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<nettime> FutureSonic:Environment2.0 2009
marc garrett on Mon, 31 Aug 2009 14:07:12 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> FutureSonic:Environment2.0 2009


FutureSonic:Environment2.0 2009.

This review of the 2009 FutureSonic festival by Ruth Catlow and Olga
Panades looks at artists' and technologists' explorations, of
participation and agency in a networked society in the context of
environmental crisis. It also reflects on the partial adoption of an
ecological approach in a celebration of the new techno-green-enterprise
soon to become FutureEverything.

Visit http://www.furtherfield.org/displayreview.php?review_id=359 for
the illustrated text with links to artists and works.
============================

The stated aim of FutureSonic 2009 was to consider how the city
disconnects us from "nature and the consequences of our actions". As
Drew Hemment puts it in the curatorial statement, "the tarmac of the
road cuts us off from the earth beneath and the festival set out to find
the 'cracks in the pavement' and look for ways to reconnect with nature
through the use of new media technologies and participatory processes."

With its theme of Environment 2.0, FutureSonic proposed that we revise
our notions of the world we inhabit. Described as the place we all
"share, connect with and create", Environment 2.0 attempts to bring
together the enterprise culture of the 'social Web' with an ecological
understanding of environment (in which interdependent entities and
conditions co-evolve).

So how does the festival's espousal of web2.0 mantras of empowered
togetherness fit with an ecological approach? The new tools of networked
sociability can mask functional inversions of the communitarian impulse
to which they appeal. In contrast with Free and Open Source Softwares
(often social softwares) published under the GNU GPL[1] whose workings
are transparent, web2.0 social softwares (such as Twitter, Flickr and
Facebook) are 'free' to use because their creators have found (or soon
expect to find) a discreet way to harvest the hidden value of some
aspect of the unwitting users' behaviour. Value is built by users'
interactions and activities and when successful, the utility, its users'
content, habits and personal data are put to work on the financial
markets in the service of industrial "bottom line" principles. So what?
This looks like a winning formula doesn't it? We get useful, free stuff,
and technical innovators get rewarded.

A recent interview with new media theorist Douglas Rushkoff describes
how we have internalised corporate values and then replicated and
deployed them in the modelling systems of computers and the Internet. We
are just simply corporate ourselves and we made it in our image
again.[2] He sets out in simple terms the toxic consequences of the
process. A consumer society has been created to perpetuate economic
growth. It is based in speculation through colonial activities rather
than the creation of 'real' more local value. It seeks short term
satisfaction over long term work leading ultimately to the destruction
of developing nations, our environment and to our own bankruptcy.

What follows is a reflection on these themes with reference to some
ideas and works presented at the FutureSonic festival. This account
focuses especially on artists' and technologists' explorations, of
participation and agency in a networked society in the context of
environmental crisis. It also reflects on some of the effects of a
partial application of an ecological approach in this celebration of the
new techno-green-enterprise soon to become FutureEverything.

FutureSonic:2009

In 1971 Guy Debord observed how 'pollution' had become a fashionable
concern in exactly the same way as had 'revolution'. In his conference
presentation at FutureSonic 2009 Tapio Makela, co-founder of M.A.R.I.N.
(Media Art Research Interdisciplinary Network), questioned the growth of
events addressing arts, ecology and science, observing that 'revolution'
doesn't seem to be so much in fashion today but pollution still is,
though it is now called climate change; this year is already crowded
with arts festivals addressing environmental questions.

Tapio Makela's conference presentation addressed a key question, 'How
can we make the environment more tangible and open for interaction?' As
he explained, 'from a Western humanities tradition, environment seems to
resist constructivist positions for the self that would enable agency
for action'. He argued that environmental data is usually presented with
an authoritative (and therefore detached) 'view from above' and
described a need for a radical aesthetic for information design. He
proposed this question as one ideally suited for exploration by media
artists. And we agree. Media artists' experimental processes, tools and
media, frameworks and potential agility in relation to
viewers/participants create ways in which complex information could be
better processed, felt and differently experienced.

Usman Haque counts amongst those practitioners who start to address this
question. His 'radical aesthetic' arises from his positioning within the
network; from seeing himself as part of everything and asking himself
the political question 'what can I do?' In his conference presentation
he disentangled environment from the romantic concept (another detaching
notion) of untouched nature, saying environment is that which is
generated through our existence. It's the thing that we actually create.
An environment is as much part of us as it is part of our existence.

His view of environment as being about relations is explored in two
projects featured in the exhibition. Pachube, is an online platform to
share and use sensor data. It explores the effect of actions or a set of
conditions as they overlap with another; streaming real time data
gathered by sensors (measuring for instance humidity, light,
temperature, or energy consumption) located around the world. This data
can then be used to control conditions in remote environments.

