Do you remember Technoviking? He was one of Youtube's sensations in 2007. Millions of people admired his dancing skills and undeniable male magnetism but to this day, his identity remains a mystery. The technoviking video has been blogged, commented, shared, emailed and sparked numerous parodies.
Wafaa Bilal has installed an inflatable Technoviking avatar at All Saints Park in Manchester for AND, the Festival of New Cinema, Digital Culture and Art (running this weekend and you should run there too if you can, it's that good). The gigantic head is linked a twitter account and in order to breathe life into it, people have to tweet about it otherwise Technoviking will go flat and dance right back to oblivion again. So go and tweet #technoviking to keep him alive!
Pop culture and astute social comments cohabit in this work like in other works by Bilal. Meme Junkyard is fun and a bit silly of course but it also invites us to reflect on the promises of constant connectivity, on the meaning of 'going viral,' of generating almost unlimited levels of attention before fading back into disinterest. What happens to the technoviking (as well as to the other meme that will soon lay to inflate and deflate in the meme junkyard) is similar to what awaits our ego when other web users stop re-tweeting our rants, linking to our blog posts (oh please let that never happen to me!), or thumbing up our status on facebook.
And the one and only:
Wafaa Bilal is going to discuss his work this Sunday at Cornerhouse. The event is free.
AND, the Festival of New Cinema, Digital Culture and Art remains open all over Manchester until 2 September 2012.
Other works by Wafaa Bilal: Subversion in the Arab Art world, A few words with Wafaa Bilal, Book Review - Shoot An Iraqi, Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun, Positions in Flux - Panel 1: Art goes politics - Wafaa Bilal, ...and Counting.
When i interviewed Tom Keene in the studios of Resonance FM a couple of months ago, he told me approximately 44 seconds before the end of the programme that he was working on a speech recognition algorithm that searches radio waves for conversations about money.
The work, called Uncertain Substance, investigates the Viterbi algorithm which was devised by Andrew Viterbi in 1966 as an error-correction scheme for noisy digital communication. Its use has since been extended to many digital technologies: speech recognition, satellite, DNA analysis, video encryption, deep space, wireless communications systems, etc. Physical manifestations of this algorithm exists as microchips installed in mobile devices, enabling communications networks to permeate every conceivable space, blurring distinction between home, work and social environments.
Tom's interest in the algorithm isn't purely motivated by a passion for programming, his project is also looking into the social effect of its application and implementation:
Used to identify patterns and trends of human behaviour, the Viterbi plays a role in automated systems that interpret, record and report on human activity. These systems increasingly make economic decisions, govern response to crime, disaster, health and manage the everyday flow of cities. The Viterbi operates at a deep social level as it constructs new sets of social relations and radically shapes the development of our cities.
Uncertain Substance: The Viterbi Algorithm was shown recently at Forking Bits, the graduation show of the MA Interactive Media: Critical Theory and Practice at Goldsmiths in London. I was out of town that week, so i decided to make yet another interview with Tom:
Hi Tom! You developed speech recognition algorithm that searches radio waves for conversations about money. How does the research of the search manifest itself? What happens? Did you test the system? Where and what were the results?
I tested two versions of the system, one as an installation in an old porters office in Goldsmiths University, the other as a mobile version built into a shopping trolley which I tested at Moving Forrest at Chelsea College of Art. The porters office version displayed two very dull looking computers one of which was a speech recognition server (SRS) built around the open source project CMUsphinx, and the other was a software defined radio server (SDRS) which was built around a hacked £10 USB TV tuner. The SRS listened to the audio output of the SDRS and if it detected speech then it would stay on that radio station in the hope that it would find a keyword from a list (Money, Credit, Debt, Thousand, Billion, Trillion etc), if it didn't find any words within 20 seconds, then it would trigger the SDRS to find another station where it would begin the process again.
The porters office added its own narrative which I discovered while cleaning it out and getting rid of years of grime and dumped objects - it recorded a pretty depressing history - there were old letters of redundancy, a broken pair of spectacles, betting slips, a small screen marked "payroll". I incorporated these elements in the space as a subtle way of illustrating the entanglement of algorithms into everyday lives and other media systems, where algorithmic reporting and profiling informs and influences our decision making processes, event though these outputs haven't necessarily been planned or programmed, the technology is then exerting its own power and its that mechanism that I want to understand.
Can the person monitoring the algorithm actually understand the conversation?
If by that you mean, did the system do a good job of translation? No - it's terrible at translating radio! Speech recognition is a very tricky thing to do well and this sort of system is much better suited to recognising a few keywords spoken by a voice it has been specifically trained to listen to. Though in this instance I wasn't particularly fussed about the quality of the speech recognition, I really enjoyed (along with the audience) watching the weird sentences that were being produced as the result of a mathematical model.
