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Creators

Bruce Sterling's "My Future Frontier" Is A Tech-Charged Political Satire

The futurist spoke to us about his immigration/border-focused installation at tonight's Emerge Festival.

by Zach Sokol
Mar 7 2014, 9:20pm

"I’m in the Arizona State University laser-lab now, where we are busily employing the Brian Eno creative method of firing arrows, then drawing targets around the place they hit." ~ Bruce Sterling (above) writing about the making of "My Future/Frontier/Mi Futura Frontera" for Wired 

Tonight, Arizona State University is presenting Emerge: The Carnival Of The Future, a multi-disciplinary creative conference (think of it as a lowkey, one-night-only SXSW), featuring performances, interactive displays, and exciting new media installations. Emerge will mix projects from engineering, art, science, and humanity-focused disciplines into a blender, and pour that tech smooth out beneath a giant circus tent in downtown Phoenix (literally, the festival takes place under a circus tent). 

This year's theme is, "The Future Of Me," and a wide variety of innovative creatives are sharing their work, including cyperpunk legend and futurist Bruce Sterling. Outside of his fiction, Sterling is known for his Wired column, Beyond The Beyond, as well as his notorious essay on art theory concept, "On The New Aesthetic." The Creators Project once interviewed the tech soothsayer on camera where he forecasted the future, but we haven't had a chance to talk about his tangible creations until now.

This evening, Sterling will share My Future Frontier/Mi Futura Frontera, an interactive exhibition that was designed at the Torino Fablab in Turin, Italy. In an article called "Using Art To Cross Borders Into The Future," the futurist described the complex project and the technology necessary to bring it to fruition, including Arduino and Intel's Galileo circuit board (a tech device which we previously detailed in a doc series called The Makers)  Based on his own personal experiences with U.S.-Mexican border issues, My Future Frontier/Mi Futura Frontera is both a conceptual artwork and an entertaining, interactive piece that Sterling claims seven-year-olds will enjoy more than adults. The piece includes a pair of hoops adorned with laser-burned imagery related to border issues, and a pair of marionettes that dance around these cultural images. 

Though the exhibition may sound simple, Sterling's Slate article divulges more about the mental mapping behind the work. He wrote about how Arduino can be viewed as a "border-crossing device, of a sort" and how My Future Future Frontier/Mi Futura Frontera is itself a border-crossing device: "It's an artwork that migrated from Turin to Phoenix, designed and engineered in one nation, then appearing as a public installation in another."

We were curious about how Sterling turned an extremely complicated and broad topic—transnational relations and border disputes—into a physical (and entertaining) piece of art. He spoke with The Creators Project about My Future Frontier/Mi Futura Frontera, which debuts in a few hours, and why seven-year-olds are the ideal audience for a cutting-edge piece of interactive art. 

The Creators Project: Can you give us a breakdown of the installation and how it operates? 

Bruce Sterling: It's a site-specific work of Arduino-controlled kinetic art commissioned by Arizona State University for their Emerge conference.  It's festive because it's a rotating carousel for ASU's "Carnival of the Future." The installation [includes] a pair of hoops festooned with laser-burned imagery, and the stars of the show are a pair of marionettes designed by the Torino FabLab.

The work is very Maker-like, deliberately made with the humblest of FabLab materials: cardboard, fiberboard, bicycle chains, motors, and some scaffolding pipe. Despite its open-source substance, it's hefty:  Three meters tall, four meters in diameter. It's crude, but built to over-awe.

What was your creative process like developing this installation? Did you know how you’d incorporate the Galileo technology in advance, or did you tinker with it for a while?

Oh, as soon as I saw Brian Krzanich appearing in Rome, publicly giving  the open-source Arduino contingent an Intel peace-offering, I knew I had to do something, somehow, with a Galileo. I'm a novelist, I'm not a coder, but I was sitting in the front row. The significance of that gesture was not lost on me.

The Intel Galileo is the first piece of mainstream tech hardware with a hippie artist right on its box. When I curated Share Festival in Turin in 2008, our theme was "Manufacturing." Massimo Banzi of Arduino was one of our guests. Those were the early days of the Maker scene. I had it figured that some day the majors would come knocking at the door of Arduino.  There are certain things in the Maker scene that are destined to leave the neighborhood.

How do you expect visitors to react to "My Future Frontier"? How do you hope they react or respond? 

