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This page contains additional material for the I WAS 17 piece for His Voice.

Peter Courtemanche, The absolute Value Of Noise: servers and networks as artworks.

This is mostly personal thoughts and anecdotes. There are a few people I used to know who also produced network art using custom servers and electronics, but I don't really remember all the details.

Jeff Mann did a piece about Telekinesis and linking objects on 2 dining room tables that were several thousand miles apart across the Atlantic ocean.

There was also another group in Toronto based out of Interaccess ( - an artist tun centre that Jeff Mann helped to found and setup). They were into networking large numbers of small electronic sculptural objects - sort of like mob networks except that their objects had a bit more personality and they weren't all the same. Interaccess has a long history with networks as it started out as resource centre for artists to access computers in the early 80s. They had an office space and about 12 machines and a server. They ran a bulletin board type system that had a windows-like interface that was very clean and simple. So it was much easier for people to use then most of the other networks of that era. They've always had groups of programmers and electronics engineers hanging around and designing things that artists can play with and use in installations and other types of artwork.


I started doing radio-art in late 1987 at CITR FM (a campus radio station in Vancouver that started in 1937). The radio station broadcasts at 101.9 MHz FM and provides an alternative to the commercial radio stations that are mostly focused on top 40 mainstream music.

My radio show happened every Friday afternoon from 2pm to 5pm with a 30 minute break in the middle (3:30 - 4:30) when Narduar would take over and do crazy interviews with various bands.

The noise show (dubbed “Absolute Value of Noise”) somehow always turned into a collaborative event. People would drop by with cassette tapes (field recordings, things they'd been sent in the mail from sound artists far away, pieces they had recorded at home, etc.). Sometimes I would setup a tape loop on the reel-to-reel decks and run 10 meters of tape down the hallway looping around microphone stands. Inevitably someone passing by would want to try making a tape loop too. Sometimes people would show up with odd instruments - oil drums, chains, bits of metal, sticks, a lawnmower, an electric razor, etc.

Even though I often had a plan of what I wanted to play on the show, that plan was always secondary (perhaps subservient) to the spontanaety of people droppping by and adding their own sounds to what became a weekly over-the-top, sound collage mix.

I think there were more people in Vancouver who were interested in this type of sound-art then anyone realized. So the opportunity to visit the radio station and join in a live collage session every week was very inspiring for a lot of people who otherwise made noise at home and never got to play their work in public. There was also a large contingent of artists - who worked on a late-night show at Co-op radio (a community FM radio station) called New Sounds Gallery - who would show up every week with tapes and noise makers of various types.

From that point of view, I have always worked in a collaborative “frame of mind”. I have strong ideas about what I want to do (mostly about what I will do if I'm left alone to do it), but I also have a sense of how to fit many different ideas and types of content into whatever my starting idea may be. It's a bit like making soup when your refridgerator has too many old bits and pieces hidding in it.

In 1992 I was working with Bill Mullan and Adam Sloan at CITR, and we came up with the idea of “24 Hours of Radio Art” - what would happen if your local pop-rock station suddenly changed to an all Radio Art format? We produced this event during a national community and campus radio conference, so there were people there from across the country and a few folks came north from the USA. We produced 3 more 24 Hours events - 1993, 1994, and 1996. The last two were done on Private Radio 88.9 (a 3 watt pirate radio station that broadcast out of the Western Front and travelled about 5 Km in line of sight).

I left CITR in 1992 and moved on to working at the Western Front Society. I also became part of an experimental band (guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, samples, tape loops, feedback machines, analog synth, etc.). And I started thinking about sound for CD (CDs were new back then!) and sound-installation work.


I've been programming computers since I was 12. When I first started working with computers there were no PCs. Computers in the 70s were big and were often intended to handle multiple users at once. We had a computer at school with 4 terminals plugged into it. Often, in order to make something interesting work, we had to pull out all the manuals on how the operating system and programming languages were made and remake them - write some code to add a new function to a language, or hack something in the OS to make something possible. We wrote odd ascii art games and also made multi-user programs (since it was possible to make 1 terminal talk to a 2nd terminal).

