Barbara rUFO

For the last 12 years, every four years, I have made music about a mythical place called Barbara Island. This year sees the fourth and last chapter, titled Barbara rUFO, and I would like to tell the whole story of how it came to be, and why it finishes in 2018. This is a longish story, but don’t worry I’ll keep it tight.

We could start late in the last century, when I found two painted wheat bags on a telegraph pole outside my house. One of them looks like this:

AlanPhilp1

At the time 2018 seemed a long long time away. But time speeds up.

Over Barbara Island

In 2006 the National Art School held a fund raiser. I was asked to contribute a live performance, and I said yes. The school is housed in a very old prison with small stone cells, but the show was to be held outside. As it was winter, they would supply tiki lamps. I thought ‘tiki lamps!’ and started to make something a little Martin Denny and a bit stormy. As it turned out the night was very stormy itself, and the show had to be held in a small jail cell. Not very exotic.

At the time I was making what was to be the last Severed Heads album, called Under Gail Succubus. This was a silly band name I had come up with years before – I always thought it worth using someday. I added the live show to the main album as a bonus, and thought it would fun to call it Over Barbara Island. And so – Gail and Barbara.

It was the last full Heads album (although many years later some shorter special projects went out under that name). In 2008, the band was lowered into a grave.

A funny side note is that a local agency tried adapting some of Barbara for a Coca-Cola advert. Three attempts did not get run-it-up-the-flagpole, and so sadly Things did not Go Better With Barbara.

Return to Barbara Island

In 2010 the body was exhumed for the Sydney Festival, and as a consequence I was asked to perform at another charitable event – this time for Rainforest Rescue. Again, yes, and again it seemed a good time for palm trees. This event was more bumpy bumpy and so Return to Barbara Island is a lot more streamlined that the volumes before or after. I made videos for each track, but the screen was a gaggle of hexagons and so no one really saw what I was showing. And like the previous event I don’t think there was too much benefit for the Rainforest, but I got an album out of it.

Around this time I wondered of there really is a Barbara Island, and there is. It’s very cold, but maybe not forever.

Barbara Channel Three

In 2013 Severed Heads played the Adelaide festival. We were both dead and alive, an echo, and I was desperately trying to come up with new material with which to move on. But being a full time academic, delivering a computer game for the festival, and being carer for an invalid spouse I was overwhelmed. It wasn’t going to happen in time.

It was 2014 before this material came together, and here was the four year cycle demanding that it be obeyed. So it was to be Barbara again. Channel Three refers to radio and there are many radiophonic touches – but much of what appears to be shortwave is actually synthesisers. I’d regained a hardware sound studio, including some of the gear I had owned back in the 1970’s, so there’s some familiar old sounds in there. But to buy the gear I needed the job that meant I never had time to use the gear.

When the UK magazine The Wire requested some music from ‘Severed Heads’ it was a horrible dilemma – this was me, Tom, not Severed Heads. But without the old name there was no interest. I had to supply them with some of Barbara, which mean ‘moving on’ was yet again defeated.

This is around when I pulled out my wheat bag with the UFO message. 2018 was four years away, and it dawned on me that there must be a Barbara FOUr, actually a Barbara rUFO in this year. I needed to go back to the wheat bags.

Barbara rUFO

By now I knew of the UFO Man, Alan Philp. I had seen him standing out in the mall, sun hat on and wheat bag around his neck. But by this time he had faded from the collective memory and needed to be brought back. In 2017 Severed Heads toured on an image that recalled his message.

A

But it was only in 2018 I found his image on a older blog site. This is Mr. Philp.

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We must respect the message that he gave us for decades. When the UFO comes this year, what will it want? Will be a handshake or a spanking? Will we end up gods, or meat Popsicles? This is what Barbara will tell us I hope.

Since 2014 I have become successfully underemployed, the band continues, the bad times that ran through all the previous chapters have faded away. I have just finished Barbara rUFO today. It is the last Barbara, and perhaps, UFO willing, the last normal album I do. It is time for change.

I hope you will like it, but please also hear the earlier chapters, they do not cost. I will let you know when the UFO lands.

Dear diary.

Dear diary I know I haven’t written anything here for a while but there’s been a lot going on in what we call the ‘real world’. And I should mention Facebook because I never realised how, for many people, it is the real world.

