March 18, 2010

Drift (a Field)

Last night, Drift (a Field) was premiered as part of the New Media Projects Showcase at Lawrence University. I’ve been posting regular status updates on this project on this blog, so I won’t recap the entire gestation process here, only offer some brief notes about the finished work.

Drift (a Field) uses the programming tool Max/MSP/Jitter to create and explore a matrix or field of video images which are grouped conceptually and compositionally. The Max patch wanders through this field and shows us—the audience—the view of its location in the matrix.

In contrast to the video, the audio is largely fixed, which forces the pseudo-spatial wanderings of the video patch to be folded into the temporal performative boundaries of the sound. As the performer, I can control when the video advances to new images (and can thus create synchronocities between the audio and video), but no control over what those images are. By imposing a fixed aural narrative to contrast the dynamic video, the indeterminate sequence of images can come to be viewed as a form in time itself.

When I first began to formulate ideas about Drift (a Field), I described it as a “meditation on snowblindness”. Though it has evolved and changed over the past 10 weeks of work, I feel that this description is still apt, given the imagery and sounds used in this piece, which reflect the transformative and blinding processes of decontextualization that can take place as technology filters and transmits sounds and images.

The title Drift (a Field) was inspired by the poetry and prose of Upper Michigan writer Ander Monson, whose works similarly deal with issues of space, place, technology, and—not surprisingly—snow.

images [top to bottom]:

3 video captures from Drift (a Field), fixed media sound with interactive video, 2010

Drift (a Field) performance, March 17, 2010. Esch-Hurvis Studio at the Warch Campus Center, Lawrence University, Appleton, Wisconsin. Photo: John Shimon and Julie Lindemann

March 8, 2010

James Danky/Underground Comix

Historian and archivist James Danky spoke last week at Lawrence University on the topic of his new book, Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics into Comix. As others have written, Danky's talk was unfortunately lazy and badly presented. For someone with little or no familiarity (but a great deal of interest) in comix, his presentation was simultaneously over- and underwhelming. At times, I felt like he was addressing an audience who had already read his book and the genre, and at other times, I was embarrassed at the lack of research he had done in his attempts to legitimize the genre to a group of art students.

However, I was able to glean from his lecture a sense of the way in which independent printing presses would pop up to print these subversive publications, which were often censored or banned because of their lurid content. This made me think about the nature of print arts in general as a mass communication medium. Comix artists had a desire to print and distribute their works and conservative authorities were seriously troubled by their existence.

It's interesting to me how the very act of printing copies of an image lends it a certain power that can make it both a tool (for those who use it) and a threat (for those who oppose it). This past term, I've been taking an introductory printmaking course (with Ben Rinehart), which has caused me to think of printmaking in terms of media art. Many of the processes are surprisingly simple and involve the use of a few very basic chemical processes to make many, many copies of the same image, which can be viewed by many people. We have this strange, deep-rooted association with printed materials (most of us have learned from textbooks from an early age) and ascribe to them a certain power, even if we've just created them ourselves.

At the talk, one person asked if online comics are today's version of these early comix. It seems that there are definite parallels, especially as academia and mass media are shifting almost entirely to an online format. The ease and simplicity with which one can maintain a professional-looking website or blog and thus reach a wide audience is a parallel to the way commix artists used the mass print media formats of their day.

Image: Gilbert Shelton, Hallelujahgobble from Phineas Freek

February 28, 2010

Slime Mold/Hierarchies

As I understand it, slime mold consists of thousands of individual cell nuclei contained within a single membrane. The DNA information for these organisms is housed within this membrane (rather than the nuclear membrane, as is often the case with cells), so that all of the nuclei within the outer membrane share identical DNA. All of the nutrients and resources slime mold collects are carried throughout the entire membrane and the mold can "move" toward food (rotting organic matter) through the division of these internal nuclei. The nuclei that are closer to the nutrients split, creating more nuclei, while those farther from the nutrients die away, thus preserving nutrients for the entire mold. This extremely slow movement can be observed in time-lapse video:

What is most fascinating to me about slime mold is the way it accomplishes all of these tasks without the benefit of a central nervous system. Each of the cell nuclei are basically autonomous and are governed only by the collective goal of collecting food. This is a glaring contrast to the traditional hierarchy found in performing arts, where an artist/composer/genius gives her/his works to passive subservient performers, who subject an audience to the artist/composer/genius' wishes. By making the entire process oriented more towards goals that the performers, artist/composer, and audience all share, art can be more spontaneous and the experience can be shared collectively by everyone experiencing the work together. If the artist/composer's role were to provide the goal and the means to that goal, interesting, unexpected things could happen on the path.

