Software as the key artform of the 21st Century

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Isn’t it time we stopped talking about media and returned to the term artform?

A medium is ultimately physical in our understanding of it, no matter how enhanced or extended it may be.

For me, one of the main achievements of the digital revolution is to have separated creative content from media. Now, no longer bound by the existing hardware models with all their limitations, we are free to explore our various artforms via software, a far more natural environment for creative material.

Technology has always impacted upon cultural development, in particular the arts. All you have to do is look at the Russian avant garde and the impact of the machine on art, or in the explosion of media in particular, from radio on up throughout the 20th century.

The rising tide of digital technology as the end of the 20th century which has matured at the start of this century, given the wide dispersal of computers and the emergence of broadband globally, gave birth to a new internet culture which has impacted hugely on existing media.

We’ve been distracted by how digital technology mimics a medium really well, how it extends them and combines them with other technologies. Those three steps are present in each of the creative fields, most clearly in music. There it took on the genre of music completely, extended the creative options for musicians and spearheaded the new distribution channels for music. These cultural forces, experienced as rapid changes to humanity, are almost alive in how unstoppable and progressive they are.

Not all existing media fare well out of this, television as a medium was in trouble long before digital culture emerged. The structure of television, top down, one to many, rigid control of content, only a few outlets per nation, had been incredibly limiting over the years, and it had ended up myopically examining itself as the last century closed with top ten shows focussed on television’s own inventory. If music had faced similar limitations it would have withered and died.

The net disbands completely these kinds of structure, they have no place there. The recent economic downturn and the shift away from advertising saw those old models crumble alarmingly quickly, it became clear that the boom and advertising were all that was holding up the existing ways of doing business.

This dispersal of content creation opens up the very basics of each artform for questioning. As a creator of course, It matters not whether it’s individuals or groups of individuals, active independent content producers or production companies, all bets are off. And ultimately one major question we all face is that of production finance. Who’ll finance these?

Our focus now, both on creative work and it’s dissemination should be on exploring developing software with a view to creating work and it’s expression and communication. The creators of software whether it’s new services online or applications, are the structuring limitation or future liberators, the new artists in our mix. If Film was the artform of the 20th century. Software is the key artform of the 21st.

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Earlier thoughts on software here and here.
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Ira Glass on storytelling

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This American Life is one of my favourite podcasts. A recent episode, The Giant Pool of Money, outlining the background story to the sub-prime mortgage crisis was a standout. It was almost Wire-like in how it interwove high end financial shenanigans, the systems people have to work within, and the trials of ordinary citizens.

The episodes are free on the feed in iTunes for a period but after a while, you have to pay about a dollar for a show. And just to say it, your broker made a lot more telling you a lot less.

Frankly there isn’t a dud episode in the whole series.

Here Ira gives some pointers on his approach to storytelling, basic but very good. Part One is above, There’s four in the series and well worth checking them all out.

Part Two, Part Three, Part Four




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Whatever happened to Computer Art?

I was asked a while back to give a talk on creative applications on the Mac and it set me off thinking about the early days when I first got into this.

I have to say, it was much to the bafflement of loved ones and friends at the time, about 20 years ago. It’s an interest which has continued to this day, my wife says she has no equivalent to it. I counter, rather lamely, pointing out her yoga and interest in alternative healthcare, but it doesn’t really wash.

Back in the day, 1988 to be a bit more precise, I spent a lot of time debating just exactly what Computer Art might be. I was working in the visual arts, primarly with young and emerging contemporary artists. I was intrigued by the new technology which was arriving. I bought a Commodore Amiga which was definitely the artists platform, launched by Andy Warhol painting Debbie Harry.

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Computer Art is a topic that has by and large disappeared from the landscape. The Wikipedia article on it reads like a genre from the fifties, no sense of any current activity at all.

Artists, like everyone else, use a lot of technology these days, but no one particularly calls it Computer Art any more. They’re either film makers or graphic designers or just plain old artists. How it’s made is neither here nor there.

Of course, most clearly with Photoshop and 3D modellers, it’s easy to see how necessary a computer and set of software was to create the work, but that’s now realised as not all that important really. Photoshop is just a set of digital tools after all, generally used to create images which don’t look processed in any way. And while these digitally created images may form a subset of image making, it’s not in any form, a separate medium.

And that was what people were discussing back in the day, the emergence of a new medium.

