Saturday, November 19, 2005

Piece of the Week - Boating for Beginners

Boating for Beginners was an off-shore audio guide. Anyone hiring a boat on the lake in Battersea Park during the summer of 2002 could take a Walkman with them with the specially prepared 15 minutes tape. The recording is very much a spoof on those guides one gets in historic and cultural buildings. The narration read by the Rev Alan Dupuy mixes some fact with much fancy, and treated sound recordings made in and around the park. This was the second of three pieces with a rowing theme. The first was called If O became E which was part of the group show Gym at the Conductors Hallway, the third piece  a video entitled Row Row made this year and is a 'workout' of a picture of the Rev Dupuy out on the lake during 2002.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Name Game

When I started this blog it was on an impulsive whim. I had long been thinking about it but the action came all in one heady moment. So I picked the first name that came into my head Stormbug, after that DIY legend of noise production (or should that be industrial footnote). Lately I kind of wish I had spent a little more time on the title, fortunately the on line anagram maker proposed several variations on the existing letters. So voila from now on the blog shall be called BRUT SMOG which ties in nicely with the main psouper site and well if I tire of that there will always be GOB STRUM to fall back on.

Acres of Peel

Normally I give up on telly at about 11pm and listen to the radio for an hour so in bed. This pattern may well date back to the 70’s when along with a significant percentage of the nation’s youth I would listen to John Peel at roughly this same time. Yesterday however in a reversal of this pattern I eschewed the wirelesses charms to watch a programme on John Peel’s record box, the one he apparently kept under the desk in his study, which contained those extra special 7-inch discs.

Since the DJ’s death just over a year ago something of a post Peel industry has grown up. There have been books and tributes aplenty, special concerts, people claiming to listen exclusively to records that Peel played and so on. The tributes in particular are becoming quite formulaic; usually we are regaled with tales of what a good egg Peel was by various luminaries, the opening bars to Teenage kicks are played and that’s about it. Last night’s programme looked from the listings as if might reach further and actually talk about the music in some depth but no, instead yet again we had nothing but the briefest of snippets from tracks interspersed with you guessed it luminaries waxing on in Oscar speech style about how great John was. Somewhat bizarrely the list of those providing the quotes extended beyond the usual Morley & Co to include Sir Elton John, Roger Daltry, Ronnie Wood and the lads from Quo. Now we know that Peel had a soft spot for the Faces and there was a copy of Down Down in the box but Elton John?

In effect it was talk and more talk with occasional music which ironically is the exact reverse of what John Peel was about; he was one of the few if not the only mainstream broadcast DJ to recognise that its the records and not the DJ patter that matter. For your average Radio 1 or commercial station DJ, records are just something to pad out the show’s core content of inane ramblings, phone in quiz shows, traffic reports, guest speakers, factoids and so on. That Peel was the almost the only one to get the balance the right way round was a blessing but reflects perhaps less on his saintly qualities than the dire nature of the rest of radio land.

As was noted on this blog sometime ago outside of London the FM radio dial is all but empty and it was in this context of BBC dominance that Peel could be so influential. There was no one else, no college or genuinely independent radio stations no other broadcast outlets for music that was outside the mainstream play list. But though Peel was passionate about music and not patter or overt self-promotion he was just one man with a series of eclectic but ultimately personal tastes. Peel wasn’t keen on industrial music, or Momus for example or even records that faded in quietly. You were not likely to hear any soundtrack or genuinely avant-garde or electronic music on Peel. 

Peel’s instincts were ultimately “pop”; it was just that he could hear the pop in say the Undertones and the Smiths where others couldn’t (at least at first). On the whole though Peel liked music that was short snappy and relied on tried and trusted, often blues based chord progressions. Rather than say listen to the same Beatles records over and over as some might though Peel was always keen to hear a new take on the old formula. As such he was the ultimate Radio 1 DJ and a godsend to a music industry that needs a constants supply of novelty. However put Peel’s broadcast output up against that of say Resonance Fm and it starts to look a little wanting.

This all sounds perhaps a little harsh but Peel would have been the first to acknowledge that Radio 1 would have benefited from having a bunch of presenters who in their own way were as passionate about music as Peel. Rather than piling on further tributes to the “exceptional” John Peel the BBC should be turning our attention to changing the face of the unexceptional mainstream broadcast waves.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Full English Breakfast

Sometime circa 1972 before they were very famous Roxy Music were out on tour in a transit van; feeling the need for sustenance they pulled up at a greasy spoon causing some consternation among the regular clientele when Eno and the boys marched in resplendent in their stage gear of platform boots, fake leopard skin tops and eye liner. History doesn’t record what they ordered, but one can almost guarantee that at least one of the band had a full English breakfast.

A full English breakfast is one of those of things that make life just that little bit better. Comprising: sausages, bacon, eggs, baked beans and fried tomato, there is something comforting about a full English and a mug of British Rail strength tea. It is even a folk remedy for hangovers. Personally I get a craving for a full English breakfast on an almost weekly basis but normally manage to hold out, and just have one a month.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The War on Television

In the beginning was television. Television stood not just for the box in the sitting room but for the whole medium; a closed conduit from studio to transmitter, from transmitter to receiver. “What’s on telly tonight” people would say, seeing no separation between broadcast and reception. In the UK till the mid fifties there was only one television channel the BBC. Though ITV started in 1955 and was followed in the early 60’s by BBC2 the overall impression of a single broadcast remained. At times such as Christmas or on national occasions such as a Royal Wedding the TV audiences for a single programme could reach 24 million: over a third of the population. At such moments, nation, television and set are all united in one. When in 1976 the Sex Pistols appeared on the tea time Bill Grundy show and outraged the nation with some rather tame swear words, one irate viewer short circuited the complaints process and kicked in his TV set.

The first artist to tackle Television was Nam June Paik. In Paik’s solo exhibition in 1963, Exposition of Music—Electronic Television, twelve TV sets were scattered around the rooms of the gallery; some on their sides, some upside down, all had been circuit bent to distort their reception of live broadcast transmissions. The exhibition was an extension of the fluxus and Cage inspired work Paik had been doing and it is often forgotten that alongside the TV’s were prepared pianos, off beat sound generators, and an ox’s head. Nonetheless Paik’s sets can be seen as prepared TV’s, or as assisted ready-mades that willfully disrupted the normally seamless broadcast and reception model of viewing.

Paik was gradually to abandon the purely musical elements of his art and concentrate on exploring the TV set as artform. Pieces like Magnet TV in which a horseshoe magnet twisted the image or Distorted TV in which the sync pulse is altered led finally to the construction of a series of robots built from vintage TV sets. The focus on the iconography of the set and later, after the advent of the portapak on video as a medium tended to shift Paik’s attention away from the disruption of TV as a broadcast medium. The robot series in particular is more about the TV set as sculptural form than TV transmission; they even had new circuitry to allow modern day video to be replayed.

Arguably then Paik’s most significant intervention in, and on TV was perhaps his first. Towards the end of the 60’s other artist started attempting to disrupt the continuity of viewing. In 1969 the German station WDR 3 television showed Self Burial consisting of nine photographs of the artist Keith Arnatt slowly entombing himself. The photos were shown one at a time over the course of a week; at first Arnatt is clearly visible but with each new shot he sinks further into the soil. The Photos were broadcast without explanation, one each evening after the news and a second at 9.15. The series continued until the end of the week when an interview with Arnatt revealed all. In a not dissimilar vein David Hall was commissioned in 1971 to make ten TV Interruptions for Scottish Television. These short interventions were broadcast during the time of the Edinburgh Festival. As with Arnatt the pieces were unannounced and uncredited as if some alien signal had broken into and temporarily occupied the channel.

The interventions included piece such as Burning TV and Tap. In the latter, possibly the most successful of the works, the screen of the set appears to fill up with water as if it nothing more than an empty glass tank.

