New Media News
Because we could all do with a bit of humour today, even if it’s of the Benny Hill kind…
Martin Kersels, Brown Sound Kit, 1994. Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Georges-Philippe and Nathalie Vallois
While preparing a review of black dog publishing‘s book RAVE. Rave and Its Influence on Art and Culture, i encountered this sound art piece which, as the catalogue states, brings ‘some toilet humour to the gallery space.’
Martin Kersels’s sculpture Brown Sound Kit is a piece of sound equipment that emits low frequency infrasound waves, which causes those in its path to release the contents of their bowels—or more colloquially, to “shit themselves”. This kind of sound cannon has its roots in sonic weapons first developed by the Nazis for the purposes of crowd control, and purportedly also by the French authorities during the Paris riots of 1968. Utilising a speaker, an amplifier, an equaliser and an oscillator, all contained with a mobile yellow case, Brown Sound Kit works reflexively of the fact that experiments in weapons technology were also important in the development of sound systems for music.
There seems to be some doubt about how efficient the firing of brown notes can be. In any case, the final sentence in the description of the work will reassure any visitor of an exhibition featuring the work: Brown Sound Kit is presented unplugged within exhibitions. I think Brown Sound Kit is actually part of the show Energy Flash. The Rave Movement at M HKA – Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp. It closes on 25 September. I’ll definitely pop by before that.
While in Dundee (Scotland), i got a chance to visit The D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum, in the company of Matthew Jarron, Curator of Museum Services at the University of Dundee.
The museum was founded in the late 19th century but was demolished in the 1950s. Parts of its spectacular collection was then sent to other museums, parts of it was lost and although the museum is now showing only a fraction of what it used to archive, it’s still a fantastic place to discover.
The collection was assembled by polymath D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860 – 1948.) He acquired specimens from around the world and used them to teach biology.
D’Arcy was a fascinating character. He studied biology, mathematics but also classics. He took up the first Chair of Biology at the University of Dundee, was a pioneer of mathematical biology (more about that in a bit), had a keen interest in art and was also one of the first scientists who pressed his government to protect endangered animal species. After a trip to the Arctic in 1896-97, he recommended protection for the seal populations (decimated by the fur industry) and also brought attention to other species at risk, including whales and the sea otter.
He is mostly known for his book On Growth and Form which pioneered a new science called bio-mathematics or mathematical biology, proposing that the growth and form of living organisms are subject to fundamental laws of physics and mathematics.
Page 754 and an inserted page from D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s personal copy of On Growth and Form. Image via Echoes from the Vault
The book raised controversy for several reasons. One of them is the chapter Theory of Transformations which appeared to contradict the Darwinian theory of evolution. In reality, the chapter wasn’t a refutation of Darwin’s ideas, it merely pointed out that there were some limitations to Darwin’s tendency to explain everything by natural selection. While his predecessor believed in a slow, gradual evolution, D’Arcy argued that one species could be transformed into another through sudden, mathematical processes.
Interestingly, a number of scientists supported D’Arcy’s views: biologists Julian Huxley and C. H. Waddington but also everyone’s favourite: Alan Turing. D’Arcy’s ideas had an impact on other scientific disciplines: mathematics, anthropology, geography, forensics, cybernetics and artificial intelligence. Besides, his writings about the mathematical beauty of nature went on to influence artists and architects such as Henry Moore, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier.
The current museum of zoology was open to the public in 2008. In spite of the loss of a large part of its collection, the museum remains a wonderful place to visit. For the historical, zoological specimens of course but also for a number of artefacts that are interesting from an artistic point of view. The teaching charts and models for example:
Teaching chart showing the anatomy and external characteristics of the Common Frog. From a series created by Dr Paul Pfurtscheller, 1902-1926
Models of animals and human hearts
But what makes the museum unique is that it’s not just biology students who use the collection, artists are also invited to come and respond to the specimens on view. The museum has acquired a number of artworks that draw on D’Arcy’s work and thanks to a grant from the Art Fund, they have been able to commission new works and organize residencies for artists.
And that’s it for my intro. I’m now going to leave you with lots of images and a few comments:
Chimpanzee received in 1886
Matthew Jarron, Curator of Museum Services at the University of Dundee with the Emperor Penguin. Photo Dundee University Museum
The Emperor Penguin specimen first appeared on a photograph taken at the D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum in the early 1900s. The bird disappeared after the demolition of the museum in the 1950s and turned up in the ‘70s, when it accompanied students of the Dundee University Biology Society to bars and parties. He then went awol for 3 decades, until it was discovered in The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum collection in April 2014. The dusty creature was restored and returned to its former glory.
It is very likely that the specimen was taken by members of the Dundee Antarctic expedition of 1892/3. Which makes it one of the oldest emperor penguins in the world.
