A couple of years ago, Nils Völker cooperated with one of wmmna's favourite designers, Christien Meindertsma, to create a robot that replicates the way we look. In one space, an eye-tracker records the movement of your eyes while you are looking at images of various objects. Further away, a robot, built mainly out of Lego parts and hanging on top of a pile of paper, makes one dot for every point you have just been looking at. The resulting large scale images demonstrate how differently the same objects have been perceived.
The robot was the one work that attracted me to Nils Völker's portfolio but it's his creative path that started with communication design and moved to the use of physical computing in contexts as different as advertising and art exhibitions that made me realize the designer and artist was the perfect material for a quick chat.
You trained as a communication designer so how did you end up working with robotics?
At some point I discovered this Lego set which turned out to be way more than just a simple toy. In the first place I wanted to build a pen plotter, just to create some illustrations. But I realised that constructing and building the whole thing was much more fun than making the illustrations afterwards. So I've started to spend more and more time on building new machines. After a while the ideas became rather complex and Lego just reached its limits. Now I'm constantly dealing with pretty weird electric or programming issues I wouldn't have been even dreaming of about a year ago. But it's somehow great to deal with these purely logical and abstract things to end up with something that isn't logic at all.
I'd like to come back to Makers and Spectators that you developed two years ago together with Christien Meindertsma for an exhibition at MU in Eindhoven. It is made mainly out of Lego parts and that's part of its charm. Why did you chose to use these children toys? Was it mostly to give the machine a playful appearance or is there any other reason for the choice?
To be honest at that time there wasn't much of a choice, whether I use Lego or not. Back then I didn't knew anything about electronics or even had my hands on a soldering iron. But you're right, I also like this playful appearance as the good thing about Lego is that probably everybody has once been playing with it. So people are less restrained to such kind of a machine and they approach in a much more direct, almost childlike, way. These machines just look like something simple that every child could built but when you look at the details they reveal some nice complexity.
Now how about the eye-tracking technology? It seems quite sophisticated compared to the Lego blocks. Was it a technology you were familiar with? Did you have to tweak it to make it fit your purpose?
To be honest, I wasn't familiar with it at all and there wasn't much time to change that as there were only about five weeks to build the robot. So when I was developing it I was just assuming that there should be very likely a way to retrieve a text-file containing x- and y-coordinates which then could be interpreted by my machine. And when we were finally building up the exhibition we were lucky to have some help from a programmer who took care of most of the eye-tracking part.
I just saw images of one of your most recent installations Captured - A Homage to Light and Air and it does look like it was a spectacular work. Could you explain us what the work was about? Did MADE give you carte blanche or did the installation respond to a precise brief they gave you? How did you come to work with inflatable bags made from space blankets? Why did you chose a material that seems to be quite unusual (to me)?
It's a project I realised together with my brother Sven who's a graphic designer. We both decided to come up with something based on these immaterial things like light and air; basically things you can't capture. During almost three months of work we've created a huge installation which covered almost the whole room. Sven designed four large graphic walls reflecting the four different aspects of the intangible idea framing my installation which consists out of 252 inflatable cushions made from these space blankets. And finally both parts were interacting in a twelve minute performance synchronized to sound and light.
One thing I've definitively learned about space blankets is that they aren't made to be heat-sealed at all. It took ages to make enough bags that didn't instantly pop when inflated. But this foil is simply great because it sizzles so much louder than any other foil I know. And in the end the noise inside the room was just incredible. And finally its silver side does perfectly reflect the coloured light coming from the ceiling which was a connecting element for Sven's and my work.
MADE, the place where all this happened, is surely the most extraordinary workspace I've ever been working at. It's situated in the ninth floor right at the Alexanderplatz overlooking the city and in addition to that it's equipped with this pretty sophisticated light system consisting out of 225 lamps and you can let glow any single one in any colour you can imagine.
The ambition of the team running the space is to bring people together who are working in rather different creative fields to end up with something completely new. This time it was my Brother and me combining graphic design and physical computing. And although we have been discussing all of our ideas with the MADE team, in the end we could basically do whatever we wanted to, which is quite extraordinary.
Your "About" page says that you're working on an installation using actuators coming from cars wing mirrors. Could you already reveal us something about it?
I'm always in search for ready made components that could be recombined into something new. A while ago I could get my hands on a few of these wonderful little mirror-motors. I was still experimenting with them, when all of a sudden the "Captured" project began an I just restarted working with them lately. So I'm not yet totally sure where it will end up but very likely I'll use them combined with larger mirrors to create moving and constantly reshaping light reflections on the opposite wall.
