Houston’s art a critique of commercial Christmas

Artist James Houston conducts his choir of vintage computers. Picture: Contributed
Artist James Houston conducts his choir of vintage computers. Picture: Contributed
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“Hail the machines, sweet old machines, blow off the dust, wipe off the rust. Christmas has come, joy is foretold, for those of us you never sold.”

It’s likely that you’ve never heard a Christmas song like ‘Seasons’ Greetings from the Glasgow School of Art’ before. Instead of a human choir, its performers are a collection of obsolete computers – a Commodore 64, a ZX Spectrum, a Sega Mega Drive and (relatively youthful) vintage Macs. The choirmaster is James Houston, an artist who graduated from Glasgow School of Art in 2008 and has now returned to create the institution’s 2013 Christmas ‘e-card’ – a short film of this specially created computer choir in action.

If Houston’s name is familiar, it is probably because of the short film that brought him global attention in 2008. For Big Ideas (Don’t Get Any), Houston, then a student, assembled a similar collection of old computers to perform a startling cover version of Nude, from Radiohead’s In Rainbows album. Ingeniously simple, it was a viral hit online. Houston got thousands of supportive messages from strangers, including Radiohead themselves – and a career was launched.

As Houston’s website, www.1030.co.uk, demonstrates, there is more to him than just a talent for hacking old computers, although the nostalgic tendencies in Big Ideas are also evident in his other work – in particular, a short promo for the band Washingon Irving. Once again, he uses old technology in a new way – in this case, a ‘magic eye’ film in which the repetition of horizontal lines creates the illustion of 3D, without the need for 3D glasses. ‘Seasons’ Greetings...’ might be the best thing he’s done yet, because, once you get past the novelty, it has an oddly haunting, melancholy quality.

The music Houston has created is elegiac rather than full of seasonal cheer, and the film reflects this.

Houston is alone with his computers in a dark room, the computers themselves singing a song that acknowledges their obsolescence: “We mustn’t frown, our song is done, loft here we come.’ As TV is flooded with ads trying to lure you into buying electronic toys for Christmas, here’s a poignant ­little reminder, from some ghosts of Christmas past, of how temporary and disposable all that is.

• You can watch James Houston’s work at www.1030.co.uk

• Watch the ‘Season’s Greetings...’ video here