This week (or rather semester since i so seldom do proper interview nowadays), I'm talking with Svenja Kratz , an interdisciplinary artist who combines art practice with cell and tissue cultures to investigate the creative and critical dimensions of biotechnologies as well as their impacts on concepts of identity, life, and death.
Svenja has a background in art but she also holds a PhD in Contemporary Art and Biotechnology from Queensland University of Technology and worked at the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovationin Brisbane, where she completed a PhD in bio-media art.
So far, the artist has worked with media as diverse as fetal calf cells, human blood, maggots, multi-component 3D Human Skin Equivalent (HSE) models or taxidermied insects. She is currently participating to Experimenta Recharge biennial of media art with an ever-changing face mask that uses DNA from Saos-2, a cell line that originally came from the bone cancer lesion of an 11 year old girl who most likely died in 1973 due to the aggressive nature of the cancer. The cells of the little Alice can now be found in science laboratories around the world. Their presence in an art installation highlights the transformative capabilities of Alice's cells but also the oddity of using living fragments of a human body that died 40 years ago.
The work is called The Contamination of Alice: Instance #8 and since i can't travel to Melbourne to see it, I thought the next best thing would be to write Svenja and interview her via email:
Hi Svenja! Your work Afterlife "looks at the ethical ambiguities and challenges that accompany the use and manipulation of organisms, in particular the use of Fetal Bovine Serum (FBS) in cell and tissue culture." What are those ethical ambiguities and challenges? And how does the work addresses them?
The work Afterlife was a starting point for the development of The Immortalisation of Kira and Rama, a project researched and developed during a three month residency at SymbioticA in 2010. The work developed from my engagement with cells and tissues and particularly the materials that are used in biotechnology such as FBS - a protein rich nutrient supplement used in the media to sustain cells in culture. The serum is derived from the blood of fetal cows. While the idea of draining unborn calves of their blood may sound horrifying, the calves are essentially a bi-product of meat production and while their blood is harvested to produce serum, their bodies are discarded, deemed unfit for consumption.
This work does not aim to demonise the meat industry or the use of FBS, but rather comments that there are victims at every level of consumption, and that the boundaries between good and bad are always blurred. For example, the common practice of slaughtering pregnant cows, and subsequent availability of fetal calf blood, has enabled great advancements in cell and tissue culture and contributed to the development of new medical technologies and treatments for humans and other organisms. This is the same for many cell lines, such the HeLa cell line, isolated from Henrietta Lacks in 1951. Establishment of this, the first human cell line, was a medical breakthrough, contributing significantly to the development of vaccines and scientific research. However, the HeLa line also caused significant distress to the donor family, as the cells were used without the knowledge or consent of Mrs Lacks.
My work aims to draw attention to the often unseen donors or victims of processes of consumption and advancement, but also the shifting boundaries between how we understand life and death. I feel we need to understand that that there are always positives and negatives, and that our technologies and attitudes often reflect current cultural values.
You work with living matter. What are challenges of exhibiting your works? How do you keep them alive for the whole duration of a show for example?
One of the most demanding aspects of working across art and science, and particularly preparing living work for exhibition, are the ethics, biosafety and risk assessments that must be completed to ensure that the work follows ethical guidelines, all risks are minimised and the work is non-hazardous for viewers and installation staff.
You also work with fairly sophisticated technologies. How do you manage to communicate both artistic ideas and scientific innovations that are not that well-known to the public without overwhelming them with complex explanations?
In trying to communicate my ideas, I often focus on storytelling, interweaving scientific concepts with personal experiences and observation, cultural narratives and philosophical ideas. However, this is something I need to continuously work on. When I first started working across art and science, I think I was actually much better at communicating underlying scientific ideas, as my understanding was limited and I was only familiar with lay language. As my knowledge has developed, I sometimes include scientific terms without thinking. Consequently, I often ask my arts colleagues to read my work to ensure the key ideas are clear and understandable, and that I have not included too much superfluous jargon.
You are showing Contamination of Alice #8 at the Experimenta Recharge biennial of media art. For this piece you used human DNA to explore the transformative capabilities of cancer cells. Could you explain us what this involves exactly?
