machine wilderness: water in the desert

janine randerson with te urutahi waikerepuru: isea 2012, albuquerque

 Colleen Ludwig, details of installation Cutaneous Habitat: Shiver, ISEA 2012

Colleen Ludwig, details of installation Cutaneous Habitat: Shiver, ISEA 2012

Colleen Ludwig, details of installation Cutaneous Habitat: Shiver, ISEA 2012


While the ISEA symposium began in 1988 in Utrecht and Groningen with a focus on computer-generated art, such as fractal graphics and emergent ‘net art,’ the artworks and presentations now extend into the diverse forms of ‘post-media’ practice; from fusions of performance and animation to sound walks. The focus of this review is neither the physical computing nor the augmented reality and QR codes [matrix barcodes. Eds] that may represent key typologies within ISEA artworks in 2012. Rather, in the sometimes bewildering density of artworks and parallel conference sessions, the presence and absence of water became a connecting thread for this writer.

te urutahi waikerepuru, new zealand

Te Uratahi Waikerepuru, Pou Hihiri

Te Uratahi Waikerepuru, Pou Hihiri

Te Uratahi Waikerepuru, Pou Hihiri

A Maori art project conveying the importance of wai (water) from Aotearoa/New Zealand to ISEA in New Mexico catalysed this interest on my part. As part of ISEA at 516 Arts (a gallery known for its pursuit of radical environmental and social art projects), Maori artist Te Urutahi Waikerepuru installed the work Pou Hihiri, an electrified totem. The work was part of the collaborative exhibit Te Hunga Wai Tapu curated by Ian Clothier. In a well-attended conference workshop, Te Urutahi and her father, kaumatua (elder) Dr Te Huirangi Waikerepuru spoke on the importance of wai in Maori cosmology.

Water is a key element in the set of relations and flows that bind us to the environment. Te Urutahi’s Pou Hihiri represents the ‘becoming of the universe’ and the rise of the matriarchal principle. The work flickers with potentiality, represented by an array of lights within a wooden pole figure. Hihiri describes the power for change in hydro energy, kinetic energy, molecular energy and lightning. Te Urutahi positions Pou Hihiri as the first in a series of forms that will represent “the birth/physical manifestation of the universal elements of natural lore according to Matauranga Maori concepts.” Maori knowledge and science converge in the concept for the artwork.

While ISEA was taking place, a multi-tribal hui (meeting) in New Zealand overwhelmingly backed a resolution calling on the New Zealand government to halt the sale of Mighty River power company shares. At ISEA, the ‘wai’ water workshop, like the contentious hui in Aotearoa, aimed to produce a framework for recognising Maori proprietary rights and interests and spiritual ties with water. Dr Te Huirangi’s disarming question of how one can ever sell air or water to corporate interests, or interrupt the natural ‘flow’ of water as a complex system, resonated with the international audience.

william wilson, usa

Maori campaigns against continuing colonial attempts to undermine their ‘mana’ or sovereignty over water are echoed in the indigenous struggles in South-West America. Navajo artist William Wilson related how Arizona Senator John McCain advocated the construction of municipal water pipelines in exchange for waiving indigenous rights to water. Vehement opposition by Navajo/Hopi campaigners defeated the bill in February 2012, lending hope to the Maori struggle. Like Pou Hihiri, Wilson’s collaborative artwork eyeDazzler 1 (2012) for ISEA connects ancient cultures to contemporary mythologies about technology by weaving a QR code into a traditional textile pattern.

seoungho cho, korea

Water was represented as both a politically fraught site and a meditative force in several works at the Albuquerque museum. Korean artist Seoungho Cho’s multiple video seascape Horizontal Intuition 14 (2012) momentarily alleviated my island-dweller’s anxiety about the distance from the ocean. A rhythmic abstraction was created by the waves of distant seas, scored with the coloured stripes of computer-generated glitches.

colleen ludwig, usa

Deeper into the museum I found a group of women from Albuquerque delighting in actual trickles of water around a highly plumbed, cabled and programmed structure. Colleen Ludwig’s (USA) interactive piece Cutaneous Habitat: Shiver (2012) was comically mechanical as switches clicked and released water in response to human presence. One woman commented, “maybe if we stand here long enough it will start to rain in Albuquerque.” Decreased rainfall as the climate shifts, the smaller than anticipated size of Albuquerque’s subterranean aquifer and their rising population constantly remind the inhabitants of the value of water. (See video footage here.)

