Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Hard art makes intelligence soft

Cryptic Burgess Dub 12:26, 2006
download QuickTime version (76 Mb)

Dubstep meets experimental video meets cryptology. Electronic video manipulation follow dub music processes producing visual distortion, echo and reverb. Like much contemporary dubstep music this evokes the grimy South London summer, as pavements melt, the humidity rises, a steamy fug settles and the city slows into an uneasy and frazzled hallucinatory dub daze. The image track provides a background rhythm to an experiment testing a proposition that the cryptic in experimental art might not simply be subjective obfuscated poetical aestheticism, or self-reflexive formalism, but a vehicle for the transmission of statements which, from a current paranoiac 'homeland security' purview, could be considered as sensitive, even dangerous.

Two years ago I screened Cryptic Burgess Dub in the Shifting Latitudes programme, the first cogcollective programme in London; the video had been completed specially for that programme. Last weekend, nearly two years later, the programme became the first cogcollective screening in Australia. So to date Cryptic Burgess Dub has had exactly two public screenings. Why have I not attempted to get it screened in any other context? I might have responded to the various calls for submission from festivals and gallery programmes, perhaps even sent it to Lux for consideration for distribution (while Lux has exhibited zero interest in my recent work, I persist in submitting work, perhaps out of masochistic perversity I like to imagine that the consistent rejections are intended to discourage me and that my submissions are met with exasperation by the acquisition panel, it’s a sad little game to play I know…), but with this video I didn’t. The video is the result of a difficult experiment, it embodies its own problematic.

Summer 2006 resounded to dubstep, I suggested of the form that “…the languorous rhythms and caverns of reverb of dub infiltrates the jerky twostep, dropping deep sonic bass notes in its path…” making for a “…music at once raw and expansive…” and “…on this sunny weekend, with long term reports that this could be the longest warmest UK summer since 1976…” dubstep sounded “…like becoming the inner city soundtrack of the season as pavements around the Borough melt, the humidity rises, a steamy fug settles and the city slows into an uneasy and frazzled hallucinatory dub daze.” - from Big up Bare at Spherical Objective. While dubstep had been around for a few years, it had been overshadowed by the grittier spitting Grime, but with the haunted sounds of the debut Burial album having just leaked, this music resonated with the undercurrent of fear in the capital with its post 7/7 institutionally fanned paranoia; in short it sounded like the Zeitgeist. This spirit was hard wired into Cryptic Burgess Dub. The images are mostly shot in Burgess Park, south London, between Old Kent Road and Walworth Road, linking Bermondsey with Camberwell with Peckham, a shabby sprawling park that has seen better days and which, rather than offer the casual walker some space to stretch their legs and fill their lungs with fresh air, offers ample opportune concealed space for potential muggers to hide and plan their ambush, at least this is how it feels in situ: an agoraphobic’s worst nightmare. The video sequences were subjected to ‘visual dub’ techniques. I used an analogue video mixer wiring delayed output to input loops producing controlled accumulating feedback as the visual equivalent of the tape delay echo and reverb that gives dub its distinctive deep repetitive resonance. The video feedback on the edge of dissolving into abstraction, produces electronic colours that seem to suck the ‘natural’ colour out of the scene replacing it with a toxic hallucinogenic aura. Treated loops of dubstep from Rinse FM cemented the musical relationship with map references to highlight the specificity of the locations.

I was however also concerned with what the use of experimental moving image practice could be. The distorted visual effects of video signal bending are all very well in an abstracted modernist way, but ultimately do little more than become, well, attractive visual effects, conforming to the condition of music. I thought that it would be interesting if abstraction could provide a function, as a conceptual container perhaps. I was concerned with the danger of facing the dead end of obfuscation for its own ends, an aesthetic device that merely succeeds in arriving at a vague ineffability. The cryptic should not be an end in itself, but a means to an end, the end of the smuggling of a text, hiding the real meaning or intention of the work, readable only by those provided with the tools to decrypt. If experimental moving image work has exhausted the efficacy of the novelty of formal experimentation, then perhaps the cryptic in the abstraction could, literally, contain an encrypted ‘message’. In the post-homeland security political climate of the first decade of the 21st century, where policy is based on paranoia and everyone is a suspect, where fears of encroachments on civil liberties drive liberal protest, if ‘they’ are actually snooping on ‘our’ every move and reading all our emails, then perhaps an experimental video practice could be the Trojan horse for the transmittal of subversive messages. Cryptic Burgess Dub was a test for this.

Throughout the duration of the video a succession of numbers scrolls across the bottom of the frame. This is an encrypted text, produced with a one-time pad, an encryption procedure which, if used properly, provides an unbreakable encryption algorithm. The Wikipedia One Time Pad entry provides a good description of how the process works. It necessitates the reader having access to a decryption key, normally provided once only and destroyed immediately after use. At the end of Cryptic Burgess Dub is the information that a decryption key can be found at http://www.steven-ball.net/onetimepad01.html however for this to be any use the viewer would have had to have noted the numbers running throughout the video - the encrypted message - and then match each number in sequence with the key. Remember that there have only been two public screenings, two years and continents apart.

This particular encrypted text is not particularly subversive: it speaks to the possibilities of this method of transmitting text and the potential for it to be subversive. It is essentially self-referential. The irony is that revealing from the outset, rather than at the end, that this video carries a ‘secret message’ would undermine its efficacy as an encrypted text. The paradox is that when the transmission of encrypted texts is itself shrouded in obfuscation the fact of encryption becomes ineffectual.

So the video is embedded above and, if anyone has the inclination, it should with patience and determination be possible to decrypt the text. The comments box awaits your result!

This key is simple. This is a test.


Anonymous said...

Well I fed the code into the Improbability Calculator
(http://stormbugblog.blogspot.com/2005/08/piece-of-week.html) and it came up with the following result : the octopus is dead before 12 o'clock, please listen?

Anonymous said...

By adding the odd numbers and subtracting the even ones, then dividing by four multiplying by six and gently stroking the result in an open fire for five minutes I hope to win the lottery this week and retire to the coast to start a home for wayward hats.

Steven Ball said...

good luck, my commission is 20%

Steven Ball said...

the octopus was murdered by cod surrealism

Anonymous said...

cod surrealism - does that come with chips

Steven Ball said...

yes, and laser beans