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Really Fake, or Faking Reality? Simulacra, Fake Art, and Breaking the Frame: A Conversation between Patrick Lichty and Claudia Hart.

In 2011, Rachel Clarke and Claudia Hart co-curated The Real-Fake, a post-media exhibition engaging art made in synthetic spaces, shot with virtual cameras, and emerging from “other spaces” like code-space and biotech.   In 2016, Clarke and Hart together with Pat Reynolds updated the show at the Bronx Artspace, with over 50 artists working in immersion, virtuality, game space, digital photography, and so on. Two months after the launch of real-fake.org, and in the first month of the US Trump presidency, which could be argued as the first presidential campaign simulated  in Baudrillard’s terms, Claudia Hart and I talk about what “real-fakeness” is, how it arrived as an art notion, and how it has informed two exhibitions.

PL: What, in your mind does the show represent as an expression of contemporary culture?

CH: The Real-Fake remake opened on November 19, slightly after the election.  I was actually in the air when Trump won, landing in Bucharest, several hours later.  The culture there is still overshadowed by the history of the totalitarian regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu. The contemporary art museum actually sits in a corner of his Palace of the People, which was built in the style of WWII Italo-fascist Neoclassicism. The whole experience was ominous and frightening in relation to the autocratic, punitive Trump. I began obsessively tracking “fake news”, both because of its relationship to the kind of propaganda used by the Trump/Bannon team to hijack the presidency, but also because of the hacking of the democratic party and collusion of the Republicans with the government of Vladimir Putin.

Claudia Hart, More Food For Children,
Claudia Hart, More Food For Children, 3D software simulated apple integrated into photography, 2011.

 In both the 2011 and the 2016 versions of the Real-Fake exhibition, we tried to deconstruct, for simplicity’s sake, what I’m now calling “post-photography”, or what Steven Shaviro termed as the “Post-Cinematic.” This relates to digital simulations of the real made with current technologies of representation and post-mechanical reproduction. Post Photography can be defined by what it is NOT in relation to everything documentary and verité about photography. It suggests a radical paradigm shift with significant cultural ramifications. Post Photography does not purport to “slice” from life, but rather is a parallel construction of it, numerically modeled with the same techniques used by scientists, and also by the game and Hollywood special effects industries. The artists working with it all use specialized compositing and 3D animation software. But instead of capturing the real in an indexical fashion, Post Photography artists use measured calculations to simulate reality.  

 Our deconstruction of the post-photographic real-fake was made in relation to cultural myths about the truth, through viewing the work of 50 artists. They are all part of a larger community acutely aware of the implications of using a computer model of the real as opposed to traditional capture technology. The issues implied by this choice have obviously been made manifest at our own historical juncture, when the culture of science and climate-change deniers rule America. The manufacturing of fake truth in the form of misinformation and ubiquitous infotainment are now profoundly epic.

 I’m currently reading Gabriella Coleman’s Hacker, Hoaxer Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous (Verso, 2014) a history of hacker culture related to both the esthetics of “Real-Fakeness” and also the actual milieu that it emerged from. I’m inspired at the moment by that book, and the brilliant essay “Tactical Virality” by Hannah Barton (Real Life, February 14, 2017) because they’ve helped me to articulate what I now feel is the relationship of The Real-Fake to our current cultural and political quagmire.  What excited me about the Barton article is that she finds language to talk about the fake news, meaning in larger terms, the fake media strategy so successfully implemented by the Trump/Bannon team.  Both of these men are fake-media production experts, and individually built lucrative empires with their expertise. Fake news is a product, and one can trace its lineage from the first alt-right radio flamers, through Fox, Breitbart and now, embodied in the personage of Steve Bannon, straight into the oval office. Fake news is a semiotic morph, a kind of hybrid of advertising and spectacular entertainment covered by a gloss surface of “news” or facts, that can be output in a range of forms from talking-head news commentators, to pseudo down-and-dirty cinema verité documentary. It is a knowing contemporary version of propaganda, and in fact, as reported by Joshua Green in Bloomberg Politics in 2015 even, in a chilling profile of Steve Bannon (https://www.bloomberg.com/politics/graphics/2015-steve-bannon/), Andrew Breitbart himself called Bannon out as “the Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party movement.”

 So, with Bannon/Trump, we have entered into a paradoxical social-media semiotic in which that which most strongly resembles what Stephen Colbert dubbed as “truthiness” must be suspected as being the biggest lie.  

Rosa Menkman. Where are the Newer Media?, video still from virtual-reality environment, 2016.
Rosa Menkman. Where are the Newer Media?, video still from virtual-reality environment, 2016.

 PL: And to focus this back to art, perhaps what we might say is that instead of Picasso’s axiom of artists telling lies to reveal the truth, to make a fake “real” is to go through the machinations of media manipulation that Robert Reich talked about, like pulling the media in and driving conversation until it’s “almost real.” Maybe that’s the quality of “Real-Fakeness,” or even “Fake-Realness” (to do a structural inversion).  And with “Simulationists” as we are, and postinternet artists, perhaps veracity and verisimilitude aren’t the point anymore. Maybe it’s just what’s in the boxes and “teh netz”.

 CH: Exactly. All of these players are deploying the representational tactic of structural inversion, one of the techniques used to grab audience attention and leverage in the Internet media economy. Bannon’s professional canniness in rerouting the attention economy into fake news, was that flaming mis/information could be sold as a very lucrative attention-economy product.  Likewise Trump made a fortune within this economy. Both are experts in the tactics required to make a thing go viral, in hacking the media/entertainment system for maximum clicks. Their approach obviously works.  And you can see this in some of the work in the show.

 PL: Jean Baudrillard famously wrote about the simulated image in media culture that finally is believed to supplant the Real, i.e. “The Desert of the Real”. Do you think this is where we are with the notion of “Real-Fakeness”?

 CH: Tactically viral fake news resembles the Situationist practice of détournement – what Barton called “virtuosic prank-like acts designed to turn expressions of the capitalist system against itself.”  This impulse lurks behind most of the hacker culture that Gabriella Coleman documented. Even with the most sincere and political of intentions, hacker culture denizens share a position of deep Duchampian irony. Hackers are all, more or less, in it for the lulz – a kind of dark, aestheticized Nietzschean “lol” which injects noise as agents of chaos, being much different than tactical artists who fight the system. This darkness characterizes a time in which artists and cultural commentators routinely meditate on how one might psychically navigate the end of civilization, for example Roy Scranton’s brilliant Learning to Die in the Anthropocene,” (CIty Light Books, 2015) and the Morehshin Allahyari /Daniel Rourke 3D Additivism project that I feel so profoundly connected to. 

And in case of point, Morehshin is a “real-fake” artist.

Morehshin Allahyari, She Who Sees the Unknown, rapid prototype printed sculpture, ABS plastic, 2016.
Morehshin Allahyari, She Who Sees the Unknown, rapid prototype printed sculpture, ABS plastic, 2016.

PL: I have a lot of support for it, too. I think that projects like 3D Additivism are really significant on so many levels, as things like tactical aesthetics, media art, and criticism lend themselves to collective projects.  I mean, most likely more than half of my work and collaborations are collective; RTMark, Terminal Time, Yes Men, Second Front, Pocha Nostra, Morehshin’s My Day Your Night project with Eden Unulata… It just seems that these areas of work build community, and that’s something I’ve always believed in. 3D Additivism really addresses critical aspects of the explosive nature of digital making, its pitfalls, and how to deal with these Anthropocene issues through the problematics of the very technology that it critiques. That’s the issue with ”real-fakeness”; it lives in this tactical center where it’s by necessity earnest, yet ersatz at the same time, kind of like Dubai.

CH: Exactly.  What this specifically means in terms of the work we exhibited was that it routinely coopts strategies of representation often found in advertising slogans, media products and propaganda, to serve an alternative agenda – sometimes to propose a ludic reality and sometimes to propose a more utopian one as opposed to the dystopic one of Fake News.  This is the premise of REAL FAKE art, and is related to the Simulations discourse of Baudrillard.

PL: And then the Real-Fake artist takes the Real, verisimilitude, and détourns it into sets of aesthetic tactics that reframe the nature of the work itself, radically shifting its art historical context.

 CH: The approach of the artists in the Real-Fake is the tactic of détournement that the Situationists introduced in the late 1950s and 60s. They were also countering a reactionary Cold-War culture, ironic in terms of Trump’s oligarchical relationship to Moscow.  The idea of Situationist détournement, which is so connected to the ideologies and tactics of hacker culture, is to irritate conservative, Capitalist hegemonic power.  I mean YOU were part of The Yes Men, and détournement  strategy was very influential to that group. The tactic of détournement tweaks entrenched bureaucratic power structures … there is nothing intrinsically political about it in itself. It’s a kind of publicity stunt, a way of grabbing media attention and thumbing one’s nose at the powers that be. It is the posture of the trickster.  To quote Barton, détournement “can be reduced to an ideologically flexible logic of inversion and appropriation.”

PL: Right. And this relative, flexible set of significations inevitably creates paradoxes and contradictions that hegemony/Deep Power/the Superstructure can’t process.

CH: In real-fake simulations, the détournement is of representations that are “impossible” – that appear both real and unreal at the same time, being inherently uncanny in the Freudian and Mori-an sense – both dead and alive simultaneously, it is a paradoxical state in which opposites collide.  What happened in the prelude to the 2016 US presidential election then is that is that pro-Trump fake news, advised by Bannon, tactically assumed that position by playing the “outsider’ card, and pantomiming resistance. However, we all know they simultaneously bequeathed the benefits of it onto a gang of billionaire plutocrats – the richest oligarchs and corporate leaders in the world.  They seized the power of the news media, itself already perceived by the masses as truthy “information,” which this oligarch gang, for the most part, owned (Fox News for example, is owned by the rightist Rupert Murdoch). It was done to further consolidate power and seize the government.  They then staged a “return of the repressed” (or the emergence of a new ‘oppressed’), for the Trump “base” – a fringe hate-mongering hyper-aggressive “wrestling” culture to borrow from a related ethos.  This demographic was duped into believing that they were speaking their truth to entrenched liberal governmental power, although they were actually being used and manipulated as mouthpieces of a feudal corporate bloc who by then had completely co-opted the federal government. Videos of this radical fringe were then recorded to flame hate and racism, opening Pandora’s Box for white Middle Americans to enact similar cultural forbiddens that had been oppressed by the corporate institutional repression of “Political Correctness”: sexism, racism and religious xenophobias. Hate was linked to the First Amendment, and it unified Trump supporters, and Fake News coopted Yes Men tactics to oppose the Left, the strategy of détournement. But as was recently said, détournement is not ideologically married to the Left, and yes, this is where we are at right now. The question at this time is if we can re-take these strategies to take some power back.

Rachel Clarke, Terra Incognita, 3d animation still, 2013.
Rachel Clarke, Terra Incognita, 3d animation still, 2013.

PL: On the other hand, Western society is confronted with the notion of Fake News, “Alternative Facts”, and the like.  Again, I will draw on Picasso saying that artists tell lies to reveal the truth. Do you think this is the difference between “Real-fakeness” and “Alternative Facts”, which are propositions that willfully try to obscure reality for their own ends?

CH: In her article, Gabriella Barton analyzes how fake news manages to go viral.  Our current media ecosystem, the one in which fake news played out during the election, is a fluid information economy in which stories bring together groups on the basis of group identity around their positions. These need not have any relation to fact…they are actually reflections/inversions of ideologies, and can be thought of as contemporary mythologies in the sense of Roland Barthes. That’s structurally how fake-news is used to manipulate the populace, and how the populace makes certain fakeries go viral.  In the culture of social media, where clicks are king, people create their identities by associating themselves with “links” to such media mythologies, pseudo info bytes that resemble information and news, in order to associate themselves with whatever community they identify with.

Barthes’ 1957 Mythologies examined our tendency to create versions of myths from the ubiquitous media that surrounds us. Trump/Bannon came to the same conclusions as Barthes, though doubtfully by reading him, surely as a result of their first-hand experience as media-moguls. They’ve pushed Barthes’ insight to its ultimate conclusions, creating fictional mythologies that simulate information as news in order to build their community.  This community is ultimately nihilistic, and is unified primarily by their fear and an anxiety about the loss of their white dominance in an emergent, global post-industrial culture. The Trump/Bannon team built their base, giving them material to construct individual identities by viralizing propaganda and simulated information.  

A E S + F, The Feast of Trimalchio, Still 2-3-01, photography integrated into 3D
A E S + F, The Feast of Trimalchio, Still 2-3-01, photography integrated into 3D animation, still from 3-channel video, 2010.

 What I’d like to propose alternatively is that now as media artists specifically, we can similarly build mythologies not of authoritarian dominance but of resistance.  For example: I love Catwoman!  I find her to be an emotional paradigm symbolizing resistance. I wish I had invented her myself. I wish I was her!  I’d like to propose to contemporary media artists that they perform alternative mythological identities of resistance created in the space of public media, as a means of creating community.  I believe in community and believe it’s only through community that we can drive a wedge into autocracy.  I think we can use media to mythologize emotional truths of resistance, Barthean mythologies that are more communal and constructive, to inspire activism and resistance.   

Perhaps Trump will implode eventually.  Since he’s seized power, he’s made many references to fake news in tweets.  To quote Barton again:

 This is tactical virality now reified as strategy by a sitting administration defending the executive branch’s power.  In his Twitter performances, incoherence has become a coherent approach, seeking to pre-emptively absolve Trump of accountability.

 So, in response, I’d like to believe that, if we follow Barthes’ thought to its logical extreme, Trump is now inverting his own inversion, a reification and draining of his own mythological power. Then, if the Goddess is on our side – he folds in upon himself!   

PL: Do you think what we are doing with “Real-Fakeness”, Simulationism, and the like is sampling reality as a medium, a toolkit?

 CH: Yes!  I hope!  I’m a simulations artist and real-fakeness is my tool. I hope that with it we can both inspire resistance and build an alternative world. Aside from lending my body to street manifestations and calling my congress-people, it’s what I can do now.   

PL: How does all of this express itself in your work, and how do you feel you speak to the simulated spirit of the times?

 CH: At the moment I’m developing several projects, post-Trump. The one that is most relevant to this converstion is The Beauty of the Baud, that I’m working on with LaTurbo Avedon – the virtual artist living only in the spaces of social media – meaning Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr. She also is the curator of Panther Modern, a museum that also only exists virtually, exhibiting the post-photographic documentation of the exhibits that happen there. LaTurbo invites artists who work with VR software to create shows, offering each a room in her museum. She then displays simulated documentation of them at panthermodern.org.  

 Since 2007, I’ve developed a curriculum at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, called X3D, a group of 8 classes that work with simulations technologies in the context of post-photography and experimental media. The Beauty of the Baud is a project led by LaTurbo Avedon and I in collaboration with one of those classes, my Experimental 3D 2017 class.

LaTurbo Avedon, Club Rothko: VIP Room/Altar, 2017.
LaTurbo Avedon, Club Rothko: VIP Room/Altar, 2017.

 LaTurbo built “Room 17,” a special Panther Modern exhibition hall, to show works created by my Intro X3D class, a group of 14 Art Institute students using simulations software for the first time. Acting as both guest critic and curator of the first Panther Modern group exhibition, she is choosing 14 works, one from each student, out of a selection of renderings of solo shows, each produced for Room 14, The Beauty of the Baud room, inside Panther Modern. The whole thing is conceived in relationship to the 30th birthday of The Hacker’s Manifesto. We are also reading the Coleman book, and discussing it as we go.  

 The Beauty of the Baud will be shown online, in Panther Modern in May, 2017.  Then a portfolio of archival prints of the computer-model images will be offered for sale, all proceeds from it donated to either international immigrant assistance, inner city education or climate research – my students are debating which among themselves even now.   Both an exhibit in “real” as well as “virtual” life, The Beauty of the Baud will include the student portfolio, plus conceptually related works by LaTurbo Avedon and I, and will geographically be situated in Bucharest –  the city that inspired me to go down this route in the first place- with the Romanian curator Roxana Gamart in her Möbius gallery. She is in conversation with several institutions there as well, and we are working on something for that context.

 I’m very psyched about the Beauty of the Baud. It’s helping me to process it all.  As an artist, at this moment in time, I’m afraid it’s the best I can do.

Traceroute – A Personal Journey Into the Uncharted Depths of Nerd Culture

Featured Image: Johannes lands in San Francisco.

Traceroute – A Personal Journey Into the Uncharted Depths of Nerd Culture, A Realm Full of Dangers, Creatures, and More or Less Precarious Working Conditions. (Or Fear and Loathing in Nerdcore).

“In the end, we’ll all become stories” Margaret Atwood.

Before Vaporwave, Post-Internet, Facebook, and your latest Kickstarter campaign, there was the cybercultural counterculture. I encountered it through publications like Collapse, Mondo 2000, ReSearch, Fringeware Review, and bOING bOING (when it was still in print), and on BBS boards like The Thing and The WELL. This was the land of cyberpunk, Dead Media, Tactical Media, The Church of the SubGenius, online dungeons and wetware hacking. This is the native culture of Johannes Grenzfurthner, born of the dark forests of Austria, famous for music and mass murder (by his own admission), and a crèche for nerddom.

Traceroute (…) is a reflection on his own roots of nerddom, and an On the Road style romp across the United States as he visits icons of the counterculture, the outré, and the generally questionable.

He begins Traceroute with a fitting genesis story of his growing up in Central Europe, dressing like Captain Kirk, making treehouses and accidentally killing the family chicken with a failed science experiment, reading comic books, making short films, and being obsessed with Pachelbel’s Canon in D Minor. He saw that the neighbor’s patio tile always looked like LCD displays, and he started noodling around with his neighbor’s computer, logging into the FIDONet, learning about his nerddom, discovering ASCII porn, and Woschi Woschi Wau Wau, the Dog that Never Pooped. If you’re following me up till now, then you’ll get the general tone of the movie.

As Johannes expands on his arc from a gawky Austrian kid to founding the cybermedia group Monochrom in a quirky Germanic stream of consciousness, he decides to take his friends Jenny and Eddie on a trip across the US for a tour de farce into the depths of cyber-counterculture.

He begins his trip, of course, in San Francisco – home of the counterculture and the Californian Ideology, which he calls, “a fantastic realm of infinite opportunity and homelessness” There, he begins his intellectual trek across the USA with V. Vale – author and publisher of the ReSearch series of documentary books. Vale began his publishing career with a volume called Search and Destroy while working at the City Lights bookstore – a Mecca of beat culture. He cements the foundations for the film in saying that nerds made the counterculture; there is a sort of reflection that only comes from isolation or obsessiveness, and “There is no creativity in the absence of revolt.” says Vale.

Suddenly, I realize that I’m about a half thousand words into this review, and only about a quarter way through the movie, and barely out of San Francisco. That is the nature of Traceroute, a relentless stream of factoids and side trips that talks about many things, like the whiteness of cyberculture, the uncomfortable relationship between counterculture and neoliberalism, shipping containers, Area 51, as well as sci-fi props and makeup at Stan Winston Studios. This is the nature of the nerd; to be infinitely interested in infinite numbers of things, the more obscure the better. Actually, giving a feel for the film without describing it in total is probably the best thing to do, as it leaves many of the places Johannes goes to the imagination.

Traceroute has both memorable moments and stops that simply must be done if one is to visit cyber-counterculture. One of the mandatory stops is to SxSW Interactive in Austin, Texas and a chat with Jon Lebkowsky and Bruce Sterling. Jon is one of the founders of the legendary 90’s zine Fringeware Review and icon of Austin counterculture, as well as omniglot. Bruce Sterling, is of course, Bruce Sterling – cyberpunk author, WIRED Magazine blogger, and cyber-tastemaker. Listening to Lebkowski’s surprise at the traction of the cyberpunk movement in the 90’s in contrast to Sterling’s waxing of hanging with the tragically hip Milanese cyber-squatters of the time reminded me of the romanticism that also accompanies the underground.

A fantastic moment was when the Traceroute crew actually winds up at the gate to Area 51 in the middle of the night and decide to talk to tactical artist Trevor Paglen to get more information about the site. Paglen, almost more than anyone, has done work that reveals “black” projects being pursued by the US government, such as stealth technology, spy satellites, the location of Internet ocean cables, and so on. During their conversation, Paglen brings up a mission patch for the US Air Force for a stealth project that has two things. First, there is an alien head, as it is Area 51 after all, and a caption that reads, “Gustatus Similus Pullus”, (or, Tastes Like Chicken). Frat humor in the skunkworks – hmmm…

Trevor Paglen discussing Blackops insignia
Trevor Paglen discussing Blackops insignia.

Grenzfurthner also muses that we are two things – sexual beings and tool users. This makes sense as his group Monochrom hosts the annual Arse Electronika festival (a sexual play on the Ars Electronica in Linz). This reveals itself  in a number of segments with Miss Maggie Mayhem (San Francisco), Kit Stubbs (Boston), Christina Anapakis (Los Angeles, who does art from body cultures), and Bad Dragon, a company that does science fiction/fantasy dildos. From Maggie’s playfully powerful illustrations of the links between sex work and Silicon Valley to Christina’s experiments with Johannes’ culture to make a failed cheese, I am happy to see that Monochrom’s sex and body-positive message that nerds are filled with a curiosity about all of the world around them is present in Traceroute.

