0ui9o0prototype.jpg
Neil Thomson, The Economic Computer (prototype)

The Phillips Hydraulic Computer (known as Monetary National Income Analogue Computer or MONIAC in the U.S.) was an hydro-mechanical computer created in 1949 by Professor Bill Phillips to model the economic processes of the United Kingdom. The 2 metres tall analogue computer used the movement of coloured water around a system of tanks, pipes, sluices and valves to represent the stocks and flows of a national economy. The flow of water (which symbolized money) between the tanks (which stood for specific national expenses, such as health or education) was determined by economic principles and the settings for various parameters. Different economic parameters, such as tax rates and investment rates, could be entered by setting the valves which controlled the flow of water about the computer. Users could experiment with different settings and note the effect on the model.

0i10piilips74.jpg
Phillip's Economic Computer, 1949. Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Phillips demoed his machine at the London School of Economics in 1949. Copies of the machine were built and sold to universities, companies and banks across the world. A few of them remain but it seems that the only one still working is located at the Faculty of Economics and Politics at Cambridge University.

Economic theories have grown in scale and complexity in the last half a century but many models are still founded on newtonian physics. Inspired by this hubris of correlating human behavior to mechanical equations, Design Interactions student Neil Thomson is attempting to create a Phillips machine based on modern economic models.

The current prototype is the first iteration of this attempt. based on the Euler Equation which describes a consumer's propensity to save or spend in relation to the present and predicted interest rate, it attempts to find a pattern in the movement of the double pendulum that matches the designer's personal economic data.

Neil Thomson was showing the first prototype of the Economic Computer last month during the work in progress exhibition at the Royal College of Art. I contacted him recently to get more details about his project:

Hi Neil! The description of your project says that the machine was created to 'demystify money'? What does it mean 'demystify money'? why would money need to be demystified?

Money systems and economies are a mystery to me and I think most people would say the same. Economists might say otherwise and certainly in politics you have to make categorical claims. I think this is fascinating, this open secret that there's a level of complexity beyond which we can't understand (let alone predict) but I think we need someone who believes they can. I've been told by an economist at the Bank of England that being caretaker of the nation's finances is akin to piloting an oil tanker in total darkness.

Whilst researching economic theory you find that there is in fact a lot of debate within the field about the usefulness of economic models. Why these berated systems are still here, despite all the flaws I think is not only interesting but an urgent question for us all.

The best answer I found to that question so far suggests the things we would think of as flaws - over simplification and generalisation - are in fact the very reason these models are still here: economic equations take numerous (but measurable) variables, process it with seemingly objective mathematics and give a finite answer that is given with certainty. Other fields can't or won't make such claims.

I think it's part of our nature to study systems and look for patterns - that's why I think these systems, especially physical representations of them (such as the Phillips Machine), are so seductive.

0philmacinecloseup.jpg
Phillip's Economic Computer, 1949. Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Would your own version serve the same demystifying purpose?

That would be the intention but its success is going to be purposefully questionable. What I would like my project to achieve is simply that people think about how and why these systems are conceived and what impact they have. Often they start as diagnosis tools but quickly evolve into a template that then becomes prescriptive and self-fullfilling until the inevitable black swan event comes along and tips everything over the edge.

So what will your machine look like?

I'm still very much in the design process at this stage but I'm going to look at analog mechanisms as Phillip's did which i think is interesting in two ways. Firstly, it exposes the mechanical mathematics behind these models that generalise human behaviour. Secondly, they help to correlate the claimed objectivity of these systems to aesthetic subjectivities, allowing us to see them as questionable.

And how are you going to build it?

Instead of taking on the entire economy I'm going to look at my own finances. I will analyse my personal economic data and look for patterns in my spending behaviour, such as most data analysts and economists would do. Similarly I will have to gloss over or generalise when faced with missing data that may explain my behaviour. I will then try to isolate some of these patterns and develop a device for each creating several smaller machines. These will then combine (and possibly conflict) to create a whole - an economic algorithm of me.

Is your machine really going to focus on the global economy?

Once I have an algorithm that predicts my economic behaviour I can then use it as a 'microfoundation' in a larger economic model. Microfoundations are the name for a relatively recent development in economics; instead of an equation that describes an entire economy, they use algorithms for parts in that economy (e.g. a business or household) and these individual agents are then multiplied and interact in a simulation. Eventually I would like to get to this level to see what en entire economy of me would be like.

0i0faceplatepositioning.jpg
Neil Thomson, The Economic Computer (face plate positioning)

How does the Euler Equation come into play here?

An economic Euler Equation (the same name is given to a whole class of general maths equations) describes how much a household or individual will spend / save given the interest rate, their credit limit and current balance. Its based on the idea that people act rationally to maximise their profit. I am basically creating my own version of this equation.

Are you planning to push the project further?

