Artist Projects

Agit Disco

AGIT DISCOedited by Stefan Szczelkun and Anthony Iles, 2012 Mute Books
review by Simon Poulter, February 2012

Walking into a record shop in Hamilton, Ontario last year, it was as if I was going back in time. It is hard not to be sentimental about such places – the smell, the sense of anticipation and the overall experience of a physical space full of music. Oh, a physical space…

One of my favourite songs is ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’ by the Only Ones and after scuffing around the shop I walked out with a used 12″ of ‘Special View’. Popular myth would have it that once upon a time there were formative list-makers, DJs such as John Peel, who would spend their time sifting through the world’s music and relaying it back to us via the fuzzy radios in our bedrooms. Then digital music formats appeared supplanting the rule of vinyl before music completely disappeared into data-space, evil piracy and downloads. Along the way the discourses between music, youth and activism changed when music as a popular networked medium gave way to the distributed torrent of the web. So music became ‘content’, free and subjected to random acts such as ‘shuffle’. The Poisoned Apple.

There is no shuffle in the work of Stefan Szczelkun. He has created a project in the form of a book that comprises of a series of suggested CD compilations assembled by invited cohorts. At first, the choice of a soon to be redundant medium such as the compact disc seems oddly perverse, yet Agit Disco offers a syncretic approach to the music histories that transport us from Muddy Waters to Mos Def. The contributors insights are of course reflective on their personal histories; for example Tom Jennings’ reminder that the source code of rap is direct action and not designer clothing. As far as I am aware there are no baseball caps or designer ales as a spin off from this book.

But Agit Disco is a book with a purpose. As soon as you pick it up you are reminded of the personal intimacy of the print medium. The book is anchored on the author’s long-standing connection to working class politics and its musical anthems and idiosyncrasies. As I have thumbed through it I have come to the unshakable conviction that with a straight shoot out between Google and Agit Disco, I would have a higher degree of finding something musically interesting from the observations of the contributors of the book. So there is still work to do on the algorithms of the semantic web, or higher granularity in the recommendations of a human who has listened.

The editors, Stefan Szczelkun and Anthony Iles, are fully aware that this is no contest and that their roles may lie more as archivists and not activists. While Julian Temple’s trilogy of films about punk act as an archaeology of personalities for example, there are still many layers beneath of lesser known mortals who have performed interesting acts. Indeed, Stefan Szczelkun’s credentials in mining and recording the cultural moments of London and the UK’s sub-cultures are impeccable and if I had one criticism of this book then it would be that it lacks a more in-depth narrative on these matters. But perhaps this is a future project that both the editors have in them, given the predominant focus on cult of personality in music writing and relative absence of a political story.

However in his introduction, Anthony Iles, expertly dispenses with the lame reconstructions and self-agrandisations of artists. Northern Soul, oh yes I saw that at an art gallery somewhere. He also points out that Agit Disco emanates from the blogosphere and a requirement to problematise aesthetics and criticality on music as a political force. Wryly, he draws attention to the contradictory status of celebrity within a countercultural milieu, so we have Stewart Home slotted in as a natural contributor here. Home’s playlist takes up the challenge wholeheartedly, recognising the importance of juxtaposition and classics – so we have Toots and the Maytals ’54-46 Was My Number’ spinning into ‘Don’t Be a Drop Out’ by James Brown and the “E Pluribus Unum’ by The Last Poets.

A comparator piece of writing that springs to mind is Paul Morley’s ‘Words and Music’, always bound to be trapped in time with its focus on Kylie Minogue. However, a quote from it:

“Some day music will only be air. There will be no objects to hold or fetishise and people will simply collect lists. No disc, nothing spooled or grooved, no heads to clean, no dust to wipe, no compulsive alphabetising.”

While most of this is true, we could argue that rather than collecting lists, more and more people are making them, as a consequence of distributed media and the disruption of the music industry distribution model. This is one of the most revolutionary actions of our time.

Agit Disco is therefore a project that combines friendships and associations with the full use of the extended communication of digital tools. It’s a book that utilises the aggregation effects of the web to hand the reader back some discrete thoughts and tunes.

Peter Conlin flags up Dissident Island [] and a reminder that music creates a mutuality among generations as we ‘pick the same stuff’. This is never more problematic for some, where in the UK, we have apparently selected political leaders, who as well as studying PPE at Oxford, were listening to The Smiths, hunting stags and wreaking chaos in restaurants.

The last contributor to the book, Tracey Moberly, signs off her list with ‘I Don’t Give A Fuck’ by Peaches (with samples from Joan Jett). A truly seminal track that never fails to bring a smile to a misty grey morning wherever you are.

Ending on an Amazon moment – for aficionados of the UK underground, you might also like Stefan Szczelkun’s ‘Survival Scrapbooks’.

To purchase Agit Disco go to Metamute

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“Listening to Firefox” – presenters

“Listening to Firefox” is finally here! After months of planning and organising, our inaugural North West salon/meet-up for discussion across “wider implications of software culture” is happening at 2pm Sunday 15th of May over at Manchester’s MadLab.

5 practitioners have been invited to present extremely short (<3mins) single-slide examples of work across a spectrum of digital-art-technology. From there, the emphasis moves to an open and critically aware roundtable discussion of the wider implications of this practice:


Stephen Fortune – Data and Reality


Markus Soukup -  relicts / 2011

John O’Shea – Open Source Swan Pedalo

Nick Holloway – UK libraries cuts map

Caroline Heron – “Precarious Labour”


Listening to Firefox exists to create a space for open and engaged discussion across a spectrum of digital-art-technology practice with an emphasis on the social, cultural and political implications of this work.  This inaugural event has been co-organised by John O’Shea, Simon Poulter and Hwa Young Jung at MadLab.


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Metal DEC Lab Interviews

The interviews from the Metal DEC lab are now online at the youtube page



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Light Responsive Animation

Animation Still

Click here to see an extract of the animation: animation(s)


Before I came to the Metal Lab I had been working to create an animation that would connect light to duration and time and explore an idea of exposure in digital format.  The lab offerred a great site to try out the apparatus. The were some nice windows with a view out to the amazing estuarine vista, there was a buzz of activity in the space in front of the window so the opportunity was there.

The apparatus itself would monitor light levels coming through the window using a light dependant resistor. This went through  a micro-controller, into the software and would in turn control  the brightness and contrast of an image captured through a video camera and then the frequency at which the images were captured.  When the images were captured they were uploaded to a server where they could be captured and compiled into a stop-frame animation.


Here is the patch for people who like these things:

Screen shot of the Max patch I created



The apparatus created a space for me to have many conversations and reflect on the critical environment of the labs and begin to take apart and address the individual elements of the work and how they interact with this idea of software culture.

My conclusion is something like…. why am I trying to create a device to capture an image in response to light when I have a camera already?



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Goldbloggers talk with the artists

On Friday the 25th we spent our day at Metal and had the chance to talk with the artists about their work during the residency. Here’s the result:


- Hans

Hans feels like an antenna here at Chalkwell Hall, he’s getting lots of inputs and inspiration from working side to side with other artists. At first, he found it difficult to free himself from business dynamics he’s usually subject to by working in a company, clients demand results, finished products, and don’t seem to care about the importance of the process, which is what the residency here is focused on. Being in between the art and business world, Hans tries to mix the idea of “uniqueness” related to the former with the one of “reproduction” on which the latter is based on. Using code (Action Script and Processing), he generates slight variations of the same piece, resulting in a series of reproduced but still unique images. Also, he is concerned with the role of hardware in digital art as often this is only thought of as art if delivered together with a physical medium. Particularly, digital art is expressed through screens, i.e. artificial light. Hans is here researching the possibility to exhibit digital art through other media such as E-paper or more viable QR codes techniques.



Other surfaces for digital art


- John

John was looking into two different areas and projects, one of which he had already started working on some time before Metal, and the other one set by him as a consequence to a theft within the building. Such system consisted in a small camera filming the building entrance, and a system that would perform face recognition, which was partially working – for example, it would struggle to recognize Graham’s beard.
The first project on the other hand, was involving one out of four swan pedalos that were used for the Liverpool Biennale and then sold on Ebay and that John decided to buy. His purpose was to try and create an “open source” swan pedalo: understanding the unconventional combination of the two expressions, and especially how open source implies that the source has to be available, the idea was to actually expore new methods of collective and maybe modifying use of such pedalo, through people’s interventions and suggestions. In fact, the object could maybe be modified by its ‘users’ as ong as it is still usable.
John’s view of his work is that all of it is continuous, and is not made for a sole and specific purpose, which can in fact be seend in the swan pedalo and the ongoing research about it.



Computers do not recognize Graham


- Stephen

Stephen is investigating the predictive power hidden in data. Data sets can reveal recurring patterns if analyzed over time and such patterns can show tendencies on which a possible model of future things to happen can be drawn. Data mining, a practice increasingly adopted by business to profile users and target marketing accordingly, does that by using algorithms to find informational patterns in databases and produce knowledge out of them (KDD). Various forms of divination such as tasseomancy, a method for reading tea leaves, also use data patterns to forsee the future; Stephen is developing a system that juxtaposes KDD and divination methods: a webcam installed at the bottom of a cup scans the leaves pattern and send the images to the computer that analyzes them through algorithms and store them in a database in which the interpretation of the same pattern given by a human user (divinator) is also stored. In doing so, the parallel human-machine vision of data patterns is merged in the production of knowledge.





- Olga

Olga, who is also a PhD student at Goldsmiths and attended our same course, created a light responsive system made up of four light sensors and three vibrating devices whose connection one to the other and then to the body is meant to explore the interaction between the sun and the body. By the time she showed us her project, in which the sensors were attached to different parts of her clothes, they were all responsive although some of the values (especially the one of sensor n4 on the front) had really low values because of the darkness of the room.
Olga is generally interested in infraverbal communication, i.e. the exchange of informations that happens at a non linguistic and more subtle level such as the one of electromagnetic fields and feromons. She is directing her PHD research towards the connection between sun, humans and machines, while the work she is performing with another student is based on interaction dynamics happening out of consciousness between humans, which she is exploring through the use of sensors.



Wired to the sun


- Rob

Rob is working on a system that captures images at set intervals and are affected by light sensors. The images are automatically stored in a remote server and then played as a sequence creating a time lapse effect; the hardware components of the system are a Make Controller to which light sensors are plugged and a camera connected to a Mac Mini. He is using Max MSP/Jitter with a patch that regulates the system and that he had created before joining Metal and edited in order to adapt it to the surroundings at Chalkwell Hall. He showed us some extracts of what has been captured between 4 pm on Thursday the 24th and this morning, resulting in a video where the shades affected by light intensity implied a visual sensation of movement and evolution of the space.





- Markus

Markus is exploring new possibilities in video expression not necessarily based on speech and dialogues but rather focused on montage and post production techniques. He would like to add interactivity to his work as it is something he has not done yet. On Thursday, he went for a walk on the mud (a “non space” in his words) with Graham and filmed short clips which he then edited in order to create a visual pattern. He often adds his own sounds to the videos based on what he’s trying to express.



Walking on mud


- Caroline

Caroline explained that she has not been practicing for a couple of years, and was now trying to explore new areas of research and get back into arts practice: she mainly researched during her stay at Metal, deciding to take on more different kinds of information without narrowing it down too much, in order to identify a focus.
One of the points she got into, was analysing how different means of everyday life exercise control on the very basic tasks of her life itself, such as work, amongst others.




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Graham Harwood invited me to have a walk on the ‘mud’, which was a very fascinating meditative experience. It was shortly before the tide would arrive in the afternoon so we had around 30 minutes to walk through the ‘drill’ of water, which is a little river bed. Interestingly you actually walk in that drill as it has a harder soil than the mud beside, which is very sticky and makes walking nearly impossible.

Since a couple of years I am interested in the phenomenon of travel and it’s impact on the perception of space and dimension. The walk as the ‘basic’ human walking speed provides a very close connection for the individual to its surroundings, sensory experience and memory.

The ‘mud’ walk brought us to an ‘in between place’, which is accessible at certain times either by foot or boat. The space is probably more considered as a water area than a soil area in our psycho geography. The cyclic accessibility interestingly relates to gravity between earth and moon.


stills from video fragment 'UN SPACE'


I filmed a bit and started to work on an experimental video fragment (sketch). The walk as a starting point for creating an audio visual fragment might seem naive, but it brings about a meditative element reminding on the dependence of human activity in relation to its situation of the planets climate condition as well as its unique set up in the universe.

As a result I tried to create an ‘in between space’ visually, which is not easily to locate and which allows the imagination a drift for identifying it.

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Database Divination: Classifying The Machinic Gaze Part 2

Having done the requisite research on tea leaf practice I decided to engage once again in the act itself. I again recorded the process using the same apparatus as last night.

To prep myself for the frame of mind one should be in when doing an act such as this I did some basic four fold breath breathing exercises and also listened to some binaural brainwaves music. It’s important to engage in these actions to enter the mental/psychological space, even if one would consider that space a simple suspension of disbelief, necessary for scrying practices.

I decided to steer clear of the interpretations of what the various symbols I saw meant, but realised that the person who looked into the tea leaves would need some sort of guidance as to what to detect. Usually this guidance would be provided by the tea leaf reader (in a classic instance of mediated agency between bodies) but in the eventual realisation of this concept this guidance will be provided by software who will provide it in order to gather information into it’s database tables.

Once I had completed the gazing and took time to look at the patterns I realised that there was a possibility of using the users input to the database as a trojan horse for the computer to garner information. For instance I could ask the user to count the number of leaves they see and add this to the database. This data would go into the computers view of the patterns, as knowing the amount of tea leaves might be additional data which will let it filter the imagery more appropriately.

Something that I found noteworthy was that upon later inspection of the glass that the patterns within suggested different shapes and combinations to me. This really made me think about the state of mind one has and how much this determines your propensity amenable to perceiving patterns. I wondered if there would be a way to bring out how distilling ones experience into a database could alter your pattern discerning capabilities.

Following this more intuitive engagement with tasseomancy I was on much firmer conceptual ground. I was much clearer about how the interaction between computer and tea gazer would have to be a co-relational relationship, with the computer adopting a pseudo – seer like position as well as acting as a data munging agent. I was also able to devise a provisional database structure into which the data of the divination practice would be entered. This is a rough sketch of how the structure will work


this is a rough plan, awaiting proper ER diagramming


I then set about using Perl to create a DBD interface whereby data could be entered via the command line. I wanted to code this from scratch as much as possible, as I deemed it within my existing knowledge and that it would take just as long to start coding it as to search efficiently across google for a script that approximated to the function which I desired to have. In so doing I was take a cue from Tim Kindbergs decision making process.

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Prototype: Sensing the Sun through Vibration

I finished building the first prototype: a device that allows me to navigate the “lightscape” while feeling with my skin where the brightest direction is. This simple media system allows me to be affected by the Sun (and by light in general) through a different pathway. The idea is to experiment with the possibility of enabling a new sense, opening new channels of transmission between bodies.


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Olga Wired


Olga Panades Wired

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Snapshots Of Digital Scrying

Here are some of my preferred stills of the webcam perspective of tea leaf reading


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