Leonardo LASER Talk

We were invited to speak at the Leonardo LASER Talks in Linz, with the theme of Danube Songs. A great line up of speakers, including Rainer Prohaska, Christina Gruber, Elsa Prochazka and Julian Stadon. The following is an edited version of the talk. There is a recording of the stream available.

TUBA: The Time’s Up Boating Association.

Time’s Up came together in 1996 as a group for a series of exhibitions and investigations around biomechanics, control and perception, our three way “pop science” triangle that we used to explain the world with our tongues firmly in our cheeks. Ridiculous machines, primitive game interfaces, sweaty bodies in arts contexts; it was all quite absurd and wonderful.

In order to have spaces to build, explore, program and create, we moved into the old workshops of the Donaudampfschifffahrtsgessellschaft (the The Danube steam ship company) in the trading harbour of Linz, stuck on a peninsula between the harbour and the Danube river. Isolated and almost marooned, imagery and ideas from the legends of pirate life were part of our aesthetics, the old pirate flag of an expired hourglass was appropriated as our logo and the name Time’s Up was born.

The one year project was successful enough that people asked us to do some more, and year by year we carried on. In 1998 we had a series of explorative arts-science-technology residencies under the moniker Closing the Loop. Strange brainwave interfaces and mechanical devices, responsive video, camera manipulations and some very dodgy technological hacks were undertaken. People like Nik Baginsky, Prema Murthy and Marnix de Nijs arrived. Marnix is a very intense, large and motivated Dutch artist dealing with mechanical and perceptual ideas. The harbour was brought into play: we de-railed his momentum with swims in the almost unused harbour, balancing on an inflatable sofa. Then the experiments carried on, with a pineapple as an avatar being the “obvious” next step.

The Danube, and water in general, has a habit of de-railing intentions and allowing slower, more contemplative intentions to emerge. The world is filled with motivational messages such as “Sweat, Tears or the ocean: salt water helps deal with problems” that remind us of our fundamental connections with the ocean. Think also that the planet Earth should be names the planet Water, as it has 70% ocean coverage. We are on a blue marble hanging in space.

A century ago, the Danube was an untamed river where the Time’s Up labs stand. Every flood would wash away the river banks and deposit new scree, the mountain’s eroded detritus deposited in the valley to re-shape the river, offering breeding places for frogs and fishes. Since the 1940s the harbour exists and we as a society have tamed its shores. In our first years at the harbour Fritz Schwartz of the Botanical Gardens visited us and reminded us that the area that we are working on was always a bleak landscape of destruction and re-growth; the gravel beds must be open for the ecosystems to carry on. Christoph Wiesmayr with his Schwemmland projects carries on this investigation with the rural uses mixing with industrial colonisation along the eastern edge of the city of Linz. The slag piles of the Voest Alpine are quickly overrun with new plants, the edges of the Danube remain places of wildness and regeneration.

Not all water spaces are able to regenerate. The Baltic sea is confronted with nutrient rich run-off from northern Europe, Scandinavia and Russia. It is only open to the Atlantic Ocean through the Kattegat, a shallow seas north of Denmark. The project Hydropia is a near future imagination of ocean ecosystem collapse and automated science. A robotic research vessel, the eponymous RV Hydropia, has been found floating in the Baltic, embedded in the layers of algal slime that dominate the collapsed and toxic ecosystem of that sea. The project develops a storyline of citizen science undertaken by robots and automated systems, attempts at regenerating the collapsed seas, with journeys undertaken now to collect audio recordings of undersea phenomena, with a custom research float developed and tested on the Danube in 2021 being prepared for placing in the Baltic in 2022. This project echoes some of the repeating methods we use: imagination of a possible future scenario based upon contemporary developments, the creation of a (semi)fictional storyworld in that scenario, then the creation of a specific situation and the involved stuff (materials, processes, sound, smell, etc) that makes that particular scenario able to be experienced. This modified experiential futures ladder, developing that of Stuart Candy and Jake Dunagan, gives us a framework for our approaches. We look forward to further work on this project in 2022.

The Experiential Futures ladder, an abstraction that we find useful.

At some point boats became useful for our ongoing work. Andreas Strauss built a ramp so that Just Merit could bath in the harbour, his wheelchair being somewhat hard to manoeuvre down to the water level. This was re-purposed as a boat launching device for a yellow speedboat that still graces our workshop. At some point we started referring to the boat projects and play as the Time’s Up Boating Association and TUBA was born. Student projects on the water have been plentiful, floating logos, water pumps and a steam powered Jacuzzi to name but a few. We built a version of a 1930s small rowing boat from some cheap Form-ply, which has continued to grace exhibitions ever since. Markus Luger built a giant catamaran from old gas tanks, Leo Schatzl started his Ubik restoration, David Moises built his submerged caravan. While motors often played a role, with various old two stroke relics being restored for use, we have maintained a strong interest in paddle and sail powered vessels.

In 2011-2012 we undertook the Control of the Commons project. Waterways are a form of commons. Owned by no one and thus by everyone, with special considerations for the internationality of the Danube or the high seas, they are a strange beast. We built vessels from scraps, fitted them with yuloh sculling oars and sailing rigs inspired by Arabian and Chinese styles. We undertook journeys on the Murray River in Australia, the Danube in Austria and the canals of France and Belgium. We camped on sand spits and cattle paddocks, met drop outs and houseboat crews, were nibbled at by shrimp and were revolted by the smell of fish killed by barge propellers. We sailed through old town centers, were sworn at by lock keepers, praised by law enforcement and still ran up against the legalities of travel.

It turns out that the Danube, and in fact most bodies of water, are merely the physical instantiations of a web of interconnections. There are multiple administrative bodies responsible for the waterways. The police, the waterway management organisation, the shipping police, the lock masters, the maritime safety organisations, chambers of commerce and insurance organisations, regional, national and supranational bodies, the IMO and more.

While the possibility to register the scrapyard vessels was nonexistent, as they were neither professional nor could we provide the extensive engineering analysis needed, the existence of provisional licensing was brought to our attention and we were able to find a loophole to crawl through. By attaching an unused outboard motor to the wind and muscle powered vessel, we were legal again.

There is not just Law but also Lore around the waterways. As long as people have been taking to the water, they have been having trouble. Water reminds us of our humanity and our size. A placid river stretch can become a raging whitewater around the next bend, the Pacific ocean is rarely so peaceful as it was when it was named. Mutuality has emerged, with traditions such as the General Average to deal with damages or the understanding of rescue: seafarers will rescue one another in times of need. This has been ensconced in law. As sea trade became a matter for the great empires, a series of regulations was created between them that have become international law. The COLREG and the MARPOL agreements deal with collisions and maritime pollution. Some of these laws enforce the rule that a seafarer must rescue other seafarers in distress. Despite what paranoid migrant fearing politicians claim, there is Lore and Law of the Sea.

As part of the developments of Turnton, we became interested in the field of green, fossil fuel free transport and logistics, in particular the wind based aspects of it. Carrying on our tradition of exploring the absurd, we looked at what it would take to create a teeny tiny shipping company on the Danube. In contradiction to the usual idea that bureaucrats are negative, the contacts we had indulged the discussion until it became clear that all the difficult parts of transport on the Danube only came into effect over 200 tonne capacity. Our 5.4 meter cargo vessel was well below this.

In 2020 we undertook a series of journeys along the Danube in order to explore the possibilities for running cargo between the Eferding Becken and Linz, a form of explorative arts based research. In the city there was already a last mile operator using bicycle power; we developed ideas about how we could interact with him and his systems. This process of imagination, of creating a possible solution not so much as a pilot but as a process of exploration, has been called prefiguration by our colleagues at FoAM. Applied in artistic and cultural practices, but also in organisational and business contexts, the boundaries between the administrative and the cultural fade. FoAM has enjoyed strong collaborations with Kate Rich of Feral Trade and the Experiments in Business group, the Radical Administration events (and readers) lead to understandings and cultural explorations of economic models. We are similarly interweaving water culture and the legal-administrative cultures. We are not as the others. Travelling on the river as a tiny, electric motor and sail powered vessel, we were distinctly not of the world where 80 meter 1000 tonne barges ply their trade. We were and are consciously other, a performance of otherness that falls strongly and interestingly in Foucault’s discussions of heterotopias.

