Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

What Can We Learn From the Demoscene?

November 28, 2016

I was in Montréal for the I/O Symposium and gave the talk What Can We Learn From the Demoscene? In 45 minutes I explained everything about the scene and explained what other fields could learn from it.

Or well, not exactly. I tried to give a broad view, but I zoomed in on four key points:

1. Computing as craft. The idea that code (and music and graphics) requires skills and knowledge about the material you are using. The techne is more important than the art, and the human is more important than the machine. Basically. This means that the scene is making computing sustainable, when most others are not and the internet already seems to require nuclear power to live.

2. Non-recorded formats. Releasing things as code rather than recordings gives very different possibilities. Scene productions are not products – removed from the platform once it’s finished – no, they are states of the machine (Botz). There are countless archives of data that future researches can unleash heavy data analysis on. What will the recording industry offer to future researchers? Not much. Especially not if they maintain their stance on copyright and related rights.

3. Collective copyright system. There has always been a tension around ownership in the scene. Early on there might have been plenty of anti-copyright among crackers, but later sceners who wanted to protect their works had a much more conservative stance. I exemplified this through the Amiga mod-scene, where artists sampled records and claimed ownership to the samples. “Don’t steal my samples” like it says in many a mod-file. On the other hand, the mod-format made it extremely easy for anyone to take those samples, or that cool bassline, or whatever else they might fancy. The remix culture was present in the materiality, but the scene resisted it for various reasons. They developed a praxis where artists who transgressed – who borrowed too much, or in a wrong way – would be shamed in public and have their status lowered. This sounds brutal and even primitive, but copyright praxis today means that you can do whatever you want if you have the capital for it. Which is perhaps not much better?

4. A bounded culture. There is a sense of detachment from the rest of society in the scene. The crackers and traders broke laws, the sysops didn’t want journalists sneaking around in their bulletin boards, and some artists follow the idea of “what’s made in the scene stays in the scene”. Some online forums today do not accept members if they are not sceners. And so on. There are all kinds of problems with this attitude, but it also meant that the scene could let their traditions and rituals take root, over a long period of time. Without it, it’s harder to imagine that kids in the 1990’s could maintain a network culture on their own, even before the www was commercialized. The question is, though, how many teenagers today are interested in all those obscure traditions and rituals?

Building on talks I’ve had with Gleb Albert, I also talked shortly about the neoliberal tendencies in the scene. How meritocracy and competition was so important, how groups were sometimes run as businesses with leaders and creatives and workers, and how there was a dream of having a network culture where The Man was not involved.

Discussions followed about how the neoliberal tendencies were different in the North American demoscene. In America, they said, people got into cracking games and making demos with a goal set on making a career and making money. I think this is one of the topics that Gleb Albert is looking into (in Europe), especially the connections between the cracking scene and the games industry.

There were also discussions about what I’ve called the collective copyright system. Some people in the audience talked about how coders would secretly look at other people’s code (because, again, that’s possible due to the formats used) and take inspiration from it. I’m sure most sceners did this at one point or another. But the point is that it wasn’t considered positive like in remix cultures such as hip-hop, vaporwave or plunderphonics. That tension between the Open and the Closed is probably something we need to understand better when we develop post-copyright networks in the digital.

Tech Criticism is Dead?

April 15, 2016

Evgeny Morozow has been one of the more spicy academics during the past years. He combines philosophy, internet criticism and social science to deliver clever and well-founded blows to the world.

While reading this, I got the impression that he is starting to run out of steam. He was always a bit of a pessimist or cynic, but now it feels like he’s doubting what he’s doing:

Why, then, aspire to practice any kind of technology criticism at all? I am afraid I do not have a convincing answer. If history has, in fact, ended in America—with venture capital (represented by Silicon Valley) and the neoliberal militaristic state (represented by the NSA) guarding the sole entrance to its crypt—then the only real task facing the radical technology critic should be to resuscitate that history. But this surely can’t be done within the discourse of technology, and given the steep price of admission, the technology critic might begin most logically by acknowledging defeat.

He’s talking about the academic world, and seems to intentionally ignore a lot of active criticism that is taking place in media studies, art, sociology, design, and so on. But I think his point is: the criticism is not making an impact on the public so it doesn’t really matter anyway.

Internet freedom mongers were apalled by Pirate Bay-founder Peter Sunde saying that the battle of the free internet has been lost and it’s time to move on. Compared with the two other admins of Pirate Bay, he was more into the political aspects of internet activism, rather than the technology. And he still is.

Morozow too, has his aim on larger political questions. He slanders on the technologists and the technology critics who fail to see the bigger picture. Like in the Apple vs FBI-debate that was not only about technnology (encryption) and personal integrity, but much more complex. The issue at hand is not what technology does to the daily lives of human brains, and their job bodies. Or how technology should be an “extension of man” (a slave). The main question should be more like: how does it infect society, and who wants the consequences?

