Category Archives: transport

Kinshasa. Always on the move

Last month, i spent a few days in Leipzig. The food was awful but the quality of the art museums made up for all that over-boiled broccoli. I was so impressed by the architecture and the collection of MdbK that i went twice. But the one exhibition i’d recommend you don’t miss if ever you find yourself in or near the German city is Megalopolis: Voices from Kinshasa at the GRASSI Museum of Ethnography.

The first reason for my enthusiasm is Kinshasa, the fascinating capital of a country that deserves to be known for something else than its bleak politics, painful colonial past and richness in minerals. Kinshasa is a megacity with some twelve million inhabitants (other sources than the museum press release even talk about 17 million inhabitants.) It is Africa’s third-largest urban territory after Cairo and Lagos. It is also one of the world’s largest French-speaking urban area. The capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a cultural hub with barely any art market or art support. Local artists have thus developed creative, DIY solutions to make the best of the materials available around them. There’s a lot of recycling of electronics that Western countries discarded and dumped on African countries. Or ingenious improvisation with plastic syringes and flip-flops.

Flory Sinanduku, Homme seringue, 2018

The second reason why i suggest you swing by the Grassi museum is that Museum director Nanette Snoep asked Kinshasa-based artists Eddy Ekete and Freddy Tsimba to curate Megalopolis: Voices from Kinshasa. The exhibition is thus entirely in the hands of local talents, not European ethnologists and curators. They selected the artists who best represent the concerns and currents in Kinshas and were not afraid to spark conversations about the way European museums of ethnology deal with (often ill-gained) colonial cultural artefacts.

The third reason i loved the show is Azgard Itambo. I’ll always have a soft spot for street photography. And Azgard Itambo seems to have an eye as keen as Kiripo Katembo‘s when it comes to portraying the everyday life of the “Kinois”, the residents of Kinshasa. See for yourself:

Azgard Itambo, from the series Code K.I.N., 2018. GRASSI Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig, © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

Azgard Itambo, from the series Code K.I.N., 2018. GRASSI Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig, © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

Azgard Itambo, from the series Code K.I.N., 2018. GRASSI Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig, © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

Azgard Itambo, from the series Code K.I.N., 2018. GRASSI Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig, © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

Azgard Itambo, from the series Code K.I.N., 2018. GRASSI Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig, © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

Azgard Itambo, from the series Code K.I.N., 2018. GRASSI Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig, © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

Azgard Itambo, from the series Code K.I.N., 2018. GRASSI Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig, © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

Azgard Itambo, from the photo series Moving Kinshasa, 2017. GRASSI Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig, © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

Views from the exhibition:

Megalopolis: Voices from Kinshasa, 2018, GRASSI Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig, © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Photo: Mo Zaboli

Megalopolis: Voices from Kinshasa, 2018, GRASSI Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig, © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Photo: Mo Zaboli

Megalopolis: Voices from Kinshasa, 2018, GRASSI Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig, © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Photo: Mo Zaboli

I also enjoyed watching the video interviews with some of the artists in the show (mostly in french with German subtitles.)

Megalopolis: Voices from Kinshasa, curated by Eddy Ekete and Freddy Tsimba, is at the GRASSI Museum of Ethnography in Leipzig until 31 March 2019.

Paleo-energy: a counter-history of energy

“The history of energy is neither linear nor Darwinian. It is full of forgotten fantastic innovations…”

Augustin Mouchot and Abel Pifre, the first solar power printing press, 1882. Photo: Le petit inventeur

In 1866, Augustin Mouchot unveiled the world’s first parabolic solar collector and later used it to print newspapers in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris. At the end of the 19th century, pharmacologist Raphaël Dubois used photobacteria to generate light. Decades later, Nikola Tesla was working on a system that would transmit energy wirelessly, cheaply and over long distance. In 1947, Jean Laigret announced he had identified the bacterium that produces oil and could use it to turn organic waste into petroleum. His patent was never turned into a large scale venture and fell into oblivion.

Other energy efficient ideas are surprisingly mundane but remain overlooked: the pressure cooker, the Japanese kotatsu to keep your feet and legs warm during the winter and the Potato Patch Plan launched in 1894 by the mayor of Detroit Hazen Pingree to allow poor people to use vacant city land for growing food (saving thus on the energy and costs required to pack, ship, transform and sell produce.)

Others like the light bulbs that last for over a hundred year and Alkaline batteries that can be recharged up to 25 times don’t have the lucrative allure of planned obsolescence.

M. Leroy, The electric 2CV Citroën with propellers, 1974

The Bicycle Ride at Steeplechase Park in 1942. It was the oldest ride in the park at the time and dated from 1897. Acme Newsphotos

Many of these inventions were smart and efficient. The economy, culture and politics of the time explain why they have not been adopted widely. But today, it is urgent that we give them the consideration they deserve.

President Jimmy Carter dedicating the solar-thermal panels on the roof of the White House, 20 June 1979

The lack of support by governments is probably the most grating cause for their vanishing from public consciences. The case of The White House solar panels is a depressing example of a country that goes backwards at the expense of the environment and the health of its citizens. In 1979, Jimmy Carter had solar panels installed on the roof of the famous presidential residence to heat water. By 1986, the Reagan administration had slashed the budgets for renewable energy at the U.S. Department of Energy and gave priority again to fossil fuels, often from foreign suppliers. That same year, they also quietly dismantled the White House solar panel installation.

The members of Paléo Energétique comb through collections of dusty DIY magazines and archives to uncover forgotten patents, innovations and prototypes about the production of energy. The aim of their open source, collaborative research project is to share these forgotten ideas with engineers, designers and the broad public in order to shape collectively a more affordable and more eco-friendly energy future.

The website Paléo Energétique documents some of these surprising inventions from the past. If you want to learn even more about this research project (and you read french), i recommend you get your hands on the book Rétrofutur. Une contre-histoire des innovations énergétiques, by designer and researcher Cédric Carles, artist and engineer Thomas Ortiz, critic and writer Éric Dussert. With contributions by Ewen Chardronnet, Kevin Desmond, Ludovic Duhem, Alain Gras, etc. Published by Edition Buchet et Chastel.

Along with the presentation of each paleo-energy invention, the book contains essays that reflect on the meaning of technological progress, the ambivalent role of patents, the history of electric aviation, design fiction, artistic visions of energy, etc.

Here’s a couple of the most surprising green energy inventions from the past:

Ferdinand Porsche, Egger-Lohner electric car from 1898 (photo)

In 1898, Ferdinand Porsche presented the Egger-Lohner electric vehicle, C.2 Phaeton model (known as the ‘P1’ for short), the world’s first Porsche but also an electrically motored vehicle. It was fairly fast, had a range of around 80 km but its batteries were so heavy the vehicle could not be driven up steep roads.

Camille Jenatzy, La Jamais Contente, 1899

La Jamais Contente (“The Never Satisfied”) was the first road vehicle to go over 100 kilometres per hour. It was an electric car and used ultra light materials to compensate for the weight of the engine and batteries.

Augustin Mouchot and Abel Pifre, the first solar power printing press, 1882 (photo)

In 1866, after six years of work, Augustin Mouchot and his assistant Abel Pifre produced the world’s first parabolic solar collector. Mouchot’s device, developed 15 years before the dawn of commercial electricity generation, was used in demonstrations to power pumps, print newspapers in Paris and even ice-making machines.

Antoine Lavoisier, Heating soles, around 1780. Photo

Antoine Lavoisier, a French 18th-century chemist known for Lavoisier’s Law about the conservation of mass (“Rien ne se perd, rien ne se crée, tout se transforme” in English, “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed.”), imagined this pair heating soles. You would fill them with hot water and they’d keep your feet nice and toasty for a few hours.

Cynophère, a dog-powered bicycle invented in 1875 by M. Huret (photo)

A photophone receiver and headset, one half of Bell and Tainter’s optical telecommunication system of 1880 (photo)

While Alexander Graham Bell’s invention, the telephone, uses electricity to transmit voice communications, the Photophone relied on a beam of light to send sound. A person’s voice was projected through an instrument toward a mirror. The vibrations of the voice caused vibrations in the mirror. Sunlight was then directed into the mirror, where the vibrations were captured and projected back to the photophone’s receiver where they were converted back into sound.

Bell believed that the photophone was “the greatest invention [I have] ever made, greater than the telephone”. The photophone was indeed a precursor to the fiber-optic communication systems but it didn’t take off during his time simply because the system was useless whenever the weather was cloudy.

Fill Those Empty Seats. Car Sharing is a “Must”!, 1941-1945 (photo)

Propaganda poster distributed by the United States government during World War II to encourage carpooling among American citizens and conserve gasoline for the war. Another famous such posters read When You Ride Alone, You Ride with Hitler

Gyrobus (electric city buses powered by heavy spinning wheels) in Leopoldville, Congo, mid-1950s. Photo

M. Leroy, The electric 2CV Citroën with propellers, 1974

Luud Schimmelpennink, the Witcar

The “Witkar”, or white car, was the world’s first electric car-sharing scheme. Created by social inventor and politician, Luud Schimmelpennink, these small environmentally-acceptable vehicles took to the roads in 1974 in a bid to tackle pollution on the streets of Amsterdam.

Psychanalysis of the international airport

I can’t think of a place that’s more artificial, more regulated and more frustrating than an airport. With each passing year, the rules to navigate it get more draconian, the security procedures more invasive and its design more standardized. Yet, we are all expected to comply and accept what would be deemed unacceptable anywhere else.

Photo courtesy of Stéphane Degoutin and Gwenola Wagon

Artists and researchers Stéphane Degoutin and Gwenola Wagon have investigated and condensed the schizophrenia of international airports in performances, research and more recently in a book.

In their works, the artists dissect all the idiosyncrasies and absurdities of international airports.

Their analysis led them to speculate a Terrorism Museum, a space that places the traveler in a maximal state of alert. One roams inside visible and invisible security devices, which tend to cancel the slightest probability of a threat. Yet, in a vicious circle, the more present is the surveillance, the more real the threat seems.

Their research has humour, bite and darkness. What makes the work of Degoutin and Wagon particularly fascinating is how they draw parallels between airports and other areas of life: social media, wealth inequalities, western-centrism, etc. Their investigation becomes particularly disturbing when it details how many of tomorrow’s most intrusive technologies are being rehearsed in terminals across the world: the algorithms that analize your facial expressions, the driverless vehicles or the bees that sniff drugs and explosives.

I discovered their work last Summer while i was visiting the exhibition Aéroports / Ville-monde at the Gaîté Lyrique in Paris. Their installation featured copies of a Psychoanalysis of the International Airport – Museum of Terrorism booklet that compiled evidences of the ‘autistic architecture’ of airports and kept visitors glued to uncomfortable little chairs. Like everyone else in the room, I was as fascinated by the publication. Like everyone else, i asked the gallery shop staff if/where/how i could buy a copy. I couldn’t. Until now. The artistic duo has just published a book that delves with even more depth into the issue: Psychanalyse de l’aéroport international (available only in french so far.)

Stéphane Degoutin and Gwenola Wagon, Psychanalyse de l’aéroport international

Stéphane Degoutin and Gwenola Wagon, Psychanalyse de l’aéroport International

This was my cue to get in touch with the artists and ask them about their research on airports. Stéphane Degoutin teaches at ENSAD in Paris and is particularly interested in researching “mankind after man, the contemporary city after public space, architecture after pleasure.” Gwenola Wagon has produced numerous sound and moving image installations and is an Assistant Professor at the University of Paris at St. Denis. Together they founded Nogo Voyages.

Hi Gwenola and Stéphane! You call airport a “laboratory of modernity.” Could you tell us why?

SD: The airport is where different promises of the modern world are concentrated: the promise of moving freely around the globe, the promise of unlimited shopping,the promise of a completely rational organisation and the promise of a perfect surveillance. It embodies the desire of mastering the world. Yet, it is also the place where these promises meet their limits and their contradictions.

GW: The airport is at the crossroad of all kinds of transport (objects, animals, people). Its images of surveillance and control are relayed by its infrastructure and augmented by the ones that travelers make. Although matter is not teleportable, imagination still allows us to race through the stages of circulation. The airport becomes the place to fantasize about bodies propelled far away at high speed. Our writings are punctuated with documents: images, texts, news items, quotes, found fragments, testimonies with which we try to recompose the dreams of this place.

Photo courtesy of Stéphane Degoutin and Gwenola Wagon

And do you see signs that the invasive infrastructure of control over bodies and behaviour of this laboratory might be applied somewhere else in our daily experience of the city?

SD: Yes indeed. The control procedures which are first tested in the airport are then applied in many places in the city, see for instance the metal detectors, which have become common in many malls, museums and other public buildings and in many metro systems around the globe. In the LA metro system, a body scanner has been tested.

GW: The airport is an archetypal place, in terms of both space and behaviour. In the book, we have a chapter about what we call “Cultural LCD”, which can be defined as the Least Common Denominator of world cultures. A universal code that would be as neutral as possible, a standardized interface that allows different individuals or cultural groups to communicate with each other. However, the airport model is expanding further and further and contaminating railway stations, institutions, monuments, stadiums, concert halls, museums, international hotels, malls and urban duty-free shops, restaurants, museums, schools, universities, offices, motorway service areas, etc.

Stéphane Degoutin and Gwenola Wagon, Terorism Museum (video still), 2009-2013

I had a look at the video of the tour of the TERRORISM MUSEUM and was wondering how much complicity you had with the airport authorities. Your slow path and behaviour seem a bit at odd with the frenzy usually displayed by travellers and people working at the airport. You all looked a bit suspicious. So did you have to ask for some authorisation to do this tour inside the airport? Did they facilitate in anyway a tour that deconstructs the architecture of control and paranoia they deploy?

SD: For the Terrorism Museum project, we wanted to guide groups of visitors in the terminal 1 of Paris-Charles-de-Gaulle Airport, to speak of questions related to terrorism and surveillance. We asked an actor to act as a guide. He was whispering in a microphone a series of texts, which were transmitted to the ears of the visitors via a wireless system. It was really quite impressive to walk inside the terminal while visiting a museum dedicated to terrorism, along with the travellers, the police, the military and the homeless.

We did have an authorisation, thanks to the curator of this event, Andrea Urlberger, who was very persistent: she spent two years to get the proper authorisations. She wanted to host a series of art works in the terminal, including ours. She had previously worked with an airport in Munich (Germany), and there was no problem at all, but Paris was a different story… In the end, we said the title of the project was «Airport Museum» instead of «Terrorism Museum». Otherwise, it would have been impossible.

Why did you call the work Terrorism Museum? I understand the “terrorism” half but what is the significance of the term ‘museum’ in this context? There’s no display of artefacts.

SD: The idea is to create a museum of questions. We believe that the notion of « terrorism » is complex and we gathered a lot of texts by philosophers, press articles or by the terrorists themselves. We created a montage of these texts and we looked for a way to display them in an airport. We first thought of a virtual reality system, so that one could visit the museum by oneself, just by downloading an app on your cellphone. The texts would be geolocalised and you would visit them just by hanging around the airport. You would meet Bin Laden in the duty free and Habermas in the toilets, for instance. We created a prototype, but it was quite inefficient – we found out that the geolocalisation does not work properly in the airport. We presume the networks are blurred on purpose. Anyway, this is why we finally developed a « human » version of the project, with an actor, and we thought it was great.

GW: The museum is not disconnected from reality, it adds an extra layer to the space and superimposes overlays of theoretical questions to reality. The public visits it by walking through the real place, by making its way through the crowd, looking at shop windows, shopping, visiting the airport, etc. We developed this idea of a stealth museum to explores questions related to all the post 9/11 literature which, we thought, could fit inside a transportable museum that infiltrates directly the places which logic it questions and that uses available networks (GSM, Wifi, GPS…) to insinuates itself within its space. Nothing indicates its existence. Nobody knows you’re a visitor of the museum.

Photo courtesy of Stéphane Degoutin and Gwenola Wagon

Photo courtesy of Stéphane Degoutin and Gwenola Wagon

I remember the document you were showing at the Gaîté Lyrique for the exhibition Aéroports / Ville-Monde. It was full of wit, humour but darkness too. I sat there for a long time, reading through it and i sometimes think about its content when i have to take a plane now. How different is the book “Psychanalyse de l’aéroport International” that you are releasing with 369 editions? How much does it built upon the document i saw in Paris last year? And how much does it differ from it?

SD: The document you are referring to has first been produced for an exhibition at La Panacée in Montpellier. It was presented as a series of leaflets for the different rooms of the Terrorism Museum, so that you could take it with you at the airport. The different leaflets could be assembled together to form a book. The book we release now is based on it, but we have added a lot of texts, many new images, so that it is much bigger now. We also wrote a completely different introduction, to present the project to a wider audience. And it is no longer presented as the guidebook to the Terrorism Museum, but a project in its own right. The graphic design also has been completely changed by Louise Drulhe, the same graphic designer who conceived the first version. The idea was to make a book that would be accessible by a larger audience, not limiting ourselves to art centers. We would also love to publish the book in english of course.

GW: Several additional chapters complete the first artists book presented in Montpellier: L’aéroport comme archétype, Compulsion de normalité, Les somnambules du duty free, Vertige du lisse, Bulle de consolation, Stade oral du lounge et Crise d’hystérie dans la file d’attente (The airport as an Archetype, Compulsion of Normality, Duty Free Somnambulists, Dizziness of Smoothness, Bubble of Consolation, Oral Stage of the Lounge and Hysteria in the Queue), we also have new series of images as well as collected stories about the phenomenon of airport rage or about comfort animals. We want to show that the airport is, simultaneously, an archetypal place and a Crystal Palace of contemporary circulations. It clusters contradictions, connects injunctions of fluidity and of prohibition in order to safeguard us against all possible threats. This lead us to try and analyze it from the point of view of both its own logic and the paradoxical situations it provokes, to the point that it sometimes becomes the receptacle of the wildest stories.

Aéroports ville monde, at the Gaîté Lyrique

Aéroports ville monde, at the Gaîté Lyrique

Terminal P, at La Panacée, 2016

What i found most astonishing in your work is the depth and breath of the research that must have preceded the booklet i saw in Paris. Where did the information you gathered come from? interviews? stories read in newspapers/online?

SD: Thank you :) Well, it is an essay, so most of the material comes from our brains. We also gathered a lot of anecdotes from different sources, printed books, online magazines and blogs. We were interested not only in what really happened, but also in what people could fantasise (we hope the difference is clear in the book). We also read a lot of post 9/11 texts, because at that time, a lot of people have been forced to make sense of the events that occurred, and very deep texts have been published. Most of those we have gathered are by continental philosophers, but of course this is a subjective choice.

GW: We often carry out investigations in places that are off-limits (data center, animal farm, storage warehouse) that is why our research projects often emerge from documents that we would not be able to get hold of ourselves. Series of sleeping travelers, drunk, frisked exhibitionists… these documents and their captions disrupt the dramaturgy of our writings.

Many of the images come from advertisement. We divert them into another narrative that does not sell air conditioning, detectors nor robot guides. Instead, the narrative tells the story of the place through documents that we choose and combine with each other, like collages (after a very long selection) in order to reveal our relationship to the place.

For example, when we discovered the video of this woman throwing a tantrum after she’d missed her plane, it resonated with contained emotions that reach a climax through the pressure of extreme moments.

Crazy Airport Lady Throws Tantrum

Photo courtesy of Stéphane Degoutin and Gwenola Wagon

In the end, do we still have any form of agency or space for resistance when we move across an airport? Are we condemned to be victims of this infrastructure that regulates and invades our bodies?

SD : One who enters the airport abandons one’s power over one’s own body and free will. Of course, he gains the possibility to travel. It seems to obstruct even the possibility of thinking. This fragment of time during which one will abandon one’s free will to enter the huge machine is fascinating – and a bit frightening. We wanted to question this uncanny place.

GW: We do not seek to create spaces to think about dystopia, nor do we try to unnecessarily dramatize places that are already intrinsically tragic. On the contrary, we seek to show that the pinnacle of the hyper-nationality of certain spaces – such as airports – sometimes confines us to moments of pure absurdity. In the selected documents, certain situations or collages try to conjugate the absurd and the poetical. Laughter meets tragedy, a moment when we no longer know if we should laugh or cry. This tipping point, this ridgeline between emotions that could sometimes seem contradictory, that’s exactly where we try to position ourselves … while trying not to lose sight of the various layers of the place. Let’s hope that, with this book, readers can extend the analyzes and thoughts of the prismatic facets of the place, without forgetting its blind spots and its dead spots …

Thanks Stéphane Degoutin and Gwenola Wagon!

Stéphane Degoutin and Gwenola Wagon, Psychanalyse de l’aéroport International

Stéphane Degoutin and Gwenola Wagon, Psychanalyse de l’aéroport International

Photo courtesy of Stéphane Degoutin and Gwenola Wagon

Psychanalyse de l’aéroport International, by Stéphane Degoutin and Gwenola Wagon is edited by 369 editions. Right now available only in french. Hopefully, an english version will follow!

Previously: Airports: forerunners of a new world or microcosms of their own?

Interview with James Bridle about human deskilling and machine understanding

James Bridle, Untitled (Autonomous Trap 001)

Tesla customers who want to take advantage of its cars AutoPilot mode are required to agree that the system is in a “public beta phase”. They are also expected to keep their hands on the wheel and “maintain control and responsibility for the vehicle.”

Almost a year ago, Joshua Brown was driving on the highway in Florida when he decided to put his Tesla car into self-driving mode. It was a bright Spring day and the vehicle’s sensors failed to distinguish a white tractor-trailer crossing the highway against a bright sky. The car didn’t brake and Brown was the first person to die in a self-driving car accident.

Autonomous cars have since been associated with a growing number of errors, accidents, glitches and other malfunctions. Interestingly, human trust in these technologies doesn’t seem to falter: we assume that the technology ‘knows’ what it is doing and are lulled into a false sense of safety. Tech companies are only too happy to confirm that bias and usually blame the humans for any crash or flaw.

James Bridle, Autonomous Trap 001 (Salt Ritual, Mount Parnassus, Work In Progress), 2017

James Bridle, Installation view of Failing to Distinguish Between a Tractor Trailer and the Bright White Sky at Nome Gallery, Berlin, 2017. Photo: Gianmarco Bresao

James Bridle‘s solo show Failing to Distinguish Between a Tractor Trailer and the Bright White Sky, which recently opened at NOME project in Berlin, explores the arrival of technologies of prediction and automation into our everyday lives.

The most discussed work in the show is a video showing a driverless car entrapped inside a double circle of road markings made with salt. The vehicle, seemingly unable to make sense of the conflicting information, barely moves back and forth as if under the spell of a mysterious force.

The work demonstrates admirably the limitation of machine perception, the pitfalls of a technology which inner working and logic is completely opaque to us, the difference between human and machine comprehension, between accuracy and reliability.

I sometimes wonder how aware most of us really are of the impact that self-driving vehicles will have on our life: soon we might not be able to read maps not just because GPS have made that skill superfluous but because these maps will be unintelligible to us; we might even be seen as too unreliable behind a wheel and be forbidden to drive cars (we’ll have sex instead apparently.)

Taking as their central subject the self-driving car, the works in the exhibition test the limits of human knowing and machine perception, strategize modes of resistance to algorithmic regimes, and devise new myths and poetic possibilities for an age of computation.

It feels strangely ominous to write about autonomous machines on the 1st of May, a day celebrated as International Workers’ Day. After all, these smart systems are going to ‘put us out of job‘. And truck drivers, taxi drivers, delivery drivers are among the professions which will be hit first.

James Bridle, Untitled (Activated Cloud), 2017

I asked the artist, theorist and writer to tell us more about the exhibition:

Hi James! I had a look at the video and not a lot is happening once the car is inside the circle. Which is exactly what you wanted to show of course. But for all i know, the machine could have stopped to work just because it never worked as an autonomous vehicle in the first place and you could be hiding inside making it move a bit. Could you explain what the machine sees and what causes the car to stall?

The car in the video is not autonomous. My main inspiration for the project was in understanding machine learning, and the system I developed – based on the research and work of many others – was entirely in software. I kitted out a regular car with cameras and sensors – some off the shelf, some I developed myself – and drove it around for days on end. This data is then fed into a neural network, a kind of software modelled originally on the brain itself, which learns to make associations between the datapoints: knowing the kind of speed, or steering angle, which should be associated with certain road conditions, it learns to reproduce them.

I’m really interested in this kind of AI which instead of attempting to describe all the rules of the world from the outset, develops them as a result of direct experience. The result of this form of training is both very powerful, and sometimes very unexpected and strange, as we’re becoming aware of through so many stories about AI “mistakes” and biases. As these systems become more and more embedded in the world, i think it’s really important to understand them better, and also participate in their creation.

My software is developed to the point where it can read the road ahead, keep to its lane, react to other vehicles and turnings – but in a very limited way. I certainly would not put my life in its hands, but it does give me a window into the way in which such systems function. In the Activations series of prints in the exhibition, which show the way in which the machine translates incoming video data into information, you can see the things highlighted as most significant: the edges of the road, and the white lines which direct it. Any machine trained to obey the rules of the road would and should obey the “rules” of the autonomous trap because it’s simply a no entry sign – but whether such rules are included in the training data of the new generation of “intelligent” vehicles is an open question.

James Bridle, Untitled (Activation 002), 2017

James Bridle, Untitled (Activation 004), 2017

It is a bit daunting to realise that a technology as sophisticated as a driverless car can be fooled by a couple of kilos of salt. In a sense your role fulfills the same role as the one of hackers who enter a system to point to its flaws and gaps and thus help the developers and corporations to fix the problem. Have you had any feedback from people in the car industry after the work was published in various magazines?

The autonomous trap is indeed a potential white hat or black hat op. In machine learning, this might be called an “adversarial example” – that is, a situation deliberately engineered to trick the system, so it can learn from and defend against such tricks in the future. It might be useful to some researcher, I don’t really know. But as I’m interested in the ways in which machine intelligence differs from human intelligence, I’ve been following closely many techniques for generating adversarial examples – research papers which show, for example, the ways in which image classifiers can be fooled either with entirely bizarre random-looking images, or with images that, to a human, are indistinguishable. What I like about the trap is that it’s an adversarial example that sits in the middle – that is recognisable to both machine and human senses. As a result, it’s both offensive and communicative – it’s really trying to find a middle or common ground, a space of potential cooperation rather than competition.

You placed the car inside a salt circle on a road leading to Mount Parnassus (instead of on a car park or any other urban location any artist dealing with tech would do!). The experiment with the autonomous car is thus surrounded by mythology, Dyonisian mysteries and magic.Why do you embed this sophisticated technology into myths and enigmatic forces?

The mythological aspects of the project weren’t planned from the beginning, but they have been becoming more pronounced in my work for some time now. While working on the Cloud Index project last year I spent a lot of time with medieval mystical texts, and particularly The Cloud of Unknowing, as a way of thinking through other meanings of “the cloud”, as both computer network and way of knowing.

In particular, I’m interested in a language that admits doubt and uncertainty, that acknowledges that there are things we cannot know yet must take into account, in a way that contemporary technological discourse does not. This seems like a crucial form of discourse for an interconnected yet increasingly complex and fragmented world.

In the autonomous car project, the association with Mount Parnassus and its mythology came about quite simply because I was driving around Attica in order to train the car, and it’s pretty much impossible to drive around Greece without encountering sites from ancient mythology. And this mythology is a continuous thread, not just something from the history books. As I was driving around, I was listening to Robert Graves’ Greek Myths, which connects Greek mythology to pre-Classical animism and ritual cults, as well as to the birth of Christianity and other monotheistic religions. There’s a cave on the side of Mount Parnassus which was sacred, like all rustic caves, to Pan, but has also been written about as a hiding place for the infant Zeus, and various nymphs. The same cave was used by Greek partisans hiding from the Ottoman armies in the nineteenth century and the Nazis occupiers in the twentieth, and no doubt on many other occasions throughout history – there’s a reason those stories were written about that place, and the writing of those stories allowed for that place to retain its power and use. Mythology and magic have always been forms of encoded and active story-telling, and this is what I believe and want technology to be: an agential and inherently political activity, understood as something participatory, illuminating, and potentially emancipatory.

James Bridle, Installation view of Failing to Distinguish Between a Tractor Trailer and the Bright White Sky at Nome Gallery, Berlin, 2017. Photo: Gianmarco Bresao

James Bridle, Installation view of Failing to Distinguish Between a Tractor Trailer and the Bright White Sky at Nome Gallery, Berlin, 2017. Photo: Gianmarco Bresao

Your practice as an artist and thinker is widely recognised so i suspect that you could have knocked on the door of Tesla or Volkswagen and get an autonomous car to play with. Why did you find it so important to build your own self-driving car?

I think it’s incredibly important to understand the medium you’re working with, which in my case was machine vision and machine intelligence as applied to a self-driving car – something that makes its own way in the world. By understanding the materiality of the medium, you really get a sense of a much wider range of possibilities for it – something you will never do with someone else’s machine. I’m not really interested in what Tesla or VW want to do with a self-driving car – although I have a fairly good idea – rather, I’m interested in thinking through and with this technology, and proposing alternative pathways for it – such as getting lost and therefore generating new and unexpected experiences, rather than ones pre-programmed by the manufacturer. Moreover, I’m interested in the very fact that it’s possible for me to do this, and for showing that it’s possible, which is itself today a radical act.

I believe there’s a concrete and causal relationship between the complexity of the systems we encounter every day, the opacity with which most of those systems are constructed or described, and fundamental, global issues of inequality, violence, populism and fundamentalism. Only through self-education, self-organisation, and new forms of systemic literacy can we counter these currents: programming is one form of systemic literacy, demonstrating the accessibility and comprehensibility of these technologies is another.

The salt circle is associated with protection. Do you think our society should be protected from autonomous vehicles?

In certain ways, absolutely. There are many potential benefits to autonomous vehicles, in terms of road safety and ecology, but like all of our technologies there’s also great risk, particularly when control of these vehicles is entirely privatised and corporatised. The best model for an autonomous vehicle future is basically good public transport – so why aren’t we building that? At the moment, the biggest players in autonomous vehicles are the traditional vehicle manufacturers – hardly beacons of social or environmental responsibility – and Silicon Valley zaibatsus such as Google and Uber, whose primary motivation is financialising virtual labour until they develop AI which can cut humans out of the loop entirely. For me, the autonomous vehicle stands in most particularly for the deskilling and automation of all forms of labour (including, in Google’s case, cognitive labour), and as such is a tool for degrading individual and collective agency. This will happen first to truck and taxi drivers, but will slowly extend to most of the workforce which, despite accelerationist dreams, is currently shredding rather than building a social framework which might support a low-work future. So, looked at that way, the corporate-controlled autonomous vehicle and automation in general is absolutely something that should be resisted, while it fails to serve the interest of most of the people it effects.

In all things, technological determinism – the idea that a particular outcome is inevitable because the technology for it exists – must be opposed. Knowing where the off switch is a vital and necessary complement to the kind of democratic involvement in the design process described above.

The artist statement in the catalogue of the show says that you worked with software and geography. I understand the necessity of the software but geography? What was the role and importance of geography in the project? How did you work with it?

The question which I kept returning to while working on the project, alongside “what does it mean for me to make an autonomous car?” is “what does it mean to make it here?” – that is, not on a test track in Bavaria or a former military base in Silicon Valley, but in Greece, a place with a very different material history and social present. How does a machine see the world when its experience is of fields, mountains, and winding tracks, rather than Californian highways and German autobahns? What is the role of automation in a place already suffering under austerity and unemployment – but which also has always produced its own, characteristic responses to instability? One of the things I find fascinating about the so-called autonomous vehicle is that, in comparison to the traditional car, it’s really as far from autonomous as you can get. It must constantly return to the network, constantly update itself, constantly observe and learn from the world, in order to be able to operate. In this way, it also seems to embody some potentially more connected and more community-minded world – more akin to some of the social movements so active in Greece today than the atomised, alienated passengers of late capitalism.

James Bridle, Gradient Ascent, 2016

James Bridle, Gradient Ascent, 2016

In the video and catalogue text entitled “Gradient Ascent”, Mount Parnassus and the journeys around it becomes an allegory both for general curiosity, and for specific problem-solving: one of the precise techniques in computer science for maximising a complex function is the random walk. Re-instituting geography within the domain of the machine becomes one of the ways of humanising it.

I was reading on Creators that this is just the beginning of a series of experiments for the car. Do you already know where you will go next with the technology?

I’m still quite resistant to the idea of asking a manufacturer for an actual vehicle, and for now my resources are pretty limited, but it might be possible to move onto the mechanical part of the project in other ways – I’ve had some interest from academic and research groups. I think there’s lots more to be done in exploring other uses for the autonomous vehicle – as well as questions of agency and liability. What might autonomous vehicles do to borders, for example, when their driverless nature makes them more akin to packets on a borderless digital network? What new forms of community, as hinted above, might they engender? On the other hand, I never set out to build a fully functioning car, but to understand and think through the processes of developing it, and to learn from the journey itself. I think I’m more interested in the future of machine intelligence and machinic thinking than I am in the specifics of autonomous vehicles, but I hope it won’t be the last time I get to collaborate with a system like this.

Thanks James!

James Bridle’s solo show Failing to Distinguish Between a Tractor Trailer and the Bright White Sky is at NOME project in Berlin until July 29, 2017

The Ascent: dynamics and geometries of the workplace

Ilona Gaynor, The Ascent. Exhibition view at the International Biennial of Design in Saint Etienne. Photo: Ilona Gaynor

Ilona Gaynor, The Ascent. Exhibition view at the International Biennial of Design in Saint Etienne. Photo: Ilona Gaynor

Corporations and other large firms, especially U.S. ones, routinely send their employees on team-building survival courses. Most of these one or two-day experiences teach participants how to light a fire, build a shelter, find edible plants and otherwise ‘survive in the jungle.’

For some companies, however, a survival experience is not enough. They want to see how individuals within their team can handle extreme situations, how much it takes for them to ‘hit their threshold’. That’s how white-collar workers find themselves in fake aircraft cabins, real indoor pools and inflatable raft, learning how to survive plane crashes, fires, war scenarios and other catastrophes.

Organizations that had so far instructed people working for the police, the army or security firms are now adapting their equipment, training and simulations to coach these new, usually desk-bound workers.

A preliminary exercise in learning to escape from a submerged cockpit. Credit George Etheredge for The New York Times

When Olivier Peyricot, Scientific Director of the International Biennial of Design in Saint Etienne, invited Ilona Gaynor to reflect on the main theme of the biennale, work, its shifting paradigms and future, she didn’t come up with an object, didn’t propose any near-future scenario nor speculated on the impact that AI, 3D printing or climate change will have on jobs.

Instead, she found inspiration in an article about plane crash simulation for office employees, reflected on the dynamics of social mobility, wrote a 4 act play and designed a set for a theater performance that might never take place.

Ilona Gaynor, The Ascent. Photo: Ilona Gaynor

The play is called The Ascent. It centers around a law firm that goes on a morale boosting training day. The exercise takes place inside a plane designed specifically to simulate a plane crash and teach people how to escape the mayhem that ensues. However, there’s a (real) technical problem and things quickly get out of hands inside the fake plane. Everything goes terribly terribly wrong for the characters of this fiction inside a fiction. Not that you care for any of them. They are rude, catty and supremely unpleasant.

In their daily life, these people scramble for a promotion. On the plane, they compete as ruthlessly for sheer survival.

The Ascent is an intriguing parable about the ecosystems of power, about people who have lost any illusion they might have had about their job but still fight for it, even if that means hitting their colleagues below the belt or submitting themselves to some inane team-building activity.

Ilona Gaynor, The Ascent. Exhibition view at the International Biennial of Design in Saint Etienne. Photo: Ilona Gaynor

Ilona Gaynor, The Ascent. Exhibition view at the International Biennial of Design in Saint Etienne. Photo: Ilona Gaynor

The work attempts to examine the discrete nature of class politics; paralleling contemporary workplace geometries from multiple vantage points; subtly questioning the assumption that all progress in life or in the workplace is purely vertical. It’s as much about finding escape routes as it is about ‘climbing a ladder’.

I asked Ilona Gaynor to tell us more about her participation to the Design Biennale in Saint-Etienne:

Hi Ilona! The Ascent seems to push the boundaries of design, the discipline itself but also the way it is exhibited and experienced. Visually, the work is very seductive but to experience it, the visitors have to properly sit down, read the full play, imagine the protagonists, perform the interactions in his or her head and form their own conclusions and associations with what work culture means to them. Why did you choose a setting that resists so many of the usual codes of design and design exhibitions?

It was a commission from Olivier Peyricot for the 10th edition of the St Etienne Biennale and it seemed somewhat important for him that the constraints of the previous editions be addressed, in wanting to make it a more conceptually challenging design exhibition. As opposed to somewhere like the Milan, Salone del Mobile – which is very market oriented and relies heavily on expensive spectacle and brand association. Olivier asked a team of writers, curators and researchers from backgrounds in philosophy and art criticism (rather than designers) to search for writers, artists and designers that worked in contrary to this and I suppose this was myself, amongst others.

Designers for a while now have been describing their work as “narrative” or “fiction” without really pertaining to what that might entail and how to utilize fiction within design as tool for exploring language, sequence, chronologies and so on (and of course there are exceptions.) But it’s become a fairly benign turn of phrase: ‘design fiction’, ‘fiction futures’, ‘speculative fictions’, ‘virtual fictions’ and so on; for the justification of making work that needn’t exist or be imagined within the critical constraints, complexities or nuances of our reality. It’s become a confusing and lost space that has somehow separated itself too far apart from both: its original critical intent and the opposite end of the spectrum; in so much that I wonder where the motivations for making all this work lies… I’m fairly certain that it no longer lies in the nature of criticism, but elsewhere… design has begun to reposition itself as a sort of stubbed, depoliticized science fiction; rather than shaping and regulating the contemporary critical imagination.

As such I wanted to stay away from the conventions of design; particularly speculative design. The Ascent is an experiment. Whilst I’m not suggesting at all that this work comes close to resolving my own thoughts about the broader issues of design… it is an attempt to relate design, language and image in a way that is more than simply suggestive of fiction, but a written work of fiction. An affirmed allegory; grounded in its criticism (in its most traditional semantic sense) that examines a particular aspect of the contemporary working condition – presented as a four act play and its accompanying set. It was also important for me to exhibit something that wasn’t burdened with the reliance of an object as its only voice with which to speak.

So I wrote a play that uses design to reinforce its spatial and political narrative; as opposed to the reverse.

Ilona Gaynor, The Ascent. Exhibition view at the International Biennial of Design in Saint Etienne. Photo: Ilona Gaynor

Ilona Gaynor, The Ascent. Exhibition view at the International Biennial of Design in Saint Etienne. Photo: Ilona Gaynor

How do you manage to make visitors of the biennale engage with a theater play that is never performed?

I’ve always thought the magic of an experience was in never experiencing it. In that designing and writing in anticipation was far more interesting, more imaginative somehow… I loved the book designed by M/M Paris Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made. It’s a curated collection of the research materials for Kubrick’s unrealised film Napoleon. A pantheon of a project in that it was all the preparatory material for a film that would only ever come to exist as a dense collection pre-production notes. Depicted through: 15,000 locations that were scouted and documented, Napoleonic images, sketches, architectural drawings, costumes, typographic title studies and dialogues between film studios and historians. It’s a beautiful collection of research materials that I imagine would have been disappointing if eventually realized, in contrast to the vast and acute details of his proposal. I often think that most events and films were probably more imaginative and compelling on paper then in their final realization.

In contrary to this, it would have been very difficult to keep up a performance of longevity throughout the course of an exhibition with thousands of visitors. It was hard to tell how many engaged with the work… and it’s never been something that’s really concerned me; but it is a question that always comes up and I think it’s a question that’s highly unique to design. But my primary attempt to engage with the audience was in the design of the set itself. Minimal in its geometry; the planes structure is formed in tubular steel and designed to be a reduced three dimensional line drawing, that could be seen in plan section from above as printed in the play manuscript. The structure; rendered in white; details the fuselage, wing span, tail fin and pointed nose of the cockpit. The interior is divided into four sections: First Class, Business Class, Economy Class and Pilots Quarters and in each of these sections sits rows of folding chairs that are proportionally spaced in correspondence to the class they are located in; some having more leg room then others. As written in the play, the characters are separated amongst the three class sections according to their position within the law firm they all work at: junior staff, administrative and secretarial staff were sat in economy, the partners in first class and the senior staff within business class. Positioned on selected back rests of the seats are signs labelling character seat assignments; freezing them in position for the audience to imagine them sitting in position; undisturbed after boarding.
Insert United Airlines joke here

I chose the location of a plane for The Ascent for a variety of reasons… but one aspect that was particularly important is the pre-existing connotations that relate to class and the tensions that surface when thinking about air travel.

The visual and spatial divide of wealth, status and political standing that occurs within such an acute space is always really striking to me upon boarding. Of course, the ironic overbearance being that if it were to crash, we’d probably all die just as equally. In act four however; entitled “Dying,” the plane tips backwards, submerging economy class in water, forcing the passengers to ascend; climbing up the seats to reach first class – which ultimately sets on fire. Those whom have managed survive that sequence of disasters, are either forcibly drowned by other co-workers (other lawyers) or are electrocuted when a powerline falls into the water.

Ilona Gaynor, The Ascent. Photo: Ilona Gaynor

Ilona Gaynor, The Ascent. Exhibition view at the International Biennial of Design in Saint Etienne. Photo: Ilona Gaynor

If you had the money, would you consider having it performed? or turned into a video?

There will be several readings of it with each of the characters being read by actors, separate from the set. But no performance in any kind of a spatial way, although I’d certainly change my mind if the appropriate opportunity presented itself.

The work evokes a TV series (you mention House of Cards for example in your essay) and also Hollywood disaster movies. So why did you choose to communicate your idea through a theatre play?

I don’t remember mentioning Hollywood disaster films.

You didn’t. I’m the one who thought about disaster movies…

Historically, theatre existed as a political tool to enhance the popularity of leaders needing support. Funded by the rich and powerful through taxation; with the hopes that the success of the plays they had sponsored would provide them with a way into politics. But it soon evolved… becoming a medium with which to critically investigate the world they lived in and what it meant to be human through three strands of dramatization: comedy, tragedy and satyr. I chose theatre, rather than television as a way to refer back to these traditions of political theatre; whereby the subjects of contention were always class related and often dealt with ideas of labor, abuse of power and man’s relationship with the gods.

When I think of “work” I’m immediately drawn into an aesthetic of air conditioned office spaces, with shitty stained carpets and suffocating plants gasping for fresh air; amongst the smell of cheap percolated coffee and the sound of photocopiers. It’s a rich behavioral and acutely aesthetic environment; rife with cynicism. I’ve been captivated by it for years and was something I was keen to take a closer look at. I love the original British TV series The Office (2001) and Chris Morris’s Jam (2000) and I somehow wanted to captivate and exaggerate the criticisms that could be drawn out through amplifying what might happen in the event of putting a clash of archetypes in a pressured, but perilous environment or situation.

The play is set on an airplane simulator that is used as a training environment for coping with extreme scenario situations. These types of simulation experiences are used by organisations; such as investment banking and law firms as away-day experiences for training their staff; the implied implication being that it would improve team work under pressure and a boost staff morale. I came across this phenomenon upon reading an article published in the New York Times titled “Need a better morale boost in the workplace? Simulate a plane crash.” It was a title I imagined would have been read aloud by a character from Beetlejuice. The article detailed the nature of simulating plane crashes, whereby the fuselage crashes into water and you and your colleagues are all trapped under water and must escape before drowning. There’s a lovely quote that reads “There are specific types of groups that like high-risk activities,” he said, citing lawyers and people in sales, public relations or marketing. Those in social work, nursing, finance or engineering, he said, might not be as keen to face the fear of drowning.” Quite simply I thought that this was it… this is enough material here to shape a comedy; a unique situation that would escalate the typical work place tensions in a pressured environment; where politics, bias, life and death was all conflated to margins of time.

Trainees brace before entering the water in the simulator. Credit George Etheredge for The New York Times

Students help one another board an inflatable raft. Credit George Etheredge for The New York Times

Participants learn to swim as a group. Credit George Etheredge for The New York Times

The Ascent is part of a biennale that explores the work practices of the future. Your vision on the theme is bleak. The employees of the company are rude and selfish, there is still a lot of sexism, the plane staff advertise coca cola and starbucks as the only way to appease nervous passengers, etc. Does this scenario echo the direction that work culture is taking?

I think I was the only designer that didn’t position my work within the future. I never do; optimists belong in the future and I’m certainly not an optimist. We already live in a dystopia and any attempt to imagine it in the future would be a facile endeavor somehow. As such I imagine (the western and middle class) working environment is already this way… although, much subtler in its ruthlessness. I’m not sure my framing is all that bleak but rather an outwardly cynical view. The play was actually written as a black comedy and I was told when it was translated into French became a much, much darker read.

The characters were highly exaggerated, so much so that they were written as paired archetypes; notated as (One and Two) that were designed to reflect one another’s selfish, uncompromising and draconian nature. As previously mentioned all the characters were organised and positioned by class within the corresponding sections of the plane. Among them: The Pricks are located in First Class, The Passives in Business Class and The Nobodies and numbered seats were located in Economy Class. Female characters have no personal identification and were simply labeled as Woman One and Two. I felt it was important to heighten the sexist and abusive nature directed at the female characters, whilst at the same time making light of it…

The essay “Our Attempts to Ascend. Escape Routes and Cosmic Trapdoors” was written for the exhibition catalogue and puts forth a repositioning of the current definitions of work, as a form of contemporary escapology. A spatial practice that is navigated between those that move horizontally– adopting moves, conflicts and entanglements; as a reckoning material force with which to escape their shrinking space, whilst afterwards recover their expansiveness (the Frank Underwoods). And those that attempt to move vertically­– but either through mental exhaustion and exploitation; fail to fully discern the required amount of complexity in relations, impulses and directives… resulting in compelled attempts to escape in an effort to save themselves, rather than being able to successfully maneuver.

The Ascent attempts to reflect a moment in time, when these two definitions collide.

Ilona Gaynor, The Ascent. EExhibition view at the International Biennial of Design in Saint Etienne. Photo: Ilona Gaynor

Thanks Ilona!

The Seed Journey to preserve plant genetic diversity. An interview with Amy Franceschini

Seed varieties have declined significantly since the beginning of time. First, with plant domestication and now, increasingly, through homogenization, industrialisation, privatization and commodification of our seed stock. Independent groups are currently working as private protectors of genetic diversity by cultivating endangered varieties in their home gardens, sharing seeds with other seed savers, but also lobbying the EU to make sure that a new proposal for seed marketing regulation will promote agricultural biodiversity, small-farmers’ rights, global food security and consumer choices.

Flatbread Society Soil Procession, 2016. Photo by Monica Loevdahl

Futurefarmers Seed Journey, 2016. Photo: Nina Sahrauoi

The need for a robust and vibrant culture of seed diversity was one of the motivations that led Amy Franceschini and Futurefarmers to establish the Flatbread Society – a collective of farmers, artists, activists, scientists and other people involved in urban food production and preservation of the commons. Since 2012, the group have been working in a permanent “common” area on the waterfront development of Bjørvika in Olso, Norway. They built an urban farm, an allotment community, an ancient grain field and a bakehouse.

Last year, however, a delegation of the Flatbread Society embarked on a year-long sailing expedition that will take them from Oslo to Istanbul. On board is a rotating crew of artists, sailors, anthropologists, activists, writers, ecologists, etc. As for the cargo, it consists mostly of grain seeds that had been lost or forgotten.

Along their journey to the Middle East, where the cultivated grains originated, the members of the crew stop in harbours to meet artisan bakers and farmers, make flatbread, collect and exchange seeds but also document and retrace the journey that the seeds made thousands of years ago.

Artes Mundi 7: Amy Franceschini, founder of Futurefarmers explains the Seed Journey. Video Artes Mundi

I talked with Amy Franceschini a few weeks ago about the Flatbread Society’s extraordinary sailing adventure and about their efforts to raise awareness around the need for the development of plant genetic diversity.

Flatbread Society, 2016. Photo by Monica Loevdahl

Flatbread Society, 2016. Photo by Monica Loevdahl

Hi Amy! First of all, I’m quite curious about the seeds you’ve decided to take on this ‘reverse journey’ to Turkey. Which varieties of grains did you select exactly?

We started with a Finnish Rye. We came to this rye when searching for someone farming “ancient” grains in Oslo. We have been working on a public artwork in the former port of Oslo for the last 5 years. The center piece of this work is a grain field featuring ancient grains that have been rescued from interesting places. 

For example, this Finnish Rye was found between two boards in an old sauna used by the Forest Finns in the early 1900’s to dry their grains. 

This grain was thought to be lost, but an amateur archaeologist rediscovered it.

Our project in Oslo is located on a “commons” – a piece of land set aside within this waterfront development that should be accessible to all. We took the tradition of Norwegian commons to heart in this project and wanted these ancient grains to symbolize the biological commons which is currently at risk due to the privatization and commodification of our seed stock. 

“The return of ancient seeds is like reverse engineering, taking apart this long history fold-by-fold. This voyage is an allegory, one forever open to chance. Our participation from afar breathes wind into the sails of the future”
Michael Taussig, Seed Journey on-board ethnographer.

Flatbread Society Seed Collection, 2014. Photo: Futurefarmers

And why did you chose to travel with these particular seeds? 

Each of these seeds have a particular story of rescue associated with them. And through the planting and exchanging of them comes an awakening. For example, a variety of barley that we have with us came by way of St. Petersburg. Nikolai Vavilov collected more seeds from around the world than any other person in history. He was one of the first scientists to really listen to traditional farmers, peasant farmers — and ask why they felt seed diversity was important in their fields. During the siege of Leningrad in 1941, Vavilov was imprisoned by Stalin where he starved to death. He became the main opponent of Stalin’s favored scientist Trofim Lysenko for his defense of Mendelian theory. Just a few blocks away in the Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry, Vavilov’s staff scientists locked themselves in the seed bank to diligently protect his seeds. Over half a million people starved to death during the 28 month siege while these twelve scientists filled their pockets with grains so that future generations would be able to grow food. When the allied troops arrived at the seed bank they found the emaciated bodies of the botanists lying next to untouched sacks of wheat and other edible seeds -a genetic legacy for which they paid with their lives.

Futurefarmers Seed Ceremony, 2017. Photo: Mads Hårstad Pålsrud

Futurefarmers Seed Ceremony, 2017. Photo: Mads Hårstad Pålsrud

Futurefarmers Seed Ceremony, 2017. Photo: Mads Hårstad Pålsrud

Another wheat we have is called Brueghel. During an archaeological dig in a church in Pajottenland, Belgium, charred rye and wheat seeds were found. The archaeologists and a group of local farmers call these found seeds Bruegelseeds because they date from the time of Bruegel, the old Belgian painter known for landscapes and peasant scenes.

A group of young farmers want to make a “BruegelBread”, a bread made in the landscape of Bruegel. For the moment all of the grain for human consumption in this region comes from abroad and they would like to reinstall a local chain from the ‘Bruegelseed’ to the ‘Bruegelbread’.

This April 1st, we summon this ancient Brueghel grain and imagine what Bruegel would paint or make in 2017. Futurefarmers will host a Seed Ceremony at the Heetveldemolen – Heetveld Windmill. On this day many farmers will gather to share their unique and local cultivated grains. A handful of Brueghel grain will be launched onto the Futurefarmers Canoe Oven and rowed from canal, river and into the Schelde to Christiania.

Flatbread Society, Futurefarmers’ Canoe Oven, 2013. Photo: Max McClure

This journey to the Middle East can be seen as an awakening of the memory—the long journey the grain itself has taken—through the hands of time.

— Michael Taussig, Now Let Us Praise Famous Seeds

Will you be collecting other seeds along the way?

Yes. Collect, share, collect.
We collect and share at each stop. We carry a small wooden boat that holds all of the seeds we collect.

Our mothership RS10 Christiania carries an ingeniously crafted mini-boat “like a chalice.” Containing small amounts of old wheat and rye seeds collected along the journey.

These seeds are like jewels. The disproportion in size between the small chalice and the mother vessel carrying it symbolizes preciousness as does the very idea of a prolonged voyage using wind and sail as the means of propulsion.
Michael Taussig, Let Us Now Praise Famous Seeds

The mini boat of RS10 Christiania. Image courtesy of Futurefarmers

The mini boat of RS10 Christiania. Image courtesy of Futurefarmers

What do you mean when you say that the seeds have been ‘rescued’? Rescued from what or whom? And how? To what purpose?

The latin root of the word “rescue” is to return.

The seeds we choose to carry with us are seeds that were either lost or fell out of production and then found again, like the stories I referred to earlier, or they are seeds that farmers have gotten out of gene banks that have not been grown for 30-80 years. These farmers are working to return these seeds to the ground and into production rather than sitting dormant in gene banks.

The seeds they are growing fell out of production before the green revolution, so they have not been homogenized. But if they are not grown each year as a landrace, they do not have the opportunity to adapt to their local growing environment; soil, weather and social desire – taste.

Our collaborator in Norway is very busy collecting grains out of gene banks and getting them into the ground. He says,

“We don’t need a museum to conserve varieties, what we want is to grow them. “
-Johan Swärd, Norwegian farmer, Brandbu

It is truly our only hope for shifting from the dominant agricultural framework to a smaller, more local scale production of food.

Flatbread Society, 2016. Photo by Monica Loevdahl

Flatbread Society, 2016. Photo by Monica Loevdahl

Flatbread Society (Baking workshop), 2016. Photo by Monica Loevdahl

Why is this important to use heritage grains?

Agribusiness supplanted locally adapted seeds with fewer varieties of seeds: until the late 19th century, most plants existed as highly heterogeneous landraces. Over the past century of modern breeding, attempts to produce cultivars that meet the advanced agriculture demands of an increasing population has resulted in the landraces being almost wholly displaced by genetically uniform cultivars. The result has been a narrowing genetic base that puts these plants and the future of food at serious risk.

And aren’t they threatened with being patented like other grains?

It is said that wheat and rye were domesticated in Kurdistan and through gift and trade not to mention wind, birds, and animals, made their way north to Europe to become the “staff of life.” These “old” seeds come loaded with an underground history at once social and biological. The domestication of plants involved a long march through trial and error, not to mention chance, whereby certain varieties became reliable foodstuff. It was a revolution in world history, ushering in what is called the Neolithic period with tremendous consequences, one of which, of course, was deforestation. Another was the birth of the state and private property. We sail along the cusp of many contradictions.

Cultivators in each and every micro-climate developed their own varieties of seed stock from their harvests to the present time when, all of a sudden, such practices have been declared illegal. Another revolution is afoot. Farmers who continue with old stocks are at risk of arrest. They too are now an endangered species. In referring to themselves as such they cement an alliance — biological and political — with the plant world, which is what Flatbread Society is doing as well.

At the moment, they are such a small market and the farmers who are bringing them back into production are not interested in profit as such, but sustainability. The ideal scenario for these seeds would be to stay small in scale in terms of production and very local, so that they are adapted to a local biotope, ecology, taste and weather. This would enable a very local, durable and resilient economy, but not one based on surplus or growth per se.

But yes, these seeds can be in danger of being collected by large companies, patented and homogenized.

For example, Tanzanian farmers are facing heavy prison sentences if they continue their traditional seed exchange.

Amy Franceschini / Futurefarmers, Flatbread Society, Seed Journey, 2016 -17. Prints, charcoal drawings, video, benches, sail, canary cage and performance. Artes Mundi 7 installation view, National Museum Cardiff, 2016

Amy Franceschini / Futurefarmers, Flatbread Society, Seed Journey, 2016 -17. Prints, charcoal drawings, video, benches, sail, canary cage and performance. Artes Mundi 7 installation view, National Museum Cardiff, 2016

Ever since I’ve followed your work, I’ve been amazed by the way you connect with audiences outside of the traditional art venues. So how do you communicate this project and the issues behind it (politics of food production, role of grains in the economy, environmental challenges, knowledge sharing, etc.) to the people you encounter along the way?

We still depend on the arts institution as our main support. They are a very important amplifier of our work. They have a much wider media reach than we do. Through them, we have the capacity to bring farmers onto a cultural stage, which in some cases validates their work as seminally cultural. For example, when we exhibited at the National Museum in Cardiff for the Artes Mundi Shortlist exhibition, we were able to host a Seed Ceremony / Exchange with the Welsh Grain forum. We hosted this in the National Library inside the National Museum. Since we had access to this space our project became more legitimate and we were able to extend this legitimization to the farmers work by inviting them. The farmers work became legitimatized as a cultural practice and was documented by the BBC which gives their work a voice.

As Seed Journey moves along its route, word gets out and when we arrive in small or large harbors we are often welcomed by a small group of hosts, a town mayor, the local newspaper and passersby. We try to announce our arrival when we know the time/day of our arrival- to the mayor of small towns, align with harvest, sowing festivals, align with maritime Community. Our boat has an allure in itself, so a few times when we arrive at a marina, the harbor master is quite proud to have us and calls the local media.

For us, the message must move beyond the art venue, but the art venue is a valuable collaborator.

RS-10 Christiania, 2010. Photo: Martin Hoy

RS-10 Christiania. Photo courtesy of Futurefarmers

And then there’s the RS-10 Christiania boat! It is stunning! How did you end up with that boat?

Be careful what you wish for. The whole idea of the Seed Journey was really a very seed of an idea provoked by a day out on the Oslo fjord with Lars Hektoen, a Norwegian alternative banker. We were discussing the idea that seeds were once the first currency in many places. I proposed the idea of sailing the seeds we had been growing in Oslo back to the middle east as a way to unravel this history and theories of how these seeds migrated and how surplus seed stock availed so many aspects of “civilization”.

He immediately said, “fantastic!” If you do such a journey, you must take a Colin Archer rescue sailboat. They are safe, steady and still are a few in Norway.

Through our commissioner in Oslo, a meeting was set up with the Petersen brothers, the owners of RS 10 Christiania (Rescue Sailboat Christiania). A mutual excitement about the project emerged and an agreement was made to sail her and our seeds to Istanbul.

The boat is a beautiful thread of our story. She is a slow and steady craft. You can feel her line of duty as she sails us towards the unknown.

She is also the most expensive part of our journey, which has proven to be a challenge and might force us to abandon ship in Leg 2 and transfer to another vessel. But we will be launching a Kickstarter campaign in mid-May to try to keep her and the Petersen’s with us. But if you already would like to donate, our homepage is accepting donations.

A side note, Christiania sunk in the north sea in 1995 – also a point of reference to rescue.

Flatbread Society Bakehouse, Oslo, Norway, 2016. Photo: Monica Loevdahl

Is there anything in its story or design that particularly connects with the Flatbread Society/Seed Journey project?

Flatbread Society is a durational public art project in Oslo Norway which includes a Grain field, a Bakehouse and 10 years + of artistic programing. The grainfield connects Norway’s agricultural heritage to the present, extending the metaphor of cultivation to larger ideas of self-determination and the foregrounding of organic processes in the development of land use, social relations, and cultural forms. The presence of this grainfield against the backdrop of the city of Oslo and the Barcode — its openness and fluidity — stand in stark contrast, culturally and physically, to the rational and rigid development in the surrounding areas of Oslo.

In 2015 a group of 75 people, swarms of bees and a colony of airborne and soil-based microorganisms gathered in a geo-location now called Losæter — a museum without walls where an expanding inventory of ancient grains are growing.

Since then, a selection of seven grains have been planted upon this new common area in Oslo. Each variety has been “rescued” from various locations in the Northern Hemisphere — from the very formal (seeds saved during the Siege of Leningrad from the Vavilov Institute seed bank) to the informal (experimental archaeologists discovering Finnish Rye between two wooden boards in an abandoned sauna in Hamar, Norway). Together with local farmers Johan Swård and Anders Naes, these seeds and the knowledge of how to grow, harvest, mill and bake them have become embedded in the project.

Horse plough in Losæter

Could you tell us a few words about the people who accompany you on this journey? What is their role and how did you select them?

The project inherited an imaginary early on. Each time we speak of this journey, it fills ones mind with joy, hope, and wonder as well as being viewed as a critical project that needs to be happening right now. There is an absurdity and persistence to the project that captures people.

Many people enlisted themselves and soon enough we had an incredible crew of artists, anthropologists, ecologists, farmers and sailors. The core crew was born out of a conversation in Gent, Belgium over two years ago whereby, we asked each other, “If you had to be on a boat with this mission, who would need to be on this journey?” At this point it was more of a fantasy, but we wrote down many names, and most of them are now formal crew members.

The idea is that a rotating crew of artists, scientists, writers and farmers research
interests influence the journey, but the grains ultimately guide the route. Seed Journey maps not only space, but also time and phylogeny: while the more familiar space yields a cartographic map, time yields history and phylogeny yields a picture of networks of relationships between and among living beings —relationships between cultural groups, but also between human and non-human living forms such as seeds, sea-life and the terrestrial species from the various places and times we will traverse.

You have travelled (or will have travelled? I don’t know where you are at the moment) from Oslo to Cardiff with the project. What will happen (or did happen) during the Cardiff stop? What did you find in Wales?

September 17, Oslo we departed with a Send Off procession from the FBS grainfield to a fleet of Colin Archer rescue boats and other smaller boats to send us off.

We headed to Cardiff via Denmark and London where we met farmers, bakers and brewers and eventually shared all of the seeds gathered with the Welsh grain forum (as described above).

On April 1, we will have a pre-send off gathering in Belgium in collaboration with Muhka and Middleheimmuseum and a host of farmers and millers from Pajottenland.

On April 18, we will formally send off from Antwerp en route to Istanbul via
Jersey Island (Morning Boat residency), San Sebastian/ Tabakalera and Santander/ Botin Foundation.

Seed Journey Broadside

What do you hope will be the impact of this reverse journey?

We try not to think in terms of “impact”. This is a work in progress and it still has a lot to tell us and to discover. We hope to protect this space without the terms of impact, outcomes etc. But of course a basic drive for the project is to raise the status of the small farmer’s work, validate this work, connect farmers in various locations so as to strengthen the network that is working to protect farmers rights and most importantly to keep the seeds in the hands of many rather than a few.

Thanks Amy!

Airports: forerunners of a new world or microcosms of their own?

Jonathan Monk, Waiting for Famous People (Marcel Duchamp), 1997. Photo: Galleri Nicolai Wallner

Aéroports / Ville-monde, an exhibition open until 21 May at the Gaîté Lyrique in Paris, invites visitors to look behind the sanitized, codified and paranoid facade of airports and ask themselves whether airports are harbingers of a new order or microcosms of their own.

In an advanced globalized era, the airport is a lab for our contemporary life. It echoes and fixes all the major themes that rhythm life in our societies: mobility and surveillance, immigration and consumption, terrorism and globalized connection. Linked from one another by a uniform protocol, from Marseille to Yellowknife, they might be today the suburbs of an “invisible world capital”, foreseen by the SF writer J.G. Ballard, the tarmac of a global village, the doorstep of an artificial and virtualized world.

Hiraki Sawa, Dwelling, 2002

The exhibition recreates some of the key moments of your passage through an airport terminal: you get a boarding pass at the entrance, walk through Matthias Gommel‘s queue management system, stop at Marnix de Nijs‘ security portal equipped with a biometric software that will probe your facial features and matches them to famous characters (i tried several times and was ‘recognized’ as an actress of erotic horror movie, thanks!), etc.

The exhibition is entertaining without ever verging on the funfair. It has depth, insights and the ambition to make us see airports as more than icons of non-places and glorified shopping mails. Airports are symbols of globalization, territories of hyper-controlled behaviour, gateways to movement, etc. And as recent events in the U.S.A. have demonstrated, they’ve also become spaces for civic expression. When Trump’s travel ban blocked entry of migrants from 7 Muslim countries, including green card holders, people flocked to airports with signs and messages of solidarity to demonstrate their opposition to the policy.

Matthias Gommel, Untitled (Passage), 2011. Aéroports, Ville-Monde, exposition à la Gaîté Lyrique du 23 février au 21 mai 2017. Photo: © vinciane lebrun-verguethen/voyez-vous

Marnix de Nijs, Physiognomic Scrutinizer, 2008-2009. Aéroports, Ville-Monde, exposition à la Gaîté Lyrique du 23 février au 21 mai 2017. Photo: © vinciane lebrun-verguethen/voyez-vous

Aéroports / Ville-monde is designed like a temporary airport terminal that gets more intriguing and troubling as you move from one artwork to another. Here’s a very quick walk through some of the works i found particularly interesting in the exhibition:

Adrian Paci, Centro di Permanenza Temporeana, 2007. Photo via artslife

Adrian Paci, Centro di Permanenza Temporeana, 2007

Adrian Paci’s work highlights the repercussions of conflicts, social revolutions and soon i’m sure the effects of climate change that will transform many of us into environmental migrants. In our capitalistic society, goods are free to travel, human bodies are not if they don’t have the ‘right’ documents. The video Centro di Permanenza Temporeana (Center of Temporary Permanence) shows people stepping onto boarding stairs. Once they’ve reached the top, there is no cabin for them to enter. The planes slowly pass behind them and these people remain standing with dignity on the pitiful platform, excluded from the economy of movements and from the promise of a better future in another country.

Paci’s exploration of migration issues echo his own experience. In 1997, the artist had to leave Albania with his wife and two daughters and settled in Milan. At the time, his country was in a state of crisis and protests bordering on civil war.

Cécile Babiole, Couloir Aérien, 2016. Couloir Aérien, 2016. Installation view at La Gaîté yrique

Cécile Babiole, Couloir Aérien, 2016. Aéroports, Ville-Monde, exposition à la Gaîté Lyrique du 23 février au 21 mai 2017. Photo: © vinciane lebrun-verguethen/voyez-vous

Cécile Babiole’s installation Couloir Aérien makes loud and intrusive the civilian air traffic flying over and around the building of the Gaîté Lyrique. The system detects the ADS-B (Automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast) signals emitted by aircraft and amplifies them. Sounds of otherwise unnoticed flyovers suddenly invade the space according, while a video screen visualizes the source of these otherwise unnoticed sounds: flight name, altitude, latitude, longitude, speed.

Stéphane Degoutin and Gwenola Wagon, Psychoanalysis of the International Airport – Museum of Terrorism

Stéphane Degoutin and Gwenola Wagon, Psychoanalysis of the International Airport – Museum of Terrorism. Aéroports, Ville-Monde, exposition à la Gaîté Lyrique du 23 février au 21 mai 2017. Photo: © vinciane lebrun-verguethen/voyez-vous

Stéphane Degoutin and Gwenola Wagon, Psychoanalysis of the International Airport – Museum of Terrorism. Aéroports, Ville-Monde, exposition à la Gaîté Lyrique du 23 février au 21 mai 2017. Photo: © vinciane lebrun-verguethen/voyez-vous

Artists and researchers, Stéphane Degoutin and Gwenola Wagon present the airport as a museum of terrorism, a place characterized by the coexistence of the fantasy of the disaster, of the absolute surveillance, of the omnipresence, of unlimited shopping.

The installation Psychoanalysis of the International Airport – Museum of Terrorism at the Gaîté takes the form of a long table where people sit down and read the booklet Psychanalyse de l’aéroport international in which Degoutin and Wagon have compiled evidences that airports operate as space where bodies made transparent are shifted through ‘autistic architecture’, where threat is over-dramatized and surveillance is becoming increasingly arbitrary.

The book manages to be both hilarious and thought-provoking. Every single visitor who sits down to briefly browse through it ends up being glued to their chair.

Discovered in the book (sorry i couldn’t resist):

In 2012, John E. Brennan got naked while going through a checkpoint at Portland airport as a protest against invasive Transportation Security Administration procedures, such as body scans and pat downs

Joseph Popper, The Same Face (installation detail), 2015

Aéroports, Ville-Monde, exposition à la Gaîté Lyrique du 23 février au 21 mai 2017. Photo: © vinciane lebrun-verguethen/voyez-vous

The Same Face plays on the similarities between flight simulation video games and drone command centers. Both exploit digital technologies but only pilots of drone control rooms can wreak havoc and kill real human beings at a distance. The work takes the bombing of Brighton’s Grand Hotel by the IRA in 1984 as a point of departure, where the location of the event is one of a series of landscapes reimagined from 5000ft high.

David Thomas Smith, Anthropocene Series, 2006 (Beijing International Airport, Beijing, People’s Republic of China)

David Thomas Smith, Anthropocene Series, 2006 (Las Vegas, NV, United States of America)

David Thomas Smith takes screenshots of Google Earth aerial images and organizes them into complex tapestries that visualize the elaborated structures of global capitalism’s centers. “I would like people to come away with a sense of the scale on which the world operates,” the artist explained in an interview with Canadian Geographic. “The power that mankind has at its finger tips, and then, hopefully, they may begin to question how that power is used.”

Masha Shubina, Lost and Found series, 2016

Masha Shubina’s self-portraits are printed on aircraft security cards. She’s defiant, hiding her face behind a balaclava or a traditional Ukrainian scarf, brandishing a Molotov cocktail and displaying behaviours that could get her arrested. Especially in an airport.

Jasmina Cibic, JC01 – Lufthansa, 2006

JC01-Lufthansa is part of a series of photographs representing the inside of the cabin of an aircraft that was under repaired at the Ljubljana airport in Slovenia. The artist took advantage of the fact that the planes were immobilized and emptied and she decorated them with hunting trophies collected by a Yugoslavian general. Two worlds collide in this image, Western Europe’s capitalist vision and the rugged terrain of Yugoslavian history.

More images from the show:

Hiraki Sawa, Dwelling, 2002

Aéroports, Ville-Monde, exposition à la Gaîté Lyrique du 23 février au 21 mai 2017. Photo: © vinciane lebrun-verguethen/voyez-vous

Aéroports, Ville-Monde, exposition à la Gaîté Lyrique du 23 février au 21 mai 2017. Photo: © vinciane lebrun-verguethen/voyez-vous

Aéroports, Ville-Monde, exposition à la Gaîté Lyrique du 23 février au 21 mai 2017. Photo: © vinciane lebrun-verguethen/voyez-vous

Aéroports / Ville-monde is at the Gaîté Lyrique in Paris until 21 May 2017

VOLVO 240 Transformed into 4 Drones

Zuzanna Janin, VOLVO240 Transformed into 4 Drones, 2014. Photo: lokal_30 Gallery Warsaw

Zuzanna Janin, VOLVO240 Transformed into 4 Drones, 2014. Photo: lokal_30 Gallery Warsaw

Just what the title says, really. Here’s what the official description of this work by Polish artist Zuzanna Janin says:

This sculptural installation VOLVO240 Transformed Into 4 Drones comprising four elements is the artist’s latest work, in which the old family Volvo 240 is changed into four smaller vehicles of various types: drones recalling military equipment used for killing, but also for observation, navigation and surveillance, vehicles used to save lives. The artist once again sensitises us to the “in-between” zone – on the boundary of the era described by technological achievements and accelerated cultural changes, in the era of control and of uncontrolled observation of the world around us.

Janin is represented by the lokal_30 Gallery in Warsaw. I visited the gallery a few weeks ago when they had a solo show of video art pioneer Józef Robakowski. Part of the exhibition showed 1980s recordings of rather vigorous music concerts, especially of the punk group Moskwa. Robakowski got to know the members of the group, made promotional photos for them that were quite edgy and radical at the time but still look like the kind of images that fashion photographers attempt to shoot nowadays. He also did music videos for the band. These videos are raw and fascinating. Because it might have been tricky to shoot a punk video in the streets of Poland at the time, the artist shot them directly from TV footage by placing his camera right in front of the screen.

Józef Robakowski, Moskwa, 1986

Józef Robakowski, Moskwa performing

I was planning to write about Robakowski’s show and Polish punk from the ’80s but then i spotted the car turned drones in the catalogue from the gallery and there was no turning back: i had to publish the photos of Janin’s sculpture on the blog.

A Moroccan hand-crafted copy of a Mercedes-Benz V12 engine

Studio Rémi Villaggi - 50 Bd de l'Europe - 57070 Metz Port: + 33(0)6 80 14 94 95
Eric van Hove, V12 Laraki Gear Box, 2015. View of the exhibition Eppur si muove . Art and technology, a shared sphere, Mudam Luxembourg. Photo: Rémi Villaggi, Metz / Mudam Luxembourg

There is a truly amazing exhibition at the MUDAM in Luxembourg at the moment and it’s called Eppur Si Muove. Art and Technology, A shared Sphere. Organized in partnership with the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris, the show looks at the many links that exist between visual arts and sciences. Contemporary artworks mix with machines and objects that have shaped the history of science. Each of the artefacts on show has amazing stories to tell. Hopefully, i’ll find some time to write about them before Eppur Si Muove closes its doors on 17 January.

Right now, i’d like to talk about one of the works i discovered in the show. It is so stunning that it manages to outshine Damian Ortega’s dismantled Vespa that is hanging nearby.

V12 Laraki, Oil Pump, 2013. Cow bone, wood glue, Chinese superglue, recycled copper, resin, dye, tin, lemon wood, paint and yellow copper. Photo Copperfield Gallery

V12 Laraki, Intake manifold (2013) Yellow copper, tin, nickelled silver. Photo Copperfield Gallery

The story starts in 2004 when Moroccan entrepreneur and designer Abdeslam Laraki had the idea of building a supercar that would be 100% Moroccan made. His Laraki Fulgura looked like an Italian luxury sport car but lacked the engine. Thinking manufacturing it in his country would be too demanding, Laraki simply imported a Mercedes V12 engine.

Artist Eric van Hove took up where Laraki left. His V12 Laraki project is a perfect copy of a Mercedes-Benz 6.2L V12 engine. Except that each of its 465 components was handcrafted by Moroccan artisans who used 53 materials traditional to the country. The artist bought a Mercedes engine, his team disassembled it and faithfully replicated each piece using brass, marble, bone, mother of pearl, malachite, agate, precious woods, ammonite fossils, terracotta enamel, and other local materials. Then they assembled the engine using 660 casted copper bolts and the 465 exquisitely reproduced parts.

