Charting my fall studio activities

This first semester my studio practise and research touched on: eels, traps, weaving, telegraph cables, internet infrastructure, visualisations of the internet, copper, radios and sound waves, landscapes, manifold forms, mapping methods, and interfaces. It started with — and circled back to many times — an eel trap.

The eel trap was a double-walled woven vessel that could be sealed at one opening, while the other, smaller opening would let eels in but prove difficult for them to leave once they were trapped. It’s somewhat similar to one half of a Klein bottle, a non-orientable surface, or a form whose inside becomes its outside.

In researching eels, I found that very little was known about them until relatively recently. They go through incredible transitions and journeys through their life, from floating on ocean currents to freshwater rivers and lakes where they spend most of their adult lives, then at the end of their time returning to a yet-unknown spot in the Sargasso Sea where it’s assumed they meet and mate. Their bodies change dramatically; people thought that what (we now know) are pubescent eels were completely different species.

Around the same time I was exploring downtown Halifax, which included the Cable Wharf. Looking into its history, I learned about the early telegraph innovations which enabled ‘rapid’ communication between two continents and their colonial superpowers, and started the clock for faster and faster telecommunications, and eventually, the Internet. For Mario Santamaria,

“the history of the Internet is a process of synchronization of the world and the construction of the transatlantic telegraphic cable in the second half of the 19th century is a determining moment. It meant a revolution when it came to establishing the exchange rate between different currencies such as the pound and the dollar. The Internet is a process of synchronization that integrates different devices, concepts and infrastructures.”

Much of the paths traced by early telegraph wires are now pathways of submarine data cables, including transatlantic ones that are currently linking Halifax to England and Ireland.

I kept wondering, where do the two subjects overlap? The eel is visually similar in form to the cable, long, black, sleek under the water; the eel makes the passage from land to sea, like the cable; we use the internet to ‘search’ for things, answers; the eel seeks a place to spend adulthood, then seeks to return. The cables support an ever-growing repository of human knowledge transmission and communication; the less time we spend wondering about something before we google it. In terms of what I actually made, the eel pot was something I came back to more than the actual eel. I created a 3D model of the submarine cables that wrap around the globe; a basket, a net, a web, a trap. What’s the difference between a vessel to hold and a vessel to trap? Rather than being held by the technological infrastructure and interactions I’ve woven into my everyday, sometimes I feel tangled up and trapped within them.

Weaving and textiles have an early link with computers such as the Jacquard loom with its programmed punch cards, but also in various coiled and woven wire used in electromagnets for radios and other machines. I keep framing my interest in technology as a question of ‘how do we communicate using it?’ The technology I’m looking at operates in terms of sending and receiving signals (telecommunications, internet, computers), eg. communication. I was also interested in radio/sound waves created by earthly and cosmic events, and while I attempted unsuccessfully to build a radio, I was able to build a speaker using copper tape and a magnet.

This was integrated with recent photos and sound recordings from trips to two different locations, the Fortress of Louisbourg and Taylor’s Head. In the embodied, sensory experience of walking through the landscape, I experimented with shifting from a primarily-sighted experience to focusing on the sounds of the wind, waves, rocks and trees, which was itself a kind of ‘tuning’ activity. I imagined the body receiving waves from solar flares light years away, from particles bouncing off rocks. I had tried water-witching earlier, following twin copper rods in search of water. Similarly, the ghost-detecting electro magnetic field (EMF) device came to mind, both in that at each location we encountered gravesites, and also my encounter with the narrative and colonialist strategy of making Indigenous people into ghosts in Decolonization is not a Metaphor.

The science behind the speaker is fascinating and simple: the copper carries an electrical signal (that’s being outputted simply from a concealed mp3 device’s headphone jack) that, when the magnet is brought close, reacts to the electrical current and causes the paper to vibrate, producing waves that we perceive as sound. The viewer sees first and listens second. There are interaction design issues — there’s nothing in the form that indicates to the viewer how to interact, especially as the image is framed and hung in a gallery where the general rule is do not touch the artwork. These issues are shared with my second piece, Interfacing. (There were also technical issues with each, but I’m setting those aside for now.)

Following this, I researched copper’s material qualities: it’s one of the few metals found in its common form in nature, highly recyclable and conductive yet not magnetic (hence its frequent use in electronics). There’s interesting connections between copper and people: copper is present in and necessary for the human body; human development and use of copper delineates eras in history; it was associated with the Greek god Aphrodite, who herself was a symbol beauty, because it was commonly polished and used as mirrors; and it’s crystal structure is also classified as ‘face-centred cubic’. I’m interested in exploring this further, considering how technology and the tools we make a reflection of us. In looking for other forms of copper materials I found double-walled, knit copper mesh and began working with it.

On Distributed Networks, 1964, Paul Baran, diagram for RAND research memoranda 3420, © RAND Corporation.On Distributed Networks, 1964, Paul Baran, diagram for RAND research memoranda 3420, © RAND Corporation. Klein Worms, 1971, Claude Ponsot, illustration for Paul Ryan, “Cybernetic Guerilla Warfare,” in Radical Software 1:3.Klein Worms, 1971, Claude Ponsot, illustration for Paul Ryan, “Cybernetic Guerilla Warfare,” in Radical Software 1:3.

I can’t remember if the tubular forms I was making came before finding the illustration, afterwards or at the same time, but while I was playing around with it I stumbled across sketches envisioning Internet traffic not as networked nodes, but rather as tubular, organic ‘Klein worms’. I liked how bodily they were, as opposed to the abstracted, minimal forms of the nets. The more I researched the more it seemed like, as much efficiency had been designed and built into its protocols, the internet still ended up doing some very weird contortions in its efforts to send and receive data.

These forms fed into the copper element of the second piece, Interfacing, which utilized capacitive touch as a sensor that informed a program running projected video. Depending on how close a person (or metal, conductive object) was to the sensor, the video ‘scrubbed’ between five different 3D point-cloud forms: a minimal-vertex sphere, two 3D flattened models of eel eggs, then a complex sphere, and finally a model of the submarine cables around the globe.

It was interesting seeing people interact with it (when they did, which wasn’t obviously/didactically indicated): some people were quite cautious, being careful to come close but not quite touch, others skipped right to holding it or squeezing it. Often they immediately turned their attention to the projected image, and the interface become purely touch-based as they looked for the corresponding visual reaction.

‘Capacitive touch’ relies on the human body’s conductivity. The circuit is continuously supplying a (low) voltage through the copper form and then checking the voltage that returns. When a conductive material (like a finger) comes close to it, electrons jump from the copper to the material, and the system detects this loss — even when it’s very subtle. The closer or larger the area, the greater the difference between the source and returned voltage, and in Interfacing’s system, the more dramatic the change in visuals.

Both pieces’ systems are fairly one-dimensional and closed, however. The viewer can listen to the audio track loop, can scrub through the same visual forms, but their actions don’t change the signal. Would it be better (more interesting) if they accepted feedback in order to create generative, less-predictable outputs? Or would adding more inputs to obscure the interaction be preferable? It has me thinking about the kind of interaction I want to create/design/provoke.

I feel like I’ve reached a point with this research where I’m wondering, why this thing? Beyond its initial starting point as a question of, what’s this thing?, what does it matter to me that I continue researching and making work about its physical and/or digital infrastructure, ecological impact, social and cultural impact, etc.? Why the internet and not blockchain, phones or artificial intelligence? Is it nostalgia for early ’00s or ’10s experience, before we had cause to create a term like’enshittification’? I’ve been wondering.

I think there’s a part of the process that involves attempts to wrap my brain around — or embody — an understanding of this massive, complex system that people have created, which is becoming more and more enmeshed with our daily lives. In the same way that landscape and environment keep appearing in my work — not just because it’s the source of beautiful experiences, but also because it is a slow-moving series of crises.

Open threads:

  • what kinds of interactions do I want to stage/create/design/provoke?
  • what is my personal connection with the Internet? Why do I care?
  • how do we communicate through technology?
  • how are technology and the tools we make a reflection of us?
  • what do we wish to communicate, and what would the tools to communicate that feel like?

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