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

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

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


Marc Böhlen, Waterbar

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

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

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

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Extracts of our online interview:

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

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

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

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

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Aquatic Science Center, Singapore, 2012

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

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

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

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ISEA, Albuquerque, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Buffalo, New York, 2011

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks Marc!

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

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0Ludovico-PostDigitalPrint.jpgPost-Digital Print - the Mutation of Publishing Since 1894, by Alessandro Ludovico.

You can get them on amazon UK and USA.

Publisher Onomatopee writes: In this post-digital age, digital technology is no longer a revolutionary phenomenon but a normal part of everyday life. The mutation of music and film into bits and bytes, downloads and streams is now taken for granted. For the world of book and magazine publishing however, this transformation has only just begun.

Still, the vision of this transformation is far from new. For more than century now, avant-garde artists, activists and technologists have been anticipating the development of networked and electronic publishing. Although in hindsight the reports of the death of paper were greatly exaggerated, electronic publishing has now certainly become a reality. How will the analog and the digital coexist in the post-digital age of publishing? How will they transition, mix and cross over?

In this book, Alessandro Ludovico re-reads the history of the avant-garde arts as a prehistory of cutting through the so-called dichotomy between paper and electronics. Ludovico is the editor and publisher of Neural, a magazine for critical digital culture and media arts. For more than twenty years now, he has been working at the cutting edge (and the outer fringes) of both print publishing and politically engaged digital art.

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Michael Mandiberg, Old News, 2011

The Mutation of Publishing Since 1894... I won't hold it against you if you tell me that this sound austere. This book is however a joy to read. It is entertaining, impeccably researched and written in a compelling style. Alessandro Ludovico blends together retro-futuristic drawings, theory, anecdotes, art works and personal observations to narrate the paper vs pixel battle and ultimately kick off a discussion about the role of print in digital times. To be honest, i knew Ludovico would write a good book about the issue because i've followed his many activities and researches in the field for a number of years now but i had no idea i'd have so much fun reading it. I can't remember having had in my hands a book that made my brain go from quotes by Clay Shirky, Marissa Mayer, Jorge Luis Borges, Vuk Cosic, or Cory Doctorow to stories about keitai shousetsu, Paulo Coelho's call to 'pirate' books, Amazon erasing from your Kindle the copies of George Orwell's books 'while you were sleeping', Daniel Vydra's New York Times Roulette, artistic imitation of banknotes, Sniffin' Glue punk zines, mail art, etc. Add to that the odd flashback (for example the magazines that used to be sold with a floppy disk containing 'bonus' content) that reminds you how fast the publishing world has to adapt in order to keep on attracting readers.

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Twitter switch for Guardian, after 188 years of ink

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Villemard, En L'An 2000, 1910. At School. Photo

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Stencil duplicator or mimeograph machine

The first chapter, "The death of paper (which never happened)" analyzes 7 moments in history when a new medium has been heralded as a superior alternative to paper. Chapter 2,"A history of alternative publishing reflecting the evolution of print", looks at how artistic avant-gardes have been using print throughout the 20th century. The third chapter, "The mutation of paper: material paper in immaterial times", explores the reasons why paper still makes sense in our digital age. Chapter 4, "The end of paper: can anything actually replace the printed page?", take a critical look at electronic devices, strategies and platforms. The Fifth Chapter, "Distributed archives: paper content from the past, paper content for the future", explores the long-term implication of choosing a medium rather than the other one. The final chapter, "The network: transforming culture, transforming publishing" explains how much quality cultural entities can gain from working as a network.

I've been particularly fascinated by the Appendix which brings side by side the world of print and the digital world to highlight their similarities and differences: shelf space vs web host storage space, shipping strike vs no connection, smell of ink vs sound of clicks, etc.

Post-Digital Print is a book i'd recommend to bloggers, journalists, writers, publishers, designers (of the physical and the 'immaterial' alike), and to anyone who wants to be able to shine at elegant dinners when the conversation turns to questions such as "what's more eco-friendly? is it the print or the digital?' "Will printed magazines disappear in the coming years?" "Is The Pirate Bay killing the publishing industry?"

