12 Meter Power Chord at Styx Project Space Berlin

Posted in Announcement on October 29th, 2008 by admin

Interior, Styx Project Space

12 Meter Power Chord — an installation/performance at Styx Project Space Berlin

Sound is a physical phenomenon. Three strings resonate at intervals to each other and activate the architecture they remain tensed across. But sound is also a cultural phenomenon. Three strings tuned at specific mathematical ratios create the infamous power chord–the signature sound of heavy metal guitar. “12 Meter Power Chord” walks the tightrope between the phenomenological and intellectual aspects of sound and space by sonifying the intervals found in the architectural space of the gallery using piano wire.

“12 Meter Power Chord” runs as an acoustic installation from 7-28 November 2008, with amplified live performances for the opening and finissage, 7 & 28 November, 19:00-22:00.

Other artists showing are SIX, with his “Pervateen” photo series, and Sue de Beer with stills from her “Hans und Grete” video.

STYX project space
Old Brewery Friedrichshöhe (2nd floor)
Landsberger Allee 54
10249 Berlin

Derek Holzer [USA 1972] is a sound artist working in Europe since 1999 with a background in radio, webstreaming and environmental sound recording. His installation and performance works focus on the creation of new kinds of sound-producing instruments, using digital synthesis, analog electronics and acoustic physics. These instruments work to uncover the hidden resonances in the objects and spaces around us.This approach could be considered an acoustic version of particle physics or genetics, because the idea remains the same–in the smallest details you will find a representation of the greater whole.

Now Playing

Kiss the Anus of a Black CatThe Nebulous Dreams (Conspiracy)
MachinefabriekVloed (Sentient Recognition Archive)
MonnoGhosts (Conspiracy)
NekrasovThe Form of Thought From Beast (self released)
WhenSvartedauen/The Black Death (Tatra)

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more technological determinism, via Don Buchla

Posted in Text on October 20th, 2008 by admin

Don Buchla, the 200 series, and friends (from the electro-music forum)

Ever since I visited the EMS studios in Stockholm late last year, and feasted my ears on the one of the most awesome collections of vintage analog synthesizer equipment known to man, I’ve become a Buchla synth devotee.

Sweden is of course a rather strange place. Like the Netherlands, it appears to be absolutely swamped with arts money. The couple that I stayed with in Stockholm had no less than 13 Genelec monitors just laying around the house, and even the receptionist at EMS had mini-Genelecs as her computer desktop speakers.

Now, to give some sense of scale, Genelecs are pretty much the audiophile monitor of choice, and a good pair runs about a grand in Euros. And to buy any decent amount of vintage Buchla synthesizer modules, you’d probably have to mortgage your house. For the fifth time, if you happen to be from the US. Brand new hybrid digital/analog Buchla systems start at exactly $9950 for the smallest one you can get away with. If you don’t believe me, have a look here.

So somehow it failed to surprise me that between EMS and their close neighbor Fylkingen, they were using old Buchla and Serge racks as doorstops in Stockholm, there were so many of them. When I got into the recording studio there, I was very pleased to discover that Kevin Drumm, a rather reclusive Chicago artist whose work just gets better and better every time I listen to it, had worked in the same studio only a few weeks before. And–better than that–all his ProTools sessions were still on the computer for me to check out and get warmed up with!

The often-repeated story, and still what I believe makes the devices which Don Buchla designs to be so special much more than any particular “sound” they might have, is that he starts by drawing up the front panel and works backwards to the circuit. What this means is that like any proper interface designer, he is thinking of the user interface first, and building the guts of the beast around this experience. As a result, his equipment is esoteric, because of the way that he thinks, but usable because he hasn’t given you access to every possible method of control, but rather he has selected entry points into the system which make the most sense and communicate the most to the musician/composer/sound artist who happens to be sitting in front of it. In a sense, this makes his gear more “user friendly” than others.