Members of the media art community, sound designers, musicians and other art lovers, don't miss Gone with the Wind, a gem of an exhibition on view till mid-July at Raven Row. The art gallery, located two steps away from Liverpool Street Station in London, hosts the work of three pioneers of sound art: Max Eastley, Takehisa Kosugi and Walter Marchetti.
The 18th century interiors of the art space feature new and historic work as well as live performance, and material from the artists' archives.
I'll start upstairs with the flamboyant (see photos below) Walter Marchetti. In 1959, the self-taught musician founded ZAJ, an experimental music and performance art group together with Juan Hidalgo with the support of John Cage. In the 1960s, the group produced action-music-performances, anarchic gags, and elegant assaults on the music establishment. Marchetti's work often focused on the grand piano. He's showing two piano pieces which the exhibition guide book defines as "not so much visual art, as a production of music without sound', one is a heap of toilet paper rolls shaped as a piano, the other one is a piano covered with light bulbs that heat up a room that doesn't really need to be any warmer.
If Marchetti is the bad boy of the group, Takehisa Kosugi must be the prodigy, the geek and the spiritual all in one. In the early 1960s Kosugi's event pieces were realised by Fluxus in Europe and the USA. He pioneered the development of Japanese experimental music with Group ONGAKU and the Taj Mahal Travellers. Since 1977 he has been a composer/performer at Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and became its Music Director in 1995. Kosugi's career is showcased through videos, archival works, framed sound pieces and a sound installation.
Finally, there's Max Eastley, the romantic whose sound sculptures play with and inhabit the domestic rooms of the gallery. One of his intervention deploys an Aeolian harp, a device popular in the 18th century interiors that carried the sound of the wind through strings framed in a window casement. Eastley used 21st century technology to give the Aeolian harp (which i read is located on the rooftop) a contemporary twist.
The exhibition is curated by Ed Baxter, director of Resonance104.4fm. The London art radio station took its quarters at Raven Row for the duration of the exhibition, broadcasting, and hosting workshops and live events, as well as presenting an 'overhung' sound installation - the 'Resonance Open' - with contributions solicited from local and international sound artists.
Gone with the Wind remains open until 17 July 2011 at the Raven Row gallery in London.
Back to Berlin where a few weeks ago i was visiting the DMY design festival. As i explained the other day, the most exciting part of the exhibition was the MakerLab where visitors could discover, discuss and handle new technologies, materials, tools, open-source ideas and concepts. In the middle of this happy creative feast, a group of smiling girls were introducing visitors to the joys of mushroom cultivation. All 'in the comfort of their own home.'
Titled fungutopia, their work is an installation, a workshop, a prototype and a community-project.
In installation mode, Fungutopia demonstrates that mushrooms can be used as open source medicine, food, fertilizer and soil-recovery-method. Fungutopia is also a series of hands-on workshops that teach participants how to easily cultivate mushrooms in cities, even indoor.
The project is also accompanied by the DIY MUSHroom grow kit that combines Open Source Electronics with Biology to grow even more rare medicinal species year round indoor.
Finally, fungutopia is a community-project that attempts to bring together people for urban fungiculture and share knowledge and experience.
Laura Popplow, the creator of Fungutopia, was kind enough to answer my questions:
How did you get interested in fungi and rare medicinal species of fungi?
Fungutopia is my master thesis at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne (in the department of hybrid space) but already started more than a year ago and will hopefully go on. I started being interested in mushrooms in general and some medical mushrooms especially because i was searching for some natural method to remediate soil of old industrial areas and because my father, who is working with cancer-patients told me about some special fungi that were very promising in cancer therapy some years ago. This came first together in the work FUNGIFICTION with Tine Tillmann.
I collaborate on the topics of medical fungis with Tine Tillmann since 2010 when we worked together on an installation about fungi as remediators of contaminated soil in the ruhr area for the ISEA2010 in Dortmund. Our collaboration there was named FUNGIFICTION and consisted of a video and a kind of science/shop/showroom installation that told the story of the RUHR REISHI, a fungus, that was left on the grounds of an old coal plant in Dortmund that was deconstructed for two years by Chinese workers. These workers left spores of the reishi, one of the most powerful medical mushrooms known especially in the Chinese traditional medicine. These reishi mushrooms not only remediated the contaminated coke plant soil, but also developed some extra-powers on this special soils. That's why a new mushroom research center was founded on the grounds of the old coke plant area by our collaborators from the Mushroom Research Center Austria to research and find out about this surprising phenomena, that was the start of a mushroom revolution in the Ruhr area, that changed not only the quality of the soils in the old heavy industry area but also was the starting point of a social change, bringing new medical, ecological and economical wealth to the people. The biggest part of this story is actually true, it's just some facts that we enhanced and dreamed a little further.
