The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, London's favourite radio art station, is aired this Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.
My guest will be designer and researcher Suzanne Lee. Suzanne is the Founder of BIOCOUTURE, the first 'living materials' design consultancy. Suzanne is also a TED Senior fellow and a Launch innovator 2013 (Launch being an initiative that supports innovative works likely to contribute to a sustainable future.) For a number of years now, Suzanne has been investigating sustainable bio-materials. The last time i met her, she was cultivating bacteria into sugary green tea and harvesting thick layers of cellulose which, once dried looked like delicate, translucid leather that she then used to make her own garments.
Suzanne's work has now taken an even more ambitious dimension as she is building an open innovation resource to enable collaboration within the global biological materials community.
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.
The project that Owen Wells developed and exhibited at the Design Interactions graduation show this year looks at the Arctic, a region that global changes has transformed into the new El Dorado.
It is feared that Arctic summer sea ice is melting at a rate faster than predicted, and could be ice free as early as 2015. The loss of sea ice and innovations in exploitation technologies are making the Arctic region more easily accessible. And more easily exploitable. The Arctic is indeed home to the world's largest untapped gas reserves and an estimated 13% of the world's remaining oil as well as vast mineral deposits are thought to lie beneath the ocean floor. The resources expose the Arctic to corporate greed and to potential geopolitical tension caused by unresolved sovereignty claims.
Well's research project, Who Owns The Arctic, identifies the weakest territorial points and the legal loops in the status of the Arctic sea region to devise four subversive ways to overcome the legislation and shake the system that protects the Arctic.
Through an examination of the weaknesses of systems subversion can be seen as a form of critique - a deceitful narration of legitimate practices. With the help of several members of my own family who offered specific expertise, I have planned 4 subversive financial enterprises for the arctic. Each seeks to exploit the unique infrastructure, ecology, and legal ambiguity of the region to provide devious financial rewards. The project takes the form of scenes, maps and equipment. Through their planning, these schemes identify and expose the legitimate systems set to exploit the Arctic.
The first scheme is called The Mineral Rush. Under the guise of a normal fishing routine on the west coast of Svalbard, Russian men feed Beluga whales with by-catch stuffed with lithium. Whales soon start to show the early signs of lithium toxicity and after 5 days, suffer seizures, organ failure, and eventually die. When the mammals are washed onto the west coast of Svalbard, experts conclude that the metal in their bodies indicates the presence of vast deposits of lithium off the Svalbard coast. These rumors ultimately trickling through to the 39 signatory states of the Svalbard treaty, countries who retain the right to undertake commercial activities on the island without discrimination.
In the second scheme, The Fishing Dispute, Russian crab boats travel to the northern tip of the Bering sea. Once the ships have entered the Alaskan king crab fisheries, 20 icosahedron crab pots are deployed and the vessels return to waters within the Russian exclusive economic zone. 2 days later, they come back to tow the catch north, 1,600 km underwater. The pots are released in the Beaufort sea where fishing rights are still claimed by both America and Canada. After 5 days the cotton netting surrounding the pots dissolves, freeing the crabs. An anonymous press leak reporting catches of King crab far beyond their normal range is later sent to newspapers in both Barrow, Alaska, and Toktoyaktuk Harbor, Canada. The resulting scramble for the prized crab meat will greatly increase the opportunity for confrontation between Canadian and American fishermen, driven by confusion over fishing rights.
A third scheme involves an oil spill caused by devices placed on top of icebergs that travel from the northern tip of Greenland into to North Atlantic. On this journey they float past Hans Island and onto the oil fields of Baffin bay and the Labrador sea where, if spotted, they are usually towed a safe distance from the pipelines and oil rigs. But in this scenario the remotely activated devices would shake the iceberg apart. Still large enough to sink a ship or damage a rig, the smaller chunks of ice would not be detected by radar nor by the naked eye. The icebergs would thus float quietly onwards to the oil fields.
