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!

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.

Urban Fantasy geek out: the Kate Daniels Series by Ilona Andrews

Urban Fantasy is one of my guilty pleasures. (I’m lying; part of me thinks that as a doctor/professor/artist type, I’m not supposed to love it. But I have no guilt, really. Only pleasure.) That’s fantasy – vampires and werewolves, fairies and elves, things along these lines – but in the present moment. Rather than taking place on a different world (Middle Earth! Narnia!), or at some point in history (Outlander! Leviathan! – tho the latter is more YAF, Young Adult Fiction and steampunk), it’s now, or in the near future. Like, if we’re talking movies and television, True Blood or Lost, which are decidedly part of the genre, or Buffy or Teen Wolf, which were (obvs) way ahead of their time.  

My favorite is the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews. (It’s also pretty cute that the authors are a couple, Ilona and Andrew.) The whole background of the world puts the fantasy genre on its head, in so many ways; and the tech and culture geek in me gets a real thrill around it.

Whereas in traditional Tolkien-like fantasy, “magic is leaving the world,” as science, technology, and contemporary know-how take hold, in Kate Daniels‘ world, magic is coming back, and technology is leaving – the latter eaten away by the powers of magic.

Myth and religion, magic and fae, werewolves, gods, vampires, and witches, from every part of the world, and every part of history, are real – and they gain their power from stories and belief.

Fascinating as part of the series, which now has 9 books and some short stories appearing elsewhere (some for free online!) is its own mythology. Like in many other fictional worlds (another favorite being Jim Butcher’s Dresden series), magic and technology do not get along. But rather than technology chasing magic away, or tech consistently breaking in the face of wizards, magic and tech simply do not exist at the same time. So with Kate, either the “magic is up” or the “tech is up.” And you never know when one might fail, the other dominate.

All the stories of old are real. Merlin. Golems. Vampires. Werewolves. Berserkers. Babel. The Morrigan. Dragons. All of it. But humans got arrogant. We used too much magic, grew our power until finally, it toppled over and destroyed itself; magic mostly left the world… for a time.

In the near future, our arrogance catches up with us again – this time technology toppling down from its overuse. Planes fall out of the sky, hospital equipment fails, buildings crumble, and, all at once, the monsters and heroes exist again.

Think of technology and magic as a pendulum swing. When one is up, the other is not. When that gets too powerful, it comes crashing down, the other rising. Interesting, in post-tech/post-apocolyptic Atlanta (er, all over the Daniels world, actually, but I had to slip in where she lives), the pendulum is more or less in the middle. This does not mean, however, that magic and tech are each at half mast; rather, every now and again, maybe after a few hours, maybe after a few days, all the gods disappear, the banshees stop shouting, my magic stops working, and the lights come on (etc). And, at the same random interval, the inverse, again.

One of my favorite things in all this chaos is the role belief in magic (or tech) plays. For example, praying to a lesser-known deity may again grant him or her power, new abilities, and more. Or, on the flip, and this is super clever, since we all know the basics of a car – filling it with petrol, changing the oil, that it goes via combustion – it would never run when the magic is up. But… how many of us really understand how a mobile phone works? For many of us, it may as well be magic. And so… sometimes (if the magic is not in flare), and for some people (if they are not too, too magical), phones will work when the tech is down/magic is up. Magic and belief, technology and its understanding, all can and do play off of each other in such interesting ways.

It makes for great stories. And the science and fantasy nerd in me loves every aspect of this.

Shape-shifters are infected with magic, DNA-swapping viruses. Vampires are actually empty, blood-sucking vessels, where Masters of the Dead can “ride” them like avatars. And Kate? She’s not really a hero. She’s deeply flawed, sometimes mean, only rarely kind, a complete bad-ass, who begrudgingly really does care about her world and those around her (especially kids!), and is thus immanently relatable and likable as a first-person author. And the romance, which takes quite a few books to build up, is mostly rom-com relief, with the occasional twist of the heartfelt.

Alright, I just convinced myself to start from the beginning of the series, and read once again. (Maybe I’ll write an academic paper about it, so it’s “work.”) You should, too. The paperbacks are super affordable at the moment.

This should get you started.

late addition: Ah, and they just announced book 10 yesterday! Timely!