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I am sitting in a machine – Hearing the science of digitisation

Created by Martin Backes, ‘I am sitting in a machine’ is a two part work algorithmic work consisting of a limited edition (30 unit) dubplate vinyl and a webpage. The work begins with a recording of an artificial human voice reciting a text which is then run through an MP3 encoder over and over again. With each iteration of the loop, one may hear the artefacts of the encoding process reinforcing themselves and gradually distorting the artificial human voice by revealing its data format. The final result is 32 tracks selected from 3000 successive iterations of the 128 kbps 44.1 kHz MP3 encoding available on the website and as vinyl.

For more than 10 years Martin has been fascinated with noise artefacts that result from accidents in both analogue and digital media, and especially with the MP3 file format. The work is an interpretation of Alvin Lucier’s “I am Sitting in a Room”, and despite not being the first to do so (even with audio compression codecs in mind), he wanted to give it a try anyway. The Lucier’s original work explores the physical properties of sound, the resonance of spaces and the transmission of sound through physical media; whereas Martin’s work is more about digitised information and its artefacts, hearing science and telecommunications. He wanted to show how digitised information produces unexpected phenomena the same way physical environments do. In  ‘I am sitting in a machine’, techniques are considered and developed, to make the digital artefacts of the encoding process audible, and to reformulate these sounding artefacts as art.

To create these soundtracks, Martin first rewrote the original lyrics from the perspective of a machine. He then used the artificial human voice of a text-to-speech function and recorded the text via a script. He then wrote another script and ran the recording into a MP3 encoder automatically, over and over again. By the help of this recursive algorithm, he produced 3000 successive iterations of the 128 kbps 44.1 kHz MP3 encoding. In many cases, it’s hard to hear the difference between those single steps. So like the original recording he decided to select 32 tracks out of 3000 iterations to make the differences more clear. With the final result of 32 selected tracks, he produced two works – a digital part, which is a web page application distributed via the Internet, and an analog counterpart, where digital information is transferred back to an analog dubplate record and degrades a second time as it`s played.

You can read more about the project and Martin’s intentions on his website. The vinyl distribution is handled through Flipping the Coin Records.

Project PageMartin Backes

(Web Development by Brendan Howell and Martin Backes)