I met Eugenio Tisselli in Edinburgh at the Remediating the Social conference in November 2012. Eugenio gave a presentation on the project Sauti ya wakulima, “The voice of the farmers”: A collaborative knowledge base created by farmers from the Chambezi region of the Bagamoyo District in Tanzania, and “by gathering audiovisual evidence of their practices they use smartphones to publish images and voice recordings on the Internet”, documenting and sharing their daily practices.
I was struck by his sensitivity to the social contexts and political questions around this type of project engagement. This interview explores the challenges we all face in connecting to a deeper understanding of what technology can succeed in doing beyond the usual hype of the ‘New’ and its entwined consumerist diversions. Not only does the conversation highlight how communities can work together in collaborating with technology on their own terms. But, it also discusses the artists’ role in the age of climate change and the economic crisis, locally and globally.
Marc Garrett: Can you explain how and why the Sauti ya wakulima, “The voice of the farmers” project came about?
Eugenio Tisselli: Sauti ya wakulima is the fruit of my collaboration in the megafone project, started in 2004 by Catalan artist Antoni Abad. During six years, we worked with different groups at risk of social exclusion, such as disabled people, immigrants or refugees. The idea was to provide these groups with the tools to make their voices heard: smartphones with a special application that made it easy to capture images, sound recordings or short videos, and a web page where these contents could be directly uploaded. Using these tools, the participants of each project were able to create a collaborative, online “community memory”, in which they could include whatever they considered to be relevant. Although megafone was relatively successful and, in some cases, made a positive impact on the people who participated, I was worried that the project was becoming too dispersive. We worked in six countries, with extremely different groups. So, in 2011, I decided to follow my own path and apply a similar methodology into more focused projects, related with sustainable agriculture and environmental issues. I realized that the projects which sought to increase the empowerment of a community could become too complex for a single artist to handle. That’s why, in Sauti ya wakulima, I’m not “the artist”, but a member of a transdisciplinary team which includes biologists, agricultural scientists and technicians. Such a team came together after my PhD advisor Angelika Hilbeck, my colleague Juanita Sclaepfer-Miller and myself came across the possibility of working with farmers in Tanzania. The network formed by local researchers, farmers and ourselves was quickly formed, so we started the project on March, 2011.
MG: I find it interesting that you made the decision to put the role of artist aside. This reminds me of a discussion in Suzi Gablik’s book published in 1995 ‘Conversations before the end of time’; where James Hillman in an interview talks about learning to refocus our attention from ourselves and onto the world. Further into the conversation Gablik says “In our culture, the notion of art being a service to anything is an anathema. Service has been totally deleted from our view point. Aesthetics doesn’t serve anything but itself and its own ends”.
So, I have two questions here. The first is how important was it for you to put aside your status as an ‘artist’, and what difference did it make?
And, where do you think you and others may fit when considering the discussion between Gablik and Hillman?
ET: It is important for me to make it clear that I didn’t abandon my role as an artist. Instead, I fully assumed my status, but only as a member of a transdisciplinary team. I believe that this may be a point of departure from the classical view of the artist as a “lone genius”, which is closely related to the discussion about service in art. So I’ll try to interweave both questions together. In a recent publication, Pablo Helguera aimed to set a curriculum for socially engaged art. He identified the new set of skills to be acquired by the artists, and the issues they must address when dealing with social interaction. But, as Helguera suggests, perhaps what’s most important is to overcome the “prevailing cult of the individual artist”, which becomes problematic for those whose goal is “to work with others, generally in collaborative projects with democratic ideals.”  To me, this implies that the artist must give up control of the work to a certain degree. I find myself in this scenario, and I think of my role in Sauti ya wakulima as that of an instigator and coordinator. Furthermore, all of us involved in Sauti ya wakulima aim to effect actual changes in the lives of the participating farmers, rather than obtaining purely symbolic results. Our project is a socially engaged artwork that wants to be useful, to deliver a service.
