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What I’ve been researching so far this fall

Hi all,

How are you? It’s already the beginning of November and I’m faced with the fact that I haven’t written much here other than the piece about Nocturne. I’m really enjoying being a student again, but it’s also a struggle to deal with information overwhelm, an intense schedule, and trying to be thoughtful and make good work. I have thoughts on note-taking 🤓 and trying be a sponge 🧽, but am saving those for another time. More to the point, recently I had to put together something for a publication that’s going to accompany a group show of all the MFA’s work in December. I don’t have the piece I’ll be presenting (it doesn’t exist yet, even conceptually, ha), so I put together something of a grab-bag of my recent research:

I’ve continued researching and working with my objects of fascination from this summer: the transatlantic cable and an eel pot. When I had my first meeting with my studio advisor I was wondering where to begin and what direction to take, I kind of jokingly mentioned what I had been looking into over the summer. I kept introducing it like, “I got really into researching the physical telecommunications infrastructure under the water, and oh, haha, also eels!” But then it turned serious. Joke’s on me.

I do think that there’s something there, though I’m not sure what, just yet. Let me try and trace back where I’ve come.

It started with a visually-striking eel pot, which turned me onto researching eels, their lifecycles and ‘mystery’ surrounding them. 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 believed they meet and mate. Their bodies change dramatically; people thought that, what we now know are pubescent eels, were completely different species. They fascinated many a famous thinker. To me the eels are a life form representative of the ocean’s creatures, and seeking without knowing exactly what for.

Around the same time I was exploring downtown Halifax, which included the Cable Wharf. Looking into its history, I learned aboutthe early telegraph innovations and ambitions paved the way for our current submarine data cable systems. I investigated where the one currently linking Halifax to England and Ireland comes into land. I created a 3D model of the cables that wrap around the globe; a basket, a net, a web, a trap.

Where do the two subjects overlap? The eel is visually similiar 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 before we google it. And the form of the eel trap, something with an escape hatch built into it, yet the eels still can’t find their way back out, once inside. Metaphor for…?

I began looking more into the overlap between basket-making, weaving, and electronics. I already knew there was a historical connection between textiles and early computing (Jaquard loom punch sequences), but found some lovely examples of complex wrapping and weaving around inductors, which turned me onto copper and magnets.

Inductor spider coilInductor spider coil

Around this time I started bringing in some of my research from another class, Lands and Parks (a kind of sequel to my summer course, Embodied Research). I had these audio recordings from different sites we had visited. Rather than just the visuals of the landscape, I had found ‘tuning’ into my sense of hearing both enjoyable and different for me. I wanted to try and work with this, both materially through sound, as well as in that act of ‘tuning’ in to listen deeply.

Initially I wanted to work with radio: I was thinking of the action of ‘tuning in’, to listen to a certain frequency. But I wasn’t able to create a radio transmitter as easily as the articles promised I would be. Then I stumbled across a simple DIY speaker that uses copper windings, a magnet, and an electric signal to produce sound — it was like magic. This turned into two ‘soundscapes’ that I exhibited:

Each frame holds a photograph print on fabric, with a pattern of copper tape hooked up to an electronic source, and a dangling block with a magnet concealed inside it. If you hold the block close to the copper pattern and listen, you can hear sound coming from the image. The sounds correspond to the landscape — they’re audio recordings from the visit — as do the patterns of the copper tape, which is an interpretation of the hiking trail or structure of the landscape. The science behind it is fascinating and simple: the copper carries an electrical signal (that’s being outputted simply from a concealed mp3 device’s headphone jack), and when the magnet is brought close, it reacts to the electrical current and causes the paper to vibrate, which produces waves that we perceive as sound.

I looked into copper further, starting with the Wikipedia page. Human’s development and use of copper is used to delineate eras in history, it was associated with the Greek god Aphrodite (later the Roman Venus), who herself was a symbol beauty, because it was commonly polished and used as mirrors; it’s crystal structure is also classified as ‘face-centred cubic’. It’s one of the few metals found in its common form in nature, and it’s also highly recyclable. It’s conductive, but not actually magnetic. I was turned on to Joseph Beuy’s works that included copper, like Dumb Box.

And this is where things are a bit at loose-ends, I think.

Broadly-speaking, my research area is about nature and technology, our relationships with both, and our perception and definition of each (what do we consider natural vs. artificial? what’s the value judgment that happens there?). This in itself isn’t that surprising, thinking about two major current issues: climate change and the impact of rapid technological development and immersion. I’m a late millennial; I vaguely remember a part of my childhood before computers, internet, and phones were ubiquitous.

A question (and process) I keep returning to is, “what happens when experiences in nature, organic objects, and environmental phenomenons are translated into digital forms/spaces?” There’s interesting qualities and characteristics to digital ‘copies’, eg. glitches, loss of weight or presence, the ability to make copies and perceived archivability — I can save a rock to my hard drive or the cloud, and there it will live presumably forever. The different values and ways I treat each version, the ‘real’ (tangible, natural) vs. ‘not-real’ (virtual, artificial) become apparent. But then there’s also deniably ‘real’ things that happen in virtual spaces, too, which you could argue is genuine reality.

They’re also more enmeshed than we commonly think — copper is mined and then used in circuits that manipulate electrons to compute these virtual processes. At what point does the process stop being ‘natural’? Electricity is a part of our physics rules, not magic. Radio waves are also produced by cosmic phenomenons. As I’ve written about before, the submarine data cables are part of the very tangible, real infrastructure of the internet, the cloud, what have you. They interact in very real ways with the environment in various ecologies. I’ve just started reading The Undersea Network by Nicole Starosielski, which “argues that the environments the cables occupy are historical and political realms, where the network and the connections it enables are made possible by the deliberate negotiation and manipulation of technology, culture, politics, and geography.” (from the back cover blurb)

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I’ve also been reading Tung-Hui Hu’s A Prehistory of the Cloud. ‘The Cloud’ is, at least partially, what we’ve abstracted the cable network and computing into; Hu mentions that virtualization is “a technique for turning real things into logical objects”, which follows the trend that as each infrastructure becomes naturalized (which I take to mean commonly accessible and used, familiar to us) it becomes more abstract. The cables are least abstract, the software we use to interact with their protocols the most familiar and the most abstract. But besides that, Hu says that the cloud “isn’t just a technology, it’s a fantasy made by people”, “a cultural phenomenon”, a shared idea and metaphor that we (those in the West using the predominant system we refer to as the internet) participate in.

Currently, I’m writing a research scholarship application where I’m trying to piece together these elements and explain what my goal is, and why it matters. It’s a work in progress, but writing this has been helpful! Thanks for sticking around to the end, and I hope I can share where this goes and how it resolves, in future posts.

Up next Nocturne Log - Art at Night What our tools say about us - Part 1
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