There are countless parodies, imitations, versions of the Technoviking. The fabulous and the lame ones that you can expect Youtube to harbour. But the character has also inspired a couple of artworks: Wafaa Bilal put the head of the raver in a public park and watched it grow bigger as people were tweeting about it. And for The Marc Horowitz Signature Series, 19 performances aimed at 'improving' the lives of the citizens he encountered, Marc Horowitz reenacted the techno viking dance session in a junkyard in Walsenburg, Colorado. I saw that one a few years ago at the Espace culturel Louis Vuitton in Paris. Because technoviking knows no social boundaries. Neither does he have any mercantile limits: you can buy Technoviking action figures and Technoviking t-shirts.

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And now there might be a documentary about Technoviking. But probably not the one its many fans were expecting.

Matthias Fritsch, the artist who shot and uploaded the video has spent 3 years in a legal battle in Germany. In 2009 (2 years after 'the technoviking' became an internet hit), the raver starring in the video sued the artist for uncleared 'personality rights' and tried to remove Technoviking from the web. Not only the original video (called "Kneecam No. 1") but also all the thousands of mash-ups, copies, comics, parodies and other content uploaded online by enthusiastic users. All had to be removed. The protagonist of the video even requested that his famous fingerpointing pose be erased from the internet. At the end of last month, the judges decided that the original video would not be allowed to be shown as long as it is possible to identify the protagonist. Besides, the filmmaker has to pay the money that he had earned to the plaintiff. The earnings came mostly from YouTube ads with a few extra euros from TV-licenses and T-shirts sales.

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Kneecam No.1 aka Technoviking, 2001 (video still)

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Technoviking says Obey

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Jeremiah Palecek, painting of the Technoviking

Fritsch has started a campaign on indiegogo to raise funds for a documentary about the Technoviking story. First of all, because Fritsch has been studying and documenting the many reactions to the videos for years and the phenomenon in itself is worth discussing. But also because, as he puts it:

the documentary would be :a means to pave the way for artists and internet users around the world to be able to protect themselves against old laws that have yet to catch up to contemporary meme culture."

All this without ever being allowed to actually show the main protagonist of the story.

I caught up with Matthias online the other day...

Hi Matthias! You published the Technoviking video on YouTube in 2006 but it was not before 2009 that the mysterious man sent a legal notice asking you to stop using the video and all derivations of it. Why do you think it took him so long to write you? Was it because he wasn't aware of the phenomenon until then? Or is it because something changed in culture or laws in 2009 that made him realize that the moment had come to do something to protect his "personality"?

I can't say for sure why it took the plaintiff so long to get back to me. Already in October 2007, just a week after the video became viral, I met people in China who I had never met before and who already knew the video. Therefore I find it hard to believe that it will take somebody two years to get notice of being involved in such a big viral effect.

What happened with this trial? Is it finished? What was the decision of the law?

The trial is finished. Basic results are that I am not allowed to show the video anymore in its original form, meaning as long as it is possible to identify the plaintiff's image. If I cant show the protagonist so can't users anymore who mash up the video. According to the judgement a violation can have consequences of up to 250 000 Euro fine or up to 6 months of jail for me. Also I have to pay him all the money that I have earned since 2008 and I will need to cover 7000 Euro for my part of the fees for the trial and costs for his and my lawyers over the last 3,5 years. Since the judges didn't support him in many points of the lawsuit like the banning of user reactions like comics, re-enactments or mashups that are deemed "arty" enough (the German term is "besondere kunstgerechte Bildbearbeitung") in connection with the video's protagonist. Those should still fall under the freedom of expression. Also the judges seem to have concluded that the plaintiff is rather after the money than really trying to solve his argued personal problems in connection with the video and therefore denied him to claim further financial compensation from me. There is still a chance that the plaintiff is not happy enough with this result and files an appeal against the judgement.

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Wafaa Bilal, Meme Junkyard: Technoviking, 2012 at the AND Festival in Manchester. Photo credit: Paul Greenwood

In the indiegogo campaign you say that "The trial was not just about me and Technoviking, it pointed out the borders of free culture and user reactions and one can also conclude that we need new categories in the law how to deal with memes on a legal basis." Could you tell us what you mean by this? Where do you think the law should go? And where do you fear it might go?

