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Giuditta Vendrame and Paolo Patelli (La Jetée), Friction Atlas. Photo: BIO50

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Giuditta Vendrame and Paolo Patelli (La Jetée), Friction Atlas

One of the themes of the BIO 50 design Biennial which opened last week in Ljubljana looked at the simple act of walking in the city. Several designers explored walking under various guises and lenses but i was particularly interested in the street markings, research and performances of Giuditta Vendrame and Paolo Patelli from design and research studio La Jetée.

The designers logged into a Friction Atlas some of the rules and constraints that regulate the circulation of citizens within urban space. For example, any reading or picnic gathering over 20 persons in one of New York city parks requires a special event permit. In Sweden, you need to apply for a permit to dance in public. In Cairo you're allowed to spontaneously discuss public matters only if you are fewer that 10 people.

Giuditta and Paolo drew 1:1 diagrams onto the pavement to illustrate rules that control the use of public spaces in cities such as Genoa, Cairo, Washington, Stockholm, Sydney, etc. They then invited the public to perform staged choreographies while discussing issues of public space, law and legibility.

Friction Atlas addresses the issue of legibility of public space, its programs, and the laws that regulate its uses. Many regulations discretize human behavior, tending to be algorithmic, quantitative and invisible. Sometimes they are rigorous and mathematical, other times loose and under-defined. They are textual, prone to contested interpretations. Friction Atlas aims to make regulations - that are always implicitly present in any public space - explicit and visible, through graphical devices.

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Giuditta Vendrame and Paolo Patelli (La Jetée), Friction Atlas. Test in Ljubljana. Photo: BIO50 / The Agency of Walking

I can't resist a project that makes the dynamics of authority not only visually but also physically discernible, so i contacted the designers to discuss their work for the BIO 50 biennial (proper report on the event will be on your desk. One day):

Hi Giuditta and Paolo! Could you explain what you mean when you talk about the algorithmic quality of these regulations that govern the use of public space?

Regulations are nothing but symbols, conventions, but they have the power of persuading human beings to act. When they are put to work, they make things happen. They are sets of instructions that incorporate power, while responding to internal and external conditions. They are a kind of invisible structural force that plays through into everyday life.

In the context of public space, a number of legal prescription can generate differences in the displacement, mobility and assembly of bodies. Citizens perform in their everyday a synchronized routine of elaborate moves on public surfaces. We recognize, in such patterns, a choreography.

Assembling in public space to discuss, demonstrate either support or opposition, publicize a cause, mark or commemorate an event is both an individual and a group activity. Figures and routines involve interplay and sometime synchronization. The use of public space is choreographed not only to the organizer's intentions, but also to abstract regulations. As sets of instructions, algorithms are rules. They are abstract, but always implicitly present in any public space. These prescriptions extend way beyond exceptional events, and pervade our everyday urban experience thoroughly. Regulative rules exist for picnicking in a park in New York City, for group dancing in Sweden, for kids to return home in Iceland. For example, it is not uncommon to see in the media demonstrators keeping their march to one line, standing on the sidewalk, always fewer than fifty, in front of the White House.

The idea of making such instructions legible on public ground, came to us last April, while we were in Cairo. We were greeting a group of Egyptian friends, just outside a bar in Talaat Harb, Downtown. Suddenly, one of them grinned, realizing that - according the recently introduced Egyptian anti-protest law - we were being illegal. Giuditta and I immediately thought of what it means to be a group of ten people. How do you define it? How do you recognize it? Where are the thresholds to be found in our mutual interactions? Of course such relations extend to our online presences.

Indeed, in recent Cultural and Media Studies, as in the writings of Scott Lash and Alexander Galloway, the phrasing "algorithmic rules" has been associated to new forms of power, that reside in the networks, computers, information, and data, rather than being exerted from above by legitimate institutions. Paolo Gerbaudo used the expression "choreography of assembly" while analyzing the online organizational structures and process of the recent urban revolutions in Egypt, USA and Spain.

Our project is more basic. It is on the ground perhaps that a wide range of phenomena can be recognized at their maximum degree of visibility.

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Giuditta Vendrame and Paolo Patelli (La Jetée), Friction Atlas

How do you (and citizens living in a particular city) find out about these regulations?

We started asking friends who are living in different cities and countries if they were aware of legal prescriptions that regulate the use of public spaces. Sometimes they would tell us anecdotes or they would suggest us to look for specific events on the news. For example Marko Peterlin recalled of a protest in Koper, which couldn't take place because the Slovenian law states that the organizers of any public event must always have with them a written agreement with the owner of the land where they want to assemble. In that case, protesters meant to express their disagreement with a local policy, through a demonstration on public ground. The problem then was that "public" means owned by the Municipality and managed by the local government. This resulted in a weird short-circuit, which we also tried to visualize.

