, the teacher has helped construct the power supply for the largest laser in the world. The power supply is the size of the classroom. I believe it was a 12 terawatt laser. (terawatt = 10 to the 12th). The beam of the laser is six feet wide at it’s emitter, and it is focused to an area the size of “Lincoln’s head on a penny.” The laser is fired from a trailer across a field. The teacher scoffs at the idea of sending a power supply that big into space. The whole class laughs with him, but the military continues to pour funding into the labs, and no one complains.  Today I could find no mention of this laser on the lab’s website.

We visit an underground facility which houses the “free-electron laser.” It is built underground because this sensitive laser requires a stable environment. A beam of coherent light is circulated in an infinite loop, and in this state, the physical state of some electrons are “freed,” as I understand it. Today this facility is available for academic or public use, as listed on the lab’s website. 
Also listed on their website is the Directed Light Fabrication Facility (DLF).

“Directed Light Fabrication (DLF) is a free-form metal deposition process developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory that transforms a computer model of a desired part into a fully dense metal part in a single step. Many metals have been processed, including aluminum, titanium, nickel, iron alloys, tungsten, and intermetallics of nickel-aluminum and molybdenum disilicide.”

“The process uses a laser beam to melt metal powders. A solid model of the desired part is first drawn on a computer and then a tool path is developed which is transferred to the DLF equipment. The resultant part is fully dense with a rough surface finish meeting near-net-shape tolerances within an envelope of about 0.010 inch. We have measured properties equivalent to annealed strength for type 316 stainless steel plate parts.”

“DLF has the potential to form parts from difficult-to-process materials such as tungsten and intermetallics, to form complete assemblies without joining, to eliminate multistep fabrication such as repeated forming and thermal processing steps, and because no tool or die is needed to make the part, the potential to replace processes such as stamping or forging. It is suited to low production volumes of parts. It is a waste-free process because material that does not become fused into the part is recycled and because the entire process is environmentally contained so that there are no emissions to the atmosphere.”

Now lasers are used to mold solid materials.

Six years later I hear of a fabrication shop in Brooklyn which forms solid models in a vat of liquid plastic using ultrasound. When I arrive in Santa Clarita, I am told that the company that developed this is in the Industrial Park here.

The lines between the use of light and sound are blurring. Much of the thought about the uses of these material parallels each other.

     THE ACOUSTIC ANALOG OF A LASER is being developed by Jean-Yves Prieur 
     at the University of Paris-South (Physica B, vol. 219/220, p. 235). The 
     active medium in this case is a piece of pure silica at a temperature 
     of 0.5 K. An initial sound pulse “pumps” the sample by depositing 
     acoustic energy at absorbing centers throughout the silica. A second 
     sound pulse stimulates the absorbing centers ro reradiate phonons, 
     which serve to amplify the second pulse. Unfortunately, the amount of 
     amplifications is still low because the pump pulse remains in the 
     system, where it undermines the stimulation process. The researchers 
     believe that eventually acoustic lasers will be used as sensitive 
     particle detectors. 
 — New Scientist, 27 April 1996 / Physics News Website #271, May 16, 1996

While living at Los Alamos I attended the Audio Engineering Convention in New York.  Here a new product was unveiled by Phillips. A circular disk was coated with a series of small dots and dashes, digital morse code, and the reflection was read by a laser. This new product, unlike LPs, was impervious to scratches! “But that Stravinsky disk over there was skipping!” I protest. “Impossible!” they reply. Several other attendees agree with me.  Now CD’s are commonplace. When I show a CD to my 90 year old grandfather, a physician, and try to explain how they work, he looks at me blankly. It’s hard to tell if he doesn’t understand the process or if his hearing aid isn’t working again. The irony of the emphasis in science becomes apparent; we can modulate coherent light to reproduce sound, but we can’t cure failing hearing.

I wonder then, if the quest for the control of coherence in light and sound isn’t a response to the lack of coherence of the human mind and the bodies degeneration? Perhaps science is still on an Alchemical Quest, merging the technical with the mystical. Forrest Church, a Unitarian Universalist minister in New York, postulates that religion is the dual response to the human condition of being alive and having to die. Perhaps science is as well. Or is science an extension of religion?

Reagan’s SDI fantasy is like Virillio’s description of the Parisian Streetlamps, a use of light to convey the illusion of safety and security to the public.  But now the light is coherent light, and man would place lights in the sky.  What could liken men more to gods than being able to place stars in the sky? Reagan’s years were characterized by his apocalyptic beliefs and fears, which fueled his defense spending in preparation for an Armageddon which would never come. Reagan told an Israeli lobbyist in 1983:

“You know, I turn back to your ancient prophets in the Old Testament and the signs foretelling Armageddon, and I find myself wondering if we’re the genereation that’s going to see that come about. I don’t know if you’ve noted any of those prophecies lately, but believe me, they certainly describe the times we’re going through.”

