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.
La Cosa Radiactiva has brought a group of young engineers, musicians & artists on the roads of Spain to explore sites related with radioactivity.
The team (composed of Sergio Galán, Victor Díaz, Alejandro Pérez, Servando Barreiro, Marcos Carnero, Alvaro Santamaría and Javier Villaroel) is not always welcome in nor around the facilities they investigated but they nevertheless measured radioactivity in locations that range from the Arrocampo artificial lake (which water is used to refrigerate the turbines of the nearby Almaraz Nuclear Power Plant) to a dismantled uranium mine in La Haba (a small town of 1000 inhabitants in the Badajoz province), from the first nuclear power plant (in process of dismantling) in Zorita to a nuclear waste storage facility in El Cabril (Córdoba), etc.
They traveled with their own measurement and visualization system that combines a Geiger counter, an Arduino microcontroller and an app for Android phones. The data gathered is visualized on online maps and in the form of audiovisual performances organized on the public squares of the villages and small towns they visit. The findings collected are also used to trigger discussions with the local population as well as with a broader audience about the social and cultural impact of nuclear energy.
La Cosa Radiactiva is a "research on transparency and nuclear secrets. A performance to demystify radiation while building awareness of its risks. An imagination exercise to reflect on how it would be like to live with radiation and above all this, a call about the importance of citizens having their own tools to be able to verify public health data provided by governmental authorities."
La Cosa Radiactiva / The Radioactive Thing. English trailer
La Cosa Radiactiva / The Radioactive Thing is another brilliant project i discovered during my last visit to MediaLab Prado (i recently wrote about Citizen Cyber Science and the Freedom of Speech Kit.) Because i only had a few minutes to talk about it with Sergio Galán while i was in Madrid, i emailed him to ask him further questions about the project.
Hola Sergio! How much is known, made public in Spain about radioactivity? Was it easy for the team to find information about the location of radioactive sites?
First of all, just to clarify, all places we visited were not radioactive, I mean, with high levels of radioactivity. They were places with some connection with the nuclear industries: mines, factories, centrals, storages... Some of them are still working some are dismantled.
So, answering the question, it is not a secret to find those places. These are mostly old industrial places which are documented in quite a few webs.
But it is tricky. For instance, the ambient sensors provide a measurement of "radiation" around them, so we might think that if those sensors are below certain levels there is no risk.
There is a Geiger counter in many places where old mines or nuclear power plants are. Even if there were a leak or there is underground contamination, the geiger counter won't measure anything alarming unless something quite big is happening.
If you measure ambient radiation in a room where there is radioactively contaminated rice, you won't see a high measurement in your geiger counter, but it doesn't mean you can eat the rice. Counters detect external irradiation not contamination. If you don't know this, sensors can provide a fake "safe" feeling.
Furthermore when something happens, transparency falls down. In Spain during the last 30 years we haven't had a serious incidence, but even the small ones were hidden below the carpet. There was a tiny leak in ASCO - one of the nuclear power plants in Spain - and they didn't inform about the incidence until months later.
So it is a strange policy, always showing off transparency but hiding information when something happens. This is an example that should make us think twice before being too optimistic about the current transparency & open data wave - which of course I stand for - because it can also be used as a smoke curtain to hide things while seeming transparent.
One of the objectives of La Cosa Radiactiva is to 'hold workshops where people can learn about our work and about the radioactive phenomenon in a different way." How different is it from the way radioactivity is presented in mainstream media?
Since it was discovered there has been a strong fascination for radioactivity, thinking about it as a kind of paranormal power like green waves emerging from minerals and mutating all life around. One of our goals when doing our workshops was to teach basic scientific knowledge. We explained that of course it might be dangerous but it is a natural phenomenon, governed by natural laws. And it is actually everywhere, it is on nature in low levels.
Reality is that a lot of people don't have a serious clue about what radioactivity is. I've talked to many people about the project I was doing and quite a few asked me if it had to do with mobile phone waves, which is a totally different issue. So people don't receive scientific education to differentiate electromagnetic waves from nuclear radiation, but we - as a democratic country or society - have decided that we can use it as one of our key energy sources
While on a tour to locate and measure radioactivity around Spain, you met with local communities. How aware (and maybe worried?) are they about the presence of radiation in their environment?
We didn't make any serious poll, but my impression is that there is always a group of people interested and worried, but most of the people don't really care. For instance in a village were there used to be an uranium factory (where most of the workers died or are suffering uranium related illnesses) a guy told us that people don't talk about it. Some of them want to know if there is danger but at the same time they don't want to dig too much, because in case of finding something it might create economic troubles to the region.
