Culture Crossover: Britain, Take a Bow

In our Culture Crossover series we pick up examples of projects that delightfully bridge the worlds of technology and culture. We'll be reviewing exhibitions, giving you a heads up on cultural events or talks coming up in the UK and highlighting the best techy art.

To read more instalments of the Culture Crossover series click here.

Algorithms have developed something of a bad reputation over the past few years, with concerns around targeted advertising and its impact on the outcome of the Brexit referendum shining a light on the power large technology companies wield.

British artist Graeme Crowley is turning to algorithms in a more creative sense, and applying them portray Brexit, rather than to guide it.

His new work Britain, Take a Bow, uses software to fuse together film, photography, typography and music in a constantly evolving depiction of a nation ruptured by its relationship with the EU.

The online generative film blends filmed vignettes with unique mixes of God Save the Queen and major speeches made by key political figures while original fonts spell out the anthem's lyrics over the footage.

"I wanted to make something almost that had a life of its own," Crowley tells Techworld. "I didn't want to create something that was just very linear and you see it once and then it remains the same. I wanted to make something that was always in flux and always changing, and using this technology really helped me achieve that."

The software combines the sights and sounds in a different random sequence every time the film is watched to create a unique experience with every viewing, an experience designed to reflect the complexity and divided, fractured outlooks of Brexit.

Reload the film and the footage could flick from seagulls circling a deprived seaside town to a remainer march in central London. In the background, the sound switches from discordant industrial national anthem mixed with a Boris Johnson speech to the sound of Nigel Farage pontificating while a trombone honks out God Save the Queen.

Audio loops created by musicians, an orchestra, a choir and school children are mixed by an audio compiler into one of over 1.8 billion possible permutations of the national anthem.

New video clips and political speeches are added every day to maintain the state of flux.

"If you imagine that there's a timeline container with loads of empty edit slots in there, the video gets poured into these slots at random so the sequence always changes," says Crowley.

Depicting division

Crowley got the idea for Britain, Take a Bow, on a road trip he took after the referendum result. He travelled across both pro-leave and remain areas, from coastal towns to inner cities, to film the people and their surroundings, and decided to turn the footage into a mutable digital audiovisual experience.

He combined the footage with audio and worked with software developers to create a system that randomly mixes them together and then gave it a name that jumbles up the Daily Mail's headline of "Take A Bow, Britain" that was plastered on its front page after the referendum.

The backend was designed in Symfony, a feature-rich PHP web application framework, by developers from the digital design agency Tui Media, Crowley's principal employer.

Read next: If computers can be creative what does that mean for humanity?

Crowley then invited 12 other filmmakers to add their own video by uploading content from their desktops or phones through a web interface to a central database stored on Amazon Web Services, where machines chop it up into sequences where it is randomly laid out onto a timeline.

"I wanted to create something that was always in flux and always changing because I felt that was quite sympathetic to the complexity of Brexit," says Crowley. "I think if you asked 100 different people what Brexit means to them, you'd get 100 different answers. Does it mean a Norway model? Does it mean a Swiss model? Does it mean no deal? It feels like a very complex thing and I wanted this to reflect that."

Algorithmic art history

Crowley is not the first artist to cede a degree of creative control to an algorithm. British painter Harold Cohen pioneered the approach in the 1970s, when he developed an autonomous drawing system called AARON, whose works have been hung on the walls of the Tate Gallery in London.

His successors include French collective Obvious, who trained a generative adversarial network to paint a picture that auction house Christie's sold for $432,500 last year.

Britain, Take a Bow differs from these two in that the artist has set strict boundaries for the machine.

“Everything in there is randomised, but it's all within a framework with certain constraints," says Crowley. "For example, all the video has been shot in the UK, and all of the audio is very tightly produced so that we know that it will fit together. So I think you can create something that has a lot of variation in it but works very well within certain self-imposed constraints.”

Crowley connects his work more closely to Brian Eno’s 77 Million Paintings, a digital artwork with software that creates randomised music and images that emulate one of Eno's video installations.

Read next: The weirdest uses of AI

Crowley believes that it will be some time before machines completely supplant human artists.

“Machine-made stuff will become prevalent, but I think that at the moment there needs to be a guiding human hand either with the execution of the work or the conception,” he says.

In the future, Crowley wants to use the same technology to create something with a more linear structure akin to a traditional film, but for now, he remains firmly focused on Britain, Take a Bow.

He had intended to move on when the UK left the EU, but this could keep him occupied for a very long time.

“I was thinking about closing it down on the 29th of March when we were due to leave, but that's not happening and I think it's going to bumble on and on," he says. "So I'm keeping the platform and just seeing where it goes."

This story, "Culture Crossover: Britain, Take a Bow" was originally published by

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