Graham Harwood

MadLab Manchester 15th May 2011

Wider Implications of Software Culture

The Event

  • What: Salon discussion and short presentations at Mad Lab in Manchester
  • When: Sunday 15th May – 2pm-4pm
  • Theme: “Open Source vs. The Big Society”


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.


Theme for this event: Open Source vs. The Big Society


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


Rooted in practice, the event will facilitate greater peer awareness, cross-pollination and hopefully instigate conversations which need to be had!

Origins: Listening to Firefox emerged out of discussions held at the 2011 Metal/DEC Digital LAB held at Metal’s Chalkwell Hall in Southend on Sea. The LAB was facilitated by artists Graham Harwood and Simon Poulter and attended by 8 artists from a wide spectrum of disciplines.

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A class of old habits

The elegance of coding is a topic that popped up regularly in the conversations between the participants of this lab. Graham Harwood inspired me to think a bit more about coding in general. This phrase on Wikipedia seems to summarize well what elegant code should be:

… a computer program or algorithm is elegant if it uses a small amount of intuitive code to great effect.

I do not consider myself as a pure coder, but I might begin to understand why I am so attracted by the act of coding. There is simply something beautiful about an elegant piece of working code.

During this week I managed to spend some time with Processing. Not much, but still I rewrote some old Actionscript to function in Processing and turned it into an ‘elegant’ class. Then I browsed the available ‘Getting started with Processing‘ examples and in a very basic way plugged in my class. Here is a result of these ‘messing around sessions’:

Processing exercise

Obviously it resembles my previous work in Actionscript since I simple reused my old code. But I have it now in an elegant reusable class. The very traditional wish for visual beauty in art is matched by a very similar ‘feel’ of beauty in writing code.

It think I still need these kinds of visual outputs just to show or communicate to people what I sense while writing ‘elegant’ code.

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CCTV in Operation on these Premises

Yesterday evenings theft of jackets from the inside of the doorway* of Chalkwell Hall re-kindled interests I have in CCTV.  See below Chalkwell Hall’s sophisticated Media Management System:

The simplistic rhetoric surrounding widespread usage of CCTV in the UK (coming both from those who would advocate the use of CCTV and those who would oppose it) had already been on my mind, and I think this is because several of the technological presentations over the last few days have echoed dystopian visions of panopticon future:

- flowcharts, system and control diagrams for user (meaning person) management
- massive multimedia education/propaganda systems for the adjustment of attitudes
- indoor and outdoor locative systems for the tracking and monitoring of persons

The fact that this house is equipped with such a high-tech system of cameras and monitors and yet does not use any CCTV for the purpose of crime prevention struck me as particularly ironic following the thefts, so I decided I would have a go at using Chalkwell Hall’s much celebrated Media Management System to make a simple closed circuit television monitor system (like those used in pubs and clubs) which would be able to watch the front door:

There are several reasons why I wanted to do this but a simple motivation was to get a feel for how this media management system works (or doesn’t work) and to see exactly how accessible the system is “with the wires out”.

I decided to reposition one of the cameras and, whilst playing with it I found that it had a face recognition system onboard which was, in my experience, fairly sophisticated for an off-the-shelf domestic appliance.  The camera setup could be programmed to recognise individual faces by storing a photograph and then comparing biometric measurements in live footage.**

I tried out the face recognition with a few different people and it was successful at distinguishing and recognising their faces.  I would have liked to have programmed in all of the inhabitants of the house for the week and in this way built a system for distinguishing invited guests from intruders but the camera (Panasonic HDC-TM700) can only store reference images for 3 different faces.  I looked at hacking the camera and expanding for this capability (eg by adapting the firmware or using an API) but after a little research this seemed like a heavy approach to making this quite light sketch.

I decided instead to repurpose this unmodified consumer device for use as a kind of surveillance/screening system which would be able to search for and compare three pre-assigned faces.

The three people I chose to introduce to the system are facilitator Graham Harwood and our two esteemed guests due tomorrow – Jude Kelly and Lewis Biggs.  Portrait images of each of them have been taken from the internet and uploaded to the camera (without their consent) and now each time someone comes through the door their face is compared to a portrait of Graham*** Jude and Lewis.

(Below) Reference files stored in the camera on the three individuals:

Graham Harwood Image:

Jude Kelly Image:

Lewis Biggs Image:

* thankfully the jackets were recovered the following day

** I struggled to understand what practical purpose this face recognition system would have for the target demographic of the camera (families etc.) although, Caroline pointed out that the tagging of photos has become a commonplace procedure on Facebook and could be seen within a wider trend of adding different kinds of meta-data to images.

***Later this afternoon the system was unable to identify Graham using the photo held on file (perhaps because he sports glasses and a versatile beard). When Jude and Lewis arrive tomorrow I hope the system will recognise them!

Guidelines for CCTV:

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A little bit of history repeating itself…

We have been talking about the open source, proprietary debate within this lab. Harwood is very clear that we are surrounded by ‘technologies of power’. His recent work takes on a forensic quality asking questions that illuminate current technologies. Where does the energy come from to power our laptops? What is the human cost of the industrial revolution and now the post-industrial out-sourced production base? A framework that for him has manifested as a series of contraptions. Connected to this is the adoption of open source processes and ethical production models, so within this debate PERL runs before FLASH, LINUX before MacOS etc.

Tim Kindberg, also contributing, takes a different line. In essence the design processes and production models are directed towards a successful robust outcome. Still experimental in mode but utllising what works. Harwood’s assertion is of course that the very way in which these technologies are configured ends up directing the outcome.

John O’Shea has been experimenting with a Swan Pedolo as an open source form. This serves to break out of the orthodoxy of open source tropes (LINUX, PERL etc) leading off in a new direction. The vessel becomes a platform in its own right for creative expression and tension. Perhaps what comes out of this is the need for more debate around open source development, that leads us away from familiar territory located around software and hardware. (Simon Poulter)

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