The last scenario involves a man working for the Keystone Pipeline, a pipeline system that transports oil sands bitumen from Canada and the northern United States "primarily to refineries in the Gulf Coast" of Texas. The man's job is to operate a pig launching station. He makes extra money by smuggling goods across borders on board of a "pig", a devices used to clean and survey the pipeline.
More details about each scheme can be found in this PDF.
Hi Owen! You asked members of your family to help you create 4 subversive financial enterprises for the Arctic. What are their areas of expertise? And why did you decide to work with members of your family? To show that anyone can do it?
Finding the true direction of the project was quite a painful process. After lots of research and deliberation looking for what I was interested in it dawned on me that specific friends and members of my immediate family had a really unique but highly specialised set of skills that I could hypothetically corrupt. I don't want to give too much away about them because I respect their anonymity, but the main area of expertise I was able to draw upon centered around aspects of the shipping industry. It was through this advice that I was made aware of the Arctic as an environment where climate change is in the process of rendering the region potentially prone to corporate profiteering and political tension. In the latter stages of the project I also had advice on finance, and icebergs.
The dialogue around the amount of sensitive information readily available on the internet is pretty visible, particularly at the moment. While there is undoubtedly a huge amount of inspiration for potential deviants on the internet (The UN website offers information on how to set up shipping front companies if you're willing to sit through some very dry videos) the opportunity to "physically" construct this kind of network, around the dinner table so to speak, was far too enticing. The implication that anyone can do it is defiantly a big part of the spirit of the project.
The texts describing the four enterprises in the show looked as if they were merely the start of a thriller. Why did you give just set the scene and didn't go further in the description of the scenario?
I planned each of the four parts of the project pretty meticulously. I scouted locations, used google maps to plan how far and for long different actions would take. I produced inventories for different sections of the trips, found out how and where I get important pieces of equipment, and how many people were involved at any one time. Rather than display these as maps I decided to condense them into introductory texts. The scale of the schemes was far larger than anything I had dealt with before and so the texts gave me a way of contextualising them within the voice of individual characters. While specific locations might not be instantly recognisable I trust that the region is visible enough to begin to imagine what each of the schemes is suggesting.
In a way the schemes themselves serve as introductions - a way of describing the complexity of problems that climate change provokes beyond the environmental effects that everyone is aware of by now. There is room for them to be presented in more detail and I hope to develop the project beyond its current incarnation. Perhaps I might hold one of the arctic states to ransom in order to fund it.
Several objects were exhibited in the show. Can you explain the one linked to the oil spill? How would it work exactly? Which technology does it use? And could you confirm how it would eventually trigger an oil spill? Would it be through an encounter similar to the one that sank the Titanic?
Of the four objects in the show that one is by far the most speculative in terms of how well it would work in the field. Icebergs are such an ominous symbols of danger that I had to include them, but they are notoriously difficult to destroy. The mechanisms through which they are created make them incredibly tough - there are reports of dropping bombs on them and only making a dent.
The device that I exhibited was an amalgamation of a helmholtz resonator and an autodialing device. The autodialing device would cycle through frequencies until it found the resonance frequency of the ice, similar to the way autodialling machines could theoretically crack a safe. The frequency would then resonate though the Helmhotlz resonator into fracture lines that are formed when icebergs calve from the face of a glacier and fall into the sea. The resonance effect would eventually cause the iceberg to break itself apart through vibration, forming smaller but potentially far more dangerous chunks of ice. In practice it is difficult to predict the effect this would have on an iceberg because it is dependent on structure not dampening the effects of resonance. I couldn't confidently tell you if it would work in the field, but the object serves a narrative purpose so plausibility won out.