Also in 1971 Valie Export made Facing a Family. This time shown on Austria's ORF station Valie turned the set on its audience by transmitting footage of a family watching the TV at dinner time. The family talks or occasionally moves about but all the time gaze into the middle distance at the unseen set. Valie Export does not so much break the continuity of television but by inserting a mirror creates a potential feedback loop.

Again on Austrian television Peter Weibel’s T V-News (TV Death 2) 1972 showed a newsreader calmly reading the news, as he does so he takes puffs on a cigarette. Unknown to the audience the hapless reader is in a glass case so as he reads and smokes, the case gradually fills up obscuring him and causing him to cough. The broadcast in this instance chokes itself to daeth.

The newsreader as ultimate symbol of TV authority was further questioned five years later in David Hall’s This is a Television Receiver. A commission this time for BBC 2, This is a Television Receiver was the opening sequence for a special Arena programme on Video Art. As with the Scottish intervention the piece is unannounced and features Richard Baker who at the time was perhaps the best-known newsreader on British TV. Baker describes in typically dry tones the functioning of the TV set on which he appears. As the piece proceeds Baker’s image becomes increasingly distorted until it is nothing more than a brown blur filling the screen. Commenting on This is a Television Receiver in an interview with Chris Meigh Andrews in 2000 Hall says “….For example my mother- forget the art elite- was absolutely distraught when she saw that piece, because she believed in Richard Baker. He was, and had been, the principal news reader. The one person for whom you could suspend all disbelief was the person reading the news. Someone well-loved and seen for so long. Then when his image began to disintegrate and he started to be critical in a sense, of television indirectly, through what he was saying, that whole deconstruction, floored her whole belief. She wasn't involved in the intellectual argument behind it, but it was very disturbing to her that her belief in what was coming out of that box had been fragmented and destroyed”

Hall here may be overstating the impact of the work, the programme was after all on BBC2; a channel renowned for its more eclectic programming not on prime time BBC 1. One wonders if she hadn’t been told about it whether Hall's mother would normally have been watching Arena at all that evening. As with David Hall’s earlier interventions there was something of the science lab aesthetic about the piece. I recall seeing the programme at the time, and aged 16 and with no video art reference points saw Television Receiver as rather akin to something that might have been shown on the science programme Tomorrow’s World rather than an interruption to broadcast dominance.

Still This is a Television Receiver was the first major artistic intervention on British national TV and despite being on BBC2 was broadcast at a time when the medium’s singularity was still undiluted. In comparison, interventions by the Vasulkas who in 1977 were commissioned to make six half-hour programs for broadcast on WNED in New York lacked the access to mainstream TV that would have given them the same resonance as Television Receiver. Indeed America has always had more channels and given its size a more localised output than European countries and so, a major assault on TV as a unit would always be more problematic, thus for example Chris Burden’s TV Hijack (1972) and Promo (1976) were seen by relatively few people.

During the 1980’s artist interventions on UK TV were to become almost commonplace and it began to be apparent that far from subverting the mainstream, artist video programmes were just another slot often, tucked safely away at night when few were watching. Other artists continued the struggle against TV but often from the safety of the gallery. Rather than disrupt the flow of the broadcast medium the approach taken relied more on a re-appropriation of the already broadcast.

Dara Birnbaum’s Wonder Woman re-edited the transformation sequence from the hit TV series in an effort to subvert and disrupt the narrative flow. In many ways Wonder Woman was a precursor to scratch TV. In the UK Scratch TV was championed by the Duvet Brothers. Interestingly claims about the impact of their intervention were similar to those made for the earlier Hall interventions. In 1986 Benjamin Woolley in The Listener wrote, “Scratch video establishes a radical new approach to television itself. It abandons the idea that TV images are mere representations of what’s real. It starts to disassemble the images themselves by indulging in orgies of editing. In a sense scratch is the epitome of what professional broadcasters would call irresponsible television.” However TV had long been getting irresponsible and had begun to quote heavily from itself, any danger that Scratch TV might have posed was soon absorbed back into the medium particularly by the Pop Video.

