Addictions and Habits

Bcc:, Decoy Magazine’s monthly e-mail subscription programme, ended in 2019. I had made an exclusive artwork for it back in 2018 that was only available to people who subscribed to it, and then in September 2019 at the IRL exhibition at Vivid Projects. If y’all didn’t catch that show here’s my work below:

When you identify something toxic in your life you recoil from it, only to be drawn back in again and again. Addictions and Habits is inspired by how technologies built on the idea of enriching our lives have only amplified our anxieties and made us more physically and emotionally vulnerable

Here’s the really nice essay from Lauren Marsden which accompanied the release of the artwork:

This month, we are very honoured to be featuring UK-based artist and curator Antonio Roberts. With an extensive body of work that entangles glitch, appropriation, sculpture, screens, digitalia, and interaction, he is well suited for the task of questioning and confronting the limitations of copyright law and the corporate appropriation of cultural aesthetics and technologies. Here, with Addictions and Habits, we can imagine either side of the issue. For one, the hand of the creator that opens itself freely to the gesture of sharing, remixing, re-circulating (ad infinitum), and then, perhaps, the other hand—the one that closes the deal, signs the cheque, gives a comforting pat on the back, or plucks an idea out of the ether to secure its containment and regulation. Within this paradox, we enjoy the exuberance of Antonio’s work and see a space for liberation among his many fragments and shatters.

Thanks to Lauren Marsden for including me in Bcc: 🙂

Installing Bcc: at Vivid Projects part 3

In this final part of this three-part series I’ll be going over installing Xuan Ye‘s work in the Bcc exhibition. This work posed a similar challenge to Scott Benesiinaabandan’s work. I needed to automatically load a web page except this time I needed to allow for user interaction via the mouse and keyboard.

The artwork isn’t online so I’ll again go over the basic premise. A web page is loaded that features a tiled graphic with faded captcha text on top of it. The user is asked to input the text and upon doing so is presented with a new tiled background image and new captcha. This process is repeated until the user decides to stop.

Bcc:

I could have installed this artwork on a Raspberry Pi but thankfully I had access to a spare Leneovo ThinkPad T420 laptop, which negated the need for me to buy a keyboard and screen (#win). The laptop is a refurbished model from 2011 and was running Windows 7 when I got it. It is possibly powerful enough to handle a full installation of Ubuntu but I didn’t want to risk it running slowly so instead I installed Lubuntu, which is basically a lightweight version of Ubuntu.

As I had installed Scott’s work I already knew how to automate the loading of a webpage and how to reopen it should it be closed. The main problem was how to restrict the user and keep the user from deviating from the artwork. Figuring this out became a cat and mouse game and was never 100% solved.

Whilst in kiosk mode in Chromium pretty much all of the keyboard shortcuts can be used. This means that a moderately tech-savvy user could press Ctrl + T to open a new tab, Ctrl + O to open a file, Ctrl + W close the browser tab, Alt + F4/Ctrl + Q to quit the browser or basically any other shortcut to deviate from the artwork. Not ideal!

Bcc:

My first thought was to try and disable these shortcuts within Chromimum. As far as I could tell at the time there wasn’t any option to change keyboard shortcuts. There must be usability or security reasons for this but in this situation it sucks. After a bit of searching I found the Shortkeys extension which allows for remapping of commands from a nice gui 🙂 Only one problem. I tried to remap/disable the Ctrl + T command and got this error.


More information here.

Drats! I tried its suggestion and it still didn’t work. Double drats! Eventually I realised that even if did disable some Chromium-specific shortcuts there were still system-wide ones which would still work. Depending on your operating system Ctrl + Q/W will always close a window or quit a program, as will Alt + F4, Super/Windows + D will show the desktop, and Super/Windows + E/Shift + E will open the Home folder. I needed to disable these system-wide.

LXQT has a gui for editing keyboard shortcuts. Whilst it doesn’t allow for completely removing a shortcut, it does allow a user to remap them.

