At the conclusion of the DH6005 module (History & Theory of Digital Arts), part of the Digital Arts and Humanities Masters programme at University College, Cork (Ireland), which I’m presently on (2014-15), one of the things we were asked to do is compile something (document, video, 10-part song cycle, whatever) on ’10 Things I got from the discussions’ (which is to say, discussions in classrooms groups, college eateries, and on Blackboard and the like, Blackboard being a sort of college social media platform for teaching and learning and discussing stuff).
“This [the exercise] is partly reaction and partly reflection”, quoting from the commission text. “Pick 10 statements made by people in the class that provoke you in a good/bad/indifferent way and present, briefly, your response. It could be a short essay in 10 paragraphs, it could be a 10 slide PowerPoint, it could be a short video — the medium for collecting this is entirely up to you. It can be as plain or as ‘arty’ as you wish, the key requirement is that it demonstrates that you have bumped into some ideas, thought about them, relate them to some literature or examples in the broad domain of digital art and present them in a concise way.”
“Some of these I think of art, some not. I suppose you can decide
for yourselves.” (Michelle Coleman, 17 January 2015)
Still from Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) showing Thierry Guetta, aka “MBW”/“Mr Brainwash”
Is it real or is it fake?
“In terms of art with a capital 'A', authenticity seems to be
secondary to the aura that is bestowed on a piece of art by the
personality of the artist. I'm thinking here of the ‘art factories’
where pieces of art are mechanically reproduced by technicians —
Damien Hirst comes to mind, where the only involvement by the artist
is in coming up with the concept, and possibly providing a signature
or studio imprimatur on the final work. Banksy's documentary
Exit Through the Gift Shop explores this phenomenon pretty well.”
(Brid Harrington, 20 January 2015)
It’s extraordinary to my mind how for many people the take-away from this fabulous documentary is that the whole art world is fake, a fraud; that if you play the game right you can get away with any old crap. To me the message of this film is the exact opposite! For me this film testifies to the fact you can be as successful as you could wish to be, but success is not art, selling out an art show is not the alchemy that transubstantiates crap into art, getting a 5-star review from the art critic in a leading newspaper does not make you an artist! And having collectors acquire your stuff does not do so either. Vincent van Gough never sold a picture in his lifetime — indeed, very often couldn’t even give his stuff away! This guy, Thierry Guetta, aka “MBW”/“Mr Brainwash” — the guy at the centre of this documentary — is not an artist! He might be a con-artist, but no matter what PR-generated success he enjoys, his paintings are clearly unoriginal, rip-offs — as Banksy himself puts it at one point in the film, “[Thierry may be unique] but his stuff is just like everybody else’s”.
For me, this film is a testament to how true true art is and how real real artists are. And what hard work it is to perfect your craft, to find your ‘voice’ and develop it and so forth — to put together a body of work….
And to me it matters not one little bit that we cannot define or framework or compartmentalize the essence of this thing that’s at the heart of it all to our theoretical satisfaction.
My take-away from this film puts me in mind of the following two quotes (or anecdotes): once the broadcaster David Frost was interviewing the actor and playwright Noel Coward and Frost asked Coward to identify what it is that makes for “star-quality”; after a moment’s reflection, Coward says “I don’t know, but stars have it and the non-stars don’t.”
And, secondly, in an episode of the television adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s ‘Song of Ice & Fire’ saga, at one point the totally untrustworthy Petyr Baelish (whore-monger and Master of Coin at Kings Landing) says something to Cersei Lannister — daughter of Tywin Lannister, the most powerful man in Westeros — something indicating to her that he had knowledge of the one thing that could destroy her (i.e. that her children were not truly the progeny of the late king, her husband, but of another man, her brother), and with a knowing smile Baelish adds something to the effect of “Knowledge is power” (by which he means to be confidential [mostly] — “Your secret’s safe with me” sort of thing).
Without a blink — without reacting in any discernible way at all — calmly Cersei orders the bodyguards accompanying her to seize Baelish, which they do. She then orders them to cut his throat, which they are about to do when Baelish begins to bleat for his life. At which point Cersei leans in close to Baelish’s terrified face and she says, “Power is power.”
