Fermynwoods Friday 16 – The Droids

For this Fermynwoods Friday, which appropriately falls on May 4th, we look back at Pete Ashton‘s Star Wars themed online work, The Droids (2016).

A long time ago in a gallery far, far away, Fermynwoods launched the first of our long-running series of annual online exhibitions. Rather than reproduce work intended for the physical world in the digital realm, these exhibitions sought to examine and challenge the nature of the online world.

But like some of the best sagas, this story begins somewhere in the middle. Our sixth online exhibition, with work selected by Jedi master Antonio Roberts, examined whether distinctions between digital and online cultures still exist following the advent of the Internet of Things, and if so, what forms these may take.

The exhibition title, Too Long for iTunes, was inspired by Terre Thaemlitz’s album Soulnessless, which included a nearly 30-hour piano solo and was sold only as a 16GB micro SD card. Addressing Thaemlitz’s concerns about a loss of control over the specificity of digital media once it is in the online world, the album was literally too long. Playback was limited to just the first 2:40 hours when ripped to iTunes.

Fermynwoods had similar concerns about the work we were showing online. What does it mean to exhibit online and what is the difference between the live exhibition and a copy or archived version if it is simply moved to a different part of the Internet? A solution to this was that the curated work was removed entirely after the year long exhibition was over.

The exception to this was a young rebel named Pete Ashton. His work, The Droids, took a piece of copyrighted and highly protected film footage – “These are not the droids you’re looking for” from Star Wars – and re-encoded it over and over (like re-photocopying a page) so that the video and audio slowly degraded to incoherent digital mush. Each iteration was uploaded to YouTube with only some of versions being detected by the ContentID algorithm.

In Star Wars-esque prose, Pete described the work as “looking for the edge cases in our emerging algorithmic police state; searching for the points where a copyright infringement evades the pattern-matching robots running algorithms searching for copyrighted material”.

On 1 January 2016, when the exhibition premiered, the first 50 or so of the 401 videos were blocked. But as the subsequent versions degraded, the remaining were deemed not the droids the algorithm was looking for. Later that year all of the videos were again available to watch as the algorithm appeared to relax. The work remains online as the following YouTube playlist. As the force reawakens with each new Star Wars release in perpetuity, observe how the algorithm changes.

To quote Luke Skywalker, “No one’s ever really gone”.

James Steventon

Alongside this work Pete also created the following promotional video. The instantly recognisable crawl was made using an official Lucasfilm app, so was not subject to any copyright restriction.

The other work in this exhibition was by Marc Atkinson, Emma Jarvis, and Sam Mattacott, with a text by Christine Lucy Latimer. The exhibition was funded by was funded by Arts Council England.

Look out for more Fermynwoods Friday posts each week looking back on some of our favourite projects.