One last project exhibited a few weeks ago at the Sight + Sound festival in Montreal. You might remember that a while ago I interviewed Arthur Heist about the workshop Analyze Dat: TOR Visualization & online black markets. Before that, i talked with Nicolas Maigret about The Pirate Cinema.

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Organic polymers

This time, i had an exchange of emails with Mario De Vega to talk about Thermal, a performance in which he uses microwave ovens to alter the molecular composition of different materials. The work also uses custom-built hardware to sonify the electromagnetic activity produced by the overheating of the content of the ovens.

Hi Mario! Thermal is an audio-visual performance in which several objects are modified using a microwave oven. Now I'm sure you've been asked that questions many times but isn't it dangerous to put objects inside a microwave? The photos from the performances look a bit on the hazardous side to me. Do you have to take certain precautions?

I over-expose danger and confront human vulnerability through a frontal situation. Security advices are given before the performance starts and audience are free to leave the room. I give information and advice of possible danger.

Of course, by overheating a device which development comes from radar technology research from WWII, confronts a complex paradigm: the oven could explode during the performance, gases are highly toxic and electromagnetic activity aim to be materialized thorough acoustic pressure.

Thermal is a confrontation with our own vulnerability using an electronic device that mainly everyone can recognize, a device that modified nutritional facts, social interaction and climate. The action has a political content itself without intending being political as principle. It confronts and intimidates through presence, ambiguity, over-exposed information and acoustic pressure. It also has a visual aim. I'm interested in how electronic devices or arrangements suggest context through ambiguity, in other words, I'm interested in producing events and situations in which codes are visible but not completely "readable". We could be able, in this case, to recognize an object (microwave oven) but our understanding of things reduce our approach, resulting in a situation with dislocated semantic structure in which things are there, frontal and visible and more over we can not understand what is happening.

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Polyurethane

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During the performance, you put materials such as wax, ceramic, magnesium, carboxylic acid, pvc, etc. inside the microwaves. Could you describe how some of them react? Did any of the material you used react in a way you did not expect?

This has mainly a sculptural mean; with Thermal I'm interested in research materialization, irritation and modification as main topics. I modify materials, amplify, expose the process and materialize the results through different outputs. Technically, by irritating the molecular composition of matter, microwaves reflection change by absorption. We can think this in terms that certain materials absorb more than others, and here absorbing means less reflection and less dynamic range in an audio event.
We can understand amplification through four semantic layers.

The first one has the aim to amplify electromagnetic activity, high frequency mainly into the 2.4 GHz range. For this I use SNUFF and LIMEN, electronic devices based on logarithmic detectors used to demodulate high spectrum electromagnetic signals into a human audible ranges.

The second later is luminal activity. Using mainly a custom amplifier (BABEL) to convert lumens into sound.

The third part is electro-mechanic, using mainly a contact microphone to amplify friction and mechanic activity produced by the oven, rotating plate movements, for example.
The forth and last is probably the most dynamic part, reduced in a switch. On / Off. I turn on and off the device in order to maintain tension and produce a dynamic event.

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Window of the microwave oven during performance

More generally, could you describe what is going on during the performance? What can the audience see, smell and hear?

What you hear is mainly activity that in a normal situation humans would not be able to codify as acoustic pressure. I use electronic media to demodulate, amplify and over expose highly toxic electromagnetic pollution produced by an electro-domestic device used by 40% of the population worldwide. Burnt plastic and overheated corrosive materials are toxic; smell is an important issue for Thermal.

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Moscow Biennale, Moscow, 2009

If I understood correctly, the main instrument for this audio-visual performance is the microwave oven. Did you have to modify the household appliance for the work?

No, the ovens are not modified. This would be a very complex and even dangerous task. For me it's even more interesting to use the devices as they are, I just simply amplify its activity.

Any upcoming project, event or research field you'd like to share with us?

