Wednesday, August 24, 2011

8.25.11 My Little Black Box

This article originally appeared in the 8.25.11 issue of Metroland.

According to my abacus, this is the 150th ROT. ‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy. Mwah!

Moving on. A friend sent over an article yesterday about an art exhibit in New York that consists of a one terabyte digital storage unit. Looks like the storage unit on my desk, and maybe the one on yours. What makes this one gallery-worthy is that the artist claims that it contains $5 million worth of stolen content that he downloaded from the internet. The list of “stolen” works include:

- every published work of literary fiction from 2003-present, which the artist found online in a single bittorrent file
-a Rosetta Stone Language Pack...
-113 GBs of music...
-lots of gaming software
-a whole bunch of Adobe and Autocad software

Now, like most of you, I take a pretty dim view of a lot of so-called conceptual art, like the guy whose performance at the Knox-Albright Gallery in Buffalo a few months ago consisted of looking at a Jackson Pollock painting for 40 hours (the “performance” was streamed on the internet, so you could watch him watch). But this terabyte storage piece packs a wallop.

The artist couldn’t have spent more than a few hours finding and downloading this stuff and no doubt most of that time involved waiting for it to download. Any of us could do the same thing right now. Most of us, to a greater or lesser extent, already have.

And while some have questioned the valuation of the stuff (and the artist admits that some of his estimates are a little loose), the cumulative retail price of what’s on that drive is surely in the neighborhood of $5 million. OK, say it's only $3 million. That’s still a lot of moolah packed into a little black plastic box.

The artist calls into question, again, the efficacy of intellectual property laws, particularly copyrights, in a world of digital media and the internet. When technology allows unlimited copying and the storage and transfer of gigundous amounts of information and media with the push of a button, when everybody has that technology in their homes and offices and dorm-rooms, well, what does that mean, exactly? And do we try to control it? Should we? Why? On behalf of whom? And at what cost? Is it even possible to control it? How?

What happens if the artist gets sued? After all, he (or she) is admitting to “stealing” millions of dollars worth of copyrighted stuff. Would a First Amendment defense fly? “I downloaded $5 million worth of stuff as an art performance, to make a statement about the nature of digital media and about the compensation of authors, musicians, and other players in the creative realm.” Would a fair use defense fly? “My installation was a purely creative piece, my purpose for copying was different than the purposes for which the various downloaded works were originally created, and my work has caused absolutely no displacement in the marketplace for the original works.” Next.

And who’s gonna defend the artist should the combined corporate legal forces of the RIAA, the Association of American Publishers, the Authors’ Guild, the Business Software Alliance, etc. etc. etc. all land on the artist at once? Yikes! And think about what the legal complaint would demand: the seizure of the little black plastic box, a finding of willful infringement, and damages of up to $150,000 per infringed item. That’s $150,000 for every song, game, book, and application that are sitting in a common device smaller than a bread box that you can buy anywhere for $80, all acquired in a few hours of activity on the internet that any of us could do. The damage claim would, of course, make the $5 million retail value of the stuff on the drive look like chump change.

Do you think the world of IP law might be a teensy-weensy little bit out of balance?

Now, imagine if the artist went out and bought five (or fifty, or five hundred) more one terabyte storage units and daisy-chained them up in the gallery and pushed “copy”. You could watch “piracy” on a mammoth scale while listening to the soft whir of spinning hard drives. How exciting would that be? And how apoplectic the various “content owners” would get.

The gallery display of the $5 million terabyte is simultaneously extremely banal and wildly provocative. My guess is that the artist won’t get sued for his little storage device, because that would only draw attention to the issues it raises. In the midst of their propaganda campaigns about stealing, piracy, lost jobs, ties to terrorism, no more music, no more movies, no more newspapers, and no more books, the last thing the Big Media companies want is for you to actually think critically about these things.

And that’s exactly what this modest and simple art exhibit does. Bravo.


This review originally appeared in the 8.25.11 issue of Metroland.



AUGUST 20, 2011

In the annals of band train-wrecks, few tales are sadder than that of the Left Banke. Back-to-back hits in 1966, abortive tours, treachery and angry lawyers in 1967; by early 1969, before any of the band members had reached the age of 20, the Left Banke was done. The smattering of articles and interviews on the web indicates that the various members have all lived marginal musical lives since then, always in the shadows of two of the most hauntingly beautiful singles ever to grace the airwaves: Walk Away Renee and Pretty Ballerina. And left to wallow in obscurity were two albums worth of inventive, baroque pop.

Until now. Two of the original members, Tom Finn and George Cameron, have teamed up with a bunch of NYC musos to recreate the studio masterpieces from those two albums. Saturday was their fourth show, and it was glorious.

Make no mistake—this was not some goofy oldies show. This was a performance of repertoire, similar to the recent Brian Wilson tours, where Wilson’s dense studio creations are treated as compositions rather than pop songs, and are recreated with loving and curatorial care.

Not that it didn’t rock. Powered by The Grip Weed's guitarist and lead singer Rick Reil on drums (yes, you read that right), the 10-piece band brought modern rock heft to the songs, while the two string players and two keyboardists (including downtown rock maven Joe McGinty) supplied the classical flourishes that the Left Banke pioneered back in the day.

A considerable part of the show rode on the shoulders of vocalist Mike Fornatale, who was, in a word, spectacular. He handled the often-serpentine melodies with ease, grace, and authority. And Fornatale added a bit of understated yet awesome old-school rockstar presence to the proceedings. I mean, when was the last time you marveled at somebody’s tambourine rangling?

Original members Finn and Cameron added the rich, complex harmonies, occasional lead vocals, and between-song patter that was at once knowing, self-deprecating, touching, and fall-down funny. All in all, the show revealed in spades how the Left Banke, in its short and fragmented existence, somehow managed to create a body of work that employed sounds, structures, and mannerisms that influenced and would be echoed by groups like 10CC, XTC, Queen, Oasis, REM, and even (dare I say it? Yes I do!) the Beatles.

And Saturday’s show had one element that I’m sure the band’s ‘60’s shows never had: unrestrained joy. Everybody on stage was beaming for the entire show.

There was mention of maybe a new album of new material. Here’s hoping that first they capture this live show and release it. I wanna relive what I experienced Saturday night over and over and over again.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


This article was first published in the 8.11.11 issue of Metroland

There have been lots of headlines lately about Anonymous, a mysterious “hacker collective” that’s pulled off a string of “attacks” on websites as varied as those of Sony Corporation, the government of Tunisia, and last weekend, dozens of rural U.S. police agencies. The mainstream media reports on Anonymous typically focus on the criminal aspects of the hacks, the impacts on the various victims, and the efforts of international law enforcement to get the “bad guys.” It’s not unusual for Anonymous to be described in news reports as some kind of terrorist organization.

Which is totally ridiculous. Anonymous and its various strains (like the associated group LulzSec) are a loose and leaderless international collection of activists, apparently mostly teen-aged boys, who hack their way into the internet environments of their carefully-chosen targets in order to embarrass, to bring about social change, and for bragging rights. The “members” communicate via chat rooms, develop and exchange hacking software, and execute. Typically, a hack is immediately announced on the internet, along with proof of the hack, things like confidential documents and other types of supposedly “secure” information like customer identities and data.

While what they do certainly involves breaking some laws (mostly odd laws that are the digital equivalent of breaking and entering), if you ignore the mainstream media hysteria and look at what Anonymous really does, it’s obvious that they are overwhelmingly a force for good.

Take, for example, last weekend’s hack of police agencies. The agencies’ websites were defaced and a bunch of police information and some credit card numbers were posted online. It turns out that all of the affected agencies maintained their websites through the same internet company, and the hack that got Anonymous in through the back door remained open and undetected for as much as a week. A spokesman for one of the police agencies stated that the hack had compromised some ongoing police investigations; this was an isolated quote that was featured in every mainstream media report I’ve seen. But the bigger story, and one not mentioned by the media, was that whole bunch of law enforcement agencies had entrusted their confidential files to a third party vendor that left the files vulnerable to teen-aged boys in suburban bedrooms pecking away on their laptops.

If the motley and over-caffeinated members of Anonymous were the thieves, pirates, anarchists, or terrorists that the media portrays them to be, we’d probably never hear of the hacks until real damage was done. The information gathered from the hacks would be used for further nefarious activities, really criminal stuff, and not simply posted online like a geek trophy. The stolen credit card numbers would be used, not posted (although last weekend’s police hack had a funny exception to this: Anonymous announced that a few of the hacked credit card numbers were employed to make modest “involuntary contributions” to the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Bradley Manning Defense Fund).

In other words, if Anonymous finds your vulnerability, you just get humiliated. And you spend some money making your system more secure. If a truly criminal enterprise gets there first, you and everyone you’ve got information on could get wiped out.

