The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, London's favourite radio art station, is aired this Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.
My guest tomorrow will be writer, artist, publisher and technologist James Bridle. I'm sure many of you have heard of him. Either because he coined and formulated the concept of New Aesthetic which quickly gave rise to worldwide debate and creative work. Or because you're interested in drone warfare. A few months ago, Bridle launched Dronestagram on Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr. The project uses Google Earth images and data collected by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism to document systematically the locations of deadly U.S. drone strikes. Bridle has also been traveling from Istanbul to Brighton to Washington DC to paint crime scene-style outlines of drones and give passersby a more physical representation of the size and power of the unmanned aerial vehicles.
One of the artist's latest projects, A Quiet Disposition is an intelligence-gathering system that scans the internet for news articles and other sources of information about drones, and drone-related technologies, including the Disposition Matrix. When it finds relevant texts, it analyses them, cataloguing names, objects, terminologies, and the relationships between them. From these relationships it draws its own conclusions, connecting pairs of names linked through the information it has gathered.
The show will be aired this Wednesday 10th of July at 16:00, London time. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am (I know...) If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.
Previously: Under the Shadow of the Drone.
During the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, governments restricted the access to the Internet in an effort to hamper online peer networking and thus self-organization. Could other governments ever operate a similar media shutdown and cut their citizens off the internet?
What would we do if ever an Internet kill switch was implemented in our country? Not necessarily to prevent us from orchestrating riots but to protect the internet "from unspecified assailants".
At the latest graduation show of the Design Interactions department in London, Philipp Ronnenberg was showing 3 methods to prepare for the time after a cyberwar. The Post Cyberwar Series proposes an alternative open navigation system, a makeshift wireless communication infrastructure as well as a novel data storage.
The Teletext Social Network enables people to bypass network providers and governmental institutions and communicate using the analogue television broadcasting which was freed last April in the UK.
OpenPositioningSystem relies on the seismic activity, produced by generators in power plants, turbines in pumping stations or other large machines running in factories to provide an open navigation system. I interviewed the designer about it a few months ago.
People living in urban areas could use the Sewer Cloud as a living, self-reproducing data network. This living network would be located in the sewerage system and use the algae species Anabaena bacteria for the insertion and extraction of data.
I contacted Philipp again to ask for more details about his project:
Hi Philipp! When i first interviewed you about the OPS, you didn't mention the kill switch. How did it go from one project about positioning system to a more complex scenario in which internet has been killed off? Were you inspired by any particular events from the recent news? I'm thinking of the NSA data collection: isn't controlling the internet and surveilling our every click enough for States?
The kill switch scenario stands for "killing" the Internet. But the Internet is only one network which is under control of companies and governmental institutions. The kill switch particularly is about the Internet, but other networks such as GPS navigation and mobile phone networks can be affected as well. In all three cases, the GPS navigation network, the mobile phone networks and the Internet, the control is in the hand of companies and governmental institutions.
I wanted to create three independent network alternatives. The body of work wrapped in the series Post Cyberwar is a reflection of how dependent we are today on the authoritarian structures of the networks we are using day to day. It is not only about surveillance and tracking down activity of users, it is also about content which becomes increasingly restricted, censored and monitored. The installation of controlling instances (i.e. kill switch) within these networks is justified with cyberwar and cyber-terrorism.
Controlling the Internet and surveilling our every click is enough for getting an insight. But as we saw in Georgia, Egypt and sometimes China, shutting down the Internet and mobile phone networks (or at least parts of it), is a powerful way to prevent communication and the circulation of undesirable information.
Speaking of OPS, how much has it grown since we last talked about it? Have the prototype and software improved and has the project given rise to attention and interest?
The OPS has grown a lot. First it got attention through your first blogpost and it was reblogged by some bigger blogs. I got very diverse feedback from "this comes out when art students try to be engineers (theverge.com comments)" and people asking me to get actively involved. I have 80 registered members on the website so far, but there is not much activity yet. I want to spend more time soon to bring new content on the website and therefore activate the registered members. The prototype and the software have slightly improved being more accurate and I worked on better tuning to seismic frequencies.
I gave two talks (#geomob London and W3C Open Data on the Web workshop) about the OPS so far where I tried to convince people to come on board. There is a third presentation at OHM2013 planned.
Is the Social Teletext Network installation at the show a working prototype? Which part of the communication would it replace exactly? I can't believe it could replace all internet communication, it seems to be so rudimentary.
The Social Teletext Network in the show was showing a demo. But I have the hardware and the software ready to switch it on. The demo in the show was created with the help of the same software which is used in the real setup. Unfortunately it is highly illegal to broadcast your own TV signals, therefore I decided to show a demo in the show. I could apply for analogue (VHF) frequencies, but it is very expensive (too expensive for a student project).
It is not meant to replace the entire Internet. The technical limitations for this task are too high. The Social Teletext Network is capable to provide wireless information streaming, using the old obsolete teletext technology, which makes it harder to track or to monitor. I tried to port some comfort which we know from computer interaction to the Social Teletext Network. For example: You can zoom into specific regions on a map and visualise user locations and other information.
The Teletext specifications provide a very limited resolution and it can only display text and graphics programmed with single pixels. Overall, the strength is that you can send and receive information wireless and over a distance (5km and even more possible with the right hardware and a high antenna).
Could you explain me with more details the process of the data insertion and extraction from algae? Because if i want to retrieve some data, how do i know which algae i should fish and where?
Text, images, video and any piece of digital data is written in binary code (110011110). These 1's and 0's are then encoded to the four base-pairs of DNA (Adenine, Cytosine, Thymine and Guanine). The new base-pair string will be synthesised to a complete DNA string and inserted into living organisms. To read data out of a DNA string the base-pairs would be decoded to 1's and 0's again and from that to human readable information.
As 1 gram of DNA can hold up to 700 terabytes (700.000 gigabytes), the amount of data what you can find in a single piece is very high.
If you would insert data into algae and hide the algae at a specific site, the chance that it stays there is high. It would reproduce itself and the following generations would go on a journey. But if the conditions are good, the origin would stay at the same spot and you could still find the same data even years after you have put it somewhere. So the idea is more, that you would know by locations where you can find specific information.
Oil City is a piece of site specific theatre by Platform that interweaves real ecological scandal and fiction to make you better understand the key role that the City of London plays in the operation of the global oil industry.
During one hour approximately, small groups of people are asked to investigate the part that the UK's banking sector -with help from British government officials - is playing in one of the world˙s biggest ecological disasters.
Around you the financial sector shimmers in high-rise office blocks. Behind closed doors deals are being made and oil projects are finding finance with few questions asked. Meanwhile vast swathes of Alberta, Canada, teeter on the brink of ecological disaster, as the struggle to stop tar sands mining of First Nations' Treaty lands fights on.
I took part in one of the performances on Monday. The day before, i received an email from The Lawyer asking participants to 'be dressed to impress, business interview attire' because we will need to 'blend in' as we will be running around London's financial district. He also gives us appointment at the café at Toynbee Studio 'beside the dark flowers and oily black tablecloth.'
Once we've all arrived, he drives us to Liverpool Street Station, while briefing us about our mission, the people we will be meeting or spying on, etc. At the same time, snippets of information emerge about the environmental scandal we have to investigate......
We are given the mission to dig information about the Canadian tar sands ecological scandal. Tar sands, or oil sands, are deposits of sand and clay saturated with bitumen. They lie under 140,000 km2 of forests near Alberta. It is estimated that the tar sands cover a region the size of England. When the bitumen is close to the surface it is excavated in an opencast mine. The process emits four times more carbon dioxide than conventional drilling. It also involves deforestation and heavy use of natural resources: four barrels of water, energy equal to three barrels of oil, and four tons of earth are required to extract one barrel of oil (via Gaia Foundation.)
The extraction process contaminates the Athabasca River and generates enormous toxic tailing ponds. The Tar Sands extraction is having a brutal impact on the wildlife. Each year, thousands of birds die when they migrate and land in waters to rest. As toxins accumulate in the river, mutations, tumours and deformed fish species have begun to appear. Local communities are worried about how the animals they eat and their drinking water are being affected.
"We are seeing a terrifyingly high rate of cancer in Fort Chipewyan where I live. We are convinced that these cancers are linked to the Tar Sands development on our doorstep. It is shortening our lives. That's why we no longer call it 'dirty oil' but 'bloody oil'. The blood of Fort Chipewyan people is on these companies' hands." - George Poitras, former chief of Mikisew Cree First Nation (via Climate camp.)
