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!):

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!

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.

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.

how to write an artist statement, part 2

I wrote this post on how to write an artist statement back in June 2009, and it is still, to this day, in the top five of visited pages on my site every month. In short, I recommended any given statement for a work of art include three things: what the piece is, what we see or experience, and what is at stake in that experience, for us to practice beyond our initial artistic encounter. I expounded on this a bit more, then went on to offer seven additional guidelines for your text, which should, I recommended, be 300-500 words.

But that’s for individual works of art. What about your overarching artist statement, for a series, body of work, or, yet more difficult, your practice overall?

The answer is simpler than you think. Do a statement like this/the above for three or four pieces, individually, then look for overlaps in the stakes between them, in order to write around them. And edit this all down to fit it into one page, maybe 700 words or so.

Too often, artists begin writing an overall statement about their work in a vacuum, or rather, regarding their personal relationship to their art, instead of their viewers’. But “I’m interested in,” or “my work explores,” and “I research and relate….” are about your practice or what you want your work to do. Very often, such statements only describe the last piece you made, the work you wish you were making, or the processes you used to produce them. The experience of viewership of extant art is a very different thing. And writing a material and/or relational experience for us is precisely how you invite audiences in to material and/or relational art.

Your statement should rather start with something similar to the above. “I make x, which do y, and z is why that is important.”

Then… wait for it… …

For example, in [title of piece] … [summarize one artist statement you already wrote. What it is, what we experience, why that’s important. Refer back to this post when writing!].
Or with [do that again, for another piece].
And in [one more time, another piece].
Overall, the work… TA DA!!!

And so, write the immediately above first. Take your individual works for what they are, and do – even ask others what they are and do for them – before you write around them. And be as concise as you can in this.

But Nathaniel, you may say, your artist statement is SUPER long! That’s true. Yet it follows that same format; it just does so three times in a row, for lots of work, with transitions, so that those web surfers looking for specific pieces I am known for will be able to search for them and know they’ve come to the right place. Remember: I have a 20 year artistic research practice, across printmaking, writing, installation, interaction, networked art, sculpture, performance, and more – and some folks only know one or another of the media I work with, depending on their field. Most people who come to my site already know something about me, and are looking for a specific piece, and I make sure they can find it. I wouldn’t put that entire long statement on an exhibition, or send it to a residency. I would choose three pieces, and perhaps write around those, again. And I recommend said same for all my students and peers, in a given space.

Remember: writing, theory, philosophy and storytelling tell us the stakes of what we do and are, what we might be in the future. Art brings those stakes into the room, as material form, or experience. And so you must always include what your art is, and how we engage, so as to have us regard its import. And then write-with that story, think and share, again and again.