Second First Committee Hearings

Manu Luksch and Mukul Patel Testimony Transcript

Tom McCarthy: You were involved in a project last year called Acoustic Space Lab. Could you tell us a little about that?

Mukul Patel: Yes. It was a symposium organised by Elab, a multimedia lab in Riga, at Ventspils International Radioastronomy Centre, which is a former Soviet spy base in the Latvian Forests. When the Russian army departed the Baltics they left behind a couple of large satellite dishes which were too large for them to transport. They tried to destroy them, tried to sabotage the dishes, but the international radioastronomy community managed to restore them to working order. So now these dishes are being used by, they should be being used by radioastronomers for extra-galactic research... but because there's no money from the Latvian Academy of Sciences to build a decent laboratory and decent toilets you can't have conferences there, so artists go there instead.

TMcC: So can you just clarify: what were they used to spy on?

MP: Probably satellites over Northern European, over Northern Europe. So communication satellites, like analogue phone communications.

TMcC: So they were picking up phone communications.

MP: Yes. And the same dishes can be repurposed for astronomical use. They're very well built and very accurate instruments. That's why the radioastronomy community wanted to preserve them and restore them.

TMcC: And so they invited a whole bunch of artists to go and... I mean, who initiated this project?

MP: It was Elab, wasn't it?

Manu Luksch: Yes. I wouldn't call them a 'bunch' of artists.

TMcC: A select group of artists. What did you do when you went there? How did you occupy the station? What was your...

MP: Well, there were three groups which kind of formed spontaneously. One was an acoustic group which was researching the acoustic properties of the dish itself. There was another group which was looking at the astronomical data. We were there only for a few days, so there was a limit to the amount of data we could get and our confidence in what it represented. But they were looking at astronomical data and converting that into sound. And there was a third group which was basically... led by Makrolab... which was, which installed a feed into the dish which would pick up analogue phone transmissions.

TMcC: Makrolab being the Ljubliana-based media art collective?

MP: Yes. We should say a little more about them.

TMcC: Do you want to tell us a bit about Makrolab?

ML: Makrolab is, again, a 'bunch' of...

TMcC: Excuse my terminology.

ML: ... of boys with toys. Well, they're Ljubliana-based experts in IT data-transmission systems, work with radio...

MP: ...and Met systems, meteorological research as well they're doing...

ML: Yes, they've moved into Met systems. And they are interested in developing a unit which is independent from the environment, self-sustainable, creating its own energy and establishing its own access to data-transfer systems.

TMcC: So it's pulling information, it's pulling data out of the general media environment, transforming it and retransmitting it. Is that an accurate description of what Makrolab does?

ML: Yes. Then Makrolab is set up in different countries and environments. Last it has been seen in the Scottish Highlands, and from there they scanned the air for data bits: pilot messages or satellite television.

Zinovy Zinik: It's not clear to me. For example, what kind of data do you select? How this selection depends, for example, on the country you are operating from?

MP: Makrolab invites artists and scientists to be in residence for a period of time, so I think it prettymuch depends on what the individual artist and scientist are invited along to do. But there are some core facilities there, and then people bring along their own equipment.

ZZ: Could you give some examples?

Anthony Auerbach: Maybe you could say something about your approach to this issue of receiving and scanning, where you have, like in Latvia you had a huge radio ear, so what you pick up is primarily noise, but how, what's your approach to filtering signal from noise?

MP: Well, if, just going back to what Makrolab did, and what we did together at Acoustic Space Lab: they set up a feed which basically tapped into INMARSAT...

TMcC: INSMARSAT being the ship-to-shore communications system?

MP: Yes. It carries some analogue channels which are fairly easy to grab. And these were fairly noisy, so a lot of filtering work was done on the conversations, but we managed to glean various conversations, and then the different artists used those in different ways. I mean, we sampled those and made sound pieces out of them, that's one of the...

TMcC: I guess maybe what Zinovy and Anthony are getting at is that a quite important question when you're doing this as artists is how do you differentiate useful from useless information? What do you want? What's signal and what's noise?

AA: Or perhaps it's a question of what's information and what's not. Is there a point... I mean it's interesting... Did you have advice from radioastronomers about their models for distinguishing meaningful information from the kind of ambient radio noise that is generated on Earth and from some...

