Panel: "Beyond the Screen"

41st Annual UND Writers Conference:
"Mind the Gap: Print, New Media, Art"
March 25, 2010

© 2010 Mark Amerika, Cecelia Condit, Nick Montfort, Stuart Moulthrop, Scott Miller, and the University of North Dakota

[Video of this panel is also available.]

[Please note, unless otherwise specified, poetry is presented with published line breaks:
for proper spacing and formatting, please consult printed source.]

Crystal Alberts: Please turn off your cell phones. If you are going to take pictures, please do so within the first ten minutes or so. Also please join us for our other events today, including a screening of Time Code at two in the Lecture Bowl. At four, Nick Montfort will be reading here, and at six selected video shorts by Nick Montfort will be in the Lecture Bowl, and finally tonight at 8 p.m. the North Dakota Humanities Council Lecturer Frank X. Walker will be reading. As is usual, a couple of thank yous, particularly to the North Dakota Humanities Council, the Department of Music, the Department of Art and Design, and the UND Foundation.

And now for our noon panel "Beyond the Screen," which is moderated by Professor Jonientz, whose name I always pronounced incorrectly. He was born and raised in Seattle, Washington; he earned his undergraduate degree from The Evergreen State College of Olympia, Washington with and emphasis in experimental animation and his MFA in painting from Savanna College of Art and Design in 2006. While his work explores multiple avenues of artistic practice, including painting, drawing, and installation, it is primarily focused on technology based arts and new media, specifically fine art animation. Joel Jonientz's work has been shown both nationally and internationally in numerous solo and group exhibitions. Additionally, his time-based works have been broadcast on television and shown in film festivals across the nation. He is currently an assistant professor at the University of North Dakota, where he directs the time-based media emphasis, and now our panelists.

Joel Jonientz: Hi, how you guys doing? So I'm just going really quickly introduce our panelists from left to right as you guys are looking at them, and this will be very brief and then we'll get to the greater conversation. On the far left is Cecelia Condit; she is a video artist who's best known for experimental video narratives. She is currently a professor of film and video, and the director of graduate studies in the Department of Film at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Her work is on exhibit at the North Dakota Museum of Art during the Writers Conference, and I suggest you guys all head over there and take a gander at it, it's very, very nice.

Mark Amerika, sitting directly to her left, has been named Time Magazine's 100, one of Time Magazine's 100 Innovators as part of continuing series of features on the most influential artists, scientist, entertainers, and philosophers in the 21st century. He is a professor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he is developing the TECHNE practice based research initiative.

Stuart Moulthrop, sitting in the center here for us, is an award-winning artist, writer, and scholar of digital culture. He is currently a professor in, of Information Arts and Technologies at the University of Baltimore, where he teaches in the Bachelor of Science in simulation and digital entertainment, as well as masters and doctoral programs.

Nick Montfort writes poems, text generators, and interactive fiction, such as Book and Volume and Ad Verbum. He is an associate professor of digital media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

And finally, Scott Miller, here to my right, is an award-winning composer of electro-acoustic orchestral, chamber, choral, and multimedia works frequently performed at venues and presented in exhibitions throughout North America and Europe. Scott is a professor of music at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota where he teaches composition, electrical acoustic music, and music theory.

Okay, so let's get started. The title of our panel is "Beyond the Screen," admitting, sort of, this could mean a number of things beyond the cinema screen, and beyond the computer or television screen, what I thought we would start out with is just a discussion on, how does this topic apply to your different areas of focus? How does it effect the, how does it sort of various number of formats you guys can choose to create in, now, effect the work you are creating in an area where you sort of a specialist in a world that really isn't informed by generalists? And I thought I would just start at the end with Cecelia.

Cecelia Condit: Thank you, [Laughter] "beyond the screen," I can hardly think beyond the screen, the screen to me is the sort of 4 inches, or 10 inches, or 15 inches, depending on the size of my computer, that I live in. And when it gets to be something like 10 feet, or 15 feet, or 20 feet wide or larger, then I like it too. And that's the screen I live in, and it's a very comfortable place to be. It has another reality. It's a , it's a place that is where you can tell a story that can challenge one's normal life, and for me it's a place that I go to happily, in that few inches of a screen daily. Right?

[Panel laughter]

Joel Jonientz: Anyone can step in next.