I’m thinking about how this relates to the lo-fi computing world. 10-20 years ago it was charged with a myriad of political values of anti-consumerism,  anti-hitech, libertarianism, socialism, recycling and sustainability, DIY/punk, retrofuturism, and so on. There’s not much of that left now, is there?

Retrocomputing to me seems more like a club for middle aged conservative white men who have beards because of Linux or because of “I’m not a hipster, but…”. We have enough money to pay for vintage hardware and ridiculous crowdfunding campaigns. Some of us even use it from time to time! But emulators are so much more convenient, of course…

Morozow says that technology criticism is “just an elaborate but affirmative footnote to the status quo”. And that pretty much describes much of the tongue-in-cheek, just for fun, “hacking intended uses” people of retrocomputing of the last 10 years. It has confirmed that high-tech progress is #1, baby.

Meanwhile, the tech industry “doesn’t really like democracy” and wants to techify the governance of cities. And in all honesty, doesn’t it seem likely that this will eventually happen? Capitalist realism + Californian ideology.

F**k yeah, loving the end of an era.

From Space to the Clouds

January 15, 2016

For the last 30 years, computer culture has moved from outer space into the clouds. From the dark and mysterious into the bright and familiar. From the alien and unknown to the heavenly.

Look at computer magazines from the 70s and 80s and you’ll see joysticks flying around in space, space exploration metaphors, black backgrounds, otherwordly vector grids, and star fields in space (I sometimes post these things here).

Space was the place, and not only for computers. A lot of movies, record sleeve covers, design and advertising were often out in space. Mars was exciting. Governments spent a lot of money on space exploration. And in the computer underground, space aesthetics was the shit. Personally, I feel like the Amiga crack intro aesthetics in the years around 1990 had something eerily space special, that hasn’t really been matched since.

Another way of describing this shift is to start in the depth of Hades instead, and move upwards to the clouds. Then you can also fit in all the metaphors about water and oceans (Pirate Bay, surfing the web) and land (information highway) and biology (swarms, flows, feeds). Computers started out in Hades, looking pretty evil and frightening (like many other “new” technologies). The computer world was something dark, something unknown and unexplored. Like space. Like Hades.

If you listen to how computers sound in movies and tv-series, you can get a sense of that. If you look at a movie from the 70s or 80s, or even earlier than that, computers were usually sonified with fast arpeggios of random squarewave bleeps. Scary and harsh, not easy to process for a human, as from another world. In the 90s computers started to sound differently. A sort of high-pitched ticking sound; a single tone/noise iterated into eternity. Rational and trustworthy. Reliable.

Those sounds are still heard in movies and series, especially when the computers are doing something important for the plot. To emphasize its cold power, for bad or for good, usually in scenes with advanced stuff, rather than everyday use.

In everyday use, it’s the sound of the operating system that is perhaps the most relevant. Brian Eno invented ambient in the 70s and, through his soundtrack for Windows, also invented the genre of operating system music. Soothing, kind, soft, business/beach, cloudy, comforting. Sort of vaporwavey today, I suppose.

This could be seen as a step away from the complicated and clumsy computer world of the 1980s, to a new era of user-friendliness. In a way, it was part of a general move away from hardware. Since the 1990s, software has taken over from hardware. We don’t want hardware anymore; we want it to be ubiquitous, invisible, unnoticeable, transparent. The interaction between computers and humans is disappearing. Designers no longer design interfaces but experiences (UX), something that Olia Lialina has written about many times.

Again, this brings us into the clouds. The dirty and dark cyberspace is being replaced by the immaterial and heavenly clouds. It’s a quest for perfection in a secluded world, protected from bad cyberd00ds and bulky hardware and political conflicts.

Everything solid condenses and turns into clouds that pee precicious data on us.

Greets to FTC for inspiring this post in the kolonistuga!

What’s Chipmusic in 2015?

November 13, 2015

When I wrote my thesis on chipmusic in 2010, chipmusic was in a transition phase. Atleast in Europe, there used to be a lot of influences from genres like electroclash and breakcore, and towards the 10’s it was common to hear house influences. House, not in the 80s or 90s way, but more in the EDM kind of way. I remember playing a chip event in 2008 where all the acts before me played EDM-like music, so I felt compelled to start my headliner set with religious chip rock as a childish countermove. Instant anti-success!

That same year I mentioned in a blog post that more dub/2-step influences in chip would be nice. And then dubstep morphed from an obscure and ambiguous Brittish thing into a full-on mega-defined bro monster, and the chipscene followed suite. Bass!

So from where I’m standing (which is not super close to the chipscene), EDM and bass still seem to be two dominant influencers of the chipscene. It’s a bit like breakcore and electroclash was before, but with one big difference. Chipmusic as a genre/ideology/praxis has changed from putting the technology first, into putting the sound first. To put it bluntly.

