ISEA2012: Machine Wilderness in Review

ISEA2012 screen printing at the Downtown Block Party. Photo courtesy of Nettrice Gaskins.

ISEA2012 screen printing at the Downtown Block Party. Photo by Nettrice Gaskins.

ISEA2012 Machine Wilderness convened hundreds of artists and technologists working at the intersection of computers, technology, science, and the arts. Set in the southwestern city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, it included activities along the state’s “Cultural Corridor” in Santa Fe and Taos. The overarching theme engaged “discourse of global proportions on the subject of art, technology and nature.” According to the conference program, “Machine Wilderness” refers to this region as an place of “rapid growth and technology alongside wide expanses of open land” and presented attendees with ideas for a “more humane interaction between technology and wilderness in which ‘machines’ can take many forms to support life on Earth.”

Marina Zurkow and Christie Leece. "Gila 2.0: Warding Off the Wolf," 2012. Photo by Nettrice Gaskins.

Marina Zurkow and Christie Leece. “Gila 2.0: Warding Off the Wolf,” 2012. Photo by Nettrice Gaskins.

Since 1990, ISEA International (formerly Inter-Society for the Electronic Arts) has fostered interdisciplinary academic discourse and exchange among culturally diverse organizations and individuals working with art, science and technology. Last year’s symposium in Istanbul was my first experience, and this time, I attended in part to present an interactive outdoor mural project. Highlights of ISEA2012 include a Laurie Anderson keynote address and performance, recycled cell phones that are reconfigured as robotic birds, a lowrider car orchestra and ballet, Navajo textiles with embedded QR codes, youth programs and live works that integrate animation, performance, and video installation. I liked all the opportunities to participate in or interact with the artwork.

Agnes Chavez and Alessandro Saccoia. "(x)tree project," 2012. Photo courtesy of Agnes Chavez.

Agnes Chavez and Alessandro Saccoia. “(x)tree project,” 2012. Photo courtesy of Agnes Chavez.

Several artists used online social media – Facebook, Twitter, etc. – to generate artwork. Agnes Chavez was part of a collaborative experiment called the (x)tree project that is described as a “socially interactive virtual forest generated from search words found in tweets and text messages.” Chavez worked with Alessandro Saccoia to capture data live from Twitter, convert it into branches of trees and allow these images (and texts) to be projected onto a wall at the Albuquerque Museum. Tweets in Space, a project by Nathaniel Stern and Scott Kildall, was a live performance event that beamed Twitter discussions from ISEA participants worldwide towards GJ667Cc – an exoplanet 22 light years away. According to the artists, this event “activates a potent conversation about communication and life that traverses beyond our borders or understanding.” As a contemporary practice, this art creates social capital that provides opportunities for individual and collective action, generated by networks of relationships, reciprocity, and new social customs.

Currently on view at 516 Arts are several noteworthy pieces. EyeDazzler, by William Wilson, is comprised of two panels, including a QR code motif made of 76,000 four-millimeter glass beads. Wilson calls it a “trans-customary collaborative expression.” Using an QR code reader app, viewers use their mobile devices to scan the QR code woven into a rug based on Wilson’s grandmother’s original “eye dazzler” design. The rug’s code directs viewers to a video (see above) that features Wilson’s mother and aunt discussing, in their native Diné language, how she made her original two-sided Navajo rug–a process that’s now becoming a lost art.

William Wilson. "eyeDazzler (detail)," 2012. Photo by Nettrice Gaskins.

William Wilson. “eyeDazzler” (detail), 2012. Photo by Nettrice Gaskins. 

Escape, an installation piece by U.K. artists Neil Mendoza and Anthony Goh, turns cell phone parts into birds; each contains an Arduino microcontroller, an open-source electronic prototyping platform that allows artists to create interactive electronic art. When hooked up to the cell network in Europe, the birds can take and make phone calls. At 516 Arts they have been reprogrammed to react to the proximity of people approaching them. According to an artist’s statement, Escape is “about taking the worst of modern life – disposable unwanted phones and unwanted noises – and turning them into something beautiful.” David Cudney’s String Theory (on view at the Factory on 5th Art Space) explores several ISEA2012 sub-themes, using “low-tech” machines to create a frenetic yet meditative environment. The conference sub-themes include Radical Cosmologies (the Cosmos), Econotopias (Creative Economies), Trans-Species Habitats (Wildlife), Dynamobilities (Transportation), and Gridlocked (Power).

