Thursday 31 October 2019

Endurance Art and Crazy Self-Imposed Gaming Challenges

I was thinking about the relationship between performance art and the performative aspect of some digital artworks.

Pushing the human body to it’s physical and mental limits has featured in many performance artist’s works. Perhaps the best-known example of this ‘endurance art’ is American artist Christ Burden. His performances such as Five Day Locker Piece and Shoot (above) put the artist through great risks, physical pain and endurance.

We see virtual similarities within the gaming community. Things like the World of Warcraft Iron Man Challenge, or the Nuzlocke Challenge in Pokemon (amongst countless other challenges) allow gamers to get more out of their games by self-imposing limits, very often to the point of ridiculousness. The rise of streaming, social media and online multiplayer gaming have allowed these challenges to grow, with people now able to get immediate feedback from the community from their exploits.

I had the idea of doing a virtual marathon in-game after playing a little on the 2002 PS2 title, The Getaway. In this game, the developers broke significant ground by creating a virtual version of London that was vaguely recognisable. The now-primitive graphics were cutting edge for the time, and having a digitised version of London as an open-world gaming environment was fantastic. For example, the second mission in the game calls for you to visit ‘The Reptilian’ gallery in Hyde Park (read: The Serpentine) and steal a Chinese artefact, before making an escape across London to your hideout in Soho, chased by Triads and Police.

So I had the idea of drawing up a route based on the London Marathon and recording my run around virtual London as a performative work. Take some water bottles, energy gels, buckle in with my PS2 and see how many hours it takes to run my avatar around 26.2 miles of virtual London without dying.

Talking with a painter recently about the relation between ultra-endurance running and landscape painting sparked further questions on how learning an environment through repetition helps to understand better. The outcome is more than just a visual replication, but something towards a more in-depth representation of the entire landscape. Painting through the image and with a better understanding.

As a runner (albeit, not yet interested in 100-mile ultramarathons) I had questioned this idea before. There is something to be found in the detachment of painting a landscape from a single source image. Perhaps this is more to do with how we have mostly second-hand experiences through photographs and other media these days. It could be a psychological thing. Still, when we look at, for example, Plein air painters, is it possible they’ve developed a deeper connection with their landscape, and this has, subsequently, informed their work differently? Probably more to unpack here than is necessary for a short blog post.

Sunday 9 June 2019

Red Dead Fashion

I recently stumbled across this weird and unique subreddit:

r/reddeadfashion has taken gaming avatar customisation to a new extreme, evolving into some strange Red Dead Redemption based Instagram vs IRL simulacra.

We have redditors creating digital avatars, customising their hair and appearance before kitting them out with some unique in-game clothes. Some are trying to mimic real people/celebs and other pop culture references (as seen recently in Soul Calibur), but it’s the submissions that are just trying to look cool or unique that interest me the most. Here are a few of my favourites so far:

Wednesday 5 June 2019

George Glen Uilleann Pipes


I often write about music and instruments here, but this is going to be a very special post about a new set of uilleann pipes I have come to acquire. A month ago I bought a set of pipes from nonother than the caretaker of my old school in Omagh. The instrument was found in the attic of his house by the previous occupant (who had left them there). Considering the caretaker had been in the house for some thirty-odd years, it's safe to assume the set hasn't seen any action in a long time.

Having just seen grainy potato-phone photos of the pipes online, I was able to assume the components were mostly original, and that the maker was George Glen. Finally viewing the set in person confirmed my assumptions. Below are some of my initial thoughts on the instrument.

Glen made pipes in Edinburgh from approx 1900-1920. They match up with the set in the National Museum it Scotland, although this set has folded regulator keys, rather than the standard keys on the museum set. The most obvious comparisons are the highland style combing on the main stock and the bass drone. I haven't found a stamp as of yet.

George Glen also made great highland bagpipes, and there are some surviving examples of these too. He was related to a few other makers (Alexander Glen, David Glen & more) who were into all kinds of pipes and owned a music shop in Edinburgh.

The set seems to be mostly original, just missing the chanter and baritone drone.

