'Mothers, sisters, wives and sweethearts who have lost their beloved in the war, find their souls hungering for them … You, it becomes known, are investigating the problem, the question whether personality persists after so-called 'body-death' … People everywhere are anxiously awaiting word from you.' -A.D. Rothman to Thomas Edison in The New York Times, 1921
Jean Cocteau's 1949 film Orpheus (Orphée) recently reminded me of a certain modern fascination with the artifacts and phenomenon of recorded sound, especially in relation to voices of the dead. Early in the film a poet named Cégeste dies, but he is immediately resurrected as a voice, broadcasting from beyond. His acousmatic transmissions transfix and torment Orpheus, who listens desperately from a car radio with otherworldly reception.
Thomas Edison, perhaps tormented by the "permanent" impression of voice, is quoted as saying of his phonograph:
'This tongueless, toothless instrument, without larynx or pharynx, dumb, voiceless matter, nevertheless utters your words, and centuries after you have crumbled to dust will repeat again and again to a generation that will never know you, every idle thought, every fond fancy, every vain word that you choose to whisper against this thin iron diaphragm.'
In March of 2008 researchers presented a new “oldest recording” at Stanford University - a 10 second clip of a woman singing, recorded in 1860. The song was captured by a “phonautograph,” a device that etched graphic representations of sound waves onto paper covered in soot from a burning lamp. Using a “virtual stylus” and compensating for the hand-cranked speed variations of the original, scientists were able to resurrect this 150 year old voice. Audio historian David Giovannoni, who found the recording, said "The fact is it's recorded in smoke. The voice is coming out from behind this screen of aural smoke."
Editor's Note: PLAYLIST is an exhibition currently taking place at LABoral in Gijón, Spain through mid-May. Last month curator Domenico Quaranta was kind enough to allow us to republish his overview of the show from the exhibition catalogue. This second PLAYLIST essay that we'll be featuring on Vague Terrain is by the New York City-based arts writer Ed Halter. If you are interested, a PDF of the catalogue can be found here. Unless labeled otherwise - all photographs in this text are courtesy of LABoral. For more coverage of PLAYLIST see Régine Debatty's posts on the show [I/II].
1. Digital and Material
I would like to consider a notion that I have felt was intuitively true but have never explored in depth: that the 8-bit or "low-res" aesthetic of much contemporary electronic art can be thought of as a form of digital materialism. By employing the phrase "digital materialism," I draw upon a specific term that has circulated within the sphere of avant-garde filmmaking from the 1970s onward. In this context, materialism describes a sensibility, most explicitly theorized in the writings of London-based filmmaker Peter Gidal, in which the physical materials of film technology are made visible within the work itself, and thereby become decisive components of a reflexively cinematic but predominantly non-narrative experience. Materialism reverses the usual Hollywood practice of hiding the mode of production so as not to disrupt the suspension of disbelief necessary to enter into a staged, fictional world.
One example of materialist filmmaking would be Malcolm Le Grice's Little Dog for Roger (1967), created out of a home movie originally shot on an obsolete format, 9.5 millimetre film, that has the unusual distinction of bearing its sprocket holes in the middle of the frame, rather than on the sides. Le Grice transferred the original 9.5 millimetre film onto larger 16 millimetres, using an optical printer to shift the images forward and back and side to side, exposing the full shape of the frame. As viewers, we thus examine the original footage now less for its photographic content than as a physical object unto itself — a shift that is punctuated, in this case, by the source format's obsolescence. The idea of a digital materialism might at first appear to present a paradox.
We have become used to imagining new media as quintessentially non-physical, virtual, immaterial. This concept may be traced back at least as far as Les immateriaux, the seminal exhibition curated by philosopher Jean-François Lyotard in 1985 that dealt with new relationships of science, art and technology. One finds related vocabulary in Maurizio Lazzarato's typification of the work of the information economy as "immaterial labour" (language that carries over into Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire ) as well as in the title of a 2001 conference at the Guggenheim in New York on archiving electronic media: Preserving the Immaterial: A Conference on Variable Media.
This supposed contradiction evaporates when scrutinized. The editors of the recent collection Digital Material: Tracing New Media in Everyday Life and Technology have critiqued this longstanding notion as "the myth of the immaterial," noting that "software for instance cannot exist by itself but is intrinsically embedded in physical data carriers. In other words, as stuff which may defy immediate physical contact, yet which is incorporated in materiality rather than floating as a metaphysical substance in virtual space."1
Thinking about materialist film provides a workable parallel for a digital materialism, a means to appreciate new media's corporeality. After all, cinema too has frequently been thought of as something without substance – a dream, a fantasy, a psychic projection, a weightless vision. Materialist film resuscitates the concept of cinema back to its physical, technological basis. In Against Interpretation (1965) Susan Sontag observes that the goal of the art of her time had gone from the aesthetics of mimesis or representation to the practice of subjective expression. Materialism adds a third mode of experience: the contemplation of and interaction with a recalcitrant physical reality, an objective world. Materialism is anti-solipsist, counter-transcendent.
Materialist filmmaking is sometimes understood as an attempt towards "pure film," and therefore merely another iteration of the longstanding modernist interest in essentialism – the Greenbergian impulse that artworks should explore the constitutive elements of their given medium. But Gidal rethought this concept specifically in light of the Marxist theory of dialectical materialism. So as Gidal explains in his essay Theory and Definition of Structural/Materialist Film: "The dialectic of the film is established in that space of tension between materialist flatness, grain, light, movement, and the supposed reality that is represented."2
The primary concern of materialist film is therefore not simply the existence of the artwork as a thing-in-itself, but rather the quality of the encounter between the viewer and that object. It describes an experience of tension between perceiving the form and the content, the graphic and the photographic – between looking at the projected image, like the flatness of an Abstract Expressionist painting, or looking through it, as if it were a window, towards a "supposed reality." In cognitive psychology, such vacillation is known as multistable perception. Ludwig Wittgenstein described a similar mental flip-flopping as "aspect seeing" in Philosophical Investigations.