We subsequently met with NGOs, with lawyers, we had meetings with the local police, and with public officials. While collecting anecdotes, listing procedures, and saving titles from the local news, we also started looking into the actual codes. We photocopied and downloaded when possible City Ordinances, Public Order Acts, Police Regulations, Park Regulations, even Children Protection Acts, from different cities and countries. Across these documents, we searched for numbers, quantities, distances, conditions, predicates. We searched for the abstractions that shape our public behaviors, to represent them visually.

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Giuditta Vendrame and Paolo Patelli (La Jetée), Friction Atlas

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Giuditta Vendrame and Paolo Patelli (La Jetée), Friction Atlas. Test in Berlin. Photo: BIO50 / The Agency of Walking

Paolo, i read on your online page that you worked with Urban Sensing. That project relies a lot on digital technologies and is generally quite sophisticated. Friction Atlas, on the other hand, is pretty low tech: diagrams on the floor and walks. Why did you make the project so 'tangible', instead of having an app for example?

In code as much as in regulative rules, objects - even people - are abstracted. They cannot be known in themselves or in their being. Things are only known through their predicates, their "quantified" qualities. Citizens, as individuals or groups, are measured for their number, the noise they make, the age they have, the distance they keep, the money they have paid. Against the abstract, the mathematical, it is the real that embodies resistance. The materiality of the street, and of walking, are the natural media for making this tension tangible. They are also the best sites for opening a discussion which needed to be im-mediated. The street, in fact, afforded unexpected interactions of the public with our graphic devices, beyond what we had planned and designed.

We wanted to turn the physical context into an open playing field, or a loose game board, and keep the experience ambiguous. We posed an invitation to play, while valuing the uncertainty of the status of the performance as game. Taking part to a choreographed debate about regulative rules on the use of public space, by enacting such rules in a real public space, raises questions: Is this a game? Are we playing? Which role am I playing?

In the street, the boundary between being in and out of the game is blurred, and so are the social boundaries between who is playing and who is not. Our diagrams represent strollers, as well as protesters and policemen, but the player identity and the normal everyday identity always somehow overlap.

The sort of game we propose, at the same time playful, ironic and highly serious, has no goal - only rules, which without context, interpretation and the active participation of the visitors would exist only as static code, as ready-made, found predicates.

Keeping a 1:1 scalar ratio with the human body is central to affording this interplay and to really make the rules legible on the ground. It also helps maintaining different levels or engagement, from the superficial interaction of kids and cyclists, to the concerned reading of students and people with a bit more time.

Do you see Friction Atlas as a continuation of Urban Sensing, or is that a totally different approach to the urban environment?

We are getting accustomed to seeing the behavior of the citizens - users, customers, consumers - of any given city represented through spectacular real-time maps and data visualizations.

Our attempt this time was to look through our transparent society to try to visualize the other side. Rather than in a bird's view on the city, we were interested in looking to what's above it.

I certainly see Friction Atlas as a reflexive continuation of the work I have done in Urban Sensing, and at MIT's Senseable City Lab. As other projects and prototypes developed in the last couple of years - from my research residency at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design, to a number of workshops, including at SALT Institute in Istanbul, and at Strelka Institute in Moscow - it shows a more critical edge. Central to all of them, anyway, is the transformation of data into fully visible (or sometimes audible) agents, in order to provide a possible model for opening up to new forms of civic and aesthetic engagement with hidden or abstract layers of the city. Even when - to say it again with Scott Lash - information is not *in* society or related *to* society, but it *is* society, and vice versa, the focus on space offers a tangible - and therefore debatable - representation and an embodiment of such immaterialities as code or law. The city is a mirror of the current society and culture.

Finally, but very importantly, in the case of Friction Atlas, Giuditta and I have worked together as "La Jetée". She has an encompassing fascination for invisible borders and flows, and has worked in the recent past with legal loopholes and related paradoxes. We believe that design has a lot of space for experimentation in these areas. How can it cope with invisible things? Sometimes ideas can be expressed very simply.

I'm also interested in the term 'friction' in the title? Where do you locate this friction?

The friction we wish to represent in our atlas is to be found in space, on the ground. Within the contemporary city, a plurality of processes and logics converge in the same sites. The sites extend to our own lives, to our desires and perspectives.

Densely weaved dispositions - more or less integrated, more or less coordinated - inhabit the same space we live in. Our everyday experience of the urban cannot be understood but in relation to other processes, other dimensional scales. The encounter between these different logics happens on contended ground, hence the friction. The security paradigm followed by many cities worldwide is inscribed in space, the commodification of our historical heritage is inscribed in space, the media bubble that surround global events is inscribed in space. The visibility of the battlegrounds, of the exceptional event - as argued among others by Andrea Mubi Brighenti - shows and proves the importance of the infra-ordinary in its invisibility. We don't sample from different cities in order to show specific conflicts, but because we are interested in the pervasivity of minor and daily frictions.

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Giuditta Vendrame and Paolo Patelli (La Jetée), Friction Atlas. Test in Berlin. Photo: BIO50 / The Agency of Walking

Is this an ongoing archive? or will Friction Atlas end with the biennial?