Banksy, Mr Brainwash, & Baudrillard
There’s a wonderful section in Exit Through the Gift Shop where Banksy accompanied by Thierry Guetta goes to Disneyworld and Banksy has this blow-up doll which he has dressed in bright orange jump-suit and black hood to look like one of the detainees at Guantanamo Naval Base — this is 2006, so the United States is still in the depths of the Bush-Cheney era, and, in addition, it’s September, coming up to the anniversary of 9/11, so everyone in the security world is twitchy; it’s a Banksy’s thing (similar to his West Bank wall stunts a couple of years earlier), Thierry is there simply to film it, especially the reaction of the holidaymakers and day-trippers. Banksy puts the blow-up Gitmo-doll at a spot the Disney Corporation helpfully highlight as a good spot to take photographs for your family photo album.
It’s kind of a joke, but the Disneyworld people do not think it funny at all and everything begins to get systematically sinister — whole sections of the amusement park begin to get shut down as the plain-clothes security people begin to coral those they think are responsible — ‘behind the baroque, the grey eminence of politics’, as Baudrillard might have put it.
Exit Through the Gift Shop, it seems to me, is a Baudrillardian film — Baudrillard in Quicktime — “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real […] it is a deterrence machine set up in order to rejuvenate in reverse the fiction of the real.”
The big ‘scandal’ of Watergate [or the Home & Loans ‘scandal’ for that matter, or the collapse of Enron, or AIG, or the activities of Bernie Madoff or Michael Milken, MPs’ expenses, phone-hacking at the News of the World/News International, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, abuse of Abu Grade prisoners, horse meat in burgers — pick your scandal, the system produces a selection of them every year in each of the territories] is essentially the same scenario — “(an imaginary effect concealing that reality no more exists outside than inside the bounds of the artificial perimeter): though here it is a scandal effect concealing that there is no difference between the facts and their denunciation (identical methods are employed by the CIA and the Washington Post journalists). Same operation, though this time tending towards scandal as a means to regenerate a moral and political principle, towards the imaginary as a means to regenerate a reality principle in distress. […] The denunciation of scandal always pays homage to the law. And Watergate above all succeeded in imposing the idea that Watergate was a scandal” (Simulacra and Simulation; p. 7 in the Cosgrave pdf).
“It would take too long to run through the whole range of operational negativity, of all those scenarios of deterrence which, like Watergate, try to revive a moribund principle by simulated scandal, phantasm, murder — a sort of hormonal treatment by negativity and crisis. It is always a question of proving the real by the imaginary; proving truth by scandal; proving the law by transgression; proving work by the strike; proving the system by crisis and capital by revolution; […] proving theatre by anti-theatre; proving art by anti-art… etc., etc.” (Simulacra and Simulation; p. 10 in the Cosgrave pdf)
Let’s all participate in some (low) culture
“Leafing through a Jack Zipes book on Fairytales yesterday (Happily
Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children and the Culture Industry, 1997),
I came across a section on Frank L. Baum and the Wizard of Oz books.
Baum wrote 14 in all, but had intended the first one to be a
stand-alone novel. It was only when fans started writing to him
demanding new stories and suggesting characters and plotlines, that
he somewhat reluctantly continued with the series. Zipes hypothesised
that this was due to an innate desire in the American population to
imagine a utopian world in which diverse and unique individuals
co-existed autonomously, "This was not America", he states. Baum
recognised that he was writing about a shared ideal and began to
consider himself not the owner of Oz but, fairly fancifully, as the
"Historian of Oz".” (Colleen O Hara, 10 February 2015)
Although Colleen’s objective with this contribution (only part of which I’ve reproduced) has to do with Fan-fiction — originality, artistic licence, copyright and so forth — i.e. this is/was the thread she was contributing to [on Blackboard] — therefore it would not have been appropriate for me to say there what I’m going to say here because what I’m going to say here is really a continuation of the forgoing Baudrillardian Simulacra & Simulation stuff (and therefore off-topic as far as Colleen would have been concerned) — I am always amazed by the fact that most people gloss over (or perhaps are totally unaware of), one of the most interesting aspects of L. Frank Baum’s story, which is that he is/was the originator and proprietor of a trade journal called Display Window — one of the first (1897), if not the first, publications catering to the emerging professional niche of window-dressers (which is a very high-status area of activity in the commerce and consumer world — the palace guard vis-à-vis the aristocracy of labour). This aspect of Baum’s back-story is glossed over with segue-sentences such as “After stints as a newspaper journalist and businessman, Baum started writing for children in his forties”, which is a pity because in so doing people miss out on the critical continuities between Baum as a businessman and Baum as a story-teller. (Baum was also a theatre enthusiast, indeed a large part of his business background was as a theatrical impresario, and, of course, this theatrical element is an essential part of the tableaux we are presented with in department store plate-glass displays — mannequins are frequently to be seen skiing or shopping or dining or at the seaside and so forth.)