Even when I was in University we used a giant mainframe that talked to 100s of terminals, and we could borrow giant heavy typewriter terminals that used 110 baud modems to connect to the mainframe.

The PC revolution started to grow in the late 1980s. It became more affordable. There were more options. I worked with a number of different systems in that era - Timex Sinclair, Amiga, Apple II, and MSDOS machines. I found that working on single-user machines was somehow less creative and more about making a fancy user interface. I liked the low-tech, reliable and multi-user aspects of the older machines.

I stopped programming for a while in 1986. Amiga had just shutdown (which meant that the most interesting PC of the era was now defunct) and most of the big companies in the market (Apple and MIcrosoft) were very controlling of their systems at that time. In order to program you had to pay huge licensing fees and buy several $1000 worth of manuals that you “weren't allowed to show to anyone” .. that type of stuff.

In 1993-94 the Internet came along and I started checking out some of the things you could do in Mosaic (the browser of the era) and I also started reading up on the various network protocols. I was surprised to discover that the Internet was basically the same as the networks that had been around since the late 1960s. The protocols were almost identical - but connections were now faster and more ubiquitous. I started programming again.

Programming for the browser was interesting, but also very limiting. And browser technology changed very rapidly - which meant that any programming that I did would break very rapidly. So I became interested in working with the network in a more “direct” way or at the level of defining my own protocols and servers.

The Internet also changed the face of programming for the PC. Suddenly people could get access to information in ways that the corporations couldn't easily control. Developers were posting manual pages and example code on various networks (bulletin boards were still very active at that time). Both Microsoft and Apple decided to put all the documentation about their systems on-line for anyone to read.

I got into web-streaming using custom software. I think we started using Icecast in 1996/97. Before that we used very simple image-pushing systems to stream slow-scan style images. Which reminds me to mention that I also did a lot of work with Telecommunications artists using the telephone with slow-scan video, fax-art, and a few other devices.

In 1998 I wrote a “generative sound applet” that ran in a browser using Java. I wrote a number of Java applets (browser based toys) and Java servers (that ran on a Linux machine in the back room). This meant that I could send a video camera feed into a Macintosh, read the feed with a custom C-code program, process it a bit, send it to the custom server and then have it go from there to the browser. That way I could do image processing live and also simulate various old video streaming technologies (such as slow-scan).

Throughout the late 90s and early 2000s, I was constantly “motivated” by Heidi Grundmann (the director and producer of Kunstradio at the ORF in Vienna) to particpate in (and often to produced and lead) various telecommunications and network-art projects. She was obsessed with the idea of long-distance collaboration and along with her husband (Bob Adrian X) was a huge instigator of many interesting network streaming and inter-communication projects.

At some point Art's Birthday became a focal point for this type of event. It seemed that doing an annual event was a way to keep people coming back to do more. We don't really do events of the same scale (in terms of the number of people all contributing to a single project), but the atmosphere is still there.

1998 - Heidi produced a network event centred around Jon Rose (the Violinist) and we sent images from Vancouver. I wrote most of the custom video streaming software I talked about above for that show and people liked the fact that it was different then any of the other stuff they had seen on-line.

1999 - Bod Adrian and Heidi produced Sound Drifting for Ars Electronica. This was an audio piece where (somewhere around 8) artists streamed “generative” sound of some sort to a central exhibition location where there were 8 small speakers. These streams were than also fed into the “Sound Pool” which was a piece of software that ran on an old SoftImage SunOS system that had high quality quadrophonc sound output. The sound pool remixed the streams to create a new collage. For this piece I put together a collaborative project at the Western Front with a number of sound artists. We did a lot of jamming and then everyone went away with the recordings, added material of their own, and came back with some pieces to release on a CD. One of the pieces used the 2nd version of the Generator (the software that I originally made as a Java Applet .. but now ported to run on a Macintosh).

