I discovered the work of Addie Wagenknecht a few months ago while visiting The Digital Now exhibition in Brussels. The young artist was showing Pussy Drones gifs. I didn't fully get what they were about at first but the more i looked at the porno-grotesque-aggressive images in the exhibition space that day, the more i thought she was a talent to follow. And indeed, the rest of her portfolio didn't disappoint. Addie made a painting using a drone as a brush, enrolled a stern industrial robot to rock a baby cradle, asked online sexcam performers to replicate classical paintings, and built a chandelier using CCTV cameras.

Addie Wagenknecht studied photography, traveled the world, completed a Masters at New York University as a Wasserman Scholar and right after that got a fellowship at Eyebeam Atelier, CultureLabUK and more recently at HyperWerk Institute for Post-Industrial Design and Carnegie Mellon University under Golan Levin at The Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry.

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Optimization of Parenting, ABB Robot Arm, Digital Fabrication Laboratory,
(dFab), CMU School of Architecture, 2012

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Asymmetric Love Number 2, Single Produced Sculpture (Steel, CCTV cameras and DSL internet cables), 2012

Now that the long, idle Summer hiatus in which i published roughly 0.7 posts per week is over, it's back to business as usual and i'm glad that Addie Wagenknecht has accepted to be the first artist i interview for the the new 'season'.

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The Career Machine, Installation, Los Angeles, CA, 2011

Hi Addie! While reading the description of The Optimization of Parenthood (Part 1 and Part 2), i realized that i almost never encounter artworks dealing with parenthood in media art. Or, because the accompanying texts mostly talks about mother, should i say feminism? Do you see these two works as new ways of exploring and discussing feminism?

Theorists wrote and said this series is celebrating the death of the mother. It's not objective, it's subjective. At the time we developed this piece I spent a lot of time trying to decide on a title: "The Optimization of Parenthood" vs. "The Optimization of Motherhood" because those are very different in my experience. We were doing a residency at The STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University. At the time I was pregnant and wanted to examine this false sense of balance between parenting and career in America. How the process is transparent but the structure to function is a secret. The formula is often behind the closed door of people's homes (and psychiatrist's office). I found that being critical of the choice to be a parent, as a parent, is taboo. More so, being critical of the experience as a mother is censored socially if not outright denied by everyone around me. I watched the unraveling of the carefully crafted facade of women and family v2.0.

I think women of my generation were raised to believe that we can have it all, but that theory had never really been tested, our mothers gave us something impossible. At the same time, I was playing with materiality and preconceived notions of perfection within my own work. I wanted to let go of that in a playful way. I never wanted to be responsible for feminism, yet this particular notion made sense and I want to have the poetic liberty to give that away to someone else who really wants it.


The Optimization of Parenthood

The charm of the OfP rocking robotic arm is that it is purely industrial. What made you decide to use this orange factory-like robotic arm rather than a cute robot or even an almost invisible unobtrusive robotic system?

I wanted to highlight the repetitive nature of parenting in a way that was relatable in terms of gestural motion, but foreign in its implementation. The blatantly robotic arm evokes this idea of industry - mirroring the precise, reactive nature that parenting often demands. I wanted the arm to suggest this idea of impossible flawless perfection.

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Anonymity, 2007

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Anonymity [image from cctv feed], Public Performance at MuseumsQuartier Vienna, 2013

You recently wore the Anonymity accessory for a performance in Vienna. Could you tell us about the performance? How it unfolded, who participated to it, how passersby reacted to the black bars, etc.

Anonymity as a concept is addictive - especially when you're living in a major metropolitan city like New York. That is why projects like Pirate Bay and Tor are some of the most successful works of our time. They have a large scale participatory aspect allowing people freedom and a chance to challenge outdated ideas around copyright. It is one to many system, no one person controls it, there is so much beauty in that. I think we are reaching a point if we haven't already where anonymity is imperative to creativity.

The performance in Vienna was all about encouraging people to openly claim anonymity, as a public statement. While living in New York, I started to became aware that we were constantly under surveillance; I was being watched by security cameras, asked to show my ID to get into a building, etc. The pervasiveness of surveillance made anonymity more desirable. Surveillance has become so ubiquitous its become comfortable. We do not think twice or challenge it. We have become such a surveillance saturated society, in some regards we expect it. Anonymity is becoming a solution for some to protect destabilized identities, revolutionaries, and hackers. It is changing the way we define the face. Mask in public spaces are beginning to be outlawed. I think that the goal has shifted that we no longer want to become an individual, but to become anonymous. People who are able to maintain anonymity have a sort of tense, mystical quality, and we wanted to explore this in a literal, physical piece within public space.

