The Electromagnetic Fountain

Posts Tagged ‘urban art

Electromagnetic Fountain @ Porsgrunn

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Research Days
Telemark University College, Porsgrunn, Norway
18 – 27  September 2009

The Electromagnetic Fountain will stand in Porsgrunn, Norway, for a period of nine days during the annual national research days.


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An EMF presentation

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Here are my notes and slides of a presentation of the Electromagnetic Fountain that I gave at the National Academy of the Arts in Bergen on Jan 12th 2009. It is a bit of a new approach to presenting this project, and revolves around some autobiographical reflections and associative imagery that has emerged through the process of working with the fountain. With only 20 minutes for my presentation, I try to show more and talk less!


[ Slide: I heard Erkki Huhtamo give this advice at the end of one of his
lectures. Though available on the net, I cannot locate the link.
]

During the mid 1990’s I became involved in exploring the potentials of the net, or the information super highway as it was often referred to then …..


[ Slide: image from The New Wizard from the West,
Pearson’s Magazine, May 1899
]

……  as a creative platform for artistic exchange.

I collaborated remotely with artists from several continents via the new audio/video transmission and tele-conferencing systems to create performances, installations and social, live art happenings.

One of the rituals of participating in this telematic space was to perform a compulsory “good bye” wave of the hand into the webcam to each other when closing a performance.


[ Slide: MIRAGE. Motherboard, Galleri F15, Moss, Norway and the net, 2000.
Realvideo feedback installation, looping around the globe
]

This created a simple form of non-verbal communication that could generally be recognised despite the low bandwidth crackly audio and pixelating video transmission.

Today I am interested in exploring the potential of another kind of wave as a source of artistic material, namely the electromagnetic waves and pulses that are emitted from our numerous electric, wireless and mobile communications devices. They pass through our streets, homes and bodies and increasingly carry the raw signals of our wireless communications, and yet they are, generally speaking, imperceptible to humans without some kind of technological intervention.

I am attempting to reveal them and give them a physical presence in the form a fountain whose water jets and coloured lights dance to the electromagnetic activity detected in its near vicinity.

The fountain was conceived as a portable fountain with performance value, designed to appear in urban spaces where there are “hot spots” of electromagnetic activity for a short period of time before moving on to a new destination.

Its bowl is a recycled, redundant parabola antenna dish acquired from the 120 m high television transmission tower on the hills of Oslo (from which Stockholm can be seen with the bare eye from an observation tower when the weather permits).

It has become redundant because analog TV transmissions have recently been terminated in favor of digital signals, and the previously designated bandwidths are being sold off to the highest bidder.

The electromagnetic spectrum, in its entirety, has increasingly become “a hotly fought over political, commercial and private territory” (E. Berger and M. Howse, 2007).


[ Slide: image from: http://mynasadata.larc.nasa.gov/ElectroMag.html ]

“The spectrum is treated as a `commons´, belonging to every person. It is controlled and administered by governments who, in turn, license the various radio frequencies to commercial and other institutions for broadcast. In other words, in every country the electromagnetic system is owned by the government on behalf of the people.”
[Jeremy Rifkin, 2001]

Sometimes it is hard to remember that the air that we breathe has become colonised by the wild-fire of WI-FI, and the environmental and health risks involved are not yet fully understood. This is reflected by the attempts of corporate network providers to hide their transmission and reception devices from public view with the aim of reducing the fear that the lack of adequate information surrounding these issues inspires.

Take this palm tree for example. I spotted it while driving to the airport in Rome in 2007.

And yet fear is an issue that I deal with each time my cell phone runs out of power, or I forget it. I just don’t feel safe without it. I seldom switch it off, though I often want to. As I feel my ear starting to get warmer, I can’t help wondering whether my brain is getting cooked as well.

Perhaps I should get a pair of these ……


[ Slide: image from Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby’s website]

…. placebo underwear with silver lining to protect your nether regions from electromagnetic radiation, created by the dynamic duo, Dunne and Raby (UK).

Science is a social activity that we perform in our everyday lives – winning on the roundabouts and losing on the swings. It is a risky business. The question arises as to how much (and with what) we are prepared to pay in the pursuit of high speed, physical and telematic mobility that are a part of modern day life.


[ Slide: image from http://www.fototime.com/24784734E056C6A/standard.jpg ]

Life seems so fast these days. There is a pressure to always be available at different places at the same time, yet in different time zones – or going somewhere without actually moving from the spot.

Sometimes I wish to slow down time for a while, and experience the world from the earth up, rather than the sky down  (as I do when I pear down onto my keyboard and into the deep space of my horizon-less screen).

I want to know how things work, under the veil, so to speak. I want to look beyond the ease of the slick point-and-click interface to explore the raw signals of telematic communications – to catch them before they pop out of a screen or speaker. Before they become a cell phone conversation or an sms, a surveillance image on a video screen, an email, a bank transaction, a death match in Unreal Tournament 3 or a new avatar in Second Life. I want to give them a body that can only be experienced locally, yet is made up of a myriad of local and global gestures and utterances, and a multitude of physical bodies. Big aims for a little person!