What I really wanted to achieve was for the audience to engage with the operations of the algorithm, the decisions it made and how it entangles itself with other media and social systems. To achieve this I attempted to display its inner workings as much as possible.
The SDRS displayed the radio frequency it was tuning into and you could hear the audio as it shifted between pure noise, music or speech. On a second screen the SRS displayed a rolling log of; transcribed audio, found keywords, how long it had been listening for and feedback that indicated if it was bored or couldn't understand the conversation. A point of sale receipt printer generated a physical paper trail as it printed any texts about money as and when they were found. I also managed to rig up a CCTV screen that displayed the current radio frequency/time, which also broadcast (through an on-board speaker) "found money" which it spoke in a digital voice whenever a money conversation had been found. So this relatively simple set-up incorporated multiple media systems of: Radio, Paper, CCTV, Work life, Finance, Computer networks - each touched by the Viterbi algorithm in some way.
Wasn't the public upset by the idea that an algorithm was looking for their financial conversations?
Not at all! More amusement than anything else. The most common question was - is it going to make you rich? Which gave me an opportunity to talk about the wider issues of the project and the fact that it can be very difficult to understand the the effects of the Viterbi algorithm as it cannot be separated from complex layers of social (human and technical) layers in which it is embedded. This project has been been about building a series of contraptions as a means to reveal the effect and influence of the Viterbi, the speech recognition project has been just one of those exercises, others have included its use in Mobile technologies, and its path finding capabilities.
If i understood correctly the description of your project, many crucial governmental and economic decisions depends on the algorithm's interpretation of human activity. One would expect an algorithm to be reliable and rational so surely, we should be reassured that our fate is in such capable 'hands', right?
Just to be clear, I'm not saying that the Viterbi is used by Government and that's a worrying thing - I'm not attempting to make a value judgement here - there are many examples of algorithms being used for governmental and non governmental decision making process which have both positive and negative effect. I am just attempting to illustrate the social effect of an algorithm used in a mutlitude of systems, where the power of those systems is not held by any single political party or economic system, but is dissipated and exerted by the system itself. That power exerted by these systems have the potential to influence city planning decisions, or discipline people's behaviours at a micro level in their day to day lives, where social effect doesn't occur because it has been programmed that way, or that government investment has created an infrastructure that facilitates greater control of he population, but rather new social phenomena is produced in a messy, unstructured chaotic way outside of human control. In terms of these algorithms being rational, then at the level of mathematics and science they are, but at the level of their actual real world social effect, then they are most certainly not.
Thank you Tom!
Sunday at Conflux, the art and technology festival for the creative exploration of urban public space, was hot in every sense including (unfortunately for Summer-phobics like me) in the meteorological one.
Given both the temperature and his own intrepidness, all my admiration went to Lucas Murgida. Last year, the artist was teaching Conflux participants the handy and delicate art of lock-picking. For this edition of the festival, he built a beautiful wooden cabinet, left it on a sidewalk and hid inside it. Mugida stayed in this torridness, for hours and with just a bottle of water, not revealing himself until a passerby would bring the cabinet to their home.
The name of the performance is 9/10 because Murgida wanted to check what would become of the often-quoted phrase, 'Possession is 9/10 of the law' when private property is placed in a public space. As he wrote: A person is not sure how to look at the object at first, but will usually fall back on the golden rule of U.S. culture (finders keepers, losers weepers) and claim it to be theirs. I am hoping to subvert the "finder's" personal space by claiming it to be my own public space.
Saturday wasn't much of an adventure. The cabinet was left in the street, people appeared to be tempted but they left it where it was. Now Sunday was more eventful, the artist and the cabinet got rolled into the storage room of a restaurant. As he had drilled a hole in the cabinet, Lucas was able to take pictures and get an idea of what was going on. The plan was to slip out unnoticed and leave the cabinet to its new owner.
Get the details.
Jenny Chowdhury was braving the mellowing heat in her 802.11 Apparel - Wifi Jacket. Part of a line of clothing that reflects wifi strength detected in the wearer's immediate environment, the jacket literally "bring to light" a portion of the invisible radio waves by illuminating five stripes in accordance with the wifi signal strength.
The basic stripes of LEDs are integrated into a flower motif. This design choice associate our natural environment (the flower pattern) with the synthetic one (technology.)
More wearable devices were displayed all along the festival: CO2RSET which monitors air quality and tightens or loosens on the body in response to the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere; the Back-to-Back Massager vest which rows of electric massagers are pointed outward in order to massage others; Compli-mum, a kind of armor for women that plays movies and changes its own shape by separating or gathering parts of its construction through the use of microcontroller and a motorized skeleton structure and a very fetching Helmet Piece which i'm inconsolable to have missed.