In staying away from Facebook, I’d imagined it to be like the many other social networks I have made or joined since the beginning of the internet. I felt I could judge it by technical aspects, but the difference between a small town and New York is not in the shape of buildings. If you have enough people and you influence the mob subtly, everything changes. The machinery itself stays distant, watching and silently moving the streets around to guide the parades. I have learned much about breakfasts, worldwide.

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The first distressing thing I noticed is a clock that says when people last visited. A simple thing and yet it says you just missed somebody, or they are ‘here’ and ignoring you, or that you yourself are desperately avoiding real work and were ‘here’ only a hour ago. It’s a banal evil. Twitter is much better at letting you dip in and out of the water without splashing others.

Seems the other billion users are fine with being confronted by people about whom they have old mixed feelings. I’ve not had that many relationships (I tend to the long term) so I guess it wasn’t such a feat for FB to have them all lined up in my “friends” apart from the one who died and another that it suggested I might go ahead and add to the list OUCH are you kidding me? Was I so sensitive that I found this utterly horrible, and have become so insensitive now that it doesn’t phase me to see them all there in neat order? Plus they all got fat. They think that too when looking at me.

It’s been instructive to watch Bradbury raging at the machine, trying to be as vile and angry as he could manage at the population of Pleasantville, who just smiled and waved at him as they hosed their lush social lawns. He reached maximum vomit and finally disappeared in a puff of smoke, defeated. This instruction led me to try a different kind of rebellion, a surreal mockery of their breakfasts, but that was just as useless, and so I just write whatever gibberish I feel like writing. Besides I am there to test my 360 degree videos and sell some music and that’s working.

Extruding into the real world, a message on Facebook from somebody I last met more than a decade ago. We met again, we have been meeting, and this has become that purgatory of hope and despair we all know as dating. I haven’t dated since my early 20’s and it makes me feel both young and as confused as I was back then. As there are two people involved I can’t be quite as talkative about this as my bereavement, but can I just say that I look forward to the day when I’m not driving through an endless line of emotional crash barriers.

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Let’s see, we’ve done death of parents, major financial problem, death of spouse, loss of job, new relationship… hmm, I see Christmas is on the list, let’s do that one for some more points.

Life Hacks for the recently widowed.

I am a widower. You got knocked down, but you get back up. Everybody finds their way again, and these are some ways I am doing it.

Set a deadline. I don’t have any strong culture or religion to work from so I just figured out a year is good round symbolic duration. For one year I am a widower. After that I am a millionaire playboy philanthropist. From Batman to Bruce Wayne. There will be a little re-birthday just for me.

I find the worst thing is having to re-live my loss to strangers – to the police, to the bank, to immigration officers, to co-workers. Which you will have to do sometimes, but you have plenty of other happier things to talk about as well. It’s not wrong to put your loss to one side for later, it’ll always be there, but you will be stronger. Every couple of months I get sent a newsletter about suicide. I’m sure it helps some people but I hate the damn thing, it goes in the bin.

Common knowledge is to re-arrange all your furniture. Like, if a tornado hit it. Like, you are exhausted by carrying things up and down stairs and so you sleep soundly. Like, you are on a mission that allows no other intrusive thought. Like, whatever life was lived here it’s been remixed by a bad DJ. And in your new environment you can get on with your new life.

Obviously you need to put something where you-know-what happened. If you choose something ridiculous you might find yourself staring forlornly at a novelty sock drawer, and snap out of it.

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Don’t just get a hobby. Become theatrically obsessed with something. I want to be the tedious Man Cave guy, not the dead wife guy. Particularly as my Man Cave jokes are a re-occupation of space in my home which would otherwise be sad.

Whenever you get the bad thoughts go out and walk around. Look at the world. Wear out some shoes and wear out that misdirected energy.

Sleep is key. Sleep is repair. A strategically placed pillow allows you to sleep in the same positions you’ve known for the last 25 years without your knees knocking together. It should not have an anime picture on it that’s gross.

Despite that you’re going to age visibly. Sorry. If that worries you then lay off the grog. For me grog is not a problem but not everyone is so lucky. Careful.

Time to reread your old Roman stoic philosophers. No matter what they say, everyone you know is terrified that you’re going to weep all over them and will avoid you. Fortunately for me I did so much of that when young I’ve worn it out. You might once, but you’re in charge of the tone of your friendships, and if you practice calm and acceptance then they will too. And being chill actually helps your mood.

