Sketching: The World After Us, speculative media sculptures

This blog post is a sketch – something I will occasionally do about my own work, or with others. It will always be a thinking-with of new materials and ideas, with this one coming out of the writing of my forthcoming second book (Ecological Aesthetics: artful tactics for humans, nature, and politics), chats with colleagues and peers and specialists, playing with media objects, proposing a fellowship (I didn’t get), and more. I welcome feedback! I imagine this particular proposal being a years- and perhaps decades-long project, with this first exhibition being produced over the next two or so years… The images are very recent experiments!

THE WORLD AFTER: US SPECULATIVE MEDIA SCULPTURE

What will Digital Media do, after us?

Galaxy (yes, the phone)

The World After Us will be a new series of media sculptures that materially speculate on what our devices – phones and tablets, batteries and displays, etc – might become, over thousands or millions of years. Through research, experimentation, and craft, I will try (and likely fail) to turn phones into crude oil, coal, or other fossil fuels – and put the results on exhibit, in beakers and tubes. I will attempt to mimic geological time, as pressure and heat – through chemical interactions or specialized machinery – on laptops and tablets, then display where that potential lies, as petrified-like LCDs or mangled post-exploded batteries, on pedestals in a gallery. I hope to turn “dead media” computers into efficient planters for edible goods, food for mold, or seeds of their own growth – and show both those experiments, and their results, as videos and sculptural forms. I will also turn ground phones into usable supplies, for example ink and paper, and put them to use in these new forms. The final outcome will be an internationally exhibited body of work, and catalog. It is impossible for humans to truly fathom our planet on an Earth scale, or conversely from the perspective of bacteria. But we can feel such things, through art and storytelling – making our aesthetic encounters both conceptually and ethically vital toward new futures. At stake, whether in our everyday interactions or on a larger scale, are the (digital) relationships between humans and the natural world on the one hand, between politics and commerce on the other.

The World After Us will be a traveling exhibition and catalog, beginning in Milwaukee, and shown in several other spaces internationally. It asks:

What will digital media be and do, after us?
What will my laptop, or phone, look like in a million years?
How will our devices weather over time?
Can we artificially weather our devices, to sense and feel this?

Torch phone (yes, literally)

These are not rhetorical questions. But they are more speculative than they are able to be answered directly and correctly. And with this research project, I will speculate and experiment, wonder and wander, with our materials. I will (safely) mix phones in blenders, press laptops under steamrollers, break down tablets with borax. I will soak iPads in chlorine and sludge, cook iPhones like cakes, inject the Apple Watch with spores and mold. Torch, grind, freeze, flower. Highlight, amplify, ironize, intervene. Resiutate, speculate, wonder, and propose.

Can we use biofuel processes or hydrothermal liquefaction to turn a phone into fuel?
How might a laptop make the most efficient planter, or bed for life?
What would a tablet made of carbon, instead of plastic, be and do?
What does a joule feel like?

Geological time and Earth size, decomposition and regrowth: these are concepts we can comprehend rationally, but they are impossible to truly fathom. I propose that we can feel such things, aesthetically and thus ethically, if we substantiate future potential, artfully, in objects and installations. My experimental project will do precisely this. It will take the form of between eight and 15 objects or installations that might be: beakers of coal- or oil-like matter labelled with the device they once were (ie iPhone 7); laptops growing spores and mold, propagating life in new and different ways; participatory machines that take our energy and convert it into media; new designs for carbon-based phones, which will more easily decompose over time; prints made entirely of media devices: image, ink, paper, etc… These objects will be accompanied by the stories and experiments that produced them (text, image, video), as well as an essay which mediates the research as a whole.

Some relevant reading (not including my not-yet-released book!):

Artist Feature: Bryan Cera and Critical Machining

Bryan Cera is a former student of mine (he did both his BFA and MFA with me at UW-Milwaukee), and I couldn’t be prouder. Not that I can honestly take any responsibility for the person and artist Bryan has become – one who far surpassed his teacher long ago; but rather, I am proud to call him a friend and colleague, proud of the hard work he has done, and what he has achieved with it.

Cera was the featured artist at Maker Faire Milwaukee last weekend – the largest Maker Faire in the country – showing off his custom-designed 3D/ceramic printer, and some Daft Punk cosplay, among other things. The former’s main innovations are a vertical shaft worm gear box in order to seriously increase torque, so as to work with standard clay (rather than the over-watery liquid that often doesn’t hold form in most models), and real-time, manual  controls to similarly adjust speed and viscosity as needed. The latter (which gets heaps of Interweb hits), he happily told us, uses an Arduino Nano and addressable RGB LEDs.