The Contamination of Alice, refers collectively to a series of individual works originally inspired by the experience of my Saos-2 cell (bone cancer cell line originally isolated from an 11 year old. girl, Alice) cultures becoming contaminated by a fungus when I was working in the laboratory at IHBI in 2009. While this resulted in the required disposal of the cultures, to minimise the risk of further infection - something that was initially devastating - it really got me thinking about how different organisms take advantage of environmental opportunities, as well as the difficulty of maintaining ongoing containment and control over nature. The loss of the cell cultures also encouraged me to consider the creative potential of the experience and how contamination could be perceived positively as unexpected growth and discovery, rather than something unclean or unwanted. The contamination of the cells was actually a trigger to start exploring microbiology.
The latest instance within the series which was commissioned for Experimenta forms part of this ongoing exploration and connects to Alice's cells, my lab experiences and notions of becoming, transformation and the interconnections between organism and environment. Through the inclusion of Alice's DNA (isolated from her cultured cells), the work also starts to engage with genetics and the fact that DNA is not a fixed code, but subject to environmental influence through gene switching. While all Agar faces are made of the same material, the display of the work at a new location will result in different bacterial and fungal colonies, based on the microbes in the new environment.
How did you get to work with the Tissue Repair and Regeneration Group at Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation at the Queensland University of Technology?
I started working with the TRR group as part of my PhD research which aimed to explore the creative and critical potentials of cross art-science practice. I was very fortunate in finding a scientific supervisor willing to take me on, train me and fully integrate me into her research group. The support from my supervisor and the entire TRR team enabled me to complete my own lab work and gain first-hand insight into biotechnologies, particularly cell culture and tissue engineering.
I read that in 2013 you undertook a 5-month residency at Leiden University and the Art and Genomics Centre in The Netherlands to explore mutagenesis and bioengineering for future energy production. Could you tell us about this research?
Thanks to the Premiere's 2012 New Media Scholarship from QAG/GOMA, I had the opportunity to complete a six-month residency at Gorlaeus Laboratories at Leiden University in The Netherlands from July to December 2013. The residency formed part of the large-scale Biosolar Cells research programme, which focuses on the potential of solar energy for long term sustainable energy production. While the programme encompasses a variety of research areas, I was integrated into the Solid State NMR group led by Professor Huub de Groot under the supervision of Professor Wim de Grip and PhD candidate Srividya Ganapathy. The project I worked on aims to increase the absorbance spectrum of light powered protein pumps, which are proteins used by Archaea (single-celled microorganisms) to convert sunlight into chemical energy. If successful, the increase in absorbance spectrum enable the proteins to use more of light spectrum to create energy with strong implications for biofuel production. During the residency, I was fortunate to take part in site-specific mutagenesis experiments in which we made highly specific changes to the DNA sequence of the protein in order to induce a shift in absorbance spectrum. I am one of the few artists that can legitimately claim: "I helped make a mutant".
Why do you think it is important for an artist to get in close contact with science like you do?
I personally have found that working closely with research scientists and engaging with new and emerging biotechnologies has enriched my practice and understanding of biology, new and emerging biotechnologies and the complex ethical issues involved in working with living organisms. Being able to work closely with research scientists has also challenged many of my own assumptions and revealed that artists and scientists, despite governed by different objectives and methodologies, rely on tacit knowledge and understand that discovery is emergent and requires an openness to the unexpected. The combination of art and science is also important as it enables the subjective to enter into scientific discourse and research arenas traditionally dominated by a search for 'objective truth'. By drawing on, and incorporating, personal experiences, speculative potentials and historical events, the work makes room for multiplicity and can help reveal the way in which knowledge is always situated, provisional, and intimately connected to personal, social, and cultural values.
What's next? What are you working on right now?
At the moment I am developing a series of holographic display chambers in collaboration with micro-electronics engineer Michael Maggs, based on my 2013 residency in The Netherlands, that engage with ideas surrounding real and imaginary biotech mutants. I am also working on a series of individual works that operate as thought experiments regarding the idea of genetic legacy, and how, as single woman in my 30s, I might use biotechnologies to ensure my genetic line continues without having children. I am also interested in exploring the emerging field bio-fabrication and am hoping to secure funds to create responsive 'bio-robots' using 3D bio-printing techniques. What can I say...the future is exciting!