The collaboration with Tine Tillmann grew further when we exhibited a new work-in-progress of the idea of FUNGIFICTION at the Pixelache Festival in Helsinki this March. There, we developed the idea of creating mushroom cultivation methods on old military grounds like Soumenlinna island, where the exhibition took place. in Pixelache I also exhibited a first type of modell of a MUSHroom, a growing habitat for medical mushrooms. from the starting point of a mixture of fiction and reality i took more the direction of realising the utopia (at least in small parts) whereas Tine is working even more in the direction of (science-)fiction and utopia. Both approaches are working together on the idea how mushrooms can possibly save the world.
The fungutopia station is my practical approach to get people involved in mushroom cultivation and their abilities to recycle, clean, heal and even grow material. The installation for DMY was developed together with Kyra Porada, an exhibition designer and good friend of mine. Fungutopia is part of her master thesis at the FH Düsseldorf in exhibition design.
When i saw the fungutopia station at DMY Berlin, i was particularly surprised by the type of mushrooms you were cultivating. They are most unusual to me. Could you explain me which kind of mushrooms you cultivate and why?
The mushroom you mention is most likely known as reishi, lingh zhi or in latin ganoderma lucidum. It's the holy mushroom in Asia, where its medical powers are known already for thousands of years. it is used in the traditional Chinese medicine against a wide range of health problems and serious diseases: its powers especially in cancer therapy have been proofed also by Western medical studies. Apart from being the most potent medical fungus, it can develop an extraordinary shape, material and colour. That was what attracted me in the first place. When i first saw some rheishi mushrooms grown in shapes you would never expect to be a mushroom I thought this is what you can really call a kind of "natural art". Visitors tend to think it's an artificially made sculpture.
Plus: you can influence the fungus in its shape with the amount of CO2 during its growth. The more people around the room where it grows, the more coral-like it gets.
The text describing Fungutopia presents "mushroom culivation as a way to make the world a better place." That's ambitious. How can home mushroom cultivation achieve that?
There are several ways mushrooms are already helping to keep the world balanced. Mushrooms are basically the recycling system of nature. As they are an own species, they are able to "digest" which means that they transform and split up molecules. That's how they remediate soil or can also help to filter water. The mycelium, the essential part of the mushroom, mostly hidden in the ground is a rhizomatic network that mostly lives in symbiosis with plants. Some mushrooms such as the mycorrhizia mushrooms don't even form fruiting bodies but are working as natural fertilizers that enlarge with their rhizomatic structure the roots of the plants to get water and nutrients for them from the ground. 80-90% of all plants are living from this symbiosis. Paul Stamets, a famous mushroom cultivator describes different methods how mushrooms can save the world: as medicine, water filters, soil-remediators and even natural pesticides.
In my opinion mushrooms should be cultivated more widely in cities, because they have two characteristics that make them an ideal partner of urban agriculture: they don't need much space and ground and they don't need much light. Plus, they could help to clean city-soil and work as natural fertilizers for plants grown in urban agriculture.
Last but nor least: the mycelium can even produce material that could be used as isolating material in buildings. That's what ecovative design is already doing on an industrial scale. You can grow your own forms from mushrooms- amazing isn't it?
i believe that mushrooms could be able to help us in much more problems, we just don't know enough about them - and we are too afraid of them. To some people they are like aliens.
Could you describe me the prototype MUSHroom? What is it made of? How big is it? Are you supposed to leave it on a balcony or inside the house?
The prototype of MUSHroom is a small greenhouse with the possibility to control temperature and humidity through an arduino controller, which makes it possible to grow different mushrooms indoor. It is about 50cm X 50cm X 50cm made out of triangles and squares that form an cuboctahedron, one of the archimedean forms that were considered by Buckminster Fuller as a form of vector equilibrum. I hope to build it in the near future from plates made from bio-plastics. But so far it is made from glass or plexiglass. It's still in its first stage of development. The idea is to develop it further as a kind of open source project with the help of the mushroomcultivator community that is also quite active online and to develop some kind of modular kit. A role model for this is the windowfarms project and its distribution model.
How much time/commitment/care does it involve to cultivate these fairly rare mushrooms?
