Saturday, September 22

Quick Take: Stephen Foster at MIC

A spotlight appears on a screen to the left as a suited figure with Indian head dress steps into the frame, a clear reference to the iconic Bond opening sequences. Delayed by a few seconds, the right screen lights up as a second shooter strides across. The crack of gunshots sound as firearms on the left and right are drawn and triggered. The work, entitled Gunfight, is one of a series by Canadian artist Stephen Foster, currently showing at MIC.

What's interesting about the work is the tension deriving from the timing - it's not immediately clear who will shoot first. As writer Monika Gagnon elaborates, "The loops end, and replay endlessly, cowboy or Indian drawing first, depending on how the two digital videos align themselves to each other on each screening."

Unfortunately I found Gunfight to be the strongest piece in the show. Foster employs a number of graphic techniques consistently, resulting in compositions of high-resolution digital objects with glowing effects and obvious scan lines. The resulting style Gagnon describes as "hyper-real", a fitting aesthetic in some ways for work which deals with posturing and power struggles, historical and contemporary authenticity. But while it's an apt commentary for it's subject, the staged aesthetic asphyxiates it's medium as well, leaving behind a series of artificially slick digital compositions which ultimately fail to move or compel.

Wednesday, September 19

Quick Take: Virtual Pay? Virtual Strike

During negotiations with IBM, the union representing workers for the Italian branch of the computer giant asked for a salary increase. The request was denied, and the usual "performance bonus" incentives canceled. In response, the Italian union, together with Union Network International, have planned a virtual strike to occur in Second Life next week.

Interested residents can teleport to Commonwealth Island, where they're armed with a strike kit: from a UNI t-shirt, to signs stating "Our demand was...." and even giant animated fish which can be carried like balloons.

Gimmicky? Sure. Virtually useless? Not at all. What UNI understands is that the virtual can swing the physical - global media will ignore a local computer branch in Italy, but a strike via the transnational Second Life is both bizaare and compelling. From Information Week to The Register, ABC Spain to Radio Canada, UNI received the awareness which is so vital for activism.

Thursday, September 13

Putting the old back into new media

Alessandro Ludovico is no stranger to technology - he worked with a group on the controversial Amazon Noir project. Scripts repeatedly mined the booksellers "Look Inside this book" feature, piecing back the hundreds of random pages into complete novels, then redistributing them via P2P (Peer to Peer) filesharing software. Together with Paolo Cirio, he also staged "Google Will Eat Itself" a couple years ago, filtering funds received from Google AdWords to purchase stock in the global search giant. So at the "still/open" artists workshop in Melbourne last week, as Janine Randerson reports, his topic was very surprising. Paper.

Ludovico's talk, the Persistence of Paper deconstructed the hailed 'paperless office', and elaborated on the strength of the humble book as an historical record amidst a very transient web, an autonomous lo-tech solution which is "reliable and not dependent on the lack of tcp/ip waves or electricity". He moves on to suggesting "just in time" publishing - newspapers or magazines that are feverishly updated until a few moments before cheap offline production onto paper.

Helmut Smitt's "Pamphlet" work riffs on this new ease of publishing, allowing visitors to type in a message and have a printer spit out a brochure from the 10th floor of a tower block. Services like online publisher make significantly bigger works possible - send a PDF, choose distribution methods, and even get an ISBN. Gmail announced it's "Paper Gmail" feature, allowing printouts of archived mails, as an April Fools Day joke. But users, and reporters fell for it, some even requesting it after they uncovered the prank.

Wednesday, September 12

Sound as art - art as sound

Toshio Iwai stands on the stage holding a translucent digital panel rimmed in steel. Dressed all in white, with a wireless headset, he appears to have stepped from a pure, utopian future. Quickly he generates a rhythm of electronic pulses, then adds a simple melody over the top. He moves sound sources around on a grid, phasing tones in and out, building them to a resonant crescendo. As any electronic musician will tell you, his performance isn't technically difficult. Software sequencers - where the computer triggers a note or sample if a grid node is turned on - have been around for years. The difference lies in the execution and aesthetics. Instead of a performer hunched over a mysterious laptop, Iwai's Tenori On instrument moves with the player, glowing and pulsating, communicating the sound visually.

