GAMERZ in Aix-en-Provence is probably the only festival in Europe that doesn't bat an eyelid when an artist proposes to organize a performance in which drones modified to be fairly dumb roam freely and menacingly over a room of spectators. This might not sound scary until you realize that a dumb drone is even more dangerous than a smart drone.
The two UAVs of the DRONE.2000 performance are guided by the simple algorithms of a Roomba robot. Clearly, that's not enough intelligence for them as they bump against the walls, fly far too close to the audience, dart green arrows over the heads and emit a noise that has been amplified to the point of discomfort. This could have ended in tears and bruises (but it didn't.)
The only direct experience most of us have of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) is fairly benign. We know them through hacking, art, cinema or video games. One day, these flying machines will also deliver our parcels, help coordinate firefighting efforts or keep a 'benevolent' eye over sports games. How far should their autonomy and power go? Do we trust them? Do we trust the ones who manufacture and control them?
Drone.2000 is part of a series of works by Nicolas Maigret that reminds us of the military origins and use of technologies that have reached the mainstream. Here, trusting the autonomy of the machine is not only a discursive concept, Maigret writes, but a true experience shared with the audience, triggering off their reactions, tensions and commitment of their bodies in situation of real danger..
I was in Aix-en-Provence for the opening of the GAMERZ festival but had to leave before the start of the performance so i asked Nicolas Maigret to give us the lowdown on his work:
Bonjour Nicolas! Which model of drone were you using in this performance?
These are Parrot AR.Drone 2.0. The advantage of this model is that it is widely used and very hack-able. A large community is working on hijacking it for different uses. (see: nodecopter = hackathon, ardupilot.com = auto-pilot, copterface = facial recognition ...)
Can you explain how you modified the drone?
The challenge was really to confuse the public, to have it face the autonomy of the machines (in this case flying ones). And add to that a confrontation with instability, fragility, and the potential danger of algorithms that govern the autonomous behavior of these machine.
To do this we have reproduced the primary behaviors of a robot / vacuum cleaner like iRobot Roomba. Which means that the Drone is absolutely not aware of his surroundings, it only knows its height and rotates randomly from time to time when it bumps against an obstacle (walls, etc). We blocked the cameras normally used to stabilize the position, the Drone is literally un-intelligent. He does not know the position of the other drones either.
These changes entail an underlying sense of danger, a sort of sword of Damocles that is quite striking. Especially since these same drones falls down rather frequently (whether there is a public or not).
Each drone is also equipped with vibration sensors under the propellers. These sounds were gradually amplified during the performance, until the beating blades gets a real physical presence. This activates a martial connotation in the brutality of the contemporary sounds - this aspect recalls the sound approaches of the Futurists (or their reactivations such as Jean-Marc Vivenza's Aérobruitisme Dynamique). However, the Futurists harboured a progressive and inclusive form of hope, whereas I believe that we now have a very different rapport, we feel a growing distrust towards the widespread propaganda of technological innovations that have very little in common with yesteryear's myth of progress.
How did the public react? Were they aware of the danger?
Public reactions alternated between discomfort, nervousness, and humor.
The awkward movements of the Drones quickly made the danger tangible. Initially, most of the audience intuitively chose to stand near the walls, on the sides of the room. I think this was the time when anxiety was at its peak. Then people gradually got closer or they sat down around the space. Some even tried to interfere with the flight of these Zombie Drones. Ironically, the walls of the room, which were the places where most people gathered, were also the places where the drones usually fell.
It should be noted that the Drones also intermittently emit a laser target in the shape of a cross towards the public, openly evoking the military and oppressive parallel of this same technology that has quickly been gamified for the general public, in particular with drones plug and play like AR.Drones. (see the project blurb.)
Drone.2000. i love that name but the 2000 is ironic, right? it makes me think of all those shops called 'Fashion 2000' "Car dealer 2000" in the 1980s and 1990s.
The title is clearly ironic. At least it summons an imaginary future as it existed in the past, especially one related to the autonomous flying objects that we encountered in sci-fi and anticipation literature, film, comics, tv series.