A digital variant on this phenomenon can be seen in Gijs Gieskes's Eye (video above), made by outputting video from a Game Boy Camera using a mod of his own invention. Gieskes includes images of female fashion models, apparently from magazines, rendered by the Game Boy's low-res capabilities into near-abstract arrangements of fat black pixels. In these moments, the contradictions between graphic and photographic parallel that found in materialist film. Like Little Dog for Roger, Eye encourages us to look more closely at the surface manifestations of an outdated form of media, made more visible to us than before thanks to the alienating effects of time on old technologies, recouped as a form of pleasure. The effect recalls an observation by Rosalind Krauss of "an imaginative capacity stored within this technical support and made suddenly retrievable at the moment when the armoring of technology breaks down under the force of its own obsolescence."3
A similar quality can be found in the moving images produced by the VinylVideo™ project (pictured above). Here, an analogue video signal is stored in the grooves of a vinyl LP. When played, the sounds from the LP are translated into a video signal by a proprietary digital processor, then displayed on a black-and-white television set. Unlike Eye, which employs and references a real artifact of past technology, VinylVideo™ combines two old technologies – analogue video and the phonograph – in a way that might have happened, but never did. It presents a counterfactual technology, a physical manifestation of alternative history. Here again we look to the image not simply for content but form: the occasional jagged diagonals that interrupt certain moments reflect the project's fancifully impractical process of storage and retrieval. The "space of tension" noted by Gidal occurs between the unusual materiality of the signal and the video image it carries.
2. Seeing Materially
Eye and VinylVideo™ provide particularly suitable comparisons to materialist filmmaking because, like film, both use images originally produced by cameras. However, Gidal's dialectic appears to be an insufficient means to describe a materialist experience for anything but photographic media, unless one expands upon his system. I would therefore suggest that a materialist aesthetic actually involves tensions between three possible modes:
(1) the technological index: seeing the image as a record, a mark, of the specific technology used for its production.
(2) the representational index: seeing the image as a direct representation of the reality recorded by the camera.
(3) form: seeing the image as a two-dimensional composition, as one would a flat abstract painting or other graphic artwork.
Here I borrow the terminology of "index" from philosopher Charles S. Peirce.4 Following Peirce's use, Gidal's "materialist flatness, grain, light, movement" functions indexically because these signs point to the existence of something that physically produced them. Peirce's index is like a footprint in the snow or a scratch on a wall; it contains a readable trace of its own causality. It has become common in critical thought to talk about the photograph as an index, but it is rarely noted that photographs actually point to two sources at the same time: not only what was in front of the camera, but the apparatus of the camera itself. Consequently, we look at the images in Eyes and see them in three simultaneous ways: (1) as records of the Game Boy Camera's particular processes (2) as records of objects placed in front of the Camera and (3) as formal compositions.
Thinking this way allows for a materialist aesthetic without photographic representation: it could occur as a tension between modes (1) and (3). Take for example the video Look & Listen by Mike Johnston/Mike in Mono, produced under the nom de band of the ZX Spectrum Orchestra. Look & Listen consists of a series of sounds and images made by Johnston with a ZX Spectrum, an 8-bit personal computer popular in the United Kingdom in the 1980s. Watching Look & Listen's strobing stream of abstract planes and lines in primary colours involves no photographic images, but cannot be fully appreciated as merely a set of animated forms: we look at them as the products of an early home computer system with what now strikes us as an extremely limited memory and processing power rather than, say, mock-ups of the same produced in Flash, and would experience them differently otherwise. The same can be said for the work's audio component: our knowledge of its process of production is as essential to the experience as the form itself.
3. Flash of Recognition
Returning to the example of VinylVideo™: its vertical lines of interference happen because of imperfections in the structure of the vinyl, scratches in the grooves. The very moments that indicate the specificity of the medium occur when that medium starts to break down, to suffer and reveal imperfections. The technology becomes visible through its failures. Glitches and errors constitute evidence of its origins; we see the material through disruption.
By analogy, both a random collection of letters or a repetitive string ask us to look closer at typography as form:
The incorporation of noise into music and the significance of this procedure for the 8-bit scene perhaps needs no explanation, except to note that when musical elements are experienced as noise, they do insomuch that they point back to the technologies of their making. A discerning ear can hear the specific limitations of the Game Boy or Atari 2600 or Commodore 64 when such technologies are pushed to create music. Less knowledgeable listeners will experience – perhaps even unconsciously – a feeling of "past computer-ness", without needing to know the technical reasons behind that particular range of sounds. (It is significant that many of these works draw on technologies used for early computer games, since it is through gaming that we first develop an intuitive sense for electronic systems; their distance in time and link to childhood lends an inevitable emotional quality, a pleasurably bittersweet colouration.) Peirce writes that "anything which focuses the attention is an index. Anything that startles us is an index," and we could apply this logic to audio-visual disruptions and noise. "Thus a tremendous thunderbolt indicates that something considerable happened, though we may not know precisely what the event was. But it may be expected to connect itself with some other experience."5
This phenomenon occurs visually as well. Eat Shit (video above) by Jeremiah Johnson (Nullsleep), produced using an NES, shows the corruption of data on its audio-visual manifestation. An 8-bit version of Bach's Minuet in G introduces stray notes over time, as a cartoony image of Bach (with a speech balloon reading EAT SHIT) becomes decorated with aberrant pixels of varying density. Again, it isn't necessary to comprehend the exact nature of data breakdown undergone in Eat Shit in order to recognize what happens: one makes analogies to disruptions found elsewhere, when a videogame console malfunctions, or an electronic toy begins to break and fail. Bach's aggressive exclamation creates a link to punk, and its scatological undertones might even suggest the masochistic recycling of degradation as joy.
