I met Jordan Topiel Paul at El Kioskito, a Mexico City chain famous for its carnitas, or fried pork. This particular El Kioskito, the flagship—open since 1948—on the corner of Chapultepec and Sonora at the corner of the trendy Roma Norte neighborhood and a second-class bus depot, features a three-level restaurant with an all-you-can-eat buffet, live entertainment, and an on-demand karaoke setup. I had wanted to talk to Jordan because of his ideas and work on Net Music, a series of pieces exploring the html document as a medium for music that recently have been utilizing—set to?—Network Time Protocol. I began by asking Jordan how a recently-initiated series of workshops at his house had been going.
JTP: Good. My fantasy is to have something that comes out of the workshop that sustains itself. Like a school.
JW: Like a school as in a school where you learn or a school as in a school as in a movement in art?
JTP: Both. The idea is to have an inclusive structure that allows new people to come through. It’s easy for the any kind of cultural scene to not be inclusive, so to have some intention behind what the scene is doing is important. I have all sorts of fantasies about schools, self-sufficient communities, things like that.
JW: What kind of self-sufficient community? Like a commune sort of situation?
JTP: Yeah, but less formal. Less regulated. An intentional community without strict rules. Some kind of model for creating independent living structures outside of the larger economy and larger culture. Did you figure out what this is?
[JTP points to triangular rice/egg object]
JW: No. But I’m intrigued by it. It looks like a really good way to use up leftover rice. Have you ever stayed in an intentional community?
JTP: No. Not a formally intentional community. This residency I did this summer was in some ways really well-integrated into this small town in Utah; in other ways it was like 10 people doing their own thing who are really different in many ways. But they would hang out together, eat dinner every night together.
JW: What was that called again?
JTP: Epicenter. Frontier Fellowship. They’re all there for a common purpose.
JW: Which is what?
JTP: It’s an experiment in rural architecture and design, community development. Culture. Those kinds of things.
JW: Do you think they’re actually helping the town at all?
JTP: I do. They have this manifesto that’s very correct, about the way you deal with a small town. You don’t segregate yourself, you listen to what they need, you have this training, you’re coming in with training and ears, basically. It’s a good experience to be immersed in that situation and see how it works. I don’t know how long it will last.
JW: I haven’t been to the rural west at all, only the rural center-east. I spent a lot of time on a tree farm in southeast Ohio, which is a super fucked-up, dreadfully poor part of the country. Most infrastructure has already fallen apart there, so people just kind of figure it out. When it works, it’s really exciting, but when it doesn’t work, it’s depressing. Lots of meth, lots of youth depression and hopelessness.
JTP: I have this cigarette job, through which I get to see all sorts of places I would never see otherwise. It’s super depressing, but I guess because it’s my life and my job I can’t get too depressed about it.
JW: I’ve never really understood what your job is. Are you like a distributor or salesman or neither?
JTP: My title is “Field Interviewer,” but I don’t interview anybody. The company I work for is a research company, and they get these state and university research contracts. They’ve become recognized as the people who are the best at gathering information about the retail tobacco market. Every few years, New York State, Florida, or North Dakota will want to evaluate their tobacco control program. To some extent they want to track compliance, but it has nothing to do with enforcement. They give me an iPad with the same set of questions for each store, and they send me a list of stores, and they say “you’re going here.” It’s pretty great. It’s really been a blessing in my life. The more I see America, the more I love it. Even though it’s very clear what’s going on.
JW: How do you reconcile that with living in Mexico?
JTP: Mexico feels like America sometimes. I don’t know. I kind of feel like I live in both places, now, because I still go back for the work. I’ve never left New York my whole life—I was born in New York, grew up around the city—so it was time for something else. This was a good opportunity to just get out and see something else.
JW: I mean, I feel like Mexico is very much like America, just much more stark. The same systems are operating in both places, just here the divides are a little bit more rigid and the consequences are a little bit more brutal.
JTP: Yeah, I feel the same way. It’s the same amount of violence, but the way it’s displayed here is more direct. Violence means murder here, whereas in the US violence just means poverty and self-destruction. It’s a global thing; it’s the same thing happening. Endless repetition. That’s kind of the essence of my motel experience, too. I stay at the same motel all over the US. Even though it’s a different motel. I have a bunch of recordings and photos of motels that I’ve stayed in and I don’t know what to do with them. The experience of traveling a lot and always ending up in the same place is super eerie, but also has this pleasant repetitive quality to it, where the details that stand out are extremely heightened. I’ve been trying to work on this thing that would relate to that experience, but I still haven’t figured out what to do.
JW: Are there any other ways that your work has translated into your artwork?
JTP: That job is really good, it gives me a lot of time alone, on the road. There’s a lot of time to think about things, work on things. I do a lot of field recordings that sometimes end up in other projects.
JW: I had no idea that there were field recordings in your pieces. I thought it was all generated impulses.
JTP: Some are generated, some are a mix. But the whole Net Music project started with field recordings. It’s an exploration of the displacement of sounds that are very local to me that then go out on the Internet. It’s a weird negotiation of local and universal. It’s the same recording, but it’s played through a server, to the network, to the client computer, to the hardware, to the browser, which makes a big difference. There’s a lot of variation. That’s kind of how the whole thing started. Where was I?
JW: How the whole thing started.
JTP: Yeah. It started with field recordings, but then I realized that there are certain ideas—about space and the timescale of the Internet—that I realized there is a use for sounds that are generated inside the computer to help illustrate these relationships more clearly. The recent thing that I’ve started to get into as a kind of Internet-specific possibility is absolute time. I think it’s probably a pretty recent occurrence that time in music can sync to the clock.
JW: What clock? The atomic clock?
JTP: That’s the interesting thing. The Internet clock has a strange relation to time where, from what I understand, time on the Internet is measured by the number of milliseconds that have elapsed since January 1st, 1970, at midnight. It’s called the Unix Epoch. It’s extra-complicated because there are all these seconds that have been added to the standard global calendar to account for variations in the Earth’s rotation, so a series of algorithms exist to keep the Internet clock synced with the atomic clock. The extent of organization of resources and technology that go into keeping time, which you can really just do by waking up, looking outside, and saying, “oh, I think it’s midday, I don’t know.” Another interesting thing that I’ve learned recently is the way atomic clocks work, which is kind of messy. The main atomic clock timekeeping administrations have a number of atomic clocks. There’s tier zero—it’s not tier, but it’s something like that—where it’s like three atomic clocks that compute time based on the resonances caused by the atomic decay of cesium. They define what a second is by measuring these vibrations that the decaying cesium creates. They have three of those that are linked up. The next tier is a bunch of quartz super-precise clocks, and then the next tier is a bunch of computers that have a bunch of algorithms that can tell whether one or another thing is off. So atomic time is an average of all of those, or maybe a median. It’s really weird.
JW: Maybe the only way for time to be accurate is if it’s a bit off all the time.
JTP: It’s just interesting that there’s no way to actually have precise time. Oh, there’s also a bunch of GPS units involved. I don’t know why. I mean, if there’s anything we should standardize, it’s what a second is. And we can’t even do that.
JW: So fuck us.
JTP: I’m not just only interested in that for research minutiae reasons—although I do get a lot of pleasure out of the research—I also find it’s a really interesting perceptual experience to have these pulses that vary depending on certain parameters.
JW: Do the pulses vary depending on changes in network time?
JTP: Yeah. Right now there are two pulse pieces. One is random within a certain range and then every third and eighth of every ten minutes, it’s metronized. The other piece is always random, but there’s peaks of activity during certain hours.
JW: Is that the one you posted today?
JTP: Yeah, that’s a stereo version of it. I thought it would be interesting to do a performance of it with multiple computers, an infinite number of channels. Which doesn’t always interest me, but in this case might be informative.
JW: Why use network time instead of human time or any kind of abstract time?
JTP: That returns to the reason I like to use the Internet in general. These things are a part of my life, at least, and probably a part of a lot of other people’s lives, and I feel they are relatively unexplored perceptual spaces. I’m interested in what can be done in these spaces, and how these things change my perception of physical space. It’s also about populating this certain area of my life with aesthetics, rather than leave it as a neutral space—or what’s worse, and probably more realistic, is that the surrounding culture fills in the vacuum.
JW: And anyway Internet space is never neutral anyway, it’s a very rigid hierarchy.
JTP: Another reason why I’m interested in network time is because it creates a funny relationship to the idea of continuity. The code is there when you’re not listening to it. When it’s not playing. It might be playing somewhere, but it’s not playing for you. When you return to it, it continues according to clock time, rather than when you paused it or last left off. It’s different than leaving on a record or a CD, because it’s connected to this universal standardized time.
JW: That’s then itself tied, through a series of ciphers, to the spinning of the earth itself. I like that kind of thing because most aesthetic activity tends to operate on the premise of, say, artist takes you from embodied position A to abstract position B, maybe through a time-based thing or maybe through a painting or photograph. But I feel like things like what you’re doing bring you more into time, rather than further away.
JTP: Sure, temporally, but also culturally and technologically. You could be sitting at your desk, on your laptop, doing whatever you normally do, and this thing can be there. It’s a pretty smooth transition into normal life. I prefer having things that are close to the limit of daily existence, that are seamless with outside streams of experience that aren’t the work.
JW: I was reading in your synopsis of your residency at Epicenter that you prefer thinking of your pieces as listening aids, rather than anything else.
JTP: The Utah project was a way to perform these Net Music pieces and extend this strange relationship of listening to the Internet to listening to the Internet in a place. It was necessary to not just say, “end your non-aesthetic life now, the music’s starting!” I wanted to present something that was in dialogue with a specific place and time, rather than a discreet narrative. There are always certain elements that are connected to ambient characteristics. The listening aid acts as a perceptual bridge between listening to the work and listening to the environment. Together they kind of make the performance. There’s enough sound everywhere—it’s almost too much to ask to add more to it. There’s almost so much richness, cyclical or random activity, that to just listen to it is really enough. That’s where the idea of listening aids comes from.
JW: How do you perform a listening aid?
JTP: Well, that’s where it might be the most half-baked if it’s not believable. I just do what I feel is appropriate. I open the laptop in the space where it should be, and I listen to it with everybody else. It’s a strange relationship, though, because I’ve kind of lost my innocence as the listener…
JW: When you performed with Rolando I was definitely watching you listen. And I was thinking, “maybe I should not be watching Jordan.”
JTP: Maybe it has some other levels of commentary on listening and performance. But for me, I shouldn’t just sit there pretending to play. I want to listen. I acknowledge that I have this power, as a performer, that no matter what I do, it sets a sort of tone. In pieces where movement or different types of listening can be enriching, I’ll walk around, or I’ll move my head. I guess there’s a fine line between being manipulative as a performer and just being honest, but I do want to hear all these different perspectives, and if I can use my power as a performer to demonstrate that there are different perspectives to enrich the listening experience, then I feel like I should. I think it goes hand-in-hand with not being too anal about people talking over the music or people doing what would otherwise be considered an interruption in standard music performance terms.
JW: How do you tune the pieces to the places? By using field recordings?
JTP: In part by using field recordings, but ideally it’s listening. I listen and test some tones, record some things. I tweak things to see how they interact together. But it’s really just listening—a lot of listening.
JW: And these pieces are coded, right? How? Do you consider the code your instrument, so to speak?
JTP: No, I think it’s just because HTML is what I knew. I still don’t know that much, honestly. If there are things that I want to do, I’ll do some research and try to learn new methods. For instance, I’m working on this collaboration with my friend Brian Eubanks. He’s made these pieces that expand and contract and move around, and the idea is that they will only be listenable when it’s raining. It connects a lot with the work I’ve been doing, because it’s a different kind of listening. What I want to do is get a kind of weather data service that says, is it raining in your location based on your IP address? If yes, these things are playable, if no, the screen is blank. The idea is that these pieces are suitable for rain, and to make it possible to listen to them only in a time and place when it’s raining. We both like the idea of being like, “oh, it’s raining, gotta go home and listen to the piece.”
Jordan Topiel Paul (b. 1985, NYC USA) lives in Mexico City. His work explores the dynamics of listening, spaces, and everyday digital culture.