Dior window at Harrods, London
For as long as anyone can remember our high streets have been dominated — even characterized— by plate-glass window displays so much so that most people would probably think it inevitable or ‘natural’ that goods should be displayed in this way. These vast expanses of glass seem neutral to us because they are transparent. But glass [and plate-glass technology in particular] is central to the manufacture of desire in our world, which as Baudrillard argues, is the product of the system of production. And the sign-system connecting products with ideas [especially with notions of the self] are very deliberate developments — and decoding and re-coding this sign-system is a language we learn along with our mother-tongue.
The profound connections (in a Baudrillardian sense) between Baum as window-dressing-guru and Baum as author of the Oz stories are obvious enough: in The Wizard of Oz three of the central characters — the tinman, the strawman, and the cowardly lion — feel they lack something — a heart, a brain, and courage, respectively. But on their journey to Oz to meet the Wizard of Oz in the Emerald City — who they are convinced can help them with their respective shortcomings — they display the very characteristics they think they lack.
And the ‘wizard’ turns out to be so such thing, but, in fact, a humbug trading in cheap tricks who tries to placate them with objects. (And the ‘Emerald City’ is not emerald at all, it turns out, it is merely made to appear emerald because of the emerald-tinted glasses everyone is required to put on before entering the city.) Which is to say, of course, that what the characters felt they lacked was illusory in the first place, and so therefore what they desired was false also — a false ‘need’ — at the very least, a fabricated need (a simulation of need).
Think of this — L. Frank Baum and the beguiling transparency of glass, the way in which plate-glass window-displays and displays with mirrors are presented as windows to possible futures for you and your family, great pictures which frame your desires [desires which they simultaneously ignite and fuel by selecting particular items and privileging them by foregrounding and framing them] — and then consider Google Glass and where we’re headed today with Augmented Reality and so forth; far from being over the top, it seems to me, Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation low-balled it all!
How active do we like our art? or not?
“From reading these [Coover & Shaw articles], it seems that we are on
the cusp of creating a credible age of digital art governed by code,
not the easel. The introduction of technology and the active
submersion of the person in the artists augmented reality environment
will only encourage us to think deeper about the artwork in
question.” Robert Byrne, 1 February 2015
“Coover’s text was an interesting piece. Digital media is being used
to create art that allows greater interactivity between the observer
and the art object itself. […] Where once the objective of the artist
was his finished product, now artists can create a work whose
ontological existence comes into being during the interaction with
the observer.” Alan Andrei, 19 February 2015
“I'm wondering what year the Coover paper was published. For all that
it goes on and on about the experience of time being constrained by
the medium of film, it misses an opportunity to discuss the
development of interactive storytelling and gaming, both of which
may be designed to allow the observer to go at their own pace.
And not necessarily even in a linear fashion.”
Katrina Stovold, 2 February 2015
“I suppose it refers to this shift from a static piece of art which
could be confronted as a whole, to one which has to be explored by
the viewer (/user).”Aengus Kirakowski, 3 February 2025
Still from The Truman Show (1998)
The section that struck me in these reading (both of which I enjoyed very much even if they were a little out of date — the majority of the pieces discussed appeared to be from the 1980s and 1990s, which, depressingly [we need to bear in mind], is now 25 years ago — a period of time in which things have moved on at an unusually accelerated rate) is the following, which, going forward, is where all the action is going to be (this quote is from the Shaw article, p. 9 in the Cosgrave pdf):
“A radical feature of an artwork whose forms derive from its algorithmic architecture is the possibility of designing algorithms that are subject to change due to user or environmental input, or that change independently of any external input due to the ability of the computational system to modify itself that is, as a consequence of software instructions that imbue the system with some form of “artificial intelligence.” The idea of auto-creativity in a manmade machine is an age-old fascination (linked of course to the machine’s potential to replicate itself) — as if the making of such a “device” would exemplify the peak of human creativity. Many contemporary artists are not at all embarrassed by this idea and see the digital realm as offering a unique opportunity to experiment with auto-creative processes as the next logical step in art’s cultural trajectory.”
