Saturday, October 27

Quicktake: Small Global and Never been to Tehran at MIC

Currently showing at MIC, this exhibition by renowned new media artists D-Fuse tackles globalisation and it's impact - both in terms of architecture/environments, and in business. The first room is an ambitious, multi-channel installation centreing around the viral growth of fast-food giant McDonalds. World maps chronicle the time and position of every franchise, from local California eatery in the 50s through to global domination towards the turn of the millenium. As usual, the curatorial staff at the Moving Image Centre 'hung' the show impeccably, even adding multiple translucent screens to create a triplicate projected effect (see images).

But what's problematic about the work is it's over the top slickness. The data could actually be displayed in any web browser - via Google Maps or Google Earth - but dfuse instead use a barrage of electronic looking tickers and LED interfaces. What could be a dynamic, intelligently networked piece hooked up to data sources worldwide is turned into static video because of a perceived need to seduce the viewer. Adding another layer of irony, this piece about globalisation is fundamentally localised due to it's media, although d-fuse plan to add more video content as the show makes it's way around the world.

Next door, the superficially simple, "Never been to Tehran" is a case in point. The ambitious worldwide photography project challenged artists to "take photographs (from their home base) of what they imagine Tehran to look like." Participants upload their shots to a Picasa Web Album, allowing a single hub for coordinating, as well as built in features like 'geotagging' to show origin of each image, and RSS feeds allowing blogs to incorporate it into their sites. This open framework means that curators worldwide can re-present the show in a variety of formats.

QuickTake: A jaorinum at the New Zealand Film Archive

Curated by Leonhard Emmerling, this group exhibition showcases some of the wealth of Icelandic video art, an amazingly rich selection from a country of around 300,000 people. Emmerling goes for variety here: from darkly brooding narrative pieces reminiscent of Matthew Barney (Sigurdur Gudjunsson, "Host"), to intimate, banal domestic scenes of a girl jumping on a couch. Noticeably, a good proportion of these works incorporate music in a much more dependent relationship than much video art. A significant tradition of innovative music artists like Bjork, Sigur Ros, and Under Byen has caused a rare effortlessness in crossing the visual/audio arts divide. Icelandic collectives like Kitchen Motors are a case in point, being founded by notable video practitioner Kristín Björk Kristjánsdóttir (exhibiting "Ours" in this show) and electronic musician Johann Johannson.

Elam Open Days: Undergrad show

Some quick highlights from the current undergrad show on now at Elam. Koreana Wilson 's towering glass sculpture titled "Burning and Dodging" hides between the library and the main studios. Deborah Resnick displays a delicate collection of ecosystems and literature - tiny, moisture filled glass containers and books cut into fan shapes. Some ambitious works for a second year project, Alexander Hoyles's sculptures consist of full scale bathroom scenes, complete with ubiquitous soap fixtures and tiling. Amber Panting humanised a glitch based sound installation by knitting over the top, turning technology into caricature. One of my standouts of the show, Gaura Kelly's earthworks were understated but fascinating. Lucy Tien's soft watercolour bleed works seemed to be a trend this year, at least 3 other artists utilised this style. Neeve Woodward's tethered orange parachute and Verity Jang's participatory piece - asking visitors to break glass - added some fun to the show.

Friday, October 26

Indie videogames push for new visual style

The Independent Games Festival has just posted all of it's entrants - and there are 173 of them. With a burgeoning indie game scene and tools to allow artists to create a wider range of styles for games, it's no surprise that aesthetics are being pushed beyond the usual clean 3-dimensional look associated with the medium.

Crayon Physics is playful and childlike, generating much of it's artwork dynamically from lines and boxes the player draws.

Flipside lets you "see the world through the eyes of a madman", exploring an idyllic, hilly terrain, then letting the player switch into a dark alternative - filled with a dying sun, black tones, and a "hero" that's just revealed a nasty streak.

The Glum Buster entry comes with no website, no developer contacts - almost no information at all, apart from this visually strong image of a bleeding tree, and a mysterious phrase: "Cheer up, dear friend, or they may come, And take you where the glum is from."

Aureia Harvey and Michael Samyn are entering "The Path", a dark twist on a Red Riding Hood type fable with a compelling visual style concocted from a witches brew of Twin Peaks, the Blair Witch Project, and M. Night Shyamalan films. What's interesting is that visual style and content are intertwined - an innovative, unique aesthetic is a catalyst for new forms of play, and sets up expectations for players to expect something different. Harvey and Samyn as a case in point don't just break the mold in their visual style, but also in fields like gameplay mechanics, interaction, and goals. "There is one rule in the game. And it needs to be broken. There is one goal. And when you attain it, you die."

Free as in seminar: Creative Commons talk tomorrow

Creative Commons New Zealand is hosting a free all-day seminar tomorrow (28th Oct) at the National Library in Wellington to "build understanding of the new licensing environment in the digital world." Guest speakers from Victoria University and the National Library, as well as CC International, will take you through a range of licenses which steer a middle ground between overly defensive traditional copyright, and simply giving it away. For more info on "Expanding Copyright Horizons through Creative Commons", check out the CC Aotearoa website. A webcast is said to be available tomorrow at this address, (broken for now).

Thursday, October 25

Pixels to paint: Outsourcing image production

It's a bizaare image: a couple KKK members, Xzibit (of Pimp my Ride fame), and an industrial robot, all set in a forest scene. Just Another Painting restores the traditional patron relationship by commissioning a work - but then twists it, offshoring production to a painter named Jung Min and developing the montage using lo-res shots from the web. Staging the project, the anonymous patron is deliberately difficult, requesting daily work in progress shots, repositioned elements, and even new items added late in the process.

In Dafen, China, it really is just another painting. The tiny village has elevated mass production of oils and famous pieces to a $36 million dollar industry. It's estimated "60 percent of the world's cheap oil paintings" are produced within the town's 4 square kilometres. A good painter can crank out up to 30 pieces a day: Monet's, Van Goghs, or more generic scenes like nudes and military poses. One of the biggest operations, Shenzhen Artlover Ltd, state they wish to "get into the business of oil paintings the way McDonalds got into the business of fast food."

Tuesday, October 23

Meaningful videogames on the rise

Gamers have seen this environment before. Yet instead of a barrage of semi-automatic weaponry at their disposal, they have a Koran. Rather than side-stepping and running through the level, the player is hanging around, chatting to other detainees. Their's little else to do.

Set in the infamous detainee center, "Escape from Woomera" is a MOD (modification) of the immensely popular first person shooter, Half Life. Users can play as a variety of inmates, each with their own backstories, in a thoroughly researched recreation of the camp. "Television footage, press and radio reports, and the recollections of former detainees and employees will be used to mimic the layout and daily life in the centres, down to meal times, the way guards communicate with each other and 'episodic violence'." (SMH) Now archived at SelectParks, the game is one of a growing number of so-called "meaningful games", seeking to introduce a greater quotient of educational, political, or cultural content to an industry dominated by technically brilliant but superficial shooters.

Ian Bogost's Persuasive Games is a company founded on such a premise, with a slew of titles like FatWorld, Presidential Pong, and Food Import Folly. Popular pieces like Airport Security were created within weeks of new legislation on aviation carry-ons, as the "video game equivalent of an editorial cartoon". Reviews from the New York Times revealed some of the power of the medium to force players to experience a situation. "I’ll just say it’s somewhat stupid, and requires fast reflexes and an ability to adapt to absurd and arbitrary rules changes. Just like real airport security." Strangely Bogost doesn't see any ethical dilemmas in developing a variety of commercial games for clients like dessert chain Cold Stone, or creating "Xtreme Errands" for hulking SUV Jeep, which "challenges players to complete tasks utilizing the unique features of this vehicle."

Gonzalo Frasca's first game "Kabul Kaboom!" was entirely produced on a coast to coast flight. "I was disgusted at seeing how the most powerful country on Earth was bombing the crap out of one of the poorest, so I created this game. I wasn't expecting much when I posted it online, but after a few days it had several thousands players from all over the world and this encouraged me to keep using videogames as a form of political expression and experimentation." Frasca's game "September 12th" was a seminal work of the genre, mixing easily accessible web-based play with a controversial political message that still causes hate-mail to this day.

Sadly, designers and developers in the New Zealand Game Developers Association don't seem to stray outside the commercial box. One of the few major studios, Wellington-based Sidhe Interactive pumps out titles like "GripShift" and "Rugby League 2" as well as aligned properties like "Jackass: the video game". Straylight studios major effort has been a 2d multiplayer battleship game, Star-Tag, and Binary Star's rather traditional looking "Homeland" has been in progress for years.

For more 'meaningful' games, check out: Operation Pedopriest, Ayiti: The cost of life, The McGame, and PeaceMaker.

Friday, October 19

Oliver wins Opensource award, progresses videogame

New Zealander Julian Oliver just won the Open Source for Creativity award for SelectParks, the information-rich website and blog focusing on art-based games we've mentioned in the past. The site is built on open-source software like PHP Nuke, and allows syndication through standards such as RSS.

Oliver's also progressed that Escheresque augmented reality game we blogged about a few months ago. Still in alpha stage, the latest version, titled levelHead is starting to take shape. A simple block with painted identifying marks on each side is placed in front of a camera, which reads these and projects the correct view of the game world. Tilting the block directs the tiny avatar up stairs, through doorways and eventually to an exit in a delightfully simple, practical use of AR.

Online artists tackle "AER" quality through exhibition

Belching through the city of Aachen in Germany on huge Mercedes-Benz flatbeds, Eve Andrée Laramée's "Parks on Trucks" is just one of the works shown in the "AER Project", an exhibition curated and released today by Andrea Pollie at Hunter College in New York.

Other standouts include Translator II: Grower, by Sabrina Raaf, a Mars-like rover with a much more down to earth mission, to monitor and visualise levels of CO2 in a room. Raaf balances what could be a patronising, overly-scientific piece with her execution - the robot draws grass along the walls with childlike glee, each blade corresponding to current carbon dioxide amounts.

My favourite was SuperGas by SuperFlex, a "simple, portable biogas unit that can produce sufficient gas for the cooking and lighting needs of an African family." Visually strong, the huge orange blog resembles a giant Claes Oldenberg piece. But more interesting was the stance towards the "art", shifting the traditional concept from representation to tool, a practical object that invites participation and heavy use - deriving as much from the fields of engineering, science, and agriculture as contemporary art. Currently SuperGas is being tested in the field in Cheing Mai, Thailand.

Unfortunately after very tangible pieces like SuperGas and Parks on Trucks, works like
Amy Balkin's Public Smog appear overly conceptual at best, pretentious and ineffectual at worst. And while the project's page disclaims that "Public Smog is no substitute for direct action", the piece requires too much suspension of reality to even work as an exercise in raising awareness.

Aesthetics in code: Screens from programmers

Bill Brown says "Has anyone noticed that Andale Mono (8pt) in the Flex Builder 2 Beta is not as small as it is in the Dreamweaver or Flash 8 IDEs? Does anyone know why or how to fix it? I need my code density!"

For a profession usually not associated with the visual, coders treat their editing typefaces seriously. Legibility and monospaced fonts are highly prized, but in the end personal choice and background play a part: "oldskool" Courier users, mac fans swearing by Andale Mono, and less pedantic users trying new faces like Microsoft's Consolas. Forums posts get heated, "Everytime I see Courier as a source editing font I get skin rash".

Syntax highlighting, a feature used to colour different types of commands to make skimming code easier, has taken on a more personal touch. TextMates theme page, where users can submit their own colouring schemes, lists dozens of choices. From "Dawn", to "Overcast", "Spectacular" to "GlitterBomb". "Argonaut" by David Lee even comes complete with mantra: "No code poet should be without their paper nautilus".

Shown are screens from CSS/PHP programmer Mike Harding, with more screens from Luke Duncalfe next week. Like to share your setup? Email screenshots to luke dot munn at gmail dot com.

Update: As promised, here's a screen from programmer Luke Duncalfe, showing a suitably busy collection of windows, from Ruby on Rails in the foreground to some XML rendered terminal style - white text on black background - and Javascript being debugged in the background (as with most images on, click for larger version).

Wednesday, October 10

Artists give it away with new distribution models

I'm moving down the form mechanically, name, email, credit card details. It's your standard online order form. Almost. Next to "price" is a blank field and a ? mark. Clicking it reveals a message "It's up to you", and clicking again reiterates, as if it reassure the awestruck digital consumer, "No really. It's up to you."

The work is Radiohead's latest independently released album, "In Rainbows". Following the completion of their 5 deal contract with UK based Parlophone, the band known for innovation is finally matching their model with their music, throwing down the gauntlent to a recording industry which has been defensive and slow.

Pay What you Want isn't giving it away or donation, a model which bloggers and digital service owners frequently use, asking visitors to "consider" giving via PayPal or other means. By stepping punters through standard credit card forms before they get the goods, Radioheads organisation WASTE sets up an expectation and a context of exchange, however little.

Not that giving it away is pointless. The net is full of success stories of artists working the sharing, viral nature of the medium to their advantage. When Bloc Party played their first series of shows in New York, they were amazed to find fans singing along to song that weren't even released - but that had been leaked months before. OK Go are the treadmilling poster boys for this model, rising from obscurity to fame almost overnight through their innovative music video, which has received 23,282,615 views on YouTube.

Free Culture at NYU ran a Creative Commons art show giving rights to viewers, a model which New Zealander Adam Hyde regularly propounds through initiatives like FLOSS Manuals ("free manuals for free software") and streaming radio workshops. Also locally, we're talking with Annie Bradley about a screensaver work which could be distributed at a Window opening. Picking up on the office theme of the piece, visitors could potentially have it downloaded onto a USB key drive or iPod or burnt to a blank CD.