We enjoy connecting the visual and the aural: the whip crack of a snare as a drummer's stick comes in contact, the tensed face of a singer reaching for a high note. So it's fitting that recent projects seek to bring that connection to the sometimes cold black box of electronic sound. Instruments like Iwai's, visual programming software like Max or Pure Data, and Bjork's recent use of the 'reactable' instrument in her live shows try to address this lack.

A 'tangible music interface', the reactable is essentially a tabletop which senses specially tagged blocks put on top of it and overlays graphical data on them. The typically invisible tempo which lies behind a song becomes a very visible digital ripple, triggering sounds as it touches blocks. Difficult concepts like signal paths are made clear - we can see the original signal emanate out, then become squelched and agitated as it passes through a filter block.

Of course, the type of visual feedback can also take a lo-fi bent. At the last experimental sound night known as Vitamin S, dancer Christian Larsen and a fellow dancer reacting to a looped, overdriven guitar performance.

Tuesday, September 4

Data visualisation: What does guilt look like?

In an age of information overload, a picture carries a thousand words - or stats. From around the net, political artists, environmentally savvy companies and concerned individuals are all making a statement, without uttering a word.

Hotmapping combines thermal imaging flyovers with residential mapping to uncover the highest energy hogs in any area. They recently completed a massive, 30 sq km section for Haringey in the UK, then posted it online, shaming the homeowners of those hot red dots on the map.

Radley Balko (stats) and Lee Laslo (programming) teamed up to reveal a pattern behind the numbers. Piecing together dozens of "isolated" botched police raids, the duo pinned them on a Google Map, complete with a key detailing items like "Death of an innocent", and case-by-case stories linked to local press articles. It's a textbook example of web 2.0 connectedness used for an incisive statement - stats+mapping+news articles - putting hyped but superficial initiatives like Twitter to shame.

Brazilian artist Icaro Doria takes national flags and rethinks them, mapping the area of a certain colour to damning statistics. Burkina Faso's tiny gold star becomes the percentage of children who actually reach maturity. Columbia's dominant yellow stripe representing it's cocaine production overshadows smaller crops like coffee and bananas. At best the stats are simplified. The EU's drastic oil production/consumption ratio is the result of many factors, many of which aren't necessarily negative. At worst, they're exaggerated or false - Somalia's shocking genital mutilation statistic would be difficult to get hard figures on.

Finally, Google's default inclusion of Darfur into it's Google Earth product is an overt political statement. It's 3d engine typically used to show corporate skyscrapers or monuments visualises something much more disturbing - tall purple towers representing numbers of displaced and wounded in the african nation.

Monday, September 3

Mediating the environment

Open on a shot of a kid walking the street with a black backpack, followed with a handheld videocam. He reaches his destination and unzips the bag. Spraycans? Homemade bombs? Surprise, sliding out of the bag is a digital projector. Snaking a cord to a nearby lamppost, the kid's just created a 50 foot screen - and an audience.

Years ago you'd have to know these guys personally. With the internet they can share it with interested artists and activists from Sydney to Paris - 8 in-depth steps on Instructables, including all the gear, best locations via Google Maps, and open-source code written in C++.

What's interesting here are not the tags themselves (sometimes juvenile or straight digital translations) , or the illegal buzz associated with it. Look past that, and you'll find kids mediating their environment - 'growing' generative graphics on slick corporate hotels, talking back to patronising billboards, humanising concrete with colour and line.

In the past this took the form of physical modifications. Modernisms famous whipping boy is the story of Le Corbusiers houses for factory workers in Pessac. Almost as soon as they were built, workers added shutters, paint, and knick-knacks to personalise their 'machines for living in'. In the future, this might be more abstract - students escaping their 30 square apartments in Auckland for a simulated or gaming world which is more expansive, both conceptually and in terms of 'space'.