Author Archive

Interview with Thomson and Craighead

Thursday, August 4th, 2011 | Posted by Morgan Quaintance

[When you read through this interview, launch Thomson and Craighead website so that you can look at the works they are referencing in the interview]


I’ll start off by asking some easy questions. What’s you’re favourite colour?

Alison: Blue.

Jon: That’s not an easy question. I’ll say blue as well.

Are you right handed or left handed?

J: I’m left handed.

A: I’m right handed.

Where did you both grow up?

A: I grew up in Aberdeen and then went to Art College in Dundee.

J: I grew up in South Croydon (London) and ended up doing a foundation art course, in Epsom. I went to do a degree in the midlands and on to Dundee for postgraduate study. That’s when I met Alison.

Do you remember if there was anything in particular that made you decide to go to art school? Was it through exposure to an artwork or a certain artist?

J: I can actually identify it to a particular moment, but it wasn’t so much an experience of art. It was actually more just being at school, ending up doing art as an option in secondary education and then having a bit of an epiphany when I started drawing. Even at that age of fifteen or sixteen it was a transforming experience, because it actually made me see things in a different way.

A: I can’t actually remember. It was a way of opting out that was really exciting…I thought I was going to be a lawyer.

Really!

A: I mean I always liked art and I thought I could do with doing something that I actually liked. That was kind of it.

J: You did a day at law school though.

A: I did a day at law school; I enrolled. Then I realised it wasn’t going to work out, so I did a bit of a runner.

What were your initial interests at university?

J: Initially – at foundation – I did a lot of textile stuff and graphic design, but understood quite quickly that I was interested in fine art practice. By weird coincidence Michael Archer was working at Epsom in the art history department. He was doing a thing called Audio Arts Magazine, along with Bill Furlong. It was a kind of tape cassette based publication. I was given to him as a tutee and he asked me lots of difficult questions about what I was doing as an artist. I was only seventeen or eighteen, probably still trying to get my head around Magritte or something. He really pushed me in a way that I found very difficult at the time. Moving into my degree at Leicester Polytechnic I could just extend that. I did a lot of video for my degree and because of that I went to Duncan and Jordanstone, which has a post-grad course called electronic imaging.

A: I was on a really traditional drawing and painting course at Duncan and Jordanstone. Then I started looking around. I became really interested in computers – I didn’t really know they were called computers at the time – but it all seemed very exciting. So I started sneaking in on the post-grad course and it was great because I got to meet people who’d come from all over the world to do the electronic imaging course, it was amazing. You’d get Swedish performance artists and really established people. It just seemed like the most exciting thing ever.

Was the transition from being interested in art to becoming exposed to discourse – and the idea that it’s a specific site you can situate your work in – a bit of a shock?

J: Well because there was not so much formal teaching during my degree, I got stuck into the Deleuze and Guatarri of the time – I guess late eighties – who I suppose was Jean Baudrillard. I was also reading Frederick Jameson and quite a lot of leftist theory and post-feminist theory. I only understood it within my own capacity as a student at the time; to this day I have a very partial and scattergun understanding of philosophy and theory. But, because there were a few of us that didn’t have much else to do but make work and talk to each other, we started to talk about these things. By the time I got to Dundee, it was a much more practical course where we actually learnt a lot of stuff. I learned a huge amount about sound and video post-production and the whole of that year became very rooted in learning skills.

A: For me it was a bit different, because I was there for four years and so I had more time, but what would happen was older artists would come and do the course and they would kind of become my tutors and say ‘you should read that’ or ‘why are you doing that’. It was really good for me because I got a rounded education.

What was your first piece of work together?

A: That’s quite tricky.

J: It’s a little bit hard to answer definitively because when we first started working together we would do things for each other. So Alison might make a work, which

I’d do the sound recording on, or the sound design. That’s how it begun, with video.

A: That’s pretty much what it was like working with video in the early 90’s. You couldn’t do something by yourself, because you couldn’t physically carry the equipment. So you’d always work with a team. If one person was making a work they’d be like the director, lets say, but then you’d have about four other people.

J: You’d have a Portapak video that you could hardly carry, so you’d need two people: one to hold the camera and the other just behind trailing a cable. We were using what was close to broadcast quality and it was heavy. It was still the days where a VHS home recorder would be really big.

A: What was really good was that you learnt to work in teams. I think if I hadn’t done that, then I wouldn’t be so interested in collaborating. But, early on, if you needed to do anything, you needed to work on other people’s stuff and they needed to work on yours.

In terms of how you both collaborate and use technology, there seems to be a fluency there that makes your work easy to take in. I think the ease with which you utilise and function in both those processes translates to the viewer, allowing complex ideas to be digested. For instance, I can engage with your work without thinking about how difficult it was to produce, unless I want to. This is important because I find the foregrounding of process in ‘new media’, ultimately leads back to the apparatus or software used and that’s usually the last thing I’m interested in. I suppose I’m saying you’ve removed that distraction.

J: That’s good that it seems that way. We strive to make things seem simple; then to almost sneak up behind you and be a bit complicated. So, we do try to find quite singular gestures, which then might proliferate in complexity rather then just having something super complicated in front of you that makes you walk away.

When did you start looking at the Internet?

J: From around 1995-96 onwards, we were looking at the Internet. The reason we were looking was because we had very little money, we had no studio, and we thought well actually this is a conceptual space where you could try stuff out in. You could create diagrams and networks of things that maybe test ideas. Then we got interested in the idea of a hyperlinked environment and what that meant when you see it’s distributed across the whole planet.

Some of your early work seemed concerned with questioning the Internet. For example Dot Store could be looked at as an investigation into the nature of e-commerce. I’d also noticed that in both Rachel Greene’s and Julian Stallabrass’ books about that time, they seemed to situate you within that framework of artists like Vuk Cosic and Heath Bunting who were similarly interested in the Net. Was that something that you felt at the time?

A: Well we knew them all. But, we never actually felt that we were ‘Net Dot’ artists because that was a very specific group.

J: Vuk was the person who coined it all – just as a bit of a joke really. It was him trying to stymie the art establishment, but at the same time commodify his activity. It was quite a strategic move on his part.

A: I think they were a bit shocked that we did stuff in galleries. There was a nod to what we did but it was s a bit like [whispers] ‘They work in galleries’. There was a very strong identity and I think they all became very close actually. I mean Jodi are just fantastic artists aren’t they? They’re brilliant. And they were always a little bit more on the edges.

