The new issue of Neural magazine is out for a couple of months now but there's still some copies available. The theme of Neural 33 is Scripting Green and you can get all the details of what's inside over here.
The Maison Européenne de la Photographiein Paris is currently hosting the 10th edition of the Festival @rt Outsiders. (Un)Inhabitable? - Art of Extreme Environments explores the meaning of living in extreme environments.
These environments are either those that were, until recently, uninhabited by human beings and that contemporary science and technology is turning into "inhabitable" places (Antarctica, underwater world, outer space, deserts); or they are those that the consequences of man's actions have ruined and made "uninhabitable" for himself but also for other species.
It seems that every single European city is coming up with its own global warming-infused exhibition. @rt Outsiders was smart enough to narrow the focus of its show and to present a couple of artworks that stand out for their complexity, beauty and sense of involvement with the subject.
One of them is Sounds from Dangerous Places, Chernobyl, by sound artist Peter Cusack. Since the nuclear catastrophe of April 26, 1986 nature at Chernobyl seems to be thriving. As humans were evacuated from the exclusion zone around the nuclear power station over 20 years ago, animals moved in. Existing populations multiplied and species not seen for decades began to return (although not every scientist agrees with the statement that the benefits for wildlife from the lack of human activity outweigh the risks of low-level radiation.)
Sounds from Dangerous Places, Chernobyl is part of a broader project by Cusack to collect sounds from sites which have sustained major environmental damage. Impressed by the natural sounds of springtime in the Ukrainian city --dawn chorus, nighttime concert as well as frogs and nightingales-- the artist coupled photographs taken at and around Chernobyl with sound recordings. The sound of birds singing, the view of lovely old houses and wild flowers contrast with the sinister image we have of dilapidated buildings and the invisible radioactivity crackling through Geiger counters. This is one of the most striking works in the show as it's one of the rare artworks that explores Chernobyl without stopping at its potential for spectacularity and drama. As Cusack writes:
There is, often, an extreme dichotomy between an aesthetic response and knowledge of the 'danger', whether it is pollution, social injustice, military or geopolitical. The project asks, "What can we learn by listening to the sounds of dangerous places?"
The project also provides us with a further opportunity to reflect on some governments and industry suggestion that nuclear power is one of the greenest fuels available right now and that it would allow us to cut carbon dioxide emissions and keep climate change at a tolerable level.
Audios of Chernobyl Dawn and Chernobyl Frogs.
Howard Boland & Laura Cinti presented a new version of The Martian Rose, an experiment about life on Mars. A series of roses were exposed to Martian conditions using a planetary simulation chamber specifically built for Mars.
The fragile floweres were placed inside a biochamber that simulates most of the extreme conditions found on Mars. The low pressure, the hard penetrating UV-light and the chilling temperature.
The roses emerged, dark red, frozen, their shape intact. The project reminds us that no matter how many spaceships we build and launch into outerspace, no matter how much we want to adapt and explore new planets, space is still a pretty unhospitable place for men.
EPO4 Dewey's Forest, by Shiro Matsui, was inspired by Silent Running, a sci-fi movie that depicts a future in which all plant life on Earth has been made extinct, except for a few specimens preserved in a fleet of space-borne freight ships. The artist designed a garden for weightlessness. An experiment of the garden should be sent to the International Space Station during the Autumn 2009, in collaboration with JAXA, the Japanese Space Agency. The garden looked fit and healthy when i visited the show. I'd be curious to see what the plants look like in a month or two.
Plants are locked in a rotating machine, behind a porthole and thus unreachable, allowing the vegetation to grow in all directions, like in weightlessness. A camera is filming the garden from inside, capturing the audience looking at it. Visitors cannot enter the garden anymore that astronauts can go outside.
If a garden can thrive in space? How about art?
In 2003, while he was an artist in residence at the Australian Antarctic Base of Davis, Stephen Eastaugh created a sculpture garden between the meteorology building, a usually-frozen sea and a public mostly made of penguins. The sculptures look like small totems. Inspired by a wooden head planted in a pile of rocks years ago by an unknown explorer, they compete with the antennas, flagpoles and windsocks distributed around the station.
The 10th edition of the Festival @rt Outsiders, curated by Annick Bureaud and Jean-Luc Soret, runs until October 11, 2009 at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris. If you're in Paris on Wednesday don't miss the conference and debate that will focus on the economic and political challenges in the Arctic territories, an area coveted for its reserves of oil, gas and other materials buried deep under the
The Golden Institute, by Sascha Pohflepp, not only explores the energy issue through the lens of an alternate history of the USA, but also attempts to examine how visions of the future are being created and how they can make us reflect on contemporary issues. What would the world be like today if we could go back to the decade that followed the 1973 oil crisis? To paraphrase a title of an article published on Worldchanging over a year ago: Where would the U.S. (and thus the rest of the world) be now on climate if Carter had won the election of 1980?
