Below are the 12 most recent journal entries.
Brian Eno - Free Thinking
I like Brian Eno because he's always so positive about new things. He seems to see effortlessly how, if we do things right from now on, we might arrive at a kind of utopia.
His lecture at the Free Thinking Festival in Liverpool, broadcast last friday night on Radio 3, focused on various forms of Emergence, how complexity arises from small things coming together governed by a few simple rules, giving the example of Steve Reich's piece 'It's Gonna Rain' and by extension all of his own 'long and slow' ambient music.
From there he went on to discuss the breakdown of the distinction between oberver and participant in creative work, citing Wikipedia, and the co-authorship of Open Source. He is in favour of 'bottom-up' cultural activities and believes that the fewer rules that operate, the more chance the system will regulate itself. He is all for YouTube and MySpace as the Open Source equivalent of broadcast media. This is what he calls 'scenius', the genius of the scene, the idea that Everyone is smarter than Someone. The internet is facilitating the re-emergence of the Clan Mind of tribal societies, this time on a global level. We are seeing the erosion of individual self-importance and the return of tribal identity.
I've never cared much for home. When i was growing up in rural north Wales I knew home was somewhere from which I'd one day have to make my escape. When I made it to London, aged 18, I stayed in a b&b in Shepherds Bush, and then over the years in a series of rooms and bedsits and shared flats all over the city, in Earls Court, Clapham Tufnell Park. I never had much in the way of possessions except clothes, a stereo, a stack of records and a few books.
When I was away travelling in the Far East I carried everything in a rucksack, and that's when I was happiest. I never felt like coming back. I could've stayed on the road forever, always a bus or a train ride from the next place, which was always going to be better than where I was now. Everywhere was just a waystation to nowhere in particular. I had some sort of itinerary, but there was no reason behind it. I carried a walkman and tapes, I read books I picked up here and there, but I didn't miss tv. I enjoyed how easy it was to pick up company as I went along, and also that I had no particular responsibility to anyone.
I've always been that way too in my approach to art and culture of all kinds and especially creative work I've done myself. I can't stand to settle down with anything. My tastes are changing all the time, and i'm always in the process of clearing out old CDs and books to make way for the new. I've always wanted to write a novel, but no sooner have I started on chapter 1 than another idea comes along that makes me ditch it.
The problem is I don't like it when ideas start to solidify and become too clearly defined. I prefer things to stay in flux. I like to be in motion between two locations, where I find myself making unexpected connections. This is when I'm at my best.
So I'm looking for a way of writing about my experience of things that doesn't tie me down to becoming a music critic or a book reviewer, but at the same time doesn't force me up the dry creek of academia. I'm going to use this journal to explore ideas loosely and openly, giving things time to come together.
My second walk took me through a churchyard hidden away off the main road. Churchyards are always so cool and calming, even on a hot day. Then I walked to Blackberry Hill Hospital and Glenside campus. Hardly anyone to be seen in the grounds. Old buildings, a clocktower, lots of trees, grass and rocks - another peaceful place.
The Mindscape of Alan Moore
I went to see a film called The Mindscape of Alan Moore at The Cube in Bristol. The film premiered a year ago, in San Francisco or somewhere, and this was still only its 7th screening! It didn't amount to much more thanone long interview with Moore - or rather a monologue, since his is the only voice heard.
Peter Arkle News
New Zines & Comics
So nice to find the first issue of an interesting comic - they're usually up to 5 or 6 before I catch up with them. Or Else is what I'm talking about, the latest from Kevin Huizenga, whose work I've seen online at usscatastrophe.com. It's the usual high-quality production from Drawn & Quarterly, and Kevin H delivers beautifully-drawn stories with a great variety of style and tone.
Whores of Mensa looks great, with its full colour cover and A4 format. It's an anthology of 3 female cartoonists, Jeremy Dennis, Mardou and Lucy Sweet, who abide by a vague theme (something to do with sex), but still keep it pretty loose. The artists all have their own style, but fit together well. It's a perfect and brilliant example of zineage at its best. If I wanted to convince someone that zines were worth bothering with then I would show them Whores of Mensa.
Another old favourite is John Bagnall. I read his Cornstarch Primer and Ginchy Gazette back in the mid-80s. There's a great collection of his recent work, Don't Step On My Rosaries, available from Kingly Books, but his latest is Get Yourself A Gobstopper. John has refined and perfected his drawing style over the years and his observations of idiosyncratic Northern life are warmly affectionate and funny.
Bristol Comic Expo
Last Saturday I went to the Comic Expo here in Bristol. I wish I hadn't bothered, it was so depressing. The dealers room was full of stalls selling the same old shit and most of the attendees were my age or older, all beards, specs and beer bellies, still hooked on the X-Men and Batman. Seems that comics fandom still relies overwhelmingly on people who grew up in the 60s and 70s. I can see the whole scene dying out with them because there are very few fresh faces in evidence. What is there to attract young readers? A recent cover of Comics International showed a packed flock of Marvel's top Superheroes , maybe 30 of them, but I don't think any one of those characters was created since the mid-70s, when I was a Marvel fan. Really, with a couple of exceptions like Wolverine and the Punisher, Marvel's main attractions were all created within 2 or 3 years in the mid-60s, chiefly by Jack Kirby. Marvel built an empire on one man's burst of creativity and no one in the superhero field has been able, in 40 years, to come up with anything comparable.
Web Comics 3
Web Comics 2
Web Comics 1
Back in the days, in the early nineties, when the world wide web was coming into being, one of the ideals was that it should be a collaborative medium. Its content would be available to be edited and redrafted by anyone. The web would be a place to write as well as read, a network of equals, with no set hierarchy.
What happened to that ideal? On the face of it, it seems to have melted away. Web browsers are read-only. Interactivity is still a buzzword, but in reality the limits are strict. Look more closely and you can see how the read/write ideal has survived in diluted forms, in the shape of user reviews on Amazon, comments on blogs like LiveJournal , and messageboards everywhere. Many online zines allow readers to respond to articles so their reply appears at the foot of the original piece, as an addendum to the text. Collaborative fiction is still doing the rounds, where stories grow by passing from one hand to the next. These kinds of collaboration are somewhat uncontroversial, though, because opinions, advice and stories have never relied on accuracy to establish their legitimacy. Also, none of them involve tampering directly with what someone else has said. You might contradict a previous opinion, or rubbish someone else’s advice. You might suddenly lurch a story off in the opposite direction, but you can’t actually change what the last guy said.
This is what makes the idea of the Wiki unique. A Wiki is a website in which anyone, as well as adding their own contribution, can edit or erase any text written by any other user. In a wiki, if you have problem with what someone said, you can make it like they never said it at all.
It is a rare example of a pure medium of interaction.
The Wiki format seems to work best in a small community with a tightly-defined agenda, shared objectives and an interest in building a body of knowledge. That’s why Wikis thrive in the world of software engineers and network technicians, by definition something of a closed environment if only because the uninitiated are unlikely to be able to grasp what’s going on. Wikipedia is a few steps away from this kind of self-enclosed community. Wikipedia is an online collaborative encyclopaedia that aims, like any other encyclopaedia, to cover every subject under the sun.
Read the FAQ on any Wiki and the issue that animates everyone is the danger of malicious damage, mass destruction, an intruder motivated by spite rather than any specific beef. What’s to stop someone coming in anonymously and deleting everything? Well, actually, nothing, but the question is why would anyone bother? Erasing a Wiki is incredibly easy. There’s no degree of challenge. It’s something anyone can do, and hackers are people who thrive on a challenge. Write a global email virus and you get kudos and credit, respect - at least within the hacker community - and plenty of notoriety elsewhere, maybe even on the TV news. This level of difficulty is vital to hackers, as is the thrill of exploiting secret weaknesses in monolithic systems like Windows, or a military set-up. A hacker can claim a payoff of superiority and uniqueness that maybe even offset a prison sentence, but in a Wiki there’s nothing to challenge. There’s no authority here. Anyone can write, so there’s no need for vandalism. Despite the fears, Wikis are rarely subjected to concerted, all-out attack.
So the way to make an impact on a Wiki is not as a vandal, but by generating actual, legitimate content. In the context of Wikipedia this means content that can survive editing by others. By remaining impervious to editing you achieve the respect of the community. On Wikipedia anyone can play, but only good players make a permanent impression.