You don't need so much time, when you just start with a prepared substrate that you can order online in sealed plastic bags with an air filter. You will just need to take care when the fruiting bodies appear and you cut the bag to make them grow better. Then they need humidity and some of them need higher temperatures, but that depends on the species. Some of them also grow in our Western Europe climate conditions.
if you want to start your own mushroom cultivation from spores or mycelium, then you will need time to experiment and build some kind of mini laboratory with clean working conditions. But it's still possible - lots of people are developing methods to cultivate mushrooms at home in small scale solutions as a kind of hobby. They are also the people I want to get together with the online platform grow.fungutopia.org to work on further solutions for mushrooms cultivation in cities as a kind of community project like guerrilla gardening. People should get together to build small mushrooms laboratories to deliver substrates that enable people to easily grow fresh mushrooms in their neighbour community.
Back from a quick visit to the Royal College of Art Summer Show in London. I stayed 3 hours there and only managed to speak to 5 students, that's how ridiculously inefficient i am.
Because they spend most of their time in an artificially lit environment, city dwellers have long stopped paying attention to those natural night lights coming from billions of light years away: the stars.
With his project Urban Stargazing, Oscar Lhermitte attempts to have us raise our head again up to the stars in the city sky by adding new constellations that narrate contemporary myths about London. Twelve groups of stars have been designed and installed guerrilla-style at different locations in the city. They can only be observed by the naked eye at night time and from the ground they look so uncannily like the old constellations that you might never notice that any change has occurred. Each of these new constellations have a story that is directly relevant to the Londoner.
Take the V2 for example. This constellation refers to the bombing of London during the Second World War. During 'the Blitz', V-2 rockets were hitting London over a period of several months, destroying over a million of houses and killing around 20,000 civilians. Bethnal Green tube station was used as an air-raid shelter but on 3rd March 1943, after a false alert, 172 people died of suffocation while rushing into the shelter. The V2 constellation now shines above Bethnal Green.
Lhermitte told me the fascinating story behind the Mosquito constellation. It has recently been discovered that the London underground houses its own peculiar species of mosquito. Apparently, they mutated from the bird-biting form that colonised the underground when it was built in the last century to a variety that nips rats, mice and maintenance workers. Underground mosquitoes are reluctant to mate with their outdoor cousins, indicating that they have become a separate species -- a process that normally takes thousands of years rather than decades. These underground mosquitoes naturally deserved to get their own constellation.
Each constellation is a triangulated structure made out of clear ø 0.6mm nylon line, ø 0.2mm polyethylene braid, ø 0.75mm fibre optic and a solar powered LED. During the day, the battery is being recharged by the solar panel and the circuit switches ON the LED when it is dark enough to observe stars.
Check out the google maps that points to each constellation with their corresponding coordinates.
Publisher Gestalten writes: Thanks to the omnipresence of computers, cell phones, gaming systems, and the internet, a broad audience has traded its past reservations against technology for an almost insatiable curiosity for all things technical. Against this background, unprecedented new tools and possibilities are opening up for the world of design. In addition to sketchbooks and computers, young designers are increasingly using programming languages, soldering irons, sensors, and microprocessors as well as 3D milling or rapid prototyping machines in their work. The innovative use of powerful hardware and software has become affordable and, most of all, much easier to use. Today, the sky is the limit when it comes to ideas for experimental media, unconventional interfaces, and interactive spatial experiences.
A Touch of Code shows how information becomes experience. The book examines how surprising personal experiences are created where virtual realms meet the real world and where dataflow confronts the human senses. It presents an international spectrum of interdisciplinary projects at the intersection of laboratory, trade show, and urban space that play with the new frontiers of perception, interaction, and staging created by current technology. These include brand and product presentations as well as thematic exhibits, architecture, art, and design.
The comprehensive spectrum of innovative spatial and interactive work in A Touch of Code reveals how technology is fundamentally changing and expanding strategies for the targeted use of architecture, art, communication, and design for the future.
New media art, interaction design, digital art, communication design, interface design, art&tech, etc. Define them as you like, the works in this book celebrate, in an unfussy, feisty way, the emancipation of computer code from the hands of programmers.
A Touch of Code takes a snapshot of the state of interactive art and design right here right now. If you're looking for a book with historical context and a panorama of what is going on all over the world this might not be the book for you. The works covered are very recent, there's no date next to the title of the pieces selected but i'd say that very few -if any- of them were developed more than 10 years ago. Most of the works were created in the USA or in Europe. With a surprisingly high emphasis on works from German-speaking countries. Which is fine by me, i don't tend to follow German magazines and blogs so i'm often in the dark as to what artists and designers are doing over there.
The book doesn't embarrass itself with much text. There's an introduction by Joachim Sauter from ART+COM, another one by the editors of the book. Other than that, all you get is the usual description of the works and a few lines that comment each chapter (Look, Touch, Explore, Engage and Intervene.)
