The Outsiders

Tales From The Dork Web #27

In two days Tales From The Dork Web quietly celebrates it’s birthday. I hope you’ve all enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. In this issue I’m going to talk about outsider art, music and computing. Outsiders are in every walk of life. These people through choice or force stayed outside of their fields’ establishments. Often they create for love or other reasons, but not money or fame.

There’s a lot of music in this issue. I thought I’d start with Thomas Fraser. He was a fisherman who lived his life on Burra in the Shetland Isles off the coast of Scotland. In his spare time he recorded Country and Western music onto reel-to-reel tapes. After he died in 1978, these tapes were discovered by his son. His son released a tape in the 80s but he stayed unknown. His grandson fell in love with the recordings and released more. Fraser went from an unknown fisherman to having an international following. Give him a listen.

This issue’s art is by the brilliant Shugmonkey. Nic also makes some pretty awesome music. His latest drum and bass album Patchwork can be bought on a name-your-own-price basis.

There are a lot of links in Tales From The Dork Web. If it gets too much, put it down and come back later. I wrote a guide to help you get the most from it.

Inside The Outside

The term outsider art fairly young. Art critic Roger Cardinal used it to describe art brut in the 70s. People created art outside of conventional norms long before the norms were established. To keep this issue from being a novel, I’m going to set some ground rules for what constitutes outsider art. It’s obviously going to be wrong, incomplete and there’s way more out there but:

  • Outsiders typically lack sustained commercial success

  • Once an outsider achieves sustained celebrity status they’re often co-opted ‘inside’

  • They’re usually not formally trained

  • Their art has creative qualities not found in more conventional equivalents

For this reason I’m not including popular outsiders like Frank Zappa and MC Escher. I’d rather share people who inspire me that you might’ve heard of but not experienced.

Billy Childish: Art for Art’s Sake

Whenever I feel I’m being particularly creative, I dig out Billy Childish who puts me right back in my box. Billy Childish is an endless well of creativity.

Childish works across media from painting to poetry to punk and back. Not everything he makes is brilliant, but it’s always interesting, different and original. And prolilfic. Oh my gosh is he prolific. He’s published over 40 collections of poetry, recorded over 100 LPs, and over 2000 paintings. Had he cared about commercialising his output, he could’ve made it as big in contemporary art as others around him did. Instead Childish focuses on art for art’s sake and as a form of expression.

That’s not to say he hasn’t experienced success. Many bands are inspired by his music, and buyers of his paintings include collectors like Johnny Depp. It’s more that Childish creates art on his own terms in his own way. What’s better than that?

Terry A. Davis: The Divine Programmer

In computing, perhaps the best known outsider was Terry A. Davis, author of TempleOS. Terry experienced what he described as a revelation from God, who told him to build an Operating System to act as his third temple. I’ve written about TempleOS before. It has a lot of cool features often lost in Terry's story.

Parker Millum has a really nice video about Davis’ life, above. Davis died in 2018, and the world lost a truly creative programmer. I used to watch his earlier streams. As his wellbeing deteriorated the stream content got worse. Be cautious if you’re not used to hearing certain epithets. In Terry’s case, this was almost certainly affected by his mental state. God’s Lonely Programmer writes about Terry’s life. A constructive look at TempleOS is a wonderful writeup. The latter references an NY Times piece on the film Lars and The Real Girl. It opens with a quote from it’s writer, Nancy Oliver:

What if we didn't treat our mentally ill people like animals? What if we brought kindness and compassion to the table?

I really like this. My own history of mental health is long and dark, and I got really good at masking it for a while because I had to. I only started dealing with it a bit under a decade ago and am still working things out.

Christine Dodrill has a series on installing and using TempleOS. I hope she’ll find the time to add to it. Shrine is a successor TempleOS distribution. I'd say it’s better to start with Terry’s original temple.

Carlo Zinelli: Art Brut Pioneer

Not all outsider artists are affected by mental health issues. Many people with mental health issues went on to become renknowned outsider artists. Instead I’d like to introduce you to Carlo Zinelli.

Zinelli was born near Verona during the first world war. Growing up, he was taken out of school to work on his father’s farm after his mother died. In the 1930s he enlisted for the Spanish Civil War, returning with deteriorating shellshock. In 1947 his family committed him to the San Giacomo psychiatric hospital in Verona. Something had happened to him. Something so significant that he stopped talking altogether.

In 1955 he began drawing on the hospital walls with rocks. At first staff tried to stop him but it calmed him down. They gave him some basic tools so he could draw and paint. Indeed he did. One day Scottish Sculptor Michael Noble visited the hospital with his Italian wife. Seeing Zinelli’s work, Noble set up a studio inside the hospital. Zinelli painted every day for 14 years. The studio calmed him down considerably. Despite some celebration in art communities, he remained hospitalised. In the 60s he attracted the attention of people associated with the Art Brut (raw art) movement. After the hospital closed, Zinelli was moved to a new facility without a studio. He passed away in 1974.