Which, as I understand things, puts an end to Art as hitherto it has been conceived, because, for me anyway, there must be co-creation (a novel cannot be a novel without there being readers, nor can music be music without there being hearers and so on) — the skills and technique of the producer on one hand and the perceptions and preconceptions of the consumer or audience member on the other* — it seems to me that there must be some basic equality on either side of this [co-creative] relationship, not actual equality, of course, but reasonable correspondence. And this is not what we’re going to get when we have powerful computational systems modifying themselves such that what we have is auto-creativity — consider, for example the following few paragraphs from Tim Urban’s The AI Revolution: the road to SuperIntelligence
‘As of now, humans have conquered the lowest caliber of AI — Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI) — it’s everywhere, phones, cars, Google algorithms, Siri and so forth. The AI Revolution is the road from ANI, through Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), to Artificial Super Intelligence (ASI)
‘Each new ANI innovation quietly adds another brick onto the road to AGI and ASI.
‘Currently, the world’s fastest supercomputer, China’s Tianhe-2, is clocking in at about 34 quadrillion cps (computations per second). But Tianhe-2 takes up 720 square meters of space, and uses 24 megawatts of power (the brain runs on just 20 watts), and cost $390 million to build. Not especially applicable to wide usage, or even most commercial or industrial usage yet.
‘Ray Kurzweil suggests that we think about the state of computers by looking at how many cps you can buy for $1,000. When that number reaches human-level — 10 quadrillion cps — then that’ll mean AGI could become a very real part of life.
‘Moore’s Law is a historically-reliable rule that the world’s maximum computing power doubles approximately every two years, meaning computer hardware advancement, like general human advancement through history, grows exponentially. Looking at how this relates to Kurzweil’s cps/$1,000 metric, we’re currently at about 10 trillion cps/$1,000, right on pace.
‘So the world’s $1,000 computers are now beating the mouse brain and they’re at about a thousandth of human level. This doesn’t sound like much until you remember that we were at about a trillionth of human level in 1985, a billionth in 1995, and a millionth in 2005. Being at a thousandth in 2015 puts us right on pace to get to an affordable computer by 2025 that rivals the power of the human brain.
‘The next step then is that we’d build a computer whose two major skills would be doing research on AI and coding changes into itself — allowing it to not only learn but to improve its own architecture. We’d teach computers to be computer scientists so they could bootstrap their own development. And that would be their main job — figuring out how to make themselves smarter. An AI system at a certain level — let’s say human village idiot — is programmed with the goal of improving its own intelligence. Once it does, it’s smarter — maybe at this point it’s at Einstein’s level — so now when it works to improve its intelligence, with an Einstein-level intellect, it has an easier time and it can make bigger leaps. These leaps make it much smarter than any human, allowing it to make even bigger leaps. As the leaps grow larger and happen more rapidly, the AGI soars upwards in intelligence and soon reaches the superintelligent level of an ASI system. This is called an Intelligence Explosion, and it’s the ultimate example of The Law of Accelerating Returns.
‘Superintelligence of that magnitude is not something we can grasp, any more than a bumblebee can wrap its head around Keynesian Economics. In our world, smart means a 130 IQ and stupid means an 85 IQ — we don’t have a term for an IQ in the region of 12,952.
‘What we do know, however, is that humans’ utter dominance on this planet suggests one clear lesson: with intelligence comes power.‘
That it would be a blast at the beginning I’ve no doubt at all — the best movie or computerized game you’ve ever experienced — but, I’m perfectly sure, it would not be long before such imbalanced relationships (regular humans on the one hand and supercomputer-generated artifice on the other) would become a total nightmare.
*Worryingly [even in the Shaw and Coover readings which, as indicated, might be considered a little dated] we’ve already made the switch-over to the term “user” with all its druggie under- and overtones.
As the character Padmé Amidala says in Star Wars III, at the Declaration of the New [totalitarian] Order, “So this is how liberty dies . . . to thunderous applause.”
Jon Snow & Ygritte, from in HBO’s Game of Thrones, a TV show based on George R.R. Martin’s ‘Song of Ice & Fire’ books
Gender issues in Art & Lit
I was also struck by the comments made by Katrina Stovold in the fan-fiction thread (10 February 2015) where she says…
“I’d steal a page from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media’s playbook and advise people to simply change the gender of characters they’ve created. If the balance is not 50/50 for men and women (which doesn’t even begin to address the idea of non-gender conforming people), re-write so that it does. You’ll get more interesting characters, less stereotyping, and storylines that rely less on tired tropes.”