Christopher Keep An Absolute Acceleration, p. 264

In the early 1980’s I read somewhere that our satellites now have the capacity to read a license plate number from space. I scoffed at the claim, but wondered of its potential truth. Today I am still dubious. Is it an inflated claim of the military propaganda machine, or some unfathomable truth? First of all, how could they track down a car from space when the California Highway Patrol seems to have enough trouble (OK, perhaps not enough trouble) locating a speeding car and transmitting this information between cars? Secondly, how could they read a license plate from a vertical angle, when they’re hard enough to read from the car behind?

Virillio repeatedly references the quote from Paul Klee’s notebooks, “Now objects perceive me.” To me this quote is startlingly reminiscent of Carl Jung’s recollections and observations of some of his dreams:

“In one dream, which I had in October 1958, I caught sight from my house of two lens-shaped metallically gleaming disks, which hurtled in a narrow arc over the house and down to the lake. They were two UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects). Then another body came flying directly toward me. It was a perfectly circular lens, like the objective of a telescope. At a distance of four or five hundred yards it stood still for a moment, and then flew off. Immediately afterward, another came speeding through the air: a lens with a metallic extension which led to a box— a magic lantern. At a distance of sixty or seventy yards it stood still in the air, pointing straight at me. I awoke with a feeling of astonishment. Still half in the dream, the thought passed through my head: ‘We always think that the UFOs are projections of ours. Now it turns out that we are their projections. I am projected by the magic lantern as C.G.Jung. But who manipulates the apparatus?’”

“I had dreamed once before the problem of the self and the ego. In that earlier dream I was on a hiking trip. I was walking along a little road through a hilly landscape; the sun was shining and I had a wide view in all directions. Then I came to a small wayside chapel. The door was ajar, and no crucifix either, but only a wonderful flower arrangement. But then I saw that on the floor in front of the altar, facing me, sat a yogi—in lotus posture, in deep meditation. When I looked at him more closely, I realized that he had my face. I started in profound fright, and awoke with the thought: ‘Aha, so he is the one who is meditating me. He has a dream, and I am it.’ I knew that when he awakened, I would no longer be.” 
C.G. Jung – Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 1963 Random House

Virillio is drawing a picture for us of an AI driven sightless intelligence, a visual evolution which he likens to the advances from single fire weapons to automatic repeat-firing weapons to the single image camera, to the film, to the potential of “real-time reciprocal telesurveillance.” Likening this to the scientific permutation of the eye of God, we begin to get a sense of his Vision Machine.

In March, 1990, together with a number of architects from the office I worked for (Edward Larrabee Barnes/John M.Y. Lee, Architects), we visited the Armand Hammer Museum in Westwood during a business trip, to see how the construction was progressing.  The next year, one of the architects visited the completed museum and took pictures of the ceiling. Having been seen on the cameras he was photographing, he was detained by the security guards for questioning, as they suspected that he was taking pictures of the security cameras in preparation for a robbery. Here a designer had become a temporary victim of the efficiency of his designs; captured by a surveillance system he had set into place, he became an unknown captive detained by security agents who were not instructed (programmed?) to recognize or acknowledge their creator. This low-tech scenario has grave implications for a future of automated surveillance.

Klee’s relativistic perception of his painting’s perception provides a contradictory view of the artistic world he and his contemporary Kandinsky inhabited. Kandinsky’s deterministic artistic view, which proposed literal correspondences of color and shape for expressing certain spiritual emotions and values. Like many others in the Bauhaus, both painters were part of a group which was codifying the visual world around them. In fact Klee’s notebooks have a similar character as well.

The scientific grounding of the Bauhaus’ approach has not been fully expunged form the arts; and due to the increasing tendancy towards incorporation of scientific developments into the artist’s “paintbox,” so to speak, whether that be sculptural, graphical, or computational, it is unlikely that an artist can survive and learn the manipulation of his tools without such an approach in our world. Yet no application of scientific methodology, the hypothesis and its experimental validation, seems evident in the artist’s world.

We seem to live in a world where, with the advent of internet based publishing, everybody has authorship and no one has authority.  In the context of this breakdown of media mediated authority, an increasingly confused public has clung to ever more conservative ideologies. The rise of the religious right during Reagan and Bush’s ascension was reminiscent of the turn of the last century, when a group of religious conservatives began to band together, and by 1917 they had published a four volume set entitled, “The Fundamentals: A Testimony to Truth.” Threatened by the increasingly secular scientific ruminations of the “German School” in theology, these ministers proclaimed that everything one needed to know about God and life was literally spelled out in the bible.

As radio and television evolved, the fundamentalists latched onto the media and used it to “spread the word” in a way that could never have been anticipated. While decrying the evil inherent in the medium they were being transmitted by, 
they rallied for funding and appealled to the emotions of the guilt-ridden populace they were embraced by. Threatening people with the immenent return of Christ and the apocalypse that would herald his return, the true believer was promised a heavenly life and avoidance of armageddon via “The Rapture” if he was to live by Christian principles. Indeed, this was a case of deterrence based on the imaginary of a centuries long cultural and religious tradition. No wonder Santa Claus and his list of who’s been good, naughty, or nice fit so well into the tradition of Christmas.

