Interview with The Center for Tactical Magic

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Published on : 2015-08-14 11:54:32

Center for Tactical Magic, The Tactical Ice Cream Unit, 2005

Center for Tactical Magic, The Tactical Ice Cream Unit, 2005

I've been dreaming of interviewing The Center for Tactical Magic ever since i read about the existence of this activist art collective in one of my favourite art catalogues ever: The Interventionists. Users' Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life.

Lucky me, last week, i finally got to talk over Skype with Aaron Gach, the founder of the Center for Tactical Magic and a professor at the California College of the Arts. Gach is an artist with the most unusual background. As part of his artistic training, he decided to study with 3 people who have their own understanding of power: a magician, a ninja, and a private investigator and there is a bit of the strategies deployed by each of these figures in the work of the CTM. The work of the group is further enriched by the expertise brought about by the individuals and communities CTM collaborates with: hypnotists, biologists, engineers, nurses, military intelligence officers, radical ecologists, former bank robbers, security experts, etc.

Center for Tactical Magic, The Ultimate Jacket

Center for Tactical Magic, Witches' Cradles, Toronto, Canada

The Center for Tactical Magic uses any craft and scheme available, from the most magical to the most pragmatic, to address issues of power relations and self-empowerment. At the CTM we are committed to achieving the Great Work of Tactical Magic through community-based projects, daily interdiction, and the activation of latent energies toward positive social transformation.

CTM's work combines appealing aesthetics, humour and language with actions that invite people to think, question and reclaim their civil rights. Their most famous project is the Tactical Ice Cream Unit, a truck distributing free ice cream along with propaganda developed by local progressive groups. Another of their initiative saw them launch a bank heist contest. And a year before that, they responded to New York's stop-and-frisk policy by screening Linking & Unlinking on a digital billboard in Manhattan. The billboard showed amateur footage demonstrating how to pick a pair of handcuffs, magicians performing a classic magic trick called "linking rings", while a text from the American Civil Liberties Union was scrolling down and explaining passersby what their rights were if they were stopped by the police. In 2013, they set up big Witches' Cradles that evoke the Inquisition and enveloped people into an altered state (of consciousness, or an altered political state). Most recently, Gach directed and performed a radical magic show which drew parallels between magic acts and contemporary issues such as economic manipulation, political deception, vanishing resources, and social transformation.

Hi Aaron! The Tactical Ice Cream Unit is probably one of my favorite works ever. I first heard about it almost 10 years ago. The vehicle combines 'a number of successful activist strategies (Food-Not-Bombs, Copwatch, Indymedia, infoshops, etc) into one mega-mobile", and comes with high-tech surveillance devices. Are you still using it?

Yes, still using it! Not as much as when it was launched but it does still make it out occasionally. So it's definitely not an everyday operation, it's kind of a labour of love.

Center for Tactical Magic, The Tactical Ice Cream Unit, 2005

Center for Tactical Magic, The Tactical Ice Cream Unit, 2005

When do you use it? When there's something happening and you feel it would be right to intervene? Or more when you're invited by a museum or festival for example?

All of the above. Sometimes it's an invitation to do something with it. Sometimes there's an event happening or an issue where it seems like it would make sense to bring it out.

Recently, and for the first time, there was a protest event where i actually felt like it was inappropriate to bring it out. We've been having a lot of racial tensions in the U.S. and there were a number of protests in Oakland around police brutality. We've done police accountability protests with the Tactical Ice Cream Unit in the past. The TICU always brings with it a sort of levity or lightheartedness or a little bit of the carnival along with the serious critique. But because of how grave and serious these racial issues are, there was a sense that bringing the ice cream unit out to those protests could potentially give the wrong impression.

Have you found that you had to update or modify in any way your tools and strategies over the 10 years you've had the van?

Of course a lot has changed since we've launched it. At the end of 2004, there were not many mobile food trucks, it was not really a phenomenon at the time. The TICU turned heads a lot more than it does now in terms of its general appearance. But at the same time it also functions now as some kind of camouflage that didn't exist then. So in terms of masking ourselves, in some ways it got easier since it makes less of a visual impact.

As for the technology, when we first launched it we were using a mobile wifi transmitter and making it a mobile wifi hotspot. At the time, it wasn't that common at all. It was also expensive to do and it worked most of the time but the speeds for access were really slow. Most people now have access to the internet on their smartphone. The surveillance on the vehicle is still functional and the amount that we can record has increased. In the beginning, our whole hard drive system was something like 200 gigabytes and that has certainly grown. Even then, the way that we had the system up made it possible to record quite a lot. We had to do a tremendous amount of research to set up the power system. The vehicle was running on a gasoline combustion engine. We also had a generator, a battery bank that was being charged by solar panels and at the same time we were running something called phantom power which is a way of silently powering the electronics. This was essential because we wanted to make sure that the surveillance could be running even when the vehicle was turned off. This was more done as a theoretical design process, we wanted to see whether we could accomplish that goal. And there had been rumours floating around the internet of primarily military technologies that were able to do this and sure enough we were able to work with an engineer and designer whose main clients were the military and oil companies. Oil companies would run phantom power at remote sites where they didn't have power lines but they wanted to monitor oil fields. So we designed a system able to do that too for the vehicle. What is interesting is that, when we were in Indiana, the police illegally searched the TIU without our knowledge and they were caught on camera doing that. They didn't know it because the vehicle was turned off and there was no indication that there was power running.

Center for Tactical Magic, The Tactical Ice Cream Unit, 2005

Center for Tactical Magic, The Tactical Ice Cream Unit, 2005

Did you do something about it?

At the time we contacted lawyers and asked what we could do about it but they informed us that there wasn't much that we could do. We thought about publicizing the video footage. But at the time the TICU wasn't heavily used and we thought that making that footage available would potentially prevent that capability being used in the future. We didn't do much with it, it's in the archive. Maybe at some point, we'll break it out.

The ice cream truck driver hands out 'food for thoughts' leaflets along with the ice creams. What kind of 'propaganda flavors' can customers chose from? What's the content of the leaflets? Is it always the same or does it adapt to the events?

It changes all the time. At this point, we've distributed 200 to 250 different pieces of information. Some of it we select or curate. And some of it is selected by the organizations that contact us and send us material to distribute. The idea with leaflets was, on the one hand, to look at models of distribution that exist in community activism, models of distribution where people come together and act on campaigns that they might otherwise not hear or read about. On the other hand, we were looking at the structure of distribution. People are often reluctant to take a leaflet from an activist who is standing in front of them but there are different ways to get people to accept the information. For example, if you go to a restaurant, and you get handed a menu, you don't resent the waiter for asking you to make a selection. You tend not to select in the menu an item that you are put off by. You look at the options and decide on something that is appealing to you. So we were thinking of the menu as a structure for distribution as well. Our 'propaganda' menu exists side by side with different flavours of ice cream and people can pick and choose. There is no direct correlation between a chocolate ice cream and anarchism, for example. People can mix and match what flavours they want. The actual topics of information found on the leaflets go from alternative energy to guerrilla gardening to social justice, to gender justice, to war, war on poverty, class issues, feminism, post-feminism, etc. We also have a few historical items such as the Black Panthers Ten Point Plan. And we have information that is specifically created for children about Greenpeace, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, civil liberties, surveillance, etc. It's a huge range of information.

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Center for Tactical Magic, Ghost Machine

Of course, i have to ask you about magic. I always dismissed the magic dimension of your work simply because i don't take magic seriously at all. But i realize that you do take magic seriously. Reading your interviews, i found that you are not only well versed in magic but you are also very specific about it. You said in an interview with the Center for Artistic Activism: "I'm definitely situated within the spectrum of stage magic and theatrical performance on one end, and occult and metaphysics, kind of ritual magic, supernatural phenomena on the other end." That surprised me because words like 'occult', 'ritual' and 'supernatural' are a bit dark, aren't they? How does occultism for example apply to your artistic practice? And can i engage with your work while keeping on ignoring any reference to magic?

I hope so. I think one of the strategies and challenges when building this kind of work is to always incorporate multiple points of access. Within the work, there has to be different moments that appeal to different people. We're trying to develop projects that are multilayered so magic itself itself exists at multiple levels. What i mean by that is that everyone understands that word 'magic' but they imagine completely different things when they hear the word 'magic.' We use the same language and assume an understanding but this understanding is vastly different on a subjective level and you can even add on a collective subjective level. When we use the term 'magic' both in the name and the realization of a project, there is a realization that there is going to be an explosion of meanings and at the same time a sort of dismissal. This dismissal is historically a way in which magic sometimes alienates itself, sometimes protects itself, sometimes separates itself and that can be as a survival strategy, as an escapist notion, etc. But i think that's where the power of that idea of magic exists.

