Category Archives: back to school

Framed

After a very busy/somewhat shitty month, I have finally found myself able to sit down for a bit without worrying about deadlines and assignments. I go to bed at 3am, wake up late the next day, cook breakfast and eat it patiently without looking at my watch, spend hours procastinating online without feeling guilty, have time to read books, I can go to a park and spend an entire afternoon laying in the sun… it feels good. I know that in a week or so, all the madness will unleash again but in the meantime, I’m really enjoying having some time off. I needed it.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been polishing the script for The Bridge, my first short film, which I hope to shoot sometime this year; writing painful project management reports for my MA, and working on my first interactive installation, of which I feel kind of proud. It’s called Framed and it’s a very straightforward piece of work that I recently exhibited on our “End of Term” show at London Metropolitan University. When I started thinking about possible themes for my Responsive Environments module, I knew right from the beginning that I wanted to focus on Interactive Art, particularly on an installation that could allow the spectator not only to interact with it but to become part of the artwork as well. With that in mind, I decided to explore the topic of Digital Folklore, a subject I’ve been reading about for a while.

According to web artist Olia Lialina, Digital or Web Folklore encompases “the customs, traditions and elements of visual, textual and audio culture that emerged from user’s engagement with personal computer applications during the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century”. Out of that range of elements, I chose to focus on animated GIFs (Graphics Interchange Format), a bitmap image format that has been around since the late 80’s, and that still remains an ubiquitous part of Web culture. By encouraging a playful behavior, the installation aims to engage users into an interactive experience in which their facial gestures, body movements, position in the gallery space, cooperation with other users, and their interplay with the installation will directly influence the outcome: a one-off 20-frame GIF-like animated loop of themselves. 

There are many aspects of the animated GIF that makes the format an interesting subject for web artists all around the world. With limited color palettes, no sound, rhythmic repetition, and low-res image output, the most distinctive characteristics of the animated GIF fitted perfectly the idea I had for my project: an interactive installation that wouldn’t require a very complex technical implementation, but most important, one that was more about people than technology itself; an installation in which the user could have the opportunity to be both viewer and producer. This human approach has always been at the core of my work.

I also wanted the project to refer to the ethereal nature of the Internet, a place in which content exist today but might not be found tomorrow (banned websites, broken links, collapsed networks, and overloaded servers are all good examples of this); to celebrate the relationship between the Internet and its first users and the way in which these early contributors pushed the boundaries of the medium at a time in which the web “was more about spirit than skills”.

In terms of interaction, I wanted the installation to be reasonably intuitive but without neglecting the user’s skills; there had to be room for more “experienced” users to experiment and explore more complex domains. And it kind of worked. People got very confused when they first approached the installation (the set up was probably not very convenient and maybe needed clearer instructions), but once they figured it out, most of them had loads of fun playing around with it.

In the end, Framed proved to be an installation anyone could experience (a lovely girl in a wheelchair gave it a try and it was AMAZING – I regret not having any footage of that particular interaction because it seriously rocked!), and at the same time, it posed a challenge on the most curious users who wanted to experiment with group collaboration and less basic body movements to produce more complex animations.

After its debut, I realized there are MANY aspects of this piece that could be improved but it seems to me like this is a good starting point.

I’ll keep working on it.

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Screw you, comfort

“Comfort came in with the middle classes”
Clive Bell 

A couple of years ago, while being back in Venezuela, I went out for lunch one day and bought a traditional sweetcorn pancake we called “Cachapa”, only that instead of sitting in the restaurant to eat it as I normally did, I decided to have it to take away. The guy at the counter placed the pancake on a foam plate, wrapped it with paper and put it in a bag. Not long after, I found myself at home eating it on that very same foam plate I was given, with the usual fork and knife. When I was finished, I became aware of something that has fascinated me ever since: I was struck by the traces left by the fork and knife on that soft surface; a random pattern of dots and lines unwittingly generated by the natural act of eating with these familiar utensils that, up to that day, had gone completely unnoticed.

The traces hadn’t been evident to me before probably because I usually consume food served on hard surfaces, such as porcelain or ceramic plates, so discovering this arrangement of dots and lines made me think that every day, millions of people around the world are constantly generating random hidden patterns that could be perceived as “gastronomic footprints”; unconscious personal trails that vary depending on the kind of food we eat; the texture, level of hardness and way the food is placed on our plates, and most important, our own individual way to use forks and knives.

This observation led to further research on food and its possible relationship with dots and lines. As a first step, I realized that points and lines are tightly connected with the arts, particularly to any form of pictorial expression (Wassily Kadinski wrote loads about it on “Point and Line to Plane”, back in 1979), and maybe in a less evident way to music and the notation system that it’s commonly used to represent it on paper. However, while fact-finding on the subject, I discovered there were actually exciting structural similarities between food and music, as suggested by Simon Kilshaw“eating a meal in 3 movements, one might find a parallel with the classic sonata structure. Indeed there is a certain rhythm to eating, to cooking, to the whole experience”.

