MMXXI: art in the age of COVID

Making art in the pandemic age requires new perspectives on context, value, and presentation. I had to deal with these challenges just like every other artist this year. I was already producing work that occupied a hybrid online and physical space. But, the new context relied much heavier on virtual space. I handled that for a while but got burned out with online life.

So, I spent a month driving across the country while we were still on lockdown in March. I deleted or suspended most of my social media and headed east from the California coast. I brought a wide variety of multimedia recording tools and came back with a harvest of imagery, sounds, and experiences. The rest of the year was heavily influenced by that trip.

I did find exhibition opportunities despite so many institutions being shutdown. It was important to me to keep momentum going when it came to in-person art exhibitions. It was very difficult though, because attendance was low even when I managed to carve out a space. COVID-19 was a tough adversary.

I made it through this year healthy and am very grateful for that. It has given me a new appreciation for what I do while still stomping around on the planet. My life is fully focused on making art now and I hope to sustain that through the years to come.

Camel

The first release of the year was a noise tape made with a synthesizer I built. I’m happy with the recording and the tape, but the promo for it might be more interesting than the thing itself. I guess that’s the age we live in.

Promo video for Camel
cassette tape
Official 60 minute cassette

The full recording can be heard and purchased on Bandcamp.

music synthesizer
Made with this DIY synth

Jojo Crawdad

In March, I embarked on an epic trip across the country. It was expensive, dangerous, cold, and isolating. I’m so glad I did it.

map of the United States with route
6704 miles in 28 days

It all started with a need to visit a library in Slidell, Louisiana. I used to work for a newspaper there and it went out of business without leaving a digital archive behind. One of the few records of the work I did there is on microfiche at the local library. It is only accessible in person. I needed to get copies of one particular story I did and began thinking of a way to get there.

Driving there offered a chance to make art along the way. But, it’s a loooong drive and if I’m going that far, why not all the way across? So, a trip across the country was born.

March was still cold and once I got into the mountains, even colder. The roads were empty in long stretches and even more in the country backroads I took. I rarely got above 65mph or took the mega interstates.

I brought a drone for aerial shots, dSLR, GoPro, car mounted cameras, and an audio recorder. My intent was to harvest a wide variety of media for use in post-production over the next year. There wasn’t much of a preconceived concept or aesthetic I tried to realize. It was just to be present, over and over, far from home.

The title JoJo Crawdad comes from combining words I picked up once I crossed the Mississippi. A jojo is a small potato wedge that gas stations served fried. Crawdad is a familiar version of crayfish, which are tiny lobster shaped crustaceans that folks eat by the bushel in Louisiana.

I was on the road for a full 28 days.

empty gambling hall
Callahan, FL
abstract image
Huntsville, AL
skateboard park from above
Charleston, SC

The abstract images that look blended are not made with Photoshop or on a computer. They are the result of 10 multiple exposures made on the same frame inside the camera. They got made while on-site and once they were shot, there was fixing or changing them. I got to the point where it was a little dance movement to get a variety of viewpoints in each frame.

Some of the photography ended up in my solo show at Art Ark in August. A video piece, Vulture, was recently in a film festival. There is still so much to work with. I feel like this trip will be paying dividends for many years.

Wolves

The Wolves project I started last year was chosen by the Palo Alto Public Art Program for a 5 night performance in May. Each night I rode around a pre-chosen area near downtown Palo Alto, projecting the animation onto houses and businesses.

Of all the public art projects I’ve done, this one got the most press coverage by far. A large profile in the local section of the San Jose Mercury News was a highlight. It was followed by coverage from ABC 7, Palo Alto Online, Hoodline, Content Magazine, and some online aggregators. It also got shared a lot from those outlets and I spotted it on social media a few times.

newspaper clipping

For this event, I created a Wolf Tracker web app for people to find my location when I was going through their neighborhoods. At first I tried to use the location sharing feature of my phone, but that was too limited. So I bought a GPS module for the projection cart and wrote some Python scripts to get that data to my server. It was well intentioned and worked fine in testing but I had issues out in the wild. It turned out that certain locations around Palo Alto actually blocked the GPS signals. I have no idea how to explain it, but was able to verify the block multiple times. Weird.

A friend from Haiti came by one of the nights and put together this cool video.

Refactor

A local gallery, Kaleid, had recently cleared out an extra room and was offering it as an installation space. I had a variety of tech art and video I had finished the previous year. Although it was a small show, it got some foot traffic and was a good size for the smaller interactive work. It ended up being a retrospective of the past 5 years in multimedia.

Bad Liar
Closer
Delphi
Embers
Spanner player
Tintype

Beacon

In August, I had a large solo show of recent work at Art Ark in downtown San Jose, California. It’s a beautiful space and has hosted many top notch shows. I was offered the Summer residency and used that to put together 62 artworks for display.

entrance to art gallery
Entrance

Logistically, the biggest challenge was framing. Only a handful of the pieces were framed. To save money, I decided to frame them myself. I thought it was a good idea at the time, but it ended up being a massive effort.

I cut down around 2700ft of oak strips into 192 pieces with rabbets and angled ends. Then I assembled and stapled the frames by hand. The work was in different sizes, so the frames were made in sized batched. The acrylic came at a discount from Tap Plastics (thanks guys!). The window mats were also cut by hand and that was time consuming.

table with cut wood
Fresh cut oak

The work paid off though because the presentation was really nice. Consistent and clean. Also, I now have a lot of framed work for distribution and exhibition. I sent some of them to national shows I explain later in the post.

newspaper clipping
Pick of the week in San Jose Metro

Going National

This year, I made a real effort to exhibit across the country and in other contexts as well. I made use of CaFE (Calls for Entry) and FilmFreeway for film festivals. There is so much competition for just a handful of exhibitions now. The internet makes more available to people like me, but can also overwhelm organizers with thousands of entries. A small cottage industry has sprouted up around the whole enterprise and there are a lot of sketchy “pay-to-play” shows. That means I’m supposed to pay for the privilege of showing my work. I’m not doing that.

But, I did find some interesting opportunities out there. It was mostly regional group shows. I didn’t get to attend, but I thought it would be good to know the process of getting work to them from beginning to end. Shipping anything fragile is incredibly expensive now. I wasn’t anticipating that.

I had a piece in a virtual show at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Modern Art. A pianist named Ting Luo saw that and reached out for some collaboration. She founded an organization call New Arts Collaboration and wanted to know if I wanted to contribute some video. It took some time going back and forth, but we put together a collaborative multimedia piece she performed recently in San Francisco. Brett Austin composed the music, titled How Deep is the Valley, and I made a custom video piece for it. She played the piece live a few months later.

Ting Luo, New Arts Collaboration, San Francisco, CA
How Deep is the Valley
Main Street Arts, Clifton, NY
Gray Loft Gallery, Oakland, CA
Another Hole in the Head film festival, San Francisco, CA
Decode Gallery, Tucson, AZ

Alviso Aviary

A nearby nature preserve is one my favorite day hikes. It’s very open and clear and has a rich variety of birds. I took some footage of lost seagulls one day and was inspired to make some animation assets. This is a minor project that will eventually get folded into some other context.

Original footage
illustration of bird wing movements
Conversion process
Final animation

Bric-a-brac

I found a gold frame in a trash can that had upholstery fabric inside. It was probably a mount for a Virgin of Guadalupe statue, which is common around here. I brought it back to my studio and was inspired to make use of this Pirelli tank car graphic I had been digitizing. After some cleanup work in Inkscape, I sent the outline to my vinyl cutter with some black vinyl material. The result was pretty sweet.

graphic of car on fabric inside a frame

Fresh from the success of my trash collage, I decided to do a whole series. I scoured some local thrift stores and a few yard sales for frames. My art studio neighbor had a bunch he donated. I ended up with 12 cheapo gold frames of various sizes.

My grandfather used to work re-upholstering furniture and I thought there might be a supply store for that kind of work. San Jose didn’t have any furniture specific shops, but there are a lot of fabric stores. One of the best was actually close to my house, Fabrics R Us. They had a bunch of inexpensive, but ornate and metallic, upholstery fabric. I came back with a nice variety that I added some donated wallpaper to.

A trip to home depot got me some MDF that I cut up and wrapped in fabric. I took some photos of the results and began to lay out designs in Inkscape. I had done a lot of vector drawing for the Wolves project, so I had a workflow ready.

I spent many months collecting imagery and designs to convert to graphic outlines. I avoided the internet and made use of the local library and even some old Playboys I bought at a record shop. I have plenty to work with now, but the digitizing and plotting has been time consuming.

[ dogs ]

After 4 years of experimenting, fabrication, and sound design, I premiered [ dogs ] at Anno Domini Gallery in December. It’s an interactive sound art experience that involves 9 people carrying around autonomous speakers with computers inside them. The speakers bark, snarl, or squeal if near one group and resonate within a tone chord if near another group.

Each speaker can detect the distance and disposition of all the other speakers. Some are friends and others enemies. Participants discover which is which by walking around and getting real-time audio feedback from those around them.

The project began with the purchase of 10 cheap sub-woofers from the now defunct Weird Stuff Warehouse. They were unpowered and basically empty. I decided to adopt them and figure out what to do later. At first, I thought I might build an independent 10 channel synthesizer. That would require some kind of communication between them so I bought a bunch of Raspberry Pi Zeros and got to work.

After many different approaches and some new inspiration from Norcal Noisefest, I decided to make them loud and antagonistic. This came at a time when social media conflict was off the charts, for reasons I’m sure everyone knows. The noise and anger level got so high, it was hard to tell who was saying what and why.

A chance encounter at Streetlight Records brought a CD full of animal sounds into my studio. I used many of those clips as the basis for layering and pitching individual sounds for each speaker. The result is a tiered collection of distorted and loud samples of animals in distress. The psychological effect of working on those sounds for hours and hours was pretty intense.

In the end, the experience is heavily influenced by the people participating. 2 rounds of experiences with different groups yielded very different results. It achieved the status of social experiment above whatever artistic intent I wielded. The conversations after each experience were really interesting and lasted a while.

Next year

On my trip across the country I had a lot of time to think. I wondered about the distribution and reception of this art work. I thought about what I really wanted to accomplish. I managed to carve an art life out of this crazy year and I’m proud of that. It was exhausting, though.

A couple of months ago, I got some consequential personal news. I had to decide where I was going to live in 2022 because the space I am renting is being sold. So, I decided to take the leap on a move I have been considering for a while.

I’m moving to Berlin, Germany. I hope to connect with the art community there and globally. So, next year my annual art year recap will come from Berlin.

Hard Music in Hard Times

This essay was my winning entry in a TQ zine essay contest back in June of 2020. TQ is an underground music zine that hails from Northumberland, England.

We live in a golden age of irreverent and unsentimental hard music, released by armies of atonal warriors onto Bandcamp, Soundcloud, and cassette tape. We can listen to hundreds of hours of crushed white noise decorated with screams and clipped crunches.

Performers can boldly destroy any expectation of comfort or familiarity. It’s a full body embrace of the anxiety and struggle that people feel in a society that produces so much disconnected sound pollution in service of consumption.

But where does it fit when we live in a pandemic, with people suffering and dying? Should we still be making harsh music in harsh times? Who is it for if so many people are flocking to feel-good music and movies, nostalgia, and any other cultural salve they can find? Are folks really spending months in isolation, listening to Merzbow?

Abso-fucking-lutely.

Plenty of crazy bastards are not only listening, they are making more of it. What else is there to do, watch more vapid bullshit on the internet?

If you spend any time around firefighters, you’ll notice many of them smoke cigarettes. Seems strange to do something you have to avoid while doing your job. It is a way of getting use to something you will have to deal with eventually. Firefighters don’t get to hold their breath and ignore the smoke while fighting fires.

The noise of city life, cheap vehicles, and expensive phones surround us. Brooms brush and scrape. Street machines move us back and forth between to places to earn money to buy new machines. A new nowness is needed to remember to listen. Listen to all these things around us instead of filtering them out. Use the noise to feed noise.

In 2015, Tasha Howe from Humboldt State University published a paper about the midlife status of metalheads from the 80s. It reported they were better adjusted as adults than a similar cohort of non-metal fans.

I’ve found that to be true in my own life and among friends I grew up around. Anecdotally, I’ve seen friends that were into heavy shit in adolescence end up as healthy and interesting adults. More importantly, they tend to have a bit more empathy than the people I knew who were into pop music. I have no real explanation of that other than a belief that people who confront struggle and pain in their lives do much better in emotional maturity than people who ignore the same.

That Humboldt study was of adolescence, though. How about grown folks having a hard time in the middle of a pandemic? If not already a fan of challenging music, listening during a painful time probably won’t do much for them. Telling them about the noise project you’re into on social media probably won’t get a whole lot of interest either.

Performers cry, bleat, and moan about their metrics. Nobody gave a shit before the pandemic, why would they now? Hahahaha. N.A.U., motherfuckers.

I have been building a lot of noise instruments during the lockdown. Playing them is fulfilling and liberating. There is a physicality and connection to them and the sounds they make. Even a lousy day around that kit is so much better than any Marvel movie or Game of Drones mental mush.

I could probably put out a decent full-length of well constructed ambient right now. Something soothing and somatic. It would get more likes and downloads I suppose. But, I don’t feel that way. This idle time and solitude has inspired a visceral reaction.

I want to make sure my mind stays alive. Opting for intensity keeps me in the now with an undeniable sonic force. I don’t want to tune the world out. When they announce that more people are hurting or have died, I want to know that and feel it for real.

Ignoring the news and letting Netflix hijack my empathy with the melodramas of fictional people can only lead to something bad down the line. I plan on retaining my emotional life.

So, here’s to feedback, squelches, cracks, and booms. All of it. Snip some diodes in your pedals and point your amps at each other. Turn off every screen you can find. Smoke nothing. Drink nothing. Be radically present. Say everything you think out loud into a microphone. Then say it again louder. Scream it.

Pulverize craniums boldly. Celebrate the resonance of the real and serenade the suffering. Let go of irony and cleverness. Record nothing. Play for your plants and animals. Liberate your intent from ego.

Above all, stay human. Keep feeling. Live loudly.

Prizes included PCBs galore

One of the rules was that the first three words of at least three paragraphs had to start with P, C, and B. The lengths was also set at minimum 650 words.

I was thrilled to win this because the prizes included a bunch of electronics components for building modular audio gear. My plan is to turn this metal lunch box I bought at a thrift store into a portable synthesizer rig.

MMXIX: time, noise, light

This year saw the completion of new sound sculptures and large installation work. It offered up new performance contexts and an expansion of exhibition options. The projects have grown in scale and scope, but the internal journey continues.

Wheel of Misfortune

A few years ago I noticed neighborhood kids putting empty water bottle into spokes of the back wheels of their bikes. They got a cool motorcycle sound out of it. One of them had two bottles offset and that produced a rhythmic but offbeat cycle that sounded interesting.

It gave me the idea to use a bicycle wheel for repeating patterns the way drum machines an sequencers do. I also thought it would be an interesting object to build from a visual standpoint.

It took a while, but having the workspace to lay out larger electronics assemblies was helpful. I settled on five sensors in a bladed array reading magnets attached to the spokes.

A first performance at local gallery Anno Domini with Cellista was fun, but the sounds I had associated with the triggers lacked bite. I reworked the Raspberry Pi running Fluidsynth and built 14 new instruments using a glitched noise sound pack I released a few years ago.

To switch between the instruments I came up with a contact mic trigger using a chopstick and an Arduino. It has a satisfying crack when tapped and cycles the noise patches effectively.

The Wheel got a loud and powerful public test at Norcal Noisefest. People responded not only to novelty of the bicycle wheel, but the badass sound it could make.

https://www.instagram.com/p/B0XYC6hjkVq/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

Oracle

I get asked to do sound performances more often these days and it can be challenging because I don’t have much outboard musical gear. So, I have a general effort to create more gear to use live. A common need is to have an interesting way of triggering longform loops I created in my studio.

Taking a cue from the grid controllers used by Ableton Live, I had the idea to build a player that keyed off objects placed under a camera. Reading location and size, it could arrange loops in a similar way.

Computer vision test for Oracle

The project kicked off with an analog video stand I found that was used for projecting documents in a business presentation. I connected that to a primitive but very effective computer vision board for Arduino called the Video Experimenter.

After months of testing with different objects I settled on small white rocks that brought inherent contrast. At a library sale I picked up a catalog of pictograms from Chinese oracle bones that had fascinating icons to predict the future with.

Oracle stones

That clinched the theme of an “oracle” divining the future of a musical performance rather than a musician executing a planned performance.

It has turned out to be really flexible for performances and is a crowd favorite, especially when I let people place the stones themselves.

Oracle at First Friday

Delphi

Smashed tv screen for Oracle
Looks cool, huh? I wish I could say it was intentional. I smashed the screen while loading the equipment for SubZERO this year. meh, I just went with it.

People give me things, usually broken things. I don’t collect junk though. I learned the hard way that some things take a lot of work to get going for very little payoff. Also, a lot of modern tech is mostly plastic with melted rivets and tabs instead of screws or bolts. They weren’t meant to be altered or repaired.

Big screen TVs are a good example. One of the ways they got so cheap is the modular way they get made with parts that weren’t meant to last. I got a fairly large one from Brian Eder at Anno Domini and was interested in getting it back up.

Unfortunately, a smashed HDMI board required some eBay parts and it took more time than expected. Once it was lit up again and taking signal I started running all kinds of content through the connector boards.

When hung vertical, it resembled one of those Point-of-Purchase displays you see in cell phone stores. I though about all the imagery they use to sell things and it gave me the idea of showing something more human and real.

In society that fetishizes youth culture and consumption, we tend to fear aging. I decided to find someone at a late stage of of life to celebrate and display four feet high.

That person turned out to be Frank Fiscalini. At 96 years old he has led a full rich life and is still in good health and spirits. It took more than a few conversations to explain why I wanted to film a closeup of his eyes and face, but he came around.

I set the TV up in my studio with his face looping for hours, slowly blinking. I had no real goal or idea of the end. I just lived with Mr. Fiscalini’s face for a while.

I thought a lot about time and how we elevate specific times of our lives over others. In the end, time just keeps coming like waves in the ocean. I happen to have a fair amount of ocean footage I shot with a waterproof camera.

With the waves projected behind his face, my studio was transformed into a quiet meditation on time and humanity.

Other contributions of building scaffolding and P.A. speakers formed the basis of a large-scale installation. Around this time, I had also been reading a strange history of the Oracle of Delphi.

At first the “oracle” was actually a woman whose insane rants were likely the result of hallucinations from living over gas events. A group of men interpreted what she said and ended up manipulating powerful leaders for miles.

Thus Delphi was formed conceptually. The parallels to modern politics seemed plain, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the futility of trying to control or predict the future. This felt like a good time for this particular project.

Balloon synth

The annual SubZERO Festival here in San Jose has been an anchor point for the past few years. One challenge I’ve faced is the strong breeze that blows through in the hour before sunset. For delicate structures and electronics on stands, it’s a problem. Instead of fighting it this year, I decided to make use of it.

I had an idea to put contact mics on balloons so when the wind blew, the balloons would bounce against each other. I thought they might be like bass bumping wind chimes.

Thanks to a generous donation by Balloonatics, I had 15 beautiful green balloons for the night of the festival. Hooked up to mics and an amplifier, they made cool sounds. But, it took a bit more force than the breeze to move them forcefully enough.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BycRPL2jQn-/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

Kids figured out they could bump and play with the balloons and they would make cool noises. Sure enough, it drew a huge crowd quickly. People came up to the balloons all night and punched and poked them to get them to make noise.

On the second night, though, the balloons were beat. Some rowdy crowds got too aggro and popped a bunch of them. Anyway, they were a big hit and it was fun to have something like that around.

Belle Foundation grant

An early surprise of the year was getting an envelope from the Belle Foundation with an award for one the year’s grants. I was stoked to be included in this group.

My application was simple and I talked a lot about SubZERO projects and working with older technology. In other words, what I actually do. To get chosen while being real about the art I make was refreshing.

Content Magazine profile

Before I moved back to California in 2012, I worked at an alt-weekly newspaper in Charleston, SC. I photographed all kinds of cultural events and wrote profiles of artists and musicians. But, I was always on the other side of the interview, as the interviewer.

Daniel Garcia from local magazine Content reached out in the beginning of this year and said they were interested in profiling of me and my work. The tables had turned.

Content Magazine spread
Opening portrait and write-up in Content

Writer Johanna Hickle came by my Citadel art studio and spent a generous amount of time listening to me ramble about tech and such. Her write-up was solid and she did a good job distilling a lot of info.

Content Magazine spread
Collage and write-up in Content magazine

It was nerve-wracking for me, though. I knew the power they had to shape the story in different directions. I was relieved when it came out fine and had fun showing it to people.

Norcal Noisefest

In 2017, I went to the Norcal Noisefest in Sacramento. It had a huge impact on my music and approach to anything live. I came back feeling simultaneously assaulted and enlightened.

Over the past two years, I’ve built a variety of live sound sculptures and performed with most of them. This year the focus was on the new Wheel of Misfortune. I reached out to Lob Instagon, who runs the festival, and signed up for a slot as a performer at Norcal Noisefest in October.

Coincidentally, I met Rent Romus at an Outsound show in San Francisco and told him about performing at Noisefest. Rent puts on all kinds of experimental shows in SF and he suggested a preview show at the Luggage Store.

