Who is Brian House?
Media artist and theorist Brian House, like many of us, had concerns about big data. "With the rise of network culture," House (2013) wrote, "data has become a primary resource—the data exhaust of our every move is mined for value by corporate and state interests" (para. 1). Yet while many of us bemoan this erosion of privacy (and scramble to change our privacy settings), we rarely examine the data that we produce each day. House, however, compels us to consider this "data exhaust" (para. 1). Much of his work has been about re-performing data as a means of engaging with it more critically. By using data as the raw material for performance, House questioned how raw this material really is.
In Quotidian Record (2012), for example, a vinyl record re-performed House's movements over the course of a year through a sonic remapping of his iPhone's geolocation data.
Video documentation of Quotidian Record; Courtesy of the artist
In Forty-Eight to Sixteen (2012), House used wearable technologies to collect data during his bike commute through New York City—his heart rate, breathing, and pedal cadence—and later translated that journey into a musical performance that blurred the line between data and embodied memory.
Video documentation of Forty-Eight to Sixteen; Courtesy of the artist
Working as both a critic and practitioner of big data, House has occupied a relatively unique position. During his time as a developer at The New York Times Research & Development Lab, House was at the helm of some of the most fascinating locative media and data gathering projects of the last decade. OpenPaths, for example, is a mobile app that affords users unprecedented control over their location data; they can keep it completely private in a "data locker" (House, 2012, par 1.) or choose to share it with selected institutions, research initiatives, and artists.
Video documentation of OpenPaths; Courtesy of the artist
In a piece called Conversnitch (2014), House (with Kyle McDonald) built light bulbs that eavesdropped on unsuspecting participants, re-mediating their overheard conversations as tweets. In order to spur thinking about surveillance and the circulation of personal data, House and McDonald installed these light bulbs in public places, "bridging the gap between (presumed) private physical space and public space online" (2014, par. 1).
Video documentation of Conversnitch; Courtesy of the artist
And in Change Ringing (FM) (2013), a modern "bell tower" chimed patterns determined by available astronomical, meteorological, and social media data, reconstructing the ebbs and flows of everyday life and feeding this data back to the city itself through an act of public ritual.
If House's concept of "re-performing data" (Smith, 2013, para. 3) sounds at first like an oxymoron, that might be because we tend to view data as an objective representation of the phenomena of the world. House's work, however, has called attention to the fact that a database—like any archive—is an ideological construction, a contingent, reified product that claims to be otherwise. By playing with data, House enacted a "critical data practice" that has spurred viewers to consider anew the relationships that exist between data and lived, embodied experience.
Seen through the lens of House's work, data practices are always political. And data practices are, we might add, rhetorical. Scholars studying rhetoric and composition have begun to turn their attention to algorithms and code as subjects of study. In order to consider the rule-based processes of algorithms through a rhetorical lens, Ian Bogost (2010) elaborated a concept of "procedural rhetoric," which he defines as "a technique for making arguments with computational systems and for unpacking computational arguments others have created" (p. 3). Estee Beck (2015), drawing upon the work of Lucas Introna, argued that algorithms are "quasi-rhetorical agents with persuasive abilities ... carrying forward the agency of human symbolic action" (para. 4). And Ashley R. Kelly and Kevin Brock (2015) considered the persuasive nature of code by examining the social dynamics of coding communities through the lens of rhetorical genres. Some compositionists, among them Alfred Kern and Robert Cummings (2006), have advocated for teaching coding in the composition classroom. And in 1999, in the introduction to a special issue of Computers and Composition titled "From Codex to Code: Programming and the Composition Classroom," James Kalmbach and Ron Fortune predicted that "questions regarding the relationship between the processes involved in this kind of writing and traditional writing will become more persistent" (p. 324). Others have considered the rhetorical nature of material technologies themselves. A 2016 special issue of Computational Culture edited by Annette Vee and James J. Brown Jr., for example, considered the relationships that exist between rhetoric and computation, expanding the purview of rhetoric to include the ways that "any computational machine shapes and constrains behavior" (para. 3).
