Ruben Pater is, imho, one of the 10 most interesting designers to follow at the moment. You might have encountered his name already. He's behind the Drone Survival Guide that enables anyone to spot and recognize the most commonly used drones. More interestingly, the guide also provides information on how to hack, hides from and dazzle the machines. The guide has been translated in dozens of languages and can be downloaded over here.
Pater has a mission to create visual narratives about complex political issues. He is not only interested in flying machines of death but also in disaster floods caused by global warming, Dutch sweets that evoke everyday racism, fishermen vs oil tankers, citizen journalism in countries with censorship, digital surveillance, etc. Any complex issue that grabs his attention is turned into an impeccably well-researched, elegantly designed and intelligently communicated work. His calls his projects 'untold stories' because of the way they weave new connections between journalism and design.
Pater studied graphic design in Breda, and later at the graphic design master programme of the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam. He is exhibiting his work, lecturing internationally and is teaching at the communication department of the Design Academy in Eindhoven, at the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam and also at the Royal Academy of Art (KABK) in the Hague. I'm glad he has accepted to answer my questions:
Hi Ruben! You create visual narratives about complex political issues. Why do you think it is important that design approaches political topics? And why do you feel that design is an adequate medium for public discussion?
Discussing topics of political or public interest happens everywhere. Whether we categorize it as art, journalism, or film is not really relevant. The label of design works for me because designing visual communication means creating a dialogue beyond your immediate reach, and therefore a work can only achieve its goal when it reaches an wide audience. When addressing issues which are of public interest, this is for me an important aspect of a work. The nature of (graphic) design expects designers to be empathetic towards a diverse audience, because their clients are different all the time, and so is the receiver of the message. That skill gives designers the potency of have a more meaningful role in communicating the important issues of our time to a larger audience.
I was particularly fascinated by the project Behind the Blue Screen, an experiment in 'sneaker journalism' that you developed with the help of director Jaap van Heusden and the complicity of people living in Iran. What can we, as European, learn from the stories and tactics of the people who shared their stories for the project?
My ideas about Iran have definitely changed, not in the least because news coverage on Iran is so one-dimensional and hyperbolic. Through watching more than 100 video stories, my image of Iran has become much more nuanced.
It's funny that the more you learn about another culture, the more you learn about your own. For instance with media censorship, we tend to rate Western Europe as much more 'free' than a country like Iran. This is true in the sense of journalists being jailed and the internet being restricted. But in Western Europe we have a different kind of self-censorship which is equally invasive. Our dominant ideology of multinational capitalism with Christian values is hardly questioned. Although it is criticized in the margins, the media reaffirms this ideology and promotes it actively through its advertisements and reporting. We do not even regard it as propaganda anymore, but as a simple fact.
The question is if it is really that much different than the way the media is controlled in a country like Iran, where there are blogs and underground media that pose opposite and alternative views.
And more generally, do you feel that we might also want to watch our back and worry about surveillance?
Always watch your back, or in this case, your browser.
Your page about Double Standards of Somali Piracy is a fascinating and very informative read. Could you give us more details about the work you did with the flags? Explaining the choices you made when you transformed them?
If we send warships and soldiers to protect a national maritime fleet far away, that is an act of war by a sovereign state. When this merchant fleet has sold its nationality in favor of 'cheap' nationalities like Panama or the Bahamas to dodge taxes and underpay its workers, this stands in stark contrast to the military sent to protect them. This paradoxical reality of global capitalism is something that I felt was best visualized by buying all these flags and cutting them up by hand. By violating these national symbols, I felt like this was more appropriate representation then when I would create new flags, or new realities.
Double Standards of Somali Piracy was developed in 2012. Do you still follow the issue? Has the situation much evolved since you last worked on it?
Recently I worked with a filmmaker on a documentary about Double Standards. That was challenging because piracy around Somalia has basically disappeared almost completely since then, and when something is not in the news, people simply lose interest. Even though Somalia still has many problems, and the illegality and problems in the shipping industry remain. I think a follow-up on the project would focus more on life of crews that work in the maritime industry, who are basically doing slave labor for super-rich shipping tycoons.
And similarly, i was wondering whether you were 'haunted' by the projects once you've finished them? Do you keep on following closely the news or do you rather dive head down into the next project and try not to be too distracted?
A consequence of the way I work is that I have to keep track of the news happening on different topics. There are dozens of 'sleeping topics' that are not projects yet but are waiting for an opportunity. They could turn into a project, or not, so I need to keep collecting information on them.
You trained as a graphic designer but i noticed that you also write a lot. Each of your project is detailed in a long essay. So how do you keep the balance between text and graphic design? Do you feel that a project like Twenty-first Century Birdwatching, for example, can be fully understood without the text? Just by looking at the Guide with the bird silhouette?