These are some of the thoughts that have been on my mind when working with semi-improvised/semi-random audio and video with this current project. I'm sure that my understanding of slime mold is entirely incomplete and probably flat-out incorrect in many instances. But it's organic movement and ephemeral role in the food chain are really an inspiration for me and I hope that my work can capture some of the beauty of organisms like this.

N. Bourriaud - The Radicant Pt. 2 - Radicant Aesthetics

Mobilis in mobili.

- Captain Nemo, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Bourriaud's discussion of topology and journey-forms part 2 of The Radicant resonated with me and my current work with algorithmic narratives in video and music.

As Bourriaud describes it, static works of art fail to encompass the modern experience of taking in information, which, rather occurring in a straight line (in which the accumulation of information is an additive process), occurs as one traverses a vast web of interconnected concepts (a process of multiplication). This process is especially noticeable with the hyperlink, which allows a viewer to instantly move from one text to another.

This is part of what I've been trying to capture with my current video project, where a computer program is presented with a finite set of video clips and strings them together in time through their spatial orientation on a conceptual matrix. The musical performers and the audience must then be mobile enough to react to the way in which these images and concepts are presented. Just as in Charlemagne Palestine's Island Song [above], the form of the work is the experiential journey.

For the remainder of this entry, I will only post things pertaining to Man or Astro-Man?

February 21, 2010

Art, Nature, and Conservationism

A world
parallel to our own through overlapping.
We call it "Nature"; only reluctantly
admitting ourselves to be "Nature" too.
Lawrence University professor Jodi Sedlock's career took many turns before she became the bat-researching biologist she is today. She began as a visual artist who, while studying in Chicago, began to make scientific sketches at the Field Museum. This led to internships and more chances to study biology and her eventual research of Philippine bats.

Hearing her story made me think about some artists who use nature, science, and conservationism explicitly in their own art. One of the most remarkable pieces I've seen/heard lately is by British artist Katie Paterson, whose art deals largely with environmental issues. For her piece Langjökull, Snæfellsjökull, Solheimajökull, Paterson froze the runoff water from melting glaciers into records that could be played on a phonograph until they inevitably melted. You can listen to the beautifully ephemeral result here.

(I also just discovered that Paterson's piece All the Dead Stars was featured in the Tate Triennial Altermodern exhibit curated by Nicolas Bourriaud. What a small, globalized world we live in.)

Phonograph technology is also used in Alunda Kyrkokör's terrafon, an enormous gramophone that can be pulled through dirt to play the surface of the earth like an LP.

Harvest by Alunda Kyrkokör (2009) from Olle Corneer on Vimeo.

Musician Jacques Dudon created "photosonic" instruments that turn light energy into sound and "aquaphones" that use the sonic properties of water. To play his photosonic instruments, he projects light and manipulates it using rotating colored plastic discs and lenses to synthesize sounds in just intonation, a tuning system that is built upon the naturally-occurring overtones of sound and (by extension) light. The result is pretty psychedelic.

Progress Report - Week #6

The video portion of the project is basically complete, though I'm sure I'll continue to make adjustments as I go on. Unfortunately, I'm not really able to capture footage and post it here because the computer gets way too laggy when it has to play, process, and capture videos at the same time. I'll try to figure out a way to remedy this, but for now, I'll just keep you waiting for the March 17th performance.

Since I began working on this project, I've been trying to decide how this piece is going to be "performed" and this dilemma is coming to the forefront as I grapple with the aural portion of the piece. The video could, theoretically, go on forever--there are 210 possible combinations of videos that could be projected simultaneously (thank you, and because the videos are all different, irregular lengths, it's very unlikely that the exact same image would ever appear on screen at the same time.

That said, there is a fairly small amount of imagery and thematic material in the video component of the project. This was intentional, because I wanted the video to be cohesive enough to be used in a finite-length performance. I'm worried that it would make for a pretty boring installation because there is such little variety. Because of my background is in writing and performing music, I still have a little trouble coming to terms with things that aren't temporally bound. I still think of experiencing things with a beginning, middle, and an end and I have some desire to somehow control how things unfold in time.

