This weekend i'm in Turin for the Artissima art fair. I'll get back with a proper story about the event later. I suspect it's going to take the usual form of a photo heavy and mute post but right now i wanted to highlight Fired but Unexploded, a series of videos and photos of bombs that didn't explode.
Every day in Europe, unexploded bombs from WW1 and WW2 turn up during construction works and even in open fields and riverbeds. Approximately 15 unexploded bombs are recovered every day in Germany. In the forests of Verdun, France, "démineurs" still find about 900 tons of poisonous and explosive munitions every year. And i was very surprised to read that in my country, Belgium, between 150 and 200 tons are recovered each year. Most are stockpiled in a secure location and the most toxic and dangerous ones are wrapped in more explosives and destroyed inside a dedicated building.
Hungary's Unexploded Bomb Disposal Department gave the artist access to some of the explosives. They might be 60 years old but these bombs still pose a risk of detonation. Asztalos sees in them a symbol of conflicts among humans:
The unexploded bombs symbolize those places and situations that the sounds evoke, he told Funzine. They may symbolize political conflicts - in this case we hear the sound of street demonstrations; they may stand for the time bombs of consumer societies - then we hear someone going through TV channels; or they may represent issues in private life and partnership - then we hear someone doing the dishes without saying a word, and the tension in the air is almost palpable. We hear all these sounds and see this unexploded bomb. The question is only when it will explode.
The bomb collection.
Notes about A screaming comes across the sky. Drones, mass surveillance and invisible wars , Laboral's new exhibition that addresses the ethical and legal ambiguity of drones, mass surveillance and war at a distance.
Drones are very much part of today's culture. You can buy one on amazon and fly it as if it were a sophisticated kite. You also probably read how they are (or will be) used to deliver urgent medical supplies, shoot movies, monitor crops, track wildlife or gather information after a natural or manmade disaster.
In many people's minds, hobbyist and civilian uses of UAVs have overtaken the military role and origins of drones. No surprise here as what governments are doing with drones, who they are killing and how is a mystery for the public. And even often for government officials, as this video shown by curator Juha van' t Zelfde during Laboral's drone conference illustrates:
Drones have been operating and killing since the early 2000s. Yet, we still have fairly few or no statistics regarding civilian casualties. The Bureau of Investigative Journalist does a great job at counting strikes and casualties in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. Data gets blurry when it comes to attacks in other countries such as Afghanistan. And a lack of transparency goes hand in hand with a lack of accountability. The wars are fought in remote countries by invisible technologies operated in the name of people who have only a very limited knowledge of what is happening 'on the war front' and this situation contrasts with the ability that satellite images have given us to see and explore the world. The irony is illustrated by James Bridle's ongoing series of aerial photographs of military surveillance drones, found via online maps accessible to everyone.
The title A screaming comes across the sky is taken from Thomas Pynchon's novel, Gravity's Rainbow, which explores the social and political context behind the development of the V-2 rocket, the first long-range ballistic missile and the first man-made object to enter the fringes of space. The rocket was developed by the German military during World War II to attack Allied cities as a form of retaliation for the ever-increasing Allied bombings against German cities. Today's technologies of war, such as the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones, and their laser-guided Hellfire missiles, bear resemblance to the V-2 in their ability to operate unseen and to strike without warning.
In the post-PRISM age of mass surveillance and invisible war, artists, alongside journalists, whistleblowers and activists, reveal the technological infrastructures that enable events like drone-strikes to occur.
I've now seen quite a few exhibitions that explored the politics, ethics and meanings of drones. A screaming comes across the sky manages to bring a fresh and compelling perspective on the issue by taking sometimes a more oblique, metaphorical approach to drones. While the curator selected some of the most iconic works dealing directly with drones today, he also looked at artists who are interested in questions of surveillance and control but in a rather poetical, symbolic or even sometimes humourous way.
Martha Rosler's Theater of Drones is a great introduction to the subject of drone warfare. The banner installation was first exhibited in Charlottesville, the first city in the United States to pass a law restricting the use of drones in its airspace
Talking about the drones, Rosler said: "They appear to make war invisible, but of course in the countries that we're bombing, and where people are being killed, they are a terror fact of everyday life. They don't terrorize us, because we have this classic split, which we also had during the Vietnam War of over here and over there are two different worlds, and they're not really connected."
The banners list a series of chilling facts about drones: "The Air Force has plotted the drone future to 2047. The Pentagon plans to increase funding by 700% over the next decade." "Since 2004, drone strikes have killed an estimated 3,115 people in Pakistan. Fewer than 2 percent of the victims are high-profile targets. The rest are civilians, and alleged combatants. " And this little gem of a quote by a Pentagon official:
"They don't get hungry. They're not afraid. They don't forget their orders. They don't care if the guy next to them has just been shot. Will they do a better job than humans? Yes."
The same room also showed works developed by fabLAB Asturias. The prototypes, platforms and maps bring the drone issue into a context closer to citizens' daily interests and experiences (a dedicated post about fabLAB's drone experiments is coming up!) Their projects also remind the public that the U.S> military doesn't have the monopoly of questionable use of drones. Using them for surveillance, border control and in military contexts is very much part of the European agenda as well.
Quick tour of the other works on show:
As part of his ongoing research on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Lot Amoros placed posters around Egypt to inform people how to protect themselves from Israel's Heron drones. Israel is the world's leading exporter of military drones. As this video shows, Israeli drones and other weapons meet with great success on the international market as they have been repeatedly tried and tested on Palestinians.
The instructions of the Dronism document were directly quoted from real Al-Qaida drone documents. All al-Qaida references or aggressive languages were removed and replaced with peaceful instructions for the sole purpose of offering innocent civilians a series of tools to protect themselves from unmanned aerial vehicles, using common materials and trash to construct frequency inhibitors, camera blinders, etc.
Amoros also intended to send the instructions to Palestine on board a tiny DIY drone. It turned out that flying the quadcopter over the border into Palestinian territory was too dangerous. The artist and activist did however succeed to send the instructions via underground tunnels.
I was so glad to get another chance to see Grasso's wonderful On Air again. , The film, shot in 2009 in The United Arab Emirates, looks at traditional hawk hunting. The bird in the movie is equipped with light and sophisticated surveillance equipment. Once let to roam free above the land, it becomes a spying tool, recording every dune and village it flies over. The images are fascinating but they are also threatening.
The movie and its paranoia-inducing music reminds us that a technique to use pigeons for aerial photography of enemy lines during wars was developed as early as 1907. The practice might not have vanished completely. A few years ago, articles reported that Iranian security forces had captured a pair of "spy pigeons," not far from one of the country's nuclear processing plants.
Which brings us nicely to Alicia Framis's History of Drones. Her taxidermied work presents the pigeon as the predecessor of today's drones. In 1908, German apothecary Julius Neubronner patented aerial photography by means of a pigeon photographer. The invention was tried out for military air surveillance in the First World War and later.
Besides actually being used in military contexts as a means of surveillance and collecting intelligence, they were indeed unmanned aerial instruments, which might had a different historical importance if it wasn't for the quick and strong progress in the field of aviation. In this new work, Framis creates a light-hearted reminder of the evolution of aerial espionage.
MQ1 Predator Drone Shadow
Check out the video below for more details about Bridle's interest in drones:
The talk is available in spanish as well.
Really like this work. I wrote about it Here.
A video showing 56 remote-controlled toy helicopters taking to the sky to great chaos.
A screaming comes across the sky. Drones, mass surveillance and invisible wars is at LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial (Art and Industrial Creation Centre) until 12 April 2015. In collaboration with Lighthouse.
Related stories: Flone, The Flying Phone, A dystopian performance for drones, KGB, CIA black sites and drone performance. This must be an exhibition by Suzanne Treister, Under the Shadow of the Drone and The Digital Now - 'Drones / Birds: Princes of Ubiquity'.
Furl: Soft Pneumatic Pavilion is another* project i discovered at the graduation show of The interactive Architecture Lab, a Bartlett School of Architecture research group and Masters Programme headed by Ruairi Glynn, Christopher Leung and William Bondin.
Bijing Zhang and Francois Mangion explored the field of soft robotics and its future applications to create an adaptive architecture that responds to the human body:
"Furl" combines Electroencephalography (EEG) with advances in soft silicone casting of "air muscles". The introduction of soft robotics replaces the mechanical principles in interactive architecture through a biological paradigm. EEG allows sensing of human brain functioning so that our environments begin moving and responding to our very thoughts. The designed components have a wide palette of deformation patterns of inflation. Through combination of soft and hard architectural elements, "Furl" creates a new platform for a kinetic responsive architecture which can let space interact with users needs and adapt itself to environmental conditions.
Quick conversation with one of the creators of Furl:
Hi François! I hope I'm not going to shock you but I find that Furl is very fascinating but also a bit repulsive. It's a bit of an upsetting creature. It's mechanical but it also looks like it has some flesh that moves and 'lives' and that makes me uncomfortable. So why didn't you decide to make a cute little soft robot?
It is not a shock at all, in the Interactive Architecture Lab, people often attach some kind of a distinct behavioural character to their work and Furl is no exception. We always thought about Furl as a curious 'creature' of polarities, soft responsive moving components in contrast with the stiff sharp structure.
The description text in the catalogue mentions applications of soft robotics in architecture. Where do you see these applications happening? What would a 'soft responsive architecture' be able to do for us?
There's a lot of interest in robotics in Architecture right now. Mostly in fabrication but increasingly thinking about how buildings and space as whole can be kinetic in their response to inhabitation. The problem is that robotics and mechanisms are typically rigid, sometimes dangerous, and generally incompatible with close proximate behavior to people. Soft robotics creates a new platform for architecture, to interact much more sensitively and directly to the human body. These physical properties of soft materials offer a potential to create 'soft' architectural structures or components which can shift shape, rotate, bend unlike anything we've seen in architecture to date. It might be sometime before such techniques are commonplace but we think it opens up new horizons in biologically inspired architecture, an interdisciplinary approach that could potentially lead to a revolution towards a 'soft responsive architecture'.
Could you briefly tell us how the soft part works? In particular, what makes it inflate?
The soft responsive components forming Furl are "air muscles". Made of two layers of silicone with different degrees of elasticity and with air channels cast within them. This difference in mechanical properties and the arrangement of the air channels makes the muscle transform in different ways. You can essentially programme the behaviour of the air muscles by varying moulds for casting the soft material so that it can produce different 'gestures' based on geometries (such as thickness, ratio, depiction) of the solid part the air muscles and air channels. A lot of material experimentation was lead by Bijing Zhang based on work by previous members of IAL including Ben Haworth and Rom Khampanya.
Can you explain me the part about Electroencephalography: "EEG allows sensing of human brain functioning so that our environments begin moving and responding to our very thoughts." How does it work? What can EEG sense exactly? And how does Furl respond?
Our approach to brain sensing was developed in collaboration with DSI (Data Science Institute) at the Imperial College. Using their brain sensors we were able to get raw data about levels of alpha (α), beta (β), delta (δ), and theta (Θ) brain waves. The EEG signal is closely related to the level of concentration of the person. As the activity increases, the EEG shifts to higher dominating type of brain wave frequency and lower amplitude. If people concentrated it alters the theta brain waves frequency and this would active the muscles to inflate. This was actually quite a simple response to what is actually much more powerful data that harnessed with pattern recognition and learning algorithms could spell the end of needing to touch or speak to devices or environments to control them.
Since we're exploring the softness of material, we felt that brain sensing in some way, was the equivalent in soft control. Even more powerful to simple control would be buildings able to take the data and predict and anticipate our needs even before we do. Its an exciting and equally terrifying area of research we're starting to explore and this was just a prototype of that idea.
What was the biggest challenge(s) you encountered while developing the work?
The biggest challenge we had to deal with was to acquire the knowledge of the material's physical properties and develop full understanding of the change in the dynamic behaviour of the air muscles with respect to the specific internal air channels. Through a series of design and fabricated tests we were continuously exploring the capability of mimicking a more natural behaviour and interaction.
Are you planning to push this research into soft robotics any further?
Yes, definitely there are still a lot of challenges we have to deal with and the scaling up to architectural scale at this stage is something that we have to explore. On the other hand we also want to investigate the possibility of prototyping a one functional component with embedded hard materials for structural, interactive and dynamic capabilities. We also look forward in developing further the brain sensor control aiming towards full-scale soft responsive architecture.
* see also The Eye Catcher.
Another hasty post as i'm trying to emerge from an intense marathon of moving house, giving talks, crying over irregular German verbs and generally wasting far too much time reading crime books. So here! A quick list of exhibitions i've seen recently but hadn't found time to write about:
My number one recommendation would be to go and check out the black inflatable castle at the Copperfield gallery. Tom Dale's 'Department of the Interior' is a 6.5m high black castle that echoes the towers and crenellations of Parliament with an absurdity that mocks its claim for authority.
The show is up and bouncy until 14 November.
Last year, Davide Monteleone went on a search for the current Chechen identity. Above all he wanted to know which of them, Chechnya or Russia, had emerged victorious from the conflict. The answer is undeniably Russia. But if you look at it from a different angle, the answer is perhaps not so clear-cut.
Arkady Bronnikov collected photographs of Russian prisoners tattoos between the mid-1960s and mid-1980s. A senior expert in criminalistics at the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs for over thirty years, part of Bronnikov's duties involved visiting correctional institutions of the Ural and Siberia regions. It was here that he interviewed, gathered information and photographed of convicts and their tattoos, building one of the most comprehensive archives of this phenomenon.
FUEL present: Russian Criminal Tattoo Police Files is on at Grimaldi Gavin until 21 November.
Make Life Worth Living at the Science Museum Media Space presents some of the photos commissioned to Nick Hedges by the housing and homelessness charity Shelter.
Exhibited for the first time, following a 40 year restriction to protect the anonymity of the subjects, the images reveal the deplorable housing conditions and poverty endured by people across Britain in the 1970s. Not that the situation is much rosier nowadays.
A World to Win. Posters of Protest and Revolution at the V&A closes tomorrow. A fairly small but energizing exhibition.
Believe it or not, the Imperial War Museum is my favourite museum in London. There's the Jeremy Deller bombed out car from Baghdad, one of the V-2 rockets my grand-mother used to tell me about and occasionally there's even some exciting temporary exhibition. The IWM has recently been revamped and it feels very crammed and airless in there but the collections are as stunning as ever. Here's a couple of artefacts i discovered during my last visit:
Apparently local people asked British soldiers to take down from a wall the tiled mosaic of Saddam Hussein at the port of Umm Qsar.
I was very taken by this pair of woven straw over-boots worn by German soldiers to cover their leather boots on the Eastern front and in particular in Russia where temperatures fell below -30 degree Celsius.
Right, i'm off to Carroll/Fletcher. They've just opened Unoriginal Genius, a show curated by Domenico Quaranta. Should be a good one.
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.