2003/2004 - I was talking to my friend and fellow artist Ken Gregory and we came up with the idea of making a “data server” that could be used to connect electronic art installations over distance. This idea turned into Scrambled Bites and the Scrambler server (Version 2 of this server is the one that's on the OKNO server somewhere .. if it's still actually running). This project also turned into a really fun and amazing Art's Birthday event for 2004. Ken (who was in Winnipeg) made a cake crushing machine and sent it to Vancouver in the mail. In Winnipeg he had a sledge hammer and a giant piece of metal with a sensor attached. People in Winnipeg would smash the hammer down and the cake crushing machine in Vancouver would move down a centimeter or so. There were many other machine connections of the same nature. Most people simply extracted things of interest from the data stream (which was one big stream with everyone's data interleaved in it) and used the information to trigger different things. In Vancouver we had a drink mixing machine that seemed to always want to use too much tequila. In Vienna they had a dancing robot and some sensors on the floor.

2004/2005 - Reverie: noise city. This was another big sound-art network project where everyone inhabited one or more spaces in a virtual city of noise-art. It was much more browser based then previous experiments. It made use of PHP, web databases, and the potential of the Internet to be a medium of data storage, analysis, and retrieval (which was actually new at that time .. not so long ago!)

At this point I started to become more and more interested in sound_installation works - for galleries and also for outdoor spaces. I started to burn out a little at the Western Front. I produced a small residency project working with WiFi enabled robotics. There were 5 artists who each made a “robot” using a common framework and electronic “brain”, and these robots could talk to each other via the Scrambler server. It was very interesting to see 5 very different interpretations of what a robot could be.

I retired from the Western Front in late 2007 and started Second Site collective - a group of 6 artists who created electronic work for outdoor spaces. I think we've done 5 biannual exhibitions in various places, ending in 2015. And now everyone has moved on to other things.

I guess I have always worked collaboratively in some way, and this is always the basis of my practice, even if I'm making a solo work (more on this later in the next question).

Starting in 2009, I've made a generative streaming piece every year for Art's Birthday. Some of these are solo pieces and some are collaborations (Extremity Cassette and Somewhere with Anna Friz. Luminiferous with you).

I think TIK was 2012. That was a great collaborative project. Everyone was very focused on their own thing, but there was a good sense of “being aware of other artists works” and trying to think of ways that everything fit together and informed each other. The technology didn't totally work but it didn't really matter. It was the sensibility (is that the correct word?) of the thing that worked really well.

Right now I'm working on some video game stuff - some of it with my son, Ullie, who has been heavily into games (board games, card games, computer games) and game theory since he was about 6 years old (since he was 3 actually .. but he wasn'y any good at talking about the theory part until he was about 6). One of the games I'm supposed to be working on (but it's very slow and time consuming) is a small commission for a gallery where they want people to be able to connect to a game using their mobile devices and then the game visuals are rear-projected onto a giant window at the front of the 2nd storey gallery (so about 5 meters up in the air at the bottom edge). The idea is to make a giant multi-user text-pong thing - but I'm having trouble finding a new way to approach that idea (as it has been done before by a lot of visual and visual-poetry artists who have all done a better job then I would ever do).

The game-thing has brought me back to thinking about servers and multi-user systems and how to work with that in interesting ways. I think that the Internet is often viewed as a “browser based world”, and people get excited purely by things that run in their browsers. They don't really see the massive potential of having a global network that can run any weird protocol you want to create and throw into it. The Scrambler is a stupidly simple thing, and it is somewhat useless in that it breeds chaos rather then organization or clear communication. When we did Art's Birthday 2004, the Scrambler worked really well for everyone connecting to it on the Internet, but for our inhouse connections in Vancouver we were constantly having issues with stalls and lag. The machine prioritized the connections from afar. Also, because all of the data got merged together into one big stream and the parsing tools were very basic, it made everything very chaotic. It became hard to pull specific things out of the mix. I think this is interesting as it connects with the way I did radio in the late 80s - everything was a collage (often using ingredients that I had never heard before) which I massaged into shape.

In games, it is often desired to fully understand the system at some level. Many amazing accidents and coincidences happen when systems mix and overlap, but at some level things are generally understandable - they are clearly defined by a “game designer” and also built in a way that makes it possible to pull them apart and remake them in different forms, and also to troubleshoot them. Computer games are often very complicated (they have many many layers of design and crafting and mechanical systems that all have to work together), so often each system has to be simple and understandable.