We are living in urgent times, beyond any doubt. Looming global challenges, such as climate change, radically cancel the luxury of being useless, of not doing anything. This includes the artist who, as any other citizen, is called to use his or her abilities to help in preventing a catastrophe. I especially like Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s proposal about the new task that the artist might assume: that of reconstructing the conditions for social solidarity. This work of reconstruction would oppose competition, a value often found in the markets that deal with self-referential, self-serving artworks. Solidarity, writes Berardi, is neither an ethical nor a political program, but a pure aesthetic pleasure . In my opinion, the artists who still embrace the idea that art should only serve its own ends will become those who play the lyre while our world burns.
MG: What kind of behaviours began to emerge once the farmers took control of the smartphones supplied?
ET: It was quite interesting to see that the farmers started to use the phones for purposes which were different from those that we had originally proposed. This happened very soon after the project started. Only one month had passed, and the farmers had already started to go beyond merely documenting the effects of climate change. They interviewed other farmers, and asked them all sorts of questions about their crops and agricultural techniques, their opinions and views. In short, they slowly laid out a web of mutual learning. This was a real eye-opener for us. As we began to observe this, the environmental researchers in the team became worried that the farmers were deviating from the goals that we had set. I wanted to leave room for this deviation, as I was particularly interested in studying the process of technological appropriation. So I had to convince the researchers that we should leave enough room for the farmers to freely explore the potentials of the smartphones. It was not easy but, in the end, negotiating the tensions between a goal-oriented and an open-ended research turned out to be quite fruitful.
On one hand, the farmers found that they could shape the project to fit their interests which, as they said, were to “learn about what other farmers in remote areas were doing.” On the other, the researchers finally realized that the images and voice narrations posted by the farmers were an invaluable source of information about what was actually going on in the farms and within the communities. Sometimes, agricultural initiatives may be designed with an insufficient understanding of the social context in which they are applied. By allowing the farmers to publish a wide range of topics, Sauti ya wakulima became a “community memory” that reveals rich details about farming and the social life of rural communities in Bagamoyo.
MG: In your presentation at Remediating the Social, I remember a quote from one of the farmers saying “The project helped me learn that phones can be used for other things besides calling people, and that computers can also be used to solve problems: they are not just a fancy thing for the rich people in towns.” What’s interesting here is, these words could be said any where. And that our consumer orientated culture could still learn a few things regarding uses of technology.
What lessons can the farmers teach ‘us’ in a culture where computers are part of the everyday life?
ET: I have interpreted this particular quote in two different ways. The first, most obvious one, is that the farmers discovered that the smartphones and the web can be useful tools, which may be shaped and adapted to meet their needs. For many of them, Sauti ya wakulima was their first chance at trying out these technologies. And, happily, the project showed us all that they can become an important ingredient in making farmers’ lives a little better.
However, my second interpretation is not as optimistic: in the quote, there is an explicit comparison between the (poor) farmers living in remote areas and “the rich people in towns.” Moreover, the fact that smartphones are explicitly considered as fancy devices points towards issues which need to be handled very carefully. In every part of the world, technological gadgets are quickly becoming symbols of social status. Currently, I am working in a rural zone in southern Mexico where cellphone coverage was nonexistent only two years ago. But as soon as the first antennas were installed, young people in those communities started buying smartphones, and now there is an open competition to see who has the fanciest one. A similar thing happens in Bagamoyo.
So, of course, smartphones can be useful tools, but they can also bring more consumerism into poor communities. This is very dangerous. I’d like to stress that, in our project, the smartphones are used as shared tools. This means that there is a limited number of devices available, and everyone must have a chance to use them at least once. I believe that this is a small but significant contribution towards diluting the extreme individualism and consumerism that are closely linked to these technologies.
The farmers I have met in Bagamoyo have a very strong sense of community. Although their farms can be very far apart, sometimes with no roads between them, they still get together very often. They work together, learn together, have fun together. That’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned: we need each other’s presence. Quoting “Bifo” again, we are living in a time of precarization of the encounter of bodies in physical space. I agree with him that the most important poetic revolution has to be the re-activation of bodies. The farmers, with the great efforts they make to get together, and the great joy they find in doing so, have taught me a great deal: I need to get out of Facebook and step in to the “here and now”, together with others.
MG: What has this experience taught you. And how will it impact your future practice as an artist?
ET: I have partially replied to the first part of this question. But besides learning how to re-dimension the importance of computers in my life, I have also learnt a lot about agriculture. This is not a minor thing for me: after all these years of living in big cities, and realizing that I lack a basic connection to the earth, I believe I have found the best possible teachers. Of course, I’ve also learnt a lot about how to work with non-expert users of technology. This has made me better as a teacher. And, as you can imagine, many of the things we take for granted at home won’t necessarily work in Bagamoyo. So, doing projects in difficult environments has taught me to adapt, and to transform things that escape my control into opportunities. All of this changes me, not only as an artist but as a human being. My artistic practice is already quite different from what it was before Sauti ya wakulima. I have adopted a very critical position towards technology. Now, this is also a major shift: I started programming creatively when I was ten years old, and have been a media artist almost since then. But I feel I can’t go on with those artistic explorations, knowing what I know now. Consequently, last year I wrote and published a small note explaining why I stopped creating works of e-Literature, a field in which I was involved for more than ten years . That was both a closure and a point of departure. Let’s see what the future brings.
Excerpt from ‘Why I have stopped creating e-Lit’ by Tisselli (November 25th, 2011)
Dear friends: this morning I went for a walk along the Naviglio Grande in Milan, and I entered a shop selling second-hand books. There I found a small book, “The Computer in Art”, by Jasia Reichardt, published in London in 1971. The book described the works of pioneers of Computer Art, such as Charles Csuri or Michael Noll, who were active at that time. A real gem. But the biggest surprise came when I turned to the last page, on which the previous owner had written: “I married on 23, November. I would like to be a man, not artist, not engineer, a man.”
I took the book with me.
Those involved in the Sauti ya wakulima / The voice of the farmers project.
The farmers: Abdallah Jumanne, Mwinyimvua Mohamedi, Fatuma Ngomero, Rehema Maganga, Haeshi Shabani, Renada Msaki, Hamisi Rajabu, Ali Isha Salum, Imani Mlooka, Sina
Group coordinator / extension officer: Mr. Hamza S. Suleyman
Scientific advisors: Dr. Angelika Hilbeck (ETHZ), Dr. Flora Ismail (UDSM)
Programming: Eugenio Tisselli, Lluís Gómez
Translation: Cecilia Leweri
Graphic design: Joana Moll, Eugenio Tisselli
Project by: Eugenio Tisselli, Angelika Hilbeck, Juanita Schläpfer-Miller
Sponsored by: The North-South Center, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology – Zürich
With the support of: The Department of Botany, University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM)
Featured image: Environmental Risk Assessment Rover – ERAR – AT (2008) Mobile, Solar Powered, Networked Installation Off the Grid, Neuberger Mus
Refusing to regard technology merely as a tool, Ecoarttech expand the uses of mobile technology and digital networks revealing them to be fundamental components of the way we experience our environment. Their most recent work Indeterminate Hikes + (IH +) is a phone app that maps a series of trails through the city. IH + can be accessed globally, or wherever users have access to Google Maps on their mobile phones. After identifying the users’ location, IH + generates a route along random “Scenic Vistas” within urban spaces. Users are directed to perform a series of tasks along the trail and provide feedback in the form of snapshots generating an ongoing, open-ended dialogue.
But the experience of their work is primarily an encounter with technology. Since 2005, Leila Nadir and Cary Peppermint of Ecoarttech have been engaged in an artistic exploration of environmental sustainability and convergent media. By drawing our attention to the increasing replacement or mediation of physical experiences by technology, Ecoarttech challenge the widely reproduced distinction between nature and culture. They present their work in the form of videos, digital networks, blogs, performance and installations. Their early video-based work (Wilderness Trouble and Frontier Mythology) plays out a performative and ironic encounter with the natural environment as a historically constructed concept. In the summer of 2005 Ecoarttech made A Series of Practical Performances in the Wilderness (2005) a database networked performance in QuickTime (DVD and Podcast). The short clips document what Ecoarttech ironically describe as “the experiences of two New Yorkers embarking on their first four months in the woods“. Their objectives were nothing short of
…establishing a functional home without running water, electricity, or maintained roads; developing relationships with locals; un-learning the romanticization of nature while re-learning humanity’s dependence on the environment for survival; and researching the details of the history of the land and the surrounding area.
Sophia Kosmaoglou: The confrontation with the concept of “wilderness” appears to motivate much of your work to date. How did A Series of Practical Performances in the Wilderness begin and how did you fare?
Leila Nadir and Cary Peppermint: About eight years ago, we were very fortunate to acquire a primitive cabin on 50 acres of wild, wooded land, and the experiences we had there changed us completely. Each time we drove from NYC to our “camp” as the locals called it, we were immobilized for about 3-4 days, hardly able to move our bodies as our nervous systems screeched to a halt, adjusting to the quiet. We found a freedom in the woods that we couldn’t find the city – the freedom to take up space, to play, to be quiet, slow, and still. We were also amazed by how some people in the country could seemingly live more independently from bloated global economic systems, growing their own food, chopping their own fuel, harvesting solar energy. They interacted directly with the natural environment whereas we had spent our entire lives ecologically infantilized by overdependence on the industrial grid. We began spending several months at a time at our cabin in the woods: A Series of Practical Performances in the Wilderness is a document of our environmental adventures at that time. It was our first attempt at making art in remote, wilderness spaces. It was a sort of performance of ecological/cultural collision.
SK: How did this experience inform your subsequent work?
LN & CP: As we began to study environmental theory, we realized that not only does little “true” wilderness actually exist, the myth of wilderness was used to obscure the history of indigenous people living on the North American continent. Our own land, we learned, had once been a pasture and had been logged numerous times. Coming to terms with the fact that we hadn’t really retreating to “nature” was the focus of our video Wilderness Trouble which attempts to imagine a new kind of environmental ethics that includes urban and electronic spaces and modern networked culture. However, we still believe that wilderness provides a lot of imaginative potential. Amazement at sublime landscapes can provoke an emotional response that can be politically motivating, and we have tried to take advantage of that potential in our smartphone app Indeterminate Hikes +. By importing the rhetoric of wilderness into everyday life through Google-mapped hiking trails, the app attempts to inspire a sense of ecological wonder at usually disregarded spaces, such as city sidewalks, alleyways, and apartment buildings. We wanted to see what would happen if a walk down a sidewalk were treated as a wilderness excursion. What if we consider the water dripping off an air-conditioner with the same attention that we give a spectacular waterfall in the wilderness?
SK: There is a recurring effort in your work to question the opposition between environment and technology, which is usually accompanied by an ironic undercurrent in your narration and editing that acknowledges what you call “cultural collision”. In Google is a National Park and Nature is a Search Engine which is also part of a series of performances called Center for Wildness in the Everyday (2010), itself conceived as an ecosystem, you suggest that an “environment” is a network of relationships common to natural as well as technological systems, whether it is the ecosystem of a river estuary or Google. Do you see this as a sustainable analogy or a productive contradiction?
LN & CP: Part of what we find frustrating about a lot of environmental thought is that it either wholly rejects technology as the cause of ecological crises so our only solution is to go primitive or wholly embraces technological progress as a saviour, which often means we have to trust in corporate and scientific innovation to lead the way. We think there is another way. We see humans as essentially technical beings: human-animals literally cannot survive without technics. The U.S. military survival guide comes right out and admits that your situation is pretty hopeless if you are stranded in the wilderness without at least a knife. If technology is part of who we are – and we find Bernard Stiegler’s work helpful for thinking this through – then we have also evolved with technology. We are not the same sorts of humans as, for example, Leila’s great-grandmothers in Slovakia or Afghanistan a century ago. The question, then, is not, Yes or No to Technology, but rather, How do we engage technology sustainably and in a way that supports creativity and freedom? And if human beings are technical beings, relying on nature and culture simultaneously, is it even possible to distinguish between what’s natural and what’s not? Isn’t our sustenance dependent upon not only our biological needs (clean air, water and food) but also our cultural practices, beliefs, and imagination? This is why we find it essential to think about electronic spaces and digital technologies whenever we think about the “environment.”
The installation called Google is a National Park and Nature is a Search Engine, a work that is part of a series of performances called Center for Wildness in the Everyday commissioned by the University of North Texas. Our task for this commission was to create a networked artwork about the Trinity River Basin, the source of water for the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. In the image, the Trinity River looks like a space of natural refuge but the scientists we worked with there explained that the River’s flow is guaranteed only by the recycling of waste water at treatment plants. We wanted to create a work that juxtaposed this hidden constructedness of “nature” with the more obvious man-made Google – two processes or entities that we rely on everyday for our ecological sustenance: water management and online information.
