Friday, June 29

Show and Tell: Avatars

At the Film Archive's current show, entitled Puppets to Pixels, they're shadow figures based on traditional fairy tales like Baby Yaga.

While Jason Rowe, born physically handicapped, is represented by a hulking metal robot specialising in ranged weapons.

I'm currently in the US for the next few weeks, so thought I'd start a little thread on avatars. What does yours look like? Where are they used? Any particular reason why they look the way they do?

Avatar Name: Window Oh Platform: Second Life
Like the majority of users of SL, I set up an account, wandered around the virtual world, learning the interface, and stumbling into objects, and have rarely returned. There are high points - dance performance, interactive galleries, and a wide-ranging, if glitchy, freedom. The avatar was one of the first experiments which ended up looking like an androgynous David Bowie with less hair.

Name: lukethor Platform: Nintendo Wii
My Mii avatar, much more similar to the real life version. Nintendo has cleverly picked up on the connection between avatar and player, onscreen and real world counterparts - it means more if your best friend Jamie misses that homerun catch than if COM1 does.

on funding for the arts: an international perspective

I'm currently in the UK on a sonic arts residency, and I'm noticing some interesting trends around funding.

First of all, there's an enormous amount of money floating around: £500 million was available last year through Arts Council of England grants, which works out to about £10 per person living in the UK. By comparison, in 2004 Creative New Zealand gave out, in total, $18 million, or about $4.50 per person living in New Zealand, or at today's exchange rates, £1.72. To be fair that doesn't include money paid out through the PACE scheme or through the plain unemployment benefit, which has long been a pillar of support for the New Zealand artist.

It's also worth noting that money is just given out, with no need for a project to present itself as 'self-sustaining'. Artists expect to be paid a living wage out of grant money - a minimum of £175 a day, or a suggested wage of £23,000-£33,000 p/a, which is a decent wage - enough to support a reasonable standard of living or a partner. Artists also expect to fund and purchase all of their materials through grant money - there isn't the expectation that arts projects will be funded by sponsorship.

This ought to do wonders for the art itself. With an artist free to rely on grant money for everything, and without having to worry about any 'practical' issues, they can get fully stuck down into the process of creating art. I have certainly seen some very good art in the few months I have been here, and this is in Birmingham, hardly somewhere well-known for its art scene.

Interestingly, however, artistic culture as a whole can suffer. Living in New Zealand I found artists were often willing to cooperate, to work together to make a project happen, for the love of it more than anything else. My time spent with the Jeff Henderson, Warwick Donald and the rest of the folks who help to keep Happy running in Wellington showed me an organisation surviving (but only just) on enormous amounts of dedication and willpower, all the while keeping a fantastically open policy of accepting pretty much any kind of music- or sound-related artform you could imagine. My research over here in the UK has drawn me to the rather surprising conclusion that there is no equivalent in the UK. Even in London, supposedly a hub of experimental music, I could not find a dedicated venue: there are a few weekly events, in a couple of pubs here and there, but there's nothing like Happy.

Perhaps this is because of the funding situation. With money apparently so readily available, funding coming all from one source, the first question considered when I have discussed any new project with another artist funding. Artists here seem to be implicitly taught to rely on outside sources of funding for projects, and because there are always more artists than funding sources, competition is inevitable. Of course, competition and cooperation don't really go hand-in-hand, so what this essentially means is that no 'serious' artist seems to be willing to consider working with me unless it is at least vaguely going to end up with them receiving money.

This is a little bit foreign to my approach to art-making. I tend to work with what I've got, experimenting with the tools on hand until I have something approaching what I want, and only then start looking for potential funding avenues. This obviously lends itself to casual collaboration, where I ask other people for help without the expectation of pay, with the understanding that they will reciprocate at some stage. Looking at it from another angle, it also pushes networking as an important skill; my cultural capital, as someone who has skills and is willing to share them, becomes my most important asset, being the dominant factor in making my contact details shared amongst other people.

From my experience, many other artists in New Zealand operate along similar lines. The Wellington music scene, of which Happy is a part, is infamously incestuous in this regard: skilled musicians who like to play with different bands end up forming excellent bands full of skillful musicians, who are largely shared with other bands; and the scene as a whole benefits from having many more good bands than would be possible if the musicians did not collaborate in this way.

By contrast the situation here is largely one of guarded ideas, closed creative groups, and active competition. The collective who is hosting my visit, Modulate, operate under the assumption that they are filling a niche in the Birmingham art scene (with sonic art), and are currently running a series of free Sonic Culture Salons, the purpose of which is to bring artists who are interested in or work with sound together on a monthly basis to meet, discuss, present, perform, and exhibit sound- and new media-related project. Despite their clear open policy of providing a service the broader arts community, they have been actively denied assistance in funding applications by some of the other arts groups in Birmingham, with the stated reason being that they are competing for the same pot of money.

