New Media News

Order+Noise, a tug of war for motors, strings and rubber bands

We Make Money Not Art - Fri, 04/29/2016 - 11:40

Ralf Baecker, Order+Noise (Interface I), 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/ for NOME

Ralf Baecker, Order+Noise (Interface I), 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/ for NOME

I’ve been fascinated by the work of Ralf Baecker ever since i discovered it back in 2009. The way his projects disclose the inner logic and dynamics of machines speaks to the über geek. But you don’t need to be versed in the subtleties of technology to be touched by his installations. Their grace and deceptive simplicity, the way they never quite seem to reveal themselves completely appeal to the aesthete and the amateur of fine craft and enigma.

Order+Noise (Interface I), his latest installation currently on view at the NOME gallery in Berlin, is made of motors, strings and elastic bands set in motion by the random signals of Geiger-Müller tubes which pick up the natural ambient radiation of the earth and add an element of chance to the system.

Motors gently hum and pull coloured strings in opposite directions, like in a tug of war. The patterns designed by the network of threads and rubber bands lay bare the struggles, negotiations and fluctuations of the system.

Here, what underlines the aesthetic experience is the materiality by which action produces knowledge, transforming data space into real space. As observers take in the rules, operations and parameters of the work, they gain insight into their perception. The installation’s mechanical workings and network of strings allow us to explore the poetic potential of technology via its materiality, so that Interface I sits on the boundary between an imaginary field and an epistemological condition.

Ralf Baecker, Teaser: Order+Noise (Interface I)

By isolating and zooming in on the abstract mechanisms and systems that are at the core of digital media and information technology, the work of Baecker reveals their otherwise unsuspected rhythms and noises.

I had a Q&A with the artist right before the opening of his show in Berlin:

Hi Ralf! Order+Noise (Interface I) brings our attention to the ambient radiation of the earth. Why were you interested in exploring a geological phenomenon?

The ambient radiation of the earth is only a minor aspect of this work. In case of Interface I it is one way of feeding a system with entropy (chance) and an external rhythm, caused by the unpredictable radioactive decay of elements. I used these kind of “geological” detectors already in previous works, like Irrational Computing (2011) and Mirage (2014), where I measured the magnetic flux of the earth with a magnetometer. What I’m focusing on is the contrast of clean digital machinery and its operations and the crudeness of the geological minerals they are made of. The social and political issues that are connected to the mining of rare earth materials in many countries do not apply to silicon because it is made from quartz sand, which exists in large amounts on earth. With Irrational Computing I was investigating this material layer of contemporary technologies. I build crude digital elements from semi-conducting minerals, like galena, silicon carbide, etc, in its raw form directly taken from the crust of the earth.

Beside this material stack I am interested in the mathematical foundations of these technologies. A closer look reveals a fully closed deterministic system, that is the result of separating mathematics from the world and our experience of it, in order to create a pure formal system. And these are the systems that reach very deep in our daily lives now. Sure, the devices can produce some kind of pseudo randomness, emergent behaviour and we interact with them, but always in the framework of this strict formal system and their protocols.

I don’t think that the machines become more like us, it is more likely that we adapt to the languages of the machines, to become computable. Over the years I tried different approaches to investigates the logic of the internal structures of these systems on one side, and to break them up with more intuitive models on the other side.

In interface these random impulses are used to stimulate two mechanical systems that interact with each other through a network of strings and elastic bands. So the noise acts like a catalyst. From complexity theory we know the principle of self-organisation or “Order from Noise”. Whereby spontaneous order can arise by random fluctuations, like the flocking of birds or in an economy.

Ralf Baecker, Order+Noise (Interface I), 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/ for NOME

Ralf Baecker, Order+Noise (Interface I), 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/ for NOME

Ralf Baecker, Order+Noise (Interface I), 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/ for NOME

The installation explores the interaction between on the one hand, ambient radiation of the earth and on the other one, a set of motors, strings and elastic bands deployed in the gallery. Did you conceive the work as a metaphor about the way natural elements and our man-made industrial world influence each other?

Maybe you allow me to write a few words about metaphors. I’m struggling with the term. I never explicitly have a metaphor in mind, except maybe in Mirage, because my machines are based on symbolic interactions. Sure I don’t avoid hinting to analogies to other systems in other scales. But digital processes are per se not bound to any medium, silicon is just the most efficient and economic one. But every digital circuit can be translated into any medium, like water, air pressure, mechanics etc. I translate and enlarge these processes into other materials in order to allow a spectator to perceive them on an affective level.

Although many of your artworks deal with revealing the materiality of hidden structures and phenomena, there is also something inherently poetical and mysterious about them. At least, that’s the way i see them. What guides the aesthetics and design of your installations?

The aesthetics is always a result of a long experimental process. Usually it starts with a thought experiment that I strip down to a set of minimal components. For Interface I was trying to imagine the tiny and rapid interactions and transactions of a communication between two separate structures. How do they meet in one point and develop a language and get entangled it some kind of dialog. I tried different mechanical approaches, e.g. a push-based system, that turned out yo be too rough and tended to damage itself. There is always a gap between my imagination of a process, its physicality and its actual performance. I usually need a lot of iterations to find a good representation of my initial thought or even adapt my concept to the physical conditions. I started with this method a couple of years ago with Rechnender Raum (2007), I felt a little lost in working only in software, where I already tried to strip the aesthetics down to the minimum in order to offer a sight at the internal/raw aesthetics of these processes before they appear on a screen. But this did not work out for me me because, I still had the feeling that my practice is encapsulated in the logic of these strictly formal machines.

One thing that I have learned is that, making these processes transparent and open does not help to understand them but makes them even more opaque and mysterious. I became very much interested in “magical thinking” in contrast to a chronological “cause and effect” thinking. This thinking blends pretty good with contemporary complexity theory and “system thinking” where one “effect” can not be traced back to a single “cause”.

If we go back to the roots of such machines we will find metaphysical or ideological machines, like the ones of Ramon Llull ones, that are not tools but epistemological instruments.

Another important point, is that I don’t follow the usual separation between process and output. In most of my machines display and process are one, the display is where the process happens and at the same time it is indicating it. Similar to a combustion process, where a fuel and oxygen react with each other and produce an continuous flickering.

Portrait of Ramon Llull

Ralf Baecker, Order+Noise (Interface I), 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/ for NOME

The research and experiments necessary to the development of the exhibition were carried out within the framework of your research project Time of Non-Reality at the Graduate School of the University of the Arts Berlin. Could you tell us more about this research? And what is this idea of ‘non reality’?

For me the research project at the Graduate School of the UDK in Berlin is a very subjective/artistic genealogy of the digital and technological images. It acts as framework for me to speculate and to experiment. I’m interested in the fundamental concepts, mechanisms and ideas of the digital and the relations to the signs they produce at the other end (e.g. screen).

I stumbled about a quote by Norbert Wiener, in a transcriptions of one of the famous Macy Conferences: “Every digital device is really an analogical device which distinguishes region of attraction rather than by a direct measurement. In other words, a certain time of non-reality pushed far enough will make any device digital.”

“Time of non-reality” could also be understood as the time an electronically charged electronic component (e.g. transistor), or any bistable element, needs to switch from 0 (0 volts) to 1 (5 volts). Ideally, in our logic, there is nothing in between. But when implemented it into the physical, we have these transitions that appear millions of times per second in a contemporary digital device. The internal state of the machines, and what it represents (e.g. an image, a text or a sound), breaks down for a couple of nanoseconds, just to re-establish in the next stable state. The machines are build to blank these transitions, in order to prevent glitches or even a crash. But I’m using this idea to speculate about possible images in between.

As I tried to described earlier these machines are the result of separating mathematics from any empirical evidence, that took place in the early 20th century. The simple axiom “1+1=2” allows us to forget about the apples that we once counted to realise. But these formal systems are now interacting with the world, they produce reality. So my research also explores the gap between an ideal formalized immaterial system and its re-implementation in the world.

