Archive for the ‘theory’ Category

Retromania, Time Warps, Revivalism & Slovenia

January 15, 2013

Simon Reynolds’ Retromania – Pop Culture’s Addicition to its own Past gives a good overview of the intensified retromania of the last decades. He describes nostalgia’s integration in 1950’s pop culture, and the ‘memory boom’ of the 1990’s that made retro more … modern. You know, archive fever and cheap hard drives and all that.

Retromania focuses on a sort semiotic nostalgia. It’s about our relationship to content. We’re likely to accelerate and maximize this ‘content retromania’  as Reynolds suggests in an article. But there is also a material retromania that revolves around machines and formats. It’s obviously popular to use typewriters, Moogs and cassettes and delve into medium specifics. Gradually they are emulated, sampled and commodified into plugins and filters. Sometimes they even become specific signifiers, like the needle scratching across the vinyl record signifies interruption in sitcoms. Or an icon of a floppy disk means ‘save’.


From where I’m standing, it seems that retromania is moving away from content and towards the material. Songs are easy to find, records and machines are not. Reynolds writes plenty about collectors. I think that future collectors might have things like old firmware, ancient software versions, algorithms, or maybe a full multimedia set-up with Windows 95 and Netscape to browse like it’s 1997.

These things are usually described either as nostalgia or appropriation. Nostalgia is bad and appropriation is good, lulz. Nostalgia is non-intellectual and melancholic, appropriation is social and political. Oneothoprix Point Never is quoted in the book to have said that it’s about a desire to connect, not to relive things which I think illustrates this artificial separation quite well.

Reynolds doesn’t mention chipmusic in his book. But who can blame him? While techno, rock and punk emerged from extatic periods of the new, chipmusic was never really new and exciting. When the term chipmusic emerged around 1990, it referred to Amiga music that sounded like previous C64-music. 10 years later, was also looking back quite a lot.

ulan batorrrrr

So – chipmusic was always “retro”. From the start. That’s why it doesn’t really make sense to call it retro. To say that or the 1990s Amiga demoscene was retro, doesn’t really compute. Reynolds talks about two kinds of retromaniacs which I think capture the tension in the chip scene:

The revivalist dissident chooses an era and stays there. Some people still listen to the same chipmusic hits from the 1980s, and love it. It’s some sort of neo-conservatism, a rebellion against the new in mass culture, a freeze in the past. Lots of demoscene vibes here…

Time-warp cults focus on unsuccessful parts of an old era. Go back, and change the future. This reminds me of the 00’s chipscene mantra of “making something new with the old”. And it also makes me think about media archeology and all kinds of lo-fi practices in the context of Phine Artz. It’s not old (nostalgia) — it’s new and fresh! (appropriation). Retrofuturism, I suppose.

I think it’s two useful concepts. If I would have to choose one of these, I would choose revivalism. It feels more honest, somehow. For me it’s not about going back to a certain time/culture. It’s more about the machines. The sweet, smelly machines.

Anyway. We don’t have to choose sides. So nevermind that. We should probably look into stuff like hauntology and retrogardism instead. THE FUTURE IS THE SEEED OF THE PAST as the Slovenian IRWIN/NSK/Laibach said. Perhaps the difference between the past and the future is not so important after all..

Like Reynolds hints in the book – pop culture seems to go in cycles much like the economy. Growth through novelties. Unlimited progress. Forever young. Would’ve been great to read more about that in the book. About cycles rather than linear movements. Because that’s what really makes retromania interesting. If capitalism is going down the drain, so is pop culture.

Realtime Text /2/ Interview with BBS-artist

December 5, 2012

The previous post was inspired by a conversation I had with Erik Nilsson, probably the only one who’s made a music video on a BBS. We talked about the 1990’s, when teenagers used BBS instead of WWW to talk. When you could see how the person on the other end of the modem was acting. I’ve added my comments [in brackets] to explain some technical stuff that Erik talks about.

ERIK > I remember as an early lamer, the sysops would wonder what the fuck you were up to. I remember the feeling of knowing that the sysop could be watching your every move. It was a bit like being in someone’s house, or in some sort of social club.

I remember the local BBS Secret Gate as one of the first places where I was accepted, and met friends. They had 3 nodes [phonelines = 3 simultaneous users] so you could chat with other users – not just the sysop. That’s how I started to hang out with Mortimer Twang, and together with Trivial we started Divine Stylers.

CHIPFLIP > Did you talk mostly about computer stuff, or also other things?

ERIK > I lived in an isolated place, so the computer was really a window into a world full of everything. Mortimer’s early mod music was my introduction to loop-based alternative music. The loopy and psychedelic aspects of dance music works really well in amiga trackers.

But there was also friendship, and pretty close conversations. I remember when I had my own BBS and my best friend called. We had fallen for the same girl, and I remember the chats we had about it. The pauses and the trembling made the conversation more tender. It was a really emotional talk, which I can still think back to and appreciate. It could have been through any medium, but I remember how the pauses and the tempo of the text made it more “charged”. I remember typing “I’m crying” and getting back “me too”. :)

There is a big difference in seeing the words take shape, instead of just reading them. It’s more personal. What you type is closer to the thought you have before you say it.

CHIPFLIP > Why do you think the real-time text isn’t around anymore?

ERIK > What was once standard no longer exists. It’s as if technology has taken a step back when it comes to text-based communication. I really don’t know why the intermediate step of pressing return has been added. It’s like you publish the text, while you used to say things more directly. The movement of the cursor reveals how the person is hesitating, erasing or contemplating.

If you chat on a BBS, you press return twice to signal that the other one can start writing. But it was still possible to interrupt the other one, if there was a heated argument for example. That doesn’t happen the same way in say Skype, because there is a gap between the users. It feels more plastic and more “simulated” than it has to be.

Well, when I think about Skype, which I use on daily basis there actually is a ‘function’ reminding about the old days standard in a weird way. In Skype you can actually see on a small icon when the person is typing and erasing, it’s really far away from the old chat style, it’s a weird verson of it in some way.. Still not even close to the thing I miss, but I guess someone was thinking about this gap when making Skype.

CHIPFLIP: And it’s more difficult to change your mind, too. Did you use the backspace often?

ERIK: Yeah, you erase constantly if you’ve learnt how to type street style. Erasing is just as important as typing. ;) I got really into animated text. It was a like digital thumb twiddling. You typed something, erased it, and replaced it with something new to make an animation. Sometimes you erased it because you didn’t want to keep it on the screen, like card numbers for example :) You typed it on the screen, and when the other person had written it to a piece of paper, you erased it.

CHIPFLIP > So one way to make animations on a BBS is to quite simply “type the animation”. And due to the slow modem speed, it will look animated when you play it back. But what kind of options were there to make the graphics on the BBS?

ERIK > There were a couple of different chat systems. The most common one was that each user had a colour, and you simply pressed return twice when you were done. There were also more advanced chats for ami/x, where you could move the cursor freely, like in a text editor or like the message editor in C*Base for C64.

CHIPFLIP > Was there anything bad about it being real-time?

ERIK > No. I mean it’s not the real-time thing that made it disappear. It changed because IRC took over most of the communication for the elite scene, since it was more global. When internet came real-time chat just disappeared by itself. It’s probably all just one big PC bug.

The situation is a bit similar to that of PETSCII [Commodore’s own ASCII-standard, with colors, plenty of graphical characters]. PETSCII is a better and more evolved system for text and symbols. It was more beautiful and personal to directly use the keyboard to write a letter to someone using colours, symbols and even 4×4 pixel graphics. Today you have to load images and change font colour in some menu to make a really spaced out e-mail. It’s slower, and it’s not “in the keyboard” like on the C64.

CHIPFLIP > What’s the best modern alternative to PETSCII?

ERIK > ANSI is not really an option, from my point of view. It’s typical “slow PC” style. Like some kind of Atari. You draw the graphics in a graphics program. Choose with the mouse. Draw fancy stuff from choices you make on the screen. It’s just like Photoshop.

PETSCII could’ve been a good source of inspiration for mobile phones, for example. But it needs an update to have meaning and function today. But how the system works, makes it the most interesting one I know of, still. ASCII is okay, but you still have to use a special editor to make the graphics. That’s a step in the wrong direction.

