- Mobile Performance
- Electric Speed
- Schematic as Score
- (Re)purposed Clothes
- Collaborative Spaces
- Device Art
- Digital Dub
- Rise of the VJ
- Sample Culture
My artistic practice dates back to 2001 when I spent several years working with blind and partially sighted people in the UK, Europe and beyond. I learnt lots in a very short time about sensory processing, about the physiological presentation of sight loss, but less about the social and cultural impacts of this impairment. I became aware of the underlying discussion that was unsettled and in some senses unformulated, about creative expression and how hard it was for people when dependent on technology. I read lots of books in the RNIB library about art through touch, fascinating camera projects from the New York Blind Photographers Collective. I engaged with a project using DAISY technology around this time, producing multimedia texts for laptops and DAISY readers- I got involved in working with the transcription services in Peterborough, and their use of sound for creative expression planted a seed of dissent against their working practices which led me to think about how to create my own portable cultural multimedia- back when the smartest smartphone was a Nokia handset with Bluetooth. I started to learn to program basics using the programming environment Processing and started to become aware of a much richer landscape than I had been aware of.
Between 2004-6 I had much more formative experience when working at NESTA, and the software art projects of group I was working with like Soda (sodaConstructor, sodaPlay), like Land Design Transmedia. I met Zach Lieberman in 2005/6, when he was working with Peter Higgins and Land Design on a project called Kaleidoscope. I saw an early version of the toolset that would eventually become openFrameworks and it confirmed to me that, even if I didn’t possess the necessary background in maths or computer science, that if I was to ever call myself an ‘artist’ it would be using computers in this way. I bought a book called Naked Flash, but this proved to be a frustrating dead-end and I continued with trying to basic software hacking – something that had persisted to this day. Mobile Processing, although hugely limited by the standards of smartphone programming, gave a thrill of seeing simple particle systems ported to this time mobile screen.
The Sobras Trilogy project came about through luck and good fortune. I was Director of an Arts Council funded organization in the Midlands between 2007-9, which brought me into contact with some of the most pioneering and trail blazing new media arts groups in the Midlands. One such group was Threshold Studios, headed by Barry Hale- filmmaker and rock star. Barry was incredibly well connected and after sharing some ideas, he put me in touch with the filmmaker Nichola Bruce- someone whose name rung a bell as she had been in receipt of a NESTA award a few years before. Nichola said we should meet up, so on a trip to London in 2007, I sat down for a bottle of wine with Nichola and the author Simon Ings. We talked long into the evening about our shared interest in the eye – Simon had written an eponymous book about The Eye, and Nichola had made a series of award winning short films called The Strangeness of Seeing. We were all drawn to different aspects of the eye, the visual system and how it all fit together. They were both interested in the creative potential of the mobile phone, and I enthused about all its potential- without really having much to back me up. It was decided that we would apply for a small Arts Council England grant to fund developing a mobile comic around a short story Simon had published some years before called Sobras the Sacrifice. Nichola would paint the images, I would create the programmatic framework and Simon would maintain editorial control. And that’s what happened, more or less.
A single story in fact became three parts, and I chose to develop it for the iPhone as the openFrameworks iPhone package had been developed and I had ready access to the SDK. The focus was to be on the sound qualities of the piece alongside Nichola’s visual material, so I used a range of tools (Audacity, Ableton Live) to create the semiotic content I was after, using Logic to add depth and dimension to the samples. The programming structure was very light, a series of page turns, with around 3 unique visual effects per episode and a very simple GUI to allow you to change font size, colour and a couple of other parameters.
I want to move to create something which takes textures from video and starts to use these with flocking algorithms, on a projection system, but this would also look pretty good on mobile phones. The idea is running water, or waves over seaweed, something at odds with a city context, through which you could ‘peer’ at the street below you with the camera. I am going to be working with Stream Arts (Greenwich arts group) and a European project called City Sounds, alongside the newly appointed computational designer in residence Evan Raskob on some projects for this initiative over the next 9 months and I’m excited about what I might learn from this. Video is exciting- I’m surrounded by talented video filmmakers at Ravensbourne, all of whom have masses of experience, but I’m drawn to simple unadorned footage, rather than heavily edited and post produced work, and I’m keen to see programmatic qualities I understand, but which are subtly manifested, on mobile devices.