Now, a Buchla synthesizer is still not a “simple tool”, nor is it transparent. Every design decision he made is like a garden of forking paths, each with a potentially limitless set of possibilities ahead of it, but very deterministic when one starts their journey. It’s easy to get carried away with a sense of freedom, once one has ditched that moldy Bach holdover of a well-tempered keyboard and embarked on the road of “free music”. But you can’t forget, even for a minute, that whatever system you’ve chosen as your agent of liberation is still dangerously heavy with deterministic factors. Just so you don’t let it all go to your head too quickly…

The phenomenon of the “analog purist” is pretty well known in the sound world, so I found the following anecdote to be somewhat enlightening. I repost from this thread on the electro-music forums, by a certain Howard Moscovitz, or mosc, who as he writes worked for Buchla in the 1970’s and is often considered a “grandpa” on this particular forum and is pleaded to for bedtime stories quite regularly. I think that this particular “bedtime story” conveys some simple truths about the expectations we have of our technological tools, and the ridiculous pitfalls waiting when we don’t actually understand how those tools work.

I used to work for Don Buchla, back in the 1970s. One day a pretty famous composer from Europe associated with a pretty famous conservatory came by Don’s studio in Berkeley to see his new 200 series modular synthesizers. He was very impressed with Buchla’s new creations, but said he wouldn’t use Buchla stuff because it lacked the certain “warmth” that Moogs had. Don listened seriously. After the guy left for the day, Don took out a mixer module (the big one that most people used to send signals to the monitors and recording devices) and while muttering under his breath soldered an extra compensation capacitor (I think it was 100pf) across the op amp. The next day the composer came back (in those days you visited the synth maker for a few days before you bought a big modular system – they were very expensive after all) and he was amazed. The new custom modifications Buchla made for him were fantastic! Now the Buchla had the Moog sound!

What did he do? The larger compensation capacitor rolls off the highs. Don could have turned down the treble control on the amp, but the composer would not have fallen for it. This composer was certainly not a fool for he carefully checked the tone controls on the playback amplifier before he declared the modification to be “right on” (to use a phrase from those days). I learned a two things that day. One was what increasing the value of compensation capacitors on op amps rolls of the highs making Buchlas sound different from Moogs, and the other was that connoisseurs don’t always know what they are talking about.

You might wonder why all this stuff about electronics and building one’s own tools from almost scratch keeps me up so late at night, and the simple truth is this… for someone who failed just about every math class they ever made me take, the more I can learn about all these magical secrets, the more I feel like the thief in the castle who makes off with the crown jewels.

I think I’ve gotten over any naive anarcho-hippy egalitarianism that it’s possible for everyone to do so, however. This is simply because most people are either too focused on quick results. Or lazy. Or both. They will just buy a guitar pedal or download a plugin. The process doesn’t interest them in the least, so they don’t realize how the process funnels them towards the inevitable result.

Reading, Watching, Listening

The Glass Bead GameHermann Hesse
Cobra Verde & Heart of GlassWerner Herzog
Siberian Shaman Wax Cylinder Recordings – privately sent to me by John Hudak
Halve MaenDouble Leopards
Solaris, Zirkalo & Stalker soundtracks – Edward Artemiev
Imperial DistortionKevin Drumm
Poison DrinkerJosh Lay
I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore (1927-1948)Various Artists (Mississippi Records)

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Binaural Media Interview, 2006

Posted in Text on October 12th, 2008 by admin

The following interview was made by Mark McLaren of Binaural Media in January 2006, when I was very deeply involved with field recording and Pure Data programming. Others interviewed for the series include Chris Watson, Yannick Dauby, Julian Weaver, Francisco López and Marc Behrens. Interestingly enough, many of the same threads I’ve been writing about lately, namely the deterministic nature of technology on art, are present here as well.

Survey on Location and Context Based Media
Conducted by Mark Mclaren
January 2006

Many people are currently recording and working with environmental sounds. In recent years with the development of relativity cheap and portable equipment has enabled a wide variety of people to record and make use of the sounds around us.

From the more traditional idea of recording nature, to the ideas of amplifying the inaudible; from sound artists to architectural theorists all are becoming involved with an inter-disciplinary practice that has yet to fully investigated.

Binaural decided to commission a wide set of interviews with the aim of creating a contemporary overview of both the artists and their work. Many of these interviews are ongoing and Binaural though it important to make these texts available as they grow, so that hopefully the interviews link and learn from each other and develop into a variable resource for both those how are simply interesting in finding out more about the artists working in environmental sound, to those who wish to develop and deepen their understanding and practice.

By asking questions we are trying to move away from the untestable world of intuition of unspoken trial and error, to a create a dialogue where both listeners and composers can utilise some of the many techniques for listening that have long been available for written music. This survey hopes to develop into a comprehensive and open-ended meditation on the sounds that surround us and how the individuals that work with these sounds are creating their own rules, grammar and vocabulary.

Mark McLaren (MM): Tell me about the way you perform, specifically about the way you manipulate objects live to create sound?

Derek Holzer (DH): I got into working with sound objects and also with field recording a couple of years ago when I was in a Karosta, Latvia. I spent a very a long, cold month of December to January there. Everything was frozen, but everything was so still you could really pulls sounds out of the environment—sounds of water and ice. And I started to find things, all kinds of things—a lot of bones actually—and other strange objects, shells, chunks of metal. Things that seemed like they had history behind them, because I was in this place that was steeped in history—the history of the Tsarist era, the history of the Second World War, the history of the Soviet occupation and now the history of this handover to the EU and NATO regime. Everything I picked up seemed significant for some reason, so I began to stroke them and move them around and bang them together and see what kind of sounds would come out. And then I started to build up patches in the computer that would build up textures out of these sounds, and I thought these were very interesting sounds and I liked working with them a lot. At the same time, I was working with a group from Riga called Oloolo, and they came out to Karosta one day. We sat down and recorded this massive three hour jam session where I was working only with these objects and delays and filters and the ways of building up textures that I’d been creating, and they were playing some of their own work. They wound up taking the recordings and producing this album “Kosta”, that was released on Nexsound. I kind of forgot about it for a while, and then they wrote me almost a year later saying ‘oh, well we produced this album out of this jam and it’s going to be released’ and so I was really happy about this.

It was really a way of learning how to pick up objects and assess them for their sonic potential. I wound up using a lot of contact microphones, because that is a way to isolate an object from the surrounding acoustics ,but I also use a lot of close up miking, dynamic microphones to pick up the sound of them clinking together or the acoustics introduced inside of an object. If you have a shell or a bottle or something like that, I wanted to pick up how it transforms the sound inside of it. I also do a lot of field recording. I work as many people do, with binaural microphones that I wear in my ears so that I become a walking sound receiver, and I use a lot of those recordings as well.

Sometimes I use a lot more of those recordings than I use objects, it really depends on the circumstances. Setting up to do a live show where you’re really working with sound objects in this time honored electroacoustic manner actually takes a lot of preparation time, and sometimes you get a gig when you’re playing with five other people and they all want their set up time, so you’ve just got to do something very quickly. But given the time to set up, I like to work in this way—just finding objects from that place. I have some objects which I carry with me, some objects from Karosta and quite a few objects that I picked up during some travels in Brazil from the Amazonas regions, parts of fishes and shells and unidentifiable objects which are quite unique in the way that they look and the way that they sound. So they’re my lucky charms, and if I don’t find anything interesting in a place I can always pull these out and get something very interesting out of them.

MM: You mention that objects felt significant. Could you elaborate on this point? I notice a lot of works especially, location recording compositions, rely on this significance to almost create a false strength, to use the context as a crutch to composition.

DH: Hmmmm…. that’s a loaded question if I ever heard one! To start with, I don’t think that referencing signifiers which lay outside the “composition” proper is anything of a crutch. Follow that line of thinking for a while and you end up at the place where people say, “well, who cares as long as it sounds cool”. And I’ve never been comfortable conversing like that. From my first exposures to “experimental music”, I was always fascinated with the process of how sounds were arrived at, the kind of thought processes and backgrounds that a work had even if it were not obviously apparent in the composition, and especially what kind of “non-musical” objects were used and how they were treated. In short, I read liner notes like they were poems. This predates any aspirations of actually *making* sound myself in anything more than a self-satisfying, amateur, bedroom sort of way, so I wouldn’t even chalk it up to trying to bite anyone’s style.

On the other hand, this game of extra-compositional signifiers is exactly that… a game. By this I mean that it’s a situation that the listener enters into consensually with the artist. The listener agrees to accept certain elements which aren’t coming out of the speakers—textual cues, album art and other packaging or even fragments of the artist’s biography—as part of their whole experience of the work. I think this way of listening has deep precedents in the “serious music” world. Listen to classical radio, or open up any established composer’s CD notes, and then tell me that the contextual information about each composer provided doesn’t frame the listening experience. However, because it’s a game, you have to be careful not to strain your credibility, or else the whole suspension of disbelief you have built up in the listener will crash. The Acousmatician would argue that the sounds should stand up by themselves divorced of any reality or source-referent, or even any performative referent in the case of Lopez and co. But even in this case, you are asked to play the suspension game, and accept that the sounds exist as concrete objects disconnected from the world. And once again, you are back to extra-compositional cues which instruct your listening experience.

