Create your own reputation

There has been a great deal of discussion recently about the many new ways in which aspiring cultural creators can find audiences and also make a living in in the notoriously challenging fields of film and television. "Here is the new way: filmmakers doing it themselves — paying for their own distribution, marketing films through social networking sites and Twitter blasts, putting their work up free on the Web to build a reputation, cozying up to concierges at luxury hotels in film festival cities to get them to whisper into the right ears." Michael Cieply The animation film KHODA by Reza Dolatabadi, below is an excellent example of this new approach to creation and distribution.

My graduation film Khoda.

Pause this film and you will see a painting. This idea inspired Reza Dolatabadi to make Khoda. Over 6000 paintings were painstakingly produced during two years to create a five minute film.


A Review of Screen Media Arts: An Introduction to Concepts and Practices

Screen Media Arts by Hart Cohen, Juan Salazar and Iqbal Barkat is a superb book designed to be used in introductory and advanced university classes that study both traditional and digital media. The book comes with a DVD which adds not only resources to the book, but moves the book beyond the conventional boundaries of text and paper. The Australian Publishers Association has short listed the book for a major award.

The book examines areas like the relationships among photographs, images and the transformation of images into data and information. The range is broad, from Roland Barthes to Marshall McLuhan to animation, documentary cinema, narrative cinema with an excellent chapter on experimental film; in each instance there is depth and intellectual rigour. For example, Chapter Two, which deals with Narrative Forms and Screen Media Arts, introduces the typology of Valdimir Propp alongside a discussion of the linguist Roman Jakobson and the anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss.

The interconnections here are important and often not recognized by modern day scholars in film. The efforts in the 1970's to develop a semiotics of the cinema, led in large measure by the research and writings of Christian Metz, were profoundly influenced by linguistics. [Jakobson](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Jakobson), whose work was in phonetics, was very interested in typologies because systems of classification make it possible to describe complex systems in a fundamentally simple way. Levi-Strauss was deeply influenced by this, and his early work builds on Jakobson's insights. Metz tries to redefine the relationships between language and film and searches for a systemic way of explaining how meaning comes to be organized in specific patterns, particularly in narrative film. However, he doesn’t adequately define the nature of the filmic system and ends up suggesting the presence of grammar-like processes that determine film’s signifying properties. Chapter Two grapples with these issues and includes a number of questions that should push students to investigate this important history in much greater detail.

One of the key claims in the book is that 'digitisation' expands the potential for story-telling in the cinema. Although I agree that interactive tools and virtual worlds have had a transformative effect on the nature of images, I am not altogether sure that audience participation also transforms the rules of narrative. The best place to examine this claim would be through a systematic examination of YouTube which is referenced in the book more as a resource than as an object of study. Chapter 16, which deals with Social Media, engages with the plethora of media but creates an inventory rather than connecting social media more fully and richly to questions of narrative. At the same time, Chapter Four, which is one of the best chapters in the book, engages in a profound manner with the shifting space of audience concerns and interests.

Part Two, which is made up of five chapters, deals with a variety of technical issues around production, legal constraints in filmmaking, directing and editing. These chapters will be useful for practitioners. Editing is seen through the theories of Sergei Eisenstein. The notion that the combination of a number of shots (sometimes just two) will produce an “idea” is based on Eisenstein’s overall premise that a universal visual competence governs the ways in which pictorial languages are understood and also the ways in which the specific properties of communication of a given shot are created, recognized and perceived. This fits in with Eisenstein’s emphasis which is drawn in a mechanical way from behavioural ([Pavlovian](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivan_Pavlov)) psychology. The Chapter on editing needed to examine this debate in greater detail and relate its presumptions back to the earlier chapters on narrative.

The last chapter of the book explores the present and future in screen media and has some excellent examples of media that are pushing the accepted boundaries both at the level of production and with respect to narrative structures and orientation.

Screen Media Arts stands out among the vast number of introductory texts available on the market!

UP

UP the new 3D animation from Pixar is at one and the same time a simple and beautiful love story and an exploration of the medium of animation. 3D is used here not as an effect but as an enhancement, a way of transforming the artifice and artificiality of animation into a narrative of an old man's love of his deceased wife. The old man struggles with modernity, with change and with urbanization. His search for a lost Eden is really a search for his lost childhood. In fact the film is about the symbols and objects that make up and give meaning to life at any age. Well worth a visit to the theater.

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TED, Long Beach DAY ONE

February 4, 2009

TED meetings are always incredible, but after a day and a bit, I am amazed at the richness and strength, the depth and breadth of the presentations. The other side of TED is defined by the people you meet who to varying degrees have either had a powerful influence on our society or who are about to have that influence. Take the example of Blake Mycoskie who is the CEO and founder of TOMS Shoes. Every pair of shoes that Mycoskie sells in North America triggers the company into giving a pair of shoes away to people in need in developing countries. So far, tens of thousands of shoes have been donated to needy people around the world. Blake is a wonderful and humble individual.

John Breen is the founder of Free Rice which is a web site where you can purchase grains of rice that are then given to the hungry in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Steve Glenn builds modular houses where every part of the house contributes to sustainable practices, reduction of energy consumption and the wise use of water. Carolyn Porco leads the Cassini Imaging Team, which is charting Saturn and its moons and has discovered enough basic building blocks of life on one of the moons that will lead to a transformation of our relationship to our own solar system. Juliana Ferreira fights the illegal trade of wildlife in Brazil, which is an uphill battle to save many species from extinction. Sean Gourley has developed a model that begins to explain the most important patterns of modern warfare. The model will enable researchers to better understand the structures and outcomes of particular kinds of warfare in the 21st century. Katrin Verclass from Mobileactive.org described the extraordinary use of cell phones as devices for change through the use of new modalities of interaction and clustering.

