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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
- 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:
- 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."
Benjamin Gaulon -aka RECYCLISM- is an artist, researcher and art college lecturer. And to be honest, when i see how much he manages to pack in each of his job descriptions, i'm starting to suspect that he benefits from more than 24 hours per day. I've read about his artistic activities ever since i've started blogging. Often both playful and critical, his projects involve printing messages on walls using a PaintBall Gun, collecting video streams from wireless surveillance cameras, turning your videos into animated GIFs, developing radio controlled cars that physically react to messages sent on Twitter, giving an architectural dimension to the 1970s game PONG, circuit-bending, hacking, deconstructing and re-purposing "obsolete" electronic devices.
Last year, Benjamin opened the Recyclism Hacklab, a shared studio space where people interested in physical computing, gaming, interactive and media installations, programming and more can find basic electronic tools,, storage for ongoing projects but also mentoring sessions for electronic, programming, conceptual support, etc.
The GAMERZ festival invited him to show his Printball graffiti robot and i took the opening of the exhibition as a heaven-sent opportunity to catch up with Benjamin Gaulon. After that we had an email conversation which, laborious little blogger that i am, i'm going to copy / paste below:
Hi Benjamin! Let's start with one of your latest projects. The 2.4Ghz project uses an affordable and widely available wireless video receiver to hack into wireless surveillance cameras. Including the ones people use for private reason, to monitor their baby for example.
This project has 3 layers. One of them consists of placing the device in the street to reveal the presence of the cameras and to make obvious the fact that anyone can receive those signals, a fact most people don't seem to be aware of. Can you tell us about this part of the project and how people react to it?
The 2.4GHz project actually started in 2008, however I have recently made new versions for two events: Hack the City at the Science Gallery (Dublin) and Mal au Pixel at La Gaîté Lyrique (Paris). This project started with an article about a mother receiving images from the NASA space station on her baby monitor, which got me wondering how this could even be possible. After some research I found out more about the 2.4GHz video signal and how open and easy it is to receive surveillance cameras and, in some cases, baby monitors. Once I found a receiver, with a built-in display, I decided to place the device in public spaces to reveal that signal, as a street art intervention, as you said, to expose the weakness of such system.
The reactions of people passing by are of indifference and more often surprise and enquiry. Most shop owners don't seem to mind that much about the fact they are broadcasting what they are trying to look after. I guess the same way many people today share a lot of their life on Facebook. The concept of privacy has changed with the rise of social media and the wide spread of surveillance camera in public and private spaces. Very often, when I'm installing the devices, people passing by would stop and ask me what I'm doing, and this is partially what I'm looking for, a moment of dialog allowing me to explain the project and engage in a discussion about the matter outside galleries and festivals.
Last time in Paris, someone asked me if I was looking for water, which is not far from the truth as there is a bit that feeling when searching and finding surveillance camera signals. This is what brought me to organise workshops, so others could share that thrilling experience of searching and finding signals in cities.
Do you ask permission to broadcast the images you capture for example?
But also is there a 'privacy' law related to that? Is it legal to collect the footage as you do?
I do not ask permission to display the signal, as part of the project is to show how easy it is to hack into those signals. Also, in some cases, it is impossible to know where the signal comes from (when a camera is inside a building for example). About the legal aspects, I haven't really looked into the law of each country where I did this project to be honest. And I'm not the one broadcasting, I believe there are laws against that rather than receiving. I'm simply displaying a signal that's out there. The same way someone on the street would be listening to the radio.
About the workshops, I only ask participants to take some ID with them, just in case they get stopped by the police and need to talk their way out, which never happened by the way. From past experiences with other projects in public space, like placing a dodgy looking, noise-making, electronic device on screens of Time Square (next to police forces), I never had any troubles.
'Glitch' and 'corrupt' are two of the keywords of your artistic practice. Your project sometimes attempt to disrupt technology, to make it stray from its usual function and aesthetics. What do you think is fascinating about a damaged image or device? To you personally but also why do you think people are so attracted to it (judging from the enthusiastic reaction that your projects often get)?
My Corrupt projects series came from an earlier project, started in 2001, called: digitalrecycling. It was an online, digital garbage, recycling centre. The website was an exploration of trash and ownership in the digital realm. From the website, users could upload unwanted files (digital trash) and, once sorted by file types, others could download them for later reuse / remix. This project was also a comment on how operating systems tends to mimic the physical world (desktop, files and folder and the trashcan). The idea came from the unfortunate experience of trashing a file by accident. After using a data recovery software, the recovered document ended up corrupted (glitched). I thought it was quite fascinating idea that, when you trash a document in a computer bin, it gets "corrupted" or "damaged" the same way if you pull a piece of paper from the bin after you trashed it by accident you get it back dirty (corrupted).
While I was busy with digital garbage, I looked into files corruption and how I could recreate the conditions of such glitch (and not fake it but actually damage the file). So I made the first of the Corrupt projects, in 2004: corrupt.processing (a Processing code allowing users to read and damage files on a binary level). This project was quickly followed by corrupt.online (the php version of that algorithm, allowing thousands of users over the years to glitch images from the website by altering jpeg images on a binary level). I've recently made a video of all the content uploaded and glitched on the website since 2005 (over 1h long and visible here). I like the idea that, from a large database of corrupted images, what emerges is a story, in a way, of the entire internet.
Glitch, as a concept and a term, became more popular recently with people starting theorising more about it, like Rosa Menkman with her Vernacular of File format and with the Gli.tc/h festival for example. I remember being quite influenced by an earlier text by Kim Cascone "The Aesthetic of failure" when I started exploring image corruption.
What I see in glitch, in relation to my practice, is a way to engage with a critical discourse toward technology, obsolescence and digital materiality.
When corrupting a digital image, you reveal its inner structure, in other words, you reveal the code behind an image. Each file format (or compression algorithm) have different outcomes when corrupted. On some level it is a way of revealing the materiality of a digital image on a very low level. For me it is also a way to engage with technology in ways that were not intended. And by doing so, moving away from being a passive user of tools made by others. When breaking a system I feel more in control over it. Even if glitches are unpredictable, which is part of the beauty of it.
Maybe, in failure, we find ourselves less distant from digital information, we can somehow relate to failure, as humans, since we are not, in anyway, perfect machines operating on code. But it's hard for me to talk for others as I think if you ask what people see in glitch, each person will give you a different answer. I suppose part of the recent wide spread of glitch practices, is also a visual exploration of glitches on an aesthetical level (and often recycled by advertising).
About "damaged" devices, well it is a whole different story. I've been researching the potential of electronic waste as a way to expose planned obsolescence for many years now. Among different projects dealing with hardware hacking, I've initiated a project called ReFunct Media in 2010, which is, in a way, a prolongation of the e-waste workshops I have been running since 2005.
And is reversing the glitch something you pay attention to? i'm thinking in particular of Corrupt.desktop, an app you developed together with Martial Geoffre-Rouland to allow people to glitch, in real time, a computer's desktop image at any Apple Store or Apple Retailer.
The project Corrupt.desktop is actually a derivative project of Corrupt.video (a software for real-time video glitch combined with a YouTube-like platform www.uglitch.com, allowing users to upload glitched videos from the software to the website). One of the features of Corrupt.video is the possibility of glitching your computer screen.
From this possibility, came the idea of making a separate software that would just do that, but with a twist since we renamed it "Safari" (using the Apple browser name and icon). Since then, I have being going to Apple stores (so far only 2, PC World in Dublin and la Fnac in Aix-en-Provence) to install the software on as many computers as possible, while recording the intervention on video. I see this type of intervention as Apple's retailer hacking. I believe it is a humorous way of disrupting capitalism and an attempt to challenge Apple's slick and shiny image. I'm also inviting people to take part in the project by doing the same actions where they live and sending me their recorded footage.
You're at the origin of the e-waste workshops, which as they name suggest use e-waste as raw material to create interactive art projects. Could you give us a few examples of projects developed during these workshops?
The e-waste workshops have been going on since 2005 and hosted in different countries with a large variety of participants. I run those with Lourens Rozema (an electronic engineer based in the Netherlands). Our goal is not necessarily to have finished pieces (even if it's better when it happens) but to get participants to see the potential in hacking e-waste and learn basics of electronic and programming in the process.
So to answer your question I can mention some projects. In the first session a group of participants made an interactive drawing machine using 2 scanners and a floppy disk controlled by microphones, allowing users to controlling the drawing machine by shouting at it. Drawing machine are often a good way to start and learn, we had few of those. Another one used an old printer combined with a webcam, users could draw on a long roll of paper, scanned by the webcam to generate sound (using computer vision). The most complete drawing machine was created by Charles Mazé and called the Rétrographe, using an old bulldozer toy, turned into a font making machine that he used in projects long after the workshop. Another, very low tech, interactive project (not directly recycling e-waste but still very good) is DanceKarpet, using cardboard and light bulbs power from car battery to make an interactive, very low resolution, interactive screen.
Sound making projects are also a regular way of reusing old electronic (as in circuit bending), or in some cases creating new instrument, by using old tape player heads and magnets, bended video games, making a sound controller from an old phone, a monkey head, etc...
What would you advise me to do with my own e-waste? How can i discard them responsibly?
Since we started those workshops, things got better, there are more (proper) recycling facilities in Europe (just make sure they do recycle the stuff and not simply ship the stuff to China, India or Africa). However I guess part of the point of our workshops is to say that recycling (dismantling for materials) is maybe not the only way. It comes with a cost in energy and chemicals used in the process, when in some cases, part or all of the so-called obsolete device could be reused / hacked into a new project or product. This way of thinking should be more widespread when it comes to making new devices. Making open-source hardware is a good start as it allows easier hacking in the future (if the documentation is clear and accessible). Circuit bending or hacking of recent electronic devices is also getting a lot harder than for older electronic. Parts are getting smaller, which makes this type of practices very hard (or impossible). This is really an issue that we see in the e-waste workshop when people bring too recent devices.
If i understand well, the e-waste workshops have given way to the Recyclism Hacklab, a permanent space offering workshops, mentoring sessions, support, etc. Who is the hacklab for? hackers? artists? professionals of IT technologies? Children? Un-usual suspects?
I guess anybody looking at learning and also sharing their skills about hardware hacking, e-waste recycling (and the usual Arduino, PureData, Processing,...). But more importantly people interested in Critical Making (a term coined by Matt Ratto). This idea of of Critical Making is also behind a publication coming up (led by Garnet Hertz), which regroups artists, designers, educators, theorists, makers from all over interested and engaged with this concept. I also believe hacklabs and hackerspaces have an important role to play in reshaping capitalism. The Recyclism Hacklab is my modest contribution to this topic.