Ralf Baeker, Mirage, 2014. Installation view at Asian Culture Center Gwuangju, for ACT Festival. Photo via Creative Applications

Ralf Baeker, Mirage, 2014. Installation view at Asian Culture Center Gwuangju, for ACT Festival

I was very impressed by Mirage when i saw it at the ACT Festival in Gwangju. I was fascinated by the way the piece is anchored in sophisticated algorithms and Artificial Intelligence but at the same time it speculates about machines that fall asleep and dream. Do you think we should be afraid of machines’ dreams? Doesn’t that make them to freakingly similar to us?

No, I don’t think we have to be afraid. There is still a very big difference between us and artificial intelligence. Most artificial intelligence algorithms are made for one single purpose, they are not universal and their aims and goals are defined by us. What freaks us out is the unpredictability of such systems that arise if their complexity increases. I think this is what we are witnessing right now. We are in the paradox situation that, on one side we are totally excited about the benefits of these technologies and on the other side they evoke a strange feeling of unease. Another kind of sublime, a technological sublime, if we have the enormous world spanning infrastructures in mind they running on.

And because we can’t control our own dreams and hallucinates, i suspect we can’t control the dreams of the machines either. Was it something you experienced while observing Mirage in action? Did the projection and ‘behaviour’ of Mirage surprise you? Did they bring anything unexpected?

The “dreams” or “hallucinations” of the machines are the result of what they have “seen” before. In unsupervised neural networks these “sleep” cycles are used to consolidate the previously learned. They are actually “internal” images, that were not intended to be displayed. Probably everybody knows the images of google’s deep dream. They always include these little puppies, snails or frogs, because these images were part of the training data set. Analogous I can only dream images or things, that I have seen or have imagined before. If a two year old child has never seen or been told about a fox it can not dream it. But the interesting thing is what develops over time, the narration, how our brain constantly tries to make sense of the images that appear and involve them into a plot. Mirage produces plots. It was not trained with static images, it was trained just with a constantly changing one dimensional signal that represents the changes of the magnetic flux of the earth. For earlier experiments, I trained my system with simple sine waves. After a couple of cycles, it was able to recreate sine wave like signals with variations. Mirage recombines the previous sampled data and weaves a new chronology. These idea of machines that create space on time applies to most of my works as well as for Interface.

Thanks Ralf!

Ralf Baecker, Order+Noise (Interface I), 2015. Photo by Photo by Bresadola+Freese/

More photos!

Order+Noise (Interface I) is on view at NOME, Berlin from 23 April until 18 June 2016.

Ralf Baecker is also having a solo show at Kassler Kunstverein, from 13 May until 3 July 2016.

Categories: New Media News

How to read the genome and build a human being | Riccardo Sabatini

TED - Fri, 04/29/2016 - 11:00
Secrets, disease and beauty are all written in the human genome, the complete set of genetic instructions needed to build a human being. Now, as scientist and entrepreneur Riccardo Sabatini shows us, we have the power to read this complex code, predicting things like height, eye color, age and even facial structure -- all from a vial of blood. And soon, Sabatini says, our new understanding of the genome will allow us to personalize treatments for diseases like cancer. We have the power to change life as we know it. How will we use it?
Categories: New Media News

Confessions of a Data Broker and other tales of a quantified society

We Make Money Not Art - Thu, 04/28/2016 - 12:21

The White Room, Opening of Nervous Systems. Photo: © Laura Fiorio/HKW

!Mediengruppe Bitnik, Reconstruction of Julian Assange’s study room at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Opening of Nervous Systems. Photo: © Laura Fiorio/HKW

While in Berlin for the Anthropocene Campus, i visited the one show you shouldn’t miss if you happen to be in town this week and next: Nervous Systems. Quantified Life and the Social Question.

The exhibition smartly enrolled artists, media historians and writers to chart the history and current rise of data-technologies and the world they bring about, exploring and exposing our quantified society and the processes of self-quantification. The food for thought that this show provide is overwhelming. Almost as much as this (partial) review of it!

Nervous Systems was co-curated by Anselm Franke and by Stephanie Hankey and Marek Tuszynski from the Tactical Technology Collective but because pretty much every single artwork and historical artifact in that deserves to be mentioned, i thought it would be better for everyone’s patience and sanity if i focused on one segment of the exhibition only.

The White Room, Opening of Nervous Systems. Photo: © Laura Fiorio/HKW

I picked up the one called The White Room, for the very arbitrary reason that it was curated by Tactical Technology Collective whose brilliant twitter feed i’ve been stalking for months. The other strength of The White Room is its combatant, encouraging and engaged attitude towards rampant quantification, loss of autonomy and demise of privacy. It gives visitors the means to understand their data and devices but it also provides them with the tools necessary to gain more control over their digital life.

The White Room opens up the black box of our daily technological environment, brings to light the links between Silicon Valley’s most successful start-ups and the military-industrial complex, and even uncover the Big Brother that hides behind the benevolent masks of some philanthropic initiatives.

Perhaps the best introduction to The White Room is actually this video that sums a research that Tactical Technology Collective has made into information brokering services:

Tactical Technology Collective, Confessions of a Data Broker

Inspired by David Ogilvy’s book Confessions of an Advertising Man, Confessions of a Data Broker presents results from interviews with and research into data brokers in Europe, North America and Asia, providing insights into how the industry works, who is buying/selling data and what it means for users.

What is worrying is that data brokering is not only unreliable and invasive of your privacy, it is also opaque. It is indeed often very difficult for individuals to find out what data a broker holds on them, how they used it and how long they store it.

James Bridle, Citizen Ex

Citizen Ex is a browser plugin that makes us better understand data gathering. Once installed on your computer, Citizen Ex shows where the websites you are visiting are located geographically. Over time, Citizen Ex builds a user’s algorithmic citizenship based on your browsing habits.

Whether or not you download Bridle’s software, you already have an algorithmic citizenship. Every time you click on a link, every time you visit a website, you leave traces behind. Companies collect this data in order to deliver content and ads better targeted to each individual. But that’s not all! Data gathering is also used for credit rating, insurance, ID verification, health care and fraud detection. And of course, government surveillance agencies like the NSA and GCHQ monitor your data to decide whether to spy on you.

Intelligence Community Watch puts data gathering into the hands of the citizens. ICWatch has mined LinkedIn for résumés posted by people who state that they have worked for the NSA or Intelligence community or for related contractors and programs. ICWatch then compiled these findings into a searchable database of the US intelligence community. Transparency Toolkit, who developed it, say the aim of the site is to “watch the watchers” and better understand surveillance programmes and any human rights abuses associated with them.

Aram Bartholl, Forgot you Password, 2013

In 2012, got hacked and passwords for nearly 6.5 million user accounts were stolen. A few months later parts of the decrypted password list appeared on the Internet. Aram Bartholl printed 8 books that list the 4.7 million passwords leaked in alphabetical order. The work reminds us that the safety of our data can never be guaranteed.

Some of the artistic projects selected in the show are using everyday objects and tech devices to demonstrate that the “I have nothing to hide” dismissal of surveillance is unwise now that we are part of a quantified society: Ai Weiwei and Jacob Appelbaum’s stuffed panda (see SAMIZDATA: Evidence of Conspiracy. Talking secrets and pandas with Jacob Appelbaum), Sascha Pohflepp’s Button camera, Danja Vasiliev and Julian Oliver’s sneaky Newstweek… And Un Fitbits:

Tega Brain and Surya Mattu, Unfit Bits

Tega Brain and Surya Mattu, Un Fitbits. GIf via bionymous

Un Fitbits enables you to obfuscate your data traces by generating fake data, while giving you the ability to control and understand your real data. All you have to do is clip the Fitbit bracelet to a metronome, dog, drill, bicycle or pendulum and they’ll get fit and active for you.

The artists were interested in FitBit after noticing that insurance companies were giving away Fitbit to their customers. Wearing the device and walking a certain number steps would earn customers discounts. How do companies benefit from your healthy lifestyle? Can your data be considered ‘yours’ if it can be used against you?

The White Room also presented a series of projects that are decidedly at the most dystopian end of the quantification spectrum:

Sesame Credit. Photo via The Independent

Sesame Credit is a credit-rating system that scores Chinese citizens based on both online and offline data: their spending behaviour, habits, minor traffic violations, fiscal and government information, interests and affiliations. A high score will result in a better chance to find a job, get a date, rent a car without paying a deposit and be deemed ‘trustworthy‘ by the government. The project was approved by the Chinese government as a pilot for a future nationwide database, an individual citizen ‘social credit-rating’ system, planned for nationwide rollout by 2020.

Some projects were labelled “Big Mama” by the curators. Dressed up as care, initiatives such as eye-scanning for refugee aid and facial recognition to monitor attendances in churches look more like Big Mama (“It’s for your own good”) than Big Brother.

Jordan: Iris Scanning Program In Action

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has introduced an iris-scanning technology to verify the identity of Syrian refugees in Jordan. The pilot program allow refugees to withdraw their benefits from ATM machines but also to buy groceries through looking into an iris scanner.

The project is implemented by tech company Iris Guard which sells the same iris-scanning technology for border control, prisons and national ID. Iris Guard has 3 advisory board members: the CEO of a global merchant bank, the former hear of MI6 and the former Homeland Security Advisor to the President of the US.

Electronic databases of personal information raise privacy but also security concerns. Databases are being hacked all the time, and that’s a huge threat to privacy and security. Hacked biometric data is particularly problematic, because unlike credit cards or even social security numbers, the data cannot be modified.

Churchix compares CCTV camera footage of people to a database of congregants of the church. Photo Face-Six via

Churchix is a facial recognition-based ‘event-attendance tracking’ software designed to help churches easily identify members of their congregation, and record their attendance at church and church-related events. Churchix identifies individuals in ‘probe’ photos or videos and then matches them with previously uploaded reference photos. Face-Six, the company behind it uses similar software for products used in casinos, airports, shopping malls and at border control posts. Churches in Indonesia, the US, Portugal, Africa and India have already adopted the system.

The Google Empire (information graphic / wood and acrylic.) Photo La Loma

A table exposed the presence of marketing departments, Washington D.C. expats, lobbyists and Wall Street analysts behind the sleek facade of some of Silicon Valley’s most successful startups. Think of how Google went from the friendly search engine to Alphabet, the owner and developer of self-driving cars, DNA databases, AI and robotics. What used to be a bunch of bespectacled geeks is now a group of powerful companies who have accumulated vast amounts of power, knowledge, and wealth.

The Fertility Chip (simulation / laser cut and engraving.) Photo La Loma

In 2012, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave a grant of 11,316,324 US dollars to MicroCHIPS Biotech to develop a contraceptive chip that can be embedded in a woman’s body for up to 16 years. The technology would enable a remove control of a woman’s hormones, activating her ability to either conceive, or prevent fertilization.

MicroCHIPS hopes to introduce the product in 2018. Note that the technology is intended for women and girls in poorer countries.

Inside Palantir offices. Credit Peter DaSilva for The New York Times

The Shire (model of a office room of the Palantir). Photo La Loma

Data-analysis company Palantir Technologies might keep a lower public profile than Airbnb and Uber but it is one of the Silicon Valleys most powerful start-ups. It has contracts with government groups, including the CIA, NSA, the FBI, the Marine Corps and the Air Force. We know that its software processes huge amounts of disparate data to elaborate predictions and conclusions, enabling fraud detection, data security, consumer behavior study, rapid health care delivery, etc. Rumour has it that it was them who provided the data-analysis skills that located Bin Laden. But little else is known publicly about Palantir.

The exhibition reproduced a model of Palantir’s head office, the Shire, based on photographs for a 2014 New York Times article. The world map is based on the strategy board game Risk: The Game of Global Domination.

Patches that can be purchased online, along with t-shirts, calendars and coffee mugs from the apparel store off Lockheed Martin, America’s largest contractor, making fighter planes, cluster bombs, combat ships and designing nuclear weapons. It is also the largest private intelligence contractor in the world, working in the past on surveillance programs for the Pentagon, CIA, NSA and making biometric identification systems for the FBI

The White Room, Opening of Nervous Systems. Photo: © Laura Fiorio/HKW

The White Room, Opening of Nervous Systems. Photo: © Laura Fiorio/HKW

On Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays, workshops, demos and discussions help visitors understand the devices and interfaces we use every day. White Room workers are also on hand to help visitors navigate an alternative “App Center” that offers tools to regain control over their data and their tech gadgets.

More views of the exhibition Nervous Systems:

Opening of Nervous Systems. Photo: © Laura Fiorio/HKW

Opening of Nervous Systems. Photo: © Laura Fiorio/HKW

Nervous Systems. Quantified Life and the Social Question was co-curated by Stephanie Hankey and Marek Tuszynski from the Tactical Technology Collective and Anselm Franke. The show is at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin until 9 May 2016.

Related stories: Obfuscation. A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest, Sheriff Software: the games that allow you to play traffic cop for real, The Influencers: Former MI5 spy Annie Machon on why we live in a dystopia that even Orwell couldn’t have envisioned, SAMIZDATA: Evidence of Conspiracy. Talking secrets and pandas with Jacob Appelbaum.

Categories: New Media News

A provocative way to finance the fight against climate change | Michael Metcalfe

TED - Thu, 04/28/2016 - 10:46
Will we do whatever it takes to fight climate change? Back in 2008, following the global financial crisis, governments across the world adopted a "whatever it takes" commitment to monetary recovery, issuing $250 billion worth of international currency to stem the collapse of the economy. In this delightfully wonky talk, financial expert Michael Metcalfe suggests we can use that very same unconventional monetary tool to fund a global commitment to a green future.
Categories: New Media News

Why I put myself in danger to tell the stories of Gaza | Ameera Harouda

TED - Wed, 04/27/2016 - 07:54
When Ameera Harouda hears the sounds of bombs or shells, she heads straight towards them. "I want to be there first because these stories should be told," says Gaza's first female "fixer," a role that allows her to guide journalists into chaotic, war zone scenarios in her home country, which she still loves despite its terrible situation. Find out what motivates Harouda to give a voice to Gaza's human suffering in this unforgettable talk.
Categories: New Media News

Insightful human portraits made from data | R. Luke DuBois

TED - Tue, 04/26/2016 - 11:06
Artist R. Luke DuBois makes unique portraits of presidents, cities, himself and even Britney Spears using data and personality. In this talk, he shares nine projects -- from maps of the country built using information taken from millions of dating profiles to a gun that fires a blank every time a shooting is reported in New Orleans. His point: the way we use technology reflects on us and our culture, and we reduce others to data points at our own peril.
Categories: New Media News

A smart loan for people with no credit history (yet) | Shivani Siroya

TED - Mon, 04/25/2016 - 11:00
Trust: How do you earn it? Banks use credit scores to determine if you're trustworthy, but there are about 2.5 billion people around the world who don't have one to begin with -- and who can't get a loan to start a business, buy a home or otherwise improve their lives. Hear how TED Fellow Shivani Siroya is unlocking untapped purchasing power in the developing world with InVenture, a start-up that uses mobile data to create a financial identity. "With something as simple as a credit score," says Siroya, "we're giving people the power to build their own futures."
Categories: New Media News

Book Review: Out of Now. The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh

We Make Money Not Art - Mon, 04/25/2016 - 10:55

Out of Now. The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh (updated edition), by Tehching Hsieh and Adrian Heathfield.

Available on amazon UK and USA.

Publisher MIT Press writes: In the vibrant downtown Manhattan art scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Taiwanese-American artist Tehching Hsieh made a series of extraordinary performance art works. Between September 1978 and July 1986, Hsieh realized five separate one-year-long performance pieces in which he conformed to simple but highly restrictive rules throughout each entire year.

