13 Nov 2012

Data Ecologies, Geopoetics and Augmented Spaces

What follows is the transcript of a presentation I gave at the Data Ecologies Lab, hosted by i-DAT, on November 10, 2012. This was the final happening of the 18-month 'Confluence Project', situated within the North Devon Biosphere Reserve.


The Confluence Project
It would be fair to say that - for all involved, this project was a challenge - as its aims were, and are, numerous and diverse:
 - for the creative process to engage with a place - an entire watershed, 
 - to engage with the Biosphere Reserve's stewards and environmental issues, 
 - to engage with innovative technologies and eco data-logging,
 - to engage with communities and schools, 
and in our case, 
 - to engage in a creative collaboration. 

All of this in very limited time and resources allocation. By necessity then, it was a probing exercise, an experimental process, allowing space for serendipity and chance. 

'Shadows and Undercurrents'; this is the title given to the strand of the Confluence Project undertaken by sonic artist, Jon Pigott and myself. We were interested in teasing out some vital, yet somewhat 'obscured' ecological threads within this special protected landscape setting. Making the invisible, visible. 

The setting itself - the landscape - is partly the cause of the obscuration. As I've written elsewhere:
"The Torridge River in the North Devon Biosphere Reserve is a picturesque serene, wooded river-valley setting, with a largely undisturbed, undeveloped estuary-coast. However, beneath the surface all is not well... "

'Shadows and Undercurrents' also refers specifically to our efforts to gather and communicate bat-activity data (from the 'shadows'); and similarly, some relevant river pollution data (from the 'undercurrents').

As is sometimes the case, superficial beauty can obscure serious malfunctioning, even illness. The rare freshwater pearl-mussels, whose habitat is within the gravel-beds of the river, have not reproduced for more than 40 years. Salmon population numbers have plummeted; the eel and bat populations likewise. The life-cycles of the salmon and pearl-mussel are intimately connected; and both are negatively impacted by the increasing silt and mud deposition. In itself, this decline is of course problematic - both directly, for the species concerned, and also because of knock-on effects on the rural economy. However, there is more to these trends. These species are 'bio-indicators'; they are the 'canaries in the cage'. Their dramatic contraction is saying something important about the Reserve's state-of-health (and global ecology). It is not a time to 'keep calm and carry on'. There is no Second Life for an extinct species. This is a problem that matters. Clearly there is a need for lateral-thinking; new cultural imaginings, fusing science, technology and creativity.

From its earliest uses, the word ecology had connections to science, art, humanism, and politics. I've described above, some of the ecological basis for our strand of the Confluence Project. Our methods embraced the following: research, schools-based activities, experiential fieldwork, sound-walks, media-recordings, dialogues with specialists, co-operation with i-DAT (especially with the novel 'ecoid'-based sensor development); and with others locally. I will now focus instead on some of our (interim) outputs - specifically the body-of-work which was developed for the exhibition at the Appledore Arts Festival, in June this year. I describe this as interim because our whole process is experimental, and is still being refined and developed.

In the expanded meaning of the word ecology, there is the concept of 'an ecology of place' (a term popularised by geographer Nigel Thrift, and others). This ties in with a lot of my work in the field of 'deep mapping' (which is a bridge between ecology, memory, science, art and landscape), and the related areas of 'counter-mapping' and geopoetics. 
There exist industrial, urban and digital (social-)media ecologies too, and - on the face of it - these appear today to impact on us, and shape us, more than biosphere-ecologies? This is a societal shift, over centuries, and has had huge repercussions on the biosphere. Because for the most part, our involvement in the bio-web mesh is seemingly small or minimal, it is kept at arms-length, peripheral. We have recognisable 'nature deficit disorders'. Virtual worlds, 'second-life', digital gaming, urban 'bubble-like' arcades (shopping and entertainment areas), software; these are all parts of a paradigm, growing in dominance. 
But we are still multi-sensorial beings; we can feel the rain on our skin (…it is intimate), and the floodwaters lapping around our feet - but we can't directly 'feel' climate change, nor the crisis in biodiversity.
To quote Timothy Morton, from a lecture in August this year, titled  'This is not my beautiful biosphere':
 "The dilemma of an ecological era is that the era is at once the product of massively increased knowledge, but also that this knowledge is itself a product of a planetary-scale imagination that has already profoundly damaged the earth"

This is also linked to the disconnect between cause and effect. The pervasive damage to ecosystems from say pesticides and land-use practices is slow, cumulative, and happens at a landscape-, regional- or even global-scale. Monitoring and data- strategies can reveal this - in a rational sense. But how to facilitate a deeper understanding of what's operating?

How can individuals or communities 'hold' a multiple, multi-facetted understanding of the fractal complexity of the data-scapes of bio-decline? - which are also social and economic data-scapes. There is hope that digital approaches (new media arts) - through providing interfaces for deployed networked sensors, data feeds, real-time flows, tracking web-cams, distributed 'citizen science' etc., will overcome the disconnect.
….. maybe??

There is, I believe, dangerous talk, in some corners of the data sci-art world, of the 'post-natural', e.g.
"Typically, it is biodiversity-loss that makes the news. Less talked about is the fact that humans are creating the greatest boom in new species since the Cambrian Explosion."
Jonathan Minard, artist and filmmaker, in Sage Magazine 2012, writing about something called The Centre for PostNatural History.

But also the pendulum is perhaps swinging back to a wider understanding of the planetary life-support system; for instance, the idea of 'ecosystem services' is increasingly taking root in many spheres, including within the world of eco-art, and also within this and other Biosphere Reserves.

Our creative enquiry for the Confluence Project did involve some of the set of digital approaches and technologies I've mentioned, but we focussed more on another facet of interaction with data - that of Intimate Science.
This term - promoted widely by Roger Malina (editor of the Leonardo Journal ) - seeks to span the chasms of disconnection - using data-translations that potentially involve a multiplicity of senses…which can include visualisations and sonifications, but also tactile and mechanical/ kinetic strategies, 

For Malina, 'intimate science' is about :
 "coupling the virtual world to the physical", 
and he writes extensively about 
" a new generation of artists that is helping to make science intimate, sensual, intuitive".

Our approach - through our collaborative experimentation -  was to seek to go beyond, or augment the uni-dimensionality of the standard screen/surface, or even the audio interface, and attempt to integrate material objects - artworks - that can manifest data in ways that are performative and atmospheric, ambiguous and enchanting (and unsettling); as well as being informative. To render detectable what is largely undetectable to our senses. For this, we developed augmented, and hacked, readymade objects that possess resonant and richly symbolic associations. These are our 'provocative prototypes', to quote the flyer for Data Ecologies Lab. They represent a meeting of old and new technologies.

It is important to note that the preparatory data-harvesting efforts were aimed at both demonstrating proof-of-concept in sensor design, and gathering a limited data-set for demonstration purposes; we were not aiming, under the circumstances, to collect scientifically robust data - though this is surely one possible future trajectory for our explorations, and perhaps for the wider Confluence Project.

Machine A: To communicate our bat-activity data, we constructed a device which harks back to early moving-image contraptions (such as the Zoetrope). Arduino controlled, our device is activated by (live or recorded) bat-detection data, collected from a deployed sensor. In our case we also had another recorded data stream from a helpful local expert. (The word 'zoetrope' means 'wheel of life').

The information emerges via a clearly visible device - using motion, projected light and shadow. Little is hidden. It is direct, playful, and at the same time complex in its allusions and associations. There is an aural component too - emerging from the workings of the mechanism. A second cinematic visual component - flip-book or mutoscope-based - is in development, and will be added to this kinetic sculpture, contributing a 'flapping' sound which helps to make a poetic and intimate connection to the data's source (the wings of a flying bat).

Machine B: 'An Aliveness Machine': For our river-pollution monitoring data, (the parameter of interest being 'turbidity' - or 'murkiness'), we developed a second kinetic device, attempting to communicate the 'vital flux' or the 'aliveness' of the river, and its living ecosystem, in a material way. Turbidity data is translated - via a varispeed bladeless fan - into air-flow; this in turn activates suspended ribbons of fine steel, that are hooked up to contact microphones. There is an inverse metaphorical relationship; the more sediment that 'smothers' the river-bed, the less movement in these 'ribbons of life' (less 'aliveness'), and the quieter is the sonic data-scape. Although direct in its communication, this sculptural feature involves a kind of 'double translation' - which we found to be effective but perhaps not optimal. Our original plan was to have the variable air-flow causing the suspension of particles within a tubular volume. In the piece that emerged, we retained the tubular volume concept - made from hundreds of strands of fishing line, but were unable to source some super-light aerogel which would probably have worked with our available airflow-range. The fishing-line assemblage was partnered with a 'bolt-on' data-activated fishing-reel mechanism - an evocative visual and 'real world' reference, but also - importantly - the producer of a significant component of the multi-layered soundscape.
(We will be revisiting this sculptural experiment, and adapting it to the subject of eels and tides, possibly in relation to the Severn Estuary, and maybe in the context of the newly re-invigorated proposals for a Severn Barrage).

In our immersive installation, there are also works of video, recorded-audio and archival photographs. These all form part of a poetic data-scape, a stage-like scene with props, backdrops and even 'actors': the audience is free to navigate the stage. There are individual unfolding narratives for each participant. It is pervasive media, but the experience is earthy, visceral, as well as intellectual.

To present a wider context for our created 'data-space', I quote from an essay by Lev Manovich, titled 'The Poetics of Augmented Space' (2005). It provides some useful points-of-departure for interrogating our Confluence artwork.

