News: November 2017

Lots of people were hoping I got a break after Impakt but the chances are profoundly improbable. Impakt's over, at least the main festival over which leaves me with feelings of great joy (it was a fantastic success and I had a great time) but also a little listless - I'm hungry to do more, bigger, self-directed thi- oh no wait that's not a problem; there are loads of other things coming up.



Since we last spoke I've managed to document some of the projects I was previewing. Mephitic Air with Wesley Goatley is done, it was great. One of those things that I love because I just get to bury myself in a litany of technical challenges for a week or two - the big conceptual stuff is all there, it's just making the damn thing work. I like those challenges because there's an enormous sense of gratification in the incremental progress of learning new technical skills. The project is all documented here. We had some great feedback and did an artist's talk about the work which got some great responses. This is probably the end of the Mephitic Air projects - we've explored it from a couple of different directions now and it sort of culminated with the Somerset House LDF show (which wasn't documented by accident) and also received some great feedback. Wesley and I have plans for another project in mind and when we get a chance to sit down and start, I'll let you know.


We took down the Uncertainty Playground exhibition just before I left for Impakt. This was great as well and the opening event was a hoot. Being honest, I let a lot slip with this one. More than I would have liked to. I was running around opening three exhibitions that week, getting three or four hours sleep a night and hoping that with everyone involved, most of the problems would be sorted. I made some errors in the planning process that I wouldn't have made had I given it more attention. I don't think it impacted the over all exhibition but it definitely gave me a sense of where the upper limits on my functioning workload are. Aside from that, George and I did a pretty mean podcast about it which is starting to shape some future directions for things at LCC.

Between that and Impakt I was running around doing various talks and performances, including a decidedly odd but enjoyable one in Austria at a fine art-y event. I like these context-breaking events - I get to meet new people and learn a lot but also sort of watch in bemusement at the institutional and scene politics that are identical everywhere. I also got to meet a hero of mine and I didn't realise until after we'd spent twenty minutes joking about trains. I'm not going to go through all of the travelling and speaking because it would take too long to figure out the order of things. Here's a picture of Natalie glaring at me while we were talking about Haunted Machines at the Serpentine Marathon.


I'm not ready to reflect on Impakt yet. It was too recent and... well, people keep asking me how it was and I can only say 'great' because rambling on about how transformative it was, how exhilarating but also how it deepened some worldly concerns isn't 0830am coffee talk. It was obviously an incredible event, intellectually stimulating and liberating and we got a lot of the answers we want as well as having whole days sold-out so it had an effect. Once I've had time to dwell and figure out what's next, it will be easier to reflect on its value. Most of all it's going to feed back into my PhD work which I think I finally understand. I wrote this thing just before Impakt (literally on the plane over to Amsterdam.) It hasn't had much feedback but I'm finding it increasingly significant in working down what's unique about this moment in our machines. I'm open to feedback and thoughts and I think I'm getting toward something unique which Impakt has definitely fuelled. 

Back to work. 

Upcoming
Eppur si muove and so must we. (One of two phrases I'm using to keep going these days, along with 'I'm going to be too busy to be outraged at hipocrisy.') 

Lots of text-based media from the Revell brand coming and going. We in Strange Telemetry wrote a chapter for a new book out on Goldsmiths/MIT press coming out in March. Called Economic Science Fictions and editied by Will Davies, we wrote a chapter 'Valuing Utopia in Speculative and Critical Design' taxonimising speculative design projects looking at finance and economics. It's due out March 2018 and tbh it was so long ago I can't remember the details but I know it's good. Also, I'm just about to enter a book deal with a publisher and a handful of colleagues to write a book on what digital culture means for design from ethical and relational standpoints. Between the four of us it should be good but it's just so hard to find the time to sit down and write like 50,000 words. Book sprint I reckon. Finally, Natalie and I have also been quite open about our wish to turn Haunted Machines into a book next, at least to close this chapter, surmising the work so far and the conversations we've had. We've been tapped on the shoulder a couple of times but nothing has firmed up. If you're the publisher from our dreams and willing to backstop our VIP lifestyle, drop me a line. 

There's a handful of lectures and things coming up, including one at Central Saint Martins on the 29th November. It's actually increasingly rare that UK audiences are interested in my practice. I'm increasingly branded as an hardcore academic in the anglophone world and a free-wheeling, fast-and-loose artist-cum-aesthete in the rest. I don't mind this, it's just an interesting shift. 

Tbh I don't want to flesh the rest of the year out for you too much, there's the usual torrent of commitments but I'm going to spend the rest of the year concentrating on my students as some of them head towards their final show and the rest ramp up for the hard part of their master's. I'm enjoying running the MA Interaction Design Communication. There's opportunity for real intellectual ambition in it but there's some operational challenges to counter first. 

Next year some new, big projects begin. I'm excited, I think I've got a handle on what the hell my PhD is about and I've got great ideas for like three art projects. 

I'm rambling, the pit of my mind is full so stuff just falls off the top. Eppur si muove. 

