Figurante, 2010

I discovered the work of Arcangelo Sassolino in 2008 at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. He was showing a nitrogen-powered sculpture that shot empty beer bottles against a wall at 600km/hr inside a zoo-like metal cage. 5 years later, i'm listening to the podcast of a presentation that the artist made at CCC Strozzina in Florence. the podcast gave me the opportunity to 1. get to know his work better 2. write a quick post about it and 3. advise you to check out Strozzina's archive of podcasts because, as i mentioned on twitter the other day, they contain real gems (quick selection at the end of this post.) Some are conversations between the artist and a moderator from Strozzina. Others are more akin to 'proper' lectures. Most are in italian though.


Afasia1, 2008

Here's the gist of Sassolino's talk:

At the time of this presentation, Sassolino was showing a new commissioned (and untitled) piece at CCC Strozzina for the exhibition Francis Bacon and the Existential Condition in Contemporary Art.

A heavy industrial piston is linked to an oil hydraulic system and set up following the longitudinal direction of the room. Another component of the work is a thick rope which traverses the entire length of the room at the height of the visitors' eyes. The rope passes through the piston and its ends are tied around two thick wooden beams anchored between the stone doorposts of the two entrances at opposite ends of the room.

Without warning and at irregular intervals the hydraulic system is activated and starts up the action of the piston that gradually pulls the rope taut. The traction is increased slowly until breaking point is reached, but just before the irreparable happens the piston eases the tension causing the entire system to return to a state of precarious calm.

That's the kind of work that Sassolino makes. It has danger, mechanical tension, darkness and makes the spectator vaguely uneasy ("Is this going to break? Will i be hurt? Shouldn't it take one step back?") In fact, Sassolino also explained that the beams vibrate but they hold the pressure. The system actually gets in motion when a visitor gets closer to the work. And that's when, as the artist puts it, a kind of Sadomasochistic moment emerges: the visitor would like to see some dramatic collapse of the wooden structure but doesn't dare to get too close to it.

Arcangelo Sassolino. Exhibition view "Francis Bacon and the Existential Condition in Contemporary Art". CCC Strozzina, Firenze. Photo credit: Martino Margheri

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Arcangelo Sassolino. Exhibition view "Francis Bacon and the Existential Condition in Contemporary Art". CCC Strozzina, Firenze. Photo credit: Martino Margheri

Arcangelo Sassolino. Exhibition view "Francis Bacon and the Existential Condition in Contemporary Art". CCC Strozzina, Firenze. Photo credit: Martino Margheri

Arcangelo Sassolino. Exhibition view "Francis Bacon and the Existential Condition in Contemporary Art". CCC Strozzina, Firenze. Photo credit: Martino Margheri

In his talk, Sassolino explains that what he likes is to take a material 'by the neck' and torture it in order to make it scream and admit the truth.

A "variation on the same theme" --as he puts it-- is another work without title that made a piece of wood moan until it split.


Untitled (Spaccalegno), 2008. Courtesy Gallery Feinkost

As the video below demonstrates, sound is an important dimension of Sassolino's work:

The artist is generally less interested in bringing a completed art work in a gallery than in showing a material, be it a piece of wood or marble, that will gradually be stripped of its 'flesh' and maybe reach the point of collapse.

The most literal example of this would be Figurante.

The powerful jaw crushes a femur bone over 3 hours. The work references the sterilized war images we see on tv. They never include the sound of people suffering.

Another work discussed was Elisa, a sculpture assembled from four mechanical digger parts and hydraulically animated by a random generator. The digger arm moves with spasms like a big animal slowly dying.

Arcangelo Sassolino, Elisa, 2012. Photo Art and the City (video)

A couple more image, mostly for my own pleasure:

Arcangelo Sassolino, Untitled, 2006-2007. Photo: Fausto Caliari and Federico Perezzani

Dilatazione pneumatica di una forza viva (Pneumatic Expansion of a Living Force) features a bullet-proof glass structure enclosing a glass bottle, which is set on a tube attached to nitrogen cylinders. The gas slowly fills the bottle, which explodes with a shatter of glass when its maximum capacity has been reached. After every explosion the glass bottle is replaced.

Dilatazione pneumatica di una forza viva (Pneumatic Expansion of a Living Force), 2010. Exhibition view at Centro di Cultura Contemporanea Strozzina, Firenze
Photo: Valentina Muscedra

Afasia2, 2008

Macroscopico e domestico, 2008

Arcangelo Sassolino. Exhibition view "Francis Bacon and the Existential Condition in Contemporary Art". CCC Strozzina, Firenze. Photo credit: Martino Margheri

In case you're dying to see Sassolino speak about his work in english, here's his comment on Time Tomb, a sculpture he installed at Z33 back in 2010.

More podcasts i'm looking forward to listening to: Loris Cecchini talks about his work, Domenico Quaranta explores art and identity online, Gianfranco Pecchinenda discusses Video games and the production of the American imagination, Vito Campanelli talks Process flow and Web, Fabio Chiusi's lecture is about Transparency and freedom of expression after Wikileaks, Emiliano Ilardi imagines A modernity without catastrophe, etc.

Sponsored by:

The latest exhibition of the Hayward Gallery is quite hard to resist. If you're into scientific experiments and geeky installations, you're bound to find something that will excite your senses and curiosity. But the exhibition is also a joy to visit if all you're asking for is pure entertainment, disco and thrills.

The Light Show displays the works of artists from the 1960s to the present day who have used artificial light as a medium.

With all the word plays about light at their disposal (the journalists certainly had a field day writing about "stepping into the light", a "dazzling show", the "light at the end of the tunnel", etc.), the curators chose the simplest title at their disposal and I decided to borrow their minimal approach and visited the show without even reading the texts explaining the works. That was a first for me, and also probably a very dumb idea as i've missed most of the references and dimensions of the works. But i only realized it when i went back home and flipped through the catalogue (a little gem that one!)