J: I think Dot Store is the most self-reflexive project we’ve made about the Internet or the web. But actually one of the reasons we made it was as a way of trying to archive a moment. It was just at the end of the dot-com bubble, when we were about to move into the first glimmerings of web 2.0, so we tried to make these really cheesy pieces of museum tat (apart form the tea towels which we made a lot better quality) as a way of creating a Fluxus box of artefacts. It was quite funny because it did make money for a bit.

A: We went to this kind of tech fair, with our tea towels and set up a stall. Can you remember what the name of it was?

J: It was…I can’t remember.

A: Well, we had queues. We were completely shocked. It was really funny. We were run off our feet and came back with a wad of cash and half the tea towels gone. It was a bit like ‘we could have a business here, this is really strange’. But yes, that moment quickly passed.

And Trigger Happy was before, right?

A: It was way before. That was about 1997. So actually, Dot Store was a little like the bookend for a whole series of works.

Would that be the point where web 2.0 comes in?

J: Well it came after, but for us Dot Store was more of a bookend for the dot-com bubble bursting. 2001 was the year that a lot of Net-Art programmes in museums closed down as a result of the bubble bursting.

A: The Walker arts centre shut its programme down and Steve Deitz left. But, I don’t know if we saw it as a bookend because lots of things changed. I think we’d done a whole lot of work and then sometimes there is a point where you have to stop, change and move on. It was like we’d created a full stop.

So at the initial point where you discovered the Internet, did Trigger Happy follow soon after?

A: Pretty Soon.

J: We mad a thing called Weightless, which was a collection of chat-room transcripts and animated GIFS that played themselves out in random combinations. We made Trigger Happy at the same time.

A: With Weightless we were really interested in making it look like television or something that was televised. I guess from there that lead on to a Short Film About Flying, and data-visualisation and it’s relationship to cinema. But, I didn’t know it at the time as I was just doing work and trying to understand what it is I liked about it.

J: At that time all of our stuff online was pretty speculative, because you could only push images about the place and make links to things. Java script was just beginning and you couldn’t really deal with video as it took up too much bandwidth. So we were utterly constricted. If you consider our options as being a palette, our palette was very restricted. But then it breeds an economy that actually let us think about things quite closely. We made a piece of work called Altitude at around that same time as well.

A: I think Altitude would be about the second thing we made. But we made something very early on, which is Reservoir Dogs.

J: That was the first thing we did with hypertext. It was in 1995.

It sounds a little like things moved from hypertext, to e-commerce and then to data-visualisation.

A: I guess we didn’t know that was what we were interested in; it’s only latterly that those terms can be applied. When we made A Short Film About Flying, the groundwork for that was laid in Weightless, which was about using an animated GIF and then subtitling it from chatrooms.

J: I’d say it was two things: it was in Weightless, which was this recombining of moving animations and the chatroom transcripts as subtitles in a movie, but also CNN Interactive Just Got More Interactive was actually a very key piece for us. At the time, to take something as monolithic as the CNN website, which was one of the most visited websites at that time, and then be able to intervene on it and create this little console that would then soundtrack the news, just to reemphasise that it was a moment of infotainment, was something that led to A Short Film About Flying. It was our interest in using things live, and our interest in using language as cinema, as a way of trying to examine what the Internet was about. That’s something that has become embedded in our practice now. We’re very interested in clashing languages together, to see whether they reveal anything about each other.

And was Weather Gauge around that time as well?

J: In my mind I tend to think of Weather Gauge as being a little bit more like our recent work. Because, rather then thinking about the web as an anthropological or cultural context, actually what it is doing is really using live information as a material and it just happens to be that the web conveys it. So, it’s not really about the web so much it’s more about the materiality of live data. That’s what we’ve gotten more interested in as times gone on.

A: To begin with we we’re quite academic it. It was like ‘if you find an object, then it’s a found object’, which leads to appropriation and manipulation, blah, blah, blah. Then we were like ‘but they’re not objects they’re streams’, and then we were like ‘Woah!’ So you couldn’t wrap that framework that you’d had from contemporary art, around what you were doing. Which made us think about how we should deal with the streams of data. Then it was about trying to explore how we were going to understand our practice in a different way.

What’s interesting about that is that there’s still quite a humanistic aspect to your work. Whenever there is data-visualisation there’s always a personal engagement, or there’s always something physical at the other end. For instance I launched Weather Gage a few days ago and, as I was just surfing through things, I didn’t really read what it was about, I just clicked and opened it. So I wasn’t really sure what was going on, and then I understood what was going on and I discovered I could engage with it on a personal level. My girlfriend is in Brazil at the moment, and so I could sit there and know how warm she was and what time it was, hundreds of miles away.

J: Well that’s a

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good example of what I was trying to say earlier about something being simple to begin with, but perhaps belying a kind of richness or complexity.

A: We wanted to make something that used the fact that it took a long time for images to load up. But then, you know, broadband comes along and speeds everything up so it gets faster. Initially, instead of getting annoyed by that slowed down mode, it was about trying to use that to reveal something about the work.

J: We found weird anomalies when we first made it. When the data comes up on screen some of the columns usually show error messages. Often if there was an error it would be because there had been a natural disaster at the location, or sometimes it might be a war.

A: It’s also a revisioning of the world. It’s a map of the world but you’re seeing it in a different way, through a different arrangement. It’s a very strange thing. I mean we have a perception about how we view the world as a whole, but actually the data presented in Weather Gauge is an image of, or information about the world as a whole. It’s quite an extreme sensation to recognise that.

J: And Horizon is kind of the same thing really. Horizon and Weather Gauge both share a lot of things in common. It’s just that horizon is visually rich. We would have probably made Horizon at the time we made Weather Gauge, but last year was the first time everything was stable enough for us to be able to do it. So a lot of limitation happens just in terms of network stability and computer stability.

A: It’s interesting because they’re a bit like useless clocks.

Are we talking about Weather Gauge and Horizon?