So in the places we visited, when there is a nuclear power plant, people live well, they have jobs and so on. And they don't want to know. When there was something in the past, it is an old conflict. It is buried, only ecologists complain from time to time.
The exception is when there is an ongoing conflict. We visited a small village next to where the government plans to build a storage for nuclear waste and in that region people are really engaged, both for and against it.
What is the state of the nuclear energy discourse is in Spain right now? Is the country planing to create new power stations or is it looking for other forms of energy?
It is very ambiguous. On one hand there is a "nuclear moratory". Seven nuclear reactors were under construction in the 80's and then the government stopped them (so they are now just huge empty cement buildings that we are still paying, which is another interesting topic).
On the other hand, the active nuclear power plants, easily get new permissions to keep working for more years. Current government is more pro-nuclear than the old one, but I don't think they'll seriously plan to build more nuclear power plants, basically because they are very expensive, and require many years to start producing energy. Public sector is not investing on anything right now, and private sector won't invest unless they are strongly supported by public money/laws.
The official policy used to be to build more wind and sun powered plants -and Spain is actually among the leaders in both technologies. I think that it is the right thing, but is it enough? People like green energy and don't like carbon or nuclear, but nobody asks the uncomfortable questions like: Can we sustain our energy appetite with green tech only? Are we willing to pay more money for energy to avoid the energy sources with bad reputation? Or are we willing to stop our continuous growth system to consume less energy?
Can you describe briefly the DiY Geiger counters you've made and how members of the public will one day be able to make their own?
Since Fukushima's accident there has been quite a lot of interest for domestic Geiger counters, so they are becoming cheaper and smaller. The one we bought is made by a Spanish company and it is fully open hardware. It works over Arduino, and using the "Android-ready" version of Arduino we could connect it to the mobile phone.
So we don't build it but it is technically possible to build it from scratch. What we developed is a software to use the counter with Android phones. Thanks to the Medialab-Prado's open lab I contacted Alvaro and together with my colleague Victor we did all the Android+Arduino coding.
The goal was to build something more "user centered", a kind of nice interface for geiger counters so people can use it to make explorations and understand what's going on and how good or bad the measurement is.
Does the device show the difference between natural and man-made radioactivity? Sorry for the idiot question but have both forms of radioactivity the same impact on the environment?
Please note that I'm talking as an amateur, not as a scientist, so I might be not very precise. But in essence there are three kinds of radioactive particles: Alpha Beta and Gamma. The three of them can be natural or man-made. A Geiger counter reads the total radiation level so we don't know if the radioactivity we are measuring is natural or not. However if you read an abnormally high level of radiation somewhere, there is probably some human involved there.
Each radioactive element decays into other element emitting different combinations of particles, so scientific equipment can find out if the radiation is coming from natural sources or from other elements which are not usual in nature or directly only exist in nuclear waste or in the nuclear fusion process.
Animals are used to live with low levels of natural radiation in their environment, so if it suddenly increases that is when health problems start to appear.
La Cosa Radiactiva is also about transforming nuclear radiation into image & sound. Can you explain us how?
One of the main goals of the project was to work with radioactivity as a kind of input material for art or performances. So I contacted Servando Barreiro which is a media artist and VJ and also an old acquaintance. He had made a laser projector and with it he generates waves and shapes. For me, the aesthetic of his laser projections, resonates with what popular culture associates with radioactivity: green rays of death. So we agreed on working together. We added an option to the mobile app to stream the measurement levels. So Servando receives the measurement levels and he uses that information to change and modify the shapes of the projections.
My main idea was to have a kind of laser sculpture for villages with nuclear power plants. The laser sculpture will draw day after day the same bored calm shapes. But if there is a radiation leak and the village is in danger, the sculpture would mutate into creepy shapes, and people would admire it before realising that they are in danger.
It sounds poetic but we couldn't talk with the mayor of any place interested on having this. So I just tell it as a kind of design fiction, and in case a mayor of a "radioactive town" wants to build it, he can contact us.
Is the project over or are you planning to work further on it?
I'd love to have some time to finish the app adding a nice visualisation on how dangerous the radiation level that you are measuring is. That will happen probably soon. But the project as it was imagined at the beginning is almost finished. Now I'm thinking on what to do with this. We could make a nice installation for art centres and so on, but we'll see. For now we've just released the documentary a couple of days ago. Marcos Carnero recorded our trip and together with Alejandro we made the script for a series of short films explaining the project and the opinions of the people we found.
