Yet another post about a work i discovered in RIga when i visited Fields - patterns of social, scientific, and technological transformations, a (fantastic and still open) exhibition featuring works by artists who have adopted an engaged, critical and active role in society.
Sketches for an Earth Computer is an ongoing series of living "laboratory" studies that explore the links between the earth, code and the human psyche of the viewer.
Over the past few years, Martin Howse has been investigating the possibility to build a computational device that would not only be constructed solely from the earth but would also be embedded within the earth as a critical monument to human technology.
The computer enters a feedback loop with the environment itself as geophysical, biological and electro-chemical elements can both encode and be modified by the computational structures.
Questions to Martin Howse:
Hi Martin! Could you explain the setting of the installation at the FIELDS exhibition?
As background it's important to understand that all of these elements are simply fragments of sketches towards the working out of what could be described an earth computer. The images in the background show elements of the installation operating within a forest environment in Germany. So the elements of the installation are designed as pointers towards these functional aspects of the earth computer, which may or may not operate correctly within an exhibition environment.
For example, the hanging sealed earth container references the potential recoding of electrochemical earth elements using a primitive solar cell constructed between copper, copper oxide plates and forest earth.
The large, floor-situated earth container (using forest earth dug one hour away from Riga in the "magic forest", and gypsum from a nearby quarry), refers to potential chemical changes in the earth induced by water passing through this stack of minerals above the earth. At the same time all of these containers draw attention to the drawing of a boundary for the earth, and the disconnection from the deep forest setting for which the earth computer is intended.
The last, most complex earth computer demonstrates several parts of the earth computing system; a display based on early telegraphy technology, the mirror galvanometer, transduces and makes visible signals from the earth using a moving mirror, fixed coil and small laser light beam. This is the interface to the earth computer. Forest earth in this container is also seeded with oyster mushroom mycelium and doped with silver nitrate, attempting to form over time a processor for the earth computer.
You developed an earthboot that 'enables almost any computer to boot straight from the earth'. How reliable is the system exactly?
The system is far from reliable, given that the earth has no interest or intention in correctly coding an operating system. Most of the time the computer crashes silently; a blank unresponsive interface. In perhaps one out of twenty sessions there are more colourful (see image on: http://www.1010.co.uk/org/earthcode.html)
Would any kind of earth do? or is it like a plant, responding better to certain types of earth (drier, more acidic, etc.) than to other?
Dry earth presents more problems for the flow of signals so is not so well suited for the earthboot device. I also prefer to use more active soils, with plenty of mycelial or insect/worm action. I modified the earthboot device towards the production of worm coded sound performance and worm poetry recitals. This came directly from work with Shu Lea Cheang focusing on links between code or data and the composting process.
The project puts the computer in direct contact with the Earth which at first doesn't sound very eco-friendly. What about all the mercury and other polluting chemical elements leaking into the soil?
Well the earthboot operates on a very small scale and there are no polluting chemicals directly in contact with the earth or soil, but other projects such as The Crystal World with Jonathan Kemp and Ryan Jordan have explored the techno-ecological cycle of extraction (of minerals) and return of polluting elements to the earth. I'm very interested in less direct parallels between such cycles and computation itself.
In an interview with Motherboard, you say: "One question I'm very interested in which you could say fuels my research is to ask where exactly software executes. In other words, where exactly do these seemingly abstract coded processes which seriously effects our lives, where do these take place?" Could you explain in more details what you mean by that and how the earth fits into this?
Software is viewed as a more or less invisible, obscured or blackboxed process which is situated, if at all, in computer hardware. Yet the exact place of the transition from physical, material flows or changes to symbolic structure is hard to pin down. So I was interested in speculating where that place of transition might be located, also in moving it away from this black-boxed laptop, phone or PC. These new locations I viewed as sites of execution, of where that thing called software enacts on the physical. One site could be the earth, as code runs predominantly on silicon substrates which have been synthesised from sand/earth.
And concerning the literal impacting of software on humans, I considered skin as another potential site of execution, relating this to computer virus and pornography. I also created a work called Pain Registers which explored very literally this connection; in this piece minute software changes operating under the interface surface of say an app like Firefox are literally painstakingly translated (by code) into the movement of a needle tattooing the hand of the user.
The work in the FIELDS exhibition is called Sketches for an earth computer', does it mean that this is just the beginning, that you are going to push the project further?
Sketches forms the background of a range of works and performances over the years and definitely the central idea of an earth computer or earth interpreter (in the software sense) will be pushed further. I'm interested now in looking at how software processes coded by the earth instead of being simply observed can equally re-code or impact on the earth. Parallels could be established with certain mining practices and I've recently explored these possibilities with Jonathan Kemp during our Stack, Frame, Heap residency in Lueneburg which also aimed to see how this exploration can mesh with historical land art, or large-scale alterations to the landscape.
Check out Sketches for an Earth Computer at the Fields exhibition, produced by RIXC and curated by Raitis Smits, Rasa Smite and Armin Medosch. The show remains open at Arsenals Exhibition Hall of the Latvian National Arts Museum (LNAM) in Riga until August 3, 2014.
Other posts about the Fields exhibition: Ghostradio, the device that produces real random numbers, On the interplay between a snail and an algorithm and FIELDS, positive visions for the future.
A few months ago, Ben White gave a wonderfully eloquent lecture at Amnesty International in London. The event celebrated the new edition of the journalist's book, Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner's Guide (published by Pluto and available on amazon USA and UK.)
The lecture was in March and the reason why i blog about it today is that while children (125 so far) and other innocent civilians are being terrorized and murdered right now in Gaza, people are still accused of anti-semitism simply because they believe that the basic human rights of the Palestinians should be respected. I fear there is still a lot of disinformation and misunderstanding about what is happening in Israel/Palestine. I would certainly never claim that i understand precisely the situation but i do think that Ben White's book and his talks are well documented, engaging and worth a few minutes of your time.
Sadly, there is no video of the evening but some of Ben White's videos are on youtube. Here's one of them:
White starts his lecture by explaining the relevance of the word 'apartheid' in the Israeli context. Apartheid does not apply solely to South Africa. Nowadays, apartheid is outlawed and defined in international law independently of the country where it takes place. In 2012, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination itself has used the term to condemn Israeli policies. Numerous international, Israeli NGOs, Palestinian NOGs and human rights observers have done the same.
The author goes on by giving a series of examples of ethnocratic Israeli policies that have been affecting Palestinians for over 6 decades, both inside what people call "Israel proper" and in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
White also exposes clearly that the main problem for Palestinians is not just the occupation but the issue of their forced expulsion in 1948. One day after the date Israel has chosen to celebrate its independence is Nakba Day for Palestinians, the day they were expelled from their home, the day their land was confiscated, the day they were forbidden to come back home.
I'm going to close this post with a photo by Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin. The image is part of a series that depicts forests planted by the Israeli to cover and erase the very existence of former Palestinian villages that were evacuated and destroyed at various times since 1948. Each razed village has since been planted with stands of pine trees that gradually colonize the reclaimed lands and obscure their histories of devastation.
Erik Berglin is a young Swedish artist whose practice spans from interventions in urban environments to fact/fictional storytelling about forgotten stories to appropriation of images found online. Recent works have been exploring the possibilities to generate images with the help of computer algorithms.
Berglin graduated from the University of Photography in Gothenburg only 4 years ago. Yet, he mostly works with photos others people have made and uploaded online. Many of these photos have been roaming from flickr to forums, from tumblr to google image pages before the artist encountered them. There's something very nonchalant about the way Berglin watches the world go by through his computer screen. It is nonchalant but it is also consistently good and very contemporary in the sense that he is a contemporary artist who is young enough to be perfectly at ease with the internet and who brings his own artistic sensitive and critical point of view to it (whereas i often feel that most artists nowadays are either 'traditional' artists who work 'with the internet' because this is the thing to do indeed or they are media artist who strive to modify their portfolio so that it will be more appealing to the art market.)
In any case, the art that Berglin masters to perfection is the good old art of appropriation. He picks up an image, modifies it or not, brings it into a new contexts and gives it a new meaning. The result is a portfolio full of humour, poetry, and absurd comments on our absurd society.
Here's my interview with the artist:
Hi Erik! You been installing life size photos of birds on the streets since 2006. The series, called Birds, is an homage to John James Audubon who worked 12 years (1827-1838) on his book Birds of America. What made you want to make a homage to Audubon's and his work?
I usually start of new projects without thinking to much about why, if I would be concerned about that I would probably not make any art at all. Therefore I also start a lot of projects that in the end are not very interesting but I think it is important to follow your instinct and try ideas before questioning weather they are good or bad.
A teacher once told me the importance of letting yourself be "after hand inspired" (does not translate very well to english) finding reasons once the project is moving. This is very much the case with BIRDS. It started during my first year at art school together with my friend John Skoog. It started of as a 2 week performance piece, we slept in the gallery during the opening hours and put up birds (in scale 1:1) around the city at night. In the gallery we left small traces of our activity, like bird books and maps with indications of where we´d been, etc. We put up around 1000 images of birds and in a small city like Gothenburg it was quite noticeable.
At this time I did not know about Audubon's project but I thought is was so much fun that I kept putting up images of birds wherever I travelled. I also started doing research about interesting stories involving birds in art history, technology, popular culture, etc for another show (Archaeopteryx and other birds).
In an old bookstore in Brooklyn in 2008 I found a reprint of Audubon's Birds of America. I knew instantly that I wanted to make a similar book with the documentation from BIRDS project but first I had to keep it up 12 years - just like Audubon.
You mention on your website that it is 'really hard to keep something up for 12 years'. Why so? Is it because it gets boring? Because you get caught in new projects?
I think I wrote that on my page to keep it real somehow. I am a very restless person, so to work on the same project for 12 years is not really something I should be doing. It can get boring from time to time but of course I don´t work with this project full time. Now it´s only 3 years left so it´s becoming real in a way. I am really excited about making the book and showing it in world wide exhibition tour!
How do you decide which bird will end up where? Is it completely random?
Oh no, it´s absolutely not randomly. I can walk around for hours without putting up a single bird. It feels very important that the birds fits in its surroundings, in terms of color but also shape. If the birds is sitting on a branch for example it all have to make sense on that spot. I only make 1-3 images of each bird, cutting them out by hand and there quite expensive to make - so it´s important that it looks good on the wall. I try to make them look natural, so that one might think, at least for a second that they´re real!
I'm curious about the source of the images you use in some of your works. In Blinded By The Light, for example, you use found (and truly superb) images made by automatic cameras placed in the woods by hunters to locate prey. Where exactly did you get hold of these photos? On hunting forums? And how did you discover their existence?
I am interested in images that are forgotten or lost (kinda like things one can find in a flea market). The last years my artistic practice has therefore made me explore the internet as a public space full of lost and forgotten things. The images of deers in the forest are a result of that. The web is flooded with images, only on social medias there are millions of pictures uploaded each day. I think this vast material is interesting to explore. With the trail cam pictures I also thought is was amazing that the images where made without a decisive moment and in complete lack of human thoughts or esthetics. It was as if the deers where taking self portraits since their movement triggered the exposure.
When I first saw these images I thought it was the most sublime thing I´d seen. I got extremely obsessed, I wanted to see more and more, without planing to make a project about it. I started collecting thousands of images from hundreds of different sites and forums for hunters around the world. For them the images are not beautiful, there just proof that it´s time to go hunting. In that sense I consider this material lost and I try to give them a new meaning.
How about the images you collected for the hunting trophies series? Where do they come from?
This project actually came just before Blinded by the light and they are definitely related, I worked on them simultaneously and sometime found material on the same sites. But with that project I had a clear vision with how I wanted to use the material - erasing the hunters from their images.
Did you work on those to highlight that hunting is bad? Or do you take an absolutely neutral stance?
In general I want to be an observer, I guess that could also mean I´m neutral. I want to present things that I´ve noticed or found peculiar, but it´s up to the viewer how they want to interpret the work. I always try to have a fine balance between content and esthetics, I think both are important in order to make interesting art.
I don´t think hunting is bad, on the contrary, game meat is by far a better option if you wanna eat meat. However I definitely think trophy hunting is outrageous and Surrounding Camouflage is definitely an attempt to highlight the absurdity with killing animals without intention of using the meat. During the time I was working with these image I became very fascinated in the esthetics in these images, there seemed to be very strict conventions about how they should look.
Don't you ever get into trouble for using found images?
No. I think it´s fair use and also part of our contemporary society. And for at least the last 100 years artist have been using found objects to make art that reflects our times and I think that approach is even more valid today. But who knows, maybe I end up in prison.
My collection is a mess, that´s why I would never refer to it as an archive, it´s just thousands of random images. I guess it started of as a folder with images that inspired me, I´m sure everyone has a folder like that. When talking about art it´s quite common to start talking about other artworks with more or less resembles. I am just the same and since I am a nerd I always think of art when seeing other images made by anonymous people. I started arranging famous artworks with random pics from my collection which I associated together.
And what makes you want to repurpose some of your found images and place them into an art context? If we look at a series such as Planking Piece, all the images are made by someone who is not you and show an individual performing a plank. Again, the individual is not you. So how would you define or even justify your intervention as an artist?
In the planking images I was fascinated that a meaningless activity of laying flat on the ground could become such a viral success. People all over the world without regards of age, income or ethnicity were doing it. I instantly thought of documentations of performances from the 60 and 70 that I love. Richard Long, Vito Acconci and especially Charles Ray and his work Plank Piece (from who I stole the title).
It seemed obvious to me that planking was an instructional performance piece that could be performed by anyone, anywhere. I wish I had come up with these instructions from the beginning but planking is just another "meme" which origin no one really knows. But the images of people planking has a great quality in terms of contemporary art, they spoke to me and had a profound impact. The seemingly dead bodies, the meaninglessness of the act, the lack of faces in the images, it appealing.
Sometimes the work of an artist is merrily to recognize the potential in our everyday life arranged this in an interesting way. My collection and my selection of planks is a document of this phenomena and a historical document. As an artwork it will probably make more sense in a hundred years from now, when planking is long forgotten.
Have you ever thought about what your work might be like if internet hadn't been invented yet?
I love subjective documentaries (Werner Herzog, etc) so maybe I would be doing that kinda stuff if I was not doing what I am doing now. But before I started working with material found online I was doing interventions in urban and public spaces with found objects so maybe I would have kept doing that. However I think the internet and public spaces are very similar and in many ways I have the same approach to things I find online or in streets.
I was reading an interview of you in which you explain that you were working on a project called The Lions Den. The story behind it is incredible and sad (a man who goes to great lengths to find the lion what will kill him.) What happened to the project?
That project is still in progress, I´ve been collecting some materials but not had time to finish it. I work on most on my projects for many years and In The Lions Den is part of a bigger work which includes sad and forgotten stories about people who died under strange circumstances. Stories Concerning Eldfell is the first chapter in this work, In the Lions Den will be nr 2 and then I want to follow up on a story about a woman in Ghana.
Hahaha sorry but I´m not sure I want this in the interview since I will not be able to make anything out if this until a few years from now.. but I can tell you shortly that it is about a voodoo woman that lay a curse on the construction of a huge dame (a the time the biggest in the world). The construction would put the most fertile part of Ghana under water and force a lot of people to move, but it would also generate electricity for the hole country + a huge American steal factory. Because of the scale of the hole operation, the voodoo woman knew that in order to give the curse validity she had to make a huge sacrifice. So she drowned her self in the river... but I will not tell you what happen after.
Any upcoming research, work, event, exhibition you'd like to share with us?
I have projects for the next 20 years, the problem is only to know which one to do first.
Last year I did 20 shows and this spring 8, so actually right now I decided to not have too many shows for a while and focus on finishing new projects. But it´s really hard for me because doing shows is what I enjoy most. Because of money and time I think my next show will be a miniature museum: The Museum 1:10. The visitor will be able to walk around a model of a space an look at miniature versions of my new work. This way I can show lots of things in any space. The show will have an audio guide and a comprehensive catalogue. Maybe I build the miniature as a replica of Moma and just make it to a huge retrospective in miniature...
(And huge thanks to Geraldine who introduced me to Erik's work!)
Forensic Oceanography is a research project started in 2011 by Lorenzo Pezzani and Charles Heller to investigate the militarised border regime in the Mediterranean Sea, and document the violence perpetrated against migrants attempting to cross the liquid border.
The sea, and in particular the Mediterranean, is a space of escape for thousands of people who leave the African continent in hope of a safer life in Europe. It is also a space of control and thus a political space. Much of what happens on the surface of that liquid political space takes place far away from the public gaze and often remains unaccounted for. However, the sea is closely surveilled, information about what happens and what sails through it is being generated, analyzed and recorded.
Forensic Oceanography looks at the sea as a witness to interrogate and cross-examine, re-purposing data and technologies initially produced as evidence of illegal migration and turning it into evidence of a crime of non assistance.
Lorenzo Pezzani was at The Lighthouse in Brighton a few weeks ago to talk about Forensic Oceanography and more particularly about the case of 72 migrants who had been left to die while they were attempting to flee Libya and reach the Italian shores during the Libyan conflict of 2011.
The Mediterranean is a fairly crowded sea and Western military forces were made aware of the refugees' distress shortly after the dinghy's departure when the captain lost control of the boat and called for help. The Italian coast guards received the appeal and relayed it, along with the position of the boat, to the NATO coordination centre and to military vessels present in the area. The distress calls were repeated every 4 hours for 10 days. But no-one came to their assistance. The dinghy was seen by an airplane, military helicopters, two fishing vessels and a large military vessel, which ignored their distress signals. After 15 days adrift, the boat washed up on the Libyan coast with only 11 survivors on board, two of whom died shortly afterwards. FO call the case, the 'left-to-die boat'.
Here's Liquid Traces, a short film which sums up the case.
And the video of Pezzani's presentation at The Lighthouse. It was a great evening. He talked about how a journey at sea is fast for goods and for privileged passengers but excruciatingly slow for the unwanted, about the dilemma of producing evidence to account for violence while trying not to be complicit with governments, about FO new project to make and distribute to migrants leaflets containing legal information about their rights, etc.
I entered the PEER gallery a bit by chance and quickly realized that the exhibition involves one artist whose work i admire, an interesting-sounding organization called Archive of Modern Conflict and a photographer who has won numerous awards for his work on AIDS in Uganda, the conflict in Kosovo, the war in Lebanon, anti-terrorism in Algeria, etc.
The artist is Fionna Banner and the photographer is Paolo Pellegrin. Banner asked the photo reporter to explore the City of London and to reflect its activities, behaviours, customs and costume through the lens of conflict photography.
The photos are every bit as good as you would expect from Pellegrin and the way Banner has orchestrated them in the exhibition only adds depth, humour and an extra layer of information. Hundreds of the images are sequenced in a short and gripping film, accompanied by a mixed soundtrack of open cry trading at the London Metal Exchange, melded with a persuasive and hypnotic drumbeat. The other photos are either displayed in museum-type vitrines or inside frames hanging on the walls of a second gallery. Floor to ceiling graphite drawings magnify traditional City pinstripe suits to the point that they become overbearing (or maybe it's just me who's uncomfortable with having a drawing of a banker's crotch at eye level.) The iconic pattern of the financial district even finds itself, absurdly, turned into nail art design. An amusing juxtaposition if you think that the financial sector in London has been relentlessly accused of being sexist.
Speaking of sexy sex, i had to smile in front of the map that shows how strip bars are surrounding the Square Mile. The City of London Corporation has its own electoral system and its own laws. One of them forbids the presence of strip bars in the City. :
The title of the show is Mistah Kurtz--he not dead. Mistah Kurtz is a character from Joseph Conrad's book Heart of Darkness. Kurz is a shrewd and corrupt ivory trader in Africa who has managed to turn himself into a demigod of all the tribes surrounding his station. Towards the end of the book, the death of Kurts is announced by a 'manager boy' with the words 'Mistah Kurtz - he dead.' The City culture of excess, greed and aloofness from society offers indeed parallels to Conrad's narrative.
It is not the first time that Banner references Heart of Darkness. Two years ago, she organised a performance of Orson Welles' screenplay Heart of Darkness, based on Conrad's story. It would have been Welles' first film but it was rejected. He made Citizen Kane instead.
Mistah Kurtz - He Not Dead, 2014, High definition digital film projection and mixed media wall drawing, 6.19 minutes, 2014. Image Fiona Banner
Mistah Kurtz--he not dead is at PEER in London until 26 July 2014:
Previously: Fiona Banner at Tate Britain.