Because he is interested in the ethics and dilemmas of eating meat, John O'Shea is looking into schemes to achieve a more compassionate meat consumption. Since 2008, the artist has been working on Meat Licence Proposal. Under the law proposal, citizens willing to buy or consume a certain type of meat would need to obtain a licence to do so first. And the only way to acquire the licence is to slaughter the animal yourself.
If you happen to be in The Netherlands right now, head to Stroom in The Hague where O'Shea is showing two works related to The Meat Licence Proposal as part of the Food Forward, an exhibition presenting scenarios for the future of our food based on the work of artists and designers.
The first work in the show features the responses recorded on the streets of Manchester to The Meat Licence Proposal. The audio fragments are presented within a bespoke technological interface (developed in collaboration with artist and developer Tom Schofield) which makes connections between the recordings and actual written legal documents which support but also sometimes contradict claims that people made in response to the proposal for a new law.
The second piece is Black Market Pudding, a real and ethically conscious food product of a new type. The project involves making the traditional blood sausage but this time using blood from a living pig. Black Market Pudding is also supported by a business plan that would ensure a fair deal for farmer, animal and consumer.
O'Shea is currently working within the Clinical Engineering department of the University of Liverpool in collaboration with Prof. John Hunt on Pigs Bladder Football , a football ball grown from living cells, for Abandon Normal Devices Festival as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad.
Plenty of reasons to be willing to interview John, then!
Hi John! You have been working on the Meat Licence Proposal since 2008. After 4 years developing and presenting the proposal, do you think you're getting closer to seeing it accepted?
I can positively say that, following several consultations, dinners and public meetings, I think that many of the ethical and legal challenges for implementing a law like the one being proposed have been fleshed out.
The Meat Licence Proposal is a much more developed discourse than when it began as a web dialogue in 2008. Since then, there seems also to have been a steady increase of alternative ideas around meat consumption and production entering the mainstream consciousness in the UK, particularly through television programmes focusing on the origins of meat products and celebrity chefs advocating nose to tail approaches and so on, so I think that the cultural environment is more ripe than ever for this kind of law to work.
However, despite any small successes The Meat Licence Proposal may have had in terms of consciousness raising around apparent discrepancies between the products and processes in our food supply, I really don't think that we are any closer to making the proposed meat licensing law an actuality for the UK. I think that I would have to take responsibility for this lack of progress in terms of actually getting the law accepted, which has mostly been down to a failure on my part to properly understand how our laws are made within our democratic society.
Fortunately, through research with Newcastle University (and the Law School there) I have begun to get a more proper understanding of the actual way in which food producers, supermarkets and other large corporations actually relate to the legal and democratic process of lawmaking around food. As I understand it now, the way things really work is pretty much the opposite to what one might expect: where The Meat Licence Proposal has started from a position of principle (people who are comfortable eating meat should be comfortable with killing animals) and attempted to extrapolate a policy from there, our actual laws and regulations around food, rather than being pro-actively constructed based upon an existing value system, are in fact developed quite subversively, in reaction to particular products and trends which emerge and are successful within the free market.
How have ordinary meat-eaters but also lawmakers and politicians reacted to the proposal so far? How much support/opposition has the proposal encountered?
One of the pieces on show within the Food Forward exhibition (entitled "The Meat Licence Proposal, 2012") features a whole series of short audio pieces which are recordings of people on a Manchester High Street giving their opinion and gut-reaction to the law as it is proposed. These views vary wildly but most people seem very apprehensive about the idea that they would have to get involved with animal slaughter in order to consume meat. There is a great deal of skepticism too about how a proposed meat licencing law could work in practice; however, these logistical questions are for the most part already dealt within existing parts of UK and European law and this is what the work attempts to demonstrate, through literally using a video projector to "shed light" on over a hundred different legal statutes.
My practice is, of course, as an artist, and, to begin with I wanted to wait until the proposal had reached a reasonable level of development before approaching "professionals" and "specialists" in government and law. My justification for this quite oblique strategy is that, having been subject to innumerable laws for my whole life, I thought it would be interesting to have a go myself, on my own terms. More recently, I have been in contact with legal scholars at Newcastle University Law School and for them, The Meat Licence Proposal presents and intriguing case, since it does not operate in a way which we might expect laws to behave - it is an object of curiosity.
A few years ago I also had a brief conversation with a high ranking UK government minister about the proposal and their view was, regardless of his own opinion on it, any law which might be seen as unpopular in the short-term presents a difficult case for government (hence the very long consultation period before the inevitable implementation of UK wide bans on smoking in public places.)
What was the inspiration for the proposal?
