Chip Critique 1: Re-appropriation

“I like restrictions, reappropriating & using tools in ways they weren’t meant to be used”. Maybe it’s just me, but after hearing similar sentences for the past 15 years about chipmusic, I’m getting tired of it. Is that what we like, really? And why do so many chipmusicians say this?

The quote above is not from a chipmusician. It’s from the artist Petra Cortright who’s part of what I see as the Rhizome rhizome. In there you’ll find plenty of artists who work with general midi, low-res, old internet memes and GIF-animations. Perhaps it’s what Cory Arcangel called dirt style.

It seems that this grew big in the 00’s, for example with Arcangel’s NES-works. He supposedly reappropriated restricted technologies in new ways. Many low-tech hackers were annoyed with this, seeing it as some kind of imperialism on ‘their’ thing.

I reluctantly admit that I was one of those, back then. The art-perspective on this was just too foreign for me. But of course, chipmusic was gradually becoming part of the package. The postmodern rhetorics was an easy way to get attention for chipmusic, as we tried to legitimize our work beyond videogames and nostalgia (and still are).

So bending, glitching, dirt style and hacking grew more and more connected. And it was given a political relevance in typical postmodern cultural studies rhetorics. Critical new uses of technologies! It assumes that the glitching, bending and hacking of the previous decades, was somehow not the same thing. Making Gameboy music today might have a different cultural status, compared to 20 years ago. But still. It’s not like we’re making something new, or doing something that the technology was not intended to do.

Consider technologies as subjects instead of objects. Or, more appropriately, consider both humans and technologies as objects. Claiming that something has “intended uses” can be a discriminating claim then. Who’s to decide what the intended uses are? We pretend that the Gameboy was an “inter-passive” commodity, so now we pretend that we are heroes who liberated the machines (and ourselves).

Bob Stevenson - Max Headroom (C64, 1986)

We pose as the heroes of the digital age. The glitchers and benders bring forth the hidden expressions of the machine, and the chipmusicians give the technologies new value in new contexts.

Or: we are reinforcing traditional paradigms such as human excellence and and techno-libertarianism. Perhaps it’s a reaction to the lack of control and comprehension that modern consumer technologies offer. Perhaps it’s part of the zeitgeist of hauntology and lo-fi VHS-artefacts (or, uh, hypnagogic cyberpunk). But it’s certainly not very critical in my book.

And the machines continue to laugh. Let’s laugh with them, not at them. Uhm.

28 Responses to “Chip Critique 1: Re-appropriation”

  1. Dragan Says:

    Thanks for this summary.

    The “misuse” and “re-appropriation” of technology is a meme haunting all the digital arts. But I think this is indeed just a metaphor for using a computer, like “folders”, “mail” or the “information highway”. And as many of these metaphors, the re-appropriation thing is misleading.

    One thing is: if you accept, that a computer is misused, you accept at the same time that is has a certain raison d’etre. For example, by connecting a “forbidden” device to the iPad and claiming yourself an underground hero, you are re-inforcing the idea of a non-general-purpose computer. However, down at the core, all computers that are touring complete are general-purpose.

    To find out what is the “purpose” of a device or software, one would have to read up all the manuals and the PR blabber about it. And if you turn the knobs on the GUI in another direction that written in the manual (who reads manuals anyway?!), how can that be something special? And if you buy a computer that is artificially crippled in its possibilities, just to “break” it open, how is that heroic? It’s a hobby.

    I think what many artists and musicians would in fact like to say is, that they like to spend time, that they think doing something the hard way has certain benefits, or that working in a known framework is needed for meaningful communication. — As opposed to the instant gratification most digital artifacts try to deliver.

    For sure, chip music and many other digital art forms can not be considered “disruptive” or liberating from this formal point of view. And the focus on it is quite disappointing. Aren’t the poetic aspects much more worth looking at? Too bad there is hardly a vocabulary for it. Instead the vocabulary of a “revolution” is beaten over and over.

  2. Johan Says:

    I think this talk about restrictions being enabling is something that one hears over and over, and not just from chip musicians, but from authors, “normal” composers et.c.