Absolutely, this is the very first step!

Thanks Neil!

Previous posts about this year's RCA work in progress show:
Walden Note money - How would money function within a behaviorist society?
and Chicken warming up nuclear mines and other technocratic fables.

Sponsored by:





0WaldenTwoMachine.jpg
Image Austin Houldsworth

0aa0walden8unnamed.jpg
Image Austin Houldsworth

In 1948, behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner published Walden Two, a utopian novel set in an experimental community of about one thousand people who all live, eat and raise their family in common.

The functioning of the Walden Two community is guided by behaviorist principles, and its members are conditioned to be productive, creative and happy. If there is evidence that a new social practice (not saying "thank you", for example) will make people happier, it is implemented and its consequences are monitored.

There is no real governing body but members subscribe to the Walden Code of self-control techniques. Community counselors supervise behaviour and provide assistance to members who experience problems in following the Walden Code.

In Walden Two, people work for maximum four hours, they don't receive any salary but then nothing at Walden Two costs money*.

Austin Houldsworth imagined a monetary system within the cultural context of Walden Two. The payment system would challenge the established monetary function of 'a store of value', creating a new method of exchange that encourages people to actively destroy their money during a transaction. The process positively reinforces the behavior through the creation of music produced from the burning of money inside a transaction machine that doubles as a pipe organ.

Walden coins are made from potassium nitrate and sugar to produce smoke.


A Walden Note transaction

Austin was showing the Walden Note money project at the Work In Progress show of the design school of the Royal College of Art a couple of weeks ago. I knew about Skinner but had no idea he had written a utopian novel and was intrigued by the designer's intervention in the novel (destroy your money during the transaction?!?) So i had a little Q&A with him:

Hi Austin! Walden Note money is a monetary system designed within the cultural context of Walden Two, an utopian novel written by behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner. How did you apply the utopian novel to a monetary system?

Whilst reading the novel, I asked myself the question; how would money function within this society? What would it look like? My initial ideas were depressingly similar to monetary systems in use today, echoing the established system that I've used throughout my life. To overcome my natural tendency to design within the world I know, I decided to accept Skinners proposed utopia as a real place and accept that his behaviour modification techniques could create selfless individuals - and increase co-operation rather than competition.

Imagining a society made-up from selfless individuals means the traditional functions of money might start to change. For example; why would a long-term store of value be need if no one desires more than what is required? Who would create this money? Would security features be necessary if people were trustworthy, or could money be used as a way to measure the stability of the society?

0Close-up-Coins.jpg
Image Austin Houldsworth

0i0Close-up-Mid.jpg
Image Austin Houldsworth

What is a transaction like and why would people accept to destroy money?

During every transaction the seller is obliged to aid the buyer in the destruction of their money equal to the cost of the service or object he/she is purchasing. Through the destruction of money, musical notes are created which are linked to the coins denomination. For example a C is 1 Walden-note, a D is 2, an E is 3 and so on; these notes have two main functions. Firstly the pleasant sounds created help to positively reinforce this behaviour and secondly the burning money communicates the economic state of the society to the 'managers and planners'.

Regarding the creation of the money; every individual within Walden has the right to create money. The planners within the society give guidelines of an average workers pay, but the responsibility of how much was earnt lay with the worker.

The work is about the future, yet the prototype doesn't have the typical futuristic sleek aesthetics. In fact (and please don't get offended) it looks a bit rustic. Why this choice? Does it hint that people will be able to DIY their own?

I suppose the work has been created within a paleofuture, as Skinner wrote the novel in 1948. So I see this monetary system as simply one of a million alternatives rather than a single vision. Regarding the aesthetics; the people within Walden Two were encouraged to live a relatively simple rural life but also a life full of experimentation, encouraged to create new objects which may lead to a better society. So that's where the DIY look comes in; each person creates their own individual music creating money incinerator.


Now how does this wooden structure work exactly?

It works in a similar way to a pipe organ; but rather than air, smoke is used to produce the notes within the wooden pipes. Walden money is made from potassium nitrate and sugar coins; the money to be burned is sealed in the machine by the seller and then ignited via a fuse wire. As the mixture burns the smoke can only escape from the pipes and the Walden 'notes' are created.

This project is part of a 3-year research investigation into counter-fictional design. What is counter-fictional design?
Why do you think it is a good vehicle to investigate alternative monetary payment systems?

Counter-fictional design is a term I use to communicate the method that I'm developing within my research project. It borrows aspects from 'Counterfactual' history; which was originally used as a form of historiography in an attempt to determine the significance of historical events by proposing 'what if' scenarios. This method has recently been employed by designers to imagine how ideologies of different timelines, might alter the cultural constraints surrounding design.