[image: Paul Slocum]
The visual component of Paul Slocum's Combat (pictured above) consists of images generated with a modified variant of the Atari 2600 game of the same name. At first the video appears to be a simple cycling through the game's 27 modes of play, but as it progresses, the image begins to manifest glitchy alterations: the bi-planes and jets appear in ghostly multiples, then the whole screen partially mirrors itself in quadrants, introducing scrolling blocks of pixel patterns into the image, markedly alien to the original game's graphics. Again, the exact nature of these alterations are not necessarily available to the viewer – has Slocum played with the hardware or code or both? – but we experience them as more than noise because of the apparent rhythms of their form.
Yet as part of the aesthetic, we intuit that certain elements must ultimately escape Slocum's control: the shape of the entire experience may be planned, but the vicissitudes of its ultimate generation contain aspects beyond artistic determination. This recalls an observation by Stephen Beck, one of the pioneers of analogue video synthesizers, who noted that the "wide variety of circuit designs and processes" to be found in various systems introduce "an interesting dilemma into the realm of electronic images: How much is the image a product of the instrument rather than of the instrumentalist?"6 Those moments read as products of the instrument return us to a materialist experience.
4. Sensing Simulation
I will end with unresolved questions surrounding recording and emulation. Combat, for instance, is a video recording a live performance, now presented on DVD or quicktime file. As an indexical record, it points backwards to the Atari system that produced it through a chain of digital reproduction. But the experience of Combat as a moment of "pointing" rests on our faith in this system of reproduction. Other layers of questioning may be introduced through that process: We might wonder if certain artifacts represent aspects of the original event, or have they been engendered as side-effects of its encoding as a DVD? Similar questions arise when older systems are emulated using new technologies, either through necessity or expedience. As a corollary, consider this riddle: how far can sounds generated through 8-bit systems be processed and remixed before they lose their valence as 8-bit sounds? And why does this matter?
These questions become more complicated when considering work like the videos of Raquel Meyers. Meyers creates animations to accompany the 8-bit music of various other artists. One would assume she creates her videos with Flash, but they simulate the 8-bit environments of old videogames and other kinds of historical computer animation. So Follow the Red Dots (video above), for example, resembles the structure of a sidescrolling jumping game like Super Mario Brothers, here imagined with a pixellated version of Minnie Mouse, befriended by a talking red dot. The mouse’s questions to the dot ("Are U a decimal separator? Are U a full stop?") parallel the material indeterminacy of her images: we simply cannot not know if they were generated entirely by "hand" – that is, drawn digitally – or if an actual 8-bit system was used at any point of their making.
Maybe the fact that these questions arise is itself an essential part of digital materialism: not so much the experience of the obsolete system as a thing-itself, but rather the pleasurable need to test and affirm our sense of the obdurate physical realities of technology.
(1) Marianne van den Boomen, Sybille Lammes, Ann-Sophie Lehmann, Joost Raessens and Mirko Tobias Schäfer, "Introduction: From the Virtual to Matters of Fact and Concern," in Digital Material: Tracing New Media in Everyday Life and Technology, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2009, pp. 9-10.
[photo: Stanford Laptop Orchestra]
eContact! extends an open call for contributions to an issue featuring divergent approaches to electroacoustic creation, including hardware hacking, live coding, DIY instruments and set-ups, circuit bending, installations, interactivity, laptop orchestras, videomusic and more.
The inclusion of audio and video support documentation, photos, technical diagrammes and sketches is strongly encouraged. Audio and video examples should be submitted in the highest quality possible.
Submission deadline: 1 May 2010
Suggestions for contributions include, but are not limited to the following ideas:
Please keep in mind that while eContact! is greatly interested in promoting a great diversity of electroacoustic practices, it is not a venue for “shameless self-promotion”. Submissions including nothing more than audio/video files or internet links will be refused.
New and/or unpublished materials are preferred but reprints of previously published materials are also possible (eContact! will credit and link to original publications). The author is responsible for securing all permissions and clearing any copyrights related to the submission.
The eContact! editorial team reserves the right to limit the number of articles published by or about a single artist in this issue.
For roughly 160 years since Richard Wagner published his Artwork of the Future, Western audio culture has been forced to take sides on the issue of music and its relation to the other arts: should music be just one element in a fully-integrated artistic program, or should 'absolute music' unfettered by lyrics (let alone other sensory effects) run the show? Wagner's own contemporary conclusion, that 'absolute music' was a contemptible Unding [non-thing], seems odd in a text that vehemently attacks the operatic form. Then again, maybe it isn't so contradictory when Wagner proposes his new conception of integrated 'music drama' as an alternative to both the 'nothingness' of 'absolute music' and the opera of his time, which he viewed as facile entertainment with 'high art' pretensions. At any rate, the 'total artwork vs. absolute music' debate has only accelerated in recent years, in which multi-functional and compact (yet visually bland) tools like laptops and digital samplers have muscled in on the territory previously commanded by ensembles of 'mono-functional,' yet visually arresting, acoustic instruments. It would seem, for the moment, that the champions of Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk [total artwork] have won out over the supporters of 'absolute music', and this is reflected by the degree to which electronic sound equipment is being sculpted into more visually impressive forms. Following Wagner's suggestion for architecture to be built with music performance in mind, all the plastic arts have been mobilized to enhance the concert stage. More recently, electronic instruments or control interfaces have also been designed to that end, rather than just working as efficient sound generators. Take, for example, the JazzMutant Lemur. This laptop-sized contraption, powered by a highly sophisticated multi-touch screen, makes it possible for live musicians to design or download customized GUIs that match the color schemes and 'mood' of any given performance program. JazzMutant's promotional web pages for the Lemur boast that the new breed of techno-stars "…not only use the Lemur for functionality, [but] actually [as] a part of the look and feel of their stage theme. The brilliant colorful interface fits in with any stage lighting and adds to the 'cool factor' of the audience experience."1
The synthesis of sight and sound that the Lemur provides is meant to re-introduce, like other new instruments of its ilk, the congruence of live action and audio result that is missing from much live electronic music. Meanwhile, sound laboratories like STEIM and IRCAM are continually engaged in efforts to make networks of strategically placed sensors act as triggers for unique sounds, and to consequently bring vigorous body play back into performances. All these efforts address a problem outlined by techno-critic and sampling artist Bob Ostertag:
'I think most musicians working with electronics are probably not very satisfied with the state of electronic music today, and the crucial missing element is the body. Many of us have been trying to solve this problem for years, but we have been notoriously unsuccessful at it. How to get your body into art that is as technologically mediated as electronic music, or anything with so much technology between your physical body and the final outcome, is a thorny problem.'2
Of course, people who have studied fundamental acoustics know that sound is a physical phenomenon and that by merely experiencing it –especially at the high volumes and extreme frequencies that cause noticeable metabolic effects like nausea – our physical body is responding to it. This is proven by the fact that the neurologically deaf can still be affected by the sharp attacks of percussive instruments, occasionally even—in the case of Evelyn Glennie—composing for percussion ensembles. Still, concert audiences these days remain bound to the expectation of causal relationships between a performer's output and its physical effect. Therefore, receiving intense physical reactions from unseen agents still serves to alienate and annoy those who are new to the high-tech concert experience, and unused to its emphasis on automated / pre-programmed actions carried out by arcane 'black box' devices.
