Reflections on ECREA Philosophy of Communication Workshop: Communication, Art, Media: Probing Impacts and Intersections (Lisbon, 13-15 October 2017)

 

 

After two intense days of presentations, endless coffee breaks and some lovely late night typical Portuguese food (organised by the conference hosts), I finally have time to reflect on what has been a very successful and enjoyable workshop. With a traditional conference format but with extended time for presentations and Q&A (30+15 minutes) and only two papers per panel, it generated debates and contrasting points of view. On the panel on authorship, for example, a traditional model of autonomy of the artist during the romantic period described by Antonio Machuco Rosa found its counterpart in Karl Flender’s paper on contemporary reappropriation of the literary format by digital technologies. Flender’s paper suggested that the author is an assemblage of computer programmer, bots and the unintended Internet log/commenter. Or in other words, the author is no longer fully autonomous and (on many occasions) can be described as a collective agent.

 

Some of the presentations incorporated performative events and practice-based interventions, such as Pip Thornton’s imaginative assemblage of poetry, receipt printing machines and Google AdWords marketing software to highlight the unforeseen consequences of attaching monetary value to singular words. Panos Kompatsiaris’s presentation on the super-star curator was not only informative but very entertaining, as he highlighted the struggle of star-curators to come up with overarching blurbs for the large scale art events that they are organising that satisfy all involved parties while also distinguishing themselves from any other event. As Panos notes, these blurbs usually begin with a negative statement, stating what they are not trying to achieve prior to stating what they seek to achieve. It goes without saying that such curators and their ‘aura’ are essential for enabling contemporary art to state its meaningfulness and achieve maximum monetary value in the (upmarket) art markets. Jeremy Swartz highlighted the importance of the role of the curator of multidisciplinary conferences/exhibitions to enable embodied aesthetic experiences and exchange of ideas across disciplines. This in turn provides a powerful platform to expose and confront the challenges of living in the Anthropocene era and (at least) reflect on its unsustainability.

 

My own paper—Probing the Machine-city Through Cinematic Narratives—is based on my main arguments and findings from my thesis, which I hope to eventually publish in a book format. Through an assemblage of urban studies, philosophy, (digital) media studies and sociology, I argue that participatory art (in the form of an emergent and collective performance in digitally mediated space) enables new aesthetic experiences that interfere with the (desired) efficiency and predictability of the machine-city, triggering both reflection and alternative ways of interacting with the city. My ethnographic study on Blast Theory’s A Machine To See With demonstrates the potential of cinematic narratives that draw from previous avant-garde art movements and artefacts, such as Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera. As Jussi Parikka noted during the Q&A, participatory art should be triggering reaction as much as reflection. Conference organiser Jose Gomes Pinto pointed out that the Situationists had achieved similar aims decades ago. However, it would be interesting to see what they would have done if they had iPhones; would they be opposed to them or instead would they hack their unforeseen potential as an artistic tool?. It reminded me of one of the best-known Situationist provocations: enabling people to turn on and off their street lights. Perhaps there is an app for that?…

 

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Jussi Parikka’s presentation

The event closed with an enlightening presentation from keynote speaker Jussi Parikka on Multiple Futurisms: Imaginary Futures in Contemporary Art. Jussi highlighted the potential impact of emerging avant-garde contemporary media art forms that draw from past movements. I was delighted (and surprised) to see how Futurism found its way into contemporary urban environments in Africa and the Middle East. Through examples of glitch art, performative art interventions and original art/critique artefacts, Jussi exposed the potential of new ‘futurisms’ that are immersed in the chaotic ‘hyperness’ of largely unsustainable urban environments, such as the Middle East utopian dystopias built in no-one’s land to become inhabitable urban theme parks. For me, this is exciting (and scary) terrain, as it shows the potential of contemporary media art to expose, question and challenge these emerging urban forms, but also their potential to support them. As an example, Jussi showed us a video of a wealthy Arab performer/maverick riding a motorbike that seems to have come straight out of the original Tron movie while he waves at passersby and the camera that tracks him as he cruises the empty streets of a Middle East major city.

 

On Saturday, we all went out as a group for dinner and a few drinks. Our hosts brought us to a trendy area of Lisbon where we were fortunate enough to experience the clash between old and new: he first brought us to a small traditional ‘sports’ bar with an improvised bingo and loads of memorabilia. Then they brought us to Damas, a super-trendy bar where (if I am guessing right) Lisbon’s growing creative industries chill out and party. And to top it off, they brought us afterwards to Bar do Terraco, strategically positioned between an incredible panoramic view of downtown Lisbon and a monumental façade of a traditional Portuguese church building.

 

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Lisbon tram in Bairro Alto

Lisbon is one of my favourite destinations in Europe, but thanks to our hosts Jose and Joana I was able to see it in a different light and be inspired to think of the future possibilities of my research on the mediated city as I enjoy the simple pleasure of a ‘derive’ through a fascinating city and its complex (and sometimes contradictory) environment.

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Bairro Alto, Lisbon

 

To the hosts and organisers and to all the participants and newfound friends, I would like to say ‘muito obrigado e ate a proxima’! (Thanks very much and see you soon!).

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The output of Pip Thornton’s performative presentation

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Performative Objects Series 1 – ’80’s style’ plastic skateboard

This my first blog post in my Performative Object Series. Although performativity in public space is always triggered by a combination of several actors/actants (both human and non-human), I thought it would be an interesting exercise to depart from a singular object and think of how it is inserted into public space, triggering disjunctions, generating new awareness, re-purposing space and suggesting new social connections.

Object Description: very compact mass-produced (plastic mould) skateboard (fits into any standard gym lockers) with soft, wide, rubbery wheels and a plastic deck. Can do tight turns and is a fun way of getting from A to B as long as the sidewalk is in a reasonable condition. Can support a rider of up to 80 kg. Very sturdy and usually comes in screaming neon colours. Looks like a kids toy, but can propel bigger, unashamed adults to bone-breaking speeds if used indiscriminately. If used in moderation, provides great fun and might even keep you relatively fit.

Cost: about 100 euro in shops, cheaper online.

Wow factor: 7 out of 10, higher if ridden by an adult of above average and long feet, as it looks like said adult might have stolen it from their kid/nephew. Even higher if you opt for screaming neon colours.

So, the first object in this series is an ’80’s style’ plastic skateboard. For those unfamiliar with the whole skateboard scene, these are mass produced skateboards that were quite common during the 80’s. If you were a kid in those days, you would have come across one of these amongst Rubrik cubes, Atari consoles, chopper bikes, etc. (OK, I’ll leave the nostalgia aside now). A form of zombie object/toy (to borrow from the concept of zombie media), it has been resurrected and is slowly making itself known across pavements in cities worldwide.

I saw one of them on a YouTube video about a year ago, and, as a semi-retired (and unskillful) skateboarder, I wanted to buy one for a while. A year later, I saw a kid whizzing around one of them in the streets of New York during a holiday break. I finally got hold of one in a Downtown skate shop. The owner of the shop shouted out to me as I left the shop: “If you are getting it for your kid, make sure you have a go yourself!”. I refrained out of embarrassment to reply: “No, it is actually for myself!”

I’ve been using it for a few months now. It comes in very handy to go to the local supermarket, and sometimes to my office or into town. It usually halves the time it would take me to get anywhere, and it is not too bulky or heavy, so I can carry it in one hand or store it in my gym locker or under my office desk. I get some odd looks when I’m out, partly because there aren’t yet many of them going around, partly because people would rather expect to see a teenager riding one.

