Wednesday, December 24, 2008

In the Beginning was The Stick

...most modern technologies can trace their development back through history to the common Stick. Writing implements, (Pens, pencils, charcoal, burnt sticks) Nuclear Weapons (Missiles, Cannons, Guns, Crossbows, Arrows, Sticks.) Skyscrapers (Buildings, houses, huts, thatching, the Stick) and Artificial Intelligence (computers, calculators, the abacus, notched Sticks) are all derivatives


Thursday, November 27, 2008

"A Filipino Obama"

I've already read two articles talking about a Filipino Obama. One of them, in the Free Press, even gives advice to wannabes how to BECOME the Filipino Obama! I was wondering why the tone/structure sounded familiar, and then it hit me: Nestor Torre. Former catholic gradeschool teacher masquerading as a film critic. Always wrapping up with morals of the story, or pointing out possible lessons to be drawn.

Let's think this from the other end: What did it take to make an AMERICAN Obama? Why haven't both parties fielded Obamas in all their elections? Why didn't the Republicans have anybody that even had a tenth of the Obama's power to inspire? Why did they settle for a scary white lolo with a comatose anorexic for a wife? The answer is because it's very hard to get/become an Obama. It is especially hard for anybody already formed by and mired in the practices and assumptions of traditional politics (trapo culture) to become "an Obama." This is the equivalent of someone like Tony Bennett looking at Johnny Rotten, suddenly thinking Hey, punk is the way to go and thinking maybe he could reissue Mona Lisa with guitars. A bunch of the younger/thinner politicos could binge on canthaxanthin, and wear skinny black suits, but that's about as far as they could get towards Obamahood. Back in the 80's it seemed one in three female politicians was doing Cory hair and glasses, but nobody ever became "another Cory".

Aside from actually having studied law in Harvard, and become the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review (as opposed to, say, playing professional basketball, goofing around on noontime TV, being the son of a mayor or playing a lawyer in a movie) Obama gives the sense of having reinvented for himself what a politician could be. He has something of a prodigy's innocence. One can imagine a bunch of mentors coming up to him and telling him, "Okay, so you wanna be a politician? First you gotta get in good with this guy Daley he runs the Democratic machinery in Chicago, then you gotta please the gays, but without alienating the evangelicals, then you gotta get the black vote, but without alienating the whites..." And Obama says, yeah, well, thanks, but I'll pass, and then does something else. He has a talent for (to quote the painter Peter Schmidt) "not doing what nobody else thought of not doing before."

The phrase infuriates me because it dismisses the idea of substance itself. To think one can become anything at all with a few hints and tips and tricks is the nadir of superficiality. "How to be the Filipino Richard Feynman: 1) Try not to get hung up on doing Quantum Chromodynamics like everyone else. Visualize. Look for shortcuts. "

Just because America has one doesn't mean we can get one too. Why would we even think that? It seems to me that the only way you can think that is if you first assume that we are a copy of American reality. Are we?

I would like to be inspired too. I want the Shadow to lift, to hear someone say something that doesn't put me to sleep or make me throw up. But let's not talk like a Filipino Obama is something we ought to be able to whip up in a jiffy or something. It makes us sound like a bunch of idiots.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Documentation of the Robot Gamelan

Well, finally put together the video documentation of the interactive robot gamelan quartet --the ISEA 2008 project I was blogging about early this year. Footage is a bit noisy. I know (in theory, anyway) that for stuff like this, the video documentation should be considered the final artwork, but I have to say that thinking and dealing about documentation always seems like a huge mountain after all that physical labor making the work itself. Besides, part of the reason I got into making the robots was because I wanted to get away and make some art using physical matter instead of data and pixels in the first place.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A Discomforting Quote

--discomforting anyway, to anyone who tries to make objective correlatives out of mechanical functions. But funny:

Inanimate objects can be classified scientifically into three major categories: those that don't work, those that break down and those that get lost.

The goal of all inanimate objects is to resist man and ultimately to defeat him, and the three major classifications are based on the method each object uses to achieve its purpose. As a general rule, any object capable of breaking down at the moment when it is most needed will do so.

--Russell Baker--

Russell Baker was an American columnist, most famous for distinguishing between being solemn and being serious.

Friday, August 01, 2008

International Herald Tribune!

All right! The International Herald Tribune covered the ISEA show. They got most of it right except for saying that the gestures were captured by photosensors and that I was "half mathematician" The online version's here. They also have a slideshow (with 3 great photos of my work) that you can access via a button on the second page or by clicking here. Appeared in the realspace paper too, with a photo of my work as well! Page 10. Woohoo!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

More on ISEA


Above is a video of me and Corey Manders (who is contributing the gesture-recognition technology to the piece) fine-tuning the gesture tracking system. You can actually see the headless ghosts triggering the notes by moving their white-tipped drumsticks. The piece has since premiered at the opening but I haven't been able to digitize the footage yet. Incredible opening. I didn't know it until a couple of days ago, but this is ISEA's 20th anniversary. So it's a big festival. Over 500 delegates! Speakers include Lawrence Lessig, the inventor of the Creative Commons. The Singapore Tourism Board funded the buffet, so there was red wine that never ran out, servers with (among other things) huge trays of satay and some kind of salmon salad in those little Chinese porcelain spoons. A whole LOT of people managed to get drunk on red wine, which doesn't happen very often in Singapore, as they tax the shit out of alcohol. They opened the exhibit to the public at 9PM during the Night Festival, so there were huge crowds of ordinary people plowing through the space. Must have been 15-20 people in my room at any given time. Weird group dynamic electricity in there as people watched one guy interacting with the ghosts playing the gamelan. When the interactor would get off the platform, you could feel the twin drives of curiosity and self-consciousness building and warring in the audience until something would reach a limit and one brave soul would step up to bat. Really, really, really fantastic experience.

Chako flew in especially to catch the opening, which made it a real culmination for the three months we spent apart. (Thanks, babes). A bunch of Pinoys came and formed a kind of ambassadorial contingent. Old Mowelfund compatriot Yeye Calderon, his friends Nelle and Al Torres, (apparently the former personal chef of Kris Aquino), Lee Gibson and her husband Scott, Edsel Abesamis and his wife Sarah, plus some friends like the Malaysian photographer Nico Ong and his wife, and Ivan Thomasz, an old friend from the Singapore International Film Festival. A couple of the I2R guys who I had gotten close to were there too, their significant others in tow: Tze Jan Sim nd Chong Chieh Tseng. Varghese Paulose brought his whole family along! It was nice to be able to tell his daughters how grateful I was for his help, and it was really good to be there with everybody, there at the light at the end of the tunnel. Al and Yeye in particular took a kind of proprietary pride in the piece and became impromptu museum guides, explaining to everyone who stepped up how the piece worked. Woohoo!

Oyeah, finally got some time to surf the ISEA site again and found that the blogger JoelOng posted an interview with me here:

Couple of typos and things, but on the whole I think he really put it together well. I was afraid I'd kind of rambled during the interview.

Friday, July 11, 2008

ISEA Update: Robot Gamelan Beaters

So far the concrete (actually wooden) results of my two months in Singapore:

Above are two shots of the beaters for the Kenong (3 units from a set of 10)

Above is the Kendhang Ciblon (medium-sized drum) and one of the 2 beaters I made for it.

These weren't even the biggest gongs in the full-scale gamelan I borrowed them from.

The beater for the Saron Panerus.

Another angle.

Closeup of the solenoid mechanism. About as simple as you can get. Many thanks to Professor Jan Mrazek, the the head and teacher of the NUS gamelan group (Czechoslovakian, but an absolute Southeast Asia geek), for his very generous loan of the instruments, and to Varghese Paulose, the head of I2R's fabrication laboratory, without whose enthusiastic and welcoming support I wouldn't have been able to move a single step on this project.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Made a breakthrough realization today. The solenoids were louder than the gongs, so I thought the solution was quieting the solenoids. Forgot that you could also make the gongs louder. And how do you do that? With MASS. There's a reason the traditional mallets are so heavy: it's because heavy sounds good. Moral of the story: Respect vernacular technology. If they've been doing/building it that way for a couple of hundred/thousand years, it's because there are sound physical reasons to build them that way. Jesus.

Stupid, stupid, stupid! But any day you realize how stupid you've been is a day you've gotten a little smarter, so I suppose that it's a good day in that sense.

The image shows the solenoids and the mallets. On the left is a denuded tennis ball on a stick. This was modeled on/inspired by the padded balls they traditionally use on the gongs. On the right is the new beater I kludged together after the light came on. String wrapped around a good SLAB of wood (from the wood stash of Yeye Calderon, a painter/old Mowelfund comrade now residing in SG. Salamat, Ye!). Mass made all the difference.

Another interesting detail. When the tennis ball mallet hit the gong the first time, it made a nice, loud sound. If it hit the gong again, before the gong had come to rest, sometimes it would make a loud sound, sometimes it wouldn't. Sometimes it would even damp the gong. Eventually realized that it was a matter of phasing. If the mallet hit the gong out of phase, the waves it generated in the metal would cancel out the waves already there. Apparently, the solution is just to use really heavy mallets, so that they pack enough punch to damp the existing vibrations AND generate a whole bunch of new ones. Like I said, duh.

I bow in the direction of all the long-dead creators of gamelan instruments, and their acoustic/engineering/physical solutions. I follow in the footsteps of giants.

PS ISEA has its own dedicated blogger (nice idea). He's Joel Ong, whose job it is to write up and photograph the festival and process. His stuff can be found here.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

ISEA Update

video ISEA update. Raining like 3.67 motherfuckers here so I can blog without feeling guilty. Didn't realize I had such a protestant/confucian work ethic. This is a video of the prototype mechanism I built for Quartet- the intallation I'm building for ISEA 2008. Photosensor on the screen registers the white block on the end of the image's drumstick and activates a solenoid that strikes a lever and hits the Javanese xylophone. Hope to be building 15 more of these. But quieter! The damn solenoid must be 5 times louder than the xylophone!

Gave a talk the other day at the I2R (the research center that's facilitating my work, also known as "I squared R" and the Institute for Infocomm Research ) to a roomful of engineers and progammers, including Corey Manders, my chief collaborator for the computer vision and conducting interface, and my host Dr. Farzam Farbiz of I2R's Signal Processing group. Must have been over 20 people in there if stage fright hasn't magnified the crowd in memory. Great reception, nice feedback. Presented my work as a history of investigating/seeking non-cinematic ways to use moving images. So I mentioned Volume Control, /mutation and Spinning Jimmy. Forgot to mention Shift Register, Damn!

Dr. Farbiz asked a classic question: what is the engineering significance of the work? (I2R is an honest-to-god research center that invents stuff to sell, so every research initiative has to be justified in terms of technological significance and business model). I said that there was no engineering rationale I could currently think 0f that would justify using images to control machinery. It is much less efficient than using computer programs . Thus, I said, to a pure engineering intelligence, the work was meaningless, or at least redundant. However, I said, it means something to humans, who conceive images as powerless ghosts, to see that idea violated in physical space. (Of course, I didn't put it this succinctly during the question-and-answer period). The artwork revises, and makes visible, our preconceptions, at a visceral level. This opened up a nice little discussion among the programmers and engineers about the uses and meaning of art.

Of course, the pure engineering intelligence does not exist on this earth. A pure engineering intelligence would find it illogical to wear clothes on a hot day, and find swimming trunks and underwear indistinguishable. A human engineer, on the other hand, finds the idea of going to work naked, or of wearing underwear to the beach, unthinkable.

This capacity for finding things unthinkable is a symptom of culture, and therefore of humanity, that which is immersed and defined by cultural ideas. This is the side of us that art speaks to. Art makes the overlooked and unthought visible, thinkable, palpable.

Possible definition: Artworks are multivalent and unfinished signifiers. They invite us to speculate about their significance. Thus the viewer builds the finished work in his mind, for himself, by augmenting the signifier with his own signifieds.

PS the page describing my stuff on the ISEA website can be found here.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Conducting Ghosts in Singapore

New project! In 2007, I pitched Quartet, a project I proposed to ISEA, The International Symposium for Electronic Arts, a new media arts conference and festival in Singapore. My proposal got selected and so I am now an artist-in-residence at the National University of Singapore, and with a tenure till early August.

I will be developing Quartet in collaboration with the Institute for Infocomm Research (abbreviated in print as I2R and in speech as "I squared R") -- an honest-to-god commercial research center, where the people invent stuff for a living. I'll be working with Corey Manders, an ex- professional saxophone player who fucked off from music, became a computer engineer and is now in I2R's Signal Processing Department trying (among other things) to make computers see.

For Quartet, I will be making video images play instruments in the real world. I2R will help me make an computer vision interface so that a person will be able to conduct the four video-instrument tandems by waving his arms in the air. (Mwahahaha! It's alive! Krakaboom! )

I'll be incorporating the circuits I used to make Spinning Jimmy, the conceptual-kinetic video installation I made for Visual Pond's End Frame exhibit. To recap, Spinning Jimmy had a video loop of a man lifting a sandbag over his head. A sensor detected each lift of the sandbag and moved a little crank that caused a thread to be wound upon a spool. (So I now have in my house a spool of red thread that was wound by a ghost in a television monitor. I should make a whole bunch of these and sell them in little glass boxes or something. )

For Quartet, I'll be using the circuits to play a stripped-down 'punk gamelan' ensemble, (essentially four gamelan instruments I will rip out of a full-fledged Indonesian orchestra) and write a bunch of algorithms that will hopefully create something interesting to conduct/listen to.

So the work might also be seen as a development of Volume Control, the visual score I developed some years back and which was most recently played by Tengal's Gangan Ensemble during Teddy Co's three-screen video-music extravaganza Sinemusikalye last March 16 at the Remedios Circle.

Below are links to Sinemusikalye, but I think you have to be on Multiply to view the sites.,

So yeah, Quartet : Spinning Jimmy Meets Volume Control!


Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Comforting Quote

The frame of mind in which interesting things germinate is often more confused and desperate than organized and confident.

--Randy Thom

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Noise and Causes

Some thoughts occasioned by the last NMAM gig (Minus Ten Decibels--- happened at the screening room on the 2nd floor of Mogwai at Cubao X last April 30. NMAM = New Media Arts Manila). Successful and not. Successful because most of the stuff was half decent to experience, and not successful because we couldn't play as softly as I'd hoped. Minus Ten Decibels was supposed to be an evening of quiet noise. Blums and I had actually hoped people would have to lean forward, searching for the sounds, but that was not to be. Aside from most of the performers apparently having difficulty wrapping their heads around that idea, the hubbub from the bar below was just too loud. Minimum volume was determined as the minimum volume level required to drown out the bar. Ah well. Maybe next time it can be held in a library or something.


Me, Autoceremony (Jing Garcia), Caliph8, Malek Lopez, Nun Radar (Pow Martinez) and Tengal performed sound, Jason Tan and Blums Borres performed video, which included insectoid footage created by the Lord of Mogwai, hizzoner Lyle Sacris.

Noise for a Cause?

A member of the audience, Atty Adrian Sison, asked if NMAM had ever thought of linking the shows to some kind of social theme, which made me bark a bit. I should have gone up and apologized, but I have to give it to him. He knew it was a legitimate question and he didn't back down. I eventually calmed down and gave him my 2 cents on the idea, which might be worth posting here.

I am against associating sound art with social/environmental/topical causes. And two reasons are that:

1) Doing so destroys the ambiguity of the work. The easiest way to "tame" new or unfamiliar forms is to link them to themes like poverty or hunger or imperialism. Then anything discordant in the work becomes the emblem of social iniquity, injustice, rage, or whatever. The work becomes a vessel for a set of prefabricated meanings. I prefer that the sounds and images in these works stay as sounds and images, or at least, that they remain available as signs/emblems for other meanings. Who knows. Keep social justice out of the picture long enough and maybe some of Lirio's robot cat solos might start to sound like love songs, heh heh.

2) The easiest way to convince people that you or the work are "serious," is to link the work to things which people agree are serious: things like poverty, rice shortages, tsunamis, etc. I don't like it when artists do this because it's an easy thing to do. Also, it's an easy way to pass off bad art, because the seriousness of the theme camouflages the formal flaws, making the flaws harder to see.

Pugad Baboy

I used to love the strip because Pol Medina used to be funny, creative, clever. His characters used to go into the future, parody batman, make surreal puns, etc. Lately he's run out of ideas or passion but he's been masking it with political commentary. Polgas and Mang Dagul drinking beer and talking about corruption in the Philippines. Topical, maybe slightly satirical, but most of the time, not really funny or even clever. Most of the time, it's kind of boring. I'd have to call this turn of events as artistic failure. Good causes are easy masks for bad art to wear.

Fine, what about good art? Say you put together a bunch of noises that actually have a beginning, middle and end, that have interesting dynamics, etc etc. Is there anything to be lost by associating it with, say, the Jonas Burgos kidnapping? Mingus did that a couple of times I think. He titled one composition I really liked as "Free Cellblock F, 'Tis Nazi USA" or something. Just tacked an incendiary title on the thing. He said he did it to make people think. Well, I dunno. When I listen to that piece, I just basically forget about the title and soak in the jazz. And another way of expressing that fact would be to say that I need to forget about the Nazi USA shit to be able to hear the damn horns, which would be another way of saying that linking sounds to sociopolitical themes make the sounds harder to hear.

Enough said. I want to thank everybody who came and soaked it in, and also our sponsors Intel, Globe and Sony Ericsson for feeding the performers and making the gig happen. Several people came up to me later and said they really liked the Q & A, so let that be a hint to anybody who reads this and shows up at the next gig: Speak up. People like it. ;-)