May 24, 2016

Being Good Now

This track was designed to sound best on small built-in laptop or phone speakers.


Hi Claudia,

Thank you for asking me to write a bit about my work and history, and excuse me if I gripe about being asked to talk about art and technology. I understand, it seems like a natural subject for someone like me, who has been doing technology-based art for my entire career. It’s a “jacket” I can’t shake off, the notion that I must be interested in talking about technology per se since my music and art have been so firmly based in it.

I hit upon using technology to make art because I was interested in the possibility of things coming to life, having some autonomous or interactive behavior of their own; the computer seemed like a tool that would allow me to make things that act that way. It’s never really been about trying to use machines to carry out with precision my own ideas, but rather to build things that have a rich repertoire of possible — and possibly surprising and eye-opening — behaviors. This comes out of my basic conviction that art is for reminding us that whatever we think is happening, there’s more than that going on: it’s always about opening a space, rather than filling in or reinforcing some illusion of certainty.

Of course there is a certain price to be paid for signing onto the technology team in art, and that has been to be associated with the technological art and media world. I suppose I actually have a very old-fashioned art idea behind my work: I’m just trying to make music that I find enlightening and beautiful. The tools available now are useful, but the work has never been about technology; it’s about hearing and seeing things that haven’t been available to our senses before.

But It seems that with my resumé, the only people who would seem to want to hire me in any art-oriented capacity are mostly engaged in a kind of tech cheerleader-ism that sort of turns my stomach, and seems to always include teaching technologies. I admit I’m being cranky here, but really: are poets expected to teach their students how to use Word?

I’ve been doing electronic and computer-based music since I was in college, those many years ago, bushwhacked then by a head-ringing blend of systems theory, new technologies, psychedelic drugs, avant-garde art, and a diluted Buddhism (via Alan Watts and John Cage) that was swirling around at the time.

Amid all these big wonderful cultural influences, there was also a strong personal influence in my life then: conversations with my friend Gabe, a philosophy student. I loved staying up all night talking philosophy with him, but I never had the attention span or perhaps the intelligence to actually get much out of reading the massive tomes of Kant and Wittgenstein and Hegel that absorbed him. At the time I was full of music and art ideas I wanted to carry out, but Gabe always said: “why bother, once you’ve had the idea?” Thankfully he never talked me out of the desire to actually make things! I never really developed his taste for extreme abstraction that seemed to go with a commitment to the field of philosophy.

I remember a friend of ours once saying, “When people ask me what’s new in philosophy, I’m tempted to say: in philosophy what’s new is not important, it’s what’s old.” A related idea — and this pretty much sums up what I retain from those late night talks — is that throughout history, according to Gabe, all the philosophers worth reading have been up to essentially the same thing. They each made a bid to understand the world, not just engaging in an abstract exercise, but motivated by a deep-felt need to figure out how one should live. In short — to use a way of talking about these matters that’s not particularly fashionable at the moment — they were asking how to be good, now.

The paradox is that to do this same thing — in short, to think — is not just a matter of applying the wisdom of thinkers from earlier ages. Their answers are useful, we can draw insight from them, and our present is impoverished if we remain ignorant of the depths of the past. But thinking has to be fresh, in concordance with the world we’re in, because the  real question is how to live right and be good in the world now. The problems at play in the present — always, throughout history — are unique to the present. So this ancient process of always doing the same thing always demands different new ideas.

I saw a “profane” version of this sacred conundrum laid out in a talk by the boss of Pixar. Pixar’s problem is how to be an organization that turns out artistically and financially successful animated films, one after the other.  They know that they can’t do the same thing over and over, or think “we have the formula now,” and just apply this formula to come up with the next one.

Our problem in living is similar: we want to make something new, again. We want to be in time with the moment, make the good response to the moment, and the current moment is always different than it ever has been before.

So what is the nature of our current moment? Obviously technology is a big part of it — tech completely dominates our consciousness. It’s become the symbol, the cartoon, the icon of what it means to live now. But the world we live in, as always, is new in many ways, and technology is only one aspect of its uniqueness. It’s a strange economic situation, it’s a strange conflict of cultures, it’s the eruption of wisdom and barbarism in new places and arrangements that couldn’t have been foreseen. Inasmuch as we make technology the exclusive descriptor of our current times we cheat ourselves, we oversimplify our ancient task of how to live now, perhaps even forgetting about it completely. Sometimes it almost seems that the point of the technology is to make us forget.

Technology is being used as a sort of air freshener, a way to avoid the complexity of the world and the stinky and maybe repugnant nature of what is facing us. We talk about the Arab Spring, saying it was “really” about Twitter, or that teenagers’ social problems spring from spending too much time with their phones. We talk of Uber, AirBnB, etc. as great technological accomplishments, but really, what is Uber? It’s a way to pick up a phone and call a cab. Technologically, it’s a weekend project for any half-competent web developer, one whose scent of tech “disruption” covers the bad odor of its exploitative and socially regressive business model, which is its deeper nature. Tech seems to have become a universally applicable distraction.

To be future-oriented is the kind of science-fiction-y highest value we cherish currently, but isn’t this form of forward-looking really a matter of focusing on a very thin slice of the recent past? We don’t know anything about the future, but somebody in Berlin a few months ago made some new kind of music we’re just now hearing about, and some lab somewhere last week invented something promising — both aspects of a narrow recent past. To this basic orientation that cuts the deep past away as irrelevant, we’ve more recently mixed in an aversion to actually thinking too much about the future either, because people are so skeptical and fearful about the way things are going. So we are left on a very thin knife-edge of a narrow present, in which we congratulate and hypnotize ourselves with our astounding technology. We’ve taken our moment, our present, and pared it down to a rootless and hopeless sliver, all our connectivity notwithstanding.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I don’t want to live in the past. There’s always something difficult going on — so what else is new? — but I’m madly curious about what comes next. I want to keep making, hearing, and seeing the things that are only possible now. I’m with Ovid, who said, somewhere around 20 BC, “Let others praise ancient times, I’m glad I was born in these.”

be good now,


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