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Anthropomorphising pixels!

So, some discussion has emerged over Twitter as to the point of the final verse of poetry in Free Pixels (a new short film written by me and directed by Kavita Kapoor).

2 types of people seem to be responding to the film – actually, put more accurately 2 different approaches to the film seem to be apparent.  This is as should be as the film is trying to do at least 2 things which could appear at odds with each other (although I don’t believe that they need to be).  Firstly the film is asking questions of technical and technological limitations to the progress of mobile media devices.  The limitations of boxes and screens – devices with a finite shape.  There are many concept videos out there which are tackling the same issue – possible solutions include projection phones, folding and rolling LCD screens and even the sixth sense device featured on TED talks.  As adventurous as all these concepts are, they are primarily technology concepts and as such are bound by ideas dependent on what is plausible according to the technology w currently have.  These are great ideas but all dependent on understanding the device first.

Free Pixels is also a concept film, but it is working in technologies that are probably impossible or at least beyond what we can comprehend as plausible.  It seems to me that this is very important.  Attempting to realise a concept beyond the realm of what is conceivable is where divergent thinking excels, where originality could blossom or of course it could amount to no product outcome at all but this does not equal a futile process, far from it!

This means Free Pixel is doing two things – it is attempting to conceptualise a new technology but it is also risking an excessive reach of the imagination bordering on Science Fiction.  Some have responded to the film with questions around the technology and the plausibility of such a device.  This is an important part of the film’s point – indeed, the director comes from a software / programming / design back ground and a stretchy technology was her dream.  The film is supposed to generate these sorts of technological ponderings.  However, we are fairly confident that no metal or mineral exists on Earth quite capable of creating the device in the film (although K Kapoor would know more technical details than me). If this is the only level of response to Free Pixels, the film may seem daft to you or at least frivolous – this is one response emerging.  This rather ‘techi’ response to the film is apparently frustrated by what has been called the anthropomorphism of the pixels at the end of the film.  One viewer said he was not convinced and that he “simply didn’t see the point (or application) of imagining pixels in that way”.  Well, I believe that there may be at least two reasons for imagining pixels in that way – firstly because most people would say that there is little point – that’s the point.  Yes it may mean that the concept is confined to the world of Sci-Fi, but Star Trek was imagining flip phones over 40 years ago.  Elements like mercury melt together and there is plenty of further scope for complex magnetics – I am not trying to suggest that ‘free pixels’ are plausible – only that it is not a waisted imagination.

Secondly, the film is a poem.  Poetry is the language of imaginations – the literary form that will not be bound by grammar or ‘correct’ syntax.  Poetry is the form which breaks out of the box – each word in a poem is the pixel that breaks out from the screen – empty on its own but when combined with other unconfined words forms images and smells, sounds and tastes, textures and emotions.  Poetry is the art of metaphor, the micro practice with meta significance.  What I have loved about this project is the way that the film itself has embodied its meaning – the frustration between belief and actuality, imagination and plausibility.  When Henry Jenkins writes about collective intelligence and ‘the wisdom of crowds’ he is asking about how people function in this new media world where there is greater choice and connection, where we are a complex pluralism of talking, sharing creators, where the structures and institutions of a traditional world no longer hold us in a recognisable shape.  Today’s post traditional world has a crumbling school system and models of religion and family in huge transition.  The ‘screens’ and ‘boxes’ have cracked.  The question of anthropomorphism is not merely about the pixels, it is a poetic device hoping to encourage us to reflect on people and our collective imagination and how that might function in a world with less explicit boundaries.

I only hope that the device we have made in the film exists metaphorically, even if we are a long way from its literal invention.

The discussion continues.

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In response to Rog Mitchell on 24th October 2010

You know when you read something or hear something and it just sound right. In fact in sounds so right in your gut that it’s hard to comprehend that there is anyone anywhere who doesn’t think that way, or at least wouldn’t think that way if they heard it like when you listen to THIS by Ken Robinson for example. Well this morning I read a new blog entry by Rog Haydon Mitchell.  This is really worth a read.  I think this concept of the ‘exception’ is really helpful.  For me, it helps make sense of where the power centre really lies.  I spend a lot of time wondering why things are hard to change – things that have institutional context like mainstream factory education or the commodification of culture or the medical model of health care.  Whenever someone directly addresses issues of injustice or disempowerment in such contexts, their contribution is invariably one of those contributions I have referred to in the opening of this post; one of those moments when you know you’ve heard something right and ‘true’.  You feel empowered at having heard it and hurriedly tell your friends.  You post links to the video / podcast, you tweet extracts from the essay, etc.  Everyone who hears it concurs that this is great and ‘spot on’ yet even with all this agreement, we see the same bull shit sustain itself and win our consent!  How?  Well, I’m still working on it but it has something to do with the ‘man behind things’, the ‘self devourer’ (read Rog’s blog). Money and power eating up learning, culture and health.

