September 2011

A New High In Low: Adventures In Low Bitrate Audio

Fibre Mantra

[Jukka-Pekka Kervinen, Fibre Mantra – Microbit Records (2011)]

In a recent lecture given at Coventry University, entitled "Zombie Media: Media Archaelogy As Circuit Bending," media theorist Jussi Parikka provides us with a colorful new metaphor for outmoded and subsequently re-purposed technologies: like the titular horror / sci-fi characters of his essay, these devices have "come back from the dead" or been re-animated courtesy of simple contingency-driven ingenuity, and also thanks to an all-hands-on-deck fear of pending ecological catastrophe. The latter point cannot be overstated enough: Parikka reminds us that "in the United States alone, about 400,000,000 units of consumer electronics [are] discarded each year" and, more interestingly, E.P.A. research has revealed that "…two thirds of all discarded consumer electronics still work."1 The number of capable re-animators is on the rise, and not just because of a need for melioration of looming disasters, but also because of the considerable fun factor involved in such activities. One specific example of "zombification" cited by Parikka – the "circuit-bent" electronic toys and educational aids that have provided DIY musicians with a new source of aleatory sound output – is still gaining increasing currency as knowledge of bending techniques becomes more widespread. When not reconfiguring would-be obsolete hardware into a mutant form that surpasses its factory preset limitations, some types of otherwise obsolete software are also salvaged to meet this same end: artists such as The User and the duo of Pablo Reche / Anla Courtis have both found that the old 5" floppy disc housing makes a handsome jacket for a compact disc of similar size.

Then there are the digital net-labels 4m@ and Floppyswop (the former is claimed by its founders as the "conservative aspect" of the Proc Records netlabel.) Both require that their artists follow one simple criterion: the pieces they release must be no larger than the 1.44-megabyte storage space of the 3.5" floppy disk (the latter label's home pages also host an archive of mercilessly bit-compressed, floppy-ready video projects, by the way.) Album artwork, to be submitted at a suggested resolution of 198 x 153 pixels, is also tailored to fit the floppy's on-disk label space. When faced with this kind of challenging limitation, the artist has only a couple of choices: maintain the "CD quality" standard of audio fidelty and release an audio work of disappointing brevity, or drastically downgrade the fidelity in order to buy oneself more minutes' worth of playback time. The fidelity downgrade is the choice of most participants in these projects, and an entire subculture of "lo-bit" artists now exists with works available for free download (whether you have the ability to house their work on a floppy disk or not.)

The MP3 audio codec, conceived in 1987 at the Fraunhofer Institut Integrierte Schaltungen [Fraunhofer Institute For Integrated Circuits] and code-named "EUREKA Project EU147," has already had quite a storied existence: where it was once a radical and risky move for a record label to offer digital sales of their product in MP3 form, now - according to journalist Evgeny Morozov - even the website of the Chinese Defense Ministry boasts an MP3 download section2 (I haven't been able to personally corroborate this, although the same august body now has its own iPhone app, so this isn't much of a stretch.) As with other technologies that mature to this point of market saturation, it has become ripe for use in a number of meta-music projects that subject it to a series of "stress tests," questioning its fallibility and longevity in the process- "lo-bit" releasing seems to be one of the most extreme tests now taking place. The audio file boom, as initialized by MP3 and sustained by more luxurious formats (e.g.. OGG Vorbis, uncompressed .aiff and .wav files) has gone on long enough now that its own subculture of self-critical artists, generally overlapping with self-releasing culture, has sprung up to test these formats' technical and aesthetic limitations. As exemplified by the 4m@ and Floppyswop projects, the "low-bitrate" MP3 album can be harnessed to Parikka's concept of "zombie media" while also contributing to the expansion of the so-called "freeconomy," of which much of the MP3-releasing culture is a subset.


[HertzCanary, whµ_do_birds_sing_so_gaµ – 20kbps Records 2011]

So what kind of audio finds its way onto a lo-bit release? The answer may be surprising to those who expect all such products to be an undifferentiated and unremarkable mess of noise, with the already murky signals being drowned in a secondary wave of noise, i.e. the tinny artifacts that result from heavy file compression. The Swiss label 20kbps (which releases recordings in other bitrates, contrary to what the moniker suggests) has laid claim to being the first label with "lo-bit" as its modus operandi, and features disassembled dance music courtesy of artists like HertzCanary. The Russian net-label Microbit Records, formed in 2008, provides another one of the more well rounded catalogs, specializing in releases "devoted to low-bit music of all genres", with "releases […] available as free download in MP3 and Ogg Vorbis format," and "…encoded in low bitrate (from 1 kbps to 64 kbps)."3 Some of the releases also up the ante by being available in monaural sound. Despite the apparent limitations of this concept, the label's roster boasts nearly 70 artists at the time of writing. As could be expected, much of this is post-industrial electronica, but there are surprises in store as well: the Microbit group Hobo (the only group listed without a presence on networking sites like MySpace or LastFM) play a punk-inflected Russian-language blues, and the enigmatic Evgenij Kharitonov offers up a distressed form of concrete poetry made more unsettling by the unique sonic artifacts unique to low bitrate recording. Neizvestnost, a competent and fluid trance-rock unit, also turns in a rewarding release capable of overcoming the challenges provided by the label's modus operandi, perhaps even benefiting from the unnatural thinness of that particular sound (the group also features on the Extreme Russia From Music omnibus on the intensely selective Susan Lawly label.)

These netlabels' countries of origin are not at all irrelevant to this discussion, and may indeed help to make a case for their being more than "cute" novelties or knowing statements about the transience of technology (e.g. today's cutting-edge hardware is tomorrow's punch line.) The name of one Bangkok-based netlabel, Top Of The Flops, broadcasts this comical self-effacement, upping the comedy factor by inviting artists to submit material "if you think you are good enough for Top Of The Flops."4 However, it is useful to not be overwhelmed by patent quirkiness and to find other approaches to this aesthetic: both Microbit and labels from former Soviet territories, like the Ukraine and Latvia, have added significant support to this project (see the 8 Ravens and Dex And The City labels, respectively), and with motives that stray outside the bounds of ironic humor. Elsehwere, the Russian e-zine / LiveJournal community—an offshoot of Microbit Records—remains one of the most reliable sources for aggregating the output of the various other lo-bit netlabels.

In light of all this, Foreign Policy magazine's recent comprehensive survey of Internet trends poses the question of what nation is currently the most fertile ground for future online innovations. The polling results award the U.S. a whopping 74% share in response to this question (survey results such as "everywhere" and "nowhere" are included as write-in responses in lieu of naming a particular geographic region), and includes some curious omissions as well- nowhere in South America or Australia is cited as having a single percentage point in this poll. Microbit's Russia is also absent from the winner's circle here, unless you count the dubious consolation prize of coming in 3rd place for the poll question "which country has the most powerful offensive cyberwarfare capacity?"5 So, is it possible that some of the lo-bit releases from this region are the result of a technological assymetry with other nations?


