Saturday, 1 December 2012

A Flea Orchestra In Your Ear in Belgrade

The first completed episode of UNIVERSAL EAR gets its mainland European premiere in Belgrade next week.

A Flea Orchestra In Your Ear @ Alternative Film/Video 2012, Belgrade

WHERE: Small Hall, Dom kulture „Studentski grad“ / „Student`s City“ Cultural Center
WHEN: 6th December 2012, 15.00
EVENT: Narrative_1
COST: Enquire at venue

Sunday, 18 November 2012


Saturday, 8.30am: the last day of the Banned Insubstance shoot: this evening we are to be ejected from our Nexus Art Café studio, and leading man Lockwood leaves town (and cuts his hair).

My phone vibrates but it is not the alarm clock function. It is a text from leading man Lockwood. For the third day in a row, he is too sick to act. Lockwood plays the character of Harley Byrne, whose memoirs our series is adapted from. Therefore, Byrne is in every scene. If he didn’t witness it, it didn’t go in his book. His absence is a problem.

On Thursday, when Lockwood first bailed, we got round it by replacing him with a three inch wooden doll in miniature plasticine costume and just shooting his long shots. By Friday, there was nothing else we could do this way, and the crew were all sent home to bed, with instructions not to get ill. Saturday morning, however, when the phone vibrates at 8.30am, I know we have an important day ahead with guest star Amanda Belantara: a noted filmmaker in her own right, and former high school drama queen who has taken acting lessons especially for her come-back this week. She is to play Yolanda, the corrupt National Olympid Committee official who tries to put Byrne off the scent by seducing him. (James Bond sleeps with spies to get information. Spies sleep with Harley Byrne so he’ll forget he was looking for information).

Without hesitation, I decide to shoot Yolanda’s scenes without Lockwood – to ‘film around’ him. This is the UNIVERSAL EAR spirit: gaps, inconsistencies, improbabilities, impossibilities.

11am: Belantara arrives at the studio in futuristic dreamcatcher earrings from Superdrug (so 2012 people wear such things too?) and inflates her hair to 2112AD proportions with the Super-feeble Hold spray we previously upturned in the Nexus junk room. Her husband, our soundie, “On The” Mike Cacioppo arrives minutes later, sickening for something but determined not to let us down. At several points during the day I feel the urge to embrace him for his dedication but choose not to because of the germs.

Cacioppo spraying raw light instead of raw germs

The first shot is from towards the end of the movie, when (without giving too much away) Yolanda presents Byrne with a medal for his athletic feats. How to shoot it without our Byrne? This one’s easy: we create a podium in front of our blue bedsheet sky so that Byrne’s head will be three feet higher than Yolanda’s. The bedsheet sky is by this point in the week creased and uneven: we decide this is due to some kind of environmental catastrophe occurring between now and 2112. Cacioppo towers over Lockwood heightwise, and the only other person on set today is production assistant (and so much more) Jennifer Jordan, a female. Thus it falls to me to double for Lockwood from the neck down (Byrne is redheaded and heavily bearded; I am silver-topped and sport designer stubble).

Once I’m up on the podium and we’ve blocked the scene we recall that I am meant to be the cinematographer and there is no-one else on set to operate Doris, the Super 8 camera. I call out instructions to Jordan from the podium and within minutes she is cinematographing the movie and any mystique I had as the sole operator of our mechanical eye evaporates.

The big project of the day, though, is designing and building the set for Yolanda’s office, a 22nd century lair equally equipped for bureaucracy and love. With the latter in mind, we note that the arch at the far end of our tiny studio is oddly suggestive, and elect to hang a pair of purple faux-silk curtains from (again) the Nexus junk room over a wooden frame from an ornate old wardrobe. Cacioppo, whose health is visibly fading, spends several hours trying to hang the frame evenly and centrally from the three awkward pegs a previous occupant has hammered randomly into the ledge above our gynaecological arch.

Jordan and Belantara

Belantara and I raid the junk room one last time for stuff to dress the set with. In Banned Insubstance, 22nd century Greece has missed out on the Singularity as a knock-on effect of today’s economic crisis. As a result, while the rest of the world is an unimaginable techno-utopia, Olympia in 2112 is meant to look a bit like Luton in the 1980s. Therefore we are pretty chuffed to find both an empty box of Black Magic chocolates and an early ‘80s hardback history of Vogue magazine for Yolanda’s desk.

Back in the studio, Cacioppo has created what is supposed to be a circular window for Yolanda’s office out of paper, bedsheet and PVC tape. He has been hindered in this process by the dripping of his nose onto his art materials. The circle is a bit flat on top and bulgy down below. “This is what has happened to circles by the year 2112,” croaks Cacioppo, and we humour him. The office, though, looks fantastic.

