My Master of Arts thesis for Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture is called Uneasy Ride. It consists of an artistic part, a cinematic installation, and a written part called Uneasy Ride: Chasing Freedom, Facing Devastation, presented in the form of a 80-page book. Completed in September 2018.
A batch of thesis books fresh from the press.
This thesis examines the essential themes of the road movie film genre and their relation to certain contemporary issues and my own artistic practice. The point of view is that of a visual artist who works with moving image and sound and who reveres sovereignty and equality, suffers from climate anxiety and drives an automobile. In addition to the written part, the thesis consists of an artistic production which is a video installation.
The research material consists of a selection of films, beginning with classic American road movies. The thesis also examines a number of films that are not road movies per se, but they serve as a continuation of the themes, illustrating a vision of a near future that is undesirable but at worst inevitable. Additionally the text examines selected experimental films that are either relevant to the subject matter or influential to the author’s working methods and aesthetic practices. The literary research material includes books and articles that elaborate on the themes brought forth in the films from various points of view.
The research begins with various phenomena influential to the emergence of the road movie genre, from the developments in cinema and technology to the counterculture movements of the 1960s. The themes selected for further study are the pursuit of freedom, the rebellion, and the transformation of the passenger enabled by the journey. The themes are entwined with the Western notions of freedom and the human condition, the long history of consciousness expansion, and environmental disasters.
Additionally the text describes the two-channel video installation also called Uneasy Ride. The artistic process at the crossroads of image, sound and the selected themes is discussed. Most of the material for the work was filmed on the road. The filming trips and the writing overlapped and influenced each other, in particular the experiences of being on the road sustained the written part.
The written part of the thesis uses the films as a metaphor of the human condition and the current global problems surrounding us. The artistic part attempts to communicate on an emotional level and by audiovisual means something unattainable by words alone.
There’s the notion that the artist is always as work, even if it doesn’t always seem like it. At least some parts of their brain are at work. I have to agree, and often it’s not the question of choice but simply the way the mind works. A fresh example follows.
Yesterday I borrowed an old VCR (my own VCRs had been dead long ago) to check out some tapes I made 20+ years ago (more about them later). To test the player I grabbed the first VHS tape I found from my storage. It turned out to be The Hunger (1983), directed by Tony Scott and starring Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie and Susan Sarandon. Unfortunately but perhaps not unexpectably, the old VCR turned out so hungry it ate the video tape right up! I don’t blame the player, it is totally understandable by circumstances – shelved away like the decaying former partners in the vampire queen’s attic in the film would make anyone crave for anything to chew on.
Anyways, I turned to more imminent things on my ToDo-list, making my way towards a thing that had a deadline set for tomorrow (ie. today). The thing was an assignment for a film course by renowned artist-researcher-lecturer Kari Yli-Annala, on topics related to hauntology, Russian cosmism, David Lynch and whatnot. So I had that in the back of my mind while doing the other stuff on my list… but the day grew short and I had to push the assignment over to the last day and get some sleep.
One of my dogs woke me up at 3 am to let him run his errands outside. After, I went back to bed but couldn’t get sleep. Something was bubbling under in the unconscious and kept me awake. And it suddenly dawned on me I had practically done the course assignment unknowingly! Hauntology, the VHS and the VCR, The Hunger… it’s all there and just needs some camera work and writing as a red thread to connect the dots.
Now it’s 7 am and I’m writing this down for personal amusement, having mostly finished the assignment as well as a small media art piece (or two) related to that. More about those later; the Instagram photos here are merely for fun and documentation. This note is to illustrate how the ‘office hours’ are sometimes so off.. and… that the conscious mind is not always up to date on what’s going on.
Out 2 is a collective film installation and related explorative events, inspired by Jacques Rivette’s enigmatic 13-hour film Out 1: Noli Me Tangere (1971). Out 2 investigates “accessibility” to contemporaneity via historical moments. It intertwines documentary and fabricated fragments, also produced in the event, into a sculptural moving image composition.