    Reappropriation is maybe the wrong word, but I think what Micromusic was about was putting this home computing music thing in “real music” context and see if it could stand up as such. Very exciting!

    I got a great “a-ha” experience last year when someone explained to me what the lyrics of “Blowin’ in the wind” meant – that there is no fixed answer to things but that peoples perception to things can and will change over time. And this is essentially what was (and is) going on with home computer music.

    “Using things for what they were not intended to”, maybe it is just me but I think in 98% of cases people who say this just try to make themselves seem more special than they are.

    • chipflip Says:

      I suppose questioned many ideas about home computer music at the time, and electronic music at large. Quite a change from all the serious drum’n’bass, house, techno and electronica that was dominating at the time.

      I’ll write more about restrictions in the next post.

    • Dragan Says:

      I like the idea of cultural re-appropriation, and micromusic is a good example.

      Artists claiming to “misuse” technical stuff is not necessarily because they want to put more into themselves than there actually is. I think there is a lack of words to express what digital artists do that would be broadly understood.

      Let’s say I am using some software that anybody else could use to create art. How am I going to differentiate myself from everybody, and other artists? One option is to “misuse” the software (making a film with Excel (assuming that Excel is still not sold as a video software)). Of course this is wrong, but in the world of metaphors it works as a communicative device. Most people think of the computer in metaphors: it is nothing by itself, it only imitates and speeds up something that already existed.

      In these terms, “misuse” exists, and maybe even has its right to exist – because it shows the true face of the computer in between all the metaphors, that data is data and software is software. For most people, this is super-exiting, because they never thought of their digital friends like this. Of course it is still wrong :) But I guess that’s its function.

  3. Nullsleep Says:

    Great post, and ensuing discussion!

    The rhetoric of restrictions / appropriation / limitations surrounding chip music is something that I have certainly engaged in almost as long as I have been making music. In fact, I initially thought the opening quote was mine because it could just as easily have come out of my mouth.

    I agree that at this point it is tiring to hear these kinds of explanations over and over again, and there are a lot of good points here as to why this mode of speaking about chip music, and “dirt style” art in general, is problematic. I think the reason it has been so oft-repeated is due to the lack of vocabulary that Dragan referred to. In fact, much of his overall analysis resonated with me personally.

    When I speak about “misusing” or “abusing” technology for creative purposes, in regards to music or computer art, it is in relation to the culturally-accepted “intended uses” of these hardware platforms and not the actual technical capabilities. Yes, _we_ may understand that the CPU inside of a Game Boy has no inherent limitations which restrict it to _only_ running videogame software, but this is far from obvious to most people. The CPU is wrapped in a casing and interface designed specifically for playing games, and of course because of its cultural history, it has this immediate association with almost anyone who sees it.

    Of course the trouble here, as has been mentioned, is that this reinforces the (incorrect) prevailing cultural paradigm that different technologies have different “intended uses”. So, it comes down to a question of whether we talk about these practices within the existing framework (inaccurate, but easier for people to understand) or attempt to educate people on the fact that “intended uses” are culturally-defined and not a function of technical limitations (embodies truth, but is often much more difficult for people to grasp, in my experience).

    It’s a question of picking and choosing your battles. Over the past 10 years, chip music and computer art have gained significant ground in the battle for legitimacy, so maybe now we can afford to pursue a more challenging strategy in the ongoing discourse. Progress in small steps is progress nonetheless.

    • paper kettle Says:

      I think your points are really important in addressing these problems, and thinking about how to convey the ways that “‘intended uses’ are culturally-defined and not a function of technical limitations”

      I generally find myself interested in saying “that thing doesn’t have to be what it is – it doesn’t stand on anything firm”

      This can be read as reappropriation, but I don’t think it is so plain and simple. Must the idea of reappropriation be so tied up with the problems that some fashions and communities of practice (read: art) bring to the table? I think it can be broader than that. In other words, I don’t think it is always so problematic to acknowledge “intended use,” and then do something different.

      Ultimately, I also appreciate the notion of “restriction,” which, to me simply means a system of limitations that offers unique voices. How is every system an instrument, and what kinds of fun and singingness emerge?

