How would the world look like without the Internet?
How would life be without our favorite sources of informations, like Google, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat? These questions are bewildering; and the answers are even more unsettling.
It is fair to say that technology (in its most recent “digital” manifestations) has shaped and is shaping the XXI century.
The new generations of kids handle tasks like using smartphones or controllers without the slightest effort. Our bills are delivered straight to our tablets, our letters are now emails, our parents and beloved from far far away have never been more close with FaceTime and Skype.
We learn, share and increase knowledge with Google, Wikipedia and Youtube. We scream and shout our opinions on Facebook and on our personal blogs. We allow strangers to peak into our lives with Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. We store our family pictures, recipes, stories, notes, documents, passwords and secrets in something that we aren’t even allowed to see, the Cloud.
We trust and rely on a System that we worship as an everlasting and perfect source.
But what if this Golden Calf, brought to life with centuries of human knowledge and intelligence, is grounded to powder and stops to exists from dusk till dawn?
There was a moment in our history in which this eventuality was considered possibile: we are talking about the Millennium Bug. In the night between December, 31st and January, 1st of the new Century, for just a couple of briefs seconds technology had the chance to disappear forever. But, instead, it got up stronger than ever and changed our lives forever, and not always for the best.
Ask to Charlie Brooker and his writers of the BBC/Netflix serial “Black Mirror” what they think about the future. Whatever is our position in the conversation, only one thing is clear: if technology would disappear tomorrow, we would come back to the Stone Age immediatly.
And Aram Bartholl thought to take this sentence literaly.
Mr Bartholl is a conceptual artist from Berlin, and he is known for his cutting edge works, in which he usually examines the relationships between the digital and the physical world.
In 2015 he decided to imagine a dystopian future in which this thematics are the fuel for survival, and from this reasonings he created an installation called KeepAlive.
The title itself welcomes us in his distorted, cyber-punkish vision: a KeepAlive message (usually shorten as KA) is a computer networking message sent by one device to the other to check that both are “alive” and operating. It is usually sent at predefined intervals, like an S.O.S message. Just that alone is a very evocative and strong statement.
The KeepAlive installation is a 1.5 ton boulder that contains a thermoelectric generator which converts heat directly into electricity. Visitors are invited to make a fire next to the boulder. It will power up the wifi router hidden in the stone, which then will reveal a large collection of PDF survival guides. The rock is not connected to the Internet and offers the possibility to the users to download and upload any content they like to the stone database for as long as the fire produces enough heat and only if the users stay close to the signal. There’s life only if the fire is lit. There’s sharing of information only if you stay close. Like in the stone age.
But this time it’s the stone age of technology.
KeepAlive was realized in the context of the research project “Art and Civic Media”, as part of the Innovation Incubator Lüneburg, a large EU project funded by the European Fund for Regional Development and the German State of Lower Saxony. It was commissioned by Center for Digital Cultures of Leuphana University Lüneburg and was curated by Andeas Broeckmann of the Leuphana Arts Program. Its inauguration was held on August, 30th 2015.
From the outside KeepAlive looks like a regular rock of 100 x 110 x 90 cm. There’s only one elements that, if noticed, marks it as art: a little iron plaque.
As a matter of fact the boulder contains more of what it shows: it contains wires, usb connections, a pdf database, a router and a thermoelectric generator that turns the heat of the fire into electricity.
The author stated that for the router he drawn inspiration from the piratebox.cc system, which is a little portable device that consists of a wi-fi router and a device for storing informations. By definition this system is disconnected from the internet: this is what intrigued Mr. Bartholl the most.
During an interview with the press, he also marked as inspiration some pictures he saw of people selling and trading BioLite stoves during hurricane Sandy. A BioLite stove is a camp gear that (according to their website) can cook meal and charge electric devices, using a thermoelectric generator. “It was a bizarre and funny situation — the power goes out, and people would buy these little stoves and make a fire to charge their phone”.
But the real strength of this project is in its position.
KeepAlive could have been showcased in museums all around Europe and still have a catchy and undeniable charm for the viewers, but, by Design of Aram Bartholl himself, the boulder lies in a forest next to a small creek, on the grounds of the Springhornhof, a museum of site-specific outdoor sculpture. There are no signs that guide you to the “exhibition” and there are no indications, helps or informations of any sort. You might just stumble on the rock and figure out how it works. There’s a library waiting, hidden in a stone in the forest.
Solo survival at its peaks. “It’s not about easy access,” said Bartholl “It has a whole dystopian idea to it. Will we need something like this in the future? Or somebody finding this in a hundred years — is it still working and they figure something out and they make a fire, or is there going to be a moment where we’re going to need to make fire again to get access to the data?”.This last question is the heart of the whole experience. To access digital information you have to light up a fire.
Information it’s not available everywhere at every moment, but just there and in that moment. There’s a deep “fireplace” concept behind it, that gains its root from the social leitmotivs of sharing space and time with others; something that in some way is slowly disappearing, because of technology.
And speaking about social leitmotivs, Aram Bartholl doesn’t make any good-bad statements about his vision, and avoid by purpose to define his work as an answer to the web-pocalipse he pictures. But there are some hints in KeepAlive that makes us think that there’s more behind the fight for survival and the dystopian perception of our world. There’s social criticism. Most of the survival guides stored in the database are, like in a dark joke, completely useless.
“Single Woman’s Sassy Survival Guide”, “Boy Basics 101: A Survival Guide for Parenting Male Tweens”, “Instagram Identity Guide”, “Christian songwriter survival guide”, these are some of the titles.
There’s a double message behind: a punishment for our data-hungry society, that is revolving around junk informations all the time; and a critique about the over-usage, often out of turn, of the word “survival”.
At the present time the keywords “survival + guide” on Google have 351,000,000 answers. Half of them are completely useless in case of a real apocalypse.
During the creation of the experience, fire was and has ever been a central element, while being also the most problematic one. “All the options without fire make this piece kind of useless. It needs fire. That’s the whole point.” This forced the museum to implement a whole hazard-prevention system, and visitors that want to see the installation (which is permanent) need to schedule an appointment with the landowner and ask for permission. But even by killing this part of the experience KeepAlive relies on interaction no matter what. The whole mechanics of it still depends on being able to start a fire: a survival skill that may ultimately endure as the most important of them all, and that, in history, defined human race.
Art critic Domenico Quaranta defined Keep Alive as “a work of art and a tool for social change: a piece of matter that works mostly on a symbolic level, but that’s also potentially useful […] a message in a bottle, dropped into the sea and waiting to get into the hands of the unknown somebody who knows what to do with its content”.
This installation shares different thematics with the others work from Mr. Bartholl. The most notable one is “Dead Drops” (2010), which is a an offline peer-to-peer file-sharing network placed in five public locations in New York: the sharing of file happens via USB sticks cemented into walls.
But KeepAlive enters also the pantheon of the installations in which experiences and art are accompanied by a strong sense of storytelling. In 2017 Damien Hirst made the same attempt with his exposition “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable”, which tells the story of the wreck of a vast ship, the ‘Unbelievable’ and presents what was discovered of its precious cargo: the impressive collection of Aulus Calidius Amotan — a freed slave better known as Cif Amotan II. Every Treasure was, of course, fake and the backstory and sense of mystery was so well orchestrated that probably they are the reasons why the exhibition was a success.
Finally, KeepAlive receives most of its charme from the almost-casual encountering of the artwork, raising questions in the viewers like “for how long has this been there?”, “who made it?”, “how does it work?” and “why there? Why now?”.
Probably Ed Ruscha wanted to raise the same feelings and questions when he shared with the world the existence of his artwork “Rocky II”. At the end of the 1970s he created a vast fake rock out of fibreglass, covered it in the dust of real desert rocks so that it would precisely resemble them and then drove it out into the Mojave desert and placed it, perfectly disguised, in a secret location. No one ever discovered the exact location of that artwork and in 2016 this story even inspired a documentary called “Where is Rocky II?” that has been screened at the Tate Museum.
So, how would the world look like without the Internet?
What is the real heritage of the Digital culture? Is it going to be a real heritage or is it predestined to disappear and leave no trace like the sand in the desert? Are we ready to face the apocalypse? The fear of the time passing by, and the fear of the end are something that we have and will continue to have. We will continue to imagine and dream about the apocalypse, and about what is next. We will share our worries, fears, maybe also hopes.
KeepAlive doesn’t answers any of this thoughts, but moves hundred of questions with the most steady and motionless element of Nature: a stone. The encounter with this installation opens the door of a future that is dystopic, strange, Mad Max-like; but on the other side we know that this future can be not that far away, and this is what fascinates us the most.
“Presented as an artwork and preserved as such, KeepAlive may once turn useful and even essential to survive, as the only remaining access point to basic information. What is now mostly a mind meme and a social game may, in a dystopic scenario, can turn into a fundamental infrastructure for data exchange” says, again, Domenico Quaranta.
KeepAlive is a message in a bottle of a future that, even if it’s unlikely, it’s not impossibile.