I'm also quite curious about how this interest for recycling, re-purposing, re-using e-waste translates in the aesthetics of your various projects. Is this something that matters to you? Do you, for example, purposely attempt to create devices that look a bit vintage or second-hand?
Many of my projects are reusing vintage devices, like the RES (Recycling Entertainment System) that reuses 6 NES controllers, so the vintage looks is inherent to the technology I'm recycling / referencing in that case. With ReFunct Media I have invited other artists to collaborate on a large scale circuit-bending installation, where we purposely reuse obsolete/vintage devices (video games, ancient computers, turntables, tape players and so on) that we open up and hack together in a complex chain of interconnected devices. This project deals with the temporality of media and technological obsolescence, while revealing the process of its production by keeping every wire or circuit boards visible. Somehow, I see this type of projects as a practice-based media archaeology. I feel very close to the concept of Zombie Media (by Garnet Hertz / Jussi Parikka), part of this essay was included in the publication for ReFunct Media #2.
When it comes to aesthetic choices, I suppose, I try to make coherent propositions in relation to the piece of hardware I'm hacking. So the second-hand look is actually due to the second-hand devices I'm using. But I suppose there is also probably some part of nostalgia in hacking early video games considering I grew up in the 80s. For example with AbstracTris, when I turn a Gameboy screen into a lowtech generative pixel art piece, I can't help but think of myself as a kid playing Tetris on the Gameboy for hours while making it. Or with Harddrivin', a twitter controlled car racing installation, I have chosen to collaborate with an artist (Ivan Twohig) whose sculptural works refers to early days 3D polygonal modeling (considering that Hard Drivin' was one of the first 3D polygonal driving environment).
While preparing this interview i found about Protonoir where you are selling some of your works, are you involved in this online shop?
Well yes, directly. Ivan Twohig and I wanted to find other ways to distribute our works and we both had pieces we wanted to sell. Since none of us felt like adding a commercial side to our websites, we decided to set up this online store and invited other artists to join (people we know / works we like). We see this a bit as a museum or gallery shop, except we cut the middleman. So there is no fee or commission for artists featured. I wouldn't say it has been a huge commercial success but it is more a practical thing when people ask about buying a project. We are open to works by other artists but we reserve ourselves the right to choose things we like and that we consider fit for the website. The website became also part of one of a recent project: KindleGlitched, a series of readymade glitched Kindles donated, found or bought on eBay that I laser etched with my signature, and sell (again), as an art piece, on Protonoir.com.
You're French but you've been living and working in Dublin for a number of years. Why is this a good city for you?
Despite the current economical climate (and climate in general ;-), Ireland is a pretty good place for me. Dublin is small yet it's a European capital. I've been here for nearly 7 years. I'm teaching at the National College of Art and Design in Media (in the Fine Art Media Department). I've been running (with Rachel O'Dwyer) an organisation called D.A.T.A since 2007 (Dublin Art and Technology Association, initially created by Jonah Brucker-Cohen). After starting in an artist led space, I've recently moved the Recyclism Hacklab to the CTVR building (The Telecommunications research centre of the Trinity College), which is another amazing opportunity.
Any upcoming projects/events/exhibitions you want to share with us?
The next stop is Chicago for the GLI.TC/H festival, where I'll be a track leader focusing on "Hardware hacking and recycling strategies in an age of technological obsolescence"
Soon after, I'm very pleased to present, with the usual crew Karl Klomp, Gijs Gieskes and Tom Verbruggen and two new special guests Phillip Stearns and Pete Edwards, ReFunct Media #5 for the next Transmediale Festival in Berlin.
With D.A.T.A we are also discussing the next OpenHere festival (a four days festival that addresses social, technological and cultural issues surrounding the notion of the digital commons).
And hopefully find some time to make new work in between.
After Agri is a collaborative investigation between Michiko Nitta and Michael Burton. Their collaboration looks at the future evolutions of our food systems, asking What new cultural revolution will replace agriculture? How will our species and civilisation be transformed?
I met Michiko and Michael ages ago, when they were among the first students graduating from the course of Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art in London. I liked these two a lot at the time so when i found out in an exhibition guide that had teamed up to form After Agri, i thought i needed to have a close look at their website. It's still early days for After Agri but their portfolio is as provocative and ingenious as i had expected.
Taking into account the latest advances in synthetic biology, geo-engineering, nutrigenomics and other areas of scientific research but also shifts in cultural taboos, issues of climate change and overpopulation, their latest projects include an exhibition exploring two possible future food cultures: Algaculture which proposed a greater symbiosis between algae and the human body and the Republic of Salivation, a dark scenario that sees Governments enforcing restricted food policies where the type of food a citizen receives responds to the emotional, intellectual and physical demands of their job.
More recently, Michiko and Michael were at the Victoria and Albert Museum with an 'Algae Opera' performance that demonstrated in the most spectacular how singers with powerful lung capacity might produce food in a future world where algae have become the world's dominant food source.
The Feast After Agri proposes new food cultures to revolutionize the way we feed ourselves. For the exhibition 'Food Forward' which took place at Stroom a few months ago, you explored two of the seven future food cultures from The Feast After Agri in greater depth: Algaculture and the Republic of Salivation. What are the other 5 future food culture? Could you describe them briefly and tell us which science and technology research has inspired them?