Experimenta Recharge, the sixth international biennial of media art, remains open until Saturday 21 February 2015. In Melbourne.
A few days ago, the Haus der elektronischen Künste Basel (House of Electronic Arts) inaugurated its new premises with a three-day festival of drones, music performances, immersive data explorations and giant mushrooms.
HeK space is a cultural center dedicated to the new art forms of the information age. The programme is as sleek and geek as its buildings but its spirit is critical and inquisitive. HeK takes technology out of consumer culture and looks at its more meaningful, socially-engaged or aesthetic uses.
The first show in the programme is a solo of Ryoji Ikeda, an artist and musician whose immersive installations and sculptural works give data a tangible physical presence.
The entrance space is all luminous, white and empty except for a speaker on the wall. The sound emitted by the directional speaker can be perceived at one point only in the room. You can walk through the space 10 times and never notice it. Or you might stop at the exact spot of the sound and be able to listen to it.
The main exhibition space, made of pure blackout and pure data, is the exact opposite. The data.tron projection drowns you into pixels of image composed from a combination of pure mathematics and various sets of data that define and control our world.
Nine monitors across the room form data.scan, a more intimate installation that continues the artist's exploration of data. The work presents an audio-visual relationship relating to large sets of data from two recent meta-scientific investigations that have mapped the human body and the astronomical universe. The horizontal field of the monitor-based data.scan is registered intimately in relation to the viewer's body.
The opening weekend also involved a performance of REMOTEWORDS by Achim Mohné and Uta Kopp. The duo painted BILD ≠ KUNST (image ≠ art) in huge red letters on the rooftop of HeK and used a small semi-professional drone to show us what it looked like from above. Over the past few years, Knopp and Mohné have painted similar permanent texts around the world, waiting for satellite image tools such as Google Earth to update their images and visualize the messages for everyone to read.
The text of this one, BILD ≠ KUNST, is a reference to the book "The Myth Of Media Art" by philosopher and art historian Hans Ulrich Reck. His wording mirrors the paradigmatic shift in the meaning of images by digital media. Images no longer stand solitarily at the center of art but are defined by artistic strategies. The House of electronic Arts, Basel (HeK) stands symptomatically for this relationship between (electronic) image and art, a relationship that is subject to constant change.
There's actually quite a lot of rooftop action at HeK...
Huge mushrooms are sprouting on its roof. Titled, A Band of floating Mushrooms, the artwork is a 6.5 meters high group of music-making mushrooms by Monica Studer and Christoph van den Berg. If you want to listen to the sound randomly generated by the sculpture while you're at HeK, just ask for a set of headphones. Or just click this way.
The wires so noticeably attached to the mushrooms (they are not functional) made me realize that you see no wire nor trace of technological structure at Haus der elektronischen Künste Basel. There's just you and the artworks.
But HeK is more than just an exhibition space. Its strong education programme makes it a place for media literacy and critical analysis of technologies. When i visited the space for the inauguration, there was a workshop to build robots for kids and another one to create photos using yeast. In the coming month, the team will organise workshops to learn Processing, build a mobile charger powered by bikes and make theremin instruments.
The Ryoji Ikeda show remains open until 29 Mars 2015.
Other events coming up at Haus der elektronischen Künste Basel:
I already mentioned the exhibition Strange Weather: Forecasts from the future in a number of posts (in particular this one which focused on clouds) so i won't bore you with repeating myself too much. The artworks on show invite the public to think about today and tomorrow's weather with the gravity that befits the topic but also with lightness and humour, asking questions such as:
Should human culture be reshaped to fit strange weather or should we reshape weather to fit our strange culture? Who is going to take advantage of climate chaos and how will strange weather benefit me? How will you choose to work, celebrate, live and die when weather gets weird?
Since so many pieces in the shows got my attention, i thought i should write on last post about Strange Weather. This one will include plastic flowers modelled on the alien species that have started to invade the Arctic, an instrument that monitors 'space weather', HazMat Suits for kids and more.
The Raindrop machine works like a mini open wind tunnel and it is both a continuation of the scientists original experiment and an artwork exhibited in a very different cultural context.
Scientists and ecotourists visiting the Arctic are bringing in thousands of seeds that were attached to the sole of their shoes or are falling off from their pockets. It wasn't a problem until a few years ago but temperatures are warming up and the seeds are now taking root, potentially disrupting the ecosystems.
Tania Kitchell 's Occupy II is a representation of alien and invasive plant species that have been sighted in Arctic regions.
In Occupy II the plants are made of ABS plastic that have been formed with 3D modelling software and formed on a 3D printer. Photos were used as references to reproduce plant forms; there is an intentional disregard for a precise likeness as sizes and proportions are not adhered to, but there is a strong connection to the existing plants.
Does this disconnect between perception and reality in any way parallel our misconceptions about the Arctic?
This was one of my favourite works in the show. It is simple and elegant. Yet, there is something slightly disturbing in this assembly of 3Dprinted plants. Even before you even read the text that explains what they represent.
The Solar Wind Aeroscope is another subtle, unassuming but fascinating work.
Jonas Hansen and Lasse Scherffig built an instrument that monitors 'space weather', the environmental conditions created by the Sun and the solar wind and that ultimately influence our own atmosphere.
The system relies on global network of amateur HAM-radio stations known as WSPRnet to measure radio signal range. The signals from this network can travel for thousands of kilometers, by bouncing off of the ionosphere. Because the ionosphere and its reflectivity is affected by the solar wind, the activity of the WSPRnet echoes space weather conditions.
By monitoring radio signals and their origin, the Solar Wind Aeroscope can 'see' the current atmospheric conditions caused by the solar wind. To make these measurements perceptible, the instrument translates the solar wind into actual wind--transforming the gallery into a terrestrial weather station for extraterrestrial weather. The effect is actually very subtle, you need to place your hands on the Aeroscope to perceive the strength of the wind.
Archive of Old and New Events, by Jodi Newcombe and Tega Brain, imagines what festivals and gatherings will be like after climate change has seriously messed up with the seasonal cycles and local climate conditions that were at the origin of these revelries. Strange new cultural phenomena could take their place.
This speculative project, set in 2030, brings side by side two collections; The Collection of Lost Festivals holds materials from events that have fallen into oblivion. The other is The Collection of New Festivals which documents recent cultural phenomena that have emerged in response to new weather and climate.
How could anyone not covet these stunning 'Toboggan shorts' worn by 2028 race winner worn for the 5th Ave Toboggan Race in New York City:
Or this container of dried jellyfish snack that will be a staple of our diet when jellyfish overpopulates seas that are getting increasingly warm.
Creepy children-size mannequins wearing HazMat Suits are loitering around the Science Gallery.
The corporation DuPont patents their Tychem cleanup suits for hazardous materials, these outfits are used in petroleum industry disaster response to mitigate ecological disasters. Cleanups are thus conducted with the same materials that potentially harm us. Marina Zurkow hand-sewn little HazMat suits for children. These suits, however, are sealed to prevent them from ever being worn by a child.
CoClimate invited artists and scientists in STRANGE WEATHER to produce scripts about what weather forecast will be like in the future. And then they had the brilliant idea of installing a fully functional weather forecast set, complete with green screen, teleprompter and camera. Visitors are invited to step in and play the television weatherman, recording the futuristic forecast of their choice and share it on YouTube if they want to.
More images from the show:
Strange Weather: Forecasts from the future was curated by artists Zack Denfeld, Cat Kramer from CoClimate and meteorologist Gerald Fleming. The show is open at the Science Gallery in Dublin until 5 October 2014.
One of the thing that surprised me when i moved from Belgium to Italy all those years ago is that i suddenly found myself in a culture where the weather wasn't part of the conversation. The sky never changed much. Every day was mostly sunny and fairly dry. This is less the case nowadays. I'm living in London where the Summer has been boiling hot. Meanwhile, Northern Italy has been showered by torrential rains. The weather has decidedly taken a turn for the weirder.
Newspapers publish alarming and disconcerting articles about climate change and 'extreme' meteorological phenomena on a daily basis. It seems that no matter how much we cycle to work and recycle our trash, this is too little too late (becoming a vegetarian would have a bigger impact anyway.) Climate change is a phenomenon so complex and grim that most people feel powerless and inadequate even taking about it..
The exhibition Strange Weather: Forecasts from the Future at the Science Gallery in Dublin gives a more human dimension to the issue. The show features 26 artworks that, each in their own way, act as springboards for new discussions and debates about the eccentricities of the weather.
The show goes from the very absurd (the Halliburton survivaball) to the very dark and dramatic. But the adjective that pervades the show is 'fun'. While visiting the exhibition, i've been drinking cloud, watched a 1959 film that speculates on how weather control departments would use satellites and met with little child mannequins in Hazmat suits in the most unexpected places.
Strange Weather is one of those rare shows that's never dull, never obscure, never preaching. A quick video walk-through of the exhibition will prove my point:
Given my enthusiasm for the exhibition, there's a lot i'd like to blog: all the ideas, all the works i've discovered. Being notoriously lazy, i'm going to bide my time and slowly publish stories about Strange Weather. Here's a first batch of artworks which explore clouds in the most poetical and critical ways:
Karolina Sobecka climbed to the Sally Gap in the Dublin Mountains to harvest clouds, decant them into little tubes and invited gallery visitors to consume them.
The artist built her own Cloud Collector, a device that is sent into the atmosphere attached to a weather balloon. Clouds condense on its mesh wings and flow into a sample container. These cloud samples are analysed for microorganisms and ingested by experimental volunteers. By combining the cloud microbiome with their own, the volunteers become part cloud and keep a cloud journal reporting their transformation.
Thinking Like a Cloud owes a lot to Aldo Leopold's land ethics motto 'thinking like a mountain'. It describes an ability to appreciate the deeps interconnectedness of all the elements in the ecosystems. By ingesting clouds, clouds become part of you and you become part of the atmosphere yourself.
I was strangely moved by Studio PSK's proposal for the ash dispersal of your loved ones. I don't care whether it is speculative or art or whatever, i want this project to be real.
I Wish to Be Rain suggests that after their death, people could literally become part of the weather by having their ashes used for cloud seeding, the dispersing substances into the air to trigger rain.
Following a funeral and cremation of a body, the crematorium will give the bereaved an aluminium vessel that contains their loved ones remains and a dormant aerostat. When the family are ready, the encapsulated ashes are sent skywards tethered to a weather balloon, to be dispersed in the macroscopic structure of a cloud. The capsule becomes increasingly pressurised. At the point it reaches the troposphere, the highest point at which clouds form, the capsule bursts, dispersing the ashes into the clouds below. When dispersed into the clouds, the remains get enveloped into a macroscopic structure far beyond the most grandiose human experience. But this is short lived, again they enter the domain of the miniature, falling back to earth as raindrops, before eventually finding their way back into the sea.
One thing i noted when i spoke to people who live or used to live in Dublin is that they all have something to say about the fluctuating prices of the houses in the city. Matt Kenyon's Cloud therefore feeds into two concerns: real estate and weather. The artist turned the last 10 year of housing market into a stream of small house-shaped clouds that fly to the ceiling of the gallery, stick there for a while, lose stamina (and metaphorically value) and then fall down to the floor.
The viewers witness common house-ownership dreams disappear as fast as they materializes -- just as many saw the false promises of their homes disappear as they were quickly foreclosed upon during this period.
Strange Weather: Forecasts from the future was curated by artists Zack Denfeld, Cat Kramer and meteorologist Gerald Fleming. The show is open at the Science Gallery in Dublin until 5 October 2014.
Yet another work i discovered in Riga when i visited Fields - patterns of social, scientific, and technological transformations, an exciting exhibition featuring artworks that challenge existing viewpoints, deconstructs social issues, and proposes positive visions for the future.
