Shu Lea Cheang: Composting the Net
Published on May 12th, 2012
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...Speaking of waste and e-trash, I‘ve been dealing with these subjects in various art projects for some time now. In FRESH KILL (1994, feature length film), I plotted a sci-fi scenario of a vicious/delicious revenge with contaminated fish lips feeding on industrial waste dumps in developing countries; in UKI (2009–12, viral performance/viral game), used up replicants are dumped as e-trash; in Baby Work (2012, performative installation), junked keyboards are rewired to trigger human Memory and Emotion (ME) data. We humans are unable to deal with the trash we generate. While the drive for green architectures – smart cities that promise better living – continues apace, we are tucking/trucking away our e-waste to developing countries where child labourers are put to work turning over piles of toxic waste to earn a few cents on any ‘resalable’ bits and pieces they find...
part of NetArtWorks: Online Archives
AD: What is your interest in (online) archives and how does Composting the Net relate to it?
SLC: As a network artist, I’m part of the online list communities, including IDC (List of the Institute for Distributed Creativity), Spectre (list for media art and culture in Europe), nettime (lists for networked cultures, politics, and tactics), empyre (soft_skinned_space). These lists contain years/tons/bytes/pixels of collective contributions and knowledge-sharing data, threaded by date, author and/or subject. These open archives of announcements or ongoing debates are both ephemeral and substantive. They are the legacy of our networked culture with its accumulated data debris that is to be re(dis)covered in the future by net archaeologists or post-net bomb-defusers.
AD: Yet, you are, poetically, composting them.
SLC: In the past, several net artworks dealt with the issue of data and trash. For example Arthur Kroker & Michael A. Weinstein’s 1994 publication DATA TRASH – The Theory of the Virtual Class, and Mark Napier’s project digital landfill (1998), both of which anticipated an exploded digital superhighway littered with road kill or spam takeover. Composting the Net proposes a more positive or hopeful version of toppled landfill. I don’t ‘bury’ the ‘lists archives’ – I scramble the texts, turn over the leaves, trusting that there are some references or relevance to my (our) own digital existence. Human compost consists of the ‘readable’, ‘traceable’ remnants of our daily consumption. When composted, the net generates fresh sprouts that crack through the compost-enriched soil.
AD: The first times I showed people Composting the Net, some were shocked, or at least scared when they saw all the sentences disintegrate into letters that tumbled down the screen and dissolve into what at first seems nothing, until, of course, the letters start sprouting. On the one hand the project addresses people’s fear of losing their digital content, while at the same time the fertilization produces something beautiful. This play between the obsolescence of the digital, and the strength, or power, of nature to resurrect is a very powerful metaphor. It can be read as if you’re exemplifying the all-powerful elements of nature and pleading for a return to it. In a similar way there is a link to e-waste, and its devastating impact on nature, which, as far as I know, hasn’t produced anything ‘natural’. Nevertheless, you portray it as something that could potentially (re)produce something else. Is this tension something you want to highlight as well? And what is your main interest or concern?
SLC: Speaking of waste and e-trash, I‘ve been dealing with these subjects in various art projects for some time now. In FRESH KILL (1994, feature length film), I plotted a sci-fi scenario of a vicious/delicious revenge with contaminated fish lips feeding on industrial waste dumps in developing countries; in UKI (2009–12, viral performance/viral game), used up replicants are dumped as e-trash; in Baby Work (2012, performative installation), junked keyboards are rewired to trigger human Memory and Emotion (ME) data. We humans are unable to deal with the trash we generate. While the drive for green architectures – smart cities that promise better living – continues apace, we are tucking/trucking away our e-waste to developing countries where child labourers are put to work turning over piles of toxic waste to earn a few cents on any ‘resalable’ bits and pieces they find. Eco-cities are being proclaimed, but we seldom see the inhabitants using composting bins. I became aware of composting while working at rural farms. There is a natural cycle of food processing – raise a few pigs, feed the earthworms, enrich the soil, the seasonal cycle.
