The Tools and the Tribute by Bruce Sterling

Turinese Cyberculture

Share Festival is a Turinese cultural event where we solicit technology artworks worldwide. We award a prize and display the results to the locals. I’m one of the judges and often the art director.

This event has been showing device art, interactive art, software art, installations and for a round dozen years. It’s long been my intuition that Torino, a city of many public art fairs, should be more productive of these forms of art. The city has everything required to become a powerhouse in the niche world of tech-art: boutique manufacturing, elite polytechnic education, engineers and designers with educated taste and some time on their hands, plus a large culture-industry sector with a smart-city ideology.

So, as a Turinese cultural event, we’re bending more of our energies toward technology-art production. Our best-known effort to date is this year’s “Share Festival Artmaker Bag, Version 1.0.”

We’re quite proud of this local innovation, with its global implications. This handsome festival gift is a portable tool kit, a sturdy black nylon valise containing a curated mix of light electronics gear with standard Italian craft tools. At Share Festival, we choose these tools, we buy them, we package them inside the Share Festival bag, and then give them away as morale-raising trophies to artists we admire.

We have no intention of selling these production kits, even though they bear our logo. Instead, we feel that the presence of our suave Artmaker Bag in the life of some chosen creative will give the recipient a lasting sense of our warm appreciation for their efforts.

In other words, the Share Festival Artmaker Bag is conference swag. However, it’s swag that comes from the heart. Furthermore, thirteen different sharp and potent items inside our bag will never pass an airport security check. This functional tool-set is hazardous and therefore genuinely useful.

Within this essay, I will ruminate about my own experience deploying the Share Festival Artmaker Bag. Along with other volunteers in Turin, I deliberately used the Bag to create a work of art for display in a special section of Share Festival 2017, in May 2017.

This interactive electronic kinetic artwork is entitled “Tribute to Nelly Ben Hayoun.” It’s modestly credited to my Turinese alter-ego, “Bruno Argento.” Being a novelist, I’m allowed to use a pseudonym, especially when I’m displaying my work along with Alessandro Sciaraffa, Sergio Barboni, Fabio Battistetti, Serena Cangiano, Carlo Galli, Diego Scroppo, and Silvia Mangosio.

As an electronic artist, I’m a pretty good novelist. However, our world abounds with people who can really-truly make pretty-good device art, kinetic art, interactive art and software art. There’s quite a lot of artistic creativity going on here, and it’s been going on for a longer time than most people realize.

I roughly estimate that there must be a working talent pool of about eight thousand artists in the areas I would critically unify as “tech-art.” That is the international talent pool of people who could plausibly get a work accepted by Share Festival, Ars Electronica or Transmediale.

These artists are thinly scattered worldwide, and occupy distinct niches. It’s rare to see a dozen of them standing in one spot. But this fact has disguised the bulk of their numbers. There are lots of them.

They’re not well-served by the standard art-world, for their creations don’t integrate well into museums and art markets. Their skills and toolsets have never been formalized. They lack a canon. Commonly they strive to creative art from obscure high-tech gizmos that have never been bent to an artistic purpose. Dragging the most crabbed and arcane debris of a tech revolution into some realm of artistic expression — — that’s considered an act of distinct cachet in this hacker-like art community.

This means that a “Share Festival Artmaker Bag” is a quixotic effort. If this cluster of implements actually functioned as a standardized set of common tools for tech-art productivity, then its core users would immediately want to hack it, abandon it as passe’, and turn their attention to something more “advanced.”

The tools gathered inside the bag are indeed eclectic. I’ve seen a lot of do-it-yourself tool sets, but I’ve never seen these particular instruments all in the same place before. I’ve never known anybody who was skilled at using all of them. When you zip open the Bag and sort through its various pincers, nippers, pliers, tweezers, magnifiers, needles, thread, circuit boards and so on, if feels like a tool-based premonitory work of diegetic design-fiction implying an art world that doesn’t yet exist.

With all that admitted, though, it would be preferable if we could offer a stout, safe, functional set of efficient tools fit to produce practical creative results. The only realistic way to reach that goal is to attempt to create something with the tools in the Bag, and see what happens.