Just like in the 1990s, the hardware used to produce the sounds of chipmusic is not the main thing. The pendulum has swung back, and continued even further. Not only is the hardware used not as important, but it seems like the sounds are less important too. Not everywhere in the chipscene, but in some contexts.

There are some oldschool names in the chipscene whose music no longer sounds like chipmusic, and is not made with chipmusic tools, but is still tagged as chipmusic, listened to in the context of chip, and discussed in the chipscene. It seems to be part of the chipscene, but it doesn’t connect to the platforms or aesthetics (media and form) of chipmusic. Go to a chipmusic festival and you can listen for yourself.

My last few releases might fit in here to some extent. I partly use other sounds and instruments than the standard chipmusic repertoire – and have been for quite some time. So I’m not saying that there is something “wrong” with this, just that it seems like a general shift in how the chipmusic/chiptune terms are used, and what they mean.

The other side of the coin is that there are people who should know the term, but don’t. I was chatting with Dubmood and he mentioned that a lot of newcomers start to make chipmusic without even knowing about the term. Even if what they do is “authentic” chipmusic (from a 00’s perspective), they don’t describe it as such, and people don’t listen to it as such, I suppose.

We’re painting with a big brush here. Or perhaps with many small brushed. I’m not saying this happens everywhere all the time, but it is a tendency. It might grow, it might disappear, but it’s here now.

It is the chipscene as a culture. A network of people in social platforms online, perhaps with a long history of making chipmusic, who now make other kinds of music but continue to hang out. They might use modular synths to make noise, or oldschool synth VSTs to make synthwave vaporwave something, or phat bass music, or polka drone, or something else.

Of course, the tech-focused and aesthetics-focused parts of the chipscene still exist: in the demoscene, in indiegames, in forums like chipmusic.org, Battle of the Bits, the FB-group Chiptunes=WIN (with 4000 members now), and so on. But as for the performers and recorders in the chipscene, the technopurism that glued the scene together, for better or worse, is not there anymore. And if the sounds won’t be a defining factor either, then where does that leave the chippers?

Perhaps chipmusic, atleast in some contexts, has been de-genrefied to the point where it doesn’t exist anymore? And maybe that’s not a bad thing? Finally the people who say that chipmusic is not a genre will be right without a doubt.

Black Dog, Swedish House Mafia, Anthony Rother – New Old Sceners!

November 13, 2015

After I published the rough blog post draft Famous People who Came From the Scene I received hundreds of suggestions of sceners who moved on to the music charts, the cinema, the gaming industry, and so on. The “success stories”. A bit overwhelming, and I had to try to decide which were relevant to include or not. I didn’t have time to do a thorough job, unfortunately.

But I learned a lot of new things! The Finnish games industry seems to be even more riddled with ex-sceners than Sweden is. I was also reminded that the softsynth company AudioRealism is from an Atari-scener. And that several sceners started to make 3D graphics and visual effects for Hollywood-style movies.

What I found even more interesting is that Anthony Rother, one of the bigger names in European “oldschool electro” scene especially 15 years ago, used to be in the C64-scene as Anthony R/Online. He didn’t release much it seems – there is just one song on CSDb – but he went to the legendary Venlo party in the Netherlands, December 1988. Although he never got there. He was stopped at the border because his passport was in bad shape. So Anthony and his group mates in Online ended up hanging around in Heinsberg until the discotheque opened as Paradroid put it. Thanks to Tero for digging up this information. And here is Tero’s C64 signed by Anthony, btw:

tero mäyränen anthony rother hacker online

Other sceners chose the mainstream, or eurodisco specifically. In Finland, Captain/Frantic was involved in the euro disco group Dance Nation (check this video!) and he probably even made some Smurf eurodisco. Thomas Detert, a famous name in C64-music, also made eurodisco in Activate (see video below).

A related genre to eurodisco, progressive trance (oops, dodging glow sticks from angry trancers once again), also has some big acts with scene backgrounds: Infected Mushroom and Logic Bomb. And in the real modern version of eurodisco, EDM, there is also some scene influence. Axwell of Swedish House Mafia used to make Amiga music as Quazar.

But what made me most happy to find, thanks to Tim Koch, was the old Amiga productions of Black Dog Productions. The two original members (now active as Plaid) made a few mysterious yet harmless Amiga “demos” before they pioneered the early 1990’s “intelligent techno” that led to IDM.

Fractal Factory #1 from 1990 (above) is way more hip hop inspired than most scene works at the time. Loopy and “trancey”, the rhythmic and harmonic approach has many similarities to their seminal Warp-album Bytes from 1993.

The Pharaoh amiga demo (above) is more rave-culture oriented. The music has these loopy, mysterious and monotonous beats and the visuals have.. well.. loopy, mysterious and monotonous animations. :)

They used a very odd music software. The comments on the Pharaoh-video (recommended reading) leads to this video of the Pharaoh-song playing in a tracker called MultiMedia Sound. This seems to be one of the least popular Amiga music programs ever, judging from SOAMC. To be fair though, there are hundreds of songs made in its predecessor, SoundFX.