The Feast After Agri project searches for actions, research and experiments that might change the way we produce food and shape our world. Whilst some projects within After Agri propose new foods, we are fascinated by ways to redefine food altogether. We look for signposts to the changes in our behavior that might have a similar magnitude to our historic leap from a hunter-gatherer to an agriculture existence 10,000 years ago. And subsequently how new food and body-fuelling cultures will change our world and our human evolution.
Besides Algaculture and the Republic of Salivation, the Feast After Agri currently proposes five food cultures that respond to a variety of sources. For instance the Symbiotic Bacterial Nation creates a food culture shaped by synthetic biology.
The Subterranean Troglodytes carve out a new niche underground to seek refuge from the spreading desert and UV radiation baked surface of our planet.
Whereas Bovineopolis reflects what Carolyn Steel writes about in her book, Hungry City that "Cities have always moulded nature in their image". Bovineopolis, takes a sideways look at the reality of in-vitro meat production. Here Fetal Bovine serum, an extract from a calf fetus, used in cell culturing is the city's re-rendering of beef. These and the other proposals continue to be developed and will be worked-up to full projects in the future.
I also had a look at your map of the Feast After Agri and it seems that the various food cultures are distributed geographically? Which criteria makes you decide which food culture would be implemented in which part of the world?
The map explores how new geographical boundaries and geo-engineering projects may be re-drawn on top of existing territories according to new food cultures. Instead of a standardized food culture across the globe, the Feast After Agri map charts the diversification in how we respond and evolve to our food and body-fuelling methods.
This map will change and be reconfigured as we add more food cultures and chart the changing climate and geographical composition over time.
In your future food scenarios, do you also see differences in social classes with, for example, privileged people being able to carry on eating as we know it now?
The role between social class systems and diet is a very strong feature in most of the scenarios but particularly the Republic of Salivation. Here the design of diet is used by the Government to enable a citizen workforce to deliver their role in society. For instance, manual workers are given a provision of food that is high in modified starch - to enable the body to run for longer on the least food. Whereas the intellectuals of the country are fed scarcer food like fish, rich in omega 3 fatty acids and fresh fruit, to enrich brain function.
The scenario not only projects into the future but also reflects on the past. In developing the Republic of Salivation we were particularly interested in how food was re-evaluated as fuel for the work-force body in the Victorian workhouses.
I'm curious about the The Algae Opera that took place last month at the V&A. Somehow, you managed to convince a mezzo-soprano to be 'transformed with biotechnology to form a unique relationship with algae.' What do you mean by "transformed"?
The role of transformation in The Algae Opera is a physical and cultural one. We identified the opera singer as the perfect body morphology for the production of algae. The singer's large lung capacity was perfect to exhale the maximum CO2 to feed the algae. To facilitate the process further, the singer, Louise Ashcroft, worked with composer, Gameshow Outpatient, to re-design her singing technique.
The opera aspect of the piece was a second crucial component as we wanted to explore some exciting new research like that carried out by Charles Spence, Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford called sonic food enhancement. Gameshow Outpatient and Louise re-designed many conventional operatic techniques. Gameshow Outpatient's Matt Roger described the process as:
"We wanted to create a vocal ritual overtly focused on breath as much as singing, since breath is a fundamental connection between singer and algae, with breath control a technical fundament of singing itself. With this in mind we revisited traditional singing techniques to make explicit the role of breath and breath control in them, the impact on tone colour and stamina for example, seeking to explore 'fragility' as much as 'strength'. We wanted the piece to represent an imaginary 'folk' music, born of a Human/Algae symbiote culture where breath itself is the revered symbol of existence."
Louise's role as a singer was also re-examined and she reflects on the process:
"I have to make a significant shift in the use of breath. The algae mask captures CO2 to grow the algae and requires a non-reflexive breath cycle to maximise CO2 output. This means the singer needs to take the breath cycle to the point of collapse. In today's opera tradition, this type of breath cycle is considered inefficient and undesirable due to the issues surrounding sustainability and aesthetic. However, in The Algae Opera, a breath cycle based on a point of collapse is considered efficient and ultimately desirable, for it produces more algae.
In terms of the sonic enhancement of the algae, our relationship to pitch, tone and vocal colour also changes. Tone and colour in the algae framework is no longer linked just to text and texture, but also to flavour. What this means for me as a trained singer, is that I have to re-think technique, the purpose of the voice and explore a new vocal aesthetic to ensure that an algae sound creates food to feed you and me."
As shown in the diagram, the algae suit/mask works by pumping CO2 from the singer to the algae in the tanks. With a little fertilizer the algae feed and grow. Over a couple of performances the algae population is sufficient enough to harvest. In the opera piece, a chef strains the algae and uses it to make a sushi-like meal that is fed to the audience. The two acts of the opera are composed to consist of sound pitches to enhance the audience's taste of bitterness and sweetness as they eat. As such, they consume the performer's talent and taste her song.
Algaculture is fairly seducing but the Republic of Salivation is downright revolting (or maybe it's just me). What reaction do you expect people to have when they discover the food cultures you're bringing forward?