Possible uses include having your Second Life environment respond to
sensors in the real world; connecting up basic home-automation devices
so that they respond to other distant environments; connecting up your
electricity meter to track it over time and embed usage graphs in your
own website, or calculate your real-time carbon footprint.

The second work presented by Haque, Natural Fuse, consists of a circuit
in which the elements are a fuse, a plant and a power socket. The amount
of electricity available to the appliance through the socket is only
that which can be offset by the plant's carbon-sequester capabilities.
The fuse has got two functions, fuse care and fuse kill. Fuse care works
when there is still energy left to use, activating a water-controlling
system. Fuse kill is activated when too much energy has been used and it
literally kills the plant, breaks the circuit and it allows no
electricity flow through the outlet.

Haque proposes that Natural Fuse should work together with Pachube as a
way to illustrate an alternative set of invisible relations and their
effects in a networked environment. Using this system in an exhibition
installation redolent of school project, a 50w light bulb was shown to
need 402 average sized yucca plants to offset the carbon generated when
it is switched on. In his conference presentation Haque used this to
highlight the flaws in the offsetting approach to carbon-emission
reduction, pointing out that at our current levels of energy consumption
we would need entire uni-personal forests in order to reach anything
like the necessary reduction in carbon emissions. As Cambridge
University botanist Oliver Rackham puts it "planting trees to mitigate
climate change is like drinking more water to keep down rising sea levels."

This engaging demonstration-system questions how we might become aware
of these effects in order to relate differently to each other and to our
environment. It draws the viewer into a calculation process that impacts
on their perception of their energy consumption in relation to the
complex questions about what right-action might follow.

David Griffiths's presentation of groWorld, a video game that explores
ideas of guerrilla gardening and permaculture, suggests another way to
engage peoples' ability to both feel and know. Griffiths is developing
the game together with FoAM - an organisation based in Amsterdam which
works at the intersection between ecology, culture and technology. For
him artists contribute by increasing public engagement and encouraging
scientists to think in radically different ways.

Avatars in groWorld will not only be controlled by people but also by
plants, using sensor data (for humidity, Ph level, temperature, etc.)
drawn from 'real' gardens to shape game behaviours. Griffiths pointed
out that many urbanites have lost the capacity to grow their own plants
and vegetables, unable to produce either their own food or gardens. In
groWorld, a community of real and virtual gardeners exchange techniques
and ideas with the purpose of recovering important knowledge on the
topic. This game claims to achieve a higher level of hybridity between
virtual and actual worlds than traditional video games, in that it is
controlled by bio-data in a way that produces horticultural knowledge in
the players.

The works and ideas discussed so far engaged us, through processes of
calculation and learning, with the some of the scientific and material
realities of climate change. Urban Prospecting by Jon Cohrs, exhibited
in the exhibition at Cube, makes us 'feel' the debate quite differently.
A set of modified metal detectors equipped with hydrocarbon sensors for
tracking oil 'resources' were displayed, in the style of a trade fair,
along with a 'promotional' video.

Drawing on gold rush hopes and imagery, urban prospectors appear in the
video to endorse the product's ability to deliver great riches to their
owners. "It's as easy as walking the dog!". Sumps of spilt oil and toxic
waste are to be found in former industrial areas ripe for commercial
exploitation through resale to the black market or litigation against
the polluting corporations.

This joyful satire of opportunism and greed provides one of the few
critiques presented at FutureSonic that account for the role of complex
economic and ideological interests, in debate and action, surrounding
climate change. The values (or at least the spirit) of America's
self-made-man, mining for black gold, sits uncomfortably comfortably
alongside those of the hardware hackers and media activist dudes. "Being
green has never been this cool".

Cohrs' exploration of ethical compromise, within the networks of market
and media, contrasts sharply with Flight Patterns by artist, designer
and researcher Aaron Koblin. This data visualisation project shows the
traces of all the planes crossing the United States in one day. The
result is a stunning animation, the beauty of which suspends the
critical faculties and with them, any associations with toxic carbon
emissions and the warming effects of contrails. Rather, the data driven
imagery evokes clean travel through boundless, clean skies that could
well be sponsored by one of the large airlines and exhibited on a huge
screen in an airport terminal to sooth fretful passengers. How could
anything that looks so natural be problematic?