18 months ago someone asked me to write an essay about the Drone Survival Guide, and I decided to do that with all my larger projects. It complements my work because it pushes me to reflect on the context beyond its immediate effect. I think during a design process many interesting things happen that are as interesting as the result, even if they are invisible in the end. I try to avoid using the essay to inflate my work, just to as an invitation to the reader in the way I work. That gives me parameters. When projects are too small for an essay format, they do not go on my website. Outside of the website, all of my works are meant to function without any additional text, especially in the case of the Drone Survival Guide. All my projects should work without explanation, although sometimes that turns out to be more difficult than others, for instance my Double Standards project which needs a bit more time from the viewer.
I'm from Belgium so i immediately connected with your work A Taste of Dutch Colonialism. Both our countries are quite fond of Zwarte Piet. I grew up with that figure and never thought much about it until i found myself in Eindhoven in early December and saw how shocked artists from other countries were when they met blond people dressed as Zwarte Piet in the streets. How did people reacted to your work about Dutch Sweets? Do you feel that our cultures are ready to leave behind all these traditions based on old (and embarrassing) racial stereotypes?
Currently the colonial heritage of 'Zwart Piet' is heavily debated in Holland. It is shameful to see that so many people, including the Dutch prime minister, do not understand even the most rudimentary concept of racism. In general, what we need is a better understanding of our colonial past in Western European countries, and we are still far away from that. Dutch Sweets, and the book I am writing now about design in different cultures, hopefully help this discussion forward. I am hopeful for the future because there are some very brave artists, activists, and writers out there who are at the forefront of this civil rights protest and their numbers are growing. Now they are threatened, arrested, and ridiculed, but I am certain they will eventually be recognized as heroes.
You are teaching at the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam and will also be lecturing at the Royal Academy of Art (KABK) in the Hague. What are you teaching there? Does it relate to your attempts to narrate geopolitical issues? What are you teaching there? Does it relate to your attempts to narrate geopolitical issues?
As a teacher I try to ask students to think about how their work relates to the political and social realities. It is not that they have to make work about political subjects, or become politically active, I want them to realize all the choices they make are political, whether they intended it or not. With the research of my new book that is coming out next year, I am getting more into postcolonialism and designing across cultures. This element of graphic design is often overlooked. I would like students to think about hidden cultural contexts of their work and how they can communicate to different audiences, not just their peers.
I think design has the tendency to become entertainment for the elite; expensive, exclusive, and abstract. Designers will be taken more seriously if they reach a wider audience, and become more inclusive.
What are the 'untold stories' that you think deserve to be told at the moment?
There are so many interesting and important topics, but unfortunately my time is limited. I soon hope to start working on a project about a more humanistic representation of cyberwar, which is still not available. Even though it is talked about a lot, it is always visualized in the same visual vocabulary security nerddom and military propaganda. Another topic is the role of raw materials in our economy as an literal and metaphoric underground foundation of our capitalist system. Thirdly Data discrimination. It is already being discussed quite widely, but nonetheless a very important topic, perhaps one of the most important topics of the coming years.
Internet Yami-ichi (japanese for Black Market) is a flea market where people sell Internet-ish things face to face.
The last edition of the market took place in Amsterdam on 9 and 10 May. More precisely at the Flemish Arts Centre De Brakke Grond, a (vast) space dedicated to promoting and showcasing contemporary art productions from Flanders. Any kind of art and with an emphasis on innovation, cross-over, interdisciplinarity, and artistic guts. Some of their events are in dutch but a big part of their programme caters for the international audience. I've only been to De Brakke Grond twice but what i've seen so far was critical, witty and resolutely embedded into contemporary culture.
The goods on sale at Yami-ichi were both smart and silly. I bought a little mirror to stick on a phone and observe/photograph scenes and people i wouldn't normally dare to watch openly (i'm not one to take the metro and ignore fellow travelers), all sorts of things made or baked to the glory of internet memes and a fabric patch with a glue gun sewn on it. And some mystery eggs. One thrown in a plastic container by JODI, the other enclosing the url of a Fresh Unpopular Video. I was also made a member of the institutions of Resolution Disputes, participated in a 'hate mail writing' workshop and got myself (fake)photographed in the company of Stefan Simchowitz (whom ignorant me had never heard about before.)
Internet Yami-ichi / Black Market is not just a place to throw your wallet around. I quickly found out that it also offers a great opportunity to meet people who are interested in art&tech, hacking, and contemporary culture in general. Artists, designers, art students and hackers were selling objects, offering food and DIY workshop, participating to hilarious performances (singing a cappella the sound of dial-up internet, for example.) And pretty much anyone who's someone in art&tech (whatever that means) had made the trip from Eindhoven, Amsterdam, Brussels or Rotterdam to 'browse' around. It was internet but in the flesh. I didn't count the number of visitors but De Brakke Grond did. Apparently, over 1900 visitors turned up over the Yami-ichi weekend! 'Zeer succesvolle editie'!