Black Dog released more Amiga-stuff. Fractal Factory #2 was on a CU Amiga disk, for example. Interesting to note is that they released it in the public domain and not in the scene. While that might seem nitpicky, these were two culturally separated fields at the time. For sceners, the public domain was lame. You wouldn’t want to be caught dialling into a BBS full of PD-lamers! Although PD-people watched and distributed demos, afaik there was some resentment towards the cracker-parts of the scene. This distinction can still be seen today, for example in arguments about whether Compunet-productions should be on CSDb or not.

Black Dog had their own BBS called Black Dog Towers. I can’t find much info about it on the web, but I remember reading a log from a local trader who called the BBS using a Calling Card (w0w). He got to chat with Ken Downie who made some a snarky remark about the trader’s handle. Fair enough perhaps, becase he used the handle aPH3X tW1Nn. :)

Right, enough for now. Feel free to explore the list of “famous” sceners and add your suggestions to this neverending project.

 

A retrospective on the stories and aesthetics of 8­bit music

January 26, 2015

Taken from the catalogue to Lu Yang’s exhibition ANTI-HUMANISM at the OK Corral gallery in Copenhagen. I was asked to write a free-floating essayoid text about 8-bit music, and I came up with this. I added some links here too, for further reading/watching/listening.

When practitioners of 8­bit music like me write about the genre, it is hard to ignore the skills and effort needed to make the music. To play 8­bit music you need to master a not­so­intuitive software interface in order to communicate with a computer chip, that in return produces bleeping sounds from cheap digital logic. On or off, increase or decrease. These inputs are the basics of digital technologies, making it as if there is something timeless about 8­bit music, although it might seem really old: 30 years in digital terms is the equivalent of something like 1001011001010101011111101011 years.

8­bit music can be understood as a low­level cultural technique of music hacking, where different stories can be told. The sceptic might tell a story of nostalgia for videogames, where the composer makes simplistic music because the tool used doesn’t allow anything complex to be made. Indeed, that would be a normal story to tell if we believe that newer is better, and that new expressions require new technologies. It’s an almost logical story in a society that values quantitative increases over quality.

The most common story about 8-­bit music among academics, artists and journalists, however, puts the human at the centre of attention. It sometimes has a similar narrative to an old monster movie. There is a hero who learns how to manipulate and finally control some sort of wild beast. Instead of a monster, the Obsolete Computer is a mysterious relic of old school digital consumerism that is nowadays hard to understand, both in terms of purpose and function. A young white male hero appears and tames a frightening thing with rational choices, and probably kills it with physical or symbolic violence. He achieves freedom and love and/or emancipation from capitalism or modernism or something. The end.

I should know, for I too have told this kind of story. Many times. I started making music with 8­-bit machines as a kid in the early 1990’s, when that was (almost) the normal thing to do. Thing is, I never stopped using them. Throughout the 2000’s, as 8-­bit music started to intertwine with mass culture again because of the current retromania, people like me had to start explaining what we were doing. Journalists started to ask questions, promoters wanted biographies that would spark an interest, art curators wanted the right concepts to work with, and so on. So during the noughties, a collective story started to emerge among those of us who were making 8­-bit music in what I have called the chipscene: a movement of people making soundchip-­related music for records and live performances (rather than making sounds for games and demos as was done during the 80’s and 90’s).

The stories circulated around Commodore 64s, Gameboys, Amigas and Ataris, Nintendo Entertainment Systems, and other computers and game consoles from the 1980’s. We were haunted by the question “Why do you use these machines?” and although I never really felt like I had a good answer, we were at least pretty happy to talk about our passion for these machines. For a while anyway.

In comparison to many other music movements we spoke out about the role of technology, and we did it at the expense of music. We didn’t care much about the style and aesthetics of the music we made, because 8-­bit music could be cute pop and brutal noise, both droney ambient and complex jazz. We didn’t care about the clothes we wore, or which drugs we took, or which artists we listened to. We formed a subculture based on a digital technology that uses 8 bits instead of 32 or 64, as modern machines do. Defining our music movement as “8-­bit music” was a simplified way of explaining what we did. It was a way of thinking about medium and technology intrinsic to some modern discourses on art. Like, anything you do with a camera is photography. Simple, but slightly … pointless?

The music somehow came in second. Or maybe third. Sometimes the music we made almost became irrelevant. The idea of seeing someone on a huge stage with a Gameboy was sometimes enough. The primal screams of digital culture roaring on an over­sized sound system in a small techno club, was what we needed to get us going, even if it sounded terrible. Some of us were more famous than others, sure, but there wasn’t the same celebrity­ and status­ cults as in some of the “too ­serious” 1990’s­ style electronic music scenes. For us, the machines were the protagonist of the stories. Sometimes it was almost as if we – the artists who made the music – had been reduced to objects. It was as if the machines were playing us, and not the other way around. Yeah.. very anti­human!

To be honest, not many people are willing to give up their human agency and identity, step back, and give full credit to the machine. Or even worse – have someone else do that for you. Well, I didn’t feel comfortable with it, at least. People came up to us when we performed live to interrupt and ask what games we were playing. Or perhaps requested some old song from a game: But for many of us, the entire movement of 8-­bit music was not about the games of the 1980s. It was about the foundational computational technologies and their expressions manifested as sounds. Or something like that, anyway.

It’s quite interesting how this came to be. How did 8­-bit music become so dehumanized, when it involves quite a lot of human skills, techniques, knowledge and determination? I think an important factor was when the chip­scene was threatened by outsider perspectives. In 2003, Malcolm McLaren, known for creating spectacles such as the Sex Pistols in the 1970’s, discovered 8-­bit music. For him, this was the New Punk and he wrote a piece in Wired magazine about how the movement was against capitalism, hi-­tech, karaoke, sex, and mass culture in general: Through the appropriation of discarded commodities, the DIY spirit, the raw and unadulterated aesthetics, etc.. On McLaren’s command, mainstream media started to report about 8-­bit music, at least for 15 minutes or so.

To be fair, it was a good story – when Malcolm met 8­bit. But it pissed off plenty of people in the scene, because of its misunderstandings, exaggerations and non­truths. It did, however, play an important role in how the scene came to understand itself. McLaren’s story had stirred a controversy that made us ask ourselves “Well, if he’s wrong, then who’s right?”. We didn’t really know, atleast not collectively. McLaren pushed the chip­scene into puberty, and it began to search for an identity.

I was somewhere in the midst of this, and contributed to the techno­humanist story that started to emerge. It was basically this: We use obsolete technologies in unintended ways to make new music that has never been done before. Voila. The machine was at the centre, but it was we, the humans, who brought the goods. We were machine­ romantic geniuses who figured out how to make “The New Stuff” despite the limitations of 8-­bit technologies. It was machine­ fetishism combined with originality and the classic suffering of the author. It was very cyber romantic, but with humans as subjects, machines as objects, and pop cultural progress at the heart of it. It could be a story of fighting capitalist media. All in all: pretty good fluff for promotional material!

Over time, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the narratives forming around 8-­bit. In 2007, I was asked to write a chapter for Karen Collins’ book From Pac Man to Pop Music. I researched the history of 8-­bit music and realized the current techno­centric view of 8-­bit music was a rather new idea. In the 1980’s there wasn’t any popular word for 8-­bit music. Basically all home computer music was 8­-bit, so there was no need to differentiate between 8, 32 and 64­ bits as there is today. That changed in the 1990’s, when the increase of hi-­tech machines created a need for popular culture to differentiate between different forms of home computer systems and the music they made.

The term chip­music appeared to describe music that sounded like the 1980’s computer music. It mimicked not only the technical traits of the sound chips, but also the aesthetics and compositional techniques of the 1980’s computer composers. So 1990’s chipmusic wasn’t made with 8-­bit machines. The term was mostly used for music made with contemporary machines (Amigas and IBM PCs) that mimicked music from the past. It wasn’t about taking something old and making something new. It was more like taking something new and making something old. In other words: not very good promotional fluff.

I realised something. The techno­determinist story of “anything made with sound-chips is chipmusic” was ahistorical, anti­cultural, and ultimately: anti­human. Sure, there was something very emancipating about saying “I can do whatever I want and still fit into this scene that I’m part of”. That’s quite ideal in many ways, when you think about it.

Problem is – it wasn’t exactly like that. Plenty of people made 8­-bit or soundchip music that wasn’t understood as such. The digital hardcore music of the 1990’s that used Amigas. The General MIDI heroes of the 1990’s web. The keyboard rockers around the world, who were actually using soundchips. So for me it became important to explore chipmusic as a genre, rather than just a consequence of technology. If it’s not just a consequence of technology, then what is it? How were these conventions created, and how do they relate to politics, economics and culture?

This is what I tried to give answers to in my master thesis in 2010. Looking back at it now, what I found was that it was actually quite easy to not make chipmusic with 8­bit technology. I mean, if you would hook a monkey straight into an 8­bit soundchip, it’s not like there would be chipmusic. It would be more like noise glitch wtf. Stuff. Art. I don’t know. But not chipmusic. Chipmusic was more about how you used the software that interfaced you and the hardware soundchip. So I tried to figure out how this worked for me, and more importantly, for the people I interviewed for my thesis. How and why do we adapt to this cultural concept of what non­human “raw computer music” sounds like?