POLSPRUNG, by Erich Berger, explores the psychology and politics of disaster. The installation focuses on geomagnetic reversal, a change in Earth's magnetic field that makes poles switch ends with the magnetic north pole becoming south, and vice versa. Scientists believe that the reversal is cyclically and some have even calculated that the moment is long overdue.
Starting from (im)possible disasters during a polar reversal, an attempt is made to generally ask how we deal with threat scenarios and states of emergency. We are hereby especially interested in the role of mass media in the production of a permanent state of emergency, as well as the social function and the possible exploitation of disasters for personal, economic and political purposes.
The POLSPRUNG installation features a series of instruments that measure the earth's magnetic field to detect a possible polar reversal, register the gamma radiation caused by the solar wind and compare the data with the speculative disastrous gamma radiation data during a polar reversal. A small reading space also provides information about polar reversal research and disaster speculation, a magnetite laboratory and a notebook in which visitors can write down their thoughts about disasters.
Interview with the artist:
In Polsprung I refer to the geomagnetic reversal, when magnetic north and south are reversing their position and earth its geomagnetic polarity. The German word for the geomagnetic reversal is POLSPRUNG and I use it because of "SPRUNG" - which means "jump" as substantive. A "jump" implies some form of time, something very short in our time experience. But a geomagnetic reversal has a duration of about 10.000 years - nothing we humans would consider a jump, it is only a jump considering geological time. I liked the idea of the jump which makes us think about different time scales.
The other thing about frantically googling Polsprung is that it does look scary. Maybe worse than anything we might read about climate change (sorry for the link to that awful publication) Yet, it doesn't get that much coverage in newspapers. How do you explain that? Is it because we cannot yet feel the effects of the Polsprung?
True, from time to time we hear about a possible catastrophic scenario related to the polar reversal, but maybe it is not so popular amongst journalists, as the concept is not so easy to sell. And there are less "esoteric" scenarios around. This was also the reason I picked it, because it is rarely used in talking about catastrophes.
Could you tell us about the setting of the installation. It's very techy, with instruments that look scientific. Yet, the work explores 'the role of mass media in the production of a permanent state of emergency, as well as the social function and the possible exploitation of disasters for personal, economic and political purposes.' So what is the role of the instruments if the works explore the psychological and political dimensions of a catastrophe?
A constant flow of states of emergency produced through media was the starting point for me to work on POLSPRUNG. In the last years I saw myself constantly bombarded with possible catastrophes, the swine flue, the bird flue, climate change, global warming, peak oil, an asteroid hitting, super solar storms, you name it. Some of these scenarios are just briefly in the media, some stay for some weeks and month others are permanently with us.
It is a really interesting phenomena when you observe it for a while. Most of these scenarios never play out, or were totally disproportionate or are predicted for a future we are not part of. What they have in common is that they create states of emergency which create fear, keep us occupied and make us worry about our current life, our loved ones and our future. States of emergency are also perfect for enforcing measures which we could call unpopular, so I am also interested in the politics of these states.
So I thought to create a test environment, a laboratory, a vehicle to explore such a case. I was looking for a possible scenario which would not be possibly created by human impact like climate change or random (act of god?) catastrophes like an asteroid collision. My interest in geology lead me to the geomagnetic reversal. If we look at the reversal statistics of the last 5 million years then the next reversal is long overdue - so I found my perfect state of emergency. Now, the speculations of possible catastrophes related to a polar reversal range from nothing to a complete mass extinction event. One quite probably effect could be an increase in gamma radiation on the ground leading to a higher rate of mutation in biological organisms but also to unwanted interaction with the electronic hardware. The electromagnetic spectrum was always of high interest to me in my artistic work and so I settled for the gamma radiation increase as possible catastrophe. With this as basic setting the installations manifests itself in 3 parts:
* Disastrous test arrangement # 1: Polar Reversal Detector
* Disastrous test arrangement # 2: Muon Telescope
These two arrangements are self build but functioning instruments which permanently detect the fluctuations of the earth magnetic field (magnetometer) and the related gamma radiation (muon detector). With enough patience and time at hand (a couple of hundreds to thousand years) one can observe the reversal process and gamma ray increase - I call that radical witnessing.