We're not afraid to investigate the good, bad and ugly future of food cultures. We can't escape the fact that we will have to change our food production methods. Already there's a food crisis and our human population maintains its growth. And hungry people make for a future of panic, civil unrest, conflict and death. However, we still have the luxury now to think, explore, play and try alternative choices.
We are not only interested in the future food itself - we are fascinated in the largest systems that our food systems shape. The scientific research area of nutrigenomics reveals that we literally are what we eat. Our food guides our human evolution.
Also, we want to highlight the ecology of food systems. Therefore After Agri aims to discover how future food cultures will shape our physical world from town planning, landscapes and our global climate. We want to offer a glimpse into how developments in food technology will guide how we live together in societies, inform our political systems and give us new national identities. The projects also aim to consider how our future body-fuelling cultures will change our relationship with the planet's biodiversity and may allow us to populate new ecological niches.
Although these are potential futures, we are not saying these will actually be the future. We hope they act as a mirror onto ourselves to consider the ecological web our food cultures impact on and the sacrifices we will be required to make in subsequent human generations.
Are there any ongoing research in future way of feeding the population that you actually find exciting and would love to try out?
The full integration of algae into the body to make us semi-photosynthetic that features in the Algaculture project is something we would love to try. It's the most extreme transformation of the body we've explored so far and it has the most sacrifices to our current way of life and dietary traditions. Despite these challenges, we would love to feel what it's like to feed from the sun via the algae.
Also we are excited by the research of Alan Horsager, a neuroscientist at the Institute of Genetic Medicine at the University of Southern California. His research implants algae genes in the eyes of blind mice to regain a basic sight perception. In the development of the project we have briefly explored the potential of our bodies gaining a new bodily sensory perception through the light sensitivity of the algae when they are fully integrated, as an interesting by-product of a new dietary lifestyle.
You just published After... The Birth Issue. Can you talk to us about the publication? What do we find inside? Is this the first one of a longer series of books related to a specific topic?
After... is a quarterly journal. Online it can be found at www.afterafter.co.uk. It features work that investigates, experiments and inspires new ways to see our world. It is a way to explore how all of us fit into our shifting and fascinating future.
The journal adopts free-thinking discovery to enhance our understanding of ourselves. We don't want to wait for the future to happen to us. Instead, After... is a place for like-minded people who want to be a part of creating that future.
Inside can be found focused, reflective documentaries, proposals and prototypes for alternative futures. It's a bit of a marriage of East meets West with influences from Michiko's Japanese and Michael's UK backgrounds.
Please let us know if you would like to receive our journal directly or be part of future editions.
Any upcoming project you'd like to share with us?
We are working on the autumn After... issue. We are currently working on two commissions that will launch in October and November. Also we are building ideas and work for a solo exhibition next year called Isoculture. Please check our website for further updates and launch news.
Thanks Michiko and Michael!
I met Signe Lidén over the Summer at FARM, a festival that brings digital art into rural contexts. The event was set in Tufo, a small town famous for its wine. Tufo is located in the mountains near Naples, people there are fantastically friendly, there's only one bar with wifi, the supermarket is inside a pastel-coloured ex-cinema but damn that place was so hot and sunny i almost got a tan.
In Tufo, Signe was performing the sound pieces she had recorded while traveling on the train line between Benevento-Avellino. The field recording were an homage to the rural train line that is threatened to be shut down next month.
I had actually come upon the work of this young artist several times in the past. Two years ago, when i visited Bergen for Piksel, the festival for Electronic Art and Technological Freedom. And back in May when i spent a whole afternoon listening to the sound files and watching the videos collected for the project The Cold Coast Archive: Future Artifacts from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
Being more used to visual arts, i'm fascinated by Signe Lidén's work, by the way uses field recordings to evoke and communicate the places and spaces she investigates.
i'm very intrigued by urphänomene . It is a "sounding concrete block". How does it sound? How can it sound? And why did you chose to work with a material as stern as concrete?
The concrete block is actually hollow. Inside it is a box, soldered by resonant metal. A transducer is attached to the metal and transmit the sound that I send into it and turn the whole block into a speaker. The fact that the sound that streams out of the concrete is metallic is as contradictory as the elevated heaviness of the concrete. I have a strong interest in the relationship between matter and message in architecture and in urban planning design.
The places that I research in my art practice are often man-made landscapes meant to function as physical manifestations of ideas or ideologies. However, these often take the form of abandoned places, where the imprints of history evoke a dialogue or a dispute with the intended ideas that the places were meant to communicate. Such places are often the starting point of my works but still, in Uhrphänomene, there are various factors that played a part in determining the installation piece.
The sound that I send into the concrete is recorded in Svalbard during the field trip for The Cold Coast Archive. During one of night in Longyearbyen, a storm hit the archipelago and as I could´t sleep, I went out to feel the wind upon my body. Outside, I heard some sounds that caught my interest and I ran back home to get my recording equipment and tracked down the source of all these sounds. It came from my favourite building in the mining town: a huge empty steel construction elevated on poles. The building had formerly served as the central machine hub of the cable cars carrying coal from the surrounding mines which usually stood as a mute symbol of the city's once-industrious past. It trembled in the wind and the rain bombarded its surface. It was a mysterious, wonderful cacophony and I recorded for hours. Later, back in Bergen preparing for my graduation show, I thought of different ways of using the recordings from that stormy night and I decided I wanted to create a place for them and that place turned out to be Uhrphänomene.