Marshal McLuhan once noted that electricity is itself a medium with a message. With my current work I suggest that, more specifically, it is the electromagnetic spectrum that is a medium worth paying attention to today. But how can you pay attention to parts of the spectrum that humans cannot see, hear, feel, taste or smell?

In the case of the fountain, it is equipped with an electromagnetic detector, or “sniffer”.

Like a dog with a sharp nose,


[ Slide: image from Epica Awards 2007 ]

…. it picks electromagnetic transmissions and transforms them into audible signals, drawing them down to one point on earth and grasping the feeling of the analog waves and digital pulses as they pass by.

Let me give you an example – the sound of a a laptop with a wireless router performing a bit torrent download, recorded by Martin Howse using a sniffer he made for the fountain.

It is the qualities of the screaming, popping and crackling sounds that the fountain uses to control its water pumps, valves and lights.

In other words, it functions like a musical fountain – a famous example of which is the Bellagio fountain in Las Vegas.


[ Slide: image from: http://govegas.about.com/od/phototours/ss/Belsbs.htm ]

Fountains generally perform aesthetic functions. When placed in urban spaces the intention is often to bring an oasis – an experience of nature, into the city. The Bellagio fountain, though easier to describe in terms of entertainment than nature, fits naturally into the virtual reality of Vegas. Yet it contributes to sucking dry a valuable natural resource – water. On the surface, what is natural in one sense seems unnatural in another, and yet the twain are unfathomably intertwined.

I do not wish for the Electromagnetic Fountain to fit naturally in with its environment, but I do wish it to establish a playful, aesthetic identity wherever it pops up.

I wish it to misbehave a bit, to become an eye catcher, to create an emotive space, a gathering place, a form of information display – a data stream, wet to the hand and babbling with life – and perhaps even an electromagnetic barometer for those who encounter it.

The Electromagnetic Fountain is “location sensitive” in more ways than one. It is not connected to a water supply and therefore has to filled up with it, which it then recycles. Being placed outside and exposed to the elements has its consequences. A strong gust of wind sends the water flying out onto the street. Calling on the fire brigade to fill it up becomes a spectacle in itself – as was the case when it took part in the Article Biannual Exhibition of Electronic and Unstable Art in Stavanger last November.

Getting them to rescue it when the temperature unexpectedly dropped below freezing point became another!

Here’s a 5 minute video of the fountain as it appeared on the town square in Stavanger.

There are a few technological hurdles I wish to overcome before I’m through with the fountain. Shielding the sniffers from the fountain’s own electromagnetic emission is one thing I haven’t adequately achieved yet. It should be done to avoid creating a feedback loop that undermines its ability to detect and respond to other signals. Our physical bodies also emit a certain amount of natural, or bio electromagnetic radiation, but when we communicate wirelessly we emit more, and often unwittingly give up rights to bits and bytes of our ‘selves’ and our world in the process. This is my main concern – though it is the potential health risks that the press has focused on in their coverage of the fountain.

Next time the fountain goes out into the world I intend to give it a speaker so that the noisy, crackly sounds of the electromagnetic detectors can be heard – though they might become too invasive to be tolerated in public space for long. I think troubled times demand a strong voice. By actively addressing both the positive and negative aspects of the coin, it may be possible to negotiate a radiant future in positive terms. That is, for what it is worth, my personal vision.

Thank you. And goodbye.


[ Slide: image from The New Wizard from the West,
Pearson’s Magazine, May 1899
]

EMF on TV

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HC has requested more detailed video. Sorry HC, I still haven’t had time to check out my own video, but in the meantime, here’s a short extract that was shown on NRK Rogaland TV:

http://www.testingtesting.org/movies/EMF_NRK_Rogtv.mov

Written by ajsteggell

November 20, 2008 at 12:47 pm

EMF at night (movie)

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By request from HC, and until I’ve checked out my camcorder recordings, here’s a movie of the EMF in Stavanger that I took with my cell phone at night ……..

Written by ajsteggell

November 18, 2008 at 6:41 pm

EMF public test run

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Between 12pm and 9am on 8-9th November the Electromagnetic Fountain went through a public test run before leaving for Stavanger to take part in Article 08, 15-30 November. It stood on the town hall square (Rådhusplassen) during “Kulturnatt” in Porsgrunn, Norway, and, though the weather was horrid for much of the time (rain, wind, hail) the fountain appealed to the people who managed to make it to the town square when the rain occasionally stopped:

EMF at Kulturnatt 01 EMF at Kulturnatt 02

EMF at Kulturnatt 03 EMF at Kulturnatt 04

EMF at Kulturnatt 05 EMF at Kulturnatt 06

EMF at Kulturnatt 07 EMF at Kulturnatt 08

The fountain performed beautifully for the first 7 hours. After that the 5 pentagon water jets stopped working. The reason was discovered the next day – a bad connection on the dmx relay box.