I am not a specialist in law and I can just describe my "amateur" feeling after being involved in this case. Therefore I can't provide a solid legal concept yet how the law should include new forms of expression that we find in the contemporary network culture, but I realized that there is a big gap between the actual laws and how I think of this case from a perspective of logic & human spirit. What was the situation when the legal problem started and what could be changed about it by a trial? If there has been a viral Meme in the net for years, if it's been watched globally, copied, used for mash-ups, and if it got out of control - what possible result can a judgement bring in reality that by stating that it is not allowed anymore to continue with the further use? Especially since it it became a web-celebrity which is handled by users like a common piece of media that belongs to everybody?! The young generation grows up with a new understanding of how to deal with media in times of instant copy, paste and edit. And the most common effect of censoring something popular is that this makes it even more popular.

If there is no right for mash-up and fair use for cases like the Technoviking-Meme I fear that, as it is already the case in the music business, lawyers might pick up this way of easy & massive money making and start to send cease and desist letters to prosumers for violating personality rights by doing mashups or forwarding it in FB, etc.

An other interesting point is the fact that in Spain or the US the Technoviking-Claim wouldn't even have a legal basis since it all happened in public space. I would love to talk with competent people about those issues, bring them together within the film that I am planning to create and hopefully find answers and possible solutions.

But more generally, i've been wondering how your case wasn't symptomatic of what is happening more generally with internet culture nowadays, when laws seem to be crafted in retrospect and punish you now for something that wasn't illegal at all 5 or 10 years ago. With -for example- designers or artists receiving bills for copy rights of images they used online 10 years ago as part of a student project, at a time when there wasn't any law detailing what could be or shouldn't be done in terms of copyrights for online images, etc. Is this something you would like to comment on?

I think that's of course a problem and always will be one. I am not aware of those examples when a bill points back 10 years, but it points out that the images you talk about are still online. Since the web hardly forgets anything we need an awareness of what we put out there and what is still online in our own accounts. One radical way could be to cut credits completely, only focus on important content and ideas that will be published anonymous, untraceable but alive.

The Technoviking is by far my favourite meme. Yet, i do sympathize with a man who is universally ridiculed (and didn't ask for it, unlike many reality tv 'stars'). Did you try to reach some kind of arrangement with him? Some understanding which would have been less dramatic and time/money consuming than a court case?

The first thing I did was sending him a personal letter, thanking him for finally contacting me and offered that of course I'd like to share whatever I earn and that I would be open to think together about how to make both a part of living out of the meme's popularity.

What strikes me in your case is not so much that you are brought to court (i do find it sad though, don't misunderstand me!) but that you have to be held responsible for the fact that the whole technoviking meme got out of your hands (as is the case with any meme.)
Can any judge really believe that you are responsible for comics and kidrobot figurines like this one?

The judges didn't hold me responsible for user reactions and neither denied me the right of showing them in lectures or art projects as long as they don't show the plaintiff.

Matthias Fritsch, The Story of Technoviking - Indiegogo Campaign, 2013

You are planning to shoot the documentary within the legal restrictions that have been made clear by the judges. What are these legal restriction exactly?

The conditions are that the plaintiff should not be identified in the material. I also will not reveal any name, address and so on that could point out how people can find him.

You have created an archive of the different versions, creations and reactions inspired by the technoviking. It is so big that, as you write, "you would need a week to see all the versions that are out there!" So let's end on a cheerful note! If you could select 5 of these versions, which one would they be?

In the past I have created some compilations that research specific recycling strategies by fans and are real enjoyable to watch:
one is the re-enactments mash-up We Technoviking.
an other shows virtual re-enactments Technoviking Transmedia.

For the biggest part of the user-reactions, since they mash up the original video, my hands are bound at the moment because i shouldn't link directly to content that shows the plaintiff's face. So people need to find these ones themselves. But i can talk about it and it is just incredible how perfect Michael Jackson's song "Beat It" is fitting on the Technoviking clip. As if they were made for each other. There are other songs that are awesome in combination with my video but "Beat it" beats them all in terms of accidentally perfect match.

Also some collages like "the end of the vorld party" or a streetfighter like game simulation of Technoviking against Vernon Koekemoer are results of an incredible fan culture that i could have never come up with myself.

Thanks Matthias!