Although counterfactual history offers the creative mind freedom, (which would otherwise be difficult to achieve), its' scope is still limited to historical events. Therefore I started to develop a method that moves beyond designing 'alternative histories', to designing within 'alternative worlds.' By using a design methodology I call Counter-fictional design; which uses past social science fiction novels as a framework to design radically different socially dependent technologies. This Counter-fictional methodology aims to both highlight the importance of the impact of fiction upon the real world, and also offer a new playground for designers to imagine radically different systems.

What is next in your exploration of alternative monetary payment systems?

Fortunately there are no shortage of social science fictions that are absent of monetary systems. The next alternative payment systems will be designed within the context of Aldous Huxleys' 'Brave New World.' During this research my aim is to create at least ten monetary payment systems within a broad array of utopian / dystopian novels.

Thanks Austin!

Previously: Crime Pays, Austin Houldsworth's exploration of an entirely cashless society.
*I stole bits of the summary from Sparknotes.

0chickenBombSketch.jpg
Technical drawing of nuclear landmine including chicken box. Image Marcel Helmer

Last week was the School of Design students work in progress exhibition at the Royal College of Art, that's probably my favourite show at RCA because everything is still gloriously wild, promising and unpolished.

Marcel Helmer from Design Interactions had a very puzzling display showing sketches of an audio recorder inside of a walnut that squirrels would then bury in enemy territory, nuclear landmine warmed up by live chickens, military equipment for insect related units, etc.

He called these scenarios Technocratic Fables. They tell the tales of machines depending on, cooperating with or being defeated by animals. The work looked closely at animals in military use. Some of his examples came from the past (believe it or not, in the 1950s the UK seriously planned to put chicken inside landmines to regulate its temperature), present and looked at how engineered animals might shape the future of warfare.

These fables show potential of putative simple organisms in the past, present and future. What if invasive species become a weapon? What if the next danger is an engineered physical insect, not a digital one?

0wip2014-02-09 16.43.12.jpg
View of the project at the WIP show. Photo by Marcel Helmer

0jellyTank.jpg
Mechanical drawing of jelly fish breeding tank. Image Marcel Helmer

The designer kindly accepted to answer my questions:

Hi Marcel! Why did you decide to present the work as 'fables' and not as just 'projects' like most other works in the show?

Technocratic fables are a collection of stories. All of them based on animal/technology interaction inside the field of military purposes. They are placed between the 1930 and the not too distant future, embedding the most sophisticated technology of each specific time into the tale. Showing its vulnerability, dependency or cooperation to/on/with animal behaviour.

Traditional fables use anthropomorphised animals not only to tell fantastic and entertaining stories, but to teach and exemplify sociological human behaviour. My idea is to use animals and technology not to explore the human/human interaction, but the human/technology side of society of a specific time. Specific time for the reason, because of the idea that a relationship of course changes throughout history, whether it actually does may remain unanswered though. It is certainly not about finding new uses for animals in warfare, even though it mentions the possibility of invasive species used as weaponry.

Can you walk us through some of those animals used for military purposes?

My favourite story so far: During the cold war Germany was separated into the soviet east and the allied forces' west. The western forces were seriously concerned about the possibility of the soviet army conquering western Europe, therefore they developed a plan B. Burying nuclear landmines to make central Europe inhabitable in case of an invasion. The only problem they had, German winters can be quite rough, and the electronics of the time weren't made for those temperatures. The proposed solution: burying live chicken with the bombs to use their body heat to keep the sensitive electronics alive. The soviet reaction to this plan was the attempt to train foxes, not only to track down the bombs but to "defuse" them by killing the chicken.

This is one example of the past, more recent ones include squirrels captured by the iranian government because they were "carrying espionage equipment", jellyfish fields blocking passage ways for multi million dollar nuclear submarines or moths distracting sonar controlled homing missiles.

5chikid4fa1db44.jpg
The mine would be kept warm by chickens

Why did you associate a particular animal with a particular military use? Are they already used for similar purposes?

This is the twist: the stories i just mentioned are true! Design fictions like to use fantastic narratives to communicate scenarios, encasing and presenting them as realistic as possible, perfect renderings, tables and facts to create plausibility. I'd like to go the other way around, i cloak the stories as fictions to surprise with the truth, stressing once more that reality can be stranger than fiction! My design is the communication of the story and the speculative next step of these truths, what if this really happened and became the standard of warfare? What are countermeasures to chicken bombs? What does a squirrel use to spy on you? How can jellyfish become a weapon? It is an alternative century of animals in warfare.

Are animals still used in warfare?

Absolutely. But today its usually less spectacular and experimental, since computer technology supposedly became the answer for most problems. It is no more necessary to use pidgeon as pilots for "intelligent" missiles (again, true story!). We still cherish the advanced sense of smell of dogs, or recently even rats to find hidden landmines. One of the more fantastic approached is the research of the U.S. navy using dolphins to find sea mines. On the other side, who knows what's happening behind closed curtains? The "chicken bomb" was a rumor, until it has been proven in the early 90s by secret documents, which became open to the public after the fall of the Soviet Republic. It definitely leaves enough space for speculations of future stories, especially in regard to engineered organisms, which will be part of the "near future story" i develop.