For the future I'd like this to be a kind of public service. Like ghostbusters. People would send us an email telling: I think I saw green smoke coming out of the nuclear power plant yesterday. Can you explain us how the geiger counters works or can you come with your counters and tell us what's going on? But besides accidents, I think the main utility for geiger counters is educational. Showing people how it works, explaining that radioactivity is everywhere and using them as a tool to learn & talk (and get fascinated by Servando's figures if they have the chance to.)
Today is the last day to witness All Rise, the week-long performance from Liberate Tate at the Tate Modern gallery. Filming devices strapped on to their chest, performers are reading aloud sections of the transcripts of the trial which started in February in New Orleans and sees BP stand accused of gross negligence over the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.
The performance marks the third anniversary of the disaster but it also questions the sponsorship of Tate by the oil multinational. Each day, three different performers are whispering courtroom transcripts from the BP trial. The videos are streamed live for anyone who can't make it to the Turbine Hall and other exhibition rooms of the institution.
Two years ago Liberate Tate performed Human Cost in the Duveen Gallery in Tate Britain, where a naked man curled up on the floor had oil poured all over him. And last year the group delivered a 16.5 metre wind turbine blade to the gallery, along with documents officially gifting it to the nation as piece of art. '
Strangely enough, Tate itself triggered the artistic protest. Liberate Tate was indeed founded during a workshop in January 2010 on art and activism, commissioned by Tate. When Tate curators tried to censor the workshop from making interventions against Tate sponsors, even though none had been planned, the incensed participants decided to continue their work together beyond the workshop and set up Liberate Tate.
Now the performance interested me for two reasons: the trial against BP isn't receiving the major international coverage i would have expected (even though the damages to human health and the environment are still very much felt, even though the clean-up is far from being finished and even though the local communities are still struggling to recover from the economic devastation.) The second reason is that, like many people working in art, i find it difficult to make up my mind: is it really so bad to take some dirty money to support the art community? Do we really have a choice in these harsh times of cuts in the art funding?
Mel Evans of Liberate Tate has kindly accepted to answer my questions about the performance.
Liberate Tate has been protesting since 2010 but has been achieved so far?
Well, over 300 artists and cultural workers have signed their name to letters calling on Tate to drop BP sponsorship in the press. Over 8000 Tate members and visitors have petitioned Nicholas Serota to end the sponsorship deal with the oil company. And, at the 2012 Tate Members' AGM, a full hour of the session was filled with diverse voices calling for Tate to disclose more information on the sponsorship deal and heed members' perspective on it. For Liberate Tate, their performance interventions are now held in Tate's archive: a mixed response, but a recognition of significance nonetheless. More and more artists have gotten on board with the call for change, including Conrad Atkinson who has numerous works at Tate, and Raoul Martinez, who has been exhibited as part of the National Portrait Award. Beyond this, we regularly hear tell of Tate staff at all levels sharing our concerns with BP sponsorship at Tate.
Because of Liberate Tate, I (and i'm sure many members of the public) am now acutely aware of the sponsorship and entering the exhibition space with a sense of guilt...
Liberate Tate doesn't intend to make anyone or any visitors feel guilty: our slogan is Love Tate Hate Oil.
We want to raise the question, what does a future look like beyond oil? What role does culture have in shaping oil? And what democratic processes are available in a public body such as Tate to question the social legitimacy given to an oil company whose global impacts are devastating lives and livelihoods? We welcome anyone's participation in this questioning, and this gathering of momentum to push for a shift in this cultural sphere. The arts have moved away from tobacco and arms sponsorship; likewise they will shift from oil, we simply insist it is sooner rather than later.
But it is not a sense a guilt we wish to generate, but rather one of possibility - often this is the question the arts often ask, how do we understand the world, how might we understand it differently, and what might we make possible. Just because oil is a feature of our every day lives does not mean we cannot question it - in fact it is when something is so pervasive that we must consider it more.
In these times of cuts in public funding, corporate sponsorship seems to be a reasonable option. What right do we have to judge Tate and decide where they can and cannot take the money to produce and exhibit contemporary art?
Pressure on arts institutions to make deals with corporations is certainly premised by the Tory-Lib Dem government as justification for the cuts. The opportunity for sponsorship and the impact of the cuts is felt very differently according to organisations sizes however: smaller arts organisations have lost everything through the ACE cuts, and have little opportunity for corporate sponsorship, because business is only interested in the notoriety of allegiances with big name institutions. With Tate as the key example, all of their corporate income from events and sponsorship amounts to a minimal percentage of their overall income. Tate has refused to dispose figures on the BP deal, but we estimate it to be £500,000 - a minuscule slice of Tate's budget. From Tate's own figures we know they still receive about 35% state funding, and raise almost half via Tate Enterprises in their shops, cafes and restaurants. The picture of the corporate knight in shining armour saving the flailing arts institutions is a total misnomer. It is in fact the CEO of Tate Enterprises Laura Wright who has led the way in securing Tate's financial stability.
The tip of a turbine blade is carried over the Thames from St Paul's Cathedral by Liberate Tate for the artwork The Gift in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall 7 July 2012 Credit: Martin LeSanto-Smith
Last year, Tate wasn't too pleased about the wind turbine blade that you offered them as a gift. How is Tate reacting to this year's performance?
The Gift was probably our most confrontational performance to date. It was certainly the largest! Over a hundred people and a 16.5 metre wind turbine blade...It feels good to go in absolutely the other direction with All Rise, and make a work that is quiet, small, unobtrusive. All Rise is really about the ripples a performance can make. Over this week we've drawn in audiences from around the world who can watch the three performers move around Tate Modern via live stream every day 3-4pm GMT+1. On the first day Tate staff questioned what we were doing, but now we have been told no-one will interfere. Visitors notice us and ask questions as performers pass them in the gallery, or stop and listen to the legalistic text of the trial whispered by the performers, but we're not obstructing anyone in any way, so I think there's little grounds to ask us to leave. Tate might also be aware that should they eject us, we have news media on speed dial. Overall, allowing this piece to grow into the space has been great, and unlike The Gift, we're able to bring our questions back to the terrible harm still being felt since the BP Gulf of Mexico disaster, at the same time as inviting Tate visitors, members and staff into a conversation with us.
What do you say when people claim that BP has no influence about what is exhibited in the galleries anyway?
It's very hard for us or them to make an absolute measure on BP's curatorial influence. The presence of a sponsor can censor silently even if not directly - any cases of which would be surely fiercely hidden from view. Several artists note numerous cases in which they have seen BP related censorship take place. Liberate Tate was itself founded during a workshop at Tate in which BP sponsorship was raised when staff sent an email to the organiser stating "to be aware that we cannot host any activism directed against Tate and its sponsors". Beyond that. I see the question also being about, what impact does BP have on Tate by its presence and association? What does Tate become, despite presenting itself as a politically savvy, progressive institution, by association with BP?
And what can we, general public, do to help 'liberate Tate'?
Go to Tate and raise the questions. Write to Tate. Make art about BP at Tate. Speak to Tate staff you know and ask them what they think. This is an art movement for change that affects us all as artists on some level - we have a stake in the values that influential contemporary art institutions uphold, and it is for us to shape those values in our work. See you in the gallery, challenging the presence of BP in whatever creative way you see fit, be it on feedback forms or something more adventurous! And get in touch at liberatetate [at] gmail.com or @LiberateTate on Twitter if you want to connect with us and what we're trying to do.
If you've missed All Rise, i'd recommend that you check out Tate à Tate, Liberate Tate's alternative audio tour of the London Tate galleries.
Another project from the Design Interactions work in progress show!
This one is smart and thought-provoking and i'm looking forward to seeing how it will shape up for the graduation show.
Michail Vanis's project suggests that our romantic ideas and ideals regarding nature - a nature that has to be preserved exactly as it is- are holding us back from finding new ways to interact with the world surrounding us. Vanis' Neo-nature project invites us to reconsider our relationship to nature and adopt a more rational but also more daring and more techno-mediated approach to ecological thinking and to conservation.
The first chapter of the work, Animalia, deals with the animal kingdom and proposes three alternative ways to conserve coral reefs. In all three alternatives, the humans speed up the coral's evolution by genetically modifying it to adapt to the new environmental conditions that put the species in danger. The motivation behind why each coral is created illustrates how humans can donate, protect, or exploit.
The first scenario envisions a coral colony, a Stonehenge-like monument, that conservationists have generously financed and donated in order to save the species from extinction. The corals pass plankton efficiently between each other, creating a temple of nature, a celebration of marine life, and a spectacle for visitors to witness.
The second scenario sees a coral species seeded in areas where tsunamis might hit. In case of tsunami, the coral takes 70% of the impact. Most of the colony would die in the process but the humans would be saved.
