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Sam Conran, Kabbalistic Synthesizer, 2015. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

Science fiction films (with a few notable exceptions such as Stanley Kubrick's 2001: a Space Odyssey) often show rockets and spaceships exploding loudly in outer space. Yet, there's no noise in empty space. What we call "sound" is actually vibrations in the air.

In a similar way but with more scientific backing, Sam Conran, a recent graduate from the Design Interactions course at the RCA, has been looking at the 'sonification' of live macrocosmic phenomena that are actually not producing any sound. The result of his research is the Kabbalistic Synthesizer, a fully functioning prototype that uses the combination of electric signals in order to simultaneously synthesises variations in the Earth's magnetic field with cosmic rays and Jupiter's magnetic storms.

The device is comprised of a Helmholtz Coil and Magnetometer to create a uniform magnetic field and read local variations in the Earth's magnetic field; an 18 tube drift hodoscope to detect cosmic rays and their trajectory from other galaxies; a fractal reflector and loop antennae mounted on a robotic base that tracks Jupiter or the Sun and picks up magnetic storms coming from these celestial bodies. These instruments can be modulated from a control panel.

The project has ultimately been a quest to understand sound design as a gnostic utility and fundamental precedent to the way we might interact and value our environments..


Sam Conran, Kabbalistic Synthesizer

Hi Sam! Why do you think it was important to speculate on sounds that don't exist? What guided your design of these sounds?

I guess being what, I am I have a relationship with sounds that don't exist - that's maybe why it's important for me, I'm passionate about exploring sound design that changes perceptions in real life as opposed to just on screen. My project was guided by this and an example called 'the Singing Comet' is useful. This was a sound that went viral and was the main talking point of the ESA Philae mission in the media.

What's interesting is the way the sound was portrayed in relation to the science and the aesthetic relationship the designer made to film sound. We all have this collective idea of what space sounds like which is guided by the big sound designers and the first filmic experiences of space - I think what the singing comet demonstrates through its success is the desire we have for space to be animistic as opposed to a vacuous dead zone. What guided my design approach was the way this sound had been pushed into the world as being real. The sound of the singing comet was designed and made by compressing data from days into seconds and mapping this to parameters of effects within some sound software.

I personally thought it would be nice to focus on the idea of creating real sounds and real time relations that we can perceive in relation to our own perception of time - not compressed and not stretched. As a result, the only parts of which I can say I have designed are the ways in which the user of the synthesizer can play and manipulate the raw inputs - the rest is process. It has been more about the pulling together of already present techniques for monitoring these phenomena than designing sounds to fit them. The sounds are not being determined by me but the ways in which they are listened to, which is guided by these processes.

The radio telescope is a noise input receiving raw noise coming from the cosmos and Jupiter/Sun noise emissions at 21mhz. The Magnetometer is translating real-time 'micro Tesla' fluctuations in the Earth's magnetic field to a process called FM Synthesis, an already existing theory of natural sound synthesis invented by John Chowning in 1973 (Stanford department of AI). The Cosmic Ray detector doesn't make sound at all but is acting as a random event generator - as the arrival of cosmic rays are truly random I liked the idea of using them to trigger processes on the other sounds, like a keyboard on a traditional synth. 

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Helmholtz Coil and Magnetometer. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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18 tube drift Hodoscope. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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Jovian Receiver 21.1mhz and Fractal Loop Antennae. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

How much of the technology already existed and how much have you had to develop yourself to create these 3 instruments?

The technology for all the devices was already invented but it's not off the shelf. Each device was designed and hand built, needing a lot of help in the end to produce. I have not read physics so the process has relied on many generous people at Imperial Blackett Lab and online. There was a lot of googling. 

I was also curious about the reasons behind your choice of phenomena to explore: why magnetic storms, cosmic ray, the Earth's magnetic field? What did you find particularly interesting?

I ended up replacing the usual functions of a synthesizer; noise - signal and operator/keyboard with object-based experiments that could replace these. In the Synth the noise is coming from the radio telescope the signal is coming from the Helmholtz Coil/fluxgate and the Keyboard is operated by the Cosmic Ray detector. There is no real reason beyond that - they are all fascinating phenomena and I became aware of some strange theories about the Earth's magnetic field along the way but it wasn't my intention to sign post anything like that. During the show that's something I had to be clear about - this is a synth that takes raw inputs and allows you to adjust, play and filter the outputs, in the end its all about the theatricality of the sound and its source and how that changes our perception.

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Calibrating the magnetometer. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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Development of the project. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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View of the installation at the work in progress show, Royal College of Art. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

Are you planning to expand the project and work on other macrocosmic phenomena?

I am looking into ways in which I can streamline it, make it more portable. I would like to get it to a stage where I can start to collaborate with it, the synth outputs a standard control voltage so the cosmic rays could be used with other modular systems. I think next steps is to have all the software self contained in the synth. I'm trying to figure out the best way to do this at the moment.

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Development of the project. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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Development of the project. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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Development of the project. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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Development of the project. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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Research phase at Imperial College. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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Development of the project. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

Your work is called Kabbalistic Synthesizer. I get the Synthesizer part but why Kabbalistic? Why introduce this element of esoterism in the work?

Kabbalistic is a very loaded word, but I feel it could not be anything else. The name was the starting point, it came before the project had begun to develop and has stuck all the way. It fits the process which definitely on the technical side of things has pushed me into a new world - It's inherently esoteric if you're not a proper physicist I think. It's how I've felt all this year. The name also fulfills a role as a brand name for the device, everyone can relate to that I think - it frames the synth as a product. Hooking into the macrocosmic through sound is quite desirable I discovered. A lot of people during the RCA show approached it as a genuine attempt at innovation. 

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Cosmic noise. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

One of the final paragraphs in the Creative Applications article about your project says: 'The Kabalistic Synthesizer is an alchemists approach to sound making and ultimately a project that seeks to understand and debate the psycho-social implications that could occur when science is experienced/accessed through a commercial medium and how 'sonification' can be combined with the synthesizer to access and objectify the unknown.' Could you explain with more details the bit about "the psycho-social implications that could occur when science is experienced/accessed through a commercial medium"? What did you mean by that?