So I ended up with a busy weekend with those shows and an installation at First Friday.

Norcal Noisefest was a blast and I got see a bunch of rad performances. My set sounded like I wanted, but I have a ways to go when it comes to stage presence. Other people were going off. I have to step things up if I going to keep doing noise shows

Flicker glitch

I have been making short-form abstract videos for the past few years. Most have a custom soundtrack or loop I make. This year I collected the best 87 out of over 250 and built a nice gallery for them on this site.

Every once in a while I get requests from other groups and musicians to collaborate or make finished visuals for them. Most people don’t realize how much time goes into these videos and I’m generally reluctant to collaborate in such an unbalanced way.

I was curious about making some longer edited clips though. I responded to two people who reached out and made “music videos” for their pre-existing music. It wasn’t really collaborative, but I was ok with that because email art direction can be tricky.

The first, Sinnen, gave me complete freedom and was releasing an album around the same time. His video was a milestone in my production flow. It was made entirely on my iPhone 7, including original effects, editing and titles. I even exported at 1080p, which is a working resolution unthinkable for a small device just five years ago. They could shoot at that fidelity, but not manipulate or do complex editing like that.

The next video was much more involved. It was for a song by UK metal band Damim. The singer saw my videos on Instagram and reached out for permission to use some of them. I offered to to just make a custom video instead.

All the visuals were done on my iPhone, with multiple generations and layers going through multiple apps. I filled up my storage on a regular basis and was backing it up nightly. Really time consuming. Also, that project required the horsepower and flexibility of Final Cut Pro to edit the final results.

I spent six months in all, probably 50 hours for so. I was ok with that because it was a real world test of doing commissioned video work for someone else’s music. Now I know what it takes to produce a video like that and charge fairly in the future.

New photography

Yes, I am still a photographer. I get asked about it every once in awhile. This year I came out with two different small bodies of work shooting abstracts and digitizing some older work.

Photographs on exhibit at the Citadel
Grounded series at a Citadel show near downtown San Jose, CA

These monochromatic images are sourced from power wires for the local light rail (VTA) sub-station on Tasman Rd. I drove by this cluster everyday on a tech job commute for about a year. I swore that when the contract was over I was going to return and photograph all the patterns I saw overhead.

I did just that and four got framed and exhibited at Citadel. One was donated to Works gallery as part of their annual fundraiser.

Donated photograph at Works
Importance of being grounded at Works

The Polaroids come from a project I had in mind for many years. Back when Polaroid was still manufacturing SX-70 instant prints, I shot hundreds of them. I always envisioned enlarging them huge to totally blow out the fidelity (or lack of it).

Polaroids
Enlarged Polaroid prints

This year I began ordering 4 foot test prints on different mounting substrates. To that I ended up scanning a final edit of 14 from hundreds. To see them lined up on the screen ready for output was a fulfilling moment. Having unfinished work in storage was an issue for me for a long time. This was a convergent conclusion of a range of artistic and personal issues.

Passing it on

Now that I have a working art studio, I have a place to show people when visit from out of town. The younger folks are my favorite because they think the place is so weird and like because of that. I share that sentiment.

My French cousins Toullita and Nylane came by for a day and we made zines. Straight up old school xerox zines with glue and stickers and scissors. It was a rad day filled with weird music and messy work.

More locally, I had two younger cousins from San Francisco, Kieran and Jasmina, spend a day with me. They’ve grown up in a world immersed in virtual experiences and “smart” electronics. My choice for them was tinkering with Adafruit Circuit Playground boards.

Tinkering with Circuit Playgrounds
Cousins collaborating on code for apple triggered capacitance synths

They got to mess with Arduino programs designed to make noise and blink lights. At the end they each built capacitive touch synthesizers that we hooked up to apples. Super fun. Later that night we took them to a family dinner and they got to explain what they had made and put on a little demo.

Next up

The wolves are still howling and running. My longtime project to build standalone wolf projections made a lot of progress this year. I had hoped to finish it before the last First Friday of the year, but that wasn’t in the cards.

https://www.instagram.com/p/B4raBM0DS6Z/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

Getting something to work in the studio is one thing. Building it so it is autonomous, self-powered, small, and can handle physical bumps, is a whole different game. But, I do have the bike cargo trailer and power assembly ready. The young cousins even got a chance to help test it.

A new instrument I’ve been working on is a Mozzi driven Arduino synth enclosed in an old metal Camel cigarettes tin. It has been an evergreen project this year, offering low stakes programming challenges to tweak the sounds optimize everything for speed.

https://www.instagram.com/p/B5zjHqYDaMi/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

One need I had was a precise drill for specific holes. A hand drill could do it, but I had a cleaner arrangement in mind. As luck would have it, another cousin in San Luis Obispo had an extra drill press to donate. Problem was, it was in rough shape and rusted pretty bad.

I brought it back and doused it in PB B’Laster Penetrating Catalyst. That made quick work of the frozen bolts and a range of grinders and rotary brushes handled the other rust. It looks great and is ready to make holes for the Camel synth.

Finis

It’s been a good year artistically. I had some issues with living situations and money, but it all evened out. I’m grateful to have this kind of life and look forward to another year of building weird shit and making freaky noise.

MMXVIII: the year in review

Image of a performance of Sympathy at SubZERO, with noise and smoke.
Performing at SubZERO Festival in June. Photo by Lisa Teng

It’s been a prolific year for Lucidbeaming: multimedia art by Joshua Curry. Beginning with a new art studio and finishing up with a host of Winter projects.

