Sunday, May 26, 2019

Jan De Cock: Laissez Faire - Laissez Passer

Jan Who?

Jan De Cock  is a Belgian artist. After exhibiting in the Tate Modern (2005), he became the first living Belgian artist to have received a solo exhibition in the New York MoMA (2008).  In 2012 he also presented his work in the Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden. Jan De Cock is the founder of the "Brussel's Art Institute",  an organization aimed at bringing students and other people in contact with the best Belgian and international contemporary works and ideas. 

Because of his appearance in the satirical TV-show "De Ideale Wereld", I was reminded of how he hit the Belgian news around february 2016 because of starting a lawsuit against some of Belgium's biggest media companies for not paying enough attention to art related topics.

Ok... so what?

In an attempt to clarify his problem with these media companies Jan De Cock wrote a 7-page manifest explaining the problems he sees with these media companies. The manifest is difficult to read, in part due to using complicated (in some cases bordering on the nonsensical) sentences. It also contains a fair share of mistakes against grammar, spelling and punctuation rules. 

If this way of writing was done on purpose, it was done in a strike of genius (and if not, it was a lucky strike) as it accomplished two things at once:
  1. It ensured a lot of media coverage of an art related topic by putting a kind of "form" (a far from flawless text) over "content".
  2. It caused said media to massively ridicule the man's writing skills and not paying much - if any - serious attention to the underlying message.

I don't get it...what's so brilliant about writing a wacky text and being ridiculed for it? Isn't that just dumb instead?

Well, to understand why this is brilliant, you need to read the text for its message first, rather than for its form. In what follows I've tried to condense the 7 pages into points. Note that this is my own interpretation of the manifest, which you can read for yourself in its entirety  (in Dutch!) on the web site of the "Brussel's Art Institute"

The manifest in a few points...

Before we dive into the manifest, I'd like to make it clear that I'm in no way affiliated with Jan De Cock or the Brussel's Art Institute. I just read the text, and found it remarkable enough to write this blog entry. I didn't ask permission or get consent from the artist to explain his views as if I totally understand them, and I'm adding words never used by the author to make my point - reader beware!

The following summarizes and paraphrases the manifest - or at least what I made of it:
  • Never before did the media so fiercely try to keep up the appearance that they are doing a wonderful job serving everyone with good information.
  • Reality is very different. Media are being restyled all the time with one sole purpose: selling more. Content is less important than form.
  • Physical media are being replaced with digital media very quickly. Digital media are volatile, whereas physical artifacts of the past are still with us today.
  • Media maintain that they serve their audience a panoramic world view, but this is nothing but marketing speak. Consumers of the media believe everything that is said in those media, and what doesn't appear in the media doesn't exist.
  • We, as a society, should go back to transfer the knowledge we gained through hard labor, from the moment we started back when we were still amateur-students, until the moment we mastered our field. Media are hindering us there by ignoring art related or - more generally - all difficult subjects like the plague.
  • Media do not pay enough attention to artists. These artists typically are completely ignored until they become of economical value (e.g. because they gather some international attention) at which point during a few weeks everyone wants them in their superficial talk show. 
  • There's a systematic discrimination and ridiculing of artists that supposedly do "not contribute economical value", and on the contrary supposedly "live of state funding" in the form of grants. But can you economically quantify the value of such an artist? Is economy the only factor in judging if something is useful? Is a narrow-minded neo-liberal world view even capable of correctly assessing the value of art? Because monetary gain needs to be maximized, everything reduces to a kind of uniform sludge, aimed at attracting the largest possible audience.
  • As a consequence we live in sad times when it comes to art. Representation, fame, exposure are more important than insight and seeing past superficial form.
  • Artists asking attention for art in general are dismissed as merely seeking personal attention.
  • If the media continues like they do today, growing dumber in every new restyling, in an attempt to lure a bigger audience, the readers and viewers will keep degenerating with it, and their numbers will keep on decreasing until eventually no one's left. The media are committing suicide for short-term profit.
  • Just like art, media should instead establish a tradition of passing on knowledge and insights, independent of politics and economy. Not merely put up a show made up by marketeers. The message is more important than the form. Media should contribute to creating a nation of critical, analytical minds capable of distinguishing banalities from real content. The current way media works makes and keeps readers/viewers dumb.

My thoughts on this...

Now independent of whether you do or don't agree with any or all of his points, I want to point out why the manifest itself, and the way the media reacted to it, actually perfectly illustrate what the artist is complaining about: 
  • Exactly as he predicted, the unusual form he chose to write the manifest (using weird language and writing mistakes) caused a lot more media attention that what he would have got if it were written in perfect Dutch, thereby illustrating that indeed form prevails over content, and
  • just like he predicted, the media, in an attempt to demonstrate their superiority, mostly ignored the actual contents of the manifest, instead concentrating on finding all the spelling and grammar errors and ridiculing the writer, and accusing him of attention seeking, in their most creative wordings instead.
One has to love the sweet irony of the media falling into the artist's trap with open eyes. In my eyes, the last laugh is on the artist here...

The tone of the manifest has been compared to that of Marxist pamphlets in the media, and to some extent I can agree to that characterization - things are stated in extremes and without proof, but to dismiss the message as nothing but attention seeking seems shallow to me.

One cannot deny that just about everything we see on television and in magazines tends to become dumb and dumber. Compare today's television quiz questions to those of 30 years ago and weep... Compare today's election debates with those of 20 years ago and weep even harder... Compare today's "reality shows" to... yeah.. to what? Weeping doesn't even begin to address the stupidity we're being force-fed in some of those tv-shows. Everyone is free to choose not to watch the crap, but the availability of less-than-crap to watch is rapidly decreasing and being replaced by super-crap in a fast tempo. It seems as every year adds a new level of stupidity to TV shows.

You may argue that creating abstract art, or writing obscure books that "no one" reads or difficult TV programs that "no one watches" are not likely to contribute to this Utopian nation of analytical and critical people either. I'd say it's good if they exist for those few people who wish to think and seek. You never know who they might inspire next. Preferably these works exist in a physical form that can surive the volatility of whatever new digital format happens to be the hype of the day.

Government grants for art nowadays appear to be given to those artists that lure most people... citing reasons like "public money should be useful for the widest possible public". But paradoxically these may exactly be the people who need the grants the least, since they already are popular and have ways to survive through performances or sales of their creative output.

Near the end of the 19-eighties e.g. the Belgian television had a daily tv-show program (only 5 minutes long) called "Kunstzaken" ("Art matters") that every day would talk about an exposition or a play or something cultural happening at that moment in time. Nowadays nothing comparable exists anymore on Belgian TV because 5 minutes a day of not attracting 1.000.000 viewers is an economic disaster, isn't it?

Having said all this.... maybe it's time for artists to help the audiences understand their art a bit better. Just putting an installation on the street, and expecting the holy spirit to explain it to a random passer-by by now has proved itself not to work for abstract or experimental art. If you always do what you always did you will always get what you always got. If artists somehow found a way to better explain what they do and why it matters, they might also be able to gain back some of the audience they seem to have lost.

Get up, work ahead!

So artists who might read this... blaming media is a bit easy. don't just sit there and weep over the state of matters, but use your fantastic creativity and imagination to find ways to explain what you do and why it matters. Ernest Rutherford supposedly said: "If you can't explain your research to the cleaning lady, it's not worth doing".  Postmodern descriptions of art written in difficult language in art catalogues do not strike me as the right format for this particular task (although they can happily coexist with more mundane explanations). While it may be true that some of history's geniuses were not understood during their life time, not all ignored artists automatically are geniuses. I do not believe for a second that explaining art to a wider audience somehow kills it unless it was crap to begin with.

While it may be true that too much explanation can create prejudice or preconception in an art viewer's mind, thereby possibly closing some paths to multiple or individual interpretations, people who still remember or (re)learn how to think for themselves will not be stopped by some explanation, and might even be inspired to explore the works of art more and deeper and look at them in ways they hadn't thought of before. Art is a journey and you cannot expect a single work of art to convey the whole of history you as an artist went through to arrive there, but you can provide some hooks for people to connect it to their own world.

And people of the media... admitting you have a problem is the first and hardest step to start resolving it. You too can help artists, and humanity in general, by using your creativity to explain difficult subjects to wider audiences. Crap produced by the Rupert Murdoch's of this world has done nothing to improve the state of world affairs (it has done a lot to make the Rupert Murdoch's of this world richer and more influential though) - use your power to do some good instead.

Walsh-Hadamart transformations in supercollider


Practically the whole world is using Fourier Transforms to decompose sounds into sums of sine waves. The Fourier transform then can be edited, and transformed back to the time domain to hear the effects of the editing. One question that naturally arises is if perhaps ways exist to decompose sounds as sums of something other than sine waves.


Well, as it turns out there are infinitely many ways to decompose signals into sums of other signals, and one that personally intrigues me is the Walsh-Hadamard transform which decomposes signals into sums of pulses (square waves). Walsh functions were already known and used around 1890, but it took until 1923 for Walsh to formally examine them in a mathematical context. Most of the work on Walsh functions in the context of audio processing was done in the nineteen-seventies. The fact that it is no longer popular may indicate that the results were nothing spectacular, but that shouldn't stop us from experiencing it first-hand.

Walsh functions

With the help of mathematics it can be established that we need only a subset of all possible square waves to decompose and reconstruct any signal. These waves are now known as "Walsh functions" and they can be ordered by sequency. (Note: not frequency!). Sequency is a number that corresponds the number of zero-crossings the pulse makes in the time base. Here's a representation of some Walsh functions ordered by their sequency. Sequency is not expressed in cps (cycles per second, also known as Hz), but in zps (zero-crossings per second).

