The most feared woman on the Internet

Posted by jared

“The most feared woman on the Internet: Netochka Nezvanova is a software programmer, radical artist and online troublemaker. But is she for real?”

A friend of mine recently recommended an article that has fascinated me on many levels, and that has triggered a few thoughts about the SpokenWeb project. The 2002 article, entitled “The most feared woman on the Internet”, and written by Katharine Mieszkowski for, attempts to describe the myth of Netochka Nezvanova – the Dostoevskian pseudonym of a person or group of people (no one knows which) who has murky ties to, among other things, software used to tweak video for live performances, cyber terrorism, and a studio for electro-instrumental music.

Although there is a lot that could be said about the whole tantalizing mess, it’s the software (hyper-nerdily/humorously named “Nato.0+55”) that made me think of our project. See, electronic musicians and other experimental artists use “her” software to enhance their live performances. As Mieszkowski says,“To see why Netochka matters, venture out for a night of laptop music at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. Here, electronic music has evolved into a form that is literally performed on Macintosh laptops.”  She follows, deadpan, with this, “Yes, in 2002, it has finally come to this: You will sit in front of a computer all day at work, and then when you go out at night to a club, you will watch an artist onstage sitting in front of a laptop bobbing his head up and down… Netochka’s software gives the audience something to see while they listen.”

Which is where the SpokenWeb comes in. The topic of “What do we look at while we listen?” has come up in conversation a few times, and I think it’s a really interesting question. I guess, taken more broadly, the question could be viewed as “What do we do while we listen?”, expanding the range of possible answers beyond the visual realm.

On one level I completely take Miezkowski’s point.  How could you not? Most of us do spend a frightful amount of time in front of computers (large or small) during our working hours, and it is truly ridiculous to watch someone else do more of the same in our free time. So if we’re going to be ridiculous and do just that (as I frequently do), it makes a lot of sense to spice things up with as many dancing bears as possible.

But the audio purist in me isn’t entirely convinced. I’m just not sure that we always need to add visuals to music shows and sound installations, as if we’re somehow apologizing for it not being good enough on its own.  Sometimes, for me anyways, the music (or sound) alone is more than adequate, and I don’t actually mind that there is someone on stage bobbing their head behind a laptop or turntable. I’m not there to watch them.  Or at least it’s not the main thing I’m there for.

Now I’m not saying that we should all just close our eyes, sway back and forth, and “feel the music”, but I do think that there is a bit of visual tyranny going on here. It’s as if the quality of any performance hangs on how interesting the visuals are, regardless of the quality of the audio. Acknowledging all of this, then, changes the question slightly to: “What else do we do while we’re listening?”

Bringing things back to our project, then, the question “What (else) do we do while we listen to poetry?”  makes me think that it obviously depends on the context i.e., research vs. entertainment; live vs. recorded performance, et cetera. Surely having access to some kind of multimedia or multi-sensory experience (e.g., audio-visual synchronized transcripts, watching a person’s body language as they deliver a reading, watching a video of related or abstract images etc.), or engaging in some kind of activity other than just listening (e.g., taking notes, posting comments, asking questions, etc.) can add immeasurably to how we experience, process, and understand poetic or spoken word performances.  Plus, in most cases it just makes it more engaging and more enjoyable. But I also think that there is a place for the sonically unapologetic performance style of electroacoustic musicians who, for their concerts, encircle themselves with a bunch of speakers and turn out the lights.

A couple of interesting links:

Netochka Nezvanova (Wikipedia)

nato.0+55 software (Wikipedia)

Max: Interactive visual programming environment for music, audio, and media – the programming environment that the nato.0+55 software is based in  (Company web site)

LZX Visionary modular video synthesizer –  hardware “designed for creating and manipulating video and images.” (Company web site)

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