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
Michel de Broin hung a gigantic disco-ball over Paris, threw 12 tons of asphalt on the road to create a absurdly twisted bike lane in Montreal, rode his polluting bicycle in parks, knitted New Orleans street lamps into a satellite-shaped structure, silenced an alarm bell under a vacuum system and famously got his pedal-powered 86' Buick Regal car pulled over by the police.
Michel de Broin lives between Berlin and Montreal. I've seen his work in Spain, Belgium, Germany. I read about it in catalogues and other books about urban art and public art. The more i saw of his work, the more i wanted to interview him. Hence the following Q&A:
I'm very curious about the way you work. You graduated in visual art at Université du Québec, in Montréal. But looking closer at your artworks, it appears that they require the kind of knowledge that most art program do not teach such as a knowledge of mechanics and engineering.
I've never seen an artist succeed at simply applying knowledge learnt from school. Ideally art schools are not simply technical; you don't learn a skill in art school. But each student develops specific skills from their interests. You learn to learn, and you discuss a lot. Like many others, I was not good at high school and I was kicked out of 2 before attending art school where things changed and I began to be successful because you are asked to think for yourself and make your own work.
When I was a kid, I was doing mechanics and electronics and a lot of funny things playing with found objects in the garbage. I hated high school so much, but I was not a problem at home because I was helping my father, who was handicapped, round the house; doing a lot of things at a very young age like using power tools and fixing appliances. So I inherited all these tools from my father, and I was then able to build tree houses, go carts and caves. My older brother was studying mathematics and was playing with electronics. Nothing fancy, but I remember we installed an alarm system in our bedroom to prevent adults from getting in. I don't remember learning anything; I was just looking outside and playing with what was around me. I was hostile to institutions, schools and adults in general, and so I was more inclined to do things by myself.
So how do you handle the crafting/building/hacking/engineering of each of your projects?
I've been growing since then, and I now do big things with serious people. When it is a public commission I need an engineer to sign my drawings, I prefer to work with an engineer who lets me do my work and does not get stressed about the consequences. But you normally need good insurance to play outside, and fortunately I have worked with some very helpful people.
Do you rely on the expertise of other people, like Carsten Holler or Takashi Murakami do?
I'm not working at the same scale. But still there is sometime friends, technicians, and collaborators working or answering my questions. The most difficult is not the technical aspect of the project but to have a project interesting enough to keep my attention for the duration, generate the resources involved, and also to induce the will to make it happen.
Or do you do have a more hands-on approach, acquiring the expertise yourself and experimenting?
I like to learn new skills when I'm experimenting, and refuse to rely on experts. But I'm very grateful to experts from whom I can learn something or share some knowledge with. Making art is more difficult than solving problems, but problems are generative and can contribute to creating new thought.
And why this choice (relying on other experts vs going through the trouble of DIY)?
It is part of the process to work through problems, I need a confrontation with the world to be able to create an outcome. But it doesn't need to be technical; it can be emotional, social, philosophical... It depends on where I address my work. Most of the time I use devices that were made by others. I sometime question how it would be if I was making all the objects that surround me. Making a light bulb seems like very hard work, I would guess it could take me almost a year to make one functional light bulb, and only if I could have access to existing technology. But if I had to go mining for the tungsten, and make everything from scratch, I don't think a whole lifetime would be enough to create a light bulb.
Few artists make their own canvases, collect their pigments from plants, or collect the silicone to power the microprocessor of their computer. Duchamp would say that we are all doing readymade, applying a very low level of transformation to the manufactured object of our appropriation. It is as true for the images, the language, and the tools we are using, they were developed over time and I arrived afterwards. Most things already exist before we figure them out, and being able to draw an image doesn't mean it belongs to us. The origin is very far behind and very difficult to claim.
Some of your work deals with a progress and progression that goes awry: stairs that are supposed to lead you up but end up leading you to your point of departure, road signals that confuse you, roads that go nowhere, etc. Do these works translate a cynical or pessimistic vision of where the world is going? Or are they about something else?
