In preparation for Random String Symposium happening THIS FRIDAY at Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, we talked to Dan Hett, digital artist and BAFTA award winning technologist about some of the extraordinary projects he’s been involved with, Algorave, and how to go about experimenting with digital artwork for the very first time.
Do you have a favourite project that you’ve worked on, what makes that one stand out for you?
I think my favourite project recently was the Cornerhouse Scribbler, which was an installation piece that the Cornerhouse Gallery in Manchester commissioned me and a few collaborators to put together. They closed the gallery after thirty years, to move into a huge new purpose-built space, and wanted a way for people to leave a message, either from in the space or online.
We put together the Scribbler, which was a huge clunky automaton-style machine – you could either tweet it or send a message online. When it received a message it would crank into life, and a giant pencil would ‘write’ the message, which then popped out into the machine itself. There was a camera embedded in the top of it too, so people online could submit messages and then see them pop out in the gallery in almost real time, which was really cool.
We had absolutely thousands of messages through – some poignant, some hilarious, some terrifying, all unique. Over time they were taken out of the machine and plastered over the walls and windows of the space
I loved the project for a few reasons – firstly, it was an honour to be able to help send off a gallery and arts space that’s been at the heart of my creative life since I started out. I was born in Manchester and studied in the creative arts here, and the Cornerhouse was a permanent fixture for me (the message left in the machine about awkward first dates? …that was me). Secondly, it involved working with a TON of different technologies, and we built it really really quickly, working with everyone from electronics gurus to carpenters to get it all done. Really fun project.
We created a video showing the whole thing off too, which is HERE.
You mention earning a BA (Hons) in Design and Visual Art “then making the rest up as you went along”, on that note, how does someone go about experimenting with digital artwork for the first time, isn’t coding really complicated?
Ah, yes – I was very late to the programming party. My degree was in what used to be called ‘multimedia’, lots of video and animation and some light touch HTML and things. Definitely not a computer science course or anything. While I was there I got into a lot of Flash work – I started needing simple code to do things like controlling animations, and then as I got braver and needed more complex things I just ran with it. I’m now somewhere towards the technical end of creative technologist, so code powers my stuff but it’s all creative – I don’t want to write code for a bank, ever!
Programming is absolutely only as complicated as you make it too. I’m a big believer in simplicity, and I’m much more interested in getting ideas out than spending months over-engineering things. There’s a lot of one-upmanship among programmers, and I find it really tiring – keep it simple! In terms of getting started, the only advice I have it to just wade in and try it – expect things to fall over and not work a lot at the start but don’t be disheartened, stuff being on fire is how you learn!
What was it that lead you towards large scale projects rather than small scale? What (other than scale obviously) have you found are the main differences between the two?
This one’s easy – big canvas, broad strokes! Of course I work at all sorts of scales and formats, from giant installations down to little smartphone apps, but given the choice I really like working at scale, and with tangible things people can mess about with, dance in front of, or generally enjoy without just sitting and staring at a glowing rectangle. Doing stuff that’s so big and visible, and usually comes as part of a shared experience in clubs or festivals, is a very challenging way to work, but absolutely exhilarating too.
Can you explain livecoding and/or Algorave? Is it like computer science as performance?
Oh, it’s far more interesting than that! The very very short version is that livecoding is similar to regular computer programming, but completely instantaneous – no compiling steps or waiting around. Typically it’s used for creating sound and visuals, but there are tons of things you can do with it. The key point however is that livecoding is fast, and lends itself to rapid experimentation, which is why it works so well in the creative arts. There’s a lot more to it, but that’s the gist.
Lots more info on live-coding can be found HERE.
Algorave, then, is an ongoing series of music events where almost every sound or visual element is created or controlled with live code, or at least a live process. The other unique part to this is that the code is almost always exposed to the audience, so they can see the code forming and being built/broken/edited live. It sounds terribly nerdy, and on one level it is, but of course Algorave nights are just as enjoyable sonically as they are technically. If you’re anywhere near the middle on the Venn diagram showing interests in electronic music and computer code, Algorave is definitely something you should check out.
Lots more info on algorave can be found HERE.
Tell us about the most ambitious visual art/performance piece you have worked towards?
I think in a live context, the ambitious work is the work that takes me outside of my comfort zone – which is something I try to do a lot. Typically I can make visuals for electronic music (i.e. Algoraves and similar) pretty much endlessley, having done it a lot over the last few years – that’s not to say it isn’t tons of fun still, it definitely is! However every so often a unique opportunity arises to do visuals for things like metal bands or experimental acts, that sort of thing. These are the ones I find very challenging, both creatively and technically sometimes, as of course you’re not doing these new challenging things in the secrecy of a studio, there’s always an audience!
For example, I was recently approached by Benjamin Finney, who’s created an amazing piece of music as part of a Brighter Sound initiative here in Manchester. He formed a really brilliant post-rock band (think Mogwai) to perform a specially-composed piece of music, in three parts. I was brought in to do visuals, which for me was a really unique challenge. I ended up using a mix of video, effect, live code and camera feeds to create a loose narrative around a cosmonaut launching into a space and then tripping out, before losing contact. I’d never tried anything even approaching a narrative before, and to be honest I rarely work with people playing actual songs with a start/end either, so this was a challenge in a number of ways. We didn’t rehearse, partially by choice, so the first time we met and worked together was on the night of the performance in front of a crowd of people.
Very scary, but a lot of fun, and it turned out great. We were really happy with it and the band sounded great. Hopefully someone got it on video…
Do you have any projects coming up that we should keep our eyes out for?
I wish I knew the answer to this one myself – I’ve actually just quit my full time job at the BBC in favour of striking out as a freelance creative technologist and digital artist. I’d love to know what’s coming up too!
In terms of live work, the Algorave crew have been added to the line-up for the Blue Dot festival in July, a huge music festival taking place in the grounds (and in the shadow of) the enormous Jodrell Bank radio telescope. I’ll be bringing my most cosmic visuals to that one, should be a great one.
YOU CAN HEAR DAN TALK MORE ABOUT HIS WORK AT THE RANDOM STRING SYMPOSIUM ON JUNE 10TH
TO BOOK YOUR TICKETS PLEASE CLICK HERE