All this was very exciting to me so when the time to choose the topic for my MA final project, it became reasonable to me to explore the path of “taste to sound” synesthetic experiences as I was already familiar with the synesthesia phenomenon. According to research, “1 out of 778 synesthesia case reports (0.1%) was related to ‘taste into sound’ synesthesia”, which suggested me this type of synesthetic experiences were fairly rare, a valuable finding as I wanted to move away from the “sound to color” experiments that have been so recurrent in the past.

With this considerations in mind, and reflecting on the predictions of Dr. Hugo Heyrman, who claims that “as a consequence of the new interactive media (the explosion of information and knowledge), our consciousness, senses and body will emerge into new experiences with unlimited synesthetical qualities: Tele-synesthesia —instant, global and multi-sensory”, I decided to work on the creation of an interactive installation within the context of experimental art, that draws inspiration from synesthesia, metaphor and surveillance, to explore the relationship between food and sound using digital media as a medium to translate the traces left by the use of fork and knife on a circular foam plate (as a representation of the act of eating, and therefore, taste) into noises, to finally create an unusual cross-sense experience.

The installation is intended to feature three (3) pieces: “Breakfast”, “Lunch” and “Dinner”, each of them corresponding to a particular real cooking recipe, although for the purposes of this particular project, I will narrow it down to just one piece: “Lunch”, the most important meal of the day :-)

The piece will feature:

1. A photograph of the cooked dish, as served before it was consumed.
2. A “poetic” description of dish.
3. The circular foam plate showing the traces of fork and knife on its surface as a result of an individual act of food consumption (which will be carried out by a unaware volunteer during the development stage of the project, for practical reasons).
4. A control unit (most likely a laptop) running the software that enables the translation of the traces of fork and knife (taking as an input a digital black and white image of the empty plate) into an aural representation of the dish.
5. An HD webcam mounted on a portable turntable
6. A pair of speakers and audio cables.
7. An 4-channel USB mixer.
8. A set of guitar effect pedals that will allow the user to interact with the installation by manipulating the outcoming sound as they please, therefore creating a unique personal experience.

It all sounds pretty exciting, yeah, but here’s the thing: I have no idea how I’m supposed to do this.

Seriously, I have no clue. I’ve been asking here and there and it seems I can develop the software using Processing but guess what: I don’t know how to code. I bought a book a couple of years ago and just last month I started learning the basics, hoping I can get really good at it pretty soon because time is running out and this installation needs to be ready by the end of July, which means I only have 4 months to put everything together and make it work.

Now, you must be wondering: if you didn’t have the right skills to carry out a project like this, why the fuck did you choose to make it your final project then? Well, I know it seems all pretty moronic to leave the most important assignment of my entire Masters in the hands of autodidacticism and luck but that’s how I roll, for better or worse. Of course, it would be very convenient and reasonable to choose to do something I feel confident about, something I know I could do well, that wouldn’t require any struggle or late nights of hard work or stress or uncertainty… but would THAT be any fun at all? Would that be something I’ll end up feeling incredibly excited about when I’m done with it? Would that be something I’d like to share with my grandchildren when I sit with them in front of the fireplace to tell them stories on a sunday night? Eh no, I don’t think so.

And don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I love to dive head first into suicide missions just for the sake of it, it’s just that sometimes I feel we’re so scared to fuck up, that by holding back we end up missing out amazing opportunities. Sure, my installation could end up being a massive disaster, it could be embarrassing and disappointing, but it also has the potential to become something I could feel very proud of; it could be an opportunity to challenge myself and learn something that otherwise I would probably never learn, to celebrate the open-endedness of experiment, to move forward, and most important, to push myself out of my comfort zone and venture into less safe and familiar alleys, which is usually where extraordinary things happen. It all sounds very New Age and shit, but I do feel life would be much more exciting and meaningful if we could leave aside that sense of trepidation that usually accompanies the unknown and just grow some balls to step into it and see what it could bring.

After all, isn’t that why we call it the Great Unknown?

Monday 27th

What a week. My attention deficit just put me through one of the most mentally demanding 48 hours of my life and, fortunately enough, I lived to tell the tale. Barely.

You see, when I headed home for Christmas last year, I knew there were a couple of deadlines at Uni that I had to meet in January: a flash video game and a 2000-word proposal for my final project due on Jan 23rd, and a blog, a 2000-word essay on copyrights, and a website plus its 2000-word critical report due on January 27th. Obviously, in the middle of all those family gatherings, parties and afternoons spent laying in the garden for a bit of caribbean sun, I totally neglected my academic duties and decided to deal with them once I was back in London.

