TEDxVaduz: Towards a new future through a moribund format

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Femke Herregraven speaks at TEDxVaduz, Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, Dec 2013. Via DIS.

TEDxVaduz was held at Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein in December of 2013. Designed and organized by artists Simon Denny and Daniel Keller, the event seemed, at first glance, like a well-organized parody. But the list of speakers included an array of legitimately exciting artists and thinkers—Peter Fend, Andi Götz, Femke Herregraven, Michaela Hogenboom Kindle, Michael Littger, Michel André Maréchal, Katja Novitskova, Emily Segal, and Regula Stämpfli—convened under a relevant theme, "Radically Open."

From the outset, it was clear that TEDxVaduz aimed to work both within and against the context provided by the TED brand. Denny opened the event by giving a brief history of TED and the TEDx conferences. Keller provided the current context of TED, its format and the recent criticism due to presentations that relied on pseudo-science. Denny highlighted the elements of the TED brand that match his and Keller's interests, such as Silicon Valley and tech entrepreneurialism. Denny also noted that the backdrop, a tag cloud comprised of most used words in TED talks and the floor graphic of an island shaped like Vaduz, was a collaborative design by the two.

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Guide to Future-Present Archetypes Part 1: The Spark

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This is the first in a series of six essays, drawing on interviews with speculative thinkers finding and defining the technologies of the Future-Present.

Near Tappi Saki, Aomori (via Pink Tentacle

It is the 21st Century, and history has delivered us into a time when aerial swarms of hypertextual futurist essays sling bombshell proclamations down upon us, guided down the invisible path of a laser beam. With each new detonation our grounding worldview shakes with tectonic intensity, as what we have always known as “the future” is driven to critical fission when hitting the present. Behold, this new technology: the “Future-Present”: where our dreams collide with reality. There is no fantastical World of Tomorrow, and there is no reality in which we know the real from the imagined. There is only the waking dream of the categories’ simultaneous coexistence. In this world, cities explode, the network sings like razor wire, a caustic, aerosolized powder rises up from pavement beneath our feet, people wearing masks shout instructions over our heads. The dream is still going on, a double exposure of ideas over impact weapons. It is difficult to say whether we are excited, or terrified, or bored, or confused. But we understand this, don’t we? We must say we understand this. There is no one else that could understand this, other than us. What would it mean, if no one understood the future?

 

Electronic Countermeasures GPS enabled quadcopter, Tomorrow's Thoughts Today (video)

 

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Linear Development

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Installation view of Pohflepp's "Forever Future" at the Wind Tunnel Gallery in Pasedena

Artist Sascha Pohflepp's recent work "The Tsiolkovsky Trick," sourced from models of space rockets via Google's 3D Warehouse, visually embodies a particular understanding of techno-history. In his essay "Lagrangian Futures," Pohflepp explains that in 1903 Konstantin Tsiolkovsky "published a scientific article titled 'Investigation of outer space rocket appliances,' in which he proved that a propelled object could perform space flight if throughout the launch would shed parts of itself." Later in the essay, Pohflepp expounds:

Technology, although shrouded in notions of logic, reason and profit, is a largely narrative endeavor anyway. Futures have to be thought before they can be built or sold and their thinking as visions, myths and also plain lies provides what Norman M. Klein fittingly refers to as “fantastic infrastructure.” It is hardly surprising then that both Tsiolkovsky and [Jack] Parsons had a great interest in science fiction. Before he published in scientific journals, Tsiolkovsky had been writing fiction, only one year before his first influential theoretical article, he had published a novel about space colonization titled “Dreams of the Earth and Sky.”

The Tsiolkovsky Trick

Any attempt to construct a linear narrative of technological process faces countless hurdles. In embodying this narrative, Pohflepp's reveals its inadequacy through simple scrolling. Tsiolkosky's trick, of course, is narrative itself. Just as past serves as prologue, so too does the imagined future. Pohflepp's emphasis on the narrative impulse echoes an eternal critical obsession. While dreams and science fictions undoubtedly form a discursive basis for any potential future, the form of narrative itself may conceal as much as it displays. Paul Ricoeur reminds us that the stakes here may be higher than they appear: "Ultimately at stake in the case of ...

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On the Natural History of Surveillance

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Still from The Conversation (1974)

Upon hearing the phrase, we may not know exactly what a “cephalic sniffer” is, nor whether it is a real piece of technology. However, as to what such a nefarious device might be able to do, we could surely begin to imagine from the name alone. And as for whether it is technological reality (it is not, being invented by Philip K. Dick in his story Clans of the Alphane Moon), from its “sci-fi” sounding alliteration we might guess correctly that it is purely fantasy.

At least it was fantasy when PKD invented it in 1964. Today, advances in biometric identification mean that while a device that can search out an individual by his or her brainwaves is not yet on the market (at least publicly), searching out a person by face or speech pattern is decidedly real. Furthermore, brain-computer interface devices (BCI) have been commercially available since at least 1999. So how far are we from the technological reality of a biometric tracking system hacking BCIs and tracking individuals? If we change the name to “brainwave keylogger”, it suddenly is less fantastic, and frighteningly plausible.

Submitted for your consideration: an entire list of surveillance concepts, proposed by science-fiction stories. Note the technologically real items: Augmented Reality, ubiquitous surveillance, drones, eavesdropping rays, and tracking systems. These are all things that we might call “cutting edge tech”, but indeed, certainly real tech. Surprise, shock, uncanniness, paranoia— yes, it is repeated enough to be cliche--the future is here.

But what is truly uncanny about our present “not-so-distant future”, is that we continue to refer to it as the future. There is no need to speculate. We have a fully evolved culture of surveillance technology in the United States. Here is another list: this time of non-fictional surveillance concepts. They range from the slightly-troubling to the fully-horrifying, but they all are now employed by the government of the United States for the purposes of so-called “National Security”:

PalantirNo-Fly ListFull Body Scanners, “If you see something, say something”, Border Searches are Exempt from the 4th AmendmentStop and FriskNYPD spying on Muslims,TSA harassment of children, the elderlyDHS spying on activistsThat DHS existsFBI terrorism entrapmentDomestic Drone SurveillancePrivate PrisonsOver 1% of US Citizens in JailNational Security LettersFISC CourtsImmigration PolicyAbu-Ghraib Prison AbuseGuantanamo Prison CampExtraordinary RenditionTortureCodifying Indefinite DetentionFBI seeking backdoors in electronic communicationsICE raids on websitesIris scans of civil disobedience protestersWarrantless WiretapsRecorded FutureThe Domestic Communications Assistance Center

Nevertheless, the primary means by which we engage with surveillance culture outside of the news media is still speculative art and fiction. Speculation allows us, as both creators and readers, to play design-fiction with reality. It is rapid prototyping in emerging psychological patterns. But these thought experiments do not exist in a vacuum.

 

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An Illustrated History of Afrofuturism

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Adrienne Crew is writing a series on Afrofuturism for HiLobrow, with special consideration of Pedro Bell's cover designs. From her third post on alien iconography:

 

Parliament was also one of the first creators to introduce into mainstream pop culture the narrative that aliens jump-started Egyptian, and by extension African, civilization. Many had been captivated by Erich von Däniken’s 1968 book, Chariot of the Gods, but P-Funk took the idea further and pushed a more Afrocentric agenda than Däniken.

Aliens and alienation are key features of Afrofuturism. [Pedro] Bell’s aliens were not alienated from their place in the world. Funk offered the promise of feeling at peace with the universe; a condition that often eludes African Americans.

Her second post considers "transportation—especially ships—as both a danger, and a vehicle for escape from danger."

 

[Bell's] Dali-esque cover for Standing on the Verge of Getting On features an actual chariot, manned by a Greek hero ready to fight space aliens. There’s even a detailed rendering of a Space Needle on the cover of Tales of Kidd Funkedelic.

 

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