The Weather Underground -also called the Weathermen- were a 1970s American radical left organization characterized by positions that included the opposition to the Vietnam War, the achievement of a classless world, a marked sympathy for the radical Black Panthers, etc. Their strategies included active recruitment in schools and violent militancy.
The Weather Underground inspired The New Weathermen, a fictional group of activists at the center of David Benque's investigation into the interrelationship between ideology and science. The New Weathermen are equally dissatisfied with the state of the world but the focus of their demands is climate crises rather than capitalism and racial privileges. Their weapon is not the bomb but Synthetic Biology.
Their ideas to achieve radical environmental change are neither the ones of the Bio-Conservatives who argue for a curbing of consumption, a return to an unadulterated Nature and are suspicious of new technologies. Nor are they the ideas of the Techno-Progressives who enthusiastically embrace progress, and see technological and scientific developments as the solution to modern problems.
Instead, The New Weathermen are looking into possible alternatives for the relationship between environmentalism and science. Among these are the DIYBIO or Biopunk movements and the campaign for open access to science, as well as efficient, headless and cell-based networks of activists such as Anonymous.
Challenging the borders between activism and crime, The New Weathermen's actions aim to disrupt the status quo and propagate an ambitious vision for the greater good. Deliberately radical and ambiguous, they provide a starting point for discussion about our existing beliefs and ideologies.
The whole ethos of the New Weathermen is based on the idea of the symbiosis (see the PDF of their manifesto):
The New Weathermen's ambitions are represented in their testing rigs and small scale experiments that reflect much more radical ambitions and are designed to make people aware of the group's larger mission. Their plans are slightly delusional (some are very seducing though.) Here are 3 of them:
The first one is The Pirate Pollen Club which targets the perfectly manicured lawn of the suburbs and golf courses. The New Weathermen would use Open Source GMO weed able to remove the gene responsible for the grass resistance to herbicide and ultimately outcompete it.
The action makes use of TALENs Transcription activator-like effector nuclease which uses enzymes for genome editing in situ, cutting DNA strands at a specific sequence when they are introduced into cells.
The scheme reminded me of Heath Bunting's SuperWeed Kit, a DIY kit capable of producing a genetically mutant superweed, designed to be resistant to current herbicides and thus threaten corporate GMO monoculture.
And now for my favourite plan: PalmOPS, an oil press that zeroes in on the increasing use of palm oil in the food and biofuel industries. Although the rush to palm oil is motivated by the necessity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the irony -as Greenpeace writes- is that the effort could make things worse because the growth of the palm industry is often accompanied by deforestation, displacement (without compensation nor consultation) of indigenous people occupying the land, loss of natural habitats for endangered species such as the orangutan and Sumatran tiger, increased greenhouse gas emissions, etc.
The New Weathermen's oil press inserts a lypase inhibitor in the kernel of the palm fruit that will make it impossible for you body to digest the oil.
PalmOPS is inspired by the inky caps, common mushrooms that are edible but become poisonous when consumed with alcohol. Inky caps contain coprine, a chemical which blocks the action of the enzyme that breaks down acetaldehyde in the body, leading to violent hangover symptoms. Coprine was studied by scientists who wanted to use it to make alcoholics averse to drinking.
Finally, Bioccupy Diesel, attempts to sabotage fossil fuel. The project was inspired by an existing bacteria responsible for the diesel bug that creates a biofilm that separates oil from water and and creates waste. Over time, the (existing) bug is responsible for a sediment which forms in the tank. These build-ups will not pass through the filters of the car and can eventually damage the vehicle.
New Weathermen would optimize the bacteria using synthetic biology. The modified bacteria would then contaminate car after car through petrol stations. To be effective, the infection would have to start with just one petrol station. All the cars refueling there would become infected.
Adam Brown is a conceptual artist working with scientists to create art pieces that use robotics, molecular chemistry, living systems and emerging technologies. Years ago, i saw one of his works at Emoção Art.ficial [Art.ficial Emotion], a Biennial of Art and Technology in Sao Paulo. The robotic sculpture, called Bion, explored the relationship between humans and artificial life. Fast forward to May 2013 when i am aimlessly clicking around and stumble upon one of his most recent pieces. This time, the project doesn't use swarms of responsive synthetic "life-form" but bacteria that, over a period of one week, process the toxins of gold chloride and produce nuggets of 24-karat gold.