The large-scale performance was commissioned by Bogomir Doringer for the "Faceless" exhibition at MuseumsQuartier. We provided 1,200 museum attendees with limited edition, wearable black bars that allow for preemptive non-disclosure. As they walked through the courtyard, a live feed was projected into the exhibition space. It intentionally occupied the line of criticism and play, allowing the surveilled to become the surveillance.

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broken_link_1, 4.25" x 2.5", Lambda print, Austria 2013

I think Broken_links is the most irritating work i've seen recently. I keep coming back to that page -and feeling utterly silly in the process- in the hope that the images will eventually appear on the screen. I just can't help it. Did you realize that a work in appearance so simple would create such emotional response?

[laughs] Yes, that's one of the goals. It's looking at those instances when an algorithm, code, or search engine fails to properly interpret code. Essentially, broken_links is about capturing points of failure and glitches in their most literal form. The Internet is so volatile, yet at the same time it's completely cached and highly functional. Images, websites, and texts, are removed all the time without our knowledge as the user. Google, for instance, plays a powerful role because they're able to manipulate the availability of information. They show us what they want us to see, not necessarily what we searched for. So, I wanted to take the information bias, that false sense of trust, and run with it.

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Black Hawk Paint, New York City, 2008

I was also very interested in Black Hawk Paint. Especially because I saw that you worked on it in 2008 and, at least in Europe, it's only more recently that artists and curators have started to work on the drone topic. Do you think that the work of artists who engage with UAV technology have an impact on how the public is understanding the issue?

Yes. I wanted to re-appropriate the drone technology as a tool for creativity, expanding the way people consider their potential use. I implemented a computer vision tracking system, and used the drone as a brush. The resulting images are abstract, and I consider the process of making the piece as important as the finished work.

I see Kyle McDonald's "Liberator Variations" he developed for FAT lab working in a parallel way. He noticed people's fear surrounding the Liberator and his response was to produce a series of remixed versions of the original file, transforming the 3D printed gun into a version of the OpenGL teapot, among other things. He wrote: "There is only fear when we feel disempowered, when we lack understanding, when we are censored, when we lack input and are instead being controlled."

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Kyle McDonald, The Englishman (Liberator Variations)

You're a member of F.A.T. Lab. Can you tell us how you got involved in the group and how you fit into it?

I suppose I made enough provocations at some point to get an invite. [laughs] I also knew Evan, James, Steve and Geraldine quite well because we were more or less at Eyebeam together around the same time. I consider F.A.T. my friends and family. It's an honor to be part of the lab. They are all extremely talented and they've been an inspirations and constant supporters of my practice. It's really humbling.

Any upcoming project, exhibition, area of investigation you'd like to share with us?

I'm taking part in the first-ever digital art auction at Phillips NYC on October 10, where the piece "Asymmetric Love #2" will be auctioned. It is a chandelier made of steel, CCTV cameras, and internet cables. In November, at MU in Eindhoven is F.A.T. GOLD Europe, a traveling retrospective of F.A.T. Lab's work that originated at Eyebeam Art + Technology Center in April. There will be a few new pieces in that exhibition which are forthcoming. Both of these are curated by Lindsay Howard. In early 2014 the exhibition "Blackmarkt" at 319 Scholes. The pieces for this exhibition are remixed off of items bought off the Silk Road/deep web. We are working on a series of jewelry made from drugs and bootleg items, which is a new space for me. The pieces look at how perception fulfills value, and the relationship of originality, copies and demand. Finally, in June will be my first solo exhibition in Europe at RUA RED Dublin, curated by Nora O Murchú.

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Asymmetric Love Number 2, Single Produced Sculpture (Steel, CCTV cameras and DSL internet cables), 2012

Thanks Addie!

Sponsored by:





The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, London's favourite radio art station, is aired this Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.

My guest tomorrow will be Sitraka Rakatoniaina and Andrew Friend who will be talking about the aesthetics of scientific experiments but also about the human capabilities in sensing future events. They've explored this slightly debatable topic with a series of experiments inspired by the experimental evidence for the existence of physiological precognition, depicted the Sensing the Future paper written by Daryl J. Bem a social psychologist and professor emeritus at Cornell University.

Andrew Friend and Sitraka Rakotoniaina, Prophecy Program, 2013

One of the experiments in the designers' Prophecy Program project consists in perching an individual on an ultra-elevated chair where they will act as seismograph and predict earthquakes, exploring accuracy and specificity of psi and experience in landscape. A second one is an 'autonomous biological drone' which, inspired by bioenergetic capabilities of plants to sense humans intentions, would operate overhead monitoring human activity and emotions below. The last one is the working prototype of a 'Pre-cognition test rig' which acts as a big Russian roulette that fires at individuals while sensors pick up any body sign that they are indeed sensing the upcoming shoot.

As you can guess, this episode is neither typical nor tedious. Sitraka and Andrew's work, however, is far less fanciful than it might seem at first sight.

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Pre-cognition test rig. Photo Andrew Friend and Sitraka Rakotoniaina

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Test subject wearing the gears before firing the precognition test-rig

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Balloon triggers

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Autonomous biological drone

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Model of the Tower for predicting Earthquakes

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Prophecy Program - in front of the elephant door

The show will be aired this Wednesday 18th of September at 16:00, London time. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am (I know...) If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.

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Mushon Zer-Aviv and Yonatan Ben-Simhon, The Turing Normalizing Machine, 2013. Image courtesy of the artists

Alan Turing was a mathematician, a logician, a cryptanalyst, and a computer scientist (as i'm sure you all know.) During World War 2 he cracked the Nazi Enigma code, and later came to be regarded as the father of computer science and artificial intelligence. In the 1952, Turing was convicted of having committed criminal acts of homosexuality. Given a choice between imprisonment and chemical castration, Turing chose to undergo a medical treatment that made him impotent and caused gynaecomastia. Suffering from the effects of the treatment and from being regarded as abnormal by a society, the scientist committed suicide in June 1954.

Inspired by Turing's life and research, Mushon Zer-Aviv and Yonatan Ben-Simhon have devised a machine that attempts to answer a question which, at first, might seem baffling: "Who is normal?"

The Turing Normalizing Machine is an experimental research in machine-learning that identifies and analyzes the concept of social normalcy. Each participant is presented with a video line up of 4 previously recorded participants and is asked to point out the most normal-looking of the 4. The person selected is examined by the machine and is added to its algorithmically constructed image of normalcy. The kind participant's video is then added as a new entry on the database.

(...)

Conducted and presented as a scientific experiment TNM challenges the participants to consider the outrageous proposition of algorithmic prejudice. The responses range from fear and outrage to laughter and ridicule, and finally to the alarming realization that we are set on a path towards wide systemic prejudice ironically initiated by its victim, Turing.


Mushon Zer-Aviv and Yonatan Ben-Simhon, The Turing Normalizing Machine, 2013

I found out about the TNM the other day while reading the latest issue of the always excellent Neural magazine. I immediately contacted Mushon Zer-Aviv to get more information about the work:

Hi Mushon! What has the machine learnt so far? Are patterns emerging of what people find 'normal? such as an individual who smiles or one who is dressed in a conservative way? What is the model of normality at this stage?

TNM ran first as a pilot version in The Bloomfield Museum of Science in Jerusalem as a part of the 'Other Lives' exhibition curated by Maayan Sheleff. Jerusalem is a perfect environment for this experiment as it is a divided city with multiple ethnical, cultural and religious groups practically hating each other's guts. The external characteristics of these communities are quite distinguishable as well, from dress code to tone of skin and color of hair. While the Turing Normalizing Machine has not arrived at a single canonical model of normality yet (and possibly never will) some patterns have definitely emerged and are already worth discussing. For example, the bewilderment of a religious Jewish woman trying to choose the most normal out of 4 Palestinian children.

The machine does not construct a model of normality per-se. To better explain how the prejudice algorithm works, consider the Google Page-Rank algorithm. When a participant chooses one of the random 4 profiles presented before them as 'most normal', that profile moves up the normalcy rank while the others are moved down. At the same time, if a profile is considered especially normal, it would make the choice made by its owner more influential on the rank than others, and vice versa.

We are currently working on the second phase of the experiment that analyzes and visualizes the network graph generated by the data collected in the first installment. We're actually looking to collaborate with others on that part of the work.

Usually society doesn't get to decide what is good or even normal for society. The decision often comes from 'the top'. If ever such algorithm to determine normality was ever applied, could we trust people to help decide who looks normal or who isn't?