First of all, I think this would be a really good thing to do not only for political reasons but for artistic reasons — i.e. you really would get more interesting characters and plotlines in your work. Imagine a piece of software which did that for you (a piece of software that takes a story and reproduces it with the genders of characters randomly assigned so that you had a 50/50 balance — I mean software that did a little bit more than changing ‘he’ to ‘she’)? It’d be interesting, and I think the writer/creative artist would benefit from it too; it would certainly tend to make you think about your material in new ways!
In that post Katrina also says…
“As far as pronouns such as “hir” go, BioWare has already been using “Ser” and “Serrah” for both genders in several instances of media relating to the Dragon Age universe. While they still have some ways to go — still pointing out that it’s rare for a woman to wear armour and be a warrior/knight/etc., for instance — they do build the honorific into the lore and language.”
George R.R. Martin, the author of the ‘Ice & Fire’ books, which are the basis of the Game of Thrones television series, also uses “Ser” — for knights — the use of which I’d never considered as part of the gender in culture programme; I always thought of it as part of what Martin does with European culture of the medieval period in general — which is to twist things a little bit so as to make them strange to us, “maester” for ‘meister’ and so forth. Plus, of course, he’s got a good number of women in armour, Brienne of Tarth and Yara Greyjoy for example, and, although they not wear armour, of course, Daenerys Targaryen, Arya Stark, Meera Reed, and the wildling Ygritte and all are serious warrior women.
Until reading Katrina’s post this aspect of Martin’s creation was not apparent to me (and now, of course, it’s super-obvious); which is credit to Martin above all because these things, if they are done right, ought to be seamless.
Cover of the Nonesuch box-set collection of the music of Steve Reich (1997)
One of my favourite posts in the module is/was Brid Harrington’s on the work of Steve Reich in the Musical Treasure Hunt thread. She provides links to three Reich-related items and then has the following, which is a really thoughtful and informed post, I feel, and the material she provided links to is super interesting too:
“I’m not sure if we were just supposed to post links here, or provide some kind of explanation for our choices too. Just in case, here are a few lines on the choices I made. I chose Steve Reich, who is a seminal figure in the development of experimental music, focusing on note patterns and developing electronic devices to explore this process of music making. I’ve included a paper that he wrote in 1968, where he talks about his ideas on music as a process and describes the creation of the Phase Shifting Pulse Gate machine that he developed with the help of Bell Labs.
“He describes the pulse machine as a kind of metronomic device for regulating notes, and he is essentially more interested in the sounds that are created by humans using instruments, saying that he believes the future of Western music would be more heavily influenced in the future by ethnic beats from places like Indonesia, India and Africa, predicting that electronic music would eventually die out (!). I thought this was interesting as Reich has influenced generations of electronic musical artists since, from Laurie Anderson to the likes of the Orb, DJ Spooky and Aphex Twin. Also I thought of Lanier’s criticism of the limitations of MIDI when reading Reich’s piece.
“I’ve included a clip to one of his Pulse pieces that resulted from his experiment with the Pulse Gate machine, and was later incorporated into his seminal piece Music for 18 musicians (1974). I’ve also posted a clip by the Aphex Twin from 2010, which is a multimedia production of Reich’s Pendulum piece, originally composed in the late 1960s.”
I really like Steve Reich’s work too so this post is of particular interest to me. A fact which I hope & trust will absolve me of the charge of philistinism for the following:
[…keep it going as long as you can — until it begins to get just a little bit annoying — before answering . . . Steve Reich. (Obviously the joke only works if you know Steve Reich’s music!)]
And finally I’d like to express particular appreciation for that novella-like film Robert Byrne directed us to with his contributions to the fan-fiction thread, The Hunt for Gollum (2009):
As Robbie tells us, “the film was produced by Chris Bouchard and features amateur actors. All those involved were members of the Tolkien fan fiction community. The overall spend on the film was an astonishingly low £3,000; a figure that is difficult to comprehend when considering the film’s scope and ambition. Stunning cinematography, solid acting and an authentic script ensure this fan-made, free-to-distribute film is a worthy member of the Tolkein universe.”
This free-to-distribute feature has clocked up over 12 million YouTube views (a viewer number which, of course, does not count the number of views the film has had as a downloaded file — it is also free to download — or that it has had on other viewing platforms).
It is a truly wonderful creation, and those figures — £3,000 spent on making it and 12 million views — are seriously fabulous!!: this is not just a splendid example of something that is both fan-fiction and participatory culture, but something that ought to inspire anyone interested in art and creativity, a powerful exemplar of the possibilities of this life.