When I was a child (must have been around 10 years old  because I was in my cabin bed) I also had my worst nightmare to date. I say worst because like the nightmare Rog described, it lived in my head as an authentic fear for many weeks and although I have had more disturbing dreams (like loved ones dying) I have always woken happy in the knowledge that I have escaped the dream.  This nightmare when I was around 10 is still a vivid image in my mind today, much as described in Rog’s blog.  In the dream, I had a fleshy cork in my forearm which popped out and stuff and fluids poured out – I could not get the cork back in.  I’m struck by similarities in these dreams – the visceral imagery, the right forearm and the detached or out of control nature of the dream’s subject.  It also occurs to me that my generation is the offspring of yours – that modernity self devoured and post modernity bleeds and leaks all over the floor. The product of the self devouring is a boy with his substance and contents leaking away. Obviously this is all dream speak and metaphors – I don’t mean to personalise the people involved or set up a modernity Vs post modernity competition, just interpreting aloud.

So, how to stay hopeful in the face of such a ravenous self devouring man?  Well. I thought I’d leave it with another link to another one of those contributions that just sound right in the gut.  Tony Benn is also considering the ‘devouring man’ that is money and power who he suggests may literally devour himself in biological and nuclear devastation if left unchecked and he leaves us with hope as his possible way forwards…

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Technology meets Imagination

I have just finished working on a short film which is being entered for the Sheffield Doc/Fest.

What an interesting project to have been involved in.  Initially I was only the script writer but as a team of free lancers picked up various opportunities for paid work, I found myself acting, then editing and even learning how to animate for special effects. The out come is a home made and fairly amateur film but all the better for it.

Thanks to Kavita Kapoor (the film’s producer) who saw my festival show last summer (Hope for Robots) and saw the potential for its premise to be explored in short film form.  Essentially the premise for the production was the quote from Ivan Illich which opens the film. We wanted to explore the activeness or indeed passivity of people in their interface with the ‘tools’ of today.  I soon found that I was more interested in the ideas around imagination than around the concept of technology’s limitations. We may have started out thinking about the technical limitations of our tools and why they can’t live up to our imaginations (a point of frustration still very apparent in the final production) but a second layer emerged which is of ever increasing interest to me – why have our imaginations become limited by technical pragmatism?  Why have boundaries based on what is plausible been imposed on relational and collective imagination?  How do we get out of the box?  As thinkers like Ken Robinson and David Gauntlett point out, we will need whole new levels of imagination and creativity to tackle the unknown and probably troubled future which we have devised for ourselves and any ways forward are likely to come from collective and collaborative free thinking which is not hemmed in by the limitations of what we have currently got.  We need to find ways of seeing beyond the reach of the light we currently have.

As the project developed I began to enjoy the script more by thinking of the ‘pixels’ as metaphors for all of us.  ‘All of us’ being elements of a larger picture, each forming our colour, making our contribution to a larger image; each of us unaware of how essential our ‘lighting up’ was to the big image visible from Space.  As the metaphor extends, I wonder what the boundaries are that limit us pixel people, that keep us contained, that allow us to do our shining but only within set and managed perameters?  I wonder if factory models of education and hierarchically structured religions and Empire shaped politics are the frames which keep our collective imagination within status quo boundaries.  I wonder if Ken Robinson and Ivan Illich are onto something as they seem to suggest disestablishing schooling as we know it, I wonder if the recent ‘deconstruction movement’ in many churches was modelling something important.

It could be that our complex future can be tackled better if we remove (or at least break some holes in the boundaries that have contained and managed us pixels).  And as the film asks, would we be merely silver dust if such structures or controls were lifted?  Would we collapse into a heap?  Or I wonder if, given time, pixels and people might develop properties or skills so that they can function with no such screen, no frames.  People who function through choice rather than obligation.  Could some sort of chemistry or magnetism mean that pixels want to collaborate?  Is it in their very ontology, their DNA to want to link, to refer to one another and to match light and colour and if allowed to do so unrestrained – what sort of pictures might we then paint?

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Time to park…

The title of this post comes from a suggestion that was made to me recently by one of my employers. I currently do at least three things… I’ve always found the ‘what do you do?’ question difficult to answer and a fairly useless starting point if the objective is to meet me and figure me out. ‘ What makes you tick?’, or ‘what are you about?’ seem better questions. As a writer and poet, I often have to write bios for press releases or event blurbs and I often find myself saying something like:

I write and rhyme and learn and teach, I’m an educator and an artist and a dad.  I’m a researcher and student, a social commentator without institution.  I’m a bard, an imaginator and a performer.  I hope. –

But not necessarily in that order and everything overlaps and my preference and priority shifts around dependent on the day of the week.

I guess you can see why I dread the ‘What do you do’ question.  My vocation is fairly clear in all the different bits I do but my career is – well what is that – career I mean?

