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Technology as a gift

I’m sitting in a small room in Yamaguchi, a beautiful, bucolic town in the deep mountains of Japan right now. I’m about to start facilitating and teaching in School for Poetic Computation’s week-long immersive with 20 students from Japan and around the world. SFPC Summer 2019 in Yamaguchi program details and curriculum. The peace I feel in this town is at odds with what I read on the news about the region. I’ve been in conversation with my Japanese collaborators about the escalating political disputes between Japan and Korea, Aichi Triennale and protests in Hong Kong. Inspired by our conversation, I wrote a letter to the students, which I will read during the opening ceremony.

Blank Project 3 Cosmo by Soichiro Mihara

Dear students. You’ve come a long way to meet us. Some of you came from Tokyo, Doha, Seoul, Bangkok, Melbourne, Switzerland and more. Thank you for your effort and for taking the time to come to this town. I want to thank our host institution YCAM and individuals involved in the production. A very big thanks to their generosity, trust, and love for having us here. I want to acknowledge the land we are sitting on and the political sensitivities between Japan and neighboring countries at the moment. Some of you may follow it closely, and others may be new to it. I won’t go into details about the disputes.

I want to focus on the ‘cultural rights’ approach of taking accountability on our rights as cultural producers in an international community. You can read about the concept of cultural rights from the Report of the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights for the UN Human Rights Council. Inspired by the field of cultural and artistic diplomacy, I consider myself a cultural ambassador, representing the School for Poetic Computation, the United States, South Korea, and other communities I’m involved with. I want to be clear about my diplomatic mission to build solidarity between international communities.

I think art and cultural exchange is the best way to create a community across the borders. I am going to suggest to you, our students and staff, to consider our work as a gift for ourselves to better understand reality and build something better together. The biggest gift I can offer you is my friendship. The biggest gift you can offer someone is your friendship. I suggest you consider yourself as a cultural ambassador whose mission is to:

  • Ask questions to each other
  • Learn and share openly, generously
  • Recognize the transformation within and around you
  • Build a community of practitioners
  • Consider technology as a gift

I believe art can achieve what politics and science can’t achieve on their own. Art has the transformative capacity to redefine our understanding of reality. In this week-long intensive workshop, we will focus on the theme of ‘Technology as a gift.’ Let’s uncover the abstract idea of technology and consider the concrete task to take action. Let’s begin by returning to our humble self, honest to each other, be aware of the context shift of being in a new and an international environment. Let go of our ego and insecurity and gear up our humility and agency. Read more on our Code of Conduct for the session.

You may or may not consider yourself as an artist. By participating in the School for Poetic Computation’s program, we consider you as an artist. As a single person, you should not burden yourself with the expectation of making direct social change with your art. However, you can imagine a different kind of reality, create it, and live in it with others. We will ask you “What is the gift you have for the world?” Our (organizers and teachers) gift for you is the time and people we brought together for the next week. The reality we want to live is not devoid of politics. Instead, it’s a place where art, poetry, creativity and technology are shared via cultural exchange. You, as a cultural ambassador of your community, will create a gift for each other in our world of radical generosity. Poetic computation is the approach we take to create that world.

Blank Project 3 Cosmo by Soichiro Mihara. Installation view at SeMA Biennale Mediacity Seoul 2016, Image courtesy of Seoul Museum of Art

What is an example of a poetic approach to computation? Soichiro Mihara’s work Blank Project #3 Cosmo consists of moss balls that roll around. He created a mechanical device that sifts weight, causing the ball to make a movement as if it’s alive. The moss ball sings Japanese national anthem, a song that praises the emperor to live a long time like a moss. Moss, like any other natural elements, generate a very small power. In the project, Soichiro created an alternate reality where the moss generates enough power to roll around. He made the project after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, one of the most tragic accidents of technologically-driven society, which left many Japanese people untrusting of the government and news media. With the project, he’s inviting the audience to see the world from the moss’ point of view. It’s as if the moss ball asks human being “How silly is it for the human desire to live as old as us(the moss)? How futile attempts to generate so much energy, risking the foundational understanding of nature, resilience, and regeneration?” The Blank Project #3 Cosmo is an example of poetic computation, not because of the code that runs on microcontroller inside of the moss ball. It’s a poetic computation by connecting the moss, primitive forms of nature, to nationhood, to the larger environment and the meaning of energy and power.

I first met Soichiro more than ten years ago, collaborated on a class in Uncertainty School at the Mediacity Seoul Biennale in 2016, and I met him again at YCAM a few days ago. It’s interesting to hear about the development of his projects after 2016. He told me about an artist residency he did in the DMZ(Demilitarized Zone between South and North Korea) in 2017. For two months, he lived near the DMZ, made compost from food waste, gleaned from the local residents. At the end of the residency, he gifted the compost to the local community. The project in its material form is a simple natural fertilizer. Soichiro says, [it is] “more as a result and also process of co-working by individuals and also circulation of life.”

Diary of Soil by Soichiro Mihara, Real DMZ Project

“While residing in the Yangjiri Residency from November to December 2017, Mihara Soichiro conducted research on the ecology of the small village bordering the Demilitarized Zone. Works produced during the residency revolved around Soichiro’s focus on the land and nature, creating a compost system using the discarded food waste by the Yangjiri residents, as well as a motorized object which mimics the sounds of birds. Through these devised systems that interact with natural surroundings, Soichiro poetically recalls the daily life in Cheorwon, allowing one to imagine something distant from the heavy history that the area is associated with.” — Real DMZ Project

Soichiro is acutely aware of the political conditions and social significance of the DMZ. It’s the site of political conflict between great powers and war. Instead of responding literally to the politics, he took a poetic approach to the site and community, with regenerative, low-tech poetry, bringing a gift to the site and the people. ‘Technology as a gift’ may be as elegant as a few lines of poems, as an unassuming as a box of compost made of food waste, as imaginative as a moss ball that rolls around.

My understanding of ‘Technology as a gift’ is an invitation to imagine a radically different type of technology from the conventional, Capitalist understanding of technology. Your understanding of ‘Technology as a gift’ is up for you to define. At SFPC, we don’t define concepts for the students. For example, we intentionally do not define ‘poetic computation’ in a single paragraph. We believe in asking questions and opening up conversations. Therefore, we ask every student to define their poetic computation. In the same light, we will not define ‘Technology as a gift’ for you. We believe your interpretation of it will be far more interesting and valuable. Please join me and fellow teachers and organizers in imagining, building and living a world of radical generosity and care.

Yamaguchi. 9/3/2019

Image shared with permission of the artist



School for poetic computation

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Taeyoon Choi

immigrant. art. tech. learning. accessibility. inclusion. Co-founder @sfpc. fellow @datasociety. artist http://taeyoonchoi.com