I feel like I need to make a hard-and-fast decision about this, because I don't see there being much of a gray area between a finite-length performance and an ongoing "installation". Even if I were to make it an installation and also present smaller excerpts of the video/audio as a more traditional performance, it would be so experientially different, it could hardly be considered the same piece.

This past summer, I saw/heard an incredible installation by Stephanie Loveless at the Bard College MFA Thesis Exhibition. She put little speakers into dozens of glass jars and quietly played music she had recorded through these jar speakers, which were scattered all around an entirely bare room. When you walked into the room, all you could hear was a gentle, white-noise-like wash of sound, but you could pick up one or two jars, hold them to your ears, and hear your own private mix of sound. Looking at her website, it looks like she used similar techinques with her piece Non (rien et rien).

Loveless still maintained quite a bit of control over the way the sounds in this piece (I forgot the title) unfolded in time, while still making the actual experience largely up to the listener. She controlled the form of the sounds played through the jar speakers, but let the overarching macro-form be dependent on which jars the listeners picked up. Something like this might be the answer for my piece, as well.

Anyway, I think that I need to set up a makeshift installation for myself and see how I like it and also experiment with fixed-length performances. I'm sure I'll know what to do once I see it, but I'd love to hear others' opinions about this issue, too.

February 14, 2010

Project Report - Week #5

Not a whole lot to report this week. I spent the week cutting up video clips and arranging them in a conceptual matrix that I can use for improvisation. I'm trying to make things as hands-off as possible but without making things predictable.

I've begun working on the audio for the project. My initial idea was to record a large number of sound samples and have them operate in a similar way as the video (i.e. quasi-random algorithmic movement across a conceptual matrix).

Now, though, after watching the results of the video patch, I want to try to work with a very small amount of source material and rely upon alteration of that material to add complexity to the piece. Since the video has such minimal imagery, I feel that a large amount of sonic material would be overwhelming.

I thought about space a great deal in filming the video clips. Often times, by using mirrors and TV screens, the camera itself can be seen onscreen and much of the imagery is focused on antennae and other transmission devices. The act of putting these devices (which generally project sound and video) inside the video sets up complex spatial relationships that I would like to explore in the audio.

Earlier this year, I wrote an analysis of Alvin Lucier's piece I Am Sitting In A Room. I find myself returning to many of these ideas I explored in that paper with this current project.

Alvin Lucier - I Am Sitting In A Room

February 7, 2010

Andy Warhol/John McKinnon—going full circle

"I am a deeply superficial person."
- Andy Warhol
John McKinnon, assistant curator of modern and contemporary art at the Milwaukee Art Museum, spoke last Thursday at Lawrence University about the recent MAM exhibit "Andy Warhol: The Last Decade," which featured works made by Warhol between 1977 and his death in 1987.

Unfortunately, I did not see the exhibit while it was showing at MAM so I am reticent to offer too much commentary on the work, but others have said that McKinnon's slideshow followed the works in the exhibit almost verbatim. McKinnnon's dry, unengaging lecture did little to convey the importance of this show, the first American museum exhibit to examine this era of Warhol's oeuvre as a whole. Many 0f the points made were pretty basic romantic clichés about artists' twilight years (e.g. "He became fascinated with his own mortality," "He turned back towards his Catholic faith for inspiration," etc.), that I felt warranted a deeper exploration than McKinnon offered.

What interested me the most about the works in the presentation were the growing importance of materials in some of these final Warhol works. McKinnon discussed the infamous "urine paintings", which explored the ways in which human urine affected copper paint and created unpredictable, organic patterns on their canvases. Warhol also created a series of Rorschach test-style inkblot paintings, some on enormous canvasses, in which the final result of the creative process was largely unpredictable.

This artistic approach stands in glaring contrast to the mass-producible silk-screening processes used in Warhol's Factory to create the Soup Cans and Marilyn Monroes that made him famous in the 1960's. Each of the works is completely unique and nonrepresentational, depicting nothing other than the processes used to create them.

What does it mean when an artist who embraced hyper-representationism as an aesthetic turns to aleatoric process-driven abstraction late in life? I see this as Warhol's way of going full-circle. If things get representational enough, they become abstract, and if things get abstract enough, they start to represent themselves more purely than works tainted with any hint of representation. As a proto-media artist, Warhol embraced the superficiality of a culture obsessed with images of its celebrities or heads of state from the other side of the world and made these ultimately empty images the central subjects of his work. Substituting inkblots or urine for these images isn't really such a fundamental change. What I take most from Warhol's work—especially after considering these late abstract works—is that the Marilyns aren't really Marilyns and the Soup Cans weren't really soup cans. The Marilyns are silkscreen ink on canvas and the piss on a canvas is piss on a canvas.

Deeply superficial, huh? Whoa.

Warhol, Self-Portrait (Strangulation), 1978. Acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas, ten parts, 16 x 13 in.

Warhol, Oxidation Painting, 1978. Copper metallic pigment and urine on canvas.

February 5, 2010

Klaus Nomi/John Gates—Ongoing Dialogues

John T. Gates, Visiting Assistant Professor of Voice at Lawrence University, said recently that European opera productions are superior to American ones because their state-funded arts subsidization allows for radical experimentation and recontextualization of canonical operas, whereas in the U.S. we treat these works like untouchable sacred relics, and thus opt for marketable, traditional productions which stifle any possibility of an ongoing cultural dialogue about these operas.

It is interesting to consider Klaus Nomi (born Klaus Sperber) as a radicant artist and in terms of this notion of an ongoing cultural dialogue surrounding opera. As a child, before leaving his hometown of Essen, Germany, Sperber grew up listening to recordings of the American soprano Maria Callas and other opera divas from the golden age of recording. He learned to sing by modeling his own voice after theirs', developing a remarkable, though otherworldly falsetto. After a brief stint as an usher in a Berlin opera house, the starry-eyed Sperber moved to New York City, seeking a fertile cultural mecca in which to plant his roots, but instead found the artistic soil rocky and hard and had to take jobs as a baker to make ends meet when he was unable to find singing work. Shortly thereafter, Sperber (with the help of prominent New Wave artists) reinvented himself as Klaus Nomi, and performed with distinctive stage makeup and extraterrestrial costuming.

I see the Nomi persona as an acknowledgement of the detatchment felt by many (especially in this country) when confronted with "high art" (Gates' term, not mine) that feels alien and irrelevant. It is as if Nomi is saying, "If European opera embodies univeral truth and beauty, then a Martian should have the chance to sing it as well as Maria Callas." Klaus Nomi's deadpan, alien stage demeanor (which contrasts Callas' perfectly calculated emotional manipulation), as seen in his 1978 "New Wave Vaudeville" debut below, probably reflects more accurately the sentiments of American audiences who listen to Saint-Saëns than most Met or Lyric productions ever could.

In terms of Bourriaud's ideas of the radicant and altermodernity, Nomi's life seriously calls into question the ability of one to reroot in other cultures and demonstrates the failures of certain modernist universal ideals. In reaction to these failures, Nomi rooted himself (at least superficially) on a fictional plane of existence and produced some remarkable art in the space between the cracks of two different cultures. However, as documented in Andrew Horn's 2004 film The Nomi Song, the detachment this lifestyle took an personal enormous toll on Klaus, who died of AIDS in 1983.

Other Links:
Susan Sontag - Notes on "Camp"
More aliens singing opera

January 31, 2010

Abigail Disney

Filmmaker Abigail Disney was awarded an honorary doctorate this week from Lawrence University for her humanitarian work and her documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which chronicled the protests of thousands of women against warlord president Charles Taylor during the Second Liberian Civil War. As a result of these protests, Taylor agreed to attend peace talks in neighboring Ghana, though violence continued to escalate in Liberia as the talks wore on. Finally, after weeks of empty deliberation, the women staged a sit-in at the building in which the talks were held and pressured the warlords to reach an agreement.

In her acceptance speech, Disney recounted the story of the film's first showing to a group of women in Serbia. Though the reaction was mixed, many in the audience responded strongly to the Liberian women's message of peace and equality.

In many ways, Disney embodies the altermodern artist described by Nicolas Bourriaud in his book The Radicant. An American, and the grandneice of Walt Disney himself, Abigail has the capital to travel and root herself in Liberian culture, producing a work that holds significance in Serbia, America, and elsewhere. Through the international exchange of ideas and the utilization of documentary film, she is spearheading a worldwide movement towards equality and nonviolence.

Other links:
Peace is Loud
Daphne Foundation

Project Report Week #3 - Video/Jitter/Sonict Duo

I spent this week filming again and sorting through the footage I took last weekend. After rewatching the Radio Flocking clip I posted last week, I've decided to concentrate on those video clips that deal more obviously with communications technology to lend some unity and cohesion to the piece as a whole.

