Category: Blog

Bioart book

Ant Ballet has been featured in William Myers‘ book BioArt: Altered Realities, recently published by Thames and Hudson. The book is a compendium of projects from sixty artists, collectives, and organizations from around the world working within the emerging and ever-changing field of ‘bioart’, and features people such as Philip Beesley, Vincent Fournier, Neri Oxman and Carole Collet.

Spread on the Ant Ballet project. There’s also an email interview with me in the back.

The book has been reviewed in Science and We Make Money Not Art, among others. I’ve seen it on sale in the Palais de Tokyo and the Centre Pompidou bookshops in Paris, which leads me to suspect that it’s available somewhere near you, too. Or failing that, Amazon.

Residency at Palais de Tokyo

Palais de Tokyo

I am very happy to announce that I have been selected as artist-in-residence at the Palais de Tokyo. From November 2015 to June 2016, I will be living and working in Paris, producing work in collaboration with the Institut national de l’audiovisuel, Paris Opera, and the Seoul Museum of Art.

Every time I have visited the Palais de Tokyo in the past, I have been impressed by its daring, innovative approach to exhibitions and artisitc production. It is an honour and a privilige to be able to work in my favourite gallery! The work I produce will be a continuation of the past few years’ research into the absurd, machines and philosophy of technology.

The Pavillion studio

The Pavillon Nueflize OBC is a remarkable artist residency programme. Established by Ange Leccia in 2001, it is the research lab of the Palais de Tokyo. This year, six artists from around the world – Jean-Alain Corre, Hoël Duret, Lou Lim, Ayoung Kim, Alexis Gullier and myself – will be producing work from a studio within the heart of the Palais’ 1937 building.

For more information about the Pavillon Nueflize OBC, please visit the website.

Nybble video

I just realised I never posted about the making of the video for my Nybble project! It took a long time for me to get round to re-editing, since myriad other projects came up in the time after the event. The first cut was not great, and didn’t do justice to the excellent dancers who were involved, so I took a few days to re-cut the whole thing last year. This blog post is a quick breakdown of the elements of the final video.

One man and a gun

Note: This article is cross-posted on Medium.

Recently, the research and development company Battelle released a video of what is claimed to be the first non-ballistic anti-drone gun, the DroneDefender. The video has garnered much attention in both traditional and social media. Here I am going to explain why the DroneDefender is effectively a comfort blanket against a messy and uncertain future, a symbolic weapon hiding behind a convenient cowboy archetype.

The Battelle DroneDefender ‘in use’. Image from promotional video.

The DroneDefender

Battelle released two videos to promote the DroneDefender. The first is a glossy dramatisation of a drone being spotted, and disabled by an alert security team. The video combines action shots and PowerPoint-style infographics, and is clearly designed to sell the concept to military, state and private security forces.

Battelle DroneDefender main promotional video

The second is the B-roll (first seen on Motherboard). This is the unedited source footage, before the vignetting, graphic overlays and quick cuts had been put in. It struck me as an odd choice of videos to make public, as it clearly reveals the constructed nature of the main promotional video. In this regard, it is more honest. The DroneDefender is not FCC certified, so the video is a simulation. The B-roll makes this absolutely clear, from the security guard struggling to keep up with a drone clearly being piloted from elsewhere, to the shaky footage and retro pans and zooms. (The ‘this is a simulation’ message doesn’t always make it onto web articles, which often present the device as an item available now, or very soon.)

DroneDefender B-roll

The threat

In the video, it is implied that this is a one-man ‘solution’ to the threat of drones. This threat is wholly unimaginative: it hinges around the idea that the most nefarious use for a drone is the hobbyist taking unauthorised videos or photos of a secured area. Whilst it is true that the majority of civilian drones are likely to be used for photography (or even elaborate selfies), and the ability for anybody to buy a piece of equipment that allows them to fly a camera above anything does raise real privacy and security concerns, there are further issues that have far more material consequences.

Raffaello D’Andrea showing drones working together. 21 minutes into the lecture he talks about collective behaviour, learning and the threats that drones pose.

There is much laudable research going on with drones at present. Teams of researchers at ETH are actively working on control systems that enable drones to work together to achieve larger goals than a single drone could achieve. Raffaello D’Angelo and Gramazio Kohler’s teams have programmed drones to collectively throw and catch balls, build walls, and more recently, build a rope bridge. Marshmallow Laser Feast programmed drones to dance. All of these have potentially far-reaching impacts on a variety of industries.

At the end of his lecture at the Bartlett School of Architecture in 2012, drone pioneer Raffaello D’Angelo instigated a discussion about ethics and drones. At present, he said, cheaply available commercial drones can carry approximately 2kg. This has increased significantly from the amount the first ones could lift, and will surely increase over time. And, at present, the software to enable drones to work together relies on external computers and control systems, but there is no reason to believe that the hardware and software will not be drone-mounted in the future.

Which means that drones pose two security threats:

  1. 1. Drones carrying ‘payloads’ such as explosives
  2. 2. Swarms of drones working together to kidnap people or steal things

Both are hypothetical at the moment, although the company Mountain Drones claims that it will soon use drones carrying explosives to instigate avalanches, and there have been numerous reports of drones carrying ‘payloads’ of contraband across borders and into prisons. And surely it is only a matter of time before a Hollywood film features a swarm of cooperating, net-wielding drones swooping down to kidnap a high net worth CEO…

How would the DroneDefender fare in the above scenarios? In short, terribly. The DroneDefender has a 30º field of operation, and a 400m range, and essentially works by jamming the signals between the drone and its user and the drone’s GPS signal. In most instances, this causes the drone to simply land at a safe speed, so that its owner can retrieve it (there are tales of drones being launched from yachts, losing their wifi signals and ‘safely’ landing in a watery grave). However, in the event that somebody has strapped explosives to a drone, the last thing that one would want to do is force it to land – particularly if the explosives were contact-detonated, or worse, programmed to detonate in the event of losing signal.

A single disabling agent with a 30º field of range would likely have minimal effect on a swarm of drones. In the video, the drone is disabled at approximately a 15-metre range. This means that a second drone flying parallel 7.75 metres away— or about one and a half car’s lengths — would be immune to attack. In any case, the designer of a drone-swarm would likely build in redundancy, so that a few drones could be disabled without adversely affecting the eventual result (much like the redundancy in swarms of insects, mesh networks and networked drives). One man armed with one gun, able to down one drone, would have little effect.

So the DroneDefender is only an effective weapon if our security guards are trying to stop one hobbyist pilot from flying a photography drone into a restricted area, within visible sight of security guards. (Other issues: ensuring the drone gun is charged and accessible; that the staff are trained in its use and protocols; that the drone is sighted before it enters the restricted area.) All in all, I would argue that the DroneDefender fits a very specific niche.

Cowboy speculation

In recent years, technology has been a major driver of change in the economy. With increasingly widespread aprehension of technologies that represent an uncertain future — from Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musks’ claims that AI could be ‘our greatest existential threat,’ to worries about children being unable to hold conversations — it is clear that we are facing societal challenges that have not been faced before.

I believe that the majority of people see this new technology as a fait accompli — that is, that they have no control over its direction, and that in many cases it stands a very real chance of taking their jobs.

These fears are mirrored in the fragmented wars that the West is fighting; there are no clear narratives, and uncertain enemies and alliances. We have been trained to be alert for dangers and threats which may not exist, to perpetually think that something terrible might happen.

The Battelle DroneDefender

If the DroneDefender is not effective as a literal defence mechanism, its symbolic value must not be overlooked. In the video, we see a ‘hero’ figure shoot a drone out of the sky. The drone represents an uncertain, unseen enemy, and a technological future we can’t control. It is no coincidence that the DroneDefender, which houses no ballistics-delivery-system, is shaped like a gun. Battelle have resurrected the cowboy archetype, the lone hero standing up for freedom, wielding a large weapons and restoring order.

Clint Eastwood

The cowboy is a definitive American archetype. A lone hero, his origins are in stories of King Arthur, and his roots can be traced to Greek Stoicism and Homeric warriors. Early Hollywood liked cowboys because they gave rise to simple stories of good and evil, and the character stuck. They allow an audience to root for a single character who they imbue with characteristics they believe in. They come with pre-made enemies, characters who are undeniably bad, who can be killed with a single shot in the middle of town at high noon. More often than not, the hero saves the day before wandering off into the wilderness, presumably to repeat the feat in town after town.

This story is compelling because it is simple. A man holding a gun that shoots down a drone is simple. The reality of the issues that he is really facing is anything but simple. In an age of networks, the narrative of the cowboy-saviour having an ability to halt the waves of unwanted progress, or being able to definitively disable an enemy no longer holds true. Perpetuating this archetype as a feasible solution to fragmented and abstracted problems is not productive — except to those who profit from selling weapons disguised as heroes. The DroneDefender is more King Canute than Clint Eastwood.

Note: For more on the topic of simplified narratives in the face of overwhelming complexity, see Adam Curtis’ Bitter Lake or The Power of Nightmares (where he applies this argument to a much larger set of geopolitical issues).

Also see ‘The John Wayne Syndrome’ for a brief exploration of the origin of cowboys.

Learn Italian

My friend Fiona Williams (who kindly helped me film the Nybble video) made a lovely stop-motion film about the now-probably-obsolete method of learning Italian by cassette. She filmed it in a Christopher Wren tower in London, using a cassette that she found in an attic. The result is charming, hilarious, bewildering and highly enjoyable.

Learn Italian by Fiona Williams

Note: I feature as a technical advisor in the credits, but Fiona really deserves all the credit!

Thomas Feuerstein Psychoprosa

I gave a talk at the University of Innsbruck the other day, and on my day off I went to see the Thomas Feuerstein exhibition Psychoprosa. Unfortunately the show has now finished, but I made this video for future posterity:

The show was great. Lots of things that bubbled and wobbled, strange machines and pipes. Missing from the video is the room full of phantom fridges and ghosted CCTV footage. I’d love to see his studio.

This exhibition was on at Galerie im Taxipalais, Innstruck, Austria, 7 March – 10 May 2015. For more on Thomas Feuerstein, see his website.

Nybble at the V&A Museum

This weekend (20-21 September 2013) the garden of V&A Museum will be transformed into a large computing device by Ollie Palmer – and a troupe of “human-computers”.

In 1948 Alan Turing designed the first chess computer programme.

The only problem was that he didn’t have a computer to play it on.

He wrote all of the instructions onto pieces of paper, and played a game of chess as if he were the computer himself. Each move took over half an hour. What’s more, his human-powered computer programme didn’t win the game.

Nybble takes Turing’s human computer and combines it with a sense of theatricality in an immersive architectural-scale installation. Four performers, each representing a different part of a computing CPU, will be parsing a message into the V&A’s John Madjeski Garden. The display is playful, silly and fun – and possibly the most analogue computer to have graced the V&A’s Digital Design Weekend.



John Madjeski Garden, V&A Museum
21-22 September 2013
12.00, 14.00 and 16.00 daily (performances last 45 minutes)
Admission free

Part of the V&A Digital Design Weekend.

Funded by Design with Heritage, an AHRC Creative Economy Knowledge Exchange between V&A and UCL.


One of my favourite items in the British Museum is the Moai. It is in the Living and Dying room.

Moai in British museum. Photo from Bytes Daily.

I spent a few days on Easter Island in 2005. It’s a funny place – technically part of Chile, and about half the size of the Isle of Wight, and formed from three volcanoes. It’s the most remote island in the world. Most of the three thousand residents live in the town. There are wild horses.

Moai, Easter Island

Moai on the east coast of Easter Island. Photo by Ollie Palmer.

Easter Islands’ stone heads were carved by tribes who lived on opposite sides of the island: the Hanau epe (Long Ears) and the Hanau momoko (Short Ears). Both wanted more heads to prove how much better they were than the other tribe. The construction of the heads led to the deforestation of the island, and used so much of its resources that there was widespread famine, and a huge population loss. It is an example of how an entire culture can lose perspective.

The moai in the British Museum is from the Short Ears side of the island. It would have originally been painted red. It is called Hakananai’a, which translates as ‘Stolen or Hidden Friend’.

My favourite part of the statue is not the fond memories it evokes, but the plinth it stands on. Over the years so many people thought it would be hilarious to touch the sign that says ‘Please do not touch’ that, although it has since been removed, its outline is preserved in greasy fingerprints. It’s like a footpath which emerges on a patch of grass; but this time from lots of people doing the same joke.

“Please do not touch”

Further reading:
The BBC’s History of the World in 100 Objects
The Cult of the Birdman, the religion that developed following the famine
Easter Island Statues