Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Art of Buzz

Magnet gallery/bar on Katipunan road in Quezon City, April 20, 2007. The conceptual artist Ronald "Poklong" Anading paired with sound artist Inconnu ictu, who used to play with Lirio Salvador, the Filipino sculptor who makes all those chrome-plated guitar-things. Tengal, the producer who matched the two up for his Conductors of The Pit event, where selected sound artists and video artists perform together, describes Roger (Inconnu ictu) as “the Philippine Merzbow.” Roger uses oscillators stripped from old drum machines etc, which he processes through various effects boxes. Bass, white noise, distortion orchestrated (that night anyway) very “musically:” with dynamics, contrast, tension and release. I found the performance very listenable, except for the parts consisting high-frequency noise at extreme volume (cymbal patch?), which I preferred to hear from the vantage of the gallery on the first floor.

Poklong slotted a DVD consisting of a single, tripod-mounted, out-of-focus shot of some club. He doesn’t VJ. Teddy Co thought the image might be coming from a live camera and kept waving his arms to check if it were so. People wondered out loud if the club was in fact Magnet Katipunan, and some asked Poklong directly, who genially evaded the question. I suddenly remembered him telling me what he intended with regard to the footage he created for F-stop, Yvonne Romulo’s fashion show produced and conceptualized by her husband Erwin.

Poklong’s video for F-stop was basically 4 shots of near-identical landscapes, across which the near-transparent image of a female model would sporadically run across. He said that he wanted people to be unsure whether they had actually seen the model or whether they had conjured her out of their (bored) imaginations. Although I still think that the idea didn’t work in the theatrical context of a fashion show where a million things are happening in front of the screen, the juxtaposition of the remembered conversation and this blurred video click together, and I begin to figure out the shape of the ball that Poks has his eye on, and I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to get it.

Galleries often host people milling around an exhibit, silently having adventures in their minds, none of which have any relationship to any another adventure. Someone thinks painting X is political, somebody else likes the tarry consistency of the paint, somebody else thinks it’s about language, most others don’t think anything in particular but are happy to be there. Now, it may be that most artists are fine with the idea of conjuring such a disparate set of reactions to their work, but I find the idea of a work producing such a chaotic forest of impressions both boring and distasteful. Infinite meanings collapse to zero: Something that can mean anything is no different from something that means nothing.

I think Poks wants to do the bare minimum that will create a buzz. Not buzz as in stoned/drunk/happy, but buzz as in people talking. People's minds going round and round thinking about something. He might or might not want that thinking to take the form of questioning (Did I really see the girl? Is that Magnet Katipunan?) but questioning IS the most self-perpetuating form of thinking. An unanswered/unresolved question/enigma is stable in that it just keeps going round and round. Of course, that is nothing new. Every artist says that he wants to make people think. Where Poklong demonstrates mastery is in the radical simplicity of the questions he poses. The issue of whether a room is in fact a shot of Magnet Katipunan or not is trivial (compared to, say, the issues of poverty/debt/global warming/gender/digital culture/life, the universe and everything) but getting a roomful of people to go home wondering about it is an act of singular elegance. It is like a microscopic version of that prank/work by Andy Kaufman dramatized in the movie Man on the Moon, where Kaufman got an entire primetime audience to think there was something wrong with the reception and pound on their TVs. The simplicity, even triviality, of what the buzz is about means that the art is about buzz itself.

The Art of Buzz! The point is that if the point is to get people to argue about something, they have to have differing opinions about the same question -- a question they all understand -- which means that the question must be concrete, easily grasped, perhaps about something immediately at hand and certainly something about which each person can confidently have an opinion about. By which standard the question “Is that Magnet Katipunan or not” is manifestly superior to something like “Where is the Philippines going?” One wonders whether Poks would go so far as to assert that the social reaction thus engendered is the actual work, the actual thing accomplished. It's certainly exciting to think of it that way.

So it appears that the minimalist, conceptual work actually managed to affect a rowdy club audience. I do have to say however, that the work and Inconnu ictu’s stuff didn’t add up to a greater whole. I liked Roger’s noise/music and I like what Poks pulled off. I even liked the image of the out-of-focus club, but: There was no synergy between the two elements. Either Poks and Roger never really talked, or Roger didn’t really know what to do with the image, or he didn’t think it was his responsibility to follow its lead, or he felt hemmed in by the non-dramatic, La Mer/Music for Airports dynamics it seemed to demand. (I am reminded by an incident involving Brian Eno in which he “orchestrated” a jam in Laurie Anderson’s loft by asking only that the musicians make sounds that harmonized with the view of the New York harbour outside Anderson’s window. ) At any rate, any time Roger’s music became tense or active, sound and image parted ways completely.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Notes from the Pit

Although Tengal was pretty explicit about having no preconceptions regarding the outcome of the Conductors of the Pit performances, it doesn’t follow that they can’t be taken as demonstrations. Something created without preconceptions can be milked for concepts.

We always talk about artistic experiments, experimental art and so on. I would like to take the adjective more seriously. Experiments uncover principles, properties, existential facts. Throwing together flour and yeast can yield insights into processes that can be used to make bread. Generalizing about the chemical action of yeast can lead us to speculation about its suitability for producing alcohol, and so on. In short, I want to learn something from the damn experiments, some principles that might intelligently guide future behavior/expectations instead of always just slamming the disparate together in the inchoate hope of something.

Our minds are sunk in conventions, most of them being invisible. I think that one of the most valuable results of artistic experiments could be making these conventions visible. Just as a patient can reveal a mental structure (eg an obsession) by a slip of the tounge, or an unexpected inability to perform a simple act, unexpected observations can lead to new insights into the structure of the aesthetic object. The most valuable observations are observations of failure, because it is failure that marks the limit of a function, the limit of a territory.

I don’t want to talk what is beautiful versus what is not beautiful. I want to talk about what is comprehensible versus what is not comprehensible

We have all seen performances in which musicians, poets and dancers square off, struggle to dominate and top one another. It does not seem unreasonable to think that sound and video artists might do the same. However, the panoply of the Conductors of the Pit performances (COPP for the purposes of this essay) seemed to indicate that they could NOT in fact do the same. At every instance where the paired artists deviated from trying to work in harmony, I got the feeling of something losing bouyancy, something falling to pieces. This is, I think, a perception that pretty much everyone shared. We have to take it as an experiential fact.

After the scientific method, we could now proceed to speculate (hypothesize) on the possible reasons/mechanisms behind this fact. However, I think it will be worth something to assemble a collection of successful and unsuccessful encounters.

2 boxers fight -- successful

a boxer and a wrestler fight -- unsuccessful:

(This in fact happened: Muhammad Ali was paired with Antonio Inoki, a Japanese wrestler. The match ended in ruins: Inoki immediately got down on the mat. He wouldn’t box, and Ali wouldn’t wrestle.)

2 saxophonists jam -- successful

If the sound artist were to play music and not noise; the VJ were to play shots instead of graphics, I could imagine a struggle for dominance. The sound artist (SA) begins a melody, let’s say a melancholy melody. The VJ responds with an image from a soap opera, thereby accusing the SA of being overly sentimental. The SA responds by playing something serial and threatening, transforming the soap-opera image into an image from a horror film. In doing so, the SA has topped the VJ by transforming the meaning of his image into something completely different from what the VJ had intended it to mean. The VJ thinks of putting up an image of the Cookie monster, but wisely refrains: it would be in bad taste to play the parody card twice in a row. Instead, he-

And so on. I believe that these incidents map out a readable constellation. I will call it Ali’s Law:

Ali’s Law: All combat is ritual. This means that the combat has to take place in ritual, convention-filled context. A struggle for domination can only take place in a world of established conventions, where the meaning of a vocabulary of moves has been pre-established in the minds of the combatants and the audience.

This is because a striking a blow involves a violation of equilibrium, a breaking of a balance. But where there is no consensus as to what constitutes a balance, it is impossible to know what a strike is, just as it is impossible to make a joke, unless all parties concerned know what is not a joke., ie what is normal. The saxophonists can fight because they swim in the universe of tonality, harmony, and jazz convention. Their battle is like a game of chess: every move leads to a readable situation/equilibrium. The boxer and wrestler move in different universes of rules. They have nothing in common, and hence cannot transact aggression.

In the case of the COPPs, the artists were not moving in pre-established universes of conventions. Thus, they could not orchestrate strikes against one another. Apparently however, they COULD enact unexpected harmonies, unexpected parallelisms. And so we appear to have unexpectedly flushed out a corollary to Ali’s Law:

In uncharted territory, harmony is only possible form of interaction. In a situation where there are very few conventions, the default relationship between elements is one of unrelatedness, ie chaos. Against the background of chaos, the only comprehensible move is to create relationships/parallelisms.

It is instructive that my short thought-experiment of a successful joust between VJ and SA already contains three references to the language of film and television. Soap opera. Horror film. Sesame Street. It is not proper to say that Language is like chess. Rather, Chess is a language. A language is like a huge mansion where every step brings us into a new room, with floors and ceilings, and curtains, and moldings, and joists and mantels and floorboards, etc. Inside the language of film, my thought-combatants strike at each other by overturning/violating cinematic conventions. They move from the room of Melancholy into the room Melodrama, to the room of Horror, and so on. Once they step outside of the mansion of cinema and move into noise and graphics, the joust becomes impossible. Cooperation (the dance) remains as the only possible aesthetic gesture. This is why, when one artist chooses to abdicate his part in creating harmony, he drags the both of them to the ground. We do not perceive it as a strike against his partner, but as an evisceration of the performance itself.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Phone as a computer

Am having a lot of fun with my phone: a Nokia 6600. It's an ancient model by the lightspeed standards of the market, but very interesting in that it supports Flash Lite, a stripped-down version of the Flash player that drives so much of modern web design. While Flash is well-known in the filmmaking circle as an animation tool, the fact that it also supports actionscript --a proprietary programming language with the power to create interactive graphics-- is not as well known. So far, I've coded a little ping-pong scorekeeper, a simple egg timer, and a phone version of Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies: Press a button, the phone screen flickers, and the oracle speaks: "Honor thy error as a hidden intention" and so on. The same program could be altered to make a version of the I Ching, but I confess to finding Eno much more readable.

I put the Oblique Strategies swf (shockwave file) on Divshare. Those who are interested can download it here:

Making these little utilities has made me aware of how generally unfriendly our phones are. "Personalizing" a phone is essentially an act of digital scrapbooking. And yes we can make calls, chat, play games and shoot video, but think of this: Most phones these days have more power than the computers on board the space shuttle. They are in fact, very small computers, equipped with wireless capability and multimedia peripherals, yet they behave as though they were hardwired appliances. There must be any number of tools/functions that would handy or fun to have in a computer the size of your wallet, that are within the coding powers of a resourceful high-school student. (Phrasebook, remote control, flashcards, custom calculator, map, beatbox) And yet something as simple as creating a macro is a major, major deal for most existing phones. Google tells me that there are sites devoted to developing the open-source phone, but Flash Lite is the small room in a user-unfriendly phone universe that makes it possible to program existing phones today.

If anybody is interested in what phones support/are preloaded with Flash Lite, Adobe (which now owns Flash) has a list here:

Most phones listed support Flash Lite, but do not have it installed. You'll have to do that yourself, ie by finding a copy of FL and downloading it into your phone via something like Nokia's PC Suite, (which you should already have anyway, if only to back up your phone book). Flash Lite-compatible SWFs can be created in Flash 8.


Shameless plugs

Like the title says: I'll be performing video against Blums Borres' sound at Tengal's SABAW sound art night at Katipunan Magnet. The event starts 9PM on April 20, and is billed as "Conductors of The Pit: Sound Artists vs Video Artists." Drop by if you can: buncha other people will be performing, including Poklong Anading, Caliph8, 110, Merv Espina and Arvie Bartolome, and Inconnu ictu. Am curious as to what Poks will be doing, as Pok's stuff tends to a kind of minimalist, small-changes-in-a-large-blank-space aesthetic. Am curious how well he can integrate that into a club performance environment, which tends to favor rowdier textures. Blums will also put on his video hat to play against Elemento.

Am putting together a new machine for the occasion: found some old stuff in my lab that together, should allow me to digitally process live, dirty, analog video. Dirtvision! (dirTV? Ermitronics?) My latest stab at incorporating bad TV into digital video performance, as well as adding some other way to create images aside from triggering sample playback.