      (I say that sort of line to my friends all the time – maybe I’m becoming too much of a bumper sticker)

      For me, the interesting thing is not to ask “what is this?” or “what was this?” but rather, “what can this do?”

      I and I think that is compatible with both “re-appropriation” and “restriction”

      Questions for chipflip:
      Do you consider an object’s intended use part of its ontology? Is there a violence in dismissing it? Is intended use an object of its own, and if so how does that function?

      I don’t have answers to these questions – I’m exploring, and curious about your thoughts.

      I think your post is great. I also think dialectical tar pits might be rungs on the ladder that gets thrown down.

      PS: I saw this post because by my friend Jordan (special stage) linked it. If there is any artist out there that is doing EXACTLY what this blog post calls for right now, it is him.

      • chipflip Says:

        I believe that there can never be a completely correct description of an object. The C64 is the C64. It cannot be perfectly translated into anything else. So in that sense – yes, what we believe to be intended uses will always be part of the object. An object cannot be defined outside of cultural contexts. But to dismiss it is not necessarily violent. On the contrary, it can probably be quite nice for an object to be treated in an unexpected way. And all this leads to an ontological style of asking about possibilities and behaviour rather than essential and timeless qualities, like you hinted.

        I don’t know if my post was calling for anything, really. It was merely a reflection on the dominant discourse that I bump into over and over. But special stage is doing great things, indeed! It’s really unnecessary to push that into the art category, since it’s such a great example of hacking/crafts/hobbyism. But maybe he calls it appropriative art? :)

      • special stage Says:

        I’ve been in the “art” (actually, “academic music”) world for a long time, so in a certain sense my work explicitly grows out of the whole appropriative art paradigm; corey and others have been (and remain) huge inspirations.

        But I don’t know what to call my recent adventures exactly. I think you hit the nail on the head when you say:

        “this leads to an ontological style of asking about possibilities and behaviour rather than essential and timeless qualities, like you hinted.”

        I’ve started describing my work as a sort of object-oriented ontology reimagined as lived practice. I want to consider object ecologies while paying special attention to those dimensions and relations that are often buried, covert, obscured, or witheld from us in some way. For me, this relates back to an experience of naive exploratory play that is closely associated with childhood -and videogames.

    • chipflip Says:

      Actually, the Cortright-quote was you quoting her on your Twitter :) Apparently I forgot to mention that, uhm.

      Certainly, your choice of discourse depends on what context you’re addressing. When I explain things to my cousin I’d use traditional rhetorics. For a chipmusician it becomes double, I suppose — you want to alter their understanding of what you’re doing. For example, sometimes I wonder if JODI could’ve made a bigger impact if they talked more about what they were doing (as they’ve started to do now).

      As a side-note, I think this is also why the demoscene will remain obscure for even longer. The research that’s been made so far is either too nerdy and truth-seeking, or not packaged in the way that appeals to “the Other”.

  4. time wharp Says:

    lol, not trying to troll here but…
    who cares?
    any ‘misuse’ is simply what you have to do for desired effect
    and yes there are metaphorical aspects but i think they’re better unspoken

    people use the equipment the way they do because it makes their art sound/look good. and it’s fun.

    art is as legitimate as you let it be

  5. mrghosty Says:

    I think that we need to examine what the “intended use” of such devices was originally as well as the “intended uses” of the software that people have created for such devices. *I’m thinking specifically about warez like nanon loop, or LDSJ. What we have here are creative tools created by individuals that take the notion of game device as consumer device, and open it up to allow it to be used as a creative tool.

    In this regard, perhaps the revolutionary act is (was) in the action of the creation of said warez, rather than the artists who choose to use them. Gaming devices (and above ground gamer culture at large) is a culture that was borne out of consumer culture. And the participation in that culture (or act of “playing”) is a consumer act. We buy a gaming device, we buy software, we play the games, we “beat” them, we purchase and play another. It’s really not much different than the early days of gaming culture when patrons would pump quarters into arcade machines.