So, instead of ‘recycle’, I propose that we observe the cycles of nature, which are durational, generative and repetitive. A cycle is a natural process, while ‘recycle’ implies ‘the making of something else’, which inevitably generates more waste. Words dropping to earth are as natural as leaves falling off trees. Ultimately, I want Composting the Net to highlight issues about archiving and digital preservation. Take my earlier work, BRANDON (1998–99), for example, which was commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum, New York, and realised in collaboration with the Waag Society, Amsterdam: As part of the Guggenheim’s permanent collection, the work was taken offline several times due to server management issues. Preserving and updating net artworks are still unresolved for most net artists.
AD: So what will the sprouts produce? Or, in more practical terms, how do you deal with your own work in that sense?
SLC: The sprouts emphasise our collective hope of survival, of living, of strength. I’ve been producing a lot of net-based works, most of which are commissioned works realised with Institutional support. But most institutions do not have the capacities to maintain the websites. At present, I’m using fourteen domains, most of which are housed by my long-time German programmer/collaborator, Roger Sonnert, at his own company. I have no idea what will become of them….
AD: In an interview with Rhizome you mentioned that Guggenheim is restoring BRANDON, what is the status and what does restoration mean, what needs to be done?
SLC: Many people still use it or refer to it, for example in education. The Guggenheim took the site offline in 2005 when they changed the server, this meant that there would be quite a bit of reconfiguration, certain Java applets are also outdated and in some cases the real audio streaming won’t work anymore. Not long ago I had a skype meeting with the someone from the Guggenheim collection and an IT person to walk them through the side because they are new and didn’t know the work, but there is a great interest in restoring the site.
AD: There seems to be an abundance of projects around recycling that are mostly related to food issues, inside cities as well as outside. Most urban food programmes concentrate on food production and consumption itself, and interesting links can also be made to the digital realm. What is the relation to Composting the Net, how do you see the overlap between the city and the net… in its human relations, infrastructure and emotional layers?
SLC: I have another proposal, Composting the City, which parallels Composting the Net in its development. I realised that food composting/fermentation is similar to digital deterioration. Inside the composters, worms consume and process the food waste, generating heat and electricity that can be read and rendered as electronic noise. Our daily consumption in the city and on the net guides our navigation through the merged actual/virtual zones, the cybernetic organism expanded and exploded. While Composting the City deals with excessive leftovers, Composting the Net sources the immaterial wealth/junk of net data. The food scraps thrown onto a compost heap are layered and remixed until all traces/identities are erased. On the net, the abundance of information sinks into a ‘reservoir’, a heart of darkness.
AD: In addition to your work at rural farms, in a previous interview with Matthew Fuller for MUTE you talked about your collaboration with the initiative Refarm the City in Barcelona and said that you were thinking of some urban composting experiments. Could you tell me a bit more about these experiments, or how your strategy differs from the urban composting strategies already in place?
SLC: I’m a member of Refarm the City in Paris. I also started Green Rush, an initiative that reviews the green ‘business’. These are the platforms I use to explore urban farming issues. This May, we (Refarm and Green Rush) had a TAQ#8 (Technologies au Quotidien) artists’ residency at Gaite Lyrique in Paris. The residency, ‘La Graine & Le Compost’ (‘The Seed and Compost’), explored issues relating to seeds, compost, growth, decay and regeneration. While we adopted/adapted many existing composting methods, we mainly focused on urban food/composting system – the cycle/loop of green growth that is connected to urban social networks and food waste distribution mechanisms. Compost can be implemented on a personal/community level, working in tandem with urban garden/urban farm development. I’ve been surveying food waste composting system in several major cities such as Berlin, London and Paris. The composting bin design and its collection are still somewhat problematic. Bins get trucked away and the contents are processed and sold as soil packages. Urbanities miss out on the ‘degeneration’ and ‘regeneration’ processes, which need to be more transparent and accessible. During the Gaite Lyrique residency, we worked with three trash bins donated by the city of Paris. We remodelled these bins into composting bins with ventilated trash bags and a spout that allowed the liquid generated by composting to be siphoned off as fertilizer. We collected vegetable scraps/leftovers from three local restaurants and a bio shop each day, and organised social gatherings where vegetable scraps were traded for seeds. We presented a final performance with Martin Howse (Berlin) who sonified the worm action, read by sensors, into electro noise.
AD: This paradox or tension between the natural and virtual, or unnatural, is also clearly present in your other works. Here you often take the stance of the unnatural. What attracts you to what is often referred to as the absurd, the abject, the trash?
SLC: Hmm… I don’t consider my subject matters unnatural, but queer, yes. I often apply science fiction narratives to sort out the dramas of real life. Take some examples of my other works – FLUID – which started out as my own struggle with the AIDS crisis and developed into a sci-fi/porn scenario complicated by government/corporate conspiracy themes (still to be realised as a feature film, but exhibited at several locations as an installation/performance since 2000); UKI (2009–12), the sequel to I.K.U., a viral performance and game, about trashing redundant sex replicants while referring to a parallel development of bodily and software viruses and condemning a bionet that takes the human body hostage. Many of my works derive from a ‘topical’ interest, but are developed through ‘natural’ processing.
AD: The other side of addressing issues of the rejected is that your work is frequently censored. This is partly because your works rely on process and input from others, which cannot always be predicted, of course. How do you deal with this? In what way does it affect the processes that are inherent to your projects if elements in them are censored?
SLC: Yes. Let me refer to my first cybernetic art work, Bowling Alley (1995, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis), a collaboration with ten local artists. I asked them to input texts for web bowling (recombinant texts). The auto-mechanism of scrambling the texts is programmed such that is not supposed to be interfered with by human review. During the production of this work at the museum, I was asked to present all the texts, which not ‘unnaturally’ contained certain swear words uploaded by the artists. The museum asked me to remove these words, but I refused. The FLUID project uses the casting audition as a performance and conducts collective improv performances that are based on its sci-fi scenario. It was shut down in a few cities (Kristiansand [Norway], Berlin, Montreal) because of its unpredictable nature as a collaborative/processing work. Moving Forest, which will be presented in London in June/July 2012, is another example of a collective processing work. These types of collaborations are limited by the available budgets. Unlike leading a theatre troupe, I don’t have the space/money/time to work through a scenario with the performers/players. I enjoy the condition of situating selected players in a plot and allowing them to grow/develop their own script (action/notes/dialogue). It’s very organic, parameters can be set, but the value varies.
AD: Another element in your work is the focus on the future, residing in dark sci-fi traditions. Do you do this to make the current reality more bearable? Or do you see it as a warning?
SLC: We have lived the future. I don’t subscribe to the idea that the future has descended upon us. Real life is full of complexity. Sci-fi narratives allow me to ‘thread’ issues and emotions generated by human complexity.
AD: How does Composting the Net fit into such a scenario? Could degraded e-waste be used as a new currency for life?
SLC: I’m trying to get away from trading with any sort of currency. I used garlic as a currency a la Tulipomania in another work, agliomanic.com. After all, like the sprouting ‘green’ business, e-waste is also a multi-million dollar business. Composting the Net makes reference to digital commons but also questions the ownership of net data. While the lists archives are dutifully/openly maintained, the social network corporate giants swallow up our commons data, proclaiming it their property. How do we manage these conditions?
AD: What are your plans for the future of Composting the Net, how will it evolve and grow?
SLC: While most lists archives are ‘public domain’, I do want to connect with more lists and have their endorsement for composting their archives. With reSource (curated by Tatiana Bazzichelli), there are plans to launch Composting the City/Composting the Net in Berlin this August, eventually rendering the earth-eating worms and the scattered words as a performative installation at Transmediale2013.
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