I’m now 31 and pressure has landed on what I should do primarily…  As my colleague said ‘It is time to park’.  I am a bit torn over this.  On the one hand, my training of youth is in its seriously latter stages and I have become a generally well educated professional and experienced artist with a decent portfolio of performance and publishing (it goes without saying that I am still primarily a learner; more aware of my journey that any sense of arrival but) I am increasingly good at my pursuits and vocations in different fields.  And possibly therefore, I have become more interested in influence and while those who know me would hopefully vouch that I have no real interest in power or dominance, I am keen on change and transformation in culture and education.  A move from system to relationship and from product to process.  I am keener than ever to add my voice.  To participate a contribution to ideas about creativity and collaboration.  So is it time to park?  Time to choose a route, a career path into a place of influence and recognition?

On the other hand the pressure to park, to choose the route, to play the ‘snakes and ladders’ game, to join ‘the rat race’, ‘climb the pole’ etc seems to buy in to a soulless and commodified model of career and power.  I like and value the ‘portfolio’ approach to life that defies catorgarization and breaks the dualistic ‘in/out’ approach to progression and development.  I like being out side the institution of education and arts/entertainments so I can throw stones at the glass house but I also find being in it important so that I have to take responsibility for the windows I break.

The question is how does one move forwards to influence and invoke change in a commodified and systemised shape of careers and education without having to park in one area?  If I stay spread across a range of skills, jobs, expressions, does it follow that you stay at the invisible bottom of that field?  Jack of all trades and master of none.  Does the integrity to influence ideas and approaches require authority in an office.

What are the persuaders which have informed me to want to resist taking control or becoming powerful – is that wrong?  Is all top down leadership inherently corrupt (I feel like it would be if I did it) It’s all micro empires either way even if it’s for the change you believe to be right.  What has conditioned me to want recognition and influence?  Can you have the latter without being seduced by the former?  I feel that collaboration is key here because it’s always compromised and dependent on plurality but it also has a life of its own and is hard to influence if you have a clear idea of what you want to express?

Is ‘Change’ a false idol?  Maybe being inspired to change and engage transformation is flawed anyway because in fact we all exist in flawed systems which can never be ‘better’ but just arranged differently and the pros and cons are just shifted about in a huge process of swings and roundabouts.  The conversations are exciting but the outcomes tend to only produce frustration as the new change still needs changing.

I’m guessing that this conundrum is a normal ‘passing 30’ sort of conundrum.  Becoming the generation of contribution and leadership rather than the generation of training which I have been in until now.  I am very lucky to have dispensed with feelings of obligation to tradition or traditional ideas of family, career, education, religion, law, etc.  I am a product of a post-trational context, but while I am relatively free from obligation, I am passionate about embracing responsibilities in line with the skills and contributions I have and I am trying to decide on the way forward preferably without parking.

Posted in I wonder..., Learning and Education, Stuff like philosophy | 3 Comments

Remix – It’s how our kids speak…

So I’m reading a book at the moment called Remix by Lawrence Lessig. He’s featured on this blog before because I found his book ‘Free Culture’ so brilliant and you can also watch his TED talk below where he outlines some of the key points…

His new book is brilliant and no doubt this book will be as important to developing my thinking as Free Culture was.
The new emphasis is this book that is so good is his fresh concern for what message is being communicated to our young people when we call innovation and new creativity ‘piracy’!  What is the effect of branding participation and new remix production as ‘illegal’ – the reality is we create a whole generation who knowingly and willingly live their cultural lives ‘against the law’!  From my perspective as someone interested in education and grassroots – ‘home made’ culture, I am engaged by ideas around how we empower and equip all people and learners of all levels  as collaborators and contributors and how we create a context in which people find their element – their identity – their unique contribution to the tapestry of growth and life and this seems stinted by a context in which we are simply receivers of corporately owned culture and intellectual property…  Where a kid experimenting with downloaded video, or an artist deliberately re-mixing audio samples is risking prosecution.  This tightly controlled climate is counter intuitive in the current landscape of creativity.

I was also struck by an article in ‘The Economist’ this week  which suggested that copyright law needed a massive review because it has become a restriction on creativity and this idea coupled with Williams’ thought below on the importance of ‘every voice’ to social well being means that such restrictions on everyday home made culture are damaging to society.

This idea of societal damage is then very interesting in the ‘hug a hoody’ climate of a forth coming general election where the ‘broken youth of Britain’ idea exists across the leading parties.  Does apparent ‘rebellion’ in youth culture (if that is what it is) surprise anyone when everyday creativity which is promoted and facilitated by a new multimedia landscape is restricted and these very acts of creativity often misrepresented as piracy of even terrorism!

I will blog more as I read more but i highly recommend the book and the area of study generally.  Lessig is also one of the guys behind the ‘Creative commons’ movement which offers an alternative to current copyright.

Posted in Arts and Culture, Learning and Education, My research ideas, Stuff like philosophy | 1 Comment

Word of the day…

I have defined the word of the day for Wordia.com In fact I did two so there is another one to follow soon… It’s all part of Poetry week. Still, there’s some great poets up there this month, defining some interesting words in interesting ways – Check out Henry Stead and Dean Atta and Niall O’Sullivan and George Chopping…

and now me too!

Posted in Arts and Culture, My Art / Films / Words..., William Stopha | 1 Comment