Newcastle on the electrofringe

Felena Alach

Newcastle: This Is Not Art festival…a 4-way conjunction of the new media-tech festival electrofringe, the National Young Writers Festival, the National Student Media Conference and Sound Summit 2001. This diverse cross-section of interests descended amidst grand-final-fever in Newcastle to explore an extensive program of workshops, panel discussions, project expositions and forums by day, with evenings offering all kinds of entertainment in the form of sound experiments and visual collaborations.

Navigating a dense schedule was relieved somewhat by my brief to focus on new media arts, implying mostly electrofringe content. This Is Not Art (acronym alert…) presented a broad overview of the state of the creative ‘fringe’, providing crossing-points between a flourishing underground of youthful enterprise and more established structures. Organised largely as non-formal presentation forums, the relaxed and amicable style of delivery provided mostly interesting and enlivening discussion with a high level of audience engagement. There were a few hit-and-miss hazards, certain forums suffering a frustrating lack of direction/focus, or thwarted by tech-glitches/panellist no-shows (such as the mystery of the elusive Mark Dery). Overall, content was generous and most sessions highly rewarding.

With pragmatics, playfulness and politics intersecting in the realm of creative appropriation, one key theme of TINA discussion centred on copyright, exploring the ethics of ‘cultural recycling’ in the use of ‘sampled’ sound/images/text within creative practice. This topic reveals the marginal status of those applying non-sponsored creativity towards technology, within the grey-zone politics of ownership vs authorship in the age of digital reproduction. Citing “the glamour of theft” and “the pleasure of the intertext”, San Franciscan Steev Hise discussed the censorship dilemma for artists working in sample-based appropriation which led to the development of his site as a secure, non-censored server for such artists. In an entertaining flipside to creative appropriation, Mark Gunderson (Evolution Control Committee) exposed leaks in the now defunct Napster file-sharing phenomenon, where people unwittingly allow computer soundfiles of their own (excruciatingly) personal recordings to be shared by lax default settings. These dodgy karaoke moments and pillow talk, as unconsenting gems of kooky source material, present hilarious examples of the fruits of creative trespass, with such anonymous authorship throwing questions of privacy into discussions of the creative ethics of ‘fair use.’

The balance between politics and play within appropriation-as-subversion emerged through topical discussion of ‘culture jamming…art or activism?’. (‘Culture jamming’ implies symbolic/concrete interventions into the public space of communications, introducing noise into the signal of ‘the proper’ economy of status quo commercial/official interests.) In the shadow of the recent shock of spectacle terrorism and its military responses, the forum on resistance politics, subversion and art was thrown into stark relief. In arguing the question of effectiveness—either as art or activism—within the elusive hit-and-run tactics of cultural jamming, the frustrations of such symbolic resistance revealed itself a necessary altruism for those who choose peaceful, non-militant modes of cultural critique (to whatever degree such subversions manifest as material interventions). An example of such creative interference was presented by Andy Cox (Together We Can Defeat Capitalism) with the (re)launch of the pseudo-corporate para-sites www.citibank-global-domination.com and www.citigroup-global-domination.com. This web intervention masquerading as bank home page (cunningly tweaked to pop up high on key-word searches) creates links to legitimate wilderness group sites, revealing factual information about the global/environmental impacts of this and other banks’ activities.

electrofringe presented highly informative workshops offering practical insights into digital tools, complemented by interesting panel discussions on online environments, multi-user virtual ‘worlds’, and developments within the gaming industry. With unanimous emphasis on the importance of freely accessible and ‘open-source’ software for lateral applications of digital ingenuity, one important topic was that of customising software through ‘patching.’ This is the process where software is altered through manipulating its source code in order to offer new tools for digital manipulation, project development and creative novelty. Presentations included Anne Marie Schleiner’s curated examples of gaming culture art and experimental game patches such as alternative character ‘skins’ for established games (see www.opensorcery.net); the use of existing game engines as a base from which to develop a 3D environment as with the interesting game project Spookyville; Celine Bernadeau’s discussion of current game industry developments; and other engaging discussions on the future of the ‘global village.’

Other tech presentations focused on current technologies for processing audio/video signals in realtime, with excellent tutorial workshops in software tools such as MAX/JMAX. This also opened up a view into the arcanely fresh phenomenon of vision mixing or VJ-ing using realtime manipulation of video to generate either images in response to external audio sources, or combining a complete AV signal with ‘scratch’ techniques of cut-up collaging to create an integrated sound+vision ‘musicvideo.’ UK feature guest Vicki Bennett (aka People Like Us) offered both consummate performance in vision mixing as well as engaging workshop discussion on the technical processes. Other VJs offered excellent examples of this recent media artistry throughout the festival, a greatly appreciated visual content in the program. Also worth mentioning were the excellent Archimedia screenings and other random site showings that manifested in the streets and venues of Newcastle.

electrofringe, directors Joni Taylor & Shannon O’Neil, part of
This Is Not Art festival, Newcastle, Sept 26-Oct

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 20

© Felena Alach; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2001