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!):

Entrepreneurial Thinking, and its place alongside Art, Design, and Engineering (or, the UWM Student Startup Challenge)

There are a few different parts of my professional life that almost always get me a “Wow, that’s so cool!” – PhD in Engineering with a Studio Art Masters?! –  while others get me strange looks – wait, you are an activist/humanities scholar that teaches… entrepreneurship?

But while my initial engagements with entrepreneurial programming at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee were purely personal – one of my best friends, mechanical engineering professor Ilya Avdeev, asked me to work on it with him – I’ve come to understand that, as with coding, drawing, or writing, for example, the techniques and tools employed toward entrepreneurial efforts easily translate into other arenas. I already teach arts thinking (material-based and open-ended), design thinking (problem definition and empathy), engineering thinking (problem-solving and iteration), and where they coincide, interfere with, and amplify each other. Entrepreneurial thinking, too, has its place alongside any and all of these.

Probably the tools I use most from my entrepreneurial toolset are the business model canvas, and, as part of that, customer discovery. The former is a 9-part chart where you continuously map and remap the value you are proposing (and to whom), your relationships with those customers, the kinds of work and partnerships you need for your business, and cost and revenue streams. Yeh, yeh, my eyes glossed over the first time heard this, too… but the truth is, the kinds of thinking this requires, and the need to sketch and resketch in the different areas of the canvas toward “lean launch,” can and are applied to social innovation (sustainability for nonprofits, for example), mission models (why the military does what it does, and for whom), curriculum design, artistic interventions, and more.

And while the canvas is meant to be utilitarian in its application, filling out the canvas requires “getting out of the building” and speaking to real people about habits, routines, the things they do and why. The interview process, the “right” way to ask questions, is inspiring, is more about listening than anything else – a “no go” for your company is seen as a good thing, since you’ve learned before you’ve lost! – and can be applied to so many aspects of art, design, engineering, and life. The methodologies applied toward interviewing in The Mom Test, for example, have helped me across art, design, business, and engineering, teaching, collaboration, interdisciplinarity, and research more generally. And I bring and teach each of these toolsets to and at our ongoing workshops from the  Lubar Entrepreneurship Center (LEC) as well.

Which brings me to the UWM Student Startup Challenge. Now in its fifth year, here the Lubar Entrepreneurship Center works with up to 30 student teams per cohort / year, across Health Care, Social Innovation, Consumer Products, Apps, Services, Health, Food, and other fields; these have ranged from ice skate designs to booking companies, food services to nonprofit organizations working with seniors, and more, through one year of entrepreneurship boot camp. Participants learn the above canvasing and interviewing, problem definition and prototyping, marketing and fundraising, pitching and storytelling, and overall have a support team of mentors and peers working with them on their entrepreneurial education. It’s a merit system: the more you show up and work, the more you have access to resources from us, which include monetary support, teams of engineering or business students to work on prototypes and plans, travel budgets, supplies, and of course, our pop-ups, pop-ins, and workshops every week.

Three things are most important about what we do.

  1. This is not a business plan competition. We are looking for ideas, and more importantly for people who want to learn and engage with their (and other) ideas.
  2. This is not an incubator or accelerator. We could never match the kinds of funds that angels could give you. But we can give you something they can’t: a chance to fail, and thus a chance to learn. We are not investing in your products. We are investing in you, in your education. Neither we nor the university have any monetary stake in or ownership of what you do. We are your teachers and mentors.
  3. The student startup challenge was founded by makers. Ilya is an engineer, and I am an artist. We, the co-directors, learn by doing, and do things to learn. Our team is another engineer with an MBA (Brian Thompson, Director of the LEC), and a designer (BFA) with a Masters from the business school (Nicole Green, Program Manager). Our other ongoing contributors include a non-profit genius award winner (Anne Basting), the vice chancellor of university relations (Tom Luljak), and local entrepreneurs.

 

Please apply! The Startup Challenge is open to UWM students at all levels, as well as recent alumni. Teams may consist of those outside that community, so long as students or alum make up 50% of the team. Deadline is October 31.

The Student Startup Challenge is a unique co-curricular program at UWM that encourages students to develop their ideas, launch businesses, and gain skills that come from entrepreneurial experience. Students are given the opportunity to participate in hands-on workshops and develop ideas through one-on-one mentorship from UWM faculty and staff.
Questions? Email: ndgreen@uwmfdn.org

Syllabus sharing! Affect, Art, and Politics – a dialogical class at UWM

Welcome back to another episode of syllabus sharing here at Implicit Art!

City Walks logo by Doung Anwar Jahangeer

This course provides an overview of affect theory and its articulation, activation, mediation, and utilities of manipulation in the realms of art and politics on an international scale. Beginning with a basic understanding of sensation and potential, and how they might be used to shape, for example, national sentiment and thus policy, the course will continue by exploring how our unintentional, affective responses to the outside can and do influence our identity, habits, thoughts, everyday activities, memories, and more. Artists, theorists and historical figures discussed include but are not limited to Brian Massumi, Jill Bennett, Dennis Del Favero, Doris Salcedo, Mary Sibande, Sean Slemon, William Kentridge, Gregory Bateson, Michel De Certeau, Doung Anwar Jahangeer, Richard Grusin, Ai Weiwei, Jane Bennett, Claire Bishop, and Santiago Sierra.

