Going for a woodland walk in Russia

The Oko early warning satellite system was operated from an underground bunker in the military townlet of Serpukhov-15, near Kurilovo. This is where the command would be sent from to launch a retaliatory missile strike; deep underground, far from anything that is happening on the surface. The perception of events above ground are channelled through flows of data, radar, and computer signal processing.

To begin my research, I decided to go for a walk, virtually, trying to get as close as possible to the bunker as I could. Obviously the exact location is not readily available but from geosatellite imagery, I spot a compound that features several huge white dome structures that suggest a site used for surveillance and listening via antennas.

My walk takes me through a woodland of what looks like mostly firs and birches on a beautifully sunny day with clear skies, or at least it was when Google cars were driving along these same roads surveying the scene. At the closest point to the compound, I find a gathering of cars, a few drivers are milling around – I wonder what they are doing here, what brings them to the outskirts of this military townlet? 

As I’m moving/clicking forward, I’m thinking how such major decisions about world-changing events are made from places that are concealed and hidden from public view. I’m struck by what a contrast it makes; beneath this tranquil woodland lies a facility constructed to command the launch of deadly missiles.

Petrov’s reflections

Two large geodesic domes housing satellite antennas sit within a snowy woodland landscape.

I’ve been gathering quotes from Petrov, possibly for an audio work or soundtrack for a video or installation. What I take away from his recollections are:

  • the tension between the job’s requirements (obeying orders) and a sense of personal responsibility
  • doubt that emerges when gut instinct clashes with given information
  • the necessity of contemplation and time to process decisions

“I had all the data. If I had sent my report up the chain of command, nobody would have said a word against it.”

“The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word ‘launch’ on it. A minute later the siren went off again. The second missile was launched. Then the third, and the fourth, and the fifth. Computers changed their alerts from ‘launch’ to ‘missile strike’.”

“The slightest false move can lead to colossal consequences. That hasn’t changed.”

“There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike. But we knew that every second of procrastination took away valuable time; that the Soviet Union’s military and political leadership needed to be informed without delay.”

“All I had to do was to reach for the phone; to raise the direct line to our top commanders – but I couldn’t move. I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan.”

“My colleagues were all professional soldiers, they were taught to give and obey orders.” 

“I thought the chances were 50-50 that the warnings were real. But I didn’t want to be the one responsible for starting a third world war.” 

“Can you imagine? It was as though a child had been playing with a vanity mirror, throwing around the sun’s reflection. And by chance that blinding light landed right in the centre of the system’s eye.”

These quotes were from his interview with Time magazine and BBC reportage.

BEFORE AND AFTER

Homecoming; A Placeless Place / Folsktone Edition.

The above video is just a small taster of the Folkstone public’s contributions to the ongoing project HOMECOMING. I thought seeing a before and after would give good context for how the installation works in a public space.

During the ‘reveal’ event on July 3rd, I thought I had recording the almost 2hr conversation which took place amongst strangers when we all saw, for the first time, what was on these walls. Bare in mind before this no one had any UV lights so no1 knew what was being placed on the walls, where.

Unfortunately my audio device just didn’t record the whole conversation. So I invited some participants to share with me their reflections of the reveal event and here is one response:

>> participant reflections on installation reveal, Folkstone July 2022 <<

It’s like you were afforded dignity’

——————————————————–

This specific social experiment is called ‘Homecoming; A Placeless Place’ and it is a touring participatory installation which has been asking since pre pandemic (2019+) ‘what does home mean to you?’

All languages are welcome, anything you wish to write, anywhere on the surfaces of these spaces.

Where to next?

HOMECOMING // FOLKSTONE // JULY 2022

A black wall is covered in invisible ink that in lit up with a UV torch. 
The text is written with different handwriting, different sizes, directions and fonts.
HOMECOMING – Folkstone July 2022. Inside DNA walls. Anonymous participant contributions written with UV ink on blacked out walls.

HOMECOMING means allot to me. Each time I take it to a new space I am reminded of it’s importance, power and need for shared honest dialogues among strangers.

Above is an image of part of a wall inside DNA space in Folkstone. DNA space is the venue for this latest iteration of the project’s social experiment. The image reads multiple different contributions from the general public in Folkstone to the same question which has been asked since the beginning of HOMECOMING in 2019… “What does home mean to you?

This section alone crosses so many realities…

Sometimes with this work, you are forced to stop. There is no doubt that in the moment which this section was revealed, that is the only thing I could do.