But back to the Oil City performance. It is an extremely fast-paced and engaging experience. Once our small group is dropped at Liverpool Street Station, we get to meet an investigative journalist who needs tangible proof of wrongdoings otherwise her editor won't run the article about the ecological scandal, she sends us to gather information from whistle blowers, then we have to locate a banker and lawyer in a nearby café and take 'secret' audio recording of their conversation (they are trying to hide the scandal and lobby so that the EU doesn't block the import of oil from Canada.) We also meet an activist from First Nation communities who gives us her side of the story, how the area they live in and their inherent right of self-government are being violated. At some point, we finally get our hands on incriminating evidence from a lady who cleans the offices in The City during the night. She is from Nigeria and tells us how afraid she is afraid that Canada˙s Boreal Forest is becoming the next Niger Delta.
There's a few tickets left for the upcoming performances, i can't recommend the experience enough.
By eavesdropping on business people and seeking out secret documents hidden in dead-drops, you will help piece together a puzzle that interweaves government files with financial deals. But whose truth counts? And what laws apply when lives are on the line but big profits are to be made?
Performances of Oil City take place at 9am, 1pm and 5pm daily on weekdays until 21st June. Bookings this way. The work is part of Artsadmin's Two Degrees festival of arts, climate change, consumerism and community.
A Practical Guide to Squatting is a very adequate title for a book that will teach you the skills of lock picking, show you how to craft a solar oven using a pizza box, grow a community garden, build a swimming pool in an open foundation or avoid arrest after breaking into a building. An adequate and provocative title thus. The handbook, however, will also give readers an opportunity to reflect on a practice that is too often attributed to gangs of drug addicts and anarchists 'stealing people's homes.'
Larraine Henning, the author of the handbook, reminds us that, in many cases, a squat is an emergency shelter, an habitat in a derelict building that has to be fixed, lacks electricity, insulation and proper drainage system. Just for the sake of my own enlightenment i had a look at the housing crisis in the country where i'm currently living and it appears that homelessness rates are rising. Meanwhile the Empty Homes Agency estimates that the number of empty properties in Wales and England amounts to over 930,000.
Yet, it is now an offence to squat in a residential building in England and Wales and no other sustainable alternative(s) has been offered in exchange. The situation isn't much rosier in the rest of Europe as the fate of an icon such as Tacheles, Berlin's art squat demonstrated.
My intention is not to become an apostle of squatting but just to put the practice into a broader perspective. In addition, squatting can go beyond the simple need to put a roof over one's head when it extends to experiments in socialism, architecture, and community. Think of the Open City in Chile, Paolo Scoleri's Arcosanti in the Arizona desert, Christiania in Copenhagen or the Grow Heathow community outside of London.
With A Practical Guide to Squatting, the author -who trained as an architect- also reminds readers that architecture is not only practiced by an arguably elitist sect of educated professionals, but also by the disenfranchised, the layman, the individual and the collective.
I've asked Larraine Henning, a 'former architect turned fruit picker / illustrator / squatter / cattle musterer', if she could talk to us about the book and her own squatting experiences:
Hi Larraine! How long did it take you to gather this very detailed information?
I worked on my Master thesis for nearly a year. The first half of my thesis was a research component where I investigated informal architecture, alternative communities, temporary building and squatting.
The the final product of my thesis was the handbook "A Practical Guide to Squatting"
And how much of it stems from personal experience?
Prior to attending UBC in Vancouver I lived and worked as an architect in Rotterdam. For a short time I lived with my boyfriend in an anti-squat, which is a legal and registered version of squatting in the Netherlands.
We shared half a floor of a large office building in the center of the city built in the 70's. The toilets were the former public washrooms for the building, we had the men's washroom and the other lady we shared the floor with had the ladies'. We had no hot water on our floor and had to do all our dishes in cold water. There was one shower for the whole building (6 floors), which was rigged up to the only hot water source, that we all shared. No one paid typical rent, but paid the building owner only for basic utilities. Eventually everyone was evicted as the building was slated for demolition.
