Landscapes evoke romance: natural timelessness. Interfaces evoke functionality: experiential seamlessness.
Landscapes conjure romantic notions of nature and ecology but more frequently today are manufactured. Interfaces mark boundaries between points of exchange between humans and machines but more frequently today are wireless.
Seldom are landscapes and interfaces considered for what they share. Landscapes and interfaces are environments for human experiences, aspirations, and increasingly identity. Our relationships with landscapes are our interface with ecology.
FLEFF's 2016 exhibition, Interface/Landscape, asks us to consider our geographical era — the Anthropocene — when humans have become the top agent for climate change and environmental catastrophe. Outmoded notions of progress and development have transformed humans from top predator over our fellow sentient beings to top predator for the future of planet’s survival.
At the same time, modeling software can trace the effects of human activity on atmospheric, biospheric, geologic, hydrologic, and other earth systems. It can potentially help drive policy change towards protecting the environment in an ethically equitable way amongst historically over- and underprivileged players.
How we engage with interfaces and landscapes will determine the welfare of future generations of humans and nonhumans.
Although landscapes change over time, the term landscape calls to mind nostalgia for a bygone era of environmental security.
Privileged white men took their easels into the fields to paint their own subjective visions of the world. Scenic views were a favorite of colonial anthropologists, ethnographers, as well as artists and travellers. Human presence was limited, so as not to spoil a sense of semblance between ancient landscapes and primitive peoples.
Today, more people live in cities than in villages.
Our landscapes are increasingly manufactured, interfacing with layered histories that are both human and environmental, whether Central Park in New York, build atop Seneca Village, a dispossessed African American village, in the late 1850s or Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Arizona, build for scientists to experiment with closed ecological systems to support human life since the early 1990s. Edward Burtynsky and Jennifer Baichwal’s 2006 documentary, Manufactured Landscapes, preserves images of massive factories and large-scale dams that forever alter our world.
These considerations of landscapes resonate as constructs within the broader forces associated with reigning imperialist and neoliberal outlooks whose global impact is increasingly devastating.
Landscapes evoke a territorially bound and defined version of the “scapes” that Arjun Appadurai, in his book Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minnesota, 1995), employed to define the “imaginary landscapes” of global modernity several decades ago.
Many of us are familiar with ethnoscapes, the mass migration due to trade, war, and climate change; financescapes, neoliberal economics that prioritizes markets, exchanges, and speculations; mediascapes , dissemination of information, tending to be image- and narrative-centered; and technoscapes, high-speed movements of mechanical and informational technologies across borders.
Increasingly, many of us are also familiar with ideoscapes, state ideologies and counter-ideologies vying for states, whether progressive as in indigenous rights movements throughout the world, such as the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) in Brazil or repressive as in Daesh’s effort to declare a caliphate/state in the Middle East or the so-called alt-right’s attempt to seize state power for white nationalism on the United States. The role of social media in amplifying these voices underscores a permeability between the physical and the virtual—an interface between scapes that recognizes or rejects fluidity.
We access interfaces via hardware like touchscreens and software like apps.
Interfaces are so ubiquitous and increasingly so seamless that we often forget to notice them. With the popularization of Web 3.0 and the Internet of Things, our relationships with interfaces expand from smart devices such as laptops and mobiles to computers inside objects as diverse as refrigerators, automobiles, HVAC (heating, ventilation, air-conditioning) systems, clothing, and shoes. We also wear devices that act as an interface between biological systems and machines. Wearables and implantable wearables perform everything from verifying our identity, monitoring our movements, and managing birth control and organ replacement. Our bodies and identities are becoming as manufactured as our landscapes.
Interfaces function like banal landscapes in our everyday lives, but they do more than frame our access to data: they interpret it. And as a result, they determine the kinds of knowledge that we produce. We ignore them when they function perfectly. We are aware of their power when they fail.
Like geopolitical borders, interfaces produce meaning when in use — and often only become apparent to us when they fail to connect. Likewise, the projects featured in this exhibition produce meaning when activated by users. In some cases, it is merely the click of a play icon. In others, the human-machine interface requires complex movements across the mouse pad or surface of a smart device.
If interfacing once suggested a strengthening of fabric by adding an additional layer, interfacing now suggests strengthening of convictions across different realms of experience and knowledge. It recognizes that we move between visible and invisible layers. It activates relationships.
Comparably, landscaping shapes our environments. It has been engineered both to convene publics and prevent protests. Landscaping modifies the planet to suit human needs that may be aesthetic, but can also be communal and political, as in the gardens that welcomed travellers along the Silk Road and the caravanserais that stretched from Central Asia to North Africa.
Landscaping and interfacing offer a sense of security in an unstable world of recurring financial crises, wide-scale political corruption, and massive displacements of families due to wars over resources and influence. Gated communities and firewalls offer temporary refuge for privileged classes. Public parks and squares and digital commons offer temporary refuge for social movements. The least privileged and most vulnerable seldom appear on the horizons of awareness.
