Whatever else it is, tragedy is a dramatic form, a type of drama for the stage or film or TV etc. Certain dramatic works of art are tragedies. Tragedy has been regarded as the pinnacle of dramatic art for about 2,500 years in the western world. It’s typically dated back to the Oresteia by Aeschylus. There has been fascinating conjecture about the origins of Greek tragic drama in, it’s thought, religious ritual.
Tragedy is not philosophy, but the phrase ‘tragic vision’ is associated with the form. Just what that is varies considerably. Tragedy isn’t inevitably as Aristotle says it is in The Poetics, of course. But a or the ‘tragic vision’ has typically been associated with our most profound dramatic art, our most probing drama into, well, the meaning of life.
Tragedy often involves a victory of the spirit in the face of great worldly loss. People endure, in tragedy. Usually they go down. It’s the end for them. A couple of the things long associated with the tragic vision are ‘anagnorisis’ or ‘recognition’. The vanilla meaning is the key moment in the play of insight usually by the protagonist into the situation. Another is ‘catharsis’. It can and has been interpreted to be many things, but it’s usually associated with the purging and purification of pity and terror/fear in the audience, ie, the drama leads them to catharsis, to an appreciation of the tragic vision of the drama or the fate of the hero/heroine. It’s sometimes associated with insight into ‘the human condition’ or something sufficiently vague. I expect that it often evades some formulas while partially satisfying others. Our own experience is often like that whether it’s cathartic or otherwise.
I expect that the writers of Breaking Bad have been more than a little aware of tragedy in the writing. How could they not? It’s basically the faith of most dramatic artists. They believe in people, typically, and they believe in their art and the art of tragedy as the great expression of their faith in the value of life and the capacity of people to, well, be heroic even as they go down. Not necessarily as martyrs but perhaps true to their own priorities and values about what’s important in this life.
In any case, the key insight or recognition in Breaking Bad is when Walt finally admits to himself and Skyler that he did it for himself. It’s a moment of insight into himself and his own life. And his life with Skyler and the family. He is finally revealed to himself and also open to his wife to whom he has been lying since the series began. That seems like a significant victory, in the drama. He can finally admit to her and to himself what he has been hiding all his life.
And the catharsis, well, that’s ongoing, isn’t it. It’s when it all comes together for you, whenever that is.
Breaking Bad is a kind of contemporary western. In various ways. Of course there’s the New Mexico landscape. Breaking Bad uses that landscape cinematographically to romance the story. The romance of the western. Great open spaces. Freedom. Lots of heat and danger, risk.
If you’d wondered ‘why all those car ads?’ especially in the finale but also lots of them throughout the series, consider this. Cowboys got their hosses. Cars, in Breaking Bad, do all the work of hosses in westerns. That’s why the car advertisers eat it up. For instance, when Walt’s black Chrysler SRT8 takes a bullet in “Ozymandias”, he doesn’t just lose a car. He’s on the way down after that. That black car symbolized the power of the evil drug kingpin he had become.
But there are other more interesting elements of the western in Breaking Bad. Westerns give their heroes and villains special powers. Sort of like super heroes but not quite. Sort of like the powers of fighters in kung fu movies who fly and so on. But not quite. Western heroes can kill a lot of bad guys in a shootout and/or they have great marksmanship or they are as tough as a grizzly bear or whatever.
Walter White can kill everyone with science, cleverness, and lots of guts. Gus Fring kills all of Don Eladio’s henchmen with a bottle of booze and a lot of guts. Walt blows up Tuco’s lair with fulminated mercury and a lot of guts. These are all improbable events. But the improbability is masked with science, realism, and good storytelling. We *want* Gus to win against overwhelming odds when he kills Don Eladio and all. We suspend our disbelief cuz we want exactly that outcome.
Emily Nussbaum, in the New Yorker, objects to the improbability in the finale (spoiler alert) of Uncle Jack giving a damn that Walt says Jack is partners with Jesse. Very true. It does seem out of character. But we also want him to go get Jesse. Our objection to the improbability and out of characterness of his action is mollified by our desire to get Jesse involved in the finale.
Westerns are rarely strictly realistic. BB also is sort of like a comic book at times.
Like in “Face Off” when Gus gets killed. He walks out of the room that has just exploded like nothing happened, straightens his tie–and then we see half his face has been blown off. He looks like something out of a comic book or a slasher movie, at that point. Then he falls down and dies. The unrealistic nature of it jars a little bit with Breaking Bad’s realism, but our objection is offset by the frisson of the emergence of the death head and devil from the villainous Gus Fring. He is suddenly what he is. He has hidden in plain sight for so long.
Suspension of disbelief is all about suspending our disbelief cuz we want to. Not cuz we’re asked to.
Apologies for the long absence. In the interim, I got married to the lovely Natalie Funk. And bought a condo in Metrotown in Vancouver. And have been teaching mobile app development. And will soon be teaching mobile web development and motion graphics at the Emily Carr U of Art and Design. It’s been a time of a lot of change and, additionally, a lot of retooling. I’ve been learning mobile development this and mobile development that. Lots of new tricks for this old dog.
I put a couple of things together last week that I’d like to show you. I published seven visual poems by Joe Keppler back in 2008. I always liked them and thought them special, but since I published them, I’ve given them deeper thought–and wrote something that gets at what, to me, is so remarkable about these poems.
I also recoded Joe’s visual poems into HTML that displays well on mobile devices. I’ve been reading about “responsive web design” recently in preparation for teaching a course on mobile web development. Basically, “responsive web design” is about making web pages that work well on really a very wide range of display devices from big TVs down to smartphones. Joe’s poems were excellent practice in responsive design because they are varying degrees of simple but take up the whole page. Recoding these pages into contemporary HTML has helped me a great deal with my understanding of contemporary web design.
These were created on invitation to make a work related to self-portraiture for Scenes of Selves, Occasions for Ruses, a group exhibition at the Surrey Art Gallery. The curator saw an earlier dbCinema piece I did called The Club that incinemates the faces of my favorite North American politicians, business men, and psychopaths. He asked me to do related work with photos of myself rather than Jeffrey Dahmer, Paul Wolfowitz, Russell Williams, George Bush, and the rest of that psychotic, murderous crew. Which seemed like a remarkably strong opportunity to at least make an idiot of myself.
Let me show you the ‘trailers’ to the two resulting videos. What I’d like to show you are slideshows made of screenshots from the two videos. The videos are made of dbCinemations/collages of 53 images of me from the day I was born to my current grizzled state at 53 years of age. The Surrey show will run from September 15 (the opening is from 7:30-9:30pm), 2012 till December 16, 2012. The show was curated by Jordan Strom.
The first trailer is at http://vispo.com/dbcinema/selfportrait2/ index.htm?n=1 . The video of which these screenshots are composed used two dbCinema brushes. One of the brushes ‘paints’ a letter from my name each frame. The other brush paints a circle each frame. Each of the brushes (usually) paints a different photo. So we see two simultaneous photos of me being drawn. The man and the baby. Etc. A brush paints a given photo for several seconds and then paints a different photo. The slideshow is composed of 47 still images.
The second trailer is at http://vispo.com/dbcinema/selfportrait3/ index.htm?n=1 . The video used one dbCinema brush: a Flash brush. In other words, the brush was a SWF turned into a mask. The shape of the brush was a curving, undulating, rotating, translated line. Each frame of the video, dbCinema rendered one brush stroke, one rendering of the brush image; the curving line’s paint was sampled from photos of me. The brush would sample from a photo for several seconds before moving on to another photo. What we’re looking at here is not the video but 17 screenshots from the video.
In the main, the man does not cohere. No coherent person emerges from this process of forcibly joining / collaging / synthesizing / remixing these 53 photos of me. It doesn’t magically tell me who I have always been. Or does it? Or if not, what does it suggest? You could say “If you don’t know who you’ve always been, no piece of art is going to clue you in.” Well I do kinda know. On the other hand, I do seem to tell myself a lot of stories.
It seems what the self-portrait does for me mainly is to problematize the notion of the existence of a person whom I have always been. The images in the video are messy. Like birth mess. Perhaps that’s part of our discomfort in life. We’re always in the midst of our own birth mess. And death stink. As Bob Dylan once observed, “He not busy being born is busy dying.”
I used Camtasia 8 to create this video. I’ve used the voice-over capabilities of Camtasia before to create videos that talk about what’s on the screen, but this is the first time I’ve been able to use the webcam with it. Still a few bugs, though, it seems: at times the video is quite asynchronous between voice and video.
Still, you get the idea. I’m a big fan of Joe Keenan’s MOMENT and am glad I finally did a video on it.
Just a brief note to say something about color music. Cuz I’ve spoken of Aleph Null, a project of mine, as one of color music.
My friend Jeremy Turner in Vancouver recently pointed out the work of Thomas Wilfred (1889-1968) to me. It wasn’t a surprise to me that somebody was doing color music back in 1917–because that sort of thing was going on, what with Theosophy and the work of people such as Kandinsky. “Synesthesia was [a] topic of intensive scientific investigation in the late 19th century and early 20th century” (Wikipedia). The idea of ‘color music’ is not a new one, certainly.
But I bring up Thomas Wilfred’s work because his understanding of ‘color music’ is especially interesting. His work was visual. It wasn’t organically linked to audio. So why did he call it color music, then, if it didn’t involve music or sound? Well, because the machines he created were like musical instruments. One played them like one played musical instruments. Musical instruments, when played, create patterned sound and we enjoy the patterned sounds of music. Wilfred’s machines, when played, produced patterned, colored light shows that were meant to be enjoyed in the same sort of way that music is enjoyed. Music is quite abstract, when there are no lyrics. It is just sound without any obvious ‘meaning’. Wilfred’s machines produced patterned light waves and color without any obvious meaning.
Having recently been trying to be less a fossil concerning knowledge of evolution, I’ve watched all sorts of truly excellent documentaries available online. In several of them, it was said that Darwin’s idea of evolution through natural selection is the best idea anyone’s ever had. Because it’s been so powerfully explanatory and has all the marks of great ideas in its simplicity and audacious, unexpected and absolutely revolutionary character.
Uh huh. Ya it’s definitely a good one, that’s for sure. But I’ll tell you an idea that I think is right up there but is nowhere near as widely understood, perhaps permanently so. It’s Turing’s idea of the universal machine. Turing invented the modern computer. This was not at all an engineering feat. It was a mathematical and conceptual feat, because Turing’s machine is abstract, it’s a mathematization of a computer, it’s a theoretical construction.
What puts it in the Darwin range of supreme brilliance are several factors. First and foremost, it shows us what is almost certainly a sufficient (though not a necessary) model of mind. There is no proof, and probably never will be, that there exist thought processes of which humans are capable and computers are not. This is a source of extreme consternation for many people–very like Darwin’s ideas were and, in some quarters, still are.
The reason why such proof will likely never be forthcoming is because it would involve demonstrating that the brain or the mind is capable of things that a Turing machine is not–and a Turing machine is a universal machine in the sense that a Turing machine can perform any computation that can be thought of algorithmically, involving finitely many steps.
Turing has given us a theoretical model not only of all possible computing machines, which launched the age of computing, but a device capable of thought at, as it were, the atomic level of thought. I don’t really see that there is any reasonable alternative to the idea that our brains must function as information processing machines. The universality of Turing’s machine is what allows it to encompass even our own brains.
Additionally, another reason to rank Turing’s idea very high is that, mathematically, it is extrordinarily beautiful, drawing, as it does, on Godel’s marvelous ideas and also those of Georg Cantor. Turing’s ideas are apparently the culmination of some of the most beautiful mathematics ever devised.
Darwin’s ideas place us in the context of “deep history”, that is, within the long history of the planet. And they put us in familial relation with every living thing on the planet in a shared tree of life. And they show how the diversity of life on our planet can theoretically emerge via evolution and natural selection.
Darwin’s ideas outline a process that operates in history to generate the tree of life. Turing’s ideas outline a process that can generate all the levels of cognition in all the critters thought of and unthought. Darwin gives us the contemporary tree of life; Turing gives us the contemporary tree of knowledge.
Here are links to the blog posts, so far, in Computer Art and the Theory of Computation:
Vispo.com is pretty much my life’s work, such as it is. Most of what I have created is available for free on the site. No, I haven’t zactly got rich on it. I’ve been publishing vispo.com since 1996. It’s my “book.” In the sense that I haven’t published any books but think of myself primarily as a writer and vispo.com as my main work. It’s been an adventure in creating and publishing interactive, multimedia poetry, among other things. So I thought I’d write about that adventure for The Journal of Electronic Publishing and its issue on digital poetry. Specifically, I thought I’d try to explain why I chose the net as my main artistic medium.
I said in chapter 1 that it’s programmability, not interactivity (or anything else) that is the crucial matter to consider in computer art. I want to explain and explore that claim in this chapter.
What makes computer art computer art? We’ve seen that there is a great deal of art that appears on computers that could as well appear on a page or on a TV, in a canvas or on an album. I’m calling that art digital art and computers are not crucial to the display or appreciation of it.
The idea I want to capture in the notion of ‘computer art’ is art in which computers are crucial for the production, display and appreciation of the art, art which takes advantage of the special properties of computers, art which cannot be translated into other media without fundamentally altering the work into something quite different than what it was on the computer, art in which the computer is crucial as medium.
Computer Art and the Theory of Computation: Chapter 2: Greenberg, Modernism, Computation and Computer Art
In a short but influential piece of writing by Clement Greenberg called Modernist Painting written in 1960—and revised periodically until 1982—the art critic remarked that “The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.” Such sweeping generalizations are always problematical, of course. But I want to use the Greenberg quote to tell you an equally problematical story about the birth of the theory of computation and, thereby, computer art. Humor me. It’s Clement Greenberg. Come on.
The work I’ve mentioned by Gödel and Turing happened in the thirties, toward the end of modernism, which was roughly from 1900 till 1945, the end of World War II. So it’s work of late modernism.
Let’s grant Greenberg clemency concerning his conceit, for the moment, that the “essence”—itself a word left over from previous eras—of modernism, of the art and culture of that era, at least in the west, involved a drive to a kind of productive self-referentiality or consciousness of the art itself within the art itself. What work could possibly be more exemplary of that inclination than the work by Gödel and Turing that I’ve mentioned?
What I’d like to do in a series of posts is explore the relevance of the theory of computation to computer art. Both of those terms, however, need a little unpacking/explanation before talking about their relations.
Let’s start with computer art. Dominic Lopes, in A Philosophy of Computer Art, makes a useful distinction between digital art and computer art. Digital art, according to Lopes, can refer to just about any art that is or was digitized. Such as scanned paintings, online fiction, digital art videos, or digital audio recordings. Digital art is not a single form of art, just as fiction and painting are different forms of art. To call something digital art is merely to say that the art’s representation is or was, at some point, digital. It doesn’t imply that computers are necessary or even desirable to view and appreciate the work.
Whereas the term computer art is much better to describe art in which the computer is crucial as medium. What does he mean by “medium”? He says “a technology is an artistic medium for a work just in case it’s use in the display or making of the work is relevant to its appreciation” (p. 15). We don’t need to see most paintings, texts, videos or audio recordings on computers to display or appreciate them. The art’s being digital is irrelevant to most digital art. Whereas, in computer art, the art’s being digital is crucial to its production, display and appreciation.
Lopes also argues that whereas digital art is simply not a single form of art, computer art should be thought of as a new form of art. He thinks of a form of art as being a kind of art with shared properties such that those properties are important to the art’s appreciation. He defines interactivity as being such that the user’s actions change the display of the work itself. So far so good. But he identifies the crucial property that works of computer art share as being interactivity.
I think all but one of the above ideas by Lopes are quite useful. The problem is that there are non-interactive works of computer art. For instance, generative computer art is often not interactive. It often is different each time you view it, because it’s generated at the time of viewing, but sometimes it requires no interaction at all. Such work should be classified as computer art. The computer is crucial to its production, display, and appreciation.
Aleph Null makes color music. Colors are tones. Musical notes are tones. Music is tones moving in time. Aleph Null makes changing color tones move in time. There is no audio.
Aleph Null is an instrument of color music. This is about how to play it. It’ll play on it’s own. But it profits immensely from a human player interceding continually. It’s interactive online art.
Color music in Aleph Null has a simple structure. There is a central color. It’s the main color. All the other colors are within a certain distance from the central color. That distance is called the color range.
Here’s how to change the central color.
- Click the Aleph Null logo at top left or press the ‘1′ key to make the controls visible.
- Press the ‘2′ key or click the input box labelled ‘central color’ to make the central color color-picker visible.
- Click around in both parts of the color-picker to see how it works. The current central color is displayed in the central color input box.
The colors Aleph Null uses are all random distances from the central color and these distances do not exceed the color range value. The lower the color range value, the closer all the colors are to the central color. The higher the color range value, the greater the range of colors that Aleph Null will use. If the color range is set to 0, Aleph Null only uses one color: the central color. If the color range is 255, any color might be used.
HTML 5 has been publicized as an open source replacement for Adobe’s proprietary Flash. In truth, HTML 5 is far less featureful than Flash concerning audio, video, imaging, text and much else. And there are currently no tools available for non-programmers to work comfortably in HTML 5. It will take HTML 6 or 7, which will be some years, perhaps a decade, for HTML to approach the current featurefulness of Flash. But it’s coming along.
The most notable thing about HTML 5 is the <canvas> tag, which provides the ability to do interesting graphical operations. There are various programmerly commands available to draw stuff. HTML 5 also introduces a few audio commands, but nothing with the sophistication of Flash’s audio capabilities.
What we’re going to do is have a look at four recent pieces that use HTML 5 in interesting ways. And that work. Yes, some HTML 5 works. When new programming possibilities are introduced to a mass audience, you can bet there’s going to be more than a few blue screens. I’ve only had one today looking at new HTML 5 work. But not from any of the below pieces. These pieces ran well and were very rewarding to view.
The most interesting one, from an artistic perspective, is Arcade Fire’s interactive music video of their song “We Used to Wait” from their album The Suburbs, which won the Grammy for album of the year in 2011. The HTML 5 piece is called The Wilderness Downtown . This is quite impressive, really, both from a technical and artistic point of view. And it goes along perfectly with the suburbs, if that’s where you’re from. I’ve seen online videos that use multiple browser windows for video before, such as in the work of Peter Horvath, but The Wilderness Downtown is also quite sophisticated in other ways. The programmed birds, for instance, and the way they move between windows. And alight on what you have drawn in the interactive writing piece. And the way they use Google Earth. Very strong work indeed. And, o yes, the music is pretty darn good too. Moreover, the touches I’ve mentioned are not gratuitous wiz bang programming effects, but tie into a vision of the suburban experience that Arcade Fire has developed so very beautifully.
I thought this was a very entertaining read, as it literally seems to be a case of the Natives converting the missionary. But I also found it interesting concerning number and language. The Piraha tribe of Brazil, whom Daniel L. Everett has studied extensively for years, basically do not have much number language at all in their language and, he says, the grammatical structure of their language makes it so that only finitely many things are sayable in it. And they have been pretty much completely impervious to the attempts of the missionaries to convert them. Everett seems to feel that their language is a good indication that at least part of Noam Chomsky’s program that recursion is an essential part of language is wrong.
Jörg Piringer is a sound poet and poet-programmer currently living in Vienna/Austria. He really knows what he’s doing with the programming, having a master’s degree in Computer Science. And his sound work, both in live performance and in synthesis with the auditory and visual processing, is quite remarkable. I saw him in Nottingham and Paris, and was very impressed on both occassions.
He’s just released a new piece, a video called Unicode. It’s a 33:17 long, and simply displays Unicode characters. Each character is displayed for about 0.04 seconds. The video displays 49,571 characters.
It’s a video, but it’s a conceptual piece. The characters in this video are all symbols and each makes but the briefest appearance. A cast of thousands; Bar and Yeace.
Wikipedia describes Unicode thus:
Unicode is a computing industry standard for the consistent encoding, representation and handling of text expressed in most of the world’s writing systems. Developed in conjunction with the Universal Character Set standard and published in book form as The Unicode Standard, the latest version of Unicode consists of a repertoire of more than 109,000 characters covering 93 scripts, a set of code charts for visual reference, an encoding methodology and set of standard character encodings, an enumeration of character properties such as upper and lower case, a set of reference data computer files, and a number of related items, such as character properties, rules for normalization, decomposition, collation, rendering, and bidirectional display order (for the correct display of text containing both right-to-left scripts, such as Arabic and Hebrew, and left-to-right scripts). As of 2011, the most recent major revision of Unicode is Unicode 6.0.
Piringer’s Unicode simply shows us symbols but, to me, it illustrates how our notion of language has been expanded to not only the multi-lingual but also to include code. Not only do we see many of the world’s scripts but a good deal of abstract symbols of code.
By the way, his web site at joerg.piringer.net is well worth checking out.
Millie Niss passed away in 2009. She was a New York writer/poet, programmer, and mathematician who took her work as a new media artist very seriously. Her mother Martha Deed has put together a book of her writings called City Bird that was recently published by BlazeVox. I’ve been reading it. Anyone who knew her, in reading this book, is reminded so much of her presence, voice, humour, intelligence, suffering, and strength. It’s quite a strong statement, really, of resilience in the face of the frequent sickness she had to endure throughout her life.
It’s a book I’ll keep and read over the years. I think Millie would be delighted with what Martha has done in editing this collection of Millie’s poems and getting it published.
I wrote something about Millie not long after she passed away, and worked with Martha on putting some photos of Millie up on the net. I miss the Niss. Many thanks to Martha for this terrific collection of Millie’s poetry.
I subscribe to the Poetics list from SUNY, which is one of the oldest/biggest English language poetry-related listservs. Mostly the posts are ‘here’s my new book of poems’ or ‘I’m going to be reading on Tuesday’, but occasionally something else transpires. There are several interesting visual poets who post URLs to new work on the list. Andrew Topel posted what I think is distinctive, exciting work, recently, that I’d like to recommend.
It doesn’t immediately remind me of anyone else’s work. It’s an interesting mixture of textual and photographic media. Some of it is in ‘comics’ mode. Some of it is ‘pain terly’. Others are traditionally gray-scale but with Escher pagination.
Maria Engberg wrote an interesting review of two books relevant to digital poetry: Chris Funkhouser’s Prehistoric Digital Poetry–An Archeology of Forms (1959-1995) and Johanna Drucker’s Speclab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing. Engberg says:
“A challenging notion for both scholars and artists to take up, then, is that social media seems to speak against the strong authoritative force and artistic drive behind the works that both Drucker (artists’ books) and Funkhouser (digital poetry) discuss. The modernist poetics of digital poetry that Funkhouser describes, not incorrectly, is perhaps inherently incompatible with the contemporary social creativity (for lack of a better term) of YouTube mashup videos, Facebook status update string narratives, Twitter feeds, and locative mobile “app-experiences” with their motley aesthetic and political pedigrees and agendas, unclear sender and reader positions (endlessly multiple) and transient status as objects.”
I have a different take on this subject, I think, than Engberg’s. Digital/literary work that deals with Twitter, say, is not simply somebody tweeting. Instead, we see work like The Longest Poem in the World. This is a programmerly work that creates rhyming couplets out of a Twitter feed of thousands of people tweeting. When I just visited, it had written 1,353,298 verses. It’s constantly adding more verses.
Similarly, digital/literary art that deals with Facebook won’t simply be someone writing status updates or links or notes or whatever other functionality Facebook provides. It will, like The Longest Poem in the World, operate not simply within the social media app’s system, but will take it and its contents as ‘feed’.
When my mom was dying, there was a short time when she no longer could talk but could hear. This was only a few days before she died, when she was in the Hospice, which she was for the last couple of weeks of her life.
Mom had always loved her music. I have cherished childhood memories of kicking around the house on Sundays when mom would be doing house work and playing her music loudly on the stereo. Probably those Sundays, when she wasn’t working and was just relaxing at home and listening to music, shaped my love of music.
Anyway, I made a CD of some of her favorite tunes and took it in with me to visit her. The Hospice had some boom boxes. So mom and I sat together, she no longer able to talk. But she could hear, and I played her a CD of her favorite tunes and we sat together just listening.
Her eyes had been bad for a long time. Which had prevented her for years from using the stereo I bought her. She rarely listened to her music, in her last years. It was too hard for her to use the machinery. But I know she loved her music. And I love it also. The Sound of Music. Westside Story. Harry Belafonte. Enya. Neil Diamond. Leonard Cohen. Moon River by Henry Mancini was mom and dad’s song. That was their love song.
I will remember that visit to mom forever, and playing her that music. She was visibly relieved to hear her music. And, to me, to hear it with her reminded me so much of all those Sundays as a kid with my mother.