Thus the existence of my artwork of 2017, the “Tribute to Nelly Ben Hayoun.” Let’s face it: I would never have created this work without the Share Festival Artmaker Bag. “Tribute” is an existence proof: yes, a shoulder-bag full of eclectic tools has indeed inspired the real-world existence of an artwork. In fact, we had a squadron of volunteers using the Artmaker, and most of them managed to create something interesting with it. After all the fuss, this much we know.

As a technology art critic, I would rank my own creative effort as about a five on a scale of ten. Frankly, I’ve seen much better. Hopefully Ms. Nelly Ben Hayoun — (the work is a gift for her) — will like it rather more than I do.

Nelly’s Tribute is not a work of professional quality. To be frank, it’s a cheesy hack. But it’s not all that terribly bad, either; it has a cozy, homemade Christmas gift-aura to it. It’s as if your dad had come out of his garage shop and built you a shiny pinwheel for your bike’s handlebars.

“Tribute to Nelly Ben Hayoun” is properly classified as an Internet-of-Things artwork. It’s a work of kinetic art, a “mobile” in the useless-machine tradition of Alexander Calder and Bruno Munari. However, it’s also networked, for it has a wireless IoT device attached to its structure, an Internet-enabled element called the “Social Media Fan.”

This digitized, battery-driven fan briefly blows a gust of air whenever Nelly Ben Hayoun is noticed on Twitter. So the mobile sculpture operates as an ambient-computing indicator of Nelly’s social-media fame. “Tribute to Nelly Ben Hayoun” is a mobile designed to move, not with the wind, but with the public’s tributes, the fitful breezes of a designer’s fame.

That artful description sounds rather better than the art-machine itself actually performs. If the Nelly Ben Hayoun mobile has a virtue, it’s that it is approachable. Its physical structure is lucid and simple. Probably a ten-year-old kid could build one, if he took a programming class.

To create this work, I began by exclusively using only the hand-tools contained in the Artmaker Bag. I spent a lot of interesting time hand-messing with plexiglass. Clear plastics are pretty common in device art, and I like the idea of translucency, transparency and refraction in a kinetic mobile. The material substance of “Tribute to Nelly Ben Hayoun” is almost all translucent: it’s plastic and faceted glass junk-crystal.

So, I used the Bag’s tools to experiment with plexiglass, scribing it, snapping it off with pincers, melting it with the soldering iron; basically testing every implement inside the Bag. I was gratified to learn that the tools all work pretty well as conventional hand-tools. However, plexiglass is a nasty medium for hand-tools. It’s fractious, razor-sharp and toxic, easy to scratch and stain, and it smells up the house when you melt it.

I gave up with handwork and had a few panes laser-cut down at the Fablab, just like everybody else does. They’re metrically precise, neat and they look quite lifeless.

With that step achieved, I commenced to hand-twist a lot of mobile wire with the Bag’s electrically-insulated pliers. Alexander Calder was a wire artist. Since Calder invented the “mobile” (the handy neologism was contributed by Marcel Duchamp), bravura wire-work is where it’s at in a Calder-style kinetic artwork.

If you watch Calder mobiles performing (and I’m quite the long-term Calder devotee), you can gaze past the cheerful eye-candy of his minimalist organic blob-forms and admire his wire-forms as they scribe out sculptural volumes. Very few acts of human creativity can give me such an artistic frisson. Calder mobiles thrill me to the last degree. I’m hard-put to watch any Calder mobile without pitching right in there to contribute some inertia.

I even surmise that the Calder’s kinetic art is at the core of my interest in all forms of technology art. The “mobile” offers a unifying conceptual framework for schools of tech-art that seem to drift around near-randomly.

A Calder mobile is a designed set of minimalist graphic elements that have been choreographed as a cascade of levers. Calder was an engineer turned sculptor, and he brought an engineer’s mind-set into the sculpture world. Just for once, there was no culture clash: there was a synergy. An aesthetic triumph, even; when Sartre dropped by, even a philosopher was stunned.

The “mobile” is an interactive set of levers that are artfully poised, literally hand-balanced, between the rigidity of a too-tight coupling and the herky-jerky chaos of too-loose coupling. So, when mobiles are properly crafted, they behave emergently. Their elements interacting in a mathematico-physical systemic sweet-spot that the eye aesthetically perceives as alive, attractive, beautiful.

The invention of the mobile marks the time and space where Calder escaped being an American engineer who made clever wire toys to amuse his Paris art friends, and became a world-scale fine artist.

This moment seems to me to be the twentieth-century starting-gun for much of the art I enjoy. Calder, an engineer, proved that sculpture can be mobile. The implication is that art can behave. Because: if you can choreograph, then you can script. If you can script, then you can write algorithms. If you can write algorithms, you can create operating systems. If you have systems, you can have networks and platforms. With platforms, you can socialize. In summary, you can create machinery with relational aesthetics.

The “Tribute to Nelly Ben Hayoun” is a Calder mobile enhanced with relational aesthetics. The more famous Nelly is, the more active the device becomes. If the world is making a big fuss about Nelly, then Nelly’s machine makes a decorative algorithmic simulation of that fuss.

At this point, it would be logical for me to stop dead and insert a lot of open-source technical to-do about the electronic and digital aspects of the sculpture. I won’t do that, at least not here and now. The intention, the conceptual art, is the central issue: fame moves a mobile. Technical methods are certainly needed to achieve that desired result, but as the artist, I would class them as arbitrary.

The artwork is a mobile sculpture, but the source of its motion is not rigidly required to be the Twitter social media service. Twitter is a troubled business, and like many similar enterprises it may not last long.

The artwork happens to use a wi-fi connection, but there are many other possible wireless protocols that could provoke mechanical responses from actuator boards.

The particular use of the “If This Then That” notification service as a trigger is no big deal, artistically.

The little fan is a scavenged computer-cooling fan. Any other lightweight, low-power fan would do about as well. And so on.

I state all this, not because I want to falsely separate the “artwork” from its “technology,” but because I want to separate the artwork from the realities of rapid obsolescence of particular components. If you rashly specify some particular set of electronic components and attach that to a living artwork, you give it an implicit death-sentence. Far better to understand and use the Jon Ippolito digital-preservation method, and make it publicly clear, as a matter of artistic intent, that the art resides in the behavior, in the artist-viewer interaction, in the processuality, in the relational aesthetic, and never in particular, off-the-shelf, short-lived, commercial components.

One should not be artistically prejudiced against electronics because of the complex and temporary material qualities of today’s electronic industries. All physical materials, electronic, digital or not, are subject to entropy.

There are electronics in the structure of the “Tribute to Nelly Ben Hayoun,” but the work is also composed of hand-cut disks of colored paper, hand-twisted industrial steel wire, laser-cut plexiglass and some scavenged glass chunks retrieved from antique Turinese chandeliers.

The scavenged glass will potentially last for millennia. The electronics are very unstable. The laser-printed colored paper will also fade quickly. The plexiglass will discolor and warp. The steel wire will corrode.

Alexander Calder’s mobiles also corrode. Steel wires are conductive. Calder mobiles are arcs of steel wire that move through modernity’s many ambient electromagnetic fields. Calder’s wires are iron antennae that are exposed to temperature flux and dust. The kinetic power of moving air, which mobilizes a mobile, and also distributes many tiny piezoelectric charges among the mobile’s many components. So a mobile corrodes in a complicated, emergent, even gothically beautiful way. But it is a physically material work of craft. It does decay.

The life of tech-art as art is a matter of degree, of a fluid social expectation, of what’s temporarily defined as art or defined, for a while, as tech.

The “Tribute to Nelly Ben Hayoun” has some graphic elements that are also tributes to the creativity of Nelly Ben Hayoun. Being printed on humble laser-paper and enclosed in bolted panes of plexiglass, these bright colored images may not seem very “technical.” But they’re all Internet search-engine results that are outputs of a commoditized laser printer. Search engine results vary every day. Laser-printers are throwaway office gear. The mobile is designed so that the paper tribute images can be replaced.

One could argue at this point that what really conveys the Walter Benjamin “aura” of art is the personal touch of the artist. The Share Festival Artmaker Bag has a lot of hand-tools in it. Most of them are hand-powered; they’re very tactile and hands-on.

I don’t believe that handicraft is a fruitful approach for tech-art. The “Tribute to Nelly Ben Hayoun” does have some elements that I created with my hands. I hand-twisted the wires that support the glass weights. I used a Opinel craft knife to cut the paper images. But since I knew that some components were arbitrary and would need replacement, I decided to construct the whole mobile around that basic understanding.

“Tribute to Nelly Ben Hayoun” is easy to assemble and easy to repair. It’s very plug-and-play. Because of that simplicity, it is also somewhat crude and ungainly, and for those of us enthralled with paint-by-numbers, snap-to-fit DIY Maker products, that is a major aesthetic problem.

Why is the art favored by Share Festival in its particularly numinous position? It’s certainly not “new,” for it’s older than I am. Yet it’s always, somehow, fringe activity.

I don’t claim that it’s treated unfairly by critics or audiences. Demanding respectability for art made by hardware and software is like “demanding respectability” for science fiction. I’m a science fiction writer, but I would never make any such demands. Science fiction is written on the edge of literature and places itself there deliberately, for the sake of its small and fiercely committed fan demographic.

Science fiction could never becomes respectable on standard literary terms; it only became respectable when the ground-truth of culture had shifted so much that there wasn’t much else left. Science fiction has achieved mass acceptance in contemporary society, but “Star Wars” as a national holiday feels rather tedious to me. I quite like science fiction, but I can see that its structures of participation, its relational aesthetics, have changed in my lifetime. As an arena for an avant-garde intervention, it’s become a different place that it was when I was a science-fiction avant-gardiste.

Why does tech-art even exist? It gets great foot-traffic — the 21st-century art-consumer crowd loves artsy gadgets, they’re popular from age seven to ninety-seven. So why isn’t there much more of it? Device art can’t do everything, I know that; it’s not as ductile and universal as theater. However, it’s not cake-decoration, either. And in Torino, even the cake decoration is quite top-end; there’s a store-front full of it on every block.

What’s still missing, I think, is a social innovation; an implicit set of agreements among the various cultural stakeholders that tech-art has achieved the right kind of acceptable cachet. That it’s contemporary art; that we speak to one another with it; that it’s become an okay thing to do.

It’s not that this can be culturally engineered, exactly — it’s not like a Madison Avenue blitzkrieg of Interstate billboards would have ever helped Alexander Calder. Still, it feels like we’re at the brink of some realization that could turn wry, subversive, Burning Man tech-gadgetry and global-alternativism into some actual, pragmatic means for enhancing our civilization. There’s a lot of breathing room in tech-art, if you don’t inhale the laser-cutter fumes. It might become an art with temporary components yet a lasting consequence.

It’s probably the stark fact that it’s hard to sell that keeps tech-art alive in today’s culturally-repressive conditions. If these art-machines could be mass-produced, they’d be immediately productized and commoditized; they’d become special FX, gaming, and apps. But they’re not simple machines or products: they don’t have users, they have audiences; they are relationships, they are processes. They’re akin to performance art, interventions or even street-puppets and protest songs.

Since they won’t be going away — on the contrary — something will happen in this cultural space, tomorrow, or the day after. If Arte Povera could be recuperated, if junk-artist Jean Tinguely could become the lasting pride of Basel, we’re probably not that far away from some contemporary Europeanized device-art haute-culture. That milieu could exist. It makes sense. I’ve seen respectability and mass acceptance engulfing stranger things.

If this art-form wasn’t so controlled that it was stifled, and if it weren’t so loose that it was chaotic, then it likely could be choreographed, somehow. It could be nurtured, improved, curated; it would feel elegant, it would look lively. In a society so gadget-saturated, it might even offer some form of sincere self-revelation, that seems so lacking now in most everything else we do.

one of the better-known Bruce Sterlings

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