June 29, 2005
Music For Airports (Bottom Up)
One of the earliest heads on the bottom up bandwagon was Brian Eno, the seminal music producer. In the late 1970's Eno produced a disc called Music For Airports, and set about pushing the idea of "ambient" music.
Last fall Eno rolled into NY and gave a talk about that album. The inspiration was John Conway's Game of Life. Conway is something of a patron saint to the bottom up evangelists, the Game of Life is a set of simple rules, that when run on a computer create an variety of patterns on a computer screen, patterns that display a degree of self organization. The idea of a simple rule creating complex results is bottom up nirvana, and quite a few people it seems are capable of reading a lot more into Conway's game then what it is, a bunch of pixels moving on a computer screen.
Eno's big thought, motivated, god bless him, by laziness, was to create a system for producing and endless variety of music. It worked via loops. Create a loop of sounds, play it. Create another one that is out of sync with the first, play it. The possible sounds multiply, the progressions evolve. More sounds equals more possibilities, its simple exponential math, pretty soon your out-of-sync loops will be capable of far more potential sequences then anyone could ever listen too.
On today's computerized sequencer and digital playback devices this is an extremely easy process. Eno played a new piece on a set of boomboxes with their cd players set on shuffle. He clearly took pleasure in the arrogance of the act. Back in the 70's though it took a bit more effort, and Eno's studio wizardry certainly calls into question his brags to extreme laziness. To make Music For Airports Eno spliced together reels of analogue tape. The loops where measured in yards or meters, he wave them through the studio furniture and across the room, a labyrinth of recording tape. Miles of it perhaps, woven together with extraordinary effort.
What Eno produced was a generative system a means of producing music a degree outside his control. But the operative word there is "degree", a generative system is still a system of control. In order to make his project work a huge amount of direction and control was necessary. The sounds on those tape loops where all carefully created, captured and curated by Eno. Beautiful sounds. The tape loops where carefully threaded through the studio, the machines turned on, adjusted and manipulated by professionals. The recording then EQed and mastered by more professionals. In order to make a record that sounds great, the way many thing Music For Airports does, Eno put in a lot of directed energy and controlled almost all of the process, or at least delegated control to a pro. Control was only surrendered on one prominent vector, that of the syncing of the various loops.
The system used to create Music For Airports is not bottom up at all. True bottom up music for airports gets made constantly by the travelers and airport workers themselves, random and generally unmusical. Music for Airports on the other hand is meticulously crafted for control to be given up over one particular aspect of the process. It is a system of control designed to allow a selective loss of control, a selective randomness. A generative system.
This is key to understanding what's really going on in "bottom up" phenomena, in the markets, in squatter villages, in ant colonies, in design, in filesharing, in the streets and in the news. The rhetoric of bottom up has little to do with the reality of action. What gets pitched as bottom up can often have its own top down, and maybe its necessary for it to function. What is really interesting is not the "bottom up", but rather the relationships and interactions between the "bottom up", the situations where control is let go, and the "top down", those situations were control is retained and directed. This is the process of generations, of creation, of interaction and progression. Not top down, not bottom up, but both and neither together, working.
"Bottom up", if there is one intellectual theme to this moment in time, buttom up it is. The Wired magazine hyper-capitalists chew it up, as do the neomarxist empire theorists. In science it takes the form of complexity theory and its more pop predecessor chaos theory. In politics its Howard Dean, MoveOn and Michael Moore, but more importantly John Kerry and the Democratic powerbase got hip to the kool aid quick and stole as many of the techniques as they could. In the media its weblogs and "long tails". On Wall Street and in neoclassical economics its about markets and believing in them. A lot of motherfuckers talking about "bottom up" thinking, as opposed to top down of course.
This post is likely the first in a series, I kept on reading books that begged to be tied together in a "buttom up" post, but it soon became clear there where far to many books, the post would need to become posts. Is that a top down decision, me deciding to break up the posts into sections, or is a bottom up decision, the multiplication of books forced me to change tactics? Or maybe, just maybe its sort of dumb to try and look at everything that way...
I'm not sure where the concept and phrase first emerged, but I'm guessing politics or management theory. In these contexts, in places where formal organizational hierarchies are the norm, it actually makes sense. A top down decision comes from the top of the hierarchy, and bottom up emerges from the "workers", from the depths of collective action.
The party line is that bottom up is good, top down is bad. Freedom versus control, collective intelligence versus ego driven power moves, markets versus central planning, linux versus microsoft. The reality is that it makes no sense. Bottom up is a catch phrase for a half formed idea. You can find the idea fully formed in a multitude of manifestations, and they ain't all good, and they sure as hell are not all the same either.
The plan then, the maneuver, is to bob, weave and parse through the bottom up landscape and emerge with some genuinely useful concepts, stay tuned and we'll see how it goes...
June 25, 2005
A performer sits on stage or at least in focus, generally, perhaps always, they are female. Traditionally in a dress. There is a pair of scissors in front. The audience is invited to come up and cut away a piece of clothing, one by one.
Yoko Ono created the source code in 1964 and first performed it in Tokyo that year. The tone apparently was violent and angry. Performed in NY, 2005, by Xaviera Simmons, the violence of the act, the cut, remained, but tension was the dominate feeling. To me the piece works primarily as a relational aesthetic. What makes it interesting is watching the audience, who cuts next, and how? Does someone move, break the silence, or do we all just sit? How do they cut and who are they anyway?
Then again I've always preferred audiences to stages, very few performers have what it takes to fill the absurd amount of time given to them in our culture, despite what their egos might say. The audience with its multitudes offers a far more interesting view, to me at least. Watching the cut piece being watched made it clear that most audiences, even in the art world, are far more comfortable looking at a stage (with next to nothing going on!) then looking at themselves. Well its either the look at the stage, or enter into "subway mode", the blank looking at nothing glaze that constitutes urban travel for millions. Looking at other people is of course dangerous, it might spark a fight, or worse yet a conversation, an insight or a new piece of knowledge.
Of course Ono's piece still works as a staged focus, the issues it addresses, the relationship of audience and performer, clothing and human, violence and invitation, have shifted little in four decades. Uptown at the Cooper Hewitt is an exhibition Extreme Textiles, and one wonders just how much more extreme Ono's dress is then those on display there.
Fittingly of all one name sections, "stronger, lighter, faster, smarter, safer", "smarter" proved to be the least intelligent. The industrial revolution did not lead to clothes with machines in them (the zipper being the simple exception), is there any reason to think the computational era will lead to clothes with computers in them? Then again one of the traditional functions of clothes is to broadcast identity, perhaps that is where the "wearable computing" comes in? Somehow the webbed suits that turn humans into high rent flying squirrels seem to say more about the wearer, but not perhaps as much as Ono's scissors.
June 22, 2005
Minor League Charm
The minor league baseball stadiums might just be the last institution where 'American' and 'charm' still walk together. And that's probably why Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan's summer tour only plays minor league ballparks. I suspect with some Clear Channel promotion behind them they could easily sell out Giant's Stadium and its ilk, but god what an awful set of venues to play, listen too and see music. Instead they can't even sell out Dodd Stadium, home of the Norwich Navigators, and that's good old American charm. No worries, head up on Friday and not only can you watch the Navigator's play the Portland Sea Dogs, but you can also get a free Groucho Marx Nose n Glasses!
I-95 chewed up the oppurtunity to meet with Mr. Nelson, but squeezing next to the soundboard and watching him play in profile 10 feet away pretty much made up for that. Who else can take the stage in New Balance sneaks and still claim to be a pure entertainer. Willie loves the crowd, gives them what they want, shining, pure American charm. A throwback to when country music meant smoking joints on the White House roof and not paying taxes, not soft rock for xenophobes.
I don't think anyone in their right mind ever accused Dylan of being a performer. He makes music, any performance that emerges is purely accidental. I think he plays minor league parks to escape from the hype machine that wants to eat him up, and even then he apparently doesn't leave is darth vader black bus. The air conditioning never goes on, which must let Dylan experience the world in what seems to be his favorite manor, eavesdropping.
On stage Dylan has little presence other then that residue of celebrity he's so desperately tried to shake off. He barely left his post behind the electic organ, the guitar left to other hands. Doesn't much matter where you are on stage though with a voice like Dylan's. Out on the grass of a minor league ballclub you might think it's aged into some bonerattling perfection, he sound's like an alien telling tales of an earth he see's like no one else, unable to relate, but clearly able to communicate.
Out on the Norwich strip, or on its dying New England mill town main street, that voice seems more like a classic rock merger and aquisition, Dylan plus Tom Waits, dinosaur style. The minor league ballpark keeps its charm while main street fades because the minor league park is part of a larger machine, a feeder toward the big league hype machine. Down in Double AA baseball is still about dreams, kids who dream of making the majors, journeymen who still are happy they get paid to play baseball, these towns aren't big enough for major league egos, although the Navigators seem to have as many luxury boxes as Shea or Yankee stadium despite being drastically smaller/more intimate. Even the ads in the stadium have a bit of charm left, like the local plumbing company bought them to impress their old high school friends and maybe get some business, rather then as part of their international marketing scheme. Sure the players are all dreaming of the world series one day, but down in Double AA globalization is still a big city thing. As long as the local Wal-Mart hasn't bought any ads that is, and I think they are too cheap and ubiquitous for that...
June 15, 2005
Sound Law, Sample Down
In the last post I argued that the Kim's raid marked the first time the police used IP law culturally rather then in a more traditional customs/border control sort of manner. And on the upside it looks like the Kim's employees where sent through the process and out quickly with slaps on the wrist (update: according to today's Times it seems the charges are still pending so we'll have to wait on that one), one hopes its a sign that police realize that busting mixtapes is none of their business. But its important to note that while the police haven't been busting cultural productions on IP grounds lately, there is a strong recent civil precedent in the form of sampling.
Hip hop fans have long realized that the early 90's lawsuits around sampling (notably the Turtle's v. De La Soul and Gilbert O'Sullivan v. Biz Markie) had a significant impact on how the music was made. But it wasn't until I took a look at Jess Kriss' "History of Sampling" applet that I got a firm grasp on the full extent of that impact. The traditional storyline on the sampling lawsuits, which established a legal need to clear any and all snippets of songs, no matter how small or distorted from the original, is one of economic privilege. Getting a sample is a matter of money, a cheap sample can get used, an expensive one can only get used by artists with large budgets and ones that the original artist will not license at all, don't get used. The best example of this effect in action is probably Kanye West, a talented producer, but one whose often obvious and high profile samples get made into records only because he is backed by Jay-Z and Rocafeller Records.
The deeper effect of the sampling lawsuits however is not as much economic but sonic. Looking at the History of Sampling Applet shows another effect at work, one apparent in the high water albums of the sample heavy production, Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and De La Soul's Three Feet High and Rising. Look at the samples in these albums and you'll find songs built not with just one or two samples, but with four, six, eight, ten samples. "Night of the Living Baseheads" is built off 16 samples. The traditional hip hop sample takes one or two grooves and loops them to infinity with some small additional chops for the choruses and breakdowns. And this form lives on, albeit constrained by the shear economics of certain samples. It generates great songs, and awful ones, pop hits and bombs, it is valid but expensive, a bit of a luxury. In the late 80's though, producers like the aptly named Bomb Squad, Eric B, Prince Paul and M/A/R/R/S where creating a radically new sound, the sample as raw sound, something not to be looped, but something to be mutated and exploded, layered and recombined.
Sonically this is obvious, and has been obvious from nearly the get go. It sounded like a revolution, and the music literature of the time knew it well. But just how did it die? Perhaps the Bomb Squad's sonic frenzy was never sustainable, perhaps their explosions where an echo of Jackson Pollack's, a spectacular dead end, one incapable of being followed and reproduced. But looking at that sample applet we can see their own bad albums following a general trend, less samples, one or two a song, maybe none. Legally they just couldn't make it work anymore, nor can anyone else. To make a record in that style requires being underground, below the legal radar. Economically off the map.