The main theme has been expansion. I took my music and found ways to incorporate performance and sculptural elements. The video work has been scaled up to building size and fed into monitors for physical effect. I pushed my limits on public interaction by making 9(!) appearances with a booth at SubZERO/First Fridays.

Personally, I’ve found new creative friendships and nurtured existing ones. I have no interest doing any of this alone, even though my studio life is very private. It’s just more interesting to find other people also putting their energy into something non-commercial, independent, and fucking weird.

The Citadel Studio

I had to give up my apartment at the beginning of the year. Instead of trying to find another (expensive) combined live/work spot, I took the plunge and leased an art studio. It turned out to be a good decision because my creative environment has been stable while the sleep spots have come and gone.

It has generous storage up top and a separate room for music production. My whole workflow and process has grown because of the space. I feel very fortunate to have this.

Panorama my art studio at the Citadel Complex in downtown San Jose, CA
Just moved in.
Back wall of the studio with video projection
Video projection and staging area.

Wolves

I have a thing for wolves, especially wolves living at the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site. This work is the beginning of a long-term project about wolves that requires “vectorized” images of wolves in motion.

Making these digital drawings involves a variety of new skill-sets and hardware for me. I have worked with animators and graphic designers who have experience digitizing images and working with stylus devices, but never had much opportunity to dive in myself.

I couldn’t afford a high-end Wacom tablet or iPad Pro, but I did find an older tablet/laptop hybrid at my aunt’s house one Thanksgiving. She used it for teaching before her retirement. When it was new, hybrid tablet/PCs were novel and sounded great, in theory.

When I got it, the battery was dead and Windows 7 had been locked by security and update issues. I got a new battery and installed Linux Ubuntu. Setup was not flawless, but it has ended up working fine (including all the stylus/touchscreen features).

To do the rotoscoping of video footage, I exported all the video frames with ffmpeg and then used Inkscape to draw over the top of them. So far, so good. It’s time consuming and manual work, but meditative and interesting.

Rotoscoping wolf motion with an old laptop
Rotoscoping wolves on a tc4400 running Inkscape on Ubuntu.

Critters gets reviewed on Badd Press

I released my second full-length album, Critters, late last year. To promote it, I used more organic methods than with my first album, Spanner. Basically, I sent it out to a lot of blogs that cover ambient and experimental music. It’s tough to cut through the volume of submissions they get. One of the people who did respond was Kevin Press at Badd Press.

It was strange but gratifying to read his review when it got posted early this year. For many years, I worked at an alt-weekly newspaper in Charleston, SC and saw lots of bands and artists try to get reviewed or covered. I also saw lots of them get worked up about the reviews. I admit to feeling a little nervous about what he might say. His review was thoughtful and generous.

Cover image for the album Critters

Multimedia artist and experimental composer Joshua Curry in San Jose, California can lay claim to a unique accomplishment. His November release Critters is its own language. It is unlike anything we’ve heard. Mixing recordings of wildlife at sunset with synthesizers and a genuinely unique approach to composition, Curry has produced a phenomenal 15-track album.

— Kevin Press, Badd Press

Read his full review of Critters on the Badd Press website.

Critters on college radio

The first time I heard my music on the radio was in April of this year. I was on my way to the DMV to handle the smog certification for my vehicle. On the radio was KFJC, a local college radio station that has a huge broadcast reach in this valley. I heard a song that sounded really familiar and after a few seconds I realized it was mine. I got chills.

It was such a rad feeling to catch it on the radio at random. A month before, I had packed up 40 or so custom CDs of my album Critters and shipped them out to college radio stations across the U.S. and Canada. So much was going on at that time that I didn’t follow up to see if any of the stations played it.

A stack of Critters CDs ready to ship out to radio stations.
CDs ready to be shipped to college radio stations.

After some web searches later that night I found that lots of stations had picked it up and put it into regular rotation. I didn’t even know. KALX in Berkeley, WNYU in New York, KFJC here in San Jose, CISM in Montreal, KBOO in Portland and many more had been playing songs from Critters.

Radio station charts for Critters from KALX, WYNU, and KFJC
Songs from Critters on playlist charts from KALX, WYNU, and KFJC.

It’s hard to say what the tangible impact of the airplay really is, though. My Bandcamp sales and Spotify streams had bumps in their numbers, but not a huge amount.

One thing I can say is that I’ve learned the entire process from making music to getting it on the air. From recording and post-production to mastering and export for streaming and CD masters to online distribution and building radio mailing lists to packaging, UPC labeling, and shipping to verifying airplay.

That experience will probably come in handy in the future.

Neuroprinter

Well, it was an interesting failure.

Built with the SubZERO festival in mind, I thought Neuroprinter might be an interesting sculpture for people to interact with at an outside festival. I was able to complete it in time for the festival, but rushed through some of the fabrication and it showed.

The original idea was to build a back projection box for flickering film loops. It grew into a memory machine that took the process of memory imprinting and visualized it as a sci-fi prop. The final presentation lacked context and connection, but I learned a lot about the processes to execute the individual stages.

Although it wasn’t meant to be a piece of clean hi tech sculpture, the metalwork ended up being too rough and poorly supported. I intended to have a patched together kind of aesthetic, but it was too much.

People thought it was cool, but it required way too much explanation to survive as any kind of sculptural object. I have since dismantled the piece, but have plans for the components as individual pieces.

