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Posts tagged ‘climate’

Science at the edge of the world

The 10-meter South Pole Telescope and the BICEP Telescope at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station

South Pole telescope and BICEP2 telescope at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. | REUTERS

Antarctica science has been major news recently, with the apparent discovery of gravitational waves by the BICEP2 (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization) telescope, sited at the South Pole. If confirmed, this discovery is of huge significance to our understanding of how the universe began, as it supports the inflationary theory of how the universe formed, which proposes that there was a sudden stupendous enlargement of the universe in the first infinitesimal fraction of a second after the big bang. This inflation would have created ripples in space-time (gravitational waves), according to Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Astrophysicists have been searching for signs of these waves in cosmic microwave radiation – the afterglow of the Big Bang – which fills the entire cosmos. However, it was known that such waves would be miniscule and incredibly difficult to detect, but if they could be detected, it would help to prove that inflation had happened.

Staff at Halley VI launch a weather balloon to take samples from the atmosphere, British Antarctic Survey

Staff at Halley VI launch a weather balloon to take samples from the atmosphere, British Antarctic Survey

It is the dryness of Antarctica that makes it ideal for astronomical research, as atmospheric water vapour absorbs millimeter and sub-millimeter wavelengths, making it difficult to observe cosmic microwave background in most places on Earth. The combination of altitude – 11,000 feet – and cold (temperature averages -49° Celsius) in Antarctica makes for a very dry atmosphere. As an added bonus for astronomical research, nighttime lasts for six months. These conditions allow for optimum observation of very deep space.

As well as astronomical research, much other important scientific research also takes place in Antarctica. Scientists come to the continent from around the world to study climate, astrophysics, marine biology, geology, ecology, and more. The Antarctic ice sheet plays a vital role in the functioning of the global ecosystem. It stores 70 per cent of the world’s fresh water, and the seasonal changes in Antarctica’s sea ice have a profound influence on atmospheric and water temperatures and weather patterns.

As laid out in the Antarctic Treaty of 1961, Antarctica is a continent solely dedicated to science. But the extreme conditions of cold and dark in Antarctica make human life, habitation – and therefore scientific research – highly challenging. To undertake any scientific research in Antarctica depends not only on the quality and commitment of the scientists, but also on the nature of the scientific stations, facilities and equipment.

Princess Elisabeth Antarctica, the first "Zero emission" polar research station in the mist at Utsteinen - Belare 2008-2009

Ice Lab – Princess Elisabeth Antarctica, the first “Zero emission” polar research station (c) René Robert – International Polar Foundation

At the Arts Catalyst, we’re excited that our curated exhibition, ‘Ice Lab: New Architecture and Science in Antarctic’, initiated and commissioned by the British Council, will tour to New Zealand’s IceFest in Autumn 2014, where it will show at the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, from 26 Sept – 12 Oct 2014. ‘Ice Lab: New Architecture and Science in Antarctic’ presents some of the most innovative and progressive examples of contemporary architecture in Antarctica, which enables scientists to do ground-breaking research in extreme conditions, as well as showcasing some of the science that takes place there.

‘Ice Lab: New Architecture and Science in Antarctic’ features architectural projects that not only utilise cutting-edge technology and engineering, but have equally considered aesthetics, sustainability and human needs in their ground-breaking designs for scientific research stations. The exhibition features four international projects: Halley VI, UK (Hugh Broughton Architects), Princess Elizabeth, Belgium (International Polar Foundation), Bharati, India (bof architekten/IMS), Jang Bogo, South Korea (Space Group), and the Iceberg Living Station (MAP Architects) – a speculative design for a future research station to be entirely made from compacted snow. The featured stations are each architecturally pioneering – from Halley VI, the first fully relocatable polar research station, to Bharati, a striking modernist structure made from prefabricated shipping containers, to the Princess Elisabeth, Antarctica’s first zero-emission station, which seamlessly integrates renewables wind and solar energy, water treatment facilities, passive building technologies and a smart grid for maximizing energy efficiency.

Installation view of the Antarctica station models.

Ice Lab exhibition. Installation view of the Antarctica station models. Photo: McAteer Photography

Ice Lab, previously shown at Lighthouse, Glasgow, and Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry, includes original drawings, models, photographs and films of the stations, and highlights the diverse science that takes place in Antarctica – from collecting 4.5 billion year old meteorites that illuminate how the solar system formed, to drilling ice cores whose bubbles of ancient air reveal the earth’s climate history. As part of the exhibition, artist Torsten Lauschmann was commissioned to create two new artworks, ‘Whistler’ and ‘Ice Diamond’.

A person sitting on a rock reading the Ice Lab book surrounded by snow and one penguin.

Ice Lab book being read in Antarctica. Photo: Clare Thorpe

Accompanying the Ice Lab exhibition, there is a publication – available in print form and as a free downloadable e-book – with essays by Dr David Walton (British Antarctic Survey) and Sam Jacob (co-founder of FAT architects).

The Ice Lab exhibition builds on Arts Catalyst’s previous work on Antarctic issues, including Simon Faithfull’s 2006 Ice Blink exhibition of artwork resulting from his trip to Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey, and the 2007 POLAR: Fieldwork & Archive Fever series, with Kathryn Yusoff and the British Library, which incorporated a symposium, public talks, a publication Bipolar, and two new artists’ commissions from Anne Brodie and Weather Permitting.

Art in the age of “big data”

 

Lise Autogena + Joshua Portway, Most Blue Skies (2010)

I’m currently at ISEA2012, the 18th International Symposium on Electronic Art, a six-day international conference, this year taking place in Albuquerque under the glorious banner ‘Machine Wilderness’, which references the New Mexico region as an area of rapid growth and technology within vast expanses of open land.

Astrophysicist and President of the Leonardo Institute for Art, Science and Technology, Roger Malina gave a keynote to a packed auditorium, in which he discussed (in a rich and wide-ranging lecture) the epistemological revolution that is underway with the arrival of the era of “big data”. The amount of data in our world has exploded, Malina explained. Today, each day we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data (source: IBM). This trend is accelerating so fast that 90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone. Data sets have become so large and complex that it has become extremely difficult to process using current tools. Malina argued that there is a critical role for artists in creating new systems of data representation, visualisation, sonification, and simulation, across fields ranging from astronomy, geology, nanoscience and medicine, to business and finance. It’s not a field in which I am an expert, but it strikes me that – as well as the systems that Malina outlines – the key contribution that artists can make is in helping to create meaning and poetry from these vast data fields.

At ISEA, there are a few examples of artworks using large data arrays. Agnes Chavez & Alessandro Saccoia’s (x)trees, for example, at the Albuquerque Museum of Art & History is a socially interactive virtual forest generated from search words found in tweets and text messages, an experiment in data visualisation, video mapping and participatory art.

Agnes Chavez & Alessandro Saccoia, (x)trees

To give some other examples of data-driven art, below is a work by Jer Thorp, data artist-in-residence at the New York Times. It shows how often the times printed the words “hope” and “crisis” between 1981 and 2010. Each bar represents a month, Dates and mentions of specific events and key words are thrown in here and there to orient the viewer. It’s interesting to note those times when crises eclipsed hope.

Jer Thorp, Random Number Multiples

A famous work is Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin’s Listening Post, which culls fragments of text in real-time from thousands of Internet chat rooms and other virtual public spaces, identifying prevailing themes and topics of discussion. The texts are then read (or sung) by a voice synthesiser and simultaneously displayed across a suspended grid of more than two hundred small electronic screens. The communications include statements about nationality, age, gender, sexual preference, religion, politics or everyday life. At striking moments, the text washes rapidly across the screens in patterns before clicking to a halt. The work evokes the drama of our technological lives.

Mark Hansen + Ben Rubin, Listening Post (2002-6)

Two examples of artworks that use data sets relating to climate were shown by Arts Catalyst in the exhibition ‘Data Landscapes’ last year.  The exhibition arose from a network of the same name, coordinated by CREAM (The Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media, University of Westminster), which set up discussions around the use of the data and models of climate science within visual arts contexts. The data of climate science has come under intense public scrutiny over the last couple of years, and the network understood that art practices that concern themselves with environmental change need some understanding of how the knowledge of climate change is produced. After a series of fascinating workshops, a seminar and exhibition were held at Arts Catalyst.

The Southern Ocean Studies by Tom Corby, Gavin Baily + Jonathan Mackenzie (also later shown in ISEA2011 in Istanbul) was a projection showing the currents circulating the central Antarctic land mass. These were generated in real-time and mapped against other environmental data sets – tidal flow, wind direction, geochemical and atmospheric flux – to produce flickering constellations of carbon circulation and wind direction. Watching the artwork, it is tempting to see the swirling forms as representative of an Antarctic wilderness, however the patterning effect is as much a product of human activities as natural ecologies. Whilst respecting the underlying science, the work sought to develop a sensibility to the dynamics of ecological complexity as pattern and felt experience rather than quantity and measure.