Since living in Australia this last year, I have occasionally lived in tent communities with fellow agricultural workers. This was not full on squatting, but it was on land that started out as a tenting squat until the woman who owned it organised a more set up campground.
As a young person I would often break-into abandoned buildings simply for the thrill of exploration. I loved to stumble around the wreckage of forgotten urban relics. I would do this in the city and in the countryside, and once slept the night in an abandoned cabin below a caved in roof in the middle of winter in the Prairies of Canada.
I was also wondering how you deal with the legislation? I don't know about the (anti-)squatting laws in Australia where you now live or in Canada, the country you're from but i know that anti-squatting legislation is getting increasingly strict in some parts of Europe. For example, the UK law now criminalizes squatting in residential premises, even if hundreds of thousands of properties are now sitting empty across the country.
Squatting is not really legal anywhere, however some countries choose to accept it more than others.The constitution of Sweden upholds something called allemansrätten, translated as "freedom to roam" or "everyman's right". Its decree claims that every person shall have access to private or public land for the purpose of recreation. The UK and Holland have a loaded history of squatting and typically condoned such living. Over the year their progressive attitude has dampened and it is becoming less and less acceptable. The laws in most countries however have loop-holes. Squatting really isn't a matter for the police, but rather it is usually the job of the actual property owner to press charges against trespassers. Not until that happens do the police actually have the authority to take legal measures on squatters. Not only that but every country seems to have a different rule regarding abandoned property. In Canada a property needs to stand vacant for 50 years before it can be acquired by someone else and legally taken over. In Australia it is only 7 years, and provided you have not trashed the place but begun steps to set up camp after those 7 years you can apply to the crown to have the title put in your name, for free.
Can you conduct a family and professional life while being a squatter? Is it compatible with, say, getting electricity and running water installed?
Absolutely. Many squatters are working professionals and participate in everyday life just like anyone else. The place I lived at in Rotterdam was full of students, professional architects and the like.
You trained as an architect. Do you believe that architects should dedicate a greater amount of their knowledge and skills to squatting and other so-called 'alternative homes"?
I think that people who worked in restaurants tend to be better tippers, just like people who lived without luxury tent to appreciate those small luxuries more.
All images courtesy Larraine Henning.
Related story: Goodbye to London - Radical Art and Politics in the Seventies.
The title of the show is pretty self-explanatory. Because, yes! The drones are indeed getting closer. Nowadays UAVs aren't just shooting at terror suspects and innocent civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, they also have civilians uses such as monitoring orangutans and other endangered species or helping farmers check the condition of their crops which is obviously valuable and exciting. But drones are also enrolled to increase control and surveillance over our heads: the German railway network is deploying them to combat graffiti-spraying 'gangs' and a European commission document suggests that, in the coming years, drones could be used in crisis management, law enforcement, border control and firefighting. Human right activists are calling for "greater clarity and transparency about when and how these tools are deployed." Eric King of Privacy International also told The Guardian that "the secretive way in which surveillance drones have been put into operation, and the failure of the police to recognise and address the human rights issues involved, has created a huge potential for abuse."
The exhibition addressed these issues with projects that range from the chillingly premonitory Bit Plane by Bureau of Inverse Technology (1997) to Young's most recent research projects. One of them is TELEWAR, a book and video made in collaboration with The Force Of Freedom (the book is available for free in PDF and it makes for a very informative reading about the uses and impacts of new warfare technologies.)
As part of the TELEWAR project, the group of artists were also showing military patches used on drone programmes. You can get some for cheapo on ebay and if you really are into creepy military patches, i can't recommend enough Trevor Paglen's collection of Emblems from the Pentagon's Black World (more in I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to be Destroyed by Me.)
But let's get back to business because the reason why i wanted to interview Dave Young is that a couple of weeks ago he headed the workshop Movable Borders - The Reposition Matrix at the Furtherfield gallery.
Participants were invited to contribute to Movable Borders, Young's ongoing research project that investigates shifts in the permeability of territorial and political boundaries and the role that technology plays in the 'reterritorialisation' of the borderline.
The workshop focused on the use of cybernetic military systems such as remotely piloted aircraft (drones) and the Disposition Matrix, a dynamic database of intelligence that produces protocological kill-lists for the US Department of Defense. Together, participants were challenged to collaborate on developing a cartography of control: a map of the organisations, locations, and trading networks that play a role in the production of military drone technologies.
