Nerve Theory: How It Came to Be and Where It Has Gone . . .


Tom Sherman

First, a little background: I met Heidi Grundmann in 1983 in Vienna. I had met Bob Adrian in 1979 in Toronto. We shared a vision of the potential of digital networks; in particular the way art and artists would be transformed as the planet became wired. I was working for the Canada Council for the Arts, the federal funding body in Canada, setting up grant programs to facilitate experimentation by artists in digital media. Heidi got me involved with the 1986 Venice Biennale. Through her reference I was appointed a commissioner (with Don Foresta, Roy Ascott, and Tommaso Trini) for the Art, Technology and Informatics section of the Biennale. Bob Adrian organized a Planetary Network for our exhibition in Venice's Arsenale that involved a live, international exchange of digital image and sound. This was a crazy, explosive introduction of interactive, horizontal network telecommunications by artists, right smack in the middle of the most influential art fair in the world.

Global telecommunications art in the 1980s was modest by today's standards, but the hands-on reality of horizontal, multi-source, speed of light interactivity was mind-altering and game-changing. The hierarchies of broadcast media were vulnerable to being ripped apart, and creativity could originate anywhere simultaneously and be distributed like electricity across a grid. Heidi and Bob saw this as vividly as anyone and dedicated decades of their lives to building and opening up networks for artists to interact with each other and with the world. They also understood that media hierarchies were also breaking down under the momentum of digital convergence. Heidi and Bob knew very early on that radio was more than just a sonic phenomenon.

For me the era where digital telecom turned the world upside down was an opportunity for description. When my feet are pulled out from under me I have to talk about it and write and tell everyone what's happening. I had already developed my voice during the last days of analog dominance, through the late 1960s and 1970s. I moved from being a naturalist describing the insects and birds and plants to observing people being transformed by media. And the form or morphology of the media itself fascinated me. The media environment became a field and garden and sent me into a flurry of description. Heidi heard me and I think she thought it would be great to have a review of the digital revolution in real time. Sometimes this review became a preview by necessity. She put me on the air through Kunstradio. My job was to describe what was happening in real time. The present was tumultuous and challenging. I took on the role of the artist as a newscaster, an editorialist, an alarmist, and sometimes a commentator just going with the flow . . .
Kunstradio was a beautiful context for thinking out loud about technological change and technocultural evolution.

In 1993 Heidi asked me to do a series of short monologues. There was a tradition in Austrian radio to have a priest conclude the broadcast day with a thought for the day. Instead of moral guidance, Heidi asked me to ruminate on the media environment. I began with a piece about how television was becoming the history of video. Video was decentralizing the monolith of broadcast television. I then moved on to a speculative future of video, how video art functioned as antitelevision and as artificial or supplemental memory in databases. I claimed I had 537 channels coming into my home via cable (it took me twenty minutes just to zip through all the channels). From television I moved out into the emerging World Wide Web, computer-based culture and mused on the transformation of entertainment to information, defining art as difficult entertainment and finally information itself (any difference that makes a difference) using Claude Shannon, Norbert Wiener, and Gregory Bateson and information theory and cybernetics to structure my assertions. I took a shot at art museums, saying they would thrive and multiply because they provided a network of technology-free zones.

I wrote and recorded these short monologues, all of them two or three minutes long, in Syracuse, New York. Heidi said I needed a musical signature for the series, a signature tune or interval signal resembling the musical signatures used by shortwave broadcasters. I knew what she meant but drew a blank. She said she knew a musician and composer who had acoustically contextualized political radio pieces in Austria. His name was Bernhard Loibner. She asked Bernhard to compose a signature tune for my monologues. Bernhard came up with this groovy bass riff that rolled along with intervals of teletype data transmissions and other shortwave, radio-like fades and gains. This musical signature made my voice float into Austria from afar, feeling informative and hip. It was a fine example of acoustic image enhancement. Each monologue would start with the bass riff up strong and a male German announcer's voice introducing me as an artist and theoretician and then my voice would take over with Loibner's signature tune down low in the background, pushing my voice and thoughts along nicely. That was how Bernhard and I met, in the mix of my voice and his bass riff, for eleven weeks of Kunstradio broadcasts, a thought for the day on the media environment, just before the last news broadcast on a Sunday night on ORF.