We selected Jeremy Ho’s Lahore Landing, An Interactive Documentary for this year’s prize for its positive intervention into an increasingly polarized world. By foregrounding aspects of Lahore before the mid-1980s, which like Karachi and other cities saw hipsters and hippies live alongside Marxists and intellectuals, the interactive documentary cuts through the unconscious biases and market-driven criteria of media that tend to reduce Pakistan to violence, disorder, and poverty. Ho and his fellow students challenge their own assumptions as young Singaporeans to help us challenge some of our own assumptions about people based on their geographical location.
Other projects in the exhibition include ones by three FLEFF alumni, Babak Fakhamzadeh, Ben Grosser, and Chiara Passa, alongside emerging and established artists located in and between Brazil, Ireland, Italy, Nicaragua, Philippines, Singapore, Spain, United States, and Uzbekistan.
Many of the projects make use of stitched images from Google Street View with blurred faces to protect passersby from cameras in automobiles or backpacks. Some make games of technologies, such as Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and Global information Systems (GIS). These interfaces function on the premise that data is measurable and reliable.
Some projects locate moments of contained freedom from what Timothy Murray, in his book Digital Baroque: New Media and Cinematic Folds (Minnesota, 2008), describes as the digital fold that envelops much of our existence. It obliterates the conventional security of a stable single-point perspective in representation.
Emilio Vavarella’s Report a Problem photographs the effects of software and hardware malfunctions before they can be reported to Google for correction. The resulting images document different ways the digital interfaces can affect our view of landscapes. Babak Fakhamzadeh and Ian Barry’s Kompl is a mobile app that transforms travelling into a Situationist-inspired reboot of flânerie. It avoids the mindless crowds that follow by the letter the routes outlines in guidebooks and apps.
Other projects invent possibilities when situations seem constraining. Michelle Angelica “Mica” Cabildo and Katya Yakubov hack the interface of mapping and GPS systems to create imaginary journeys through the “groundless” South China Sea and Google Earth. They mobilize the ludic as a mode to open our thinking to historical and contemporary interfaces with landscapes. Azahara Cerezo’s Digital Landscapes from a War grabs images from Google Street View. Yet it tells an ongoing story of political tensions among Spanish students rendered in graffiti near sites significant to the Spanish Civil War.
Another aspect of digital interfaces with physical landscapes is mass surveillance. Ben Grosser’s Tracing You and Derek Curry and Jennifer Gradecki’s Crowd-Sourced Intelligence Agency (CSIA) visualize approximations of ways that we place ourselves under surveillance. Grosser’s project selects images from databases to make website user’s aware of how the computer “sees” them. Curry and Jennifer Gradecki’s CSIA allows users to experience different aspects of dataveillance or the systematic and usually automated surveillance of internet users by the digital trails of their online activities.
Scrapping and harvesting data has become the new iteration of collecting found footage, a mainstay of documentary and experimental media practice since the early 1900s. However, shooting original and intentional footage conveys other stories of our times. Peter Bo Rappmund’s feature-length Topophilia traces the relatively low-grade destruction of Alaska by the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS), which marked both the decline of empire and the environment. The project features images recorded specifically for the purpose of the film. Pablo de Soto collaborated with hactivists by using aerial drones to document a cultural festival and a community under threat by neoliberal urbanization related to the 2016 summer Olympics in Aerial Mapping of Vila Autódromo.
Other projects introduce a sense of humor to critique the erosions of human and environmental rights by corporations and the governments that protect them. Ricardo Miranda Zúñiga’s videogame Ometepe invites users to hurl Chipotle Chillón (“squeaky mallet”) to destroy people like Nicaraguan president (or dictator, depending on your point of view) Daniel Ortega and Chinese billionaire Wang Jing to save the ecological system of Lake Nicaragua from destruction under the proposed Nicaraguan Canal. Chiara Passa’s Drone Snow-globe extends her Live Architectures series. She constructs objects that defy the rules of physics and makes a political statement in the process.
Craig Baldwin’s Bulletin also uses humor to remix vintage advertising. His project demonstrates that analogue ephemera continue to haunt us in a digital era when targeted advertising on social media displaces advertising on broadcast television. By contrast, Brandon Bauer’s Landscapes of Absence takes a different approach to manipulation of found images. It erases human figures from execution videos produced and released by Deash.
Collectively, the twelve projects in the INTERFACE/LANDSCAPE prompt us to think about elastic, multidirectional relationships between interface and landscape.
These projects counter romanticized notions of the landscape as a passive entity or resource. They critique naïve notions of the interface as an invisible, seamless connector.
The projects in this exhibition establish a relationship between interface and landscape that suggest mutual shaping and implication.
INTERFACE/LANDSCAPE poses questions about the impact of our current imagination about landscapes, machines, and ourselves. It opens up unresolved social and political issues in urgent need of re-imagining.
Interface/Landscape is curated by Dale Hudson (New York University Abu Dhabi, UAE) with Claudia Costa Pederson (Wichita State University, USA)