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Critical Engineering

June 26, 2012

Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev are here in CTVR to do a week long NETWorkshop as part of the openhere festival we are hosting. The first day of the workshop was held today and I got to hear them talk about some of their very amazing work.

There is too much to say about these artists in one post. So I am just picking out a few things.

The guys have a Critical Engineering Manifesto which underpins their work. The Manifesto sums up the responsibilities of  and the opportunities for the Critical Engineer and it would, in my opinion, be no harm for this manifesto to underpin undergraduate and postgraduate engineering studies. I also think it offers a way of thinking about Engineering that opens up the world through bringing a level of excitement and responsibility to the role that would go a long way in attracting more interest. Certainly here in Ireland we see dwindling numbers of people choosing Engineering as an option – and I do think if only more people could see Julian and Danja at work that this would be different.

As an aside, I would make one addition to the Manifesto. Though it implicitly captures the notion of power relationships within a technology or system, I would add another line to the manifesto that makes this more explicit — ‘the critical engineer seeks to understand the power structures/relationships that are inherent in any technology or system and within his/her own designs‘.

Julian and Danja spoke about a number of different pieces of their own work (and some work by others) as a means of introducing networked concepts.

The showed us their new book which is an archive of a show the Weise 7 Studio show for Labor Berlin 8. It looks like a regular normal book – it is beautifully designed. When you open it, the first few pages are normal paper pages and then a few pages in you see that carved into the book is a circuit – in fact some kind of wireless server. When the book is open, this turns on and people in the vicinity can read the book on any electronic device that can wirelessly connect to the book. Readers are disconnected when the book is closed. It is beautiful and wonderful.

Archive server

Julian spoke about his Transparency Grenade project. This physical object is detonated by pulling a pin as in any grenade. Here detonation makes the device suck in any network traffic and audio from the location in which it is detonated.  Subsequently this material is displayed on an online map indicating the location at which it was gathered.

They also spoke about a fantastic project called Men in Grey – this is a performance piece in which Julian and Danja present themselves as on the `right side of the law’ and set out to monitor what people are doing online. The guys dress up as unidentifiable bureaucrats, carrying briefcases filled  with hardware and software that can access traffic on any open wireless network. The material they access is displayed on the outside of the briefcases as they walk through the streets and cafes in which they encounter these open networks, often to the horror and dismay of those online in the vicinity. Julian and Danja in this way work on the fears and anxieties of those around them by exposing the insecure nature of the networks we use

There are many more pieces to talk about. What seems to be amazing about all of their work is the mix of well thought- out concepts, intriguing twists and excellent technical implementations.

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