Here's just a couple of my favourite works:

Ann Veronica Janssens' Rose is a room filled with fake mist that makes the intersecting beams of light appears as if they formed a luminous, tangible star.

Ann Veronica Janssens, Rose, 2007. Photo Linda Nylind for the Hayward Gallery

Ann Veronica Janssens, Rose, 2007.Image Happy Famous Artists

Katie Paterson never puts a wrong foot. I discovered her work only a couple of years ago and she keeps amazing me with each new piece. Paterson plays with moonlight, melting glaciers, dead stars, grains of sand and Gamma Ray Bursts. Light Bulb to Simulate Moonlight is a specially manufactured lightbulb that softly illuminates a small exhibition room with artificial moonlight, a light that, due to increasing light pollution, is almost never experienced in urban settings.

In the same way that lighting manufacturers created the standard incandescent 'daylight' bulb, Paterson worked with a lighting engineer to produce its opposite: a bulb that replicates the light emitted when the moon is in opposition with the sun. The finished artwork consists of a single, lit bulb together with a sufficient quantity of spare bulbs to provide a lifetime's supply of moonlight.

Katie Paterson, Light bulb to Simulate Moonlight, 2008. Image Happy Famous Artists

Katie Paterson, Light bulb to Simulate Moonlight, 2008. Image Happy Famous Artists

Carlos Cruz-Diez's neon-lit installation, Chromosaturation, gave me an almost physical understanding of the expression 'solid colours'. You walk from one red room to a green one, to a blue one. A few geometric shapes interrupt the monochromatic environment.

'Since the retina usually perceives a wide range of colours simultaneously,' Cruz-Diez explains, 'experiencing these monochromatic situations causes disturbances. This activates and awakens notions of colour in the viewer, who becomes aware of colour's material and physical existence. Colour becomes a situation happening in space.'

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Carlos Cruz-Diez, Chromosaturation, 1965-2013. Photo Linda Nylind for the Hayward Gallery

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Carlos Cruz-Diez, Chromosaturation, 1965-2013. Photo Linda Nylind for the Hayward Gallery

Carlos Cruez-Diez, Image Happy Famous Artists

Ceal Floyer casually threw a puddle of light on the floor.

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Ceal Floyer, Throw, 1997. Photo: Linda Nylind

Ceal Floyer, Throw, 1997. Image Happy Famous Artists

Bill Culbert's Bulb Box Reflection II easily tricked me. It looks like an incandescent light bulb and its reflection in a mirror but it's actually the opposite. The bulb's reflection is alight while the actual bulb itself is not.

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Bill Culbert, Bulb Box Reflection II, 1975. Photo Linda Nylind

The exhibition isn't overly socially-engaged, it is mostly sheer distraction from the grey London February. However, one of the works on the top floor is a huge stock exchange-style display of LED texts taken from declassified US government documents exposing the operations, interrogations and abuse that took place at Guantánamo.

Jenny Holzer, Monument, 2008

Another politically charged piece is Reality Show. Iván Navarro invites visitors to step inside a phone box. Once you've closed the door behind you, you discover that the illuminated space above and below you seems to go on for ever. The sides have one way mirrors and when your eyes try to escape the vortex below and the one above, all they can find is your own face in the mirror. It's disturbing, with this infinite space that makes you feel isolated from the rest of the world. The work is a reference to the interrogation rooms and disappearances that characterized the brutal regime of Pinochet in Chile, where the artist grew up.

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Ivan Navarro, Reality Show. Photo Linda Nylind for the Hayward Gallery

Ivan Navarro, Reality Show. Image Happy Famous Artists

A couple more images and i'll close shop for the day:

Philippe Parreno, Marquee, 2008. Image Happy Famous Artists

Just for the title:


Leo Villareal, Cylinder II, 2012. Photo Linda Nylind for the Hayward Gallery

Ivan Navarro, Burden. Image Happy Famous Artists

Conrad Shawcross, Slow Arc Inside a Cube IV, 2009. Image Happy Famous Artists

Anthony McCall. Image Happy Famous Artists

Carlos Cruez-Diez. Image Happy Famous Artists

Brigitte Kowanz, Light Steps, 1990. Image Happy Famous Artists

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Jim Campbell, Exploded View, 2011. Photo Linda Nylind for the Hayward Gallery

Image Happy Famous Artists

Light Show is at the Hayward Gallery in London until Sunday 28 April 2013.

Previously: The Magic Hour.
See also: Ann Veronica Janssens at the EACC in Castellon, Spain.

This way for the photo set. But Happy Famous Artists has a much better one.

Today i'm stuck in Turin, it's been snowing all day long. I'm not complaining but i don't feel like venturing outside to see exhibitions so i'm going to point you to an online exhibition over at dARTboard, a digital art space that the Vilcek Foundation created to 'celebrate the accomplishments of foreign-born artists living in the United States and working in the realm of digital art.' This year's featured artist is Marc Böhlen who's showing two works that investigate the relationship between people and automated systems.

The first work is WaterBar, an installation that geoengineers water in response to news on global water crises. The liquid is first filtered to be perfectly clean and then remineralized using a filter bank which releases traces of magnesium, iron, calcium and other elements in proportion to the intensity of related problems found in pertinent realtime online news.

The minerals delivered are connected to a number of locations and symbolic significations. For example, increased readings on water conflicts caused by greedy corporations are countered by adding more of the water mineralized with sandstone from La Verna, Italy, where St. Francis cared for the poor. Similarly, increased readings on topics suggesting over confidence in technology, is counterbalanced by adding more water mineralized with quartz-rich granite from Inada by Fukushima, home of the latest devastating high-tech catastrophe. The result is a unique water mix that acts as an 'antidote' to the news of the day.