Still, A Touch of Code is a joy to pore over. It's like a fast, efficient and snazzy blog about interactive installations. The images are fantastic, the design is impeccable, I discovered many young artists and designers (i was actually appalled by the extent of my ignorance) and felt the need to reconnect with artists i had not seen in ages.
Take a look at some of the goods you'll find in the book:
Siren Elise Wilhelmsen 365 Knitting Clock that knits 48 meshes per day, and produces one two meter long scarf per year. Knitting 24 hours a day, and a year at a time as a physical manifestation of time, they knit one mesh every half hour all day long, and in a year they each produce a two metre long scarf.
By the end of the year the yarn can be changed and a new year - and a new scarf - can begin.
Cycloïd-E is a sound sculpture composed of five horizontally-articulated tubes which swing in unpredictable patterns and produce musical tones. Each section of the armature is a different instrument that emits a sound dictated by its position and speed of movement. The video of the work in action is impressive.
Mischer'Traxler's cake decoration machine is made of a rotating platform, icing gun, a motor-run arm and a silver dragées spout. The machine perpetually repeats one production step, first the icing lines then the sugar beads, as the cake rotates. It goes on until the customer stops the process.
txtBOMBER by Felix Voerreiter generates on the fly and prints out political statements using an Arduino processor and seven markers.
Fühlometer, by Richard Wilhelmer, Julius von Bismarck and Benjamin Maus, draws a luminous emoticon over the Berlin sky. A software reads emotions out of the faces of random Berliners, the system processes the resulting mood data and turns it in real time into this gigantic smiley.
The Self-Made Carbon-Copy Paper Printer is the result of two constraints: no original and no traditional printing method. The printer was hand-made using carbon copy paper. The software was developed for the printer using processing to read the bitmat image and control an Arduino driver. Wherever there is a black dot on the bitmap image, the printer-head hits the paper, leaving a mark. The printer's hardware and software solutions reference the work of do-it-yourself and maverick open-source communities.
Three Pieces, which was housed during several weeks in Victorian Palm House of the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, is a robot that plays the traditional Chinese dulcimer with its many bamboo fingers while the surrounding foliage hides an ensemble of robotic chimes. The robot performers, which are connected together, are conducted by the living and ever changing elements in the Palm House: moisture content of the soil, plants, temperature, animals, visitors.
Joseph . L Griffiths 's Drawing Machine #1 (To Your Heart's Content) is a stationary bike with a spinning front wheel that powers an apparatus that draws circles on the surface using coloured markers. Meanwhile, another drawing element makes other doodles based on the side to side motion of the handle bars.
Views inside the book:
ASPECT Magazine releases periodically DVDs documenting works by 5-10 artists working in new or experimental media. The videos of the pieces can be viewed in their original version or accompanied by the audio commentary of an expert. The commentators usually start with a description of the work then they go deeper by bringing the work in the broader context of history/art history/history of technology, by revealing anecdotes about the career of the artist, by explaining the technological challenges of the work or highlighting the issues the artist wanted to raise.
This week, i've been watching Volume 16: Lo-tech and Volume 17: Hi-Tech. The first presents nine artists who work with basic, or in some cases antiquated technology. As its name indicates, its 'hi-tech' counterpart features ten artists working at the intersection of new ideas in art and technology.
There were only a few names that were familiar to me in Lo-tech and Hi-tech and that's good, i'm all for discovering new artists. One of the reasons of my ignorance might be that i tend to be a little too enwrapped in Europe and most of the artists and commentators in both volumes are North Americans (one notable exception is Arie Altena presenting with his delightful Dutch accent Marnix De Nijs's Beijing Accelerator.)
I'll just highlight a work that blew me away. Nikhil Murthy's video Two Crashes (1926/2007) juxtaposes special effects that were regarded as "high tech" at the beginning of the 20th century to what was considered "high tech" at the beginning of the 21st. The first film is Buster Keaton's The General (1926) that shows the most expensive stunt of the silent era: a real wood burning steam locomotive driven onto the burning bridge, where it collapses. The second scene shows the spectacular crash of a real Porsche Carerra GT in the film Redline (2007).
The artist slowed-down and sped-up the video extracts according to data from two notorious stock market crashes: the ones of 1929 and 2008. The two clips are then edited together by rapidly flashing between the two films. Because of their differing speeds different combinations are seen throughout the video. It is always the same scenes, there are only two of them, yet the construction of the ensemble is mesmerizing. What is most annoying however is that i can't find the video online, just the extract on ASPECT's website.
New media art can do with it as much introspection and analysis as it can get and ASPECT does that in a very approachable yet precise and professional way.
Image on the homepage: Stephen Vitiello, Something Like Fireworks, 2010.