The diagrams represent cases from different cities, including Cairo, Genoa, London, Ljubljana, New York City, Rome, Stockholm, Sydney, Washington. We definitely want to continue with this research, add more cities, involve more people, expand the discourse. Comparisons between cities, countries are particularly enlightening: try with Singapore and Egypt, or with USA and Iceland. You would be very surprised. The installation in Ljubljana, together with an edited collection of comments, short interviews, excerpts from articles and public acts, constitute our notes towards a critical atlas.

We set up a tumblr, to start collecting external contributions: do you have any anecdote, article, or thought that you would like to share?

You can do it on the beta version of the Friction Atlas archive: http://frictionatlas.net/

We would also like to bring our research further by moving beyond prescriptive rules, and including other formal strategies that define "a priori" the possibilities - and the impossibilities - of movement (e.g. public transportation trajectories). Making tangible the invisible text of such implicit rules - which are biopolitical rather then disciplinary - would define - in the words of Andrea Mubi Bringhenti - subjective environments, or horizons, rather than traces and routes.

This is a big challenge, as we really want to keep all the levels of engagement present, especially the most playful.

Thanks Giuditta and Paolo!

Friction Atlas was developed by Paolo Patelli and Giuditta Vendrame for the Agency of Walking, BIO 50. The 24th Biennial of Design is open in various locations around Ljubljana until 7 December 2014.

Also part of BIO 50: Engine Block. Or how to turn a moped into a boat or a concrete mixer.

Sponsored by:





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Migrants from sub-Saharan Africa await processing in the port of Tripoli after attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe December 5, 2011. Credit: Reuters/Ismail Zitouny

Forensic Oceanography is a research project started in 2011 by Lorenzo Pezzani and Charles Heller to investigate the militarised border regime in the Mediterranean Sea, and document the violence perpetrated against migrants attempting to cross the liquid border.

The sea, and in particular the Mediterranean, is a space of escape for thousands of people who leave the African continent in hope of a safer life in Europe. It is also a space of control and thus a political space. Much of what happens on the surface of that liquid political space takes place far away from the public gaze and often remains unaccounted for. However, the sea is closely surveilled, information about what happens and what sails through it is being generated, analyzed and recorded.

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Chain of events as reconstructed for the FO report

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Drift model providing hourly positions of the vessel. The drift trajectory was reconstructed by analyzing data on winds and currents collected by buoys in the Strait of Sicily

Forensic Oceanography looks at the sea as a witness to interrogate and cross-examine, re-purposing data and technologies initially produced as evidence of illegal migration and turning it into evidence of a crime of non assistance.

Lorenzo Pezzani was at The Lighthouse in Brighton a few weeks ago to talk about Forensic Oceanography and more particularly about the case of 72 migrants who had been left to die while they were attempting to flee Libya and reach the Italian shores during the Libyan conflict of 2011.

The Mediterranean is a fairly crowded sea and Western military forces were made aware of the refugees' distress shortly after the dinghy's departure when the captain lost control of the boat and called for help. The Italian coast guards received the appeal and relayed it, along with the position of the boat, to the NATO coordination centre and to military vessels present in the area. The distress calls were repeated every 4 hours for 10 days. But no-one came to their assistance. The dinghy was seen by an airplane, military helicopters, two fishing vessels and a large military vessel, which ignored their distress signals. After 15 days adrift, the boat washed up on the Libyan coast with only 11 survivors on board, two of whom died shortly afterwards. FO call the case, the 'left-to-die boat'.

Here's Liquid Traces, a short film which sums up the case.


Liquid Traces, Forensic Oceanography - video report on the Left-to-Die boat

And the video of Pezzani's presentation at The Lighthouse. It was a great evening. He talked about how a journey at sea is fast for goods and for privileged passengers but excruciatingly slow for the unwanted, about the dilemma of producing evidence to account for violence while trying not to be complicit with governments, about FO new project to make and distribute to migrants leaflets containing legal information about their rights, etc.


Monthly Talk - Lorenzo Pezzani

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SAR data within the Straight of Sicily for the period pertaining to the left-to-die boat case (27 March - 10 April)

Mishka Henner has a solo show at the Carroll/Fletcher gallery right now. How come i never paid more attention to his work so far? Just like Edward Burtynsky, he looks at how industries shape landscapes. Like Trevor Paglen and Omer Fast, he is interested in (overt and covert) sites that the U.S. military deploys outside of its own borders. Just like Michael Wolf and Jon Rafman, he is a photographer using google mapping instruments instead of a camera. Yet, comparing his work to the one of some of the artists i admire the most is pointless. Henner is his own man slash artist. He uses contemporary technology to give a new twist on artistic appropriation and redefines the role of the photographer, the meaning of the photography medium and the representation of the landscape. Without ever using a photo camera.

The Black Diamond exhibition brings together four series of work, based on the collection and mediation of publicly available information sourced through the internet. Henner explains: 'I'm exploiting loopholes in the vast archives of data, imagery and information that are now accessible to us, connecting the dots to reveal things that surround us but which we rarely see or don't want to see.'