How does it re-purpose public space? First of all, it raises my awareness of the quality and maintenance of Dublin’s sidewalks. There are some great surfaces around town, and my favourite is one that has a very discrete texture, making a very low pitch whizzing sound and seems to be even faster than perfectly smooth surfaces (or maybe it’s just my imagination). I notice any cracks in the sidewalk and keep an eye out for small stones that might stop the skateboard in its tracks. Nearer the city centre, it becomes unpleasant to ride due to the crowds, so I just carry it. I also look out for slight degrees of steepness, so I can practice going downhill without going too fast and doing snappy carving turns that remind me of surfing. During the few moments when you are not looking down for obstacles, your eyes act like a camera on a tripod filming the fast moving vehicles, building and people whizzing past you.

But what is most interesting is the fact that skateboards don’t have a designated place in the pecking order of transportation systems. The streets are too fast (unless you are a kamikaze rider), and even the bike lanes are too fast (unless they are empty). And on the sidewalks, you are the one going too fast. However, this is exactly what makes it more interesting and fun: you have to choose the right path at the right time. In my own experience, I end up mixing all of the above, with a preference for smooth and empty sidewalks and bike lanes. So far, perhaps because skateboarding is not as prominent in Dublin as, say, New York, there are no strict bye-laws governing where you can ride. And why would there need to be any fixed rules, as long as skateboard riders respect the space of pedestrians and other modes of transport?

Summing up, the ’80’s style’ plastic skateboard is a fun, toy/transport device that creates its own performative space through the city and fits in neatly with the push to cut down on motorised transport. It is certainly not for everyone, and there are basic skills that need to be learned to ‘operate’ one (easy when you’ve done it as a kid, but you’re never too old!). But gliding through the city on one of them is an enjoyable and relatively easygoing  way of getting around while having fun.

 

 

 

The Green Watch Programme in Dublin: Citizen-driven Sustainability Initiatives in the City

Yesterday I attended a workshop in the Science Gallery in Dublin about the Green Watch Programme, a joint initiative from the Dublin City Council, Trinity College and Intel. The main idea of the programme is to tackle waste in the city through a participatory mobile phone app with a focus on four key areas: water waste, air pollution, green initiatives and litter. As a Dublin City Council representative pointed out, the mobile phone penetration in Dublin is approximately 48%, so it makes sense to create an app that engages citizens to adopt waste prevention behaviours (he did point out that the remaining 52% can be reached through other ways).

The idea taps into the concept of smart, sustainable cities and crowdsourcing. While the project researchers have through about deploying wired and wireless sensors to capture data, they have pointed out that these need electricity, maintenance, and can be costly, while using citizen’s smartphones to sense the environment makes…sense.

During the workshop, in which we were expected to contribute ideas after being introduced to the project, questions were raised about how to engage citizens and what would they benefit from contributing information. The workshop organisers were keen on brainstorming issues of waste across the city. There were many suggestions put forward, such as: unblocking drains, identifying location of recycling black spots, identifying community garden projects (and coordinating volunteers for these), and several others. It remains to be seen how citizens might actively engage in such initiatives and what would be there reasons for doing so. Personal interest? The urge to socialise? Guilt?

One after-thought I had was that the targets of combating waste and engaging citizens can be linked in certain ways. I though specifically of time-wasting (an immaterial form of waste) on online social networks. While many forms of material waste are quite obvious, online time-wasting is a grey area (there are certainly many positive things to be said of online social networking). How can you measure online time-wasting ? Does it eventually translate into physical waste eventually (electricity needs, access to remote data from database centres)?

Instead of harvesting little farms on Facebook’s Farmville app, for example, users could spend time harvesting (real) mini-farms across the city. Perhaps the trick is to make the app as ‘fun’ and engaging as Farmville (et al.). Less time online, more exercise, the opportunity to harvest your produce (rather than spend money on virtual goods to harvest a virtual farm in exchange for virtual scores), and the opportunity to meet your elusive neighbours. Or maybe the solution is somewhere in-between , such linking the ability to score online points and build online ‘wealth’ to your physical efforts in the ‘real’ mini-farm.

If we consider the mind-boggling success of Ian Bogost’s Cow Clicker , perhaps the middle ground approach is the only way to go forward. Gamification with a purpose?

Craig Mundie – Chief Research and Strategy Officer, Microsoft – “More Like Us: Computing Transformed”

Craig Mundie gave a lecture entitled ‘More Like Us: computer Transformed’ at the University of Melbourne on the 29th of March, 2011. He demonstrated some of the future capabilities of the Microsoft Kinect, including collaborative efforts and hacks by users. Microsoft is trying to push the Kinect into the business arena, and Craig demonstrated a kind of virtual conference where the Kinect captures your movements and inserts you as an avatar into a virtual conference scenario populated by other avatars. It looked uncanny and there were a few bugs. I was wondering during the demonstration if videoconferencing was being pushed too far… On the other hand, this is simply and extension of virtual immersive environments such as Second Life, with added movement capture.

Craig argues that computers should become assistants in the background and that htere shoulb be natural user interaction with the computer. Mind you, this is coming from the company that not so long ago gave us the ‘Clippie’ and the dog assistants in Word giving us suggestions of how to use the program and interrupting our typing. So much for transparency… He also said that Microsoft is working on smart phones that will be able to handle complex processes. For example, you could tell you phone that you want a ticket to go to Sydney tomorrow, and…voila: the phone would research the web for the best price, buy the ticket and do the check-in for you. It does raise some serious concerns about privacy and data protection, but in a world where most users on Facebook display their full birthday on their public profiles, it might succeed!

Craig Mundie and Bill Gates

photo by Dan Farber – Creative Commons License (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Digital film-making thoughts

I just finished reading a book titled Digital Film-Making, by Mike Figgis. Some inspiring stuff, if you are studying, or (as me) has studied Video Production, this is essential literature.

Mike Figgis originally studied music, then worked his way up to become a Hollywood director, although his whole point is that you don’t have to aspire to reach Hollywood to be successful, creative and especially if you sincerely love film-making. As he points out, the digital revolution is here to revamp the whole film sector, and it is gonna do exactly the same to what it did to the music industry, shake its foundations big time. It is only a matter of time now. He also talks about the importance of scoring music properly and logging all your footage before you start editing.

I learned the latter one the hard way, when I recently filmed and edited a documentary about the Earagail Arts Festival 2008 in Letterkenny, Ireland. Me and my colleague ended up with over 10 hours of footage, which we painstakingly had to watch and log before being able to start the editing of the final documentary, which is just over 15 minutes. We were lucky enough that most of it was filmed to a hard drive installed on the Sony HD camera we were using, but it was still an incredibly time-consuming task. On the good side, those 4% of footage we used turned out to be pretty good quality and visually stimulating, and I can say I am quite pleased with the final result.

The book is crammed with very useful tips, and makes you want to go out and start shooting (video) away.

A particularly funny moment in the book was when he was asked to direct an episode of Sopranos and was giving direction to James Gandolfini (who plays Tony Soprano). Then Gandolfini turns to him and disagrees with it (“Why the **** would I do that? Tony Soprano wouldn’t do that!). So Gandolfini suggests an alternative,  Mike Figgis goes with it and it doesn’t work. Gandolfini suggests then another way, which is exactly what Figgis had suggested at the start. Turns out Gandolfini was just “testing” Figgis.

Digital cameras are cheap and the quality gets better and better. A laptop with Imovie installed (which comes free with any Mac) is enough to cut a broadcast-quality feature. And Youtube (and other online video distribution sites) has proven that there are alternative methods of distribution, although, having said that, there is a lot of rubbish out there too, and you must wonder how can a budding film-maker compete with Tay Zonday or zillions of clips about the Menthos-soft drink explosive combination…

More about that later…