These factors are also part of the reason why i choose to place it in the realm of military technology. It's the secret, yet fantastic nature that evolves out of the almost blind trust into technology inhabited by this area. Pushing the boundaries of technology with only limited emphasis on ethical or moral restrictions.

0wip2014-02-09 16.48.43.jpg
View of the project at the WIP show. Photo by Marcel Helmer

0wip2014-02-09 19.03.39.jpg
Emblem of the soviet "fox bataillon", founded to track down and defuse allied "chicken bombs" (1971) View of the project at the WIP show. Photo by Marcel Helmer

Are you planning to push the project further?

Yes, it is definitely going to be one of my main projects i'll be presenting in the Summer show. While i personally appreciate the idea of mixed media installations to offer the audience artefacts to explore the fables, i'd like to work closer to the expectations of classic fables in literature. Whether this is going to be a book, including the fables and the research or another traditional form of storytelling is still to be determined. I certainly have a lot more fantastic stories written not only by me, but history itself i can work with.

Thanks Marcel!

The Work in Progress show of the design school is over, alas! but the School of Architecture Work-in-Progress Show opens in a few days in the Kensington building.

The Life in the United Kingdom test is a computer-based test which must be passed by would-be British citizens to qualify for indefinite leave to remain in Britain or to naturalise as a citizen. It consists of a series questions covering topics such as British society, government, everyday life and employment. The test has received criticisms for its inaccuracies and for being so difficult that most native-born citizens wouldn't be able to pass it successfully. Some have even compared it to a bad pub quiz.

Kristina Cranfield, a MA (RCA) Design Interactions graduate, had to pass the test a couple of years ago. The experience inspired Manufactured Britishness, a graduation project that looks at the future of citizenship in Britain.

In Kristina's scenario, prospective citizens might one day be submitted not only to tests that require them to memorize dates and facts but they would also have to go through physical tests. In a further stage, all citizens, no matter where they were born, would have to prove their 'Britishness' by passing the test too.

Ultimately, the project asks the questions: At what point does one 'become' British? What are the criteria and who makes the final decision?

Kristina Cranfield, Manufactured Britishness, 2013

Kristina illustrated the new test with a series of props and with a film that depicts a fictional system where immigrants must undergo physical assessments to demonstrate their worth as prospective British citizens. Post-industrial locations have been turned into training zones where immigrants go through pre-learned and repetitive tasks in order to pass the new test of citizenship. They sing Messiah by Handel, show appreciation for Newton, and demonstrate a calm demeanour when dealing with social accidents and emergencies - all strictly aligned with Britain's customs, culture, and values. Are they British now?

0aaaaawhite3 Manufactured Britishness.jpg

The film is visually stunning and the ideas behind it are provocative but, rather worryingly, not totally implausible. In any case, i asked Kristina to tell us more about Manufactured Britishness.

The project was inspired by your own experience with the Life in the UK test. You passed the test successfully a couple of years ago. Why did you decide to stretch the test to new extremes: physical assessment, citizenship that can be penalized or even revoked, and even a test that has to be passed by all citizens?

By designing this extended regime, the project highlights and criticises the government's absurdist inventions contrived for acquiring citizenship, where testing goes contrary to common sense, and where Britishness becomes manufactured, scripted and measurable.

The test continues to get harder than when I passed it three years ago. The notion of revoking, penalising and extending the test to all citizens aims to question the fictitious idea of citizenship in the first place. Suggesting new and contentious citizenship rules provokes the attention of existing British citizens, to internalise the problem, enabling one to understand their ideologies and attitudes to immigration, subjectively. Who is a citizen and what makes or defines one?

0behindthescenesMB2.jpg
Manufactured Britishness, 2013. Behind the scenes

0a0abehindthescenesMB04.jpg
Manufactured Britishness, 2013. Behind the scenes

Apart from the existence of this test are there other trends, ideas and issues in contemporary Britain that guided some of the directions that the project is taking?

My project cuts through a number of social and political issues in Britain. I'm fascinated by British post-industrial landscapes, for example, which I have visited and researched over the last few years pretty extensively. It's very sad to see these places, like muted industrial ghosts spread around the country, for sale.

I wanted to question the future of these disused locations that have ceased bringing any value to society or the economy since the end of Britain's industrial era. In my project, these zones host new detention facilities for immigrants, in a new plan for Britain to generate mass profits.

This is a dark vision, but by forecasting such undesirable possibilities, we are forced to contemplate brighter alternatives. It also attaches a warning sign to the policies we make today, and how they might evolve in the future.