J: Well Weather Gauge is a bit more scattergun but it sort of is telling you the time, whereas Horizon is like a sundial because each time zone is like a comic book strip of updates. As day and night happen, the whole thing goes dark and light vertically. So over 24 hours, as we go round the sun, the night moves through different time zones. So if you encounter the work repeatedly, you actually begin to build up a relationship with it. We’ve noticed that where we’ve installed it. People that are around during that time start to relate to it in a way that’s quite interesting.

A: It’s kind of weird, like you were saying you related to it because your girlfriend was in Brazil. It’s really strange the kind of relationships you can build up with data. It was the same with Light From Tomorrow. We had a friend in Tonga with the receptor, collecting the light readings, then we were in San Jose, or in London, and there was something really nice. It was like a shared experience. We couldn’t communicate through it but we knew that…

J: We knew that we all knew.

[laughter]

A: It kind of felt like we’d collectively got a pot-plant or something. I don’t know, it was this really strange kind of a…

J: Connection.

A: Connection!

So I’d like to talk a bit about Several Interruptions. I suppose I know how you came across all that footage of amateur underwater figures, but I was interested in knowing what made you look for that specifically. Was it something you were conciously searching for?

A: Ever since E-poltergeist or the tea towels – and I tell people that I know it’s stupid – but I feel like I have a relationship with the search engine. You know, if I’m depressed I go shopping with it. I also ask it questions, one of which was ‘how do you measure yourself?’ I don’t even know why that was important. Anyway, in my spare time, when I’m bored, I’ll just ask questions to the search engine and try and have a dialogue with it. That’s a bit strange isn’t it?

J: So through a random search you got to a YouTube video.

A: Well I think I was just looking for ways to measure.

J: My memory of it was that we were looking at YouTube as well, looking at videos of people watching their own homes burn down. If you go on you tube you’ll see a lot of them. There are people with their video cameras on going ‘there it goes! That’s our house burning down’ and also lots of people going through the reckedge of homes that had burnt down as well. We were thinking about doing something with that material.

A: We haven’t done anything yet. It’s also very clichéd. You know the ‘burnt down home’ imagery.

J: Then for some reason – maybe because you asked the search engine how to measure yourself – we found this video of someone holding his or her breath underwater. I remember you said ‘hey come and look at this!’ and the thing that we were looking at was the video and then just the list of associated videos was massive. So then we started looking more and I suppose it’s kind of arbitrary in that sense. We’re not secret underwater breath-holders either.

A: I can’t even swim.

J: Also at that time we were making A Short Film About War and it was just painfully intense: lots of research, lots of laborious stitching together of stuff. I think we wanted to do something that was a bit lighter of touch, just to sort of make us feel better. Then of course we couldn’t help but think in triptychs because of Bill Viola, albeit in a slightly cheeky fashion.

A: When we get slightly giggly we make jokes about Mr. Viola.

J: A structure that we were happy to work with became clear very quickly: beginning with one clip, but then taking you through a whole selection of them and finishing with the breath coming up. Actually using the number as an interruption so that the whole thing becomes a lateral interruption, a temporal interruption; that idea that you’re interrupting your life by holding your breath. It’s like a documentary that shows you something about YouTube I think.

A: It is amazing, because they recordings people do are really good. Also the sound’s incredible. All the audio from the video is the sound from the clips. We might have upped the volume or downed it, but it’s all the original sound. It’s DIY Bill Viola’s; it’s just like everyone’s doing it at home.

So let’s talk about The Time Machine in Alphabetical Order.

A: Jon is the best person to talk about that.

J: For some reason I drew the short straw on that one. [laughter] I’m not quite sure why. It was one of those things where it was a bit hard to share the work. It required such a tedious amount of accuracy that you couldn’t do a day on it here, a day on it there between each of us.

A: We tried that but we weren’t up to it.

J: Well we’d loose our places a lot of the time. So it was just an editing job. You had to work out the scheme and then do it. It was about 5,600 edits, just to reorganise it.

Where you working on it every day?

J: No I aimed to do ten minutes of film a month. You couldn’t work on it for to long otherwise you’d get RSI [repetitive strain injury], so I’d do around two half days a week. That meant that you’d be able to get about ten minutes done a month. There are a couple of mistakes in there…but not very many.

And how did you go about doing the editing?

J: I ripped a DVD and then split it into ten-minute segments. Then I’d go through each segment looking for specific words each time. So I’d find the word the, then edit it so that the beginning of the segment would be the word the, and the end point would be the beginning of the next word spoken. So if someone went ‘what the?’ and then a minute later someone said ‘hey come over here’ then that ‘the’ would be a minute long. Then I’d put a timecode number after it, so you’d have the word and then the timecode. It meant that if there were two hundred occurrences of the word the, then they would happen chronologically. So it’s alphabetical and chronological.

A: I guess the reason why we did it was just to make Jon a bit crazy. It was some kind of punishment. [laughter] We were interested in seeing if we could use it as a way to time travel through the film, but also a huge influence for us was the oulipo movement.

J: They’re a literary movement, but it was a multidisciplinary group. So, you’d have mathematicians and scientists, but mainly writers, mainly in France.

A: The most famous member would probably be Italo Calvino. Also George Perec, who wrote a book called The Void, which had no e’s in it, and another one that you could read from both ends like a palindrome.

J: They called these things constrained writing techniques. So in a way we were using some of the elements of the constrained writing technique only we were using a constrained editing technique. So, using system of classification to make a new work out of content that already exists.

Have you shown it in its entirety?

J: We’ve only shown it once haven’t we?

A: We finished it in the summer in time for the solo show we had up at the Highland Institute of Contemporary Art. I thought no way are people going to sit and watch it all the way through. Then amazing numbers of people would do the full hour twenty minutes. It was really interesting because I remember people saying ‘oh you should show it in a cinema’ but I thought ‘well you don’t want to put people through that!’. You know, like it’s a walk in walk out thing. But actually, I do think people would sit through it.

If you had an unlimited budget and no spatial restrictions, is there a particular project that you’d like to realise?

A: There is. What we really want to make at the moment is a project called Belief. We want to do a desktop documentary following on from A Short Film About War and Flat Earth, but this one would be about religion and belief. How they are mediated in web 2.0. Also we want to do it as an installation.

J: The idea is that we were going to create a graphics system, which, as the movie plays all of the stuff that makes the movie will be pointed to by a compass on the floor. So we’d be using GPS to create a kind of subtext.

A: So if you went from Scotland to the Gaza strip you’d get the compass whizzing around.

