Supercargo: an interview with Peter Moorsgard

In the last weeks of December, I blogged about this fascinating project called "Supercargo: a parable of desire". In this tumblr collecting intriguing examples of current cargo cults, Peter Moorsgard provides us with an exhaustive display of  what he calls "Supercargo". He defines it as "ritual appropriation + subversive mimickry". I'm definitely mesmerized by these examples, which I find both curious and revealing; which is why I started chatting with Peter. This is the resulting interview:

Nicolas Nova: Can you tell us more about your supercargo tumblr? What's the logic behind it and how did you become interested in this?

Peter Moorsgard: I think it was about 2005 in south-tirol when i read about cargo cults on a trivial persuit card. i was studying digital arts at that time and got extremely bored with technology. Media arts and digital culture seemed too much about technological progress at that time. everybody was just celebrating technology itself, but technology is never just a cool tool. its pure ideology. the artistic approaches on the other hand were extremely lame. do you know ars electronica festival? it became more and more of a toy expo. i was intrigued by the cargo cults because they celebrated and mocked technology, culture, imperialsim at the same time. i thought, well maybe theres a strategy! when i was crippled by a major depression and panic attacs in 2013 i started the Supercargo Blog. i found myself completely unable to work, but could still surf tumblr, repost stuff etc .. posting became a daily ritual for me and it still is. i just try to put together sets of images with found material, maybe some day i will be able to work again.

“These are LAVR-glasses (Lower Austrian Virtual Reality) I built together with local youngsters. after the image of 90ies VR promises, we buitt these for Supercargo (the movie), which is about the founding myth of the artistic cargo cult in Austria.”

NN: There seems to be a growing interest in this kind of projects, this sort of logic. I'm thinking about this Futur Archaïque exhibit in Belgium I mentioned, but also other art/design projects related to it. Why do you feel this is happening now?

PM: I think something like this is in the air, and its getting bigger. why, i dont know .. maybe its an archaic revival in connection with digital media. Terence McKenna described that conclusively decades ago, and i think he is still right. as advanced these technologies are, they set us back into a mystic perception, a general attraction to archaic forms. we just have to adapt to immense data income every day, logic has to be set aside simply to cope with a hypernervous global culture. it all becomes archaic and mythological. it is just a necessary strategy. another more mundane explanation would be, that people are just getting fed up with the slick, sterile utopia apple is trying to sell us.

these are cargo phones i found on tumblr, a kind of stone age communication, or maybe rebuilt from collective memory after the pulsar-apocalypse.

NN: Do you see this relate to this "post-digital" art scene that we see popping up these days? A need to go beyond the digital?

PM: Yes the postdigital aspect was always very important in my work. i started making postinternet stuff before it even had a name. i tried to see art and technology from the viewpoint of the simple consumer. basically because i myself had no skills at all, no programming skills, no crafting skills etc .. and i find everybody can relate to that everything else is not subversive/emancipatory in my eyes. in my view we´re more and more trying to work like machines, like computers. but how would a simple human do that, not trying to imitate a machine? the postdigital has many forms, and with "supercargo" i took my simplistic position. use only poor materials, embrace capitalist mythology, make a second hand utopia. its a free party from now on!

NN: Lots of these projects are fascinating because they interrogate us about the nature/culture debate. From your perspective, as an astute observer of such projects, what do they tell us about our relationship to technology?

PM: Culture, art and technology are basically utopia factories. you can relate and research (maybe subvert) that in form of simple products. messianic devices, artwork masterpieces, they are part of a larger system. they all have their histories, rules, all these invisible forces manifest in products. the way i see it, we are living in a time governed by cybernetics alone. it was allways in the interest of cybernetics to describe organisms and technology alike. to make a supersystem for processes be it biological or cultural. that is frightening in the end. anyway, maybe through cybernetic thinking we can realise that technology isn't artificial at all. we are just a material processing species, like bees producing honeycombs. i find it interesting to look at the material world again, as we are absorbed in informational worlds. Mcluhan said that every new medium absorbs the old media as its content, therefore making it visible AGAIN. Look at todays TV Shows, they became an artform after the internet absorbed TV. Now the World itelf is upon total simulation. The physical world is becoming visible for the first time i think, and material world will be a cult- a fetish.

these are so called “Dre Beets”. i couldnt figure out who built them, but they are kind of the asian brother of the cargo cult: Shanzhai

NN: It's interesting to see Cargo Cults as the new sort of belief, beyond the Western/non-Western distinction, a sort of general perspective on things with a strange relationship to consumerism and material culture, what's your take on this?

PM: As written in the Supercargo Manifesto: Surprisingly the local performers of the Cargo Cults succeeded: By remaking western technology with bamboo, they attracted actual planes full of tourists and anthropologists. People got interested in the exotic parades using western imagery. The John Frum Movement (“John from Merica”) suddenly had an audience, soon bringing actual stuff (cargo) to the island. The cargo shaman once said: You build your plane too and wait in faith. the waiting is the hardest part. According to some shamans the planes awaited will also bring weapons to throw off colonialist oppressors. The cargo cults are strange mockups of imperialism, at the same time keeping old traditions. But is the cult for real or just performance? It does not matter, no difference, it is about the act. The Tale of the Cargo ringing true on so many levels. The cult of the cargo is our world exactly: We perform meaningless routines we call work,in hope for future cargo. With a technology that could navigate us to the moon, we write LMAO. The western world itself is a giant cult of imitating things that somehow work: dressing in suits, using buzzword-vocabulary, mimicking old forms of art. who knows why.. The longing for godlike goodies on the horizon, the usage of things we don´t understand: a big parable of desire. The waiting, the waiting is the hardest part!

NN: thanks for your answers and good luck with the project, keep us posed.

Weekending 25122011

It was Christmas Day when the week ended here in Los Angeles.

The week before, lots of fun stuff happened, mostly these two interviews.

One was with Steve Portigal for his Omni Project, called Creating Wily Subversions. Nicolas did an interview with Steve a little while ago:

There was also an interview I did with Kevin Holmes for month or so ago that I just found here:

Oh yeah — there was some general thinking about what goes on the project list for 2012.

Continue reading Weekending 25122011

Design Fiction on Australian Radio / FutureTense

I had a fun discussion with the folks at this wonderful Australian Radio National’s Future Tense show on the topic of design fiction — “Fictitious futures, virtual development and visual language.”

I suppose its a measure of things the degree to which the conversation about the co-mingling of design, science, fiction, fact and technology spreads far and wide — even to discussions in the realm of public radio. It’s tempting to be more actively involved in the practice of these things.

Actually — finding the way that even the behind-closed-doors work I do during the day can squeak out into the light of day without ruffling feathers is on the list of things to do..or has been for a couple of years now. Not at all to crow about the work, but to share it because there are learning experiences in there and, frankly — it’s not the kind of work that tips directly into the kinds of back alley gossip about what the titans of industry will do this quarter to make their financial lap dogs pant happily. It’s just great, exciting, thoughtful speculative design work that should be discussed and learned-from — process, outcomes, how-to do speculative design..more the meta-meat that is intriguing rather than the material itself.

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Slow Down

Friday January 15, 21.24.48

Friday January 15, 21.25.45

Friday January 15, 21.27.17

It’s not often we’re found in print, but this happened when the magazine Good did its “Slow Issue”. Jennifer Leonard chatted with us one morning about our perspectives on the slow movement because of our work on the Slow Messenger device and on-going collaborations with slowLab and Carolyn Strauss. There’s mention of the device and a brief interview with folks like Bruce Sterling, Esther Dyson and Jamais Cascio in the magazine and online.
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The Week Ending 080110

Sunday September 20, 12.53.26

Markings for repair or warnings to mitigate accidents? Seen in Seoul, South Korea.

Whilst technically still on holiday, there were some things done as usual and *holiday* is never entirely just not doing nuthin’.

There was a quick visit to the studio to begin to finish the second of two commissioned Trust devices, which is looking simultaneously quite insightful and lovely. I hope some day that this becomes a lever to torque the rudder if even ever so slightly.

