Moritz Simon Geist is a classical musician and a robotics engineer who builds his own musical instruments and seems to genuinely and tirelessly have fun in the process. The most famous of his creations is the MR-808, an oversized replica of the TR-808 produced by Roland to reproduce drum sounds. This 1980s electronic drum machine imitated the drum so inadequately that it actually created its own sound. The distinctive 'thump thump' became an integral part of hip hop music, gained iconic status with Marvin Gaye's Sexual Healing and reached such a cult position within the music industry that even Kayne West paid tribute to the machine in his hit album 808s and Heartbreak.
Geist's TR-808 opens up MR-808's guts and allows us to see how the sounds are mechanically produced. The installation recreates 11 sounds of the TR-808 using mechanical actuators and physical tone generators and displays them inside an oversized wooden replica of the original instrument.
The artist went further with the installation MR-808 Interactive that invites the audience to collectively program the instrument using a touchpad.
His most intriguing creation however is probably the Glitch Robot which uses small robots to move, beat, hit and produce acoustic sounds, emphasizing thus the origin of the sound in a way no conventional medium of electronic music production is able to.
Moritz Simon Geist and his Sonic Robots will be performing at the Rokolective festival in Bucharest on 11th and 12th of September. The weekend of performances is part of SHAPE, a European platform for innovative music and audiovisual art. I thought i'd take the event as an excuse to get in touch with the artist and discover more about his robots, ambitions and passions:
Hi Moritz! First, i've got to ask about the Roland TR-808. What attracted you to the instrument and made you want to develop a work based on it? Did you have one before making robots, for example?
Unfortunately, I never owned an 808, although it was invented in the year of my birth! I started dealing with electronics and robotics when I was quiet young. I started playing guitar at 14 and building my own guitar effects. From there I somehow got to robotics - now you would call it sound art - hacking the vinyl and tape recorder of my parents (the were not amused!). Years later I continued with robotic sound experiments. And then one day - I suppose it was in a bar or under the shower - I had the idea to give all these experiments a "frame" and to take the most famous drum machine of all time was kind of obvious after that. Actually during the building process I was obsessed for some time that somebody might come up with that project before me. Well .. it didn't so happen, maybe the idea wasn't that SO obvious.
You are a musician and the musical instruments you create are visually very striking. They are both elegant and playful. What guides the aesthetically choices you make while developing a new machine? And how important is the visual aspect of the robot?
I never studied Design or Arts, so in the beginning I wasn't used to all these fancy design processes, mood boards and the like, and I did most of it just by "well-that feels good / that doesn't".
Still the visual aspect is probably 50% of music robots. If an art piece doesn't convince visually, it loses a lot of its power. People can get an "image" so much easier, where you would need five sentences in text to describe the idea, and attention is the most hard-fought currency.
One might have the best concept and the best idea but in the end it needs an image to get that direct contact to the audience' attention. So design is definitely super important.
When I start building a new machine I try to get an overall picture of what I want. In general in robotics big movements are good. You can see something good when it's moving a lot. But on the other hand this is the most difficult to do - big motors, heavy equipment, long latencies. So you ask yourself: How shall it look like on stage? How can I videotape it? What time shall it refer too (70s, retro futurism, steam punk ..)? Then you can get example pictures and you get an overall idea of how things shall be and you start to design.
Still, in the end, time always runs out and you are hunted by pragmatism, leaving all your design aspects aside. Music Robotics is such a big field - mechanics, electronics, programming, music - so all theses things come before the design when the piece has to be released in two weeks.
I'm very intrigued by MR-808 interactive where the MR-808 is programmed live by the audience. Could you tell us how it works? How can people collaboratively control a robot drum machine without the whole experience turning in to a cacophony?
The idea is that you can make a rhythm (with a step sequencer). But you don't do it alone, it's an open system where everybody can collaborate. Like GoogleDocs for music. Let's jam together - on a big drum robot! Actually you could drive any drum computer with this system it doesn't have to be the MR-808.