Sean Dooley, Huia (extinct) at the D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum
The Huia was a species of wattle bird found in New Zealand. The male and the female had differently shaped bills. Working together to feed on wood-burrowing larvae, the male would chisel the bark from trees, while the female removed exposed grubs with her long, curved beak. The arrival of European settlers led to the loss of habitat, the introduction of new predators and the mass killing of the birds in 1901 when their feathers sparked a fashion craze on the old continent. The last officially recorded Huia was seen in 1907.
Sean Dooley, Pesquet’s Parrot (Vulnerable) at the D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum
King Penguin brought back from the Antarctic by Ernest Shackleton after his 1907-9 expedition
The museum presents a fair number of rather distressing bird heads:
Herring Gull. Larus argentatus
One of the artworks displayed alongside the historical items pays homage to extinct animals:
Japanese Spider Crab (Macrocheira kaempferi)
For more background about D’Arcy, the museum and its collection, check out this video of a lecture that Matthew Jarron, Curator of Museum Services at the University, gave at the Slade School of Fine Arts.
Matthew Jarron – Slade Contemporary Art Lecture Series 2013/14
The Zoology Museum is open to the public on Friday afternoons during the Summer vacation as well as occasional open days such as Easter and Doors Open Day. Open by appointment at other times.
Both the Zoology Museum and LifeSpace (a collaboration between the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design and researchers from the School of Life Sciences) make Dundee an interesting place to check out for anyone interested in the connections between art and science.
More images in my Dundee album and on D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s facebook page.
Previously: Open source estrogens and other hormonal tales at LifeSpace.
Grayson Perry, Motorbike
Earlier this month, during the Week of New Maastricht, i visited the exhibition Grayson Perry. Hold Your Beliefs Lightly at the Bonnefantenmuseum. I liked it very VERY much. Not just for the works on show but also for the atmosphere.
There were ladies of a certain age taking photos of a ceramic penis with their mobile phone. There were families discussing life inside a kind of Taj Mahal built for a mythical woman called Julie Cope. There were academic types trying their best to intellectualize the omnipresence of a teddy bear called Alan Measles in Perry’s work. And then there were people who resented being towed through rooms of pots, flamboyant tapestries, extravagant frocks, intricate maps, and un-PC sculptures created by ‘an Essex transvestite potter’ (that’s actually the way the artist ironically defines himself.)
Grayson Perry, Tomb Guardian, 2011
Perry is a cross dresser, a Turner Prize winner, a “conceptual artist who works as a craftsman” but he is also an artist who deserves so much more than easy generalization.
He can be a bit rude but he’s never vulgar. He observes and satirizes British society, its classes, tastes and rituals but he does so with kindness. His vases look traditional but as you go nearer, you realize that they bear crude images and cheap tabloid headlines. He does tapestries and pots, has a flamboyant alter-ego called Claire but he’s never twee, i doubt any woman would object to his own take on feminity. He’s just in a category of his own. Not least for his very inclusive way of communicating contemporary art.
There is so much more to say about Perry and about each of his small and major artworks but i’m sure you all know his work very well already. I’m just going to leave you with some images of the works exhibited in Maastricht and soon in Aarhus where the exhibition is traveling:
The High Priestess Cape (detail), 2007
Grayson Perry wearing The High Priestess Cape
Grayson Perry, The Adoration of the Cage Fighters, 2012. From The Vanity of Small Differences
Grayson Perry, The Upper Class at Bay, 2012. From The Vanity of Small Differences
Grayson Perry, The Vanity of Small Differences
Grayson Perry, Hold Your Beliefs Lightly, 2011. Collection the artist
Grayson Perry, Map of Nowhere, 2008
Grayson Perry, Motorbike (detail.) Image by the vintagent
Grayson Perry (together with the architect firm FAT), A House for Essex
Grayson Perry (together with the architect firm FAT), A House for Essex
Grayson Perry as Julie Cope outside A House For Essex
Grayson Perry, The Walthamstow Tapestry, 2009
Grayson Perry, Assembling a Motorcycle from Memory, 2004
Grayson Perry, Wise Alan, 2007
Grayson Perry, Flight From Masculinity, 2005
Grayson Perry, Land Rovers, 2005
Grayson Perry, Angel of the South, 2005
Grayson Perry – Hold Your Beliefs Lightly. View of the exhibition rooms at the Bonnefantenmuseum Maastricht
Grayson Perry – Hold Your Beliefs Lightly. View of the exhibition rooms at the Bonnefantenmuseum Maastricht
Grayson Perry, Claire at Tate Gallery, 1999. Photo Rob Weiss. Courtesy GP & Victoria Miro, London
Still on view in Maastricht: The Next Big Thing is Not a Thing.
The Politics of Design. A (Not So) Global Manual for Visual Communication, by Ruben Pater.
BIS Publishers write: Many designs that appear in today’s society will circulate and encounter audiences of many different cultures and languages. With communication comes responsibility; are designers aware of the meaning and impact of their work? An image or symbol that is acceptable in one culture can be offensive or even harmful in the next. A typeface or colour in a design might appear to be neutral, but its meaning is always culturally dependent. If designers learn to be aware of global cultural contexts, we can avoid stereotyping and help improve mutual understanding between people.
Politics of Design is a collection of visual examples from around the world. Using ideas from anthropology and sociology, it creates surprising and educational insight in contemporary visual communication. The examples relate to the daily practice of both online and offline visual communication: typography, images, colour, symbols, and information.
Politics of Design shows the importance of visual literacy when communicating beyond borders and cultures. It explores the cultural meaning behind the symbols, maps, photography, typography, and colours that are used every day. It is a practical guide for design and communication professionals and students to create more effective and responsible visual communication.
Lena Söderberg, the playmate who became the standard for online imaging tools
One of the sport teams that appropriate the Native American image for their mascot
I can’t remember the last time i had such an entertaining, witty and informative publication to review.
The Politics of Design is a compact little book packed with little-known anecdotes, historical facts, pieces of advice and lessons learnt from real and often embarrassing communication design experiences.
The author (and the many contributors invited to share their wisdom and insights) draws attention to issues that should be obvious but are too often overlooked by designers: the ethnic stereotypes that should have died decades ago, the graphics that misinform, the cultural appropriations that ransack marginalized communities, the icons that pigeonhole groups of people (not all disabled people are in a wheelchair, not all parents in need of changing their baby’s nappy are women), the domain names that required more careful scrutiny (www.therapistfinder.com, www.budget.co.ck or www.kidsexchange.com), the technologies that betray cultural bias and assumptions (a worrying fact in our age of surveillance and data gathering), etc.
Nothing, not even a colour or a typeface, is as neutral and as innocent as we’d like to believe. And even their meaning, once identified, may change over time and across cultures. In fact, pretty much everything, even time, can be politicized. Two years ago, the clock on the facade of the Bolivia congress in La Paz was de-colonized and altered to turn anti-clockwise.
The author of the book is Ruben Pater (you already know how much i admire his work if you’ve read the interview i had with him last year: Drones, pirates, everyday racism. An interview with graphic designer Ruben Pater.) He is a designer, a researcher from Amsterdam and as ‘Untold Stories’ he works on projects between journalism and graphic design and creates visual narratives about complex political issues.
The Politics of Design should be put into the hands of everyone working in communication design. And also probably in the hands of everyone else since none of us can elude the work of designers.
Random examples of what you can discover inside the book:
New Humanitarian Daily Ration and Old Humanitarian Daily Ration (image)
In 2001, the United States dropped emergency food parcels over Afghanistan. However, from a distance it was tricky to distinguish them from unexploded cluster bombs. The bags had the exact same yellow hue as the bombs.The U.S. government soon changed the colour of the food parcels to pink.
Yazan Khalili, Colour Correction – Camp Series, 2007 – 2010
Yazan Khalili added colour to photos of Al-Amari Refugee camp, located inside/beside/outside Ramallah city as a symbolic act to fill the loss -like a child filling a coloring book- and produce the possibility of hope. Here I’m attempting to appropriate an urban landscape that reminds us of the tragedy -of their existence and our disappearance- in order to subvert memory into a desired future.
Ryan Hunter and Taige Jensen, Coloring For Grown-Ups: The Adult Activity Book, 2012-2015
Ryan Hunter and Taige Jensen’s coloring book “Coloring For Grown-Ups: The Adult Activity Book” shows the potentially subversive power of colours.
The original version of the 2010 Ikea catalogue and the censored version circulated in Saudi Arabia
Digital manipulation makes it easy to create diversity, rejuvenate politicians, wipe out political opponents, and of course fix women’s unsightly bits (whether they are deemed too flat, too fat, too wobbly, too spotty, too wrinkly, too sexy or not sexy enough.) Unless you prefer to erase women entirely! In 2010, the IKEA catalogue for Saudi Arabia airbrushed women out of pictures. The company later apologised.
Unknown Ammassalik, Inuit, Carved wooden coastal charts carried in their kayaks by Greenland Inuit. Courtesy of the Greenland National Museum & Archives
The most used map, the Mercator was drawn in 1569 and showing all the prejudices that pertain to its age, the one of colonialism and Euro-centrism: Africa and South America look far too small, Australia is even smaller than Greenland, Europe appears larger than it really is.
A map of Crimea on google.com
Even contemporary maps should be approached with caution. Because it obeys to local laws, Google map shows differences in borders according to the country you’re accessing the map from. Visitors to the Ukrainian google.com.ua, will find a map of Crimea displaying unmarked border with Russia and a clear internal boundary with the rest of Ukraine. On the other hand, Russian visitors to Google will find the area marked as a separate country from wider Ukraine. Everywhere else, Google uses its legend for disputed borders between mainland Ukraine and Crimea.
Taylor Swift Chinese clothing line with ‘TS’ and the date ‘1989’ was interpreted by the Chinese as a political reference to the Tiananmen Square massacre
Previously: Drones, pirates, everyday racism. An interview with graphic designer Ruben Pater.
Image on the homepage: Censorship In the Republic. How foreign media are filtered in Iran.
Another of my long overdue festival reports….
Image Share Festival
This year, the Share festival in Turin shed its new media art skin and became a festival resolutely centered on design. The event was all about technology and creativity but this time in their most domesticated forms.
Quite fittingly, Share took place inside an apartment. You might have heard about it already, it’s called Casa Jasmina and it’s a kind of home of the future that showcases what it means to share a dwelling with “the Internet of Things” things. Located inside a large industrial building (one that’s shared with Fablab Torino, the Italian hub of Arduino and a co-working space), Casa Jasmina hosts not only all kinds of smart gizmos but also residencies, workshops and discussions.
Each of the entries selected for the Share Prize was installed in the room they would naturally occupy inside a house. There were multi-plugs fighting for supremacy in the corridor, a coffee machine that moonlights as CCTV in the kitchen, plates laser-engraved with ‘personal crumb data’ lined up on a dinner table, etc.
Now anyone who’s ever met me will tell you that i’m not keen on design (to say it with as much diplomacy as i’m capable of) but even i had to admit that this spotlight on all things homely and interactive gave the festival a strong personality in a sea of art&tech festivals that strive to differentiate themselves from each other. It also meant that while media art festivals are usually jovial affairs that draw a very specific type of crowd*, Share seemed to attract people of all ages and backgrounds, eager to see and hold into their hands objects that have the right balance of “familiar” and “slightly futuristic.”
Plus, there were a couple of gems worth blogging. Such as this one:
Automato installation, where lightbulbs have to engage in political struggle in order to get any “power”. Photo by Bruce Sterling
Automato, Politics of Power
Automato, Politics of Power. Image Share Festival
Three multi-plugs – Model D, M and T – are designed to look and behave based on different ideologies and structures, allowing people to experience the hidden politics of networks.
Model D distributes its actors in a circle. When multiple devices are plugged in, the outlets periodically vote to delegate a leader, who gains a greater share of the electricity until the next election. The system is the most egalitarian, every outlet has a chance to be in charge.
Model T has established a more authoritarian rule. The one plug at the top always gets all the electricity, and it either magnanimously sends a trickle of current down to its subjects, or it monopolizes everything. The citizen outlets periodically rebel, throwing the distribution into chaos until the tyrant can reestablish order. But if the top spot is left vacant for a while, the citizens will settle into an egalitarian mode like the Model D…until the head honcho is plugged in again.
The hierarchy of Model M is pyramidal. The greatest share of electricity goes to the “monarch” outlet at the top, middling shares go to the “support” tier, while the “plebian” outlets at the bottom get the weakest share. The distribution of electricity remains stable without a monarch, but if all of the middle managers are removed then the current starts to fluctuate wildly.
Automato, Politics of Power
“Politics of Power” uses thus the most mundane product, a multi-plug, to explore on a micro-scale how political or economic ideologies can be embedded into design, especially technological design. The ‘black-boxing’ of consumer electronics, would be a good example of that. Or planned obsolescence. Being conscious of the hidden logic and rules of mass-manufactured products is particularly important when these are networked as it is increasingly the case in the age of the IoT. But what i liked the most about the work is not just the questions it explores so humorously, it is also the way it looks. The cables fall elegantly to the ground, the light bulbs glow softly, it’s a piece that insidiously soothes, comforts and makes you oblivious of the decisions taken in the back room.
Food-Data, another of the works selected for the Share Prize, elegantly brings data tracking onto your dinner plate. The position and shape of crumbs left on the plates are analyzed by a software and used to create generative artworks. The algorithmically developed graphics are then engraved onto ceramic plates with a laser cutter.
Food-Data illustrates, almost to the point of absurdity, that absolutely anything, no matter how insignificant, can be harnessed for surveillance and data gathering.
Christoph Laimer, 3DPrinted Tourbillon Watch. Image Share Festival
Christoph Laimer, 3DPrinted Tourbillon Watch. Image Share Festival
Christoph Laimer, 3DPrinted Tourbillon Watch
Swiss watchmaker Christoph Laimer took his venerable expertise and artistry to the world of open-source hardware and 3D printing.
3DPrinted Tourbillon Watch was the winner of the Share Prize. The timepiece is a fully functional Swiss clock that has been entirely printed from plastic, apart from a few screws and pins.
The entire 3d-model is published and downloadable on Thingiverse.
Other works selected for the Share Prize:
Carlo Galli, SafeCoffee. Photo: Share Festival. Photo: Piemonte Share Festival
Safe Coffee, a coffee machine that invites surveillance into the family setting; a Body Instruments II, Kinect-controlled music installation by Jean-Michel Rolland and Follower, a social-media stalking service by Lauren McCarthy.
Pante. Photo: Piemonte Share Festival
The Share Festival closed a couple of weeks ago. Its jury included MoMA design curator Paola Antonelli, festival director and celebrated cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling, Internet activist Jasmina Tesanovic, astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, as well as festival co-founder Chiara Garibaldi.
* (you know the kind, they are either a bit geeky and ask about programming language and electronics toolkit or they are art bores like me who try to hide their enthusiasm and complain about the lack of art commitment.)
ATMs fingerprint-based biometric technology in Malawi. Photo via African Business
Back in April, i was in Berlin for the Anthropocene Curriculum and very much looking forward to Truth Measures, an evening of talks and performances at Haus der Kulturen der Welt which examined the techniques and technologies for gathering data, truth, evidence and how they produce what is true and what isn’t. Unfortunately, right before that i had attended a fantastically informative workshop that involved walking for hours under the pouring rain and i had to chose between either going back to the studio i was renting and getting dry or getting the flu or whatever people get sick of when their brand new creepers make squishy squishy sounds with their every step. I thus missed the evening and the morning after everyone was telling me about this talk i would have loved.
It was called Biometric Capitalism: Infrastructures of Identification and Credit Risk on the African Continent in the 21st Century. I ended up meeting its author, Keith Breckenridge, a couple of days later. We were supposed to have a conversation but i ended up pestering him with questions about his work. Breckenridge is a historian, a Professor and Deputy Director at WITS Institute for Social and Economic Research in Johannesburg. My invasive cross-examination of him was one of the most exciting moments of my week in Berlin. HKW has recently uploaded on youtube the video of the presentation i had missed. Whoopee! Whoopee!
Biometric Capitalism: Infrastructures of Identification and Credit Risk on the African Continent in the 21st Century. Presentation by Keith Breckenridge
In this short presentation, Breckenridge explores what biometrics means in African countries, how it is used and by who, how it is affecting the poorest people in the world, how it fails, etc. And most importantly why we should be concerned about it.
Here’s the abstract:
A new and distinctive variety of capitalism is currently taking form on the African continent. States are being remade under the pressures of rapid demographic growth, intractable conflicts over boundaries, domestic and international security demands, and the offerings of multi-lateral donors and international data-processing corporations. Much of this turns to enhanced forms of state surveillance that is common to societies across the globe, but the economic and institutional forms on the African continent are unusual. Automated biometric identification systems present former colonial states with apparently simple and cost-effective alternatives to the difficult and expensive projects of civil registration. In many African countries, commercial banks are offering to bear the costs of building centralized biometric population registers, explicitly having in mind the development of a national identification database and commercial credit risk scoring apparatus, a combination that aims to transform all citizens into appropriate subjects for automated debt appraisal.
And here’s a few notes i wrote down while watching this video. I’m only adding them here in case anyone in this audience absolutely hates watching video….
For most of the last century, vastly more people in Africa have been involved in agriculture than in trade. The form of capitalism and the institutions that capitalism depended upon have been dependent on mining and on mineral extractions and in particular in the last 10 years on oil. That’s what dominated investments, state revenues, company revenues, individuals incomes especially property forms, etc.
George Osodi, from the series Oil Rich Niger Delta, 2003-2007
It is well established now that there are many different kinds of capitalism. So what is biometric capitalism?
Biometric Capitalism is a system of economy activity organised around the centralised unity database of biometrically ordered populations registration where the identification is done on the basis of people’s fingerprints or some other iris that can allow for unique identification (or close to unique identification.) It is justified morally and politically by the politics and the technologies of cash transfers.
In South Africa, 40% of the population receives a monthly cash transfer payment from the state through a biometric system. There are many attempts of similar basic income grants on the African continent for people who are locked out of formal work. Banks are often the ones who are funding the development of these population registers and they are developing shared infrastructures for credit surveillance that are derived from the original FICO scores.
The FICO algorithm has spread very widely around the world and it has been adopted very enthusiastically in the last 5 years. Non-governments and governments are pushing the development of tracking systems around cash transfer schemes and student loans. Last year, the big complaint of students in South Africa was that the debt that they have to cover their subsistence while studying at university is handed over to the banks. If they don’t service the loans they are blackmarked very quickly. That is the first thing an employer will query when a graduate goes and applies for work. If you haven’t been servicing your debts, you don’t get shortlisted for an interview. You thus lose your ability to pay back the loan. Those loan schemes exist in almost all countries on the continent. These systems are heavily influenced by infrastructures of biometrics, government and banking that were first developed in South Africa over the course of the last century. It’s important to understand that biometric capitalism confronts two fundamental problems about the nature of the state and the economy on the African continent:
The first problem is that unlike the conventional barbarian and Foucauldian understanding of power knowledge, states on the African continent have limited knowledge about their population. Most births and most deaths are still not recorded. Even South Africa has only started recording the majority of births in 2002.
Unlike India, African colonial states did not count their population. They had no interest really in anyone, except the white people who lived in the cities.
Hundred years ago already, the colonial officials said “Don’t listen to Africans, they lie about who they are. The only way you can know for sure is if you record their fingerprints.” And much the same juxtaposition exists today.
Projections of human populations to 2100, per continent
The second problem is demography. Most African states have experienced dramatic increases in population over the last generation, going from comparatively low densities to some the highest ever recorded. The current estimate is that in 20150 it will be between 2 and 2.5 billion and that by the end of the century there will be between 4 and 6 billion people on the continent.
Most states are scrambling to build bureaucratic mechanisms to get a grip on it. In each case we can see a convergence towards an administrative architecture that emerged first in South Africa. It’s radically centralised biometric identity registration, with privatised biometric cash transfers, universal credit histories, credit histories that come to serve as instruments of moralisation. So if nothing else really works, we can at least identify what kind of person you are by looking at your credit history.
I could have illustrated the ID project in India with a more relevant image but i just love that this dog in Madhya Pradesh got an Aadhaar card for itself
There are other examples throughout the world, the most important is UID project in India.
Two things stand out:
1. It’s not a card, it’s a number. The government only gives you a number. It’s intangible. People have demanded a card, some have laminated the paper receipts.
2. A billion people have been registered in the last 5 years which makes it by far the most successful registration project ever attempted.
Screenshot from Breckenridge presentation
Pictures of how this works in South Africa:
The first large-scale application of fingerprint-based digital biometrics was in the delivery of pension benefits in the former KwaZulu homeland in the late 1980s. Incidentally, this was the first trial of sound recognition and officials say they couldn’t get the people to be calm enough about it. They were initially reluctant to use fingerprint, thinking that people would associate it with the Apartheid state. But in the end they used fingerprint simply because that was a technique that everybody understood, the subjects and the officials.
The kits used in the 1990s were the same standardised equipment you can find today. It’s essentially ATM machines that are hooked up to a little biometric device.
Screenshot from Breckenridge presentation
Net1 UEPS, ‘the anti-bank’, is a private company that is now the direct agent of the South African model of biometric government. It has contracts for government grants and pensions in Namibia, Botswana, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Ghana, etc. This company is explicitly targeting offline, illiterate bank customers, what are called ‘unbanked populations’. The company has been subject to many legal disputes, but there’s no mistaking its momentum in Southern Africa and around the world. There are 22 million people inside the Net1 database itself. This is a separate system, it’s not the same one used by the government. Their business model involves providing a banking infrastructure so they are lending to the people who are paid grants by the government and of course they have access to all the income these people earn so they can lend to them without any risk at all. Last week, the World Bank bought 10% of the company for a hundred million dollars.
These biometric systems in South Africa are connected very closely to credit surveillance which didn’t really exist in the country in 1990. Between 1990 and 2016, we’ve seen the extension of the American system of automated information about your credit: not only what you borrow but also what you pay off on your utility bills as a means of gathering information about your suitability as a bank customer. The credit reference bureau collects your name, your identity number, your address, who your employer is, your debts and payments on your telephone account, your cable tv, cell phone contract, your utility bills, your credit cards and mortgages. This is a model used everywhere now. The distinction is that in South Africa, the state uses it as a moralising instrument. If i am an employee of a local municipality, i will decide whether you are a virtuous tenant by looking at your credit history. There are something like 20 million individual profiles in the system in South Africa and 50% of them are what we would call blacklisted customers. They can’t get access to credit, they can’t typically get access to any of the things that they are asking for, whether it’s access to a rent or the opportunity for employment.
Over the last 5 years, this system has started to move rapidly around the continent.
The fantasy of capturing the unbanked lays behind the first system of biometric cash or biometric money ever implemented on the planet. In 2007, Net1 was contracted by the central bank of Ghana for a national banking switch (the E-Zwich) that requires all bank transactions to be biometrically authenticated (in theory because it didn’t work like that in practice.) So you put your fingerprint on the reader, somebody else has to do the same in order to move money from one account to another. The scheme has been a dismal failure: the machines don’t work very well, they don’t access the cellular network and generally people have been very reluctant to use it. Ghanians haven’t taken very kindly to the idea that they should be submitted to a different technology to the one that they would use when they are in London. So there has been resistance from the rich and as for the poor, they don’t have any money.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan looks at the replica of his electronic identity card during the launching of the cards in Abuja
MasterCard-branded National Identity Smart Cards with electronic payment capability
The most outrageous of these schemes was the announcement in 2013 that MasterCard would be issuing the Federal Republic of Nigeria identity card. It sets in place an astonishing precedent and there is very little legal apparatus to deal with it.
Of course many of these things don’t work as flawlessly as scheduled.
A group of youths display their disfigured fingerprints at Maili Saba quarry in Bahati, Nakuru. More than 40 youths working at the quarry have no Identification Cards. Photo: Kipsang Joseph/Standard
People working manually, like bricklayers, often present damaged fingerprints and they are never going to be biometrically captured. There isn’t currently a way to deal with this
Then there’s the problem of efficiency: after a decade of issuing identity cards, Nigeria have only issued them to 10 million people. There are 180 million Nigerians…
The model, however, remains in place. There’s no sign in other word of official hesitation or of remorse.
Breckenridge then read this article about the biometric registration of Kenyans. The process will involve scanning of existing identification documents, facial scans and taking of finger prints. Children under 12 years will have their irises scanned. The register will also capture land details, assets and registered companies, with a view of enlisting those within the tax bracket who are not paying duty.
So what is Biometric Capitalism and where is it happening?
Banks and states are now in an intimate embrace, funding each others’ work. Global corporations, donors, kit manufacturers all act together in a network.
Laura Mann has recently finished her PhD on this topic, focusing on Kenya. She describes an industrial policy that favours the creation, accumulation and sharing of data (currently without meaningful privacy limits); hinged on the creation of biometric national population registers that are hooked into the credit history system.
This apparatus is antagonistic to the strategies of subsistence and accumulation that have dominated on the continent to this date: resource extraction.
There are some sinister and in fact distressing new forms of coercively imposed civic virtue that will require people to act as individualised entities and be preoccupied with their algorithmically generated reputation.
Personal debts, debt service and the risks around the servicing of those debts are becoming the dominant forms of property and profit on the continent. In an economic landscape where mineral titles have long predominated. This is capitalism in a world with very weak states, where growth is demographic and where personal debt is the most valuable resource.
Videos from the same evening:
Truth Measures | Technosphere Truth?,
Truth Measures | The Common Sense,
Truth Measures | Contra Diction: Speech Against Itself.
Entrance to the exhibition The Next Big Thing is Not a Thing. Photo: Pauline Doutreluingne
Last week i was in The Netherlands for the Week of New Maastricht, an event organised by Maastricht-LAB to look at innovative ways to repurpose neglected areas and abandoned buildings (especially with those with monumental value.) Local examples of innovative urban overhaul include: an ex fire-house turned restaurant, ex-army barracks filled with working spaces for designers and a brasserie, a 13th century church that houses a bookshop, a 15th-century monastery that is now a hotel.
One of the areas slated for similar rehabilitation and revamp is the Sphinxkwartier. The place takes its name from a toilet factory. The ceramic bathroom seats are now gone but in a couple of years, they will be replaced by concert halls, student spaces, lofts, bars, etc. What made me bike faster to the Sphinxkwartier, however, is the fact that Bureau Europa has already relocated there. Bureau Europa explores the field of architecture, urbanism, and design. In a critical and often avant-garde way. I love what they do.
On top of the now closed Koninklijke Sphinx factory
Their ongoing exhibition The Next Big Thing is Not a Thing is a bit overwhelming but it is also as good as i was hoping. It investigates how the field of design is increasingly influenced by the science of anthropology, how it is becoming more critical, more involved in society and more curious about new fields of knowledge.
Using the gaze as a metaphor, the exhibition surveys the evolution of the design discipline and examines new fields of knowledge and critical practices. The exhibition questions the underlying myths within design, deconstructs its emerging signs, and examines how technology determines the future landscape of design.
The Next Big Thing is Not a Thing displays the works of more than 50 international visual artists, designers, and anthropologists. The show is articulated into several chapters. It is however so dense and the works on show are so different from each other in intention, practice and meanings, that it might at times seem like a mere accumulation of super interesting projects.
!Mediengruppe Bitnik, Random Darknet Shopper, 2014-ongoing. Installation view at Bureau Europa. Photo: Moniek Wegdam for Bureau Europa
Some of the works question our Western-centric vision of culture, our faith in ‘modernity’ and our understanding of ‘progress.’ Others explore how the design discipline attempts to bring together two fields that Western history and culture have separated: episteme (the domain of theory or knowledge) and techne (the material and practical application of art and craft.) Another part of the exhibition looks at how designers grapple with the world’s biggest problems, in particular environmental ones. A last group of works explores the role of design in political issues: warfare, border control, economy, public accountability, etc.
The Next Big Thing is Not a Thing is packed with information, food for thought and judicious parallels. I’d recommend taking an hour or two to visit it. But if you can’t make it to Maastricht before the show closes in July, check out the catalogue of the exhibition. It is available as a PDF online.
A quick walk through some of the works on show:
Emma Charles, Fragments on Machines, 2013
Emma Charles, Fragments on Machines (production still), 2013
The internet is a very material space. There are server farms to be built, fibre-optic cables to be laid under the ground or sea, ventilation systems to be maintained.
Emma Charles’s documentary Fragments On Machines lays bare the physical structure of the internet. She takes her camera to a series of 19th and 20th century buildings in New York City and explores how urban architecture is now hosting the material nodes and connectors that comprise the physical manifestation of the “virtual” world. In addition, the film shows how the Internet is connected to the wider economy via such phenomenon as high-frequency trading (HFT). HFT firms have indeed moved to be as close as possible to the Internet’s infrastructure. The physically closer these firms are, the faster their algorithms can trade.
TeYosh (Sofija Stanković and Teodora Stojković), Dictionary of Online Behavior, 2013-ongoing
The internet is also a space that is constantly re-shaping the way we act in society. Think of #FRAP, Instameet, Sudden Mutual Linking, etc. These words don’t have any equivalent offline but online communication calls for new words to define new situations and behaviours. The always expanding Dictionary of Online Behavior helps us understand the way technology is shaping human expressions and norms.
Geert Mul, Match of the Day, 2004-ongoing
Another important aspects of our online life is made of artificial intelligence and the way its understanding of the world differs from ours.
Geert Mul‘s computer records, at random intervals, images from about thirty international satellite television channels. An image-recognition software compares the recorded image with every other single image stored in the computer and looks for the images that make a good visual match. Mul then looks at the result and selects the images matches he finds most interesting.
The computer cannot ‘understand’ the images, it just applies pixel statistics. For the human eye visual similarity is something else than pixel statistics. We attach ‘meaning’ to everything we see. This becomes especially evident when similar images appear to have a contrary meaning.
3RD are sculptures you put on like helmets. Inside is a video screen that shows the wearer as if they saw themselves from a distance, their movements captured and broadcast by a camera surveying the exhibition space. As if they were featured inside their favourite games. This creates a surreal sensation where reality starts to feel like a digital game environment.
Not a new idea but it deserves a mention for it elegant and suggestive design. Plus, the DIY instructions to make your own can be downloaded for free.
Lalage Snow, We Are the Not Dead, Returning by the Road We Came, 2012
Lalage Snow, We Are the Not Dead, Returning by the Road We Came (Private Jo Yavala, 28), 2012. Installation view at Bureau Europa. Photo: Johannes Schwartz for Bureau Europa
Lalage Snow shot portraits of British soldiers over a period of 7 months. Before, during and after their deployment to Afghanistan on Op Herrick 12.
Since the fall of the Iron Curtain a quarter century ago, the world has been busy building barriers at an unprecedented rate: about 10,000 km of wire, concrete, steel, sand, stone and mesh has been employed to keep people out or in. Paradoxically enough, this avalanche of obstacles is accelerating even as we experience the age of free trade agreements, free movement of global capital, and the increased mobility of instant communication.
Opening night of The Next Big Thing is Not a Thing. Photo: Moniek Wegdam for Bureau Europa
The Yes Men, Total Terrorism Solution, 2016
With the complicity of Greek MEP Stelios Kouloglou, Andy Bichlbaum of the Yes Men posed as a “defense and security consultant” at the European Parliament in Brussels to present an “industrial solution to terrorism”.
The “solution” is the re-purposed Halliburton´s survivaball. This cushiony orb might make you look like Gérard Depardieu but it will also enable you, if you’re one of the happy few who can afford it, to comfortably survive any terrorist attack.
Gudrun F. Widlok organizes adoption of lonely Europeans adults by families in Africa.
Hiroaki Kani, The Kowloon Walled City (detail), 1997
Kowloon Walled City was a largely ungoverned settlement in Kowloon City, Hong Kong. Kowloon used to be the most densely populated place on Earth, with 50,000 people crammed into only a few blocks of interconnected high-rise buildings that were built ‘organically’ without the help of architect or city planner.
The Hong Kong government demolished the walled city over a two year period, in 1993 and 1994. A group of Japanese architects, engineers, city planners and researchers, led by historian and cultural anthropologist Hiroaki Kani, documented the city right until the bulldozers arrived. Their notes and illustrated cross sections of the buildings were published into a book a few years later.
Mikhail Kalashnikov, AK-47
The AK-47 (aka the Kalashnikov) was designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov in 1946. 70 years later, it is the world’s most popular firearm. Favoured by guerrillas, terrorists and soldiers of many armies, the weapon has brought death all over the world but it is also regarded as one of the best designs of the 20th century.
Marc Bijl on the left and Heather Dewey-Hagborg on the right. Installation view at Bureau Europa. Photo: Johannes Schwartz for Bureau Europa
Ten showroom dummies dressed up with leather jackets that the artist spray-painted with single letters composing the word INDIVIDUAL. While the faceless dummies are meant to be anonymous, the leather jackets are symbols of rebellion and individual freedom. Group Mechanism exposes thus the fundamental contradiction of consumer culture (and of fashion in particular): individuality can be mass produced.
Philippe Stark, Teddy Bear Band, 2005
Philippe Stark, Teddy Bear Band, 2005. Installation view at Bureau Europa. Photo: Johannes Schwartz for Bureau Europa
The TeddyBearBand was created for children who like to hop from one toy to another. Stark’s TeddyBearBand is a teddy bear but also a stuffed dog, a rabbit and possibly a sheep.
More photos from the exhibition:
Opening night of The Next Big Thing is Not a Thing. Photo: Moniek Wegdam for Bureau Europa
Installation view at Bureau Europa. Photo: Johannes Schwartz for Bureau Europa
Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Stranger Vision, 2012-2013. Installation view at Bureau Europa. Photo: Johannes Schwartz for Bureau Europa
Julien Prévieux, What Shall We Do Next (Séquence 2). Photo: Pauline Doutreluingne
The exhibition The Next Big Thing is Not a Thing is at Bureau Europa Platform for Design and Architecture, Maastricht, The Netherlands, until 10 July 2016. It was curated by Pauline Doutreluingne.
My photos from the exhibition.