As I often work with field recordings of sites, I have been thinking a lot about how to merge the sound into a new "site". I started to work with sound because of its spatial qualities. I realized that sound makes it possible to perceive many places simultaneously, and even better combine outside and inside objects and spaces at the same time. The rearranging or composing of the recorded sounds are in a way an embodiment of multi-temporalities.
So, again, the question that has been hunting me the past years, as my approach to sound is mostly site specific, how to bring the sound back to space? Urphänomene was one answer, the online exhibition of The Cold Coast Archive is another answer and in the future, I am sure there will be a lot more materialisations of approaches to this question.
You seems to be particularly fascinated by holes. Why is this a theme you want to investigate?
The potential inaccessibility, their link to history and the temporal qualities are some of the reasons why holes have got such a big importance in my practice.
Holes and caves have functioned as time-capsules throughout history. The oldest artworks were found in holes, as well as the oldest records of ritualistic and performative activity. The choice of caves for such activity is closely connected to the body, both by being shelters and by virtue of their acoustics. Holes are places where natural filtering of the sounds of the surrounding occurs, like in pipes, so the sonic qualities of holes can be great.
Another, very different, fascination is that the conception of a hole is hard to grab: a whole is a nothing, yet it is. If we want to describe a hole, we mostly have to describe it as an absence of something else, describe it by its surrounding (a hole in a bread), or the opposite; describe it by some "alien" content (a hole filled with cheese). When I do audio recordings, I often seek for holes because of their ability to filter the surrounding sounds. In my research, I am mostly interested by man-made holes in nature, built to store or hide things for a longer periods.
You also happen to pick up the most uninteresting cavities to explore: The Global Seed Vault, in Svalbard, Onkalo Nuclear Waste Repository in Finland, Damanhur Temples Of Humankind in Italy, The Archive of Invisibility and Lost Knowledge in China. I had never heard of the Onkalo Repository. Have you visited it already? How do you plan to use it in your work?
These cavities all links to a specific timescale: they deal with eternity, although in very different ways. I have been interested in their practical and symbolic significance, their shapes, architecture and acoustics, their ritualistic aspects and relation to time, as a starting point for an exploration of human beings' efforts to preserve civilization and defy the inevitability of its demise. These cavities can be seen as time capsules even though their reasons and strategies of preserving varies. The first stores seeds for a potential restart of life on earth, the second hide lethal waste as the third seeks to preserve global spirituality, and the last collect gestures that turn objects into art.
They have been cases of investigation and important influences on my latest works but I am now mostly focusing on one of these holes, the Archive of invisibility and Lost Knowledge. I actually created the name myself, based on an oral explanation of its Chinese name. I will stay a bit secretive about this until I finish my work about this place.
I had Steve briefly speak to me about the Cold Coast Archive a couple of months ago. But i'd be interested to hear about your experience of the expedition. How did you get involved in the project and what was your part in it?
I was contacted by Steve Rowell who wanted to do a collaboration on the topic of The Global Seed Vault, and we started to develop the idea about how we approached an art project about a place like this. Later on, Annesofie Norn, a good friend and colleague of mine joined the project. We all went on field trips to Svalbard and visited the seed vault to gather material. Steven went up north the winter 2011 together with Alexander Rose from The Long Now Foundation, and Annesofie and I went for a longer trip summer 2011.
The materials; video, sound, interviews, photos are all gathered and accessible at The Cold Coast Archive website. The artworks are mapped inside the landscape-organism (I am not sure what to call it) and the idea is that you move around from a sound work to a video, via an interview and a photo, with the help of a language based compass. For example ...
I also made something I called an "Evigatur", an apparatus who is created to record activity in the vault and write it into a vinyl. The first vault-record was sent down and replaced with an empty record for the launching exhibition at Museum of Postnatural History. The next record will be gathered around Christmas, and the idea is that it will be a growing contemplation of the sounds of the vaults activity.
Is it easy to get access to the site and visit it?
It is not easy. Your visit have to be accepted by the information director, professor Roland von Bothmer, who has to come up from Sweden and guide the visitor. Mostly journalists, artists or politicians are among the list of people who have been visiting. They have been having some problems keeping the temperature down and steady, mainly because of the old power station in Longyearbyen, powered by coal from the only active mine in the area, who shuts off the electricity to the seed bank when it has problems. But also because of the visitors' effect on the temperature inside, so they were talking about being even more restricted. On the other hand, the people working with plant breading, seed banks etc. are interested to use the attraction of the The Global Seed Vault for spreading information about the importance of their case.
You are a sound artist, so what were the most surprising/beautiful/striking sounds you managed to record during the expedition?
As an answer, I will give you a link to Coupled Pendulum.
The following day, as I listened to the recordings, I came to one track that stunned me. It was the sound of whistling wires recorded with contact microphones, yet there was something else on the recording: a deep motor sound, sometimes coughing, but mostly humming. I could not remember hearing any motor on the night I made the recording. Had I captured a time wrap? Did the wires circulate the low frequencies of the old machinery to keep its memory alive? I guess the Swedish sound artist Carl Michael von Hausswolff could have explained it as energy fields trapped in time. But ghosts aside, through this recording, I had accidentally captured something I had felt that night, but not been able to identify: the essence of that abandoned place- its mourning for its own past.
When we met a few weeks ago in Tufo, Campania (Italy), you were presenting a project related to a railway track. Can you tell us what the piece was about exactly?
I was invited to do a residency for the Interferenze New Arts Festival, working with the abandoned sulfur mines areas in Irpinia together with the South Korean sound artist Jiyeon Kim, in south Italy, but due to some organisational problems or miscommunication, we were not allowed to record on the mine area. As the practical impossibilities of my original idea were revealed, I was told that the railroad through the old mine area (a beautiful wine district with small villages and flourishing nature) were to be shut down in September. The shutting down of this line is a part of a larger dismantling of public transport in the whole area. I decided to make a tribute to this rail line as my contribution to the festival. I recorded the sound of the train, the track lines, station, the people travelling etc. and made an interview with one of the leading figures in the fight for saving the train lines in the area.
And what was the feedback of local communities (inhabitants and also maybe people working for the railway company).
I got quite a lot of comments after the live concert, mostly from people who told be about their relationship to the train and stories from their travels. I joined the facebook-group for saving the rail lines in the district.
You can listen to the recordings on aporee:
Recording of the Altavilla Tufo train station.
The alarm bell at the station.
Any upcoming work you'd like to share with us?
I am in the starting phase of quite a lot of smaller works, mostly installation pieces who explores transformation and transportation of places, aka in Uhrphänomene. And, as I mentioned, The Archive of Lost and Invisible Knowledge is a place and problematic that I will investigate further and I still do not know what the format this investigation will lead to. Am exited to find it out and I hope it will be something surprising.
Thank you Signe!
Time machines, false memory, earthly landscape, moon rock gardening, flying saucers, lunacy, galactic adventures and the occasional rabbit. That's the world sketched by Sue Corke and Hagen Betzwieser. Roughly speaking, Sue is a printmaker and Hagen is a 'New New Media' artist but together they are more than the sum of their parts, they are We Colonised the Moon.
The work of WCTM is clever and nonsensical, dreamy and rooted in techno-scientific experiments. It is driven by its own logic. I'm not sure that the interview below is going to lift the whole mystery behind their work but i certainly had a lot of fun in the attempt.
Hello Sue and Hagen! I discovered your work a year ago, when you were showing '101 Harmless Scientific Experiments To Try At Home' at the Acme Project Space in London but you've obviously worked on many ideas and projects right after that. What are you up to this Summer?
Sue: This summer we have had two shows running, at EB&Flow in London and Villa Rosenthal in Germany. The shows are both mostly dealing with work we have done together over the last couple of years. Most recently we have been working on ideas about astronaut training and space maintenance, shooting a lot of videos and building moon rocks out of authentic moon dust simulant.
Hagen: This is definitely the direction we are focusing on now. Installation, video projection, artefacts, movement and performance. We started more 2D for sure because we came together through making graphic work, we continue to make prints but most of the time we're working on installations now.
You come from different backgrounds. Sue is involved in printmaking and illustration while Hagen used to work mostly with video and conceptual art. How did you two get to work together?
Sue: Pure accident. We literally bumped into each other at a bus stop in Norway. Hagen was in a residency programme at the Nordic Artists' Center in Dale (NDK) and I was visiting to make a short illustration project about forests and star constellations there.
Hagen: It all started a bit like RUN DMC and Aerosmith working together as studio neighbours.
Sue: Dale is surrounded by the most amazing Norwegian mountain and fjord landscapes. We made an expedition to Sognefjellet, a Photoshop perfect wilderness, and had endless discussions about how reality is constructed. In the process we discovered some shared interests. We both had backgrounds in science and media. My parents were chemists. Hagen was a junior astronomer in an observatory close to Heidelberg in Germany. I worked for a spell in advertising and multimedia. Hagen had been an art director for a design agency.
Hagen: Through endless hikes and talks about The Clangers, YPS, Blue Peter, Particles, Heinz von Foerster, Constructivist epistemology and so on somehow we came to the point where we thought it could be an interesting idea to work on a project together.
Sue: The ideas we generated during this trip were so fun that I definitely wanted to work like this more. And it was obvious Hagen had absolutely no idea about printmaking!
Hagen: True. I thought only about my little A4 laser jet. Oh boy :) But she convinced me the quick cartoon style sketches I make for my works would work really well as silkscreens. So this is how a nature encounter, theory, two different illustration styles, childhood interests, professional skills and ink became the starting point for our collaboration ... and even our name WE COLONISED THE MOON is made in Norway. Out of this small joint illustration / print project it became now an ongoing and growing collaboration since 2008.
You've '(re-)created' the smell of the moon in at least two exhibitions. How did you do that? How much of the result is the fruit of your imagination? Is this a pleasant smell?
Sue: Astronaut Charlie Duke, the tenth man to walk on the moon, said it was not unpleasant. The Apollo astronauts were drawn from the military. I think they knew what they were talking about when they likened the smell to gunpowder. Naturally this is their frame of reference but that's how we all interpret sensory information. I like the smell of burnt matches myself.
Hagen: No one can smell the moon directly of course. The vacuum in space prohibits this. But this gritty tacky meteor bombarded dust on the surface gets on to their spacesuits and back into the LEM. Then there is this massive reaction with oxygen and moisture. The loose molecules go off like firecrackers and generate the smell they experienced.