Tom Corby, Gavin Baily + Jonathan Mackenzie, The Southern Ocean Studies (2011)

In the same exhibition, Lisa Autogena + Joshua Portway’s installation Most Blue Skies calculated the passage of light through particulate matter in the atmosphere and computed sky colours for five million places on earth. A specially developed lighting system then reproduced, minute by minute, the colour of the bluest sky in real-time and displayed its location. Most Blue Skies addressed our changing relationship to the sky as the subject for scientific and symbolic representation. The artwork used advanced real-time satellite and atmospheric sensor data, which was processed by custom-built software, simulating the passage of light through the atmosphere. It played with the tension between the simplicity and romance of the image of the blue sky, and the complex technology involved in measuring and representing it. A previous work of Autogena + Portway was Black Shoals Stock Market Planetarium in which multinational stocks appeared as glinting stars in a night-time constellation, shifting and flickering depending on how the shares of each company were trading in real-time.

Lise Autogena + Joshua Portway, Most Blue Skies (2010)

Lise Autogena + Joshua Portway, Black Shoals Stock Market Planetarium (2004)

Sonification is another technique used by artists to re-present data. Sound artist Ryoji Ikeda’s project datamatics was a series of experiments that used pure data as a source both for sound and dynamic imagery. From 2D sequences of patterns derived from hard drive errors and studies of software code, the imagery transformed into rotating views in 3D, whilst the final scenes add a further dimension as four-dimensional mathematical processing opened up new vistas. The soundtrack used layering of sonic components to produce acoustic spaces.

Ryoji Ikeda, data.tron, photo: James Ewing, courtesy of Forma

The challenges of big data are huge. But to develop new systems and tools to deal with big data, developers need to be able to play with data. That means data needs to be protected only lightly by copyright and it needs to be delivered in formats that are useful to people. The idea that data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other controls, is called “open data” and it is rapidly gaining support, particularly in areas such as science and government. Dealing effectively with big data demands an open data approach, whilst the movement towards open data requires new tools to make sense of large data arrays.

Other examples of good ‘big data’ art? Do let me know.

How to get started with data-driven art? A few tools and tutorials (and please suggest additions):

http://flowingdata.com/category/tutorials/
http://freeartbureau.org/blog/2011/11/09/tutorial-data-visualisation/

Ruins, conflict, culture and science: dOCUMENTA (13)

Kader Attia, The Repair of the Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, 2012

Many adjectives have already been wielded to describe this year’s documenta, “earnest”, “grim”, “despondent” and “concept-less” among them. Certainly, there are few laughs in this year’s documenta (the 13th since its founding in 1955 by an artist banned by the Nazis), but in all it’s a deeply satisfying experience.

Many of the works by 300 artists – mostly new commissions – are site-specific, installed in railway stations, disused shops, hotels, cinemas, old hospitals, the natural history museum, and scattered throughout Karlsaue park. I appreciated the serious-minded intent behind the works, and the internationalism of the exhibition both in content and representation, with artists from fifty-six countries including many from Africa and Asia.

A large number of the works mark significant events or occurrences, including varied perspectives on recent upheavals in Egypt, the Middle East and Afghanistan. The works in the main exhibition in the Fridericianum have a particular focus on conflict, catastrophe, ruin, trauma, survival and repair across many historical events, as though such events and restorations were on an endless loop. There are many absorbing works here, but I spent a particularly long time in Kader Attia’s disturbing, fascinating installation, The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, a maze of repaired African artefacts, vintage colonialist texts and wood-carved busts of disfigured faces, and a slideshow of facially injured World War I soldiers provocatively juxtaposed with mended African masks.

Many powerful works are sited in and around the Hauptbahnhof railway station, among them William Kentridge’s stunning video and sound work The Refusal of Time (which elicited a round of applause), Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s augmented reality audio tour of the station linking it to a darker past, Clemens von Wedemeyer’s three-screen multiple histories of a monastery in Germany: from concentration camp to girls reformatory to psychiatric clinic, and Lara Favaretto’s vast pile of industrial debris.

Lara Favaretto, Momentary Monument IV (Kassel), 2012

William Kentridge, The Refusal of Time, 2012

dOCUMENTA (13) has been called “genre-busting”. Its curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev stated that she wanted to broaden documenta’s focus from the visual arts to culture at large. This has been largely done through the mode of the artist’s enquiry, but there are also non-artists involved, including physicists, biologists and social scientists, and a scattering of historical artefacts.

The role of science in this “culture at large” is most prominently represented by the Austrian physicist Anton Zeileger’s Quanta Now, a series of five important quantum physics experiments installed in the Fridericianum, including the double slit experiment and quantum entanglement of photon pairs. There is also an installation in the same building of Russian biologist Alexander Tarakhovsky’s work on epigenetics, and the Bavarian priest and artist Korbinian Aigner’s multiple paintings of the new strains of apples he created while in Dachau concentration camp.

Meanwhile, Donna Haraway’s writings on multi-species co-evolution inspired the artist Tue Greenfort to compile and present an archive of artists’ materials, texts, books, videos and documentation of artworks dealing with the relationship between human and non-human species (including Rachel Mayeri’s Primate Cinema, an Arts Catalyst commission).

Anton Zeilinger, Quanta Now (installation detail of the experiment on quantum entanglement of photon pairs), 2012

Korbinian Aigner, Apples, 1912–1960s

Ecological themes are very present, in the process-based projects by Pratchaya Phinthong, whose simple installation – two dead tsetse flies, one female carrying the deadly disease sleeping sickness and her sterile consort – is underpinned by a research project, in which Phinthong has been traveling in Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Zambia and providing locals with inexpensive traps to help control the tsetse fly populations, and Amy Balkin, who has been trying to get the Earth’s atmosphere included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Ecology is closely tied closely to politics in the beautiful and coherent exhibition in the Ottoneum, Kassel’s natural history museum, with Amar Kanwar’s moving installation The Sovereign Forest tackling the forcible displacements of indigenous communities and peasants in Odisha (Orissa), India, by commercial interests, Claire Pentecost’s elegant and thoughtful installation Soil-Erg, in which she proposes a new system of value based on living soil, and Maria Thereza Alves’ installation on five centuries of damage done to Lake Chalco in Mexico and the people who live there.

Pratchaya Phinthong, Sleeping Sickness, 2012

Claire Pentecost, Soil-Erg, 2012

Elsewhere, the politics of nuclear energy are presented both in Mika Taanila’s stylish 3-screen video work The Most Electrified Town in Finland and the Otolith Group’s film Radiant, which explores Japan’s fated love affair with the unstable atom which culminated in the Fukushima reactor meltdown.

In documenta-Halle, Thomas Bayrle’s car engine prayer-machines and collaged airplane suggest our very dreams rely on carbon-burning technologies, while Yan Lei has hung a room with 360 paintings, produced one per day over a year, inspired by internet images. During dOCUMENTA (13), the paintings will be gradually removed, spray painted in the local Volkswagen car factory, and then returned to the exhibition.

Mika Taanila, The Most Electrified Town in Finland, 2012

Thomas Bayrle installation, dOCUMENTA (13), 2012

Yan Lei, Limited Art Project, 2012

Karlsaue park is the site for many intriguing works, both in the landscape and installed in small buildings. Standouts for me are Omer Fast’s extraordinary tale of a couple’s disturbed, unsettling response to the death of their soldier son in Afganistan (confirming my art crush on this remarkable artist), CAMP’s gentle reflections on maritime life and the informal economy across the Indian Ocean, and Sam Durant’s alluring playground-gallows.

Omer Fast, Continuity, 2012

Sam Durant, Scaffold, 2012

Two real “conflicts” disturbed the civilised art-going days of the dOCUMENTA (13) previews. First, the failure of dOCUMENTA (13)’s aim to transport the El Chaco meteorite, a 37-ton, 4,000-year-old lump of space rock, from aboriginal land in Argentina to Kassel, as proposed by artists Guillermo Faivovich and Nicolas Goldberg, continued to stir debate during the opening week. It was a controversial proposal, strongly and successfully protested by indigenous Argentians.

Indigenous Argentinians protesting the removal of the El Chaco meteorite for inclusion in documenta 13

And then, on preview day, above the peaceful sunlit Karlsaue park, rose Critical Art Ensemble (CAE)’s shatteringly–loud helicopter, rising and sinking several times an hour, audible – and frequently visible – across the town, invading art-going experience and drowning conversations. In A Public Misery Project: A Temporary Monument to Global Economic Inequality, CAE raised a huge bar graph depicting wealth disparity across the world. 99% of the world’s incomes fitted onto the banner, but the globe’s richest 1% required a helicopter to soar 250 meters up in the sky. Exclusive €300 tickets were purchased by an irony-unencumbered fifty people, only twelve of whom showed up on the day to be escorted down a red carpet for their flight. The 99%, meanwhile, could buy a lottery ticket and the chance to win a ride.

Some of the reason for this economic disparity, as well perhaps as the mechanics for the endless cycle of manmade disasters, are revealed in Mark Lombardi’s obsessive mapping of corruption, politics and finance, that make visible the hidden connections between political and economic processes, corporation, and individuals.

Critical Art Ensemble, A Public Misery Project: A Temporary Monument to Global Economic Inequality, 2012


Extreme citizen science: rainforests, urban jungles and the arctic perspective …

A group of young Congalese men in a forest, one with a handheld device

Baka people from Mang-Kako geomap the sacred Moabi tree, 2007. Photo: Jerome Lewis

Last week I attended the London Citizen Cyberscience Summit with Lisa Haskel, Arts Catalyst’s resident research engineer, to catch up and connect with latest developments, and to present our Arctic Perspective Initiative.

Although the notion of the amateur scientist is ages old, the term “citizen science” is generally used for the systematic collection and analysis of data by networks of volunteers. The most familiar are perhaps volunteer distributed computing projects, such as SETI@home, ClimatePrediction.net, and CERN’s LHC@home, in which people sign up the spare processing capacity of their home computers. A recent wave of projects more creatively engages people in basic research: in Galaxy Zoo, for example, people classify images of galaxies, while the Evolution Megalab recruits volunteers to survey snail shell bands.

Day 1 of the summit was presented largely from the professional scientist’s perspective. There was a lot of rhetoric about citizen participation in science, but most discussion focused how to “harness” the power of many minds to help science, how to recruit and incentivise citizens to “generate high quality data” (the phrase “Pavlov’s dogs” was disconcertingly used by one contributor).With a few exceptions, such as iSpot, an online nature community, most projects neglected the value of people’s own expertise and ideas. Surely there are other ways to involve people in science using online technologies other than just crowdsourcing or crowd computing. A few of the presenters began to raise this as an issue, Francois Taddei asking the critical question: who benefits from these projects?

A man is presenting in front of a powerpoint screen

Ngoni Munyaradzi presenting the project ‘Transcription of bushman historical text’ at the London Citizen Cyberscience Summit, 2012

The afternoon introduced citizen science projects from around the globe, some of the standard data collection model, others more engaging. I particularly liked Ngoni Munyaradzi’s project to crowd source translating notebooks and art that contain Bushman culture, and the initiative by the Jane Goodall Institute which trains local people to monitor chimpanzee habitats in Tanzania and Uganda using smartphones.

Two young Tanzanian women work on a map

Monitoring ape habitats. Photo: Jane Goodall Institute

I was very excited by Jerome Lewis’ work with indigenous people in Congo and Rwanda. In 2009, Lewis developed an icon-based interface on a hand-held device that could be used by forest-dwelling people to geotag trees important to their way of life, the mapped information being communicated to logging companies and policy holders. The method has spread like wildfire, Lewis noted, because it’s so effective, allowing peaceful communication via maps. Critically, Lewis noted, the communities themselves have to decide what the benefits are to their participation in such a project. There are no payments or gimmicks to incentivise participation.

Lewis then outlined his “Hackfest” challenge: to design a new portable device, specifically requested by local people in Congo to monitor poaching, a device that can meet specific requirements, such as accurate geo-referencing under rainforest canopy, withstanding heat and humidity, able to tolerate a week without charge, and updatability. Lewis also wants to work with hackers to create sensors that can enable long-term monitoring of changes caused by mining concessions and climate change. He articulated passionately how important it is to develop accessible analytic tools for use by local people to visualise and analyse results themselves, and that this needs to include the largely excluded: rural people, semi/non-literate people, women, and the urban poor. You can watch Lewis’s presentation here.

Lewis’ UCL collaborator Muki Haklay then launched their new Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) initiative, and outlined what they meant by extreme citizen science: firstly, everyone can participate, not just educated people; secondly, extreme citizen science moves the location of citizen science from populated, wealthy parts of the planet to everywhere, and thirdly, it transforms people’s roles in projects from just data collection and entry to shaping the problem and analysing data, participating in problem definition and the entire process of science.

A group of people help to fill a red weather balloon

Lisa helps with the PLOTS balloon

The second day of the summit combined presentations with a hands-on hackday. A greater proportion of the discourse felt more in tune with my own interests in co-creation or a bottom-up approach to citizen science. The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS), for example, is an activist-led US group developing low-cost DIY open source environmental and health tools to research and monitor their own environments. PLOTS demonstrated a mapping kit using a red weather balloon, plastic bottles, and a camera hacked to take infrared digital photos, to which the noise monitoring folk also attached a device.

Aerial photo over UCL with balloon sized coloured dots

Data gathered by noise monitoring app on PLOTS balloon

Lisa Haskel and I presented the Arctic Perspective Initiative (API), which follows a similar open source community-centred ethos. The API comprises an international group
of individuals and non-profit organisations, including Arts Catalyst. Founded by artists Marko Peljhan and Matthew Biederman, its goal is to promote the creation of open source communications, sensing and dissemination infrastructures for the circumpolar region. API is a collaboration with the community of Igloolik and other small settlements in Canada’s High Arctic.

A group of Inuit people gather around a portable device

Igloolik community members study aerial images, API Foxe Basin field trip. Photo: API

As Dr Michael Bravo writes in ‘Arctic Geopolitics & Autonomy‘, the API project has developed as a collaborative artistic and technological response to Igloolik’s own considerable arts and media history. Igloolik hosts a permanent population of only 1500 people, but it has for centuries been a crossroads and meeting place for Inuit peoples, traditionally known for regrouping, resting, eating, socialising. Today, it is the home of IsumaTV, an independent interactive network of Inuit and indigenous filmmakers and media workers, and ArtCirq, a community-based circus and multimedia company. Peljhan came to Igloolik with a history of having explored how autonomy can be performed through technological experiments that have traveled to different extreme environments.

One of API’s evolving projects is to build mobile, habitable living and working units to enable people to live on the land away from settlements (as many Inuit like to do), all the while remaining connected through communications technologies such as live video streaming and data connections. The units will be powered solely with renewable energy sources. Through these units a number of activities can be pursued: scientific monitoring, filmmaking and editing, sustainability hunting, environmental assessment, and technology research.

Inuit man using electronic telescope

Herve Paniaq searches for holes in the pack ice while navigating in Foxe Basin, August 2009. Photo: API

I presented the history, social context and collaborative approach of API, and Lisa Haskel discussed the sensor network that API is developing for use by local people for a variety of their own purposes, and the data gathering interface that she is working on. You can watch our presentation here and read more about Arctic Perspective Initiative on the Arts Catalyst’s website and the project’s own site.

Lisa stayed on for the practical workshops on Day 3, which I didn’t attend, but my mind was buzzing with possibilities and connections.

Two Inuit and two other men in a makeshift blue tent

Makeshift medialab, Foxe Basin field trip, August 2009. Photo: API

Terra Infirma: finding the ‘geo’ in geopolitics

a smoke-filled domestic living room with a model volcano in the centre

Nelly Ben Hayoun, The Other Volcano

‘Terra Infirma – experimenting with geo-political practices
’ was an academic workshop which was held in The Arts Catalyst’s Clerkenwell space. The organisers (UCL Department of Geography) proposed the question: What does the ‘geo’ in ‘geo-politics’ actually do? to spark an enquiry around the interplay between human politics and physical geography in a time of climate change and resource shortages.

The philosopher Michel Serres, wrote workshop convenor Angela Last in her introduction to the workshop, has proposed to rethink geo-political relations through the term ‘Biogée’ (from Greek ‘bios’ – life; ‘gē’ – earth), attempting to re-connect the separated spheres of ‘life’ and ‘earth’ to form a ‘contemporary global state’. One of the areas that the workshop sought to explore were links or parallels between the ‘biopolitical’ and the ‘geopolitical’. The day opened with some theoretical provocations by Nigel Clark, whose recent work looks at ethical and political responses to the disasters of abrupt climate change, Kathryn Yusoff, who introduced the deep time perspective that, as humans, we’re only one step away from being fossils (a strata in the landscape), and Joanne Sharp, whose paper attempted to reconnect the ‘bio’ and ‘geo’ in the geopolitics of Africa.

In the following session, “experience designer” Nelly Ben Hayoun, in a presentation with disaster management geographer Carina Fearnly, livened things up by setting off a volcano in the Arts Catalyst space. Not wishing to trigger the smoke alarms in the space, the volcano preparation was placed on an outside windowsill. We naively hoped the eruption would be small and disperse quickly outside. Great clouds of smoke promptly filled the room, and Rob and I raced around fanning the smoke clouds and desperately sticking plastic bags over the smoke alarms. It was certainly an effective demonstration of the unpredictability and potential for devastation of geophysical events.

cross section diagram of land and sea showing geoengineering proposals

Hack the Planet. Image: Kathleen Smith/LLNL

After that interlude, I confess I did not take in much of Angela Last’s presentation, as we were cleaning up, but I tuned in again for Bron Szerszynski’s fascinating presentation on ‘Making Climates’, a theoretical discussion around geoengineering, in which he discussed the question “What is a ‘made’ climate?” by considering different notions of ‘making’: producing (trying to recreate existing forms), educing (bringing out latent forms from nature) and creating (designing new forms), and how we might apply these concepts to the approaches to the architecture of climate.

Remains of a bombed car in an art gallery

Jeremy Deller, Iraq car bomb remains

The final session covered experimental geopolitics with presentations by Andrew Barry and Alan Ingram. Ingram’s current research surveys artists whose work addresses the Iraq War, spanning contemporary artists such as Jeremy Deller and Mark Wallinger, official war artists, and artists and curators from Iraq and the surrounding region.

The day felt incredibly broad in its topics, but it certainly opened up some interesting ideas and avenues of enquiry (as well as potential arguments that clearly were to be continued in the pub afterwards).