This is your interpretation, I'm trying to not have any moral value about how things should or should not be. For more than ten years, I have been building stairs as infinite paths of circulation, extracted from architecture and stripped from all functionality. I think they raise the question of progress by showing how things rise and fall in a continuous cycle, like living species, bringing my understanding of natural processes against a dated modern belief in progress.
In Entanglement 2001, I created a cycle path inspired by abstract gesture, but represented at the scale of the urban landscape. The freehand drawing defies the rationality of the public planning. It is not about confusion but about having a different experience other than rationalism in the public space. I'm optimistic, even in my pessimistic vision, because I need to believe in something to make it work in reality.
Works such as Shared Propulsion Car, Reparations and Keep on Smoking take art outside of the museums and into the streets. Is that so just because of the nature of the work or because you want to engage with the public in a different way? or with a public that might otherwise not enter a museum or art gallery?
The public is not my concern; I'm interested in art. Sometimes it is fun to please the public, but it is different to making something that makes sense in art. My public interventions were not 'spectacles' where the public was invited. It was more a kind of experience of the outside, a test for the object itself that could be perceived as a gentle act of terrorism. I didn't ask permission, but I didn't break the law. No one was invited. They were isolated acts, documented and carefully collected and presented by galleries and museums.
It is on site that an opportunity of making sense appears. Then those occurrences can be brought into a studio, sampled, edited, deconstructed and transformed into works of art.
How did people react to Keep on Smoking?
Some people love it, some people hate it. There is a good articale from Bernard Schutze, available online at this address http://www.micheldebroin.org/text/2006_schutze_en.html
The Shared Propulsion Car went through some misadventures. It was pulled over by the police in Toronto. Did the brush off with the law go any further?
This car seems wrong from a normative point of view. The police were fooled by the successful illusion I created. There is noting against pedaling a car in the law, there was no reason for the arrest. For the police it is illegal to modify a car, but what happens when you modify it until it is not a car anymore? A car is defined by its engine, with no engine there is no car, and there is no cause. I knew this before taking it out onto the road, but I also knew that there were some risks, luckily the judge could see clearly in this case.
Have you driven the vehicle in other cities?
New York (USA), Toronto (Canada), Montreal (Canada), Poitier (France) now it is part of a French collection in Angoulême.
And were you expecting or maybe even hoping for the police to stop you? Maybe to appear in the newspaper and get a discussion going about car culture?
If an object creates new perception it risks creating problems and misunderstanding. I like to try to make the impossible possible, because it is a sign of the presence of the art for me. When we look at history we see that some of the good art confronts the mind and takes time to be accepted.I got a lot of attention from media, there were 15 journalists in the courtroom, and it was interesting to see how an art project can create a discussion outside of the art world. But I got tired of answering questions from journalists that made no research and were misinformed. It is very boring to deal with the mainstream media.
Reciprocal Energy is a fascinating work. The project speculates that the automobile could acquire its energy directly from the body fat of its driver. It looks like an ambitious scientific research verging into dystopian territory. What was the inspiration for it? Is it pure imagination or are elements of it based on some scientific research?
The human body can be compared to a machine that transforms ingested food into energy. If a surplus of food is ingested, the energy is stored in the form of fats in the adipose tissue beneath the skin. However fats can be transformed into fuel through an chemical process. The procedure consists of removing the suspended water in order to trigger a chemical reaction known as transesterification, which entails the extraction of glycerine. A chemical reaction is obtained through the conveyance of methanol alcohol (CH4O) and caustic soda (NaOH). The resulting fuel is comparable to diesel fuel.
Why not recuperate the stored fat extracted in liposuction clinics in order to transform it into biodiesel and use it as a fuel? The conversion of the fat into fuel would make it possible to recover the potential energy, which is otherwise merely incinerated or dumped into the environment.
This project seeks to draw attention to a particular problem: the fact that automobile drivers and their automobiles are not yet sufficiently well assembled. In effect, when the human body uses a machine, it economises a certain quantity of energy. The energy provided by the ingestion of food is then stored in the form of fats. At the same time as the automobile driver stores energy and accumulates fat, the automobile consumes fossil fuel and wastes energy resources. Why not couple man and machine in order to resolve both the problem of obesity and the energy crisis, while also providing an ecological alternative?
