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Intruduction B.O.L.T - William Lynn

Linz, AT
Time's Up Laboratories

History & Future of B.O.L.T - a Talk by William Lynn

About a year ago, I co-founded the bureau of low technology aka bolt as a project for protecting, preserving and celebrating low-technology. During the past several years, I have also been active in the art-technology scene with a gallery by the name of blasthaus. It was about two years ago that I first became intrigued about the concept of rather crude, unsophisticated technology and the growing popularity of artists incorporating more simplistic interfaces and installations using the refuse of early gaming and computing. I recall one show in particular which was presented at called TECHBASH - artists bashing technology which for me established the fact that many artists today are struggling to express a kind of angst toward the new technology which is touted as being "revolutionary" like VR, the web, and sophisticated digital imaging. This kind of backlash reflects our frustration with computers and how disembodied we have indeed become. A personal computer today has become like an appendage which we can never quite control the way we would like to. We struggle to get this appendage to cooperate, but we are continually undergoing enormous amounts of stress to achieve productivity. This is why we hate computers.

One of the installations in TECHBASH was a piece by Perry Hoberman and Nick Philip called CUI cathartic user interface which featured four rows of antique keyboards mounted to a wall, each with a sensor mounted underneath. The wall of keyboards was installed in a dark room about 15 by 30 meters in size. On the floor were dozens of koosh balls (a squishy ball made out of rubber bands strata) which were hurled at the wall by participants. When one of the balls hit a keyboard, a video projector displayed images, animations and sounds which dealt with technology frustration, many of these projections were gathered from a website which solicited donations from likeminded users. Images of Mac Windows were displayed that read such things as "There is not enough memory in the world to complete this task", Hal-speak from the film 2001, the traditional Mac bomb logo as well as manipulated system sounds all contributed to a hilarious satisfying experience and an interesting sound collage. There was a ramp that sent the balls rolling back to the floor and with several people involved, the game took on a empathetic character. In other words you were able to unleash your agressions against computers by brute force. The piece was a huge hit at the gallery and version 2.0 was recently exhibited in Finland as part of a Hoberman retrospective.

As we were disassembling the installation, I recall experiencing great satifaction as I picked up several keys and space bars which had broken off of the keyboards and looking up at the wall, it was a monument to obsolete technology. I pondered at how many fingers had punched those 50 used keyboards and how much wear these devices had experienced. I wondered if some of them were broken out of frustration and why others were abandoned. They looked to me like tombstones in a monumental graveyard, each representing the death of a computer and a small morsel of obsolesence. And we were smashing those tombstones with an amount of aggression that could only be measured in the amount of keys I was collecting off of the ground. I filled a bag full of keys which I still keep as a reminder of that installation and as proof that people indeed hate technology sometimes as much as they love it. Those poor keyboards!

The reason I brought this up was that it got me thinking about the fact that computer interfaces were not always so frustrating. There was a time when things were so much more simple. Based on the limitations of technology, there was a time when computers were our friend, they were like children which we treated with love and respect and tolerance; and now they're like teenagers. Furthermore, the fact that a computer nowadays can beat a grandmaster at chess is proof that this teenager is about to become even more rebellious. Well I don't know about you, but I certainly don't want to even think about what that could mean.

Anyway, essentially bolt exists as a means to experience low-technology in a kind of celebration. We are attempting to popularize everything low-tech. Our efforts are extremely ironic, trendy, stylish and at times very serious and boring. Unlike other companies, individuals and even artists who are part of the "digital revolution" and the "progress" of computer capability, the bureau exists as a kind of metaphor for regression and a banal kind of artificial stupidity. I use the word "celebrate" because we feel that one of the most important things for bolt is the enjoyment and humour found in its projects and the "good clean fun" approach to a time when computers was our friends.

bolt exists as a mission to PROTECT low-tech culture. This protection is evident in a kind of mystique. The objective is for the public perception of low-technology to be validated by an anonymous bureau. That is, the source of these ideas can be trusted since it's bureaucratic. In our efforts, we have had the bureau represent its project as something very sophisticated and truly revolutionary. Of course, in reality, these low-tech phenomena like old video games and computers which are use in bolt events are purely obsolete. It's this ridicule which makes the bureau work. We are in essence appropriating obsolete technology and recontextualizing it in a kind of propaganda campaign. The idea of propaganda is very important to the bureau. We have attempted to identify ourselves by a corporate identity and a marketing campaign which includes a bolt style and a bolt image. This style and image I'll get into later.

bolt also exists as a mission to PRESERVE low-tech culture. In the course of continually researching early techno-culture, we have found that there is an increasingly more significant interest in obsolete technology. Many enthusiasts for primitive computers and video games are sprouting up all over the place. Some of them collector types who obsess over owning every early IBM clone, others who are interested in programming wierd games for the ATARI 2600 and still others who find a kind of nostalgia in reflecting about how far we've come in the past 25 years. We are at the beginnings of this "technostalgia" as evidenced by massive numbers of newsgroups, game emulators, collector forums and websites all relating to obsolete media. bolt attempts to preserve this sense of obsoleteness by its events, displays and propaganda.

bolt events provide a means of heightening technostalgia. We have embraced early video games since they represent the precursor to the personal computer and were the first to establish a widespread interactive screen-based interface. The bolt lounge has been presented at dozens of art and electronic music events. A bolt event can be described as a kind of installation at a party, not unlike this one. Often times the installation consists of home-video games, like Pong, Space Invaders, and some really obscure games, handheld electronic games and other recontextualized gadgetry and art projects along with large format screen projections of crude bitmapped imagery using old film projectors and slide projectors in a freeform collage. Most of these events are in clubs and art galleries. Currently we are preparing an installation for an event at the SFMOMA. We usually include bolt propaganda and promo materials around the games and visual treatments of the games and TVs which connect bolt's corporate identity with the displays. By aligning the bolt mission with this audience, the bureau has achieved a certain identity within San Francisco's subculture. As such, the bolt receives plenty of fanmail from users as well as requests for future bookings. The whole idea is based on entertainment and experience with nothing too complicated so it works. Similar to Time's Up, we are interested in using these events as a kind of research project, so we're continually surveying the audience and learning from their collective response. Often times this response can be measured by an audience who the games outdate, which is often the case.

One of the most important aspects of bolt is a STYLE. Any kind of nostalgia takes on a certain look. For example, today in America, the fashion and make-up borrows heavily from the 80's mod look. As for the bureau, we have created a product line for both style and propaganda in the form of Tshirts. Our first line of shirts include screenshots of the earliest video games including Pong, Breakout, Space Invaders, along with the game character from Berzerk and the most revolutionary external device, the Atari joystick. The bolt style is heavily influenced by a bit-mapped, low-bit color palette which reflects both the nostalgia for the games and a recontextualization of low-technology. The abstract shapes you see in video games and h-plotted computer screens represent a very fundemental style of obsolete technology. The low-tech style is "pixel based"; there are no curves, so the shapes are limited to anything that can be drawn using horizontal and vertical lines. It's amazing to me that so little information is necessary to achieve a form of interactivity and that is in part why the style is so important. How can you imagine that you are battling in space with a wedge and angular shapes as in Asteroids, or racing a car with one-bit dots and a steering wheel as in NightDriver? Part of our enjoyment with bolt is the fact that these games are so abstract and leave so much to the imagination. How much more simple can a game of competition be on a monitor screen than Pong? And is it better or worse to be more elaborate than this?

Thus far, we have been selling the bolt shirts in small clothing stores, primarily of the club and skater type with a great deal of success. The shirts appeal to a broad range of people including those who grew up on Atari, older computer geeks who bought the games for themselves, webbers, netizens & techno-enthusiasts and to a large extent kids who are too young to even remember Pong. Currently we're working on some other thematic lines which include more gaming imagery, Pong, early computer stuff, handheld games and gadgets, and a line of primitive sci-fi cyborgs like Tron and 6 million dollar man.

Sonic Pong
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