Animated GIF of the 8mm film projection
Clip of the projection.

MaChinE

This was a sleeper of a project that had been on my mind for years. Back in 2002, I made a Flash-based drum machine/sampler using scanned machine parts and sounds from circuit bent toys. It was produced for the E.A.A.A. (Electronic Arts Alliance of Atlanta) annual member show and lived on as a lonely website on an obscure server.

Screenshot of MaChinE

I always thought it would be cool to build a kiosk for people to use it. Over the years, Flash was eventually phased out and my plans to port it to HTML5 were always deferred to something shinier and newer.

At surplus electronics stores this year, I noticed that they were dumping fairly nice flat-screen VGA monitors for peanuts. I picked one up and found some wire screen and miscellaneous junk to build an object base. It runs on a Raspberry Pi with an old version of Flash.

Tech folks see it as a novelty and laugh when I tell them it was made with Flash. Kids love it though and I’m glad to see out it the world with people playing with it.

Machine at SubZERO
The standalone piece on display at SubZERO.

Noise toys

Last year I built two Raspberry Pi based synthesizers using ZynAddSubFx and Fluidsynth. I still use them to make music, but they are more software based than hardware. They sound great, but don’t have external controls for LFO or filter changes.

Recent efforts are more tactile and simple. With more outboard effects and amplifiers available in the studio, I’ve focused more on basic sound generators and sequencers/timers. One of the noisier ones is a Velleman KA02 Audio Shield I picked up locally. It has some timing quirks that I took advantage of to generate some great percussive noise.

The memo recorder is cycling through a bunch of short recordings from a police scanner.
Getting close to permanent installation on the little Kustom amp I have.
I made some new patches for ZynAddSubFx so the Raspberry Pi synth I made was more relevant to the music I actually make. This is a a rhythmic glitch sound coming from an arpeggiation.

Krusher and Sympathy

Countdown timer for performance of Sympathy
Krusher on the left and Sympathy on the right, metal sculptures for noise performance.

Built from steel pipes, heavy duty compression springs, and contact mics, these metal sculptures are primal noise instruments. The smaller one, Krusher, was the first version. I wanted to build a kind of pile driver drum machine. After considering mechanical means of driving it, I had more fun just playing the damn thing through a cheap amp.

The tall one, Sympathy, came later and with more contact mics attached. After playing them together, an idea for a performance was born.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BeZmAh0nqo9/

SubZERO

The view from inside my booth at SubZERO.

For the past couple of years, SubZERO Festival and subsequent South FIRST FRIDAYS have become primary destinations for the kind of work I’m doing. It’s a great chance to gauge reaction to the work and motivation to finish projects.

It can also be nerve wracking and challenging. This year I chose an ambitious timeline and also debuted three distinct pieces and performances at the same time. In the end it all worked out, but things got pretty stressful towards the last minute. I had to take shortcuts with execution and I wasn’t happy with some of the consequences of those compromises.

Looks like something from Sanford and Son.
Projected imagery coming from the side of the booth.

The peak of the festival for me (and all of 2018, really) was the performance of the sculptures I had made, in a piece I simply called Sympathy. It was loud, intense, and had tons of multi-colored smoke. I did two cycles, one on each night of the festival. I also did one last performance in October, at the end of First Fridays.

80s skating

Back in the late 80s, I was living in south San Jose and was a skateboarder along with most of my friends. It was a huge part my life and my first professional work as a photographer was produced during that time. I went on to be a professional photographer and multimedia artist for the next 30 years.

Taking advantage of the foot traffic during Cinequest this year, I picked four skating photographs from 1988-1990 and had them printed as large scale posters. I chose images of Tony Henry, Brandon Chapman, Tommy Guerrero, and Jun Ragudo.

I talked to Bob Schmelzer, owner of Circle-A skateshop in downtown San Jose about hanging them in his windows temporarily. He was totally cool about it and the photos were seen by hundreds during that time.

I left the posters at his shop and when he finished some work on the back wall, he re-installed them to face 2nd Street. They are still there now and I’m stoked to walk downtown and seem them hanging.

One of the images of Tommy Guerrero was seen by Jim Thiebaud of Real Skateboards. He asked if he could use it on a limited edition deck to raise money for medical costs of the family of Refuge Skateshop. Of course, I said yes. They all sold out and the Refuge family got the funds. I also managed to snag a Real deck with my photo on it. Fucking rad.

Noise and Waffles

A couple of years ago I went to Norcal Noisefest in Sacramento. At that time, most of my exposure to live experimental music was around San Francisco and was electronic and tech oriented.

After seeing some videos of booked performers, I knew I had to check it out. I went for two days and had a mind blowing experience. I had never seen that level of pure volume and abstraction. It was more metal than any metal show I had seen.

Most importantly, I was impressed by the community. The noise scene around there is one of the last refuges of true experimental sound without institutional gatekeepers. Keeping everything together was Lob Instagon, the festival organizer.

When I got back to San Jose, my whole musical world was upside down because of that festival. I started to explore a much heavier side of sound. I also wanted to have something to perform live that wasn’t centered around a laptop or screen.

After building Krusher and Sympathy, I posted some video of me playing it that eventually got back to Lob. He reached out and invited me to perform at one the weekly Sacramento Audio Waffle shows he runs at the Red Museum in Sacramento.

I was stoked to say yes. The show was a lot of fun and I liked the other groups that played. Also, I got to hear Sympathy on a substantial P.A. with big bass cabinets. That shit rumbled the roof.