The exercise was very useful.

Setting the fountain up the day before the event took almost twelve hours! It was quite an ordeal:

The weather conditions:
Rain, wind, hail and very cold – made it hard to protect the electronics from getting wet during set up.
Solution: For initial set up, use a car boot to house a computer screen, keyboard and mouse. Use Remote Desktop after that (haven’t had time to set it up and try it out yet – so that’s something to prepare for in Stavanger.

Water leaks:

Fixing the leak

The leakage in the pumps and valves that should have been fixed previously were only attended to during the set up time.

The Antenna Box
The antenna box/cable was not finished until 17.30, at which point it started to get dark. I could not test the fountain properly until this had been done.

Fuse goes on start up:
The fuse that protects the electronics went several times when the fountain was turned on, and the mac mini did not respond favorably to this. It seemed like a critical situation, but all went well after a couple of cold start ups.
Solution: plug in the electricity with the fuses off, and then trun them on. This seems to work fine.

Though only the central water jet was working, I left the fountain on to run over night, primarily because I wanted to test the software for a longer period, which I haven’t had the opportunity to do before.

Sunday morning:

A small period of almost rainless conditions allowed Atle and myself to check out the problems with the fountain on Sunday morning. The software was still running fine, but ……

Signal failure to 5 valves:
The problem with the signal failure to the five electronic valves, though identified, is not yet really solved. I have no idea what caused the bad connection. It started to work when I took the dmx relay box out of the fountain base chamber to take a look at it.

Air accumulation in the water system:
There seems to be an accumulation of air in the water system after the fountain has been running a while. This affects mainly the pump that serves the 5 pentagon jets. The result, very low jets and a noisy pump that affects the VLF sniffer output.
Solution: make sure that the air is removed from the water system each day.

We just had time to check these things out and empty the fountain basin before the lorry arrived at 12.00 to transport it to Stavanger.

EMF in transit

I’ll have four days to set it up in Stavanger in preparation for the Article 08 exhibition, and I must admit that the task seems a bit daunting. I had hoped to attain a greater degree of stability by this time. The main problem has been the co-ordination of the construction and electrical work in relation to the demands of programming and testing the fountain, and has pushed my nerves (and probably everyone else’s) to the limits. However, I really enjoyed watching how people took to the fountain during the rainless periods, and, though I say it myself, I think it looks stunning at night!

The only thing to do is to remain positive, and hope for some undestanding in relation to the problems that need to be solved. Though a bit wet and windy at times weather does not look too hopeless from tommorrow evening until next Friday, with temperatures between 4-9 degrees. Wednesday may also see some sunshine:-)

EMF article in the Weekly Technical Magazine

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Here’s a link to an article about the Electromagnetic Fountain by Stein Jarle Olsen, published in the Norwegian Weekly Technical Magazine, 02.11.2008.

The article is called “Sprutende ingeniørkunst” in Norwegian, and I’m finding it hard to translate “sprutende” to English. Shooting, splashing? The best word I can hit on is ejaculating. Discussing the problem in the kitchen of Canadian artist (and my hostess with the mostess) Vicki Moulder, we come up with two alternative English titles:

1. Ejaculatory Engineering Art
2. The Art of Engineered Ejaculation
Other alternative suggestions welcome :-)

(photo by Stein Jarle Olsen)

Written by ajsteggell

November 2, 2008 at 9:00 pm

EMF Art examples

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Just taken part in the annual ACM Multimedia Conference and Exhibition, where, amongst others, I met Geoffrey Shea who is part of the Mobile Experience Lab at the Ontario College of Art and Design. A part of this lab work investigates the use of EMF detectors in a project called Cicadas. Here’s the blurb from the project website:

“The social theory of swarming combined with the technique of electromagnetic frequency (EMF) detection. Users talking on cell phones at certain locations along our target development area (John Street, a short street in downtown Toronto which is home to our lab as well as many media, entertainment and culture institutions) trigger swarms of virtual cicadas: sound and light emitting devices installed in trees. This draws parallels between signal emission as a communication imperative in both the human and insect worlds. It also creates a situation of passive interaction whereby users play a role in the experience without necessarily deciding to do so.”

cicada

cicada

Read more HERE

The EMF sniffers for Cicada are designed by Peter Todd, who gives an account of his first investigation  (diagrams, circuit board, test results, etc) HERE.

In contrast, in Geoff’s video poem, 1.000 Glances, a solitary speaker captivated by the view of a rotating radar antenna, reflects over the hope and despair that lurks beneath the surface in the relationship between herself and the world. Her words and thoughts becoming scrambled with the electrostatic disturbance of each rotation of the antenna.

Written by ajsteggell

November 1, 2008 at 11:52 pm