In the discussion that followed Koblin's conference presentation, he
acknowledged that when processing huge amounts of data for an artwork
the artist is forced to present a particular point of view in order to
make it accessible and comprehensible to the public. In that sense
data-visualisation projects will always have a political implication and
therefore carry a certain responsibility. One can see this principle in
action in an excellent earlier Internet artwork by Koblin, The Sheep
Market, "a series of 10,000 simple images of sheep drawn by online
workers. Stylistically the sheep range from the indecipherable to the
extremely detailed and cute [...] They serve as a metaphor for the
sharecropping masses of Web 2.0 projects. And their production speaks of
the future of art and creative production."[4] Viewers of and
participants in The Sheep Market are addressed specifically as Internet
users, allowing them to contribute a drawing or buy stickers and so
drawing them into the economic and political relations that are the
subject of the work. This is a wonderful example of the potential range
of the media artists' rich palette. Unfortunately Flight Patterns,
though beautiful, fails to position, or connect with, the viewer who
maintains a dreamy, apolitical distance from the subject of the work.

HeHe presented video documentation of Nuage Vert (Green Cloud), a data
visualisation project with direct and purposeful public engagement. A
site-specific laser projection on a cloud of vapour emissions, produced
by a power plant in Helsinki, takes the shape of the cloud by measuring
heat with thermal video analysis while the size varies depending on the
levels of energy consumption.

HeHe organised the Unplug event in Helsinki which citizens were asked to
switch off all appliances and go out to look at the green cloud. The
cloud was supposed to grow as consumption fell. Consumption fell by 800
kVA - which is equivalent of the power generated by one windmill running
for one hour. The accomplishment of this project is the way it connects
directly to energy consumption and pollution at the very site where it
occurs and in doing so achieves the kind of radical data visualisation
to which Tapio Makela aspires; connecting sets of information,
re-presenting their effects to the very people who have a part in their
generation.

Less successful was Climate Bubbles, one of the three, large scale,
participatory projects devised by FutureSonic in collaboration with
Natural History Museum and Lancaster University. Biotagging: Manchester
and One Hundred Years of Climate Change were the other two.

Climate Bubbles by Drew Hemment, Alfie Dennen and Carlo Buontempo set
out to map local heat flows within the city. To do so, people were
invited to blow soap bubbles, to track and document the paths they took
and to upload the results to the website - a fun activity that would
contribute to the body of scientific knowledge. At the time of writing,
the map on the project's web page does not show any of the measurements
contributed by participants. It is therefore hard to imagine how
participants were able to gain any sense of their contribution to the
social or scientific aims of the project or to get a sense of their role
either in relation to the location, or to the others who took part. As
one of the most highly visible keynote projects in the art bit of
FutureSonic this particular work testifies to the shadow side of the
festival by taking a technocratic approach to participants. It proposes
a distracting and flawed framework for collective agency in
Environment2.0 and its positioning in an art context only adds to the
confusion.

On the surface Amy Balkin's three day performance Reading the IPCC
Fourth Assessment Report could be interpreted as an attempt to raise
public awareness about the causes, effects and mitigation of man-made
climate change by making its findings accessible (or at least the
existence of the report known) to festival visitors. The collective
reading did serve this purpose to a small degree, however it was as a
multivalent artwork, rather than as a public information service, that
it had a more profound impact. Festival visitors signed up online to
participate by giving a 20-minute reading of a section of the report
from a simple lectern, in the foyer of the Cube gallery or outside on
the pavement. They could also sit and listen on one of the 6 chairs
provided and be served a cup of Feral Trade coffee or tea.

The artwork took as its materials the relationship between the IPCC
report and participants in the performance (or more specifically their
position in relation to issues of climate change). The report's
impressive use of jargon from the political and bureaucratic disciplines
(as well as those of social and material science), combined with its
length produced a range of experiences and knowledge in its readers and
listeners. The participants and text came alive in unpredictable ways as
the audience spontaneously interrupted and interacted with the reader to
comment on particular points, to offer their own perspective, to cry out
with frustration at particularly dense and obscure sections or to break
off into tangential conversations. These revealed visitors'
self-reflexive awareness of the part they played in an allegory. Their
participation in the performance of an impossible task (the text was
just too long and dense to stand any hope of being read in full)
resonated with their evident anxieties in relation to collective task
(of climate change mitigation) under discussion. Through this sparely
crafted framework for participation the artwork interrogated a set of
questions around individual agency and public engagement with questions
of environmental crisis. It also demonstrated the potential
sophistication of sentient public participation in art action.

