Nov 20 2009

Advertising Got There First

Phantom 3D objects floating in the air, visible only through the portal of your phone? An urban game played with same? Mobile ad boutique The Hyper Factory seems to have got there first. Their recent ad campaign for Nike used image recognition of printed targets (on posters, in magazines, on the ground of a football field, etc.) to superimpose hovering shoes over the real world.

This is, without a doubt, creative. But looking at it strictly as a creative work, it is severely hamstrung by the fact that the objective is to sell shoes. My guess is that it will be games that push the aesthetic and technical boundaries of this technology. We’re going to see strange reality-fantasy hybrids that will make World of Warcraft and Second Life look old, boring, and flat. Then again, it might also make LARPing socially acceptable, and do we really want that?

And after the technology is ubiquitous and cheap, we’re going to use it to put deep labels on our environment in real time — this is already starting with a sort of Wikipedia for objects. If you’re one of those people who feel sorta blind without your smartphone, just wait until it’s built into your sunglasses.

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Oct 14 2009

“Risky” Interactive Art Returns to Tate Modern After 38 Years

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“Bodyspacemotionthings” is a playground-as-art, and it got completely trashed in 1971 when it premiered at the Tate Modern in London. Now it’s back, rebuilt slightly stronger and safer. And I think it’s awesome, and I want to swing on the rope and push that huge ball around.

Art you can fall off of will be familiar to anyone in the San Francisco independent arts scene (yes, I’m trying not to say “Burning Man” here), but it fascinates me to see how a very public institution in notoriously uptight country handles safety for an installation in a gallery which draws 100,000 people in a weekend.

The BBC report above focuses on splinters. Have we really become that lame?

Then again, I wonder if this piece could be shown at all in the US, a country with strong tort law and poor health insurance.

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Oct 05 2009

iPhone Augmented Reality Arrives — But When Will We Make Art With It?

Last year I imagined an iPhone app that superimposed virtual objects over video from the phone’s camera. With the advent of the iPhone 3GS and its built-in compass, it’s now happening.

This video shows NearestWiki, which tags nearby landmarks/objects and guides you to them. I am aware of a few other AR apps, as this post on Mashable and this AP story discuss. Many of these apps do building/object recognition, and one even recognizes faces and displays a sort of business card. We’re already seeing annotation with data from Wikipedia, Twitter and Yelp, and I suspect that we’re going to see these tools get very deep in the very near future, with Wikipedia-style tagging of  the entire history and context of any object.

Just a moment while I get over the fact that the future is already here.

Ok, I’m properly jaded again. Yeah, it’s an app platform, and that’s cool — but imagine the possibilities for art. Bets on who’s going to make the first “alternate reality spyglass” piece? Bets on how much Matthew Barney will sell it for in the app store?

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Sep 12 2009

Hong Kong is Not Quite China

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The “Pillar of Shame” is faces: faces in agony, anonymous faces, dead faces. It stands in the plaza of the Student Union of the University of Hong Kong as a monument to the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre in which hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators were killed by the Chinese government. It was installed by students on the tenth anniversary of this sorry event, and the police did not stop them.

This would never fly on the mainland. In China, web searches, blog posts, foreign news broadcasts, and even instant messages about the Tiananamen Square massacre are very closely censored. To erect a monument to something that officially did not happen is unthinkable, not to mention severely punishable.

But Hong Kong is different.

The island was a British colony by treaty with the Chinese for 100 years. The 1997 handover to the Chinese government was peaceful, and Hong Kong became the “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.” This means that it is under different law. In effect, the Hong Kong Basic Law — drafted jointly by the British and Chinese in the late 1980s — is a completely different constitution for the region. Hong Kong and China even require different entry visas and have different immigration procedures. In particular, mainland Chinese residents are not allowed to live here permanently.

And they might want to! Hong Kong residents enjoy freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and guarantees against unwarranted search or detention. The chief executive is not democratically elected, but the legislative council is. The internet is not censored and the economy is officially capitalist.

