Category Archives: entertainment

Meeting the founder of the EDL (English Disco Lovers)

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Photo: English Disco Lovers

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Photo: English Disco Lovers

For most people, EDL is the acronym of the English Defense League, a far-right group that regularly and vehemently protests in the street against what it considers to be a spread of Islamism and Sharia in the United Kingdom. Over the past two years however, a number of UK residents have started to associate EDL with another movement: the English Disco Lovers. The story started as a joke when art student Chris Alton decided to reclaim the acronym and google bomb EDL so that English Disco Lovers would appear on top of the results for the search 'EDL' and the three letters would, over time, be associated with tolerance, multiculturalism and equality. Another key strategy of English Disco Lovers consists in participating to counter-English Defence League demonstrations across the UK, wearing garish shirts, dancing to disco music and singing "Go! Walk out the door! Turn around now 'cause you're not welcome anymore!" to the members of the islamophobic group.

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Photo: English Disco Lovers

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The English Disco Lovers manifesto

As the popularity of its online and offline presence demonstrates, English Disco Lovers has grown into a socially-engaged project that is far more powerful than what its initiators had initially envisioned. I talked online with Chris Alton about the EDL adventures, the wrath of the original EDL, the positive changes a humorous campaign can yield and how English Disco Lovers fits into the history of disco music.

Hi Chris! Who's Alex Jones? i keep finding his name rather than yours in all EDL interviews. he seems to have had a Quaker upbringing as well.

Alex Jones is my pseudonym. At first it was a safety precaution, as the English Disco Lovers email account had been receiving death threats from EDLers who were none to pleased about my cheeky acronym-pinching antics. I didn't fancy a bunch of heavies turning up on my doorstep, so I did the sensible thing and used a fake name. If you look at my TEDxYouth@Hackney talk I'm even wearing a mirrorball mask. The name and mask ultimately became a license to 'perform' Alex Jones. I see him as an idealised aspect of myself, given form and amplification.


A new meaning for disco beats: Alex Jones at TEDxYouth@Hackney

When i first read about your EDL project, i assumed it was just great fun and pleasant anti-racism but then i read in an interview that some of you actually attempt to discuss with members of the English Defense League? Do you manage to achieve something by engaging in conversations with them? Because they look pretty scary and some might be very annoyed by your own take on the acronym...

Yeah, through running the project that dialogue opened up. I'd get the odd message from an English Defence League member, one said, "hate the idea, but love the badge". He was referring to our logo, so I offered to send him a badge with it on. Those messages would become inroads, which allowed me to speak to them on a one-to-one basis about why I was doing what I was doing and why they were doing what they were doing. On mass they're a pretty scary bunch, but over social media there's (unsurprisingly) less to fear. In some cases the discussions led nowhere, but in others I found that the English Defence League members opened up to the possibility that their EDL could be causing an increase in the radicalisation of young Muslims, a few even left the organisation (or so they told me).

You wrote me that one of your sources of inspiration was your Quaker upbringing. What has the Quaker education taught you that helped you set up and run the EDL?

Since a young age I've been around people who are more actively engaged in changing the world than most. Quakerism exposed me to countless individuals and groups campaigning in various ways for numerous causes. At the age of 14 I met a woman who'd canoed out to the Trident Submarines in Faslane, planted potatoes onboard, then tried to make her getaway before being surrounded by vessels far superior to her tiny canoe. She was in her 60s at the time and at 17, I was present at the British Yearly Meeting where Quakers made the decision to allow same sex marriages and to lobby the government to legalise them.

Those are two examples among many, both of which exemplify the commitment of Quakers to peace, equality, simplicity and truth (the Quaker testimonies), despite the approaches being so different.

I think it's clear that some of the testimonies mentioned above manifest themselves in English Disco Lovers. It's a peaceful alternative to the English Defence League, which supports equality and togetherness over the divisions the other EDL capitalise upon and exacerbate.

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Photo: English Disco Lovers

You've been working on EDL for two years now. What have been the most surprising moments in the life of EDL?

As you can imagine there have been many! Getting it off the ground was certainly a surprise. When I made the Facebook page I never imagined the idea would move beyond my friendship group. However, after less than 6 months of using social media to generate interest in the idea, I got an email from Dorian Lynskey, a writer at The Guardian. He asked me a few questions via email and wrote a piece on English Disco Lovers, which was featured in The Guardian's G2 in February 2013.

