SOFT CONTROL is already here

Yevgenia Romanova 

In the very end of 2012 “SOFT CONTROL: Art, Science and the Technological Unconscious”, large-scale exhibition of technological art, came to an end. It was held as part of European Capital of Culture 2012 programme in Maribor, Slovenia. 30 artists have participated in this project, including such stars of contemporary technological art as Marina Abramovic, Stelarc, Seiko Mikami, Joe Davis, Philippe Demers, Oron Catts. More than 20 technological installations were presented for one month at 2500 sq. metres of floor space. The team from KIBLA Multimedia Centre (Maribor) and the Koroška Galerija (Slovenj Gradec) worked on the project. After the exhibition curator of “SOFT CONTROL: Art, Science and the Technological Unconscious” project Dmitry Bulatov has returned to Kaliningrad, to his working place at the Baltic Branch of the National Centre for Contemporary Arts and was interviewed by 

What were the criteria of prospect curator for SOFT CONTROL? 

There are very few specialists in the field of science art who not only have research potential, but also organizational potential to release such a big project. There might be about 20 people in the entire world, and even fewer in Europe. They all are well known. 2 years ago program representatives contacted me and said they were interested in a big international project: something at the intersection of contemporary art, science and technology. I made a description about necessity to renew the sense of belonging with technological processes in people. And we need some cultural strategies for that. These strategies can be worked out only after answering two questions: what lies in the base of artificial, technological reality and how does this reality affect us. To find probable answers to these questions I have invented a bizarre term Technological Unconscious. This is how working on the exhibition named “SOFT CONTROL: Art, Science and the Technological Unconscious” began.

Dmitry Bulatov 

How do we usually explore the new territory? First, we give it a name carrying our own expectations and sensations. Then we explore these sensations through rational descriptions. This is how it worked with the term Technological Unconscious: there were two interpretations. First of them describes mechanism of technological interacting with a man through ideas. There is some archive of narratives and myths, they are like repeating cultural motives and they exist only in the history of new technology. These narratives are forms of technological experience framing up in human counsciousness in advance, and at a certain moment of time they activate and encourage creating new tecgnological forms.

On the other hand, Technological Unconscious (with the emphasis on Technological) can be seen as kind of influence of the substance, its formation in time. One can assume that artificial reality is made by technological infrastructure that activates pre-individual, pre-verbal and pre-social dimension of a man. This reality affects us in a consealed formatizing way and accomplishes human by cutting corners of cognitive aspect. This effect can’t be articulated in terms of subject-object or human-unhuman opposites. For instance, earlier, both craftsman and tool were needed in order to create a product. Now, these three parts melt together. For example, in synthetic biology often there are no tools at all, however, there are manipulations with substance on a technological level. 

But isn’t using of technology impossible without a tool? 

Yes, certainly, but consider the fact that natural processes know no duality. Our real environment shows us that living forms create themselves, build and form themselves, they manage themselves and regulate themselves. It means that the idea of so called self-construction is not only possible, but is carried out successfully for millions of years. And the process of self-reproduction is even more complicated. Thus, basic specification of third millenium technology is based on potential alliance of tool and substance. Technologies become more sophisticated, borders between animate and inanimate blur out, and it all creates a problem. First of all, for a man, and the problem is not necessarily viewed as positive. We can be endlessly excited about genetically modified tomatoes that look so attractive, but many of us realize that this saucy image is all we have, because inside this is a very strange formation, very remote from naturally grown tomatoes.    

Another question a normal person would pop instantly: if I use something unnatural, how does it affect my inner human? It is a threat!

Of course, it is! It is a threat coming from technological evolution. What I want to emphasize: this conversation about Technological Unconscious isn’t necessarily about us interacting with Technologies. First of all, it is about our own automatism which also is an element of technology. How should we understand the nature of control, nature of compulsion that forces everyone to participate in the formation of technological systems? Everyday we follow automatized lifestyle: getting up at 8AM, coffee at 8.15, same route to work (if we have one) at 8.20, dinner at 3PM etc. We are automatized, our behaviour is automatized and our reactions are preplanned. It would seem that there is no iron and no obvious technology, but I think, if we talk automatisms, we talk Technological Unconscious.  

Where the Dogs Run. «Field 2.1». Interactive ferromagnetic visitors watcher. In cooperation with prof V. Schur, Contemporary Nanotechnology Centre, Ural, programming by Denis Perevalov, 2009-2012. Photo: Yury Plastinin.  

How many projects took part in SOFT CONTROL exhibition? 

I invited 30 artists from 11 countries of the world, there were more than 20 technological installations. This link shows all projects and activities of our program: There are international level masters among participants, such as Marina Abramovic, Stelarc, Seiko Mikami, Joe Davis, Philippe Demers, Oron Catts and many others, the entire constellation of modern technology authors. Such an exhibition is a huge organizational work. I have to distinguish quite a heroic job done by Slovenian team lead by Aleksandra Kostic, director of KIBLA Multimedia Centre and Dejan Pestotnik, producer of the project. They turned out to be top level professionals. Unfortunately, I have to say that if such exhibition would have happened in Russia, we could only realize 50% of presented projects due to various reasons, mostly because of poor infrastructure.

How so? 

For example, in order to release one of the exhibition projects, Australian artists grew stem cells in their lab for 2 months. Then this material was sent to Slovenia by priority medical mail, so the process of differentiation could be continued on spot. This way of delivery is not provided in Russia. Here, we mean various things by art, but definitely not something considering stem engineering. I have organized exhibitions in Moscow, St. Petersburg, not to mention Kaliningrad, so I can estimate the situation, and it is totally retarded. 

The other biotechnological project needed bioreactor for the entire exhibition time. Bioreactor is a machine creating optimal conditions for life if the cells and microorganisms. The entire Moscow has few of these bioreactors and none of them are supposed to be taken out. iF you try to discuss renting of such a michine with a director of any institution, either he will be terrified by the mere thought of its transportation, or you by the price.

So, where did you get the reactor in Maribor? 

It’s not the question of where exactly do you get it. There are bioreactors in Europe, both stationary and portable. Borders in Europe are open, everything is near: one hour to go to Austria or Hungary, two hours to Italy. Interacting is able to give painless comlex solution of any infrastructural problem. 

Vicky Isley and Paul Smith (UK). «Real Snail Mail», underway since 2008. Project of webmail service by real live snails, RFID-technology. Photo: Kaupo Kikkas

As much as I understand, the exhibition consisted of 2 parts in 2 different spaces: in KIBLA Multimedia Centre, in Maribor, and the Koroška Galerija in Slovenj Gradec. Why this division?

Our exhibition is mostly about art created with the help of modern Technologies of 21st century: robotronics, informational technology, biomedicine and nanotech. This sort of artworks delivers the sense of time which combines both signs of existence of live organisms and created crafts. Principles of the division of our project was based on two versions of Technological Unconscious, two approaches that are also used in artificial intelligence. In Maribor we presented projects of those artists who operate substance by Top-Down scheme, and in Slovenj Gradec it’s the Bottom-Up approach. Basically, the purpose of the exhibition was to show how artists create new forms and new identities, but not as protagonists of a certain historical narrative, but as its creators.

Do you have your own favorites at SOFT CONTROL or should I say projects you are especially proud of?

Yes, in Slovenia we presented the entire row of very powerful international projects. For instance, I like the work of Australian artist Guy Ben-Ari. He combines signs of his Jewish origin and basic narrative of postindustrial society, its obsession with cognitive aspects and power of modern technologies. This project is based on technology of iPS-cells that have gained Nobel Prize in biology. It is about phenomenon of reprogramming various tissues into certain type of unique stem cells that are able to become any part of human body. Using this technology, Guy Ben-Ari has grown operating neuron network (analogue of biological brain) from a grown man’s foreskin. It was presented at our exhibition. I think, it is an outstanding piece of contemporary technological art.

In my opinion, as interesting artwork using biotechnologies is Golden Pigeon of Belgian artist Tuur Van Balen. In his project artist created new biological function for pigeons. This function turns their excrement into biological soap. Tuur Van Balen emphasized the fact that citizens see pigeons ar flying rats. They spread diseases and create huge mess by specking buildings and sculptures. These negative aspects of pigeons are used by the artist and turned into help to the citizens. Using tools of synthetic biology he created bacteria that changed metabolic characteristics of pigeons making them poop an abstergent.