[Neizvestnost, Pauki-Zloumishlenniki – Microbit Records (2008)]

To be sure, the standards of speed and reliability for Internet connectivity are still hardly uniform throughout the globe: in Microbit's Russia, the percentage of computer users in the total population hovers around a maximum value of 50% (one source suggests 59,700,000 Russian Internet users out of a potential 140,000,000)6 which is also the lowest estimated percentage of users for much of Western Europe and Scandinavia. Naturally, these numbers take into account a sizable rural population, although urban Russia does not boast total connectivity either: among users in the cities, household Internet access is not a given, and the chosen environment for Web surfing may be an Internet café. Given the hourly prices charged at these cafes, and the fact that "in some cities […] the highest speed people can count on is 256 kbps"7 the ability to download music fairly quickly makes a little more sense. Put another way, urban Russia "might have passed the digital divide, but still live[s] in the 'pre-broadband world with little or no access to YouTube and other traffic-sensitive online services."8 Given such factors, it is a little more difficult to dismiss low bitrate releasing as a purely contrarian exercise meant to alienate audiophiles and 'scene' jumpers. Doing so puts the critic at risk of seeming chauvinistically unaware of other nations' infrastructural problems, and also of state restrictions on media. Even if one has the broadband capability to enjoy, say, the Russian YouTube equivalent RuTube, there is still the matter of its ownership by state-controlled energy titan Gazprom, and the possibility that not just any content will pass through its ideological filter.

Digital dystopians like Andrew Keen and Cass Sunstein have made a name for themselves by bemoaning the "monkeys" running the asylum of Web 2.0 and the so-called "Daily Me" method of online group polarization (i.e. ideological reinforcement coming about by customizing information feeds to match only one's particular interests.) The novelty aspect of the lo-bit releasing method has been an irresistible low-hanging fruit for a battalion of pranksters and "griefers," and has emboldened many who are inclined towards mocking the sanctity of music making, or just societal mores in general. So, while Sunstein and Keen are likely unaware of the activities of these ironic anti-artists, both pundits would heartily claim them as further proof of the Internet's infantilizing tendencies (and in this instance I have to actually agree with my sparring partners.) A sort of trans-national clique of juvenile suburbantites has taken up residence in the lo-bit scene since its inception, merrily grinding out releases whose staggering number is disproportionate to their negligible cultural influence. These releases are larded with all-too-predictable approximations of "ghetto" attitude, failed attempts at generating "lulz" with pop culture detritus, and the geeky concupiscence of 12 year olds who have just discovered hardcore porn and need to share this triumphal discovery with anyone and everyone.

Being that many of the culprits often work in the "chiptune" style – the remixing of classic videogame soundtracks, or the attempt at emulating the timbral qualities of the same – we're also never too far from a fresh round of jokes on that most stale of punchlines; the awkward English grammar deployed in translations of Japanese console games. All in all, it seems like the more puerile members of the lo-bit community are obsessed with demonstrating that ethics and aesthetics (or the lack thereof) have to proceed in lockstep: ergo poor sonic quality must be caught up in an ever-intensifying, reciprocal dialogue with junk subject matter. While I realize it's not good journalistic form, I refuse to mention any of these individuals by name or to link to them- discerning readers will know what I'm talking about when encountering these acts on the netlabels' rosters, otherwise I am content to leave them comfortably alone in the confines of their echo chamber.

Working Man's Blues

[Hobo, Working Man's Blues – Microbit Records (2010)]

The low-bitrate MP3's multiple uses, if nothing else, do set it apart from many other cultural products that have appeared in the post-digital flood of tools for "authenticity enhancement": so far we've seen that it is both (for better or worse) the carrier of an aesthetic, and a practical means of delivering new creative expressions to areas where the available computer hardware has less than optimum processor performance, online connectivity, and storage capabilites. More interestingly, though, is that no clever scripting, hacking, bending, or esoteric software was required to kickstart this audio micro-revolution: the ability to encode an MP3 at sub-'CD quality' bitrates is a feature built into the iTunes application (customizing import settings allows one to lower the fidelity to 16kbps), while the open-source audio editor Audacity allows for audio projects to be exported as 8kbps MP3 files. Though the floppy disk-related campaigns of 4m@ and Floppyswop steer them into the realm of "zombie media," the majority of lo-bit releases are merely experiments with media features that, though not "dead," exist at least in a suspended animation of un-use.

The lo-fi recording aesthetic was once one where "take me as I am" authenticity was concomitant with jarring intimacy: the poster children for such an aesthetic were singer-songwriters like Low Barlow, whose heartbroken confessional style practically necessitated "one take" recording done at home, with no discernible editing, and with the technical flaws (e.g. vocals being placed way too high in the mix) also being its signature elements. What the releases from Microbit and 4m@ point to, though, is nothing less than a kind of "neo lo-fi" for the digital age, a recognition of the fact that much of the vaunted "analog" lifestyle is well out of the price range of the average citizen: vintage analog keyboards, tube amplifiers and other workhorses of pre-digital studio recording cost in the thousands of dollars, while the bill for their upkeep and repair can itself become a burdensome expense. Given such expenses, it is something of a conceit when a completely analog-driven "indie" recording act uses this equipment as a proof of its frugality and rootsy authenticity (rather than because it sounds better, which itself is only true some of the time.) So, digital outfits like Microbit are reresentative of a new tactical shift in the "authenticity wars," whose objective has been to show how positive public recognition can be attained irrespective of technical mastery. Their radically bit-reduced sound arrives at the ears like a lost transmission from some parallel reality, something that would normally be quite alienating and disorienting. However, this sense of distancing paradoxically works to provide the listener with a more authentic experience: the limited frequency range and watery audio quality of low bitrate MP3s may wholeheartedly trade out sonic presence for distance, but doesn't this really provide the most honest portrait of the releasing artists? They largely inhabit a cultural milieu where physical distance from kindred spirits is the rule rather than the exception, and where the expressive vocabulary has evolved as a result of taking technology beyond its intended uses (most digital audio software recommends that the low bitrates be used only for transmission of "human speech.")

As long as authenticity remains a mandatory selling point for culture consumers, it has to be noted that "lo-bit" is now closer to manifesting that elusive quality than what earlier qualified as "lo-fi" music. A bored Ann Arbor teen who has spent the majority of his free time consuming 4chan postings and console video games will naturally gravitate towards deliberately downgraded chiptune tracks, while a struggling blues band in an ex-Soviet company town may embrace software features reflecting their less-than-symmetrical relationship to the technological advancement of the affluent West. Like other 21st century aesthetic imperfections – e.g. the shaky camera movements in the nascent "mumblecore" film genre – the technique's communicative substance varies from one user to the next, being used out of necessity as much as it is used as an optional, voluntary attempt to mark stylistic boundaries. The common goal here is still recognition for one's work, and the desire for this remains one of the most indisputably "authentic" (even biologically driven) human traits. Some would consider lo-bit recording a desperate way to go about it, but it's hardly an illegitimate addition to a modern aesthetic lexicon already brimful of glitches, oversaturation, and "zombification" techniques.


