The future of research events?
(partly developed thoughts follow that I’ll probably edit a lot..)
I’ve been scratching my head over organising modern events over the past few years.
There are some really good examples, such as:
- ICMPC/ESCOM, developing an evidence-led, hub-based model since 2018 that increases participation, affordability, and diversity, while substantially reducing environmental cost
- NIME, building up excellent resources for NIME research, while developing a serious ethical and environmental policy
- PDC, as with the previous two, considering environmental issues as part of their ethical approach, with a very interesting hub-like model ‘PDC Places‘
It’s great to see how these scientific conferences consider ways to cope with disaster, despite ostensibly not being environmental research conferences. (Unfortunately many more are not doing so, an upcoming art-science conference/festival even has environmental themes, with no ethical/environmental policy, and as a result implicitly encouraging ridiculous levels of short term, long haul travel, with the aim of ‘returning to normal’ as the health emergency abates, despite the environmental emergency as pressing as ever. Frankly, this is willful ignorance that amounts to a kind of soft climate change denial, or at least greenwashing.)
However the above are pretty large-scale conferences, and it’s a bit harder to know what to do with smaller events and symposiums. In February 2020 I co-organised a pilot distributed event with Iris Saladino, with small audiences in both Beunos Aires and Sheffield as well as online as individuals elsewhere. The pandemic wasn’t a consideration – the new coronavirus wasn’t a thing when we were planning and fundraising for the event – but the environment was. So this is one approach, focus on a cultural/research exchange between two (or maybe more) in-person sites, while also having people to drop in online from elsewhere to add additional perspectives.
This model of linking up rooms seems more humane than having 100% online participation only. I’m involved with a collaboration with participants in both the UK and Berlin, and it feels so much more engaging when we have meetings as a linkup between two rooms, where more than one is in both rooms, rather than a monster zoomfest with an individual in each rectangle view. It reminds me of the placard headphone festival, which started in 1998, with internet audio streams linking up rooms full of headphone listeners in Paris and Tokyo (later spreading elsewhere). This feeling of listening together, and connecting to a room of others doing the same, is a different kind of experience to listening to an online stream alone.
Nonetheless there are of course big upsides for 100% online events (i.e., those with no in-person locations), in terms of being potentially excellent in terms of accessibility, low environmental impact and speed of organisation. There are ways of promoting shared physical experience in these events, such as sending excellent food to participants to enjoy together (a tactic explored well in thentrythis workshops), at times shifting focus to listening rather than watching (where hearing is a sense of touch), and incorporating physical activities into events (e.g. allowing participants to propose hands-on craft activities relating to a research theme).
With so many events ‘moving online’ over the last few years, we’ve probably all had some bad experiences. Some massive ‘meat market’ style conferences were already an ordeal, and trying to work through a marathon of intense and complex talks is not any more of a reasonable proposition when you’re sitting alone with no possibility to escape to the cafe with a newly discovered colleague. This move has also lead to overcrowding of online schedules. We should put these experiences aside, and continue the experimentation that has gone on since long before the pandemic arrived.
I think it’s also urgent though that we stop tolerating conferences without an ethical/environmental policy. Perhaps it’s good to ‘call organisers up’ first, asking them how they are responding to the environmental emergencies. If that goes nowhere, we have to start calling them out, by writing collective open letters, etc. It’s now rare to see all-male lineups in conferences, and I think that’s in large part because people have done this campaigning work. It’s about time that a conference organiser should be similarly embarrassed to not have an ethical/environmental policy that they follow.
How generative art works
I’m fascinated with this video:
At the start Sylvie Rasch shows a sock that she says is completely done by the machine, with no adjusted stitches etc. Then she demonstrates how its done, immediately dropping half the stitches in the cuff in order to redo them by hand to make the ribbing. This would clearly be a very difficult and error-prone, manual process for anyone who wasn’t an expert knitter. There follows a lot more manual work to create the heel and toe. I’m really impressed by the socks and having struggled to handknit a pair of socks once myself I’m keen to try it.. But I’m also interested in how we sometimes spotlight our machines while side-eyeing the all craft skills that are still necessary around them. Unless you just want to make tubes, this ‘machine knitting’ also needs a lot of handknitting with a crochet hook.
This reminds me a lot of how generative or ‘AI’ music works – by an arduous manual process that is aided by some automation, but the composer is very keen to edit themselves out and make bold claims about their composition process being completely autonomous. David Cope is one example among many.
There’s something really alluring about automation but there are also deep ironies around it, as Lisanne Bainbridge outlined brilliantly nearly 40 years ago in her paper “Ironies of Automation“. For exampl if you automate something, you still have to have an expert that looks after it when it goes wrong. However if that person isn’t actively engaged in the now automated process, they lose the necessary expertise. Bainbridge saw this clearly in the 80’s and we can see it today with the Tesla crashes etc.
This isn’t necessarily bad, you can half-automate a process while staying hands-on as Rasch does in the video with the circular knitting machine. The Digital Norway looms (TC1 and TC2) are similarly designed for automation with continuous human intervention, where pneumatics select the warps and the human hand passes the weft. Lea Albaugh’s personal Jacquard loom takes this further at a less industrial level, where she has designed in ways to change the selected warps by hand.
I have to relate this to live coding as well.. Generative art is about automation, but live coders twist this – by making code changeable on-the-fly, they turn things back to hands-on craft.
I’m not really sure why we’re so keen to edit ourselves out of technology these days, and in a way I think it’s an urge that’s probably best resisted.. But this isn’t an argument against formalisation or automation. Whenever we really manage to formalise something to the point where we can automate it, that generally just creates new ground for human exploration.
Ursula Franklin’s tech project checklist
While I’m in the beginnings of a new tech-oriented research project, I’m getting a lot from Ursula Franklin’s “Real World of Technology” lectures, which contain the following checklist for projects:
“… whether it:
(1) promotes justice;
(2) restores reciprocity;
(3) confers divisible or indivisible benefits;
(4) favours people over machines;
(5) whether its strategy maximizes gain or minimizes disaster;
(6) whether conservation is favoured over waste; and
(7), whether the reversible is favoured over the irreversible?”
“The viability of technology, like democracy, depends in the end on the practice of justice and on the enforcement of limits to power.”
“.. one can ask, “Who has given the right to publishers to suddenly dish out their newspapers in individual plastic bags that just add to the already unmanageable waste? Who gives the right to owners of large office buildings to keep wasting electricity by leaving the lights on all night in their empty buildings?” These are not questions of economics; they are questions of justice — and we have to address them as such.”
“Reciprocity … is situationally based. It’s a response to a given situation. It is neither designed into the system nor is it predictable. Reciprocal responses may indeed alter initial assumptions. They can lead to negotiations, to give and take, to adjustment, and they may result in new and unforeseen developments.”
Here Franklin notes that technological development and often comes with loss of reciprocity. A phone conversation can contain genuine reciprocity despite the loss of body language, but much technology comes between people and real give and take. I’ve certainly felt terrible after doing online performances where any audience has no way of responding. Online ‘webinars’ are very hard to engage with when you aren’t allowed to ask questions directly. ‘Communications technology’ too often comes between us and stops us from communicating.
Divisible or indivisible benefits
Franklin makes the difference clear:
“If you have a garden and your friends help you to grow a tremendous tomato crop, you can share it out among those who helped. What you have obtained is a divisible benefit and the right to distribute it. Whoever didn’t help you, may not get anything. On the other hand, if you work hard to fight pollution and you and your friends succeed in changing the practices of the battery-recycling plant down the street, those who helped you get the benefits, but those who didn’t get them too. What you and your friends have obtained are indivisible benefits.”
Of course Franklin is not coming out against growing tomatoes here, but is highlighting that indivisible benefits are rarely of interest to technologists, despite their greater potential value to the society and the common good.
This connects well to open access, free/open source, and datalove in general – not investing in scarcity, but making stuff that only increases in value as you share them. But it goes far beyond licenses, which only takes down one barrier of many. Who really feels able to access the technology you make? Who really ends up doing so?
People over machines
An important, but I think self-explanatory checklist item. Are we making systems for computers and machines or the people using them?
Maximizing gain or minimizing disaster
This is again an ecological but also feminist point, characterising two quite different strategies.
“A common denominator of technological planning has always been the wish to adjust parameters to maximize efficiency and effectiveness. Underlying the plans has been a production model, and production is typically planned to maximize gain. In such a milieu it is easy to forget that not everything is plannable.”
Interestingly as an environmentalist, Franklin describes the approach of minimising disaster in terms of growth. But she contrasts this against overgrowth, or what we would think of as economic growth. This is about a relationship with technology as craft, a kind of activity where we craft in close interaction with a material, with unpredictable results:
“Growth occurs; it is not made. Within a growth model, all that human intervention can do is to discover the best conditions for growth and then try to meet them. In any given environment, the growing organism develops at its own rate.”
Accordingly, minimising disaster is always about taking in the full context of a technology:
“Berit As, the well-known Norwegian sociologist and feminist, has described this difference in strategies. She sees traditional planning as part of the strategy of maximizing gain, and coping as central to schemes for minimizing disaster. A crucial distinction here is the place of context. Attempts to minimize disaster require recognition and a profound understanding of context. Context is not considered as stable and invariant; on the contrary, every response induces a counter-response which changes the situation so that the next steps and decisions are taken within an altered context. Traditional planning, on the other hand, assumes a stable context and predictable responses.”
I find this really interesting. Aiming to create technologies that enable us to cope almost seems unambitious! Why would we aim to ‘just cope’? But to focus only on maximising (divisible) gains means that collectively we are failing to cope. We can only maximise gains by ignoring the very real disasters we are causing by doing so, usually through wilful ignorance.
Conservation over waste
Again this is an important but largely self-explanatory point, which follows from the previous one. We shouldn’t waste things, and we should also build things that are not wasted, or are reusable or remake-able into something else.
Reversible over the irreversible
“The last item is obviously important. Considering that most projects do not work out as planned, it would be helpful if they proceeded in a way that allowed revision and learning, that is, in small reversible steps.”
I really like this one. What we make should be hackable, reconfigurable, not beholden to ‘sunk costs’. We should be prepared to challenge preconceptions, embrace our errors and mistakes, change our minds, improvise, try something else. This also implies not making a break with the past, avoiding succumbing to futurism (at least, the fascist flavour of it) where we work in ignorance of what we have done before.
Ok this was just some rushed thoughts, extrapolated from a single paragraph, which is hidden two-thirds of the way through this really excellent book/lecture series. I really encourage you to jump into the whole thing, Franklin’s characterisation of technology-as-activity, and of prescriptive technologies of control vs holistic technologies of craft is incredibly lucid and prescient.
You can listen to the lectures here, and read it in book form here. Note that the second lecture seems to be missing from the recorded version, although it is really great to hear Franklin’s voice!
Broken symmetry at Civic Sound Week, Rotherham
Last week was Civic Sound Week in Rotherham. This was originally going to be a full blown festival, but changed format due to the pandemic wave, instead becoming a series of drop-in multichannel sound installations. My original plan for a performance collaboration couldn’t happen, and I was invited to do an installation instead.
I didn’t have a sound module with enough channels to hand, but decided not to buy any new gear, and instead use some of the many Raspberry Pis I have, normally for doing workshops. I managed to get seven working and synchronised (using ptpd), and with stereo Pimoroni Phat DACs was able to address 14 speakers.
I’ve been thinking about binary patterns as underlying metrical structure for a while. That is, rhythms that aren’t played, but are implied by the rhythms which are played. So my idea was to record myself live coding seven times, with one of the sessions providing the underlying metrical structure for the other six. I recorded and played these sessions back as keypresses, and each session had a different duration, and all of them were on loop. That created a phase pattern, but where all the sessions were transforming the same underlying metrical structure, which was also changing on its own loop. I set the Pis up in a row on the stage, so visitors could look at the code being edited if they wanted. The metrical pattern was sent over OSC/UDP via the broadcast address, which needed a small change to tidal. My feedforward editor already allowed recording/playback of live code keypresses, and just needed a tweak to support looping.
I only had a couple of hours to record the piece (I wanted to do it in the space itself), and by the end couldn’t really listen to it objectively. But I think it worked, and this is definitely an idea I’d like to explore more, with more time, and more focus on interaction between the sounds being used.
Huge thanks to the Centre for Strategic Aesthetics for the invitation. I’m looking forward to doing more things in Rotherham soon.
Paper: Alternate Timelines for TidalCycles
From the introduction to my ICLC2021 paper Alternate Timelines for TidalCycles:
The TidalCycles (or Tidal for short) live coding environment has been developed since around 2009, via several rewrites of its core representation. Rather than having fixed goals, this development has been guided by use, motivated by the open aim to make music. This development process can be seen as a long-form improvisation, with insights into the nature of Tidal gained through the process of writing it, feeding back to guide the next steps of development.
This brings the worrying thought that key insights will have been missed along this development journey, that would otherwise have lead to very different software. Indeed participants at beginners’ workshops that I have lead or co-lead have often asked questions without good answers, because they made deficiencies or missing features in the software clear. It is well known that a beginner’s mind is able to see much that an expert has become blind to. Running workshops are an excellent way to find new development ideas, but the present paper explores a different technique – the rewrite.
Full paper here: https://zenodo.org/record/5786103
UKRI Fellowship at Then Try This
Here’s a major life event – I’m starting a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship with Then Try This!
This is a four-year, full time fellowship, developing a theme that I’m calling “Algorithmic Pattern”, building on my work with e.g. TidalCycles and the PENELOPE project to explore new technologies based on ancient pattern-making practices.
Getting such a fellowship is an involved process, requiring a lot of help from collaborators, colleagues and friends (thanks!) to even submit a proposal. I wrote an uncompromising and unusual ‘case for support’, involving a wide range of interdisciplinary collaborators, and with a 15% success rate for the programme it was very much a long shot.. At the start I treated it as an opportunity to map out all the things I wanted to achieve in my professional life, and as a kind of experiment in imagining how research could be done in an ideal world. So what seemed like a dream at the start progressed with rising stress levels as things slowly developed towards a reality.
To give you an idea of the process, I started writing the proposal (over many, many pages) back in January 2020, submitted it in June 2020, received and responded to five detailed peer reviews in November 2020, and was invited to interview in March 2021. Then followed a lot of spam-folder searching until I finally got the successful result in May. It still didn’t feel real though, there were financial checks and organisational due diligence procedures to go through, plus an embargo so I couldn’t tell anyone until this month (September 2021). I didn’t receive the final grant offer letter until this week. It’s happening!
One reason that this Future Leaders Fellowship proposal felt uncompromising and unusual is that the scheme is about developing ‘future leaders’, and I really don’t fit the conventional model of leadership. Building and leading research groups in academic institutions has a lot going for it, but often comes with a high administrative burden and other institutional overheads that can distract from the work. Also I think I will always be happier working with collaborators on equal terms, rather than directing a team. Happily, the five esteemed peers, and the sifting and interview panel members reviewing my application bought into a model of leadership that is about collaboration and creating new ways of doing research, rather than building hierarchies.
Indeed one really great aspect of this fellowship programme is that it supports alternative career paths, and unusually for fellowships, careers outside of academia. My proposal is built around the ethos of its host Then Try This (formerly known as FoAM Kernow), a non-profit, independent, open access research lab based in Penryn, Cornwall. I’ve collaborated on research projects with them for many years, and during this time have grown to love their approach to research outside of both academia and industry. For example:
- I share their uncompromising approach to open access and open source, which is essential for open collaboration outside the restrictions of competition. Then Try This only publish open access, and we’re moving towards only citing open access sources as well. The same goes for software and hardware – it’s all free software/open hardware.
- Then Try This have a no-fly policy, and consider the wider environmental impact of everything they do. I don’t think it makes any sense to think about the future without this kind of outlook. (Yet a kind of soft climate change denial is endemic in many universities, where senior academics fly many times a year, even for short meetings and conference weekends.)
- They also take food seriously, menus are considered for every workshop (and for online lockdown workshops, posted to your home). I’ll try to live up to this!
These examples — access to research, sustainability, and sustenance — are just a few examples of what I think are prerequisites for meaningful research, that Then Try This is able to do well as an independent nonprofit. It’s really amazing what Amber and Dave have created and I know it hasn’t come easy. Not only did they put many hours into supporting my application, but also put years of work into creating a space that makes research like mine possible. You can find more about the organisation on the then try this website, including their articles of association and ethical policies.
Well there’s much more still to be said, including about all the amazing collaborators I’ll be working with and the strands that we’ll be exploring. So more posts to come (perhaps on an alpaca-specific blog), but for now I just wanted to share how excited I am to be looking ahead at four years of pure research within such a progressive non-profit organisation. Things can be done differently!
Humane research workshops
I’m thinking about a humane research workshop/conference model, compatible with mid 21st century climate and health emergencies. How about this:
- Two page papers/extended abstracts solicited via public call, and peer reviewed by at least three people each from a diverse panel.
- Chosen papers are presented as pre-recorded 15-20 minute talks.
- These videos are streamed two at a time, in sessions 12 hours apart, and then rewatchable at any time.
- The first of these session has intro and just one talk. The following sessions have one video from previous session and one new one. The reason being that people can watch all the videos by attending half the sessions, and see half the videos as the first premiere.
- Participants attend one session per 24 hours, at the time that best fits their time zone / sleeping pattern. Basically the workshop operates in two ‘phases’, offset by 12 hours, in communication with each other.
- Those at a timezone compatible with both phases are encouraged to join the one which would otherwise have fewer people.
- There could be six talks over four days.
- Discussion is summarised / minuted as text, and shared between the two phases. Part of the final session is for live responses/discussion between authors.
- Authors submit a final, potentially extended version of their paper, to include responses to other talks, published open access.
- Multiple ‘hubs’ are organised (ideally at least one per continent, inspired by ICMPC/ESCOM) where people can watch and discuss the videos together, perhaps building in-person events around the sessions that may or may not be streamed online.
- Bursaries could then made available for a few early career researchers to travel between hubs for cultural exchange, with support for local touring over ~1 month to make the most of the workshop’s emissions budget.
Giving up some responsibilities
It’s volunteer responsibility amnesty day every solstice, the next one on the 21st December 2021. This is good timing for me, so until then I’m going to add to this post with some responsibilities I’m giving up.
“I need to put a few things down. I hope other people pick them up and carry this work forward. But even if no one does, I need to stop, or at least pause for a while.”
I’ve picked up quite a lot of community responsibilities over the past couple of decades, and would like to pick up some new ones, but need to put some existing ones down first.
TOPLAP live coding collective
- current responsibility – running the server hosting the wordpress blog (which is in turn maintained by the excellent Luis Navarro Del Angel) and the discourse forum, and (badly) running a discord chat server. Renewing/paying for the toplap.org domain. I’ve been running a TOPLAP rocketchat too. No-one really has responsibility for TOPLAP as an organisation, it’s pretty defuse these days. I helped bring together the TOPLAP transnodal stream in February which was huge and amazing, but I feel we’re a bit lacking in the organisational structure to make it happen again. I co-ran a TOPLAP livecode festival in 2018 but don’t think I’ll have the capacity to do that again. *edit* oh and the toplap social media thingies on twitter, facebook and I think instagram..
- want to keep doing this? No, I won’t have time next year. I don’t mind continuing to provide server space for the web and discourse server but it’d be better if someone else took it on really. That said very happy to support others taking things on, with advice and help.
- next step I’d love for others to take over these responsibilities but I’m not sure how to go about that. Without action I fear TOPLAP will fade away, but maybe that’s not a bad thing if it leaves space for something else? The rocketchat has gone quiet now people have mostly moved to discord and telegram etc, so I’ll shut that down at the end of August 2021 (warning and consulting people about this some months ago). Drop by the forum or drop me an email if you’d like to get involved and pick up some responsibilities!
- current responsibility – overlapping with TOPLAP above, running the algorave website which these days is mostly a gig listing, although I fear quite a lot of algoraves don’t go listed. Renewing/paying for the algorave.org domain. Similar to the TOPLAP transnodal stream there have been worldwide algorave streams celebrating its birthday etc but not for a while, could do with some organisation. Algorave is coming up to its tenth birthday next year and it would be nice to do a distributed event for that. Mostly though algorave is an unproductive brand which people seem quite happy to spread around the world without coordination, which is great. Still, it would be nice to have more communication between the different algorave organisers. I co-organise algoraves in Sheffield when there isn’t a pandemic on. *edit* Also the algorave twitter/facebook/instagram profiles/pages.
- want to keep doing this? Again I don’t mind continuing to provide server space for the web and discourse server but maybe it’d be better if someone else took it on. Generally would like to move to more collective organisation.
- next step I’d like to put some effort into making something happen for algorave’s birthday in March 2022 but then step back and focus on other things. It’d be great if other organisers reached out to each other to keep things moving and maybe working out what to do with algorave.com.
TidalCycles live coding environment for algorithmic pattern
- current responsibility – tidalcycles.org is collectively run via a github repo with raph leading on the documentation which is excellent. Tyler kicked off an ace series of online meetups which have been great and are getting a lot of support.. and Andrea has taken on the Atom plugin and putting loads of work into pushing that forward. So I feel that tidal has a proper life of its own now which is great. I’m still accepting personal donations on the website but will soon switch this over to an opencollective page for a shared donations pool. In terms of Tidal as a free/open source project, I still lead on development, approving and commenting on pull requests, and am currently exploring a current rewrite. Julian Rohrhuber leads on SuperDirt as original and primary author of that part of the project. I also maintain the tidal social media profiles although they aren’t so active, and host the club.tidalcycles.org forum and tidal discord although that could be more organised/collectively run. I was running an online video course although won’t have time to add to that in the foreseeable future – all the materials are now in the creative commons. I also spend a fair bit of time answering questions from beginners up, and have mentored ‘google summer of code’ projects the last two summers.
- want to keep doing this? Generally yes I want to stay involved, although the project needs to continue becoming more organised and generally get better at being welcoming of new users and contributors I think. Tidal itself needs to become more accessible, especially in terms of becoming easier to install.
- next step The recent summer of code project by Martin brings us very close to a binary distribution of Tidal, automatically built on github actions, just needs a last push to get supercollider/superdirt bundled up and we’re away.. Would be great to have some energy from others into this, to get things working and tested on multiple platforms. Passing on primary organisation of the forum and social media profiles would be great too, they could all do with a refresh. More iterations of the tidal club multiday streams would be ace too. Having others lead on moderation of the discord would also be good. I still feel I want to lead on the development side of the core Tidal pattern library, but as others contribute more PRs this could shift naturally. It’d be great if someone could take on organisation of regular or semi-regular tidal ‘innards’ meetings to get people working on different aspects of Tidal to coordinate more, and make the most out of Martin’s summer of code work.
<more to follow in future edits..>
Voicing code with Eimear O’Donovan – IKLECTIK residency
We had some pandemic-related challenges, but Eimear + I had a great time collaborating as part of a residency for IKLECTIK. Here’s a stream of Eimear + I jamming, with Eimear on voice + drum machine, and me live coding using their voice as source material, using TidalCycles+Superdirt with the live looper by Thomas Grund. Later in the video I introduce some Tidal features implemented during the residency.
Here’s the full info about our residency, including our project blog. Hopefully we’ll be able to perform in a live venue soon !
Live interview with Music Hackspace
I’m really looking forward to joining JB from Music Hackspace to go through the pre-history, history, present and potential future of Tidal, possibly in that order.. Here’s the youtube live stream, if you click on it you should see the date + time in your local timezone, and click to get a reminder:
More info here:
Livestream: TidalCycles – growing a language for algorithmic pattern