Since i only had a brief chat with Dave Young at the opening of the Furtherfield show, i decided to ask him a few more questions via email:
Hi Dave! The Reposition Matrix aims to create an "open-access database that geopolitically situates the organisations, locations, and trading networks that play a role in the production of military drone technologies." First of all, i'm curious about the source of the information that you collect through this project. Where do you find it? I guess some of it must be hard to come by? Concealed? supposed to remain out of reach of the public?
The fascinating thing about this project, for me at least, is how one public thread of information begins an almost overwhelming process of unraveling. A mention of a drone crash in a very public news source leads to the military crash report subsequently released under an open government initiative, which then mentions an external non-military public company involved in the piloting of the drone that day, who publishes some information about their involvement in military operations in their annual reports, and so on. The information is perhaps not deliberately concealed as such, but is hidden in the mass of documentation, hyperlinks, and search terms provided on governmental and corporate websites. Past participants have often expressed their surprise at what is deliberately revealed by companies - on their social media profiles, for example. These companies are often proud of their contributions to national defense efforts, and occasionally can be perhaps a little over-generous in the information they volunteer online. In the context of a single Facebook post, a corporate image can seem innocuous, but when cross-referenced with the correct secondary source, you can begin to reveal something otherwise concealed.
And how is the open-access database going to be kept alive? How and who updates it? Where can we read it?
The database is being compiled and added to by me personally at the moment, but I am developing a collaborative framework for use in the workshops which I will test out over the next few weeks. The database will be made available over the Summer (date to be announced!), and will form the basis for future workshops.
Another thing i've been wondering about is the way that you handle the data you find. Most of it i guess is obviously genuine information but how about the data coming from conspiracy theorists, or from people who have an interest at spreading as much dis-information as possible, etc? Is this something you consider?
This is an interesting question, and often leads to a good discussion in the workshops about how to filter sources. Participants have to debate what is important, and what can be considered trustworthy - or indeed if a fabricated theory can indeed be an important part of the map.
Most of the information participants work with is released 'genuinely' - as I said above, through official channels by public companies or governmental open data programmes, although it is important to place these too within the context of an agenda. The trustworthiness of the information we work with is always up for debate, and can be divisive amongst the participants, but in general, what tends to happen is we treat each thread of information as part of a wider network. Curiosities discovered during the workshop will corroborate or conflict with each other. This is where the world map becomes a useful interface for physically aggregating the found information, as participants can immediately begin to see a formalisation of their research, and can ask questions of it as it develops.
The drones and the US kill list seem to be far away from the kind of culture and preoccupations we have in Europe... Or are they? How much impact does the Disposition Matrix (a database that United States officials describe as a "next-generation capture/kill list." ) and drone program have in Europe? Why should it matter to us?
I think for the participants of the workshop it quickly becomes apparent that the production and military use of drones is truly a global issue. Washington quickly has links to London, Berlin, The Hague, Seoul, UAE, Turkey - the list goes on (and on...) What we can see emerging at the moment are the formation of alliances, power blocs that collectively invest in drones and share them and the information they collect as a trans-national resource. It is interesting to attempt to unpack this and examine how such alliances function as a network of power and control.
As for the disposition matrix, the use of an algorithm or protocol to compile a capture/kill list is really something worth having an open and frank discussion about. To me it really speaks of a wider societal shift which I find problematic, specifically these processes of monitoring and individuating populations. Indeed a well-treaded debate with many unresolved fundamental issues, but despite this, it can only be said that it is becoming increasingly embedded in governmental thinking.
Also, it is important to explore how and where these technologies function - while it is unknown for now how much impact the disposition matrix has in Europe, similar protocols are becoming increasingly pervasive here, particularly in countries such as the Netherlands, the UK, Germany, France, to name but a few. They may not be applied to such direct efforts as targeted killing, but they do appear to operate in welfare systems, immigration control, predictive policing, among others.
You recently organized a workshop at Furtherfield in London. Participants were invited to investigate drones and the Disposition Matrix. Can you describe briefly what happened? What the participants managed to achieve?
