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I've decided to follow Cory Arcangel around on the lecture circuit (not really, but this was the second talk of his I attended this week). Last night he spoke at Dorkbot-NYC, a once a month gathering that meets at Columbia U's Computer Music Center. The theme of these events is "people doing strange things with electricity." Dafna Naphtali and Liubo Borissov also gave talks. (Photos of the event are here. On the top row, Cory is the third picture, in cap and sneakers; that's me in the second pic, holding a cup.) After the speakers I was privileged to see an amazing sight, a shrine before which all electronic music fans should bow in reverence: the original synthesizer, a pre-Moog (1950s) phalanx of hardware built by RCA that literally fills a room. It's a staggering, rack mounted monolith of vintage knobs, toggle switches, patch cords, and vacuum tubes, with keypunch equipment (to enter the music score) resembling manual typewriters holding rolls of player piano paper. The behemoth hasn't been fired up in about 10 years, but it is a thing of beauty.
What follows is something I rarely do, which is dump a bunch of raw notes on the lectures. I'll be reshaping these into an argument eventually. In a nutshell, Arcangel rejects current pre packaged software and makes art at the most basic level by getting inside a Nintendo cartidge and reprogramming it; the other two artists use state of the art digital tools taken straight off the shelf, either alone or in combination with other software. Either can be valid ways of working but in this instance I prefer Arcangel's end results. Because he's a good artist, NOT because he can program.
video game systems - first proprietary code
6502 chip is key: runs atari, commodore 64, early apple
beige recording artists (arcangel, davis, bonn, beuckman) discover it also runs nintendo games
makes political, aesthetic sense to work on that level (reprogramming chips)
you don't rely on proprietary code
you don't rely on libraries
study of the limitations of the system
learned how to crack them thru "lots of emails to swedish kids"
mario bros. - earliest, crudest nintendo game
arcangel uses EEPROM (electrically erasable programmable read-only memory) chip burner - like cd burner - to make modifications to chip
used by "home electronics nuts"
shows ambient video of mario clouds: "that's kind of like the new style"
"actual factory-soldered mario clouds"
"not a copyright violation because not a copy"
it's important to do things down in machine language
assembly language is simple: "if______/then_______"
easier than java
audience member: "so what you're saying is, you don't have to know as much, you just have to do more work"
(UPDATE: I asked Cory by email how assembly language differed from development language (see below); he replied: "Well to put it most simply, one does not have any 'objects,' or routines to inherit from. On a new computer programming language you can usually write something like 'draw red pixel at 10 pixels down and 20 pixels across on the monitor,' and it will appear. In assembly language you have machine level access to the computer therefore you have to actually write the code that will place that pixel there because aside from routines built into the hardware, you are not forced to inherit code from other people. So on a Nintendo you have to wait for the electron beam to jump to the top of the screen [happens 60 times a second], and then put values in certain registers. Then in the brief period that this electron beam is jumping you can draw some sprites to the screen at the values you poked into the microprocessor. I like it because once you get down to looking out for the TV's electron beam, you know you are getting some low level access to the idea of 'video.'")
for super mario bros clouds piece, Arcangel used text editor to identify specific clouds
i shot andy warhol based on hogan's alley
less popular shoot em up game - "pre duck hunt"
cartridge has 2 chips - one for operating system, one for graphics
couldn't do it all in graphics; hogan characters were symmetrical and andy was asymmetrical so had to go into os to find mirroring (UPDATE: Super Mario clouds and Andy Warhol are diffferent types of hacks, per Arcangel: "[Andy] is a hack of the graphics chip although I also had to modify the program chip a little bit because I had to change the colors, and also flip some graphics around because my new characters were asymmetrical. Clouds is just a program chip hack.")
to write the code for the chip, Arcangel uses a 6502 assembler running on a mac; the assembler's code is MPW (Macintosh Programmer's Workshop), a game development language, which runs on top of unix (UPDATE from Cory by email: "An assembler is a program that takes assembly language
[which is a kind of short hand] and turns it into machine code [which can be burned onto a chip]. My assembler happens to be a port of an old UNIX program that runs under MPW on a Macintosh. There are many different assemblers for many different platforms so the idea of it being MPW and from UNIX does not really matter. Sometimes I use an assembler that runs on DOS, and NOW I use one that runs on OSX called nesasm. Usually I would not get into that, but I suppose someone asked me a question and I had to explain exactly what I was using... Actually now I am trying to not use an assembler at all and just write the compiled machine code by hand in 1s and 0s. Just for a challenge. This is because Joe Beuckman and I kinda came up with the idea to be a
real BEIGE members one has to write in 1s and 0s.")
cartridge hacks done in rom, then tested in emulator (UPDATE: as Cory explained later by email: "an emulator is another piece of software that runs a compiled
program for the system it is emulating. They are mainly used so people can play games they grew up on, using modern computers. So for example with a Nintendo emulator, I can play super mario brothers on my MAC." His preferred one is RockNES)
"harder to reverse engineer than engineer" - one audience member takes issue
other project: collaboration with paper rad (Providence RI collective)
telling story with projection in background
(like puppet show?) no, 8-bit version of machinima
one more project: rave videos
writing programs with the mario software (demonstrates blinking geometric grids made from changing background colors - a high speed, better version of jeremy blake's early grids imho) taking advantage of mario's ability to sync up with the tv raster at 60 lines per second refresh rate, which is twice as fast as video (32 lines per second)
tag line: "twice the psychedelia"
audience member: will you ever work with game boys?
"game boy irks me"
"higher end audio"
uses MAXMSP music software
processing audio live
digital chamber-punk ensemble
video synthesis from music
"making fire dance"
synthesized tabla drum - jerkily "dancing" flames (i did not like this - too new age)
music program used: reactor - modular synthesizer like maxmsp
edits "standard fire synthesis effect" in aftereffects, using parameters based on sound.
"communication" - looks like advanced early 90s rave video
ballet dancer with superimposed abstract painting
uses poser program for video of dancer
poser creates transitions between one pose (motion capture) and another
traces of shadow of dancer correspond to sound data
uses studio artist paint program for blue painting overlaying dancer
g-force moderates between studio artist and sound
poser option: "render as painting"
example of mapping sound to image: bass to physical size