Festival review: FutureEverything festival, Manchester

Red floodlights illuminate the silhouette of a grand piano standing in the centre of a darkened room. As musician and composer Jonathan Hering begins to strike the keys of the late Anthony Burgess’ piano, a hidden bank of machines cough a sequence of smoke rings into the air, which catch in the red light above. The room fills with a ghostly red mist, all but obscuring the source of the beautiful music. The irregular pattern of smoke puffs suggest it’s some sort of message or code. In fact, it’s a sequence based on email data from seven arts organisations, put through a Polybius cipher.

Smoke Signals places digital communication in context, as simply the latest in a line of our approaches to long-distance forms of communication,” explains co-creator Ed Carter. “I was very interested in the way that as the smoke, or ‘data’, filled the room it became more and more dense. At the beginning, you can decipher it if you understood the code, but eventually it becomes more of a fog – which is a nice analogy for the way data works on a big scale.”

This performance of Smoke Signals at Manchester’s International Anthony Burgess Foundation captures much of what FutureEverything festival is all about: looking simultaneously backward and forward through technology, fusing the analogue and the digital, the theoretical and the artistic, and uniting practitioners across disciplines. 

FutureEverything is an innovation lab for digital culture and an annual ideas festival exploring the space where technology, society and culture collide. Featuring thought-provoking panel discussions, original commissions and parties, this year it took place in arts venues across the city, from Wednesday 30th March to Saturday 2nd April.

This summary explores how the festival encourages multi-disciplinary collaboration between different creative communities through interviews with artists who embody this collaborative ethos in a variety of different ways. How do they bridge the divides between disciplines to break new ground and meet the challenges of the future?

Commissioned for FutureEverything, artist Ed Carter created Smoke Signals with engineer and technologist David Cranmer. Musicians Sara Lowes and Jo Dudderidge & Harry Fausing Smith and Hering, then devised original compositions in response to the piece, taking each performance in a new direction. “Working with a collaborator or collaborators is like working with a process or working with a data set,” Ed says. “You create a framework but leave a degree of openness which allows for the unexpected.”

Smoke Signals at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester

Newcastle’s Occasion Collective chose to deconstruct the collaboration process behind their Babble series of improvised performances at Islington Mill in a lively workshop on the final day of the festival. The collective invited participants to get hands-on with improvised dance and live-sampling in sound and video, to help reveal the feedback loops between artists at the heart of their multilayered performances.

Babble workshop at Islington Mill. Photo by Matthew Wilkinson

The concept grew from musician Jamie Cook’s final-year music degree performance, where he played with a saxophonist and manipulated her audio live, creating loops, sampling, applying effects and changing speed. “I wanted to use electronics in a very tactile way, so that the audience weren’t shut out between me and the computer screen,” he says. “They could see all of the sounds I was creating, they could see them being taken and then transformed. Over time I added more members from other media, like dancers and visual artists, which grew into this ensemble where everyone improvises live and feeds off each-other’s ideas.”

Babble workshop at Islington Mill. Photo by Matthew Wilkinson

Each Babble performance refers to a short poem written by Charlie Dearnley, based on stories told by his grandmother, which “all grapple with a point of death or unburdening,” he explains. While performing, sensors on his costume feed to digital artist Sean Cotterill, whose software translates the movement into light and sound. “The idea of digital communities, using digital technologies to gather creative communities around them, is important to me,” Sean explains. Written in the supercollider language, Sean has put all his code for the show online, in the hope of developing further feedback loops beyond the live performance.

Babble workshop at Islington Mill. Photo by Matthew Wilkinson

While process is an explicit part of Occasion Collective’s performances, each one feels stirring and organic. “It’s an attempt at honest expression which is heightened and realised through collaboration and working with others,” Charlie says, “acknowledging, for myself, the inadequacy of words in genuinely conveying experience; trying to create something that is more engaging.”

