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

Byron Rich brich at allegheny.edu
Sat May 16 02:18:53 AEST 2020

Thank you, Alex, Craig and Eric, for your thought provoking responses.

I think the concept of ‘ruderal’ seems like the natural jumping off point for a deepened discussion as Alex, you use it quite directly, but Eric and Craig, your works both integrate similar themes of living on the margins, also. For the purpose of the conversation, it likely makes sense to use ‘ruderal’ to refer to anything living on the margins of the anthropocentric.

A few years ago, Heather and I rented a flat in Leipzig, Germany, which is kind of the Buffalo of Germany. Post-industrial, lives in the shadow of its more famous neighbour, and trying to reinvent itself as an affordable alternative where the creative class can afford to make culture while kind of viewing traditional cultural hubs from a safe distance, temporarily less in reach of profit-oriented creative work. While there, folks would not stop talking about ragweed. It was a constant issue in the neighbourhood as ragweed was wreaking havoc on parks and endemic species. What we found curious and sort of ironic was the focus on this invasive species coming from a European context. Of course it is troubling, but the idea of a plant species endemic to North America colonizing the European continent did strike us, at least after a few € 1,00 beers, as absurd. With that, we developed the least practical approach to eradicating invasive species as we could conjure. A robot that would autonomously carry a single ragweed plant to the port in Hamburg, get on a boat, and drop it off back in North America, then make the return journey. The sad little robot affectionately called GARRy (GPS Assisted Ragweed Robot) would set off with a plant on a journey it couldn’t possibly make, equipped with a solar panel, GPS module, and a sensor suite. It would make it a few hundred meters, then run out of power and recharge before setting off again. It was hopeless, and that was the point.

Beyond shameless self promotion, I bring up GARRy because I often think about Omer Bartov’s concept of industrial killing and applying it to non-human species, whether something like invasive species or for food production. In these post-industrial regions that each of you uses as subject, locus, or both, sites of development for industrial killing like for instance the abandoned munitions plant outside of the small town I live in, are now sites of biological resistance against anthropocentric policy and production, while simultaneously heralded as what used to Make America Great. The spectre of greatness tied indelibly to killing, and killing being tied to economics. In real-time, we are watching economic policy directly affect the life and death of the vulnerable replete with unironic coopting of pro-choice language. It’s surreal, and absurd. 

I bring all this up, because each of you confronts the ruderal, the post-industrial, the ideologies that underpin violence in the name of  capital G Greatness. In Soft Subversions, Guatarri devotes a chapter to utopias and states “Utopia today, is to believe that current societies will be able to continue along on their merry little way without upheavals. Social modes of organization that prevail today on earth are not holding up, literally and figuratively. History is gripped by crazy parameters: demography, energy, the technological-scientific explosion, pollution, the arms race… The earth is deterritorializing  itself at top speed. The true utopians are conservatives of all shapes and sizes who would like for this ‘to hold up all the same’, to return to yesterday and the day before yesterday. What is terrifying is our lack of a collective imagination in a world that has reached a boiling point, our myopia before all the ‘molecular revolutions’ which keep pulling the rug out from us at an accelerate pace.”

Framed within the above sentiment expressed by Guatarri, the work all of you produce reflects a spooky possibility: nothing will change, “the new normal” is just the old normal with a veil of unity pushed by corporations, and a pandemic that could have acted as an upheaval has been expertly coopted, so much so that industrial killing has moved from the margins to the mainstream as economic externalities.  

I guess I don’t have a question, I’m just framing more completely why I find your work so compelling in terms of the current moment. It seems like each of you started to make work that became even more poignant very rapidly. 

I’ll quit rambling for a bit.

Byron Rich 
Assistant Professor of Art
Director of Art, Science & Innovation
Global Citizen Scholar Faculty Director
Affiliated Faculty - Integrative Informatics 

Allegheny College
Doane Hall of Art, A204
Meadville, PA
(o) 814.332.3381

Allegheny Lab for Innovation & Creativity

Co-chair of Exhibitions & Events - New Media Caucus

Reference letters require three weeks of lead time. 

From: Eric Charlton
Sent: Thursday, May 14, 2020 5:48 PM
To: empyre at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au
Subject: Re: [-empyre-] Week 2? What is Dystopia, Really?

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, 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 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 resonates.

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:
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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 into my first proper exhibition of new media work. #garden drew heavily from canonical telematic works like Ken Goldberg’s Telegarden, 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, 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” 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) – 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, 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!



On Thu, May 14, 2020 at 8:29 AM Alex Young <info at worldshaving.info> wrote:
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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 and Ecology of Bad Ideas for Drain Magazine. 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 Young 

recent/ current/ upcoming:
-  Ecology of Bad Ideas, Drain Magazine
-  GROPING in the DARK, Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson
- Solar Sallet, Epsilon Spires (forthcoming)
- Owning Earth, Unison Arts Center (forthcoming)
- Monument to the Common Barberry, Franconia Sculpture Park (forthcoming)

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empyre at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au
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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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