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

Craig Fahner craig.fahner at gmail.com
Wed May 20 06:54:34 AEST 2020

I want to pick up on a notion that seems to be bubbling up in the last
couple responses. Eric, you seem to be calling into question the central
values of the so-called techno-utopian project, appealing to the stranger
notions of innovation that exist on the margins. Alex, you make a call for
an “unruly mutualism” – that, were we to eschew the seamlessness of the
automated logistics of capitalist supply chains and turn towards stranger
forms of causality, we might realize more vital values than mere
convenience. What I sense, from these responses, is that there’s a real
push in each of our practices to “make systems strange” as a way to
demystify – and, in turn, to reclaim power from –the logistics blackboxed
within the “stack” of platform capitalism.

Maybe the issue is that these systems are strange to begin with – they just
refuse to disclose their strangeness. I’m always struck by the tendency of
interfaces and other public-facing aspects of platforms to fold up an
incomprehensibly complex network of materials, actors and activities into
what appears to be a simple, convenient causality. Consider the explosion
of logistics that occurs when you, say, tap a credit card on a
point-of-sale terminal, or make a purchase on Amazon, or linger over an ad
for a couple seconds while scrolling through Instagram. All manner of
innocuous human gestures now result in an eruption of immense logistical
complexity, in which quantifications of ourselves proliferate through
undersea cables and electromagnetic signals instantaneously and at a
planetary scale, etching themselves into data broker databases and data
centres, and entering back into global circulation, over and over again.
These flows and sublimations are at once terrifying and strangely poetic.
And it is precisely because these processes appear more insidious as they
become more legible that they remain invisible, concealed within the neat
and tidy interfaces of contemporary technologies.

Much of my work begins by considering that which is concealed when things
work smoothly. What sorts of materials, forms of labour, spatiotemporal
scales are revealed when the facade is peeled back? I suppose this is
similar to Latour’s imperative to “open the black boxes; examine the
assemblies inside” and recursively trace the hidden networks contained
within ordinary objects. But, while the anthropologist might balk at a dead
end – a black box that refuses to be opened – an artist might see this as
an opportunity to resist the empiricist impulse, and instead turn towards
the speculative, the fictional, the impossible. Rather than simply making
legible the serpentine topologies of informational capitalism, the artist
might instead produce what Benjamin might call *profane illuminations*:
irreverent performances of the incommensurability of reality and its murky
substrata that orient individuals towards alternate possibilities for
organizing the world.

*How to Improve the World…* was started on a similar premise, homing in on
the absurd transfigurations that are taken for granted in technological
networks. The torch relay became a way of pushing against the impossibility
of tracing the path of an electronic exchange – recognizing its
impossibility, but doing it anyways, seeking new truths in the absurd
futility of the gesture. Ultimately, this led to a tacit acknowledgement of
the sometimes brutal materiality of so-called immaterial media. In another
work, *Alternator <https://www.craigfahner.com/#alternator>*, I likewise
attempted to physically act out the processes that undergird technological
convenience. Questioning the impossibility of being able to trace the
origins of the electrons consumed by everyday electronics, I created a
series of objects that generated small amounts of electrical current from
simple gestures. Each of these objects was used to charge a single AA
battery by performing these gestures repeatedly. A pair of shoes with
embedded piezoelectric elements charged a battery after hours and hours of
walking. A small fan, acting as a turbine, charged a battery after I blew
air into it for hours. A wall, lined with piezo elements, charged a battery
after I threw myself into it hundreds of times. Each battery was labelled
with these actions and durations. I was interested to see how the viewer
might consider using these batteries in different ways than they might use
homogeneous, commodified energy; how they might instead see this battery as
a container of human gesture and intimacy. What is the poetics of this kind
of knowing? I used this work to imagine a different kind of economy, in
which these notions of intimacy and collective responsibility are
emphasized above the typical values of optimal performance and efficiency.

It goes without saying that questions like “what about a slow economy? what
about an economy of intimacy?” come off as quaint in the face of powerful
monopolies and their drive towards ceaseless growth. These questions,
whimsical as they may seem, nonetheless serve an important dialectical
function – they cause us to pause and consider that which is currently
missing, that which might be worth fighting for. These blind spots may very
well be the surfaces upon which better systems are built.

Here’s to artworks as slow utopias,


P.S. it looks like Eric's last reply might not have been pushed out to the
listserv. I've pasted it below in case anyone missed it.

> *Eric Charlton echarlton at allegheny.edu <http://allegheny.edu>**Mon May
> 18 02:58:18 AEST 2020*

> *Byron, after you mentioned the munitions factory, I immediately thought*
> *about taking a Sunday drive over to take a look, as a fulfillment of some*
> *sort of social activity. This got me thinking of the ethics of taking a*
> *drive for non-essential reasons that we had discussed through masks over*
> *the construction of the first intubation box for local health workers.*
> *Rather than rationalize that activity today, I am putting on a list of**things
> to do when I feel like I am allowed to leave the house for fun.*
> *The idea of ‘shrinking margin of refusal,’ especially as it pertains to*
> *Amazon, got me thinking of Adam Curtis’s video essay The Century of the
> Self,*
> *in which he discusses the early 20th-century revolution in advertising as*
> *companies figured out how to manipulate individuals into essentially*
> *thinking using the product was their idea. In turn, Amazon has built upon*
> *that idea, along with others, by over-convenienced the consumer into*
> *feeling like their service is undeniably necessary. As they have crept*
> *their way from being an online book retailer into every facet of*
> *consumption, they have also done their best to make refusing their
> service**an exhausting effort with seemingly diminishing returns.*
> *Additionally, Byron’s mention of ‘ideologies that the underpin violence
> in*
> *the name of capital G Greatness’ leads me to another of Byung Chul-Han’s*
> *writings, Topology of Violence, in which Chul-Han discusses the ‘Violence*
> *of Positivity,’ essentially the unchecked acceleration of growth is in*
> *direct correlation to the Freudian death drive. The idea that companies
> get*
> *too big to fail is really translated to companies getting too big to fail*
> *alone, or perhaps their aim is to get too big for us to abandon them. As*
> *Elon Musk, or as the internet has referred to him ’one of the most
> likable*
> *billionaires,’ tries to play savior of the human race by forcing his*
> *factory workers to continue production in spite of local government’s*
> *restrictions, I cannot help but see the similarities to the Alan Moore’s*
> *character of Adrien Veidt from The Watchmen, an eccentric billionaire who**murders
> millions to achieve world peace.*
> *This is all to say, that perhaps, through the lens of the ruderal, there
> is*
> *a less destructive version of positivity. We could pivot our perspective
> on*
> *‘what productive means’ from the impossible frozen utopias of exponential*
> *growth to ideas that exist on the periphery. This, of course, would come*
> *with great costs to our expected convenience. I know this would just be a**shift
> in dystopias, but perhaps it could lead to stranger innovation.*

On Sun, May 17, 2020 at 8:53 AM Alex Young <info at worldshaving.info> wrote:

> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> Craig, Eric, Byron: It’s been great reading a bit more about your
> practices and, Byron, thanks for discussing G.A.R.R.y—I’d been wanting to
> speak with you about that project for a while and never really followed
> through.
> Also, just to state it in the context of this conversation—Craig, your
> collaborator, Steve Gurysh, is the reason I visited Shippingport in the
> first place. He and I, along with two other artists engaged in ecological
> and land use concerns (Lindsey french and Erin Mallea) had been going on
> these research trips to sites throughout Western, Pennsylvania over the
> course of the past year and it was Steve suggested Shippingport based on
> prior experience there. So, in a way, a sizable piece of what I am doing in
> my current research and practice is perhaps entirely (albeit very
> indirectly) the result of *How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make
> Things Worse)*, which somehow seems most appropriate.
> Byron, I am so very glad you brought Guattari’s very terse *Utopia Today *text
> into the conversation. The notion that the true utopians are these paragons
> of ‘conservative’ logic who would like nothing more than for things to
> remain the same and perhaps consciously-or-not believe—in some form or
> another—that perpetual growth along our current path is entirely tenable
> very much resounds with me. However, I think the following lines in that
> text, in my mind, betray the former. At the very end, Guattari writes: “I
> have no doubt that a fabulous expansion (Guattari is broadly writing of
> machines/ technology here) will eventually break down all the conservatisms
> that "keep us in place" in this absurd and blind society.” I single this
> out, not out of some sort of reactionary Luddism, but rather it seems so
> very uncharacteristically naive of Guattari to forgo thought of hierarchic
> control within such an expansion. Say nothing of the injustices of
> ecologies and economies of extraction, energy, and distribution of matter
> both 'raw' and 'cooked'. Also—since 1983 when I believe that statement
> was written—we have undoubtedly hurtled far past anything some early ‘80s
> Tokyophilic futurist rhapsodizing could have ever imagined. Yet, here we
> are: kept in place, literally, from having turned a blind eye toward the
> deleterious effects of our machinic relations to the beyond-human realm and
> seemingly unable to climb out of some weltanschauung comprised of parodic
> aperiodic pastiche—heavy on the past three Centuries—lumbering along like
> some tragically maligned historic reenactment (cue Martin Scorcese to
> direct it) fueled by neoliberal capital always inching closer to fascism.
> All the while, we are propelled by new normals enmeshed within plutocratic
> intrigue beyond the pale of state control. Yet, what of alterity? Should we
> be so lucky as to drink from the cup of some new weird futurism that might
> easily clock as dystopia and will certainly not be shipped Amazon Prime
> free delivery? I am thinking a bit of Jean Baudrillard’s call for radical
> thought to take the world “given to us enigmatic and unintelligible” and
> make it “more unintelligible.” As byzantine as it may be, our world is
> nothing if not the product of the pursuit of legibility.
> Somewhat obliquely connected to Craig’s talk about Amazon: amidst our
> present pandemic, I’ve found myself drawn to spending time in this urban
> prairie—that only a decade or so ago was a public housing project—in
> Pittsburgh’s neighborhood, Fairywood. This site is surrounded by
> distribution facilities for companies like Amazon as well as UPS, Giant
> Eagle (our regional big box grocer), and more. I had originally wondered if
> I might catch a glimpse of striking workers, but in the absence of such
> activity, I have become enamored by this plot and its inhabitants: colt’s
> foot, mugwort, mullein, knotweed, deadnettle, peppergrass, parsnip,
> wintercress, poison hemlock (lots of it), and seemingly innumerable others.
> Out of habit, I desperately want to locate patterns. Such as, have the
> deadnettle, chickweed, and corn gromwell developed a kinship or is their
> intermingling on a continent of overturned asphalt pure happenstance?
> While, AI/ML/CV might help me make legible the taxa and select attributes
> of these wild plants (if their leaf, flower, or fruit patterns are
> distinct enough and at an identifiable state of maturation): their creep,
> the constellations they form, and drift over time are not beholden to this
> line of easy agricultural understanding. Flanked by these distribution
> centers—surely some advanced evolution of an epigenetic granary
> logic—this mess of life is on glorious strike and I wish I had the gall to
> join in. Workers on their way to and from these distribution centers, in
> particular Giant Eagle—whose facility’s signage reads ‘OK
> Grocery’—routinely cross this picket line in the service of some
> anthropogenized field crop. It certainly looks like there's a storm a-brewing,
> but maybe it’ll be just another drip. Also, solidarity with labor, but,
> what if: instead of a salad of greens picked in Salinas, packaged wherever,
> shipped how and wherever, and sold in your local Amazon Whole Foods
> Market prepared foods aisle, we enjoyed one of a more unruly mutualism?
> Or, what if: instead of Bread (Against the Grain, anyone?) and Roses, we
