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Nuclear culture in Japan. Part 1: Actinium programme, Sapporo, Hokkaido

Temporary storage site for radioactively contaminated topsoil, Fukushima City,2014

Temporary storage site for radioactively contaminated topsoil, Fukushima City,2014

I’ve been in Japan for Arts Catalyst’s Actinium exhibition and forum, part of an ongoing partnership between The Arts Catalyst and S-AIR in Sapporo, and part of the collaborative programme for the Sapporo International Art Festival.

The Actinium exhibition, held at Oyoyo in central Sapporo, was a hub for discussion about contemporary nuclear culture in Japan. It hosted film screenings and a forum, as well as being the base for field trips for artists and curators to explore the relationships between culture and nuclear power in northern Japan after 2011, the year in which the fifth most powerful earthquake ever recorded shook the country, causing widespread destruction and triggering powerful tsunami waves that reached heights of up to 40.5 metres (133 ft) in some parts. The disaster killed more than 15,000 people and caused a series of nuclear accidents, primarily the major meltdowns at three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex, which led to evacuations affecting hundreds of thousands of residents.

Actinium exhibition, Oyoyo, Sapporo, 2014. Photo: Ele Carpenter

Actinium exhibition, Oyoyo, Sapporo, 2014. Photographs by Shuji Akagi (foreground), Temporary Index by Thomson & Craighead (rear), re-creation of James Acord’s nuclear round table (right). Photo: Ele Carpenter

Before 2011, Japan generated 30 per cent of its electrical power from nuclear reactors, even though Japan is subject to frequent earthquakes, located near a triple fault line between the Eurasian plate, the Pacific plate and the Philippine plate. Since 2011, many of Japan’s nuclear plants were closed or their operations suspended. The last of Japan’s fifty nuclear reactors (at Tomari in Hokkaido) went offline in May 2012.

Today, Japan and its northern island of Hokkaido face critical decisions about whether to re-start their nuclear plants, as well as where to store nuclear waste in a highly nuclear-dependent nation, how to support the Fukushima evacuees and what to do with the contaminated debris and topsoil from the region. The after effects of the Fukushima disaster are complex and highly sensitive.

Japanese artists have responded strongly to this crisis and it has deeply affected many practices. The Actinium exhibition was curated by Arts Catalyst associate curator Ele Carpenter, who has been leading the Nuclear Culture programme, a curatorial research programme based at The Arts Catalyst and Goldsmiths College, which combines artists’ field trips, new commissions, exhibitions, film screenings, interdisciplinary symposia, and public talks. Ele Carpenter spent a month in Sapporo last year, as curator-in-residence at S-AIR, meeting Japanese artists and curators to research the Japanese cultural response to the Fukushima disaster and nuclear power in Japan today.

The Actinium programme emerged from this research, involving the exhibition and forum, and enabling a number of artists from the UK to visit Japan. The Actinium exhibition included works by artists from Japan, the UK, the US and Canada, several of whom also attended the forum. With Japanese curators, artists and other experts, the visiting group also made field trips to the Underground Research Center for radioactive waste storage at Horonobe, and the Nuclear Power Plant at Tomari, before heading south to Fukushima.

Actinium exhibition, 2014. Let Them Believe by Eva and Franco Mattes (right), Photo of James Acord's round table (left), which was re-created for the exhibition

Actinium exhibition, 2014. Let Them Believe by Eva and Franco Mattes (right), Photo of James Acord’s round table (left)

The Actinium Forum

The forum brought together artists with Japanese academics, activists and researchers in the field of nuclear culture. Discussion topics included political, social, material and philosophical concerns, geologic time, the nuclear cycle, radiation, immateriality and invisibility.

In my opening talk, I raised the issue of dependency on expertise and questions around the legitimacy of that expertise in modern technoscientific democratic societies (referencing Sheila Jasanoff’s writings). Through the lens of Langdon Winner’s analysis of the political character of technology, I discussed some of the Arts Catalyst’s work that engages with or critiques centralized systems of technology, such as nuclear energy, and our interest in exploring alternatives to centralised science, such as renewable energy, open source technologies and  citizen (or civic) science projects, exemplified by Arts Catalyst’s role in the Arctic Perspective Initiative, a multidisciplinary project led by artists Marko Peljhan and Matthew Biederman that aims to develop free and open source science and technology tools for citizens of the North, showing in the Sapporo International Art Festival.