The Life in the UK test has attracted much criticism in the press. Do you want to talk about your own feeling and experience of it? Do you think that the test fulfilled its role? Do you feel more British now that you've passed it?

Becoming a citizen is an exceedingly bureaucratic and painstaking experience, which is unbelievable when we live in such a globalised world were we are all in constant motion, no matter what our origin or destination.

The Life in the UK test is only one of many obstacles immigrants face before being allowed to settle down amongst other people. To be honest, it's just another legal formality one has to go through and tick off their never-ending list.

I certainly do not feel more British after passing the test. I'm dubious whether a first generation immigrant can ever be compelled to feel that way. I think the test is more of a political tool designed to curb immigrant naturalization and to maintain the status quo attached to the whole idea of citizenship. I see this as a grossly inhumane notion and ask what's the limit - today we have detention centres tomorrow these could be akin to concentration camps.

Could you describe the scene we see in the film and in the stills of the project? The tests that candidates to citizenship have to pass?

The film features three training zones where immigrants engage in pre-learned and repetitive tasks, which are largely based on questions from both editions* of the Life in the UK test.

The scene outside the factory is designed to enforce patriotism for British culture and traditions, which immigrants must embrace and exaggerate. Surrounded by a line of imposing chimneys, they are being tested on singing Messiah by Handel and correctly flying the Union Jack. In the scene with red apples, immigrants are dropping and picking up apples to show their knowledge and appreciation of Newton, thus becoming a vehicle for national aspiration.

0KsingCfinalimage.jpg

0a0flag5 Manufactured Britishness.jpg

The scenes from the white quarry are cruel and take the concept of monitoring behaviours and reactions to the extreme. Clothed in clinically white uniforms, immigrants must uphold a pleasant and calm demeanour during social accidents and emergencies. They blend into their sterile environment, becoming part of a lifeless, dry landscape. Hot tea is being poured slowly over the immigrant, can he remain polite?

0whitmanufacturedbritishness.jpg

0a0white4 Manufactured Britishness.jpg

The scene with an emergency situation is based on a real question from the Life in the UK test. According to the test, the correct behaviour during emergencies is first to establish the name and address of the injured person and then to call an ambulance.

The blue zone tests immigrants on being neighbourly. Don't make noise; do not wear heels upstairs, wear soft slippers; identify weeds that can damage your garden; stay tidy etc.

For every action, there is a set protocol for what to do and how to live, supposedly like a Brit.

0a0blue2 Manufactured Britishness.jpg

In my film, I wanted to create an inescapable feeling of torment when going through the processes of becoming a citizen. It's like giving evidence from the witness stand at trial, where you are put on the spot, with a pair of eyes intensely fixated on you, there is no escape and no dark corners to hide.

So, to create this vision through film, the aesthetical choices were very carefully considered at each stage. The colours, lighting, locations, characters and props were all cautiously selected to communicate the pointless 'official' scheme of the future.

The films of Roy Andersson, and in particular Songs from the Second Floor, especially inspired the final cinematographic decisions in Manufactured Britishness.

0songs-from-the-second-floor-1.jpg
Roy Andersson, Still from the film Songs from the Second Floor, 2000

Could you explain one of the sentences in the description of the work: "In this future, we see immigrants as an exploitable material, a living currency, compelled to sustain national identity in order to maximise capitalistic agendas."? Where is capitalism in this new, extended set of Life in the UK tests?

I see British traditions and culture as having already very much exploited by commercial agendas. Sadly, almost everything in Britain seems to be assigned a price tag. Manufactured Britishness takes this perception to new extremes, extending this trend to every aspect of the nation. All aspect of Britishness, including behaviour, activities and manners will start having a pure commercial value that will then influence people's everyday lives. And this is to some extent already happening. It predicts a Britain where national identity is forcefully upheld by immigrants, in a new sort of slavery, so that it can stay a perfect and prosperous society, a spectacle to the entire world.

The project is quite provocative and I suspect that a few people might have been offended by it. What was the reactions of the visitors of the show? Both British and immigrants?

The piece was created to confront the audience with a politically contentious issues, which has seen my work met with varied reaction, and sometimes the odd raised eyebrow. On the whole, however, my audiences were exceptionally receptive to the film and I have received a great deal of interest in seeing the film extended into a full feature. I also would like to use this project as a forum for policy-orientated ideas and initiations, to challenge aspects of citizenship and its possible course in the future.

0mbclapping.jpg
Thanks Kristina!

*The 2nd and 3rd editions of The Life in the UK tests. The 3rd edition was published in April 2013, it is the most updated version.
Zoe Hough was the Editor of Kristina's answers.

0zhenhan_hao_1.jpg
Imitation Chapter 3-1

Imitation, Imitation is another project exhibited at the RCA graduation show, this time in the Design Products department (Platform 13.)