Pop video makers hungry for all and any image manipulation techniques to counterpoint the music quickly nullified Scratch Video’s potential threat. Big TV’s video for Soul 2 Soul’s Back to Life in 1989 is a classic example opening with a repeated scratch cut that was inspired if not directly by Dara Birnbaum then certainly by the Duvet Brothers. The end result backed as it is by a shuffle beat is not a rupture but a sense of continuity. In such ways scratch lost any power it might have had.

And what of today, in the digital multi channel TV on demand environment, with its knowing audience is there still room and scope for an assault on television? If the title to a recent Steven Ball piece is anything to go by then the struggle continues. The War on Television is made from images taken from 24 hour rolling news television broadcasts made during the Iraq War. Using the simple technique of connecting and disconnecting the aerial, Steven Ball was able to fragment and stutter the images. A process, which was further, accentuated by employing time line scratch techniques in Final Cut thereby exaggerating the stuttering fragmentation. Describing the piece Ball says “ The pristine digital veneer, the authority and reliability of the always-on 24 hour news channel fucked-up, becoming abstracted into a flow of jarring noise and stammering incoherence. A celebration of digital anti-aesthetics, excess and entropic fallibility.” A description, which of course find many an echo in the works described above. Forty years on from Paik’s intervention it seems the war goes on.

A live version of the War on Television can be seen tomorrow night (Friday) at the Whitechapel Gallery.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

All Aboard - For the last time.

Many of us will never vote for Ken again after he needlessly destroyed that key London icon and, excellent all round means of transport the Routemaster. The one remaining route with Routemasters, is the 159 running from Marble Arch to Streatham Garage this too will “changeover” on December 9th 2005.

Update 2012: Well Ken lost the Mayoral election and Boris promises to introduce a new hybrid Routemaster. The old red ones did not disappear completely but can be seen on a couple of heritage routes in central London.

Monday, November 07, 2005


I have something of a love hate relationship with generative processes particularly those using fractals. Fractals are complex geometric patterns that can resemble natural objects. Polish mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot invented the term fractal and argued that many natural processes that had previously been too complex for the formulae of traditional mathematics could be described by using fractals. Given the computers propensity for computation it is a relatively straightforward process on a Mac to create images that resemble natural phenomena by using fractal algorithms. So far so good, except that the aesthetic barometer often seems to have been left at home by many artists using fractal software. Twirling swirling organic shapes suspended above lunar landscape are often the order of the day. Its all rather like some Arthur C Clarke Sci-Fi novel come to life. Add some cascading synths a la Tangerine dream and you have one cosy tripped out bit of nonsense. Here for example is a typical bit of fractal art (artist unknown). However what if one could take hold of the process and in a push pull sort of set up ride the fractal wave without letting it go all gooey on you? What if you could use fractal technology to look into the underside of organic mutation? What if rather than using fractals to create organic looking shapes, you took photographs of organic shapes and used fractals to disassemble them? Such thinking was behind woodgreen. A simple picture of some foliage is turned in a self-propagating algorithmic undergrowth that grows and simultaneously self dissects. The soundtrack is composed by the variations in shape and colour.

Friday, November 04, 2005


Quotes from acosutic eveidence in the Kennedy affair

On the day of the assassination the Dallas Police Department (DPD) operated two radio channels. Channel I was for normal police radio traffic and channel II was assigned for the use of the presidential motorcade. Each channel was recorded by a different device. Channel I was recorded on a Dictabelt and channel II on a Gray Audograph. Both machines worked by engraving a track into a plastic medium. The Dictabelt used a rotating cylinder and the Audograph used a flat disk, similar to a phonograph record. Both machines were transmission actuated.

An unknown motorcycle tuned to channel I had a defective microphone button that caused it to continuously transmit over a five minute period during which the assassination took place.. If this motorcycle had been part of the motorcade it might have picked up sounds of the gunshots. If true, those sounds could be used to determine how many shots were fired, their timing, and using echo location methods, where the shots came from.

The original recordings were made on machines which utilized a stylus which etched an acoustic groove into a soft polyvinyl surface. The recording instruments were useworn and had developed idiosynchracies. Jim Bowles, head of police communications unit at the time, writes that the needles would sometimes not "groove" properly, that parts of messages would not be recorded, or a "ghost" signal would be recorded. He also states that it was a common experience to observe noticable changes in speeds between units [Bowles 1979].

