FutureEverything 2014: Tools for the Unknown Future

Knitted mince and mapping drone strikes – we take a look at the visual art on offer at Manchester's FutureEverything festival

Feature by Ali Gunn | 09 Apr 2014

FutureEverything returns this year with Tools for the Unknown Future as the context for this year‘s self-styled ‘festival as laboratory.’ With digital tools so ingrained in our everyday life, the festival seeks to explore what may be for the future and to open up a dialogue that spans across art, technology, music and science.

FutureEverything is a symbiotic festival: the physical artworks presented are supported and reaffirmed by presentations that have been carefully curated for the conference. Ideas play out in real time through workshops and art pieces, allowing spectators to engage in activity that might not normally be within their reach. Taking the city as a starting point for the exploration of the tools of the future, FutureEverything constructed a temporary citadel, City Fictions, that spans the NOMA’s redevelopment area in Manchester city centre. Empty offices that once housed business and commerce are transformed into hubs of activity predisposing ideas relating to our present and the future.

Down in the depths of New Century House, a DIY food lab, Bio Strike, takes over the old canteen; visitors brave enough to walk down the escalators into the dark tunnels of billowing plastic sheeting get a chance to test mystery meats to see their true animal content and grow bacteria in agar Petri dishes. Meat, synthetic biology and bacteria art are just a few of the ideas presented in the Superfictions presentation at the FutureEverything conference. Koert van Mensvoort, artist, philosopher and scientist introduces his speculations for the future of food in his witty presentation, including knitted mince that would be woven into your desired cut of meat and his cook book Bistro In Vitro filled with recipes for your lab grown steaks. With the recent horsemeat revelations and the very real success of the first laboratory-grown hamburger, Van Mensvoorts surrealist visions of future food production are uncannily realistic. Working in the realms of the real, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s curatorial and artistic work looks at the actuality of synthetic biology and applies it to her version of the future; where artificial life forms heal and protect endangered habitats. The design of our biological futures presented through Van Mensvoort and Ginsberg seem like far off futures, but as James Bridle states in his presentation, “The future is shorthand for the present,” it is easy to see how technology and bio engineering may not be that far off.  

Bio Strike // Image: Gary Brown

Castlefield Art Gallery’s New Art Space Federation House provides the setting for a participatory lab, where visitors can do some 3D printing with Golan Levin or try their hand at building their own BUQS – electronic life forms that are scattered about the NOMA district, chattering like digital crickets. Garnet Hertz, at his conference presentation on Critical Making, describes makerspaces as being “kid friendly” and the Maker Movement as “Folk Art for engineers”. Reflecting this sentiment, the City Fictions workshops provides a welcoming space for anyone, native or newbie. Hertz’s presents his project, also titled Critical Making, where he produces a series of ‘zines that explore DIY culture and the crossroads of art, design, technology and commerce. The commerce of maker technologies is explored further in Golan Levin’s presentation where he delves into open source practice and reverse engineering as an empowering device creating “local solutions for local problems.” Levin ’s Free Universal Construction Kit, consists of 80 adaptable bricks that can be used to connect building toys such as Lego and Kinex, and can be downloaded and 3D printed, allowing everyone to reap the benefits of Levin’s reverse engineering. The open source ecology of the Maker Movement presents a utopian environment, where the little guys quash the big corporations through creative production and participatory learning.

How data is used and managed is explored in Endless War; a collaboration between YoHa and Matthew Fuller, part of Data as Culture, curated by Shiri Shalmy. What at first appears to be simply a powerful video installation is actually a playback of the real time analysis of the WikiLeaks Afghan War Diary by a computer that is mic’d up to reveal its inner workings. Revealing the software systems and processes behind war, YoHa and Fuller’s work brings the machines that manage the data of war to the forefront, and reminds us how far removed they are from the human and environmental impact of war.

James Bridle: Watching the Watchers // Image: Gary Brown

Revealing the physicality of digital technologies in order to question the motives behind them is a principal concern for artist, writer and technologist James Bridle. Coining the term New Aesthetic, Bridle seeks to unravel the cultural problem with conceptualising digital experience through exploring what digital things looks like. Born out of visualising the invisible, Bridle’s work for FutureEverything,Watching the Watchers, takes a series of images from his Dronestagram project. Documenting the sites of drone strikes, by Instagraming images taken from Google Maps satellite view, the work reveals an aspect of contemporary war that is relatively hidden from the mass media. This is a war that is waged not by humans but by autonomous aircrafts that both kill and collect vast amounts of data about ‘the enemy’. The aerial viewpoint for Watching the Watchers highlights the privileged position that the drone operators, who are far removed from the damage that they create, and reminds us of the silent war that is being waged by the machines that are made not to be seen. The lack of documentation surrounding these attacks is a concern for Bridle, and through his projects he is able to filter activism into his art: his hope is that by making the drone strikes visible it will engender people to feel politically and emotionally motivated.

Some of the artworks in FutureEverything’s City Fictions present a duality in their visions of the future: issues such as state surveillance, synthetic biology and maker technologies highlighted both concerns and promise for technology. However, a key message from the festival is the necessity to have an open source and collaborative society, wherein ideas, methods and tools are shared to build a future where people have the ability to manage and control their own digital, social, political and biological futures. 

FutureEverything ran 27 Mar-1 Apr