I do love that Beat It techno viking and Matthias might not be allowed to point directly to it, but i can!


Techno Viking, Beat It

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The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, is aired this afternoon at 4pm (London time.)

Today i'm talking with Alison Craighead and Jon Thomson, aka Thomson & Craighead, a duo of artists who have been creating video, sound, installation, desktop documentaries and other online pieces since 1993. Many of their art works appropriate and recontextualise found footage, spam messages, live statistics or even local tweets to make artworks that talk about the way we perceive and position ourselves in the information age.

We'll be talking about how to handle and archive materials found on the web, the absence of any image documenting war in certain parts of the world, spam and other jolly subjects.

The show will be aired today Wednesday 8th May at 16:00. The repeat is next Tuesday at 6.30 am (yes, a.m!) If you don't live in London, you can catch the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.

Never Odd Or Even, a survey of Thomson & Craighead's work is opening on May 24 at the Carroll/Fletcher Gallery in London. There will be karaoke, Space Invaders and i'm looking forward to that one.

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Thomson & Craighead, The End, 2010

The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, is aired this afternoon at 4pm (London time.)

Today i'm talking with artists, curators, writers Ruth Catlow and Marc Garrett who, 16 years ago, founded Furtherfield, an organization with a very strong online and offline presence. Furtherfield.org is an online community where artists, theorists and activists meet and talk about art, technology and society but Furtherfield is also an art organization with a gallery located in Finsbury Park that invites the public to discover and reflect upon digital/networked media art and social changes.

The conversation has been fascinating: Ruth and Marc talked about the early days of the internet in London, about the legendary Backspace (now a Starbucks as Alison and Jon from Thomson and Craighead informed me yesterday), about how they've been curating exhibitions and events with the help and feedback of their large community for years, etc.

Finally, they discussed unmanned aerial vehicles. Their new show, Movable Borders: Here Come the Drones!, opens at the Furtherfield Gallery in Finsbury Park this Saturday afternoon. I'll be there and hope to meet some of you.

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The show will be aired today Wednesday 8th May at 16:00. The repeat is next Tuesday at 6.30 am (yes, a.m!) If you don't live in London, you can catch the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.

Movable Borders: Here Come the Drones! will open from Saturday 11 until Sunday 26 May 2013. The opening is on Saturday 11 May 2013, 2-5pm.
The following Saturday, Dave Young is organizing the workshop MOVABLE BORDERS: THE REPOSITION MATRIX.

Finally, Furtherfield has a fund raising campaign going on. I can't think of a better cultural cause to support right now.

Image on the homepage: Spinning Desktop by Antonio Roberts. I nicked it from another of Furtherfield's upcoming show: Glitch Moment/ums.

While visiting the new spaces of Medialab Prado last month, i got to discover several projects which are developed in collaboration with the Madrid-based program. One of these projects is the Citizen Cyberscience Centre, a citizen science initiative where citizens and researchers alike are invited to participate in large scale scientific projects with either some time, power from their brain or from their computer.

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Representation of the Higgs particle

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Work stations at Medialab Prado

Volunteers from around the world are welcome to participate to projects that will help the scientific community identify and mark deforested areas using high-resolution Earth imagery, research the elusive Higgs particle using a virtual atom smasher, understand the fundamental laws of the universe, or the secrets of magnetism at the molecular scale.

I met Daniel Lombraña González, a researcher and lead developer of the Citizen Cyberscience Centre (aka CCC, a partnership between CERN, the UN Institute for Training and Research and the University of Geneva), at the MLP and he was kind enough to answers my questions about some of the Citizen Cyber Science projects:

Hi Daniel! How did you get to collaborate with MediaLab Prado? What sort of infrastructure, network and support do they provide the project with?

The CCC contacted Medialab this year because we think that we have a lot in common. Medialab is an heterogenous space where science, engineering and art are mixed in a beautiful way and we thought that it could be really interesting to participate with them. Medialab will offer its connections with other collectives and we will try to provide our knowledge in citizen science events like the one that we are organizing the 17th and 18th of May.

One of the most impressive project of CCS is probably LHC@home, a platform that allows volunteers to help physicists develop and exploit particle accelerators like CERN's Large Hadron Collider, and to compare theory with experiment in the search for new fundamental particles. So how exactly can people contribute, do they have to be physicists too?

