Friday 29 March 2013

Re-writing Easter

It's been lovely seeing on Twitter the number of people I follow who are excited about lining up new books for the Easter weekend. I went on a splurge this week with a stash of book vouchers, and came home with this pile:

At the moment though I'm neck deep in Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding, and kicking myself for not getting there sooner. I'm really worried about Mike Schwartz, you guys. Can anyone reassure me that it's going to turn out okay?

I also have a Instapaper stack to get through, which includes:

I'm going to spend quite a lot of time at Te Papa's new permanent collection hang, Nga Toi (and there's also the new Arts Te Papa website to explore, optimised for mobile devices). I'll head along for Shane Cotton's talk tomorrow and hopefully Robin White on Monday, and squeeze in at least one midday playing of Michael Parekowhai's red piano. I've also been saving Moving on Asia at City Gallery for the long weekend, and I have radio notes to write and a little side project to work on every day, plus some other bits and pieces you don't need to know about. Easter. It's here now.

High rotate

A slightly soppier, slower, more sentimental selection.

Wales (aka Samuel Aaron Bennett) is a new discovery - sparse and spangly

Delay Trees are nothing new in their native Finland, but are new to me. Their latest release - 'Doze' - is from the end of last year and the embed below has three tracks from it. 'Pause' is over eight minutes of what I think of as 'car-jam'; lose-yourself-in-it driving music. 'HML' is quite shoe-gazy and has every girl's favourite refrain: 'just the way you are ...'. And 'Future' reminds me of a super-distorted Weezer.

And finally. Recently I woke up with INXS's 'Never Tear Us Apart' in my head. A friend sent me a link to this lovely, lovely cover - check out the dramatic jacket removal at about 2.10. I love it.

Wednesday 27 March 2013


A lovely piece of branding for the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing by Bruce Mau Design, using Kris Sowersby's 'Metric' typeface:
The letterforms are singular and structured when the logo is ‘at rest’, but fluid and elastic when introducing artwork, weaving in and out of frame positioning UCCA as a leader and an active art space.

via Kris Sowersby's blog.

In the moment

This is one of the best pieces I've read about the pros and cons of 'audience engagement'. Tom Jacobs begins with a story about a young reporter live-tweeting a performance by the Mobile Symphony Orchestra from a special row of twitter-seats (much like my recent visit to the New Zealand Royal Ballet) but moves out into a wider consideration of active and passive reception of arts events and experiences, and the reasons why organisations and institutions are trialling new approaches:

The rise of tweet seats is just one facet of a larger shift taking place in the performing arts—one that champions “audience engagement” and, in the minds of critics, subtly denigrates “passive spectating.” The new conventional wisdom is that it’s vital not just to put on the best show you can, but to give audiences the sort of intense, interactive, personal experience that makes them feel involved in the production. That means prepping your audience ahead of time, debriefing them afterwards, and giving them opportunities to comment or participate as well as observe. In some cases, audience engagement means inviting people to sing, play, or dance along with the performers; in others, to split their attention between the stage and (very small) screen.
Jacobs then goes somewhere smart:
Not surprisingly, many performers and older patrons of the arts hate this idea, which they regard as pandering to the young. But thankfully, the debate over participatory art needn’t devolve into a depressing bout of intergenerational warfare. The controversy raises a number of questions that are hard to answer: Is sustained focus even possible in mass audiences anymore? If not, what have we lost? But part of the discussion, taken on its own terms, boils down to a fairly tractable psychological question: Who, really, is more engaged? Is it the audience member holding a screen and responding to the action with his thumbs, or the one sitting silently in the dark with her eyes glued to the stage?
After a while, we're in mirror neurons and transcendental experiences. There are a lot of questions and opinions, and few answers and little data. But Jacobs does make the interesting point that our passive behaviour in front of art is a relatively recent phenomena:

This isn't the first time that the relationship between artist and spectator has undergone a cultural shift. No one in Elizabethan England was talking about “ye olde engagement,” but that may be because the interactive nature of theater was taken for granted. At the first productions of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, audiences were anything but docile. This dynamic shifted in the late 19th century for several reasons, including the rise of the romantic artist-as-superhero myth. (You don’t talk back to Beethoven; you worship him.) Ironically, the pacification of the audience was largely the result of an earlier technological breakthrough.
As chronicled by Lynne Conner, chair of the Department of Theater and Dance at Colby College, the key moment occurred in 1881, when the Savoy Theatre in London—home of the still-famous Gilbert and Sullivan operettas—“became the first theater fully equipped with discretely wired electric lighting on stage and in the auditoriums.” For the first time in history, the actors on stage could be brightly lit while the audience sat in darkness. They talked or played; we minded our manners.

This reminded me of a 2010 article by music critic Alex Ross, talking about how audience behaviour in performances of classical music has changed. Somewhat presciently, in an article written just over 3 years ago, Ross ends with a section titled 'Tweet your enthusiasm' (although he doesn't necessarily endorse this: his suggestion was for "more old-fashioned – more local, communal" performances). As the 2013 AAM Trendwatch document suggested though, all of us working in the arts are going to have to figure out ways to balance the artists' and the audiences expectations and enjoyment.

Tuesday 26 March 2013

Snap it

Via Kris Wehipeihana on Twitter last night, the lovely Wellington Park Bench project.

Oriental Bay - Wellington Park Bench location #4
As everything Nina Simon has ever taught us about participatory projects shows, it's getting the right ask that is crucial. In this beautifully simple project, a disposable camera is left tied to a bench in Wellington (mostly so far on waterfront locations). A note encourages people to take photos; the photos are uploaded to Facebook when the film's done, and the camera moves on.

Running since late January, the camera has moved around around four locations and only been stolen once (boo, participatory-project-hater). I'm looking forward to travelling along with it in coming months (I will even visit Facebook, my bete noir, in order to do so, but luckily I can also follow the project on Twitter).

The lightness of touch evinced by this project reminds me of another Wellington photography project that I love, Tuhonohono, which every day weaves together a new and an old photo. Imagine if the two collided ...

Sunday 24 March 2013


I have a wee niece, who turned one in late February. For her birthday my parents gave her - amongst myriad things - a fake iPad. A hunk of plastic with app-like icons that make noises when you press them.

My bemusement in that specific moment knew no end. But watching Abby play with screens - seeing her pose and smile when a phone is held up to her in the photo-taking position, seeing her point her index finger to swipe and press, seeing the way she delights in repetitive, predictable responses from the machines ("I press, it beeps, I press, it beeps, I press, it beeps ...") has been highly educational.

In the session on play that I went to at Brain Day last weekend, a number of questions were asked of panellists about whether playing video games equalled play, if screen time should be limited, if internet access should be limited, about how to get kids away from screens and into the real world. I had a lot of half-formed reactions and questions myself that I didn't voice: what about all the games aren't first-person shooters, aren't books just as socially isolating as iPad apps, don't kids need to be comfortable exploring new technology just as much as they need to be comfortable exploring other environments? - and so on.

Many of these concerns and queries have been deftly investigated by Hanna Rosin in her Atlantic article 'The Touch Screen Generation'. Highly recommended reading.

Friday 22 March 2013

High rotate

The original members of the Sugababes (Mutya, Keisha, Siobhan) have reunited, and released a rework of Kendrick Lamar's 'Swimming Pools (Drank)'

Lamar's 'good kid, m.A.A.d city', gets better every time I listen to it. I've recently gone back to the first single, 'The Recipe', with its irresistable hook (What more can I say / Welcome to LA)

Seeing as we're on a kind of theme - The-Dream is best known as other people's songwriter (Umbrella, Single Ladies), but "TRON" is anything but a bubbly love(ish) song

And finish it up by slowing it down and stretching it out - like a less chipmunked The Weekend - with Shlohmo and Jeremih's addictive 'Bo Peep (Do U Good)'.

