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Published on : 2013-09-24 07:23:09
The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, London's favourite radio art station, is aired this Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.
My guest tomorrow will be Erica Scourti. Erica is an artist/film-maker who's studying MRes: Moving Image Art at Central St Martins, run in conjunction with LUX. Her work uses autobiographical source material, as well as texts found on the internet to explore the mediation of personal and collective experience through language and technology in the net-worked regime of contemporary culture. Which means that tomorrow the episode will focus on online language and communication, algorithms, forms of mediated intimacy, and distributed art works. Amongst others!
A few years ago, every day, for over 10 months, Erica wrote and emailed her own diary to her Gmail account and copied the list of suggested keywords linking to clusters of relevant ads. After that, she spoke the text to webcam, creating daily portraits of her life as understood and translated by Google's algorithms. WIth another project, Woman Nature Alone, she hijacked the process by which Google's algorithms organize the hierarchy of online visibility. Erica used titles taken from stock video sites corresponding to the key words 'woman', 'nature' and 'alone' as the starting point for a series of films that show her performing each action described in the title. The video and title were then uploaded to YouTube, forming a collection of 'rushes'. After that the online works started a life of their own...
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Published on : 2013-09-23 10:07:35
This Will Have Been: Art, Love, and Politics in the 1980s, by Helen Molesworth, chief curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) Boston.
Publisher Yale University Press writes: Art of the 1980s oscillated between radical and conservative, capricious and political, socially engaged and art historically aware. Published in association with the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, this fascinating book chronicles canonical as well as nearly forgotten works of the 1980s, arguing that what has often been dismissed as cynical or ironic should be viewed as a struggle on the part of artists to articulate their needs and desires in an increasingly commodified world. The major developments of the decade--the rise of the commercial art market, the politicization of the AIDS crisis, the increased visibility of women and gay artists and artists of color, and the ascension of new media--are illuminated in works by Sophie Calle, Nan Goldin, Mike Kelley, Jeff Koons, Sherrie Levine, and Lorna Simpson, among others. Essays by leading scholars provide unique perspectives on the decade's competing factions and seemingly contradictory elements, from counterculture to the mainstream, radicalism to democracy and historical awareness, conservatism to feminist politics.
Unlike the fashion of that decade, the art of the 1980s never really benefited from a revival. It generally remains overlooked and unbeloved. Yet, while reading through this book, i realized that just like today's artists, the artists of the '80s had plenty to fight for and fight against.
Many factors contribute to make the 1980s a fascinating period: the HIV/AIDS crisis, Ronald Reagan elected twice as the President of the U.S.A., the secrecy surrounding gay and lesbian life (Molesworth argues that the 1980s began with feminism and ended with queerness), queerness itself which i think is a very 80s word, the return to figurative imagery, a world that became increasingly media-saturated (and indeed the artists represented in This Will Have Been belong to the first generation to have grown up with a television in the home), etc.
But the 1980s are also hold mirror to our times. Think of the ongoing resurgence of feminism, the current debate about footballers ashamed to 'get out of the closet', the Occupy movement which has so much in common in form and force with the ACT UP actions against a governmental lack of concern for the AIDS pandemic, the global economic recession, etc. Are we as combative, as revolted, as inspired as they were in the '80s? Is there anything today's socially-engaged artists can learn from a previous generation?
This Will Have Been is the catalogue of an exhibition of the same name. It is only one of the many possible retrospectives of art in the 1980s. First of all, because it is very U.S.A.-centric but also because it looks at the artistic production of that decade through the lens of desire.
This Will Have Been is divided into four non-hermetical sections that each explores a specific issue/desire.
"The End Is Near" is about the desire to break with the past. The 1980s was characterized by debates about the end of painting, the end of the counterculture, the end of history, the end of modernism.
"Democracy" addresses political desires under the conservative governments of Reagan and Thatcher, and in particular the renewed interest in the street as a site for public intervention, the increasing awareness of the importance of the mass media, the growing prominence of South and Central American artists and artists of color, and the pervasive commitment to the political that shaped the period.
"Gender Trouble" elaborates on the implications of the 1970s feminist movement by gathering works that interrogate and ultimately expand our sense of the social construction of gender roles.
In "Desire and Longing" artists working with appropriation techniques are held in relation to the emergence of queer visibility brought on by the AIDS crisis.
Peter Hujar's portray of members of the gay subculture in New York's East Village were often part document, part theater--collaborative performances between himself and the person in front of the camera.
Formed in 1982 and dissolved in 1998, the seven-person Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC) explored Britain's emerging multicultural society, combining a montage aesthetic with personal reflection to invent a new genre of moving image that challenged traditions of British documentary and drama, and profoundly influenced contemporary avant-garde film-makers and theorists.