The multimedia ensemble Sonict Duo (Matt Sintchak/Jeff Herriott) performed at Lawrence University this past Thursday and their performance was thought provoking. The videos which accompanied their music were generally very textural and featured long stretches with little variation. Even though these videos were fixed media (prerecorded DVD's instead of live interactive video) and differed vastly from what I envision for this current, their sparseness left plenty of room to concentrate on both the visual and aural components of the performance.

Finally, I've largely assembled the Jitter patch I'll be using to control the video component of the piece. Andrew Benson's tutorials on the Cycling '74 website have been invaluable for the project and saved me time from having to build all of the components of the patch from the ground up. Having the patch assembled makes it easier to begin incorporating the video clips into the project as I edit them.

Jeff Herriott (from Sonict Duo) also spoke to some of us composers at Lawrence and showed us the Max patch he created to use with the Duo. I'm sure that I will incorporate some of his tricks into the audio component of this project later on.

January 24, 2010

N. Bourriaud - The Radicant Pt. 1 - Altermodernity

In the first part of his book The Radicant, critic and curator Nicolas Bourriaud proposes a revival of certain modernist principles as a proactive response to to the stagnating aesthetic dead-end of postmodernism. He uses the metaphor of a radicant, which refers to a plant species (like ivy) that digs new roots as it grows in order to collect nutrients from all of the soil it traverses, to describe the behavior of an artist working in an increasingly globalized world. Rather than being defined by his or her country of origin, the radicant artist is free to travel the world (physically or virtually through technology) and create works that can be defined as the result of their experiences and interactions with the various cultures of the world.

This is a contrast to postmodern relativism, which defines and values artworks solely in the context in which they were created and/or the cultural origins of the artist who created them. For Bourriaud, this philosophy merely increases the divides between various cultures and leaves many emigrant or exiled artists feeling trapped or alienated. Since an embracing of a globalist aesthetic bears certain similarities to modernist universalism (without the toxic Eurocentrism), he termed this new era altermodernity.

My primary criticism of Bourriaud's altermodernity is that it makes the individual artist's role merely curatorial, as though her or his sole task is to pick up the detritus of history and cleverly reassemble it in an attempt to rebuild the ruptured link between sign and signified. He calls this new artist a semionaut ("sign explorer") and points to the fact that nonfiction documentaries are most prevalently shown in art festivals (rather than on television or in movie theaters) as evidence that this, rather than a further move towards total abstraction (which Bourriaud sees as a fundamental characteristic of advanced capitalism), is the altermodern artist's task.

"What I term altermodern is precisely the emergence, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, of [...] a new cultural precipitate, the formation of a mobile population of artists and thinkers choosing to go in the same direction. A start-up, an exodus."

- Nicolas Bourriaud, The Radicant, p. 43
Postmodern deconstructionism successfully demonstrated the fallacy of the modernist notion of a universal linear history, showing instead that history is a vast spiderweb of interconnected events and ideas. As a result, any notions of novelty or originality (measures of aesthetic value in the modernist era) are either moot or chauvanistic. The altermodern semionaut, then, can traverse this spiderweb to mine any material she pleases in order to rebuild the bridges that collapsed with modernism.

OK, fine. I figured out that individuality and originality were kind of bogus back in high school (though it didn't keep me from trying), so that doesn't upset me too much. My real issue with this total curatorialism is that it inherently puts a wall between between the curator/artist/semionaut and the material from which they draw inspiration, which could come dangerously close to a sort of colonialistic objectification of "exotic" cultures if done carelessly. This line in the sand seems to become more apparent when one considers Bourriaud's mission to amass a "population of artists and thinkers choosing to go in the same direction" -- to move past postmodernism and reestablish some sort of semiotic bond between sign and signified.

Quite simply, the vast majority of people in the world don't understand nor care about moving beyond postmodernism, even though the same socioeconomic issues that have brought about the postmodern era are responsible for the capitalist system that touches almost every corner of the globe today. I became uneasy every time Bourriaud used the term "we", because it made me think of the audience who was likely to be reading his book -- first world citizens who are incredibly fortunate enough to attend a liberal arts college, like me -- and how, even if members of this audience take root in other non-first-world cultures and use their experiences in these cultures to help "go in the same direction", they further the divides between peoples with the only goal of 'harvesting' culture to solve Western philosophical dilemmas.