Caution: That person at a party that reminds you of your partner has no especial insight into your loss. That’s all in your head.

You remember your partner when you and they were young. But look in the mirror, time’s moved on. I’m pleased to say I have no great desire to shack up with a 20 year old, may you also be free of such delusion.

Ghosts: There are only the ghosts in your head. If you find it hard to go to the toilet because you might be observed by angels, you could hold a cleansing ceremony. Some people use incense. I have preferred to unleash an endless torrent of belching and other biological sonic place markers of such might that no woman alive or dead would possibly share this space.

It’s OK to talk aloud to yourself. Or a cat. I can’t have a cat right now, might get a robot one, which is just as oblivious as the real thing. It’s even OK to talk to the dead, because you’re really addressing some of the wiring in your own head that needs revision.

i-tried-the-99-robot-cat-hasbros-solution-for-lonely-grandparents-and-it-was-strangely-comforting

Media: I have a ritual of scanning and sorting photographs of the dead which I’ve done twice now. I think it’s because you look through them all and then you reach an end point where you can stop, and not have to look at them until much later.

If after a year you are healed and looking forward to new adventures then you have only done what your partner should have hoped for you. You’re a living thing not a grave marker. And at least for me, I do not believe in afterlife, nobody is watching, it’s completely up to me to make sure that life is spent well.

Is cinematography a biological technology? Probably not.

Here’s a thing – if you run Deleuze through a piece of cloth and strain out all the poo, you end up with some reasonable, if fairly simple ideas. (Of course that ‘does violence to his concepts’ but I can live with that).

So here’s one. Technology is a mechanism by which we make our actions easier and more potent. A telescope enables us to see further, a microscope allows us to see smaller and if you’re Dziga Vertov, a camera enables us to see things more clearly. Deleuze is even more enthusiastic – cinema is a technology which entwines with our own innate technology of seeing. Unlike a microscope or a telescope, cinema is a means by which our perceptive apparatus and therefore mind processes can be analyzed and re-synthesized. Cinematic language is an exercise of attention that leads to new modes of thought.

baby-and-ipad

His argument is more visible now than when he was writing. When you see a child fascinated by an iPad, to the extent of being oblivious to nature around them, you may feel the sense of unease that he mentions – it’s hard to say whether the child is accelerated, sensing the game world at immense speed, or senile in being unable to sense anything else. It can be both.

Where I disagree is that I do NOT see cinema as privileged in this way. When I recently bought some prescription glasses and walked home I was appalled to find that everything was now taller (and so my feet found it difficult to hit the ground) and that people far away had faces, which was extremely disturbing. That’s not equivalent to the entirety of cinema – it doesn’t have to be. I think that any technology does what he describes to some extent.

Now, a related factoid is about episodic memory, which is stored as sensory impressions with duration, or at least sequence. If you blast the right part of the temporal lobe with electricity you can bring up auras which include sensory impressions before they have been organised into a narrative (e.g. one stimulation brought ‘being at a wedding, throwing a bouquet’, another ‘the theme from Star Wars’ source). For a short while it was thought that we record everything like a video camera. But then it was noticed that memories are cinematically assembled, to the extent that you may see yourself ‘filmed’ in the third person. There’s further evidence that recall is drawn from a storyline – {me}{the beach}{ball}{hit} = embarrassing – and turned into visuals. You will note the comparison between episodic memory and film, which at first blush leads one to think that narrative film is a technical realisation of episodic memory.

But it’s always good to be sceptical. By which I mean we’ve only buzzed people since there was film. If you buzzed someone from several hundred years ago would they see through the media of a painted triptych? If you went back far enough, would Julian Jaynes be right and you get the Voice of Gods explaining what happened in your past? Did perspective arrive in the mind when it arrived in art? Because as much as we may be inspired by our bodies and minds to extend them, we may also train our minds and bodies to emulate mechanical systems. It could be a cycle, and Deleuze was right to be worried that we have cut off the variety of existence that we could otherwise have.

The sensory impressions found in the temporal lobes are not organised in the way we store files on a hard drive. There are related items spread all over the place to the extent that if you snip out a relevant bit of flesh, the memory is still retrievable, but more blurry. So how this material is ‘scored’, or even manifested is (I guess) a matter of the installed biological software. That software could have evolved over time – in fact I would be amazed if it hadn’t. The manner in which the episodic impressions are realised, and how their causal chains are linked cannot have been the same for all human history.

A quick reality check is dreams, which at best guess involves random excitation of these impressions and attempts by the hippocampus to stitch them into a causal chain. Blind dreamers do not dream visually. But their dreams still involve narrative structure. The camerawork of the sighted dreamer doesn’t occur naturally – it’s more likely that camera work in film has responded to the mental mechanism, which in turn has noticed patterns in camera work and responded in kind. I am pretty sure that yes, Deleuze is right about film now, but I also think that the use of fire was once just as important, perhaps the start of animistic religion. And god knows how these images once served human thought:

people

We go to the moon.

This is going to be a bit disjointed. Good. If it amuses you, pretend it’s the drugs talking, despite there being none.

I’m in Santa Cruz, in a small cottage style hotel within earshot of the Pacific. Unfortunately, mostly within eyeshot of the parking lot, but it’s about time my ears got going. I have been so deaf. Close the eyes. I hear sea, birds, and many frogs. Have you seen Hitchcock’s The Birds? That gives you the exact place*.

the-birds-31

View from my window.

What am I doing here? Which is a different question to why am I here? I am here to carry the remains of Stacy Glasier in a little space capsule back up out of the gravity well**, to the real world where she started. That’s the way the narrative has to go, win or lose, the protagonist has to cycle back for the wisdom to take hold in the world. We were going to have a ceremony at this end involving many sea lions, but there was no need really. The fable is already told: they did not live happily ever after.

Which comes back to what am I doing here? Supposedly writing my idiot thesis so that other Titled Idiots can award me the honour of cloning more of them. I have spent years working at my Idiot status, but I guess The Birds*** have grown sick of this entire BS and decided to launch me on this space mission to learn something. They are screaming their heads off. It’s driving me nuts; I don’t understand what they want.

Kandinsdy-figure-i-large

Much of what I am writing is about The Spiritual. That was the term used 100 years ago by Kandinsky and Schoenberg and all the crew for the rules of the metaphysical space that energized their art. In my Idiot thesis I’ve managed to carry that idea through a set of transformations, through ‘the apparatus world’ of the early video synthesizer artists, through ‘the platform’ of the early computer people and connect it to ‘cyberspace’ and ‘big data’ and now ‘virtual reality’ which has slunk back out of its hole. By the time I link it to ‘creative practice’ it’s a mummified corpse. That’s what I’m supposed to be writing right now, an incantation to imprison an idea.

Instead tonight I’m writing this.

The analytical mind has wrapped reality around its own shape. The allusive and intuitive mind is dismissed. This makes perfect sense. Fuck perfect sense. In the continental philosophy of the last century, the practitioners played like kittens with sense and nonsense. The academy, unable to exorcise them, murdered their play into a hard stupid rule set. How many times at university did I get told “Deleuze says that…” “Foucault says that…”. May as well be “Mao says that…”.

That’s what the Titled Idiots do to inspiration, they assassinate it. I don’t want to be like this. But I just can’t seem to break out of it. For about six months now I’ve gone insane trying to work out what I’m doing. What I am doing here?

Down at the water there is a shop that sells little glass globes with painted splats down the bottom. Most of them are rubbish. One was important and I needed it. My grandmother owned a glass globe, actually three in a stack, like a snowman. Inside there was coloured cloth coiled up in a bouquet. As I remember it, surely it was the most beautiful thing in the world. When was it made? Where did it come from? This little globe will never match it, but holding it I can see a connection – no, seriously – see a line stretching between them. And that’s an inkling of The Spiritual, far more useful than any of the bullshit that fits into a thesis. Somehow I put that under the heading of research.

Because things properly connect in ‘strange ways’. If I think of all the odd little ideas that inspire my work they do not come from “Deleuze says that” or from collaborating with a weapons specialist on a video mural. Reality of the sort that is natural and humane seems far more reliant on intuitive mind-soup than any Idiot Metric.

