John O’Shea

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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Metal DEC Lab Interviews

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



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Processes of organisation

I feel pushed to respond to the entry John made after our discussion on Friday morning as I feel that I have been misunderstood and do not find the label of skeptic appropriate. I wish to outline a few of my current frustrations I have with the cultural environment in the UK at the moment.


The discussion arose from a question of how to continue once the workshop was over. How can the ground covered over the past week be developed further and whether or not we felt there was anything we could do to support each other in our long term goals for the future.


From this we decided that we should try to meet up again in a few months time and set John the role of organising it.


The discussion then turned to the ways in which groups and artists organise themselves and the level of control they have in producing and exhibiting the type of work they would like. John brought up the point that he felt there should be a way to circumnavigate  cultural organisations whom he feels siphon off the (public) funds available and act as gatekeepers in cultural production – artists becoming employees of the organsations when they fulfill the remit set for residency programmes or commissions and do not get to wholly dictate the manner in which they work.


I perhaps did not make this clear at the time, but yes, I do agree that artists should continually find ways in which to produce and display the type of work that they find critically interrogating and should not chase the funding money pot, adapting their methods to suit the desires of the organisations strategic agenda if they do not feel it fits with their own outlook.


However, regardless of whether you are an individual or group working directly with the public funding bodies or you are receiving funds through a supported cultural organisation at some point there will still be the need to provide reasoning for your allocation of funds and evidence of its impact. This is a task in itself and one that requires knowledge of the relationship outlets have to funding bodies and the goals (goalposts) those bodies have had to set and which you must fit into (otherwise there will be no funding). The cultural organisations all came about for their own reasons and in the eyes of funding bodies they must also come up with their own strategic plans for the development of artistic production within their self-designated context. This secondary and perhaps more narrow set of specifications within the funding structures can of course bring about further hurdles for artists to hop over on the way to the fruition of their ideas but these constraints can also be enabling in that they promote particular forms of practice and help to better establish them by developing a platform dedicated to its exploration.


I know I’m going of track here but I suppose what I’m trying to say is that regardless of how we manage to gain access to funds so that we may make and promote our work we will still have to provide reasoning to the powers that be as to why we should have it in the first place. The organisations and individuals still have to spend lengthy hours filling out forms and building the case which can at times undermine the work itself.


John pushed the notion that a group can continue for the longer term without any central co-ordination. I do not feel that a group or organisation can and as I have tried to outline above it is because in the long run, if they want to access public funds or become larger entities in order to further promote their ideas they will then have to take on the role of administration. You suggested that this would be absorbed into the group and members would take it upon themselves to carry out this task in a act of self governance. I then responded by saying that these less artistic tasks will become more time consuming to the point where people will be unwilling to give up so much of their time unless they can have some sort of recompense, namely income.


As Simon pointed out there are pressure points at which organisations do alter their structures, some close in upon their decision making processes, creating a line between management and production and allocating these roles appropriately. It is here that groups must be vigilant in reaffirming the equilibrium so as not to create a hierarchical distinction between the two roles. Rather they should maintain access to broad opinion but not in such a way that it becomes an endless and debilitating task – seeking to strike a balance and knowing when to move on or quit.


The insistence during the discussion of entirely open means of organisation where everyone is self-governing, especially in light of funding cuts when opportunities will become all the more sparse, feels a little too close to the recent conservative initiative of the ‘Big Society’. People willing to offer a significant part their time for the greater good. A reasoning that asks people to absorb disproportionate cuts in public spending brought on by the economic crisis by a Government that is trying to get out of providing key public sector services (health, education, culture etc) yet protecting the very financial infrastructures that brought this situation about. I suppose my frustration has been unfairly directed, instead I should be asking the core question effecting all of these instances which is how we value cultural production because at the moment we are pushed into viewing it as a direct capitalist transaction and have to quantify it in monetary terms to prove impact within society. Currently we are being pushed further and further into treating artistic production as a consumer object or service, one that requires a proved rate of return on investment and I find that the re-appropriation by the Conservatives of the long established practice within arts communities of self-organisation into their ‘visions’ for society a difficult pill to swallow. I believe that public provision of culture is something that should be protected and feel it is not being accurately defended against and ever encroaching commercial value system.

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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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reference points

Some reference points:

The point I was making yesterday in discussion with Graham regarding a two-tiered understanding of the nature of law – part “natural” : part “technological” – is largely drawn from my reading of H. L. A. Hart’s late sixties text: “The Concept of Law“.  This very accessible book was completely at odds with existing legal orthodoxies at the time of publication (late 60′s) however, today it is widely regarded as a benchmark and primer for undergrad law students.  It went to print around the same time as McLuhan’s “Understanding Media” and this may give a clue as to why McLuhan never explicitely discusses law in terms of his conception of “media”, as this idea of law as technology would likely have been outside of his understanding of the term “law” (and indeed the contemporary understanding of the idea of law.)


Regarding some of the pitfalls of operating institutions and projects without agreed structures I would refer to this 1970′s pamphlet “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” which maps the rising feminist movement and how its absolute resistance to replicating prior (male) hierarchies actually sowed the seeds of power for the development of hidden & unspoken elites which limited the movements development.

By the way, continuing the discussion on absolute positions, my thoughts regarding this debate in technological culture have formulated a little since yesterday: I would like simply to state that, from my perspective, it is wholly possible to “drill down” and engage at a deep level with cultures of software and technology without constantly beginning from base elements (silicon, electricity) and core principles (the Enlightenment, Linux OS) and that the constant “hammering” of these particular reference points is in danger of being interpreted as simply the same-old high-culture vs. low-culture snobbery-binarism in disguise.

To try and make this argument I would point to the resonant example of sampling culture in Hip-Hop / DJ music where often artists are not musicians in a traditional sense – they do not use (nor would they know how to use) traditional instruments or notation in constructing their music – instead they work from the available and existing musical culture within which they live, allowing this to “flow through them.”  In my experience a similar strategy can be taken to working with existing consumer technologies and that, if this is done with a level of critical awareness, then this approach can actually subvert, rather than replicate, “the system”.

I’m interested to know if other people find this analogy useful?


My final reference to be shared (on a separate subject) was the text I referred to “The Construction of Social Reality” by American philosopher John Searle: In my reading convincing arguements are made here for the material (even biological) consideration of events and factors in the social realm as being objectively “real”. (I have this book in the car.)

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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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