Mary Flanagan: [ineffable]

  • ©2004, Mary Flanagan, [ineffable]





SIGGRAPH 2004: Synaesthesia

Creation Year:





8 feet x 8 feet


2D & Wall-Hung

Artist Statement:

We use text so frequently in digital communication, but we seldom stop to consider “voice” within our correspondences. As artists, we are concerned with the way computer technology permeates our everyday lives, and how our everyday lives are in turn shaped by the technologies we use. Words, phrases, and sentences represent a time, a person, a map of interpersonal experiences (the external world) as well as the way users relate to the context of digital communication, and to their own computers. Do we have a particular “voice” in our daily writing to friends and colleagues, and does that voice change depending on who we are writing to and why? This project maps the geography of these relationships with sound. [ineffable} is an audio installation that engages with email messages and maps the use of language through the words people use in everyday correspondence. The work “reads” a pair of correspondents’ email archives and analyzes the words therein, grouping them based on the recipient, date, and sound signature of the words, paragraphs, sentences, and finally, the email itself. [ineffable] functions as an experimental system that considers the “sound in the head” while reading and writing as a synaesthetic experience. Two networked computers run the application and create distinct sound maps. The user chooses an email recipient group and/or a date range to donate to the system for analysis. Participants might also send messages to the system’s email address for shorter analysis, though these would be less accurate because the data pool would be much smaller. The program takes the words of the subset of the user’s email messages and analyzes them as described above and then creates an appropriate rhyme and scan scheme based on a totality of the sound signatures. In the end, through voice synthesis, the program reads aloud the words now reorganized into a new email message from the [ineffable] engine. The idea is to produce a voice for the computer’s experience of the data. These new compositions can also be sent to the user who donated the material for reading or further sending into the recursive engine. In this way, the artists propose that the emergent reader/writer [ineffable] offers us a way to map the multimodal experience of correspondence through sonification.

Technical Information:

We used Java to scan the email correspondence and load it into a MySQL database, parsing words to phoneme units using the Carnegie Mellon phoneme dictionary. The data (words) are organized by sender, receiver, date, and larger sets of sender and receiver group mails. We map the frequency of words used and the placement of a word in sentence, and create a set of words as they are positioned within
sentences and paragraphs. The techniques recursively create a
“sound signature,” a unique number of definitive length for an arbitrary group of words, based on pronunciation, accent, length of sound, etc. Phonemes map to multitimbral sounds and sounds created by the interrelationships of phonemes and their particular statistical placement among a group of emails. This algorithm turns a set of correspondence into a kind of “other language” using English sounds. Some participants find the work musical, and others find it linguistic.