Another work i missed because i was so busy passing the microphone to the public for a Q&A of the panel i curated for Conflux (more about that soon-ish), is The Light Mobs which showed participants how to use a simple little mirror (the pocket Lightcoder) and sunlight to transmit information.
The project had a very praiseworthy goal: to bring attention to our blind faith in digital technology as a medium of communication, using a simple analog "device": the pocket Lightcoder.
I finally did a Botanicalls tour in which plants guide you by telephone in the area surrounding Conflux HQ. Each tree or plant, speaks in their own "Botanicalls" voice, based on their botanical habits and characteristics. It all started with the arrogant Rose and her ridiculous French accent (i'm allowed to write that cuz i gave her my voice) and ended with heart-breaking cries for help coming from the kitchen of a vegetarian restaurant.
Just back from Manifesta. The seventh edition of this touring art biennale is held in Trentino-South Tyrol, in N-E Italy. The food over there is definitely Italian but with a crispy teutonic twist, so are the people and atmosphere. To make things even quirkier for visitors, the exhibition is split over several locations, most of them in derelict ex-industrial buildings (how fashionable!) at the outskirts of the small towns that host the event.
Anyway, i'll be back in full Manifesta force later on this week but i'll kick off my reports with a project i saw at the Bolzano branch of the Biennale, more precisely in the dramatic ex-Alumix factory which used to produced aluminum.
Tantalum Memorial - Residue, by England-based Graham Harwood, Richard Wright, and Matsuko Yokokoji, is a telephony-based memorial to the people who have died as a result of the coltan wars in the Congo.
Coltan is the colloquial African name for columbite-tantalite, a metallic ore which is mined for the metal tantalum - an essential component of consumer electronics products such as mobile phones and computers. The demand for tantalum makes it highly valuable. Analysts say that the international demand for coltan is one of the driving forces behind the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the presence of rival militias in the country and, indirectly, the disappearance of gorillas from the area.
This installation is constructed out of an old electro-mechanical 1938 Strowger telephone exchange, discovered amongst the remains of the Alumix factory. Seen from afar it looked like it does belong to the ex-factory. An old telephone switch forgotten for decades. The switches are reanimated by tracking the phone calls from Telephone Trottoire - a social telephony network designed by the artists in collaboration with the Congolese radio program Nostalgie Ya Mboka in London. The TT network calls Congolese listeners, plays them a phone message and invites them to record a comment and pass it on to a friend by entering their phone number. This builds on the traditional Congolese practice of "radio trottoire" or "pavement radio", the passing around of news and gossip on street corners in order to avoid state censorship.
But back to the amazingly beautiful installation. As the catalog states: The movements and sounds of the switches create a concrete presence for this otherwise intangible network of circulating conversations, weaving together the ambiguities of globalization, transnational migration and the impact of our addiction to constant communication.
Manifesta 7 - the European Biennial of Contemporary Art runs until November 2, 2008 in Trento, Fortezza, Rovereto and Bolzano.
The Helga de Alvear gallery in Madrid is currently running a (very timely) exhibition on the controversial topic of Extraordinary Rendition. The expression was coined by the Bush administration to define new legal measures designed to sidestep the existing Human Rights system and deprive some individuals from its protection in the name of the fight against terrorism.
The Patriot Act, for example, expands the authority of US law enforcement agencies for "terrorism investigation." It limits -when it does not completely abolish it- citizens' right to privacy or freedom of expression, allows for kidnapping and confinement of persons without charges, without trial or a detention period as has been happening in Guantanamo since 2002.
The gallery invited four renowned artists to reflect on the issue.
Phone Home (2003), by Elmgreen & Dragset, is the only work on exhibit that has not been created specifically for the show. The installation looks at the loss of the right to privacy in communications. Five telephone cabins are lined up in the gallery. A note informs visitors that they can call anyone they want in the world for free. Of course there's a trick: the conversation you are planning to have will be broadcast in the gallery, recorded and a table with audio players and headphones will enable future visitors to listen to what you said.
Under the new rules of extraordinary rendition, physical and psychological torture is justified. Spanish Inquisition-like methods of torture get toned down but that's because some of them are given new names, like waterboarding, in an attempt to disguise their true meaning.
True to his wam bam approach, Santiago Sierra chose to address torture and one of its most commonly applied methods: the sleep deprivation of detainees for days and months. A huge spotlight operated by a generator are the only elements in Público iluminado con generador de gasolina [Public illuminated by oil generator]. Unfortunately the gallery had run out of oil (another very timely issue) when i went there and the installation was turned off.
Alicia Framis is presenting the first part of a wider project called Welcome to Guantánamo Museum. The installation documents the key elements that would form this hypothetical museum on the US detention centre in Cuba. Scale models, drawings, prototypes, floor plans and structures are exhibited together with an audio piece created with Enrique Vila Matas and Blixa Bargeld. The project echoes our society's need to museify everything, think of Auschwitz and Alcatraz. Should we recoil at the idea of turning horror into a tourist attraction or should we decide that such museums are not a necessary evil, a way of ensuring that atrocities are not forgotten?