But it is not Bryan’s technical innovation nor his open source attitude alone that make me proud. He was always this way, generous and smart, able to figure things out and willing to help others understand them. (See some of Cera’s best tutorial shares here.)

What continues to intrigue and impress me is Cera’s ability to smoothly move between cool pop culture fun, and important questions about how we perform and understand technology, ourselves, and the worlds they together make and change. For him, and for anyone who spends any time with him, art and craft, technology and culture, philosophy and fun, are never far apart – and the stakes in that distance – or the lack thereof – always have consequences.

When I met him, Bryan was making traditional art and going through school on the one hand, playing with technology and his sense of humor on the other. He didn’t see these two lives as connected until he was pushed to explore his fun and geeky side in his (home) work. What initially came out was various versions of Supercontroller – a full-body, interactive interface for Super Mario Brothers. Delightfully fun, we grab coins and jump over (or on top of) turtles to rack up points; this piece’s various iterations also begin to show how digital realms do not enhance our behaviors: they actually limit them in how we must face the screen and interact. Pung – the title a cross between the 80s game Pong and the word sung (like singing) – sees us control the up/down paddles of the classic table tennis arcade game with our voices. Here microphones stick out like robot arms from the screen, and gallery-goers sing and scream into their controllers in order to make it go. It’s a hilarious amplification (literally!) of the weird things we do to make our technologies function (watch the video!), between play, performance, and habit.

These two works embarked Cera on a journey around precisely the tensions between such things. One breakthrough open-source piece that got a lot of attention was Glove One: a fully functional phone you wear on your hand. Though a lot of folks really loved it – you dial on your fingers, do the classic “call me” gesture to speak and listen with your thumb and pinky, hang up by slamming your fist – there was a much funnier, and more critical, joke to the entire gesture. You see, there’s this great hand-phone you can use with natural movements and that looks super cool… and all you have to do is give up all other uses of your hand. You can’t do anything else. Pick things up, hold hands with your partner, wipe – none of it is a go. And Cera’s argument is that we often give up just so much when we adopt our new tech toys. Even when our phones are not there, for example, when we try to shut down and shut off, we feel the phantoms ringing in our pockets, pulling away our attention and our time…

ARAI: Arm For Artistic Inquiry (pronounced array) goes in another direction, but explores similar concepts. We constantly hear how robots are going to outperform us, steal our jobs, become more human. One core argument for this future is so that we humans can spend more time doing important things… What if, Cera asks, we made a robot more human, by having it do the things that humans would actually do in that free time? So… he made a robot that procrastinates. I kid you not. ARAI constantly opens the fridge, peers in, then closes it. It surfs Facebook for pictures of cats. It stares at magazines but does not read them. Ironically, says Cera, the more human the robot becomes, the more useless it is to us. Scary, funny, something to think with… He talks about it brilliantly in the TEDx talk above.

I’m super excited to see what’s next from Bryan Cera. Now an Assistant Professor of Craft and Emerging Media in the Media Arts Department at the Alberta College of Art and Design (that’s a mouthful of awesome right there), he seems to be playing out how more general materials think and act, and how they may change our media, alongside and within them. His beautiful Video Crystals, for example, shape moving images into moving sculptures, and he is in the process of imagining ceramic robots.

Good job, Bryan. Thank you for your work.

Wednesday Sept 27: Morehshin Allahyari at UWM

Morehshin Allahyari is an Iranian artist who moved to the US ten years ago, and produces work across Internet art, video and installation, sculpture, writing, and other forms, all of which explore, she says,  the political, social, and cultural contradictions we face every day.

Two of Allahyari’s recent and most well-known works are The 3D Additivist Cookbook (with Daniel Rourke), and Material Speculation: ISIS. The former is a book of 3d .obj and .stl files, critical and fictional texts, templates, recipes, (im)practical designs and methodologies from over 100 world-leading artists, activists and theorists.

And it is absolutely free.

Download The 3D Additivist Cookbook here, or torrent (yes, a completely legal bit torrent!) the archive here.

Material Speculation is a reconstruction of 12 selected (original) artifacts (statues from the Roman period city of Hatra and Assyrian artifacts from Nineveh) that were destroyed by ISIS in 2015. Allahyari 3D modeled and 3D printed these forms, creating, in the artists words “a practical and political possibility for artifact archival, while also proposing 3D printing technology as a tool both for resistance and documentation. It intends to use 3D printing as a process for repairing history and memory.” She includes a flash drive and a memory card inside the body of each 3D printed object, making each a kind of time capsule with images, maps, pdf files, and videos gathered on the artifacts and sites that were destroyed.

She is also a friend: generous and fun, smart and friendly, I highly recommend you try to make it to her talk this week, September 27, 2017 here in Milwaukee.

Artists Now! lectures take place every Wednesday at 7:30 pm in the Arts Center Lecture Hall on the UWM campus. They are always free and open to the public.

Brefiew: Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious by N Katherine Hayles

Welcome to another briefiew (brief review)!

N. Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics was hugely influential on my dissertation and thinking, and I still cite her regularly in my classes and texts. Here her ironically titled book re-members (that is, embodies again) how humans (and data) both “lost their materiality” in our minds, and then she shows us that this is dead wrong, and that there are major stakes in that misperception. Her 2017 Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious differentiates between a thinking that describes “thoughts and capabilities associated with higher consciousness such as rationality, the ability to formulate and manipulate abstract concepts, linguistic competencies, and so on,” and “cognition” (2), which is the nonconscious capacity for processing information, the latter gained through biological sensation or perception, or technological sensors, mechanical feedback, or data received from external sources, among other things. Cognition, in other words, is a “much broader faculty” extant on some level “in all biological life-forms and many technical systems” (14).

Hayles wants to have the humanities engage with and better understand “the specificities of human-technical cognitive assemblages and their power to transform life on the planet” through a more coherent “ethical inquiry” (3-4). She wants us to look more closely at what and how those systems act, cognize, and think, what we do with and as them, and why. Hers is an important premise and fascinating study of the “supporting environments” humans are “embedded and immersed in,” which “function as distributed cognitive systems” (2).

I found myself alternatively nodding and shaking my head while reading. I agree that we must pay more attention to the things that think and cognize, and the ethical questions at play; though I also believe the distinctions more blurred and subtle (and sometimes non-existent) than laid out by those Hayles cites (book forthcoming – though mine is entirely about art!). Still, this is precisely because it is such an interesting topic, with too much to debate. And Hayles’ her bringing these ideas into the humanities is unmistakably important, and her modes of storytelling around them are as funny and smart as ever. If you haven’t yet read  How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, I would start there – not because you need it to understand Unthought, but because the first is her strongest manuscript, by far.  If you enjoyed that, or have more interest in the later/recent book, I do recommend it. It’s not as easy of a read, but it is more than worthwhile, and may yet prove to be the game-changer the first was.

Syllabus sharing: Electronics and Sculpture, a class with arduino, mechatronics, and art at UWM

The Arduino Uno microcontroller

This term sees my first time teaching a full semester of Arduino in the Department of Art and Design at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Most geeks will know that the Arduino is an open source microcontroller for physical computing projects. Easy break down: whereas multimedia and code art classes (in Processing or Max or openFrameworks, for example) might have students make generative or interactive work that utilizes anything which already communicates with your computer via USB or bluetooth or the internet (a kinect for body tracking, a Wii for dancing, web cams, mics, or data streaming from sources online for input; printers, projectors, speakers or screens for output), the Arduino (and things like it) allows for non-standard, analog interfaces: flex sensors, light cells, or sonar for input, for example, motors, lights, fans, or solenoids (to control water or air) for output.

a student favorite: Danny Rozin’s “Wooden Mirror,” which depicts real-time, reflected video in rotating wood chips. Click for video with awesome sound. Danny was my prof!

Most of my students have little or no background in coding, and even fewer have any experience with electronics when they sign up… meaning, this syllabus will work as an introduction. That said, I offer it at the 300-level, so that my digital art students will understand bits and bytes, audio and video, how computers “think,” and my other artists will be able to bring their skills with crafting images or objects (etc) into the mix. I also “stack” it with a 400-level class, so grad students, or advanced students that want to take it a second time, can add another dimension of creativity and criticality.

If you can’t tell, I’m excited about it.

I’m sharing three documents with the inter-webs. One is the core syllabus; another is the advanced syllabus; and the last is the calendar. They are all under a CC-by license (Creative Commons Attribution), meaning, you can do whatever you want with them (use, distribute, remix, etc), so long as you credit me and acknowledge the license I used, link back to this page, and do not prohibit anyone else from doing said same.