While I agree that top-down role models influence the image of what's considered normal or abnormal, it is the wider society who absorbs, approves and propagates these ideas. Whether we like it or not, such algorithms are already used and are integrated into our daily lives. It happens when Twitter's algorithms suggests who we should follow, when Amazon's algorithms offers what we should consume, when OkCupid's algorithms tells us who we should date, and when Facebook's algorithms feeds us what it believes we would 'like'.

What inspired you to come up with an experiment in algorithmic prejudice?

This experiment is inspired by the life and work of British mathematician Alan Turing, a WW2 hero, the father of computer science and the pioneering thinker behind the quest for Artificial Intelligence. Specifically we were interested in Turing's tragic life story, with his open homosexuality leading to his prosecution, castration, depression and death. Some, studying Turing's legacy, see his attraction to AI and his attempts to challenge the concept of intelligence, awareness and humanness, as partly influenced by his frustration with the systematic prejudice that marked him 'abnormal'. Through the Turing Normalizing Machine we argue that the technologies Turing was hoping would one day free us from the darker and irrational parts of our humanity are today often used to amplify it.

The video of the work explains that "the results of the research can be applied to a wide range of fields and applications." Could you give some examples of that? In politics for example (i'm asking about politics because the video illustrated the idea with images of Silvio Berlusconi)?

Berlusconi is a symbol of the unholy union between media and politics and it embodies the disconnect between what people know about their leaders (corruption, scandals, lies...) and what people see in their leaders (identification, pride, nationalism, populism...). A machine could never decipher Berlusconi's success with the Italian voter, it needs to learn what Italians see in him to get a better picture of the political reality.

Another obvious example is security, and especially the controversial practice of racial profiling. My brother used to work for EL AL airport security and was instructed to screen passengers by external characteristics as cues for normalcy or abnormalcy. Here again we already see technology stepping in to amplify our prejudice based decision making processes. Simply Google 'Project Hostile Intent' And you'll see that scientific research into algorithmic prejudice is already underway and has been for quite some time.

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Mushon Zer-Aviv and Yonatan Ben-Simhon, The Turing Normalizing Machine, 2013. Image courtesy of the artists

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Mushon Zer-Aviv and Yonatan Ben-Simhon, The Turing Normalizing Machine, 2013. Image courtesy of the artists

How does the system work?

The participant is presented with 4 video portraits and is requested to point at the one who looks the most normal of the 4. Meanwhile, a camera identifies the pointing gesture, records the participant's portrait, and analyzes the video (using face recognition algorithms among other technologies). The video portrait is then added to the database and is presented to the next participant to be selected as normal or not. The database saves the videos, the selections and other analytical metadata to develop its algorithmic model of social normalcy.

Any upcoming show or presentation of the TNM?

There are some in the pipeline, but none that I can share at this point. We are definitely looking forward to more opportunities to install and present TNM, as in every community it brings up different discussions about physical appearance, social normalcy and otherness. Beyond that, we want the system to challenge its model of prejudice based on its encounter with different communities with different social values, biases and norms. Otherwise, it would be ignorant, and we wouldn't want that now, do we?

Thanks Mushon!

One last project exhibited a few weeks ago at the Sight + Sound festival in Montreal. You might remember that a while ago I interviewed Arthur Heist about the workshop Analyze Dat: TOR Visualization & online black markets. Before that, i talked with Nicolas Maigret about The Pirate Cinema.

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Organic polymers

This time, i had an exchange of emails with Mario De Vega to talk about Thermal, a performance in which he uses microwave ovens to alter the molecular composition of different materials. The work also uses custom-built hardware to sonify the electromagnetic activity produced by the overheating of the content of the ovens.

Hi Mario! Thermal is an audio-visual performance in which several objects are modified using a microwave oven. Now I'm sure you've been asked that questions many times but isn't it dangerous to put objects inside a microwave? The photos from the performances look a bit on the hazardous side to me. Do you have to take certain precautions?

I over-expose danger and confront human vulnerability through a frontal situation. Security advices are given before the performance starts and audience are free to leave the room. I give information and advice of possible danger.

Of course, by overheating a device which development comes from radar technology research from WWII, confronts a complex paradigm: the oven could explode during the performance, gases are highly toxic and electromagnetic activity aim to be materialized thorough acoustic pressure.

Thermal is a confrontation with our own vulnerability using an electronic device that mainly everyone can recognize, a device that modified nutritional facts, social interaction and climate. The action has a political content itself without intending being political as principle. It confronts and intimidates through presence, ambiguity, over-exposed information and acoustic pressure. It also has a visual aim. I'm interested in how electronic devices or arrangements suggest context through ambiguity, in other words, I'm interested in producing events and situations in which codes are visible but not completely "readable". We could be able, in this case, to recognize an object (microwave oven) but our understanding of things reduce our approach, resulting in a situation with dislocated semantic structure in which things are there, frontal and visible and more over we can not understand what is happening.

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Polyurethane

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During the performance, you put materials such as wax, ceramic, magnesium, carboxylic acid, pvc, etc. inside the microwaves. Could you describe how some of them react? Did any of the material you used react in a way you did not expect?

This has mainly a sculptural mean; with Thermal I'm interested in research materialization, irritation and modification as main topics. I modify materials, amplify, expose the process and materialize the results through different outputs. Technically, by irritating the molecular composition of matter, microwaves reflection change by absorption. We can think this in terms that certain materials absorb more than others, and here absorbing means less reflection and less dynamic range in an audio event.
We can understand amplification through four semantic layers.

The first one has the aim to amplify electromagnetic activity, high frequency mainly into the 2.4 GHz range. For this I use SNUFF and LIMEN, electronic devices based on logarithmic detectors used to demodulate high spectrum electromagnetic signals into a human audible ranges.

The second later is luminal activity. Using mainly a custom amplifier (BABEL) to convert lumens into sound.

The third part is electro-mechanic, using mainly a contact microphone to amplify friction and mechanic activity produced by the oven, rotating plate movements, for example.
The forth and last is probably the most dynamic part, reduced in a switch. On / Off. I turn on and off the device in order to maintain tension and produce a dynamic event.

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Window of the microwave oven during performance

More generally, could you describe what is going on during the performance? What can the audience see, smell and hear?

What you hear is mainly activity that in a normal situation humans would not be able to codify as acoustic pressure. I use electronic media to demodulate, amplify and over expose highly toxic electromagnetic pollution produced by an electro-domestic device used by 40% of the population worldwide. Burnt plastic and overheated corrosive materials are toxic; smell is an important issue for Thermal.

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Moscow Biennale, Moscow, 2009

If I understood correctly, the main instrument for this audio-visual performance is the microwave oven. Did you have to modify the household appliance for the work?

No, the ovens are not modified. This would be a very complex and even dangerous task. For me it's even more interesting to use the devices as they are, I just simply amplify its activity.

Any upcoming project, event or research field you'd like to share with us?

Probably I should then here expose deeply my apologizes to delay this interview so long. I've been working in a solo exhibition in Mexico City during the last two years (SIN); the opening was on the 20th of June in a Museum located downtown named Laboratorio Arte Alameda. It's composed by 6 site-interventions, curated by Carsten Seiffarth and a retrospective salon curated by Michel Blancsubé.

An upcoming publication compiling 10 years of my work will be published this month, and an editorial project about thermal must be finished this year, as well as a vinyl edition with artkillart.

Thanks Mario!

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If you're curious about Mario's work, head to Berlin Art Link, they recently visited the artist's studio.

Other works exhibited at Sight and Sound, a festival produced by Eastern Bloc in Montreal: Analyze Dat: TOR Visualization & online black markets and The Pirate Cinema, A Cinematic Collage Generated by P2P Users.

Photo on the homepage: © Kimberley Bianca / transmediale. All other images courtesy of the artist.

The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, is aired this Wednesday afternoon at 4pm (London time.)

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HeHe, Fracking Futures, 2013, Installation at FACT. Image courtesy FACT

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HeHe, Fracking Futures, 2013, Installation at FACT. Image courtesy FACT

My guest tomorrow will be Heiko Hansen who, together with Helen Evans, forms the art & design duo Hehe. Heiko is not in the studio with us, alas! I met him last week in Liverpool where FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) was celebrating its first decade of heralding art & technology with a new exhibition called Turning FACT Inside Out.

Part of the anniversary involved commissioning new works to artists such as HeHe. And HeHe took the invitation to turn FACT inside out literally. Their new piece used the exhibition space to extract gas from the ground underneath the gallery and suggest that in the future we might want to bypass big energy companies and extract our own fossil fuels ourselves in our back garden.

The artists have filled the space with heavy machinery that extracts shale gas through a process called fracking. Fracking is short for 'hydraulic fracturing', a process that consists in pumping a highly pressurised mixture of water, sand and chemicals underground to extract gas. The process opens fissures in rocks, releasing the gas trapped beneath the earth's surface. The plan brought forward by the artists is to use the gas to ensure the future operation of FACT and to export the energy directly to the local community.

The experimental drilling site looks like a mini inferno: it's noisy, it is filled with red lights and flames, the furniture is shaking. And there's even a filthy looking water pit.

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HeHe, Fracking Futures, 2013, Installation at FACT. Image courtesy FACT

The objective of the Fracking Future installation is to highlight the relevance of the debates surrounding the fracking process, which are not only significant environmentally, but also economically. Fracking Futures is a fairly ambiguous piece. First of all, because the work does not intend to take a clear stand: it only illustrates the potential dangers of the process. At the same time, it considers the fact that fracking might offer citizens an opportunity to produce their own alternative source of energy. It is also an ambiguous project because the visitor is left to decide whether the fracking experiment at FACT is indeed genuine or whether it is merely a provocation from HeHe.

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HeHe, Fracking Futures, 2013, Installation at FACT. Image courtesy FACT

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HeHe, Fracking Futures, 2013, Installation at FACT. Image courtesy FACT

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HeHe, Fracking Futures, 2013, Installation at FACT. Image courtesy FACT

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HeHe, Fracking Futures, 2013, Installation at FACT. Image courtesy FACT

The show will be aired this Wednesday 19th of June at 16:00. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am (I know...) If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.

The amazing soundtrack & field recordings which we mention in the programme is by Dinah Bird & Jean-Philippe Renoult.
Nicolas Triscott (from the Arts Catalyst which co-commissioned the installation) wrote an insightful blog post about the art work.

Many stories about or mentioning HeHe's work.

Adam Brown is a conceptual artist working with scientists to create art pieces that use robotics, molecular chemistry, living systems and emerging technologies. Years ago, i saw one of his works at Emoção Art.ficial [Art.ficial Emotion], a Biennial of Art and Technology in Sao Paulo. The robotic sculpture, called Bion, explored the relationship between humans and artificial life. Fast forward to May 2013 when i am aimlessly clicking around and stumble upon one of his most recent pieces. This time, the project doesn't use swarms of responsive synthetic "life-form" but bacteria that, over a period of one week, process the toxins of gold chloride and produce nuggets of 24-karat gold.

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Adam Brown in collaboration with Kazem Kashefi, The Great Work of the Metal Lover, 2012

The Great Work of the Metal Lover earned Brown and his collaborator microbiologist Dr. Kazem Kashefi world-wide media coverage, an Honorary Mention at Ars Electronica as well as a Special mention at VIDA.

Brown brings together science and art into each of his works, from the initial concept up to the final realization. His artistic practice not only challenges scientific inquiry but it also comes with undeniable aesthetic qualities (something that is sometimes little more than a second thought in artworks that make use of the latest advances in science and technology.) Simply put, his artworks are beautiful to look at. While the Bion sculpture (below) is as stunning as it is smart, Origins of Life: Experiment #1.x (a working scientific experiment that builds on Miller-Urey's 1953 experiment to draw attention to the artifice and aesthetics of experimentation) neatly hangs scientific instruments and processes on a wall as if they were museum paintings.

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Adam Brown in collaboration with Robert Root-Bernstein, Origins of Life: Experiment #1.x (detail), 2010

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Adam Brown, in collaboration with Andrew Fagg, Bion, 2006-present

Brown is an Associate Professor at Michigan State University where he created the Electronic Art & Intermedia department. He is also a Research Fellow at the Institute for Digital Intermedia Arts at Ball State University, and serves as an Artist in Residence for the Michigan State University BEACON (Bio/Computational Evolution in Action Consortium) project.

I interviewed him via email just before he flew to Sydney to attend the ISEA Symposium on Electronic Art.

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Adam Brown in collaboration with Kazem Kashefi, The Great Work of the Metal Lover, 2012

Hi Adam! What you've achieved sounds almost like a fantasy... Using bacteria to turn valueless material into gold. I'm sorry for the very mundane question but why don't you make it a full time activity? You could be drinking cocktails on your yacht, on your way to a golf game with Donald Trump instead of answering my questions right now...

This is probably one of the most asked questions that I have received about this piece. The other question that is often asked is if I can share with people how to "make gold." The potential to make gold and accumulate wealth is a very powerful motivator of the human condition. Even Forbes wrote about it. Fortunately, the process is not cost effective at this point. I have to buy the soluble form of gold I put into the reactor and, since the bacteria only grow in anaerobic conditions (no oxygen), I also have large expenses in creating the conditions for their growth.

Of course the natural follow up question is if it is possible to harvest the dissolved concentrations of gold in the oceans (which contain about 10 parts per million). It might be possible, but it would take a great deal of expense to scale up a system that would be efficient and cost effective. However, this is not something that I am interested in doing. What would be the environmental costs of engaging in such an activity? With our limited knowledge of the oceans ecosystem it is unclear what would happen to the ocean life if it were depleted of dissolved gold. As an artist, I'm more concerned with probing and questioning the potential impact of our ability to engineer and control nature.

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Adam Brown in collaboration with Kazem Kashefi, The Great Work of the Metal Lover, 2012

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Gold flakes made by Adam Brown and Kazem Kashefi

What brought you to alchemy? A nostalgia for an ancient quest or the mere curiosity to explore what an artist can do with modern microbiology?

Alchemy is a topic that I have been interested in for quite a long time. Alchemy incorporates both a spiritual, creative and scientific pursuit all in one. As an artist of the 21st century working with biological systems, alchemy feels like an appropriate model of reference.

At the height of Alchemy during the time of the European Renaissance the world appeared to be much less defined. Artists were at the same time engineers, architects, alchemists, chemists. It was possible for a single person to strive to be the universal person and have relatively deep knowledge of many fields. Of course times have changed, complexity has grown and specialization has become more necessary. Newer technologies including augmented memory and instantaneous access to information have changed the way artists work. Now instead of being the total person one can employ collaborative practice to venture into territories that were previously inaccessible. This changes the role of the artist to one more akin to manager or director.

I also like the poetics of possibly solving the ancient alchemical problem of the philosopher's stone using modern microbiological science. Interestingly, the process does have some overlap to the description provided by alchemists describing the philosopher's stone. One would know when they were getting close to transmuting base metals into gold because the solution would turn a redish/purple color called "rubedo." The bioreactor of the GWML turns a purplish color when the microbial community is precipitating gold.

You developed the work in collaboration with Kazem Kashefi from the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at Michigan State University. What form did the collaboration take exactly? Was it you dictating what needs to be done and the scientist was executing your instructions. Or is the experience more hands-on from your part? With a more critical feedback from Dr Kashefi?

The relationship was hands on and mutualistic. One of my major interests is in origins of life research. This led me to extremophiles as they are probably some of the first forms of organized life on the planet and to Dr. Kashefi (Kaz). I read a paper he wrote in 2000 about how anaerobic extremophile microorganisms have the ability to precipitate heavy metals and even gold. I asked him if he thought it possible to devise a system capable of producing enough gold that one could hold in one's hand. This was the beginning of the collaboration. Over the course of a year, Kaz and I conceptualized how to construct a sustained culture capable of this task. He taught me the lab bench practices to, culture, grow anaerobic microorganisms. I designed, conceptualized and built the installation; Kaz led the scientific inquiry but we practiced the science together.

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Adam Brown in collaboration with Kazem Kashefi, The Great Work of the Metal Lover, 2012

Unlike many works that merge art and science which outcome only appear in art publications, articles about The Great Work of the Metal Lover also appeared in science magazines. So what makes the piece appealing to the scientific community?

One of my goals as an artist, especially when it comes to collaboration is make work that has a high degree of mutuality between the respective disciplines. While it is not always the case, when working collaboratively I like to try to make contributions to the various fields of research that are represented. So, in this case, it is important to not only make contributions to the arts, but also to the sciences. The GWML does tap into interesting science in that we have shown that the microorganism is able to survive and even flourish on much higher concentrations of gold chloride than has ever been reported (ten fold in fact). Secondly, the research is relevant to scientists that are interested in the possibility of metabolic process being responsible for mineral production. Finally, novel uses of microbes, including genetically modified versions, are a hot topic for research at the moment; scientists are looking at biotechnologies to do everything from bioremediation, to microbial pharmaceuticals, to even energy production. Of course, gold does have a universal appeal, having been coveted by most people; scientists are not excluded from this bias.

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Adam Brown in collaboration with Kazem Kashefi, The Great Work of the Metal Lover, 2012

The artwork doesn't stop at creating gold nuggets, it also features images made using a scanning electron microscope and an ancient gold illumination techniques. Could you explain us what the process involved and what the images represent?

The Scanning Electron Microscopic (SEM) images depict the microorganism Cupriavidus metallidurans creating the nanoparticles of gold within a biofilm. The prints function conceptually to provide objective proof that the claims of gold production are indeed authentic and act as a literal manifestation of combining ancient practice with modern scientific imaging. They also comment on scientific objectivity as well. Most images that we see made by an electron microscope are altered or enhanced in some way, usually using an application like Photoshop to add color and adjust contrast. The prints that I am producing are also enhanced. The only difference is that I am highlighting the location of the gold using the gold produced in the bioreactor in the image by adding gold to the surface of the print.

