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!
Today i'm stuck in Turin, it's been snowing all day long. I'm not complaining but i don't feel like venturing outside to see exhibitions so i'm going to point you to an online exhibition over at dARTboard, a digital art space that the Vilcek Foundation created to 'celebrate the accomplishments of foreign-born artists living in the United States and working in the realm of digital art.' This year's featured artist is Marc Böhlen who's showing two works that investigate the relationship between people and automated systems.
The first work is WaterBar, an installation that geoengineers water in response to news on global water crises. The liquid is first filtered to be perfectly clean and then remineralized using a filter bank which releases traces of magnesium, iron, calcium and other elements in proportion to the intensity of related problems found in pertinent realtime online news.
The minerals delivered are connected to a number of locations and symbolic significations. For example, increased readings on water conflicts caused by greedy corporations are countered by adding more of the water mineralized with sandstone from La Verna, Italy, where St. Francis cared for the poor. Similarly, increased readings on topics suggesting over confidence in technology, is counterbalanced by adding more water mineralized with quartz-rich granite from Inada by Fukushima, home of the latest devastating high-tech catastrophe. The result is a unique water mix that acts as an 'antidote' to the news of the day.
The second work, MakeLanguage - SyntheticAccents, attempts to overcome the shortcomings of commercial text-to-speech (or TTS) systems which only offer standardized, idealized speeches devoid of any slur or strong accent.
MakeLanguage - SyntheticAccents creates accented Englisch (Frenglisch, Genglisch and Spanglisch accents in limited vocabularies) to speculate upon the imagined lives of these accents without origins.
To be honest, i wasn't particularly impressed by Volcek's "electronic art space" because i can't see how a couple of webpage that reproduce some of the content of the artist's website can be regarded as an online exhibition. I was expecting more curatorial weight, effort, and inventiveness. That said, i'm not only impressed by the Foundation's general aims and missions but i also welcomed the news of this online show as it allowed me to catch up with Marc Böhlen, an artist-engineer whose work i've been admiring almost ever since i started this blog.
Extracts of our online interview:
Hi Marc! Let's start with WaterBar. The installation is a 'water-well designed for the post-sustainability age when clean water is simply not good enough.' Can you explain what you mean by post-sustainability age? Is this when we realize that achieving sustainability is impossible? Or when we go to extreme lengths in order to obtain what we regard as 'sustainable'?
WaterBar is inspired by two different and related ideas.
The second idea is the current fixation on the 'sustainability' model. No doubt, sustainability is of paramount importance in the near and midterm. But one day, we will have solved the sustainability challenge (provided planet earth still exits). And then what? What kind of relationship can we build with resources beyond risk management and damage control?
I just showed WaterBar for one month in Singapore, where industrial level water management delivers clean (as in not risky) water to the entire island. Even waste water is recycled and returned to the drinking water system. The water cycle is complete. From a sustainability perspective, the problem is 'solved'. Interestingly, the exact proportion and timing of the release of this processed water (coined 'new' water) into the public drinking water system is a state secret; details are withheld from the public. The researchers at the Aquatic Science Center I consulted claimed that people simply do not want to know this because of the unresolved relationship to dirty water in general. Similar responses have been reported in San Diego (USA) where a novel waste water processing plant delivers 'clean' drinking water. In short, the water problem is not just a technical, not just a political problem. It is a problem of a 'failed' relationship between people and technology. It is a civilization challenge. Up to now, good water was equated with fresh water. But there is not enough fresh clean water to serve everyone on the planet. The future will require new approaches to this problem. That is one reason geo-engineering is so important. These are the aspects of sustainability WaterBar responds to.
To me, WaterBar sounds a bit like a satire of the fashion for food that will 'heal' us more than feed us, for the new 'superfoods' that keeps being praised in the health pages of newspapers. But of course i might be completely wrong so what motivated this desire to 'improve' the water we drink?
Well, there is a component of satire, but not in the installation. The WaterBar installation really does produce mineralized water. It adds iron, calcium, magnesium and other minerals in minute but detectable levels.