It is interesting to me – both as a cultural producer who initiates investigational art projects to open up new exchanges between disciplines and publics, and as a former student of geography - how popular contemporary art has suddenly become with geographers these days. This interest is in art both as an area of research, and as alternative modes of geographical knowledge-making and dissemination for a more ‘public’ geography.

Arctic architecture competition: winners announced

The winners of the Arctic Perspective Initiative open architecture competition are announced.

Three architects – Richard Carbonnier (Canada), Giuseppe Mecca (Italy), and Catherine Rannou (France) – have been selected as the joint winners of the Arctic Perspective Initiative open architecture competition. The challenge of this international competition was to design a zero-footprint mobile research unit for use by local populations in the Arctic. The unit is intended to facilitate a diverse range of technological research opportunities, such as remote sensing, environmental monitoring, video editing and streaming, and communications systems.

The three winning entries, each awarded €1500, were selected by an expert jury from 103 submissions from architects and engineers in more than 30 countries. The competition was the first phase of a design process, the next phase of which will involve working with the winning submissions through a collaborative design effort with local community members from Nunavut, Canada. A prototype unit will be tested in the field next year in Igloolik, Nunavut, by local media workers, hunters, youth and elders of the community.

API is committed to the empowerment and sustainable development of Northern communities through the collaboration and combination of science, arts, engineering and culture. The unit aims to serve as a model for mobile research in the north, incorporating proven local expertise, sustainable resources, and high tech solutions, while promoting open source data sharing strategies and management. All required power will come from green sources.

The Arctic Perspective Initiative (API) is a transnational art, science, and culture work group composed of HMKV (Germany), The Arts Catalyst (UK), Projekt Atol (Slovenia), Lorna (Iceland) and C-TASC (Canada), API is the brainchild of Marko Peljhan and Matthew Biederman, who met and worked together for the first time as crewmembers of the Makrolab in Blair Atholl, Scotland in 2002, a project produced by The Arts Catalyst.

For more information:
Download PRESS RELEASE of full announcement of the winners

Open sourcing the Arctic

Arctic Perspective Initiative field trip to Foxe Basin, Arctic Canada

I returned last week from a week in Iceland, where I was judging the architecture competition for an Arctic mobile media-centric work and living unit, and meeting with the other partners of the Arctic Perspectives Initiative (API) - HMKV, Germany, Projekt Atol, Slovenia, The Arts Catalyst, UK, C-TASC, Canada, and Lorna, Iceland.

Marko Peljhan (Projekt Atol) and Matthew Biederman (C-TASC) had made a working trip to Igloolik, Nunavuk, in the far north of Canada, during July and August, traveling with a group of Inuit elders and their families in small boats to different islands around Baffin Island and Foxe Basin, revisiting places where the elders had lived before they were moved to the settlement. The journey was being made for a film by Izuma TV, and Marko and Matthew were invited along by Paul Quassa. They reported that it was a very emotional trip for the participants. For the artists, it was a real experience of what it’s like to “live on the land”: arguments over the best routes through sea-ice, fog-bound on barren islands for days, running short of food. The artists tested communications equipment, environmental monitoring equipment and aerial photography from a UAV., which proved useful for collecting aerial images of the sea ice (pictures from the trip are below). As the artists told the story of their trip, we began to get a clear sense of what this ‘mobile media-centric unit’ might contribute to local people’s lives.

The jury selection process went well. We had a fantastic expert jury, including Johan Berte, designer of the Belgian Antarctic station, Michael Bravo from the Scott Polar Research Institute, architect Andreas Muller, and architecture curator Francesca Ferguson. We had received 103 entries from 30 countries. It was a little deflating at first to realise how little research many entrants had made into conditions in the Arctic. There were frequent assumptions about flat, smooth stable ice sheets (more appropriate to Antarctica) rather than the softening tundra and melting sea ice that characterises much of the Arctic today. But in the end we found three deserving prize-winners. Our next steps are to announce the winners to the international media, take the winning designs (and shortlist) back to Igloolik to consult with the people there, and then begin the design process in earnest.

The partners are planning a series of exhibitions and publications in 2010 to share the process – and the wider cultural, environmental and geopolitical context for the project – with a broad public audience. More at the Arts Catalyst‘s website and the Arctic Perspective Initiative website

Science diplomacy 2: From the High Arctic to central Africa

Day 2 at the Royal Society’s meeting on science democracy.