The painting of a blond and blue-eyed Reverend Jesse Jackson's was originally installed in Washington, DC, near the National Portrait Gallery which displayed no portraits of blacks at the time. Misinterpreting the work as racist, local African American youths smashed the piece with sledgehammers. The painting was moved into a traditional gallery and David Hammons subsequently added a row of upside-down hammers as a reference to the incident.
Marlon Rigg's Tongues Untied mixes documentary footage with personal account and fiction to address the specificity and difficulty of being both black and gay in North America.
Richard Hamilton's Treatment Room, where a video of Thatcher giving a speech plays over a hospital bed in a bleak room, was an urgent response to the assault on the National Health Service.
The design of the catalogue (by Scott Reinhard Co. with James Goggin) is particularly stunning, simple and efficient.
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Published on : 2013-09-20 07:50:07
Last weekend i was in Leiden, a short train trip away from Amsterdam, for the opening of an exhibition of the winning projects of the third edition of the Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award.
The DA4GA give artists the opportunity to develop ambitious projects in cooperation with life science institutions carrying out research into the genetic makeup of people, animals, plants and microorganisms.
One of the recipients of the award is Charlotte Jarvis who used her own body to demystify the processes and challenge the prejudices and misunderstandings that surround stem cell technology.
Ergo Sum started as a performance at the WAAG Society in Amsterdam. In front of the public, the artist donated parts of her body to stem cell research. Blood, skin and urine samples were taken and sent to the stem cell research laboratory at The Leiden University Medical Centre iPSC Core Facility headed by Prof. Dr. Christine Mummery.
The scientists then transformed the samples into induced pluripotent stem cells, which in turn have been programmed to grow into cells with different functions such as heart, brain and vascular cells.
The whole process used the innovation which earned John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka a joint Nobel Prize last year. The two scientists are indeed behind the discovery that adult, specialised cells can be reprogrammed and turned back into embryo-like stem cells that can become virtually any cell type and thus develop into any tissue of the body.
The pluripotent stem cells offer an alternative to using embryonic stem cells, removing the ethical questions and controversies that surrounded the use of embryonic stem cells.
But let's get back to Charlotte's stem cells. Copies are now kept by the university for scientists to use in their research. And because the cells can be stored for an unlimited period, they are immortal. The ones that are on view at the exhibition in Leiden right now have to be kept alive by a team of scientists who regularly visit the exhibition space to care for the cells.
The synthesized body parts (now brain, heart and blood cells) are kept in an incubator made especially by a company specialized in museum displays as traditional incubator don't have a window that would allow the public to have a peak inside. The cells are accompanied by videos, prints of email exchanges, photos and other items that document the whole story of the project.
Ergo Sum is a biological self-portrait; a second self; biologically and genetically 'Charlotte' although also 'alien' to her - as these cells have never actually been inside her body.
You first idea was to donate your eggs for the project but the scientists told you this might not only be illegal but also unnecessary. Could you explain why the eggs were unsuitable for the experiment and what the lab used in the end?
In the first instance I was unable to donate an egg because of the birth control I take. I have a three monthly injection (the DEPPO) which works by stopping egg production. It can take a year for your body to start producing eggs again after stopping the DEPPO, so I would not have been able to produce an egg in time for the project.
However, there were also ethical reasons for not donating an egg. I believe fervently in the use of embryos for scientific research, as of course do the scientists I work with. They have to fight for the right to use embryos in their research and under no circumstances would I do anything to jeopardise that. The use of embryos for artistic purposes is a different moral question. I felt that it would have been wrong (and potentially damaging to the scientists working on the project) to confuse those two ethical questions by making an art project utilising the scientific method for making embryonic stem cells.
What we used instead was stem cells derived from adult tissue. These are called Induced Pluripotant Stem Cells (IPSCs) and it is this technology that won the Nobel Prize last year. I donated skin, blood and urine to the lab. The lab was then able (using this new and wonderous technology) to send those cells back to how they were when I was a foetus - to turn them back into the stem cells they had been roughly 29 years ago. You could call it cellular time travel! I find our ability to do this completely awe inspiring.
Now that you've finally met your 'second self, your dopplegänger, do you feel you have some kind of connection to it?
Seeing my heart cells beating was a unique experience - especially the first time I saw it. There is something that feels distinctly 'alive' about the beating heart cells and something quite extraordinary about seeing part of your own heart beating and living outside your body. But in general I would say that I feel no more connected to my second self than I would any other self portrait. I do not feel that these parts of me are sacred in some way, or even that they really belong to me in anything other than the genetic sense. That is really the point of the project - to question how we build our identity as humans and how that might change in the future. This may sound obvious, but I have learnt that I am more than the sum of my parts; that just because something has my heart, my brain and my flowing blood it is not 'me' and it is not a human.
