mark fell





dirty protest/intention as material.

Hong Kong National Film Archive 2003

this was a project i made after doing some writing about art, human computer interaction and philosophy see headbut the mouse. during this research i played two ideas off against one another: firstly the notion of "user centred interaction" a term from recent debate in hci that suggests a form of interaction that transcends age or cultural borders, secondly the notion of a "decentred subject" that is constructed in relation to texts. here i made a piece of work that i subtitled "work for decentered Interactivity" and raised the idea of "decentred usability" in art and interaction.

in technical terms the work featured a wall of light sensors, and a room full of randomly arranged speakers. from the cieling i hung flash lights that visitors could pick up and shine at the sensors to scatter sound around the room.

text displayed in gallery entrance:

  1. In March 1978, fed up with being harassed by prison officers when they went to the toilets, republican prisoners began the no-wash protest which soon became known as the dirty protest. The prisoners began to daub their excreta on the walls of their cells. The dirty protest ended on 2 March 1981, the day after Bobby Sands began his 66-day hunger strike that ended with his death.
  2. When we concern ourselves with something, the entities which are most closely ready to hand may be met as something unusable, not properly adapted for the use we have decided upon. The tool turns out to be damaged, or the material unsuitable. In each of these cases equipment is here, ready-to-hand. We discover its unusability, however, not by looking at it and establishing its properties, but rather by the circumspection of the dealings in which we use it. When its unusability is thus discovered, equipment becomes conspicuous.
  3. This new object we call objectile the new status of the object no longer refers to its condition in a spatial mould in other words its relation to form matter but a temporal modulation that implies as much the beginnings of a continuous variation of matter as a continuous development of form.

setting up the work


during my residency at hong kong national film archive i held workshops at videotage artist village on interaction with sound using max msp software.

interview from bc magazing Hong Kong

Think of the Republic of Ireland in 1978. Imagine Irish Republican prisoners protesting against harassment from officers by spreading their own excrement on the walls of their cells. That was the original Dirty Protest. Now fast-forward to a dark gallery space where shining light on a wall triggers off startling sounds from a room full of speakers. Cherise Fong spoke with sound artist Mark Fell about his own Dirty Protest installation for Hong Kong's Microwave Festival.

Does Dirty Protest use dirty sounds?
Well not really dirty as in excrement, but I like the idea of them being quite abrupt, tough and defiant as a kind of protest against things that are gentle, pretty and ambient. Think of the sounds as what you would hear on an abstract techno record with chains of sounds spiralling off in different directions. It's not anything you'd want to dance to, though.
Is the artwork still political?
It is still political, because it's important for me that my work isn't just some kind of experiment in technology or aesthetics or whatever. The problem with a lot of interactive work is that it doesn't have any kind of critical bearing on the world around it. So it's important for me to try to do this. Whether or not I'm successful I don't know, but I don't want to make isolated bits of art that just explore themselves.
How did you get the idea?
Actually Dirty Protest developed from the idea of using your hands to smear excrement on the walls. I've always considered the hand as the main way in which you think. Heidegger says that people think in a physical rather than mental way, by making and doing things. It needs to be physical to make sense. So what about people who smear excrement on walls? Then it became a series of ideas to do with using things in ways they're not meant to be used as a form of protest. In this case, it's about control connected to cleanliness and dirt as something you can't control. It's tied to the neurotic and psychotic mentality, the fear of dirt and the fear of lacking control. My work is all about different levels of control in interaction. It uses the hands quite a lot as a means of interaction through touching. In the work itself you can't control it: you have a sense of putting something there but you can't really get your head around what it is. My intention was to create a parallel between what a person is doing in the work and what a person would have been doing in the original Dirty Protest, even though they're a million miles apart.
Where does Hong Kong fit in?
I noticed that Hong Kong is called the Special Administrative Region (SAR) and also that SARS had a major effect here. It's kind of funny that it's got the same name as the disease. Then I thought again of dirt as a disease, as something you can't control: the opposite of cleanliness. So I actually started looking at the genetic DNA sequence of the SARS disease and then tried to build it into the work using related numbers and structures.
What's with the cryptic diagrams?
I tend to react against the scientific, logical processes that people emphasize in interactive and digital artwork, making really complex diagrams about how things work. I really don't like that, so I take pre-existing diagrams and just change them to make them look as though they're commenting on the work, when actually they have nothing to do with it. This isn't the first time I've taken diagrams from all over the place and made them look like they're about music technology and installations, but they're all just purely invented. It's kind of a sideways kick at all that academic stuff about diagrams and categories. So those two diagrams are actually all about SARS. The one that looks like a timeline is actually some kind of genome sequence and the other one I can't remember. They're just diagrams of viruses and things, with different words put in.
Absorbed Activity, Practical Deliberation, Contextual Models, Decontextual Models, Pure Contemplation, Helpless Standing Before...?
They're from an American philosopher called Hubert Dreyfus who wrote a commentary on Heidegger's epic Being in Time. This commentary, called Being in the World, establishes lots of different ways in which people exist in the world. It also helped me to think about the ways in which people might engage with interactive art.
So how should we engage with Dirty Protest, then?
People can engage with a sound installation in many different ways, but the way most people want to engage with it is in an absorbed manner, in an immersive environment. For example, they go into something and wave their arms around and make lots of sound. This may be fun but to me it's not much more than an elaborate toy. I think when you engage with art there should be a much more complex dialogue between you and the work and I don't think much interactive art does that. A lot of art is a fun, enjoyable experience where you're engaged in a non-critical manner as with a toy or a game - it's not bad, there's just a lot of it. Then there's a lot of other interactive art where you just don't get the point. Is this broken? Am I doing something? What is it meant to do? What occurred to me from Dreyfus was that there's a whole series of different ways that people might engage with things and, although I can't say my work is absolutely successful, it is something I'm trying to do as an artist. For example, in every day human/computer interaction, the emphasis is all on universality and predictability. You know if you press a button it's going to do something very specific, like the play button on a cassette player. It's also a question of simplicity and control. But in an art situation all that is entirely reversed. You've got a play between absolute control and absolute lack of control, between absolute predictability and absolute surprise. Art makes the whole issue of human/computer interaction a million times more complicated. The international community of artists who are all working with this kind of thing are only beginning to explore what that range might be. This is really the beginning of exploring the language of interaction.

Mark Fell's interactive sound installation, Dirty Protest, will be on display in the Exhibition Hall of the Hong Kong Film Archive from November 16-30. Fell will also be holding a workshop in English to introduce sound language programmes from November 17-19 ($200 for the course) and DJing with Snd partner Mat Steel at the Bits & Beats Midnight Party at the Fringe Club on November 29. See for more information.

© mark fell, modified July 06, 2008, at 03:05 PM PDT edit print