The Great Work of the Metal Lover earned Brown and his collaborator microbiologist Dr. Kazem Kashefi world-wide media coverage, an Honorary Mention at Ars Electronica as well as a Special mention at VIDA.
Brown brings together science and art into each of his works, from the initial concept up to the final realization. His artistic practice not only challenges scientific inquiry but it also comes with undeniable aesthetic qualities (something that is sometimes little more than a second thought in artworks that make use of the latest advances in science and technology.) Simply put, his artworks are beautiful to look at. While the Bion sculpture (below) is as stunning as it is smart, Origins of Life: Experiment #1.x (a working scientific experiment that builds on Miller-Urey's 1953 experiment to draw attention to the artifice and aesthetics of experimentation) neatly hangs scientific instruments and processes on a wall as if they were museum paintings.
Brown is an Associate Professor at Michigan State University where he created the Electronic Art & Intermedia department. He is also a Research Fellow at the Institute for Digital Intermedia Arts at Ball State University, and serves as an Artist in Residence for the Michigan State University BEACON (Bio/Computational Evolution in Action Consortium) project.
I interviewed him via email just before he flew to Sydney to attend the ISEA Symposium on Electronic Art.
Hi Adam! What you've achieved sounds almost like a fantasy... Using bacteria to turn valueless material into gold. I'm sorry for the very mundane question but why don't you make it a full time activity? You could be drinking cocktails on your yacht, on your way to a golf game with Donald Trump instead of answering my questions right now...
This is probably one of the most asked questions that I have received about this piece. The other question that is often asked is if I can share with people how to "make gold." The potential to make gold and accumulate wealth is a very powerful motivator of the human condition. Even Forbes wrote about it. Fortunately, the process is not cost effective at this point. I have to buy the soluble form of gold I put into the reactor and, since the bacteria only grow in anaerobic conditions (no oxygen), I also have large expenses in creating the conditions for their growth.
Of course the natural follow up question is if it is possible to harvest the dissolved concentrations of gold in the oceans (which contain about 10 parts per million). It might be possible, but it would take a great deal of expense to scale up a system that would be efficient and cost effective. However, this is not something that I am interested in doing. What would be the environmental costs of engaging in such an activity? With our limited knowledge of the oceans ecosystem it is unclear what would happen to the ocean life if it were depleted of dissolved gold. As an artist, I'm more concerned with probing and questioning the potential impact of our ability to engineer and control nature.
What brought you to alchemy? A nostalgia for an ancient quest or the mere curiosity to explore what an artist can do with modern microbiology?
Alchemy is a topic that I have been interested in for quite a long time. Alchemy incorporates both a spiritual, creative and scientific pursuit all in one. As an artist of the 21st century working with biological systems, alchemy feels like an appropriate model of reference.
At the height of Alchemy during the time of the European Renaissance the world appeared to be much less defined. Artists were at the same time engineers, architects, alchemists, chemists. It was possible for a single person to strive to be the universal person and have relatively deep knowledge of many fields. Of course times have changed, complexity has grown and specialization has become more necessary. Newer technologies including augmented memory and instantaneous access to information have changed the way artists work. Now instead of being the total person one can employ collaborative practice to venture into territories that were previously inaccessible. This changes the role of the artist to one more akin to manager or director.
I also like the poetics of possibly solving the ancient alchemical problem of the philosopher's stone using modern microbiological science. Interestingly, the process does have some overlap to the description provided by alchemists describing the philosopher's stone. One would know when they were getting close to transmuting base metals into gold because the solution would turn a redish/purple color called "rubedo." The bioreactor of the GWML turns a purplish color when the microbial community is precipitating gold.
You developed the work in collaboration with Kazem Kashefi from the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at Michigan State University. What form did the collaboration take exactly? Was it you dictating what needs to be done and the scientist was executing your instructions. Or is the experience more hands-on from your part? With a more critical feedback from Dr Kashefi?
The relationship was hands on and mutualistic. One of my major interests is in origins of life research. This led me to extremophiles as they are probably some of the first forms of organized life on the planet and to Dr. Kashefi (Kaz). I read a paper he wrote in 2000 about how anaerobic extremophile microorganisms have the ability to precipitate heavy metals and even gold. I asked him if he thought it possible to devise a system capable of producing enough gold that one could hold in one's hand. This was the beginning of the collaboration. Over the course of a year, Kaz and I conceptualized how to construct a sustained culture capable of this task. He taught me the lab bench practices to, culture, grow anaerobic microorganisms. I designed, conceptualized and built the installation; Kaz led the scientific inquiry but we practiced the science together.
Unlike many works that merge art and science which outcome only appear in art publications, articles about The Great Work of the Metal Lover also appeared in science magazines. So what makes the piece appealing to the scientific community?
One of my goals as an artist, especially when it comes to collaboration is make work that has a high degree of mutuality between the respective disciplines. While it is not always the case, when working collaboratively I like to try to make contributions to the various fields of research that are represented. So, in this case, it is important to not only make contributions to the arts, but also to the sciences. The GWML does tap into interesting science in that we have shown that the microorganism is able to survive and even flourish on much higher concentrations of gold chloride than has ever been reported (ten fold in fact). Secondly, the research is relevant to scientists that are interested in the possibility of metabolic process being responsible for mineral production. Finally, novel uses of microbes, including genetically modified versions, are a hot topic for research at the moment; scientists are looking at biotechnologies to do everything from bioremediation, to microbial pharmaceuticals, to even energy production. Of course, gold does have a universal appeal, having been coveted by most people; scientists are not excluded from this bias.
The artwork doesn't stop at creating gold nuggets, it also features images made using a scanning electron microscope and an ancient gold illumination techniques. Could you explain us what the process involved and what the images represent?
The description of the work Origins of Life: Experiment 1 opens on a quote by biologist E. O. Wilson "The aim of art is not to show how or why an effect is produced (that would be science) but literally to produce it."
The quote illustrates a close alignment between art and science and that the practices are more connected then disconnected. The artist wishes to create a phenomenological output while the scientist's main goal is to understand the phenomenon: a complementary/mutualistic relationship; an epistemological difference signifying that there are many more commonalities than differences. This once again ties into the discussion of the previous question about collaboration and mutualism. Origins of Life is an installation and a performative re-enactment of the Miller experiment that attempts to quite literally depict this relationship. It is in essence a contextual problem filled with an epistemological shifting perspective.
The Great Work can be summed up in a catchy headline, but Origins of Life cannot be reduced so easily to one sentence. Not everyone knows about the Miller-Urey experiment for example. So how do you manage to engage a scientific audience with an artwork and vice versa: how do you get the attention of art lovers with a work that deals with scientific theories?
True. Not everyone knows about the details of the Miller experiment, but big questions such as "where do we come from?" and "how did life begin?" have a much greater universal appeal overlapping with philosophy, religion, art and science. You don't have to know anything about Miller-Urey or theories of how life originated to be fascinated by an apparatus that makes lightning and thunder, bubbles and boils, gleams and glistens and mysteriously converts a tank full of gas into brown-colored goo. Once interested, you can get the scientists to think about the artistic aspects of their practice and the artists to think about creating life as a metaphor for the creative process itself. The origins of life question is also what makes us human.
You also defined the project as being "open source", as it 'invites contributions and participation from other scientists.' If find you very brave. not many artists would be comfortable with the idea. Why was it important to you to leave them this open door instead of keeping the project stable and immutable? Could you tell us how and if scientists have contributed or pushed it further and, more generally, how they have reacted to the work?
Once again, it goes back to the idea of collaborative practice and mutuality and started out as a collaboration with the scientist Robert Root-Bernstein. While it is important for me to have some conceptual ownership over the work, it is also important to attempt to solve the mystery of how life started on the earth. And technically, the original scientific experiment does not belong to me either as it is an appropriation from Miller. Are not the under-pinnings of the scientific method that of "open source"?
I have been interested in the Miller experiment since I was in high school. The original experiment enacted by Miller in 1953 never seemed to make much headway after the initial experiment; that is the production of amino acids from inorganic material. Perhaps this was a result of available technology of the time. When Miller died in 2008 I felt like it was an opportunity to continue with the project. There are many adaptations and further experiments that were never realized or maybe thought of: such as adding a phosphorus source like salt or even running the experiment for longer then a week. Since trying out some of these modifications we have synthesized Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) the power source of cellular life as well as a building block of DNA and also have shown evidence of the production of lipids which are the materials that make up cellular membranes.