My only complaint about the movie is that I wanted more of it, or perhaps more of the eastern US, as it is nearly three-fourths of the way through the film before we leave Austin. Perhaps the newest part of the country, the West, might be the weirdest, but I’ll leave that to Johannes. And there are tons of other alternative cultural sites to go, like the Museum of Jurassic Technology and Craig Baldwin’s Artist’s Television Access in California, and Rich Pell’s Center for Postnatural History, the Mystery Spot, but he had a week, and only two hours of video. But on the other hand, I’m giving inordinate attention to the first half of the film, so not only am I self-referentially riffing on Grenzfurthner’s narrative style here, but mimicking the structure of the movie.

Lastly, anyone dealing with outré culture that mixes nerddom and capitalist critique has to go to Monroeville, Pennsylvania – site of George Romero’s marvelous political zombie flick, Dawn of the Dead. They go to Monroeville Mall, the site of the movie itself, with leftist critic and game designer Paolo Pedercini. There is a certain poesis about Paolo ranting about consumer culture, nerddom, the nexus of the mall and the surveillance state while waiting for the security guards at the mall to show up. These remarkably self-referential shots are what makes Traceroute magical.

Paolo Pedercini gives an undead rant on capitalism in Pittsburgh.
Paolo Pedercini gives an undead rant on capitalism in Pittsburgh.

After watching Traceroute, I was left with a real exhilaration and a deeply reflective feeling at once, but I think this would be similar to Grenzfurthner’s experience on his ur-nerdtrek across the USA. I mean, except for being a decade older, we have a lot in common. Our upbringings were similarly nerdy, but mine in Ohio, and his in Austria, he started Monochrom while I was with RTMark, we have many friends in common in the film, and we’ve glancingly communicated for decades. And he just made the documentary of our shared subculture. Of course, I’m going to like this film.

However, I wondered – what about the relevance of cyberculture and the counterculture in the age of Facebook and postinternet slickness? I mean, what role does Traceroute’s subject matter have in the light of neoliberal, hyperprofessionalized cultural production evident in the mid-2010’s? But then, the words of Sandy Stone, an eternal voice of reason, rang out in my mind. She said that William Gibson (and I’d add, Sterling and the rest of the cyberpunks as well) wrote this future, and a lot of it came true. And it sort of went to shit, and we’re still doing it, and it’s all good. And I’d like to expand in saying that not just cyberculture, but counterculture just keeps going, and the fact that it’s from the 80’s or 90’s (or the 60’s, for that matter) makes any difference. What Johannes terms as nerd culture is merely many aspects of Western counterculture, and it’s a tradition that has given rise to everything from the Summer of Love to the personal computer (and that’s just San Francisco…). What Traceroute reveals is the tradition of alterity just beneath the surface of Western culture, and that it has a powerful effect on our mass consciousness, whether it is in plain sight or not. Traceroute  is debuting at the NYC Independent Film Festival, April 27-May 1, 2016.

The Rubix Cube is is not the only twisty puzzle. Learn about Pyraminx, the 2×2 and 4×4 cubes, the Megaminx on Ruwix.

The Wrong Biennial: The Wrong Project that’s So Right – a metacritique.

The Wrong Biennial, organized by David Quiles Guilló, is possibly the largest internet-based exhibition to date. With a flexible roster of 90 curators and 1100+ artists, this estimation of the exhibition may just be correct. However, as with any project of such a size, The Wrong may serve to be, as well as an overwhelming survey of contemporary media art, it could also be a mirror of individual critics and curators’ desires. But what it also represents for me is a grand bazaar of the current state of media art, and what I would like to discuss, along with a couple of the ‘pavilions’, which are the meta-effects of the exhibition.

But when I talk about The Wrong being a mirror for the hopes and desires of the curators and critics is that the reviews to date are as broad as the exhibition, and sometimes shaped to that critic’s interests or familiar territory. One critic recuses himself as more of a brick and mortar type, looks at a couple pavilions, and then addresses Lorna Mills’ post-internet satire of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing as a possible move to currently familiar territory.Conversely, the business magazine Fast Company, asks if The Wrong will finally allow digital art to sell. A virtual worlds blog hails the FrancoGrid SecondLife-like pavilion as yet another chance for “the art world to finally see the brilliant work happening inside virtual worlds”.

Lorna Mills. Ways Of Something GIF Preview, Prosthetic Knowledge. http://bit.ly/1W2Vblc
Lorna Mills. Ways Of Something GIF Preview, Prosthetic Knowledge. http://bit.ly/1W2Vblc

On Facebook, a thread with post-internet & glitch artists muse as to whether the non-institutional nature of The Wrong might constitute some dilution of the work in galleries. The views of The Wrong seem to be, in light of its sheer scope, more a reflection of what the critic finds familiar than tackling the overall project.

Rozita Fogelman on Facebook.
Rozita Fogelman on Facebook.

These are cursory cross-sections of the discussions happening online. From one review to the next, as important as the art and the artists, is the fact that Guilló has undeniably blown open a gigantic conversation about the nature of electronic art.The Wrong Biennial, regardless of its composition, structure, etc., has proven and a disruptive moment in this moment of hyperprofessionalized media art practice, and has created an online/offline archipelago larger than any festival, such as Ars Electronica, ISEA or Transmediale. And it’s free. But with the size and open nature of such an event in light of professional pressures from student loans to art fairs one asks, what good is being exceptional when you open the gates for undifferentiated curatorial practice? But conversely, art critic Jerry Saltz mentioned that the work he saw after the last art crash in the late 2000’s was more and better after the flattening effect of the crash. Could the rhizomatic effect of the bazaaring of net art created by the sheer scope of The Wrong have created one of the greatest analogies for the current explosion of media art today by giving a lot of it to the online public and creating an agora for discussion as well? 

While the effects of The Wrong I am explaining may seem like the title of the Performa ’09 biennial in saying, “Everywhere, All at Once”, Guilló took a flexible, but very rigorous approach to constructing the exhibition.  In the beginning, Guillósought funding for the project on Indiegogo, and set up bienniale and curator group pages on Facebook, as well as an extensive exhibition catalogue website. These set a framework for the numerous on/offline “pavilions”, all linked through the biennial online sites. And, periodically, there are docented online “tours” of the Biennial every week or so that attempt to make sense of the content onslaught that The Wrong presents. In a way, this biennial uses the aesthetics of the Long Tail to situate itself somewhere between “snack culture” (Wired, 2007) and recursive self-curation/the “curated life” in its structure to mirror the current cultural sociological terrain. In other words, what is as impressive regarding The Wrong is its structure as much as its content.

Screengrab from Stefan Saalfeld's promo video, The Wrong (again) - Take 5.
Screengrab from Stefan Saalfeld’s promo video, The Wrong (again) – Take 5.
Stefan Saalfeld for the Wrong (again) (image by the artist).
Stefan Saalfeld for the Wrong (again) (image by the artist).

In allowing myself to peer into the abyssal mirror of content implicit in The Wrong and see my own reflection in it, I see a project I did in 1998. I curated a show called Through the Looking Glass for the Beachwood Center for the Arts in Cleveland, a 3000+ sq. foot space. More or less, there were a number of kindly locals who were curious about digital art. For this show, I got 80+ physical artists and 40 or more online artists to show the breadth of the current scene from every continent (there was even an Antarctican photo installation…) Artists included Michael Rees, Scott Draves, Helene Black, RTMark, and many more. The show included a physical space as well as the show website (http://voyd.com/ttlg/) which also included a number of other artists. The exhibition was promoted/discussed on sites like The Thing and Rhizome, and was documented in Christiane Paul’s New Media in the White Cube and Beyond, (UC Press, 2008), somewhat mirroring Guilló’s discursive hydra. The importance was that it got a regional and international dialogue going about the state of media art at the time, much like The Wrong, but only at a fraction of the latter’s scale.

Keigo Depic Hara.
Keigo Depic Hara.

Guilló’s project transcended the museum, as in conversation online he was enroute to one of the museums he has spoken on the subject, including sites Europe, North America (SAIC) and others. In this regard, the reach of the project, while theoretically only possible as something like Ars Electronica’s Net.Condition or the Walker’s Art Entertainment Network in the late 90’s, has engaged the many social media layers from Facebook, Twitter, as well as net.distribution and reached a much wider audience. In this way, I feel Guilló has sidestepped the institution to make an exhibition that reflects the cultural terrain and social practices of its milieu – the Internet. In some ways, I feel that The Wrong could be the first true net.biennial.

With nearly a hundred “pavilions” to view, writing on any one cannot address the scope and structure of The Wrong. Perhaps I am less enthralled with ones that deal with individual artists, moreso with thematic pavilions, and more with the open call ones, as they create a generative basis for expansion of the biennial itself, creating more diversity within it.

One of the open calls that I liked well enough to volunteer for was Brazilian Gabriel Menotti’s Approximately 800 cm³ of PLA, which was an open, print-til-we-run-out, Fluxus-reminiscent, “give us a file and we’ll print it exhibition”. The resultant models were put on display at Baile, in Vitoria, Brazil, and included pieces from veteran Chicago 3D print artists Tom Burtonwood and Taylor Hokanson. Another pavilion of interest (again using the mirror metaphor, as I have been known to do work in virtual worlds) is that of the Wronggrid Pavilion in FrancoGrid, a Francophonic OpenSim (read: open source Second Life) that hosted a 6-month residency with sixteen artists. The WrongGrid Pavilion has generated a great deal of content, especially from Jeannot GrandLapin (Frère Reinert?) as the big avatar rabbit GrandLapin, and another Chicagoan, Paul Hertz. The WrongGrid virtual vernissage was one of the more memorable events in The Wrong as it gave one of the few opportunities for people to meet in the virtual across continents and share in the work in real time. But these are only two of nearly 90 sites that constitute this massive undertaking.

WrongGrid Pavilion, Image Courtesy Jeannot GrandLapin
WrongGrid Pavilion, Image Courtesy Jeannot GrandLapin

David Quiles Guilló has created a juggernaut – significant enough to get the #3 nod from Hyperallergic for top shows in 2015. From its size and scope, it represents a breadth of artists and themes that shows a fantastic cross-section of the current electronic media art ecosystem. In addition, The Wrong engages avant practices of open curation, nested participation, and relational organization while challenging the necessity of institutions and art fairs. While The Wrong may be as hard as Benjamin’s Arcades Project to get through, most sites give rich experiences, and some give empty links. What is important about The Wrong Bienniale is that it appears to be one of the few projects that is a true net.biennial in terms that it is about the net, how its links with the physical, and how it refers to projects like the Fluxus-inspired Eternal Network that explore how we create through social and technological networks. The Wrong Bienniale is a disruptive site of cultural engagement in a social milieu complaining of malaise and cynicism. It’s time to consider what media art is; how our communities interact; how we operate as a community; and what it means to be a media artist in a mediated culture.

Disruptions: Party Crashing through the Front Door – An ISEA 2015 Late Post-Mortem

Featured image: Leo Selvaggio’s Urme Surveillance.

“(I loved the FUSE opening at the Vancouver Gallery)
You couldn’t tell the ISEA work from the art!”
– paraphrased from a tweet noted by Paul Catanese

That which disrupts is fated to make its own niche, called a foothold.  

