Eccentric Engineering Panel, Eyebeam.

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I recently curated and hosted a panel on Eccentric Engineering at Eyebeam’s South Street Seaport space, inviting artists Karolina Soebecka, Danja Vasiliev and Ramsey Nasser to discuss recent experiments exploring infrastructural space from eccentric and critical perspectives. Karolina spoke of her recent work on geo-engineering, including projects on cloud seeding and on developing new plants to support cloud bacteria. Ramsey discussed the trials and tribulations of creating a programming language in Arabic as well as presenting re-Kindle which is an attempt to hack the kindle and Danja talked about the philosophy and goals behind the critical engineering manifesto. What. a. line-up.

Details of the event are here. with more documentation will be posted soon.

Readings on Coexistence

These readings have been useful for my thinking on coexistence, how we relate to other species and how these relationships become systematised and materialised in the infrastructures and technologies we build.

  • Rose, D. B. (2012). Cosmopolitics: The kiss of life. New Formations, 76(1), 101-113.
  • Wolch, J. (2002). 19: Zoopolls. The spaces of postmodernity: readings in human geography, 200.
  • Wolfe, C. (Ed.). (2003). Zoontologies: the question of the animal. U of Minnesota Press.
  • Haraway, D. J. (2008). When species meet (Vol. 224). U of Minnesota Press.
  • Stone, C. D. (1972). Should Trees Have Standing–Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects. S. CAl. l. rev., 45, 450.
  • Elizabeth Povinelli’s lecture in The Anthropocene Project, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, available at youtube.

Eccentric WiFi

I’ve been thinking about WiFi and our increasing sensitivity to wireless connections. A trip through the quiet zone of the subway requires preparation and I’ve developed a feel for the data footprints of various media.

Wireless connections are meant to to be fast and consistent. Always on, at least that’s what we’re told. And when there’s a break in our connection, things get hairy and suddenly I can’t find my way through Brooklyn. But it’s also in these moments that I talk to my neighbors and read books through to the end.

Our recent expectations of constant connection seems strange to me. In natural systems almost everything ebbs and flows with oscillations that us humans, usually try to dampen with our technics (think temperature control within buildings). Yet we are entrained to earthly and unearthly rhythms whether we care to admit it or not. How often is it a relief to watch the sun go down and be able to start again?

alt text Tidal Chart for San Fransisco Bay, California.

The UK is worried about running out of Internet and suggestions are floating around that service providers might actually need to ration it in the future. Apparently Internet media use could also grow to use all of the nation’s electricity by 2035 based on current trends. Oh yeah that’s right, we live in a finite system. So much for the ethereal cloud that appears from nowhere, as if by magic.

But what if our connections to networks were different? What would it be like if connectivity was rhythmic or cyclical? What if we had to plan to go online as a connection might not be there all the time? This question is so far from the rhetoric of the Silicon Valley it actually seems laughable.

Yet the world is finite. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) know this, being the two groups responsible for dividing up the radio spectrum to ensure there is enough frequency space to go around. We are also not the only species that does this. In the sound domain, different species in an ecosystem do this informally. Over millennia of evolution, species sharing an environment take up different frequency niches in order to communicate more clearly and be heard by their kind. This is the basis of acoustic ecology.

alt textFrequency allocation in the United States

Ecologists who analyse the soundscape of different environments have noticed that gaps in bands of sound wave frequencies often indicate that an environment is disturbed as it’s likely that there were species with calls that would have once occupied the empty spots. Like the gap that would result in the electromagnetic spectrum if we turned off all the mobile phone networks or all the FM radio stations. The distribution of the commons is the ongoing drama of ecology.

alt text _The spectrogram of some animal calls, from this lovely paper.

My project at Eyebeam sits somewhere at these crossroads. It considers communication technologies in the now cherished frequency range of WiFi and I’m exploring the design of our interaction with wireless networks and how our expectations of these technologies might be leveraged in different ways. Media are not only devices of information; they are also agencies of order. -that’s John Durham Peters whose analysis of environments as media has me enthralled. His discussion of the politics, affordances and visibilities of infrastructures is also deeply relevant to this project.

Not everyone reads the sky, makes records, or sets the clock but those who do arrange the infrastructural settings for the rest of us.

So how might we pull apart our typically invisible infrastructural settings and point them towards producing the world we want? I know, it’s a huge question but an important one to consider even in modest ways. And thus I’m spending what’s left of the summer rethinking and reprogramming WiFi routers and experimenting with ways they might be different, particularly how non-human systems could be better represented within their operation.

The experience of others (artist projects)

How can eccentric technologies serve to explore the always inaccessible experience of others? These projects articulate novel communication systems that question how we might better understand that which we are not.

Sputniko, Menstuation Machine

Menstruation Machine is a prosthesis that simulates the experience of menstruation. With a blood dispensing mechanism and electrodes to cause abdomenal pain, this device attends to the ongoing bias towards the masculine in how and why technologies are developed and deployed. Sputniko notes that in Japan -

“New pills such as Lybrel and Seasonique, which reduce the frequency of menstruation to none or 4 times a year have recently been developed, but they are not yet widely used…It only took the Ministry of Health only 6 months to approve Viagra, but it took them more than 9 years to approve the contraceptive pill in 1999 (which was approved 3 months after the approval of Viagra). It is quite clear that the advancement of technology can be heavily influenced by political, social and cultural backgrounds of the time.”