Marc Böhlen, Waterbar

The second work, MakeLanguage - SyntheticAccents, attempts to overcome the shortcomings of commercial text-to-speech (or TTS) systems which only offer standardized, idealized speeches devoid of any slur or strong accent.

MakeLanguage - SyntheticAccents creates accented Englisch (Frenglisch, Genglisch and Spanglisch accents in limited vocabularies) to speculate upon the imagined lives of these accents without origins.

To be honest, i wasn't particularly impressed by Volcek's "electronic art space" because i can't see how a couple of webpage that reproduce some of the content of the artist's website can be regarded as an online exhibition. I was expecting more curatorial weight, effort, and inventiveness. That said, i'm not only impressed by the Foundation's general aims and missions but i also welcomed the news of this online show as it allowed me to catch up with Marc Böhlen, an artist-engineer whose work i've been admiring almost ever since i started this blog.


Extracts of our online interview:

Hi Marc! Let's start with WaterBar. The installation is a 'water-well designed for the post-sustainability age when clean water is simply not good enough.'  Can you explain what you mean by post-sustainability age? Is this when we realize that achieving sustainability is impossible? Or when we go to extreme lengths in order to obtain what we regard as 'sustainable'?  

WaterBar is inspired by two different and related ideas.
The first idea is part of an ongoing inquiry into informatics as a way to re-invigorate the public realm and the commons. My interest in this endeavor is the coupling between material processes and information flows. I want to find niches where this exchange can be powerfully experienced. Water management (which should be called water care) is one such arena. Water quality, water quantity, water ownership. The water problem concerns everyone, everywhere.

The second idea is the current fixation on the 'sustainability' model. No doubt, sustainability is of paramount importance in the near and midterm. But one day, we will have solved the sustainability challenge (provided planet earth still exits). And then what? What kind of relationship can we build with resources beyond risk management and damage control?

I just showed WaterBar for one month in Singapore, where industrial level water management delivers clean (as in not risky) water to the entire island. Even waste water is recycled and returned to the drinking water system. The water cycle is complete. From a sustainability perspective, the problem is 'solved'. Interestingly, the exact proportion and timing of the release of this processed water (coined 'new' water) into the public drinking water system is a state secret; details are withheld from the public. The researchers at the Aquatic Science Center I consulted claimed that people simply do not want to know this because of the unresolved relationship to dirty water in general. Similar responses have been reported in San Diego (USA) where a novel waste water processing plant delivers 'clean' drinking water. In short, the water problem is not just a technical, not just a political problem. It is a problem of a 'failed' relationship between people and technology. It is a civilization challenge. Up to now, good water was equated with fresh water. But there is not enough fresh clean water to serve everyone on the planet. The future will require new approaches to this problem. That is one reason geo-engineering is so important. These are the aspects of sustainability WaterBar responds to.

Aquatic Science Center, Singapore, 2012


To me, WaterBar sounds a bit like a satire of the fashion for food that will 'heal' us more than feed us, for the new 'superfoods' that keeps being praised in the health pages of newspapers. But of course i might be completely wrong so what motivated this desire to 'improve' the water we drink? 

Well, there is a component of satire, but not in the installation. The WaterBar installation really does produce mineralized water. It adds iron, calcium, magnesium and other minerals in minute but detectable levels.

The satire is in the shelves of supermarkets and restaurants that sell mineral water to health-fashion victims. The improvement, as it were, that WaterBar offers is an improved relationship to water, to the water mix of the day as it is influenced by current water problems occurring all over the world.

ISEA, Albuquerque, 2012

The remineralized water is offered for public consumption. Are people eager to test them? Do they taste very different from each other?  

WaterBar searches the internet for news on water problems that concern everyone. WaterBar makes in response to this collection of information (usually bad news!) by passing water from its reservoir through the filter banks and mixing it to a 'catch of the day'.

The relationship between the filter banks (of collected rocks and minerals from different parts of the planet) and the news feeds is based on an oppositional mapping scheme. For example, the Inada Granite filtered water is added to the mix when the system finds instances of 'overconfidence in technology'. (This Inada Granite was sourced from a quarry south of Fukushima, home of the latest high tech meets natural resources catastrophe). Anyway, depending on the mix, the water tastes different. You can't taste all the variations - at least I cannot - and it usually has a bit of chalky taste due to the choice of limestone and marble in the filter banks. Some people really enjoy it.

In order to 'mineralize' the water one has to expose the water to the filter materials for a certain time. At about 30C it takes only about 5 hours or so for the filters I have chosen to reach close to saturation level. At colder temperatures it can take longer. I usually fill up the filters 24hrs in advance and refill overnight.

Yes, the mixes are always different, as different as the news feeds describing water problems. News feed change all the time, but luckily water catastrophes have a slower update rate! This is an interesting problem - how do you relate temporal flows of information systems to the temporal flows of geological systems. Anyway, some mixes taste very different from others, some seem hardly different. The variations in chemical properties are far greater than the resultant variation in tastes.

Some people were very eager to taste the water. During the first show in Buffalo, NY, one fellow stopped by the WaterBar every day. At the end of the week, he stopped by with a large canister to get WaterBar water for his cats and plants!

Buffalo, New York, 2011

Can you also explain us the 'internet-scanning, text-processing control system"? What does the system scan exactly? And how does its search influence the final mixing/mineralizing of the water?  

WaterBar's software contains a module that checks a large list of websites on water resources, including, waterworld.com, circleofblue.org, ecology.com, mondediplo.com and many others. Depending on where WaterBar is operating, I add sites with locally pertinent information. The internet-scanning algorithm checks these sites, dissects the content and maps it onto an 'association matrix' that relates the origins of the filter banks to the web search results. This is where information directly becomes material. I use the simple 'bag of words' approach. For example, the Inada filter (see above) bag of words contains the concept attributes: 'hazard', 'hightech', 'disaster', 'nuclear', 'contingency', 'emergency', 'highrisk', 'failure', 'advanced technology' (with spelling variations). The algorithm creates a normalized distribution map based on frequency of occurrences for all the filter banks and concept attributes. This does not produce an exact representation of the information flow relevant to the filter topic. But the error rate is uniform across all the filters. From an engineering perspective this is not really good enough, and certainly needs some more attention. But even if I spend the next five years perfecting this, there will always be a difference between what I can capture, what is flowing in the internet and what actually happens in the world. I see the current approach more like a fishing expedition.

The catch of the day are fish that were actually in the water at the time you went fishing, but the fish you catch do not necessarily represent all the fish in the ocean. Anyway, the result from the internet scanning algorithm might suggest this kind of distribution: 20% filterA, 35% filterB, 15%filterC and 30%filterD. A second algorithm creates a water mix in this proportion by opening and closing the electronic valves that connect the filter banks to the bottom jar. A third algorithm calculates the effective chemical composition of the resultant water (based on the mix ratios and measurements of the water in the filter banks). E mg/L of iron, F mg/L of calcium, and so on. Just like the descriptions on commercial mineral water bottles. This info is scrolled on the large LED screen at the top of WaterBar. Gravity is the only force moving the water from the top to the bottom.

"MakeLanguage - Synthetic Accents creates accented English to speculate upon the imagined lives of these accents without origins." Listening to these accented TTS, i was immediately transported to place i had been. Accents come with personality and emotions. If i could pick up the accent of my GPS i would be delighted. I'd certainly go for the lovely accent that people from Flanders have when they speak french. How do people react to accented TTS? 

My experience has been that people find these accents mostly humorous. I don't know why! To me they are vehicles of 'Entfremdung'. They sound like humans with a life history but are fake!

To me the weird experience hearing these voices is not unlike the 'uncanny valley' effect coined in robotics that describes the effect of experiencing an almost living/human thing and then all of a sudden realizing that what was thought to be alive is inert (technology). The fall from the initial attraction is augmented by the degree of veracity of the effect. I don't think we have culturally come to terms yet with machines that really sound like we do. Not only because of this direct audible disjoint, but because of the subsequent intuitive step of assuming that what sounds human must be human. Maybe this is as disruptive a step as the introduction of the telephone that undid the notion of presence and voice. Prior to the popularization of the telephone, presence was coincidental with physical proximity. The advent of the telephone changed that, and a 'live' voice could be heard from faraway. It took some time before people could grasp this in daily life.

Marc Böhlen with JT Rinker, U.W.M., 2003 - 2005

Now this might be a naive and silly question but how did you record these heavy accented sentences? Did you ask a german-speaking person to speak like a computer? Or did you tweak the TTS system instead?

The accented utterances are 100% synthetic! They have never been uttered by a living person, and can be generated on the fly by the system.
Just a few short comments for context. MakeLanguage - Synthetic Accents was the work I did after the Universal Whistling Machines project. That work considered the utopia of a communication system that would combine machines, people and animals. Anyway, after the foray into whistles I became fascinated with text to speech systems that use advanced signal processing to produce utterances that mimic human voices.

Synthetic speech systems use various approaches, but one popular one is based on the unit selection principle by which elementary units of speech (phonemes and diphones) are combined based on language specific rules to larger units such as word and phrases. One starts with a collection of sound bites (a corpus of utterances) made by a specific human being, recorded in a studio. Synthetic speech engineers refer to people whose voices are used as 'voice talent'. Anyway, these utterances are then dissected, rearranged and 'atomized' to elements that can be recombined ad lib, usually in the language model of the native speaker. Whatever such a synthetic voice says will sound as if the original human being said it. Anyway.

Back in 2005 I approached a startup company (SVOX, no longer operating..) that had, in my view, an excellent synthetic speech engine and asked them if I might experiment with the system, promising 'interesting results'. Luckily I received access to the software. It would have been almost impossible to do this project having to build all the software from scratch.

My very simple but effective approach was to selectively mix units of speech from one language with language models from another. This in itself did not produce good results, so I added some 'accent rules' to address the problem of intonation. Even that did not work well. I had to make lots of special rules, and the system got rather unwieldy. I was not able to create a general purpose accent generator (as I hoped for in wild dreams) but a system that would work with a few languages for limited vocabularies. One rather weird part was the testing. Who do you test on? How do you know when the fake accents sound 'right'? So I concentrated on language mixes I am familiar with through my own history and background and tested the strange voices on myself. Once I was ok with the basic sounds, the question of content moved front and center. What should/could these voices say? Some very weird conversations between the voices and me ensued, as you might imagine. Amway, I ended up mostly in the service industry (hotels, airports) and played with the kind of phrases you hear in those impersonal settings. It felt so right in a very wrong way.

What does an exhibition on the online platform dARTboard, bring to your practice? Do you think that an online exhibition has as much strength as one in a brick and mortar museum? In terms of audience, recognition and also ability to engage with an artwork?

I do prefer brick and mortar for installations like WaterBar. I really do want people to drink the water. The installation has a powerful presence, I think. Video documentation is a compromised replacement. Plus you don't get to see people's reactions.

The synthetic voices from the MakeLanguage trilogy are a different matter. I don't think they lose much by being online. Maybe that is the only place they can really be at home after all.

Thanks Marc!

Related: Interview of Marc Böhlen and When a machine picks a fight.