Most of us find ourselves in daily contradiction with our principles and
this should not prevent us from holding and exploring our principles.
Our intentions are also often mismatched with the effects of our
actions. This is the human condition. However, an ecological approach
must incorporate feedback processes for evaluating and making
adjustments in response to the effects of these contradictions and
mismatches. In his influential anthology, Steps to an Ecology of
Mind[5], Gregory Bateson clearly sets out the dangers of attempting to
instrumentalise living beings, no matter how apparently worthy the goal.
The loss of flexibility that arises in an evolving civilisation when it
ignores complex (bottom up) feedback in blinkered pursuit of a single
process can be fatal for an ecosystem. Research by social scientists
such as Tim Jackson on sustainable consumption also demonstrate the
fatal consequences of persistent political attachment to economic growth
and extravagant consumption as the sole ideological monorail to the
future.[6]

So it was sinister to note how narrowly the frame of debate had been set
at this year's FutureSonic. None of the conference presentations we
attended acknowledged the role of corporate and institutional power in
Environment2.0. The role of economic interests or perverse effects of
'free' markets remained undiscussed. Instead most lines of thought were
singly directed to technical solutions for environmental crisis,
characterised by uncritical optimism and blind trust in technological
progress as the ultimate counter-force to anthropogenic climate change.
Jamais Cascio, an affiliate at the Institute for the Future and a fellow
at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies provided a
distillation of the general tone of the Social Technologies Summit: "I
think we are going to make it through the century and I think what we'll
come out with at the end of the century will be wondrous."

So it appears that while participants are encouraged to run about
blowing bubbles, connecting and shaping the physical and virtual
Environment2.0 someone, somewhere else is running the economic and
political bottom-lines.

The organisers of FutureSonic deserve recognition for a diverse line up
of emerging and high-profile practitioners and some well wrought copy
that appeared to attract a high turn out. It also gathered some
important work and ideas together. First, projects like Pachube
highlighted the value of sharing information about our environments as a
crucial step towards acting upon it responsibly. Second, the festival
highlighted an emerging field of experimental practices that deal with
the growing hybridity of networked virtual and physical realities.

We think we understand FutureSonic 2009's drive to conflate the
coordination of mass social behaviours, demonstrated by web 2.0
'utilities', with the sharing and critical practices of participatory
media arts. If the precise and transforming effects of an encounter with
the best of the dialogic media arts were to be distributed at scale they
could perhaps make some significant contribution to the quality of
connection and co evolution of humans and Environment2.0. They might
also provide an alternative approach to sustaining radical artistic
practice with diverse and interdisciplinary partners and collaborators.

However (and we know that it's difficult), the ambitious aims of the
programme were seriously undermined by a lack of focus in the conference
line up and a casual approach to exhibition curation. Many of the works
in the exhibition were poorly presented and contextualised (artistically
and technologically). And then it was just plain unclear what lots of
the works and projects were doing there, or what they contributed to the
debate. This was very frustrating and felt like a waste of an
opportunity. At a time when the value of media arts is being eroded by
the dominant (scale and numbers-obsessed) agendas of creative industry
and threatened with cuts in public funding by an impoverished national
treasury[7] we cannot afford to present an incoherent interface. It just
contributes to the already ill-informed arguments out there for the
dismantlement of our arts culture. It's even more crucial in the context
of environmental crisis that we don't settle for generalisations and
approximations and that we attempt to be clear about where optimism is
possible and where we have to allow uncertainty. As Bateson points out
there are some times when appearing to do the job is just not good enough.

Choosing environment as a framework for a media arts festival carries
with it a certain responsibility. To work at this scale, to make sense
of work at the intersection of artistic and technological culture, to
gather the resources and partners to produce a critical and conscious
cross-section of what is really happening out there, and to take the
necessary time to make sure that things are communicated well is a huge
undertaking. We therefore applaud the ambition and energy of the
FutureSonic team.

Perhaps though, as with environmental issues in general, a radical
aesthetic of organisation and engagement is required. One that allows
closer attention to local concerns and participation. One that
incorporates an authentic engagement with connected, complex ecologies;
felt, experienced and constructed at both local and translocal levels
and visible from all points both above and below.


Footnotes
1. For more about the GNU General Public License
http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/gpl.html
2. Corporate Dominance of Every Aspects of Our Lives Is Suffocating us,
Douglas Rushkoff interviewed by Helaine Olen, AlterNet. August 7, 2009.
http://www.alternet.org/media/141828/are_we_all_corporate_shills
3. Corporate Dominance of Every Aspects of Our Lives Is Suffocating us,
Douglas Rushkoff interviewed by Helaine Olen, AlterNet. August 7, 2009.
http://www.alternet.org/media/141828/are_we_all_corporate_shills/#comments
4. Rob Myers. http://www.furtherfield.org/displayreview.php?review_id=244
5. Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind, in Collected Essays in
Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology, Chicago Press: 1972.
6. 'Why Politicians Dare Not Limit Economic Growth' by Tim Jackson, 15th
October 2008 for New Scientist http://tinyurl.com/6784zw
7. See REAL-TIME POLITICAL ART OUT OF THE DIGITAL UNDERGROUND by Armin
Medosch 2007 for an analysis of various economic and cultural
cul-de-sacs for media arts
http://www.ambienttv.net/footprints/book/02medosch.html#7











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