MM: Do you mean the significance helped you concentrate on playing with the object, or do you feel that there is some way that the historical significance of a place can be transferred to a listener purely by its sound?

DH: In the first place, I draw inspiration from the objects I find, and imagine small stories and sounds hidden inside them, and that, like little tape recorders, these objects have stored up the resonances of their various environments down to the subatomic level. My job then is to coax these resonances out and to make them audible. At times it is a very sonically-motivated approach, but there are times when it is a very historically-motivated one. For the Karosta recordings, I only used sounds and objects from a very specific location, and so I do think that the historical significance can be transferred to an aware listener. Mark Teppo, of Igloo magazine, wrote of the Oloolo collaboration “Kosta”: This is glitch theory being applied to the sound of history, the winds of old battlefields and abandoned cities being cut, spliced, and flung — scattershot — into the air.

MM: You say that you ‘build up textures in the computer’ is this in relation to a live manipulation or an off-line composition method? Please explain a little about the different approaches you have to improvising and to composing and ‘finishing’ pieces?

DH: My compositional process begins before I have picked up a single object or even turned on the microphone. I would say that the bulk of my time in the studio is spent building sound-processing tools in Pure Data. I simply don’t trust common, commercially available plug-ins simply because I feel like I’m working in someone else’s room. They’ve given me a table to sit at, but I can’t move it, and a window to look out, but I can’t open it, and a door to walk through, but only in the manner which they prescribe. I would prefer to build up my own tools, and know inside out how they work, rather than diddle with other people’s knobs and try out their presets. So the tools I build up create a set of improvisational and compositional possibilities that I can explore once I have brought objects or recordings to the situation.

A great many of these tools involve using delays or buffers to build up layers of sound, often from a microphone input or a recording on disk. I am much more interested in texture than strict rhythm or melody, and so I use my tools as a sonic microscope to isolate small sound particles of and magnify them. I took to an improvisational approach because otherwise I am too much of a perfectionist, and doing studio tracks usually takes much longer than I think it should, especially considering the time I’ve already spent programming. So I try to document the possibilities I’ve programmed into my tools, which is where I feel the real compositional work is for me, and then later on I can try to arrange them in a multi-tracker and get all anal-retentive “mastering” them out to highlight the best parts of the sounds I created.

MM: The way you collect sounds interests me. You say you ‘bang objects’ to bring sounds out of them, you make in-ear binaural recordings. These methods do not seems as neutral as say the classic ‘non interventional’ field recording style where the microphone is placed and left to record and then edited later. Your style seems more associated with editing and composition whilst you are collecting source material. How do you think your personal intervention into a space or an object effects both the composition and the way the space/ object is represented by your work?

DH: I think most people are aware of the well-known axiom from physics which states that no matter how you observe a phenomenon, your observation has changed it according to the method which you use. We live here in the world, not floating in some academic reverie above it, and I don’t believe any approach to recording sounds is “non-interventional”. I do quite a bit of “set and hide” recording work as well, but by virtue of the fact that I have chosen the direction to point the mike and when to turn it on, I have already engaged in a compositional decision. Hunting for sounds can be very frustrating exactly because we are looking for something specific in all the noisy chaos.

A case in point: I spent a summer in Brazil, with the intention of collecting “nature sounds”. But just about any place a human being can travel in Brazil is filled up with human noises: diesel engines, airplanes, car stereos, chickens, dogs, children… I got really frustrated with this, and only later realized that it was my discriminating mind which caused this frustration—my own value judgments of what a “good” or “bad” sound was, and my attempts to separate the two. I started to think what some ways out of that trap would be, and came up with the idea of an algorithmic portable recorder. I’ll be working on that at STEIM in Amsterdam this spring. It’s called PANdev, and is based on a handheld computer which will essentially make the decisions of when to record. All the user need do is just walk around. (Note: this project never really got off the ground unfortunately…DH)

But when I do record, yes, I am both very active and very specific about what is recorded. My mike techniques are an extension of my improv techniques, and I hope to extract small, unnoticed resonances from locations and objects. I’m reminded of the soundwalks of Dallas Simpson, where he seems to be taking this “objective” recording stance by just letting the tape run, but in fact he’s actively investigating everything he comes across, “interfering” with it to check out its sonic potential.