Finally, the issue of interdisciplinarity was raised by Stephen Hillier from Edinburgh University who sees multidisciplinarity projects as a priority, reflecting the current popularity of cross-department initiatives in HEIs. Director of the British Council, Martin Davidson, didn’t address interdisciplinarity explicitly, but one assumes that links exist across the BC’s arts and science activities. A question from the floor prompted a confession by Mohamed Hassan from the Academy of Sciences that it was extremely difficult to get scientists and social scientists to work together. How much more difficult then to achieve international collaboration between scientists and cultural professionals. No mention of this, of course, but I accept we’re a pretty lonely voice here, although some people in emerging technology sectors, such as nanotech and synthetic biology, are beginning to recognise the potential of incorporating thinking about design, imagination, culture and public engagement with philosophy, ethics and social dynamics as new areas of research and development emerge.

In the afternoon we had two cracking sessions covering specific examples of science diplomacy. ‘Environmental security: Poles apart?’ had a strong line up, including Howard Alper from the Science, Technology and Innovation Council, Canada, and Diana Wallis MEP, who concluded her presentation by observing that our transnational structures of governance and democracy are simply not up to the challenge of climate change in the Arctic. A little liveliness flared in the slightly pissy exchange between one of the Canadian delegation and Wallis, as he pressed her for a ‘definition’ of the Arctic (Canada is really not happy about the EU wanting a seat at the Arctic table). Fascinating and thorough, the session nuclear diplomacy included presentations by two impressive women deeply immersed in arms control and nonproliferation, diplomat Anne Harrington and scientist Arian Pregenzer. Ambassador Tibor Toth gave a riveting talk on the international network of stations set up around the globe to monitor for nuclear detonations, and gave an insight into the unfolding story of detecting theNorth Korean blast last week.

The day ended with a presentation from Rwanda’s Science Minister, Romain Murenzi, explaining Rwanda’s science policy in biodiversity, energy, climate change and telecoms. He mentioned One Laptop One Child, an idea pioneered by Nicolas Negroponte, as a central policy of his government. Such a window onto the world for the children of Rwanda could help to accelerate the cultural transformation that Rwanda is so desperately trying to affect in a region with a turbulent history of vicious colonialism and bitter civil war. This is a region where the free exchange of knowledge and ideas would surely make a huge contribution to an open, tolerant society, and where finding solutions to social, economic, political and environmental problems through international interdisciplinary collaborations may make a major contribution to achieving peace in the region.

A history of forgetting

Pavel Medvedev, On the Third Planet from the Sun (still)

Harvard scholar Sheila Jasanoff is regarded as a leading light in the field of science and technology studies. Her calls for ‘technologies of humility’ in policy-making in science and her careful analyses of the role of political culture in policy-making in the field of biotechnology are hugely important, yet have not had the impact they should. Yesterday, in her keynote lecture at Transmediale, she gently challenged the festival’s rhetoric of the need for a paradigm shift of thinking in relation to climate change and more general talk of discontinuities in this respect, and outlined her skepticism of claims that the world has been changed forever. In an eloquent, clear and engaging talk, structured around a number of stories and images to highlight the role of social and cultural imagination in how our present understanding has been shaped, Jasanoff made a powerful plea for history. How we deal with our current situation depends on our ability to learn, not from disaster, but by building on what is to what is to come. We must not forget all we have learned before. She suggested that the resources that can help us to learn are the scientific spirit itself, common law and human history. All provide incremental approaches to learning, rather than radical paradigm shifts or discontinuities. The heart of science, Jasanoff reminded us – if left to its own devices – is incremental, provisional and skeptical.

Media artist Atteqa Malik from the Karachi collective Mauj had, the day before, pointed out that most people in Pakistan will not respond to calls for action for a notion of ‘climate change’ when what they are experiencing are more immediate problems of water shortages. Whether these are partly linked or not  – and in many parts of the world water shortages are as much to do with political and commercial structures and misguided decisions around technological systems – the point she was making is that we have to look at what people’s life concerns are. The way to engage people, as Jasanoff said, is not by talk about survival but by talking about life and living.

Other highlights of my visit to Transmediale were Petko Dourmana‘s Post Global Warming Survival Kit, which entailed entering a pitch-black room with a handheld night vision device, at first thinking the room is occupied only by an old caravan and then gradually discovering the landscape around, in fact a rather optimistic take on a post-apocalyptic vision, because clearly we are still living; and the film On the Third Planet from the Sun by Russian film-maker Pavel Medvedev, which followed people living in the Arkhangelsk region of Northern Russia 45 years after the test of the hydrogen bomb there, who live hard but cheerful lives, recycling the remains of fallen space rockets that were launched from a nearby base. Middle-aged men scavenge for space junk in the swamps, and teenagers gather debris and turn it into disco balls and strobe lights for their parties. Third Planet is a striking visual exploration of environmental destruction and the rebirth of a community.

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