On initial inspection, the regulator keys look like they could be aftermarket additions, perhaps from a broken keyblock repair. I reckon the consistency across the keys and lack of spring channels in the wood suggest they are original. The popularity of this type of key among Glen's contemporaries O'Mealy and Hamilton, etc. may help support this. Then again, the big D baritone key looks particularly like the work of McFadden, but I imagine the extra fold at the bottom of the key was made to accommodate a redrilling of the tone hole.

The turning on the drones and regulators suggest that the same maker made them.

The keys are pin mounted by a most unusual method: the pins are made out of a long thin strip of metal that has been folded against itself and made into a 'T' shape.  The only key that is missing this pin is the long D key, further supporting the idea that is was moved aftermarket (perhaps a C# to D?).

The bass drone puck looks like it is made out of two-part ivory and joined together. It is unusual as there is a folded rush from the puck into the connection brass tubing, perhaps to flatten the tone or dampen the sound.

The bag looks to be of good quality leather and ties the chanter stock in at the top. The velvet cover could have been blue but is now mostly discoloured. The main stock has the highland style combing as seen on the other Glen set in the National Museum in Edinburgh. The outer silver ferrule looks like it could be aftermarket, and has been held in place with paper.  The bellows stock appears to be original but missing the ferrule. The turnings match up with the other parts of this set. Somewhere along the line, the connection has been poorly whittled away, perhaps to suit a smaller piper.

The bellows are in good condition, with a very O'Mealy-like appearance. The leather is tacked to the sides of the pipes, with a shallow channel for the leather. There are remains of a decorative green fabric. The inner belt is screwed to the paddle, and the outer one is attached to the back of the paddle at one end. There is a hook at the top of the paddle, after the inlet, where the belt can be attached, allowing for greater access to the regulators.

The box is nicely made with dovetail joints and a red lining. I can make out the name Galloway written in pencil on the inside.

My first investigations into disassembling the set have brought up new questions: how are some of the regulator keys are squared off at the pads and some are not?  The G note on the tenor regulator appears to have been sharpened twice with a plugged & drilled tone hole. The ivory mount on the tenor drone seems to be threaded like a screw–is this a replacement from a highland set? So many questions.

I'm looking forward to new insights revealing themselves with this instrument over the next few years. Once it's up and running, I have a few chanters that might suit it. Watch this space.


A few more photos:

Museum instrumet:

Info on Glen:

Saturday 4 May 2019

Banning r/me_ira: What happens when you drop the /s?

Reddit occasionally bans controversial subreddits, chiefly based on moral decisions. A few examples would be digital cesspits such as r/beatingwomen, r/incels and more recently r/watchpeopledie.

r/watchpeopledie was removed the day following the horrific 2019 New Zealand mosque mass shooting, where it had posted videos glorifying the violent event. There is a similar thread to last week's banning of r/me_ira.

r/me_ira was a place for witty user created content about The Troubles in Northern Ireland. The name comes from r/meirl, a popular subreddit with self-deprecating memes, looking at the funny side of being a depressed millennial. r/me_ira was followed the same concept, with the same grisly humour managing to dovetail perfectly with the Northern Ireland mentality.

I must admit, I have enjoyed and laughed many times at the memes, with razor-sharp critical commentary and political satire on the events in Northern Ireland. However, the 'Irish' sections on Reddit have always been populated with Irish-Americans, and this is where the problems started with me_ira.

I've written about how our native gallows humour predates The Troubles, citing Flan O'Brien as an example with his seminal masterpiece, The Third Policeman. I wonder if this humour can be interpreted as some kind of coping mechanism? Either way, it's clear that this particular subreddit was misunderstood by many Irish-American posters.

The sarcasm of this parody subreddit was utterly lost on these trolls, and their ridiculous pro-IRA contributions were largely ignored and downvoted. As people from Northern Ireland, we like to laugh at ourselves. r/me_ira offered a Hole in the Wall Gang approach to the historic conflict issues for the post-Good Friday Agreement generation. By contrast, the pro-IRA posting from mostly American Redditors failed to embrace the self-deprecating nature of the subreddit, attempting to stir up Republican action from across the water in some kind of self-righteous Hollywood crusade.

