My first artwork within the study was inspired by the discovery in 2010 of a shelf full of first generation iMac computers in the basement of STEIM. The computers were beautifully designed, sleek and candy colored – and their slow decay in the STEIM basement was quite inspiring. These computers were iconic cultural objects – the harbinger of the rebirth of Apple Computers and the precedent for their ongoing production of technological fetishes. The first iMac represented a shift in cultural understanding of computation – from ugly and unweildy to sleek and simple. At the same time, Appleʼs promotion of computers as sleek life accessories “so easy you would never have to open them up” resulted in the production of appliances that could not be repaired or upgraded – the only choice was to buy a new machine.
I immediately wanted to make a performance work with these iMacs to digest these thoughts. I began tinkering with the machines, opening them up and exploring the tolerance of their circuits. I wanted to transgress the sacred nature of these appliances, and expose the fragility lying within the technological perfection. After some destructive circuit manipulations within the machines I discovered how to confuse and corrupt the circuitry methodically – producing wonderfully impressionistic images on screen. Using sound signals from live instrumentalists I created a series of Memory Disintegration Studies – examining the process of decay and corruption as alien electrical signals were fed into the memory of the machines.
I then thought, what if a more dynamic, expressive performance could be made from these techniques? Could the machines be animated from the inside rather than the interfaces normally provided. Considering Anthony Caroʼs famous quote that “all art is basically Paleolithic or Neolithic: either the urge to smear soot and grease on cave walls or pile stone on stone” – I began to think of how to flip the digital paradigm, like a technological fauvist, making a raw material from computers rather than work with software simulations as most digital artists do.
From this thinking came iMac Music – a performance work using the iMac computers turned upside-down and played like paleolithic digital instruments. I dislike the tendency to have to give titles to performances like this. Where a new instrument is created, a practice inevitably comes with it – when has any instrumentalist named their performance practice “bassoon music – by Dana Jessen” – I find it silly, but the strange border-zone where my work is shown, not quite in the discourse of fine arts but still often demanded to obey its framing conventions.
I had devised a set of sound-amplifying probes to play the insides of the machines, capturing the “sound” of the circuitry in operation while simultaneously twisting and cracking the image of the desktop. The final performance emerged as a synaesthetic and expressive fusion of sound and image. The banal consumerist icon turned strange and fantastic.
iMac Music was premiered at Korzo theater and has gone on to be performed at de Brakke Grond in Amsterdam, the Rotterdam Film Festival, and Re-new festival in Copenhagen. My work with recycled computers continued when I was invited to do a residency at APO33 in Nantes, an art space known for their radical conceptions of computation, sound and politics. There I collaborated with a nearby ewaste reclaimation association to produce a larger installation – Recycled Computer Music – where four Pentium office computers were cross-wired so as to slowly cause each other to malfunction. The computers would run an ongoing composition that produced a dense and rich field of sound – drawn directly from the functioning circuitry. In this work I wanted to give a voice to these disposed machines – to emphasize their continued operation through sonic affect but also point to their unavoidable demise under the banner of technological progress. The system was designed entropically to decay over a span of weeks, with the screens becoming more distorted over time and eventually shutting down altogether. In creating such a system I was attempting to use invention as a form of critique. To quote Geert Lovink:
“Media critique is not only about saying things, it is about design and materiality. Doing materiality in an alternative
fashion against the grain.” – Lovink, 2003