Robin Price > Return to the planet STEIM

A year had passed since I last came to STEIM for the microjamboree. Following my last stay much had changed in that my PhD, now drawing to a close, was forcing me to reappraise my past work and my motives. Drawing things together is never easy for me, a case in point – leaving it two months before writing up a residency… .

Picture of a shop sign with the word 'Bloom'.

Welcome to STEIM where ideas 'bloom'.

I had come this second time with a project in mind, to work on a set of audience feedback remotes for interactive audiovisual music. I had a prototype, naked and caseless, living in a Farnell bag and a set of half finished Max patches and Arduino code to fill out. I had seriously intended to hole myself up in the attic bunker that STEIM kindly offers wandering artists. However announcing this plan to Daniel, my mentor at STEIM, drew a response that diverted me on to a series of interesting and useful tangents. Perhaps the first lesson to draw about residencies is that the plan one arrives with is often a residency’s first victim.

Picture of abstract swirls of light and a broken Jägermeister bottle

This is what an artistic residency at STEIM may do to your carefully laid plans. Render them beautifully broken.

Daniel gave me some key advice that would colour my ten days in Amsterdam last November; ‘leave programming for the ivory towers and engage in the culture of the city and the richness of feedback’ – or somesuch. So it was in my second residency I focused less on announcing myself and my work to the people around STEIM but instead tried to keep myself open to the intervention, opinions and knowledge of others. This took the form of a series of annotated conversations with Daniel, Kristina and Taku, the trawling through as many galleries as I could stumble upon, all night google sessions and much reflection done in bars and restaurants. In short I attempted to become a cultural sponge. Instead of throwing my ideas at people and seeing which stuck as I am often apt to do, I turned that model on its head and encouraged others to talk while I furiously took down notes.

What did I learn? What stuck? Early on Daniel mentioned two ideas that he had which I was quick to appropriate i.e. steal – in the academic community we call it ‘referencing’.

  • An artwork has three properties; A name, ‘reference’ and theory.
  • A piece of music has three properties; A name, ‘reference’ and score.

This appeals to me as a model for describing the products that artists, musicians and art musicians arrive at. A good piece of art or music, or in fact anything worth mentioning, should have a name; how else would one talk about it otherwise? The ‘reference’ is easiest to think of in music where I like to think of it as the ‘hook’, the recognisable point of entry for an audience. Meanwhile the score or theory is the aesthetic framework, the pattern of decisions that the artist has made to arrive at the final piece. Perhaps the third property is the most interesting to the artistic community when evaluating a work. But even the casual observer of an art work can quickly ‘smell a rat’ when a piece appears to have no underlying logic to it.

This image has no underlying logic.

This image has no underlying logic.

In a long sofa discourse held in STEIM’s lobby with Kristina I invited her to tear in to my ideas for an interactive music controller for audience feedback. Better that I got used to it then with the friendly STEIMies than go in to my viva later this year unprepared for rigorous (read rough) artistic feedback. Kristina soon knocked some sense into me, forcing me to confront several flaws in my ideas.

At this point it’s worth explaining a little more about the work I brought with me to STEIM. The as yet unnamed music controller features a single rotary encoder, an 8 x 8 tri-colour LED matrix and a ZigBee wireless link as well as the obligatory Arduino. My plan was and still is to use ten of them to allow real time ‘worm polling‘ of my music with an audience, and then use that feedback data to interact/intervene/improve my tunes algorithmically (or should that be algo-rhythy-magically).

Naked tech.

Naked tech.

Knob to twist and display for visual feedback. Simples!

Knob to twist and a display for visual feedback. Simples!

Kristina gave me the idea that the items could be shared, not tied to a particular audience member, which I’d overlooked as a concept. Perhaps a side effect of sitting through too many ‘buttoned up’ ‘sit down’ electro-acoustic concerts. This forced me to reappraise my notions of how I would box up my controllers. Kristina gave me many suggestions, all of which were useful and relevant. Here are some of my favourites

  • ‘Become the Nielsen family‘. – As a ‘reference’ for my art.
  • ‘Run experiments – the gig is your laboratory’ – On the subject of developing my idea.
  • ‘Use bubblewrap’ – An awesome suggestion for extra rapid prototyping of case designs.
  • Use ‘iterative interaction’ making small changes to the design after each ‘regular deployment’. – On the subject of design strategy.
  • ‘The chemist asks what happens when …?’ – On the subject of how to take the next step in development.
  • Remember there are ‘no imaginary people’ – On the subject of avoiding living in my head/over intellectualising.
  • ‘Go to gigs and test it out. Don’t talk or think about the final thing.’ – On the blunt reality of what I have to do.
  • ‘Convince people you’re allowed to do whack shit and don’t be lame’ – Here Kristina was telling me the secret technique of testing new technology on ‘punters’ but perhaps this should be applied to all art/music/science/life in general?
I convinced these people I was a freelance fashion photographer. I'm not. I had aspirations of selling the photo to VICE's Dos and Don'ts. They weren't interested, but I love the stop sign above the stoned goon's head. What was she thinking?

I convinced these people I was a freelance fashion photographer. I'm really not. I had aspirations of selling the photo to VICE's Dos and Don'ts. They weren't interested, but I still love the stop sign above the gormless goon's head. What was she thinking?

After talking to Kristina I left it a couple of days before returning to STEIM. Perhaps I should mention that my last residency was not just an opportunity to work on my artistic practice in STEIM’s appealing attic atelier space, jokingly known as ‘the monastery’. I had far greater responsibilities than simply looking after the development of my ideas, software and hardware. Really I was there to look after Daniel’s cat Cheetah! Daniel had kindly put me up at his Jordaan apartment with instructions for the care and comfort of his domesticated moggy while he was away, ironically at his own artistic residency.

Daniel and Cheetah.

Daniel and Cheetah.

In England we have a saying about people and pets, “he’s a nice guy – but I wouldn’t trust him with my cat“. As such I felt the heavy weight of the commitment and spent much of my time in the Jordaan caring for Cheetah. Cats have an awful habit of sulking when their owners leave them and then sulking even harder when they return, to punish them. Out of respect for Daniel and a curiously English bent for pets I was determined to keep this skitty-kitty happy. I allowed her to rule my day in a way that made my partner at home quite jealous. Working on a laptop, listening to the BBC World Service, feeding and most importantly playing with a cat, I worked on the ideas for my thesis and final pieces. The laser pointer sessions conducted to improvised and new music and the rapidly prototyped cat interaction device I built deeply coloured my thinking on the subject of metaphor; a key part of my thesis. I shall not divulge nor digress into my ideas on cats and dogs as metaphors for people yet. Rather I shall ask one question, what can cats and dogs teach us about the dance floor?

Picture of the artist with a little cat.

Portrait of the young artist with a little cat.

Returning to STEIM for a final interview with Taku I was keen to ask his advice on an idea that had occurred to me when searching for the ‘theory’ behind my work. It is often the case that artists simply ‘do’ and then search for the theory after the fact, the same occurs in the sciences – or so I am told. My own ‘theory’ was that in my first two serious pieces I had been obsessed with embedding my own modern ideas for interactive audio visual music in the bodies of existing old technologies, namely the radio and the TV. I had been interested early on with Duchamp’s ready mades but also deeply concerned with artistic intervention/re-appropriation and subversion of existing technologies. I decided to coin the term ‘post-neo-retro-futurism’ as googling it yielded no hits – which surely meant I had at least some space to develop in to artistically. Essentially it was a made up phrase designed to encapsulate my ideas about taking our past ideas of what future technology would bring and then colliding them with my own current ideas of ‘future’ art/tech.

Talking with Taku about my ideas of the future and in particular looking at our past ideas of what future technologies would bring allowed me to put some meaty ‘art theory’ on the bones of what could otherwise smell like another poorly thought out idea. Taku reminded me that historically thinking the concept of the ‘future’ is a relatively recent one, emerging from enlightenment thinking in the 1600s and opposing the older, more static, Greek notions of ‘concepts’ and ‘knowledge’. Apt topics for discussion in a great enlightenment city like Amsterdam where Descartes himself had once lived. Descartes it should be noted is my favourite philosopher, a hang over perhaps from my days as an undergraduate studying theoretical physics, he invented the subject… .

I don't know what post neo retro futurism looks like yet, but it will definitely require a lot of cables. Which is lucky because I seem to collect them.

I don't know what post neo retro futurism looks like yet, but it will definitely require a lot of cables. Which is lucky because I seem to collect them.

Quite apart from picking Taku’s brain for juicy thesis references I was keen to ask him for his opinions on the subject of artistic appropriation as we share a common love of DJ-ing and stolen/sampled/sample based music. Taku pointed out to me that in his opinion there were no real ‘ethics’ of sampling.

“The ‘ethic’ comes in during the act of making or the listening of the audience. If your medium’s recorded media you just do what feels right. Nobody can own me when I play. I control the music.” – Taku/DJ Sniff

Perhaps that’s an interesting place to finish the review of my residency with the idea of Taku controlling his music, reading the crowd manually with his eyes and ears. Meanwhile I’m still trying to reinvent the wheel and build a system where the audience battle the DJ with their own set of knobs to twist and push the music forward. Till next time STEIM… .

After ten days I went home. But I'll be back. If they'll have me.

After ten days I went home. But I'll be back. If they'll have me.

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