    What I believe has happened though is a recontexualization of these devices. They are now part of a pantheon of electronic tools we have at our disposals in order to create. But the truth is, the purchase of LDSJ to create one’s own chipmusic has become no different than say purchasing a guitar, or CDJs. They are simply tools we choose to use in our creative practices. One of my biggest problems with the chipscene is how it sets itself apart from the EDM scene in general. Surely individual genres of EDM are to be celebrated on their own, but they should also be celebrated within the context of EDM production at large too I think.

    I think the “movement” or scene in general at this point should stop seeking validation for it’s endeavors and simply acknowledge that it’s part of our cultural make up now.

    People doing great works with anything is to be celebrated, it doesn’t necessarily need to be “revolutionary”, “avant-garde” or “new” , it can riff on old themes and still be a valid contribution to culture at large.

  6. time wharp Says:

    I agree the scene should stop looking for validation because there’s a whole 2nd generation of artists working with that aesthetic and not necessarily the same equipment, and whether anyone likes it or not, they don’t know about the ‘original’ chip scene and the hardcore limitations they imposed on their work for better or worse.

  7. chris b Says:

    Excellent thread guise. One thought, which I think was alluded to by Dragan…

    “Appropriation” as an artistic technique made more sense in the pre-digital or rather NEWLY digital world when people like David Wojnarovicz or Cindy Sherman were taking ideas from the mainstream and re-working them to critically expose some tendency in our mass-media world view. Now that we are soaking in digital media, and visual/aural ideas are so much more malleable, it means far less to re-work old ideas. Digital remixes are everywhere and the line between critical commentary and rocking out are blurred more and more. Plunderphonics sadly became Girl Talk.

    I personally come from a background of appropriation- political sound montage, machinima etc. and have never felt like chip music worked the same way for me. I ended up writing a lot of lyrical, tuneful music because the there was not the draw of appropriation which had largely been my approach in other media.

    This is not to say that chip music can’t be conceptual. I’d say Nullsleep’s work, for one example, is quite conceptual. One appreciates it as much for the idea in it as for the melody, rhythm etc. But “appropriation” does seems to be somewhat irrelevant to me in making music in the post-digital era.

  8. Seth Says:

    “It’s not like we’re making something new, or doing something that the technology was not intended to do.”

    BINGO ;)

  9. chipflip Says:

    Thinking in (rather grand) terms of social science rather than art, perhaps you could say that appropriation belongs more to 1968-rhetorics of corrupting the engine of The Machine (capitalism, language). Nowadays, we talk more about hacking interdependent systems (networks, objects). While the 68-style seeks essential truths, individual heroes and dreams about ideal solutions, hacktivism is geared more towards emerging behaviour that is unpredictable yet sustainable. Just some pre-breakfast thoughts..

  10. b-knox Says:

    This makes me think of the Programming Guides for the Commodore VIC20 and 64 (I’m not familiar with docs for other Commodore machines). Those books are amazing. They have no intent on telling you what the machine’s purpose is, but they tell you everything the machine does.

    My basic question : Could you even consider a reappropriator if you do not write your own software or music engine?

    People who understand technology are the modern day wizards and alchemists. Characters as such can inflate their amazingness with mystique and, in the polluted world of musicians, where there ain’t enough listeners, people can sometimes do or say anything to get heard. I’d rather be quoted saying, “I grew up on this stuff and I enjoy programming it.” rather than “I am bending the space-time right out this 8bit’s izzatch!!” Wait. I like the 2nd one better. ;D

    When we move forward to video game consoles the game changes slightly (a pun). Before we had the console software for music writing, didn’t hackers have to reverse engineer the console’s architecture? And by the time you put an LSDJ cart into that console you have already removed yourself from directly manipulating the chips; the software does that for you, and you are locked working withing it’s own interface.

    I work at a music venue. Once their was a gypsy band and their guitar player was the opening act on his gameboy. I’m 32 and he was in his early twenties. I had to ask, since he probably didn’t have a DMG when he was growing up, why he had one now. He want on, naming chips, his LSDJ version number, that it’s a portable studio, and all that appropriation rhetoric that we are discussing.

