For a number of years, artist Gilberto Esparza has been using recycled electronics, alternative forms of energy and other modern technologies to investigate the action of human beings on the environment. His Urban Parasites are small robotic insects made of recycled consumer goods. They climb, crawl and hang over the urban space in search of any source of energy they can feed on. In 2010, he developed Nomadic Plants, a robot hosting living plants and microorganisms. Whenever its 'guests' need to be fed, the autonomous robot will move towards a contaminated river and drink water from it. Through a process of microbial fuel cells, the elements contained in the water are transformed into energy that powers its circuits. The cleaned up water is then sprayed onto the plants.
Like Nomadic Plants, but on a larger scale, Esparza's new research project makes use of microbial fuel cells technology to produce electricity and improve the quality of water.
Autophotosynthetic Plants takes the form a hybrid, self-regulating organism. Part machine, part organic ecosystem, it feeds on organisms found into the sewage water of Lima, Peru, in order to create its own light, energy and be self-sufficient.
As any living organism, Autophotosynthetic Plants features a central system where microorganisms, crustaceans and algae live; a digestive system where bacteria feed on polluted water and transform it into cleaner water that can be used for photosynthesis; and a nervous system made of an electronic network that monitors the activities of the organic parts.
The process is probably better explained in the video below:
The modules create hydraulic network that administers bio-filtered water to the central container, creating an optimal environment where producer species and consumer species from different trophic levels (protzoans, crustaceans, micro algae and aquatic plants) can achieve homeostatic equilibrium. The electricity produced by the bacteria is released as intervals of luminous energy, enabling photosynthesis by the plants that inhabit the central container which thereby complete their metabolic processes. When the organic material present in the microbial cells has been entirely consumed, an electronic monitoring networks pumps out the byproducts generated by the species that inhabit the nuclear ecosystem to the modular cells, restoring the cycle.
The ambitious project not only suggests that polluted water can be used as a source of energy but it also stands as a model that could potentially be applied to other cities, communities and industries.
I contacted the artist to know more about the project (Scroll down if you prefer to read the interview in Spanish):
Hi Gilberto! Where do the electricity-bacteria come from? Did you find them existing already in the contaminated water? Or were there introduced from another source? Are they the same bacterias as in Plantas nomadas?
The bacteria come from the rivers where the samples are taken. One of the bacteria commonly found in organic waste is the Geobacter which has been used in various studies to generate energy by microbial fuel cells. It is the same system that Nomadic Plants is using.
The obvious question is: could the system be implemented on a large scale? Going thus from the scale of an art installation in an exhibition room to a fully functional system used for a whole area of the city?
Yes, all the research centers that are working with this technology have that possibility in mind. The idea is to implement the use of microbial cells in wastewater treatment plants to reduce the power consumption that the plant requires.
Does the system require a lot of maintenance and attention? Or does it pretty much manage itself without any help from you or from scientists?
The installation has analog electronics and multiple sensors that auto-regulate the functioning of the installation. The only maintenance consists in aliment it with wastewater each time a biodegradation cycle ends.
In the video, you explain that you took water from various parts of the city and that each zone of the city had its own level and type of pollution. Could you explain a bit more? How does that translate in the installation? Do the various types of polluted water require different bacteria? produce different intensity or types of energy?
It depends on the area where the samples were taken. In industrial areas, for example, you can find a higher amount of toxic waste that sometimes inhibit bacteria. In other sectors of the city, household waste generate more organic matter. In those waters bacteria feed on this waste and produce more energy and this energy is reflected in the installation in the form in flashes of light that are more intense and that make aquatic plants perform their photosynthetic processes better.
In the video, we see visitors entering the room of Plantas autofotosintéticas wearing a mask. Is it because the installation has a bad smell? Or is dangerous to breathe in? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wyL4jRlqbY
The installation emits bad smells and presents a source of infection for visitors, so we decided to protect them. I find this approach to the work interesting because those same conditions are found in the urban area bordering polluted rivers and their inhabitants are exposed to them all the time.
And now for the spanish version of the interview:
¿De dónde provienen las bacterias que se alimentan de electricidad? Ya existían en el agua contaminada? O lo habías introducido desde otra parte? ¿Son las mismas bacterias en Plantas nómadas?
Las bacterias provienen de los ríos de donde sacan las muestras, una de las bacterias que es muy común en donde se presentan desechos orgánicos es la Geobacter con las que se han estado haciendo diversos estudios para la generación de energía a través de celdas de combustible microbianas. Es el mismo sistema que utiliza Plantas Nómadas.
¿Se podría llevar a gran escala el sistema? Yendo solo así de la escala de una instalación de arte en una sala de exposiciones a un sistema totalmente funcional utilizada para toda una zona de la ciudad?
Sí, todos los centros de investigación que están trabajando con esta tecnología tienen presente esa posibilidad. La idea es implementar el uso de las celdas microbianas en las plantas de tratamiento de aguas residuales para disminuir el consumo de energía que la planta requiere.
¿El sistema requiere mucha atención, mantenimiento? ¿O más o menos se maneja por sí mismo sin ninguna ayuda de usted o de los científicos?
La instalación tiene una electrónica análoga y múltiples censores que autorregulan el funcionamiento de la instalación, el único mantenimiento es proveerle de aguas residuales cada que termine el ciclo de biodegradación.
Depende de la zona en donde se tomaron las muestras, se presentas distintos contaminantes por ejemplo en las zonas industriales se presentan mas desechos tóxicos que algunas veces inhiben a las bacterias. En otros sectores de la cuidad, se presentan más materia orgánica por desechos domésticos, en esas aguas las bacterias se alimentas de estos desechos y producen más energía y esta energía se manifiesta en la instalación como destellos de luz más intensos que hacen que las plantas acuáticas que habitan en el núcleo realicen mejor sus procesos fotosintéticos.
En el video, vemos a los visitantes que entran en la habitación de las Plantas autofotosintéticas con una máscara. ¿Es porque la instalación tiene un mal olor? ¿O es peligroso para respirar?
La instalación despide malos olores y representa un foco de infección para los espectadores, por eso se decidió protegerlos. Esta aproximación a la obra me interesa porque esas mismas condiciones se encuentran en las zona urbanas que colindan con los ríos contaminados y que sus habitantes están expuestos todo el tiempo.
¡Muchas gracias Gilberto!
Photography Visionaries, by Mary Warner Marien.
Publisher Laurence King writes: Photography Visionaries is an inspiring guide to 75 of the most influential photographers from around 1900 to the present. Entertainingly written by an expert on photography, it provides fascinating insight into the lives and careers of men and women working in a medium which perhaps more than any other in the visual arts has been deeply affected by technological change.
The entries are arranged chronologically, instilling in the reader an understanding of what marks each photographer as a visionary. Each entry is less about providing a full biography of the person and more about creating a sense of excitement regarding their work and the lasting impact that it has had on photography.
With the aid of an arresting selection of photographs, some well-known and others less so, this book offers a unique and engaging perspective on the development of photography through some of its most inventive practitioners.
"A good photograph is like a good hound dog, dumb, but eloquent." Eugène Atget.
Mary Warner Marien knows where to find a quote or anecdote that says more about a photographer's life, career and ethos than a long biography. She found something witty or striking to say about each of the 75 photographic visionaries she selected for the book. Those visionaries are people who experiment, expand the scope and significance of photography and are inspiring to their peers. They work in any field: portraiture, advertising, photo reportage, documentary, fashion or conceptualism.
Each of them gets one page of bio and three pages of images with a timeline charting the most salient moments of their career. There is always also a portrait of the photographers. I thought i didn't care much for artists' portraits until i realized i had never seen a photo of Bernhard and Hilla Becher before. Or one of Cindy Sherman being no one else but Cindy Sherman.
Obviously not everyone is going to be happy with the author's selection. And i'm going to agree with the English reviewers who deplore the absence of Martin Parr. Another reviewer mentioned Hiroshi Sugimoto. Indeed! He should be there as well. I'm going to add Broomberg and Chanarin to the list. What i like in the author's selection, however, is that women and non-Caucasian people do not feature only as subjects. I don't know if there was a conscious effort to include women photographers, black photographers, Chinese photographers, etc. But it feels just that the white male monopoly is somewhat under assault.
Warner Marien is also the author of Photography. A Cultural History, perhaps the most informative, interesting and intelligent photo book i've ever read about photo. Photography Visionaries is very different (i probably shouldn't compare one with the other anyway): it's snappier, shorter and less elaborate. But it's written with the passion and verve that characterizes her style.
And now for some images and (fairly random) comments
August Sander's major project, People of the 20th Century, attempted to give an overview of the most archetypal figures of contemporary society, categorizing his subjects by profession or social class. His photos represent types (The Woodcutter, The Farmer, The Sculptress, The Bricklayer, The Bohemian, The Bank Official, etc.), not individuals.
Although there was nothing progressive about this model of society, the Nazis disapproved of Sander's work. In 1936 they confiscated the publisher's copies of Face of our Time (a selection of portraits from his series People of the 20th Century); the printing plates were destroyed and the book was officially banned.
Inspired by Sander's work, Liu Zheng traveled throughout China to portray archetypal Chinese characters from every social stratum: homeless children, transvestite performers, provincial drug traffickers, coal miners, Buddhist monks, prison inmates, Taoist priests, waxwork figures in historical museums, and the dead and dying. The images of The Chinese series depict a country caught between tradition and unprecedented economic upheavals.
When she was herself in her early nineties, Imogen Cunningham started working on After 90, a series that portrayed the elderly. One of them was Irene "Bobbie" Libarry who used to be a circus attraction and was living in a nursing home at the time of the photography.
John Heartfield was one of the first artists to use photomontage, manipulating photographs to satirize the brutality of the Nazi regime.
Lisette Mode never formally studied photography but took it up in the 1930s while living in Paris. Her images are early examples of "street photography," a style which developed after the invention of the hand-held camera, which made impromptu shots possible.
Yes, the photo above just made me realize how black and white the book is.
López orchestrated situations in public space and document passersby reactions. In the series "La Venus se va de juerga", for example, a man travels through the crowd carrying a blond mannequin.
Over the past few months, artist Paolo Cirio has been quietly collecting pictures of high-ranking U.S. intelligence officials on social media. He then blew the photos up using High Definition Stencils (an OS graffiti technique he invented), spray-painted the reproductions of the misappropriated photos and plastered the copies onto the streets of cities like New York, Paris or London.
The individuals targeted in the Overexposed series are some of the officials responsible for programs of mass surveillance or for misleading the public about them. Their names are: Keith Alexander (NSA), John Brennan (CIA), Michael Hayden (NSA), Michael Rogers (NSA), James Comey (FBI), James Clapper (NSA), David Petraeus (CIA), Caitlin Hayden (NSC), and Avril Haines (NSA).
Cirio tracked down these portraits through open-source intelligence (OSINT), an information-gathering method that uses the internet, including social media, as an investigative tool. OSINT is used by government agencies, law enforcement, corporations and people involved in marketing. But activists and journalists are also routinely relying on it for their research. The portraits brought to light by Cirio are photographs and selfies of government officials taken in informal situations by civilians or lower ranking officers.
By making private portraits of members of the CIA and NSA part of the public domain, both through his street interventions and the detailed documentation of the research he published on his website, the artist invaded the private life of these government officials (though not as much as they might invade ours) and literally gave a face to U.S. intelligence services. The work holds a satirizing mirror to the people participating to operations of mass surveillance, commenting on the need for public accountability and pushing to its most uncomfortable limits the trends for 'overly mediated political personas.'
Cirio's political satire reverses the contemporary means of propaganda, exposing the extent to which a public image can be captured on camera and exploited by the very same systems that intelligence officials seek to control. Overexposed derides the watchers with embarrassing pictures over which they have lost control, effectively turning the tables on them and their advocacy of mass surveillance and lax privacy practices.
An exhibition of Overexposed is opening tomorrow at the NOME gallery in Berlin (keep your eyes peeled for their programme in the future because they work with some of the most thought-provoking artists engaging with digital technologies) so i contacted the artist to get more details about the series:
Hi Paolo! To be honest, when i first read the description of the project, i was expecting some blurry portraits and no name at all. But in the series you go full on: the individuals are very recognizable and their identity is given. Do you expect to get into trouble with this work?
The legal question is not really about the officials because they are public figure, so the use of their photos fall under parody laws and free expression. The controversy is actually about the ownership of those photos and from where they were obtained, in most of the cases the selfies were taken by civilians, random people or acquaintances of the intelligence officials. On my website you can find the original photos where you have the individuals together with officials in the snapshot taken with smartphones and uploaded directly on the social media. I think so far they still don't know that their pictures ended up on public walls around the world. I don't know how they will react yet, the project was published just a few weeks ago.
And since you actually have a history of getting into trouble with your work, could you explain us which part these (mis)adventures, legal threats, cease & desist play into your work?
It's not just about getting in troubles, instead it's about generating legal reactions that reveal contradictions on the inadequacy or abuse of the laws that I want to criticize. In same cases, confronting the subjects of my performances on the legal terrain lets everyone understand which are the actual power structures that generate particular social conditions.
According to the press release, you used your HD Stencils graffiti technique and spray-painted hi-re reproductions of the photos onto public walls. How do you select the locations for these street interventions?
I paste these reproduction of photos mainly in popular street art locations, where people often take pictures that end up on the social media again. This exposes these officials even more through having their pictures in recirculation on the social network with the glamour of the street art.
And how do you go from street graffiti to art gallery? Do you feel that your work, and these stencils in particular, gets another meaning or has to be framed in another way when you change the exhibition context from public space to white wall space?
Beyond the public art interventions made for a wider public, I'm interested in formalizing the pieces as pop art and appropriation art, bringing them in the realm of the art world, which for me it is also a distribution system. Eventually they became historical portraits of figures that mark our time of expansion of cyber-warfare and astonishing programs of mass surveillance, which hopefully we will only remember as an awful war against civil society of the past. Also my technique HD Stencils offers very particular aesthetic qualities that can be fully appreciated with maximum perfection of the works made for the art gallery.
The exhibition Overexposed opens at the NOME gallery in Berlin on 22 May and remains on view until 20 July.
A detailed catalogue of the show is available for download (PDF.)
Previous mentions of Paolo Cirio's work on the blog: Unstable Territory. Borders and identity in contemporary art, Cultural Hijack, Notes from WJ-Spots Brussels, History and future of artistic creation on the Internet and The Digital Now - 'Drones / Birds: Princes of Ubiquity'.
Internet Yami-ichi (japanese for Black Market) is a flea market where people sell Internet-ish things face to face.
The last edition of the market took place in Amsterdam on 9 and 10 May. More precisely at the Flemish Arts Centre De Brakke Grond, a (vast) space dedicated to promoting and showcasing contemporary art productions from Flanders. Any kind of art and with an emphasis on innovation, cross-over, interdisciplinarity, and artistic guts. Some of their events are in dutch but a big part of their programme caters for the international audience. I've only been to De Brakke Grond twice but what i've seen so far was critical, witty and resolutely embedded into contemporary culture.
The goods on sale at Yami-ichi were both smart and silly. I bought a little mirror to stick on a phone and observe/photograph scenes and people i wouldn't normally dare to watch openly (i'm not one to take the metro and ignore fellow travelers), all sorts of things made or baked to the glory of internet memes and a fabric patch with a glue gun sewn on it. And some mystery eggs. One thrown in a plastic container by JODI, the other enclosing the url of a Fresh Unpopular Video. I was also made a member of the institutions of Resolution Disputes, participated in a 'hate mail writing' workshop and got myself (fake)photographed in the company of Stefan Simchowitz (whom ignorant me had never heard about before.)
Internet Yami-ichi / Black Market is not just a place to throw your wallet around. I quickly found out that it also offers a great opportunity to meet people who are interested in art&tech, hacking, and contemporary culture in general. Artists, designers, art students and hackers were selling objects, offering food and DIY workshop, participating to hilarious performances (singing a cappella the sound of dial-up internet, for example.) And pretty much anyone who's someone in art&tech (whatever that means) had made the trip from Eindhoven, Amsterdam, Brussels or Rotterdam to 'browse' around. It was internet but in the flesh. I didn't count the number of visitors but De Brakke Grond did. Apparently, over 1900 visitors turned up over the Yami-ichi weekend! 'Zeer succesvolle editie'!
All of the above would probably make more sense if i actually showed some images from the event and commented them briefly. There you are:
By the way, institutions of Resolution Disputes [iRD] was one of my favourite projects at the market. It's far brainier than the other pieces sold/exhibited and hopefully i'll find a moment to come back to it in a later post. But in the meantime (and if i don't come back to the work on the blog), do check out this interview that Daniel Rourke did with Rosa Menkman for Furtherfield.
Austin Houldsworth's PhD research at the Royal College of Art in London focuses on the development of a new design method called Counterfictional Design which embeds alternative socially dependent technologies into social science fiction novels. The 'technology', Austin is interested to explore in this context is Money.
Money, he says, 'is inherently conservative.' As currency expert Bernard Lietaer points out in his 2001 book The Future of Money, money functions through belief. You believe that everyone else believes that the money is valuable. What we are talking about here is belief about a belief. This collective belief contributes to economic stability, but it also fosters scepticism towards alternative monetary ideas. In his paper on the stone money of Yap (the inhabitants of this small island in Micronesia used huge stone wheels as a medium of exchange and as a store of wealth.) Milton Friedman suggests: 'Our own money, the money we have grown up with, the system under which it is controlled, these appear 'real' and 'rational' to us. The money of other countries often seen to us like paper or worthless metal.'
According to Houldsworth, the conservative nature of money explains why most market driven payments devices are focused on increasing efficiency of the current monetary system, rather than designing alternatives. His counterfictional design method acts thus as a tool to help shift the cultural design constraints surrounding money and imagine alternative systems, which would otherwise be impossible to envision.
Over a year ago, the designer illustrated the counterficitional design method with Walden Note money which explored the way money might function within a behaviorist society.
His latest project, Wealth Beyond Big Brother looks at what happens to trans-border exchanges when they take place inside highly unregulated states. The literary context this time is Orwell's book 1984. But instead of looking at the paternalistic control of Big Brother, the scenario takes place in the disputed territories that lie between the super states of Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia.
In practice no on power ever controls the whole of the disputed area. Portions of it are constantly changing hands, and it is the chance of seizing this or that fragment by sudden stroke of treachery that dictates the endless changes of alignment.
Because each new invasion of these areas brings a new ruler, no trusted financial institution ever has the chance to establish itself. People living within these areas have thus developed a completely decentralised payment system which serves as both personal protection and a medium of exchange.
All of the disputed territories contain valuable minerals, and some of them yield important vegetable products such as rubber.
Through continual war and invasion, the disputed territory regions have been depleted of most natural resources. Scarcity of even semi precious metals like copper has led to a high demand for such materials. Therefore, gold, silver and copper act as a standard 'store of value' and 'medium of exchange.'
People living within the disputed territories mostly trade with people they know and therefore these small groups operate through a type of gift economy. However, when a resource is needed from another area, trade with strangers is inevitable. Historically these trades have often ended in blood shed. Given the impossibility of establishing a state-controlled culture of trans-border commerce, the factions have decided to take matter into their own hand and cast their currency into the form of bullets, creating a payment system which acts as security and therefore helps contextualize the meaning of value. Both sides are forced to be civil to one another, with the potential for loss of life or livelihood playing a key role in maintaining harmony between people who have little reason to trust each other.
Individuals craft their own payment devices from reappropiated weapons left behind during the ongoing conflicts between the super states. As most of the components of these weapons were made under the guidance of big brother Ministry of Plenty, the gun parts are made from very cheap plastics, electroplated to look like gunmetal. They have little metal content and are in fact worthless compared with the small metal bullets used as a medium of exchange. The payment device has a groove cut out of the revolver section, without the need for the buyer to remove it from the breach.
During transactions, the buyer holds the device towards the seller, with all the bullets required during the transaction, loaded into the breach. When the buyer and seller have agreed on the price of the item being traded, the buyer takes the required amount of gold, silver or copper bullets from the guns breach and hands the unfired bullets to the seller in exchange for the goods.
Very rarely is the payment device used as a weapon. But occasionally transactions have been known to turn hostile and pressing the release catch to fire the gun becomes necessary. The bullets themselves have an electronic ignition, and are activated when the electrical contacts from the bolt touch the contacts at the back of the bullet.
I did have one last question for Austin:
That institutional control isn't always a bad thing. And a completely decentralised payment system can also produce nightmarish scenarios.
In light of the banking sector scandals. Decentralised systems like Bitcoin suddenly appear rather alluring. Yet financial institutions, I believe, can both represent individual interests and collective interests for the benefit of society. A financial institution like a bank or building society can set precedents on idealised behaviour both for the institution and individuals within a given context. Money by itself, doesn't often offer any ideological framework.
Therefore, perhaps remembering both nightmare visions within 'Nighteen Eighty Four,' the extreme control of 'big brother' and the dog eat dog environment of the 'disputed territories'.