Sound and vision blog

5 posts from April 2010

26 April 2010

Recording of the Week: Corn Bunting

The metallic song of the male Corn Bunting is often likened to the sound of jangling keys. This signature sound of the open countryside is sadly not as common as it once was, with changing agricultural practices inevitably impacting on Corn Bunting populations:

British-wildlife-recordings 'Recording of the Week' highlights gems from the Archival Sound Recordings website, chosen by British Library experts or recommended by listeners. This week's item was selected from among 640 tracks in the British Wildlife Recordings Collection by Cheryl Tipp, curator of wildlife sounds at the British Library Sound Archive. The recording was made along the Dorset coast in June 1966 by Lawrence Shove, who in the 1960s was one of Britain's best known nature recordists.

22 April 2010

Well, here we are in front of the elephants

YouTube is five years old. On 23 April 2005, Jawed Karim stood before a video camera wielded by Yakov Lapitsky in front of the elephant enclosure at San Diego Zoo. Karim gave the anxious look at the camera we all give when we sense that filming has started and we ought to have to say something, and then uttered the immortal words, "Well, here we are in front of the elephants". There wasn't much else he could say - there were the elephants, it was a self-evidently true statement. Nevertheless he added that "these guys have really, really, really long trunks", a statement that could be challenged both for its irrelevance and for the fact that very few animals other than elephants have trunks, so theirs are not so much long as just about the right size. "And that's pretty much all there is to say" were his concluding words, and the video was over - all nineteen seconds of it.

And that was the first video to be uploaded onto YouTube, entitled Me at the Zoo. It is not, on first sight, the most notable of starts  for a revolution in how we communicate, but Jawed Karim and his colleagues were not then aware of what they were going to unleash upon the world. But Me at the Zoo is a revolutionary film in its way. It is a film without purpose, a passing statement, a shrug of the shoulders expressed in video. It does not entertain, instruct, make a point, debate or have any kind of structure to it. Because of the platform, the cheapness of the camera equipment, the ease of uploading, and the bandwidth, here is something which we had not seen in moving images beforehand - video as non-event. This I think is part of what makes YouTube so special. It is a home to much creativity, as well as much illegality, but although that is marvellous in itself, it is not fundamentally new. But film made simply for the purpose of filling space, film that shows us off-guard, not performing - that is something that commercial film and television has seldom allowed space for, if ever. The home movie has to a degree performed this function historically, but home movies are - as a rule - purposeful. Economics has also decided their content, since film and processing cost money and what you shot on your cinefilm has to represent best value. The avant garde has tried to do away with film's habitual structures, and plays with time and space in a way that seems close to what YouTube encourages, but ultimately the avant garde is every bit as studied in form and technique as conventional film.

Me at the Zoo, and the countless of videos that have followed it, have been created because there was a space to be filled. People have filled that space with all manner of videos, many of which have a clear purpose (to entertain, to instruct, to insult, to argue, to show off, and so on), but just as many no more purpose than to say, here I am, or I've nothing much to say today, or I've just seen this so I videoed it. And then even those videos which do have some sort of purpose - often those of people saying hello to friends, sharing information, or responding to someone else's personal video - often these are most fascinating for the moments beyond the main action. We see people preparing to film, or thinking what to say next, just being themselves. Film traditionally has never found space for such moments. It has always been so studied, so concerned to be an art form, worried about cutting out waste. YouTube reveals us at points when we are arguably at our most interesting, when we're still thinking, when we're not yet sure what we want to say. It has put the private into a public space, and changed our ideas of both utterly.

Posted via email from Luke McKernan

12 April 2010

Recording of the Week: Pop Situationism

With the sad death last week of Malcolm McLaren, punk rock was briefly back in the news again. In this ICA discussion from 25 June 1984, Cynthia Rose talks to US rock critic Greil Marcus about his book Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, which draws links between the Dadaists of the early twentieth century, the Situationists of the 1960s and the punk movement of the 1970s. Punk historian Jon Savage and artist and activist Jamie Reid - the man who put the safety pin in the Queen's nose - also contribute:

ICA-talks 'Recording of the Week' highlights gems from the Archival Sound Recordings website, chosen by British Library experts or recommended by listeners. This week's item was selected from the Institute of Contemporary Arts talks collection by Stephen Cleary, Curator of Drama & Literature recordings at the British Library Sound Archive. The ICA talks collection has 1,000 hours of recordings of events held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, in the Mall, London, recorded over the period 1981-1994.

09 April 2010

Recording of the Week: tropical Gambian ambience

You can almost feel the scorching heat of the midday sun when listening to this Gambian soundscape. The continuous chorus of insects is accompanied by the sounds of doves and other forest birds that appear to revel in the warmth:

Soundscapes 'Recording of the Week' highlights gems from the Archival Sound Recordings website, chosen by British Library experts or recommended by listeners. This week's item was selected from the Soundscapes collection by Cheryl Tipp, curator of wildlife sounds at the British Library Sound Archive. The recording was made by Ian Todd in October 1997.