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Arrational Machines: Beyond Speculation

"Wheras postmodernism toys with history via an increased skepticism in truly ‘knowing’ the past, hauntology posits that notions of the future have in some way failed, causing a disruption of time as an orderly sequence of past, present and future."
Grafton Tanner, Babbling Corpse
In recent weeks I’ve become troubled by notions of ‘futurity’ and ‘speculation.’ On one hand this trouble stems from a well-trodden criticism of speculation and future-thinking as complacent in the face of the overwhelming horror of the lived experience of the everyday. In the words of political pundit Jon Lovett ‘There’s like, just so much going on.’ The cheapness and ease of media production, from rolling news and blogs to film and music, makes the world look like an ever-repeating, skittering present. Massive film franchises dragging out their brand in endless sequels, album re-releases, remixes and remasters and bitter political battles over confederate history aren’t quite the heinous sin of nostalgia but they indicate a culture retreading the same territory over and over again looking to recreate an idealised past (‘Make America Great Again.’) Simultaneously, we use technology as an argument for future boosterism - that things will get better with enough data, the right algorithm or this breakthrough gadget. Meanwhile we tread water on the fifth Michael Jackson posthumous remaster album.

On another hand it’s more glacial concerns - a litany of evidences that point to a break with progressive liberalism and a nihilism about the future from whole generations who believe that things can only get worse. For so many the future is riddled with uncertainty, fear and anxiety, so throwing in more horrifying cautionary tales meant to provoke debate feels like an act of further destabilisation of cultural narratives in a western culture in which the word ‘divided’ is becoming synonymous with ‘democracy.’ Simultaneously, I’ve been querying where my intense fascination with a) the [occult] (square brackets because I use the occult as a stand-in word for any outsider knowledge framework but could also include things like ‘pataphysics) and b) rendering software comes from. I wrote something recently (yet to be published) which took the form of a speculation on a speculation - what if the future didn’t exist even as a site for speculation, and critical practice needed somewhere else from which to prod and poke at the present?

I’m not going to repeat what I wrote there because that would be cheap pandering, but I settled on the idea that the [occult] provides us an alternative framework for thinking through the world to western rationalism founded on science and Christianity. Rendering software (and, expertise allowing, code) allows us an alternative way to simulate the world, or, more romantically to dream the world; to fantasise new physics, textures and shapes. From these positions we might start to challenge the story of the present.

So why the fascination? Fundamentally, the occult and rendering both allow us to defy rationality - the guiding North Star of western hegemony, founded in western science and Christianity. Rendering (lit. to ‘make real’ - as opposed to ‘image’ - rooted in the word ‘imitate’) gives us an opportunity to build worlds where the rules are broken and the [occult] allows us to antagonise beliefs held to be true. But for most folk who are neither renderers nor [occultists] a machine of rationality has infected the way we perceive the universe; we think as if we are industrial machines, with input, outputs and processes in a linear order, proceeding into and simultaneously producing a ‘better’ future of progress. We impress this order on the universe and everything around us, seeing the universe as an industrial machine of cause and effect. This rational mind-machine is at the root of our struggle to comprehend the new machines that are shaping the universe and our perception of it.

The new machines aren’t rational or irrational. They have no notion of truth-ness. They don’t respect linear time or fixed space. They are not binary, on or off, here or there, on or off. They are ubiquitous and eternal beyond human comprehension and cognition and consequently, beyond all notions of legibility or rationality. In short - they are arrational; totally ambivalent to any fixed state. In order to properly comprehend, critique and design the world we too need to become arrational in the present.


At the end of the book Dream Machines Steven Connor writes of his hesitance as being misread as a technology critic. The point, he writes, of an entire book about the infection of human imagination with machines, is not to critique the roles and relationships that humans have established with technology but that it is simply impossible to talk about anything within the sphere of human comprehension without the use of ‘...techno, technique, or technesis.’
“There is no way of framing ethical, political, and philosophical questions that would not also have to be a matter of techne, technique, or technesis, and so would not have to be imagined mechanically.”
Steven Connor, Dream Machines
Throughout the book he highlights how we dream through and as machines, and have mechanised our experience of the world. We dream of faster travel, invisibility, greater sexual prowess, efficiency, speed and power all of which are mechanical qualities. It is almost impossible to separate mechanical aspirations - things we build machines in order to achieve - from our own. He doesn’t go so far as to suggest that where was a point at which we didn’t dream of mechanical or machine things, however he highlights how the social/technological deterministic loop reaches down to the very perception of an individual in the universe. The logic of the linear, rational machine structures even the way we can imagine, determining the limits and overarching ideology of speculation.

But the rationalist machine is a dated and innacurate representation of the contemporary technological landscape. The problem with this way of thinking and dreaming the world through machines is that it is splitting from the material experience and technical sensory apparatus of the world which no longer resemble modernistic machines of linear production (input one end, process happens, output comes out the other end) but a hauntological de-spatialised and de-chronified machine that defies expectations of linear time and space.

Why is the industrial machine such a problematic tool for imagining/dreaming/speculating through, in, and with? Well, the machine is embodied rationality. Limited by tested constraints to perform distinct and legible processes with regulated inputs and outputs. It’s media for existence are time and space: It is here and it does this and this in such and such an order - stage one leads to stage two, which leads to output and in doing so it fulfils the rational model of the universe of cause and effect, progress, production and growth impressed on us by thousands of years of western rationality.

This model of the machines, which we think through, dream through and impress on the universe is nostalgic and out of date. New machines are networked, often with imperceptible inputs and outputs let alone the black-boxing of their processes, such that they increasingly resemble illegible grey boxes of mystical purpose and agency. The proliferation of mystical grey boxes began with the PC and became the de-facto model of the hauntological machine - a box of no fixed purpose, with no fixed inputs or outputs that with the correct ritual can summon any process. I’ve written and spoken about this extensively; about how the mystical grey boxes turned marketing speak into techno-occultism and how the famous Latourian black box needs to be modified to account for its imperceptible inputs and outputs.