The weakness lies not in the icebergs themselves but in the system through which they are found and tracked. There are daily iceberg reports available through the International Ice Patrol (an entity whose existence was brought about by the sinking of the Titanic). Their main tool for finding Icebergs is Side looking Airborne Radar (SLAR), so if an object can evade radar (which smaller chunks of ice smoothed by the erosion of ocean are good at) then effectively it remains invisible to the system. Part of the current research on icebergs is about developing a way of towing them from collision courses with oil rigs. The actions of the individuals in the oil spill scenario are intended to make the icebergs invisible to radar by turning larger ones into fragments, flooding an oil rich area with ice that cannot be detected and hopefully (in this instance) won't be spotted in time to be towed from a collision course.
I'm afraid i didn't understand very well the Mineral Rush scenario, the one with the Beluga whales poisoned by lithium. The start is crystal clear but it's the consequences of the perceived presence of lithium off the Svalbard coast that isn't so easy to understand. How are the 39 signatory states of the Svalbard treaty supposed to react to the lithium deposit?
The Archipelago officially became part of Norway under the terms of the Svalbard treaty. This treaty also states that the signatory countries (whose exact numbers fluctuate depending on what you're reading) have equal rights to exploit mineral deposits in Svalbard. This scheme relies on the stock market to spread a rumor that there is a potentially valuable mineral wealth that has been made visible through its effects on the local food chain. Money could be made through buying land and the selling it once its value has risen due to the potential for prospecting. Alternatively the rumor could be used to engineer demand for legitimate infrastructure.
This one is by far the most complex of all the schemes and admittedly would benefit from a far more in depth demonstration of how it could function.
Finally, i was interested in knowing about antecedents for this exploitation of the weaknesses behind the laws and rules that protect the Arctic region. Did you come across similarly devious tricks from fishermen, speculators, businessmen or others?
Around Australia there are lots of reports of people smuggling operations exploiting a part of maritime law that states that you must always help a boat in distress. If the authorities intercept them on route then they will feign distress and by maritime law have to be towed to the nearest port rather than turned around. This only seems to delay the inevitable rather than allowing them to achieve their goal.
As I previously mentioned you can find out from the UN website a process that allows you to set up what amounts to a collection of front companies through a relatively cheap corporate web. This is a practice that is legitimate, pretty common in shipping, and is openly advertised. You have nominee directors and have physical shares that can be handed to people rather than existing digitally, so the real owner can remain anonymous. To see how this system worked at a very basic level, I got a quote to incorporate a company in the Marshall Islands on behalf of 5 Norwegian businessmen I pretended to represent; it was a very convenient service.
In the open ocean laws and rules become a little abstract because the high seas are still the high seas - Jurisdiction becomes incredibly complex and in some places redundant. There are international waters where ships come under the jurisdiction of the state under whose flag they sail, but if that state has no interest in bringing them to justice then law becomes unenforceable. Piracy proliferates in these areas. It's completely anarchic in places, and forms a big part of international shipping discourse. Once the Arctic sea ice melts more thoroughly then ships will be able to pass through sea routes in the Arctic and avoid piracy areas, as well as save huge sums of money on fuel. This is why the Arctic is about to become so important to shipping.
If you want a good example of corruption at sea then have a look at the Salem case from 1980. It is too long to explain here but it involves government officials, a criminal sea captain and scuttling a supertanker during the South African oil embargo.
As for the Arctic I haven't heard anything specifically about exploiting the law in the region. That doesn't mean that there isn't anything, but it still won't be really accessible on a large scale for a number of years, so for now any underhand behavior is still hidden. At a governmental level the consensus appears to be to promote good relations between the Arctic states and protect the environment. This is fantastic, but the Arctic is a long way from prying eyes, so as a theatre of deviance (both "legitimate" and "illegitimate") it will surely become a very attractive prospect, if not already.
If I may I would like to say thank you to Alexa Pollmann, Hyung-ok Park, Lana Z Porter, Mohammed Ali, Shing Tat Chung and the family and friends without whom this project would not have been possible.
All images courtesy Owen Wells.