All of the above would probably make more sense if i actually showed some images from the event and commented them briefly. There you are:
By the way, institutions of Resolution Disputes [iRD] was one of my favourite projects at the market. It's far brainier than the other pieces sold/exhibited and hopefully i'll find a moment to come back to it in a later post. But in the meantime (and if i don't come back to the work on the blog), do check out this interview that Daniel Rourke did with Rosa Menkman for Furtherfield.
I was supposed to publish this post yesterday. Only i started exploring Serial, one of the works selected for the 2014 IDFA DocLab Award for Best Digital Storytelling and i couldn't stop myself, i went from one episode to another, talked about each of them with The Boyfriend and the whole afternoon flew by.
So here i am 24 hours late with the follow-up of my notes from the DocLab: Interactive Conference 2014, a day of talks about the way artists, film makers, designers and entrepreneurs are exploring digital behaviour and redefining the documentary genre in the digital age.
The DocLab talks took place at The Flemish Arts Centre De Brakke Grond and so did the exhibition. The nominees for the Best Digital Storytelling award were lined up in one room and the curated exhibition DocLab Expo: Immersive Reality was spread into the rest of the building.
I was ready to shun the The Virtual Reality Screening Room because i really, really, don't like the idea that i can be seen looking like this. Also i never regarded myself as a germaphobe but having half my face eaten up by a device that dozens of people have worn before me makes my skin crawl. I did it though. I wore the unhygienic headset. Because i'm brave and i believe in taking risks in order to write my blog. I even liked some of the works....
In particular Strangers with Patrick Watson by Felix & Paul Studio. You put the unsanitary Oculus Rift goggles on (seriously, am i really the one who's got a problem with oculus hygiene???) and you find yourself transported into the studio loft of musician Patrick Watson in Montréal. He's attempting to compose some music and his dog is relaxing on the floor. And so was i. Relaxing, not on the floor. There is nothing to do for you, except look around and enjoy the scene. It's peaceful and pleasant, there is no need for awkward keyboard manipulation in the dark.
The retro-looking Trojan Offices installation brings us back to the early nineties when computer scientists at the University of Cambridge scientists rigged up a camera to monitor the coffee pot located in the main computer lab and casually invented the webcam.
Nowadays, countless numbers of webcams are streaming live to the internet, indexed by search engines without permission. With a simple hack, artist Dries Depoorter gained access to them, selected half a dozen of them in order to give us a live glimpse into unsuspecting coffeepots and offices from all over the world.
The most compelling part of the day for me was when i discovered the nominees of the Digital Storytelling competition. Because the focus of the selection is as much on new forms of interactivity as it is on strategies to weave a compelling story, all the projects were deep, multi-layered and compelling. Some took me ages to explore. Cue to...
Serial is a weekly podcast that investigates the true circumstances behind the murder of a Baltimore high school girl. Hae Min Lee was found strangled in a park in 1999. Her former boyfriend Adnan Syed was sent to prison with a life sentence on the basis of one testimony only. No physical evidence linked Syed to the crime and he has always claimed he is innocent. In the podcast producer Sarah Koenig takes listeners back to 1999 and shares interviews with people involved in the affair, audio archives from the trial and snippets of conversation between the prisoner and the journalist. The website that accompanies the quest also presents maps, photos, copies of handwritten letters, etc. The audience discovers along with the makers of the programme that the story has multiple layers and inconsistencies.
Serial is more gripping than many lavishly produced tv series or movies. One of the characteristics of the show is that it remains ambiguous, you have the feeling that the journalist doesn't have an agenda, she slowly uncovers evidences along the way. Like her, you might not be able to make up your mind and figure out whether Syed was guilty or innocent. I'm glad the podcast is the winner of the 2014 IDFA DocLab Award for Best Digital Storytelling.
Every day, hundreds of thousands of cat owners upload photos of their pet on photosharing websites. I Know Where Your Cat Lives collects the images, retrieves the latitude and longitude coordinates embedded by many cameras and visualizes the location of the cats. The databank is charming, cats are so irresistible that in some countries feline photos are more popular than selfies. But as the title of the work suggests, there is also a slightly creepy dimension to the project as it makes you realize that once a piece of personal data is online, you lose control over it.
The option "Cats by country" shows how many cat photos have been uploaded in a given nation. This is why the makers themselves say that "the maps are perhaps a better representation of globalism, access to smart phones, and relaxed consideration for individual privacy."
Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa, Ghana, etc. Dutch colonialism has left its marks across the world. With Empire Interactive, Eline Jongsma and Kel O'Neill investigate into the aftershocks of the first global capitalist endeavor, Dutch colonialism. The multi media works shows how little known enclaves of post-colonialism are geographically distant from each other, yet strangely united by their past exposure to colonial imperialism.
As the videos posted on vimeo demonstrate, the long-term impact of Dutch colonialism is truly astonishing: from the private town for white people in South Africa and other signs of a nostalgia for the Apartheid era, to the man seen as a god by the inhabitants a full-size replica Dutch village built in the middle of the Sri Lankan jungle, and the WWII enthusiasts who dress as members of the Waffen SS and proceed to military maneuvres on the island of Java.