Mark Amerika: She, she's right, beyond so, okay, I'm just improvising here, but beyond the screen is the one perhaps whose watching or at least from, from my perspective. I'm also interested in, well actually, what Cecelia was talking about resonates with me is the idea of scale. So, for example, on my most recent project, Immobilité, the one I showed a bit yesterday, which is that feature length foreign film shot entirely on mobile phone in Cornwall, U.K. I was very interested in experimenting with scale and with venue and the way that the work would be experienced in multiple ways by different audiences. So, for example, right, the work is shot on mobile phone, and it can be experienced, one remix version can be experienced as an iPhone app, on a small iPhone. Another version of it can be experienced as a projection with stereo speakers in a large project room of a museum or gallery space. Another version is a, are the remixes of both the video and the audio, as well as other things that appear on the website. So someone can actually access a lot of it on the web. And another interesting version of it, that I hadn't expected, but that I was able to pursue with a partner at the Streaming Museum in New York, which actually takes content from different artists and then streams it to different urban screens around the world. So there were versions of the work now that were appearing in public spaces, like Federation Square in Melbourne, Australia, or the BBC big screens across 17 cities in the U.K. or the Piazza Duomo in the heart of Milano. And then it was really interesting cause here I was at one point, you could imagine this, right, so I had shot it on mobile phone, edited it on my laptop, and then started distributing it through all these venues. And now I'm, I forget exactly where I was, I know I wasn't at home, but I watched a live webcam stream of the work I shot on video, on, being projected on this large urban screen in the middle of the Piazza Duomo in Milan, and then I was using Snapz Pro, which captures QuickTime video, right, on my laptop. And so then, so then what was happening, basically is that I had a QuickTime that would, right, if you follow me on this, a QuickTime of a capture of a webcam broadcast of these little images that I shot on my mobile phone being projected everywhere. That's a really interesting experiment in scale that I thought was kind of interesting, and for me that experience went I would say beyond the screen, although it was intimately connected to lots of screens all along the way.

Stuart Moulthrop: We like this word "beyond" as academics and as writers. I think we like it a little too much. So I kind of want to say beyond the beyond: beyond, beyond the screen, beyond...I agree with everything that Cecelia and Mark have just laid out. In fact, I'd rather just listen to them, but, but we're always looking for trajectories. It's important to remember that the trajectories are most interesting when they are multiple. There are lots of ways beyond; beyond all depends on your angle of motion and sort of direction of travel. I mean something is beyond me if I'm headed that way, or pointed that way. And there are beyondings, as my colleagues are saying that are about an engagement with the technology. I like the fact that neither one of the people who has spoken so far has obsessed on the technology so much, it's all about what Mark can do, what Cecelia can do with it. I will now obsess about the technology.

[Panel laughter]

One of the beyondings that we can talk about is, is an inward term, where we actually, I think properly this should be beneath the screen, or within the screen, and that's, that's that encounter with, you know, people are going to say "oh code." Well, okay, here's the geek, he is going to talk about code. It's language; language is code, code is language. Among the many things that are happening in this enormously revolutionary moment that we're inhabiting, you know, it's almost as if we have gotten this sort of mash-up of the 20th century, I hope they leave out the part about the nuclear weapons. But you know great depression, social revolution, we are going to do it all at once now. And with all these things happening at once, perhaps it's easy to lose sight of the fact that something as comfortable as language, something that we really enormously take for granted, especially in the United States, is changing profoundly. And my sort of beyond the screen is to say, okay well there are these appearances and these interactions, but they are all scripted. They all depend on the understanding of processes, and conditions, and dependencies. And I think it's important always to be ready to go beyond that level of appearance and ask about the structures.

Nick Montfort: I think we are organized from most to least screenic...

[Panel laughter]

Nick Montfort: ...perhaps along the table here. And my real interest is in computation, and the aesthetic, and literary, and writerly uses of computation, and screens are sometimes involved in that, you know. I did a collaboration with a video artist, Roderick Coover, which I will show a little bit from at 4, and that obviously was a work that involved a screen very essentially. But a lot of the projects that I do happen to appear on screens, but it's really rather incidental. So my interaction fiction pieces, blind people, you know, play those games--these are things I consider literary works and also computer games--and you don't have to be sighted at all, or have a screen. You can listen to that on a text reader, and in fact the way interaction fiction was played in the mid 1970s and early on was often on print terminals, which, another indication that computing isn't really essentially about the screen, there's different ways to produce output. And some of it could look like ink on paper, you know, more like the page, more like a book. And people who are interested in their iPod shuffles or their Roombas are, you know, very aware that there are other things that computer systems can do that don't manifest themselves on screens.