If the signal is only 2 samples long, 2 Walsh functions suffice to perfectly reconstruct any such signal. If the signal is 4 samples long, 4 Walsh functions suffice to perfectly reconstruct any such signal. In general, for a signal of 2^L long, you need to combine up to 2^L Walsh functions to perfectly reconstruct any such signal. This is similar to the discrete Fourier transform where the original signal and the transformed signal both have the same length.

Walsh functions always start with +1 as their first component. For completeness I should probably mention that the even sequencies are sometimes called CAL functions, whereas the odd sequencies are called SAL functions.

WAL(2n, t) = CAL(n, t)    n = 1, 2, ...
WAL(2n-l, t) = SAL(n, t)  n = 1, 2, ...

As with sines and cosines, CAL and SAL are in essence time-shifted versions of each other.

Here's an example of decomposing a 4 sample signal into a linear combination of Walsh functions:

The signal [-1, 1, 0, -2] can be decomposed using level 2 sequencies:

[-1,1,0,-2] = -0.5*[1,1,1,1] + 0.5*[1,1,-1,-1] -1*[1,-1,-1,1] + 0*[1,-1,1,-1]

or in words:

[-1,1,0,-2]  = -0.5*sequency0 + 0.5*sequency1 - 1*sequency2 + 0*sequency3

Note that this formula shows how to convert from Walsh spectrum back to time domain using the (known) sequencies.

Ok, so how did you find that combination? Can you always do this? Is there always only one possible combination?

I'll skip the mathematics, but yes, it can always be done, and there's always exactly one possible decomposition. Some very smart people invented an efficient way to find this decomposition, and the efficient way is known as the "Fast Walsh Transform". Explaining the transform in detail, however, is way out of bounds for this article. Please refer to some external reference for the juicy details.

Looking at the example above, the fast Walsh transform of [ -1, 1, 0, -2] should give [ -0.5, 0.5, -1, 0].

And we can go back from [ -0.5, 0.5, -1, 0] to [ -1, 1, 0, -2] by using the sequencies as we did in the example above.While we did the calculations by hand in the example above, the fast Walsh transform actually has a wonderful property: it is its own inverse (except for some constant factor).

This means that if you apply the Walsh transform to a signal, you get the Walsh spectrum, and if you then apply the Walsh transform to that Walsh spectrum again, you get the original signal again (apart from some constant factor). 

What does any of this have to do with audio or supercollider?

Well, in itself nothing really.  But we can propose some experiments with this transform.

Remember that what we are really doing here is decomposing signals (think: sounds) into weighted sums of Walsh functions (think: square waves). Square waves happen to be a basic waveform used in subtractive synthesis (think analog synths!) so now it starts to sound kind of interesting doesn't it?

We already have a way to decompose any sound into a sum of square waves, and to go back from these square waves to the original signal (time domain). What if, just before we go back to the time domain, we modify the Walsh spectrum first?

What is the effect on a sound of removing all the fast square waves (= high sequencies)? (For lack of a better word, you could call it a Walsh-Low-Pass-Filter). What is the effect on a sound of removing the slow square waves (= low sequencies)? (kind of Walsh-High-Pass-Filter). What is the effect on a sound of setting all Welsh spectrum values to 0 if they happen to be smaller than some threshold? (This could be the core algorithm of some lossy data compression scheme). What is the effect on a sound of shifting the Welsh spectrum values to the left/right (a kind of Walsh-Pitch-Shifting). Can we synthesize interesting sounds by making up a new Walsh spectrum (kind of additive synthesis with square waves)? What does a walsh filter sweep sound like? What do you get if you reinterpret the Walsh spectrum as a Fourier spectrum or vice versa? Can useful/beautiful visualizations be derived from the Walsh spectrum?

It is to be expected that the auditory results will be wildly different from what we are used to hearing in transformations based on the Fourier transform (classical high-pass and low-pass filters e.g.), but that should be all the more reason to try it out, shouldn't it? Maybe you can think of really cool new applications made possible by using the Walsh transform in audio context? If so, be sure to comment :)

Walsh transform in supercollider

Before we can play with audio, we need a way to calculate the fast Walsh transform in supercollider. Since I don't know how to write UGEN's yet, I will do some calculations in the language for now.

Here's a pretty straightforward translation of this c implementation:
This code is also available on

If we evaluate the following code in scide:
we get back the expected result:
And to check that the inverse transform works as expected:
~walsh_transform.(values:~walsh_transform.(values:[-1,1,0,2]), rescale:false);
gives the original signal:

Bring on the sounds!

This walsh, this walsh, this walsh, this walsh...

My first interest is in hearing the timbres of the Walsh functions. by themselves. So let's listen to some of those. I'll take the 256 Walsh functions from level 8 (calculate them by applying the inverse walsh transform on a spectrum containing a single "1"), and concatenate 100 copies of each into a (stereo) buffer and then play the buffer.

The resulting tones pretty much sound like pulsewidth modulated pulse waves because, obviously, they *are* pulse waves.

This article has been more than long enough for now. If there's any interest in the subject I may prepare a follow-up article in which we experiment with Walsh-transform based filters.