(1) Jussi Parikka quoted at "Zombie Media: Media Archaelogy As Circuit Bending" lecture, Coventry University, February 14 2011. Available online at
(2) See Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side Of Internet Freedom, p. 138. Public Affairs Books, New York, 2011.
(3) Retrieved March 22, 2011.
(4) Retrieved August 24, 2011.
(5) "The FP Survey: The Internet," author uncredited. Foreign Policy Sept.-Oct. 2011, p. 91.
(6) Retrieved March 24, 2011.
(7) Retrieved March 24, 2011.
(8) Ibid

Origination and Metacreation: A Conversation with Ben Bogart

Ben Bogart is a Canadian artist whose works encompass science, machine creativity and open source ethics. His innovative and fascinating investigations on artificial imagination and machine learning are effectively demonstrated through his body of work, which is neatly underpinned and strongly characterized by a critical analysis of the paradigm of creativity.

[Output from Dreaming Machine #1]

Marco Donnarumma: Ben, to what extent can creativity be investigated through algorithmic means and which of your works best embodies such a practice? In which ways can the development of creative machines foster a better understanding of individuals as makers?

Ben Bogart: My research group (MAMAS), directed by Philippe Pasquier, my Ph.D. supervisor) is a group of students and faculty many of whom are working on "metacreation", where we attempt to design systems that exhibit creative behaviour. Personally, I came to academia not to explore creativity directly (creative machines that is), but origination: how something (idea, form, life, universe) could come to be. The early genesis of this thinking is apparent in my 2005 paper "untitled iterations" in Vague Terrain. I started my M.Sc. degree with the idea of making a site-specific artwork that could "find its own relationship to its context". Eventually this lead to research on creativity and creative machines. Memory Association Machine (MAM) (2007) was an answer to this investigation of a machine forming its own relationship to context.

MAM implements a simplified conception of creativity proposed by Liane Gabora that emphasizes origination over evaluation. According to this theory, all the experiences of an agent are broken down into micro-features and encoded in memory. The 'world-view' is the whole collection of memories of a person, and they are organized in a structure that is unique to their life experience. Creativity is an association through this field of memories, where components of previous experiences are combined and new juxtapositions are formed. Rational and creative thought are two extremes of a single process. Rational associations involve activations of few memories in very focused directions, while creative associations involve the activation of many memories in many different directions. For more information on this see my M.Sc. Thesis. In order to continue my interest in origination, I'm moving away from creativity and looking at mental processes that may not involve any agency. My Ph.D. project is the development of a 'Dreaming Machine' that explicitly implements cognitively oriented models of concept generation, perception, memory and dreaming.

Creative machines are a way to test out theories of creativity, and could be used to validate certain models of cognitive processing. I'm not interested in using art to validate science, but interested in some mutual overlap between these areas. I believe that science is just another cultural practise. The use of scientific models is more about a better understanding of science than it is about a better understanding of 'makers'. To simply accept these models without critique is to accept the doctrine that only science can construct new knowledge, which I don't think is the case.

There are features regarding the study of creativity that are really interesting, and others than I find tiresome. It becomes very clear when looking at 'creativity' that one of the most imperative aspects is that of evaluation. Boden explicitly defines creativity as the construction of something (idea or artifact) that is new, surprising and valuable. This thinking permeates much work in metacreation, where some mechanism randomly creates variation, which is then edited down by a secondary process. Almost any process can create massive amounts of random variation and, according to this mindset, the process of evaluation becomes paramount. In computational systems much effort is put into the "fitness" and evaluation functions that allow a machine to decide what is worth keeping, and what is not. In order to design such algorithms one must build in a criteria for what is important in an idea or artifact. This cuts against my interest in origination because the problem moves from "lets build a machine that originates" to "lets determine a measure of creativity". I don't really care what relationship MAM will form with its context, what is important is the formation itself (or at least the effort in that direction) not the qualities of the relationship. I find the idea of formally encoding evaluation criteria quite unpleasant.

Perhaps it comes down to the AI debate between 'symbolic' and 'interactionist' poles. One side is 'top-down', where intelligence is considered a rational process that can be reduced to symbolic logic. For this side, evaluation is natural as it's a top-down process. On the other side we have a 'bottom-up' approach, where methods are often inspired by biological systems, for example artificial neural networks. Intelligence is an emergent property that arises from the interaction between an agent and its environment. In this case, evaluation does not explicitly exist, it too is emergent. The bottom line is that for something to be created it must first originate before it can be evaluated.

Creativity, for me, is really an exploration of the big project of AI: building machines that do things that we normally attribute to people. In looking at creativity I'm interested in rejecting the notion of rational intelligence and interested in mental processes that go beyond rationality. This also explains my interest in origination, which could be considered irrational, due to a potential lack of evaluation. Choices may not be made for an explicit reason, they could be random, they could be unintelligible, they could be insane. Evaluation, on the other hand, is extremely rational. In Boden's terms, it involves knowing what has happened before (to judge newness), what is normal (to judge surprise), and what is needed (to judge value).

[Self-Organized Landscape #32, University of Limerick: Study from Video]

MD: That's indeed a good point; but now I wonder: would you also attempt at mimicking or reconstituting human forgetfulness and fallacy in machines? I'm pointing at that obscure mental process which makes human beings forget or hide their memories, or even rebuild them, patch them together by deploying pretentious ambitions or delusional feelings. I believe such processes greatly affect human creativity by simultaneously creating grounds and expectations.

BB: Just today on the radio I heard a reference to a link between creative genius, irrationality and destructive behaviour. There has been a line of argument that creativity and insanity are related, but, as far as I understand, this argument depends on an extremely simplistic notion of creativity. Through the process of working on MAM, many interesting issues came up, the subtitle of my first publication on MAM (before it was even titled as such), "seizures, blindness and short-term memory", highlights the nature of the machine's disability. Early implementations of the free-associative system were very temperamental and often became over-activated, causing CPU spikes and lockups. It was Dr. Steven Barnes that made the connection between this behaviour and epilepsy. Blindness and short-term memory are fairly obvious limitations of the system. Forgetfulness seems fairly clear in a system with finite memory, humans and machines alike. In regards to fallacy, it seems to me that even the notion of human fallibility depends on the consideration of humans as rational creatures. A mistake requires some goal-oriented task. What if the machine does not have such a task, does it's fallibility have any significance?