Alessandro Ludovico's affection for paper and enthusiasm for pixel culture are illustrated by the way the book is distributed: you can either buy it from the publisher or download it as a free PDF.

And because Alessandro Ludovico is the founder and editor of the magazine Neural, he illustrated many of the observations, facts and ideas about post-digital print with a series of artworks. Here's a couple i discovered along the pages:

The Quick Brown monitored Fox News regularly and highlighted changes made on the headlines over the course of the day.

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Jonathan Puckey, The Quick Brown

Pamphlet: people typed a message on a computer. As they pressed the 'send' button, the message was printed and dropped as a pamphlet from the 10th floor of the building.


Helmut Smits, Pamphlet, 2006

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André Breton, René Hilsum, Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard, 1919. Wearing false moustaches and posing with the issue number 3 of the Dada journal

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Hans Haacke, News, 1969/2008. From the exhibition The Last Newspaper at the New Museum in New York, 2010

Tim Schwartz's iPod's contents cataloged on paper cards:

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Tim Schwartz, Card Catalog, 2008

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Berg/Cloud, The Little Printer

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Tobias Wong, The Times Of New York candle

Alessandro Ludovico was interviewed about Post-Digital Print in visualMAG.

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630 St Clair Ave W, Toronto, Canada. Picture: Google Street View. Courtesy of Jon Rafman

Yesterday, i went to the Saatchi Gallery to see Korean Eye and the most charitable comment i'm willing to make about the show is that it has a few good moments. However, the exhibition on the top floor, The Nine Eyes of Google Street View, is worth the trip to King's Road.

The nine eyes are the cameras mounted on the pole on top of each vehicle that Google sent around the world 5 years ago. The technology of Google Street View has sparkled moments of deep humiliation, interest from the press photography community, privacy concerns and brilliant artistic reactions.

Jon Rafman was one of the first artists who spent hours looking at the images collected by the cars and searching not just for the amusing, the ridiculous and the fortuitous but also for postcard perfect moments. And does he have an eye for stunning images...

As the artist writes: With its supposedly neutral gaze, the Street View photography had a spontaneous quality unspoiled by the sensitivities or agendas of a human photographer... capturing fragments of reality stripped of all cultural intentions.

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Nacozari De Garcia - Montezuma, Sonora, Mexico. Picture: Google Street View. Courtesy of Jon Rafman

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853 Ménez Ham, Kerlouan, Finistere, France, 2009. Picture: Google Street View. Courtesy of Jon Rafman

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Rv888, Norway, 2010. Picture: Google Street View. Courtesy of Jon Rafman

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330 R Herois de Franca, Matosinhos, Portugal. Picture: Google Street View. Courtesy of Jon Rafman

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Edam, North Holland, Netherlands, 2009. Picture: Google Street View. Courtesy of Jon Rafman

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5 Rua Tocachi, São Paulo, Brasil, 2010. Picture: Google Street View. Courtesy of Jon Rafman

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NánRén Rd, Manjhou Township, Pingtung County, Taiwan 947, 2011. Picture: Google Street View. Courtesy of Jon Rafman

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51 E. Claremont St, Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom, 2009. Picture: Google Street View. Courtesy of Jon Rafman

Without indication of their location:

Looks like Trellick Tower in North Kensington, London.

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Picture: Google Street View. Courtesy of Jon Rafman

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Picture: Google Street View. Courtesy of Jon Rafman

Probably my favourite:

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Picture: Google Street View. Courtesy of Jon Rafman

The Guardian has the best slideshow and The Independent has the most informative interview with Rafman.

The Nine Eyes of Google Street View is at the Saatchi Gallery, in London until Thursday to 29 August 2012.

Previously: Community Performance in Google Street View, Aaron Hobson's Cinemascapes: Google Street View Edition which i discovered at the London Festival of Photography, and Michael Wolf, We are watching you...

The fourth episode of the art and science show i've been recording for ResonanceFM is about to go live. It broadcasts today Monday 11 June at 16.30 (GMT.) There will be a repeat on Thursday at 22.30. You can catch it online if you don't live in London. And of course we will have podcasts (still waiting for them.)

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Scrapyard Challenge Junior Noisemaker Kits, 2012

My guest on the show is Dr. Jonah Brucker-Cohen whom i'm sure you all know. Jonah is a researcher, artist, and writer. He is based in New York and received his Ph.D. in the Disruptive Design Team of the Networking and Telecommunications Research Group at Trinity College Dublin. Apart from his work as an artist, Jonah has been teaching in several universities in New York, lecturing internationally, writing essays for magazines focusing on technology and since he is teaching a course called Designing Critical Networks at Parsons in New york, i thought he'd be the perfect guest for a program which covers issues such as social media, subverting network experience, hacking, and internet censorship. We also took the time to focus on some of his own works, from the now legendary Wifi Liberator to Scrapyard Challenge Jr. 555 Noisemaker Kit and America's Got No Talent (two works he developed together with Katherine Moriwaki.)

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FutureEverything Festival 2012 - Image by TAPE

This year's edition of the FutureEverything festival in Manchester brought a much discussed phenomenon to the fore: participatory culture. From Wikileaks to Iceland's crowd-sourced constitution, to the Arab Spring, participatory technologies have demonstrated their powerful political potential. The world of culture is harnessing the same connected energies with projects that involve citizen scientists cataloging celestial bodies in the Milky Way galaxy, crowd-curated photo exhibitions and of course the many projects created by artists and designers who either directly use collective action or bring it under a new light.

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FutureEverything Festival 2012 - Image by TAPE

The festival is over but the exhibition, titled FutureEverybody, remains open till June 10. It is hosted in the spectacular 1830 warehouse, the world's first railway warehouse, part of the Museum of Science and Industry.

The show obviously focuses on the artistic dimension of new participatory technologies, giving a tangible and very approachable dimension to a phenomenon we tend to associate mostly with online practice. FutureEverybody opens with the work of an artist known for putting them spectacularly into practice: Aaron Koblin who, a few years ago, teamed up with Takashi Kawashima and thousands of online workers to create a $100 bill. But you all know Aaron's work so let me call your attention to some of the projects i discovered in the show:

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Daniel Jones and James Bulley, Maelstrom. View from the exhibition of the FutureEverything Festival 2012 - Image by TAPE

Over 48 hours of user-created audio is uploaded to the internet every minute, a figure that is increasing exponentially. Maelstrom by Daniel Jones and James Bulley draws on these audio-fragments in real-time and broadcasts them through suspended speakers. By organising these fragments based on their tonal attributes, they collectively form a vast instrument, whose properties are affected by global internet activity.

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Moritz Stefaner + Dario Taraborelli + Luca Ciampaglia, Notabilia, 2011

Wikipedia articles, especially new ones, are reviewed by the community to determine whether or not they meet Wikipedia's notability guidelines. Articles nominated for deletion are discussed collectively by the editors before they decided in favor or against keeping them. An administrator then reviews the debate and makes the final decision.

Moritz Stefaner, Dario Taraborelli and Giovanni Luca Ciampaglia analyzed Article for Deletion (AfD) discussions in the English Wikipedia. The result of their research is Notabilia, a visualization of the 100 longest discussions that stemmed from the proposal to delete an article.

I was less interested in the data visualization (which is obviously clear and competently designed) than in learning about the articles questioned and the reason put for forward for their remotion from the online encyclopedia. The entries deleted ranged from the surprising (Islamophobiaphobia) to the downright absurd (List of songs about masturbation, List of Playboy Playmate with D-cups or larger breasts). I've also noticed the high number of articles exposing dubious political or religious agendas.

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Jamie Allen, Refractive Index. FutureEverything Festival 2012 - Image by TAPE

Jamie Allen's Refractive Index is an ongoing art-research project that uses the large scale public media displays as a kind of camera obscura; inverting typical uses of the screen, and showing us what our screens "see" when they peer into the night sky. I'm not sure i understand what makes it a project that deals with collective action but i loved the rigorous research behind it as well as the way it was documented.