What i'm trying to get across is really summed up in the comments section of the singing comet recording. I intended the project and its sounds to provide a kind of critical ambience to think about design strategies that might incorperate mindfulness through immersive/hedonistic tech. I'M A BIG FAN OF THIS BTW.

Do the instruments function in any type of place, environment and condition? What are the best conditions for the instruments?

The best time and place would be up a mountain during a solar storm. 

At the show, you mentioned that you were going to do some performances with the instruments? Where will this happen? And what is a performance like? Do you just let the instruments pick up and create the sound or do you actually intervene and modulate them for example?

I'm doing a performance on the 8th August at Wilderness Festival; it's a show and tell as a backdrop to a talk by John Thackara about "ways of knowing and monitoring the environment in real-time as the starting point for a new economy". I'm hoping to get good signals as its in a forest outside of London - I will play with what's there, have a listen. It's all dependent on what's picked up and then there are the controls that make it more of a performance, its a lot like tuning a radio, you can dial in.

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Sam Conran, Kabbalistic Synthesizer, 2015. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

Thanks Sam!

You can listen to some of the sounds produced by the synthesizer on soundcloud.

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Tim Clark, The Boomjet, High-Speed Horizons, 2015. Photo by Juuke Schoorl

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X-1SB and Boomjet models receiving initial coats of paint

High-Speed Horizons is another of my favourite works exhibited at the graduation show of the Royal College of Art earlier this month.

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One of the models in the exhibition space

In this project, Design Interactions graduate Tim Clark plays with the language and history of aviation, offering us a trip into critical and speculative visions of alternative energies.

Aviation, says the designer, has always been viewed as a test bed for radical new ideas and visions to reshape culture, politics and economics on Earth and far beyond it. Some of these dreams of alternative futures became reality and even transformed other areas of life (especially in military or space exploration contexts), while others were aborted because of political, economic or environmental pressures.

Tim Clark tapped into this fascination for unrestricted innovation to design a series of airplanes that investigate the possibility to ditch environmentally damaging fossil fuels in favour of sonic booms and nuclear power.

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Bell X-1. Image Smithsonian Air and Space Museum


Chuck Yeager Breaks the Sound Barrier, X-1, 1947. Newsreel from 1948

The most experimental and speculative aircraft research is often classified. An example of this is the American X-Plane. Started after WW2 and still in operation today, the program conceived a series of experimental planes and helicopters and used them to test new technologies and aerodynamic concepts.

The first of American X-Plane model, the Bell X-1, was the first aircraft to break the sound barrier in level flight in 1947. This breakthrough opened up a new field of supersonic research and led to experimentation in aerodynamics and new propulsive systems.

Supersonic speed travel is accompanied by an explosive 'bang' sound called sonic boom. These sonic booms also generate enormous amounts of energy. In theory they could thus power planes with an efficient, green and sustainable energy source.

But sonic booms are one of the main reasons why supersonic airplanes never became more commonplace. In several countries, the law prevents aircrafts from flying above Mach 1 due to the shock wave's auditory and vibrational disturbance.

Limiting the impact of sonic booms is a current concern of the aviation industry as many are dreaming of a new supersonic age. But if it is to be more successful than the last one (the Concorde required high quantities of fuel), a supersonic plane would need an energy source free from the influence of global affairs, politics and planet scarring infrastructure. Something that we can quickly produce and have complete control over -- like sonic booms.

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Tim Clark, The X-1SB, High-Speed Horizons, 2015. Photo by Juuke Schoorl

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Tim Clark, The X-1SB, High-Speed Horizons, 2015. Photo by Juuke Schoorl

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Tim Clark, High-Speed Horizons (X-1SB being airdropped by B-29 Duo mothership. Oil on canvas by Michael Lightfoot), 2015

The X-1SB, aka the "Sonic Sundae", is Clark's counterhistorical research aircraft designed to test the feasibility of this sonic boom propulsion. Its cone shape design is the combination of a .50 caliber bullet (an object know to be stable while breaching the sound barrier) just like the design of its predecessor the X-1 aircraft, and the shape of the shock wave created by an object traveling faster than sound.

The front of the aircraft features a housing for an interchangeable triangular spike used to test how different shapes could create potentially optimized shock waves to use for propulsion.

And because Clark's work is counter historical, Sonic Sundae and Boomjet (more about that one below) were to have existed before any of the anti-noise laws were to have been instituted.

He told me: I am suggesting that in a sonic boom powered world those laws would not exist because the ability to travel with that type of greener propulsion would probably be more beneficially economically than instituting the flight restrictions. In this case the benefit of the disturbance would outweigh the desire to limit the noise.

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Conceptual drawing of a supersonic biplane. Image: Christine Daniloff/MIT News based on an original drawing courtesy of Obayashi laboratory, Tohoku University

Anyway if we were to live in true supersonic age these restrictions would need to be changed/relaxed anyway sonic booms or not. The big research in limiting the sonic boom now is finding a way to make a wing design that will create little to no noise when it breaks the sound barrier so it does not disturb people below the plane. Amazingly this question was answered over a decade (1935) before we even broke the sound barrier (1947) by Adolf Busemann who suggested a supersonic biplane design where the two wings would be used to cancel the other wave out.

It's crazy to think a supersonic jet would resemble a biplane from the 1920s but it would probably be the best solution and it was theorized way before it ever would be seen as a problem which is amazing. MIT just did some research into it in the last year or so and it would totally work and might be quite viable.

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Tim Clark, B-29 Duo, High-Speed Horizons, 2015. Photo by Juuke Schoorl

Because of its large rear circumference, the X-1SB cannot fit under the fuselage or wing of a larger aircraft for taxiing and takeoff. The B-29 Duo "Double Mama" has thus been designed to be its carrier aircraft of choice.

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An F/A-18 Hornet breaks the sound barrier in the skies over the Pacific Ocean, 1999. Image Ensign John Gay, U.S. Navy (via wikipedia)

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Tim Clark, The Boomjet, High-Speed Horizons, 2015. Photo by Juuke Schoorl

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Tim Clark, The Boomjet, High-Speed Horizons, 2015. Photo by Juuke Schoorl

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Boomjet on mobile aircraft crawler. Computer rendering by Tim Clark

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Tim Clark, High-Speed Horizons (Boomjet taxiing at water-based airport. Watercolor on paper by Hector Trunnec), 2015

Another of Clark's designs, the Boomjet is a sonic boom-powered commercial transport that sustains its flight by driving 47 propellers from the pressure energy released by the aircraft as it travels faster than the speed of sound. The sonic boom transport vehicle stores excess energy for use during takeoff which can be vertically or from water depending on location.