Sue: So, we had the smell synthesised by Steve Pearce, a chemist who is an international aroma expert in the UK. He makes flavours and smells commercially for his own company and had been approached by NASA some years ago to work on the smell of space for astronaut training.
Hagen: What's attractive to us about this phenomena is the strong link between smell and memory and the association with place, whether it's real or imagined is actually the crux the work we make hangs on.
Sue: Curator Caro Verbeek from the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam knew we were working on the idea of space aromas and asked us to make a piece for her for the event "Do It Smell It" on olfactory art in 2010. We came up with the idea of a scratch and sniff postcard from the moon. A momento from a place most people will never go. A fictional memory.
Hagen: Then in 2011 for a commission from The Arts Catalyst and FACT Liverpool we created an installation for the exhibition Republic of the Moon. Visitors could enter (on own risk) a film-set like test chamber. Periodically an astronaut resprayed an array of "authentic" moon rocks with synthesised lunar aroma. As longer you stayed in the environment as more you got pollinated with moon smell. After you left, the smell travelled for several hours with you on your clothes out into the city.
Sue: At the moment we are also doing a lot of "Live Moon Smellings" using helium balloons and pins! We have enough smell left to pollinate an area twice the size of the Olympic stadium.
What's behind the name We Colonised the Moon?
Sue: I guess it's really a kind of band name. A comment one of us made when we saw how lunar the glacier region we visited in Norway looked. It just stuck.
Hagen: The truth is the name comes from an encounter with an electricity pylon. Surrounded by this pristine wilderness the pylon looked like the first man made structure on a virgin planet -- which more or less then created the idea that this might be what it looks like when we start to colonise the moon.
Sue: So no, we're not necessarily all about science or space or pylons. We just started there.
By the way, Hagen can you tell us what are the scope, objectives and functions of the Institute of General Theory?
The Institute of General Theory is a project of indeterminate duration, for anything. It operates in an undefined area, in the grey zone where there is no distinction between fiction and science, art and craft, independent work and self exploitation; between game, experiment and paid work, between experimental and studio space, or between museum and university.
After I graduated in 2001 at Merz Akademie Stuttgart, the Institute of General Theory became, besides my daily agency design job, my independent playground for experimental projects. Then, when I became a fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude in 2005 the Institute turned into my full time artistic career. It's my operational format and combines pretty much everything I am interested in since early childhood until today in a professional dilettante way.
I have another question for you, Hagen, your short bio says that your "artistic practice is exploring the gaps and connections between art and science to create New New Media." I sometimes write about the connections between art and science so i'm interested in your mentioning of the gaps between them? What are the most interesting/fascinating gaps between art and science? And should they remain gaps or should they somehow be made to disappear?
Hagen: Working with scientists is mostly fun and generates often interesting results for both sides. But academic artistic research makes me grumpy! There is a lot of art-science-art, science-art-science that takes itself way too serious that even tumbleweed would stop to roll. New New Media is Post Artistic Research, liberated from University fantasies about how things should be done according to the most recently developed textbooks.
Sue: I grew up with the Clangers and Blue Peter and a DIY attitude to life. What I like about the way Hagen operates is I can walk right in and join in without worrying if we do it right. Misunderstanding is actually even productive.
Hagen: In the last couple of years there is so much sophisticated theory that it is sometime hard to see the art behind it. I am not saying my own work is not based on mountains of theory but I like to offer the observer first an enjoyable view and if he wants he can go and discover as much more as he wants in my landscape and not the other way around.
Sue: This suits me too. I think theory like technology should not be the thing you notice first.
Last summer, you were showing 101 (Almost) Harmless (Mostly) Scientific Experiments to Try at Home in London. Could you share some of them with us?
Hagen: Haha! The biggest experiment was definitely being holed up together for two months in ACME Project Space, a studio in Bethnal Green. Two options, homicide or art.
Sue: Indeed! Normally we work together on and off for say a couple of weeks max at a time and in between the work goes on online. This was altogether a different experience.
Hagen: The project was inspired actually by a children's book on science from the 1950s I think. You know the kind of thing. Make Your Own Atomic Bomb in 5 Easy Lessons.
Sue: What people want to get up to in the privacy of their own homes is their business. Mostly I guess it does not involve black holes but I think amateur science is a great tradition which should be encouraged. So we decided to tackle anti-gravity with an electric hoist, built our own design for a future satellite disguised as an asteroid and began a campaign against cosmic rays.
Hagen: From what I learnt the Scottish Enlightenment seems to have taken place mostly in the pubs of Leith. I have no problem with that. Dilettantism was always a powerful driving force for progress and only in recent times has it become this negative aftertaste. I am very happy to be a professional Dilettante!
Any upcoming projects, exhibition, residency, public presentation you could share with us?
Sue: The next thing we are definitely participating in this year is a special three day "Kosmica" festival at Laboratorio Arte Alameda with curator Nahum Mantra in Mexico City. "Republic of the Moon" will also travel on from Liverpool too and some more actions are in the pipeline.
Hagen: Also in September my latest work as the Institute of General Theory, "A Bucket full of Particles" will be part of On Dilettantism a wonderful show curated by Frank Motz at Halle 14, at Spinnerei in Leipzig, Germany.
... and of course ... (say it loud now!) ... NO COSMIC RAYS!
Thanks Sue and Hagen!
Authentic Goods from a Realistic Future is at EB&Flow, London until 1st September, 2012