Ergo Sum and the other winning projects of DA4GA at Raamsteeg2 in Leiden, in The Netherlands. Ergo Sum is funded by the Netherlands Genomics Initiative.
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Published on : 2013-09-17 13:16:51
The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, London's favourite radio art station, is aired this Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.
My guest tomorrow will be Sitraka Rakatoniaina and Andrew Friend who will be talking about the aesthetics of scientific experiments but also about the human capabilities in sensing future events. They've explored this slightly debatable topic with a series of experiments inspired by the experimental evidence for the existence of physiological precognition, depicted the Sensing the Future paper written by Daryl J. Bem a social psychologist and professor emeritus at Cornell University.
Andrew Friend and Sitraka Rakotoniaina, Prophecy Program, 2013
One of the experiments in the designers' Prophecy Program project consists in perching an individual on an ultra-elevated chair where they will act as seismograph and predict earthquakes, exploring accuracy and specificity of psi and experience in landscape. A second one is an 'autonomous biological drone' which, inspired by bioenergetic capabilities of plants to sense humans intentions, would operate overhead monitoring human activity and emotions below. The last one is the working prototype of a 'Pre-cognition test rig' which acts as a big Russian roulette that fires at individuals while sensors pick up any body sign that they are indeed sensing the upcoming shoot.
As you can guess, this episode is neither typical nor tedious. Sitraka and Andrew's work, however, is far less fanciful than it might seem at first sight.
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Published on : 2013-09-12 07:58:08
Alan Turing was a mathematician, a logician, a cryptanalyst, and a computer scientist (as i'm sure you all know.) During World War 2 he cracked the Nazi Enigma code, and later came to be regarded as the father of computer science and artificial intelligence. In the 1952, Turing was convicted of having committed criminal acts of homosexuality. Given a choice between imprisonment and chemical castration, Turing chose to undergo a medical treatment that made him impotent and caused gynaecomastia. Suffering from the effects of the treatment and from being regarded as abnormal by a society, the scientist committed suicide in June 1954.
The Turing Normalizing Machine is an experimental research in machine-learning that identifies and analyzes the concept of social normalcy. Each participant is presented with a video line up of 4 previously recorded participants and is asked to point out the most normal-looking of the 4. The person selected is examined by the machine and is added to its algorithmically constructed image of normalcy. The kind participant's video is then added as a new entry on the database.
Conducted and presented as a scientific experiment TNM challenges the participants to consider the outrageous proposition of algorithmic prejudice. The responses range from fear and outrage to laughter and ridicule, and finally to the alarming realization that we are set on a path towards wide systemic prejudice ironically initiated by its victim, Turing.
I found out about the TNM the other day while reading the latest issue of the always excellent Neural magazine. I immediately contacted Mushon Zer-Aviv to get more information about the work:
Hi Mushon! What has the machine learnt so far? Are patterns emerging of what people find 'normal? such as an individual who smiles or one who is dressed in a conservative way? What is the model of normality at this stage?
TNM ran first as a pilot version in The Bloomfield Museum of Science in Jerusalem as a part of the 'Other Lives' exhibition curated by Maayan Sheleff. Jerusalem is a perfect environment for this experiment as it is a divided city with multiple ethnical, cultural and religious groups practically hating each other's guts. The external characteristics of these communities are quite distinguishable as well, from dress code to tone of skin and color of hair. While the Turing Normalizing Machine has not arrived at a single canonical model of normality yet (and possibly never will) some patterns have definitely emerged and are already worth discussing. For example, the bewilderment of a religious Jewish woman trying to choose the most normal out of 4 Palestinian children.
The machine does not construct a model of normality per-se. To better explain how the prejudice algorithm works, consider the Google Page-Rank algorithm. When a participant chooses one of the random 4 profiles presented before them as 'most normal', that profile moves up the normalcy rank while the others are moved down. At the same time, if a profile is considered especially normal, it would make the choice made by its owner more influential on the rank than others, and vice versa.
We are currently working on the second phase of the experiment that analyzes and visualizes the network graph generated by the data collected in the first installment. We're actually looking to collaborate with others on that part of the work.
Usually society doesn't get to decide what is good or even normal for society. The decision often comes from 'the top'. If ever such algorithm to determine normality was ever applied, could we trust people to help decide who looks normal or who isn't?
While I agree that top-down role models influence the image of what's considered normal or abnormal, it is the wider society who absorbs, approves and propagates these ideas. Whether we like it or not, such algorithms are already used and are integrated into our daily lives. It happens when Twitter's algorithms suggests who we should follow, when Amazon's algorithms offers what we should consume, when OkCupid's algorithms tells us who we should date, and when Facebook's algorithms feeds us what it believes we would 'like'.
This experiment is inspired by the life and work of British mathematician Alan Turing, a WW2 hero, the father of computer science and the pioneering thinker behind the quest for Artificial Intelligence. Specifically we were interested in Turing's tragic life story, with his open homosexuality leading to his prosecution, castration, depression and death. Some, studying Turing's legacy, see his attraction to AI and his attempts to challenge the concept of intelligence, awareness and humanness, as partly influenced by his frustration with the systematic prejudice that marked him 'abnormal'. Through the Turing Normalizing Machine we argue that the technologies Turing was hoping would one day free us from the darker and irrational parts of our humanity are today often used to amplify it.
The video of the work explains that "the results of the research can be applied to a wide range of fields and applications." Could you give some examples of that? In politics for example (i'm asking about politics because the video illustrated the idea with images of Silvio Berlusconi)?
Berlusconi is a symbol of the unholy union between media and politics and it embodies the disconnect between what people know about their leaders (corruption, scandals, lies...) and what people see in their leaders (identification, pride, nationalism, populism...). A machine could never decipher Berlusconi's success with the Italian voter, it needs to learn what Italians see in him to get a better picture of the political reality.
Another obvious example is security, and especially the controversial practice of racial profiling. My brother used to work for EL AL airport security and was instructed to screen passengers by external characteristics as cues for normalcy or abnormalcy. Here again we already see technology stepping in to amplify our prejudice based decision making processes. Simply Google 'Project Hostile Intent' And you'll see that scientific research into algorithmic prejudice is already underway and has been for quite some time.
How does the system work?
The participant is presented with 4 video portraits and is requested to point at the one who looks the most normal of the 4. Meanwhile, a camera identifies the pointing gesture, records the participant's portrait, and analyzes the video (using face recognition algorithms among other technologies). The video portrait is then added to the database and is presented to the next participant to be selected as normal or not. The database saves the videos, the selections and other analytical metadata to develop its algorithmic model of social normalcy.
Any upcoming show or presentation of the TNM?
There are some in the pipeline, but none that I can share at this point. We are definitely looking forward to more opportunities to install and present TNM, as in every community it brings up different discussions about physical appearance, social normalcy and otherness. Beyond that, we want the system to challenge its model of prejudice based on its encounter with different communities with different social values, biases and norms. Otherwise, it would be ignorant, and we wouldn't want that now, do we?
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Published on : 2013-09-06 13:45:54
Abominable Science!: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids, by writer, illustrator, and skeptic Daniel Loxton and paleontologist, geologist, and author Donald R. Prothero; Foreword by science writer and historian of science Michael Shermer.
Publisher Columbia University Press writes: Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero have written an entertaining, educational, and definitive text on cryptids, presenting the arguments both for and against their existence and systematically challenging the pseudoscience that perpetuates their myths. After examining the nature of science and pseudoscience and their relation to cryptozoology, Loxton and Prothero take on Bigfoot; the Yeti, or Abominable Snowman, and its cross-cultural incarnations; the Loch Ness monster and its highly publicized sightings; the evolution of the Great Sea Serpent; and Mokele Mbembe, or the Congo dinosaur. They conclude with an analysis of the psychology behind the persistent belief in paranormal phenomena, identifying the major players in cryptozoology, discussing the character of its subculture, and considering the challenge it poses to clear and critical thinking in our increasingly complex world.
Abominable Science! was supposed to be a harmless, laid-back and jolly lecture. I knew nothing of the Great Sea Serpent, the Mokele Mbembe, i had barely heard of Bigfoot and the Yeti but i'm quite the fan of Nessie. So surely, this book should have been an inoffensive ride. No one believe in those monsters, right?
Wrong! Daniel Loxton reveals that when asked "Do you think Bigfoot (also known as Sasquatch) is real?" in a 2012 poll, 7 percent of American respondents answered that Bigfoot "Definitely is real," and 22% said Bigfoot "Probably is real." Don't snort! i just found out that 24% readers of The Guardian (at least the ones who bothered to participate to the poll) believe in the existence of the creature.
I grew even more uncomfortable when i read in the book that Young Earth creationists are actively looking for surviving dinosaurs in the hope that the discovery of an Apatosaurous-like animal in Congo will bring the definite proof that the theory of evolution is a big fantasy.
Abominable Science! is as much about absurd creatures as it is about pseudoscientists making radical claims about the world, writing off evidence-based research and undermining the teaching of science in the process.