I'm pretty sure they'll react the way that contemporary people commonly react to all interactive art installations. Tech-art splits the art public into generational demographics.  

My Future Frontier/Mi Futura Frontera" is a work of sardonic political art; it's all about the highly-charged and socially polarizing issue of the Arizona border with Mexico. Maybe one viewer in twenty will savor a machine that's a cyberpunk writer's political metaphor. I've seen thousands of people reacting to interactive installations. I'm eager to please that five percent of techie cognoscenti, but I'm pretty sure that the key patron of an interactive art piece is a seven-year-old.  

Seven-year-olds are the first human beings to charge headlong into an instrumented space. They're uninhibited, unimpressed, unsurprised. The same vivid impulses that lead them to play with matches will make them charge headlong at software-based artwork. Seven-year-olds are the true avant-garde of interaction. If they're visibly having a good time, then other demographics will follow them: grandparents, sullen teens, blasé middle-aged sophisticates. They willingly participate, when and if they see a seven-year-old gleefully doing that first.

My Future Frontier/Mi Futura Frontera is, by design, very friendly to seven-year-olds.  It's got colored ribbons, cute animals, weird squeaky mechanical noises. The viewer doesn't have to read one word of user instruction. There is no visible critical exegesis. There is nothing much in the device that any seven-year-old can break.  

Images of "My Future Frontier/Mi Futura Frontera" in the works.

You wrote in the Slate piece that your installation includes "Puppets of a system that isn’t built for their benefit, and reactions can get out of hand," similar to a passport or immigration office. Can you elaborate on this?

I don't want to bore you with horror stories of world travel, but people apprehended in passport offices have no civil rights. Awful things happen to people, even law-abiding people, who are snapped up by the surveillance machine at a national border. You can vanish into internment camps for years on end. You can have all your electronics confiscated and surveilled.  You can get bundled into a CIA rendition flight to who knows where. You can sleep under the chairs in the Moscow airport, like Edward Snowden did.  

The Berlin Wall was a national border once. It featured landmines, dogs, snipers, search lights, vibration detectors for tunnels, and many other heart-chilling extravagances.  When I was in Berlin for Transmediale recently, I went on pilgrimage to the Stasi Museum. There I found out that the East German DDR regime was deeply proud of the Berlin Wall. They considered it one of their society's greatest architectural achievements. How could they possibly think that? Things got out of hand, that's how.

What are some examples of trans-national clichés with regards to technology? Any ones that are particularly relevant in 2014? 

Well, the ultimate source of trans-national cliché is an airport duty-free shop. But the US-Mexican border is particularly good at this. There's a vast continental strip, about five hundred yards deep on each side from Brownsville to San Diego, where Mexicans sell Yankees the Yankee clichés about Mexico, while Yankees sell Mexicans the Mexican clichés about El Norte. Five hundred yards is the distance that a day-tripping tourist is willing to physically walk. At six hundred yards the tourists vanish. If you venture that far, you can buy an actual Mexican hat instead of a "Mexican Hat."

Your article implies that technologies like Arduino are inherently globalized. Can these tools help eradicate cultural ignorances or promote a more reasoned or nuanced understanding of transnational relations? 

Well, no, probably not. I don't worry much about that enlightenment issue. I married a foreigner, so I have a remarkably nuanced understanding of transnational relations. Foreigners who genuinely understand you, they don't want to eradicate your national clichés. They're tender and supportive of your national clichés. They romanticize these weird quirks and vigorously cherish them. They're like fresh converts who are more Catholic than the Pope.

Arduino is very Italian but it's very twenty-first-century Italian. It's got nothing to do with the vast Italian heritage industry—just one of many things to like about it.

An image of Arduino and a circuit board.

You also wrote that local people regularly attend and contribute to at the Torino FabLab. Have any interesting projects emerged from any Italian locals? 

Yeah, I'm pleased to report that modern Torino has some regional shows, and even everyday stores, where the locals digitally fabricate consumer goods these days—belts, bags, clothing, jewelry, kitchen gear, just try searching out the Italian contingent on Etsy.  Torino even has steampunks in it, people who are into brass-goggle costume play.  I learn something new every day when I'm in Torino.

What other exhibitions or installations are you looking forward to at Emerge? What about SXSW? 

I enjoy being surprised. It's all about drones, robots and wearables in 2014, but both Emerge and SXSW will offer broad hints about life in the 2020, if you're willing to stop, look, and listen.

All images courtesy of Bruce Sterling's Flickr