Carlo Zinelli’s art doesn’t come from a need to represent the world around him, but a need to express himself. He depicted scenes from his life in pure colours. He'd fill space with repeating characters drawn in profile with holes for eyes. You can see some of his art (he made over 3,000 works) in the Anthony Petullo Art Collection.

While we’re in a bit most people will skip past I wanted to share something. This is more for my subscribers than casual readers. The last few issues haven’t been as much fun as before. Writing was fun but dealing with online discussions wasn’t. My Plan 9 issue was used to beat people up over things I never supported. Some of those people being hurt needed someone to blame and chose me. Things got pretty ugly. I nearly didn’t publish this issue because I worried what might happen to people I don’t know.

I write Tales From The Dork Web for fun. Publishing it stopped being fun. It wasn’t Scott Alexander bad, but his Astral Codex Ten kicked me up the butt just at the right time. Regardless of what someone may feel at the time it’s never ok to use my writing as justification to attack others. That’s not what this is about. I’m reducing my online interaction and will be back after a break. How long, I don’t know. I need to figure out how to deal with my own issues as well as others. Whinge over. Back to the outsiders.

Wesley Willis: The Outsider Rock ‘n’ Roll Star

Wesley Willis was a prolific outsider musician. He documented much of his life through music. His punk band the Wesley Willis Fiasco has some good songs, including a cover of Duran’s Duran’s Girls on Film. He documented his life mostly through his solo work. Sometimes a little repetitively, and often obscenely.

Willis had a heartbreaking abuse-filled childhood. He was eventually diagnosed with Schizophrenia in the late 80s. He started drawing Chicago scenes, and eventually turned to music. Just as Willis drew scenes from his life, he told his story through his music. He founded the band The Wesley Willis Fiasco with friends and played on the Chicago circuit. This song, He’s doing time in Jail is about a man who slashed Willis’ face with a box cutter on a bus.

Although Willis died in 2003 from Leukemia, his music lets you get to know his life. Wesley Willis shared far more of himself in his songs than most artists do in their entire careers. Over time he attracted the attention of well known artists like Henry Rollins and Jello Biafra. When Nullsoft created Winamp, their tagline “It really whips the llama’s ass” was a reference to lyrics from Willis’ song Whip the Llama’s Ass.

Wesley liked greeting people by butting heads. This left him with a permanent bruise on his forehead. From interviews it looks like bumping heads seemed to be reserved for the ladies. He said he did this because in his own words, he was a rock and roll star.

There are common elements to a solo Wesley Willis song. The backing track is usually based on a keyboard auto-accompaniment. He’ll often drop in taglines from adverts, re-use lines with different nouns or repeat phrases such as, “Rock over London. Rock on Chicago”. Some people have said that listening to Wesley Willis songs is exploitative but they’re missing the point. Willis didn’t seem to care. He fought his demons every day and his music was a part of that.

Willis shared more of himself through individual songs than most pop stars do in their entire careers. A lot of his songs would be about things from his day to day life. Gigs he went to or opened for, songs about celebrities he liked or disliked, beating up superheroes and even food are all Wesley Willis staples.

The hardest songs to hear are the ones about times he spent in hospital, or his hellrides. A "hellride" is a reference to his encounters with his 3 demons on Chicago’s public transit network. He first heard them when his mother’s sadistic boyfriend robbed him at gunpoint. For him the 3 demons he faced were trying to ruin him and his music. In turn he’d sing obscene songs about them to gross them out so they’d leave him alone. The Daddy of Rock ‘n’ Roll is a beautiful, difficult, and honest look into Wesley’s life and performances.

Having listened to his albums and watched interviews and performances I’m sad I missed him. I would’ve loved to have seen him perform live. As long as Wesley Willis’ music lives on, Rock ‘n’ Roll will never die. Rock over London. Rock on Chicago.

Alexandra Elbakyan: Access For Outsider Scientists

If you’ve been on the Internet long enough you’ll know the story of Aaron Swartz. Swartz tried to liberate research held on a paywalled system called JSTOR. Much of the research was publicly funded. Information was guarded by an organisation that neither did nor funded the research. Swartz took his own life after horrific treatment by the authorities around him. To this day, paywalls continue to exist across academia. Founded and maintained by Elbakyan in 2011, Sci-Hub jumps over these paywalls.

Sci-Hub opens up research to people in and outside of institutions worldwide. Entirely coded by Elbakyan, it has a better academic research interface than commercial sites. When publishers paywalled early COVID research The-Eye used sci-hub to build an archive of over 5,000 Coronavirus research documents.

Elbakyan isn’t an outsider through choice or qualification. She’s an experienced scientist across several fields. Through Sci-Hub Elbakyan became an outsider by marginalisation. Swartz’ contributed to projects from Markdown to RSS. The media reduces him to portrayal as a tragic Internet folk hero. Elbakyan’s frustrations with research access, and how she chose to tackle it (legally, at least in her jurisdiction) are ignored. If she's mentioned at all she's often reduced to being a ‘pirate queen’. This isn’t a reductive point about who or what’s better. The narratives media sells us beatify a cartoon version of Swartz while villifying an equally cartoon version of Elbakyan. It’s an injustice to both. At the very least tech media could choose better cartoons.

Multi-billion dollar 'mom-and-pop' research paywall Elsevier sued Elbakyan in the US. She hasn't broken the law in Kazakhstan or Russia. Now the US lobbies other countries to take down Sci-Hub.

Sci-Hub is JSTOR for outsider scientists, but there’s far more to Elbakyan than Sci-Hub alone. Her works section has writing covering everything from studies of Communism to Hermetecism. I particularly enjoyed her piece on Stalin as a God. Elbakyan continues to fight for free and open research access from outside the spaces that benefit.

Early Technical Outsiders

Hackers are often outsiders. We tend not to be formally educated, it’s baked into the culture. Many early hackers and phreakers were outsiders, such as the late Joybubbles:

Joybubbles wasn't the first phone phreak. He did introduce the joy of exploration, understanding and connection to others. He was an outsider in many ways, and pushed the phreaking envelope.

Magicians, tend to be outsiders almost by their very nature. Many never achieve sustained commercial success.

John Nevil Maskelyne invented many of the traditional tricks still performed today. While he achieved later success, he and his magic partner George Alfred Cooke struggled financially early on. This isn’t why I’m writing about Maskelyne. Maskelyne was the first wireless hacker. Tom Scott tells of Maskelyne's wireless telegraphy hack. The Marconi-insulting couplet is in Dot-dash-diss: The gentleman hacker's 1903 lulz.

Computer gaming is a multi-billion dollar industry today. For the longest time computer games were things kids wrote from their bedrooms. Outsiders like Matthew Smith went from obscurity to overnight success. Some early games programmers built the industry. Others like Jeff Minter above, ended up there by accident. Philippe Ulrich pushed gaming’s boundaries through belief in divine prophecy.

Things You May Have Missed

Rather than write a loosely grouped bunch of links I want to share with you people who’ve inspired me and whose creations I love.

I love reading Ernie Smith’s Tedium. I often nod along to his writing, from How the Eternal September set the stage for decades of online conflict to Respect Your Power Users. Sometimes I respectfully disagree (FTP will outlive us all). What I love the most about Tedium is the thought and feeling that goes into his writing. Even when I disagree I know it’s well-researched, well thought out and a good read.

I’ve never met, nor spoken to Andy Matuschak, but no doubt like many people I’ve found his notes truly incredible. My favourite is the idea of working with the garage door up. His work with Michael Nielson on tools for transformative thought heavily influenced my thoughts on heirloom computing applications.

Solderpunk founded Circumlunar Space. It's a loose federation of pubnix systems with a focus on creating the software used by it’s community. Solderpunk also invented Gemini, the VF-1 Gopher browser. We have strong overlaps in ideas on radio, AVR and Z80-based systems and views on technology. I always enjoy reading the Solderpunk Vs The Windmills gemlog.

100 Rabbits live the life they want to live on a sailboat, creating tools and content that works for them. I think Devine holds the record for most consecutive links in this newsletter. Rekka’s art and Grimgrains projects have been amazing to thumb through. Merveilles Town is a connected Mastodon instance full of marvellous minds making magic.

I enjoyed this guide to running Irix 6.5.22 in Mame. It made me think about Virtuallyfun. This blog produces the most incredible emulation guides for obscure systems.

I really love Mark Boss’ Mirror in the Forest newsletter. He has a way with words that always leaves me thinking afterwards. I’ve always enjoyed reading Scott Alexander’s Slate Star Codex. When it stopped I was a little sad, but I’m happy to see Astral Codex Ten and signed up immediately. I’ve been reading Zeynep Tufekci for the best part of a decade. Her essays are always thought-provoking and informative.

Songs in The Key of Z is a book and music album series focused on outsider music by Irwin Chusid. What constitutes an outsider means different things to different people. I know my outsider compilation line-up would be different. Some of my favourite outsiders from his compilation include:

Luie Luie, creator of El Touchy, who plays all instruments himself and supplies commentary at each end of his songs

Shooby Taylor, the Human Horn was a scat singer. He used non-conventional scat phrases to make instrument noises on songs he dubbed over. It's not for everyone, but it's unlike anything you've heard before.

Daniel Johnston was a singer/songwriter who wrote some amazing music. If nothing else, Songs in the Key of Z introduced me to him and just, wow. Finding Johnston is like discovering Brian Wilson.

I thought I’d end with Daniel Johnston’s True Love Will Find You In The End. His singing has this beautiful child-like wonder to it, and this is probably one of my favourite songs of his. I’ll leave you with a quote from Winnie The Pooh:

Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.

I hope you’ve enjoyed Tales From The Dork Web as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. I’m going to take a break. I don’t know how long I’ll be, or when/if I’ll be back. If you signed up early enough you’ll have every issue to date in your inbox. If you haven’t, there’s still plenty for you to explore. I hope you’ll like them too.