But further than that, we shouldn’t even be considering machines as boxes; discrete, perceivable objects that we can stand outside and observe. The new machines exist across multiple times and spaces at once while seemingly embodied in your pocket or hand. Search engines, smart phones, platforms, supply chains and all their ilk can hardly be classified as singular black boxes. These machines eclipse notions of time and space that the rational mind-machine relies on. This creates a problem; the machine that we increasingly sense the universe through (smartphone, search engine etc.) no longer resembles the machine we think the universe through (industrial production, linear processing etc.)

How can we reconcile a de-spatialised, de-chronified machine like a smartphone, a search engine, austerity politics, global surveillance, climate change (which I think for the purposes of this argument can all be said to be human-made machines) when our mental model of the universe is stuck in the rationalist-mechanical, where inputs flow linearly into the left, pass through time and then come out on the right-hand side?
“As with sounds, so with colours. At each end of the solar spectrum the chemist can detect the presence of what are known as 'actinic' rays. They represent colours — integral colours in the composition of light — which we are unable to discern. 
The human eye is an imperfect instrument; its range is but a few octaves of the real 'chromatic scale.' 
I am not mad; there are colours that we cannot see.  

And, God help me! the Damned Thing is of such a colour!”
Ambrose Bierce, The Damned Thing
The imperceptibility of the monstrous is a recurring theme in gothic horror, from Lovecraft and Bierce to more contemporary writers like China Mieville. As with Edgar Allen Poe and his rationalist critique of ‘supernatural’ technology, these writers recognise the folly of the industrialised rational-machine mind to reconcile reality with expectation. Within this rational mechanical knowledge structure we cannot conceive the monsters, can’t see them, can’t comprehend them and can only describe them apophatically as they fall outside the rationalist-machine. We express our outrage, indignation and shock by how the the return of fascism, normalised sexual assault, apathetic political responses to climate change, systemised social inequality and ‘irrational’ violence fall outside the rational machine of our expectations.

Plato, in his fear of irrationalism infecting the rational mind, ejected the poets from the state. Bifo Berardi embraces poetry as a challenge to high finance but perhaps there is a reconciliation in arrationalism; the collapse of any division between the two.

To begin the process of reconciling the lived experience of the everyday and an accelerating future with the ‘messy’ (lit: a word popular among social scientists) present we increasingly lean on speculation. Future speculation is ubiquitous in everything from enormously popular blockbuster science fiction cinema to advertising, from media art to design thinking methods that utilise speculative design in policy making. Speculation is a tested strategy for reconciling outrage and shock; it may help us broaden our expectations, stretch the imagination, widen the debate, broaden the dialogue but this is still fixed within the constraints of fixed space, linear time and the ceaseless thirst for ‘rational’ progress. Speculation more often than not takes the form of cautionary tales designed at steering our future towards the most progressive (in a fixed interpretation) future. Worse still, by the mere act of ‘what-if’-ing about the future, speculation delineates the past and present from the future. This addiction to linear time cripples the ability of speculation to properly arrationalise a world increasingly distant from modernist notions of time and space.


The monsters haunting us are precisely monsters because they are arrational and hence appear irrational. Like Jack Torrance in Kubrick’s The Shining they teleport seamlessly from time to time, place to place, breaking through Marshall McLuhan’s famous media ‘walls’ by existing in higher and lower dimensions than human or institutional perception. They act without ‘rational’ purpose, defying the model of the machine-mind and its possible inputs, outputs and processes. To see them and comprehend the monsters properly we must become tactically arrational. The occult, the extreme, the reactionary, the vapid are treated as irrational, not within the remit of the rationalist machine imagination and yet they are governing strictures of the lived experience of the arrational world.

Everything is true and dreams of all things. Instead of steadfastly gripping notions of futirity and progress, and of rational improvement even when that’s practiced through radical speculation we must learn to vacillate between knowledge structures and dimensions: To move jaggedly through time and space as machines and monsters do.

News: September 2017

I got married, I hid for a week and a half. Actually, you know, the wedding, the honeymoon. All of it was perfect. Just fucking perfect. Thanks for asking. The next few weeks are going to be some of the most intense I've been through for a while, lots of curation and organisational stuff and some new original Art. Super quick recap of the recent stuff:

  • The Summer School went really well, great group of folks and some really interesting challenges. I'm going to be publishing some writeups on the IDC blog when I get a minute (also go and follow the IDC blog). (edit: Writeup done. It's really good.)
  • I took part in a live Radio design workshop thing with Cat Drew of UsCreates recently. It's called the Fix and we Design Thought about how to fix the housing crisis. My gorup ended up settling on using unused brownlands as demonstrators of alternative housing models (co-ops, WikiHouse etc.) We won. 
  • I was in Australia with George Voss (with our LCC hats on) as part of the Interact program. We were visiting colleagues at RMIT and QUT to be grilled about Brexit and think about future academic partnerships. It was productive.... and I have a debrief with the boss in 18 minutes so I should probably think of more to say. 

Alright, so here's my flight schedule for the next two months (so far).

