In the South of Spain runs a river so red and soalien-looking that the Spain tourism board is marketing it as Mars on Earth. NASA scientists even came to the area to investigate the ecosystem for its similarities to the planet Mars.
Due (mostly) to the intense mining for copper, silver, gold, and other mineral in the area, the Rio Tinto is highly acidic, its water has a low oxygen content and it is made dense by the metals it carries in suspension. Its deep reddish hue is caused by the iron dissolved in the water.
Cecilia Jonsson visited the region to collect some of the wild grass that grows on the borders of the Rio Tinto. The name of that grass is Imperata cylindrica. It is a highly invasive weed and its other particularity is that it is an iron hyperaccumulater, which means that the plant literally drinks up the metal in the soil and stores high levels of it in its leaves, stems and roots.
The artist harvested 24kg of Imperata cylindrica and worked with smiths, scientists, technicians and farmers in order to extract the iron ore from the plants and use it to make an iron ring. The innovative experiment brought together the biological, the industrial, the technological and even craft to create a piece of jewellery that weights 2 grams. The project also suggests a way to reverse the contamination process while at the same time mining iron ore from the damaged environment.
While "green mining" aims for a more ecological approach to mining metals, The Iron Ring explores how contaminated mining grounds may benefit from the mining of metals.
Cecilia Jonsson's mining adventures are detailed in the e-book of the project but i found her investigation into the overlaps between nature and technology so fascinating that i contacted her in the hope that she'd agree to an interview. And lucky me, she did!
Hi Cecilia! I am very curious to know more about the way you, as someone who was primarily trained to be an artist, approach the science/technology side of your projects. Do you typically work with experts to assist you in your research? Or do you just learn the skills and work on your own? Or maybe a bit of both?
My constructions are a combination of hypothesizing outcomes plus trial and error, especially within parameters of biology, physics and technology. Informed by methods used in the natural sciences and empirical material in a site-related context. Mostly they take the form as installation which are the result of intense field work.
The Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier claimed that the great error of the Surrealists was their own lack of faith: they tried to create the marvelous without really believing in it. "Objects" are often a living metaphor of their own history, their formation. To follow their trace through a wide flow of informative perspectives captures a reverberant relation of objective and subjective distinctions in a sort of intermingled morphology. Built on this quantitative data, the cluster eventually starts to web. When the notion of reality shifts into real it has become a concrete term. Which directs me to sites, material, methods and technologies including disseminated collaborations within other disciplines.
The Iron Ring is an incredible project. You extracted iron from plants and made a ring from what you collected. How did you discover the existence of those iron-containing plants?
Since iron is not the most toxic pollutant, has a low economical and symbolic value and can be virtually scooped up from everywhere, it was tricky to apply the idea to the knowledge base of present-day remediation processes. The research started around five years ago, from my interest for iron in its intrinsic qualities and paradoxical changes. I was looking into experiments of electro-culture, plant communication and how plants can be applied as analytical filters, as a mirroring of their own environment. I found some plants that are more tolerant to iron and are able to grow on this type of contaminated soils. But, most coherent plant studies about efficient iron uptake mostly targeted the human perspective in relation to high organic iron content as an effective adjunct in the treatment of iron deficiency and anemia.
The research was conducted for the project The original arrangement was for a solo violin and a string orchestra from 2012. The installation shows an ambiguous process of an iron hyperaccumulating plant taking up magnetized iron particles that have been scraped of from a reel-to-reel tape of Antonio Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. On a later stage the iron was extracted again, glued back to the tape and played, resulting in a reinterpretation of The Four Seasons. This work is a predecessor to The Iron Ring were I was interested in taking a more straight functional and site-specific approach to the grass unique ability to extract and encapsulate iron.
The defined iron hyperaccumulating plant with a minimum required amount of 10000 mg/kg Fe revealed in research articles on plant physiology and biochemistry from the university in Madrid. The constructive study had been conducted on the naturalized weed Imperata cylindrica. Collected from the highly acidic (pH 1.6-2) riverbanks of the Rio Tinto in the mining district Rio Tinto in South-western Spain. That model presented me results and a first equation for the calculations of the Iron Ring.
What was the most challenging aspect in the project? Were there moments you thought it was a mad idea and you'd better give up on it? Or did you know right from the start that everything would go according to plans?
I had actual figures on an expected iron content from the grass in Spain. I knew how to extract iron from organic material and had read about iron reduction and deoxidization processes. It was possible. The next step was to figure out the practical weight of how much bio-ore was actually needed for the process of making a ring of 2 grams. I made some calls to traditionally trained smiths to discuss my idea and I got suggestions on possible processes and an "about" quantity.
The greatest challenge was always the restricted iron quantity to create one ring. The problem isn't the metal but its proportion of mass (quote). The thin ring is a complex form to cast even with industrial produced iron. Cast iron is very susceptible to loss of metallization at high temperatures, such as the melt temperature required for the cast. A consequence of this is that with each new attempt we made there was a continuous formation of slag and an equal loss of iron. The inclusion of even small amounts of some elements can have profound effects. Because of the impurities in cast iron and its crystalline structure, it is a strong material in compression but weak in tension and very brittle. As a result, when it fails, it does so in an explosive manner, with little warning.
The project starts with humble plants and end up with a tiny little ring. But what I found amazing was the amount of craft, heavy industrial processes and knowledge required to go from plant to ring. What have you learnt about the flow of organic matter while working on the project?
From working with iron as material, the matter itself as well as on its interaction with the living. The Iron Ring has really broadened my understanding of the complexity of ecosystems. From the field to the laboratory-scale to craftsmanship and industry, I have had a proper opportunity to build collaborations with proficiency on a wide scale. Their engagement to think out of the box and the connectedness to sort of re-invent and re-discover iron production in our industrial age, has really made a strong impression.