The C64 is like a synthesizer – you just turn it on, and get to work. With modern computers you have to wait for it to start, find the right program, and so on. They say that computers are faster today, but honestly – I have no idea what they are talking about! They only seem to get slower.

It’s strange, because computers were not supposed to become stiff and flat, like they are today. There’s all this talk about more convenience and speed, but from day one humans have only made it harder for computers to help us.

CHIPFLIP > A very broad explanation, also, is to consider analogue media as immediate (light bulbs, guitars, TVs, analogue synthesizers) and digital media as more-or-less indirect. It can never have zero latency and we seem to, somewhat paradoxically, accept that changing the channel on a modern TV takes 10 times longer than it used to. If you know Swedish you can read more about those things here.

Other than that, thanks so much to Erik for sharing his thoughts on this. Let’s fix the future!

Realtime Text /1/ Why Did it Disappear?

November 30, 2012

When we chat to each other, we don’t do it in real-time. Until we press return, the person on the other end can’t see what we’re doing. But it wasn’t always like that. Before the internet took over the world, you could actually see how the other person was typing. It is like a digital equivalent to body language; involuntary, unescapable, direct and intimate. All this was destroyed, as the return key gradually went from carriage return (↵) to enter.

Initially, the most mainstream example of real-time text I could think of was real-time captions for TV. It’s a service offered to deaf people in public service areas like UK and Scandinavia. It’s produced word-by-word (“chords“) and its mere existence adds a new dimension to TV-watching: you know when a program is following a script and when it’s not. There are many more real-time text services, often involving so called disabled people. Actually, there is even a Real-Time Text Taskforce (R3TF).

But wait a minute. Why did I forget about collaborative text editors like Etherpad or Google Docs? I use those very often. Great for having two people editing the same text. But they are also boring, I guess. I use them primarily for facts, lists, research, etc. Only a few times did I use them for something more playful or emotional. It’s like having fun in Microsoft Word. It just doesn’t happen, unless as an anomaly. Consider the difference to a less officey site like Your World of Text.

It’s not that it’s not possible to use real-time text. In fact, popular chats like Google Talk and iChat support it, but don’t implement it. AOL IM implements it but you have to activate it yourself.

Chat is a clear example of how new media makes things more indirect, by adding layers to the interface. Even if you believe that digital media only gets better, you’d have to admit that chat is an exception to that. Right? Chat is actually slower and less expressive than it was in the 90’s. Or even the 70’s with PLATO. Chat has derailed into some sort of primitive enter-beast, where you can’t even draw or use images.

Computer-mediated human-to-human communication is quite primitive, isn’t it? It’s like 1968 only with more layers to make it indirect and abstract. Layers of secrecy, as good ol’ Kittler would say.

In the next part, I will post a conversation I had with the BBS-artist Erik Nilsson. That was actually the reason why this post was written, so stay tuned!

We Are The Zombies, Not the Machines

November 29, 2012

Zombie Media – media that are living dead. This is a concept that Jussi Parikka and Garnet Hertz have developed for a while now. They recently published a mini-manifesto of a larger text, that is locked into academia unfortunately.

This is connected with the field of media archeology, which I think is a very interesting and confusing field. It feels like I should love it, but there’s something that bothers me about it. First I have to admit that I haven’t read any of the books on it, so I’ve probably misunderstood plenty of things. Let’s go through the 5 points of the mini-manifesto and see.

1. They oppose the idea of dead media, but they also talk about it. A lot. In fact, the idea of dead media seems crucial for the whole manifesto. So how does that compute? Aren’t there better ways to oppose the idea of dead media?


2. Zombie media are living dead, the authors claim. But… says who? I guess according to hi-def capitalism and its cynical idea of people-as-consumers. But what about all the people, not visible in the mainstream, who still use these media for the same reasons that others use mainstream media? Old people. Children. Poor people. Disabled. Demosceners. Me. Are we that irrelevant?

The machines are far from dead, atleast to us. So my question is: Doesn’t the zombie media concept completely surrender to planned obsolescence?

3. So there is a war on general-purpose computing, which seems highly urgent to address politically and pragmatically. The authors focus on practice, and argue for hacking the black boxes – echoing the free-and-open discourse (which deserves some scepticism). But how – and why – would the opening of technologies lead to something that we haven’t already seen?