This view could almost be from 2020, 1920 or 2120.

In spite of this performativity, there is a fundamental experiential aspect to actions on the river. Everything is slow. And simultaneously fast. There are rocks hidden below the surface, visible perhaps only as slight perturbations of the water surface. Time slows down and speeds up. Without the abundant power of fossil fuels, we keep to the shore and try to ride the eddies, intimately aware of the river’s flows. In other explorations we have noted that while in some senses it is all very fast, and in other ways slow, when travelling downstream it is almost impossible to turn around to investigate what has just been passed. Attentions remain heightened, not only to rocks and large vessels, but also interesting instances and activities. One is on the river, ensconced in the trees and bushes, the towns and buildings mostly hidden behind flood banks and levees. Without the freedom to not pay attention, one is held in thrall by the movement and the action. It is a situation that falls out of time; the same issues faced a seafarer on the Danube a century ago and will likely face them in a century. On the river we become atemporal, not in Bruce Sterling’s sense of being permanently online and embedded in a virtuality, but by being ensconced in that moment and that space, beyond a mere now.

After J.K. Gibson-Graham

This otherness, this consciously becoming different, a part of the heterotopic, can also be looked at through Gibson-Graham’s ideas of queer(y)ing economics. We are not abiding by the needs and necessities of standard economics, which essentially means the study of capitalism. Not principally engaging with financial return on investment, we are interested in the rest of the iceberg that makes up the economics of everyday life. Gifts and favors, cash work and trades and mutualism and spending time with people doing relevant things, learning instead of being paid, paying forward rather than engaging in trade, the river offers a very concentrated idea of how economics and interchange can and do happen.

Standard Economics is such a collection of assumptions. Until the Quakers emerged as influential traders, prices were not marked in shops. Every trade was based on a number of factors, the price determined by social status, ability to pay, haggling, relationships and many other factors. The Society of Friends implemented the policy of stating their prices in their shops, for all to see and for all to pay, as an embodiment of their belief that all people were equal. We cannot imagine it any other way, but this was a choice we made in business.

In the Medusa Bar, a fragment of our near future coastal city Turnton in 2047, there are no prices. There are many reasons to avoid price statements. If we write Euro, then we imply that the EU exists in 2047 and economic structures persist, but the price for a drink will indicate processes of inflation or stagnation. If we wrote a national currency, then the Euro has disappeared and perhaps the EU as well. And the nation exists, which also tells the visitor where Turnton is. If we create a new currency, then we are claiming something else that is strong. In our processes of experiential futures, we do not want to force too many changes, but we also do not want to discount them. Alongside strong constructions and detailed developments, we use the Mut zur Lücke, the “courage of the gap” to enable openness. What do you think has happened? What resonates with you? In other fragments we have created the SleepCoin, a form of UBI that is paid to each person for every hour that they sleep. By sleeping we do not consume and do not produce and thus leave the world alone. By leaving it alone, we encourage recovery, regeneration, as we do in rehabilitation and renaturation. Somnum Ergo Sum, in opposition to the almost fascist claim that if you do not work you do not eat.

“What if..?” remains our question. And would it be good? By running a fragment of a transport company along the Danube, we question how much needs to be transported. Does 90% of everything need to come by sea? By slowing down and reflecting as we transport, we develop attention for the elementary. By accepting the inevitable delays that come when not everything is transported at full speed and maximal efficiency, we can determine essentials.

“Any useful idea about the future should appear to be ridiculous.”

Jim Dator

Prefigurative actions on the river, the creation of economically queered heterotopic moments allow us to think, hopefully out loud, about the sort of world that we really want to be living in. And if anything, this is perhaps the most important question of these times.

This note is part of Curiouser and Curiouser, cried Alice: Rebuilding Janus from Cassandra and Pollyanna (CCA) a artbased research project from the Institute for Design Investigations at the University of Applied Arts Vienna und Time’s Up. It is supported by the Programme for Arts-based Research (PEEK) from Austrian Science Fund (FWF): AR561.

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