Though the instruments are built quite simple and open they still remain black boxes for the visitor and make it difficult to completely understand the whole process. The detection really happens but people also need to believe in it and need to make them believe to actually be able to create the state of emergency.
* Disastrous test arrangement # 3: Reading and Feedback
The third arrangement is central, as here fears and personal catastrophes of visitors and witnesses are collected. A black book on a writing table invites people to write down their stories and thoughts. The book collects the stories of the different exhibition venues. I haven't seen the result from Riga yet, but in Hamburg, where POLSPRUNG was exhibited for the first time, people made intense use of it. At the same table you find literature to read regarding the polar reversal, the dynamic environment our earth represents when you look at it from a deep time perspective but also philosophy and ecology of geology and disaster sensationalism. For the more playful mind there is also a box where you can investigate and play with magnetic minerals.
"POLSPRUNG is the first installation in a cycle of the works that deal with the psychology and politics of disaster." Do you already know what the upcoming installations will be like?
I am currently working on the second work called INHERITANCE together with Finnish/Danish jewellery artist Mari Keto.
I already mentioned my interest in geology which specifically focuses on techno minerals, like uranium and thorium ores or rare earth elements, their origin, occurrences, mining, technologies and politics, etc. In one of my field trips quite close to my home I discovered native copper in the bedrock.
I knew this was exceptional and informed the geological research centre. To make a long story short, my sample also caught the attention of the researchers working for the Finnish nuclear waste industry. They saw the sample as physical evidence that copper is resistant enough as canister material for nuclear waste in Finnish bedrock. This was a rather
Finland currently builds the first permanent nuclear waster storage facility called Onkalo. There is a quite interesting film by Danish film maker Michael Madsen which I can recommend, called INTO ETERNITY which explores the facility and the people working around it. Also last year I participated in the excellent nuclear field lab Case Pyhäjoki organised by Mari Keski-Korsu which engaged with Finnish nuclear politics from an art and activism viewpoint. Anyway, nuclear processes are vast in time but also in their spacial and economical dimensions, and as such really difficult to grasp. I was thinking of ways how to make them more comprehensive and now we are working on sets of family jewellery which are rendered unwearable through their radionuclide content for quite a long time.
Family jewellery is perfect to inverse the logic of nuclear waste. Family jewellery is a vehicle for family identity and wealth into the future. With nuclear waste we in-debt the future. We have now researched the legal conditions we are working in and planned 3 different jewellery sets which will be presented as installations. Details are too early to
This is the last weekend to discover the Fields exhibition, produced by RIXC and curated by Raitis Smits, Rasa Smite and Armin Medosch. The show remains open at Arsenals Exhibition Hall of the Latvian National Arts Museum (LNAM) in Riga until August 3, 2014.
Other posts about the Fields exhibition: Sketches for an Earth Computer, Ghostradio, the device that produces real random numbers, On the interplay between a snail and an algorithm and FIELDS, positive visions for the future.
Yet another post about a work i discovered in RIga when i visited Fields - patterns of social, scientific, and technological transformations, a (fantastic and still open) exhibition featuring works by artists who have adopted an engaged, critical and active role in society.
Sketches for an Earth Computer is an ongoing series of living "laboratory" studies that explore the links between the earth, code and the human psyche of the viewer.
Over the past few years, Martin Howse has been investigating the possibility to build a computational device that would not only be constructed solely from the earth but would also be embedded within the earth as a critical monument to human technology.
The computer enters a feedback loop with the environment itself as geophysical, biological and electro-chemical elements can both encode and be modified by the computational structures.
Questions to Martin Howse:
Hi Martin! Could you explain the setting of the installation at the FIELDS exhibition?
As background it's important to understand that all of these elements are simply fragments of sketches towards the working out of what could be described an earth computer. The images in the background show elements of the installation operating within a forest environment in Germany. So the elements of the installation are designed as pointers towards these functional aspects of the earth computer, which may or may not operate correctly within an exhibition environment.
For example, the hanging sealed earth container references the potential recoding of electrochemical earth elements using a primitive solar cell constructed between copper, copper oxide plates and forest earth.
