Locally Toned Interview with Artist Brian House

I encountered work Brian House’s work this May, at MEGAPOLIS 2010, while performing at the sound art festival in Baltimore, MD. His text-messaging project intrigued me from the get-go–the description on the MEGAPOLIS events page read, “Pull My Ears happens when you send a text message to 917-XXX-XXXX.”

One of my professional goals, while in attendance, was to learn about the work of other artists—especially those who employed the use of similar tools or materials. Both Locally Toned and Pull My Ears use similar platforms for the presentation of content (cell phones), and use business-sized cards to promote our projects, through small interventions engaging people through happenstance.

House’s short bio for MEGAPOLIS described him as “a composer and conceptual artist making work through large gestures and small collisions.” I found another reference where he referred to himself as a Bricoler, a person who makes creative and resourceful use of whatever materials are at hand (regardless of their original purpose).

As context for the interview, I’ve transcribed the series of text messages sent to my phone from House’s Pull My Ears. Once I sent a text message to the number, during the festival weekend, I began to receive the messages. They appeared at various times and intervals.

Pull My Ears TRANSCRIPT

Hello. What’s your name?

[I messaged back, “T. Foley of Locally Toned.”]

Ok, T. So I’ll send you a few instructions. Later, not now. No big deal, just follow along.

Reply to this message with a transcription of someone else’s conversation.

Run around fast enough that you can hear the wind in your ears.

Listen to everyone’s voice. Whosoever you like the most, remember that about the person.

You have 5 minutes to hear a heartbeat. 5 points for a friend’s, 10 points for your own, 15 points for a stranger’s.

Whistle a Michael Jackson song until someone joins in.

Walk around saying ‘Marco’ until someone you don’t know says ‘Polo.’

For the next five minutes, forget how to understand English.

Write me an instruction and I’ll send it to someone else.

###

INTERVIEW

TERESA FOLEY: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me about your work. I appreciate the opportunity to share your work with my readers. This visit will also help me reflect upon my own practice, so thanks for that, too.

How would you like me to introduce you to my readers—what is it you’d like me to say about you and your work as an introduction? Should I mention you as someone who makes locative media projects?

BRIAN HOUSE: I don’t set out to make locative media per se, so I’d say that I have a primary interest in combining physical embodied experience with encoded abstract structures. But this naturally leads to locative media, and I often collaborate with people specifically interested in exploring the city.

FOLEY: Tell me about the technology/system behind Pull My Ears for folks who aren’t super techno-literate—what people who played along didn’t see or know about behind the scenes.

HOUSE: Pull My Ears is text based—I’ve done many projects like this. In the course of doing those projects, I developed my own platform for writing code and doing text messages. I’ve been working with text messaging since 2003—at that point there was lots of physical labor involved—hooking up phones, working with serial ports, etc., to make projects like this happen. But there are services like twilio.com now, and they provide the infrastructure for doing this work. I write platforms for making this kind of art, too—I wrote a coding language called txtml, and the back end of Pull My Ears is twilio communicating with txtml.org.

FOLEY: I was only able to follow your project, not to interact with it by messaging you, or the system, back. Tell me about the kind of response you got during MEGAPOLIS. How many folks played along? Were there some interesting responses with, say, the transcription of someone else’s conversation prompt?

HOUSE: Close to 60 people participated. This particular piece it doesn’t ask for a lot of responses—so I don’t know what happens—where people are when they receive the text messages. It’s hard to know how it went.

In terms of the “Write your own instructions” prompt, a fair amount of people did that. But what Pull My Ears is about, is it gets you to listen. The genesis of the piece was inspired by fluxus scores—work by people like George Brecht and Yoko Ono playing with the form of written instructions (or John Cage’s work). But the problem, though, in the form they employed was, if you’ve been handed the score [their instructions during a performance], you know you are in an art context, so you’ve adopted a role.

So what’s cool about messaging is once you sign up for the project, you forget about it. I turned it off at the end of the festival and Justin [the MEGAPOLIS Managing Director] texted at the tail end, so I saw it and then ran the program for him, but there was a good delay. But that was perfect, illustrating the point of the project that the message comes to you when you are not expecting it. The times are random, but in an interval. Maybe you ignore it, maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re distracted for a moment. Well, it was not totally random—there was approximately 2 hours between messages; within 45 minutes or so of 2 hours. The goal is approximate spacing so you couldn’t anticipate when the next text message would come.

FOLEY: Do you ever find yourself visiting with people who don’t understand what you do? How do you describe your work to people like that?

HOUSE: That’s tough, specifically because the kinds of things I do don’t have a physical manifestation. I’m interested in work that incorporates the world around it; not work that is framed or object-based. I think by example is the best way to do it—to describe a piece, and if there is something in that description that people can connect to, they can understand.

I work under the name Knifeandfork, and my partner, Sue Huang, is in LA. Some of the more accessible projects, like Trying the Hand of God, at MOCA (reenactments of a soccer play, and the piece includes different audience members “playing” that play)—work like that you can describe, and it kind of makes sense.

FOLEY: I found Pull My Ears to be a very reflective work—it drew my attention to listening to the acoustic environment and encouraged me to be playful within it. You asked me to send out little audio messages, to say “Marco,” or whistle a Michael Jackson tune, which was a call for people to message or signal me back, without words, in the physical world, without technology. The work is highly associative. In it I discovered the kinds of instructions kids give each other in games they make up to teach each other interesting things, like making Wint-o-Green lifesavers spark in your dry mouth, in a dark closet. It was pleasurable, by the way, so thank you for making it.

