General Musings

Peter Gutteridge, outside his house, Opoho early 1989 – Detail of a portrait by Gerald O'Brien

Peter Gutteridge, outside his house, Opoho, Dunedin early 1989 – Detail of a portrait by Gerald O’Brien

Today, Peter Gutteridge died.

Overwhelmingly, my thoughts are with his family and friends, who will be in immense pain. For those of us, who are from Dunedin, and grew up with his music, it’s also a terribly sad day. His loss is almost more than can be properly put into words. It’s like the city itself is mourning.

Dunedin is a funny place. With its statue of Robbie Burns in the centre, and its anachronistic castle on the hill – a city built on romantic poetry and stoic follies, shaped by a coastline of almost baroque drama. Perhaps it was destined to cultivate that peculiar, angry gothic soul that is so derided by our more northerly cousins. A city like ours, feeds off grand narratives, and grand narratives need larger-than-life characters. And Peter was one.

When I was growing up in Dunedin, he was one of the keepers of the Dunedin sound, a giant of the scene, and a merchant of noise in Snapper. But he was more than that. He somehow embodied a story Dunedin told about itself; of grit and grime, of demons and possession, of beauty and bravado, of vulnerability and destruction. It was a tale of the frailty of existence and the subsequent need to live life to its limits. In a city that weaves drama and mythology around itself to keep out the bitter winter cold, he fair haunted the city, daring it to be more … visceral.

I was lucky enough to see Peter play many times, with The Clean, with Snapper, by himself, and in the makeshift ensembles that Dunedin frequently produced in the 1990s. Bands with no names, and nights seared onto the memories of the handful of people who were there. Snapper shows around this time were nothing short of excoriating. For reasons that defy spatial logistics or PA mechanics, they always seemed to play their best at The Crown, rather than the Empire, or any of the better equipped venues in Dunedin. And when they played, what an event it was. Snapper’s well known tunes, Buddy, Death and Weirdness in the Surfing Zone, Eyes that Shine, Hang On (“five minutes of hovering hypnotic menace”), and all the gorgeous songs from the underrated Shotgun Blossom, always struck a chord. (I mean the guy wrote Point That Thing Somewhere Else, for god’s sake. When he was 17).
But it was the less structured pieces that always blew me away. Orchestrations of pink, white and brown noise, that you somehow inhabited, rather than listened to.
As James Woods has said, he made music to disappear to.

A lot is going to be written about Peter’s ability to summon up vast oceans of noise, and rightly so. He made a generation of us a little bit deaf, and we’ll always have a perverse fondness for him for that. But the thing about Peter is that he also had the capacity to craft music of such fierce gentleness, it was almost difficult to listen to. There are two passages of music that always come to mind when I think of him.

The first is Gentle Hour. I’m not sure I can summon the words to explain what I love so much about this piece. So maybe just listen to it.


And the other, is this:


When I first encountered this, I was certain I had experienced it firsthand. Walking down the main street of Dunedin, mildly distracted by the pre-Christmas sales, and thinking for the umpeenth time in the chill of the afternoon, how Summer seems to come so much later every year. And then being assailed by this – utterly exquisite – moment.

When I watch this, I’m reminded of two things. The first is Cleave 03 (Transmission, Vision of the Sleeping Poet) by Cerith Wyn Evans, a World War II searchlight sending a seven-mile beam of light into the night sky over Venice, flashing intermittently in morse code. It seemed, for all the world, to be a second moon, which blinked. It is one of the most stunning artistic experiences I’ve ever had, made so by its interruption of the sublime into reality.

And the second is this:


from one to many by Yvette Mattern, scored by Charlemagne Palestine – something I was lucky enough to have a hand in. It was seven horizontal laser beams reaching across West Berlin to East Berlin, in the snow, signifying the twentieth anniversary of reunification. Again, what made this piece special was its unexpected appearance in the landscape – an eruption of the sublime into the every day.

These might seem like odd comparisons to make with the sight of Peter standing on a street in Dunedin, in scruffy clothes, playing a bashed up old guitar. But that’s what Peter’s impromptu appearance that day was, to me: an elegiac intrusion into the humdrum banality of Dunedin’s early Summer.

It’s hard to fathom Dunedin without Peter Gutteridge. Some people shape a city just by being. And he was one of those souls.

I’ll miss him very much. I think we all will.

On Monday 27 May 2013, I was on BBC Radio 4’s Flagship conversation programme, Start the Week, alongside Google chairman, Eric Schmidt, statistician, David Speigelhalter, and data journalist and former Wikileaks employee, James Ball.

We were there to talk about technology and society, in the light of the controversial new book, The New Digital Age, written by Schmidt and his fellow Google colleague, Jared Cohen. The book sets out a future shaped by the ubiquity of digital technology, and the arrival online of the next five billion users of the internet. Formed of seven chapters, the book describes pair’s vision of the future of Identity, Citizenship and Reporting; States; Revolution; Terrorism; Conflict; Combat and Intervention and Reconstruction. Whilst it provides a wide range of detailed speculations and predictions about the future of nation states, and how they will be transformed by an age of global connectivity, the book is short on detail about how large corporations, such as Google – who will presumably play a leading role in enabling this New Digital Age – will fit into this new era.

Start the Week set out to discuss these and other issues. Moderated by Emily Maitlis, the broadcast version of the programme is an edit of the conversations we had. To provide some more context, I’m including below some of the notes from the preparatory conversations, the recorded discussion, and the discussions we had together before and afterward.

Culture in the New Digital Age

My role on the panel to to discuss digital culture. Just as technology is transforming so many aspects of the way we live our lives, it is also changing the environment within which culture exists, and within which art is conceived and practiced.

Frequency and Volume by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer.Installation view at Invisible Fields, Barcelona. Co-curated by Lighthouse.

Lighthouse, the organisation I work for, believes that digital artists – who make art which reflects on technology, without being blinded by its novelty – can be highly perceptive about the societal effects of technology. Indeed we could describe digital artists as the veritable canaries in the mine, detecting weak signals about how our technologised world is shaping up, and giving us ways of both perceiving this changing world, and acting within it.

The writer William Gibson once famously said, “the future’s already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”

Digital art is one of the areas this already-arrived future seems to accrete around, and for that reason it’s an incredibly interesting place to look if you’re curious about how technology is changing society.

At Lighthouse we create exhibitions, productions and events that show that digital culture is about more than tools and gadgets. It’s about showing the way that technology is transforming society; changing the way we work, play, interact and indeed what it means to be human in the 21st century.

In a very real sense it is the culture of the now – not the future – but of the current moment.

Ulterior Technologies

Hercules Missile (landscape) by Mariele Neudecker. Part of The Air Itself Is One Vast Library, an exhibition at Lighthouse, May 2013.

Lighthouse’s programme for Brighton Festival this year expresses this by peering into the dark world of contemporary warfare. The two projects we have curated for the festival explore the deep connections between technology and the military.

One of them is an outdoor work by the artist and writer James Bridle. Under the Shadow of the Drone is a life-size depiction of a military Reaper drone aircraft located on Brighton’s seafront. It is an outline of the silhouette of the drone, as if it was flying over the sea towards Brighton.

The project aims to bring the reality of these ordinarily invisible technological weapons into our daily lives. One of the most common reactions to the drone from passers by is shock at just how large it is. Reaper drones have a wingspan of 20m and body length of 11m. They’re sizeable aircraft. When confronted with their scale, people perhaps think a little deeper about their destructive capabilities.

Drones are the latest in a long lineage of technologies that distance us from the theatre of war. And when war can be fought at a distance, we start losing track of our moral and political responsibilities. This is perhaps especially the case with drones, because they are not only being used in declared warzones, like Afghanistan, but also used in undeclared conflict zones, like Pakistan and Yemen, to carry out targeted assassinations. One wonders if we would be waging illegal wars in these territories, if we had to send in troops.