03.09: Cultural Sunday 3rd September with Impakt
Natalie and I are going to Utrecht (unsurprisingly) to take part in cultural Sunday. This is a big event across the whole city. We're hosting a panel discussion and mini-screening with a couple of guests including Simone Niquille, Dries Verhoeven, Dr Edwin Akin Hubbard and others. It's going to be a good way to introduce and kick off the program.

08.09 - 12.09: MA IDC exhibition at Ars Electronica 8th-12th September
My students are exhibiting some of their work at Ars Electronica this year as part of the campus exhibition. They're going to be showing work they've been producing over the last few months under the broad title of 'Social Things.' If you're there, it would be great to hang out.

14.09 - 13.10: Mephitic Air with Wesley Goatley at Brighton Digital Festival
Wesley and I have been working on the latest version of the Mephitic Air projects. (This time we just went with 'Mephitic Air') The big catch with this one is that's it's live. We're installing a pollution sensor and weather station outside of ONCA in Brighton and then modelling the data through sound and vision live in the space. The last few weeks have been a bit of a techinical learning curve when I've had time between everything else. We're also giving a talk and having a discussion about the work on the 18th at ONCA in Brighton.

We're also working on a version in collaboration with Superflux for Somerset House during London Design Festival.

16.09 - 20.10: Uncertainty Playground for London Design Festival at LCC 16th September



I've been quietly working away on LCC's London Design Festival Exhibition. Titled Uncertainty Playground, the exhibition explores the work of staff and academics at LCC in relation to the uncertainty operating at a very local level as well as a global level. I've got an insane construction plan which started last Wednesday with the great folks at Commissioned By You being very understanding of my weird plans. I don't want to give it away but there's a great lineup of people. Come to the official opening on 20th September and hang out!

27.09: Netherlands Film Festival, Storyspace
As part of the Netherlands Film Festival interactive strand I'm taking part in a group discussion with curators of a recent media festivals in Europe all roundly addressing superstition and sensing. The folks from STRP and Fiber will be there, and I think a few others too. It's an interesting opportunity to reflect on a question I've been asking a lot recently - why the occult has come back into fashion and whether it's memetic or a genuine product of the times we're in.

11.10 - 13.10: 88.7 at Steirischer Herbst festival in Gratz
I'm reperforming 88.7 for an Austrian Crowd at Steirischer Herbst in Gratz. Should be a lot of fun, I really enjoyed doing it last time in Korea. Hopefully I won't have to do too much work to get it up to scratch.

20.10 - 29.10: Impakt




And then it's Impakt. You've heard enough about it. I don't have to go over it again and again. You can say that you're going on the Facebook event page here. Then you can actually defy the event page model by actually turning up. We've started announcing lineup already. (Actually a lot more than I thought, this genuinely looks like a really good festival huh? I would actually go even if I wasn't organising it.) I've been recording more scrycasts that are going to be released soon too as little previews.

2018: Doing my PhD
Seriously.

Ugh. Fuck. Here's the instagram picture I always put in. Happy?

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News: July 2017

The other day I went on a rant about how I'm just doing admin and nothing fun at the moment. I guess that's deceiving, it's all fun. It's just rare that I get a moment to look up from the endless emails and paperwork and realise how cool all the stuff going on this summer is.
  • I've been in Utrecht almost every weekend for the last two months and Impakt: Haunted Machines is ramping up, we've been running a seminar at HKU in Utrecht with students over the last two weeks and have more small projects coming up. We're working on various partnerships and residencies and hopefully looking to launch a preview of the program in the next few weeks. 
  • Mephitic Air is coming back for round three. Wesley Goatley and I are working on another version for Brighton Digital Festival and London Design Festival (both things are at the same time in September.) This time we're looking at using live pollution data to do live visualisation which means I have to learn how to work with a bunch of new software and processes for two installations at the same time. 
  • London Design Festival at LCC is a huge monster of a job. I'm actually really excited to start putting it together, I've got some insanely ambitious plans for it and the people I'm working with are really eager about it too which is just about the most perfect working environment. I'm also thinking about producing a new work for this show but I need the time to sit down and figure out what it is. 
  • This ties into Interact, a project with Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology I've been working on for the last few years about interdisciplinary/international approaches to teaching and researching interaction design. We're putting together a big show for LDF and also I'm back in Australia through August (let me know if you wanna hang out.)
  • I'm taking my new student cohort in MA Interaction Design Communication to Ars Electronica in September where they'll be showing their work at the campus exhibition.
  • The speculative and critical design summer school starts next week, we're looking at the theme 'Limits To Growth' over a six-day period with some great guests. 
  • There's books and essays to write. 
  • I'm getting married in three weeks. I should probably organise that. 
Also...
Outside of this, there's load of things going on. New Mumbai is still on exhibition in Athens at Tomorrows. Anab and Jake from Superflux have put together what looks like a great show - How Will We Work - at the Vienna Biennale which includes Mercenary Cubiclists on show for the first time in a little while. The Finite State Fantasia comes off exhibition at De Brakke Grond tomorrow, just in time for the equipment to come back and be turned around for Mephitic Air. I'm re-engineering and representing the performance of 88.7 at Steirischer Herbst festival in October as well.