For me, coding was always key to that. There were people, like William Latham, who worked within IBM in the UK, used coding in particular to generate work but they didn’t mesh with the art world all that well, the work didn’t speak to people, either the artistic community or the general public, in a way they could relate to, it’s protean and exploratory by it’s very nature.

What was central to them was that the work did completely come from the code. And I think coding is the key to the future of this, but just perhaps we shouldn’t put the limits of the word ‘art’ on it.

Recently I had a small sense of something emerging from quite an unexpected source.

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I, like everyone else, use Google Earth more and more. And yes it’s very useful, any trip or hotel choice is checked out there first and location based services will be more and more prevalent. But that’s not why I look there sometimes.

There’s something in the experience of Google Earth, I have a true sense of wonder there. This experience, unimaginable a century ago, unimaginable in fact to my own Dad who died too young. There’s a flicker in the back of my head more akin to encountering a work which speaks to me, a sense of wonder. Is this is landscape re-invented, is this is a new sublime?

What if software finally emerged as a new creative genre? What if it became, much as film defined the 20th century, the key defining medium of the 21st?

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Something new...

I’ve been reading John C. Dvorak’s tech writing for as long as I’ve been interested in this stuff. He was the first general columnist I became aware of after Jerry Pournelle’s writing in Byte Magazine. My first computer was an Amstrad PC1512 and I was an early subscriber to PC Magazine where I came across John’s work. I stopped subscribing to PC Magazine once the Amiga, and later the Mac, became my main machines. I always remembered John’s style and one of the pleasures of the developing podcast world is now listening to him.

One of the strings to his bow is a short podcast called Tech 5 and he’s testing out delivering it directly to blogs, about ten or so initially, including mine.

I like his take on tech generally, though I’ve disagreed with him on occasion naturally enough. What I really like is his understanding that matters technological and business have a certain lifespan, they come and they go. Hype is just not something he’s going to participate in.

So readers will come across John’s show in my feed, hope you enjoy.

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The Problem with Punk

Peter Carlton of Film Four in the UK has said that they make films your mother wouldn't like. If you're a filmmaker it's a constant mantra from financiers... "hip and edgy".

A few years back, I went to the local supermarket and was loading up the aisles when I noticed the music over the tannoys. 'White Riot' by The Clash. I laughed to myself as I loaded up the pizzas. "White Riot, I wanna riot. White Riot, I wanna riot on my own..." Someone must have been asleep at the scheduling wheel or having a laugh. But no... the dulcet tones of Larry Gogan followed; "That was today's Golden Oldie..."

Hold on, that was White Riot... on Radio 1... in the mid-afternoon... on Larry Gogan... as a Golden-Freakin'-Oldie.

I recalled the NME during the punk era and what they called men of a certain age. 'Boring Old Farts' was the term they coined. Is this what's happened, have all the punks become the boring old farts who run the show?

My generation sneered at those hippies who were becoming middle-aged guys, still with the long hair and beads. But hey now, it's my generations turn. Angry Punk Dads, pushing shopping carts, loading up with stuff for the kids, somewhere inside still giving the world the finger.

When I ask my students who watches TV every day, a handful put up their hands. When I ask who goes online everyday, they all do. They are the Add Me generation. The current crop of Gen Ys and Millenials are a far nicer, more connected and more concerned bunch than the set of Angry Punk Dads that have preceeded them.

They're not that hip or edgy really, in fact they're rather nice. My mother probably would like them... perhaps she should have a word with Peter. Television might be losing it's audience in more ways than one.


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Podcasts worth listening to

I've moved away from live radio almost completely now.

A surprising thing for me, given that the spoken word has long been my favourite medium for news and politics by far. My earliest personal relationship with media was listening to Radio Caroline and later John Peel chronicling the arrival of punk in the mid seventies. From those early days radio was a constant companion as my interest in current affairs deepened. This was a medium that has always felt personal to me. Over the years I've listened to RTE Radio 1, the BBC World Service, Radio 4, Today FM and latterly NPR/PRI , in particular WNYC.

What's different now? Changes at RTE lost me. RTE's Radio 1 was the mainstay of talk radio here. When you're a talk radio listener, turning on the radio was one of the first things you did upon getting up, letting it witter away in the corner of the kitchen or office. You tuned in and out as needed. As life and work progressed, you'd keep current, ignoring the odd show which irritated. The dumbing-down of RTE Radio 1 over the last year or two left me with little reason to turn it on, so much of it was sheer rubbish.

So I turned to iTunes and a set of smart playlists that brings me a good mix of news and current affairs, interesting stories from around the world including Ireland. RTE have finally gotten their act together on podcasts, though for a while they were on the wrong track there. I pleaded with them via email not to embrace Real back when they started to go online to no avail. Sadly RealPlayer and Windows Audio still form their principal offerings for live listening, so it doesn't matter if you're online or using an old fashioned transistor radio, RTE Live sucks either way...

The shows I list below form my listening now. I have a playlist which automatically keeps things current. I just set it off in the morning, picking either News and Stories or Technology, and let it run. I list my News and Stories podcasts here, I may do the Tech ones later. Looking at this list, I'm aware of how much I tend to like people with strong personalities, shows with clear voices. The News and Stories are from existing media outlets and the Technology podcasts from newer providers, it will be interesting to see how things progress, to see if new voices on current affairs emerge from the independent sector.

News and Stories

WNYC - Radio Lab - Add to iTunes
Inventive and experimental, a show which researches and explores a single theme, from Time to the Wright Brothers, by weaving interviews with key figures, sounds and conversations between the two hosts.

PRI - This American Life - Add to iTunes
Ira Glass, Philip's son, has developed an iconic (or whatever the audio equivalent of iconic is..) show. Wonderfully produced, it brings together several stories around a single idea, humorous and intelligent, and with a great set of writers.

WNYC - The Brian Lehrer Show - Add to iTunes
I keep up to date with New York and US politics via Brian's show. Perhaps a tad parochial for a global audience, you'd have to know and love NYC to care about some of the stories. That said, it also covers national and presidential politics in a lively and accessible fashion.

RTE - Tonight with Vincent Browne - Add to iTunes
Ireland's best politics show bar none. At times rather odd and like something from another era, it's at the centre of political reporting in Ireland. It's also an excellent guide to major figures from history. Essential listening, who is going to be this man's successor?

RTE - Conversations with Eamonn Dunphy - Add to iTunes
I liked The Last Word when Eamonn was at the helm over on Today FM. With his departure it's now just another drive-time show. At times erratic and irritating, but at his best...he's unique. He certainly engages with his subjects in a very real and personal way, providing compelling listening.

BBC - In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg - Add to iTunes
Wonderful radio, a lecture in a podcast, covering topics as diverse as the Fibonacci Sequence to Avicenna. (Okay... a set of numbers which turn up everywhere in nature and an ancient Iranian philosopher.) Bragg is brilliant here, you get a real sense of how television limited him.

BBC - File on Four - Add to iTunes
Investigative journalism as it should be done. I wish there was more shows like this.

BBC - From Our Own Correspondent - Add to iTunes
The Beeb at it's best, covering news and current affairs from all over the world. It might still have the whiff of colonialism... but it's excellent stuff.

PRI - Selected Shorts - Add to iTunes
Leading actors read leading authors short stores to a live audience. I believe the word is 'delightful'. I particularly like this driving home late at night.

The New Yorker - Fiction - Add to iTunes
Sadly only out once a month. The New Yorker's enviable list of writers and stories read by other writers. Theroux reads Borges, Jhumpa Lahiri reads William Trevor.

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Is that Google on the Mac?

I was actually asked this question when I launched Safari in a traiining session. It was a little insight into what the Net is for most people.

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The Digital difference...



Whooo.... my first lecture on the internet compressed by Michael Wesch into about 3 minutes and way more entertaining. I love the sense of joy and wonder, empowerment and personal responsibility he clearly feels now, in this moment.

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Honouring The Dalai Lama...




A great interview from Charlie Rose with this eminently reasonable and intelligent man, his Holiness The Dalai Lama.

China today still takes no real heat from the rest of the world over it’s treatment of Tibet and Tibetan life and culture. As the Dalai Lama was honoured in Washington, China redirected any online searches towards state sanctioned search results. They surrounded the largest monastery in Tibet with 3,000 troops.

Meanwhile the world’s economy marches along with China, and nations around the world prepare for the upcoming Olympics. Have a look at Amnesty International’s latest information campaign, the level of shock required to shake our complacency speaks volumes...

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Four Eyed Monsters on YouTube

I blogged about these two before. They have now put their feature, all of it, on YouTube for free and legal viewing for one week only.... They have a promotion whereby for each viewers who sign up with Spout, a film review site, Spout will give them 1 dollar. Sign up and help these guys get out of debt and hopefully working on their next feature.



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Tell the World....

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It appears I am blocked in China. I thought initially perhaps it’s the name, even though I never thought it would sound like trouble... but then I checked out the discussion board on the site. There's a long list of perfectly innocuous sites which are blocked. So I tried my other two sites, Janey Pictures and my undeveloped www.filmfinance.eu site. They’re both blocked. Go figure.

Well, let’s give it some credence then.



This June 4th is the 18th anniversary of this terrible day. It is still moving to hear Kate Adie’s broadcast from Tiananmen. ‘Tell the world...’ a student said to her. Perhaps the world has stopped listening....

China hosts the Olympics next. They are the worlds fastest growing economy and every major corporation in the world have set up there. Half the world’s concrete was poured in China last year and they are heading to take over the US in terms of environmental impact. China may be hot right now, but it doesn’t take any heat over how it denies it’s citizens rights, it's policies in Tibet, or, indeed, for the brutality shown that day in Beijing.

This coming June.... Embed this.







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Susan and Arin

I’ve followed these two for the past couple of years... it’s been amazing to watch them fulfill what the ongoing development of digital media has promised.

Susan Buice and Arin Crumley, and their project Four Eyed Monsters.

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They are two filmmakers who, like many others, set out to make their first feature.

They were perhaps unwitting pioneers in a way, building an online presence around their project which ultimately absorbed their film and became bigger than it. it’s been great to follow it, each step of the way, not just uploading video, but building a community around their project, exploring everything from a premiere on Second Life to Google mashups for screenings.

They give me heart in that it’s not the future, it’s now. It’s the first time I’ve seen filmmakers act like musicians, making their stuff and marketing and distributing it themselves and operating at a certain level. The entire project is open and brave and full of humour and life, genuinely engaging...

The podcasts track the development of the film, its trials and tribulations through production and festival runs and now distribution. They’re funny and touching and really one of the best things on iTunes. I’d recommend watching the podcasts in sequence, including all the little bits promotional stuff... and then catching the film. They have the DVD on sale on their site.

It might tell you something of the impact of this project when you watch the purchasers of the DVD upload videos to YouTube of them opening the packages and popping them in their players. I love the fact that an audience felt that kind of connection, especially for an indie low budget feature.



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TED 2

Ted Robinson on Creativity in Schools.

Al Gore on Averting a Climate Crisis

Great examples of the good things in TED.

I think this might just be the best thing to happen this week... and I've a feeling more to come...



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TED

First came across TED a few years ago and thought how great it would be to attend that... a conference by leading thinkers in technology, entertainment and design. My cup of tea altogether.

The great news is they have put over 100 of the presentations from previous years online. Terrific. All posted under Creative Commons licenses so freely repostable and linkable to. I wish only that there was one RSS stream so I could download whole chunks of the conference for viewing in iTunes. But even one by one, it’s worth the trouble.

Free Good Stuff, what’s not to love?

Go to it....



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The Morphing of Interactivity...

While shooting the breeze with Brian Mulligan, who heads up e-learning at our College, we went through our histories, it’s always nice to talk to someone who knows what an Amiga is and who had worked with them.

What I also like is chatting to someone else who knows the sweep of things, who remembers the issues which emerged of the Seventies and Eighties as personal computing spread when interactive multimedia was the vanguard of creative applications.

We were discussing what approaches would be achievable as the College moves forward. Brian is very active in Moodle and other enterprise level solutions and is leading the IT’s rollout of e-learning generally. I was keen on discussing blogging, podcasting and using RSS to disseminate media from the lecturers to their students and beyond.

Discussion wandered onto CBT, computer based training, and the problems inherent in developing interactive education. We shot the breeze and then slowly came to the consensus that... the whole idea of a non-linear document, a multithreaded experience was probably not worth developing.

It felt very odd to actually say it...

Kind of like something had been lost.

The rise of search

There’s many ways of interacting with material on screen.
        - Choosing, I know I want this
        - Browsing, I’ll check this out
        - Searching, Find this for me

It’s as if we move through levels of certainty as you progess through this list. A steady abdication of authority from the user to the net, whatever that is.

Has interactive multimedia in the main come down to this; gather a big enough pile and make it searchable? Search is probably all the interaction most people want now. I want to find something out... just give it to me, as Google says, I’m feeling lucky.



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The future of film financing?

Cinematech recently did some interesting coverage of current projects out there seeking finance online, Howard Dean style.

http://cinematech.blogspot.com/

It’s too easy to view these projects a little harshly, and no doubt some of them may be finding finance difficult for a reason. But generally I think that would be too simple. Film financing is such a complex problem, this approach has many benefits.