People contribute by creating an account in the project and downloading two pieces of software: BOINC and VirtualBox. BOINC is the software that allows to automatically configure the VirtualBox software, that will be used to create a Virtual Machine that will connect CERN and run the simulations. The CCC developed this aspect of the project contributing the integration of the virtualization VirtualBox software (created by Oracle) within the BOINC framework.

Once you have installed the software, all you have to do is to see how your computer and user account gets credits based on the simulations that your PC are contributing to the project and check if you are in the top 20 of the best volunteers or if you are part of the Billionaires club (users who have simulated more than 1 Billion of events!)

Therefore, as you can see, the project welcomes everyone to participate and you don't have to be a physicist at all :-)

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Billionaires club

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Checks are performed on the alignment of the magnets in the LHC tunnel. Photo: Maximilien Brice, © CERN

How important is their contribution? Does their help have a big impact on the research of the CERN physicists?

Here I'm going to quote the main researcher of the project about this specific question :-)

The place where T4T contributes is in the validation of the theoretical models that underpin the interpretation of the data. Roughly speaking, if we only had really bad theoretical models, the analysis of the real data would suffer. Given only very crude models, we would be more uncertain about what a real Higgs state should look like in the experiment, and what is merely unrelated "background". That uncertainty would translate into having to run the LHC longer, collecting more statistics, before an announcement such as the one on July 4th could be made with any confidence. The fact that we do have quite sophisticated and thoroughly tested theoretical models for the physics taking place at the LHC "sharpens" our ability to extract conclusions from the data with confidence.

Day by day, T4T volunteers are testing our theory simulations. When new versions of the simulation codes are released, we incorporate them into the T4T queues and send them out to you for testing. When new test data is released, we incorporate that data into the T4T test suite and again send everything we got out to you for testing against this new added piece of information, each piece making up a small part of the full picture of what the "ideal" simulation should look like.

Check the full message from Peter Skands here, as he explains much better the implications of the contributions of the volunteers to the researchers.

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Forest Watchers

I was particularly intrigued by Forest Watchers which invites people located anywhere in the world to monitor patches of forest that need to be protected. Now a forest like the Amazonian is extended over a very large territory so how many volunteers would its monitoring typically involve?

The current project only has 164 registered users, but almost 1000 people have actually participated in the project since its creation contributing tasks :-) (you can see the stats here). We still are in the early stages of the project, and we are starting to analyze the first results, so I cannot give you that answer for the moment. We hope to have some published paper in the future, but there is no ETA yet.

And we all know about the Amazonian forrest but how about other forests that needs to be protected? Can you give other examples, in Europe in particular?

0forestwatchers.jpgThe platform was created with the idea of allowing other countries to use it in a simple way. If I'm not mistaken Europe is well covered, due to the available human power and resources that EU has for this type of natural parks. The main goal of starting in the Amazon was because INPE, one of the main partners behind the project, are the world lead experts in deforestation assessment and they contacted the Citizen Cyberscience Centre to start the project.


Now once the location of a threat has been reported, what happens? Do government usually step in? Or non-governmental organizations?

Usually the government. However, ForestWatchers.net has not contacted the government at all, as this is a research project from INPE and CCC analyzing the feasibility of getting non-experts, citizens, analyzing deforested areas. As I said before, ForestWatchers.net is a research project and we are trying to analyze if the volunteers will be able to produce good results in comparison with the experts.

How do you verify that information provided by volunteers? How can you check that it is correct and valuable?

For every task at least 30 different persons will contribute an answer. Then, we will analyze all the reported answers statistically to be sure that there are no outliers, and that the majority of the volunteers agree on the reported results. We are in the process of analyzing the data with INPE experts to quantify the quality of these results.

Most of the projects of Citizen Cyber Science are developed in partnership with prestigious institutions such as CERN, universities in France, Switzerland and England. How open are institutions in general to direct participation of citizens? Because i always thought that science was a domain reserved to an elite of intellectuals...

It depends :-) I think there is a no clear answer here. In general the first time that we approach a research institution with a citizen science proposal, the usual answer is to be afraid of going into the open. However, after showing some of the projects that we are currently running and supporting some of these scientists see the benefits of using these approaches and they jump in. It is important also to mention that even citizens feel like you, so even though there are several citizen science projects, we are not sending the right message to you, as you think this type of science is only for an elite :-)

Thus, in summary, let's say that in general institutions are not so open due to citizen science is "grass roots movement" but it is taking pace and getting more adepts every day.

Why do you think that people contribute? What do they gain from that?

From time to time we interview the volunteers to answer that specific questions. In general, people do it because they like to contribute to the project, because they feel that science is important and this type of projects give them an opportunity to see science closer.

What do they gain? This is a really good question! Actually, we are now in an EU project called Citizen Cyberlab where we are studying actually what do they gain. In general, what the volunteers gain is a non-formal knowledge about the project where they usually learn science "by accident" :-) For example, by participating in the LHC@Home Test4Theory project, some volunteers have become "experts" in the Virtualization technology that the project uses. This has been proven, because new contributers usually get help from this other volunteers with very detailed answers :-)

Thanks Daniel!

A few weeks ago i was in Brussels for The Digital Now, the first thematic exhibition of a series produced by Cimatics, that explores relevant artifacts within the current artistic context and media art related discourse.

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HC Gilje, Wind-up birds, 2008

The first chapter in this series, 'Drones / Birds: Princes of Ubiquity', looks into autonomous technology through the lens of birds as objects reflecting our contemporary relation with technology.

The bird has long been seen as a symbol of freedom, communication, transborder mobility but also as an indicator of environmental change. However, much of the bird physical and spiritual significance has been lost on the way to and from the industrial revolution. But according to Bram Crevits, curator of 'Drones / Birds: Princes of Ubiquity', digital culture has brought birds back to the fore. Or maybe it's the birds which have forced their way into our techno-mediated world. Think Twitter of course. And birds incorporating ringtones into their repertoire so effortlessly that Richard Schneider of the NABU bird conservation centre in Germany suggested that, in the interests of ecology, mobile phone users convert their tones to pop songs which are too complex to be mimicked by the birds. Woodpeckers attacking CCTV cameras. Or confused birds trapped into the twin columns of light shot into the sky each year on September 11 in New York. The bright memorial short circuits some of the cues that birds use when they are migrating at night. And then there's drone watching as the new bird watching. And drones counting birds.

The relevance of drones -or Unmanned Arial Vehicles- in relation to birds is more than purely formal or anecdotal. Another source of inspiration for the exhibition is indeed the New Aesthetic and the focus on the ways we experience our digital condition: always on, always there. Drones have been related to this New Aesthetic debate ever since it started.

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Christoph De Boeck & Patricia Portela, Hortus, 2012

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Christoph De Boeck & Patricia Portela, Hortus, 2012

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Part of the exhibition was located at the Botanique. Christoph De Boeck & Patricia Portela installed invisible birds inside the greenhouse. Sensors measure the dynamics of wind and light harvested by the plants during their photosynthetic process, and translates it into bird sounds. When there is human movement in the garden a financial algorithm (similar to the ones used in a speculation economic market) interprets the variation of the received data and transforms and remaps the natural garden soundscape to which plants seem most profitable in that split second.

However, most of the works were in a gallery hidden inside a tunnel. It took me ages and a couple of panicked phone calls to find it. The show was pretty exciting though because instead of showing only artworks and building up the usual art&tech discourse around it, the curator chose to insert the works into a broader context that included the political and the downright popular.

For example, two videos demonstrated the impact that unmanned aerial vehicles have on every day life in Pakistan.

On the one hand, a video shot by Noor Behram outside his house in North Waziristan, the footage shows a reaper drone flying over Waziristan. For more than five years, Behram has been documenting drone attacks in Pakistan's tribal areas, the hub of the CIA's remote assassination program.

Trevor Paglen interviewed Behram a while ago: "[The few places where I have been able to reach right after the attack were a terrible sight" he explains, "One such place was filled with human body parts lying around and a strong smell of burnt human flesh. Poverty and the meagre living standards of inhabitants is another common thing at the attack sites." Behram's photographs are miles away from official American reports that deny civilian casualties from drone attacks: "I have come across some horrendous visions where human body parts would be scattered around without distinction, those of children, women, and elderly."