Flooding the performance space with innumerable, perceptibly discrete audio events over a relatively short period of time is no cure for this, doing little to silence the complaints that the computer performer is 'doing nothing.' For example, I have been in attendance at concerts of high-energy 'breakcore' music, with its focus on ruthlessly fast, asymmetrical rhythmic patterns and frenetic jump-cuts, where attendees would still find time to criticize the computer operator's lack of gestural activity behind his or her workstation. Exaggerated or pantomimed gestures of laborious action (wincing in "pain" while performing a simple knob twist, or making needlessly authoritative hand sweeps over a laptop's trackpad) were often met with even more audience hostility, since these actions were seen as a condescending and cynical mockery of the audience's desire for a Dionysian 'rock 'n roll' exhibition. Ironically, though, said audiences would invariably keep their gaze riveted on the computer operators during the shows, in spite of already reaching the foregone conclusion that they were doing "nothing." This same scenario has held true for concerts of many other electronic music sub-genres, rhythm-based or no.
Personally, I see nothing wrong with exchanging money simply for the experience of hearing my favorite sounds projected from a large sound system, and, in a strange Warholian sense, any 'performance' that there needs to be is adequately supplied for me by the eclectic reactions of the listening audience. Yet I acknowledge that I am distinctly in the minority here, and that the fluctuating priorities of the music entertainment market are unlikely to cater to my whims anytime soon. The intensely visual culture of North America, barring some unprecedented crucible point of self-examination, is not going to transform en masse into adherents of acousmatic music (acousmatic music being named after Pythagoras' students –the akusmatikoi- who heard him lecture from behind a screen, otherwise undistracted by his physical presence.) Similarly, they will continue to rely upon distinct human movements as "metaphors for musical control." The simple grid-like interfaces of new instruments like the Monome 40h and Toshio Awai's Tenori-On, which can communicate to audiences using synesthetic 'translations' of light signals into audio data, seem like they were developed with this need in mind. Of course, the action happening on their control surfaces needs to be projected somehow for audiences to fully perceive what's going on, but it provides them with significantly more closure than guessing what processes an artist's MacBook is carrying out.
Unlike Laurie Anderson's MIDI 'talking stick' and tape-bow violin, the Tenori-On has already secured a number of high-profile adherents (some undoubtedly being paid to pitch the device), and has thus survived the awkward trial phase where it is a 'vanity instrument' solely identified with, and played by, its conceptual originator. Unlike the plethora of new 'circuit bent' devices, cobbled together from the discarded electronic playthings and educational gadgets of decades past, its "clean slate" appearance is too vague to have a 'message' or narrative precede any performance on the device- in the case of circuit bent machines, it's difficult to see them live without assuming the performance is an analogy for built-in obsolescence and the utilitarian struggle of "re-appropriation culture" against it. Meanwhile, the Tenori-On's easily intuited system of affordances and constraints, while not negating the possibility of 'wrong' actions, makes them easy to quickly correct. Like the majority of electronic peripherals before it (joysticks, drawing tablets etc.) it can also be easily operated by anyone with hands, and the allure of even its random sonic output rewards continued use, so that dilettantes and professionals alike can integrate it into their performances. According to Psychology for Musicians author A.C. Lehmann, musicians typically need a decade to master a new instrument: an eternity in 'tech' years that could see that instrument being replaced or upgraded long before any mastery can occur. So, the Tenori-On's "out-of-the-box" accessibility and intuitive control surface is a major asset. Yet, with all these things working in its favor, even this piece of gear seems destined for early retirement and limited trans-generational appeal (one early warning sign is a gimmicky Japanese duo called the Tenorions, for whom the instrument is the very raison d'être of their music career.) To understand the skepticism regarding the Tenori-On, and functionally similar competitors like the JazzMutant Lemur, we need to briefly look back upon the one electronic instrument that has already garnered massive trans-generational appreciation.
Some of the earliest electronic instruments, such as the theremin, had already solved the problem of gesture-to-sound translation in a fairly engrossing way, and –given the relative difficulty of locating the points on the instrument that corresponded to exact pitches- it was one on which performing became a real exhibition of virtuosity. However, it suffered perhaps from the combined, radical novelty of its timbral quality and its appearance: had at least one these aspects referred back to an earlier mode of creative development, it might have come into wider use during its own trial phase. By contrast, Bob Ostertag points to the electric guitar as one of the few examples of an electronic instrument that has consistently succeeded in captivating public imagination. Ostertag claims that the instrument really came into its own when wielded by Jimi Hendrix, noting that his
'…crucial innovation was to notice that by playing at high volume and standing close to the speaker, he could get feedback that he could control in an extremely nuanced way with the position and angle of the guitar, the weight and position of his fingers on the strings, even the exact position of his entire body.'3
Since that time, the electric guitar's ascendancy is owed probably as much to its perception as a shamanic wand or magical weapon as to its actual sound. Hendrix' infamous act of guitar immolation at the Monterey Pop Festival helped, rather than hindered, this perception by likening him to a Promethean figure stealing fire from the gods. Seeing this performer carry out an act fraught with risk and potentially grave consequences was something with which audiences could easily identify: though Hendrix' sound was radically and controversially new, his guitar-enhanced antics hearkened back to an ages-old tradition of artists performing ritualized transgressions on behalf of their respective communities.