J: But, with unlimited budget I’d make Horizon with real time video. The way that it would work best is that if all the cameras were placed along the equator. So, to be able to distribute the cameras around the equator, create the work from that and then have control of all your sources, would be great. But, it would be expensive.

A: But, it’s an unlimited budget.

J: Exactly.

Views From an Accelerated Reality # 1: Vernor Vinge's Technological Singularity

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011 | Posted by Morgan Quaintance

In preparation for the 1993 Vision-21 symposium held in Cleveland, Ohio, USA, NASA’s Lewis Research Centre issued a small press release. In it they explained:

Cyberspace, a metaphorical universe that people enter when they use computers, is the centrepiece for the symposium entitled “the Vision 21 Symposium on Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering in the Era of Cyberspace.” The Symposium will feature some remarkable visions of the future.[1]

Looking back it’s probably difficult to imagine the sort of excitement that surrounded symposiums built around this theme. Today our contemporary notions of a digitised reality centre on ideas of the social network and connectedness, in which one is either online or off. The Internet augments and points back to a reality we may or may not be engaged in, but it doesn’t offer an alternative reality that isn’t governed by the same rules as our own. The concept of cyberspace, or an immersive “virtual” reality in which the physical laws of our own do not apply, has all but disappeared from the popular consciousness. These days any talk of immersive digital worlds conjures up visions of social misfits playing non-stop sessions of World of Warcraft, or living out fantastic realities in Second Life. In 1993 cyber-hysteria was probably at its peak. In the previous year Stephen King’s virtual reality nightmare The Lawnmower Man was released in cinemas and grossed one hundred and fifty million dollars worldwide[2]. Virtual reality gaming systems, complete with VR helmet and gloves, were appearing in arcades everywhere (though they never seemed to work), the Cyberdog clothing franchise was growing exponentially and even the cartoon punk-rocker Billie Idol jumped on the bandwagon with his 1993 album Cyberpunk.  Vision-21 was probably right on the money, dangling cyberspace as a carrot in order to draw big name academics, dying to share their research on ‘speculative concepts and advanced thinking in science and technology’[3].

Amongst the collection of scientists and academics, who I imagine paid their participation fees to deliver papers with titles like Artificial Realities: The Benefits of a Cybersensory Realm, one participant sat quietly waiting to drop a theoretical bomb. Vernor Vinge (pronounced vin-jee); science fiction writer, computer scientist and former professor of mathematics at San Diego State University, was there to read from his paper entitled The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era. You can almost picture the audience’s discomfort as Vinge  read out:

 

Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.[4]

 

The crux of Vinge’s argument, summarised for sensational effect in the two sentences above, was that the rapid progress of computer technology and information processing, ran parallel to the decline of a dominant human sapience. Technologies built to augment and increase humanity’s intellectual and physical capabilities, would eventually

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develop a consciousness of their own and an awareness that our presence on earth was negligible. This series of events and the resulting set of consequences are what Vinge referred to as The Technological Singularity.

This dystopic future narrative, foretelling a kind of sinister digital sentience, had already been played out on the big screen in Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and James Cameron’s Terminator (featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career defining role as the ‘Micro-processor controlled, hyper-alloy combat chassis’[5], or cyborg for short).  What rescued Vinge’s thesis, from the familiar terrain of dystopic cyber-plot lines, and a hail of academic derision, was the insertion of a second and more plausible path towards a post-human era. The traditional sci-fi route to the post-human condition has the sudden self-consciousness of superhumanly intelligent machines as its root cause. This formed part of Vinge’s initial argument.

 

If the technological singularity can happen, it will. Even if all the governments of the world were to understand the “threat” and be in deadly fear of it, progress toward the goal would continue. In fiction, there have been stories of laws passed forbidding the construction of a “machine in the likeness of the human mind”. In fact, the competitive advantage – economic, military, even artistic – of every advance in automation is so compelling that passing laws, or having customs, that forbid such things merely assures that someone else will get there first.[6]

 

Still, Vinge must have known that the creation of a superhumanly intelligent, sentient, computer was a bit of a long shot. Artificial Intelligence machines still hadn’t managed to pass Alan Turing’s test since it was introduced in 1950 and Japanese electronics seemed primarily concerned with teaching robots to dance. So in order to shore up this rather shaky portion of his post-human hypothesis Vinge introduced another pathway to the technological singularity called Intelligence Amplification (IA). What the expression refers to is a process in which normal human intelligence is boosted by information processing apparatus. Vinge explains:

 

IA is something that is proceeding very naturally, in most cases not even recognized by its developers for what it is. But every time our ability to access information and to communicate it to others is improved, in some sense we have achieved an increase over natural intelligence. Even now, the team of a PHD human and good computer workstation could probably max any written intelligence test in existence.[7]

 

What Vinge sketches out above is the kind of hypothetical example in which chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov and Deep Blue, the computer programme that beat him at his own game in 1997, would have joined forces to become a superhumanly intelligent, post-human, chess player. It’s the clunky combination of a desktop computer and PHD student that makes the prospect of a superhuman chess-God so unthreatening. Even in 1993, nobody at the vision-21 symposium would have possessed a computer small and unobtrusive enough to amplify his own intelligence levels without everyone else in the room knowing about it. Today that’s a different story. What Vinge knew then was that at the accelerated speed with which reductions in computer hardware size (and their concomitant increase in processing power) were taking place, it would only be a matter of years before powerful information processing engines could fit in the palms of our hands, or even, further down the line, become interlaced with our brain’s axons and dendrites. He knew that the scientists and academics sitting in that room knew it too.

At it’s most basic, IA takes place when you check a digital watch or solve a difficult mathematical problem with a calculator. Today the amplification of intelligence is happening on nearly every street corner, in every major city in the world, courtesy of smart-phones and instant portable access to the Internet. The speeds with which developments in computer technology led to this newfound portability are unprecedented and show no signs of abating. If anything, developments are probably getting faster. Viewing social, political and cultural life through the lens of IA, there’s a pretty strong case for Vinge’s technological singularity and the idea that we are living through its latter stages.

