I was invited to talk at the Serpentine Gallery’s Miracle Marathon this year. My take on the theme was to talk of the underground and the occult worlds of the long legacy of the Cold War. I performed with Emma Charles’ film White Mountain. Here’s the video of the talk.
Emma Charles’ exhibition opens in London. It includes a multiscreen version of the White Mountain to which I wrote the text (and performed live at the Miracle Marathon just recently at the Serpentine in London). Please find more information below. The exhibition runs from 21 October to 12 November, with the PV on 20th of October.
South Kiosk is pleased to present And the Earth Screamed, Alive*, a solo exhibition by Emma Charles, featuring a multi screen expanded installation of her 16mm film White Mountain. This fictional documentary focuses on the Pionen Data Center in Stockholm. In 2008, this former Cold War-era civil defense bunker was redesigned by architect Alber France-Lanord as a data center to house servers for clients, which at one point included Wikileaks and The Pirate Bay. By revealing these unseen spaces and people, Charles work explores an understanding of how contemporary life is structured, managed and secured.
Starting by surveying the rough topography of the surrounding Södermalm landscape, Charles gradually pushes beneath the surface, illuminating the ordinarily concealed network infrastructure. As the camera idles on the florescent-lit server stacks, issues of privacy, surveillance and digital sovereignty inevitably emanate. Located 30 meters under the granite rocks of Vita Bergen Park in Stockholm, the hydrogen bomb proof subterranean hub has been constructed with direct references to science fiction films such as Silent Running, and the classic Ken Adams designed Bond-villain lairs.
Playing on the science fiction aesthetic, White Mountain uncovers the varying forms of temporality brought about through an exploration of data space and geology. After a summer punctuated by a constant stream of high-profile hacks the impenetrable steel door and
fortified walls of Pionen now seem like outmoded, symbolic defenses, ineffective at curbing the allpervading data anxiety brought about by the relentless assault of cybercriminals, spammers and clandestine state-agents.
South Kiosk has invited Emma Charles for And the Earth Screamed, Alive to
transform its space and take the viewer on a journey through the concealed and protected architecture of the data center, through an immersive projection of White Mountain and the display of a further collection of her artwork, this solo presentation focuses on the handling of digital information, the aesthetic that arises from its protection and the engagement and critique that art can perpetuate of these architectures.
For images and further information please contact Toby Bilton firstname.lastname@example.org
*“And the Earth Screamed, Alive” Jussi Parikka, A Geology of Media, University of Minnesota Press (2015).
One of the milestones in our Internet of Cultural Things-project (AHRC: AH/M010015/1) was the launch of artist Richard Wright’s Elastic System. With an interesting media archaeological angle, the art project creates an alternative visual browsing/search/request system on top of the existing British Library one. As an experimental pilot, this interface (an installation and soon an online version) returns the library to an age of browsable, visual access to books.
While still in the middle of the 19th century the library space could be seen more as a public space with visual access to the collections, the modern storage and delivery systems at the BL created a different sort of a spatial setting. The sheer increase in the number of items in its holdings necessitated this change that could be easily seen as a precursor to the issues the more recent information culture has had to face: lots of stuff that needs to be stored, equipped with an address, and locatable. The short animation Knowledge Migration by Richard Wright is one way to visualize the growth in acquisitions on a geographically mapped timeline. The video is a short animation made by Richard Wright, showing “each item’s place and date of publication (or date of acquisition where available) since the library’s foundation in 1753.” Knowledge Migration used a random sample of 220,000 records from the print catalogue.
The current reality of the British Library as a data institution can be approached through its infrastructure, also the many datasets and systems, including the ABRS (Automated Book Requesting System); this infrastructure includes both the data based systems and digital catalogues, online interface and searchable collections, their automated robotic systems in Boston Spa storage/archive space and also the important human labour that is part of this automated system.
The Elastic System project introduction by Wright states:
“ELASTIC SYSTEM is a database portrait of the librarian Thomas Watts. In 1838 Watts invented his innovative “elastic system” of storage in order to deal with the enormous growth of the British Library’s collections.
The mosaic image of Watts has been generated from 4,300 books as they are currently stored in the library basements at St Pancras, an area not normally accessible to the public. Each one is connected live to the library’s electronic requesting system.
The Elastic System functions like a catalogue, allowing people to visually browse part of the British Library’s collections, something which has not been possible since Watts’ time. When a book is requested it is removed from the “shelf” to reveal a second image underneath, an image that represents the work that goes on in the library’s underground storage basements, the hidden part of the modern requesting system.”
You can view and use the installation system at the British Library in London until September 23, 2016 – it is located at the front of the Humanities Reading room (during library opening hours).
The online version will be launched in the near future.
Here’s Richard Wright’s blog post about his artistic residency at the British Library as part of our project: Elastic System: How to Judge a Book By Its Cover.
We are discussing these themes in Liverpool on September 14, 2 pm, at FACT – this panel on cultural data is part of the Liverpool Biennial public programme.
A thank you to Aquiles Alencar-Brayner (BL, Digital Curator) for the snapshots of the texts above.
We are happy to announce that the AHRC has granted funding for our Internet of Cultural Things (IoCT) project, a one year research partnership between Kings College London, Winchester School of Art (University of Southampton), and the British Library.
The project examines the cultural dimensions of data via the born-digital material generated by the British Library, ranging from items ingested to reading room occupancy to catalogue searches. Through practice-informed research we engage this otherwise hidden cultural data, and hold a series of pop-up installations to make it visible and interfaced with the public to think through our data interconnectedness. By focusing on cultural institutions, we can move beyond the integrated operating system of the ‘Internet of Things’ and its purported productivity gains, efficiencies. Instead, we will use critical creative practice to rethink cultural institutions as living organism of data that is both dynamic and recursive. We propose the IoCT as a concept to discuss this new situation of digital data and cultural institutions.