Technically speaking its a Node.js server which renders a website that interacts with a SuperCollider Sequencer which spits out midi. We are big fans of open source, you can find the code here https://github.com/Sonicrobots/MR-808
In theory you can interact with as many people as you like. But at our exhibitions only 2 people can play with the robot. For a good reason: Once, I was working with an art group and they developed a simple sketch board where you can write and paint stuff with a projector and it gets displayed in public. We let the people paint for hours, but after less than one hour somebody always would write something obscene of offensive. We called that "Mean Time To Dick". Roughly 30 minutes. So this always happens. Call it cacophony or Media arts vandalism. If you are standing beside the installation for 2-3h you will see that it moves like a wave: at one hour people create something beautiful, then a small group comes in and it gets totally annoying. Than beautiful again.
So in MR-808 interactive, the robot does the music, the audience controls it. What's your role in there?
Actually - yes! There is not much to do but explaining and fixing if something is broken. And that's actually the idea with robots isn't it? They shall do the work, not me!
I was reading in your bio that you are giving talks about the progression of robotics and society. So what's your take on the role that robots will play in our society? nowadays they seem to be used mostly in entertainment or industrial contexts.
Actually, the progression in the field of artificial intelligence and machine learning (the "brain" of robotics) is quite fast these days. Google bought several robotic and robot intelligence companies including DeepMind and BostonDynamics, which resulted in fascinating to frightening results. The singularity (when machines reach the consciousness of humans) might be decades away, but a lot of steps have already been taken. You can take random science fiction literature to conceive how the world would look then. Maybe its a dystopia - or humanity will finally listen, when big machines tells them to stop the suicidal party we are currently holding on our planet.
I don't associate robots with fallibility. I thought they were supposed to perform simple tasks impeccably. Yet, you say that with your robots you are interested in introducing more "error" into the music. Could you comment on that? Why are errors so fascinating to you?
And could you give us some example of these errors that the robots made that surprised, inspired or delighted you? (if that's possible to explain in words!)
That's many questions! One big topic is that industrial robots cannot be compared with the "experimental" DIY robots that I am building. Industrial robots are good and well tested and rarely fail. Experimental robots are - experimental! They do stuff you don't plan them to do. They are not tested. They are hacked together from trash and kitchen equipment.
It appears when you play with them. The robotic stick doesn't always hit in the right moment - like a drunken drummer. The piezo microfon moves and suddenly you have a crazy humming on the record. You have sudden and unexpected sound crosstalk. If you play two instruments at a same time a third one will trigger because the electronics is acting weird. A midi note hangs and the whole system is skipping or looping for one second. It's not predictable.
And this is one of the things that I like: Digital art (digital music) is predictable and well calculated. Music robots aren't. The concept behind this is, that if you have a predefined and strict set of creative tools and functions it always gets you to the same result.
Which artists or figures from the music, robotics or art worlds do you find inspiring?
I really adore the work of Julian Oliver. His artistic and theoretic concepts make so much sense together and I am a big fan of the Critical Engineering manifesto. For some time I was also a big fan of Bre Pettis (Founder of makerbot) but he really disappointed everybody, including me. Apart from that - of course - my friends Andi and Jan from Mouse On Mars who taught me a lot about bass, error and how to deal with sound and the mystery of sound in general. Wizard geniuses, both of them!
You are going to participate to Rokolectiv festival in Bucharest this September. What will you be performing/showing there?
I will perform with the MR-808 Robot and some hacked music gear like a game boy and some modded and self build sound sculptures. We have the interactive MR-808 installations but initially it was meant to be an instrument on stage.
Don't miss Moritz Simon Geist from Sonic Robots at the Rokolective festival which will take place inside the Halele Carol former power station in Bucharest on 11th and 12th of September. The event is part of SHAPE, a dynamic European platform for innovative music and audiovisual art.
Along with Geist's presentation and performance, the festival will also feature sound performances and DJ sets by Raze de Soare, Lorenzo Senni, Sergiu Doroftei, Low Jack, DJ Nigga Fox, RSS Boys, Borusiade and Cote.
More photos of Sonic Robots in action on flickr.
Sudden Justice: America's Secret Drone Wars, by investigative journalist Chris Woods.
Publisher Oxford University Press writes: In Sudden Justice, award-winning investigative journalist Chris Woods explores the secretive history of the United States' use of armed drones and their key role not only on today's battlefields, but also in a covert targeted killing project that has led to the deaths of thousands. The CIA nurtured and developed drones before the War on Terror ever began, seeking a platform from which it could monitor its targets and act lethally and instantly on the intelligence it gathered. Since then, remotely piloted aircraft have played a critical role in America's global counter-terrorism operations and have been deployed to devastating effect in conventional wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Drone crews, analysts, intelligence officials and military commanders all speak frankly to the author about how armed drones revolutionized warfare--and the unexpected costs to some of those involved.