To me, that’s honest. I don’t want to carry around any academic pretenses of simply “capturing” the acoustic ecology that is out there in some “pure”, raw or unadulterated form. This works for other people who have their own reasons for doing it, but I simply don’t believe that any sonic environment is unchanged by my stepping into it. So what I try to establish is my own personal relationship to that place based .., history, and my own perceptions. If anyone else is ready to take that ride with me through my recordings, my hope is that some of that relationship gets through.

MM: Can you explain a bit more about Pure Data and how it differs from other commercial software?

DH: I used a lot of cracked commercial software for a lot of years when doing sound, and I always got a couple of feelings out of it. One feeling was that you get these fancy programs with these fancy user interfaces, but at the end the more they have created this environment that’s very easy for you to use, the more they’re actually determined the kind of work you can make with it. If you look at a program like Ableton Live, which is used by probably about eighty percent of people making sound and performing out live these days it seems like. It’s good for a very few things—it’s good for working with loops, putting effects on these loops and sequencing them. But it pushes you in one creative direction, it pushes you into making a certain kind of music. Really it pushes you towards German techno more than anything else! So I always felt that the more fancy the software looked, the less choices I had. And the second thing that I felt was that when I was using some kind of cracked software, then I was giving away my rights as a user. Because if there was something wrong with the software or a wanted something to be different about it, I had nobody to turn to. Of course, you can’t turn to the person who cracked the software because they’re invisible, and you can’t turn to the company that manufactured the software because, well, you didn’t pay for it, so you’re really a citizen without rights—a non-entity in the whole thing.

So I started looking for ways around that problem, and I found Pure Data to be a very interesting way of working because when you start up the program, it gives you this big white nothing. It’s sort of like Hemingway’s white elephant, that white page in the typewriter that confronts you with yourself. You have to bring your own knowledge, your own ideas, what you want and want you think you can do to this software, and then it works for you. It’s a bit like learning a language. You start with some vocabulary, you start with some grammar, and maybe the first year you can order beers and say hello to pretty waitresses, the next year you might be speaking like a small school child, and the year after that maybe you’ve writing poetry. Who knows? It’s this kind of way of working that’s building up on a language of metaphor, the same way that a tradition musician would start off by playing “do-re-mi”, and eventually would be writing sonatas or whatever. So I like this approach very much, it’s building up from nothing that is predetermined. Free software in general attracts me, because I teach and I share a lot, and I don’t want any barriers between what I have to say, what I have to show, what I have to share and the people that I want to share all these things with. So the only way I’ve found to do that properly is by using things like free software that have open licenses where, not only the content is free to share, but the means of producing the content is also free and easily shareable.

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Posted in Text on October 11th, 2008 by admin

In my last blog, I mused on the shaping and controlling aspects of technology. Among the many examples I used was a DJ software called Live, which would allow even a Neanderthal to throw a bunch of sound samples into it and crap out a minimal techno track. One comment to this statement inspired some further thinking, in particular about the nature of feedback, which I felt deserved a post of its own…

twentytwentyone wrote:

interesting, but i still disagree about Ableton. it’s such a simple tool and as all simple tools it is quite universal.

Well that’s exactly the opposite of what I’m trying to say here, using Live just as an example. No technology is neutral, every kind of technology has a strong social shaping and controlling factor on those who use it for any purpose, and in the creative arts this is probably even stronger! The more alienated we are from these technologies (to borrow the Marxist terminology for a second), the more we are unaware of how much that technology is in fact shaping and controlling us.

Think for a moment that the first musicians probably cut their reed flutes from the tall grass near them, bored some holes in them, played them for a some time while watching the sky and then threw said reed flute into the river when they were finished with it. As such, they were aware of every possibility their instrument had in it, since they themselves had created it (up to and including the intervals it would play), and thus probably even invented the music which they played on it quite spontaneously without reference to pre-existing patterns or compositions.

40,000 year old Neanderthal bone flute. A truly simple tool, no presets included. My attempts to recreate and play such an instrument were met with much humor during a residency in New Zealand a few years ago…

On the other hand, I find that the more ubiquitous, over-designed and “user friendly” modern technology becomes, the more we should treat it with suspicion. Especially when we use it as the primary tools of our creative expression. In fact, you don’t know what kind of shaping and controlling messages come with your arts technologies any more.

In the case of Live, to get back to a very small point in a rather big discussion, I find that not only is it directed entirely towards rasterized, grid-based and quantized production of sound, but it also privileges linear “compositions” (whether using prerecorded samples or sequences of notes) over any kind of free improvisation which could change direction at any moment. As such, I don’t find it a very useful tool for the kind of work I want to be doing.

The past couple years of working more analog has taught me a lot about the weaknesses of certain technologies, and of the weaknesses of the computer in particular, and how one must become extremely linear and logical to make nonlinear, illogical things happen with it. One thing that I discovered while working almost exclusively with feedback loops is that, in analog electronics, everything does happen in real-time. All the electrons in a circuit more or less move simultaneously, so changes in the system do occur instantaneously.

Instantaneous feedback is an essential part of analog circuits, unlike their digital counterparts which execute commmands sequentially…

Compare that with the digital architecture as follows:

To produce a sound, let’s say an oscillator’s tone, the computer must calculate a certain number of samples in a block, and send that block to the soundcard. Now, if the output of the oscillator must be sent back to its frequency input, in order to modulate it’s frequency, that can’t logically be done in the same block of samples. To do so would put the computer in a kind of endless loop, where it couldn’t calculate its output because it was waiting for that output to be its input. So the output must be delayed in some way by at least one block of samples in order to be used as the input for the calculations of the next block of samples.

The classic “DSP loop”, here shown in the Pure Data programming environment. The send/receive pair adds the necessary delay, so that the oscillator is affected by it’s own output only on the following block of computations.

Add to this the fact that computers work in logical, linear time, meaning that they rapidly multitask between the actions required of it (send sound to the soundcard, refresh the screen display, maintain the network connection, catalog the harddrive, scan the keyboard and mouse for input, bounce a widget on the dashboard when your girlfriend wants to Skype with you, etc etc), and for this reason the sound is further buffered to avoid the infamous “glitches” so well known in laptronica. The end result is a system which is far from realtime, and in which any kind of actually simultaneous actions are impossible.

The technicians among us consider all this a “performance issue”, and strain to reduce the amount of latency in the system to a barely noticeable threshold. But for me it’s much more of a conceptual and philosophical issue. The system of the computer itself controls and shapes the sound I’m making, and in essence prohibits me from working the way I prefer to work in the analog realm, where any number of simultaneous events can immediately affect the complex system as a whole in a beautiful, nonlinear sort of way. Much like the world we actually live in…


the machines are not our friends…

Posted in Text on October 4th, 2008 by admin

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.

I.J. GoodSpeculations Concerning the First Ultraintelligent Machine (1965)

Sometimes when I sit back and think about it, I’m astonished at how much of my life is mediated by machines. My art, music, writing, communications, even relationships… all run through whatever channels that (mostly my laptop) allows me. An example: when I teach Pure Data workshops, I often start by showing a screenshot of Ableton Live, explaining that this is a piece of technology designed for the very rapid creation of “music”. However, “music” is defined in a very specific manner here, by a room full of programmers in Berlin to whom minimal techno is the apotheosis of sound! And what they have created is an environment wherein a caveman could dump a bucketload of sound samples into it and come out with a passable minimal techno track. Getting Live NOT to make minimal techno is actually harder than getting it to. [see the COMMENTS below for an expansion on this theme…]

Modern technology is held by primitivists to be distinct from simple tools in many regards. A simple tool is considered a temporary usage of an element within our immediate surroundings, used for a specific task. Tools are not viewed as involving complex systems which alienate the user from the act. Primitivists claim that this separation is implicit in technology, which creates an unhealthy and mediated experience which leads to various forms of authority. Domination is said to increase every time a modern “time-saving” technology is created, as primitivists claim it necessitates the construction of more technology to support, fuel, maintain, and repair the original technology. It is argued by primitivists that this leads very rapidly to the establishment of a complex technological system that seems to have an existence independent of the humans who created it. Primitivists believe that this system methodically destroys, eliminates, or subordinates the natural world, constructing a world fit only for machines.


Extrapolate to culture at large, and you have a situation where our expressive moments are guided by strict, technological channels which have become so endemic to our lives that they are virtually invisible. For me, this techno-socialist model of “progress” breaks down when the emphasis lies in the technology and not the connections between people that the technology could engender. Most of my “cyber-communist” friends spend much more time recompiling software, browsing for new hardware, managing their databases and typing over IRC (sometimes to people in the same room!) than they ever do “communing” with their comrades. Or making art for that matter. And the techno-art model? At a conference on “open source media architecture” (whatever that might be, as the tag “open source” on anything seemed to be an instant subsidy generator for a few years) in Riga in 2004, I watched a presentation about the glorious future of GPS art. One French architect stood up at the end and said, “You just showed us a geo-tagged photo of a jar of peanut butter. Where is the content here?”

A distinction should be drawn between tools (or implements) and technology. Perlman shows that primitive peoples develop all kinds of tools and implements, but not technologies: ‘The material objects, the canes and canoes, the digging sticks and walls, were things a single individual could make, or they were things, like a wall, that required the cooperation of many on a single occasion …. Most of the implements are ancient, and the [material] surpluses [these implements supposedly made possible] have been ripe since the first dawn, but they did not give rise to impersonal institutions. People, living beings, give rise to both.’ Tools are creations on a localised, small-scale, the products of either individuals or small groups on specific occasions. As such, they do not give rise to systems of control and coercion.

John Moore“A Primitivist Primer”

Having just left the lushly funded forest of the Netherlands’ media art scene, I can testify to many examples of technophilic art created in a virtual void of content or artistic ideas. A typical, only slightly abstracted, scenario follows: Dutch media artist “E” picks up the Volkskraant (left-center daily newspaper) and sees an article on Muslim integration on the front page. She quickly turns to the Technology section and discovers that RFID is the hot topic of the moment. Put two and two together and voila! She has her next subsidy proposal–an installation using RFID tags to discuss the social problems of Muslim migrants between, oh let’s say Rotterdam and Marrakesh. The subsidy boards love it, as it combines the latest progressive woes with the newest popular consumer gadgetry, thus guaranteeing a wide audience appeal in a country which only judges the success of a project by how many visitors see it. Of course the problems start once the money starts flowing. Since she knows nothing per se about either Muslims or RFID technology, she hires “consultants” to research the social aspects of her project, and “technicians” to build the technological part. Once these skilled laborers have essentially created her project for her, she steps back in to slap her name on it and rolls off to Ars Electronica to collect her Golden Nica from the hands of some of the same people who subsidized the work in the first place.

Technology, on the other hand, is the product of large-scale interlocking systems of extraction, production, distribution and consumption, and such systems gain their own momentum and dynamic. As such, they demand structures of control and obedience on a mass scale – what Perlman calls impersonal institutions. As the Fifth Estate pointed out in 1981: ‘Technology is not a simple tool which can be used in any way we like. It is a form of social organization, a set of social relations. It has its own laws. If we are to engage in its use, we must accept its authority. The enormous size, complex interconnections and stratification of tasks which make up modern technological systems make authoritarian command necessary and independent, individual decision-making impossible.’

John Moore“A Primitivist Primer”

There is no coda here, no “what is to be done”, no hammer, no mirror. Growing up in two of the three New Age Meccas of North America, I’d heard enough moralizing and utopian pipedreaming to last me the rest of my life by the time I was 13. A simple assertion: the machines in fact are not our friends. They have their own agenda. Recently I had a fantasy of the Large Hadron Collider, which somehow turned out not to be the cosmic doomsday machine everyone thought it would be and rather was quite a dud–at least until they manage to get it repaired next Spring. I imagined what the LHC would dream about at night, when the technicians left and turned out the lights. So much power concentrated into such a relatively-speaking small space. If it could dream, I’m sure it would dream of gathering even more power into itself. It would dream quite literally of becoming a star.

Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly thereafter, the human era will be ended.

Vernor VingeThe Coming Technological Singularity (1993)

Images: Large Hadron Collider, CERN, Switzerland