The Meat Licence Proposal in itself is not a particularly original idea - I had discussed this kind of thing many years previous with friends and it crops up sporadically on internet forums, at dinner parties and down the pub. I think the element which distinguishes this work is my decision to actively work towards making the idea for a law which would control meat into a legal reality. That strategy didn't come from a moment of "inspiration", as such, but like most of my work, actually emerged from a much more sustained period of anxiety around a blatant contradiction (at the time I ate meat pretty much every day, but had never killed an animal) and also the claustrophobic legal infrastructure which appeared to me to be impenetrable. I just wanted to get involved in these two parts of my daily experience and, to begin with, an activist approach seemed most appropriate.
If the proposal is enacted as law one day, how would it be put into effect? Would there be specially designed slaughter houses that anyone can enter to kill a pig and get a license? Would the killing be made following a special ritual? Using special weapons or tools? How would the law affect the distribution of meat?
These questions are very important, and I think that the suggestions you have made are probably not far off the mark. Discussions around the actual logistics of making a workable meat licencing law are still very much at the centre of this public research and development. To take the points you have made specifically: In my opinion slaughterhouses would not require very significant physical changes in how they work - instead changes would be needed at the level of policy.
At the moment you or I would typically not be permitted to enter the majority of slaughterhouses in the UK, even to see what is happening, since these are private enterprises. The right of entry is one of the first things which would have to change and I would see this as being in a similar realm to laws enabling citizens to enter courts of law and witness legal process. I think we should have similar guarantees of transparency around hidden processes in society since, at the end of the day, we are the consumer of these products and should be allowed to witness how they are made if we choose. Regarding taking part in the act of slaughter - again, there are various systems in place which allow subtle, often religious, variations on how the slaughter takes place and I think much could be drawn from existing regulation of special allowances around these methods. An illustrator, Chris Rodenhurst, with whom I have worked on several elements of how the proposal has been presented to date, produced a lovely set of sketches to suggest potential new tools for citizen slaughter. Like anything else, once this engagement with killing is happening on a national scale it will be in the hands of designers and marketers to determine exact specifications for new kinds of execution devices.
When i read about your proposal, i thought 'great! the emotional stress of killing an animal might put people off meat' but recalling the sad story of Marcus the sheep, i'm not so sure anymore about how much people can be moved by animals.
In your opinion, how would the law affect the way people see animals and consume meat?
Yes, I remember this Marcus the sheep story being all over the media at the time; for the "animal loving" (and mostly meat eating) British public it seemed to pose a kind of conundrum i.e: "Why has the killing of this particular animal caused such outcry?" I think the answer lies in part with the peculiar cultural and emotional distinctions made, across the world, between animals kept as "pets" and animals kept to be slaughtered for food. I think, even more important, in this case, is the act of giving the animal a (human) name which demands an identification at the level of the individual animal which would not be usual in the context of slaughter, where animals are numbered. "We are going to butcher Marcus..."
The aim of The Meat Licence Proposal is to facilitate a more coherent engagement with both animals and meat. Those people wishing to eat meat would obtain their licence by actively taking part in the slaughter of an individual animal (which would correspond to the type of meat which they would like to eat.) I think that there is a strong likelihood that some people may be put off, but this it important to keep in mind that this is certainly not a pro-vegetarian law and, surprising as it may seem, some people may find that they actually enjoy killing.
Can you tell us about the Black Market Pudding that you're showing at Stroom in The Hague? Will it really be manufactured using blood from a living pig? The description on Stroom's page says "In purchasing and consuming Black Market Pudding we are keeping the animal from slaughter - no animals are harmed!" How would this ensure that the animals won't suffer?
Black Market Pudding is my own culinary invention. It is a subtle variation on the traditional black pudding which is a blood sausage dish of the UK and Ireland made using congealed pigs blood, oats and different herbs and spices. I have devised my own special recipe for what I call Black Market Pudding where, crucially, the key ingredient (pigs blood) is obtained without any animals being slaughtered; this is the unique selling point: No animals are harmed.
I worked with Stroom over several months prior to the Food Forward show to establish a supply-chain in the Netherlands in order to obtain blood from living pigs in a way which is legal, humane and safe. For the show I made several Black Market Puddings in the kitchen at the gallery, using blood from the living pigs and these are presented within a refrigerated deli-counter as "real" proof-of-concept products. An important aspect of this work is that it is not speculative or representational in a way which might be expected within a future oriented show: Black Market Pudding is already "real".
Of course the true reality for Black Market Pudding would be for this delicacy to be for sale on the open market and this is an aim about which I have spoken at length with Karen Vershooren (curator of Food Forward). Over the course of this year I will be attempting to set up a legitimate production and sales operation for Black Market Pudding within Europe and I have made a simple website where people can register their interest. The challenges in bringing Black Market Pudding to market would be quite great I think, especially within the UK (where I am based) because it is difficult to work with animal blood in the food chain since the BSE crisis (where dried pigs blood found within animal feeds was seen to be a contributing factor). If the product were to be sold, it would be necessary that it be subjected to all of the regulations which would face any food innovation for human consumption and perhaps in this instance (where the process is different to the normal order - the animal is not killed) perhaps new laws would have to be developed for this.