Terike Haapoja, Dialogue

Finnish artist Terike Haapoja is particularly inspiring for her rich collaborations with forestry scientists. The resultant works reimagine scientific measurement techniques in evocative ways. Dialogue, 2008 is one of several in a series that engages with techniques used by environmental scientists to measure carbon and oxygen exchange by different organisms. Dialogue consists of an device for a tree which measures it’s respiration and also enables the viewer to communicate with it by whistling. When the visitor whistles to the trees they response by whistling back.

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In a similar but more applied vein, Botanicalls is a sensor platform for a house plant. The board measures soil moisture and will text you if your plant needs water.

Gazing, talking, dating (artist projects)

I’ve been collecting examples of eccentric engineering to scope out this idea. The following projects are mostly from drawn from the work of artists creating technologies for others. This is a rather anti-disciplinary idea that draws from engineering, art and experimental design and I plan to post details of projects from other areas to give multiple perspectives on these ideas.

Spela Petric, Naval Gazing

Spela Petric has a number of works that realise eccentric design ideas. In particular is this piece Naval Gazing, 2014 which she describes as an example of non-human architecture.

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“The habiton is a kinetic kunst-machine, which simultaneously acts as a platform for the attachment of organisms, creating a travelling, uncontrollable transient biotope in the north sea.” What’s interesting about this piece and is that it is non-specific infrastructure. It is a technological intervention that is intentionally agnostic to lifeforms and thus functions as a sort of ambiguous art/biology experiment.

Plant Sex Consultancy

Petric is also one of the artists behind the Plant Sex Consultancy, 2014, a project developing erotic technologies for plants. Working with Pei-Ying Lin, Dimitris Stamatis and Jasmina Weiss, this work augments vegetal reproduction strategies with delightful appendages and charming 3d printed strap ons.

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Ian Ingram, Danger Squirrel Nutkin

Danger, Squirrel Nutkin!, 2009 sees the development of non-human communication technologies. Made by Ian Ingram, it is a robotic squirrel warning system that communicates with squirrels via robotic tail movement.

Center for Tactical Magic, Cricket Activated Defense

Similarly, the Center for Tactical Magic’s Cricket Activated Defense System is a warning system for illegal logging activity in California’s redwood forests. It is a system that listens for the crickets’ unique auditory responses that indicates human activity in their vicinity. These crickets position themselves on the borders between logged and unlogged regions, and so when the system picks up their distress call, it theoretically deploys anti-loggin missiles.

The device is a form of extreme bioengineering that simply recombines consumer surveillance products (essentially “bugging” devices) with model rockets - both trickle-down goods from the military-industrial complex.

Natalie Jermeijenko, Green Light

Much of Natalie Jeremijenko’s work attempts to connect humans and non-humans in novel, entertaining ways and introduce non-human agendas into human systems. I’ve chosen this piece Green Light as it is an example of a device with a coupled agenda, in that it supports both vegetation and humans, porting sunlight collected outside.

Tega Brain, Coin-Operated Wetland

My own work Coin Operated Wetland also continues this thinking on infrastructures that structure mutualistic relationships with other organisms.

It is a large scale installation that takes the form of a closed water system, where a wetland is coupled with a laundromat so that both human and wetland benefit from one another. This project crystalises a design approach based on compromise, where efficiencies are traded for technologies that benefit more than only humans.

Some cultures.

Time from a bacteria’s perspective. They’ll expand until the edge of the dish or until water runs out, whichever happens first. Kinda like North American humans.

Some initial readings...

I’m starting with a few related texts that dip into systems thinking, history of cybernetics, ecocritical theory and critical design. I’ll post some notes and thoughts on some of these over the next few months.


Project Proposal

I’m really happy to be a resident at Eyebeam Center for Art and Technology for their Summer 2015 intake. I’ll be working on an area of research I call eccentric engineering. Here’s an excerpt from my application that gives an idea of where I am starting…

Technologies afford winners and losers. They are dynamic entities that coproduce environments and cultures through both material, psychological and (more recently) algorithmic interactions that privilege certain agendas and perspectives. Can we move beyond thinking of technologies in exclusively in human terms, and re-conceive systems, infrastructures and technologies to accommodate and amplify the experiences of those not typically included in their scope?

How can human systems, infrastructures and devices be re-conceived to accommodate the perspectives & agendas of non-humans? In response to this question, this project focuses on developing experimental technologies, devices or softwares that tie user experience to that of a non-human’s.

In this residency I propose to build prototype devices, as well as research & articulate this expanded practice of non-human-centric engineering - practices I call ‘eccentric engineering’. Eccentric engineering approaches infrastructures not as services to human communities but as negotiations with non-human communities. It asks how we might build inter-structures rather than infra-structures and development experimental technologies that privilege empathy over efficiency, foster co-dependence over independence and reveal connections rather than reinstating false separations.

These ideas can be traced in strands of media art, and my thinking & research of such practices will be collated and communicated online as a part of this project blog & writing. To explore these ideas in an applied way, I am developing experimental devices for deployment.