Poster for Sacramento Audio Waffle #47

Cassette

One of the things I noticed at Norcal Noisefest was how much they didn’t care about online distribution. Lots of tapes on tables and even some Vinyl releases. CDs were there but not as much as cassettes.

A limitation of the live performance at SubZERO was a lack of powerful amps to drive the bass tones. Lots of sub 75hz tones get generated by the steel pipes and springs.

So, I made some full range recordings of both and ran them through a little EQ and compression. Here is the tape of that effort, inspired by the noise heads in Sacramento. Fun to make.

Self-published cassette of recordings of Sympathy performances.

Teleprofundo

Having my own studio space has expanded the scale I can work in. The back wall gets used regularly for video projection experiments. Most of what I do with projection is pretty old school. I don’t use VJ tools or Final Cut or Adobe Premiere for this.

It’s just a few cheap office projectors, an old Canon Hi-8 camera for feedback, and a variety of video source footage. Now with the 8mm film projector, I can add even more footage to the mix.

I found an interesting source of public domain film footage, the New York Public Library. Their online archives are outstanding.

Recently, I picked up some monochrome security monitors and have been running all kinds of feedback and low-fi video signals through them.

Mixing stock film footage from 50s Hollywood
Multiple layers of feedback
Monochrome composite monitors chaining camera feedback

Macroglitch

While trying to find smooth ways of converting 24fps video to 30fps, I stumbled across niche online communities that are into high frame rates. I was looking for simple, but high fidelity, frame interpolation. They are into generating slow motion and high fps videos of video games.

One of the most interesting tools I found is Butterflow. It uses a combination of ffmpeg and OpenCV to generate impressive motion interpolated frame generation. Things got really interesting when I started running short, jumpy, and abstract video clips through the utility.

Below is a video clip I shot of a thistle from two inches away, at 24fps. With Butterflow and ffmpeg, I stretched it out more than 10X. It’s kind of like Paulstretch for video. The line effect is from a sobel filter in ffpmeg.

butterflow -s a=0,b=end,spd=0.125 in.mov --poly-s 1.4 -ff gaussian -r 29.97 -v -o out.mp4
An early test using a thistle.

Since then I’ve expanded this project in many directions. I’ve set up all kinds of table top macro video shots with plants, dead insects, shells, electronics, and more.

Generating so much stretched footage has taken days of rendering and filled terabytes of space. One of the first finished pieces I made was this music video for the song Aerodome. The audio waveforms were generated with ffmpeg.

https://vimeo.com/306120003

Short form abstract video

When I released Spanner, I found out how tricky it is to deal with audio on social media. Sharing things with SoundCloud kept the interest trapped in the SoundCloud ecosystem and people rarely visited my website or Bandcamp page. I used Audiograms for a while, but didn’t like the aesthetic.

So, I loaded the raw audio files on my phone and started using clips in 60 second videos I would make with video apps. That was two years ago. Since then, I’ve made around 200 videos for social, mostly Instagram.

I try to keep them unique and don’t use the presets that come with the apps. A lot of the videos represent multiple generations through multiple apps in different workflow. Also, most of the recent videos have custom audio tracks I make with soft synths and granular sample manglers.

I get asked how I make them all the time. So, here are all the “secrets”.

I start out with geometric images or video clips, like buildings or plants or something repetitive. Most of the time I capture in slow-motion. Then I import clips or images into LumaFusion and crop them square and apply all kinds of tonal effects like monochrome, hi/low key, halftone. For static images, I’ll apply a rotation animation with x/y movement.

Then I’ll make some audio in Fieldscaper, Synthscaper, Filtatron, or use a clip of one my songs. That gets imported into a track in LumaFusion. Then I trim the clip so it’s just below 60 seconds, which is the limit for Instagram and useful for others.

After exporting at 720×720, I open it in Hyperspektiv, Defekt, or maybe TiltShift Video. I pick a starting transformation and then export it, bringing it back into Lumafusion or maybe running it through more effects.

That process gets repeated a few times until I end up with something I like or the clip starts to get fried from too much recompression. They key is to keep working until I get something distinctive and not a iTunes visualizer imitation.

It’s funny that I have people who follow all these little videos and don’t realize I do all kinds of more substantial work. But, I’m glad to have something people enjoy and they are fun to make.

Where is Embers?

Embers is alive and well at Kaleid gallery in downtown San Jose, CA. It’s been there for a while now and I still enjoy going by the gallery to watch people interact with it.

The future is uncertain though. It’s a fairly large piece and made of lots of rice paper. I hope to find a permanent home for it this coming year.

https://www.instagram.com/p/Beo6yofHqWp/

Next year

I’m not really a a goal oriented planner. Most of my life and creative work is process oriented. I learn from doing and often there is something finished at the end of it.

I hope the upcoming year offers more chances to learn, get loud, and work with like-minded folks.

PLUDD: Noise sample pack released as free download

I was working on some distortion effects software and it kept crashing. The Raspberry Pi Zero was just too slow to handle it. But, as it went down, the audio stuttered and glitched while Guitarix tried to get it’s buffer back in sync.

It sounded pretty rad. So, I recorded a bunch of it and chopped up the file into individual parts suitable for a sampler or drum machine. They’ve been normalized and somewhat optimized for looping.

They’re free for use, but it would be cool to give a shout if you use them. They’re definitely not for redistribution or inclusion in an any other sample library.

Here are the free noise and glitch samples collected in a zip archive.