Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Jim Foucault and the Dusty Basement

[a short story based on a dream]

It was my first semester as professor of radio and electro-sonic communications at B___ college. My gray trench-coat protected me from the hostile wetness of the winter, but it also cloaked me in the proper air of technology professor. My classes met at normal times- an introductory morning bit of even weekdays, and some seminar duties on the odd days.

I gathered my students in the radio station, and thus my department held an affiliation and embeddedness in the student center that housed it. I assigned various duties such as organizing the record collection, maintaining and expanding the house synthesizer, and calibrating the transmitter power. I had a small carpeted studio, orbiting the station, for teaching the art of the oscilloscope, circuit layout, and how to identify components. But to realize the full potential of youth inventiveness, I knew we would need more than a cozy but small pedagogical room. We needed a dirty basement.

Comparative Computer Musics (MWF)
There are two kinds of computer musics: those that deliver samples just-in-time, and those that deliver a buffer periodically. Embedded devices may allow the former, while desktop musics prefer the latter. A periodic buffer causes a dialectical separation of gesture and sound, control from audio, or score from orchestra in these programs: Max, Supercollider, and Csound. In a comparative study, we will explore the psychological and synthetic divides between haptic and heard, and move beyond to embedded, just-in-time languages.
In idle morning moments, I roamed the upper hallways of the student center, and quickly became familiar with the staff- the cleaning crew, front desk Debbie, the canteen workers, and finally, Jim Foucault. I passed Foucault many times daily and identified his shiny, waxed and shaved head in my peripheral vision; the reflective surface of his cranium was a power spot that I could not directly confront as a stranger. Of course, he was kind and helpful facilitator, especially to new employees who presented him with exciting ideas.

His official title was "Chief of Operations for the Student Center," but we first struck up a conversation about the neighboring hills and woods.

"You know what, how about we talk about wood?"

"I know many sawmills, across the lake in Canada."

"Do you fish on the lake? I notice sometimes your hat."

"Thanks, I also enjoy visiting the bait and tackle store."

"So, I'm the new professor of radio, nice to meet you."

"My name's Jim Foucault, let me know if I can help."

"Well the facilities are well-stocked, cozy, good for teaching, but I'm looking for something we can get dirty, with a sort of makerspace."

"What's a makerspace?"

"Well it really is an empty word, a synonym among many, like medialab, workshop, and my favorite, a micro-cottage."

"A workshop, I can understand, you need to make things. I like a maker, and I've always like people involved in the radio station. I might be able to find a space. There is a basement here, little known to most because it's unfinished and dusty. Otherwise it's nice- it has large windows that look out onto the bay, and you can see the lights of Canada at night."

That caught my attention; "it sounds like a nice room, can we look at it?"

"Well," Foucault backed off a bit, "this is off the books, I can't be responsible if you bring anyone else in the room. It's dirty and could have sharp edges. Also it's not climate controlled like the rest of the building, but I suppose we could go look at it."

At that, he lead me down the spacious helical staircase of the student union to the ground floor. Next, we entered the smaller staircase that lead to the basement canteen, but halfway down, Foucault stopped. There, in the wall, was the faint outline of a small half-door that I had not noticed before. Foucault's massive key-chain sang a flock of metal notes as he picked out the small brass key for this door and unlocked it.

"Of course, these are the darkened windows one sights when out on the bay in a rowboat." An array of windows stretched out in an empty, cold, and dirty basement room. The cool cement air suggested an expanse of hidden rooms as it crept into my nose. Dust motes crept past shards of evening sunlight.

Technology's Periphery (T)
Shine LEDs in my eyes and blast beats in their ears, but what happens between the official showtimes? First we will listen to the "silences" of electronic amplification. Notice their energy consumption as they hiss and buzz, and perhaps illuminate an indicator. We will consider the brosumer-industrial complex of gear involved in maintaining such energies. Finally, we explore Georgina Borne's "performativities:" the liminal zone of audience-as-stage, exacerbated by electronic diffusion technology. 
I worked all that afternoon in the dusty basement, excavating vintage furniture from its recesses- a wood veneer drawer, a fluorescent desk lamp. The lamp had an old, "ignite" button that desires a long holding press to light it. I found a light switch on the brick wall and flicked it. It caused a cluster of halogen sconces in the center of the space to flicker up; evidently some other facilitator had had a similar idea of re-purposing the room, perhaps in the last century.