I’m late, with few excuses other than adjusting to my new role at American University Sharjah and needing to really process this event, as it presented challenges, old and new. The reflection is particularly useful in that the scope of Kate Armstrong, Malcolm Levy, et al’s vision this year in Vancouver was so grand that it is near impossible to write a fully inclusive perspective on the festival. Therefore, I will limit myself to some specific ruminations, cover highlights, and draw an epistemic vector moving forward.

What ‘clicked’ for me through the aforementioned tweet was that not only has technological art been accepted by a mainstream vis-à-vis the FUSE exhibition, denoting an aesthetic sophistication, but also an alignment with an more mainstream art-historical sensibility. Perhaps this comes from awareness of artists like the Postinternets, of which Levy is considered; have for the conventional art world while exploring technological forms. This has not always been the case, but perhaps artists like Levy, Olson, Gannis and others have answered the gauntlet thrown by Claire Bishop in the 50th Anniversary issue of Artforum, where Bishop called for the disavowl of digital art, and by association, electronic art. This results in a disruption piercing the perceived ‘wall’ between technological arts and art history/the ‘art world’. As I mentioned, because of the size, I will limit myself to highlights consisting of notable exhibitions, keynotes, and selected works of art. 

Vancouver is a city steeped in media art history. As Sara Diamond laid out so well in her keynote, Vancouver media arts encompassed feminism, alteriority, and telematics. Part of my familiarity with that history includes the activities at artist-run spaces like Western Front and Open Space, with artist like Hank Bull, Robert Adrian, Bill Bartlett, Robin Oppenheim and others trailblazing networked art through teletype, slow scan television, and satellite performance. ISEA showed that this tradition is alive and well in the Canadian West. One other remarkable Canadian (perhaps one could say American-Canadian) keynote was Brian Massumi’s talk on Affect. Brian mentioned that despite the fact that he has written extensively about topics including affect, he felt that he had not addressed the topic directly to the point that he was satisfied. Massumi integrated ideas echoing from Parables for the Virtual to today in his signature propositional style, and it is my hope that I will see this in print.

The first major site to visit was the Quoting the Quotidian opening exhibition at Wil Aballe Art Projects (WAAP). The concept was the celebration of the everyday, the found, and the appropriated.  Of course, a quick go-to would be Marisa Olson’s Time Capsule series of gold-painted media artifacts. Of the artists, the most lingering was Nicolas Sassoon’s moire GIF work, of which I was somewhat familiar. The ongoing point of interest I have with the GIF in the gallery is that its venerable age has elevated the format to near-filmic status. The gallery was small, which was surprising for an opening event, and was attended by most of the ISEA board, including Peter Anders, Win Van der Plas, and Paul Catanese…

Marisa Olson, Gold Digger (Time Capsule Series).
Marisa Olson, Gold Digger (Time Capsule Series).

Also early in the festival, I attended AM/CB’s Hakanai installation/performance. Hakanai is a cubic projection mapping work that responds to the dancer in using conceits of draped grids, Ikeda-like geometric glitches.  While the performance itself was amazing at a technical and aesthetic level, I felt that the piece itself was constrained by its technical conceits, as I never felt that there was a transcendent moment in which I felt like the techne ‘disappeared’ despite the magic that was happening. For all the situations proffered, wind, rain, etc. I never stopped thinking of how they did that, regardless of how virtuosic the work was.

AM/CB’s Hakanai performance.
AM/CB’s Hakanai performance.

Probably the most impressive feat pulled off by the ISEA organizing group was the FUSE exhibition.  This for me was likely the most impressive event, held at the prestigious Vancouver Gallery. The gala was well attended, and I was very surprised to be the subject of Facebook paparazzi of which I had no acquaintance (red carpet, indeed…). The event spanned the second floor rotunda onto the penthouse-like third floor. One of the key aspects of the show was Armstrong and Levy’s concept of dealing with electronic art and materialism, and emergent canonical forms like Glitch, with representatives of the form being works by Philip Galanter and Jon Cates. Levy’s idea for tying the exhibition to emerging media art histories clearly refers to the rich art historical space in Vancouver, as echoed by the opening gala at VIVO and trips to the legendary Western Front artist-run space.  Admitting a personal bias, it was good to see Scott Kildall’s EquityBot ultra-slick documentary (corporate?) display describing his experiments using bots to execute automatic trading on the stock market based on affective reactions in the Twitterverse. Also surprising was Paula Gaetano Adi and Gustavo Crembil’s TZ’IJK, a blind, deaf, and speechless robot made from mud.

AM/CB’s Hakanai performance.
AM/CB’s Hakanai performance.

At the Vancouver Gallery, there were a number of great works, foremost amongst them were Erin Manning and Nathaniel Stern’s The Smell of Red and Judith Doyle’s Crow Panel. Red was an intense installation that expanded on the ideas of embodied knowledge of the Senselab group at Concordia University, in which there was a sandy beach enervated with cinnamon. Rising above in areas were vortex chambers designed by his working group at UW Milwaukee that simulated dust devils over the cinnamon landscape. In the center, there were edibles that you had to enter into the installation, and I would up smelling like cinnamon for two days. Doyle’s piece, Crow Panel was a playful take on the Kinect point cloud genre in which apparitions of people, birds and the forest floor are mixed with live depth images of a rough doppelganger of data interacted with us as we entered the structured light field.  However it was not so directly representative as other pieces using the technology, and it remained lyrical and fun.  

Judith Doyle, Crow Panel.
Judith Doyle, Crow Panel.

After the Vancouver Gallery exhibition, I decided to forego the Mutek event and venture out to the LoCoMoTo happening, entitled Oscillations, held in Charleson Park. It consisted of several performance/sound/projection pieces in natural settings by Merlyn Chipman, Jeremy Inkel, Wynne Palmer, Rob Scharein, Laura Lee Coles, and many others that integrate themselves into natural settings. Of note was Send and Receive, by Mirae Rosner and prOphecy sun, an idiosyncratic performance in which they worked with huge siver inflatable forms, reminding me of giant silver tailed lamas of Indian folklore against the Vancouver skyline, creating a surreal mise en scene.

Paula Gaetano Adi and Gustavo Crembil's TZ’IJK, Image courtesy Loco Moto.
Paula Gaetano Adi and Gustavo Crembil’s TZ’IJK, Image courtesy Loco Moto.

Back on the SFU campus, my favorite piece in the festival was Polak and Van Bekkum’s piece, The Mailman’s Bag. This impressive piece is constructed from several directions; a GPS-enabled sound recorder is placed in a mailman’s bag, giving the bag the capacity of hearing. The GPS data is then used to drive a Google Street View animation that extrudes into pseudo-3D neighborhoods with the sound of the bag in the background. The neighborhoods morph and undulate as the eye moves through the space, creating an effect somewhere between a cheery Inception, Dark City, or Scanner Darkly. The Baudrillardian hyperreal becomes evident here, and becomes disturbing in its distortion of the mediated real overlaid upon surveilling data politics.

Polak and Van Bekkum,The Mailman’s Bag. Image courtesy Polak and Van Bekkum.
Polak and Van Bekkum,The Mailman’s Bag. Image courtesy Polak and Van Bekkum.

The main question that I have been pondering in writing this review is based on the beginning quote – what happens when what has been considered genre art becomes transparent? This has been a conversation that has been happening since the inclusion of New Media in numerous major exhibitions since the 1990’s. Although we can go back at least to Dada to argue that technologically-enabled work has been making incursions into the art-historical dialogue, into the 21st Century, there has been a debate about New Media, Post-Media, and postinternet art and its relation to the Contemporary. My polemic about the transparency of the ISEA work in the museum relates to where works comply with artworld hegemony, whether by accident or by strategic targeting. It’s a serious question where postinternet works like Olson’s, which refer to media, are ‘electronic’ in nature…

But then, where does this leave works that utilize traditional media but employ electronic processes or production methods leave us? In short, to imply that a work shown at a venue like ISEA should be “media” art brings us to the old conundrum of work that is not as legible to larger audiences. On the other hand, purism/formalism has often led to ghettoization in electronic arts, so this is an ongoing discussion. For now, it appears that there are many hybrid discourses that are legible as art in contemporary venues.

ISEA 2015 is likely one of the grander editions of this festival that I have attended in recent years. Congratulations to the Vancouver team for an excellent job, and the participating organizations for supporting such a grand vision. It is no small feat that the team has integrated the festival into so many of the city’s extant cultural spaces, and in a way that is seamless with the sites involved. Next year, ISEA comes to Hong Kong, and it will be interesting how the team there fares.

Headed out of Beta/Picking Your Superpower

Those were the words I noticed when interviewing Augmented World Expo organizer Ori Inbar several days before AWE2015, the trade show of Augmented and Virtual Reality. “We’re not in beta anymore…” Inbar said, “We now have companies implementing enterprise-scale Augmented Reality solutions, and with coming products like the Meta One and Microsoft HoloLens, the consumer market is being lined up as well.” With the addition of the UploadVR summit to AWE2015 the event was a blitz of ideas, technologies and new hardware.

AWE/Upload is a trade and industry event that also includes coverage of the arts and related cultural effects, although it is smaller when compared to the industrial aspect of the show. In this way it is similar to SIGGRAPH and this is much of my rationale for covering this, and also SIGGRAPH later this year? Doing so is as simple as McLuhan’s axiom of “The Medium is the Message” or, better yet, examining how developers and industry shape the technologies and cultural frameworks from which the artforms using these techniques emerge. The issue is that in examining emerging technologies we can not only get an idea of near-future design fictions but also the emerging culture embedded within it.

To put things in perspective, Augmented Reality art is not new, as groups like Manifest.AR have already nearly come and gone and my own group in Second Life, Second Front, is in its ninth year. Even though media artists are frequently early technology adopters, what appears to be happening at the larger scale is a critical mass that signals the acceptance of these new technologies by a larger audience. But with all emerging technologies there is drama driven by those industries’ growing pains. For AR & VR the last two years have certainly been tumultuous.

Last year’s acquisition of Oculus Rift by Facebook sent ripples through the technology community. Fortunately, unlike my upcoming example, the buyout did not eliminate the Rift from the landscape; instead it gained venture capital allowing for licensing of the technology for products like the Sony Gear VR. Also the current design fictions being distributed by Microsoft for its Hololens give tantalizing glimpses of a future “Internet of No Things” full of virtual televisions and even ghostly laptops. This was suggested in a workshop by company Meta and the short film “Sight”, in which things like televisions, clocks, and objective art might soon be the function of the visor.

The Internet of No Things. Image Courtesy Meta, Inc.
The Internet of No Things. Image Courtesy Meta, Inc.