So. On the one hand you've got enormous amounts of money, artists being able to spend a long time developing their craft, a financial support system that lasts after for the love of it has run out, and an official endorsement of the idea that art and commercial interests are and should be separate. On the other hand, competition means that artist groups are more closed to one another, leading to stronger, if implicit, hierarchies, which are never that good for a creative culture; and collaboration and collaborative art projects are more difficult to bring about. In short, it's a more traditionally competitive capitalist environment.

To conclude, I'm not really sure whether this is a good thing. My youthful *-ist idealist sides tell me that it isn't, that art should be one of those places where collaboration, mutual support, and cooperation are always the Right Way To Do It; but my more sensible grownup sides are saying, no, it's much better to get paid, and if the broader community suffers well then tough, because that's the kind of world we live in these days.

Tuesday, June 19

Pushing (and pulling) the interface

A bespectacled, slightly overweight man stands in front of a massive flat screen. With a few ‘pull apart’ motions of his fingertips, he zooms from the continental US into downtown Boston, moving from satellite imagery to a detailed roadmap in a few seconds. He flicks into a photo application, flicking thumbnails around and drawing a selection with his index finger before copying and pasting it. With a throwing motion, he sends a couple shots over to a colleague working on another area of the board. It’s Minority Report, come to life (video).

The unlikely hero is Jefferson Han, a previously unknown researcher at Cornell/NYU before making a presentation on his multi-touch interface at a tech conference last year. Since then, he’s been featured in Wired, sold units to the CIA, and helped Apple implement some touch behaviours into the iPhone.

And while the CIA might find spying faster with Hans interface, many people have responded that it looks fun. Alternate interfaces have abounded in the last few years.

Locally HitLab (Human Interface Technology) New Zealand have been hard at work pushing alternate reality interfaces. Mixing the real world with the virtual, they're an attempt to provide a natural way to work with objects, while overlaying CG elements or feedback. In principle this is fantastic - urban developers move and rotate virtual skyscrapers the same way they'd normally use wooden or plastic blocks - only the work environment now allows them to scale, create roads, and view the whole scheme in the context of a geomapped overlay. In practice the interface is a little glitchy and slow - 3d models stutter around the stage or the interface hesitates when manipulating objects (is that a move or a scale?).

Just yesterday New Zealander Julian Oliver posted about an experimental AR interface he and Simone Jones had created at the Interactivos conference at Media Lab Madrid. "The idea was simple, augment a solid cube with 6 little rooms such that the cube becomes a tangible interface for navigating through an architecture: a mind-game - 'How are the rooms connected?'" The result is a tiny Escheresque cube that seems filled with possibilities. One idea to extend the concept is to develop a mini-game/interactive where the user would guide a tiny avatar through a world by flipping a series of cubes to expose exit points.

Monday, June 18

Subliminal stimuli: sneak preview of Botborg

Officially opening Wednesday night, thought I'd post a sneak preview of video work and writing on Botborg.
Subsequent research has determined that the frequency that causes vibration of the eyeballs – and therefore distortion of vision – is around 19Hz.

The effects of this specific frequency were confirmed, independently, by the work of engineer Vic Tandy while attempting to demystify a ‘haunting’ in his Coventry laboratory. This ‘spook’ was characterised by a feeling of unease and vague glimpses of a grey apparition. A spot of detective work implicated a newly installed extractor fan that, Tandy found, was generating infrasound of 18.9Hz.

The work opens with a sun, a glowing red orb which hangs in the middle of the frame. Quickly the edges become distorted, agonized, fluttering and flicking outwards in spasms. The video then rips apart, not in a traditional filmic tear, but a wholly digital, alien mess - an abortion of florescent rainbow pixels, jagged lines and blown out glitches. Botborg abandons linear narrative, form, and cohesion in an attempt at a much more profound, visceral experience. Like the Surrealist film UN CHIEN ANDALOU (1928), where an eye is symbolically slit - it's "principles" can only be communicated by injecting an intertwined barrage of audiovisual matter behind the pupils directly into the brain.... keep reading full Botborg introduction here

Monday, June 11

et al: the fundamental practice at Artspace

Sneaked into Artspace on the final day for Et Al's repurposed Venice exhibition, the Fundamental Practice, and thought I'd mention a couple quick thoughts on the digital aspects.

While it has been shown before, the Artspace version has been "reordered, regrouped, restored". This was evident in aspects like the sound - the curatorial intern was kind enough to play a CD of recorded sound from the previous incarnation, which seemed much more solitary and quiet. The expansive concrete rooms of the current space meant that the sound channels boomed and echoed, mixed and collided. CNN style news headlines shifted with white noise and more melodic elements as you moved between areas.

Photographs by Jennifer French provided courtesy of Artspace

The Fundamental Practice also utilised a Google Earth element - playing back a series of waypoints and camera angles generated with the mapping tool. Strangely the locative element didn't anchor the work in a greater spatial context, instead zooming and panning around a collection of tiny village names in an (for myself unknown) Middle Eastern country (Iran, Iraq?). Overlaid in a circular pattern over 5 of these were obelisks, lending the whole thing a totemic, conspiracy theory quality which focused on a single village in the middle. This was reinforced by a second screen constantly scrolling through propoganda text - a mixture of military jargon and religious commands displayed in a raw code (think notepad) type format. As p. mule states, "Fundamentalism was rife throughout the process from all sectors. Is humour important (in the work)? p.mule: Yes. (or) It’s fundamental."

Sunday, June 10

Under the radar: Cybercafe culture

"Oh. My. God. How is he not flashbanged?" A young kid throws up his hands in disgust, staring at his now dead body and a respawn timer. It's Sunday night, and while the rest of Auckland's central city is cold, rainy, and deserted, Mid City cyber cafe's two floors of computers are packed with gamers.

They range from young to old, experienced to noobs. The kid currently whining to his monitor is just finishing up a round of Counter-Strike or one of it's myriad variants - all hardcore shooters where a good player can detect an enemy in the shadows and headshot him at distance. Downstairs a group of young chinese 20 somethings lounge on arm chairs, taking a break and half-watching two flatscreens - one showing a golf tournament, the other a Warcraft 3d animation. WOW (World of Warcraft) is by far the most popular game, a MMORPG set in a huge, diverse universe with a player base over 6 million worldwide. It's combination of fantasy role playing, constant leveling up and rich environments means it's very accessible - and as addictive as crack. Upstairs, two children rush towards me, pushing chairs around, playing hide and seek and screaming. Their dads around - somewhere. A Korean couple take turns watching each others' virtual conquering. With lychee drinks in hand, they're here for the long haul.

I find a friend, sit down, chuck on some headphones and logon. We play Battlefield 2, a large scale tactical battle game - me very badly. For me it's more of a chance to catch up, get out of apartment, and see something different. And I'm not alone. While Korea is renowned for videogames as a social phenomenon, it's apparent, but under the radar, in New Zealand. In Orewa on a Sunday afternoon, two teen girls sit next to each other in another packed cybercafe, updating their MySpace accounts, adding friends, responding to comments. And while some benefits are reported on, most of the time it's negative press for the spaces. Previous headlines have included 'Korean gamer die after marathon session', 'China to set three-hour limit on MMORPG's', and 'Cyber cafes a homeless haven'.

So how many cafes are there, how many people are hitting them? Here it seems no one knows, or no one reports on it. The closest site with statistics was Australian and repeated the finding. "There is no global or national register of LAN cafes. Authoritative directories or guides are unavailable. Many cafes do not use large-scale print/electronic advertising, instead relying on word of mouth. Some are short-lived." Yellow pages reports 18 entries in the “Internet Cafe” category for the whole of Auckland. I'm guessing the real number is at least 3 or 4 times that. If cyberculture exists under the radar in most of the West, it's seems almost invisible here in New Zealand.

Friday, June 8


Sam Morrison's Whisper-ma-Phones are enclosed sound devices attached to a number of streetlights within Aucklands CBD. These devices operate in rhythm with the streetlights, waking up and going to sleep in unison. During the hours of activity (night time!) the Whiper-ma-Phones are responsive to those that approach, each having it's own unique voice and story to tell. Will do a full review when I check out the Kitchener Street version tonight...

Update: Found one of the phones last night, outside of Parsons on Wellesley Street. Speaking into an orange plastic tube triggers the barrel above, lighting it up and starting the noise-producing mechanics. One of the most interesting features is that - even without the triggered input - the length and acoustics of the plastic tube produce an almost electronic humming tone, distorted and undulating.

Wednesday, June 6

OpenFrameworks - Interview with Zach Lieberman

According to Casey Reas, this year will see the release of 3-5 books that deal with Processing. I must admit, it never quiet dawned on me how pervasive this software has become... until recently. But it is a new project by Zach Lieberman & Theodore Watson that has peaked my interest of late.

'OpenFrameworks' is a library of code, in some ways compariable to Processing, which aims to provide artists/designers with a simplfied route into C++ programming. Using C++ has advantages over Java, namely speed and the all important low latency useful for camera/computer vision work. OpenFrameworks is currently pre-release, but I am hoping it is ok to post the link here for anyone who is interested in checking it out.

Below is a short and impromptu interview with Zach while enjoying lunch at the city hall canteen in St Brieuc, France.

Zach Lieberman and Du Zhenjun playing with Drawn

Can you give a short intro of OpenFrameworks for people who may not have heard of it?
Open Frameworks is a library of C++ based code which is designed for creative coding... so... It is a library but we think of it more as a kind of framework. So instead of being a library having a lot of code, it wraps other libraries. The idea of a library for people who maybe are non programmers, is that it's a set of code which has been pre-written, which gives you access to different functionality.

The idea of OpenFrameworks is in a way to create a kind of wrapper, which wraps other libraries and gives you the kinds of things you may want to experiment creatively. So for us we do a lot of audio-visual work, so that means kind of visuals, being able to load in images, being able to work with movies, being able to work with audio...'ve made your own functions?
Yeah, yeah, sure.

I looked through and there is a whole bunch of stuff you've got there, which is just things that I think would be really obvious to use but maybe it is not so easy to do that...
Yeah, it's not so easy. The idea is to kind of give you a lot of functionality very quickly. We like this idea of 80%. If you have software or code which can do 80% of what you want to do it is a good thing. Cause then you can try and figure out the remaining 10-20%.

So it's kind of moving at a little bit higher level of abstraction?
Sure, but at the same time we want to give you, becuase we're super nerds, so we like to have this low level access. Like if your playing a movie, you want to know what pixel number 20 20 is, you want to know the red, green, and blue value. So we want to be able to give you access to that data if you want it. But if you just want to play the movie you play the movie. So that's the point is to give some layer of abstraction and also allow you to get in low level.

I think we talked about this the other day, but there is definitely a history of artist made software such as Rokeby's softVNS and Processing I guess more recently. So as an artist why do you want make something like OpenFrameworks?
One thing I was interested in, I always try to do this when I'm teaching, is to really preach this idea that artistic practice is research. That really art-making is research in the same way that, science, you know, a physicist is doing research. So I like this idea, when you think about research, research is really built on the work of other people. And that's important for students, to see like their artworks, that your artwork is coming on top of the work of other people. So I like this idea of artist as researcher, and maybe it is a kind of researcher for humanity or researcher for society or for the world.

And if you take that question of researcher even further, then the question is how do you publish the results of your research? And open source is one very obvious and very critical way to publish the results of your research. So then I started to think about open source, and especially about this idea of could you be making tools at the same time you are making art?

So OpenFrameworks is well, one thing I have found I am really good at is working with libraries and working with code, so I could use those skills, and the things that I learn and the projects that I make, in order to create something that other people would find useful.

So that's a part of it as well? Being able to see other people use the platform to go forward and create?
Sure, that's the thing that is very beautiful, is that you put it out there and then you see these amazing results.

Do you sort of feel like 'the godfather'?
Oh yeah, I was just in Barcelona and there was the Graffiti Research Lab there with the laser tag project and I really felt like that is so totally beautiful. They put the video on YouTube and like a million people have seen the video, and its like the project is so successful, cause it's totally brilliant, it's so simple. Then I look through the code, I was helping them and kind of programming a little bit and I realised that that's the value of open source, you can put something out there and somebody can make an amazing project with it. And I have an even stronger respect for people like Ben Fry and Casey Reas; it's so hard do this kind of open source project so I really respect what they have been doing and the whole entire Processing community.

I think artists are very aware of their work looking like it was made by a certain set of tools. How much do you think it is the responsibility of the artist to be able to look after how they make their own tools and take care of their tools themselves, whether that is software or something like Wiring...
I think it is important to understand the tradition. You know that's the first thing for artists, is to understand this idea of tradition and research and learning from previous generations. And then I think once you have been in it for a while, like been in the game and working then you can see what the patterns are and how to turn away from it.

For me I have been working with Golan for a long time, we do a lot of synthetic graphics, using a lot of openGL and drawing things in a certain way and the visuals are in a way very similar. And when I made the project Drawn which was about video, which was about augmenting live video, I wanted to find a way to break away. And I think it is important, always important for artists to try to understand their own career, their own trajectory and the trajectory of people around them, and try and find a way to break out, because we will be in these similar patterns. And that is the thing that is beautiful about research, is well we can keep going the same routes or we can discover new paths as well.

As this is a New Zealand blog, tell me again about this New Zealand connection?
With OpenFrameworks?
Well there's you! I met you and the first thing was like 'I'm from New Zealand and I am on the OpenFrameworks mailing list'!. And I met Julian Oliver who is a really wonderful artist based in Berlin... he is also from New Zealand and I got him excited about OpenFrameworks, so I got two out of I dunno how many million...
Four million in New Zealand!
Two out of four million, so it's like one in five hundred thousand, no like one in two million... we're getting there...
Thank you very much!

Digital flipbook: Project lomo at Cross Street

"Shoot from the hip", state the originators, a couple who discovered a cheap, small Russian camera one day in an Austrian thrift shop. Cross Street featured a show based around the cult phenomenon known as lomography tonight. Sharing a common aesthetic of grainy, highly saturated, blurred shots, and a common philosophy of shooting everywhere and anywhere, lomography has spawned a number of imitators, organisations, and online photo groups.

Joshua Lynn digitized a dozen or so of his rapid-fire sequences of everyday events and screened them on an appropriately old skool computer system in the space. Masking tape on the floor reading "controls" pointed to the page down and up keys, which flicked to the next sequence. Making concrete the implied temporality of the rest of the photography, their motion was sometimes real (a stranger walking on the street) or hinted at (shifting focus and lens flares animating a sunset).

Tuesday, June 5

New video work at Window

We're busy working on the next exhibition, a show featuring 5 artists working with video: Charles Ninow, Sean Grattan, Veronica Crockford-Pound, Ritchie Frater, and a soon to be confirmed artist. The short, two week show will give each artist two days to show their work - screened, projected, or installed.

Naomi Lamb, a contributor on this group blog, will be VJing on the opening night. Bypassing the slick stock footage sometimes dominant in the genre, she'll be mashing up a variety of clips she's shot herself - palms from local road trips, clouds over a moon, or the korean skyline seen from a subway car (shown below).

A German/Australian duo under the pseudonym Botborg will be screening online. Utilising a range of device feedback, they produce a barrage of flickering, glitching, digital video. Described as "aggressively complex and occasionally frightening" , the work attempts to demonstrate the oneness of light, sound, and movement as theorised by photosonicneurokineasthography.

Friday, June 1

Playing the Players: Subverting gameplay

Players login to a games server, spawn and start purchasing semi-automatic weapons and grenades in preparation for the standoff. They're playing Counter-strike, a now dated game that retains a diehard group of fans years on. They swap tips: turn graphics down to up your framerate, fire machine guns in short bursts to increase accuracy - anything to give them an edge in this hardcore FPS (first person shooter) featuring terrorist/counter terrorist squads. But some players have different ideas.

Recipe for Heart Stand-in by A.M.S.

  1. Ask the members of your Counter-Strike team, (must be at least 14), Counter-Terrorist or Terrorist, to stand in a large, low, flat open area in the game that can be viewed from above.
  2. Arrange everyone to stand in the shape of a heart. Do not move or return fire.
  3. On all player chat send out the message repeatedly: "Love and Peace"
  4. Retain position stoicly.

Terms for this type of behaviour are as wide ranging as the 'interventions' themselves - griefing, meta-games, performance. Wikipedia states that, "In this meta-game, there are no rules of engagement, and the objective is to make someone else miserable." Microsoft shifts the definition of griefer to being "plain cyberbullies" and perceives the behaviour and the players as purely negative; "ne'er-do-wells".

Projects like Velvet Strike (mentioned above) use political reasoning to justify their actions, launching into a treatise on Post 911 America, violence, realism, and the shooter genre. Some players want to test others, like Sims blocking paths for other sims. Others use this behaviour to explore gameplay and systems. One player of the experimental narrative game Facade explains. "The first time I played Facade, a friend who was with me asked, 'So, how are you going to play first time through?' 'I’m gonna break this f***er,' I replied."

Lisa Galarneau, member of the GamesLab at the University of Waikato, sees this behaviour as positive, experimental catharsis, saying " often do we get to see what happens when we are jerks to others? One of my hypotheses is that there is not so much a griefer archetype, so much as there are people who play at griefing just to see what happens when they do." Her article entitled "Is it really so bad to be bad?" elaborates: "Isn't it better to take out my aggressions in some PvP (editor: Player versus Player) rather than beating my wife or kids, or pulling someone out of their car and beating the bejeezus out of them when they cut me off in traffic? The world is a horrible, frustrating place. Where else is that anger going to go?"