Engaging people is the challenge at the heart of Nelly Ben Hayoun’s work, as she explained after her talk at the Intelligence panel. The so-called ‘Willy Wonka of design’, Nelly is a one-woman nexus of collaboration who creates experiences to generate social action around science and technology, often space exploration. She assembled the International Space Orchestra, the world’s first orchestra composed of space scientists from NASA’s Ames Research Center and the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Life). Featuring original music by Beck, Damon Albarn, The Prodigy, Penguin Cafe, Two time Grammy award winner Evan Price and Bobby Womack, she convinced scientists and astronauts to participate in an ambitious musical retelling of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969.

Video embed: The International Space Orchestra_ Official IFFR selection 2013 (https://vimeo.com/57863847)

“There are audiences that are not keen to be transported or play any part, but it’s my role to then force them into it,” she explains. “Most of the public is becoming quite lethargic, so it’s really difficult to get them to move. My way of doing things is what I call total bombardment: getting to people through the fields of music, design, arts, theatre, tech, digital and architecture. Even though you might not want to be engaged with the issues or the questions I’m raising, you will find yourself confronted, in any case.”

Nelly Ben Hayoun speaks at FutureEverything

Nelly studied at the Royal College of Art under Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, who inspired her problem-finding rather than problem-solving approach to design, particularly with regard to future challenges and the potential impact of evolving technology. Her most recent project, Disaster Playground, investigates the planet’s emergency procedures through attempts to stage a simulation of an asteroid strike. Soberingly, Nelly finds that only about 20 ageing scientists are charged with planning for disasters such as asteroid collisions and meteor showers.

Video embed: Disaster Playground Teaser (https://vimeo.com/107466074)

“I’m applying critical thinking and critical design, but also looking at a range of artistic fields to see how we can merge all of these different disciplines to aim for social action,” Nelly says. “I apply Antonin Artaud’s theory of the Theatre of Cruelty to the way I engage members of the public with scientific research, looking for much more extreme and visceral ways to engage them, which you open up through collaboration. Whenever I work with scientific partners or sociologists or philosophers, I pick the ones who will fight with me. I believe that conflict generates innovation.”

The Turner Prize-winning Assemble collective prefers a more harmonious atmosphere. Comprised of 18 members, Assemble’s collaborative approach to architecture and urban development puts local people at the heart of development, implementation and ultimately the long-term life of each project. They also work on sustainable principles, choosing where possible to work with pre-existing local materials, reusing or repurposing them to better serve the area’s needs.

Assemble’s Mat Leung posed new ways to think about communities in a thought-provoking panel discussion with science fiction writer and futurist Madeline Ashby and new communication technologies expert Sarah Kember at FutureEverything’s Community panel. “[Sarah, Madeline and Assemble] understand community not as a monolithic term,” Mat explains. “Obviously there are loads of different elements to it. The term community is difficult because it assumes a single kind of identity, but together we wanted to interrogate that.”

Multiple communities can exist simultaneously and overlap in a given area, such as a community of residents, who Assemble empowered through the Turner Prize-winning Granby Workshop project, creating jobs through rebuilding a neglected area of Liverpool from the grassroots up; or a community of makers and artists, with whom they worked on the Blackhorse Workshop project in East London.

Assemble’s Granby Workshop project, Liverpool

Assemble’s Blackhorse Workshop project, East London

The Community panel developed a theme that ran through the festival: that no one individual or group is capable of meeting the challenges of the future alone. Finding ways to positively engage multiple stakeholders with a variety of knowledge and skills is vital to finding solutions that meet the needs of the wider community.

“Our successful collaborations come from an understanding that there’s a diversity of stakeholders, skills and knowledge,” Mat says. “We’re interested in a broad range of things, but we acknowledge we’re not amazing at everything. Each different member of Assemble has their own training and expertise, but when we work with a community, people who’ve been there for 15 years know more than we do – they’re experts in a different way. They might not know about which materials to use for a given job, but they can tell you the effect of a layout or the practical implications of what you’re doing. You have to acknowledge that people are experts in different fields”.

