iTones is an interactive gallery piece that transforms a user, and her smartphone, into a musical instrument. A user is confronted with a minimal set up: a simple black set of earphones hanging on the wall next to a repurposed iPhone armband. A drawing, done directly on the gallery wall and labeled “iTones,” demonstrates how the piece is worn. 

The user is required to use her own personal smartphone, which she inserts in the wristband and plugs into the earphones. At the moment of plugging in, the user initiates code on a hidden chip in the headphones, which discovers the pre-assigned sound she has set on her smartphone. The earphones, however, are not wired to the audio-jack of the smartphone; instead they connect wirelessly via bluetooth to a 13” Macbook Pro (mid-2010) hidden in the gallery. The gestures of connecting the phone into the earphones, the act of “plugging in,” and putting on the earphones are together an important initiation into the experience. The act of plugging in imitates the insertion of an IV or a lifeline, yet simultaneously suggests the injection of intravenous drugs, a gesture of escape, denial, and self-destruction. Though the act of hooking up references users’ reliance on their smartphones, it also enables them to give the sounds of their personal data a new, audible life.

The [original] Personal Instrument, 1969

As the show’s curator, I approached UBIQ with a proposal to update The Personal Instrument (1969), an early piece by Polish-born artist Krzysztof Wodiczko. This interactive, wearable artwork addresses the façade of freedom of speech in the “state socialism” of Poland during the 1960s. In his piece, the sound of public space becomes the contested ground where citizens and government metaphorically negotiate freedom.

His Personal Instrument was the first in a series of public interventions that aimed to “…metaphorically define the situation of a human being as ‘citizen’ in a totally controlled environment…” (1) — a public space dominated by a repressive Polish state. As a young industrial designer, Wodiczko found himself making mass-media products to broadcast propaganda for the government. In response, he wanted to create a “…critical and ironic dialogue with a real and monstrous designer — the communist state itself — who was in total control of the entire society and treated it as a single work of art or design.”(2) For Wodiczko, The Personal Instrument was an “articulation of the boundaries of freedom and of the ways of practicing it, as well as of the individual Polish citizen’s reserves of power in relation to the use of space.” His goal was to articulate the voicelessness of the citizen who was forced to listen to repressive state directives, but unable to make himself heard:

Under the conditions of life in existing public space, democracy is the practice of making oneself heard (instead of passively listening to someone else’s voice)… How is one to treat such a crowded space as an instrument of democracy when this instrument is not in our hands and when public space is barricaded and sealed off by the colossal bodies of the great speakers (demagogues), ringing with the choirs of advertisements, and occupied by armies of heroic memorials?  (3)

Wodiczko’s Personal Instrument was an otherworldly costume. The headpiece consisted of an oversized pair of metallic headphones and a microphone, perched on the forehead in lieu of a third eye. This bizarre contraption was wired to a simple pair of black gloves, with discrete photocells sewn into them. The microphone captured the ambient noises of public space — an outdoor plaza, park, or busy street. Those sounds were filtered through the photocells in the gloves — the left hand controlling a high-pitch filter, the right hand a low-pitch filter, so by waving both hands the wearer could create a “glissando sound effect.” The transformed noises returned to the helmet, playing in the private space of the wearer’s enormous headphones.

A description from 1973 states that “the instrument is for the exclusive use of the artist who created it.”4 The images of Wodiczko wearing the costume in public, altering the ambient sounds of public space or “making artwork out of the art of listening” depict a man embodying the “haunting silence” of the citizen. According to Wodiczko, The Personal Instrument relies on a “socially active environment” — it needs a passerby to observe its silence. Yet that same bystander is also witness to “a public-private exaltation of the citizen’s freedom. It is an art of private countercensorship.” By performing in public, Wodiczko fought censorship through his ability to orchestrate the contested sounds of public space privately. As he explained: 

I am an artist in the listening, not in the speaking, and though I do not have the right to say what I really want to say… let me at least be allowed to listen to what I want to hear…(5)

On one hand, the citizen, represented by Wodiczko as wearer or performer, is emancipated as free to listen. However, the silence of the performance exposes the inability of this same citizen to be heard. So in an elegant double-entendre, Wodiczko empowers the citizen by revealing his situation as controlled by the state.

The piece is an expression of the need to challenge a repressive sociopolitical situation. The metaphor of turning the noise and chatter of everyday life into a private chorus for the wearer’s enjoyment is inspirational. However, at its heart, The Personal Instrument is a piece of critical reflection necessary in only the most dire of circumstances. Today, in the new digital spaces of our dynamic media society, we can find ourselves in a situation of similar duress.

UBIQ and I agreed that The Personal Instrument needed to be updated to reflect this new power struggle, not between government and citizen, but between algorithm and user as reproducer. In our version, the sounds of public space, which represent freedom, are replaced with the pre-programmed cell phone ringtone of a user, to represent the user’s personal data repurposed by the algorithmic systems of dataveillance for ulterior means. Just as Wodiczko revealed the dominated citizen by empowering him as a conductor of the sounds of public space, our update, iTones, reveals the user as a used user, by allowing her to transform her ringtone through gesture. The goal is to offer users of iTones a means to metaphorically negotiate agency in the face of algorithmic control.

  1. Wodiczko, Krzysztof, “A Response to Maria Morzuch,” Critical Vehicles, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), p. 141.
  2. Wodiczko, Krzysztof, "The Personal Instrument,” Critical Vehicles, p. 102.
  3. Wodiczko, Krzysztof, “A Response to Maria Morzuch,” Critical Vehicles, p. 142.
  4. Wodiczko, Krzysztof, “The Personal Instrument,” Critical Vehicles, p 102.
  5. Wodiczko, Krzysztof, “A Response to Maria Morzuch,” Critical Vehicles, p 142.