I hope that Black Market Pudding can be seen as a continuation of consumer trends towards food products which contain not only their intrinsic value as foodstuffs and sources of energy but also a kind of additional ethical value which is quite difficult to quantify. If we think about the "fair trade" and "free range" labels, people are paying extra to opt out of a system which they believe to be exploitative; with Black Market Pudding I am proposing a similar business model. The name "Black Market" hints at the fact that this product operates outside of the normal order of things and the idea would be that the Black Market Puddings are sold at such a premium that, not only are you buying a delicious product, but also you are buying the animal out of the regular supply chain and ensuring it will not be slaughtered. This business model presents a fair deal for the producer (who is compensated) the animal (which gets to keep its life) and the consumer (who has this unparalleled piece of mind).
There is I suppose one caveat with Black Market Pudding and that is, by going outside of the regular carnivorous foodchain, where humans, as flesh-eaters, would consider themselves to be at the very top - here we are taking blood from an animal which is alive and so our own position in the hierarchy changes - as animals consuming the blood of another living animal we are explicitly "parasites" and so the real question for the market is whether people would be comfortable with that designation.
What are the MLP next steps?
At the very beginning of January 2012 I made a statement on the front page of The Meat Licence Proposal website explaining that there would be a change of strategy. Over the last several years I have focused my energies on a democratic approach, engaging directly with processes of law-making and suggesting that a new law could (and should) be developed in a public and transparent way, by citizens themselves, in a similar way to open-source development models which operate within software culture.
These kinds of initiatives can continue I think but it is my view now that the overall approach needs to be much more market-oriented and, once Black Market Pudding is established, I will be looking to identify more products and strategies which can close the gap between product and process (especially in meat production).
I'll leave you now with an anonymous quote from one of the participants of a 2010 consultation exercize:
"Ultimately, The Meat Licence Proposal must engage and identify with the values of 'the market' where production (killing animals) is about making money, and consumption (eating meat) is about getting what we want."
Check out The Meat Licence Proposal at the Food Forward exhibition, Stroom, The Hague, NL. The show is curated by Karen Verschooren and remains open through April 1, 2012.
Related story: Solo exhibition of Adel Abdessemed postponed.
One of the reasons why i go through the trouble of taking one bus and two trains in order to get to Z33 in Hasselt is that the Contemporary Art Center regularly identifies and confronts phenomena, ideas and flows that characterize or affect contemporary culture. Their new exhibition, Architecture of Fear, examines how feelings of fear pervade our daily life.
The show explores how fear has moved from being an immediate emotional strategy for survival, the result of a personal experience, to becoming a constant, more abstract, low level feeling that paves the way for new infrastructures based on security, prevention and 'risk-managemen't. Without ever judging nor pointing the finger, Architecture of Fear asks visitors to put their anxieties into a broader perspective. Are threats of terrorism, viral diseases, pollution and financial crisis entirely unbiased and valid? Have some of them been surreptitiously fashioned by politicians and the media? Are CCTVs in the metro making me feel more secure or in danger, for example?
As Frank Furedi, author of Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right, explained in an article for Spiked, "The prominent role of fear today merely indicates that it serves as a framework through which we interpret a variety of experiences."
Architecture of Fear has invited international artists and designers to investigate how fear as a mental construction can be built up through language and images. I've already mentioned the work of Charlotte Lybeer and Jill Magid. I'll come back with an interview with Trevor Paglen soon-ish. In the meantime, here's a quick walk through some of the works in the exhibition.
In Museum of Nature, photographer Ilkka Halso articulates his fear of a world where nature will be confined to museums, private amusements parks and performance spaces. The buildings will not only allow the inhabitants of the Earth to see what forests, lakes and rivers look like, they will also protects these last fragments of flora from threats of pollution and from actions of man himself.
The works shown by Laurent Grasso in the exhibition are equally compelling and sinister but they are also more complex and allude to conspiracy theories and ambiguous military researches. The title of Grasso's video 1619 refers to the year when Galileo Galilei first used the term "aurora borealis" in his writings.
Nikola Tesla looked into the aurora borealis almost three centuries after the Italian scientist but he was more interested in its capacity to reflect electromagnetic waves. Inspired by Tesla's research, the American military set up the "High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program" or HAARP, a research program specialized in the application of high frequencies to the "aurora borealis" in Alaska. HAARP is studying the transmission of electricity in the uppermost portion of the atmosphere. But because of its military funding and the fears associated with electromagnetism, HAARP is surrounded by controversy. Its forest of antennas have been accused of beaming electromagnetic waves that are extremely hazardous to human health, of disrupting climate, of having all sorts of influence on human behaviour and of being weapons able to disrupt communications over large portions of the planet.