Empire is an online, portable version of an exhibition. As the artists explained in an interview with Indiewood: Originally, in installation form, the project allows viewers to wander from installation to installation, and from story to story. As a viewer, you get to be a bit more autonomous than you are used to: we give you the parts, but you do the labor. We are trying to use the same principles in the interactive online version. In that sense, we think that transmedia art broadens the horizon of visual storytelling and gives both the creator and the audience more power to experiment than they may have with other art forms. It doesn't replace "traditional" film, it just offers a different way of going about things.
The Empire project also exists in the form of a limited edition book.
Pentecostalism claims that the Holy Spirit is here and now. I've no idea what that might mean but i must be in a minority because Pentecotalism is believed to be the fastest growing religion in the world.
Atlas of Pentecostalism, by documentary filmmaker Bregtje van der Haak and information designer Richard Vijgen, aims to develop a reusable model for reporting on dynamic global trends and crises, incorporating crowdsourcing, big data, interviews, academic research and visual information.
The work allows you to investigate the religion through photos of church buildings and logos, maps of belief in the devil, interview with experts in anthropology, etc. Anyone can contribute photos to the permanently expanding Atlas of Pentecostalism. You can also 'download the website' as an e-book or print-on-demand book, which freezes the dynamic data at the moment of ordering.
Refugee Republic challenges our view of refugee camps. They are places of displacement, misery and distress but that's only part of the story. Life rebuilds itself in a refugee camp: bakers prepare the bread, children go to school, people fall in love. Skipping from photo to video to drawings to text in a very fluid way, the interactive documentary allows you to step inside Camp Domiz, a refugee camp in northern Iraq where some 64,000 inhabitants, mostly Syrian Kurds, live.
More images from DocLab 2014:
DocLab expo took place at The Flemish Arts Centre De Brakke Grond in Amsterdam. The exhibition is over, alas! but the show Pieter Van den Bosch. Aanslagen zonder gevolgen opens tomorrow and it looks really good.
More images on Brakke Grond facebook page.
Finally! I found some time to type down my notes from the DocLab: Interactive Conference, a one-day event that looked at how artists, film makers, designers and entrepreneurs are exploring digital behaviour and redefining the documentary genre in the digital age.
IDFA DocLab is part of IDFA, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. I didn't have the time to see any of the 'traditional' documentaries (alas!) but i did get to try some smart interactive and/or immersive virtual reality works in the exhibition. I'll probably publish tomorrow my thoughts on that show and the conference notes below might provide a good introduction to it.
The Interactive Conference surprised me. In the best possible way. I was expecting to be entertained by the artists' talks and bored by anyone else who stepped on stage before or after them but it turned out that i didn't have one dull moment that day (I did sneak out of the auditorium as the 'Financiers Round' was starting though.)
There was a genuine sense of excitement and wonder in the room. Virtual reality and other new media are about to break into the mainstream and most speakers still have the feeling that they are experimenting and pioneering new ways to engage audiences.
I've already told you about James George's talk at the conference. The following notes are far drier and don't cover everything i heard that day. I'm not even going to mention every single contribution to the event. I've just picked up my favourite moments:
Monique Simard, president and CEO of the Development Corporation of Cultural Enterprise for Quebec (SODEC) noted that people consume culture in different ways than in the past. Nowadays, i's much less television that entertains us than mobile phones. Yet, while TV channels still invest in developing new creative content, mobile phone companies hardly invest in content. There has to be a re-balance of the financing of culture.
Juha van 't Zelfde, artistic director at the Lighthouse in Brighton, talked about How the web lost its innocence. An incomplete index. He shared his observations about the dark side of the internet and illustrated the collateral damage of technological innovation through 5 artworks:
1. Total Surveillance
2. Predatory Capitalism. Apple, google monetizing on anything.
3. Non-state Terror.
Example: The mocked-up Grand Theft Auto-style trailer that features virtual fighters shouting "Allahu Akbar!" as they attack U.S. troops.
4. State Terror
Their work BLIND DATA, for example, recombines images and sounds sourced from youtube and other platforms, subtracting them from the flux of communication as a way of "decommissioning" an increasingly weaponized infotainment complex and contributing to a more general disactivation of the ideologies and affectologies of vision, knowledge and power that underpin drone warfare.
5. Disconnecting People
Hito Steyerl's How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File is a caustic educational video instructing you on how to avoid being seen. From going off-screen to being female and over 50 years old.
The Shirt on Your Back: Video, texts and photos that document Guardian the human cost of the shirt you are wearing.
While The Guardian's interactive NSA Files: Decoded was linear, The Seven Digital Deadly Sins is not. The short series asks what pride, greed, gluttony and other deadly sins would become in our digital era. The work is based on video interviews but it also features voting polls asking you whether or not you condone the digital deadly sin exposed.
Why? The Guardian feels the need to reinvent itself because the traditional newspaper industry is dead.
Visual artist Jan Rothuizen draws by hand huge maps of locations as different from each other as the worst hotel in Amsterdam and a refugee camp for Syrian Kurds. These maps are less about topography than about presenting a whole narrative in a very open way. It's non-linear and non-scripted, it's layered and you're the one who has to retrieve all the clues in the drawings and weave the whole story.
The detention center located right next to the runway at Schiphol airport is off limit to photographer but, as a drawer, Rothuizen was allowed to enter and sketch around.
He showed DEEP 360, an experiment that uses early non-3D spherical camera prototypes to create immersive cinema. One of the works in the series is The Polar Sea, the first 360 documentary shot in the Arctic. The work follows the film crew as they are sailing through the Northwest Passage and experiencing the effects of climate change.
According to Wallner, the arrival of the Samsung's VR headset that uses the new Galaxy Note 4 as its main display will further mass market virtual reality. However, he also firmly believes that a technology that can't tell a story is doomed to fail.
He gave the example of 1947 MGM' film Lady in the Lake which attempted to create a cinematic version of Chandler's first-person narrative style of Philip Marlowe novels. The audience could only see what the detective did. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer promoted the film as 'the most revolutionary style of film since the introduction of the talkies.' It didn't meet with much critical success.
For Wallner, it's tricky to simply try to replicate a classic cinematographic experience in virtual reality. In cinema, we create an empathic relationship with the characters but it's difficult to find this relationship when you are wearing VR goggles and are at the center of the experience. Therefore we need to find new kinds of languages to tell the stories.
He also pointed to the fact that cinema, as we know it now, is part of a continuum and tomorrow's cinema still has to be invented.
Next there was a panel about virtual reality. Panels tend to be a bit bland. Not this one. Here's what i learnt from panelists Danfung Dennis (a film maker who founded a company that combines advanced 3D graphics with high-res video to create immersive video applications), creative developer Brian Chirls, Thomas Wallner, one of the developers at BeAnotherLab and media artist Oscar Raby:
- many developers approach VR from a game perspective or a cinema perspective. This involves peculiar expectations about what the experience should be like. But we need to see VR as an open field to explore as its own unique medium.
- it's too early to actually make mistake. We are at a stage where we have a lot to learn from every experiment.
- there is a fear that big studios (like Pixar) are going to use VR to make more spectacular versions of Marvel comics, instead of investigating new possibilities. Independent creators can't compete in money and power so they should create their own art forms and make the best of existing shortcomings in the technology instead of trying to perfect a technology (you need lots of money to do that.)
- the political applications of VR: using VR as a tool for propaganda and brainwashing, to replicate the existing status quo and ideas.
- VR can be used to understand other conscious beings like animals, VR can connect us to other beings in emotional, empathic ways and thus could be a tool to make us feel more connected to the other.
- we don't know yet how the VR content will be distributed but it is possible that it will be distributed through a model similar to the one of the Apple store. Which reminds us of the web that was created as an open, distributed platform. And not as a network that depends on a central authority.
Someone in the audience asked the panel if the only way to make VR was to be incredibly well funded. BeAnotherLab is an example that you don't necessarily need a big investment to start. They worked without funding for 3 years. The panelists advised to start with a computer and a head mounted display. Some are really affordable now. E.g. Google Cardboard.
Next came Liz Cook. The film community manager at Kickstarter listed projects her team is particularly fond of. Magzine.it helpfully uploaded the video of her talk. In case you want the short version of her talk, the projects she mentioned are: Radiotopia, the video game Nevermind, Blast Theory's Karen app, Rainforest Connection and Lunar Mission One.
One of my favourite talks of the day was by Dries Verbruggen from Unfold. It's always uplifting to see that a designer whose work you're admiring turns up to be a fantastic speaker. Verbruggen 'loves the fluidity of the digital but not the rigidity of the screen' and it's only fitting that his studio would work a lot with 3D printing.
Kiosk, for example, is a cart to 3D print in the street. Pick an object you covet and Kiosk can copy or customize it on the spot. During the Salone del Mobile Unfold made 3D scans of the new objects presented at the fair and started to appropriate, sample, remix, improve, up/downscale or copy new objects 3d-printed on the spot.
The performative work echoes a Tate debate that discussed when 3D printing was ok. Unfold did not 3D replicate to offend or steal but to start a discussion. And as Verbruggen concluded, Unfold might not steal other designers' works but others are doing it already and they are selling designers' ideas on 3D platforms.
Kyle McDonald gave the final keynote. The media artist showed his works and the trouble some of them got him into. I'm sure you know most of his works (if not, this is the place to go!) I particularly like his Social Roulette, an app that give you one in 6 chances to delete your Facebook account. Facebook was not amused.
More images on Brakke Grond facebook page.
The conference (ridiculously interesting and accompanied by an exhibition i wish i could see all over again but more about all that next week) looked at how practitioners redefine the documentary genre in the digital age. In his talk, artist James George presented artistic projects that demonstrate how fast computational photography is evolving. Most of the project he commented on were new to me but more importantly, once they were stitched together, they formed a picture of how innovations are changing our relation to the essence, authorship and even definition of the image. Here are the notes i took during his fast and efficient slideshow of artistic works:
Erik Kessels printed out every photo uploaded on Flickr over a 24-hour period. Visitors of the show could literally drown into a sea of images.
The work, commented George, functions more as data visualization than as a photo installation.
In 2006, Penelope Umbrico searched for 'sunset' on Flickr back. She then printed the 541,795 matches and assembled them into one wall-size collage of photographs. She said. "I take the sheer quantity of images online as a collective archive that represents us - a constantly changing auto-portrait."
With 9 Eyes ongoing work, Jon Rafman shows that you don't need to be a photographer to create photos. The artist spent hours pouring over google street view to spot the inadvertently eerie or poetic sights captured by the nine lenses of the Google Street View camera cars.
Clement Valle fortuitously discovered broken images on Google Earth. The glitches are the result of the constant and automated data collection handled by computer algorithms. In these "competing visual inputs", the 3D modellings of Earth's surfaces fail to align with the corresponding aerial photography.
Google Earth is a database disguised as a photographic representation. These uncanny images focus our attention on that process itself, and the network of algorithms, computers, storage systems, automated cameras, maps, pilots, engineers, photographers, surveyors and map-makers that generate them.
Teehan+Lax Labs, Google Street View Hyperlapse
Teehan and Lax created a tool that taps into Street View imagery and pulls it together to create an animated tour. Pick the start and end points on Google Maps and Hyperlapse stitches together a rolling scene of Street View imagery as if you were driving the GSV car.
Living Death Camp, by Forensic Architecture and ScanLAB, combines terrestrial laser scanning with ground penetrating radar to dissect the layers of life and evidence at two concentration camp sites in former Yugoslavia.
But how about the camera? When is the camera of the future going to emerge? What is it going to be like? It will probably be more similar to a database than to an image. In his keynote speech concluding the Vimeo Festival + Awards in 2010, Bruce Sterling described his prediction of the future of imaging technology. For him a camera of the future may function as follows: "It simply absorbs every photon that touches it from any angle. And then in order to take a picture I simply tell the system to calculate what that picture would have looked like from that angle at that moment. I just send it as a computational problem out in to the cloud wirelessly."
In mid-2005, New York City MTA commissioned a weapon manufacturer to make a futuristic anti-terror surveillance system. The images were to be fed directly into computers, watched by algorithm and alerts would be sent automatically when danger was detected. However, the system was plagued by "an array of technical setbacks", the system failed all the tests and the whole project ended in lawsuits. Thousands of security cameras in the New York subway stations now sit unused.
One month later after Sterling's talk, Microsoft released Kinect. The video game controller uses a depth sensing camera and computer vision software to sense the movements and position of the player. Visualizations of space as seen through Kinect's sensors can be computed from any angle using 3D software. James George and Collaboration with Alexander Porter decided to explore the artistic use of the surveillance and kinect technologies. "We soldered together an inverter and motorcycle batteries to run the laptop and Kinect sensor on the go. We attached a Canon 5D DSLR to the sensor and plugged it in to a laptop. The entire kit went into a backpack.
We spent an evening in the New York Union Square subway capturing high resolution stills and and archiving depth data of pedestrians. We wrote an openFrameworks application to combine the data, allowing us to place fragments of the two dimensional images into three dimensional space, navigate through the resulting environment and render the output."
The OS image capture system, which uses the Microsoft Kinect camera paired with a DSLR video camera, creates 3D models of the subjects in video that can be re-photographed from any angle virtually.
George and Porter later worked with Jonathan Minard and used the technology again for CLOUDS, an interview series with artists and programmers discussing the way digital culture is changing creative practices.
New and old media collide in Sophie Kahn's work. The artist uses a precise 3D laser scanner designed for static object to create sculptures of human heads and bodies. Because a body is always in flux, the technology receives conflicting spatial co-ordinates and generates irregular results.
Marshmallow Laser Feast, MEMEX | Duologue
MLF worked with a 94-camera high resolution scanning rig, to create the full body scan of an old lady and explore what filmmaking for the virtual-reality environment could be like.
Source Filmmakers, produced by Valve, is a tool to create movies inside the Source game engine. George finds their work relevant to his own practice because although Valve comes from a video game culture, they investigate the same ideas.
Beyond: Two Souls, by Quantic Dream, is an interactive drama action-adventure video game for PlayStation 3. At some point in the game, character Jodie Holmes (played by Ellen Page) is taking a shower. All in a perfectly politically correct fashion.
