There’s not enough Africa in computers, Brian Eno once said. And the same could probably be said about computer users, especially those who claim to work with obsolete technologies. It seems like a quite, uhm, white subculture. Perhaps even the “total white music” like Burzum supposdely said. Urgh.
A few months ago I went to a shop in Stockholm that sells African art. There were chairs made from tyers, bowls made of telephone wires and other so-called appropriations of technologies. To make some conversation with the shop keeper, I said “it’s good to see that they’re re-using the materials around them”. But then I felt so white that I probably became red.
Because what’s the difference, really, between using wood or wires or bits? What’s the difference if it’s 5, 50 or 5000 years old? You take stuff and turn it into other stuff. Assemble it with other things, tweak it, bend it. There’s nothing new with that. We do it with complex digital and analogue technologies now. So what? It seems a bit arrogant to put more value into something simply because it’s a manipulation of a commercial product. The historiography of this needs to look further back than circuit bending in the 1960’s.
Dweller’s Amiga disk backup in Lego.
It is of course an understandable starting point for those who are focused on breaking free from a commodity culture: a world where all of our tools are built with a consumerist logic. Perfect presets, intuitive interfaces, constant updates: the product is the medium. If you want to be an autonomous individual, you’ll probably get sucked into discourses like noise, indeterminism, retromania and appropriation. These so-called critical tactics seem to be just as normalized as many other counter-cultural ideas of the 1960’s. But maybe it’s time to move on? That’s what I feel. All that criticism is like 100 years old so its ideological base is sort of ideologically obsolete. :)
We’ve become rather similar to a cargo cult. We build strange myths and rituals around objects that we don’t understand. There’s all kinds of weird shit being thrown at us and we don’t really know why we’re getting them and what to do with it. Some people say that it’s part of a military conspiracy, others that it’s a democratic saviour. But we all use it.
There is a similar problem with art that criticizes copyright, patents and all that. It’s considered to be subversive to use copyrighted material (less everyday, but still). In the documentary Sonic Outlaws (1995), Negativland does this. They portray themselves almost as freedom fighters (which reminds me of Punishment Park). But in the same film, Tape Beatles don’t explain their methods as a problem. It’s just a common sense thing to do. Pracitical and fun. There’s nothing to it. Of course it depends on what context you are working in and so on. But the point is: there is a risk that these methods only reinforce the thing that you want to change.
Okay okay, but where do we go from here? Afrofuturism is an interesting field to draw from. Although I just started reading about, it seems to have very useful ideas about hacking, sci-fi (not just for the future) and the relationship between humans and machines. Afrika Bambaataa, listed as a musicin in afrofuturism, was very inspired by Kraftwerk. In all their robotnik romantikz he saw an understanding of themselves as already having been robots, argues Tricia Rose and continues:
Adopting ‘the robot’ reflected a response to an existing condition: namely, that they were labor for capitalism, that they had very little value as people in this society. So it was a way to play with the idea of robots, but also to put on an armour against manipulation which Rammelzee (below) did so well with his low-tech body suit.
The armour is a good metaphor. Good things need to be protected. Turntablism and techno built a sort of armour around political struggle and highly competent techno-skills, by camouflaging it as dance music. People were dancing to the beat of resistance without even knowing it. There was no need for outspoken counter-cultural poetry, since it was all about the music and the machines. Frequencies.
Consider how pioneers like Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash were working with new technological methods. Perhaps there was not much politics in the resulting music, but as a new form of assemblage of man-music-technologies-entertainment it certainly had political relevance. Now compare that to what Reed Ghazala did with his circuit bending. He seems to be aiming more for art and democracy. Bending becomes something for high-brow shoegazing, stoners and communist librarians who want to teach kids how to reclaim the commodities. /me ducks and covers
But isn’t it more relevant to be able to program than make noise? I’d say it is. Maybe because I’m not a programmer :). For some it comes more natural to simply use what’s available, and make stuff with it. And if it’s not such an introvert process, perhaps something more useful than counter-culture comes out of it. Sometimes, it’s because there’s no other way: acute solutions to a flood, lights without electricity and sometimes it’s just quick n’ dirty trixxx.
Actually, I think this is what many artists are doing. It’s just that they are using the discourse of obsolete hacking in order to make a living from it (or sth). That’s great and I don’t blame them for it. We all make compromises, I guess. But what are they going to do when the hype is over?