ISEA 2012 – Machine Wilderness. A QA session between Andrea Polli and Pat Badani

FALL 2012: V.08 N.02: FOUND – SAMPLED – STOLEN – STRATEGIES OF APPROPRIATION IN NEW MEDIA

 
Andrea Polli
Artistic Director, ISEA2012 Machine Wilderness.
Mesa Del Sol Chair of Digital Media. Associate Professor, Fine Arts and Engineering. University of New Mexico.

Pat Badani
Independent Artist/Scholar. Director of “Al Grano Project.”
Editor-in-Chief, Media-N, Journal of the New Media Caucus.

PB: ISEA has become the most important academic gathering on electronic art worldwide.  It is now held every year, always in a different city, typically in a large metropolitan center like Istanbul, Helsinki, Nagoya, and Paris, to name a few past symposia sites. For me, it was particularly rewarding to experience the conference in a smaller city like Albuquerque; I was really able to concentrate on ISEA’s proceedings that were compactly organized around some core museums and accessible participating spaces such as hotels, galleries and movie theaters.

As Artistic Director for ISEA 2012, what was your role, and how would you describe your experience in pulling it all together? In your view, what were your biggest challenges, and what were your biggest accomplishments.

Andrew Connors (Curator of Art at The Albuquerque Museum of Art & History) in front of Rubén Otriz-Torres’ work. ISEA2012 Exhibition. © Andrea Polli.

Andrew Connors (Curator of Art at The Albuquerque Museum of Art & History) in front of Rubén Otriz-Torres’ work. ISEA2012 Exhibition. © Andrea Polli.

AP: Thanks for the questions, Pat!  When I moved to New Mexico in January 2009, I noticed that there was a large number of people here with well-established and innovative practices at the intersection of art, science and technology.  It’s a place that allows artists, scholars, scientists, and technologists the time and space to try out new things and even to, dare I say it, become truly radicalized.  But, the wide-open spaces also pose a challenge. It’s difficult to get groups of people and activities together because we are so spread out.  It’s also even hard to get a full sense of what’s really going on.  So, having been a part of ISEA symposia for many years, I thought it would be a good idea to try to host one in New Mexico in order to bring the local and statewide communities together with an international community and have a dialogue about the future of art, science and technology, especially in light of accelerating climate change, the imminent end of oil and coming water crisis, and other issues.

However, I had just moved into town and knew that hosting an ISEA would require a whole network of local partners that I didn’t have.  Luckily, I found a really interesting festival called Land Art that was organized by 516 ARTS.  One of my colleagues at the University of New Mexico suggested that I speak to the director of 516 ARTS, Suzanne Sbarge.  So, I cold-contacted her and asked her to partner on an ISEA symposium proposal and much to my surprise she said yes!  We made a bid for the 2011 symposium that we lost to Istanbul but were encouraged to re-submit for 2012 and got it.  From that point on we had about 2 years to pull everything together. I wore a lot of hats, but in general my role was to help support the fundraising machine that Suzanne already had moving; to coordinate with the International ISEA board; and to coordinate the international call, theme and subthemes, in addition to jurying the process and the proceedings.

PB: ISEA2012 was organized in partnership 516 Arts in Albuquerque, what was their role in terms of event management?

AP: 516 ARTS was very much at the helm of the ship, handling the organization and finances of the symposium.  UNM and the Albuquerque Museum of Art were also lead partners. Intel became a major sponsor of the Education Day and the National Hispanic Cultural Center a sponsor of Latin American Day.  All in all, we had over 90 partners across the state and region.  One important decision that we made, was to hire a conference coordination company so we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel and run that end of things without any experience.  Kesselman-Jones was great, and I would definitely recommend that anyone wanting to host an ISEA or another major event similar in scope, that is to say, one that includes a conference, should consider finding a company to handle that part.

PB: I was amazed –and pleased– at the number of creative minds in art, science, technology from around the globe that were attracted to come to Albuquerque – although, there was a large contingent of art theorists and practitioners, many of whom are based in the USA. How many national and international attendees and how many participants gathered in ISEA Albuquerque in September?

