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: 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.