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“The future is black”

June 30th, 2010

Filed under: TECHNOLOGY


Constant (photo from http://www.constantvzw.org/site/)

Constant (wallpaper from http://www.constantvzw.org/site/)

When people are passionate, you can’t help but feel passionate for them, or try to see what it is they are passionate about. Today I went to see a Baltan Laboratories presentation by three such passionate guest speakers. Director of Baltan Laboratories, Angela Plohman, opened by explaining the nature of the organisation:  a 2 year pilot program of an art and media lab whose activities include residences and workshops, exploring what the lab of the future might be. Today’s session would be on “copylefting” and the results of the EMF Orchestra workshop which was run earlier today by Wendy Van Wynsberghe and Peter Westenberg from Constant in Brussels. But first we listened to how Julien Ottavi, from APO33 in Nantes, listens to the world around us, and about his electromagnetic spectrum research.

Julian Ottavi at work (photo from APO33)

Julien is on a mission to redefine what an artist is. He says that artists no longer specialise in a medium, such as painting or sculpture, but that they must compose, interpret, perform and be the orchestra (it’s a bit renaissance, non?). We cannot limit how we approach possible futures by the protocols of one discipline; if you’re a technician your scope for the future is limited by the deadline of completing a given task, an artist wants to produce and only afterwards thinks about the future, and a philosopher imagines the future but doesn’t have the tools to get there. So collaboration is essential. Julian’s experiments involve “recording architecture”, or making recordings of spaces that can become mutant-like and monstrous in their registration. You can’t do these things alone; you rig up wires and place microphones and speakers everywhere to literally record space. But the investigation that most interested me was the ” sound camping”, where he and his collaborators hacked into how campers live, and made recording campsite life a normal part of the rituals associated with that practice, from pitching tents, to collecting woodfire or preparing a meal. As Julien and co went about recording the buzz of a campsite, their fellow campers were not sure whether to think of them as “freaks or scientists”. Will recording the electro-magnetickness of things become a normal recreational pursuit one day?

EMF workshop photo (photo copyleft by constant)

Peter and Wendy are a duo who work together, and with others, but have no permanent space. This “adds flavour” to their artistic practice, as they must be mobile, always adaptable to their surroundings. They concentrate on themes of technology and feminism, open source software and other sorts of licensing ethics. But tonight they described their workshops where they get a group of individuals to come together, and build an electro-magnetic field recorder each, to go and script a place – Eindhoven, for example. The workshop participants made hoops, belts and even rings and bangles of copper which were connected to a speaker and they took a tour through town, on foot, to record where electricity was present at 50Hz and above.

I spoke to a Sarie, a workshop participant, who wanted to have more access to the vocabulary and concepts in the nexus of art and technology. She found the investigation enjoyable, but needed a clearer feeling of control or destination – it would have given her experience more shape. Her role as investigator did not align with her expectation that she would be a player in this orchestra; she thought there might be a point where sound would be controlled, conducted and interpreted from one source. Perhaps the objective of Wendy and Peter’s work is organic randomness. But as I spoke to Sarie, we noticed that even if you like the timbre and overtones of electronic music, what appeals is the beat. As humans, we need narrative and we need pulse; stories are what interest our minds, and our heartbeats are what keep us going. Maybe we aren’t evolved enough to appreciate the beauty in EMF orchestra performances, just yet.

To cap off the afternoon’s activity, there was a short discussion on the problematic of open source software. Wendy told us about www.instructables.com, an amazing site that transforms the dull user manuals that come with all our products, into recipes. E.g. how to: make your own barrel barbeque, or stained glass jelly cubes, or magnetic fridge lights. A fantastical collection of other people’s freely given and effort-ful ideas, with a regrettable twist: www.instructables.com makes proprietory use of these open source ideas. They charge people if they want to print PDFs of these “recipes”. Where, then, is the line between open source and intellectual property? The conversation then shifted to where public space can and should be found on the internet, to which Julien concluded that more and more frustrated collaborators – who want to keep their intellectual property away from commercial entities who currently monopolise software – are moving more and more into encrypted, or black spaces where only the select few can gain access. “The future is black,” he said.

No, it’s not, I thought, not on the whole. We have passionate people, who love the acoustic of water insects sculling over ponds, and others who find beauty in the crackles of a laptop’s electro-magnetic field. These artists help us imagine our futures by investigating what is, now. To these open source activists who want to record strange sounds and share them, the future is not bleak. Mediactivists who can make exhibitions accessible for blind people, by giving them these electro-magnetic field instruments are really leading us to the light. They are seeing into the future, of how we may observe the world around us, making visible what is invisible, through what is music to their ears.

Location: Baltan Laboratories
Glaslaan 2, SWA-8
5616 LW Eindhoven
The Netherlands

Other links:

http://archive-it.org – an internet library
http://gutenberg.org – rights free books to download
http://librivox.org – rights free audiobooks to download

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