Juliana Rotich explained how cell phones are being used for citizen journalism in places like Kenya. More information on this project can be found at the USHAHIDI web site.

Juan Enriquez discussed the intensity and dangers of the present economic crisis in order to build an argument for innovation and invention and then said, “You manage crisis by using it to keep an eye on the future.” He reported on the extraordinary advances in the use of stem cells and suggested that humans were moving onto the next stage of evolution. P.W. Singer gave a brilliant lecture on the reshaping of war through the use of machines and what that portends from an ethical as well strategic perspective. What happens when soldiers use the images from drones to make life and death decisions without ever seeing the real impact of what they have done? David Hansen has developed a robotic face that is so life-like it is able to respond to your smiles and frowns. Bill Gates talked about malaria and his foundation and the fight against disease in Africa.

Tim Berners-Lee made a plea for a new Web that would tag data so that searches would yield information more directly linked in a meaningful way to the subjects being researched. Al Gore presented more information on the decline of the Arctic and Antarctic as signs that we still have not understood the implications and effects of global warming and environmental destruction. Nandan Nilekani who co-founded Infosys which is one of India’s leading information technology companies talked about his next project which is to re-imagine India in the 21st Century. He made an interesting observation that 8 million mobile phones are sold every month in India and that over the next thirty years India will demographically speaking be one of the youngest countries in the world. Ray Anderson, the founder of Interface made an impassioned plea for new sustainable practices on the part of industry. “Our promise is to eliminate any negative impact our company may have on the environment by the year 2020.”

Jake Eberts introduced a film entitled Oceans, which simply put will change our view of animal life underwater. The extract he showed was breathtaking. In between all of this were a series of performances from a Gamelan group combined with the dance troupe ArcheDream that was breathtaking and a performance by Naturally 7 a rock group that generates its instrumentation without instruments just using their mouths to make the sounds we would normally associate with everything from drums to guitars. Regina Spektor finished off the day with an amazing series of beautifully crafted songs.

All this in one day…

How long will it take before all artists have their own television channels?

This question was asked by Stoffel Debuysere. It could be argued that every web page developed and maintained by individuals is in fact operating within a broadcast model. The screen real estate may be different, and the time and place of broadcast may be 24/7, but the reality is that we now live in what could best be described as a world of webs, semantic clouds and visual and aural clusters.

This ecology or imagescape is multi-layered and lends itself to an endlessly proliferating messagesphere that is infinite. I would suggest that self-broadcasting (which is at the heart of the brilliance of Facebook) now determines the ways in which we recognize ourselves in the world. I am not suggesting that the material world which we inhabit and recreate on a daily basis has ceased to exist. Rather, the material world has increasingly developed into mixed messages, which in combination with human action and interaction means that words, for example, can be taken more literally than ever before (the rise of religious fundamentalism) in parallel with an increasingly powerful and rational scientific model (that is at the heart of the engineering behind the Internet). Religion and science now co-exist in an uncomfortable relationship that is strained and for the most part in conflict.

To self-broadcast means to communicate with the unknown, since for the most part readers of web pages and facebook sites are anonymous. You may have 600 friends on Facebook, but you can't know when they are viewing your pages unless they leave you a message. For the most part, broadcasting in this way is asynchronous.

It is of course the same thing with books which exist in an asynchronous relationship with readers.

How long will it take before all artists have their own television channels? Well, they always have been broadcasting whether it was through the gallery system or via picture books or in large museums. The notion of self-broadcasting is as old as most of the systems of communications that we have created over many thousands of years of creative activity within messagespheres and this includes cave paintings.

This is a visualization of the entry you have just read.

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(Created using wordle)

Lost and Indiana Jones

I have been thinking about the relationship between the new Indiana Jones movie and the television show, Lost. The season finale of Lost connected the dots between the six survivors of a still unexplained airplane crash (which is at the origin of the show) and their 'exile' on a strange island that by the end of the show this season had disappeared into the ocean.

The six, who also happen to be the main characters, are to varying degrees suffering from a series of physical and psychological ailments as they struggle to survive in the 'real' world. They attribute all of this to the pain of being away from the island and to its magical qualities which were disrupted by their departure. In particular, Hurley has descended into a psychotic state. Jack has become a drug-addicted depressive and Sayeed has become an executioner as he takes vengeance on all those who might be associated with the death of his wife. (Warning, none of this makes sense if you have not been watching the show!!)

The island's powers seem to live inside Ben (who has also left through a magic portal frozen in ice underneath the island). He has become obsessed with killing the main antagonist and seemingly the agent of everyone's problems, a man by the name of Widmore (an all-powerful character drawn more from James Bond movies than a police drama or mystery show). Ironically, Widmore's daughter Penny has been searching for her lost lover for years, Desmond, who also happens to have landed on the unnamed magical island deep in the pacific as a result of a boating accident. (They do find each other, although that particular scene in the season finale is rather pathetic. )

If this sounds convoluted, it is. Part of the problem with Lost and the reason that its audience has shrunk, is the complexity of the plot and the continual way in which every story is extended into another story and so on. There is never any closure and there wasn't one at the end of this season as well. At the same time, it is the messiness of the narrative that makes it not only interesting, but a bit of experiment in television drama. The narrative is driven by the same elements that we have become so used to in both film and television early in the 21st century — evil that gets more powerful meets people of integrity who fight for truth and what is right. (See Heroes for another example of this, but there are many other shows as well.)