What kind of person do you think engages with Pull My Ears?

HOUSE: It’s great to hear you say that. As for the kind of person who would engage with the work, in an idealized case, this would be everybody–the work would be for anyone. But there are social realities. Certain social populations are much more likely to encounter your work. I don’t think I target a particular type or kind of person—they’re written for me as an experiencer. You know how you have some kind of abstract version of yourself when you make work? Well, you want to disrupt that. And with participatory projects—I’m generally shy. The kind of stuff that I do is gently prodding—it gives people permission to be playful. And conspiratorial—the messages are sent to someone’s phone in their pocket. Intimate.

I approach work conceptually first, and then work on the programming (structural level). But in this piece, it was very explicit that I had to write. So I was going around the city—thinking about what I’d write. I didn’t have all the messages ready until right before the festival.

There’s a Knifeandfork piece we developed called The Wrench—that is the fullest manifestation of text messaging dynamics so far. We took a character from a novel (Tino, from Primo Levi’s The Wrench) and put him into the messaging as a character; he actively engages you in conversation. He texts you about things. The narrative depends upon what you write, and there’s a couple levels of that project. That is like Pull My Ears—an intervention; breaking down the frame of a fictional experience. With the book, there’s the suspension of disbelief; but with messages, you can take or refuse the text—it breaks down that frame. But it is also very hard to make computers intelligently respond to conversation, so it’s an exercise of beautiful failure. Sometimes he’ll reply with the perfect quirky thing; the audience should know this is a robot/computer program. But it becomes rich because people read a lot into the work. And The Wrench, that’s an ongoing project—it will run again next month. We need to better document that. Because the Wrench piece is so dynamic, there was this aspect of just the simple instruction that I wanted to delve into in a pure way. So when MEGAPOLIS came up, I thought it would be great to focus in on one aspect from that earlier project.

And the two times Pull My Ears did ask for conversation, it was like a Yoko Ono prompt—“Cut a hole in the sky,” or “Don’t think about an elephant.”

FOLEY: How do you evaluate success with a project like this?

HOUSE: At a base level you want participation, a certain amount, relative to the size. I enjoyed the aspect of being at the festival. I liked having a piece that was there but not connectable to me. Because of the nature of it, I got some feedback, but it’s hard to evaluate, but for me the project was satisfying to do.

FOLEY: In reading more about you and your work, BTW, I loved what you said about maps in the urban omnibus piece, “that maps are particularly problematic when they are viewed as closed works or interpreted as frozen representations.” And the quote, “Applied to urbanism, this becomes an imaginative practice, one that requires each of us to contribute to the re-creation of the city with every step.”

HOUSE: As for maps, you’re constantly building them in your head; as a kid I would draw maps—a fantasy world in relation to the real world, forts, dungeons, whatever—and that’s a powerful process. Then you get older, and those maps get put off to the side. Keep that loose, I think. Use those childhood powers with the benefit of experience, and not in a naïve way, but to realize the flexibility of things.

Google Maps are amazing and powerful—you can manipulate and view things from different perspectives, but looking at the difference between text messages, which are minimal, which are language, and then you look at a map with your iPhone, it’s hard not to equate the map with reality. Something like—I’m here, and I need to get there; I’m whipping it out [Google Maps on my iPhone] to understand where am I. That comes with a bias, with an iPhone, you need to look at the screen.

With travel, you retreat into identity a bit, you form an identity-negotiation between who you are and what the world is.

What’s important is trying to exercise that critical approach; we adopt models—between different forms of transportation, you see it [the world/the experience] differently. Even walking is different, depending upon the side of the street you are on. Coming from the subway and walking to my apartment, noticing that this smells this way when I walk here, might be something that I perceive. I guess that’s a central tenant of psycho geography—to not feel like every street is the same; to recognize the affects that the design of places have over you—to seek out the cracks that expose the more potent underbellies of things.

FOLEY: You do some teaching at the university level. Do you ever conduct educational experiences or workshops for artists and others outside of academia?

HOUSE: I’d like to; I really enjoy teaching, that’s a thing in the moment that I’m thinking about. My primary work is as a designer with a media design studio, but teaching is great cause you really don’t learn something ‘til you teach it. I would love to be more active, but can’t, due to time. There is a lot of informal teaching, though. What is cool with the media arts stuff, there’s a lot to learn; a new skill set, or domain. There’s a lot of opportunity to exchange methods and ideas and whatnot. Like when I work with Sue [Huang], she teaches drawing, we really enjoy the exchange collaboratively.

FOLEY: Here is a question—one I like to ask acoustically perceptive folk—I asked the MEGAPOLIS curators, and the architect Michael Schoner. Can you describe a formative experience from your childhood in relation to sound?

HOUSE: Cool. The immediate thing I think of is—my dad was a big jazz buff—he had an old phonograph in the living room. There were big speakers; I would put them on the ground so I could hear the bass, so I could feel the bass coming through the floor. I liked playing Mingus, Coltrane and Miles. And I’m a bass player.

FOLEY: Thanks for the visit, Brian.

HOUSE: Thank you–I enjoyed the interview.

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