We’re IMPROVING REALITY with Honor Harger

18 Aug

On September 5, Reality gets Improved in a day-long conference organised by Lighthouse, an arts agency in South East England that supports, commissions and showcases new work by artists and filmmakers.

Now in its third year, the conference explores how artists and designers are shifting our perceptions of the world. Keller Easterling, artist and synthetic biologist Daisy Ginsberg, and futurist Justin Pickard head the bill.

Arc is Improving Reality’s media partner and will be covering the event in real-time. The day’s already sold out, BUT we have five tickets to give away as prizes. Just email arc@arcfinity.org with a tweet-length (140-character) response to the following question:

“Which bit of your day-to-day reality needs improving today, and what imaginary machine would accomplish this?”

Tickets will go to the five best replies we’ve received by the time we get into work on Tuesday 27 August.

Over the next couple of weeks we’ll be running guest blogposts from some of the speakers. But to kick things off, Arc’s editor Simon Ings asked Lighthouse’s director Honor Harger, the New Zealand-born curator and artist, why she wanders about with her head in the Cloud.


Photo: Ivo Näpflin / liftconferencephotos

ARC     Before we talk about the conference, or Lighthouse, I want to know how you got started.

HH     I guess my interest in ephemeral networks and the data space of the air comes from a lifelong interest in radio. My first job was working in a radio station, Radio One in Dunedin in New Zealand. One of its strengths was programming experimental sound and experimental music. So this interconnection between sound art and radio has been there for me from the beginning, along with the realisation, which you learn when you start out, that radio is an entirely natural phenomenon: the radio waves that we harness here on earth to use for communication are effectively caused by the activity of the sun, Radio is part of physics, part of science, part of the natural world. Yet it’s also inherently connected to the development of modern human civilisation. It’s very hard to imagine our world now without radio technologies. They underpin everything from communication to navigation; we literally wouldn’t have the civilisation that we understand today without them. And everything that we speak about now when we talk about data infrastructures and the Cloud – all of these types of metaphors and technologies – they all began in the nineteenth century with development of telegraphy.

ARC     The conference has a very specific angle on this, though. It’s about how media infrastructures create our reality. How did that come about?

HH     We conceived Improving Reality for the very first Brighton Digital Festival that Lighthouse was involved in, back in 2011. It was intended as a companion event to dConstruct, which is one of the country’s key events for discussing the future of digital design in the UK. It regularly brings to Brighton around a thousand people from around the world. What we wanted from our event was to show how artists are part of this conversation, and how they can act as catalysts and imagineers, helping us think about how science and technology affect our experience of reality.

The artistic practice of one of the keynote speakers that year, an artist called Julian Oliver, was pivotal. For some time he’d been dealing with augmented reality and the ethics of augmented reality, and he’d developed a project which quite playfully and quite critically claimed that, rather than augmenting reality, we should be improving upon reality. His project, The Artvertiser, used a headset to edit out the advertising from public spaces. Go into Time Square or Piccadilly and you’re confronted by the kinds of billboards used by Coke and Nike. With the headset on, these big advertisements vanish, replaced by art. It wasn’t just an idea. It was a fully operational piece of kit. And through that project he developed this discourse around how we can affect and improve our environments by hacking reality.

ARC     Of course, you could call that sort of “improvement” simply the secession of the privileged. Those with the headsets get the improving pictures, while the rest of us…

HH     Well, that’s the thing. As soon as you start bandying around terms like improvement you’re immediately in political, ethical, social territory. And we’re very deliberately confronting those issues. We certainly don’t want to suggest that an artist’s use of technology can, if you like, uncritically lead to improvements. We’re really trying to dig into people’s perceptions about what technology does in their daily lives and whether it does create improvements, or whether it creates difficulties or obstacles. So we’re very active in surveying that kind of political territory and the conference, as it’s developed over three years that we’ve run it, has deliberately brought in some radical political thinking as well as the more traditional sort of technology and art presentations. And that’s going to be a major thread running through this year.

ARC     So what’s the theme of this year’s conference?

HH     We’ll be looking at political, social and technological infrastructures: the dark matter that underlies our contemporary life. We’re interested in the way that artists, designers and architects are helping make these infrastructures more visible. After all, if we can’t see these structures, then it’s very difficult for us to be able to comprehend them, let alone critique them.

I’m also interested in how artists, designers and writers imagine the future of infrastructure. There’s a kind of a parallel discipline to design fiction emerging, which we can call speculative design. Objects are being made for the specific purpose of creating conversations. Now, can we apply that same type of thinking and come up with something called infrastructure fiction? I want to see if dreaming up fictional infrastructures inspires conversations around what infrastructures should be, who they should be for and how should they be used. What are the political and social issues that attend these massive and invisible systems?

ARC     What inspired this approach?

HH     A couple of things. First, you’ve got the work of the filmmaker and designer Timo Arnall, which we’re showing at Lighthouse at the same time as the conference. Timo’s work is all about making invisible systems visible. GPS, radio frequency ID: these things that pervade our everyday lives but we can’t see them. Timo creates films and objects that make those technological infrastructures visible. And, secondly, one of the keynotes this year is an architect and urbanist called Keller Easterling, who’s a professor of architecture at Yale in New York and has written extensively about both physical architectural infrastructures but also political and social infrastructures and how the two relate. She’s got a book coiming out called Extrastatecraft which looks at the interconnection between physical space and the network. So my hope is that, between these two perspectives – one from design and visibility, the other from politics and sociology, will act as the poles for our conversations this year.

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