Clarks then looked at another source of energy that could disentangle aviation from its dangerous relationship with fossil fuels: nuclear energy.

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The Convair NB-36 in flight, with a B-50. Photo: USAF - U.S. Defenseimagery.mil photo no. DF-SC-83-09332 via wikipedia

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Advert from November 1951 AIR TRAILS magazine promoting the promise of nuclear power as an unlimited energy source for flight. Image from Secret U.S. Proposals of the Cold War: Radical Concepts in Factory Models and Engineering Drawings by Jim Keeshen

During the cold war both the USSR and the USA had an experimental nuclear aircraft program. While the risk was high, nuclear power promised an aircraft with theoretically unlimited range capable of constant flight.

Only two known nuclear aircraft that have been fully built and tested. The NB-36H was America's nuclear-powered aircraft. Refitted for this new propulsion system after it was damaged in a storm and deemed unfit for combat, the aircraft featured a direct phone line to the President of the United States that was to only be used in the event of an incident. The NB-36H completed 47 test flights between 1955 and 1957 over New Mexico and Texas. It was scrapped in 1958 when the Nuclear Aircraft Program was abandoned.

The Soviet Union's aircraft, the Tu-95L, was based on the Tupolev Tu-95 strategic bomber and missile platform. First flown in 1952, the plane is still in operation today and Russia sometimes flies it in close proximity of the airspace of other European countries in order to affirm its military presence.

The nuclear variant of the TU-95 flew from 1961 to 1965.

Both the USA and the Soviet Union had ambitious plans for their second nuclear-powered aircraft but due to environmental concerns, political pressures, and rumors that the other side called off their research both projects were shelved.

While the risk of a nuclear accident is deemed too high in aviation, we have nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, submarines and 11% of all the world's electricity being based on nuclear power.

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Tim Clark, Air Laissez-Faire, High-Speed Horizons, 2015. Photo by Juuke Schoorl

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Tim Clark, Air Laissez-Faire, High-Speed Horizons, 2015. Photo by Juuke Schoorl

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Designer applying the 500+ dry transfer window decals and nuclear logo decals to the Air Laissez-faire model aircraft

Clark proposes to update to our times a technology that looked promising at the height of the Cold War. And the ones willing to bankroll the experiment might not be countries but technology companies which are already at the forefront of some ambitious innovative projects (Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic for example.) Because these tech companies are increasingly under governmental scrutiny so that they don't get out of control, they might also take to the sky to further innovation free from the restriction of regulation, utilizing the energy source historically clouded by politics to sustain continuous flight and prove that anything is indeed possible through innovation. An inspiration for the idea is Blueseed. This "start-up community on a ship" proposes to gather hundreds of immigrant entrepreneurs on a floating startup city in international waters off the coast of San Francisco and have them live and work undisturbed by the burden of national boundaries and government regulations.

Clark's mini Silicon Valley on air is called Air Laissez-Faire. A nuclear power plant on board of this self-piloting aircraft would provide virtually limitless amounts of continuous propulsion, while a crew made of nuclear physicist, chemical engineer, radiation consultant, and other figures would ensure safety on board. The mega plane presents satellite and radar communication equipment for remote business meetings, all necessary business facilities as well as a landing space on its rear wings that allow small 'commuter aircrafts' to whisk entrepreneurs from and back to major business centers.

Last week, i was in Berlin for the talks and screenings organized by the Disruption Network Lab, a platform of events and research focused on art, hacktivism and disruption. DNL opened its program with Eyes from a Distance. On Drone-Systems and their Strategies, a conference that explored the politics and the regime of power beyond drone-systems. A couple of the talks have already been uploaded online. They will all be there eventually and in the meantime i'm going to dutifully post my notes from the conference.

Starting with the brilliant panel of the first evening. The Grey Zone. On the (il)legitimacy of targeted killing by drones, moderated by journalist Laura Lucchini, explored drone strikes under the perspectives of an investigative journalist, a criminal law researcher, an activist and a blogger/journalist who lives in Gaza under the constant surveillance of the Israeli drones (more about her in a later post but go ahead if you're curious...)

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Grey Zone panel. From left to right: Laura Lucchini, John Goetz (investigative journalist), Chantal Meloni (criminal law researcher) and Marek Tuszynski (activist, Tactical Tech)

The grey zone is of course the dangerous, blurry area where drone attacks operate. The practice of targeted killing by drones raises many questions: "How many civilians have been killed as collateral damage during these strikes?" "And even if we're talking about militants, how can the killings be justified when there has been judicial supervision? "If these drones can reach their targets anywhere, then how is the battlefield defined?" "87 countries (and counting) are now equipped with military drones, which they use mostly for surveillance. Only 3 countries use drones for targeted killings: the U.S., Israel and the UK. Where will this stop?" "And if these targeted killings are illegal, why does Europe keep silent?"

0geheimerkrieg.jpgThe first panelist was John Goetz, an American investigative journalist and author based in Berlin. He wrote, together with Christian Fuchs, the book Geheimer Krieg (Secret War) which reveals how the war on terror is secretly conducted from covert U.S. bases in Germany.

Goetz's presentation attempted to reconstruct one day of a drone attack in Somalia and as the narrative unfolded, we got to hear about Germany's involvement into these military operations, the way the U.S. gather intelligence in foreign territories and how innocents end up being caught in the line, if not directly targeted due to inaccurate information.

As he explained at the conference (and as an article in The Intercept further confirmed), drone strikes wouldn't be possible without the support of Germany. The Germans might not launch the attacks themselves but they provide intelligence and they coordinate the strikes that target suspected terrorists in Africa and the Middle East, but that also kill civilians.