This coupling would make possible an intimate reciprocity between man and machine. Moreover, the use of fat as a fuel would contribute to resolving the problem of which it is itself a symptom by maintaining the resource both renewable and accessible.
Any upcoming works, exhibitions, projects, or events you could share with us?
Retrospective at the Musée d'art contemporain of Montreal, summer 2013 (with a Catalogue)
Installation of a permanent public sculpture in Berlin in the German parliament in 2014.
Installation of a permanent public sculpture at the National Gallery of Canada.
Neal White is an artist, an Associate Professor in Art and Media Practice but he also holds the enigmatic title of 'Director of Experiments' at the international collaborative research practice The Office of Experiments.
One of the current interests of the Office involves an 'overt research' that attempts to build up an alternative and experimental knowledge source about the UK's "Dark Places", the labs and facilities of advanced technological development which are often (purposefully or not) concealed, secret or inaccessible to the public.
The techno-scientific and industrial-military sites under study are approached through publicly available information but conspiracy theories and rumours surrounding these sites form also part of the narrative. The Dark Places place is headed by Neal White and Steve Rowell, but the overt researchers also invite artists, amateur scientists, urban explorers and local communities to contribute to the investigation by participating to bus tours and by contributing to the online geo-mapped database Dark Places.
The next critical excursion that will take people on an Overt Research tour will be in London in October. In the meantime, here's what Neal White had to say about my many questions regarding the Dark Places and his work at the Office of Experiments.
Hi Neal! My only contact with the world of sites of advanced technological development in the UK took place a few months ago when watching an episode of the tv series Sherlock: The Hounds of Baskerville.
Your experience and knowledge of these sites, while not being complete, is obviously much wider and more grounded in research than mine. Does getting to get closer to these sites makes you more worried about what goes on inside than before? Should we be concerned about what is devised and created in these places?
In our research we are interested in where the limits of an experiment end; literally, spatially and structurally, but also in terms of the 'public imaginaries' that closed spaces of all kinds generate - myth, rumour, conspiracy. So we are interesting in interrogating our own relationship to the military-industrial or techno-scientific complex as cultural and critical practitioners. Sharing practices and approaches with other culturally positioned research organisations, such as the Center for Land Use Interpretation in the USA, our aim is to utilize some of the technologies and techniques used by this contemporary complex and developed by them in terms of technologies of surveillance, mapping, intelligence and to invert them. So with Overt Research for example, our aim is to re-frame documentation of a site or sites.
Within this research we also explore alternative archives and knowledge extracted through new open governance policies as well as posthumous release of information from the official accounts of such sites. We make links with autonomous and independent researchers, activists and amateur enthusiasts, whose work in this area is often informed by a person having worked at a site, having a personal issue or a political motivation.
We feel that the bodies of knowledge produced by this unofficial research are overlooked and should play a stronger role in our cultural life. In using, interpreting and sometimes exhibiting such knowledge, our aim is to create new and open resources that anyone can use or interpret. It is this opening up of what is not visible that makes the world less full of fear.
The Overt Research Project relies on personal research and field trips. How much can you actually discover through these field trips? I guess most of the structures you investigate must be off limits.
You will appreciate yourself that much of the way in which we experience the world is shaped and informed by media, including online sharing of photographic imagery of remote, interesting, derelict or even secret places - or artwork in exhibitions. The staff at the sites we focus on are of course also aware of this and so use the media to project the official story of a site, or not. We visit the sites as this information about them often frequently does not add up or we have information about them unofficially which we want to explore.
For example, you may go to a site, standing in plain sight with a high viz jacket (the Overt part that inverts the logic of the secret site and the technology) of a site that might be a decommissioned Nuclear Power Station, and find that this is only part of the story. Part of the site is decommissioned but a new business park or some new activity is going on there, more discretely communicated shall we say. We can document that in the images. The interpretations on our site of these images then alludes if not explicitly points to the other activity. Part informed by our dark sensibilities and by a critical eye, we point to the construction of scientific research as one which shares intimate links with some of the more sinister aspects of government, security organisations etc. And if you want to add to our database, or undertake Overt Research, we insist that you must first participate physically by joining us on one of our research fieldtrips to learn more about what we do and how we do it. We like to make a link between the worlds we inhabit - informational and experiential. Testing limits and boundaries from the spatial to the virtual I suppose.
You're working with Steve Rowell from CLUI and Lisa Haskell on the Overt Research Project. How do you complement each other?
I met Steve Rowell through the Center for Land Use Interpretation as I received a grant from the Henry Moore Foundation in 2008 to make some work with them and consequently spent too much time at their research residency in Utah, on and off over three years (See 'Museum of the Void - Experiments in the Event of an Archive'- Chelsea Space 2010). During this period I was also undertaking initial research for the exhibition Dark Places at John Hansard Gallery in 2009-10. It seemed like a good idea to see if Steve and I could work together as he was based in Europe for a while. So we performed an informal and strategic knowledge exchange about how to approach, document and uncover information about the sites in which we were interested. I had realized OOE could learn more directly about the methods developed by CLUI and then start to build on these. This formed the basis of the site Dark Places around which the exhibition was then curated. The inclusion of Steve and then Beatriz da Costa, who worked closely with Critical Art Ensemble, made total sense for that exhibition then.
I had known Lisa Haskell for some time (we worked together at Ravensbourne College with Prof Karel Dudesek and Armin Medosch). Wanting her great experience as well as some gender balance in our organization, I approached her to come on board as Technical Director. In this capacity she not only builds our technical back end, but her experience with smaller activist organisations, such as Irational etc, have meant that we could also exchange ideas and knowledge in approach to physical and virtual sites, what to disclose and reveal, intelligence and its counter forms.
I had a look at a few of the sites mapped on the Dark Places website. These sites don't seem to hide themselves, their architecture is often even massive. So what makes them dark?
As I have mentioned, we know that the sites we list may or may not fully disclose all of their activities. Some of the work that goes on is official, but in others it is unofficial. In the USA, the approach is different, and as Trevor Paglen (Experimental Geographer - Blank Spots on the Map, etc) or Lize Mogel (Radical Cartography) would tell you, there is a different official attitude and foundation in law in terms of what constitutes official secrecy and a security threat. Also, in the USA, the vast scale of the landscape is used to conceal.
Here in the UK with such a dense population, and a different legal structure (Officials Secret Act), the aim is to sometimes create public secrets in plain sight, about which we do not speak. As I have mentioned, there are numerous ways in which the truth is presented, leaving room for other truths to remain untold or hidden beneath.
Can you tell us something about the ones that are secret? The ones that don't have such a visible presence in the landscape? How do you find about them? Are there national or international networks of amateurs investigating them?
Take for example GCHQ, nearly everyone knows it is there, Google it! But disclosing more information about how they organize themselves, who works there, etc. would leave you open to direct legal problems. So when we documented it, we photographed the housing estate that surrounds it, with only small glimpses of its structure. Obviously, no people, cars, no number plates. We avoid disclosing any information of this sort. However, the documentation creates a different landscape, something we explored at Apexart in New York in our publication - The Redactor. Redaction is the ultimate aesthetic of a security driven world. Inadvertently the act of redaction drives speculation and conspiracy in terms of the security networks, which is something advantageous to those with power, so to short circuit or speak truth to power in some ways is good. Back to GCHQ, you can go there and drive around.
However, sites like Hanslope Park or Porton Down are less visible, even by car. They make use of geomorphology to reshape the landscape, traffic controls to create circuits of access and entry at high speeds, a range of measures and counter measures. Since we documented Hanslope Park, they have updated their websites and attempted to communicate a little more - openness can be a strategy too.
There is the word 'research' in the Overt Research Project but may we take it at face value? Where do you intervene as an artist? And how important is it that artists and citizens engage with these sites?
Art has always sought to question the way in which we know and understand the world. It cannot simply take the world for granted, but how can it take into account the globalized scale life? Academic research does much to enable greater understanding of the world, but it is slow, bound in a set of ethical dilemmas and almost moribund when it comes to unofficial or non-institutional accounts of the world.