[film still from Monterey Pop]
And maybe, just maybe, therein lies the secret to the wide-scale rejection of newer electronic interfaces (especially "guitar-like" controllers) by fans of the electric guitar. While adventurous remote keyboards like the Moog Liberation and Clavitar (and more recently, the 'retro-futuristic' USB/MIDI-enhanced Roland AX-Synth) grafted guitar necks and headstocks onto standard keyboard interfaces, I'd guess that the impression one received while watching these instruments was that the instruments had been totally domesticated. They were less prone to the exciting moments of serendipity and risk (e.g. unpredictable feedback, or the possibility of broken strings) that made the electric guitar a staple of modern performances. Upon realization of this fact, audiences were likely to reject them as anodyne stand-ins for 'the real thing' rather than as clever improvements upon that template. The performer's appearance of total control can be a disappointment for those who prefer the dramatic allure of crazed soloists grappling with their instruments, alternately convulsing and standing their ground in an epic, reciprocal struggle between flesh and electricity. This capacity for a live performance to appear like an elemental battle resonates deeply within audiences' collective psyche, and is arguably the reason why the rock 'n roll idiom has survived as long as it has, in both its normative and experimental varieties.
Having said all this, though, there is a growing faction of electronic music performers who believe the akusmatikoi were right: having had enough of leading audiences by the hand with the use of transitional or hybrid man-machine interfaces, these performers discard the 'human element' almost completely: they will defiantly proceed with concerts held entirely in the dark, or in deliberately 'anti-human' environments where the musical interface looks no different than the work station of a typical administrative assistant. This stage setting is accompanied by a null level of facial and gestural expressiveness. In contrast to the audience reactions I mentioned above, these artists see the virtuoso performer as the true agent of inauthenticity: a musician whose desire for public acceptance trumps all other considerations.
One of the given reasons for this backlash against a human focal point in live performances is, in my humble opinion, justified: namely, that sound itself is becoming severely attenuated under less than optimal conditions in venues that have built themselves to accommodate high-energy, physically exhausting, visually-oriented performances. The average mid-sized rock or dance venue, in any given North American city, is awash in humidity from the constant consumption of drinks and from the sheer number of excitable bodies being crammed into the limited amount of space- this in turn wreaks havoc with the absorption coefficient of mid-range and high-frequency sound in these spaces. Outdoor festivals also provide their own set of problems, as wind conditions cause audio refraction effects and the temperature of the summer air can cause listeners some distance from the concert to hear it with more clarity than those closer to it. All this begs the question: is the net sensory effect less satisfying than what it might be, had such heavy emphasis not been placed on the aforementioned "cool factor" of the live experience? Is 'absolute music' due for a 21st century revival? Until we universally agree on what the most important social functions of music are, these questions are not likely to be answered in a way that will satisfy everyone. With such an insurmountable task ahead of us, perhaps the best we can hope for is that the quarrel between sonic absolutists and defenders of Gesamtkunstwerk will force both sides of the conflict to produce increasingly rich, compelling art to better make their case.
(1) Retrieved from http://www.jazzmutant.com/lemur_innovation.php
From "Atemporality - A Cultural Speed Control?" (Sat. Feb 6th) at transmediale.10
The DOCAM (Documentation and Conservation of the Media Arts Heritage) Research Alliance presents the 2010 DOCAM Summit, which will mark the end of five years of research. DOCAM is an international research alliance initiated by the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology. Its main objective is to develop new methodologies and tools to address the issues of preserving and documenting digital, technological, and electronic works of art.
The interdisciplinary event aims to bring together artists, researchers, students and museum practitioners (conservators, curators, technicians, etc.) in order to expose and explore the issues raised by current research.
At this occasion, DOCAM will launch its new website, featuring the following main research results:
Supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) as part of its Community-University Research Alliances (CURA) program, DOCAM includes several partners such as the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian Centre for Architecture, the Canadian Heritage Information Network, as well as university departments such as that of Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), Université de Montréal and McGill. DOCAM would also like to thank Hexagram UQAM, main collaborator of this event:
March 3, 2010: Professional workshops regarding Conservation/Preservation and Cataloguing (space is limited / registration required)
Summit detailed program: http://docam.ca/docam2010
The Summit is free admission. However we invite you to register by adding your email address to the DOCAM mailing list: http://docam.ca/docam2010/en/contact.php
For questions, please email email@example.com
I'm stopping in to see an old friend during a lengthy road trip, and within mere minutes of meeting him at his home and exchanging stock pleasantries, he has fired up his Xbox 360 and is—with a missionary fervor betrayed by his widened, gleaming 'kill eyes'—trying to convert me to Modern Warfare 2 (MW2), the newest installment of Activision's massively successful Call of Duty line of first-person shooters / combat simulators. "There's nothing nice about this game!" he mordantly chuckles, tightening his grip so hard on his crescent controller that you'd think he was trying to squeeze juice out of it. Like many Generation X casualties that I know, my friend takes the view that only 'negative' and dystopian fictions are trustworthy indicators or predictors of the human condition, and that anything remotely upbeat is a form of cloying consumerist propaganda. So, I can tell my friend is giving a ringing endorsement rather than a condemnation—but, even if his statement had been delivered with a totally flat affect, I would still be able to gauge his enthusiasm by noting the deafening volume to which he has cranked up his TV, driving home the finer points of MW2's game play. After an ominous pre-mission briefing in which a faceless intelligence operative (voiced by Lance Henriksen) warns me "you have no idea what it took to get you this far…" and, more ominously still, that this mission will cause me to "lose a part of myself", MW2's brilliant phantasmagoria of non-nicety comes alive in a most unequivocal way.