For Bridle, and for us, it is what the drone stands for that is as important as the object itself. Drones exist within an invisible networked ecology, subject to command, control and communication. Without that, they are just radio-controlled planes. Under the Shadow of the Drone critiques the way that networked technologies, while enabling our contemporary digital culture, also obscure and distance us from our ethical responsibility.

Revealing the Invisible

“Immaterials: Light Painting WiFi” by Timo Arnall (with Jørn Knutsen & Einar Sneve Martinussen), exhibited at Invisible Fields.

Under the Shadow of the Drone continues Lighthouse’s curatorial investigations into the invisible technological infrastructures that make up our digital world. This began in 2011 with the exhibition, Invisible Fields, which revealed the radio spectrum – the invisible environment that enables contemporary technologies of information and communication. Invisible Fields set out the spectrum as a physical space, invisible but present, a terrain that can be studied, mapped, surveyed and explored. This examination continued in 2012 with Geographies of Seeing, a show by artist, Trevor Paglen, which utilised the technologies of astronomical photography to uncover the clandestine activities of the US government. Our projects for Brighton Festival 2013 deepen this curatorial analysis, by examining the ulterior technologies of contemporary warfare, which are deliberately kept from public view.

Our concern with the increasing invisibility of technological infrastructures is that it is difficult to creatively or critically examine something which remains out of view.

As technology becomes more ubiquitous, our relationship with our devices is becoming ever-more seamless, and our technical infrastructure is becoming ever more invisible. These seamless experiences make technology pleasurable to use, but they also mask its materiality. As the designer and filmmaker, Timo Arnall, has recently eloquently written:

“Intentionally hiding the phenomena and materiality of interfaces, smoothing over the natural edges, seams and transitions that constitute all technical systems, entails a loss of understanding and agency for both designers and users of computing. […] Lack of understanding leads to uncertainty and folk-theories that hinder our ability to use technical systems, and clouds the critique of technological developments.”

An excellent example of one of these folk-theories, is that we now all refer to the vast server-warehouses which store our personal data as ‘the Cloud’. This implies a desolidification of infrastructure that is very much bricks and mortar. And this metaphor has become very ingrained. So much so that a survey last year revealed that over half of all Americans think that bad weather effects cloud computing.

This reveals the widespread perception that the Cloud is literally above us, as opposed to actually being comprised of vast quantities of networked physical infrastructure – Google and Amazon’s colossal data centres, and thousands of miles of submarine cables – all consuming large quantities of energy, and requiring people to build and maintain them.

So countering these misleading metaphors is something we’re trying to do at Lighthouse, through our series of exhibitions that expose these invisible technological systems and infrastructures. Because if we can not see something it is harder to comprehend it, let alone be curious about it how it is made, who made it, and who paid for it. Rather than try and create invisible and seamless experiences of technology, we like to actively reveal the seams.

As in mining, it is in the seams that we find the gold.

Curiosity, creativity and criticality

This approach is rooted in Lighthouse’s belief that a truly digitally literate culture is able to be curious, creative and critical about how technology works, how it can be used and what its consequences might be.

In the UK, we hear a lot about how important learning science, technology and engineering subjects are, and how crucial these skills are for our economy. I agree. But it is the feedback loop between engineering and creative thinking which spurs on some of the most effective innovation. And creative and critical thinking is something more normally taught in exactly the kind of arts subjects that Michael Gove originally proposed to have dropped from his English baccalaureate. Creative thinking is found in exactly the kinds of publicly funded arts organisations that are now facing deep budget cuts. So, we need to develop more contemporary, sophisticated approach to understanding what digital culture is. We need to acknowledge that the arts and humanities, including bodies like the Arts Council, are just as important to digital cultural innovation, as science and engineering is.

Science and technology, working in tandem with the arts and humanities, can bring about a curious, creative and critical digital culture that sees the digital world for what it is – tangible, material, and made by us. The most effective cartographers of the new digital age – media artists, critical engineers and speculative designers – are helping us learn how to read this digital world. They are giving us tactics, tools and prisms that make this digital age more legible.

The Next Generation

A significant proportion of the next five billion internet users will be young people. It is their future which Schmidt and Cohen are forecasting in their book, and which our generation are currently shaping. So a big strand of our work at Lighthouse is about empowering the digital artists and critical engineers of tomorrow. We are working with two academy schools in the Brighton area on long-form project with young people called Art at Work, which explores the creative thinking which is so critical to working effectively with technology. As the writers, Jasmina Tesanovic and Bruce Sterling have said:

“Innovation without young people is called exploitation”

It is their world we are innovating into being, and they deserve a stake in the decision-making.

Google’s View of the Future

Given the significant attention around Eric Schmidt’s visit to the UK, and the controversy surrounding Google’s approach to paying tax in the UK, it was no surprise that much of the conversation was focused on Google’s policy positions on a range of areas. Below is a short series of questions and observations which I raised during our preparation and on-air discussion.


Eric Schmidt has noted on many occasions that if we do not fight for our right to privacy, we will lose it.

I wondered how Google are helping us do this? For example, how would a project like Google Glass, which poses genuine, and well documented, threats to personal privacy, help us fight for this right? What concerns a lot of people with Glass isn’t so much the wearers, but those who they interact with. There’s a concern that Glass wearers may be able to surreptitiously document social interactions with others. There’s two potential examples of unintended consequence here. The first is the analogy with passive smoking. Through no fault of their own, those who interact with Glass wearers, may be negatively effected. Their social interactions with another person may be recorded and distributed without their knowledge and this may cause harm. I wondered what is Google is doing to mitigate the effects of passive Glassing (if you will pardon the coinage).

The second unintended consequence of Glass is rooted in the fact that none of us like the idea of being filmed without our consent, and we behave differently if we know we are being filmed. So if there is the potential of being recorded at all times by those you meet, is this not going to have the potential of radically changing social interactions across the board? This is something articulated well by the writer, Mark Hurst.

Optimism and Innovation

Schmidt has noted on many occasions that he does not feel we are optimistic enough about the positive potential of technology. I wondered if this was the motivation behind Google’s idea of setting aside a part of the world for unregulated experimentation, a notion Larry Page proposed recently at Google I/O. This quickly became known in the digital culture community as Google Island.

Technological Determinism

In The New Digital Age, Schmidt and Cohen wrote extensively about the use of technology in conflict-zones. Schmidt has speculated on how past conflicts may have have been different if contemporary technology had been present. On 20 May at Google’s Zeitgeist conference, Schmidt was reported as opining that, “the Rwandan genocide would not have happened if everyone was using cellphones.”

I wondered if such speculations were entirely useful. Technology may intensify or moderate human urges and behaviour, but it is falling into the trap of outright technological determinism to ascribe it that much power. As my friend Peter Kirk noted some years ago, “don’t mistake the tools for the purpose”.

Some of these questions and Schmidt’s responses to them will find their way into the final recording of the programme, but inevitably some of these issues were too complex to be fully explored within a 45 minute panel discussions. Hopefully what Start the Week will do the is begin other conversations about the need to critically consider the place of technology in our culture. I welcome these coming discussions.

Jaar, Yemen, October 18 2012 / 7-9 killed. Image from Dronestagram by James Bridle

A Drones-Eyeview: A Look at How Artists are Revealing the Killing Fields

By Honor Harger

10 November, 2012

The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, has become one of the most potent weapons of contemporary warfare. Remotely controlled by operators thousands of miles away from the theatre of war, drones carry out aerial attacks which leave hundreds of people dead.  The increasing amount of ‘collateral damage’ from US drone strikes on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, recently lead prominent politician, Imran Khan, to lead a high-profile protest against their use

Drone Vision by Trevor Paglen

Artists have been actively documenting the impact of the use of drones in warfare for some years now.   Trevor Paglen’s Drone Vision, recently on show at Lighthouse in Brighton, provides us with a chilling “drones-eye-view” of a landscape, enabling us to see what drone-operators see.

Five Thousand Feet is the Best by Omer Fast

The utterly compelling and disturbing film installation, Five Thousand Feet is the Best by Israeli artist Omer Fast tells the story of a former Predator drone operator, recalling his experience of using drones to fire at civilians and militia in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  At one stage of the film, he describes the use of what marines refer to as “the light of god”, the laser targeting marker, which is used to direct hellfire missiles to their intended target.