Some of these contributions are overlapping. And here is what some of them say::

home is the sea, which is a graveyard

There are so many people in this town who will never see their families again. They are finding homes with each other, and they will be moved.

To be at home is to be relaxed.

But I still love this place, almost.

G

O

H

O

M

E

my mum works in a profession known for taking people away from their families, it’s more complicated then that.

That last one got me. I cried when we did the group reveal on Sunday 3rd July. It might of been the mention about mothers, or the fact that I felt like I understood what this contributor was saying – that they loved someone, a parent, but it hurt. Maybe I am projecting? Because truth be told there is no judgment in what they’ve said, only the statement explaining it.

Sometimes I’m reminded of the reason why I call this specific branch of HOMECOMING, Homecoming; A Placeless Place. To me, it is the social experiment that just keeps on giving.

I’ve always been inspired by the artist Frida Kahlo, how she painted directly how she felt on to the canvas without regard for depicting reality just the reality of how she felt. I used to shy away from creating any artwork that was too personal or about myself, feeling as if it would be uninteresting and somehow felt self centred. Frida known for her many self portraits and artworks that almost document the timeline of her life. Simply said that “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.” this changed my perspective and I started to feel any subject I tried to explore in my artwork that wasn’t personal to me felt unbalanced in a way as my own opinion was the only one being heard in the artwork. It was just another opinion on a subject I had no real connection to. Whereas when I created something really personal, the process was therapeutic, the end result was honest, not offering an answer and hopefully connecting to the viewer on a base human level.

The second image above is the painting titled “The Two Frida’s”. She often explored her feeling like she was straddling between two identities. The Mexican side of her mother and the European side of her father. I found this very inspiring and relatable in my project as I was exploring a lot of similar themes about being two halves of separate things. And I cant think of another artist that explores this so directly and consistently.

While working on this project I’ve been reading this incredibly inspiring book on ancient Japanese manga dating back to the 17th century. In the book it’s said that manga imagery was mostly categorized into “satirizing manners, customs & situations. Satirizing society and politics and satirizing human nature.

It amazed me that this use of humour mixed with surreal imagery dated so far back and clearly had such a impact on how manga, cartoons and animation would develop even 100s of years later in the animation that would inspire me growing up. It also got me thinking about this connection that humour seemed to have with surrealism. Both rely on setting up an expectation of something ordinary, then divert it entirely in a way you never expected. The way the manga illustrations could go from bizarre and comical to exploring the inner demons of the human psyche is something I always loved. As I feel humour keeps both the artist and viewer grounded and level with each other, allowing it to feel more human and relatable when the artwork shifts into the heavier subjects. It’s inspiring to know something that didn’t always take itself so seriously was still respected as a art from. The artwork in the book seems to be pushing the boundaries of the artists imaginations as if they were testing to see if there was any limit to how creative they could be.

Innovation and Invisible Labour

I was travelling through the Balkans during June and came across a lot of interesting references to relationships with tech, modernisation, and exploitation. Below are some examples, taken at the Museum of Yugoslavia in Belgrade.

Banner showing a laptop with arms pushing down someone down a hole
Image description: Banner showing a laptop with arms pushing down someone down a hole.
Description of banner work image above, titled 'Occasion of Rift', 2022
Image description: Description of banner work image above, titled ‘Occasion of Rift’, 2022

Text reads:

Occasion of Rift
Banner, 2022
The deepening conflict between ideas and material conditions is an opportunity for different conceptions of society. An active role in managing and mediating between material conditions and the notion of a better life, requires responsibility beyond the faith in artificial intelligence. Hard physical labour, such as mining, has been exiled to the periphery, and there seems to be no need to use technologically and socially advanced tools. Labour is visibly removed from those places where people receive a universal basic income.

References:
Mining helmet with safety lamp and
battery for power, gloves and boots

Equipment used at the Mining and
Energy Plant “Edvard Kardelj” in
Trbovlje, 1981


The Miner
Sketch for a monument erected in front
of the International Labour Organization
in Geneva, 1939
Antun Augustincié
Gift of the People’s Front of the VI
District of the City of Zagreb to Josip Broz
Tito, May 11, 1946

Documenting remembrance practices

Lighting of candles for prayers and remembrance.
Image description: Lighting of candles for prayers and remembrance
(St. Sava Orthodox Church, Belgrade)
Lighting of candles for prayers and remembrance.
Banners and posters remembering the Bosnian War 1992-95
Image description: Banners and posters remembering the Bosnian War 1992-95 (Sarajevo)
death notices posted on lamp posts
Image description: Daily death notices posted on lamp posts (Mostar)
Recent death notice on shopkeeper's front
Image description: Recent death notice on shopkeeper’s front (Novi Sad)
Video description: Flicking through archives of original photos taken during WWII in Yugoslavia. Most of the civilians remain unidentified. Much of the photos have not been digitally archived either.