In an interview about the book, Donald R. Prothero said: "To me, the sad aspect of cryptozoology is that they practice "sham science": they adopt the trappings of science (fancy cameras and sound recording equipment, night-vision goggles, camera traps, sonar, other devices) without following the methods of science, especially the idea of testing and shooting down hypotheses that have failed, and getting rid of ideas when they have been decisively debunked. This indeed reflects badly on the scientific literacy of Americans, since they don't understand that science is not about white lab coats and bubbling beakers. It is about the methods you use to investigate claims, and the willingness to admit you're wrong and throw out bad ideas when they fail."
The press isn't doing a great job for the advance of science and human progress either when they cover stories such as the one that made the headlines a few years ago when a policeman and a former corrections officer claimed that they had discovered the body of Bigfoot. Media outlets, from CNN to BBC, reported the news which, unsurprisingly, was a hoax.
Prothero wrote some of the chapters in the books. Loxton wrote the rest. The scientist is inflexible in his belief that giving too much credit to the existence of those monsters does more harm than good. Loxton, however, is more tolerant. He has learnt that these fantastical creatures do not exist but he is still much seduced by the stories that surround them.
And indeed the book contains plenty of interesting stories:
This famous photograph of the monster of the Loch Ness was taken by Colonel Robert Wilson in April, 1934. He later admitted that he had built a small model monster around a toy submarine.
There have been plenty of Nessie "sightings: throughout history. One of my favourite is the one that 'shows' Nessie on Google Earth. But the more sophisticated the technology, the less evidence was found of the existence of those monsters. In 1987, for example, Operation Deepscan took place. Twenty-four boats equipped with echosounder equipment were deployed across the whole width of the loch and they simultaneously sent out acoustic waves.
Amusingly, some theories propose that the monster is actually a camel able to stay for long periods of time in and under water.
Other believe that Nessie is a survivant variant of the Plesiosaurus. Just like the Zuiyo-maru creature, a carcass caught by the Japanese fishing trawler Zuiyō Maru off the coast of New Zealand in 1977. Analysis later indicated it was most likely the decomposed carcass of a basking shark.
I also liked to follow the hunt for the Mokele-mbembe which Americans and Europeans have been searching for in Congo, often to the dismay of local populations. The creature is believed to be a surviving brontosaurus.
Interview with the authors.
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Published on : 2013-09-04 13:10:15
Disobedience Archive is a video collection which explores four decades of social disobedience: from the uprising in Italy in 1977 to the anti-globalization protests and to the insurrections in the Middle East.
The Castello di Rivoli is a stunning contemporary art museum a few kilometers away from Turin. The exhibition had a theme i'm particularly interested in. The works brought together were worth the trip to Rivoli. So far so good. Except that Disobedience Archive (The Republic) was an extremely frustrating exhibition. Videos that were made to inspire people to question, contest and discuss suffer from being hosted into a grand castle located in a provincial town. Rivoli might be one of the most prestigious contemporary art centers in Europe but the well-earned title is not enough to attract the crowds. When i visited the show, on a Saturday afternoon, the rooms were almost empty.
Still, splendid castle to spend an afternoon:
This one is part of the collection of the museum. It has nothing to do with Disobedience Archive but how could i resist adding it:
But let's get back to my grievances about the exhibition. The whole setting was as unappealing as possible: aside from a stern broadsheet at the entrance of the show, there is no information to give context and meaning to the works. The chairs to view the videos -some of which are over an hour long- are remarkably uncomfortable. There are too many videos to see in one visit and i'm not sure many people are ready to shell out 6.50 euros each time they want to come back and watch the films they had missed on their first visit.
There is a website for the video archive. It contains no video at all.
A frustrating exhibition thus. I would have liked everybody to spend hours watching the videos but i can't blame anyone for not doing so. This was a show that only the 'intellectual elite' would have seen. It shouldn't have been. Still, i'm glad i fancied myself as being part of that 'cultural elite' because the content was exceptional.
The archive is divided into nine sections: 1977 The Italian Exit looks at the revolutionary movements in Italy in the 1970s, with a focus on 1977, year of large-scale violent confrontations with a reactionary state. Protesting Capitalist Globalization documents or comments on the new social wave against globalization. Reclaim the Streets presents proposals to create autonomous social spaces through experimental forms of education, community, urbanism and architecture. Bioresistence and Society of Control refers to Foucault's analysis of the ways the operations of power extend beyond the institutions of state. Argentina Fabrica Social explores the political and economic crisis that stretched from the 2001 uprising to the election of Néstor Kirchner. Disobedience East brings together videos of political and activist art from post-communist Europe. Disobedience University shows alternative practices and strategies in which consumption is seen as a form of co-realization and collaboration. The Arab Dissent tries to raise questions about changes and antagonism in the Middle East. Gender Politics suggest the destruction of gender identity.
The show counts 57 videos. I wish i could link to all of them but only a handful can be viewed online. Here's my very subjective selection.
Unsurprisingly i made a beeline for the section entitled Bioresistence and Society of Control as it focused on issues encountered within prisons and asylum centers, on bacteriological experiments in warfare programmes and on other strategies deployed in the modern state to regulate and control life.
The Critical Art Ensemble had 3 films in the show. One of them was GenTerra, a collaboration with Beatriz da Costa. The video documents a participatory "theater" performance that gave the public an opportunity to get a more critical and hands-on understanding of transgenic organisms in relation to environmental and health exposure.
No video for Ashley Hunt's work, alas! In Corrections, the artist investigated the privatization of the prison system in the United States, exposing the role of the penal institution in preserving racial and economic divisions within society.
Angela Melitopoulos filmed three interviews with sociologist and philosopher Antonio Negri. The first in 1997 while he was in exile in Paris, the second in 1998 in the cell of Rebibbia prison in Rome, and the final one in 2003 in Rome, after his release.
Negri's report on his life as a prisoner describes new forms of control in the penal system, the psyche and mentality of prisoners, and forms of resistance with which he was able to retain "the freedom of his spirit".
Videograms of a Revolution uses -professional and amateur- video archives to examine the role of television in the infolding and understanding of the 1989 Romanian revolution. 'Demonstrators occupied the tv station in Bucharest and broadcast continuously for 120 hours, thereby establishing the tv studio as a new historical site.'
Half of the videos in the section The Arab Dissent were dedicated to the occupation of Palestine.
Khaled Jarrar, Infiltrators (Trailer), 2012
Khaled Jarrar's Infiltrators follows individuals and groups as they are looking for gaps in the seven meter high wall that separates the Palestinian territories from Israel.
I only saw one film in the Disobedience University selection and i think i struck gold with that one:
According to professor Yeshyahu Leibowitz, "the honest man should know that he should never respect the law too closely". Israeli filmmaker and critic Eyal Sivan sat down with the philosopher and listened to him talk about ethics, science, values, but also about State, religion, law and human responsibility.
Even though Leibowitz took part of in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, he openly criticized the politics of the State of Israel, in the name of a Jewish tradition of responsibility and divine law. During the conversation, the philosopher expresses his support and solidarity with the Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories.
The 57 videos were accompanied by two thematic rooms. The opening one contained artworks and archive documents related to the student and workers protests in the Italy of the 1970s. Again, a bit of context and explanations would have been welcome.
The final room amassed books, props and other objects associated with political and social dissent in first decade of the 21st century. Works by Nomeda & Gediminas Urbonas, Superflex, Journal of Aesthetics & Protest, Oliver Ressler, Arseniy Zhilyaev, Critical Art Ensemble, etc. It should have been a fascinating, informative and inspiring display. Alas, and I'm going to repeat myself, short texts about their meaning and significance would not have been superfluous (the ones in the broadsheet/guide of the exhibition were a bit too general.)
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Published on : 2013-09-02 13:49:30
Sofian Audry, Stephen Kelly and Samuel St-Aubin started working on Vessels in 2010. The aquatic installation is a fleet of 50 autonomous robots that gradually build up their own micro system by interacting with each other and by collecting and interpreting data related to water and air quality, temperature, ambient light, sound, etc.
However, the robots do not simply process scientific readings, they also communicate through behaviours and interactions. For example, an increase in temperature sensed by one agent may cause it to act more aggressively, with erratic or irrational (random) movements. This change in behaviour will influence its neighbouring agents, who may respond with relative changes to their own behaviour. These agents will in turn influence their neighbours, thus creating a ripple effect of actions.
The ecosystem is thus generated over time by the robots themselves and by their particular environment.
Samuel, Sofian and Stephen have just spent the Summer improving and researching Vessels as part of their artistic residence in Platform 0 at LABoral Centro de Arte.
Since i was curious about those luminous little robots in a white swimming pool, i asked the artists to talk to us about the work:
Hi Samuel, Sofian and Stephen! I read on Laboral's blog that your artistic residency is based on the Vessels project. So what will the residency consist of exactly? Are you going to make Vessels more sophisticated? Or build on it to make an entirely different project? Or investigate another aspect of the installation?
We started the Vessels project in 2010 at the Center for Art Tapes, where the concept and technical structure was initiated within two fairly brief 2-week residencies. Since then, we've spent time fine tuning various aspects of the work to better withstand real-world environments. For example, we had to abandon our original design with air propulsion because it was too energy-consuming and would easily catch in the wind. The version we are currently working on is the third prototype and works with water propulsion. We validated the final design of the electronic boards last winter during a short residency at the Perte de Signal art center.