Through the course of these lifeworks, Hsieh moved from a year of solitary confinement in a sealed cell to a year in which he punched a worker’s time clock in his studio every hour on the hour to a year spent living without shelter in Manhattan to a year in which he was tied by an eight-foot rope to the artist Linda Montano and finally to a year of total abstention from all art activities and influences. In 1986 Hsieh announced that he would spend the next thirteen years making art but not showing it publicly. When this “final” lifework—an immense act of self-affirmation and self-erasure—came to a close at the turn of the millennium, he tersely and enigmatically said that during this time he had simply kept himself alive.

After years of near-invisibility, Hsieh collaborated with the British writer and curator Adrian Heathfield to create this meticulous and visually arresting documentary record of the complete body of Tehching Hsieh’s performance projects from 1978 to 1999. This milestone volume is now available again, in a paperback edition featuring the full text and all the illustrations in the hardcover, with an updated list of Hsieh’s exhibitions.

One Year Performance, 1978-1979

There are artworks that keep on haunting me and make me wonder “would i ever have the guts/strength/courage to do the same?” Michael Landy destroying all his possessions is a good example of that. And then there’s Tehching Hsieh. He’s the legend who to wanted to make the process of thinking about art an artwork in its own right. He did so by setting himself some simple but almost inhumanely restrictive rules that he followed, religiously, for one year. He first sat in a cell with no communication for a year. He then punched a time clock every hour on the hour for a year. He lived on the street for a year. He tied himself to a fellow artist for a year. For his last performance, he avoided engaging in any art practice. Again, for a full year.

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance n. 2, Time Clock Piece, 1980-81

The works took place from 1978 to 1986 in New York, a period in which he had to navigate between the growing attention from the public for his work and the necessity to remain under the radar because he was an illegal immigrant from Taiwan. If his year long performances were not radical enough, Tehching Hsieh also announced in 1986 that he would spend the next 13 years making art without showing it publicly. In the art world, this kind of crazy gesture is akin to suicide. In 1999, when he finally emerged from his voluntary cultural exile, all he said was that in that period he had ‘kept himself alive.’

Out of Now is a new and slightly updated edition of a book that’s been out of stock for the past few years. The book collects the visual documentation of the artist’s performances. The photos, maps, artist statements, etc. As well as white pages for the 13 years of artistic silence.

The introduction to the documentation consists in a series of short essays by writer and curator Adrian Heathfield who places Hsieh’s practice into the cultural context of its time while demonstrating how different it is from the ideas and concepts of that same period.

My favourite part of Out of Now is the long interview Adrian Heathfield did with Tehching Hsieh. The conversation is both deep and charming, hopping from topics as diverse as Hsieh’s mother opinion about his work to the various ways in which each piece consumed his life.

The final part of the book compiles texts written by famous and anonymous people who express the impact that Hsieh’s work had on them. There’s Tim Etchells, Santiago Sierra or Marina Abramovic writing about their admiration for his work but there’s also an unsigned letter from someone who thinks that Hsieh’s work brings ‘shame and discredit to the Chinese people”.

Out of Now documents a series of artworks but somehow manages to keep their author shrouded in mystery. Hsieh is interviewed, his work is analyzed, put into images and commented. The more you read, the less you understand the man who has pushed his emotional, physical and psychological endurance to such extreme limits. That’s probably the best homage that a book could pay to a man who is so often described as being a ‘cult figure’ in the art world.

One Year Performance, 1978-1979

Statement for One Year Performance, 1978-1979

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance, 1978-1979. Copyright Tehching Hsieh

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance, 1978-79

For “Cage Piece”, Hsieh constructed a cell inside a loft in TriBeCa. The rules of his solitary confinement were listed in a curt manifesto: “I shall NOT converse, read, write, listen to the radio or watch television until I unseal myself on September 29, 1979.” Every day, a friend would bring him food and take out his waste.

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance n. 2, Time Clock Piece, 1980-81 (still from video)

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance, 1980-81

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance, 1980-81

For the “Time Piece,” the artist essentially denied himself sleep in order to punch a time clock every hour on the hour, twenty four hours a day, for one year. He apparently had to attach multiple alarm clocks to amplifiers to penetrate his foggy brain. Every time he punched the clock a movie camera would take a single movie picture shot of him.

One Year Performance, Outdoor Piece, 1981–1982

One Year Performance, Outdoor Piece, 1981–1982

One Year Performance, Outdoor Piece, 1981–1982

In his third performance piece, Hsieh spent one year living in the street, not entering buildings or shelter of any sort. He walked around New York City with a backpack and a sleeping bag and charted his wanderings on maps.

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance, 1983-1984

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance, 1983-1984

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance, 1983-1984

For his next performance, he tied himself to artist Linda Montano with an 8 foot long rope. While the rope obliged them to do everything together, but any intentional bodily contact was forbidden.

Categories: New Media News

Hunting for dinosaurs showed me our place in the universe | Kenneth Lacovara

TED - Fri, 04/22/2016 - 11:00
What happens when you discover a dinosaur? Paleontologist Kenneth Lacovara details his unearthing of Dreadnoughtus -- a 77-million-year-old sauropod that was as tall as a two-story house and as heavy as a jumbo jet -- and considers how amazingly improbable it is that a tiny mammal living in the cracks of the dinosaur world could evolve into a sentient being capable of understanding these magnificent creatures. Join him in a celebration of the Earth's geological history and contemplate our place in deep time.
Categories: New Media News

A taboo-free way to talk about periods | Aditi Gupta

TED - Thu, 04/21/2016 - 11:00
It's true: talking about menstruation makes many people uncomfortable. And that taboo has consequences: in India, three out of every 10 girls don't even know what menstruation is at the time of their first period, and restrictive customs related to periods inflict psychological damage on young girls. Growing up with this taboo herself, Aditi Gupta knew she wanted to help girls, parents and teachers talk about periods comfortably and without shame. She shares how she did it.
Categories: New Media News

We can reprogram life. How to do it wisely | Juan Enriquez

TED - Wed, 04/20/2016 - 11:04
For four billion years, what lived and died on Earth depended on two principles: natural selection and random mutation. Then humans came along and changed everything — hybridizing plants, breeding animals, altering the environment and even purposefully evolving ourselves. Juan Enriquez provides five guidelines for a future where this ability to program life rapidly accelerates. "This is the single most exciting adventure human beings have been on," Enriquez says. "This is the single greatest superpower humans have ever had."
Categories: New Media News

Hortum Machina, B, the garden that rolls across the city

We Make Money Not Art - Wed, 04/20/2016 - 08:24

Hortum Machina, B on Hampstead Road in London. Photo by William Victor Camilleri

Passersby reactions to Hortum Machina, B. Photo by William Victor Camilleri

Although they don’t have what we call ‘nervous systems’, plants are actually smart and sentient. They can be electro-chemically stimulated by (and thus react to) the surrounding light, temperature, humidity, pollution and vibration. That is why William Victor Camilleri and Danilo Sampaio, from the Interactive Architecture Lab at the Bartlett School of Architecture (UCL) believe that plants could potentially have a say in the behaviour of our buildings, infrastructure and public spaces.

Their prototype Hortum machina, B (Garden machine, Bucky) is a large geodesic sphere that moves around the city according to the plants’ whims and physiological needs.

The mobile ecosystem has a robotic core wrapped in twelve garden modules. Whenever the lowermost plants require more sunlight, they ‘vote’ to have the sphere gently roll over. If it becomes too hot for the majority of them, they will steer the structure towards the shade.

The structure uses harmlessly inserted electrodes to measure the plant’s physical responses to the variation in their immediate environment and networks the plants together.

Inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth, this cybernetic life-form is part of reEarth, a broader research project that explores new forms of bio-cooperative interaction between people and nature, within the built environment.

In the current context of driverless cars, and many other forms of intelligent robotics beginning to co-habit our built environment, Hortum machina, B is a speculative urban cyber-gardener, moving around the city repopulating native species by discovering suitable micro-climates. The mobilsation of the plants’ agency acts as a provocation, drawing attention to their very “livingness” and our shared goal on Spaceship Earth – to find and build better places to live and thrive. It critiques the all too often Cartesian notion of intelligence in robotics, equally existing in “smart cities” and “smart buildings”. Thus, the structure’s animacy is not simulation by robotics, but rather amplification through robotics.