As you can see from the screenshot above I “disabled” some common shortcuts by making them execute, well, nothing! Actually it runs “;”, but still that has the effect of disabling it. Huzzah! But what about the other keyboard shortcuts, I hear you ask. Well, this is where I rely on the ignorance of the users. Y’see, as much as it is used within Android phones and basically most web servers, Linux/Ubuntu is still used by a relatively small amount of people. Even smaller is the amount of people using Lubuntu or another LXQT-based Linux distribution. And even smaller is the amount that work in the arts, in Birmingham, and would be at Vivid Projects during three weeks in September, and knew how I installed the work, and… I think you get my point.

During the exhibition anyone could have pressed Ctrl + Shift + T to open a terminal, run killall bcc.sh to kill the script that reopens Chromium, undo the shortcut remappings and then played Minecraft. I was just counting on the fact that few would know how to and few would have a reason to. After all there was some really great art on the screens!

After the exhibition was installed Jessica Rose suggested that one simple solution would have been to disable the Ctrl key. It’s extreme but technically it would have worked at stopping users from getting up to mischief. It would have had the negative effect of preventing me, an administrator, from using the computer to, for example, fix any errors. The solution I implemented, whilst not bullet proof, worked.

That’s the end of December’s Development Updates. Installing Bcc was frustrating at times but did push me to think more about how people interact with technology in a gallery installation setting. It’s never just a case of buying expensive hardware and putting it in front of people. There needs to be processes – either hardware or software based – that protect the public and the artwork. It doesn’t help when lots of technology is built to be experienced/used by one user at a time (it’s called a PC (personal computer) for a reason y’all). Change is no doubt to make it more about groups and collaboration but, y’know, it’ll take time.

Installing Bcc: at Vivid Projects part 2

The next artwork that was challenging to install was Monuments: Psychic Landscapes by Scott Benesiinaabandan.

Bcc:

I won’t be showing the full artwork as all of the artworks were exclusive to Bcc: and it’s up to the artists whether they show it or not. On a visual level the basic premise of the artwork is that the viewer visits a web page which loads an artwork in the form of a Processing sketch. There is a statue in the centre which becomes obscured by lots of abstract shapes over time whilst an ambient soundtrack plays in the background. At whatever point the viewer chooses they can refresh the screen to clear all of the shapes, once again revealing the statue.

On a technical level the artwork isn’t actually that difficult to install. All that needs doing is opening the web page. The difficult part is controlling user interaction.

If you’ve ever been to an exhibition with digital screen-based artworks which allow user interaction via a mouse, keyboard or even touch screen then you’ve probably seen those same screens not functioning as intended. People always find a way to exist the installation and reveal the desktop or, worse yet, launch a different program or website. So, the choice was made very early on to automate the user interaction in this artwork. After all, aside from loading the artwork, the only user interaction needed was to press F5 to refresh the page. How hard could it be?

Well, it’s very hard to do. Displaying the artwork required two main steps:

  • Launch the web page
  • Refresh the artwork after x seconds

Launch a web page

Launching a specific web page on startup is a relatively easy task. Raspbian by default comes bundled with Chromium so I decided to use this browser (more on that later). The Chromium Man Page says that in order to launch a webpage you just need to run chromium-browser http://example.com. Simple! There’s lots of ways to run a command automatically once a Raspberry Pi is turned on but I settled on this answer and placed a script on the Desktop, made it executable (chmod +x script.sh), and in ~/.config/lxsession/LXDE-pi/autostart I added the line @sh /home/pi/Desktop/script_1.sh. At this stage the script simply was:

#!/bin/bash

while true ; do chromium-browse --noerrdialogs --kiosk --app=http://example.com ; done

I’ll break it down in reverse order. --kiosk launches the browser but in full screen and without the address bar and other decorations. A user can still open/close tabs but since there’s no keyboard interaction this doesn’t matter. --noerrdialogs prevents error dialogs from appearing. In my case the one that kept appearing was the Restore Pages dialog that appears if you don’t shut down Chrome properly. Useful in many cases, but since there’s no keyboard I don’t want this appearing.

I wrapped all of this in a while true loop to safeguard against mischievous people who somehow manage to hack their way into the Raspberry Pi (ssh was disabled), or if Chromium shuts down for some reason. It’s basically checking to see if Chromium is open and if it isn’t it launches it. This will become very important for the next step

Refresh a web page

This is surprisingly difficult to achieve! As mentioned before, this piece requires a user to refresh the page at whatever point they desire. As we were automating this we decided that we wanted a refresh every five minutes.

Unfortunately Chromium doesn’t have any options for automatic refreshing of a web page. There are lots of free plugins that offer automatic refreshing. However, at the time that I tried them they all need to be manually activated. I couldn’t just set it and forget it. It could be argued that asking a gallery assistant to press on a button to activate the auto refreshing isn’t too taxing a task. However, automating ensures that it will always definitely be done.

At this point I looked at other browsers. Midori is lightweight enough to be installed on a Raspberry Pi. It has options to launch a web page from the command line and, according to this Stackexchange answer it has had the option since at least 2014 to refresh a web page using the -i or --inactivity-reset= option. However, I tried this and it just wasn’t working. I don’t know why and couldn’t find any bug reports about it.

It was at this point that I unleashed the most inelegant, hacky, don’t-judge-me-on-my-code-judge-me-on-my-results, horrible solution ever. What if instead of refreshing the browser tab I refreshed the browser itself i.e. close and reopen the browser? I already had a while true loop to reopen it if it closed so all I needed was another command or script that would send the killall command to Chromium after a specific amount of time (five minutes). I created another script with this as its contents:

#!/bin/bash

while true ; do sleep 300 ; killall chromium-browser ; done

The sleep command makes the script wait 300 seconds (five minutes) before proceeding onto the next part, which is to kill (close) chromimum-browser. And, by wrapping it in a while-true loop it’ll do this until the end of eternity the exhibition. Since implementing this I noticed a similar answer on the Stackoverflow site which puts both commands in a single file.

And there you have it. To refresh a web page I basically have to kill it every 300 seconds. More violent than it needs to be!

Installing Bcc: at Vivid Projects part 1

I took a bit of a break from writing the Development Updates. September was pretty busy with Bcc: (more on that below) and then I was completing a commission for Will’s Kitchen/The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and preparing for my solo exhibition, We Are Your Friends.

With all of that now completed I’m writing a few posts about one project in particular: Bcc:

The Bcc: exhibition opened at Vivid Projects on Friday 6th September. It was a collaboration between Vancouver-based Decoy Magazine and Birmingham-based Vivid Projects. The exhibition featured a curated selection of works from Decoy Magazine’s online art subscription service called Bcc:. The basic premise is that each month you’d get specially commissioned art in your e-mail inbox.

Bcc:

Bcc:

After being part of Bcc: in 2018 I suggested to Lauren Marsden, the Curator and Editor of Decoy Magazine, that it could possibly become an IRL exhibition at Vivid Projects. At the time I was still working there so I worked on getting most things in place to get the exhibition going. Then I left in 2019. Because of my prior involvement in Bcc: and the massive technical challenge involved in installing the work (more on that later) I was asked to produce the exhibition.

Depending on how you look at it the technical aspect of installing the exhibition could be very simple. Most of the works in Bcc: were short movies and animations/gifs, and Vivid Projects has long used the Adafruit Raspberry Pi Video Looper to handle playing videos.

Some works, however, required more attention. There were some works that were interactive websites, some that were animated gifs and some that require additional hardware. Prior to the exhibition this probably didn’t present any problems as the works were viewed by most likely one person on their personal phone or computer. The challenge comes when it’s on a shared computer in a public environment. Additionally, operating the works needs to be as hands off as possible. That is, I didnt want it to be the case that myself or another technician had to be on hand every day to go through complicated procedures to turn on all of the work. They needed to be automatic. With 17 works each needing their own computer/Raspberry Pi there was a lot to prepare. Over the next few posts I’ll take you through some of the works and their technical challenges:

Playing gifs on a raspberry pi

Of the 17 works on show in the exhibition 10 were animated gifs. To stay true to the small nature of animated gifs (don’t get me started on the concept of HD gifs) we decided to display the gifs on the Official Raspberry Pi 7″ Touchscreen Display. This proved to be a really good decision overall. It required that visitors get really close to the works and spend time with a format that can sometimes be a bit throwaway.