Pop song Za Kaom Pa Stargo Stargo Drone Hamla" (My gaze is as fatal as a drone attack) shows the other hand of the spectrum, where the increasing appearance of unmanned vehicles over the skies of Pakistan (see data viz Drone war: every attack in Pakistan visualised for more details) inspires little more than the lyrics of a song:


Sitara Younis, Za Kaom Pa Stargo Stargo Drone Hamla" (My gaze is as fatal as a drone attack)

'Drones / Birds: Princes of Ubiquity' was thus full of contrasts. One moment, you were reflecting on surveillance technologies, next you were laughing (the suitors of the frantic singer are peerless.)

I'm now going to revert to my usual "throw as many images and projects in their face" mode and leave you with a few works i've (re) discovered in the show:

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Dries Depoorter, Subtwitter

Subtwitter is a free application that scans subtitle-files (.srt) of a film and replaces them with similar tweets. The application uses the original subtitle-file of a movie or series of your choice, then looks into each separate sentence of the subtitle and crawls the twittyverse for a similar tweets. The result are --sometimes absurd and sometimes witty- subtitles that consist of computationally associated tweets.

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Zimoun, Woodworms, 2009-2012

A microphone picks up and amplifies the sound of woodworms eating their way through a piece of wood. Temperature, humidity and other environmental qualities determine how the wood worms dig their tunnels and 'play' the piece of wood.

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Addie Wagenknecht , Pussy Drones, 2013

The Pussy Drones gifs trigger a new form of discourse between the web­based experience (lolzcat, memes, gifs) and historically closed systems of the patriarchal structures which control the physical world. That is to suggest drones are merely 'unmaned' cocks controlled by (finding) pussy.

In theory the democratic nature of the internet should allow everyone to create equally, controlling its code at an open root p2p level. Yet the internet­ net art, the very essence of the web (programming, the code structure itself) is still ruled by men and corporations who control and own it in its entirety. We are not Facebook's customers, we are their product. The web has never been a democratic medium, Mark Zuckerberg said 'There are probably 200 million people who think that Facebook is the internet.' It is easy to include the digital life is not any different than our life away from the keyboard.

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David Bowen, Fly Tweet, 2012

David Bowen's now famous Fly Tweet sends Twitter messages based on the activities of houseflies living inside an acrylic sphere along with a computer keyboard. As a particular key is triggered by the flies, the corresponding character is entered into a Twitter text box. A message is tweeted as soon as 140 characters are reached or when a fly triggers the "enter" key.

More fly thrills at https://twitter.com/@flycolony

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Marcus Coates, The Plover's Wing, 2009

Marcus Coates uses shamanic rituals and his knowledge of the animal world to try and solve problems faced by local (human) communities. In 2009, he visited the mayor of Holon in Israel who asked him how he should handle the problem of the violent youth in the city. Coates first consulted with the animals that he had encountered, and in particular the plover, a bird known for luring predators away from its young by pretending to be injured so as to appear as an easy target for predators. His reading of the meeting with the plover was then explained to the Mayor. According to Coates, The important thing for [Israel] as a nation is, through education, to emphasize shifting identities and an empathy with a different position. It's a fundamental position of resolution within a conflict, to be able to emphasise with your enemy or oppressor.

His solution to Holon's social ills is to teach empathy and recognise that victim status is often used as justification for violent behaviour.

Hi answer left the Mayor very impressed as you can see at the end of the video i've pasted below:


TateShots: Marcus Coates

Erica Scourti's video were among my favourite. Taking her cue from stock video sites corresponding to the key words 'woman', 'nature' and 'alone', the young artist filmed herself performing each action described in the title. The video and title was then uploaded to YouTube, forming a collection of 'rushes' which were used to create the final single channel version. After that, videos started to get a life of their own, with artists and film makers using Scourti's films as another stock library and including then in their own videos.

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Erica Scourti, Woman Nature Alone, 2010

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Erica Scourti, Woman Nature Alone, 2010

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Esther Polak & Ivar van Bekkum, Urban Fruit - Street Wrapper, 2012

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Paolo Cirio, Street Ghosts, 2012

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The Digital Now is produced by Cimatics, a Brussels-based arts organisation which activities includes the production support of audiovisual and digital creations as well as live events, exhibitions, workshops and guest-curations.

All images courtesy Cimatics. Except the ones illustrating the work of Erica Scourti and Marcus Coates,
Image on the homepage: Zimoun, Woodworms, 2009-2012. Photography by Zimoun ©

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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