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Rotting sounds – Embracing the temporal deterioration of digital audio

Project leader at the Academy:
Almut Schilling (Institute for Conservation and Restoration)

Overall project leader:
Thomas Grill (University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna, Department of Composition and Electroacoustics)

Project team:
Till Bovermann (University of Applied Arts Vienna, Art & Science)

42 months
extended until 31.10.2022

Funded by:
FWF - Austrian Science Fund | PEEK (AR 445)


FWF | PEEK project
led by Almut Schilling, Institute for Conservation - Restoration
Duration: 1.5.2018 – 31.10.2022

Most of today’s media output, be it audio or video, is produced and stored in the digital domain. Although digital data are adorned by the myth of lossless transmission and migration, everyday experience does prove the existence of degradation and, ultimately, data loss in various forms. This pertains to the physical nature of storage media and playback devices as well as to media formats and software in the context of their technological infrastructure. The project strives to elaborate on the causes, mechanisms and effects of such deterioration, specifically in the context of digital audio.

Since degradation cannot be avoided on principle, it is our general aim to unearth latent degrees of freedom pertaining to the artistic practice in the omnipresence of decay.

How can degradation effects be understood, actuated, reproduced, directed and harnessed within sound art? Which are the mechanisms and implications of obsolescence concerning hard- and software? How can we model the process of decay in the digital domain, and what are its products and residues? What is the impact of the environment and human interaction? To which extent are artworks products of their material sources or their symptoms of decay?

To set up the project, we will conduct formal research on the fundaments and mechanisms of data degradation, and we will also organize five topical workshops in order to generate novel ideas and concepts. We will develop a low-level digital audio toolkit on which we will base our experiments on deterioration, potentially in all conceivable forms, pertaining to technical components such as data carriers, electronic circuits, algorithm logic and language, as well as to aesthetics and meaning in the form of musical content. A selection of experimental prototypes will be produced as artworks, and exposed to the public in the form of  performances and exhibitions over long durations and/or in demanding environments. Written publications and a symposium will reflect on the concepts, results and repercussions of the project.

We envision our endeavor to function as a lighthouse project, deepening the awareness of largely unexplored properties of digital sound as a major component of contemporary art and prevalent technology. We hope to raise the conscience regarding the materiality, fragility and socio-economic contextuality of digital data in general by discussing and disseminating these topics in the broader artistic and scientific public. Our approach is basically inverse to a typical technological or scientific methods: Instead of researching means to overcome a commonly understood defect, we propose to recognize and integrate this defect, so that its potential damage is transferred into a benefit.

Biographies of main researchers

The project leader and principal investigator of this project, Thomas Grill , has been working with digital sound in artistic, technological and scientific domains over the last 20 years. He has received his doctorate in Composition and Music Theory with a specialization in Sound and Music Computing from the University of Music and Performing Arts in Graz, Austria in 2012. From 2003 on he has been teaching electroacoustic composition, studio techniques, and digital performance at the University of Applied Arts and the University of Music and Performing Arts, both in Vienna, Austria. From 2008 to 2018 he has been researching and publicizing in the domains of signal processing, machine listening, and machine learning as a member of the Austrian Research Institute for Artificial Intelligence (OFAI) in Vienna, Austria. He performs, exhibits and lectures internationally with a predilection for cooperations across disciplines.

Till Bovermann studied and worked at Bielefeld University where he received a PhD for his work and publications on Tangible Auditory Interfaces. He was a post-doctoral researcher on tangible and auditory interaction at the Media Lab of Aalto University, Finland and served as principal investigator at UdK Berlin of the 3DMIN project on Design, Development and Dissemination of New Musical Instruments. He teaches at various international art and science institutions, among others Aalto University and Uniarts Helsinki (both Finland), the institute for time-based media of UdK Berlin and the Institut für Musik und Medien at Robert Schumann Hochschule of Düsseldorf, Germany. In his artistic works, he addresses the relationship between the digital and physical realms and investigates Sonic Intervention Wilderness. He also develops with and for the open source software SuperCollider, a platform for audio synthesis and algorithmic composition used by musicians, artists, and researchers.

Almut Schilling is a conservator and researcher, educated at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and various international institutions. Based in Vienna, her studio is specified in preservation of electronic and digital art. As analog native she is highly interested in pushing her boundaries while working through challenging projects and thinking TRANSdisciplinarily. Framed by a practical and scientific context of art collections, artists, technologists and information scientists she sharpens her skills continuously in documenting, installing and archiving time-based media art; implementing migration and emulation as strategy; researching the obsolescence in all the various appearances and existence; developing alternative concepts, discussing and evaluating those novel specific demands for preservation purposes. She is passionate about the NEW digital and addicted to the obsolete MATERIAL.