29 Giraffes

So you’ve got one more week to view my solo show over at the Axiom Center for New and Experimental Media (through November 6). The centerpiece of the exhibition is my 6-channel, real-time, algorithmic sound installation Kaleidoscope Music, the history, aesthetics, and inner workings of which are amply documented elsewhere (Dig Boston feature, Artforum critic’s pick, Kickstarter project, and several exhaustive blog posts, for starters).

Kaleidoscope Music at Axiom
Kaleidoscope Music at Axiom

Rather, what I’m here to tell you about today are the prints from my 29 Giraffes series that are also included in the show. I usually do a pretty good job of documenting my pieces when they go up, but I never got around to blogging about this series when it was first exhibited at [the studio] in Shanghai, back in August 2009 (check out the press release, flyer, and this fine review from That’s Shanghai magazine). So allow me to take a few moments to fill you in.

First exhibition of 29 Giraffes at [the studio] in Shanghai in 2009
First exhibition of 29 Giraffes at [the studio] in Shanghai in 2009
29 Giraffes represents my first foray into visual art. The earliest source file I could find dates from July 29, 2007. You can see some of the images on Flickr and additional images (including some early tests) on Facebook.

These images were a natural extension of my work in sound, and the original goal was simply to create an album cover for my CD Radiospace 040823 (as featured last night on Gregory Taylor’s radio program Remember Those Quiet Evenings!). That piece performs algorithmically modulated granular synthesis on a live radio signal, sort of sandblasting the sound into new patterns and textures. I got the idea in my head that the album art ought to be generated the same way, and this stubborn notion delayed the release of the album (recorded in 2004) by about five years. It took a while to conceive of how to translate the process into the visual domain, and then another long while before I realized I could use software I already knew (Max/MSP, specifically the lcd object, before I learned Jitter) to pull it off, and then an extended period of experimentation and testing before I felt the results were worth sharing with anyone.

After all that effort, I kind of hate the image I rather hastily chose for an album cover, but I was in a hurry to get the CD pressed in time for the exhibition opening. If I had waited a little longer, this is the image I would have used (and still hope to use for a reissue one of these days).

Giraffe 2009719144455
In the same way that Radiospace samples bits of radio, these images sample fragments of digital photographs. The final images manipulate images of neon lights from Shanghai’s Nanjing Dong Lu pedestrian corridor (the stretch of street where the Sofitel in which I recorded Radiospace 040823 is located), not too far from the Bund (taken on a photo shoot with Jutta for my birthday in 2007, four years and one day ago). The software excises little chunks from these images and statistically arranges them into new patterns, according to various parameters that I can set (min/max size of the image fragment, location in the original image, density, opacity, etc.). The final compositions are comprised of one or more layers (sometimes quite a few) of these statistical passes (horizontal or vertical), which I think of as analogous to brushstrokes, over the black digital canvas.

The boundaries of these digital brushstrokes into which fragments of photographs are statistically pasted are derived from curves I’ve drawn by hand into tables with a mouse. My earliest studies involved Gaussian patterns and other types of statistical distributions, but I eventually decided I wanted to incorporate a more tactile, hand-drawn element. I felt at the time the need to emphasize that these works weren’t simply the cold, rational, impersonal result of a some obscure mathematical formula. Rather, I was involved in an intuitive and iterative process with my software, guiding the generation of new material, and then responding to it to see if I liked it or not, shaping its evolution much as I imagine an artist in a more traditional medium would.

When I moved to Shanghai in 2004, I read that Shanghai was the second largest city in the world, behind Mexico City. These images convey something of the density of urban life I experienced in one of the world’s most bustling metropolises, the exhilarating disorientation and striking juxtapositions. I think of this work in terms similar to those Robert Hughes used to describe the Merz collages of Kurt Schwitters:

Their common theme was the city as compressor, intensifier of experience. So many people, and so many messages: so many traces of intimate journeys, news, meetings, possession, rejection, with the city renewing its fabric of transaction every moment of the day and night…

Kurt Schwitters, Merz 410: Irgendsowas (1922)
Kurt Schwitters, Merz 410: “Irgendsowas” (1922)

The final images have nothing to do with giraffes. When I started developing software to manipulate digital images, my earliest test subject was a photo of a giraffe I took while visiting my parents in Kenya in 2005. I started using the term “giraffe” as shorthand for the whole project, since it was quicker to explain to my Ubisoft coworkers that I was staying in over the lunch hour to work on my “giraffes,” rather than my “algorithmic image manipulation software” or whatever. There aren’t 29 of them either; the number was chosen as arbitrarily as the name, and I kept both to emphasize the idea that arbitrariness (or artistic intuition) is a key part of the piece.

