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FleshFactor: Computers, Slavery and Making Art

A E C  F O R U M - "F L E S H F A C T O R"

Allow me to be cranky. I think of myself as relatively well-informed on
the subject of art-making and technology, having punched music-V note
cards in 1972 and having grown with the medium since then. Over the years
I have come to believe that the worth of ideas is inversely proportional
to the number of pages it takes to explain them and I confess much of what
has been said here flies right over my head. And it bugs me. Maybe the
truth is simpler than it appears? 

At the moment, I am involved in a drawn-out and difficult music project. I
always conspire to find diversions to keep me from actually working on
what I am supposed to work on. Hence this tirade. 

To the chagrin of my family, I am spending an innordinate amount of time
in the company of my assistant, which I happen to like. Unlike Tom
Sherman, I have no feelings about this relationship being good or bad, and
I don't find it productive to spend time worrying about it. It just is. As
a practicing composer, I have had a number of assistants in the last 30
years. Most of them have been machines.

Certainly, the music coming out of the relationship is different than it
would have been had my assistant been a smart human music copyist.  Not
better, just different. But the process, by and large, is the same. Like a
copyist, my machine has been educated. It has formalized knowledge of the
work I do. It comes from common or rarefied breeding. It has a
quantifiable amount of smarts and memory.  It is fast or slow depending on
what I ask of it. I submit my problems to it and choose to take or ignore
its advice. Should the relationship prove unsatisfactory, I can fire it
and hire another one. For this, I pay money. Either way, I don't feed it,
nurse it or love it. It just needs to be friendly, not too annoying in
public company and do as told. 

The organizational and cultural aspects of these kinds of relationships
have been discussed to death in the sociology of labour, class warfare and
the generation of wealth. It is my concern only in so far as it does not
impede my productivity. I am not ready to feel sorry for my machine since
the one different parameter in the man-machine relationship is the
irrelevance of physical pain and punishment. Guilt of exploitation has
been removed.  I'll be the only one sorry when I throw a brick through the
monitor. Thankfully, my machine does not have dignity and readily handles
my mood swings.  To a point - and in this I agree with what T. Sherman is
saying - this leaves me a lesser human in not having to deal with the
subtleties of human frailty. 

I lived in India for a year. India has a weird relationship to machines. 
India can make machines with the best of them. But machines are seen as
usurpers at the bottom of the caste system. Labour is cheap, survival a
daily concern and human dignity a foreign concept.  Roads, skyscrapers are
built by hand and a slave is available for every task known to man. 
Calculate pi to 15000 points of precision?  Here are 5000 bean counters. 
For India, and if you are Indian, this makes perfect sense. It is a
culture that manages to function within the guidelines it set for itself. 
And it falls apart spectacularly when appraised by western eyes. We use
machines because we like to think we understand and have compassion for

So. Machines, computers and content? In my life, not a federal case.  I
sign the music I do, not my machine. Some things are easier to do with
their help but, strictly speaking, anything one may think has been
contributed by them is largely the result of serendipity -- which I can
also use. My computer is not and never will be an artist because it lacks
the capacity to claim the work. I don't subscribe to conspiracies: 
machines will never be able to do so.

Content is the mysterious to you and me, it is the imaginary adventure a
work travels through. I have no decent explanation for this phenomenon,
nor do I desire to have one. You can dissect its mechanics but that will
not help you recreate it. In that sense, the mechanics are completely
irrelevant to the artistic experience. There is no new content to
technologically based art forms. Successful art that uses technology is
successful because, fundamentally, you could have done the work with other
means, assistants, media, helpers, machines, instruments or slaves. The
rest is window dressing and flashing lights. If it's cool, it flashes. If
it's really cool, it doesn't. 

Jean Piche    <pichej@ERE.UMontreal.CA> 


Afterthought: One of my jobs is teaching composition to grown-up kids. I
always think teaching is like micro-coding. The more tuned the program,
the less it can do.

Jean Piche
Universite de Montreal

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