Sudden Justice is probably the most talked about drone book of the year. It is also the most detailed, the most thorough study of the evolution of weaponised drone warfare you can find. The author, Chris Woods, is an investigative journalist who specializes in conflict and national security issues. He was awarded the Martha Gellhorn Journalism Prize for his investigations into covert U.S. drone strikes with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. He also contributes to The Guardian.
In preparation to this book and as part of his work as a journalist, Woods has interviewed former drone operators and mission controllers, retired intelligence commanders, senior Air Force officials and psychologists, US Navy veterans, diplomats, parents of young people killed during the strikes, survivors of attacks, etc. In short, anyone who had any (voluntary or not) role to play in this new form of asymmetrical warfare is bringing their own view about the issue.
The use of weaponized drones outside of the battlefields is one of the most worrying characteristics of our times. At the time Woods was writing the book, drones had already killed 3000 people. Some of them civilians, not militants. The author reminds us, for example, that when Obama's presidency was just 72h old, he had already authorized a secret action that accidentally killed 14 civilians.
By acting as judge, jury and executioner, the U.S. is not only setting a worrying template for the future of warfare, its is also antagonizing the populations targeted (drone strikes have apparently become a recruiting tool and a motivator for jihadists), creating a new generation of operators so stressed that psychologists still have to invent a word that would describe their condition, and alienating allied countries that believe (rightly) that the targeted killing practice is illegal.
There's no sign of a slowdown. Since 2010, the US Air Force has been training more drone pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined. And the Obama administration intends to keep on eschewing any request for transparency and accountability.
A Theory of the Drone, by philosopher Grégoire Chamayou
Publisher The New Press writes: In a unique take on a subject that has grabbed headlines and is consuming billions of taxpayer dollars each year, philosopher Grégoire Chamayou applies the lens of philosophy to our understanding of how drones are changing our world. For the first time in history, a state has claimed the right to wage war across a mobile battlefield that potentially spans the globe. Remote-control flying weapons, he argues, take us well beyond even George W. Bush's justification for the war on terror.
What we are seeing is a fundamental transformation of the laws of war that have defined military conflict as between combatants. As more and more drones are launched into battle, war now has the potential to transform into a realm of secretive, targeted assassinations--beyond the view and control not only of potential enemies but also of citizens of the democracies themselves. Far more than a simple technology, Chamayou shows, drones are profoundly influencing what it means for a democracy to wage war. A Theory of the Drone will be essential reading for all who care about this important question.
When a journalist of Libération asked Chamayou about the motivations behind the book, he replied that "some philosophers in the United States and in Israel work hand in hand with the military to elaborate what I call a 'necro-ethics' that tries to justify targeted assassinations. So it is urgent to respond. When ethics is brought into a war, philosophy becomes a battlefield." (via)
Chamayou is a researcher in philosophy. A title that might sound a bit daunting for some readers. But fear not, A Theory of the Drone is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking. The rhythm of the author's reflections are fluid and easy to follow, the chapters are concise and highlight with precision a particular aspect of the weapon under study and Chmayou's references might sometimes be heavy (yet never obscure) on Kant but he also quotes Albert Camus, Harun Farocki, Eyal Weizman and even mentions Adam Harvey's anti-drone clothing.
I haven't read many books about drones. In fact, i think this is the first one i read about the topic but i doubt i could find another publication that explains with so much ease and intelligence the dilemmas posed by unmanned aerial vehicles to the traditional codes of war.
Of course i've always had a visceral feeling that the use of drones by the U.S. and Israeli military is debatable, not to say coward and unethical. Chamayou's book articulates with precision and rigorous references to the history of war philosophy what is wrong with this form of unilateral warfare. Chapter after chapter, his books explores questions such as: What happen to the traditional principles of a military ethos of bravery and sacrifice when only one side of the conflict shoots and deprive the other of the possibility of fighting back? And more generally, how can one justify homicide in a noncombat situation? How does one-way-only armed violence distinguishes between fighting and killing? Within what legal framework do drone strikes take place? What does it mean for a zone of armed conflict to be fragmented into kill boxes the size of a human body? How does post traumatic stress disorder in this context differs from the one experienced by soldiers who fought on the battlefield? How do local populations hack and defy drones? How do you recognize a combatant dressed as a civilian, outside the zone of combat? etc.
The final pages of the book look at how the use of drones, a technology developed in a military context, is already seeping into civil society -mostly for police purposes- and what this will mean in the future for the subjects of a drone-state.
Perhaps part of the answer can be found in this image and these words i found in one of the last chapters of A Theory of the Drone:
In 1924, a popularizing scientific magazine announced a new invention: a radio-commanded policing automaton. The robocop of the twenties was to be equipped with projective eyes, caterpillar tracks, and, to serve as fists, rotating blow-dealing truncheons inspired by the weapons of the Middle Ages.
On its lower belly, a small metal penis allowed it to spray tear gas at unruly parades of human protesters. It had an exhaust outlet for an anus. This ridiculous robot that pissed tear gas and farted black smoke provides a perfect illustration of an ideal of a drone state.
GAMERZ in Aix-en-Provence is probably the only festival in Europe that doesn't bat an eyelid when an artist proposes to organize a performance in which drones modified to be fairly dumb roam freely and menacingly over a room of spectators. This might not sound scary until you realize that a dumb drone is even more dangerous than a smart drone.
The two UAVs of the DRONE.2000 performance are guided by the simple algorithms of a Roomba robot. Clearly, that's not enough intelligence for them as they bump against the walls, fly far too close to the audience, dart green arrows over the heads and emit a noise that has been amplified to the point of discomfort. This could have ended in tears and bruises (but it didn't.)
The only direct experience most of us have of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) is fairly benign. We know them through hacking, art, cinema or video games. One day, these flying machines will also deliver our parcels, help coordinate firefighting efforts or keep a 'benevolent' eye over sports games. How far should their autonomy and power go? Do we trust them? Do we trust the ones who manufacture and control them?
Drone.2000 is part of a series of works by Nicolas Maigret that reminds us of the military origins and use of technologies that have reached the mainstream. Here, trusting the autonomy of the machine is not only a discursive concept, Maigret writes, but a true experience shared with the audience, triggering off their reactions, tensions and commitment of their bodies in situation of real danger..
I was in Aix-en-Provence for the opening of the GAMERZ festival but had to leave before the start of the performance so i asked Nicolas Maigret to give us the lowdown on his work:
Bonjour Nicolas! Which model of drone were you using in this performance?
These are Parrot AR.Drone 2.0. The advantage of this model is that it is widely used and very hack-able. A large community is working on hijacking it for different uses. (see: nodecopter = hackathon, ardupilot.com = auto-pilot, copterface = facial recognition ...)
Can you explain how you modified the drone?
The challenge was really to confuse the public, to have it face the autonomy of the machines (in this case flying ones). And add to that a confrontation with instability, fragility, and the potential danger of algorithms that govern the autonomous behavior of these machine.
To do this we have reproduced the primary behaviors of a robot / vacuum cleaner like iRobot Roomba. Which means that the Drone is absolutely not aware of his surroundings, it only knows its height and rotates randomly from time to time when it bumps against an obstacle (walls, etc). We blocked the cameras normally used to stabilize the position, the Drone is literally un-intelligent. He does not know the position of the other drones either.
These changes entail an underlying sense of danger, a sort of sword of Damocles that is quite striking. Especially since these same drones falls down rather frequently (whether there is a public or not).
Each drone is also equipped with vibration sensors under the propellers. These sounds were gradually amplified during the performance, until the beating blades gets a real physical presence. This activates a martial connotation in the brutality of the contemporary sounds - this aspect recalls the sound approaches of the Futurists (or their reactivations such as Jean-Marc Vivenza's Aérobruitisme Dynamique). However, the Futurists harboured a progressive and inclusive form of hope, whereas I believe that we now have a very different rapport, we feel a growing distrust towards the widespread propaganda of technological innovations that have very little in common with yesteryear's myth of progress.
How did the public react? Were they aware of the danger?
Public reactions alternated between discomfort, nervousness, and humor.
The awkward movements of the Drones quickly made the danger tangible. Initially, most of the audience intuitively chose to stand near the walls, on the sides of the room. I think this was the time when anxiety was at its peak. Then people gradually got closer or they sat down around the space. Some even tried to interfere with the flight of these Zombie Drones. Ironically, the walls of the room, which were the places where most people gathered, were also the places where the drones usually fell.