SK: In 2008, you made the Environmental Risk Assessment Rover, a solar-powered module, which gathers and projects information regarding threats in the immediate environment. Although the ERAR is a sizeable aggregate of equipment that is carted around in a wagon, it seems to be the precursor to handy mobile phone apps. How does the ERAR work?
LN & CP: This project is part of our ongoing engagement with science – especially environmental science, which is also a focus of our 2009 work Eclipse. When you work at the crossroads of art and science, as we do, there is often an assumption that the role of the arts in this interdisciplinary exchange is to visualize or communicate knowledge produced by scientists. In contrast, ERAR asks what we learn when science breaks down – or when we use science to “interrupt” experience rather than to predict behaviours. The project arose out of our observations of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s handy yet arguably useless colour-coded terror alert system launched post 9/11 and our experiences with what risk theorist Ulrich Beck calls “science’s monopoly on truth”. Somewhere Beck writes that cows can turn blue next to a chemical plant, but unless science actually proves that the chemicals are the cause of the blue, nothing will be done about the situation. So although other forms of knowing might tell us that the plant is a public health risk, there is nothing we can do until Science “proves” a direct causal relationship. The Rover collects real-time risk data relative to its GPS coordinates, such as car or subway accidents, air pollution levels, violent crimes, proximity of superfund sites, and ground water toxicity, and then determines the aggregate local threat level through a 14-tiered alert system, ranging from “Holiday Shopping” and “Plastic Bags” to “Girls Gone Wild” and “Ask Your Doctor”. Obviously there is a bit of Dada in this work – but not Dada as simple chaos, as it is popularly invoked, but rather Dada as a shocking exposure of the limits of modern reason at the same time as it brings to the surface something that many of us have repressed from consciousness: the subliminal knowledge that there are ways of knowing the world that come from non-scientific experiences and observations. This tension between scientific expertise and everyday experience is also at play in our recent work #TrainingYRHuman.
SK: Have you considered launching it as a phone app?
LN & CP: The ERAR was our first truly mobile work, and it would probably make an interesting phone app – however, the public spectacle it creates is integral to the effectiveness of the work. Pulling around a wagon of technological parts that beams alerts onto the side of buildings is an art action and an effective conversation starter.
SK: Social networks and mobile phone app technology have rapidly become established means of communication and art galleries currently employ these technologies conventionally to replace audio guides. Your current work explores social networks and phone apps as potentially innovative platforms for art. Indeterminate Hikes + (2012) and #TrainingYRHuman (2011) can be accessed in diverse contexts and within everyday activities. They address a broad public, providing a plurality of entry points without necessarily being identified as art. How has the public responded to these projects so far and how do you hope to see them pan out in the long-term?
LN & CP: What motivates us most about working with new technologies is how they can be misused for unexpected purposes. Smartphones, generally, are deployed as devices of rapid communication and consumerism, to get you what you want and where you want as quickly as possible. Our app Indeterminate Hikes + reappropriates this mobile technology for a very different end, turning smartphones into tools of environmental imagination and meditative wonder. It transforms ubiquitous computing into an opportunity to notice the happenings occurring all around us in our local environments, to see sublimity in our backyards, alleyways, streets and neighbourhoods. Like many of our works, this is also a way to aesthetically pose an alternative to environmentalism’s frequent anti-media stance and to popular culture’s uncritical embrace of technology. We want to dream new ways of being without falling into prescribed behaviours or reactionary responses, whether with the food we eat, the technologies we interact with, or the environmental relations we imagine. Foucault’s call for the creation of “gay style” as an antidote to heteronormative culture has always resonated with us in our attempts to rethink dominant ways of being: what is the space of freedom in which one can intervene and express oneself, invent, upend? The mood after our public indeterminate hikes is often euphoric, and participant-hikers comment that they see the world anew. If enabled to be, smartphones can be a platform for chance operations, which, as Allen Kaprow explained, can create “near-miracles”: “when something goes ‘wrong,’ something far more ‘right,’ more revelatory, has many times emerged”. Our app can be used anywhere, any time, by anyone who has an Android phone or who attends our performances, so hopefully there will be many people misusing their smartphones and taking wilderness hikes in the wrong places for a long time. An iPhone version will be released this spring/summer 2012.