But what’s so bad about progress? Wouldn’t it be cool if everyone was walking around with superhumanly amplified intelligence levels? Maybe so, but implicit in Vinge’s theory is an existence many of us would struggle to define as human:

 

The post-singularity world will involve extremely high-bandwidth networking. A central feature of strongly superhuman entities will likely be their ability to communicate at variable bandwidths, including ones far higher than speech or written messages. What happens when pieces of ego can be copied and merged, when the size of self-awareness can grow or shrink to fit the nature of

the problems under consideration? These are essential features of strong superhumanity and the singularity. Thinking about them, one begins to feel how essentially strange and different the post-human era will be, no matter how cleverly or benignly it is brought to be.[8]

 

The question of access to this superhuman capacity is also a cause for concern. As the possession of advanced technological apparatus is reserved for those who can afford it, will we begin to see the emergence of an underclass of sub-humans, stuck on average levels of intelligence? And what happens when the first instance of computer/human symbiosis takes place? Will the first fully awakened, integrated superhuman man/machine see his or her own flesh as the negligible half of that pairing? We’re heading dangerously into Terminator territory again, but as fantastic as these questions sound, they are entirely plausible. Whatever the case may be, as humankind hurtles towards it’s own obsolescence; accelerated reality is a disorienting place to be.


[1] //www.nasa.gov/centers/glenn/news/pressrel/1993/93_17.html

[2] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0104692/

[3] //www.nasa.gov/centers/glenn/news/pressrel/1993/93_17.html

[4] VINGE, Vernor, The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era, 1993

[5] CAMERON, James and HURD, Gale Anne, The Terminator, Screenplay, 1983

[6] VINGE, Vernor , (as above), 1993

[7] ibid

[8] ibid

 

Views From an Accelerated Reality # 2: Aphex Twin

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011 | Posted by Morgan Quaintance

In the September 1997 issue of Sound on Sound magazine, Martin Russ described the newly released Yamaha QY70 as

“A deceptively capable workstation-like device, comprising a powerful sequencer, sophisticated auto-accompaniment and a GM/XG expander’

Yamaha QY70

The QY70 was Yamaha’s most recent contribution to the line of QY models developed since 1991. The idea behind the series was to produce portable compositional tools, small bits of hardware, no larger then a paperback that would allow the amateur, enthusiast, or professional musician to compose music on the go. The QY10, Yamaha’s first release, featured the prototypical design that all subsequent models would try to update and improve on. About the size of a videocassette, the QY10 was a battery powered 8-track sequencer and crude sound generator. Being the first of its kind, the 10 sparked the development of a large number of copycat designs (including

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Roland’s cumbersome Groovebox series). Yamaha cornered the market through saturation, introducing newer models that seemed to pack more and more functionality into the small box; at an almost yearly rate the QY20, 22, 300, and 700 all appeared en route to the QY70 model.

TRICKY using a QY10

Thom Yorke using a QY70

What was unique about the QY70 in 1997 was the amount of attention Yamaha paid to demystifying the creative process, or removing the blank canvas effect of having to actually think of new melodies or drum patterns. This was achieved through the customisation of a neglected feature known as auto-accompaniment (AA).

If you, or anyone in your family, has ever owned a domestic keyboard you’ll be familiar with the standard bank of about 50 song styles that you can select and play along to. The idea is that you can practice your piano playing or vocal skills without having to employ a backing band. That’s the concept of auto-accompaniment. Typical AA styles are usually dominated by musical clichés like country, 16-beat, rock, or pop styles. The options that are open to you consist of speeding up or slowing down the tempo of any one pattern, but further editing is barred. In the QY70, Yamaha not only allowed the user to isolate and edit particular tracks, you could also mix and match styles, or use them as building blocks for your own compositions. They also included a feature called Chord template. This allowed you to sift through a number of chord progressions, pre-programmed to fit musical styles like ballads, blues and Jazz. Included in this set of pre-prepared chord structures was an option titled Cliché, which, as you’d imagine, gave access to a collection of instantly clichéd chord sequences.

To complement these innovations in automated song generation, Yamaha included a number of unique, contemporary, AA options, including styles like Drum n Bass, Jungle and Euro Techno. They also included an option named EJ: a rather cryptic reference to a burgeoning, underground genre known as intelligent dance music – IDM for short. Possibly named after a mailing list forum created in 1993 to discuss the music of Aphex Twin and other Warp records artists, IDM was labelled intelligent because of its lineage, innovation, and compositional difficulty. Alongside Detroit techno and Chicago Acid House, IDM artists name-checked Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, Edgard Varese, Iannis Xenakis and a whole host of other composers, known for their esoteric musical output. At the forefront of this new breed of dance music producer was Richard D. James – aka Aphex Twin.

Aphex Twin. Richard D. James album, (1996)

What Yamaha’s EJ preset did was reproduce and automate the stylistic flourishes and technical innovations associated with Aphex Twin’s music. Approximately one year on from the release of Aphex’s record entitled Richard D. James, Yamaha Japan charged it’s team of engineers to create an auto-accompaniment preset that would allow amateurs, enthusiasts and professionals, around the world, the chance to write like Aphex Twin. What they created was an almost exact copy, of the track entitled 4, from the Richard D James’s album.

Usually the automation of song styles is confined to what might be called traditional compositions. Stereotypical song structures we associate with genres like Country, Blues, Reggae and so on. We recognise them because they are pulled from songs that have pre-ordained structures. With IDM, or rather Aphex Twin, Yamaha’s engineers sought to copy the instantly recognisable, individual compositional style of a living artist. By placing the ability to write like Aphex in anybodies hands, they simultaneously demystified and, to an extent, neutered his artistic gesture. Not only could users play around with this tool on their portable boxes, they could transfer the midi data to their computers and use it to create compositions of releasable quality. In other words, they could feasibly profit from corporate plagiarism. 

As a result, Yamaha’s quest to simplify the process of song writing, through automation, arguably contributed to the premature obsolescence of Aphex Twin’s signature style, and the particular incarnation of IDM he helped pioneer. Although IDM remains a vital genre of alternative electronic music, the increased ubiquity of Aphex’s style saw aspiring composers – and Aphex himself – retreating from it as quickly as their precursors adopted it. In the QY70’s wake software packages incorporated Aphex style features, and with each subsequent release the learning curve shortened. So, from the relative difficulty of Cycling 74’s MAX/MSP, users were able to do things at the touch of a button with Ableton Live. The casualty of this ‘democratic’ levelling of the playing field becomes the original artistic gesture.