In Strange Telemetry we've done a few things this month: A suite of renders of future research spaces for the Royal Society for them to provoke discussion about the climate of research up to 2035. This took a good few days to produce. Last Sunday, while working on the final touches I wondered about getting some dinner before looking up and realising it was 0330. Following our workshop in Athens, we released our Futures Poker card set online and it's already been put to good use

One of the reasons I like doing these missives is it reminds me what I'm excited about. My favourite white shirt got stained by the iron. Here I am in a VR experience at the RCA graduation show. x

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News: June 2017

Every two months ain't bad I reckon. I've migrated this to my blog too so I don't have to overwrite every time. 

Well, the big news I suppose is that I've taken on a new job at LCC. As of last Wednesday I'm Course Leader for MA Interaction Design Communication. I'm really excited to get knee-deep in a new challenge and craft something amazing with a great course but I guess I'm also a bit sad to be leaving the undergraduates behind. I'm still going to be teaching on BA Interaction Design Arts and BA Information and Interface Design but my focus will be on working on a vision for IDC. There's lots of other stuff going on at LCC too. I'm currently deep in planning for two other side projects:
  • London Design Festival. I'm curating the show for the Critical Design and Digital Futures cluster at the design school. We've got big plans for a showcase of work and research being done by staff in this area, and I"m looking forward to showing it to everyone
  • Speculative and Critical Design Summer School. We've got another edition organised by Ben Stopher and myself coming up in July. This time on the theme of 'Limits to Growth.' With Anab Jain and Georgina Voss we produced a short podcast discussing some of the ideas which you can listen to here
  • Interaction Design Arts' graduation show opens on June 15th. There's some great work. Please come along if you can. 
  • One point eight million other things.

Studio
Finite State Fantasia is at De Brakke Gronde in Amsterdam until July in a very different form. I'm genuinely excited to keep playing with it and find other ways of getting it to talk and say stuff. My admin/creative work balance is way out of alignment right now and so any time I get to just sit down and play around with actual projects is a joy. This latest iteration is probably my favourite and it's had some good feedback. I've blogged about it here. Also at De Brakke Gronde is mine and Natalie's Alchemy podcast. Rumour has it that it was one of the key inspirations behind this year's Fiber festival so I'm really happy that it's found a place.

Over in Athens at the 'Tomorrows' exhibition I've got New Mumbai on show. They've also made prints of some of the images that I never really meant to exhibit but actually work quite well.



The video from my talk at STRP about some of the context about the project has been put up. I've been working through the relative themes of 'What's It Doing,' 'Swimming With Submarines' and 'Haunted Machines' over the last few months and if you've been at talks I've been doing you've probably seen a sequential tightening of the narrative.

Strange Telemetry
Georgina and I just returned from Athens where we were running a workshop on speculative design and the city as part of the Tomorrows exhibition mentioned above. We had a great crew of participants from across the city and had some really interesting discussion. I'm sure there'll be a writeup soon.



Upcoming
I've got Mercenary Cubiclists going back on exhibition at the Vienna Biennale 'How Will We Work' show curated by the Superflux folks. The lineup for that show is stellar. I don't currently have any plans to go out and see it yet but I'm really hoping I will soon.

Natalie and I are going to be chairing a seminar on Haunted Machines and Wicked Problems at the HKU in Utrecht which puts me in Utrecht again every weekend throughout the end of June. Engaging students in the festival is a big part of what we want so I"m excited to be running this little summer school for them.

There are literally hundreds of other things. I've got nested to-do lists hidden inside other to-do lists set to ten minute timers. But if I look I'll never finish this so I'm just going to call it quits.

I can't embed an Instagram as normal because Blogger is rubbish as everyone knows but I"m too stubborn to leave.

Love you all,

Tx

Finite State Fantasia at De Brakke Grond

The Finite Stata Fantasia is on exhibition at the moment as part of On Alchemy and Magic, a continuation of the original The Act of Magic show at STUK, Leuven now at De Brakke Grond in Amsterdam. I've made some pretty significant changes to the functioning of it for this iteration


The format of the installation has been changed to fit the space. From the beginning we were faced with the problem of not actually being able to fit the room inside De Brakke Grond. Including projector throw, the full installation requires around ten square meters of space. Instead the project had to be refigured. This was an opportunity to address some of the failings in the original installations. The most significant being that it was hard to 'get.'

Following the installations at STUK and STRP I'd interviewed the curators and various people associated with the project to gain feedback. This problem of not 'getting it' was addressed both times and is a self-contradictory problem. The piece is, to a degree, intentionally meant to alienate viewers. The sounds it makes are harsh at inhuman, the space is illegible. The project is meant to put the viewer inside the sensorium of a machine and for them to experience alienation and cognitive dissonance as the machine represented its interpretation of the space. I've always been hesitant as to how much explanation need to be given. Sometimes 'an invisible machine is moving around the space and making a point every time it hits something, including you' is enough to indicate what the audience is seeing and hearing, sometimes it requires deeper explanation. One thing that always came out was a need to understand what this process added up to. It's clear from the motion and dynamics of the presentation that something is happening, but what is the end result?


An example of a remeshed simulation from the second iteration of the project at STRP. 

At STRP I took the data produced form each simulation and ran it through an incredibly arduous rendering pipeline to produce re-meshes of the space. These meshes were made by taking the points produced in each simulation, calculating their normals - roughly, the direction the point faces - and running various different remeshing algorithms in MeshLab to get a model out of the other side.