The Iron Ring also highlights the toxic impact of mineral exploitation on the environment. However, you write in the description of the project: "The result is a scenario for iron mining that, instead of furthering destruction, could actually contribute to the environmental rehabilitation of abandoned metal mines." Could you elaborate on this rehabilitation of the abandoned mines? How would that work? What would it be like?
The abandoned mines in Rio Tinto are a no man's land. Apart from tourists who come to visit the unworldly sites, the area continues its forgotten glory to slump and erode. Rio Tinto has a dark, long history of being exploited for ferrous and non-ferrous minerals, copper, gold, silver and lead and due to its historical perspective the rightful ownership of the excavated mess is undefined and beyond present laws of remediation. To stabilize or reduce contamination of sites like Rio Tinto, you first need to analyse the soil and from that result, plant several different types of hyperaccumulating and tolerant green plants.
The project elaborates on this possibility to utilize the cleansing process of the naturalized grass, which overlooked ability is left unutilized. The project proposes to harvest the grass for the purpose of extracting the ore that is inside them. The idea of the ring is to complete the circle, to maintain the clean-up commitment. So that when the soil is stabilized, other native plants can be introduced to restore the biodiversity and help bring back the heritage of flora that was lost through the human activity.
There are many layers behind the "rehabilitation" statement. Which under controlled conditions could include the naturalized grass: Imperata cylindrica in a remediation process where its biomass is utilized for iron production. A larger harvest would also contribute to less complications and a more refined iron production with less slag and more iron in just two steps. Going back to the complexity of ecosystems and my second connotation of the "rehabilitation". Which is to utilize the already inhabited weed to be able to control its spread in the environment. Imperata cylindrica is an aggressive fast-growing perennial grass that can and has become an ecological threat. It's listed as one of the ten worst weeds in the world and is placed on the U.S. Federal Noxious Weed list, which prohibits new plantings. The grass does not survive in cultivated areas but establishes along roadways, in forests and mining areas, where it forms dense mats of thatch that shade and outcompete native plants.
The enigma of use- and exchange-value enchants me as well as the perspectives on precious matter and how it earns its cultural weight. Something that I think Ralph W. Emerson beautifully formulates in What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered. A metal is deemed to be precious if it is rare and on account of its material nature and rarity, the high value is linked to its cost of extraction.
How long did the whole process take? From the moment you found the plants to the final realization of the ring?
From when the first plant community was found in Spain to the ring had become one continuous solid, 5 weeks of intensive work.
Could you explain what we can see in the photos of the installation Stratigrafi? What is the strange metallic sculpture?
Stratigrafi is a work developed in collaboration with colleague Signe Lidén. Thematically, we were exploring cavities, man-made places and fundamental changes of the landscape. Exploring the mine as an in-between space a geographical cavity between nature, ideas and technologies and how history works way through its forms. Signe had been in Kakanj in central Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bytom in Poland to explore coal mines. I had gathered material in relation to iron from re-vegetation institutes and large-scale surface mining in the region of the Iron Quadrangle, southeast Brazil. The installation intertwined our works where one was taken inside and introduced to impressions from these places. Representations, imitations, scent, recordings, objects and photographs from the sites.
The metal sculpture is a propane driven apparatus, a citrus distiller. The steam was forced through the citrus material and transported onward through the condenser where the temperature is lowered and consistently forms refined acidic drops and erosion. In the windows scorched wood were piled up and filling the room with intense scent. A video without sound projected an exotic landscape in one meeting with passing carts filled with iron ore. The light table consisted of oscillating reversal film, archive material, seeds, a small projection and an exhibition text written by Roar Sletteland. The visitor obtained an auditory access to these sceneries by putting their heads into listening boxes.
I'm also fascinated by the work Water extraction, Geneva. The work seems to be about global warming. Could you explain the installation?
Water extraction, Geneva - Rhône: 02.11.2009 / Rain: 02.11.2009 / Arve: 02.11.2009 was a site specific work consisted of three water extracts, three modified found light bulbs and one light sourced bulb. For the installation, the wooden planks in the floor of the exhibition space were removed, uplifted and were then used to create a platform and a bridged island to the work.
The work looks at the impact that climate change is having on the glaciers and the changes it brings with it. A glacier is important for freshwater storage, while glaciers also can be regarded as reservoirs for the production of electricity through their seasonal water flow. The project focuses on the melting of the Rhone Glacier in Switzerland, which over the past ten years has lost 6% of its mass. The raising temperatures in the region have a strong influence on the seasonal runoff regime of the alpine streams. Where the Rhone glacier runoff with the residues it brings with it, is the main water source for the largest freshwater reservoir in Europe, Lake Geneva.
You are currently in Venice for a residency at the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa. What are you working on over there? What is the residency about?
It's a three months residency from February to mid May supported by the Office for Contemporary Art Norway. I'm here to develop a new work, a hydrodynamic analogy that acoustically transcribes an interdependent exchange between external forces and internal positive feedback. The Venice lagoon is a delicately balanced natural system that combines to produce one of the largest wetlands in the Mediterranean. Land and water are intermingled. An urban Lagoon, a natural Venice as Marcel Proust captures the reverberant paradox relationship. The project explores the Venice Lagoon's sedimentary environment, its dynamics and composition and is developed in collaboration with the University of Padova at the Hydrobiological Station in Chioggia in the Veneto region.
After Venice, I will be in Helsinki for a collaborative project on magnetotactic bacteria as part of my participation in a research platform for Art and Synthetic Biology at Biofilia, Alto University. In the fall I will undertake a three-month's residency in Marseille at Triangle France. Let's say there are a few larger research projects under development and works that are more in the making for planned venues.
In my naive and poorly informed mind, the stock market breathes at the rhythm of men wearing dark suits, pressing an earpiece against their head and frantically raising and waving their other hand. Mine is however a very antiquated vision of trading. Investing and speculating, it seems, is now mostly controlled by algorithms. These computer programs speculate, send and cancel orders tirelessly, basically doing the job of a human trader. Just much, much faster. So fast that they can execute a trade in milliseconds and even microseconds. That's why we are now talking about high frequency trading algorithms.
The volume of trade goes far beyond human physical perceptions. These bots are so fast, they can flood the market with millions of fake information to confuse and hide their true investments. The process is called quote stuffing.
RYBN have been investigating the world of finance since 2006. Four years ago, they even launched their own trading bot on the financial markets. The autonomous program executes, buys and sells orders online, and its activity is mapped into real-time visualizations such as charts, soundscapes, and timelines. Its Twitter account even provides details about ongoing orders. Its performance will end when the bot reaches bankruptcy.
More interestingly, RYBN's program is distributed in open-source format. Unlike the black box of the algorithmic and high-frequency trading.
Members of RYBN were participating to refrag, a series of workshops, talks and performances that took place in Paris a few weeks ago and that explored Glitch Art. Their presentation looked at what happens when HFT algorithms slip, glitch and disrupt the trading system. Basing their research on a rigorous analysis of documents available online, the artists analyzed four famous 'flash crashes.' They mostly used the data compiled by Nanex, a firm that offers streaming data on all market transactions and distributes the data in real-time to clients.
The automated trade execution systems i mentioned in the opening paragraph might be sophisticated but they are far from flawless. Once in a while they act in unforeseen ways and trigger "flash crashes". A flash crash is a sharp drop in security prices occurring within an extremely short time period. And because algorithmic trading is disconnected from the economy, any variation is an opportunity for a flash crash.
The most famous flash crash is called... 'the Flash Crash.' It occurred on 6 May 2010, when the Dow Jones index dropped 9% in minutes. The loss was estimated at one trillion dollars. The US stock market then took a few more minutes to right itself back. During that short period of time, some trades were executed at extreme prices (either very low or very high) After the event, it was agreed that all transactions made that day between 2:40 and 3 p.m. would be canceled. No one knows exactly how the crash happened but many attributed it to some miscalculation of HFT algorithms.
RYBN made a sound work out of it. Flash Krach turns into sound the raw data of the day, recorded from the 9 stock exchanges routed on the NYSE.
Another important flash crash took place Aug. 1, 2012. Knight Capital, one of the biggest executors of stock trades in the United States, suffered a technical glitch in its algorithmic trading systems, causing stocks to be misquoted (the algorithm was apparently buying high and selling low which doesn't sound like a very lucrative formula) and costing the firm more than $440 million in 40 minutes.
An analysis by Nanex explains that almost all these trades alternate between buying at the offer and selling at the bid, which means losing the difference in price. In the case of EXC, that means losing about 15 cents on every pair of trades. Do that 40 times a second, 2400 times a minute, and you now have a system that's very efficient at burning money.
The computer-trading glitch was nicknamed, the Knightmare.
Another memorable flash crash occurred when the Twitter feed of the Associated Press was hacked and a false tweet announced that the White House had been hit by two explosions and that Barack Obama was injured. The Dow Jones dropped about 150 points in a seconds before bouncing back when traders realized that the tweet was a hoax.
RYBN also noted that algorithm trading is calibrated to work in 'normal' conditions. The system will work seamlessly until it meets a black swan such as this fake tweet. The black swan broke the system and the trading strategy had to be re-calibrated accordingly.
The last flash crash is the humiliating one that BATS (Better Alternative Trading System) suffered in March 2012. The company had to withdraw its IPO when, in mere seconds, its shares plunged to less than a penny from the $15 IPO opening price.
Some believe that the crash was due to a software glitch but others think that it was the result of a malicious, 100% intentional Nasdaq algorithm that purposefully brought BATS stock to a price of 0.00 within 900 millisecond of the company's break for trading.
What is sure that, as is often the case, the precise cause(s) of the flash crash remains unclear. The markets remain thus at the mercy of technological outages that cannot be predicted or even fully understood.
RYBN's concluding words were that these four crashes received much attention from the press but in fact, flash crashes, and the permanent state of instability they create, are now part and parcel of the way the market works. Nanex estimates that 18.000 mini flash crashs or Flash equity failures were reported between 2006 and 2011.
Two years ago, indigenous and non-indigenous activists started joining forces to stop a UK-based mining company, Beowulf, from carrying out another drilling program in Kallak, in northern Sweden. Local opposition to mining projects is nothing extraordinary. In other parts across the world, people are campaigning against drilling, fracking, mining and other projects that translate short term profit into long-lasting damage to the environment (if you have any doubt about this, check out a story this morning about a Swedish mining town that will have to be moved away or 'risk plunging into the earth.') But what made the fight against the mining company particularly moving is that Kallak is a reindeer winter grazing land and an area of great spiritual and cultural importance to the Sami Peoples.
The Sami live in the the Arctic area of Sápmi, which covers parts of far northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. They are regarded as a minority in these countries but they've inhabited that area for at least 5,000 years, live in close connection with nature and are one of the very few remaining indigenous people in Europe. The right to own their own land, the right to speak their own language or live according to their own culture is dependent on the nation states within which they live. Finland, for example, still has to ratify the ILO Convention No. 169 which would grant rights to the Sami people to their land and give them power in matters that affect their future.
