Mixed media pioneers Matt Black and Rob Pepperell talk about their plans for the future of entertainment and art, as part of the Hex project
Technology in the '90s is forcing cultural, social and artistic changes like never before - and keeping up with these changes is becoming increasingly difficult. Exclusively for MT readers, dedicated futurists Matt Black and Rob Pepperell of multimedia adventurers Hex map out a brave but often bewildering new world. Your guide to survival in the "90s starts here - Simon Trask holds the torch...
The seeds of Hex were sown in 1989 when pioneering DJ/producers Coldcut, aka Matt Black and Jonathon More, joined forces with art college graduates Robert Pepperell and Miles Visman to form the music video production company Hardwire. In 1990 they produced Coldcut's Christmas Break, the first ever pop video to be generated entirely on home computers. As Hardwire they also produced music videos for the likes of Reese, The Fall, Queen Latifah, Spiritualised and Spacemen 3. However, the lure of the computer games industry won out over the frustrations, creative and financial, of making low-budget videos for independent record labels, and in 1991 they formed Hex to explore the computer games and multimedia markets.
Hex's first product was the computer game Top Banana for the Acorn Archimedes, subsequently ported over to the Commodore Amiga.
Rob: "We realised that what Matt and Jon had been doing within music and what Miles and I had been doing with computer graphics and games, while they were in separate compartments at the time, they were actually all coming together. And the medium which showed the way was CD-ROM."
Not surprisingly, then, their next product was a CD-ROM for Commodore's CDTV home entertainment system. Released in November '92, Global Chaos CDTV combined rave visuals, techno and ambient dance music and the Top Banana computer game on one CD-ROM disc to create a "multi-dimensional future entertainment product" which was widely hailed as providing a blueprint for home entertainment to come.
Hex followed their CDTV offering with a product for another CD-ROM platform, Philips' CD-i system. eScape, which was released in April of this year, combines trance, ambient and techno tracks from such artists as Irresistible Force, Eon, B12 and Coldcut themselves with randomly-generated computer visuals which the user can interact with using the CD-i unit's remote controller.
Their most recent release has been Global Chaos - The Video, a one-hour rave video, with a soundtrack by Coldcut, which provides the most sophisticated and radical example yet of their fast-paced, dynamic computer graphics and video work.
"We're putting up signposts saging 'This is the way to the future of entertainment.'" Matt
At present, Hex are working on Digital Love, a PC CD-ROM of ambient music and soothing visuals designed to be a "relaxation aid" for both home and office use.
Rob: "The idea is that you can turn your computer into a nice pool which you can dive into, instead of just using it as an aggressive number-crunching machine." Mac CD-ROM, album and video versions are also planned.
In addition to this, Philips have commissioned them to produce two further discs along the lines of eScape, to be called Pulse and Datastream. What with their forays into live video mixing at clubs like Knowledge and Telepathic Fish, it's clear that Hex are keeping busy at the cutting edge of multimedia entertainment.
Matt: "Coldcut are two total non-musicians. Jon was a silversmith and did three-dimensional design, and I was a biochemist and computer programmer, yet we managed to make records that sold quite well. Why should people just do one thing all their lives? See, I'm not particularly good at playing keyboards or being a graphic artist or being a photographer or being a programmer, but I can do a bit of all those things on the Mac. The computer makes it easier to cross-fertilise those different skills, and it's just immensely seductive. I can't help thinking that that's the right way to be. We all came to Hex with a wide range of skills, and I think a multidisciplinary approach to things is very important these days."
Rob: "When me and Miles were trained at art college, it was mainly doing painting and sculpture, but a lot of what we were thinking about was multimedia. I've always been interested in all aspects of media production: music, video, art... Whilst there are different methods of approaching them, I don't see any essential differences between any of them.
"Games have created a new demand for music, they hauen't obliterated the demand. The way forward for the record industry, the way forward for musicians, is to join up with video makers and with games companies." Rob
"In the latter half of the '80s I saw that computers, and especially the Apple Macintosh, allowed you to work in a number of different media - not necessarily simultaneously, but at least allowed you to go from one to the other quite quickly, and with common tools. And now the way technology has evolved has produced a true multimedia environment; everything that you could want to do, you can use the computer in some way to help you do it.
"From the point of view of going from art into technology, I don't see that they're different, though a lot of people do see them in that way. For me, computer technology is a way of producing art; in fact, it's a meeting point for what used to be art and what used to be science, and increasingly any distinctions between the two are being collapsed into a new media."
Matt: "The novelist CP Snow talked about the two cultures, the art culture and the science culture, and about how people had no common vocabulary and really no interest in generating one. Well, I think it's time now for a third culture, which is people who can speak both languages."
Rob: "Everything to us is relevant, all the changes that are taking place in technology, whether it's biochemistry, physics, astronomy... All these things are ultimately tied in."
"The really rich people will be the people who have access to a lot of information, and the tools with which they can recombine that information and put it out again." Rob
Rob: "When we'd done the game Top Banana we wanted to promote it, but we didn't have any money. We had no promotional budget, like a normal games company would probably spend 15 or 20 grand on buying full-page adverts in the computer games press, so we had to come up with another way of getting people to hear about the game.
"What we did was we invented a whole mechanism for getting attention which was very cheap: we made a video for £200 which was shown maybe 13 or 14 times on different national and international TV stations; we did a record which sold through the clubs so it got its money back in the end - and was also played on the radio; and we produced a T-shirt. All these things we sold, so they made money back, but at the same time they created interest in the product that we were really trying to sell.
"In a sense, it's a multimedia marketing strategy. To us it pointed the way forward, it pointed to the very strong relationship between pop music, video games and video graphics; the market for all that stuff is the same. Even though the industries are all different and they all look at the world from a different point of view, in fact they're all focussing on the same strata of people - but until very, very recently the record industry didn't realise that it was talking to the same people as the games industry, they were locked in competition against each other instead."
Matt: "People who make records shouldn't just think about releasing twelve-inches, they should think about talking to games companies, talking to video-making companies, because there's a new demand for music. People who don't wake up to that are going to be wiped out."
Matt: "With Global Chaos we used quite a lot of video sampling, which just means taking stuff off the TV and satellite. We mash it up in various ways so that you can't really see what it is; that way we don't get all the television companies coming after us with heaps of attack lawyers. That's been inspired by our experience with sound sampling; at the beginning you could more or less get away with murder, because no-one really understood what was going on, but then M/A/R/R/S were unlucky enough to have a number one hit record.
"At the moment, people aren't really aware of video sampling, and they aren't aware that as soon as kids get their hands on this type of technology they're going to be sampling everything they can get their hands on. They're going to get an Amiga, set it all up and say 'Hey, we're going to make our own video', and then they're going to sample loads of stuff from Terminator 2 and stuff like that. Which hasn't really occurred to the powers that be - yet. If the kids just make a few copies for their friends then they'll be OK, but if they start selling it in Our Price they're going to get fucked.
"We invented the idea of making video promos for computer games. Now Sega have jumped well on this with their Sega Pirate TV spots; they're trying to be underground." Matt
"I am not a musician, I'm a hacker. I hack music." Matt
"Relating video sampling back to music again, most people can't afford a string section so naturally they take what first comes to hand to substitute for that. Similarly, most people can't afford to go and film something like the Rio carnival, so if they want a visual reference like that they're just going to take one from the nearest possible source. It's very understandable, really. You could argue 'Can someone really own images like that? They're the property of everyone on the planet.'"
Matt: "If you look at the world, most people's problems come from trying to make money. So, one idea for the future is for Hex to be self-sufficient, so that we know we've got a salary coming in for the foreseeable future, and then everything we do we just do for free, or at cost. That would just be an amazing change in mentality.
"See, the whole thing of selling something at a particular price comes from the fact that there's limited resources of whatever you're selling. You can't sell, say, a banana more than once, but with digital information you can copy it as many times as you want, which relieves that limitation on supply. So why not just do everything for free? You're going to attain more longevity for your ideas like that.
"For example, by posting our music on the bulletin boards free for people to download, more and more people are going to get into the music that Hex are making, so more and more people are going to find out about us, and that could give us a massive market in just T-shirts which would make us millionaires! See, that is an example of a different type of economic mentality."
"Increasingly computers will be having some responsibility for creative decisions." Rob
"We're on the cusp of a crisis in copyright and ownership." Rob
Rob: 'Wealth used to be seen in terms of land, then as property, as houses, gold, paintings, whatever. I think we're generating our own wealth in the fact that we're stocking up and producing large amounts of information. And the other thing we're doing is increasingly automating the ways in which that information is produced, therefore our unit costs for producing high-quality information are going down, so relative to other people our store of wealth is going up. I mean, eScape, for example, is generating an infinite variety of images, therefore we've invested in something which is infinitely wealthy depending on how much you can charge for each of the images that you're storing. It's either not worth anything at all or it's worth billions of pounds, because if someone was willing to pay a pound for each image on there... In a way it's virtual wealth!"
Rob: "Nowadays there's an infinite pool of information, and the nodes of access to it are expanding very quickly, so inevitably control over who distributes it and how it's distributed breaks down very quickly. The powers-that-be brought in the Copyright Act in 1988 to try and take note of what was changing in computer technology, but with the expansion of technology and the different sources of information it's already looking very, very flaky. We're still trying to control all this stuff using the mechanistic legal structure of the 19th century, when it was more evident who actually created something, and when how that something was distributed was more easily definable."
Matt: "If you see the efforts that the system is making to try and contain the major revolution that's going on, it's like they're trying to stop a tidal wave with a sand castle - they're using methods which are wholly inappropriate. I guess that's inevitable, because it always takes time to develop new tools and a new mentality, but I think that most of the existing infrastructure is going to be swept away, because it's just not going to be able to cope with the information flood. Information has become much more of a living organism; it grows, and it grows really fast, it evolves and it mutates."
Rob: "The problem is, when you're talking about stuff being passed around computer networks, even if you really wanted to acknowledge the person who created the stuff in the first place, you're not going to be able to afford to trace it back through the network."
Matt: "I think there will be quite a lengthy period of digital anarchy, but a system will come into being and will evolve itself whereby you will pay for the use of information, and once you've paid for that information you're free to use it how you want; that's fair enough, really."
Rob: "With the digitisation of information, the reduction of information to a series of ones and noughts, all information can have a common base, now, and the distinctions between different types of information will break down - that's the crisis, really. Almost any information you can think of can be converted - even the genetic structure of human beings, with the Human Genome project, that will eventually be encoded digitally as binary information so that it can be remanipulated and transferred around the world.
"Countries are trying to patent strands of DNA, but you'll be able to sample them, too. That series of ones and noughts can be transferred anywhere in the universe very quickly with communications technology, and it's infinitely copyable. That's what gives the impetus to the infinite reproduction of images and sounds.
"The old Marxist labour theory of value was that the value of an object was dependent on the amount of time it took to produce it. But now I can make a game, and to make a copy of that game takes no time and costs no money, so how do I put a value on that information? You have to have this other structure, like the marketing and the press, all this stuff has to give it value; that's what PR companies and advertising agencies are there for."
Interview by Simon Trask
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