Then in April 2013 I went down to Brighton for a counter-English Defence League demo. I was surprised to find a mass English Disco Lovers presence opposing the EDL march, bedecked in disco gear (I'm talking wigs, sequinned shirts, flares, the lot) and singing along to disco classics like Chic's "I Want Your Love". When they launched into Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" and told the English Defence League to, "Go! Walk out the door! Turn around now 'cause you're not welcome anymore!" the surrounding protesters joined in and danced along. I surprised that people felt so strongly about an idea that I'd brought into the world, and that they were willing to spend their afternoons embodying it!


Clips of the English Disco Lovers (EDL) at the counter-MfE demonstration on 21/04/2013


Chic, I Want Your Love

Why did you chose disco rather than any other type of music?

The choice of disco is fundamental to the ideology of English Disco Lovers, not only because of the genre's positive sound, but due to the history of disco. In the 1970s discotheques were havens for minorities, they brought together people of every colour and sexuality to listen to music that celebrated unity and self-expression. In 1979 there was an anti-disco rally called Disco Demolition Night, which involved the destruction of disco records. It has been said that the event had racist and homophobic undertones and that it played a significant role in the decline of disco's popularity.

It's also significant that, the word discotheque comes from Nazi occupied France, where jazz music was banned, as it was seen as a potential music of revolution. As live performances were deemed to be too obvious, citizens began to opt for underground bars where they could listen to recordings. These places became known as record libraries, which translates into French as 'discotheque'.

I wanted to redeploy this history in opposition to contemporary intolerance and the recent rise of right-wing extremism in the UK. The English Disco Lovers' motto is "Unus Mundas, Una Gens, Unus Disco", so it's also worth mentioning that, in Latin, disco could be understood to mean 'I learn', 'I learn to know', 'I become acquainted with'.

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Photo: English Disco Lovers

Apart from google bombing the far-right group, what do you hope to achieve with EDL?

Well, English Disco Lovers has already achieved many things beyond google bombing the English Defence League. For example we've been holding disco nights for about a year and a half, where the profits are donated to charities that tackle issues such as racism, HIV and hate-crime. We've held nights in London, Brighton, Bristol and Manchester, so I hope that these nights continue to grow in popularity and that we can continue spreading the "Don't Hate! Gyrate!" message.

What is next for EDL? any upcoming performance or meeting?

Well I'm heading down to Brighton in early January to meet with two stalwart English Disco Lovers about this very question, what next? I intend to step away from the project for a while and focus on new work, so the future of English Disco Lovers is a little uncertain at the moment. We have a few DJ sets booked in the coming months, which will be posted up on our website and social media, but in terms of big plans and aims, we'll all have to wait and see.

Thanks Chris!

English Disco Lovers is part of an exhibition at the Collyer Bristow Gallery in London. The show remains open until Jan 28th, 2014.

My notes from DocLab: Interactive Conference 2014

Finally! I found some time to type down my notes from the DocLab: Interactive Conference, a one-day event that looked at how artists, film makers, designers and entrepreneurs are exploring digital behaviour and redefining the documentary genre in the digital age.

IDFA DocLab is part of IDFA, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. I didn't have the time to see any of the 'traditional' documentaries (alas!) but i did get to try some smart interactive and/or immersive virtual reality works in the exhibition. I'll probably publish tomorrow my thoughts on that show and the conference notes below might provide a good introduction to it.

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Entrance to De Brakke Grond. DocLab: Interactive Conference. Photo by Nichon Glerum

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The audience at the Immersive Reality Conference. Photo by Nichon Glerum

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Picnic at the Immersive Reality Conference. Photo by Nichon Glerum

The Interactive Conference surprised me. In the best possible way. I was expecting to be entertained by the artists' talks and bored by anyone else who stepped on stage before or after them but it turned out that i didn't have one dull moment that day (I did sneak out of the auditorium as the 'Financiers Round' was starting though.)

There was a genuine sense of excitement and wonder in the room. Virtual reality and other new media are about to break into the mainstream and most speakers still have the feeling that they are experimenting and pioneering new ways to engage audiences.

I've already told you about James George's talk at the conference. The following notes are far drier and don't cover everything i heard that day. I'm not even going to mention every single contribution to the event. I've just picked up my favourite moments:

Monique Simard, president and CEO of the Development Corporation of Cultural Enterprise for Quebec (SODEC) noted that people consume culture in different ways than in the past. Nowadays, i's much less television that entertains us than mobile phones. Yet, while TV channels still invest in developing new creative content, mobile phone companies hardly invest in content. There has to be a re-balance of the financing of culture.

