[-empyre-] "Hactivating" and the Screw-Up

Kevin Hamilton kham at uiuc.edu
Wed Dec 9 17:37:13 EST 2009

Thanks Renate, for inviting Christina and I to take the mic, and  
thanks to Patty and company for the past week's prods to action and  

Within the "Hacktivating Design" thread, Christina and I thought to  
introduce the example of mis-use through humor and mistake, the  
performed, non-ironic screw-up as a wedge into the impenetrable  
sensorium of contemporary consumption and art/design education.

[from the British television show/performance act The Mighty Boosh]

Naboo: This is black magic. This is hardcore. Don't mess with the  
Vince Noir: I thought it was good for you.
Naboo: What?
Vince Noir: Well, you know, good for your digestive system.
Naboo: That's Yakult!
Vince Noir: Oh, yeah...

Modernism loves failure - especially when it's on purpose. When  
properly reflexive, it's like letting the line go slack on the  
boundary of normative thought and action, only to snap it back into  
place to show you knew what was right all along.

187.1 Hey, Wayne, I've got a new gold brain.

But sometimes the screw-up can't resolve itself, rationality can't  
right itself again. Lately I've been popping over to revisit Kenneth  
Goldsmith's piece "Head Citations." It's better in book form than  
online, but you can find it here:


Scanning this list of mis-heard pop lyrics, the shape of failure is  
wonderfully unclear, and banal in a way that is tied to the limits of  
sensation, rather than to some definition of "the everyday." Some I  
get right away, others I can't. And significantly, Google can't help  
with the decoding.

192. Well since she put me down I've got owls puking in my bed.

You can stop reading here if you're just looking for a start to this  
new sub thread. Or, you may read further to hear an embarrassing  
account of my own interventionist screw-up.


Ten years ago, as I was finishing out my graduate degree, my  
colleagues and I were all busying ourselves creating  
"interventions." (The daily bread of our program was the material  
later to emerge in Mass MOCA's influential exhibition.) My thesis  
project, which today causes me to cringe even in working form, failed  
miserably in a way worth telling.

I had been working on a series of public performances in which I  
generated amplified sound through walking in modified shoes, and then  
tried to walk in sync with strangers, so as to lend _their_ feet the  
sounds of _my_ special shoes. For my penultimate Quixotic/Certeau-ian  
attempt, I identified the busiest crosswalk on campus, and grabbed the  
very notable sound signature of the space : a two-note audible  
crosswalk signal for the visually impaired, which at the time was  
somewhat unique and very distinctive for the space. (You can hear a  
sample of this here: http://www.wilcoxsales.com/images/cuckoo.wav)

I disarmed the city's signal for a day and replaced it with my own - a  
perfect imitation which would only sound when I walked: left foot for  
the high note, right foot for the low note.

This (in theory) turned me into a piece of city infrastructure, where  
my walking was necessary for the safe navigation of a busy street. I  
also had control of the beat, and could alter it as I attempted to  
walk in sync with others. (Meanwhile, the project wholly neglected the  
subject of sighted and non-sighted experience of the city. Cringe.  
Interventionist hubris in full effect.)

Halfway or more through my performance, the sensors went bad and the  
system started firing at random - meaning that THE SOUND WOULD START  
send people walking into traffic.

I had to rapidly unplug the system to at least make it safe. And then  
I saw a vision-impaired person approach the crossing. So I whipped out  
a little digital sampler and hooked it up to the system, and used my  
fingers, instead of my legs, to fire the signal at the correct pace to  
indicate safe crossing.

I had hacked up a big mess. Getting the normal system to start again  
would take intervention from the city. I called in the report/request,  
but they wouldn't be there for hours. So I remained there at  the  
crosswalk, firing my little sampler with my fingers to keep the sonic  
space exactly as usual, safe for all. I did that for probably 5 hours  
or more until the city came - longer than the actual project. So in  
the end, my most successful intervention was to insert myself almost  
invisibly into an urban structure, only to recreate that structure.  
Accidental self-camouflage.

There's nothing about this project worth emulating, but the farther I  
get from the piece the more provoked I am by the role of the screw-up,  
the way my prideful desire to "activate" a space fell apart, only to  
be replaced by an obligatory, laughable and irrational activity.
- Kevin

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