Also unexplored and unreported by the mainstream media are the activities of Anonymous in the geo-political arena. Anonymous played a critical role last year in the Arab Spring uprisings throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, attacking and disabling government websites and digital communications while simultaneously enabling the internet capacities of the protesters on the streets. Right now Anonymous is in a pitched battled with the murderous and corrupt Syrian regime.

Governments that enact internet censorship laws are attacked, as Turkey was a few months ago and as Australia was in 2008’s appropriately-named Operation Titstorm. The Church of Scientology is a frequent target, and it appears the evil Westboro Baptist Church is getting teed up for a takedown. This morning I read that Anonymous claims that it will take down Facebook in a few months for its shoddy privacy policies. The ultra-right wing Koch brothers, who have shoveled millions upon millions of dollars into the Tea Party and other fascist causes, are constant targets. And of course Anonymous has been unwavering in its support for Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, and Wikileaks.

Do I agree with everything done in the name of Anonymous? Of course not, and neither do the members of Anonymous. There are constant disputes among the members about what’s OK and what’s not, and these fascinating disputes are utterly transparent in public online arguments. And as this is a decentralized, leaderless, and formless group, reported Anonymous hacks are increasingly being quickly disavowed by members of Anonymous. In fact, a recent thread in Anonymous blogs involves claims that governments are staging phony Anonymous attacks on themselves in order to justify more internet censorship and stiffer anti-hacking laws.

Go Anonymous.

Thursday, August 04, 2011


This article originally appeared in the 8.4.11 issue of Metroland.

Bang On A Can Marathon


July 30, 2011

Celebrating its 10th summer residency at MASSMoca, Bang On A Can pulled out all the stops for this year’s joyous and heady 6 hour, 16 piece celebration of sound. As always, the uber-casual concert featured the BOAC faculty (a bunch of the finest new-music composers and performers on the planet), and a couple dozen students who came from all over the world to North Adams to hang, learn, and perform with the masters.

The show started on a full sprint, with Christine Southworth’s Super Collider, featuring an electric gamelan, a creature of MIT’s Media Lab, played by eight musicians. The kinetic and gorgeous piece also featured a Todd Reynolds-led string quartet, a couple tabla players, and Ms. Southworth demurely controlling the gamelan from her MacBook. Not something you see everyday.

This was followed by Return of the Nine Foot Banjo, a tribute to Bennington College’s legendary Gunnar Schonbeck, who for decades constructed huge instruments and then enlisted musical novices to play them. This piece involved all of the students, most of the BOAC faculty, and Schonbeck’s “Original Instruments,” including a gigantic marimba, congas, guitar, and banjo. And a lot of hoses. Goofy and awesome.

Soprano Jaime Jordan seemed to be everywhere, with a crystalline voice that defined beauty. Evan Zipthorn led a six-piece band through his arrangements of 4 pieces written in the late 1940’s by obscure eccentric composer Conlon Nancarrow. The works, rooted in ragtime and the dance music of the time, were so complex and difficult that Nancarrow couldn’t find musicians to play them so instead he built custom player-pianos to perform the works from paper-rolls that he’d punched out by hand. But Zipthorn’s band rocked the impossible, showing that Nancarrow presaged prog-rock, fusion, and post bop by decades. If you’re a Zappa or Captain Beeheart freak you’ll want to get with Conlon Nancarrow.

Three young folk musicians from Uzbekistan were featured throughout the program, singing and playing bulbous string instruments with unpronounceable names. They dazzled whether jamming on some avant-funk blues or playing elegant Uzbek folk songs; they got standing ovations every time they finished a piece.

I could go on (and on and on). Suffice it to say that the Bang On A Can Marathon is the most fun, accessible and friendly “serious” music event you’ll ever attend. Each piece was introduced and explained by one of the BOAC faculty, who were mostly dressed in t-shirts and jeans. Each work was less then 15 minutes long, and the 6 hours went by in a flash. The stage crew miraculously whipped the change-overs of the wildly varying ensembles in 5 minutes or less, and the sound was perfect all day. The musicians and composers all hung out in the courtyard, and were super eager to chat about their works. As I was leaving I stopped to thank the Uzbek dudes for their stunning performances. “Thank you thank you!” they all said, beaming. I think that was all the English they knew, and it was all they really needed. They'd communicated plenty in the universal language.