Open Source Communities of the North, Unite (Arctic Perspective Initiative) – Dayna McLeod

Arctic Perspective Initiative

Arctic Perspective Initiative

Arctic Perspective Initiative

Arctic Perspective Initiative

Arctic Perspective Initiative

A non-profit organization of scientists, activists, artists and organizations, The Arctic Perspective Initiative is empowering peoples of the north by sharing resources, technology, education and training through epic hands-on projects that invigorate and stimulate their participants, collaborators and audience. NMP spoke with Matthew Biederman and Marko Peljhan about The Arctic Perspective, the group’s vision, some of their projects, and how they get it all done.

Dayna McLeod: What does API do? How did you get Arctic communities involved in the project?

API: API works in collaboration with many different partners around the world, both circumpolar and southern on a number of ideas based around free and open communications systems, architectures, and technologies.

Our approach to finding collaborators is a pretty natural one – essentially by going places, meeting people, sharing ideas and seeing what comes out of those discussions. Already API’s agenda has grown exponentially as we continue to work with our collaborators in the North and meeting new people and groups along the way.

The project involves more than a dozen participants from partner organizations from five different countries; HMKV (Dortmund, Germany), The Arts Catalyst (London, Great Britain), Projekt Atol (Ljubljana, Slovenia), Lorna (Reykjavik, Iceland) and C-TASC (Montréal, Canada).

DMC: How does API work as a collaborative project?

API: API is really an idea – any organization that feels they would like to collaborate is welcome to contact us. For the last three years we have worked very tightly with the organizations above to carry out a number of our initial ideas, like the development of the architectural system and the support systems around it as well as the logistics based around bringing such a complex project to fruition, which included organizing an international architectural competition, editing a series of cahiers to reflect the project, and curating a set of exhibitions and public discussions with this same aim.

DMC: What role does science play and what is the relationship between migration and culture within the context of API?

API: Science and art share many similarities, among them is the constant quest for the understanding and representation of the unknown: for the materialization of immateriality. Certainly when you start dealing with technologies in particular, one needs a certain level of expertise on a practical level, but we also see what we do as having a bit of a trickle down effect as well. Namely, the technologies that we often employ are co-opted from military systems, and as such we see this as a political position as much as the best way to solve a problem. Moving technology from the hands and minds of the military into the civilian domain in hopes of greater autonomy is an important act for us. We sometimes call it a process of “conversion”.

DMC: What is your role in relationship to the people and communities that you are working with? Do you see yourselves as mentors? Collaborators? How does this relationship function?

API: Collaborators, always. Sometime we teach, sometimes we are taught. I like to think of the relationship we have with our friends in the North as one based upon sharing. It’s really quite simple. One idea and belief system that we have learned along the way is Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit or IQ for short. IQ could be roughly translated as Inuit traditional knowledge, but not in the way you might think, like ‘how to build an igloo’ or hunt a seal; IQ really acts as a value system. Within that value system some of the core beliefs are cooperation, family, sharing, teaching, listening and so on. There is a long list and I’m sure we don’t understand it from the same perspective as our collaborators, but I think its really important to find that middle ground where we can all share some IQ… There is a long history of exploitation that continues to this day – of well-funded southern researchers coming to the North extracting their data and leaving with it. There is a distinct awareness of this history there, but I think that because of IQ and the values that come along with it, there is always a level of respect for ideas and exchange, so embracing these core values has gotten us a long way in our relationships there, whether with elders, youth, anyone really.

Working with southerners has been a different story, but it only goes to highlight the difference between here and there on a personal level. Its sad but the same types of sharing and open exchange don’t exist very often in the South as they do in Nunavut and our openness has gotten us into trouble more often than not, but it hasn’t changed our view of IQ and its crucial role in the North.

DMC: What is the relationship between open authoring and sustainable development of culture for peoples in the North and Arctic regions?

API: I think open-source, FLOSS ideals are closely linked to IQ as we understand it quite tightly, even without speaking of the digital divide and so on. From the perspective solely of preservation of ideas, of ways of doing things – lets just say that if those ideas and videos, sounds, recordings were tied into a digital format that wasn’t open – well, there could be a time in the future that all of those records could become inaccessible because they are stored in a proprietary format. But that’s just an example purely tied to the preservation of culture, language and so on.