The original giraffe photo I used as the basis for my first visual studies
The original giraffe photo I used as the basis for my first visual studies
Giraffe study, lines between random points in Gaussian distributions, with colors drawn from the original giraffe image
An early Giraffe study, lines between random points in Gaussian distributions, with colors drawn from the original giraffe image

In addition to the first show at [the studio] and the current exhibition, several of these images were included in my solo show “The Point of Departure” at the True Color Museum in Suzhou about a year ago (read the little blurb I wrote about the series at that time here). I also sell these images as limited edition prints on archival paper, and several are already in private collections. If you’re interested, by all means, drop me a line! I guess these are the images CNNGo was referring to when they described my work as “very pretty.”

Going over my notes from the time of the first show, I’m reminded of several follow-up avenues still unexplored. The unanimous feedback I received from that first exhibition was that people would like to see these images larger; at the time I was constrained by what I could fit on one screen at once, but now that I’ve gotten into Jitter, I should look into that. Also, right before I left Shanghai last year, I collected a bunch of additional potential source images from backlit fashion advertisements, and I had the idea of doing digital collages based on awareness of different body parts, but I haven’t jumped on that yet either. As Morton Feldman said, “Now that things are so simple, there’s so much to do!”

Statement of Purpose

At PechaKucha Boston earlier this week I presented the US premiere of my Statement of Purpose. I primarily think of it as a composition, but you might also call it a performance piece. I suppose “multimedia lecture” might be most accurate. It was written in September 2008 for presentation at PechaKucha Shanghai and thus adheres to the PechaKucha format: 20 slides of 20 seconds each. In Boston as in Shanghai, I think it seemed to go over pretty well.

Statement of Purpose is consciously indebted to John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing, one of the pieces collected in his book Silence, which I first read many years ago. The thing that struck me about these early Cage lectures and essays is that, in many cases, the message is in the form of the work, not the content. Rather than just describing his ideas about rhythmic structure, he demonstrates them; you experience them directly.

So in my piece, which I have described as an update of Lecture on Nothing for the digital era, I’ve adopted a mobile structure, as opposed to a linear lecture format. I take great inspiration from Alexander Calder, because in his mobiles, the individual elements are fixed, but the relationships between them are in constant flux. So here my lecture is arranged topically, around nodes of ideas. The main idea-nodes are

Aspects of Music and Audition
Stasis in Sound
Dynamism and Interactivity
The Current State of Videogames
Non-Linear Structure
The Nature of Multimedia

On each of these topics, I wrote a bunch (around six to ten, I think) of one sentence statements, single ideas that could be presented in any order. Then I wrote a program that generates a script by randomly picking one of these idea-nodes, picking some of the ideas associated with it, picking another idea-node, etc. Pauses are added between each statement to vary the density of the lecture over time (using a random walk, aka a “drunk” function or brown noise), in the same way that a tide or a rainstorm has a changing contour over time. Indications about when to clear my throat, gesture to the screen, take a swig of beer, etc. are also algorithmically scattered throughout the script, as a kind of textural element, subverting the ephemera of a typical lecture scenario.

I also interspersed a purely musical element, consisting of a set of low drones plus a set of brief melodies in a higher register (outlining an A mixolydian scale) all sung on a textless “ooh.” It’s pretty arbitrary; I thought the piece could use it, and I like the texture that results. But it also serves to focus attention on the abstract structure of the piece, rather than the content, and to suggest that the piece as a whole may be considered in musical terms.

There’s another type of behavior, too, statistically less likely to occur. While 16 of the 20 slides use the above formulations, the remaining 4 are shuffled riffs on standard salutations and closing statements: “Hello,” “Good evening,” “My name is Ben Houge,” “Thank you for your attention,” “Good night,” etc. The idea is that through repetition and dislocation, these phrases become formal (rather than syntactical) elements; it’s very similar to what I’m doing with radio broadcasts in Radiospace. Having another type of behavior helps vary and articulate the overall form. I also just think it’s funny, and I sensed that the audience was similarly amused. Humor is like music, in that it plays with audience expectations, as when I end my piece with a cordial, “Hello, everyone.”

The slides were generated using very similar techniques to those I employed in my 29 Giraffes series, but substituting text for little chunks of photographs. The colors, in fact, are algorithmically extracted from the same Nanjing Dong Lu source material I used in my Giraffes. Here again, the emphasis is more on the texture that emerges from all this superimposed text, rather than on the text itself; as with the algorithmically generated script, the slides communicate through form, rather than content.

The whole piece has an audio accompaniment, too, one 20 second audio clip per slide. To create this backdrop, I processed a recording of myself reading the text of the piece using a bunch of custom software I had lying around at the time, programs I had developed for other pieces. You can identify bits of Psalmus, Study for Eventual World Domination (my contribution to The Bike Bin Project), Radiospace, and a granular synthesis demo I did as a videogame audio engine prototype. Looking back, the evocations of these pieces that crop up (as of the Giraffes) provide a nice snapshot of my digital workspace in September 2008, which was part of the idea.

To assemble all of these elements, I selected the 20 slides I wanted to use of the many I had generated, then I wrote a program to shuffle them. Same for the 20-second audio segments I generated. In the end, it’s a combination of arbitrary decisions and procedurally generated bits, which is really how just about any artwork comes together, digital or otherwise.

The result is that ideas come and go, freely floating. I’ve referred to a lot of my pieces as “meditations,” and the term is certainly apt here. Ideas recur, sometimes in different media (text from the slides may pop up again in the spoken presentation or recorded backdrop). They “interpenetrate,” to use one of John Cage’s favorite terms. They reinforce each other, and they add up to a way of thinking, which is very much my way of thinking, a network, a web of ideas, all connected.

It’s a good time for me to revisit this piece. Especially in the past year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the meaning that can be conveyed through pure structure. I think this has come to the fore as I’ve been increasingly active in visual media. In music, we take this for granted; you could say that music traditionally conveys meaning through structure alone. Music is the most abstract of the arts; representation or mimesis in the pre-recording era was by far the exception (think of the timpani evoking thunder in the “Scène aux champs” of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique). In some cases you can say what a piece is “about,” because you know something of the circumstances of its composition, or because of a prefatory note by the composer. But principally, music’s meaning is all in the relationships of different frequencies, rhythms, velocities, timbres, etc., and, more importantly, the calculus of how this all changes over time. You would never say that even as abstract a composition as The Art of the Fugue is meaningless.

So coming, as I do, from a background in music, it’s only natural for me to approach my visual art in the same way, applying the same types of structures that I use in my sound work to visual information, and it’s been surprising to see how the conversation unfolds differently. A prominent arts person (don’t worry, no one you know) came to see my show in Suzhou last fall, and I was kind of amazed when she asked me what my piece was trying to convey. A musician would never think to ask such a question. As Elvis Costello said, if I could have written the song with any other words than the words I used in the song, I would have written a different song, wouldn’t I?

Of course there was a bit of a conscious impulse to poke a hole in the sometimes punctilious proceedings of a standard PechaKucha event (I have my Seattle School cohorts to thank for any vestigial confrontational aesthetic). As when I sneakily built an ambient electronic piece from mildly acrimonious pre-show chatter at Opensound a few weeks ago, I like the idea of snapping people into a different state of awareness with some new or unexpected realization. I also like the pacing of it; PechaKucha is usually about people cramming as much as they can into their 6:40, but my script actually includes indications to pause for as long as 10 seconds. But both times I’ve presented this work, the audience seemed to get it and dig it; it’s not just some avant-garde stunt. The message was conveyed.

Statement of Purpose was my first project after leaving Ubisoft at the end of August 2008. The deadline was tight, less than a month, as I recall, and I liked the idea of doing a new piece completely from scratch to emphasize my new trajectory as a full time, independent artist. I remember staying up all night to get it done, with an urgency that had been missing from my corporate gig for quite a while. I consciously wanted to make a statement about the main issues I was setting out to address in my work, my mission, as I considered it (and still do). Check out some documentation from that performance, and a video excerpt below.

I originally wanted to generate my slides and script in real-time using custom software, which I feel is technically still in keeping with the PechaKucha format, but in Boston as well as in Shanghai, the organizers very understandably wanted to stick to a standard set-up for all speakers. This is still something I want to explore, though, particularly the idea of giving cues to a performer on the fly, exploring the idea of real-time score generation (which is exactly what happens in a music videogame like Guitar Hero, and which I’ve already started to explore in pieces like my Zhujiajiao Drinking Game, more commonly referred to as Beer Hero). I’ve been contemplating a revision of this piece for a long time, to include this real-time score idea, write some new modules, add some Chinese text, incorporate multiple screens of real-time generated imagery, and blow past the 6:40 PechaKucha time limit to create a full, hour-long presentation. If anyone would like to sponsor and/or host such an event, please let me know!

The Point of The Point of Departure


I suppose now’s as good a time as any to unveil the pieces that will be included in my solo exhibition The Point of Departure, which is opening this Saturday, Nov. 6. I just finished finalizing all the text for the placards in the exhibition last night, shared below; there’s a little explanation of each piece and a brief discussion of the point of the departure for the show itself. Enjoy!

I also just added the Chinese translation of the show’s press release to the bottom of this post; sorry not to have that up sooner!

Four days out, and I’d say we’re in pretty good shape. We’re constructing the frame for the big Self-Portrait installation, which I can now confirm is up to 18 channels from the originally advertized 15. I tweaked the sound component of the software yesterday and added some real-time color correction (at first I thought this would be cheating, but I checked, and no it’s not). The rest of the gear should show up later today, and then we just plug everything together and see what happens!

I also pulled my synth-pop set out of mothballs two days ago for the first time since my June 5 show at D-22 in Beijing, and it’s surprisingly rust free. “口口口口口口口口” always gives me some trouble, but I’ll have the kinks worked out by Saturday.

See you then!

OK, here are those promised placards…

The Point of Departure
Ben Houge Solo Exhibition

Where to begin? In addition to its strictly geographic connotations, the phrase “point of departure” indicates a conceptual transition. For an artist, “point of departure” is another term for inspiration. It implies a connection, perhaps one that didn’t exist previously. For years, the focus of my work has been to underline connections between seemingly unrelated ideas, disciplines, and people. This has led me to a diverse practice that encompasses classical composition, videogame development, performance, pop production, video art, and sound installation.

The point of departure for my gallery work is sound. Sound is where I started; I grew up singing in church choirs and writing pop songs, and my university studies were in classical music composition. Perhaps music, historically the most abstract art form, lends itself to thinking primarily in purely structural terms. Over time it seemed only natural to attempt to apply my sonic structures to other media.

For twelve years, until about two years ago, my full-time job was designing audio for videogames. Early on, I observed that the challenges of creating organization in this inherently indeterminate medium were prefigured by the aleatoric works of composers like John Cage, Earle Brown, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Ideas from their work, as well as from my own experience in videogame development, have in turn served as the point of departure for much of my recent music and installation work, in which I write software that incorporates real-time, algorithmic techniques to generate ambient, evolving environments.

This exhibition marks a transition in the physical, geographical sense as well, as I arrive at the end of my six month artist residency at the True Color Museum. I would like to extend my warmest thanks to Chen Hanxing and all the staff of the True Color Museum for generously supporting my stay here.

-Ben Houge


从何说起呢?除了它严格的地理学意义, “起航”一词象征着一个概念上的过渡。作为一个艺术家,“起航”在这里代表着另一个含义—-灵感。它暗示一种关系,或许先前本不存在的关系。多年来,我的工作重心是让表面上好似毫无关联的意见、原则和人,加强彼此之间的联系。这种行为让我的艺术创作呈现多元化的特色,包括传统的艺术模式,电子游戏开发,行为艺术,波普艺术,录像艺术及声音装置等。


有十二年,我都是全身投入到为视频游戏设计声音的工作中,直到两年前才停止。早期的时候,我注意到在这种本来就没有什么固定媒介的创作组织中工作是一种挑战,一些前辈人物,比如John Cage, Earle Brown,和Karlheinz Stockhausen等都在挑战这样的尝试,他们工作的灵感结合我自己在电子游戏方面的工作经验,成为我近年来音乐及装置作品的创作源泉。我运用我所学到的知识,去编写软件程序,把真实时间和算法技术合并到一起,去建立一个不断发展变化的周边世界。


-Ben Houge

Self-Portrait, Dusk, at the Point of Departure 起航黄昏的自画像
Real-time audiovisual installation for 18 channels of video and 4 channels of sound

Self-Portrait, Dusk, at the Point of Departure suspends a poignant moment in time and makes it last forever, in a way that is unique to the digital medium. Unlike a photograph, which freezes a moment, or a looping video, which repeats a moment, this work uses non-linear deployment techniques borrowed from videogame design to layer and offset a moment in such a way that it can never be said to be starting or stopping, ending or beginning. The rich texture that emerges from this multiplicity of independent images serves to homogenize the source video into a new aggregate that provides an ever-changing vantage point on that captured time.

Much of my work is meant to “emulate nature in her manner of operation,” to quote John Cage. Here, the complex patterns that result from 18 independent video channels evoke falling raindrops, the growth of cells, or the slowly shifting tree branches that are the video’s ostensible subject. The motion of the hand-held camera exposes the movements of the person attempting to hold it still, which can be seen as a metaphor for the effort to hold back time. The source video was filmed in St. Paul, MN, USA, last January, on the lawn outside my brother’s house, in the ten minutes before we got into the car, and he drove me to the airport.

Self-Portrait, Dusk, at the Point of Departure is dedicated to Nate, Jodi, Lydia, and Elsa Houge.



作品《起航黄昏的自画像》献给Nate, Jodi, Lydia Elsa Houge。

Transportation Is Getting a New Look 交通战线换新貌
Real-time, single channel video installation


Transportation Is Getting a New Look is a continuous, algorithmic reconfiguration of a 1970’s propaganda poster entitled “Safeguard the Orderliness of the Revolution: Transportation Is Getting a New Look 革命秩序维护好,交通战线换新貌”. It suggests the kind of public collage that emerges when posters are anonymously applied to a city wall. Old posters are covered up or torn down, images fade with time, and the present becomes a canvas for the future, depicting the process history. As the original poster disintegrates, its pieces give way to a formal play of rectilinear forms such as one might find in a Soviet propaganda poster by Kasimir Malevich. The work thus creates a tension between two different modes of meaning: one is representational and textual; the other is structural and experiential.


Shanghai Traces上海轨迹
Real-time, single-channel video installation

Shanghai Traces 2010119120335

Shanghai Traces was a response to the massive beautification campaign that the city underwent in preparation for hosting the World Expo this year. The falling objects are the colorful wares of Shanghai street vendors, a reminder that every person who passes through a city leaves a trace, however fleeting. The resulting patterns and combinations evoke the movements and exchanges of city dwellers, in the same way Merce Cunningham once explained what his choreography was about by pointing out a window at busy Manhattan traffic and saying, “That.”

《上海轨迹》是对上海为了举办世博会而进行的庞大的城市美化工程的一种反映。画面中坠落的物体都是上海街头小摊的颜色,它寓意是每一个从城市经过的人都留下了痕迹,大家看到的动态图案反应着城市居住者的生活动态。某种程度上类似于Merce Cunningham对他舞蹈含义的描述他指着窗外曼哈顿街头繁忙的交通说:看吧,我的舞蹈就是这样的景象。

Giraffe 2009791224 长颈鹿 2009791224
Algorithmically generated digital print on archival paper
30.5 cm x 30.5 cm, edition 3/20

Giraffe 2009791224

Giraffe 200971712495 长颈鹿200971712495
Algorithmically generated digital print on archival paper
30.5 cm x 30.5 cm, edition 2/20

Giraffe 200971712495

Giraffe 200971315148 长颈鹿 200971315148
Algorithmically generated digital print on archival paper
30.5 cm x 30.5 cm, edition 1/20

Giraffe 200971315148

Giraffe 2009628223541 长颈鹿 2009628223541
Algorithmically generated digital print on archival paper
30.5 cm x 30.5 cm, edition 1/20

Giraffe 2009628223541

Giraffe 2009714105550 长颈鹿2009714105550
Algorithmically generated digital print on archival paper
30.5 cm x 30.5 cm, edition 1/20

Giraffe 2009714105550

Giraffe 2009719145217 长颈鹿 2009719145217
Algorithmically generated digital print on archival paper
30.5 cm x 30.5 cm, edition 1/20

Giraffe 2009719145217

The series I eventually dubbed 29 Giraffes was my first foray into visual art, a process I quietly investigated over a period of more than two years. In the initial tests of my software, I used as source material a photograph of a giraffe I took in Kenya in 2006, but in the prints I finally exhibited for the first time in August 2009, the source material was a set of photographs of neon lights I took along Shanghai’s Nanjing Dong Lu pedestrian walkway. The resulting images are reminiscent of the compression of the urban experience Kurt Schwitters achieved in his Mertz collages, conveying something of the disorienting and exhilarating overstimulation of life in one of the world’s largest and fastest evolving cities.

这组叫做《长颈鹿》的作品是我首次影像艺术的尝试,整个过程大约两年多。在最初的软件实验中,我使用的是我在2006年肯尼亚拍摄的长颈鹿照片。但是用照片来展示这种艺术形式的时间是2009年,那时的原材料已经换成了我在上海南京东路步行街拍摄的霓虹灯照片。这些图片表达着这个世界上最大最繁忙的都市的城市景象的压缩。有点类似德国艺术家Kurt Schwitters表达的对城市快速发展的疏离感。