The third scenario sees coral being exploited for the benefit of corporations. A hydrodynamic coral would be bio engineered to efficiently slipstream and merge water currents into powerful single streams. At the end of the coral colony, a convenient jet of water is exploited by the creators of the coral to harvest electricity.
I asked Michail (who, i should add, means the pandas no harm whatsoever) if he could tell us more about Neo-Nature:
Hi Michail! You wrote an essay that bears the cruel title of "Let the Pandas Die" to accompany or rather introduce the Neo-Nature project. In this text, you suggest that we might have to adopt alternative thinking in ecology and conservation. Could you briefly explain why traditionalist view of ecology and conservation might not be enough to save ourselves and the environment?
There is a lot of paradoxical thinking in ecology and conservation at the moment. Large sums of funding go towards programmes which aim to sustain organisms that are arguably at the end of their lifetime. We accept evolution and the cyclical nature of ecology, yet we try to halt nature from changing, from progressing. In a way, the nature that we are experiencing now is the perfect nature. Any other alternative seems to spoil the romantic, pure nature that we have created in our heads. Slavoj Zizek puts it very nicely: "[Ecology] is a balanced world which is disturbed through human hubris".
The ideology that we have created to define nature as human beings actually stops us ethically from experimenting with new technologies. For example, if we collectively agreed to save a species from extinction, maybe we could genetically modify it to survive the new conditions that we have introduced. This seems far from possible at the moment because you have two parallel schools of thought: the scientists and the romanticists. The scientists are prepared to take risks and talk openly about modifying organisms, the climate, the natural world. On the other hand, the romanticists protect the ideological, paradoxical nature that they believe in truly on ethical, emotional and guilt-driven grounds. This disagreement is a huge problem in conservation.
Has your research been inspired by existing scientific or commercial projects?
One big influence of mine is the Weather Modification Office in China. What I find fascinating is that China provides a cocoon of moral freedom in which scientists can experiment with controlling the weather. Officials regularly seed clouds to combat the draught in Beijing without worrying about the influence that their actions might have on the natural world. A lot of the time they get it right. But sometimes, they get it really really wrong. Recently they accidentally caused a snowstorm that covered Beijing in snow. And in a way, that's okay. They get it right 90% of the time, but when they get it wrong, it doesn't stop them from trying again. This is the kind of experimental practice that has inspired my project.
Another interesting scientific project is the modification of male mosquitoes to combat insect-borne diseases. When these newly modified mosquitoes try to reproduce, their offspring dies immediately. Doing this to insects is acceptable, but try to imagine if you had the same scenario with a more loved animal. It would be completely unethical! Deciding what is okay to modify and what isn't is completely subjective.
And more generally, have you talked to bioengineers and other scientists about the Neo-Nature scenarios?
I've been working with a fluids mechanic to actually shape the corals. He's been very interesting to work with because he doesn't treat the corals as an animal, but he treats it as a material. For the next chapter of Neo-Nature, I'm working with a climate scientist and a mechanical engineer to explore the domestication of weather control. I am also going to an interesting discussion in April, which is titled "The Future of Nature" and is organised by the Wildlife Conservation Society. Half of the audience are synthetic biologists and the other half are conservation scientists and policy makers. I think this project generates its full potential of discussion when it is debated with scientists as well as romanticists. I'm trying to make that collision happen with a series of debates and talks in the coming months.
Why did you chose to illustrate the project with corals? Is it because these marine animals are easier to manage and modify? Or because they are not 'cute' so we might be less concerned by their fate than by the one of the pandas?
The coral is a very fragile animal that is dying quickly, but there is a lot of opportunity to manipulate it. Corals are more important than other endangered animals because they provide a living environment for a plethora of marine life, yet they receive less funding. I also chose the coral because it's not as sacred as the panda. It's an animal that is usually compared to plants, not to other animals. This emotional distance makes it easier for people to consider the possibilities of modifying coral to fulfill human desire, but to also conserve it in a more artificial way.
You showed 3 models of modified corals at the WIP show. Are you planning to push the project further?
This chapter of Neo-Nature is almost complete. I wanted to suggest three new alternative strategies for saving the coral. I'm putting it in the background for now until the other chapters of the project are complete. I will be testing the coral models at the Imperial College wave tanks to test their shapes and record some videos of the water flowing through them. I'm now working on the next two chapters, which are arguably more megalomaniac! I don't want to reveal too much though...
Thank you Michail!