Jennifer Leonard’s interviews in Good Magazine’s Slow Issue (*Perspectives on a smarter, better, and slower future*) with Esther Dyson, Jamais Cascio, Bruce Sterling, John Maeda, Alexander Rose and myself appeared online. The topic of the short discussions? “We asked some of the world’s most prominent futurists to explain why slowness might be as important to the future as speed.”

And, prompted by Rhys’ clever insights into a richer, smarter less ROI-driven vector into thinking about this whole, you know..augmented reality mishegoss, I’ve been reading a fascinating history of linear perspective that has been helping guide more meaningful thinking. (I have yet to see anything that leaps much further beyond flags showing where something is by holding up a device in front of my face, which just seems momentarily cool and ultimately not particularly consonant with all the hoopleheaded hoopla.

I’ve started The Renaissance Rediscovery of Linear Perspective, which has a number of curious insights right off the bat, particularly ones that remind us that linear perspective is only a possibility and not necessarily something to be thought of as “realistic” from a variety of perspectives. In fact, it merely makes renderings that remove experience and abstract points-of-view, something that I recently learned from Latour’s Visualisation and Cognition (which, not unsurprisingly, led me to this Edgerton book via a reference and footnote.)

Configuration A - Binocular Form Factor

A Laboratory experiment from 2006 — *Viewmaster of the Future* — using a binocular-style form factor. ((The lenses are removed in this photo.))

And, the follow-on, which I haven’t started yet is the enticingly titled The Mirror, the Window, and the Telescope: How Renaissance Linear Perspective Changed Our Vision of the Universe, which immediately caught my eye as I am drawn more to the history, imagery, rituals and *user experience* dimensions of telescopes and binoculars as affordances for, bleech..*augmented reality* than this stupid hold-a-screen-up-to-my-face crap. ((cf. this stuff below — the screen-up-to-my-face configuration — never felt as good as the second iteration of this *Viewmaster of the Future* experiments we did a few years ago.))

Continue reading The Week Ending 080110

Chat With Holly Willis of Blur + Sharpen

Saturday March 28, 11.52.40

Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis College of Design. Closing day for the Future Imaginary exhibition. Where on earth is this? It’s here.

My USC chum Holly Willis did a fun email interview with me for her Blur + Sharpen blog. Below is our fun exchange, which is a discussion of process which is something i am curious about. (More than products of processes for the time being.)

Sometimes I have the best job! This week I’ve been interviewing people about their presentations – the talks they do at conferences and other events – and it’s fascinating hearing how people “write” in the hybrid form that is the visual/verbal presentation. I traded emails yesterday with Julian Bleecker about his presentations, which are stellar. Julian is a designer, technologist and researcher at the Design Strategic Projects Studio at Nokia Design in Los Angeles; he’s also the co-founder with Nicolas Nova of the Near Future Laboratory, their design-to-think studio.
I think of Julian also as a public intellectual in the sense that he actively cultivates a world of shared ideas and experimentation. One of the things about Julian’s presentations is that they’re visually rich – it’s not just that his images are beautiful and provocative, often working at the level of metaphor. And it’s not just that he plays with scale, repetition and pattern. It’s that the visuals and the words and the “performance” of the presentation all meld in very pleasurable ways. Plus, he “works” the material for a while, until the ideas take shape in some new form…

For example, a few days ago, he posted an essay called “Design Fiction: A Short Essay on Design, Science, Fact and Fiction.” It grew out of work he’s been mulling over for a few years, partly in conversation with pervasive computing scholars Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell. He’s presented the ideas publicly but then produced a printable version for distribution; the design of this version highlights Julian’s skills, but more than that, it suggests the power of design as a mode that productively unites thinking and making. Julian describes the designed essay as “a written kind of design provocation,” adding that for the last few months, he’s been doing more writing than soldering. “The two practices,” he explains, “contribute to the same set of objectives, which is to make and remake the world around us, provide new perspectives and evolve a set of principles that help make the making more imaginative, more aspirational.” I think this is a pretty decent mandate for one’s work. Anyway, here’s our exchange:

Where do you get your visuals? Do you create them or find them or both?

They’re either photographs I’ve taken for one reason or another, or photographs I take for the purpose of illustrating an idea, or other people’s photographs I’ve asked to use, or just straight frame grabs from films or scans from other material. I take lots and lots of photographs that are often visual thoughts or observations about some usually peculiar social practice or something like this. Something that might spark a short idea…

When you start to craft the visual part of a presentation, where are you in terms of the presentation? In other words, do you start with visuals and then think about what you’ll say? Or do you script the whole thing, and then go and find the visual complements?

Depends on the material. For this design fiction thing, I basically wrote it all, much of it in long hand that I then transcribed into text on the computer. There was very little in the way of styling or juxtapositioning of words with images, but there were some images that defined the canonical bits of ideas. That all mostly came together in the three presentations at Design Engaged 08, SHiFT 08, and this Sandberg Instituut Amsterdam presentation for their Moving Movie Industry conference. I pretty much knew what i wanted to say, at least in my head, but i was searching for the right language and structure. The images helped in the stand-up presentations to anchor some of the ideas. Some things got tossed away because they couldn’t make them make sense even if the intuition was there. So, i guess i started with a vague sort of architecture, then stubbed in images to help tell the story whilst standing up in front of people who probably aren’t interested in watching me read something. Then, i started writing something out with a marker in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, with lots of repetition, trying to get the beats right. Then i transposed that into digital form as a simple text document, working and honing that and then eventually put that text into InDesign and started laying it out alongside of and between images, while also continuing to wordsmith and that sort of thing. The “sidebars” – the sort of parenthetical examples and notes and stuff – were mostly written in InDesign as good examples occurred to me or were suggested.

How would you characterize the relationship between what you say and what you show?

The showing has to be as impactful as the telling wants to be. Maybe this is partly a response to these new kinds of media literacies, or maybe its just my own tendency. Even as I look back at my Masters thesis which I struggled to make visual (PageMaker on an friend’s Mac II), the images were at the heart of things. They told the story as much as the words, and filled in the gaps where the language needed joists and supports or protection from the inevitable (and sometimes productive) misreadings. That sort of thing.

What is the culture of the presentation in your field?

I’m not sure I have a field, but last year and this year and perhaps into the 2010 I cordoned myself mostly into only doing things that have the word “design” somewhere in the description of the activity/workshop or event. In that plot of land, I hope the culture of the presentation is primarily communicative – circulating ideas and provoking. I think this is what this culture is most of the time. You get the odd “sell” presentation here and there, but most of the settings in which this sort of thing gets shared I would say are in between “here are some ideas I have that I want to share” and “this is a section of a book I’ve written/would like to write/will never write, but it helps to think I might.” Sometimes they are school work or in that category that have leeched out into different cultures….
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Time Spent, Well

I’m generally not a rush-rush guy when it comes to airline travel. If find it useful to take a bit of a time buffer between deplaning and entering the real-world of transfers, taxis, trains, learning to negotiate maps, figuring out where the hotel is, sorting my head out, and to shake off the stiffness of barely human conditions of international travel. So I generally check my bag. I’ve been lucky over the years, only had one rather epic mis-routing of luggage. There comes a time though when the ratio of travel time to luggage retrieval enters the realm of the absurd. Here in CPH, after an hour and change flight from Berlin, a good 30 minutes was spent waiting. Waiting. Waiting. If memory serves, during the last trip they finally just brought the luggage trailing on the flatbed carts you normally only see out on the tarmac. Just drove the tractors in, leaving everyone to climb over things and grab their bag off the cart.

Fortunately the time was well spent having a conversation on the consequences of global connections — what would the world be like if the next billion people were connected? — with my friend Noel Hidalgo (just off his Luck of the Seven round-the-world-for-free-culture trip and a tour of duty trying out being a NYC Cabbie, which might explain the Kangol), who happened to be on the same flight.
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