John O'Donoghue went along to the Lighthouse in Brighton to look how digital technology is changing the face of disability art.
Disabled people aren’t strangers to technology. From hearing aids to wheelchairs we’ve been drawing on human inventiveness to give us not just access but options.
So what about our new digital age? Can digital technologies and digital platforms provide further opportunities to make our mark? Can we encode and decode ourselves in the encrypted worlds beyond the headlines?
Short Circuit is an Arts Council initiative that brings together disabled artists and digital twiddlers to collaborate on a range of projects exploring this interface. Last night at Lighthouse in Brighton we were treated to the first fruits of these collaborations in a showcase event, part of Brighton’s Digital Festival.
The producers of the event – Sarah Pickthall and Jo Verrent – told us that they invited a group of disabled artists and their digital counterparts to a weekend at Mozilla HQ in London. Out of this coming together four teams were showing their work.
First up was Dolly Sen. Sen presented a website that had succumbed to psychosis. It looked like any ordinary rather bland corporate website. But then some odd things started happening.
Statements on the site morphed, so that copy about the company was overwritten by odd, intrusive lines: ‘They are trying to change my programming’ and ‘They want you to be deleted’. Links took browsers not to photos of corporate headquarters and glossy product lines but shocking images seemingly spewed up from the site’s subconscious, cybernetic hallucinations from a traumatised hard drive.
Sen explained that the site’s Twitter account would be paranoid, anxious not to attract followers but to elude them. An ebay account offered loaves and fishes as the site started to believe it was Jesus.
Here was an old SF trope – Asimov’s malfunctioning robots, the mad computer, HAL in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – relocated to cyberspace. The piece comes out of Sen’s own experience of psychosis, and was a thought provoking and witty piece.
Next up was deaf choreographer Chisato Minamimura and Dave Packer of Sheep Films. Packer is very much part of the Meme Generation. He showed us little webfilms he makes, Borgesian loops and animations of a hand holding a mobile phone turning and zooming out to show the same hand holding a mobile phone turning and zooming, fractals revolving to tell a story instead of progressing in a linear fashion.
Minamimura then talked about music, and how she wanted to create ‘music’ the viewer could see. This led Packer to film her in a nearby carpark, looking down from above, then using some of the looping and zooming techniques from his shorts to complicate and enlarge the single image into a multiplicity.
They then gave us a live interaction. As Minamimura danced in front of a screen a digital outline of her generated by Packer responded, an image rather reminiscent of the kicking figure from the Old Grey Whistle Test titles.
This showcase seemed to be exploring a number of different directions, and I wondered how far it could go. A ballet with live and digital dancers? ‘Music’ that was scored for dance troupe, not orchestra? The Fractal goes disco?
An intriguing collaboration.
Hearing-impaired film maker Caroline Ward seemed to be working in a similar synaesthesic area, the quest to make a visual music. She presented a film of the Brighton Eye, with found sounds and music composed by Anya Ustaszewski and Dave Mee of Madlabs.
The film images were digitised and the resulting data fed through a couple of programmes that generated the soundtrack. Ward spoke of the piece as ‘lip-reading the world’, and I was struck by the attempt to make signs from reading signs. Indeed, signing seemed to be integral to Ward’s process. This struck me as something almost mystical. For if the universe is a system of signs, then perhaps it has an order. And if it has an order, then who or what has encoded that order?
Again, a piece that was perhaps more suggestive of where it was heading than an actual finished ‘product’, but Ward and her team are opening up the technology rather than allowing its preservation in the hands of a new clerical elite.
Visual artist Jon Adams drew on his experience of Aspergers and dyslexia to tap into the hidden Book of Mozilla – creating sound and visuals in response. The Book of Mozilla is a computer Easter egg found in the Netscape and Mozilla series of web browsers, and Adams further explores themes of the hidden, the obscure, the occluded, and the occult.
In many ways he brought to a culmination themes explored by the other showcasers. Humour, synaesthesia, atypicality, the mystical or at least religious overtones digital technology can transmit, with its priestly caste, and store of arcane or hidden knowledge.
His film and soundtrack was followed by a reading from The Book Of Mozilla, which echoes biblical and liturgical texts to both highlight and subvert all the twiddling.
He’s off to work with Peter Brook in France soon, and I wondered if this purist of the theatre will embrace technologies Adams himself seems to enjoy so much.
So – digital: pie in the sky for disabled artists, the way forward, or just another tool to express yourself?
I’d like to use this piece of digital technology – the DAO website – to conduct a small survey: what’s your own experience of digital technology and what’s your opinion of ‘the state of the art’?