In the Center for Tactical Magic, there is usually a concerted effort to try and balance out or explore the range of possibilities which typically get book ended between tricks on the one hand and some degree of spirituality on the other hand. When i began this investigation, my thinking was that magic existed only as tricks as a stage magician. The magician i worked with felt very differently. He thought that his understanding of illusionist magic would help in differentiating between the spookier sides of magic. And that opened up a lot of different interpretations and possibilities for me. Since then that exploration has become pivotal within the development for the Center for Tactical Magic.

Center for Tactical Magic, Uprising!

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Center for Tactical Magic, FUBAR Magic Show

How was it pivotal?

What i mean by that is that it seems like a fixed position from which you can rotate in any direction. From a position of acting, it means that you have multiple options and directions that you can move from. It's a formal strategy, it's a discursive strategy, it's also a performative strategy for acting in the world. And some of that is informed by studying within martial arts where i learnt that you don't ever want to be stuck in a place where your options are very limited. For me it's not about being ambiguous or evasive just for the sake of being ambiguous or evasive. But you open up options, different ways of addressing an issue, a topic, an event or a situation as it is unfolding.

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Center for Tactical Magic, Transporter. A Social Witches' Cradle

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Center for Tactical Magic, Witches' Cradles. In Search of an Altered State

I'd like to go back to the darker side of magic. In the interview mentioned above you talk about occultism. Does it apply to your practice?

The word 'occult' literally means 'hidden.' When we think about what is hidden then all of a sudden what we might consider occult enters into that same conversation. So we look at things like military black budgets, or laws that are not transparent in terms of how they affect people's life. Or even the degree to which we understand technologies or how technologies operate or function, both in a physical sense -what is exactly happening inside the phone mechanically or electronically- but also in the sense of how does the functioning of a technology impacts us in ways that we don't see. And this can include things like the fact that it relies on invisible signals, it relies on the electromagnetic spectrum which our eyes cannot detect without other devices. But it also determines our social relations or economic relations because it impacts the way we communicate. Once we are open to those associations, we start to backtrack and look at how the history of occultism is very directly tied to our present condition. What i mean by that is the history of occultism is not simply people behaving in 'dark ways'. You need to banish this false dichotomy of light and dark, good and evil. There are certainly colonial overtones to that association of dark as evil and making those connections simplifies what it is that we are talking about. Most of the claims historically of occultism in a huge varieties of areas is -to one degree or another- about empowerment and i think in 'darker' instances, empowerment means power over others but in the more positive instances, it also means communal power or coming to power together, or avoiding situations where abuse of power by others is taking place.

How can we bring more magic to our life? And should we?

I would go back one moment and say: i think you should take magic seriously but also not too seriously. I would say the same thing about government business. I think you should take government and business seriously but also not too seriously?

Why not too seriously?

I think because you have to approach it critically. You have to approach it rigorously. You have to be engaged.

There is also power in play. There is magic that happens when you approach something with a degree of levity, with this idea that there are rules to any game. And once you understand the game, there are ways to bend those rules or figure out how to interact in ways that might be unexpected. So it's not that we dismiss corporations or governments or that we disregard their power in the world but at the same time, if we take them too seriously and only too seriously we miss out on opportunities to subvert or circumvent what it is that they are doing in the world.

Maybe the shorter version would be to say that i think government and corporations are invested in shaping reality and shaping reality is an inherently creative process and playing is also a way to engaging creative process to shape alternative realities.

But let's get back to your earlier question which was about making the world more magical. I understand that when we develop projects that are magic related, people might be dismissive towards either that name 'magic' or the idea of magic. It is sometimes a barrier to entry but the hope is also that once people realize that their assumptions were false or misguided or oversimplified, there is an opening up in terms of what the possibilities are. Magic is all about constantly redirecting people's assumptions or perceptions about the world. So one thing you can do to have a magical outlook is to always question things like use value, status quo, associations for either materials or relationships and realize they are not fixed. Once you understand the ability to morph those relationships or associations, all of a sudden everything starts to become more magical.

The Center for Tactical Magic seems to be quite successful at engaging the audience, at making them part of the experiences. Including people who might otherwise not be particularly responsive to the kind of social, political or economical issues your projects raise. How do you manage that? Are there some rules? Special tricks?

We use a pop aesthetic at times and we try and draw from cultural themes and expressions that people can relate to but there is this uncanny element to all the projects: people will see something that they are familiar with but presented in an unfamiliar way. In that moment, a recalibration takes place, people start to consider their understanding of the familiar part with respect to the unfamiliar part. When it's done really well, it forces new cognitive categories to form. All of a sudden people have to create a new category and if that new category is potent enough it will also infect all future associations.

To go back to the Ice Cream Unit for example, people understand ice cream truck and they understand propaganda but when they have the two things together, it changes their associations with both and in the future there is a moment where they encounter another ice cream truck or another model of distribution and it will connect back to the experience that they had with the TICU and potentially it informs their future relations to other things that are connected. Maybe that is expecting too much from a project but that's the hope in the way these projects are constructed.

Center for Tactical Magic, Linking & Unlinking (a.k.a. - Know Your Rights)

Most of the work of the Center is quite political. Have you ever faced any legal retaliation? or problems with the police? for the Linking & Unlinking - Know Your Rights screening, for example? Or for any other work?

It happens on a semi regular basis. There haven't been huge entanglement. Knock on wood! Most of the time, it's some sort of confrontation and it usually more or less resolves itself quietly. There was a standoff with the police with the TICU in Vancouver, Canada, that lasted quite a long time. With the Cricket-Activated Defense System, there were some interesting correspondence, communications and interviews that seemed to come from law enforcement. Strangely enough, the police tried to prevent the kite project (that we did at Huntington Beach in California) from happening and when it did happen they flew a helicopter over the event to monitor it.

It happens from time to time but we do consult with lawyers around our projects, we are generally pretty good at making sure that the conversation with law enforcement doesn't get us into hotter water than need be. I'm trying to be very careful with my language there. There have been some tough times. There's been some times when we have attracted attention that was problematic.

Center for Tactical Magic, Cricket-Activated Defense System, 2000

Center for Tactical Magic, Cricket-Activated Defense System, 2000

So you're not actively encouraging confrontation or censorship as a part of your artistic strategy? As a way to generate more attention about a given issue?

No. Projects that court confrontation often strengthen polemic and thinking in those binary systems. Even in projects where we are addressing things like police and protester dynamics, we are not trying to diffuse those situations, we are trying to figure out the approach or the position from which you can have the most productive outcome. A confrontation where you are doing something potentially illegal and then you get a police response does not produce a ripple through a greater discourse. What might become become a productive moment is when someone is actually practicing their civil or legal rights within a certain context and that person makes visible the power dynamics that might suppress those rights.

Daniel Ferrer (Lucifer), left, and Aaron Gach (Magician) perform in "The Light and Dark Arts: A Radical Magic Show," opening May 28 at UC Davis. Huan Yu/Courtesy photo

I'm curious about The Light & Dark Arts: A Radical Magic Show that ended a few weeks ago at UC Davis' Main Theater. What was the show like?

It was the first time that i had ever worked into a theatre context. I was writing and directing. Two weeks before the first show, the lead actor broke his hand. He happened to be a student that i was training as a magician. I ended up having to step in as the lead, as the magician. I ended up writing, directing and acting for this first theatre production. So it was unexpected and a bit wild but the audience response was fantastic. People seemed to love it.

Any other upcoming works, research, events you'd like to share with us?

There's two shows coming up. One is an art show in New Mexico that is specifically oriented around the police state and surveillance. And then there's an event in Atlanta, Georgia. A public arts festival with tens of thousands of people that come out for a single night event. We have a new project in the works for that event but it's still very much in development.

Thanks Aaron!

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Book review: The Gulf. High Culture/Hard Labor

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Published on : 2015-08-10 10:43:29

The Gulf. High Culture/Hard Labor, edited by Andrew Ross for Gulf Labor. With a foreword by Sarah Leah Whitson from Human Rights Watch.


Publisher OR Books writes: On Saadiyat Island, just off the coast of Abu Dhabi, branches of iconic cultural institutions, including the Louvre, the Guggenheim, the British Museum and New York University, are taking shape to the designs of starchitects such as Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid, and Norman Foster. In this way, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) seeks to burnish its reputation as a sophisticated destination for wealthy visitors and residents.

Beneath the glossy veneer of the Saadiyat real estate plan, however, lies a tawdry reality. Those laboring on the construction sites are migrant workers who arrive from poor countries heavily indebted as a result of recruitment and transit fees. Once in the UAE the sponsoring employer takes their passports, houses them in sub-standard labor camps, pays much less than they were promised, and enforces a punishing work regimen. If they protest publicly, they risk arrest, beatings, and deportation.

For five years, the Gulf Labor Coalition, a cosmopolitan group of artists and writers, has been pressuring Saadiyat's Western cultural brands to ensure worker protections. Gulf Labor has coordinated a boycott of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and pioneered innovative direct action that has involved several spectacular museum occupations. As part of a year-long initiative, an array of artists, writers, and activists submitted a work, a text, or an action.

Workers at an NYU Abu Dhabi construction site. Sergey Ponomarev / New York Times. Via Jacobin mag

Hans Haacke, Saadiyat Island, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, 2011. More images from the series on Ibraaz

Photo: Mussafah camp, home to New York University Abu Dhabi workers, courtesy Gulf Labor. Via art info

Some 15 million migrant workers, mostly from South Asia, form the vast majority of the labor force in most Gulf states. In the UAE and Qatar, 90 percent of the work force and the population are migrant workers (both white collar and blue collar.) No matter how many years they have lived and worked there, or even if they were born there, these people have no voting, representation, or association rights. Thousands of them are currently working on construction sites to create Saadiyat Island ("Island of Happiness"), a £17bn cultural hub in Abu Dhabi that will soon host the new premises of international cultural institutions such as New York University, the Louvre and the Guggenheim.

Gregory Sholette, Saadiyat Island

Hans Haacke, Saadiyat Island, Museum Construction Site, 2011. More images from the series on Ibraaz

Better quality video at The Guardian

The men constructing the architectural 'icons' designed by the likes of Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid (aka the It's not my duty as an architect to look at it lady) and Tadao Ando, are trapped there since their passports have been confiscated, they receive lower than expected wages, are confined to substandard housing, are submitted to 10pm curfew, poor food as well as segregation in the official labour camp, etc.

Because of the notoriously low wages they receive, migrant labourers often have to work for years before they manage to pay off the debt they contracted to cover the recruitment and travel fees to the UAE. This recruitment debt is central to the system. No one would labor under such conditions unless they had to pay it off.

If they protest against the poor living/working conditions or unpaid wages, the workers get punished or deported.

And anyone who speaks in their favour isn't welcome in the country...

The editor of the book, Andrew Ross, is a professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, and a social activist. Earlier this year, he wanted to do some research on labor issues at Abu Dhabi, where a campus of his university is located but he was informed at JFK Airport that he could not enter the country. Similar rebukes awaited other members of the Gulf Labor Coalition. Artist Ashok Sukumaran was denied a visa to travel to the UAE. Walid Raad was turned back at the Dubai airport.

Migrant workers, in their tiny apartment in Abu Dhabi, earn as little as $272 a month while building a campus for New York University. Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Laborers nap on pieces of empty cardboard boxes during their midday break at the Dragon Mart Phase 2 construction site in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Photo AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili (The Associated Press), via ABQJournal

The artist group Gulf Labor Coalition has spent the past few years investigating and denouncing migrant worker abuse. But while the UAE and other Gulf governments can largely ignore the group's calls, the European and American cultural institutions who will be present on Saadiyat Island need to protect their 'brand' and the values they stand for. As Paula Chakravartty and Nitasha Dhillon write in their essay for the book: it remains urgent to continue to use our leverage as artists and scholars to hold US and European museums and universities accountable in their home countries for the abuses against human dignity of workers thousands of miles away.

The Gulf. High Culture/Hard Labor charters Gulf Labor's fight in a series of texts written by members of the coalition.

Some of the authors explore Western institutions complicity in migrant worker abuse on Saadiyat, other analyse the place of construction workers in the building process, report on visits and interviews with deported workers, look at the artists who have engaged in direct political action, draw lessons from examples of art and activism in the global stage, document performances organised inside the Guggenheim Museum in New York by G.U.L.F. (Global Ultra Luxury Faction, a 'Gulf Labor spinoff devoted to direct action' Global Ultra Luxury Faction, etc.

Guggenheim petro-dollars rain down, March 2014. Image Hyperallergic

The Gulf. High Culture/Hard Labor is lively, opinionated and eye-opening book. It is an important publication because of the realities it reveals and investigates. But it does more than that. The essays it contains can be read as a series of lessons for anyone, journalists, artists or activists, who want to take a stand, protest and challenge every complicit element leading to a situation of abuse and injustice.

Because things might be slow to change but that doesn't mean protesting is useless. As Sarah Leah Whitson notes in the foreword:

The efforts of Gulf Labor have prevented these world-class institutions from sweeping their complicity in the exploitation of migrant workers under Abu Dhabi's desert sands.

Most significantly, these efforts have produced concrete results, with the private institutions and businesses involved in Saadiyat Island agreeing to a minimum set of commitments to protect worker rights, including the right to change jobs, an end to passport confiscation, and the refunding of recruiting fees.

And the campaign has even led the UAE grudgingly to adopt some legislative reforms, including electronic payment of wages, changes to the sponsorship system that allow workers to switch jobs under limited circumstances, and greater supervision of work conditions by a vastly expanded pool of government inspectors.

Migrant workers from Bangladesh in the apartment in Abu Dhabi that they share. The labor force on N.Y.U.'s new campus numbered 6,000 at its peak. Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Shift labourers on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi. ©Samer Muscati, 2011. Via Blouin art info

By the way, Hyperallergic is doing a great job at keeping up with Gulf Labor latest actions.

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Neural. Issue 51, Revive!

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Published on : 2015-08-04 12:09:10

Once in a blue moon i write a quick review of Neural magazine. I should do it for every single issue, really. It is that good. I'm not sure issue 51 (themed Revive) is officially out already but since i spent the weekend with it, i couldn't wait to write a few lines about it.

I stole the photo from the tumblr of the Museo dell'Informatica Funzionante

One of the reasons why i like the magazine so much is the way it mixes and matches efficiently short articles about media artworks, music or books with long, insightful essays, festival reports and interviews. So that's the fast and informative formula of a blog combined with the lengthy and reflective pace of a magazine (and yes, i'm conscious i'm making generalizations about blogs vs mags here.)

Neural follows three main threads: new media art, e-music and hacktivism and i'm going to scramble everything in this quick overview of what grabbed my attention in the magazine.

First of all, the installations and other art projects. Some completely new to me. Others that made me think that Neural, Creative Applications and wmmna are on the same mailing list for many artists. Which, obviously, makes perfect sense.

Julian Oliver, The Crystal Line, 2015

Re-creating the crystal radio design widely used during WWI, the Crystal Line device broadcasts a text to speech version of military news and 'future of warfare' chatter culled from various defence blogs. Initiating a bit of a temporal loop, an encounter with the radio curiously juxtaposes the crucial moment that the 'zone of control' in warfighting extended into the electromagnetic spectrum with military R&D's ceaseless march forward.

Jochen Maria Weber, Project Cuckoo

Jochen Maria Weber, Project Cuckoo

The clever Cuckoo, by Jochen Maria Weber, uses social network in order to communicate privately. Cuckoo encrypts messages into randomly generated words, meanings and noise and then scatter them over multiple communication networks. Any receiving Cuckoo-unit will then filter and decrypt the important posts.

Sebastian Frisch, Biophonic Garden

In Biophonic Garden, sprouted corn seeds are submerged into water. A constant sine tone of 220 hertz is played into the water which makes the roots bend towards the sound source. The phenomena of plants reacting to acoustic stimuli originated from scientific research into plant bioacoustics and is used in the work to raise questions about the communication of plants and the acoustic environment we humans live in.

Robertina Šebjanič, Aurelia1+Hz / proto viva generator

The intriguing Aurelia1+Hz / proto viva generator uses jellyfish to explore how living organisms can interface and interact with machines (that's if i understood correctly what the project is about.)

I was also pleased to find in the magazine a series of reviews of books i didn't know of and of books i've read but haven't reviewed yet (and will probably never review because i'm so easily overwhelmed by life.)


An Atlas of Agendas. Mapping the Power, Mapping the Commons is a political, social and economic atlas: informing the public about socio-political power structures and activating opportunities for the self and the commons. Also it's by Bureau d'Etudes. Meaning that i need to get my hands on a copy ASAP.

Speaking of being greedy, i'm going to nab one of those as well: Low Power to the People: Pirates, Protest, and Politics in FM Radio Activism, by Christina Dunbar-Hester.

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Plants, Androids and Operators - A Post-Media Handbook (which is also available as a free PDF) documents --in essays, images and art projects-- the contemporary post-media practice.


I LOVED this one! So well-written and engaging. 8-Bit Reggae: Collision and Creolization documents the unexpected encounter between video-game culture and reggae music. By Nicolas Nova.

Constant Dullaart, The Death of the URL, 2013

Issue 51 of Neural also counts with a few remarkable interviews with remarkable people: sound artist Graham Dunning who works with found materials and 'unwanted sound', media archaeologist and net art archivist Ben Fino-Radin, artist Constant Dullaart, that witty GIF goddess called Olia Lialina, artist/author/curator Jon Ippolito, ...

North Star Horizon computer + ADM-5 terminal. Image from the stream of the Museo dell'Informatica Funzionante

Image from the stream of the Museo dell'Informatica Funzionante

The jewel of the crown of Issue 51 is the interview with Gabriele Zaverio from the Museo dell'Informatica Funzionante (the Working IT Museum) in Palazzolo Acreide, a small town in Sicily. What a great place and community this museum seems to be! The Museum has collected over the years some 2000 historical pieces (some of them dating back to the 1940s) and is constantly repairing computers, organizing workshops and exhibitions, preserving documents in digital format and sharing everything with the public (there is a lot to browse and gape at on their website)

Also in Neural lots of CD music review. And festival reports. But i have to draw a line somewhere, this post is getting a bit too long and enthusiastic.

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Kabbalistic Synthesizer, a 'sonification' of live macrocosmic phenomena

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Published on : 2015-07-31 10:05:24

Sam Conran, Kabbalistic Synthesizer, 2015. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

Science fiction films (with a few notable exceptions such as Stanley Kubrick's 2001: a Space Odyssey) often show rockets and spaceships exploding loudly in outer space. Yet, there's no noise in empty space. What we call "sound" is actually vibrations in the air.

In a similar way but with more scientific backing, Sam Conran, a recent graduate from the Design Interactions course at the RCA, has been looking at the 'sonification' of live macrocosmic phenomena that are actually not producing any sound. The result of his research is the Kabbalistic Synthesizer, a fully functioning prototype that uses the combination of electric signals in order to simultaneously synthesises variations in the Earth's magnetic field with cosmic rays and Jupiter's magnetic storms.

The device is comprised of a Helmholtz Coil and Magnetometer to create a uniform magnetic field and read local variations in the Earth's magnetic field; an 18 tube drift hodoscope to detect cosmic rays and their trajectory from other galaxies; a fractal reflector and loop antennae mounted on a robotic base that tracks Jupiter or the Sun and picks up magnetic storms coming from these celestial bodies. These instruments can be modulated from a control panel.

The project has ultimately been a quest to understand sound design as a gnostic utility and fundamental precedent to the way we might interact and value our environments..

Sam Conran, Kabbalistic Synthesizer

Hi Sam! Why do you think it was important to speculate on sounds that don't exist? What guided your design of these sounds?

I guess being what, I am I have a relationship with sounds that don't exist - that's maybe why it's important for me, I'm passionate about exploring sound design that changes perceptions in real life as opposed to just on screen. My project was guided by this and an example called 'the Singing Comet' is useful. This was a sound that went viral and was the main talking point of the ESA Philae mission in the media.

What's interesting is the way the sound was portrayed in relation to the science and the aesthetic relationship the designer made to film sound. We all have this collective idea of what space sounds like which is guided by the big sound designers and the first filmic experiences of space - I think what the singing comet demonstrates through its success is the desire we have for space to be animistic as opposed to a vacuous dead zone. What guided my design approach was the way this sound had been pushed into the world as being real. The sound of the singing comet was designed and made by compressing data from days into seconds and mapping this to parameters of effects within some sound software.

I personally thought it would be nice to focus on the idea of creating real sounds and real time relations that we can perceive in relation to our own perception of time - not compressed and not stretched. As a result, the only parts of which I can say I have designed are the ways in which the user of the synthesizer can play and manipulate the raw inputs - the rest is process. It has been more about the pulling together of already present techniques for monitoring these phenomena than designing sounds to fit them. The sounds are not being determined by me but the ways in which they are listened to, which is guided by these processes.

The radio telescope is a noise input receiving raw noise coming from the cosmos and Jupiter/Sun noise emissions at 21mhz. The Magnetometer is translating real-time 'micro Tesla' fluctuations in the Earth's magnetic field to a process called FM Synthesis, an already existing theory of natural sound synthesis invented by John Chowning in 1973 (Stanford department of AI). The Cosmic Ray detector doesn't make sound at all but is acting as a random event generator - as the arrival of cosmic rays are truly random I liked the idea of using them to trigger processes on the other sounds, like a keyboard on a traditional synth. 

Helmholtz Coil and Magnetometer. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

18 tube drift Hodoscope. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

Jovian Receiver 21.1mhz and Fractal Loop Antennae. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

How much of the technology already existed and how much have you had to develop yourself to create these 3 instruments?

The technology for all the devices was already invented but it's not off the shelf. Each device was designed and hand built, needing a lot of help in the end to produce. I have not read physics so the process has relied on many generous people at Imperial Blackett Lab and online. There was a lot of googling. 

I was also curious about the reasons behind your choice of phenomena to explore: why magnetic storms, cosmic ray, the Earth's magnetic field? What did you find particularly interesting?

I ended up replacing the usual functions of a synthesizer; noise - signal and operator/keyboard with object-based experiments that could replace these. In the Synth the noise is coming from the radio telescope the signal is coming from the Helmholtz Coil/fluxgate and the Keyboard is operated by the Cosmic Ray detector. There is no real reason beyond that - they are all fascinating phenomena and I became aware of some strange theories about the Earth's magnetic field along the way but it wasn't my intention to sign post anything like that. During the show that's something I had to be clear about - this is a synth that takes raw inputs and allows you to adjust, play and filter the outputs, in the end its all about the theatricality of the sound and its source and how that changes our perception.

Calibrating the magnetometer. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

Development of the project. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

View of the installation at the work in progress show, Royal College of Art. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

Are you planning to expand the project and work on other macrocosmic phenomena?

I am looking into ways in which I can streamline it, make it more portable. I would like to get it to a stage where I can start to collaborate with it, the synth outputs a standard control voltage so the cosmic rays could be used with other modular systems. I think next steps is to have all the software self contained in the synth. I'm trying to figure out the best way to do this at the moment.

Development of the project. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

Development of the project. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

Development of the project. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

Development of the project. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

Research phase at Imperial College. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

Development of the project. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

Your work is called Kabbalistic Synthesizer. I get the Synthesizer part but why Kabbalistic? Why introduce this element of esoterism in the work?

Kabbalistic is a very loaded word, but I feel it could not be anything else. The name was the starting point, it came before the project had begun to develop and has stuck all the way. It fits the process which definitely on the technical side of things has pushed me into a new world - It's inherently esoteric if you're not a proper physicist I think. It's how I've felt all this year. The name also fulfills a role as a brand name for the device, everyone can relate to that I think - it frames the synth as a product. Hooking into the macrocosmic through sound is quite desirable I discovered. A lot of people during the RCA show approached it as a genuine attempt at innovation. 

Cosmic noise. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

One of the final paragraphs in the Creative Applications article about your project says: 'The Kabalistic Synthesizer is an alchemists approach to sound making and ultimately a project that seeks to understand and debate the psycho-social implications that could occur when science is experienced/accessed through a commercial medium and how 'sonification' can be combined with the synthesizer to access and objectify the unknown.' Could you explain with more details the bit about "the psycho-social implications that could occur when science is experienced/accessed through a commercial medium"? What did you mean by that?

What i'm trying to get across is really summed up in the comments section of the singing comet recording. I intended the project and its sounds to provide a kind of critical ambience to think about design strategies that might incorperate mindfulness through immersive/hedonistic tech. I'M A BIG FAN OF THIS BTW.

Do the instruments function in any type of place, environment and condition? What are the best conditions for the instruments?

The best time and place would be up a mountain during a solar storm. 

At the show, you mentioned that you were going to do some performances with the instruments? Where will this happen? And what is a performance like? Do you just let the instruments pick up and create the sound or do you actually intervene and modulate them for example?

I'm doing a performance on the 8th August at Wilderness Festival; it's a show and tell as a backdrop to a talk by John Thackara about "ways of knowing and monitoring the environment in real-time as the starting point for a new economy". I'm hoping to get good signals as its in a forest outside of London - I will play with what's there, have a listen. It's all dependent on what's picked up and then there are the controls that make it more of a performance, its a lot like tuning a radio, you can dial in.

Sam Conran, Kabbalistic Synthesizer, 2015. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

Thanks Sam!

You can listen to some of the sounds produced by the synthesizer on soundcloud.

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Fire and Forget: On Violence

Feed : we make money not art
Published on : 2015-07-28 10:31:26

Julius von Bismarck, POLIZEI, 2015. Photo by Timo Ohler

He Xiangyu, Tank, 2011-13. Plant-based-tanned leather. Photo by Timo Ohler

Fire and Forget is military jargon for a type of missile guidance that can hit its target without the launcher being in line-of-sight. The expression is symptomatic of a new type of warfare in which the people firing, killing and destroying are emancipated from the fear for their own life and the direct physical -or sometimes even visual- contact with the victim(s) of their shooting.

The exhibition Fire and forget. On violence currently on view at KW in Berlin asks whether this loss of direct physical confrontation has led to a new definition, production and perception of violence.

The show follows four main threads: the first one explores how Borders are decided and enforced to contain political, economic, cultural, religious, or ethnic tensions. Affect explores the long-term impact that violence from a distance has on the human psyche. Memory/Remembrance investigates whether history and commemoration inhibits or heighten violence. The final section looks at how the Event of violence itself reflects how each new situation is once again a singular moment of release, and of a decision for violence.

Fire and Forget is a brilliant and timely exhibition. However, while walking from room to room, i kept wondering why most works were not accompanied by descriptions and commentaries. Some of the pieces on show as self-explanatory, others left me frustrated. I could guess they were interesting and coherent with the whole show but i missed the elements to fully understand why.

Fortunately, i am a blogger and had plenty of time to waste online looking for the missing pieces of information...

Kris Martin, Untitled, 2010. In the background, works by Henning Rogge and Hrair Sarkissian. Photo by Timo Ohler

Many Europeans (and Americans) tend to associate the Middle East with violence and several pieces in the show brought some much needed nuance to our prejudices.

Sharif Waked, To Be Continued, 2009

Sharif Waked's film, To Be Continued, follows the format of the "living martyr" videos made by a man or woman declaring in front of a camera their determination to carry out a suicide bombing mission.

In this video, however, the protagonist, played by Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri, doesn't read his last will. Instead, he reads a lengthy excerpt from One Thousand and One Nights. By mixing the familiar and feared figure of the suicide bomber with poetic texts, Sharif Waked confounds our expectations of masculinity in the Islamic world.

Hrair Sarkissian
, Execution Squares, 2008

Hrair Sarkissian
, Execution Squares, 2008

Video interview with Hrair Sarkissian on Execution Squares

Hrair Sarkissian's series Execution Squares shows fourteen public squares in three Syrian cities (Aleppo, Lattakia and Damascus) at sun rise, the time when executions usually take place in the country. The condemned person is often brought to the square at 4.30am, and their body is left there until around 9am so that citizens can witness the scene on their way to school or work.

In the late 1990s and 2000, the practice became less frequent in Damascus because the capital had become more internationally visible, Sarkissian explained in an interview. But they kept doing it in other cities such as Aleppo, where at least one person was hanged every month.

The artist was as a schoolboy when he passed one of these squares and saw three bodies hanging in the street. The image has haunted him ever since. Sarkissian's images show empty streets, there is not hanging body to gape at, no trace of violence. Yet, once you know the story, the photos seem to be haunted by the brutality that took place on those squares.

Roy Brand, Ori Scialom and Keren Yeala Golan, The Country Sand Printer, 2014. Photo by Timo Ohler

Nowhere does daily border violence manifests itself so stringently as inside and around the ever expanding Israel land. Walls, watchtowers, constant controls and other obstacles regulate the movements of Palestinians.

A room in the show is almost entirely occupied by The Country Sand Printer, by Roy Brand, Ori Scialom, and Keren Yeala Golan. The machine traces the evolution of the Israeli state through its settlements, reprinting over and over the expansion of Israel into the sand. A mechanic metal needle lightly draws lines in the sand, ensuring that traces of previous plans remain visible while new lines demarcate new territory borders.

A nearby video by Armin Linke, Road Block at Gaza City, Netsarem Settlement Beach Road (sorry couldn't find any image of it online and i didn't take any of the work while i was visiting the show) seems to respond to the invasive printing machine. The film shows how an event as banal as a roadblock near Gaza City forces Palestinians to make long and uncomfortable detours by foot in order to get to their intended destination. Colonization isn't just a theft of land, it is also a theft of time.

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Henning Rogge, Mascheroder Holz, 2011

Henning Rogge, Altwarmbüchener Moor, 2013

Henning Rogge, Projensdorfer Gehölz, 2013

Like Sarkissian
, Henning Rogge documents in photos the scars left by violent events. This time however the traces are still visible. His series shows how nature has adapted to the craters left by the bombs launched during World War II in Germany. After the war, the craters have slowly become part of the landscape and ecology, offering new pond habitats for animals, including endangered species.

Damien Hirst, Do It, 1995-96

The ultra short video above reminded me how good Hirst can be. The artist takes a gun and explain very quietly the best way to shoot yourself.

NEOZOON, Buck Fever (excerpt), 2012

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NEOZOON, Buck Fever (video still), 2012

Buck Fever explores the emotions that surround the violence perpetrated against animals. The film is a You Tube collage of hunter amateur recording the moments directly preceding and following the shooting an animal.

James Bridle, Drone shadow, ongoing project. Photo Timo Ohler

Guided missiles and drones are clear examples of Fire and Forget technology. James Bridle's silhouette of a drone painted on the street in front of KW reminds us that, in spite of being located far away from the battlefield, drone operators fire but do not forget. Studies have shown that the pilots can still develop mental health problems like depression, anxiety as well as other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

More images from the show:

Joachim Koester, The Place of Dead Roads (production still), 2013

He Xiangyu, Tank, 2011-13. Plant-based-tanned leather. Photo by Timo Ohler

Daniil Galkin, Tourniquet, 2015

Fire and Forget. On violence, installation view. Photo: Timo Ohler

Emily Jacir, Bank Mirror, Ramallah, April 22, 2002, 2002



Ala Younis, Tin Soldiers, 2010

Ron Amir
, Malek, 2004

Chto Delat, Time Capsule. Artistic report on catastrophies and utopia, 2014/2015. Photo: Alexander Koch / KOW

Mircea Cantor, Shooting, 2005

Fire and forget. On violence was curated by Ellen Blumenstein and Daniel Tyradellis. The show remains open until August 30, 2015 at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin.

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The Glomar Response. James Bridle solo show in Berlin explores torture, surveillance, imperialism and immigration

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Published on : 2015-07-23 11:11:09

The Glomar response refers to the US government prerogative of power to "neither confirm nor deny" the existence of information. The expression was created by the CIA in 1975 in response to media inquiries about a covert program which involved the Glomar Explorer, a salvage vessel built to recover a sunken Soviet submarine. The form of non-denial denial is symptomatic of the times we are living. Nevertheless, the ever-increasing opacity of political and social processes accelerated by computer code and secret law is countered by the growing ability of individuals and activists to use those same networked technologies to investigate and act with ever greater agency.

James Bridle, Seamless Transition. Inflite Jet Centre, Stansted airport Photograph: Picture Plane

The Glomar Response is also the title of James Bridle's solo show which will open tomorrow at NODE, a gallery in Berlin dedicated to the interweaving areas of art, science and political activism. Bridle's exhibition will present a series of works that use computer code, investigative journalism, and visualization to explore hidden spaces and classified information. Whether they investigate CIA torture, automated police surveillance, relics of British imperialism or immigration, the works on show demonstrate the impact that politics has on technology and architecture.

"Politics are encoded into the architecture and the technology," the artist told me during a skype discussion. "They betray the intent. But we still need some literacy in order to be able to decode the situation so my work aims to make these codes visible but it also calls for the need to raise this literacy.

There's also another aspect to these works and it's that i'm not entirely convinced by this process. I think that there are limits to what you can do. None of these works is going to lead to huge changes in the system. The pieces in the show also speak of that frustration."

Diego Garcia (Waterboarded Documents 001), 2015. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/

Chagos (Waterboarded Documents 002), 2015. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/

Bridle will premiere the work Waterboarded Documents in Berlin. The installation is made of research documents surrounding the operation of websites and domains that end in .io. These web domains, popular with a number of trendy companies, are linked to the island of Diego Garcia and the other islands of the British Indian Ocean Territory. But most people who use these domains are unaware of the dark story of these islands.

The islands of the British Indian Ocean Territory form an archipelago that was forcibly depopulated in the 1970s by the United Kingdom, at the request of the United States which needed an unpopulated island to set up a military base. Ironically, the base is called Camp Justice. Because of its strategic position, the US used it as a base during the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as a CIA black site and transit point for the extraordinary rendition programme.

The British government has consistently denied any illegalities in the expulsion. Moreover, in 2010, the British Cabinet announced that most of the archipelago would be turned into the world's largest Marine Protected Area, a move that will prohibit commercial fishing as well as oil and gas exploration in the area. Leaked documents seem to confirm Chagossians' suspicion that this MPA was created to prevent the islanders from returning to the islands.

The case has not been heard by any international court of law as no appropriate venue has been found to accept the case.