Lost experiments with all of this by sometimes inverting good and bad and by creating a deep ambivalence about why people act as they do irrespective of their negative or positive characteristics. Lost also experiments with the history of the characters in what can best be described as a psychoanalytic manner unveiling more and more about their past. Their personal history becomes a laboratory of human behaviour in which the audience plays researcher and analyst.

One of the key characteristics of Lost is the use of tunnels and portals and underground installations which are both mysterious and somehow full of technology. Lost endlessly explores Alice's hole in the ground both metaphorically and literally. The foundations of the island seem to be built on a series of basements that lead to other worlds. This is of course a central element in children's stories but has also become a defining element of many contemporary films. The portal in the Narnia series would be the most current example, but there are many others including Harry Potter and of course the many films that are now based on comic books.

The latest Indiana Jones film also centres on caves and underground installations within which there are artifacts that reveal some historical truth or connection to the present. Archeology meets anthropology and both connect to history and to adventure. The early part of the film is fascinating because it takes place at ground zero in Nevada where the first atomic bombs were tested in the 1950's. Further mention of Eugene McCarthy and the witch hunt for communists situates the film within a critical historical narrative (and is perhaps why it was so well received at Cannes). In addition, Indiana Jones brings ET into the narrative as Steven Speilberg and George Lucas play with their own work as well as that of other filmmakers. They generate a phantasmagoria of cinematic references that suffuses nearly every element of the film and all of this is made possible by a variety of portals which progressively reveal more and more about the causes of history in general and about the role of images in particular.

Mystery meets truth meets pseudo-science in a dance of questions about the unknown forces that really rule the world, from god-like spirits to angels. In Lost those forces are explained (somewhat) through the appearance and disappearance of the dead (like Clare and Jack's father) incarnated by a biblical character with the name of Jacob who is only visible to those with the power to see him. His messages are certainly understood by the key characters like Locke. For Indiana Jones the unknown forces are often old civilizations like the Mayan which are wrapped in riddles that can only be solved through a fight with evil or the accomplishment of some near impossible task or challenge. The film takes place in the 1950's so inevitably it is the Russians who represent evil. Cate Blanchett plays a horrible Soviet acolyte of Stalin's who is searching for absolute power. There are an abundant number of cliches, but Blanchett is simply channeling numerous characters in hundreds of films as opposed to simply being THE evil one. In this, both Lost and Indiana Jones are trying to be critical, even analytical but in both cases, the mysteries of history are really insoluble. This notion that we cannot understand why certain events happen is repeated so often that it almost becomes a mantra. The mantra reads like this: History and people's roles in history cannot be explained by rationality and in the end cannot be explained at all.

The world is wrapped in mystery because humans don't recognize how their understanding of reality is inherently distorted by forces which they cannot control. Human agency is both fragmentary and a figment of our collective imaginations. There will always be other powers greater than that of humans which will determine the outcome of events, their direction and impact. This deference to mysticism and spirituality and finally to religion is at the heart of the work of Lucas and has always been central to Speilberg's films. The startling similarity between the island in Lost disappearing as a round disk into the ocean and the appearance of a spaceship that it also disk-like in Indiana Jones is not an accident. The fact that both use portals in a play with magic realism is also not accidental.

Ironically, the world is a broken place because irrationality has taken hold and the only explanation both Lost and Indiana Jones offer is that the irrational is fundamental to the human psyche. All that is left to conquer, even examine, is the dream-like space of the unconscious manifested in the mutterings of Hurley and in the metaphoric resonances of dead languages. Coincidence, chance, sorcery and the accidental are at the heart of a dadaesque swirl of stories that ultimately produce protagonists and audiences without any control over their lives — a dire message in these very difficult times.

The transformation of culture

I will call him Anthony. He arrived in Vancouver with a trunk full of DVD's. He uses SMS and a variety of social networking tools to communicate with friends and family. He uses a small video camera to record his everyday life and edits the output on a laptop and then uploads the material onto the Web. He is adept at video games, though they are not an obsession. Cell phones are expensive, but he finds the money. This sounds familiar — an entire generation working creatively with Facebook and Vimeo and Youtube and Flckr. He loves old movies, hence the DVD's. He knows more about films from the 1970's and 1980's than most film historians. He can quote dialogue from many films and reference specific shots with ease. He uses his expertise in editing to comment on the world and would prefer to show you a short video response to events than just talk about them.

Cultural analysts tend to examine Anthony's activities and use of technology as phenomena, as moving targets which change all the time, just as they saw pop music in the 1960's as a momentary phase or like their early comments on personal computers which did not generally anticipate their present ubiquity.

However, what Anthony is doing is building and creating a new language that combines many of the features of conventional languages but is more of a hybrid of many different modes of expression. Just as we don't really talk about language as a phenomenon, (because it is inherent to everything that we do) we can't deal with this explosion of new languages as if they are simply a phase or a cultural anomaly.

What if this is the new form and shape of writing? What if all of these fragments, verbal, non-verbal, images and sounds are inherent to an entire generation and is their mode of expression?

Language, verbal and written is at the core of what humans do everyday. But, language has always been very supple, capable of incorporating not only new words, but also new modalities of expression. Music for example became a formalized notational system through the adaptation and incorporation of some of the principles of language. Films use narrative, but then move beyond conventional language structure into a hybrid of voice, speech, sounds and images.

As long as Anthony's incorporation of technology and new forms of expression is viewed as a phenomenon it is unlikely that we will understand the degree to which he is changing the fundamental notions of communications to which we have become accustomed over the last century.

Anthony however has many problems with writing. He is uncomfortable with words on a page. He wants to use graphics and other media to make his points. He is more comfortable with the fragment, with the poetic than he is with the whole sentence. He is prepared to communicate, but only on his own terms.