Bcc:

As mentioned before, for a long time Vivid Projects has used the Adafruiit Raspberry Pi Video Looper software to play videos. It works (mostly) great with the exception that it doesn’t play animated gifs. The main underlying software, omxplayer, only supports video files. Even the supplied alternative player, hello_video, also only plays video files.

Your immediate though might be to just convert the animated gifs to video files. Whilst this “works” there is always the danger that in converting a file you reduce the quality of it. For an artist like Nicolas Sassoon, who makes pixel-perfect animations that match a specific screen size, this would be unacceptable. So I went on a journey to find a way to play gifs.

The requirements for the software is that it should operate in a similar way to the Adafruit software and play a gif on loop with little or no pause between loops. It should play in the frame buffer (i.e. without needing to load the desktop) and it should make use of the GPU (helps prevent screen tearing). And for a bonus it should be able to play a series of gifs one after the other. Simple, right?

TL;DR: There isn’t a reliable way, I had to convert to a video.

Some of the solutions I saw were saying to use Imagemagick to play the gifs. This wouldn’t work as I would need to launch the desktop. Then, I’d need to script it to go full screen, centre the gif, change the background to black etc.

FBI and FIM don’t support animated gifs, although they are useful if you ever want to play a slideshow of static images.

feh is another image viewer that uses the framebuffer. However, it also doesn’t support animated gifs and, according to this response from the author, this is by design.

This suggested solution of converting to images kinda works but doesn’t take into account if each animation frame has different durations (see this GIMP tutorial for example on how to use it). With that in mind for this to work I would need to get the duration of each frame in each of the 10 gifs, separate the gifs into their individual frames, and then tell feh to play each frame for it’s specified duration. So, this method could work but it would require a lot of work!

This thread on the Raspberry Pi forum did provide a possible solution which I didn’t try but it also pointed me to FBpyGIF, which was certainly the most promising of the solutions. However, a couple of problems prevent me from using it. Still very promising though!

Finally, I tried one of the various GIF Frames that play a folder of animated gifs on loop. Sounds like it works but there’s screen tearing on some fast-moving gifs. I’m guessing this is because it doesn’t have hardware acceleration and/or because it uses Chromium to play the gifs.

Soooooo after all of this I felt a bit defeated and I decided to just convert the animated gifs to videos. I used Handbrake and noticed no loss of quality in the conversion. Even if there was, on a 7-inch screen it’d be quite hard to see. Using the Adafruit player/omxplayer I was initially having some issues with aspect ratio. Even with –aspect-mode set to fill stretch or letterbox, the videos were being stretched to fill the screen. To illustrate take the following video, which is 1024×68/4:3.


(fyi it was made using Natron and this script to add in a timecode)

When play on the screen it is stretched to fill the screen.

The Raspberry Pi touch screen has a resolution of 800 x 480, which is a 5:3 aspect ratio. Most of the videos and animated gifs were HD/16:9 so would be letterboxed by default.

So I had the bright idea of padding each video so that it was exactly 800×480.

Now, the Adafruit player/omxplayer says it can play any video which is H.264 encoded but I’ve had some troubles in the past, so whenever I’m given a video I usually convert it using Handbrake with the Fast 1080p30 preset. These settings have always worked for me but for some reason on this occasion the video was stuttering a lot! What was strange was that the original videos (the animated gifs converted to videos without resizing) played fine. Even after they were run through Handbrake. Why when they were converted to 800×480 size did they stutter?

It was two days before the exhibition opening that I remembered that some time in 2016 I had an issue with omxplayer in that it didn’t play videos if the video didn’t have an audio track. Why? I don’t know. Maybe audio was the problem in this scenario too? It was worth a try and so I decided to disbale the audio track using the -n -1 option. This doesn’t just turn the audio down, it disable encoding of it. And guess what. IT WORKED!

I have absolutely no idea why this worked or why the error ocurred in the first place. Here’s the extra arguments that I included on line 107 of video_looper.ini.

extra_args = --no-osd --audio_fifo 0.01 --video_fifo 0.01 -n -1 --aspect-mode stretch

All of that just to play animated gifs! Now that I had the code perfected copying it to all of the other Raspberry Pi’s was simple. If the aforementioned softwares had animated gif playback by default then this would’ve been solved much quicker but for now it seems the most reliable way to play animated gifs on a loop on a Raspberry Pi is to convert them to video.

Bcc:

Vivid Projects announces Bcc: an international group exhibition co-presented by Decoy Magazine (Vancouver) and Vivid Projects (Birmingham).

The exhibition draws from Decoy Magazine’s unique email subscription programme, which commissioned new work by digital artists around the world from 2016 to 2019. The programme used a collective patronage model and endeavoured to protect the rights of artists through an informed, sustainable, and contractual sharing platform. The exhibition at Vivid Projects features an archive of digital works from 19 Bcc: commissioned artists , representing a diverse group of contemporary, international, emerging, and established digital artists whose works contend with the limitations and opportunities of alternative distribution channels.

Bcc: deals with the transformation of media distribution ethics and the conventions around our perception and understanding of the artwork as an object. The affordances of any artwork—its medium, size, price, genre—determine how it is exhibited, distributed, stored, commissioned, and archived. Bcc: is a call to reflect on how everyday and allegedly private networks delimit privacy, through the free circulation of small files and artworks in particular—and how the mode of delivery regulates and shapes the capacities of an artwork. We want to further challenge these ideas by bringing artworks designed for online circulation into a physical exhibition space, in order to expand the works’ potential audience from a private screen to a shared public space. Through this exhibition, we consider the complex challenges of distributing digital artwork while acknowledging its insistent materiality and physicality.

Participating artists: Jeremy Bailey (Canada), Scott Benesiinaabandan (Canada), Renick Bell (Japan), Anthony Discenza (USA), Santa France (Latvia), Donato Mancini (Canada), Olivia McGilchrist (Jamaica), Lorna Mills (Canada), Jonathan Monaghan (USA), Nick Montfort (USA), Sabrina Ratté (Canada), Antonio Roberts (UK), Claudia Salamanca (Colombia), Nicolas Sassoon (Canada), Ieva Saudargaitė Douaihi (Lebanon), Sydney Southam (Canada), Alexandra Spence (Australia), Rodell Warner (Trinidad & Tobago), Xuan Ye (Canada)

Curated by Lauren Marsden for Decoy and produced by Antonio Roberts for Vivid Projects.

Public Preview: Friday 6 September 6-8pm | Curator’s Talk: Saturday 7 September, 2pm.

Blocked by URL Filter Database

Spam

The internet used by the Birmingham Central Library and the rest of the council’s system has blocked my website. Apparently my “Spam URL” presents a “Medium Risk”. I feel so proud 🙂

Maybe it’s just a glitch in their system 😉

Thanks and praise to Flying Start

Last week myself and others were invited to talk to someone from Ofsted about the Flying Start course. For those who don’t already know what it is, here’s the blurb:

An accredited training scheme for artists – working in any art form – who want to gain workshop planning and delivery skills and experience of community arts and participatory arts work.

The inspector was very clear to note that whilst she was from Ofested that this wasn’t actually an inspection. In the five years the course had been running it was identified as an example of good practice* and she was here to get feedback for their website from people who were on the course.

Overall it was really great to talk to her, but I think the general consensus is that it’s a crime that this course wont be carrying on as there is nothing quite like it anywhere else. Sure, you could attend the MA in Community Arts at Staffs Uni, but there’s only so much studying you can do before being thrown into the workshop delivery world. In the three months of the course you really do learn not only how to deliver a workshop, but also a bit about finance, networking, project planning and self promotion, which is something I feel university doesn’t cover enough.

The course is obviously needed, so if anyone from Birmingham City Council is reading this, sort it out and get Flying Start back!

*I may have got the actual terminology wrong, but you get the idea.