PRINT January 2002

Philip Nobel on Ben Rubin

IN OUR DREAMS NEW YORK IS A PLACE OF unbridled cultural ferment, a place where the habits of thought that would elsewhere be pigeonholed—as art, science, design—are somewhere, all the time, colliding and remaking themselves, profiting from their propinquity to emerge as that signal product of urban life: something new. When we wake up we find that the lesser angels of the human ego have built a world in which adjacent practices are too often sundered by every sort of petty barrier—the academy, the narrow-gauge journal, the trainspotting curator—all those institutions that would seem to defy the very point of congregating in cities: to bounce ideas off the people who hold the key to completing them and making them real.

Ben Rubin is one of those people. Quietly, he bridges fields as generally uninterested in one another as architecture, interface design, and Minimalist music. As an artist or designer—he does business as Electronic Arts Research (EAR) Studio—his ambit is anywhere digital information takes physical form.

To ask Rubin what he does is to invite equivocation. I’ve heard him describe himself as a video artist, a sound artist, a sound designer, a lonely champion of “sonics,” a professor of physical computing at NYU, a developer of audio information systems. “Different people can think of me as one thing or another,” he says in his understated way. Wearing one or another of his hats, he’s collaborated with Laurie Anderson (most recently on Songs and Stories from Moby Dick), Diller + Scofidio (“brain coats,” robotic spiders), Donna Karan (a tuned-in, turned-on runway), Steve Reich and Beryl Korot (The Cave), Ann Hamilton (the 1999 Venice Biennale installation), and Arto Lindsay (surround-sound performances). He is an adept at the black arts of electronica (he studied at the MIT Media Lab), but he doesn’t let that slow him down; in Rubin’s work you get the brains without the box.

Which isn’t to say there are no blinking lights. His most recent project, a collaboration with Bell Labs statistician Mark Hansen, opened last month in a dark attic gallery at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The focal point of Listening Post is an array of LED screens that scroll text fed in by data-mining agents capable of lurking simultaneously in thousands of Internet chatrooms. As postings are trapped and rerouted live, a synthesized voice reads out each line and a sonic “pad” evolves under it all in response to traffic volume and other baseline dynamics. The intention, in Hansen’s words, is to “make a place where people can connect to this weird stream of data.”

“Technology isn’t the topic,” Rubin says in what might be a blanket disclaimer for his work. “It’s a lens on human social behavior. Listening Post is not about the Internet.” No, it’s about realizing that, if you can hear it all at once, the Internet sounds like the dream of a city.

An architecture and design critic who lives in Brooklyn, PHILIP NOBEL is a contributing editor of Metropolis magazine, where his outspoken if not curmudgeonly “Far Corner” column appears monthly, addressing everything from the rebuilding of the Twin Towers to the design of a twenty-one-and-a-half-foot-high stool. He has written for the New York Times, Vogue, Architectural Digest, and Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, among other publications. A trio of his essays on the New York architecture firm LOT/EK will be featured in a monograph forthcoming from Princeton Architectural Press next month.