It is my own feeling that the ubiquity of computers and digital technologies means that all cultural phenomena are now available for use by Anthony and his generation and they are producing a new framework of communications within which writing is only a piece and not the whole.

Some may view this as a disaster. I see Anthony as a harbinger of the future. He will not take traditional composition classes to learn how to write. Instead, he will communicate with the tools that he finds comfortable to use and he will persist in making himself heard or read. But, reading will not only be text-based. Text on a page is as much design as it is media. The elliptical nature of the verbal will have to be accommodated within the traditions of writing, but writing and even grammar will have to change.

Stay tuned for more about Anthony including some images and sounds!!!

The Future of Design (1)

The Design Council in Great Britain has helped develop and grow the Design Industry in the UK to the point where it is now having a significant impact on overall GDP. (11.6 billion pounds per year) At the same time, their advocacy for design learning has resulted in a revolution in Design education, particularly at the post-secondary level. "Recent research by the Design Council provides evidence of a link between design expenditure and economic performance. It reveals that for every £100 a design alert business spends on design, turnover is increased by £225, and that rapidly growing businesses are six times more likely than static ones to see design as integral, and twice as likely to have increased their investment in design."

Design has become important in large measure because of a change in the ways in which manufactured goods circulate among consumers. Personalization has become central to distinguishing one product from another. Consumers want to have an influence on what they buy and this can only be achieved through the integration of design knowledge into the manufacturing process. Design in the broader sense is also about a fuller and more complete understanding of sustainability and the application of intelligence and vision to human lifestyles in the context of technological change.

Another feature of this is the role of information in learning and human exchange. We all know the difference between a well-designed web site and one that seems to have no aesthetic qualities. What is not as apparent is the role of design in strategic planning for the corporate as well as public sectors.

In a global economy that is dominated by various forms of communications and linked through networked technologies, Design will be an essential component of the future. Students are recognizing this change. There has been a 40 percent increase in the number of design graduates in the UK and a 71 percent increase in the number of postgraduates.

More on this in my next post…

A Torn Page…Ghosts on the Computer Screen…Words…Images…Labyrinths

Exploring the Frontiers of Cyberspace (extracts from a longer piece)

“Poetry is liquid language" (Marcos Novak)

“As a writer of fantasy, Balzac tried to capture the world soul in a single symbol among the infinite number imaginable; but to do this he was forced to load the written word with such intensity that it would have ended by no longer referring to a world outside of its own self…. When he reached this threshold, Balzac stopped and changed his whole program: no longer intensive but extensive writing. Balzac the realist would try through writing to embrace the infinite stretch of space and time, swarming with multitudes, lives, and stories." (Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino)

Is it possible to imagine a labyrinth without a defined pattern, without a center or exit point? What if we enter that labyrinth and wander through its hallways, endlessly opening doors which lead to other doors, with windows which look out over other windows? What if there is no real core to the labyrinth and it is of unknown size? This may be an apt metaphor for virtual reality, for the vast network of ideas which now float across and between the many layers of cyberspace.

“A year ago, I was halfway convinced that cyberspaces where you can experience the sensation of hefting a brick or squeezing a lemon probably won’t be feasible for another twenty or thirty years. A month ago, I saw and felt something that shook my certainty. When I tried the first prototype of a pneumatic tactile glove in inventor Jim Hennequin’s garage in Cranfield, an hour’s drive southwest of London, I began to suspect that high-resolution tactile feedback might not be so far in the future. The age of the Feelies, as Aldous Huxley predicted, might be upon us before we know what hit us." (Howard Rheingold, Virtual Reality, New York: Touchstone, 1992, p. 322)

Sometimes the hallways of this labyrinth narrow and we hear the distant chatter of many people and are able to ‘browse’ or ‘gopher’ into their conversations. Other times, we actually encounter fellow wanderers and exchange details about geography, the time, information gained or lost during our travels. The excitement of being in the labyrinth is tempered by the fact that as we learn more and more about its structure and about surviving within its confines, we know that we have little hope of leaving. Yet, it is a nourishing experience at one level because there are so many different elements to it, all with a life of their own, all somehow connected and for the most part available to us. In fact, even though we know that the labyrinth has borders, it seems as if an infinite number of things could go on within its hallways and rooms. It is almost as if there is too much choice, too much information at every twist and turn. Yet, this disoriented, almost chaotic world has a structure. We don’t know the designers. They may have been machines, but we continue to survive in part because we have some confidence in the idea that design means purpose, and purpose must mean that our wanderings will eventually lead to a destination. (This may be no more than a metaphysical claim, but it keeps the engines of Cyberspace running at high speed.)

In order to enter a virtual labyrinth you must be ready to travel by association. In effect, your body remains at your computer. You travel by looking, by reading, by imaging and imagining. The eyes are, so to speak, the royal road into virtuality.

“Cyberspace — The electronic frontier. A completely virtual environment: the sum total of all [BBSes], computer networks, and other [virtual communities]. Unique in that it is constantly being changed, exists only virtually, can be practically infinite in “size" communication occurs instantaneously world-wide — physical location is completely irrelevant most of the time. Some include video and telephone transmissions as part of cyberspace." (A. Hawks, Future Culture — December 31, 1992)

In the labyrinth of Cyberspace, design is the logic of the system. Cyberspace reproduces itself at so many different levels at once and in so many different ways, that the effects are like an evolutionary explosion, where all of the trace elements of weakness and strength coexist. The architecture of this space is unlike any that has preceded it and we are consequently grappling with discursive strategies to try and describe the experiences of being inside it. The implication is that there is no vantage point from which you can watch either your progress or the progress of others. There isn’t a platform upon which you can stand to view your experience or the experience of your neighbours. In other words, the entire system doesn’t come into view — how could you create a picture of the Internet? Yet, you could imagine the vast web-like structure, imagine, that is, through any number of different images, a world of microelectronic switches buzzing at high speed with the thoughts and reflections of thousands of people. The more important question is what does this imagining do to our bodies, since to some degree Cyberspace is a fiction where we are narrator and character at one and the same time? What are the implications of never knowing the shape and architecture of this technological sphere which you both use and come to depend on? What changes in the communicative process when you type a feeling onto a computer screen, as opposed to speaking about it? What does that feeling look like in print? Does the computer screen offer a space where the evocative strength of a personal letter can be communicated from one person to another?