Projecting a vision into the future can be one of the hardest challenges for architects – but Assemble have developed what appears to be a powerful and effective way of ensuring the longevity of projects. “When you say ‘Let’s talk about the near future’, architects get hysterical, designers go into meltdown,” Mat explains. “As soon as you say community, legacy, or things like that, it brings up a set of expectations. But what you’re really saying is that you want your idea to be taken on and exist beyond the period you’re directly involved in its life. So we’ve found that collaborating with the community throughout the process, through workshops for example, is a great way to encourage people to continue using spaces after we’ve moved on.”

Assemble’s The Cineroleum project, London, 2010

The enthusiastic spirit of collaboration fostered by FutureEverything transcended each event and sparked conversations between practitioners from a variety of different fields, who gave each other new perspectives through which to consider their own work. Drawing on the participatory ethos of progressive digital communities, the festival encouraged a refreshingly open atmosphere. But how to keep this energy going once the festival comes to an end? Many of the artists involved shared their processes in the hope that others can build on their achievements. The vibrant creative melting pot FutureEverything presided over will ensure that the new connections created will lead to even more inspiring projects in the years to come, from networks that extend far beyond Manchester.

Find out more about FutureEverything.


Transmediale 2016: Necessary Conversations Off-the-Cloud

Introduction.

I arrived at the Transmediale festival late Friday afternoon, which was hosted as usual at Das Haus der Kulturen der Welt (The House of World Cultures) in Berlin. The area where the building is sited was destroyed during World War II, and then at the height of the Cold War, it was given as a present from the US government to the City of Berlin. As a venue for international encounters, the Congress Hall was designed as a symbol of ‘freedom’, and because of its special architectural shape the Berliners were quick to call the building “pregnant oyster” [1] The exterior was also the set for the science fiction action film Æon Flux in 2005. Both past references link well with this festival’s use of the building. I remember during my last visit, in 2010, standing outside the back of the building watching an Icebreaker cracking apart the thick ice in the river. The sound of the heavy ice in collision with the sturdy boat was loud and crisp. This sound has stayed with me so that whenever I hear a sound that is similar I’m immediately transported back to that point in time. Unfortunately, this time round there was no snow, instead the weather was wet, warm and slighty stormy.

Last year’s festival explored the marketing of big data in the age of social control. This year, the chosen format was entitled conversationpiece, with the aim of enabling a series of dialogues and participatory setups to talk about the most burning topics in post-digital culture today. To give it grounding and historical context the theme was pinned to the “backdrop of different processes of social transformation, 17th and 18th century European painters perfected the group portrait painting known as the “Conversation Piece” in which the everyday life of the aristocracy was depicted in ideal scenes of common activity.” In recent years the festival has scafolded its panels, workshops and keynotes to grand, central themes to guide its peers and visitors, along with a large-scale curated exhibition. If we view the four interconnected thematic streams- Anxious to Act, Anxious to Make, Anxious to Share and Anxious to Secure – we might guess that the festival curators are also anxious to save all the resources (and celebrations) for next year, which is after all, Transmediale’s 30th birthday.

So, I was curious to see how my brief time here would unfold…

Off-the-Cloud-Zone.

This review is focused on the hybrid event Off-the-Cloud-Zone. It featured presentations, talks and workshops, starting at 11 am, going on until 8pm. Hardcore indeed. It demanded total dedication, which unfortunately I was not able to give. However, I did offer my attention to the rest of the proceedings from lunch time until the end. It was moderated by Panayotis Antoniadis, Daphne Dragona, James Stevens and included a variety of speakers such as: Roel Roscam Abbing, Ileana Apostol, Dennis de Bel, Federico Bonelli, James Bridle, Adam Burns, Lori Emerson, Sarah T Gold, Sarah Grant, Denis Rojo aka Jaromil, George Klissiaris, Evan Light, Ilias Marmaras, Monic Meisel, Jürgen Neumann, Radovan Misovic aka Rad0, Natacha Roussel, Andreas Unteidig, Danja Vasiliev, Christoph Wachter & Mathias Jud, and Stewart Ziff.