Manovich speaks of the impact, on our concept of space, of  

"three technological applications (surveillance, cellspace, electronic displays)….They make physical space into a dataspace: extracting data from it (surveillance) or augmenting it with data (cellspace, computer displays)."
"Augmented space is the physical space which is 'data-dense' as every point now potentially contains various information which is being delivered to it from elsewhere...As a result the physical space now contains many more dimensions than before…" 

In our case, we are talking about a type of data-density that relies on, and activates, connections, metaphors and associations, as strands of information transfer. Our space is scenographic. We take this allusion further; creating a scene with our props, backdrop- projections, soundscape and texts. There is a mycelial or rhizomic strategy in operation, an idea that through the 'noise' of layered communication, there emerges some truth. (I use this word in the context of Werner Herzog's declaration that there is a difference between the 'facts' and the 'truth'...) 
A poetic (or even 'geo-poetic'..for this is a landscape project) creativity of immersion is sought; not a Virtual Reality immersion, but an encounter with a real physical environment, even if it is - in some way - a metaphor, or a 'translation' of the outdoor living ecological setting, or even a capturing of its forces.
"In art, and in painting as in music, it is not a matter of reproducing or inventing forms, but capturing forces. For this reason no art is figurative. Paul Klee’s famous formula, “not to render the visible but to render visible,” means nothing else." Gilles Deleuze (1992) 'Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation'

To quote Manovich again:
"What are the possible poetics and aesthetics of an augmented space?"
"If before we would think of an architect, a fresco painter, or a display designer working to combine architecture and images, or architecture and text, or to incorporate different symbolic systems in one spatial construction, we can now say that all of them were working on the problem of augmented space. The problem that is, of how to overlay physical space with layers of data."

"One trajectory that can be traced in 20thC art runs from the dominance of a two-dimensional object placed on a wall, towards the use of the whole 3-D space of a gallery...Augmented space can be thought of as the next step in the trajectory, [and] outside of a gallery space we can find a much richer field of experimentation"

Coming back to 'geopoetics', and the desire and need for the 'biosphere stewards' to engage communities and new audiences. Geopoetics (or possibly 'ecopoetics') suggests new cultural forms, operating alongside traditional media and methods, and alongside locative media (smartphones etc). The (geo)poetic impulse seeks to connect emotionally, holistically, a fusion of the rational, the imagination, a physicality of materials and a reaching out to the hidden, within landscapes. 

With reference to another augmented-space installation that I assembled at the tail end of a landscape-based residency in Donegal in 2010, Annick Bureaud, director of Leonardo wrote (describing one of the components of the installation):

"The turfstack is both familiar and incongruous in its unprocessed literality. It is soft from the memories of childhood and brutal in its materiality and tomb-like shape. It gives a body to the abstract data, but this is a "body of evidence". Acting as a mausoleum, it actually brings the corpse under the spotlight. It is the object that triggers and grounds the (passionate) discussions about this soil that is also a fossil energy, involving people from all generations in the debates. 
Aesthetically, it also raises the question of the relation between the gallery and the territory, the (cultural) inside and the (natural) outside.." 

That piece was also in relationship to other props placed within the staged space, and - via embedded QR codes - could shift the attention of the visitor to the source landscape and to the making-process. As important as the sculptural works were, of more interest was the invisible mesh of connections between, and beyond, them.

By such hybrid examples, or stagings, of intimate science, there is an effort to promote understanding, to engage people in new ways, to draw the audience 'into' (possibly 'back' into)  the physical, material world of biosphere dynamics. This is a role for eco-geo-poetics - the creative ‘mediating’ between environment, community, science and place. The aim is a reconnection, an activation - via creative spaces that are in relationship with the living ecological territory.

If data is - to quote another writer on the subject -  "a set of measurements extracted from the flux of the real", our assemblages seek to bring the real back into play, at the point of opening up channels-of-information.

Once more, to quote Roger Malina:

"..a number of us have been developing the concept of 'open observatories' that disseminate methods and knowledge for micro science, intimate science, people's science and crowd sourcing. These open observatories would allow small communities to develop locally-generated knowledge, and to evolve rapidly to confront climate change, end oil-dependency and create sustainable development. Open observatories would include artists collecting data for cultural and artistic purposes, as well as community leaders and researchers…

Seen through the lens of our bio-inspired encounters with this site (The River Torridge) and with the off-site installation, we argue that, in scenarios such as these, there is the growing importance of the role of the 'hybrid' creative mediator as catalyst, bringing to the 'laboratory' an energy of activation (footnote 1), opening up fields of possibility. In many cultures, illness is viewed as simultaneously spiritual, mental, and physical; thus the translations, relationships and conjectures provided by our augmented 'healing' space range across all of these.

1. In both organic and biological chemistry, an energy of activation is required to initiate a reaction. Once inititated that reaction may proceed irreversibly to completion. Without sufficient energy of activation, the reaction never occurs. A minimal level of energy (usually heat) is needed to transform the internal arrangements of molecules.