Secondly, the original recordings had become scratched and worn from multiple playbacks during the transcription process that was applied during the Warren Commission's investigation. As a result, the tendency for the stylus head to skip was exacerbated.

Thirdly, both recorders had a sound-actuation feature which was designed to save space on the recordings by pausing whenever there were periods of dead-air. To the extent that this happened during the critical sequence of events there would be disagreement between tape time and actual time.

Fourthly, the electronic recordings which have entered into evidence involved the use of separate playback and/or recording instruments, sometimes both, which inevitably results in a time warp because playback speed and original recording speed are unlikely to match precisely.

On playback the needle would sometimes get stuck in a groove and repeat that groove, sometimes twice. Table C-1 of the NRC report subtracted the time that these repeats took from the elapsed time. This seems to make sense, but due to the mechanical construction of the Audograph machine it was the wrong thing to do.

The needle assembly on the Audograph doesn't move at all. The disc is mounted on a spindle and moves horizontally under the needle as recording progresses. The horizontal motion of the spindle is a result of being mechanically geared to a worm gear, such that, as the spindle rotates, the center of the disc moves away from the needle assembly. There is no freedom of motion in this mechanical system, except for the tip of the needle. The repeats happen because the needle tip has some flexibility and may get stuck for an additional rotation or two, but the horizontal movement of the disc never stops and the needle must eventually catch up to where it should be. When the needle does catch up it will skip over sections of the recording. In the long run any repeats will be roughly matched by forward skips where the needle jumps over grooves.

Another copy of channel II was made by the FBI on a high-quality phonograph, instead of using the Audograph machine. The tape of channel II made by the FBI for the NRC panel appears to be a complete recording without skips or repeats in the period in question. The NRC report states, "[the original Gray Audograph was] transcribed, as described in Appendix C, onto tape, with care taken to minimize the 60 Hz hum that was added to the signal and to ensure that no skips or repeats were introduced in the tape recording of either channel. No break interrupted the Channel II recordings as was the case for the Bowles tapes."

Careful examination of the recording during the six minutes after the shooting confirms that there are no obvious repeats in it. A side by side comparison revealed the forward skips in the Bowles version that the NRC didn't account for, and also would have revealed skips in the FBI version had they been there, and had such skips not been precisely mirrored on the Bowles tape.

The FBI tape is a perfect candidate for performing timing studies, except for one problem. As the NRC report says, "The Gray Audograph disk (Channel II) could not be played on an original Gray playback unit without introducing skips and repeats. It was possible to play it successfully without either of these artifacts being introduced by using a phonograph turntable and phonograph arm, cartridge, and stylus. However, phonograph turntables operate at a constant rpm, whereas the Gray equipment's rpm reduced as recording progressed. Moreover, the Gray Audograph records from the inside out, whereas normal records begin at the outside. Thus, when the tapes are played back, there is a speed distortion that causes material at the beginning of the tape (the inside of the record) to be slowed down (time intervals between events are longer and the frequencies are lower than those originally recorded) and material at the end of the tape (end of the record) to be speeded up relative to true speed."


Thursday, November 03, 2005

Clinging to the Wreckage

Last night I had a dream in which I was in the upper floor of an empty record shop; empty that is of records, just row after row of dusty racks and that look one gets after the removal men have gone but one or two items are left scattered haphazardly around.

Now my dreams often involve wandering around empty or abandoned buildings so it would be wrong to read too much into this but it does dovetail nicely with the ongoing speculation about the death of the record. As posited a few times on this blog recently CD’s and LP’ s in the digital age make little or no sense. All the mastering and pressing and cling filming and logistics (planes and boats and trains) required to get the artefact to the shop, so you can go down there take it off the shelf and then have it put in a little plastic bag by some record hop bozo to then carry it home on the bus (no doubt studying the sleeve on the way) and then finally get it into a CD player to hear it when, with a click or two you can download it makes no sense – or does it?

Yesterday there was a report that despite predicted sales of 37 million iPods by the end of 2005 download sales from the iTunes store seem to have plateaued and still represent a small percentage of overall music sales. We it seems are still in love with the artefact. It could of course be something to do with pricing; even in the Uk it can actually be cheaper to sometimes buy the CD than to download it. You can then mp3 it and hey you are quids in. But it’s probably not pricing, it’s more to do with habits, and our tendency to put value on things.

For example if I put out a CD it will probably be a run of 500. The first 200 will sell pretty quickly and the next 300 may take a couple of years to go but eventually they will sell. Somewhat bizarrely if I were to make the same material available as a free download perhaps 20 or so people might download it. It certainly won’t get reviewed and will have all the impact of a squashed lemon. Downloads it seems just don’t seem that special “thing” appeal. You don’t feel like you own a download in the same way that you think of owning a record, which is of course why people are happy to download tracks illegally and not to pinch CD’s from HMV.

So for the artist at the moment it makes perfect sense to carry on with architecture of physical distribution. But for how long will we cling to the wreckage of these outdated forms? Arguably one way to make the download more tangible, more special is to increase the visual content; to attach the cover art. But cover to what exactly when there is no object? What is that little square all about is it to stop us feeling adrift, why do we feel so lost without the pictures?

But the ineffectual nature of a tiny rectangle as visual accompaniment only serves to highlight the lopsided nature of music without pictures. We will probably continue clinging to the wreckage just as long as the message suits the old format.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Covering up the Head

One technique used by many a DIY dabbler back in the glory days of Cassette Culture was the blind overdub. This involved covering the erase head with a piece of paper or card. This allowed new layers to be added on top of the original recording until thick walls of sound were created. Each new recording partially obscured the old until, if enough blind dubs were done the initial track would be totally obliterated. However I do recall that curiously if one carried on long enough sometimes ghost-like the original track would re-emerge from the soup.

An overdub delight entitled "Nein Nein Nein" recorded by Steven Ball and myself back in 1980 used a similar technique but with a 5 minute answering machine cassette. These tapes are cassette loop and so one gets looped blind dubs. The output of the loop was then fed into a ring modulator. "Nein Nein Nein" can be heard below.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


Last week I was finally able to get over to the newly reopened De La Warr Pavilion to see the Variety show. Variety was partly curated by (the late) Ian Breakwell and the exhibition is interesting in having a mix of artists that one doesn’t tend to see so often these days. Aside from work by Breakwell himself there are pieces by the likes of David Hall, Boyd Webb, Bruce McLean, and Brian Catling, all well established but somewhat out of fashion artists. Alongside these were the more bankable Bruce Nauman, Cindy Sherman and Mark Wallinger.

The uninitiated wouldn’t have really noticed the difference between the more or less fashionable artists as the whole experience was evened out by the display technique. As with many contemporary shows one wanders from one small blacked out screening space to another. In between the projections are the wall based, static or non-projected works.

The combination of the projected and the non-projected leads to a curious effect. Coming out of a screening space accustomed to motion one tends to oneself flitting over the static; it is hard to make the effort to stand still particularly as people brush past on their way to the next projection. However having then got used to the static there is then a tendency to just pop one’s head around the corner of the next darkened space and just glance at the projected. It is as if each requires some different way of looking.

None of this is unique to Variety it is the contemporary gallery norm. The problems are different to those of the single consecutive screening a la 291 (Where one piece is shown after the other on the same wall) but both are in the end unsatisfactory ways of showing projected work. Is there an alternative between the just passing (gallery) and the trapped in situ (screening)?

Perhaps, just perhaps the future lies (as with most current broadcast media) with digital delivery. A delivery that puts the viewer to an extent in control of the reception process. Currently 1MB broadband only allows for low res streaming but within five years, 8MB and then 24 MB will be common and this will mean the viewer will be able to watch full motion hi res, at home or streamed to a screening space anywhere. We are not talking interactivity here but of allowing the audience space to view a work; the freedom to linger or to wander but not hurried or harassed into either.