Located in the city centre, a stone’s throw from New Street Station, the recently established Birmingham Open Media is positioned both literally and figuratively as a space of transition and interchange. More laboratory than gallery, BOM emphasises participation rather than display: projects evolve at the space over time, rather than arriving fully-formed. Messiness and transparency are not only encouraged, but essential—visitors must be willing to interact, ask questions, and get their hands dirty (not always metaphorically) to fully appreciate what the space has to offer.
‘BOM Fellows: Live R&D’ is an early phase manifestation of the gallery’s annual fellowship scheme, in which creative practitioners across art, science and technology are invited to take up residency in the collaborative workspaces and inform the shape of BOM’s programme. The inaugural ten fellows selected by BOM Director Karen Newman have diverse backgrounds and practices, but subsets within the group also share interests such as interactivity, collective experience, narrative, archives, coding, copyright and photography. Already it appears that these areas of commonality are starting to catalyse cross-disciplinary collaborations between the fellows, spurred on by shared practice-led research methodologies ranging from fieldwork and mapping, to reverse engineering, hacking, sampling and remixing.
BOM itself is a dynamic space where zones of production and exhibition overlap. The public-facing dimensions of the fellows’ projects take many forms, including talks, workshops, open calls and installations. Emphasis is placed on hands-on learning and skills sharing, and acts of collaboration and interaction are integral to many of the projects. Crucially, BOM challenges the growing stereotype—prevalent in arts organisations—that technology is synonymous with computer screens: the organisation takes a broad view of DIY culture and offers workshops across biological sciences and design alongside regular coding sessions and data patching circles.
During her drop-in workshop ‘Bioprospecting Birmingham’, biochemist Dr Melissa Grant recruited visitors to take swabs from around the city, and demonstrated a DIY Bio recipe for agar jelly (ingredients include Marmite, powdered milk and honey) to grow the environmental bacteria collected from the samples. By mapping the microorganisms of BOM’s urban surroundings, Grant introduces visitors to the basics of bioprospecting—the search for plant and animal resources from which to develop new products—as a step towards resurrecting her ‘High-Altitude Bioprospecting Project’ to search for microscopic life in the stratosphere.
Mapping and place are also integral to ‘Colony’, an ongoing project by artist Nikki Pugh comprising a series of wearable robotic ‘creatures’ that act as a haptic interface between their human carriers and the surrounding landscape. A recent prototype uses simple electronics and GPS data to calculate the density of its environment and react with a quickening pulse to signal distress when entering claustrophobic situations. The bearer’s navigational decisions and experience of place are influenced by their emotional and physical investment in the creature, and concern for its perceived wellbeing. Pugh inverts the trend for ever smaller and less obtrusive personal devices, instead designing objects that—through their overt physicality and whimsical nature—give both bearers and onlookers ‘permission’ for social engagement with strangers, and playful interaction in public spaces.
The concept of permission is also of increasing interest to Glitch artist Antonio Roberts, who is developing a new body of work based on copyright and remix culture. Glitch operates in the fuzzy, erratic zone where human thinking meets computer logic, and Roberts uses this arena to test other long-standing grey areas surrounding authenticity and appropriation. A recent project, ‘Copyright Atrophy’ uses scripts and programs to break down and mutate well-known corporate logos, seeking the point at which an image loses its identity and/or copyright status.
Roberts cedes partial control of his making process to algorithms, using generative practices and open source software to confuse the relationship of signal to noise. Photographers Pete Ashton and Dan Burwood also pursue research into degraded and decaying images, initiating processes that reveal media to be mutable and unstable, whether digitally (Ashton) or biologically (Burwood). Their practices are poles apart yet share a fascination with error, misuse, corruption and unpredictability, and the performance of images over time.
Burwood’s background in documentary photography has morphed into the more experimental project ‘Media/Culture/Mycology’, in which microorganisms are cultivated within traditional wet photographic processes. These destructive acts are also creative, by definition of their transformative potential. The work aims to explore how organic activity can affect the photographic object, and inform broader conventions of lens-based image making.
Ashton is interested in how human activity wears away our environment, proposing that the value of a place, object or picture can be measured by its deterioration through repeated use. In the case of digital image sharing, this deterioration has resulted in what Hito Steyerl has termed the ‘poor image’ and writer Brian Feldman has called the ‘shitpic’—an image so degraded by its procession through the compression algorithms of a chain of uploads, downloads, re-uploads, filters and screen captures that it becomes a battered, noise-ridden shadow of its former high-resolution self.
Ashton’s project ‘Sitting In Stagram’ operates within the parameters of Instagram—the application does not allow reposting of others’ images, forcing users to take a screen capture and then post the image as their own—to accelerate and make visible this process of attrition. For this work, Ashton ‘regrammed’ the same image 90 times until it dissolved into noise, producing a visualisation of viral dissemination that confronts the contemporary hierarchy of images (in which resolution is fetishised). As Steyerl writes, “The poor image is no longer about the real thing—the ordinary original. Instead, it is about its own real conditions of existence: about swarm circulation, digital dispersion, fractured and flexible temporalities.” (1) For Ashton too, the poor image or shitpic is the residue of a social act, a gateway to access online processes of communication, information sharing and mediation.
BOM’s focus on experimentation and exchange references Birmingham’s renown as a centre of the Industrial Enlightenment in the 1700s, a period in which the city provided an ideal platform for knowledge transfer between theoretical scientists and manufacturers, linking discovery with economics. The space’s remit also strikes a chord with contemporary Birmingham’s robust university research sector, which spans fields such as medical science, digital design and nanotechnology. By cultivating creative practices that thrive beyond the walls of the white cube, BOM’s ‘Live R&D’ programme emphasises process over outcome, and collaboration over isolation. This is a rare opportunity to witness ideas and inventions at their most vulnerable and volatile stages of evolution.
(1) Hito Steyerl, In Defense of the Poor Image in The Wretched of the Screen, Sternberg Press, Berlin, 2012, p44.