I think there is something of the self-fulfilling prophecy in these generational fantasies inspired by sci-fi, the entertainment industry, and more generally the effect of the zeitgeist. Indeed, entire generations grow up with a common imaginary, whether they are dystopian, critical or not. Later, as they are adults, some mechanically attempt to achieve a more or less faithful realization of that imaginary. (This is also a key point of Jean-Baptiste Bayle's Terminator Studies, or of Nicolas Nova's latest book). I think that's part of what we've been seeing over the last 20 years through a series of gadgets and "innovations", emerging notably from the Californian ideology and more generally from the new ruling class of the engineers.
The title, Drone.2000, conjures the vision of a future that is already gone, that seeks to disrupt the mask of fascination associated with innovation, and that also tends to generate a tension between our aspirations to consume science-fiction artifacts and the ideology they carry.
The term drone crystallizes fairly well this tension between, on the one hand, a fun and fascinating artifact coming from the world of model-making and on the other hand, a new paradigm in the relationship to the "clean and surgical" war (Grégoire Chamayou, Drone Theory) or a probable near future characterized by widespread surveillance and control.
It is for these reasons among others that I wanted to make the Drones completely autonomous and disturbing, a symbolic intersection between these three references.
Also by Nicolas Maigret: The Pirate Cinema, A Cinematic Collage Generated by P2P Users.
There are three designated "holding" centres for immigrants in Canada but more than one third of detainees are incarcerated in rented beds in provincial prisons, some of them maximum security prisons where visits and support services are limited.
Artist and designer Tings Chak has combined her training in architectural design with her interests in human rights, migrant politics, and spatial justice in a graphic novel called Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention (Architecture Observer, 2014. Available on amazon USA and UK)
The 'undocumented' are not so much the human beings who are detained merely for being born somewhere else. The undocumented are the sites where they are detained. All information about these facilities is classified and access to them is extremely limited.
In her publication, Tings investigates the migrant detention centres in Canada -- "the fastest growing incarceration sector in an already booming prison construction industry," from the everyday acts of resistance inside the centers to the role that architectureplays in controlling and regulating migrant bodies.
The purpose of this investigation, she writes, is to make visible the sites and stories of detention, to bring them into conversations about our built environment, and to highlight migrant detention as an architectural problem.
Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention is a brave, shocking and incredibly revealing little book and because its relevance goes way beyond the frontiers of Canada (i'm looking at you Europe and Australia), i asked Tings to tell us more about her work:
Hi Tings! Why did you chose to use drawings and only drawings to investigate the architecture of migrant detention centres in Canada?
In architecture school, we spend a lot of time thinking about visual representation. Often times, architecture is as much about the representation as it is about the built. I am interested in the way using architectural visual language and tools of representation as a political practice - how can drawings reveal and spark a conversation about the invisibilized practices and spaces of detention?
Canada's prisons and detention centres are not privately owned/run, though there have been past attempts to privatize facilities and there are many lobbying efforts, including from U.S. private prison corporations. Many private parties, however, are contracted and paid millions of dollars to manage, operate, and provide services in immigration detention centres. As an example, the Toronto Immigration Holding Centre, the largest of Canada's three designated immigration detention centres, is managed by Corbel Management Corporation and security services are provided by G4S - the world's largest security firm which has been central to maintaining the apartheid state of Israel.
In terms of the life of migrants detained, up to one third of them are locked up in provincial prisons, often times in maximum security prisons. We consistently hear from detainees about the horrendous conditions, even worse than in general population, and the staff shortages that result in lockdowns for days on end. Also, being held in these prisons means that detainees often cannot call family members abroad, are too remote for in-person visits, and don't have access to the legal resources necessary to regularize their immigration status, which all exacerbate the isolation they face in detention.
How much restriction to information did you have to face while investigating spaces for mass detention and deportation? Apart from testimonies from migrants, which kind of evidence is your research based on?
Information about these spaces are highly restricted, access to them is nearly impossible for members of the public. The title of the book is an acknowledgement of how these spaces are purposefully invisibilized and any information about them is classified. Recognizing this, the book is an assemblage of bits and pieces that I gathered from various sources - testimonies from detainees, descriptions from legal counsel who have visited such spaces, research that others have done about specific aspects of detention like solitary confinement, legal recommendations, and design standards for prisons and detention centres.
Here are the links to key resources I based my work on (more can be found here):
These places are surprisingly banal. Unlike the dank, dark dungeons that popular depictions of prisons would have us believe, many of these facilities are familiar in the way that most institutional buildings are. This is something I wanted to highlighted in my drawings.
Another aspect has to do with the highly securitized nature of detention centres, which means that the building is compartmentalized according to discrete functions for processing, monitoring, interrogating, and containing detainees. It is impossible to understand the building as a whole, so as not to be challenged.
What are the architectural mechanisms used to control the experiences of the people detained there?
From the segregation units to the bullet resistant glazing, the sally port to the recessed lighting units, the surveillance systems to the bolted down stainless steel toilet/sink units, every architectural detail of a space is designed to manage and maintain control of incarcerated individuals.
What I was particularly fascinated by were the design guides specific to detention centres (in the U.S. context). These manuals provide a detailed analysis of minimum design standards, including occupancy capacities, material specifications, program adjacencies, etc. Often times, the definitions of the "minimum" or the "habitable" (according to legalistic definitions) are quantified in terms of square footage or cubic volume of air space. The architectural logic of these spaces, along with a lot of other architectures, is governed by the minimum standards, which seek to minimize risk and regulate human bodies.
Could architecture be used to welcome or at least ensure a less traumatic experience for migrants?
I believe that detentions and deportations are inherently violent and traumatizing. Incarcerating people on the basis of being born somewhere else is not something we can humanize through design. I've spoken to architecture students, professors, and practitioners over the course of creating this book, and it's clear that the vast majority of them believe that immigration detention is a "problem" that could be fixed with a better "solution." What is important to note is that often times the ambition of making a space more humane and more optimal distracts and deters us from questioning the prison industrial complex, and the complicity of architects within it.
Israeli architect Eyal Weizman speaks about this problem in his book "The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza" (2012).
The major impetus of this work is to challenge architects to engage in the very difficult ethical question: are there programs for which architects should not design? There are groups such as Architects, Designers, Planners for Social Responsibility in the U.S. that have been working for years to get architects to boycott prison design. I believe that architects should be intervening by pushing the discussion towards imagining and designing real alternatives to detention.
You are also an organizer with No One Is Illegal - Toronto. How much impact do your actions and protests have on the immigration system? Could you give some examples?
The work that No One Is Illegal - Toronto has impacts on various levels, which include shifting the public discourse and imagination around migration and borders, building our social movement through mobilization, and developing and sharing an intersectional political analysis, among other things. At the core of it, though, is the belief that the immigration system here (and in the U.S.) is not a "broken" one that we need to reform, but that it is functioning exactly as it is designed to. The system is built on the exploitation of precarious labour, exclusion of poor migrants from the global South, and ongoing displacement of Indigenous people on Turtle Island and across the globe.
That being said, there have been significant victories over the past 10 years. After decades of community organizing, Toronto declared itself a "Sanctuary City" in February, 2013, which means that residents regardless of immigration status can access city services without the threat of detention or deportation. It is still far from being a reality on the ground. Around the End Immigration Detention Campaign that began just over a year ago, there have been some important developments. Specifically, in June 2014, after our submission to the U.N., they released an opinion condemning Canada's practice of detaining migrants for immigration reasons, and for detaining them indefinitely. The work is ongoing, and people are still organizing courageous actions inside to protest their unjust detentions.
The WORK Gallery in London has recently opened a fascinating exhibition that looks at the role that photography has played in constructing the public image of atomic energy and 'the bomb'. I was expecting a dark and dramatic show but many of the images on the walls are alarmingly cheerful and wonderful.
The first group of works exhibited are the iconic images of the mushroom cloud. What i didn't suspect is that some of these explosions were accompanied by 'atomic tourism' (which has in no way disappeared, even though we might take contamination less recklessly these days.) Atmospheric nuclear testing in Nevada, for example, drew enthusiastic crowd of journalists and curious. They sat down wearing 'protective' eyewear and admired the explosions from vantage points which were sometimes perilously close to the blasts.
Those were times of faith in science and in particular in nuclear energy. As illustrated by Walt Disney/s 1957 tv episode Our Friend the Atom, the crowning of miss Atomic Bomb, families proudly posing into their fallout shelter, the futuristic architecture of nuclear power structures, as well as streets and venues that celebrate everything nuclear in Richland, a town located near the first full-scale plutonium production reactor.
The exhibition also shows the other side of the nuclear medal: scars on the bodies of civilians injured in Hiroshima, an elementary school built on grounds contaminated by nuclear waste, artistic works that use views of New York to visualize the scale of an atomic destruction, protests that bring to light overlooked issues of safety and security.
Most of the photos on display at WORK gallery come from the archive of art historian and curator John O'Brian. The show also accompanies the publication of his latest book: Camera Atomica.
I'd recommend checking them both. The exhibition and the book. The show is up until 20 December, it's not far away from King's Cross station, i think it would be rude to miss it if you're in town. The book is a gold mine of photos, historical facts, shocking anecdotes. It's also a demonstration of the strength of the image when it comes to shaping memories and imagination. I've mixed images seen in the gallery and photos found in the book in this quick post.
Camera Atomica: Photographing the Nuclear World, edited by writer and curator John O'Brian. Contributions by Hiromitsu Toyosaki, Julia Bryan-Wilson, Blake Fitzpatrick, Susan Schuppli, Iain Boal, Gene Ray, Douglas Coupland (available at Blackdog Publishing and on Amazon USA and UK)
And now for the many photos i promised you:
Check out After The Flash. Photography from the Atomic Archive at the WORK Gallery in London, until 20 December 2014.
Related posts: Anecdotal radiations, the stories surrounding nuclear armament and testing programs, La Cosa Radiactiva / The Radioactive Thing, Book review - Fallout Shelter. Designing for Civil Defense in the Cold War,
Photo on the homepage: Michael Light, 100 Suns: 099 Bravo, 2003.
Over the past two years, artist Daniela de Paulis has been working with radio astronomers, radio amateurs, neuroscientists and philosophers to develop Cogito, a research project that speculates on the creative and philosophical possibilities of exploring the cosmos by means of radio waves.
She presented the first chapter of her work at BIO 50, the 24th Biennial of Design that opened a few weeks ago in Ljubljana. Cogito was part of a group of projects that explore new ways for human to connect with and explore outer space.
On the opening day of the biennial, visitors were invited to put on a light Brain-Computer Interface headset. Their brain waves were then recorded as they walked and thought across the exhibition space. This collective performative thinking will later be converted into radio waves and transmitted as collective consciousness - and subconsciousness into space. The event will be streamed in real time as audio visual performance from the cabin of the Dwingeloo radio telescope in The Netherlands.
The title of the project obviously refers to the ongoing debate on mind-body-consciousness, and to Descartes' dualistic vision on the mind-body matter. And that's when it gets interesting:
Some scholars argue that the computer age contributed in reviving this debate thanks to the new prominent role of the technological mind. Also recent experiments in quantum physics seem to suggest extraordinary links between the matter of the mind and that of the cosmos, raising profound questions on the nature of consciousness and perception. Sending thoughts into outer space is a symbolic action for shifting our consciousness from the earth-centred perspective, to the cosmos-wide perspective, whilst questioning the mathematical notion of intelligence, as conceived by some relevant SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) researchers.
I contacted Daniela to talk about brain lab, radio telescopes for artistic experiments and 'interstellar transmissions as a tool for philosophical enquiry.'
For the BIO 50 exhibition, the brain waves of the visitors are recorded thanks to a brain lab connected to a computer. Could you describe the setting and technology used? What does this brain lab look like?
During the opening day of BIO 50 I have been recording the brain waves of the visitors thanks to a NeuroSky mobile headset which transmits live EEG data to a computer via Bluetooth, up to 10 metres distance. The EEG data are then saved as video recording. The actual set up of the piece is created to minimize its visual impact in the gallery space,
I wanted the piece to be practically invisible: the visitors walking across the space, or simply sitting or standing while 'thinking' are the real presence of the piece. Because the technical aspect of the piece is relatively simple, anybody owning an EEG device can email me the recording of his or her brainwaves over the duration of BIO 50, to be transmitted into space as part of the live performance. The actual art piece is in the aether more than at the gallery.
The brain waves will later be transmitted 'as collective consciousness - and subconsciousness - by the Dwingeloo radio telescope antenna'. So technology can also detect subconsciousness? Sorry for the dumb question but is that possible? Can it distinguish the conscious and subconscious waves?
The piece I am presenting as part of BIO 50 is the first step of a long term project. This time I am using a simple yet relatively accurate device which detects EEG frequencies, ranging from Beta (representing the most intense state of alertness), Alpha (state of relaxed alertness), Theta (state of inward thought, visualization and dreaming) and Delta (state of dreamless dream). Interestingly, all these brain waves are always present and intertwined in the electroencephalogram, our mind seems to continuously shift from one state to another, as if fluctuating from dream to reality, from consciousness to subconsciousness, rather than being fixed in a particular mode, according to the set of our actions. As part of the project development however I am also planning to transmit into space brain waves recorded in specific conditions, such as during sleep and even perhaps of animals.
I read that the Dwingeloo Radio Observatory was no longer in operation in an official capacity. What is it used for now?
The radio telescope was rescued by radio amateurs in 2005: they brought it back to working order and it is now used for HAM radio activities and educational programmes. In 2009 I became the first artist in residence at Dwingeloo and since then I have been developing a series of projects based on radio transmissions, often web streamed live from the cabin of the radio telescope. Together with the radio amateurs, we are now developing an international residency programme and hopefully Dwingeloo will become an art hub in the near future. Not many radio telescopes can be used for artistic experiments, especially transmissions, so this instrument is really unique. After a year long restoration, the dish has been officially reopened in April 2014.
I have been thinking about 'Cogito' for a couple of years already. In previous works I have been using radio waves to literally touch the surface of the Moon, receiving its reflected signals in form of visualized thoughts, in 'Cogito' I explore the possibility of travelling into space with the mind in greater depth. A few months ago Michio Kaku published an interesting book gathering the most futuristic theories in neuroscience, indeed we might be travelling into space by uploading our mind into laser beams in the far future. NASA is currently developing the technology for transmitting HD data into space by laser beam instead of radio waves, who knows how long it will take before we might be able to fully use our mind for experiencing space remotely.
How easy (or difficult) is it to convince neuroscientist, radio astronomers and philosophers to collaborate on your project? Cogito must be miles away from their everyday research and work...
Convincing the radio amateurs and radio astronomers I have been working with for the past five years was very easy. I made an official presentation of 'Cogito' at ASTRON, the Dutch research centre for radio astronomy, and realized that the idea of transmitting one's thoughts into space resonates with some of the radio astronomers' interest in SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). For the aspects of the project concerning neuroscience, I have been working with Prof. Ghebreab, his team and students at the University of Amsterdam. When we started collaborating last year, Prof Ghebreab was working on brain waves transmissions across the Internet, his interests seem to match my project and he appreciates the concept of 'global brain' emerging from 'Cogito'. The philosophers are undoubtedly offering interesting insights and are directly involved in my conceptual research as the project touches upon the unsolved debate on dualism of mind and body. The research method I use as an artist however doesn't always fit the philosophers' analytical framework, causing some misunderstanding, at times.
I often find space so remote from my daily life that it almost become abstract. What is it in space that you find so fascinating? Why should we be more aware of its existence and the possibilities it offers?
I have always been interested in space, in all its forms. Before starting my work at the Dwingeloo radio telescope, I was busy with a research on harbour cities and their spatial and commercial networks across the globe. I guess I am interested in global perspectives.
Outer space is becoming increasingly relevant in our culture and economy. Our bodily limitations when it comes to direct contact with outer space raise questions on how can we perceive it, since we are part of it, yet denied its direct experience. This is one of the topics that fascinates me the most about outer space. For me transmitting brain waves into space is a form of physical space travel, with our mind converted into electromagnetic waves that travel in space at the speed of light. It is also a symbolic action for shifting our awareness from the Earth-centred perspective to the Cosmos-wide perspective and looking at ourselves from a far away point of view, understanding the relativeness of our position in the vastness of space.
Cogito is part of your PhD research. Could you explain us what the PhD focuses on?
'Cogito' is the departing point of my PhD artistic research at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. Since starting my exploration on interstellar transmissions as a tool for philosophical enquiry, I have been questioning how to envision outer space by using thought as intellectual experience of the unseen. As part of my artistic research I am also interested in the role of philosophy in understanding the impact of outer space on our cognition. I am especially interested in mind bending theories which seem to stand in between Philosophy of the Mind and Physics (such as the 'Orchestrated Objective Reduction', conceived by Dr. Stuart Hameroff and Sir Roger Penrose) and which challenge our long standing knowledge on who we are in relation to the universe. Science keeps expanding our knowledge of outer space, yet direct cognition is restricted to our native planet and its close proximity. How can philosophy bridge the gap between scientific research in outer space and our earthy cognition? And how will our cognition change, should we be able to expand our mental and bodily capabilities in outer space, thanks to technology and a deeper understanding of our mind?
The installation in Ljubljana is the first part of the project. What's next?
The 'Cogito' of the visitors recorded during the opening day in Ljubljana will be converted into radio waves and transmitted into space with a beacon transmission lasting a few hours, thus covering a large angle of the sky dome. The event will be streamed in real time as audio visual performance from the cabin of the Dwingeloo radio telescope. Date and time of the performance will be communicated on the BIO 50 social media and on my website.
It is expected that the project will be further developed in collaboration with the 'Overview Institute', a group of researchers engaged with the study of the 'Overview Effect' (the effect of seeing the Earth from outer space) on the cognitive state of astronauts who had the opportunity to witness the sight. A brain lab, a bit more sophisticated than the one used for BIO 50, will be permanently installed inside the cabin of the Dwingeloo radio telescope, and used by visitors who will be able to transmit their thoughts into outer space, while experiencing the immersive view of the Earth seen from space through a visual simulator.
All images courtesy of the artist.
What might sound like an ecological abomination is actually the start of a process that will create a new eco-system beneath the sea: an artificial reef. The sunken boat will provide a hard surface to which algae and invertebrates adhere, providing food for fish.
The artist bought the boat off eBay for 75 pounds. It was called Brioney Victoria and had been rotting for decade at a Canvey Island yard. He emptied it, added a concrete wheelhouse to make it look like a working boat and then stripped it of anything that could potentially be harmful.
Once ready, the small fishing vessel was towed out to sea. Faithfull set it alight, opened the seacocks, let water into the boat and dove off as it started sinking.
Five cameras were mounted on board to record the boat's descent and they are still monitoring its transformation, transmitting images via a dedicated website and relaying them to exhibitions. The first one is at Fabrica, a former chapel turned art gallery in Brighton. The show, which is part of the Brighton Photo Biennial, will later move to Calais and Caen.
In the Brighton gallery, a big overhead screen show the boat smoking and very slowly sinking beneath the waves. A series of monitors at ground level broadcast the images from the drowned boat.
Faithfull was interested in investigating how an ordinary object at the end of its existence is given a new, almost eternal life.
Like some of the artist's previous works, REEF documents the plight of a camera exposed to extreme elements or sent on a journey from which they might never come back. In 2003, for example, Faithfull sent a video camera attached to a weather balloon into the stratosphere.
Simon Faithfull Interview for REEF Project
Simon Faithfull will be giving a talk at Lighthouse on Tue 21 Oct 7- 8.15pm. And if you miss the evening, check out REEF at Fabrica in Brigton as part of the Brighton Photo Biennial. The show is open until 23 November 2014.
Also part of the Biennial: Amore e piombo: The Photography of extremes in 1970s Italy.