So a lot of my work, which is, you know, textual and language based practice, appears on screens. I've created a piece that's for an LED display, which you may or may not consider a screen, but certainly not a typical screen. You know, on the other hand, as a scholar of computing and culture, my most recent book, which I wrote with Ian Bogost is on the Atari video computer system, the Atari 2600 as it later was called, and it's called the video computer system for a reason. It's a computer system certainly. It has a processor, but it was very, very intimately tied to the technology, not just of displaying things, but specifically the cathode ray tube television and the way the electron beam went down the screen, and everything about that system and its design, and the way that people could program it and then create, you know, interesting, innovative, entertaining, aesthetically pleasurable works, cartridges for that system comes out of its relationship to the screen.

So in my work and what I care about, I tend, unless I'm collaborating with someone who has a screenic practice, I tend not to focus on that myself. But it is something that's important to the cultural history of computing, certainly to mass popular practices like video gaming, but it isn't something that we should assume is part of the way that computers work. We should think about what that relationship is and try to make those connections and understand what things are beautiful and interesting that you may not need a computer to deal with at all, that you can present on a screen, and what things a computer can do that is separate from that.

Scott Miller: So I guess that leaves me, speaking a composer who works with sound. But I'm going to address this by defining the screen as either being a frame for the prospective that we have on reality or a window of revelation. And my interaction with the screen, whether I am working with video artists, or simply with a poet, or someone who's producing sound with an instrument, really focuses on this idea of diegetic sound, sound that occurs within the screen, within this frame of awareness, and sound that occurs outside of it. And so a lot of my work, because I specialize in electro-acoustic, I have speakers, and I use a lots of them, and place them in lots of different places, not simply in front of us, and so I'm interested in this idea of sound as sometimes, well, the locative notion of sound that is, is it within this frame of reality? Do we see a performer doing something that's obviously producing a sound that we are engaging with? Does it cause a sound to occur outside of this frame of reality? How did they interact with each other? How do they define the space we exist in? A space that, if you just go to a regular concert, this concert hall, this space is designed historically with a proscenium arch to provide you a screen, a limited field of interest to be concerned about. Where the performers are sitting, where they're producing the sound, what they are doing, and how that relates to the sound that you hear.

This translates perfectly today to a culture where we are engaging with a lot of different screens of different proportions, and in different environments over and over and over again. Typically, we don't even question the relationship. We give ourselves over to this idea of a reality that's now defined by a small screen and forget about everything that we're sitting on a plane, watching a film on a 2x3 inch screen that's not what it was intended for in the first place. I also use it in my work. A lot of the work that I do for performers, where the concept, the structural concept behind the work involves let's say a page, a score, a part of directions for making sounds that can really only be viewed though, through a window that moves on the screen. Now I could literally do this with a computer and force it to happen, but I don't. It's a conceptual idea. It's the idea that there's this window that reveals only a portion of the directions that have to be dealt with, without end and I get to control that window: how it moves, how big it is, how it reveals things that either the composer or, I'm sorry the performer, or the computer that I programmed deals with it. So I think the ideas of screens is terrific, it's not limited to the visual. It conceptually, it's applicable to everything if you define it in a way that is this limit on your awareness and perception of the world around you.

Joel Jonientz: Okay great, I want to just make a quick announcement here that we forgot to do right up top. There are people walking around with these little purple cards, if audience members want to ask a question of anybody on the panel, please go ahead and flag them down and grab one. And that being said, let's ask a question right off the card right now. Is there any danger in society becoming too screen oriented? Do we tend to judge non-screen life by what we see on T.V., online, or at the movies? And, if so, is this a good thing? Let's start somewhere in the middle with whoever looks like they are going to move forward...Stuart?

Stuart Moulthrop: I have a Bruce Sterling quotation. Nick and I were swapping Bruce Sterling quotations earlier. I mean this is my first response when we say are we too screen orientated. There is a character in an early Sterling's science fiction story--Bruce Sterling is a science, an American science fiction writer, if you don't know--who says "you're going to have to speak more slowly, I have trouble with anything that's not on scan lines." And I remember reading that in the 1980's and thinking "uh oh we're in trouble now."

Nick Montfort: Well, screens cause violence.

Stuart Moulthrop: Oh yes.

Nick Montfort: I mean we have to, we have to admit, you know that.

Stuart Moulthrop: Especially when you're using a Wiimote.


Joel Jonientz: Okay...


Nick Montfort: Well I mean, I mean the reason I make that comment

Stuart Moulthrop: Don't start in the middle

Nick Montfort: is that a, yes that's the reason I make that comment, but the reason is because I think, you know, that, it's not that screens...There are these ideas that about things causing violence that a certain psychologist like to publish articles about now and then. It turns out, right, that screens are sort of like...aliens didn't, you know, land and inject them into our culture, we put them there. They're there because people developed technologies, you know, televisions, cinematic technologies, computing technologies with screens. And so the other piece to that question is not to, what's there effect on us, but why is it that we want all these screens to be begin with? Why are we putting them in the back of airplane seats? Why are we carrying them around, you know, in our pockets? I think that's where we would look. I don't think you can ask the question of the effect of screens on our culture without thinking of why we've developed all these screens and imbedded them in our culture.

Cecelia Condit: One time, may I? One time, I went to a lecture, and it was a lecture that wasn't for children. And it was interesting, cause I knew it wasn't for children and there were some children sitting very close to me. And her mother, the mother, their mother got out said to get out their little video games, and they had 15 minutes to play before the lecture started; and she negotiated and she said after that you put them away. And I knew it was going to be interesting, and I knew it was going to be so hard for them to do it, but it was an interesting fill of time when they were sitting there so stressed out-- we were talking earlier about stressed out--playing this video game and then they went from stressed out to total boredom. It was just the effect of what was on the screen and how it hit them on an emotional level and it was just a flip and I was wondering how their brains actually did that comfortably.

Mark Amerika: The problem is when they do it in the middle of class.


Cecelia Condit: I know.

Mark Amerika: Competing with Twitter is not fun.

Joel Jonientz: Okay so let's go on to another question. We were just talking a little bit about kids playing video games. One of the things I found sort of interesting about the connections between you all is many of you sort of use the idea of mapping as an important part of the work that you create. I was wondering if I could get you guys to sort of talk about that and expand on that. Like why don't you go ahead and start that up if you can.

Nick Montfort: Oh well sure, I do it. I mean, it's perhaps not in the most, not in the way that would first come to mind, I don't use the Google Maps API. I don't have, you know, visual representations of space, but I model spaces, for instance, within interaction fiction and simulate geographies and, you know, urban settings and architectures by describing different areas textually, something that has been done since 1976, the first interaction fiction piece adventure.

So it's a, it is a way and is quite typical that someone, certainly someone looking at an early piece of interactive fiction, would draw a map themselves as they're going through and exploring the space and trying to understand it. And so the quality is there, of course, you have sorts of topological connections, you have rooms that are adjacent to other rooms, and compass directions are very typically used in interaction fiction to get you to move around, you know, in a more or less grid like way. But it's a rather different and unusual experience of space because it comes to you textually. And there are some arguments that this has more to do with the way that maybe space is represented in a novel like The Crying of Lot 49than it has to do with the typical view of a video game space in a Grand Theft Auto 4, something like that.

Scott Miller: One of the things I do with maps, as it were, is I work with a kind of programming I first was introduced to by Agostino di Scipio called ecoesystemic programming, which involves treating sound as part of a sonic ecosystem. And so you take any space, every space has it's own ambient qualities. Its, its own ecosystem defined by the shape, the space, what it's constructed out of, the things that are making sound in it. There's certainly one in here. There is a rumble from the HVAC, a couple coughs, and shuffling. It's generally, it's not terribly active and out of control. Any introduction of sound into the space is actually going to influence our perception of all the other sounds in the space that are going to interact in different ways. There is literally wave interference going to go on.

So in a lot of my work, for instance, I like to use speakers in the space that project sound into the space, then it's, is filtered by the space. It bounces around off of hard flat surfaces. It's absorbed by large soft surfaces, which includes people. And then I use microphones, like ears, with a computer that analyzes how that sound behaves in real time. Generally, it's tracking changes of amplitude and frequency, and this data that gets generated causes the sound to be transformed in ways and behave differently, which causes the ecosystem to change and to shift. The simplest application of it is I can create an ecosystem of sound in a space where the sounds push each other around the room, which in and of itself is kind of interesting and fun, especially the first couple of times you do it, but it becomes infinitely more interesting when you think of it as a new space that needs to be navigated by people.

And in my work, I have been working with performers who improvise and are put into this space and have to navigate the space. They get to choose how to move, what sounds to make, how to transform this sonic ecosystem around them, which creates an utterly unique and site specific kind of experience for the listener, for everybody who is there, who are also themselves part of this ecosystem. But it's ultimately, it's a kind of mapping. It's as if you consider it a form of exploration for the performer, and for the audience members to enter an unknown terrain, one that doesn't have a map, that doesn't have a score, that doesn't have directions for navigation and having to navigate it themselves and reveal for themselves what that terrain is like. It's a sonic map, if you will, that is always changing and dynamic and never ever going to be repeated.

Stuart Moulthrop: Could it be that we make maps so incessantly and obsessively now because we have too many maps? That we've completely and definitively mapped the planet we're inhabitating and, you know, there are relatively few, if any, unexplored-- there are the undisclosed locations, and those are interesting, more about that. But I'm struck with your observation about any map implying exploration, because it seems to me--and I love, I'm hugely interested in what your talking about, this sound environment in which you're impelled to map it, you know. But in a sense, could it be that these virtual and interactive technologies that we've wandered on to in the last 40 years have made us into map makers? I mean this is certainly true of my students, as video game players and game designers is that they're all about mapping and I'll often say this, say this to them. I'll say, where do you want to start as a game designer? Think about, you know, the environments you're building, want to build, how you mapped them, and how they could get mapped, I get blank stares, but, you know, that's often what happens when people begin to think. Do we not have enough maps?

Scott Miller: Is the map, though, more of an artifact of nostalgia,

Stuart Moulthrop: Huh.

Scott Miller: rather than directions for use, rather a memory, you know, this artifact of an experience.

Stuart Moulthrop: I like that.

Mark Amerika: It could also be sort of like a conceptual mapping, cognitive mapping, using that as a system to develop a complex narrative that the person who's participating or whatever the co-conspirator is somehow interacting with to create a story out of. I spoke with a few students who were asking me about that very early work of mine, interesting to say that now, the very early work Grammatron, which has, as I was saying yesterday when I presented parts of it, over a thousand screens or pages, if you want to call them that, and thousand thousands of links, and something that I have always, and this is particularly directed at the students or whomever is interested in starting to explore this kind of work and maybe, maybe even developing some of there own, you should try and put yourself in the position of those who've already done it, and try to imagine what that's like. How do they, you know, conceptually map that system? In other words, if you have over a thousand, it's just very simple stuff, if you have over a thousand screens that have thousands and thousands of links coming in and out, including some that may be randomly generated, how do you, how do you make that work so that there's a story being told every time, right? You have to, you have to literally map it out. You have to create a road map. I was fortune in that there was a software program available at the time that enabled me to at least get that basic road map in place. But it's a very complex process, and in a way, in order to be able to pull it off, you almost you have no choice but to sort of conceptually or cognitively mapping this narrative system.

Joel Jonientz: Okay we're just talking about mapping and we have a question from the audience that's sort of about Google. Who's teaching discernment in the age of media bombardment? And does Google rule the world?

Scott Miller: Not China

Joel Jonientz: Not China... [Laughter] Anybody else?

Nick Montfort: Yes, Google does rule the world and that's because people like us have abdicated. We would be rather scandalized if we went to a university library and found that there was nothing but an advertising supported system to tell us where the books were located, that no librarians had actually gone through the trouble of, you know, putting together a catalog for us to use, to actually use the resources there. But we are in that situation with search and with a lot of the other facilities that Google offers. Not that it's a bad idea to have advertising supported systems, but we assume that that's the only thing that can exist. And I think that's very deeply problematic, it's sort of like if the only source for medical information that you had was going to Wal-Mart. You might want to by some stuff at Wal-Mart, but it would be nice to have other options for finding out things about your world.

Now, does this relate to things like electronic literature and, you know, digital and video art and composition of electronic music? I think that perhaps too tentatively a lot of us who engage in these endeavors are trying to come up with alternatives to hegemonic cooperate computing and to demonstrate that there could be other things done with computing, besides what it is that we're offered by an effective company that is on a global scale that does a lot of good work, is helpful, but has its own perspective that is entrepreneurial, cooperate, commercial, and, you know, engage with advertising in a certain way. And we'd like there to be other things. We would like there to be the web beyond Google, and I think getting beyond Google is way more important then getting beyond the screen.


Nick Montfort: But I mean even speaking of maps I think, maps are gone and they have been replaced by driving directions, you know, or walking directions in my case, but similarly, and that we rely on very convenient and effective technologies to direct us where we want to go, how we want to get there, at the expense of building our own maps and understanding what the world is like geographically, or what cities are like. I, you know, go to places, and I like to, when I am in some place new, I like to walk around and, you know, see what that city is like, but if I don't do that, if I just am going from point to point, I have a very hard time getting a sense of that city and those geographies. And that's the other side of the coin to a great convenience of, you know, being able to in an efficient and business like manner be directed somewhere and get there by a GPS system or by Google maps.

Mark Amerika: There is a conceptual art project, internet art project that you might want to check out, but I think it's kind of interesting that it takes Google head on, you might say. It's really funny. I'm not sure the address, don't quote me on this, but it might be and the project is called "Google Will Eat Itself."


Stuart Moulthrop: Has anybody heard this project?

Mark Amerika: And correct me if I am wrong, but the idea is that, what they started doing is they started working with Google, you know, Google ads and that will produce certain kinds of income and what not. And so their idea was that they were going to generate these pages that would hopefully lead to income, right, revenue coming in from Google for the clicking that goes on with the, the ad words. And then all that money that they made from that, they would use to reinvest in buying shares of Google over time. And the idea that eventually Google would eat itself. Interesting conceptual art project, but also, because they started it early on, quite a profitable work of art now too! I believe they were able to buy enough shares over time and with the increase of Google's value over time now the artwork itself is literally worth six figures.

Cecelia Condit: Wow.

Nick Montfort: That's a lot of cups of coffee at Starbucks


Joel Jonientz: So what we're talking about Google right now, and it's sort of become part of our culture in many ways, and so as societies embrace cyberculture and digital technologies, they become very common place in the way that we're used to making art. And so, I thought I would ask you guys how has the expanding technology, the more and more aspects of digital tools you can use to create work, how does that change the way that you function as an artist? Maybe we can start with Cecelia.

Cecelia Condit: The way that I function as an artist by the change in technology?

Joel Jonientz: Yes.

Cecelia Condit: Okay, well my life changes less then everybody else on the panel, but it has changed for me in that it's such a way of life that I am always having to learn new things. And I am, in many ways, consider myself a storyteller and a craftsman, and I've had to jump in with both feet almost every day to learn new technologies and with HD, which is something that interests me very much, and with music, which interests me very much that they are different, they are a different way, that they, how do I get to them is no longer the same. And that's a way of life now that I think will only accelerate. And I find it a fascinating trip to embark on, and I am certainly in no way of the level of mapping that anybody else here does, but there is a commitment that I feel like I have to have as also an artist also a teacher to try to locate a terrain that also within the technologies that I have access to and have abilities to work in that is constantly growing.

Scott Miller: Actually, I got one for you that I want to tie back to the Google. The work that I do, in electro-acoustic music, there was a. In 1948, Pierre Schaeffer created the first body of work that he coined musique concrete and it represented a paradigm shift for composition at that point of time. It suffered from a kind of translation error between French and English for a long time. But fundamentally musique concrete is best understood if you think of the still dominate paradigm for what it means to be a composer, which is a person, usually a man, sitting alone, probably at a piano, writing down, imagining in their head the sounds that they wished to hear abstractly, writing down directions on a score for a performer to follow telling them what sounds to make at what point in time and how to do it, and then passing off those direction that are interpreted by a middle man, often a conductor, that then organizes the performers to follow directions in such a way that at that point of time we actually have music, because music is phenomena a sound. It only exists as sound. A score is nothing more than directions.

Pierre Schaeffer introduced the idea based on the technology available at that time, he was actually working with lacquered disks at first, but then with magnetic tape. By starting instead, not with this abstract concept of the sounds that one would like to hear, but instead by beginning by recording the sound you wanted to work with, which was itself, that was the concrete part. So for him there was musique abstract before, where you abstractly imagine it and write out the directions then there musique concrete, where the concrete thing that you owned that the actual music, the sound is in your hands. It's pliable; it's tangible, reproducible, and manipulatable that is a very different kind of relationship with working with sound. It's different than the way music is handled pedagogically, is taught. Typically, it's a sixty-year-old idea, but, and a lot of practioners have embraced it, but it's still hardly the dominate idea. And it means that one starts with the sound and works from there.

I wanted to tie it to Google and this idea, cause during the little discussion of Google ruling the world, I was wondering maybe. There is, so much of the focus on the fear of Google taking over the world has to do with the outcomes of working with Google. It's what you get back when you are looking for something, when you ask for something. But I wondered, you know, part of the problem, in a way, is that Google is text or language dominated. The interface, you have to type in, you have to figure out how to articulate, using words, what it is your looking for. That automatically guarantees a certain kind of outcome. It was a big deal, I remember, when Google introduced the option of getting, organizing your returns as, you know, websites, images, videos, blah, blah, blah, that kind of thing. But you know what we can't do yet? You can't put in a video into Google, and tell it to search. You can't draw a picture. You can't sing into a microphone, and then hit search and get a return. I think we might find that we would get a very different kind of relationship with information data if we have that kind of an interface.

Stuart Moulthrop: I do want to point out something historical, again very happy to hear your comments and much appreciative of them, but the question you just did, the observation you just made, which is "you can't sing to Google," is probably not an observation one would have heard made about the television circa 1965. Unless someone thinks I'm dead wrong, I might be. But it seems to me that our basic orientation toward technology has come to adopt a certain criticism, if not discernment. There is a difference, and I want to keep that idea alive, if we can. I think we're more inclined to beyond all of our technologies, constantly. And to say okay, okay, well, I can do these things that's nice. I can fly, and I can, I can read minds, but, but I can't sing to it. And then someone will go at M.I.T. and work on singing to it, you know, and they'll perfect the system, and it will never be implemented. But...

Nick Montfort: No, it will be implemented and will be bought by Google.

[Panel laughter]

Stuart Moulthrop: You'll have everything you want.

[Panel laughter]

Joel Jonientz: Well, kind of tying into that, you know, I guess one of my questions is we look at the majority of you, the way that you distribute your art is quite different than the standard model in that you guys give it away for free for the most part and, whereas Google and so many other companies are sort of busy tying it up and monetizing digital art. Could you talk a little about the idea of just unlimited access applies to what you are doing? Any of you.

Nick Montfort: Well, there, so I'm, I'm a little sick of talking about Google. But I'll talk about different types of artistic practice, I mean there are practices that, you know, certainly conceptual art. The concept behind that was that you would have something where the, as Lawrence Weiner put it, the description of the work would be equal to an execution of the work and therefore anyone who had the description would have the artwork right. But, of course, conceptual art ended up being very tied to the gallery system and documentation of projects, and drafts, and certificates, and so on substituted for artifacts in that case. But a practice like, for instance, sticker art, which, I don't know, if in very car dominated places, if sticker art is something that's very prevalent, but you may go somewhere in the world and see that someone has stuck on the back of a road sign or somewhere else in a public space.

Stuart Moulthrop: Or a car.

Nick Montfort: Yes, something. I'm not talking about like an advertisement for a band, but just something that is aesthetically beautiful and meant to be that and that they're putting in public space for people to look at as they walk down the street. And that's a practice in which you have a material artifact, computing's material too, but people don't believe that, but you have a material artifact that's being given away. You really can't buy it. Well, you can scrape it off the sign or whatever, but that wouldn't be very nice. And there's not a curatorial text telling you who did it. So I think there's examples of, you know, different sorts of subcultural practices that maybe aren't the first thing people think about when they consider art where people do give work away and they do it for the sake of just creating something beautiful to share with people

Mark Amerika: Or something offensive or, yeah, anything I mean.

[Panel laughter]

Mark Amerika: So yeah, D.I.Y. production, post-production distribution. I agree with Nick. It's been going on for a while. I mean, I essentially got started with my own practice, not just writing, but being sort of an active cultural producer in what's called the Zine Scene, if you've heard of that. And around the time that I was doing that, there was a site called, a magazine actually called Factsheet 5. I don't know if anybody has ever heard of that. And they were, you know, in a great position to you, what you would do is send them ten copies of your zine, and then they'd send you ten individual copies of other zines that other people had sent them too. So they were kind of the hub; they were the hub of the network to get these zines out. With the explosion of the World Wide Web, of course, this stuff just happens on steroids, it's great.

I hate to talk about Google too, but I need to do that now because since we mentioned it in relation to giving things away for free or what not I can't reveal the specifics of this yet, because it's actually a top secret, but you should know that Google is in the process of taking over the digital art world as well. You know I can see 4, 5 years from now where they will essentially be my gallery, both physical space and virtual space.

Scott Miller: Free is the best thing that has happened to music in the last 150 years, because of the, you know, it's utterly returned live performance to the most authentic kind of experience that you can have with music, that was lost.

Stuart Moulthrop: Perhaps a way to square Google though with that observation that "free is the best thing to happen" is to observe that free really means taxpayer supported, or somehow otherwise invented doesn't it? I'm a public employee. I could not give my work away for free, if I did not steal taxpayers' time to do it. Don't tell anyone in Maryland. They know already.

But, you know, that's specious too to talk about tax dollars, public subvention, or cooperate subvention or whatever, because what we really need to be thinking about is the collective that impulse to give away broadly. And I think Nick's always hinting when, and anyone talks, when Mark when he talks about D.I.Y., about a pedagogical practice, as well as an art practice. You want to invite people into the act of making this thing and get into it and pass it around. It's about another kind of mapping, social mapping, mapping of social possibilities, bringing people into an enterprise that isn't a standard commercial enterprise, but nonetheless couldn't exist without those commercial enterprises, like Google.

Nick Montfort: I mean, your discussion of stealing time from your employer, you know, like a good Marxist, you have this concept this model of work. And it, I might be mistaken, but, are, do we live in a society where everyone for like all of there waking moments must labor for survival.

Stuart Moulthrop: We don't?


Nick Montfort: I mean, it seems to me that we're able to feed ourselves, various ways and, and we're able to have, you know, a standard of living of a certain sort. And maybe it would be a good time to think about having, for instance, you know, conversations about writing that aren't about how to get paid for your work. Conversations about computing and the internet that aren't about Google, and, you know, and various sort of perspectives that might let us think about how we actually enjoy our world, our life, our writing in the time that doesn't have to dominate our lives by which we work, and in which we earn the space to do that.

Stuart Moulthrop: Bah! Hooey!


Mark Amerika: But I think about this idea of collaborative futures and I was talking about this last night. For example, if you, if you consider yourself a writer, maybe you're here because you enjoy reading, but if you consider yourself a writer, imagine locking yourself in a kind of a studio space with 3 or 4 other writers, and your objective would be to collaboratively generate a book in 3 or 4 days, as a kind of, a form of extreme writing. And then you, you know, you do all your spell checking and get that all together, and once you have your material, you design it and then send it off as a part of some kind ebook download or P.O.D. just as a performance experience, a writing experience, and an experiment and seeing what happens to the work once it goes out into the network. Why not do that? Just see and celebrate the fact that, in fact, you can do that. You can find those 3 or 4 days and if you, hopefully, can find those collaborators and do that, and imagine the collaborative future.

Nick Montfort: What's the business plan behind that Mark? I'm missing something?


Mark Amerika: Exactly, yeah it's just creating your own, like yeah, contemporary autonomist zone, very temporary, but also contemporary. I think it's connected to contemporary art too, as part of contemporary art practice. In fact, the reason I am mentioning is because they've already done it. They just did it in Berlin that project Collaborative Futures, and now that work and those artists who got together from different parts of the world who got together to do that 4 or 5 day are now are generating a little bit of a buzz around their project. And it's getting out there, and people are stating to read it and starting to think about collaborative futures, and this work's stimulated a lot of the discussion around that.

Joel Jonientz: Okay, we have time for like one more question, and I guess what I wanted to ask you guys about is, one of the things that I find, sort of, also constant in all of you, is that you're working in areas of art that were once considered very low brow, you know, describing video games, net art, comic books, electronic music, and making videos for galleries and so what that's has forced you to do, a lot of times, is spend a lot of time out there proselytizing about your work, explaining it. I know that one of those things about interaction fiction, Nick, is that you have to have these introductionary screens to explain to us how to play these games. How has that changed the way your work goes forward? How has that informed what you are doing as an artist?

Mark Amerika: I mean, you might actually need, I mean, you don't need instructions, but you need to have a different mind set to be able to you know sit down and watch Possibly in Michigan.


Mark Amerika: Right? I'm not so sure a set of instructions would be necessary, but it's not just like turning on the TV and watching another episode of fill in the blank, you know.

Stuart Moulthrop: Any of you who actually do sit through the screening of Time Code this afternoon will, will be able to reflect on this. There are no instructions. I'm seriously toying with the idea of not giving instructions anymore. I have for everything I've done, up to now. I've always felt, you know, like a good American protestant that I owe it to my reader: now reader, I am going to be doing some things here. But I may, I may stop doing that and simply let the mystery take over there. I, you know, that was sort of fork off the low brow observation, which made me very happy. My brow continues to descend, I don't know what I can do. You know, cause the hair's gone. But there's something to be said for the omnivorousness and promiscuity of the internet and, you know, promiscuity has nothing to with sex folks, the tendency to go out and make connections. And once you have a media environment like that in place, well my wife and I were talking about this--my wife is also a major collaborator for me--and she said to me, I don't know why you keep fussing about high art. The moment of high art ended about 45 years ago. You know, it was like, oh, sorry Nancy, didn't get that memo. But she's right, I think. Let me just say this, maybe it's a mistake to think that when the high art goes away, or the high art moment goes away that all that's left is low, because I do believe that my wife also said this, that, you know, there is something other then the low out there. It's a thing that we haven't yet learned to understand.

Nick Montfort: The no brow.

Stuart Moulthrop: The no brow.

Scott Miller: Or the unibrow.

Stuart Moulthrop: We've been through the monobrow, I hope we've escaped that.

Scott Miller: But by definition, if you have to explain it, doesn't that make it high brow?

Stuart Moulthrop: There you go.

[Laughter and applause]

Nick Montfort: I think we need the...

Scott Miller: You got a clap out of that.

Joel Jonientz: Alright, well that's as good of place to stop as any I guess. Thank you.

[Transcribed by Jonathan Petraitis; Reviewed by Dr. Crystal Alberts, November 28, 2010]


Contact Information

Crystal Alberts

Associate Professor of English

Director, UND Writers Conference

276 Centennial Drive
110 Merrifield Hall, Stop 7209
Grand Forks, ND 58202