Probably I should then here expose deeply my apologizes to delay this interview so long. I've been working in a solo exhibition in Mexico City during the last two years (SIN); the opening was on the 20th of June in a Museum located downtown named Laboratorio Arte Alameda. It's composed by 6 site-interventions, curated by Carsten Seiffarth and a retrospective salon curated by Michel Blancsubé.

An upcoming publication compiling 10 years of my work will be published this month, and an editorial project about thermal must be finished this year, as well as a vinyl edition with artkillart.

Thanks Mario!

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If you're curious about Mario's work, head to Berlin Art Link, they recently visited the artist's studio.

Other works exhibited at Sight and Sound, a festival produced by Eastern Bloc in Montreal: Analyze Dat: TOR Visualization & online black markets and The Pirate Cinema, A Cinematic Collage Generated by P2P Users.

Photo on the homepage: © Kimberley Bianca / transmediale. All other images courtesy of the artist.

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On 12 July, the Arts Calalyst organised one last evening of discussions in its Clerkenwell Road HQ.

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Ariel Guzik, Resonador espectral armónico

The Language of Cetaceans brought together two men who share a passion for whales. One is environmental scientist and marine biologist Mark Peter Simmonds who investigates and raises awareness about an issue that is far away from our sights: the threats to the life of marine mammals caused by the increasing emissions of loud noise under water. The other is artist and inventor Ariel Guzik who has spent the last ten years looking for a way of communicating with cetaceans.

The evening started with Nicola Triscott, Director of the Arts Catalyst, showing us the Field Guide To UK Marine Mammals. I had no idea there were whales, dolphins, seals and sharks sharks on the coast of the UK!

Next was Simmonds' talk. It was very entertaining but also almost heartbreaking.

We might think that oceans are silent but they are filled with noises and animal conversations. First of all, marine mammals, fish, and a few invertebrates depend on sound to locate food, identify mates, navigate, coordinate as a group, avoid predators, send and receive alert of danger as well as transmit other types of information. It's very dark deep in the ocean so hearing is the sense they rely the most on.

Nowadays, however, whales and other mammals cannot hear with each other because of all the man-made noise intruding on their habitat.

Some of these sounds are so loud, they are driving the animals away from areas important to their survival, and in some cases injuring or even causing their deaths. The intense sound pulses of mid-frequency military sonars, for example, have been linked to several mass whale strandings. But it's not just the military that is to blame. The fossil fuel industry is firing loud air guns fusillades to detect oil buried under the seafloor, undersea construction operations drive piles into the seafloor and blast holes with explosives. Add to the picture, the dramatic growth in shipping traffic that generates a constant noise.

Whales are particularly vulnerable because they communicate over vast distances in the same frequencies that ship propel­lers and engines generate. The whales are not only unable to communicate with each other but they also panic when the noise gets too loud. When they are hit by a blast, the creatures flee, abandon their habitat and with that the source of their alimentation.

NGO Ocean Care has launched the Silent Ocean campaign. Have a look at their video, it explains the issue with more clarity and details.


Underwater Noise - The Overlooked Catastrophe

And here's the video of Mark Peter Simmonds's talk:


The Language of Cetaceans - Introduction and presentation by Mark Peter Simmonds

Ariel Guzik then presented his attempts at creating instruments that would mediate the communication between cetaceans and humans. One of his latest instruments is currently shown in the Mexican Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

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The devices that the artist developed over the course of his career go from Laúd Plasmaht which uses the electric variations of Mexican cactuses to make a concert for plants to Nereida, an underwater capsule that doubles as a musical instrument to establish contact with cetaceans.

Here's Ariel Guzik's talk. It is not as fast-paced and entertaining as the one by Mark Peter Simmonds but Guzik is one of those 'crazy' visionary artists whose work involves biology, physics, music and a deep respect for the environment. His work, i'm sure, will fascinate you:


Ariel Guzik - The Language of Cetaceans. Part 1

The rest of Ariel Guzik's talk is over here!

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

My guest tomorrow will be Marco Donnarumma, a young performer and sound artist who gained fame across the world for a series of performances and instruments that use open biophysical systems to explore the sonic dimensions of the human body. His interactive instrument Xth Sense won the first prize in the Margaret Guthman Musical Instrument Competition and was named the 2012 "world's most innovative new musical instrument" by the Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology, US. 

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Xth Sense, 2011

We'll be talking about Xthe Sense and also about a work that intrigued me a lot: Nigredo, a 'private experience of altered self-perception and biophysical media' that uses Xth Sense. One visitor sits in a blacked out room facing a mirror and wired to sensors that capture the low frequency sound pulses of their heart, muscles and vein tissues. The signals are augmented, and fed back to the subject's sensory system as auditive, visual, and physical stimuli. Marco will tell us more about the effects the installation had on the public during the show. It includes sensory deprivation, feeling of being physically touched, etc.


Nigredo, 2013

The show will be aired this Wednesday 17th of July at 16:00, London time. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am (I know...) If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.

Photo on the homepage: Marco Donnarumma, Hypo Chrysos. Image Chris Schott.

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Supereste ut Pugnatis (Pugnatis) ut Supereste (SPPS), 2013. Photo credit Ian Hobbs

There was a time, not so long ago, when you could visit a new exhibition showing 'bio tech artworks' every second month. These days are over. At least in Europe. But it's a different story in Australia where semipermeable (+) opened last month in the context of ISEA2013. semipermeable (+) looks at the membrane as a site, metaphor and platform for a series of artistic interventions and projects, some commissioned specifically for the exhibition and others selected from the many projects developed at SymbioticA (an artistic laboratory located within the School of Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology, University of Western Australia) since 2000.

I haven't seen the show so i'll let Oron Catts, curator of the exhibition, present it in the interview he did with RealTime:

realtime tv @ ISEA2013: semipermeable (+), SymbioticA

Some of the works in the show have been developed by artists while they were in residence at SymbioticA in the past. Others were especially commissioned for semipermeable (+). This is the case for Supereste ut Pugnatis (Pugnatis) ut Supereste, or SPPS, by sculptor and sound artist Dr Nigel Helyer.

Helyer's work is rich and manifold. Behind its alarming aspect, SPPS considers selectively permeable structures under lenses that range from the molecular level to the macro scale.It explores the (xenophobic) history of immigration in Australia and more generally current infrastructures that define socio-political boundaries. It also looks at the history of biowarfare, from Antique Chinese gunpowder rockets carrying poisonous material to virus injected into chicken eggs.

There was much to talk about and ask Nigel Helyer. hence the email exchange i'm copy/pasting below:

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Supereste ut Pugnatis (Pugnatis) ut Supereste (SPPS), 2013. Photo credit Ian Hobbs

What makes your work particularly attractive is the menacing steel weapons. They look like missiles. What inspired their shape exactly?

Two things, firstly the long tradition of Chinese gunpowder rocketry which is documented from the C10th. These were used for both festive and military purposes and there are accounts of "bio-hazardous" material being included in the payload (for example excrement or putrefying remains). The second strand is primarily morphological - the profile of the rockets is based upon an elongated "Bacteriophage" a virus that locks onto bacteria, injects its DNA and in effect turns the bacterium into a virus replicating factory. This resonates with the concept of genetic and/or ethnic mixing within national borders.

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Nigel infecting eggs

One of the phase in the development of the project involved infecting eggs. Can you take us through this process? What did you use to infect them? Is it the 'omnisexual bacterium' your text mentions?

As the work is designed for public museum display the work had to be relatively innocuous. Thus I used chicken eggs which I first 'blew' I.e. emptied them if their contents, and then lacquered and sealed at one end. Next the eggs were injected with a small amount of a lab strain of E.Coli bacteria (common in the human intestines) suspended in a polymer. These were left to dry out in a lab facility and samples tested for viability. Once the samples showed no further growth possibility the eggs were sealed and then double contained in scientific glass (making them safe for the Museum context). The omni sexual bacterium in the text actually refers to the structure of Metaphor. In essence the idea that in the work several apparently desperate strands if thought, history and biology are bought together to 'mingle' - I parallel this to the omni sexuality of bacteria which can exchange genetic material quite freely, mixing and matching, as with ideas as with metaphor.

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Supereste ut Pugnatis (Pugnatis) ut Supereste (SPPS), 2013. Photo credit Ian Hobbs

The work, you write, pays an "ironic homage that reprises the origins of modern bio-warfare research, where chicken eggs were the bio-reactor of choice at the Chemical Defense Establishment of Porton Down near Salisbury UK." I've never heard about the role of eggs in biodefense. Could you tell us more about it?

Well rather simple really. eggs are obviously natural incubators and were chosen as the original bio- reactors in most Chemical and Biological Warfare labs prior to the development of artificial (and therefore more standardized bio- reactors.) Eggs components are still used in the production of many serums and inoculations for regular medical use.

What makes your work 'semipermeable'? What gets in and what is left outside?

This relates more to the socio-political reading of the word, the border, the frontier, the policing of who may pass and who is turned away.

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Dictation test exemption certificate

There is also a sound component to the work, if i understood correctly. Can you explain it to us? What it is and which role it plays in the whole work.

This relates to the above, the national border, and the "Dictation Test" as applied to Asian immigrants to Australia between 1901 and 1958 under the "White Australia" policy. Asian migrants were made to take a 50 word dictation as a test of English skills. In reality many English speakers would fail and the system was a thin disguise for a racist policy for refusing entry to anyone other than Caucasians.

The scrolling text on the LED board contains just three of the hundreds of examples (to be found in the National archives) and the audio component is a Chinese translation of these three texts.

Ultimately, your work looks pretty dangerous. How do you get to exhibit a work that looks like a weapon and contains infected eggs? Are there special rules to comply to show the work in an art exhibition?

Again simple common sense from the museum team, I ensured that the bio hazard was reduced to less than a Big Mac Burger (actually a sample from a MacDonalds Cafe table could well be more harmful) and then the museum was okay with just a simple discreet wire barrier - so far no fatalities!

Thanks Nigel!

Semipermeable (+) semipermeable (+) at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney until 21 August 2013.

Also part of the exhibition: In-Potentia, from foreskin cells to 'biological brain'.

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

My guest today is Atau Tanaka, a composer and performer whose practice bridges the fields of media art, experimental music, and research. During the show we will be talking about the relationship between art & tech and how it has evolved over the past few years, about reenacting one of John Cage's performances, about the space and place for (new) media art in the contemporary art world, etc.

This episode of #A.I.L is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking. But back to Atau Tanaka's bio:

Atau creates sensor-based musical instruments for performance and exhibition, and is known for his work with biosignal interfaces and his research into collective musical creativity in mobile environments.

Atau was born in Tokyo, educated in the States but I first met him 7 or 8 years ago when he was a researcher at Sony Computer Science Laboratory in Paris. He has been working all over Europe ever since: he has been mentor at NESTA, Artistic Co-Director of STEIM in Amsterdam, Director of Culture Lab Newcastle, and is currently Professor of Media Computing at Goldsmiths, University of London.


Atau Tanaka, Global String, 2000

The show will be aired this Wednesday 26th of June at 16:00, London time. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am (I know...) If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.

Image on the homepage: NIME New Interfaces for Musical Expression, Media Lab Europe, Dublin, Ireland, May 24-26 2002.

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

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HC Gilje, Wind-up birds, 2008

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

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

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

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Christoph De Boeck & Patricia Portela, Hortus, 2012

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Christoph De Boeck & Patricia Portela, Hortus, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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Dries Depoorter, Subtwitter

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

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Zimoun, Woodworms, 2009-2012

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

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Addie Wagenknecht , Pussy Drones, 2013

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

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

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David Bowen, Fly Tweet, 2012

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

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

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Marcus Coates, The Plover's Wing, 2009

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

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

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


TateShots: Marcus Coates

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

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Erica Scourti, Woman Nature Alone, 2010

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Erica Scourti, Woman Nature Alone, 2010

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

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Paolo Cirio, Street Ghosts, 2012

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

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

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