Ceramics in the material world

Over the last ten years I have watched ceramics evolve at Emily Carr from a craft-oriented practice and discipline into an exciting art form. A book published in 1988, Ceramic Theory and Cultural Process By Dean E. Arnold links this evolution to the role that ceramics plays in archeology and to the many ways in which the past is 'uncovered' through artifacts and other objects. For me, the "art" is precisely in the material practice, in the ability of creators to transform the earth, clay and water into many different forms. The technology of firing and then applying colour to the object is a science, but the shape and shaping process is about sculpture, space, density and function. "There are many factors that affect the qualities of clays, such as mineral composition, degrees of crystallinity, plasticity, particle size and the amount of soluble salts, exchangeable cations, and non-plastics present. (Page 21)

In ceramics, ideas are eternally wedded to the ancient vessel; at some level, the process of any ceramic piece begins and ends on this note. The history of contemporary ceramics possesses countless riffs on the way a surface can appear from hyper-realistic, exact replicas of actual objects to enhanced natural surfaces of earthen glazes. Indeed, the surface invention is limited only to the imagination, skill, and experience of the artist, manipulating attributes of the clay vessel form that has been a steadfast tradition for thousands of years. (Akio Takamori: Between Clouds of Memory by Lara Taubman)

Here are some well-formulated questions that were asked about digital culture and ceramics in 1999: "After all, even in a digital era, artists are faced with the task of giving material form to their thoughts, intuitions, and ideas. Clay — along with the other physical materials — remains an ideal medium for this, whenever justified by concept. What might be the positive or negative significance of digitalization or dematerialization to artists working with a ‘natural’ and solid material like clay? Does digitalization provide stimulus for artistic concepts that are executed in clay? Does ceramics have something to say to digitalization or do the two worlds remain separate? Will ceramics become less physical, ‘lighter’ in the high-tech era? Or is it a medium par excellence that will keep both feet firmly on the ground and that meets the unchanging human need for self-expression in material form — perhaps now more than ever?" (BEYOND GRAVITY: CERAMICS IN A DIGITAL CULTURE Ceramic Millennium 99 — Workshop's — Hertogenbosch)

 

Brain Imaging/Neurosciences/Cultural Theory

 

The Elekta Company has a machine which is called a magnetoencephalograph or MEG for short "…is presently regarded as the most efficient method for tracking brain activity in real-time for many reasons. Compared to EEG, MEG has unique sensitivity capabilities."

Real-time brain mapping allows scientists to "watch" the brain in action under controlled conditions. The Allen Institute for Brain Science (named after one of the founders of Microsoft, Paul Allen) has just completed an atlas of a mouse brain. "The goal of our inaugural project, the Allen Brain Atlas, is to create a detailed cellular-resolution, genome-wide map of gene expression in the mouse brain."

So, why is this important?

1. As more knowledge is gained about the human mind through scanning, the role of culture and images changes. Images are no longer just representations or interpreters of human actions. They have become central to every activity that connects humans to each other and to technology — mediators, progenitors, interfaces — as much reference points for information and knowledge, as visualizations of human creativity.

2. My main concern is the role played by images as the output of scanning procedures and the many different ways in which those images are appropriated within our culture to explain the intensity of our attraction to and dependence upon image-worlds as ways of explaining consciousness.

3. For better or for worse, depending on the perspectives that you hold and the research bias that you have, images are the raw material of scanning technologies like MRI’s and MEGS. In other words, the brain is visualized at a topological level, mapped according to various levels of excitation of a chemical and electrical nature and researched and treated through the knowledge that is gained. This is primarily a biological model and leaves many questions unanswered about the mind, thought and the relationship between perception and thinking.

4. The use of images entails far more than the transparent relationship of scanning to results would suggest. The biological metaphors at work make it appear as if the interpretation of scanning is similar to looking at a wound or a suture. The effort is to create as much transparency as possible between the scans and their interpretation. But, as with any of the issues that are normally raised about interpretive processes, it is important to ask questions about the use of images for these purposes from a variety of perspectives, including and most importantly, a cultural one.

5. The use of scanning technologies does not happen in a vacuum. Scientists spend a great deal of time cross-referencing their work and checking the interpretations that they make. (Many issues around image quality arise in the scanning process. These include, contrast, resolution, noise and distortion. Any one of these elements can change the relationship between images and diagnosis.) The central question for me is how to transfer the vast knowledge that has been gained from the study of images in a variety of disciplines from cultural studies to communications, into disciplines like the computer sciences and engineering which have been central to the invention and use of scanning technologies. In the same vein, how can the insights of the neurosciences be brought to bear in a substantial fashion on the research being pursued by cultural analysts, philosophers and psychologists?

The digital revolution is altering the fabric of research and practice in the sciences, arts and engineering and challenging many conventional wisdoms about the seemingly transparent relationship among images and meaning, mind and thought, as well as culture and identity.

 A complex cultural and biological topology is being drawn of consciousness in order to illuminate and illustrate mental processes. I labor under no illusions that this topology will solve centuries of debate and discussion about how and why humans think and act in the world. I do, however, make the point that images are a central feature of the many conundrums researchers have encountered in their examination of the mind and the human body. One example of the centrality of images to the debate about human consciousness has been the appearance of increasingly sophisticated imaging and scanning technologies that try to ‘picture’ the brain’s operations. The results of research in this area have been impressive and the impact on the cultural view of the brain has been enormous. In general this research has led to a more profound understanding of the rich complexity of the brain’s operations. Since I am not a specialist in these disciplines, I do not comment in detail on the medical or scientific claims that have been made about the usefulness of the research. My main concern is the role played by images as the output of scanning procedures and the many different ways in which those images are appropriated within our culture to explainthe intensity of our attraction to and dependence upon image-worlds. 

For better or for worse, depending on the perspectives that you hold and the research bias that you have, images are the raw material of scanning technologies like MRI’s. In other words, the brain is visualized at a topological level, mapped according to various levels of excitation of a chemical and electrical nature and researched and treated through the knowledge that is gained. This is primarily a biological model and leaves many questions unanswered about the mind, thought and the relationship between perception and thinking. In particular, the issues of how images are used to explain biological processes should not be marginalized.

 

Gehry and MIT

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Frank Gehry's building at MIT is a wonder to behold. The building is home to the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS) and the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. Its striking design - featuring tilting towers, many-angled walls and whimsical shapes - challenges much of the conventional wisdom of laboratory and campus building.

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Remix 06: Blending, Bending and Befriending Content

Innovative Content Development in New Media has some of the following characteristics (This is by no means a comprehensive list.):
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Imaginative storytelling (Breaking the rules and building new ones)
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Not derivative (but can be a copy—mush — experimental cinema and music as models)
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Aware of aesthetics, form and feel (Use OF Technology — Not Used by Technology)
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Creating new knowledge and information (Play in every sense of the word.)
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Aware of collage, montage and other techniques of bricolage (Stories can make the impossible real — photo-realism is a dead end)
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Talent (Learning and Education and Research)
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Decentralized modes of information gathering, exchange and distribution (Open Source)
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Interactivity (Video games create the illusion of interactivity — interactive game play should be about a complete transformation of the game by the player — interactivity becomes creativity)
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Bring body movement into the video game storytelling equation (Hands are not enough — Wii)
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Link popular culture, games, books, magazines, fans, television and the web into content development (Specialized studios need cultural analysts and ethnographers as much as they need creators)
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Work with audiences not against them (Fan movements, fansites, fan literature)
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Assume that trends will shift as quickly as they are recognized — old style marketing will not work (Time is compressed but that does not mean that clip stories will last — marketing becomes discovering stories as well as creating them)
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Non-linearity, complexity and chaos are at the center of digital content creation
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Simulations are only as effective as the stories that underly them — Algorithms are culture
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Telepresence and visualization need haptics and vice versa (Dreams are the Royal Road into Storytelling)
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Narrowcast not broadcast (P2P will become C2C)

Geographies of Dissent (2)

There is another term that I would like to introduce into this discussion and that is, counter-publics. Daniel Brouwer in a recent issue of Critical Studies in Media Communications uses the term to describe the impact of two “zines"? on public discussion of HIV-AIDS. The term resonates for me because it has the potential to bring micro and macro into a relationship that could best be defined as a continuum and suggests that one needs to identify how various publics can contain within themselves a continuing and often conflicted and sometimes very varied set of analysis and discourses about central issues of concern to everyone. It was the availability of copy machines beginning in 1974 that really made ‘zines’ possible. There had been earlier versions, most of which were copied by hand or by using typewriters, but copy machines made it easy to produce 200 or 300 copies of a zine at very low cost. In the process, a mico-community of readers was established for an infinite number of zines. In fact, the first zine convention in Chicago in the 1970’s attracted thousands of participants. The zines that Brouwer discusses that were small to begin with grew over time to five and ten thousand subscribers. This is viral publishing at its best, but it also suggests something about how various common sets of interests manifest themselves and how communities form in response.

“One estimate reckons that these "Xeroxed, hand-written, desktop-published, sometimes printed, and even electronic" documents (as the 1995 zine convention in Hawaii puts it) have produced some 20,000 titles in the past couple of decades. And this "cottage" industry is thought to be still growing at twenty percent per year. Consequently, as never before, scattered groups of people unknown to one another, rarely living in contiguous areas, and sometimes never seeing another member, have nonetheless been able to form robust social worlds? John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid in The Social Life of Documents. Clearly, zines represent counter-publics that are political and are inheritors of 19th century forms of poster communications and the use of public speakers to bring countervailing ideas to large groups. Another way of thinking about this area is to look at the language used by many zines. Generally, their mode of address is direct. The language tends to be both declarative and personal. The result is that the zines feel like they are part of the community they are talking to and become an open ‘place’ of exchange with unpredictable results. I will return to this part of the discussion in a moment, but it should be obvious that zines were the precursors to Blogs.

As I said, the overall aggregation of various forms of protest using a variety of different media in a large number of varied contexts generates outcomes that are not necessarily the product of any centralized planning. This means that it is also difficult to gage the results. Did the active use of cell phones during the demonstrations in Seattle against the WTO contribute to greater levels of organization and preparedness on the part of the protestors and therefore on the message they were communicating? Mobile technologies were also used to “broadcast? back to a central source that then sent out news releases to counter the mainstream media and their depiction of the protests and protestors. This proved to be minimally effective in the broader social sense, but very effective when it came to maintaining and sustaining the communities that had developed in opposition to the WTO and globalization. Inadvertently, the mainstream media allowed the images of protest to appear in any form because they were hungry for information and needed to make sense of what was going on. As with many other protests in public spaces, it is not always possible for the mainstream media to control what they depict. Ultimately, the most important outcome of the demonstrations was symbolic, which in our society added real value to the message of the protestors.

To be continued...

 

Euston Manifesto

Finally.

After years of accepting and even supporting an unclear and often unthoughtout ideology rooted in an old style and often reactionary worldview, a group of intellectuals went to work to try and rethink the direction, orientation and discourse of progressive politics. The Euston Manifesto is the product of this effort and although there are many elements of it that are controversial, for the most part, it tries to reinvigorate the humanist and liberal outlook on the world.

On June 9th, the Little Atoms website will host a discussion with the creators of the manifesto.

You can read the comments of Christopher Hitchens here and as acerbic as he has become, Hitchens is important because he is very worried about the direction of so-called modern day progressive politics.

More detail on how the manifesto came to be can be found on the New Statesman web site.

I will comment in greater detail on the manifesto during the coming week.

Some comments on How Images Think

Professor Pramod Nayar of the Department of English, University of Hyderabad comments on "How Images Think." This is a small selection of a longer review that appeared in the Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology

How Images Think is an exercise both in philosophical meditation and critical theorizing about media, images, affects, and cognition. Burnett combines the insights of neuroscience with theories of cognition and the computer sciences. He argues that contemporary metaphors - biological or mechanical - about either cognition, images, or computer intelligence severely limit our understanding of the image. He suggests in his introduction that image refers to the complex set of interactions that constitute everyday life in image-worlds (p. xviii). For Burnett the fact that increasing amounts of intelligence are being programmed into technologies and devices that use images as their main form of interaction and communication - computers, for instance - suggests that images are interfaces, structuring interaction, people, and the environment they share.

New technologies are not simply extensions of human abilities and needs - they literally enlarge cultural and social preconceptions of the relationship between body and mind.

The flow of information today is part of a continuum, with exceptional events standing as punctuation marks. This flow connects a variety of sources, some of which are continuous - available 24 hours - or live and radically alters issues of memory and history. Television and the Internet, notes Burnett, are not simply a simulated world - they are the world, and the distinctions between natural and non-natural have disappeared. Increasingly, we immerse ourselves in the image, as if we are there. We rarely become conscious of the fact that we are watching images of events - for all perceptive, cognitive, and interpretive purposes, the image is the event for us.

The proximity and distance of viewer from/with the viewed has altered so significantly that the screen is us. However, this is not to suggest that we are simply passive consumers of images. As Burnett points out, painstakingly, issues of creativity are involved in the process of visualization - viewers generate what they see in the images. This involves the historical moment of viewing - such as viewing images of the WTC bombings - and the act of re-imagining. As Burnett puts it, the questions about what is pictured and what is real have to do with vantage points [of the viewer] and not necessarily what is in the image (p. 26).

1st Colloquium on the Law of Transhuman Persons in Florida

Moot Court Hearing On The Petition Of A Conscious Computer

Ray Kurzweil runs a terrific web site on artificial intelligence and other matters related to technology and society. He recently provided the transcript of the court hearing on whether a conscious computer should be treated as a person.

This issue has been raging for some time. It reached its apogee with the discussion about whether "Deep Blue" the computer that (who?) beat Gary Kasparov was actually intelligent. IBM has some wonderful research on this available here.

"We have a petition by BINA48, an intelligent computer, to prevent its owner and creator, Exabit Corporation, from either turning off its power, or if it turns off its power, from reconfiguring it; and BINA48 doesn't want that to happen."

Machines attract and repel us. Although human beings are surrounded by many different machines and rely on them everyday, our culture views them with a great deal of skepticism . At the same time, the desire to automate the world we live in and efforts to link humans and machines have always been a part of the arts, sciences and mythology and have been foundational to the cultural and economic development of Western societies. Automation brings with it many attendant dangers including the assumption, if not the reality that humans no longer control their own destiny. If the interactions were between nature and humans, then this loss of control would be expected. For example, you might anticipate a tornado or a hurricane, but you cannot control them. The fact is that virtual spaces are cultural and technological and are therefore subject to different rules than nature. They are artificial constructs. It seems clear however, that the conventional meaning of artificial will not suffice to explain autonomous processes that build microscopic and macroscopic worlds using algorithms that often develop far beyond the original conceptions of their progenitors. We may be in need of a radical revision of what we mean by simulation and artificiality because of the ease with which digital machines build complex non-natural environments. (From "How Images Think")

The Challenge of Change in Creating Learning Communities (1)

The phrase “learning community? is suggestive of many things. It has become a catch-all for a variety of initiatives that link the learning experience to different notions of community. What are those notions? And why has it become so crucial for educational institutions to define themselves through this metaphor? If we are to answer the question, what are the key processes involved in building a learning society? then we need to examine the underlying notions of community that have encouraged people to build institutions of learning in the first place.

A community can be many things to many people. It can be the set of boundaries that a particular culture uses to distinguish itself from others and these boundaries can be physical and symbolic, as well as psychological. It can be a certain identity that has been gained over time, through historical, social and cultural processes that symbolically unite different peoples, in a shared sense of connection and interdependence.

At its most basic, community stands for common interest. But, it is not the purpose of this short piece to define the meaning of community. Rather, what is most important here, is the relationship between community and the symbols that communities use to define their activities. For example, a farming community is largely defined by a shared economic activity that is underpinned by social and cultural interaction. The people in the community don’t have to tell themselves what they share; they know what unites and divides them by virtue of their everyday lives. On a smaller scale, a kinship system brings diverse people together under the heading of family and together they form a community of interest. Some families use religion as a unifying force, as do some communities. Others may use a shared historical experience, a traumatic event or even music to bring meaning to what connects them. (See the work of Anthony P. Cohen, in particular, "The Symbolic Construction of Community.")