“We call it in, and we’re given all the clearances that are necessary, all the approvals and everything else, and then we do something called the Light of God – the Marines like to call it the Light of God. It’s a laser targeting marker. We just send out a beam of laser and when the troops put on their night vision goggles they’ll just see this light that looks like it’s coming from heaven. Right on the spot, coming out of nowhere, from the sky. It’s quite beautiful.” (quoted from Five Thousand Feet is the Best).

The Light of God by James Bridle

Writer, publisher, web developer and artist, James Bridle responded to this by creating his own work, The Light of God.

Sharing Paglen and Fast’s concern with the use of drones in warfare, Bridle has crated a series of projects which attempt to reveal their presence in the landscape.  His Drone Shadow interventions are one-to-one representations of the MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) drawn to scale within urban landscapes. The first was drawn in London this February (in collaboration with Einar Sneve Martinussen), and the second in Turkey this October as part of the Istanbul Design Biennial.

Drone Shadow 002 by James Bridle

Like Paglen and Fast, Bridle’s work stems from a deep concern with increasingly invisible and seamless military technologies that are creating the context for “secret, unaccountable, endless wars”.

Bridle writes, “the drone also, for me, stands in part for the network itself: an invisible, inherently connected technology allowing sight and action at a distance. Us and the digital, acting together, a medium and an exchange. But the non-human components of the network are not moral actors, and the same technology that permits civilian technological wonder, the wide-eyed futurism of the New Aesthetic and the unevenly-distributed joy of living now, also produces obscurantist “security” culture, ubiquitous surveillance, and robotic killing machines. [….] We all live under the shadow of the drone, although most of us are lucky enough not to live under its direct fire. But the attitude they represent – of technology used for obscuration and violence; of the obfuscation of morality and culpability; of the illusion of omniscience and omnipotence; of the lesser value of other peoples lives; of, frankly, endless war – should concern us all.”

His latest work, released yesterday, is Dronestagram. Bridle has been collecting images of the locations of drone strikes, and sharing these photographs on the photo-sharing site Instagram. His intention is to make these locations more visible, bringing them closer to us, and in the process perhaps making the reality of the daily occurrence of deadly drone strikes more tangible.

He utilises public records from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism who document strikes as they happen in Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia. After confirming the location of a strikes, he then uses Google Maps to create a satellite image of the targeted location.  The image, accompanied by a description of the site, and the death-toll, if known, is uploaded to Instagram.

Wadi Abu Jabara, Yemen, 28 October 2012. 3 killed. Image from Dronestagram by James Bridle

The images of deserted, barren landscapes and abandoned buildings have a sobering potency juxtaposed with with the banal pictures of pets and parties that populate Instagram. But it is what we don’t see that gives these images such an emotional power. The mortality.

Bridle writes, “drones are just the latest in a long line of military technologies augmenting the process of death-dealing, but they are among the most efficient, the most distancing, the most invisible. These qualities allow them to do what they do unseen […]. Whether you think these killings are immoral or not, most of them are by any international standard illegal.”

The work of artists such as Trevor Paglen, Omer Fast, and James Bridle exists within a long tradition of artists bearing witness to events that our governments and military would prefer we didn’t see.  But Bridle’s work is also part of an ongoing collective effort from both artists and engineers to reveal the technological infrastructures that enable events like drone-strikes to occur.

As technology becomes more ubiquitous, and our relationship with our devices becomes ever more seamless, our technical infrastructure is becoming ever more invisible. When our environment becomes opaque or invisible, it becomes difficult to interpret it, and act within it.  As artist and critical engineer, Julian Oliver recently noted, “our inability to describe and understand technological infrastructure reduces our critical reach, leaving us both disempowered and, quite often, vulnerable.”

Or as Bridle puts it, “those who cannot perceive the network cannot act effectively within it, and are powerless. The job, then, is to make such things visible.”

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