However disruptive events also happen in the evolution of technologies and their cultures. The news was that scant weeks before the conference a leading Augmented Reality Platform, Metaio, was purchased by Apple. Unlike the transparency and expansion experienced by Oculus the Mataio site merely said that no new products were being sold and cloud support would cease by December 15th. In my conversation with conference organizer Ori Inbar we agreed that this was not unexpected as Apple has been acquiring AR technologies, which has been related in rumors of “the crazy thing Apple’s been working on…”; But what was surprising was the almost immediate blackout, part of the subject of my concurrent article “Beware of the Stacks”. For entrepreneurs and cultural producers alike there is a message: Be careful of the tools you use, or your artwork (or company) could suddenly falter in days beyond your control. Imagine a painting suddenly disintegrating because a company bought out the technology of linseed oil. Although this is a poor metaphor, technological artists are dependent on technology and one can see digital media arts’ conservative reliance on Jurassic technologies like Animated GIFs for its long-term viability, but to go further I risk digression.

Everyone in Headsets!

Another remarkable phenomenon this year was the near-assumption of the handheld as a experience device, and their use seemed almost invisible this year. What was evident was a proliferation of largely untethered headsets, ranging from the Phone-holding Google Cardboard to the Snapdragon-powered (and hot) ODG Android headset, boasting 30-degree field of view and the elimination of visible pixels. In the middle is the tethered, powerful Meta One headset with robust hand gesture recognition. Add in the conspicuously absent Microsoft Hololens and the popular design fictions of object and face recognition are emerging.

Like You’re Going to Have One Soon….

That is unless you are a brave early adopter, developer, or enterprise client. The fact that there was an entire Enterprise track and Daqri’s release of an AR-equipped construction/logistics helmet made it clear that the consumer market, much more prevalent last year, has clearly been placed in the long-term. For now, consumer/artistic AR is largely confined to the handheld device, as experienced through Will Pappenheimer’s “Proxy” at the Whitney Museum of American Art or Crayola’s “4D coloring books” in which certain colors serve as AR markers. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as an audience is likely to have a device that can run your app through which they can experience the art. As an aside, this is the reason why I chose to use handhelds for my tapestry work – imagine trying to experience a 21’ tapestry with a desktop using a 6’ cord! At this point, clarity and function, both partially dependent on computer power, have created a continuum from strapping your iPhone to your forehead like a jury-rigged Oculus for under $50, to potentially using a messenger bag with the Meta at $512, to the expensive ($2750), hot, but elegant ODG glasses you might try on if you visit the International Space Station.

Image Courtesy Osterhaut Digital Group
Image Courtesy Osterhaut Digital Group

Where the Rubber Hits the Road

While discussing the general shape of technology gives a context for its content and application, a media tool is often only as good as its app. Without meaning to show favoritism, Mark Skwarek’s NYU Lab team has been going outstanding work from a visualization of upcoming architectural developments to a surprising proof of concept for a landmine detection system, which I thought was amazing. Equally innovative was the VA-ST structured light headset for the visually impaired, which has several modes for different modes of contrast. These alternate methods not only was surprising in terms of application and possible creative uses but also changed my perception of AR as possessing photorealistic, stereoscopic overlays.

Other novel applications included National Geographic’s AR jigsaw puzzle sets, of which I saw the one outlining the history of Dynastic Egypt. I felt that if I were a kid, building the puzzle and then exploring it with AR would seem magical. There are other entertainment and experimentation platforms coming online like Skwarek, et al’s “PlayAR” AR environmental gaming system. But one platform I want to hold accountable for still being in late beta is the” LyteShot” AR laser tag system, which got an Auggie Award this year. My pleasure in the system is that the “gun” per se is Arduino-based, meaning that it could be a maker’s heaven. It uses the excellent mid-priced Epson headset, but at this time it is used primarily for status updates although there is a difference between AR and a heads-up display. So, from this perspective, it means that there are some great platforms getting into the market that are highly entertaining and innovative, but there are a few bugs to work out.

Ideas vs. Product

For the past thousand words or so I have been talking about the industry and applications of AR, but for me, my “soul”, if you will, set on fire during the “idea” panels and keynotes. For example, on the first day, Steve Mann, Ryan Janzen and the group at Meta had a workshop to teach attendees how to make “Veillometers” (or pixel-stick like devices to map out the infrared fields of view of surveillance cameras. Mann, famous for creating the Wearable Computing Lab at MIT and being Senior Researcher at Meta, still seemed five years ahead of the pack, which was refreshing. Another inspirational talk was given by one of the progenitors of the field, and inaugural Auggie Award for Lifetime Achievement, Tom Furness. His reflection on the history of extended reality, and his time in the US Air Force developing heads-up AR was fascinating. But what was most inspirational is that now that he is working on humane uses for augmentation systems such as warping the viewfield to assist people with Macular Degeneration. This, in my opinion, is the real potential of these technologies. In fact this array of keynotes was incredible, with Mann, Furness, the iconic HITLab’s Mark Billinghurst, and science fiction writer David Brin, (who comes off near-Libertarian) gave vast food for thought.

Steve Mann and David Brin. Image Courtesy Augmentedworldexpo.org
Steve Mann and David Brin. Image Courtesy Augmentedworldexpo.org

Auggies: The Best of the Best

Every year, the Augmented World Expo gives out the “Auggie” awards for achievements in technology, art, and innovation in AR. I think it should be noted that the Auggie is probably the world’s most unique trophy, consisting of a bust that is half naked skull and half fleshed head with a Borg-like lens with baleful eye wired into that head. The Auggie is another aspect of AWE that signals that the world of Reality media is still a bit Wild West.

There are several categories from Enterprise Application to Game/Toy (LyteShot having won this year), and many of them are largely of interest strictly to developers. For example, the fact that Qualcomm’s Vuforia development environment won three years in a row gives hint to its stability in the market, and Lowe’s HoloRoom is a wonderfully strange mix between Star Trek and Home Improvement. The headset winner was CastAR, a projective/reflective technology where polarized projectors were in the headset instead of cameras, which worked amazingly well. The other winners were gratifyingly humane applications such as Child MRI Evaluation and Next for Nigeria (Best Campaign). The prizes impressed on me that the community, or part of it, “got it” in terms of the potential of AR to help the human condition, which is perhaps a “superpower” that the conference framed itself under.

So, Where’s the Art?

Being that I am writing this for an art community it would be of interest to know where the art was in all of this. The Auggies have an Art category, as well as a gala between the end of the trade show events and the Auggie Awards. The pleasant part about AWE’s nominations for the best in AR art is that those works have integrity. Manifest.AR regular Sander Veerhof was nominated for his “Autocue”, where people with two mobile devices in a car can become the characters of famous driving dialogues (“Blues Brothers”, “Pulp Fiction”, “Harold and Kumar”). Octagon’s “History of London” is reminiscent of the National Geographic puzzles, except with far greater depth. Anita Yustisia’s beautiful “Circle of Life” paintings that were reactive to markers were on display in the auditorium but, besides a Twitter cloud and a Kinect-driven installation, the art was swamped by the size of the auditorium.

The winner of the art Auggie, Heavy & Re+Public’s’ “Consumption Cycle”, (which this writer saw at South by Southwest Interactive) was a baroquely detailed building sized mural of machinery and virtual television sets. I feel a bit of ambivalence about this work, as Heavy’s work tends to rely on spectacle. Of the lot I felt it did deserve the Auggie, purely for its execution and the effective use of spectacle. But with the emerging abilities of menuing, gesture recognition, and so on, I felt that last year’s winner, Darf Designs’ “Hermaton”, employed the potentials for AR as installation in a way that was more specific to the medium.

Consumption Cycle, Image Courtesy Re+Public
Consumption Cycle, Image Courtesy Re+Public
Hermaton, Image Courtesy Darf Design
Hermaton, Image Courtesy Darf Design

Wasn’t there VR as well?

Yes, but it was in a much smaller area than the AR displays. There were standout technologies, like the Chinese Kickstarter-funded FOVE eye-tracking VR visor, a sensor to deliver directional sound, and Ricoh’s cute 360 degree immersive video camera. The Best in Show Auggie actually went to a VR installation, Mindride’s “Airflow”, where you are literally in a flying sling with an Oculus Rift headset. Although a little cumbersome, it was as close to the flying game in the AR design fiction short, “Sight”. So, in a way, the ideas of near-future design and beta revision culture are still driving technology as surely as the PADD on Star Trek presaged the iPad.

Airflow, Image Courtesy Ori Anbar
Airflow, Image Courtesy Ori Anbar

This year’s AWE/UploadVR event showed that reality technology is emerging strongly at the enterprise level and it’s merely a matter of time before it hits consumer culture, but it’s my contention that we’re 2-4 years out unless there’s a game changer like the Oculus for AR or if the Meta or ODG get a killer app, which is entirely possible. So, as the festival’s tagline suggests, are we ready for Superpowers for the People? It seems like we’re almost there but, like Tony Stark in the beginning, we’re still learning to operate the Iron Man suit, sort of banging around the lab.

Drone: Camera, Weapon,Toy: The Aestheticization of Dark Technology

Introduction

Unmanned mobile devices, better known as drones, are one of the most significant ‘dark technologies’ of the 2010’s, and proceeds to reconfigure sociopolitical relations through the gesture of the remote gaze. Note that I say ‘mobile’, as opposed to ‘aerial’, as drones encompass unmanned land and water-based craft as well, but for our purposes, the flying eye has been the most visible technology in Baudrillard’s mediascape in terms of its use by the CIA in the Afghanistan/Pakistan and African theatres of operation.

To compound matters, the 2012 FAA Reauthorization Act has created a milieu in which estimates are that there could be 10,000 domestic drones in use by 2020 (Bennett & Rubin). Drones are going to be one of the US’s major technology growth markets, with the devices being used in geographic, aerospace, and environmental research as well as military and law enforcement uses.

From this, a strange series of cultural disconnects are emerging as drone images become Tumblr fodder as part of the ‘New Aesthetic’ art movement via James Bridle’s Dronestagram site (Bridle), and drones proliferate through sites like DIYDrones.com and even retailer Costco. What emerges is a complex cultural landscape where a burgeoning remote air force polices the globe in the name of American power, while the images generated by them elicit a perverse visual fascination amongst certain subcultures. Furthermore, only slightly domesticated versions of these technologies are now being flown by techno-enthusiasts and children. What is developing is a complex set of relations that is abstracting power, interaction, and representation.

Drone Outline, James Bridle.
Drone Outline, James Bridle.

The Aerial Camera and the Abstracted Gaze – The Drone Aesthetic

In March of 2012, a panel of five artists, writers, and designers presented a panel at the media festival South by Southwest entitled, “The New Aesthetic: Seeing Like Digital Devices” (Bridle, et al). In this panel, they stated that the aesthetics of digital vision and representation, created through algorithmically-driven imaging and devices, including generative art, Kinects, and drones, are creating a machine aesthetic signaling a distinct step in the creation of the digital image since its emergence in the 1960’s. The panel expounded upon the aesthetics of new re-presentation technologies like 3D printing as well. Keep in mind that this panel drew with a very broad brush, including everything from algorism to computer glitch media, but what has intersected with current events are robot eyes like those of drones and their cyborg sighting mechanisms that team pattern recognition with human remote operators. This panel may have faded into obscurity if it were not for Bruce Sterling’s endnote talk foregrounding the concept (Sterling).

