[-empyre-] Week 2? What is Dystopia, Really?

Craig Fahner craig.fahner at gmail.com
Fri May 15 03:57:12 AEST 2020

Thanks, Alex, for sharing your work – I see a lot of overlaps and
coincidences in our work, so I think I’ll introduce my own work in response
to what you’ve presented.

Also big thanks to Byron for inviting me to be a part of this discussion,
and for the generous introduction. Byron deserves a lot of credit for
getting me started on the path I’ve been on for the past decade or so. When
he was interning in 2009 at Calgary’s beloved artist-run gallery, TRUCK, he
curated my work *#garden <https://vimeo.com/7036697>* into my first proper
exhibition of new media work. #garden drew heavily from canonical telematic
works like Ken Goldberg’s *Telegarden
<https://goldberg.berkeley.edu/garden/Ars/>,* reimagined for the social
media era. A garden, outfitted with water pumps, grow lights and sensors,
communicated its soil moisture and light levels over a Twitter account.
Followers would water the plants and provide them light by replying to the
garden’s account with certain keywords.

Alex, I had not come across the term ‘the ruderal’ until I read your
introduction this morning, and I’m excited to dig into some of that
reading. In a way, I was beginning to think along similar lines with
#garden – I was interested in whether the flippant immediacy of social
media might be commensurable or incommensurable with the task of sustaining
plant life. Or more broadly, I was trying to think through the broader
consequences of the temporal horizons ushered in by media that demand
persistent attention.

I made a new version of *#garden* a few years ago, called *Pure Water
Touching Clear Sky <https://vimeo.com/197437426>*, which was exhibited at
Montreal’s Eastern Bloc gallery. This updated version used the Twitch chat
API to facilitate interaction. I had read about the “Twitch Plays Pokemon
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twitch_Plays_Pok%C3%A9mon>” phenomenon, in
which thousands upon thousands of Twitch users collectively operated the
controls of a Game Boy by simultaneously entering commands into Twitch’s
chat interface, and were able to successfully complete the game. The only
way the collective of participants could succeed was through a delicate
balance between earnest players and saboteurs. If too many users tried to
enter the right controls at the same time, they would overshoot their
goals. With the antagonistic force of users deliberately entering the wrong
input, however, the controls became stabilized. This strange democracy
struck me as distinctly ecological – it thrived only though the emergence
of a balance of opposing forces. With *Pure Water Touching Clear Sky*, I
wanted to replicate that cybernetic ecology, placing actual plant life at
the centre.

#Garden and Pure Water Touching Clear Sky touch on some prompts that I’ve
returned to with much of my work: What if the systems by which we
communicate were more malleable? What could be learned about
infrastructures when they are re-imagined as absurd, performative systems?

Reading through Alex’s introduction, I did a double-take when I came across
his *Solar Sallet* project. By bizarre coincidence, I too have a work that
addresses a power plant in Shippingport, Pennsylvania. What a world! When I
was an MFA student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, I
collaborated with Steve Gurysh on a project called *How to Improve the
World (You Will Only Make Things Worse) <https://vimeo.com/120300672>– *a
not-so-subtle nod to the diary published by John Cage in 1968.  *How to
Improve the World*… was initiated when Steve and I came across a couple odd
bits of technological history. First, we were looking at a bizarre ceremony
by which the Shippingport Atomic Power Station – the first ever nuclear
plant devoted to peacetime uses – was unveiled by Dwight D. Eisenhower in
1954. From a TV studio in Denver, Eisenhower waved a radioactive wand over
a geiger counter, which was rigged up to a circuit that transmitted a
signal to Shippingport, PA, where it triggered an automatic shovel to first
break ground at the site. We also came across a similar spectacle that
occurred two decades later: during the torch relay for the 1976 Montreal
Summer Olympics, the Olympic flame was transmitted from Greece to Canada
using satellite communication. The flame was captured by a sensor and
converted into an electronic signal, which was beamed to Ottawa and used to
modulate a laser, which reconstituted the ignited a torch that was carried
to Montreal. We were taken by the Rube Goldberg-esque absurdity of these
two spectacles, which both, at once, foregrounded a certain Promethean
promise and concealed a network of political and infrastructural realities.

The torch relay presented itself as a useful metaphor by which the
materiality of communications circuits could be acted out. For this work,
which was to be exhibited at the SAT in Montreal, we decided to re-enact
the 1976 torch relay, combining its history with the strange story of the
Shippingport Atomic Power Station. We traveled to Shippingport, where we
harvested electricity from power mains coming off of the Beaver Valley
nuclear plant, which replaced the Shippingport Atomic Power Station when it
was decommissioned. We used this electricity to ignite a torch, which was
carried back to Pittsburgh, where it was captured by an array of light,
sound and heat sensors, converted into a stream of data, and uploaded to
the popular file-sharing service MediaFire. We built a functioning
flame-igniting laser out of an old DVD burner – a fun weekend project, if
you’re bored during quarantine – and used it to light the flame in Montreal
using the data to modulate the laser. The flame continued its journey in
Montreal, touring the site of the 1976 olympics, and eventually made its
way back to Pennsylvania, visiting the infamous ghost town at Centralia
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centralia,_Pennsylvania>, in which an
abandoned coal mine has been burning underground, like an eternal flame,
for over 50 years. The entire relay, which was documented as a
three-channel video, allowed us to examine the highly-visible sites of
modernist technological spectacle, as well as the material infrastructures
obverse to these spectacles – infrastructures that are ordinarily kept out
of sight, that terraform the earth and, in the case of Centralia, reveal
the dystopian underside of technological progress.

I was hoping to talk a bit more about what I’m working on currently, but
I’m going to try to wrap it up since this is getting a bit long! I will say
that much of my work has continued with the themes explored in *How to
Improve the World…*, Interrogating the political implications of
infrastructural visibility and invisibility. Much of my recent work deals
with digital platforms, and attempts to make visible the psychopolitics of
data collection and surveillance that platform economies rely so heavily on
and so rarely disclose. I’m currently a PhD candidate in the Joint Program
in Communication and Culture at York and Ryerson Universities in Toronto,
where I’ve been studying the political economy of platforms, and working
towards a body of research-creation work called *Inverting the Algorithmic
Gaze: Tactics Towards Media Transparency*. At the heart of this work is the
question of utopia: ubiquitous platform monopolies, performing as essential
infrastructures for commerce, communication and entertainment, seem to
foreclose on utopian notions of democratic, decentralized deployments of
network technology – what Flusser would call "dialogic media". It seems I
am in good company with the other artists who have presented in this series
so far, as I, too, argue that artists are best equipped to resist this
foreclosure, to engage the public in the radical possibilities of

That’s it for now! Looking forward to the conversations that follow. Thanks
again, Byron, for giving me the opportunity to share this work!



On Thu, May 14, 2020 at 8:29 AM Alex Young <info at worldshaving.info> wrote:

> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> Thank you Byron for that introduction. As you mentioned me in the context
> of the University at Buffalo, I’ll start by saying it seems like I am only
> now circling back to certain elements of UB’s rather distinct pedagogy that
> you have referred to here. Certainly, being amidst that milieu of Paul
> Vanouse, Steve Kurtz, Stephanie Rothenberg, and others was a formative
> experience as an artist in grad school in their early 20’s. However, I
> would be remiss if I did not mention that, while at UB, I fondly recall
> working in Visual Studies with Gary Nickard and in Comp. Lit. with Henry
> Sussman. In particular, Sussman’s course on Walter Benjamin’s Arcades
> Project was instructive in terms of applying a sort of broad spectrum
> optics to understanding cities and other anthropogenic exploits that would
> heavily factor into my work thereafter. While this was about 15 years ago
> and the details are hazy, I think UB was instrumental in connecting me with
> a certain type of critical practitioner for sure.
> On that note, I’ll plug two projects I organized in the past year or so
> that your and Liz’s collaborative project, Epicurean Endocrinology, were
> featured in: *GROPING in the DARK *at the Museum of Contemporary Art
> Tucson <https://moca-tucson.org/exhibition/groping-in-the-dark/> and *Ecology
> of Bad Ideas* for Drain Magazine
> <http://drainmag.com/ecology-of-bad-ideas/>. The two projects shared
> quite a bit of research overlap and contributors addressing anthropogenic
> land use and how human ideation and modification of Earth matter effects
> ecologies of mind, society, and environment. I was thinking a lot about
> Gregory Bateson and Felix Guattari, as a result of conversations with Paul
> Sargent, both of whom refer to land use to varying degrees in a sort of
> toxicological manner. As a result, artist-researchers like yourself, Liz
> Flyntz, Eric Simpson, Mary Maggic, and others with that sort of UB/ CMU/
> SAIC/ RPI/ MIT, etc. etc. bio-art, tactical media. and adjacent pedagogy
> all made a lot of sense in that context for different reasons.
> As for my present research and work, I’ve been framing things around this
> notion of ‘Ruderal Futures.’ Borrowing the term from urban ecology, and
> particularly Peter del Tredici’s ‘Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast,’ the
> ruderal typically refers to plant life (but also any life, really) that
> thrives in the margins or ruins of anthropogenic activity. Of course, in
> the present, we’re really talking about things that reside in the margins
> or ruins of capitalism, globalism, neoliberalism, and other ideological
> regimes that manifest in shifting material conditions. Bettina Stoetzer has
> an amazing essay Ruderal Ecologies on culanth.org that delves into
> related ideas using the term ruderal in a social sense. So, with these
> forthcoming projects, I’m really looking at these margin and ruin dwellers
> as guides for new futurisms and toward a sort of bittersweet aftermath--or
> at the very least inevitable mutation--of present anthropo/ capitalo/
> nationalist/ colonial world systems. In this, my thinking has been greatly
> impacted by landscape architect Gilles Clement and art/ design groups like
> SPURSE, Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop, and the Slovenian collective
> Re-Generacija. As an aside, I was—perhaps needless to say—thrilled to see
> last November’s edition of [-empyre-] with Margaretha Haughwout, Oliver
> Kellhammer, Marisa Prefer, and WhiteFeather Hunter’s discussion on the
> subject of 'Ruderal Witchcraft.'
> This research will be culminating in a few ways. There’s a curatorial
> project coming up in 2022 that has yet to be officially announced that I’m
> excited about. But, right now, I am focusing on a project that I’m calling
> 'Solar Sallet', which will utilize pokeweed dye in the fabrication of dye
> sensitized solar cells that will then power an array of media, landscape,
> and horticultural projects. This project was an indirect result of the
> recent closure of the Bruce Mansfield coal power plant (in Shippingport, PA
> - about 40 minutes from me in Pittsburgh) where I noticed an abundance of
> these betanin-rich (a good photosensitizer) pokeweed plants adjacent to it,
> thriving amidst that sulfurous neglected landscape in the shadow of these
> massive power and manufacturing facilities. It is also very directly
> influenced by later encountering reportage on a once much-touted project
> out of Wake Forest University from about a decade ago (that perhaps never
> materialized?) that looked to use pokeweed dye in a mass production of
> solar cells. So, at the moment I am producing this stuff in a DIY way, even
> if a proper lab setting would be preferable. My thought here is, even if
> what I can do with all of this as an artist is very miniscule, I think
> there is definitely cause to look beyond the extractive ecologies/economies
> of energy, not just of coal, but also ‘green technologies’ like solar and
> its reliance upon platinum, silicon, or even ruthenium in dye-sensitized
> and perovskite cells. Right now, iterations of this project are slated for
> Epsilon Spires in Vermont and at Unison Arts in New Paltz, in collaboration
> with Matthew Friday, for an amazing project Tal Beery is organizing called
> ‘Owning Earth.’
> And, yes, The Monument to Common Barberry--which Byron mentioned--is on
> the horizon as well. This project is maybe more of a memorial to the absurd
> folly of extreme human/ state prejudice toward certain other-than-human
> organisms and select co-evolution with a certain few species that fuel
> state biopower than it is part of thinking about ruderal futures. However,
> I feel like I’ve covered quite a bit already, so I’ll just leave it at that.
> I'm always excited to talk about schlocky popular conceptions of
> u/eu/dys-topia, so I'm interested to see where this conversation goes.
> -Alex
> --
> Alex Young
> www.worldshaving.info
> recent/ current/ upcoming:
> -  *Ecology of Bad Ideas <http://drainmag.com/ecology-of-bad-ideas/>*, Drain
> Magazine <http://drainmag.com/>
> -  *GROPING in the DARK*
> <https://moca-tucson.org/exhibition/groping-in-the-dark/>, Museum of
> Contemporary Art Tucson
> <https://moca-tucson.org/exhibition/groping-in-the-dark/>
> - *Solar Sallet <http://www.worldshaving.info/solar-sallet/>*, Epsilon
> Spires <https://www.epsilonspires.org/about> (forthcoming)
> - *Owning Earth*, Unison Arts Center
> <http://www.talbeery.com/owning-earth.html> (forthcoming)
> - *Monument to the Common Barberry
> <http://www.worldshaving.info/monument-to-the-common-barberry/>*, Franconia
> Sculpture Park <https://www.franconia.org/about/> (forthcoming)
> _______________________________________________
> empyre forum
> empyre at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au
> http://empyre.library.cornell.edu
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