elaborate excuses

better late than never

Hello! I said that I was aiming to put these out every two weeks, so I guess this one is a little late? If you want consistency, I think you’re better off someplace else. I am nothing if not fickle.

It’s more of a weekend thing anyway, an email newsletter. Something to read over a cup of coffee on a Sunday afternoon. I might stick to weekends, I might not, best to keep you on your toes about this sort of thing.

I spent ages recently thinking about cultures of craft, about post-capitalist modes of production, and about the free software and maker movements, their similarities and differences, their shared origins in techno-libertarian ideas. You’ll probably see why when you get to the recommendations section below. Anyway, I wrote something long and kind of polemical, and then I read it back and decided I disagreed with it completely. So I’ll spare you that this week, but it might resurface at some point.

innately enjoyable activities

This weekend was the Bristol Light Festival. Artworks for light festivals are often part of a strange genre of public art, not so complex or interactive as to draw the attention of games criticism, slightly looked down upon by the visual art mainstream. There can be a whiff of embarassment about this kind of work, an idea that making something simple and enjoyable is beneath us.

I went around the festival with a small group of friends, all “arts professionals” of various sorts. To begin with, we were all a little snooty about the whole thing. We’d go see the ones that people we knew were involved in. Oh, maybe we’ll go see that other one, it’s on the way. This isn’t as good as the last bit. Oh, I actually quite like this one.

By the end, we were all having a great time. The universal favourite was the wonderfully titled Wave-Field Variation Q by Lateral Office and CS Design, a set of light-up see-saws, each of which played a set of electronic sounds. We all had a go on it, bouncing up and down, appreciating the art.

A group of friends took a walk around the city. They looked at some pretty lights, made some jokes about giraffes, talked about the nature of art, played on a see-saw. On the way home I thought about this tweet from my friend George Buckenham, a game designer:

I think sometimes, as artists, we overcomplicate things. We decide that everything has to have a message, something to say, that every aspect of a work has to be shot through with its opposite, a reflection of the underlying complexity of life. Maybe we are just giving people elaborate excuses to engage with their friends, to think about things that matter to them, to engage in innately enjoyable activities.

recommendations

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Emilie Reed’s Speculation Jam has finished – lots of writing on imagined futures for video games and the internet. All of the entries are well worth looking over, but I particularly enjoyed Freya Campbell’s First Person Stimulator (I now desperately want to make a long slow game for an e-ink device), and Everest Pipkin’s gift game, about imagining a smaller, more personal internet.

Joanne McNeil’s new book Lurking: How a Person Became a User is about that experience of being a human being on the internet, making strange one-way social connections to other human beings, mediated through technologies built for our use by people with agendas of their own. I first heard about this book about eighteen months ago when Joanne gave a reading at Babycastles in New York. I sat in a dingy Manhattan basement, extremely jet-lagged, listening to Joanne tell a story that could have come from my own adolescence, about being a teenager on IRC in the late 90s. I gave a talk/performance myself that evening, which is a jet-lagged blur, but I can remember Joanne’s reading like it was yesterday.

I mentioned Dominic Smith’s newsletter last time, but I jumped the gun slightly because he’s launched a Kickstarter for his moon photography work. At time of writing, he’s just a few quid short of his goal. You can chip in now and you’ll get some stunning prints of carefully curated bits of moon, for essentially no money at all. Go do that now, I’ll still be here when you’re done.

One of the triggers for my abortive screed about tech cultures was this piece by Robin Sloan, about a little messaging app he built for just his immediate family. It’s a powerful idea, being able to make exactly the thing that you want, just for yourself. I think it’s often the reason people take up skills/crafts/hobbies like woodworking or knitting. When it comes to software though, it always gets weirdly instrumentalised: learn to code so you can be more efficient, automate your workflows, build “products” or “services”, whatever. Sometimes all you want is to have a nice thing, something that you made yourself and you can be proud of.

The latest episode of the This Should Work* podcast interviews Amanda Hudgins, who makes various alternative controller-based video games. It’s really interesting about what it’s like to have a non-commercial practice in a highly commercial field. It left me thinking a lot about how the wide variety of computer software means that our hardware interfaces are reduced to a lowest common denominator, keyboards and screens that are equally unsuited to editing slide decks and to making music or playing games.

actual news

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We’re running a festival/exhibition/thing! I say “we”, I am but a small cog in this machine, but we’re calling ourselves a “collective”, so I can claim as much (or as little) credit as I want.

It’s called Control Shift, and it’s about computers, human bodies, and how those two can work together without capitalism getting in the way. Everything is happening in June in Bristol: there’ll be a weekend of talks, workshops, etc, plus a two week exhibition of artworks around the city. More details in our open call, please let us know if you’ve got something you can contribute.

I’ll be running a workshop of some kind (along with Becca Rose Głowacki), about the future of social networks, mostly based on Darius Kazemi’s Run Your Own Social. More details on that closer to the time.