I developed plans to bring down a large conference table when I remembered my above-ground demands: to prepare lesson materials for the next day's class. I slipped out the door into the small staircase, where the students' late meals wafted up from below. I noted that Foucault had left the lock off the door, a cue that I should procure my own as a substitute. That I had one sitting in the upstairs desk was propitious of the arrangement.

Later on, I met up with my friend Ron. He is slim, slightly stooped, with a wonderful oval head perched atop that spindly but useful body. He wears a small pair of wireframe glasses, and has a dainty mustachio beneath his afghan nostrils. His way is peaceful and acceptance, and his posture reflects this; his arms always form an embracing gesture, bringing his friends close to an open heart. That said, his art is radical like a rocket; there is always a sense of danger, or perhaps the grotesque. He has performed in various altered states including as a vomitorium. I couldn't help but tell him about the new opportunity in the dusty basement makerspace.

"That sounds great, because I would like to build a rocket. I need a fablab with machining capabilities. There's a Chinese website selling cheap CNC lathes, on the Internet, and the old steel dock could become a great launch platform." So Ron was my first guest in the dusty basement, before any students, and he worked quite a bit down there, while it was still serene and a little bit ghostly.

I would meet up with Jim Foucault on the upper levels, between classes, as he rushed about helping with the theater or recital events. We talked about various subjects such as birdsigns, weather on the bay, or types of Canadian hardwoods, but never about the dusty basement arrangement.

Once I did break the ice, in an attempt to formalize the situation for the benefit of his liability security and my pedagogical interests. I said, "Foucault, I'd like to teach a class in the basement, so I'd like to formally take over responsibility for that space with front-desk Debbie." Maybe I, a young professor noted for eccentricities, had overstepped, because Foucault became quiet, whispering a cryptic prayer to himself.

After a bit of prayer, he replied, "I don't think that will be possible, for there are some permanent issues with that room, that will not be solved simply by its cleaning." I may be outspoken, but I am also sensitive to rebuttal, and our eyes communicated a deep sense of closure to the issue. I continued using the room, without knowing where I stood on holding a class there. Of course, Ron was a regular with his rocket, but the official class never happened, and the dusty basement remained a secret source of power and poetic material for my classes in the lofty carpeted halls of the student center.

That's not to say that students never came there, but that they never came in any formal capacity. Ron eventually mobilized some queer friends in the student body to multi-purpose the space. I remember one girl who had quite a haircut- burned in places, hacked in others, long and braided elsewhere, who deployed quite an array of potable concoctions at the structure that resembled a bar. I never could decide if the drinks were alcoholic or not; they certainly did not have the immediate intoxication one finds in a fraternity event, more like an intriguing mystery of affect. Perhaps they were synthehol, or perhaps that was irrelevant, but I began to feel the slow creep of institutional liability where student bodies become involved in an amorphous, unsanctioned, underground zone.

The exuberance of some students needed checking, as they were attracted to the combination of facile machines for making things, plus refreshments and a festive atmosphere. The two elements of stepper motors and electronic house music came together in our aught-like soundtrack of Dubstep. Bordering the bay, these sonic projections sounded more like Ducksnort (Wolf, 2012) to the riparian denizens of the reeds. But yes, Dubstep combines the square waves driven into hot maker-motors with caffeine and cargo pants sprinting rhythms of late-night creativity.

The opportunists I'm remembering came with Ron's "student body" as a bar expander. One of them, named Sophomore, backed his Jetta up to the service entrance and asked to carry in some parts from his trunk. In the mid-day sun, these parts smacked of cocktail bar. Foucault ambled down the service drive. He asked nicely, "what are you guys making?"

"A bar for parties," replied Sophomore, apparently unaware of any "issues" with the student union and such escalation of festivity or the secretive nature of the dusty basement.

"But we have a bar already," Foucault replied, unexpectedly admitting that fact but also politely snubbing Sophomore's plan. Ron kicked his buddy as Foucault looked away, a cue to shut up. Sophomore almost didn't shut up, but he probably realized we would ban him from the dusty basement if he disrespected Foucault any further.

Radio Workstation (TTh)
What are the purpose and needs of a radio station? The massive volume of vinyl records slowly subsides over our time, leaving new open spaces. College radio is a public service, as a community liaison to local artists and activists. In addition, it celebrates live transmission of radio photons, excited by electrons. As such, our duty is to maintain and expand the in-house radio synthesizer, as a sort of virtual soundmark for its antenna's range, like village bells. Students conceive and execute modules both universal and joyfully idiosyncratic.

When Ron was ready to launch his rocket, I remember he marked the circular steel dock with a smaller disc of color as his launch pad. As he loaded and armed the missile, an elegant lance of machined aluminum, I felt that creeping sense of liability again. I asked, "what's the exit strategy?"

Ron looked at me quizzically. "I mean this could be really dangerous when it comes down, and you're surely not gonna achieve orbit!" Ron paused and thought; apparently he had thought it would launch into some intermediary state between orbit and re-entry, and had not worried about landing contingencies.

His quick friend, the girl with an odd haircut, asked "Did you put the proper sized parachute inside?" When Ron replied in the negative, we decided as a group to scrub the launch. In retrospect, this was a great moment of fablab creative culture- the crafting of an artisinal missile, evaluation of its program and contingency, and a social performativity on the part of its "audience." Everyone is the audience in the makerspace, to the sound of its scripted machine cutters, extruders and the data of stepper programs in Dubstep rhythms.

That night the festivities took a step toward towny, with the arrival of Montfort. Up until then, the space was controlled by facilitators such as Ron and me, with the addition of most trusted student bodies. Now it would begin to shift from a dominant creative space to a more sinister, destructive force, as this Canadian local began his nightly boat rides. Montfort crossed the bay in a speed-boat that left a wide and frothy wake in the night-time bay, bringing some mates and a wench to the dock of the dusty basement. He traveled to the sound of proto-punk music crackling on the boats intercom: a far cry from our precise and dynamically amplified Dubstep soundtrack. The comparison made us feel uncomfortably academic.

I began to realize the perennial and secret issues this basement had, like the Canadian nightlights seen through its bay windows. Dust attracted a certain kind of anarchist cottage industry, well appropriated into the liberal institution, off the books and under the table. From there, a rich contingent of student bodies with overlapping philosophies and potions came, marking the golden era of the makerspace. Foucault had endured these developments before, and encouraged them in their productive spirit of dissent and fertile underground actions.

But Montfort, that wild-haired, wide-eyed Canadian boatman had neither a facilitator nor a student body, but an exacerbator of party, and the liberal institution had no mechanism to incorporate the "real thing" into its logic of liability. Authorities never raided us or shut the secret party down; the King's men would likewise never enter Sherwood forest for fear of ghosts. Instead, Foucault gave me the nod, and I knew that power would shift again from the underlings and townies back to the serenity of an empty, dusty basement.

Since I owned the lock, I frequented the place less and kept it closed at night. Ron did not complain, as he was working more on music, and his rocket became permanent furniture to the dusty basement, receding into its corners. I spent more time upstairs, in the cozy and carpeted electro-sonic studio, with studious students. But sometimes, at night, I would slip into the darkened and dusty basement, and look out across the bay at the Canadian lights. Should I start up the motors and LEDs of the machines, or just sit in silence, a ghost of the relationship between art and technology?


  1. "brosumer-industrial complex " genius... I will be using this! Thanks for another thoughtful missive!

  2. Man that rocket launch bit really made me lmao! Another great myth!


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