The Swedish government ended up refusing to allow Beowulf to exploit the Kallak area for iron ore but that doesn't mean that the fight is over for the Saami. They inhabit what is probably the last true wilderness of Europe and because this wilderness is rich in precious natural resources, the Sami have to face many other cultural and environmental threats.
So far, we haven't hear Saami people's voice a lot outside of Scandinavia but this will hopefully change thanks to the work of a Sami collective called Suohpanterror. The anonymous group of artists uses wit, iconic images and humour as weapons to comment on the issues their people have to experience on a daily basis: discrimination, racism, marginalisation, colonialism, dam building, logging, military bombing ranges, as well as exploitation by the tourism and energy industries. And of course, climate change.
Suohpanterror reinvents, re-purposes and 'Sami-fies' well-known icons of advertising, art history, cinema, street art and other manifestations of popular culture to striking results. The first time i saw one of their images, i had no idea what it represented exactly but i could sense that there was something powerful and meaningful at stake.
I recently got in touch with Jenni Laiti, a performance artist and spokesperson for Suohpanterror, and she kindly accepted to answer my questions via a skype interview. I wrote down out Q&A:
Hi Jenni! Where does the name Suohpanterror come from?
Suohpan means lasso. The lasso plays an important role in our culture. To catch reindeer, you need a good lasso hand, it´s called Suohpangiehta, Lasso hand. And of course, it also has a deeper meaning. We are very peaceful people. If we had our own army, the lasso would be our weapon of choice.
The posters you make are really striking. But being from Belgium i suspect that i'm not the best person to understand these images. Which kind of reaction do you hope to raise with the posters? Anger, laughter, mere uneasiness?
Outsiders can't read the symbolic the way we do. To us these posters often have a wider symbolic and several layers of meanings. Each member of Suohpanterror has its own idea of what the images convey. Some are meant to make you angry. Others are ironic or satiric. Some have more of a 'feel good' feeling. Others describe the anxiety we are carrying within ourselves. Some makes us feel powerful. Etc. And of course the images will resonate differently according to who you are.
Take the Suohpanterror version of the American We Can Do It poster for example. Every one recognizes the image and where it comes from. It's America, it's feminism. It will have additional meanings for a Sami, a Scandinavian or someone from another part of the world. To us, it conveys an encouraging message, it says "This is who we are and we can do it."
More generally what do you think that images can achieve? Why use posters rather than other forms of action?
One of the main reasons is that there is a lack of this kind of art in Sami culture. So the posters are filling a gap. On the other hand, they make for good communication between us and other people. They are easy to understand and everyone can also perceive the added Sami dimension of these pictures.
But it doesn't stop at images. There are many other revolutionary things going on. I also do performances, for example. We also use cultural jamming, performance, artivism, direct actions, etc. All the strategies are useful to us.
Other members of Suohpanterror prefer to remain anonymous. Is there a reason for that?
Many people are asking "Who is Suohpanterror?" One could answer that question "Who isn´t Suohpanterror?"
We are indigenous people, also a minority and face a lot of racism. It is very difficult to live as a Sami today when your culture is not appreciated, when you and your people are hated and the majority doesn't share the same values. The Sami are little more than 100 000 people and we live in small communities. Some of us want to protect themselves and their families from the physical and psychical violence and threat that we are already experiencing.
Would you mind commenting on some of the images below?
The background of the image is a mine in North Sweden. It's a reference to the touristic marketing campaign Visit Lapland. Our land is the last wilderness in Europe and the state is happy to welcome everyone to visit it but what if all that's left to see one day are just mines?
We are peaceful people. We don't want fight. On the other hand, it's difficult not to get angry at the way companies are treating us. At every stage of any discussion, we have to listen to a monologue (they call it a 'dialogue'.) The only way companies enter in a dialogue is by speaking and not listening to anything we have to say. And then suddenly the meeting is over. So i think what this image says is that both sides need to be involved in the discussion for a real dialogue to emerge. If instead companies continue this deaf monologue, we should just kick them out!
In Finland, both the government and the tourism industry exploit us, sell us without ever asking for our permission. They describe us as cartoon characters, who smile, who are cute but aren't real people. The reality however, is that their policies that do not support our livelihood are killing the reindeer.
The character of this version of Edvard Munch's The Scream is horrified by the many ways our land is exploited. There are wind turbines, hydro power, mining. The sign says "Mining Area. Trespassing Forbidden." This image describes what is really happening in Sápmi, our homeland, which has been colonized and exploited and have been dislocated and disconnected from our land and from each other. This is the reality we are living. Or more, instead of living, we are just surviving.
Sámi rights movement is having this campaign "Show your Sami spirit." And this is one of the symbols for the Sami rights movement. It's quite an aggressive picture. Even the reindeer are carrying bombs on their back. The image is challenging us, calling for a revolution, a mobilization. We need to defend our own country, our people.
This is a reference to an old game popular in Sweden and Finland. Afrikan tähti (the star of Africa). If you superimpose the map that shows the protected zones of Sapmi and the areas for reindeer herding with maps that display active mining areas and areas with a high potential for mining all kinds of resources, you realize that they are in conflict with each other. If you combine touristic infrastructure, logging, hydro power, mining and zones threatened by climate change (that's actually the biggest threat for us), we've got nowhere left to escape. Mining companies are arguing that they will only implement 'sustainable' mining that can coexist with reindeer herding but that's not possible. Mining companies come from Canada and Australia. They arrive, they exploit the land and when they are done, they leave nothing but a big hole behind them. The land never recovers from it. I recently went to visit an area that had been mined 20 years ago. It was supposed to be a 'recovered' area. But the reality is that the land had not recovered at all.
We are living in an Arctic area and the legislation about land recovering from mining is made for southern areas. Regrowth is much slower over here. What we're fighting for is our very existence, our land and our right to use it.
Is it that bad? Do you feel that the threats to your livelihood have worsen over the past few years?
Definitely. Threats have been multiplying over the past few years. The North of Scandinavia has the last wilderness of Europe and there are many governments and corporations interested in taking over everything they can in the Arctic area.
What are the biggest, most urgent issues on top of Suohpanterror's agenda?
There are two main issues:
One is the indigenous rights of the Sami people. Our right to self-determination. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all people have the right of self-determination. And within this self-determination, we want to protect the land so that it can nourish future generations. We live in close contact with the land so protecting nature is very important to us. Finland still hasn't ratified the ILO 169 convention.
And finally, there is climate change. I personally feel that the time is very critical We are going to work more and more on the issue of climate change.
Are you showing your work in galleries or festivals as well?
Yes, we've got quite a few exhibitions lined up in 2015 and 2016.
See also: Under Northern Lights, an Al Jazeera video report about mining in Sápmi; The Saami Manifesto 15: Reconnecting Through Resistance ; and the United Nations Declaration on the. Rights of Indigenous Peoples (PDF.)
Publisher Island Press writes: Short-term, community-based projects--from pop-up parks to open streets initiatives--have become a powerful and adaptable new tool of urban activists, planners, and policy-makers seeking to drive lasting improvements in their cities and beyond. These quick, often low-cost, and creative projects are the essence of the Tactical Urbanism movement. Whether creating vibrant plazas seemingly overnight or re-imagining parking spaces as neighborhood gathering places, they offer a way to gain public and government support for investing in permanent projects, inspiring residents and civic leaders to experience and shape urban spaces in a new way.
Tactical Urbanism, written by Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia, two founders of the movement, promises to be the foundational guide for urban transformation. The authors begin with an in-depth history of the Tactical Urbanism movement and its place among other social, political, and urban planning trends. A detailed set of case studies, from guerilla wayfinding signs in Raleigh, to pavement transformed into parks in San Francisco, to a street art campaign leading to a new streetcar line in El Paso, demonstrate the breadth and scalability of tactical urbanism interventions. Finally, the book provides a detailed toolkit for conceiving, planning, and carrying out projects, including how to adapt them based on local needs and challenges.
Tactical Urbanism is a grass-root approach to urbanism. Tactical Urbanism is what happens when citizens, frustrated with the hurdles of civic administration, take the future of their neighbourhood into their own hands before someone else, someone with a political mandate, someone who doesn't actually have to live there, does it for them. Tactical Urbanism is a method for transforming 'an orderly but dumb system into one that's more chaotic but smart.'
The authors of the book, Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia, believe that the city is the perfect laboratory for testing out dreams and ideas. They show us how to experiment with, reclaim, redesign or reprogram vacant lots, empty storefronts, overly wide streets, local markets, highway underpasses, surface parking lots and other underused public spaces.
Garcia and Lydon have been documenting and applying Tactical Urbanism practices for the past 4 years. That's not a very long period of time but they have learnt a lot in that period. More importantly, they've learnt mostly by doing: they released Tactical Urbanism guides, organised salons and also worked alongside citizens, government officials, advocacy groups and developers on a series of projects.
The authors also admit that they haven't invented everything. The second chapter of their book looks at moments in history that have paved the way for Tactical Urbanism. The journey starts much earlier than i had expected, with the Neolithic settlement of Khoirokoitia in Cyprus, one of the first citizen led planning process in history. Garcia and Lydon then explore and explain how the Roman castra (temporary roman military camps with easily navigable gridded streets) literally set the first stones for European cities to settle and develop. How in the late 1960s, people in Delft started to strategically place trees, bollards or bike racks in order to slow down traffic and give the street back to the community. How parents in the city of Bristol appropriated legislation designed for street parties to close street to cars so that their children can play safely. The initiatives in both England and The Netherlands ended up being officially condoned by their national governments.
The following chapters contain many more U.S.-based examples and lessons. They also analyze the reasons for the current resurgence of Tactical Urbanism (growing disconnection between citizens and decision-makers, people moving back to the city, the current recession, the rise of the internet.) At this point, however, i was starting to lose interest in the book. Apart from the historical section, it was firmly grounded onto the U.S. soil. Nothing wrong with that, i just expected the book to either make me travel all over the world or apply to a reality i feel closer to (i should probably mention that some of Street Plans publications focus on other parts of the globe.) I was also a bit annoyed with the constant talk of 'empowering' citizens. But then the word 'empowering' has that nails-scratching-on-chalkboard effect on me. I just can't help it. If I did carry on reading, it's because the experiences shared in the book are indeed very uplifting, each story is written in a clear and engaging language and then there's that chapter 5....
Chapter 5 is a gem. It is a very detailed and informative toolkit for aspiring Tactical Urbanists. The pages explain how to use online tools (such as Neighborland, Mindmixer, etc.) to widen engagement, how to identity your project partners, fund the project, apply for a permit (or not as it appears that sometimes applying for special event is enough if you want to test drive an intervention in public space and get the ball rolling), where to find the materials to make it happen, how to build a prototype, measure its impact and learn from the results, etc. There's even a cheat sheet with important guiding questions.
But as the authors make clear, Tactical Urbanism is not an off the shelf solution or a check list, it's a process that should also allow for frequent adjustments. It's also decidedly small-scale, short-term and low-cost (and often surprisingly low-tech) but it should also serve a larger purpose.
The concluding chapter is mostly preptalk, an admonition to go out, use this book and take action in your own community.
A few days ago, i was on video skype for an interview with Tatiana Bazzichelli and her irresistible Italian accent.
I had long wanted to sit down properly and have a chat with Tatiana. The reasons for that are many. First of all, Tatiana is one of the few people who knows the world of art but also the hacking community from the inside. Besides, she has a strong academic and curatorial background.
Bazzichelli is a curator and researcher, author of the books Networked Disruption. Rethinking Oppositions in Art, Hacktivism and the Business of Social Networking (2013), Networking. The Net as Artwork (2008), and co-editor of the book Disrupting Business. Art & Activism in Times of Financial Crisis (highly recommended, like all her book this one is available as paperback but also as a free download). She is director of the Disruption Network Lab, an experimental curatorial project on art, hacktivism, and disruption, based in Berlin. We'll talk during the interview about the upcoming activities of the lab but do not miss its opening event this month, it's called Drones and it examines drone warfare through the perspectives of a former U.S. drone operator, an artist, a criminal law researcher, investigative journalists, activists, filmmakers and a series of international experts.
Previous to that, Tatiana was programme curator at the transmediale festival, initiating the year-round reSource transmedial culture project, and was a Post-Doctoral researcher at the Centre for Digital Cultures, Leuphana University of Lüneburg.
The second reason why i wanted to steal a moment from Tatiana Bazzichelli's life is Networked Disruption, an exhibition and a series of events she has curated. If you're in Ljubljana (lucky you!) you have until Friday to check out the show at the Škuc Gallery. Right after that, the exhibition will move to the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rijeka. Future events in other European cities are on the agenda.
Centered on the concept of "Networked Disruption" (a concept which is analyzed in depth in her book of the same name), the exhibition highlights the mutual interferences between business, art and disruption. Because it brings together the heterogeneous practices of hackers, artists, networkers, whistleblowers, activists and entrepreneurs, the show is dense in reflections, provocations and references to contemporary society.
The increasing commercialisation of sharing and networking contexts since the middle of 2000s is transforming the meaning of art and that of business. What were once marginal practices of networking in underground hacker and artistic contexts have in recent years become a core business for many information technology companies and social media enterprises. In Bazzichelli's analysis, art intertwines with disruption beyond dialectical oppositions, leading to a discovery of subliminal and distributed strategies, which emerge from within the capitalistic systems, or act within it.
Here is the transcript of the interview:
Hi Tatiana! What was the catalyst of your research into the ways artists and hackers can disrupt the system from within? How and why did it start?
In 2008, I moved to Denmark to do a PhD. The research came from very personal reflections. When you and i first met a few years ago, i was interested in questions of sexuality and practices of queer culture. At the same time, i was also speaking about practices of hacking as a form of openness and DIY in connection with political activity.
However, around 2004-2005, I think that there was a moment of change because we started to get into a more mainstream social media framework. This for me modified the perspective because i think many people, who were part of our underground political culture, started to use tools that were becoming common at the time. I noticed that many people -and that includes the net art culture- started to be on Facebook and many of the conversations were happening there. It was a real surprise for me. I could not understand how it was possible that people like us, who used to be really critical, started to shift the field of conversation and action to Facebook.
For example, before Facebook, many people were using MySpace and here in Berlin it was the platform that was popular among the club scene. From MySpace people later migrated to Facebook. Many of these people came from the queer culture and were always speaking of the pleasure as coming from your own understanding of the body but also as a political mean. But when you are just clicking "Like" all the time on Facebook, you transfer your pleasure into a commodified value. "Like" means 'it gives me pleasure' but it also translates into a way for corporations to make money through advertisement. So i was at the time a bit upset.
Then in 2004 i went to this conference in Berlin. It was organized by Tim O'Reilly. It was the time when they were really launching this concept of Web 2. 0, both as a theme and as a business model.
What surprised me at the conference is that they were using the idea of hacking, DIY and many characteristics of the hacker culture to present their products. And i remember Tim O'Reilley at that conference saying that data is the next 'Intel Inside'. I found it a bit strange that the ideas of DIY, openness, sharing, participation were becoming a business model. Even if we always say that business and art are totally intertwined, i was surprised to hear that this could also apply to hacker culture because i was coming from a more politically-oriented hacking.
When i started my PhD in 2008, i wanted to investigate this process: how hacking, business and art started to be so intertwined and what were the consequences for our community of net artists, hackers and so on. As we know that Web 2.0 started as a concept in the Silicon Valley, i travelled to San Francisco and California during my PhD and i started to interview a lot of people. I summarized these experiences in the book.
In the book i started talking about the idea of disruption. That was in 2008 when not many people were using the concept of disruption. Now it is a total buzz word in many contexts, including political, artistic or hacker practices. Disruption is a term coming from business. If we want to define the term disruption, it means to introduce a product, a technology or an innovation that the market doesn't expect. This is usually a definition used by many start-ups to define the way they create disruptive innovation. The idea is that you introduce into the market an innovation that is often cheaper than the other products already available and in this way you create a disruption because you shift the public and the consumers into using the new product. This component of being unexpected is important. But what is equally important is that the discourse of disruption comes from inside this system.
In my previous experiences, i used to think that sometimes it was good to create opposition in order to trigger a change. It was the time right after the anti globalization movement, when we had to reflect on tactics that were often characterized by a component of opposition. Many people started to think that we needed to invent new forms of criticism. And that's why i was so interested in the queer community because they were usually adopting tactics that were playful and not merely oppositional of the system as many people were doing for example during the G8 manifestations when disobedience was applying a very frontal opposition. After the massacre of the 2001 G8 Summit in Genoa, we could see that the movement had to rethink its strategies. So i started to investigate different forms of practices that were working from within or adopting viral and playful strategies. Initially, I looked into queer culture but then after web 2.0, i moved into business because i could see that it was a second step that needed to be analyzed.
After the PhD, i i started to write about disruption and i saw that it could be applied to the art field. Just like the business is speaking about disruptive innovation, i thought maybe we should apply this concept to the art field and start to imagine practices that are actually coming from within the system and are also using this unpredictability as a form of tactical strategy, just like businesses do.
Of course it's not something new. The avant-garde for example created an artistic shock and used the idea of the unpredictability of practices. Following these lines and somehow transforming it into the present condition of net culture, i thought disruption could then be applied as an artistic practice and also analyze its loop.
In my book, this loop brings together art, business and disruption.
If you understand how i conceptualize this model, then you can see how artists, activists, hackers, entrepreneurs, networkers are all inside this loop because they act from within the system. The mutual interferences and the mutual feedback loop happen between business, art and disruption. In my model, art is disrupting business by creating interferences, perturbations and virality inside the business field. I use the word business because it's a word that artists and activists despise. Business is directly connected to managerial thinking, to company rhetoric, etc. If you read artistic texts, you will find that they talk about market, not business. And that's why i decided to use the word. I think we have to start appropriating an imaginary and words that have never been parts of certain fields, like art and hacking. Or that used to be if we go back in time. The critical fields of artists and hackers however hate that word. So i thought we should start to appropriate the word business, just like the word hacking has been appropriated by web 2.0.
You curated an exhibition that is currently on view at the Škuc gallery in Ljubljana. Could you take us through some of the works you are showing there and tell us how they fit into the "disruptive feedback loop", how they embody this idea of networked disruption?
The idea for this exhibition was to refer to the book because the people who are part of the exhibition are also featured in the book but i also wanted to bring it to the present. That was a bit complicated because when you write a Phd you don't necessarily start to think about how to translate it into an exhibition.
I also wanted to try and reflect on the modality of curating, of presenting networks of networks that are all dealing with disruption and at the same time i wanted to have the opportunity to reflect on what disruption means as a strategy that is interfering with from within the systems. At that point i'm going to mention another reflection i made in the book about whistleblowing. Whistleblowers are people who are not only acting inside the system (they work for corporations, secret services, governmental agencies, etc.) but to me, they are also creating détournements of perspective because they facilitate an important moment of change. And there is also this idea of unpredictability. A person who was regularly working for a corporation or an agency is suddenly turning out to be somebody who's revealing the misconducts of the corporation or entity they work for.
I think that whistleblowers are actually artists because if we think about the history of art, going back to the Avant-garde and reflecting on this moment of détournement, shock, change and unpredictability, then it is exactly what whistleblowers are doing. They create shock and change And it's interesting because this applies also outside the metaphysical aspects of art. I mean it's not just civil disobedience, it's something that is having consequences on their daily life. There is no way back for them.
In that sense, it is also a very important act. Everyone could be a whistleblower. Every person who works into this closed system could wake up and say "I don't want to do this anymore" and they could start revealing secrets. It's also really interesting for me because it happens in the context of everyday life. We could say that the avant-garde was still really working into the art field. The idea was to bring life in to art... You know the usual sentence! But the perspective changed after the end of the seventies, even with punk culture or the idea of hacker cultures and many of the practices exhibited in the show, such as Luther Blissett and Neoism. These people had the idea of bringing art into life. It's thus something different. And that's what i'm interested in. I'm interested in the moments when art goes out of the usual structures and constraints and becomes something that everybody could apply into their own life. From this point of view, a whistleblower is an artist because he or she totally follows a perspective in which you create détournement of a point of view. That's the reason why i included some whistleblower projects and some practices connected to whistleblowing in the exhibition.
In the first room of the show, you can see the work of Julian Oliver, Laura Poitras, Trevor Paglen. Then we look at the roots of practices that come from subcultural groups that were active in the 80s and 90s (Luther Blisset, the Neoism movement, The Cacophony Society, the Billboard Liberation Front, etc.
And of course mail art because mail art has a connection with art, and also because mail artists spoke about how art does not necessarily have to be connected with the gallery system. Everybody can be an artist, everybody can do mail art. Besides, in some situations, people used mail art to circumvent surveillance. In the DDR for example.
These lines of inquiry reach the discourse of Anonymous, a practice that is totally in line with the discourse of anonymity and also with the disruption of identity and the discourse of dismantling a single truth. These aspects were already important in Luther Blissett and Neoism, they were playing with the idea of the truth of the media, of the identity, of the art field and they even played with their own practices. Many Neoists were indeed claiming they were not Neoists or they were coming up with different definitions of Neoism. I think that Anonymous is directly connected to that. Not only because the group is made of people whose identity you don't know but also because they are bringing together this aspect of political engagement but without the political mandate and they are having fun in the process, 'doing things for the Lulz' as they say.
Nowadays the moment of criticism is changing, especially for the hacker culture. Today if you want to look for enemies, these enemies are so powerful that you know you will never win the battle. This is the era of Big Data so tell me "Who is the enemy?" Since Snowden, we know about surveillance, we know that the enemy is totally pervasive. So if you want to be critical, then your strategy, your practice also need to be pervasive. I think that this is exactly what Anonymous is doing. Even if their operations identify the so-called 'enemy', they are so distributed that you know there is not one single mission. There is a plural aspect of dealing with anonymity. So i found it to be a very important strategy and one directly connected with whistleblowing because we know that one of the last operations was involving AntiSec and Jeremy Hammond. He leaked to wikileaks private data and sensitive information from the Stratfor corporation. That was an act of whistleblowing. And indeed Hammond got 10 years in jail for it.
What i'm trying to do in this exhibition is to draw these connections but at the same time i didn't want to be just the curator in a hierarchical way. I decided that i wouldn't be the only person taking the decisions. I worked with an internal individual from each group. We decided together to exhibit certain aspects of the entity or group and we were totally conscious that we were not doing a historical exhibition because that would have been impossible. Instead, the show analyzes some specific aspects of each group that we think are important in relation to disruption and then the show connects these aspects together. The idea was then to create a network of networks in relation to networked disruption. The title is thus networkED disruption as in "disruption among networks" and also inside of them. It is also connected to the idea of the disruptive loop because the loop is creating a network for disruption in which different agents participate to a feedback loop.
I was watching the video of the talk you gave at re:public last year. At some point, you were explaining that hacking cannot be disconnected from business in the U.S. You gave Burning Man as an example. Could you expand on this connection?
When i was at Stanford during a visiting scholarship during the PhD research, i met Fred Turner and we had interesting conversations. He wrote this book From Counterculture to Cyberculture. He was claiming that, at least in California, the development of hacker culture was always intertwined with business. He doesn't like to speak about co-optation but about layering, with things that don't just co-exist but are intertwined. i was inspired by this idea of layering and i tried to recreate it by analyzing artistic practices. In layering, there is a coexistence of opposition. And they are not oppositions from the outside, the oppositions are all living inside this loop. In my first scenario, i analyzed this practices by referring to Walter Benjamin, especially the idea of dialectical image that is the moment in which oppositions coexist. Business, disruption, art and hacking all together at the same time create something which in Germany they call Denkbilder ('thinking image'.)
Going back to the exhibition, you could say that it is the coexistence of oppositions because these groups were active at the same time but were never necessarily in contact.
The show also looks into the idea of business disruption with projects that are directly related to web 2.0 and social media. They are the most recent one such as Anna Adamolo and the collective Les Liens Invisbles. They are analyzing the Facebook system and other social media and creating disruption from within it by really understanding how the system of virality works.
After long discussions with Janez (Janez being one of the producers of the show), we also decided to have a Janez Janša work. We are showing the letter in which the three artists communicate to the Prime Minister Janez Janša that they are becoming Janez Janša. Again, this was a moment of change that interfered with their private life (just like what happened with the whistleblowers). it is also a strong act of creating an unpredictable change in their life and also as artists.
Are you planning to show Networked Disruption anywhere else?
Yes, we are about to move the exhibition to Croatia. The opening is on the 23rd of April and the show will be up until the 14th of May. It's at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Rijeka. The idea is then to move it to move it to the UK in 2016 as part of the AND Festival. I'm also trying to bring it back to Berlin. So it's going to be a traveling show.
How did the public react to the show? Did it echo with their own life?
The feedback we got in Slovenia is very positive, including among young people. I don't want to sound like a grumpy old lady but it is sometimes difficult these days to make young people understand that social networking is a practice that has a history, that Facebook hasn't invented everything from scratch. The show wants to highlight that social practices can be imagined in a different way, that if you understand a system, you can play with it. And play from the inside.
You are the director of the Disruption Network Lab in Berlin. I noticed the very promising title of an upcoming event on the homepage. It's called Launch Event: Drones. What have you programmed for the event?
Last year, i applied to the Hauptstadtkulturfonds, the culture fund of Berlin and i got a grant to develop a one year program (hopefully we will manage to go beyond one year.) My idea was to build upon the PhD research and the practice-based experience i had with Transmediale with the reSource program. So i decided to develop a platform of events and research that will take place at the Kunstquartier Bethanien in Berlin.
There will be 6 main events. One every 6 weeks. They are scheduled in April, May, August, September, October and December. Each event focuses on a different topic but all are aligned with the discourse of disruption as a concept which means 'to interfere with the system from within.'
Each specific thematic will be analyzed from different points of view. They will also together people who approach the subject from different perspectives. Hackers, artists, whistleblowers, activists, investigative journalists, researchers, critical thinkers, etc.
The first event is called Drones. Eyes from a Distance and we'll be analyzing the politics and strategies within and behind the drone usage. Somehow, drones are these invisible weapons that you know are used during conflict. They also have some kind of mystical aura. Mystical and horrifying. You know drones can kill people and they do it in a massive way. They are operated at a distance so they are part of the discourse of deterritorialization of conflict. At the same time, drones are becoming widespread in society. Amazon is using them to deliver parcels. Journalists are using them for filming from above. Makers and hackers are using them in their DIY experiments.
So this topic obviously opens up a lot of discussions.
This event will last 2 days. The model of the Disruption Network Lab events is a series of panels, discussions, keynotes and workshops sometimes. We also try to connect with other spaces in Berlin.
For the launch event, we will have a drone operator coming from the US. He used to work in the army there until he decided to become a whistleblower by discussing in public what it means to be a drone operator and how the work interfered with everyday life. There will be a panel with an investigative journalist, a criminal lawyer working specifically on Palestine questions, and activists from Gaza (if we manage to get them here as it's tricky to get all the permissions).
The following day, we have a second panel with another investigative journalist, an artist working on the mapping of strikes, and then a Norwegian film maker. His film, DRONE, will also be screened at the event.
We will also document the event and upload all the videos online.
Networked Disruption, an exhibition and a series of events produced by Aksioma and Drugo more in collaboration with several partners. The show is up until April 3 at Škuc Gallery, in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Do check also the PDF guide of the show.