But it’s also soup. By which I mean:

I read a lot of Jung because I teach storytelling, that’s my job. Jung is all about the life story, the characters and chapters by which you measure your journey. Jung is full of the most amazing bullshit, really. They all were – Freud, Adler, Reich et al., partly because they were all nature and not enough culture. For Jung movies are drawn from the narrative faculty of the brain, instead of the obvious alternative of the brain drawing narrative from the movies. (People who watched Black and White TV mainly reported dreaming in Black and White. Clue train arriving at Jung Station.)

jung4theredbook

Like all of them Jung went through a ‘creative illness’. He kept a diary, the so-called red book. It was supposed to remain private, but because Jung thought he was Jesus Come Again of course it was eventually published. For Jung it was perfect. For everyone else it was a total crock. But at least I can look at that, and the creative illness of others and have a guide for something that is long overdue.

Here I am in Monterey. It has been a very long time since ‘gentle people with flowers in their hair’. No one is eight miles high. But if you wanted to apprentice yourself to a good dose of mind soup, then is this not the place? Of course a good whack of well made LSD might help, but it’s been a fair while since Sandoz made the real stuff. My old man used to use it in psychotherapy, wish he’d left some in a drawer, along with the glass spheres.

I go to the moon, not because it is easy, but because it is hard. Maybe the answer is here, but more likely I will make some space for the birds to nest and tell me what to do next.

* The Birds was inspired by an event on August 18, 1961 at Capitola. Another reason to visit.

** The gravity well is the effort it takes to get your spacecraft up to the orbit. From there, it’s comparatively smooth sailing. If you live in Australia, you’re well aware of the long long flight required to get anywhere else. Once you’re there – it’s no problem.

*** I have to again explain that ‘The Birds’ come to me every now and then and fill my head with ideas. They make no effort to clarify what the instructions are, they just pour some thoughts in there and shake-not-stir the cocktail. It’s always been this way and if I could catch them I would wring their little necks.

Sometimes I have a fever and get sick when the birds come. It got diagnosed once as encephalitis. Sensibly it’s a nickname for some back-end process going on that’s imperfectly connected to my so-called consciousness. It computes and delivers large-scale solutions to back of mind queries whenever it feels like it.

eBooks

For the last week I’ve had no phone line, no internet except that which comes over the ‘smart phone’. Holy Shit how do people ‘consume’ through that tenuous porthole? Here’s me holding the phone up in the air trying to catch a reasonable WiFi signal, just so I can maybe see 5 words at a time from a ‘mobile’ news site – which is bowdlerised to the hell to show only ‘popular’ news items. No wonder so many dumb-ass millennials if that’s their online experience.

Anyway – it’s relevant to the topic at hand – what is ‘a book’ in this year 2015? What will ‘a book’ be in 2025? This really should be of interest to budding media designers, who spend too much time creating content and not enough worrying about publishing it. I’m starting a course on this topic because it makes no sense to keep teaching people how to animate for film and TV. That’s like teaching how to hoist sails on a long ship. Good luck on the high seas matey. I am no expert in electronic publishing, but then again I got the gig teaching ‘film studies’ 7 years ago from being a musician, and no complaints.

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There will be paper books, they will be expensive collectables, like vinyl. Never mind that foppery. There will tablets, watches and perhaps eReaders, although the most recent Kindles seem to announce death of the purpose designed reader. You would hope that the book would not just be a flow of endless text pulled from a word processor, and would in some way respond to the potential of the device with sound and animation.

In 2011 the ePub3 format finally took on fixed text and multimedia. But in 2015 most eReaders still do not properly reproduce this format.

Obviously Apple got sick of that shit and Embraced, Expanded and Extinguished it into iBooks. You can’t blame them for getting tired of waiting, in fact you have to admire their snappy Hugo Boss uniforms. But at some point the iPad will no longer be the Fuhrer, and iBooks will be a dead end. ePub, like HTML5, is a mongrel, but it’s the mongrel we have to adopt.

A group of Nazi troops and students gather seized papers and books to burn, in the Opernplatz, Berlin.   (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Nazis and university students. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Most of Apple’s shenanigans have to do with punching Adobe in the face enough times to try kill it, but you can’t kill that which does not live. Example – having been punched for Flash, Adobe built a tool called Edge Animate that creates Javascript animations. People build these into iBooks. Apple updates iBooks with a kill switch for Edge. Adobe updates Edge with a cloaking device. I am mainly on Adobe’s side because at least they are building a tool, whereas Apple is breaking it. Flash may have been too hard on the first iPads, but that’s turned into an ancestral dispute.