I'm interested in the space where this simplicity also leads to unknown or unexpected results, as it's way more interesting to me to put a bunch of stuff into a computer and get out something completely unexpected and amazing then it is to program something where I know exactly what the end result will be. At the same time, it is impossible to program anything unless you know exactly how it will work from a systems perspective. So you have this interesting situation where you are giving orders to a machine that requires very precise instructions to do anything, and at the same time you want to simply lean over and say to it (as if it was just another crazy sound artist like yourself) “hey .. how about if we do this thing together.”


My philosophy of collaboration extends to my approach to working with technology. I don't expect mechanisms to always perform in a predictable fashion. Many of my works use technologies that are fragile, unpredictable, or change state in response to the environment. I think this is something that is quite common among radio-artists at this point in time. Many radio artists are quite comfortable pulling interference patterns out of the air. They don't always feel a need to be completely in control of where the sound is coming from or going to.

My recent piece - Bio-electric radio - started as an experiment in using plants to convey electronic signals. As someone who has spent a lot of time outdoors on the coast of the Pacific North West, I have a certain attraction or sense of collusion/collaboration with the land and the wildness of it. The coastline within a 40 or 50 kilometers of where I live is a relatively friendly wilderness - a place that historically boasted huge populations of fish, many edible varieties of seaweed, shellfish, many edible plants that could be culitvated in small clearings in the forest, and many animals including herd-animals that could be hunted for food. The climate gets cold in the winter but never really goes below -10 degrees C and rarely goes below freezing for more then 2 or 3 weeks of the year. Having lived on the coast for 1/2 a century now, I have a sense of how much it has changed and much the wilderness has been killed-off - mostly by over-fishing, forestry, and dumping toxic chemicals into the rivers, lakes and ocean. As someone who works with electronic technologies that require mining industries to exist in order for the electronic parts to be made, I'm always looking for ways to re-imagine my art practice in a way that depends less on destruction and more on a sort of symbiosis with the biologocal world.

Bio-electric radio came out of experiments with bio-circuitry - attemps to build interesting sound circuits using parts of living plants. In the end it became more of a piece about interference and the way that an AM radio signal can be modified and played with by the electrochemistry of a plant, but it essentially proposes an area of research where people use renewable biological systems in their technological inventions.

The piece works by sending radio transmission through plants. It plays with some sound modules that are powered by the sun and are often running in conditions where there is barely enough energy to make things go. I hooked up multiple devices that were powered in this way so that they would turn themselves on and off at the threshold of the sunlight and make different sound collages. The sounds were picked up by AM receivers and then played on small speakers that were buried in the plants.

I usually start a new piece by imagining some weird new technological direction that mankind could explore. It may be something that a few engineers are playing with somewhere, or it may be something much more poetic - even something that is impossible at a practical level. Then I figure out some way to either create the imagined technology or create something like it, or that simulates it in somw way. I'm happy to let pieces develop on their own. When I'm making sounds with bio-electric circuits I simply let the plants do what they want to do and then I sit back and listen and go - that sounded great and that other thing sounded really aggravating. Then I can keep the system that worked nicely and change the one that wasn't interesting. I find it intriguing that when I work with magnetic radiation and old-school FM and AM radio interference that people who don't normally listen to radio-art or sound-art are often very willing to immerse themselves in the noise. I think there are a lot of people who have spent time playing around with the radio dial - try to find new stations and sometimes just playing with the static for themselves. So it isn't as alien a thing as you might think.

I've been playing with audio tapes and electronics since before I started writing software. One of my friends and I would spend hours in his basement playing with wires and circuits and stuff. Mostly simple things like LEDs or household power circuits, or simple noise makers, but it has all lead into me feeling very comfortable working with electronics both on a serious engineering design level and also on a hacking around to see what will happen style.