#TrainingYRHuman, a work-in-progress, is a participatory Twitter-based net artwork about the agency of animals who live with human-animals as well as an attempt to speak back to science’s monopoly on truth. In recent years, a burst of scientific research has illuminated animals’ behaviours, ethical attitudes, modes of cognition, and psychological awareness, yet usually when we read news of this work, we think: Were all those scientific tests really necessary to figure out that a certain animal species has feelings? Many people who work and live closely with animals already had abundant anecdotal evidence to support the fact that nonhuman animals have diverse personalities and creative problem-solving skills, that they think, feel, and are conscious. #TrainingYRHuman is a gesture toward bringing those anecdotes into the public record, toward creating a sort of oral history database of animal-agency stories that usually only circulate subliminally in our informal conversations. At the same time, it is a moment for human-Tweeters to imagine what it’s like to be a nonhuman animal, inventing unique ways to express oneself and meet one’s needs and desires in a human-dominated world.
SK: There are multiple registers and modes of address in your work and an ambiguity regarding the speaking subject. To an extent, this is because there are two of you, but you also construct voices and use various techniques to create further ambiguity around your agency. Can you elaborate on your strategies of collaboration and decision-making and how these relate to the tension and displacement that you create between the cultural and the technological, the physical and the digital, the artistic and the scientific, the collective and the individual?
LN & CP: Our primary collaborators are each other. Though we have a division of labour, we don’t have a conscious strategy of how we work conceptually, perhaps because we fell into making art together organically, out of collaborating on life. Ideas emerge for us out of an ongoing, sometimes unconscious, sometimes over-analytical, conversation that meanders through the digital/physical places we inhabit, whether we are in our studio or the kitchen. Whose idea it was to add orange juice to our hummus recipe or who came up with facilitating alter-wilderness hikes via smartphones is impossible to figure out. We are committed to an experimentality in process that involves interaction, exchange, exposure, and research that can take advantage of the energy created by blurring the lines between self and other. Proprietary works and the myth of the “genius” artist are detrimental to emerging modes of working, especially with regard to new media art production. Lately, animals have been a significant part of this process for us, shaking up our stale human behaviours and assumptions, especially the cows, sheep, and pigs we visited recently at the Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, NYState, and the birds of prey we met through a local bird sanctuary called Friends with Feathers.
We can’t really say with authority whether our extended collaboration relates to the ambiguities of our artworks. However, we do try to welcome the breakdown of categories like digital, physical, human, nature, and animal as well as media, disciplinary, and environmental boundaries. What really is a “human”, and why has there been this historical obsession with somehow distinguishing humans from animals, as if we are somehow specially different from every other animate being on earth, more evolved and complex? As eco-critic Timothy Morton said recently, “According to evolution science, there are two things humans do very well, but they are a bit of an ego blow: throwing and sweating. Everything else is also done by nonhumans, including consciousness, feelings, art, tool use”. So we are simply sweaty throwers who think very highly of ourselves! It seems to us that the effort to hold tight to definitions, to reliable knowledge, or to the self blocks the more interesting conflations that happen (or are already happening) when we let categories slip away. Therefore, rather than try to determine, define, and predict in our art, we are more interested in staging fluid experiences that ask difficult questions and interrupt our sense of certainty. When assumptions fail, things fall apart, and we can’t depend on what we think we know, that is when our most creative thinking takes place. These are exciting, experimental moments.
Leila Nadir and Cary Peppermint founded Ecoarttech in 2005. They teach Video Art and Sustainability Studies at the University of Rochester in New York and they work with a range of institutions, including the Whitney Museum, Turbulence.org and the University of North Texas. They have exhibited at MIT Media Lab, Smackmellon Gallery, European Media Art Festival, Exit Art Gallery and the Neuberger Museum of Art. In June 2012, they will be artists in residence at Joya: Arte+Ecología, an off-the-grid residency program based at Cortijada Los Gázquez in Parque Natural Sierra Maria-Los Velez in Eastern Andalucía.