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Lawrence Epps, Human Resources. FutureEverything Festival 2012 - Image by TAPE

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Lawrence Epps, Human Resources, 2012 (in Switzerland)

Right in the middle of the exhibition space was a heap of miniature ceramic figures hand-made by 
Lawrence Epps. A few days before i visited the show, the Sykey Collective distributed 8,000 of these tiny workers in the streets of Manchester. Passersby were then invited to bring them to work, home, on business trips, holidays and document the figurines journey online, either on www.sykey.org and via twitter #littleclaymen.

I wanted to steal a figurine from the exhibition pile and take it with me on the train to London but being a stupidly well-behaved girl, i just looked sadly at them and walked away empty-handed.

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Jeremy Hutchison, Extra! Extra!. FutureEverything Festival 2012 - Image by TAPE

Jeremy Hutchison's Extra! Extra! is a collection of newspaper advertising boards with headlines written by Facebook users on the project's Facebook wall. The messages are printed by the Manchester Evening News, and plastered on newspaper billboards around the Museum of Science and Industry site.

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Blast Theory, I'd Hide You. FutureEverything Festival 2012 - Image by TAPE

Blast Theory was premiering their new game I'd Hide You. As is often the case with the UK collective, I'd Hide You is an online/offline game. Only performers play in the streets while the public can log online, follow them and play. Rules are detailed in the trailer:

Who wouldn't want to be one of the three performers with the cool outfits and gadgets running in the streets of Manchester?

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Helen Pritchard + Winnie Soon, Jsut Code. FutureEverything Festival 2012 - Image by TAPE

Previously: An Ant Ballet at FutureEverything.

Entrance to the FutureEverybody Art Exhibition is free. The show remains open at 1830 Warehouse, Museum of Science and Industry, in Manchester until 10th June 2012.

More images by TAPE. I take photos too!

The Transparency Grenade! A name like that was bound to get my attention.

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It might look like a Soviet F1 Hand Grenade, but what the Transparency Grenade contains is 'just' a tiny computer, a microphone and a powerful wireless antenna. No explosive then! Except maybe the information that the device is capable of blasting to the world. The Transparency Grenade fights against the lack of corporate and governmental transparency. It captures network traffic and audio at the site of closed meetings and anonymously streams the data to a dedicated server where email fragments, HTML pages, images and voice are extracted and displayed on an online map.

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Browser-based map interface to Transparency Detonations

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Browser-based map interface to Transparency Detonations

The device was created by Critical Engineer and artist Julian Oliver, author of works such as a modified analog colour television able to capture and screen images downloaded by people on local wireless hotspots, a wall plug that messes with the news read by other people on wireless hotspots and a software platform for replacing billboard advertisements with art in real-time. Now i'm left wondering why i didn't try and interview him for the blog before...

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Hi Julian! What strikes me with your latest project is the way it looks. It is miles away from the 'bastard in beige' newstweek. Why did you decide to give the work such a threatening design?

I gave the Transparency Grenade this design to signify some of the conversation around cyber warfare, 'information weapons' and the Cyber Soldier divisions marching out from national defense budgets worldwide. It can be considered a functional weapon in a symbolically representative container.

We've seen the transformative power of network-leveraged leaking in the last decade, first with the incumbent Cryptome and then much more recently with Wikileaks. The very idea of an immaterial explosion with the power to shake the walls of institutions, businesses and political cultures - moving matter and people in its wake - is naturally attractive, not only in the conceptual sense.

The volatility of information in networked, digital contexts itself frames a precedent for clamouring (and often unrealistic) attempts to contain it. One could even say it's this desperate fear of the leak that produces images like my grenade, images that will continue to take violent forms in popular culture, journalism and Presidential speeches in time. In fact the metaphor of a Transparency Grenade is itself not new, first used publicly by Mike Taylor in the Observer, a few months after I drew up this project. A timely coincidence.

Most importantly however it is the hyperbole and fear around containing these volatile records, of the cyber burglary, that increasingly yields assumptive logics that ultimately shape how we use networks and think about the right to information. Just as record companies claim billions in losses due to file sharing, the fear of the leak is being actively exploited by law makers to afford organisations greater opacity and thus control.