As Pohflepp explained in an essay he shared with me, technological progress is often the outcome of very specific interests and decisions, mostly economical or strategic. Networked computers are a perfect example for that, not only because of their obvious history in military use but also the much more subtle opportunities that libertarian free-market advocates saw in the emerging Internet which lead to gigantic investments in these technologies (see Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture and Langdon Winner, The Whale and the Reactor). Other examples are the Manhattan project which lead to the development of the atomic bomb, or NASA's Apollo program.
Pohflepp's alternate history scenario zooms in a moment in the United States history when the fate of energy technologies could have taken a radically different turn. The neuralgic point in time is the US Presidential election of 1980 in which Jimmy Carter lost against his republican opponent Ronald Reagan. While he was governing the country, Carter implemented policies that focused on the quest for clean energy. He established generous tax incentives for solar energy and gasohol. He turned down the heating system in his office and wore sweaters. He even installed solar panels on the roof of the White House. On the day he presented the 32 panels to the press, the President declared: "A generation from now, this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people."
After he won the election, Reagan almost immediately changed the nation's course on clean energy matters. The National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) in Golden, Colorado lost about 95% of its funding and the solar panels got dismantled soon after.
What if the road heralded by the solar panels had been taken?
Its scope ranged from planetary engineering to the enabling of individual participation and profit from the creation of electricity. Notable projects include the development of the state of Nevada into a weather experimentation zone and the new gold rush in the form of lightning-harvesters that followed, or major modifications made to the national infrastructure in an attempt to use freeways as a power plants.
The project asks how visions like these are being created in the public imagination but also how they are being reflected by the economy and by individuals. In the case of weather modification, people are modifying their cars into lightning harvesters to participate in the experiments, both scientifically and commercially. The car presented in the model below is a modified Chevrolet El Camino that has been fitted with a lightning rod and various electrical equipment like variable resistors and capacitor banks to store the electricity from a lightning strike. Drivers are then able to sell the stored electricity at any one of the drive-through energy exchanges, which have opened around the zone.
The Golden Institute found a way to modify freeways and harness the energy which would otherwise be lost through braking when a vehicle exits the freeway at a velocity of about 55 miles per hour. Now, vehicles are equipped with magnets. As they exit the freeway at high-speed, the cars are gradually slowed down employing the Lorentz force as they pass through a series of induction-coils. The coils are typically operated by a franchise like Chuck's Café and if used effectively can get the driver a discount on a cup of coffee.
The projects presented in this rewriting of history offers an exaggerated yet serious view on current challenges which in scale may be considerably greater than the mega-scale projects of the past (see Saul Griffith, "Climate Change Recalculated": book and video).
What logic lies behind major technological pushes of the past and how could it apply to future projects and what could we learn from the visions of an American past that never happened?
The Golden Institute for Energy is a vehicle for further investigation and new material will constantly be added. For example a running collaboration with Rick Guidice who was responsible for painting NASA's space settlements or interviews with various thinkers about the promise of unlimited power.
Check out this six-minute corporate-style video in which senior strategist Douglas Arnd (played by Stuart Packer) explains the mission and the ambition of the Institute:
Sorry, Out of Gas: Architecture's Response to the 1973 Oil Crisis, by Mirko Zardini and Giovanna Borasi. With essays by Adam Bobbette, Daria Der Kaloustian, Pierre-Édouard Latouche, Caroline Maniaque, Harriet Russell (Amazon USA and UK.)
Publishers Edizioni Corraini and Canadian Centre for Architecture describe the book as follows:From November 7th, 2007 to April 20th, 2008 the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal hosts the exhibition "1973: Sorry, Out of Gas", curated by CCA Director Mirko Zardini and Giovanna Borasi. The exhibition examines the oil crisis of 1973 as a major precedent of contemporary concerns about energy resources and fossil fuel dependency. In fact, the 1973 shortage triggered research and development of renewable energy sources, improved technologies, and social experiments that were to have an enduring impact on the architectural and political fields both in America and Europe. The catalogue of the exhibition is co-published by the Canadian Centre for Architecture and Corraini Edizioni. Book design by Massimo Pitis.
An illustrated tale by Harriet Russell, specially conceived on this occasion, introduces the book from a child's point of view. Her amusing drawings create ironic and funny situations in order to make children familiar with energy saving and oil dependency concerns.
Sorry, Out of Gas is the catalog of an exhibition of the same title that ended in April 2008 at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. I wish i'll get to visit CCA one day as they seem to regularly set up truly innovative exhibitions.