Before I can mentally prepare for it, my friend—in the guise of a covert CIA operative trying to win the trust of some Russian paramilitary thugs—is emptying several magazines of ammunition into a mass of screaming civilians queued up at the security check-in lines of a Russian airport. Some of his quarry stand frozen in fear, others run willy-nilly or attempt to find some kind of makeshift cover behind golf carts and the like, but pretty much all of them end up dead in the end. [SPOILER ALERT] The icing on the cake is that this singular act of butchery was all for naught: upon the mission's completion, the CIA plant is dispatched with a bullet to the head, and his body (with American I.D. on it) is left behind at the scene in an attempt to cause an international incident. This 'false flag' operation proves to be a success, and soon "all Russia is crying out for blood," to paraphrase the in-game narration. It's only the first in a series of labyrinthine plot twists that see MW2 eventually going into more implausible 'spy thriller' territory, and envisioning Russia as a resurgent military foe under the guidance of upstart warlord Vladimir Makarov (no relation to real-life Russian chief of staff Nikolai Makarov.)
As you might expect, the breathtaking realism associated with this game doesn't really refer to any objective reality based on tactile impressions: it is merely true to the popular misconception of 'war' as being a mega-mix of smoothly conjoined combat sequences. Or, perhaps more accurately, the realism in question is really just a faithful porting of cinematic imagery to console game format. That is to say, MW2 is a high-quality facsimile of the previously existing mode of heavily edited, yet highly immersive fiction—a 'third-order simulation' in Baudrillard's reckoning. Yet, just as being 'nice' is not a virtue in the world of gamers with dystopian orientations, a one-way Futurist continuum of total speed and action is not a vice for rejecting a cyclical, 'real world,' biological reality of harm and healing, energizing and fatigue etc. All strains of gamers understandably enjoy the temporary reprieve from bodily reality, and—once their skill for pattern recognition kicks in—enjoy a kind of thought-free automatism as well, an odd 'combat Zen' so engrossing and sustainable that it recalls another Baudrillard lament: "…hallucinations are the only way we have left to feel alive."1
On the basis of satisfyingly providing that hallucinatory state, this game was hailed as a breakthrough in simulated battle: the official Xbox magazine heralds it as "as good a shooter as you'll ever play" and "leagues ahead of almost every other FPS on Xbox 360."2 UK gaming magazine IGN lauds the fact that, along with the astonishing graphic rendering of characters and hallucinatory set piece environments, "your weaponry never feels anything but super authentic."3 All this aside, the game offers few radically new variables in its simulated characters' behavior to bolster these claims. How many infantrymen do you know, for example, who have the ability to auto-lock targets with their rifle at the press of a button, or whose freshly spattered blood seems to have the color and consistency of apricot jam? Occasional amplified heartbeats and breathing, plus the brief moments of tinnitus you experience while under heavy fire, are one concession to the way the sensory apparatus (mal)functions under combat. The woozy choreography of the climactic close-combat scene is very effective. Yet these moments alone can't salvage MW2 from being just one of those combat simulators in which all shots that hit a human target decisively kill it, and in which the main exception to this rule—the player's own character—suffers little or no added difficulty in movement when he himself is wounded. I would have found the game much more believable if in-game variables like stamina, fear, and luck affected player performance—in this sense, MW2 is less sophisticated than the hoary pencil-and-paper RPGs of the 80s that, from one dice roll to the next, made these elements so crucial in determining the outcome of battles and other interactions.
Now, as other anti-war writers have done before me, I could lambaste such games' ignorance of the pre—and post-combat phases of modern war: the famous description of deployment as long periods of "waiting and boredom punctuated by brief periods of terror." I could insist that, for greater authenticity value, the game include missions reflecting the other grim eventualities that have haunted the headlines of the past decade: regular desertions and refusals of orders, rebellion in the ranks against the Army's 'stop-loss' deployment policy, veteran suicides reaching record highs, etc. To be fair, though, games in the MW2 vein never claim to be anything but combat simulators, and so they have to be judged by their portrayal of this aspect of war where the human sensorium is at its most engaged. I'd be a fool to dismiss, say, the similarly acclaimed EA Sports title NHL 2010 for not focusing on the mundane realities surrounding hockey, nor would I criticize gamers for not wanting to waste time on supplemental 'missions' like helping a virtual Sidney Crosby sort through fan mail or buy a new car. Yet the combat experiences in games like this do not exist in a narrative-free vacuum, and have to be framed by a variety of filmic intros and cut scenes, which is where the questionable ideological element—another distortion of reality—begins to seep in. This is where I begin to suspect the use of MW2 as the latest and greatest military recruitment tool: after all, catching gamers in the aforementioned state of blank automatism gives any authoritative body a great chance to plant some 'guiding' messages.