This anxiety, this 'network insecurity', impacts not just upon the freedom of speech but the felt instinct to speak at all. All of a sudden letting public know what's going on inside a publicly funded organisation is somehow 'wrong' -Bradley Manning a sacrificial lamb to that effect. Meanwhile civil servants and publicly-owned companies continue to make decisions behind guarded doors that impact the lives of many, whether human or other animal.

All we have left from the Bin Laden assassination, for instance, is that photo from The Situation Room, a bunch of contradictory reports of what actually happened and a body being eaten by sea lice somewhere in the Indian Ocean - or was it the Indian Ocean? How much did that assassination cost American tax payers? Of course we wonder what was said in that room! Somehow such a significant event has now been reduced to a little black box and scrapbook..

I believe quality journalism has never been so important as it is today yet at the same it's never been so threatened, both in and out of a democratic context. Given great reductions to the freedom of the press recently it's only natural that we see them adopt guerilla tactics - especially given new discovery vectors opened up by digital communications. It should come as no surprise many of their tactics will be technically illegal or even ethically corrupt!

As we saw with the News of the World scandal, they are competing within an economy where news has capital value, itself a deep and driving flaw. Under such conditions, and baited with possibility, news corporations will increasingly look for points of exploit with exit strategies (and/or apologies) prepared.

With the Transparency Grenade I wanted to capture these important tensions in an iconic, hand-held package.

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Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev, Newstweek, 2011

Has anyone tested it in some corporate or governmental place? Is this something you plan to do one day?

Even if I planned to I certainly wouldn't mention it here!

It is perhaps worth mentioning however that from the software side I haven't implemented anything new. Network packet capture has been around for decades, digital audio streaming for quite some time and TCP stream reconstruction also. Rather, I've wrapped up a variety of command line utilities in scripts that allow for the whole thing to work, both on the device and the server. An upcoming project 'Covert Peripherals' will explore this, as a canvas for productive paranoia. You'll never trust your mouse again..

Because of the simplicity of the design it is relatively trivial for me to port the Transparency Grenade back-end to the Android platform, something I'm working on currently thanks to a generous hardware donation from Australian based developer Scott Robinson. This will allow activists (or those simply sick of the relative opacity of their organisation) to deploy Transparency Grenade like functionality on their rooted Android phone and send the data over an encrypted channel via their GSM provider to a publicly available map, displaying the detonation as data from that site.

I will not offer the public map interface and data mining parts as a service (that'd be illegal, wouldn't it!). I will however provide code for people to install on their servers and or study.

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Who'd be your dream 'target'? Who do you think has secrets worth unveiling?

Governments aside I certainly think we need a great deal more transparency in the Agricultural sector. A lot of effort is being exerted, including laws written, to ensure we don't know where our food comes from, alongside the impact of that food on the environment and our bodies. A year ago Senator Jim Norman of Florida proposed a blanket ban on video or photography of farms, even from the road! We have to wonder why. The meat industry is especially aggressive in this regard, their lobbies very powerful.

The arms industry, the rampant privatisation of publicly owned infrastructure, pharmaceutical industries, are also increasingly opaque in their business dealings. Why are cures, for instance, such highly guarded secrets? Symptom relief is often vastly more profitable.

What has been the reaction to the Transparency Grenade so far? Newstweek garnered much media attention and i suspect the TG, because of its functions but again also because of the way it looks, might distress and worry some people.

I've heard words like 'gorgeous' often enough for fearful responses to not dominate, thankfully! We had around 2000 people to the exhibition opening of our show and I listened in on a lot of responses. Many were a fortunately complex mix of fear and attraction..

I wanted it to look elegant, a bottle of high-class perfume, as much as a weapon. Thanks to Berlin-based Susanne Stauch, who modeled the metal components in high-grade sterling silver, that aesthetic carries across I think, at least when you see it in the flesh.

I'd like to add that my conversations with writer and journalist Marta Peirano greatly nourished my thinking around this project, this interview alongside.

Thank you Julian!

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View of Weise7: the incompatible laboratorium

The Transparency Grenade was created for the Weise7 Studio exhibition, curated by Transmediale 2012 Director, Kristoffer Gansing.. You can visit it at Labor Berlin, Haus Der Kulturen der Welt, until Feb 20, 2012.

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