Belantara with Yolanda's personal crest
Lockwood arrives on set to get his stuff just as we are to begin run-throughs. He watches from the side, his malady now compounded by the sight of me out-acting him in his signature role, the time-traveller Harley Byrne. The credit will all go to him though: only my shoulders and one knee will be in shot. We bid the poor sod farewell and he leaves for his train. I nip into the Zine Library in the next room to get back into costume. My Harley Byrne shorts won’t stay up. “Didn’t these have a belt this morning?” Yes, I’m told. It was Lockwood’s and he took it back before he left. A final insult.

Belantara shimmers and dazzles as the strong and sultry Yolanda, a woman with a secret but who makes no secret of her desire to explore the full realm of physical and metaphysical experience available to old-skool, pre-Singularity human beings. Her attention to the nuances of vocal and gestural effect recalls the natural cinematic presence of Elizabeth Taylor, though I nearly ruin it all the first time she sits on my knee when my phone starts vibrating in my pocket. “Look, it’s my phone. Really. My phone.” Meanwhile, Jordan has created a rig for Doris out of crates and a broken old chair, so as to exploit the only possible angle from which to film Belantara sitting on my stand-in leg and gazing into my eyes without showing my face or hair.

Having accomplished this cinematographic feat, Jordan leaves to catch her coach home to Leeds; with no more sound to get, Cacioppo makes what may prove to be his last stand, prising his failing eyes open to film his wife stroking my leg. “That’s a wrap!” we yell at each other when its done (Cacioppo sort of whimpers), overlooking the fact that we’ve shot barely half the film we set out to this week and that the production will have to be powered up again in the new year. The fact is, regardless of our failures this week, today we achieved the impossible – with feathers, gold paint and snot. 

Yolanda (Amanda Belantara) at her desk; Cacioppo takes a well-earned biscuit

TONITE Harley Byrne: Library of Postures and Expressions with live music TONITE

Harley Byrne: Library of Postures and Expressions will play at Video Jam 4 in Rusholme tonight, with a live improvised musical accompaniment. Sorry for the late notice. We've been busy. Do come along.

Harley Byrne: Library of Postures and Expressions @ Video Jam 4
WHERE: Antwerp Mansion, Rusholme Grove, off the Curry Mile, Wilmslow Rd, M14 5AG  
WHEN: Sunday, 18th November 2012, 7pm - late  
COST: £2 on door


Friday, 16 November 2012


Lockwood texts in sick. We immediately scale down the production.

When Dr Who gets sick, do they regenerate him as tiny wooden man?

Thursday, 15 November 2012


Wednesday. We mess Lockwood up and Peter Easterbrook arrives to play Harley's brother, Santiago Byrne - the degenerate and Temporal Cubist who Harley reluctantly relies upon for his time-travel needs.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012


Tuesday: Today’s guest star has left five grand’s worth of photographic equipment on the tram: fortunately, it is his own gear and is nothing to do with our production, except that in frantically hailing a taxi and chasing the tram across town, Garth Williams has made himself late for work at Universal Ear Studios.

But we have plenty to be getting on with before he arrives. Lockwood is attempting to replicate the sky with blue bedsheets from Primark and a new staple gun which he can’t switch off ‘safety’. Jennifer Jordan is striving on with the mobile foliage unit (MFU), which must go mobile today. And I am scouring the Methodist building above for a filmable door frame. We have just one day to film Williams’ cameo.

All of which playful productivity lapses into a late lunch when Williams, wide-eyed and sweating, joins us underground. It’s somewhat of a relief for me to see him like this as Williams – who had a supporting role singing and dancing in our musical It’s Nick’s Birthday – is an accomplished renaissance man, talented in many fields: actor, filmmaker, vaudevillian, a maker of fine chocolate brownies. Whilst we have a lot of talent involved with Universal Ear, there’s always the fear that someone new’s going to come on set and call my bluff. Primark sky? What are you playing at?

Thankfully, the tram incident has left Williams vulnerable and I’m able to puncture his confidence by bringing up the fact that he’ll have to perform in a fake Greek accent (I had assumed this was implicit in the script). We also put him in a skintight Adidas mono-tard and 80s wig. He is to play Evangelis, a simple but corrupt athlete in the 2112 Olympid games and the first person our hero Harley Byrne meets on arrival. Williams’ Greek accent results in much corpsing and further delays, but he and Lockwood manage to pull it together for the take. This is, of course, a one-take set – each shot is only filmed once and any mistakes are allowed to stand.

The second shot on this location sees Byrne emerge from an desktop tryst, and in order to get the required post-coital glow Lockwood disappears next door with the Nexus teddy bear again. After yesterday’s kicking, it’s proving a demanding week for that toy.

Finishing with that location gives us license to stop for biscuits, and it is only when we realise we’ve twenty minutes left before Williams has to leave that we are galvanised into action. This is the difficult stuff – the climax of the big finale in which Byrne must catch up with Evangelis on the race track and decide whether to complete his mission, or go for glory and win the race. Nexus boss Jenny O. arrives to wheel the MFU behind the athletes as they walk on the spot, creating the effect of them racing along the track without us having to leave the spot. It works!

We also get shots of Byrne tackling Evangelis to the ground, although when it comes to the critical take Lockwood completely forgets to pull Williams’ wig off – which de-robing is meant to be the big ‘reveal’ of the movie. Glancing apologetically at our sound gal Jennifer Jordan, I yell “Hair! Hair!” at Lockwood and he grabs the rug from Williams’ head, possibly just in time to save the shot – it being, as mentioned above, a one-take deal.

Compressing a couple of shots into one and getting others with nary a read-through, the energy of these climactic scenes translates itself onset as a kind of frantic efficiency, and at 17.32 we bundle Williams back out of the studio and towards his next appointment as sweaty and harassed as when he joined us five hours earlier.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012


Two years on from our residency at Nexus Art Café, during which we reproduced three episodes of the lost adventure serial UNIVERSAL EAR, we return to the same little back room to do it all again for a fourth episode – Banned Insubstance. After four days of painting, gluing and bending the set and props together, today is to be the first day of shooting, in theory, if we can fight through the mess.

The first figure to join me on set this morning is Jennifer Jordan – sometime UNIVERSAL EAR guest star, and guest runner/sticker-onner/soundie for Banned Insubstance. She takes me by surprise as I am staring, apparently into space, but in fact at our mobile foliage unit, a mass of cardboard leaves attached to a wheely clothes rail, which has fallen apart overnight. The idea behind the mobile foliage unit – or MFU – is that with limited studio space, rather than film the script’s walking contest with a pan or wide shot of the actors in motion, we will have the actors walk on the spot and repeatedly wheel the background past them to create the impression of progress. We will we see if this works tomorrow, when we film the big finale race scene with guest star Garth Williams. Meantime, no-one wants to touch the MFU, its emotional temperament being such that even looking at it the wrong way can cause an avalanche of carefully glued leaves.

Lockwood checks in, then “On The” Mike Cacioppo, but we feel obliged to wait for Nexus boss (and thus our Executive Producer) Jenny O. to appear, given that she knows where all the junk we need to shift should go and it would be rude to sing the company anthem without her. Waiting, the conversation turns to ‘hair’, and our emotional connections with same prove an unexpected ice-breaking exercise. Among the four of us:

One has cut all their hair off partially on the advice of a bodiless ‘presence’;
One has grown a moustache out of boredom and worn it around town for a single day to see how it felt before shaving it off again;
A third has accidentally deoderized their pits with TCP having arrived at a stranger’s party stinking of BO;
And the final one has re-stickered all the creams and potions in their bathroom having grown sick of the brand labels.

This is the core of our dream team for the week.

Jenny O. arrives and refuses to join in the company anthem. But she will fight a few fights on our behalf as the day progresses and her loyalty to the organisation is not in question.

The remainder of the morning is spent wrestling with the MFU and finishing off 22nd century Olympia’s grass (paper) race track. In the afternoon, for the sake of morale, we decide we should definitely film something, so we begin to rebuild Stampy’s – a corner of the postal service’s members-only club, from where our hero Harley Byrne introduces each episode. Part of this intro is to be made up of re-used shots from previous intros, so it is imperative we make it look the same as when we last shot here two years ago. The bike in the background of the shot has since been stolen though, so we decide to take its absence as an acceptable continuity error. However, on surveying the café out front for the comfy chair Byrne previously spoke from, they seem to have grown so as to be impossible to squeeze through the studio doors. Spotting a smaller model of the comfy chair hidden beneath a customer, we decide to wait out her departure. Time is money, but on a £200 shoot we’re only talking small change here.

With a little further difficulty – mainly getting various bits of set to stay where they should – we’re ready to roll, and all that stands in our way is our indulgence of lead actor Lockwood’s new technique, as learned from Brian Astbury. It involves repeating his lines again and again whilst engaged in ‘right brain’ activities – controlled breathing, press ups against the wall, beating the crap out of the Nexus teddy bear – so as to free his subconscious to respond spontaneously to the script’s action. In fact, it makes him a bit cocky so I attempt to puncture his performance with various distractions, such as air traffic controlling Mike’s boom pole into Lockwood’s face. At one point I am paralysed by overwhelming déjà vu, until someone points out that we did in fact do exactly the same as this on the set we’ve replicated two years ago (sans boom pole). The idea is this time we can use all the lessons we learnt last time and achieve a more desirable state of imperfection: having achieved this, we’ll leave our Nexus methodology behind and start from scratch elsewhere for the next episode.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

BANNED INSUBSTANCE: All-new episode of UNIVERSAL EAR goes into production

Production begins today on the fourth episode of UNIVERSAL EAR – a lost adventure serial of the future which we at L’Institute Zoom are charged with (p)reconstructing.

Harley Byrne’s ongoing mission is to record and make available for download all the world’s music, ever, for his employers at the Universal Ear record company – using his shed-built ‘Universal Ear’ recording device. In new episode Banned Insubstance, Byrne travels through time to Olympia, 2112 A.D., where Olympid athletes are using illegal motivational music to enhance their performances. Seduced and then snubbed by the corrupt Chairwoman of the National Olympid Committee, Byrne realises if he wants a shot at recording the Banned Insubstance, he’ll have to train for the games – and be strong enough to catch up with the cheats. But does his coach, a reformed ex-ear-doper, have Byrne’s best interests at heart?

