staun on Thu, 26 Sep 2002 15:33:19 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> In the riddle of nowhere - a visit to Makrolab

In the riddle of nowhere
Some notes on a visit to Makrolab in Scotland, end of July 2002

by Harald Staun

It was already late, when they met: art and life. Art was already a
little exhausted and needed a pint, and so it descended from its
mountain, and headed to the pub in the next village, or actually it had
been driving down, with a Landrover gliding and rocketing the deep path
which separated it from the world as much as it connected it to it.
Here, in the Scottish Highlands, dawn came late, and so one could still
recognize the silhouette of the soft heathland, monochrome images of
nature, as tourists prefered calling this result of century-long
deforestation. The car followed the riverlette, crossed the country road
and had nearly reached at its goal, when the collective inquisitiveness
of its passengers brought it to a stop.

They had made it their business to detect signals, the participants of
the „Makrolab“ project, with the help of satellite dishes and all kind
of other sensors, and so they could not simply pass those signs, those
huge English flags that suddenly appeared at the roadside. They climbed
out of the car and off its roof, which had also carried a part of the
group, about a dozen of them, and slowly approached the sound of the
music that was blown across the river bank. For a while they were
standing there, just watching the scene. There were candelsticks hanging
in the trees and smoke rising up from a barbecue grill. The people down
at the river actually seemed to be quite peaceful, but how can one be
sure: people transforming a street in the heart of Scotland  into an
alley of St. George’s crosses could absolutely be dangerous. If they
would have been better equipped, and living a few hundred years later in
the imaginary future of mankind, they probably would have taken out
their scanners now, checking the life signs and weapons of the
strangers. But, of course, it fortunated possible without any such
advanced instruments, that those people were just a bunch of campers who
were not less surprised about that nocturnal invasion. And still, the
situation bore traits of one of those first encounters, so again the
question was: Who are the aliens here, after all?

Clunes Beat, Gleann a Chrombaidh, Atholl Estates, Scotland, United
Kingdom: Those were the coordinates the artscience project Makrolab had
withdrawn itself to, and maybe one should have added „Earth“ to it, just
to make sure. That the inhabitants of this long term experiment by
Slovenian artist Marko Peljhan called themselves „makronauts“, and
sometimes even felt like spacemen, was not only due to the futuristic
design of that mobile laboratorium: an octagonal tube, 14 meters long,
with a silvery shining mantle and steely stilts, a couple of satellite
dishes and a wind turbine for energy supply with an entry hatch that
sizzlingly opened through air pressure and with workstation chairs that
were designed for motor homes, in which one can hardly move but sit ten
hours at a stretch without getting sore bottoms. Four times Peljhan has
been installing his lab by now: first, as a part of Documenta X, 1997 on
the Lutterberg near Kassel, later in Slovenia and on the Australian
Rottnest Island. From May to August this year it stayed in Scotland, on
one of those huge private estates of the country. Namibia is considered
for the next location. 2007, after 10 years, the Makrolab will be
installed in Antarctica. There it is supposed to stay until it breaks

Documenta X was something like an artlab itself, the incubator for a new
kind of media art, whose productions can be watched in every halfway
vivid museum today, as well at the „Ars Electronica Festival“, the
yearly branch meeting of media artists in Linz. And even if this years
motto, „Unplugged - Art as the Scene of Global Conflicts“ would have
been a fitting frame for a presentation of Makrolab (some of its
participants actually met again in Linz), Peljhan’s project is more like
an antithesis to this in many ways rather traditional form of
exhibition. Nevertheless, his „vehicle“, as he likes to call the lab,
transports the idea of the „Hybrid Workspace“, the multimedia forum in
Kassel, further than any other project. The redefinition of the place of
cultural production, from the studio to the open workspace - or
laboratory, if you want: this redefinition is a much more significant
element of contemporary media art than all those aesthetical dubieties
raised occasionally by the output of universal-machine-made art. Even
the decision to call this undisciplined occupation with media reality
„art“ is only a tool to preserve the freedom of places, whose emptyness
is often bemoaned by art critics trained by contents. „It is art when
our lawyers advise us so“, was the not merely ironic definition, Peljhan
had prepared for the irritated visitors at Documenta X.

For five years now, it has been straying around the world, this object
you maybe really better call a „structure“, just to avoid the trap
seeing only the replika of a space ship in it. The desire for distance
from the world expressed in its design, is not only based on the faible
for kosmologic aesthetics which one certainly cannot deny Peljhan. More
than this, it is an almost old-fashioned idea of contemplative isolation
Makrolab wants to accomplish. „An autonomous communication, research and
living unit and space, capable of sustaining concentrated work of 4
people in isolation/insulation conditions for up to 120 days“ - that’s
how the official decription of the project reads. Telecommunications,
weather and migrations are the three central research fields, Peljhan
considers as essential for the understanding of global systems. This may
sound somewhat holistic, but in fact it is not compatibility he’s up to,
e.g when recruiting the crew for the lab, rather generating
unpredictable synergies. „My thesis is“ says Peljhan, „that individuals
in a restricted, intensive isolation can produce more evolutionary code
than large social movements of great geographical and political extent.“

To proof this thesis, he is constantly looking for places that are as
difficult accessible as the concept of the project. Atholl Estate e.g.
is the sixth largest private property of Scotland, a terrain shaped by
hunting, 130,000 acres of land, populated by 8500 deer. Apart from of
hunting season in August and September, this is a no man’s land. And
still, in the barren land surrounding his lab, Peljhan is always
searching for its cultural history, for traces of human presence and
social patterns which have written themselves into the landscape like
sediments in the strata of rocks. The way this aristocratic monoculture
had changed the land could not only be read out of the samples of soil
which geologist Anna Jakomulska had collected during her stay there, but
also out of tourism researcher Katrin Lund’s interviews with hikers
enthralled by walking through this bizarre cultural landscape. Yes, you
can really fall in love with this ecologically sterile romance.

Nature is just another medium, and yet it works as a hide-out for this
high-tech eremitage that tries to recognize the world by removing itself
from it; this move is a strategic withdrawal from familiar environment
where no consciousness is streaming anymore, only information rushing.
It’s an unsafe distance, Peljhan is trying to establish: a distance from
the patterns of everyday data debris which is as hard to ignore as to
perceive; a distance from habitual reflexes to and reflections on it.
„Isolation“ and „insulation“ are the paradox effects of the island
position which Makrolab combines, and it may be no untypical consequence
of this constellation that one or the other makronaut in this
counter-environment becomes subject to social forces he or she has long
learnt to elude.

It would be wrong to understand this retreat as an inner exile: Makrolab
may be autonomous, but it’s not blind. It’s purpose is not to create an
illusion of a position outside the „spectacle“, but to produce
illuminations at its margins. The equipment of the lab even opens up
many more communication channels for its inhabitants than they are
usually provided with: Several satellite dishes enable access to
internet and allow for receiving more than 600 TV-channels,
electromagnetic frequencies and interstellar noise. It is a desired side
effect of this technical and categorical extended readiness to receive,
that the lab picks up signals as spectacular as during Documenta X, when
the crew not only communicated with real cosmonauts aboard the Mir, but
also recorded a precarious UN teleconference about the situation in
Sierra Leone. But, as insightful the decoding of half-public messages
may be, it is above all the relevance of the collected data itself that
is put into question by readjusting the scanners.

Tearing signals out of their provided coherence or gathering
uncategorized samples may well result in distorted images. There is the
radioqualia group, for example, who tries to transmit cosmic sound via
an internet radio station or to reveal secret service surveillance
methods which allow to reconstruct computer data merely by catching up
electromagnetic emissions from the screen; there is metereologist Ewan
Chardronnet who is developing an artificial weather for living in
virtual reality; there is artist Tim Knowles who is documenting the
flight of moths by long exposure photography or biologist Helena Johard
who is drawing minimalistic protocols of her subconsciousness – and if
you put all those works together, they portait the world as fragmentary
as space probes. But there’s method in this disorientation, and only the
displacements and fractions, disclosed by those tactical
decontextualizations, make it evident, that mankind itself resides in a
kind of hermitage, separated by blinkers from the knowledge it produces.
And no information flood manages to pass over the banks of the channels.

>From his early youth on, Peljhan has been interested in radio
communication, and what he has learned from it, namely that the signals
you receive depend on the frequencies on which you look for them, is the
epistemologic basis of the Makrolab. It is, basically, just a giant
world receiver. „We approached the sky above the Lutterberg as a one
large unmarked library with voices, video and data communication pouring
from its shelves“, Makrolab-participant Bran Singer wrote in his notes
at Documenta X. „Sky books“ is also the title of a text by Russian
avantgarde poet Velimir Khlebnikov, whose futurism decisive inspired
Peljhan. In his quite complex theory of language, Khlebnikov has
assigned a certain meaning to each letter of the alphabet, and if
somebody wants to hear a very long definition for the Makrolab, Peljhan
is ready to spell it. Like a decryption machine, the Makrolab tries to
emulate the function of this theory, materializing, visualizing and
concretising abstract elements of codes. This enlightening moment of the
project could be compared in a way to a V-effect, only that in this case
the alienation is not built in the transmission but in the reception.
The instruments are tuned to finally show what they are not meant to

Sometimes the messages themselves choose the media that transmit them.
„Greetings!.. I am the Silver Surfer ... Sentinel of the Spaceways and
former Herald of Galactus“, proclaimed a unnatural high voice out of the
mouth of Peljhan one night. Momentarily everybody around deemed the
arrival of true aliens. Until, slowly, the helium he had been inhaling
out of one of the weather balloons, decreased.

/ Translated and slightly edited version of an article written for the
Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, published Sept. 8, 2002, nr. 36,
p. 24

more data on Makrolab:

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: contact: