Turning Cybercasts From Music Promotion to Art Form
From @ New York 1998
With the opening of the latest incarnation of the Intel New York Music Festival, a great deal of attention is being paid to the novelty — and commercial and artistic potential– of cybercasting. But “Cybercasting” itself is nothing new:
Around the turn of the last century, an opera being performed in Philadelphia was transmitted via telephone to New York.
In 1927, live images of Herbert Hoover were sent by telephone from Washington, D.C., to New York City.
In 1933, a concert in Philadelphia was transmitted in stereo over phone lines to Washington, D.C.
In 1964, the first transcontinental Picturephone telephone call was made.
In 1972, the theatre group, Mabou Mines presented a multi-site performance via CB radio.
In 1974, Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz presented “Hole in Space” – a satellite hookup that connected life-size video projections in a window on the plaza at Lincoln Center in New York and a window looking out on to the street at The Broadway department store in Los Angeles. Microphones and speakers at both locations allowed people in the two cities to have “face to face” real-time communication.
In 1986, Pauline Oliveros used a massive ham radio setup to send the sound of her accordion to the moon and back. She repeated this ten years later and broadcast the results over the Internet.
In 1995, Alvin Lucier’s brain waves were digitized and transmitted from The Kitchen in New York, to the Electronic Cafe in Santa Monica, where they were used to play percussion instruments.
In 1995, I transmitted the voices of David Hykes and the Harmonic Choir, performing at The Kitchen in New York, to Le Thoronet Abbey in France, and brought the reverberation of the Abbey back to New York in real time, essentially transporting an acoustic space.
1995, Cathy Weiss performed improv dance from The Kitchen in New York with a video artist in Prague via CUSeeMe and a DJ in Santa Monica via ISDN.
In 1996, I began a series of Global Drumming Circles using a combination of analog and digital connections to connect drummers around the world and allow them to play together.
In 1997, Res Rocket Surfer was launched, allowing musicians to have jam sessions over the Internet.
So, what is new about cybercasting?
In the one-way transmission world, for the first time, thanks to the nature of the Internet, narrowcasting has become affordable.
Up until now, it has been incredibly expensive to transmit time-sensitive media like audio or video to more than one person. So it only made economic sense to transmit that media to a mass audience simultaneously in order to recoup the costs. The Internet does not currently lend itself to mass simultaneous broadcast. But, since the transmission pipeline is “always on” and inexpensive when compared to satellite or over-air broadcast transmission, it is perfect for multiple asynchronous transmissions – in other words “on demand” transmission. There is the potential to reach just as large an audience, just not all at once. Also, because a portion of the Internet bandwidth is available to anyone with a computer, a modem and a small amount of cash, it is quite easy for an individual to become a narrowcaster compared to what’s involved in becoming a broadcaster.
So, what else is new about cybercasting?
One of the most revolutionary and least explored aspects of cybercasting is its fully interactive, two-way potential. The content of standard one-way cybercasting differs little from its broadcast cousin. Modern network technology, however, makes it possible to “give as good as you get.” Interactivity can involve more than “turn left, turn right, press to fire” (or “press to buy”). Currently, the two most popular uses of the Internet are e-mail and chat. Both are two-way interactive experiences. Because the prices of multimedia input devices are dropping, compression technologies are improving, and bandwidth is increasing, “video chat” is getting easier. The impact of this on the nature of artistic content on the Net is just beginning to be explored.
So, what does this all mean?
For one-way, non-interactive media streaming, very little, because most of the aesthetic and economic models differ very little from traditional broadcasting. Essentially watching TV on the Internet is no different that watching TV on TV. All that remains is to tweak those models to fit the minor differences – “If your cat has kittens in the oven, you don’t call ’em biscuits.”
The two-way approach has a long way to go. What is clear at this point is that attempts to shoehorn traditional approaches into the new format lead to unsatisfactory results. Part of the problem involves the one hard reality cybercasting has to face: the speed of light. For every 168 miles a signal travels, it picks up around a millisecond of delay. The human ear can easily detect a 15-millisecond delay. That’s why long distance phone calls carried via satellite, with their 500 millisecond round trip delay, are so frustrating. The way data is carried over the Internet can add significant latency to a signal as well, not to mention the delay imposed by audio and video software. The inherent latencies in transmission make real-time multi-site performances of rhythmically tight music such as jazz and rock next to impossible.
A form of performance that uses the delay as an intrinsic element needs to be developed. In the case of the project I did with David Hykes and the Harmonic Choir, the 70-millisecond delay inherent in the phone transmission between The Kitchen in New York, and the performance space at Le Thoronet Abbey in France closely duplicated the natural pre-delay of the Abbey itself. The use of network technology was necessary because of the impossibility of digitally simulating the rich acoustics of the Abbey in real time.
Res Rocket — a piece of software developed in the UK — deals with Internet latency in a very inventive fashion. By using synchronized MIDI loops, it creates its own time-base, both duplicating the feel of jamming in real time, and expanding the possibilities of musical interaction. So it’s possible for surfers to participate in the same jam session on and off over the course of weeks.
Still, this is tip of the iceberg stuff. Real-time interactive media is still in the R&D phase. There are still a lot of blind alleys and dead-ends to follow. But while the Intels of the world struggle with finding a business rationale for cybercasting — one which apparently will look a lot like broadcasting — lets hope New York’s creative community continue to explore the broader artistic possibilities.