Money at its core, is the abstraction of energy, raw forces transformed into an easily transferable form. The circulation of money, the economy, is a circulation of energy. The sample overload style of music is legally cut off from the major economies of the world. It continues to exist only when energy is applied from other sources, mainly in the form of personal commitment from the artists themselves. There is a minor economy at work, mixtapes, 12" singles, DJ gigs, websites, but the amount of energy circulating stays small, their is little left over for social glue, for recruitment of fans, broadcasting and replicating. Economies like this live or die purely off the energy of the core individuals, they never reach the point of sustainability, never transform from one directional vectors of energy into complex machines. In order for a subculture to survive it must make this transition, it must either develop its own functional economy or integrate into an existing one.
Often subcultures fail to reach a critical mass necessary to become self sustaining, sometimes they just die, other times they cycle on the edge of existence, driven by a few devoted individuals personal energy. Perhaps this is the fate of the overloaded sample, but it seems unlikely that the legal forces of sample licensing did not produce at least some, if not all of the killing pressure. This is a form of music that is nearly impossible to produce legally now, and when possible it requires extraordinary amounts of cash... Of course its death is not necessarily all bad, the minimalist sampling of DJ Premier and the RZA and the synth driven sonics of Dr. Dre, Timbaland and Manny Fresh are clear legal and sonic counterpoints to Bomb Squad overdrive. In a world of free and legal samples would they have emerged the same? Somehow I doubt it, but whether the transformation would be for better or worse is utterly unknowable.
June 11, 2005
Popular Revolutions/Mixtape Economics
It was probably Lawrence Lessig who first compared file sharing with the prohibition and the 55 mile an hour speed limit. Acts of government widely ignored the population at large. And like the prohibition and the speed limit, there are points of conflict between the law and human behavior. The era of intellectual property police action is unfortunately it seems beginning to reveal itself. Yesterday it took the form of a raid on New York's indie music superstore Mondo Kim's.
What separates the Kim's raid from the many that came before it is cultural. Kim's was targeted for selling mixtapes, CDs made by DJ recombining songs into a new cultural product. Most police actions in the intellectual property realm fall into a particular historical continuum that stretches back for centuries, smuggling and other acts of customs agents. While there is a certainly an intellectual property element to raids on sellers of fake Gucci goods, or unlicensed Star Wars DVDs, ultimately this is a new variation on the classic, avoid customs/import illicit goods operation. But in targeting mixtapes the New York Police Department changed the rules of the game, back into the cultural realm, back towards another tradition, censorship. Mondo Kim's is not in the position of the smuggler, but in the position of the bookstore selling Tropic of Cancer.
The mixtape is another item in a long line of artforms whose existence is threatened by "hard copyright". Were copyright to be enforced as written in the books today the mixtape would be far to expensive for anyone but a major label or wealthy fool to produce. Throw it in the box with remixes, fan fiction, sampling, web animations, collages, independent film, and home video. Luckily of course the letter of the law and the practice of the law are two separate, but intertwined, dynamics. Most police forces it seems have better things to do then to chase after DJs selling CDRs of their latest mix and blend. Until now that is, the Mondo Kim's case is perhaps a bellwether of a shift, or perhaps merely an anomaly, a police action with no more meaning then a ticket for doing 56mph.
What's really interesting to me though is the economic aspect of it all. I've written a bit about it in the past, but ultimately its still deeply gray. Gray market, unanswered questions. Who makes money of mixtapes? How many get sold? How many of those that get sold are made by the original maker and do they care? Do big hip hop mixtape kings pay for exclusives? Do young bucks pay to freestyle?