Juha van 't Zelfde, artistic director at the Lighthouse in Brighton, talked about How the web lost its innocence. An incomplete index. He shared his observations about the dark side of the internet and illustrated the collateral damage of technological innovation through 5 artworks:


Holly Herndon, Home

1. Total Surveillance
Holly Herndon's video, Home. Directed by Metahaven. The musician spends most of her time on her laptop. So much that it feels like home. The NSA scandal has altered the relationship she had with her computer and her song is a musical response to the NSA agent, it is a love letter as much as a break-up song.

2. Predatory Capitalism. Apple, google monetizing on anything.
Random Darknet Shopper, by Mediengruppe Bitnik, is an automated online shopping bot which uses a budget of $100 in Bitcoins per week to randomly buy an item on Darknet.

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Mediengruppe Bitnik, Random Darknet Shopper, 2014

3. Non-state Terror.
Metahaven looked at the political use of memes by both state and non-state actors and at the weird propaganda tools found on social media.

Example: The mocked-up Grand Theft Auto-style trailer that features virtual fighters shouting "Allahu Akbar!" as they attack U.S. troops.

4. State Terror
Terminal Beach looks at the non-sensical experience of drone attacks. From afar, they might look like a video game but they are traumatizing generations of children in other countries.

Their work BLIND DATA, for example, recombines images and sounds sourced from youtube and other platforms, subtracting them from the flux of communication as a way of "decommissioning" an increasingly weaponized infotainment complex and contributing to a more general disactivation of the ideologies and affectologies of vision, knowledge and power that underpin drone warfare.

5. Disconnecting People
That's the paradox of the web. It was imagined as a platform for democratic ideals and has turned into an infrastructure of total surveillance.

Hito Steyerl's How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File is a caustic educational video instructing you on how to avoid being seen. From going off-screen to being female and over 50 years old.

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Francesca Panetta at DocLab: Interactive Conference. Photo by Nichon Glerum

Francesca Panetta, multimedia special projects editor at The Guardian, talked about the newspaper's experiments in storytelling. She briefly explained some of these new exercises in storytelling:

The Shirt on Your Back: Video, texts and photos that document Guardian the human cost of the shirt you are wearing.

While The Guardian's interactive NSA Files: Decoded was linear, The Seven Digital Deadly Sins is not. The short series asks what pride, greed, gluttony and other deadly sins would become in our digital era. The work is based on video interviews but it also features voting polls asking you whether or not you condone the digital deadly sin exposed.

Why? The Guardian feels the need to reinvent itself because the traditional newspaper industry is dead.
How? By adding to their own pool of journalists and photographers, a multimedia desk of filmmakers, designers, developers, etc.

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Jan Rothuizen at DocLab: Interactive Conference. Photo by Nichon Glerum

Visual artist Jan Rothuizen draws by hand huge maps of locations as different from each other as the worst hotel in Amsterdam and a refugee camp for Syrian Kurds. These maps are less about topography than about presenting a whole narrative in a very open way. It's non-linear and non-scripted, it's layered and you're the one who has to retrieve all the clues in the drawings and weave the whole story.

Examples:

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The Red Light district in Amsterdam (detail)

The detention center located right next to the runway at Schiphol airport is off limit to photographer but, as a drawer, Rothuizen was allowed to enter and sketch around.

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Schiphol Detention Center (detail)

Thomas Wallner, founder and owner of DEEP Inc., opened the afternoon talks about VR creativity.

He showed DEEP 360, an experiment that uses early non-3D spherical camera prototypes to create immersive cinema. One of the works in the series is The Polar Sea, the first 360 documentary shot in the Arctic. The work follows the film crew as they are sailing through the Northwest Passage and experiencing the effects of climate change.

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Deep 360 founder Thomas Wallner launches a camera-equipped drone to film an online companion piece to the TV documentary The Polar Sea. Photo The Canadian Press/HO-TVO (via)

According to Wallner, the arrival of the Samsung's VR headset that uses the new Galaxy Note 4 as its main display will further mass market virtual reality. However, he also firmly believes that a technology that can't tell a story is doomed to fail.


