Reblogged David McCallum Interview

mccallum-warbike.jpgI often describe people I write about here at Serial Consign as friends and peers and both of these terms definitely apply to David McCallum. David is a Toronto-based artist and musician whose subverts electronic hardware, software and networks towards playful and performative ends. He has a background in physics and music and received a Masters in Art and Technology from Chalmers University of Technology in Göteborg, Sweden.

I met David in 2006 at Mutek, and got to know him and his work through his excellent curation of our Vague Terrain issue on locative media. David’s creative practice is quite varied, and perusal of his recent work reveals interests in improv performance, modified timepieces and insect orchestras.

A shorter version of this interview was previously published on View on Canadian Art.

Your Warbike project (pictured above) takes the commonplace activity of cycling through the city and monitors telecommunications signals to transform the modified-bicycle into an instrument. Could you talk about the history of this project and how it relates to your perception of sound and the city?

It’s funny, to call cycling “commonplace” is a pretty urban perspective, and specific to cities with a vibrant downtown. I grew up in the suburbs of Toronto where bicycles certainly weren’t something that were commonplace outside of recreation and a mode of transportation for children. One of the interesting things I think about this project – and other bike projects – is that it gets people on bikes who wouldn’t normally be there. The downside, of course, is that some people have spent too long off a bike to feel comfortable trying the artwork. It doesn’t do much good to say, “Don’t worry, it’s just like riding a bike”.

The project started as an experiment exploring wardriving software when I had just acquired a wireless network card in 2003. A popular wardriving software for some reason had MIDI options in the preferences, which is kind of bizarre for a networking program. I had written a simple program to turn that MIDI data into sound and would ride to and from my school building with my laptop on and the speakers up in my backpack.

What I found was that on my rides, my perception of the space had changed. This was a route that I took several times a day, so I thought I understood the spaces. But the backpack was screaming at me something different, that there was something else going on here that I couldn’t perceive.

The experience of hearing aspects of a space, or learning something about them in a tangible sense, is far more powerful than being told explicitly, which is an abstract way of knowing something and removed from direct perception through one’s own senses.

The Warbike was my effort to share that experience with people. I thought that my changing relationship to the space was fascinating, and I’d hoped that others’ experiences would be as well.

Well, on the topic of other peoples experience, how did you find that people responded to the project at the Sound Cycles and Mobile City exhibition at Interacess? I imagine an artwork that you take for a ride may have proven a bit challenging for some people.

Well, interaction is an interesting challenge. Just because you as an artis find an activity that is incredibly fun, doesn’t mean that the public will react in the same way. The hardest hurdle is just making people feel comfortable to interact with the work. Artists and children are already accustomed to touching interactive art, but others aren’t. We’re raised to do things we have permission for, and it’s hard to convince people that they have permission to touch something.

The second is making sure that the audience is comfortable with the method of interaction. Bikes, it turns out, are not one of the comfortable methods. If the Warbike was exhibited in the country, maybe people would be more comfortable with it. But there aren’t many networks on country roads, so the Warbike is fundamentally an urban cycling project (Although, come to think of it, using it in areas with fewer networks is a little more rewarding. You do feel like you’re discovering something secret). Many people are afraid to bike in the city (and for good reason!).

There wasn’t a lack of people wanting to ride it, but there definitely was a type of person who was just happy knowing what it did without feeling the need to ride it. Some were uncomfortable cycling, others it seemed just didn’t think they would get more out of the work by experiencing it. You can’t win ’em all.

mccallum-swallow.jpg[david mccallum performs i swallow]

I know that you frequently work in software environments like Max/MSP and Pure Data. How has being fluent with code affected how you address technology in your work?

I wish that I were fluent! I think that what I do is more hacking than programming: I use my limited skill set to bash other people’s tools into submission for my own purposes.

I’m a strong believer in the craft of new media. Contemporary art seems to have divorced itself from the artisan history of the arts, and I don’t think that because the tools in new media are abstract that it’s somehow a field where it’s okay that the designers are also not craftspeople. There are aspects of a medium that you can only understand by experience. If you don’t understand the medium, the work itself risks being naiïve. This isn’t guaranteed, but the risk is higher. I also think in some sense all artwork, despite the content, is also a comment on the form and medium – and how can you comment on something you don’t really understand?

You also run the risk of been seduced by aspects of the tool. Early new media was fascinated with technology and the technology became the end, and not just the means. It was an important process to go through, but I’m certainly glad we’ve outgrown that. Now that we have a better understanding of technology we can hopefully divorce ourselves from the fetishism and appreciate it as what it is: a tool. Not understanding the medium runs a dangerous risk of falling into the gee-whizardry of technology. I’ve seen too many middle-aged artists making astoundingly boring art works exploring virtual reality and computer-rendered spaces. The sooner that artists stop using Second Life, the better.

By all this of course I also mean to say that working with technology is fun! I learn much more about myself and the work by working through the problems myself.

mccallum-pants.jpg[david mccallum, personal art noise thing (PANT), 2005]

I’m a bit less weary of virtual worlds than you are, but I certainly agree that “craft” is something to strive towards in any medium. That said, could you perhaps point out a few examples of media artists whose engagement with technology falls into line with your ideals? What are some artists an projects that have directly informed your work?

I’ll try… People like Garnet Hertz, David Rokeby, Mark Böhlen, Leah Buchley, Ken Gregory, Jim Ruxton, Darsha Hewitt and Stephanie Brodeur, Rob Cruickshank, just to name a few. These artists make beautiful work that also comments on the medium of technology and our relationship to it, which I think is tough to do if you don’t engage the medium

I used to say that a conceptual artist is someone who doesn’t understand the medium that they work in. Now I’m starting to wonder if conceptual artists actual believe that conceptual art is itself a medium, which is kind of terrifying; even philosophers need to learn to write. [posted by Greg Smith on Serial Consign]

Mar 14, 2008
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