Climate Control: Ken Gregory
July 18 – July 29, 2002

a response to the exhibition by Hope Peterson

This is… this is… this is…

The ping of existence, sounding gently, is at the core of Ken Gregory’s latest work Climate Control – or How to Predict the Weather with a Pig Spleen. How can a machine affirm Life? Not ease, enhance or document life, but profoundly confirm the existence of all living matter. Not sentience, but that throbbing, base, survival-mad life we all clutch so close, defend and risk for the unknowing joy of it. I can’t entertain here the personification of any built object – this is of course human nonsense and the wishing of a child. And artificial intelligence as we currently understand it does not enter into the artist’s goals. Despite my resistance to anthropomorphic comparisons, with a sudden vision of reproductive technology inverted I dream the following non-theory: if the inventor transposes his body, his lived experience, into his mechanical product, it will mirror the joy of creation. For an artist working at a high level of technological interrogation, there results a most unique byproduct: the warm machine.

Autoclimatic beginnings

Ken likes long, multi-referencing titles for his otherwise non-narrative inventions and performances. Titles like this one – a trick, a joke, a wondering – lightly indicate Ken’s layered, voluminous field of query, and his intuitive rather than scientific approach to invention. While the work is modulated by a continuous stream of weather data, it makes no promise to control our climate, either in a scary sci-fi way, or in an eco-revision. Instead, the downloaded weather information from the Net feeds the work with a constant tickle of information, just as our bodies receive data in the form of infra-red radiation from the sun, vibrations from the earth, tidal tugs from the moon, and limitless other atmospheric influences. Ken uses a lot of natural resources for his soundscapes and concepts, basing them on the body, finding pigs, acorns and humans equally valid sources of inspiration. We are pigs, we are acorns, we eat ourselves and live on.

I am electrified and it doesn’t hurt a bit

Brought in as a guest lipsyncher to the old blues number Stormy Weather I am held in place with clamps and poles, eyes glued to Ken’s above the camera, ears pricked for the first word. During rehearsal I am nervous about Ethel Waters’ murmured, lilting style – damn hard to sing along! – but once clamped in place amidst the living junk of Ken’s studio, I find myself following the song well enough, working hard to keep up with the rest of the gear. I am exhausted when it is over and Ken declares the takes “just fine”. Then something interesting happens – as we rest, while the equipment does its thing, we find ourselves hypnotized by the shimmering block of ice, receiving its patina of light via continuous jpeg downloads, flames pulsing on a melting screen. The series of still images appear to shudder, digitally filtered with an effect Ken is testing, replicating the satellite animations featured every hour on TV. Ken’s software setup takes in constant updates from various weather websites – both images and announcements of the current meteorological data, read by an articulated computer voice. Additionally, endless elemental influences are possible, as Ken programs variables such as humidity and precipitation into the mix. This complex cast of characters leads me to think of the limitless variability of each lived moment – an event repeated can produce different results every time, and every street corner is continuously reborn. Our meditative state is interrupted by a bleep of completion from one of the computers, and my mouth has run away and joined the circuit.

Splenetic decoding

Having lent my required body part to one portion of the machine, and having performed my task mechanistically (but not without soul, I hope) I reflect that people are machines and the prime reference for any built object. Early world expositions and fairs always featured replica humans – telling fortunes, gesturing, greeting, intriguing the audience with their stiff imitations. Ken’s machines are not ersatz humans, but skeletal doppelgangers whose movements mirror and refer to ours. The works in this exhibition are generally “unpackaged”, parts exposed, not necessarily vulnerable but without guile, in marked contrast to the seductive, impenetrable design of consumer goods, and their continuous, must-have upgrades. In the marketplace, the users are one-way members of the technology chain, contributing only money and, through market research, their patterns of consumption. The weather kiosk in Climate Control, by contrast, collects data from the individual via keystrokes and temperature monitors. The viewers must access their emotions, as weather metaphors, in order to answer the kiosk’s questions, and ultimately contribute to an online database associated with this project. Log on and discover if the day will be happy with a 20% chance of melancholy later in the week.

Counting evolutions per second

Machines which monitor public space and activity – security cameras, airport scanners, UPC codes – for use by an often-unknown authority, aim to increase control of social behavior. Ken’s works also monitor – not just people, but the weather around them, inside them. I find his surveillance utterly non-invasive, and promoting increased free access to information for all. His weather monitors do not induce anxiety, for by inviting the viewer’s engagement, in fact requiring a participant audience, he increases the agency of the individual in his/her own monitoring. At the same time, the visually warm images projected on ice foretell the inevitable melting due to global warming. The evocation of both environmental fear and the exuberance of increased agency allows the audience to choose its level of implication. Ken creates multiple points of access for the non-scientist, in this age of misinformation overload. Here, it is all available for free, to any who bother to look and listen, with nothing to buy, no need to sign up or register in order to participate. Just bring your Self, and its inherent, archetypal knowledge, and you’ll be (part of the) set.

What do you Do?

This question seems just as inappropriate when addressed to Ken’s inventions, as to any person outside the conventionally productive work world. Perhaps Ken’s most radical idea has been to create machines which play. He displays the recycling of lost labour, and validates non-work functionality. He separates work from worth. He even fights the inevitable forces of entropy with his imaginative reuse of high-and low-tech discards. With every relational consideration between previously unrelated elements, new neural paths are cleared in the collective mind. The productivity of Ken’s machines can be measured only in the viewer’s internal shift of awareness. The art simply is – thrumming we are… we are… we are… .

Hope Peterson is a Winnipeg based artist.