In other words, every social formation has a variety of communities within it and an often-unpredictable way of portraying the ways in which those communities operate. The best way to understand community is to examine people’s experiences within the communities that they share. And one of the most important activities that communities concern themselves with is learning. It doesn’t really matter what form that learning takes, or whether it is formal or informal. The important point is that learning is seen as a central activity. It is also seen as a crucial example of whether the community has the vision and organization to communicate its historical, technical and cultural knowledge to its citizens. I would strongly argue that even in those communities with highly developed formal educational institutions, learning takes place in so many different venues, that it would be wise to examine this context with great care.

How then does learning take place within a community? The most obvious example is the school system. But how does one build, nurture and sustain learning experiences that are both growth-oriented and community-based? For the most part, even traditional schools make a valiant effort to “teach? their students. Is the notion of a learning community or a learning society all that different in intention from what communities have tried to do in creating their schools and funding them? I ask this question because it is all too easy to dismiss the heritage of the last one hundred and fifty years of experimentation in education.

The claim that the linkages between learning and community mean fundamental change, ignores the fact that links of this sort have been the defining ideology of most learning environments in the 19th and 20th centuries. Although it is true that education as a system has been run by central governments in most countries, it is also important to recognize that without local help and local commitment, it is unlikely that a school could survive. Even in those countries with the most highly developed and centralized curriculums, it is not easy, and may even be perilous, to ignore the needs of the community. So, we need to extend the definition of learning community to include the broader social context within which learning institutions operate and this brings us closer and closer to the idea of learning society.

To be continued.......

Rust Simulating Decay (On Jean Baudrillard)

This short essay has the following components:

1. An exploration of the lineage and sources for Jean Baudrillard’s very powerful and influential notions of simulation.
2. Some comments on time and decay and history.
3. A few modest reflections on the power of images, imagescapes and image-worlds.

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Let me begin by saying that one way of understanding Baudrillard is to take a careful look at Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord. I have not got the time in this piece to examine and distill this relationship, suffice to say that Debord’s notions of commodity, spectacle and social organization appear and reappear in Baudrillard and have been a significant influence on Baudrillard’s very strategic manner of writing and speaking.

Debord and the Situationists with whom Debord worked have had an important influence on French cultural theory and philosophy, and this influence is acknowledged from time to time, but not with enough depth and certainly not to the degree that is deserved.


Time slow simulating change

I will mention one crucial aspect of Debord’s approach and that centers on his assertion that time is turned into a commodity within Capitalist societies. As a commodity, time becomes consumable and in so doing becomes one of the foundations for the transformation of everyday life into spectacle.

The key point is that we not only participate in this but simultaneously become viewers of our own lives. In this sense, we cease to have a direct relationship to experience and instead are caught up in a cycle of increasing mediation and loss. Debord and his group grew to prominence during the May 68 period in France. It is not an accident that some of the most important work of the structuralists had appeared by that time, in particular, the work of Levi-Strauss, Barthes and Foucault with contiguous work by Althusser and Derrida.

The intersection of structuralism and situationism is an important part of Baudrillard’s epistemological framework. In Situationist philosophy, the word pseudo appears and reappears as a trope for what is wrong with Western societies. The English translation, however, doesn’t catch an important additional element to what Debord is saying. I quote in French and I will explain:

Le temps pseudo-cyclique n'est en fait que le déguisement consommable n de la dimension qualitative.

Time as we measure it has the quality of the cyclical attached to it, but this is a false quality because in reality it disguises the ways in which time has become commodified, one of many different consumable items in our society.

Time is a commodity because the production process within Capitalist societies transforms time, gives it a homogeneous character and suppresses its qualitative characteristics.

Pseudo, false, suppression, the victory of commodification over quality and the overwhelming effect of capitalist modes of production on the very definitions that can be made of subjectivity, these are all fundamental to Debord and are foundational to Baudrillard. Debord creates an opposition between the natural order and pseudo nature that is dependent on his definition of time. Debord collapses all the various relations among work and leisure into pseudo time exemplifying the increasing distance and alienation that humans experience as a consequence of their transformation into commodities. Not only do the rhythms of capitalist society work against the best interests of participants, they also transform subjects into objects — the needs of production override the needs of producers with the outcome that the masses become silent witnesses to their own oppression.

This combination of Herbert Marcuse, Marx, Heidegger and the critical theorists of the 1930’s like Adorno characterize all of Debord’s work, although one major difference is the anarchist impulse in Debord and his followers.

Since Debord’s death, the anarchist movement has taken Debord as a spokesman and most of his writings are freely available on their Internet sites. Debord’s approach to writing is aphoristic and quite programmatic. Baudrillard reproduces this approach in many of his books, but most notably in America.
I have not treated Debord with the depth that he deserves, not because he was unimportant. Rather, what interests me is his core assumption that culture is in fact pseudo culture, or false culture. It is not too much of a jump to simulation, but before I deal with simulation, let me suggest that Debord viewed the silence of the masses as a sign of their resistance to Capital and that Baudrillard took up that issue in a piece that he published entitled, “In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities?

This initially creative understanding of silence as resistance was not sustained however in large part because the Situationists witnessed the failure of May 68 to generate a broad-based revolution in France. Their disappointment with the “populace? led to increasing cynicism about any form of revolt to the point where they questioned if the people would ever awake from their stupor.

(to be continued......)