The project starts in September 2015, and is led by Dr Mark Cote (KCL) as the PI and Prof Jussi Parikka (WSA/Southampton) as the CO-I with partners from the British Library (Jamie Andrews) and collaborating with the artist Dr Richard Wright (London).
The Finnish Institute in London has an interview series “Made By”. Alongside earlier interviews with designers, artists, etc., they did a little chat with me which you can find here.
Around the same time as this came out, early February, we had a conversation event at the Institute on historical knowledge, technology and the digital humanities. Notice the Finnish design and wooden materials that characterize the space – a sea of Aalto waiting for the audience.
Rebecca Birch’s voice draws the hand drawing the landscape. It tells stories of trips and meetings, people and things. The projection of her unfolding drawing/narrating tells the story of her artwork in (auto)ethnographic style, and becomes an art performance itself. Birch’s work was recognized in Art Review’s March issue as one of the Future Greats and the magazine organised a party for her – addresses to a lichen covered stick.
A lichen covered stick was part of a particular roadtrip-performance-screening -project of Birch’s, and became the theme of the evening too. I was invited to be one of the speakers – addressing this assemblage and offering variations on the theme and Birch’s art. Below a short text based on my talk, one of several talks/performances alongside Francesco Pedraglio, Erica Scourti, Karen Di Franco and a playlist provided by Bram Thomas Arnold.
Imagine this talk voiced by an alter ego — a part real, part imagined Finnish lichenologist from the late 19th century, in his hallucinations of a future ecocatastrophy, and past earth times since the carboniferous era.
The memoirs of an aspiring lichenologist: media & ecology
In his short text about Rebecca Birch, Oliver Basciano gives us an image of her art works and refers to the capture of light as much as shadow through the role of the camera itself comparable to that stick covered in lichen.
“[the stick] acts as a sort of MacGuffin around which collaboration and conversation circle within the hermetic confines of a car. With this, one can perhaps understand the videocamera as taking a similar role – giving Birch the opportunity to embed herself in a community or situation that would remain closed otherwise”
Indeed, the stick persists as a thematic motif; it resides there as a silent interlocutor. The closed technological environment of the car hosts both human chatter as well as this stick of nature smuggled as part of the roadtrip.
The camera, the visual registers and works with light as well as lack of it – the shadow, darkness. In the context of lichen, consider another perspective too. Focus on the lichen as the first element that registers light, sound, movement, chemistry around it. It participates in Birch’s work so that it’s not only the camera, which registers the sounds and visions, but the lichen, a symbiotic organism itself. This refers to the scientific context of lichens as bioindicators – they register the changing chemical balance of the world. In short, lichen is a medium – a medium of storage, an inscription surface that slowly but meticulously and with the patience of non-human thing pays attention to the growth in air pollution. It’s symbiotic status is symbiotic in more than the biological way: it is involved in the material-aesthetic unfolding of ecologies social and nature.
It was a Finn, Wilhelm Nylander, who discovered in the 1880s details about the possibilities of using lichen as biodetectors; through experiments exposing lichen to chemical elements such as iodine and hypochlorite Nylander found out that one can “read” nature through this natural element. It meant a discovery of an important feature that tells a different story; it is less a narrative than a sensory registering of the environmental change that technological culture brought about gradually since the 19th century: atmospheric pollution, leaving its silent mark.
Lichen has over the years and years observed to be full of life and circuited as part of different ecologies. They have been not just objects of our attention, addressed by narratives and images but became part of the modern cycle of industrialised life. They silently observe our chatter, listen in, as well as through their earless senses know what we are doing to our surroundings. They provide housing for spiders and insects, but also some of lichens are (re)sourced as part of the high-tech industries for pharmaceuticals (antiobiotics) and cosmetics (sunscreen).
This participation in multiple ecologies, a cycle of different duration is a fascinating topic considering both our theme today as well as the broader discussions of past years concerning the anthropocene. In short, it is the discussion that started in contexts of geology and environmental debate about categorising our epoch as the Anthropocene – a geological period following the Holocene and branded by the massive impact humans, agriculture, geoengineering, and in general the scientific-technological culture has had on the planet. And now, it has gathered the wider scientific and arts/humanities community as part of the discussions that reflect a different , growing perspective to the environmental.
The anthropocene -and the obsceneties accelerating it as the anthrobscene – can be unfolded through lichen. In a rather important move, such Macguffins tell a hidden story of change. The technological culture in which nature becomes entangled with the human induced scientific changes. Visual, oral narratives give an image of this change. We tell stories of our nature, our interactions in ecology, in the environment with media which stores the remains of the planet as part of our human narratives- roadtrips, conversations, social events, accidental meetings, small details, landscapes – drawn by Birch in her performance that remediates the earlier.
In other words, lichen is besides a conversation piece also a medium. It saves this story through its biological means as storage that in our hands becomes memory – the scientific-aesthetic context of memory read through lichen. Even pollution becomes a sort of a mediated environment, like with photochemical smog. The lichenologist Nylander was on to something, more than observations about lichen. A lichenologist plays homage to the conversations lichen shares as it tells the story of a slow change since the coal pollution (sulphur dioxide) of England since the 18th and 19th century to the contemporary air of nitrogen compounds. So besides the conversation going on in Rebecca Birch’s car, there is this silent partner always present, as it has been for a longer while, and now also articulated in the visual arts/ecology-mix of an evening – Addressing the stick, but also: the lichen as the address which receives transmissions of industrial modern culture.
Nb. The party was sponsored by Absolut Vodka, with signature drinks: