A quick note to say that I’m going up to Dundee for a few days this week to help out with NEoN Digital Arts Festival – if you fancy it, check out the event programme here!
Through a strange turn of events, I’m one of the authors on a collaborative paper about collaboration in livecoding performances that was made public this week. I’m a total novice in this field, and my main role in this paper was assisting the discussion and organising the information in the Google doc – the really cool thing about the paper is that it synthesises (haha) ideas from a very large number of people who are at the forefront of an incredibly exciting live digital art scene.
Aside from being someone who enjoys noodling around with livecoding music, I’m also a person who is doing a PhD in STS (Science and Technology Studies; this is when humanities people study scientists in a similar way to how anthropologists study groups of people. My PhD more or less applies this lens to game developers). So what was interesting to me about this paper was the discussion of how things and people connect to one another. How are hierarchies enacted through technology and through social arrangements? It was particularly gratifying to see the discussion include not just technical implementations, but also issues around venue spaces and event organising.
There was also something brilliant about this little project from the perspective of art practice. Just this week, I was chatting with people about how the formalised practice of “critique” in the art world can be really quite harsh and violent, as though some people become Simon Cowell for a moment in the name of being “critical”. I think this paper does something quite interesting, where a group of artists critique their own scene, habits, and practices – the very same event that hosted the discussion is the main target of criticism in this paper, which is co-written by the event organiser. Criticism in this paper involves looking for both problems and opportunities, and most crucially, it is about figuring out how best to achieve a set of shared goals, rather than about listing all the reasons the object of criticism is “bad, actually”.
So yeah! This paper is a thing that exists, and it’s quite rough and flawed in some ways, but I’m excited in many ways about what it gestures towards. It’s open access, so you can read it here.
Zoya Street · High Fidelity Emotional Tools (audio documentary)
The audio documentary that Montez Press Radio published last week is now up on my Soundcloud, for you to enjoy at your leisure.
I kind of threw together an hour-long audio documentary over the past couple of weeks. It turns out this is very difficult! You can listen to it at radio.montezpress.com tomorrow at 6pm New York time (that’s 11pm here in the UK). It’s about VR and emotions, and also the body, and there’s a bit about the ethics of mindfulness technologies, and another bit about being inside of a dollhouse that your friends can furnish… it’s pretty unprofessionally-made, but I think it’s a good time.
I am looking to interview more transgender people across the UK for my next art project. Details are below, but if you need any more information please do not hesitate to reach out. Please share this with anyone who you think might be interested!
“Cis Penance” aims to use videogame-like installations to draw attention to issues affecting transgender people in the UK, with a particular focus on how institutional and social structures alter our relationship to time and our life paths, through lengthy waiting processes. Interviews with 60 transgender people from around the UK will be represented as interactive text, projected onto a long, embroidered e-textile portraying people waiting in a queue. Kind of a queer cybertwee Bayeux tapestry. Anyone interested in being interviewed is welcome to contact me: email@example.com
This project builds on my previous work, “Interactive portraits: trans people in Japan 2018“, which has toured exhibitions and festivals, including Docfest, Now Play This, and the Rainbow Arcade exhibition at the Schwules Museum in Berlin. Whereas that project featured 12 interviews carried out in Japan, this new project aims to incorporate 60 interviews carried out in different locations in the UK.
The format I use makes anonymity very easy to achieve, as I do not use interview audio in the final piece and I do not record video footage. Interviewees’ physical appearances will not be portrayed in the installation piece, instead represented by one of 60 abstract embroidered figures. Interviewees can choose to use their real name, an existing pseudonym that they might use online, or a randomly-assigned pseudonym. My interview method focuses on allowing participants to set the agenda, to reflect the kinds of topics that actually come out in conversations between trans people, rather than directing the conversation to serve cisgender curiosity.
Interviews will last about 45 minutes. I aim to carry them out in person where possible, but Skype interviews will be carried out when travel is not feasible. They will be recorded as audio only, and transcribed into text extracts for the interactive work. Audio recordings will not be used in the final installation piece, but interviewees can opt in to allowing the audio to be used in accompanying multimedia materials. The recordings might be archived in a museum or library collection at some point, to preserve them for the historical record.
Interviewees are welcome to participate without talking about their transition. I use an open-ended format that gives the interviewee autonomy over the topics of discussion, but questions I might ask to help things along could include:
- How do you see yourself?
- What brings you satisfaction in life?
- What aspects of your life would you like to be different?
- What challenges do you face in making this happen?
- How have things changed for you in the past few years?
Dates and contact
I hope to complete most interviews by 15th March 2020. (Update July 2020) Most interviews have been done, but I am still trying to get a few more. I’ve been doing more interviews with BAME people lately, and I’m keen to continue to make sure this project reflects the concerns and needs of intersectionally marginalised trans people. If you are interested in participating, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The lovely folks at SPACE studios in London have opened a new space in Ilford, and have kindly let me come and do a residency with them in Spring of next year, as part of their Art + Tech programme.
In the mean time, events are already happening, as other artists-in-residence get started exploring and playing in this new location. This Saturday there will be a Grand Opening event at the Ilford location:
- Sat 7 Dec 12-4pm
- SPACE Ilford
- 10 Oakfield Rd., Ilford IG1 1ZJ
I’ll be there with the other Art + Tech folks showing some small pieces of work, and it’s also the opening of a remarkable exhibition of colourful, gothic, cute-grotesque work by Lindsey Mendick:
The following Tuesday evening, Art + Tech artist in residence Minna Långström is running The Prime Directive, which looks to me like a sort of LARP inspired by utopian science fiction? Seems very cool.
I’ll be in London for my artist-in-residence period from 7th April until 29th June. Give me a shout if you know of anywhere weird I can live, or any fancy parties you want me to attend – worth asking, right?
In the post about Festival of the Mind Futurecade, I mentioned this collaboration with Anne Smithies on a gorgeous, huge textile to accompany my interactive portraits. I first approached Anne about this because of a chat I had in Tokyo with Zep, the maker of the Pico-8 platform that I’ve been working with to make these small software pieces – we were chatting about how a particular graphics feature he’d introduced to the platform a few months earlier was giving works a textile-like quality to them, as you could now build landscapes out of 4×4 repeating pixel patterns. When the Crossover Labs people asked me if I could think of some way to blow up the works to something large-scale that could take up more space in the room, the first thing I thought of was textile arts like crosstitch, knitting, or patchwork. I brought this to Anne, an artist who does a lot of work with textiles, has a giant quilting machine, and does a lot of mixed-media art depicting animals – an important theme, since most of the portraits take animal form. Anne suggested applique, which allowed her to combine repeating patterns with large circle shapes, which is a pretty faithful reproduction of how I’ve coded the portraits’ appearance.
The image I gave Anne to work with is the design for the portrait of Iriya. Iriya’s portrait is the first one I made that wasn’t based on an animal – I generally try to choose an animal that matches something related to a person’s story or a name they use online, but I couldn’t find anything in my interview with Iriya or in their online persona that corresponded to any kind of animal. Then I saw the Georgia O’Keefe painting shown above in an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, and something clicked. I was really moved by the image of this small being with a huge aura, nestled in an imposing landscape. A lot of things changed when I translated this image into the circle-and-pattern-based system I’m using for the portraits, and I still wanted Iriya to have facial expressions like everyone else, so I made the little glowing being a bit bigger. Anne took this image, and re-inserted colour in the applique process, which ended up bringing it to a good middle spot between the stark black environment of that one portrait, and the very colourful appearance of some of the others.
There are so many surprising little details that Anne incorporated into this piece that I won’t be able to remember them all. She took a load of old computer keycaps that I’ve been collecting and made them into buttons for the text panels, which are detachable – this way, as the interactive portraits tour spaces with different dimensions, the textile can adapt to fill the space differently. We had a whole conversation about which keys on the keyboard are a good fit for the theme, and which are too on-the-nose (we decided that the “shift” and “alt” keys were good, but “m” “t” and “f” were not). The character’s shadow is made of reflective fabric, so that when the textile is photographed with flash it seems to light up. Anne even made sure that her giant quilting machine would follow a route that resembled a circuit board, so that when seen from the back the piece still has interesting visual features that reference its digital origins. One of the most striking features is a result of Anne using vinyl printing to create a very rigid overlay with digital accuracy on the soft fabrics – I think that’s what really makes this piece look like a hybrid between pixel art and patchwork, and makes it into something that I never would have imagined.
I was attracted to the idea of a textile piece because I thought the traditional features of weaving textiles had an intrinsic similarity to the features of coding patterns in Pico-8 (a connection that was certainly inspired by Emilie Reed’s article on the historical link between weaving and coding) so to be honest, the idea of using vinyl printing made me slightly uncomfortable at first. I had this prejudice in my mind about it, like maybe printing is a bit contrived or inauthentic? But nothing Anne does is either of those things, so I trusted that she was onto something, and I am so glad I did.
One of the greatest joys in my life is letting go of my preconceived ideas, so that my eyes are open to something beautiful and fresh, that I could never have seen through my old conceptual goggles. The precision and flatness of the vinyl ended up being very important to this work, and made it into much more than a piece of textile art inspired by a piece of digital art. It’s actually something new, that clearly has a place in both mediums.
My work is being displayed at Mozilla festival, for the Art + Data exhibition.
The Art+Data experience — part of the Mozilla Artists Open Web project — engages artists, designers, technologists, and researchers in an artistic exploration of a healthy web. With an online gallery (https://foundation.mozilla.org/opportunity/artists-open-web) and an exhibition during MozFest, Art+Data will also feature artists in residencies (on site and online) and creative, interactive sessions. Thirty-six art projects will be showcased, and all (including digital and analogue processes) will focus on data knowledge and usage. They also link to the five festival issues of privacy & security, digital inclusion, web-literacy, open innovation, and decentralisation.
They’ll be showing three of my interactive portraits of trans people in Japan – lo-fi experiences made in 8-bit fantasy console Pico-8 that represent real interviews that I carried out during a residency earlier this year. They were also displayed at Festival of the Mind recently, so to learn more you should check out my blog post about that. Also relevant to my interests is the Queering Mozfest experience, which brings together a number of pieces related to the queer internet.
You can check out all of the exhibited pieces in person at Ravensbourne University London, near the O2 arena, 26 – 28 Oct 2018. Or, check them out online, along with the gorgeous exhibition catalogue, right here: https://foundation.mozilla.org/en/opportunity/artists-open-web/
Last month, the first five of my interactive portraits were included in Futurecade in the Sheffield Millennium Gallery, as part of the University of Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind. These are kind of like a cross between Tamagotchi and an RPG dialogue system, and they present dialogue taken verbatim from interviews I carried out with transgender people in Japan as part of the Creator Ikusei residency. I’m going to make 13 in total, six of which are supported by Arts Council funding via the Making Ways project.
An estimated 10,000 people attended Futurecade over the course of a week (I’ll get final attendance figures soon), and it was really a thrill to see so many people encounter this work. It’s a difficult time for the public conversation about trans rights in the UK, so it seems more important than ever to put trans people’s stories into public spaces. One person remarked, “this is incredible! There are so many people I want to show this to … emotive and enjoyable and thought provoking.”
The installation looked more striking than anything I’ve done so far, and that’s because I got talented people to help me with it. Brendan Vance improved the UI, and overhauled the code for me so that the pieces wouldn’t crash in unpleasant or boring ways (mysterious glitches I can live with quite happily, and we left plenty of those in there). Jack Lyus built the plinths for me, out of e-waste sourced from local social enterprise Bitfixit, who also gave me three out of the five computers running the pieces. Making use of computers that would otherwise go into landfill is increasingly important to me lately, and Bitfixit were incredibly generous with the machines they’ve gradually accrued over the years that they haven’t been able to find new homes for. Jack is incredibly practical and creative, and did a great job giving the plinths a sculptural quality with a gallery-ready finish.
That incredible hanging piece you can see in the photos is a quilt made by Anne Smithies. I commissioned Anne to make a giant version of one of the characters, in part inspired by a conversation I’d had in Tokyo earlier this year with Zep, who makes Pico-8, the platform on which the interactive portraits are built. We were talking about how as it reaches its final release, Pico-8 is taking on almost textile-like qualities, because of the way it handles patterns. I’ve been playing up those qualities a lot in my design of the portraits, so I wanted to emphasise that even more by having the banner be a textile piece, rather than just a big digital print. Anne took that idea and ran with it in ways I couldn’t have imagined, and she ended up blending pixel art and traditional quiltmaking into something new that I’ve never seen before. Also, the character is made of reflective material, so if you photograph it with flash it lights up!
There are still many more portraits to finish, and more things that I want to finesse as they find new places to tour and be exhibited. Although I’ve set them up to use NES controllers, the simplest game controllers you can get hold of, these still require some knowledge of basic videogame design conventions to be used properly – people who have never played a videogame before are inclined to press the “start” button to start playing, and press the “select” button to select options on screen, both of which bring up a console menu that I don’t want them playing with. Having volunteers minding the exhibition helped, because the volunteers were trained in how to instruct people to use the pieces – and also, incidentally, in how to calm the pieces down when they start glitching out in ways that are expected behaviour, but still not ideal for usability. I like that aspect of the pieces needing minders, but it’s not always going to be realistic when in every situation they might be installed in.
There also weirder things that I want to do with this – in particular, building on the design style Anne has established with this quilt, and working together on more textile elements of the installation. I’m hoping to get funding to do something cuddly, that also solves the game controller issue, and provides an alternative to the big plinths and old desktop computers, which I won’t be able to transport very far!
Open Theremin is an Arduino shield that produces, at relatively low cost, a great quality Theremin with lots of room for digital play as well as a nice analog sound if you want it. I’ve been messing around with it since October, though I wasn’t practising as much while I was in Japan. Here’s me playing something just with an unmodified analog signal back in the Winter:
So, a fairly charming instrument on its own without doing anything fancy to it. However, one of the exciting things about Open Theremin is its hackability. It should be fairly modifiable – you can easily program in new wavetables for example to get a custom timbre, and a fantastic MIDI version of the firmware has been created. But also, it seems to me that you should be able to get the Arduino to send a very simple serial signal to another Arduino-type thing, without needing to worry about all of the specificities of MIDI, which is built on the assumption that every musical instrument can be conceptualised as in some way like a piano and really takes a lot of cajoling to handle a Theremin’s fluidity. However, all I get when I try to do that is this:
Never mind, eh? Another thing I’ve learned to do on this journey is use the Teensy 3.6 with its audio shield as an effects box for the Theremin’s analog signal, which is pretty satisfying:
Recently the MIDI capabilities of the Open Theremin, which were already excellent, have been expanded significantly by Vincent Dhamelincourt, requiring me to add some precision to my control of the bottom two knobs, which can now modify a total of eight different parameters:
This huge progress made on the Open Theremin’s MIDI capabilities make it no longer quite as interesting to attempt to interact with the Arduino directly, and much more interesting to see how it might work in combination with another toy I’ve been playing with – the music live-coding software TidalCycles and Supercollider. So far I’m still working on writing a program for Supercollider so that it interprets the MIDI signal in a Theremin-friendly way: