Bio-Creation and Peace at the Intersection of Art and Technology

An inspiring series of workshops, panels, installations, round-tables, concerts, and other creative and intellectual exchanges took place at Manizales, Colombia, one week ago, from June 11 to 18. The International Symposium on Electronic Arts (ISEA) and the International Image Festival joined forces to convene an interdisciplinary group of designers, scientists, artists, and humanists from different disciplines and nationalities. Addressing the themes of bio-creation and peace, participants reflected on the contributions that art, design, and technology can provide to social development, pacific coexistence of the communities, and the creation of life.

From installations that allowed the audience to sonify and visualize the wavefunction of an electron of a single hydrogen atom while interacting with a quantum synthesizer, to complex systems that used audience brainwaves signals to co-create a digital painting of various religious imaginaries; From autonomous devices that defied human conventions, to performances that leveraged weather, wetlands and human body data to make sounds and visuals; the symposium offered a wide range of activities across more than 7 different venues distributed across the city.

Although I have heard about the International Symposium on Electronic Arts (ISEA) before I have never participated until this year. Friends of mine have presented in some previous editions of ISEA in Europe Asia, and North America, and told me it was an interesting event that brought together diverse people, ideas, performances, and artifacts at the intersection of arts, science, and humanities. This year I decided to participate motivated by the fact that the symposium was taking place in Manizales, Colombia (first time in South America), and it was focusing around the themes of bio-Creation and peace. Furthermore, the symposium was partnering with the International Image Festival (Festival Internacional de la Imagen), an established Latin American event about digital arts, design, and interactive media organized by the Universidad de Caldas since 1997.

The city of Manizales provided a wonderful location for the symposium that matched well the themes of bio-creation and peace. Located in the Andes central mountain range at 2,160 m (7,090 ft) over the sea, Manizales has an abrupt topography full of hills, steep slopes, and ridgelines. The weather tends to be rainy and mild, with a cloudy sky, and it nurtures a rich variety of plants and threes. From sidewalks to the window frames, to walls, moss and other forms of life keep growing everywhere in the city coloring with green the urban landscape. Manizales is one of the main cities of the Colombian coffee region and its landscape is full of fertile hills intertwined in a complicated patterns. Its urban layout is full of curves and slopes, and all the buildings and houses seem to be built with floors that have angles. As the symposium extended through different parts of the city, attendees were able to experience such complicated topography, sense a rich biodiversity, and discover landscapes that changed with the flow of clouds and fogs in between the hills.

Making Life, Making Media

Life and bio-creation, therefore, were exalted by the city itself and complemented the panels, art installations, workshops, and other activities of the symposium themes. Media making and art creation were understood by artists, researchers, designers, and technologists as life creation through their different interventions. Several art installations leveraged living organisms, sensors, and computers to create systems that generated sounds, visuals, and other forms of outputs. For instance, the piece “Gradual Slip” by American professor David Miller, was a system that formed mini glaciers on the top of thermal electric cooling plates. As time passed, the mini glaciers melted down and the ice dropped off on a tray of dirt and seeds that started to grow into grass. The piece acted as a model of a natural ecosystem, that was emulated with sensors and electricity.

Another installation called “Sopro” (The Blow), by Grupo cAt (ciência/Arte/tecnologia) from Brazil, consisted of an interactive system with water, sensors, cameras, and speakers, that invited the audience to blow a series of propellers that activated different sounds and visuals.

As professor Joanna Zylinska stated during her keynote media and life are intertwined. Media making is an act of bio-creation. As we inhabit mediated environments we are constantly engaged in the making of life with the images, texts, sounds, and data we produce and circulate. Image making, for instance, has become a ubiquitous form of life creation that is not only performed by humans but also by autonomous machines. Satellites, drones, and surveillance cameras actively contribute to the creation of lively media ecosystems. As the world is mediated by the intense fabrication of images by humans and non-humans, it is necessary that we think in ecological and sustainable terms about the kind of media environment where we would like to live. What kind of media ecologies we would like to inhabit? How can we think in ecological ways about the algorithmic culture that surround us? What are the ethics of bio-creation for humans and non-humans?

Muted Arms, Touched Nature

Thinking about image making and life, reminds me of “Muted Arms, Touched Nature” (Armas Mudas, Naturaleza Tocada), a video art piece I made and that was selected for the Media Art section of the symposium. Creating this piece gave me the opportunity of working with archival material I found in YouTube while researching the audiovisual memory of the Colombian conflict some years ago.

Muted Arms, Touched Nature builds on the media memories of the Colombian armed conflict that are produced in the battlefield and are archived on the YouTube platform. Using segments from non-professional digital videos recorded by soldiers at the frontlines, this piece offers a reflection on how the natural landscape has been witnessed from the fighters’ point of view. By editing out all the combat action and leaving only the elements of the natural landscape in Muted Arms, Touched Nature, I intended to bring to the fore the visual imagery of Colombian biodiviersity that has been disrupted and outraged by the armed conflict. The video is a remix of audiovisual memories of war in which the sound of the original materials have been muted and replaced by a lyrical soundtrack from a public domain record of Bach’s Air Suite in №3 in D major. Moreover, the speed of the visuals has been slowed down in order to compensate the shaky camera movements and abrupt panning of the original source videos.

Community Technology Initiatives in Latinamerica

Finally, the ISEA/International Image Festival became a hub for connecting several art and technology initiatives from Colombia and Latin America. I was surprised by the amount of projects that are emerging in rural areas and that foster community building through media creation and co-design processes. Rural Scapes in Brasil, Transmestizx in Equador, and MinkaLab in Colombia revealed the potential that bringing together farmers, indigenous people, artists, and activists can have for connecting rural areas to wider global networks. Likewise, several urban collectives like Gambiologia in Brasil, and ToyLab (Laboratorio del Juguete) en Argentina are fostering spaces for exploring creative, playful, and mestizo/hybrid uses of technology re-purposing old analogue devices, trash, and other recycled materials.

Moreover, the emergence of hacker and maker spaces in cities such as Medellin, Bogota, Sao Paulo, Belo Horizonte, Lima, and Buenos Aires, has enable the articulation of vibrant learning networks that foster innovation and knowledge creation. The case of Medellin is outstanding. With several initiatives such as Platohedro, Un/Loquer, Exploratorio, MAMM, and Hiperbarrio, the city has created an ecosystem of innovation that supports youth and adult civic engagement through art, technology, and science.

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