SATURDAY 18 JANUARY
CRITICAL ENGINEERS AND DESIGNERS EXPOSE THE HIDDEN SYSTEMS THAT COMPRISE OUR WORLD
As part of our ongoing curatorial exploration of the social and political implications of technological infrastructures, Lighthouse presented a special event which brings internationally renowned artists and critical engineers, Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev, to Brighton. They were joined by artist and critical designer, Tobias Revell, and activists from the Open Rights Group, in a day of talks and workshops, which critically questioned the systems that surround us.
Critical Exploits showed how a new generation of artists, designers and engineers are taking a highly critical approach to the development and use of the engineered systems and infrastructures that we increasingly rely on for daily life. It comprised of a major presentation on the ideas and practices which comprise Critical Engineering by Berlin-based artists and engineers, Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev, a comprehensive primer on Critical Design, by London-based designer, Tobias Revell, and a CryptoParty led by activist Chris Pinchen and the Open Rights Group, which demonstrated practical ways of operating within our often opaque and illegible technological environment.
“[An] inability to describe and understand technological infrastructure reduces our critical reach, leaving us both disempowered and, quite often, vulnerable.”
- Julian Oliver
Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev – Critical Engineering
Tobias Revell – Critical Design
In October 2011, artists Julian Oliver, Gordan Savičić and Danja Vasiliev published The Critical Engineering Manifesto. It began by stating:
“The Critical Engineer considers Engineering to be the most transformative language of our time, shaping the way we move, communicate and think. It is the work of the Critical Engineer to study and exploit this language, exposing its influence.”
- Oliver, Savičić, and Vasiliev
The manifesto provides an analytical framework for creative practice which exposes the technological and scientific systems which unpin much of society. By making these infrastructures and systems visible, the ‘critical engineer’ reveals the political and power structures at play, instigates critical discussion, and questions who has agency within these systems. Projects created such as Transparency Grenade (2011) and Newstweek (2011) are designed as both functional tools, which both reveal and disrupt the invisible information and communication networks that surround us, and conversation-starters about our unquestioning reliance on technological systems we often don’t understand. Their intention is to expose the deep reach that science and technology have in our lives, and to try and encourage more active forms of intervention and agency. As Oliver (2012) has noted:
“If there’s ever a time to be doing that, it’s now, especially with opaque and hidden infrastructure in the telecommunications space deeply impacting diplomatic relations and civil liberties world wide.”
- Julian Oliver, in an interview with Rhizome (2012)
At Critical Exploits, Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev, introduced the logic behind The Critical Engineering Manifesto. As they put it, art has long been celebrated as an important frame for critical reflection upon contemporary life. In the post-industrial era however, complex tools, formal languages and hidden infrastructure increasingly influence how we communicate, move and remember; now an inextricable part of our Environment. So it follows that to ignore the languages and ideas that comprise engineering is to become unable to describe, and thus critically engage, the world we live in.
In their talk at Critical Exploits, Julian and Danja’s lecture introduced projects and interventions that foreground Engineering, rather than Art, in the creative and critical frame, offering highly public insights into the hidden mechanisms and power struggles within our technical environment.
“Infrastructure space is a wilder mongrel than any of our leviathans.”
- Keller Easterling
The practice of Critical Design approaches the critique of technological systems from a different angle. Critical Design uses speculative design proposals to challenge assumptions and preconceptions about the role products, technologies and systems play in our everyday life. Whilst design is more ordinarily associated with the development of products, commercial viability and marketing, Critical Designers insist design can act as a more politically-engaged discipline.
“[Design can] operate on a more intellectual level, bringing philosophical issues into an everyday context in a novel yet accessible way.”
- Dunne & Raby
Critical Design is a subset of the wider field of “design fiction”, which is perhaps best described as:
“The deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.”