The networked sound installation Biotricity No.5 uses a fairly new "green energy" technology called microbial fuel cell to explore the intricate relationship between nature and technology, biologic systems and electronic networks.
The installation consists of neatly aligned bacteria-fuel cells. Once they are connected together, the cells form a mini bio-power plant that turns into sound the process of generating electricity from bacteria living in mud and water.
>BIOTRICITY. Bacteria Battery No 5
Biotricity No.5 was also the starting point of a workshop organized by Baltan Laboratories in Eindhoven during The Dutch Technology week. Participants learnt how to make a cell from bacteria living in soil and waste water and how to assemble a 'bacteria-battery' system. But because the event was as much about art as it was about science, participants were also invited to develope collaborative and conceptual ideas for "bacteria-battery" future design, tools for measuring and modulation that can be used for artistic interpretations, sonifications and visualizations.
Since i was curious about the possibility for 'everyday people' to create energy using mostly muddy water, and how the experimentation could translate into artistic concepts and projects, i asked Rasa Smite to talk to us about her experiments in bacteria energy. Rasa is a media artist-innovator and network researcher based in Riga, Latvia. She is chief-editor of Acoustic Space journal series, and organizer of the Art+Communication festival in Riga. She is also is an Associate Professor of New Media Art Programme and researcher at Art Research Lab (MPLab)/Liepaja University and the director of RIXC, The Center for new media culture in Riga.
Hi Rasa! During the Biotricity workshop at Baltan Laboratories in Eindhoven, participants learned how to make a cell from bacteria living in water and to built 'bacteria-battery' system. How easy is this exactly? Do you need to use sophisticated tools and materials hard to find in shops or on the internet?
We are using so called microbial fuel cell (MFC) technology that generates electrical energy from living micro-organisms that can be found in the commonly available resources such as, for instance, waste water, soil or mud. Experimenting with 'bacterial energy', we intend to use readily available components in order to make this technology more accessible and realizable for everyone interested in green energy production. All you need for building these batteries you either can buy in shops or build yourself.
Could you tell us briefly about the kind of experiments participants developed during the workshop? Do you have photos of the process and of what has been made?
A workshop itself is an experiment in terms of how much electrical energy we manage to get from the self-built cells. There are several components behind this process. The most important are the bacteria themselves, who live in water sediments, namely, in mud. We are curious how powerful each time the specific mud will be. Collecting the mud as well as thinking and deciding from which site to do so, usually is also a part of the workshop. In Eindhoven we used our own pre-collected mud from the pond in Genneperpark next to the Dommel river, as it was suggested by local expert - workshop organizer Baltan Laboratories.
For building a cell, participants use 2 plastic containers (in size of about half a liter or one liter) - one with a mud and the other one with a (clean) water. We put inside electrodes in both containers, which consist of stainless steel mesh and carbon material (which participants can make themselves by burning any cotton-based material). Then we build agar or jelly bridge between both cells as we need semi-penetrable 'connector' between those two. In the dirt-container we pump out all oxygen, so the bacteria who are splitting organic matter into smaller substances are now producing hydrogen protons and liberate electrons (which otherwise would be 'taken' by oxygen). The protons are traveling through the jelly bridge to the clean water (towards the oxygen), while we can collect electrons from the dirt-container by using the electrode. Now we can get electricity in outer chain and to connect there LED light or other small-voltage consuming devices.
As the workshop in Baltan was related to our exhibition work, the second part of the workshop was led by sound artist and composer Voldemars Johansons. He introduced workshop participants how to sonify electrical signals and to make sound structures representing and interpreting electricity generation process.
How did you and the other artists you work with familiarize yourself with microbial fuel cells? Self-experimentation? Study with scientists?