I define affect as, most simply, unqualified emotion. My palms are sweaty; my heart is racing; I have butterflies in my stomach. Is this fear? Anger? Lust? All and none? The body knows, is, and does things, without “my” knowledge, desire, or comprehension. Affect is an embodied sensation and response that does not have a name (… yet). And here affection is a moving-thinking-feeling both before, during, and after conscious reflection, each influencing the other.

Non-human affect is, similarly, matter’s embodied sensation and response – its knowing, being, and doing. Like a human body – its liquids, solids, and gases, its chemicals, cells, and other forms – matter’s various bodies also sense and make sense in and with the world.

And this class fosters dialog and debate around what affect opens, where it guides us, how it works, transforms, acts, and does, and what the stakes are in that for us, and the world around us.

I have offered versions of this class for MFA Graduate Students, where they produced art in response to the discussions, and as a Senior Seminar with dialogical processes in International Studies, where those enrolled wrote responses to the readings and screenings, as well as gave a final presentation and paper – the latter the version I am including.

Affect, Art, and Politics

Every semester I teach this, I switch up the screenings, the artists I invite to talk about their work, a local exhibition we visit. I also always have a reading or two in line with a local conference, and offer extra credit for students who attend any local talk or conference, and write a response to it – so they both experience affect – a lived abstraction – in person, and reflect on it. You’ll also see some of my own writing in this version of the syllabus, which I might update from year to year. But the general readings and overall arc seem to work very well – so I hope you get some use out of them!

Most importantly, every student writes a response to every reading, and then we “conceptually speed date” around it. The former means that there is never any question around whether or not anyone “did” the reading; instead, they help each other understand its import, in relation to their own work and research. And the latter is a practice I learned from the SenseLab in Montreal. It goes something like this:

  1. Choose a generative text.
  2. Choose a minor concept weaving through the generative text.
  3. Ask each person in the group to count off as a 1 or a 2.
  4. Instruct the 1s that they are “posts.”
  5. Instruct the 2s that they are “flows.”
  6. Ask the posts to find a post: a spot in the room where they would like to have a conservation.
  7. Ask the flows to pair up with a post.
  8. Direct everyone to a page in the text where the minor concept occurs.
  9. Ask the participants to discuss the function of the minor concept, staying as close as possible to the text, with detailed attention to how it is constructed.
  10. Notify participants that when exactly five minutes are up they will hear a signal, and that when they hear the signal they must end their conversation immediately, even if they are in the middle of a word.
  11. When the five-minute signal sounds, ask all flows to move to the next post in a clockwise direction.
  12. Repeat 8-10 times.
  13. Bring the group back together and discuss in plenary session what was discovered about the minor concept and the text.

In other words, speed date important ideas from the text, for only 2-3 minutes at a time (I find that time more efficient than 5 minutes), then switch partners. It’s honestly amazing. Not only do the students always show me, and themselves and each other, just how much they know and understand – despite a given text’s difficulty on first reading – but they always teach me something new as well. Andrew Murphie has more on this, and gives a few more pointers on speed dating, too – the latter of which I now use even in my second year classes!

Download the full syllabus and schedule in Word form. Feedback welcome!

Briefiew of General Ecology: The New Ecological Paradigm

I define an ecological approach as one that takes account of agents, processes, thoughts, and relations. Humans and non-humans, matter and concepts, things and not-yet things, politics, economics, and industry, for example, are all actively shaped in, and as, their interrelation. And there is, according to Erich Hörl in his great collection edited along with James Burton, General Ecology: The New Ecological Paradigm (2017), “hardly any area that cannot be considered the object of an ecology and thus open to ecological reformulation.” These range in the thousands, he asserts, including “ecologies of sensation, perception, cognition, desire, attention, power, values, information, participation, media, the mind, relations, practices, behavior, belonging, the social, [and] the political” to name a fraction of those already called into action (1).

The book brings together some of the most important thinkers of our time, across media and philosophy, feminism and communication, geology and literature, to have us reevaluate, in the words of Brian Massumi in his chapter on “Virtual ecology and the question of value,” our “orientational qualities of existence.” What do we value, and why? Can we shift our appetites and propensities, our stylistic approaches, so as to aim, together, with our environments, towards better futures?

Like most collections, this book is best digested slowly, rather than read all at once. I started with the introduction, jumped to Massumi’s chapter (among the authors, I am most familiar with his work), then back around to Stiegler, Parikka, Fuller and Goriunova, and more, and I’m still middling through several others. I’ll admit it is also surprising, and reassuring, to see so many media theorists and digital culture scholars asking us to think-with our everyday materials, what they do and are, and might become – and what we should do as part of our engagements, and life.

Simply, I love the framing of this book as a whole. It gives these wonderful thinkers the opportunity take different and new directions with their research, to push the boundaries of their own specificities, in order to show us how to approach ecology more generally. And, it’s under $30 (yes, I paid for mine; this is not a freeview). Recommended.

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!