At Impakt you can listen to a giggling rat
NRC - 1 November 2019 - Sandra Smallenburg
This year, arts festival Impakt’s theme is the future of interfaces. Artists wonder how technology will dominate our lives and minds.
If you tickle rats, they giggle. At least, so says American artist Kathy High, who has been working with lab rats for years. The only problem is that rat laughter is at a frequency inaudible to humans. High therefore developed an audio interface that modifies the laughter’s frequency so humans can hear it. At Impakt Festival in Utrecht you can listen to the rats through headphones: it’s most reminiscent of birds twittering happily.
This edition, the Impakt Festival, an annual technology and media culture arts festival, is subtitled ‘Speculative Interfaces’. An interface is an intermediary between man and machine; without these interfaces we wouldn’t understand the language of our computers nor be able to operate our mobile phones. At the festival countless artists and scientists speculate about the interfaces of the future. For example, what happens when we integrate interfaces into our bodies? Will this allow us to augment our senses? Or, conversely, will our feelings be annexed?
These interfaces are omnipresent in our modern lives – as sensors hidden in our smartphones, smart buildings and autonomous vehicles. They are, however, often hidden from sight. Spanish artist Joana Moll reveals the enormous quantities of code resulting from a simple mouse click. For her work The Hidden Life of an Amazon User she purchased the book The Life, Lessons & Rules for Success by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos from Amazon.com. She discovered that the purchase generated 87.33 MB of information, which – in turn – is used by Amazon to track consumer behaviour. On a monitor she shows the dizzying quantity of figures and letters, some 8,724 A4 pages in total.
Are we constrained or liberated by our devices?
Not all the video art is equally accessible. Long explanations are often required to help visitors out. However, the issues dealt with by these artists are relevant, urgent even. 25 years ago, American video pioneer Lynn Hershman Leeson predicted the addictions computers can lead to. In her – now somewhat dated – video Seduction of a Cyborg (1994) a blind woman agrees to a medical procedure so she can see images on a monitor. Soon the woman is unable to do without the monitor – a portent of how social media dominate our lives today.
Are we constrained or liberated by our devices? In the apocalyptic video Disasters Under the Sun (2019) by Canadian artist Jon Rafman – which was also shown at the Venice Biennial and has its Dutch premiere at Impakt –technology has already taken over. In Rafman’s digital world, 3D avatars are constantly being steamrollered or mown down by machines. A pretty terrible vision of the future or is this already going on? And is Rafman’s video a metaphor for the effects of algorithms on our lives?
Please also refer to the review of Melanie Bonajo’s exhibition in Maastricht last year: Ik wil respect voor aarde, mens en dier The questions artist Melanie Bonajo posed during her opening speech Can I get a cuddle? on Wednesday night seem, at first sight, a lot more optimistic in comparison. Interfaces can also help us to communicate with other species she argued during her passionate lecture. Because why should people have the monopoly on their own language, culture and nation? Shouldn’t domestic animals, consistently referred to by Bonajo as ‘non-human persons’, be viewed as citizens and have their own passports?
For the past decade or so, Bonajo has been collecting online images of animals that she categorises in book form. She noticed that the more images of a particular species are uploaded, the fewer of these animals exist in real life. Pandas, for instance, are a favourite on YouTube, but there are only a few hundred left in the wild. The popularity of all these self-created videos changes our relationship with nature, says Bonajo. Bringing Impakt’s opening to a close on a downer, despite all the cutesy animal pictures.
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