Solar Protocol (Tega Brain, Alex Nathanson, Benedetta Piantella)

Rapid Response Fellow 2020 - 2020

Tega Brain is an Australian-born artist and environmental engineer whose work examines issues of ecology, data systems and infrastructure. She has created wireless networks that respond to natural phenomena, systems for obfuscating fitness data, and an online smell-based dating service. Her work has recently been shown in the Vienna Biennale for Change, the Guangzhou Triennial, and in venues like the Haus der Kulturen der Welt and the Whitney Museum, among others.

Alex Nathanson is a multimedia artist, engineer, and educator. His work is primarily focused on exploring both the experimental and practical applications of sustainable energy technologies, particularly photovoltaic solar power. His work has been featured at Issue Project Room (NYC), the Museum of the Moving Image (NYC), Anthology Film Archives (NYC), Film Society of Lincoln Center (NYC), Dome of Visions (Copenhagen, Denmark), and the Art Prospect Festival (St. Petersburg, Russia). He was one of the long-term artists in residence at Flux Factory, in Queens, NY from 2012 to 2016, and his multi-media performance group Fan Letters was awarded residencies at The Watermill Center in 2017 and 2019. As a solar power designer, he has created interactive and educational projects for The Climate Museum, Solar One, and the NYC Department of Education, among others. He received a M.S. in Integrated Digital Media from NYU Tandon School of Engineering in 2019. Currently, he is an Adjunct Professor at NYU Tandon and is writing a book on the history of solar power art and design, which is being published by Routledge.

Benedetta Piantella is a designer turned humanitarian technologist. She has been involved in international development for the past ten years, ever since her experience of surviving the Tsunami in 2004. She has also been teaching for the past decade in different disciplines and age groups, from Lego Robotics to K-12 students to HCI, Physical Computing and Engineering for Development to graduate students at NYU. She founded two R&D companies focused on producing sustainable solutions to social problems worldwide and built partnerships with organizations such as the UN, UNICEF, The Earth Institute, Universities such as NYU, Columbia University and Princeton and multiple NGOs. Her design research and practice focus on applying systems thinking and user-driven development to insure equitable access to life-sustaining resources, often through networks, data-collection and real-time monitoring and distributed infrastructure.

What do you plan to do during Phase 1 of Rapid Response?

In Phase 1 we will prototype our proposed system of solar powered servers and make technical decisions on how the network will work. We will prototype content and confirm the NYC and several international locations to host the project.

How does your work relate to the theme of the open call?

Solar Protocol reconfigures internet protocols using the logic of the sun. Presently, much attention is focused on automated decisions based on rules derived from massive datasets produced by systems of surveillance capitalism. For example, Facebook monitors your behavior and uses this data to serve you content which is just like the content that you, or others like you have previously viewed. Instead, in Solar Protocol, the decisions about what content is served will be automated with a logic produced by the sun’s position. The work leverages a natural intelligence that emerges from the intermittent dynamics of our shared environment. Digital surveillance driven by machine learning is only made possible by a society reliant on cheap energy from fossil fuels. Limited energy resources means a website must be kept small in size and without tracking. Solar Protocol creates space to reimagine the relationships we have with the social and technical systems we engage with online.

What does the future look like to you?

BRAIN: The future is a struggle. We have leaders on both sides of the political spectrum who want to maintain the status quo despite a pandemic, a climate crisis and a crisis of inequality. We have corporations who shirk democratic process and their responsibilities to renewal, regeneration and the commons. The future will be determined by the relationships we are able to imagine and nurture with each other and and everyone else who makes up the biosphere.

PIANTELLA: I envision a more equitable future, where anyone has access to life-sustaining resources like natural resources, food, knowledge and education. A more decentralized, more community-driven and more democratic future where people collaborate towards building the future they really want to see while building and owning their own technologies, tools and solutions.

What is your grounding ethos?

BRAIN: I make eccentric engineering which combines methods and approaches from both art and engineering. It’s work that offers a critique of the present by opening a space to prototype, imagine and envisage alternative logics, stories and infrastructure that honor multi-species intimacies and natural intelligences.

NATHANSON: My grounding ethos is to work collaboratively to identify gaps in available resources for the communities I want to support and address those needs through activism, education, engineering, and art.

PIANTELLA: I believe in participatory and community-centered approaches to solving problems that empower people to create their own sustainable solutions. I believe in sharing and redistributing our resources and access in a more equitable way.