Zhenhan Hao explored China's copy culture in an attempt to go beyond the 'illegal', 'vile' and 'evil' epithets that are usually associated with the practice. In the artist/designer's own words:

I have taken on the guise of an agent and am managing two research-practices simultaneously under different social contexts. In China, I have proposed a new production model for craftspeople in Dafen village and Jingdezhen, 'the porcelain capital of China', to imitate and create at the same time. Together, we co-produced a series of improvised products that sought to inspire the imitators to explore their imagination and creativity.

Hao asked artisan imitators to use their own imagination and customize the goods that would otherwise have been mere replicas of 'Western' artworks and fashion items. He commissioned a suit, a series of ceramic vases as well as oil paintings. He would suggest that the workers stick to what they are used to (imitating famous fashion brands or Impressionist painters) while adding something personal. A cobbler created footwear that mix the design of traditional Church's shoes with the bold colour of trainers. And tailors designed a suit by mixing western aesthetics (in particular the famous Barbour jacket) with traditional Chinese patterns and symbols:

0commission as a methodology  (3).jpg

0commission as a methodology  (2).jpg

0tailorscommission as a methodology  (4).jpg

0jacketcommission as a methodology  (5).jpg

A painter specialized in replicating Van Gogh oils pictured his own bedroom in the style of the Dutch post-Impressionist:

0vangoghfigure 6.jpg
Imitation Chapter 5-1

The vases add another layer to the project as Hao asked the ceramists to 'document' their craft and its context by painting their tools and workshops on the surface of the vase:

0achariopotier.jpg
Imitation Chapter 4-1

0avasecharifigure 4.1 .jpg
Imitation Chapter 4-1

0potierefigure 1.jpg
Imitation Chapter 4-1

0vasefigure 1.1.jpg
Imitation Chapter 4-1

The artist did some kind of reverse experiment in London where he introduced Chinese imitation culture through a workshop with the absurd aim of mimic-drawing perfect circles.

0zhenhan_hao_4.jpg
Imitation Chapter 6-1

0drawing a perfect cirlce workshop (1).jpg
Imitation Chapter 6-1

I'll leave the conclusion to Zhenhan Hao:

As a Chinese national studying in London, I attempt to exploit the cultural differences and normative principles to uncover the complexity of imitation in the contemporary Chinese context. However, rather than delivering value judgments, or repeating the platitudes of political relativism, I am committed to revealing unknown matters and unfamiliar processes and keen to exploring an alternative ethic and aesthetic of imitation through my commission as a methodology as well as participatory interventions and practices.

Related story: Err (or the creativity of the factory worker), a conversation with Jeremy Hutchison.

0scene_oil_rig.jpg

The project that Owen Wells developed and exhibited at the Design Interactions graduation show this year looks at the Arctic, a region that global changes has transformed into the new El Dorado.

It is feared that Arctic summer sea ice is melting at a rate faster than predicted, and could be ice free as early as 2015. The loss of sea ice and innovations in exploitation technologies are making the Arctic region more easily accessible. And more easily exploitable. The Arctic is indeed home to the world's largest untapped gas reserves and an estimated 13% of the world's remaining oil as well as vast mineral deposits are thought to lie beneath the ocean floor. The resources expose the Arctic to corporate greed and to potential geopolitical tension caused by unresolved sovereignty claims.

Well's research project, Who Owns The Arctic, identifies the weakest territorial points and the legal loops in the status of the Arctic sea region to devise four subversive ways to overcome the legislation and shake the system that protects the Arctic.

Through an examination of the weaknesses of systems subversion can be seen as a form of critique - a deceitful narration of legitimate practices. With the help of several members of my own family who offered specific expertise, I have planned 4 subversive financial enterprises for the arctic. Each seeks to exploit the unique infrastructure, ecology, and legal ambiguity of the region to provide devious financial rewards. The project takes the form of scenes, maps and equipment. Through their planning, these schemes identify and expose the legitimate systems set to exploit the Arctic.

0scene_beluga.jpg

The first scheme is called The Mineral Rush. Under the guise of a normal fishing routine on the west coast of Svalbard, Russian men feed Beluga whales with by-catch stuffed with lithium. Whales soon start to show the early signs of lithium toxicity and after 5 days, suffer seizures, organ failure, and eventually die. When the mammals are washed onto the west coast of Svalbard, experts conclude that the metal in their bodies indicates the presence of vast deposits of lithium off the Svalbard coast. These rumors ultimately trickling through to the 39 signatory states of the Svalbard treaty, countries who retain the right to undertake commercial activities on the island without discrimination.

