Saturday, 1 December 2018

What is Art?

I just found this article in my doc/Scritti archive, written in June 2004. Enjoy!

What is Art?

I have been invited for a second time to spend three weeks as a guest of Medien Kunstlabor at the Kunsthaus Graz, and to write something for the Kunstlabor dossier. Since my highest formal academic qualification is in Computer Science, you may think it presumptious of me to confront such a bold question as "What is Art" (and from the answer I give, inevitably also the question of what is not Art). Fortunately or otherwise, life has taken me far from quiet academic environment of my formation and thrown me deep into the social fabric of the city of Catania in Sicily, in the ferment of art students' shared houses, in the laboratories of "career" modern artists and in the receptions and art houses of gallerists and the rich. It was while living and working in an experimental theatre in the suburbs of Catania, seeing group after group prepare, rehearse and perform various original works, that I came to divide the "artists" I saw into two distinct categories.

   It was clear that many of these people had an urgent need to comunicate some message for which words were useless. Words might accompany the action, but the created situation was without doubt the main carrier of whatever it was they were trying to express.  The result was usually unclear and ambiguous, but their search for a way of sharing their vision with others had the intensity of madness and the desperate inventiveness of someone trying to mouth words to another person from the other side of soundproof glass.
   These tortured souls, having inside them something to say, would seek the necessary means to comunicate it in any way they could and since our theatre was little more than a large whitewashed (if architecturally interesting) room situated in one of the most frightening rough areas of the city, we had the good fortune that an unusually high proportion of the people who came to us were of this creative and luminously energetic type, prepared to make a show out of whatever means they could scrape together.

   In the other category of theatre groups the motives were obviously the other way round. These people wanted the means involved in putting on a show, be it the money, the things or just the prestige, and had to put a show on to get them.  I am talking about groups where, typically, one person had succeeded in getting a project approved by some official funding body and, having taken or been promised money, had to put on a show to justify the public expense.  Any show.  Anything at all, so that no one could say that they had taken the money and done nothing.  They would spend money on large quantities of pointless materials to satisfy the article "expenses" in their budget (enormous lengths of rope and cloth seemed to be perennial favourites!) and programme weeks of rehearsal from a inflexible script that often featured people being tied up and beaten, fire, bowls of blood and other gaudy effects.
   Instead of a relatively disorganised group of equals seeking a common goal that characterised the social organization of the former groups, here we usually had one person commanding and the others obeying on pain of being expelled from the group.  Instead of a happy, playful atmosphere producing joyful surprises, the air was heavy and pained, the people terribly serious and anxious and the few unfortunate creatives who tried naively to give their best in whatever lowly task had been assigned to them would inevitably end up being illtreated, their work insulted, and they often went unpaid despite the promises that had been made to them, as if their candid enthusiasm were a thing to be punished. In reality they had not had the wisdom to realise that they had ended up in the wrong kind of group.

   Returning from these reminiscences to our theme, I am tempted to answer that art can be present or absent in any human activity: in the way a shop assistant wraps a package, in the way one cleans a room (do you also do the places where no one will ever look?), but here we must distinguish art from craft. Craft is ability coupled with care and attention in what one does, instead of reluctantly doing the minimum required to achieve an effect or to satisfy someone else's eye and thereby obtain a reward. Craft also contains a message for anyone who might happen to be watching, or who might observe the artefacts: not only the fact that if you do something you can derive joy from doing it well, but also a demonstration of one specific way of doing that particular thing.
   In art, instead, the message, independent of the activity itself, is the only motivation and the choice of medium and artefact spring solely from the desire to express that message.  It may be the need to comunicate a vision or a new way of perceiving reality, it may be a comment on a topical situation that reveals the artist's view of the true nature despite all it appears or is claimed to be, or meta-art which comments on the concept of art itself, or which challenges what is and is not "permitted" as an art form. (Remember that not many years have passed since every abstract artist risked being asked "It's very nice, but what is it a picture *of*?")
   Like true theatre, it is an attempt to comunicate a message for which words are useless: as one artist said when asked explain one of his pictures, "If I could have said it in words, I would not have needed to do it".

   Let me try to tie these consideration to the position of medien.kunstlabor.  Inevitably, human nature being the same throughout the world, the same motivations repeat themselves here, but the stakes are higher.
   On the one hand we have people whose fixed job at the Kunsthaus is no more than a source of security for them and their families, or of power and prestige in the more perverse minds.  They are to be found crouched in every European Art and Music Institute and in every University, and the amount of influence they exert on the artistic and academic activities of these centres is a measure of the level of corruption in the society of which they are a part.  I have no problem with them because their presence is inevitable.
   On the other hand, apart from the money with which MKL can finance people, the high concentration of computer and networking equipment at the media laboratory, part of the server hosting project, represents an object of insatiable desire for any computer enthuisiast you care to mention.  I remember that when I was 12, and we are talking about the late 1970's, that the desire to be able to program one of the first desk-sized personal computers, even for a few minutes, compelled me to take the train week after week to the centre of London, 25 km away, together with a friend, on the offchance of being allowed to type in and run a program on one computer in a shop's display department.  I know the thirst, and so I understand it in others.
   Medien Kunstlabor must be very careful, if it is to promote artists, to distinguish those humble souls who have a vision to comunicate, who most likely are not very technically able and who seek the means to do so through internet, from the technological vultures whose primary desire is to gain equipment, money and prestige and who simulate the appearance of artists in order to do so.
   I don't criticise them for wanting money and things - the world is full of people who do far worse things than this to get their hands on money and things! - but their desire to possess that which is not theirs and their fear of losing it drives them to compete with the others people, to impede others in their work, and to insult and destroy other people's work where they are afraid that it may cast a shadow on their own glory.
Footnote: While I was there, I made an installation, "Crash". The "artist" jaromil, also there, organized for it to be removed by the cleaners the day after, saying "It's just a pile of rubbish".

Sunday, 4 March 2018

How Google failed its interview with me

Lots of blog posts are appearing entitled "How I failed my interview with Google" or something similar, excitedly telling all about the questions they were asked in the interviews, exactly as Google had asked them not to do. Here, by contrast, is how Google failed its interview with me.

The first contact was a Google headhunter, a certain Ashley, pleasant and uninvasive, who invited me to do some telephone interviews. I did one with the suits with multiple-choice questions and two with programmers, simultaneously coding on a shared Google Doc. During the second programmer interview I even heard a gasp when I coded a couple of lines. Both gave a 10: "Go get him!"

All well and good.

Then they passed me over to Human Resources in Dublin to organize flights and accommodation for an in-person interview in Zurich. I told them that I was in the middle of a software product release and that I wouldn't have much time for chat. The first girlie was so offensively bubbly and stupid that I had to ask her to pass me on to someone a bit more... er... adult which, to her credit, she did. The second person, from a quick Google search, turned out to be her best friend on Facebook.

Some other agency, unrelated to Google, was charged with booking me two flights. They suggested two alternatives for each way, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, and asked me which were more convenient for me. I was on an afternoon-evening waking/working cycle so said the afternoon ones would be best. They booked me the morning flights, both of them.

The HR Dublin weeb then kept phoning me up every day, desperate to gabble at me to "prepare" me for the interview. I only got her off my back by telling her to stop phoning me and to write email if she really had to. She wrote me a load of stuff that it was entirely inappropriate for a company to say to an interviewee, including a list of eight 800-page books that I was supposed to read before coming to the interview the next day.

For my accomodation in Zurich I would have been happiest with a 13-euro BnB. Instead thay booked me into a 250-euro-per-night 5-star hotel for two nights, then said "You'll have to pay for the hotel yourslf, then send the originals of the receipts to an I.B.M. address in Poland (really! straight up!) and they will refund you." I didn't have 500 euro, thank heavens, and said so. "Oh! Oh! No, it's OK, we'll make an exception and we'll pay for it!". Damn right, you will.

Then they sent me a 1500 euro set of plane tickets for Zurich and the very morning of the flight, the same turd kept phoning me up from before 9am to wake me up and nag me. In the end, at 11:30, mentally destroyed by the continual rude awakenings, I just said "Fuck it" to myself and went back to sleep. They phoned me again. I said "Listen, I'm not coming, so this is now just an argument" and debatteried the phone.

Why would they do that to the highest-scoring and most expert programmer they'd seen for ages? Well, at the time, Google had issued a directive to hire 1000 new programmers, so HR droids on short-term contracts would probably think it in their best interests to make the hiring drive last as long as possible by dicking the best candidates about until they ran away screaming, but then again, the Chinese wisdom does say: "Never ascribe to malice, that which can be explained by incompetence".

I searched the first girlie some months later. She'd quit Google and was now working in HR at Amazon. Poor Amazon!

I still have the printout of the 1500€ PDF air ticket for Zurich. I should get it framed.

Resynthesizing audio from spectrograms

Sorry about the formatting; it's pasted from a libreoffice document.

Resynthesizing audio from spectrograms

Martin Guy <>
Work: July-August 2016; Docs: February 2018.


It can occur that the only available source of a piece of music is a JPEG image of its spectrogram. An algorithm is presented to convert such a graphic back into a best-effort approximation of the audio from which it was created.

Here is an example of a source graphic from the case that provoked this work: spectrograms of unpublished samples of electronic music by pioneer Delia Derbyshire in James Percival's 2013 dissertation for his master's degree, Delia Derbyshire’s Creative Process:

Fig. II.4 from Delia Derbyshires Creative Process:
“Spectrographic analysis of CDD/1/7/37 (2’49”-3’00” visible)”
CDD/1/7/37 is Singing Waters: “It is raining women’s voices”,
a musical arrangement of Apollinaire’s graphic poem Il Pleut.

This represents 11 seconds of sound in 618 pixel columns (56 columns per second) from 5Hz to 1062.8Hz in 252 pixel rows (so with frequency bins spaced by 4.2 Hz)

It has linear time and frequency axes and is composed of a square grid of coloured points and frequency and colour scales on the left that show what frequencies each row represents and what sound energies are represented by a range of colours.

In brief, we turn the colour values back into estimated amplitudes, then reverse FFT those to create an audio fragment from each pixel column. We then mix these to produce the audio output.

Colour-to-amplitude conversion
We make an associative array mapping the colour values present in the scale to their decibel equivalents by sampling a vertical strip of the colour scale, knowing on which pixel rows it starts and ends and by reading off the minimum and maximum decibel values on the scale. Using this, we map the colour values present in the spectrogram (or their “closest” equivalents on the scale) to create an array representing the energies at each frequency shown in the spectrogram, for each of the moments represented by its pixel columns.

Interpolation between frequency-domain frames
One can optionally reduce the choppiness of low frame-rate spectrograms by interpolating between FFT frames before doing the transform, thereby effectively increasing the frame rate.

Each reverse FFT, as well as an array of amplitudes, also needs a phase component for each frequency bin, which needs to be chosen to ensure that the sine wave output due to each bin of one frame is in phase with the output from the same bin for the all the other frames.
We do this by setting the phase for a bin centred at f Hz at time t seconds to

random_offset[f] + t × f × 2 pi radians

The constant random phase offset, different for each bin, avoids artifacts caused by many partials coinciding in phase periodically and producing harsh cos-like or sin-like peaks:

                /\                 ,

               /  \               /|

          /\  /    \  /\  or  /| / |  /|

            \/      \/         |/  | / |/



Mixing successive frames

To avoid discontinuities when the output audio changes from the results of one reverse FFT to those of the next, the size of the FFT is twice the number of samples represented by a pixel column, and we then overlap the putative audio output fragments by half a window and fade between them sample by sample to create the final audio data.
The fading function is a Hann window which, being cos squared, has the useful properties that it crosses 0.5 at 1/4 and 3/4 of its width, that each half has 180° rotational symmetry so that the sum of two adjacent windows’ contribution factors is always 1.0, and its endpoints are both at 0. Its bell shape also means that the sound output for the middle half of each window depends mostly on the data from the corresponding pixel column.

In our implementation we centre each fragment of output audio on the time represented by the centre of its corresponding pixel column and mix using a double-width window, so a quarter of the first window extends before the start of the piece’s started start time and a quarter of the last window extends beyond its end, making the total length of our audio output the stated length plus the time for one pixel column.

A program to perform this transformation, specialized for the example graphics, is available under in the “anal” folder, file “run.c” with a driver script “”. The sample input files can be extracted from the thesis, available under and the audio output from the example spectrogram cited in the text can be heard at

The other spectrograms present in the thesis give similar results, but Singing Waters is the prettiest of them.