Views From an Accelerated Reality # 4: Tookie

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011 | Posted by Morgan Quaintance

The oxford English dictionary defines hypertrophy as ‘the enlargement of an organ or tissue from the increase in size of its cells.’ In body-builder parlance hypertrophy, or muscle-cell hypertrophy, is the state attained through regular sessions of applied

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force through physical exertion, weight training, sets and reps. For Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams, former leader and founder member (alongside Raymond Washington) of Los Angeles street gang the Crips, the principle of hypertrophy by force extended far beyond the makeshift garage gyms, and front lawn bench-press sessions of his South Central neighbourhood.

Born on December 29, 1953 Tookie’s rise to Crip leadership began in the spring of 1971, 34 years before his death by lethal injection in California’s San Quentin prison. After the last embers of the Black Panther Party, and their dashiki-wearing rivals Us, were snuffed out in the late 1960’s, a political hole was left in the African American Community of Los Angeles. This gap in the political consciousness was quickly filled by the misogynistic images of Blaxploitation cinema and a new capitalist individualism, embodied by the likes of Youngblood Priest: the coke dealing, whitey-hating, central character of Gordon Parks Jr’s Superfly. In the 2006 documentary Bastards of the Party, Chili, a former member of pre-Panther LA gang the Gladiators, explained the situation: ‘guys that I knew who were starch in the iron revolutionaries and would die for the movement, when I got out [of prison] they was telling me “it aint happening homeboy”1. Despite this apathetic migration into the zone of self-centeredness by older males, LA’s youth carried a memory of the organisation and brotherhood delivered by the Black Panthers. Stepping into the breach were the gangs, most notably Tookie’s Crips and their bitter rivals the Bloods. By Tookie’s account the Crips came into focus that spring when he and Raymond Washington joined forces and the Crips name was coined in a high school cafeteria. In Tookie’s own words ‘life seemed to accelerate after I met Raymond’2

Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams in the exercise yard at San Quentin, Circa 1985

Tookie’s experience of acceleration was characterised by a disturbing, even super-human, level of physical and psychic excess. Extreme bouts of violence; group sex, larceny, armed robbery, and murder, if not all perpetrated by him were certainly part of his everyday life. Underlying this vicious momentum was the perpetual quest for hypertrophy, and the continual growth of muscle mass. Tookie’s path towards invincibility remained unchallenged until he was hospitalised in 1976 by a number of .45 calibre bullets, fracturing a calf and shattering the bones in both his feet and ankles. Tookie’s road to recovery required something that had been alien to him for a long time, slowness.

Though Tookie’s physique was as muscular as ever, the limp that slowed his gait significantly decreased his effectiveness as a fearsome individual. By his admission ‘the years 1977 to 1979 were the lowest point of my life’3. Tookie’s wilderness years saw his hyper-speed reality exchanged for the world of a phencyclidine (aka PCP and Sherm) fuelled haze. It is here, in a drug den, that Tookie experienced a different type of acceleration; acceleration by default:

‘When my stepbrother Wayne was floating on Sherm, he sometimes moved in super-slow motion as if he was in another dimension. Once while I was getting my hair braided by my stepsister Demetri, Wayne was high on Sherm and got up in super-slow motion to creep over to where Demetri’s friend’s purse was. He took out the wallet and placed it under his jacket, then returned to his seat as if nothing had ever happened. I shook him out of his trance, and he wasn’t even aware of what he had done. Though we all laughed, it was one of the most bizarre things I had ever seen. In time I would do stranger things.’4



1 Bastards of the Party, Cle Shaheed Sloan, Fuqua Pictures; USA. 2006
2 Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams, Redemption, Milo Books, England, 2004; pp. 82
3 Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams, Redemption, Milo Books, England, 2004; pp. 173
4 Ibid pp. 175-176

Interview with Paul B Davies

Thursday, January 27th, 2011 | Posted by Morgan Quaintance

I guess we should start right at the beginning

Okay.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in St Louis USA. It’s a mid sized post-industrial city with a rich musical history. So like Miles Davis, Ike and Tina Turner; there’s a lot of Soul and I guess ragtime stuff if you go back even earlier. That was sort of my first thing. When people ask where I’m from that’s what I mention, what I’m proud of.

How did you move from there to making inroads into producing works of art?

Well growing up I played music a lot. My parents started me on piano lessons when I was four, with this opera singer from down the street. It’s kind of a funny story; my dad’s an architect, and another contractor who owed him some money for a job, and didn’t have it, had a piano. So my dad was sort of like ‘okay we’ll take that’. That’s how we had a piano and I started lessons. Then at some point, when I was a teenager, I got into computers, bought a decent synthesizer, and started making electronic music. I was doing computer graphics and basic programming, plus I was involved in BBS’s.

What are BBS’s?

Like pre Internet message boards. They’re basically software that would run on someone’s home computer, but they’d have a modem attached to it so you could dial up on your computer, log in, upload and download messages. It was really slow speeds compared to Ethernet today. I wasn’t heavily involved in it, but I was lurking around and interested in it.

What was it like?

Well people were doing weird lo-res graphics, cracking software and stuff like that. Sort of like the original hacker scene.

When did you become exposed to contemporary art ideas, or I suppose, the possibilities of a contemporary art practice.

I did art stuff in High school and I was aware of, I guess, blue chip modern artists.

Like who?

Well my favourite artist at that time was Modigliani, which is probably a very high school artist to like. I suppose I was more interested in music and I was listening to a lot of ambient stuff and all the Rephlex records and Aphex Twin stuff, which got me interested in obscure 70’s synth records. Also, because of my classical training on the piano I knew about 20th century classical music like Stockhausen and Elliot Carter. I took that and went to music school, but my music degree was interdisciplinary. It was an electronic music and composition degree, but because it was in a classical music conservatory I also had to play a traditional instrument and chose Harpsichord.

Because of the way liberal arts education in the states is structured, you do your core thing but you also have to take X number of courses in totally non-music related subjects. I was taking philosophy, fine art and a couple computer science courses. So that connected me with a lot of art stuff that was going on at my school and then the professors that we had at my electronic music department were people like Pauline Oliveros and Richard Povall. By that time the whole history of western music had fused with art practice anyway, especially from the sixties.

Where did you go?