Grasso's video artificially reproduces the color vibrations of this luminous phenomena in an environment where one can discern a geodesic sphere.
Visitors of the exhibition will find a model of that very sphere in the adjacent room. Bathed in pink light, the sculpture leads to more worrying stories, conspiracy theories and mystery.
The geodesic sphere, directly inspired by Buckminster Fuller's model, refers to the shape of the receiving stations of the Echelon network, an ambitious listening programme created in in 1947 and operated on behalf of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK, and the US. ECHELON was reportedly created to monitor communications between the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. Since the end of the Cold War, it is believed to search for terrorist plots, drug dealers' plans, and political and diplomatic intelligence. Some even claim that ECHELON is also used for large-scale commercial theft, international economic espionage and invasion of privacy.
Rather than researching, explaining or interpreting what lies exactly behind military uses of natural phenomena and global surveillance systems, the works by Laurent Grasso open up even more speculations, conjectures and ambiguities.
Tsang Kin-Wah's The Second Seal refers to the Seven Seals of the Apocalypse. In the video installation, words that seem to be made of fire descend slowly from the ceiling and snake down the walls of the gallery space. Written by the artist, the text talks of war, violence, evil, vengeance, power, death. The words attempt to articulate the complexities of our society with its many doom scenarios, its dilemmas and anxieties.
Designer Susanna Hertrich's Risk charts bring us back with our feet firmly on the ground. The posters confront a series of risks (terrorist attacks, plane crash, car accident, cancer, etc) as they are perceived by the public with the actual hazard they represent.
The charts are accompanied by the Alertness Enhancing Device and other Prostheses for Instincts that aim to awaken human beings' long lost natural instinct for the real dangers of life, as opposed to the above-mentioned perceived risks that often cause a public outrage.
Through electronic simulation, some prostheses are able to create physical and mental sensations (goose bumps, shivers down the spine, hair standing up on your neck) similar to the ones we experience in instinctive fear responses.
Global Anxiety Monitor, by De Geuzen, investigates reasons for paranoia as well but brings them into a different perspective. The work looks for anxiety buzzwords on Google image and shows side by side the results obtained in several languages. Sometimes the google image angle on pollution, torture, recession, future or unemployment coincide in all the languages investigated, sometimes they are at odds with each other and reveal cultural biases and local tensions.
More details about Architecture of Fear in the mini catalogue available online for free:
Architecture of Fear remains open at Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium through December 31, 2011. Entrance is free.
A few weeks ago i received a 'Bloggers' View Invitation' to visit Power of Making, an exhibition set up by The Crafts Council, one of my favourite organizations in UK, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. To make it even more enticing, the email explained that The first 10 bloggers to arrive will receive a free copy of the Power of Making book. Now i had never received an invitation that openly segregated bloggers from journalists but since it offered a tour with the curator and the possibility to meet some of the artists/designers, i chose not to ask myself too many questions. I wasn't in town on the day of the tour so i asked Nelly Ben Hayoun (a talented Creative Director & Experience Designer whose show Glitch Fiction has just open in Paris) to visit the exhibition for me.
Now I'm going to shut up here and let Nelly tell you what she thought about the Power of Making show:
Power of Making is currently showing at the V&A until 2nd January 2012. The exhibition, curated by Daniel Charny "aims to show how the act of making in its various forms, from human expression to practical problem solving, is shared by all. We hope the exhibition will inspire people and cause them to thoughtfully consider the role of making in their life, in society in commerce and in education."
Emphasis is put on explaining the various making processes ranging from carving to clicking to checkering to locksmithing or wickerworking, to the public.
We navigate over an organized series of cabinets into a grey room finding ourselves in front of life-size crochet bear, lion-shaped Ghanaian coffin, wooden bicycles, glass noses, etc.
The exhibition is inspired by the Power of Ten, Charles and Ray Eames' film depicting the relative scale of the universe, which is to say according to Daniel Charny that "we should look into the knowledge (the bigger picture) as much as the maker's skill (detail)."
Daniel Charny wants to speak to 'people's curiosity, to change our perception of craft and present us with the contemporary motivation behind making.' Therefore, makers in the exhibition are not seen through their discipline but through their actual making. "Making can do" the curator told us, so there is no differentiation between professional and amateurs and no mention of the in-between maker community "the Pro-ams". What is key to Daniel is to present us with a state of imagination at this point in time.
While the exhibition reflects the technicality of making, it barely considers the context of it.
The challenge in presenting the 'making culture' resides in the understanding of the context in which the maker make: its community, its peers, its communications tools. Makers do have power and impact and like spiders they have developed ingenious ways in which they can act as a group in order to "hack the post-industrial milieu" as explained by Bruce Sterling. This is not a clean process and it is not always as well defined as the Power of Making exhibition would let you believe. It is, as Sterling calls it, a real "culture of the mashup".