Today the television show, “Today in Bible Prophecy,” gives Christian viewers on the Trinity Broadcasting Network insights into the latest developments in science, virtual reality, and computing, all the while reminding viewers that the internet’s capability to breakdown barriers of language, like the Tower of Babel, is an indication of event prophesized in the bible. Indeed, a time with a single church, world government (eg: the United Nations), and single language heralds the apocalypse. We are warned that computers and virtual reality are wonders that can make Christian lives fuller, but we must be ever mindful not to turn these machines into false gods and prophets. Viewers are warned that computerized credit systems are steps toward the “mark of the beast,” whereby all people will have marks to track them. They report that a microchip inserted on the back of the hands of happy people in the Netherlands is being used for a national credit system; this is certainly “a sign.”

But it may be these very religious zealots who are ushering in the Armageddon they speak of. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Klanwatch program publishes a newsletter entitled “Intelligence Report.” In it they describe a website run by the leader of “The Creator’s Right’s Party.”


This site threatens secession via nuclear weapons for the godly state of Georgia from the union, and has published a list of the names and addresses of people who work for medical centers involved in abortions. The site is unintelligible, incomprehensibly written, and seems childish, however it is worthwhile noting that the character of militia activists and people on the blood-ridden trail of anti-abortion activism, which has claimed a number of physicians lives, are not necessarily of an intellectual nature.

Vernon Wayne Howell, aka David Koresh, led his Branch Davidians into a burning armageddon which he foresaw as prophesied in the book of Revelations. In the documentary film, “Waco: The Rules of Engagement,” which curiously enough was nominated for an academy award this past year, infared films taken by helicoptor are shown. The pivotal expositional moment in the documentary comes when an expert analysis of these infared films explains how a military tank ignited the explosive incendiary teargas that burned the compound to the ground, killing most of the Branch Davidians, in sickening contrast to the network news reports which claim only that the tanks injected teargas into the facility. Ironically these infared films were taken by the very people who exploded the facility, people who thought that seven seals were sea bound creatures with whiskers. Christopher Keep presents these events as support of Virillio’s dromocratic vision of western society, with “dromo” meaning “running” or “racing.”

Indeed these events and Virillio’s description of the Vision Machine, lend a different flavor to interpretation of the works of Bill Viola, whose installation at the Guggenhem Soho had a surveillance camera trained on the audience, with a monitor showing another surveillance camera’s view of a sealed room. We were told that our image was being shown on a monitor in the sealed room. It was not clear where the sealed room was, or even if it really existed. In other works, Viola deals with compression of space and time via time-lapse videography and carefully plotted pans and zooms. Not unlike Godfrey Reggio’s film, “Koyaaniquatsi” and its sequel, which used time lapse photography to envision a society headed towards a native american prophesied apocalypse — apocolapse — or might we call it an apoco—timelapse?

My recording walkman offers a “voice-activated” feature. This is indeed an exhibit of the “hearing-machine,” and hear (sp. intended) we are confronted with the compression of time, sound, and space. Because sound is the actual transmission of vibrations through the medium of air, we physically respond to events in other places over a period of time. Sound takes place over time; without time it’s meaning is null. You cannot take a snapshot of sound; you can take a snapshot of the interpretation of sound via instrumentation, yet the tape recorder “listens” and adjusts its recording volume to the source. Listening to the tape later, the space in which the original sounds occured is compressed as well as the events that occured there.

As an artist working in digital media including sound, video, and print, I find that although a final effect is one of intensification, while the works are perceived in a more intensified perceptual environment, I am struck by the extraordinary amount of intense preparation over a prolonged period of time which characterizes the production of this intensified moment.  While I generate computer graphics using a conceptual approach indiscernable from that employed as a child with a “Lite-Brite,” (meaning the concept of pixels on a grid) I have the speed of pixel coloration deployment granted by a computer named after the “sun.”

Erich Fromm said in “the Sane Society” that, “All great art is revolutionary because it touches on the reality of the various transitory forms of human society.” I still do not know what the most relevant issues facing me as an artist today are, but whether I enslave my tools into seeing what I see, and, as Ansel Adams described his process, modulate a viewers vision through my tools, as an artist my real challenge is to see, perceive, and interpret the world around me rather than idly floating through life on this planet. If I can use the tools at my disposal towards these ends, then I am somewhat successful.

Dellamora, Richard ed. Postmodern Apocalypse: Theory and Cultural Practice at the End “An Absolute Acceleration: Apocalypticism and theWar Machines of Waco”(Philadelphia, Univ. of Pennsylvania Press 1995)

Fromm, Erich The Sane Society

Jung, Carl G. Memories, Dreams, Reflections (New York, Random House 1963)

Kandinsky, Wassily Concerning the Spiritual in Art (New York, Dover 1917/1977)

Foley, VanDam, Feiner, Hughes Computer Graphics: Principles and Practice (New York, Addison Wesley 1990)

Millenium Film Journal Nos. 20/21 Fall/Winter 1988-1989 
Gene Youngblood “Metaphysical Structuralism: The Videotapes of Bill Viola”

Virillio, Paul The Vision Machine (Bloomington, Indiana University Press 1994)

Websites as noted.