In this project, Design Interactions graduate Tim Clark plays with the language and history of aviation, offering us a trip into critical and speculative visions of alternative energies.
Aviation, says the designer, has always been viewed as a test bed for radical new ideas and visions to reshape culture, politics and economics on Earth and far beyond it. Some of these dreams of alternative futures became reality and even transformed other areas of life (especially in military or space exploration contexts), while others were aborted because of political, economic or environmental pressures.
Tim Clark tapped into this fascination for unrestricted innovation to design a series of airplanes that investigate the possibility to ditch environmentally damaging fossil fuels in favour of sonic booms and nuclear power.
The most experimental and speculative aircraft research is often classified. An example of this is the American X-Plane. Started after WW2 and still in operation today, the program conceived a series of experimental planes and helicopters and used them to test new technologies and aerodynamic concepts.
The first of American X-Plane model, the Bell X-1, was the first aircraft to break the sound barrier in level flight in 1947. This breakthrough opened up a new field of supersonic research and led to experimentation in aerodynamics and new propulsive systems.
Supersonic speed travel is accompanied by an explosive 'bang' sound called sonic boom. These sonic booms also generate enormous amounts of energy. In theory they could thus power planes with an efficient, green and sustainable energy source.
But sonic booms are one of the main reasons why supersonic airplanes never became more commonplace. In several countries, the law prevents aircrafts from flying above Mach 1 due to the shock wave's auditory and vibrational disturbance.
Limiting the impact of sonic booms is a current concern of the aviation industry as many are dreaming of a new supersonic age. But if it is to be more successful than the last one (the Concorde required high quantities of fuel), a supersonic plane would need an energy source free from the influence of global affairs, politics and planet scarring infrastructure. Something that we can quickly produce and have complete control over -- like sonic booms.
The X-1SB, aka the "Sonic Sundae", is Clark's counterhistorical research aircraft designed to test the feasibility of this sonic boom propulsion. Its cone shape design is the combination of a .50 caliber bullet (an object know to be stable while breaching the sound barrier) just like the design of its predecessor the X-1 aircraft, and the shape of the shock wave created by an object traveling faster than sound.
The front of the aircraft features a housing for an interchangeable triangular spike used to test how different shapes could create potentially optimized shock waves to use for propulsion.
And because Clark's work is counter historical, Sonic Sundae and Boomjet (more about that one below) were to have existed before any of the anti-noise laws were to have been instituted.
He told me: I am suggesting that in a sonic boom powered world those laws would not exist because the ability to travel with that type of greener propulsion would probably be more beneficially economically than instituting the flight restrictions. In this case the benefit of the disturbance would outweigh the desire to limit the noise.
Anyway if we were to live in true supersonic age these restrictions would need to be changed/relaxed anyway sonic booms or not. The big research in limiting the sonic boom now is finding a way to make a wing design that will create little to no noise when it breaks the sound barrier so it does not disturb people below the plane. Amazingly this question was answered over a decade (1935) before we even broke the sound barrier (1947) by Adolf Busemann who suggested a supersonic biplane design where the two wings would be used to cancel the other wave out.
It's crazy to think a supersonic jet would resemble a biplane from the 1920s but it would probably be the best solution and it was theorized way before it ever would be seen as a problem which is amazing. MIT just did some research into it in the last year or so and it would totally work and might be quite viable.
Because of its large rear circumference, the X-1SB cannot fit under the fuselage or wing of a larger aircraft for taxiing and takeoff. The B-29 Duo "Double Mama" has thus been designed to be its carrier aircraft of choice.
Another of Clark's designs, the Boomjet is a sonic boom-powered commercial transport that sustains its flight by driving 47 propellers from the pressure energy released by the aircraft as it travels faster than the speed of sound. The sonic boom transport vehicle stores excess energy for use during takeoff which can be vertically or from water depending on location.
Clarks then looked at another source of energy that could disentangle aviation from its dangerous relationship with fossil fuels: nuclear energy.
During the cold war both the USSR and the USA had an experimental nuclear aircraft program. While the risk was high, nuclear power promised an aircraft with theoretically unlimited range capable of constant flight.
Only two known nuclear aircraft that have been fully built and tested. The NB-36H was America's nuclear-powered aircraft. Refitted for this new propulsion system after it was damaged in a storm and deemed unfit for combat, the aircraft featured a direct phone line to the President of the United States that was to only be used in the event of an incident. The NB-36H completed 47 test flights between 1955 and 1957 over New Mexico and Texas. It was scrapped in 1958 when the Nuclear Aircraft Program was abandoned.
The Soviet Union's aircraft, the Tu-95L, was based on the Tupolev Tu-95 strategic bomber and missile platform. First flown in 1952, the plane is still in operation today and Russia sometimes flies it in close proximity of the airspace of other European countries in order to affirm its military presence.
The nuclear variant of the TU-95 flew from 1961 to 1965.
Both the USA and the Soviet Union had ambitious plans for their second nuclear-powered aircraft but due to environmental concerns, political pressures, and rumors that the other side called off their research both projects were shelved.
Clark proposes to update to our times a technology that looked promising at the height of the Cold War. And the ones willing to bankroll the experiment might not be countries but technology companies which are already at the forefront of some ambitious innovative projects (Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic for example.) Because these tech companies are increasingly under governmental scrutiny so that they don't get out of control, they might also take to the sky to further innovation free from the restriction of regulation, utilizing the energy source historically clouded by politics to sustain continuous flight and prove that anything is indeed possible through innovation. An inspiration for the idea is Blueseed. This "start-up community on a ship" proposes to gather hundreds of immigrant entrepreneurs on a floating startup city in international waters off the coast of San Francisco and have them live and work undisturbed by the burden of national boundaries and government regulations.
Clark's mini Silicon Valley on air is called Air Laissez-Faire. A nuclear power plant on board of this self-piloting aircraft would provide virtually limitless amounts of continuous propulsion, while a crew made of nuclear physicist, chemical engineer, radiation consultant, and other figures would ensure safety on board. The mega plane presents satellite and radar communication equipment for remote business meetings, all necessary business facilities as well as a landing space on its rear wings that allow small 'commuter aircrafts' to whisk entrepreneurs from and back to major business centers.
The show to see and experience in London at the moment is Carsten Höller: Decision.
Carsten Höller likes to unsettle, upset, delight and surprise. You get out of one of his shows and feel like you've lived through 'something' new and totally unexpected. The Hayward retrospective is an experiment, from the perspective of the artist but also from the one of the visitor, in perception and decision-taking: are you going to enter through the doors on the right or on the left? Will you dare to be harnessed to a flying machine? Will you ingest one of those curious little pills that are dropped from the ceiling? Or will you just watch and see what other people chose? And in the end, will you conclude that this was fun but a bit shallow or that it was thought-provoking and enlightening? Is this art or just entertainment?
The exhibition is what you would call a crowd-pleaser (although the £15.00 entrance ticket is definitely not crowd-pleasing.) Which in conservative art speak is a bit of an insult. It shouldn't be. Because art doesn't need more snobs and because if gigantic slides, bouncy Stonehenge and rain rooms are what it takes to get everyone to experience and discuss contemporary art, that's good enough for me.
The first decision you take is whether to access the show by the entrance on the right or the one on the left. I chose the left one and very quickly regretted it. I found myself in the darkness of a long, a very very long steel corridor. It sometimes goes up, sometimes down, it bends to the right or to the left. With each step, i was wondering whether i should keep on walking or whether i should just hurry back to where i came from and take the other entrance (which takes you to a similarly awful corridor if i understood correctly.)
Now of course i find it funny so i'd recommend the experience to anyone because one day, i promise, you finally reach the end of the tunnel and find yourself in a room inhabited by huge hallucinogenic mushrooms. They are mounted on a mobile and you're invited to push them around. And every single adult but me thought it was jolly good fun to push a bar and make the mushrooms turn.
Right after the red and white mushrooms, you encounter a growing pile of red and white little pills. Every three seconds, a little capsule drops from the ceiling. You're actually free to pop one with water from the nearby mini sink. There's no information about what is inside the pills. That's part of the experiment, of course, it's another decision you have to take.
People were queuing to try the Upside Down Goggles. The goggles are based on an experiment carried out by George Stratton in the 1890s. While studying the perception in vision, the psychologist wore special glasses which inverted images up and down and left and right. He found that after 4 days wearing them continuously, his brain started to compensate, and he could see the world the right way up again.
Höller's perception-altering goggles are very disorientating. You feel a bit seasick and unsure of your steps.
More queuing! This time to be harnessed to one of the Two Flying Machines. You can pretend you're Icarus flying over the Waterloo Bridge. Except that you're just dangling from a big arm and slowly rotating while other visitors and the odd guy on the top the double deckers are pointing at you.
The top floor of the Hayward also houses Half Mirror Room, a room with floor-to-ceiling mirrors positioned at 90-degree angles to one another, another disorienting experience. How big is this room really? Are these mirrors or is this another of Höller's tricks to play with our perception? In the middle of the room is a super big dice. Instead of black dots, it has holes for children to crawl through.
Meanwhile, two self-navigating robotic beds are quietly gliding around one of the gallery spaces. The beds move in relation to each other, using radio beacons and a laser. During the day, a big sign informs you that you shouldn't touch them but if you have £300 to spare, the beds are yours to sleep in at night. I read that for that price, you also get "dream-enhancing toothpaste."
Höller's shiny Isometric Slides are a very efficient marketing ploy to lure you into the building. They are also the last episode of your journey into the exhibition. You get to climb to the top of the space with a fabric bag and then merrily slide all the way back to normal life.
The catalogue is pure Höller. It takes the form of two books wrapped in glossy white paper. Two because it forces you to decide which one to read first. One of the books contains new short stories by six writers - Naomi Alderman, Jenni Fagan, Jonathan Lethem, Deborah Levy, Helen Oyeyemi and Ali Smith - responding to the theme of decision-making. The other one focuses on the show itself with a photographic interpretation of the multiple ways of experiencing Höller's immersive exhibition and an interview in which the artist talks to curator Ralph Rugoff about participatory art, proprioception, machines for meditation, and aphid's non-sexual mode of reproduction. I haven't looked at the short stories yet but i greatly enjoyed reading the interview.
Decisions is at the Hayward Gallery in London until 6 September.
As usual, i took some pretty bad photos at the show.
Robots are transforming surgery. The Da Vinci Surgical System, for example, allows long and complicated procedures to be performed with super human precision and dexterity. All while decreasing patient trauma and providing a more comfortable experience for the surgeon.
Costing up to $2.000.000 however, a surgical robot represents large capital investments and only becomes cost effective after intensive use and thus fits into a more "market driven" concept of healthcare that indirectly contributes to the overall rising medical expenditures.
One of the corollaries of expensive professional healthcare is the rise of communities of uninsured Americans who share videos on Youtube to demonstrate how they performed medical hacks on themselves.
Designer Frank Kolkman, a new graduate of the Design Interactions course at the Royal College of Art in London, wondered if a compromise could be found. His OpenSurgery project investigates whether building DIY surgical robots, outside the scope of healthcare regulations, could provide an accessible alternative to the costly professional healthcare services worldwide.
There have been several attempts within the robotics community to come up with cheaper and more portable surgical robots. The RAVEN II Surgical robot, for example, was initially developed with funding from the US military to create a portable telesurgery device for battlefield operations. The machine is valued at $200.000 and all of the software used to control the RAVEN II has been made open source. However, The Raven doesn't have the (often costly) safety and quality control systems in place, required by regulation to allow it to be used on humans meaning that it might take a while before the RAVEN II will be fully embraced by regulatory and commercial worlds. In any case, most medical hacker communities would still be unable to afford its $200.000 price tag.
For the past five months, Kolkman has thus been trying to build a DIY surgical robot for around $5000, by using accessible prototyping techniques like laser cutting and 3d printing and by sourcing as many ready-made parts as he could find.
Designing a surgical robot that could perform laparoscopic surgery (a surgery so minimally invasive that it is also called keyhole surgery) presents a number of challenges. The designer found an answer to each of them:
- the many laporoscopic tools that the robot would have to handle can be ordered directly from their Chinese manufacturers using Alibaba.
The electronics to control the robots were copied from designs used in 3d printer communities, while the software was build with Processing.
The main challenge the designer encountered however was intellectual property. In a bid to make the project open source, Kolkman tried to develop his own mechanisms. Unfortunately, it appeared that most of the fundamental concepts that allow robotic surgery have already been patented. Fortunately, he also found out that as long as you make parts protected by intellectual property in private and for non commercial purposes they are theoretically exempted from patent infringement.
After five months of iteration, the robot does move. The designer concludes:
And based on my experiences the concept of a DIY surgical robot is surprisingly plausible. If you would be able to build a community of makers who bring the same amount of attention and dedication to building surgical tools as they do to designing 3d printers and cnc machines these days, I believe accessible DIY surgery equipment would be within reach.
And of course you still need a trained surgeon to operate the machine.
Sudden Justice: America's Secret Drone Wars, by investigative journalist Chris Woods.
Publisher Oxford University Press writes: In Sudden Justice, award-winning investigative journalist Chris Woods explores the secretive history of the United States' use of armed drones and their key role not only on today's battlefields, but also in a covert targeted killing project that has led to the deaths of thousands. The CIA nurtured and developed drones before the War on Terror ever began, seeking a platform from which it could monitor its targets and act lethally and instantly on the intelligence it gathered. Since then, remotely piloted aircraft have played a critical role in America's global counter-terrorism operations and have been deployed to devastating effect in conventional wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Drone crews, analysts, intelligence officials and military commanders all speak frankly to the author about how armed drones revolutionized warfare--and the unexpected costs to some of those involved.
Sudden Justice is probably the most talked about drone book of the year. It is also the most detailed, the most thorough study of the evolution of weaponised drone warfare you can find. The author, Chris Woods, is an investigative journalist who specializes in conflict and national security issues. He was awarded the Martha Gellhorn Journalism Prize for his investigations into covert U.S. drone strikes with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. He also contributes to The Guardian.
In preparation to this book and as part of his work as a journalist, Woods has interviewed former drone operators and mission controllers, retired intelligence commanders, senior Air Force officials and psychologists, US Navy veterans, diplomats, parents of young people killed during the strikes, survivors of attacks, etc. In short, anyone who had any (voluntary or not) role to play in this new form of asymmetrical warfare is bringing their own view about the issue.
The use of weaponized drones outside of the battlefields is one of the most worrying characteristics of our times. At the time Woods was writing the book, drones had already killed 3000 people. Some of them civilians, not militants. The author reminds us, for example, that when Obama's presidency was just 72h old, he had already authorized a secret action that accidentally killed 14 civilians.
By acting as judge, jury and executioner, the U.S. is not only setting a worrying template for the future of warfare, its is also antagonizing the populations targeted (drone strikes have apparently become a recruiting tool and a motivator for jihadists), creating a new generation of operators so stressed that psychologists still have to invent a word that would describe their condition, and alienating allied countries that believe (rightly) that the targeted killing practice is illegal.
There's no sign of a slowdown. Since 2010, the US Air Force has been training more drone pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined. And the Obama administration intends to keep on eschewing any request for transparency and accountability.
My interest for photography, working class culture and marginal communities is fairly well documented on this blog. Hence my enthusiasm when learning about the upcoming For Ever Amber exhibition.
The Amber Collective was born in the late 1960s when a group of students at Regent Street Polytechnic in London realized that their education drove them away from their working class background. Resolving to reconnect with their origins and document working class culture in photos and videos, they moved to the North East of England in 1969 and in 1977 opened Side Gallery.
Over the past 45 years, the members of the collective have been documenting the industrial and post-industrial communities living along the river Tyne, the fishermen, the shipbuilders, the people working in the coal and steel industry, but also their families, the unemployed and the marginalized communities. The result is a vast archive of photos and films that present both both artistic and historical value.
In parallel with Amber's own film & photographic production, the collective has also been collecting and presenting to the broad public a series of classic and contemporary international documentary works, presenting similar socially-engaged concerns.
Hi Graeme! Why is this a good time for an Amber retrospective? Does the timing reflect a particular social moment for example?
There's never a time in this country when an exhibition of this kind isn't relevant!
For Ever Amber is actually part of a programme of works funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England to redevelop the gallery, do some digitalisation and make the works more accessible to people.
The work of the Amber Collective is rooted in social documentary, built around long term engagements with working class and marginalized communities in the North of England. I'm curious about the situation of the working class. How has it evolved over the 45 years of Amber's existence?
That changes constantly. A lot has happened over the last 45 years because in the North East of England (and elsewhere but particularly in the North East of England) many of the industries that shaped the identity of the working class communities have closed. When these industries shut down, people send the message out that these industries are not important, that they should be eradicated.
The sense of their identity has changed considerably. This week, members of the Amber Collective worked in a school in Easington. Children there didn't know anything about coal miners even though there is a miner banner hanging in the school hall. It is interesting and important to help children and others find their sense of identity, even if this is an entirely new identity. But having your sense of identity is important. The nature of these communities have changed. It was quite late before you saw widespread immigration in the North East of England. As a result, many of the communities were still overwhelmingly white working class but that has changed since the 2000s.
Whether they are white working class, or marginalised communities, these are people have a lot in common and their voices are denied by the mainstream.
The early members of Amber came themselves from a very working class background and felt that their education pushed them away from the places where they grew up. Instead, they wanted to celebrate their origins and the people who, so far, had mostly been used as material for jokes in films and on tv.
What about the cultural value of the work done by Amber photographers? The photos seem to resonate not just with people living in the North East of England but also with the rest of the country and i think i can also say that they are interesting far beyond the UK borders.
We find that the work resonates enormously with people from other countries. When you go to countries like Spain, France or Germany, you find that people immediately connect with these images. People see that the images depict lives and streets that are not so dissimilar from their own. It's actually much more the case in Europe than it is in some parts of the UK.
In this country, especially in the cultural world, there is a resistance to document these marginalized worlds. The UK has a few difficulties with documentary. I'm not talking about the audience but about curators and funding bodies. They show some interest in documenting the 1930s and the 1940s up until the 1980s but they don't seem to be interested in documentaries about the present days.
Konttinen explained to The Guardian why the photo above is her "best shot."
Do you think that television is doing a better job at representing the working class then?
No, with TV, we've even gone backwards. We are going back to a situation in which the working class is there to provide cheap laughs. But these things come in circles and we need another movement to challenge the current situation.
I was reading a letter published in The Guardian this morning. The street photographer was from Birmingham and he explained that he was often stopped in public and private spaces. Security spots him on CCTV and ask him to stop shooting. I haven't photographed children playing in a public space for many years, and the work of people such as Vivian Maier and Shirley Baker would be impossible these days. It seems to me, from a photographic point of view, that the public space has become privatised, with CCTV everywhere and the lone photographer increasingly unwelcome. Is this something Amber members have noticed as well? Are people still comfortable with being photographed nowadays? Or are they reluctant because of privacy or other concerns?
Yes, when Amber began, street photography was very much a part of what documentary photographers did. But things have changed in a number of ways. Nowadays, people are suspicious that the photographer might be a pedophile for example. Then there is also the issue that part of the public space has been privatized. Almost everyone has a camera phone so, in a way, there is now more street photography than ever. But people are more suspicious than in the past when they see a camera. All of the photographers responded to the challenge in their own way. By negotiating access to people's life, for example, and by making certain that people were genuinely inviting them into their life. If people were not happy with the photo, the photographer would not use it. This in turn enables the photographer to go further and opens up new areas.
In any case, we've lost a significant amount of what is happening in the street. In terms of photography, a lot of questions have been raised as to what is legitimate for a photo to portray.
I was also curious about Coke to Coke, a series of photographs you worked on together with Peter Fryer. The photos were taken in the 1980s and follow the closure of Derwenthaugh coking plant and the opening of the nearby Metro Centre shopping mall. What was the mood of the people then? Where they angry or sad about the end of an era or optimistic of what the new shopping mail represented?
You can't generalize of course but i think that when i accompanied Peter to photograph the opening of the Metro Center, we had a sense of people being dazed by it. It was all bright and artificial and protected from the weather. It was like a place to visit. It gave you a sense of the 'new world.' And it still does because it is so artificial. People loved it. In the States, it was nothing new but it was the first out of town shopping mall in the UK. There was a fun fair aspect to it, with people looking at the shop as if they were at the fair.
At the time, i had just moved to the Derwenthaugh Valley. Derwenthaugh Coke Works was a vision of Dante's Inferno at the end of the Valley. One place was closing, another one was opening. It was a symbol of time changing. That's why we looked at it.
People working at Derwenthaugh Cokeworks were sad but they were also starting to realize that they worked in a cancerogenic atmosphere. Looking back at the '80s, that's when people started to think about the environmental impact of fossil fuels. Before that, these issues were not really discussed.
The opening of the Metro Center was a moment in time. The steel making town was closing its steel factory, the miner strikes had failed and Thatcher's programme of closures was accelerating.
For Ever Amber opens at the Laing Gallery in Newcastle on 27 June and runs until 19 September, bringing together over 150 original photographs and film clips capturing over 40 years of cultural, political and economic shifts in North East England.
'For Ever Amber' is a partnership between Amber Film and Photography Collective and Laing Art Gallery, with support from Tyne & Wear Museums and Archive. The exhibition has been supported by Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England.