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Chris Csikszentmihályi

Edgy Products

Chris Csikszentmihályi, Afghan Explorer, 2001
Chris Csikszentmihályi, Afghan Explorer, 2001 Chris Csikszentmihályi, DJ I Robot, 2001
For a decade Chris Csikszentmihályi has been drawing on both art and technology to develop new technologies that can be used as tools for political activism. The devices that he develops operate on two levels: they do real work (calculate, detect, act); and they are endowed with symbolic power. In other words, they correspond to our electronic and technological consumer culture, but they can also be placed within the discourse and rules of contemporary art. Csikszentmihályi affirms that it is difficult, as an artist, to explore the role of functioning technologies as artistic products; but unless one is an artist, it is almost impossible to develop "products" that bypass the imperatives of the commercial market, as well as military or scientific discourses. This paradoxical situation is only complicated by his demanding position as an associate professor at the MIT Media Lab. In fact, the privilege of being able to work in one of the most prestigious institutions in advanced technological research is, in his view, a double-edged sword: he has access to high-end technological resources, yet in order to be granted this access, he must present his antimilitaristic projects to representatives from the American Defense department, which partially finances the research that is undertaken at MIT!

Drawing on Design Noir (1), the artist-technologist points to the relation between mass market product design and Hollywood films. The authors speculate on the possibility of using the analogy of film noir, Third World cinema and experimental film as a means of finding new communication modes for a product. Csikszentmihályi states that his practice makes use of this strategy “by producing products that violate the style, motives, and genres of technical material production” (2). This is, therefore, a strategy of code blurring in which one works with models of existing objects or devices, but alters and modifies their meaning and function. DJ I Robot (2001) and Afghan Reporter (2001), both of which received extensive media coverage, are good examples of this.

In the wake of some of his past work, and filled with creative energy, Csikszentmihályi now proposes to produce Edgy Products, three prototypes at the crossroads of art and technology. These open source systems are explicitly geared towards social activism, since the artist has no intention to commercialize these objects. The objective is rather to show the range of possibilities that can occur when science and engineering merge with a liberal political program. Without a doubt, the artist firmly believes in the pertinence of these devices as tools for social transformation. They have been developed to act: record, witness, decide. They are also the equivalent of drones in the sense that they are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).

For example, the first project consists of a proactive critique of surveillance cameras in public spaces, the excessive use of which is often barely legal, if not outright illegal. In order to confront this situation, Csikszentmihályi will develop a laser guided mini-helicopter carrying a small quantity of magnesium that has the property to spread an intense and glaring light. When the helicopter approaches its "target", the light blinds the camera and consequently deactivates it. There are certainly other possible uses for this device which costs only US$ 400,00 to make.

With the second project, Chris focuses on the problem of oil spills that cause black tides in the wake of an oil tanker accident. It is no secret that oil tanker captains regularly infringe on environmental laws, both on land and at sea. The device imagined by Csikszentmihályi could follow an oil tanker's movements with the aid of sound sensors that detect the noise of the engines. It would immediately capture a break in the tanker. The engine detector is comprised of a Digital Signal Processing (DSP) system and a microphone, to which a modem and other devices could be added to make it perform even more effectively. He would like to build three systems, one for remote areas, one for an urban environment and a hydrophone equipped system to follow the audible trace of an oil tanker.

Following up on Afghan Explorer, and still concerned by information that is uncensored and not manipulated, Csikszentmihályi states that it is futile for a reporter to risk his or her life in a country at war. Why not send a robot-reporter? He also comments that if Americans really knew about what goes on in a war territory, they might be less inclined to start other wars. Hence the need for information that comes from the ground level and from the people who live the war on a daily basis. The Afghan Explorer received considerable media coverage — this was a mission accomplished as far as raising public awareness on free access to information issues is concerned. However, it was not able to make any headway on the "ground." The artist-technologist now wants to create a much simpler system, a system that can photograph or film in these war-torn regions. The War Documentation Systems (WDS) will be made up of a series of small devices built with simple components that make it possible for someone to photograph or film an event. This information could then be unleashed in the atmosphere. The systems could fly over a random distance just far enough for the information to find its way back to the global information market. The system is made up of electrolytic hydrogen, two-liter water bottles, balloons made out of plastic bags, disposable cameras and prepaid envelopes. The simplicity of this system makes it possible to quickly dispatch these objects to hot spots around the world and to gather the sought-after information. A variation of this device will be equipped with kites.

Jacques Perron © 2003 FDL

(1) Dunne, A. & Raby, F. Design Noir, Basel, CH : Birkhauser Verlag, 2001.

(2) Project submitted to the Foundation, January, 2003.