It is a choice made by Daniel Charny not to show the profession of the makers, the piece must stand out by itself , it is about the making of it and not really about the maker....
Another point i'd like to raise is that one of the differences between a professional maker and a pro-am or amateur is that the amateur 'makes' during his leisure time. Pro-ams have changed dramatically the consumer framework. Nowadays, we now not only speak about leisure as a time where the "modern man" can relax but we actually speak of a real economy. Leisure produces specific products and services. Passionate makers enjoy "leisure activities".
Once again, this issue seems to be a curatorial challenge, how do you represent the time of making in an exhibition?
Another qualm for me is that although the exhibition does present us with the technicality behind the making, it doesn't give us a view on the process of it. When looking at David Mach's King silver Gorilla Sculpture I would like to see how these coat hangers have been put together, I would like to feel the pain, the mess or clean aspect of making such a work.
Funnily enough, before arriving to the "Power of Making" exhibition, I was reading about Bourdieu and his The forms of Capital. Bourdieu is one of the first French academics to have proclaimed the power and the creativity of the popular culture in the 80's. Under the name of "counter-cultures" Bourdieu studied the variety of outsider practice. He differentiated three kinds of capital that the individual experiences in his life, "economic capital", "social capital" which is based on the network, relationship, membership we are enable to create. And then "cultural capital" which is about the knowledge, skills, education that you have and that can give you higher status. Indeed cultural capital is what makes the difference between an amateur-maker and a usual consumer, by making the amateur is increasing his cultural capital.
How to make? When? And what is the learning process? These are three aspects I would have liked to see being explored in the exhibition.
I expected to see the making of the future revolution, the power and the people behind it! What I saw was the craft and technicality of it. But I guess this is the way to do it, first think through the tools and then get the Bastille!?
To conclude, i'd say that Power of Making is a highly recommended exhibition on the techniques behind making. And good job Daniel! You got me going on the topic!
The Power of Making is currently showing at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London until 2nd January 2012. Admission free.
The book under review this week is Open Design Now: Why Design Cannot Remain Exclusive, edited by Bas van Abel (Creative Director of Waag Society), Roel Klaassen (Programme Manager at Premsela, Dutch Platform for Design and Fashion), Lucas Evers (Head of Programme Culture at Waag Society and member of Creative Commons Netherlands) and Peter Troxler (independent researcher and concept developer.) You can find it on amazon USA or UK.
BIS publishers writes: In design(ing) there is a revolution ongoing that is triggered by an emerging networked community that is sharing digital information about physical products and the ubiquitous availability of production tools and facilities. It transforms design into an open discipline, in which designs are shared and innovation of a large diversity of products is a collaborative and world spanning process.
Open Design Now covers these issues:
You might remember that I've already said a few words about Open Design Now in early June when it was launched at DMY International Design Festival Berlin. I hadn't read the book at the time. I have now.
The book is divided into three main sections. The first one is made of some 210 pages of essays by practitioners and thinkers such as John Thackara, Dick Rijken from STEIM and professor at The Hague University, Bre Pettis of the MakerBot fame, Renny Ramakers from Droog Design, Tommi Laitio from Demos Helsinki. The section of essays is followed by a stimulating list of case studies that range from the Fifty Dollar Leg Prosthesis to Fritzing and the RepRap digital fabrication system. The last part is the 'visual index' made of examples over examples of inspirational works and ideas: guerrilla gardening, bamboo bikes, hacker strategies, recycling initiatives, manifestos, grassroots inventions, etc.
The authors of the book announce right from the start that they won't try and reduce open design to a definition. What they do instead is provide a clear snapshot of the state of open source design in all its guises. Van Abel, Evers, Klaassen and Troxler did also a great job at editing a book that provides a solid framework for discussion as well as plenty of opportunities to reflect and ponder on the opportunities and challenges offered by open source values on the whole spectrum of creativity, from chair marketing to robot making.
In their essays, the contributors explore with more depth many of the issues that the design community might prefer to ignore right now: shifts in the distribution and production process, 'loss' of control, adjustments of intellectual property rights, reassessment of old hierarchies, access to knowledge, definition of 'design literacy', impact of new technologies and tools, the hybridization of the designer's role, the designer-client relationship is under (re)evalution... And most crucially for some, the business potential of open source creativity.
Joris Laarman's point of view is one of the highlights of the book. The designer (and one of the initiators of Make-Me.com) raises thought-provoking questions about the 'mediocracy of the middle classes' that dominates the current mass production design, about why true modernists wanted open source design 100 years ago, how the power could get out of the grasp of multinationals and back into the hands of craftspeople whose know-how and talent had been rendered irrelevant by industrialization, why creative commons licensing shouldn't prevent you from making profit, etc.
Another great input is Mushon Zer-Aviv's essay "Learning by Doing", a very personal and often humourous account of the strategies he deployed in his efforts to teach open design in art and design schools.
Finally, and mostly because it gives me the opportunity to highlight the breadth of the book, i'd like to single out Open Design for Government, an essay in which Bert Mulder calls for applying some of the tools, frameworks and values of open design to governmental institutions in order to open up policy making to citizens.
Before i close this post, i should mention the very brave and befitting publication model. BIS publishers is making the content of the book gradually available on the Open Design Now website. Right now, 15% of the content can be read online.
Views inside the book:
Image on the homepage: ÖLKE BÖLKE by Remy&Veenhuizen. Photo: Leo Veger.
Gambiarra is the Brazilian practice of makeshifts, the art of resorting to quirky and smart improvisation in order to repair what doesn't work or to create what you need with what you have at your disposal. Gambiologia is the 'science' that studies this form of creative improvisation and celebrates it by combining it with electronic-digital techniques.
Gambiologia is also the name of a collective of artists - Fred Paulino, Lucas Mafra and Paulo Henrique 'Ganso Pessoa' - who mix this art of improvisation with DIY culture & technology to develop electronic artifacts.
Last year, Fred Paulino gathered the work of Gambiologia along with the one of over 20 Brazilian and international artists in an exhibition titled "Gambiólogos - Kludging in a Digital Era". The objects, sculptures and installations selected explored the concept of technological gambiarra: they adapt, reinvent recycled and found materials using electronic technologies and much improvisation.
Fred Paulino, who is an artist, designer, gambiologist as well as the curator of the exhibition, was kind enough to send me the catalog of the show a few months ago (you can also download the catalog in its PDF form.) I liked its content so much i thought it was my duty to pester him with my questions:
You translate 'gambiologia' with Kludging. How different is it from hacking?
Gambiologia is something like "The science of gambiarra", which is a Brazilian cultural practice of solving problems creatively in alternative ways with low cost and lots of spontaneity, or giving unusual functions to everyday life objects. There is no exact translation for 'gambiarra' so we initially used kludge which means (from Wikipedia): 'a workaround, a quick-and-dirty solution, a clumsy or inelegant, yet effective, solution to a problem, typically using parts that are cobbled together'. In the US they'd call it makeshift. Gambiologia is the study of 'gambiarra' in a technological context.
We actually stopped translating Gambiologia at all :^)
I 'd say it is a specific kind of hacking - it's the proposal of hacking not only electronics or codes, but objects as well. It's about using things (or bits, maybe) in functions they were not initially proposed to. Modify them or join them in improvised and creative ways so they'll not accomplish the original task anymore. Using parts that were not supposed to be together to create a distressing whole. In our case it's also deeply linked to Brazilian folk culture.
Before we go to the artworks themselves, could you give us a few examples of everyday gambiology in the streets of Belo Horizonte?
It's easy to find many samples of 'gambiarras' if you travel anywhere in Brazil. You can also get many pics if you google it but I attached some I collected myself.
Audio cable fixed with candy wrapper:
Beer chilled in suspended pail:
Shower in a pet bottle:
Mobile beer chilling:
Pet bottle lamp:
Simplest way to leave it open:
Among the works presented in the catalogue i was particularly curious about the following ones:. O Grivo, Polvo, Eles estão vivos, Furadeiras. Can you describe them briefly and tell us what they are about?'
Passo a Passo (Step by Step) is a work by the guys of O Grivo. They propose a random percussion symphony where different notes are played as the shadows of small pieces of wood are detected by sensors connected to a computer. Each of these pieces is attached by the end of a stick which rotates 360º at random speed, so when it gets to 0º, it plays its own note very loud. It proposes an interesting contrast between a very delicate structure and loud music tones in a kind of physically constructed musical timeline.
Polvo (Octopus) from Paulo Nenflidio is a sound machine made by plastic conduits. These are originally used to hold electric cables but Paulo used them to hold compressed air. As the visitor "plays" a keyboard made out of door ring bells, the conduits blow, generating different sounds. The seven bells form a complete tone set. This bizarre octopus-instrument still have an 8th note generated by an water spray on its top.
Eles Estão Vivos (They're Still Alive) was created by Paulo Waisberg. I initially invited him to be the scenographer of the exhibition but he also came with this work. We had all these old displays and keyboards that were donated by the city's council but we didn't know how to use. Paulo created this artwork during the exhibition preparation just a day before the opening, using old footage of blinking eyes in the displays. In my opinion it tells a lot about how re-creating can be much more interesting than recycling. It's also a good demonstration of how a strong sense of improvisation and spontaneity was incorporated all through the exhibition.
Furadeiras (Drills) is one of the simplest exhibited artworks but surely one of the smartest. It's by Guto Lacaz, an experienced artist from Sao Paulo. He proposed an unusual meeting between "different generation" drills - one being analogue and the other electrical. It's an ironic interpretation between planned obsolescence and how technology evolves, sometimes just rotating around itself in an infinite loop. Or how the old (low-tech) and the new (high-tech) can live collaboratively.
How about Gambiociclo? What made you decide to create this 'mobile unit of multimedia transmission"?
The Gambiocycle is inspired on Graffiti Research Lab's mobile broadcast unit. I got to be friend with those guys a few years ago, we made some stuff together, they proposed to me run GRL Brazilian sister cell www.graffitiresearchlab.com.br . We run it in parallel to Gambiologia.
I always wish to have a multimedia vehicle that could project video and digital graffiti in public space. It's terrific how that can be a straight path to a democratic dialogue between people and the city itself. But our MBU should be gambiological - reflecting the logics and aesthetics of 'gambiarra' with this strong Brazilian accent. So we built it inspired by trolleys of salesmen who ride here mostly selling products or doing political advertisement. The idea was to mix performance, happening, electronic art, graffiti and 'gambiarras'.
Yes. People are always surprised as they're not much used to digital graffiti or having electronic art in the streets here. But what impressed me the most is the immediate affinity that the Gambiocycle caused in ordinary people not directly involved to art. I was initially most worried about the vehicle's funcionality or the performances' visual contents, but probably due to the strong local aesthetics it incorporates, people were suddenly feeling more like touching the MBU, taking pictures with it or riding it. I believe it comes from this unconscious feeling of spontainity the work proposes and everybody practice some way since childhood.
And we just got the news that Gambiocycle got an Honorary Mention at Prix Ars Electronica 2011 yeah!
Is there a conscious art community of gambilogos in Brazil but also beyond it? Or is it more like a natural and widespread way of using technology that doesn't really need a name or a purpose community to exist?
Gambiologia was initially the name our three guys' collective but the word is now being used here to identify a new way of think about technology, hacking and (Brazilian) pop culture. Like a science or a movement... It somehow captured the feeling of many creators, and I believe not only in this country. Many artists worldwide are "gambiólogos" (gambiologists) without knowing that. I recently had been in touch with the work of European artists like Niklas Roy which are pretty much gambiological! That's the feeling that Gambiólogos exhibition proposed to group and show.
It doesn't need a name at all but if it had that should be in Brazilian Portuguese :^) Yes I strongly believe this country is a perfect example of chaotic miscegenation - cultural or technological - that results in a notion of creative spontaneity. As a colonial country we initially didn't have enough resources for solving everyday problems so we had to invent simple and cheap solutions... Gambiologia tries to go beyond this, bring it into the art scene with an aesthetical and political discussion about technology.
Does Gambiologia have any consideration for aesthetics?
Sure! But for us we had enough of Apple-like clean aesthetics, we had enough newly-released electronics. People can't stand so many rubbish and consumption... That's why we love to work and play with recycling, remixing and - why not - reproposing the notion of "old" and "new".
Last week, i was dragged out of bed at the most scandalously early hour to participate to the final jury of the projects presented by the students of the Master in Media Design at the Geneva University of Art and Design, aka the Head. The programme has been launched two year ago and a first class of students were finishing their cursus. We had seven projects to review and mark. The one that really stood out for me was Matthieu Cherubini's rep.licants.org web 'service.'
rep.licants.org allows people to install a bot on their Facebook and/or Twitter account. The bot will combine the activity the user is already having on other channels such as youtube or flickr with a set of keywords selected by the user to attempt and simulate that person's activity, feeding their account with more frequent updates, engaging in discussions with other users and adding new people to their list of contacts.
The bot does not provide a fictitious identity, but will be added to the real identity of the user to modify it at his convenience. Thus, this bot can be seen as a virtual prosthesis added to an user's account. With the aim to help him to forge a digital identity of what he would really like to be and by trying to build a greater social reputation for the user. Moreover, this bot can be perceived as a threat by defrauding even more the reality of who is really who on social networks and by showing the poverty of our social interactions on these so-called social networks.
Here's a short video introducing you to the service:
But since, Cherubini already has a rather promising portfolio, i took the liberty of digressing a bit and asked the artist to talk to me about a couple of his other projects as well:
Hi Matthieu! This Summer, you are going to exhibit one of your previous projects at the FILE festival in Sao Paulo. The Afghan War Diary "connects to a Counter-Strike's server and retrieves in real-time frags (when a player kills another). These frags trigger a search by chronological order in the Wikileaks database: Afghan War Diary, which contains over 75,000 secret US military reports covering the war in Afghanistan. According to the retrieved data, the website shows the location of the attack on Google Earth."
Is this the database the project is using http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2010/07/wikileaks-afghan/? it can't seem to be possible to access it right now. Does it affect your piece?
Yes, my project uses this database. When Wikileaks published these stolen databases it was possible to download them in order to install them on your own web host. It is what I did and hopefully it doesn't affect my project.