Alexandre Burton, Impacts, 2012. Interactive Installation at FACT. Photographer: Brian Slater

The Winter Sparks show at FACT Liverpool is small and efficient. Three large-scale installations that experiment with scientific phenomena and pay homage to Nikola Tesla. The works can be experienced without mediation but each of them also conveys several layers of meanings and readings, whether you're intrigued by the technical description or by the sheer beauty of the sparks, lightening bolts, and sonic properties of the works. Each piece in the exhibition also functions as both an art installation and a musical instrument that the artists played during the opening night of Winter Sparks.

Alexandre Burton, Impacts, 2012

I already told you about the Evolving Spark Network installation yesterday so let's move on to Alexandre Burton's Impacts, a work that demonstrates convincingly that you can still stun and amaze the crowd using a technology that was invented around 1891. The installation uses Tesla coil and a quick look at its wikipedia entry taught me that the electrical resonant transformer circuit is so popular that its enthusiasts show off their home-made Tesla coils at "coiling" conventions, that Björk used a Tesla coil as the main instrument in the song Thunderbolt, and that others use coils to play Mario Bros theme song.

Right before we approach the installation, we are advised that it's better not to go too close to the work -actually "Do not to touch!" is a better way to describe the warning, not to enter the room with a pacemaker, nor to let unaccompanied children in. Even mobile phones are not invited to the party as "there is a chance that the electromagnetic field emitted by the tesla coils could corrupt the flash or damage the memory of your mobile device or crash running programs."

The Tesla coils are activate by the presence of the visitors. As you go near, arcs of electricity of variable intensities come crashing against a glass pane. The violent flashes of light and sound are dramatic and fascinating, because of the lightning bolt patterns formed of course but also because you have the feeling of being in close proximity to danger.

Impacts from artificiel on Vimeo.

With this new work, Alexandre Burton proposes the use of plasma (loosely defined as an electrically neutral medium of positive and negative particles) as matter and medium itself, circumscribed by a defined frame and articulated through unique programming. In this way, IMPACTS serves as a reminder of the danger and muscle of this marvel while capturing its sublime beauty and rhythmic potential.

Alexandre Burton, Impacts, 2012. Interactive Installation at FACT. Photographer: Brian Slater

Alexandre Burton, Impacts, 2012. Interactive Installation at FACT. Photographer: Brian Slater

The last work in the exhibition, Wilberforces, is the outcome of Bosch & Simons's research into unpredictable systems.

Part physics experiment and part art work, the installation takes its cue from the Wilberforce pendulum, a spring hung on the ceiling with central and eccentric weights that alternate between two oscillation modes. Once calibrated, vertical and circular movements alternate even without additional external energy. It is an example of a coupled mechanical oscillator.

Bosch & Simons equipped the springs with audiovisual equipment that documents everything around the FACT Atrium. The video camera, microphone and loudspeakers capture sounds in the environment and in turn, generate visual and audio data that visitors can experience on a screen located in a dark room nearby.

Peter Bosch & Simone Simons, Wilberforces, 2012. Interactive Installation at FACT. Photographer: Brian Slater

Peter Bosch & Simone Simons, Wilberforces, 2012. Interactive Installation at FACT. Photographer: Brian Slater

Winter Sparks remains open at FACT in Liverpool until 24 February 2013.
Related story: GAKONA at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.

This weekend, i'd like to send you to Liverpool. There's a good show -as usual- at the Open Eye Gallery and a couple of exhibitions at Tate Liverpool and Bluecoat (i haven't seen those but they sound promising). Plus, some one told me that i had just missed David Hasselhoff the other day. What more would you want? Maybe a few large-scale installations showing the work of artists who use scientific experiments as a raw material?

That's what the exhibition Winter Sparks at the FACT gallery is all about. The figure at the core of the work exhibited is the one of the engineer whose inventions and ingenuity almost single-handedly shaped the 20th century technology: Nikola Tesla. There are only three installations in the show, each of them large-scale, impressive and attempting to make scientific processes visible. I'm going to single out Evolving Spark Network and write about the others in my next post.

Edwin van der Heide, Evolving Spark Network, 2012. Installation at FACT. Photographer: Brian Slater

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Edwin van der Heide, Evolving Spark Network, 2012. Installation at FACT. Photographer: Brian Slater

There's something direct and almost visceral in each of the works exhibited but Edwin van der Heide's installation is particularly powerful in the way it hypnotizes you.

Evolving Spark Network hangs from the ceiling in a grid of small modules that produces sudden bursts of light and sound. Electric sparks are flashing, crackling and exploding above your head. It's loud, the sound seems to physically hit your body, and it's a bit scary. Yet, you can't peel your eyes off them.

The artist explains that he sees the installation as a large, amplified neurosystem. Each spark is like a neuron which pulses and communicates information to other neurons.
The sparks in the installation are interconnected and they communicate with each other through patterns controlled by an algorithm. Sometimes, the sparks flow around slowly. Sometimes, they move in fast outbursts

An electric spark is one of the most elementary forms of light generation, while the impulse produced produces the shortest imaginable sound. Composing with these impulses can therefore be seen as one of the most fundamental forms of composition in time and space.

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Edwin van der Heide, Evolving Spark Network, 2012. portrait of the artist. Photographer: Brian Slater

Winter Sparks remains open at FACT in Liverpool until 24 February 2013.

If i were a man i'd want to be either Idris Elba or Garnet Hertz. You know Elba, he was gangster Stringer Bell in The Wire and a detective in Luther. Now Garnet Hertz is neither of that (to my knowledge) but he's the guy everybody wants to talk to at media art, tech or design conferences because his works play with several levels of engagement: from instant entertainment to deep reflection on DIY culture, design processes and technological progress. Hertz makes robots controlled by cockroaches, video game systems that you can literally drive around, he gives talks about Zombie Media and has just crafted a magazine about critical technical practice and critically-engaged maker culture that puts us all (us being media people) to shame.