Oberlin. Where I also met Cory Arcangel; he was in the music school too. We were roommates for a few years and then Jacob Ciocci, who’s in Paperrad. We had a little crew and just bounced ideas off each other.

Then at some point you formed Beige.

Yeah, well basically me and my friend Joe Beuckman, from St Louis started Beige as a record label just to kind of put out tunes.

That was 97 right?

We started it in 97 our first record came out in January 1998. By that time Cory and I had been making stupid videos and I’d gotten really into looking at sounds from old games systems, so we’d already started working on the 8-bit construction set record by 98.

Let’s talk a bit about the 8-bit construction set project. How did you go about programming the music and keeping it so immediate?

Part of that is, I think, just the nature of the sound. Especially the Atari, it’s just raw. The Atari doesn’t have a special sound chip in it; they just found some extra registers you can write data to and then wired that to an audio output so it’s all square waves, really crunchy. The commodore has an analogue synthesizer in it.

Is that the SID chip?

Right. It still has a really crunchy sound, which keeps them pretty immediate. So the way the record worked was that one side was all done on the Atari 800xl and the other side was done on a Commodore 64. The sides both match so you’d have samples, a series of locked grooves, a song, and then the data track. The data track is software that you can dub to a cassette tape. In the early 80’s floppy drives were really expensive and they used audiocassettes for cheap data storage. So if you have all your old gear you can boot the audio track software on your machine.

So did how did you move from records to developing the hacked Nintendo cartridges?

In 99 I had this light-bulb go off in my head. I realized I wasn’t just limited to home computers I could actually reprogram game cartridges themselves and then use that to do video. So for my senior year thesis project at Oberlin I hacked a game cartridge and presented my work. I guess everybody was into it and so we took the stuff we were doing as Beige records and realized we can make art out of it too. When we got out of school we decided to have two strands of it: the record label and an art collective where we’d share ideas and develop work together.

How did you approach doing that with the Nintendo cartridges, did you just think ‘let me give this a try’ or was there a long period of research?

Basically I was already into video game sounds and was interested in having more direct control over them. In 98 I’d learned about EBay and I just kinda went nuts. I realised that if there’s a sound chip for the music I like in these old Atari and Commodore computers, and you can programme these computers, I’m just gonna fill my room with computers that I get for ten bucks off EBay. That was the start of learning about how these older systems work. Then I thought: computers are cool but not that many people have them, but a lot of people have game systems. Then I realised that it’s the same gear on the inside: same processor, same sound chip. The only difference is that in the game’s system the software is already made for you, in a cartridge, whereas with a computer you can programme it yourself and save it to a floppy disc or whatever. So I just thought, I’m sure people are messing with these cartridges and if I could make my own cartridge then it’s like a whole art medium bursts open for me.

I looked on the Internet and emulation had just kicked off at that time. There was a group of super nerds who were reverse engineering all these games systems and posting documentation. They weren’t doing it with any artistic value judgements, or anything at all, they were just nerds who wanted to figure out how to put two hundred games on one cartridge. I already appreciated that kind of home computer, hobbyist, nerd vibe, coming from BBS’s and the stuff I was doing earlier in my teens and I thought there was art there, it’s just they weren’t thinking about it in those terms – it was just their little thing that they were doing. I just basically learned from them, the technical stuff, followed what they were doing and taught myself assembly language, how to de-solder the chips, what chips to get, and how to make it work: just sort of appropriated this technical knowledge into an art practice.

It seems like an incredibly complex process.

It’s the kind of thing that’s very intimidating to approach if you don’t know anything about it. That was the thing, it was like I had this idea and then I had to figure all this stuff out. It’s not that hard once you figure it all out but it is an intimidating technological and conceptual leap. Basically the deal is: inside the cartridge, if you open it up, there are two chips, one has all the code that runs the game and the other has all the data that draws the graphics to the screen. They come in standard sizes so you could buy an exact same chip that’s blank, fill it with your own code and put that in place of the chip already in the cartridge. Then the Nintendo runs it like its just software.

So you’d write the code on a computer and then transfer it to the hardware via a blank chip?

That’s the key technological thing that happened. Because people had been writing emulators, or the first generation of emulators, you could write the code on your PC, compile it and then test it in your NES emulator on your PC. Then if it worked, you’d put it on the cartridge and then into the machine.

This is the point when people really start to hear about what you were doing right?

We were really lucky basically. I showed Cory how to do it, we started collaborating on some pieces and I think we did two things: one is that we made work that was accessible to people, the second thing is that we were learning about the current state of new media art when at university. I found things that appealed to me like Jodi.org and Vuk Cosic, but there was a lot of stuff that I hated and a lot of the stuff that I hated was, you know, interactive installations made from Flash. It was stuff where I just thought the connection between the artist and what is happening was so nebulous. I mean, I don’t know if they put that thing on the screen because they actually wanted it there, or because the software led them to put it there, or if the programmer that they hired had come up with the piece. The Nintendo stuff was really direct: everything that you see is there because I wanted it there, in that particular way. So the stuff was accessible and it also had a foregrounded, kind of, ‘fuck you’ to a lot of new media art that existed at the time.

We were also living in different cities. Corey had moved to New York and I’d moved to Chicago. We started having shows in each city and the 8-bit record came out (it had been finished a year before, but it didn’t come out until 2001). That became visible and then when people learned about that, they also learned about the Nintendo stuff, or when people learned about the Nintendo stuff they learned about the record: Dj’s were buying it but museums were exhibiting it too, so it was like this whole crazy interbreeding between art and music appreciation.

Where were you living when you were in Chicago?

First I lived near Logan Square with Joe Bonn, the fourth member of Beige but he moved to LA after a year. Then I lived on the North-west side, near Armitage and Western. There was a 24hr burrito shop that was right around the corner that’s really famous called Arturo’s Tacos. Some friends of mine, from Oberlin, and I were looking for a place (I was homeless at the time and living in the back of a friends art gallery) and we stumbled across this empty building, with an abandoned store front on the ground floor and apartments above. It was really cheap. We took it and converted it into a performance space called Camp Gay.

I was also attending graduate school at the Art Institute of Chicago, because I was thinking about how we were having all this work shown while I didn’t really have the language to talk academically about the stuff, or even theorize what I’m doing. It was all intuitive, which I think is good to create, but you can’t really explain what’s up. I basically just did that, and I had no intention of being a solo artist. I wanted Beige to just be a collaborative project where we contributed ideas and published everything collectively.