Wikipedia is a fascinating project because the way it works destabilises some of the ideas behind one of the most august and lofty formats in print media. In print, an encyclopaedia is the ultimate authority, the unimpeachable source of reference, relying on the expertise of its editors and contributors. cd-rom versions offer a layer of pretend interactivity that goes no deeper than an alternative means of accessing the text. Wikipedia is intrinsically different because for a start it has no editor. Its contributors are vetted by no one. Secondly, the contributors themselves are not necessarily experts. They can be anyone, even you and me. Furthermore, all entries are works of collaboration. No matter how great an authority you might be on any given subject, you can’t stop persons unknown from altering your well-chosen words. On Wikipedia collaboration is the key to amassing a large body of information. Here, every entry is a work in progress. No draft can ever be final. If you spot an error you can correct it. If you have further information you can insert it. In this way the quality of Wikipedia improves by instalments. Each contributor leaves behind a more complete version, but the finished, authoritative version will never be arrived at. Wikipedia is a community, potentially a very wide one, built on trust and shared knowledge.
How does this community manage to pool its political views? How can Wikipedia achieve neutrality (which an encyclopaedia needs to establish its authenticity) in the face of open access? Imagine being able to re-edit the pages of a newspaper. What if every day the version you get has already passed through many editorial hands, all of whom are free to rewrite it their own way. Wikipedia text can be changed anonymously, so there’s nothing to prevent bands of extremists using Wikipedia to further their various campaigns. In practise, though, extreme opinions don’t keep a foothold for long. The sheer number of diverse editorial hands means each statement must represent a large degree of consensus. On Wikipedia, as in a conventional encyclopaedia, the entries are a summing up of currently agreed-upon knowledge.
I looked up Palestine and found the tagline 'The neutrality of this article is disputed'. Well, that seems fair. You could attach that to any piece about Palestine that appears anywhere. The entry itself reads like a carefully-nurtured consensus. At the foot of the introduction comes a list of links to external sources with a warning: ‘Some of the links below represent Palestinian point of view; others represent the Israeli point of view. Unfortunately much of the information on this issue, from both points of view, is closer to propaganda than unbiased factual reporting.’
Similarly, the entry for the PLO is purely factual, relying on documented proof. I expected a hotbed of conflict, but Wikipedia comes across as calm and considered. In fact, scrupulously neutral. An article on the US-led occupation of Iraq achieves compromise by resorting to reportage of undisputed evidence. There can’t be any other way of doing it in this read/write medium. This is not a view of Iraq I’ve seen represented elsewhere. In conventional media a point of view seems indispensable, even in what is claimed to be unbiased reporting. Reports are written by a correspondent, who wears a badge of expertise in the field. A valid report must be effectively authored. In Wikipedia authorship is dissolved among an indefinite number of contributors. In order to establish the authenticity of a Wiki entry writers must together come up with an array of agreed-upon facts. Those with an axe to grind are communally disarmed.
Every Wiki is a work in progress, and that will remain its permanent state. A conventional encyclopaedia takes years to compile, with researchers beavering away behind the scenes. When it finally appears it’s complete. One day there’ll be a new edition, but for now, this is the final word. Wikipedia is different because all that existed to start with was the idea of an encyclopaedia. The set format of an entry title followed by some text to explain it is conventional, but the size and scope of each entry, and of the encyclopaedia itself, is unfixed and inevitably will remain ever-expanding.
Media has been traditionally controlled by an elite who decide what’s good for the many. There’s always been a dividing line in radio, TV, movies, and print between those who produce content and those who consume it, between writers and readers, producers and audience. Wikipedia displays a working model of a medium where anyone, without qualification can, anonymously, even casually, contribute to a body of knowledge. As a reader of Wikipedia you can write a few lines into any entry on a whim. You don’t have to commit yourself to anything. It’s a utopian ideal, and we get plenty of those in so-called new media, but the difference here is that Wikipedia is actually, demonstrably effective as a valid source of unbiased, communally-mediated information.
When you come across implementations of Macromedia’s software Flash on the web they usually take the form of simple games or slick and innovative interfaces for corporate sites, but Presstube is nothing like that. Go to presstube.com and find a blank white screen with a series of numbered boxes in a row along the top. Clicking on one of these boxes takes you to a page. There are eleven pages so far in this edition.
Each page has an animation in black and white (with the occasional flicker of colour). Most of the animations are interactive in that they need a mouse click to spring them into action. A few just set off and run by themselves.
The drawings are scribbly and scratchy, like absent-minded doodles on a spare corner of a sketchbook page. When they come to life they shoot out of holes in the ground, wriggle and vibrate, twisting and tangling up in themselves. Page 7 shows a series of pink skull masks that morph into new forms at the click of your mouse, reconfiguring a few basic elements into fresh combinations of funny and disturbing features.
Page 3 takes a while to load as it stacks up 1209 drawings. Then it scans through them as fast as a flickbook, almost like subliminal advertising. You can pause it with a mouseclick, but the freezeframed image will always come as a surprise. You’ll never be fast enough to pick the one you want to see. This blizzard of images is enough to define the current usage of the word ‘random’, and there’s no more fun way of paging a sketchbook. With such a wealth of material you know you’ll never be able to view it all, but it’s hugely compelling to try to capture as much as you can.
Presstube has been going for years as the playpen of artist James Paterson. I discovered it some time ago, but I just came back after a long time away. Nothing much has changed. It’s the same kind of thing, but more smoothly implemented, although the drawings are still as raw and loose as ever. Paterson has just improved his methods of presenting his vision. The vision itself remains unchanged. Sketches come to life in unexpected ways, relying on no narrative or plot. Some animataions work with cause and effect, some are just random juxtapositions of wild images.
James Paterson is Flash royalty, contributing to how-to books, festivals, seminars etc. Download his New Masters of Flash chapter from Friends of ED. Explanations, tips and tutorials are part of what he does, but not at presstube.com, not inextricable from his creative work. His research and development go on behind the scenes. Contrast with Joshua Davis, for whom r&d are foregrounded on his homepage and the finished work is for clients.
One thing I like about Presstube is there’s no introduction or instructions or explanation. Most of the time these ‘New Masters of Flash’ like to explain how they do it, with tips and tutorials, and often the work comes across like a portfolio, a showcase for a range of skills. You’re meant to be impressed, but not to enjoy it for its own sake. There might be a massive wow factor, but straight away you’re thinking, ‘How can I learn to do that?’ so you can make your own website cool. With Presstube you’re enjoying a finished product, not a demo or a beta. If you know something about scripting in Flash you’re going to wonder how he does it, but that question doesn’t come up as much as when you’re visiting the homepages of Joshua Davis or Yugo Nakamura. That’s because the pleasure you take in this work doesn’t lie in appreciating the elegance of the scripting techniques. No doubt there’s some very clever stuff going on, but who cares? This isn’t about technology. In the same way as you don’t feel the need, when you’re watching Finding Nemo, to pause halfway through so you can get to work on acquiring the 3D animation skills to deliver a rival product, so there’s no itch to emulate Presstube.
I’m surprised how rare it still is to find artists simply and efficiently delivering finished work on the web for anyone to enjoy. Presstube comes free, unencumbered by merchandise or software for sale. All you can do here is click through the pages, investigate the archive and, if you like, email the artist.
Maybe I’m not looking in the right places. I’m not an insider on this scene. Presstube is not exactly mainstream, but do our concepts of mainstream, alternative or underground mean anything on the web? Presstube still feels pretty weird to me. James Paterson as an artist reminds me more of Raw veteran Gary Panter than Sunday supplement strip cartoonist Steven Appleby, but on the web everyone wants to be cutting edge.
The internet is still understood to be hi-tech, and hi-tech always impies a race to the frontier. I don’t know whether James Patterson takes commissions from multinationals, but he has done a video for Bjork. The difference between his work and Flash interface design, though, is that his animations stand alone. Even if they came embedded elsewhere, when you play them you get absorbed in a self-contained piece. Interface design, on the other hand, is always at the service of the client. Joshua Davis’s design for Motown belongs to Motown. His generative artwork for N-Gage is an expression of Nokia’s brand identity.
The question that always arises about Flash revolves around interface design. Flash designers hope to come up with intuitive structures that make for a richer and more meaningful interactive experience, while traditionalists argue that everyone knows where they stand with HTML. It might not be pretty, but its standards are established across the board. Why should you have to learn a new navigation system for every new website you visit? Well, sometimes, it’s fun to learn new stuff, to approach things in new ways, but fun is not always what you want from a website. Usually you need a swift, efficient gleaning of info. Sometimes I think the Flash innovators are developing their systems just to score work from multinationals eager to convince consumers that their brand is on the edge of something. In other words, it’s all bullshit.
I’m holding up Presstube as an example of good Flash work, free of bullshit. It’s innovative, it’s fun, it’s exciting. You might well find it inspiring, but I don’t think it will inspire you to try and crack its code so you can produce your own version. Hopefully it will lead people to ideas of how to present their own fully-formed creative work on the web in dignified and coherent ways that don’t rely on getting a hefty slice of marketing budget.