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Designer Henrik Nieratschker.
3rd August 2017

Water: Q&A with Henrik Nieratschker

Want to know how the earth’s hydrosphere feels about Trump or Jeremy Corbyn? German designer Henrik Nieratschker has an app for that. I Am Water, his installation as part of H2O-themed LDF show Water at Peckham’s Copeland Gallery, fuses Alexa-like artificial intelligence technology with references from literature, science, film and philosophy to give bodies of water a voice. 

From Edgar Allen Poe to Talking Heads, artists have long written missives to the natural world. But what if nature could chat back? Given that an Antarctic ice sheet the size of Delaware collapsed into the sea this month and a whole host of confectionary companies have just been accused of being complicit in illegal rainforest destruction, we reckon it would have quite a lot to say. Looking at AI technology, German designer Henrik Nieratschker has developed a “thought experiment” whereby non-human entities like rivers, lakes and bubbling brooks can discuss their take on the world, from global warming to, well, anything.
The Boltham Legacy
An alumni of the Royal College of Art, Henrik is now based in Portland, Oregon – coincidentally at a time when a climate change denier has somehow ended up in the White House. Fluidly moving between graphic design, sculpture, writing, video and interactive media, Henrik’s interested in the spaces that exist between design, art and science, and often uses fictional narratives to explore alternative ways of approaching technology. He’s fascinated by utopian thinking and speculative futures – previous projects include creating an archive of fictional billionaire and space maverick Lloyd Frederic Boltham to discuss the challenge of planning super long-term research projects when the human lifespan is so finite. Alongside his own practice, Henrik has also co-founded experimental design studio proto/meta and art collective Research and Waves.

Henrik was inspired to produce I Am Water after reading about how the government of New Zealand granted one of its rivers, the Whanganui, the legal rights of a person, reflecting the Maori belief that the river is an ancestor. Ahead of September’s show at Peckham’s Copeland Gallery, we quizzed Henrik on why facilitating a dialogue between humans and non-humans is so vital right now and how he’s brought this fascinating concept into reality.
Outside Henrik Nieratschker's studio.
What does your project for Water involve?

I Am Water is a speculative proposal to use artificial intelligence to give a voice to water as a non-human entity within our contemporary environment. Taking the form of a domestically sized, electronic object like Amazon Echo or Google Home, the work takes on the voice command interface of these devices, but shifts the functionality from personal assistance or home automation to an opportunity for human/non-human co-relation. The device gives a (seemingly) conscious personality to the abstract entity of water, from mountain springs to lakes, rivers and oceans. For the exhibition a physical prototype will verbalise a variety of scientific, socio-political and cultural topics from the perspective of the earth’s hydrosphere. It engages the user in conversation with a very different view of the world, that marks a distinct alternative from common, anthropocentric ideas and values.

What was the original inspiration for the project?

The initial idea is based on a news headline I came across in May this year. The government of New Zealand had just granted the Whanganui river the rights of a legal person in accordance with Māori belief, who recognise it as their direct ancestor and natural equal. A similar concept was put forward by philosopher Bruno Latour, which he titled the Parliament of Things. In his parliament, non-human entities are represented by experts (such as scientists) in the same way as voters are by politicians, recognising the deep entanglement of human and natural interests. 

In my work for Water, I am taking these notions into another direction by thinking about them through the lens of technological development and application. Instead of finding a human representative, current and future developments in the field of artificial intelligence will allow us to simulate a conscious personality with interests, goals and knowledge, that can act as an interactive avatar for a non-human entity such as water. 
How have you realised the concept?

The focus for the exhibition will be on staging a simulated encounter between the human and non-human. By looking at current approaches in machine learning and speech synthesis, I have developed a mode of writing that takes the potential capabilities and behaviour of a simulated personality into account. 

The narrative and the audio material the visitor will hear from the prototype device will be based on a collection of references that is treated as a data set the AI would potentially learn from. This material is gathered from literature, film and poetry, as well as scientific writing and philosophy, considering the agency and perspective of non-humans and specifically the role of water on this planet. 
I Am Water, work in progress, sketches by Henrik Nieratschker
How do you hope people will respond to I Am Water?

The project takes on the earth’s hydrosphere as a complex system that is deeply entangled with all forms of life on this planet. By giving it a voice and conscious personality, we can simulate a communicative relationship between humans and non-humans, that helps us to understand our role as one form of being among many others. The ubiquity of water provides a great opportunity to touch on many different subjects, diverse in scale, place and time, from natural history and the beginning of life, over local and global politics, to environmental, economical and social concerns. Hopefully, it will challenge visitors’ expectations, create opportunities for discussion, spark fresh insight and open the door to alternative visions within the field of design, technology and beyond.

Visit Water at Copeland Gallery from 19 – 24 September. For more info visit www.waterexhibition.co.uk

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