There is a lot to unpack with this kind of internet behaviour. We see a common theme run through all right-wing/nihilist/extremist/alienated cesspools across the Internet. The predominant use of memes is perhaps one of the weirdest things to investigate. Easily sharable and instantly recognisable, they offer simple punchline opinions with often funny or cartoonish imagery, disguising their actual negative implications. It's easy to understand how the humour in a subreddit like r/me_ira would be misinterpreted as one that glorifies violence and nationalism, as opposed to one which condemns it. In the end, it appeared that few could distinguish between this fine line, and an ever-increasing controversial contribution from right-wing 'plastic paddy' America led to a full ban.

Like most subreddit bans, the ban on r/me_ira was triggered by the reaction to a horrific event: the murder of Lyra McKee. One of the few moderators of the subreddit commented:
'…it is good it came to an end. It was filed with yanks as many others mentioned and trying to ban all the ignorant folk was hard. The jokes got repetitive, and it went from okay to dog shit when Lyra McKee died (rip).'
'Parody turns to support when the educated craic dealers are switched with ignorant yanks. Fun while it lasted, but I guess that's another Irish sub freed of yanks.'
They are referring to the harsh criticism of McKee and the glorification of the idiot children who shot her. One American 'Fenian' commented 'No one should care about a Fag Journalist'. It's so strange to witness a comedy subreddit evolve into the very thing it tried to parody. We are surely better off without it.

Wednesday 24 April 2019

Lyra McKee

Journalist Lyra McKee was a massive influence on the development of my art practice over the past two years. She was sadly shot last week at a riot in the Creggan area in Derry. Police have since arrested an 18 and 17-year-old concerning the murder. I thought I'd dig up some writing I'd made about the subject.

Here are three extracts from some pieces of writing from last year, where Lyra McKee's journalism had influenced my decisions about how to progress with my practice. I was trying to boil down the essence of her article on post-Good Friday Agreement depression and her report on the subject gave me a bird's eye view and the clarity to tackle it head-on.
I’d like to try and convey an auto-ethnographic sentiment somehow via interactive & narrative work and feel that manipulating game engines as a medium will allow for a wide net of scope and execution. 
I made the decision to create work about the border situation in Northern Ireland, shifting from purely implied and understated narrative to using some specific anecdotal tools such as interview recordings or text, in conjunction with my more traditional landscape approach.

There is an excellent article by journalist Lyra McKee entitled Suicide of the Ceasefire Babies, which delves into post-war intergenerational depression in Northern Ireland, and I’d like to dig a little deeper into this specific area myself through such conversational interviews.

In previous works, I have experimented with the introduction of human figures with simple artificial intelligence, exploring their virtual environments autonomously. I found that in doing this, the overall concept suffered by having scores of digital men running around and killing each other randomly. Although this method is more faithful to the in-game online confrontations that I had been investigating, I felt that it had undermined the feeling of foreboding and the tension inherent in my other works, in particular, the project Digital Border.

Much later, following a long period of experimentation, I decided that my work would switch back to an implied narrative, with the preparatory work I'd made in recording stories etc. to go toward a critical paper exploring the relationship between post-GFA tales (such as McKee's) and the morbid eccentrics of Flann O'Brien.
My interest in this subject came after reading an article that helped to clarify my own experiences with growing up in Northern Ireland after the majority of the ethno-political conflict (The Troubles) had ended. Suicide of the Ceasefire Babies, written by Lyra McKee, outlined mental health issues experienced by people who came of age after the Good Friday Agreement.
The Good Friday Agreement was seen as a significant political development during the peace process in Northern Ireland, signed on the tenth of April, 1998. It was marked as both an agreement between the Irish and British governments, and between the majority of the political parties in Northern Ireland. It is understood by most as the unofficial end of The Troubles. By this time, most of the bloodshed had happened, and any post-GFA incidents were more widely condemned and typically seen as attempts from the lunatic fringes of paramilitary groups. Life in Northern Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement was about optimistically rebuilding the country and vast amounts of government and EU development money was introduced to bring both sides of the community divide together.
For people growing up in this time of ill-placed optimism, it appeared that there was little to worry about. Unfortunately, it only took 16 years for the number of post-Good Friday Agreement suicides to overtake the total number of conflict-related deaths during 40 years of The Troubles. Where it is clear that a period of community and mental healing was necessary, it appears that much of the mental health issues of living in a war zone have permeated from one generation to the next. Northern Ireland is unique in this respect, in that the conflict has been relatively recent, the location was in a first world country, and that there has already been an extended period of healing. Additionally, Northern Ireland was revealed to have the highest level of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, beating current live conflict locations such as Lebanon and Israel.