The idea seemed reasonable and actually worked perfectly for the purposes of my first deadline; on Monday 23rd, I delivered both assignments and actually was quite satisfied with my proposal, which by the way, I plan to document here just in case I forget how did all happen. Anyway, things were going great and the challenges ahead looked absolutely accomplishable, so much that I decided to relax a bit and watch a movie, go for a walk in the park, buy a mirror, do some drawings, power nap for 2 hours a day, go to work, air drum in my room, do some laundry and try to sort out my hard drive (which is always a pain the arse), all because I knew that my next deadline was next monday, on January 27th. I had a full week to get my head around all this stuff so there was no reason to panic as most of my classmates were, all of them weeping about how much work they still had pending and how little time they had to get it done. I actually remember looking at their conversations on Facebook and thinking: why don’t you all just chill-the-fuck-out? I thought it was all a nonsense overreaction.

By Tuesday, it seemed to me like a good idea to pick up the studying and spent the day fact-finding about Trent Reznor and the way he managed to sell 250,000 copies of “The Slip” even though he released the album online for free, reading an interview with David Bowie in which he predicted – back in 1992 – the end of the copyrights as we know it, and watching this sweet documentary called PressPausePlay, which is pretty good-looking and quite interesting, particularly for all of us who see the Internet as a creative  playground. I won’t give away too much, instead I will put it here for you to enjoy it in all its glory. Give it a try, it’s worth watching.

Just before going to bed that day, at 1am, for some miraculous reason I decided to log in on my Uni calendar to check the guidelines for this essay I had to write, just to make sure I had fully understood everything I needed to convey in those 2000 words. So, I log in to the site and first thing I see, in big red typography:

DEADLINE

FRIDAY, JANUARY 27TH

Friday? Wait a minute, January 27th is NOT Friday, it’s Monday. I mean, if my first deadline was on Monday 23rd, the next deadline has to be next monday, it’s just simple logic. As I told this to myself, I kept staring at the screen and almost could feel how everything around me vanished; the lights slowly faded away, the quietness of my house got even louder and for a moment, time stood still, only to give me the chance to realize in peace what an extraordinary fucktard I am. Seriously, I couldn’t fuckin’ believe had confused the days in such stupid manner. And you know what’s even worse? This is…

How on earth did I mess up the dates for that deadline when I actually do have A GODDAMN CALENDAR IN FRONT OF ME?

It’s absolutely ridiculous.

Anyway, there I was, on wednesday January 25th at 1:30am, having just 48 hours to write and craft all that stuff I was planning to hand in next monday. No wonder why everyone was “overreacting”. By the time I realized how screwed up I was, I couldn’t keep going much longer, I was falling asleep and my back hurted. I jumped into bed only to spend the next 2 hours wide awake, thinking how the hell I was going to make it for that deadline. Eventually, I rationalized there was nothing much I could do at 4am so I gave up, set my alarm and got some sleep.

Four hours later I was up, big cup of coffee sitting next to me as I typed away on my laptop the first lines of that copyrights essay I had pending. By 4pm I was pretty much finished so I took a break to cook some lunch, washed the dishes and came back to my cave to give that essay its final touches. When I was done, I checked how many words I had… I was 1100 words above the intended lenght. Great, now I needed to cut the bloody thing down. An hour later I was on 2600 words and decided to leave it like that. Fuck you, intended lenght. Went down to grab a cup of tea and came back to write down 5 blog posts on copyrights I had to deliver as part of my assignment. A couple of hours later I was done with that too and moved onto that stupid critical report. It was 7pm and I had spent almost 12 hours straight seated in front of my computer, writing homework and giving quick glances at that stupid number 27 in front of me. I hated it.

At this stage, my procastination habits couldn’t be restrained any longer so I proceeded to check my e-mail, my Facebook, my Twitter account, a few blogs, a couple of Tumblrs, Ross’ Facebook page, my e-mail again, my whatsapp, Amazon, Play.com, The Guardian, my Instagram, a couple of porn sites (as you do), Ross’ Facebook page again, my e-mail just in case something last minute came through, and finally went back to work. By midnight I was done with the report and somehow, in a day, I had managed to get rid of half the things I had pending. Not bad for a fucktard, not bad at all.