The Off-the-Cloud-Zone day event was a continuation of last year’s offline networks unite! panel and workshops. Which also originated from discussions on a mailing list called ‘off.networks’ with researchers, activists and artists working together around the idea of an offline network operating outside of the Internet. The talks concentrated on how over recent years there has been a growing scene of artists, hackers, and network practitioners, finding new ways to ask questions through their practices that offer alternatives in community networks, ad-hoc connectivity, and autonomous systems of sensing and data collecting.

Snowden Archive-in-a-Box.

Disillusionment with the Internet has spread widely since 2013, when Edward Snowden the US whistleblower leaked information on numerous global surveillance programs. Many of these programs are run by the NSA and Five Eyes with the cooperation of telecommunication companies and European governments raising big questions about privacy and exploitation of our online (interaction) data. This concern is not only in relation to spying corporations, dodgy regimes and black hat hackers, but also our governments. “The idea of privacy has been flipped on its head. People don’t have to disclose their own information voluntarily anymore; it’s being taken from them regardless of their wishes.” [2] (Nowak 2015)

“The NSA’s principal tool to exploit the data links is a project called MUSCULAR, operated jointly with the agency’s British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters . From undisclosed interception points, the NSA and the GCHQ are copying entire data flows across fiber-optic cables that carry information among the data centers of the Silicon Valley giants.” [3] (Gellman and Soltani, 2013)


The above slide is from an NSA presentation on “Google Cloud Exploitation” from its MUSCULAR program. The sketch shows where the “Public Internet” meets the internal “Google Cloud” where user data resides. [4]

A legitimate concern for anyone wishing to read the contents of the leaked Snowden files, is that they will be spied upon as they do so. Evan Light has been working on finding a way around this problem, and at the Off-the-Cloud-Zone day event he presented his project Snowden Archive-in-a-Box. A stand-alone wifi network and web server that permits you to research all files leaked by Edward Snowden and subsequently published by the media. The purpose of the portable archive is to provide end-users with a secure off-line method to use its database without the threat of surveillance. Light says, usually the wifi network is open, but users do have the option to make their own wifi passwords and also choose their encryption standard.

Snowden Archive-in-a-Box is based on the PirateBox, originally created by David Darts who made his in order to distribute teaching materials to students without the hassle of email. It is based on a RaspberryPi 2 mini-computer and the Raspbian operating system. All the software is open-source and its most basic setup can run on one RaspberryPi. In his talk Light said that a more elaborate version would use high-quality battery packs and this adds power for autonomy, along with the wifi sniffer that is running on a secondary RaspberryPi and a flat-screen for playing back IP traffic. If you’re interested in building your own private, pirate Archive-in-a-Box, visit Light’s web site for instructions on how to.

Snowden Archive-in-a-Box. Cambridge University’s museum piece installation. Evan Light.


Qaul.net and Can You Hear Me?

Christoph Wachter’s and Mathias Jud’s work, directly engages with refugees and asylum seeker’s social situations, policies, and the migrant crisis. They’ve worked together on participatory community projects since 2000 and have received many awards. For instance, take a look at their digital communications tool qaul.net which is designed to counteract communication blackouts. It has been used successfully in Egypt, Burma, and Tibet, and works as an alternative to already existing government and corporate controlled communication pathways. But, it also offers vital help when large power outages occur, especially in areas in the world suffering from natural disasters. The term qaul is Arabic and means ‘opinion, say, talk or word’. Qaul is pronounced like the English word ‘call’.

It creates a redundant, open communication code where wireless-enabled computers and mobile devices can directly initiate a fresh, unrestricted and spontaneous network. This includes the enabling of Chat, twitter functions and movie streaming, independent of Internet and cellular networks. It is also accessible to a growing Open Source Community who can modify it freely.

Wachter and Jud also discussed another project of theirs called “Can You Hear Me?”, a WLAN / WiFi mesh network with can antennas installed on the roofs of the Academy of Arts and the Swiss Embassy in Berlin, which was located in close proximity to NSA’s Secret Spy Hub. These makeshift antennas made of tin cans were obvious and visible for all to see. The Academy of Arts joined the project building a large antenna on the rooftop, situated exactly between the listening posts of the NSA and the GCHQ to enable people to directly address surveillance staff listening in. While installing the work they were observed in detail by a helicopter encircling overhead with a camera registering each and every move they made, and on the roof of the US Embassy, security officers patrolled.

“The antennas created an open and free Wi-Fi communication network in which anyone who wanted to would be able to participate using any Wi-Fi-enabled device without any hindrance, and be able to send messages to those listening on the frequencies that were being intercepted. Text messages, voice chat, file sharing — anything could be sent anonymously. And people did communicate. Over 15,000 messages were sent.” [5] (Jud 2015)

A the end of their presentation, they said that they will be implementing the same system at hotspots deployed in Greece by the end of the month. And I believe them. What I find refreshing with these two, is their can do attitude whilst dealing with political forces bigger than themselves. It also gives a positive message that anyone can get involved in these projects.

Dowse.

And then, it was the turn of the well known team at Dyne.org to discuss a project of theirs called Dowse, which is ‘The Privacy Hub for the Internet of Things’. They said (taking turns, there was about 5 of them) that the purpose of Dowse is to perceive and affect all devices in the local, networked sphere. As we push on into the age of the Internet of Things, in our homes everything will be linked up.

“Those bathroom scales and home thermostats already talk to our smartphones and in some cases think for themselves.” [6] (Nowak 2015)

As these ubiquitous computers communicate to each other even more, control over these multiple connections will be essential. We will need to know how to interact beyond the GUI interfaces and think about who has access to our private, common and public information. A whole load of extra information will be available without our consent.


Dowse was conceived in 2014 as a proof of concept white paper by Denis Rojo aka Jaromil. Early contributors to the white paper and its drafting process includes: Hellekin O. Wolf, Anatole Shaw, Juergen Neumann, Patrick R McDonald, Federico Bonelli, Julian Oliver, Henk Buursen, Tom Demeyer, Mieke van Heesewijk, Floris Kleemans and Rob van Kranenburg. I downloaded the white paper and is definitely worth reading.


The Dowse project aims to abide to the principles stated in the Critical Engineers Manifesto, (2011). Near the very end of the talk they announced to the audience an open call for artists and techies everywhere to get involved and jump into the project to see what it can do. This is a good idea. If there is no community to make or break platforms, hardware and software, then there is a limited dialogue around the possibilties of what a facility realistically might achieve. Not just that, they want artists to make art out of it. I know there are some pretty clever tech-minded geeks out there, who will in no doubt take on the challenge. However, once those who are not so literate in the medium are able to exploit the project, it will surely fly. It’s going to be interesting, because if you look at the 3rd point in the Critical Engineers Manifesto, it says “The Critical Engineer deconstructs and incites suspicion of rich user experiences.” I’m thinking, that this number 3 element needs to treated with caution. If they really wish to open it up to a diverse user base, to engage with its potentialities, creatively and practically; thus, allow new forms of social emancipation to evolve as ‘freedom with others’. There needs to be an active intent to avoid a glass ceiling based on technical know-how. It’s a promising project and I intend to explore it myself and see what it can do and will invite other people within Furtherfield’s own online, networks to join in and play, break, and create.

The Sarantaporo Project.

Our final entry is the Sarantaporo Project which is situated in the North of Greece. A village in the mountains just west of Mount Olympus in Central Greece close to Thessaloniki, Macedonia and Larisa. The country has been in recession for over 6 years now, and many communities have had to create alternative ways of working with each other in order to survive the crisis. Over this troubling period, new forms of grass-roots coexistence, solidarity and innovation have evolved. The Sarantaporo Project is an impressive example of how people can come together and experiment in imaginative ways and exploit physical and digital networks.


Even before the economic crisis the region was already hit by poverty, and with the added pressures of imposed Austerity measures, life got even tougher. All the young were leaving and then migrating to the cities or abroad. Before the project in Sarantaporo, there was no Internet nor digitally connected networks for local people to use. This situation contributed to the digital divide and made it difficult to work in a contemporary society, when so many others in the world have been using technology to support their civic, academic and business for so many years already.

“In Greece, where unemployment reaches 30% in all ages and genders, and among the youth overpasses 50%, immediate solution for the “social issue” is more than urgent.’ [7] (Marmaras).

Conclusion.“Besides maintaining the network in a DIWO (Do It With Others) manner, and creating an atmosphere of cooperation among far-flung communities that were previously strangers, the Sarantaporo network is incorporating different groups of people into the community, like Farmer’s Cooperatives and techies. It is also creating an intergenerational space for learning.” [9] (Bezdommy 2016)


To resolve this issue a group of friends decided to deal with this problem by setting up a community D.I.Y wireless network to provide free internet access to 15 villages in the municipality of Elassona. “Sarantaporo.gr is an open source wireless mesh networking system that relies greatly on voluntary work both for its development and maintenance. Some volunteers are involved in the project by simply installing an antenna on their roof. Others, more actively engaged with the project, are responsible for sustaining the network by hosting meetings and answering technical questions.” [8] (Kalessi 2014) The audience was presented with snippets from a film made by the filmmaking collective Personal Cinema, about the project. It was made so the story of Sarantaporo’s DIY wireless network gets a wider reach, and that others are also inspired to do similar projects themselves.

These projects are dedicated to creating socially grounded and engaged alternatives to the proprietorial, networked frameworks that currently dominate our communication behaviours. These proprietorial systems, whether they are digital or physical are untrustworthy, and control us in ways that reflect their top-down demands but not our common needs. This reflects a wider conversation about who owns our social contexts, our conversations, our fields of practice, the structures we use, the land, the cables, our history, and so on.

Looking at the state of the planet right now you’d be forgiven for betting on a future not far from the director Neill Blomkamp’s vision in the sci-fi movie Elysium where, in the year 2159, humanity is sharply divided between two classes of people: the ultra-rich whom live aboard a luxurious space station called Elysium, and the rest who live a hardscrabble existence in Earth’s ruins. However, in the Off-the-Cloud-Zone talks we encountered an ecology of strategies to protect our own indegenous cultures from the crush of neo-liberalism, we felt part of a grounded movement discovering new conversations and new methodologies that may provide some protection against future colonisation. Perhaps there is a chance, we can build and rebuild stronger relations with each other, beyond: privilege, nation, status, gender, class, race, religion, and career.

The festival this year was less structured and more nuanced than usual. It gave conversation a greater role and a deeper social context, and opened up the process for the many to connect with the ideas being explored. The whole affair seemed to be slowed down and less caught up in the hyper-macho trappings of accelerationism. It seemed less neurotic and spending less effort to impress. I’m sure, next year, on it’s 30th anniversary, all will be sharp and amazing. However, I liked this less glossy, more messy version of Transmediale and I hope it manages to impress the wrong people again, and again.

References:

[1] The Site and its History .
https://www.hkw.de/en/hkw/geschichte/ort_geschichte/ort.php

[2] Peter Nowak Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of Our Species. The Lyons Press (6 Jan. 2015). P.132.

[3] NSA infiltrates links to Yahoo, Google data centers worldwide, Snowden documents say. Washington Post. By Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani October 30, 2013. http://wapo.st/1Ty1nTX

[4] File:NSA Muscular Google Cloud.jpgs. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:NSA_Muscular_Google_

[5] Mathias Jud: Art that lets you talk back to NSA spies. Subtitles and Transcript. TED.com. September 2015. http://bit.ly/1UkiMPn

[6] Peter Nowak Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of Our Species. The Lyons Press (6 Jan. 2015). P.6.

[7] “Building Communities of Commons in Greece”, Ilias Marmaras. Personal Cinema.
https://en.goteo.org/project/building-communities-of-commons

[8] Theodora Kalessi. Sarantaporo.gr: Bridging the digital divide in rural Greece. August 11, 2014
http://oipolloi.co/sarantaporo-gr-bridging-the-digital-divide-in-rural-greece/

[9] Bezdomny. Sarantaporo Residents Create Commons in Rural Greece Through a DIY Wireless Mesh Network. January 3, 2016.
http://www.shareable.net/blog/sarantaporo-residents-create-commons-in-rural-greece-through-a-diy-wireless-mesh-network