Much research has been done in this area, most notable by Queens University Belfast lecturer Mike Tomlinson. It was not my objective to reinterpret or improve upon Tomlinson’s work, but to try to document and explore these experiences in some small local way.

This led me to try and understand this kind of intergenerational trauma through family (folk) stories. I collected a number of these via both audio recordings and written means from friends and family, and read up on articles posted by people in similar situations. My initial thoughts were to try and use my artistic practice to open a dialogue about these stories, including creating a self-playing game with some of the stories as both backdrop and direct narrative tool. I am ultimately happy with the work, but I feel that instead, my strengths in this area lie in using less direct methods of storytelling.

And a little on rising paramilitary glorification amongst the youth. I've written about Paul Donnelly and his interview on the Blindboy Podcast. Note that the following piece was written pre-Cambridge Analytica yet it is somehow strangely foreboding.
Part of the retelling of these stories is to indicate the idiocy of youth and for the future generations to attempt no such objectives/idiocies/follies. There is a worrying trend amongst the younger generation today, notably in areas of Belfast but easily imaginable in other locations around the country. The glorification of The Troubles for young people seems to be a growing problem. Belfast historian Paul Donnelly describes working with support groups for young people and how in some situations there is an uneasy reverence for people who have experienced The Troubles first hand. ‘It must have been class’. This is why we need stories like these, not only to show the flawed nature of these acts but also to re-contextualise this in an understandable modern day situation. 
I estimate that part of the rise in popularity of this problem might be from the use of social media and the internet amongst the younger generation. This ‘echo chamber’ allows people with dangerous fringe ideas such as nihilism, fanaticism, and sectarianism to find solace and blossom in these online communities. This runs in parallel to the rise in online countercultures such as Incels, 4chan and the_donald. 
Powerful algorithms on websites such as Twitter, Facebook and Reddit actively redirect your own ideologies back into your timeline daily. This is dangerous in this context in that it allows for deeper separation and less critical debate, but in the context of blooming online sectarianism in the youth of Northern Ireland, it is suddenly much more severe. 
On the flip side, it cannot be under-appreciated what role the internet played in this healing process. Early internet days of fastfude, etc. was an online forum for people from Northern Ireland’s two communities to come together and discuss music. This was much in the way that the Belfast/Derry punk movement in the 1970s allowed both Catholic and Protestants to mix freely. Although fastfude is no longer functioning, those music driven communities have branched out into a healthy discussion into other areas of the internet and social media platforms. 
I feel this highlights a significant diversion between the storytelling of Flann O’Brien and modern internet communications. In each of my stories, the hero is ultimately an anti-hero, providing life-lessons through their own mistakes. It’s difficult to imagine anyone sympathising with the unnamed narrator or his murdering accomplice in The Third Policeman, but it is possible that if the murders in the book had a sectarian edge that it might be read differently, or perhaps even glorified.

I'm not sure I'll post the rest of the paper on Flann O'Brien. Maybe someday it will make an appearance.

Monday 18 February 2019

Thoughts on new paintings in SHIFT

This residency started with two projects in mind: to develop new 2D for a show in Waterloo Tea and to make a single image as a run of prints to be my contribution to the SWAP Edition 4: BREX-Kit. 

With my 2D work, I wanted to delve deeper into a long-term project about contemporary landscapes in Northern Ireland. I had already amassed an extensive collection of source imagery and preparatory studies and wanted to take this project to the next level within this residency. 

Before starting, I had some vague ideas about producing landscape paintings based on images taken from locations around the border. I had made some attempts at gathering pictures and videos in preparation for my work on Digital Border, last year, and I understand my recent developments as something of a continuation of this project, with the introduction of painting and drawing as a means of communicating my thoughts around this subject.

Throughout the residency, I have produced numerous works in different media. These have helped me in considering what tools I wanted to use to realise the new work fully. I have settled on striking a balance between the traditional painting of the Tory Island artists and the shiny mini-screen aesthetic of my previous Digital Border works.

I feel like I have indeed developed my concepts and understanding of what I want to do with the subject matter, and now I can focus on producing more pieces like this within these confines.

My experiences with revisiting Digital Border for the SWAP Editions: BREX-Kit has been explained here.