The satire is in the shelves of supermarkets and restaurants that sell mineral water to health-fashion victims. The improvement, as it were, that WaterBar offers is an improved relationship to water, to the water mix of the day as it is influenced by current water problems occurring all over the world.
The remineralized water is offered for public consumption. Are people eager to test them? Do they taste very different from each other?
WaterBar searches the internet for news on water problems that concern everyone. WaterBar makes in response to this collection of information (usually bad news!) by passing water from its reservoir through the filter banks and mixing it to a 'catch of the day'.
The relationship between the filter banks (of collected rocks and minerals from different parts of the planet) and the news feeds is based on an oppositional mapping scheme. For example, the Inada Granite filtered water is added to the mix when the system finds instances of 'overconfidence in technology'. (This Inada Granite was sourced from a quarry south of Fukushima, home of the latest high tech meets natural resources catastrophe). Anyway, depending on the mix, the water tastes different. You can't taste all the variations - at least I cannot - and it usually has a bit of chalky taste due to the choice of limestone and marble in the filter banks. Some people really enjoy it.
In order to 'mineralize' the water one has to expose the water to the filter materials for a certain time. At about 30C it takes only about 5 hours or so for the filters I have chosen to reach close to saturation level. At colder temperatures it can take longer. I usually fill up the filters 24hrs in advance and refill overnight.
Yes, the mixes are always different, as different as the news feeds describing water problems. News feed change all the time, but luckily water catastrophes have a slower update rate! This is an interesting problem - how do you relate temporal flows of information systems to the temporal flows of geological systems. Anyway, some mixes taste very different from others, some seem hardly different. The variations in chemical properties are far greater than the resultant variation in tastes.
Some people were very eager to taste the water. During the first show in Buffalo, NY, one fellow stopped by the WaterBar every day. At the end of the week, he stopped by with a large canister to get WaterBar water for his cats and plants!
Can you also explain us the 'internet-scanning, text-processing control system"? What does the system scan exactly? And how does its search influence the final mixing/mineralizing of the water?
WaterBar's software contains a module that checks a large list of websites on water resources, including, waterworld.com, circleofblue.org, ecology.com, mondediplo.com and many others. Depending on where WaterBar is operating, I add sites with locally pertinent information. The internet-scanning algorithm checks these sites, dissects the content and maps it onto an 'association matrix' that relates the origins of the filter banks to the web search results. This is where information directly becomes material. I use the simple 'bag of words' approach. For example, the Inada filter (see above) bag of words contains the concept attributes: 'hazard', 'hightech', 'disaster', 'nuclear', 'contingency', 'emergency', 'highrisk', 'failure', 'advanced technology' (with spelling variations). The algorithm creates a normalized distribution map based on frequency of occurrences for all the filter banks and concept attributes. This does not produce an exact representation of the information flow relevant to the filter topic. But the error rate is uniform across all the filters. From an engineering perspective this is not really good enough, and certainly needs some more attention. But even if I spend the next five years perfecting this, there will always be a difference between what I can capture, what is flowing in the internet and what actually happens in the world. I see the current approach more like a fishing expedition.
The catch of the day are fish that were actually in the water at the time you went fishing, but the fish you catch do not necessarily represent all the fish in the ocean. Anyway, the result from the internet scanning algorithm might suggest this kind of distribution: 20% filterA, 35% filterB, 15%filterC and 30%filterD. A second algorithm creates a water mix in this proportion by opening and closing the electronic valves that connect the filter banks to the bottom jar. A third algorithm calculates the effective chemical composition of the resultant water (based on the mix ratios and measurements of the water in the filter banks). E mg/L of iron, F mg/L of calcium, and so on. Just like the descriptions on commercial mineral water bottles. This info is scrolled on the large LED screen at the top of WaterBar. Gravity is the only force moving the water from the top to the bottom.
My experience has been that people find these accents mostly humorous. I don't know why! To me they are vehicles of 'Entfremdung'. They sound like humans with a life history but are fake!
To me the weird experience hearing these voices is not unlike the 'uncanny valley' effect coined in robotics that describes the effect of experiencing an almost living/human thing and then all of a sudden realizing that what was thought to be alive is inert (technology). The fall from the initial attraction is augmented by the degree of veracity of the effect. I don't think we have culturally come to terms yet with machines that really sound like we do. Not only because of this direct audible disjoint, but because of the subsequent intuitive step of assuming that what sounds human must be human. Maybe this is as disruptive a step as the introduction of the telephone that undid the notion of presence and voice. Prior to the popularization of the telephone, presence was coincidental with physical proximity. The advent of the telephone changed that, and a 'live' voice could be heard from faraway. It took some time before people could grasp this in daily life.
Now this might be a naive and silly question but how did you record these heavy accented sentences? Did you ask a german-speaking person to speak like a computer? Or did you tweak the TTS system instead?
The accented utterances are 100% synthetic! They have never been uttered by a living person, and can be generated on the fly by the system.
Synthetic speech systems use various approaches, but one popular one is based on the unit selection principle by which elementary units of speech (phonemes and diphones) are combined based on language specific rules to larger units such as word and phrases. One starts with a collection of sound bites (a corpus of utterances) made by a specific human being, recorded in a studio. Synthetic speech engineers refer to people whose voices are used as 'voice talent'. Anyway, these utterances are then dissected, rearranged and 'atomized' to elements that can be recombined ad lib, usually in the language model of the native speaker. Whatever such a synthetic voice says will sound as if the original human being said it. Anyway.
Back in 2005 I approached a startup company (SVOX, no longer operating..) that had, in my view, an excellent synthetic speech engine and asked them if I might experiment with the system, promising 'interesting results'. Luckily I received access to the software. It would have been almost impossible to do this project having to build all the software from scratch.
My very simple but effective approach was to selectively mix units of speech from one language with language models from another. This in itself did not produce good results, so I added some 'accent rules' to address the problem of intonation. Even that did not work well. I had to make lots of special rules, and the system got rather unwieldy. I was not able to create a general purpose accent generator (as I hoped for in wild dreams) but a system that would work with a few languages for limited vocabularies. One rather weird part was the testing. Who do you test on? How do you know when the fake accents sound 'right'? So I concentrated on language mixes I am familiar with through my own history and background and tested the strange voices on myself. Once I was ok with the basic sounds, the question of content moved front and center. What should/could these voices say? Some very weird conversations between the voices and me ensued, as you might imagine. Amway, I ended up mostly in the service industry (hotels, airports) and played with the kind of phrases you hear in those impersonal settings. It felt so right in a very wrong way.
What does an exhibition on the online platform dARTboard, bring to your practice? Do you think that an online exhibition has as much strength as one in a brick and mortar museum? In terms of audience, recognition and also ability to engage with an artwork?
I do prefer brick and mortar for installations like WaterBar. I really do want people to drink the water. The installation has a powerful presence, I think. Video documentation is a compromised replacement. Plus you don't get to see people's reactions.
The synthetic voices from the MakeLanguage trilogy are a different matter. I don't think they lose much by being online. Maybe that is the only place they can really be at home after all.
The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM is aired tonight.
My guest is Lisa Ma, a speculative designer who explores the fringes of society. These fringe groups --which are otherwise ignored by the broad public-- range from the ladies who are mad about cats to conspirationists or to communities campaigning to stop the extension of Heathrow Airport. Lisa discusses with these people at length and then attempts create what she calls 'platforms of unusual engagement' with them.
One of her latest projects drove her to a joystick factory in a suburb of Shenzhen. She spent several weeks with the factory workers, sleeping in dorms, sharing their meals in the canteen, watching tv with them, making friends. Because most of these young factory workers come from a farming background and because videogame controllers might become obsolete soon, she proposed to the factory owners that they'd allow the joystick makers to work part-time in a nearby farm growing strawberries. She called the experiment Farmification - using farming to keep the factory community together when work dwindles.
I've interviewed Lisa about this project for the blog last year but this time, we'll be hearing about the fate of the factory workers one year on (clue: it doesn't involve many joysticks), obsolete technologies and eating pigeons as a contraceptive measure.
The show will be aired today Thursday 24th December at 19:30. The repeat is next Tuesday at the scandalous 6.30 am. If you don't live in London, you can catch the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.
Bonus! Lisa and her banana nails talking about Farmification at DLD Women.