The navigation charts, maps and other documents shown in the gallery have been submitted to waterboarding, just like some of the people 'interrogated' in the framework of the rendition program. The same water damage also alludes to the water damaged claimed by the British Government to prevent the release of information relating to the UK's role in the CIA's global rendition operations. Finally, these damaged documents illustrate the complicity between contemporary technological networks and older forms of entrenched and imperial power.


Inflite Jet Centre, Stansted airport Photograph: Picture Plane


Special Immigration Appeals Court, London. Photograph: Picture Plane

The interior of Inflite Jet Centre. Photograph: Picture Plane/The interior of Inflite Jet Centre

Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre, Heathrow. Photograph: Picture Plane/Picture Plane

Bridle is also showing Seamless Transitions, a work that demonstrates the quality of his investigative practice and that makes tangible and visible sites shrouded in invisibility and secrecy.

Developed in collaboration with digital imaging studio Picture Plane, Seamless Transitions puts into images three unphotographable sites of immigration judgment, detention and deportation in the UK: the Special Immigration Appeals Court, whose design is informed by the need to present secret evidence; Harmondsworth Detention Center, a privately run prison near London Heathrow Airport; and the Inflite Jet Center, a private terminal at Stansted Airport that the Home Office uses to deport rejected asylum-seekers.

Bridle reconstructed the spaces by collating witness accounts, planning applications and open source information in the hope that the resulting animation would raise a debate about the legal procedures of immigration and detention. Moreover, the work looks at the use of new imaging practices to carry out investigation in the absence of other visual media such as photography.

Having no pictures available of a phenomenon has become a technique of not talking about it, he told ICON. Physical representations make more tangible the kind of things people find it difficult to talk about because they are non-physical, digital or complex.

James Bridle Interview - Seamless Transitions

James Bridle, Fraunhofer Lines 004 (Information Commissioners Reports, 2008-2012), 2015

James Bridle, Fraunhofer Lines 005 (David Miranda), 2015

The third piece exhibited at NOME is Fraunhofer Lines, a series of visualizations from a variety of sources, including the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture and the UK Information Commissioner's reports on automated police surveillance. These documents, released following Freedom of Information requests, have been analyzed with computer vision to reveal the extent of redaction and the discrepancies between different documents. They are named and patterned after the gaps in the sun's spectra discovered in 1814 by physicist Joseph von Fraunhofer, which both revealed the absence of certain frequencies of light reaching the earth's surface and pointed toward new methods of analysis and understanding.

And i'll end the story with video for anyone who doesn't get a chance to see the exhibition in Berlin this Summer:

re:publica 2015 - James Bridle: Living in the Electromagnetic Spectrum

James Bridle - The Glomar Response is at NOME gallery in Berlin from 25 July until 5 September 2015.

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High-Speed Horizons. Using sonic booms and nuclear energy to power aviation

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Published on : 2015-07-16 09:07:34

Tim Clark, The Boomjet, High-Speed Horizons, 2015

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X-1SB and Boomjet models receiving initial coats of paint. Photo by Juuke Schoorl

High-Speed Horizons is another of my favourite works exhibited at the graduation show of the Royal College of Art earlier this month.

One of the models in the exhibition space

In this project, Design Interactions graduate Tim Clark plays with the language and history of aviation, offering us a trip into critical and speculative visions of alternative energies.

Aviation, says the designer, has always been viewed as a test bed for radical new ideas and visions to reshape culture, politics and economics on Earth and far beyond it. Some of these dreams of alternative futures became reality and even transformed other areas of life (especially in military or space exploration contexts), while others were aborted because of political, economic or environmental pressures.

Tim Clark tapped into this fascination for unrestricted innovation to design a series of airplanes that investigate the possibility to ditch environmentally damaging fossil fuels in favour of sonic booms and nuclear power.

Bell X-1. Image Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

Chuck Yeager Breaks the Sound Barrier, X-1, 1947. Newsreel from 1948

The most experimental and speculative aircraft research is often classified. An example of this is the American X-Plane. Started after WW2 and still in operation today, the program conceived a series of experimental planes and helicopters and used them to test new technologies and aerodynamic concepts.

The first of American X-Plane model, the Bell X-1, was the first aircraft to break the sound barrier in level flight in 1947. This breakthrough opened up a new field of supersonic research and led to experimentation in aerodynamics and new propulsive systems.

Supersonic speed travel is accompanied by an explosive 'bang' sound called sonic boom. These sonic booms also generate enormous amounts of energy. In theory they could thus power planes with an efficient, green and sustainable energy source.

But sonic booms are one of the main reasons why supersonic airplanes never became more commonplace. In several countries, the law prevents aircrafts from flying above Mach 1 due to the shock wave's auditory and vibrational disturbance.

Limiting the impact of sonic booms is a current concern of the aviation industry as many are dreaming of a new supersonic age. But if it is to be more successful than the last one (the Concorde required high quantities of fuel), a supersonic plane would need an energy source free from the influence of global affairs, politics and planet scarring infrastructure. Something that we can quickly produce and have complete control over -- like sonic booms.

Tim Clark, The X-1SB, High-Speed Horizons, 2015

Tim Clark, The X-1SB, High-Speed Horizons, 2015

Tim Clark, High-Speed Horizons (X-1SB being airdropped by B-29 Duo mothership. Oil on canvas by Michael Lightfoot), 2015

The X-1SB, aka the "Sonic Sundae", is Clark's counterhistorical research aircraft designed to test the feasibility of this sonic boom propulsion. Its cone shape design is the combination of a .50 caliber bullet (an object know to be stable while breaching the sound barrier) just like the design of its predecessor the X-1 aircraft, and the shape of the shock wave created by an object traveling faster than sound.

The front of the aircraft features a housing for an interchangeable triangular spike used to test how different shapes could create potentially optimized shock waves to use for propulsion.

And because Clark's work is counter historical, Sonic Sundae and Boomjet (more about that one below) were to have existed before any of the anti-noise laws were to have been instituted.

He told me: I am suggesting that in a sonic boom powered world those laws would not exist because the ability to travel with that type of greener propulsion would probably be more beneficially economically than instituting the flight restrictions. In this case the benefit of the disturbance would outweigh the desire to limit the noise.

Conceptual drawing of a supersonic biplane. Image: Christine Daniloff/MIT News based on an original drawing courtesy of Obayashi laboratory, Tohoku University

Anyway if we were to live in true supersonic age these restrictions would need to be changed/relaxed anyway sonic booms or not. The big research in limiting the sonic boom now is finding a way to make a wing design that will create little to no noise when it breaks the sound barrier so it does not disturb people below the plane. Amazingly this question was answered over a decade (1935) before we even broke the sound barrier (1947) by Adolf Busemann who suggested a supersonic biplane design where the two wings would be used to cancel the other wave out.

It's crazy to think a supersonic jet would resemble a biplane from the 1920s but it would probably be the best solution and it was theorized way before it ever would be seen as a problem which is amazing. MIT just did some research into it in the last year or so and it would totally work and might be quite viable.

Tim Clark, B-29 Duo, High-Speed Horizons, 2015

Because of its large rear circumference, the X-1SB cannot fit under the fuselage or wing of a larger aircraft for taxiing and takeoff. The B-29 Duo "Double Mama" has thus been designed to be its carrier aircraft of choice.

An F/A-18 Hornet breaks the sound barrier in the skies over the Pacific Ocean, 1999. Image Ensign John Gay, U.S. Navy (via wikipedia)

Tim Clark, The Boomjet, High-Speed Horizons, 2015

Tim Clark, The Boomjet, High-Speed Horizons, 2015

Boomjet on mobile aircraft crawler. Computer rendering by Tim Clark

Tim Clark, High-Speed Horizons (Boomjet taxiing at water-based airport. Watercolor on paper by Hector Trunnec), 2015

Another of Clark's designs, the Boomjet is a sonic boom-powered commercial transport that sustains its flight by driving 47 propellers from the pressure energy released by the aircraft as it travels faster than the speed of sound. The sonic boom transport vehicle stores excess energy for use during takeoff which can be vertically or from water depending on location.

Clarks then looked at another source of energy that could disentangle aviation from its dangerous relationship with fossil fuels: nuclear energy.

The Convair NB-36 in flight, with a B-50. Photo: USAF - U.S. photo no. DF-SC-83-09332 via wikipedia

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Advert from November 1951 AIR TRAILS magazine promoting the promise of nuclear power as an unlimited energy source for flight. Image from Secret U.S. Proposals of the Cold War: Radical Concepts in Factory Models and Engineering Drawings by Jim Keeshen

During the cold war both the USSR and the USA had an experimental nuclear aircraft program. While the risk was high, nuclear power promised an aircraft with theoretically unlimited range capable of constant flight.

Only two known nuclear aircraft that have been fully built and tested. The NB-36H was America's nuclear-powered aircraft. Refitted for this new propulsion system after it was damaged in a storm and deemed unfit for combat, the aircraft featured a direct phone line to the President of the United States that was to only be used in the event of an incident. The NB-36H completed 47 test flights between 1955 and 1957 over New Mexico and Texas. It was scrapped in 1958 when the Nuclear Aircraft Program was abandoned.

The Soviet Union's aircraft, the Tu-95L, was based on the Tupolev Tu-95 strategic bomber and missile platform. First flown in 1952, the plane is still in operation today and Russia sometimes flies it in close proximity of the airspace of other European countries in order to show its military prowess.

The nuclear variant of the TU-95 flew from 1961 to 1965.

Both the USA and the Soviet Union had ambitious plans for their second nuclear-powered aircraft but due to environmental concerns, political pressures, and rumors that the other side called off their research both projects were shelved.

While the risk of a nuclear accident is deemed too high in aviation, we have nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, submarines and 11% of all the world's electricity being based on nuclear power.

Tim Clark, High-Speed Horizons, 2015

Tim Clark, High-Speed Horizons, 2015

Designer applying the 500+ dry transfer window decals and nuclear logo decals to the Air Laissez-faire model aircraft. Photo by Juuke Schoorl

Clark proposes to update to our times a technology that looked promising at the height of the Cold War. And the ones willing to bankroll the experiment might not be countries but technology companies which are already at the forefront of some ambitious innovative projects (Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic for example.) Because these tech companies are increasingly under governmental scrutiny so that they don't get out of control, they might also take to the sky to further innovation free from the restriction of regulation, utilizing the energy source historically clouded by politics to sustain continuous flight and prove that anything is indeed possible through innovation. An inspiration for the idea is Blueseed. This "start-up community on a ship" proposes to gather hundreds of immigrant entrepreneurs on a floating startup city in international waters off the coast of San Francisco and have them live and work undisturbed by the burden of national boundaries and government regulations.

Clark's mini Silicon Valley on air is called Air Laissez-Faire. A nuclear power plant on board of this self-piloting aircraft would provide virtually limitless amounts of continuous propulsion, while a crew made of nuclear physicist, chemical engineer, radiation consultant, and other figures would ensure safety on board. The mega plane presents satellite and radar communication equipment for remote business meetings, all necessary business facilities as well as a landing space on its rear wings that allow small 'commuter aircrafts' to whisk entrepreneurs from and back to major business centers.

Tim Clark, High-Speed Horizons, 2015

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Carsten Höller: experiments in perception and decision-making

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Published on : 2015-07-15 12:08:14

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Carsten Höller, Isomeric Slides, 2015 during installation of Carsten Höller_ Decision at Hayward Gallery, Courtesy the artist and LUMA Foundation. Photo David Levene

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Carsten Höller, Divisions (Wall Painting with Aphids), 2015 © Carsten Höller. Installation View Carsten Höller l Decision, Hayward Gallery, London 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Massimo De Carlo, Milan. Photo © Linda Nylind

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Carsten Höller, The Forests, 2002_2015 © Carsten Höller. Installation View Carsten Höller l Decision, Hayward Gallery, London 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Air de Paris. Photo © Linda Nylind

The show to see and experience in London at the moment is Carsten Höller: Decision.

Carsten Höller likes to unsettle, upset, delight and surprise. You get out of one of his shows and feel like you've lived through 'something' new and totally unexpected. The Hayward retrospective is an experiment, from the perspective of the artist but also from the one of the visitor, in perception and decision-taking: are you going to enter through the doors on the right or on the left? Will you dare to be harnessed to a flying machine? Will you ingest one of those curious little pills that are dropped from the ceiling? Or will you just watch and see what other people chose? And in the end, will you conclude that this was fun but a bit shallow or that it was thought-provoking and enlightening? Is this art or just entertainment?

The exhibition is what you would call a crowd-pleaser (although the £15.00 entrance ticket is definitely not crowd-pleasing.) Which in conservative art speak is a bit of an insult. It shouldn't be. Because art doesn't need more snobs and because if gigantic slides, bouncy Stonehenge and rain rooms are what it takes to get everyone to experience and discuss contemporary art, that's good enough for me.

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Carsten Höller, Decision Corridors, 2015 © Carsten Höller. Installation View Carsten Höller l Decision, Hayward Gallery, London 2015. Courtesy of the artist, Photo © Linda Nylind

The first decision you take is whether to access the show by the entrance on the right or the one on the left. I chose the left one and very quickly regretted it. I found myself in the darkness of a long, a very very long steel corridor. It sometimes goes up, sometimes down, it bends to the right or to the left. With each step, i was wondering whether i should keep on walking or whether i should just hurry back to where i came from and take the other entrance (which takes you to a similarly awful corridor if i understood correctly.)


Carsten Höller, Flying Mushrooms, 2015 © Carsten Höller. Installation View Carsten Höller l Decision, Hayward Gallery, London 2015. Courtesy of the artist, Photo © Linda Nylind

Now of course i find it funny so i'd recommend the experience to anyone because one day, i promise, you finally reach the end of the tunnel and find yourself in a room inhabited by huge hallucinogenic mushrooms. They are mounted on a mobile and you're invited to push them around. And every single adult but me thought it was jolly good fun to push a bar and make the mushrooms turn.

Next, please!

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Carsten Höller, Pill Clock, 2011-2015 © Carsten Höller. Installation View Carsten Höller l Decision, Hayward Gallery, London 2015. Courtesy of the artist, Photo © Linda Nylind

Right after the red and white mushrooms, you encounter a growing pile of red and white little pills. Every three seconds, a little capsule drops from the ceiling. You're actually free to pop one with water from the nearby mini sink. There's no information about what is inside the pills. That's part of the experiment, of course, it's another decision you have to take.

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Carsten Höller, Upside Down Goggles, 2014 © Carsten Höller. Installation View Carsten Höller l Decision, Hayward Gallery, London 2015. Courtesy of the artist, Photo © Linda Nylind

People were queuing to try the Upside Down Goggles. The goggles are based on an experiment carried out by George Stratton in the 1890s. While studying the perception in vision, the psychologist wore special glasses which inverted images up and down and left and right. He found that after 4 days wearing them continuously, his brain started to compensate, and he could see the world the right way up again.

Höller's perception-altering goggles are very disorientating. You feel a bit seasick and unsure of your steps.

Carsten Höller, Two Flying Machines, 2015 © Carsten Höller. Installation View Carsten Höller l Decision, Hayward Gallery, London 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery. Photo © Ela Bialkowska

Carsten Höller, Two Flying Machines, 2015 © Carsten Höller. Installation View Carsten Höller l Decision, Hayward Gallery, London 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery. Photo © Ela Bialkowska

More queuing! This time to be harnessed to one of the Two Flying Machines. You can pretend you're Icarus flying over the Waterloo Bridge. Except that you're just dangling from a big arm and slowly rotating while other visitors and the odd guy on the top the double deckers are pointing at you.

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Carsten Höller, Dice (White Body, Black Dots), 2014 and Reflections On Her Eyes, Reflections On My Eyes, 1996_2015 © Carsten Höller. Installation view Carsten Höller_ Decision, Hayward Gallery, London, 2015

Carsten Höller, Half Mirror Room, 2008_2015 and Snake, 2014 © Carsten Höller. Installation View Carsten Höller l Decision, Hayward Gallery, London 2015. Courtesy of the artist. Photo © Linda Nylind

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Carsten Höller, Dice (White Body, Black Dots), 2014. Installation view Carsten Höller_ Decision, Hayward Gallery, London, 2015. Courtesy the artist

The top floor of the Hayward also houses Half Mirror Room, a room with floor-to-ceiling mirrors positioned at 90-degree angles to one another, another disorienting experience. How big is this room really? Are these mirrors or is this another of Höller's tricks to play with our perception? In the middle of the room is a super big dice. Instead of black dots, it has holes for children to crawl through.

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Carsten Höller, Two Roaming Beds (Grey), 2015. © Carsten Höller. Produced with Bonniers Konsthall, Stockholm, and HangarBicocca, Milano. Installation view_ Carsten Höller_ Decision, Hayward Gallery, London, 2015

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Carsten Höller, Two Roaming Beds (Grey), 2015 and Half Clock, 2014 © Carsten Höller. Installation View Carsten Höller l Decision, Hayward Gallery, London 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Thyssen-Bornewmisza Art Contemporary

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Carsten Höller, Two Roaming Beds (Grey), 2015 © Carsten Höller. Installation View Carsten Höller l Decision, Hayward Gallery, London 2015. Courtesy of the artist, Photo © Linda Nylind

Meanwhile, two self-navigating robotic beds are quietly gliding around one of the gallery spaces. The beds move in relation to each other, using radio beacons and a laser. During the day, a big sign informs you that you shouldn't touch them but if you have £300 to spare, the beds are yours to sleep in at night. I read that for that price, you also get "dream-enhancing toothpaste."

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Carsten Höller, Isomeric Slides, 2015 © Carsten Höller. Installation View Carsten Höller l Decision, Hayward Gallery, London 2015. Courtesy of the artist and LUMA Foundation Photo © Linda Nylind

Carsten Höller, Isomeric Slides, 2015 © Carsten Höller. Installation View Carsten Höller l Decision, Hayward Gallery, London 2015. Courtesy of the artist and LUMA Foundation Photo © Linda Nylind

Höller's shiny Isometric Slides are a very efficient marketing ploy to lure you into the building. They are also the last episode of your journey into the exhibition. You get to climb to the top of the space with a fabric bag and then merrily slide all the way back to normal life.


The catalogue is pure Höller. It takes the form of two books wrapped in glossy white paper. Two because it forces you to decide which one to read first. One of the books contains new short stories by six writers - Naomi Alderman, Jenni Fagan, Jonathan Lethem, Deborah Levy, Helen Oyeyemi and Ali Smith - responding to the theme of decision-making. The other one focuses on the show itself with a photographic interpretation of the multiple ways of experiencing Höller's immersive exhibition and an interview in which the artist talks to curator Ralph Rugoff about participatory art, proprioception, machines for meditation, and aphid's non-sexual mode of reproduction. I haven't looked at the short stories yet but i greatly enjoyed reading the interview.

Decisions is at the Hayward Gallery in London until 6 September.
If you're in London this weekend, do check out the programme of Hayward's performance day on Saturday 18 July, as part of their exhibition Echoes & Reverberations.

As usual, i took some pretty bad photos at the show.

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OpenSurgery, a DIY laparoscopic surgery robot

Feed : we make money not art
Published on : 2015-07-09 09:26:57

Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery, 2015

Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery, 2015

Robots are transforming surgery. The Da Vinci Surgical System, for example, allows long and complicated procedures to be performed with super human precision and dexterity. All while decreasing patient trauma and providing a more comfortable experience for the surgeon.

Costing up to $2.000.000 however, a surgical robot represents large capital investments and only becomes cost effective after intensive use and thus fits into a more "market driven" concept of healthcare that indirectly contributes to the overall rising medical expenditures.

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A surgeon sitting in an ergonomic control console, a few meters removed from the operating table, uses specialized joysticks to control a variety of tiny surgical instruments attached to robotic arms

One of the corollaries of expensive professional healthcare is the rise of communities of uninsured Americans who share videos on Youtube to demonstrate how they performed medical hacks on themselves.

Henry Knoll, How to make your own dental fillings to performing minor amateur surgery, $5 DIY Cosmetic Dentistry, 2009

Designer Frank Kolkman, a new graduate of the Design Interactions course at the Royal College of Art in London, wondered if a compromise could be found. His OpenSurgery project investigates whether building DIY surgical robots, outside the scope of healthcare regulations, could provide an accessible alternative to the costly professional healthcare services worldwide.

There have been several attempts within the robotics community to come up with cheaper and more portable surgical robots. The RAVEN II Surgical robot, for example, was initially developed with funding from the US military to create a portable telesurgery device for battlefield operations. The machine is valued at $200.000 and all of the software used to control the RAVEN II has been made open source. However, The Raven doesn't have the (often costly) safety and quality control systems in place, required by regulation to allow it to be used on humans meaning that it might take a while before the RAVEN II will be fully embraced by regulatory and commercial worlds. In any case, most medical hacker communities would still be unable to afford its $200.000 price tag.

Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery, 2015

Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery, 2015

For the past five months, Kolkman has thus been trying to build a DIY surgical robot for around $5000, by using accessible prototyping techniques like laser cutting and 3d printing and by sourcing as many ready-made parts as he could find.

Designing a surgical robot that could perform laparoscopic surgery (a surgery so minimally invasive that it is also called keyhole surgery) presents a number of challenges. The designer found an answer to each of them:

- the many laporoscopic tools that the robot would have to handle can be ordered directly from their Chinese manufacturers using Alibaba.
- these tools are usually sterilized in an autoclave, a machine that uses high pressure and hot steam that is not very likely to be accessible to many people. The bulky machine could be replaced by a domestic oven (for stainless steel instruments) or a microwave (for plastic parts.)
- Kolkman also replaced the trocar, a medical device that functions as a portal for the subsequent placement of other instruments, with a design that uses 3d printed parts controlled by DC servo motors that rotate around a central pivotal point.

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Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery (domestic sterilization), 2015

The electronics to control the robots were copied from designs used in 3d printer communities, while the software was build with Processing.

The main challenge the designer encountered however was intellectual property. In a bid to make the project open source, Kolkman tried to develop his own mechanisms. Unfortunately, it appeared that most of the fundamental concepts that allow robotic surgery have already been patented. Fortunately, he also found out that as long as you make parts protected by intellectual property in private and for non commercial purposes they are theoretically exempted from patent infringement.

Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery, 2015

After five months of iteration, the robot does move. The designer concludes:

And based on my experiences the concept of a DIY surgical robot is surprisingly plausible. If you would be able to build a community of makers who bring the same amount of attention and dedication to building surgical tools as they do to designing 3d printers and cnc machines these days, I believe accessible DIY surgery equipment would be within reach.

And of course you still need a trained surgeon to operate the machine.

Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery, 2015

Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery, 2015

Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery, 2015

Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery, 2015

Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery, 2015

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Sudden Justice: America's Secret Drone Wars

Feed : we make money not art
Published on : 2015-07-01 12:03:42

Sudden Justice: America's Secret Drone Wars, by investigative journalist Chris Woods.


Available on amazon USA and UK.

Publisher Oxford University Press writes: In Sudden Justice, award-winning investigative journalist Chris Woods explores the secretive history of the United States' use of armed drones and their key role not only on today's battlefields, but also in a covert targeted killing project that has led to the deaths of thousands. The CIA nurtured and developed drones before the War on Terror ever began, seeking a platform from which it could monitor its targets and act lethally and instantly on the intelligence it gathered. Since then, remotely piloted aircraft have played a critical role in America's global counter-terrorism operations and have been deployed to devastating effect in conventional wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Drone crews, analysts, intelligence officials and military commanders all speak frankly to the author about how armed drones revolutionized warfare--and the unexpected costs to some of those involved.

A US Reaper drone at Kandahar airfield. Credit: Jack Sanders/US Air Force (via BIJ)

A US Air Force drone in a hangar in Iraq, August 2011. Photo: US Air Force/Master Sgt. Ricardo (via BIJ)

Sudden Justice is probably the most talked about drone book of the year. It is also the most detailed, the most thorough study of the evolution of weaponised drone warfare you can find. The author, Chris Woods, is an investigative journalist who specializes in conflict and national security issues. He was awarded the Martha Gellhorn Journalism Prize for his investigations into covert U.S. drone strikes with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. He also contributes to The Guardian.

In preparation to this book and as part of his work as a journalist, Woods has interviewed former drone operators and mission controllers, retired intelligence commanders, senior Air Force officials and psychologists, US Navy veterans, diplomats, parents of young people killed during the strikes, survivors of attacks, etc. In short, anyone who had any (voluntary or not) role to play in this new form of asymmetrical warfare is bringing their own view about the issue.

The use of weaponized drones outside of the battlefields is one of the most worrying characteristics of our times. At the time Woods was writing the book, drones had already killed 3000 people. Some of them civilians, not militants. The author reminds us, for example, that when Obama's presidency was just 72h old, he had already authorized a secret action that accidentally killed 14 civilians.

By acting as judge, jury and executioner, the U.S. is not only setting a worrying template for the future of warfare, its is also antagonizing the populations targeted (drone strikes have apparently become a recruiting tool and a motivator for jihadists), creating a new generation of operators so stressed that psychologists still have to invent a word that would describe their condition, and alienating allied countries that believe (rightly) that the targeted killing practice is illegal.

There's no sign of a slowdown. Since 2010, the US Air Force has been training more drone pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined. And the Obama administration intends to keep on eschewing any request for transparency and accountability.

A Theory of the Drone, by philosopher Grégoire Chamayou, is undoubtedly my favourite drone book but it follows also a very different perspective. While Chamayou analyzes how drones have irremediably remodeled the laws of war , Sudden Justice compiles facts, quotes and numbers, clinically and masterfully charting the history of drone use by the CIA and by US (and also Israeli) military, the escalation of targeted killing as well as the evolution of militants' tactics and procedures.

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