Bridle’s creation of the Dronestagram Tumblr foregrounds the drone’s eye view or the ‘shadow’ of the drone on the landscape, as depicted by Bridle’s Drone Shadow 002 (Bridle), which was a 1:1 scale outline of a drone’s shadow in Istanbul for the 1st Istanbul Design Biennial. Other projects that highlight the gaze from and the gazing of military drones are Trevor Paglen’s Drone Vision and Omar Fast’s film, Five Thousand Feet is the Best, which tells a fictionalized encounter of a Nevada-based drone operator with an interaction between a Middle Eastern family and a group of men planting an IED. Fast makes an interesting observation in the narrative, “Seeing the world from above doesn’t just flatten things, it sharpens them. It makes relationships clearer.” (Fast) Conversely, Trevor Paglen remarks on the nature of drone vision:

“What is particularly interesting to me are the ways in which ‘seeing like a drone’ is and is not like seeing through a standard bombsight: the techno-optical regime through which conventional bombing has been conducted differs from the high-resolution full-motion video feeds that inform (and misinform) the networked bombing of late modern war. Those feeds significantly compress the imaginative distance between the air and the ground, but they do so in a highly selective fashion.” (Paglen, from Gregory)

 Omar Fast, 5000 Feet is the Best
Omar Fast, 5000 Feet is the Best

How I see the gaze of the drone is not through relief, technological regimes, or even traditional paradigms of Mulvey’s acquisitiveness of the male gaze (Mulvey), but of a Latourian network of objects (actors) in a network (Latour) that reconfigures the definition of the viewed object that the line of flight that the drone-gaze confers. In my model, the operator-node views the ‘sighted’ object through a framing of the drone camera, part of which is controlled by pattern-acquisition algorithms. What results is an augmented ‘cyborg’ sight in which the mise en scene is given the illusion of being sharpened by the technological regime of the drone’s technological systems. It is a line of flight that travels along of three nodes in a network of gaze; the operations site, the programmatic framing node of the drone-object which then redirects the gaze to the objective, transforming it from a house, person, or loved one to a target or objective. This is the problem of the cyborg gaze of the drone.

Another read of the drone gaze can be found in James Cameron’s movie, Avatar(ibid.) In it, disabled soldier Jake Sully operates a bioengineered clone of one of the native species, the Na’vi, to infiltrate their culture. While many have likened Avatar to a criticism of the Iraq and Afghanistan engagements, I posit that Jake’s avatar, is in fact a drone in biomorphic form. The difference here is not merely the optic (and haptic) immediacy of the avatar and its less destructive mission, but the avatar’s mission to win the “hearts and minds” of the native population, similar to that of the Afghanistan conflict. The drone-dream of Avatar is experience and agency without presence, although Jake does end up ‘going native’ when his human body is killed and his soul transfers into his Na’vi body. This echoes many films in which the colonizing body becomes part of the colonized demographic after spending time with them, like Dances with Wolves. It’s safe to say that a drone pilot might not want to ‘go native’ until such a biomorphic agent is invented, but Avatar problematizes the notion of remote engagement in terms of Fast’s affective gaze of the drone and its context to human relationships in addition to Cameron’s romanticization of the avatar-drone.

Jake Sully and his biomorphic drone
Jake Sully and his biomorphic drone

The second aspect of remote engagement that Avatar brings into focus is the lack of distinction between the technologically enabled person of disability versus the able-bodied person placed into a state of paralysis by being tied to the workstation or network-connected device. In The Third Interval, (Virilio) Paul Virilio posits this liminal (dis)abled state as an effect of the technological collapse of space through networked technology, but as Raunig states, a Deleuzian line of flight and invention appropriated by the state apparatus as a tool for the institution of war. Jake becomes freed by his cyborg existence, only to be trapped by the war machine of the corporate state until he is freed by the elimination of his techno-duality. It appears that true freedom can only come from the severance from remote control and cognitive integration with the drone itself. To experience the ontology of a drone, you must become one, not merely control it. (Bogost)

TechnoFetishism and the Horror of Infantilization: The Household Drone

“There are eyes everywhere. No blind spot left. What shall we dream of when everything becomes visible? We’ll dream of being blind.” – Paul Virilio

Setting aside the idea of becoming drones, I want to share a cognitive dissonance that I experienced at the end of 2012. While reading descriptions of the dark spectacle of “The Light of God” (what the laser homing beam used for the Hellfire missile has been called) in the Middle East, over Christmas 2013 I was horrified to see stacks of drones for sale at the local Costco (a regional US wholesale big-box chain) in a picture posted on Facebook by scholar Richard Grusin. I had been working with devices like the ARDrone for a couple years, but to see stacks of them for holiday sale was a grim fantasy made real. It is not that, as Paul Virilio said, there are just more eyes in the panoptic First World (in addition to police cameras, phones, ATM machines and the like), but these particular eyes that are being used as extensions of state power are being sold as infantilized versions at holiday retailers. The ARDrone was the early techno-adopter’s fetish of the 2012 shopping season, military technology commodified as completely as any iPad (which it uses as a controller, by the way). As Laurie Anderson said in the film, McLuhan’s Wake, “if you want to get the job done, you‘re gonna want the latest thing…”(McLaughlin, et al), and in this case, the thing is the ARDrone. Or it could be any of the products promoted by Chris Anderson’s new project, DIYDrones.com, a start-up he left WIRED Magazine in part to create.

The connecting conversation between the military Predator and our “pet” predator (i.e. the videodrone; and there is an irony that many of our pets are predators, such as dogs, cats, and ferrets) is that I was communicating with artist Art Jones in Karachi, Pakistan who was doing an art project with the US State Department. He called it The Pakistani Playlist(), where US artists would send media and links to him in Karachi as a form of intercultural dialogue. I sent links to devices like the ARDrone and videos of children playing with these infantilized versions of military technologies that were zipping around the outer tribal lands. My aim, and Jones understood this, was that technoculture and the military-industrial complex sells a dark dichotomy between remote hunter-killers abroad and sexy flying eyes at home that one woman even asked me to use to see if her landlord had successfully removed the bird nest from her rafters. How can something so fun and useful, because it’s little more than a radio-controlled plane with a camera, be that dangerous? What’s the worst that could happen, except for perhaps having your teenage son spying on the sunbathing girl next door? As a point of note, that scenario was one illustrated briefly in a PBS documentary called The Rise of the Drones.

Jansen's Orvillecopter.
Jansen’s Orvillecopter.

The cultural effect of the domesticated drone is that of banalization and aestheticization of military technology and its products that elide the stark reality that the ARDrone at the Costco is not a General Atomics Predator. The swarms of synchronized quadricopters being developed at Penn State in videos on YouTube are not seen in the context of their potential applications for the violation of personal privacy. In addition, Parrot (the maker of the ARDrone) offers tools to dynamically upload your flight videos to YouTube without vetting, and another app allows you to create snazzy dance numbers by creating aerial ballets for your drone on your iPad. Those who have always dreamt of flight, like me, can now share our dreams of flight through the social nets. Given this, drone flight logs have the potential of having the banality of funny cat videos and hipster Tumblr sites, while eliding the social issues these devices raise. What is the meaning of a domestic commons when Foucault’s panoptic vision is merely intensified by the number of Virilio’s public eyes? Is the fact that public eyes are now nearly universal, justifying the installation of more of them? And who are the operators, and what is the intent of the gaze of the domestic drone? And what of the configuration of the drone as fetishized object itself, such as Antoine Catala’s objectified drone exhibition (Kirsch) or Burt Jensen’s Orvillecopter(Netburn), the merger of taxidermied cat and quadridrone?
The emergence of the drone in all its configurations, fixed-wing, quadricopter, or rover, how they represent the detached gaze and how they are depicted in the media, call into the question the ethics of remote warfare, new forms of objectification, commodification, and aestheticization of intrusive technologies and their mediated production. The use of drone strikes by the CIA around the world, the intersection of these practices through critical artmaking sectors of The New Aesthetic and its obsession with the machine eye, as well as the proliferation of domestic drones (at least in North America) show the complexities of the cultural impact of this ‘dark’ technology. Furthermore, where technology is in one place a weapon, in another a toy, and yet in another a fetishized object brings us to a complex discursive locus where the extension of military power, McLuhanist body augmentation, and cultural production are all brought into question. Where the military-industrial complex has given technological apparatuses with multivalent uses such as the Internet, drones complicate the concept of the remote eye in ways that are in no way even close to resolution.

New Aesthetics: Cyber-Aesthetics and Degrees of Autonomy

Featured image: Five Thousand Feet is the Best by Omer Fast.

In perusing Honor Harger’s recent missive on drone aesthetics and James Bridle’s ongoing posts of drone images at Dronestagram, taken in context with the Glitch un-conference in Chicago, some new questions have come to mind. These questions have to do with conceptions of New Aesthetics in its various forms in terms of interaction with the program/device and its level of autonomy from the user. In my mind, there seems to be a NA continuum from generative programs that operate under the strict criteria of the programmer to the often-autonomous actions of drones and planetary rovers.  As you can see, I am still chewing on the idea that The New Aesthetic as it seems to be defined, as encompassing all semi-autonomous aspects of ‘computer vision’. This includes Glitch, Algorism, Drone imagery, satellite photography and face recognition, and it’s sometimes a tough nugget to swallow that resonates with me on a number of levels.

First, image-creating technological agents are far from new, as Darko Fritz recently stated in a talk that algorithms have been creating images, in my opinion, within criteria of NA since the 60’s, and pioneers like Frieder Nake, A. Michael Noll, and Roman Verostko have been exploring algorithmic agency for decades.  If we take these computer art pioneers into account, one can argue that NA has existed since the 60’s if one lumps in genres like Verostko’s ‘style’ of Algorism or the use of algorithms as aesthetic choice. A notch along the continuum toward the ‘fire and forget’ imaging (e.g. drones) is the Glitch contingent, which is less deterministic about their methodologies of data corruption aesthetics by either running a program that corrupts the media or they perform digital vivisection and watch what little monster they’ve created.  Glitchers exhibit less control over their processes, and are much more akin to John Cage, Dada or Fluxus artists in their allowance of whimsical or chance elements in their media.

