Richard Powers, in the early 1980s, was working as a computer programmer. Upon seeing August Sander’s photo Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, he quit his job, lived off savings and wrote his first novel, Three farmers on Their Way to a Dance. Thinking this would be pretty much his only opportunity to write freely, after which he would have to return to the workforce, he crammed pretty EVERYTHING he knew into it. 


It contains three intertwining narratives:

  1. Our narrator encountering the photo for the first time, spurred on to discover what is happening inside it, the relations between the subjects along with their relationships with the photographer and the outside world, their relationships with the viewer, the reader. In this thread, we are taken on and implicated in essayistic tours of history and photography, philosophy for and reconstruction of the twentieth century: “Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, 1914. The date sufficed to show they were not going to their expected dance. I was not going to my expected dance. We would all be taken blindfolded into a field somewhere in the tortured century and made to dance until we’d had enough. Dance until we dropped.”
  2. A reconstruction of the possible lives of our three farmers. From the photo, Powers (and one of his characters, although…) develops a potential narrative of three young men at the beginning of (and going through) the First World War.
  3. The tale of Peter Mays, a technical editor for an Electronics Magazine who becomes infatuated with a woman, following a pseudo detective tale leading him to, among other things, the photo in question.


The way the three tales listed above elide is fascinating and intricate, as those lives of the three farmers. And what we also have is a history of certain parts of the Continent during WWI; we hear of the Peace Ship: Henry Ford, unhappy with the world’s efforts toward peace, decided to take a ship filled with celebrities and common folk alike, from the US of A to Continental Europe, in order to stand between the armies in question and force peace between the warring nations. We also hear the great story of all Parisian taxis being called to take French soldiers to the Battle of the Marne.

However, this is not a tale of the past, it is one of our relationship with it. The three farmers are not just looking at the camera or the photographer, but their gaze is also directed toward us, the viewer, the reader. We are implicated in their tale for more than one reason, none of which i will state here for fear of destroying some of the enjoyment of reading this book.

The photo itself is one of a series entitled Face of the Twentieth Century. Wikipedia tells us

In this series, [Sander] aims to show a cross-section of society during the Weimar Republic. The series is divided into seven sections: The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, The Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City, and The Last People (homeless persons, veterans, etc.). By 1945, Sander’s archive included over 40,000 images.

His plan was to map out the century via the faces of people. From the novel,

[Sanders’] plan makes Peter think of maps. Photographing society reminds him of making maps of unknown terrain. It provides a key, a way of looking over a place without having to go there. This man’s plan—to build up a document of categories and subcategories, even more precise and encompassing with each new photo—is like increasing the scale of the map. One mile to the inch is clearly better than two to the inch: more detail, and truer to the real estate. Perhaps this fellow on the bicycle, as incurable as he is about posing, might, by taking enough photos, improve the map of the Man of the Twentieth Century to the scale of a few hundred yards to the inch, a few hundred faces to the photo.

But Peter does not take this hope of increasing exactness to its logical conclusion. A map of one inch to the inch, which cannot be spread without covering the countryside, shows nothing that the place itself shows just as well. In order for this encyclopedia to become completely authentic, it would have to include a print of every living face…

[conversations with spaces]

Light snaps, precise and sharp, shutter sound, revealing these hidden geometries, a movement from surface to surface as sudden as the click of your right hand, rhythmic light jumps, discontinuous.

Now think on a larger scale: the same occurring on skyscrapers across a cityscape, an urban environment unfolding and explored, a story of a city told through bars of light dancing across its surface, its harbour, its derelict abandoned ex-industrial areas and gentrified alike, a geography of light.

Robert Wilson:

Without light there is no space.


Now this would put Hong Kong’s 8pm so-called Symphony of Lights to shame.

[conversations with spaces]

There is a reason Glen Marshall aka has developed somewhat of a cult following, which see here:

Part of the beauty of this creation is its simplicity. The other aspect is the fact that visuals are, in some sense, generated by the music. Glen Marshalls’s processing code takes in audio signals, in this case a Boards of Canada track, and specifies what type of visuals each signal should generate. The details are difficult to pinpoint. However, Glen has kindly broken down for us what is going on in the video below, generative visuals in a similar vein, soundtrack provided by Radiohead’s Bodysnatchers:

1. Bass guitar – makes the red shading on the red zeno pulsate.
2. Lead guitar – affects intensity of inner glows of both zenos.
3. Treble – affects size of sprites.
4. Vocal – additional affector to red sprite size, affects speed and directions of all sprites, affects size of stars in background.
5. X Factor – this is the name I gave to the overall amplitude – an ‘excitement’ factor. This controls the camera Z depth (near/far) – loudness brings us closer in, quieter breaks bring us out again. This was important to get that sense of a non-static journey and spatial interest that married with the music. The X Factor also increases the speed of the zenos growing, and the intensity of the blue cloud.

I don’t find this video quite as interesting as the former, potentially because it seems as though the b.o.c. music lends itself more to this project. The more atmospheric of musics tend to work with abstract visuals.

Regardless, the point should be clear: that using signals of a particular nature for unintended purposes can yield interesting art. In this case, audio signals generating motion.

We should of course know by now that interactions of this kind appear in many fields these days, examples of which follow here now:

  • dancers strapped with all forms of sensors, accelerometers and otherwise, their movements being mapped to audio signals (song) and video (usually presented in the form of various projections);
  • collaborations between scientists and artists in which the artists will use data relevant to the scientists’ research to generate painting/sound, instances of which have actually provided scientists with some sort of clarity concerning their research (example, anyone?);

I was speaking to a VJ (among other things) friend of mine recently and when i asked whether he was interested in such aspects of creating visuals to accompany music, he said he preferred to create the visuals live himself. But if you can have both aspects playing into one another, why wouldn’t you? Even something as simple as the pitch of a particular vocal part altering the hue of a particular filter ever so slightly. This is for instance. When you start to introduce slight variables such as this, this is when it all can become really interesting. This potential air of contained randomness opens up a world of possibilities, these small permutations can even inform us of characteristics and connections we would have never dreamed of before. What if, indeed, visuals corresponding to voice could differentiate yours from mine? What for the future of voice recognition?


All our laptops and monitors, external hard drives and usb sticks, midi controllers and broadband dongles: where do they go when die? After issuing their final breaths, it is more than likely they will end up one of the many electronic graveyards in the developing world.


In Guiyu, China, for example, where men, women and children alike are to be found pulling apart old aspects of the first world’s computers, tearing out wires and burning them at night; or during the day working for next to nothing w/ little or no protection handling e-waste which contains among other varied substances, dangerous metals like lead, cadmium and mercury according to Time. In Environmental Helath Perspectives, we read findings that seem to demonstrate that children in Guiyu have elevates blood lead levels.

China has long been a place for the West to export a great deal of its potentially recyclable (and not so) waste to. In Shanghai Journal: Dump Trash, Add Scavengers, Mix and Get a Big Mess, we read

Each morning, on average, 6,300 tons of garbage arrives by barge from the central city. Mr. Kearsley-pratt’s company, Onyx, won an international bidding competition in 2003 to replace an old municipal landfill next door, which had observed almost no environmental precautions, with a state-of-the-art dump — a fenced-in area slightly larger than New York’s Central Park.

There are towns in China which are literally covered in trash of all forms, the streets are lined w/ garbage and the locals “make a living chopping up and melting down toxic plastics and metals out of the mountains of trash.”

[courtesy of our old friends, the nytimes]

Look here where we have a multimedia look at e-waste (including a variety of its exports), a site with various texts, a doco and interactive maps chronicling various aspects of what now seems to be termed eDumping. I would be very interested in seeing some sort of data visualisation showing countries exporting waste and those importing, perhaps in terms of weight of refuse, type of refuse and time of transport. Perhaps senseable city lab’s New York Talk Exchange, which visualises ways in which the inhabitatants of New York communicate with the world, could be used as a model.

[screenshot of the new york talk exchange]

O course, the procuring of such data could be a touchy subject, especially if intended for the purposes of making more clear exactly how much waste the world outsources.

[a novel embedded in a map at We Tell Stories]

Aptly named We Tell Stories, here we have a project interested in digital writing, in this case the ways in which we can approach the idea of writing/storytelling/literature using the internet. Screenshot above from an online short novel called The 21 Steps, in which we view a googlemap which contains various nodes, each of which tells us part of the tale— we begin at a particular location, reading the first few sentences and then are led on a detective story through London and in and around the UK, viewing the action from above, as it were. In fact, as it is. Now this is a good place to start: although the story is entirely linear and un-interactive except for the necessary clicks of the mouse, the possibilities it suggest are damn exciting. For example, perhaps having a not entirely linear detective tale on a map, but instead one where you, the reader, actually decide where to look for the story yourself. So then:

An interactive, virtual Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel in which YOU map out your journey figuratively and also quite literally on a journey round the globe.

[The Cave of Time!]

We Tell Stories sometimes gives us somewhat interesting digital renderings of classics (in this case, our googlemap adventure is a reworking of The 39 Steps). As in this case, they could all be more exciting. A major part of the attraction toward digital and web-based literature is the idea of reader interaction and the We Tell Stories stories do tend to play it safe. My inclination would be to suggest something more fractured (an example of which I outlined above as an alternative way to use mapping, to really make the reader the detective), something far less like traditional reading! When dwelling on such issues, I am reminded of David Foster Wallace’s words:

There’s a way, it seems to me, that reality’s fractured right now, at least the reality that I live in. And the difficulty about writing… writing about that reality is that text is very linear and it’s very unified, and… I, anyway, am constantly on the lookout for ways to fracture the text that aren’t totally disorienting—

Web-based literature is one way. Or probably many ways. It’s still a bub.

