Allow me to quack poetic about the efforts of a local team of artists from San Jose State University who collaborated behind the scenes on an installation for last year’s 01SJ Global Festival of Art on the Edge in downtown San Jose. Just last month, the project Tantalum Memorial took home first prize at transmediale.09, an international festival for contemporary art and digital culture in Berlin.
First of all, if you’re under a rock and haven’t heard about 01SJ, the first festival took place in 2006, the second event erupted last year, and the whole shebang will occur again every two years. Basically, it’s the North American equivalent of similar festivals throughout Europe and Asia exploring the interstices between new media art, culture and digital technology.
One of the highlights of last year’s 01SJ was the “Superlight” exhibit at the San Jose Museum of Art, featuring several provocative debut installations. One of those works was Tantalum Memorial, by the English collective of Graham Harwood, Richard Wright and Matsuko Yokokoji, constructed of ancient working Strowger telephone switches honoring the millions in Congo who died in the wars over tantalum—an element derived from coltan, mined in Congo and used in cell phones.
A computer at the San Jose installation was programmed to physically dial into another Harwood, Wright and Yokokoji installation—Telephone Trottoire (sidewalk telephony)—back in London, where Congolese refugees leave voicemails and swap stories with each other. Analytical data from those conversations was downloaded, rerouted and used to mechanically trigger the Strowger switches to make acoustic sounds in the San Jose Museum of Art.
Harwood, Wright and Yokokoji were originally awarded a local residency to create the work for 01SJ, and a team of students from the CADRE Laboratory for New Media at SJSU—Thomas Asmuth, Ethan Miller, Danielle Siembieda and Yumika Tanaka—played a major role in the trenches to make the whole project happen. It was a primo illustration of how collaboration behind the scenes is paramount in many works at the 01SJ festival.
The results are now official: Three weeks ago, Tantalum Memorial took the €5,000 purse at transmediale.09. Thousands of submissions were initially whittled down to several dozen, and the London-based trio won. Harwood accepted the award onstage, pondering how he was going to split the dough with everyone back home.
Here in the old U.S. of A., the CADRE students gathered at Trials Pub in downtown San Jose and gave me the skinny on how the whole project came together. Harwood, Wright and Yokokoji submitted the proposal to create the work for the 01SJ festival, and the CADRE individuals each played their own roles behind the scenes.
It was nonstop craziness. In order to acquire the Strowger switches, Asmuth tracked down a crackpot collector of old telephony equipment in Portland, Ore., and paid him to help construct the apparatus. For the installation in the art museum, CADRE student Ethan Miller programmed a bunch of Perl scripts on a Linux machine to download continuous analytical data from the London-based Telephone Trottoire project, where Congolese refugees were leaving voicemail stories.
The downloaded data—how often people were calling in, what time they called, etc.—was displayed on a computer screen and also rerouted out of the computer’s serial port to mechanically drive the Strowger telephone switches, so they’d make acoustic sounds while switching on and off. The Strowger switch sculpture thus functioned as an audio installation triggered by the data downloaded from the London installation.
CADRE student Danielle Siembieda helped with the physical installation and also interfaced with the local Congolese population to educate the rest of the team about the plight of the refugees while another CADRE postgrad, Yumika Tanaka, helped drive the British artists around town, ran errands, kept folks sane and basically functioned as an overall yin to everyone else’s yang. All in all, it was a team effort. A true mashup.
“If you wrote down everyone who worked on this project, you’d have probably 40 names,” Asmuth said.