From there I did a lot of work that ended up being broadcast on Kunstradio, much of it in collaboration with Bernhard Loibner. In 1996 we did a piece called To Be of Value in the Information Age..., a voice/music construction that outlined how to interrogate a work of art in the information age. "To be of value in the information age: a work of art must be loaded with information, or must be devoid of information, or must transform data into information." This same year we began performing a thing called "Blanking," a mantra about information overload, pattern recognition, and the pleasure of working "alone together." Bernhard and I were developing these works via e-mail and exchanging recordings through parcel post. I was based in Syracuse, New York, where I was Director of the School of Art and Design at Syracuse University. Sometimes we would teleperform live using regular phone links. I would simply pick up the phone at the end of the day in my office and contribute improvisational voice work to collaborative art being made via international networks. I was writing a lot of short narrative material, was developing a style of messaging that was conceptual and poetic, and was performing and recording these mini-essays as spoken monologues. I was sharing most of these voice recordings with Bernhard and another composer/musician, the Montreal-based Jean Piché, who I had worked with previously on a suite of video-music recordings.

Early in 1997 I went to Vienna to put together a CD called Personal Human. Heidi set me up in an ORF studio with a talented recording engineer, Gerhard Wieser. The three of us mastered Personal Human, a CD album that would be coproduced and published by Kunstradio and Ars Electronica later that year. This CD combined voice-music collaborations between Jean Piché, Bernhard Loibner, Heidi Grundmann, and myself. Heidi and I had done a radio program in 1995 where she introduced me as a linguistic scientist from a company called WordWatch Systems which examined the language used in corporate boardrooms, isolating “abstract nouns” like interactivity, creativity, or spontaneity (“ity-words”) that defined the goals and predicted the behavior of corporate executives. These linguistic findings, the ity-words, were then articulated in Kurtzweil voices (voice synthesis modules).1 The glue that held the Personal Human CD together was my voice and writing, but the collaborative relationships with Bernhard, Jean, and Heidi gave the CD its vitality and depth.

In September of 1997 I went to Ars Electronica and moderated the FleshFactor symposium. We premiered the Personal Human CD at Ars, and during one of the symposium sessions I actually met Bernhard Loibner in person for the first time. We had been collaborating remotely since 1993, so it was fascinating to actually talk and hang out in person. We performed live that week as I did some voice improvisations, telling stories during the “long night of radio” session, a live-to-air Kunstradio jam session featuring Andrew Garton, Sergio Messina, Isabella Bordoni, Norbert Math, Roberto Paci Dali, Bernhard Loibner, and Gordan Paunović.

I was back in Austria in December of 1997 for Kunstradio’s 10th anniversary, the Recycling the Future celebration. Heidi was retiring from ORF and Recycling the Future was a fantastic party. The family of artists she had put together over the past decade made radio art and thanked Heidi for her vision and the remarkable accomplishment of Kunstradio. In reality, Heidi merely stopped going to the office—she remained active from her home, working with Elisabeth Zimmermann to continue building Kunstradio as a broadcast and Internet phenomenon. During Recycling the Future I performed live with Sergio Messina (DirectnEdgy) and Bernhard, doing versions of Suggested Sway and Blanking.2

The following year (1998) I was back in Linz at Ars Electronica performing live with Bernhard Loibner under the collaborative identity of Nerve Theory. Gerfried Stocker commissioned us to do a performance as part of the INFOWAR edition of Ars. This was the first time we had performed under the name Nerve Theory. I wrote a text called “Shades of Catatonia” and put together two channels of video, a kind of “video clock” running forty-five minutes. Bernhard composed the electronic music that would fuse the video and my voice together, and with a couple of rehearsals we executed a structured live improvisation surrounded by an audience in an intimate space at the O.K. Centrum fur Gegenwartskunst. Our goal was to challenge the audience by delivering two video projections (time-lapse-recorded television programming varying in frequency between five-second clips and a peak frequency of three frames per second, displayed in high contrast black-and-white moving image) surrounded with quadraphonic sound and featuring a foregrounded narrative vocal performance, a storyteller (me) with a microphone.

I stood slightly off to the side of these projection screens with Bernhard at a table next to me making his music on his Mac using various samples, a small synthesizer, and his mixer. My spoken narrative centered the performance until Bernhard brought the volume and complexity of his music up, forcing the audience to keep up with the connections, the rhythms, the patterns and beats between his music and the continuously advancing dual projection image stream. We offered the audience an integrated though discrete array of image/music/voice, respecting the audience by asking them, to a certain extent, to put the sensorial data together for themselves. After the performance several people asked us how we technically synchronized the audio with the video. We pointed out that they, the audience, were performing the synchronization in their heads. We were delivering visual and acoustic stimulation, discrete information coded in beats, and asking the audience to integrate the multimedia. My voice work—talking or thinking out loud—took them somewhere else.