In my background research for the current dreaming machine I came across this paper, "Toward Daydreaming Machines", which describes architectures that could give machines the ability to resolve cognitive tension by relegating facts and memories to their subconscious. I'm not so interested in these high level models of human cognition, but the aspect of illness and disability is interesting in the context of a cultural reflection: what is normal. Deaf and autistic cultures being examples of 'differences of ability' rather than disability. I think that creative ability likely brings to bare all aspects of cognition, including illness, inability and so on. Creativity is a function of the whole of the mind, as informed by the whole of a person's bodily experience in the world. Perhaps for a machine to be creative in a truly significant way, it would need to have an emotional base that drives an irrational process. Now we're back to the problem of origination. One theory of human emotion is that it is rooted in biological needs, as a machine is not biologically alive, its not clear what these needs would be. Machines are not designed to survive, certainly not on the scale that living things, at the level of species, do.

[Self-Organized Landscapes, Pixelache 2010]

MD: How would an 'intelligent' or 'creative' machine benefit from such intrinsic human traits? Would a machine benefit from it at all?

BB: It depends on the purpose of the machine. If it is meant to be a tool, a system that (creatively or through reasoned deduction) generates new artifacts/ideas, then those cognitive (dis)abilities related to managing cognitive dissonance would likely just get in the way. On the other hand, a machine with these traits could be a mirror through which we could reflect on ourselves. In general, the question of whether such traits would be a benefit depends on what function those traits have in living systems. It's possible they only have functions for survival.

MD: A machine as a techno-cultural mirror of our intellectual and emotional drifts. Sounds intriguing. Talking about science as a cultural practise, I seem to identify a convergent force which is moving all digital arts toward more scientific approaches; increasingly, the digital arts community appear to question the nature of humanity and society by means of hybridized methodologies involving scientific methods or theories.

BB: There is this issue of methodology. I don't think that it is appropriate to apply a hard-lined quantitative methodology to an artistic practise, simply because the purpose, the direction of the production in artistic practise, is always being reconsidered. It's not appropriate to give up on a scientific experiment before getting the results, but an artist's reflective practise means that they are constantly reconsidering the whole of the work, not just executing an idea or finding the truth value of a hypothesis, but questioning whether the artistic idea is worth following and what its implications may be. That is not to say that quantitative methods don't have a place. I certainly believe they should be integrated into an artistic practise in cases cases of computational art. The difference is that in this case these methods are used to solve sub-problems, not prove the validity of the whole project.

MD: Aside from the (seemingly) wider distribution of more complex technologies, which could be an obvious trigger of such scientific hybridization of arts, how is this phenomena taking place? Has art always been following the pace of science? If a growing interest in science is really informing artists' creativity, how will the knowledge that art produces be different than it was 50 years ago?

BB: I believe it was once thought that philosophy (the original science) was concerned with ideas, while art was concerned with forms. I think we now know that forms are a special kinds of ideas and that this dichotomy does not hold true. Artists who construct forms certainly have ideas that extend past the forms themselves. I think the processes of thinking/reasoning/hypothesizing and the construction of forms have always been complimentary. I don't think the argument for constructing form without thought holds a lot of water, as the effort to make form without thought is in itself an artistic idea. In order for thought to be communicated, it has to be manifest in some form, verbal, textual and so on. I believe both art and science are centrally concerned with constructing representations that enrich our understanding through a discourse. In the case of science these representations are texts, equations and figures that communicate models, in the case of art they are a multitude of media constructed in an artistic framework in a tradition of ideas. Science is highly rigorous and pointed in its depth first search of a space of enquiry. Art is free-associative, relational, subjective and centrally reflexive. I'm not sure art knowledge is really different than it was 50 years ago. It reflects our time now, but I don't think that nature has changed. It is interesting you choose 50 years, bringing us right back to the start of art/science/engineering integrations of the "Experiments in Art and Technology" (EAT) group.

MD: Presently, the theme of innovation and innovators seems to be a topic of interest in the artistic and hacktivist communities; while some of the latest corporations' technological devices have been creatively hacked and re-distributed (PS3 Eye, Kinect), several anti-(capitalist)social networks projects were developed (Seppukoo, Web 2.0 Suicide Machine, and the more recent Thimbl) in an attempt to claim back the primal peer2peer character of the Internet. As comprehensively outlined in FLOSS+Art, and, more recently, in the Telekommunist Manifesto, there exists a multi-stranded relation between capitalism and innovation, and innovation and open creativity. What are the modalities by which Open Source ethics can encourage innovative practices? Could we argue that innovation is intrinsic to the Open Source ethos?

BB: If we consider science (and therefore technology) a cultural practise, then it is clear that no idea forms in isolation, but is given life thanks to a context of other ideas. In Gabora's theory of creativity the 'world-view' contains all the components of all the things we have seen and remember. It is only from this pool that a new idea can be constructed from existing components. For this very reason I can't believe in intellectual property (IP). Ideas cannot be owned because they cannot be attributed to an isolated person. Everything we have is not thanks to individuals, but to a culture that enables collaboration. This is why I endeavour to use only free and open-source software.

Innovation is about refinement, and it requires a large and varied pool of cultural components (ideas and technologies). As corporations sequester more and more knowledge in their IP vaults, there is less for others to work with. It's insane to think this would do anything but stifle innovation, where the components needed for innovation are increasingly controlled. Patents were thought up to encourage innovation by trading the explicit documentation of a design for a monopoly on the production of that design for a limited amount of time. The reason why a patent claim must contain so much detail is so that when the patent expires the design can be quickly reimplemented and transformed by culture at large. If a maker does not file a patent, then they can simply choose not disclose the design, and would never be obliged to share it. With this in mind we can think of FLOSS as an extreme version of this. By publishing the source, the maker is releasing a design to the cultural world, where it can be refined and used right away. It has an additional feature: since the copyright notice must follow source through its life, it includes a record of the contributions of those who were involved. Imagine a remix culture where this credit is automatically managed, you download a movie clip and your mashup automatically contains a reference to the original, a history of the production beyond a single maker. Imagine generational art or software projects that are passed down, like an oral history, from parent to child. With each generation the history and the work itself is being continuously enriched. FLOSS is about sharing, and innovation is at its best when ideas and methods are shared widely and openly.

[Dreaming Machine #2 in Sao Paulo]

MD: Another topic which is being critically discussed at the moment is pervasive computing, or the Internet of Things. Although I personally believe such paradigm to be nothing more than a regenerated definition of a founding concept underlying the historical development of today's information society, it seems that a novel, mainstream awareness of the nature of ubiquitous computing is coming to life. Do you believe that a pervasive digital art could ever exist in the future? In which ways will the ubiquitous presence of computational devices shape digital creativity and electronic arts?

