[The User] Make Art out of Your Junk
Lucinda Catchlove - April 21, 2010
A trained architect and a musician, respectively, Thomas Macintosh and Emmanuel Madan have been operating as [The User] since 1997. Based in Montreal, they have assembled a body of work that includes musical composition, audio-visual performance and sound installation. Through the reclaiming of found sounds (and their often obsolete technological sources and objects) and with their fascinations with transforming and intervening in ambient sound environments, [The User] re-imagines relationships between technological systems, culture and human experience.
Audio works have been released by distinguished labels like Staalplaat and Asphodel, while their instillations and performances have been awarded numerous prizes and distinctions, including the Telefilm Canada Prize for Canadian New Media work (Montreal 1998), An Honourable Mention at Prix Ars electronica (Linz, 1999), an Honourable mention at Festival Interférences (Belfort, 2000), First Prize in the Performance Section of the FCMM (Montreal, 2001) and a Nomination to the Nam June Paik Prize (Dortmund, 2004). This year saw them nominated in the New Media Art category of the sixth Qwartz edition, while their recent The Coincidence Engines, series was nominated for the 2010 Transmediale Award.
For the first time in many years, [The User] will be presenting and performing their Symphony for Dot Matrix Printers #2, at MUTEK 2010 (see A/Visions 1 program). Networking more than a dozen of these now obsolete machines together and running a ‘score’ of ASCII text files, the printing action produces a remarkably harmonious screech of different frequencies, pitches, and melodies.
Symphony # 2 for Dot Matrix Printers, as performed in Helsinki.
“The idea of The User is this sort of generic, anonymous, faceless individual who is not specified in terms of individuality or personality,” explains composer and sound artist Emmanuel Madan, one half of the award winning Montreal-based art collective [The User]. The other half is architect and installation artist Thomas McIntosh – the two first met in Ottawa in the late 1990s when McIntosh was studying architecture at Carleton University. They started collaborating as [The User] in 1997, first performing a work titled Paper Jam at The Edge festival in Ottawa. This work, which used typewriters and computers, became Song For A Cubicle Slave (1998), before evolving into the networked work using only printers – Symphony for Dot Matrix Printers, Symphony #1 & Symphony #2 were released on CD by Staalplaat and the works have been “performed” across North America and Europe. The project also earned [The User] an honourable mention in the digital music category at the Prix Ars Electronica in 1999 and was nominated for a Nam June Paik Prize in 2004. Like many of [The User]’s works, it continues to evolve and gather new meaning over time and according to context.
[The User]’s Silophone project celebrates its tenth anniversary in 2010, and continues to be used for performances by musicians and experimental sound artists. Numerous artists of note, including Carsten Nikolai, Aube, Martin Tétreault and Francisco Lopez, have played the Silophone. In 2003, [The User] launched Resevoir, an online archive of the Silophone project, and released a CD on Asphodel, a collaboration with Stéphane Claude called Abandon. At the other end of the spectrum of [The User]’s career so far, their more recently conceived project, the Coincidence Engine series, was among the nine works nominated for the Transmediale Award.
Madan explains that their work is about subverting and dislocating our expectations about technology and space, both virtual and physical. “Simply put, engineers are very good at taking problems and breaking them up into smaller problems and into boxes that are assembled on a page. One of the boxes is called The User,” continues Madan, explaining both the inspiration for [The User]’s name and the concept that underlies their work. “It’s a stand in for the person who’s going to consume the product being devised or use the technology being designed, and it’s very important that not too much detail be specified around this individual. This generic, almost dehumanizing, characteristic is something we found very interesting. We really wanted to inhabit the space that The User occupies and reclaim a little bit of the agency that’s sort of taken away when you’re meant to fit into this box.”
[The User] are Thomas Macintosh and Emmanuel Madan
Time’s Nervous Ticking
[The User]’s projects – which humanize industrial spaces, anthropomorphize generic technological devices and reposition The User – refuse to fit into a tidy box or hermetic category. Though it’s tempting to see [The User]’s work as sound art, it’s impossible to ignore its physical aspects. The mediums used and transformed – old computers, mass produced clocks, an abandoned industrial building – form part of the message.
Launched in 2000, Silophone: sonic inhabitation of Silo #5 transforms a long abandoned grain silo in Montreal’s Old Port into a networked acoustic device for both public and commissioned artistic use. The User invite the public to contribute their own sounds or voice to the Silophone by phone or Internet, and the results can be heard online or through the loudspeaker installed near the Silophone itself. Reshaped by the gorgeous echoes of the massive silo, the voices and sounds become music that gives the silo a new purpose and meaning, relocating it in a virtual global system while simultaneously giving it increased local relevance. Questions about who uses urban spaces, and to what end, hang in the air around Silophone, resonating well beyond the walls of Silo #5.
The Symphony for Dot Matrix Printers, which debuted in 1998 and is still performed, is [The User]’s first work. It uses a collection of obsolete dot matrix printers, of particular makes and models, to perform compositions scored and programmed using ASCII text files. As the printers “perform” these symphonies, miniature video cameras capture the machine’s quirky inner workings and project their movements on large screens – once again putting the object and process centre stage.
Likewise, [The User]’s most recently conceived project, the Coincidence Engine series, defies categorization purely as sound art, even though it is an homage to avant-garde composer György Ligeti. (A favorite composer of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, Ligeti’s 1962 Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes serves as [The User]’s inspiration for the Coincidence Engine series.) These installations arrange metronomes, or large quantities of disposable, quartz crystal clocks with a very loud tick, into configurations that give them new meaning. Accident and intent inform each other in an act of musical and temporal decomposition as the innately diverse rhythms of cheap and inaccurate technology meet [The User]’s interventions and recontextualization.
Centered as they are around objects, [The User]’s projects equally defy being categorized as Media Art, even if digital technology is implicit in [The User]’s name and the very questions it poses about our time. Of course, in the real world new media is soon old. Just as the Silophone’s grain silo is obsolete technology from the industrial age, old printers and computers are the refuse of the digital age that inhabit our everyday life. [The User] simply repurpose these objects (both old and new), using the tools and materials that exist around us to their own subversive ends.
“These positions, these roles we play, it’s really interesting to get inside them to deconstruct them, to rebel against the expected behavior. What [The User] does as a collective, especially with the dot matrix printer project, is take the whole flow chart as it’s been conceived and turn it on its head,” explains Madan, of how they employ discarded office equipment in creative ways the designers and manufacturers never imagined. [The User] redefines the use and purpose of the printers, writing (in a text file) a rhythmic symphony that exploits and develops each printer’s unique sonic qualities.
Madan and McIntosh’s interest in the potential of subverting the intended use and exploring the musical potential of readymade objects is just as evident in their Silophone and Coincidence Engine projects. But Madan doesn’t believe that it’s only artists and programmers that subvert common technologies, objects and spaces. “I think that it’s a fundamental characteristic of anyone who uses anything – whether it’s computer technology or architecture – to take something about the system and to make it one’s own, to adapt it to ones own needs and predilections.”
Silophone is [The User]’s most interactive project. A public work that is both physically and virtually accessible, the artists invite the public to use the Silophone and become The User. By doing so, they’ve created the opportunity to reclaim an abandoned but culturally significant space in the urban landscape. Standing since 1903, the old grain elevator and its silos located in Montreal’s Old Port are an architectural landmark that refers nostalgically to Montreal’s past while raising questions about its future. “Looking at the structure and site of the grain elevator, it’s clear that its very existence – the fact that it’s still standing, that it’s there and unused – poses the question as to what is to be done with this industrial, modern day ruin,” says Madan. “It’s clearly important but what form that importance takes is really up for debate.” The Silophone, and the structure that is at its heart, have become part of the conversation surrounding the fate of this significant structure on a prime piece of real estate. An act of cultural re-appropriation, the Silophone is as much urban activism as it is an instrument of art.
“Introducing people’s presence inside the structure – not their actual physical presence but simply through their voice or other sounds they contribute – for me that’s really important,” attests Madan. “It’s immaterial but it carries such a huge weight, it’s so effective as a way to stake a claim on the building and on it’s future and future vocation.” Who is The User? Is it the citizens or industry? Do the people’s voices have a place in the conversation in how our urban spaces are designed and used? These are just a few of the many complex questions that arise out of [The User]& rsquo;s work.
Reclaiming The Matrix
The tension between the collective and the individual – The User and the user, as well as the user and the used – also arises in a less local manner in Coincidence Engine. The disposable clocks [The User] employs for Coincidence Engine One: Universal People’s Republic Time, question the source of the objects. The clocks, which are made in China, are arranged as if in an amphitheatre, their collective presence and individual traits raising questions about the unseen faces and individuality of their makers. The contribution of the individual, whether it’s a person contributing to Silophon e or the unique sounds and features of a certain dot matrix printer or cheap clock, is a central concern of [The User]’s work. As is the instability of time and the impermanence of objects – from the obsolete technology reused for Symphony for Dot Matrix Printers and Silophone’s long unused grain silo to the degraded, imperfect accuracy of the Coincidence Engine series’ cheap clocks and metronomes.
[The User] are conceptual artists first and foremost, creating experiences that make us question the contemporary world and our place in it. Madan and McIntosh ask us to open our eyes and ears to the world around us and the dormant potential of obsolete objects bereft of their original purpose. Most importantly, they challenge us to become conscious of our role as users and show us just how powerful we can be as creative agents within the constructed systems we inhabit and use.
Lucinda Catchlove likes to look and listen. She writes about contemporary art and culture, including music and fashion. In an alternate universe she is researching a book on VJs and audiovisual art, and how digital technology and emerging narrative conventions are shaping how we think and see.
Video and photos used with permission of the artist