The goal of the LABoral residency was to assemble the first large group of robots with our new technical improvements, to finalize the material/aesthetic design and to make a first working version of the software. Because we ran into all kinds of technical problems, we decided to put less effort on the material design and more on the software. Thus we spent a large portion of our time at LABoral developing the behaviour of the robot collective.
Vessels is a fleet of 50 aquatic vehicles. That is a lot of robots. So first of all, why did you need to build so many robots? And how big are they exactly? i suspect that they will also need a large area to float around...
When we did our presentation in Halifax, we had about a dozen of robots and we felt it was hard for them to occupy an outdoor space. They looked kind of lost. By scaling up, we believe we can give a real presence to the installation in large natural environments such as lakes and ponds.
Also, we are interested in the kind of behaviors that can emerge from the interaction between a massive group of autonomous robots, which is something that has not been fully explored in the art world. A lot of work in robotic art has been done on singular robots or small assemblies of big robots but not so much with large groups of small, autonomous robotic agents. In the past decade, a lot of research in the scientific world has been carried out involving swarm robotics and multi-agent collaboration, with encouraging results. Behavioural diversity is something we're interested in exploring with Vessels, and more robots means more potential diversity within the 'population'.
Finally, we felt like 50 robots would give us more flexibility. For instance, we could show two groups of 25 robots at the same time in two different spots in a city, or even in different cities. Because the robots will react to their immediate environment, they will behave differently in the different contexts they are put in.
Is Vessels a group of identical robots? Do they all start with the same set of sensors?
Almost. All the robots have more or less the same "body". They each have a pair of distance sensors, a compass, a directional IR communication system, a pair of underwater pumps for propulsion, a set of LEDs, an onboard real-time clock and some external flash memory for data logging. They will also be using the exact same software.
Their only difference lies in the fact that each bot will eventually be equipped with a unique "environmental" sensor. Each robot has an external, pluggable "card" that we designed to take care of sound production and accommodate this unique sensor. For instance, one robot can be able to measure air temperature, while another one will know about the air pressure, another one about the pH of water, and so on. This sensor will give the robot its "personality", so to speak. They will react to their own sensor in a specific way and their reaction will influence the actions of other robots. The idea is that by putting the same group of robots in different settings (i.e. with different environmental conditions) they will produce a distinctive collective behavior.
But we're still a long way from that! In the version that we produced at LABoral, we don't yet have these environmental sensors. We focused more on establishing the software framework that will enable individual personalities AND group behaviors.
Each aquatic vehicle learns and develops a behavior through Reinforcement Learning and "Over an extended process of trial and error, RL makes it possible for computers to do things that they were not explicitly programmed to do."
If i understood correctly you do not have complete control over what the robots learn and how they evolve. So have they surprised you in the way they learn, interact, behave?
We've just begun to implement learning for individual robots in very simple tasks. We did some small experiments with Reinforcement Learning in which we were able to get a robot to learn how to go straight, which is not an easy task for these round-shaped robots (they tend to spin easily!) At this point we're taking baby steps with learning, so we have yet to see the implications of the entire population of robots with learned behaviours.
Since we wanted to build a first version that "worked" somehow, in terms of the robots going around the surface of water, being able to move straight, approaching one another, etc. we had to work at a much higher level. We thus let the learning stuff aside for a start and decided to work using an Artificial Intelligence approach that is currently very popular in the video game industry for the design of intelligent behaviors. This method, known as Behavior Trees, allows the design of complex, hierarchical behaviors. It makes it easy to design priorities for the robot and to allow it to try different strategies to achieve its goals (or fulfill its desires if you prefer). For example, in our current implementation, the robots move around freely, but when they hit an obstacle they interrupt their moving and try to avoid getting stuck. They also interrupt their behavior when they receive a message from another robot, which might change what they are doing at that moment.
Machine learning methods such as Reinforcement Learning and Genetic Programming are tricky, especially in the context of creating an artwork. They're optimization techniques, so they work well when one tries to solve a specific problem like 'how to navigate in a straight line'. But in an artistic context, the problems are blurry, so we have to invent new methodologies. For example, you can achieve interesting results by playing with the reward functions of the agents, such as what Sofian did last year at LABoral as part of the installation/performance n-Polytope by Chris Salter and collaborators. Also, the process of learning itself has sometimes a very interesting aesthetic value. So, the current focus of our research is how to use machine learning as a critical tool, helping the robots learn behaviours with respect to their environment that might eventually surprise us.
The spectator plays a role in the work. Can you explain it how the public might be involved in and maybe even influence the installation?
