Since 1993, when Ben Rubin founded Ear Studio—the center of his research, art and sound-design projects—the 47-year-old artist has specialized in large-scale installations that parse data using technology. In Listening Post (2002), a collaboration between Rubin and statistician Mark Hansen, 231 vacuum-fluorescent displays offer fragments of real-time online chat that are simultaneously spoken or sung by a voice synthesizer. Beyond immediately evoking HAL from 2001 and Jenny Holzer’s LED signs, the installation (presented at the Whitney Museum in 2003, among other venues) conveys the potential and pitfalls of Web-based connectivity on a one-to-one level. With a recent solo exhibition titled “Vectors,” Rubin complemented his analysis of computer-based data by investigating the transmissions of other networks, in particular those of the military and political communities.
In terms of scale and effect, the 5-by-24-foot The Language of Diplomacy (all works 2011) was the most commanding piece in the show. It consists of 36 blue and white LED light tubes arranged vertically on the wall in six banks, with each bank programmed to form a succession of capital letters in a sequence of 4,600 words. As explained by the artist, the words were culled from the 2010 Wikileaks release of diplomatic cables and assigned to one of three categories: “names,” “places” and “other centers of influence.” Also sourcing the infamous archive, Rubin’s Anecdotal History #1 is comparatively modest in scale and commingles antiquated and cutting-edge technology. Mounted over a portable Underwood typewriter, a mini LED projector casts an assortment of disconnected Wikileaks phrases onto a sheet of blank paper inserted into the machine, as if the page were being struck by invisible type hammers. In its syntactical incomprehensibility, the work invokes the value of journalistic editorializing in illuminating mass releases of state-sponsored secrecy.
The red neon light arrangement Afghanistan Stability/Counterinsurgency Dynamics might have been mistaken for a sports play notation, when in actuality the 48-by-87-inch composition is based on a diagram created by a U.S. Department of Defense consultant. On an adjacent wall, a mechanized group of four yellow discs, each with a black slash extending from center to edge, rotated through a series of signals whose meaning is known only to the artist, in a work appropriately titled Optical Semaphore. Lending the exhibition its poetic heart and soundtrack, the wall-mounted oscilloscopes and audio electronics comprising State Boundaries as Audio Waveforms present the viewer with a succession of voltage-controlled representations of state borders. Speakers below emit monotones that wax and wane along with the pulsating shapes displayed in the five oscilloscopes’ porthole-like screens. In conjunction with the exhibition’s other works, Rubin’s State Boundaries, simultaneously abstract and visceral, conveyed the paradox of societal divisions, as well as the complex role of technology in facilitating both the articulation and obfuscation of human exchange.
Photo: Ben Rubin: The Language of Diplomacy, 2011, LEDs and custom electronics, approx. 5 by 24 feet; at Bryce Wolkowitz.