A ‘Free’ Night Out in London

Before leaving Turkey at the end of 2011 I applied through the BBC web site (http://www.bbc.co.uk/showsandtours/tickets/) for tickets to be in the audience at recordings and live broadcasts in the London area.  As this was to a new experience and with no idea how many applications would be successful – if any – it was a case of employing the scatter gun approach and see which ones hit a target.  It was time to sit back and wait.

The one thing you don’t get are ‘rejections’ so you have no idea if and when tickets will arrive.  But patience is a virtue and within two weeks we had been offered tickets to two shows – ‘The News Quiz’, a favourite, and ‘Click’, an obscure to us World Service programme.  And the first was to be ‘Click’ on the 10th January in the Radio Theatre in Broadcasting House, Portland Place – very grand??

The start time was 7.30pm but as it was a live broadcast (to the world) we were told to assemble at 6 and we would be seated at 7.  There is a word of caution on the tickets (sent as pdf’s) that having a ticket doesn’t guarantee admission as they issue more tickets than there are seats as their primary aim is to have a full house.  When we arrived at the grand entrance to the building there was a small queue which gave us a moments worry until it became apparent that it was a queue to get through security – phew.  Once inside the building we were expertly guided to the waiting room – no chance to break free and look around the building.  The room has seats for about 40 people and, surprise,surprise, those 40 people are already seated and it’s only ten past six.  We found a wall to lean against and prepared for a long wait.  There is a small snack bar serving drinks, including beers, and sandwiches so we decide to get a small snack.  Not a big selection but the sandwich we did get was good quality and very reasonably priced.

The minutes tick by very slowly when you’re standing in an ever crowded room.  There’s a big clock on the wall just to remind you how slowly time is passing.  Eventually it is 7 and, more or less on the dot, an usher appears and indicates that it is time to go through to the theatre.  There’s a bit of an orderly squash as 100 people try to get through a narrow door and along a corridor to the theatre entrance.  As we go though the door there is an audible sigh of relief from the assembled throng as we see rows and rows of comfortable seats.  Apart from the front two rows, which it turns out are reserved for special guests, we are asked to fill up the theatre from the front – all calm and organised.  We get seated in row seven, close to the stage.

[A word about ‘Click’.  In their own words it is “the best debate on global technology, social media and the internet”.   True to its subject matter, as well as the live broadcast programme, it is available on iPlayer and as a podcast plus a presence on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.  The presenter is a very personable youngish man Gareth Mitchell and he is ably supported by the ‘guru’ Bill Thompson who appears to be having bad hair day.  (Looking at their web site later it seems he is always having a ‘bad hair day’.)  The producer is Colin Grant who is excellent at engagement with the audience and runs the show with quiet precision.]

Once seated the first thing we see is a row of seats with tables on the stage.  To the left there is a ‘Heath Robinson’ contraption constructed largely of plastic tubes and cardboard and with the ominous sign “Caution High Speed Balls”.  To the right there are a few musical instruments (keyboard, drums and bass guitar) fronted by what appears to be a horizontal plank of wood and 1.5m long.  No doubt this will be explained.

The producer comes on and gets the audience to practice clapping – something to be expected.  He then explains that tonight’s programme is a special edition of ‘Click’ discussing technology and art – that sounds interesting and so it turns out to be.  Then he introduces Gareth the presenter and Bill the ‘guru’.  Everyone is dressed very casually as this is radio – none 0f the bow ties of old.  Next on to the stage are the contributors for tonight.  Jo Hamilton a musician with one of the few air pianos in existence (www.johamilton.com), Honor Harger artistic director of Lighthouse a hugely influential digital culture agency (www.lighthouse.org.uk ), three members of London Hackspace a location where people with common interests in technology, computers, digital and electronic art, etc, can meet and collaborate (https://london.hackspace.org.uk) and via Skype from Stavangar in Norway, Cory Arcangel one of the world’s leading digital artists (www.coryarcangel.com).  They all turn out to be fascinating people with interesting contributions to make both verbally and by demonstration.  Do follow the links to their web sites.

The half-hour of the programme, which passes in a flash, begins with a discussion on the role of technology in art.  All contributors are in violent agreement that technology has always played a critical role in art from the development of paints and materials over thousands of years to embracing the contribution that digital technolgies can and are making today.  It was stressed that whilst the techniques can be copied the actual works produced cannot be replicated.  I’m an art lover but not an art critic so to do justice to the arguments you need to listen to the programme.  [available on the BBC iPlayer or as a podcast at http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/digitalp]

Examples of some of the different forms that digital art can take were demonstrated during the evening.  They included :-

  • The air piano – Jo Hamilton played this innovative musical instrument that involves no touching, plucking or strumming: it is a base unit with sensors that respond to the distance of the player’s hand, relaying the information to a computer, producing pre-programmed sounds.
  • High speed video editing – Cory Arcangel  played a video recording constructed from software that he wrote that reproduced a production of Paganini’s 5th Caprice where each note was played by a different artist on their own electric guitar and the editing software combines these notes into the finished work.
  • The ping-pong gun – The team from the London Hackerspace demonstrated a machine built from scratch on the day in the studio, that used Tweets from the world-wide audience to drop ping-pong balls from a hopper and through a series of tubes ready to be fired into the audience at the end of the programme.

The common thread is how artistic skills can be expressed through a combination of materials, technical and digital skills.  All really fascinating stuff.

The programme finished all too quickly and unfortunately there was no opportunity for members of the audience to talk to the contributors.  I’d love to understood more about the air piano.  The questions in my mind included, how much is pre-recorded, is it pre-tuned to the hand movements of one person, how long does it take learn, why are there only a few in the world.  I’m hoping there is enough published on the web to get some of the answers.

Finally, the audience were asked to stay on for 5 minutes whilst they recorded the intro for the podcast.  This included a treat for us when Jo Hamilton accompanied by three other musicians performed a very eerie piece which will only go out on the podcast.

We were released out into Portland Place and the real world of London.  Our first thought was to find a pub and talk about the show.  The nearest known place to us was “The Cock”, a fine old Sam Smiths establishment, just round the corner.  Over a small libation we both agreed that it had been a fascinating experience, nothing like as geeky as M had imagined, and that we now have at least a beginners understanding of digital art.

It was then time to head homewards using our wonderful Freedom Passes, issued by the local authorities in London, and which give us free travel on buses, the underground and suburban trains.  One of the perks of retirement.

Roll on “The News Quiz” this Thursday.

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About Clashgour

With my wife Margaret I am spending a happy retirement divided between our flat in Richmond, London, our villa in Kalkan on the Turkish Mediterranean coast and travelling mostly in the UK, Turkey and the US. When travelling we use public transport where possible, resorting to a car when it is the only viable option. This blog is an occasional diary of our travels.
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