Out 2 group:
Harri Laakso and Maiju Loukola (artist-researchers responsible for the project), Laura Jarvey, Riikka Theresa Innanen, Outi Yli-Viikari, Saara Tamminen, Jernej Cucek Gerbec, Matti Tanskanen, Niko Nurmi, Ragnar Águstsson, Joel Autio, Eero Tiainen, Valeria Nekhaeva, Niko Skorpio, Ali Mehta, Aneta Atsova, Katja Lautamatti, Henna Herranen, Katri Miettinen, Tatiana Melnikova, Jakub Bobrowski, Ilona Lehtonen, Victor Pereira Pardinho, Jelena Rosic, Adriana Delgado / MA and DA students from ViCCA MA programme in Visual Culture and contemporary art, ELO Dept. of Film, tv and Scenography & Medialab at Aalto ARTS Helsinki.
Installation photos by Maiju Loukola
Frame grabs by Niko Skorpio
Self-portrait as “Ghost” for OUT 2
(Niko Skorpio, October 2016)
This essay examines a speech given by Neil Armstrong at the Apollo 11 25th Anniversary in 1994. Certain things he said have caused a lot of speculation in the ufo conspiracy theory circles. I came across this speech while doing some research on the conspiracy theory culture. (For ViCCA, 29 April 2016)
Video footage of the speech can be found on YouTube.com under the title ”Apollo 11 25th Anniversary” (see above).1 Besides Armstrong, the other speakers are president Bill Clinton and vice president Al Gore. I focus here on Armstrong, whose speech begins at around 2’05”.
First he addresses the people present, cracks a joke about parrots being the only bird that can talk but cannot fly very well (somewhat flawed but manages to make the excuse that Armstrong the astronaut can fly but not talk very well) and briefly reminisces the times of the Apollo 11 project. Things get interesting from 4’55” on when Armstrong addresses the students in attendance. I quote the whole passage:
“Today we have with us a group of students, among America’s best. To you we say we have only completed a beginning. We leave you much that is undone. There are great ideas undiscovered, breakthroughs available to those who can remove one of the truth’s protective layers. There are places to go beyond belief. Those challenges are yours–in many fields, not the least of which is space, because there lies human destiny.”
One of the truth’s protective layers?
This can easily be interpreted as Armstrong admitting that some things are concealed from public knowledge. Ever since he and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon in 1969, there have been speculations on whether it actually happened at all, or if it happened the public is not informed on the true nature of the mission. It was even suggested that Stanley Kubrick was hired to make the moon landing videos we ”know” to be real, in the studio! Furthermore, Kubrick’s classic horror film Shining has been interpreted as being a kind of ”openly secret” confession to faking the moon landing footage… This, among other interesting/amusing interpretations are featured in the 2012 documentary film Room 237 by Rodney Ascher.2
Back to the speech. Right after saying ”truth’s protective layers” Armstrong seems to look over his shoulders, as if checking out what president Clinton, vice president Gore and some members of the Congress present thought about his words. This is speculation, though, since the video zooms in on Armstrong, the others remaining outside of the view. Another speculative remark I made is Armstrong seems slightly hesitant, or emotional, at that moment, compared to his generally positive and relaxed presence.
Looking at the video’s comments on YouTube and elsewhere on the web, Armstrong’s body language can be interpreted in many ways. Naturally the online comments are not to be taken as expert views on body language or anything, but they do tell something about how Armstrong’s speech and performance can be interpreted.3
President Bill Clinton’s speech follows. Clinton doesn’t refer or react to Armstrong’s words but gives a pre-planned smooth celebratory speech, as expected.
In his speech, Armstrong reminds us that the moon landing project involved a great number of people, according to him about one of two of every thousand Americans. Even though Armstrong happened to be the first man to set his foot on the surface of the Moon, it was a collaborative project involving thousands of people. He doesn’t seem comfortable about taking credit for the whole spectacle.
According to biographies, Armstrong was a humble, shy and private person. Since the Apollo 11 mission, he appeared reclusive, rarely giving interviews or doing publicity, despite his unique, celebrated status as ”the first man on the moon”.
Withdrawal from public can naturally be accounted for his personality, and drawing any other conclusions may be misleading. Still, his presence in the video and especially the words chosen inspire the curious to wonder, what exactly is the truth these protective layers conceal?
Is it too much to take these few words out of context of the whole speech?
Did they land on the moon at all?
Did they land on the moon but something – a technical issue, human error, alien spacecrafts or whatever – made the film unshowable and a fake footage (by Kubrick or someone else?) was made anyway?
We must remember this was deep in the Cold War era. Failure in such a crucial mission, or the mere failure in documenting the mission properly, would have been disastrous. It was all part of the space race, after all, the Soviet Union had made great advances in space flights and related technology. For America and ”the West”, the first person to set their boot on the moon would have to be American, otherwise the shame of being on the losing end would have been too much to bear…
Speculation on the scene
What to make of all this? We just have this video clip, several official sources stating their facts and then, endless amount of speculation on the Internet about various conspiracies, aliens, alternative truths and so on.
A curious observation needs to be mentioned. I’ve read and watched numerous books and documentaries about the ufo/alien conspiracy lore, and most of them sport this funny / frustrating mix of actual documented cases of assorted weird shit that makes one wonder, as well as stuff that is so obviously hoaxed that no one could take it seriously. The end results are almost always a mess among which even the credible bits appear ridiculous. Is this one of those protective layers?
The alien conspiracy scene is flooded with disinformation. There’s even evidence of the US government having been heavily involved in the creation of this whole ”culture”. A document called Mirage Men, directed by John Lundberg and written by Mark Pilkington (who also wrote a book with the same name) digs into the subject. They suggest that the whole thing was created as a smokescreen for advanced technology developed by the Air Force.4
It is very hard if not altogether impossible to make sense of what is actually true and what isn’t. The deeper you dig into the subject, the more confused and paranoid you get. Whether deliberate or not, the subject matter is so stained that if you even consider taking any of it seriously you are considered a loonie. Ufos, aliens etc. can only be addressed by way of fiction and entertainment. And so it has…
Alone or not
The entertainment scene is so thoroughly saturated with ufos and aliens that we’ve grown used to them. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a big thing anymore if we finally discovered some undeniable facts about advanced, sentient life elsewhere in space.
Some say we have no way of meeting alien life until we accept the possibility of such an event occuring. There is that.
There’s also the question, have we actually, seriously considered the possibility of being alone? That our very planet Earth would be the only rock supporting life in the entire universe? Once we as a species truly realize such a possibility, we must face the consequences and act accordingly. Would we finally start nourishing all life on the planet and glorifying its intense diversity, instead of being busy destroying it for quick profit? Could we end the cycle of fear and greed that currently control our thoughts and actions?
As Armstrong concludes his speech, human destiny lies in space. But for now, with our paranoia over territory, possessions and power, we are nowhere near that level of evolution. Let’s admit it’s time to overcome these obstacles within us. Let’s grow up!
A brief history of sampling in music and sound art, with emphasis on the author’s personal interests and influences on his own work in the field. (For ViCCA, 10 Dec 2015)
Sampling, in context of sound and music, is the act of taking a part of a previously recorded sound and reusing it as a part of a new piece of music. This technique was enabled by the emergence of sound recording technology of the mid-20th century and the record industry that followed. Since then, sampling has become a common technique among composers across genres, yet it remains questionable in the eyes of copyright laws. This essay provides a cursory look into the theory and practice of sampling from my admittedly biased point of view as an artist (who employs sampling in his own work) and a general sound enthusiast.
What’s Hit is History
The theoretical roots of sampling can be traced back to the modernist art movements of the early 20th century. Collage was defined by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque around 1912.1 A couple of years later the dadaists cut and reassembled anything from text to images.2
In the 1950’s, Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs claimed that writing was fifty years behind painting and developed the cut-ups as a form of literary collage. Later on they on experimented with cut-ups also on film and sound recordings.3
The first sound collages were made by the inventor of musique concrète, composer Pierre Schaeffer in 1948, when he created the piece “Étude aux chemins de fer” by mixing together recordings of trains from vinyl records. In the 1960’s, sound collage was used on a number of pop music albums, perhaps most famously by The Beatles.
Pierre Schaeffer: “Étude aux chemins de fer” (1948)
The leap from sound collage to sampling as we know it nowadays happened in the late 1970’s, again via emergence of new technology: samplers. This new type of instrument allowed the user to record a piece of sound – a sample – and play it back by means of a keyboard, sequencer or another triggering device. Around the same time, new music genres – most notably hip hop, industrial music and electronic dance music – emerged, each suitably postmodern in approach and attitude to assume the sampler as a core instrument. Similar to what the electric guitar was to rock’n’roll.