Oil Fields and Feedlots are large-scale inkjet prints taken from Google Earth's satellite imagery. The photos reveal landscapes carved by industries meeting the natural resource-devouring demands of two stalwarts of the U.S.'s hyper consumer society: oil and beef.

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Centerfire Feedyard, Ulysses, Kansas, 2013. Feedlots

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Randall County Feedyard, Texas, 2013. Feedlots

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Black Diamond Feeders Inc, Airbase, Herrington, Kansas, 2013-2014. Feedlots

Feedlots are cattle-feeding operations used in factory farming to 'finish off' livestock. Almost all the beef consumed in the United States will have been finished on a feedlot where up to 100,000 steers at a time spend the last months of their lives gaining up to 4 pounds a day on a diet of corn, protein supplements, and antibiotics. Everything on these farms is calculated to maximise meat yield; from the mixture in cattle's feed to the size of run-off channels carrying the animal's waste into giant toxic lagoons.

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Levelland Oil and Gas Field #2, 2013-2014

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Cedar Point Oil Field, 2013-14

In certain parts of the USA, natural features have long been supplanted by man-made marks and structures reflecting the complex infrastructural logic of oil exploration, extraction and distribution. The result is stunning. The prints look fake, painted over and heavily retouched. The exhibition essay compares the images to the work of abstract expressionists.

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Naval Support Activity, Bahrain, 2010. 51 US Military Outposts

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Diego Garcia, Indian Ocean, 2010. 51 US Military Outposts

Fifty-One US Military Outposts presents overt and covert military outposts used by the United States in 51 countries across the world. Once again, the sites were gathered and located using data which exists in the public domain, including official US military and veterans' websites, news articles, and both leaked and official government documents and reports.

"The internet is full of loopholes and leaks," the artist said. "I remember one day Hilary Clinton had categorically stated: 'we have no US military presence in Honduras.' However, the next day I was on Panoramio and was looking around pictures from Honduras - sure enough there was a photograph of a native Honduran worker with his arm around a sergeant major from the US cavalry regiment. The Honduran had even written to all his mates talking about how happy was to have got a job on this US military base. So the internet is full of these really simple leaks that completely contradict statements made by very powerful organisations."

The prints are displayed on plinths filling the rear gallery space, allowing visitors to walk around and watch the images from above, as if we were satellites. Or drones.

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The walls of the space downstairs are covered with Henner's ongoing Scam Baiters series. Scam baiters are internet vigilantes who pose as a potential victims in order to waste scammer's time and potentially expose their identity,. They respond to their email, pretend to go along with the scammer's demands in exchange for time-consuming requests supposed to ensure that the money transaction will be successful. Henner is showing cardboard signs that various scammers were asked to make as a result of email conversations, negotiation of fraudulent documents and bogus websites. One case involved an almost four-month long correspondence between Henner's associate, 'Condo Rice' and a trio of scammers spread across Libya and the United Arab Emirates. In one of his final message, the scam baiter asks the scammer for proof of identity. He asks for a photo containing a U.S. flag held on a stick, a sign with SKAMMERZ ISHU, and 'to be absolutely certain this is a genuine photograph", the scammer has to wear an Obama mask.

Sound recordings of the scammers singing popular songs permeate the space.

Henner is currently shortlisted for Consumption, the Fifth Prix Pictet Award. The exhibition of finalists will be on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London in May 2014, where Henner will show a selection of works from his "Oil Fields" and "Feedlots" series.

Black Diamond is at Carroll/Fletcher in London until 31 May 2014.

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Social Teletext Network

During the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, governments restricted the access to the Internet in an effort to hamper online peer networking and thus self-organization. Could other governments ever operate a similar media shutdown and cut their citizens off the internet?

What would we do if ever an Internet kill switch was implemented in our country? Not necessarily to prevent us from orchestrating riots but to protect the internet "from unspecified assailants".

At the latest graduation show of the Design Interactions department in London, Philipp Ronnenberg was showing 3 methods to prepare for the time after a cyberwar. The Post Cyberwar Series proposes an alternative open navigation system, a makeshift wireless communication infrastructure as well as a novel data storage.

The Teletext Social Network enables people to bypass network providers and governmental institutions and communicate using the analogue television broadcasting which was freed last April in the UK.

OpenPositioningSystem relies on the seismic activity, produced by generators in power plants, turbines in pumping stations or other large machines running in factories to provide an open navigation system. I interviewed the designer about it a few months ago.

Finally, Sewer Cloud is a bit more complex. The system is inspired by the current research on the storage of data into DNA. 1 gram of DNA is capable of storing up to 700 terabytes of data.

People living in urban areas could use the Sewer Cloud as a living, self-reproducing data network. This living network would be located in the sewerage system and use the algae species Anabaena bacteria for the insertion and extraction of data.

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Member using the Social Teletext Network

I contacted Philipp again to ask for more details about his project:

Hi Philipp! When i first interviewed you about the OPS, you didn't mention the kill switch. How did it go from one project about positioning system to a more complex scenario in which internet has been killed off? Were you inspired by any particular events from the recent news? I'm thinking of the NSA data collection: isn't controlling the internet and surveilling our every click enough for States?

The kill switch scenario stands for "killing" the Internet. But the Internet is only one network which is under control of companies and governmental institutions. The kill switch particularly is about the Internet, but other networks such as GPS navigation and mobile phone networks can be affected as well. In all three cases, the GPS navigation network, the mobile phone networks and the Internet, the control is in the hand of companies and governmental institutions.

I wanted to create three independent network alternatives. The body of work wrapped in the series Post Cyberwar is a reflection of how dependent we are today on the authoritarian structures of the networks we are using day to day. It is not only about surveillance and tracking down activity of users, it is also about content which becomes increasingly restricted, censored and monitored. The installation of controlling instances (i.e. kill switch) within these networks is justified with cyberwar and cyber-terrorism.
The recent news of the NSA data collection came just about right for the project. I have been working on the Post Cyberwar series since we last met. For me, it was always obvious that the NSA or any other governmental institutions are monitoring, but I was surprised about the dimension. Nowadays the perception (in the public) of surveillance has slightly changed, thanks to the main stream media and whistleblowers like Snowden. When I talked 5 years ago about surveillance and tracking, I often heard words like paranoid and being mistrustful.

Controlling the Internet and surveilling our every click is enough for getting an insight. But as we saw in Georgia, Egypt and sometimes China, shutting down the Internet and mobile phone networks (or at least parts of it), is a powerful way to prevent communication and the circulation of undesirable information.

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OpenPositioningSystem. Sensor prototype


OpenPositioningSystem

Speaking of OPS, how much has it grown since we last talked about it? Have the prototype and software improved and has the project given rise to attention and interest?

The OPS has grown a lot. First it got attention through your first blogpost and it was reblogged by some bigger blogs. I got very diverse feedback from "this comes out when art students try to be engineers (theverge.com comments)" and people asking me to get actively involved. I have 80 registered members on the website so far, but there is not much activity yet. I want to spend more time soon to bring new content on the website and therefore activate the registered members. The prototype and the software have slightly improved being more accurate and I worked on better tuning to seismic frequencies.

I gave two talks (#geomob London and W3C Open Data on the Web workshop) about the OPS so far where I tried to convince people to come on board. There is a third presentation at OHM2013 planned.
I applied for funding to bring the OPS to a working prototype stage in a small scale test area. I think, if I can build up a solid working prototype, the project will come to the next big step. There is still a lot of work to do.

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Social Teletext Network. Profile page of Zoe Johnson

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Social Teletext Network

Is the Social Teletext Network installation at the show a working prototype? Which part of the communication would it replace exactly? I can't believe it could replace all internet communication, it seems to be so rudimentary.

The Social Teletext Network in the show was showing a demo. But I have the hardware and the software ready to switch it on. The demo in the show was created with the help of the same software which is used in the real setup. Unfortunately it is highly illegal to broadcast your own TV signals, therefore I decided to show a demo in the show. I could apply for analogue (VHF) frequencies, but it is very expensive (too expensive for a student project).

It is not meant to replace the entire Internet. The technical limitations for this task are too high. The Social Teletext Network is capable to provide wireless information streaming, using the old obsolete teletext technology, which makes it harder to track or to monitor. I tried to port some comfort which we know from computer interaction to the Social Teletext Network. For example: You can zoom into specific regions on a map and visualise user locations and other information.

The Teletext specifications provide a very limited resolution and it can only display text and graphics programmed with single pixels. Overall, the strength is that you can send and receive information wireless and over a distance (5km and even more possible with the right hardware and a high antenna).

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Sewer Cloud. Stench pipes provide access points to the sewerage system

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Sewer Cloud. Accessing the sewer system and obtaining algae

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Sewer Cloud. Data extraction from and insertion into algae at the local corner shop


Algae circulation in London's sewer system

Could you explain me with more details the process of the data insertion and extraction from algae? Because if i want to retrieve some data, how do i know which algae i should fish and where?

Text, images, video and any piece of digital data is written in binary code (110011110). These 1's and 0's are then encoded to the four base-pairs of DNA (Adenine, Cytosine, Thymine and Guanine). The new base-pair string will be synthesised to a complete DNA string and inserted into living organisms. To read data out of a DNA string the base-pairs would be decoded to 1's and 0's again and from that to human readable information.
In the beginning of each DNA string, there is an address block which indicates what kind of information is in each string. With this method you could know what you will find in a specific piece of algae.

As 1 gram of DNA can hold up to 700 terabytes (700.000 gigabytes), the amount of data what you can find in a single piece is very high.

If you would insert data into algae and hide the algae at a specific site, the chance that it stays there is high. It would reproduce itself and the following generations would go on a journey. But if the conditions are good, the origin would stay at the same spot and you could still find the same data even years after you have put it somewhere. So the idea is more, that you would know by locations where you can find specific information.

