The Network Ensemble: ‘Selected Network Studies’ collects audio/visual experiments carried out by the Network Ensemble, a London-based electronic data-noise duo. Founded in 2015 by Oliver Smith and Francesco Tacchini, the Network Ensemble transforms wireless communications into sound in real time using a set of custom-made tools. Originally conceived as a machine to amplify the activity of network landscapes, the Network Ensemble is a free-form and ever-changing set of tools and experiences for sonically uncovering and exploring the hidden operational layer at the very core of the network.
The Network Ensemble was born out of a pun.
In December 2014 we took part in ‘Possessed Objects’, a group show held at the Royal College of Art in London, where we were master students of the Information Experience Design programme. The show challenged the perception of technology as supernatural through four artworks which confronted technological (mis) beliefs. The work did not seek an awed, stunned worship of technology but rather a questioning of its immediate workings and the techno-political implications of its use.
Among the subjects investigated by the artists was that of network, intended as the infrastructure underlying the Internet. The increasingly ubiquitous, multi-layered, immanent (and almost definitely magical;) assemblage that we refer to as ‘the Internet’ felt like a worthy topic, and an infrastructure space of its own largely unknown to us.
Oliver’s contribution to ‘Possessed Objects’ specifically tackled this subject. On/Off/In[line] was an installation exploring the WiFi network, hunting for its inhabitants’ electronic equipment. The piece collected information and communications from devices in a close proximity and monitored them, calculating their distance from the exhibition space. The surveilled communications, too fast to be visualised, were sonified by transforming the bytes of WiFi packets directly into sound waves. The cacophonous amount of information played out was somewhat more representative of the realities of the activity than if it had been visually translated.
On/Off/In[line] was specifically targeting 802.11 technology, a set of standards dealing with wireless local area networks. In other words, 802.11 is the code-name for WiFi technologies. The sonification of the surveilled data in Oliver’s piece was interesting enough to suggest that the exploiting device could be turned into a music-making instrument. Perhaps a new kind of electronic instrument with WiFi at its base, processing the incoming wireless signal by modulating one of its parameters to output electric voltage, thus sound.
The legendary Roland TR 808, an analog drum machine who allowed a new kind of freedom to music producers in the 80s (just play Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force), provided the pun: we were going to build TR 802.11.
A virtual prototype was ready by January 2015. TR 802.11 Network Drum Machine monitored devices connected to the wireless local area network and waveforms from WiFi packets through a graphical user interface. We threw a studio party at the Royal College of Art to test the drum machine.
Mirroring the naming of Wifi protocols we quickly developed TR 802.11a, TR 802.11b, TR 802.11g and TR 802.11n and imagined an ensemble of autonomous network machines that would create new melodic landscapes. Each machine would be portable and used to either perform with or autonomously playback network data, thus developing a rhythmic character independent of a single space or subject.
A physical device was ready by summer. Built into a flight-case to be easily carried, the machine was taken around London to explore the WiFi network territory. When shut, 2 ports accessible on the outside let the user tune into the network with an antenna and hear its raw sounds with headphones. When open, a set of peripherals (stored in the bottom half of the flight-case) can be connected to 6 ports built into an operational panel (located on the other half), letting the user perform the network space.
Building on the software developed for the early TR 802.11 virtual experiments, we developed NE.app, a software tool for the capture and analysis of network data. Sitting at the hearth of the operational panel, NE.app collects as much WiFi packets from the local networks as it can. Upon receipt it categorises them according to their intent and transforms them into an electrical pulse, which is transmitted to the ports on the operational panel. Each port corresponds to a slice of the network: structure, gatekeeping, communications, data, broken and unknown.
The peripherals sonify these network slices. When plugged into the ports, they translate the electrical pulse into a digital sound, a mechanical tap, and so on… The peripherals are various in shape, scope and configuration: an antenna, a set of speakers, a series of solenoids, to name a few. Together, they form an autonomous orchestra which plays the network data live onto its physical surroundings, allowing serendipitous and distorted soundscapes to be uncovered by a user, whether performing or exploring. It is this horizontal relationship between machine and human that we dubbed “Network Ensemble”.
A second machine, made in part with steel, was exhibited at the Royal College of Art Show 2015. Intended as a stable rather than portable device, the peripherals sat around it — not needing to be stored in the flight-case, which now featured a panel with a built-in antenna. Two more peripherals were added: a MIDI keyboard, stuttering ambient noise and bursting into life as the network picked up pace; and a Super 8 projector, hacked to advance a frame of the Micky Mouse animation The Band Concert only when it received a network packet - the conductor of this ensemble.
A third machine, the NE3, was built in 2017. NE3 is a compact board which uses a stripped down version of the NE.app employed in previous Network Ensemble experiments to receive packets on all networks local to it and convert their content into sound as directly as possible. A single knob on the top-side of the board allows control of the speed at which the network data is transformed, ranging from high speeds, staying true to the intense nature of the WiFi, to low speeds, making it possible to identify patterns in the noise or investigate the sonic character of a particular slice of the network. Two jack ports allow for the connection of audio equipment for sonic manipulation and performance. As a base, the NE3 has a surface transducer which turns nearly any surface into a speaker.
Originally conceived as a drum machine to amplify the activity of network landscapes, the Network Ensemble is now a free-form and ever-changing set of tools and experiences for sonically uncovering the hidden operational layer at the very core of the network. Since 2015, we heve performed as part of the ensemble, under this moniker, in a number of locations across three countries. We have also used the machinery to study wireless networks, exploring physical and network territories, creating audiovisual work from our findings.
Some of this sound and video work is released for the first time through Selected Network Studies.