As my research has shown me, and as I’m part of a large PhD group, each member who understand: performance (in various specific ways), active participation in culture, synecdoche, the act of downloading, the act of engaging. In these senses, one engages with something and the way it was it made, and is equally responsible for accepting and being party to their own experience. I’m interested in how imaginations talk to each other, how one tries to keeps hold of that sense of authorial authority, when apps are downloaded in their millions and now billions. It is the scale of distribution and how one makes sense of it from a performance perspective. In my work, it’s something about the generative quality of the app, something I hide away and bury in my work that I’m interested in. I’m using an L-system (from the work of the biologist Lindenmayer) within the apps to take environmental cues from the location of the listener and generate something brand new to add to the composed elements. I like the idea of the uncertainty there, the mystery and the impossibility of knowing you have full control, but that as the originator of the algorithms, you have done something to take account of that.
I want people to be horrified and perplexed given the themes of the narrative of Sobras – it’s a raw, gritty and bloody story of the rise and terrible fall of an aspirational footballer. The reception is of more interest than a call to interaction – which my apps lack. This is an active choice; I don’t want to get lost down fascinating psychological alleyways that beset the interaction designer, who is 50% psychologist and 50% hacker. I love interaction design, but I didn’t set out to explore paradigms of interaction and interface issues, to experiment with the best ways to turn pages, share preferences, link to others or have any kind of social experience. This is solipsistic by choice; the more introverted an experience you have with Sobras, the better. I don’t really mind if you don’t talk about it either. I want the effects to be marked out as individual, to use the perhaps hackneyed expression, immersive.
I’m suddenly more interested in networks. This matches and reflects my personal life- when I did Sobras I was working alone, by myself, and in geographical and social isolation. Now I am in a thriving design school with thousands of other people, I’m picking up on new ideas all the time and it's great to have this influence. The next 9-12 months will be improving technical skills in a more collegiate setting and some of the video texture and urban context mobile projects outlined above.
The choice of a mobile platform for delivering the artwork and experiences within the comic was driven by technology’s implicit function as a means to broadcast and share culture. It draws on experimental work in the sonic arts in terms of generative qualities, utilising these for the foregrounding and explication of tensions between the technological tools themselves and the forms of content that might be deployed on them. Margot Lovejoy makes this point cogently when she writes,
'Content is also what the artwork means – what the viewer takes away from the encounter with the artwork. Good art affects consciousness as well as the unconscious – the content of an artwork is not just its contents. Its tension lies in the tension between form and subject matter.' – (Lovejoy: 223)
Perversely, although the author controls the manufacture of the content and deployment to handsets, the ubiquity of the mobile device and complete lack of control possible by the artist over the conditions of experience of the viewer set up exciting new artistic tensions as articulated by Lovejoy. This is celebrated through the use of generative computation within the structure of the work, an embrace of the uncontrollable loci.
It raises questions too about concentration in the interaction with artwork, in a debate which spans both non-interactive (visual) art and interactive art that requires a participant to operate, add to and otherwise complete a piece. Lovejoy asserts that art has always been psychologically interactive, and that new media art just amplifies this, narrative giving way to design aesthetics, the interface creating the most important ‘pull’ (Lovejoy, quoting Manovich).
This article serves to support the importance that interface design provides, but concludes by adopting the view that a simple design that acknowledges the pull of the hardware unit itself best serves the intent of the artist, who knowingly has stepped back from overly complex interface elements for the purpose of this work, while acknowledging their relevance in other contexts. Therefore, the clearest expression of artistic intent will be on the visual and sonic content, some of which has been formally constituted by the interdisciplinary team, and some of which defers to the environment of the viewer, wherever that might be.
Sobras is viewable as a free download in three parts from the Apple iTunes store, search under Sobras or Sacculi to bring them up. It has been downloaded several hundred times by listeners and viewers around the world, with a strong following in Brazil and South America where of course the content is inspired. The creativity here is parceled up into the four visual effects used at four points in the story, including a simple particle system to spray blood, and a Lissajous curve deformed to shower dust. As a design decision, this achieves the accomplishment of a framework on which to build effects, the creative aspects of which are both the visual parameters chosen and the effort involved in integrating it at a useful speed with the rest of the application. This requires a technical understanding of what is being drawn to the screen at any one time and using the openGL ‘matrix’ commands in such a way as to deliver the desired results without conflict. This conflict itself could throw up new forms and attractive visual output, of course. The programmer’s challenge is to keep the activity confined to the small screen, and optimize use of memory so that performance is stable for the user.
The Sobras application illustrates that the creative nexus of a mobile project can be separately located in the content or in the form. The content in this case is fully expressive. The experimentation that went into the visual and auditory material overwhelms he construct itself, in the sense that this is now as transparent as possible. It fully fulfills mobile design guidelines in keeping content and navigation on one page (only one touch button is required to navigate, in one direction only) and the inflexibility of navigation and control throws the spotlight for the user fully on the content itself (Designing for Small Screens, AVA Publishing, 2005).