Thursday 31 January 2019

Revisiting Digital Border

I’m not one from shying away from revisiting old ideas and bring new concepts, techniques or approaches to the work in an attempt to develop my practice in some new direction. I’ve written about this a little before, when making my emoji still-life paintings last year and how they are a continuation of my eBay Morandi project from 10 or so years ago.
I would consider Digital Border to have been a very successful work for me. It has opened a number of doors through exhibitions and awards (it was shortlisted for the 2018 Lumen Prize). This work was an attempt to make some physical objects out of an abandoned interactive game project. The game had just begun to pivot towards using a different tool to create it as I felt that it didn’t fit the narrative or approach that I wanted to fulfil my project: looking at topographies, immigration, Brexit, intergenerational trauma-related stories and modern day issues with conflict areas. So, as I was drawing the experimental stages of this project to a close, I decided to try and make the most out of the scenes I had already created. Although the work was unsuitable for a 3D interactive game, I felt that I had created a beautiful randomly-generated environment, and, through populating it with found in-game objects, camera tricks, rain and ‘atmosphere’, I had made something that wholly captured the mise en scène I was looking for.

After some further investigation, I created digital photographs of my generated environments and had them printed on small gorgeous acrylic/aluminium panels as some kind of miniature votive mobile phone worlds. These were exhibited in a few shows (In Cardiff, Brighton and Nantes) and shortlisted for the 2018 Lumen Prize.

I made a proposal for SWAP Editions latest open call–BREX Kit. I was to make another one-off print to be included in their Brexit artist first aid kit. My proposal was selected and I had to make this new work.

I ran into a few difficulties: It had been some time since I last made one of these ‘digital photographs’ and I had to manipulate some older games in Unity to make it work. I had since made some Digital Border video pieces and also experimented with a dual-screen live projection, resulting in issues with in-game cameras. Additionally, due to this, I had reduced some of the post-processing effects such as vignette, bloom and colour correction. This all had to be reintroduced and was an absolute pain to find my original settings. It’s kind of back to where it should be, but I did keep the wide field of vision from the video work because I liked its drama and it also helped to differentiate this new piece from the previous work.

My other issue was how I was going to produce 18 editions of this work. The acrylic/alu panels are super sexy, but they do cost a fair bit to make and take a little while to be printed and shipped from Germany. I wanted to try some giclée prints after having a few really nice ones made for the South Wales Pipers Club (a musical endeavour close to my heart). We had some giclée copies made of old Irish piper paintings to raise funds for the club and also for people to own them if they wanted. I was thrilled with the results, and so I ordered some Digital Border prints from the same printers.

They've just been delivered to the curator in London, and I am looking forward to seeing how the work will appear in the exhibition and as part of the 'Brexit First-Aid Kit'.

Wednesday 16 January 2019

SHIFT Residency

Last week I started a residency in SHIFT–an exciting new space in central Cardiff.

SHIFT is not long established and is run by Jon Ruddick and Pria Borg-Marks as a workspace for artists to make and test out large scale art. The space is in an old empty shop below the Capitol Shopping centre in Cardiff. I recall the place as a seasonal shop selling Halloween and Christmas stuff many years ago, but it's been vacant for a long time now. It is absolutely massive and an excellent location for new large scale artwork.

I have a few projects that I need to work on during my time in SHIFT. In Spring I will be taking part in SWAP Editions, where I will be creating a new & exclusive piece in my Digital Border series. I’m looking forward to relearning my processes for producing those pieces. I think I can probably work out how to make the landscapes and snapshots from memory and last year’s studio notes. Fingers crossed. My other project is one I have been meaning to investigate for some time.

I’m interested in what it means to be a contemporary Irish landscape painter in this post-internet age. I’m thinking about looking at the written descriptive elements of the Tory Island Painters and how that might feed into the addition of text to images shared on social media. I’ve spent some time wrestling with these two disparate elements and thinking about how they might be combined through my own work. I’ve written a bit already about the Tory Island school, and how they’ve influenced me. I think they represent an independent art school–and one that is uniquely Irish.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to make the most of my time in SHIFT to not only produce some exciting new work but to also develop these two projects in ways that I would not have been able to otherwise. Watch this space for more info when I get a chance to write it up.