Shades of Catatonia was a description of the unconscious mind rendered so by an immersion in media culture.3 The global media culture was depicted as a manufacturer of bipolar, intercontinental social psychology. This muse concluded with an empathetic identification with bird “psychology,” a longing for the presymbolic mindset of birds. We performed Shades… three more times in 2000, in Syracuse, Troy, and New York, New York. Basically, Nerve Theory was a name we used when we moved from making recordings for broadcast to live, multimedia performance. But from 1997 on, Bernhard and I made many things together: CDs, recordings for radio, live radio pieces, video releases, and more live multimedia performances. Sometimes as Nerve Theory, sometimes not. We chose to use the Nerve Theory designation when we went into making things in full collaboration (from 1997 to the present day). In other words, we would decide to make a Nerve Theory work, and this was more of a collaborative mind-set than anything else.

Nerve Theory is an attitude, a shared perspective on the darker sides of global media culture, expressing for instance the way humans so eagerly submit to disclosing personal information in societies dominated by surveillance, cybernetics, and the resulting robotization of our species. In 2000 we did a lot of work, including wir wollen die gedanken der anderen lesen (People Want to Know What Other People Are Thinking), produced with Manfred Mixner and aired on Sender Freies Berlin (SFB) in Berlin. People Want to Know… was a twisted, absurdist version of the utopian vision of the revolution before the crash. That same year Bernhard released Theory Music, a CD on the All Quiet label, featuring his musical renditions of messages by Marshall McLuhan, William S. Burroughs, Bryon Gysin, Robert Adrian, Ingeburg Bachmann, and my personal celebration of information overload, Blanking. Bernhard made the point with this CD that techno was a technocultural musical phenomenon without a critical, theoretical bone in its body (except his Theory Music CD). Strangely, a music based on technological systems was more sensorial than conceptual . . . And that fall we participated in Kunstradio’s Horweite/Earshot event, where I did a live telephone performance from Syracuse, New York (with Peter Forbes embodying my voice as a shadowy figure caught on a outdoor webcam in Syracuse) within an cloud-like mix by Bernhard Gal and Bernhard (Loibner) originated from ORF’s studio in Vienna.4

Audio and ideas originated during this Horweite/Earshot performance evolved into a series of intentionally unanswered phone calls from yours truly to Bernhard’s telephone voice mail and a mix that formed the audio for HALF/LIVES, a short video I released in 2001. The video component was a montage of webcam portraits, a stream of lonely video chatters, sitting and staring out into the void through their webcams. This focus on the dysfunction, exhaustion, and despair apparent in the faces of the disconnected souls of webcam networks led to two more Nerve Theory performances: The Disconnection Machine, performed in 2001 in Syracuse at LeMoyne College and in Montreal, Quebec, at the Electra Festival; and Remote Possibilities, performed in 2005 in Vienna at the Wiener Konzerthaus.

Nerve Theory has always assumed that ideas would migrate productively from medium to medium and that recorded works made for radio would mutate naturally into live performances and firm up again as video messages and texts for print, both paper and electronic. Ideas are simultaneously conceptual and sensual and received as such depending on how they are conceived, rendered, and positioned. The voice can be captured in print like concrete or it can fly through the window into ether. Bernhard and I find it fascinating to see how an idea and its phrasing is embraced, amplified, and engulfed in various media. Media resist and comply. Media are audiences essentially. You can feel an audience in the substrate of a recording just as concretely as when they are in the room with you live. All media have a pulse under their skin and flesh. I’ve always thought Bernhard’s best sonic gestures were like a pressure applied to an atmospheric field, a kind of musical acupuncture that opens other dimensions, literally, in amplitude and tone and form. He has always delivered my voice with care and precision. He helps me realize where the words come from: someplace underneath and prior to their birth in the throat. I write for Nerve Theory because ideas are conceptual and sensual and consensual.

The Disconnection Machine and Remote Possibilities pointed out the losses about to be incurred through social media—emotional deficits now more apparent in an era dominated by Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.5 As the virtual world is developed, our in-the-flesh social skills diminish. The media between us thicken and even pass for emotional content. Back in 2001 in HALF/LIVES, the visual distortion of early webcam exchanges, frozen images, and colourized frames clearly demonstrated the distance between us. Networks have impedance and resistance, and this distancing effect is concrete and very tangible. We are drawn to networks and communication devices by our desire to be connected. Ironically, this compounds our disconnection with the natural world: with the flesh we still feel and smell and sense in our brain stems—the strange physicality of our awkward and somewhat useless bodies.

On 9/11/2001 it is said that the world changed forever. In 2002 I wrote a text called “Always Nice to be Recognized,” which was inspired by a story I read about people waiting in line to visit the Statue of Liberty in New York, the gateway to the free world. These people were asked how they felt about being scanned by face-recognition software through video surveillance cameras. Video surveillance with face-recognition software had been installed to protect this national monument from potential terrorist acts. The people interviewed said they were happy to be scanned because it made them feel more secure. In other words, 2001 was the swing year where privacy as a concept was exchanged for the security of complete social integration (safety in numbers and an increasing willingness to disclose personal information for the benefit of the whole society). In my text I countered the benefit of such surrender, pointing out that “private space must be nurtured and projected, as privacy is an insurance policy against psychological and emotional incarceration. Privacy is important because it allows us to pretend we are something, anything, we are not. It gives us the space we need to practice things we would like to be good at someday. Privacy makes us secure by letting us know we are very different than people think we are.” In 2004, as the assault on privacy advanced to Orwellian 1984 levels, Nerve Theory took “Always Nice to be Recognized” to the Kunstradio audience and to the Hipersonica (FILE) 2004 Festival in Sao Paulo, Brazil. In 2011 I contextualized my decade-old anxieties about loss of privacy in a personal, episodic narrative on Facebook, linked to a series of eight video-text works on YouTube: “Always Nice to be Recognized 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.”6

In 2006 Elisabeth Zimmermann commissioned Nerve Theory to produce a yearlong series of “news items” or public service announcements to be broadcast weekly on Kunstradio. Bernhard and I committed ourselves to making a series of short recordings, radio program “miniatures” that would be inserted into the regular Kunstradio broadcasting schedule. Thinking of a story that would stay vital for the year we decided to go with the bird flu story, the impending threat of the bird flu pandemic, which would permit us to explore the biological and vast cultural dimensions of a potential global pandemic. In the end we made thirty-seven radio “miniatures” under the logo H5N1: there is no privacy at the speed of light… (tipping our caps to Marshall McLuhan and acknowledging the viral nature of communication).7

We tracked the actual transmission and mutation of the bird flu virus, made analogies with viral cultural transmission, and used the global surveillance of this specific disease to launch ourselves into a rather expansive examination of surveillance culture and finally a series of free-form thought pieces on the power, or lack of, imagination in the new millennium. Of particular interest was the spread of the potential wrath of this deadly virus in the media—in itself a form of government-initiated information terrorism—for such fear mongering is useful in propping up the perceived value of governments as public protectors. There were plenty of scary things to think and write about. I would write three or four texts at a time and then exchange them with Bernhard by e-mail. We would decide which ones to pursue and I would then read the texts to Bernhard via Skype (audio). He would record my readings and contextualize my voice in his music and we would listen together to our compositions and revise and deliver the finished recordings for the weekly Kunstradio broadcast.

The database of Nerve Theory’s H5N1 series then served as source material for live performances: a Tom Sherman solo performance at the Tone Deaf festival in Kingston, Ontario, in 2006, and a Nerve Theory performance called H5N1: there is no privacy at the speed of light at the Palace Theater in Hamilton, New York, in 2007. (We completely terrorized a mostly college-aged audience to the point that they were washing their hands until they bled in the washrooms of the Palace Theater in Hamilton immediately after our performance.) A selection of the H5N1 series was released as an audio CD by Clive Robertson’s Voicespondence label (Kingston) and traveled in Robertson’s Then and Then Again exhibition to nine Canadian cities from 2007 to 2011. The H5N1 series has resulted in five short Nerve Theory video works that have been shown extensively throughout North America. In 2011 the H5N1 series was featured in the exhibition Human + The Future of the Species at the Science Gallery, Trinity College, in Dublin, Ireland.

The H5N1 virus did not mutate into a devastating global influenza pandemic in 2006–2007, nor has it exploded into a pandemic influenza to date (thankfully noted, July 2016). Its potential, unrealized devastation is estimated at the scale of the post-World War I Spanish flu (H1N1 subtype) pandemic of 1918–1919, which took an estimated fifty to one hundred million lives worldwide. Fortunately, the H5N1 virus, the bird flu, has not yet jumped from bird-to-human to human-to-human transmission and has remained an extremely deadly virus confined primarily to avian species, wild and domestic. The primary risk factor for human infection appears to be direct or indirect exposure to infected live or dead poultry or contaminated environments, such as live bird markets. Controlling the circulation of the H5N1 virus in poultry is essential to reducing the risk of human infection. In the millennial period (recorded by the World Health Organization from 2003-2014), 638 people have contracted H5N1 infections worldwide and 379 of these infections have resulted in death, a lethal 59% morality rate.

Nerve Theory remains haunted by H5N1’s pandemic potential and advise everyone to avoid kissing their neighbour’s chickens. If Bernhard Loibner and I have learned anything over the years, one of the byproducts of sustained highly-focused research is paranoia. Germs are one thing, but feeling vulnerable is a much more comprehensive syndrome, like music and the weather. We dove into avian virology and came out chilled to the bone by global surveillance practices and the implosion of privacy. “There is no privacy at the speed of light,” Marshall McLuhan once said. The lesson is not metaphoric. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria is going to take our arms and legs. You can’t beat amplitude when it comes to getting a message across (just ask a suicide bomber). All forms of social media come with a gag. Use it or lose it.