Interactive Architecture Lab, Hortum machina, B

Interactive Architecture Lab, The making of Hortum Machina B

Obviously, i had a lot of questions about Hortum machina, B so i contacted the architects and asked to tell me more about their research:

Hi William and Danilo! What were the biggest challenges you encountered while developing this work?

WILLIAM VICTOR: It began by entering the strange and complicated world of plant electrophysiology. The literature is predominantly scientific with only a few artists actually merging it to design or architecture. We’re very grateful to World Wilder Lab and Ivan Henriques for their support with their planEt open source hardware. Although the science goes back to Darwin, it is still quite experimental and disputed.

Thus, reading accurate real-time measurements was already a challenge. For the purpose of the project, the measurements had to be deciphered for distinct plant physiologies and moreover differentiated for diverse environmental conditions.

DANILO: The three metre tall robotic structure was full of challenges. Once the garden modules were loaded with soil and plants it was quite heavy and we had to modify the mechanism to shift its centre of gravity enough to roll around.

Hortum Machina B in St James Gardens, London. Photo by William Victor Camilleri

What guided the choice of plants? Is it only the fact that some of them are native British species or are some plants more reactive than others? Or could any plant do?

WILLIAM VICTOR: All plant species are reactive and measurable, although some are harder to measure than others. But the reason for our choice of plants was essentially to stay true to the local context. Hortum machina, B was built with the UK in mind, and hence it is equipped with native British plants. In Greater London in particular, it owes to architecture, that gardens and some parks are confined to specific boundaries and these are mostly inhabited and dominated by non-native plants. As they often tend to be invasive, non-native communities spread while many of the native plants become increasingly threatened. Hortum machina, B thus became an extension to a British park, a vessel with native plants in the urban London.

Hortum Machina, B. Drawing of the geodesic sphere section

Hortum Machina, B. Drawing of the actuator and half-core section

Hortum Machina, B. A narrative

I’ve also been wondering about the speed of Hortum machina, B movements. What influences it? Is it moving maniacally when there’s a lot of sun and falls asleep when night is coming? Are there other factors than light that guides the speed and direction of its movements?

WILLIAM VICTOR: Light is the key stimulus of the prototype’s feedback loop because it is quite easy to measure a plant response to it. The system observes a significant change in the electrophysiological state of the plants, analyses the external daylight conditions through multiple sensors and the sphere reacts accordingly. The circumstances range significantly. Prompted by the plants, if the sensors note a considerable amount of light, the sphere rotates to accommodate other gardens, if it’s an overcast sky, it will look for new spots of sun, and if they note an all-round darkness, then it stops its movements for the day. We can actually measure a lot of different types of stimulus. A change in lighting causes a linear transition in measurement, as opposed to wounding, where you see a sudden rise and drop. The two modes notify two separate outputs, either rolling, or the sudden extension and retraction of the gardens to notify distress.

DANILO: In terms of movement – you’d never call the movement maniacal. Its always quite slow. To make one step, the sphere takes around 30 seconds to shift its center of gravity enough to roll. Once the step is complete, the sphere needs to determine its base position, close up and then if it wishes to move again start pushing out the garden modules to change its balance again.

Photo by William Victor Camilleri

Hortum Machina, B on Hampstead Road in London. Photo by William Victor Camilleri

Have you tried using it in public space as the photos suggest? What were the reactions of passersby? And perhaps more interestingly, did the behaviour of reEarth surprise you in any way? Were there unexpected moments, behaviours and moves?

WILLIAM VICTOR: The presence of a gigantic 3-metre sphere full of plants on the streets of London left people in awe, us included. Although seemingly an imposing mechanical structure, passersby still wanted to touch the plants and climb onto the geodesic sphere. Others opted to go for the instinctive selfie, but undoubtedly, the most common question was: What is it? The valuable question and complex answer led us to give the prototype its pseudo-botanical name: Hortum machina, B (Garden machine, Bucky). As regards to its behaviour, we were quite bemused to see our prototype taking its first steps but probably, most unexpected moments came from undecided plants that would roll the sphere back and forth a couple of times.

Hortum Machina, B in London. Photo by William Victor Camilleri

Hortum Machina, B in London. Photo by William Victor Camilleri

Do you consider reEarth as being essentially an experimental ‘arty’ project? Or do you see some concrete scientific or other applications to reEarth?

WILLIAM VICTOR: Our hero Buckminster Fuller was able to be an artist, designer, engineer, philosopher and scientist all at the same time so rather than claiming it as one thing or the other we’ll leave that in the eye of the beholder. We’ve tried to be quite thorough with the testing and then a little more playful with the application. We didn’t want this to be a purely speculative-communication project. We actually were interested in how these technologies could change the behaviour of the built environment – which is really a central question of the Interactive Architecture Lab. Rather than simulation of nature by robotics, the prototype’s animacy suggests amplification of nature through robotics.

What’s next for reEarth? And for you?

WILLIAM VICTOR: Hortum machina, B is only the first prototype of the research. The reEarth project has much more to offer on an architectural scale. As a project, new ideas are already in place for a possible next iteration. It’s intriguing to imagine distinct versions of the species actualised in several countries around the world, building a library of evolving data and behaviour in their diverse habitats.

DANILO: I’d like to investigate the applicability of its technologies on building envelopes for example. The Interactive Architecture Lab is looking a lot at how buildings could respond and change in real time according to inhabitants needs, leveraging global comfort efficiency, preserving natural resources and enhancing individual’s’ behaviour and well-being.

Thanks Victor and Danilo!

Categories: New Media News

Wisdom from great writers on every year of life | Joshua Prager

TED - Tue, 04/19/2016 - 09:08
As different as we humans are from one another, we all age along the same great sequence, and the shared patterns of our lives pass into the pages of the books we love. In this moving talk, journalist Joshua Prager explores the stages of life through quotations from Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, William Trevor and other great writers, set to visualizations by graphic designer Milton Glaser. "Books tell us who we've been, who we are, who we will be, too," Prager says.
Categories: New Media News

Relics of the Cold War

We Make Money Not Art - Tue, 04/19/2016 - 05:42

Bunker in the Baltic Sea, near the former Soviet naval base of Liepāja, Latvia, 2002. © Martin Roemers

West Germany, Lorch, Former depot of the Bundeswehr in a fallout shelter, Lorch 2008. © Martin Roemers

Gynecologist’s chair in a deserted Soviet Army hospital, Juterbog, East Germany, 2007. © Martin Roemers

Military barracks, atomic-bomb shelters, air force bases, storage spaces for nuclear weapons, army graveyards, abandoned training grounds, underground tunnels, decaying control centers, rusty tanks, fallen statues and other dilapidated monuments. Dutch photographer Martin Roemers spent 10 years traveling on both sides of the former Iron Curtain to document the architectural and structural remains of the Cold War. The quest for relics of a war that lasted 40 years but never turned into an armed conflict brought him to Russia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Latvia and Lithuania but also to Great Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium, and of course to both parts of the once-divided Germany.

Some of the images the photographer took all over the continent are currently on view at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin.

Roemers grew up during the Cold War, a time when the Soviets and the Americans had missiles that could reach and obliterate their target anywhere in the world within 30 seconds. He wanted to document the remnants of the crisis that served as a background to his youth. With the photos, Roemers also wanted to create a kind of memorial to the war. After a real war, a commemoration culture develops, he told DW. The veterans and victims have their ceremonies and monuments are built. But the Cold War never became a real war, at least not in Europe, so there are not many physical reminders, let alone a commemoration culture.

Radioroom of the Dutch civil defense organization in a nuclear shelter, Grouw, The Netherlands. 2001. © Martin Roemers

Former listening post of the USA army from the Cold War. West Berlin, Germany, 2008. © Martin Roemers

The exhibition underlines that the Cold War was both a confrontation between two systems and a system in itself: one that has left remains of army bases, bunkers and other infrastructures that look fairly similar on both sides of the Iron Curtain. They built the same defense structures out of the same fears, he added.

As Bernd Greiner, Director of the Berlin Center for Cold War Studies, there is an important element we tend forget when we talk of the Cold War in Europe or the USA: the same period saw ‘hot wars’ raging other parts of the world (in Korea, Vietnam, etc.) and the US and the Soviets as well as their respective allies intervened in these conflicts and left traces that still linger: environmental pollution, economic damages, health problems suffered by local populations, landmines, etc.

Germany East, Altes Lager Mural of a Soviet Soyuz (left) and an American Apollo spacecraft in the former pilot school of a Soviet air force base. The Russian-American Apollo-Soyuz Test was the first joint flight of the U.S. and Soviet space programs in 1975. The project was seen as a symbol of the policy of detente between the two superpowers. © Martin Roemers

West Germany, Marienthal. Former nuclear bunker for the west German government. The German bundeskanzler and his ministers would be transferred to this bunker in case of a nuclear war. © Martin Roemers

Underground bunker of the NVA (the East German Peoples Army), Wollenberg, East Germany, 2005. © Martin Roemers

Bunkers offered a sense of security in the face of total annihilation. Underground shelters were built all over Europe for the political elite, the military and part of the civilian population but the reality was that they were not suitable for people to live there for long periods of time.

Old Russian army truck in Yeremino, Russia. © Martin Roemers

Former submarine base ‘Object 825 GPOe’ of the Soviet Navy in the Balaklava Bay at the Black Sea. It was a service and repairing station for submarines and an ammunition storage. Sevastopol, Crimea, Ukraine. 2005. © Martin Roemers

East Germany, Altes Lager. Mural depicting the siege over Nazi Germany, in a Soviet school for aircraft technicians, Altes Lager, East Germany, 1997 © Martin Roemers

East Germany, Lieberose, Ammunition parts left behind on a former Soviet army training area, Lieberose, 1998. © Martin Roemers

Poland, Borne Sulinowo, Grave in a cemetery for Russian soldiers, Borne Sulinowo 2005. © Martin Roemers

East Germany, Altengrabow, Tank which was used as a target on former Soviet army training area. The terrain is still used by the German army, 2004. © Martin Roemers

When you look at these photos now, they serve as a reminder of how things used to be in the Cold War, Roemers told DW. But you can also imagine how things could be again in the political climate of today. That’s the important thing about showing them now.

Two video interviews are shown in the exhibition space. In the first one, Martin Roemers talks about the motivations and adventures behind the photo series. In the other one, Bernd Greiner, Director of the Berlin Center for Cold War Studies, provides historical information about the Cold War era.

Interview with Martin Roemers about the exhibition Relics of the Cold War

Interview with historian Prof. Dr. Bernd Greiner about the Cold War

View of the exhibition at the Deutsches Historisches Museum. Copyright © Martin Roemers

Relics of the Cold War is at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin until 14 August 2016.

Categories: New Media News

TED's secret to great public speaking | Chris Anderson

TED - Tue, 04/19/2016 - 01:00
There's no single formula for a great talk, but there is a secret ingredient that all the best ones have in common. TED Curator Chris Anderson shares this secret -- along with four ways to make it work for you. Do you have what it takes to share an idea worth spreading?
Categories: New Media News

The inside story of the Paris climate agreement | Christiana Figueres

TED - Mon, 04/18/2016 - 10:55
What would you do if your job was to save the planet? When Christiana Figueres was tapped by the UN to lead the Paris climate conference (COP 21) in December 2015, she reacted the way many people would: she thought it would be impossible to bring the leaders of 195 countries into agreement on how to slow climate change. Find out how she turned her skepticism into optimism -- and helped the world achieve the most important climate agreement in history.
Categories: New Media News

Pictoplasma focus: Julian Glander

We Make Money Not Art - Mon, 04/18/2016 - 08:26

Like all Pictoplasma guests, Julian Glander creates little fellows. His have been dipped in cotton candy and other similarly sugary substances. They live a merry life, star in comic strips, music videos, short films, adverts and illustrations but they particularly shine when they get to frolic in GIFs!

Julian Glander, GIF portrait

Glander also made a video game. It’s called Lovely Weather We’re Having and is probably the typical gamer’s worst nightmare: it has no goal and involves a lot of weather data.

Julian Glander will participate to the Pictoplasma conference in May. There’s little chance i can make it this year. As a consolation prize, i get to interview some of the conference speakers. It’s not quite as fun as being in Berlin for the festival but it still allows me to get to know some really talented artists:

Animated looping valentine buddies for Nickelodeon on-air department. AD: Stef Shank

Hi Julian! You work a lot with GIFs. I’m like 99% of this planet, i love GIFs but i can’t explain why. Since you work with them closer maybe you’ve developed your how rational explanation about the appeal of GIFs. What do you think make GIFs so irresistible? Why do you like working with them so much?

They’re so tiny and compact — like one little morsel of animation. Just one bite. I think they’ve taken off recently because they’re so easy to digest — you can basically read a GIF instantly, and if you like it you can let yourself be hypnotized by it for as long as you want. I like working on GIFs because it’s a manageable format to convey a single composition and concept. Some animators think of GIFs as short movies but for me, they’re more like illustrations that have just ever so slightly been brought to life.

Lovely Weather We’re Having

Lovely Weather We’re Having

Lovely Weather We’re Having, the video game you developed together with Eugene Burden is ‘goal-free’ and about the local weather.
Why did you want to make a goal free game?

As a working adult, I’m pounded down relentlessly by goals, challenges, and time limits, so when I’m thinking about what media I want to consume, that’s not really something I’m looking for. For me, the best video game experiences are when I go a bit “off the track” of the game — driving around aimlessly with the radio on in Grand Theft Auto, walking through the tall grass in Zelda and hearing it swish-swish against you, that kinda thing. I still think Lovely Weather We’re Having is a “challenging” game, but not in the traditional way– more that it challenges you to stop and reflect for a bit.

Also, weather is either this extremely boring topic people resort to when they’ve ran out of things to say or the source of heated debate about climate change. So why has the weather such an important role in your game?

That’s one opinion! For what it’s worth, I think weather is incredible, and borderline magical. What makes it an interesting premise for a game, IMO, is the commonality and bigness of it. Weather conditions run all of our lives and we’re totally at the mercy of the environment.

NASA, GIFs based on responses from Tumblr’s Answer Time with Astronaut Scott Kelly. Production Strategist: Margaux Olverd

You live in Pittsburg, right? I’ve only been there once for a week and i loved it. It’s one of the two only cities in the USA where i could move. Could you tell us about the visual art scene in the city? Which local artists or designers would you recommend us to have a look at? And does the city inspire your work in any way?

Ahh, Pittsburgh! Actually I moved away last week after living there for two years. I’m back in New York, for some reason. But the ‘Burgh is a great city for artists because the rent is cheap, and there is a really neat (if comparatively small) local art squad. Some of my favorite inspiring Pittsburgh creative folks are Xtina Lee, Dan Allende, Paolo Pedercini, and Mr Rogers (RIP!)

Any advice you could give to young illustrators / students who would like to have a fulfilling career as an illustrator/’art person’?

Embrace new technology. Embrace the brand new things that your professors and mentors say are “just trends”. It’s the best way to find a niche for yourself.

Please Look At Me, a weekly comic strip on Editor’d by Nick Gazin

Promotional GIF for Jamie XX’s hit song GOOD TIMES ft Yung Thug + Popcaan. Via XL records

Night Time, A comic spread for issue 14 of Faesthetic magazine

What are you going to present at Pictoplasma?

SECRETS! That’s the key word on my brain as I put together my talk. I’m going to be showing off some process secrets and behind-the-scenes methods that I don’t usually share, as well as some “business” secrets and pitch work that hasn’t seen the light of day. So basically, by the end of the talk you’ll have everything you need to become Julian Glander and steal my life. It’s gonna be must-see stuff!

Thanks Julian!

Catch up with Julian Glander at the 12th Pictoplasma Conference & Festival on 4 – 8 MAY 2016 in Berlin.

Categories: New Media News

The nit-picking glory of The New Yorker's Comma Queen | Mary Norris

TED - Fri, 04/15/2016 - 11:04
"Copy editing for The New Yorker is like playing shortstop for a Major League Baseball team -- every little movement gets picked over by the critics," says Mary Norris, who has played the position for more than thirty years. In that time, she's gotten a reputation for sternness and for being a "comma maniac," but this is unfounded, she says. Above all, her work is aimed at one thing: making authors look good. Explore The New Yorker's distinctive style with the person who knows it best in this charming talk.
Categories: New Media News

The unexpected benefit of celebrating failure | Astro Teller

TED - Thu, 04/14/2016 - 10:59
"Great dreams aren't just visions," says Astro Teller, "They're visions coupled to strategies for making them real." The head of X (formerly Google X), Teller takes us inside the "moonshot factory," as it's called, where his team seeks to solve the world's biggest problems through experimental projects like balloon-powered Internet and wind turbines that sail through the air. Find out X's secret to creating an organization where people feel comfortable working on big, risky projects and exploring audacious ideas.
Categories: New Media News

e-waste, porn, ecology & warfare. An interview with Dani Ploeger

We Make Money Not Art - Wed, 04/13/2016 - 11:57

Firing a Kalashnikov assault rifle. Photo by Maja Dubowska

Dani Ploeger studied music in various conservatories across Europe, performed as a trombonist with symphony orchestras in Stuttgart and Berlin, taught music and performance in Ramallah, Palestine, completed a PhD on sound, performance and media theory at the University of Sussex, lectured in various universities in the UK and is currently a Research Fellow at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. But the reason why i’m interviewing Ploeger is that in his current life, he is a visual artist, a cultural theorist, and the leader of Bodies of Planned Obsolescence: Digital performance and the global politics of electronic waste, an art & science research project that explores the material aspects of electronic devices from their ecological, social, technological and ethical perspective.

I discovered his work last year at the Renewable Futures conference in Riga. He talked about his research on electronic waste, showed us a video of a performance for mobile phone that starred an erection and participated to the Transformative Ecologies exhibition with the video documentation of a performance that involved having electronic waste sewn onto his abdomen. Ploeger has since been learning how to use fire arms in order to be able to shoot at an iPad with an AK47, and travelled to dump sites in Nigeria to collect electronic waste originating from Europe.

At first sight, it might seem difficult to reconciliate topics as diverse as the ones enumerated above. But Ploeger is an artist who looks at the broad picture, who realizes that e-waste, sexuality, ecology or violence are all valid points of entries into the study of the many paradoxes, complexities and entanglements of our consumer culture and its impacts on the planet.

Dani Ploeger, Recycled Coil, 2014

Hi Dani! I found the video of your work Recycled Coil really difficult to watch. For the performances, you asked a body piercer to sew an old cathode ray television coil into your abdomen. I thought it was a violent way to treat your body, especially because you were not doing it for aesthetic purposes and also because you used something we regard as trash. 
Did you want to get a visceral reaction from people? And what were you trying to achieve with the performance?

With Recycled Coil I wanted to create a counterpoint to the commonplace image of the hi-tech, powerful cyborg, which still dominates popular culture (think of Robocop, the Terminator, and – more recently – Ava in Ex Machina). Instead of extending my body with state-of-the-art new technologies in order to make it more durable or enhance its functionality, I implanted old, discarded parts to perform one of the most simple things one can do with electricity: generate a magnetic field by sending a current through a coil. The magnetic field was so weak that whilst it could be detected with a sensitive magnetometer it was not suitable for any ‘useful’ purpose.

I see the cultural hegemony of the hi-tech cyborg, with its slick and clean surfaces, as part of what I call the ‘symbolic order of technological progress’. Through advertising, news media and popular culture, everyday digital technologies are propagated in relation to ideas of progress, and immaterial forms of communication. The materiality and eventual becoming-waste of the devices, as well as the fleshiness of the bodies it interacts with, tends to be backgrounded in these visions.

I like to see Recycled Coil as a technological extension of my body that draws attention to its vulnerability, and to the materiality of technological devices as objects that remain in the world long after they have lost their aura of newness. In this context, evoking a sense of the abject and focusing on the bloodiness of the operation was deliberate.

Dani Ploeger, Recycled Coil, 2014

Dani Ploeger, Recycled Coil. Installation view at the Transformative Ecologies exhibition in Riga. Image courtesy of RIXC

I’ve also been wondering about the place that porn takes in your work. Some of your works, such as Ascending Performance, can be enjoyed both as artworks in their own rights and as sex entertainment. Is this a strategy to engage with non-traditional art audiences?  Maybe i’m a bit naive but don’t you think it’s a bit risky? Because art audiences might take you less seriously? 

I’m not very worried about being taken serious by ‘art audiences’, but if I was, I think my worries would be focused elsewhere. Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and many others have also made work that can be enjoyed as sex entertainment (e.g. Warhol’s Blow Job and Koons’ Made in Heaven) and I don’t think they have been taken less seriously as artists for that reason. However, I have never seen smartphone apps, body piercing, and electronic waste featured in Artforum International or other ‘serious’ art magazines…

Recycled Coil was conceived as a response to popular ideas about technologized bodies. Similarly, ASCENDING PERFORMANCE tries to uproot some widespread attitudes to bodies and nakedness in digital culture. Whatever the intentions and original representational framework of bodies you put online, you can be sure that they will be sexualised. This becomes clear when you read the comment feeds of Youtube clips, or look at the profiles and interests of people who ‘like’ art videos featuring naked bodies on Vimeo. With ASCENDING PERFORMANCE I wanted to make an artwork that acknowledges this by deliberately sexualizing the representation of my body, and distributing it through a porn platform, whilst at the same time complicating its straightforward appropriation as sexual entertainment.

Dani Ploeger, Ascending Performance (Trailer)

I simultaneously advertised the work in Artforum International (in November 2013) and on to promote it as both art and porn (the decision to advertise in Artforum rather than another art magazine was conceived as an homage to Lynda Benglis’ famous 1974 advertisement with double-sided dildo in the same publication). The app itself also refers to both artistic and pornographic frameworks: Just like in ‘porn-proper’ you get to see a hard dick. However, in contrast to the HD and POV (point-of-view) immediacy of most mainstream porn, the mediation of my body is emphasized in this app; the video is a grainy, digitized Super 8 film. Similarly, the toned texture of my body is heightened with bodybuilder tan and glaze to suggest a typical porn star body, but this is then ‘artified’ through the film’s rather distantiated perspective, the sepia-like colours, and the absence of a money shot (i.e. there is process but no conclusion).

Advertisement for ASCENDING PERFORMANCE in Artforum International. Photo: Courtesy of DEFIBRILLATOR GALLERY, Chicago, IL

Advertisement for ASCENDING PERFORMANCE on Photo: Courtesy of DEFIBRILLATOR GALLERY, Chicago, IL

Bodies of Planned Obsolescence: Digital performance and the global politics of electronic waste is a network of artists, scientists and theorists looking for ways to engage with the material aspects of electronic devices.  And how did the work of artists support the one of scientists? And vice-versa?

The central idea of Bodies of Planned Obsolescence was to re-materialize the participants’ experience of electronic devices, which tend to be promoted in relation to notions of immateriality (e.g. ‘the cloud’) and everlasting newness in Western consumer society. We tried to achieve this by means of hands-on workshops where the participants actively took part in electronic waste recycling work in countries that import substantial amounts of used technology from Europe (Nigeria) and North-America (China via Hong Kong). After these workshops we exchanged experiences and ideas and took this as a starting point for new work in our respective disciplines (digital art, cultural studies, science).

The collaboration with experts on the subject matter from the realm of science and cultural studies enabled the artists participating in the project to develop their work in an environment with a diverse range of in-depth, detailed knowledge.

On the other hand, the artistic perspective of the projects’ methodology meant that we could conduct the workshops with a blue-sky approach, without clearly defining hypotheses prior to the activities. Also, we could engage in activities that involved the deliberate exposure of the participants’ bodies to a certain degree of risk (especially the informal recycling methods practiced in Lagos involved some health hazards). For the scientists in the group, but also for some of the cultural theorists, this would have been a highly unlikely approach if they had worked within their own disciplines. Whereas blue-sky experimentation and negotiating exposure to physical risk is a common aspect in many performance art practices (an extreme example is Chris Burden’s Shoot (1971) where he asked a friend to shoot him in the arm), the avoidance of any risk is a priority in most institutional science research.

Could you tell us about the workshops in Lagos and China? What have you and the other participants discovered there? What can points of views and approaches in these countries teach Europeans?

In Lagos, we visited a dump-site connected to Alaba Market in the western outskirts of the city. We asked a group of workers if they would give us an induction into the work they do. Subsequently, we worked alongside them in the dismantling of computers and other electronic devices for two days. We extracted copper and aluminium from motherboards and adapters, removed scrap iron from televisions and I tried to take apart refrigerator pumps (which turned out to be much harder than it looked).

Project participants Jelili Atiku and Dani Ploeger at a dump at Alaba Market in Lagos, Nigeria. Photo by Peter Dammann / Agentur Focus

In Hong Kong, we worked at one of the main e-waste recycling factories in the outskirts of the new territories, close to the Chinese mainland border. In this formalized industrial environment we attended an induction in health and safety protocols and subsequently worked in the factory where we used pneumatic tools to dismantle laptops, monitors and desktop computers, and sorted all parts to prepare them for dispatch to mainland China for further processing. There are more detailed accounts of the workshops in Lagos and Hong Hong on the project blog.

Project participant Shu Lea Cheang at Vannex International Ltd. recycling plant, Hong Kong. Photo by Peter Dammann / Agentur Focus

During the workshops I became interested in the ways in which ‘dead’ electronics act on the body. Rather than the common perception of waste as passive matter that is moved and manipulated by human actions, the waste environment itself also acts on the bodies that navigate it. In contrast to some of the work I had made before this project, which had focused on identifying, collecting and assembling various kinds of e-waste (e.g. the installation Back to Sender (2013-14) in collaboration with Jelili Atiku), in the aftermath of the Lagos visit I made a piece that documents a wound that started to occur on my arm after working on the dump-site for two days (Hi-Tech Wound (2015)).

Hi-Tech Wound, 2015, duratrans print

One of the participating scientists, Kehinde Olubanjo, experienced the omnipresence of dust at the recycling sites and considered its apparent contents of waste particles. He is now planning a research project where samples of dust, rather than the e-waste artefacts themselves, are analysed to assess environmental hazards.

A more general dimension that we became aware of were the thriving electronics repair activities that surrounded the recycling work in Lagos. Repair workers from the adjacent market areas would frequently visit the dump to buy parts harvested from the e-waste. This active repair culture, which is generally characterized by a high degree of inventiveness and improvisation, is found in various African countries and could be a positive example for the technology-throw-away attitude that is prevalent in the West.

This thought formed the starting point for an event I am organizing at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on 15 April. The event will include a presentation of digital artwork that deals with electronics, waste and longevity, and I will travel to Nairobi, Kenya, where I will set up a live video connection with the museum to interact with a repair community there. This will be the setting for a repair workshop where visitors are invited to bring their own broken devices and receive guidance in basic repair skills.

Do you think that the planned obsolescence issues is entirely in the hands of the manufacturers? Or can citizens and cultural institutions engage effectively with the issue? 

I consider rapid product obsolescence inherent in the logic of capitalist consumer culture. Consequently, an effective solution to the issue would involve change on a much bigger scale. Initiatives that engage directly with waste prevention and recycling are useful to temper short-term effects, but as long as we maintain a culture based on economic growth through ever increasing consumption rates, initiatives to increase recycling and extend product lifetime cannot be considered more than a patching strategy. The V&A event I just told you about is based on a direct engagement approach, but through the artistic element, as well as the choice of topics that will be discussed via the video-stream, it will also take this as an opportunity to tease out broader, meta-perspectives on the issue.

I believe that what we should engage with – regardless of whether we’re artists or not – is exposing the contradictions of the ideology of consumer capitalism, and facilitate its collapse once the time is right. I am aware that in these days of ideological fatalism, this may sound like a fantasy project. And admittedly, I enjoy consumer culture too much myself to live up to such revolutionary zeal. However, I think that this is why my work always has a somewhat silly dimension as well.

While ambiguously indulging in consumerist practices and simultaneously undermining its glamorous promises, I hope it shows that consumer culture is in the end just a stupid circus event that destroys people and the world. Hopefully a future generation will have the strength and decisiveness to do away with it. And with me.

Do you find signs that consumers, manufacturers and governments in Europe (or the US, Australia, etc.) are taking steps into engaging more responsibly with planned obsolescence and with e-waste in general? Or is it still an issue that is swiftly swept under the carpet?

There seems to be a somewhat increased awareness due to the media coverage around the subject in the past couple of years, and there are some really good initiatives to encourage people to repair their broken devices. The Restart Project in London, who participate in the V&A event mentioned earlier, are a great example of this. Likewise, there are some positive manufacturing developments in terms of modular devices, such as the Fairphone, which are easier to repair and allow for specific parts to be exchanged.

However positive, these are relatively small scale initiatives though, which I think are unlikely to challenge the prevalence in mass culture of fast obsoleting disposable technologies. Again, in my opinion a solution to the electronic (and other) waste issue is unlikely to be achieved in isolation from a much more fundamental change in the organization of society.

Dani Ploeger, ASSAULT (iPad/AK47) official trailer, 2016

Any upcoming work, event, field of research you’d like to share with us? 

The work we just talked about deals with techno-consumerism in relation to waste and sex. At the moment I am also looking at experiences of violent conflict in media culture, which I see in connection to these other two dimensions. Over the past two months I have been working on a new work with iPads. I fired a Kalashnikov at a functioning iPad somewhere in Poland and made a high frame-rate video recording of the bullet hitting the screen. This video material will form the basis for a new app, which will be released in May. The app will repeatedly play the video and sound recording of the destruction of the screen, after which the recording is played backwards in slow-motion. Thus, the iPad will show an endless process of its own destruction and apparent regeneration. Ironically, I am now generating e-waste, the process and artefacts of which are subsequently rehabilitated as an artwork…

Shot iPad. Photo by Maja Dubowska

Over the past decades, warfare in Western nations has increasingly become understood as a clean and hidden affair. On one hand, Western ‘Shock and Awe‘ operations appear to be precisely controlled by computer game-like technologies, such as drones and guided precision missiles. On the other, terrorist attacks on Western societies have mainly evolved around hiding Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in inconspicuous places and are thus hardly considered as proper warfare strategies. As a result, in the West, an apparent division has been established between ‘our’ world of organized consumer space – albeit under threat of occasional improvised violent disturbance – and ‘their’ world of persistent ‘dirty’ ground warfare, which takes place in underdeveloped territories far away from Europe and North-America.

In recent terror attacks in Belgium and France, a shift has taken place though. The iconic image of the battlefield soldier has re-emerged in perceptions of the everyday in Europe: terrorists and security forces in military attire and armed with automatic weapons appear to increasingly populate experiences and imaginations of public space. Instead of improvised bombs, the Kalashnikov rifle is now becoming the iconic weapon of terrorism. In Assault, I’m trying to bring these conflicting ideas of ‘clean’ consumerism and ‘dirty’ battlefield warfare to a material collision.

Thanks Dani!

The public workshop Digital Futures: Dreaming Zero-Waste: The art of fixing electronics in Europe and Africa will take place at the Learning Centre Seminar Room 3, Victoria and Albert Museum in London this Friday 15 April 2015.

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