4. The authors want to take media archeology into the art world. I don’t know, but didn’t that happen with chip/glitch in the 00’s, or the demoscene in the 90’s, or with all those Cages and Paiks of the 60’s? I agree that artists (and others, including me) need to engage more with technologies, and take it seriously. But I guess for me that means to master the tool, instead of bending it or something. Why should media archeological art build on appropriation and remixing?

5. Of course reuse is an important part of our culture. People don’t seem to be talking about much else these days. Everything is a remix and originality is a sin. But does that mean that we should promote remix culture even more? Doesn’t really seem necessary? It just seems Scandinavian. Why not just steal shit from the trash instead? Pay the guy at the recycling point to get some good machines. Why would an “open remix culture” be better than trashy hacking and computer love?

I never really liked archeology/anthropology so perhaps it’s not surprising that I don’t really get the ideas of zombie media. Why does it matter so much that it’s old? Why do we need to circuit bend and remix them, when they are amazing machines already? Why only focus on the differences?

The experts still haven’t figured out how they work. After 30 years the C64 is still not perfectly emulated. They are mysterious machines already. There is no need to hack them.

If there is a machine that should be hacked, it’s academia. If I was an academic I would do something about it before it’s 100% Google Scholar to anyone who doesn’t have leet access.

Meanwhile, the 8-bit computers work just fine. They are not the zombies. We are the zombies. We are the ones who are too lazy or busy to learn how to use them. That’s why I don’t believe that encouragement of appropriation and remixing and opening is going to amount to much. Just do your homework and stop fiddling around! :)

My Presentation of 8-bit Users

November 22, 2012

Last week I made a presentation at Merz Academy called Hackers and Suckers: Understanding the 8-bit Underground. I was invited by Olia Lialina for a lecture series called Do You Believe in Users? in Stuttgart. This question should be understood in the context of a disappearing user in modern discourses on design. Computers have become normalized and invisible, and the user seems to have a similar fate. (read more in Olia’s Turing Complete User)

The talk was about 8-bit users, and the hype around 8-bit aesthetics. I talked about different 8-bit users – from those who unknowingly use 8-bit systems embedded in general tech-stuff, through stock freaks and airports, to chipmusic people and hackers. I explained how “8-bit” is both a semiotic and materialist concept, but often used as a socially constructed genre. 1950s music or 1920s textile can be called 8-bit today.

I explained what the qualities of 8-bit computing are, as based on my thesis: simple systems, immediacy, control and transgression. Some examples of technical and cultural transgression followed, and then I gave the whole “8-bit-punk-appropriator-reinvent-the-obsolete” speech and then dissed that perspective completely. Finally, I tried to explain my own view of non-antropocentric computing, man-machine creativity, media materialism, and so on. When I prepaired the presentation I called this Cosmic Computing, but I changed it because my presentation was already hippie enough…

  • Humans cannot have a complete & perfect understanding of a computer.  Following ideas from Kittler – and the fact that 30-year-old technologies still surprise us – this seems controversial for computer scientists, but not so much for artists?
  • Users bring forth new states, but that might be all normal for the machine. This is controversial for all ya’ll appropriatingz artistz, but not for Heidegger and computer scientists.
  • All human-machine interactions are both limited and enriched by culture, technology, politics, economy, etcetera. Meaning that “limitations” and “possibilities” are cultural concepts that change all the time.
  • Don’t make the machine look bad — don’t be a sucker. Make it proud! Another anti-human point, to get away from the arrogant ways that we treat technologies.

In hindsight, it was a pretty bad idea to be so anti-user in a lecture series designed to promote the user. (: And the discussion that followed mostly evolved around the concept of suckers. Some people seemed to interpret what I said as “if you are not a hacker you are a sucker”. This was unfortunate but understandable. I don’t mean that there are only two kinds of users. They are merely two extremes on a continuum.

Hackers explore the machine in artistic ways and they can be coders, musicians, designers — whatever. They are not necessarily experts but they know how to transgress the materiality/meaning of the hardware/software. They can make things that have never been done before with a particular machine, or something that wasn’t expected from it. That often requires not-so-rational methods, which is not always based on hard science. Just because you know “more” doesn’t make you better at transgression. There is a strong connection between user and computer. Respect, and sometimes a strong sense of attachment - even sexual? That’s probably easier to develop if you don’t plan to sell it when the next model comes out. (btw, this is not some kind of general-purpose-definition of the term hacker, just how I used it in this presentation)

Suckers, on the other hand, don’t seem to have this connection. They buy it, use it and throw it away. Either they don’t feel any connection to the object, or they don’t want to. They act as if they are disconnected from technology, and only suck out the good parts when it suits their personal needs.

It is a disrespectful use. The machines are treated merely as instrumental tools for their own satisfaction. Suckers are consumers to the bone. Amazing technologies are thrown at them, and suckers treat them as if they don’t even exist – until something stops working. Or they go all cargo cult.

I don’t like it when I act as a sucke.r, but it happens all the time. I recently got an iPhone for free. I’ve had it for months without using it, because I am scared of becoming a sucker 24/7. I am definitely not in charge of my life when it comes to technology. And I like that. Hm…


Are Humans More Disabled Than Ever?

September 9, 2012

This long post will provoke some of you, and feel free to lave a comment. I just want to clarify something first. The purpose of this post is to examine the similarities between how we talk about lo-fi computing and human disabilities. It is not about comparing machines with humans, but rather about the dominant discourses surrounding limitations and capabilities in general.

I was watching football 5-a-side, where more or less blind people play soccer in teams of five. Blindness, as you know, is considered as a handicap because visual culture makes it difficult to live without the small part of the electromagnetic spectrum that humans call light.

Playing blind football might seem absurd at first, but I was completely fascinated by it. The TV makes it look clumsy as the players stumble, fall, look for the ball, etcetera. But from a sonic perspective (sic) there is something very different going on. The players are navigating with sound, as the ball makes noises and your team shouts instructions for you. They create a small new world on the field. And it’s inaccessible to us who look at it.

Just like I initially valued 5-a-side as a less elite form of football, lo-fi computing is often seen as something less worthy by most people. Or perhaps it’s more worthy – “the results are good eventhough the tools are bad”. It doesn’t matter – it’s all centered around the same basic idea. Hi-fi is more useful, expressive or productive. It is the norm from which we value other things, just like with the human body. Perhaps some of you find it offensive, but I see many parallells between the mainstream discourses of low-res media and human handicaps. Specifically, the political discussions about them are often polarized between the “objective” and the “social”.

Social vs Objective

The objective model sources the problem to a single entity (human and/or machine) and is as such an ahistorical, essentialistic or psychological understanding. According to the social model, the physical ‘impairment’ is a problem mostly because society is not willing or capable to deal with it. This seems to be the dominant model today, adopted by e.g World Health Organization. But there is much confusion in terminology, and there doesn’t seem to be a term that will work in all contexts (disability, handicap, impairment, etc). And why should it? Why should there be a word that grouped together blindness, autism, crippled people and cerebral palsy?

The conflict that the two models are organized around is obviously an on-going process with very real consequences for people’s well-being, of which I’ve had some experiences during the past four years. I’ve seen how hard it is to deal with bureaucracy and daily life.

Are we more disabled than ever?

According to WHO, fifteen percent of the world’s population is disabled. That’s an increase of 5 percentage points since 1970, which is quite noteworthy. It’s not a fact – it is an estimate that varies with the choice of methods and terminology.  Nevertheless, we seem to think of ourselves – in general, in the developed world – as more ‘handicapped’ than before. We need drugs to be normal. We require digital tools to organize our daily life. Our knowledge has become prosthetic. And our lifestyle affects the prevalence of certain diseases and diagonses.

It could be argued that humans are handicapping themselves by creating machines that do the things we want to do, but cannot do ourselves (see this documentary). Or – are humans and machines working closer together to create a better world?

Whichever perspective is taken, it seems that in a techno-consumerist society, normal humans are not good enough in themselves. Post- or transhumanism is perhaps a taste of what is to come when we further develop glasses, hearing aids and artificial organs (btw, new aesthetic is back).

One possible consequence is that we accept more kinds of sensory perceptions and lifestyles. Perhaps we can learn to to respect and take advantage of the unique characteristics of each so called disability. Deaf police are better at video surveillance. There is (was :() a blind kid who relies mostly on sonar navigation. Deaf people perceive sound and make music. And so on.

But it is probably naive to think that the conflicts will disappear. There are norms to relate to and those norms grow from limitations of human perception and, in the case of computers, from progress as second nature. The conflicts concerning human disabilities is a much more pressing matter than legitimizing low-res computing. Perhaps this post has contributed with something, without offending too many people.

But the main purpose is to build a background for a future post about limitations in computing. Coming soon!

Slow-Tech as the New Religion

July 31, 2012

Is slow-tech a useful concept for the study of low-tech action? It seems to be on the rise in the form of apps that help you to lead a slower life. But what is it? Is it something more than just a counter-reaction to capitalism & speed?

Slow-tech defines itself in opposition to e.g fast food and the instant gratification of consumerism. When I first heard the term slow food there were all these connections to environmentalism, health, spa, buddhism, etc. I guess it came from San Francisco? (eh, no, stfu)

Apparently, this is called the slow movement and it appeared in the 1980’s. It’s the anti-thesis to the high speed of modern society (>-Virilio -<), but is framed more as a sort of consumer-health-issue in an idealised harmonic society, than something political. It’s still about consuming. It’s still about equilibrium. And for me, ultimately, it seems like a form of wellness – when you make individual choices to get a “successful lifestyle”.

The slow web makes more sense to me. The key features of the slow web has been described as Timely (not real-time), Rhythm (not random) and Knowledge (not information). It sounds very reasonable. In fact, maybe it’s even a bit too reasonable?

I agree that these things are important for a sort of modern media literacy. We need to learn how to deal with the tools and information of today. And probably, we need technology’s help to do it. It can help us to reduce stress by structuring shores, or motivate us by turning real-life sequences into “games” where you collect points and get more things done in your life. Augmented reality, etc.

But idk. Slow? Is that really so good? Looking at e.g slow-tech, it seems like a postmodern version of the californian ideology. There is an underlying idea that technologies can help individuals to become more free. That should basically be the purpose of technologies. So there is still a lot of nature-culture divide in there. In short, it’s antropocentric. Connect your body to AppStore – be successful and happy.

To be blunt: the slow movement sounds like a lazy, ego-centric, new agey and half-arsed alternative to consumerism. Speed isn’t bad, per se. Maybe speed is just what we need to get some *real* alternatives together.

Yesterday I saw The Take (2004) about workers reclaiming abandoned factories in order to make a living. There is a fitting slogan in there: occupy, resist and produce. To me that sounds better than … you know … slow tempo, sustainability and individual health. Less weed, more speed!

If you are interested in stuff like this, I recommend the documentary series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace by Adam Curtis.

Judaism and Japan: Looking for ASCII art theory

July 8, 2012

I’ve worked a lot with text-based works lately. There is surprisingly little research on ASCII art and related things. That’s why, together with A Bill Miller, I’ve written an academic article on ASCII art which will hopefully be published after the summer. It’s also quite difficult to find good archives or exhibitions. So me and Raquel Meyers started a tumblr at where we select some of the best works in teletext, ASCII, Shift_JIS, RTTY, Petscii, etc.

ASCII art, text-mode art, unicode graff or whatever you want to call it, is still quite an open field (atleast over here in alphabet-land). And, I might be wrong, but I can see an increased interest for it; after pixel art romantics and after the language-mania of social/humanistic science. Objects, biology and realism are becoming relevant again. So it’s time to see what happens with text when it’s used and understood as objects rather than symbols.

One important precursor that is rarely discussed is micrography, which shares some traits with contemporary digital text art. It is a Jewish form of calligram where graphics are built up from hebrew text characters. It came from the biblical hate towards images. In short: text is the only way, and images are not allowed. Doesn’t leave much choice for a visual artist. Great!

Israel’s ASCII art moneyz

It is not only an old and obscure rule. Israel’s bills are still made in accordance with this, as shown in the picture above (zoomed in here). So then the images are actually not images. There are several modern examples of micrography, which often overlaps visual poetryconcrete poetry, etc.

Unlike artists of the early 20th century who used text (Picasso, dadaists), micrography was basically a functional necessity. In that way it is similar to a lot of modern text art, that uses text-based media (Twitter, SMS, textboards). Another similarity is that the symbolic meaning of the letters are irrelevant in micrography (so in that sense it’s actually not a form of calligram). The text characters are selected for their appearance, not for what they represent. This is why, in 2SLEEP1, music was credited as instructions and graphics as objects.