Chim↑Pom, KI-AI 100 (100 Cheers) (video still)

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Chim↑Pom, KI-AI 100 (100 Cheers) (video still)

There were then a series of fascinating artists’ presentations by Ryuta Ushiro from artists collective Chim↑Pom, who introduced the group’s work and controversial artistic response to the Fukushima disaster, Jon Thomson & Alison Craighead who discussed their evolving work ‘Temporary Index’ a proposal for a counter representing the decay rate of a number of nuclear waste products to consider our relationship with deep time and our legacy of nuclear weapons and energy, and Shuji Akagi, an artist, high school teacher and resident of Fukushima City who has been photographically documenting the decontamination process around his city over the last three years, and whose photographs – revealing the immense scale of the process of removing and burying contaminated topsoil – formed a compelling part of the exhibition. Further artists’ talks were given by Susan Schuppli, whose work investigates the concept of ‘the material witness’, entities that record evidence of passing events, and Takashi Noguchi, who tried to visually capture the invisible radiation in his photographs from Fukushima by wrapping them in dark bags with radioactive soil.

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Takashi Noguchi at the Actinium Forum

In the afternoon were two fascinating presentations by scientist Dr Yogo Ono and lawyer Norio Sugasawa.

Dr Yugo Ono is a geographer, geo-ecologist and environmental scientist, a professor emeritus at Hokkaido University and professor at Hokusei Gakuen University, Sapporo. Ono says he has been deeply influenced by the late Jinzaburo Takagi’s ideas about citizen science. Ono discussed his estimates of radiation contamination if an accident occurred at the Tomari nuclear power plant on Hokkaido. Unlike at Fukushima, where 80 per cent of the radiation was blown out to sea, at Tomari, where winds blow from the west, almost all the radioactivity would be blown inland, devastating large areas of Hokkaido. Ono established the Group for Decommissioning the Tomari NPP, and has filed a lawsuit aimed at the decommissioning of the plant. As a side note, Ono also participates in the movement to restore the rights of indigenous Ainu people and the movement against the Sanru Dam construction.

Predicted dispersal of radiation from meltdown at Tomari nuclear power plant, from leaflet distributed by Dr Yogo Ono

Predicted dispersal of radiation from meltdown at Tomari nuclear power plant, from leaflet distributed by Dr Yogo Ono

Norio Sugasawa spoke about his work with the Decommission Tomari Campaign, on a civil suit against Hokkaido Electric Power Company (HEPCO) that owns Tomari Nuclear power station, as well as legal cases being taken against nuclear power across Japan since March 11, 2011, with some recent success, although Sugasawa pointed out the ultimate decisions about nuclear power will not be legal but political.

The forum ended with a series of extremely animated ‘break out’ roundtable discussions. In the one I attended, there was discussion about Japanese people’s response to the disaster and some concern expressed that people aboard may feel their response too passive (although there have been many protests and legal cases against nuclear power) – would people from other countries have protested more loudly? In a group that was a mix of Japanese and Western people, we agreed that the 3.11 disaster was so profound and traumatic that it was difficult to say that in another country people would have responded differently. Although the Japanese in the group explained that in their culture people tend not to state their opposition or objections out loud, the group realized that this did not mean that there had not been deep questioning, protest and activism, nor could it be said that a more outspoken culture would have reacted very differently under similarly overwhelming circumstances. The Japanese situation was uniquely devastating, but there were lessons to be learned from it for the world.

The Actinium programme (exhibition, forum, exchange & research trips) was supported by the Daiwa Foundation, Goldsmiths College, University of London, SIAF, the Pola Art Foundation, Arts Council England, Agency for Cultural Affairs, City of Sapporo, S-AIR and The Arts Catalyst.

In my next Japan installment, I will report on our road trip to the Fukushima exclusion zone.

Fracking futures – HeHe’s experimental drilling cuts out the middle man

HeHe, Fracking Futures (2013). Commissioned by The Arts Catalyst and FACT

HeHe, Fracking Futures (2013). Commissioned by The Arts Catalyst and FACT

As David Koch – the wealthy industrialist whose company is responsible for the dumping of a three-storey high city block sized pile of petroleum coke (a byproduct of oil sands refining) in Detroit’s Assumption Park – funds a new plaza at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, I’m prompted to wonder what we in the UK arts sector will get up to in response to Government calls for reductions in public subsidy to be replaced with corporate and personal philanthropy, as per the American model.

Viewing the ongoing hubbub around BP’s ongoing sponsorship of our major institutions, Tate, the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Opera House, how can we finance our work without sparking quite such a furor? And anyway, how much do we want to benefit a multinational?

Petcoke piles along the Detroit river. Byproduct of tar sands oil refinement at the Marathon refinery in Detroit Michigan. Photo: James Fassinger

Petcoke piles along the Detroit river. Byproduct of tar sands oil refinement at the Marathon refinery in Detroit Michigan. Photo: James Fassinger

In The Arts Catalyst latest commission with FACT, Liverpool, artist group HeHe (Heiko Hansen and Helen Evans) propose a radical solution: cut out the middle man, let’s extract our own fossil fuels.

In FACT’s ground floor Gallery 1, HeHe have begun initial exploratory tests to extract shale gas through an innovative process known as fracking, turning the space into an experimental drilling site. Fracking is short for ‘hydraulic fracturing’: pumping a highly pressurised mixture of water, sand and chemicals underground to extract gas. The process opens fissures in subterranean rocks, releasing the gas trapped several miles beneath the earth’s surface. HeHe’s initial explorations have already discovered that the area directly beneath FACT consists of Holywell shale and might hold at least 20 trillion cubic feet of gas. This energy will be used to ensure the future operation of FACT and the energy created will be exported directly to the local community.

Whilst fracking is a controversial procedure which has caused mass public debate in the US and currently in Britain – and certainly there will be some unquantifiable subterranean noise and minor ground tremors in the gallery, as well as probable minor explosions and effluent discharge – it’s all being done with public safety and public benefit as a priority.

HeHe’s Fracking Futures ties into a long history of mining and extraction in northwest England, and looks to the contemporary context wherein sites around Blackpool, Manchester and Southport have been, or are currently, in the process of being approved for fracking. This artists’ installation aims to draw attention to current debates surrounding the process, both economic and environmental.

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HeHe, Fracking Futures (2013). Commissioned by The Arts Catalyst and FACT for ‘Turning FACT Inside Out’

Beatriz da Costa 1974-2012

Beatriz da Costa, 1974 - 2012

Beatriz da Costa, 1974 – 2012

The artist Beatriz da Costa lost her long, fierce battle with cancer on the evening of 27 December 2012, at the age of 38.

This is not an obituary, but simply a personal reflection on the Arts Catalyst’s work with this courageous woman and inspired artist, who at her death had not yet achieved her full potential, but had still produced a remarkable and influential body of work. (There is a full biography on Wikipedia.)

I first met Beatriz in 2003, at our second presentation of GenTerra at the Natural History Museum in London, as part of our CleanRooms exhibition, a work on which she had collaborated with Critical Art Ensemble (CAE). Beatriz had been unable to attend the first presentation in 2002 at Gallery Oldham, due to ill health. GenTerra was one of CAE’s “participatory theatre” works, which enabled its audiences to consider the consequences of creating transgenic life forms. GenTerra was a fictitious biotechnology corporation “balancing profits with social responsibility”. Lab-coated assistants (members of CAE) introduced GenTerra’s bioproducts to the audience, and would explain the practical applications of such research, such as disease treatment and xenotransplantation. Audience members were taught how to grow and store their own transgenic bacteria. They could then choose to spin a bacteria release machine with only one of its ten chambers holding active transgenic bacteria. They were told that the bacteria they might release into the environment was a benign strain and had to decide whether to play this game of ‘genetic Russian roulette’. The bacteria release machine was designed and made by Beatriz.

Beatriz with her bacteria release mechanism. GenTerra, Critical Art Ensemble and Beatriz da Costa

Beatriz da Costa with her bacteria release mechanism. GenTerra, Critical Art Ensemble and Beatriz da Costa

It is interesting to realise now how widely and deeply Beatriz’s interests as an artist paralleled and intersected with those of the Arts Catalyst, yet we did not work with her as a solo artist until 2009. Beatriz specialised in the intersections of art, science, engineering, and politics. She and her collaborators – including as a founder member of Preemptive Media, and a collaborator with Critical Art Ensemble – frequently engaged the public by running workshops that translated challenging new technical and scientific developments into accessible activities. She was an innovator in the use of technology and biotechnology in her art, with a remarkable drive to intellectually grasp and gain the technical skills to engage with emerging areas of science and technology. In 2008, she co-edited the MIT Press anthology Tactical Biopolitics: Art, Activism, and Technoscience.

PigeonBlog, Beatriz da Costa, 2008. Photo: Kristian Buus

Pigeonblog, Beatriz da Costa. Interspecies, A Foundation London, 2010. Photo: Kristian Buus

In 2009, we presented Beatriz’s project Pigeonblog as part of Interspecies, an exhibition and programme which explored artists’ attempts to collaborate with animals. Pigeonblog was a collaboration between homing pigeons, artists, engineers and pigeon fanciers, a citizen scientific data-gathering initiative designed to college and distribute information about air quality conditions. Pigeons carried custom-built miniature air pollution sensing devices enabled to send the collected localized information to an online server. Pollution levels were visualised and plotted in real-time on an Internet map. Interspecies was shown at Cornerhouse, Manchester, and at the A Foundation in London.