We are used to say that we are artists-researchers and cultural innovators, who work with the science and emerging technologies. But as art has different aims then the science, then collaborative work with scientists is more important in the beginning. But then, at the certain stage, art has to fulfill its own tasks and it takes its own path. If we trace back to Renaissance, this path (of art) was not yet separated from the science then. Later, when science became the only mean of determining truth and explaining a 'real' world, art remain in the position of dealing with more uncertain phenomenon, emotional and subjective worlds. Just now, very recently, when our modern society has become even much more complex, it becomes clear that there are no any single discipline which could deal with this complexity. Therefore, art as research with its imaginative, intuitive, emotional and subjective approaches again is getting a recognition as a complimentary discipline to the sciences. More then that we would like to argue, that changing role of art in our society is the one of a catalyst - for social, scientific, and technological transformations.
Baltan will also exhibit an installation you developed together with sound artist Voldemars Johansons and video artist Martins Ratniks: BACTERIA BATTERY No.5. Could you briefly describe the piece and how it works?
For Baltan exhibition we use self-built 12 microbial fuel cells, each of which generates small voltage of electricity - 0,2-0,7 V. Connected together they create mini bio-energy power station. By using micro-electronics, the signals from bacteria electricity generation is being processed and interpreted into multiple channel sound structures. With sonification we also are aimed at exploring interrelation between biology and computing. In order to make visible the micro-environment, where the bacteria live, we also have made a video from images taken with the electronic microscope.
What exactly can artists bring to the discourse of green energy production? How different is their perspective and approach compared to the one of a scientist?
We, artists not necessarily have to make the models for batteries or prototypes for infrastructures - however we are also keen on doing so. More relevant is that artists are questioning and reflecting. Artists are approaching energy technology issues from social, cultural and ecological perspective, thus reaching more diverse levels in social structure of our society. For instance, as a part of our artistic research project on Bacteria Battery last year we organized series of collaborative working sessions titled "Biotricity" together with both scientists and local communities in very different settings. We did first bacteria battery tests in science laboratories at Latvian University.
Later together with artists the scientists participated in our temporary 'rural-labs' in country side of Latvia, where we explored Latvian vast lands and available resources there for future energy infrastructures (global-local, peer-to-peer, information-energy etc.). For instance, we organized "AppleThink" event where along with apple-juice-squizing workshops and an apple-market, young biologists where showing to local village people how to build bacteria battery from apple-waste.
But most exciting was our experiments to install bacteria battery outdoors, in the pond of our cottage. In the pond, one electrode is installed in the bottom in a mud, while the other one is floating on a surface, in clean water. Because of the larger surface in the water of lakes or oceans, it is more easy to get more power then in half a liter containers. For instance, this technology is used in deep ocean research. However, this technology is also used for powering very small medical devices, as these bacteria also are living in human blood. Yet, we think, that this technology is particularly unique because it contains a potential to be used in remote, rural and undeveloped areas, as well as for building autonomous and self-sustainable infrastructures.
While looking at the video of BACTERIA BATTERY No.5. i was surprised by the size and number of batteries. This form of green energy doesn't seem to be efficient. But is it because the research regarding bacteria batteries is still in its infancy or because you didn't have access to more sophisticated tools and materials to build them?
Well, both, in a way. Yet our primary interest with this project was to obtain a knowledge on how to build a mini bio-power station by ourselves. Also, we are not so much interested in 'instrumentalizing' this technology (in terms of how to make it more efficient) as it is rather the engineers' task. For us half a liter or liter big size cells of which the battery was built, seem just a right way to represent the alternative ways of our visions on future energy infrastructures, which can be produced from local resources, and connected as peer-to-peer networks - locally and globally.
For instance, this technology has been used already in rural Africa, where people for the first time could get in their homes could plug-in LED bulbs and and charge cell phones in five-gallon dirt-powered buckets. So, we really like that this technology is so robust, and that it has so minimal requirements such as mud, dirt, waste, water - at least some of which can be found anywhere on this world, even in the most remote and inaccessible sites.