Wednesday 20 March 2013

On the radio

Today on the radio I'll be talking about a bargain basement David drawing picked up recently by the Met, the BBC's 'Your Paintings' project (which included the identification of a Van Dyck portrait) and giving a round-up of what's happening in galleries around the country.

Tuesday 19 March 2013

Loosely connected thoughts

If I was going to run my dream conference next week - with no boring reality-based questions like 'where?' and 'how to get everyone there?' and 'how to make it free?' - my topic might be: art made by technology.

I haven't gotten very far on planning this, but thinking about it has been sparked by Dan Catt's latest post, on simulated landscape paintings made from simulated landscapes.

Catt has used a Photoshop filter by Alien Skin designed to make digital images look like they were handpainted (inside my head, I feel an all-technology link to Dafen, the painting village in China) creating, as the makers say, "a finished piece worthy of printing on canvas and hanging in a gallery".

He's used this filter to process screengrabs he's made from the website. The above image, of Toronto, shows all the glitches in the map-rendering website that Catt has made us of to create a purposefully fake painting by a fake artist of a fake location. Lo-res images are placeholders for their hi-res versions, resulting in skyscrapers that look briefly like stalagmites, some tiles load more slowly than others, leaving blurry swathes of cityscape. He's also kept in all the elements; navigation devices, feedback button, copyright notice.

Catt's piece took me back to Piotr Adamcyzk's presentation at NDF2013 (the video is online, and at just 25 minutes, I thoroughly recommend you give it a watch). Piotr works on Google Art Project, and in the second half of his talk he goes into some of the weird, serendipitous, almost sublime imagery that the technology throws up, making images that don't - can't - otherwise exist.

Take for example this grab of Sanja Ivekovic's atrium installation, Rosa of Luxembourg, at MOMA. As the works aren't copyright-cleared for use in Google Art Project, they are rendered as blocky blurs (very New Aesthetic). In his talk, Piotr went into these felicitous accidents, and proposed that a new form of art could grow from them.

This is already happening. João Enxuto and Erica Love's Anonymous Paintings, for example, take these blurred paintings and turn them into inkjet prints on canvas, wrapped around stretchers and hung as paintings. There's a Robin-Sloan flip-flop going on here that I find kind of irresistible  and I immediately jump to the recursive loop: imagine these paintings in an exhibition in a museum that's part of Google Art Project, captured and rendered but being obscured again in turn ....

Another aspect of Google Art Project, increasingly available on museum websites, is the extreme close-up permitted by mega-pixel images.

This, for example, is an extremely zoomed tiny part of Chris Ofili's No woman, no cry from the Tate's collection. The artist never saw the work like this - we viewers (except those equipped with extraordinarily powerful magnifying glasses) never have either. If technology is not exactly making new artworks, it's still doing something interesting, weird, experimental, playful and thought provoking. It is, as James Bridle suggests, the emergence in the real world of a digital way of making and seeing objects. And it's got my head spinning.

Monday 18 March 2013

Saying goodbye

My heart lurched when I opened Twitter just before boarding a flight and discovered that Google are shutting down their RSS tool, Google Reader, on 1 July (I felt like their announcement pop-up needed a third button: 'OK', 'Learn more', 'Oh my god nooooooooooooooooooooooo').

Reader is how I consume vast swathes of my internet. I have, at the moment, 98 subscriptions, organised into folders called Art, Books, Advice & up-to-date (mostly web-related), Museum & library blogs, Music, Share, and Product alerts (these are searches that I keep tabs on, for example, 'dowse lower hutt'). It's the third thing I fire up every day (Email > Twitter > Reader > Work email) and one of the last things I look at at night. Over the last month I averaged nearly 100 items a day, and clicked through to about 13% of them.

Reader is where I collect ideas for the radio, where I find new music, where I track my friends and colleagues' blog posts - generally, where I stay on top of things. For nearly 6 years, it's been my daily newspaper; carefully organised to meet my needs, regularly being expanded and pruned as my tastes and interests change. This New Yorker post by Joshua Rothman captures some of my feelings (but as an active, not an inactive, user):
Just as a soldier lives for battle, just as a wolf lives for the hunt, so my Google Reader, I felt, was leading the life I was meant to lead. A few months in, after I’d carefully curated my feeds, my Reader really did seem to contain the entirety of the world of ideas.
When I found out, I felt a very genuine sense of loss. And I felt a strange bond as my twitter feed filled up with friends and acquaintances sharing the same sense of bewilderment and rage. No-one talks about using RSS anymore. No-one talks about Reader. But as Matt Howie put it in a post that explains what Reader does and why it will be hard to replace, "it wasn't easy news to take, since I thought it'd always be around like water or electricity, run by the largest technology company on earth." Between now and July, I will be both appreciating Reader more, and casting about for a replacement service. Because the internet won't be the same for me without it.

Friday 15 March 2013

High rotate

CHVRCHES 'Recover' - icy, airy, a little chipmunky and a super fun transition at about 1.15.

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs' 'Sacrilege' - to much fun to not sing along to, badly and unselfconsciously

Ski Lodge's 'Just to be like you' - one of those ostensibly sad songs that, like 'Boys don't cry' and 'Here comes your man', makes me feel happy.

MØ's Pilgrim - the stripped back original, so you can contrast it with the 80s-inflected MS MR remix below

Thursday 14 March 2013

Trends to watch

Over on The Dowse's blog I've written a summary of the six trends identified in the American Alliance of Museums 2013 ‘Trendswatch’ document: changes in donors' expectations, 3D printing, the convergence of museums and formal education, the Internet of Things & indoor GPS, unplugging, and the return to the city.

While the report is written for the American context, I've found a number of the trends, and particularly the case studies associated with each of them, align really well with things we're thinking about at The Dowse. Happy reading ...

Wednesday 13 March 2013

On shaping words

Two very different pieces on bringing words into form:

First, Cliff Curtis, Notes on being thoroughly edited: the New Zealand writer on the editing process for his first full-length novel. The book is set in small-town New Zealand at the start of the 20th century, and the ex-National Library staffer inside of me was pleased to see Curtis mentioning using Papers Past to demonstrate to his editor the language people in 1902 could plausibly been using.

And then Rachel Kolb, Seeing at the speed of sound - on the experience of lip reading:

Some people are all but impossible for me to lipread. People with thin lips; people who mumble; people who speak from the back of their throats; people with dead-fish, unexpressive faces; people who talk too fast; people who laugh a lot; tired people who slur their words; children with high, babyish voices; men with moustaches or beards; people with any sort of accent. 
Accents are a visible tang on people's lips. Witnessing someone with an accent is like taking a sip of clear water only to find it tainted with something else. I startle and leap to attention. As I explore the strange taste, my brain puzzles itself trying to pinpoint exactly what it is and how I should respond. I dive into the unfamiliar contortions of the lips, trying to push my way to some intelligible meaning.

Monday 11 March 2013

Brain Day

Next Saturday, I'm heading along to Brain Day at Auckland University. The geeky part of me that did as many neuropsych papers as possible at uni myself is thrilled. The art part of me is also intrigued, as the theme of this year's Brain Day is 'Your creative mind'.

While the day is free, seating is limited, and you need to book. I didn't realise this until too late, and so missed out on a seat for the opening lecture by Professor Richard Faull, although overflow seating to watch a video-stream is available. That's more than okay though, because the alternate at that time is a panel discussion on children and play, which hits a few buttons with me right now. I'm also looking forward to Michael Corballis on the wandering mind:
Why do we dream, brood over the past, make up stories, or drift into reveries when we’re supposed to be hard at work? Is it just background noise, like static on an old radio? Professor Corballis will argue that mind wandering is actually adaptive, helping us plan things, find creative solutions, and even define a sense of who we are.
I've increasingly noticed myself creating space to let my mind wander when I have writing deadlines on: it's like I plug in a few seed thoughts, and then try to fool myself into thinking that I'm not thinking about them, in order to let them grind away slowly "by themselves". Likewise, when I'm grappling with a new topic, I can almost literally feel my mind stretching. It "fills up" some nights at jiu jitsu, when it just can't cope with having any more new sequences added to it, or "gets tired" along with my body, and forgets how to make it move properly.

Anyway. I'm excited. And if you're going to be there, let me know.

Thursday 7 March 2013

High rotate

The pop music my neighbours must be getting sick of ...

MØ's 'Glass' - I couldn't agree more with the central refrain

Autre Ne Veut's sparkly but still sad 'Play by Play' - I love that there will always be new ways to sing the simple word 'baby'

Fallulah's 'Out Of It' - I dare you to play this without dancing along.

Quadron's 'Hey Love' - just pure fun

The Flaming Lips' remarkably upbeat 'Sun Blows Up Today'


But if you're going to listen to The Flaming Lips, then it really should be one of my all-time favourite songs ...


Wednesday 6 March 2013

On the radio

Following the summer break and a few scheduling slip-ups, today I'm back on the radio. I'll be talking about rediscovered artworks, an amazing database of art in Britain, and vacuuming-cleaning visitors to the Sistine Chapel.

Your Paintings - BBC

William Blake etchings found at Manchester Library

Titian painting rediscovered at National Gallery of London

X-ray reveals Madonna and child under portrait of Elizabeth I's spymaster

Tourists vacuumed and cooled to reduce damage to the Sistine Chapel

Friday 1 March 2013


Micah Walter has written a very thoughtful response to the notes from my talk around Ben Cauchi's City Gallery Wellington, 'Has the Interent Killed Photography?'.

I'll be the first to agree with Micah that my talk's title was throw-away. I'm terrible at titling things. I should outsource that work. And I should have renamed the talk as my ideas grew, but I really didn't come up with anything better (for the context, which was advertising the talk on the gallery's website in hopes of getting people along. If I was writing for publication, it would of course have the obligatory Short Snappy Statement: Long Discursive Explanation format).

Micah also noted that my talk came from a museum-y, library-y point of view. This is totally true. This is my point of view (inflected with some web, but my web is museum-y and library-y as well). He continues:
My first reaction would have been to talk about the actual “trade of photography.” The time in our recent history when people trained to be photographers the way plumbers train to be, well, plumbers. There was a perception that photography was first, magic, and then something someone could learn and charge lots of money for. This is where photography begins to die. 
That's why I wished as soon as I read this that Micah and I could have presented together. And if we had, we could have work together to explore the quote his post ends on, from Jean Baudrillard’s Why hasn’t everything already disappeared?:
The traditional photograph is an image produced by the world, which, thanks to the medium of film, still involves a dimension of representation. The digital image is an image that comes straight out of the screen and becomes submerged in the mass of all the other images from screens. It is of the order of flow, and is prisoner to the automatic operation of the camera. When calculation and digital win out over form, when software wins out over the eye, can we still speak of photography? [my emphasis]
If we're not still speaking of photography, what are we speaking of? That's a question that could sustain a really interesting debate, from all sorts of points of view.

Anyway. I'm truly grateful to Micah for taking the time to write in response. People don't do that much any more. I hope we get a chance to talk about this in person some time soon.

Emotion and hypertext

A long, thoughtful post on emotion, archives, linked data and hypertext fiction by Mark Matienzo. Make a cup of tea, find a quiet place, and settle in.

(I was particularly moved by Mark's words around the public expression of emotion. After attending Webstock last week, I've realised this is what I want from speakers nowadays: less a call to action than a revelation of their humanity. Even if the words "linked data" and "hypertext fiction" - or "archives", for that matter - put you off, please give this piece a shot.)