> got a little strange for change, for a change? I guess what I'm trying to
> ask is: your dystopia or mine?
> -Alex
> On Sat, May 16, 2020 at 12:28 PM Craig Fahner <craig.fahner at gmail.com>
> wrote:
>> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
>> Thanks for that response, Byron. Having recently pored over the late-20th
>> century critical canon for my comprehensive exams, I too was struck by the
>> prescience of arguments like Guattari's – or the catchy credo often
>> attributed to Fredric Jameson: "It is easier to imagine the end of the
>> world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism". In Jameson's case, this
>> warning is levelled to drive a more optimistic premise: that it is possible
>> to create new forms, in which subjects are afforded a better sense of their
>> place within the shifting sands of late capitalist networks. Despite this
>> plea, I found it hard not to feel exhausted by the sense that capitalism is
>> forever encroaching on the utopian imagination. Jenny Odell, in her
>> fantastic *How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy* refers to
>> this as the ever-shrinking margin of refusal.
>> Likely synchronized to the rhythms of dread and hopefulness that
>> characterize the COVID-19 news cycle, I'm finding myself oscillating
>> between two perspectives on this whole "shrinking margin of refusal" idea.
>> For one, it's clear that the disruption of everyday life has created an
>> enormous opening that is quickly being seized upon by monopolistic digital
>> platforms. Consumers have been driven into the waiting arms of Amazon, who
>> happily take human contact out of the equation for all manner of exchanges.
>> Google and Apple pounce on the opportunity to develop contact-tracing
>> technology, their products edging closer to becoming mandatory, rather than
>> merely ubiquitous. And, in the absence of opportunities for physical human
>> connection, platforms happily intervene, while maintaining practices that
>> compromise user privacy and capitalize on user attention. If platforms were
>> already on the path towards total integration into everyday life, then this
>> very well might be the moment in which they consolidate their power over
>> the imagination.
>> On the contrary, it is becoming clear that, with our increased
>> dependence, the alienating qualities of life-via-platforms are laid
>> increasingly bare. Boycotts of Amazon are becoming more widespread, as the
>> working conditions in fulfilment centres and the activities of unions
>> become more visible. The social media dreck funnelled into our filter
>> bubbles, after months of screen time, feels completely meaningless. Calls
>> for legislation that provides for human needs and collective health, rather
>> than facile technological solutionism, are becoming louder. Every day at
>> 7:30PM, my neighbourhood erupts with the sound of clanging pots and pans –
>> a ritual I'm sure many are familiar with, meant to give thanks to frontline
>> workers during the pandemic. I've come to see this ritual as not only a
>> sign of appreciation, but as a gesture of unmediated togetherness that
>> finds its way into everyone's closed-off domestic world. It serves to poke
>> holes in the highly-individuated bubbles that platform capitalism thrives
>> on. If there is a moment in which refusal of the alienating tendencies of
>> platforms is desired – in which public imagination might be channeled
>> towards more meaningful forms of copresence, exchange and resource
>> distribution – then perhaps this is it.
>> These sorts of refusals come with a lot of questions. For instance, is it
>> even possible to boycott Amazon when their cloud services undergird much of
>> the internet? The deep, often invisible integration of platform mechanisms
>> into everyday life is something that is almost impossible to trace from the
>> surface. This is where artists can perhaps best intervene, in unearthing
>> these infrastructural realities and making visible alternative models that
>> invert the alienation wrought by platform capitalism.
>> The sun is out today in Toronto for the first time in two weeks, so I
>> think I'll go with the latter perspective, for now.
>> Craig
>> On Fri, May 15, 2020 at 12:19 PM Byron Rich <brich at allegheny.edu> wrote:
>>> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
>>> 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 <http://byronrich.com/G-A-R-R-y-Work-in-Progress-2015-2017>
>>> (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
>>> www.byronrich.com
>>> Allegheny Lab for Innovation & Creativity
>>> www.sites.allegheny.edu/alic/
>>> Co-chair of Exhibitions & Events - New Media Caucus
>>> www.newmediacaucus.org
>>> Reference letters require three weeks of lead time.
>>> *From: *Eric Charlton <echarlton at allegheny.edu>
>>> *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* <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 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!
>>> Best,
>>> Eric
>>> 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
>>> www.ericdcharlton.com
>>> Allegheny College
>>> Department of Art
>>> 520 N. Main St.
>>> Meadville, PA 16335
>>> Pronouns: he/him/his
>>> _______________________________________________
>>> 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
> --
> 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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