More infos here: Writing the Book in DNA and Test-tube data.

Thanks Philipp!

La Cosa Radiactiva has brought a group of young engineers, musicians & artists on the roads of Spain to explore sites related with radioactivity.

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The team (composed of Sergio Galán, Victor Díaz, Alejandro Pérez, Servando Barreiro, Marcos Carnero, Alvaro Santamaría and Javier Villaroel) is not always welcome in nor around the facilities they investigated but they nevertheless measured radioactivity in locations that range from the Arrocampo artificial lake (which water is used to refrigerate the turbines of the nearby Almaraz Nuclear Power Plant) to a dismantled uranium mine in La Haba (a small town of 1000 inhabitants in the Badajoz province), from the first nuclear power plant (in process of dismantling) in Zorita to a nuclear waste storage facility in El Cabril (Córdoba), etc.

They traveled with their own measurement and visualization system that combines a Geiger counter, an Arduino microcontroller and an app for Android phones. The data gathered is visualized on online maps and in the form of audiovisual performances organized on the public squares of the villages and small towns they visit. The findings collected are also used to trigger discussions with the local population as well as with a broader audience about the social and cultural impact of nuclear energy.

La Cosa Radiactiva is a "research on transparency and nuclear secrets. A performance to demystify radiation while building awareness of its risks. An imagination exercise to reflect on how it would be like to live with radiation and above all this, a call about the importance of citizens having their own tools to be able to verify public health data provided by governmental authorities."

La Cosa Radiactiva / The Radioactive Thing. English trailer

La Cosa Radiactiva / The Radioactive Thing is another brilliant project i discovered during my last visit to MediaLab Prado (i recently wrote about Citizen Cyber Science and the Freedom of Speech Kit.) Because i only had a few minutes to talk about it with Sergio Galán while i was in Madrid, i emailed him to ask him further questions about the project.

Hola Sergio! How much is known, made public in Spain about radioactivity? Was it easy for the team to find information about the location of radioactive sites?  

First of all, just to clarify, all places we visited were not radioactive, I mean, with high levels of radioactivity. They were places with some connection with the nuclear industries: mines, factories, centrals, storages... Some of them are still working some are dismantled.

So, answering the question, it is not a secret to find those places. These are mostly old industrial places which are documented in quite a few webs.
Then in Spain there is an official network of radiation sensors which is online.
Also incidences are reported and listed, so it is not bad.

But it is tricky. For instance, the ambient sensors provide a measurement of "radiation" around them, so we might think that if those sensors are below certain levels there is no risk.

There is a Geiger counter in many places where old mines or nuclear power plants are. Even if there were a leak or there is underground contamination, the geiger counter won't measure anything alarming unless something quite big is happening.

If you measure ambient radiation in a room where there is radioactively contaminated rice, you won't see a high measurement in your geiger counter, but it doesn't mean you can eat the rice. Counters detect external irradiation not contamination. If you don't know this, sensors can provide a fake "safe" feeling.

Furthermore when something happens, transparency falls down. In Spain during the last 30 years we haven't had a serious incidence, but even the small ones were hidden below the carpet. There was a tiny leak in ASCO - one of the nuclear power plants in Spain - and they didn't inform about the incidence until months later.

So it is a strange policy, always showing off transparency but hiding information when something happens. This is an example that should make us think twice before being too optimistic about the current transparency & open data wave - which of course I stand for - because it can also be used as a smoke curtain to hide things while seeming transparent.

One of the objectives of La Cosa Radiactiva is to 'hold workshops where people can learn about our work and about the radioactive phenomenon in a different way." How different is it from the way radioactivity is presented in mainstream media?  

Since it was discovered there has been a strong fascination for radioactivity, thinking about it as a kind of paranormal power like green waves emerging from minerals and mutating all life around. One of our goals when doing our workshops was to teach basic scientific knowledge. We explained that of course it might be dangerous but it is a natural phenomenon, governed by natural laws. And it is actually everywhere, it is on nature in low levels.

Reality is that a lot of people don't have a serious clue about what radioactivity is. I've talked to many people about the project I was doing and quite a few asked me if it had to do with mobile phone waves, which is a totally different issue. So people don't receive scientific education to differentiate electromagnetic waves from nuclear radiation, but we - as a democratic country or society - have decided that we can use it as one of our key energy sources

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Photo La Cosa Radiactiva

While on a tour to locate and measure radioactivity around Spain, you met with local communities. How aware (and maybe worried?) are they about the presence of radiation in their environment?  

We didn't make any serious poll, but my impression is that there is always a group of people interested and worried, but most of the people don't really care. For instance in a village were there used to be an uranium factory (where most of the workers died or are suffering uranium related illnesses) a guy told us that people don't talk about it. Some of them want to know if there is danger but at the same time they don't want to dig too much, because in case of finding something it might create economic troubles to the region.