‘Computer gaze’: Your interior thoughts are commodified

Carmen Hermosillo aka humdog was a huge advocate for technological innovation and computer networks in the 80s/90s, until 1994, when she published ‘Pandora’s Vox: On Community in Cyberspace.’

Her writing remains relevant to this day when examining the digitisation of our deaths and identity ‘immortalisation’ online. She argued that the use of computer networks do not lead to a reduction in hierarchy, but actually the commodification of personality and a complex transfer of power and information to corporations.

In this sense, all of our interior thoughts (taste, preferences, beliefs, fears) are commodified, and has manifested into what we know today to be the algorithm that caters to our likes and interests. And so, when it comes to our digital death and footprints we leave online, it essentially becomes packaged and sold onto other consumer entities as a form of ‘entertainment’. What I mean by entertainment is that the cyberspace is a blackhole – it absorbs our energy and personality to create an emotional spectacle. This is practiced by businesses and marketers who commodify human interactions and emotions, such as Big Tech corps we already know and exist on.

Screenshot of a person's Facebook newsfeed homepage showing dog photos and emoji reactions.
Image description: Screenshot of a person’s Facebook newsfeed homepage showing dog photos and emoji reactions.

Taking this image of someone’s FB newsfeed as an example which I think is an interface we are all very familiar with, there is a bizarre quality to our online interaction on this platform. In early 2022, I was invited to an online memorial service of a dear friend which was also livestreamed on Facebook. What I found a little bizarre is that this is the same platform where I read daily news headlines, see meme posts, cat videos, friend’s holiday photos, and relationship updates.

Screenshot of 4 tile image videos of cats suggested by my Instagram recommendations.
Image description: Screenshot of my algorithmically generated recommendation of Instagram reels, all featuring cats.

Similarly, this is relays back to humdog’s essay about ourselves becoming commodified and release of agency. I have never learned to mourn or remember someone via an entertainment platform, yet this is becoming the norm.

Spiritual or sacred spaces of worship such as churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, graveyards, contain a certain element of solely fixating on the cycle of life and death with symbolic elements such as praying, worship, repentance, burning of incense, hearing cymbals and gongs, chants, and much more. What’s important about these practices is not the act itself but how it is choreographed with a community.

With these daily practices slowly fading since we have digital platforms to accommodate memorial services and distant attendance, it leads one to wonder whether these traditions will maintain its grip in the next 10, 20, or 30 years, or will it have merged into the chaotic mix of entertainment consumption where we exist under the illusion of a ‘community’ online.

Donna Haraway, A Cyborg Manifesto, Socialist Review (US), 1985

This is a short ongoing anthology that helped me understand my cyborg’s nature. There are many texts where I found guidance, and in some cases I left them behind because my identity and subjective awareness feels everything but static, given values. I like to begin with “The Cyborg Manifesto,” first published in 1985, the year I was born. I will slowly add here more recent wordings that suggested me new understandings and shaped my thinking.

Lynn Randolph made this painting in collaboration with Donna Haraway: "So I placed my human-computer/artist/writer/shamans/scientist in the center and on the horizon line of a new canvas. I put the DIPswitches of the computer board on her chest as if it were a part of her dress. A giant keyboard sits in front of her and her hands are poised to play with the cosmos, words, games, images, and unlimited interactions and activities. She can do anything. The computer screen in the night sky offers examples. There are three images that graphically display different aspects of the same galaxy, using new high-technological imaging devices. Another panel exhibits a diagram of a gravity well. The central panel offers mathematical formulas, one from Einstein and the other a calculation found in chaos theory. In the same panel a game of tic-tac-toe has been played using the symbols for male and female and the woman has won. The foreground is a historical desert plain replete with pyramids, implying that the cyborg can roam across histories and civilizations and incorporate them into her life and work. Finally I placed the shamanic headdress of a white tigress spirit on her head and arms. The paws and limbs of the tigress reveal its skeleton. They both look directly at the viewer. The underlying intent was to create a figure that could visually do what Haraway was describing as the potential for re-figuring our consciousness."
Lynn Randolph’s “Cyborg” painting, that became the cover of her new book “Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature.”

The image’s alt-text, is an excerpt form Lynn Randolph’s “Modest Witnesses: A Painter’s Collaboration with Donna Haraway” in which the authors describe the composition of this painting and unpack its iconography. It feels great to find an artist creating another way to access their work, beyond vision.

Link to a digital copy of the essay, available on Internet Archive.

Audiobook version of “A cyborg manifesto.”

Donna Haraway, From Cyborgs to Companion Species: Dogs, People, and Technoculture, September 16, 2003.

Donna Haraway presented her lecture as the 2003-2004 Avenali Chair in the Humanities at the Townsend Center for the Humanities, UC Berkeley. Haraway is a prominent theorist of the relationships between people and machines, and her work has incited debate in fields as varied as primatology, philosophy, and developmental biology. Haraway’s The Cyborg Manifesto, first published in 1985, is now taught in undergraduate classes at countless universities and has been reprinted or translated in numerous anthologies in North America, Japan, and Europe.

Courage is a muscle

a poster of two women kissing. 
the one on the left is a light skinned woman in a hijab with sunglasses on her head. her eyes are closed and her lips and intertwined with a black woman who is on the right hand side of this poster. the black woman is wearing a fabric around her head also. they are embracing each other and holding each other lovingly. at the top of the poster is one word in two different languages. COURAGE in English and Arabic. In Arabic it is pronounced 'shaja-ah'

I travel allot for work.

In the last week alone I’ve been in Venice, London, Bradford and Sheffield.

Often my ideas don’t just come from working in my studio, but from exploring outside and beyond binding walls.

I was at a talk on Saturday, at the Bradford Literary Festival, with some phenomenal women writers.

The topic was Bell Hooks and her book; all about love and the impacts it has had on so many, us included.

There was a speaker there, Mona Eltahawy who reminded us to write with courage.

To exist in it.

‘Courage is a muscle, and you have to exercise it’

I was reminded of a poster made for the streets of Italy. Why Italy? Why not Italy?!

This poster sits in my studio and in my home.

It is an image I use in workshops to instigate discussions. Discussions which are always fascinating to hear.

I think it’s so beautiful. And I think it’s something that everyone needs to see. You’re welcome.

The artist @doublewhy_y (instagram)

Self-actualisation dogma

‘The California Ideology’ is an essay by media theorists Barbrook and Cameron written in 1995. They argued that the techno-utopic ideals propagated from Silicon Valley enthusiasts such as innovation, connectivity, and so on, was paradoxically driven by a radical sense of individualism, counterculture, and neoliberalism. These tech pioneers believed that wider and instant distribution of knowledge would liberate everyone from political grasps. However, today we realise that hypothesis is not the case.

Watching the two videos of Zuckerberg and Musk, what I find eerie is how they market their commodification of us, the users, as something virtuous and a necessary feat for human ‘advancement’. Musk’s argument for archiving human consciousness on Mars, in case of global humanitarian disaster, is essentially an eloquent phrase for continuing modern human colonisation. At what cost does this come at? It’s not only about personal privacy, but the cost for ‘greatness’ comes at the price of Earth’s resources, degradation of communities and infrastructures, and succumbing to our computer-generated identities, therefore eroding our socio-cultural structures of our material reality. So once the dreams of techno-utopists such as Musk and Zuckerberg are achieved, what is actually left for the community when we are not behind the computer’s gaze. I feel this rhetoric and ideology is highly contradicting and is more trapping than ‘liberating’. I’d go as far to argue that this equation of online = connected communities is a fallacy…

Transcript: Video #1

Interviewer: So on that kind of launch rate, you’re talking about it over two decades you could get your million people to Mars essentially. Who’s city is it? Is it NASA’s city, is it SpaceX’s city?

Musk: It’s the people of Mars’ city The reason for this I mean, obviously like why do this thing, I think this is important for maximizing the probable lifespan of humanity or consciousness. Human civilization could come to an end, for external reasons like a giant meteor or super volcanoes or extreme climate change or world war three, or you know, any number of reasons. The probable lifespan of human civilizational consciousness as we know it, which we should really view as this very delicate thing, is like a small candle in a vast darkness
. That’s what appears to be the case.

Transcript: Video #2

As I look around and as I travel around the world. I’m starting to see people and nations turning inward against this idea of a connected world and global community. I hear fearful voices calling for building walls and distancing people they label as others. For blocking free expression, for slowing immigration, reducing trade, and in some cases around the world even cutting access to the internet. It takes courage to choose hope over fear. To say we can build something and make it better than it has ever been before. You have to be optimistic to think that you can change the world. And people will always call you naïve but it’s this hope and this optimism, that is behind every important step forward. Our lives are connected and whether we are welcoming a refugee fleeing war, or an immigrant seeking new opportunity, whether we are coming together to fight global disease like Ebola, order to address climate change, I hope that we have the courage to see the path forward is to bring people together, not push people apart. To connect more, not less. We are one global community.

I recently read the illustration book by artist Manjit Thapp. In it she tells the story of her mental health and state of my mind though-out a year through short poetic sentences and her incredible artwork. I was inspired by her ability to capture the feeling of time passing in still images. I wanted my artwork to reflect the process and time that goes into creating an artwork.

So much of this project was inspired by watching the illustration master Kim Jung Gi live drawing videos, which I become obsessed with. The way he draws without hesitation while keeping so much detail in his work got me wondering if he had the whole artwork mapped out in his mind or if he was improvising. He also talks about drawing perspective and anatomy which is something I always felt was holding me back. Since I’m self taught and never studied art I feel I skipped a lot of the basic fundamental skills of drawing. Which inspired me to explore the balance between skill and creativity within the creating process.

Our modern relationship with death

Funeral rites represent an important part of collective behaviour in human societies.  According to researchers, humans conducted the earliest burials (i.e. bodies deposited in deliberately excavated graves), deriving from caves in Canaan dating to 90 000–110 000 BP (Before Present).

However, with changes in economic and technological development, the free communal labour and services that were traditionally required for funeral ceremonies have diminished. In most parts of the world today, professional services are required to hold one’s ceremony. The free labour of the community typically involves excavation, touching or cleaning the body itself, building material structures, crowd choreography, gathering offerings, and much more. This type of ritual also embodied a collective social agreement of care, responsibility, and sealing the ‘archive’ of one’s body and spirit.

Now, with the commodification of funeral services and convenience of digital access, it seems that funeral rituals have not only become commodified but turned into a spectacle for entertainment. I use the word ‘entertainment’ lightly but it’s more so to signify the desensitisation we have towards death due to frequency that we see it through the computer’s gaze.

One recent memory I have about this was the reaction to Kobe Bryant’s death. The live television broadcasts and online streams of his ceremony seemed surreal because of how someone’s death could be commodified for digital spectatorship and entertainment. On the one hand, you have people grieving the real person, then on the other you have people grieving the persona, all in real time – physically and digitally.

Three figures emotionally speaking at the funeral service for basketballer Kobe Bryant. The NBC news icon is situated in the bottom-left side of the image.
Image description: Michael Jordan, Vanessa Bryant, and Jimmy Kimmel speaking at Kobe Bryant’s funeral service.

From a sociological perspective, this appears as a subtle erasure towards the collective labour and social bonds with the dead due to modernisation. In the online sphere, businesses market the illusions of a community when in actual reality in order for us to participate online and utilise our power to ‘post’ or ‘comment’ it requires a sense of radical individualism and self-actualisation. And so, without these communal hands-on elements involved in traditional funeral rites, and increased accessibility to viewing livestreams of funeral and memorial services, how does this affect our relationship with the dead and our own sense of mortality?

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

Poem titled 'All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace' by Richard Brautigan, followed by poem text.
Image Description: Poem titled ‘All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace’ by Richard Brautigan.

Text reads:

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

by Richard Brautigan (1967)

I think this poem is interesting as it resists the dystopian thought of technology. Instead it imagines a techno-utopia: what if all the computers and robots could release humans from capitalistic labour and we could finally live freely with nature? It expresses that if we only imagine a dystopian nightmare, perhaps that is what we will get and simply manifest.

Then again, I don’t think anyone imagined the Internet or technology to get quite dark than it has already. As much as I admire his positive optimism and as much as I want to dream… this is also what I imagine Musk and Zuckerberg would recite to themselves to justify their actions. But I also question myself whether I’ve been encapsulated by this ‘dystopia’ mindset.