Unearthing Tomorrow’s Artifacts
at North East of North Digital Arts Festival
By Allison Palenske, SciArt Magazine
The artifacts displayed behind the glass cases of any history museum offer glimpses into past lives of previous eras. Furnishings, jewelry, and tools are common items excavated by archaeologists, curated within an arrangement of displays to create a narrative of lifestyles preceding our own. As contended by Michel Foucault, it is through archaeological examination of the past that we can better understand our present existence.
But what will the artifacts of tomorrow look like? What are the products of our contemporary digital-based culture, and how will these objects be understood in the future?
Media archaeology is a discipline that poses some of these questions. Media archaeology examines media and digital channels through lenses of history, often posturing imaginative scenarios of how we will understand contemporary media in the future, and how we can begin to understand the implications of our material culture in the present. Media archaeology includes the examination of virtual objects in addition to physical relics, and anticipates future assumptions and interpretations of these objects as a way to provide social commentary on current events and trends.
North East of North (NEoN) is a digital arts festival based in Dundee, a small post-industrial city on the east coast of Scotland. For the past seven years, the festival has focused on moving image, performance, and music, amongst other art forms, influenced by technology. Drawing directly from its context in Dundee, a city known for its burgeoning digital innovation and creative research, the festival provides a platform for innovation and discourse surrounding the relationship between arts, technology, and science. For 2017, the festival adopted the theme of media archaeology, envisioning artists as archaeologists and highlighting the role of creativity in technological exploration.
This year’s festival took place from November 7th-12th 2017, and included numerous exhibitions and events across various venues. Each venue offered a unique context for the festival works, with the McManus Art Gallery and Museum offering connections to natural and cultural history, while spaces like West Ward Works highlight the repurposing of Dundee’s industrial architecture for experimental creative works.
West Ward Works acted as the hub for the festival’s main exhibition, “Media Archaeology: Excavations.” The building formerly housed D.C. Thomson’s busy printworks for 60 years, and offered ample space for the group exhibition. Interpretations of the theme ranged from the memorialization of lost histories to the repurposing of antiquated technologies, with artworks manifested in a variety of physical and digital mediums.
A dilemma presented by media archaeologists is how to document cultural remnants as we shift towards a predominantly digital culture, rather than the societies of the past that left mainly physical objects behind. This dilemma is revealed in Olia Lialina’s work Give me time/This Page is no more. Acting as an archive of GeoCities-hosted web pages, the work solidifies conflicting notions of the ephemerality and permanency of Internet relics. One of the first web hosting companies offering accessibility to a wide range of users, GeoCities abruptly shut down their service in October 2009. Internet activists worked quickly, downloading GeoCities web pages before these sites would be lost forever. No longer accessible via Internet URL, the archived files of these web pages are ironically presented in form of archaic carousel slide projections by Liliana. The sites range in content from travel blogs to fansites for popular Manga comics. Some of the web pages shown offer a farewell message from their creator, while other pages’ messages imply that the page would have returned shortly, had GeoCities not been shut down. The composition of these pages by Liliana offers a clear glimpse into the way people approached the Internet at a very specific time in history, and a certain sense of nostalgia resonates for a time before the app-based social media boom.
Further elaborating on the idea of lost histories and the potential of technology to memorialize, artist and activist Morehshin Allahyari presents reconstructions of artifacts that were destroyed by ISIS through her work Material Speculation: ISIS. Using 3D printing to recreate and document objects from Roman and Assyrian periods, each work includes an embedded flash drive or memory card with images and research about the objects from the months just prior to their destruction. This inclusion of digital data juxtaposes cultural remnants from ancient times to those of contemporary years, and there seems to be uncertainty about how this digital data may be accessed in the future if technology continues to move towards solely a Cloud-based system. The artist sees technology as a tool for reflection and documentation, with the potential to respond to collective struggles. But ambiguity remains in how to best archive digital matter for future generations.
Focusing on an output for audiences at present, artist Nicky Bird shared the products of her research into the curious history of a home that was allegedly buried under mounds of industrial waste. A collaborative project involving the local community and researchers across various disciplines, Heritage Site combines oral histories and speculative fiction alongside computer modeling of the site. The work includes a 1:12 scale model of the house, with data-created animations of the house and mounds projected onto the surface of the model. Olfactory elements and photography are integrated within the installation space to illustrate various aspects of the site’s history and geology. The work explores how we relate to place and the shifting identities of sites affected by industrialization. Similar to Allahyari’s and Liliana’s work, Heritage Site utilizes technology to explore social and historical issues, recreating artifacts that cease to exist in their original form.