The workshop opened with a discussion framed around a few specific questions I wanted to put to the participants, as I was keen to encourage a critique of some of the conventional ideas regarding the use of drones that appear regularly in news reports. The participants were very open, willing to engage and question each other which was fantastic. Their backgrounds were quite diverse too, with a mix of artists, academics, social scientists, etc, and the ensuing discussion really reflected this. Following that, the participants formed small groups and began to work together on the world map. Each group worked with their own base document, researching its contents and trying to visualise its geopolitics through this process of mapping.
So, one example is a group who began looking at Wikileaks cables detailing US fears that Iran was using 'proxies' to get components required to build their own drone and evade trade embargoes. They began to draw the trading networks Iran had allegedly built up onto the map, criss-crossing West Asia, North Africa, Europe, and Japan.
What is interesting is where different groups collided on the map - important nodes in the network predictably appear in Washington and the FATA regions of Pakistan. Often some surprising locations pop up too, usually reflective of the backgrounds of the workshop participants as they try to investigate any connections between the drone war and their own politics and places of origin.
I'm also fascinated by the description of Google Boundaries, "a series of images taken by the Google Streetview car as it encounters border checkpoints. The project is an investigation into the geopolitical systems that influence Google's streetview product, re-situating its task of mapping the streets of the world as being an invasive, territorial act." Could you explain what you meant by that? And how you came to investigate border checkpoints through the eyes of the Google Streetview car?
The Google Street View car has famously made the debates about privacy and digital rights visible - people who in the past felt perhaps unthreatened by Google's data-harvesting all of a sudden saw it as an invasive act. They could suddenly see their own houses - perhaps even themselves outside, in all their vulnerability. I became more interested in this idea of Street View as a colonialisation while researching The Reposition Matrix. When you zoom out as much as possible with Google Maps, you can see the territories that have Street View - a strange hierarchical geography revealed by a blue overlay on the map. Recently, Iran have announced they will release their own "Islamic" version of Google Earth as they see Google's services as a threat to their national security, so there are strong territorial politics at play here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/apr/10/iran-plans-islamic-google-earth
I know this is still a work in progress but what have you discovered so far?
I started by trying to "road-trip" across the US-Mexico border control using Streetview. You can't pass through them like you often can in Europe - frequently the Street View car seems to get as close as possible to the border then turn back at the last moment. It is interesting to examine historically contested borders - the Israel 1949 Armistice Borderline shows a border control officer looking straight at the Street View car, gun hanging from his shoulder.
Examining the border crossings begins to illustrate the materiality of Google's task, and the beuraucratic issues operating in the background. Despite Google's omnipresence in the cloud, the Street View car is often caged in by boundary politics. They are regularly adding new Street View data to the map, so I'll be curious to investigate how this changes over time.
Any upcoming projects, areas of investigation or exhibition you want to share with us?
There are some more Reposition Matrix workshops coming up over the following months - Dublin as part of the Glitch Festival on the 15th June, another one at V2 on July 6th, Share conference in Croatia 18-20 July. People are of course very welcome to get in contact and come along to the workshops if they'll be in the right place at the right time! More information available on http://movableborders.com.
There are some more projects that are part of the Movable Borders series, following on with these investigations of alternative territorialisations and geographies. One of them requires some research into the history of cocktails and mixology, which I am particularly excited about...
More images of the workshop at Furtherfield.
La Cosa Radiactiva has brought a group of young engineers, musicians & artists on the roads of Spain to explore sites related with radioactivity.
The team (composed of Sergio Galán, Victor Díaz, Alejandro Pérez, Servando Barreiro, Marcos Carnero, Alvaro Santamaría and Javier Villaroel) is not always welcome in nor around the facilities they investigated but they nevertheless measured radioactivity in locations that range from the Arrocampo artificial lake (which water is used to refrigerate the turbines of the nearby Almaraz Nuclear Power Plant) to a dismantled uranium mine in La Haba (a small town of 1000 inhabitants in the Badajoz province), from the first nuclear power plant (in process of dismantling) in Zorita to a nuclear waste storage facility in El Cabril (Córdoba), etc.
They traveled with their own measurement and visualization system that combines a Geiger counter, an Arduino microcontroller and an app for Android phones. The data gathered is visualized on online maps and in the form of audiovisual performances organized on the public squares of the villages and small towns they visit. The findings collected are also used to trigger discussions with the local population as well as with a broader audience about the social and cultural impact of nuclear energy.
