An Introduction to Website-Specific (Sound) Art


IMPACTS takes off with a looped sequence of a car crash seen through a dash-cam. Amidst shrapnel-like raindrops in a blue flickering sky, the camera moves towards a falling tree pulling a high-voltage line onto the road. Heavily compressed concrete sounds synchronise the loop in an abysmal rhythm. Each time the car collides, the image briefly turns abstract before starting all over again. Then suddenly the screen turns mute and white. The rest of the 12-hour video remains quiet, were it not for a number of reaction video snippets scattered across the timeline: People gasp for air in utter shock at the sound of unseen materials breaking, smashing and colliding.


The sounds, just like those in the loop sequence, all come from YouTube’s audio library, a collection of over 4000 copyright-free sound files accessible through YouTube Studio. Impacts is the name of one of the twenty categories in this collection. The video made from it is part of my ongoing series, ‘Audio Library of a Viewable World’, which consists of a separate video for each of these categories using their sounds as exclusive audio material. Complex audio processing is omitted in favour of staying close to the original samples which all of us would have heard subconsciously in countless YouTube videos since the library’s inception in 2013. In order to find the hidden reaction clips within the 12-hours IMPACTS video, the user has to observe the comment section, where fake profiles of the reactors have timestamped their appearances. Once clicked, the video skips to the moment of exaggerated shock, astonishment, repulsion or sadness. In other words,

The viewer’s click makes the impact.

This idea could be described as a fundamental premise of ‘website-specific art’, a term I use to describe artistic projects that make unusual use of established online platforms like YouTube or SoundCloud. Just like in site-specific art, the particular features of a place, here the digital platform, are at the centre of the website-specific practice. Internet platforms are of a timely importance not only as hubs for social interaction but as frameworks for the reception of music, video and culture in general. As an ever-growing number of people is socialised online, our common idea of art and music becomes not simply enriched by the potential of platforms but also limited by their design. Through their structure, algorithms and interactive functions, they determine the conditions for how we engage with digital media.

In the age of internet-centred cultural consumption, interactivity is a fact encompassing all digital media regardless of whether this was considered by the creator. Play and pause, speed adjustment, skipping, liking, subscribing and commenting all constitute forms of such casual interaction. Beyond the playful exploration, with which interactivity is commonly associated in the arts, its daily online employment stands equally for habits of boredom and algorithmic extraction. By artistically repurposing the built-in interactive possibilities of platforms, website-specific art intervenes in these habitual modes of consumption and sublates them to be approached, perhaps once over, as tools.

I would argue that among the diverse range of internet-based art today, two major directions can be discerned. Firstly, there is the creating of special websites with often extensive interactive features. We can think of this as the building of new forms in the browser, which is commonly as an attempt to counter the standardisation of today’s internet. On the other hand, there are countless artists filling up platforms with ‘internet-aestheticised’ content that frequently alludes to oversaturation and inertia. They however leave the platform’s mechanisms largely untouched and, finally, subjugate to the unwritten rules of attention-grabbing, perhaps cloaked in a post-ironic attitude. In contrast to both these types of internet art, website-specific art attempts to fatally link the mechanisms and content of a platform like YouTube to unhinge our aesthetic inertia – at least for a very brief moment. To this end, ‘Audio Library of a Viewable World’ utilises subtitles as visual elements, live-streams, and keyboard shortcuts for playback control among other features.

SoundCloud Gazing

Prior to my engagement with YouTube, I started working with SoundCloud in a website-specific manner since 2018. The initial motivation stemmed from addressing my own listening habits that had developed over the years from browsing through experimental music on SoundCloud. I noticed how the many cryptic profiles seamlessly linking into one another effectively undermined the notion of the finite musical work. However, rather than an artistic choice along the lines of an open work, endlessness appears as the platform’s condition, imposed on the music it hosts. How couldn’t music making itself be affected by this, given that a track’s success relies on its successful integration into the stream: not demanding a separate space, aligning with familiar tropes yet (at times) sticking out enough to be noteworthy. You see, Streaming Music is not simply music being streamed. Instead, streaming has brought forth its own genres of music and it wouldn’t be far-fetched to claim that it is currently changing all music on a historical scale.

From such observations grew my first website-specific work: STREAM is an open-ended (net)work that consists currently of around 20 SoundCloud profiles containing over 4 hours of music/sound in over 100 tracks. These rather obscure profiles have followed, liked and reposted each other’s tracks, tricking SoundCloud’s auto-play function to lead automatically from one profile to another. Alternatively, the users can explore this interlinked community of anonymous profiles on their own by the very same routes that are used to explore ‘real communities’ on SoundCloud. STREAM can be accessed and exited by accident or through a selection of tracks shared on my personal SoundCloud page. This however is merely a necessity of exposure, as the (net)work is meant to exist in an opaque realm between entity and non-entity. Supporting this purpose through stylistic diversity of tracks and profiles, a number of artists have contributed tracks. These include Corporation (Racine and Keru Not Ever), Andy Cowling, Lukas Moritz Wegscheider, Jorge Boehringer, Bienoise, Demetrio Cecchitelli, Oliver Weber and Lain Iwakura.

The other two works for SoundCloud, which have first been exhibited as ‘SoundCloud Gazing: website-specific music’ at /rosa (Zentrum für Netzkunst), Berlin in 2022, are titled TRACK and PLAYLIST. TRACK originated from thinking about another aspect of SoundCloud-based listening, the common habit to look at the volume envelope and thereby anticipate the music’s further development. The envelope graphically represents a track’s climaxes, fade-outs, and build-ups. It tells the listener their current time position within the track and provides a rough idea of the musical form. TRACK was composed to address this audio-visual relationship’s effect on listener expectation and the experience of time. The envelope on a track’s page is always made of 273.5 grey/white bars which turn orange once played. Coincidentally, assigning each bar the length of one second adds up to a duration of 4:33 minutes and half a second. Henceforth, questions revolving around back- and foreground, representation and (dis-)appearance seemed inevitable. With frequencies beyond the auditory threshold, sounds too short for the envelope to detect them and comments masquerading as part of the envelope, the typical relationship between envelope and sound gets decoupled.

PLAYLIST on the other hand, takes the playlist feature to an extreme by aligning the maximum number of 500 tracks, most of which are only around 60 milliseconds long. Due to this shortness, the buffering between the tracks becomes noticeable as the silence in-between the sounds. Because the buffering depends on the internet connection and other unstable factors, the changing playback speed makes these technological conditions of music streaming audible. Each track is equipped with its own image, which then turn into a low frame-rate film akin to a digital flip book.

The website-specific approach is in some ways a very classical one, as it follows the investigation of the medium as main content of the work. It also stands in the traditions of early net art and internet activism that both used to struggle for new socio-cultural freedoms made possible by the internet. As all this seems so far removed from the sphere of today’s digital platforms, website-specific art can contribute to upholding these old aspirations on our new battleground.

Links to the works:

Further information:

  • A text about Audio Library of a Viewable World including descriptions of several other videos
  • A 20min lecture about the same project at the ‘Mille Plateaux non-ference’ in Graz 2023
  • Website of John-Robin Bold
  • Linktree of John-Robin Bold

John-Robin Bold is a German experimental music composer and media artist living in Manchester, UK.

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