In a now-infamous conversation taking place between NY Times journalist Ron Suskind and an unidentified aide to the Bush administration, said aide acidly dismissed the view of the "reality-based community":
'we're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality— judiciously, as you will— we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out.'4
Of course, getting to decide what constitutes geo-political reality has also meant having a say in shaping virtual reality as well. The U.S. armed forces' influence on the entertainment industry is increasingly well documented, and over the last decade its partnerships with tech firms like USC's Institute for Creative Technologies have led to a not insignificant number of profitable films and games. ICT was originally founded, according to author Nick Turse, by a $45 million Army contract
'…to build a partnership among the entertainment industry, army, and academia with the goal of creating synthetic experiences so compelling that participants react as if they are real.'5
The ICT website mentions the Army contract almost as an "oh, by the way" non sequitur, but we can still see that they are in the thick of military-guided entertainment and education technologies, providing the immersive graphic backdrops for all variety of military projects. The ICT is also instrumental in the eventual creation of a 'Future Force Warrior,' a cyborg combatant based partially on the designs of Star Wars production designer Ron Cobb. ICT's 'Flatworld' virtual environment was chosen by the Marines as the backdrop for battle simulations at Camp Pendleton. Another military simulator, ICT's UrbanSim game, also acts like a version of SimCity in which variables like 'governance' go up and down in accordance with how well you can control local insurgencies (as opposed to the natural disasters of the original SimCity.) Ironically enough, ICT's Light Stage (a high-speed illumination system for creating photo-real animation) was also used in the making of the eye-popping blockbuster film Avatar, with its blatantly anti-imperialist message and critique of resource wars disguised as 'nation-building' outreach programs.
Just from poring over MW2's closing credit sequence, there seems to be no direct ICT involvement, but its sympathies lie in that area. The game mission "Wolverines!", taking place after a massive Russian air strike on the continental U.S., takes its inspiration from the partisan American fighters in the 80s war film Red Dawn: a film whose absurd premise of a Russian land invasion of the U.S. is rehabilitated in MW2. Red Dawn writer John Milius has worked closely with the ICT, and his lucrative brainchild is now morphing into a sequel in which China plays the occupying power. Other military personnel—a retired lieutenant colonel, and the Navy Seals—are acknowledged in the game's credits sequence (albeit in the general 'thanks' section, so it's difficult to gauge the actual level of their input.)
The degree to which real military collaboration brought about the final product is ultimately irrelevant, though. Whether voluntary or no, the civilian script-writers for the game have infused certain of its loadscreens with sentiments so in keeping with the U.S. military's current modus operandi, you'd confuse them with TV recruiting campaigns if they were shown out of context. As you head to the training / orientation mission set in Afghanistan (yes, real country names are used in this installment, rather than the silly pseudo-'Stans' of the ICT-aided Full Spectrum Warrior game from 2004 - pictured above) a faultlessly smooth military montage shows a convoy of armored vehicles purposely rolling towards their Viking destiny. Meanwhile, the Henriksen voiceover intones some platitudes about how 'we' are the greatest fighting force ever assembled, and how 'what we do over there, matters over here.' The first claim seems sadly true to the prevailing military logic, i.e. a nation spending more on its "defense" budget than the rest of the world combined is necessarily the strongest nation. Such 'metrics' as soldiers' mental stability, and their ability to constantly readjust to the ever-shifting and confusing objectives laid out for them (read up on "mission creep") are not considered as important as the sheer amount of ordnance available. As to the 2nd claim above, yes, there's no argument against this, but more pessimistic conclusions can be drawn from that statement than what the load screen's triumphant orchestral music may suggest: when 'what we do over there' is to terrify local populations with the mere presence of gear-encrusted cybersoldiers whose motives and language are difficult to decipher, desperate and violent reprisals 'over here' are never out of the picture. For the load screen of the mission 'S.S.D.D.,' players are again told in Henriksen's foreboding tone that "we fought and bled alongside the Russians…we should've known they'd hate us for it […] yesterday's enemies are today's recruits—train them to fight alongside you, and pray they don't eventually decide to hate you for it, too." Here, at least, there is some acknowledgement of the complications that can result from an 'enemy of my enemy is my friend' approach to foreign policy, but the onus is always placed on said 'friend' for not living up to their part of the bargain—never on the naiveté of the enablers who, despite being burned time and time again by these arrangements in the past, continue to arm and finance fringe organizations that, once empowered, use that power in unforeseen and unapproved ways.
So, why does any of this matter? These days, the military-entertainment complex is showing a downright casual propensity for kicking at live hornets' nests, rather than just settling on the portrayal of vague fictional powers as 'metaphors' for actually existing threats. As regards Russia in particular, the timing for these nose-thumbing exercises in speculative fiction could not be worse. After all, Russia remains the only country with enough long-range thermonuclear weaponry to launch crippling attacks on American infrastructure, and therefore the closest thing to a 'symmetrical' threat still existing. Perceived encroachment on their territory by the pushing of NATO statehood for rivals Georgia and Ukraine (remember, it is the duty of all NATO nations, the U.S. included, to come to other members' aid if attacked) was not viewed favorably at all, initiating a defensive Russian posture not seen in some time. Ditto for the earlier attempt at placing 'missile defense' systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. It seems a foolhardy thing for one of the all-time highest selling, internationally distributed action games to paint a major military power in overblown and cartoonish terms. Really, what is the Russian-on-the-street to think about being referred to in this mega-hit game's dialogue as a "seen one, seen 'em all" 'Ivan'? Or what about MW2's rescue mission that takes place in a Russian 'gulag,' the likes of which were dissolved by order of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs at the beginning of the 60s? And should they not be incensed at a game that portrays them as being gullible enough to blindly, immediately 'cry out for [American] blood' without first considering a 'false flag' operation as the cause of their grief? A greater concern than these breeches in cross-cultural etiquette, though, is the fact that the bloody immersive fiction of MW2 is so popular in this age of the "one percent doctrine" (the strategic assumption that if an enemy has a 1% ability to launch an attack on U.S. interests, it should be treated as an inevitability.) In such an over-vigilant and fatalist climate, where a 'hot' confrontation with Russia may already be seen as an unfolding reality, third-order simulations like this game could become self-fulfilling prophecies. Believe me, there will be nothing nice about that.
(1) Jean Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil, p.93. Verso, London / New York, 1993.
[Oliver Laric / 787 Cliparts, made entirely from free clipart found on the internet]
'I’ve kind of come to the point right now where I don’t see any necessity in producing images myself—everything that I would need exists, it’s just about finding it.' – Oliver Laric in interview with Lumen Eclipse
Digital artists today frequently use found and re-appropriated media in their work, and as a result are regularly faced with the question: to steal, or not to steal. I have no intention of discussing the moral and ethical issues surrounding this question, but will instead provide some basic information and resources for finding digital media that is free and legal to remix, re-appropriate, and reuse.