0scene_crab_pot.jpg
Crab pot

0fishing_dispute_route.jpg
Fishing dispute route

In the second scheme, The Fishing Dispute, Russian crab boats travel to the northern tip of the Bering sea. Once the ships have entered the Alaskan king crab fisheries, 20 icosahedron crab pots are deployed and the vessels return to waters within the Russian exclusive economic zone. 2 days later, they come back to tow the catch north, 1,600 km underwater. The pots are released in the Beaufort sea where fishing rights are still claimed by both America and Canada. After 5 days the cotton netting surrounding the pots dissolves, freeing the crabs. An anonymous press leak reporting catches of King crab far beyond their normal range is later sent to newspapers in both Barrow, Alaska, and Toktoyaktuk Harbor, Canada. The resulting scramble for the prized crab meat will greatly increase the opportunity for confrontation between Canadian and American fishermen, driven by confusion over fishing rights.

A third scheme involves an oil spill caused by devices placed on top of icebergs that travel from the northern tip of Greenland into to North Atlantic. On this journey they float past Hans Island and onto the oil fields of Baffin bay and the Labrador sea where, if spotted, they are usually towed a safe distance from the pipelines and oil rigs. But in this scenario the remotely activated devices would shake the iceberg apart. Still large enough to sink a ship or damage a rig, the smaller chunks of ice would not be detected by radar nor by the naked eye. The icebergs would thus float quietly onwards to the oil fields.

0scene_pipeline.jpg

The last scenario involves a man working for the Keystone Pipeline, a pipeline system that transports oil sands bitumen from Canada and the northern United States "primarily to refineries in the Gulf Coast" of Texas. The man's job is to operate a pig launching station. He makes extra money by smuggling goods across borders on board of a "pig", a devices used to clean and survey the pipeline.

More details about each scheme can be found in this PDF.

Hi Owen! You asked members of your family to help you create 4 subversive financial enterprises for the Arctic. What are their areas of expertise? And why did you decide to work with members of your family? To show that anyone can do it? 

Finding the true direction of the project was quite a painful process. After lots of research and deliberation looking for what I was interested in it dawned on me that specific friends and members of my immediate family had a really unique but highly specialised set of skills that I could hypothetically corrupt. I don't want to give too much away about them because I respect their anonymity, but the main area of expertise I was able to draw upon centered around aspects of the shipping industry. It was through this advice that I was made aware of the Arctic as an environment where climate change is in the process of rendering the region potentially prone to corporate profiteering and political tension. In the latter stages of the project I also had advice on finance, and icebergs.

The dialogue around the amount of sensitive information readily available on the internet is pretty visible, particularly at the moment. While there is undoubtedly a huge amount of inspiration for potential deviants on the internet (The UN website offers information on how to set up shipping front companies if you're willing to sit through some very dry videos) the opportunity to "physically" construct this kind of network, around the dinner table so to speak, was far too enticing. The implication that anyone can do it is defiantly a big part of the spirit of the project.

0aa9owen19d.jpg
Owen Wells, Who Owns The Arctic. Installation at the RCA graduation show. Image d_&_r

The texts describing the four enterprises in the show looked as if they were merely the start of a thriller. Why did you give just set the scene and didn't go further in the description of the scenario? 

I planned each of the four parts of the project pretty meticulously. I scouted locations, used google maps to plan how far and for long different actions would take. I produced inventories for different sections of the trips, found out how and where I get important pieces of equipment, and how many people were involved at any one time. Rather than display these as maps I decided to condense them into introductory texts. The scale of the schemes was far larger than anything I had dealt with before and so the texts gave me a way of contextualising them within the voice of individual characters. While specific locations might not be instantly recognisable I trust that the region is visible enough to begin to imagine what each of the schemes is suggesting.

In a way the schemes themselves serve as introductions - a way of describing the complexity of problems that climate change provokes beyond the environmental effects that everyone is aware of by now. There is room for them to be presented in more detail and I hope to develop the project beyond its current incarnation. Perhaps I might hold one of the arctic states to ransom in order to fund it.

0aa3_who_owns_the_arctic-620x348.jpg

0paaaIceberg-Towing-from-Oil-Platform-National-Geographic.jpg
Ship Towing an Iceberg. Source: Randy Olson, National Geographic

Several objects were exhibited in the show. Can you explain the one linked to the oil spill? How would it work exactly? Which technology does it use? And could you confirm how it would eventually trigger an oil spill? Would it be through an encounter similar to the one that sank the Titanic?

Of the four objects in the show that one is by far the most speculative in terms of how well it would work in the field. Icebergs are such an ominous symbols of danger that I had to include them, but they are notoriously difficult to destroy. The mechanisms through which they are created make them incredibly tough - there are reports of dropping bombs on them and only making a dent.

