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Kim Burgas & Caleb Foss / New York, NY, US; Chicago, IL, US
In the village of Ein Qinyya, Palestine, a local mesh network functions as both an organic community intranet and a means of interacting with the environment.
Interview with Gary Zhexi Zhang & Agnes Cameron — Sep 16, 2020
For the web residencies by Solitude & ZKM on the topic »Rigged System« curated by Jonas Lund the artists Gary Zhexi Zhang and Agnes Cameron proposed the work Permaculture Network. Currently based in Sakiya, a pedagogical organization dedicated to art, science and agriculture in the village of Ein Qinyya, Palestine, the artists are in the process of building a local mesh network for the site, which functions as both an organic community intranet and a means of interacting with the environment.
Schlosspost: Your project Permaculture Network for the Web Residencies by Solitude and ZKM is strongly linked to the work of Sakiya, »a progressive academy«1 in the village of Ein Qinyya, Palestine, dedicated to the intersection of art, science and agriculture. What is the mission and vision of Sakiya? How did you get involved in the project?
Gary Zhexi Zhang and Agnes Cameron: We got to know Nida Sinnokrot, who is one of Sakiya’s cofounders, along with Sahar Qawasmi, at MIT, where he teaches. Sakiya is a large area of land on a hillside that is part of Ein Qinyya, near Ramallah in the West Bank. Because it’s in Area C, which Palestinians aren’t allowed to build on (though Israeli settlers frequently do), the land has become largely rewilded, and repopulated by an incredible diversity of vegetation. There’s also two historic houses on this land. Sakiya uses this existing infrastructure to establish an art space, a residency program, a permaculture farm and a summer school for young people, which brings explorations of the Palestinian landscape and its agricultural heritage into dialogue with contemporary artistic and ecological practices. There’s a lot going on, but the idea is to cultivate a new imaginary around our relationship to the land, in terms of self-sufficiency, sustainability, cultural heritage, and a future commons.
»Sakiya uses this existing infrastructure to establish an art space, a residency program, a permaculture farm and a summer school for young people, which brings explorations of the Palestinian landscape and its agricultural heritage into dialogue with contemporary artistic and ecological practices.«
SP: You intend to build a local mesh network for the site of Sakiya by literally grounding sensors into the soil, which will feed back into a generative, web-based simulation. How does this sensory and process-based alternative network model function and how does it mobilize a change in system thinking and network theory? In other words what makes the Permaculture Network a Rigged System that subverts the power structures in contemporary network systems?
GZZ and AC: Our network is a combination of local sensors planted at Sakiya and information from external feeds like satellite weather data, which gives us a measure of changes in soil quality, temperature, humidity, and so on. This live information feeds into a web interface that creates a generative terrain model of Sakiya. With the help of local agro-ecologist Omar Tesdell, we’ve populated the model with many of the wild and cultivated species on the site, with different personalities and characteristics, as well as particular events, such as the appearance of a herd of 300 goats, which the neighboring bedouins regularly bring through the site to drink from the spring.
The sacred red qaiqab
In the West Bank in particular, power imbalances strongly shape networks. We were surprised when we first came here that there’s a good 3G signal on top of the hill: it comes from the Israeli settlement across the valley. There’s also a lot of sensitivity around data collection here as a practice of colonization: from the British Mandate to the current occupation, there’s a direct correlation between measurement of the land and its qualities and its subsequent requisitioning from Palestinian hands: whether as a nature reserve, an archeological site, or an industrial farm, on the pretext of conservation and resource management. Part of our reluctance to present this “data” in a typical manner stems from us wanting to look at other ways to understand the landscape without seeing it as a resource or a tool.
Instead we were inspired by more informal, grassroots modes of networking.
SP: How does the Permaculture Network resonate with the specific historical and geographical location of Sakiya and or Palestine?
GZZ and AC: A lot of traditional Palestinian culture is directly connected to the landscape. Every water spring, for example, has a spirit and a set of stories connected to it. Different villages might have different versions of the tale, but their transmission contributes to a deeply communal sense of place and imbues the land with its own historic agency, which is congealed over generations through storytelling. We wanted to make something that reflected this kind of folk emergence in our characterization of the ecology of the site, so that it would generate stories and conversations amongst the plants, soils, rocks and goats, which could perhaps mutate into new folk tales.
Crops in the terrace garden
SP: What differentiates your network system from other »smart« agriculture sensors and systems?
GZZ and AC: For a start, it’s not very smart: it’s not used to actually control anything like irrigation. All the stuff we’re using is very basic, though even with home-brew equipment it’s possible to get a sense for how things like soil quality and ambient temperature are changing with time. Our sensors aren’t durable enough, or many enough, to be particularly useful in a long-term agronomical »monitoring« sense — this project is more about using this kind of information as the basis for a speculative fiction that’s grounded in the site and its day-to-day life.
»We were surprised when we first came here that there’s a good 3G signal on top of the hill: it comes from the Israeli settlement across the valley.«
SP: In the conversation we’ve had, you also name the generative simulation game Dwarf Fortress by mathematicians and programmers Zach and Tarn Adams as a source of inspiration. How do the aesthetics, structure, and logic of the game become visible in your project?
GZZ and AC: We’re both big admirers of Dwarf Fortress for a number of reasons (the ASCII art aesthetic is definitely heavily borrowed from them) with perhaps the main appeal being that the entire game is run as an agent-based simulation. This means that, instead of like a lot of games where the state changes when a player interacts with the world, in DF the entire game plays itself at all times, and every component of the game—the dwarves, other creatures, the plants and trees—gets some kind of agency. While our simulation doesn’t come close to this level of detail or complexity, we have been writing the code with that in mind: all the elements are interacting with one another all the time, whether you’re looking at them or not.
Tracking goat paths
SP: What role does generative simulation and speculative fictions play in your work as artist in general and/or in the current project?
GZZ: I think both of us have been interested in questions of emergence and self-organization for some time now. My work is often focused around minor histories, fictions of sorts that tell another version of the world we’re in, or take technologies and organisms as protagonists that animate a historical desire. From the generative perspective I’m interested in the role of software in structuring social interactions, but also as a performative metaphor (for self-organization, or networks, or emergence, for example) through which we construct other possible social models.
AC: My background was originally in information engineering, and I’ve always had a particular interest in complex and distributed systems and in the use of simulation as a means for understanding them. This started with an interest in self-organizing biological systems and embodied robotics (which I still have), but over time I’ve also started to see simulations and games as speculative political tools, for imagining alternative/parallel realities, or critiquing current ones. Ian Bogost talks about this idea of »procedural rhetoric:« the use of games as a way to articulate an argument, to allow people to take a critical perspective on systems they might otherwise not be able to »see.« I think as far as this project is concerned (and maybe more generally), we’re interested in using ABMs to (gently) argue for a way of seeing the world that’s not so anthropocentric.
»All the elements are interacting with one another all the time, whether you’re looking at them or not.«
SP: How is the project currently received by the civil community and the local political rulers?
GZZ and AC: The project is currently in a totally work-in-progress and experimental stage, so it hasn’t been shown to the community yet, but once it’s stable, the aim is for it to be part of Sakiya’s artistic/educational program. i.e. for visitors to see a different way of engaging with the landscape, its depth and complexity both culturally and ecologically, interfacing across physical and digital environments. It’s also being translated into Arabic. Right now it’s in quite a basic state, and while we build it we are also learning much more about the flora, fauna, and folklore around the hill. Once it’s ready to be shown more publicly we’d love to incorporate more communal knowledge from people who interact with it, such as foraging patterns, seasonal events, etc.
SP: What does your desktop or workspace look like?
SP: Please provide some links, book titles, sound files, videos as further reading related to your artistic practices and research topics to share with our readers.
GZZ and AC: We’ve been collecting these on are.na as we went along.
The interview was conducted by Denise Helene Sumi.
See Sakiya. Art, Science, Agriculture. Sahar Qawasmi, Nida Sinnokrot, Gary Zhexi Zhang, Agnes Cameron, eds., Sakiya Press, 2019
© 2023 Akademie Schloss Solitude and the author