I am still recovering from this process. During this time my music became increasingly abstract and theoretical. I started to move away completely from danceable and melodic music, and got more interested in structures and the process of composing music, rather than the results of it. I wanted to rebel against the conventions that I was researching, and find something less human, less boring, less predictable.

But at the same time, I wanted to prove that we don’t need hi­-tech machines to make non­boring music. I despise the idea that we need new technologies to make new things. And I am super conservative in that I, in some way, believe in things like craft, quality, and originality. In some way.

So I was trying to find my own synthesis between me and the machine. Since I am not a programmer, I didn’t work with generative systems like many post­human composers do. I kept a firm focus on the craft of making music. For example, I started to make completely improvised live­sets without any preparations. I got up on stage, turned on a Commodore 64, showed it on a beamer, loaded the defMON­ software, and made all the instruments and composition in front of the eyes and ears of the audience.

I like this a lot because it’s hard work (for me) and it gives surprising results (for me). It’s a bit similar to live coding, if you’ve heard about that, but with a less sophisticated approach, I suppose. It’s more like manual labour than coding. Typing hundreds of numbers and letters by hand, instead of telling the computer to do it. You have to do it “by hand” which opens up for different mistakes compared to when it’s automatized. Which leads to surprises, which leads to new approaches.

I am not in full control, nor do I want to be. Or, more correctly, I don’t think I can be. I agree with the media theorist Friedrich Kittler’s ideas that we can never fully grasp or relate to what a computer is, and how it works. It is a thing on its own, and it deserves respect for what it is. We should not say that it has certain intended uses – like a “game computer” – because that is just semantic violence that in the long run reinforces the material censorship of Turing complete machines into crippled computers, like smartphones.

I think that whatever we use these things we call computers for, is okay. And most of us have odd solutions to make technology do what we want, even if we are not programmers. Olia Lialina calls it a Turing complete user – s/he who figures out how to copy­paste text in Windows through Notepad to remove the formatting, or perhaps how to make Microsoft Word not fuck up your whole text.

What I mean is: even if I make sounds that people say “go beyond the capabilities of the machine”, I don’t see myself as the inventor of those sounds, nor do I think that they go beyond the machine. They were always there, just like Heidegger would say that the statue was already inside the stone before the stone carver brought it forth.

Yeah, I suppose it’s some sort of super­essentialist point of view, and I’m not sure what to make of it to be honest. But I like how it mystifies technology, rather than mystifiying human “creativity”. The re­mystification of technology is great, and the demystification of the author is important. What if the author is just doing stuff, and not fantastic art? What if it’s just work?

My Dataslav performance plays with this question. I sit in a gallery, and people tell me what kind of song they want, and I have to fulfil their wish in no more than 15 minutes. I turn myself into a medium, or perhaps more correctly: a medium worker. I mediate what other people want, but it takes skills and effort to do it. It’s perhaps craft, not art. Or maybe it’s just work. Work that I don’t get paid to do, like so many other “cultural” workers in the digital arts sector.

If the potentials are already present in the technology, and we humans are there to bring it forth, that kind of changes things, doesn’t it? We don’t really produce things by adding more stuff to it. We are more like removing things. Subtraction rather than addition.

And if that’s the case, then it’s obviously much better to use something where we don’t need to subtract so much to make something that most people didn’t already do. If everything is possible, which some people still believe to be the case with some technologies, then that’s a whole lot of stuff to delete to get to the good stuff!

So, start deleting. It’s our only hope.

Generation 64: A Harmless Story About the C64 Generation?

October 4, 2014

I just got a copy of the book Generation 64, and wanted to make a quick blurb..

Generation 64 is a new book about the generation of Swedes who grew up with the Commodore 64. It’s only available in Swedish, but I think there’s a Kickstarter somewhere to get it translated into English. And that would be great. This is an important story to be told, and it’s well researched and contains lots of curiosities, good photos, and so on. It’s definitely a book worth reading. Get it now!

It’s a book about the past. There are interviews with famous public figures about their childhood with computers. There are also more “advanced” users like demosceners, crackers, music makers, designers, game makers, and so on. There is a clear aim of making this generation relevant by essentially describing the current successes of many of people from Generation 64. In the games industry (Candy Crush, Minecraft, DICE), in music (Axwell and Swedish House Mafia, The Hives and also non-Swedes like Legowelt, Aphrodite, and Paradox are mentioned) and of course as programmers. And as entrepreneurs.

This book paints a nice-looking picture of an important background to Sweden’s hi-tech industries, basically. I haven’t read more than half of the book yet, but it seems clear that it’s not much about politics and hacking. Which is fine, of course. It’s a book for a wider audience, and not a critical look at computer culture and society.

But…

It connects to a history that goes something like this: in the 1980’s we had piracy and out-of-bounds hacking, in the 1990’s they went online, and now they work in the “creative industries”, with computers & networks, or at universities. There is a special section in the book about entrepreneurs. But no special sections on, you know, remix cultures or open source, file sharing, copyright fights, and so on. It’s basically more like the story of Spotify than the Pirate Bay – although both of them are represented in the book (by Peter Sunde and Oskar Stål, respectively).