La Cosa Radiactiva is a "research on transparency and nuclear secrets. A performance to demystify radiation while building awareness of its risks. An imagination exercise to reflect on how it would be like to live with radiation and above all this, a call about the importance of citizens having their own tools to be able to verify public health data provided by governmental authorities."
La Cosa Radiactiva / The Radioactive Thing. English trailer
La Cosa Radiactiva / The Radioactive Thing is another brilliant project i discovered during my last visit to MediaLab Prado (i recently wrote about Citizen Cyber Science and the Freedom of Speech Kit.) Because i only had a few minutes to talk about it with Sergio Galán while i was in Madrid, i emailed him to ask him further questions about the project.
Hola Sergio! How much is known, made public in Spain about radioactivity? Was it easy for the team to find information about the location of radioactive sites?
First of all, just to clarify, all places we visited were not radioactive, I mean, with high levels of radioactivity. They were places with some connection with the nuclear industries: mines, factories, centrals, storages... Some of them are still working some are dismantled.
So, answering the question, it is not a secret to find those places. These are mostly old industrial places which are documented in quite a few webs.
But it is tricky. For instance, the ambient sensors provide a measurement of "radiation" around them, so we might think that if those sensors are below certain levels there is no risk.
There is a Geiger counter in many places where old mines or nuclear power plants are. Even if there were a leak or there is underground contamination, the geiger counter won't measure anything alarming unless something quite big is happening.
If you measure ambient radiation in a room where there is radioactively contaminated rice, you won't see a high measurement in your geiger counter, but it doesn't mean you can eat the rice. Counters detect external irradiation not contamination. If you don't know this, sensors can provide a fake "safe" feeling.
Furthermore when something happens, transparency falls down. In Spain during the last 30 years we haven't had a serious incidence, but even the small ones were hidden below the carpet. There was a tiny leak in ASCO - one of the nuclear power plants in Spain - and they didn't inform about the incidence until months later.
So it is a strange policy, always showing off transparency but hiding information when something happens. This is an example that should make us think twice before being too optimistic about the current transparency & open data wave - which of course I stand for - because it can also be used as a smoke curtain to hide things while seeming transparent.
One of the objectives of La Cosa Radiactiva is to 'hold workshops where people can learn about our work and about the radioactive phenomenon in a different way." How different is it from the way radioactivity is presented in mainstream media?
Since it was discovered there has been a strong fascination for radioactivity, thinking about it as a kind of paranormal power like green waves emerging from minerals and mutating all life around. One of our goals when doing our workshops was to teach basic scientific knowledge. We explained that of course it might be dangerous but it is a natural phenomenon, governed by natural laws. And it is actually everywhere, it is on nature in low levels.
Reality is that a lot of people don't have a serious clue about what radioactivity is. I've talked to many people about the project I was doing and quite a few asked me if it had to do with mobile phone waves, which is a totally different issue. So people don't receive scientific education to differentiate electromagnetic waves from nuclear radiation, but we - as a democratic country or society - have decided that we can use it as one of our key energy sources
While on a tour to locate and measure radioactivity around Spain, you met with local communities. How aware (and maybe worried?) are they about the presence of radiation in their environment?
We didn't make any serious poll, but my impression is that there is always a group of people interested and worried, but most of the people don't really care. For instance in a village were there used to be an uranium factory (where most of the workers died or are suffering uranium related illnesses) a guy told us that people don't talk about it. Some of them want to know if there is danger but at the same time they don't want to dig too much, because in case of finding something it might create economic troubles to the region.
So in the places we visited, when there is a nuclear power plant, people live well, they have jobs and so on. And they don't want to know. When there was something in the past, it is an old conflict. It is buried, only ecologists complain from time to time.
The exception is when there is an ongoing conflict. We visited a small village next to where the government plans to build a storage for nuclear waste and in that region people are really engaged, both for and against it.
What is the state of the nuclear energy discourse is in Spain right now? Is the country planing to create new power stations or is it looking for other forms of energy?
It is very ambiguous. On one hand there is a "nuclear moratory". Seven nuclear reactors were under construction in the 80's and then the government stopped them (so they are now just huge empty cement buildings that we are still paying, which is another interesting topic).