That happened for a couple years; then I guess we just drifted apart. I’d moved to London by 2004 and felt comfortable enough with art to be a solo artist. That was when I started to do different things, more video stuff.

Is this the point where you started experimenting with digital video, or ‘datamoshing’?

I was in a show with Takeshi Murata in 2005 I think, maybe 2006. It was a group show at Vilma Gold and I’d made some mix tapes for the show, and Takeshi was doing this glitchy video stuff. I liked it and had been experimenting with glitches in video files and photos when I was in Uni, but I never could control it very well. I’d just randomly mess something up and I think randomness is pretty uninteresting. I saw his glitches and I thought he seems to have some control over it, and then I learned about an artist called Sven König. He was doing the same kind of stuff.

Basically Sven wrote a programme where you could upload video files into the software and it would manipulate them beyond comprehension, so it was totally algorithmic. Takashi was saving a still image from a video that was a little bit messed up, then opening it up again and saving another frame and doing a lot of things to it in traditional video editing software. I liked the way both of their work looked, but I wasn’t happy with the process. I kinda wanted to do something in the middle where it’s not totally algorithmic like Sven, but it’s not totally unconnected from the data like Takeshi.

I started finding out where I could actually edit the video, not using a video editing programme, but just by messing up information in the video file. So there’d be a connection with the data, but I’d be doing it at specific times, for specific reasons, in specific ways. Things would mess up and unfold over time exactly how I want them to. I showed that stuff in 2007 at my first solo show, which was at Seventeen gallery on Kingsland road in London. Then I got tired of it pretty quickly.

This is where the Kanye West video comes in right?

Yeah these two things happened in the same week a couple years later. I got an e-mail from the dude who did a video for a band called Chairlift, which used the same glitch technique, and he was like ‘hey I saw this video that you did at the MOMA in New York and it totally influenced me, check out this video I made!’ Then apparently, I learned this through reading internet news, Kanye’s people had been working on a similar thing for his video and when he saw that the Chairlift video had been released he rushed his and it came out the same week. I don’t know if this is true, but I heard he asked Takeshi Murata to do his video and Takeshi said no.

That was a couple years after my show at Seventeen and I was wondering where can this stuff go? I’d gotten tired of using existing cultural artefacts, even with the Nintendo’s, you know, Mario’s in there and that’s like a hook, but it really became the experience for everyone. For me the Nintendo hacking was almost like a political statement: opening up a computer system that’s closed and reverse engineering corporate hardware. All the back story is actually what the piece is about; Mario’s just an accessible overlay for all this stuff. It just became obvious to me that maybe one out of every ten thousand people get past Mario and care about the back story, so maybe I should foreground the stuff behind it a bit.

That was the thing with datamoshing, I wanted to use work that people recognised so they could tell the aesthetic choices I’d made, if I was just messing up some random thing maybe they wouldn’t have had anything to compare it to. So I did a Rick James video, the Matthew Barney thing, me and Jacob from Paperrad did this Rihanna and Cranberries mashup, I did a UFC one, and then I did a Bobby Brown one. Then I just thought: it’s interesting and I liked making that set of work, but I’m still an editor. It still relies on using cultural artefacts to make any sort of meaning. I wanted to be able to say I put this piece together from start to finish; it’s not just lowest common denominator, pop-culture references. So I started filming a dancer friend of mine and we started working on some choreography. I would make glitches at certain times to kind of push a narrative along. It was really in early stages, but that was what I was working on putting in the next show. Then all of a sudden this Kanye stuff comes out. I was using these glitches as a way to disrupt pop culture, or comment on pop culture, now the actual method I was using became the vocabulary of pop culture. I could just imagine people coming into my show and being like ‘oh yeah I saw that stuff in the Kanye video’. I would have killed myself.

I pretty much just scrapped the show. It was already scheduled at Seventeen and I just thought okay I’ll set a challenge for myself to come up with a totally new show in two and a half months. That’s what became ‘Define Your Terms: Kanye West Fucked Up My Show’.

Could you talk a bit about the Critical Space Headgear piece that was in that show?

Well I was looking at ways to have a distance between me and the technologies I was using. I think a lot of new media stuff is tied up with whatever new thing is out. Like as soon as Twitter goes online there are artists who are using Twitter; as soon as Facebook went online there were Facebook projects; there are projects on Wikipedia; people are talking about web 2.0 art and people are using YouTube as a medium for what I see as collage. I found that in using these cultural artefacts there was a lack of criticality, the technology is so new you don’t have to understand what you’re doing, or even have a good idea. I was struggling with it in the same way as I was struggling with using pop-culture references in my work. I wanted to figure out a way to have a critical distance. Something between me and the computer that keeps me from getting sucked in by the promise, which is in many ways untrue. Something to remind me that ontology is important, or that I’m only looking at a website that was setup for specific commercial reasons. So I got into these systems that the military were using, ‘augmented reality’ stuff, and I found a company that make sports glasses, with a little projector in there that projects video onto the glasses. I thought I could make a piece using that, but they turned out to be too expensive and they wouldn’t give me a free one. I remembered that one of my Goldsmiths graduates, Liam Fogerty, had done this piece where he’d mounted a camera on his forehead and then had some goggles that allowed him to wander around in this kind of video-mediated reality and I thought ‘Oh, it’s like Terminator vision.’

So I wondered if I could use a system like that, but overlay text. I called him up and we worked on it. I made this text overlay circuit and constructed this whole system: there’s a real-time first person perspective from a head-mounted camera, it goes into this computer that processes the video, there’s a couple modes and it overlays text on to the video signal, that gets sent to your video glasses and that’s what you see. So, for the show I did it with two modes: one has this piece of text that says ‘what does this tell me that isn’t already obvious?’ Then the other one, I called it a YouTube emulator, reduces the quality of the image in your goggles to 320×240, which was the standard video size at that time, and it puts the YouTube logo in the bottom right hand corner. It was like designing a personal technology to combat, or keep a distance from, commercial technologies

I really liked it. I mean it’s a lot different from watching a bunch of Marios running around on screen, in terms of accessibility, but it felt like I was actually making difficult work, not to be difficult, but because it was foregrounding deeper questions, which are ultimately what I’m interested in pursuing.