Spontaneous Human Combustion occurs when a human body bursts into flame and is reduced to ashes without any apparent external source of ignition. Moreover, while the body is almost completely incinerated, which requires temperatures of about 3,000 degrees, the rest of the room, the furniture remain almost undamaged by the fire. SHC takes place in Charles Dickens' novels but also in contemporary police investigations. A few months ago, the badly burned body of a pensioner was found in his living room in Galway, Ireland. Apart from his body, investigators could only find minor damage on the ceiling above him and the floor beneath him. "This fire was thoroughly investigated and I'm left with the conclusion that this fits into the category of spontaneous human combustion, for which there is no adequate explanation," said the coroner.

Unsurprisingly, the phenomenon is accompanied by much speculation and controversy.

Image courtesy Sebastian Rønde Thielke

Sebastian Thielke, a first year student of Design Interactions, looked closely at the phenomenon for a project he showed at the RCA's Work in Progress exhibition which closed a few weeks ago.

While investigating the paranormal phenomenon, the designer found about long forgotten military experiments that were carried out in the 1960s USA. Thielke's finding tells a fragmented story of how science, in the name of war, is willing to push the boundaries of what is ethically and morally acceptable, and how far the institutions of national defense are willing to go beyond what is rational. His work looks also at the way information technology contributes to the intertwining of science and occult beliefs.
In the age of information technology these ideas and philosophies have won new territories on the internet where they can grow and multiply on websites and social networks, and tie into ever growing theories of science and spiritualism, conspiracy and mass deception, Thielke explains on his project page.

So far, it seems that the project is more about investigating than designing. What i found most interesting though is that the designer is ready to explore and comment on a mysterious, paranormal, pseudoscientific phenomenon. As far as i know, this is very unusual area of research for a designer.

Extracts from the email exchange i had with Sebastian:

Why this interest in spontaneous human combustion? It is such a spooky phenomenon.

Yes, that's a good question. This project was initially a response to a brief. It was a two-three week project and we had very short time to chose a topic we wanted to work on.

I didn't know much about spontaneous human combustion (SHC). I just remember reading about it many years ago in a Paul Auster novel, which I've now forgotten the name of. But SHC has stuck in my head since. I really like these kinds of phenomenons that are so mystical they seem to be fictional and yet they have occurred several times in history.

Mary Reeser, a suspected victim of spontaneous human combustion. Her remains, which were largely ashes, were found among the remains of a chair in which she had been sitting. Only part of her left foot (which was wearing a slipper) and her backbone remained

Image courtesy Sebastian Rønde Thielke

I had a look on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spontaneous_human_combustion and it doesn't appear to be a phenomenon one should take very seriously. The causes of SHC are mostly either paranormal or unknown/unobserved. What is the consensus among scientists about the phenomenon?

There are some scientific or causal explanations, but they all fall short of explaining every detail of the events. One of the main topics of discussion is the source of ignition: how people actually start to combust. The rational explanations all claims that the source of ignition is external, they suggest things such as static electricity from a carpet, a dropped cigarette or a malfunctioning power socket sparking a flame. While these might be valid explanations they don't seem to have been confirmed in any of the reported cases, only suggested. And it still doesn't explain how a person sitting in a chair can burn to ashes without the fire spreading to the rest of the house. When a body is cremated it is burned at almost 900 degrees Celsius for about two hours. Investigators have tried to explain this with what they call the 'wick effect', which is also mentioned on wikipedia. It describes how a body can burn for several hours; the melted body fat becoming a flamable liquid, saturating the clothes of the victim and thus acting as a wick that can burn for hours.

But I didn't really do that much research on the scientific side, and it doesn't seem like there has been that much research done to explain this phenomenon. Since it is such a rare occurrence, I guess it is mostly dismissed as random coincidences. But that is what is so intriguing about it - that it is such a weird phenomenon. The circumstances when it happens, the bizarre visual sceneries it leaves behind of ashes, burned limbs and melted TVs. It has occurred so few times that it cannot be perfectly explained by science, yet it has occurred enough times to have earned its definition as a phenomenon. It leaves so much space for speculations into the mystical and paranornal, and that was the part I was most interested in.