1. Public Domain and Creative Commons
There are two types of media that are of particular interest to the digital scavenger: media in the public domain, and media released under certain Creative Commons licenses.
Items in the public domain are free for anyone to use, for any purpose. They are, by definition, not under copyright. Generally, media enters the public domain because its copyright has expired or because the copyright holder has chosen to relinquish ownership. You can find more information on public domain laws and criteria here: http://copyright.cornell.edu/resources/publicdomain.cfm
Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that has released a number of licenses which are free to use. These licenses make it easy for copyright owners to define how their media may be shared or reused by others. Creative Commons licenses are made up of one or more of their four license conditions (in order from least- to most-restrictive):
License descriptions have been copied verbatim from creativecommons.org. Please visit the link for more information regarding Creative Commons licenses.
Public domain and Creative Commons licenses are particularly useful because they are so widespread. However, not all free media on the web falls into these categories. Some sites employ custom licenses that are equally or even more unrestricted than Creative Commons (ex: Morguefile). Read all licenses carefully, and if there is nothing that explicitly allows the sort of use you had in mind, get in touch with the copyright holder. Many times they will be open to letting you use their media, especially if it is for artistic or non-profit purposes.
2. Free-Media Archives
There are millions of media files that are free and legal for anyone to use in their own projects. After you know what to look for (see above) you just need to know where to look. In this section I have compiled some of the better free media resources I have found. They are organized into databases (searchable websites that connect users directly with media) and lists (of additional databases). Where possible, I have included the type of license media on the site falls under: public domain (pd), Creative Commons (cc-by, cc-by-sa), or site-specific.
Lists (of databases):
3. Giving Back
A relatively new trend among artists has been to release raw media files, b-roll footage, and even their completed works into the public domain after a project has been completed. This development is a manifestation of the growing free culture movement. The free culture movement is a loosely organized social movement, inspired in part by the rise of open source software, which advocates the free distribution and modification of creative works.
Nina Paley, the creator of Sita Sings the Blues, released the film and the animation source files under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License. She explains this decision rather eloquently on the main page of the film's website. In part, she writes:
'You don't need my permission to copy, share, publish, archive, show, sell, broadcast, or remix Sita Sings the Blues. Conventional wisdom urges me to demand payment for every use of the film, but then how would people without money get to see it? How widely would the film be disseminated if it were limited by permission and fees? Control offers a false sense of security. The only real security I have is trusting you, trusting culture, and trusting freedom. […] There is the question of how I'll get money from all this. My personal experience confirms audiences are generous and want to support artists. Surely there's a way for this to happen without centrally controlling every transaction. The old business model of coercion and extortion is failing. New models are emerging, and I'm happy to be part of that. But we're still making this up as we go along. You are free to make money with the free content of Sita Sings the Blues, and you are free to share money with me. People have been making money in Free Software for years; it's time for Free Culture to follow. I look forward to your innovations.'
The folks at Steal This Film have similarly released a sizeable archive of b-roll footage under the same Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License (the film itself is still under copyright). I contacted them to get their perspective on re-use of the film itself, and also got a bit about the b-roll archive:
'Regarding the film itself, you are correct in saying that it is not under any form of alternative license, and it is also correct to say that we have no interest in chasing end-users. Legally speaking there is no formal guarantee, but our discretion is guaranteed by the fact that we have not disposed of distribution rights in a manner which would allow any other party to exercise those rights against our will. Commercial television stations and other industrial users are however a different story - they should pay as there is no reason to subsidize their business model (advertising, pay per view, state subsidy). […] Whilst we do not have a unanimous position on the licensing question (there were five people involved in the core production of Steal This Film 2), the concept behind the archive was to create a store of materials which other producers could exploit, also for commercial projects, provided they agree to give something back to the pool via the use of the Share Alike clause.'
[Good Copy Bad Copy]
I have a lot of respect for the following projects and what their generosity has contributed to the wider creative community:
I am not, nor have ever been, a lawyer. As a result, this is not intended as legal advice.
Many sites employ their own custom licenses, and public domain media is often mislabeled. Before using found media in your projects, you should read any licensing information available on the source website. This is particularly important if there is a chance you will be making money from it, directly or indirectly. In the case of potential public domain media, be sure to familiarize yourself with the guidelines in the previously mentioned link. Finally, images or video containing recognizable people or corporate logos can be problematic. Commercial use of such media may in some cases be restricted even if it would otherwise fall into the public domain.
Additional copyright information can be found at benedict.com. If you have any nagging questions please consult a copyright lawyer.
[Joe McKay / The Cell Phone Piano]
Too Cool For School - Art & Science Fair
The Too Cool For School Art & Science Fair is an interdisciplinary project in which people from all walks of life come together in a convergence of art and science. The event is structured just like a school science fair participants will display their projects on rows of tables, and will be on hand to discuss their work with the public. The difference is that this event is as much about art as it is about science. Participants will be selected from an open call for submissions on the basis of originality, depth of inquiry, creative innovation and the element of surprise.
Call for Submissions - Deadline March 26, 2010
Calling all dreamers and inventors, original thinkers and adventurous tinkerers, mad scientists and misunderstood artists, anyone with an over-active imagination and a love/hate relationship with the so-called "real world" - we want to meet you and your pet project at the Too Cool For School Art & Science Fair. Find out how to participate visit the project website: artandsciencefair.ca
Victoria Espinel, Barack Obama's newly appointed Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator, has put out a call for public input on the subject of intellectual property enforcement: "My office is asking the public to give us information about the costs and the risks – and then give us suggestions for what we could be doing better as a government." The full statement, and a PDF detailing specific requests, can be found here.
Please tell Victoria how you feel the U.S. government should approach copyright violations. Send comments and suggestions to: firstname.lastname@example.org