And now for a more rigorous bio of the artist:

Doctor Garnet Hertz is a Fulbright Scholar and contemporary artist whose work explores themes of technological progress, innovation, do-it-yourself culture and interdisciplinarity. His work often involves building real-world technologies that are designed to take his audience into a speculative future gone humorously astray. In the process, Hertz's work inverts the idea that technology needs to be faster, more efficient or higher resolution: innovation is born out of human emotion, historical tradition, and creative obsession.

Hertz is Co-Director of the Values in Design Lab at UC Irvine, is Artist in Residence / Research Scientist in Informatics at UC Irvine and is Faculty in the Media Design Program at Art Center College of Design.

Garnet Hertz, Outrun, Denmark, 2011

Garnet Hertz, Cockroach-controlled mobile robot. Photo by Sharmanka

Garnet Hertz, Videodome

Hi Garnet! I'm very intrigued by Videodome. Can you explain us what the experience of using it will be like? Can the person whose head is inside the big helmet move around? What will he or she perceive and how? And is what they see broadcast in any way to a broader audience?

Videodome is a project that I'm developing that explores different types of virtual reality without the use of a computer. Instead of a computer, I'm using a large number of miniature "spy" videocameras connected to many televisions. At this point, the project has two main physical structures: a helmet-like globe containing the cameras and a two meter diameter geodesic dome covered in televisions. These two components will be configured in different ways -with inner-and-outer facing cameras and screens, for example- to creatively explore the process of mediated sensation, perception and reality.

The initial configuration simulates being inside of someone else's head. To do this, I've constructed a wearable panopticon-style helmet - a clear plastic globe with a diameter of 45cm that has 48 cameras that face inward toward the person's head. Each camera is connected with cables to a flat panel television, and the group of televisions are arranged in a dome with screens facing inward. The screens form a low-tech VR-style cave that show the person's face turned inside-out.

At this point, this project is local and live with no transmission or recording - it's goal is to be analog. If I was going to do recordings of the camera array, it might be fun to try to do it with a mountain of VHS VCRs.

A major theme in my work is the exploration of inefficiencies and intentionally doing things the wrong way, and I have a recurring interest in poking fun at virtual reality. I love graceful kludges, rural folk machinery, and chindogu, and building Videodome is like trying to build a realtime immersive imaging system with parts that don't cost more than $10.

Project Sketch for Videodome

From a technical perspective, the project is a RAID - a redundant array of inexpensive devices - and is easy to reconfigure. It's just a $10 camera, a cable, and an old television multiplied many times. The cameras can be positioned to face outward on the helmet, or the camera cluster can be put on a dog or a tree - or the televisions can be arranged on a floor, in different shapes or on the side of a building. For me, it's a return to the spirit of video installation artists like Dan Graham or Nam June Paik when the format of video still had a sense of technological magic.

When my sons (aged 7 and 9) first played with a typewriter, their perception of it is that it was a very fast computer that instantly printed letters as fast as you typed them. And - if you think about it from the perspective of the time it takes between hitting a keystroke and when the letter is rendered on paper - the typewriter beats a supercomputer every time. In a similar way, an analog video camera is like a streaming video server with zero lag - typewriters, analog video cameras and other devices from media history are still very high performance and interactive devices in their own limited ways. The project is aimed at exploiting the high performance component of an old technology - it's a bit of a novelty at a time where digital cameras are thickly layered in technical infrastructure. You just plug an analog camera and it's instantly streaming video, although your network is only as long as your video cable.

The project is influenced by a few projects, especially Michael Maranda's Sphereorama (1991), Kenji Kawakami's 360' Panorama Camera (1995), and Hyungkoo Lee's Objectuals (2002) - and the idea to use a mountain of cheap cameras initially came from my friend Jason Torchinsky. It's scheduled to premiere in San Jose at an exhibition that Madeline Schwartzman is curating related to her book "See Yourself Sensing". The piece is not in the book, but I'm very happy the project is included in the show - in my opinion her book is the most brilliant contemporary art books I've seen in a long time.

Garnet Hertz, OutRun

Judging by the reaction the project OutRun received in gaming, gadget, vehicle blogs and magazines, have you ever thought of modifying the work and giving it a commercial existence, making it something that rich kids could buy?

The original car is actually for sale, but it's priced at $100,000 - so it would take a very rich kid to purchase it. I've floated the idea of purchasing the original car to a few obscenely rich people like Jay Leno but as of right now it's still for sale. There was a glimmer of hope when the billionaire owner of Lego, Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, drove the original project in Denmark. He clearly had a lot of fun driving the project - and he had the money to pay to replace anything he crashed into - but I don't think he thought I was serious when I proposed to trade him for one of his Ferraris.

Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen driving OutRun in Billund, Denmark

I generally don't pursue the monetization or commercialization of my projects - I tend to enjoy focusing on research and the exploratory prototyping phases of technological development. At this point I'm comfortably paid to do my artwork, so I'd rather spend my time focusing on building new projects.

That said, if anybody is interested in the original vehicle or working on porting the concept into a more commercially viable platform, I'm open to ideas.

And more generally, have you ever been tempted to work more closely with the gaming industry or any other industry? Surely they'd welcome creative people like you?

I used to work in the design industry through advertising agencies, film production houses, and by doing product prototyping, and at that time my slogan for much that work was "Making Your Shitty Idea a Reality". There were a few exceptions of situations where you have a blank slate and a blank check that I found enjoyable, but for the most part I've found it uninspiring.

There are significant exceptions to this - I think of Julian Bleecker at Nokia for example - I think there's a lot of room in research positions that might be rewarding. It also may be that most of my experience in industry was in the 1990s when I had a thinner portfolio and CV; maybe there are a lot of places that would be a good fit.

I generally like the quirks of the art world and academia; I usually find my colleagues in these environments to be interesting, intelligent and strange in a fun way. Both of my current appointments - full time at UC Irvine in Informatics and part time at Art Center in Media Design - are great because of the people and the projects they're working on. Paul Dourish, Gillian Hayes, Don Patterson, Geof Bowker, Anne Burdick, Tim Durfee, Ben Hooker, Chris Csikszentmihalyi and everybody else I work with - they're all brilliant and fun to be around. And for now I generally get to do whatever I want, so I can't complain.

Pixel VGA (Version 1, Banff Floor Cluster)

You wrote in your statement page: "I believe that industry and academia often draw false distinctions between experts and amateurs, hardware and software, mind and body, and science and creativity, and my goal is to meld these polarities in the projects I develop. Many of our greatest social challenges and technological opportunities now lie in these connection points." How can experts / amateurs connection lead to technological opportunities? Also what can experts learn from amateurs?

I'm interested in leveraging DIY, hackerspace and amateur cultures for a number of reasons. I believe that innovation and breakthroughs happen when individuals go beyond their standard frames of reference and discipline to learn new skills on their own: breakthroughs often require us to become amateurs in a new field, in other words. During the process of learning new things, we often cobble together materials, figure things out informally, and explore things on our own. For this reason, DIY culture and doing things in nonstandard or non-expert ways are useful models for how innovation is done.

I've also seen a significant cultural surge toward DIY electronics, physical computing, and hands-on "making" over the last decade. The turn toward physical making is partly due to people being tired of mass produced consumer Walmart culture - they're tired of having disposable, spiritless and generic junk. DIY electronics is also partially in response against the trend of conceiving information and knowledge as virtual things. Platforms like the Arduino - which started out filling a niche within the physical computing community - has grown to be quite widely implemented in multiple fields of design.

I also think that higher education has become increasingly detached from physical objects. I think that this is a mistake: I believe that innovation and education needs to be engaged with the real world, get dirt under its fingernails, and learn the skill of working hard at problems that are often ambiguous. Universities needs to combine hands-on construction and skill with advanced knowledge and concepts in order to effectively innovate in research - and for workforce development.


Critical Making

If i understood correctly, the hand-made zine on critically-engaged making were printed in only 300 copies and given out for free. i do suspect that far more than 300 people would love to get their hands on it. Most would even be happy to pay for it. The content is brilliant, so is the format. Are you planning to change the distribution model?

Yes - the project is called Critical Making and I the documentation for the project is at http://conceptlab.com/criticalmaking/. There's been an outpouring of interest in expanding this project and there are clearly a lot of people involved in DIY or maker communities that don't fit into the "family-friendly kit-based weekend-project" focus of Make Magazine. The initial idea was to do an actual photocopied zine with a bunch of people I admire and to give it away for free - although this has become a much bigger project with almost 350 pages of content from about 60 contributors. It's nicely grown into a pack of zines, a little like Ginko Press's "McLuhan Unbound" project.

I'm still going to give the 300 copies away for free - and I'm making a special edition for the contributors - but I haven't yet determined what to do after my initial run. I'm currently talking to some different people and presses, and I'm open to ideas.

At this point, I'm not inclined to just slap an open source license on the content and put a PDF of it online. I'd ideally like the project as only available as a photocopied object that somebody hand produced - but I realize that this may not be practical. I'd consider an academic or art press, distributing it through the contributors, or returning to a zine model of people sending cash in an envelope to an address.

There's an interesting push against electronic books happening - instead of the format of physical books dying, there's a fresh crop of bookmaking work that fetishizes the physical page. I wouldn't term it as a "zombification" of books, but a useful opportunity to rethink what physical components of a book are valuable.

For my Critical Making project, if people want copies or are interested in this as a publishing/distribution project, let me know. I'll send you a copy too, Régine - but the contents of this collection of zines is a whole other conversation... we should talk about it after I've shipped them off.

Circuit Bending Workshop, 24 Jan 2010, Art Center

One of my favourite projects on your homepage must be the customized taco (food) truck that would go around communities and give D.I.Y. laboratory for circuit bending. Is it going to happen soon?

This project, with an official title of Repurposing Obsolescence: Teaching DIY Science, Technology and Engineering Practices to Adolescents in Underserved Communities, will design, develop and test Do-It-Yourself (DIY) hands-on workshops to introduce and teach middle school kids in underserved communities technology and design by customizing and repurposing e-waste technology, like old electronic toys. Right now the major outcome of the project will be the creation of a workshop kit that covers the processes of learning DIY electronics for distribution to after school programs and other informal educational venues.

My team has implemented a number of pilot projects over the last three years that demonstrate the ability of hands-on DIY electronics curricula to motivate and encourage students and to enable them to acquire a deeper understanding of core engineering, mathematics and science concepts by introducing creative and artistic use of circuit bending,ì the creative short circuiting of electronic devices that make sound.

I'm interested in extending maker culture into different environments, and I think the approach is useful in getting kids interested in learning about how things work. In this project, I'm particularly interested in reaching out to communities that normally wouldn't have the resources in their schools to explore art or electronics. Sadly, California has a growing list of schools that have slashed art or any items that aren't part of the standardized test structure. Hands-on education - with shop, woodworking and art classes - have been removed from most schools. This is doing an incredible disservice to kids, and it's especially bad in communities that don't have a lot of resources. It's not teaching people how to think, be creative or holistic problem solving - it's teaching people how to memorize things to get a high score on a test.

I think circuit bending is a great antithesis to a standardized test. It doesn't have one right answer. It uses your hands. It makes noise and can be dangerous. It can be very simple or incredibly complicated. It involves genuine exploration and discovery. In a nutshell, I think it's a better model for how life works than a test on paper, and I think the United States would be a better place and have a more skilled and creative workforce (and more interesting artwork) if more kids were taught things like circuit bending at an early age. The scientific hypothesis of the project is that this approach will lower barriers to experimenting with custom-built electronic instruments and lead to greater participation and success of people pursuing secondary education.

So, my challenge in this project is to develop hands-on workshops, kits and curriculum that work within the educational system of the United States, or at least Southern California. I also want it to work for people with English as a second language, and as a result have translated prototypes of the curriculum into Spanish, Chinese, Korean and French - but within Southern California, Spanish is my main focus.

My vision is to extend this work through the development of a mobile D.I.Y. laboratory to more easily bring our specialized infrastructure to underserved communities. In other words, have a vehicle that acts as a "bookmobile" to bring specialized resources to groups and communities that lack educational infrastructure. The initial idea for this "makermobile" would be to have it in the form of a customized taco (food) truck, a common component of Los Angeles and Orange County culture. This vehicle would transport workshop mentors and specialized tools and would serve as a public platform to disseminate the workshop materials. I've envisioned that the vehicle would need to be really cool - with lowrider hydraulic suspension, nice rims, and a cool paint job - as a form of propaganda to get kids excited.

I've recently got funding to develop the curriculum and hardware component of this project, but I don't yet have funding to buy a vehicle. As it turns out, purchasing a vehicle through a university or research funds is usually problematic - it doesn't fit into the standard categories of research equipment, especially a pimped out lowrider taco truck.

Garnet Hertz, Experiments in Galvanism, 2003. Photo by Bill Eakin, as installed in Ace Art Inc, Winnipeg, Canada

Do you think schools, and education in general, isn't doing enough to make young people 'techno-literate'?

I think kids generally get quite a bit of informal education around technology using computers, mobile phones or iPads at home. What they're missing is the opportunities to open up and learn about the mechanics of what's inside of the black boxes of technology, to go beyond a consumer of the technology. I want kids to move beyond downloading a game off of the Apple App Store - that's not technical literacy, it's just another format of consumption.

Toy Hacking: Verano After School Program, March 2011. Photo by Silvia Lindtner

You are Co-Director of the Values in Design Lab at UC Irvine with Geof Bowker, Cory Knobel and Judith Gregory. The objective of the lab is to blend "rich social theory with design practice in order to produce information systems and technology imbued with strong social and ethical values." Which kind of works are you developing in the Lab? Do you have some examples of projects that represent particularly well what the students are working on there?

Actually, within the last couple weeks this lab name has changed to "EVOKE" - Emerging Values, Ontologies, and Knowledge Expression - we're working on a number of different things, including a Values in Design workshop for doctoral students.


At this point we're still getting the lab set up, but we're interested in infrastructure, ontologies, values, big data, making, and how knowledge is formed and communicated. It's an intentionally big mix of topics that doesn't neatly fit into the format of something like a TED talk. I see the lab like a research group or design initiative, perhaps like a smaller version of the MIT Media Lab, that work on investigating complex issues, building prototypes and solving problems built on a foundation of serious social theory.

We have a lot of projects going on, including researching new forms of scholarship that move beyond linear texts, design by youth, and work that encompasses biomedical informatics. The first project that we completed at UC Irvine during summer 2012 was a design workshop for doctoral students, titled "Values in Design". Our mission in this project was to train researchers in a broad range of disciplines - including Informatics, Computer Science, Design and Science and Technology Studies - to produce new forms of information systems and technologies which express strong social and ethical values. It ran over the course of a week, and the format was a little bit like Project Runway - with teams designing technology prototypes - and an academic conference with guest speakers lecturing on design-oriented topics. It was a lot of fun.

Within the different projects through EVOKE, I'm primarily interested in making physical prototypes of complex concepts: I'm focused on what art can do to actually extend and add to research and science.

Garnet Hertz, Doom at Catalyst Arts (Belfast, UK), 2012

Garnet Hertz, Doom at Catalyst Arts (Belfast, UK), 2012

I hope you won't mind if i say this but you're an established artist. You're also teaching and holding academic positions. Could you point us to young, emerging artists whose work we should be paying more attention to? Either students or yours or just people whose work you stumbled upon online or at a Dorkbot meeting?

I have some student work that I'm very proud of, especially my graduate students coming out of Media Design Practices at Art Center. My favorite projects over the last little while are:

- Chiao Wei Ho, Slow Letter (2012). "The design of Slow Letter is based on the concept of Process-based Interaction which focuses on the process instead of the task itself. It is my challenge to the instantaneous interaction of user-centered design. It questions the essentiality of instantaneity and convenience in current digital service. What would the interaction be like when time and space are being elongated? We all have experienced the satisfaction of these digital devices around us, it can take us from point A to point B within no time. However, Slow Letter tends to discover alternative values outside of task-orientated interactions. The project reevaluates the weight of our words in the digital communication by elongates the process between point A to point B. It transforms instantaneity into emotional values and inject unconventional perspectives into the numbed daily routine."

Chiao Wei Ho, Slow Letter

- Alex Braidwood: Noisolation Headphones (2011). You've written about these at http://we-make-money-not-art.com/archives/2011/10/the-noisolation-headphones.php - since you wrote that article an updated video of the project is here:

Noisolation Headphones. Video by Mae Ryan

- Hyun Ju Yang: Measurement of Existence (2010). "This hypothetical device informs your quantum state within innumerable versions of our universe in the quantum state of the universe. The main idea is inspired by an equation, the measurement of existence from the relative quantum mechanics created by physicist, Everett who invented Many-World theory."

Hyun Ju Yang, Measurement of Existence

Thanks Garnet!

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