- Bruce Sterling
The products, proposals, scenarios, objects and documentation which comprise Critical Design imply a changed world. In this parallel reality, often set in the near future, certain parameters have been altered to allow the critical design object to come into being. As Tobias Revell (2013) notes:
“Most work isn’t about the future, it’s about now, but you can explode the now into the future to make it much more visible and understandable.”
- Tobias Revell
At Critical Exploits, Tobias Revell, gave an in-depth overview of current practices within critical design, and how the field can be a highly effective means to critically examine social, political and environmental issues. He explored the wider ramifications of ideas that come loaded with change, and the way Critical Design can be used as an antagonist tool for provoking conflicts between set narratives, beliefs and ideologies for awareness, debate and alternate interpretation.
In collaboration with the Open Rights Group and led by inaugural Lighthouse Studio resident Chris Pinchen, Brighton’s second Cryptoparty followed the talks. These informal gathering aim to teach practical tools and tips, so that ordinary users of technological systems can better navigate their networked environment. No previous experience or knowledge is required or assumed, and visitors are welcome to bring devices along.
Cryptoparty is a global movement to empower people to protect their privacy online through skill-sharing workshops. Thousands of people have taken part in Cryptoparties around the world and learned accessible ways of protecting themselves and their data.
Julian Oliver is a New Zealander, Critical Engineer and artist based in Berlin. His projects and papers have been presented at many museums, international electronic-art events and conferences, including the Tate Modern, Transmediale, Ars Electronica, FILE and the Japan Media Arts Festival.
Danja Vasiliev is a Critical Engineer working with digital systems, networks and software. His research and practice aimed at re-examination and exploitation of network paradigms in physical and digital realms. Danja experiments with methods, tactics and techniques that question communication models established between users and systems. Together with Gordan Savičić, they co-authored The Critical Engineering Manifesto. They have received several awards, most notably a Golden Nica at Prix Ars Electronica 2011 for their project Newstweek.
Tobias Revell is a critical designer and artist from London. He teaches on the Royal College of Art’s Design Interactions programme, and Design for Interaction and Moving Image at the University of The Arts London. He is an associate with design-futures studio Superflux and a researcher with ARUP’s Foresight + Innovation team. He exhibits his artwork widely, most recently at Ars Electronica in Linz, Milan Design Salon, and Z33 gallery in Belgium.
Chris Pinchen is a Brighton-based activist concerned with the levels, and extent, of surveillance in society. Chris is co-founder of the Chokepoint Project, a non-profit organisation that collects, analyses and reports on data relating to network neutrality and civil rights in the digital domain.
Exploring Invisible Infrastructures
Critical Exploits is part of a series of exhibitions that expose invisible technological systems and infrastructures. This began in 2011 with Invisible Fields, staged in Barcelona, which revealed the radio spectrum. We continued this work in 2012 with Geographies of Seeing, by Trevor Paglen, which showed how Paglen uses the technologies of astronomical photography to uncover the clandestine activities of the US government. Our two projects for Brighton Festival 2013 by James Bridle and Mariele Neudecker, examined the ulterior technologies of contemporary warfare. Our exhibition for Brighton Digital Festival, Immaterials, and the conference Improving Reality 2013, further extended this curatorial work by unveiling the structures, systems and infrastructures upon which we depend for our contemporary life. We believe if we cannot see something it is harder to comprehend it, let alone be curious about it how it is made, who made it, and who paid for it. Rather than try and create invisible and seamless experiences of technology, Lighthouse’s approach is to actively reveal the seams.
Date: Saturday 18 January 2014
Venue: Lighthouse, 28 Kensington Street, Brighton, BN1 4AJ
Times: 2.00pm – 7.15pm
1.30pm: Doors Open
2pm – 3pm: Critical Engineering – Julian Oliver & Danja Vasiliev
3pm – 4pm: Critical Design – Tobias Revell
4pm – 4.25pm: Panel discussion and Q&A
4.30pm – 6.30pm: Crypto Party led by Chris Pinchen
6.30pm – 7.30pm: Bar & Networking
Event Hashtag: #criticalexploits
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