This had a significant effect on audience interaction with the piece. During the last weekend of the STRP Biennale, the outputs were printed and, according to the feedback, the audience were immediately drawing comparisons and similarities between the two spaces. Both are inherently cuboid and indicate a relationship and it once the idea of the invisible machine is seeded, it's easy to see the connection.

For De Brakke Grond I decided to make this process live. This would give me the opportunity to break the process down into its constituent parts and draw a direct connection between them. For the Unity parts; the simulation and the point cloud, this is a relatively simple procedure of moving cameras around. The remeshing was more complex and relied on a lot of Python to connect Unity's output to Blender (I'm forever grateful to whoever instigated the idea of being able to right click on any Blender object to grab its Python code.) Additionally, a script is running in FFMPEG, which packages the images produced by each Blender render into a video file every day.

One simulation sped up 600%. The real simulation time is one hour. 

An example of a remesh, sped up significantly.

The obvious loss with this setup was the interactivity. Without the room to enter, there was no way to introduce human obstacles that play with the mesh and affect the way the machine is interacting with the space. To make sure that the simulations were varied and interesting, we introduced a script to the simulation that generated between zero and three random objects every simulation. These are simple shapes - cubes, cylinders, cones, spheres - generated at random that interfere with the space. In the above video you can in fact see the two spheres that were generated for that simulation in the last few seconds of the remeshing.

The piece therefore became more 'explanatory.' It's easy to see how the first screen leads to the second and the second to the third. As previously noted however, there are significant deviation which make little sense from the programming side. In the video above for instance, the machine appears to become 'stuck' to the surface of one of the spheres in the simulation. This results in a knotting of the space around increasingly smaller and denser movements. The way the Blender Point Cloud Skinner algorithm works is that it weights points that are closer together heavier and gives them preference, so the entire mesh appears to start knotting and contorting around the trapped machine.

The concern here is also that the piece is too explanatory. The conceptual basis of building an experiential installation that intentionally tries to alienate human beings is lost on something that is essentially a debugging tool for human legibility.

Next year The Finite State Fantasia may be worked up into a much larger version but for now, after De Brakke Grond it's being parked. Working with simulation tools as a way to bring ideas of computation into an experiential installation was an interesting new approach but I'm not entirely satisfied by the audience-facing nature of it. All the iterations are a way to create dialogue with other humans, using the machine as a prop, and I'm more interested in examining the critical structures of the machines themselves in a wide historical context - why certain machines are a certain way, what does this indicate about future shapes of human space?

FSF I have no idea

I'm just setting up the new Finite State Fantasia ready for the who next week at De Brakke Grond. It's something that I've had my stuck in for the last few months while I've been building it and taking it around Europe.

Due to the space constraints here it's had to be radically reimagined for exhibition and so I've ended up taking a bit more of a systematic, 3rd-person way of showing it. Something that is maybe a little less experiential and mysterious but tells you more about the work and its process.

The irony is that I've been looking at it for the last few hours and I had no idea what it's doing. Everything's calibrated and working properly but the emergent properties of this new setup mean that it's almost totally illegible to me. I can see things happening, but I don't know why they're happening or what's making it work in a way that is completely unexpected. I suppose having set it up I had a real strong idea of its function and so was never really that in awe of it. I would struggle to explain its actions now if someone asked. Which is genuinely great.


Blackout In Render Street

I've recently been thinking about the structural and computational limits of rendering. I've written a lot previously about how this media is rapidly become a key popular orientating mechanism for the future, but unlike print, it obviously has dependencies. Then I was going to write a blog about it, then I wrote a story. ...
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The flickering lights on the nearby crane, diffused by the thick city air, caught her attention. It was coming up to 9pm and the evening brownout would be up soon with power cut to non-vital services. During winter there were four a day, each for an hour and she was constantly amazed at how quickly the city had adjusted and normalised this dramatic infraction over the last two years. Gazing out of the window over her laptop into the never-dark of the city she glared pointedly at the ever-shifting urban landscape. The rapidity of construction was staggering but it was hard to remember it being any different, adjusted and normalised as everything in the city was.

She examined the site in front of her block; a massive pit of gravel and half-finished foundation that extended to the next street over. Trucks and machinery littered the site and huge halogens illuminated the ground casting harsh and perfectly black shadows under the machines and concrete and wire. All ringed by the defensive palisade of the standard 8 foot construction hoardings. ’What used to be there?’ she wondered. Last week there was one crane, now three, next week… six? Who knew?

She walked past the site and others like it everyday. The buildings grew and changed, were demolished again and rebuilt all over again. The city was pockmarked with pits and piles of rubble and foundations forever. Her streetscape was mostly digital hoardings; glaring and glowing LED screens proclaiming property lifestyle choices. Smiling families catching frisbees in opulent green spaces that never seemed to materialise in the ceaseless churn of construction and deconstruction.

She flicked open a new tab in her browser and went to Street View. Entering the time machine, she scrobbled back through bookmarks from the last few months when the Google cars had been through; hoarding, hoardings, mesh fence, hoardings, hoardings, hoardings.. all the same but different. Eventually she found something. Five years back, the time before the hoardings had arrived. A nondescript, squat concrete block of two or three storeys receded from the road with a ramp leading up to the heavy wooden security door. No indication of what it was. A community centre or hall, maybe some shops or classrooms. It didn’t actually matter. She felt no personal nostalgia for the boring building. It’s just.