The proposal for a Guantanamo Museum will include a selection of exhibition objects and merchandising that reflect the museum's theme and motto -- Things to forget. There will be a Le Corbusier chaise longue turned into an electric chair, a non-existent mailbox, shoes which contain inside their heels a system to allow prisoners to commit suicide, a series of orange clothing and objects designed by Framis together with students during workshops, furniture for the museum will be designed and built using the material of inmates' cells, etc. At the same time a sound room will recall the names of all the caged prisoners in Guantanamo.
James Casebere made photos of what he calls Flooded Cells. These images conjure up allusions to prisons, claustrophobic and oppressive spaces somehow reminiscent of Piranesi's fictitious and distressing prisons (carceri) yet also referencing the method of torture by simulated drowning.
The reason for my presence at etech08 this year was the "art fest" that i set up with the super nice and super smart Kati London, an itp graduate who currently works as a senior producer at area/code in New York and as an artist responsible for projects such as Botanicalls Twitter DIY and You Are Not Here.
Brady Forrest had the idea to organize this first ETech Emerging Arts Fest and we are infinitely grateful to him. We had our friendly debates and doubts but he is the first person who listened to our complains that artists should be given a voice in all those big technology conferences. The theme of the event was "Awareness" and we selected works that bridged the gap between perception and understanding. In retrospect i realize that Brady selected the geekiest pieces, Kati (who actually did most of the work) chose the playful ones and i went for information visualization.
Kati and i invited Brooke Singer to join us for a panel which attempted to illustrate the whole idea of awareness to the conference attendees. Because i'm never really interested in writing about my own presentations and because i've covered the work of Brooke several times (and will keep on doing so in the future), i'll just focus on Kati's talk.
She gave me the authorization to publish her slides so here they are:
She compared artists to hackers, they are the one giving the one finger salute to mainstream technology, they have ideas, go against the grain and keep on pushing their own inspiration forward no matter the resistance.
Today, we have more and more tools which empower people: OS hardware and software, library, there's also a revival of the DIY culture, Arduino and Processing are increasingly successful, etc. Suddenly being creative with technology becomes possible for a larger number of people. How does this spirit translate when we think about "awareness"?
Kati then focused on several projects which, according to her, best embody the idea of awareness.
1. Invisible: Waste processes
What happens when we think of our bodies as their own ecosystems? Are they open or closed ecosystems? Where do we draw the boundaries? Before we take medication, do we ask ourselves how it will affect our internal organs, our friendly bacteria? What is our medication's future, beyond our bodies, in the sewage system and out in the waterways we swim in and eventually drink? What are the possible futures of our personal waste? What do sentient ecosystems eat and drink?
Human urine is actually sterile (unlike faeces, it is bacteria-free) and it can be a rich food source if it gets into the right part of the right ecosystem. Now, most human urine travels untreated into the waterways and is a significant cause of eutrophication, a toxic condition caused by harmful algae blooms, in the oceans. The excess nitrogen and phosphorus in our urine overfeeds algae and suffocates fish.
However, a biological waste treatment process developed at EAWAG Aquatic Research in Switzerland can extract this phosphorus & nitrogen for use as a fertilizer, leaving the rest of urine almost harmless to aquatic life. This kit gives users the opportunity to replicate the technique at home and fertilize their plants with their own pee.
2. Invisible: Animal Behavior Patterns
Joshua Klein built a vending machine that teaches crows to deposit coins in exchange for peanuts. Crows are surprisingly (for me) intelligent. Their brain/body weight ratios are similar to chimpanzees. Look at the image below, seagulls don't get the vending machines but those smart little crows seem to understand that there's something worth their attention there.
Once he has fine-tuned the vending machine training, his plan is to train crows for search and rescue, picking up trash, and other mutually beneficial tasks (via boing boing). The machine is only the first step in his quest for "interspecies harmony."
3. Invisible: Social Connections
Generative Social Networking, by Andrew Schneider and Christian Croft, uncovers the dark sides of social networks by exposing their vulnerability. The software uses bluesnarfing to open the mobile phonebooks of people using security loophole-laden Bluetooth devices. This phonebook data is then fed through the GSN System. Unbeknownst to the phone owner, the device betrays its list of phone numbers to a laptop. An Asterisk phone server will then generate a "conversation" with each number in the list. The first number on the list is called and receiver's response recorded. The next number on the list is called, the first number's initial response is played back to the new number, and the new number's response to the old number's prompt is recorded. This continues for however many phone numbers are in the contact list.
More fun with the video.