So in the places we visited, when there is a nuclear power plant, people live well, they have jobs and so on. And they don't want to know. When there was something in the past, it is an old conflict. It is buried, only ecologists complain from time to time.

The exception is when there is an ongoing conflict. We visited a small village next to where the government plans to build a storage for nuclear waste and in that region people are really engaged, both for and against it.

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Photo La Cosa Radiactiva

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Photo La Cosa Radiactiva

What is the state of the nuclear energy discourse is in Spain right now? Is the country planing to create new power stations or is it looking for other forms of energy?

It is very ambiguous. On one hand there is a "nuclear moratory". Seven nuclear reactors were under construction in the 80's and then the government stopped them (so they are now just huge empty cement buildings that we are still paying, which is another interesting topic).

On the other hand, the active nuclear power plants, easily get new permissions to keep working for more years. Current government is more pro-nuclear than the old one, but I don't think they'll seriously plan to build more nuclear power plants, basically because they are very expensive, and require many years to start producing energy. Public sector is not investing on anything right now, and private sector won't invest unless they are strongly supported by public money/laws.

The official policy used to be to build more wind and sun powered plants -and Spain is actually among the leaders in both technologies. I think that it is the right thing, but is it enough? People like green energy and don't like carbon or nuclear, but nobody asks the uncomfortable questions like: Can we sustain our energy appetite with green tech only? Are we willing to pay more money for energy to avoid the energy sources with bad reputation? Or are we willing to stop our continuous growth system to consume less energy? 

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Can you describe briefly the DiY Geiger counters you've made and how members of the public will one day be able to make their own? 

Since Fukushima's accident there has been quite a lot of interest for domestic Geiger counters, so they are becoming cheaper and smaller. The one we bought is made by a Spanish company and it is fully open hardware. It works over Arduino, and using the "Android-ready" version of Arduino we could connect it to the mobile phone.

So we don't build it but it is technically possible to build it from scratch. What we developed is a software to use the counter with Android phones. Thanks to the Medialab-Prado's open lab I contacted Alvaro and together with my colleague Victor we did all the Android+Arduino coding.

The goal was to build something more "user centered", a kind of nice interface for geiger counters so people can use it to make explorations and understand what's going on and how good or bad the measurement is.

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Does the device show the difference between natural and man-made radioactivity? Sorry for the idiot question but have both forms of radioactivity the same impact on the environment?  

Please note that I'm talking as an amateur, not as a scientist, so I might be not very precise. But in essence there are three kinds of radioactive particles: Alpha Beta and Gamma. The three of them can be natural or man-made. A Geiger counter reads the total radiation level so we don't know if the radioactivity we are measuring is natural or not. However if you read an abnormally high level of radiation somewhere, there is probably some human involved there.

Each radioactive element decays into other element emitting different combinations of particles, so scientific equipment can find out if the radiation is coming from natural sources or from other elements which are not usual in nature or directly only exist in nuclear waste or in the nuclear fusion process.

Animals are used to live with low levels of natural radiation in their environment, so if it suddenly increases that is when health problems start to appear.

La Cosa Radiactiva is also about transforming nuclear radiation into image & sound. Can you explain us how?  

One of the main goals of the project was to work with radioactivity as a kind of input material for art or performances. So I contacted Servando Barreiro which is a media artist and VJ and also an old acquaintance. He had made a laser projector and with it he generates waves and shapes. For me, the aesthetic of his laser projections, resonates with what popular culture associates with radioactivity: green rays of death. So we agreed on working together. We added an option to the mobile app to stream the measurement levels. So Servando receives the measurement levels and he uses that information to change and modify the shapes of the projections.

My main idea was to have a kind of laser sculpture for villages with nuclear power plants. The laser sculpture will draw day after day the same bored calm shapes. But if there is a radiation leak and the village is in danger, the sculpture would mutate into creepy shapes, and people would admire it before realising that they are in danger.

It sounds poetic but we couldn't talk with the mayor of any place interested on having this. So I just tell it as a kind of design fiction, and in case a mayor of a "radioactive town" wants to build it, he can contact us.

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Is the project over or are you planning to work further on it?  

I'd love to have some time to finish the app adding a nice visualisation on how dangerous the radiation level that you are measuring is. That will happen probably soon. But the project as it was imagined at the beginning is almost finished. Now I'm thinking on what to do with this. We could make a nice installation for art centres and so on, but we'll see. For now we've just released the documentary a couple of days ago. Marcos Carnero recorded our trip and together with Alejandro we made the script for a series of short films explaining the project and the opinions of the people we found.

For the future I'd like this to be a kind of public service. Like ghostbusters. People would send us an email telling: I think I saw green smoke coming out of the nuclear power plant yesterday. Can you explain us how the geiger counters works or can you come with your counters and tell us what's going on? But besides accidents, I think the main utility for geiger counters is educational. Showing people how it works, explaining that radioactivity is everywhere and using them as a tool to learn & talk (and get fascinated by Servando's figures if they have the chance to.)

Thanks Sergio!

More about the project on its website, blog, facebook page, in a series of short videos with english subtitles.

The Art of Walking: A field guide. Edited by David Evans and published by Black Dog Publishing.

0atheartof aw.jpgAvailable on amazon USA and UK.

Book description: The Art of Walking: a field guide is the first extensive survey of walking in contemporary art. Combining short texts on the subject with a variety of artists work, The Art of Walking provides a new way of looking at this everyday subject.

The introduction relates peripatetic art now to a wide range of historic precedents, and is followed by a series of visually led 'Walks' dealing with seven overlapping themes: footprints and lines; writers and philosophers; marches and processions; aliens, dandies and drifters; slapstick; studios, museums and biennales; and dog walkers.

The guide includes newly commissioned art and writing, and many artists have been actively involved in the design of their respective pages.

This overview of artworks dealing with walking completely took me by surprise. I was expecting psychogeography, peripatetics, geolocation and theory. But The Art of Walking: A Field Guide is not only light on words, it also follows themes that range from aliens to slapstick to dog walking.

The way the content is illustrated is worth a mention too. There are the usual photos that document performances of course but also letters, preparatory drawings, souvenir programme, etc. The succession of images for each artwork allows the reader to fill in the dots, complete the short presentation text and create their own narrative. The author even asked some of the artists to participate in the editorial process. For example, The Art of Walking opens on a series of proposals that artist Peter Liversidge wrote down on his old typewriter for the author of the book, for himself or for the reader. He invites you to put down the book and go outside, for example. And following his suggestion, the book closes on 5 empty pages for you to write down notes.

The book was thus nothing i expected. And that's never a bad thing.

Special mention for the format and design of the book. Soft cover. Thick, glossy pages but not too glossy (if you know what i mean.) Round corners.

And now for the traditional tour of some of the works presented in the book:

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Regina José Galindo, ¿Quien Peude Borrar Las Huellas? A Walk from the Court Of Constitutionality to the National Palace of Guatemala, leaving a trail of footprints in memory of the victims of armed conflict in Guatemala, 2003

In 2003, Regina José Galindo walked from the Congress of Guatemala building to the National Palace, dipping her bare feet in a basin filled with human blood, leaving red footprints behind as a protest against the presidential candidacy of Guatemala's former dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt whose military regime committed widespread human rights abuses.

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Francis Alÿs, The Collector, Mexico City 1991-2006. In collaboration with Felipe Sanabria

In 1991, Francis Alÿs dragged a magnetic toy dog on wheels through Mexico City until it became covered entirely in coins, bits of old tin cans and other street debris.

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Marcus Coates, Stoat, 1999. Photo: © Andy Keate

In the 1999 video performance 'Stoat', Marcus Coates is staggering on wooden platforms, in a pitiful attempt to recreate the animal's gait.


Simon Faithfull, 0.00° Navigation, 2009

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Simon Faithfull, 0º00 Navigation, 2009

GPS device in hand, Simon Faithfull walked along the Greenwich Meridian from Peace Haven in Hampshire to Cleethorpes in Lincolnshire. Following the exact line of longitude involved climbing through windows and up fences, crossing private properties, swimming through streams and crawling through hedges.

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Simon Faithfull, Going Nowhere, 2011 (video still)

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Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Marches - A sonic mapping of London, February 2008 - May 2009

Marches by Lawrence Abu Hamdan is an audio recording, booklet and map documenting two performances on 23 May 2008.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan choreographed two marches in the Queen's Walk and Tower Hill areas of London. The marchers stomped wearing footwear created by local cobblers for greater sonic effect.

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And While London Burns, An operatic audio tour across The City

And While London Burns is the soundtrack for the era of climate change, set amongst the skyscrapers of the most powerful financial district on Earth, London's Square Mile. An opera for one, it takes the listener, equipped with an mp3 player on a walking audio adventure through the streets and alleyways of our city.

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Keith Arnatt from the series: Walking the Dog, 1976-9

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Keith Arnatt from the series: Walking the Dog, 1976-9

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Keith Arnatt from the series: Walking the Dog, 1976-9

Between 1976 and 1979, Keith Arnatt photographed dogs and their owners out for walks near his home in South Wales. The artist went to great lengths to ensure that the owner and his pet are looking at the camera at the same time.

"Where the photographic act is concerned, a dog's attention span is extremely short. When, for example, calling a dog's name fails to attract its attention, I am forced to resort to more extreme measures."

"My barking and growling are quite effective, though such antics tend also to affect the owner's own response. And though a fair number of pictures do show the dog making the required response, they are marred by showing the owner peering down to see whether they are doing so."

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Catherine Yass, High Wire, 2008. Photo: Angie Catlin. Commissioned and produced by Artangel

In 2007 high wire artist Didier Pasquette attempted to walk between three of Glasgow's Red Road high rise tower blocks. Unfortunately, high winds forced Pasquette to retrace his path. The performance was used by artist Catherine Yass as the basis of a reflection on the urban environment.

Also by David Evans: Critical Dictionary.

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