The first commercial synthesizers such as the Synclavier and the Fairlight CMI were way too expensive for most musicians to obtain, but a number of adventurous artists made their own devices. Among them were Chris Carter and Peter Christopherson of the seminal Industrial group Throbbing Gristle, who built samplers of their own design from a bunch of cassette players. 4
Grandmaster Flash was one of the first hip hop producers to release records based on sampling, in 1981. Prior to this, sampling in hip hop was common practice but mostly done live by Djs in block parties. Grandmaster Flash developed a number of innovative DJing techniques and pioneered turntablism, the art of using the turntable as a musical instrument.
Grandmaster Flash: The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel (1981)
Money, Money, Money
In the 1980’s the new genres with their sampling practices entered mainstream consciousness, and along with popularity came controversy. As usual, the fight is about money. A million-selling record includes a sample from another, previously recorded piece of music. Who holds the copyright? And furthermore, who gets the money from the sales?
The British dance act M|A|R|R|S used an unauthorised sample of the Stock Aitken Waterman hit ”Roadblock” on their top ten single ”Pump Up the Volume” in 1987. The sample was so distorted that SAW didn’t realise they had been sampled until they heard a M|A|R|R|S co-producer mention it in a radio interview… but as soon as they did, their lawyers got busy suing M|A|R|R|S.
M|A|R|R|S: Pump Up The Volume (1987)
The same year another UK act The JAMs (later known as The KLF) were ordered to destroy the pressing of their album 1987 (What the Fuck Is Going On?) due to having an extensive amount of obvious sampling of, among other artists, ABBA. Pranksters as they were, The JAMs then released another version of the album, with all samples stripped, the result consisting mostly of silence and little audible content.5
The JAMs: 1987 (What The Fuck Is Going On?) (1987)
Usually these kind of disputes are settled out of court, with more or less substancial amounts of money exchanging hands. Often the writer of the original, sampled piece also gets a co-writing credit on the new work.
The music industry does not acknowledge a musical quote as anything else but theft. Even if the new composition clearly passes the threshold of originality, the composer may face legal trouble by using samples.
Nevertheless, the unwritten rule among artists seems to be that as long as you don’t make big bucks or big press, you can sample whatever you want and nobody cares about it.
There is a ”subgenre” in the art of sampling, more arty than popular, where controversy is inherent. The term plunderphonics was coined by Canadian composer John Oswald, describing ”a recognisable sonic quote, using the actual sound of something familiar which has already been recorded.”6 The difference from other sample-based works is that plunderphonics is deliberately blatant. Plunderphonics by definition requires the original, sampled piece to remain recognisable in the new piece.
Inspired by Burroughs & Gysin’s cut-up technique, Oswald had been composing in plunderphonic style since the late 1960’s. His 1975 composition ”Power”, which combines Led Zeppelin guitar riffs with a cut-up voice of a Christian evangelist, is the first known example of what has decades later become known as ”mashup” – a recording made by combining two previously made recordings.
John Oswald: Power (1975)
One Oswald’s most controversial pieces is ”Dab”, where the Michael Jackson song ”Bad” has been cut to pieces and rearranged anew. The companies holding rights to the original recording, by way of lawyers of the Canadian Recording Industry Association, demanded Oswald to cease distributing his derivation. Ironically, Oswald had self-financed his recording and distributed it for free.7
Another name commonly associated with plunderphonics is Negativland. This music/art group, founded 1979, has caused a lot of controversy by sampling/plundering U2 and other popular music. For Negativland, the media events and controversy are more important than their actual sound recordings.
Conceptually, plunderphonics deliberately explores, or attacks the grey area between fair use and copyright infringement. It uses any materials available in mass media – pop music, adverts, news and so on.9 Is it culture jamming, experimental music, media art, or conceptual art? Undoubtedly all of these and perhaps something else.
Negativland: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (1991 a cappella mix)
Walking in My Shoes
The vast majority of my work in sound and music in the last two decades is based on sampling. I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of collage – taking pieces of something or other, combining them and see what happens. I did my first sound collages as a kid by recording random snippets from the radio on cassette tapes. I thought it was fun, but it took many years and plenty of musical exploration to realise it could be art, too.
With a handful of exceptions, my sampling was not particularly plunderphonic but rather alchemical. I’ve usually attempted to create something new out of the sounds I lift from others’ work. After extensive cutting, manipulating and combination with other mutated samples and ”real” instruments, the finished pieces may no longer show many clues to their origins. Whether the listener recognises what has been sampled and where is usually of no importance. I may not remember myself where a particular sound originates from, the fact I know the source bits are somewhere there is enough.
But that is all in the past. Some time ago I decided to put an end to the two-decade period of ”hermetic fusion musick” (as it was often refered to) and move forward to new areas. I felt the need to rid myself of my personal history which has become a kind of burden, even without the weight of popularity or overwhelming expectations from an audience. From now on I work undercover in classified projects only. I desire anonymity… It’s all in my head only, perhaps. But totally changing my ways of working and, especially, thinking about my work seemed like the only way I could move forward. Certainly every creator has their ways and traits they cannot escape, but what I mean is SHUT UP! SHUT UP!
Don’t think about it. Just do it.
What’s (not) funny is that now I write about it, and since writing is mostly organising one’s thoughts, I’m again thinking about it.
Thinking about not thinking about it. Like the situation in Magritte’s La reproduction interdite reproduced as an endless mirror corridor. Loop it, loop it, loop it one more time.
So there, after a brief, passing signal of a nervous breakdown we’re back to the topic of sampling, more or less…
My latest sound works are completely constructed out of previously recorded music. Most of it is obvious and I’m not trying to conceal it, nor make a big deal out of it. The most important thing that has changed is the process. In the past, I used to sit long periods of time in the studio, creating rather elaborate, planned sound sculptures (or ”songs” if you will). These days I prefer to make things more on the fly. I’m quite fond of sampling random bits of music and voices from whatever radio channels I find and build something out of them instantly. A more spontaneous approach constantly gives pleasant surprises – and admittedly, quite some garbage (although occasionally garbage of the good kind, but I’ll write about sorting garbage some other time). Working this way, more intuitively, without thinking too much, and sharing selected pieces anonymously or under obscure pseudonyms, is most rewarding. The focus is entirely on sound, the piece of sonic or audiovisual art, while the maker remains out of the spotlight. Darkness is comfortable, liberating. All mirrors obscured, covered, shattered or just plain out of sight.
And so it is done. I will never write another word about making music/sound art. The next thing I’m going to do is go upstairs and turn my mind off. Exterminate all rational thought.
1 Hugh Honour & John Fleming, Maailman taiteen historia (Otava 1992), 663-665
A speech about speaking and language, written for Experimental Theory Workshop (ViCCA), 2016/03/23.
Warning: This is going to be Heavy Meta.
What is my goal?
What do I want to tell you?
What’s the most important thing I want to share?
Thinking about this, I constantly hit my head against the wall of speech.
I’m interested in going beyond language, beyond spoken word.
But I don’t want to perform to you.
Not in this context.
So I couldn’t help thinking of speaking about speaking.
And now, it seems that’s what I’m doing.
Speaking about speaking.
Think of language as a combined lego puzzle chess game.
A power game to a few, maybe a way to spend the time and have fun to some,
and to others a compulsion to fill the void between the moments, the void between you and me.
Think of speech as a live construction of a four-dimensional image according to a ten-dimensional blueprint that is constantly mutating.
What you get is a snapshot, or a screen capture.
Speech is slower than thought.
It’s like a drippling stream from a bubbling spring.
Or trying to push a snake into a pipe as they say.
(And, as you can see, I rely on pre-processed thought, written words.)
In the beginning was the word: the big bang of pixelated thought.
Words as pixels, and as such inadequate,
no matter how high the resolution.
What was before the beginning?
A world without words?
White noise of silence.
beyond of the grid of words.
But now, as I clumsily speak of the unspeakable, you get a bunch of pixels,
from which we together form an image,
that may or may not make sense.
Nobody handles any language perfectly, not even their so-called mother tongue.
There are always dark areas, dead pixels, flaws in the grid.
English, as I speak, a kind of universal language or lingua franca,
generally speaking (no pun intended),
feels like standard definition compared to the full HD of one’s native language.
Still, that’s what we use now, to share these images from our minds.
And it’s ok, it’s still an image.
From our minds.
Language shapes thinking.
While thought is originally fluid, the mind adapts to situations,
it gets used to bitmapping,
and we gradually forget that it’s just a crude approximation of reality.
So, this is all heavy meta, and nothing else.
Screen calibration, measuring resolution, scanning depth of color.
Let there be silence again.