Most scientists have been very positive about the project. They realize that scientific funding agencies are very conservative and can only fund what will obviously work. But what we already know will work doesn't help us progress in our understanding. Engaging in the project as a performance lets us break out of the constraints that the scientific peer review system imposes so we can try the kinds of experiments most origins of life scientists would really like to try.
In fact, one scientist who had invented an ultra-sensitive ATP-measuring device, donated one to us so we could test whether we could make ATP along with amino acids. Overall, the scientific community has received the work very positively. Origins of life research in general has massive appeal. It is inspirational to scientists and artists both.
Any upcoming project, exhibition, areas of investigation you'd like to share with us?
I have a few projects in the works. I will definitely share them with you and We-Make-Money-Not-Art when they are ready to be released in the near future.
Yes, please! And thank you for your answers Adam.
The Casino de Luxembourg has, once again, put up an show worth a trip to the capital of the tiny Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Second Lives: Jeux masqués et autres Je raises questions about the blurring of identity in contemporary society. I'll review the whole exhibition later on this week but in the meantime i'd like to single out a work i found particularly striking.
In February of this year, Art Orienté objet (Marion Laval-Jeantet & Benoît Mangin) were at galerie Kapelica in Ljubljana to perform Que le cheval vive en moi (May the horse live in me), a bold self-experiment that aimed to blur the boundaries between species.
The French artistic duo has been exploring trans-species relationships and the questioning of scientific methods and tools for 20 years now. This time their work involved injecting Marion Laval-Jeantet with horse blood plasma. Over the course of several months, the artist prepared her body by allowing to be injected with horse immunoglobulins, the glycoproteins that circulate in the blood serum, and which, for example, can function as antibodies in immune response. The artist called the process "mithridatization", after Mithridates VI of Pontus who cultivated an immunity to poisons by regularly ingesting sub-lethal doses of the same.
In February 2011, having progressively built up her tolerance to the foreign animal bodies, she was injected with horse blood plasma containing the entire spectrum of foreign immunoglobulins, without falling into anaphylactic shock, an acute multi-system allergic reaction.
Horse immunoglobulins by-passed the defensive mechanisms of her own human immune system, entered her blood stream to bond with the proteins of her own body and, as a result of this synthesis, have an effect on all major body functions, impacting even the nervous system, so that the artist, during and in the weeks after the performance, experienced not only alterations in her physiological rhythm but also of her consciousness. "I had the feeling of being extra-human," explained the artist. "I was not in my usual body. I was hyper-powerful, hyper-sensitive, hyper-nervous and very diffident. The emotionalism of an herbivore. I could not sleep. I probably felt a bit like a horse.'
After the transfusion, Laval-Jeantet, perched on stilts, performed a communication ritual with a horse before her hybrid blood was extracted and freeze-dried.
Video documenting the performance:
As a radical experiment whose long-term effects cannot be calculated, Que le cheval vive en moi questions the anthropocentric attitude inherent to our technological understanding. Instead of trying to attain "homeostasis," a state of physiological balance, with this performance, the artists sought to initiate a process of "synthetic transi-stasis," in which the only constant is continual transformation and adaptation. The performance represents a continuation of the centaur myth, that human-horse hybrid which, as "animal in human," symbolizes the antithesis of the rider, who as human dominates the animal.
Second Lives: Jeux masqués et autres Je remains open at the Casino de Luxembourg - Forum d'art contemporain through September 11, 2011.
Gambiarra is the Brazilian practice of makeshifts, the art of resorting to quirky and smart improvisation in order to repair what doesn't work or to create what you need with what you have at your disposal. Gambiologia is the 'science' that studies this form of creative improvisation and celebrates it by combining it with electronic-digital techniques.
Gambiologia is also the name of a collective of artists - Fred Paulino, Lucas Mafra and Paulo Henrique 'Ganso Pessoa' - who mix this art of improvisation with DIY culture & technology to develop electronic artifacts.
Last year, Fred Paulino gathered the work of Gambiologia along with the one of over 20 Brazilian and international artists in an exhibition titled "Gambiólogos - Kludging in a Digital Era". The objects, sculptures and installations selected explored the concept of technological gambiarra: they adapt, reinvent recycled and found materials using electronic technologies and much improvisation.
Fred Paulino, who is an artist, designer, gambiologist as well as the curator of the exhibition, was kind enough to send me the catalog of the show a few months ago (you can also download the catalog in its PDF form.) I liked its content so much i thought it was my duty to pester him with my questions:
You translate 'gambiologia' with Kludging. How different is it from hacking?
Gambiologia is something like "The science of gambiarra", which is a Brazilian cultural practice of solving problems creatively in alternative ways with low cost and lots of spontaneity, or giving unusual functions to everyday life objects. There is no exact translation for 'gambiarra' so we initially used kludge which means (from Wikipedia): 'a workaround, a quick-and-dirty solution, a clumsy or inelegant, yet effective, solution to a problem, typically using parts that are cobbled together'. In the US they'd call it makeshift. Gambiologia is the study of 'gambiarra' in a technological context.
We actually stopped translating Gambiologia at all :^)
I 'd say it is a specific kind of hacking - it's the proposal of hacking not only electronics or codes, but objects as well. It's about using things (or bits, maybe) in functions they were not initially proposed to. Modify them or join them in improvised and creative ways so they'll not accomplish the original task anymore. Using parts that were not supposed to be together to create a distressing whole. In our case it's also deeply linked to Brazilian folk culture.
Before we go to the artworks themselves, could you give us a few examples of everyday gambiology in the streets of Belo Horizonte?
It's easy to find many samples of 'gambiarras' if you travel anywhere in Brazil. You can also get many pics if you google it but I attached some I collected myself.
Audio cable fixed with candy wrapper:
Beer chilled in suspended pail:
Shower in a pet bottle:
Mobile beer chilling:
Pet bottle lamp:
Simplest way to leave it open:
Among the works presented in the catalogue i was particularly curious about the following ones:. O Grivo, Polvo, Eles estão vivos, Furadeiras. Can you describe them briefly and tell us what they are about?'
Passo a Passo (Step by Step) is a work by the guys of O Grivo. They propose a random percussion symphony where different notes are played as the shadows of small pieces of wood are detected by sensors connected to a computer. Each of these pieces is attached by the end of a stick which rotates 360º at random speed, so when it gets to 0º, it plays its own note very loud. It proposes an interesting contrast between a very delicate structure and loud music tones in a kind of physically constructed musical timeline.
Polvo (Octopus) from Paulo Nenflidio is a sound machine made by plastic conduits. These are originally used to hold electric cables but Paulo used them to hold compressed air. As the visitor "plays" a keyboard made out of door ring bells, the conduits blow, generating different sounds. The seven bells form a complete tone set. This bizarre octopus-instrument still have an 8th note generated by an water spray on its top.
Eles Estão Vivos (They're Still Alive) was created by Paulo Waisberg. I initially invited him to be the scenographer of the exhibition but he also came with this work. We had all these old displays and keyboards that were donated by the city's council but we didn't know how to use. Paulo created this artwork during the exhibition preparation just a day before the opening, using old footage of blinking eyes in the displays. In my opinion it tells a lot about how re-creating can be much more interesting than recycling. It's also a good demonstration of how a strong sense of improvisation and spontaneity was incorporated all through the exhibition.
Furadeiras (Drills) is one of the simplest exhibited artworks but surely one of the smartest. It's by Guto Lacaz, an experienced artist from Sao Paulo. He proposed an unusual meeting between "different generation" drills - one being analogue and the other electrical. It's an ironic interpretation between planned obsolescence and how technology evolves, sometimes just rotating around itself in an infinite loop. Or how the old (low-tech) and the new (high-tech) can live collaboratively.
How about Gambiociclo? What made you decide to create this 'mobile unit of multimedia transmission"?
The Gambiocycle is inspired on Graffiti Research Lab's mobile broadcast unit. I got to be friend with those guys a few years ago, we made some stuff together, they proposed to me run GRL Brazilian sister cell www.graffitiresearchlab.com.br . We run it in parallel to Gambiologia.
I always wish to have a multimedia vehicle that could project video and digital graffiti in public space. It's terrific how that can be a straight path to a democratic dialogue between people and the city itself. But our MBU should be gambiological - reflecting the logics and aesthetics of 'gambiarra' with this strong Brazilian accent. So we built it inspired by trolleys of salesmen who ride here mostly selling products or doing political advertisement. The idea was to mix performance, happening, electronic art, graffiti and 'gambiarras'.
Yes. People are always surprised as they're not much used to digital graffiti or having electronic art in the streets here. But what impressed me the most is the immediate affinity that the Gambiocycle caused in ordinary people not directly involved to art. I was initially most worried about the vehicle's funcionality or the performances' visual contents, but probably due to the strong local aesthetics it incorporates, people were suddenly feeling more like touching the MBU, taking pictures with it or riding it. I believe it comes from this unconscious feeling of spontainity the work proposes and everybody practice some way since childhood.
And we just got the news that Gambiocycle got an Honorary Mention at Prix Ars Electronica 2011 yeah!
Is there a conscious art community of gambilogos in Brazil but also beyond it? Or is it more like a natural and widespread way of using technology that doesn't really need a name or a purpose community to exist?
Gambiologia was initially the name our three guys' collective but the word is now being used here to identify a new way of think about technology, hacking and (Brazilian) pop culture. Like a science or a movement... It somehow captured the feeling of many creators, and I believe not only in this country. Many artists worldwide are "gambiólogos" (gambiologists) without knowing that. I recently had been in touch with the work of European artists like Niklas Roy which are pretty much gambiological! That's the feeling that Gambiólogos exhibition proposed to group and show.
It doesn't need a name at all but if it had that should be in Brazilian Portuguese :^) Yes I strongly believe this country is a perfect example of chaotic miscegenation - cultural or technological - that results in a notion of creative spontaneity. As a colonial country we initially didn't have enough resources for solving everyday problems so we had to invent simple and cheap solutions... Gambiologia tries to go beyond this, bring it into the art scene with an aesthetical and political discussion about technology.
Does Gambiologia have any consideration for aesthetics?
Sure! But for us we had enough of Apple-like clean aesthetics, we had enough newly-released electronics. People can't stand so many rubbish and consumption... That's why we love to work and play with recycling, remixing and - why not - reproposing the notion of "old" and "new".
It was time i'd interview Niklas Roy! Jonah Brucker-Cohen had a fantastic talk with him for gizmodo but that was 4 years ago. And there are video portraits about Niklas Roy online but there are in a language i can't quite master. Niklas is one of the most facetious characters of the 'new media art' world. His dance machine without 'annoying Dj", moving curtain, 'distributed' fountains, white cube gallery in a box, physical teapot inside a Commodore cabinet or his electromechanical version of the game Pong are certainly witty, absurd and at times, even hilarious. But don't let the jesting fool you. Behind the playfulness of Roy's machines, lay much irony and lucidity about the world of art & tech he belongs to.
Hi, Niklas! Why do you feel the need to invent 'useless things'?
Well, I guess that engineers and designers which usually invent machines and devices mainly do that in order to solve a problem with their inventions. Or they want to make an existing process more efficient with the help of technology. But such efficiency-driven approaches exclude a vast field of possible inventions. I find it very interesting to explore this field as it promises to be very free.
Do you really believe that your works are useless?
Somehow, my creations often end up in art exhibitions. So the question is, how useless is art? I strongly believe that art is useful for the health of society in some sort of balancing way. From that point of view, my machines might be a bit useful.
It is a bit daunting to interview you. I'm not sure i can trust any of your answers. Especially after having had a look at the WIA < > WIA project for which a fictitious African artist set up an installation that consisted of a public toilet in Linz, that appeared to be hooked up via Internet to an African village's well. Why did you chose to trick ars electronica? Was it really a spoof? Surely they must have known there was something fishy in the work?
Ars Electronica is the leading Media Arts institution. Their pole position makes them define trends and create hypes. Unfortunately, I often cannot agree to those hypes - which feeds the rebel in me.
Melissa's - let's call it 'performance' - started when Ars Electronica released a 'call for proposals' for an exhibition as part of Linz' culture capital program. This open call was more or less a very clear wish list of what they'd like to show. This open call would have made a good briefing for companies which focus on designing interactive installations. But it was not suitable to address artists which should stimulate the society by expressing their own positions. My application as African artist Melissa Fatoumata Touré began as a little fun experiment. I submitted precisely what Ars Electronica asked for and spiced it up with some toilet humour. I wanted to know how they'd react to such a rather ridiculous submission. It worked out far better than I thought: As I heard later, Melissa's toilet project was the first that got accepted by the jury - and they were even a bit sad that the other submissions didn't even come close to the 'quality' of Melissas proposal. Well, this is what the jury said.
To answer your last two questions: As far as I know, the organizers really had no clue what was going on until Melissa presented her work via Skype and with a live video broadcast from her uncle's internetcafé in Africa. That happened about three weeks after the opening of the exhibition, as far as I remember. But you should not forget that they've never seen Melissa before this presentation. It was all organized just via email and phone calls. There was a lot of imagination involved. On both sides actually: I also could just imagine what the organizers in Linz would think about Melissa. And during the long process of preparing the exhibition and the installation, I often had the feeling that Ars Electronica wouldn't believe Melissa's identity anymore and that they're already playing with me.
I like your explanation of why Melissa is 'the perfect dream of every new media curator.' And i couldn't help but smirk at 'her ideas are distilled media art mainstream.' Could you elaborate on this? What are 'distilled media art mainstream' ideas? Do i perceive a certain disenchantment/fatigue with media art theories and ideas? Or am i completely wrong?
I'm not even sure if ideas and theory play such a big role if you want to become successful in this field. Here are some simple lessons that I've learned so far:
1st: Don't be an artist. You should be an architect or have a background in biology, or something else more or less unrelated. Melissa was actually a computer scientist. Talking about Melissa: Your gender also plays a role. Being a woman beats being a man, as women are extremely underrepresented in this field.
2nd: No matter what you're really up to, I can recommend you to also make some experimental electronic music. This adds an interesting layer to your personality. Your level of musicality doesn't matter as that's the point where the experimental part starts.
3rd: Buzzwords and -topics are your friends and your source of inspiration. You might consider to become active in the fields of biotech, sustainability or, of course, Facebook.
You explain that you created the Vektron modular because sometimes you need to listen to some strange zoundz. That sounds (to me at least) like a lot of work just for the sake of listening to some strange zoundz. I was wondering how often you create a work just for your own amusement. How much are you influenced by the possible feedback from public, the future reaction of the audience during the creative process? Do you give it much importance when you are developing a new work?
Building this synthesizer was actually an attempt to add an interesting layer to my personality. But I didn't want to write it so clear on my webpage, as this would have caused the reverse effect. Ok, now serious: I regard the development of things like this experimental Synthesizer as both, spare time fun and hands on research. I do that as often as possible as it often leads me to new ideas. The hard thing is actually to organize life an a way that you have so much spare time where you can work really free.
I was very impressed by the little video documenting the Reinventing Television workshop you headed a the Valand Art School in Gothenburg. Can you take us through a couple of projects that turned old tv sets into 'storytelling machines'?
This was really a nice workshop. Anna Kindvall, one of the directors of Malmö's Electrohype biennial was teacher there at that time and invited me. The idea was to take old TV's and build new machines inside or with them. I often built TV's out of cardboard boxes when I was a child and don't get me wrong, now, but I think when something was a lot of fun to do in childhood, it's always nice to make the same things with art students.
My Little Piece of Privacy is a curtain that moves along your studio window to protect you from the gaze of passersby and achieves precisely the opposite. I have the feeling that it is also the kind of idea that the 'creatives' in advertising and communication agencies would love to steal for their clients. Has anything like that ever happened to you? Have people from advertising ever approached you with a request to adapt one of your projects for their client? Is it something you'd be happy to do?
This installation is indeed an amazing attention-magnet. But the installation makes so much sense because it is just about a little hyperactive curtain. If the curtain would be replaced by a moving advertisement, it would be just poor. Maybe the 'creatives' which wanted to steal the idea also realized that. At least they didn't contact me and I haven't heard of any spin-offs, yet.
I guess the previous question calls for the upcoming one: The first time i saw your work was at Transmediale where you were showing Pongmechanik. You were still a student at the udk in Berlin at the time. As far as i can see you're still a happy independent artist doing exactly what takes his fancy. How do you do that? Do you have any advice for talented media art students who would like to actually have a career as media artist and not as 'creative' doing websites for an 'interactive design' company?
I think I answered that already in two different ways: My personal trick is mainly to organize life in a way that I have a lot of time (and at least enough money) to work on things that I find interesting. Working in a company will not really help, as this takes too much time.
How did you start being involved in media art? What attracted you in this field?
It was actually many years ago, when a friend took me for my first time to the Transmediale. I was working in the film business at that time, creating visual effects for feature films. This Transmediale visit caused two things: On the one hand, I've never seen so many interesting installations at one place before. I loved the way how technology was used in this very creative way. And on the other hand, I saw that there's plenty of space to make even more interesting things with technology. That's why I started to get involved in this field.
I saw the International Dance Party once in an exhibition in Amsterdam. i was alone in the room and could afford to throw away any kind of inhibition. But you must have witnessed the effect it has on a group of people. How do people react to it usually? Are they very self-conscious? Or rather extrovert?
Like the curtain, the IDP works amazingly well. But of course, there's a little bit of chain reaction involved. If one person starts to dance, it doesn't take long until the whole room takes off. The sad thing about this is, that I really like how the machine opens and closes and how it transforms its shape. People which are just dancing don't recognize that, as the installation always stays in full party mode. If that's the case, I sometimes try to convince the people to stop dancing. First they don't approve my suggestion, but if they do, they love the installation even more afterwards.
Has anyone ever bought the Beginner Set "Junior IDP"?
That's my main income!
Any upcoming project or exhibition that you'd like to share with us?
Yes, there's this exhibition in Barcelona's DHUB opening soon. The vernissage is on June 21st.
And then, there's another exhibition, called 'Paranoia' which is still going on in Lille's Gare St. Sauveur. Charles Carcopino curated this really great show. I can 100% recommend it and it's still running until 15th of August.
Photography used on the homepage is by Martin W. Maier.
On Sunday i went on a fun tour of the new ARS Electronica Center, they have all sorts of robots, prosthetic limbs, interactive installations, a biolab, a fablab and more geekiness and jaw-dropping exhibitions that i thought one could ever fit in one single building. The one thing i want to write about right now are the kinetic sculptures of Arthur Ganson. I know so little about kinetic art and he's so famous. He even gave this charming TED talk:
Ganson creates Rube Goldberg machines with themes so "existential" that they have been compared to the plays of Samuel Beckett. Absurd would be an easy but inadequate way to describe his sculptures. In spite of their delicate and whimsical aspect, they have the unique power of throwing you into deep thoughts without even you noticing. Here's a couple of them (i used the images and descriptions provided by ars electronica):
Machine with Eggshells was born out of the impulse to play and the accidental discovery of the sonic potential of the eggshell. It is both a farcical meditation on the complexity of complex gear ratios and a machine for sending a strange and unique 'Morse code' message to the far reaches of the universe. The rhythm of clicks is based on the ratios of the numbers of teeth on the five main gears multiplied together.
The speed at which the cogwheels in Machine with Concrete (1992) turn is slowed down by 12 pairs of reductors. The last cogwheel needs two trillion years to complete one rotation. In contrast to this figure, mankind first appeared on Earth only a few million years ago. Whereas the everyday life of modern men and women increasingly seems to be accelerating, changes in the universe take place in time dimensions of billions of years.
Inspired by locks of birds, butterflies or just leaves in the wind, Machine with 22 Scraps of Paper sets scraps of paper in a gentle motion suggestive of birds in flight.
Ganson's machines (please do me a favour and have a look at their videos portrait) are part of an exhibition titled Poetry of Motion. The exhibition also features Eric Dyer's Bellows, the impressive Quarted by Jeff Lieberman and Dan Paluska and the video documentation of contemporary works of kinetic art such as Bernie Lubell's Conservation of Intimacy, an installation i raved about two years ago at the festival, Chico MacMurtrie's Totemobile and Maywa Denki's Tsukuba Series:
And here are my flickr images of the Ars Electronica Center.