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.