Category Archives: other reports

STRP, a festival that’s not afraid of the future

It’s easy to be a future-phobic these days. It’s easy to be anxious, dubious, critical about what tomorrow will bring. Unfortunately, it’s less easy to ignore the future and pretend we don’t care. The future is, as we know, already here with its cohort of mass extinction, private armies, state surveillance and climate disasters. But is that all there is to the future?

Entrance of the STRP festival. Design by HeyHeyDeHaas. Photo by Boudewijn Bollmann for STRP

Quayola, Promenade. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer for STRP

This year’s edition of the STRP festival in Eindhoven decided to look at the future with an open, critical and -dare i say- hopeful eye. Their take on the future is not about being naive and resolutely utopian. It’s more subtle than that. It’s about realizing that being stifled by fear is what leaves us in the hands of powerful corporations, far right politicians and other merchants of solutions too rosy and simple to be credible.

As STRP writes in their statement:

We refuse to flee in a crippling nostalgia. We have had enough of the dark and tough flirt with dystopia and ask ourselves out loud: how in heaven’s name can we come through this conservative and fear-driven period together?

This year, the STRP festival looked for inspiration in artistic experiments that evoke the possibility of a more nuanced future. The participating artists never promised to have all the answers but at least they broaden the questions and perspectives.

I’ll come back later with a report on the STRP conference. In the meantime, here’s my quick tour of some of the artworks i particularly enjoyed in the exhibition this year:

Mike Mills, A Mind Forever Voyaging Through Strange Seas of Thought Alone (excerpt), 2014

Mike Mills interviewed about a dozen children of people who work at Silicon Valley. Some of these parents are engineers, others work at a Google cafeteria.

Aged eight to twelve, these children are the ones who will actually be inhabiting the future that the Silicon Valley is selling to us.

First, the filmmaker asks them to speak briefly about themselves. That’s as charming as you might expect. Soon, however, Mills casts the children as futurologists. It turns out that when they are asked about what tomorrow will bring, kids can be quite ambivalent. Some look at the future with bright, enthusiastic eyes. Others are disillusioned. Most present a mix of enthusiasm and pessimism. On the one hand, they embrace technology. They play Minecraft and think that because we have access to so much knowledge, we must be smarter than our ancestors. But their vision of tomorrow can be bleak too: we won’t have trees anymore, we’ll get holographic plants instead; people won’t meet each other physically because the machines will mediate all human interactions, there probably won’t be any animal around either.

The whole film is online.

Hannes Wiedemann, Grinders (A North Star 1.0 implant is being inserted into a person’s arm)

Hannes Wiedemann, Grinders (Amanda is receiving a ‘tragus magnet implant’, Tehachapi, CA)

Hannes Wiedemann, Grinders. Exhibition view at STRP. Photo: Hanneke Wetzer

Hannes Wiedemann, Grinders (Implantation of a ‘tragus magnet implant’ is being performed while others are watching and recording the procedure with their mobile phones. Tehachapi, CA)

Body hackers are decidedly less hesitant about the positive impacts of technology on their life. They call themselves Grinders, implant magnets in their finger to aquire a sixth sense, embed speakers into their ears and attempt to get closer to machines in order to simplify their lives.

Hannes Wiedemann met members of this community and documented some of their operations. Since no licensed surgeon would accept to perform these procedures for them, the hackers have to learn how to do it themselves (or to each others). It’s risky and far more gory than the idealised vision of the transhumanist future that Ray Kurzweil and his friends are presenting us with.

What makes their faith in technology so interesting is the way it challenges the future and ethics of body enhancement.

Quayola, Promenade (excerpt)

Quayola, Promenade. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

Quayola uses machines to enhance human perception but his approach is far less intrusive than the one adopted by the Grinders. Promenade follows a drone as it is flying over the forests of the Vallée de Joux in Switzerland. The film explores the logic and aesthetics of autonomous vehicles computer-vision systems. These machines scan natural environments, decode and portray them using parameters and perception tools different from the ones a human would use.

The artist conceived this work as another chapter in the long historic tradition of landscape painting. Just like his artistic predecessors, he (or maybe the machine) uses the landscape as a pretext to discover new aesthetic languages.

Teun Vonk, A Sense of Gravity, 2019. Photo: Hanneke Wetzer

Teun Vonk, A Sense of Gravity, 2019. Photo: Hanneke Wetzer

Teun Vonk wants to make us more aware of the continuous pull of gravity. His immersive installation encloses the visitor (only one at a time) inside a space that challenges their every senses. But it is less about what you feel when you’re suspended in his big soft vessel and more about how you reconnect with your bodily experience once the trip in the floating bubble is over and you’re walking back onto the ‘normal’ space.

The work invites us to reflect on weightlessness and the relevance of human physicality in the future. Will we completely forget about it as our lives become more and more virtual? Will it take another dimension if we ever get to leave this planet and move to some distant celestial body?

Aki Inomata, Why not hand over a ‘shelter’ to hermit crabs?, 2009-ongoing

Aki Inomata, Why not hand over a ‘shelter’ to hermit crabs?, 2009-ongoing. Photo by Juliette Bibasse

Aki Inomata, Why not hand over a ‘shelter’ to hermit crabs?, 2009-ongoing. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

Hermit crabs are born with soft, exposed abdomens that leave them vulnerable to predators. They protect their body by squatting empty seashell or hollow pieces of wood they find abandoned on beaches. Increasingly also they adopt the trash that litters our shores. As they grow, they need to move house and find bigger shells.

Aki Inomata creates artificial shells that adapt to the natural shapes of hermit crabs.

Based on CT scans of real hermit crabs’ shells, her 3D-printed habitats feature iconic architectural monuments or even famous cityscapes. The artist then places one of her creations in a tank and waits to see if the small creature will pick up an organic shell or the plastic shelter as its new residency.

The project is delightful and it hints at a future when a new intimacy between the organic and the synthetic will be celebrated (surely we can do better than plastiglomerates and turtles chocking on discarded toys.) However, i wish it showed more compassion to hermits crabs. First, by enclosing them in much bigger tanks. But also by allowing them to enjoy the social life the species is used to.

Katja Heitmann, Laboratorium Motus Mori. Photo: Hanneke Wetzer

Katja Heitmann, Laboratorium Motus Mori. Photo: Hanneke Wetzer

Katja Heitmann, Laboratorium Motus Mori. Photo: Hanneke Wetzer

Over the past few decades, tech companies have quietly been patenting human gestures. Either to prevent competitors from relying on certain physical gestures or to make humans more machine-like.

Choreographer Katja Heitmann has been looking at the other side of this control of our every moves. As technology ‘optimises’ machines and humans and turns them into more ‘efficient’, more compliant tools, could some movements be perceived as superfluous and disappear over time?

Concerned by the possible ‘extinction’ of movements that are part and parcels of our humanity, the artist set up a theatrical laboratory in which she invited the public to donate conscious and unconscious movements. These movements were analysed by dancers and transformed into movement sculptures.

This living exhibition of moribund movements also invited the public to reflect on what makes us humans but might disappear under the pressure of productivity and efficiency.

Merijn Hos in collaboration with Jurriaan Hos, Soft Landing, 2019. Photo: Hanneke Wetzer for STRP

Merijn Hos in collaboration with Jurriaan Hos, Soft Landing, 2019. Photo: Hanneke Wetzer for STRP

Soft Landing is a set of curtains that surrounds your with layers of soft colours as you advance inside the installation towards a large orange ‘sun’. The colour spectrum goes from cold to warm and subtly change in intensity as more people join in. The less visitors are moving inside the space, the more vivid the hues.

HeyHeydeHaas with Désirée Hammen and Pol Tijssen, Exit Through The Flower Shop, 2019. Photo by Boudewijn Bollmann

HeyHeydeHaas with Désirée Hammen and Pol Tijssen, Exit Through The Flower Shop, 2019. Photo by Boudewijn Bollmann

HeyHeydeHaas with Désirée Hammen and Pol Tijssen, Exit Through The Flower Shop, 2019. Photo by Boudewijn Bollmann

To exit the festival, all visitors had to walk through ‘the flower shop’ where they couldn’t buy flowers but they could linger and enjoy their scents, colours and total absence of electronic components. I thought it was a stroke of genius. The flowers almost magically brought visitors back to their basic physical senses and reminded them that some things, like the appreciation of the simple things in life, will never change.

Augmented Reality Tour Billennium with Uninvited Guests & Duncan Spearman. Photo by Boudewijn Bollmann

Augmented Reality Tour Billennium with Uninvited Guests & Duncan Spearman. Photo by Boudewijn Bollmann

The ruminations around the future continued outside of the exhibition space….

Only a few decades ago, Strijp-S (where the STRP festival is located) was an industrial park that belonged to electronics company Philips. The area was nicknamed ‘the forbidden city’. Only Philips employees could enter. In the 1990s Philips gradually left Eindhoven and in the early 2000s, the old factories opened up their doors again. This time to artists workshops, design shops and offices for the creative sectors. Uninvited Guests & Duncan Spearman took visitors on a time-traveling guided tour of the Strijp-S area.

The narrative starts with the arrival of Philips in the area, then quickly moves the current hip and design identity of the area. Soon, past and present are discarded and we were invited to move around the area and see the future of Strijp-S.

The “archaeologists of the future” who guided the tour gave us a smartphone and a selfie stick to raise towards the built environment. After a few seconds to allow the AR technology to adjust, future architectures and activities appeared on the screen. We could see and hear the world of Strijp in 2030 and later we could also experience the area in 2090. 2030 was innocent enough. All organic food on balconies, energy-saving public lights, etc. 2090 was downright dystopian and riotous.

The last chapter of the tour was an invitation to imagine and design Strijp’s future. I found myself in the group with the wildest imagination: a volcano would fill the main square in 2060, it would spit cooked sushi for roaming dinosaurs (de-extinct thanks to the wonders of biotech) to feast on. As we were fantasizing about this wild future, it started appearing on our screens. A visual artist was listening to our conversations and drawing our speculations from a nearby office and then streaming it to our devices.

Augmented Reality Tour Billennium managed to materialize a reality that isn’t here yet. It also turned out to be a very entertaining and smart way to engage participants in lively debates about their local context and how it will be affected by the passing of time.

More works and images from the exhibition:

Lauren McCarthy, Waking Agents, 2019. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

Lauren McCarthy, Waking Agents, 2019. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

Yann Deval & Marie G. Losseau, Atlas. Photo by Boudewijn Bollmann

Yann Deval & Marie G. Losseau, Atlas. Photo by Boudewijn Bollmann

Yann Deval & Marie G. Losseau, Atlas. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

The STRP exhibition was curated by Gieske Bienert, Juliette Bibasse and Ton van Gool. The next edition of the festival will take place in Eindhoven on 2 to 5 April 2020. But the next Scenario # 3 is already planned for 6 June 2019.

Strasbourg Biennale. Being a citizen in the age of hyper-connectivity

How do we navigate the tensions between our online and offline lives? How do information systems affect our sense of privacy? Our sense of self or even the way we think? How do these new dynamics affect the very fabric of society? And, more interestingly perhaps, how do artists reflect conceptually and aesthetically on all these questions?