Gambiocycle (see image above) is a tricycle containing electronic gear for doing interactive video projections and digital graffiti on public space. The vehicle is inspired by traveling salesmen that ride on wheels through Brazilian cities, selling products and broadcasting political advertisements. Gambiocycle gathers elements of performance, happening, electronic art, graffiti and “gambiarra” (meaning improvisational, makeshift, kludge): what it advertises is only a new era of straight democratic dialogue between people who participate in the interventions and their city. Marina Zurkow’s and Christie Leece’s Gila 2.0: Warding Off the Wolf (above) is a proposed “self-defense system for cattle using GPS, sound and olfactory output devices, video sensing, surveillance, and two-way communication.”

Fred Paulino, Lucas Mafra and Paulo Henrique Ganso. “Gambiologia Project (detail),” 2012. Photo by Nettrice Gaskins.

Fred Paulino, Lucas Mafra and Paulo Henrique Ganso. “Gambiologia Project (detail),” 2012. Photo by Nettrice Gaskins.

The Wells Park Rail Runner Mural Project is intended to “beautify and improve the Rail Runner corridor between Mountain Road and Interstate 40, to support local artists and encourage youth participation in the arts.” The project includes four murals by four lead artists or artist teams, including an Augmented Reality mural project I co-facilitated for the ISEA2012 Visiting Artists Teaching Program. The goal was to create an experience of interacting with the mural through touchscreen, camera-enabled mobile devices, which blends virtual and physical spaces and results in a greater appreciation for science, mathematics, engineering and technology (STEM) learning, culture and art.

Nettrice Gaskins and Laurie Marion, with local youth participants. "AROS mural project," 2012. Photo by Nettrice Gaskins.

Nettrice Gaskins and Laurie Marion, with local youth participants. “AROS mural project,” 2012. Photo by Nettrice Gaskins.

516 ARTS presented Intel Education Day featuring speakers, panels and workshops that explore STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) + Art education. Activities were geared towards local 6th to 12th grade teachers and students. The day culminated in a Downtown Block Party along Central Avenue (see video above) and Laurie Anderson’s performance of Dirtday!, in conjunction with her ISEA2012 conference keynote address. Currently on tour, Anderson’s show looks at “politics, theories of evolution, families, history and animals in a riotous and soulful collection of songs and stories.” As a former artist-in- residence with NASA, Anderson has a long history of exploring the intersection of art and science. She spoke in conversation with CalArts Art and Technology program director Tom Leeser, co-leader for the Radical Cosmologies theme.

Also of note is Tahir Hemphill’s Hip-Hop Word Count, a searchable ethnographic database built from the lyrics of over 40,000 hip-hop songs from 1979 to the present. The database provides a framework for online analysis, i.e. to generate visualizations on searched phrases, syntax, memes and socio-political ideas. Hemphill and Kwende Kefentse led a discussion about how hip-hop culture and music has been transformed by technological innovations. There are many examples of the merging of hip hop and D.I.Y. maker cultures that use technology to create new art forms, i.e. from discarded material objects in the environment. Andy Best-Dunkley’s ISEA2012 paper presentation, T/Act: Participatory Media Design for Social Empowerment, references EyeWriter, a D.I.Y. eyetracking system originally designed for paralyzed graffiti artist TEMPT1. I recorded video at the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture (NAMAC) conference in Minneapolis a few weeks ago when “sonic architect” and co-founder of rap group Public Enemy Hank Shocklee joined experimental music duo, Beatrix*jar.

“Symphony… is the ability to put together the pieces. It is the capacity to synthesize rather than to analyze; to see relationships between seemingly unrelated fields; to detect broad patterns rather than to deliver specific answers; and to invent something new by combining elements nobody else thought to pair.” (Dan Pink, A Whole New Mind)

AROS demonstration using Argon, an Augmented Reality browser. Photo by Nettrice Gaskins.

AROS demonstration using Argon, an Augmented Reality browser. Photo by Nettrice Gaskins.

Neil Mendoza and Anthony Goh. "Escape," 2011. Photo by Nettrice Gaskins.

Neil Mendoza and Anthony Goh. “Escape,” 2011. Photo by Nettrice Gaskins.

“Ethos” refers to refers to the spirit which motivates certain ideas and customs. My realization during Machine Wilderness with the variety of offerings was how the artwork on display contributes to broader cultural and spiritual shifts, especially in response to new ideas or forces happening in the world – intersecting with cultures, STEM, alternative and new media, education and industry. ISEA2012 presented a collection of “hackerspaces,” performance and meeting spaces where artists, educators and technologists could share their resources and knowledge, and make things. From the techno-social Tweets In Space to various “techno-vernacular” applications of scientific, technological, thematic or mathematical knowledge, i.e. from indigenous and underrepresented communities, there seemed to be something for every attendee. Participants were encouraged to engage across practices, with representatives from local and global communities to explore interactions between technology, the wilderness and the universe.