BB: I don't own a cell phone, and I'm still using a Sony Clie, made in 2005, I bought used for $60. The first computer I bought was a used Amiga 3000, that one ended up in a museum when I bought my first PC, a Duron 800 around ~2000. That machine only died a month ago, after three drives, two ram upgrades, two graphics cards, and two PSUs. For 10 years it was my primary machine, running Linux of course. I don't use Facebook, though I do use IRC on occasion. I have always had an extremely critical eye for the technologies that I use. I do not support the ubiquitous computing platforms largely for one reason: eWaste. Our needs for faster and faster smart phones is already creating a horrible waste problem. A device designed to be manufactured by the millions, and kept for only a few years, or months, is a ecological nightmare. They can't be designed be to be recyclable, because that would increase production costs too much. They can't be built to last, because then the manufacturer would not be able to sell the latest and greatest. If all our current 'dumb' devices became 'smart' then our ability to reclaim those materials would drop significantly. I've already come to the realization that in the future people will have to develop methods to mine the landfills to reclaim that which we have discarded. I'm all for the acceptance of digital and electronic media art projects as broadly into the public as possible, but there is an ethical issue with the platforms that may enable that kind of penetration.

I'm not sure that creativity will be transformed in a world of increasing ubiquitous computing. Creativity always operated against constraints, and within a tradition. How would the introduction of ubiquitous computing devices be any different than the introduction of any other "new" technology? The greatest value of ubiquitous computing is the aspect of embodiment. How we deal with information would no longer be in the top-down realms of our minds, but we may be able to feel it in our bones and on our skin. If we were able to solve the eWaste problems of technology then there is potential for public art to take on a new meaning, being integrated in social structure and architectural space. Maybe this would make art more relevant to the public, we just have to be aware of the ethical consequences.

MD: 'Ethical consequences', yes, many of us probably wish there would be a better awareness of ethical consequences about several matters. It seems to me that still in 2011 the majority of the world population is not aware of the real power, impact and utility (or abuse) of technology; a good part of our population is perhaps 'technology-aware': they recognize technological products and means surrounding them and they understand some of the social implications that today's eInfrastructures are based on. However, only a small number of us consciously realizes where technologies come from, on which principles they are based on, and the embedded logical and moral fallacy they cherish; lastly, an incredibly tiny amount of people is actively involved in the production of technology, for commercial, creative or hacktivist purposes.

BB: I agree, and I think your observation applies the same for science, a general lack of understanding and an unwillingness to criticize technological and scientific knowledge. The popularity of "making" and a new coolness for craft and nerds perhaps indicates that things are changing. "The big bang theory" TV show certainly has references in it that require a pretty good foundational understanding of science. I wish and dream we could end up with a population that is as media and technologically literate as they are textually literate. Part of why I'm interested in public art and public space is to engage with a broad public on these matters.

MD: Don't you think that the acceleration of technological advance, coupled with the ubiquity of tech end-products, could possibly weaken our awareness by not giving us the room and time to realize, in depth, what we are dealing with?

BB: I think that it is inevitable that technologies are developed and marketed before we even have a chance to understand the previous incarnation. It's possible that we will never understand the ramifications of a technology, it being forgotten and obsolete before we can really see it. This is a frightening thought, that a technology could come and go, changing us in some way we cannot, and will never, know. Our ability to habituate, to integrate our minds and tools such that we are not aware of them, is that which makes us special, but perhaps also that which makes us victims of our own power structures.

MD: Finally, do you have any new projects in the pipeline? Would you like to share something with us?

I'm working on a few things at the same time, and blogging the process in the "production" section of my website. I'm continuing to work on my Self-Organized Landscapes, which are a spinoff of MAM and Dreaming Machine #2. My Ph.D. Project "Dreaming Machine #3" (DM3) is the next step. Where MAM and Dreaming Machine #1 and #2 all make use of Gabora's model of creativity and a self-organizing map, DM3 will make explicit use of cognitive models of perception, memory and perhaps most importantly concept formation. DM3 will learn patterns in the world (not whole images) that will form into concepts. Concepts will then allow the reconstruction of these patterns into new images. These images will be imagined by the machine, and constructed of components that the machine has seen. This project would be perhaps less a creative machine and more like a young child attempting to make sense of the world, and that sense being reflected in its dreams. Just as we explore and understand ourselves through cultural representations, the artwork will attempt to make sense of us and our world by constructing itself (or lack of self).

Alpha-ville 2011, Sept. 22-25 (London)

The 2011 edition of Alpha-ville Festival provides an online and live platform to explore, test and disseminate new ideas, emerging trends, collaborations and groundbreaking works. Running from 22-25 September in London, the programme presents social media and interactive art, open labs, meet-ups, talks, workshops and screenings alongside with live music, visual performances and parties.

Gathering artists, creative coders, new media technologists, designers, architects, professionals, musicians, researchers and academics, some of the key names are: Tom Uglow (Google Creative Labs), Marius Watz, Filip Visnjic (CreativeApplications.Net), Man Bartlett, Daito Manabe, Moritz Stefaner, Keiichi Matsuda, James Alliban, Pantha Du Prince, Jon Hopkins, Jacaszek and Kangding Ray.

"This year’s programme addresses the transition from a digital to a post-digital culture, that looks beneath technology at how human behaviours such as collaboration, participation and interaction have redefined the creative practice and society itself, and at how the physical boundaries between reality and online are being blurred."

View the full programme here.

Content | Form | Im-material – Five Years of CONT3XT.NET

Congrats to our peers at CONT3XT.NET (guest cur-editors of VT 11) on their forthcoming book – note the details below.

Content | Form | Im-material – Five Years of CONT3XT.NET

Authors: Josephine Bosma, Mary-Anne Breeze – aka netwurker, Sarah Cook, Thomas Dreher, Constant Dullaart, Mark E. Grimm, Jeremy Hight, Sabine Hochrieser, Michael Kargl, Jan Robert Leegte, Mia Makela, Peter Mörtenböck and Helge Mooshammer, Stefan Nowotny, Les Liens Invisibles, Birgit Rinagl, Franz Thalmair, Pall Thayer, Marius Watz

Artists: Maria Anwander, Anna Artaker, Ruben Aubrecht, Miriam Bajtala, Ryan Barone, Mary-Anne Breeze – aka netwurker, Charles Broskoski, Codemanipulator®, Arend deGryuter-Helfer and Aylor Brown, Gerhard Dirmoser, Aleksandra Domanovic, Reynald Drouhin, Nikolaus Gansterer, Christina Goestl, Jochen Höller, Karl Heinz Jeron und Valie Djordjevic, Michael Kargl, Annja Krautgasser, Miriam Laussegger and Eva Beierheimer, Jan Robert Leegte, Ralo Mayer, Michail Michailov, MTAA – M. River and T. Whid Art Associates, Barbara Musil and Karo Szmit, Jörg Piringer, Lisa Rastl, Arnold Reinthaler, Veronika Schubert, Johanna Tinzl and Stefan Flunger, UBERMORGEN.COM, Martin Wattenberg and Marek Walczak

Bibliographic information: CONT3XT.NET – Sabine Hochrieser, Michael Kargl, Birgit Rinagl, Franz Thalmair (eds.): “Content | Form | Im-material”, Verlag fuer moderne Kunst Nuernberg, 2011, 21 x 14,8 cm, approx. 100 coloured images, 264 pages, ISBN 978-3-86984-187-8, with an introductory essay by Steve Dietz



X AVANT Festival: Tim Hecker + Oval + Global Cities Ensemble

Editor's Note: We are thrilled to announce that we are co-presenting a show as part of The Music Gallery's annual X AVANT Festival – undoubtedly one of the most adventurous and dynamic festivals in North America. This event will showcase abstract electronic music and feature performances by Tim Hecker, Markus Popp and The Global Cities Ensemble – please join us in Toronto on October 21st.

Friday October 21
Location: The Music Gallery
Doors 7pm, concert 8pm
Tickets $25 advance at Rotate This, Soundscapes & – BUY NOW!
At the door: $30 regular, $15 member
Admission included in $85 All-Access Festival Pass
Music Gallery event info page


Global Cities Ensemble was formed in 2010 by four respected musicians on the Toronto scene: Andrew Timar (suling - Indonesian flute), Araz Salek (tar – Persian lute), Abdominal (emcee) and Professor Fingers (turntables). GCE makes music with an inter-cultural flavour, at once international and local. Asian world music added to a bubbling cauldron of local hip-hop – this is new territory yet little explored. This new musical hybrid language and aesthetic is driven by instruments, intonation, tonal and rhythmic modes from Iran, Indonesia, India and Western classical music. GCE merges that with popular music, urban poetry and contemporary live electronic performance soundscapes.

9:00PM – OVAL

Oval is the musical alias of Berlin artist Markus Popp, creator of some of the most original electronic music of the last 20 years – termed “glitch” music. Emerging in the mid-1990s, glitch was the sound of embracing failure. Scratched and skipping CDs, hardware noise and computer crashes were all used as sound sources in this emerging movement, at which Oval – originally a trio including Sebastian Oschatz and Frank Metzger – were at the forefront. Seminal recordings like Systemisch and 94 Diskont showed a playful sense of melody shine through amongst the clicky chaos; a sensible which continue through to later collaborations such as Gastr del Sol’s Camoufleur (with Jim O’Rourke and David Grubbs) in 1998 and SO (with Japanese vocalist Eriko Toyada) in 2003. Popp then went silent for seven years, before returning at full strength in 2010 with an EP, “Oh,” and an epic, 70-track double album, O. For these latest recordings, Popp has left his past in the realm of glitch and custom software platforms behind, instead challenging himself to create music using a commercial PC outfitted with stock sounds and plug-ins. The result, though still distinctly Oval in its slippery shape-shifting, is also something distinctly more musical and mellifluous than anything we’ve heard from him before. We are very pleased to present Oval live at X Avant, as one his first appearances in Canada in more than 15 years.

10:00pm – TIM HECKER

A Music Gallery (and Vague Terrain!) favourite, tonight’s concert marks the third appearance by Vancouver-bred, Montréal based sound artist Tim Hecker in the last five years. But it also marks a special occasion, as Hecker will play a rarely-performed set utilizing St. George the Martyr Church’s pipe organ. This hybrid performance relies on a feedback system between pipe organ and computer, as organ tones are fed into a Max/MSP patch, run through guitar distortion pedals and out through bass amplifiers and the PA system. Sounds slowly stack, overlap, interweave and eventually dissolve into the air. This approach was developed while recording Hecker’s latest release, Ravedeath, 1972 in Reykjavik, Iceland with producer Ben Frost. Long-listed for the 2011 Polaris Music Prize, Ravedeath, 1972 approaches a form of secular musical transcendentalism from within the battered temple of spirituality. Recorded in a church and using a pipe organ as the primary sound source, the album is essentially a live recording. In reality, it exists in a nether world between captured live performance and meticulous studio work, melding the two approaches to sonic artifice as a unity. It is in parts a document of air circulating within a wooden room, and also a pagan work of physical resonance within a space once reserved for the hallowed breath of the divine.

A Brief History of Synesthesia

Earlier this summer Vague Terrain contributor Thomas Bey William Bailey undertook a research residency at the SONM (Sound Archive of Experimental Music and Sound Art) in Murcia, Spain. The SONM has posted a PDF of Bailey's essay "State of the Union: The Synesthetic Experience in Experimental Music and Sound Art", which begins as follows:

The type of perception we normally have in mind when discussing the mirroring of sensory information is synesthesia- from the Greek "syn" [union] and aesthesis [sensation]. While being diagnosed with this condition as a parament state is extremely rare and likely to be inherited (something we'll look at into shortly), the number of artistic practices dealing with synesthesia as an adventitious or acquired state are growing steadily. For the latter, maybe "cross-modal translation" should be used in place of "synesthesia" to differentiate adventitious and inherited forms of experience, yet the "sexiness" of the term synesthesisa is difficult to shake off…"

Yes, Thomas has tackled (and catalogued) synesthesia in sound art and experimental music production and the results are quite compelling. Cruise over to a related SONM page to download his essay – it is well worth your time.

Note:The SONM site seems to time out frequently – if you try to click through to the site several times, you will eventually get to the linked page and the essay.

A Premonition of Artificial Hells

Editor's note: In this post Vague Terrain and Artengine's critical blogging resident Jaenine Parkinson continues her reflections on Ottawa / Gatineau Area media art. This year long series of posts is dedicated to providing a space where our resident can exploring bloggging as a "creative space for critical discourse around the media arts and creative technological expression."

"In a world where everyone can air their views to everyone, we are faced, I think, not with mass empowerment but with an endless stream of banal egos.” – Claire Bishop"

Claire Bishop is on a mission to re-scribe readings of participatory/collaborative/socially engaged/relational/dialogic art beyond moral interpretations. Her agenda hasn’t changed since her 2004 October article where she challenged Nicolas Bourriaud’s aggrandizing claims for relational aesthetics. From this polarizing start she has been unrelenting in her push for a more sober take on the participatory art forms currently trending. So, you can imagine my interest in the launch of her new book Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. Supposedly released in spring this year, I can’t find a copy anywhere, and there is no mention of it yet on the publisher’s (Verso) website. Nevertheless, no book is an island, therefore, a lot of Bishop’s material is already floating around. What follows is a cursory guess at the types of things I think—and hope—she will address in her book. I will be glancing over the wealth of historical research that Bishop draws upon to contextualize and evidence her argument. Suffice to say, she has brought an overlooked history of participation in twentieth century art into the light. More than simply proving her thesis is no knee-jerk reaction this history serves as ample reason to read her book(s) for yourself. In the end, all this may become a preamble, in need of revisiting once I get my hands on a copy of her new book.

The title Bishop has chosen, Artificial Hells, doesn’t shy away from giving us a sense of where she stands on the subject. She sides with Sartre: hell is other people. Or, more specifically, hell is working as an unpaid performer in a participatory art project with other people, while enacting a predictable exchange that comes nowhere close to inducing the promised new and emancipatory forms of social collaboration and relation. Her title also situates her argument within historical linage of socially engaged art—artificial hells is the term coined by André Breton to describe Dada events of the 1920s. Bishop sees these events as an example of one of two trends evident in the history of twentieth century participatory art. Many Dada events were oblique, chaotic situations—artificial hells—intended to shake up participants and critique societal alienation; in what Bishop terms a ‘negation of negation’. The storming of the Winter Palace in 1920 is an example of a parallel trend that attempts to provoke collective creativity, oppose injustices and propose alternatives, in a type of ‘utopian realization’.

At the root of both of these, still prevalent, strategies is the belief in the automatic political efficacy of physical participation; something that Bishop and her philosophical inspiration Jacques Rancière refute. They argue that there is no direct correlation between an artistic form and political meaning. Artistic forms, participation among them, can be equally co-opted by competing ideologies. Bishop has spent a great deal of time and effort opposing the narrative behind participatory art that claims audiences are activated, awakened and empowered when artists give over control to participants. But she also goes further, asking: what criteria should we use, then, to evaluate participatory works critically and develop a frame of reference for discussing them?

[Mel Chin / Fundred Dollar Bill Project (2010-present) / Image: Jeffrey Bussmann]

If we evaluate these works by their ability to bring about social change, they fall short. Most artists do not wield the power, resources and time to bring about substantial long term change to the issues they highlight. As an example, Bishop cites Mel Chin’s Fundred Dollar Bill Project which aims to leverage $300 million from the U.S. Congress for lead pollution cleanup, by exchanging the same amount in ‘Fundred’ one hundred dollar bills, drawn by participants (mostly school children). Who, she asks, will be responsible for guaranteeing lead removal once the hand-drawn notes are presented to government? At some point responsibility needs to be handed over to social and political organizations. But exactly when and how this will occur is often beyond the scope of artistic projects.

Furthermore, artists who create socially engaged, participatory projects reject questions of aesthetics and often disregard the life of their projects beyond communication with their primary audience. Instead, they position their practices as working outside or beyond artistic concerns, in new interstitial zones. Such claims, Bishop argues, are disingenuous, as most of these projects are endorsed, funded, hosted and invested with meaning by art institutions, and engage art audiences. These projects are also seen as peripheral by socio-political organizations. By eschewing artistic interpretation or ultimate social responsibility, Bishop argues “a great swath of participatory art ends up floating in a comfortable non-zone where neither social or artistic criteria are being achieved/can be used as a basis for judgement.”

Bishop is often asked questions like “but surely it’s better for one art project to improve one person’s life, or draw attention to an issue, than for it not to happen at all?” But such questions are still founded on valuing a project’s role as a social agent, where it is good simply because it is intention is good, not because it produces anything good. We could, for instance, see Chin’s Fundred Dollar Bill Project as a petition. But if we value it only because it draws attention to an important issue, we are effectively saying that art is valuable only as propaganda. Art becomes reduced to a feel-good gesture aimed to relieve feelings of responsibility or guilt. A bandage over the cracks in society. It also places undue investment in the power of revelation. Believing that simply exposing an issue will bring about change. Bishop is adamant that her criticism is not aimed at convincing artists to become more politically active or responsible, but about articulating and appreciating art’s value beyond propaganda, beyond serving as a petition or publicity strategy. Art’s value, she contests, lies not in it’s ability to tote the ethical slogans of the day, but precisely because it exists outside of this. Because it can present contentions that cannot be read as morally exemplary.

Ultimately, this is a clash of value systems. A clash that Bishop has demonstrated as nothing new. At its bare bones lies a series of binary oppositions: active participation vs passive spectatorship, open text vs closed work, equality of access vs quality of result, real life vs spectacle, political morality vs artistic freedom, collective vs individual, process vs product, collaborator vs author, etc. My guess is that a fair chunk of Bishop’s book will lay out an artistic history that shows how these dichotomies have flared up and taken many different shapes over the course of the twentieth century.

Drawing on the work of sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, Bishop has shown that these values have a deeper root in reactions to contemporary capitalism. Boltanski and Chiapello have noted that throughout history four critiques of capitalism continuously reappear: (i) a demand for liberation from oppression; (ii) a rejection of inauthenticity and disenchantment; (iii) a refusal of egoism and private interests; (iv) a response to suffering and poverty. Of these, the first pair are often expressed as an ‘artistic critique’ that deplores the loss of meaning and loss of a sense of what is beautiful and valuable within a society that standardizes and commodifies things, people and art. The second pair form a ‘social critique’ that rejects moral neutrality and individualism of artists and a separation of art from life.

These critiques Bishop equates with the two separate narratives that have arisen, in opposition, around socially engaged art work. For those who place value on the social and ethical side of the divide, a work is significant and successful when it models better behaviors or offers solutions, however short-term, to social problems. Alternatively, those who read these projects as art first and foremost base their judgements upon sensory responses to the material presented. Bishop explains “In this schema ethics are nugatory because art is understood to continually throw established systems of value into question, including questions of morality. It is more important to devise new languages with which to represent and question social contradiction.”

In etching out a critical framework for understanding the value systems behind evaluations of participatory work Bishop has been criticized for policing the boundaries of artistic practice and polarizing discussions into camps pitching “aesthetes” against “activists”. (Kester, 2006) But to those resistant to assessing and theorizing the value of art, Bishop describes the history of the post 1968 community arts movement as a warning:

"Emphasizing process rather than end results and basing their judgements on ethical criteria about how and with whom they work, rather than the character of their artistic outcomes, they found themselves subject to manipulation and eventually instrumentalization by right wing governments. From being an agitational force in the 1970s campaigning for social justice, it became, by the 1980s, a harmless branch of the welfare state. The kindly folk who could be relied upon to mop-up whenever the government wished to absolve itself of responsibility."

For practitioners who operate within artistic spheres, receiving funding and institutional support for their work, it is important to be able to articulate the value of the arts to avoid being put to use in the service of neo-liberal agendas as community builders, perception adjusters, social minders etc.

