Interview with Joana Moll
Marloes de Valk is a software artist, writer, PhD researcher at the Centre for the Study of the Networked Image and thesis supervisor at Experimental Publishing at Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam.Read full Bio
This interview is part of Imagin[in]g Networks, a year-long programme exploring the existing and potential networks that use images to enable human and machine interactions. Throughout the year, Imagin(in)g Networks will interrogate the role and impact of the networked image. The programme aims to revisit discarded tools, analyse both the current beneficial and harmful ramifications of existent technological ecologies, explore experimental offline and online approaches, and imagine what potential new models of visual networks might look like.
Joana Moll and Marloes de Valk discuss Joana’s new project 4004, exhibited online and on the Gallery’s Media Wall until the 14th of October 2021. Digging into the infrastructures which are at the heart of today’s digital technology, they discuss the role of artists and the art world in the transition to a less polluting society.
Your work, 4004, is currently exhibited on The Photographers’ Gallery Media Wall. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
It is an installation on display for 2.5 months, that runs in real-time. It’s generative. It talks about how the increasing computational processes of microprocessors have a direct impact in amplifying and speeding up the production capacity of anthropogenic mass, which inevitably is taking over natural ecosystems, and has a deep impact on the declining of animal populations. I compare microprocessors to insects because if you make a comparison of technological life and biological life, insects and microprocessors, could be equals in the sense that microprocessors allow technological ecosystems to thrive and prepare the base for technological systems or machines to thrive.
Microprocessors are the heart and brain of the computer and they define the amount of computational capacity of any machine, which has a direct influence on the global production capacity. Basically, this computational capacity determines the degree to which microprocessors can domesticate electricity, the amount of electricity that they can harness. Insects, on the other hand, are basically preparing the ground for all the terrestrial ecosystems to thrive. For example, they turn big matter into smaller pieces so the earth can absorb it, or the animals can eat it, and so on.
I think it is an interesting comparison because, since the 1970s, which was when the first microprocessor appeared, there were several studies that started to measure the decline of populations of animals in general but also of insects in particular. The biomass of insects has declined 40% since microprocessors appeared. This project shows how these microprocessors are taking over the biomass or the place that insects occupy. At the start of the project, in July 2021, there are 100% insects displayed on the screen, and very slowly, microprocessors appear. In the end, in October, it’s going to be 40% microprocessors, 60% insects on view, which is the balance that we have today, according to recent studies.
In 4004, these microprocessors are almost like an animal as well, a species that consumes.
But they are.
Your work is bringing this metaphor to life. But what is it, what is a microprocessor, what does it do, where is it, where does it live?
Microprocessors are basically the heart and the brain of every machine. The first microprocessor, 4004, appeared in 1971; that’s where the name of the project comes from. For the first time, it was possible to translate artificial intelligence in an inanimate object. And that’s not little. And ever since, the microprocessor’s computational capacity (defined by the amount of transistors that are placed within a microprocessor) increases every two years; it actually doubles, while their price halves. This processing power defines how strong computers are, machines are, our phones are, and our devices are in general. And it defines how much we can produce or we can do as a society. So basically, microprocessors harness electricity, they control it. I like to say that they domesticate it. The more electricity they can domesticate, the more we can produce.
So, now we know where the microprocessor lives, we know what it eats, what is it made of?
That’s very tricky. Microprocessors are actually one of the most complex micro-devices that are mass-produced. I asked Intel for the complete material data sheet, that shows the chemical composition of their microprocessors, and although they do have those sheets they’re not 100% accurate. The reason for that is that they claim that the materials they are obligated to declare, have to account for more than one percent of the product. Microprocessors are very small, they contain micro-percentages of materials. For example, these sheets don’t list gold which is a crucial ingredient. And it’s also known that they are made of silicon, as their main product, but then there are a lot of other materials, like boron or gallium; it depends on the microprocessor and the age.
Oh and there’s another thing. During the research behind 4004, I found out that transistors, which is what microprocessors consist of and are in charge of translating the flow of electricity, are the most fabricated and used device in the world. Which is also very interesting, as they are really small, and ultra-invisible, because you can still see the microprocessors but you can’t access the transistors. It’s pretty impressive.
Microprocessors are so tiny, how are they produced?
It’s really complex to produce a microprocessor. Very few factories in the world are able to produce them, while the factory’s work environment has to be super sterile; even a speck of dust can kill a whole batch of microprocessors. In order for the electricity to go so fast it has to be absolutely clean and perfect, so the less friction the better.
Microprocessors have been produced since the 1970s, they are hard and expensive to produce and rarely break. They can last up to 30 years. They are precious! Yet when they are recycled, they are dissolved with only the gold remaining. Still, melted processors aside, there must be tons of them in existence, right?
I was trying to find out the amount of microprocessors that exist in the world and that have ever been produced, but there is no such data. I found data on the amount of kilograms of processors produced since 1991, and I also have data on the number of microprocessors produced since the 2000s, but there is not a lot of data. My idea with this project was to understand how many microprocessors were there, but apparently, it’s impossible to know, just like it’s impossible to know how many bugs are out there.
The biomass, it must be an extremely rough estimate.
Since I’m working with numbers, I realised that numbers don’t tell much. It’s just something you can use to set a reference point.
And you use them in your work.
Yes because otherwise, nobody is going to validate any work if you don’t use numbers. Which, I think, is ridiculous. Because there’s a lot of numbers that are not obvious. And even if they’re there, they are not necessarily right.
And you’re shifting what is counted and what counts in this discourse...
You did so much research leading up to the production of this work, and the work itself is very minimalistic. What made you choose this minimalistic approach of communicating such a complex topic?
First, 4004 is just a small part of a much larger project that I’m producing now. I thought it was going to have a lot of information in it because what I’m trying to expose is how the invention of the microprocessor, which basically allows inanimate objects to reproduce and thus increase consumption, can have an effect on the decline of the population of species, especially insects. I think it’s a great metaphor despite being so complex; there is so much information I have, that you have to cut somewhere and, in the end, what I’m trying to show, is how one ecosystem, the technological, is taking the space of the other, the biological, and therefore, ending up one taking over the other.
Are the aesthetics of your work linked to their topic? In other words, are the aesthetics linked to the ecological footprint of the work itself? Do you, for instance, choose to use lower image resolutions, resulting in a different ‘look’, to save bandwidth, or something similar?
I believe they are. I try to link the aesthetics to the message I'm trying to convey. It's a natural process to me; what I usually experience is that if I don't fully understand what it is that I'm trying to say, the aesthetics of any project are often blurred in my imagination. So I’m certain that the message of the project is precise only when the aesthetics are precise. In a way, to me it feels like the aesthetics validate what I'm trying to communicate, and thus, that the project is good to go.
It was a while ago, before the pandemic, that you and I came up with the Extitute project; the most desperately unproductive institute on earth because it aims at absolute zero impact, making even the smallest activity, such as sending an email, a careful endeavour. It was a great thought experiment. Your new project at the Centre d’Arts Santa Mònica is much more productive, cutting 50% of the museum's energy use. I love how it turns the camera onto the art world, where lots of critical work is exhibited, but that same criticality is not always applied to its own practices. Can you tell us about the work?
The project is called 16/2017, named after a law approved by the government of Catalonia in 2017, which obliges the government to work with carbon budgets in order to halve its CO2 emissions by 2030, as stated in the Paris Agreement. Unfortunately, the Catalan government is substantially delaying the application of these measures; in other words, the law is currently not being applied. Therefore, I proposed to the museum to reduce its energy use by 50% during the four months of the exhibition. I’ve been having weekly meetings with the museum to discuss the energy budget of the exhibition. The meetings are open to the public, to the management team of the museum, and to everyone involved with the exhibition.
What role do you think the art world has to play in the transition to a less polluting world?
The way we can try to do something about climate change is to establish new social contracts. You have to be able to operate in different ways and that’s why I proposed to the museum to just cut the energy by half. This, of course, forces a lot of meetings. We have weekly round tables where we discuss with different parties what should be cut and what shouldn’t. For example, during the exhibition opening, it was really hot inside, because the museum cut the air conditioning. And it was OK. It’s interesting... It forced the direction of the Centre d’Arts Santa Mònica to discuss things; and it worked. Which shows that it's not so hard; it’s just another way of doing things.
The process of discussing energy consumption through this piece carries a lot of good things: we’re gonna meet, we’re gonna talk, we’re gonna meet other people and the result is really interesting. We’ll see what will happen in January though, as I think that the really complicated talks will be in winter, like in November, December, and January because the weather in Barcelona is going to be cold. Cutting the air conditioning can be bearable but shutting off the heating might be trickier. But then another suggestion would be to shut down the lights or close the museum for several days. Let’s see...
I wanted to finish on a dreaming note - I was reading a rant that Ursula Le Guin wrote about technology, which was in response to people saying that she didn’t write about technology in her books. She says, "Its technology is how a society copes with physical reality: how people get and keep and cook food, how they clothe themselves, what their power sources are... [...]" Technology doesn't mean so-called high technology or an eternal quest for the new, and the development of technology is not ruled by laws of nature, so the big question is, what kind of technology do we want?
Maybe you could end on a speculative note, what kind of technology do you want?
Did I ever mention the washing machine story to you before? I’ll try to sum it up here. This person I used to work with explained to me how they invited an artist and an engineer to make a washing machine more efficient. The engineer did his studies on energy, resources and whatever, in order to make everything much smoother, so that the machine uses less energy, less water, etcetera. So, the engineer said, if every house can have an efficient washing machine, then that’s it, problem solved. And then the artist said OK I’m not going to touch the washing machine itself, but what I’m going to do is position the washing machine on the ground floor of the building, so everybody can use it. So you just have one washing machine per building. This is the kind of technology I want too; a technology that can include collectivity instead of isolating people; a technology that can help to create new rituals that are more coherent with our current climate conditions; a technology that involves a culture that collectivises issues more than isolating them. Does this make sense?
Absolutely, that's a great answer! Thank you so much, Joana, for this conversation!
Joana Moll is a Barcelona/Berlin-based artist and researcher. Her work critically explores the way technocapitalist narratives affect the alphabetization of machines, humans, and ecosystems. Her main research topics include Internet geopolitics, data materiality, surveillance, techno colonialism, online tracking, social profiling, and interfaces.