06 April 2010

Adam Curtis: the medium and the message

Frame still from 1935 home movie footage by Group Captain Lister showing the bombing of Warziristan villages in Afghanistan in 1935, from a 1980 BBC documentary

Television is changing. This change is not simply in the modes of delivery (essentially the broadband and broadcast trend demonstrated by iPlayer, Hulu, SeeSaw, Project Canvas and such like) but in forms of television productions themselves. We are familiar with television programmes having offshoots such as books, DVD releases, websites, forums, and so on. Now we are starting to see programmes which have an organic life across several platforms, and whose development we can track, comment upon, and maybe influence.

The BBC's 'open source' series on the history of the Internet, Virtual Revolution, though a relatively conventional set of programmes once it made it to air, went to town with the idea of sharing its ideas with a knowledgeable audience. The programme blog brought us into the decisioning-making process, arguing ideas, explaining trains of thought, testing hypotheses, exchanging information.

However, the truly ground-breaking work is being done by Adam Curtis. The director of the uber-cultish The Trap, Power of Nightmares and Century of the Self has established a blog, Adam Curtis - The Medium and the Message, to show projects in embryos and the fruits of his research, which may end up as programmes, events, installations, or maybe nowhere at all. He has used it to preview It Felt Like a Kiss, a programme (yet to be broadcast on TV) which was also part of a shock art event at the Manchester International Festival in 2009, and to cover subjects ranging from the British art of heckling to the strange relationship between anthropological filmmakers and Brazilian tribes.

However, the major use of The Medium and the Message has been the series Kabul: City Number One. Curtis outlined his ideas at the start of the series in September 2009:

"I am researching the extraordinary history of the West's relationship to Afghanistan over the past 200 years. It is a very complex, and sometimes weird, story. These are notes on some of the characters and episodes involved."

What he writes are notes, though rather more artfully composed than the random jottings this might suggest. Curtis's trademark is unearthing hidden histories in which remarkable and seemingly disparate elements come together to relate a history of our times that is unknown to most, yet which Curtis persuasively argues has come to shape the way our perception of the world is managed. It is borderline conspiracy theory, but it also makes us rethink our assumptions. Curtis also makes bravura use of archive footage, both for its mocking commentary on the times and for the special evidence it provides on the past.

Kabul: City Number One is now eight blog posts old, and weaves an extraordinary tale of past and present British and American involvement in Afghanistan, of opposing the opposing forces of modernism and traditionalism, of conflicting ideologies and the triumphs, trasgedies and idiosyncracies of some remarkable (and often little-known) inpiduals who have played their part on a history that becomes ever more fascinating complex the more Curtis delves into motives and connections.

Especially engrossing is the use of archive film. Curtis is making available clips from the BBC archive (to UK users only, owing to copyright restrictions) which illustrate his theme, but which go far beyond the conventional use of clips in a programme, both because he is able to show more and because they allow him to explore tagents to his theme, encouraging us to explore the subject(s) further for ourselves. For example, in episode no. 1 he included clips from a 1972 BBC series British Empire: Echoes of Britainnia's Rule including an horrific recreation of the execution by British soldiers of Indians during the Mutiny who were strapped to cannons. Curtis tells us that the sequence was edited out after broadcast, and that special permission is required to show it. He has evidently obtained such permission.

Other clips have included such disparate material as spirited Afghan pop music, a haunting memoir by mountaineer Peter Boardman from the 1978 BBC series The Light of Experience, quirky clips from children's programme Blue Peter, Soviet propaganda films, BBC news reports, and - in the most recent episode The Weird World of Warizistan - astonishing home movie footage of the British aerial bombing of Afghanistan in 1935 (made all the more extraordinary by the cool tone of the pilot/cameraman being interviewed in 1980).

All of this makes for great television. It's not conventional television, of course, since it is presented in the form of a blog with video clips, but Curtis has broken down the barrier between production process and exhibition to create something that is television in a new form. The commentary is there; the thesis is established; there are images, video clips and audio files, but these illustrations - like the argument in general - show far greater licence than television allows. Curtis rambles wherever his mind leads him, and the clips are far longer than television would ever allow as illustration. We see the archive video in its fuller extent, and we can choose whether to see some, all or none of it (it needs to be noted that Curtis is rather poor when it comes to the provenance and dating of his discoveries in the archives). We would never see any of these clips on the usual TV archive sites or catch-up services. It takes a television producer with an oblique eye to unearth such material and to see how it contributes to the thesis. It requires a belief in the documentary value of video - not as decoration, but as a medium that records life in a profoundly illuminating way. Curtis praises the filmmakers whose work he has unearthed again and again, with evident respect for their skills and what the medium can reveal.

How this is all paid for is not made clear. Curtis can find the clips and broadcast them, but is he working to a standard TV production budget? Is this material going to end up as the next Curtis TV series, or has it moved from work-in-progress to the work itself? Whatever the method, and whatever the result, do watch/read The Medium and the Message, and think not just about Curtis's agenda but about what extraordinary material lies in our broadcast archives, how many are the different ways in which such material can be used to inform, educate and entertain, and how important it is that we keep on demanding for ever greater access to those archives. And this is not just access to the programme as broadcast, but equally to its composite parts, which have lives of their own. There are many millions of different histories there, still waiting to be told.

Posted via email from Luke McKernan