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David McCallum speaks!

David McCallum is a Toronto based media artist and musician. His is characterized by a playful appropriation of everyday technology towards idiosyncratic and often performative ends. He has a background in physics and Music and received a Masters in Art and Technology from Chalmers University of Technology in Göteborg, Sweden.

His Warbike project was featured as one half of Sound Cycles and Mobile City a show held at Interaccess Electronic Media Arts Centre in Toronto this past fall.

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David McCallum, Warbike , modified bicycle, 2005-2007

Greg J. Smith caught up with him recently for VoCA:

VoCA: Your Warbike project takes the commonplace activity of city cycling and monitors telecommunications signals to transform the bicycle into an instrument. Could you talk about the history of this project and how it relates to your perception of sound and the city?

D Mc C:It’s funny, to call cycling “commonplace” is a pretty urban perspective, and specific to cities with a vibrant downtown. I grew up in the suburbs of Toronto where bicycles certainly weren’t commonplace outside of recreation and as a mode of transportation for children. One of the interesting things about this project – and other bike projects – is that it gets people on bikes who wouldn’t normally be there. The downside, of course, is that some people have spent too long off a bike to feel comfortable trying the artwork. It doesn’t do much good to say, “Don’t worry, it’s just like riding a bike.”

The project started as an experiment exploring wardriving software when I acquired a wireless network card in 2003. A popular wardriving software, for some reason, had MIDI options in the preferences, which is kind of bizarre for a networking program. I wrote a simple program to turn that MIDI data into sound and rode to and from my school building with my laptop on and the speakers up in my backpack.

The experience of hearing aspects of a space, or learning something about them in a tangible sense, is far more powerful than being told explicitly, which is an abstract way of knowing something and removed from direct perception through one’s own senses.

VoCA: On the topic of other peoples’ experience, how did you find that people responded to the project at the Interaccess show? I imagine the idea of an artwork that you take for a ride may have proven a bit challenging for some people.

D Mc C: Well, interaction is an interesting challenge. Just because you as an artist find an activity that is incredibly fun, doesn’t mean that the public will react in the same way. The hardest hurdle is just making people feel comfortable to interact with the work. Artists and children are already accustomed to touching interactive art, but others aren’t. We’re raised to do things we have permission for, and it’s hard to convince people that the have permission to touch something.

There wasn’t a lack of people wanting to ride it, but there definitely was a type of person who was just happy knowing what it did without feeling the need to ride it. Some were uncomfortable cycling, others it seemed just didn’t think they would get more out of the work by experiencing it. You can’t win ‘em all.

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David McCallum, Personal Art Noise Thing (PANT), homebrew instrument, 2005

VoCA: I know that platforms like Max/MSP and Pure Data have played into several of your projects. How has being fluent with code affected how you address technology in your work?

D Mc C:I wish that I were fluent! I think that what I do is more hacking than programming: I use my limited skill set to bash other people’s tools into submission for my own purposes.
I’m a strong believer in the craft of new media. Contemporary art seems to have divorced itself from the artisan history of the arts, and I don’t think that because the tools in new media are abstract that it’s somehow a field where it’s okay that the the designers are also not craftspeople. There are aspects of a medium that you can only understand by experience. If you don’t understand the medium, the work itself risks being naïve.

You also run the risk of been seduced by aspects of the tool. Early new media was fascinated with technology and the technology became the end, and not just the means. It was an important process to go through, but I’m certainly glad we’ve outgrown that. Now that we have a better understanding of technology we can hopefully divorce ourselves from the fetishism and appreciate it as what it is: a tool. Not understanding the medium runs a dangerous risk of falling into the gee-whizardry of technology.

By all this of course I also mean to say that working with technology is fun! I learn much more about myself and the work by working through the problems myself.

This piece was contributed by Greg J. Smith. Greg is a Toronto based designer and editor who authors the design/research blog Serial Consign.

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