Some things are clear, this is an economy of velocity. The stars pump them out fast, the new shit, the hot shit, that's what's sells. Its a singles music market, but on 72 minute discs. Someone is making money, mixtape pioneer Kid Capri claims he made a small fortune selling tapes on the Harlem streets and the big mixtape producers run small empires now. Many a hip hop artist got their start selling mixes or freestyling on them. 50 Cent most notably kept his career alive via mixtapes after losing his first major label deal. A mixtape doesn't even need mixes on it, often its just a faster, cheaper way to put out a CD. Maybe its all one artist, maybe its a crew, maybe they rhyme over other peoples beats, maybe they freestyled it all in one night. The difference between a small regional record label and mixtape producer is sometimes non existent. Cash Money in New Orleans, Swisha House in Houston, Dip Set in New York, all murky economics. The price point for mixtapes ($5-10) just happens to be the same as street drugs, its a similar hustle although the turnover and size of the customer base are quite different. Street level economics, but with potential to turn into international brand names.
For a while it seemed the major labels had come to peace with mixtapes, at least in a hip hop context. They function all most like a minor leagues. A mixtape star like 50 Cent could graduate to the big leagues prefiltered and with with a hit under their belt. Songs can be leaked to the mixtape DJs for test marketing. A few years ago "Oochie Wally" by the Bravehearts, a collection of hangerons around the star Nas caught mixtape fire and was booming out of every other car in the tristate area. Nas's label quickly added a verse by the star, edited the impossibly pornographic lyrics for the radio and had itself a hit single. Use a mixtape properly and its like offloading your marketing and testing. Free publicity, what label is not down with that?
Rumor has it though that the Mondo Kim's case emerged when a Sony exec saw mixtapes in Kim's with unlicensed Sony tracks on them. An anomaly or a sign of a shift in tactics? The law and the culture are not in sync. Like the 55mph speed limit or the prohibition an uneasy peace can go on if the police forces are complicit. But if some thing, some exec, some organization, forces the letter of the law into conflict with culture, what happens then? In other words, what happens now?
Hans Ulrich Obrist
I first caught trace of Hans Ulrich Obrist via Bruce Mau's "Incomplete Manifesto for Growth". I'm not much of a fan for manifestos and Mau's was as bland, obvious and self serving as most of his work (and please note that's not entirely a criticism). One item glared out though, number 39 "Coffee breaks, cab rides, green rooms".
Hans Ulrich Obrist once organized a science and art conference with all of the infrastructure of a conference — the parties, chats, lunches, airport arrivals — but with no actual conference. Apparently it was hugely successful and spawned many ongoing collaborations.
It was one of those things that just gets lodged in the periphery, an idea that never quite escaped my mind, but never quite got put into focus either. A few times a year I'd reference it in a conversation, think about it in a plan, make sure it never quite disappeared from thought. A month or so back it surfaced in text, in a paper, I did a bit more research.
There is very little documentation at all on the "green room" conference, at least that I could find. It was entitled something like "Art and Brain" and Obrist claims it was successful.
No matter though, the import bit was stumbling on Obrist's massive book of interviews. Weighing in at nearly 1000 pages, but in terms of content it's far denser then even that implies. Since 1993 Obrist has been interviewing as many interesting people as he can come across. And as a young hustling art curator its a fuck of a lot of people. It reads like an encyclopedia of the contemporary art world, high concept division. Artists and architects, philosophers and scientists. Its a joyous little tome and it might just be the best guidebook to the state of aesthetic thought, circa the new millenium. Highly recommended.
June 02, 2005
Hans Ulrich Obrist: So Global Tools was also a revolt against Funtionalism?
Ettore Sottsass: Not against it. We tried to go beyond it, let's say. We were never against anyone. I come from the Functionalist school, Gropius, Le Corbusier. When I was young they were my myths and I've never forgotten them, I've never despised them. But I've always thought this wasn't enough, that we could go much further. To those generations the word "functional" meant ergonometics more than anything else, the relationship between the human body and the physical space, a relationship based on measurement. But to me "functional" means, for example, that red is functional to the Communist party because it has a red flag, or the fact that, say, functionality often involves issues that can't be measured.
From HuO: Hans-Ulrich Obrist: Interviews, a rather remarkable book, 1000 pages of interviews with some of the more interesting people in the worlds of art, architecture, design, philosophy and science.