A couple of weeks ago the French branch of The Council met at the Maison des Métallos in Paris to discuss about the challenges and promises of 'the internet of things.' There were presentations by artists, hackers, designers, researchers and also by various people in suits. The highlight of the event for me (and for many other people i'm sure) was a presentation by Jean-Baptiste Labrune on DIY Transducers.
Currently working for Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs, Dr Jean-Baptiste Labrune has recently traveled back to Paris after a couple of years spent as a postdoctoral researcher in the Tangible Media Group at the MIT Medialab. The Council was not our first encounter, I had met the French computer scientist before at interaction design workshops, media art conferences, dorkbot meetings and in other events where hackers, artists, designers and engineers might want to hang out and discuss.
His presentation gave a provocative (and much welcome) twist to the discussion about 'the internet of things.' Labrune's talk revolved around the idea of developing organic circuits and, more broadly, about an internet of thing which might one day be made of materials that grow, evolve, decay and die just like us.
Labrune manages to be very witty, very geek and very funny at the same time. The chaotic notes i took during his presentation are, alas!, unable to reproduce his style and ideas so I thought it would be best if i'd have him speak in a super short interview about his work:
One of the projects you developed while researching at MIT was a reflection on electronic components that wouldn't be made of plastic nor metal but of natural materials? Can you tell us about the outcome of that research? What did your prototypes look like?
Because of their homogeneous hence controllable nature, many modern objects are made using the same materials, like plastic for example. Fabrication line-ups engineers like to control i.e. predict in advance the rate of failure and in a way eliminate error from the production process of high-end artefacts. Because I think that our capacity to repurpose unpredictability into meaning is what makes us human by opposition to machine, I was exploring in this project how using less controllable process and materials might lead to different results than traditional techniques for electronics like PCB for instance. Among the prototypes, I try to develop simple circuits with simple functions to more complex ones with microcontrollers or microchip programmers. I was also interested in creating unstable sensors and actuators made out of wood for instance where regular components would be only press-fit and connected to the circuit trace by dry-paint and not solder joints, allowing young children to create simple electromechanical artefacts without soldering irons or chemical etchant.
You employed a rather unusual material, some kind of liquid copper? Can you explain it its role in your prototype?
Some of my colleagues and friends (Leah Buechley, Hannah Perner-Wilson, Nadya Peek) are the best in collecting nice stuff that conduct electricity like all kind of liquid suspensions, animal exoskeletons or felted particles... I realised different prototypes of circuits boards using liquid copper since with silver, this metal is a very good conductor of electricity, which we like in general (except if you want to make resistive sensors). The particular one used in the project you mentioned is the moderately cheap CuPro-CoteTM paint from LessEMF, a website specialised in anti-abduction garments, well known from electronic textile folks since it proposes all kind of nice conductive fabric based on copper or silver with beautiful and strange names like Flectron or Zelt. Because it is almost entirely composed of copper, this paint is in principle not dangerous for health since copper can even be moderately ingerated (in principle :). Leah Buechley and her research group frequently use it to make paper electronics by directly painting circuits on paper with such paints. My idea was to use a fast CNC machine (like a laser cutter for example) to quickly draft electronic objects since this kind of machines are precise and good at repetitive tasks, and then let a human finish them since they are usually very good at the inverse, therefore creating an interesting tension between repeatability and originality. The boards were made out of different materials with various hydrophobic or hydrophilic surfaces (PMMA, Wood, BioComposites) inviting the liquid copper to go into machine cut channels according to precise paths. The precision of the CNC machines I used allowed to create rather compact circuits at SOIC or even QFN pitch (which corresponds to most of artistic grade electronic components) but also, and interestingly enough to develop precise high frequency antennas or very precise solenoids (electromagnets) by simple depositions, which led me for example to create monolithic speakers from wood and copper in a following project.
Was your project motivated by a strong sense of ecology and respect for nature?
Well, I am not sure it was motivated by nature or ecology in the greenwashing sense, but more in the idea of situatedness (à la Lucy Suchman), or as Von Huexküll puts it in the beginning of the last century, in terms of non-forgetting the idea of Umwelt, where an object is as defined by everything it is not than by its internal or intrinsic components. Let say that I was motivated by these ideas and also by the desire of a playful drift from the ubiquitous idea of cybernetics, theory of governance and control (kybernetika, the art of steering), minimising the presence of predictive control (feedforward, feedback, negative-feedback) by systems or their operators, while, like in poetic cybernetics, celebrating human abilities to appreciate scale-invariance, navigate through intricate recursive assemblages and adapt to ad-infinitum changes. A second perspective is the ability to create processes or machines that intervene into natural environment but then withdraw themselves to let their artificiality being re-conquered by living entities, controlled by extra-human rules. I am thinking here for example of the works of land art researchers and artists like Philip Beesley for instance who comes to forests on deserted islands with many students, knit their roots and then go for many years to finally come back and see how nature interpreted their interpretations.
How do you think users will relate to tech components that are going to 'grow old' and 'die'? Do you feel they will care for them more? Develop an altogether different relationship to technology?
One of the outcome of this quick investigation of electronic devices made out of wood for instance is the idea that if we would make circuits on living entities, they would perform differently according to the environment or the homeostatic state of the substrate. This will lead to situations where regular objects that usually are our slaves and perform their function in a controlled and predictable manner would then resist to us, fail to obey to our desires or the anticipated ones designed by technological designers. This resistance might anthropomorphise them and maybe create a feeling of empathy due to the then finite nature of the object relation, that might stop if not nurtured or a least manifested and preserved. Anthropologues and thinkers such as Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour or Michel Serres frequently remind us of the political nature of nature. In the electric or electronic field, luxuriant and drifting definitions of nature are often replaced by an efficient determinist ballistic culture. What if technology to come would integrate natural substrates? Would it transform human sophisticated illusion of control and wishes to tell the future as a serious fiction? Maybe it will actually be the limits of technology that will invite users, as humans, to re-question their relationship with modern environments, especially when most of them are now created by other humans.
Prédiction was the biggest exhibition of the International Design Biennial in Saint Étienne. Its ambition was to reposition the boundaries of contemporary design, exploring in over 150 artefacts and 2000 m2 the new types, methods, and practices of the discipline.
SMS Printer, brainwave sofa, amorph objects for lonely people or unpredicted needs. It was so fast, so bright, so 'finger on the pulse', i sometimes had the feeling of walking physically inside one of the design blogs dedicated to the chase of the 'ultimate coolness.' Not that it prevents the objects exhibited (or the design blogs just mentioned) to have depth and intelligence of course.
The exhibition space was shaped at the image of a Gallic Village (i kid you not!) half guarded behind high fences.
Curator Benjamin Loyauté had selected both established names and young, still unknown talents from the hundreds of submissions his call for design had gathered. Here is a walk through some of the discoveries i made at the show:
One of the most interesting design projects for me is The T-shirt Issue, by Linda Kostowski, Hande Akcayli and Murat Kocyigit from Marshallah Design. 3 people got their portrait in t-shirt -not 'on' a t-shirt. Their bodies were scanned, then turned into a 3D file. Linked with their biographical memories a digital twin of the body was thus created, which expanded and personified the garment. The 3D data then became sewing patterns by the use of the same unfolding function that is used in industrial design to make paper models. The single fabric pieces and the inner interface which defines the edges were cut out by the help of a lasercutter.
By hacking a very mundane SNILLE office chair, Sander van Bussel, converted a hyper-impersonal IKEA piece of furniture into the place where the most intimate and personal activities take place.
I never thought that one of the most memorable designs of the exhibition for me would be a chair. So you get a second image of it.
Part of Richard Hutten's Playing with Tradition series of oriental rugs, this wool carpet design evokes the time of the good old dial-up modem when images failed to load properly.
China is both the country where many European companies have their products manufactured and one of the largest producers of copied and pirated goods.
Designer Laura Strasser decided to take the copying of her work in her own hands. She found a "business to business platform" and emailed 40 Chinese manufacturers, asking them to copy her physionomy. 31 producers replied immediately. When I described my project in greater detail and gave the quantity and the time-frame, eleven turned down my request because the quantity was too small, four because they only produced tableware, but six agreed emphatically.
In the exhibition space, the little porcelain reproductions evoke the soldiers of the Terracotta Army.
Union Political Table Radio by Nanar Kradjian symbolizes the political tensions in Lebanon. Up to six people can sit together at the same table, plug headphones in the cube and listen to the political message of their choice since Kradjian's radio integrates 6 radios, one for each of the main political parties in the country.
Wieki Somers's Consume or Conserve? series uses human ashes to create sculptures as different as dung beetles and toasters.
Jo Meesters' Ornamental Inheritance is a series of sand blasted used ceramics that combine the immediately recognizable delfware ornaments with contemporary symbols, such as airplanes, wind turbine and architecture.
I promised myself i would make a pass at the RCA people projects just once but sometimes temptation cannot be resisted:
The device defines also a sensory territory constructed by the rhytm of the breath, which is diffused from the headphones with a 1.5 sec. delay.
The work plays with the Deleuzian notion of ritornell, and about the quality of sound to define a territory. The space defined by the sound of breathing is in a state of costant imbalance between the physical act and its sensory perception and traces an unstable relationship with the intimate environment the garment reproduces.
I usually do not accept submissions -no matter how fantastic they are- on my blog. There are several reasons for that. The main one is that i prefer to see and experience the work before i write about it. Another reason is that long overdue stories are already preventing me from sleeping at night (yes, it's that bad!) But once in a while there's a submission that makes me want to go further. Hence the following conversation with Mattia Casalegno:
How long are participants advised to wear the mask to make sure that they really get the experience? Are they willing to wear the mask longer or do they report feelings of discomfort (physical or not)?
They can wear it as long as they want. There have been people who wear it for few seconds or several minutes, some who were allergic and some who just refused to wear it. Others came back to experience it several times. In the room there's also a chair similar to the ones you could find in a psychanalyst office, and overall the setting is meant to be inviting.
Despite the chair, after a certain amount of time, the experience can become slightly unsettling due to tightness of the mask. I liked the idea of constructing an experience that is comfortable but at the same time disturbing, enveloping but claustrophobic. Inside it's warm, and you can hear your own breath, which usually induces relaxation and security, but after a while you feel the tightness and realize that the sound of your breath is actually delayed, resulting in a distorted experience.
More generally, what were the reactions of the people who tried the mask on?
Actually, they were very disparate. Some people instantly freaked out, thinking of all the other people's faces that worn the mask. Other just liked the idea to lay down and relax for a while. Some had memories of their childhood, others speculated about death.
The Open, as you write, "plays with the Deleuzian notion of ritornell, and about the quality of sound to define a territory." Can you expand on this? Why for example did you associate breathing with turf?
I liked the idea of sound defining a territory and I tried to apply this notion to the project. Deleuze and Guattari in "Thousand Plateaux" talk about the capacity of structured sounds, notably rhythm, to define a space: an example the birds who negotiate their interaction spaces with their refrains - which is the english world for "ritornell", or the child who softly sings a song in the dark. The refrain is the first hint of a stable and quiet center, the primordial will to organize chaos. The idea of rhythm emerging from chaos belongs to any cosmogony, but what happens if, instead of externalizing such a process, we trace it from the inside, and thus define a kind of "inner cosmogony"? We could then define territories between our sensory system and our unconscious, libido, fears, etc. As we enter the mask, the refrain is our own breathing, but the territories thus delineated somehow don't overlap, are slightly conflicting because of the delay, there's an inconsistency between the act and the perception of it.
Did you try to convey other kinds of experience(s)? Maybe a reconnection of the urban dweller with nature (if a piece of turf can be called nature of course)? Or an attempt to make them engage with senses that are less solicited by our dominantly visual culture?
Yes, the sod can be a reference to nature, although a very rationalized and domesticated one. This kind of grass reminds us of the idealized landscapes and the organized fields of the English garden, a symbol of dominion of man over nature, if we want. The fact that the experience gets slightly anxious underlines somehow this kind of schizo-relationship with Nature, where we we are captivated by our natural environment but also afraid of it.
Why did you name your piece The Open when people's face is so dramatically enclosed inside a mask?
I wanted to play with this duality of proximity and distance, this exaggerated physical proximity and the space left between the perception of an outside and an inside, the environment and the self. The title is also borrowed from the name of a book by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, written in 2002: "The Open: Man and Animal," in which he investigates the opening of such a space and the differences between being human and animal. Maybe this goes a bit too far from the original idea for this piece, but I like this quote:
"What is man, if he is always the place―and, at the same time, the result―of ceaseless divisions and caesurae? It is more urgent to work on these divisions, to ask in what way―within man―has man been separated from non-man, and the animal from the human, than it is to take positions on the great issues, on so-called human rights and values."
Now for a more personal question. You have been working actively as a multidsciplinary artist for a decade. Yet, last year, you decided to move to the U.S. and attend the Design | Media Arts graduate program at University of California Los Angeles. This is imho the best school for media art and interactive design you could have chosen but what made you think you needed to go back to school? Did you feel that your practice was not enough and that you needed to acquire new skills?
I don't know, maybe was less about acquiring skills and more a need to put in prospective my work, to step back and see where I was going with all that. I was also working a lot with video and live-media performances and I wanted more time to experiment with different media and follow some obsessions I had in mind, so I felt that to fly to an other continent where I knew nobody was a good opportunity to
The D|MA program has a great faculty covering almost any field of media art, the approach is very much oriented to any kind of media. It's a small and very intense program, you end spending all your time there, and get to see people so often that after a while it's like having a big family, I'm already sad this is my last year here.
Quick update from FILE, the Electronic Language International Festival in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Proper report will land on your desk soon but here's a quickie before i head back to the exhibition.
Yesterday, i participated to the conference and got to listen to some pretty interesting talks. Artists' talks in particular. The first speakers of the afternoon were Matthew Kenyon and Douglas Easterly from SWAMP (Studies of Work Atmosphere and Mass Production) + Tiago Rorke who presented their latest work, the Tardigotchi.
As its name indicates, the Tardigotchi is a hybrid between two pets: an alife avatar that descends from to the '90s Tamagotchi and a less famous but living organism called tardigrade.
Now tardigrades are starting to get like a house on fire with new media artists. Anthony Hall has been studying them for a couple of years and Andy Gracie used them to investigate the impact of electromagnetic fields and radio waves on microbial species. More recently he built robots that actively look for them. The tardigrades, also known as "water bears," are microscopic animals with eight legs. They can be found all over the world and are able to survive in extreme environments. Some can endure temperatures as low as -273°C (-460 °F) or as high as 151 °C (303 °F). They can stand 1,000 times more radiation than other animals and can go for almost a decade without water. They are also the only animals known to be able to survive the vacuum of space.
The alife avatar is a caricature of the tardigrade, its behaviour is partially autonomous, but it also mimics some of the tardigrade's activities. Tardigrade and avatar live side by side inside a portable computing sphere. The brass enclosure houses the alife avatar in an LED screen and the tardigrade within a prepared slide.
A Tardigotchi owner tends to a real and a virtual creature simultaneously.
Once a day Tardigotchi signals the owner that it is hungry. To feed the Tardigotchi, the owner must place it on the docking station and press a button to send nutrients. A syringe filled with moss-water is then directed through the silicon wall of the tardigrade's home where it pumps a small amount of food and fresh water. Meanwhile, the microcontroller relays the feeding animation to the alife avatar. After the motors have removed the syringe from the miniature ecosystem and pulled the apparatus back into a neutral position, the avatar loops through a short animation which displays his full belly.
You can contact the Tardigotchi through Facebook or by email (tardigotchi (@t) tardigotchi.com). When new messages are detected, a bluetooth signal is sent to the sphere, a small incandescent lamp is briefly turned on, which gently warms the tardigrade's enclosure, while also running a short animation showing the avatar basking in the sun.
Meet the Tardigotchi in person until August 29 at the FILE festival in Sao Paulo.
Another look at the graduate projects of Design Interactions, Royal College of Art, in London.
Sitraka Rakotoniaina's Hyper Normal series of objects explores a possible 'Hyper-normal' space on the edge of normality, whereby a distorted experience of reality is induced because of physical or psychological stress, injuries, conditioning or training.
The first object Sitraka Rakotoniaina designed attempts to manipulate time, or rather the notoriously elastic perception we have of time. It flies when watching an action film and slows down when queuing at the post office. People who have been involved in car accidents have often reported how, in the few seconds before the crash, they had an experience similar to that slow motion effect called bullet-time. Warner Bros., the distributor of The Matrix, actually trademarked the term.
Neuroscientist David Eagleman explains that in a situation of intense stress and, when experiencing things for the first time, the brain creates much denser and richer memories, giving the feeling that an event lasted longer than it has.
Rakotoniaina created a "Time Conditioning" prosthesis for the arm that aims at providing this same feeling of bullet-time. Not to avoid bullets that villains might shot at you on a rooftop but to enable users to catch flies with chopsticks. Because...
" Man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything."
The training prosthesis slows down the moves of the user's arm, as if under water. After a period of adaptation the training device is taken off. Once freed of the prosthesis the user has potentially increased his anticipation skills.
The second object of the Hyper Normal series triggers a temporary amnesia, called transient global amnesia.
Amnesia can be seen as a reflex that acts as a kind of safety fuse in case of an emotional or physical overload. It usually occurs after a brain ischemia when memory is more sensitive to the deprivation of blood than other areas.
Called Beam Me Down, the "self-inducing amnesia" device has a discrete trap-door hiding a pump that quickly pushes air in and out the user's lungs, causing hyperventilation which leads to a brain ischemia that eventually causes fainting and a potential temporary loss of memory. Once the user has hit the floor, a counter weight pulls the trap-door shut, leaving no evidence save for the light beam shining onto the un-animated body.
By getting this self-induced amnesia, the person would be on a 'holiday' from their own life and personality. But would they have to go to a bland, neutral or unfamiliar place to provide the user with the full amnesia experience? A building that looks nothing like their house for example, to ensure that memory would come back as slowly as possible or did you think of some other location?
No actually. As it is a temporary loss of memory that can last up to 24h i presumed that it would be more convenient for the person to stay home.
However the device is designed with a counter-weight that pulls the trap-door shut, once the person has fainted. Hiding the mechanism inside the beam in order to leave no evidence of what happened.
The idea behind is that you would trick yourself by displaying fake clues about who you are and what you do. As you might try to recollect your memory, those fake clues would lead you potentially to new experiences that you would have never tried whilst being 'yourself'. A temporary amnesia could be a good excuse to explore some kind of parallel life, without risking to lose everything you have done so far.
And hopefully it would give you the necessary distance to get a better awareness of the condition within you are living.
How would you define the sense of 'hyper normality' your devices are trying to recreate? Do you have examples of everyday life 'hyper normality'?
The hyper-normal is a space on the edge of normality.
There are few examples of that I would call hyper-normal, but most of the time they are seen as abnormality, disease, mental illnesses etc. For example sleepwalking can lead to really complex behaviours, like driving to the gas station. We do not really know what causes this phenomenon, but what if we would be able to control it and accomplish tasks while sleeping. Stress as well, during a frightening event like a car accident. People usually talk about experiencing the few seconds before the crash in real slow-motion.
And what would it be like to extend normality to few of these phenomenons? New experiences or better understanding of what is a 'normal' condition, maybe.
Do you plan to work any further on the hyper normal projects? With new prototypes or maybe by improving the existing ones?
I would like to, I think this space has got potentially a lot of depth to explore. I do not really try to make the prototypes 100% efficient as sometimes a good probe can convey the same message better. Because it can be more theatrical, dramatic, filmic or whatever it needs to be.
But I would be quite up for working with scientists as well to try to make fully working prototypes, but not on my own.
All images courtesy of the designer.
Postopolis was not all conference and free booze. One morning, a small group of Postopoleros set out to walk to the Colonia Doctores, a neighbourhood famous for its high concentration of vehicle theft and chop shops.
The cars we spotted in the area were quite something indeed.
Our destination, however, was the razzle-dazzle Toy Museum.
The MUJAM (Museo del Juguete Antigui de México) is a private collection founded in 1955 by Mexican architect Roberto Shimizu. Most of the toys were recovered from flea markets, bazars, suppliers, etc. They range from antique toys from the late 1800's up to popular plastic action figures, dolls and baubles from the '70s. Some of them are a bit uncanny....
Dozens of thousands of toys are exhibited. A few millions are kept in a collection until they emerge to be used in thematic exhibitions. One of the greatest prides of the collectors is that the toys are displayed in quirky and original displays such as a renovated electricity transformer from the '40s, a space ship that used to be part of a fair ride, an old drugstore case, an aquarium, etc.
Luchadores dolls dressed as Barbie:
Shimizu's son, Roberto Shimizu Jr. left his work as an architect to assist his father in the museum. We've been very lucky to have him guide us through the many rooms of the museum.
The collection of G.I. Joe from all over the world (with an emphasis on the Chuck Norris looking Mexican G.I. Joe) is particularly impressive and valuable:
This 4m high masks used to grace the entrance of a music hall and hosted a pianist in its mouth.
I can't believe anyone could ever be bored in Mexico City but if that ever happens to you, you know where to find a bit of entertainment.
More images in my flickr set.