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

Eric Charlton echarlton at allegheny.edu
Fri May 15 06:44:39 AEST 2020

Thank you, Byron, for the kind words and introduction. Likewise, it has
been a pleasure working with you. It has been great to see the way you work
and execute on your ability to see with a grand vision. I feel like this
pairing is an excellent example of that.

Most of my works develop from an anxious dwelling and skepticism of
facades, especially as it pertains to the contemporary socio-political
landscape, who controls and who benefits. Theoretically, I draw heavily
from the ideas of Eugene Thacker and Byung Chul-Han. Thacker’s ideas that
resonate strongest with me is his writing on the human conception of the
‘world,’ i.e., world-for-us, world-without-us, and world-in-itself, and the
sense of horror that occurs when we realize we have miscategorized
something in these three areas. Often the area I am most interested in, the
idea that something is operating under our control (world-for-us) but is
much larger and more complex than we gave it credit for (world-in-itself.)
Additionally, Chul-Han’s ideas on ‘playing the fool’ or performing idiotism
in his writing Psychopolitics as the answer to oppressive neoliberal
technological power structures. More or less, do your best to act outside
of the control of the omnipresent algorithm. To that end, my work often
manifests in degradation loops of cultural elements taken out of context.

Winner’s Circle <https://www.ericdcharlton.com/winners-circle>, function as
a triptych of three signifiers of typical American success, panoramic
images of the Whitehouse uploaded to Google Earth, a 3D model of a bear
skull hunting trophy, and introductions and banter from five episodes of
Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 ranging in year from 1972-86. These three
icons all share a demand for reverence. While some of the images from
around the Whitehouse portray political events, clean water protests, Trump
rallies, and Trump protests, my favorite are those from vacations. These
images exemplify the strange power that we associate with that building.
The American Top 40 audio, gives a glimpse into the algorithm of taste from
the past. The temporal distance from this media allows for a more objective
view of this hierarchical structure, which only rings more absurd when you
realize that the current American Top 40 list is counted down by Ryan
Seacrest. The preservation of a skull is a typical trophy of hunting and a
symbol of human mastery over nature. By combining these three, I aimed to
create an environment that reduced these individual signifiers to the point
of absurdity, breaking them from the preconceived reverence.

Additionally, in conjunction with my skepticism of media facades, my NPR
laugh track <https://www.ericdcharlton.com/npr-laughtrack> project comes to
mind as an exploration of utopia/dystopia. I made this work made by
manipulating a laugh-detector python script to extract laughter from
recorded NPR talk shows and compile it. The result is then played
throughout the space on multiple radios, providing disembodied and
seemingly aimless laughter. Full disclaimer, I do enjoy NPR talk shows.
This work stemmed from my trying to understand the political dissonance in
the United States right around the time Trump was elected. I was trying to
figure out particular areas of culture that felt like unconsidered points
of division. The pretentious and often self-deprecating laughter shared
between guest and host on NPR felt like one of those points.

It is interesting to read about your shared interest in the sometimes
post-apocalyptic landscape of the rust belt. Having grown up in the middle
of nowhere in Western Pennsylvania, I feel like the rust belt mentality has
influenced my aesthetic and sensibilities concerning dark humor and
dystopia. Alex, I think going about your Solar Sallet project in a DIY
fashion suits the rust belt, rugged individualist style that accompanies
your source material. And Craig, I am excited to look into the history
behind your How to Improve the World piece, through title alone, it

I think in the interest of dystopia/utopia, I am always interested in the
balance between the two. For every person’s utopia is someone else’s
dystopia. Right? And conversely, there is at least a handful of people who
find the most dystopian conditions to be ideal. I am not thrilled about
having my every move on the internet calculated to try to sell me something
at the next turn, but someone else must find it convenient enough that it
outweighs the bad of being surveilled.

I look forward to continuing this conversation! Thanks again Byron, for
putting this group together and giving us such a good topic!



On Thu, May 14, 2020 at 2:39 PM Craig Fahner <craig.fahner at gmail.com> wrote:

> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> 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 communication.
> That’s it for now! Looking forward to the conversations that follow.
> Thanks again, Byron, for giving me the opportunity to share this work!
> Cheers,
> Craig
> 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
> _______________________________________________
> empyre forum
> empyre at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au
> http://empyre.library.cornell.edu

Eric D. Charlton, MFA
Instructor and 3D Technical Specialist

Allegheny College
Department of Art
520 N. Main St.
Meadville, PA 16335

Pronouns: he/him/his
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