MP: No, there was some... I mean, that was a pertinent issue when it came to the group that was trying to convert astronomical data into sound, for example. Because we weren't there long enough to generate accurate enough readings to be sure that we were seeing an astronomical body rather than background noise. So we were only there for a few days, so really we couldn't, we didn't have very much confidence in that. But in terms of analogue phone transmissions of voice, like human, transmissions of humans, we could filter them out. And then it was really up to the individual artist what strategies they applied. I mean, I went through a lot of the recordings and there was something which resonated with me and I used that. It happened to be a conversation between a father and a son, one on land and one on a ship, and it was half in English and half in Tamil, and they were exchanging a phone number and talking about how their respective wives were.

ZZ: I still have to press this question: how do you select, artists that are involved in your project, how do they select data? And I'm most, what is the essential, the essentiality of my question is, for example, this project Acoustic Space Lab is located in former Soviet, the geography of it is influenced by the former Soviet Empire. So do you think that the selection of the content of the project is influenced by a certain zone? It's like... how to put it? If you have memoirs of fictitious labour camps, or extermination camps, or a real document picked up from somebody who was there, still being absolutely identical texts, it would have been perceived differently. So do you think that the location of your projects are influenced by... sorry, that the location of your projects influences the content?

Manu and Mukul
Photo: Eugenie Dolberg/INS

MP: Well, I think that in the piece that we did, as I said, it was a ship-to-shore conversation which was happening somewhere in the Indian Ocean...

TMcC: Thousands of miles away from where you were picking it up...

MP: Yes. I'm not exactly sure how it was routed.

ML: I would say also the way Mukul has already described three levels of collecting data... one using the acoustic properties, secondly shortwave, thirdly transmissions, the astronomical data being collected... shows that there are three geographical stages to which the data refers, and the way we worked was that all the artists participated in some of these groups. There was actually a fourth group being concerned with the visual surface, or this ear as an architectural object, a documentation. But, so all these data were collected and made available in these pools, and then all the artists, again, took data material out of that pool in order to create their own interpretation. And that's where I get back to Anthony's answer, question, about when is data information. So every artist had his own response to this question by choosing out of this pool, and then...

AA: Could you say... I mean, from your experience which was quite brief and maybe not totally satisfactory, do you think the model presented by covert surveillance from the Soviet era or the model presented by this kind of cosmic surveillance of the radio astronomy era: which is the more, seems to hold the most potential for you as artists involved in this territory?

MP: I think, well I think the former, it is having, it is a model that we're deploying more in our work at the moment. I mean, in several pieces that we're involved with we're using these ideas of covert surveillance more than the astronomical data-gathering.

TMcC: How did you output your reworked... I don't know what to call it... pieces? Your output. How did you output your output?

ML: We can output it now and here.

TMcC: Could we hear a bit perhaps? Yes, that would be great.

[excerpt played at this point]

MP: So it's just a percussive piece built out of the individual numbers of a phone number. It goes on for a while.

TMcC: Thankyou. Okay, perhaps we could move on to the next big project of yours that we'd like to ask you about, which is the Wireless East End Net. Could you tell us a little about that?

MP: We're part of it.

TMcC: You're part of it, yes.

MP: So it's actually part of a nationwide movement under the banner of to extend...

TMcC: Sorry: who are

ML: It's an initiative for the self-provision of broadband infrastructure.

TMcC: One more time.

ML: An initiative for the self-provision of broadband infrastructure.

TMcC: Okay. So how would you describe...

AA: Stealing bandwidth.

MP: Well, not necessarily stealing bandwidth. Sharing out bandwidth. Broadband, broadbandwidth is really expensive and hard to come by, still, here, and if it's there in one location, then, and because most people, like private individuals, certainly won't use all the bandwidth all the time, it makes a lot of sense to share it out. And we have technology available, and part of the spectrum that we can legally exploit, to share it out, which is wi-fi or airport or 80211, it's called by all these names. And, so one of the things that we and many other people are involved with is setting up nodes whereby some of this bandwidth can be distributed to a building, to a set of studios or to public spaces. It happens a lot; like in Manhattan there are several parks, public parks which are covered by wireless antennae, so you can...

TMcC: Deliberately covered by wireless antennae?

MP: Yes: it's kind of a free...

TMcC: Because I understand in London recently there's been a whole debate over the legitimacy of... that offices often have, they have an airport as it's called, a wireless connection that takes in their office but also spills over into the street, and people are going around putting stickers down to signal to other people that you can get a signal here, and then the companies are saying 'No you can't: that's our signal.' I mean, is this...

MP: Yes. Marking out areas where there are open networks is... I don't know. The strategy is not sustainable, really, because as soon as the corporations wise up... well they have wised up to the fact, you know, when they see this marking they know somebody's trying to hop onto their bandwidth.

TMcC: Sorry, just to be clear about this: when you hop onto somebody's bandwidth does it just mean you're getting a connection or does it mean you can actually access their information?

MP: It depends how much you know about their network, how secure it is, you know...

ZZ: To what extent interferences are possible?

MP: I don't really know at the moment. I don't have any experience of that. I mean, the reception varies with meteorological conditions. I think what will happen... because now, the part of the spectrum which individuals could exploit is now, BT's got a license to exploit it commercially; the law was changed this year. And so they will be selling commercial wireless access points throughout London. Now, if they set up enough, and close enough to public provision, publicly provided networks, then there may be some interference. But I don't exactly know the technical details.

TMcC: So your own project involves setting up an East End network?

MP: Well, we set up a node and we're encouraging other people to do so, to extend it.

TMcC: How does this physically work? I mean, what's the technology you use?

ZZ: And what's the final product of it?

TMcC: That, that could be the next...

AA: I mean, is this important as a community, autonomous community activity?

MP: Yes. I mean, not only is it providing people with... I mean, providing people with broadband access is just one aspect of it. But what we're more interested in is setting up intranets, like local networks which are independent of copper owned by BT or anybody else, and where we can set up a network, say, between, which uses radio between adjacent studios or between buildings which are within lines of sight and, say, a couple of miles apart, and we can do things like distributed video and audio production, where one studio works on one colour, or...

ML: Yes. In terms of whether it would create a local active community, yes, it definitely was this year, because what it involves is to identify people who have access to roofs. And then some people have access to roofs but not the skills to set up a router, so they start cooking dinner for a week for someone who knows how to set up the router, then someone else organises a workshop for all those who have access to the roofs to build antennae, so they all come for one weekend...

TMcC: So I guess a version of a previous question arises here, which is: would you see this primarily as a political act or an artistic one? Or do the two sort of merge at this point?

ML: Well, when it comes to thinking of your own independent infrastructure it always has a political flavour to it. Also depending on where you're doing that. It can range from legal battles like Silver Server was carrying out in that field in Vienna to simply challenging the existing...

TMcC: ...hegemony.

ML: Yes.

AA: I heard Manu once use the phrase 'data cloud' in connection with the network project. And could you explain what that means, or if I'm right to associate it with the network project?

ML: Well, to explain data cloud I prefer to quote Pete Gomez, who found this explanation for it that it's the data locally fed into the local network also being relevant for local use, and so if you enter an area geographically then you also have access to information which is actually related to that specific neighbourhood, and you wouldn't get access to this certain information if you are in another district of the same town. But that's the field where we experiment around with the ambient strata, the technological development, what is this kind of local content, that means...

TMcC: 'Content' is quite an important term here. I mean in terms of that old McLuhan... thing, would it be fair to say that in what you're doing, to some extent, the content becomes the network, that the network is itself the content of your work?

AA: It seems to me the network project is a kind of remapping of the city to some extent, that you create a kind of invisible infrastructure that is creating a geography of nodes which is overlaid onto the urban structure. Is that something that's important for you in taking part in that project?

ML: Yes, it is important. I'm interested in that. But frankly there's a few people, friends, I know, who are doing that on a daily basis...

ZZ: You don't do that?

ML: No, they do that. Basically I'm just catching up.

ZZ: Don't you think that because you mentioned it's being constructed as the opposed, and it's become fashionable, especially in Manhattan, to oppose these corporal structures of the internet etc etc... but you create a certain collective, a certain community. Isn't that the danger, talking about the future, of that type of project, that somebody would start running it? Exactly because people know each other, and they become a new commune, is there a danger of it being taken over by some evil person?

MP: It's already happened.

ZZ: You see? Could you elaborate?

MP: We just don't know who that is.

ZZ: Could you elaborate?

ML: Well, one incident that actually did happen is that all those who were in charge of one singular node in this network are entering their data in a database. And this same kind of database operates in many cities where you find these community networks. And a company based in the States was actually using all this data-information about access points as a commercial asset, and offering free access in Europe.

TMcC: So how do you safeguard against the same old structure just repeating itself three years down the line?

AA: Your being hacked by the corporation...

TMcC: Your being hacked by the corporation, yes...

ML: We just keep moving on.

TMcC: Yes. Talking of moving on, we're going to try to keep each session to twenty minutes so I think we should round it off there. But thank you very much indeed for coming in.