Next day I woke up early again, went to Uni to find a working Dreamweaver because mine wouldn’t cooperate and at 1pm I got that css code I had to tweak out of my way. Had lunch and went to the Royal Festival Hall to work on my website. The place has a friendly atmosphere I quite like, it’s warm, lively, full of nice people and although it’s always busy, it never gets too loud. Found a table, got my laptop running and started putting this website together. In the middle of it all, someone texted me, so I took my phone out of my pocket, replied and got back to my screen leaving the phone on the table, behind my laptop. An hour later, an pakistani guy came to me with Royal Festival Hall leaflets and stood in front of my table without saying a word, just handed me the leaflet with a shy smile. Now, I really don’t like prejudice and try my best not to be a narrow-minded arsehole but there was something odd about this guy; maybe it was the fact he looked like a retard or that he approached me in silence, I really don’t know, but I remember taking the leaflet, having a quick look, then giving it back to him and trying to figure out what the hell was going on as he just glanced back at me blankly. However, having slept barely 8 hours during the last couple of days, stressed out, overtired, hungry, distracted and with half of my mind in a waiting room at 16,259 km. from London, I was definitely not in the headspace for decoding anyone’s intentions. In the end, I just said: “no, thank you” and kept working. He took the leaflet and walked away, calmly, as if nothing happened, and for some reason, I kept following him with my eyes as he made his way to the exit. I sensed something but didn’t know what it was.

Five minutes later, I remembered I had to make this important call and when I looked for my phone, it was gone. You miserable indian motherfucker, that’s what you wanted from me! I should have seen it coming but to be honest, I was too exhausted and busy to realize I was being hunted by this maggot. When I did, it was too late, he was out of the building. At the time I didn’t have the energy to get pissed off but a couple of hours later I completely lost it and spent the entire evening cursing at the dirty son of a bitch. I was absolutely annoyed.

Eventually, at 10:30pm, I finished the website and took the Tube back home, being harsh on myself and my self-defense instincts during the whole journey. Once I was back at my place, I took a minute to reflect and to be honest, there was no reason to be that angry; after all, the phone was insured and, most important, I had managed to succesfully scratch every item of my to-do list in less than 2 days. There was nothing to be worried about, really. I hit the kitchen, cooked some salmon with potatoes, munched some chocolate fingers and by midnight I was in bed, thinking how all that rush could have been avoided if only I had looked at the massive calendar on the wall. Oh well, sometimes shit do happens, I guess.

Next day I woke up late, had a massive breakfast, went to Uni and handed in the 4 assignments before noon. It felt good. Later that day, went to the pub with some of my classmates, poured some beer down my neck and by midnight I was making my way back home, half drunk and very tired, feeling like Jack Bauer at the end of a full season of 24.

Now, a few days after the killer week, I write these lines as I pack my little suitcase with recently washed clothes. Yes, I’m off to Madrid, fellas.

I need a holiday.

Room for failure

As I mentioned in my last post, I started writing things for this blog long ago. Two months ago, to be precise. I started writing as soon as I got into Uni with the idea to keep track of my classes and learning progress, day by day, as it happened. What follows was supposed to be my first entry, as written on my first day at London Metropolitan University. Two more back-to-the-past posts to go until I can actually start writing about more current affairs. Please, bear with me, dear reader.

October 3, 2011

After 6 years, I’m back to school. Well, University at Masters level but still, back to the student life with the twist that comes from being in a foreign city, speaking a language that was not set by default when my mum gave birth. All pretty exciting, though. After my first class, I must admit that I feel quite thrilled by the whole idea of taking such challenge at this point in my life and curious about how my poor brain and it’s mercyless attention deficit disorder are going to deal with it.

You see, I decided to take this course because I reckon the Media landscape is shifting and creativity as a tool is being deeply affected by technology so exploring the future of cultural engagement and the interplay between digital and physical media, between technology and the textured visceral world of reality, sounds tremendously exciting to me. I believe that our future as human beings will be physical as well as digital therefore my interest in analysing and understanding the current issues and future developments in multimedia and interactive tools, discovering new ways to engage with people and my desire to find out how to fit into these worlds to produce relevant pieces of work that can contribute to the development of innovative means to communicate in the digital space, even though I’m not a coder or programmer. Far from it.

Actually, I have zero experience in software development or computer science, the last videogame I enthusiastically played was Phoenix on an Atari 2600 and have never been much into very technical endeavors myself. Frankly mate, this could be a suicide mission, a very expensive one by the way, but knowing there’s so much room for failure makes my heart pump like Taiko drums being played by the whole Kodo generation high on Speed. In a good way. I mean, I’m not entirely blind here; I have a decent background in advertising and Internet has been my creative playground for a few years now so I’m not really scared of fucking up and failure actually has most of the times served as driving force in the past so I guess that in the worst case escenario, I will need to learn a lot at a ridiculously fast pace while trying to keep my job and get the minimum amount of sleep a normal human being requires to fully function on a daily basis and THAT can’t be that difficult, right?

RIGHT?