Blog archive January 2014

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19.01.14 / 01 / alpha-ville exchange

spent friday at the first alpha-ville exchange, a one-day conference bringing together key practitioners in the digital arts and media. it's hard to summarise such an immersive and inspiring event, which i will be digesting for a while to come. one is supposed to tweet a continuous stream of half-baked snippets from the auditorium, but the real connections revealed themselves over the whole day and on reflection.

all the speakers operate in the ill-defined territory where art, technology, coding, interactivity, design, advertising, animation, environments etc meet. everyone in the room, audience included [no clear boundary of course], was a hyphenate, doing multiple overlapping things as paid employment and as personal projects. nobody knew quite how to describe themselves [people's tags on their badges were almost comically unrevealing], and one of the underlying messages of the day was about finding self-definition and identity outside of the boxes of job or genre. shantell martin's apartment door is covered with stickers saying 'who are you'. stephanie posavec settled on the term 'data artisan' to capture her love of physical craft and labour in presenting complex data. 

all the speakers were seeking ways to balance human and digital inputs and processes, often in novel and unexpected ways. kokoro & moi use crowdsourcing methods as a generative device for randomness - in effect, the world as computer. eno henze hacks lasers to produce drawings on photo paper that look like hand drawings. henze, hellicar & lewis and onformative have worked with dancers as a tool to translate human interpretations of music into digital processes. posavec turned the raw data of facebook posts between couples into dance steps marked on the floor. someone, i forget who, spoke of using people and machines for what they are best at. posavec's data mining of literature cannot be done by computers, which cannot understand the contextual nuances of language in the texts she uses. conversely, shantell martin and sougwen chung produce drawings in the kind of generative, iterative way that one associates with computers, and then use them as the basis for digital art in relation to music.

the event was a superb piece of curation in that the speakers and their work spoke to one another in many ways, with themes in common yet divergent approaches and emphases. sometimes the conversation was literal, as an audience question to field about honest presentation of data became something that every speaker felt they had to address.

some disconnected notes:

the importance and use of [hand] drawing, as tool to generate and explore. i should take my drawing seriously.

drawing as an iterative process. draw again and again.

there are no mistakes if you don't know where you are going. use what happens.

the process of making the work is the work.

the format of the medium creates the work. shantell martin began by drawing in a concertina-fold notebook using a very fine pen. her whole subsequent work was generated by this happenstance - the 'endlessness' of the concertina-fold page and the complexity of the fine lines.

good interactive stuff is immediately legible and usable to people who don't know what it is.

all of your practice is important, is who you are. don't accept that one part [eg that can be defined as 'commercial' or 'art' or 'design'] is privileged over the rest.

[23.01.14 first link now points to the event summary on alpha-ville's site]

14.01.14 / 01 / star cops

star cops was a 1987 BBC scifi series, set in 2027, about a nascent police force for the space stations, moonbase and mars colony. at the time it got a poor critical reception, and few viewers due to bad scheduling, and was cancelled after nine episodes. these days it's regarded quite highly, on account of the witty scripts and the relative realism of the settings.

however, there is another layer of charm that was not available to viewers in 1987, from our ability to compare the 'star cops' vision of the near future to the real thing. as you might expect, the space technology is well in advance of where we are - it extrapolates the shuttle era very plausibly, but we will not get there by 2027 even if the commercial shuttle market succeeds. on the other hand, the information technology is far behind where we are now, let alone 2027. the hero has a PDA called 'box', with which he converses like siri. it's the size of a brick, and it's the only one, made by his father. nobody knows what it is, because this is a future without mobile phones or small networked computers. in the first minutes of this episode, below, the characters suffer a familiar mobile phone embarrassment - but the device is a new thing they've never seen before. however, the curvaceous space plane they are travelling to the moon on is still beyond our abilities.

'realistic' near-futures without mobile phones now seem very strange - there's kind of a gap where you think "why don't they phone someone?". this absence, coupled with the post-1980s computers and vaguely pomo interiors make 'star cops' look less like a vision of 2027 and more like an alternative 1990s, where moore's law had applied to space technology while information technology plodded along in a linear fashion. it's the past, but not as we knew it, jim.

i came to star cops via moonbase 3, an equally unsuccessful BBC scifi series from 1973. dirty realism and claustrophobia, yes, but it's set in 2003... which makes an interestingly pessimistic comparison with space: 1999, filming at the same time. the sensible scientific BBC view versus the andersons! perversely i find the latter more 'believable' in a way, perhaps because it conforms to my idea of 'the future', perhaps because it does display more realistic levels of technological progress, albeit in different directions to what actually happened.

part of the pleasure of watching these series is that it reveals the science fiction qualities of our real life in 'the future' - because our everyday technology is way in advance of what was expected in 1973 or even 1987. after watching moonbase 3 i could see how miraculous youtube was, and the machine i was watching it on. shame about the space stuff though.


i have similar sentiments in reading early 'cyberpunk' fiction, although of course sterling/gibson and the like did deal with info tech, however the prescient aspects are oft overshadowed by some unforeseen technology.. apple, facebook, twitter, etc.. are all great examples of information overload, yet they don't function in the way mnemonic would have wanted.. they serve the corporate instead of subverting it.. the hackers are left out in the cold, just another topic in the stream of metadata these companies use for marketing, etc..

i'd rather have spaceplanes, per se..

tim westcott

05.01.14 / 03 / viral

meanwhile, this photo clocked up over 6000 views in the 24 hours after it was uploaded, and has had another 1700 today and counting. wtf?

i have noticed that my photos are getting significantly more views since the flickr makeover, with occasional viral moments like this one, but the stats give frustratingly little information for the really interesting surges.

05.01.14 / 02 / particular not universal

another moral might be, seek out the particular rather than the [would-be] universal so that you can work with it in mutual understanding.

but then again, facebook was once very niche...

05.01.14 / 01 / flickr

and the last entry reminds me of flickr, which was doing just fine through years of benign neglect until yahoo acquired tumblr. and flickr was immediately subjected to a flashy makeover that was at once superficial and damaging, all so that yahoo could capitalise on the publicity splash around tumblr and say, hey, we're totally new and happening and competing with instagram etc etc. aside from displaying photos badly and making it hard work to load and scroll through, the reskin badly damaged the social aspects of the site by hiding descriptions, comment threads etc from easy perusal. given the elegance of the flickr app it was bewildering, but it probably looked great as a screenshot in the CEO's powerpoint presentation.

this was a salutary reminder that placing your content on other people's platforms subjects it to their business plans and visions which may not align with your own. flickr was originally created for family and personal snapshots, but was squatted by professional and serious amateur photographers and designers who set up a thriving network of special interest groups. when yahoo suddenly decided to repurpose flickr for teenagers with smartphones, that entire ecosystem was disenfranchised and placed under notice. one long term solution would be a photo-sharing site specifically dedicated to serious photography and design, on a subscriber model. another solution would be site owners who nurture what they have in its uniqueness rather than chasing the next me-too must-have gold-rush thing.

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