The U.S. drone war in Africa is controlled from U.S. bases in Germany, namely Ramstein and Stuttgart. Germany is also responsible for gathering human intelligence. There are many Somali immigrants and asylum seekers in Germany and as they arrive, they are asked about streets, shops, location of members of Al-Shabaab, etc. Any information that could be used by the "War on Terror" is immediately relayed to U.S. intelligence officers.

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Image Der Spiegel

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US Air Force Base Ramstein. Photo Der Spiegel

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Transatlantic cables connect U.S. drone pilots to their aircraft half a world away. (Josh Begley, via The Intercept)

The second speaker was Chantal Meloni, a criminal lawyer and the author of Is there a Court for Gaza? A Test Bench for International Justice, a book about the crimes perpetrated during the Operation Cast Lead against the Gaza Strip.

Meloni put the issue of targeted killing by drones into a legal framework.

Since 2004, up to 5,500 people have been killed by drone strikes in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. These are countries the U.S. is not officially at war with.

Killing has supplanted capture as the centerpiece of the U.S. counter terrorism strategy. Opposition to drone killing is growing but it is not as effective as the opposition to torture was. A reason for that might be that the legal framework for drone strikes is more complex.

Drone strikes have escalated under the Obama administration and they are characterized by a lack of transparency: states don't disclose who has been killed, why and who are the collateral casualties. Obama doesn't disclose the identity of the people on the kill list. There is no public presentation of evidence, nor any judicial oversight. The level of opacity is actually ridiculous. The little information we have is provided by media reports, leaks or testimonies.

An analysis by the human rights organization Reprieve found that US operators targeting 41 men have killed an estimated 1,147 people. So who are the 1,106 individuals? We don't know, most of them remain unnamed. What is sure is that the collateral damage shows that drones are not as 'surgically precise' as the U.S. claims.

Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown professor and former Pentagon official under President Obama, sums up the situation: "Right now we have the executive branch making a claim that it has the right to kill anyone, anywhere on Earth, at any time, for secret reasons based on secret evidence, in a secret process undertaken by unidentified officials."

We associate the start of the drone attacks with the U.S. and their post-9/11 counter-terrorist strategy but the military use of drones started long before that, in Israel, a country that has the longest track record for targeted killing (aka "targeted prevention") of Palestinians. Targeted killings can be defined as the state-sponsored practice of eliminating enemies outside the territory.

Nowadays, most of the drones sold around the world are used for surveillance purposes but it has been forecast that in 10 years every country will have armed drones.

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Photograph: Guardian

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% of total UAVs (1985-2014) supplied by exporting country (via The Guardian)

60% of the world export of drones come from Israel. Israeli manufacturer Elbit is producing the best selling model: the Hermes drone which was used in the latest attacks on Gaza. 37% of the killings that occurred during the attacks on Gaza can be attributed to drones.

One can see the appeal of drones for governments and policy makers: they are relatively cheap, they are claimed to be 'surgically precise', they make it easy to kill without any risk and they allow the army to reach their target in areas that would otherwise be difficult to reach. But do their use comply with the martial law?

Targeted killings are generally unlawful under international laws.
There are two different regimes to consider under international laws: the one applicable during war time and the one applicable in times of peace.

The laws under war time are more permissible regarding the use of lethal forces. However, the right to use armed force is not unlimited. Civilians, for example, need to be protected from direct attacks.
Outside the battlefields, the use of lethal forces is more restricted. You can use lethal force only when it is absolutely necessary. For example, when you have to protect human life from unlawful attacks. And even in that case, you may only use lethal forces if there is no other alternative.

States have thus expanded the concept of war on the battlefield as to include situations that should in fact be regulated by law enforcement agencies. The 'war on terror' is a total war for which no end nor boundaries is conceived. The number of enemies is infinite too. Governments justify the use of lethal forces by claiming that this is 'anticipatory self-defense' but, under the laws applicable under war time, the self-defense argument allows killing only when all other solutions, such as capture, have been exhausted. Most targeted killings outside the battlefield constitute thus premeditated deprivations of life, violations of the right to life.

When killings cannot be justified they constitute war crimes and other states have the duty to investigate and not leave dormant this huge accountability vacuum.

Tactical Technology Collective, Unseen War (Exposing the Invisible)

The final speaker was Marek Tuszynski, the co-founder of Tactical Tech, an organization 'dedicated to the use of information in activism.'

Tuszynski's talk focused on a series of short documentaries called Exposing the Invisible. The films look at the investigative work of journalists, artists, reporters, activists and technologists who explore publicly accessible data in order counter mainstream reports and go further than traditional journalistic investigations. One of the documentaries, Unseen War examines the physical, moral and political invisibility of US drone strikes in Pakistan.

He argued that counter powers should build their own intelligence practice.

The operations in Pakistan might be located far away but they concern us because
- the use of drones legitimizes a state of permanent surveillance, it makes it ok to gather all kinds of information about an individual,
- they legitimize multi-layered total surveillance systems in which the data collected by drones is accompanied by information provided by human intelligence on the ground,
- they legitimize two aspects of surveillance: one is the schematization of behaviour. You're not targeted because of who you are but because of how you behave. Models of behaviour are built and based on these models a system will determinate who is bad and who is good. Besides, they legitimize systems that detect misbehaviour. If someone is doing something different from the normal patterns, this person has to be put under surveillance.

But there's no reason to be passive, we need to protect ourselves because surveillance doesn't require machines flying above our heads, we are already providing a vast quantity of valuable indormation when we use social media and that data can be used to analyse our digital behaviour. To protect yourself from intrusion to privacy, check out Tactical Tech's Security in-a-Box website.

Image on the homepage via BBC.

Notes about A screaming comes across the sky. Drones, mass surveillance and invisible wars , Laboral's new exhibition that addresses the ethical and legal ambiguity of drones, mass surveillance and war at a distance.

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Hito Steyerl, Strike

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James Bridle, Watching the Watchers. Creech AFB, Nevada, 21.6.2011

Drones are very much part of today's culture. You can buy one on amazon and fly it as if it were a sophisticated kite. You also probably read how they are (or will be) used to deliver urgent medical supplies, shoot movies, monitor crops, track wildlife or gather information after a natural or manmade disaster.