I respect Bourriaud's boldness in reexamining modernist principles (which have been largely taboo for several decades now) in an attempt to back out of the hole postmodernism has dug us. However, given his position as curator of a preeminent art gallery, his advocacy of curatorialism in altermodern art seems very self-serving. Moreover, his mission to reestablish the representational and semiotic in art leaves little room for those of us who work with music, which is largely an abstract art form (and has been since even before the rise of capitalism). I look forward to reading parts 2 and 3 to see how my opinions change.

Project Report Week #2 - Sample Footage

I spent this week collecting about 2 hours of footage that will be chopped up into short "grains" and fed into the Jitter patch I'll be using for this project, which I put together earlier this week (thought it will require some tweaking once the collection of video grains is assembled). I filmed at home in Appleton, WI, on the banks of the Fox River in Menasha, WI, and on top of Lake Winnebago near Stockbridge, WI.

Since the final performances of this project will involve several layers of video layered upon one another, I wanted to make sure to include a great deal of white negative space in the shots to minimize some of the clutter that will inevitably occur. The Lake Winnebago Tree Line clip (below) was completely unaltered after importing it into Final Cut; the whiteout look was created only by adjusting the camera's exposure.

I wanted some of the imagery to be evocative of issues relating to media and information transmission, so I sought out radio and cell phone towers. I completely failed to notice the flock of starlings around the Menasha radio tower in the Radio Flocking clip (below) when I was filming, but thought that they created a beautifully unexpected metaphor once I viewed the video. The brightness and contrast of this grain was adjusted in Final Cut.

It might be easier to watch these videos on the Vimeo website or in fullscreen mode.

January 21, 2010

Project Report Week #1.5 - Pattern Integrity

Fuller's notion of pattern integrity has many analogs to my current work in algorithmic composition and video. Simply put (I think), pattern integrity is a phenomenon that exists conceptually independent of any material, but requires a material to be seen and demonstrated. In the documentary The World of Buckminster Fuller, he gives the example of an overhand knot, which is a concept that can be known and understood, but must be applied to a piece of rope to be seen. Since overhand knots exist independently of ropes (but affect ropes' behavior), they can be applied to ropes of any kind and still maintain their integrity as overhand knots.

This is a much more elegant way of explaining what I am doing with my current video project that I could come up with on my own (thanks, Bucky!) Rather than thinking of this project (and some of my recent music) as fixed in time and space, I am instead creating sets of rules for ordering visual, sonic, or conceptual materials in time with the goal of altering or projecting those materials in a new light. The materials are theoretically completely variable (though for this project, there will be a finite number of pre-made videos in the algorithm program).

Yes, I suppose I'm making "conceptual art," but my ideas tend to be pretty boring, tedious concepts on their own (and tend to make for shitty PowerPoint presentations, too) until they're applied to light- or sound-making materials, just like the concept of an overhand knot is simple and meaningless on its own, but can form the basis for the incredibly complex tapestries.

Buckminster Fuller/Pythagoras/Tony Conrad—beautiful, beautiful bubbles

"Looking back at the wake of my ship one day in 1917, I became interested in its beautiful white path. I said to myself, 'That path is white because of the different refractions of light by the bubbles of water—H20 (not Hπ0). The bubbles are beautiful little spheres. I wonder how many bubbles I am looking at stretching miles astern?'

"I began to make calculations of how many bubbles there were per cubic foot of water. I began to find that in calculating the ship's white wake I was dealing in quintillions to the fourth power times quintillions to the fourth power or some such fantastically absurd number of bubbles. And nature was making those bubbles in sublimely swift ease!

"Any time one looks carefully at a bubble, one is impressed with the beauty of its structure, its beautiful sphereicity glinting with the colors of the spectrum. It is ephemeral—elegantly conceived, beautifully manufactured and easily broken.

"Inasmuch as the kind of mathematics I had learned of in school required the use of the XYZ coordinate system and the necessity of placing π in calculating the spheres, I wondered, 'to how many decimal places does nature carry out π before she decides that the computation can't be concluded?' Next I wondered, 'to how many arbitrary decimal places does nature carry out the transcendental irrational before she decides to say it's a bad job and call it off?' If nature uses π she has to do what we call fudging of her design which means improvising, compromising. I thought sympathetically of nature's having to make all those myriad frustrated decisions each time she made a bubble. I didn't see how she managed to formulate the wake of every ship while managing the rest of the universe if she had to make all those decisions. So I said to myself, 'I don't think nature uses π. I think she has some other mathematical way of coordinating her undertakings.'"

