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Impakt Blog: Magic Nihilism – a John Butler Workshop experience

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By Freyja van den Boom

The Impakt workshops, hosted by current Impakt artists in residence, are a great way to get an inside look into the artist’s mind and learn some tricks of the media art trade. This time it was ‘electronic artist’  yep ! John Butler from Glasgow who gave a three day talk and hands-on workshop, about 3D visuals and animation at the Impakt headquarters in Utrecht.

John Butler often works under the name of the near mythical Butler Brothers. Beside the fact that this brother actually exists and sometimes works with John on conceptualizing an animation, the name ‘Butler Brothers’  was impossible not to adopt considering a certain scene from Robocop (1987, by Paul Verhoeven), one of his favourite films of all times .

Butler’s work has been shown not only at international art festivals, but also at various government and business events. Given the socially relevant and political subjects of his animations, the latter is less surprising than it may seem.

Magic Nihilism

John introduced us to his work by showing his animation The Ethical Governor and talking about his work process.

The “Ethical Governor” is about an existing army project of the same name, that is aimed at developing special software for combat robots that’s best explained as a built-in guilt mechanism. This system should adjust the lethal machine’s actions based on the same set of standards as human troops are trained to use, to minimize human victims. However, the ‘guilt feelings’ can be switched off just as easily from a distance, to the likings of the operator.

Watching his work and listening to his approach how to dissect reality and the political codes that govern our society, made us more aware of the truthfulness in information. Information is nothing more than synthetic data that can be used and manipulated into infomercials as a medium for your own world domination, that is, if you wish to do so. You might be surprised when you start doing your own research:  the motives for making decisions that affect people in the whole society, are not always based on what is good for all.
For his so called synthesis of reality John uses his own version of the Hoffman lens, inspired by John Carpenter’s 1988 film ‘They Live’. In this film, the protagonist wears a pair of sunglasses that reveals the subliminal messages in omnipresent commercial signs. By taking this seemingly innocent idiom out of context John showed us how easy something can become useful as strong propaganda tool.

For instance, Butler used the U.S. Chamber of Commerce logo in combination with some of their promotional slogans – fighting for business – which gets a rather dubious meaning when placed in the context of “The Ethical Governor”.

It was really interesting to see what you can do yourself, just using existing material and combining this with basic images and sound, and with a critical outlook on society. It’s what makes Johns work so intriguing and thought provoking. You have to watch his works a few times to really get all the layers that are hidden.

The rest of the workshop days were spent talking about art, developing ideas and playing around a bit with 3D software and some scanning with the infrared technique of Kinect, used for motion scanning. John made it look very easy creating a pretty forest of trees and houses in less than a minute. But being new to this software there is a lot to figure out  – so over and over, the obvious 3D design beginner mistakes were made. John however was always patient and quick to give a hand. It was probably a bit too ambitious wanting to create a finished piece of work in only three days, but we as participants came up with some interesting ideas to develop further.

John finished his residency at Impakt with his artist talk ‘Resynthesizing Reality’ (on Thursday March 1st ) of which a report will be online on the Impakt channel very soon!