The device that I exhibited was an amalgamation of a helmholtz resonator and an autodialing device. The autodialing device would cycle through frequencies until it found the resonance frequency of the ice, similar to the way autodialling machines could theoretically crack a safe. The frequency would then resonate though the Helmhotlz resonator into fracture lines that are formed when icebergs calve from the face of a glacier and fall into the sea. The resonance effect would eventually cause the iceberg to break itself apart through vibration, forming smaller but potentially far more dangerous chunks of ice. In practice it is difficult to predict the effect this would have on an iceberg because it is dependent on structure not dampening the effects of resonance. I couldn't confidently tell you if it would work in the field, but the object serves a narrative purpose so plausibility won out.

The weakness lies not in the icebergs themselves but in the system through which they are found and tracked. There are daily iceberg reports available through the International Ice Patrol (an entity whose existence was brought about by the sinking of the Titanic). Their main tool for finding Icebergs is Side looking Airborne Radar (SLAR), so if an object can evade radar (which smaller chunks of ice smoothed by the erosion of ocean are good at) then effectively it remains invisible to the system. Part of the current research on icebergs is about developing a way of towing them from collision courses with oil rigs. The actions of the individuals in the oil spill scenario are intended to make the icebergs invisible to radar by turning larger ones into fragments, flooding an oil rich area with ice that cannot be detected and hopefully (in this instance) won't be spotted in time to be towed from a collision course.

0potential_weak_points_map.jpg
Potential weak points map

I'm afraid i didn't understand very well the Mineral Rush scenario, the one with the Beluga whales poisoned by lithium. The start is crystal clear but it's the consequences of the perceived presence of lithium off the Svalbard coast that isn't so easy to understand. How are the 39 signatory states of the Svalbard treaty supposed to react to the lithium deposit? 

The Archipelago officially became part of Norway under the terms of the Svalbard treaty. This treaty also states that the signatory countries (whose exact numbers fluctuate depending on what you're reading) have equal rights to exploit mineral deposits in Svalbard. This scheme relies on the stock market to spread a rumor that there is a potentially valuable mineral wealth that has been made visible through its effects on the local food chain. Money could be made through buying land and the selling it once its value has risen due to the potential for prospecting. Alternatively the rumor could be used to engineer demand for legitimate infrastructure.

This one is by far the most complex of all the schemes and admittedly would benefit from a far more in depth demonstration of how it could function.

Finally, i was interested in knowing about antecedents for this exploitation of the weaknesses behind the laws and rules that protect the Arctic region. Did you come across similarly devious tricks from fishermen, speculators, businessmen or others? 

Around Australia there are lots of reports of people smuggling operations exploiting a part of maritime law that states that you must always help a boat in distress. If the authorities intercept them on route then they will feign distress and by maritime law have to be towed to the nearest port rather than turned around. This only seems to delay the inevitable rather than allowing them to achieve their goal.

As I previously mentioned you can find out from the UN website a process that allows you to set up what amounts to a collection of front companies through a relatively cheap corporate web. This is a practice that is legitimate, pretty common in shipping, and is openly advertised. You have nominee directors and have physical shares that can be handed to people rather than existing digitally, so the real owner can remain anonymous. To see how this system worked at a very basic level, I got a quote to incorporate a company in the Marshall Islands on behalf of 5 Norwegian businessmen I pretended to represent; it was a very convenient service.

In the open ocean laws and rules become a little abstract because the high seas are still the high seas - Jurisdiction becomes incredibly complex and in some places redundant. There are international waters where ships come under the jurisdiction of the state under whose flag they sail, but if that state has no interest in bringing them to justice then law becomes unenforceable. Piracy proliferates in these areas. It's completely anarchic in places, and forms a big part of international shipping discourse. Once the Arctic sea ice melts more thoroughly then ships will be able to pass through sea routes in the Arctic and avoid piracy areas, as well as save huge sums of money on fuel. This is why the Arctic is about to become so important to shipping.

If you want a good example of corruption at sea then have a look at the Salem case from 1980. It is too long to explain here but it involves government officials, a criminal sea captain and scuttling a supertanker during the South African oil embargo.

As for the Arctic I haven't heard anything specifically about exploiting the law in the region. That doesn't mean that there isn't anything, but it still won't be really accessible on a large scale for a number of years, so for now any underhand behavior is still hidden. At a governmental level the consensus appears to be to promote good relations between the Arctic states and protect the environment. This is fantastic, but the Arctic is a long way from prying eyes, so as a theatre of deviance (both "legitimate" and "illegitimate") it will surely become a very attractive prospect, if not already.

If I may I would like to say thank you to Alexa Pollmann, Hyung-ok Park, Lana Z Porter, Mohammed Ali, Shing Tat Chung and the family and friends without whom this project would not have been possible.

Thanks Owen!

All images courtesy Owen Wells.

Also at the graduation show: Post Cyberwar Series and Circumventive hybrid organs.

 1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  |  8  |  9  |  10 
sponsored by: