society of algorithm
the use of broadband technology for connected performances
thursday september 15, 2005
Guy Van Belle: You all know that I am involved in very different things?
Maybe it is interesting to look at the way people in the electronic arts work in general-because I am not an exception to that. I was trained in literature but became mostly involved in computer music by the end of the 80s. And it was normal to have a lot of international contacts since there was hardly a local scene, and secondly it was no contradiction to be interested in the whole of computer technologies (sound, visuals, networks, etc...). Finally there was hardly a formal training available, so you all had to study it yourself. And so it is obvious that you follow your own course instead of heading for a predefined and expected outcome.
Personally, for me an eye opener was the moment we got out of the too narrow situation in the region Gent/Brussels/Antwerp and I had the opportunity to actually do things in Amsterdam. I like to mention STEIM here, because they gave me a lot of chances and also because it is still an interesting mix with local and international people. There were also Dutch people there, but there was also an international crowd around that were setting up things in a different way. That seemed a bit strange at first, because STEIM is a place where you would expect historically that music would happen, but it actually did not. They still had the music studios there, and there was actually only one out of four studios that was fully equipped to do music, but then they left it completely open to what other people would bring in as a project. This is a long time ago- end of the 80?s, beginning of the 90?s- and they kept this attitude. In Amsterdam Steim has a name that it is completely different from all the other organisations. I like the policy over the years because they go for risks and if people come with an interesting project they just do it. As a background they have been around since the end of the 60?s, but they kept evolving the whole time. Michel Waisvisz has been the director since the beginning and when I came there, Nic Collins was art director. They had a couple of apartments in the back and people could work there, so that was what I got offered. And it also proved to be the more interesting thing, to work with people and then they would do local concerts and also connect with other European events. At that time in Belgium I was visiting IPEM and LOGOS, both in Ghent, but at STEIM I could really work. And where I had most contacts with an international community. So that provided me with a kind of basis for development. So the first important thing was really to get out of here, and to come into a completely different kind of atmosphere. The second thing was that it occurred at the beginning of the 90?s together with the proliferation of the whole internet culture. You didn?t have to deal anymore with anyone around you; you could just do something and get into contact with someone else, and set up something that was 1000 kms away, it didn?t really matter. These kind of things are contradictory to the discussions we are always having about the internet being localised. I believe that the real appropriation of the networks, which stepped in afterwards, in the middle of the 90?s, set us back a lot on the level of sharing and the sense of free communication. Of course for a company the geographical localisation(s) is/are important. But not for us, we are wandering around anyway and so 'home' and 'heimat' is of no importance really. I like to mention the countries that are outside the EU and that I like to work with. Of course it is a totally fake construction this eu-membership and then consider the new countries and the ones to come later. We are heading for a second era of eu-colonisation I guess.
But my experience is that I can sometimes better communicate and work with exactly these people than the over-individualized and spoiled west-west artists. You see, between what I am doing and what they are doing, there is no difference basically. You find out the differences like when I work with you or with you here? it?s not that I try to neutralise these kind of things but it is much more fruitful to see. Lately I have been interested in the similarities that occur from it. Probably in the next Leonardo Music Journal there is going to be a very interesting article from a Swiss composer who started to work in Beijing and he was asked to give a computer music course there, and he is describing in his article how the Chinese deal with it. He is astonished by the fact that he is sitting there, these two people come in and they just let him listen to their music and he says ?Well, it seems a bit like Sheffield techno but they are Chinese?. Then he goes back to Switzerland, and these people make with almost the same equipment some kind of similar metaphysical eastern music, and he says ?Wow!? and he?s reflecting on this ? It?s a very interesting article, because it says a lot about the way we live and the way we try to adapt to certain things. It functions really as a background as to why we would do content wise work with networks, and not use networks to connect people in a way that they are forced to get into one monolithic thing. On the contrary we try to foster the diversity that people generate when using a network. I think that aesthetically we all live very close to each other.
I said before that I studied Literature, and I have always been happy that I did this in the beginning. Literary critique, philosophy and aesthetics, but also the closely related cultural studies gave me a specific entrance into the continuum that art and culture is. So I am not a technician at all, depite the fact that I am involved in a technological art, and that I want to be involved in all aspects of it, not just a selective set of things... Lately i had a discussion with Golo Foellmer, who did his Phd about Net Musik, and is now teaching at University of Halle (DE). The basic question he is asking, is about ?What makes a technology an interesting phenomenon for an artist?. You can go to a network but that is not the whole thing, a network is only one part of it. A technological artist is interested in something but the answer is not always obvious, it?s just a question that is maybe unanswerable and maybe we get back to it when we talk about the value of or the quality of the networks that we construct. But it is interesting to wonder about it from time to time.
My first involvement in a network happened at the beginning of the 90?s when I was in university and they had a network, but at the department there was nobody using it except for administrative purposes, and somebody asked ?What could you do with it?? I got interested in it because I had met other artists in Austria who were doing things with TCP/IP networks.
Slowly we got together and tried to get things running on it ? Essentially in those days we would try to send control data over it. A few messages and numbers to change another machine - virtual or not - elsewhere. There is a huge difference between the different types of media that you run on it and the use of it. The second thing is when you start sending really massive data over it and to give you an idea, if I want to control an operation on another machine I just send a couple of bits and it will have an effect over there. If I want to send audio in a very acceptable level, my voice can go 22,100 samples a second that I have to send over it, and most of the sound that we send now can go up to 44,100. I haven?t sent any larger data over it, but it means that you send 44100 numbers every second. The third thing that you send over it is even worse: it?s the visual data. Video consists of RGB, so if you have for example a movie that you want to send over it, and you do it 15 frames a second, you will send the data for 320 x 240 pixels 3 times (for Red, Green, and Blue) 15 times a second. That is 3.5 million data per second and that is already a lot! Just think that you want to send audio and video in the end and at a good resolution, so that is massive!!! The good news is that the networks are getting better and that optimalisation through compression techniques has improved immensely over the last years. And we have to believe this will all improve even more.
But like I said before, the first experiments that people did with it was actually just sending controls over it. The real pioneers from artistic point of view were artists like Robert Adrian (Adrian X), Sherrie Rabinowitz and Kit Galloway (The Electronic Cafe) and performance artists like the computer band The Hub. At that time I was part of the Belgian Computer Music band "Young Farmers Claim Future" and we were participating in certain events, and had contact with the people mentioned above, so in the 90s I don't think many other artists in Belgium were experimenting with this. Actually for ISEA (InterSociety for Electronic Arts) Helsinki
1994 we set up a web database with sound and digital movies, and also in this respect we were on the same line with the early webartists. Michael Z and Jodi came in from the visual side, but we were performers and musicians and were having totally different references.
One remark: I am not going to talk from the part of commercial streaming because they sometimes have very dedicated networks, I am not going to talk about banks, commercial radio, maybe internet radio, and I am not going to talk about gaming because it is completely another issue; it tunes into it but then we will be lost in no time in quite a different thing. I want to talk about the artistic experiments that have happened and the ones I was involved with in the last five or six years and also we could maybe turn later perhaps to some more activist background because the things I was doing was art in communities. I would like to talk about the situation here in Belgium if you want, and what the difference is with the other situations that I worked in. I do believe we have to discuss this because I think it is a very important issue in setting up these kind of things, not to end into games with local power structures.
Now the history of these networks and performances which I was interested in from the beginning of the 90?s has to do a lot with the fact that I mentioned that I stayed in STEIM in Amsterdam, and there were these people from the US, five or six Americans who were there called The Hub. They built their own computers and they would send data amongst themselves in a local network. Five years later by the middle of the 90?s, they would use the internet to do all this. So they would extrapolate the fact that they had a local network, just for technical reasons they would expand it over TCP/IP so they actually had to re-program everything and then they stopped? they were getting old(laughs). Recently, I was curating the sound events in DEAF05 (Dutch Electronic Art Festival 2005) and they wanted one big event , The theme was about Networks and Cybernetics so I proposed to do a Hub Reunion. At the concert, they they hadn't played together for a long time, immediately you could recognise from the first second that it was The Hub playing. So the aesthetic value of what they were doing based on the algo-rhythms that they were sending back and forth, is a very recognisable thing. It is quite different than other people doing things on-line. It?s not a technical issue, it?s a related issue within the technical and the aesthetical aspects that people are using.
After the earlier mentioned experimental concerts Young Farmers Claim Future had done between Amsterdam and Ghent, during Brussels 2000 and thanks to Dirk de Wit, at one moment we were talking about this project with Halli Kalli (Haraldur Karlsson) from Iceland, and some people from Helsinki. Haraldur had made a proposal that would bring together these control data in a kind of a concept that would let several people collaborate? We would share a couple of resources like movies and sounds and work out several synthesis algorithms to go along with it. The nice thing was that we could work together in Prague for a week, and then we continued to work on-line. So we sent around the patches that we each were developing. For instance Haraldur would start something, I would change it, Johannis from helsinki would again change it. On saturdays we would each build up a completely different setting around that and then we would use the satellite connection to integrate it all. But the real thing was happening on the net of course. The whole performance had a very localized and performative flavor, despite the fact that there was a network activity running in the background. Actually, I think this is a nice point as to an audience it was not always apparent that there was a network involved, but actually you don?t care as long as the performance was ok.
And we could not have made these performances without the net-connections at all. Though we have changed a lot in the things we do, most of us kept up contact, and we were involved in several other international performances and setups.
By 2002/2003 I was asked by Waag Society Amsterdam for setting up connected performances with them. The nice thing about Amsterdam is that despite differences, cultural organisations can work together, which is very different from the Belgian and Brussels situation. Now Waag Society has a media lab, and there are almost forty people developing things, or setting up social, cultural and educational projects. It is quite huge. In the terms here it would not be considered non-profit but there it is; it?s very company style structured. Sometimes it is pretty hard for artists to work there as also a lot of residents have a lot of problems with the organisation in the first place though not with the things they are doing there. One of the first things I was involved in at De Waag, was a permanent installation for Nemo, the children?s science museum in Amsterdam. They asked me to work with Tom de Meijer on it, and I think he is an important person to remember within the history of realltime visual and networked synthesis. I met him early 90s at STEIM, and he was then developing one of the first free real-time visual synthesis programmes called Imagine, which is still free and around. He also developed one of the first motion trackers called BigEye. He started to work at De Waag to follow his interestsfor networked visual applications. Meantime he is working together with the computer image pioneers The Vasulkas.
For Waag Society he developed a programme called KeyWorx, an application for audiovisual synthesis and networked collaboration.
My involvement in setting up performances and workshops at Waag Society goes back to an earlier think-tank where people would discuss the possible uses of KeyWorx in several cultural and artistic areas. But in the end we were sitting together with a lot of people and discussing the fact that there are not so many open places. There are two ways of doing things when you develop something, you can do it very company style where you develop this particular software and you get a couple of users and you say ?Well, we?ll see how they will react and we will change the programme according to what the users do.? From my point of view I am not interested in that.
I want to work with people who stand in the field who are already a bit skilled, and who know what they are doing creatively. Then I wanted to see what they use and see how we can connect. So from the whole issue about KeyWorx, which was about connected performances over networks, I simply took the idea and put it into a kind of open environment where people would come in, and work with it or not, on a free basis. And if KeyWorx would be needed, KeyWorx would be used. If KeyWorx was not fit for it, then we would say to the developers ?Listen we cannot use it because of this and this and this?. So we used the Theatrum Anatomicum on Saturdays between two and three o?clock in the afternoon until the evening, and we would open up and people would simply come. We are Arjen Keesmaat and me.
Later on Jan-Kees van Kampen got actively involved.
So what we were basically using was an empty space, a good Gigaport connection and four ibooks from another Waag project. You may wonder how a project like that and without promotion could succeed, but surprisingly people would come in. In the beginning we would just simply talk to them and start developing things with the things that they wanted to do, The first ones would be dancers and programmers who had worked with artists already, but wanted to also develop their own things and who were very interested in the network. There were artists who were doing music and visuals, who were at that moment not into connected performances and slowly it would build up.
Now the important thing was that the way it was structured since it was set up, was very bottom up. I didn?t want to put any stress on them and say ?OK, the moment you come in we have to define what you do by the people who are here and not by what I want or anyone above it?, and the other important thing is that there were three things at stake: the local initiative, and the international partners we connected to.
The difficult thing was how to connect to other communities of people who wanted to do similar things and for that reason I was working almost exclusively for three of four months on getting partners which seemed a very unlikely match. Coming out of this story I knew a lot of people who were doing things from New York to Tokyo etc, but we tried to bring in a couple of people who were out of the very fashionable networks, for instance from Sofia, Minsk, Bratislava, Prague, Athens, ... Not everything worked out but even if things were failing I believe the participants learned a lot and enjoyed it. There was by the end of 2004 an active email list of 100 members.
We were doing this open lab for two years and the main reason it stopped was because after two years it takes more effort to start everytime form zero once the crowd is changing. You can see that with pioneering other organisations and groups like Share, and the Brussels based Code31 as well. You must imagine it is a very weird situation: it?s not like you have one person who comes every week, some come for a couple of weeks, some come for a couple of months, sometimes they don?t come for a while, then they come again, depending on what people are doing? Most of the time we had people who had their own idea about what they wanted to do. They put it into a kind of connected sense, came there and worked out this kind of thing and then of course they disappear as they don?t have the impetus to work on this anymore. So you can also say that most of the results that happened from these two years of activities of open places, are not happening inside this place, but outside, which makes it very hard. For me it was very hard to see a definite result. It becomes all very labor intensive, because if you work on it for 2 years every week, it is very stressful; you have to set up every week, invent new things, get on it, and we were doing it with two people only, Arjen and me. Arjen was more technically involved, and I was more content wise involved. But it was in general also a very exciting period: basically the projects dealt with a very important aspect of what is a Gigaport and why it is needed. And in a way we all drew a lot of experience from it...
Since last December I started to concentrate on projects that build on this, and like before working at Waag Society most of the other projects I did artistically had already a connected background. So what am I doing now? First I continued the connected performances for instance for the Le Placard initiative with Aymeric Mansoux. In Tesla-Berlin we are developing flying robots and things like that, but of course they are connected. As such it becomes a connected and distributed artbot installation. Another thing I have been developing is the setup 2WR (Two Way Radios), which is a streaming audio installation shared by four to eight participants over a network. The ideas go back to Brecht and Enzensberger, who both wrote pamphlets at the origin of radio in which they would say ?Look radio is an interesting phenomenon, because you can send and receive, maybe it is the technology which would actually allow people to participate and connect to each other?. Brecht is even putting up the dream that he says when you have a two way radio it means a lot for education and learning and developing things and finally he says ?I am not going to do theatre like I do now with a two way radio system, I am going to do something else? and he ends his pamphlet with the beautiful words, Against Renovation for Innovations, which is a very important statement. Enzensberger would say another thing: ?For every receiver, a possible transmitter?, which he credits also to Brecht. It is an interesting thing because with internet we can do this? with a high bandwidth you can do this in a variety of possibilities so the two way radio system is basically about artistic content which you try to share. One of the last things I did was starting with one audio piece which is a speech synthesis and I sent it up to a server and all the rest connected can bring it down, reprocess it and send it back up as a separate stream. What I do with the four or five streams that occur in that way, I use it, I analyse it, and I use the parameters to change the initial stream. Well it?s not a feedback system, but it completely loops with parameters and control structures that occur and with the streams themselves that occur within the piece. So it seems complex but in a way it is an interesting thing as an artist that you are sitting on one end and that you are actually playing together, very tightly to what other people are doing without seeing them at a very big distance. Damn I love to do this more than sit on stage and perform.