Documentaries
This could suit some documentaries really well. A lot of documentary makers have unique problems, their projects typically develop over years and they progress through actually shooting stuff, as opposed to pitching and refining scripts and creative packages. They go and gather material, often tons of it, offering them good opportunities for disseminating it in new ways.

I can see documentary makers building rich and illuminating web presences which track their projects, offering their individual backers an ongoing relationship and insight into it’s progress.

That would certainly work well with political or advocacy style projects which highlight issues and can attract an audience who care about the issue.

Drama Features
Even excellent drama projects face many hurdles. I remember during financing our first feature the Coen brother’s finance disintegrated. It happens all the time in film no matter where you are on the Hollywood food chain.

It’s because the chunks involved are just so big. The pressure is always on, you are exposed to the vagaries of that particular source of finance. If something goes awry, a whole side of your film’s finance falls away and the entire structure can collapse.

And as a result people enter it cautiously. The financiers are exposed to a high level and are cautious as a result, the film makers are exposed to their nervousness.

Even getting the initial finance is unpredictable. In the US, it’s usually the ‘guy’, whoever it is at the top of the food chain, and whether he ‘gets it’. ‘yeah, I get it’ can be a green light in the US of A. Over in the EU, it’s about panels and committees, equally unpredictable, their version of ‘I get it’ is usually an avalanche of required documentation, combined with panel members who aren’t exposed but nonetheless whose opinion is taken on board. Go figure that one out. Gimme the ‘I get it’ guy any day.

We had eight sources of finance in our film, the legal documentation totalled over 2000 pages. A part of me is wondering if I’d prefer 2000 sources of finance each with the same 1 page contract.

And if one or two go wobbly, would it all fall apart?

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Medieval helpdesk

Oh so good....

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Medieval Helpdesk



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Look Shiny

Look Shiny’s very funny take on Getting Things Done. As a follower of The David, it all rings horribly true... For all you list generators out there struggling to focus on your next action...

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Not Getting Things Done


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Picnik

Picnik is a really wonderful new web service which offers users basic image manipulation tools. You can zoom in and out, edit brightness, contrast, exposure and a host of other tools, even a basic implementation of Levels. Quite impressive to deliver online via flash in itself, but there’s more to Picnik than that.

It joins an emerging field of creative web services which add value because they are online, not despite it.

For a start, it plays really nicely with Flickr, allowing you to take in and edit your uploaded photographs just as easily as the ones on your computer. And not just your own... You can do a full Flickr search on tags and titles. Very cool...

Second, it loads images directly from Yahoo Images, with a full search field and a nice clutter-free (and ad-free) result. I’d look forward to Google Images as an option.

Third, it allows you to put in a web address and it will distill all the images from that address and load them up for you to edit.

Fourth... it has a very nice full-screen mode, click on the Picnik logo in the top right and it expands to full screen.

Fifth... it will work with your webcam. I can see Photo Booth type Firefox plugins ahead...

This might well give Flash a good name. Quite awesome... check it out before Yahoo buys it.

Picnik


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The World's First Web Server

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The World's First Web Server, originally uploaded by sbisson.

I didn't know this but I bet Steve Jobs did. Tim Berners Lee's original Next workstation.


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Trees by Lake

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TreesbyLake, originally uploaded by Dromahaire.

My most popular pic on Flickr....I think the appeal is the colour in the trees, the red and golds with a large white birch.


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Look to the music industry for pointers

People often talk about business and it’s quick adoption of the IBM PC.  Depends on the business really, just as the Mac started to invent a whole industry around desktop publishing, one of the more interesting early computer platforms, the Atari ST, was quickly adopted by the burgeoning digital music industry.  CuBase and Logic originated on the platform and small studios were built around them.

People often talk about digital music, but the fact is All Music Is Digital now, from folk through classical and every which way in between.    Music is recorded digitally, created digitally, mixed and produced digitally, distributed and consumed digitally.

Other media have tracked music and it’s steady submergence in the digital realm by a couple of years.   The widespread adoption of the iPod, not the first digital music player, completed the circle.  Video is about to do the same.

We have had a steady progression away from film to ever better video formats, analog to DV and now HD.   Acquisition has made the transition, editing and mixing is already there.  Broadcasting is moving to digital, cinema transmission is too.

When we see video on the web, it is for me, digital production finding its home.

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