For scholars interested in the rhetorical dimensions of computational processes, new patterns of circulation raise questions about the relationships that exist between the self and its data exhaust. Catherine Gouge and John Jones, in a talk presented at the 2015 Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) titled "Critical Making: Writing the Body with Wearable Monitoring Technologies," suggested that the rise of medical monitoring devices and personal activity trackers hints at "a means for generating new categories of inscriptions that can enable new ways of thinking about the body and incorporation." Nathaniel Rivers (2014), also using data to consider how bodies compose themselves in relation to their environments, advocated a pedagogy of "geocomposition," using locative media in the classroom (and outside of it) to collaboratively explore the interrelations between writing, places, and publics. Nathaniel Rivers and Casey Boyle (2016) considered how our engagements with the data generated by locative media immerse us in "augmented publics" that suggest new forms of attunement for public rhetors.
Through engagement with emerging data practices, these scholars hint at productive ways to consider the relationships that exist between traditional alphabetic texts, new forms of rhetoric and composing, and the algorithms—just beneath the surface—that continually shape the ways that writing is circulated, mined, sampled, and repurposed. My hope is that this interview contributes to these continuing inquiries.
Brian House has exhibited his work in the Museum of Modern Art (NYC), the Museum of Contemporary Art (LA), Ars Electronica, the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center, Eyebeam, Rhizome, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, the Conflux Festival, the International Society for Experimental Artists, New Interfaces for Musical Expression, and Issue Project Room, among other venues. In addition, his work has been featured in The New York Times, WIRED, TIME, Metropolis, and SPIN. To read more about Brian House and his work, visit his website at http://brianhouse.net/
- Beck, Estee. (2015, April 10). Who are the real digital rhetoricians? Defining persuasive computer algorithms. Paper presented at the Indiana Digital Rhetoric Symposium, Bloomington, IN.
- Bogost, Ian. (2010). Persuasive games: The expressive power of videogames. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Cummings, Robert E. (2006). Coding with power: Toward a rhetoric of computer coding and composition. Computers and Composition, 23, 430–443.
- Fortune, Ron, & Kalmbach, James. (1999). Letter from the guest editors: From codex to code: Programming and the composition classroom. Computers and Composition, 16(3), 319–324.
- Gouge, Catherine, & Jones, John. (2015, March 21). Critical making: Writing the body with wearable monitoring technologies. Paper presented at the annual Conference on College Composition and Communication. Tampa, FL. Transcript shared by authors.
- House, Brian. (n.d.). About. Brian House. Retrieved May 3, 2016, from http://brianhouse.net/about/
- House, Brian. (2013, March 20). Rhythmanalysis. Brian House. Retrieved May 3, 2016, from http://blog.brianhouse.net/post/45891107863
- House, Brian, et al. (2012, January 26). OpenPaths. Brian House. Retrieved May 3, 2016, from http://brianhouse.net/works/openpaths/
- House, Brian, & McDonald, Kyle. (2014) Conversnitch. Brian House. Retrieved May 3, 2016, from http://brianhouse.net/works/conversnitch/
- Kelley, Ashley R., & Brock, Kevin. (2015, April 10). Rhetorical genres in code. Paper presented at the Indiana Digital Rhetoric Symposium, Bloomington, IN. Video retrieved May 3, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H2_iSznR3hg
- Rivers, Nathaniel. (2014, December 16). Geocaching in the writing classroom [Blog post]. Nathaniel A. Rivers PhD. Retrieved May 3, 2016, from http://www.nathanielrivers.org/pure-sophist-monster/2014/12/16/geocaching-in-the-writing-classroom
- Rivers, Nathaniel, & Boyle, Casey. (2016). Augmented publics. In Laurie Gries & Collin Brooke (Eds.), Circulation, Rhetoric, and Writing. Collection under review.
- Smith, Greg J. (2013, December 7). Sonification and the (re-)performance of data—an interview with Brian House. Retrieved May 3, 2016, from http://www.creativeapplications.net/sound/sonification-and-the-re-performance-of-data-an-interview-with-brian-house/
- Vee, Annette, & Brown, James J., Jr. (2016, January). Rhetoric Special Issue Editorial Introduction. Computational Culture, 5. Retrieved May 3, 2016, from http://computationalculture.net/editorial/rhetoric-special-issue-editorial-introduction
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