In many people's minds, hobbyist and civilian uses of UAVs have overtaken the military role and origins of drones. No surprise here as what governments are doing with drones, who they are killing and how is a mystery for the public. And even often for government officials, as this video shown by curator Juha van' t Zelfde during Laboral's drone conference illustrates:


Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Drones

Drones have been operating and killing since the early 2000s. Yet, we still have fairly few or no statistics regarding civilian casualties. The Bureau of Investigative Journalist does a great job at counting strikes and casualties in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. Data gets blurry when it comes to attacks in other countries such as Afghanistan. And a lack of transparency goes hand in hand with a lack of accountability. The wars are fought in remote countries by invisible technologies operated in the name of people who have only a very limited knowledge of what is happening 'on the war front' and this situation contrasts with the ability that satellite images have given us to see and explore the world. The irony is illustrated by James Bridle's ongoing series of aerial photographs of military surveillance drones, found via online maps accessible to everyone.

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James Bridle, Watching the Watchers. Dryden Research Center California, 2011

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James Bridle, Watching the Watchers

The title A screaming comes across the sky is taken from Thomas Pynchon's novel, Gravity's Rainbow, which explores the social and political context behind the development of the V-2 rocket, the first long-range ballistic missile and the first man-made object to enter the fringes of space. The rocket was developed by the German military during World War II to attack Allied cities as a form of retaliation for the ever-increasing Allied bombings against German cities. Today's technologies of war, such as the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones, and their laser-guided Hellfire missiles, bear resemblance to the V-2 in their ability to operate unseen and to strike without warning.

In the post-PRISM age of mass surveillance and invisible war, artists, alongside journalists, whistleblowers and activists, reveal the technological infrastructures that enable events like drone-strikes to occur.

I've now seen quite a few exhibitions that explored the politics, ethics and meanings of drones. A screaming comes across the sky manages to bring a fresh and compelling perspective on the issue by taking sometimes a more oblique, metaphorical approach to drones. While the curator selected some of the most iconic works dealing directly with drones today, he also looked at artists who are interested in questions of surveillance and control but in a rather poetical, symbolic or even sometimes humourous way.

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Martha Rosler, Theater of Drones

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Martha Rosler, Theater of Drones, 2013

Martha Rosler's Theater of Drones is a great introduction to the subject of drone warfare. The banner installation was first exhibited in Charlottesville, the first city in the United States to pass a law restricting the use of drones in its airspace

Talking about the drones, Rosler said: "They appear to make war invisible, but of course in the countries that we're bombing, and where people are being killed, they are a terror fact of everyday life. They don't terrorize us, because we have this classic split, which we also had during the Vietnam War of over here and over there are two different worlds, and they're not really connected."

The banners list a series of chilling facts about drones: "The Air Force has plotted the drone future to 2047. The Pentagon plans to increase funding by 700% over the next decade." "Since 2004, drone strikes have killed an estimated 3,115 people in Pakistan. Fewer than 2 percent of the victims are high-profile targets. The rest are civilians, and alleged combatants. " And this little gem of a quote by a Pentagon official:

"They don't get hungry. They're not afraid. They don't forget their orders. They don't care if the guy next to them has just been shot. Will they do a better job than humans? Yes."

The same room also showed works developed by fabLAB Asturias. The prototypes, platforms and maps bring the drone issue into a context closer to citizens' daily interests and experiences (a dedicated post about fabLAB's drone experiments is coming up!) Their projects also remind the public that the U.S> military doesn't have the monopoly of questionable use of drones. Using them for surveillance, border control and in military contexts is very much part of the European agenda as well.

Quick tour of the other works on show:

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Lot Amoros, Dronism, 2013

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Lot Amoros, Dronism, 2013

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Lot Amoros, Dronism, whitedesert

As part of his ongoing research on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Lot Amoros placed posters around Egypt to inform people how to protect themselves from Israel's Heron drones. Israel is the world's leading exporter of military drones. As this video shows, Israeli drones and other weapons meet with great success on the international market as they have been repeatedly tried and tested on Palestinians.

The instructions of the Dronism document were directly quoted from real Al-Qaida drone documents. All al-Qaida references or aggressive languages were removed and replaced with peaceful instructions for the sole purpose of offering innocent civilians a series of tools to protect themselves from unmanned aerial vehicles, using common materials and trash to construct frequency inhibitors, camera blinders, etc.

Amoros also intended to send the instructions to Palestine on board a tiny DIY drone. It turned out that flying the quadcopter over the border into Palestinian territory was too dangerous. The artist and activist did however succeed to send the instructions via underground tunnels.

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Laurent Grasso, On Air (still)

I was so glad to get another chance to see Grasso's wonderful On Air again. , The film, shot in 2009 in The United Arab Emirates, looks at traditional hawk hunting. The bird in the movie is equipped with light and sophisticated surveillance equipment. Once let to roam free above the land, it becomes a spying tool, recording every dune and village it flies over. The images are fascinating but they are also threatening.

The movie and its paranoia-inducing music reminds us that a technique to use pigeons for aerial photography of enemy lines during wars was developed as early as 1907. The practice might not have vanished completely. A few years ago, articles reported that Iranian security forces had captured a pair of "spy pigeons," not far from one of the country's nuclear processing plants.

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Alicia Framis, History of Drones

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Alicia Framis, Pigeon photographers

Which brings us nicely to Alicia Framis's History of Drones. Her taxidermied work presents the pigeon as the predecessor of today's drones. In 1908, German apothecary Julius Neubronner patented aerial photography by means of a pigeon photographer. The invention was tried out for military air surveillance in the First World War and later.

Besides actually being used in military contexts as a means of surveillance and collecting intelligence, they were indeed unmanned aerial instruments, which might had a different historical importance if it wasn't for the quick and strong progress in the field of aviation. In this new work, Framis creates a light-hearted reminder of the evolution of aerial espionage.

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Preparing James Bridle's Drone Shadow drawing in Gijón, 2014

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James Bridle, Drone Shadow drawing in Gijón, 2014

MQ1 Predator Drone Shadow
located in the port of Gijón. The work has been painted by local practitioners using James Bridle's: Drone Shadow Handbook, which can be found here. A brilliantly simple and poignant reminder of military technologies, as James Bridle reminds us: "We all live under the shadow of the drone, although most of us are lucky enough not to live under its direct fire."

Check out the video below for more details about Bridle's interest in drones:

The talk is available in spanish as well.

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Marielle Neudecker, The Air Itself is One Vast Library

Really like this work. I wrote about it Here.

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Roger Hiorns, Untitled (view of the exhibition)

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Roman Signer, 56 kleine Helikopter, 2008

A video showing 56 remote-controlled toy helicopters taking to the sky to great chaos.

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Metahaven, Silent Dazzle, 2014

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Metahaven, Silent Dazzle

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Hito Steyerl, Strike

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AeraCoop (Lot Amorós, Cristina Navarro y Alexandre Oliver), Flone

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AeraCoop (Lot Amorós, Cristina Navarro y Alexandre Oliver), Flone

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AeraCoop (Lot Amorós, Cristina Navarro y Alexandre Oliver), Flone

A screaming comes across the sky. Drones, mass surveillance and invisible wars is at LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial (Art and Industrial Creation Centre) until 12 April 2015. In collaboration with Lighthouse.

Related stories: Flone, The Flying Phone, A dystopian performance for drones, KGB, CIA black sites and drone performance. This must be an exhibition by Suzanne Treister, Under the Shadow of the Drone and The Digital Now - 'Drones / Birds: Princes of Ubiquity'.

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Over the past two years, artist Daniela de Paulis has been working with radio astronomers, radio amateurs, neuroscientists and philosophers to develop Cogito, a research project that speculates on the creative and philosophical possibilities of exploring the cosmos by means of radio waves.

She presented the first chapter of her work at BIO 50, the 24th Biennial of Design that opened a few weeks ago in Ljubljana. Cogito was part of a group of projects that explore new ways for human to connect with and explore outer space.

On the opening day of the biennial, visitors were invited to put on a light Brain-Computer Interface headset. Their brain waves were then recorded as they walked and thought across the exhibition space. This collective performative thinking will later be converted into radio waves and transmitted as collective consciousness - and subconsciousness into space. The event will be streamed in real time as audio visual performance from the cabin of the Dwingeloo radio telescope in The Netherlands.

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The title of the project obviously refers to the ongoing debate on mind-body-consciousness, and to Descartes' dualistic vision on the mind-body matter. And that's when it gets interesting:

Some scholars argue that the computer age contributed in reviving this debate thanks to the new prominent role of the technological mind. Also recent experiments in quantum physics seem to suggest extraordinary links between the matter of the mind and that of the cosmos, raising profound questions on the nature of consciousness and perception. Sending thoughts into outer space is a symbolic action for shifting our consciousness from the earth-centred perspective, to the cosmos-wide perspective, whilst questioning the mathematical notion of intelligence, as conceived by some relevant SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) researchers.
Thinking is more than logical reasoning and can communicate much more about our nature to a potential extraterrestrial life, should it be able to decode our EEG signals
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I contacted Daniela to talk about brain lab, radio telescopes for artistic experiments and 'interstellar transmissions as a tool for philosophical enquiry.'

For the BIO 50 exhibition, the brain waves of the visitors are recorded thanks to a brain lab connected to a computer. Could you describe the setting and technology used? What does this brain lab look like?

During the opening day of BIO 50 I have been recording the brain waves of the visitors thanks to a NeuroSky mobile headset which transmits live EEG data to a computer via Bluetooth, up to 10 metres distance. The EEG data are then saved as video recording. The actual set up of the piece is created to minimize its visual impact in the gallery space,

I wanted the piece to be practically invisible: the visitors walking across the space, or simply sitting or standing while 'thinking' are the real presence of the piece. Because the technical aspect of the piece is relatively simple, anybody owning an EEG device can email me the recording of his or her brainwaves over the duration of BIO 50, to be transmitted into space as part of the live performance. The actual art piece is in the aether more than at the gallery.



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Dwingeloo Radio Observatory

The brain waves will later be transmitted 'as collective consciousness - and subconsciousness - by the Dwingeloo radio telescope antenna'. So technology can also detect subconsciousness? Sorry for the dumb question but is that possible? Can it distinguish the conscious and subconscious waves?

The piece I am presenting as part of BIO 50 is the first step of a long term project. This time I am using a simple yet relatively accurate device which detects EEG frequencies, ranging from Beta (representing the most intense state of alertness), Alpha (state of relaxed alertness), Theta (state of inward thought, visualization and dreaming) and Delta (state of dreamless dream). Interestingly, all these brain waves are always present and intertwined in the electroencephalogram, our mind seems to continuously shift from one state to another, as if fluctuating from dream to reality, from consciousness to subconsciousness, rather than being fixed in a particular mode, according to the set of our actions. As part of the project development however I am also planning to transmit into space brain waves recorded in specific conditions, such as during sleep and even perhaps of animals.



I read that the Dwingeloo Radio Observatory was no longer in operation in an official capacity. What is it used for now?


The radio telescope was rescued by radio amateurs in 2005: they brought it back to working order and it is now used for HAM radio activities and educational programmes. In 2009 I became the first artist in residence at Dwingeloo and since then I have been developing a series of projects based on radio transmissions, often web streamed live from the cabin of the radio telescope. Together with the radio amateurs, we are now developing an international residency programme and hopefully Dwingeloo will become an art hub in the near future. Not many radio telescopes can be used for artistic experiments, especially transmissions, so this instrument is really unique. After a year long restoration, the dish has been officially reopened in April 2014.


Michio Kaku: This is Your Brain on a Laser Beam


I was fascinated to read about Michio Kaku's suggestion that in the future we might be able to upload our consciousness into laser beams. Was it the main inspiration of your project?

I have been thinking about 'Cogito' for a couple of years already. In previous works I have been using radio waves to literally touch the surface of the Moon, receiving its reflected signals in form of visualized thoughts, in 'Cogito' I explore the possibility of travelling into space with the mind in greater depth. A few months ago Michio Kaku published an interesting book gathering the most futuristic theories in neuroscience, indeed we might be travelling into space by uploading our mind into laser beams in the far future. NASA is currently developing the technology for transmitting HD data into space by laser beam instead of radio waves, who knows how long it will take before we might be able to fully use our mind for experiencing space remotely.