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Adam Brown in collaboration with Robert Root-Bernstein, Origins of Life: Experiment #1.x, 2010

The description of the work Origins of Life: Experiment 1 opens on a quote by biologist E. O. Wilson "The aim of art is not to show how or why an effect is produced (that would be science) but literally to produce it."
What is your understanding of the quote or how does the artwork illustrate it?

The quote illustrates a close alignment between art and science and that the practices are more connected then disconnected. The artist wishes to create a phenomenological output while the scientist's main goal is to understand the phenomenon: a complementary/mutualistic relationship; an epistemological difference signifying that there are many more commonalities than differences. This once again ties into the discussion of the previous question about collaboration and mutualism. Origins of Life is an installation and a performative re-enactment of the Miller experiment that attempts to quite literally depict this relationship. It is in essence a contextual problem filled with an epistemological shifting perspective.

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Adam Brown in collaboration with Robert Root-Bernstein, Origins of Life: Experiment #1.x, 2010

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Adam Brown in collaboration with Robert Root-Bernstein, Origins of Life: Experiment #1.x, 2010

The Great Work can be summed up in a catchy headline, but Origins of Life cannot be reduced so easily to one sentence. Not everyone knows about the Miller-Urey experiment for example. So how do you manage to engage a scientific audience with an artwork and vice versa: how do you get the attention of art lovers with a work that deals with scientific theories?

True. Not everyone knows about the details of the Miller experiment, but big questions such as "where do we come from?" and "how did life begin?" have a much greater universal appeal overlapping with philosophy, religion, art and science. You don't have to know anything about Miller-Urey or theories of how life originated to be fascinated by an apparatus that makes lightning and thunder, bubbles and boils, gleams and glistens and mysteriously converts a tank full of gas into brown-colored goo. Once interested, you can get the scientists to think about the artistic aspects of their practice and the artists to think about creating life as a metaphor for the creative process itself. The origins of life question is also what makes us human.

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Adam Brown in collaboration with Robert Root-Bernstein, Origins of Life: Experiment #1.x, 2010

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Stanley Miller working in the lab where he simulated atmospheric conditions similar to those on Earth 3.5 billion years ago and created organic compounds. © Bettmann/Corbis

You also defined the project as being "open source", as it 'invites contributions and participation from other scientists.' If find you very brave. not many artists would be comfortable with the idea. Why was it important to you to leave them this open door instead of keeping the project stable and immutable? Could you tell us how and if scientists have contributed or pushed it further and, more generally, how they have reacted to the work?

Once again, it goes back to the idea of collaborative practice and mutuality and started out as a collaboration with the scientist Robert Root-Bernstein. While it is important for me to have some conceptual ownership over the work, it is also important to attempt to solve the mystery of how life started on the earth. And technically, the original scientific experiment does not belong to me either as it is an appropriation from Miller. Are not the under-pinnings of the scientific method that of "open source"?

I have been interested in the Miller experiment since I was in high school. The original experiment enacted by Miller in 1953 never seemed to make much headway after the initial experiment; that is the production of amino acids from inorganic material. Perhaps this was a result of available technology of the time. When Miller died in 2008 I felt like it was an opportunity to continue with the project. There are many adaptations and further experiments that were never realized or maybe thought of: such as adding a phosphorus source like salt or even running the experiment for longer then a week. Since trying out some of these modifications we have synthesized Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) the power source of cellular life as well as a building block of DNA and also have shown evidence of the production of lipids which are the materials that make up cellular membranes.

Most scientists have been very positive about the project. They realize that scientific funding agencies are very conservative and can only fund what will obviously work. But what we already know will work doesn't help us progress in our understanding. Engaging in the project as a performance lets us break out of the constraints that the scientific peer review system imposes so we can try the kinds of experiments most origins of life scientists would really like to try.

In fact, one scientist who had invented an ultra-sensitive ATP-measuring device, donated one to us so we could test whether we could make ATP along with amino acids. Overall, the scientific community has received the work very positively. Origins of life research in general has massive appeal. It is inspirational to scientists and artists both.

Any upcoming project, exhibition, areas of investigation you'd like to share with us?

I have a few projects in the works. I will definitely share them with you and We-Make-Money-Not-Art when they are ready to be released in the near future.

Yes, please! And thank you for your answers Adam.

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