Working with our text-mode tumblr over the past months, I’ve come to realise that a lot of the best text art is from Asia, mostly Japan. One explanation is that Japanese and Chinese are more popular than English online, so it’s a matter of quantity. Another explanation is that text-based media, like 2channel are extremely popular in Japan. It creates memes and characters that appear also in mainstream media. Perhaps a text-based medium can become more popular in Japan because there are more nice-looking and useful characters, but probably also because Japanese writing/reading works differently than here. Is Japan a more “text-based” culture, maybe?

I’ll leave you with an example of Shift_JIS ANSI, which is rather new to me. Colours and Shift_JIS characters ftw! Eat cheese, please!

By Gatchaman

White Bit vs Afrofuturism

May 11, 2012

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 cultWe 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?

Towards a Genre Materiality

May 6, 2012

This is a somewhat theoretical post meant to underpin future posts about something I call genre materiality atm. The point is to describe how screens have gone from passive transporters to active participants. Their qualities play an important role in media literacy and human taste. Screens are a good example of genre materiality, since they are still considered to be quite neutral whereas most other media are under the scrutiny of constructivism. It’s not as obvious as e.g sound storage media, or computers.

The screen used to be a syringe. Before the age of TV, academics thought that media consumers were injected with the message of the sender. Humans were seen as passive receivers, and the screens were like passive relays.

Fast-forwarding to the 1980’s, most things in the world was described as social constructions. Technology was considered to be shaped by culture and controlled by humans. Afaik, this perspective was applied much to screens (although the McLuhanites probably wrote something?). Even in the height of postmodern SCOT, screens were somehow able to be left out of the constructivism. And they still are. Screens are just, you know, showing what we feed them with. They don’t really affect the content.

But if you’ve ever been involved with printing, you know that screens are manipulative little bastards. People tend to blame the printers, but screens are calibrated differently and therefore the printers seem to print it wrong. There are professional calibrators out there, who come to calibrate your screen-printer-lifestyle. Then it’s smooth sailing from there.

Moving on to here and now, screen qualities have become crucial parts not only for hipster literacy and nerd aesthetics, but for pop culture at large. We interpret images differently due to the artefacts of the screen. It doesn’t take long for us to understand how old something is (supposed to look). We can feel a difference between CRT-screens and plasma screens. Right? Obviously, it’s easier to see the difference with production and storage technologies (VHS-camcorder versus 16mm film), but it’s there with screens too.

For example – modern TVs have a mode that doubles the framerate. It makes for a good sales pitch, since you can show soccer games to old men and demonstrate how smooth and clear the game is. But if you watch a movie in this enhanced mode, it totally destroys the atmosphere of the movie (atleast until you get used to it). The cheap interpolation algorithms used to create the new frames can make any movie look like a cheap camcorder class reunion party. I suppose that there are good aspects of it too, like the ability to make faster pans and tilts without revealing the framerate. After all, cinema has a pretty low frame rate, which likely has affected the genre of film.

So the screen becomes an active participant in the experience. Just like media consumers have gone from being (considered as) passive to active, so has the media themselves.

Some screen qualities can also be important for genres. In some cases, you can’t even use modern screens. If you create media-specific visuals and/or use machines that have an odd output signal (like a PAL C64 running in 50.125 Hz) you are likely to run into problems with modern screens or beamers, as I’ve written about before. More importantly though – you lose the qualities of the screen. Ian Bogost talks about e.g texture, noise and color bleed as important parts of the experience. This results in a very different experience from watching it in, for example, laser. Still, it is not all clear which is the most accurate representation: clear non-emulated pixels on a modern screen, or CRT-mangled images on a TV.

Even music could, with some effort, be connected to the screen. For platforms where the whole system is connected to the framerate of the screen, you would get a different tempo and tone with PAL and NTSC respectively. The music is tied to the raster beam of the CRT screen.

I will return to this in the future, and make something out of it. For now I have to go to a farm, and I’m also working on two texts that’ll hopefully be published later this year. Cowabunga, chipsters!



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