10th June 2014: Lunch Bytes discussion
I attended (and co-curated) a Lunch Bytes discussion in Helsinki, part 1 of 3. This first one featured Diedrich Diederichsen, DJ Orkidea (Tapio Hakanen), Ilja Karilampi, and myself. The talk was held in Sinne, with a crowd of ca. 70 people. Here's the text/notes I read there. Lunch Bytes is a series of discussions curated by Melanie Bühler. More info here.
LBytes 10 june 2014
It's hard to believe in progress. And, when you think of art, it seems even inconceivable. Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a film by Werner Herzog, ruminates on the meaning of 30 000 -year old cave paintings in what is now modern France. In the director's view, the people who created the horses and buffalos to the wall of a sacred cave had true knowledge about animation, story-telling through images, and spatial design. One might end up thinking, upon seeing the film, like i did, that what our ancestors were doing is what we still do, too.
The idea of progress is close to heart for software companies such as Adobe, whose programs, such as Photoshop and Premiere, form the gold standard for desktop tools in the creative industry and for artists, as well. They say, everything is easier with the latest update, anyone can do stunning creative works with the suitable software, everything is so much more possible than ever before. But how does this suit to art, which seem not to be about progress and advancement, but rather extropy and variation?
It is indeed easier now than than it was in the era of tape to cut a recording of my voice into millions of pieces, each only milliseconds long and place these snippets in random order, but being able to do that doesn't make digital sound art of today somehow better than 1950's analogue electronic music. It's just different.
This idea of, "making art is so much easier today because of tools x and y" as catered by businesses and frequented in our everyday discussions, is a problematic way of looking at art-making in an ontological sense. Sure, the internet and mobile technologies have had a substantial effect on distributing and sharing art, connecting with your peers and audience, and on finding alternative and, at best, empowering social realities for those of us marginalized offline.
But since making art doesn't really require anything specific, it feels weird to think that it could be harder or easier because of a set of tools. Because if you think like that, then you have presupposed that art is only something you do with certain tools.
- Art is not about technical expertise, as we've known for or almost a hundred years now. To be an artist one does not have to have any specific skills. We all should know this by heart now, after Duchamp, de-skilling, punk, and whatnot. Still, only yesterday I started to wonder if there is something very positivist in the way technology is being issued, however subtly, in the Lunch Bytes event here today.
So, have our digital tools changed the way we work with sound? Basically every artist I know, myself included, who give at least some emphasis to sound on their videos or other works, we use sound in a very stripped down, straightforward manner. It's basically a bunch of fx sounds, speech tracks recorded semi-ok in a bedroom , some music ripped from youtube, maybe some atmosphere from a piratebay sound effects torrent. The result is a mesh of uneven things, like having the sound of a duck when someone opens the door, then the sound of a macbook starting up, and then Wagner and then fast dance music pitched up. This way of working resembles 60's & 70's sound poetry scene like Fylkingen in its rawness, or early electronic music, like Pierre Schafer, with its combination of uncanny and concrete materials.
The stuff we're doing could've technically been done in earlier decades as well, and it would have not been that hard, either. Of course, this is not meant as critique, but just as an observation. We are not trying out our tools to any extreme, but maybe that's the just hangover from 90's media art, where pushing technology to its limits was very much in fashion. For sure, this is something for a longer and more researched talk.
Anyway, I'm not sure if current digital technologies have changed anything fundamentally in terms of sound. In terms of music, for sure, and in terms of availability, as well. The latter is actually an important change, because for example still in the 80's, the chance to really work on audio was mostly reserved for people who had access to universities or national radio studios, or could afford buying these very expensive equipment, not to mention the cultural capital one needed to have in order to find herself working in such environments. And I guess that's still the case in some parts of the world. Nothing ever changes for everyone at the same time.
Technological determinism and the need to write linear history is a basic problem in the relationship of human sciences and technology, claims the Finnish scholar Karl-Erik Michelsen who has written extensively on technology and its meaning. Human sciences tend to look at technology as a black box that's outside of society and hence having its own, separate, trajectory. This is evident, in Michelsen's view, in how there are no engineers acting as public intellectuals. The work of engineers have tremendous influence over the shape and direction of our society, just think of, i don't know, railroads, but we don't hear engineers take part in the public discourse on ethics, for example.
I wanted to give you an example of how artists use technology in a way that changes our understanding of what went down before, and thus breaking the linear narrative of advancement.
The Steve Reich story about tape machines and the piano, ie how technology affects art in way that's expansive, but not linear.
- it's gonna rain 1965
- he tried to have two tape player machines playing a recording of a preacher in sync, and looping, but the players fell out of sync, and thus the other player started to gradually be more and more behind from the other tape player after every loop round. Thus, phase shifting was born. He then utilized this same method for piano, as well, resulting in the composition Piano Phase in 1967 (which can also be played with marimbas). So, Reich brought foreground a feature of the piano that could've been figured out before tape players. No one just happened to think that you could a piano, or any instrument, like that. But nothing in acoustic instruments suggests to this way of using them. At the same time, using piano for phase shifting combined two things: the to play melodic lines, which is prominent with the piano keyboard, and phase shifting, which is more-or-less prominent in tape players. So what happened was that through tape players, Reich (or maybe it was Terry Riley, who has accused Reich of stealing his idea) showed a new way of using a previous technology, in his case the piano.
- the tape player is an interface with a foreground, aka playing a tape in orderly fashion, and with a background, aka using two tape machines to create phase shifting. This is why a lot of the ideas around misuse are somewhat flawed: if you do something with unintended with a machine, it does not mean you're revealing dark secrets or taking a critical stance toward consumer hardware, but you're rather doing what engineers do: you look behind the surface.
We can all think of possible similar examples from current art practices, of ways of understanding a given technology in a new, even unintended way, and then combining that with a more established technology. (?)
(- if there's time, talk about instruments, and the way interfaces affect you as a user)
tomorrow, I'll be back in the 1-hour writing mode.