Mobile Music Workshop 2008, Vienna

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Art school graffiti.

Hello, there. I’m going to do a few more detailed write-ups and interviews for the Nokia Nseries Workshop blog, so I’m not going to get too much into the nitty-gritty details here. But I thought I should write a few words about the Mobile Music Workshop and my experiences here in Vienna. I’m sitting in the cute little apartment I’ve rented — it’s off in the western part of town in a neighborhood called Ottokring (after Ottokar II, I assume). The windows are open, letting in the air. And a few bugs.

Richard Widerberg talking about IMPROVe.

This has been, just to note, one of my least touristy trips to Europe ever. Between prepping for the Workshop, covering work, and just generally allowing myself the opportunity to sit around and read books or catch up on my TV shows, I just haven’t had much time or energy to go and do the full-blown sightseeing thing. I have been to Vienna before and to Austria several times, so I’ve seen the highlights, I guess. But in a way I’ve just experienced the city mostly how I would if I just lived here: Get up, go into the University for the conference. Work or read at home. Go grocery shopping. Etc. Not to say I just sat at home staring at my computer all day. I got out. Spent Sunday walking around town (shots from Prater are in my previous post). And yesterday I went to the MUMOK (Museum Moderner Kunst — Museum of Modern Art) and wandered around the old town a bit. The weather has been amazing — unseasonably warm according to one of the locals at the Workshop, very sunny and bright. Cool in the evenings.

Having a seat, waiting for the show.

MUMOK, by the way, has an exhibition going on called “Genau+anders” (“Exact+different”) which traces 500 year, or so, of pure mathematics impacting visual art. A lot of what they have up is, frankly, dumb. “Math-ish” art done by people who don’t naturally “get” math or who don’t really sit down and really explore it produce some really bland crap. Writing Fibonacci sequences on things and drawing squares around circles doesn’t really qualify as using art to “explore” mathematics. Or the other way around. It’s just kind of lazy. Math != Minimalist. That being said, there was some good stuff. Their earliest pieces, drawings of solids by Albrecht Dürer from the early 1500s were amazing. And for many of the more contemporary pieces if you detach yourself from the “math” and just accept them as “minimalist” or “suprematist” or whatever many of the pieces were very nice. The giant Sol LeWitt optical illusions, for example, were great (photo coming soon). But back to Dürer, for a sec: I found it very interesting to place into a larger historical context some of the “computer art” (god, what a horrible phrase) that I do and people at places like ITP do. And by that I mean stuff like that from Dan Shiffman’s Nature of Code class, stuff that aims to create art out of the math that computers are so good at handling. We’re in a luxurious position, in that to visualize a Platonic solid in a nicely rendered way requires a few lines of code, at most. Albrecht Dürer and his contemporaries — up through, say, 1970 — had to draw such things by hand, a much more arduous process. But I feel a similar kind of mentality going into it: A desire to See the Thing that the math describes. And a desire to play with it.

Using bikes as mobile instrument controllers.

Okay. I’m way off-topic. So: The Mobile Music Workshop. The reason I’m here.

One of the break-out sessions.

What is it? Well, it’s a small, three-day event that consisted of a mix of talks, workshops, and performances — all exploring in some way the notion of “mobile music” (obviously). So there were technical talks about new tools, design talks about the nature of interactivity and touch, and various technical demos. Lots of Nokia N95 phones — heh. And a few projects with Wii remotes and Nintendo DSes (both great tools for experimenation, by the way). The MMW moves every year and this year was hosted by the University for Applied Arts Vienna and had about 25 attendants. Most of whom presented something. There was only one event at a time, so we all did everything together. Which was quite nice, actually. I think I met and had good conversations with more new people here than I generally do at a big thing like SXSW where everything’s just so overwhelming. I had a great time.

Go PhonePlay!

My project — games made with PhonePlay — went off well. It took me a couple of days to get the European telephony stuff worked out (including one evening spent with tech support from one company on the phone and another in chat — erg), but once that issue had been ironed out, things became easy. I installed it at the University and showed my thesis game, called either “3001” or “Paddler,” and the game I made for Digium on my trip out there last December, called “Blocks.” (Naming these games has become somewhat of a problem — nothing I do sounds right. “Blocks?” “Paddler?” Awful names. But, anyway.) PhonePlay got a fine reception — people seemed pleased. I clumsily fielded a handful of technical questions and that was that.

A Wiimote-based performance.

Like I said, in the coming weeks I’m going to submit a bunch of articles about this to the Nokia blog, so I’m not going to get too deep, here. One subject Nokia might not be interested in, though, is the Nintendo hacking that has been going on. There were a couple of Nintendo-related projects at the MMW: One was a project called “Mobile Tangible Interfaces as Gestural Instruments” and featured homebrew musical software for the Nintendo DS. These were simple musical toys a la Electroplankton. Very nicely done. The DS is essentially a big-screen smart phone without the actual phone calling capability. It’s got the touch screen, the wifi, the mic, etc. The difficulty in programming it is probably what’s holding back development — why isn’t Nintendo pushing this, though? I guess the DS sells just fine on its own… Anyway, another such piece was a performance on the final night of the MMW which features three guys with speakers attached to mic stands which they could gyrate around the generate noise. (You can kind of see what’s going on in the photo above.) Attached in front of the cones of these speakers were Wiimotes which, I assume, measured the orientation of the speaker and could also be “plucked” to generate sounds (each Wiimote was mounted using an elastic sort of material). So the performance consisted of these three guys moving these speakers around in the air and plucking the Wiimotes. Clever.

Setting up for a vegetable-based performance with the Institute for Transacoustic Research.

Another performance that night was done by a group called the Institute for Transacoustic Research (see photo above and the two below). I don’t know much about these guys, but they seem to be a part of the larger group of people who do performances with entire vegetable-based instruments. Beating carrots on gourds and such. I saw them do a set in Barcelona when I was out there for SONAR in 2005. At the MMW performance they had a few vegetables in effect, but mostly they just had huge piles of kind of everything in effect. From carrots and potatoes to modified bass guitars and a video projection and homemade automated instruments and a mess of digital and analog hardware plus computers. And, as you can see, mice. It sounded good. And they were quite fun to watch because you got to kind of try to figure out what they were doing and there was so much to see them do. Very nice.

Live video projection, also from the Inst. for Transacoustic Research.

A mouse-based controller, also from the Inst. for Transacoustic Research.

So what else to say? This is a kind of messy, incomplete report of the event. I really didn’t even mention most of the cool stuff going on. It did feel like I’d found a warm little community of people, which is good. Jonah Brucker-Cohen (my thesis advisor) and Jamie Allen (my NIME professor) are apparently parts of this extended family, as well. So that’s cool. Hopefully I can stay involved. I’m a bit irritated with myself for not applying to NIME this year. That seemed to be the next stop for everyone…

Watching a performance.