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PRETTY GOOD PIRATES
LISA HASKEL ON MAKROLAB


It's Documenta X, and a strange object has landed on Lutterberg Hill, 10 miles outside Kassel in the centre of Germany. Projekt Atol's MAKROLAB: a portable, weatherproof, self-sustainable 'insulation/isolation' environment perches between a grain field and a golf course, with a clear view of the town in the valley, and the strangely appropriate backdrop of a wind farm on the opposite hill. Like a figment of the late 20th century collective imagination, the scene is a vital and spirited visual quotation, bolted together from 2001: A Space Odyssey, visionary architecture in the honourable tradition of Buckminster Fuller and Archigram, and the Constructivist love affair with the materials and aesthetics of science and technology.

MAKROLAB is the largest object in Documenta - this year an intellectually driven but still somehow bombastic statement on the state of contemporary art practice - and yet is also ironically the piece of work most dependent on time-based activity and complex, interlocking levels of mediation. The structure functions as a living and working environment, solar powered, and able to support 3 people for up to 40 days. Avowedly utopian in its objectives, the insulation/isolation strategy aims to achieve total independence from social conditions in order to create a reflective space. The object of reflection include "dreams, psychoacoustics, weather and low energy systems", but also "actual social conditions". This isolated 'no-place' therefore, is also thoroughly connected; through satellite receivers, microwave links, shortwave radio and, with its only physical link to the 'outside' world, an ISDN internet connection that trails 600 metres across the golf course.

Projekt Atol was founded in 1992, an initiative of Slovenian artist Marko Peljhan. He has spent the past five years, together with a team of young Slovenian hackers, bedroom engineers and radio hams, creating errant offspring of the military-industrial complex. Results so far: a film, Ladomir: First Surface (1994) - a meditation in colour, line and movement inspired by Vassily Kandinsky's Bilder Einer Ausstellung, made by a mixture of home-brewed programming and high-tech real-time graphic rendering. An installation, "Terminal" (1996), where aircraft navigation charts were projected in the gallery, with sound transmitted from scans of radio conversations between pilots and controllers as they negotiated the no-fly zones over the former Yugoslavia. Urban Colonisation and Orientation Gear - 144 (1996), was an experiment overlapping psychogeography and communications technology, consisting of a number of group members wandering the streets of Ljubljana carrying home-made versions of the US military's GPS - global positioning system - used together with wireless modems and audio receivers to create a collage of activity on the streets and on the net1. Plus there have beena prolific number of writings, performances and lectures.

MAKROLAB is the third and final manifestation of a cycle of projects called Ladomir - FAKURA, which pivot on the writings of the Russian Avant-Garde poet, Velimir Khlebnikov. His work, published in the 1920s, reads as a charming and irresistible mixture of archaic futurology and an uncannily contemporary vision. Khlebnikov mobilises a dense, deeply metaphorical and lyrical use of language (even in translation) to link natural phenomena with technologies and human inner life. His writing lurches from the wildly fantastic: "Grow edible microscopic organisms in lakes. Every lake will become a kettle of ready-made soup that only needs to be heated: contented people will lie about on the shores, swimming and having dinner" to the improbably incisive: "Let air travel and wireless communication be the two legs humanity stands on. And let's see what the consequences will be". The work Ladomir, published in 1922, takes its title from two Russian words, each with pointed double meanings: 'Lad' means both harmony and living creature. 'Mir' - as anybody who has spent any time in Russia will know - means both world and peace. Khlebnikov developed his own theory of language in which each letter of the alphabet is imbued with specific qualities, and in this system the joining letter 'o' is defined as "the letter which increases size".

However remote from this fanciful legacy the structure may seem at first glance, MAKROLAB is designed primarily to materialise these ideas - to build a processing device through which environmental, personal and communications activity is traced, structured, documented and re-presented. In a countervailing move to modern representation, the project concentrates on materialising the abstract, rather than abstracting the materiality of the everyday.

To this end, the lab aimed to work as a node within branching patterns of flows and processes through time and space - be they radio waves, weather patterns or bird migration. The clamouring, noisy, congested contents of the electro-magnetic spectrum was a special target, and one member of the team working as a guest researcher in the lab was US video maker, Brian Springer. During the 1992 US Presidential elections, Springer captured and recorded off-air satellite feeds of campaign broadcasts. The resulting film, Spin, makes a wry, revealing portrait of television, and politicians, in the making. While working at MAKROLAB Springer collaborated with Peljhan in experimenting with further satellite scanning activity, while investigating the legal frameworks of telecommunications interception, privacy and encryption. In the meantime, the minutiae of this peculiar daily existence was being recorded and various forms, and regular bulletins posted on a web site. The Makrolab web site was just one of the multiple, multivalent, platforms through which people could maintain contact with the lab and experience something of it as an artwork. A console in the main gallery, the Documenta Halle, housed a live, microwave video feed from the lab, and a short-wave radio link for direct voice contact. The web site was accessible via a terminal there, and the crew in the lab received up to 20 emails each day. With the vast majority of communication consisting of questions stretching to little more than "what are you doing?" and "is this art?" it was difficult to be optimistic about the quality of casual visitors' experience of the work. However, for the dedicated it was quite possible to drive up and visit the lab, privileged few friends and colleagues stayed there for a number of days, and rumours circulated of gatherings on the site that back in the UK would have brought the police out in force under the Criminal Justice Act. A radio broadcast on Hessischer Rundfunk took place towards the end of the research project, and a key point in the process, undertaken 60 days into the project, was a lecture by Peljhan reflecting on the experience of this design for living, with its specificity of conditions and objectives, and operation through many kinds of communication media.

In its setting on Lutterberg hill, MAKROLAB carves out a point of calm and reflection within a cacophonic landscape of natural, urban, synthetic and technological processes. Adopting a cyborg strategy, it acts as a networking machine of experience, representation, environment, technology and communication as it maps out, records and re-distributes the invisible and powerful in airborne flows. It is a grandiose claim to materialise a utopia, or even to point towards what this might be. However, through its engagement with social and political realities, this is no call to simply tune in and drop out. By acknowledging both the inevitability and the use-value of mediation, and the non-innocence of the technology it uses, the project occupies a point of tension between the desirability and impossibility of physical and ethical autonomy. We are challenged to allow this tension to leak out from its isolated environment and put it to constructive, everyday work.

Makrolab crew: Luka Frelih, Hostjan Hvala, Morja Jelic, Jurij Krpan, Marko Peljhan, Brian Springer. MAKROLAB web site:[makrolab.ljudmila.org] includes full details on future sites for the MAKROLAB project and the full text of Marko Peljhan's lecture for Documenta-X. An interview by Geert Lovink with Marko Peljhan and Brian Springer can be found at: [www.factory.org/nettime/archive/0912.html]

1. Matthew Fuller, "War Fever", World Art Magazine

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