After the release of the game, nude images of Jodie Holmes leaked online, and were published by several gaming blogs. The "nude photos" were a result of hacking into the files of a debug version of the game and manipulating the camera. The game's publisher, Sony Entertainment, got these posts taken down. "The images are from an illegally hacked console and are very damaging for Ellen Page," the rep reportedly told one site. "It's not actually her body. I would really appreciate if you can take the story down to end the cycle of discussion around this."
But if the nude images were "not actually her body," how could they be "very damaging" to the actress? Whether or not the answer to this question is a convincing one, the little scandal shows the kind of challenge that filmmaker will have to face when dealing with this kind of hyper realistic technology.
Selfiecity by Lev Manovich and Moritz Stefaner analyzes 3,200 selfies taken in several metropoles around the world and looks at them under theoretic, artistic and quantitative lenses.
Having previously given life to a robot that enables plants to move around as they please, Ivan Henriques has collaborated with scientists from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam to develop the prototype of an autonomous bio-machine which harvests energy from photosynthetic organisms commonly found in ponds, canals, rivers and the sea.
The Symbiotic Machine uses the energy collected from micro organisms to move around in search for more photosynthetic organisms which it then collects and processes again.
The Symbiotic Machine is currently spending two months in an aquarium in the Glass House in Amstelpark, Amsterdam.
Short conversation with the artist:
Hi Ivan! How does Symbiotic Machine relate to Jurema Action Plant. Is this a continuation of that previous work? Did you learn something from JAP that you are applying to the Symbiotic Machine? Or is this a completely different exploration?
The research that started with Jurema Action Plant led to the development of the Symbiotic Machine (SM). I have created a range of works that explores such concepts as: the future (reinvention) of the environment; the acceleration of techno-scientific mutations; when nature becomes culture; the use of natural resources; where these hybrids of nature and technology will take place in the near future and reshape and redesign our tools to amalgamate and be more coherent with the natural environment (these concepts were discussed in the e-book Oritur). When JAP was being exhibited I noticed that as the interaction between the person and the plant enables the machine to move, people were envision a living entity, which was responding to them - i.e. it likes me!, when JAP was moving towards the person and It doesn't like me!, when it was moving away from the person touching it. That is the reason why I gave the Action Plant a first name: Jurema.
In the past years I have been creating machines that operates within the biological time combining different energy sources. In JAP, the variation of electrical signals inside the plant changes when someone touches it and in Symbiotic Machine it is a machine that makes photosynthesis to generate energy for itself, like a plant. In JAP the machine reads electrical signals and in SM the machine makes photosynthesis in order to have these electrical signals. It is a further research into plants electricity and development of a hybrid entity.
Could you talk to us about the collaboration with scientists from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam? How did you start working with each other? And what was the working process like? Was it just you setting up instructions and telling scientists what to do? Or was it a more hands-on experience?
When I first met Raoul Frese, scientist from the Biophysics Lab from VU Amsterdam, (The Netherlands) I wanted to develop further JAP. I got very inspired after his speech in a symposium at the former NIMK in Amsterdam about photosynthesis. Later we did an appointment to discuss further our possible collaboration. To develop the Symbiotic Machine we had several meetings in my studio and in his lab. Soon, Vincent Friebe, PhD student from Biophysics lab also joined the team.
In this project I wanted to create an autonomous system, which is able to live by itself, as most of the living entities do. For me it is very poetic to create a hybrid living system that can move to search for its own energy source, process it and have energy to do its own life cycle.
We had lots of hands on experiences and exchanging ideas and techniques. The project started with the concept and the technology we could use, but this Beta version was designed according to the necessities and mechanisms the bio-machine required. The project also had collaborations with Michiel van Overbeek who developed the hard/software and the Mechanical Engineer lab from CEFET/RJ (Technological University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil).
What are the photosynthetic organisms that the machine harvests? Could you give a few examples? What makes them interesting for the scientists you were working with?
For this prototype we focused in a specific algae: Spirogyra. It is a genus of filamentous green algae, which can be found in freshwater such as canals and ponds. Spirogyra grows under water, but when there is enough sunlight and warmth they produce large amounts of oxygen, adhering bubbles between the tangled filaments. The filamentous masses come to the surface and become visible as slimy green mats.
I asked Raoul Frese why he is interested in photosynthetic organisms: " Scientists are researching photosynthesis and photosynthetic organisms to learn how processes occur from the nanoscale and femtoseconds to the scale of the organism or ecosystem on days and years. It is an excellent example how a life process is interconnected from the molecules to organism to interrelated species. For biophysicists, the process exemplifies molecular interactions upon light absorption, energy transfer and electron and proton transfers. Such processes are researched with the entire experimental physics toolbox and described by theories such as thermodynamics and quantum mechanics. From a technological point of view, we can learn from the process how efficient solar energy conversion can take place, especially from the primary, light dependent reactions and how light absorption can result in the creation of a fuel (and not only electricity)."
Why were you interested in photosynthetic organisms, and in creating a machine that would feed on them and function a bit like them?
My interest in photosynthetic organisms started when I wanted to develop further JAP in a way that a hybrid organism could harvest its own energy to live like a plant. In April 2013, during the residency in NY I had the opportunity to research these microorganisms when I created the installation Microscopic Chamber #1, using a laser pointer to magnify these microorganisms, where people could see in naked eyes projected on a wall different kinds of microorganisms swimming. These living organisms were collected at Belmar beach, in New Jersey and were displayed in the installation in an aquarium where I cultivated them.
The algae Spirogyra is very common in The Netherlands. The choices of the organisms presented in my works are based on the concept, their own technology and location of the specimen. One of the ideas is to adapt the mechanics and electrical system in the machine to be capable to function with the mili-voltages that plants, animals and us have. Create an autonomous system that could use such small scale of electricity to operate. After the residency I had several meetings with scientists from VU Amsterdam where I had the opportunity to research further the Spirogyra and other photosynthetic creatures.
In this research about plant and machines I want to find a way of coexistence between living organisms and machines more integrated, and inspire people for a possible different future.
Could you explain us the shape of the floating mobile robotic structure? Because it looks much more 'organic' than typically robotic. Could you describe the various elements that constitute the robotic structure and what their role is?
The machine is designed to communicate with the environment. For this first model the machine is planned to process the algae from specimen Spirogyra to generate electricity. As this specimen is a filamentous floating organism, the robot has to be in water, floating together with the algae.
The structure is composed by an ellipsoid of revolution with 3 conical shaped arms. Attached to the arms tentacles equipped with sensors. The structure is transparent to catch sunlight at any angle. The choice for an ellipsoid of revolution is to create more surface area for the electrodes (photocells) and to use more of the sun rays onto the photocells when the light reflects in the golden electrodes - using more sunlight by consequence. The tentacles make the robot extend its senses to search for algae. The arms create closed chambers to place electronics.
The machine has a complete digestive system: mouth, stomach and anus. See the video:
Sealed with a transparent cylinder a motor, an endless worm and a pepper grinder aligned and connected by one single axis compose the mouth/anus, like a jellyfish. This cylinder has a liquid inlet/outlet (for water and algae spirogyra) placed at the end part of the endless worm. The endless worm has an important function to pump liquid in and out and to give small propulsion for the machine.
In order to "hack" the algae spirogyra photosynthesis' and apply it as an energy source, the algae cell's membrane has to be broken. The pepper grinder that is connected at the end of the endless worm can grind the algae breaking the membrane cell, releasing micro particles.
These micro particles in naked eyes looks like a "green juice" which is flushed inside the machine: the stomach.
A tube that comes from the end of the mouth with grinded algae goes though the stomach, inside the ellipsoid of revolution. This tube is fastened on a 2-way valve placed in the center of the spherical shape. Inside the ellipsoid of revolution there is another bowl, just one centimeter smaller aligned in the center. Placing this bowl inside, it creates two chambers: 1] the space between the outer skin and the bowl and 2] inside the smaller bowl. In chamber 1 the photocells are placed in parallel and in series. The photocell is composed by a plate covered with gold, a spacer in the middle covered with a copper mesh. This set up allows the "green juice" rest between the gold and copper.
After the light is shed on the electrons of the grinded algae they flow to one of these metals, like a lemon battery. As all the photocells are connected, with the help from the electronic chip LTC 3108 Energy Harvester is possible to store these mili-voltages in two AA rechargeable batteries. A life cycle with functions was idealized in order to program the machine and activate independent mechanical parts of the stomach: it has to eat, move, sunbath, rest, search for food, wash itself, in loop.
The 2-way valve mentioned above is connected as: valve 1 hooked up with chamber 1 and valve 2 with chamber 2. When the stomach works is sent information to the machine that the valve 1 has to be opened. The algae flow to this chamber and the machine uses a light sensor to go towards where there is more luminescence to make photosynthesis. After the 10 min sunbathing (photosynthesis) the machine has to clean its stomach - and the photocells - to be able to eat again. Water is sucked in again with the mouth, and via the same valve from the algae, it pumps more water inside chamber 1 in order to have an overflow of this liquid in chamber 2. The liquid, which is now in chamber 2 is flushed out by the motor turning the endless worm and having the valve 2 opened. Fixed on the edge of the structure opposite the mouth, an underwater pump connected by a vertical axis with a servo powers the movement of the structure giving possibilities to steer 0, 45 and minus 45 degrees. The movement programmed for this machine was written concerned about the duration/time, space and energy.
What is next for the Symbiotic Machine and for you?
This version of the Symbiotic Machine still has to be improved and I would like to continue the research and develop this bio-machine further. I want to keep working to improve what was done. The exhibition is from March 9th until 27th April at the Glazen Huis in Amstelpark, Amsterdam.
Previously by the same artist: Jurema Action Plant.