More then that, we feel affected by the fact that the electricity in this technology is produced by living micro-organisms. Building our installations together with biologists, we realized that the bacteria electricity generation process is not so stable and not always predictable. It depends on the environment, for instance the level of heat, and most likely on some more not yet discovered reasons. And then it came to our mind that probably we should negotiate with the bacteria as we did in our Talk to me (2010-2012) project, where we invited people to talk to the plants encouraging them to grow faster, taller and more beautiful.
As bacteria are living organisms, very old ones and very important for global ecosystem, and if we want them to make more energy... may be we should learn to communicate with them? More pragmatically, but also scientists see the potential of this technology, as they are carrying out their research on how exactly the bacteria conduct an electrical charge and this will help them make this technology more efficient sooner or later.
Why is it called BACTERIA BATTERY No.5.? is this the 5th version of it? Are you planning to go further with the Bacteria Battery project? with a version number 6? How would it be like?
It just happened that our first exhibition was the fifth collaborative session with young biologists from the Latvian University. This exhibition, where we showed "Bacteria Battery" installation for the first time was RIXC's Art+Communication festival 2012 which with the title Art of Resilience took place in Riga, in October 2012. The installation was a result of four previous work-sessions, which took place throughout the year 2012 in different settings - in science laboratories as well in rural areas and local villages in Latvia. We still have used number 8 in the title at recent WRO2013 festival exhibition, but we stopped it. More relevant was the number 5 - as it was our first result after longer research process.
Currently we are preparing the installation for a forthcoming exhibition on theme of Synthetic Biology at Ars Electronica center. Organizers already have collected a mud for us from the dirt in the streets of Linz city after the recent flood. This Summer we also will be continuing experiments in pond. We will install several cells, which will be connected to the Internet, streaming live images and data from electricity generation process. Thus we will be monitoring electricity generation process in out-door conditions via the Internet all year long, and it seems, that we are the first ones, who has done something like this. What we experienced in the previous experiments is that the microbes actually prefer being in natural conditions, even in cold winter, under the ice, electricity generated by pond is more stable then one in containers. Minimal fluctuations we only could observe in the mornings and evenings. Live stream from the pond-battery is also a part of the installation in Linz.
More art projects using microbial fuel cell: Nomadic Plants.
The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, is aired this Wednesday afternoon at 4pm (London time.)
My guest tomorrow will be Heiko Hansen who, together with Helen Evans, forms the art & design duo Hehe. Heiko is not in the studio with us, alas! I met him last week in Liverpool where FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) was celebrating its first decade of heralding art & technology with a new exhibition called Turning FACT Inside Out.
Part of the anniversary involved commissioning new works to artists such as HeHe. And HeHe took the invitation to turn FACT inside out literally. Their new piece used the exhibition space to extract gas from the ground underneath the gallery and suggest that in the future we might want to bypass big energy companies and extract our own fossil fuels ourselves in our back garden.
The artists have filled the space with heavy machinery that extracts shale gas through a process called fracking. Fracking is short for 'hydraulic fracturing', a process that consists in pumping a highly pressurised mixture of water, sand and chemicals underground to extract gas. The process opens fissures in rocks, releasing the gas trapped beneath the earth's surface. The plan brought forward by the artists is to use the gas to ensure the future operation of FACT and to export the energy directly to the local community.
The experimental drilling site looks like a mini inferno: it's noisy, it is filled with red lights and flames, the furniture is shaking. And there's even a filthy looking water pit.
The objective of the Fracking Future installation is to highlight the relevance of the debates surrounding the fracking process, which are not only significant environmentally, but also economically. Fracking Futures is a fairly ambiguous piece. First of all, because the work does not intend to take a clear stand: it only illustrates the potential dangers of the process. At the same time, it considers the fact that fracking might offer citizens an opportunity to produce their own alternative source of energy. It is also an ambiguous project because the visitor is left to decide whether the fracking experiment at FACT is indeed genuine or whether it is merely a provocation from HeHe.
The show will be aired this Wednesday 19th of June at 16:00. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am (I know...) If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.
The amazing soundtrack & field recordings which we mention in the programme is by Dinah Bird & Jean-Philippe Renoult.
Many stories about or mentioning HeHe's work.
Oil City is a piece of site specific theatre by Platform that interweaves real ecological scandal and fiction to make you better understand the key role that the City of London plays in the operation of the global oil industry.
During one hour approximately, small groups of people are asked to investigate the part that the UK's banking sector -with help from British government officials - is playing in one of the world˙s biggest ecological disasters.
Around you the financial sector shimmers in high-rise office blocks. Behind closed doors deals are being made and oil projects are finding finance with few questions asked. Meanwhile vast swathes of Alberta, Canada, teeter on the brink of ecological disaster, as the struggle to stop tar sands mining of First Nations' Treaty lands fights on.
I took part in one of the performances on Monday. The day before, i received an email from The Lawyer asking participants to 'be dressed to impress, business interview attire' because we will need to 'blend in' as we will be running around London's financial district. He also gives us appointment at the café at Toynbee Studio 'beside the dark flowers and oily black tablecloth.'
Once we've all arrived, he drives us to Liverpool Street Station, while briefing us about our mission, the people we will be meeting or spying on, etc. At the same time, snippets of information emerge about the environmental scandal we have to investigate......
We are given the mission to dig information about the Canadian tar sands ecological scandal. Tar sands, or oil sands, are deposits of sand and clay saturated with bitumen. They lie under 140,000 km2 of forests near Alberta. It is estimated that the tar sands cover a region the size of England. When the bitumen is close to the surface it is excavated in an opencast mine. The process emits four times more carbon dioxide than conventional drilling. It also involves deforestation and heavy use of natural resources: four barrels of water, energy equal to three barrels of oil, and four tons of earth are required to extract one barrel of oil (via Gaia Foundation.)
The extraction process contaminates the Athabasca River and generates enormous toxic tailing ponds. The Tar Sands extraction is having a brutal impact on the wildlife. Each year, thousands of birds die when they migrate and land in waters to rest. As toxins accumulate in the river, mutations, tumours and deformed fish species have begun to appear. Local communities are worried about how the animals they eat and their drinking water are being affected.
"We are seeing a terrifyingly high rate of cancer in Fort Chipewyan where I live. We are convinced that these cancers are linked to the Tar Sands development on our doorstep. It is shortening our lives. That's why we no longer call it 'dirty oil' but 'bloody oil'. The blood of Fort Chipewyan people is on these companies' hands." - George Poitras, former chief of Mikisew Cree First Nation (via Climate camp.)
But back to the Oil City performance. It is an extremely fast-paced and engaging experience. Once our small group is dropped at Liverpool Street Station, we get to meet an investigative journalist who needs tangible proof of wrongdoings otherwise her editor won't run the article about the ecological scandal, she sends us to gather information from whistle blowers, then we have to locate a banker and lawyer in a nearby café and take 'secret' audio recording of their conversation (they are trying to hide the scandal and lobby so that the EU doesn't block the import of oil from Canada.) We also meet an activist from First Nation communities who gives us her side of the story, how the area they live in and their inherent right of self-government are being violated. At some point, we finally get our hands on incriminating evidence from a lady who cleans the offices in The City during the night. She is from Nigeria and tells us how afraid she is afraid that Canada˙s Boreal Forest is becoming the next Niger Delta.
There's a few tickets left for the upcoming performances, i can't recommend the experience enough.
By eavesdropping on business people and seeking out secret documents hidden in dead-drops, you will help piece together a puzzle that interweaves government files with financial deals. But whose truth counts? And what laws apply when lives are on the line but big profits are to be made?
Performances of Oil City take place at 9am, 1pm and 5pm daily on weekdays until 21st June. Bookings this way. The work is part of Artsadmin's Two Degrees festival of arts, climate change, consumerism and community.