The Politics Of The Machine
Afterimage,  Nov, 1999  by Philip Glahn

Pulse 48

by Bill Jones and Ben Neill

Sandra Gering Gallery

New York, New York

July 8-September 11, 1999

Political intervention through abstract art is commonly expressed through the artwork's negation of political rhetoric

and social hierarchies. By declaring its own autonomy, an abstract artwork can serve as a model for political freedom.

Yet music can express social content through abstracted socio-political relations, e.g., the domination of a musician

by the composition or the liberation of the performance through improvisation. The sound and light installation

"Pulse 48" created such a realm of freedom, almost a fairy tale come true of human and machine walking hand in

hand through a world unthreatened by a powerful culture industry.


"Pulse 48' was a collaboration between musician Ben Neill and visual artist Bill Jones. The main space at the Sandra

Gering Gallery displayed five groupings of plastic light sources. The pod-like lighting structures in the largest field

were built from joined pairs of different colored plastic sleds. The other four fields consisted of similar smaller

arrangements made of Frisbees. Each of the fields in the main gallery featured its own speaker. A separate project

room hosted another Frisbee-field; this one equipped with its own amplifier and one speaker per pod. Upon entering

the darkened gallery, the viewer was immersed in an atmosphere of pulsing light and electronic music. The patterns

of light and sound climbed and descended in a series of untraceable variations and indeterminable densities. The

ambient sounds and corresponding flashing plastic forms were controlled by a computer according to a simple

mathematical formula. All aspects of the installation including the pitch, duration, rhythm, tempo, dyna mic curves and

large-scale form were derived from a 4/6/7/8 set of numerical relationships or rations. [1] This information

determined and manifested a sensational experience within the sonic and visual realms.


The installation created an environment that took its full effect on viewers spending even a short time in the main

gallery, a sphere that hovered between presence and absence. The different speeds and intensities of the pulsing light

and music produced a trance-like, hypnotic environment in which it was hard for the spectator to remain focused,

either physically or intellectually. This experience would periodically fragment when the sound and light momentarily

stopped, descending the room into familiar distances, visible light sources and tangible objects. Only the silence was

unfamiliar. While the walls of the gallery, the sleds, Frisbees, speakers and the cables connecting them all were signs

of recognition and orientation, the silence and stillness of the light constructed an absence of spectacle and performance.

This silence played an important part in "Pulse 48," keeping it from becoming a tool of transcendental escape into a

realm of spectacular distraction: "There are moments of silence. There is roo m for contemplation," said Jones. [2]


Collaboration was central to "Pulse 48." The project was a joint effort in which Neill acted as musical engineer and Jones

conceived of the visual premises. As Jones pointed out, "Pulse 48" was not necessarily intended as a critique of

authorship or of the modernist myth of the artist as originator, although the suspension of the producer has become an

essential part of the structure and mechanisms of the work. This interdisciplinary installation questioned the boundaries

of artistic forms and disciplines-- those assumptions about artistic motives and practices that still seem to persist even

though they have been subject to criticism as well as extensive de- and reconstruction over the past several decades.

Perhaps more importantly, the computer also acted as a collaborator in the piece. Through shuffling and chance, the

computer created perceptual shifts and moods that were never anticipated. This, as Jones remarks, makes the question

of the composer interestingly problematic for not only did "Pulse 48" ad d the computer as creator but, as with other

historical forms of art that include an element of chance, the performance of the work was part of its own composition.


This installation can be read as a critique of the fixed icon-object. Beyond its layering of disciplines "Pulse 48" created

an environment and atmosphere that is not entirely graspable in physical or economic terms. The sequences of light

and dark, sound and silence, pitch and rhythm were never the same. The performance started off simply but grew

complex as the patterns became indeterminable. Both artists see the work as an experiment closely related to many

historical developments in the arts. Due to its own historical context, however, it is also an experiment in new metaphors

and in a new vocabulary that can be used to communicate. Jones also inscribes the pod-fields of sleds and Frisbees

within a heritage in which the creation of a "field situation" [3] in sculpture allows the viewing subject to locate him- or

herself not simply opposite the fetish-object, but in a field without qualitative differentiation. Without the light and music,

the objects in "Pulse 48" are only pieces of plastic. They are part of a history of found materials, everyday objects that

bring their function into the work and inside the gallery. They are objects of recreation, echoing the notion of play

inherent in the computer's compositional process and the experimental character of the work. The practicality of the

objects further tests the boundaries between the everyday and the art object.


"Pulse 48" is part of a tradition of a large number of collaborative art projects that involve a fusion between art and

technology, and a musical heritage embodied primarily by a form of musical experimentation pioneered by John Cage.

Cage's attempt to free the performance and musicians from the domination of the composer, to integrate the audience

as well as everyday sounds and objects into a work of art through the use of chance and an "abstract negation of musical

order" [4] aimed to integrate political action into music. This collapse of art into life, as well as Cage's endeavor to

deaestheticize art, runs parallel to the interests of Neill and Jones. "Pulse 48" was informed by everyday objects and

their functional aspect within the work; the "contemplative silences" allowed the penetration of absence or nonmusical

sounds into the installation. The project was based on a "fractal composition" in which each single element reflected the

structure of the whole. This again is reminiscent of Cage's idea of a future emancipated from the principle of domination

--a social field of diversity and multiplicity without qualitative differentiation. "Pulse 48" is a model for an arrangement with

technology in which the machine is a creator of something beautiful and unthreatening; the idea of the machine shifts from

a tool of anonymous manipulation and unconscionable warfare to a collaborator and companion.


In contrast to the projects of the group Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT), founded in 1966 by Billy Kluver, Robert

Rauschenberg, Fred Waldhauer and Robert Whitman in an attempt to bring artists and engineers together, "Pulse 48"

maintains a similar social function as much of Cage's work. Most of EAT's projects were content-oriented and surpassed

the utopian limitations to which "Pulse 48" and Cage's work are confined, partly due to their musical element. Although EAT

started off with several experiments designed to simply bridge aesthetic ideas and technological possibilities, it soon took

on several projects that aimed to "greatly benefit society as a whole." [5] These projects included the distribution of

educational information in rural India; the construction of two communication centers that allowed children from different

geographic and cultural locations to correspond with each other; a telex conference between New York City, Sweden, India

and Japan in which the public was invited to ask scient ists, artists and subject experts questions about the future; and the

attempt to create alternative artistic and educational television broadcasts in New York City and Central America. Through

the reappropriation of technology, EAT created a sphere of cultural production and communication that sought to participate

in a public dialogue forming social values and experiences. "Pulse 48" on the other hand remained within the boundaries of

the experimental. Because of its interdisciplinary nature, its use of chance and the unusual combination of light and sound,

of music and everyday objects, and because it was a collaboration not only between two artists but between the artists and

the machine, "Pulse 48" constructed intra-artistic critique. It was a formal investigation of the politics of the machine: its

accessibility, its creative and collaborative possibilities. Although it does not assume the responsibility taken by EAT and

described by Walter Benjamin--the artist's obligation to use technology to overcome hegemonic cultural production [6]

"Pulse 48" does not betray its own inherent possibilities. It creates a realm of social and political utopia, one of gathering

and contemplation, an arena in which the machine and the self are suspended from the authorship of individual purposes

and imperatives. The freedom it provides, however, is a freedom from the idea of oppression and domination created by

constructing an idealized sphere of harmony and sensation. It liquidates the context of domination and oppression and is

therefore in danger of regressing into a false myth. "Pulse 48" created an environment of freedom--but not one that

counteracts the mechanisms that threaten it.


PHILIP GLAHN is the Coordinator of Academic Programs at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.



(1.) "Pulse 48" is part of a series of installations based on this numerical relationship. "Pulse," the original piece, consisted of only four objects. Ultimately Neill and Jones plan to create "Pulse 4678" in which the original installation is reproduced four times according to the 4/6/7/8 scheme.


(2.) All quotations are taken from an interview with Bill Jones by the author (August 21, 1999) and from "A conversation between Ben Neill and Bill Jones about 'Pulse,'" at


(3.) Brandon W. Joseph, "Robert Morris and John Cage: Reconstructing a Dialogue," in October 81 (Summer 1997), p. 66.


(4.) Theodor Adorno, "Schwierigkeiten beim Komponieren," in Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. 17, (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1993). Cited in Ian Pepper, "From the 'Aesthetics of Indifference' to 'Negative Aesthetics': John Cage and Germany 1958-1972," in October 82 (Fall 1997), p. 38.


(5.) "Inventory of the Experiments in Art and Technology Records," at


(6.) Walter Benjamin, "The Author as Producer," in Reflections (New York: Schocken Books, 1986), pp. 220-238.


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