Tuur Van Balen (Belgium). «Golden Pigeon». New biological function of pigeon. The bird defecates abstergents. Synthetic biology. 2010. Photo: Peter Baert

Another project we have presented at our exhibition, also first opened in Europe, was released by Canadian robotic art specialist Bill Vorn. It is a collection of eight non-anthropomorphic robots, each of them uncontrollably falls into hysterical state. Robotics is an applied science that rationally analyzes automatism and credits technical systems with them. Bill Vorn in his project tries to simulate various unpredictable psychological disorders through robotical application. This is a very interesting strategy. Stanislav Lem once said that we can truly model artificial intelligence when we can copy human psychical errors and disorders.    

Coffin and vibrator, an electricity generating system based on bacterial decay of buried human bodies: this is the concept of James Auger’s and Jimmy Loiseau’s (UK) work. In modern life many couples fall apart because of early death of males. Widows are grieving. Artists take as their goal to comfort these lonely women. James Auger and Jimmy Loiseau have created a sarcophagus on batteries that are able to generate electricity from buried bodies. Then it is delivered to the house of deadman’s wife for various home appliances from table lamps to vibrators. Various of their other projects are based on same technology, such as digital clocks working from its caught flies, coffee table that might snack on an occasional mouse and floor lamp producing light from digested insects. These objects are bizarre, however, they indicate the direction of modern technology.

On the first sight it seems that metaphors like these balance between ethics and aesthetics. But these metaphors, these artistic statements indicate human stuggle to get new knowledge on simulated events. And elaboration of this knowledge usually begins after. Artistic metaphors promote new senses and explanations that were inappropriate or simply incomprehensible by nothing but imagination before. This is what creates solid human basis in the mind of a man, and it allows one to work with new substances. 

Louis-Philippe Demers (Singapore). «The Tiller’s Girls». Robotic performers. S Distributed Artificial Intelligence system. 2009. Photo: Ed Jansen

What did Russia present at SOFT CONTROL? 

I have invited the group of artists from Ekaterinburg «Where the Dogs Run» with interactive installation «Fields 2.1». This is a very interesting project based on ferromagnetic liquid able to polarize intensely before the magnetic field. Artists have created magnetic system that is similar to human eye. This image formed by liquid, is projected to the screen. Wherever you go, these eyes are following you like Big Brother. This is how the substance looks at human being.

There was an educational program along with the exhibition during the entire month, including the lecture Technological Unconscious or Two Scenes of Reality by Alla Mitrofanova, philosopher from St. Petersburg and program of historian Maria Punina, dedicated to experiments of Art and science society in New York of 60ties. During several days there was also masterclass of Andrey Smirnov, director and establisher of Termen Center (Moscow). Activity of Termen Center, like the figure that has given the center its name, is raising interest in the publics. This is why I encouraged Andrey to expand his masterclass program to the maximum: besides unique design works and collaborative performance Andrey Smirnov has read lecture dedicated to Lev Termen, key figure in art and science field of Russia. I also invited Dmitry Galkin, professor of Tomsk State University, as moderator of scientifical conference dedicated to Technological Unconscious problematics. I have to say, he managed brilliantly. Russian representation perfectly fitted into international concept, and National Centre for Contemporary Arts has done all the possible, so Russian artists and art experts could participate in this program.

But there was only one Russian project. Was there no more choice?

The problem of choice has to do with lack of local artists working with new technologies. We have very few of them in Russia. Yes, we have some young artists who are trying themselves in the field of technological art, but I think it is too early to bring their works to the public. Especially, international public. Actually, making technological art implies at least three things. First, such technologies must be quite locally popular and relatively available. It’s not like that in Russia. Our country is running about 2-3 technological generations (which is 10-15 years) slow of Western world. Most of advanced labs are secure. The other condition is artists who understand how and why one should work with high technology. It’s not enough to just visit a lab or a research institute. It requires thinking and understanding, which is not always present in Russian contemporary art. There is the proof: look, how Russia is presented at international conferences, forums and exhibitions on technological art. There is almost nothing. The third condition is system condition. One can’t be popular on the postindustrial scene while presenting industrial works. Of course, it regards any author, not only Russian, but also foreign, who work on international art scene. But mostly this is the reason why Russian so called contemporary art will always be behind its international analogues.