The large, floor-situated earth container (using forest earth dug one hour away from Riga in the "magic forest", and gypsum from a nearby quarry), refers to potential chemical changes in the earth induced by water passing through this stack of minerals above the earth. At the same time all of these containers draw attention to the drawing of a boundary for the earth, and the disconnection from the deep forest setting for which the earth computer is intended.
The last, most complex earth computer demonstrates several parts of the earth computing system; a display based on early telegraphy technology, the mirror galvanometer, transduces and makes visible signals from the earth using a moving mirror, fixed coil and small laser light beam. This is the interface to the earth computer. Forest earth in this container is also seeded with oyster mushroom mycelium and doped with silver nitrate, attempting to form over time a processor for the earth computer.
You developed an earthboot that 'enables almost any computer to boot straight from the earth'. How reliable is the system exactly?
The system is far from reliable, given that the earth has no interest or intention in correctly coding an operating system. Most of the time the computer crashes silently; a blank unresponsive interface. In perhaps one out of twenty sessions there are more colourful (see image on: http://www.1010.co.uk/org/earthcode.html)
Would any kind of earth do? or is it like a plant, responding better to certain types of earth (drier, more acidic, etc.) than to other?
Dry earth presents more problems for the flow of signals so is not so well suited for the earthboot device. I also prefer to use more active soils, with plenty of mycelial or insect/worm action. I modified the earthboot device towards the production of worm coded sound performance and worm poetry recitals. This came directly from work with Shu Lea Cheang focusing on links between code or data and the composting process.
The project puts the computer in direct contact with the Earth which at first doesn't sound very eco-friendly. What about all the mercury and other polluting chemical elements leaking into the soil?
Well the earthboot operates on a very small scale and there are no polluting chemicals directly in contact with the earth or soil, but other projects such as The Crystal World with Jonathan Kemp and Ryan Jordan have explored the techno-ecological cycle of extraction (of minerals) and return of polluting elements to the earth. I'm very interested in less direct parallels between such cycles and computation itself.
In an interview with Motherboard, you say: "One question I'm very interested in which you could say fuels my research is to ask where exactly software executes. In other words, where exactly do these seemingly abstract coded processes which seriously effects our lives, where do these take place?" Could you explain in more details what you mean by that and how the earth fits into this?
Software is viewed as a more or less invisible, obscured or blackboxed process which is situated, if at all, in computer hardware. Yet the exact place of the transition from physical, material flows or changes to symbolic structure is hard to pin down. So I was interested in speculating where that place of transition might be located, also in moving it away from this black-boxed laptop, phone or PC. These new locations I viewed as sites of execution, of where that thing called software enacts on the physical. One site could be the earth, as code runs predominantly on silicon substrates which have been synthesised from sand/earth.
And concerning the literal impacting of software on humans, I considered skin as another potential site of execution, relating this to computer virus and pornography. I also created a work called Pain Registers which explored very literally this connection; in this piece minute software changes operating under the interface surface of say an app like Firefox are literally painstakingly translated (by code) into the movement of a needle tattooing the hand of the user.
The work in the FIELDS exhibition is called Sketches for an earth computer', does it mean that this is just the beginning, that you are going to push the project further?
Sketches forms the background of a range of works and performances over the years and definitely the central idea of an earth computer or earth interpreter (in the software sense) will be pushed further. I'm interested now in looking at how software processes coded by the earth instead of being simply observed can equally re-code or impact on the earth. Parallels could be established with certain mining practices and I've recently explored these possibilities with Jonathan Kemp during our Stack, Frame, Heap residency in Lueneburg which also aimed to see how this exploration can mesh with historical land art, or large-scale alterations to the landscape.
Check out Sketches for an Earth Computer at the Fields exhibition, produced by RIXC and curated by Raitis Smits, Rasa Smite and Armin Medosch. The show remains open at Arsenals Exhibition Hall of the Latvian National Arts Museum (LNAM) in Riga until August 3, 2014.
Other posts about the Fields exhibition: Ghostradio, the device that produces real random numbers, On the interplay between a snail and an algorithm and FIELDS, positive visions for the future.