By addressing some of these questions the Strasbourg Biennale of Contemporary Art, curated by Yasmina Kouaidjia, invites us to reflect on what it means to be a citizen in the age of hyper-connectivity.

Evan Roth, Internet Landscapes: Sweden, 2016

Aram Bartholl, Point of View, 2015. Strasbourg Biennale, Touch Me – Being a Citizen in the Digital Age, Installation View. Photo: © Ben Hincker

Despite a theme anchored in digital media, the event doesn’t have the ambition to be a new media art exhibition but a contemporary art event that explores the many ways technology challenges society today. Its other mission is to put Strasbourg, a city no one would ever accuse of being too fond of avant-garde culture, on the contemporary art map.

The biennale opened a few weeks ago. It presents works of varying depths, urgency and strengths. But on the whole, the selection of art pieces should provide the audiences with enough food for thought and debates.

I was, as is often the case, particularly attracted to the works that remind us how misinformed we are about the infrastructures and energetic realities that power our information age. The cloud, the cyberspace, the virtual and other metaphors associated with the internet lull us into a pleasant sense of ethereal, disembodied connectivity. These terms, however, are deceiving. They disconnect the internet from its geography, physicality and energy cost.

Evan Roth, Landscapes, 2017. Strasbourg Biennale, Touch Me – Being a Citizen in the Digital Age, Installation View. Photo: © Ben Hincker

Evan Roth, still from the series Internet Landscapes: Sydney, 2016

In Evan Roth‘s Landscapes series, for example, the cloud is not in the sky. It literally emerges from the ocean.

Nearly 99% of transoceanic data traffic is channeled through cables laid under the seafloor. The routes they take, often the same as the ones established by European empires for telegraph communication in the 19th century, are documented on the Submarine Cable map. The artist retraced the position of these fiber-optic cables, identified the coastal sites where they emerge from the waters and flew there. This pilgrimage brought him in the UK, the US, Sweden, France, Australia, Argentina, Hong Kong, New Zealand, South Africa, etc. Once arrived on the landing site, Roth filmed the landscapes where cables emerge from the sea. The images in the installation often feature deserted beaches, the ocean and a serene sky. On one of the screens, though, wires emerge from the water and lay unprotected on the ground. It’s so peaceful. The wind makes the leaves on the tree move gently, once in a while a bird or a plane enters the frame, you can almost hear the waves…

The artist recorded the landscapes using a camera hacked to film in infrared, the frequency of the information traveling through fiber optic cables. Each video was then uploaded to a server located in the country in which the landscape was shot. This literally connects you to the scene you are looking at.

Roth’s videos evoke German romantic landscape paintings. They provide visitors with a space for contemplation, a pause much needed in these times of technological and cultural acceleration.

I’ve seen the work around several times already and I seem to like it even more each time. Fortunately for me, the latest iteration of Roth’s landscape series is Red Lines, a work you and i can run on any unused screen we might have at home. I’d also recommend this Guardian podcast which takes a critical look at the underwater fibre-optic system with the help of both Evan Roth and digital media researcher Nicole Starosielski.

Trevor Paglen, (left to right): Untitled (Reaper Drone), 2013; NSA-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site, Mastic Beach, New York, United States, 2015; Untitled (Reaper Drone), 2013. Strasbourg Biennale, Touch Me – Being a Citizen in the Digital Age, Installation View. Photo: © Ben Hincker

Trevor Paglen, NSA-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site, Mastic Beach, New York, United States, 2015

The work of geographer and photographer Trevor Paglen gives some visibility to secret government activity using instruments for long distance photography, rigorous investigative research and an aesthetic language that suggests the breakdown of representation in the context of concealment.

The three photos in the show attempt to uncover the hidden landscape of mass surveillance. The one titled NSA-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site, Mastic Beach, New York is particularly fascinating. The image is part of a series that “draws on documents from the Snowden archive and other sources to develop a vision of the Internet that emphasizes the materiality of communications networks, and the political geography of the Internet,” explained the artist. “In doing so, the project mimics the NSA’s own understanding of the Internet, emphasizing fiber optic cables, landing sites, switching facilities, data centers, and the routes and choke points in global telecommunication infrastructures.”

Because the site was shot at long range, the image dissolves until it evokes the soft texture and pastel tones of a pointillist painting.

Sarah Ancelle Schoenfeld, Alien Linguistic Lab, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist

Sarah Ancelle Schoenfeld, Alien Linguistic Lab, 2017. Strasbourg Biennale, Touch Me – Being a Citizen in the Digital Age, Installation View. Photo: © Ben Hincker

Sarah Ancelle Schoenfeld, Alien Linguistic Lab, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist

Sarah Ancelle Schoenfeld, Alien Linguistic Lab, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist

Sarah Ancelle Schoenfeld, Alien Linguistic Lab, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist

Sarah Ancelle Schoenfeld is also interested in unseen forces (unseen to most of us at least) and she wants to help us communicate with them.

Her Alien Linguistic Lab is a workshop/educational program conceived to linguistically prepare us to communicate with extraterrestrial beings.

How do we develop a way to chat with aliens if we’ve never encountered any? She suggests we look at octopuses. The intelligence of octopuses is such that i once heard a scientist advance that if the eight-limbed molluscs had longer lives and better social skills, they’d have developed very sophisticated civilizations by now.

A recent theory argued that octopuses are the closest creature to an alien on earth. They are the most complex animal with the most distant common ancestor to humans. We are not sure about the identity of that ancestor. According to Philosopher of science Peter Godfrey-Smith, “It was probably an animal about the size of a leech or flatworm with neurons numbering perhaps in the thousands, but not more than that.”

If octopuses are so alien to us and so smart, maybe we underestimate the reasons why they squirt ink. We might thing that octopuses just use the ink to create a smokescreen when feeling threatened. But what if that ink contained encoded linguistic messages?

The artist has some cooked pasta ready for visitors. Linguine al nero di seppia, to be precise. This type of pasta is tinted with cephalopods ink and might thus withhold alien information.

Visitors are invited to take a single al dente liguine and throw it onto a white wall. The noodle sticks to the surface and forms a shape that is then decoded using Google Translate language recognition function. The machine translation service recognizes words (often identifying them as Armenian or coming from a number of African languages). By repeating this protocol, the audience generates an oracle.

The transmitted alien messages can then be interpreted and discussed. Different concepts of understanding the world, language and other universes emerge.

Philipp Lachenmann, DELPHI Rationale, 2015/17

Philipp Lachenmann, DELPHI Rationale, 2015/17. Strasbourg Biennale, Touch Me – Being a Citizen in the Digital Age, Installation View. Photo: © Ben Hincker

Philipp Lachenmann’s mesmerizing video uses the now decommissioned DELPHI particle detector at CERN in Geneva both as a “backdrop” for an Indian sarod player and as a brightly coloured painting.

The film brings together our Western rational world, embodied by the largest particle physics laboratory in the world, with improvised Indian music based on the performer’s own mood.

The soothing music seems to challenge this temple of science and technology and invite us to pause and meditate upon the speed of what we, perhaps erroneously, call progress.

Constant Dullaart, Terms of Service, 2014. Strasbourg Biennale, Touch Me – Being a Citizen in the Digital Age, Installation View. Photo: © Ben Hincker

Constant Dullaart‘s animated Google search page Terms of Service offers a subtle critique of the control that corporate systems hold upon our lives. In the work, the Google search box is an interface that recites Google’s terms of service out loud.

The piece is vexatious. It forces us to confront our passivity when we subscribe to Google’s “services”. These terms of service are too long to read, their sheer length hiding the fact that we are at their mercy. The giants of Silicon Valley make our lives more connected and in many respects easier but our access to information is always subordinate to their own mercantile interests. “We are not using the internet, the internet is using us.”

Alain Della Negra and Kaori Kinoshita, NEWBORNS, 2006

Alain Della Negra and Kaori Kinoshita, NEWBORNS, 2006

Alain Della Negra and Kaori Kinoshita have long been exploring the tensions between individual identity and avatars. The people interviewed in the film selected for the biennale describe how they struggle to learn how to move, enter a conversation, get dressed or understand basic social rules. They discover the unexpected joys of flying over landscapes and of having a sexier name or an edgier appearance. You’re wondering what they are talking about until you realize that these men and women are relating their experience of being ‘newborns’, of entering the universe of Second Life for the fist time.

The experience might have been disorienting and a bit odd but to them, it is as real and serious as the rest of their life.

More works and images from Strasbourg Biennale of Contemporary Art:

Florian Mehnert, Waldprotokolle, 2015

Florian Mehnert, Waldprotokolle, 2015. Strasbourg Biennale, Touch Me – Being a Citizen in the Digital Age, Installation View. Photo: © Ben Hincker

Florian Mehnert, Menschentracks, 2014. Strasbourg Biennale, Touch Me – Being a Citizen in the Digital Age, Installation View. Photo: © Ben Hincker

Vincent Broquaire, Untitled, 2018 Strasbourg Biennale, Touch Me – Being a Citizen in the Digital Age, Installation View. Photo: © Ben Hincker

Paolo Cirio, Sociality, 2018. Strasbourg Biennale, Touch Me – Being a Citizen in the Digital Age, Installation View. Photo: © Ben Hincker

Jia, Untitled, from the series The Chinese Version, 2012. Strasbourg Biennale, Touch Me – Being a Citizen in the Digital Age, Installation View. Photo: © Ben Hincker

Touch Me, the 1st edition of the Strasbourg Biennale of Contemporary Art was curated by Yasmina Khouaidjia. The event remains open until 3 March 2019 at Hôtel des Postes in Strasbourg, France.

RIBOCA. A moment to reflect on our age of technoscience

Previously: RIBOCA review. A disturbingly tangible Anthropocene.

Second part in my overview of Everything was forever until it was no more, the first edition of Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art (aka RIBOCA) which closed a couple of months ago.

Sasha Huber + Petri Saarikko, Dziedināšana Remedies, 2018

The artists invited by curator Katerina Gregos investigate change. In particular, how change, because of its relentless speed and much proclaimed inevitability, seems to escape robust critical scrutiny. Some of the main sub-themes of the biennial looked at issues as vast as our flawed relationship to other living species, the negotiation of collective historical memory in post-Soviet regions or the impact of unseen technologies on landscapes and society. I only had a couple of hours to visit the exhibitions but even as was reading the catalogue on the way back home, i had to admit that it was a lot to take in for a sole event.

Kerstin Hamilton, A World Made by Science, 2018

Still, RIBOCA turned out to be one of the highlights of 2018 for me. I discovered new artists, new perspective on Baltic states, was intellectually stimulated and eavesdropped on heated discussions about the private Russian funding of the biennial (only a few years after the annexation of the Crimea had put strain on the relationships between Russia and formerly Soviet Baltic states.) I also admired the way each exhibition, no matter how wide-ranging its focus, anchored itself firmly in the historical and architectural context of Riga.

Here are some of the most exciting works (for me):

Nabil Boutros, Ovine Conditions (Celebrities), 2014

Nabil Boutros, Ovine Conditions (Celebrities), 2014

Nabil Boutros, Ovine Conditions (Celebrities), 2014

Nabil Boutros, Ovine Conditions (Celebrities), 2014. Exhibition view. Photo: Andrejs Strokins

We tend to regard individual animals, especially the ones we turn into food and consumer goods, as mutually interchangeable within a herd. All cows become the same, as do pigs and sheep. We rarely consider their sentience: what they think and feel or the nature of their inner world. To us they are mindless animals. Something similar happen to human animals once they are part of a crowd: they are said to adopt a ‘herd mentality’.

As Nabil Boutros‘s portraits demonstrate sheep, like human beings, regain their individual character when separated from the flock. He photographed sheep, lambs and rams, as if they had commissioned these portraits themselves. Each animal’s distinct features and individuality then becomes apparent.

It becomes impossible, in front of these portraits, not to ascribe psychological features of human beings to the individual animals. They appear confident or insecure, modest or cheeky, anxious, surprised, inquisitive, thoughtful, upset, arrogant, withdrawn, excited, seductive, etc.

Erik Kessels, The Human Zoo, 2018. The Former Faculty of Biology of the University of Latvia. Photo: Andrejs Strokins

Erik Kessels, The Human Zoo, 2018. The Former Faculty of Biology of the University of Latvia. Photo: Andrejs Strokins

Erik Kessels, The Human Zoo, 2018. The Former Faculty of Biology of the University of Latvia. Photo: Andrejs Strokins

Erik Kessels, The Human Zoo, 2018. The Former Faculty of Biology of the University of Latvia. Photo: Andrejs Strokins

The Zoological Collection of the Museum of the University of Latvia features the usual skeletons, taxidermied bodies, pinned down insects and other animal remains for us humans to gawk and marvel at. Erik Kessels believes that human animals are often as strange and exotic as the ones in zoological displays. To prove his point, he placed found photos inside the exhibition cases, pairing them with the original artifacts in associative and often comical ways. Both male and female individuals of our species are caught preening, mating, eating and performing other rituals.

The odd juxtapositions force us to have a more introspective look at our own species and the deep connections we share with other animals.

Maarten Vanden Eynde, Pinpointing Progress, 2018. Photo: Andrejs Strokins

Titled Pinpointing Progress, Maarten Vanden Eynde’s sculpture is an homage to the Town Musicians of Bremen, a sculpture based on the story of the Brothers Grimm, in the centre of Riga.

The artist stacked on top of one another technological products that used to be manufactured in Riga and exported all over the USSR and beyond. The objects become smaller and smaller as they reach the top of the sculpture. A bus, car, moped, bike, computer, radio, telephone, camera and a transistor. Pinned on a needle, as if they were insects in a natural history museum.

Progress comes with the promise that we are moving forward, towards a better situation. The faster we get there, it is suggested, the better it is. New inventions swiftly follow one another, often shrinking in size, with nano-technology the ultimate goal. Nanotechnology will potentially have implications on a macro scale. And because we won’t be able to perceive its impact with our unaided human sense, we will have to believe the new forms of progress nanotechnology bring. In this context, information and faith in progress replace material goods as the most valuable resources in capitalist society.

Vanden Eynde’s sculpture wasn’t the only work in the biennial that questioned our age of technoscience…

Lynn Hershman-Leeson, Genetically modified cat from The Infinity Engine, 2010

Lynn Hershman-Leeson, Infinity Engine, 2011-2018. Photo: Andrejs Strokins

Lynn Hershman-Leeson, Infinity Engine, 2011-2018

Infinity Engine explores the societal and ethical challenges of DNA programming and all the applications it enables, from the production of transgenic organisms to 3D bioprinting of human organs.

In collaboration with reknown scientists, Hershman-Leeson created a functional replica of a genetics lab, complete with printed scaffolds of human noses and ears and scientific equipment.

The installation was fascinating and i wish i had had a full afternoon to explore its informative content. One of the rooms was wallpapered in images of hybrid crops, animals and interiors of biomedical engineering labs across the world. Another room allowed visitors to read files of legal documents related to genetic engineering. The most curious was the speculative ‘capture room’, devised in collaboration with biohacker and molecular biologist Dr. Josiah P. Zaynor, in which facial-recognition software captures the images of the visitors, attempts to deduce information about the person’s genetic makeup and adds the data to an evolving composite archetype.

The project points to the possible implications of this kind of genetic research: on the one hand, the astonishing medical breakthroughs; on the other, the new forms of governmental and corporate surveillance it enables. The work also invites us to ponder upon uncomfortable questions: How do these scientific practices challenge our understanding of human identity and life? Who owns the engineered human body parts when human cells and tissue are turned into commodities? How might bio-engineering affect human evolution in a planet that is increasingly uninhabitable?

Stelios Faitakis, The New Religion, 2018. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov

Stelios Faitakis, The New Religion, 2018. Photo: Stelios Faitakis

Stelios Faitakis, The New Religion (detail), 2018. At the Former Biological Faculty

Stelios Faitakis created a spectacular site-specific mural for the lobby of the former Faculty of Biology of the University of Latvia.

His work follows the style of Byzantine painting and specifically the iconostases of Orthodox churches – the icon-covered panels that separate the nave from the sanctuary. The figure that dominates the New Religion is the scientist. In his biblical epic the artist raises questions about the central role that techno-scientific progress plays within the value system of Western society.

Faitakis vision of techno-religion is a dark one. Its mural depict scientists signing contracts with pharmaceutical companies, observing a gigantic nuclear mushroom cloud or working calmly next to a rabbit with its skull open.

Kerstin Hamilton, The Science Question in Feminism, 2018

Kerstin Hamilton‘s The Science Question in Feminism paid homage to female physicists, chemists and biologists from the Baltic and Nordic region in a series of photomontages that subtly highlighting gender inequality in science. Latvian chemist Lidija Liepina, for example, helped create the first Russian gas mask while she was still a student. Latvian biologist and botanist Magda Staudinger was acknowledged as the collaborator of her husband when he won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

The works are inserted inside single vitrines and spread all over the Former Faculty of Biology of the University of Latvia. If you don’t pay attention you might even think they are relics from the glory days of the institution.

While scientific results can arguably be regarded as factual and objective, there is little doubt that the complex structures that surround the scientific knowledge production are socially constructed. These structures have rarely been favourable to women, who systematically have been excluded from formal and informal scientific networks.

Danilo Correale, Mr. Bojangles…….may also enjoy, 2014-15

Mr. Bojangles…….may also enjoy was a 52 weeklong project where the artist tried to comprehend the ability of the Amazon algorithm to get to know the ideological viewpoint of its customers. Over the course of one year Danilo Correale bought books Amazon suggested to him, starting from a text by Judith Butler. Once the book arrived he ripped off one page and returned the now-damaged book to Amazon. He then proceeded to buy the first book in the list suggested by Amazon, using the refund granted by the e-commerce giant.

In every image, next to the book, lays the page that the artist cut out in order to create a new publication of 52 pages: a symbolic representation of the algorithm that modelled the choices for Mr. Bojangles (Correale’s username on Amazon) and aims to make each and everyone of us a nicely predictable customer.

Robert Kusmirowski, IGRA, 2018. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov

Robert Kusmirowski, IGRA, 2018. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov

Robert Kusmirowski, IGRA, 2018. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov

Robert Kusmirowski, IGRA, 2018. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov

I didn’t see this one but i’m a fan of Robert Kuśmirowski

His astonishing talent consists in turning discarded materials into time capsules that give the illusion of decay and bygone times. The title of the work commissioned especially for the Former Bolschevichka Textile Factory in Riga, IGRA, means ‘plays’ in Polish, and refers to phrases such as ‘playing with death’ and ‘playing with fire’, while simultaneously providing an anagram of ‘Riga’.

IGRA consists of a large machine for producing vodka, referencing the illegal production of moonshine at hidden locations in the forest. The work is constructed from equipment found by the artist: ladles, pipes and piping systems. The last tank of the installation contains 40 litres of vodka, which drips into a glass throughout the duration of the exhibition, creating the illusion of a working vodka distillery.

More works from RIBOCA:

Sputnik Photos, Lost Territories Archive, 2018

Sputnik Photos, Lost Territories Archive, 2018

Sputnik Photos, Lost Territories Archive, 2018. Residence of Kristaps Morbergs. Photo: Andrejs Strokins

Kerstin Hamilton, Zero Point Energy, 2018

Kerstin Hamilton, Zero Point Energy, 2018. Installation view. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov

Kerstin Hamilton, Zero Point Energy, 2018

Sven Johne, Anomalies of the early 21st century/Some case studies, 2015. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov

Johanna Gustafsson-Fürst, The Week Has Eight Days, 2018

Femke Herregraven, Malleable Regress, 2016-2018

Alexis Destoop, Phantom Sun, 2016. Photo: Dirk Pauwels

Hands-on. America, art and the internet

A few weeks ago, I had a chance to visit The New Art Fest, a new media art festival in Lisbon that invites the public to look critically at the way technology and science are transforming society.

Natalie Bookchin, still from Now he’s out in public and everyone can see, 2017

The theme of the 3rd edition of the festival, “AMERICA ONLINE & NET GENERATION”, looked closely at the digital art of the American continent from the beginnings of electronic art, through the emergence of the internet, to these days of post-internet art.

The theme is both a celebration of the role that the USA has played in the development of the internet and an opportunity to reflect on the fact that the so-called American century is drawing to an end with the rise of China as a superpower and Carrot Trump’s politics of isolationism.

Unfortunately, when the plane landed in Lisbon, several of the chapters of the festival had already closed: the exhibition dedicated to the archives of turbulence (a much-missed organisation that commissioned networked art forms), the Maker Art event that brought together media art and art market, video and film sessions as well as several discussions about data, gentrification, etc. I missed all that. I did however get to visit the Hands-On exhibition at the spectacularly charming Museu Nacional de História Natural e da Ciência.

At the Museu Nacional de História Natural e da Ciência

Entrance to the Hands-On exhibition. Photo by João Serra de Almeida/XZibit Art

The exhibition gives a broad and ambitious overview of online art developed in America since 1994 while also trying to ponder upon the forms and meaning of arts that dematerialize, become unstable and are stored in databases, servers and “clouds”.

Hands-On multiplied the perspectives and reminded us that America is not just the USA (as we often think) but the totality of the continents of North and South America. There were dozens of works on show. I’m going to skip the historical ones and focus on recent films, performances and installations that i found particularly worth sharing with you:

Ken Rinaldo, The Continuous War Train (War robots Tanks), 2018

Ken Rinaldo, The Continuous War Train, 2018

Ken Rinaldo, The Continuous War Train (Starfighter), 2018

Ken Rinaldo, The Continuous War Train (Exoskeleton Suits), 2018

Like most visitors on the day i visited the show, I was captivated by Ken Rinaldo’s The Continuous War Train. The 3D animation shows a never-ending American freight train, pulling Humvees, helicopters, tanks, jets, exoskeletons, drones, missiles and other sophisticated military equipment through an empty Midwestern town.

In the background, glimpses of a derelict farmhouse, litter tossed on the pavement or a second-hand shop on the main street highlight the disconnect between a tantacular American military-industrial complex and the everyday reality for American citizens; between massive military budgets and a society that cruelly lacks public funding for education, environment and healthcare.

The continuous war train elements are interspersed with actual footage of military arms trade, with 3D animation allusions to contemporary film superheroes, historical and contemporary footage of wars. The juxtaposition reminds us of the role of the entertainment industry in selling us a vision of the military made of action heroes, glory and patriotism, while civilians are killed in U.S. military attacks and suicide is rife among U.S. soldiers and war veterans.

“The Pentagon’s numbers show that during George W. Bush’s eight years he averaged 24 bombs dropped per day, which is 8,750 per year,” the artist writes. “During Obama’s time in office, the military dropped 34 bombs per day or 12,500 per year. And in Trump’s first year in office, he averaged 121 bombs dropped per day, for an annual total of 44,096 or one every 12 minutes.”

Sophia Brueckner, Captured by an Algorithm, 2012

Sophia Brueckner, Captured by an Algorithm, 2012

Sophia Brueckner applied Photomerge (a Photoshop algorithm that stitches together photos into panoramas), to the covers of over 100 romance e-novel. Because the covers are so similar to each other and seem to naturally overlap, the algorithm ended up creating corny landscapes that strike the right balance between the slightly bizarre, the cliché and the romantic. The artist printed these landscapes on porcelain plates. Each plate also features Kindle Popular Highlights from these romance novels. “All she wanted was to matter. She wanted to be more than an opportunity. That’s all.” or “Though you may call me a dreamer or fool or any other thing, I believe that anything is possible…” are among the literary gems bordering the plates.

Captured by an Algorithm is an absurd and convincing demonstration of what algorithms can do. Right now they are not perfect. They might even be slightly ridiculous but they increasingly challenge our idea of human creativity.

Natalie Bookchin, Now he’s out in public and everyone can see (trailer), 2017

Natalie Bookchin’s work investigates collective identity as performed on social network sites.

Among her latest works are collages made of extracts from YouTube videos that have been watched by only a handful of viewers. Her aim is to weave connections and associations that no algorithm would ever make. The result is incredibly moving. The films show a middle class America that feels increasingly marginalized and that uses online platforms in lieu of a physical public space that has disappeared.

Now he’s out in public and everyone can see compiles excerpts from hundreds of vlogs by people who start by saying “I’m not racist or anything” and then give their opinion about media scandals surrounding an African American public figure whose identity we don’t know. Although the work was first shown in 2012, it was already showing how bitter many U.S. citizens were when confronted with a supposedly ‘post-racial’ society and a head of state who wasn’t quite white enough.

Natalie Bookchin, Long Story Short (clip), 2016

Perhaps even more poignant, Long Story Short examines the personal and collective experience of poverty, social fragility and wealth inequality in America through direct-to-camera interviews the artist made with over 100 people. She met them in homeless shelters, food banks, adult literacy programs and job training centers in California, one of the richest regions in the U.S. and one where wealth inequality is particularly jarring.

“To make the archive, I borrow tools and forms of technology — including webcams and laptops — to highlight the voices of those left beyond during the technology boom,” the artist told The Chart. “In the 20 years or so that the internet has been publicly available, it has helped create extraordinary wealth for a few, while many others have lost jobs or job security, widening the already large gap between the rich and the poor. Much of this concentrated wealth is in Northern California, the home of the technology boom.”

Brian Mackern, XTCS – Temporal de Santa Rosa, 2002

The Santa Rosa Storm occurs in the Southern Hemisphere around the time of the festival of Santa Rosa of Lima, Perú, celebrated on August 30 each year. According to the legend, Rosa de Lima caused a storm so powerful that it prevented Dutch pirates from attacking the city of Lima in 1615. Meteorologists attribute the storm to the clash of the first warm winds which are a product of the arrival of spring with cold fronts.

Brian Mackern recorded the radioelectric interferences caused by the Santa Rosa Storm in 2002, in Montevideo-Uruguay. He uses and manipulates these recordings during performances that reveal the presence of the storm through the ‘noise’ present within the signal. Paradoxically, this ‘noise’ is the ‘signal’ which defines the information to us: The existence of the storm itself.

Giselle Beiguelman and Lucas Bambozzi, Museu dos [corpos] invisíveis (TRIBOS QUEER, VOGUE DANCING)

Museu dos [corpos] invisíveis (Museum of invisible [bodies]) is a series of mini-docs about the city of São Paulo. The films makes more visible a series of people and realities that form an integral part of the urban fabric. Yet, their importance is left at the margin of contemporary discourses about urban life: gender policies, feminism, racial segregation, periphery, vigilance, emergency, queer tribes and life on the streets.

More images from Hands-On:

Tony Katai, Before Never, 2018

View of the Hands-On exhibition. Photo The New Art Fest

View of the Hands-On exhibition. Photo The New Art Fest

View of the Hands-On exhibition. Photo by João Serra de Almeida/XZibit Art

View of the Hands-On exhibition. Photo by João Serra de Almeida/XZibit Art

View of the Hands-On exhibition. Photo: The New Art Fest’

The New Art Fest has sadly closed. The festival was curated by artistic director António Cerveira Pinto, with guest curators Brian Mackern, Gustavo Romano and Nilo Casares, with the special collaboration from MEIAC.

The New Newsroom: Lost (and found?) in the information stream

We consume more news than ever but does that mean that we are better informed?

Every day, we eat up, share and generate stories through news apps, podcasts, Twitter, youtube, facebook updates and even VR. Yet, it seems that the more intimate we get with the creation of information, the less grip we have on its meaning and on the impact its manipulation has on politics and society. The exhibition The New Newsroom. Reporting Redesigned at MU in Eindhoven, explores how we can use the power of digital technology to create meaningful content and regain control of information.

In The New Newsroom, journalists, technologists, artists and designers investigate innovative formats, analyse the news and present their findings in stimulating visuals and installations

The exhibition is packed with emoticons, VR installations, humour, poetry, anecdotes and other weapons of mass distraction. And yet, the more you engage with the art and design works in the show, the clearer the message: the shape of information is evolving faster than ever and we need to probe and question its new guises if we don’t want to remain trapped inside filter bubbles and lose all consciousness of what makes and breaks society.

Here’s a quick tour of some of my favourite works in the show:

Reporters without Borders, Uncensored Playlist, 2018. The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

Reporters without Borders, Uncensored Playlist, 2018

China, Vietnam, Uzbekistan, Thailand and Egypt are some of the countries at the bottom of the list for freedom of press. The Uncensored Playlist is the result of a collaboration between Reporters Without Borders Germany and local journalists and musicians to by-pass censorship. They turned censored news stories into songs with innocuous titles that can then be streamed for free via music apps.

Using music as a loophole, the platform aims to get the work of exiled journalists across the border, into people’s playlists. Just like other pop songs, the music spreads through word of mouth, turning news stories into hits.

Lilian Stolk, Emoji Newsfeed, 2018

Lilian Stolk, Emoji Newsfeed, 2018

Lilian Stolk, Emoji Newsfeed, 2018. The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

I had no idea that there are already 3000 emojis for us to chose from. 100 are added every year. The Unicode Consortium determines which icons are added, but news media also plays a role in the pre-selection and modification of the icons. Proposals that meet a large audience in the media, are more likely to be added. Lilian Stolk monitors the development of emoji as she sees the process as a reflection of the choices and changes society is going through. Her colourful and ridiculously interesting Emoji Newsfeed charts the controversies and strange stories surrounding emoji communication.

Arvida Byström and Molly Soda, Pics or it Didn’t Happen. Photo: Cassie Brown. Insta: @show_you_mine

Arvida Byström and Molly Soda, Pics or it Didn’t Happen

Arvida Byström and Molly Soda, Pics or it Didn’t Happen. The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

Pics or it Didn’t Happen is an archive of photos banned from Instagram.

Arvida Byström and Molly Soda collected these images -most of them strange rather than offensive- into a book as a guarantee that they would not disappear: “We have to think about how to archive the web,” they told the Independent. “Putting something in a book is an interesting way to take encapsulate something, but also elevating the things that we aren’t supposed to be seeing.”

According to their own analysis, the social platform tends to reject (mostly female) bodies that aren’t young, hairless, lithe, and white. The tendency to favour the standard over what is considered deviant reflects the way society perceives, regulates and suppresses bodies.

Nicolas Maigret and Maria Roszkowska, Computational Propaganda About Computational Propaganda, 2018. The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

Nicolas Maigret and Maria Roszkowska, Computational Propaganda About Computational Propaganda, 2018. The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

Nicolas Maigret and Maria Roszkowska‘s Computational Propaganda About Computational Propaganda is a troll campaign that looks at the social and political responsibility of the five Big Tech companies (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft).

The troll campaign is executed by a bot that has no political agenda other than stressing the presence of the GAFAM in popular political discourse. “Using Big Data analysis techniques to extract hidden correlations from Wikipedia, the bot is built to spark discussions that link the companies to major social and political issues. The resulting assumptions are spread on social media under the viral form of internet memes. The memes are tracked and recorded, so that their aftereffect can be observed and scrutinized.”

I need to come back with a more detailed story on that one soon!

DROG, Slecht Nieuws, 2017
. The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

The disheartening influence of fake news highlights the need for greater media literacy. Including among adults. Slecht Nieuws (Bad News), a game made by DROG, entices players to fabricate and spread fake news themselves. By learning to recognise the methods involved in the spread of disinformation, players are thus better equipped to distinguish falsehood from truth.

Forensic Architecture, al-Jinah Mosque

In March last year, the U.S. forces bombed a site in Al-Jinah, Syria, claiming that it was a terrorist meeting place and that the only causalities were terrorists.

Forensic Architecture worked with Human Rights Watch and British blogger Bellingcat to analyze numerous videos and images (from both before and after the drone strike) and interviewed survivors, first responders and the building’s contractor to demonstrate that the U.S. had in fact aimed fire at a mosque. Their work revealed the fatal misindentification, the killing of civilians and a possible cover-up by U.S. forces. After making the information public, the Pentagon eventually retracted part of their statement and confessed the target was indeed, “part of a mosque complex.”

Coralie Vogelaar, Looking for a Possible Algorythm for the Popular News Image, 2016

Coralie Vogelaar, Recognized / Not Recognized – A Comparative Movement Analysis of Popular and Unpopular News Images, 2016. The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

Coralie Vogelaar, Recognized / Not Recognized – A Comparative Movement Analysis of Popular and Unpopular News Images, 2016. The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

Coralie Vogelaar, Looking for a Possible Algorythm for the Popular News Image, 2016. The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

Coralie Vogelaar browsed through the databases of the large press agencies for photographs of ten high-profile news events and used search engines to determine how often each image – 850,000 in total – was published online. She then compared the most popular photographs to the least published ones of the exact same situation to figure out what made news agencies favour one over the others. The result, Looking for a Possible Algorithm for the Popular News Image, is puzzling. Each of the iconic photo is brought side by side with its least published “twin” and soon patterns in the focus and composition of the images seem to emerge: babies and tears have to be clearly visible, for example. Gestures well defined and crowd movements easy to interpret.

The artist then attempted to translate these images in Recognized / Not Recognized, a two-channel video installation that reproduces these images in the form of a performance piece created in collaboration with choreographer Marjolein Vogels. Nine dancers move from one frozen position to another: on one screen, they mimic the news photograph that was most popular and on the other, the simultaneously shot but failed image.