My students need to publish visually dense books that represent artistic folios, and that means InDesign. It will make ePub3 as well as PDF, which is a strong format for print publication and archives, but a little too heavy for portable devices. You can also get a HTML5 website out of it, which might equally be a book in 2025.

Under the hood the ePub is an XHTML file, the format that lead to the great HTML rebellion (in which the W3c tried to move the community over to clean and tidy XHTML only to have outsiders instead propose the messy and forgiving HTML5 spec.). Sadly that means they preserve a religious schism that has since healed, and makes hand scripting difficult. An eBook also uses Scalable Vector Graphics, while HTML5 avoids this heavy computation. All up it’s the kind of file zoo that existed all over digital media back in the good old days.

Of course there are many more things that you can do on a pad that have artistic merit. If they want to dip into objective C then it’s their private hell. Some students might want to make ‘apps’, which run on watches. Bless them, I do not know how you can convey important things on a watch.

Will we make 2025 books? Will they be good books? Can we start a dialogue between engineer and artist?

Why must art students learn coding?

I’m not opposed to it. I’m actively organising it for my particular barrel of monkeys. But the opinion seems to be much stronger than the reasoning and I would be glad to hear a well formed argument as to why Mary has to put down the paintbrush and start to type…

… what? That’s the other thing. This expert wants Processing. That one is all for Max. Is Max coding? There’s Python and Objective C and snapping blocks together Scratch style. Sometimes I hear that such and such is only scripting which isn’t coding and well that just won’t do!

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Look, when I was a teen I bought one of the very first home computers (the Trash 80) and sat down and learned how to code. I exhibited my nasty machine code hacking of a C64 in public way back in the early 80’s and have tried very hard to keep up with developments since. So I’m not swayed by platitudes like ‘coding is just like sketching and artists need to sketch ideas’. Excuse me, it’s nothing like sketching and anyone who says that should write their own paint software from scratch as punishment (I did that once, it sucked).

I am grateful for any considered opinion from people who have actually coded. Please no philosophers. Why is coding something that art/design students should learn?

Also: http://workfunc.com/differences-between-programmers-and-coders/

Update to Big Iron – Fingers Crossed

About a year ago I wrote about a project to start an experimental video lab. And since then, very little to report.

It started well as we leased the digital switching gear, but ran into trouble when Stephen R Jones became unwell, and as often is the nature of visual music only he was able to prepare his equipment. There’s been plenty of other things to do at work so we took time out. But a year is a year and suddenly there had to be a plan B or the whole deal was off.

Big Iron 2 copy

One of the things I have learned over the last few years is whenever you reissue old albums, there’s a whole bunch of unfinished business that comes back to life. You have an equal chance that everyone is sweet, or that people are ready with a pump action shotgun. There was some business here as well, in-between these two extremes, but I have to get on with it, so the plan became to get a functioning rig now and sort out who shares the credit later. I don’t have the technical skill to trace that (I’m a middle manager).

By strange coincidence Ant, the Severed Heads ‘mother hen’ for many years, also works in A/V at the university and knows some of the local people who make contemporary video synthesisers. We’re hoping for a catch-up soon, where we can check out the latest toys. But it turns out they know the guy that bought the “Supernova 12”. That was Stephen’s last video synthesiser design, and is quite different to the “Fridge”, which is the one we used in Severed Heads.

Noting had been heard of it in years, when suddenly Ant got a mail to say, it exists, it needs some repairs, but if we can find a way to move it, it can come to the video lab. Which is kind of like when somebody says, ‘I found a box with MASTER TAPE written on it, do you want it?’.

Overview

In fact there was another Supernova based machine shown last year at Campbelltown. Maybe that can join its sister – I’ve asked the current user about joining in the project.

Catching Light, Campbelltown Arts Centre, 2013

Stephen agrees that the Fridge does some things better – the SN12 is a bit more brutal, doesn’t have quite same range of expression due to the way the colour is mixed. But I’m more hopeful now that we will have something to show for this and perhaps some day as many as three of Stephen’s machines in the one space.

Operation “Big Iron”

Over the years I’ve been lucky to have many artistic opportunities – but I don’t need to tell you that opportunity rarely equals reality; good ideas often fall apart in the planning stages. When I was young and even more stupid, I would tell everyone wonderful things were going to happen, then eat socks in penance when nothing came of it. But I still get very excited & so I only announce project code names – if they die I can always pop them in a memory hole. There’s mystery in project naming as well as making merry with corporate culture. But at risk of sock eating I’d like to break protocol and talk about Big Iron because I think it’s on the verge of coming together and it relates to the last post.

2013 and the new broom.

I work at an art college, which sometimes feels like being a waiter on the Titanic. Of all the things that are waiting to be swept away, the art college is the one with KICK ME pinned to its backside. In consequence our executive are dragging the place over to be a research laboratory of some sort. We have a robotics lab now, which says, ‘do not shut us down we make potential weapons,‘ I guess.

My area is the sound and image coursework. That’s been about production – making movies, recording music. Given that plenty of places do that, there’s a need to be unique and not second fiddle to the competition. I have formed an idea – and it relates to the old band.

synthetics

First you should know that Stephen R Jones wrote a history of the synthetic image in Australia. The book stops in 1975, but the study goes on – he has collected the original masters of important works going back through the complete history of the subject. The collection is private but some of it may be seen online through the Scanlines website which was put together by a team at the college including Stephen, Ross Harley and John Gillies.

Stephen wants to find a home for some of the hardware he’s built. Part of the old studio is on display at the Powerhouse Museum – but in a glass case where you can’t touch it. We both think that a museum should be a living place. So the idea comes to build a space on campus where the history of the synthetic image can continue to be made.

Experimental Television Workshop?

I want to build what used to be called an Experimental Television Workshop. ‘Television’ is no longer the right word, and there’s a few problems that need discussion.

A workplace that pools production equipment for artistic access has been tried all over the world many times. Perhaps the best known is the Experimental Television Centre. In Australia we’ve had Bush Video, Heuristic, Metro Screen, and more. They provided people with access to new equipment that was too expensive for their alternative ideas. One reason why the workshops have declined is that you can now buy a HD camera, a copy of VDMX and a laptop and have more power than the pioneers could even conceive. Access is no longer the problem.

Rather, this ETW is planned to disrupt the historical lineage. ‘New’ and ‘old’ are worthless ideas and the value is only in the outcome. If you use a tissue and comb and the result is beautiful, then all is good. The only reason to collect historical devices is that they encapsulate ways of thinking otherwise unavailable and therefore expand the creative potential.

I can illustrate this with tape recorders – I find no importance in recording to analogue tape compared to a digital system that emulates tape. But I do find value in analogue tape as a way to grab and bend and scrub sound recordings.

Big Iron 2 copy

Some of the ‘Fridge’. Needs some love.

The heart of the system would be the Stephen Jones ‘Fridge’ video synthesiser from the mid 1980’s. There were models before and models after, but this one has a story that Stephen and I share, and for this reason alone I wish to fund its reassembly. I think the colour that this version makes is nicer than the models afterwards, due in part to the included Fairlight Paintbox.

The college owns equipment which is suitable as well. One favourite of mine is the Panasonic MX-30 mixer which I use to do things like this:

These old things will need to be tied to new things in such a way as it doesn’t matter whether you’re using The Fridge or VDMX, just that the outcome is what you wanted. I see a lot of Blackmagic Design in my future.

Synthetics.

The workshop will be part of clearly structured coursework that covers the history and meaning of synthetic video. It must never be allowed to degenerate into a meaningless VJ fetish, and that means carefully chosen artists in residence and plenty of background research before people get to twiddle.

It’s fair to ask why synthetic visuals should be the focus. Why not high definition or interactivity? Why not documentary, after all that’s one of the courses I teach?

I think that linear documentary and narrative are not dependent on video, they are film. Sure, video solved issues of community access and cost and there’s live broadcast, but these are not things unique to an art college and the Film & Television school is a better venue for this. An art college should first consider the relationship between painting and video.

Interactivity is the business of iCinema. The ETW should cover performance, which is a very different thing.

High Definition is nice to have but hasn’t prevented great work that inspires this project, and at worst aspires to be filmic. You can think I’m being bigoted and I welcome the guidance, but in the long run somebody has to put their personality into a creative environment, just as much as an artwork.

What happens next.

I have to make sure everybody at the college is in agreement. There is much to build and repair, it will probably be a year before the facility could be working. In America all the bits and pieces I need are all over eBay, here they are rare and I will have to meet people who have collected the parts I need and see if they have unwanted things they would like to contribute.

So if you happen to have a Video Cox Box sitting in storage, do let me know!

Walking through the biggest book.

I recently attended a lecture by Professor Lewis Lancaster in which he described his collaboration with what he calls ‘Long Data’. Best if I first quote from a 2011 paper about the process:

Blue Dots

This project integrates the Chinese Buddhist Canon, Koryo version Tripitaka Koreana, into the AVIE system. This version of the Buddhist Canon is inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage enshrined in Haeinsa, Korea. The 166,000 pages of rubbings from the wooden printing blocks constitute the oldest complete set of the corpus in print format. Divided into 1,514 individual texts, the version has a complexity that is challenging since the texts represent translations from Indic languages into Chinese over a 1000-year period (2nd-11th centuries). This is the world’s largest single corpus containing over 50 million glyphs, and it was digitized and encoded by Prof Lew Lancaster and his team in a project that started in the 70s.

OK, so a young academic who studies East Asian Languages is put in charge of documenting a 166,000 page book that’s been translated from ancient Indian to Chinese over 1000 years. The biggest book, the oldest copy. For the first 6 or so years he reads it. Reaching some kind of crisis as I think you would, he decides that reading it was not going to get anywhere. So he talks to Samsung and they help him digitise it. He feeds it into a computer and adds metadata behind each glyph (where it sits on what page and so on).

Korea-Haeinsa-Tripitaka_Koreana-01

So now you have 50,000,000+ glyphs stored in memory. (Which reminds me a bit of the 9 Billion Names of God). What do you do with that? At this point I was a little cross with taking a text and chopping it up into ‘Big Data’ cubes, but he seemed to be an honest prof so I waited for the explanation.

He had the computer make all the glyphs blue, and the one glyph, one word, he made red wherever it appears. So he can see patterns. He can ‘feel it’. He picks another word, feels how they are ranged closely, or far apart, intuits a problem. He asks the computer to plot a graph of how often those words appear together over the 1000 years of transcription. There are peaks as new words are developed and then discarded. There’s two peaks that seem oddly similar, but 200 years apart. The computer has found that pages have been accidentally jumbled up about 500 years ago.

The AVIE is the 3D environment built first at Kunst Kamp, now with a bigger version over at City University of Hong Kong. The Blue Dots were fed into the system so that Lancaster could walk through the book, touch any dot and read the glyph right there.

kenderdine_fig17

It is charming, and rather like a short story by Borges. But similarly it’s like the infamous German Video Artist who when asked about his work said ‘It is 4 minutes long and in colour’. The computer has seen the book as a whole, it has not seen what the book says. I think that when Lancaster sadly dies the computer will fall mute. It’s a jotting, the structure is in the brain of the man who knows which way to walk and touch.

There is a monk in Korea I am sure that can walk through the actual plates that hold the book and see it – just like Lancaster sees it now. He doesn’t know that the pages are mixed up. He might not really care.

There were other examples and discussion but one part really got me thinking – about Obama’s first presidential speech and how it was seen as far more effective than his second, and how a computer analysis found that in it he employed a rising repetition; a circle of introduction, point, point, point, re-phrase, affirm, affirm, affirm, summarise. This circle apparently can be found in The Book as well.

When Lancaster asked the audience how else could the data be visualised, it was immediately obvious to me that (a) Obama was using church sermon patterns that (b) you would also expect in a religious text and (c) are found also in the epic poems of antiquity because (d) it is easier to memorise text if it is sung because (e) the part of the brain that handles music is a long term storage processor. Which is why we teach children with songs. Do Re Mi.

That is, you can sing songs you heard and recited years ago, and will until you die because that how the brain lays down text for long term storage – connected with tonal ‘meta data’. Even the profoundly senile can sing a song. Music soothes the savage breast but it also parses language and dare I say, the kind of vague and intuitive information that ‘Big Data’ is supposed to offer.

I stuck up my hand and asked – wouldn’t it be better to sonify the data? Because music recognition is a powerful pattern recognition system? He kind of looked like I’d said rubber baby buggy bumpers. It’s a hunch, prof, it’s just a long shot, that bird songs and big data have more in common that you think. People used to track game and find water and know when winter was coming because of nothing in particular but everything at once. Maybe that’s what brains do that computers can’t.

Before the Dean got too anxious I told an anecdote about Silliac and LeapFrog, which made it all about computers again, which made it alright.

But I still got that hunch.