Millions of highly skilled artisans work in Morocco, most of them are making a livelihood by repeatedly fabricating small trinkets that will please the tourists. For this work, Van Hove gave the craftsmen he collaborated with total control over their own section of the engine:

As the conductor initiating it, I unify the performers, set the tempo, execute clear preparations and beats, and shape the sound of the ensemble, but we work collectively somehow and each of these craftsmen is unique and influences what is happening, the artist told Ibraaz.

Each work is signed and authored by the artist of course but also by the craftsmen.

V12 Laraki reverses the industrial process. Instead of replacing hand-crafted objects by mechanization and automation, the work goes back to craftsmanship, using traditional, popular and almost forgotten techniques to reproduce one of the icons of Western engineering.

Interestingly, the adventure didn’t stop there. The work was so mutually satisfying for both Van Hove and the artisans that the artist moved his workshop from Brussels to an area outside Marrakech and hired some of men who worked on the V12 project to create more ambitious projects together.

V12 Laraki: Alternator, 2013. Yellow copper, red copper, nickel silver, mahogany wood, cedar wood, cow bone, sand stone, cotton, ram’s horn, cowskin, tin, chinese superglue and cow horn. Photo Copperfield Gallery

V12 Laraki: Alternator, 2013. Exploded view of above. Photo Copperfield Gallery

V12 Laraki: Air Filter, 2013. Yellow copper, nickeled silver, tin, Middle Atlas white cedar wood, red copper, cow bone, recycled aluminum, rolling bearing and cowskin. Photo Copperfield Gallery

V12 Laraki: Air Filter, 2013. Exploded view of above. Photo Copperfield Gallery

As installed, copper & nickelled silver inlaid boxes, each bearing the names of the craftsmen and artist. Photo Copperfield Gallery

For background, story, concept, techniques, challenges and anecdotes about the work, check out this video interview with Eric Van Hove:

Eppur Si Muove. Art and Technology, A shared Sphere at the MUDAM in Luxembourg. Hurry up, the show closes on 17 January 2016.

High-Speed Horizons. Using sonic booms and nuclear energy to power aviation

Tim Clark, The Boomjet, High-Speed Horizons, 2015. Photo by Juuke Schoorl

X-1SB and Boomjet painting.jpg
X-1SB and Boomjet models receiving initial coats of paint

High-Speed Horizons is another of my favourite works exhibited at the graduation show of the Royal College of Art earlier this month.

One of the models in the exhibition space

In this project, Design Interactions graduate Tim Clark plays with the language and history of aviation, offering us a trip into critical and speculative visions of alternative energies.

Aviation, says the designer, has always been viewed as a test bed for radical new ideas and visions to reshape culture, politics and economics on Earth and far beyond it. Some of these dreams of alternative futures became reality and even transformed other areas of life (especially in military or space exploration contexts), while others were aborted because of political, economic or environmental pressures.

Tim Clark tapped into this fascination for unrestricted innovation to design a series of airplanes that investigate the possibility to ditch environmentally damaging fossil fuels in favour of sonic booms and nuclear power.

Bell X-1. Image Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

Chuck Yeager Breaks the Sound Barrier, X-1, 1947. Newsreel from 1948

The most experimental and speculative aircraft research is often classified. An example of this is the American X-Plane. Started after WW2 and still in operation today, the program conceived a series of experimental planes and helicopters and used them to test new technologies and aerodynamic concepts.

The first of American X-Plane model, the Bell X-1, was the first aircraft to break the sound barrier in level flight in 1947. This breakthrough opened up a new field of supersonic research and led to experimentation in aerodynamics and new propulsive systems.

Supersonic speed travel is accompanied by an explosive 'bang' sound called sonic boom. These sonic booms also generate enormous amounts of energy. In theory they could thus power planes with an efficient, green and sustainable energy source.

But sonic booms are one of the main reasons why supersonic airplanes never became more commonplace. In several countries, the law prevents aircrafts from flying above Mach 1 due to the shock wave's auditory and vibrational disturbance.

Limiting the impact of sonic booms is a current concern of the aviation industry as many are dreaming of a new supersonic age. But if it is to be more successful than the last one (the Concorde required high quantities of fuel), a supersonic plane would need an energy source free from the influence of global affairs, politics and planet scarring infrastructure. Something that we can quickly produce and have complete control over -- like sonic booms.

Tim Clark, The X-1SB, High-Speed Horizons, 2015. Photo by Juuke Schoorl

Tim Clark, The X-1SB, High-Speed Horizons, 2015. Photo by Juuke Schoorl

Tim Clark, High-Speed Horizons (X-1SB being airdropped by B-29 Duo mothership. Oil on canvas by Michael Lightfoot), 2015

The X-1SB, aka the "Sonic Sundae", is Clark's counterhistorical research aircraft designed to test the feasibility of this sonic boom propulsion. Its cone shape design is the combination of a .50 caliber bullet (an object know to be stable while breaching the sound barrier) just like the design of its predecessor the X-1 aircraft, and the shape of the shock wave created by an object traveling faster than sound.

The front of the aircraft features a housing for an interchangeable triangular spike used to test how different shapes could create potentially optimized shock waves to use for propulsion.

And because Clark's work is counter historical, Sonic Sundae and Boomjet (more about that one below) were to have existed before any of the anti-noise laws were to have been instituted.

He told me: I am suggesting that in a sonic boom powered world those laws would not exist because the ability to travel with that type of greener propulsion would probably be more beneficially economically than instituting the flight restrictions. In this case the benefit of the disturbance would outweigh the desire to limit the noise.

Conceptual drawing of a supersonic biplane. Image: Christine Daniloff/MIT News based on an original drawing courtesy of Obayashi laboratory, Tohoku University

Anyway if we were to live in true supersonic age these restrictions would need to be changed/relaxed anyway sonic booms or not. The big research in limiting the sonic boom now is finding a way to make a wing design that will create little to no noise when it breaks the sound barrier so it does not disturb people below the plane. Amazingly this question was answered over a decade (1935) before we even broke the sound barrier (1947) by Adolf Busemann who suggested a supersonic biplane design where the two wings would be used to cancel the other wave out.

It's crazy to think a supersonic jet would resemble a biplane from the 1920s but it would probably be the best solution and it was theorized way before it ever would be seen as a problem which is amazing. MIT just did some research into it in the last year or so and it would totally work and might be quite viable.

Tim Clark, B-29 Duo, High-Speed Horizons, 2015. Photo by Juuke Schoorl

Because of its large rear circumference, the X-1SB cannot fit under the fuselage or wing of a larger aircraft for taxiing and takeoff. The B-29 Duo "Double Mama" has thus been designed to be its carrier aircraft of choice.

An F/A-18 Hornet breaks the sound barrier in the skies over the Pacific Ocean, 1999. Image Ensign John Gay, U.S. Navy (via wikipedia)

Tim Clark, The Boomjet, High-Speed Horizons, 2015. Photo by Juuke Schoorl

Tim Clark, The Boomjet, High-Speed Horizons, 2015. Photo by Juuke Schoorl

Boomjet on mobile aircraft crawler. Computer rendering by Tim Clark

Tim Clark, High-Speed Horizons (Boomjet taxiing at water-based airport. Watercolor on paper by Hector Trunnec), 2015

Another of Clark's designs, the Boomjet is a sonic boom-powered commercial transport that sustains its flight by driving 47 propellers from the pressure energy released by the aircraft as it travels faster than the speed of sound. The sonic boom transport vehicle stores excess energy for use during takeoff which can be vertically or from water depending on location.

Clarks then looked at another source of energy that could disentangle aviation from its dangerous relationship with fossil fuels: nuclear energy.

The Convair NB-36 in flight, with a B-50. Photo: USAF - U.S. photo no. DF-SC-83-09332 via wikipedia

Nov 1951 Air Trails magazine for joinging technical college.jpg
Advert from November 1951 AIR TRAILS magazine promoting the promise of nuclear power as an unlimited energy source for flight. Image from Secret U.S. Proposals of the Cold War: Radical Concepts in Factory Models and Engineering Drawings by Jim Keeshen

During the cold war both the USSR and the USA had an experimental nuclear aircraft program. While the risk was high, nuclear power promised an aircraft with theoretically unlimited range capable of constant flight.

Only two known nuclear aircraft that have been fully built and tested. The NB-36H was America's nuclear-powered aircraft. Refitted for this new propulsion system after it was damaged in a storm and deemed unfit for combat, the aircraft featured a direct phone line to the President of the United States that was to only be used in the event of an incident. The NB-36H completed 47 test flights between 1955 and 1957 over New Mexico and Texas. It was scrapped in 1958 when the Nuclear Aircraft Program was abandoned.

The Soviet Union's aircraft, the Tu-95L, was based on the Tupolev Tu-95 strategic bomber and missile platform. First flown in 1952, the plane is still in operation today and Russia sometimes flies it in close proximity of the airspace of other European countries in order to affirm its military presence.

The nuclear variant of the TU-95 flew from 1961 to 1965.

Both the USA and the Soviet Union had ambitious plans for their second nuclear-powered aircraft but due to environmental concerns, political pressures, and rumors that the other side called off their research both projects were shelved.

While the risk of a nuclear accident is deemed too high in aviation, we have nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, submarines and 11% of all the world's electricity being based on nuclear power.

Tim Clark, Air Laissez-Faire, High-Speed Horizons, 2015. Photo by Juuke Schoorl

Tim Clark, Air Laissez-Faire, High-Speed Horizons, 2015. Photo by Juuke Schoorl

Designer applying the 500+ dry transfer window decals and nuclear logo decals to the Air Laissez-faire model aircraft

Clark proposes to update to our times a technology that looked promising at the height of the Cold War. And the ones willing to bankroll the experiment might not be countries but technology companies which are already at the forefront of some ambitious innovative projects (Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic for example.) Because these tech companies are increasingly under governmental scrutiny so that they don't get out of control, they might also take to the sky to further innovation free from the restriction of regulation, utilizing the energy source historically clouded by politics to sustain continuous flight and prove that anything is indeed possible through innovation. An inspiration for the idea is Blueseed. This "start-up community on a ship" proposes to gather hundreds of immigrant entrepreneurs on a floating startup city in international waters off the coast of San Francisco and have them live and work undisturbed by the burden of national boundaries and government regulations.

Clark's mini Silicon Valley on air is called Air Laissez-Faire. A nuclear power plant on board of this self-piloting aircraft would provide virtually limitless amounts of continuous propulsion, while a crew made of nuclear physicist, chemical engineer, radiation consultant, and other figures would ensure safety on board. The mega plane presents satellite and radar communication equipment for remote business meetings, all necessary business facilities as well as a landing space on its rear wings that allow small 'commuter aircrafts' to whisk entrepreneurs from and back to major business centers.