This arrangement provides a strange vantage point for China observers; it’s China, but also not-China. It’s free, and you can do things here you could never get away with on the mainland. For example, Rebecca MacKinnon of the University of Hong Kong has published some wonderful research on the Chinese internet censorship regime.

The Basic Law is guaranteed by the PRC for 50 years, until 2047. What happens then is anyone’s guess.

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Jul 22 2009

Making Things out of Fire

Last week I helped to crew a large piece of fire art called 2πr at The Crucible‘s Fire Arts Festival in Oakland. G4 TV did a segment on the show, and that’s me in the spiffy black coat, trying to come up with equally spiffy comebacks over the WHUMP! of our sixteen flame geysers.

All of the art at the festival is what might be called “home made.” It more or less has to be, because there isn’t really a category for “consumer fire art.” Every piece at the festival was there by the love and ingenuity of its inventor-artist-builders. This is fun, but it might also represent an important do-it-yourself philosophy, a technological anti-consumerism.

Just to be clear, I did not conceive, design, or build 2πr. That honor belongs to Nicole Aptekar, Reed Kennedy, and Mella Piercey. But I work with them as a member of the Oakland arts collective Interpretive Arson, and I’ve been involved in making or running a number of different arty, firey projects (such as the infamous Dance Dance Immolation). Judging by the huge number of other projects at the Fire Arts Festival, and the even more widespread attendance at the annual Maker Faire DIY technology expositions, I am far from unique in my geeky, makey proclivities.

If technology is one of the major sources of power in the world, then it is vital that we make it democratic. Technology demands specialized knowledge and experience; it is usually seen as something belonging to an elite or privileged cadre, something not the concern of the average citizen. In reality, technology is easier to learn about than it has ever been, stupendously hackable, reasonably cheap, and lends itself to entire subcultures of experimentation and play. And I think we really want and need our modern citizens to play with and learn about technology. Although technology has not universally been a blessing, ignorance of powerful things is far more dangerous than their knowledge.

Is throwing huge plumes of fire into the night a part of this? Most certainly yes! When I’m not just going WHEEEE! I see at least three interesting lessons in the tale of the Fire Arts Festival:

First, fire art is is real technology. It requires computers and software, pushes the limits of DIY manufacturing techniques, and must be designed and constructed with real engineering, because compressed flammable gasses are none too forgiving of sloppiness.

Second, the very notion of do-it-yourself fire art for public consumption can challenge the way we think about safety, responsibility, and risk. In the first world in general and in the litigious United States in particular — a country which suffers not only from an overdeveloped sense of tort law but also from  liability concerns arising from lack of universal health care — we tend to believe that it is someone else’s job to keep us safe. To a certain degree this is true, and that’s why certification and regulation and signs that warn us about high voltage can be a good idea. But ultimately the responsibilities and tradeoffs of safety and risk must be personal, and the process of designing and building a fire toy for the general public to play with makes this stunningly clear. Likewise, the act of playing with someone else’s dangerous game can lead you to think carefully about why you should believe that this or any other activity is safe — and whether it’s ok anyway. Like traveling to a different country where the citizens have made strikingly different risk tradeoffs (and you can ride on top of the trains), interacting with dangerous art pushes us outside of known territory, forcing us to become aware of the millions of safety choices that have already been made for us.

Finally, art is an end in itself. I once heard a critic of 60′s counterculture quip, “is face painting and free dope the best that they can offer?” I think this critic lived a joyless life. Yes, the democratization of technology is an important effect of “maker” culture. But that’s not why we do it.

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Jun 27 2009

“Home” is Beautiful, Idealized

Home is a new film about the global environment, and it’s undeniably gorgeous. It’s a stupendously global piece in the tradition of Baraka and Koyaanisqatsi, but unlike these silent poems, Home features melodramatic narration throughout (by Glenn Close in English, Salma Hayak in Spanish.) It’s something between art, environmentalism, and propaganda, and everyone should see it.