    But back to the wizard thing. We all know how easy it is for people to view chiptunes as some kind of parlor trick, a novelty. The whole ‘reappropraition’ thing is just the kind of jargon that further aligns chiptune with novelty and attracts any nerd who deep down wishes themselves a wizard. LOL

    • Dragan Says:

      Writing your own software is not a reappropriation of a computer. Computers are made to run software somebody wrote.

      • Johan Says:

        I think there is one thing interesting here, common to video game consoles and iPhone/iPad – they are intended mainly as consumption devices. By that I mean, it is (or was) generally not free to produce software for them, or you have strict restrictions on what software you are allowed to publish.

      • Dragan Says:

        Yo, this was intended as a comment on Johan’s last post, but this is WordPress so it ain’t possible!!! Year 2011!!!!

        Anyway: It is true that the Gameboy or the iPad have in common that there are technical (module production, license keys) and social (laws, established customs) means in place to stop everybody from writing their own software for these systems. And I also agree that going through all the hassle of cracking the technical barriers and thinking outside of the social norms is a great act. It is a step on our way to paradise on earth.

        However, there is only a small set of people who actually did something like this. (And there are not many needed.) Once something is cracked, once the killer application is done (for example LSDJ), the genie is out of the bottle. Johan here did this with great artistry. He gave thousands of musicians a fantastic, super-cheap instrument. It happened against many odds, the most important one probably that most musicians at that time didn’t consider the Game Boy sound musical at all. But it became a raging success, in underground measure at least :)

        Any musician who is using LSDJ can not claim this epic victory. They chose their instrument and now need to create awesome music. I think it is great if they know about the technical details, their Gameboy model, the LSDJ version number, any passionate instrumentalist should be like this. But they are not re-appropriators.

        In many cases the creators of tools are more influential than artists using these tools. And with software, the attribution of a breakthrough can in many cases be very precise on one person. For example, Ben Fry and Casey Reas created the Processing environment. With this, they started a renaissance of generative art. When Casey Reas does a project where triangles are flying behind a circle, it feels great, because you notice the hand of the master. He can do relatively simple generative art as long as he wants and it will appear fine, because it is his thing. (And he has the most experience with his own tool as well.) Anybody else using processing cannot just do generative art and claim to be the spearhead of the movement. They have to find their own way of doing things. Otherwise they are “just” part of a trend. (Which lead to a lot of boring Processing projects and a lot of stimulating ones.)

        All this of course from the perspective of the idea that there needs to be something unique inside everybody’s head. Maybe the internet has taught us another story about artists, the need to differentiate, ideas and movements. Maybe even Johan thinks that he just put together some code examples that other Gameboy enthusiasts published on their web sites before? Is there in general a meaningful linear narrative in this process of creating a big bang or are they just retro-fit because they are needed to tell history in a traditional way? Was it a breakthrough in software development or art or interface design or music or Internet communication? Hard to tell if many heroes of the field are having their fingers in all of the above. (I’m personally not really happy about such thinking, but it is a valid option.)

        So, whatever the chip music movement is, it can, at least now, not meaningfully be defined by thousands of musicians committing the same mis-use. There is another core, and I think the part about consciously limiting oneself in certain aspects from the original quote this all started with is one part. There are probably many others, maybe the denial of efficiency or the desire to understand artifacts and processes at a basic level. – Or just the beauty of a square wave. :)

  11. ant1 Says:

    Art which gets all its value from its context rarely makes sense to me, and this retro-relevant-reappropriated datapunknostalgiahacking would be the same too, if not for the music often being quite listenable however the creators choose to describe it. ;) It’d be nice for people to take it at face value, but convincing people to be interested in chipmusic is hard enough already without making sure they do it for the “right” reasons.

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  13. Kieran Says:

    My 2 cent on re-appropriation, game consoles run code, if you make your own new code and run it on a console, it’s still doing the job it was intended to do

    maybe it’s just that the consumers who own these ‘closed’ systems (but not really closed because you can make for them, it’s just unsanctioned and awkward in most cases) are re-appropriating their role and becoming developers, rather than re-appropriating the medium they’re working on or through

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