AP: Thousands of people attended the free events, and we had 850 full conference registrants, almost 400 of which were international, with representatives from over 30 countries.  Our main focus was on Latin America and we had a great leader for this, Andres Burbano, who had organized the Latin American Forum for ISEA in the past.  At ISEA2012, we expanded the Latin American Forum to a full day of activities –the Latin American Day at the National Hispanic Cultural Center– and got support from the Mexican Consulate; the Instituto Cervantes; the NHCC and many others, for that day.  This allowed an unprecedented number of artists from Latin America to attend and participate in the symposium.

PB: ISEA2012 was organized conceptually under a very focused theme.  How did you think of Machine Wilderness as a theme; how does the theme relate to the local characteristics in New Mexico; and how does it resonate with global concerns?

AP: The term ‘machine wilderness’ came from the writings of cultural geographer Ron Horvath.  Horvath was writing in the 1960s about the transformation of land use in the American Southwest and throughout the Americas (for example he wrote a lot about Chile.) His take on the machine wilderness was a negative one, very importantly looking at the ways in which space which had formerly been prioritized for people and animals was being transferred to the control of machines, specifically the automobile.  I thought that around 50 years later was a good time to look at this idea again, but also to expand and extend it.  The ISEA2012 ‘Machine Wilderness’ tried to envision more humane connections between living beings and machines, accepting that the machines including transportation and computing technologies are now a ubiquitous part of our lives, but also knowing that perhaps the automobile as we know it is going to be extinct very soon and that our computing technologies are constantly undergoing rapid transformation.

PB: Additionally, nested under Machine Wilderness, there were 5 sub themes; each one co-organized with leaders in these areas. Can you briefly describe what these sub-themes addressed and name the leading people?

AP: It was great to work with such an amazing team of scholars in the field on developing these sub themes.

-Power: Gridlocked
This theme was designed by the founders of PLAND –a great residency project near Taos, New Mexico.  Erin and Nina Elder and Nancy Zasudil wanted to look at the power grid, which has had such dramatic failures over the past ten years or so, and the impacts of independent, off-the-grid power initiatives.

-Creative Economies: Econotopias
This theme was very well designed by ISEA2012 artist and University of Buffalo professor Stephanie Rothenberg, with lots of panels, papers, and projects.  It was focusing on initiatives in response to the economic crisis that re-think our creative economies.  Surprisingly, there were fewer currency projects than I expected in this theme, I’d almost say that a lot of the projects were addressing issues that could be seen as ‘beyond currency.’

-Transportation: Dynamobilities
This was a theme that I ended up leading based on my interest and experience with creating vehicular-based projects like Cloud Car and Breather.  The theme not only highlighted projects like the low-rider Symphony 505 and the SEFT vehicle, but also projects that used mobile technologies.

-Wildlife: Trans-Species Habitats
This was a very evocative theme developed by my colleague in the UNM Art and Ecology program Catherine Harris who has a background in both fine art and landscape architecture.  Projects that engaged humans, but also bats, bees, insects, wolves, and other non-humans of the plant, animal and fungal kingdoms, were highlighted through this theme.  I had fun developing a project with my research group and artists Gabriel Melcher and Sarah Lewison called The Bio-Ethics of Beer (ecobrew.org), which took ISEA2012 attendees through a late-night sci-fi cellphone fantasy adventure with beer-making yeast colonies!

-The Cosmos: Radical cosmologies
This theme was developed by two artists and scholars I really admire, Professor Tom Leeser of Calarts and Rio-based independent curator Lea Rekow.  This theme, which was also supported by Calarts and part of a larger initiative, engaged the long history of space mythos and science in this region, including the ancient cosmological architecture here, the space alien lore, and the contemporary development of the first commercial spaceport.  I really was fascinated with how this theme looked critically at space exploration with projects like Junkspace and others.

PB: All the Keynote speakers and panels were fascinating to me; can you review at least two of these presentations?

AP: To me one of the most compelling featured presentations was the Econotopias panel put together by Stephanie Rothenberg featuring Caroline Wollard (the creator of ourgoods.org), Jaromil (one of the creators of Bitcoin) and Ted Howard (architect of the green jobs and wealth building strategy launched in Cleveland, Ohio, known as the Evergreen Cooperatives). The panel focused on the ways that communities are taking back control of their economy on a basic level: re-defining currency and value and creating new systems of exchange. Each panelist had a unique strategy and perspective in response to the economic crisis. Jaromil spoke about the abstract nature of finance and the strengths of the open source and hacker communities in that we have the experience to ‘innovate under austerity.’ He encouraged the audience to move from collectives to conspiracies. Caroline Woolard spoke about her desire to move away from a monetary culture and how she had been working in that direction with the Our Goods project.  She presented an interesting analysis of ‘why we make art’ that included: speaking truth to power, sharing untold stories, and being our true selves. She inspired me when she talked about ‘the shadow of the future,’ in other words the way you behave as the way you would like someone else to behave. Finally, Ted Howard presented the Evergreen Cooperativesproject in Cleveland and how ­–as a business owned and operated by the workers– it was inspired by theMondragon Cooperative Corporation, in Spain.  What was controversial about the panel was how each talked about the idea of ‘ownership.’ Caroline Woolard equated bartering with private property and Ted Howard said ‘owning your own job is a beautiful thing.’  This prompted a scientist audience member from Latin America to challenge the ability for one to make radical change using capitalist rhetoric.  This was very exciting to me because I believe it was the first time that I had ever heard a real challenge to capitalism at an art and technology event.  We are so dependent on the capitalist machine for the production of our equipment, device and software, that there is usually a lack of challenge to the status quo.  As the only non-American on the panel, Jaromil stepped in to respond to this question saying that people from each country needs to respond to the issue in the ways that they can, and that the situation in the United States might require this kind of approach whereas in other countries a more revolutionary approach can be successful.

The other featured panel that really resonated with me was a panel during the Latin American day about technology and the body that included performance and media artist Coco Fusco, a representative from the New Mexico ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), and two of my colleagues at UNM: Manuel Montoya and Miguel Gandert.  Fusco discussed her performance and book project A Field Guide for Female Interrogators that exposed the way female soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are trained to use their bodies and sexuality as a weapon.  In preparation for this project, she and several other performers actually underwent training given by a private company that teaches soldiers how to withstand torture.  She said that over the course of a day, she and the others were actually subjected to some of the torture techniques, and that many of them broke within hours.  Montoya’s presentation explored consumption and its connection to child soldiers in the developing world.  He had the audience hold up any electronic device they had with them, and then estimated that the audience was holding about four pounds of a rare earth mineral called ‘coltan.’  He said that this coltan was most likely mined on the black market in sub-Saharan Africa, where warlords use child soldiers to police the mines.  It is estimated that 300,000 child soldiers are used in this way. He told the story of how Onge, a seven-year old boy, was turned into a killing and raping machine by the warlords and how young women are used as ‘biological weapons,’ infected with HIV in order to infect political and economic targets.  Finally, closer to home, Miguel Gandert presented a series of photographs investigating prostitution in El Paso and the ACLU representative discussed the widespread privatization of prisons in the United States, especially those close to the border.

PB: Alongside the symposium, Machine Wilderness also showcased a major curated exhibition of works related to the topic accompanied by a fantastic color catalogue.  Can you elaborate? What can you share about – for example: the selection process; the challenges of transporting, installing, and maintaining media intensive works, and anything else you think is pertinent.

AP: The main issue we struggled with was the timeline.  We wanted both the exhibition catalog and the proceedings to be available to attendees during the conference.  Since we were working with a major international publisher of art books, we needed to have all the material for the exhibitions and performances –including essays for each sub theme and special projects– available to the publisher many months in advance of the conference.  Because we were including residency works, this posed a challenge, since the residencies wouldn’t be completed until right before the conference.  We decided to include images and visualizations from the artists’ proposals to represent the residencies in the book. The proceedings also posed a challenge because while some people insisted that the proceedings be available at the conference, others wanted time to complete the papers after the conference. We opted for the former and only got 37 full papers completed.  Perhaps a publication like Media-N or the LEA would be interested in papers written after the conference? We’d love to direct inquiries to one or two possible venues.

PB: Attendees were kept busy during the day and until late in the evening with Exhibition openings, Meetings, Galas & Events, Performances, a downtown Albuquerque Block Party, Educational tours, and more.  Additionally, there were off-site activities carried on in Santa Fe, can you describe these?

AP: I wasn’t able to attend Santa Fe day, but I did go out to the Taos day and related events with a group of students and had a fantastic time! Highlights were the Earthship tour and The Hand of Man by Christian Ristow. We not only toured the Earthships, but saw a film and lecture by Earthship architect Mike Reynolds. The film explored some of the legal battles Reynolds had to endure to achieve his dream, including losing his license and having to halt production. While initially given permission to build, later political regimes deemed his work illegal and he even faced jail time. Reynolds actually drafted a bill that after several years in legislation has now been accepted that allows him to operate an ‘experimental’ building site. We also had a tour of Larry Bell’s studio, a New Mexico-Los Angeles artist who uses an elaborate machine to coat paper and other materials with a thin metal dust. Although this process is common in industry, Bell is the only artist I know of to use it so extensively. He initially was contracting to companies to do the coating, but then found that if he operated the machine himself he could have more control over the results. Finally, we saw Christian Ristow’s work which fulfills every little kid’s fantasy. Using a custom glove, viewers can control a giant robotic hand and crush cars.

A couple of days later I visited artist and University of Buffalo media professor Paul Vanouse’s ISEA2012 residency project. The People’s PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) is designed to democratize high-end genetic engineering tools. According to Vanouse, the PCR “is an elegant algorithmic process that allowed Kary Mullis to copy a small region of DNA billions of times, thereby ‘amplifying’ a region, potentially to differentiate individuals. The first great patent of the biotechnological revolution profited Cetus and Roche corporations with the first billion-dollar invention. For his discovery, Mullis, along with Michael Smith, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993.”

Amazingly, Paul has devised a way to perform one of the key processes in PCR over a campfire with simple equipment. What is fascinating to me is his description of the history and importance of Thermus Acquaticus as an organism that can survive high temperatures and therefore remain living through the PCR process. As far as I can understand, the genes of this organism can be combined with other organisms therefore allowing the PCR process to be used with a variety of living DNA. As you can imagine, this makes Thermus Acquaticus a very valuable species to those that profit from the biotech industry!

Paul collaborated with visual artist and Buffalo professor Joan Linder, who created an exquisitely drawn book of the process, including trips to three hot springs with their two young sons Lucien and Raphael. Raf even presented his own drawings of the experience!

These two residencies were part of the Neo Rio festival created by artist Clare Cote and former UNM professor Jon Wenger. The Wild Rivers Park where the festival is held is part of BLM land (The Bureau of Land Management), and thanks to the hard work of Clare and Jon, Paul, and Joan’s residency is one of the first BLM hosted residencies ever! They even lived in an apartment on site.

After the presentation/performance of People’s PCR, Clare and Jon hosted a dinner and breakfast at a Wild Rivers campground in Questa. I got a chance to stay the night in the ‘weasel’, Jon’s wild studio bus that travels into the deep wilds for many weeks at a time with artists to develop work. His wild studio projects started at UNM and were the beginning of the tradition we try to continue with the UNM Art and Ecology program.

PB: Are you able to stand back at this point and assess ISEA Albuquerque’s successes? Most importantly, given the theme “Machine Wilderness” how do you feel the symposia contributed to the advancement of innovative academic thinking and practice-based research related to a more humane interaction between art, science, technology and the natural environment?

AP: I think that the symposium at the very least helped to open the eyes of the public and attendees to some of the problems we are facing and possible solutions; and I hope that it allowed a diverse group of people to meet and exchange ideas that might lead to future collaborations.  I also hope that the education day inspired young people; it certainly gave me hope for our future to see the ideas of the youth participants. I think the symposium definitely opened avenues of collaboration within our state that didn’t exist before.

PB: Is there anything else you would like to add?

AP: Upon reflection, to me this ISEA really made it clear that there is a sea change in the way artists, scholars and technologists are thinking about what they do, specifically in the relation to the environment and in service to the living world.  I think that there was a little bit of tension that existed between an older way of thinking about electronic art and new media and this newer, more ecologically and socially engaged view.  The presence of seminal eco-artists was very encouraging to me because it showed that the emergence of an ecological consciousness within the art, technology and science community has a strong historical and conceptual grounding, and I was glad that the symposium was acknowledging that. We shouldn’t be always reinventing the wheel!  Some of the more interesting conversations I had were about the similarities between seemingly disparate cultures like the ‘permaculture’ community and the open source community.  I think many of us agree that these communities should be talking to each other, and through Machine Wilderness, I think that some of these conversations may have started.