An alternative inquiry brought about by media archaeologists questions the physical remnants of technology and the lifecycle of electronics. Mouse Mandala, an ongoing project by artist Joseph DeLappe, is an installation that repurposes and reinterprets electronic waste into a sculptural material. Used, broken, and discarded computer mice are arranged into an intertwined maze of cables, displayed on the ground plane similar to the sand mandalas of Buddhist tradition. Despite using such a banal material, the work is entrancing and texturally rich. In the composition and weaving of the electronic wires, the piece is a direct nod to the careers of weavers and the lost craftsmanship of a pre-automated industrial era, a narrative that resonates amongst the collapsed jute and carpet manufacturing trades in Dundee.
In a dark room tucked off in a corner of West Ward Work’s exhibition space, visitors are drawn to the lime-green glow of numerous glassware pieces, arranged and displayed behind a case similar to those found in a department store. The verdant hue of the objects is illuminated by ultraviolet light, and is caused by the presence of uranium within the glass objects. A logbook is kept outside the room, outlining the effects of various levels of uranium exposure and tracking measurements of radioactive emissions, alluding to a sense of peril surrounding the alluring glowing objects. By presenting this scenario through her work Laboratory for Variable Risk Perception, Ele Carpenter draws awareness to perceptions of danger associated with nuclear power. The domestic language of these objects attests to how embedded nuclear power and emissions are within our everyday lives, while presenting an open-ended provocation regarding negative longer-term effects.
At another festival venue across town, Kelly Richardson’s exhibition “The Weather Makers” hints at the potential effects of nuclear technology or fallout, and the consequences of aggressive environmental degradation. Displayed at Dundee Contemporary Arts, the exhibition includes three immersive moving image works and three chromogenic prints, all of which present images of prospective landscapes of the future. The exhibition borrows its title from The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change (2005), a book written by mammalogist, paleontologist, and environmentalist Tim Flannery. This book uses scientific research as a basis for predictions of the consequences of climate change, weaving together a sinister web of multiple species-collapse and natural disaster scenarios. Despite climate change being an omnipresent issue in contemporary discourse, there can often be a certain element of abstraction to the concept. Richardson’s works provide an antidote to this obstacle, offering viewers a chance to grasp these consequences in concrete or personal terms.
Each of the moving image works in “The Weather Makers” employs CGI technology and audio-visual effects to create a hyper-realistic window into various scenes. Leviathan features footage shot on Caddo Lake in aptly named Uncertain, Texas. Ghostly cypress trees wade in patchy, discolored water. It is unclear whether this water is the result of a flood or similar catastrophe, but the aquatic qualities of the landscape lend an eerily meditative tone to the work. Orion Tide shows a nighttime desert setting with illuminated flares shooting up from the earth into the dark sky. Again, it is uncertain what these flares are meant to signify, but the landscape is completely devoid of any signs of human life. Mariner 9 conveys a Martian landscape, littered with spacecraft and its related electronic waste. To create this work, Richardson used topographical data from NASA to recreate the actual terrain of Mars. The artist then added an imagined reality of what this landscape may look like after an attempted expansion of human occupation beyond Earth. Set aside from the moving image works, Pillars of Dawn is a series of three prints showing degraded plant life, cast in a crystallized surfacing by the assumed extreme effects of ongoing environmental pollution.
Because Richardson’s works borrow heavily from scientific research and data, while utilizing hyper-realistic technologies, the exhibition carries a foreboding tone. The works visualize scenarios that are often talked about, but usually only imagined in their physical existence. The scale of the moving image works creates believable scenes that contain conflicting aspects of familiarity and surrealism. An intentional decision by the artist, the scale of these works is meant to make visitors feel as if they are within the landscapes, giving a sense of how severe these futures could be.
On a local level, NEoN Digital Arts Festival provides an outlet for engagement and collaboration between the city’s prominent research community and the creative sector, and shows a promising future for ongoing collaboration between the two. Through its curation, NEoN places the role of the artist alongside that of the archaeologist, allowing a space for experimentation and exploration within the field of technology.
The embedded nature of digitalism within our lives has both positive and negative implications, a conflict made clear in many of the festival’s works. While technology provides many possibilities to advance our understanding of the world, it can often incite negative byproducts that are damaging to the natural environment and to our cultural heritage. The precariousness of intangible digital objects also lends ambiguity to the future preservation of contemporary Internet-based cultural relics.
The role of the artist within all this becomes one of detached analysis and experimentation; through art, the possibilities of technology move beyond assumed utilitarian purposes and towards a self-critical comprehensive view of the inseparable realms of culture and technology in the 21st century.