Series regulars Stewart Lockwood (Byrne), Tuesday Betts (his arch enemy and mistress of disguise, ‘Being’) and Peter Easterbrook (Santiago Byrne) will return, joined by such luminaries of the Manchester alt-movie unscene as Garth Williams (It’s Nick’s Birthday) and Amanda Belantara (Sonotoki). The Banned Insubstance itself is to be reimagined and re-recorded by artpop misfits Modern Blonde.

Sets are being built in our pocket studio at Nexus Art Café today, tomorrow and Saturday. The movie shoots from Monday 12th-Saturday 17th November 2012, 11-7pm. Interested parties are welcome to drop in to the studio at their own risk. The shoot will be documented online at and in a new zine for the Salford Zine Library, which happens to be immediately next door to our studio.

The Institute has received £200 Micro Funding from Nexus Art Cafe and Artisan Manchester to do this important work.


There were over 1,000 episodes of the original UNIVERSAL EAR and we don’t know what order they’re supposed to be in. In each episode, Harley Byrne must travel to another time and place to re-discover – and re-categorise – someone else’s idea of ‘music’. He always gets his track.

The first reconstructed episode, A Flea Orchestra In Your Ear, premiered at the Abandon Normal Devices festival this August.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Harley Byrne vs. Success

“Whichever way I turned, nothing appeared but danger and difficulty… I had no alternative, but to lie down and perish…

I reflected that no human prudence or foresight could possibly have averted my present sufferings.” 

"I shall set sail for the east with the fixed resolution to discover the termination of the Niger or perish in the attempt. Though all the Europeans who are with me should die, and though I were myself half dead, I would still persevere, and if I could not succeed in the object of my journey, I would at least die on the Niger." 

- Mungo Park, adventurer, idiot.

Harley Byrne makes his screen debut in A Flea Orchestra In Your Ear at this weekend’s Abandon Normal Devices festival – where the festival theme is ‘Success’. Given that Byrne’s seemingly impossible mission is to record and make available for download all the world’s music ever, and given that across countless episodes of the UNIVERSAL EAR time travel adventure serial he always gets his track, we at the Institute have put together an 8 point guide to success, Harley-style. A shorts-wearing, trans-dimensional loner he may be, but many of these rules are adaptable to our own lives here, and now, whenever that may be:

1. Never learn. Byrne’s career can be defined in terms of what Debord referred to as ‘cyclical time’ – but what we might think of as ‘sitcom time’. Every episode of UNIVERSAL EAR is a reboot. We have no idea what order the episodes are supposed to be in because there is zero character development. Byrne is good at his job because he does the same thing again and again without getting any big ideas. His unwavering self-confidence is rooted not in a superiority complex, but in his faith in himself as the right cog in the right machine. Envy the man who doesn’t even know how stupid he is. He doesn’t know what he is missing, or that he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know what he’s missing.

2. Never doubt. Life is such a varied and wonderful thing that it is easy to find examples to prove whatever argument you started out with at the beginning. Byrne has an infinite number of cultures to visit before he can complete his mission: if he doubted for a moment the validity of his own perspective, what ‘self’ could he truly expect to represent in the social sphere? A robust personality is like a non-lossy file format. If the you that’s here today, reading this, wants to prevail, you will zip yourself up and change for no-one.

Also, avoid listening too carefully.  People have a lot to say and you’re not going to like much of it.

3. Never mind the paradox. Physics is a pretty subjective affair and you’d be a fool to let it stand in your way. In the great imperialist tradition, Byrne considers his own time and place to be sacrosanct, and to be the definitive watchtower for all human history (and future). It is Manchester, 2012, where the definitive catalogue of all music ever is being created and consecrated. Therefore, if he drops the odd causality wrapper elsewhere, leaves behind the occasional empty tin of paradox, well, people should just be glad he’s graced them with a visit and preserved their music forever – even if, on occasion, they themselves no longer have access to it.

4. Align your modern wants with your primal needs. However sophisticated our personal mission statement might be, we’re all fundamentally in this for the same thing: a good meal, a tussle in the long grass, and perhaps the reciprocated emotional affections of one or more objects of our obsessive fascination. This is the man that kissed Turing after the arrest; played love games with vegetables in ancient Greece; and caressed killbots to ecstasy in the year 2019. As a lone field agent far from home, Byrne draws little distinction between executing a task and R&R. The world is his music studio and he’ll create the right recording conditions by whatever means necessary. Further, he conducts his work with two key sexual principles in mind: that you win someone’s trust by taking off their pants, and that when a woman is rescued, she expects to be kissed.