So I did a lot of research into Kundalini, which is one of the more mystical explanations of SHC. Kundalini is a term used in Eastern philosophies. It is a bodily energy that can be awakened through yoga and meditation. Some people believe that this energy might be able to cause a human being to combust - that it causes a subatomic chain reaction that heats up the body. I'm not going to go into detail about Kundalini, there is plenty of stuff to read about it online, but what you discover when you start researching Kundalini is that it opens up a huge world of New Age interpretations that mixes it with (pseudo) scientific theories. It is amazing to see how different New Age, spiritual/religious cultures appropriate science and piece together their own explanations of how the world works. And I believe the internet plays a key role in this. There is so much information available out there for anyone to study, and since there are no academic institutions governing and validating this knowledge it becomes an entangling jungle of pocket-philosophy and pseudo-science, which mutates into various unimaginable forms on blogs and forums. I guess you can say that this has been my material in this project.

How is SHC related to the military experiments carried out in the 1960s in the USA your research refers to?

The thing that lead me to find the items that I presented in the exhibition, was a video I stumbled upon during my research. As I was reading through several odd blogs and forums about SHC and kundalini, there was a few places where a 'video of a burning mouse' was mentioned. When I finally found the video on YouTube, it was this weird short clip of an actual burning mouse, which didn't really tell me much. But as I read through the comments, I could see that people were discussing and speculating what the weird shadow that is seen in the beginning of the clip might be. There was all sorts of stupid suggestions, but one that was particularly interesting was a woman (the name LPK19 didn't actually reveal any gender) who wrote that she had seen the clip before when she was working at the Pennsylvania Military Museum. I ended up emailing the museum about the clip and they told me that it had been a part of the remnants of a military lab in the Alpena Air National Guard Base in Alpena, Michigan, which burned to the ground in 1964.

Image courtesy Sebastian Rønde Thielke

Image courtesy Sebastian Rønde Thielke

What were these experiments about? Where can we find more information about them?

There are no detailed descriptions of what exactly the experiments were about, but from looking at the photos and papers it seems like they were dealing with sound frequencies. There is a photo of an oscilloscope, a spreadsheet where different frequencies are noted, plus some technical drawings of what seems to be directional speakers. From my research I've learned about something called the Solfeggio Frequencies, which is believed by many spirituals to have healing powers (or potentially destructive if used in the wrong way). Solfeggio, or Solfège, is an old music system that were used in gregorian chants to associate different note-intervals, with specific syllables: ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la and ti. It seems that they were using those frequencies in their experiments.

Some of the other photos shows men dissecting black, burned corpses of pigs and there is also an illustration of the anatomy of a pig brain, which of course shows that they have been testing on animals.

A third photo shows a person that seems to be meditating. This along with a drawing that illustrates the seven chakras of kundalini, suggests that they have somehow used these ideas and philosophies in their experiments.

Nowhere is there any mentioning of SHC.

Image courtesy Sebastian Rønde Thielke

And what is that helmet you were exhibiting at the work in progress show?

It seems like it is meant to project sound into the forehead of the person wearing it. In Kundalini it is believed that the body has seven energy centres called chakras. The Ajna Chakra, also known as the third eye, is situated just behind the center between the eyebrows. It is also associated with the pineal gland inside the brain. I suspect that they have been trying to somehow stimulate this part, the 'third eye', to affect the kundalini of the test person or animal.

Your project page talks about 'how far the institutions of national defense are willing to go beyond what is rational.' What do you mean by that? That they are pulling hoaxes on us?

No, what I meant with the word rational was that sometimes military research pursues ideas that has no scientific foundation or that goes beyond what is ethical.

Most of the technology that surrounds us was originally developed for military purposes and warfare has always been one of the major drivers of science and technological development. In this race to be technologically ahead, military labs have sometimes gone too far in their research and experiments. The Nazi experiments or those of the Unit 731 in Japan are horrible examples of military funded science turning a blind eye on ethics and human rights. In more recent time the CIA Stargate project has shown that occult, paranormal and mystic beliefs still have a place in military research. My findings seems to be from one such program.

Thank you Sebastian!

Related: Delusions of Self-Immolation.

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Image courtesy Ai Hasegawa and Joseph Popper

Japanese love hotels go out of their way to satisfy the most outlandish fetish: some rooms offer the feeling of being inside a subway carriage, a class room, or a Hello Kitty SM room, others locks you into an alien abduction nightmare (/dream).

Ai Hasegawa, second year student in Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art in London, proposes to close loving couples into an even more extraordinary fantasy.

Her Extreme Environment Love Hotel simulates impossible places to go such as the Earth of three hundred million years ago (during the Carboniferous period), or the surface of Jupiter by manipulating invisible but ever-present environmental factors, for example atmospheric conditions and gravity.

Our bodies would survive if we were propelled back to the Carboniferous period but they would need to adapt if we'd stay over long periods of time. It is estimated that during that time, the peak oxygen content of the atmosphere was as high as 35%, compared to 21% today. This oxygen level resulted in insect and amphibian gigantism--creatures whose size is constrained by respiratory systems that are limited in their ability to diffuse oxygen. For example, the ancestor of the dragonfly, the Meganeura, grew up to seventy-five centimeters due to the huge concentration of oxygen in the air.

Life on Jupiter doesn't sound very pleasant for us either. The atmospheric environment of the largest planet within the Solar System is one of strong gravity, high pressure, strong winds, and extremely cold temperatures.

How might our bodies change, struggle or even adapt with varying conditions around us?

Portable Carboniferous room. Image credit: Anthony Dunne

The first of Ai Hasegawa's Extreme Environment Love Hotel room, the carboniferous one, is currently on view at the work in progress show of the Royal College of Art. The prototypes show how couples would have to carry a suitcase containing higher levels of oxygen that recreate the atmosphere of the Carboniferous period, they would also be surrounded by plants similar to the ones that proliferated in the warm and humid climate: large trees covered with bark and huge ferns growing in swamps.

The designer's work is of course a bit eccentric but it also propose to reflect on how making love inside an Extreme Environments Love Hotel room might give rise to new evolutions and mutations of the human body and sex and give it a brand new role away from our biologically-programmed needs and inclinations.

Breathing mask for the portable Carboniferous room. Image credit: Anthony Dunne

Why did you decide to explore new frontiers in Love Hotels?

Love hotel is a utopia to serve the people's dream and fantasy.

We are able to go to space or have a hyper gravity experience at NASA , but that is only for chosen people, the rich or some elites.

A love hotel, however, is opened to all adults. I could have worked on a 'Fun fair/ amusement park' type of attraction, but these gives us only short time experiences that don't last more than 5 minutes.

I wanted to have an experience longer than a funfair ride, an experience that would last until our body could feel slight changes and adapt to them. You can stay at the hotel for one hour, for a week or a year. Also sex is a hard form of exercise, and a "love" hotel is the perfect place to challenge the limit of our body in extreme environmental conditions.

Also from critical point of view, Love hotel is designed for sexual urge. It is a place for desire and pleasure, probably not for love nor reproduction.

I feel sex isn't motivated solely by life instinct, by the need to reproduce and make our species survive. Sexual urge can make us take some life-risking actions such as HIV infection.

I wonder if our DNA might need to be modified in order to redesign the strategy of reproduction... In other words, why not have some evolutions?

To trigger evolutions, we might want to use a technology to modify our DNA, of course. But before that, we need to study our body potentials with basic elements, invisible factors, such as atmosphere, gravity, temperature, electromagnetic waves, etc. We need new environments, new frontiers.

I chose places where 'we are not able to go to' for a romantic or melancholic reason. We don't have any strong reason to go to Jupiter. Moreover, we are able to have a time-trip to the future (possible in theory, but it's only a one-way trip), but not to the past (the theory hasn't been proved yet, i think). The love hotel would be the ideal place to serve such dreams and fantasies.

Image courtesy Ai Hasegawa and Joseph Popper

What does their body risk if the lovers keeps the breathing mask for a long time?

There is no risk. If healthy people breath 100% oxygen for long time, they would have lungs problem, but this Carboniferous portable room portable supplies only 35% oxygen under usual atmospheric pressure. A real chamber, thus not the "portable" version will be higher atmosphere, but still it will be fine. This real chamber will be similar to Hyperbaric medicine. It would probably be slightly easier to breathe and recovering energy would be faster than usual in this room.

The 20G centrifuge at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California

You're also working on a Jupiter room. What will it be like? And feel like?

I hope it will be like a NASA's 20-G Centrifuge. But cheaper version would make it look more like a Rotor in fun fair. A wall become a floor by centrifugal force. Bed is on the wall.

3D sketch of the Jupiter room. Image courtesy Ai Hasegawa

Customer might need to wear a harness to support the weight, they might also need to wear a bone protector, just in case. You have to be careful with the position you chose. If you want to adopt a 'woman on top' position, then your body might be too heavy to climb up. Besides, the man's hipbone might break under the weight. But if you stay for a week or a month, maybe after a while your body will adapt and become more masculine.

In a Hotel room, you also need to have a toilet and a shower. The water in the Jupiter room would fall 2.35 times faster than usual. One day lasts only 9 hours and 55 min in this room.

If you want, you might probably be able to make a baby under the hyper gravity...

Thanks Ai!

Check out The Extreme Environment Love Hotel: Carboniferous Room at the Student Work-in-Progress Show, Royal College of Art, London. The exhibition end on Monday afternoon.