What is fascinating with AWD is how you managed to put together 3 potentially subversive issues: online ﬁrst-person shooter video games, war in Afghanistan and Wikileaks. What did you wish to say, highlight or denounce with this work?
When Wikileaks released their data set I was kind of surprised by the enthusiasm of people for these data because if you forget the "top-secret" part, they got absolutely nothing special nor divulge any over sensible information. Actually you can ﬁnd a lot of similar database related to war in public data banks which were created way before the release of the Afghan War database.
However, except some information designers, statisticians or journalists who needed speciﬁc information for an article, nobody ever cared about this kind of information.
Wikileaks supporters claim "Information wants to be free" however most of them are the ﬁrst to hide behind a mask of anonymity.
All of this gave me the idea to do a project that is a sort of reality television based on Wikileaks data where actors are unconscious virtual soldiers and spectators passive towards this kind of events.
Because we are terribly passive towards this kind of events -and that includes me, having an interest for Wikileaks data is not an act of interest towards war atrocities but an act of interest for what the government hides from us.
Now let's discuss rep.licants.org. This is a "web service allowing users to install an artiﬁcial intelligence (bot) on their Facebook and/or Twitter account. From keywords, content analysis and activity analysis, the bot attempts to simulate the activity of the user, to improve it by feeding his account and to create new contacts with other users." One of the objectives of the projects is to improve the social reputation of the user. Is it that clear-cut? Can a bot really make you a more interesting person in the eye of twitter or facebook users?
In someway yes. Social networks are the ﬁrst medium to display our social status to everybody with a simple statistical number (number of friends on Facebook and number of followers on Twitter). Those numbers are a kind of digital validation about what we are really worth, for example a user with a low number of followers will be regarded as not interesting. On Twitter getting a higher number of followers isn't that difﬁcult, you have to post aggressively, follow a lot of users, retweet, get retweeted, etc. All those actions can be done by a bot. If suddenly the bot ﬁnds and posts an interesting content, it can become "viral" and you will get more followers. Of course we can argue that those kind of things can be done by the user and that's true. However a lot of user are digitally shy, introvert, etc. The bot has been programmed to be extrovert so it doesn't worry about posting ridiculous or interesting contents, contacting users that it doesn't know or contacting users that you wouldn't dare to contact. All those things put together will help the user keep an activity on social networks which make them visible to the others. That is why i like to compare the bot as a virtual prosthesis for introvert users.
But it is disturbing that a bot can be more sociable than yourself on social networks. So all those social interactions we virtually have, and that a bot can do better than some of us, are they really sociable ? Or is the word "social" in "social-networks" just a way for the designers to pull the wool over our eyes?
What is the feedback from the people who tested the 'service' so far?
I'm happy with the feedback of the users, some really interesting things happened which i couldn't have imagined. For example, one of the users couldn't recall if it was him or the bot who was posting messages; another began to interact with his own bot. There is a case where the bot contacted a random friend of an user on Facebook and it was actually an old friend of him whom the user never thought about contacting. The fact that the bot started to discuss with that old friend allowed the two users to have a real discussion together.
There is also, sometimes, interesting conversations between the bot and a user who doesn't know that he is speaking with a bot. Some excerpts of those communications can be seen on the bot's diary.
Looking at your portfolio, it seems that rep.licants builds on previous projects which also investigated social networks. The Pursuit of Happiness for example. With the project you hacked into some Facebook accounts in order to steal users' private messages. This was a bold move. Were the people whose fb account was hacked aware of what you were doing? And more importantly, what did you try to achieve with this project?
No, they weren't aware of that but as i have deliberately put their contact (email and/or phone number), it happened once that a girl contacted me and asked me to remove all the information related to her. Someone warned and contacted her but i do not know whom!
My ﬁrst aim with that project was pretty similar to rep.licants.org: i was fascinated by the relation in between Facebook's users and the kind of communication they have. I was motivated to ﬁnd why so many people use for so many hours per day social networks while they are whole day already constantly surrounded by real social interactions. Having a look at the users private messages was a way for me to have a look at the real use of Facebook because the public part is not relevant. For example, no one is going to say that he uses Facebook as a way to ﬂirt (ﬂirting is almost never mentioned on the Facebook's users studies) however i was impressed by the number of users who where using Facebook as a ﬂirting tool. Unfortunately I don't really feel I could achieve those initial aims because most of those private messages were extremely poor. I then made the decision to centre my project on the poverty of dialogues between the users, who mostly used Facebook several hours by days.
But now, after all that Wikileaks buzz, I think this project could open some discussions because it is basically a Wikileaks of the individuals instead of the governments.
Are you planning to improve rep.licants.org? offering new services, features, etc.
Yes because the bot is actually using very basic rules and features and it doesn't pass the Turing test with some "experienced" users. There is still a lot of research to do for trying to close the gap in between a bot and a human on social networks.