5. Rationalise, don’t compromise. Harley Byrne would never knowingly go home with anything less than a pure recording of the track he’s set out for – captured in perfect conditions and with the appropriate phonic and metaphonic settings.  But he is quite capable, without any sense of cynicism, of reconsidering what it is that he should consider a ‘pure recording’. Such is the malleable beauty of the human mind. As the great thinker Costanza once said, “it’s not a lie if you believe it.”

6. Good manners will only get you so far. Byrne is a gentleman of the old school, but as a time traveller his personal code is not always appropriate to the situation he finds himself in. Thus, a quick analysis of the UNIVERSAL EAR episodes available to us reveals that over and over again, he is forced to scale down his etiquette until he gets results. Why not try applying Byrne’s 3-tier back-up plan next time you have trouble at work or in your personal life? --
Plan A: Ask nicely.
Plan B: Seduce the antagonist.
Plan C: Tie everyone up, get your recording and go home.
7. Abandon normal devices. If you want to achieve something unique, you’re going to need unique tools. Byrne’s shed-built recording device, the Universal Ear, is more than a microphone. The Ear – a kind of gun-shaped sound vagina – can be used to interface with dumb computers, pick locks using complex wave arguments, and has a flashlight function with three different settings. Byrne has even used the warmth of the Ear’s hard drive to fry an egg in order to avoid starving to death. Whilst stuck in a tree.

8. What did we achieve today? What went wrong? This one’s not from Byrne but from our production process. At the end of the day at Universal Ear Studios, before the doors are unlocked, everyone sits down and discusses how the day went in the above terms, while panicking about what we’ve left ourselves to achieve the next day. Apologies are shared; excuses spluttered. It is important to always end on a What Went Wrong – because if you’re not going to spend all night staring at the ceiling, dwelling on your failures, how do you ever hope to succeed?

UNIVERSAL EAR: A Flea Orchestra In Your Ear plays at Manchester’s Cornerhouse this Friday at 1pm as part of AND Shorts Programme 1.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

A Flea Orchestra In Your Ear to premiere in Manchester this Friday

Thrills in the hills! Love, tussling and deceit at dizzying altitudes!  The first episode of UNIVERSAL EAR has now been completely (p)reconstructed and will premiere at the 4th Abandon Normal Devices festival in Manchester this Friday.

There’s love, tussling and deceit at dizzying altitudes as heroic ex-postman Harley Byrne travels back in time to 19th century Romania to record the world’s first ever remotely delivered electronic music. While recovering from a dramatic splash-landing, he finds himself falling head-over-heels for his host, the sultry inventress Nola Luna. Is she really all she seems? Will she let him record her electronic ‘Orchitron’? Or will Harley Byrne finally be thwarted in his ongoing mission: to record and make available for download all the world’s music, ever? Find out in...

A Flea Orchestra In Your Ear @ Abandon Normal Devices
EVENT: AND 2012 Shorts, Programme 1
WHERE: Cornerhouse, 70 Oxford Street, Manchester, M1 5NH
WHEN: Friday, 31st August 2012, 1pm
COST: £3 - £5.50 (advanced booking recommended)


Saturday, 23 June 2012

I told Turing, 'Your machine does not think.'

Update, January 2013: the full ebook from which the below is an extract can now be downloaded for free.

Here follows an extract from the memoirs of Harley Byrne, concerning his brief association with Alan Turing, whose centenary it is today. The full chapter, entitled Listlessness In Early Automated Composition Devices, will be released in ebook form later in the year. 

As we join them, Harley Byrne - whose ongoing mission is to record and make available for download all the world's music ever - has travelled back in time to 1952 and tracked down the "mathematician and homosexual" Alan Turing. Having insinuated his way into his home, Byrne finally convinces Turing to take Byrne to his place of work - the institution we now know as the University of Manchester.

"[I]f there was one figure who really stood out among the community, it was Turing himself. He would jog to work the twelve miles from Wilmslow and, to counter the rains for which the region is quite justifiably famed, had invented an aerodynamic umbrella which attached to the shoulders of his running vest. Such was Turing’s involvement in his work, he would often forget to remove the vest or the umbrella upon arrival at the university. Not even his most trusted colleagues felt close enough to him to draw his attention to it. Instead, he would wander the campus all day, his obliviousness to the construction over his head proving a testament to its lightweight design. Here comes old dry-hair, mischievous students would hiss at each other in the canteen. I don’t think he noticed. Anyway, we were the only ones in shorts, and I think this helped him to trust me.

On the third day, after lunch, he consented to show me his latest contraption: the automated music composition device whose output was my quarry. This computing machine, Turing told me, was the closest thing to artificial human intelligence that had been built at the university so far. His colleagues referred to it as the electronic brain. Turing had named it ERIC52.

Turing had occupied an unused office on the fourth floor of the university Main Building and filled it with machinery of his own design and labour. The electronic brain filled 90% of the room’s space, being comprised of a dozen irregularly stacked washing machine-sized cabinets and a console unit mounted on a reinforced cake trolley. The outermost cabinets were open-fronted, their switches, dials and sockets bared for all-comers to see. But, by Turing’s account, visitors were rare: it was a personal project, he had few trusted allies at the university, and those with whom he was friendly knew to keep a respectful distance.

Forcing my way into what tiny working space the room held (between Turing, myself and the cake trolley, not one of us could move without adjusting the others), I ran my good hand over the flickering lights of an output panel. The machine vibrated invisibly, and I closed my eyes to better assess its sound life, the most prominent features being an unmusical inner roar and a clucking sound that I couldn’t place. I sensed Turing bristle at my shoulder and with some difficulty lowered my arm to my side.

'So this is it then?' I asked, raising my voice over the din. 'The electronic brain?'

'Please don’t call it that.'   

I continued to stare at the electronic brain, unsure what to say.

At length, I asked Turing, 'Can it think?'

'Ask it,' he told me.

'Ask it?' I looked the steel towers up and down. 'But how would it know?'

Turing side-stepped the issue: 'It’s just one way of looking at your question. If ERIC52 can convince you it thinks, to the extent that you would be unable to distinguish its answers from those of an intellectually functioning adult human, then who are we to say it can’t think?'

Turing turned on his axis and pulled me by the sling until we were back to back, with him facing the console trolley and I, the brain. I was to put my questions to Turing, who would feed them into the brain via teleprinter tape. Turing would then translate ERIC52’s answers, which came back as dots on a  cathode ray tube, into the new Queen’s English. As such, the reader should note that the following interaction took place over the course of six and a half hours:

Can you think?


Okay. Thank you.






I see.


Yes sir.


I revolved until I was facing Turing and told him, under my breath, 'Your machine does not think.' He ran his finger along the cathode ray tube, apparently deep in thought.

'No,' agreed Turing, without turning to face me. 'But he does seem a little more chatty than usual.'"

The Institute will be publishing full chapters of Harley Byrne's memoirs, UNIVERSAL EAR, in ebook format later in the year. To be kept up to date, please join the UNIVERSAL EAR Facebook Page. For further information, visit the official UNIVERSAL EAR website (work in progress).

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Harley Byrne: Library of Postures and Expressions

Readymade emotions

It is not uncommon, in the world of television and the cinematic serial, for the producers of a new show to create libraries of their main characters’ tics and poses, in effect "backing up" a serial's stars in case they should become lost or disfigured before the end of the run. We certainly believe this to have been the case with the original UNIVERSAL EAR, for not only did director Francis Dove place no value on authenticity of emotional performance, he planned to create entire unofficial episodes using just off-cuts, bad takes and whatever other footage he could get his hands on without alerting Harley Byrne (who played himself in the original) to his scheme.

So it is that, one week into the Institute’s short-lived Universal Ear Studios venture, I opened the day’s work with a brief lecture on the science of facial expressions, ahead of a planned afternoon of filming stock emotions for the UNIVERSAL EAR-remake library. Truth be told, I had pretty much thrown the speech together in a bar whilst waiting for Lockwood to get home with the keys the previous night, but all the same I was somewhat put out that he failed to take Duchenne seriously until the latter’s name cropped up in the former’s Acting Basics book a few days later.

There is clearly far more work to be done on this subject, and it is one of my great regrets of the Universal Ear Studios era that we did not have time to spend more days like this – speculating and creating standard parts, rather than zealously pursuing the completion of entire episodes. (A transcript of our ‘therapy’ session from that day’s end is available on request).

The lecture was open to the public without entry fee, but only Lockwood attended. I positioned myself between him and the door:

Faces, Electropuncture, and the Actor’s Craft

“Whilst facial expressions are thought, with a few ambiguous exceptions, to be universal (cross-cultural), the different proportions of an individual’s face can cause confusion. For example, somebody born po-faced might not necessarily be miserable – it’s just the way their nose came out.

As such, we calibrate our own minds to read the faces of people we know – to make minute personal adjustments to the rules their faces generally play by - and this also applies to the familiar stars of a regular adventure serial. We know, as it were, what they can achieve with their face, and we understand their feelings within those parameters.

There are three alternative processes, to my knowledge, to elicit a facial expression:

Above: polished-up diagram of 3 methods for eliciting a facial expression (terms in brackets refer to what can go wrong with each process). Below: two charts to each be considered synonymous with the above.

Concerned as we are here with controlled methods of production, we shall naturally consider following the ‘science’ route, as pioneered by Monsieur Duchenne, who would isolate and faradize the facial muscles of his heroic volunteers in order to learn more about the mechanics of emotional manifestion – face-wise. Duchenne de Boulogne (1806-1875) believed that one could not read moral character from facial expressions - only emotions. However, we can posit that a series of such emotions – frame by frame – in the context of a particular narrative and aesthetic surroundings, allows us to at least attempt a moral or dynamic emotional analysis: and this is Cinema.

The danger, though, is to assume that cinema – or rather, photography – is Truth. It is not. It is  re-presentation, pixels or photons splattered onto a 2-dimensional screen. As such, this is what gives us license to manipulate the human face-image as a collection of symbols that hint at a real human face whilst referencing broader visual codes, from colour and geometry to landscape or circuitry. But we only have so much time today… and given that Mr Lockwood is interpreting Harley Byrne’s reinterpretation of Byrne’s own real-life experiences, we might do best to adopt (however multiply-filtered) verisimilitude as our aesthetic priority.”

So the lecture ended: and indeed, without verisimilitude of circumstances, verisimilitude of emotional expression was no picnic. My attempts to inspire Lockwood’s emotions with a range of condiments (salad dressing &tc.) or with carefully chosen images from a favourite book of mine were controversial at the time and remain a bone of contention between my muse and I to this day. However the results – if they do not speak – sneer, cower, spasm and thrust for themselves.

Please note the music is not our own work but has been shamelessly checked out from Pietro Grossi's Electronic Soundtracks library music LP.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Down The Rabbit Hole: watch online

Dear Blogspot,

Dazzled by the bright lights of Facebook and Twitter I forgot to tell you the parade film previously alluded to is now complete and ready to view online.

Here it is, anyway, complete with original song by Aidan Smith.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Cheese, Cube'd: Breaking Out and Breaking In at McHale's

Breaking Out and Breaking In is a distributed film festival co-ordinated by the ever-inspiring BLDGBLOG. Taking as its theme "the use and misuse of space in prison escapes and bank heists, where architecture is the obstacle between you and what you’re looking for", the festival encourages geographically dispersed cinephiles to watch a series of set film texts and respond online (there will also be a bit of a do in New York when it’s all over).

On Friday 24th March, we participated with a screening of Vincenzo Natali’s Cube (1997) at Old McHale’s Mantelpiece Cinema, the Institute’s pocket picturehouse in south Manchester. The McHale’s way of doing things involves various rituals and etiquettes, such as the preference for a double bill (to draw out unexpected connections between tentatively linked films), a thematic cheeseboard (with contributions from proprietors and audience alike) and projection onto the textured wallpaper of the McHale’s chimney breast. Although discussion is encouraged at McHale’s, the Breaking In/Out event marked the first time we’ve set aside specific slots for group speculation. These breaks doubled as convenient moments to revisit the cheeseboard.

As co-proprietor of the cinema, I shall herein attempt to summarize our architecturally-oriented findings. Spoilers will abound.

Clumsy heroics

Following a last-minute revision of the evening’s program, we open with two escape-themed episodes of The New Adventures of Tarzan (1935) – Crossed Trail and Devil’s Noose. The opening escape from a temple where our hero is about to be executed/sacrificed is more about low-scale genocide than the exploitation of architectural ambiguities:

But this particular incarnation of the E.R. Burroughs adventure is more fascinating for its semi-developed, yet semi-decayed, cinematic grammar than its reflections on real-world spaces. Shaped by the naivety of its early talkie form and eroded by years of material neglect, the show seems to be put together from a mix of surviving prints. The result is a curiously compressed space-time of the jungle, where people are closer than you think and emotions can be rebooted with a cutaway:

The taming of our environment through technology and architecture has both intended and unintended results, malicious and accidental. Thus it is a series of accidents (and a neat symmetry of the elements) that results in Tarzan being suspended in the air by an animal trap (the Devil’s Noose) even as he tries to rescue love interest Ulla Vale from the firy prison of a flaming cabin.

Theory of remains

Next on the bill is Jean Rollin’s short Le Pays Loin (The Far Country, 1965). A young man meets a young woman in a nameless town and they search for a way out, through a maze of ruins and micro-enclaves. It is the dérive as nightmare, the cosmopolis as isolation cell. Nobody they meet speaks their language, and the exotic (urban) cultures they encounter remain insular, however harmless. They meet another couple who are, on reflection, probably in the same situation as our heroes, but who of course don’t speak French: the mutual frustration leads to violence. You aren’t trapped by society, as Cube will later reinforce: you are society.

If Rollin ultimately settles on truisms (love is the answer; we’re all of the same flesh), Le Pays Loin remains of interest for its contemporaneous alternative to the Situationists’ take on urban planning and cultural homogenization. Rollin’s prison-city is not the modernist rat maze the Situationists would critique and subvert: it is closer to the organic, irrational playground they idealized. Again, this dichotomy will be echoed in Cube: is civilisation a conspiracy or a series of accidents and inevitabilities?

Le Loin Pays at McHale's
Cheese Cubed

We prepare for the main feature by topping up our glasses and plates. There are thematic cheese cubes and olives on sticks (the latter rationalised by the claim “the pimento wants to break out”), and Breakaway bars for the sweet-toothed (which British delicacy proves a revelation to Colorado-reared guest – and sound designer on the Institute’s UNIVERSAL EAR project – Mr Cacioppo Belantara). There is wine.

Our initial response to Cube is to identify it as a massive game – a scaled up Mousetrap, pick-up sticks or, of course, Rubik’s cube (some recall there being a Mousetrap movie, but when do we get a Jerry Bruckheimer pick-up sticks blockbuster?). Just as the trials of life are scaled down in the toys and games with which we are socially trained, the apparatus and the stakes of these games are scaled up for our heroes, who must think, perform and behave with guile and agility to win survival. (It also recalls Natali’s Cypher (2002), where in order to prevail, Jeremy Northam’s character must play dumb and fit in with a virtual community while privately plotting his own escape).

The social agenda of the cube revolves around the idea that we each have a function to perform if our home, village or metropolis is to thrive. Whether the evil mastermind behind the cube (or his/her casting director) chose prisoners with complementary skills as an over-zealous experiment, as a demonstration, or as a cynical joke, is never revealed: the prisoners include a policeman (to direct the human traffic), a mathematician (to crack the codes), and an autistic chap - Kazan - with the spark of genius the group, and society, needs to progress. (Ms Kipling, in the audience, suggests that the special skill of the short-lived bald guy, killed off early to demonstrate the cube’s lethal logic, is ‘exposition’). The acknowledged irony is that life outside the cube is just the same: Worth, who designed the outer walls of the cube, admits to never having met the "door guy" or anyone else involved in the construction. Yet the cube is complex, rational, and continues to function.

Cube: co-operation
What the cube lacks, and what makes our mutual dependency in real life a little more palatable, is horizons. (The cube also lacks toilet facilities, and although the prisoners turn their noses up when Kazan pees in a corner, the subject is not brought up again during their lengthy incarceration - where do the others go?). Each of the six inner-faces of every cell is identical, these cells’ frustrating, alien omni-directionality made more absurd by the repeated image of a boot flying forlornly through the air. Each boot is tossed ostensibly to trigger booby traps, but figuratively it is searching for gravity, a firm footing, orientation, an absolute.

The vaster space of the cube as a whole is hinted at throughout the movie by its peculiar sonic life: distant, echoing creaks and moans which the characters seem to ignore and which therefore remain ambiguous to the audience – are these the sounds of the cube or are they non-diegetic, a film score of tones to pull the audience along without the comforting familiarity of rhythm or melody? A third alternative is that the sounds are subjective: half an hour in, as Holloway loses her composure, the cube groans and creaks as though its very frame is straining to keep itself together. The big reveal to characters and audience alike is that the first idea is closest: the noises occur as a side-effect of the cube’s sporadic reshuffling of cells.

We turn to Mr Hill, McHale’s guest engineer (and also the inspiration for the Institute’s 2009 choreographic exploration of mental space) for a technical take on the cube. Hill postulates on the use of rails or runners on which the inner cubes would need to slide and points out that the magnetism involved in heaving such massive blocks of metal around would likely have physio- and psychological effects on the prisoners. For that matter, the lack of oxygen could account for Quentin’s descent into psychopathy – is there not something of the submarine movie in Cube?

And so we wind up back at psychogeography, or more accurately psycho-ambience. If there was, indeed a ‘door guy’, the characters are so preoccupied with survival that they don’t have a moment to give the ‘wallpaper guy’ a nod. The inner panels of the cells are decorated in something between an art deco flourish and 1980s, Tron-esque circuit board chic. This could be Natali flagging up the need for everyday folk to build our online universe with tolerance and co-operation. But more pertinent to our characters are two particular aspects of the panel design: firstly, that the backlit walls give the impression of daylight offering hope as through a stained glass window; and secondly, the use of coloured light as a mood modifier. It would take an audience soberer than the present one to trace any consistent emotional program in the cube’s colour scheme: the autistic Kazan cannot abide the red rooms, but any effect on the others remains subliminal and unremarked upon by the prisoners.

Foreground: cheese cubes, Background: circuit board wallpaper
The program winds to a close, the crowds disperse, and Mr Hill and I accompany Ms Cookson back to her Withington digs, spotting on the way this most portentous sign:

It is our hope that the maze is not snapped up by evil hands. In the meantime, our Breaking Out night is deemed a success and we look forward to a Breaking In night or two: Rififi on March 19th, and perhaps Inception, which concept is made more palatable by the idea of a thematic cheese within a cheese within a cheese within a cheese.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Down The Rabbit Hole premiere in Manchester this Saturday

The Institute's short film of the 2011 Manchester Day Parade will premiere with a free screening at Manchester's Nexus Art Cafe this Saturday at 2pm.

A 5-minute Super-8 odyssey tracing the preparations and parade-day antics of the Nexus Art Cafe float (a giant travelling tea party complete with aerialist owl), the film features a specially composed new song from staff composer Aidan Smith.

The film will show during the lunch rush at Nexus, and all are welcome to venture down into the subterranean cafe to buy a brew and/or pie and/or sweet thing to keep your mouth busy while it plays. The film will be introduced by filmmaker Graeme Cole and aforementioned songsmith Aidan Smith.

There are some preview photos on our Facebook page.

Down The Rabbit Hole @ Nexus Art Cafe
WHERE: Nexus Art Cafe, 2 Dale Street, Manchester, M1 1JY
WHEN: Saturday 18th February 2012, 2pm (cafe open all day)
COST: free