Sorry, Out of Gas explored the architectural innovation spurred by the 1973 oil crisis, when Middle East producers declared a boycott and the value of oil increased exponentially and triggered economic, political, and social upheaval across the world.
Thirty years ago already, industrialized economies realized they might be relying too heavily on crude oil. Researchers, inventors, engineers, activist groups and architects came up with innovations and experiments aimed at preserving, renewing or creating new forms of energy. Today, it seems that much of their work (at the notable exception of Buckminster Fuller) and ideas have sunk into oblivion.
The book and exhibition attempt to remind us that the architects, designers and other 'luminaries' who are currently brandishing the magic word sustainability might want to acknowledge the pioneering work carried out more than 3 decades ago. As CCA Director and exhibition curator Mirko Zardini explained, "By providing insight on the forerunners of many contemporary approaches to sustainable living, the exhibition aims to increase public awareness and encourage contemporary research in the field."
The book starts with "An Endangered Species", a lovely illustrated tale that explains to children our dependence on oil, the existence of alternative sources of energy and the little steps families can take to cut back on consumption.
Then comes an essay by Mirko Zardini and a chapter dedicated to oil, from the embargo to the games that were created at the time to educate or even sometimes dedramatize the issue. I was particularly fascinated by a series of discourses pronounced in the 70s by world leaders. They were much bolder and more undisguised than the ones voiced by today's politicians. It feels like our leaders prefer to tread much more carefully and are afraid of causing us any discomfort.
The rest of the book is divided in chapters that correspond to alternative sources of energy and their use in architecture: Sun, Earth, Wind and Integrated Systems.
The houses constructed at the time were far less pretty than the ones that are built today with the same attention for saving and generating energy. Not that the times could not do stylish. Matti Suuronen had just created Futuro House after all. It was the first plastic house designed to be delivered in one piece anywhere the world by helicopter. As alluring as it might be, the project failed. Partly because of the swelling of oil prices and the consequent tripling of the cost of plastics.
Times called for a new austerity, for a more sensible and DIY aesthetics. A few examples worth mentioning:
Image: Wide World Photo, the MIT News Office, and the MIT Museum
The Dover Sun House was the first solar home that was actually inhabited. Entirely heated by solar energy, it had been deliberately designed without back-up heating system. It was made by three women: sculptor Amelia Peabody commissioned its construction, Dr. Maria Telkes, an assistant in MIT's Department of Metallurgy, designed the house heating unit and architect Eleanor Raymond drew up the plans and supervised the construction.
John Barnard's Ecology House is the outcome of the architect asking himself the question "How to make a house that resembles a park?" The answer came into the form of a construction sunk underground, with 25 to 40 cm of soil on the roof. Rooms receive natural light through the central open-air atrium shown below:
In 1976, a tenant-owner cooperative installed on the roof of their building at 519 East 11th Street in Manhattan solar collectors and a wind generator with the aim of using the energy for the public space inside the building. The system was connected to the Con Edison network, the company that had the monopoly for supplying power in the area. The energy generated was used in parallel with the supply from Con Ed. Over the first 5 months, the system met 110% of the overall demand.
Images from inside the book:
Related stories: Radical Nature - Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet 1969-2009, The Golden Institute for Energy (follow-up coming soon), Ecological Strategies in Today's Art (part 1).
Oron Catts, Director of SymbioticA, Centre of Excellence in Biological Arts at The University of Western Australia, contributed to the Biorama 2 discussion with a presentation of Adaptation, the project he and his team are currently working on. Adaptation is radically different from what you would expect. No victimless leather jacket, no banquet of frog steak. This one invites us to take a peak into the broader issue of ecology and life itself.
Thrombolites are rock-like structures built by micro-organisms. Often regarded as the earliest geographical features of primitive life on Earth, they are in fact bacteria which deposit layers of silt and calcium that slowly grow into rounded rocks. Scientists believe these micro-organisms are the earliest form of life on earth. Millions of years ago, there was no oxygen in the atmosphere and no protective ozone layer. According to researchers, this began changing when the tiny organisms started to appear. They lived in water and produced oxygen which gradually and very slowly built up the atmosphere we know today.
One of the few places in the world where the thrombolites grow is at Lake Clifton, 32 kilometres south of the city of Mandurah. The thrombolite structures, which can reach heights of up to 1.3m, are formed when the micro-organisms photosynthesise. During the processs they precipitate calcium carbonate from the waters of the lime-enriched lake to form the rock-like structures.
A vital feeding and nesting site for endangered migratory birds, including the almost extinct Hooded Plover, the lake is also home to black bream fish. Thrown into the lake by locals with the dream of fishing by the banks, the bream physically adapted to their new environment and bred so rapidly that they have now themselves become a pest, an invasive species endangering the survival of thrombolites. This example clearly demonstrates how little and consequently mismanage our environment.
The lake is protected but not everything that feeds the lake can be controlled. The region surrounding the lake is one of the fastest developing one in Australia. There are plans to build a new city not far away from the lake. Four thousand homes with shops, roads, etc. Development could put in danger the very organisms responsible for life itself: the micro-organisms living on the thrombolites. Especially if the development is coupled with the effects of climate change. One of the major threats to the survival of the thrombolites is indeed the increase in salinity of the lake, due to the decline in rainfall.
Image: Daniel Bozhkov, Darth Vader Tries to Clean the Black Sea With Brita Filter, 2000
Adaptation offers artists an opportunity to engage with the issue under many points of view including the historical importance of the thrombolites, the cultural history of the area, the contradictory nature of human activity and ecology, the effects of global warming, impacts of urban development, evolution of animal species and bioprospecting.
SymbioticA's own contribution to the Adaptation project is a De-Salination Plant. This kinetic sculpture, called Autotrophic Degeneration, will use technological advances to circumvent the lake (or at least a smaller scale pool of the lake water) from the effects of climate change and urban development. SymbioticA's public sculpture may contribute to the lake's salvation by acting as a basic evaporative de-salination plant. Just like thrombolites, the sculpture will grow extremely slowly (1 mm per year.) It will be grown from cyanobacteria, an organism that forms a major part of the thrombolites' bacterial colony. The project will play on the notion of autotrophy -the capacity of synthesizing necessary nutrients using freely available energy (such as sunlight and wind), and basic inorganic substances (such as water and air). The project suggests a post sustainable future and questions the impact of collapsing ecosystems on the idea of generating resources.
In the framework of the Adaptation project, SymbioticA has invited artists to undertake a residency shared between Lake Clifton and their facilities in Perth. For example, Perdita Phillips is developing a soundscape walk around the lake that will take visitors along a half to 1 km route listening to 10-20 stereo sound episodes telling the factual and imaginative story of Lake Clifton.
Biorama 2 was a sequel of the one that saw us hike through rain and wind in Marsden Moor, West Yorkshire. This edition still explored new directions in art, science and technology but with a focus on the biology of the underground through the notion of umwelt developed by biologist Jakob von Uexküll and its influence on the development of biosemiotics by Thomas Sebeok.
The event, organised last month by Derek Hales from the University of Huddersfield and Andy Gracie, was described as follows: Using the underground of caves and mines and the organic life they contain as a form of parallel terrestrial biology, we develop a 'parallel science' through the study of extreme and/or 'removed lifeforms' and through the science of astrobiology. Biorama II will explore a rich contextual and conceptual background against which to investigate some of the outer (or inner) limits of terrestrial biology and strategies for life. Framing itself as a platform for exploring these and related imaginaries - via literary luminaries, various heretics and other visionaries of the underworld and the potential of life (immanent, alien, emergent and other) Biorama2 will stage a series of discussions, workshops and expeditions which will serve to examine how organisms living independently of sunlight develop a sensory and informatic relationship with their strange environments.
I couldn't attend the workshop but i greatly enjoyed the symposium. This time, Biorama's quest for exoticism brought us for a series of talk inside a cave. The programme was exceptional: Microbiologist Dr Paul Humphreys gave a fascinating talk about bacteria (all i knew about bacteria came from acne and toothpaste commercials so i was amazed to learn that bacteria can be grown to repair concrete cracking and marble monuments, it can also block pollution or indicate the industrial past of a landscape that today might look pristine, etc.), Andy Gracie gave a wonderful talk about the Hollow Earth and biotech artists as science amateurs (all the juicy details are coming soon), Agnes Meyer-Brandis was her usual quirki/awesomness, Oron Catts showed a new project likely to surprise those who would enclose Symbiotica in a biotech art box, Ulla Taipale told us about Capsula's adventure towards a total solar eclipse in Siberia and Anthony Hall gave us the lowdown on fish-human communication. The day finished with a truly moving sound performance by Joe Gilmore in a deep cavern.
I'll blog in detail some of the presentations over the next few days. But first, allow me to set the tone.
People there bake lovely cakes:
And cook other delicacies:
Now the cave was The Peak Cavern, which also bears the exquisite name of "Devil's Arse". Until 1915 it was home to Britain's last troglodytes, who lived in houses built inside the cave mouth, and made a living from rope making, while the depths of the cave had the reputation of being a haven for bandits.
Read also The Arts Catalyst's account of Biorama cave trip.