Lady In The Lake - Trailer

He gave the example of 1947 MGM' film Lady in the Lake which attempted to create a cinematic version of Chandler's first-person narrative style of Philip Marlowe novels. The audience could only see what the detective did. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer promoted the film as 'the most revolutionary style of film since the introduction of the talkies.' It didn't meet with much critical success.

For Wallner, it's tricky to simply try to replicate a classic cinematographic experience in virtual reality. In cinema, we create an empathic relationship with the characters but it's difficult to find this relationship when you are wearing VR goggles and are at the center of the experience. Therefore we need to find new kinds of languages to tell the stories.

He also pointed to the fact that cinema, as we know it now, is part of a continuum and tomorrow's cinema still has to be invented.

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Panel about virtual reality. Photo by Nichon Glerum

Next there was a panel about virtual reality. Panels tend to be a bit bland. Not this one. Here's what i learnt from panelists Danfung Dennis (a film maker who founded a company that combines advanced 3D graphics with high-res video to create immersive video applications), creative developer Brian Chirls, Thomas Wallner, one of the developers at BeAnotherLab and media artist Oscar Raby:

- many developers approach VR from a game perspective or a cinema perspective. This involves peculiar expectations about what the experience should be like. But we need to see VR as an open field to explore as its own unique medium.
- it's too early to actually make mistake. We are at a stage where we have a lot to learn from every experiment.
- there is a fear that big studios (like Pixar) are going to use VR to make more spectacular versions of Marvel comics, instead of investigating new possibilities. Independent creators can't compete in money and power so they should create their own art forms and make the best of existing shortcomings in the technology instead of trying to perfect a technology (you need lots of money to do that.)
- the political applications of VR: using VR as a tool for propaganda and brainwashing, to replicate the existing status quo and ideas.
- VR can be used to understand other conscious beings like animals, VR can connect us to other beings in emotional, empathic ways and thus could be a tool to make us feel more connected to the other.
- we don't know yet how the VR content will be distributed but it is possible that it will be distributed through a model similar to the one of the Apple store. Which reminds us of the web that was created as an open, distributed platform. And not as a network that depends on a central authority.

Someone in the audience asked the panel if the only way to make VR was to be incredibly well funded. BeAnotherLab is an example that you don't necessarily need a big investment to start. They worked without funding for 3 years. The panelists advised to start with a computer and a head mounted display. Some are really affordable now. E.g. Google Cardboard.

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Rainforest Connection (image)

Next came Liz Cook. The film community manager at Kickstarter listed projects her team is particularly fond of. Magzine.it helpfully uploaded the video of her talk. In case you want the short version of her talk, the projects she mentioned are: Radiotopia, the video game Nevermind, Blast Theory's Karen app, Rainforest Connection and Lunar Mission One.

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Unfold, KIOSK

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Unfold, KIOSK

One of my favourite talks of the day was by Dries Verbruggen from Unfold. It's always uplifting to see that a designer whose work you're admiring turns up to be a fantastic speaker. Verbruggen 'loves the fluidity of the digital but not the rigidity of the screen' and it's only fitting that his studio would work a lot with 3D printing.

Kiosk, for example, is a cart to 3D print in the street. Pick an object you covet and Kiosk can copy or customize it on the spot. During the Salone del Mobile Unfold made 3D scans of the new objects presented at the fair and started to appropriate, sample, remix, improve, up/downscale or copy new objects 3d-printed on the spot.

The performative work echoes a Tate debate that discussed when 3D printing was ok. Unfold did not 3D replicate to offend or steal but to start a discussion. And as Verbruggen concluded, Unfold might not steal other designers' works but others are doing it already and they are selling designers' ideas on 3D platforms.

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Kyle McDonald at DocLab 2014. Photo by Nichon Glerum

Kyle McDonald gave the final keynote. The media artist showed his works and the trouble some of them got him into. I'm sure you know most of his works (if not, this is the place to go!) I particularly like his Social Roulette, an app that give you one in 6 chances to delete your Facebook account. Facebook was not amused.

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The day ended with an amazing kale mustard with pretzels (that didn't look like pretzel but whatever). Photo by Nichon Glerum

DocLab: Interactive Conference was presented by Ove Rishoj Jensen, Caspar Sonnen and Veerle Devreese. It took place on Sunday 23 November at The Flemish Arts Centre De Brakke Grond in Amsterdam.

More images on Brakke Grond facebook page.

Previously: James George's talk at the DocLab Interactive Conference.