Posts for February 2013

Rhizome Digest: Best of Rhizome January

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Dala3 (in Vegas), 2011, Fatima Al Qadiri w/ Khalid Al Gharaballi (From WaWa Series)

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The Danmaku Game as a New Optical Art, Part I

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Non-playable danmaku test / simulation programmed in Visual C++ and DirectX c 9.0

The ‘Apollo’ game center near Abeno Station in Osaka is indistinguishable from dozens of others scattered throughout urban Japan, yet is no less compelling for this fact: as far as total sensory environments go, there are few things like it, and the over-abundance of loudly competing sound sources makes it is easy for one to get ‘lost’ in here even with an easily understood floor plan. To that end, the game consoles in this establishment are organized by genre in their own compact micro-districts or “functional clusters” of three or four (an organizational strategy that is seemingly carried out on a much grander scale by Japan’s urban planners.) Slinking gradually from the main entrance to the rear of the establishment, I first have to navigate past a throng of uniformed high school students watching intently as one of their representatives dances for his life on the one-man stage of a Dance Dance Revolution spinoff. Similar dramatic scenes play out on the nearby musical instrument simulators, with wide-eyed and spiky-maned boys proving themselves to their peers by banging stacatto rhythms on replicas of wa-daiko drums, or shredding away on pushbutton-powered guitars. The crowd noticably thins out as I reach a room separated from all this energy expenditure, where an older and more sedentary gaming constituency - either oblivious or indifferent to the hyperactivity in the adjacent room - sits tranquilly in front of tooth enamel-white game consoles housing mah-jongg simulations or nostalgic arcade hits from the country’s sorely missed “bubble” decade. They languidly go about their business while enjoying canned coffees and Seven Stars cigarettes, sitting in close proximity yet effectively isolated in their private capsules of shuddering screen glow.

However, their disaffected behavior - which, coupled with their standard dress of pressed white shirts and loosened mono-chromatic neckties, makes their leisure time here seem like just an outgrowth of their office workdays - is somewhat miselading: tucked away in their refuge are some of the most nerve-wracking, blood pressure-inflating electronic games yet devised, known in Anglophone fan circles as “manic shooters” but known locally by the more colorful sobriquet danmaku [弾幕、”bullet curtain”.] With their provenance in the Tokyo game workshops of ToaPlan and Cave (the latter rising from the ashes of the former almost immediately after its 1994 declaration of bankruptcy), the games’ common objective is simplicity itself: players, in a single or double configuration, navigate their personal spaceship icons through virtual battlefields of progressive complexity and difficulty while destroying enemy war machines, collecting both points and weapons upgrades for their efforts, and making sure to dodge the considerable amount of enemy fire.

Mandala-like firing patterns in a game from the TouHou Project series

Despite this apparent banality, a minute’s worth of patience will reward the player with an aspect of these games’ visuality that is, in fact, highly unique - even if that uniqueness is merely a matter of taking some familiar visual elements to an extreme of saturated perception. Namely, the “enemy fire” in question greets the player as an amorphous mass of flickering color that seems to take on a life independent of its releasing entities: in the danmaku game, orb- or arrow-shaped projectiles form the atomic units of pulsating, multi-hued latticeworks and arabesques. Sometimes these designs will manifest as screen-swallowing circles with equidistant radii or spokes, or will wheel across the entire screen space in the form of undulating tendrils, or on other occasions will rain down like multi-colored confetti streamers. They will coalesce into individual strands of menacing webs, or spin wildly in double helix formations. In worst-case scenarios, such as the final battle of Cave’s 2004 hit Mushihime-sama [虫姫さま、“Insect Princess”], an uncountable number of angry magenta orbs settle into an oppressive rolling fog, with seemingly no gaps through which to escape. A teasing, moderately difficult ‘period of emergence’ generally lures players into these more challenging moments: they may be required to fight through a couple of preliminary game levels for the dynamic variation in such patterns to become truly impressive, with the more superlative moments of danmaku exhibition being reserved for one-on-one confrontations with hulking end-of-level “boss” characters (e.g. the stage-climaxing super-villains of Cave’s 2010 tour de force Akai Katana [赤い刀、”Red Blade”] who summon up and hurl massive gunships that unleash their own hot-pink torrents of fire in turn.)

In keeping with the familiar game taxonomy that sees game genres being named for the action involved in them (e.g. “shoot ‘em up”), danmaku games have also been refered to more specifically as danmaku kaishi [弾幕回避, “bullet evasion”] games. Yet whatever relation one has to the ‘bullets,’ it would not be too much of a reckless leap in reasoning to name the “bullet curtains” themselves as the true iconic “stars” or attractions of these games (in most of these games, only cursory efforts are made to weave a narrative around the pilot characters or their anatagonists.) Arcade gamers must learn very quickly, in order to make their sacrifice of 100-200 yen a worthy one, to view these tantalizing clusters of glowing globules or phosphorescent spear tips as the primary focus of their visual attention: no matter how well rendered the digital landscapes are in which the action takes place, or how intricately detailed any of the in-game objects may be, they must be treated as a kind of extraneous visual noise. The most successful danmaku players must hone a kind of visual essentialism that recalls the Optical paintings of Tadasuke “Tadasky” Kuwayama: his characteristic ‘concentric circle’ works not only presented an illusion of three-dimensionality, but conferred the illusion of being animated or ‘breathing’ objects as well (we could also refer to 19th-century harmonograph etchings for other designs in which concentric circles appear three-dimensional or spherical.) Showing another kind of kinship with Optical art works, the screen images of flaring bullet curtains can provide the viewer with a ‘post-exhibition exhibition’ in the form of entoptic phenomena: though appearing in a less unequivocally colorful form, the danmaku formations continue to twist and dance beneath closed eyelids for brief post-play periods.

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Ben Jones: The Video

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Ben Jones, The Video

It seems pretty fitting that I’ve sat down to write about Ben Jones’ current exhibition at least three or four times.  The requisite online “research” always turned into episodes of Problem Solverz, Jones’ show on Cartoon Network, a trip down the wormhole of media-saturated content on Paper Rad, his collaborative with Jessica and Jacob Ciocci (including Rhizome and the New Museum’s recent archival of their website, http://www.paperrad.org and the accompanying exhibition, “Welcome to My Homey Page”), and a late night gchat where a friend excitedly offered to rip me his hard-to-find videos on DVD.

This is exactly the kind of intertextually meandering, visually anarchic, mentally overwhelming and massively entertaining experience that Jones is known for. Based on the gallery text and interviews that I read while trying to get a grip on his new material, Jones is trying—really—to simplify.

Ben Jones: The Video, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Pacific Design Center through February 24th, includes plenty that will look familiar to those who have tripped in the Jones universe before.  Quasi-religious Gumby dolls, burning neon suns, loveable part man-dog-anteater Alfe; they’re all here.  But the mood of the show is quite different from his prior work. It’s hypnotic, reflective, and more than a little bit sinister.

Ben Jones, The Video video painting still, 2012

The exhibition has been described as a series of video installations and while, technically, that’s correct, it’s also more than that. Collectively, the works in the show function as an installation about making videos.  Unlike many of his fine art contemporaries, Jones is himself a manifestation of network age high-low plurality.  He runs a successful commercial animation practice, creating music videos for the likes of Beck and ...

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Wired Differently: Joel Holmberg at American Contemporary

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Installation View: Joel Holmberg, Soft Laws (2013), American Contemporary, New York

If we look back at the community of artists associated with the surf club Nasty Nets, including John Michael Boling, Michael Bell-Smith, Aleksandra Domanović, Joel Holmberg, and Kevin Bewersdorf, to name a few, we’ll see that they’ve continued on extremely heterogeneous paths. Some, such as John Michael Boling and Kevin Bewersdorf, have slowed down or halted their artistic practices to pursue careers in IT or other ventures, while others—say Aleksandra Domanović and Michael Bell-Smith—have enjoyed considerable success in the art market, both artists being represented by notable commercial galleries. Holmberg, the subject of this article, gained attention in 2010 for his existential-yet-slightly-trolling Legendary Account included in Free, curated by former Rhizome Executive Director Lauren Cornell. For Legendary Account, Holmberg asked the normally utilitarian Yahoo! Answers site questions such as “Does having a crummy day-job help stimulate your creativity?”, “Is it possible to jet ski or sea doo in the dead sea?”, or “How long does post-coital last?”. Holmberg and Cornell exhibited blown-up, printed documentation of the account at the New Museum, and the account is now archived on Rhizome’s Art Base.

Two years later, Holmberg studies at Yale’s Master of Fine Arts Program and has launched his first commercial gallery exhibition in New York at American Contemporary (previously Museum 52) in NoHo. Holmberg’s Soft Laws presents an array of sculpture divergent in size and material. We see a plaster-covered lamp shade, jib crane, fiberglass chair built on top of a filing cabinet, ceramic tile, pencil wall drawings, etc.—these works unified by their almost slapdash handmade nature and implicit sense of humor. While Holmberg’s humor has always been prevalent in his oeuvre, the heightened, studio-born materiality of his newer work may seem something of a new thing. Like his humor, connecting the artist’s process is his tendency to continually relate back to how our identities can be subsumed by clichés, platitudes, and larger systems of thought by the relationships and interactions that they script.

If Holmberg’s Legendary Account sought to de-script the Yahoo! Answers format by introducing the site to an air of jocularity and existentialism, his new sculptural works in Soft Laws exaggerate and re-script common artistic materials as well as the popular characterization of the artist. Take the painterly Emotional Bioré (2012), one piece in a series of five large wall-mounted works using ceramic tile as a base with plaster pushed through back to front—mimicking, the artist says, the functionality of backlit digital screens. Sourcing sheets of tile that have yet to grouted, Holmberg considers the medium of the tile to be a scripted material that prompts the user’s action (i.e., there are grooves between individual tiles, and they will only adhere to a surface if one grouts them, thus one must grout them. This effect isn’t terribly unlike the act of posting a status update to social networking sites in order for it to be liked. For example, I’m going to post a photo of myself smiling on the beach so that my friends will confirm how relaxed and tan I look.) Holmberg douses the plaster composition’s front with printer ink while it sets, imbuing it a saturated, CMYK feel. When splattered, the ink changes the topography of the plaster to appear similar to a lunar surface or Pollock-inspired drip, itself a scripted gesture pointing toward the bravado of the oft-drunk, late-Modernist abstract expressionist painter—perhaps pop culture’s favorite portrayal of the romantic, tortured artist.

Joel Holmberg, Verner Panton Chair with Filing Cabinet (2012)

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The Download: Andrew Norman Wilson

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Album cover for ECCOS

This month, The Download premieres Andrew Norman Wilson's first experimental album, ECCOS (2012), a modified soudtrack from an Ecco the Dolphin gameplay video. Wilson contextualizes ECCOS as furniture music: not a centerpiece, but a backdrop for thought and other activities. The project utilizes an input output system, in which he employs the simple "change speed" and "echo" effects in Final Cut Pro and pushes them to their maximum values. Wilson has diagrammed the process (included in The Download), relating it to kindred experiments like Brian Eno's Discreet Music. In that spirit, ECCOS seeks and finds– a limit within the music itself.

Learn more about Wilson's diverse practice in his interview with former Rhizome Editorial Fellow, Louis Doulas.

The Download gives a first look to great art for Rhizome members. Start your own digital art collection by becoming a member today.

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Prosthetic Knowledge Picks: Slitscan

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A collection of examples from the Prosthetic Knowledge Tumblr archive on the subject of Slitscanning, a photographic effect that creates distortions and occasionally insightful images based on time.

The slitscan effect has, of-late, had something of a renaissance over the past year thanks to digital technology. Once a time consuming and expensive technique, coders have created their own solutions (either personally or commercially in the mobile app market). For the uninitiated, it has been defined by Golan Levin thus:

Slitscan imaging techniques are used to create static images of time-based phenomena. In traditional film photography, slit scan images are created by exposing film as it slides past a slit-shaped aperture. In the digital realm, thin slices are extracted from a sequence of video frames, and concatenated into a new image.

Below are some examples of creative coding with the slitscan technique:

Volumetric Slitscan Experiments by Memo Akten

The slitscan technique is a well-explored method in photography and video, but this is the first time I have seen it using a Kinect camera feed, where depth plays an additional factor. Two short videos are embedded above, and they are made more fun by the music (dancing to Nina Simone’s “My Baby Just Cares For Me”).

Work-in-progress prototype for an upcoming project involving volumetric slitscanning using kinect (should it be called surface-scanning?). Similar to traditional slitscanning ... but instead of working with 2D images + time, this technique uses spatial + temporal data stored in a 4D Space-Time Continuum, and 3 dimensional temporal gradients (i.e. not just slitscanning on the depth/rgb images, but surface-scanning on the animated 3D point cloud).

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Younger than Rihanna

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In 2009 the New Museum played host to its inaugural triennial, the now famous “Younger Than Jesus” Generational. Taking its name from its restrictive age limit, the exhibition proposed a survey of artists aged 33 and younger, which is to say, born after 1976 (Jesus was born before). Art has long fetishized youth, and neither the show’s curatorial premise nor title are particularly shocking; scrolling through the reviews online we find business as usual round ups of a “business as usual” show. Yet this if anything seems the exhibition’s strength, coming across as an app-store of reactions to what was then emerging as a new, networked normal. It’s enticing today to flick through the detailed catalogue, checking which artists you’re now Facebook friends with, and which artists you still secretly idolize.

Such is an interesting moment to bear in mind when thinking about this year’s DLD art panel in Munich, assembled by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Simon Castets, whose curatorial remit of “89+” seems almost tongue in cheek by comparison. If Douglas Coupland bizarrely suggested “The Diamond Generation” as an appropriate tagline for this group of fluidly networked and distributed digital natives, “Younger Than Rihanna” might have been more fitting, seeing as Forbes’ fourth most powerful celebrity of 2012 would have been too old by a matter of months.

The theme for this year’s conference was “Patterns That Connect”, but the words on everyone’s mouth were big data. Big data is the accumulation of massive data sets, and allows for the tracking of behavior in previously undreamt of ways - just think of the sorts of comparisons Facebook Graphs allow us to conduct on the people that surround us. Albert-László Barabási summarized it accordingly in a keynote on the final day: “Our behavior can be now tracked in a very objective manner, and we can start asking quantitatively: how do we really behave?” It is tempting, if at the moment still humorous, to view the 89+ project in this context, as a powerful mapping tool able to screen capture artists straight out of art school and plot their shifting network ties through their career. Indeed, the first network maps of those involved in the project have already been produced. As Barabási later concluded: “Where you are defines what you do.” Yet right now, and at the immediate birth of the project, it is probably enough to make some initial observations—or at least provide some cannon fodder for future critique.

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The Body as an Object of Interference: Q+A with Jeff Kolar

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Dancers often describe the feeling of watching someone else’s performance and actually feeling, in their own bodies, the form and movement of the other. This sensation of inhabiting another’s body in a relative physical way is called proprioception and it does have a basis in neurological fact, which reports that some can access this bodily empathy innately while others, especially in kinesthetic disciplines like dancing or music, develop a sensitivity to it over time. But can a non-human entity like, say, an osprey or a radio frequency be considered proprioceptively knowable?

Jennifer Monson’s upcoming performance at The Kitchen, Live Dancing Archive, plays with this idea, asking if dance can function as a continuously generating archive of bodily experience. The piece, her first in a theater setting in years and by far the longest of her choreographed works, revisits one of her own earlier projects as source material. A dance-based environmental research trip across Atlantic bird migration routes, BIRD BRAIN Osprey Migration (2002) aimed to collect environmental data through tracing the physical route of the birds from the North Atlantic to South America. This new work, in turn, uses video documentation of the dancers on that tour, Monson included, as the archival data to be embodied and brought to light in her performance.

While this might appear to point to a highly personal and, perhaps, political interpretation of the archival impulse – i.e. to advocate for a specific kind of environmental knowing through an artistic research practice – Monson’s collaborative development of Live Dancing Archive points to an interest in a more open and fluid definition of the concept. The piece was developed collaboratively over the course of the last year and a half by Monson, video artist Robin Vachal (who recorded the initial documentation of the 2002 project), lighting designer Joe Levasseur, and audio artist Jeff Kolar. In its final incarnation, the work exists as the simultaneous performance of Monson, Levasseur, and Kolar, all of whom will be physically present on stage, a video installation that will be on view on The Kitchen’s stage during days of performance, and a digital archive of video footage and ephemera from the BIRD BRAIN project that will go live on the day of the performance’s premier.

The project’s composer, Jeff Kolar, agreed to answer a few questions about the audio component of the performance, an “indeterminate score… generated through live field experiments in the AM/FM, shortwave, Citizens, and unlicensed spectrum (27 MHz or 49 MHz band).”[1]

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A Queer History of Computing

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Alan Turing, Letter to Dr. N. A. Routledge, AMT/D/14A Turing Archive

There are many ways of telling the history of universal computation, and many origins of the technologies we now consider computational machines. A longer history might begin with Gottfried Leibnitz and Isaac Newton's simultaneous development of modern calculus and the dream of a universal artificial mathematical language. Alternately, we might look to the history of calculating machines, beginning with Charles Babbage's Difference Engine or Herman Hollerith's Electric Sorting and Tabulating Machine.

Most every history would certainly include the contributions of Alan Turing, an English mathematician who is considered by many to be the father of computer science. In his relatively short career Turing formalized such concepts as "algorithm" and "computation," he helped crack the Nazi Enigma Machine during the Second World War, was a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence, and developed early research on such concepts as neural nets, morphogenesis, and mathematical biology. Turing was also an openly gay man who, in January of 1952 was convicted of Gross Indecency by the British government under the 1885 Labouchere Amendment, made to undergo chemical castration, and ultimately committed suicide in June of 1954.[i] The subject of numerous books, films, and works of art, Turing is perhaps the most widely recognized computer scientist in the field's short history. He is also the most recognizable queer figure in this history. As such, it is necessary to begin with Turing, not simply for the visibility of his difference, but for the fundamental role he played in defining the limits of computation, and the possibility to look beyond those limits in identifying a queer history of computing.

Homosexuality was by no means unheard of in England at the start of the 20th century, and by some accounts it seems to have been common practice among many college-aged students in elite universities such as Cambridge, which did not admit women until 1948.[ii] Still, homosexual activity had been explicitly illegal since the end of the 19th century, when it was famously used in a pair of legal cases against Oscar Wilde beginning in 1885, leading to his imprisonment and eventual exile in 1897.[iii] Given this legal status, what is most striking about Turing is how open he was with his sexuality, which seems to have been common knowledge among friends and colleagues. As Elizabeth Wilson notes in Affect and Artificial Intelligence, Turing's relationship to his sexuality seems to be less one of repression and shame, and more a kind of naïve amusement. If this attitude was not shared by others at the time, it was at the very least tolerated among Turing's friends and associates.

Donald Michie, one of Turing's wartime colleagues at Bletchley Park,[iv] recalls that "Bletchley had some flamboyant homosexuals,"[v] and that, despite the assumption that homosexuality would be considered a national security risk due to blackmail and other threats, it does not seem to have impeded Turing's work for the government, at least not during the war. For many in those days, homosexuality was an open secret, if it was kept secret at all.”[vi] But while Turing's sexuality is not in dispute, the effect it may have had on his life and work is much more speculative.

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An Interview with Metahaven

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Metahaven in collaboration with IMMI, Data / Saga, digital models and sketches, 2013

I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about the foundations and origin of Metahaven.

Metahaven is a strategic graphic design agency. We make anything between a conference, a publication, an interview, a product, a visual identity, a policy document, or a set of floating appearances on the Internet. We are not only interested in the development of hypothetical image, but also in its realization. Some of our projects are an identity proposal for the Principality of Sealand, which is an off-shore micronation which played an iconic role as a “data haven” during the late 1990s dotcom boom. In 2010 we released Uncorporate Identity—a design book for our dystopian age. Some parts of Uncorporate Identity were about dismantling and attacking the “brand state”—the notion of promoting or creating reputations for countries—and by proxy, about dismantling branding itself. We have also attacked and criticized Joseph Nye’s notion of “soft power”—the power to attract—which is arguably the only political concept which branding has ever heard of. One of our upcoming projects is a collaboration with the Iceland-based think tank IMMI, thinking up a set of images and messages for the excellent and forward-thinking legal, energy, and social environment which Iceland has created for internet and cloud hosting. We recently interviewed two people who are involved in this: Eleanor Saitta and Smári McCarthy. Both of them work for IMMI.

Metahaven in collaboration with IMMI, Data / Saga, digital models and sketches, 2013

You've spoken of current conceptions of branding a processes of consolidation as opposed to differentiation. In a post on your Tumblr related to an exhibition at the Museum of Display in Antwerp, you write that the process of assigning identity is "a surface or screen by which an organization mirrors its surroundings, both in the physical space as well as in information space." In an article you wrote about 4 years ago in e-flux, which was also published in Uncorporate Identity, you suggested that state branding had to become "more concerned with both the structural standardization implied by network power and a pluralistic understanding of decentralized and distributed political alternatives being developed on various scales." How do you feel design and branding can function to create a multiplicitous understanding of identities that operate within political contexts?

Metahaven, Uncorporate Identity, Lars Müller Publishers, 2010

A brand is a socially and economically sustained form of prejudice. Branding is the management of first impressions, and to that end, it is inherently deceitful. To establish the few initial thoughts people have about something is a very hard thing to accomplish by design, but is swiftly and almost irreversibly done by uncontrollable events; reputations literally shift overnight. The main way in which branding has been embodied in politics is through the concept of soft power. As the Innocence of Muslims YouTube video showed, American soft power can be affected, inversed even, overnight, by only a handful of pixels.

Not soft power, but “network power” should be regarded as the structural force behind presence and identity. This idea, which is explored in more detail in Uncorporate Identity, takes globalization as a process unfolding through various standards: of communication, exchange, payment, travel, language, etc. Such standards both enable and limit actors in their agency and choice of alternatives. Importantly, such network standards are ultimately predominant over the positive or negative emotions associated with particular actors in or on the network. In the case of the Innocence of Muslims video, for example, American soft power is volatile, while its network power—YouTube—is stable. In other words, the network power is a prerequisite to even have soft power.

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