How easy (or difficult) is it to convince neuroscientist, radio astronomers and philosophers to collaborate on your project? Cogito must be miles away from their everyday research and work...

Convincing the radio amateurs and radio astronomers I have been working with for the past five years was very easy. I made an official presentation of 'Cogito' at ASTRON, the Dutch research centre for radio astronomy, and realized that the idea of transmitting one's thoughts into space resonates with some of the radio astronomers' interest in SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). For the aspects of the project concerning neuroscience, I have been working with Prof. Ghebreab, his team and students at the University of Amsterdam. When we started collaborating last year, Prof Ghebreab was working on brain waves transmissions across the Internet, his interests seem to match my project and he appreciates the concept of 'global brain' emerging from 'Cogito'. The philosophers are undoubtedly offering interesting insights and are directly involved in my conceptual research as the project touches upon the unsolved debate on dualism of mind and body. The research method I use as an artist however doesn't always fit the philosophers' analytical framework, causing some misunderstanding, at times.

I often find space so remote from my daily life that it almost become abstract. What is it in space that you find so fascinating? Why should we be more aware of its existence and the possibilities it offers?

I have always been interested in space, in all its forms. Before starting my work at the Dwingeloo radio telescope, I was busy with a research on harbour cities and their spatial and commercial networks across the globe. I guess I am interested in global perspectives.

Outer space is becoming increasingly relevant in our culture and economy. Our bodily limitations when it comes to direct contact with outer space raise questions on how can we perceive it, since we are part of it, yet denied its direct experience. This is one of the topics that fascinates me the most about outer space. For me transmitting brain waves into space is a form of physical space travel, with our mind converted into electromagnetic waves that travel in space at the speed of light. It is also a symbolic action for shifting our awareness from the Earth-centred perspective to the Cosmos-wide perspective and looking at ourselves from a far away point of view, understanding the relativeness of our position in the vastness of space.

Cogito is part of your PhD research. Could you explain us what the PhD focuses on?

'Cogito' is the departing point of my PhD artistic research at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. Since starting my exploration on interstellar transmissions as a tool for philosophical enquiry, I have been questioning how to envision outer space by using thought as intellectual experience of the unseen. As part of my artistic research I am also interested in the role of philosophy in understanding the impact of outer space on our cognition. I am especially interested in mind bending theories which seem to stand in between Philosophy of the Mind and Physics (such as the 'Orchestrated Objective Reduction', conceived by Dr. Stuart Hameroff and Sir Roger Penrose) and which challenge our long standing knowledge on who we are in relation to the universe. Science keeps expanding our knowledge of outer space, yet direct cognition is restricted to our native planet and its close proximity. How can philosophy bridge the gap between scientific research in outer space and our earthy cognition? And how will our cognition change, should we be able to expand our mental and bodily capabilities in outer space, thanks to technology and a deeper understanding of our mind?

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The installation in Ljubljana is the first part of the project. What's next?

The 'Cogito' of the visitors recorded during the opening day in Ljubljana will be converted into radio waves and transmitted into space with a beacon transmission lasting a few hours, thus covering a large angle of the sky dome. The event will be streamed in real time as audio visual performance from the cabin of the Dwingeloo radio telescope. Date and time of the performance will be communicated on the BIO 50 social media and on my website.

It is expected that the project will be further developed in collaboration with the 'Overview Institute', a group of researchers engaged with the study of the 'Overview Effect' (the effect of seeing the Earth from outer space) on the cognitive state of astronauts who had the opportunity to witness the sight. A brain lab, a bit more sophisticated than the one used for BIO 50, will be permanently installed inside the cabin of the Dwingeloo radio telescope, and used by visitors who will be able to transmit their thoughts into outer space, while experiencing the immersive view of the Earth seen from space through a visual simulator.

Thanks Daniela!

All images courtesy of the artist.

Check out Cogito at BIO 50, the 24th Biennial of Design. The exhibitions remain open in various locations around Ljubljana until 7 December 2014.

Also part of BIO 50: Engine Block. Or how to turn a moped into a boat or a concrete mixer and Friction Atlas, a choreographed debate about public space, law and legibility.

Science Fiction: New Death seeks to provoke the question - have the Sci Fi visions we once imagined of the future since become a reality? I guess we all know the answer to that one.

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Dario Solman, Target Orbit

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Jon Rafman, Hope Springs Eternal/Still Life (BetaMale)

Because i write mostly about art and science/technology, i've seen my fair share of exhibitions that reference scifi. However, FACT's latest show is the first one i've visited that is entirely dedicated to science-fiction and visual arts. And in this instance, science fiction isn't explored as the ultimate future forecaster, it is rather the starting point of a reflection on our current condition, an invitation to explore how our relationship with technology has made our everyday lives increasingly look like it is set against the backdrop of a science fiction novel.

Inspired by the work of J.G. Ballard, our story looks to the bleak, man-made landscapes of the future and asks: What happens when virtual environments become indistinguishable from reality? Will our global culture allow us to choose where to live, and who will stop us? What will we do with knowledge that becomes freely available to all? With social platforms acting as camera, how will 'selfies' develop and what new forms of narcissism will thrive? What is it that we need to preserve, and what do we need to change? These questions are explored through intense visualisations of electronic communication, dystopian domestic interiors, and re-enactments of historical revolutionary moments.

New Death, a title which comes from a text that fantasy writer China Miéville wrote for the exhibition, is ominous but so are the glimpses that the participating artists give into the techno-mediated we've built ourselves: conditions of intensified surveillance and repression, border control, loss of citizenship, etc. Not everything is bleak and joyless in the show though. You can bounce off a trampoline and pretend you're an astronaut, meet intelligent robots that attempt to avoid boredom at all costs, you can even participate to the exhibition by writing a story describing a dystopian near future. I don't know what a sci-fi fan would make of the exhibition but i found it smart, provocative and thought-provoking.

Quick overview of the show:

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Petra Gemeinboeck and Rob Saunders, Accomplice. Installation at FACT Liverpool as part of Science Fiction: New Death

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Petra Gemeinboeck and Rob Saunders, Accomplice. Installation at FACT-Liverpool as part of Science Fiction: New Death

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Petra Gemeinboeck and Rob Saunders, Accomplice. Installation at FACT-Liverpool as part of Science Fiction: New Death

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Petra Gemeinboeck and Rob Saunders, Accomplice. Installation at FACT-Liverpool as part of Science Fiction: New Death

Accomplice is a small clique of social autonomous robots hidden behind one of FACT's gallery walls. Because these machines are curious, they attempt to discover their environment and the first step to live new adventures is to break down the wall. Their mechanical arm relentlessly punches against the wall. In the process, they not only make holes, they are also acquiring knowledge: how the wall react to their poking, how to best expand their horizon and what it is like out there, on the other side of the wall.

As the wall disappears, the robots discover other creatures: the gallery visitors. The more they can see and hear, the more excited and active these robots are getting. Their behaviour, however, isn't predictable and linear. As soon as the movements and noises made by the visitors or the colours and patterns they are wearing have become too familiar, the robots become bored. In a sense, the roles usually taken by the audience and the robots or the artefacts and the visitors are reversed: the robots are the spectators and the gallery goers perform for them.

I had a chance to talk with Rob Saunders at the press view. I scribbled our conversation on a bit of paper, lost it so i'm going to point you to this Robots Podcast: Curious & creative in which he talks about being inspired by Gordon Pask's conversation theory, designing curious systems, the laws of novelty and the social structure that might evolve from them.

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The Kazimier

The bits and pieces of walls laying unceremoniously on the floor and the unpredictable attitude of the Accomplice robots echo the exhibition experience that Venya Krutikov & Michael Lill of The Kazimier have designed for Science Fiction: New Death. They turned the FACT building into a disordered, stern and slightly disquieting space to navigate. Your movements inside the gallery might or might not be filmed. That poorly-lit corridor might be off limit. That door over there might open on another artworks or maybe it's a dead end.

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Sascha Pohflepp, Camera Futura

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Sascha Pohflepp, Camera Futura

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Sascha Pohflepp, Camera Futura

Before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon in 1969, the NASA elaborated various exercises to understand how man would move in microgravity. The experiments were not just simulations but "pre-enactments" of a new set of rules that we were about to enter, providing a window into the future through which NASA researchers collected not only data but also visual impressions. One such experiment was conducted at Stanford University in the mid-1960s by Thomas R. Kane. The applied mechanics professor had studied the ability of cats to spin their body mid-air so that they could securely land on their four paws. Kane would film a cat bouncing on a trampoline, study its movements, and then a gymnast in a spacesuit would try to reproduce the cat's movements on the trampoline.

Sascha Pohflepp's Camera Futura enables visitors to replicate the experiment. You are invited to wear a light space suit and jump on the trampoline while a camera captures your moves.

The energy stored in the trampoline's springs amplifies the power of our muscles, so that we can briefly launch ourselves and experience an instant of relative weightlessness when falling back to Earth. Camera Futura captures images from that very instant. These photos allow for a glimpse of our brief moment in a post-gravity world. In a sense, they are impressions of ourselves from one of many futures.

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Jae Rhim Lee, Infinity Burial Project Installation at FACT Liverpool as part of Science Fiction: New Death


Jae Rhim Lee: My mushroom burial suit

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Jae Rhim Lee, Mushroom Death Suit #2

The Infinity Burial Project is an art project with an aim to help us accept the reality of our own death. It is also a very bold and practical alternative to current burial system. Once buried or cremated, our bodies do not just decompose and vanish, they also contribute to the deterioration of the environment by releasing the toxic pollutants that our bodies have accumulated over the course of the years: pesticides, preservatives and heavy metals such as lead and mercury.

Mushrooms, on the other hand, can detoxify soils.

Jae Rhim Lee has thus developed the Mushroom Death Suit, a burial suit infused with mushroom spores to assist the decomposition of human corpses. The outfit comes with capsules that contain infinity mushroom spores and other elements that speed decomposition and toxin remediation. Besides, an open source burial container, and a membership society devoted to the promotion of death awareness and acceptance and the practice of decompiculture (the cultivation of decomposing organisms).

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Zach Blas, Facial Weaponization Suite


Zach Blas, Facial Weaponization Communiqué: Fag Face

Facial Weaponization Suite is a playful but also dark critique of the silent and gradual rise of the use of biometric facial recognition software by governments to monitor citizens.
During a series of workshops, Zach Blas worked with members of specific minority communities (queers, black people, etc.) to create masks that are modeled from the aggregated facial data of participants. The amorphous and slightly sinister masks are then worn in public performances.

Masks remain an effective tool to prevent identification technologies from capturing, analyzing, archiving and identifying our face. The use of mask also refers to social movements that use masks as a sign of protests. From the Zapatista rebels, to Pussy Riot, Anonymous, etc.

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Brad Butler and Karen Mirza, Deep State Installation at FACT Liverpool as part of Science Fiction: New Death

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Brad Butler and Karen Mirza, Deep State. Installation at FACT Liverpool as part of Science Fiction: New Death

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Brad Butler and Karen Mirza, Deep State. Installation at FACT Liverpool as part of Science Fiction: New Death (photo FACT)

Brad Butler and Karen Mirza are presenting Deep State, a film scripted by science fiction author China Miéville. The film takes its title from the Turkish term "Derin Devlet," meaning "state within the state," and tells a story about the representation of political struggle, moments of crisis, solidarity, schisms and oppression.

The whole film, which overlays archive protest footage and performed interludes, is online:

Brad Butler and Karen Mirza, Deep State

At first, i wasn't sure what to make of it but, as the images rolled on, i started connecting them to what was going on in Ukraine at the time of the press view of the show and i realized that at this very moment, maybe we still have a choice: we can be the people who raise their heads, protest and attempt to take some control back or we can be the people who are blindly herded into a society of control.

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James Bridle, Homo Sacer, 2014. Installation at FACT-Liverpool as part of Science Fiction: New Death

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Close and Remote, Zone

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Laurence Payot, 1 in a Million You

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Mark Leckey, Pearl Vision. Installation at FACT-Liverpool as part of Science Fiction: New Death

Also part of the show: Nation Estate, a "vertical solution to Palestinian statehood."

Science Fiction: New Death was curated by Omar Kholeif and Mike Stubbs. The show is open at FACT in Liverpool until 22 June 2014.

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