I’m going to repeat that, lest this point get lost in my comments below: go watch this film. It’s as good a summary of the state of civilization as I have ever seen. In it are many of the lessons that took me years of travel to discover, and many more things I did not know. This film is necessary, but I’m also going to critique the way in which it delivers its message.

Director Yann Arthus-Bertrand is much better known as an aerial photographer than a film-maker, famous for the best-selling book Earth From Above. Home is essentially the continuation of that project, a 90 minute montage of slow aerial photography over hundreds of locations in dozens of countries. What makes the film exceptional is its choice of subjects. Active volcanoes and rippling sand dunes are obvious images, but Home also includes the macro-geography of human activity: industrial agriculture, oil refineries, container ships at sea, high-density cattle ranches, and not only the shining downtowns but the endless repetitive suburbs of a dozen mega-cities. Although every second is stunning, not every shot is pretty.

The subject is sustainability. Home is at its best when it documents the global cause and effect of environmental destruction. We see the still smoking fields of ex-Amazonian rainforest, slashed to produce soybeans for (and we cut to) European high-density cattle farms. We watch the reciprocating oil pumps of Los Angeles give way to the ecological disaster that is Canadian oil sands extraction. And we fly over the painfully disappearing Himalayan glaciers and then the homes of the billion people who will be without fresh water by 2035.

Home is particularly good at drawing the connection between oil and just about everything else. “A litre of oil generates as much energy as 100 pairs of hands in 24 hours. …  New York, the world’s first megalopolis, is a symbol of the exploitation of the energy the earth supplies to human genius, the unbridled power of oil.” And you should see what Home says about Dubai.

In one incredible shot from Nigeria, we see the hovels and scratchy fields of the subsistence farmers who toil literally in the shadows of an oil refinery. “The wealth is there,” Glenn Close tells us, “but the people don’t have access to it. Today, half the world’s wealth is in the hands of the richest 2% of the population.”  After a century of industrialization fueled by cheap oil, fully half of the world’s people are still subsistence farmers.

Except that low-tech, traditional ways of life are also idolized in Home as implicitly good. Here is where the film is confused and ideological. It is most certainly a badly needed critique of civilization, but that criticism is framed within a yearning for something that never existed: a “pure” state of humanity in balance with nature. There is a beautiful fly-over of a mud village on the banks of the Niger river, Mali. ”Across the planet,” says the narrator, “one person in four lives as humankind did 6000 years ago, their only energy that which nature provides, season after season.”  We follow to wooden pinasse boats and the grass huts of herders, and African women hulling rice with sticks. The music swells, cue sunset.

I’ve been to these African villages — curiously, to some of the exact towns pictured — and lived for a little while in something like the ancient way of life. Like the Amazonian tribes, these traditional villages are revered among a certain segment of Western idealists for their simplicity and sustainability. This is rubbish. Perhaps their ecological footprint was lower, but that’s not because pre-industrial people had a finer philosophy. Today the world’s villages are uniformly ringed with empty water bottles, coke cans, plastic bags — the much-revered inhabitants of primitive places turn out not to have any better sense of the value of nature than we do. Besides, you wouldn’t want to live there. The world’s traditional societies were mostly a mess, socially. They tended to be patriarchal and intolerant, illiterate and constantly skirmishing with their neighbors. Life expectancy was short, disease was (and still is) widespread without access to clean water and antibiotics, and depending on caste, race, and gender you might well expect to be a slave. Nor are the 1.5 billion people ostensibly still living pre-industrial lives particularly untouched by the modern world: there is television and radio and phone service even where there is no electricity (via generators and appliances that run off of car batteries). Emulation of village life is not the way forward for humanity.

This is why Home’s critique of cities is surprising. ”Faster and faster. In the last 60 years over 2 billion people have moved to the cities. … In the United States only 3 million farmers are left.” Cities are pictured as the modern, resource-guzzling, desperate alternative to the green fields of vanishing Nature. Long shot of Lagos, Nigeria, with taxis and rickshaws and humans like ants crowding the streets for block after block after block, endless.

Well, okay, except for this: cities use far fewer resources per capita. If everyone in the world is to be supplied with clean water, food, electricity, transit (even public transit), communications, sewage treatment services, medical care, etc. etc. then centralization is far more efficient, and therefore easier on the environment and closer to sustainable. This is completely aside from the fact that cities have historically always been centers of learning and the birthplace of social and political freedoms.

And then there’s the pseudo-spiritual language. Home tries very hard to reach something deep within us, to inspire us with big themes and the beauty of the natural world that we are destroying. The photography succeeds, but the narration descends into cliché: “All living matter is linked — water, air, soil, trees. The world’s living magic is right in front of our eyes. Our cells talk the same language. We are of the same family.” This is to a soundtrack of nondescript indigenous culture song, complete with throat-singing. All of which makes me say: Whatever, hippie. Forty years after the birth of modern counter-culture, is this really the best language we have to talk about why the Earth’s ecosystems are worth nurturing? Whoever are we going to hold up as an icon of sustainability when the last remaining tribesman loads 50 Cent onto his knock-off Chinese iPod? (And if you think I’m being facetious, it’s probably because you haven’t discussed MP3 players with well-informed rural Africans.)

Home is weaker still when it veers into global social justice. If the film shows great depth and understanding in global ecological issues, the awesome disparity between the world’s rich and poor is treated with a strange shallowness. At one point we are asked, ”how can there be justice and equity between people whose only tools are their hands, and those who harvest their crops with machines?” Is the implication here that humanity should abandon industrial agriculture? That we should donate combine harvesters to poor countries? The question gets into a whole mess of tricky economic, political, and developmental issues; it is the wrong question. We’re even fed the old platitudes of Marxist economics: “The biggest headache now was what to do with the surpluses engendered by modern agriculture.” Not exactly. It became profitable to produce these “surpluses” to feed cattle when meat became a status symbol for one industrializing country after another — a fact which Home also shows us, quite eloquently.

Having said all of this, I cannot disagree with the overall message of the film. What we are doing is unsustainable. It’s just that Home discusses the errors of our industrialization in terms of  a clash between an ugly urban present and a pristine agricultural past. Where it presents facts it succeeds brilliantly; but where it makes an ideological pitch it uses shallow and washed-up language. It adopts wholesale a certain recidivist strand of Western leftist ideology, an ideology which values rural over cities, hands over machines, traditional over progressive, and “natural” over all else.

And that’s the disappointment of Home. After all the incredible effort and dedication of the people involved, it still sounds like a Greenpeace press release and screens like an Oxfam infomercial (“Save the children! Save the planet!”). It could have been so much more; it could have tried for a new language of sustainability that avoided the tired old stereotypes of evil big-business versus mystic naturalist. The value system of Home leaves no place for the concerned (sub)urbanite who really likes their electric lights and their car and burning charcoal to grill burgers or tandoori in the back yard — in other words, most of us in our daily lives.

But Home also speaks the truth: ”We know that the end of cheap oil is imminent, but we refuse to believe it … We haven’t understood that we’re depleting what nature provides.” Yes. Our global web of resource consumption really does interlink air, water, oil, agriculture, industry, biology, and people, and Home is a clear and surprising exposition of this web. It is a web we are all intricately involved in, yet it is so large and pervasive that we usually cannot see it. Minus ideology, this is the big picture that Home shows us, and this is why it is an important film.

Press play, go see it.

Home will be available free online until July 14th.

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Jun 15 2009

The Glissendo Performance, and Machine-Assisted Circus

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I was recently pointed to the most amazing thing, a music / fire / street performance called Glissendo, conceived by one “Ulik, the Machanical Clown” and executed by French art group Le Snob. They’re playing “Lightning” by Phillip Glass on a Dixieland band, riding Segways under the robes, and of course the band leader has dual hand-mounted flamethrowers.

Elegant, beautiful, and strangely sad.

The only substantial thing I can find on this Ulik character is this video. In it, Ulik performs with some of his contraptions such as a home-made jet-engine backpack (used with skis or rollerblades), a life-sized puppet who holds a camera and interviews him, and the front half of a car. It’s all wonderfully creative stuff, and it makes me wonder why we haven’t seen more hi-tech in circus.

For the potential is ample. We could use modern control-system technology to perform previously impossible man-machine feats of daring. I wonder about automatically balancing Segways 30 feet high than one could dance on top of, harnesses connected to a crane that cancels out its own friction and inertia and modulates the effective gravity under performer control, a ridiculously precise robotic juggling partner, or powered jumping stilts with built in balance and timing systems. This is not mere robotic circus; at their best, such machines become something between costume and vehicle, an extension of the performer’s body that makes them, taller, stronger, faster, or able to move excitingly inhuman ways.

Given that such wide artistic and technological possibilities exist, I find it hard to believe that they won’t be developed. We may currently be witnessing the last generation of aerial circus that does not make heavy use of technology.

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Apr 22 2009

“Waltz with Bashir” in Many Shades of Grey

 

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I found Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir extraordinary, but I have no idea what it means to anyone but me. It’s an animated documentary about the Sabra and Shatila massacre, told from the point of view of the young Israeli soldiers who allowed outraged Phalangist militia to enter the Arab refugee camps and slaughter thousands. And it has a great soundtrack.

I rocked out, I cried, I was stunned by the sodium-yellow beauty of the dream sequences. It’s a beautiful piece of art, but it’s a piece of art about the complicity of Israelis in the massacre of Arab refugees. It is also a piece with reach: it won a Golden Globe and got nominated for an Oscar, and people all over the world saw it. This makes the film an opportunity for propaganda, or truth. So what is being said, and to whom? 

I don’t know! I lack the context to even guess at the answers.

For me, personally, the film reads as an apology. I find it very tempting to see this as Israel coming to grips with what it did, and I think that perhaps this is something the world needs, a brave and necessary step in curtailing the cycle of war. But the film was screened in Israel too, in theaters full of Zionists. Did the audience cry with the weeping Muslims in the film’s final moments, or did they walk out, swearing George Bush-style that any film-maker not with us must surely be against us? And what did Arabs in Beirut think of the film, those who were allowed to see it at all?

It’s questions like this that make me realize I don’t understand anything about the people behind the Israeli-Arab conflict.  

Just to prove my ignorance, I had guessed that the Israeli government would not be impressed, but it has actually been very supportive. The Israeli Foreign Ministry has been promoting the film, with the Israeli consul for media and public affairs in New York saying,

One of the challenges is that people in the world see Israel as responsible for what happened in Sabra and Shatila, and this movie shows that it was Lebanese who killed Palestinians.

Yeah. It also shows that it was the Israeli generals who engineered it, who allowed it to happen, who ordered flares fired during the night so that the Phalangists could see what they were doing.  

But a government is not a people, and people differ widely. There had to be more than one reaction even among only “Israelis” or only “Arabs”, just as different Americans felt different things when they saw Fahrenheit 9/11.  Traveling in Morocco, in Oman, in Indonesia and elsewhere I had to explain many times that America is not a uniform mass, that its people don’t necessarily agree with its government or even with each other. Yet our stereotypes are so ingrained that Waltz with Bashir immediately made me wonder what “the Israeli reaction” and “the Arab reaction” were.  I had to stop myself from thinking in such fictional terms; lumping millions of people together implies a consensus that may not exist.

It is exactly these fictions of identity that allow a conflict to be perpetuated. 

And so I want to know what this film meant to people alone in the theatre. I want to know what it meant to individual Israelis, Arabs, and others, confronted with something violent and sad. I want to know what they felt and thought before they turned to their neighbor to speak, before they read the reviews, before they listened to the official comments. The filmmaker wanted to say something, and it must start as a private conversation.

In principle I don’t believe movies can change the world, but I’m a great believer in their ability to form small bridges. (Ari Folman)

 

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Apr 15 2009

Nobody Actually Likes Advertising

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(graphic from ihatebillboards.com)

You raved about advertising last night, and it was so easy to believe that you were wrong. Now I see that we were standing in the only spot where I could win. Next to a life-size replica of the mousetrap game, you told me that no one works for free. You said Wikipedia is going to fail because experts will never donate their time. Silhouetted in the apocalyptic glow of home-made fire art, you were preaching, saying advertising is the only option we have, saying commerce is the only real thing.

Sure, I said, deadpan. We all gotta eat. 

I was smirking, but today is Monday. At rush hour, I know I’m going against the tide. I spend a lot of time with very busy people who, economically speaking, don’t produce shit. The work I sometimes do has the cachet of underground. You have to know the right warehouses. It’s exclusive, but mostly it’s exclusive because you have to be willing to put your excess wealth into making your own culture. But what we do, it never put up skyscrapers. It has no market. It never built Rome, or railroads. You know better. You put such power into logos that the Khoasan Road bootleggers label their shoes “Nike” and the first hamburger place in Cambodia uses McDonanld’s colors. 

But this isn’t about globalization. It’s about you.

Back when we met, click-through was a means, not an end. We sat on the B-school lawn and told ourselves that the older generation were fools, that they had no idea what was good in life. We would only put our creative energies into projects we believed in, even if we weren’t quite sure what those might be. We were never going to work in a cubicle. We would never pitch a campaign to make insurance sexy. Then you got the offer you couldn’t refuse, and every new offer was a hard line pushed out a little bit further. You began to eat well, to afford health insurance, to think about having a family. The shine came off poverty, the outlines of reality shifted, and with them, the possible.

Now you sit in meetings where people say “monetize” without irony.  

You take in the company meeting and nod your head to the stock price. You tell me that open source is ridiculous, because actually Google funds Firefox and Ubuntu funds Linux. And Web 2.0 is for connecting with people — the people you want money from. And Facebook is for demographics, and viral marketing is culture, and when you did edit Wikipedia, you wrote:

A lifestyle brand provides a powerful supplement to the core identity of the customer.

When I read that, I knew the final person you’d convinced was yourself. You think you’re doing a good thing. And you’re probably right. The world really does work this way, because everywhere I’ve ever been, aspiration means money. And money means getting people to buy.

But you’re safe here, tonight. No one is watching. They don’t care if you believe, only if you deliver. So have another drink and let’s say it out loud, together, cut through and admit it: nobody actually likes advertising.

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Dec 05 2008

Bike Hero: A Critical Review

This video, a riff on Guitar Hero, is pretty great.

Unfortunately, it’s also a fake. The video is totally awesome, to use the technical term, but a large part of its awesomeness derives from the fact that some ordinary person not only came up with this completely implausible idea, but executed it brilliantly for no discernible reason. That makes it art, if only because we  don’t have many other good names for this type of behavior. One of the millions of untrained, unlicensed plebes rose up and did something amazing, and it’s inspiring precisely because it makes us think that we just might be able to do it ourselves. It’s our art.

Except that “we” didn’t do it. The video was produced by creative agency Droga5, according to the credits on this page, which also lists the CG animators. Doubly fake. Not only was this piece created as a viral marketing ploy for Guitar Hero, but the events in the video never actually happened.

“Authentic” is very hard to define. It’s easy to give flip answers like “love, not money,” but plenty of good art has been created to pay the rent. For an internet example, take the brilliant “OK Go on Treadmills” video. Sure, they did it to sell their album, but somehow it feels very “real”. I also like to imagine the jazz and blues musicians of old New Orleans, playing in the clubs every night. They were great artists, but they were working artists. Conversely, real culture can be executed as fake, like faux-Irish pubs all over the world. While any idiot can throw up dark wood paneling and serve Guinness, it’s not hard to tell when you’re being scammed for the tourist dollar. The trouble is, I’m often very hard pressed to say precisely what it is that makes one Irish pub phony and another authentic. Is Bike Hero no longer art now that we know who paid for it?

The only certainty I can fine here is that I don’t like being lied to. Undercover marketing is designed to make us believe that it’s not marketing at all, and that makes it the eptiome of inauthenticity. For this reason I have to give Bike Hero two thumbs down.

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