Erik Hobijn, Delusions of self-immolation. Photo Morten Hartz Kaplers

A week ago i was in Eindhoven for an of the STRP festival that surpassed all my expectations. The curators and directors of the event had the brilliant (and timely) idea of dedicating the whole exhibition to the history of new media art in The Netherlands. I'll come back with a report or two about the show as soon as i've collected all the pictures and texts i need. But i found that one of the pieces exhibited, Delusions of Self-Immolation, is so powerful and disturbing it deserved its own post.

STRP 2011 Expo hall. Photo: Boudewijn Bollmann

Delusions of Self-Immolation, aka 'the suicide machine', was a built by Erik Hobijn in the 1990s to set members of the public on fire. Literally.

The person would stand on a platform covered in a flame-resistant gel. A flame-thrower would then burn their body for less then half a second. The platform then turns on itself so that the extinguisher situated on the opposite side of the machine can extinguish the person immediately.

In an interview with Derek Holzer, Hobijn explained: There are three states on the machine which I call "rare", "medium", and "well done". "Rare" means you survive without any wounds. "Medium" is more for, say, the SM session or for people who like pain to understand parts of life, or to have this experience of pain. The third possibility is death. It is possible to die in this machine; I just have to change the liquid, and I have to change the timing.

Some 30 people have tested it at the time, many of whom were women.

The machine was shown at STRP along with a video. The artist also made demonstrations. I doubt it would be possible to have it function nowadays. We've all caught the Health and Safety bug in Europe.

Obviously, there is something physical in the Self-Immolation experience but what goes on inside the mind of the people before, during and after the burning alive experience must be even more intense and fascinating.

Erik Hobijn, Delusions of self-immolation, demonstration. Photo © Jan Sprij 1993

Erik Hobijn, Delusions of self-immolation. Photo Morten Hartz Kaplers

Erik Hobijn, Delusions of self-immolation. Photo Morten Hartz Kaplers

Erik Hobijn, Delusions of self-immolation. Photo Morten Hartz Kaplers

Erik Hobijn, Delusions of self-immolation. Photo Morten Hartz Kaplers

If you speak dutch, i would recommend the book SKG: kunst, muziek & terreur 1978-1981 by Martijn Haas that reconstruct the 'night of terrorism' orchestrated by Hobijn in the Summer of 1980 in Amsterdam.

Hunterian Museum - Pipa Monstrosa. Image by Mister J. Photography

Last Wednesday, as i walked by the Royal College of Surgeons in London, i saw a small sign that said "Hunterian Museum" with an arrow pointing to the top of stairs. I dutifully followed the arrow.

(image Unlike)

I wasn't fully prepared for what i encountered there: animal foetuses in jars, the skull of a little boy born with a second skull attached to the top of his head, a transverse section of a leg and foot of a man suffering from elephantiasis, skeletons of animals born with extra legs or heads, pickled deformed animals, a prosthetic nose attached to eyeglasses, organs attacked by almost any kind of disease you could think of, and various bits and pieces of human and non-human animals preserved in glass jars.

Hunterian Museum - Thecadactylus. Image credit: Mister J. Photography

Hunterian Museum - Elephantiasis. Image by Mister J. Photography

Hunterian Museum - Syphilitic Penises. Photo credit: Mister J. Photography

Reading through the online reviews of the museum makes me realize how much i've missed (namely the skeleton of 'Irish giant' Charles Byrne, the tooth of an extinct giant sloth donated by Charles Darwin, the brain of computer pioneer Charles Babbage and Winston Churchill's dentures) during my short and shocked visit. Be sure that i'll be walking around the place before the end of the week.

The museum is mostly based on the collection amassed by John Hunter, an 18th century Scottish surgeon and anatomist whom wikipedia defines as an early advocate of careful observation and scientific method in medicine. And indeed once you've recovered from the surprise, there is much to learn about the history of medicine and anatomy in the permanent collection as well as from the temporary exhibition that the museum presents in a couple of rooms on the top floor. The current one is dedicated to the outcome of artist Ju Gosling aka ju90's inquest into the cultural construction of disability via society's (mis)interpretation of science and medicine.

A transverse section of a leg and foot of a patient with elephantiasis

Eyewear for a woman who had lost her nose


Visitors are not allowed to take pictures in the museum so obviously, none of the uncredited picture above is mine.

The Hunterian Museum is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm. Admission is free.

IBI trying Town Crier, a device which recognises and reads geo-tagged tweets through a megaphone

Last week, i was telling you about Le Cadavre Exquis, an interactive installation commissioned Making Future Work. This Nottingham-based initiative that called for artists, designers and organisations based in East Midlands to submit proposals that would respond to four distinct areas of practice: Co creation / Online Space, Pervasive Gaming / Urban Screens, Re-imaging Redundant Systems and Live Cinema / 3D.

The Urban Immune System Research, one of the 4 winning projects, investigates parallel futures in the emergence of the 'smart-city'. During their research, the Institute has produced a series of speculative prototypes that combine digital technology and biometrics: one of the devices 'functions as a social sixth sense', a second one is a backpack mounted with 4 megaphones that shouts out geo-located tweets as you walk around, a third one attempts to make its wearer get a sense of what might it feel like to walk through a 'data cloud' or a 'data meadow'.

The devices are the starting point of a series of user tests, performative research and public engagement events that seek to provoke debate and facilitate wider public discussion around potential urban futures, and our role in shaping them.


Just a few words of introduction about The Institute for Boundary Interactions before i proceed with our interview. IBI is a group of artists, designers, architects, technologists and creative producers conduct practice-based research into the complex relationships between people, places and recent developments in the field of science, technology and culture.

The Institute for Boundary Interactions display L.O.S.T. Stone and Sticky Data. Image credit: Melissa Gueneau, courtesy MFW

The name of your project is quite intriguing. Why did you call it Urban Immune System Research? How does the immune system of a city compare to the human body immune system, for example? What are the differences and similarities?

The Urban Immune System Research [UISR] project was the culmination of a two day event we ran in December 2010 as part of our LAB commission for Sideshow2010. We set out to discuss the relationship between notions of 'intelligent' systems, and principles of ecology. A whole raft of interesting and thought provoking ideas emerged but after some discussion they coalesced into the UISR project.

We found the immune system a fascinating and intriguing departure point because it demonstrates complex self-organising properties, but what's interesting about this to us is how this kind of system is understood outside of scientific circles, in the everyday and within the context of the city. There is a general understanding of these kinds of systems, but we discovered an absence in the general lexicon of everyday terms with which to describe the kind of phenomena we explored in that workshop. So in part the name of the project is to ask questions about perceptions of intelligence and explore that gap between the science and the experience.

The interest in looking at urban space as an organism developed from thinking about this relationship between ecologies and intelligent systems. We looked at how these systems scale up, inspired by Geoffery West's research into the similarities and differences between mammalian and urban scaling. So despite their very clear differences urban ecologies correlate strongly to biological systems and although made of different components behave in similar ways.

This research quickly grew into a fascination by what happens at that juncture where human technology meets ecology, how personal electronic devices, micro-biology and nano-technology effect us at the macro level. We were interested in how this will manifest  macroscopically, or ecolologically if you will, and how this in turn will affect us individually as constituent parts of that urban ecology. Asking what form an Urban Immune System might take, and the devices we have developed under this title thus far are the first steps in our efforts to understand these ideas and their implications.

The devices all look to find alternative ways of connecting the individual directly to their ecology (the urban organism) and feel their place within it. These technologies operate to mediate our relationship to, and navigation through physical, social and virtual space. This process of upgrading could be seen as the momentum leading us towards transhumanism, an imagined yet possible future where the augmented body replaces natural selection as an evolutionary process in turn effecting the development of our 'ecological' surroundings. 

This notion of transhumanism is another aspect that we we're very interested to explore within this project as it has a lot of synergy with the notion of the urban organism. From one perspective we are looking at the inorganic environment as an organic organism, and from another we look at the organic organism as a component within an inorganic machine. 

Trying IBI's Sticky Data device. Image credit: Melissa Gueneau, courtesy MFW

Sticky Data display. Image courtesy of IBI

With The Sticky Data device you were asking "What might it feel like to walk through a 'data cloud' or a 'data meadow'?" Did you find an answer to the question while you were testing the device? Is the experience of knowing how much data our body goes through every single second a stimulating one? or is it rather stressing? worrying? overwhelming? Does it influence the way you navigate a city afterwards? Would you for example avoid a quiet street because you've discovered that it might looks like a pleasant street empty of cars and passersby but with a data traffic that you find too intense?

The most stimulating thing about being able to sense geo-located data is the thought that you are physically feeling traces of people's experiences in the same place where they happened. We think this gives an extra sense of connection to a place, even if only for a moment.

It's difficult to say exactly what that should feel like, we're still playing with different haptic sensations, but the device certainly challenged our assumptions about certain areas. For example, in one test we found a really high density of data outside a bus depot, whereas across the street near a stadium, a seemingly much more social and 'eventful' place, there was comparatively little. So you definitely get a sense that the topography of a city's data layer can be quite different to that of its architectural space, but also an alternative sense of a places social makeup. So, finding themselves in a less sociable environment, did the inhabitants of the bus depot turn to more digital forms of social interaction, while the stadium offered enough 'face to face' social encounters that digital interaction was unnecessary?