The semester arc goes something like this:

  • look at cool stuff
  • build mechatronic paper sculptures (thanks https://www.robives.com!)
  • understand electricity and make a creative project with a simple circuit
  • make digital inputs and digital outputs with Arduino (and produce another creative tech project)
  • find inspirational work, while learning coding and prototyping
  • construct analog ins and outs as part of artistic endeavors
  • sketching and inspiration, writing and thinking, aesthetics and ethics, with digital and electronic media
  • sensors and actuators (and not fetishizing them – oh my)
  • transistors and relays, serial communication and integrated circuits, PCBs (printed circuit boards)
  • and finally, lots of studio critique and makey makeys towards a final object or installation

I also require documentation of everything in photo and video and text as part of the class, so you can expect to see some of that at the end of the term. This got us started last week (and you can follow when I assign readings in the syllabus/schedule):

Required Books/Readings

Required Materials/Supplies

There are also some recommended (read: not required) books for them, which you should definitely get for your classroom, in the attached documents.

Here are the 300-level and 400-level syllabi, and my schedule for the term (meets twice a week for 2.5 hours), in RTF format (open in Word if you have it – they’ll look better / have the images), as I first conceptualized them at the start of the term. I’ll upload any major changes if/when they happen, and note that here. Please let me know (via comments, or email if comments are closed) if you find this helpful; it’s always good to hear from folks. Speaking of, I’m also happy to share how I spent my lab fee dollars, or specific lecture notes, if someone needs/asks; but that’d take a bit more organization, so I’ll only do it on request (but then I’ll post it and credit the asker).

Conversely, I’m yet to decide on the more conceptual readings for my students, if you have ideas! In my Interactive and Generative Art class, we read a bit by me, Katja Kwastek, Kate Hayles, Kate Mondloch, and Philip Galanter. But I’ve not found something that punctures the right images for me in the kinetic/physical computing realm. Perhaps I won’t find it in the standard places… Should we look at Minimalist sculpture writings? Or perhaps Brian Massumi on Stelarc? I have time, and will post when I decide, but I would welcome suggestions, again in the comments or via email if comments are closed…

Enjoy art, teaching, and learning!

implicit art… restart (on Mo Gawdat’s Solve for Happy)

With the pending release of my new book (Ecological Aesthetics: artful tactics for humans, nature, and politics) in June or July of next year, and all the goings-on of the last couple of years in my life / the world, I’ve decided it might be time to reboot the blog I began back in Johannesburg circa 2002, and which teetered off and eventually died after two continental moves. Whereas that site began with my writings on art and politics, moved into regional discussions of aesthetics and culture and back again, here…. um, well… yeh, it will similarly be on whatever I feel like posting about, that I think is interesting.

For now, the new tagline is “art and ecology, fiction and geek stuff, culture and philosophy, parenting and life, etc”.

Forthcoming: a bit on my new book, some interesting tidbits from students in the classes I am teaching this semester (two Digital Studio courses, and one in Mechanical Engineering, plus some extra-curriculars), and thoughts on some great new art and books I’ve seen and read this Summer. You can expect to hear from me about once per week from now.

For now, a briefiew (yeh, I just made that up, a “brief review” portmanteau.  Tho I’m sure someone else has used it before, and it may not have gone down well. I decided against googling it, and ruining it for myself….) on Mo Gawdat’s Solve for Happy.

There are some lovely, and funny, and sad moments in this book, about a Google engineer’s quest for contentment, where he found and lost and found happiness before and after the death of his son. Gawdat hopes to share, simply, how to live with ourselves, and others, in the moment. He has an actual equation and formula, with numbers and lists and drawings (I’m actually listening to the audiobook, so I just imagine them, tho it comes with a PDF; his voice is very soothing). Honestly, Gawdat’s outlook mostly feels like a contemporary (and geeky) take on Eckhart Tolle’s Power of Now (which my mom likes way more than I do).

In the end, overall, it’s worth your time (even if, like me, there are few self-help books you are into – non-fiction is, of course, much broader than this!). The author is likable, his stories moving, his personality generous and relatable. And I’d like to share my favorite bit, which more or less goes as follows: the voice in your head is not you.

That person, who you think is you, who criticizes the way you eat, or move, or work out? The one who replays conversations in your head (or in my case, out loud), or wonders why that person at work is being that way towards you? That voice, which questions you, or the world, or the ones you care about? Overall, your inner monologue… That person is not you. That’s a construct of a person, the one who got praise or punishment from parents and teachers, and followed suit; he or she is the one who performs for others. That is not the real you. YOU are the one observing that criticizer. And you do not have to listen to the voice.

I’ve named the voice in my head Ferdinand. He is a bit of a dick, and I like to roll my eyes at, and make fun of, him. It has seriously changed things around here. So… thanks for that, Mo Gawdat’s Solve for Happy.