As Spotify was quickly presented as The Solution to the “problem” of file sharing in Sweden, with it came a sort of white-washing of piracy. Kazaa and Fairlight are now mostly accepted as something like childhood mistakes. It’s not as controversial as it used to be.

Meanwhile, Peter Sunde is treated like crap in Swedish prison, Gottfrid Svartholm Warg is involved in a Danish court case which seems to be run with very dubious methods. The third Pirate Bay member is still on the run. And yet – the Pirate Bay is still online and torrents are being shared at more or less the same rate.

And Spotify is nowhere near a functioning business model – they are losing gazillions of money.

Obviously, this is not relevant for a book about Generation 64. My point is just that there is also a different story to be told about this culture. This rebellious use of technologies has not just been sucumbed into entrepreneurship, science and open source rhetorics. There is still lots of controveries that are not solved at all. There is still a lot of politics in this.

And had I written a book on the C64 scene, I would have emphasized that more. Sort of like I did in my 2009-paper for the re:live conference in Australia. Because that will be even more important in the future, when internet and computers are not as free as they used to be.

 

 

A Rant on Limitations

August 26, 2014

In the lo-fi arts, it is common to say that limitations serve as a source of inspiration. It’s such a common phrase that it’s become nearly as hollow as saying that less is more. This paradoxical expression basically means that less can be good despite not being more. Less is good only if it’s like more. If you flip the expression around into more is less, which Barry Schwartz does when arguing against freedom of choice, it actually means the same thing. Less is always worse.

It’s a truism to point out the ideological connection with a capitalist focus on eternal growth. Much less obvious, is how this belief permeats so many artistic, scientific and journalistic accounts of lo-fi computing. There’s a strong  focus on limitations when it comes to lo-fi computers, but not when it comes to hi-tech stuff. There’s a fetish with lo-fi limitations that I think we can all recognize, and therefore there is also a fetish with the hi-fi unlimited. Right?

***

We should probably talk about verbs rather than nouns. Saying that certain characteristics are limitations or not… well… says who? All systems have limitations, depending on how/who/when/where you ask the question. Can you imagine something that is actually unlimited? Invisible? Isn’t it actually the “limitations” that gives character to something? A piano without the limitation of discrete notes? Well, now that’s just not a piano anymore, is it?

But anyway – the real question is: how are those characteristics limiting? Can it be limiting to only have squarewaves and 3 oscillators? Yes, of course. And can it be limiting to have 3 million custom waveforms and 12 million super oscillators and a frictionless interface between man and machine? Yes, that too can be limiting. It can be too much. It can push is into making the familiar, because it requires a mega fresh brain to get out of the path dependence. It’s much easier to have an interface that suggests unfamiliar ways.

A lot of artists show love and respect for the technologies they use. In the digital art, not so much. For digital artists, the tools are mostly commercial products, and it’s not exactly arty to celebrate a commodity (unless, you know, you have a conceptual reason to do so). Computers are hidden in art galleries, screens are turned away from the audience at laptop gigs, and so on.

***

We’re also quite obsessed with critical and transgressive uses of these technologies. We imagine that we’re doing something that we’re not supposed to do, and call it critical uses or hacking or appropriation or something like that.

Smells like humanist spirit. As if we’re in control, eh?

8-bit artists, on the other hand, are often positioned in a much more posthuman way. As slaves of technology. Underdogs. We often portray ourselves as suffering artists – or even handicapped – who make stuff despite technology. And yet, that once again reinforces the idea that hi-fi tech is somehow less limiting than old tech. But here’s a few reasons why a lot of old tech is superior:

* Fast, reliable, sturdy. It’s not your work laptop that you have to be super careful with. It doesn’t take 1 minute to boot or shut down. It doesn’t break if you check your luggage in. It’s fixable and still cheap to buy.

* Super control. For me as a musician, I can do almost anything that the platform allows me to do. That’s not at all the case with hi-fi platforms, that hides most of it potential.

* Aesthetically, you can work with instant genrefication. If you keep it simple, your song/picture/animation is instantly recognized as 8-bit/retro. This can be negative, but also positive. No need to worry about aesthetics. Just let the machine provide it for you.

(this post was revived from the 2012-archives)

New Media is More Obsolete than Old Media

May 18, 2014

Cory Arcangel, Golan Levin and others have done some great work to retrieve old Amiga graphics that Andy Warhol made back in the day. This is some great work! And I think it’s great that the Amiga gets some attention in terms of computer creativity instead of the constant Apple-ism. But.. what kind of attention is it?

Many artists, media scholars and journalists have a special way of talking about old media. The term hacking usually pops up. Even if you just download software and use it in a very normal way – like most chip music is made for example – we still love to call it hacking. But why? There are several possible explanations. First – we love to believe that humans are in control of technology and that fantasy can flourish with these old and supposedly non-user-friendly machines. Human intelligence can tame even this uncivilized digital beast! Secondly – the term hacking oozes creativity and innovation and has become an omnipotent term used for almost everything.

Obsolescence is another popular word. I’ve written about this many times before, for example in relation to zombie media. Let’s put it like this: new media is permeated with planned obsolescence. Old media is not. Amigas were not designed to be obsolete after a few years like so many modern platforms, systems and programs are. So from our current perspective it seems totally incredible that these old floppy disks and file formats can still be used. Because we’re not used to that anymore. Most people don’t know how easy it is to copy that floppy to a flash card and view the images with UAE or even Photoshop.

It’s also common to think of old media as fragile. But then why do nuclear missiles rely on 8″ floppies? Why do so many airports use DOS, matrix printers and Hi8 video? Why did Sony sell 12 million 3.5″ floppies in 2009?Why did so many gabber/noise people use the Amiga for live shows? Because these things are stable, sturdy and built to last. And because it’s expensive to change it, sure, but the point is: old media is clearly not as fragile as many people seem to think.

To summarize this discourse we can say that 8-bit users are hacking media that is fragile and obsolete. While there is obviously some truth to that statement, a general adaptation of it rests on some pretty problematic ideological assumptions that we all need to relate to in order to get by in a consumer culture. For example:

“New media is better than old media because in technology, change = progress”.

I think we can all be more careful with how we discuss old media in order to move away from this dangerous misunderstanding. I know that there are many contexts where that is not suitable, possible or meaningful. But technological change oozes with politics and it doesn’t have to be conservative or retro-cool to criticize or reject the new. So bring it on, hipster!

 

Rewiring the History of the Demoscene: Wider Screen

April 15, 2014

skenet-scenes-petscii

Wider Screen has just released a themed issue on scene research, including scientific articles on the demoscene and the chipscene. It seems to be some very good texts, although I’ve only read one so far. So let’s talk about that one!

Markku Reunanen gives a long-awaited critical examination of the history of the demoscene in How Those Crackers Became Us Demosceners. He notes that the traditional story is basically that people cracked games, made intros for them, and then started to make demos. He problematizes this boring story by describing different overlaps between the worlds of games, demos and cracks. The first time I really reflected on this issue was in Daniel Botz’ dissertation. It is indeed obvious that this is a complex story full of conflicting narratives, and we can assume that (as always) The History is based on the current dominant discourses.

What do I mean with that? Well, take Sweden as an example, where the scene was always quite large. These days the scene is usually, when it is mentioned at all, described as a precursor to games, digital arts and other computer-related parts of “the creative industries“. When Fairlight’s 25-year-anniversary was reported in the Swedish mainstream media, cracking was portrayed as a legal grey area that contributed to the BNP. The forth-coming Swedish book Generation 64 seems to be telling a similar story. The scene was a bunch of kids who might have done some questionable things, but since these people are now found in Swedish House Mafia, Spotify and DICE it seems like all is forgiven. But it’s not.

Look at what the other sceners are doing today. The ones who didn’t get caught up in IT, advertising and academia. Piratbyrån, The Pirate Bay and Megaupload all involved scene people and, from the previous story, appears as a darker side of the scene. The data hippies, the copyists, the out-of-space artists, the dissidents, the fuck-ups. The people who don’t have much to gain from their scene history. But also the BBS-nazis (one of them living close to me) is interesting to consider today, when far-right discussion boards are frequently mentioned in the media. The info-libertarians at Flashback also remind me of the scene’s (in a very broad sense) spirit of “illegal information” and VHS-snuff movies that I mention in The Forgotten Pioneers of Creative Hacking and Social Networking (2009). Something else I mention there, as does Reunanen, are the swappers and traders whose sole function was to copy software around the world. But they are not really part of the history since they weren’t doing that Creative and Original work that we seem to value so dearly today.

No, the scene wasn’t a harmless place for boys-2-men, from geeks to CEOs. And also – there were plenty of people making weird stuff with home computers that were not part of the scene. People at Compunet were making audiovisual programs that looked really similar to the demoscene’s, but are usually not regarded as part of the scene. Possibly because of its apparent disconnection from the cracker scene. I’ve sometimes seen STE argue about this with sceners at CSDb. Jeff Minter did demo-like things, and people had been doing demo-like computer works for decades already. And all the hobbyists who wrote simple or strange sonic and visual experiments on their 8-bit home computers, but never released it in the scene? Well, they are effectively being distanced and erased from the history of the demoscene by not being included in archives like CSDb and HVSC that exclude “irrelevant” things.

So yeah – thumbs up to Markku for this article! Let’s not forget the provocative and subversive elements of the scene (read more about that in the 2009-article I link to above) because they might become very relevant sooner than we think.