The hope is definitely to ask people to question their relationship with space by providing a very different experience of navigating a city - the technologies that we use everyday are creating this digital topography, so how does this affect the urban organism and our interactions within it? 

Sticky Data App Field Test

At the end of your description of the Sticky Data project, you explain that "As the user moves on, data seeds will be copied and dropped in new locations spreading them throughout the city or collected and cataloged by the device." Why did you feel the need to add this 'manipulation' of the data? Is it not going to make the 'datascape' too confusing?

This was an idea that came from discussions around the notion of the Urban Immune System. We talked about the idea that perhaps urban space already has an immune system of sorts that operates to keep the city within normative parameters. We discussed this redistribution as something that might function like an immunisation to bolster this existing immune system by disrupting it with non-normative behaviour to see how it responded.  

We were interested in devices that have parasitic (viral) properties or where the owner could engage in the production of data and urban data configuration using the traces that others leave behind just through wearing the device and walking.  We leave behind traces of our electronic identities almost daily and it's something that we are not really aware of.  

Also, if data is part of our physical world then it in some way degrades or gets pasted over like the posters in a metro station over time, the datascape is constantly shifting.  We were going to be selective over how what qualities of data we were looking for, so older data might not be as 'memetically healthy' and so may not spread as far or at all. We were interested in being deliberately disruptive to see what might happen if we push messages into and across territories.  So the Sticky Data project could sift through what is there in electronic space to find data that might benefit the wearer or be most disruptive.

Testing sticky data. Image courtesy of IBI

Conductive glove. Image courtesy of IBI

One of the objectives of UISR is to explore new ways to 'sense the social characteristics of a city as you would temperature, or air quality.' Do you have a better idea of Nottingham (or any other city where you have experimented with the devices) after having tested your prototypes through its streets? Do you see the city with another eye?

The devices have opened up new ways of experiencing the city, so we're pleased about that. When testing the Sticky Data device we discovered huge amounts of twitter data in surprising places - like the bus depot on an unremarkable street that we mentioned before. So the device certainly challenges your perceptions of the social makeup of your environment and certain expectations or pre-judgments you may have made. Of course it also has the ability to re-enforce some prejudices too. However, not knowing what the messages are it leaves you to read into their presence from what is physically around you, building the virtual narrative into the physical narrative of your surroundings.

In the tests we have carried out we have felt some interesting things that have challenged and re-enforced our assumptions of particular locations. However no one of us has tested the device thoroughly across the city yet as we are still fine tuning it and have remained largely within familiar areas. Personally I am looking forward to taking the device somewhere totally unfamiliar and finding out what a city you've never visited before feels like. If you have no pre-suppositions about a particular street does the device make it easier to walk down or give you spidey-sense tingle that there will be something unpleasant around the corner? We just don't know yet.  

LOST display. Image courtesy IBI

Could you describe The LOST (Local Only Shared Telemetry) device? How does it work?

The idea with the LOST device is for it to function as a social sixth sense. It's a wireless device, kept in close contact with the body that stores its owners profile. It simply transmits and receives this profile data over relatively small distances. When it finds a similar signal to its own the device communicates this to the owner by changing its temperature.

We wondered how a system that is similar to that of ants leaving pheromone trails might work in the social context of a city. In antithesis to the omniscient Internet this device doesn't use any kind of infrastructure as it communicates only locally, so the user has to physically travel to find new data rather than just clicking hyperlinks. The sensory feedback the wearer receives is specific only to the time and place in which they find themselves.

It's a thought experiment thinking that if everyone in an urban space wore such a device you would develop a very granular sense of the social make up of your very local vicinity with the cumulative heating, cooling effect of everyone else's device surrounding you. In such a way you could get a very clear feeling about whether a particular area is sympathetic to you as an individual or not. Kind of like blind man's buff, but instead of other players saying warmer or colder you simply feel it directly.

As with the sticky data device, having no lingual or visual output, it interfaces at a somatic level - we're interested in what happens when social data is perceived physiologically rather than visually. By integrating these digital sensory devices into our normal bodily senses we can start to understand the possible positive and negative implications not just of existing systems but also our rapid progress towards transhumanism. 

The notion of being a trans-human is very exciting but until technologies are developed we can never really know what the implications of them will be. Devices like the LOST device allow ways of imagining how technological and biological integration might operate and in turn perhaps begin to understand their consequences individually and socially.  

IBI trying Town Crier, their latest device which recognises and reads geo-tagged tweets through a megaphone. Image credit: Melissa Gueneau, courtesy MFW

IBI trying Town Crier, their latest device which recognises and reads geo-tagged tweets through a megaphone. Image credit: Melissa Gueneau, courtesy MFW

I'm afraid i forgot the name of the device you used for the public performance on the day of Making Future Collaboration Work. Beyond the fun and spectacular side of the performance, what are you trying to achieve with this piece?

That was the Town Crier. It's a backpack mounted with 4 megaphones that shouts out geo-located tweets as you walk around. The other two devices we made offer very subtle, private interactions, so we wanted to try something a little more confrontational. 

The idea was to use the disparity between what can often be intended as very private or relatively anonymous reflections, and the openness of physical spaces that they are associated with. Shouting out these bits of text wrenches them, quite forcibly, back into public view. On the other hand though, the electronic voice puts all these statements on an even plane, and democratizes them giving a sense of the voice belonging to the place rather than any individual. These statements are at different times nonsensical, funny, or timely and touching, but they all add to the texture of a place, offering a glimpse of the collective memory embedded within it.

Town Crier Public Field Test Documentation

Town Crier. Image courtesy IBI

Are you still working on the project? Do you plan to push the prototypes any further? Add new ones?

We see this as a long term research project so we are definitely still working on not only testing and improving current devices, but also using this process to develop our understanding of the data city, the technologically augmented human, and the ecology that they create.

We're currently developing the town crier into some kind of performance work and playing with the Google Navigation voice more as a means of exploring the way in which the network operates as a continuous landmark in our landscape. 

The Sticky Data and LOST device projects are still very much a works in progress. With Sticky Data we are going to continue experimenting with the way that the data is sensed or output. The immediate question we want to address is the character of the sensation in relation to the density of data being sensed. Similarly, what types of data are being sensed, and what are the most appropriate modes of sensation for these different bits of data? With the LOST stone, we are going to play with what information is used to form the user profile to find which provide most effective functionality. 

Once we've worked out the technical challenges with both of these devices we want to produce enough of them for each of us to wear and live with them for a significant period of time. Perhaps with the LOST device also using willing volunteers to test them to increase the area density. 

We'd like to know what it would feel like if I put on a sticky data sleeve at the same time you put on your watch in the morning and wore it wherever you go for a month. Is it an irritation, will you get muscle spasms, or forget you've got it on most of the time and only notice more drastic or uncharacteristic changes?

After this we hope to have a better idea of how we can develop the project further, fine tuning these devices and perhaps developing new ones. To put it in techno-garb, perhaps create the Urban Immune System 1.0 rather than its current beta version. 

It is perhaps worth making clear that the focus will remain on provoking speculation on what the possible social implications of developing this sort of technology might be, rather than trying to create a cure for urban illness. Technology is exciting and interesting, however the implications of innovations are rarely visible until you have the grace of hindsight. One can only speculate how developments might or might not change the world, but that process of speculation is really interesting and tells us something about our current understanding of our society and technological culture.

Thanks Institute for Boundary Interactions!

Previously: Le Cadavre Exquis.

Kris Verdonck, Warehouse of machinery, used in performances / installations, 1995 - present. Part of EXHIBITION #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

Kris Verdonck, Warehouse of machinery, used in performances / installations, 1995 - present. Part of EXHIBITION #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

So far the work of Kris Verdonck was mostly a privilege reserved to the aficionados of theater stages but Z33 in Hasselt has invited the theatre-maker and artist to invade its rooms with wonderful machinery, installations, videos and even a metaphorical garden made of some of the most invasive non-native plant and animal species in Belgium. It's the artist's first 'gallery' exhibition. Hence the title of the show.

His works are incredibly invigorating because of their originality and poetry but a few moments spent in their company reveals their dark undertone.

The work of Kris Verdonck (...) focuses on the confusion of man in an estranged world due to technological development. The tension between man and machine, between living species and dead materials creates an atmosphere of Unheimlichkeit or eeriness. This 'current state of the world' - with its environmental problems, ecological disasters and wars - is the central theme through his oeuvre.

In the solo exhibition in Z33, Kris Verdonck focuses on the one hand on the confusion and eeriness of man in his environment. On the other hand, his work is about the confusion of the world itself in which the Apocalypse already took place.

EXHIBITION at #1 is a bold move, the challenge was to prove that Verdonck's pieces, many of which the artist describes as "big installations that are displayed in a theatrical context", were strong enough to stand on their own two feet in a contemporary art gallery. I had never experienced any of his works in theatres before so i had no preconceptions nor expectations. All i saw were absorbing videos, stunning installations and an earnest robot.

Kris Verdonck, DANCER #3, 2010. Produced for the performance ACTOR #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

Kris Verdonck, DANCER #3, 2010. Produced for the performance ACTOR #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

DANCER #3 is one node of ACTOR #1 which explores the metamorphosis from chaos to order. One of the starting points for this work was the history of the creation of the 'homunculus', the artificial miniature human that philosophers, alchemists and scientists have sought over the centuries since Greek Antiquity.

DANCER #3 is a robot trying to stand up straight; he always falls down again, but never gives up. His energy and clumsiness display the optimism of a clown who's always tripping over.

In Box, a glass cube contains the strongest possible light source that can be concentrated on such a small surface. As spectators --equipped with protective glasses-- watch the light, they hear the voice of the actor Johan Leysen who speaks, in German, the apocalyptic texts by dramatist Heiner Müller: Verkommenes Ufer Medeamaterial Landschaft mit Argonauten (Despoiled Shore Medea Material Landscape with Argonauts) (1982-1983.)

Kris Verdonck, BOX. Part of EXHIBITION #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

Light that normally allows us to see was made so strong by the team of engineers Verdonck collaborated with that it turns us blind. BOX is the second installation in a series of installations that examine "the end of the world" from different points of view. Its light could be the luminous flash of a nuclear explosion, a never ceasing, eye-burning lightning that announces the end of the world.

Kris Verdonck, Warehouse of machinery, used in performances / installations, 1995 - present. Part of EXHIBITION #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

The most jaw-dropping moment for me was when entered a big room on the first floor of Z33 filled with the appliances and objects developed by the artist for live shows. Most of them would normally be kept behind the scenes. The machines often look like medieval instruments (of torture). At the same time, they are often high-technological objects, that fulfil complex functions. They form a large contrast with the extreme esthetical images that they produce.

The overview of machines by Kris Verdonck addresses the field of tension between man and machine in today's society. What relationship can/must/do people want to enter into with technology? How difficult is the balancing act between human control and submission to machines?

Kris Verdonck, Warehouse of machinery, used in performances / installations, 1995 - present. Part of EXHIBITION #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

Kris Verdonck, Warehouse of machinery, used in performances / installations, 1995 - present. Part of EXHIBITION #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

Kris Verdonck, Warehouse of machinery, used in performances / installations, 1995 - present. Part of EXHIBITION #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

For the IN performance, an actress remains motionless for an hour in a transparent cube filled with water. The distortion to her senses caused by the environment she is in makes her go into a trance. The sounds of her breathing and movement are amplified by microphones.

Kris Verdonck, Warehouse of machinery, used in performances / installations, 1995 - present. Part of EXHIBITION #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

Kris Verdonck, IN (image from a performance found on the artist's website)

I wish i'd have time to talk about every single work i saw in the show but i'd better wrap up the asap and hit 'publish' before it's too late for you to drive to Hasselt and see the show which closes on Sunday already so i'll end with two of the most stunning video works:

Kris Verdonck, MOUSE. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

MOUSE shows - enormously magnified and in extreme slow-motion - a mouse walking into a trap. The trap closes, the iron breaks the small body. A camera with super slow motion (10,000 images/sec) was used to unravel the mechanics of a movement, just like Muybridge did. The technique makes us experience an extremely upsetting emergency situation in the slowest possible way.

We eat meat every day but we don't want to be remembered that animals have to be killed before they land on our plates, and we definitely don't want to be confronted with it visually. MOUSE is an image of our daily hypocrisy turned into a slow motion opera that fills a whole room.

Kris Verdonck, FRIEZE, 2010. Produced for the 'circuit performance' K, a Society. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

The figures in the large-scale projection FRIEZE look like your typical posh office workers. Neatly dressed, impassible and modern. After a few minutes however, their sharpness starts to crack. No matter how hard they try, the businessmen loose their decorum as their bodies slip, tumble and move awkwardly around the claustrophobic space they are confined to.

The characters in FRIEZE could be considered to be a modern version of the majestuous Greek caryatids. These sculpted female figure were functional as well as ornamental and emanated gravitas. The caryatids in FRIEZE on the other hand, display their vulnerability in the extreme.

The catalogue of the exhibition is available online.

Kris Verdonck - EXIBITION #1 closes this week at Z33 House for Contemporary Art in Hasselt, Belgium.

Previously: EXOTE, an indoor garden for invasive alien species.

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