It’s just that it’s been five years since anything on this street had been real. Not a promise or a speculation, a future, a rendering or an investment opportunity. A future ever receding behind the CGI towers and greenscape. Five years since that squat concrete bulk of sink-estate architecture had been replaced by ‘City Living With A Wholesome Lifestyle’ or ‘Urban Choices’ or ‘Metropolitan Family Quality’ or ‘Quality. Efficiency. Living’ or ‘Completely Global. Completely Local’ or ‘Live Your Dream’ or ‘Living: Redefined’ or ‘The New Face of Iconic’ or ‘Celebrating Heritage, Creating Opportunity’ or, or, or…

She studied the concrete block on her screen. It sat, blissfully unaware of its fate, obscured by a mix of vegetation and the stretched distortion of the Google car’s camera. The trees were gone for sure. The block eradicated, how was it the same place? Google’s rendering made it so she supposed. Using her mouse, she tried to rotate around and zoom, find out more about the hideous little thing but to no satisfaction. She was stymied by Google’s limited data capture of the time and a generation of architecture that refused to broadcast any intentions.

She looked back out of the window. The hoardings on the site oppostie were still going, looping their kitsch little animations, the gleeful renders and future promises unaware of the brutal power cut on its way. Her laptop battery was charged in advance as always, the blackouts were scheduled and she was well-attuned to making time for them and normally she’d continue through the hour. But. She hesitated.

After a few moments she closed her laptop, put on a coat and left the flat. She descended the stairs and crossed the street.

She concentrated on the hoarding on the other side of the road from her apartment building door. From this perspective she could see none of the concrete foundations, rubble or machinery behind it’s dimming digital glare. In front of gleaming towers, on a glorious sunny day a young woman in sunglasses, gliding down a non-existent gravel path smiled back at her, her hand reached out, she laughed, beckoned and turned around. The CGI view panned up to the sky, the promised apartment towers gleamed in the rendered skybox, constructed from some foreign atmosphere. The view faded to white. ‘Live in Tomorrow’s City.’

She stepped over the road in the chill and quiet and walked over to the hoarding. The animation restarted. The woman walked towards her, smiled, laughed, beckoned, turned, the view panned. ‘Live in Tomorrow’s City.’ Fade to white. The animation restarted.

She moved closer, following the woman’s face as she smiled, laughed, beckoned. ‘Live in Tomrrow’s City.’ Fade to white.

Closer still. She reached out with both hands and touched the dirty surface of the hoarding layered with grime and soot from the street and the site. Smiling, laughing, beckoning. ‘Live in Tomrrow’s City.’ Fade to white.

Closer. Smiling, laughing, beckoning, ‘Live in Tomorrow’s City.’ White.

Closer. The image became blurred, the laughing, the beckoning, the tag line became enmeshed and blurred with the bright LEDs.

She felt the cool plastic of the hoarding touch the tip of her nose. In front of her eyes, a handful of impossibly bright LEDs struggled to maintain focus, blinding her and filling her vision. Somewhere else there was laughing, beckoning, ‘Live in Tomorrow’s City.’ White.

And then just gone. Just black. Her eyes adjusted. Her ears suddenly attuned to the absence of the gentle buzz of electricity. In front of her eyes, the LEDs resolved to dark grey bulbs and she could see the smudged brown of the dirt. No one laughed or beckoned. The future had turned black.

She stepped back, all along the street, the hoardings had cut leaving nothing but grimy screens. She was alone and the street was empty but it was more and less than that. It was empty of itself. As if she was looking at the shell of the street. It came form nowhere and belonged to anywhere. Cracked pavement, unmarked road, black walls. With only the blank LED screens becoming obelisks in her eye line she felt trapped. She looked at her hands, her fingers rubbed with the grime of the LED hoarding. Her hands were grey. She tried to remember the concrete block that stood here five years ago but could only summon Google’s rendering, an overcast day, trees, blurred edges where the software stitched the mediocre panorama into reality. She turned around in the grey, everything suddenly real between renders of past and future.

Then the most brilliant illumination. She saw her hands cast in shadows and white then blues and greens. Colours so bright and real, impossible reality.

Smiling, laughing, beckoning. ‘Live in The City of Tomorrow.’

I, Renderer.

I recently came across Alan Warburton's new short video essay Spectacle, Speculation, Spam, it's pretty comprehensive and understandable breakdown of how software itself is a unifying point of theory and practice. Using the tool as the means of production invites you to theorise on what it means to be using that tool in a critical way. It's worth watching because there's a lot of nuance in the argument and it's something that in my practice I spend a lot of time thinking about. I'm kind of in to opening up and talking about the tools used in art and design production, not in an open-source way but more because I think those tools have an interesting relationship of being shaped and shaping their application. The project I'm working on at the moment is a simulation of a simulation of a machine inside a gallery. I made the conscious decision to very visibly realise what it is to the audience - none of the working will be hidden, nor will the fact that it's essentially just a simulation running on Unity and not a 'real' machine at the highest level. This is a way of opening up the layers of production to the audience, not presenting a spectacle (though I hope it will be spectacular) but as  a kind of Pompidou Centre effect.

Art-Labour

Warburton also raises the vexed problem of labour. Though this new project is built in Unity, I didn't build it. I've dabbled in Unity but am nowhere near experienced enough to build what I envisioned to the degree of production I'd be happy with so I've employed someone else and have taken a more directorial role. This is a first for me, I've always done 95% of the labour on my projects - barring extremely specialist services like industrial 3D printing or where assembling a team is necessary like film-making. I was faced with the problem of wanting to do something new and ambitious that was outside my skill set but also not having the time to actually learn those new skills, so I had to bite the bullet and get in someone else.

Rather than a one-way relationship, the result has been a lot of interesting critical conversations between myself and the Unity developer as a result of our understandings of how different software packages work. My 3D software expertise is in Blender (where I would say I'm at a high level of skill) while his in Unity. We've ended up spending a lot of time in discussion about the different ways these software packages work out things like physics, particles and even basics like colours. It's exactly these kind of base level operating structures that I find great points of critical enquiry in working with software: why does Unity render particles such-and-such a way and Blender in such-and-such a way? I'm not going to go into a big software comparison, this isn't that type of blog but it leads to interesting questions about who these packages are for and why they were designed that way and by who? They're both free but in different ways; They both offer similar functions but for different outcomes and so on.

Another interesting point on the problem of art-labour is that I'm working with a developer normally used to games. These games need to be made quick and dirty but look slick and polished. They need to go straight to user's phones and devices so inconsistencies and bugs need to be removed and ironed out. In my work, I'm trying to bring out exactly these software flaws and allow the audience to see the simulation fail and break which I think is a cognitive dissonance for employment, reminding me of Jeremy Hutchinson's Err. project; 'I want you to make something for me but it's fine if it doesn't work.' I've been inviting the developer to leave unintentional flaws in the simulation setup, if it gets stuck or glitches and resets early then that tells us much more about these technologies than faking it does.



Protorenderer

I've never been able to draw (everybody says that and everyone else says that everyone else can draw), I suppose what I mean is; I was always frustrated with my inability at drawing to properly represent my ideas at any more than the most basic, diagrammatic level. When I was at the RCA I decided to play around with 3D printing and a classmate showed me Blender as a way to quickly knock it up. After that I started playing around with it to make my own models of things, not as renders in themselves but as ways to think about objects and their physicality. I enjoyed rotating around them, zooming in, catching different angles and trying to get the thing on screen to fit with what I imagined. This new project, before even hitting Unity had me building a dozen iterations of the setup and functional behaviour in a model of the exhibition space (see above) as a way to think about audience impressions and experience as well as work out very technical constraints like projector throws.


My first render from 88.7 Stories From The First Transnational Traders - 2011-ish?

This is less of a product-design process than a cinematic process. I've always thought about things cinematically and have previously written somewhere or other about how cinematic visuals so easily slip into popular culture and so make a powerful vehicle for designers. The purpose of rendering for me is to get an impression of the thing with one-order of reality removed, as in cinema. The shot above is probably the first render I ever did. It's terrible. But at the time I was overjoyed. It contains millions of faces and only about 3 materials. I teach students Blender and I think one of the hardest conceptual jumps to make is that you're not trying to model reality - you're faking reality. Game engines use this technique all the time with things like clipping distance and object cutoffs to lower processing power on things that are far away. You can't tell from this image but in that glass room at the back are dozens of hand modelled office chairs that no one can ever see but suck up valuable processing time. I had yet to learn my own lessons.



So rendering became a method of prototyping. Most of my projects now involve Blender in some stage of their production, in some, for their entirety. The remake of 88.7 was an entirely rendered 28 minute film and performance. With that project I didn't want to do something that 'represented' the fiction I'd come up with but something that augmented it, offering a more interpretive eye into the characters who's stories I was reading. 'The Manager' is all gold and clockwork, 'The Engineer' a ghostly schematic-like first-person view point, 'The Trader' has a sea of data and we only ever see flickering fluorescent lights for the scientist as she gazes at the ceiling wondering about her situation.



Watching Mephitic Air, made with Wesley Goatley, who's also doing the sound for the new project (another skill and theory set I haven't time to become expert in) is just over 30 minutes of rendered pollution data. Taking something that is classically 'immaterial' (in popular discourse, not reality) and giving it the illusion of materiality which is totally simulated. This influenced our decision to project on thin dust sheets rather than hard projector screens. Walking around it you could never fully grasp the shape of what was happening, just a vague sense of motion and change with the occasional explosion of visuals and sound. The materials are close representations of the substances we were aestheticising at room temperature. Things never normally seen in isolation because they're too small, volatile and diluted, suddenly made hard and irreal.

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It's also a little bit of a concern of comfort. Through my practice, I've found the tautology that 'you end up doing what you do' really applies. I once spent a year writing and all I got was people asking me to do writing. I now find rendering so comfortable that I seem to always turn to it whenever anything new comes along. That's fine for prototyping but a part of this new project is pushing it aside once it comes to production. Instead of producing a render, which can only ever live on screen or paper, producing an 'artwork' in the fullest sense - with the optimum tools for the ideas, that it's less about the methods of production and what they represent than what the thing is itself. I think my attachment to rendering would make that otherwise impossible. The benefit of unifying practice and theory through the critical use of software (or whatever tools) only goes so far before they start to obfuscate the ideas you're trying to talk about in the first place - yet another difficult balance to strike.

I'm probably going to write and think more about why I render as time progresses and I've done endless little bits of writing on it. It's a hard skill, I wouldn't say there's a rendering package apart form maybe SketchUp that you could pick up and get running with in a day, there's some really interesting conceptual barriers to get round when working with 3D on a 2D screen which lead to difficulties that are more than just learning functionality.
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