The Office of Experiments itself is based on what Maria Lind has called the 'fourth wave of Institutional Critique', the pseudo institution. However, our aim is to go beyond a critique of the artworld institution per se, and alongside others create new and alternative resources, knowledge and interpretations of the world that surrounds us. Research is a word used to describe this, but it is experimental, non-standard and undisciplined in our minds and in its practice. Our research is collaborative, discursive and opens up dialogue to discussions that many wish to keep concealed. It is a dialogue outside of the mass media, beyond the art of the aesthetics of protest, but is networked and precisely focused on its subject. I wonder if it is an emergent form - structural aesthetics. That would chime with the drive of artists like Ashok Sukumaran or writers such as Owen Hatherly and Stephen Graham.
Another chapter of the research, 'Experimental Ruins', focused on sub-urban London. What did you discover during that phase of the project?
Experimental Ruins refers to the shifts and changes in the specifics of scientific research. As we virtualize through models on computers, less laboratory space is required. Digitisation has meant that models can replace organisms, the infrastructure of labs is shrinking onto networked, distributed and smaller scale sites. There are empty labs in the heart of London. So we wanted to explore the recent geology of science, to excavate its ruins and see what else there was and make a relationship between sites. We started with a workshop with academic colleague Dr. Gail Davies at UCL, a while back and have taken it from there.
Of course when you think about it, Sub-urban London is the perfect place to conceal in public as you have the cooption of local workers, the banality of infrastructure with the efficiency of logistics. It remains a key space in which to place a site of interest to us.
JG Ballard lived in Shepperton all his life. I was born very near there and was always fascinated by the barbed wire fences and private spaces of anonymous private organisations - firing my imagination perhaps. However, JG Ballard also knew that suburbia is a space of fear, a thinly veiled reality that behind its net curtains is morally dark. By way of example, you can go to a site on a small business park in the heart of suburban west London just off of Ballard's beloved M4 corridor and as you come around the corner, you will find it guarded by armed Military Police. This is the Defence Geographic Centre (DGC), which includes the MOD Geospatial Library and Map Depot.
We are currently organising a critical excursion - another of our fully mediated bus tours following on from hugely successful versions around Southampton, Falmouth, Newcastle and Portland, that will train people to undertake Overt Research based on this specific project. This tour will explore the London Orbital to the West of London. As is often the case with our work, it is supported by Arts Catalyst. The tour will launch from The Showroom in West London in October.
On your website there is an announcement for the Office of Experiments Department of Catastrophe - with Museum of London, a new project examining 'Post-Event Archaeology'. Can you already tell us something about the project?
We are working with Museum of London on 'Experimental Ruins'. This has led to the possibility of exploring their vast archives, but also into looking more deeply into contemporary archaeology, a development that enables the forensic exploration of sites at a micro level.
As we are interested in event-structures (a term coined by John Latham with whom I worked a little) - that is the temporal dimension of space and its use, and the context of a social engagement, then this works with the history of site, also revealed in archives. Thinking further about this in an International context, we started to explore ideas of time and events through sites. Catastrophic is probably a category at one end of the register - a very sudden event. At the other end is a slow social decline, in places such as Detroit. Both ends of this register are difficult to document, either due to the rawness of trauma of conflict or massive environmental disaster, or as illustrated in the photography of Detroit, with Ruin Porn. In February, both Steve Rowell and I discussed these challenges at the Association of American Geographers in New York with the Detroit Unreal Estate Agency. The panel was called Ruinations: violence, snafu and porn. We also started to explore the Catastrophic area in a major public artwork that Steve Rowell curated in Washington DC - the 5x5. With the Irish artist Tina O'Connell and Transformer Gallery, we tried to draw on links between communities in the USA and Japan following the Tsunmai and Fukushima Diaichi disaster last year.
Overall as a project it is exciting, but fraught with danger of all kinds. Ultimately it might spell disaster for us, or for those with who are exploring how we might turn their Museum into a ruin itself. This is what we mean by the Department of Catastrophe.