—Buckminster Fuller, Your Private Sky, p.457
While I am generally wary of overly rational explanations of the universe (they remind me too much of a Kepler-esque Music of the Spheres and often fail to take into account the limitations of our human perceptive capabilities, which govern everything we do), R. Buckminster Fuller's unique perceptive abilities and refusal to accept age-old mathematic theorums at face value resulted in his lifelong quest to create positive change in the world.

Most natural phenomena are so enormously complex they require abstractions like π for us to even begin to be able to understand them. Fuller's ruminating about bubbles, however, and his serious apprehension at the unnatural notion of π, raises serious questions about the levels of abstraction we can be comfortable with and also calls attention to other instances of irrationalty in our culture (such as the logarithmically equivalent 12-note scale used in Western music).

For Fuller, surrendering to irrationality so early in history (
π was familiar to the Ancient Egyptians and Hebrews and was studied in depth by Archimedes and Ptolemy) resulted in the widespread use of inefficient building materials in Western culture. By studying the geometric structures of atoms and molecules, he was able to extrapolate highly-efficient architectural designs such as the geodesic dome (used to build the Climatron in St. Louis' Missouri Botanical Gardens [above]) and find new ways to project flat depictions of the globe to reinvent our understanding of the layout of our planet.

Filmmaker/violinist/composer/mathematician Tony Conrad's project Slapping Pythagoras similarly calls into question many of the preconceived notions that exist about the rational ordering of the musical pitch universe (which can be traced back to the Greek philosopher Pythagoras [above]). However, Conrad, who seems to be largely railing against the pseudo-mystical hyper-rationalism of his onetime collaborator LaMonte Young, falls more in favor of irrationality than I believe Bucky would be comfortable with (by demonstrating how rational orderings, when taken far enough, result in a high degree of irrationality--in the same way that the rational patterns of water molecules create spheres which require an abstraction like π to measure), though both are concerned about the societal ramifications that accompany accepting ancient scientific dogmas as fact.

For Conrad, blind acceptance of Pythagoras' theories and mythologies results in an undemocratic, top-down worldview that stifles creativity and causes oppression. For Fuller, failing to recognize rational orderings in the universe has caused mankind to live wastefully and incongruously with nature, which ultimately threatens our survival on this "spaceship" called Earth.

January 17, 2010

Project Report Week #1

I'm beginning work on a large-scale algorithmically-controlled video and audio project that will use the phenomenon of snow blindness to explore issues related to cultural noise and the way in which we interpret the supersaturation of information in contemporary culture.

Both the audio and video will be composed of prerecorded samples or clips (hereafter "grains") that will be stored in a matrix of data. Quasi-random movement across this matrix will determine the occurrence of the particular grains.

Since I will not directly dictate the sequence of grains, only their content, any sense of narrative or connectedness will be a result of the viewers' interpretation of the resultant sequence. In many ways, this echoes our tendency to interpret TV news reports about the Haitian earthquake in the same way we perceive the late night Conan O'Brien snafu, because they are both conveyed with the same medium.

(While we're on the topic, pay attention.)

This week, I will begin filming the video grains and programming the video mixer algorithms in Max/Jitter. I'll post some sample footage next week.

January 10, 2010

Playing With Poodles/Foregone Conclusions

You See Me Laughin': The Last of the Hill Country Bluesmen, the 2002 documentary by director Mandy Stein that follows Fat Possum Records founder Matthew Johnson and the delta blues musicians from Holly Springs, Mississippi his label represents, including R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, T-Model Ford, Asie Payton, Kenny Brown, and CeDell Davis, whose "Let Me Play with Your Poodle" opens this post.

Fat Possum has drawn some criticism because of the potentially exploitative manner in which Johnson (who is white) has run a record company devoted almost entirely to selling music by black musicians, much in the way Columbia Records' subsidiary Okeh sold exotic "race records" to white audiences in the early 20th century. Additionally, historical blues aficionados would likely scoff at the way in Fat Possum has made some dubious hip-hop remixes of R.L. Burnside's music and teamed with pop-punk label Epitaph to increase sales. However, Johnson is blunt about his feelings on these decisions, saying, “There are not enough purists around to support a company that just makes records that all sound like they were done in 1931. We’ve got to somehow take what we think is the spirit and integrity of blues and bring it into this century.”

Stein and Johnson seem to be acutely aware of this criticism and address it in the documentary. Johnson is shown visiting Burnside at his home to check on his health and see to it that he goes to his scheduled doctors appointments. They even discuss hiding the money Burnside makes from touring so that he can continue to collect unemployment checks.

Regardless of whether or not Fat Possum is unfairly benefiting at its musicians' expense (every record company is inherently exploitative to a greater or lesser degree), I have to question the way in which this documentary portrays the eventual extinction of this culture as a foregone conclusion. Some have described Johnson's work as "a race against time" and even the subtitle "The Last of the Hill Country Bluesmen" shows the fatalistic attitude Stein and others have towards these musicians.

This mentality is reminiscent of the the stance taken by many early ethnomusicologists, such as Frances Densmore (below), whose certainty that Native American culture was nearing its demise at the hands of white settlers prompted the recording of hundreds of Native American songs in the early 1900's, without ever questioning the Manifest Destiny expansionism that threatened the original inhabitants of this continent.

By acquiescing to the notion that the hill country way of life has no chance of survival in the modern world and choosing to adopt a merely curatorial, preservatory attitude towards these musicians' music, we turn a blind eye to the historical and present-day failures of our educational, medical, and economic systems to provide for the various peoples that populate this country.

Then again, if Burnside, Kimbrough, Ford, Payton, Brown, and Davis had job security and healthcare, maybe they'd have no more blues to sing.

More on this topic:
Blues at the Crossroads
Fat Boys
Interview with Matthew Johnson
Fat Possum label keeping blues alive
Affluent White Man Enjoys, Causes the Blues

Les Paul/Mary Ford—The American Dream

What struck me most about the documentary Les Paul - Chasing Sound! were the scenes of The Les Paul and Mary Ford at Home television show, sets of 5-minute long daily shorts which number 170 in all. Sponsored by Listerine Mouthwash and syndicated in the mid-1950's, the show (which was based on a previous popular radio program, The Les Paul Show) features the couple at home, invariably breaking into song in the midst of performing stereotypical domestic tasks.

It has been speculated that Les Paul did not so much invent multitracking and tape delay, but simply put together the puzzle pieces that were already inherent in recording technology to create these spectacular early-50's hits. Indeed, there exists a very small number of primitive multitrack pieces by German composers Ernst Toch (Gesprochene Musik, 1930's) and Paul Hindemith (Trickaufnahme, 1930), and the American John Cage (Imaginary Landscape No. 1, 1939), which all utilize variations in playback/recording speed of turntables to create impossibly fast or thick textures. These works and the technology used to create them predate Les Paul's breakthrough instrumental track Lover (When You're Near Me) by almost a decade. Lover, like Toch's, Hindemith's, and Cage's pieces, utilized phonograph discs, which would later be replaced by magnetic tape. Magnetic tape, which was developed by the Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft corporation for the use of the German army in World War II and was later manufactured by the 3M corporation after its discovery by Americans after the war, greatly simplified the multitracking process and remained the recording medium of choice until the advent of digital audio.

What I see as Les Paul's greatest accomplishments are not his technological innovations, but rather his ability to co-opt these avant-garde technologies and techniques to proliferate and uphold postwar American middle-class values at exactly the same time that this nation was situating itself as the preeminent cultural and economic juggernaut of the world. Once you get past the saccharine Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet-esque setup and nauseatingly stereotypical gender roles of Les Paul & Mary Ford at Home (and the Listerine product plugs!), one can begin to see the ways in which psuedo-Space Age technology (magnetic tape) was used to extol the rosy "on top of the world" outlook of the baby boom era. The entire concept of making bestselling hit records in the privacy of one's own home (a common theme in both the television and radio programs) seems to be a sort of ultimate fulfillment of the American Dream, complete with a Frigidaire and electric iron.

Chasing Sound! only briefly mentions Les Paul's sink into relative obscurity after the emergence of rock 'n' roll as a new revolutionary popular music genre and practical retirement (at age 40) in 1965 after his 1962 divorce from Mary Ford. While it is, indeed, impossible to overstate Paul's technological influence on all popular music since the 1940's, it's hard not to feel that his sunny, childlike musical innocence quickly become incongruous with the hardships of his personal life and the tastes of a nation entering a tumultuous adolescence in the 1960's.

Bing Crosby/Les Paul - It's Been A Long, Long Time

January 7, 2010

Paul Sharits - Shutter Interface

Four-screen 16 mm loop projection with four separate sound tracks. Installed at the Greene Naftali Gallery in New York City, 2009.