It should be noted that the Drones also intermittently emit a laser target in the shape of a cross towards the public, openly evoking the military and oppressive parallel of this same technology that has quickly been gamified for the general public, in particular with drones plug and play like AR.Drones. (see the project blurb.)
Drone.2000. i love that name but the 2000 is ironic, right? it makes me think of all those shops called 'Fashion 2000' "Car dealer 2000" in the 1980s and 1990s.
The title is clearly ironic. At least it summons an imaginary future as it existed in the past, especially one related to the autonomous flying objects that we encountered in sci-fi and anticipation literature, film, comics, tv series.
I think there is something of the self-fulfilling prophecy in these generational fantasies inspired by sci-fi, the entertainment industry, and more generally the effect of the zeitgeist. Indeed, entire generations grow up with a common imaginary, whether they are dystopian, critical or not. Later, as they are adults, some mechanically attempt to achieve a more or less faithful realization of that imaginary. (This is also a key point of Jean-Baptiste Bayle's Terminator Studies, or of Nicolas Nova's latest book). I think that's part of what we've been seeing over the last 20 years through a series of gadgets and "innovations", emerging notably from the Californian ideology and more generally from the new ruling class of the engineers.
The title, Drone.2000, conjures the vision of a future that is already gone, that seeks to disrupt the mask of fascination associated with innovation, and that also tends to generate a tension between our aspirations to consume science-fiction artifacts and the ideology they carry.
The term drone crystallizes fairly well this tension between, on the one hand, a fun and fascinating artifact coming from the world of model-making and on the other hand, a new paradigm in the relationship to the "clean and surgical" war (Grégoire Chamayou, Drone Theory) or a probable near future characterized by widespread surveillance and control.
It is for these reasons among others that I wanted to make the Drones completely autonomous and disturbing, a symbolic intersection between these three references.
Also by Nicolas Maigret: The Pirate Cinema, A Cinematic Collage Generated by P2P Users.
Somewhere between military robots, Amazon drones knocking on your door to deliver a parcel, and the rise in machine intelligence, lies what some call The Terminator Scenario. Jean-Baptiste Bayle has spent the past few years looking at the fear and likeliness that our society is getting closer to the one depicted in the 1984 science fiction film The Terminator. The Terminator Studies timeline, map and news collection propose a reinterpretation of a Sci-fi blockbuster. The picture that emerges from this research hovers between cinematographic prophecy and History contaminated by fiction.
The Terminator Studies is going to be exhibited from tomorrow on in Pau, France, as part of the Disnovation show and the accès)s( festival of digital culture. Until i get there (next month! next month!), i wanted to have a quick online chat with the artist:
Hi Jean-Baptiste! People can navigate the Terminator Studies via news feed, a map or a timeline. Could you explain how they complete each other? Why did you chose this kind of 'architecture' for the work?
First of all I stand like an observer and I collect webshots (screenshots of the web) as evidence. So the website is a repository for this collection, an archive which represents a knowledge resource for the project. The feed is curated, all items are handpicked from diverse sources. So the feed and the timeline are basically the same type of visualisation in a different order, but the map is more subjective, and shows relations, factual, subversive or symbolic, in between all the topics, so that it evolves with time and the flux of events.
I actually really like the map. I wish i could see a big print of it. Would that make sense to you?
And when you exhibit the project in festivals, what does the idea set up look like? That huge map i'm dreaming of and then a computer to explore the project?
Yes, the map, printed is really intriguing . It becomes a modern "fresque". It's a software generated mashup of screenshots, logos, and portraits. And of course it's better to have the electronic version to explore fully the links.
The project was first commissioned by the online platform of Le Jeu de Paume in Paris in 2011. It has since been shown during Sight and Sound in Montreal last year and this year it will be shown during Acces-S in Pau, France.
I also present the state of the art of the research in conference/keynote like the one at Gaité Lyrique in May, and completed with a workshop to practice the survival guide of the internet.
When and how did you realize that the "terminator scenario" is becoming increasingly likely to become reality one day?
In fact it is already happening . Exactly what do we call the Terminator scenario? Technological take over? As most of the population is increasingly being used by/or uses computers everyday : we are living it. Technological cataclysm ? What about Chernobyl ? Fukushima ? GMO ? or asbestos ? Ecological doom ? Here we go.. Scientists and experts now talk of existential risk! It's true if not new, but a major cause of thoses threats is unaccountability, and should be avoidable in theory.
It all started in the 80s during the Reagan era, another Hollywood actor : the software industry, the pc computer, high frequency trading, NSA surveillance, DARPA robots, and the scenario of the Terminator movie (1984) was inspired by those hypes.
In this sense we are already in a worst case scenario a la "Terminator", and that is probably one of the reason why the movie is such a reference.. It's even used by government representatives and experts during debates on autonomous killing machine ban at the UN.
Cameron is lucid about this: he's working hand in hand with the military, cultivates the image of a ecologically concerned filmmaker, but while he's producing a global warming documentary series for cable tv, at the same times he's on board with a company that plans to mine resources missing on Earth on other planets..
From what you have discovered during your research for this project, who will be the losers of this terminator society? the whole humanity? Or just the masses? And who will be the winners, if there will be any, in the long term?
It's important to understand the pragmatic approach of the Terminator Studies. The goal is not to make predictions but to understand bits of contemporary history. It's interesting that you ask about the "Terminator society" because this concept of extermination is very similar to the capitalist process. In fact the capitalist society is a Terminator society. Terminator is also the name of a technology patented by Monsanto, which is a sterile seeds, also called suicide seeds, to force farmers to buy new seeds every year. The capitalist society is fundamentally suicidal. So for now, we can clearly see losers and winners, but it's more in terms of domination structure.
In China, the people building ipads and iphone at Foxconn factory don't have the same perception of modernity as Apple customers do. They don't share the same everyday issues.
San Francisco is now over-gentrified by the Silicon Valley folks and lots of people face eviction or cannot afford the city anymore. We see that some Californians now see the Tech industry as severely predatory. It creates a lot less common goods than it consumes... The etymology of robot is rooted in feudalistic society. And there is this kind of cynicism in the Californian tech elite, mostly white, that trash themselves once a year in luxury caravan in the middle of the desert, during the Burning Man festival. Think that Megan Ellison, the daughter of the 5th richest man in the world, software industry tycoon Larry Ellison, who is 25, has bought the rights of the Terminator franchise for about 30 million dollars. That also is real.
There is also the information class war. Our biggest enemy is ignorance, the whole domination process is based on the culture of ignorance (or as Robert Proctor coined it : agnotology). The tobacco industry, the deadliest industry , has invented the management of scientific doubt and by so improved its non liability and its sustainability. Now this applies to everything from GMO to global warming, to data retention, bank industry or even the state. That's why an initiative like Wikileaks is so vital and imperative in this time.
On internet, most of the users are forced into accepting contracts without even reading them, and thus become willingly serfs of google, facebook, or whatever Californian goulag.
Artists can play a major role, if they choose an ethical model of action, in re-infesting the collective consciousness through alternative storytelling. For example Paolo Cirio or Julian Oliver have explicitly directed theirs works towards systems, and make effective proposals to alter their efficiency, even temporarily. But this process of creative resistance must be appropriated by everyone.. Perhaps that was also the goal or the dream of James Cameron to bring awareness when he created the Terminator, though I doubt it.
Since you've been scanning the press for a few years now, do you think that journalists are doing a good job at weighting in the pros and cons of a world ruled by machines and AI?
Generally the press doesn't do much journalism, with a few exceptions. AI takeover, as a topic, is quite unclear for a non expert especially with all the science fiction references, which tends to simplify it and make it acceptable. This is also called the James Bond effect, when people are already used to situations they saw multiple times in movies, like war, violence or surveillance..
At the same time it is very hard to talk about robots or our technology without mentionning science fiction references because in fact it all comes from it.. Hugo de Garis and others transhumanists consider science fiction as quasi biblical tell. Activists against autonomous killer robots opted for an opposite communication strategy and avoid any references to distopic science fiction tells (so called skynet factor), to make clear that this is a real threat and not a fictive one.
Thus the figure of the terminator is always ambiguous : it represents the domination but it's also part of it, in the sense that it has not been fully reappropriated like, say, the Anonymous mask.
Terminator Studies is shown at the DISNOVATION exhibition, on October 8th- December 6th, as part of the 14th edition of the accès)s( festival which will run November 13th -16th, 2014, at Le Bel Ordinaire, Billière + associated venues in Pau & around. The programme was curated by Nicolas Maigret and Bertrand Grimault.
The Oaxaca Valley in Mexico is regarded as the heartland of corn diversity. Not only can cultivation of the plant in the region be traced back to over 6000 years ago, it also presents the highest genetic diversity of corn in the country.
Yet, this rich and ancestral biodiversity is threatened by the introduction of genetically modified seeds in the region. In November, 2001, David Quist and Ignacio Chapela from the University of California, Berkeley published an article in the journal Nature in which they reported that some of Oaxaca native corn had been contaminated by pollen from genetically modified corn. Unsurprisingly, the essay was heavily criticized by academics who had suspicious ties with the biotechnology industry.
An exhibition at the MACO, Oaxaca Contemporary Art Museum, reflects local attempts to preserve Oaxaca's rich genetic heritage. The 'corn issue' cannot be reduced to a fight against the transgenic industry, it is also a battle to preserve a whole culture, an identity and a certain vision of the world.
Bioartefactos. Desgranar lentamente un maíz (Bioartefacts. Slowly treshing corn) presents 9 installations which highlight the 'artefact' nature of corn. The plant is a biological artefact because it is the result of a human domestication that took place thousands of years ago and it has in turn shaped the whole country over as many years.
The works exhibited include a robot that 3d prints then plants seeds made of a biopolymer created from corn (PLA), an installation that monitors and visualizes the breathing of corn as well as a series of corn plants connected with electrodes to record the interaction between plants and humans.
I haven't visited the show but the theme, the works selected and the political undertones deserved to be further investigated so i contacted María Antonia González Valerio, curator of the exhibition and director of Arte+Ciencia (Art+Science), asked her for an interview and she kindly agreed to answer my questions.
Hi María! Could you explain the political and economical context of the exhibition?
The exhibition faces a difficult political and economical context in Mexico. Political decisions, in general, are being taken without including the actual living conditions and opinions of Mexican people. This makes us ask how is a community organized, how is it build. Which, of course, has no easy answer. It depends not only on the cultural context of the community, but also on the economical context. Diversity of possibilities of organization is something that we want to stress with the exhibition. Given the political context, that is very artificial and faraway from everyday life, and given the economical conditions, that in general terms and related to politics are benefiting the big and international enterprises, we need to find a way to preserve cultural diversity and biodiversity. This is not an easy task. But if we can show that there are many ways to dwell in this world, and that the capitalism-Western style is still not the only one, but a possibility among others, then we are making a strong point. It is then very important to highlight the complexity of the problems, the many perspectives, the way in which they are related and co-dependent, that is, that economical and political context have a lot to do with cultural diversity and biodiversity.
Why does the exhibition focuses on corn, rather than any other cereal or edible plant?
Corn is a special plant for Mexico. It has many layers for us. Corn is related to cultural identity, land, food, religion, mythology, rites, family, economy, animals, etc. By stressing the ways in which corn is produced, grown and used in different contexts, we want to meditate on the different aspects that constitute also different worldviews.
Corn is still the basis of Mexican nourishment. What is the relationship that we have to our food? We can at least point to the industrialized way in which it is being produced in the north of the country, the traditional way like in rural Oaxaca, and the indigenous way also taken Oaxaca as an example. From the very much-mediated relationship to food that we have in the cities where everything comes from markets and supermarkets, to the self-subsistent system of corn growth and consumption in rural Oaxaca, we can think about the different ways in which we build our world. Instead of thinking of opposites, I believe that people from the cities have a lot to learn from the countryside, not only in respect to food consumption, but also from the different ways of life. In the same sense, the city has a lot to teach to the countryside.
We cannot face the problem of corn, food, GMO's, biotechnology, etc. only thinking about economical, biological or scientific issues, the cultural aspect is very important. When we talk about different ways of producing corn, from rural to industrialized, we are not talking only about machines or monocultures, but really about cultural diversity.
Art is one of the better ways to show this cultural diversity that at the same time is intimately related to the natural world, which for us now means also the production and designing of "bio-artifacts". Corn is a bio-artifact. But we have to learn to see degrees, nuances and be more specific in the kind of analysis that we make when we draw a border between the natural and the artificial.
In Europe, GMO are submitted to very strict regulations. The U.S.A. are notoriously far more favorable to GMOs. How is the situation in Mexico and what is the state of the debate about 'native' corn vs transgenic corn?
For the moment, there is a prohibition in Mexico to continue with the planting of transgenic corn, not even for experimental purposes, because it has been demonstrated that all our country has corn biodiversity, not only the south, and that therefore all the territory must be protected from contamination. Being also the center of origin of corn, puts us in the special condition of watching for biodiversity.
But it is very important to say, and we have previously demonstrated this, that we are importing corn seeds from the USA, some of them are transgenic and germinal. Non-human animals are being fed in Mexico with transgenic corn. There is not an adequate surveillance from the Mexican government in regard to the importation of these seeds. And since we are bound to buy corn to the USA, because of the NAFTA, and the USA is producing transgenic corn, we are very worried.
It can be said that there is no problem with transgenic food, but there is no consensus in the scientific community about this. And this should be enough to have more precaution. But I insist, what is at stake is not only the way in which we produce food and what for, but also how we dwell in this world, and what cultural diversity are we willing to preserve and respect.
The example of high fructose corn syrup allow us to see how things are related to each other in more profound and complex ways that what we usually are seeing. The production of this syrup has signified for Mexico a financial crisis regarding the sugar cane industry. The consumption of these products is also a health problem. Why are we eating everything so sweet? How and why have we changed so profoundly in the past century our relationship to the land, the planet, our bodies, our cultures, etc.? What does technology means seeing from this perspective?
How can art contribute to the discussions around the issue?
The nine pieces that we are presenting are dealing with many of the topics afore mentioned. BIOS Ex machinA: Serán ceniza, mas tendrá sentido ligeramente tóxico/ It will be ashes, but will make sense (slighty toxic). Is an experiment to detect contamination of transgenic corn in seeds in Mexican soil. We test the resistance to the herbicide glyphosate or Roundup produced by Monsanto.
BIOS Ex machinA: Polinización cruzada/Cross-pollination is a video documental that presents interviews to different actors in the current debate regarding transgenic corn in Mexico. It exhibits the capacity of the discourse to say true or to lie.
BIOS Ex machinA: Desde adentro. Experiments in situ to teach the reaches and limites of DIY biology.
Arcángel Constantini and Marcela Armas working with BIOS Ex machinA: Milpa polímera/Polymer milpa. Is a robot-3D printer that prints PLA in form of
Lena Ortega's La dulce vida/La dolce vita deals with the problem of high fructose corn syrup, the way in which families are fed nowadays, and the transformation from the rural world to the cities.
Alfadir Luna's Containers reflects about the problem of transforming corn into a commodity that is being transported in containers along with fuel, concrete, steel, etc.
Collective MAMAZ. Códice del maíz exhibits textiles that tell the story of what corn represents to local women in Oaxaca and in other places of Mexico.
Collective Zm_maquina Media Lab: Installation that senses the respiration (production of CO2) of corn plants and engraves a copper disc with this data.
Minerva Hernández and Héctor Cruz: Zea mays. Installation that reflects on how the corn plants are altered by the presence of humans.
I read in an online article that visitors will be able to work with scientists to determine whether a corn is transgenic or not. Could you tell us more about the setting and the participation of the public?
There are two possibilities for actual interaction of the public with the exhibition. The day of the inauguration we set a lab of DIY biology. We wanted to show to the public how to extract a DNA molecule out of a corn seed. Also, we wanted to show how to do a process of electrophoresis and of replicating DNA with a PCR. For this we used DNA from E. coli.
The exhibition seems to feature works in which artists have collaborated with scientists and engineers. Was this art/science collaboration one of the main thread of the curatorial process? How did you select the artworks that participate to the exhibition?
This exhibition has an important antecedent in a previous one, Sin origen/Sin semilla (Without origin/Seedless) that we presented in 2012-2013 in the museums MUCA Roma and MUAC at UNAM in Mexico City.
We have been working with scientists, engineers, artists, scholars, students, editors, designers, etc. We strongly believe that the interdisciplinary work is the way to approach complex issues, because it permits a wide perspective that can relate different layers. This is how we have been working on the issue of corn, and so far we have very good results.
All images courtesy of Arte+Ciencia.