Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day
The Post-Bit Atom

I'm writing this essay in the courtyard of Goodworld, a Swedish bar in Chinatown. Around me are members of the digerati, white Americans or Europeans with Japanese friends, united by a common language called HTML.

I hear wafts of conversation about G4 servers, Flashmedia, metatags and plug-in filters. Outside, though, we're in the heart of Chinatown. Vegetables are being sold on the street in cardboard boxes. Melons are lined up in rows. Living crabs are scuttling around in barrels.

It may seem contradictory, but it's not. High-tech and lo-fi -- bits and atoms -- are very compatible. Look at a melon with the eyes of someone who's been rendering textures in Bryce all day, and you can only wonder at its beauty. Somehow, you understand it. Nature seems to use computers too.

The natural and the digital work very well together. The digerati use the same unvarnished plywood in their galleries, studios and workshops that the Chinese use to rack their vegetables. It has the same look. A simple plywood box may house a G4 Mac or a lobster.

When you go uptown to Madison Avenue and 6th Avenue it all looks so retro now -- '6th Avenue Modernism', they call it. The Trump Tower, the Max Mara store hark back to an age when smoothness, slickness and machine finish were prized for their own sakes. When gargantuan impersonality seemed like a virtue.

Before all the skyscrapers and luxury leather goods stores moved to China, poor people from 'ethnic' countries would look at pictures of these buildings, these shops and marvel. Now it's the other way around. We use our computers to make things which are rough, unpredictable, intuitive, folksy. In today's digitally literate craftwork, there's a post-bit way of arranging atoms.

Listen To The Voice Of Buddha

I finally finished the Human League cover version Skippy from March Records has been (gently) requesting for months. After an aborted attempt at 'Love Action' I focused on 'I Am The Law'. Skippy had to phone the song down to my answering machine because my copy is buried under ten tons of boxes in a Manhattan Mini Storage unit in Tribeca.

My version, which will appear alongside efforts by The Magnetic Fields and the Aluminum Group, is very homemade. I mean, it's homemade on two counts. It was put together (rather laboriously) in my little digital home studio. Actually, it was pasted together in SoundEdit 16 the same way I work on an image in Photoshop. It's a totally Photoshopped song. But the 'photos' or sound samples I was working on were really wild Native American violins, so it's 'homemade' on a second count: it's got a wild, scratchy feel, with odd timings and lots of texture. The Law in question is no longer much to do with Sheffield Magistrates' Court. Now it's some sort of implacable turtle god holding the world on its back.

Missing Indians

The track I sampled was a field recording of American Indians on an ethnographic CD I found in the Smithsonian Native American Museum at Battery Park. I've come to this museum twice now to marvel at the beadwork and hear the folk tales held in little digitised video clips on sort of TV-shaped ATMs where, instead of money, oral myths are dispensed.

I'm fascinated by the idea of the 'missing Indians' who used to own and inhabit the island of Manhattan, and so famously sold it for a trunk of worthless beads. But I'm not at all trying to strip away the modern city and see them in some sort of unspoiled purity. I'm interested in the fact that they survive as digital spirits, and that the transformation of this city into Multimedia Gulch is making necessary their channelling, their reinvention.

You can hear the Missing Indians in John Cale's viola and Laurie Anderson's violin (my Human League song sounds remarkably Velvet Underground-like, it also resembles one of the narratives on 'United States I-IV', I suppose because it mixes ponderous ethnic drums and violins with early 80s electronics).

Brian Eno once said he disliked computers in the studio because the ratiocination they require reduces the intuitive and illogical things musicians do, and that he was waiting for the computer to 'get more Africa in it'. Well, that was a while ago, and I think we can say that computers are getting more African all the time, and more Native American to boot. Sitting Bull is visible in digital form on the screen of this viewing post, and the computer understands the beadwork patterns his womenfolk are using too. The computer, far from being their nemesis, speaks their language.

The Hungry iMac

It's not just the beaded and feathered ghosts of the Mongoloids who once populated Lower Manhattan and have been replaced (not inappropriately, I think) by Japanese fashion students slumming on their parents' money, making beadwork art objects at Cooper Union. It's also the computerised pseudo-ethnic thing you can hear going on in, say, Max Tundra's 'Ah, There's Deke Now -- Let's Ask Him' (off the excellent album Some Best Friend You Turned Out To Be), where a skittering handmade rhythm accompanies a battery of childish recorders being puffed by -- I'd say -- a computer-rendered rondo of dancing Indian-boy braves. Of course, it's all a figment of Max Tundra's computer's imagination.

This homemade yet hi-tech quality is actually evident in early Human League recordings like 'Being Boiled' (which wonderfully mixed raw synth sine waves with the imprecation to 'listen to the voice of Buddha'). I remember seeing The League in Edinburgh in, I think, 1980. They were still in their art school phase, with two reel to reel tape recorders playing their backing tracks and a slide projector shooting Star Trek images onto a couple of screens. It was futuristic and homemade at the same time. All I've done in my cover is exaggerate that a bit. Now we're in 'the future' it seems less necessary to stress the computer side of things. What's really interesting is to take the omnipresent computer and use it to make, I dunno, basketwork.

The computer has done the math bit. Now it's hungry to learn needlepoint.

Section B: Of Indeterminate Length

I was in a cafe the other day being, as usual, tortured by my inability to shut out the background music. Being a musician, I foreground music, even background music. This was some awful classic rock station. But then on came Dylan's 'Subterranean Homesick Blues', which has to be one of my favourite songs. What I really like is the moment when the bass player doesn't know when the band is going to change chord and hit the chorus and you hear the whole band treading water, defying gravity and mathematics, trying to keep the thing plausible as they turn that crucial corner with Bob. I'm so glad they put the song out so rough-edged and homemade sounding. That's what really makes it, and makes the banality of the chord structure and melody forgivable. (Of course the hipster nonsense of the lyrics is great, and it's all about rhythm -- a rhythm Plastic Bertrand revived in the brilliant 'Ca Plane Pour Moi').

You can hear a similar rawness and hesitancy in Bowie's 'Jean Genie', where the band seems to go early into the chorus and Bowie says 'Get back on!' Knowing Bowie, though, it was very possibly contrived as a homage to Dylan. I guess in both Dylan and Bowie you hear a calculated rawness, spontaneity as a statement, just as you do in the post-computer work of Max Tundra or in my Human League cover. That spontaneous sound often comes only after hours of fine detail work in software. I spent the best part of a day making those ethnic violins sound as out of tune and out of time as they do. The more I work with computers, the more I think you have to make things sound 'wrong', because otherwise computers make everything sound so 'right' it's inaudible and idiotic. That's one of the last things we humans can do, get things wrong. Without that there's no possibility of innovation, and precious little to be interested in.

A Hay Bale House

I think a lot of people reach a sort of technical perfection in their art and get bored with it and start reaching for the homemade and the handmade, fetishising the imperfections and irregularities they find there. Japanese potters rate the rough yakimono ceramics used in the tea ceremony over smoother, more finished types of bowl. Architects are rediscovering the beauty and efficiency of traditional materials like hay bales.

I would love a hay bale house!

The most interesting challenge for people who have made jet planes is to design an ultra-efficient kick board or foot scooter like the Razor, a craze for which has been sweeping Tokyo and New York this year. Often computers are used to make traditional designs work in new ways. Like the Stealth bomber, which couldn't fly without computer stabilisation of its clumsy irregular lines, buildings are now being built with new acoustic and structural properties which are both natural and 'post-computer'. Frank Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim is one example, and his cardboard furniture may well have been computer assisted too.

Rem Koolhaas and Hans Ulrich Obrist's Cities On The Move exhibition, which I was lucky enough to see in both Vienna and London (we were both on the move between 1997 and 1999) had a lot of this post-electronic homemade stuff in it, including a brilliant little house made of cardboard tubes built on a foundation of recycled Asahi beer crates.

Computer Drugs

Computer-age homemade is about the convergence of a number of things:

Computers can do math which enhances the efficiency of simple materials.

Resources are scare and people want to make the best use of them.

Crunching data -- pictures, songs, texts -- on a computer makes us more aware of the formal mutability of things. ('A digital city's more easily changed than a city of concrete'.)

The perfection available with computers has left us unimpressed with glossy textures. Now we ask our computers to randomise things, fuck them up. An artist like Max Tundra is often hailed as 'sick'. It's meant as a compliment. He's exciting because he manages to make his computer sound ethnic. It sounds like his computer takes drugs and dances round a campfire.

And what I want to know is, where can I get some of that acid for my Mac? How can I invite the ghost of an Indian squaw to live inside my computer, and scratch a modified violin, and sing? The personal computer was born in 1981. That makes it 19 this year. I think that's probably the right age to experiment with drugs.

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