That year, we also invited Beatriz to create a new project for the exhibition Dark Places, a series of commissioned artists’ projects exploring spaces and institutions below the radar of common knowledge, and examining how artists are evolving strategies for art as a form of knowledge production.

Beatriz’s project for Dark Places, A Memorial for the Still Living explored the ‘dark places’ of zoological science and presented a sombre reflection on endangered species of the British Isles. Produced remotely, with Beatriz sending detailed lists of species and specifications, the artwork manifested as a striking art installation which confronted visitors with the reality of British species threatened with extinction. Continuing the artist’s investigation into interspecies, her interest was to confront visitors with the only mode of encounter left once a species has become extinct: the description, image, sound or taxidermed shell of a once thriving organism. However, rather than focusing on already extinct species, her focus was on the ‘still living’; species classified as being under threat, but which still stand a chance for survival if immediate action is taken. Beatriz posited that, after they have been eradicated from our planet as a result of hunting, loss of habitat or climate change, our only opportunities for interaction with these species will be with bottled and mounted specimens. The possibility of an encounter ‘in the flesh’ will have disappeared, with humans reduced to studying preserved examples of each species.

Installation

A Memorial for the Still Living, Beatriz da Costa. Dark Places, John Hansard Gallery, 2009-10. Photo: Steve Shrimpton.

A Memorial to the Still Living (detail), Beatriz da Costa, 2009. Photo: Steve Shrimpton

A Memorial for the Still Living, Beatriz da Costa, 2009. Photo: Steve Shrimpton

A Memorial for the Still Living, Beatriz da Costa, 2009. Photo: Steve Shrimpton

A Memorial for the Still Living, Beatriz da Costa, 2009. Photo: Steve Shrimpton

To realise this exhibit, Beatriz worked collaboratively with the Arts Catalyst team and the collection curators at the Horniman Museum and the Natural History Museum in London. Central to the installation were taxidermed specimens of endangered animals alongside preserved botanical samples of plants under threat. Each specimen was given a ‘birth date’ (the date of classification and inclusion into the corpus of western science) as well as a ‘death date’ (the date of projected extinction).

A Memorial for the Still Living was shown as part of the Dark Places exhibition at the John Hansard Gallery in Southampton (1), and then as a solo exhibition at the Horniman Museum in London. To coincide with the exhibition, the artist released the Endangered Species Finder, a mobile application that facilitates encounters with other species within their ‘natural’ environments. Beatriz believed that experience and encounter, not just policy and regulations, are what ultimately change our behavior towards our environment. Through her encouragement of a ‘go out and meet the species before it’s too late’ attitude, she hoped to make a small contribution to the collective effort of examining our current relationships to non-human species.

Endangered Species Finder, Beatriz da Costa, 2010

Endangered Species Finder, Beatriz da Costa, 2010

Of course, the project and its title, A Memorial for the Still Living, acquired a powerful poignancy after Beatriz’ diagnosis with breast cancer and as the disease progressed. Constructing the installation exactly to her specifications became invested with great importance for us, and I will mention here our producer Gillean Dickie, who worked creatively and collaboratively with Beatriz to fix every small detail as the artist wanted it.

Whilst more than 13,000 people saw the installation in Southampton and London, Beatriz herself never saw it in its physical form because she was too ill to travel. We documented it on video and photographs for her, and when she felt well enough, she came to London in early 2011 to talk about the work in a public event at the Arts Catalyst. Our curator Rob La Frenais took the opportunity to record an interview with Beatriz about her work, an interview which we will make available soon.

There is no doubt that we would have commissioned Beatriz again. We were in early discussion with Botanic Gardens Conservation International about a potential project with Beatriz, and we also – as she became more ill – discussed showing her powerful video installation, Dying for the Other, in the UK, a work which documented the lives of mice used in breast cancer research and humans suffering from the same disease. In order to produce Dying for the Other, Beatriz documented scenes of her own life during the summer of 2011 and combined them with footage taken at a breast cancer research facility in New York City over the same time frame.

Despite her worsening condition and the many surgeries that she endured, Beatriz – Shani to her friends, as we were by now – was often in contact with us, discussing projects, being interviewed by Skype for a research project by an embedded researcher with Arts Catalyst, discussing future plans until she could no longer think clearly or type and it had become clear to us all that her time was running out. It is of some consolation that she died at home, with people she loved, yet still unbearable and unfair that we have lost this vibrant, clever, committed woman and artist.

1. A Memorial for the Still Living was commissioned by The Arts Catalyst and co-curated with the Office of Experiments, John Hansard Gallery and SCAN, for Dark Places.

Transformism: new works by Melanie Jackson and Revital Cohen

Urpflanze Part 2 (detail), Melanie Jackson, 2013

In ‘Transformism’, the Arts Catalyst’s latest exhibition which has just opened at the John Hansard Gallery, Southampton, Melanie Jackson and Revital Cohen reflect on our compulsion to alter and shape the materials, objects and living entities around us. They wonder at our ingenuity, and contemplate our relationships with biology and matter as they are radically transformed by human agency, whether the impulse is artistic or scientific.

Today, in our attempts to rework our living and material world to fit our beliefs of how it should be, we have powerful new tools. Molecular biology, nanoscience and engineering are converging, provoking scientists to dream up all kinds of transformed matter: vaccine-producing bananas, fluorescent cats, bacteria that excrete diesel, trees that clean up pollutants, nanorobots that can enter human cells. Science proclaims a new revolutionary age, in which we can make almost anything, if we only understand and imagine it. Yet the urge to create new forms and objects, whether driven by need, desire or simply fantastical dreams of what might be possible, is ages old. To understand where we’re headed, we should have some perspective on where we’ve come from.

Urpflanze Part 2 (detail), Melanie Jackson

Melanie Jackson’s investigations into mutability and novel forms are rooted in her awareness of the visual, sensual, historical, political and scientific aspects of materials and plants, and her interest in the intertwined role of myths and fantasy with aesthetics and technology. She is intrigued by scale, conscious that many new types of matter, such as liquid crystals, microscopic biological entities and smart materials, are rendered invisible because of scale or concealed within a hermetically sealed interface, yet they impact dramatically on our macroscopic visual and tactile environment and our dreams of magical abundance.

The Urpflanze (Part 2) is the second part of Jackson’s ongoing investigation into plant form, aesthetics and transformation that takes its lead from Goethe’s concept of an archetypal plant, the Urpflanze, from which all plant forms could be generated. Contemporary science similarly imagines the potential to grow or print any form we can imagine, by recasting physical, chemical and biological function as a substrate that can be programmed into being. Jackson’s work begins in the botanical garden and looks to the laboratory, from clay pits to the factory floor, from analogue to digital clay, from its own animated pixels to the interior of the screen in a series of moving image works and ceramic sculptures.

Kingyo Kingdom (detail), Revital Cohen, 2013

Revital Cohen’s work explores themes relating to nature, technology, and human behaviour. In particular, living creatures that are produced and used as artefacts fascinate her. Her interest in these designed animals – whether pets, farm animals, or living drug factories – is driven by what motivates and influences the breeders and scientists, and what this commodification means for our relationship with these fabricated living beings.

In Kingyo Kingdom, Cohen explores the genus of fish that have been designed for aesthetic purposes, questioning the definitions used to indicate living creatures. Does one denominate a manipulated organism as an object, product, animal or pet? What are the design criteria involved in creating living creatures? Cohen’s interest in the cultural perceptions and aesthetics of animal-as-product took her to Japan where exotic goldfish have been developed over centuries of meticulous cultivation; breeding out dorsal fins and sculpting kimono-like Ranchu fish tails. Kingyo Kingdom explores the unique culture of breeders, collectors and connoisseurs with footage from the Japanese national goldfish competition, questioning the design and commodification of this species.

Kingyo Kingdon (film still), Revital Cohen, 2013

‘Transformism’ is the latest manifestation of the Arts Catalyst’s extensive investigations into how arts practice, culture and contemporary science interpenetrate and influence one another.

The philosopher Bernard Stiegler has asserted that the divorce between the rhythms of cultural and technical evolution is symptomatic of the fact that today technics evolves more quickly than culture (1), but perhaps there is more interplay than we realise. The works in ‘Transformism’ meditate on the vibrations and circulations of our changing material world and explores our complex relationships with the things we create, in the process softening the boundaries between culture and technology.

Transformism is at the John Hansard Gallery, University of Southampton, SO17 1BJ, from 22 January to 9 March 2013

The Transformism exhibition guide, with an essay by Isobel Harbison, is available from the John Hansard Gallery or can be downloaded in a variety of e-formats from The Arts Catalyst website.

Notes
1. Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus

 

Some responses to War at the speed of light …

James Bridle, Dronestagram, 2012

A couple of recent interesting blog posts have picked up on my War at the Speed of Light: artists and drone warfare post a few weeks ago, which reviewed Omer Fast and Trevor Paglen’s works at the Brighton Photo Biennial.

Geographer Dr Alan Ingram, in his post Making geopolitics creepy and cool with art, fascinatingly analyses the use of particular words in the comments books at Fast and Paglen’s exhibitions: ‘stunning’, ‘cool’, ‘creepy’, ‘ugh’, ‘*shudders*, ‘oh no…’, ‘weird’, ‘wow’, ‘huh?’, by way of François Debrix, JJ Charlesworth, and neuropolitics (more please, Alan, this is a fantastic subject!). Ingram’s excellent blog Art and War is part of an academic research project exploring the responses of artists and art institutions in the UK to the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq,

Meanwhile, Honor Harger’s Drone’s Eye View: a Look at How Artists Are Revealing the Killing Fields, whose venue Lighthouse in Brighton hosted the Paglen show, introduces James Bridle’s significant body of work on drone warfare. Bridle’s Drone Shadow is an ongoing investigation into the shadow of the drone, in which one-to-one representations of the MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) are drawn to scale on urban landscapes, while his new project Dronestagram, launched this month, is a social media project on TwitterInstagram and Tumblr which posts a drone’s-eye-view of strike locations.

Thanks to both!

Also, in case you’ve missed it, I draw your attention to Culture+Conflict, a UK-based not-for-profit agency, founded in 2011 by Michaela Crimmon, Peter Jenkinson and Jemima Montagu, which focuses on the role of the arts and culture within conflict and post conflict situations across the world.

War at the speed of light: artists and drone warfare

Omer Fast, 5000 Feet Is the Best, 2011, digital film stills © Omer Fast

“We call it in, and we’re given all the clearances that are necessary, all the approvals and everything else, and then we do something called the Light of God – the Marines like to call it the Light of God. It’s a laser targeting marker. We just send out a beam of laser and when the troops put on their night vision goggles they’ll just see this light that looks like it’s coming from heaven. Right on the spot, coming out of nowhere, from the sky. It’s quite beautiful.”
– quote from Omer Fast’s 5000 Is the Best, 2011.

Paul Virilio, in his 1998 book ‘The Vision Machine’, predicted a machine that “will be capable of seeing and perceiving in our place”. A key concept in Virilio’s writing is dromology, or the logic of speed. The one and simple rule of technology development has been that of ever-increasing speed, and this rule seems to define fundamental aspects of warfare and society. Real space has been supplanted by real time because we can receive information from everywhere on the globe in real-time, reducing human perception to a kind of ‘polar inertia’.

Last week, US immigration officials’ detention and interrogation of Pakistan politician Imran Kahn – a vehement critic of US drone attacks in Pakistan – as he boarded a flight from Canada to New York, threw a spotlight on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in warfare. UAVs, or drones, are aircraft either controlled by ‘pilots’ from the ground or autonomously following a pre-programmed mission. They basically fall into two categories: those used for reconnaissance and surveillance, and those armed with missiles and bombs. Although British and US Reaper and Predator drones are physically in Afghanistan and Iraq, control is via satellite from a USAF base outside Las Vegas, Nevada. Ground crews launch drones from the conflict zone, then operation is handed over to controllers at video screens. Armed drones were first used in the Balkans war, but their use has dramatically escalated in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

Angel Nevarez and Alex Rivera, LowDrone

Contemporary artists have increasingly vigorously engaged with the subject of war and its consequences over the last decade, since the commencement of Bush’s global “war on terror” and the Iraq War. Unsurprisingly, there have been a string of recent artists’ project exploring the rapidly escalating use and impact of drones in surveillance and warfare, such as Angel Nevarez and Alex Rivera’s remote-controlled “low-rider” spy drone, positioned at the United States-Mexico border and controllable by anyone with an Internet connection, and photojournalist Noor Behram’s brave documentation of the human toll of drone strikes in Pakistan.

Trevor Paglen, Reaper Drone (Indian Springs, NV Distance – 2 miles), 2012

Two artists’ exhibitions in the recent Brighton Photo Biennial, whose theme was ‘Agents of Change’, address the subject of remote warfare and surveillance through works that at the same time unpick the role of the photograph or video in the propagation of ideas, and question the assumption of the documentary as truth-telling.

Trevor Paglen is known for his meticulously researched documentation of “black sites” of secret government activity, which he photographs using specialized equipment. His show at Lighthouse, Brighton, featured photographic works drawn from two series: Limit Telephotography, in which the artist adapted astronomy telescopes to reveal classified, covert US military installations, including drone bases, in remote parts of south-west USA, and The Other Night Sky, his photographs of classified American surveillance satellites. Paglen’s photographs are an uneasy blend of abstract allure, art-historical references, and disquieting subject matter. They draw our attention not only to the geography of covert operations – the remote sites, and the militarisation of sky and space – but also to the mechanisation of vision and its implications in a global arena of political tension and warfare. His distant photographs of partially visible airplane hangers, drone aircraft and strange installations are blurred, the images of spy satellites use long exposure to show the bright arcs of satellite paths. The exhibition also includes Paglen’s 2010 video work Drone Vision, a stream of unencrypted video intercepted by an amateur satellite hacker.

Trevor Paglen, Keyhole Improved Crystal from Glacier Point (Optical Reconnaissance Satellite; USA 186), 2008

Omer Fast’s latest chilling narrative film work 5000 Feet Is the Best explores remote warfare and its psychological impact on a drone pilot. Fast’s unsettling video-works construct contemporary stories through a masterly grasp of storytelling, reworking time, facts and personal perspective, exposing of the problematic assumptions of objectivity and truth. He often presents his films in a looped structure, with no obvious start or end point, and challenges our absorption in the tale by revealing its construction – showing the actor auditioning for a part, for example, or repeating a section but altering it.

5000 Feet Is the Best is based on conversations that the artist had with a former Predator drone aerial unmanned vehicle operator with post traumatic stress disorder, now working as a Las Vegas casino security guard. As I enter the space, the film shows an overhead shot of a boy on a bike cycling across an arid landscape towards a settlement. The voiceover is of an interview with a former drone operator explaining the detail that he could see when the drone is at 5000 feet or above: “the kind of shoes a person was wearing, if they were smoking a cigarette, their posture”.

Omer Fast, 5000 Feet is the Best, screen shot, 2011

The film interweaves and blurs reality and fiction. It is structured around three dramatized sequences. Each starts in the same way, in dark hotel room, the pilot (an actor) sitting on the bed facing his interviewer, presumably Fast. Each time Fast asks: “What’s the difference between you and someone actually in an airplane?”, and the pilot answers, “Nothing, we’re doing the same thing”, to which Fast replies “But you’re not a real pilot”, provoking each time a different outburst from the drone operator, who then falls into telling a story, sometimes seemingly unrelated, which we watch dramatised unfold on the screen. One story is about a man who poses as a train driver, operates the train smoothly for an entire day, but is arrested that night breaking into his own home (having left his keys in his borrowed uniform). The interviewer asks: “Was the man in this story someone in your unit?” The drone pilot replies shortly: “No. It’s a metaphor.” A second story is of a couple in a casino who engage in a seduction scam to rob casino customers. The last story is of a family – personified as a white, American family – who abandon their home to avoid some unknown trouble, only to meet a tragedy on the road. “Mom, Dad, Johnny, and little Zoe” pack their belongings into a station wagon. On a lonely dirt road, they see a group of men planting an improvised explosive device. The image cuts to the view from a drone. The family’s car drives slowly towards the men. There is a humming noise from the sky …

The stories are interspersed with the audio of the interview, where the drone pilot talks of his work and of his psychological trauma over his responsibility for killing: “You see a lot of death … doing this. You had to think there is so much loss of life that is a direct result of me.”

Remote warfare aims to distance the public, as well as the operators of the drones, from the people “over there”. Paglen’s work exposes the covertness and mechanics of such warfare technologies, while Fast attempts to remake the perceptual connections between “us and them” to show that, despite Virilio’s prediction that such technologies will lead to the ‘automation of perception’, killing is still a personal and human experience, even when mediated by speed-of-light telepresence.

Omer Fast, 5000 Feet is the Best, screen shot, 2011

Machine wilderness: personal highlights from ISEA2012 Albuquerque

Very Large Array, New Mexico

This is a snapshot of personal highlights from ISEA2012 Albuquerque: Machine Wilderness. ISEA (the International Symposium on Electronic Arts) is an international gathering of artists, technologists and crossover types taking place each year in a different location. The 18thsymposium centered on Albuquerque, New Mexico, with offshoots in El Paso, Taos and Santa Fe. This huge event covered multiple sites. Its exhibitions and programme continue to December.

The term “machine wilderness” was originally coined by cultural geographer Ronald Horvath in the 1960s to describe the impact of the automobile on the landscape of the American Southwest. ISEA2012 reclaimed the phrase to represent the co-existence of humans, technology and environment, particularly in the context of New Mexico as a region of technological innovation and experimentation across vast expanses of land, much of it desert or semi-arid.

Historically, much of New Mexico’s technological development has been federally funded; the state is home to three air force bases, the White Sands Missile Range, and the federal research laboratories Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories. During World War II, the first atomic bombs were designed and manufactured at Los Alamos and the first tested in the White Sands desert. Today, technological innovation continues with injections of private money adding to federal funds, for example, Spaceport America is being built to host Virgin Galactic’s planned space tourism flights. New Mexico is also home to the Very Large Array, a huge radio astronomy observatory consisting of 27 independent antennas. This beautiful and contested technological landscape, many areas being sacred Native American lands, was a fascinating setting for ISEA2012 and the context was reflected in the sub-themes of the conference: The Cosmos, Transportation, Power, Creative Economies and Wildlife.

Marina Zurkow and Christie Leece, Gila 2.0: Warding Off the Wolf

The main ISEA2012 symposium took place from the 19-24 September. It explored the themes through talks, lectures, workshops, performances, exhibitions, film screenings and events. Highlights included archivist Rick Prelinger’s superb home movies-based keynote on the networks that connect us, astronomer Roger Malina’s keynote lecture, which I discussed in the blog post Art in the age of big data, and the Radical Cosmologies panel, also mentioned earlier.

The Latin American forum was a highpoint, showcasing many exceptional artists from south of the border. The forum included a lecture by Navajo code talker Bill Toledo. The Navajo code talkers were a small group of young men who transmitted secret communications on the battlefields of World War Two, encrypted in a code created from the ancient language of their people. You can read more here http://www.navajocodetalkers.org/. Here’s a Marine battle hymn sung in Navajo by Bill Toledo recorded by Robert Matney.

Navajo Code Talkers

ISEA2012’s exhibitions were spread across several sites, focused on 516 ARTS and the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History. Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene (Mexico) displayed their SEFT-1 vehicle in the Albuquerque Museum, its activities also appearing in the 516 exhibition. SEFT-1 is a space-age looking vehicle, which travels on roads and abandoned railways to discover remote areas of Mexico. Puig and Domene drove it from Mexico, across the border, where my colleague Rob La Frenais met it in El Paso. Rob and the artists then traveled in it across the New Mexico desert, understandably attracting crowds wherever they stopped.

Ivan Puig and Andres Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 at White Sands National Memorial. Photo: Rob La Frenais

Passengers (not Rob!) in Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene’s SEFT-1, Mexico. Photo: Puig and Domene

I had fun on Steve Gibson, Justin Love and Jim Olson’s Grand Theft Bicycle. You get on a (real) bicycle and set off, riding through a 3D recreation of a desert city, shooting up the bad guys (well, they might be), leaping over banks to make your escape, and careering into walls – the steering is an art. Hacked from closed source software, it was (apparently) a bit of nightmare to develop. Well worth while.

Steve Gibson, Justin Love and Jim Olson, Grand Theft Bicycle

D Bryon Darby’s effective 
Seventy Flights in Ninety Minutes, Phoenix, Arizona
 is a digital composite photograph of every airplane flying into Phoenix airport in an hour and a half.

D Bryon Darby, Seventy Flights in Ninety Minutes, Phoenix, Arizona

Chirping on trees, Neil Mendoza and Anthony Goh’s Escape features moving, tweeting birds, made from disposable unwanted mobile phones. A magical work.

Neil Mendoza & Anthony Goh, Escape

Stephanie Rothenberg

’s impressive The Secret of Eternal Levitation enticed me to build my own “space island”, drawing on water, labour, resources and energy from the Earth (or possibly meteor-mining). Within its sci-fi setting and aesthetic, it made pithy points about the parts of the world we exploit for grand developments of our aspiring culture.

Stephanie Rothenberg

, The Secret of Eternal Levitation

A gala evening for ISEA2012 was held at the eccentric, delightful Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum (where else in the world could you find a museum devoted to ballooning?), where delegates watched performances, listened to bands, and saw art installations and exhibits.

Balloon Gala, Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum

In a live, interactive performance, Tweets in Space, artists Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern sent Twitter messages contributed by participants towards an exoplanet twenty light years away, that might be able to support extraterrestrial life. Miwa Matreyekl’s Myth and Infrastructure was a captivating performance combining digital animation and live shadow performance.

Miwa Matreyekl, Myth and Infrastructure

Also at the balloon museum is an exhibition by Juan José Díaz Infante and the Mexican Space Collective, who are building a satellite called Ulises I. Their installation shows the satellite itself as well as prototype projects by the contributing artists.

Mexican Space Collective, Ulises I

The Albuquerque section of the symposium culminated with a public block party on Central Avenue, better known as the historic Route 66, in downtown Albuquerque. Among the music, installations, street performances, and technological gizmos was a fantastically quirky balletic performance by a jumping, honking, revving gathering of low rider cars. Symphony 505 was a collaboration between the Down Low Car Club and artists Christopher Marianetti and Mary Margaret Moore.

ISEA2012 Downtown block party

Down Low Car Club, Christopher Marianetti and Mary Margaret Moore, Symphony 505

Overall, ISEA2012 was a stimulating combination of electronic art, creative technology, critical discourse, desert landscapes, epic skies, awesome engineering, layered histories, shimmering heat … and those salty, sour margaritas!

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