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

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.

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.