On the other hand, the active nuclear power plants, easily get new permissions to keep working for more years. Current government is more pro-nuclear than the old one, but I don't think they'll seriously plan to build more nuclear power plants, basically because they are very expensive, and require many years to start producing energy. Public sector is not investing on anything right now, and private sector won't invest unless they are strongly supported by public money/laws.
The official policy used to be to build more wind and sun powered plants -and Spain is actually among the leaders in both technologies. I think that it is the right thing, but is it enough? People like green energy and don't like carbon or nuclear, but nobody asks the uncomfortable questions like: Can we sustain our energy appetite with green tech only? Are we willing to pay more money for energy to avoid the energy sources with bad reputation? Or are we willing to stop our continuous growth system to consume less energy?
Can you describe briefly the DiY Geiger counters you've made and how members of the public will one day be able to make their own?
Since Fukushima's accident there has been quite a lot of interest for domestic Geiger counters, so they are becoming cheaper and smaller. The one we bought is made by a Spanish company and it is fully open hardware. It works over Arduino, and using the "Android-ready" version of Arduino we could connect it to the mobile phone.
So we don't build it but it is technically possible to build it from scratch. What we developed is a software to use the counter with Android phones. Thanks to the Medialab-Prado's open lab I contacted Alvaro and together with my colleague Victor we did all the Android+Arduino coding.
The goal was to build something more "user centered", a kind of nice interface for geiger counters so people can use it to make explorations and understand what's going on and how good or bad the measurement is.
Does the device show the difference between natural and man-made radioactivity? Sorry for the idiot question but have both forms of radioactivity the same impact on the environment?
Please note that I'm talking as an amateur, not as a scientist, so I might be not very precise. But in essence there are three kinds of radioactive particles: Alpha Beta and Gamma. The three of them can be natural or man-made. A Geiger counter reads the total radiation level so we don't know if the radioactivity we are measuring is natural or not. However if you read an abnormally high level of radiation somewhere, there is probably some human involved there.
Each radioactive element decays into other element emitting different combinations of particles, so scientific equipment can find out if the radiation is coming from natural sources or from other elements which are not usual in nature or directly only exist in nuclear waste or in the nuclear fusion process.
Animals are used to live with low levels of natural radiation in their environment, so if it suddenly increases that is when health problems start to appear.
La Cosa Radiactiva is also about transforming nuclear radiation into image & sound. Can you explain us how?
One of the main goals of the project was to work with radioactivity as a kind of input material for art or performances. So I contacted Servando Barreiro which is a media artist and VJ and also an old acquaintance. He had made a laser projector and with it he generates waves and shapes. For me, the aesthetic of his laser projections, resonates with what popular culture associates with radioactivity: green rays of death. So we agreed on working together. We added an option to the mobile app to stream the measurement levels. So Servando receives the measurement levels and he uses that information to change and modify the shapes of the projections.
My main idea was to have a kind of laser sculpture for villages with nuclear power plants. The laser sculpture will draw day after day the same bored calm shapes. But if there is a radiation leak and the village is in danger, the sculpture would mutate into creepy shapes, and people would admire it before realising that they are in danger.
It sounds poetic but we couldn't talk with the mayor of any place interested on having this. So I just tell it as a kind of design fiction, and in case a mayor of a "radioactive town" wants to build it, he can contact us.
Is the project over or are you planning to work further on it?
I'd love to have some time to finish the app adding a nice visualisation on how dangerous the radiation level that you are measuring is. That will happen probably soon. But the project as it was imagined at the beginning is almost finished. Now I'm thinking on what to do with this. We could make a nice installation for art centres and so on, but we'll see. For now we've just released the documentary a couple of days ago. Marcos Carnero recorded our trip and together with Alejandro we made the script for a series of short films explaining the project and the opinions of the people we found.
For the future I'd like this to be a kind of public service. Like ghostbusters. People would send us an email telling: I think I saw green smoke coming out of the nuclear power plant yesterday. Can you explain us how the geiger counters works or can you come with your counters and tell us what's going on? But besides accidents, I think the main utility for geiger counters is educational. Showing people how it works, explaining that radioactivity is everywhere and using them as a tool to learn & talk (and get fascinated by Servando's figures if they have the chance to.)