marc böhlen, canada

During the lively ISEA Downtown Block Party participants were offered various combinations of mineral waters, mixed by a computer algorithm, from a mobile water station. Canadian artist Marc Böhlen’s WaterBar (2012) filtered water through mineral rocks from politically charged locations. The filtering rocks included quartz-filled granite from Inada in the Fukushima province, site of the 2011 nuclear meltdown; marble from Thassos, Greece “at the beginning and end of democracy;” and limestone from Jerusalem/Hebron, Israel, “source of eternal conflict and shared hopes.” (See video of WaterBar here)

joana moll, spain & heliodoro santos, mexico

The Rio Grande that separates New Mexico from border states is siphoned for irrigation from Colorado to Texas. During a conference break, I found the shallow, murky river amongst the willows and undergrowth behind a conference building at the National Hispanic Cultural Centre. The live-streamed video work The Texas Border (2011) by Joana Moll and Heliodoro Santos reveals the Rio Grande as a politicised body of water in the context of border crossings by illegal migrants from Mexico. A grid of 15 web cameras streaming live CCTV video documents people wading or boating across the river. The video is sourced from BlueServo, a citizen vigilante website designed to police the border through home webcams run by the Texas Border Sheriff’s coalition. The grainy shapes of those valiantly attempting to cross the river become moving points of light in the low resolution images, reinforcing the precarious existence of the cameras’ targets.

crossing water, becoming someone else

The national borders that cut through cultural-linguistic bonds were the focus of a key panel at the National Hispanic Cultural Centre. Veteran Cuban-American performer Coco Fusco and panelist Vicki Gaubeca, from New Mexico’s Regional Centre for border rights, situated the migrant body as the “ultimate frontier of technological colonisation.” Gaubeca outlined how Operation Streamline has doubled the number of US Border Control agents since 2003. Smart technologies such as cameras, sensors, six unmanned drones and 700 miles of fencing are used to police the border. The privatisation of prisons has resulted in the construction of massive centres for the detention of migrants, described by Gaubeca as a moneymaking venture. Fusco suggested that the US laws affecting migrants create new categories of people who are criminalised. Migrant imprisonment tears families apart, often detaining those with no criminal record. Fusco’s new work is concerned with migration via sea crossings from Cuba. She mused, “the moment when you lose connection with the land, the moment when you migrate, is the moment when you become somebody else.”

teri rueb & larry phan, usa

ISEA events extended beyond Albuquerque to exhibition sites around Santa Fe and Taos. Teri Rueb and Larry Phan’s (USA) location-specific sound walk No Places with Name: A Critical Acoustic Archaeology (2012) at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) was a resonant, multi-sensory experience. Fitted with headphones, we meandered in the desert heat along a trail dotted with cacti and wild flowers, listening to moving interviews from indigenous artists, anthropologists and geographers. One speaker related how a lost boy was found, clothes dry, miraculously transported to the other side of a dividing river. Silences in the audio walk signalled information held sacred and kept from outsiders.

laurie anderson, dirt day!

Without sustaining and valuing water resources all living beings are endangered; a stark fact made apparent by many of the digital artists who brought their work to New Mexico. Near the end of the conference, media artist Laurie Anderson performed her new work Dirt Day! at the Kimo Theatre. The performance spanned eco-politics, inter-species communication and Anderson’s continued fascination with the ways we receive and interpret language. With mesmerising rhetorical charm she mused that technological art has now moved beyond the instant gratification of speed to the attuning of our potential as “meaning-making machines.”

Although many artworks at ISEA 2012 still beeped, chirped or shook in response to human presence, the fairground attraction mode of early electronic art was often supplanted by wonder that could transmute into political reflection. An ecological approach to technology emerges in Machine Wilderness as a means to reveal, as philosopher Félix Guattari (1989) once observed, our immersion socially, psychologically and inevitably in the ‘environment.’

18th International Symposium on Electronic Art, ISEA 2012, Machine Wilderness, Albuquerque, USA, Sept 20, 2012-Jan 6, 2013

RealTime issue #113 Feb-March 2013 pg. 23-24

© Janine Randerson & Te Urutahi Waikerepuru; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

25 February 2013