Interestingly, the successful images often show people in poses that evoke famous western artworks, such as Michelangelo’s Pietà or Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa. From a vast ocean of photographic data, we have the tendency to favour images that confirm our visual frame of reference.

Donghwan Kam, After Photography, 2018

Donghwan Kam, After Photography, 2018

Donghwan Kam, After Photography, 2018. The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

In After Photography, Donghwan Kam renders iconic news images in 3D and then walks around with his VR headset and a digital point-and-shoot camera he modified to capture the virtual through the use of sensors attached to the front of the device. He thus cuts through the numbness of yet another image of human suffering to create a personal relationship with the event.

Submarine Channel & VPRO, The Industry – Mapping the Dutch Drug Economy (intro), 2017

The Industry, an interactive documentary made by VPRO and Submarine Channel, delves into the drug industry in The Netherlands.

The work interweaves hard facts and figures with personal stories from the people who keep the industry going: housewives, students, dockworkers, weed growers, full-time coke dealers, etc. You can meet the protagonists “on location”: in cannabis plantations hidden in villas, coffeeshop, containers in harbors, etc. Some spaces are real, some are reconstructions based on existing spaces.

Soon enough, you realize that the shady drug world is all around you. 

More images from the exhibition:

Jim Brady, Mobile Journalism, 2018. The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

Daan Wubben, In Aerial Times. The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

Maxime Benvenuto, Lexicographies of Propaganda and News, 2018. The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

Maxime Benvenuto, Lexicographies of Propaganda and News, 2018. The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned, curated by Nadine Roestenburg & Angelique Spaninks, remains open at MU in Eindhoven until 11 November 2018.

Image on the homepage: Donghwan Kam, After Photography.

Does art have any relevance “in the Age of AI”?

Christie’s recently sold for $432,000 a rather amusing portrait created by AI. Last Summer, (human) participants deemed that the artworks created by a computer system were more communicative and inspiring than human-made ones. A few years ago, an artist convincingly automated the kind of texts written by art critics. I could multiply the attention-grabbing stories but i’m sure that you’ve also been following the debates around the impact that AI is having on art and on the specificity of human creativity. But does art have a voice when it comes to understanding and shaping AI?

Blinking Turing by Vuk Cosic

E-relevance of Culture in the Age of AI at RiHub in Rijeka. Photo credit: Tanja Kanazir / ECOC Rijeka 2020

A couple of weeks ago in was in Rijeka, Croatia, to participate to E-relevance of Culture in the Age of AI, a seminar that aimed to offer food for thought to the Council of Europe’s reflection on the role that culture can have on the field of artificial intelligence. The sun was shining, i was wearing my favourite jumpsuit and the company was smart: Felix Stalder (media and cultural theorist and professor for Digital Culture and Network Theory at the Zürich University of the Arts), Vladan Joler (artist, founder the SHARE Foundation and professor at the University of Novi Sad), Gerfried Stocker (artistic director at Ars Electronica), Matteo Pasquinelli (professor in Media Philosophy at the University of the Arts and Design, Karlsruhe), etc. Everything was orchestrated by Vuk Cosic, a “cosmopolitan retired artist” and a classic of

I didn’t take many notes during the festival as i was engrossed in the debates so instead of a proper report, i’m just going to freewheel my way through a few bits and bobs i learnt over these two days in Rijeka. And i’ll focus ONLY on the art parts because you can’t really trust me with anything else.

E-relevance of Culture in the Age of AI. The cheekiness of the title isn’t obvious until you read it out loud. It sounds like the “irrelevance of culture in the age of AI.” It’s true it is often difficult to explain the invaluable role that art and culture can play in the evolution of forces that are going to shape society in ways we might not always fully comprehend.

E-relevance of Culture in the Age of AI at RiHub in Rijeka. Photo credit: Tanja Kanazir / ECOC Rijeka 2020

E-relevance of Culture in the Age of AI at RiHub in Rijeka. Photo credit: Tanja Kanazir / ECOC Rijeka 2020

And yet, even if it is not immediately obvious, art (and culture in general) does have a role in stimulating a culture of reflection and healthy skepticism, in shaping new models and narratives, in articulating all the social dimensions of a technology like AI, on seeping into discussions and eventually into reality.

Science-fiction is a powerful example of the role art can have on the perception and even the development of a technology. Much the public’s imagination of what AI looks like and the kind of interaction we have with it is still shaped by Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. That film is 50 year old which tells us a lot about the role that culture can play in the debate around AI. The clean lines of Alexa and the voice of Siri, for example, probably owe a lot to the haunting image of AI that the film created.

As for the smoothness of technological ‘personal assistants’, they mask the complexity of the power relationships that are built into these machines.

Vuk Cosic made that hidden complexity of relationships more tangible when he brought to the discussion a series of anecdotes about the way folk culture is mocking AI, revealing how small accidents uncover the hold the technology has over our lives. And how we can sabotage it, albeit in very modest ways.

Starting with stories of accidental orders i had never heard of. Such as the one in which Amazon’s Alexa started ordering people dollhouses automatically upon hearing a news presenter on tv declare: “I love the little girl, saying ‘Alexa ordered me a dollhouse’.”

The burger king ad debacle. Photo from phandroid

A few months later, Burger King perhaps thought it would be a genius idea to piggyback on the dollhouse episode and exploit it for a TV spot. “You’re watching a 15-second Burger King ad, which is unfortunately not enough time to explain all of the fresh ingredients in the Whopper sandwich. But I’ve got an idea,” the narrator said, standing behind the counter at the burger chain. “OK Google, what is the Whopper burger?”

The trick was supposed to prompt voice-activated smart speakers into describing its burgers, just like Alexa had been tricked by a voice on the television to buy dollhouse. The problem, however, is that Google gets its explanation of the Whopper from Wikipedia, an encyclopedia everyone is free to edit.

Within hours of the ad’s release, users had made humorous modifications to the Whopper Wikipedia page. Soon after, Google appeared to make changes that stopped the commercial from activating the devices.

An interesting issue worth mentioning here is that wikipedia is free and written collaboratively by volunteers. And yet, this unpaid, crowdsourced source of valuable information is plundered by multi-billion corporations to make even more money.

At that moment in the conversation, Felix Stalder asked me: “Do you know of !Mediengruppe Bitnik’s work with Alexa?” No, i didn’t. And yes, it’s a great project. We wouldn’t expect anything less from these guys.

!Mediengruppe Bitnik (music by Low Jack, graphics by Knoth & Renner), Alexiety, 2018

Together with musician Low Jack, !Mediengruppe Bitnik have created an EP music record titled ‘Alexiety’. The album is made to be streamed on the radio “for the enjoyment of smart homes everywhere.”

In ‘Alexiety’, a set of three songs attempts to capture the feelings we develop toward Intelligent Personal Assistants: the carefree love that embraces Alexa before data privacy and surveillance issues outweigh the benefits; the alienation and decoupling / uncoupling from the allure of remote control and instant gratification; the anxiety and discomfort around Alexa and other Intelligent Personal Assistants that is Alexiety.

The work explores the unbalanced power relationship between Intelligent Personal Assistants that are taking more and more control over our lives and us, poor flesh and bones creatures who know so little about their algorithms, rule-sets and even real machinic presence.

Hardcore Anal Hydrogen, Jean-Pierre,2018

Speaking of music, in his statement Gerfried Stocker presented us with many fascinating artistic works that use AI. The one that really struck me might not be the most thought-provoking nor the most valuable in terms of critique of the technology though. Click and see above.

Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler, Anatomy of an AI System, 2018

E-relevance of Culture in the Age of AI at RiHub in Rijeka. Photo credit: Tanja Kanazir / ECOC Rijeka 2020

The event was also the opportunity to see Anatomy of an AI System in all its printed majesty. The map, created by Vladan Joler and Kate Crawford, elegantly dissects the whole genesis, life and death of an individual networked device based on a centralised artificial intelligence system. Printed on a gigantic sticker, the work was covering one of the walls of the seminar room.

Sterling Crispin, N.A.N.O. , B.I.O. , I.N.F.O. , C.O.G.N.O., 2015

My own contribution to the discussions in Rijeka consisted in reminding the audience that technology is not made of just algorithms and big data. I briefly explained the cost that the sometimes invisible materiality of AI, its infrastructures and the devices we use, is having on the environment and on the lives of workers who often live far away from us. I’m sure you already follow this kind of discussion so i’ll spare you the details. Among the artistic projects i used to illustrate the issue, i’ll only mention Sterling Crispin’s N.A.N.O. , B.I.O. , I.N.F.O. , C.O.G.N.O. because of the way it illustrates the tension between the grand vision and promises of the Silicon Valley and the fragility of a world that is increasingly shaken by contingencies such as the depletion of natural resources (energy, minerals, etc.) and climate change.

Michael Mandiblerg, Postmodern Times, 2018

I also talked about Michael Mandiberg’s Postmodern Times. The artist commissioned freelancers on the crowdsourcing labor platform to recreate small clips of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. Mandiberg then assembled all the small clips made by the hidden human cogs in the powerful digital machine and recreated the famous 1936 comedy, drawing a bittersweet portrait of the digital factory and its ruthless reliance on precarity.

E-relevance of Culture in the Age of AI at RiHub in Rijeka. Photo credit: Tanja Kanazir / ECOC Rijeka 2020

In conclusion, i’m not afraid for artists. I trust them to unfold all the expressive forms of AI technology, to use, abuse, hack, sabotage AI just like they do with any new medium. And as for us, the public, i suspect we’ll start treasuring human fallibility just like we are amused by the glitches in the machines nowadays.

With that said, i AM worried about the shrinking space that is left to art and culture today. Europe needs to create an even more nurturing environment for artists through education, commissions, residency programs and by facilitating collaboration with research centers. If Europe doesn’t make them feel valued, some of these bright and critical minds who have been educated with public money in Europe might just move to Silicon Valley (or to any of its European outposts) and dedicate their creativity to the sole glory of the GAFAM.

E-relevance of Culture in the Age of AI at RiHub in Rijeka. Photo credit: Tanja Kanazir / ECOC Rijeka 2020

E-relevance of Culture in the Age of AI at RiHub in Rijeka. Photo credit: Tanja Kanazir / ECOC Rijeka 2020

The seminar took place at RiHub in Rijeka, Croatia. RiHub in case you were wondering is a “nursery for innovative and creative work”. I find the term utterly ridiculous but the space is welcoming and amazingly well designed.

Global Control And Censorship

After last week’s Notes from the RIXC Open Fields conference, it’s time to have a quick look at the accompanying exhibition of this year’s edition of the RIXC Art Science Festival.

The theme of the exhibition, curated by Lívia Nolasco-Rózsás and Bernhard Serexhe, is encapsulated in its title: Global Control And Censorship.

Ruben Pater, Drone Survival Guide, 2013. Photo: RIXC

The curators wrote in their introductory text to the exhibition:

Surveillance and censorship are mutually dependent; they cannot be viewed separately. It has always been well known that the surveillance of citizens, institutions, and companies, indeed, including the monitoring of democratically elected politicians and parliaments or of journalists and lawyers, is a secret task of government agencies. Recently, however, this tradition of government-legitimized spying on all citizens has expanded to include additional spying by powerful service providers and business enterprises. At the same time, courageous journalists, who disclose information that carries enormous importance to society such as illegal surveillance activities, censorship and torture by governmental institutions, are prosecuted and punished. Even in our day, journalists, artists and writers critical of the system and whistle-blowers are branded as traitors.

The exhibition is not ground-breaking* but it is solid, coherent and thought-provoking. I was particularly impressed by the way the curators take us from one location to another, showing how surveillance encroaches on freedom of movements, communication and actions no matter where we are on the planet. Sometimes the means of surveillance and their impact seem to be site-specific. Often though, they replay the same patterns of scrutiny and blackout that have been adopted everywhere else.

Here are some of the works i found most interesting:

Osman Bozkurt, Post Resistance, 2013

Osman Bozkurt, Post Resistance, 2013

Photographer Osman Bozkurt documented the remains of the slogans, drawings and other signs that were painted onto the surfaces of public spaces in Istanbul at the time of the Gezi Park demonstrations in Istanbul in 2013.

That Summer, thousands of citizens occupied the park to oppose its proposed demolition as part of an urban development plan. The police’s violent response to the unrest provoked strikes and further protests across the country, with citizens expressing their disapproval of large-scale urban and economic changes proposed by the government, attacks on freedom of the press and of expression, the encroachment on Turkey’s secularism and Erdogan’s authoritarian measures. The movement was eventually dispelled by the brutal governmental riposte, leaving many people injured or imprisoned.

Authorities made sure that the protests slogans and signs on the walls were swiftly painted over. Boskurt documented the grey patches that haunt the areas surrounding the unrest. They remain as ghosts of attempts to defend the rights to a fair society.

aaajiao, GFWlist, 2010. Photo: RIXC

The Great Wall of China, an over eight thousand kilometers-long series of fortification, was built to protect the Chinese states and empire against raids and incursions by nomadic peoples. Its information age equivalent, the Great Firewall of China, was engineered to regulate the Internet domestically and keep unwanted information, ideas and images out of the Chinese Internet. Both Chinese and foreign websites and news stories are censored by the GFW mechanisms.

GFWlist, by artist and activist Xu Wenkai aka aaajiao, is an installation that relentlessly prints the URLs of the websites that are banned on the Chinese Internet. A printer spits out the list on a long scroll of paper that falls down and forms a heap onto the floor. The printer is perched on a black monolith similar to the one that puzzles prehistoric humans in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 movie A Space Odyssey. The meaning of the monolith remains a mystery for most film critics. Some like to interpret the structure as a trigger of self-awareness in the early humans and thus the beginning of civilization.

Because China prohibits to even publish the list of the blocked web-addresses, aaajiao’s installation stands as a poetical but explicit message of civil disobedience.

Hamra Abbas, Text Edit, 2011

Hamra Abba’s video is simple and incredibly moving. The screen shows an email in the process of being written by a woman who is announcing her pregnancy to a friend. While composing her message, the writer keeps erasing and correcting her words, self-censoring for fear that her words might be monitored and misinterpreted. Her joke about how people “terrorized” her into having a child is being amended so that the word “terrorized” becomes “coaxed”. Similarly, words like ‘blast’ or ‘chaos’ suddenly take an ominous meaning and she quickly erases and replaces them.

Such is her fear of the possibility of being under surveillance, that the final version of her message is brief but bland and devoid of any of the joy you would expect in such circumstances.

Daniel G. Andújar, Let’s Democratise Democracy, 2011-ongoing

Daniel G. Andújar, Let’s Democratise Democracy, 2011-ongoing. Photo via think commons

During the celebration of Labor Day and then again the day before Spain’s general election in 2011, Daniel G. Andújar rented a small plane and flew a banner that said Democraticemos la democracia (Let’s Democratise Democracy) from Murcia to Alicante. His yellow banner reappeared several times in Spain that year. The slogan was translated and brandished in places as diverse as the Ministry of Defense in Belgrade, the nuclear shelter of Tito in Bosnia Herzegovina or a refugee camp in Western Sahara. Whether his slogan takes the form of stickers, posters, graffiti, flags or installations, it always adapts and takes a new meaning and target with each location. Depending on the context, the Let’s Democratise Democracy slogan is interpreted as a challenge to corruption, inflation, expulsions, surveillance, etc. The motto works no matter the type of attack on democracy.

Because the artist believes that public space belongs to everyone and that it must be continuously conquered from hegemonic attempts to control it, he encourages passersby who stumbles upon his project to document it with their phone and spread the message further.

Marc Lee, Security First, 2015. Photo: RIXC

Marc Lee, Security First, 2015. Photo: RIXC

Marc Lee, Security First, 2015

Marc Lee shows displays “the wonderful world of surveillance technology.” The array of surveillance cameras he lines up on shelves is completed by a monitor showing the website While the cctv apparatus is sold as the gateway to protection and peace of mind, the directory of online surveillance security cameras reminds us of the threat these cameras present for our privacy.

More works and images from the Global Control and Censorship exhibition:

Dan Perjovschi, Drawings, 1995–2015

Dan Perjovschi, Drawings, 1995–2015. Photo: RIXC

View of the exhibition space. Photo: RIXC

Erik Mátrai, Turul, 2012. Photo: RIXC

Ma Qiusha, Twilight Is the Ashes of Dusk, 2011

View of the exhibition space. Photo: RIXC

Also part of the exhibition: Peters Riekstins, Back to the Light.

The RIXC Open Fields conference, organized by RIXC the center for new media culture, is over but if you’re in Riga, don’t miss the accompanying exhibition: Global Control and Censorship. It’s at the National Libary of Latvia until 21 October 2018.

More images of the exhibition opening in RIXC’s flickr album.

* i think i will always miss the extraordinary bite and vision that Armin Medosch was bringing to the RIXC festival.

Global control, macho technology and the Krampus. Notes from the RIXC Open Fields conference

The RIXC Open Fields conference took place a couple of weeks ago in Riga, Latvia. Like each year, the event spurred conversations addressing the current and upcoming challenges of a society that is increasingly shaped by technology and science. This year’s edition specifically looked at ubiquitous surveillance and data privacy.

One of Dan Perjovschi’s drawings which is part of the Global Control and Censorship exhibition

The festival conference, titled GLOBAL CONTROL, investigated these issues from three main perspectives. The first, “hybrid war”, explored the rise of “post-truth” propaganda in media, its consequences on global politics and on individual nations. The second perspective dealt with the scale of surveillance and at its potential “depth” due to the development of immersive technologies. The third concerned “the next big privacy” issue and zoomed in on social media, the safety and future of the data we publish and the need to re-establish some kind of trust on/of social media.

As is often the case with conferences that invite multiple perspectives and speakers with backgrounds as different as architecture, choreography, computing, photography and feminism (to name just a few), the discussions often showed the impact that the main topic under study can have on areas that might seem unrelated: telepathy, feminism, public transport, memory loss, real estate, mattresses that outsmart you, etc.

It’s been a fun and intellectually stimulating conference. I came back with a notebook full of quotes, references to artworks and comments scribbled during the conference. Here’s a short selections of the ones i found most interesting:

Dani Ploeger, frontline, 2016-17. Still from 360 video, edited by William J. Bates

Dani Ploeger, Patrol, 2017. Photo by Alexia Manzano via Furtherfield

Dani Ploeger presented a body of works that investigates the coexistence of digital consumer culture and firearms in everyday life. fronterlebnis (“front experience”, a literary genre which romanticized the war experience and the camaraderie of being ‘brothers-in-arms’) emerged from two journeys through Ukraine, during which he spent some time with soldiers on the frontline in the war in Donbass, and explored shopping malls, weapon stores, monuments and flea markets.

In 2017, the artist got himself a press card and travelled to the so-called ‘ATO zone’ (Anti-Terrorist Operation zone) to document Ukrainian army and volunteer forces on the frontline.

Dani Ploeger, Patrol, 2017

For Patrol, one of the works in the series, Ploeger recorded a firefight on the frontline in East-Ukraine with his smartphone. In his short film, soldiers are handling technologies from two different centuries. On the one hand, they use kalashnikovs and other mid-20th century firearms. On the other, they use their state-of-the-art digital devices to record and share the documentation of their exploits on the frontline. Ploeger’s video footage was later transferred to 16mm film, a medium that echoes the era of the weapon technologies represented.

Dani Ploeger, frontline, 2016-17

His Fronline installation is set in a white space filled with loud war soundscape produced in a movie studio. In the middle of the room, a VR headset shows uneventful video documentation of a frontline position in East-Ukraine where a group of (slightly out of shape) soldiers is sitting down waiting for something to happen, reminding us that the reality of war might be less action-packed and far more frustrating than we might think for wanna be Rambo.

Ploeger’s work points to the complicity between two types of technologies that are the object of much fetishization: communication devices and firearms. It also highlights wider issues around society’s continued masculinised and fetishised relationship to war.

One of Sterling’s slides shows an American troll as seen by Russians

Multicolor Revolutions, the title of the keynote given by Bruce Sterling on the opening night, also evoked war and digital media in Ukraine after the Euromaidan demonstrations. The science-fiction author talked about the extravagant palace that Viktor Yanukovych built in secret in the middle of a forest outside of Kiev, American trolls pictured by Russians, cyberwarfare and much more. One of the most fascinating comments he made was that, from what appeared on forums and other digital media, people who live far away from the place of a conflict tend to be far more excited about the escalation of violence than people living in close proximity of it. Sterling said he was particularly worried about the rich guys who live far away from the scene of war. They might never have touched a weapon but they have enough money to pay an army of people who can rage a very damaging war electronically. However, he concluded, the one thing he’s most concerned about is climate change. Wise words!

As a parenthesis, i was very interested in a comment made after Sterling’s keynote by Rasa Smite who was moderating the evening. She too is concerned about the rich guys, the ones who see themselves as the new Medici and who throw big money and their own idea of ‘good art’ at major art events. Sometimes they do it with taste, sometimes not. What is certain is that the budget of the events they bankroll dwarfs the one of public-funded festivals like RIXC Open Fields festival.

Sound artist Jasmine Guffond contributed to the conference with a performance/presentation of Listening Back, a research based project that sonifies online data surveillance as one browses online. Focused on tracking cookies, the plug-in for chrome and firefox translates data generated from cookies into (rather unpleasant) sound, providing sonic evidence of otherwise invisible monitoring and data gathering infrastructures.

I couldn’t find any trace of the plug-in online but i still thought it was worth mentioning because i believe sonification can play an important role in the understanding of the extent of data collection (and exploitation.)

Karen Palmer, The Future of Immersive Filmmaking

Dr. Ellen Pearlman is the director of the ThoughtWorks Arts Residency, a program in New Yorks that supports artists exploring new lines of inquiry intersecting technology and society. In her keynote, she introduced us to some of the artists who developed their work with them. I was particularly interested in RIOT by digital filmmaker Karen Palmer.

Inspired by unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police killing of Michael Brown in 2014, RIOT is an emotionally responsive, live-action hybrid of film and game which uses facial recognition and A.I. technology to respond to your emotional state and alter the video story journey in real time. The objective is to get through a dangerous riot alive.

Palmer hopes that a new type of storytelling might shift people’s perspectives on social issues and raise more empathy towards multiple points of views.

Daniela Mitterberger and Tiziano Derme, The Savage Mind

Bad photo i took of one of the slides of Daniela Mitterberger and Tiziano Derme that showed The Krampus

I’ve always had a soft spot for the Krampus so i was delighted to see its cheerful little face appear in The Savage Mind, a project by Daniela Mitterberger and Tiziano Derme, co-Founders and directors at FutureRetrospectiveNarrative.

The Savage Mind uses digital architecture, data capturing technologies and VR to explore the relation between intangible cultural heritage, technology and the production of a speculative architecture. More specifically it focuses on the traditional Klaubauf ritual performed each winter in alpine villages in eastern Tyrol in Austria.

The project looks at how technology can translate the emotional data of a pagan ritual into new realms. It also explores how machines can help us reconsider the world of nature and play a role in the valorization of immaterial cultural heritage

Timo Toots, Memopol-2

In their joint presentation Privacy Experiments in Public and Artistic Spaces, Raivo Kelomees and Stacey Koosel, explored the parallels between Timo Toots‘ installation Memopol and the national ID card and public transport card currently used in Tallin, Estonia.

Estonia is notoriously well-ahead of other nations in terms of digitalization of its services. Memopol shows the drawbacks of this governmental policy. Visitors are invited to insert a national ID-card or passport into the Memopol machine which then starts collecting information about the visitor from (inter)national databases and the Internet. The data is then visualized on a large-scale display. In some cases, the amount of data gathered reaches disturbing dimensions: By logging in the government portal, citizen can see information from prescription drugs to high school exams, from tax reports to driving licenses. All recorded for unlimited time. This intrusion into private life doesn’t regard only Estonian citizens but each of us who use social network sites, public transport cards, loyalty shopping cards, etc.

One of the things that surprised me in Kelomees and Koosel’s presentation is that some of the inhabitants of Tallin protested AGAINST the city’s plan of offering free public transport to its citizens. Most people would think protesters were crazy but their discontent only showed that some people are well aware that privacy is the price to pay for free services nowadays.

An interesting paper mentioned during the conference was Heroic versus Collaborative AI for the Arts (PDF of the paper), by Mark d’Inverno and Jon McCormack. The text looks at the nature of the relationship between AI and Art and introduce two opposing concepts: that of “Heroic AI”, to describe the situation where the software takes on the role of the lone creative hero and “Collaborative AI” where the system supports, challenges and provokes the creative activity of humans. We then set out what we believe are the main challenges for AI research in understanding its potential relationship to art and art practice.

I’m going to end with a very disturbing business mentioned by Jens Hauser in his keynote “Ungreening Greenness”:

Not everyone complains about global warming in California. The drought is seen as a great business opportunity for a grass painting company called Green Canary. Its employees will be happy to come and paint your lawn whenever the grass is too pale. You can let that grass die and pretend that you’re rich enough not to be bothered by climate change.

The RIXC Open Fields conference, organized by RIXC the center for new media culture, is over but if you’re in Riga, don’t miss the accompanying exhibition: Global Control and Censorship. It’s at the National Libary of Latvia until 21 October 2018.

5 things i learnt at Forum Paradigm_Shift in Geneva last month

Back in May, i was in Geneva to attend the Forum Paradigm_Shift #2. The event, which was part of the audiovisual and digital art festival Mapping, investigated the theme “Humans + Machines by Design, not by Default”.

Forum Paradigm_Shift, Mapping Festival 2018 at HEAD Genève – Nouveau Campus. Photo (c) Stéphane Pecorini

The artists, designers, curators, scientists and philosophers invited delved into technodiversity, contemporary utopias and dystopias, the future of money, Glitch Feminism and cultural resistance, and the human-technology relationship from an artistic, philosophical and scientific point of view. This program, which had been curated by Carmen Salas, might sound a bit haphazard but it made for an exhilarating and thought-provoking day. Each of the speakers challenged, in their own way, dominant discourses around progress, technology, future and hybridity.

The videos of the keynotes and panels are online. Unfortunately, they seem to be available on facebook only so far. I’d still recommend you check them out because they build up a much-needed picture of some of the ethical and cultural reflections that surround digital technology today.

1. Cash is not dead

Rachel O’Dwyer at Paradigm Shift, Mapping Festival in Geneva

Rachel O’Dwyer‘s presentation Cash or Cache: What is your money saying about you? dissected the emerging politics around transactional data. She explained how the push for a cashless society on the part of states and platforms is creating new forms of business models based on data, not fees. Which of course entails new forms of discrimination and of surveillance but also new practices of resistance. Her talk was fascinating. I was particularly interested in her comments about how cash, though it doesn’t record traces of transactions anymore, can teach us a lot about the way paper money mediates social relationships as it moves from hand to hand. I liked the research made by Dirk Brockmann, a physicist from Humboldt University of Berlin.

Dirk Brockmann/Northwestern University. Image via NPR

A few years ago, Brockmann used the dollar bill tracking website Where’s George to visualize migratory patterns of banknotes. His map of those patterns of money exchanges shows how money moves and thus where American citizens go/don’t go and where they make or don’t make business. This builds a new geography of the U.S. with internal borders that disintegrate while others are almost never crossed.

2. Everything is NOT gonna be alright

Julian Oliver and Crystelle Vu, Extinction Gong, installed in the Tieranatomisches Theatre, Berlin, as part of The World as Forest (travelling exhibition, 2018). Photo by Anexact Office

Workers on tractors harvest soybeans in the deforested land of Campo Novo do Parecis, in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. Photograph: Maurilio Cheli/AP, via The Guardian

Julian Oliver at Paradigm Shift, Mapping Festival in Geneva

The panel Beyond The Utopia-Dystopia Mindset, moderated by curator Daphne Dragona, took us in a very different direction. The panelists were artist and critical engineer Julian Oliver and designer Tobias Revell.

Oliver defied everyone’s expectations by not talking about his artistic work nor any of the issues his presentations usually explore (data forensics, creative hacking, counter-surveillance, etc.) Instead, he gave us a crash course in the Anthropocene: from the 6th extinction (the extent of which the work Extinction Gong reveals in a simple and poignant way) to how our meat-based diet is responsible for 60% of global biodiversity loss; from deforestation to the text World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice.

His intervention might look at odds with what is usually discussed at digital art festivals but, as his talk also made clear, we can’t disconnect technology from the fate of our planet. To put it in words so blunt even cold-hearted utilitarians would understand, our resources in metals are not infinite (the digital world still relies on a very physical and very energy-hungry infrastructure) and we need insects, animals and plants to perform all sorts of services for us.

Oliver believes that we are in front of a narration challenge when it comes to the ongoing planetary crisis. On the one hand, he quoted, “We’re always preparing for the apocalypse we want” (author unknown). Black Mirror turned this desired apocalypse into dinner table conversations. In the episodes of the scifi series, humans are shown as resilient, cunning and ever resourceful beings.

Techno-centric discourses are not helping either. ‘Reverse climate change” is a delusion, things will not roll back to where things were on earth even if we manage to drop a few degrees back down. Things have already changed. Mass extinction is already well upon us for example.

What we need right now are realistic conversations about the future. They will not have the same feel good effects as techno-fix proposals such as the one that postulates that we only need to suck CO2 from the air in order to stop climate change. These conversations might even be a bit pessimistic but, as Derrick Jensen writes: Hope is what keeps us chained to the system, the conglomerate of people and ideas and ideals that is causing the destruction of the Earth.

Julian Oliver concluded that now is the time for artists and designers to react and embrace planetary crisis as a challenge. We need them to tell stories that would play a key role in propagating a new planetary subjectivity and shape a more realistic, more comprehensive ‘understanding as to how our chains of production and supply interact with both biosphere and climate.’

3. Understanding technology also means being ill-mannered towards it

Tobias Revell at Paradigm Shift, Mapping Festival in Geneva

In his contribution to the panel, Tobias Revell made a few fascinating points about using computer-generated imagery (CGI) for purposes that were not intended by the developers. Do check out his talk, it’s packed with interesting insights about strategy of breaking through the technology. I’ll just mention the ones that stuck with me long after the conference:

Nikita Diakur, Ugly Dynamics (Fest), 2018

Ugly Dynamics is a series of works in which Nikita Diakur explores CGI potential to create what he calls the “digital grotesque”. His renderings deconstruct the software and the physics that go into it, breaking apart the engine and revealing how it is made.

As Creative Applications writes: Nikita goes through a number of examples, showing how different dynamics affect models as well as produce very unexpected results. In some cases it is simply because the system doesn’t know how to deal with the set task and in another producing a beautiful result in this alter-reality worlds dictated by these rule based systems.

Screenshot from Dark Souls – SPEED RUN (0:26:58) with resets [Xbox 360]

Revell also introduced me to Speedrunning, a huge gaming subculture with videos that can get millions of views. The aim of speedrunning is to complete a video game as fast as possible. You don’t have to complete all the steps in the game, you don’t need to follow the narratives and rules set by the developers, you just have to get to the end as quickly as possible.

Speed runners play with the rules of the architecture that constructs the game, exploiting its glitches, loopholes, frame rate drops, bending the software and hardware to their will. To be a good speedrunner, you don’t need to be a good player. You need to have a nuanced understanding on how the world you live in is built and how it operates.

4. #GLITCHFEMINISM can help us decolonize the architecture of the body

Legacy Russell at Paradigm Shift, Mapping Festival in Geneva

Legacy Russell’s talk ‘URL IRL’ examined Glitch Feminism! Russel is a writer, an artist, a cultural producer and a glitch feminist. She is particularly interested in how the Internet (and the artists activating it) can be harnessed for creative resistance. Glitch Feminism is a cultural manifesto and movement that aims to use the digital as a means of resisting the hegemony of the corporeal. She defines #GLITCHFEMINISM as “a creative and political exploration of how the material the internet can expand -or glitch- the construct of the binary body. it deploys the language of ‘glitch’ in positing that an error within the flawed machine we operate within one that disproportionately enacts violence on historical ‘OTHERED’ bodies – is not an error at all, but rather an integral systems correction to the mechanics of culture and society as we know it.”

Internet is thus a space that asserts the violence against female and queer people and people of colour but it is also a place that allows them to defy and resist that violence.

Her first book ‘Glitch Feminism’ will be published by Verso at the end of the year.

5. Bodies are restless, open and, as such, should dispute the normal

Panel discussion ‘Minds, Bodies and the Machine’ at Mapping Festival 2018 — with Marco Donnarumma at HEAD Genève – Nouveau Campus. Photo (c) Stéphane Pecorini

Marco Donnarumma at Paradigm Shift, Mapping Festival in Geneva

The panel on Minds, Bodies and the Machine, moderated by the brilliant Rosario Hurtado, looked at how artists, designers and scientists respond to advances in the field of human-machine-interaction.

Marco Donnarumma, an artist and scholar investigating the relationships between body, sound and technology, kicked his presentation with images of purification rituals called skin cutting and ended up surprising me by adopting a feminist position.

Skin cutting rituals are performed in several parts of the world but the one the artist showed us is performed in Papua New Guinea. Deep cuts are made in the backs, arms, chest and buttocks of young men. The patterns adopted and the method of treating the wounds aim to sculpt the scars so that they remain raised when healed and make the skin look like the one of a crocodile, an animal the Kaningara worship.

The reason why Donnarumma’s practice explores these rituals so closely is that, according to him, they act as a gateway to think about how different societies establish criteria for what constitutes a normal body. In the case of the Kaningara tribesmen from PNG, a ‘standardized’ body allows men to hunt, get married and perform expected roles in society.

The problem with the ‘normal’ is that its definition is generally established by those in power.

Today, we’ve developed different and often more technology-mediated ways to define what’s normal. What hasn’t changed is that, again, the norms of the normal are being prescribed by those in power.

A clear example of that is Hiroshi Ishiguro‘s female android Erica. She is very pretty, very young, she is slim, has big lips, smooth skin and a fine nose. She is the epitome of a woman built by a man. What is regarded as normal for woman is thus reinforced by technology, disseminated in media and ends up being what our kids identify as being normal.

That’s why Donnarumma’s work explores alternative forms of embodiment. By creating tangible speculations about what different bodies can be, he hopes that something will be triggered in the mind of the viewers and that it will open gates onto ideas and counter cultures able to untie what we regard as normal.

Over the past 4 years, he has been working on what he calls “configurations” which are various types of assemblages of humans and machines.

Marco Donnarumma, Amygdala MK3

His Amygdala work for example is and artificially intelligent robotic limb that has been programmed to perceive its own body, respond to unforeseen reactions from others and cut its own skin, in a way inspired by the purification ritual of “skin-cutting”.

Marco Donnarumma, Eingeweide, a work in progress

The next step for Amygdala is to be part of Eingeweide, a ritual of coalescence in which the machine is attached to the artist’s body for a performance during which the two of them are searching for their own joint, bodily identity, a process which makes the distinction between them, between flesh and circuits, muscles and wires blurred and undefined.

For Donnarumma, it is important to abuse technology and use it to destroy traditional ideas of what constitutes the normal.

During the short debate at the end of the panel, he also had a few meaningful words about the necessity to think about who owns the tech that will change our bodies.

More images from Forum Paradigm_Shift #2:

‘Minds, Bodies and the Machine’ at Mapping Festival 2018 — with Jürg Lehni, at HEAD Genève – Nouveau Campus. Photo (c) Stéphane Pecorini

Minds, Bodies & The Machine panel discussion with Prof. David Rudrauf. Photo (c) Stéphane Pecorini

‘Minds, Bodies and the Machine’ at Mapping Festival 2018 — with Prof. David Rudrauf, at HEAD Genève – Nouveau Campus. Photo (c) Stéphane Pecorini

‘Minds, Bodies and the Machine’ at Mapping Festival 2018 — with Susanna Hertrich at HEAD Genève – Nouveau Campus. Photo (c) Stéphane Pecorini

Offshore tour operators, lithium landscapes and other things i discovered at MUTEK_IMG

A few weeks ago (two months ago actually but who counts?), i participated to MUTEK_IMG, the forum on current practices in digital creation at the Phi Centre in Montreal.

Sherry Kennedy and Greg J. Smith from HOLO magazine curated five of the panels in the programme. I missed one because jetlag but otherwise i got to hear some very interesting and, at times, provocative ideas about artificial intelligence, post-truth media, human-machine choreographies and automated storytelling tools. MUTEK_IMG could have been an event that uncritically extols the glories and wonders of digital technology. It wasn’t, or at least it wasn’t just that. In Montreal, i found food for thought, intelligent comments on tech and creativity and a desire to share some of that with you.

Here are 7 ideas i discovered at the festival:

1. The house next door might be part of the tax haven landscape

RYBN. Photo: Bruno Destombes for MUTEK

One of the members of RYBN.ORG, the French collective that uncovers the darkest and most esoteric aspects of finance, technologies and information, participated to the Automation Rules Everything Around Me panel. She also made a very brief intervention later on in an event in which she presented the groups’ Offshore Tour Operator project.

Basel Cross-Border Workshop data visualisation. Alain, Renée, Samuel, 21st january 2018. Photo: RYBN

Basel Cross-Border Workshop data visualisation. Alain, Renée, Samuel, 21st january 2018. Photo: RYBN

Basel Cross-Border Workshop data visualisation. M, K, Valérie P., 21st january 2018. Photo: RYBN

Basel Cross-Border Workshop data visualisation. M, K, Valérie P., 21st january 2018. Photo: RYBN

As part of an inquiry into tax avoidance and other tricks of the finance industry, RYBN organizes workshops in which participants are invited to literally walk through the offshore layer of their neighbourhood. “Offshore Tour Operator” is a psycho-geographic project that guides participants through the local addresses that appear in the panama papers database.

Equipped with a compass and a camera, participants have to find the physical locations of the shell companies, the ghosts addresses, mailboxes and other locations that compose the offshore network. Once in front of the building, they take pictures of the location, and, when possible, leave a message through the letter box.

If you are curious about the work, check out Aude Launay’s fascinating conversation with RYBN on ZeroDeux.

2. Criminalizing wealth is not on top of cities agenda

Brian Clifton, Sam Lavigne and Francis Tseng, White Collar Crime Risk Zones, March 2017

Artist and programmer Sam Lavigne gave us a quick tour of his projects during the panel titled Digital Art for a Post-Truth Reality.

I particularly liked White Collar Crime Risk Zones which uses machine learning to predict where financial crimes are mostly likely to occur across the US.

A similar system is used by police forces already but it focuses only on street crimes. The problems with predictive policing, as it has been applied so far, is that it often results in bias and a disproportionate targeting of impoverished communities of colour.

White Collar Crime Risk Zones is different though: it shows white collar crime, and not “street” crime. The software identifies locations with “risk likelihood” for crimes like unauthorized trading, insider dealing or breach of fiduciary duty and flags them as potential financial crime hotspots. Using profile photos of financial executives on the LinkedIn database, the work also shows a computer-generated image of what the “most likely suspect” looks like. He’s very white and very male!

The artist emailed mayors across the U.S. to inform them that WCCRZ could be a useful tool for crime-fighting. Sadly, alas, the answers he received indicate that catching and punishing members of poorer communities is much higher on their agenda.

3. How did i miss the memo on lithium?

City Everywhere by Liam Young (Lecture Performance) at MUTEK_IMG 2018

Liam Young/Unknown Fields, August 2015. Llipi, Bolivia’s first lithium production plant built on the world’s largest lithium deposit, the Salar De Uyuni. Photo via

Kate Davies and Liam Young/Unknown Fields, August 2015. Salar De Atacama. Photo via

In his City Everywhere keynote, speculative architect Liam Young looked at the diffusion of urban architecture. The architecture of today’s cities, far from being circumscribed to a limited perimeter, is built on a planetary-scale and densely-networked infrastructure. Young’s performance gave us a brief but affecting view of some of the minerals, innovations and mechanisms our modern life relies on. Most of them appear to be fragile and beyond anyone’s control. One of the aspects the video he showed us looked at the environmental cost of “clean” energy. In order to free ourselves from fossil fuels, we will have to increase the mining of lithium, a metal crucial for battery-powered technologies such as smartphones, laptops, electric cars, etc.

“Lithium-ion battery production is forecast to double to eight billion cells by 2025,” writes DW. “And the world price for lithium carbonate has almost doubled in a short span of time to about $13,000 per ton. A new analysis indicates that, without proper planning, there could be short-term bottlenecks in the supplies of some metals, particularly lithium and cobalt, that could cause temporary slowdowns in lithium-ion battery production.”

Young and his nomadic research studio Unknown Fields traveled to ‘the lithium triangle’: Bolivia (a country claimed to hold more lithium than anywhere on Earth), Argentina and Chile.

4. Coding suffers from linguistic imperialism

Ryan Stec, the artistic director of artengine in Ottawa, presented Artificial Imagination, a symposium about creativity in the age of algorithm, artificial intelligence and machine learning. And the two main things i remember from his talks are 1. the videos of the symposium are on vimeo. 2. the english language is fundamental to coding. According to him, the prevalence of english keeps the colonial axis alive.

5. Getting rid of enduring colonial influences can be a creative endeavour

Andre Baynes and Chiedza Pasipanodya from Hacking Black Futures. Photo: Bruno Destombes for MUTEK

Ashley Jane Lewis, Tree Tank, 2018. Photo

Andre Baynes and Chiedza Pasipanodya are the curators of Hacking Black Futures, an exhibition that took place at BAND [Black Artists Network Dialogue] in Toronto a few weeks ago. The duo described how their exhibition used design to speculate about Black-centric, post-capitalist societies. The participating projects explored how such societies would tackle problems that plague today’s world. No idea how they’d deal with coding but a future (hopefully?) edition of Hacking Black Futures might investigate the issue.

6. No one can resist a Gay Roman army

The panel Searching for Digital Aesthetics’ ‘Unknown Unknowns’ was particularly entertaining:

Alan Warburton. Photo: Bruno Destombes for MUTEK

Especially Alan Warburton‘s talk. I had heard of his work but never looked into it. Now i will. He’s brilliant. Here are just two of the works i found particularly moving and smart:

Alan Warburton, Training Camp, 2016

The film Training Camp applies a motion capture file labelled “Gay” in a online mocap library to a Roman soldier and then to an army of Roman soldiers.

Alan Warburton, Dust Bunny, 2015

Alan Warburton, Dust Bunny, 2015

Dust Bunny is a sculpture made of angora-like dust the artist harvested from the inside of ten 3D animation workstations at visual effects studio Mainframe in England.

Dust Bunny articulates a particular inversion that occurs between the real and the virtual: in the real world we seek to banish dust and dirt to optimise functionality, in CGI we labouriously reintroduce it at great cost – complex simulations, layered pseudo-random noise algorithms and intricately constructed 3D models seek to emulate the photographic, chaotic, infinitely dusty real world.

7. We’re ready to believe anything for love or a good headline

Tega Brain. Photo: Bruno Destombes for MUTEK

Smell Dating Press Clips

Tega Brain and Sam Lavigne, Smell Dating, 2016

Tega Brain took us through the depth of media gullibility with Smell Dating. A couple of years ago, she collaborated with Sam Lavigne to launch a matchmaking service built around body odour. You register, receive a T-shirt and wear it for three days. You’re not supposed to use deodorant nor perfume during that time. After that, you mail it back to the dating service and in return you receive 10 samples cut from the T-shirts of other participants. You sniff to your heart’s content, and once you’ve chosen your scent match, you get the phone numbers of your future dates.

It was a participatory art project and installation. As the video above demonstrates, mainstream media didn’t seem to have processed the ‘art’ element of the project. They laughed a lot during the news segments but in the end, they took the idea very very seriously.

For more info about the panels, check out Creative Applications‘ report Inventing the Future at MUTEK_IMG.

MUTEK_IMG audience. Photo: Bruno Destombes for MUTEK

Greg J. Smith from HOLO Magazine. Photo: Bruno Destombes for MUTEK

Daito Manabe. Photo: Bruno Destombes for MUTEK