Aesthetics .. my primary goal with most of my works is to reveal something that is often invisible to the people who experience the art work. I think that it is very easy for people to deal with problems, issues and phenomenon that have a strong visual component. We have become a very visual society with Television and computer screens and mobile devices and cheap digital cameras. When people can see a problem it registers with them and they can often think of a solution or a way to manage things. Problems that aren't visual are often ignored unless they are so extreme that they start driving people crazy.

For example - the average noise level in many cities is very high and yet people mostly ignore it. I did a collaborative piece in Bregenz in 1998. We had some speakers set up outside in a small square where there were restaurants all around. We would play sound-art mixes of odd piano music, Theremins, strange vocal pieces, etc. and the patrons and employees of the restaurants hated it. It drove them crazy and we kept turnning the volume more and more down. One Friday I loaded the computer system up with a bunch of samples for the “sound pool” (a piece of software we were using to create an endless sound collage). My intention was to run the sounds for a few hours and then change them to something pleasant for the weekend when we wouldn't be at the gallery to manage the sounds. In the end we had to leave early and the sounds I had loaded up ran all weekend. I was a bit terrified because I had loaded up a whole pile of aggravating tone generator sounds and imagined that the people in the square would be furious. But when we came back to the gallery Monday morning everyone was in very good spirits. They thought that our system had been off the entire weekend because all of the sounds had sounded like car alarms - a common sound that they simply blocked out of their awareness.

[A note from Peter: …the Soundpool - which was/is an amazing piece of software that was made by Winfried Ritsch (an artist who has done a lot of work with Kunstradio in Vienna). I never remember how to spell his name when I'm rambling, thus its omission from the interview. But if you can add a little credit in there where the Soundpool is mentioned that would be nice. He setup the Soundpool for a piece in Bregenz in 1998 and then he did another version of it for Sound Drifting at Ars Electronica in 1999. He was very generous with his software and the way that he made it available for many artists to use within these big collaborative streaming projects…]

In my outdoor electronic works I always try to find some interesting phenomenon that's at the edge of people's awareness and then try to bring it to light - give it voice and a presence. Thus the sentient electronic mushroom pieces (the one that measured man-made radiation and respond to it with noise like a geiger counter, or the one that was at TiK). I find that when you expose the plight of some elusive variety or insects, or the chemistry of plants, or the elecro-pollution that surrounds us it often draw people into a world that they would otherwise ignore. As long as the invisible world isn't too frightening, people will happily immerse themselves in the minutae of the moment.

I'm also very interested in finding ways to expose people to more serious issues of the “invisibility factor” - things like automobile pollution are a major cause not just of global warming but also of fatigue, cronic exhaustions, sickness, cancer, and a host of lung diesease, eye irritants, etc. Most people (at least in Vancouver) have no idea of what carbon-monoxide is or what it can do to you. Most people have no knowledge of air pollution at all.

If you think of the air in someone's front garden on a side street where there aren't many cars travelling as a place where the air pollution has a factor of 1. Then the sidewalk in front of that house (the sidewalk that is next to the street) is likely to have a pollution factor of 10. If you go down to a main street where there is lots of traffic then the pollution on the sidewalk is level 100. The pollution in the first lane of traffic is 1000, and in the next lane over it is 10,000 .. etc. So if you are out in the middle of a 6 lane roadway idling your car and waiting for a traffic light then the amount of toxins you are breathing in through the mostly inadequate ventillation system in your car is actually quite huge. If you were exposed to that level of toxicity in a workplace in most parts of North America your boss would be harrassed by health and safety officials. People commute by car for hours every day and then wonder why they feel exhausted - it's simple, it's called carbon monoxide.

In Vancouver, most of our “shopping streets” are the streets that have the most automobile traffic. We don't have the nice separation between pedestrian friendly streets and automobile streets that many cities in Europe have. Many grocery stores here like to put all their best fruits and vegetables out on the sidewalk to attract customers. This means that anyone who buys that produce and takes it home to eat it is eating heavy black particulate matter from car exhaust. That's a really good way to get cancer, and yet - because it's small and invisible - no one thinks about.

I think that art has a large role to play in making people aware of things that they normally don't think about or that they take for granted. The trick is bringing up the issues in a way that's creative, inventive, and doesn't hit people over the head with a sledge hammer, or make them feel defensive or frightened. It's good for people to go “oh my god I've been eating toxic sludge from those apples that I've been buying from the street vendors for years and years,” but if you scare someone too much then it often pushes them into denial - “oh no, those apple's can't have anything bad on them. I'd see it if there was, and the store wouldn't be allowed to sell them if they were covered in car exhaust.”

From this point of view, I always try to create awareness of the world around us in a way that is either subtle or non-threatening. An intense sonic noise piece is best delivered in a way where the unwitting listener can control the volume or simply turn the thing off - that's whay radio is such a great medium for experimental sound. It allows the listener a great deal of control over the situation.

When I do live performances - either solo or with collaborators on stage - we always play with the volume as low as possible for people to be able to hear the intricacies of the piece without feeling bombarded or assaulted in someway. Certainly there is a place for aggressive sound and music, but when you are playing experimental work in front of an audience that is often very diverse and not totally familiar with your work, then creating a “safe sound environment” helps to draw people into the sound and makes them feel comfortable becoming part of your experiment.


I actually really like the Bio-electric Radio piece. It's a lot more haphazard then I thought it would be. When I installed it in Halle in October it did a whole pile of weird things that I never imagined it would do. Most of them were a bit horrific in terms of the sound. So I was always amazed when people hung out and stuck their heads into the vines and listened for a while and then came away feeling good about the experience.

I also made some field recordings of the piece and then turned the recordings into a downloadable release on bandcamp. It's the first piece I've done in a while where a lot of the people on my mailing list sent me a note saying how much they liked it - especially the part with all the bee sounds.

Part of the process of doing that piece involved recording individual bee sounds in my neighbour's giant flowering bush. I've recorded bee hives before and also bumble bees buzzing through blossoms in large numbers, but this was the first time I recorded bees one at a time. It was interesting to find all the different types of bees that were collecting nectar in the same plant, and it was also fascinating to hear the very different sounds that different types of bees make. Bumble bees are very noisy - which is part of their process of buzz-pollination. Leaf cutters are the opposite - they are very quiet when they fly and then they climb around inside a flower and make these weird scrittching sounds that are very hard to separate out from the background noise.

For the bee recordings I tried some shotgun microphones and a parabolic mic and then I simply made a custom shotgun-tube for a small condensor mic that I often use outdoors. The custom tube made it much easier to focus in on the sounds of the quieter bees. Custom shotgun tubes are easy to make but they tend to have odd resonance frequencies that effect the sound - so the trick is to make something that can be easily EQd.


Robert Filliou died in December 1987 (ironically this was when I first started my noise art radio show at CITR). A year later, in January 1989, some of the artists who had worked with him across Canada had the idea to Celebrate Art's Birthday. Some used it as a platform to protest funding cuts to the arts and others used it as an opportunity to do zany things on the radio. Hank Bull (from the Western Front) proposed doing a 5 way simulcast radio show - a sort of time jumping hyper-space radio drama where things could go wildly out of sync without destroying the whimsical and playful aspects of the work. The participants were CITR radio, the Western Front, Banff Radio Radia, the coop radio station in Calgary and another coop station in the Prarries. In the end one of the coop stations had to bow-out and the other one had technical difficulties that meant they connected to us the week before the show but weren't able to join the proceedings on the day of the actual event. So the main event was a 3 way radio show. But that set up the idea of having an annual Art's Birthday celebration that was part radio, part telecommunications event, and part social event with cake and bubbly. I was involved in most of the annual Art's Birthday events at the Western Front from then onwards until 2008 (which was the last event that I curated there).

Now I'm mostly a spider in the network - maintaining the web-site and trying to stir up a bit of interest here and there to bring new particpants into the network. But ultimately it's a volunteer gig and I never have enough time to upgrade the system properly or do enough outreach to grow the size of the network. We have formed a loose artist collective in Vancouver with the aim of getting more people involved locally, but it's very slow getting off the ground.

iwas17/petercourtemanche.txt · Last modified: 2017/10/12 09:25 by givanbela