Although the environment sensor of some of the robots might be influenced directly by the audience (e.g. if some of them have microphones or light detectors), the installation is not meant to be interactive per se. We see it more as a piece you experience through indirect, slow interaction, where the bots are simply added to our existing ecosystem, responding to it. We hope the audience will respond to it by projecting their own cultural references on the robots, that they will recognize themselves in them.
On another level, we'd like the audience to begin to ask themselves questions. Why are the robots grouping together? Why is this robot making that sound? Why are they so hectic now while they were calm a minute ago? How does that relate to the site they're currently swimming on?
Any upcoming project, exhibition, field of research you'd like to share with us?
Samuel will be attending the Bozar Electronic Art Festival (BEAF) in Brussels from September 25 to 29. Stephen just finished a major work titled Patch at Dalhousie University (Halifax, NS/CA) with robotic agents that react to the presence of students in classrooms. Sofian's underwater artificial life installation Plasmosis is still running at the marina of Carleton-sur-Mer until September 7th (QC/CA). We are also trying to organize another research residency next year for Vessels but we have no definite plan yet.
Feed : we make money not art
Published on : 2013-08-27 11:49:38
Last Launch. Discovery, Endeavour, Atlantis, by photographer Dan Winters.
Publisher University of Texas Press writes: Americans have been driven to explore beyond the horizon ever since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. In the twentieth century, that drive took us to the moon and inspired dreams of setting foot on other planets and voyaging among the stars. The vehicle we built to launch those far journeys was the space shuttle--Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. This fleet of reusable spacecraft was designed to be our taxi to earth orbit, where we would board spaceships heading for strange new worlds. While the shuttle program never accomplished that goal, its 135 missions sent more than 350 people on a courageous journey into the unknown.
Last Launch is a stunning photographic tribute to America's space shuttle program. Dan Winters was one of only a handful of photographers to whom NASA gave close-range access to photograph the last launches of Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. Positioning automatically controlled cameras at strategic points around the launch pad--some as close as seven hundred feet--he recorded images of take-offs that capture the incredible power and transcendent beauty of the blast that sends the shuttle hurtling into space. Winters also takes us on a visual tour of the shuttle as a marvel of technology--from the crew spaces with their complex instrumentation, to the massive engines that propelled the shuttle, to the enormous vehicle assembly building where the shuttles were prepared for flight.
Dan Winters has a passion that's completely alien to me: he is fascinated by the NASA space program. U.S. space exploration never made me dream nor even bat an eyelid. Yet, when i read a 3 line-long review of his book in a free men's magazine in London, i knew i needed to get a review copy. Because i might not be into astronauts and giant leaps for mankind but photography is something i respond to. And Last Launch is all about that: jaw dropping images of engineering marvels and explosive lift off. Even the black and sepia archive photos (not by Winters) that illustrate the introduction texts are magnificent.
Speaking of introduction! The photo book starts with a series of essays. One by the photographer who tells of a long love for space adventures that started as a kid watching the Apollo 11 launch broacast live on the family's new tv set on July 16, 1969. The second essay was written by Al Reinert, director and producer of For All Mankind, a 1989 Award-winning documentary about NASA's Apollo program. The film maker charts the successful and unsuccessful episodes that make the history of the transport system that propels Earth-bound humans into low orbit. Some of the anecdotes he shares are dramatic, others are slightly laughable such as the Coke-Pepsi taste test that took place on board of the Challenger in 1985 to determine which beverage taste more like itself in zero gravity. Coke won, Reinert explains, because they manufactured a zero-gravity soda can. Pepsi didn't bother.
A third text is the rather short and moving account by former astronaut Mark Kelly of the few moments before the take off of STS-134 (one of the very last missions of NASA's Space Shuttle program) on May 16, 2011.
A final text at the back of the book brings an answer to the question i've been asking myself while flipping through the pages. How does he make it? How can he get so close to the spectacular liftoffs?
Dan Winters was one of only a handful of photographers to whom NASA gave close-range access to photograph the last launches of Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. "Close-range" shouldn't be taken too literally though. When they launch, space shuttles are surrounded by an evacuation zone that stretched up to three miles (almost 5 km) in all directions.
The cameras had to be remotely activated. The day before lift-off, Winters places them, up to 9 at a time, around the launchpad, the closest located 700 feet (213 m) from the shuttle itself. Winters calculates the type of photo to shoot according to shuttle's path, he sets the frame, checks the focus point, attaches to the cameras custom-made electronic triggers that are sensitive to sound and fire at five frames per second in response to the rockets igniting. He also has to use sandbags to minimize camera shake, and cover the equipment with plastic to protect it from the rain.
If there's one person who might finally get me interested in the NASA adventures, it's Dan Winters. Pity the Space Shuttle was retired from service two years ago.
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