Bishop has noticed that many artists have internalized the pressure to find solutions to social problems. But, she argues, this is a task that artists are often not best equipped to undertake and the job is much larger than they can tackle on their own. Bishop sees this pressure to make art politically ‘relevant’ to the real world as having welled up from a lack of faith in the value of art as a de-alienating human endeavor, a lack of faith in democratic political processes and the absence of a viable, global, left alternative. Bishop argues “We need to recognize art as an experimental activity overlapping with the world, [that] may lend support towards a political project, without bearing the sole responsibility for devising and implementing this.”

So, if the value in art is not imagining and instigating solutions to social problems, where does its value lie? Now, we get to the interesting part. Bishop has spent a lot of effort in cutting down interpretations of art based solely on political and ethical judgments. I hope she spends a greater chunk of her book fleshing out an alternative critical schema. From what she has demonstrated in the past, I think this schema will target a position that rests between the social and artistic narratives and will revolve around the concept of sustaining tension between the various binaries listed above.

The tension Bishop highlights is often palpable as uneasiness. Works that demonstrate this quality don’t fit easily into any moral code. They also deal with participation as a form that comes with baggage: celebrated by museums and curators, demanded by state funders, utilized by schools and businesses and pervasive in mass media (think user generated content and reality TV). The ideals of dialogue and collaboration are often not lost, they are just complicated by discomfort, frustration or absurdity, eccentricity, doubt, even sheer pleasure. This blend, Bishop argues, gives the work aesthetic impact and opens the space for new perspectives on our condition. For the artists Bishop champions participation is not an end in itself, instead it delivers a messy knot of concerns including asking questions about who can be involved, in what ways, under which circumstances, and at who’s expense. Bishop has enacted numerous readings of works that blur, not collapse, some of the binaries of participatory discourse; embracing paradox, contradiction and ambiguity.

[Thomas Hirschhorn, Bataille Monument (2002) / Photo: Emile Estelli]

With comments like I am “an artist and not an animator, teacher or social worker” Thomas Hirschhorn is one such artist who calls for the type of reading Bishop can bring. Bishop has written at length about his work Bataille Monument (2002), which was presented in a remote Turkish suburb of Kassel as a part of Documenta XI. In the middle of this working class, immigrant community Hirschhorn set up makeshift structures to house a library, TV studio and bar in hommage to the surrealist writer Georges Bataille. Documenta audience members were ferried out to the site by scarce Turkish taxis.

The only thing visitors were required to do at the site was to think about the material offered. Hirschhorn doesn’t give control to the audience, or recruit them to fulfill a role in completing the work. Rather, Bishop suggests, there is a mutual power play in operation, where the artist relies on the “participants creative exploitation of the situation he or she offers, just as participants require the artist’s cue and direction.” Rather than trying to enable complete audience control, what results, Bishop argues, is a tension “of recognition and dependency more akin to the collectively negotiated dynamics of stand up comedy or BDSM sex than to a ladder of progressively more virtuous political forms.”

By bringing two different communities together Hirschhorn was not trying to model social cohesion through shared collaborative experience. Actually, in complete contrast to Rirkrit Tiravanija’s curry lunches, there was an uneasy clash. This riled ethically versed critics like Maria Lind who criticized Hirschhorn for “exhibiting and making exotic marginalized groups and thereby contributing to a form of social pornography.” But Bishop points out that the “zoo effect went both ways” and that it was important that these two communities were not pedantically reconciled; that the gap between them in society was reflected in the work. Even more so, Hirschhorn exposed contemporary art’s self-delusion as an all-embracive domain.

Bishop explains that while there is no audience empowerment or simulated utopia in works such as Hirschhorn’s, these works do enact a crucial principle of democracy: antagonism. Sustained conflict, not resolution, between between ideals and practicalities (while resisting totalitarianism) is a symptom of a functioning democracy. Without antagonism there is only imposed consensus and suppression of debate. Acknowledging that conflict is not only unavoidable, but crucial, is not to give in to political deadlock, but to suggest that antagonism allows for new political frontiers to be continuously imagined and debated.

Bishop’s argument is that evaluation of art should be based upon the way artists and artworks reflect the irreducible tension between aesthetic autonomy and social intervention. The alternative she sees to palliative, prototype art is work that stirs unease, inviting affective responses and the possibility “to confront darker, more painfully complicated considerations of our predicament.” With this comes the need to value art’s ability to ignite imagination to and stir emotions, while also acknowledging the limitations of what is possible as art. Ultimately, it is art’s ability to embody contradiction that holds the most promise for Bishop. What she values the most is work, and criticism, that does not sacrifice the aesthetic in favor of social change, but to see the contradictions in art as inherently productive.

This is where I hope Bishop focuses for her book, because I think there are still a lot of unpacking to do and questions that need addressing. Questions such as: can participatory art open up new ways of thinking whilst relying on the historical language of art and only speaking to those who understand this language? Can participatory art cross the boundary between the social and aesthetic, whilst still claiming a distinct critical space for itself in the aesthetic realm? Isn’t Bishop, in her criticism of ‘banal’ participatory art, herself making a ethical argument about not wasting the disruptive potential of the aesthetic?

I don’t see Artificial Hells bringing an end to the conversation; I see a new wave of dispute on the horizon. Critics, such as Grant Kester, will surely continue to protest Bishop’s contraining of art to an indirect engagement with politics. They will continue to point out her apparent acceptance of the economic privilege and social prestige of art and their belief that Bishop calls for obtuse artworks specifically to legitimize her role as interpreter. But, no matter where you stand on the issue, a rowdy battle is better than quiet acquiescence.

Source texts/Further reading:

Bishop, Claire ‘Participation and Spectacle: Where Are We Now’ presented at Creative Time’s Living as Form lecture series

Bishop, Claire Participation 2006, London: Whitechapel and MIT Press

Bishop, Claire ‘The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents’, Artforum, February 2006

Bishop, Claire ‘Rate of Return: Claire Bishop on the Artist Placement Group’ Artforum, October 2010

Bishop, Claire ‘Something for Everyone: The Art of Pawel Althamer’, Artforum, February 2011, p.175-181

Bishop, Claire ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’, October, no. 110, Autumn 2004 p. 51-79

Charnley, Kim ‘Dissensus and the politics of collaborative practice’ Art & the Public Sphere
Volume 1, Number 1, 2011 p. 37–53,aid=10623/aps.1.1.37.pdf

Kester, Grant ‘Another Turn: A Response to Claire Bishop’ Artforum, May 2006‘another-turn’/

Rancière, Jacques The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, 2004, Translation and introduction Gabriel Rockhill, London and New York: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd

Rancière, Jacques ‘The Emancipated Spectator’ ArtForum, March 2007

Rancière, Jacques Aesthetics and Its Discontents, 2009 Translation Steven Corcoran, Polity

Roche, Jennifer ‘Socially Engaged Art, Critics and Discontents: An Interview with Claire Bishop’ Community Arts Network