However, as we slide along the spectrum of control/autonomy from the lockstep control of code to the less deterministic aesthetics of face recognition, drone imaging, robotic cameras, Google Street View cams, Mars Rovers and satellite imaging, things get murkier.  Autonomic aesthetics remind me of the ruby-hued Terminator T500 vision generated by intelligent agents running the ‘housekeeping’ on the machine platform. I consider this continuum from Algorism to Glitch to autonomous robotic agents under an NA continuum of aesthetics is important insofar as it defines a balance of agency between the operator and the ‘tool’. For me this is the difference between the high degree of control of the Algorist, the ‘twiddle and tweak’ sensibility of the Glitcher, and the gleaning from the database of pseudo-autonomous images created by Big Imaging created by drones and automatic imaging.  Notice I use the term ‘pseudo’ in that there are operators flying the platforms or driving the car, while the on-board agents take care of issues like pattern/face recognition and target acquisition. We also see this in Facebook, as recent technological changes as of 2012 have introduced face recognition in the tagging of images. From this, a key issue for me in this discussion of what began as a nebulous set of terms (the criteria of NA as defined by the global conversation) is that of agency and autonomy, and how much control the New Aestheticist gets in the execution of their process.  Another important point is that I am not calling the ‘New Aestheticist’ an artist or curator, but something in between, but I’ll get to that later as this is also an issue of control of intent.

Back to this idea of autonomy between the subject, the ‘curator’ and the viewer, what interests me is the degree of control or not that the person creating, tweaking, or gleaning the image has over the creation or contextualization of that image. In the case of the Algorist, this is the Control end of the spectrum, where the artist takes nearly full control of the process of creation of the image, unless there is a randomization function involved in the process, and that it itself is a form of control – very Cybernetic in nature. Agency is at a maximum here, as the artist and machine are in partnership.  Roman Verostko is a prime example of this, as he explores intricate recursive images created by ink pen plotters using paints in the pens. What he, and the AI-driven AARON, by Harold Cohen, for that matter, are machine painting.

The next step down the autonomy spectrum would involve the use of ‘glitch’ tools and processes that distort, disturb, and warp digital media. The process involves executing a given intervention upon the medium, such as saving it improperly, hex editing its code to corrupt it, or as Caleb Kelly writes, ‘crack’ the media. There are differing degrees of disturbance of the media to inject chance processes into it, from a more ‘algoristic’/programmatic application of programs upon the media to directly changing the internal data structure through manipulating the information through hex code and text editors. The resultant process is an iterative ‘tweak and test’ methodology that still involves the user in the process to varying degrees. Of course, the direct manipulation of the data with a hex editor is the most intimate of the processes, but there is still one factor to account for. The factor in question is that there is the set of causes and effects that are set in motion when the artist/operator opens the media and the codec (Compressor/DECompressor) mis/interprets the media, as is intended by the artist.

If we are to look at the glitch process, we can say that there is a point of intervention/disturbance upon the media, which is entirely a function of control on the part of the user. Afterwards, it is set loose into the system to allow the corruptions within the media to trigger chance/autonomous operations in its interpretation in the browser, etc. This is where the glitcher straddles the line between control and autonomy, as they manually insert noise into their media (control), then the codecs struggle with the ‘cracked’ media (autonomy). The glitcher, then, has the option to try a new iteration, thereby making the process cybernetic in nature. In Glitch, there is a conversation between the operator, the media and the codec. With the aesthetics created by drones, algorithmic recognition software, and satellite reconstructions, the process is far more autonomous/disjoint, and the New Aestheticist has to deal with this in the construction of their practice.

In the genre that I will call ‘mobEYEle’ imaging, the robot, satellite, or parabolic street eye abstracts from the ‘artist’, aptly turning them into an ‘aestheticist’, as their level of control is defined as that of a gleaner/pattern recognizer from the image bank of Big Data. Rhetorically speaking, we could say that a connection between the aestheticist and the generator of the image would be less abstract if, say, a New Aestheticist were to be in the room with a drone pilot, conversing about points of interest. It is likely that a military remote pilot and a graphic designer would have sharply differing views as to what constitutes a ‘target of interest’. Like that’s going to happen…

Therefore, let us just say that the collaboration of a New Aestheticist and a drone pilot is nightly unlikely, and that the New Aestheticist is therefore abstracted from the decisions of command and control involved in acquiring the image that eventually gets in their hands. This, however, presents us with two levels of autonomous agency, one human and one algotrithmic. But before I expand on this, I would like to discuss my decision to call the practitioner an ‘aestheticist’ as opposed to an artist or curator.

This decision rests on what I feel is the function of the aestheticist, that is, to glean value from an image and ‘ascribe’ an aesthetic to it. This position puts them in a murky locus between artist and curator, as they have elements of neither and both. For example, does the drone-image NA practitioner create the image; are they the artist per se, of the image? No. Although they are more closely aligned to curatorial practice as they collect, filter (to paraphrase Anne-Marie Schleiner), and post on tumblrs and Pinterests? From my perspective, the role of a curator is the suggestion of taste through and informed subjectivity through ecologies of trust and legitimacy, but the social image aggregator, although they might want to perform the same function, has no guarantee of accomplishing this unless they develop a following. Therefore, under my definition, they are neither creators nor taste-makers in the traditional sense, so what makes sense is to call them ‘aggregators’ of aesthetic material and thus my term ‘Aestheticist’.

Returning to our conversation, the drone aestheticist, then, is subject to one of two degrees of completely abstracted autonomy of the creation of the image; that of the operator or that of the algorithms operating the drone. The abstraction surrounding the human operator is easiest to resolve, as the images of interest are either the preference of the drone operator or those created by the operator under the parameters of the mission, and not the results of a New Aestheticist’s joyride on a Global Hawk. It is merely someone else’s volition selecting the image, and a confluence of personal interest deciding as to whether the image deserves to be on the New Aestheticist’s social imaging organ. However, it is the drone’s algorithmic image acquisition system that creates a more alien perspective in regards to aesthetics and autonomy of the image.

Compared to the Algorist or the Glitcher, all loosely placed under the banner of New Aesthetics, the Drone/Big Data Aestheticist is most problematic, as they are a fetishizer of sheer command and control operations that are potentially utterly abstracted from the pilot/driver’s volition. This creates a double abstraction through first the pilot, and then the algorithmic recognition system. There is no cybernetic loop here at all, as the gleaning of the item of interest from the beach of Big Data is twice removed from any feedback potential. Secondly, as I have written before, the Drone Aestheticist is exactly that, a gleaner of interesting images for use on their social image site, which in itself is a bit of an abject exercise.

Or is it? For example, if one is to say that the Aestheticist gleaning the images does so without intent or politics, and is merely operating on fetish/interest value, then this is perhaps one of the least interesting practices in New Aesthetic practice. But on the other hand, if one looks at the work of practitioners like Jordan Crandall, Trevor Paglen, or Ricardo Dominguez, who examine the acquired image as instrument of aggression, control, and oppression, this puts a new lease on the life of the Drone Aesthetic.  In a way, though inquiry, there is an indirect feedback loop established in questioning the gaze of the device, its presence, and its function in its theater of operations. The politics of the New Aesthetic emerges here, in asking what mechanisms of command and control guide the machine eye and determine its targets of interest. This is of utmost importance, as the abstracted eye is guided without subjectivity or ethics and is determined solely by the parameters of its algorithms and the stated goals of its functions.

Is the aesthetic of the machine image merely a function of examining its processes, fetishizing its errors, or something else? The criteria of the New Aesthetic attempts to talk about a spectrum of digital imaging that stretches back into time far longer than 2010, and has a problematically broad sense of definition. Once these problems are set aside as a given, one of the key criteria for the evaluation of NA practice and the function of its images depends upon the degree of control and autonomy inherent in the process within the creation of the image. This is formed in a continuum of control and abstraction from Algorism and Generative Art to autonomous eyes like drones and satellites. Algorism is one of the oldest NA practices, and exhibits the closest relationship between artist, machine and determinacy of digital process. A greater degree of indeterminacy is evident in the Glitch, but the iterative process of tweaking the media and then setting it forth into the process of interpretation by the codec, foregrounds the issue of digital autonomy.

The eye of the unmanned platform abstracts creation from the human organism at least once if a human does not operate it remotely, and twice if it is. There is the Terminator-like fear of the autonomous robot, but at this time, perhaps the more salient questions regarding what I have qualified as drone/autonomous aestheticism under NA of what the function of the image is, and is it really that interesting? Are the practices of NA blurring artistic and curatorial practice into a conceptual aestheticism, creating a cool detachment from the image despite its source or method of creation? Is the bottom line to the genres of NA the degree of control that the artist or aestheticist has over the image’s creation or its modality/intent? It seems that NA is an ongoing reflection upon the continuum of control over the generation of the image, our beliefs regarding its aesthetics, and what the intentions or politics are behind the creation of the New Aesthetic image. Or, as I have written before, are we just pinning images from Big Data and saying, “Isn’t that kinda cool?”

Maybe it’s somewhere in the middle of intention and cool.

La Cura: An Open Source Cure. An interview with Salvatore Iaconesi

In September 2012, Italian tactical media artist Salvatore Iaconesi got the diagnosis. He had a glioma (glial cell brain cancer) of approximately 2×3 cm on the surface of his right hemisphere. Upon asking to see all the data relating to his condition, he found that all of the documents, MRI scans, and so on were in obscure not readily used formats. This meant that if one wanted to view the data, you needed specific or corporate software.

What he did then was remarkable. Iaconesi then hacked the formats of the documents and converted them into open-source ones that anyone could read could read with FLOSS (Free Libre Open Source) software. He then created the site, La Cura, where he presented his records as an “open source cure”. People around the world could access his records and then add their recommendations and findings about his condition, cancer, and so on. I begin this interview with Salvatore on September 15, 2012, and the La Cura website already has a rapidly expanding database of information at http://www.artisopensource.net/cure/.

Patrick Lichty: Salvatore, thank you for having this conversation. I remember that it was only a year and a half ago when we were shop-giving copies of the REFF tactical media book from your project, Fake Press in Rome. So, it was a shock when I learned of the glioma the day you launched the site. Could you talk a little about what is on the La Cura site?

Salvatore Iaconesi: Hi Patrick! Yes I do remember, too. And that is also a great explanation on what can be found at La Cura site: it is like one of our “fakes”, except that it is not a fake.

La Cura is about an alternative reality which I want to materialize on this planet, now. In this alternative reality, when someone has a serious disease, life does not end. One can be social, creative, and friendly. Work, art, design, fun and entertainment are possible for diseased people in this alternative reality, just as it is possible to reach out to find cures in any philosophy, time, strategy, culture or way one wishes. And consider that even technologies in this alternative reality are designed to enable and facilitate all this, actively promoting the freedom and autonomy of people.But, sadly, life is not like this alternative reality.

I wanted it to be my alternative reality, so I just did everything it took to bring that reality into the world. It’s like when you make an Augmented Reality application: you do a series of things to “materialize” some other things into ordinary reality. And then you have them, right there. So, La Cura is my personal Augmented Reality, in which, if I want to, I have all the tools and information I need to find a “cure” for my disease in one of multiple ways and strategies, which are medical, cultural, technological, emotional, artistic, political etc.

To achieve this, I have had to go through a series of obstacles:

The first is connected to language and information, as the first thing you notice at the hospital is that they are not really talking to you. Medical language is difficult and complex, and they rarely take action to make things more understandable to you. One of the testimonies I received in La Cura was that of a lady who has found herself in front of a doctor shouting at her: “You really think that I will explain to you why your thyroid has to be removed? It has to be removed! That’s it!”

This is really not “open”, in any sense. And, in more than one way, it is an explicit evidence of the approach which medicine has towards patients: they cease to be “humans” and become sets of parameters on a medical record subject to certain protocols and standards. When you are in the hospital, it’s often as if you’re not there.  The only thing that matters is your data: blood pressure, heartbeat, magnetic resonance etc.

And the way in which information reflects this if handled in this context. Data formats may be, technically “open”, meaning that they are described somewhere but they’re really an explicit reflection that when you’re sick you “step out of society”. That data is usable and accessible only to “professionals” and to those people who have tools and skills to handle them.

Salvatore Iaconesi's scrollwheel - you can use your mouse                                                                               to navigate the graph. Info is added to it each day.
Salvatore Iaconesi’s scrollwheel – you can use your mouse to navigate the graph. Info is added to it each day.

I, as someone with considerable expertise with computers, have had some difficulties in opening them.  Imagine someone else with less skill!  Most people would not have been able to benefit from all the types of “cure” which I am currently accessing from a variety of sources and modalities. They would not have access to a “cure” that doesn’t end at a list of medicines and dosages, but spreads out into society.

To do that, I have had to hack into the information and convert it into really “open” data, using multiple formats that could be used by many kinds of people to do multiple things. In the format that the data was originally in, even if it was “technically open”, that data would have been seen only by “professional doctors” and, instead of being a “human being”, I would only have been a “patient”, or worse yet, a “case”.

PL: What do you want people to do with the information?

SI: Whatever they wish! Obviously! What is important in this case is that we must agree on what the “information” is… What I am publishing is my autonomous will to disclose my state of disease, including all data and medical information. I have my own purposes for this, but it does not necessarily mean that this purpose must/should be shared by others.

My personal purpose for this disclosure is to autonomously shape my own human condition. I have a disease but I am not a “diseased person”. I am a person. And, as such, I wish to create my personal “cure”, which has to do with my life, not with my disease. For what people know, I might even consider cancer as not being a “disease” at all! I might, for example, consider it an expression of the “cure”, such as if I adhered to Hamer’s theories. Which I don’t, or, at least, not in the sense that “I believe” in Hamer’s theories; I take them into consideration, but I don’t believe in them, just as I don’t believe in chemotherapy, in Aloe Vera, in Caisse Formula, in surgery, in shamanism, in healers, oncology or in any of these things. I take all of them into serious consideration, just as I seriously consider certain philosophies that say that we are made of energy, energy creates matter, and cancer is “matter” and so on. Therefore, cancer must be created by energy in some form. And so it could possibly be that I created cancer myself in a way or another.

So in this sense, I think it is very important to be able to easily look at the images of my cancer and to say “hello” to them. It is important to turn them upside down, to edit them with GIMP, to make mosaics out of them, to speak to them, asking “hello?” What are you doing in there? Did I do something to cause you?  Can I change something to make you/myself feel better?”

Both scientific and traditional evidence shows that art, positive emotions, laughter, reduced stress, and a good social life have great practical benefits to the human body, I want to seriously consider that part of my cure could be formed by receiving an image of my brain with a smiley face drawn across it over the tumor, or a picture of a friend of mine, or a video of a projection mapping done with Processing in which the images of my cancer cover a whole facade of a building.

And since I don’t want to believe, but I want to take all of these things into serious consideration, I cannot focus only on the “medical” approach (and the related information, and its formats).  I need to access all of my information in multiple ways, and I wish that everyone could do the same (as, from my point of view, it’s part of my Cure). And, even if “technically open”, the format in which my medical records have been disclosed is not enough, because it is “open for professionals” and so the only thing I could do with it would be “show it to professionals”, missing out on all the other wonderful parts of the “cure” which are available in the world.

This for me, is an interesting starting point to think about what things such as “OpenData” could mean.  This is far beyond the idea that some government can some data according to ways in which some “professionals” could grab it and, do something like make a visualization or an App out of them. Who knows?  In this sense, instead, we would not be talking about “technology”, we would be talking about “humanity”.

In the end, this is exactly what I’d like people to do with the “information”. I want the world to take the fact that I decided to disclose the fact that I have a disease and that I want to actively search for a cure for from all of these perspectives.  In the meantime, I want to reconsider what it means to be “diseased” in current times and what new conceptions of the word “cure”, “medicine” associated with my condition could mean.

Iaconesi's video on Youtube "My Open Source Cure". Click above image to watch video.
Iaconesi’s video on Youtube “My Open Source Cure”. Click above image to watch video.

PL: What has happened since you launched the La Cura site?

SI: Lots of things. People are contributing and participating in multiple ways. There are testimonies, art, poetry, suggestions, videos, performances. Many doctors have called in to propose their methodologies and technologies. I have had very interesting and profound discussions with people who are prepared to deal with very complex things every day of their lives. I’ve communicated with doctors who are perfectly open to the possibility of such a paradigm change for the word “cure”. Artists, designers, activists, are giving me wonderful parts of “cure”. Many “patients”, “ex-patients”, “relatives” and “friends” of “diseased people” are sharing their experiences, are opening discussions, are sharing the information I found on possible medical cures. And so many people want to talk to someone in new and different ways, becoming again, simply, humans. Journalists from all kinds of media have started to ask for interviews, texts and videos. We stopped that after a while, as we don’t wish to turn this into merely a “spectacle”. We only keep on working on this with journalists which we know we can trust and which we know will not transform what we say to produce their news.

PL: For your information, I had an MRI in 2009 here in the States, due to my doctors’ concerns of something similar (nothing was found), but when I asked for the data, I got a CD full of JPEG images. Were you surprised when you found out your records were in particular formats?

SI: They were not really in a proprietary format. Let’s call them “exotic formats for professionals”. And yes, I would have expected something which I could have shared easily (such as your JPEG images, and maybe some meta-data in some easy to use format such as XML, or even a spreadsheet). But this was a sort of paradox: an “open” format which is really hard to open and to use for something else other than putting the CD in an envelope and (snail)mailing to the next doctor.

PL: What do you think the line is between privacy and data oppression? Would that be when the patient is denied access to their rights to access the information and distribute it as they wish?

SI: We should all know this by now. Privacy is not a problem unless the “system” is made by lousy people. We have tools to protect ourselves and to promote ourselves, and these tools are dangerous only when who runs them is a lousy person. Privacy protection arises through education (understanding what is privacy and when/where/how/why would I want to protect it) and through the acquisition of decent ethics from the people and organizations which run the entire infrastructure through which all our digital data goes through. And obviously, and most importantly, our ethics is created by helping each other out in a P2P way, teaching each other what we know, what we discover and how we decided to handle it when we found out.

There is no single line between privacy and data oppression. Not one which everyone would agree on. We have the tools for each one of us to tune this line to our own wishes, according to what we want to do, what are our desires, what are our objectives etc. We “just” need more places (physical, digital, virtual, institutional, occasional…) in which to discuss and share our points of view, as every time this happens, many things are learned on all sides.

PL: Do you consider your site a form of radical tactical media intervention?

SI: I can now say “I have a radical tactical media intervention in my head”. Cancer is the new Black. The Cancer is the Message. And we could go on. I don’t know. I guess I could call it that. I also guess I could call it a performance. I guess I could call it life. I guess I could call it hacking or whatever. I will just call it La Cura.

PL: What has been the most inspirational information, art, or otherwise that has resulted from the launching of the La Cura site?

SI: The most enlightening thing that happened is the experience of talking about the same exact thing using dozens of different languages. I have spoken with neurosurgeons, shamans, nutritionists, pranotherapists, doctors, activists, macrobiotics, hippies, cyberpunks, punks, friends, relatives. Most of the time, I received incredibly good advice. When you look at that advice from different points of view, you start to understand that you are really talking about the same thing, but in different languages.

For example, two of the most important things which you deal with when you talk about cancer are the idea of creating alkaline environments in your body (because cancer cells cannot stand them) and the facts that anti-oxidants are a great tool in support of any type of therapy (because of the molecular reactions which are at the base of cancer).

Well, speaking of just these two, it occurred to me that multiple theories deal exactly with these two concepts.  I have had an esoteric master describe my cancer as an invisible living being, and he suggested to drive it away using sulfur and Rosa Rubiginosa oil, in ways which turn them into two incredible anti-oxidants and creators of alkaline environments as well as powerful stimulants of the immune system. I have also spoken with nutritionists and macrobiotics communities and learned about their instructions on choosing food, cooking and eating, many of which are directed exactly to that: anti-oxidants and creating alkaline environments, but through food.

And when an oncologist explained us his therapy, that’s exactly what it was about: powerful anti-oxidants and alkaline environments. And on, and on and on.  Aloe Vera, Caisse formula, fungus theory, chemiotherapy, Di Bella method, potassium ascorbate, ketogenic diets, etc: all highlight cancer cells in some way; create an environment around them which is as alkaline as possible; anti-oxidate them; activate the immune system as powerfully as possible so that the highlighted weakened, cancer cells can be more easily “convinced” at mutating back to a decent form or to commit suicide with the help of the immune system. Realizing this is an enlightening experience: it spans across thousands of years and also helps you make some choices (things stand out when they speak about different things!).

Everything else that is going on in La Cura is wonderful, but having realized this fact is just incredible and fascinating. You start imagining about all the other things we discuss about in our daily lives using multiple languages (energy, politics, emotions…) and start to wonder what would happen if you turned on this shared, P2P modality in those cases as well.

PL: How do you hope that others will benefit from the conversation that you are starting through La Cura?

SI: I don’t “hope” anything. I did this because I felt I needed to. When one talks about “revolution” dialogues start arriving at the point when one says, “Let’s burn everything down!” “Let’s destroy everything!” and so on.

We know we can’t do it. We can’t “destroy everything”. It’s not possible. What we can do is to create a reality as if everything already happened – as if the “revolution” already happened, as if the world had been burned down already, and rebuilt, just the way you like it. We can live life like this. It is a bit more than “seeing things”. But you do Augmented Reality, Patrick. You know what I mean. It’s a bit more than “writing”, it’s about creating worlds.

PL: As of this interview, what is the prognosis of your condition?

SI: Depends on what perspective you look at it from. From the medical point of view I have a low-grade glioma at intensity which is still undecided, between 1 and 2 (we will have to wait an histologic exam to know for sure). From the human point of view: I am fine! I have no apparent symptoms. I just need to be careful because if I find myself in stressful situations I could react by having an epileptic shock. So it is not advised that I drive or things like that. It’s the perfect excuse! 🙂

PL: Don’t you think it’s funny that the abbreviation for your name is “si”?

SI: Sì! Obviously 🙂