Watch the above before reading on. I was naively (or not so) under a certain misapprehension: i thought that Daito Manabe, the star of the above video, was triggering sounds using his facial muscles. That is, the objects attached to his face were some sort of motion sensors (perhaps accelerometers would do the trick, my knowledge of complex sensors is lacking here) and thus the apparent blink of an eyelid or twitch of the upper lip would send out a digital signal and voila!: hook up a computer and these facial movements could easily be converted into midi (and/or osc) signals to trigger live audio and/or video using your music/video production application of choice.

I was shocked by how fascinating the correlation between sounds and movement were and the choices made as to which sounds to attach to each part of the face. Of course this all before it dawned upon me that this is not what is happening. In fact, quite the opposite. Each sounds sends out an electric signal which is evidently hardwired directly to our friend Daito’s face and, in essence, his muscular and nervous systems. An electric shock thus creates a small, highly visible spasm. This is potentially more shocking and less artistically interesting than what i originally thought was happening. But i’m not actually sure. I feel conflicted.

Now what if we had both systems just described working in conjunction: one person using their muscles to trigger sound and these very sounds then translated into electric pulses hardwired INTO SOMEONE ELSE’S NERVOUS SYSTEM. Is this potentially the future of puppetry? And if there were not necessarily a one-to-one identifiable correlation between the twitcher and the twitchees: a cheekflex could result in a flailing leg, a nodding head could create a breakdance.

Could this be the future of DJing? No longer spinning records or even beatmixing MP3s as seems to commonly occur these days, but a disc jockey making music with his entire body and also choreographing the audience’s dance, drum rolls necessarily accompanied by strained muscular pirrouettes each and every time they occur, horn stabs forcing folk to jump in the air, certain digital sounds heard and the whole floor does the robot. At the push of a button the DJ could make everyone applaud… Anyone?

I must say that despite the feelings of the man using a monome to play the html data of websites as sound etc… on my last posting here, i do think the NYTimes have a severely impressive web presence. One need look no further than their interactive map of Baghdad:

[Assessing the ‘Surge’: an interactive map of Baghdad from]

The map itself is a result of a project ‘to study the ground-level effects of the American troop buildup’. As one’s mouse hovers over the neighbourhoods lying either side of the undulating Tigris, connections are made between the map and surrounding text and image. As my cursor wavers over Saydia in the south, i see the region connect to an image of a smiling girl’s face and Saydia: Thousands Flee Active Battle Zone. Not only can I click on a particular neighbourhood to venture into on-the-ground journalism, video and photojournalism but i can also view the map in terms of who inhabits which areas, displaced neighbourhoods, Sunni majority and strong Mahdi army presence. Geographically aware and able. Now we are actively participating in the journalism we view, no longer passive recipients.

How far could one take this? Next of course, please, vantage point mobility, the ability to zoom in and see the street level, to tilt and angle oneself to catch a particular glimpse of the four golden minarets at Kadhmayn;  then palimpsestic maps of infrastructures begin to appear: electricity grids and aqueducts and their lines of communication. Movements of people across the city over a day, a year, a decade, ever since Werner Herzog filmed from above the Iraqi oil fields being sent aflame in Lessons of Darkness. A map of the city shifting over time, rising out of the sands before your very eyes; and the subsequent destructions, captured for posterity.

[from Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness]

The only aspect now missing is the ability to alter the map, the possibility of effecting change. Consider the following: a man, lets call him X, is a voyeur, he places himself at train stations and on trams, above balconies and under bridges, watching keenly all the varied passers-by. Inconspicuous, he seems to himself. Every step he takes, however, leaves an imprint. As do his no-longer-furtive glances. What if interactive maps were malleable in this sense, each place you visit somehow your mark is left upon, a barely visible stamp of your past presence there. Then we could see and hear of viewers movements across the map, paths taken and returned upon. More extreme still and we have a landscape entirely alterable, viewers able to construct small compounds and tap into the electricity grid, shape hillocks and breathe life into the space. I do not, of course, recommend this for Baghdad.

Nor have I said much of the substance of this particular interactive map, which you really should check out yourself since I have no ability to relate to you the complexities of all the information that can be gathered from this particular well. Do, however, permit me end with the words of a small girl, seemingly proud to have been displaced due to her family receiving a letter with a bullet in it:

No matter what, Iraq is so beautiful… Iraq will remain beautiful, no matter what. (Sung) Baghdad of poets and pictures. The gold of time… and its perfume scent.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.