In terms of an example of open-source and adaptation, there was an initiative that paid for the Microsoft Office package to be translated into Inuktitut, which at first sounds like a good idea. But when you consider that for anyone to have access to Microsoft Office, in any language, they have to pay for it, the perspective changes. If instead that money was spent translating Open Office, for example, then people would have access to some of the digital tools they need in their own language and for free.

But at its core, we believe that open source tools, both hardware and software are completely in line with IQ and the value system it sets out – so it simply makes sense to use tools that are available that are in line with what one believes.

DMC: How do you implement “open-source Information and Communications Technology (ICT)” and introduce it to Arctic communities?

API: We’ve begun to do it through a number of channels; firstly to understand that everything we produce, such as the cahiers, are available for free electronically under a creative commons license. But on the ground so to speak we have begun to hold workshops that range from simply how does one install Ubuntu (an open source operating system) on their machine, to authoring media works such as videos or audio with open source tools, rather than their expensive commercial counterparts.

DMC: API has published the first of four Cahiers, Arctic Perspective Cahier no. 1: Architecture, which focuses on Arctic architecture and documents the results of the international API design competition. “The challenge of this competition was to design a mobile media-based work and habitation unit, capable of functioning in extreme cold as well as in temperate climates, and incorporating the use of renewable energy, water and waste recycling systems”. The winning designs by Richard Carbonnier (Canada), Catherine Rannou (France) and Giuseppe Mecca (Italy) are currently on exhibition with photographs, videos and maps from the project at Canada House in London and Hartware MedienKunstVerein in Dortmund, Germany.

What is the significance of the publication and the exhibition? How does the API project function within the context of an exhibition? What has the response been like to this work?

API: The publications and exhibitions are the public face for our activities in the North. They help us reach a larger audience than if we were just working within the Northern context. We use the publications and exhibitions to help paint a picture of the complex web of issues around the circumpolar regions that typically isn’t known. For instance, our exhibition in Germany is curated around many of the positive sustainable initiatives that are happening right now in the North; these are issues that are looking beyond the ones that are stereotypical like suicide, alcohol and so on – not that those aren’t issues that need attention, but we are focused on telling the part of the story that is happening right now. For example, where hunters are working with geographers to return the traditional place names to locations on the land, or to recognize all of the political struggles of autonomy of peoples throughout the Arctic, or the role that art can play in these struggles. There is a wealth of topics that need perspective, and in this focusing mechanism we see a role for API.

DMC: How do the “mobile, sustainable, zero-impact modular research units” get built and how do they work? How did you select the winning entries?

API: The winning entries were selected by a jury that was hosted by LORNA in Iceland. The jury meeting was held during four days from September 15 to September 18 2009, and was composed of:
Inke Arns (Artistic Director: HMKV, Dortmund)
Johan Berte (Princess Elisabeth Antarctic Station Project Manager: International Polar Foundation, Brussels)
Matthew Biederman (Artist, Director: C-TASC, Montréal)
Michael Bravo (Head of History and Public Policy Research Group: Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom)
Francesca Ferguson (Independent Architecture Curator, Basel)
Andreas Müller (An Architektur, Berlin)
Marko Peljhan (Director: Projekt Atol, Co-Director: UC Institute for Research in the Arts, Ljubljana / Santa Barbara)
Nicola Triscott (Director: The Arts Catalyst, London)

The jury had to review more than 100 projects and proposals and the decisions were based on consensus.

In terms of actually building and testing systems, we have completed an early prototype designed by Nejc Trost, API and Richard Carbonnier that was built and tested by Richard and two High School students from Mittimatilik. Our plan is to work on a second design, which is modeled in the exhibition in Germany at a 1:1 scale and build a unit similar to this that will be fully functional in terms of systems and technology.

Ideally, we would then create a full set of schematics and plans that would live as a book and be checked out through local HTOs (Hunter and Trapper Organizations) to anyone that wanted to build their own unit; the idea was always that these would begin to grow and be modified virally by local people.

What’s important to remember is that we see the architecture as a ‘system of systems’ – that is there is habitation systems, media authoring systems, communications systems, power generation systems, environmental assessment systems and so on.

Theses systems are also adaptable to be used individually or in combination, either with the architectural unit or with one’s own qamutik, snowmobile, boat or dog team. If for instance someone wanted to be out on the land and have electricity, they could check out (or build their own) portable renewable power system, one which uses a turbine or solar panels. Or they could take with them a node of a sensornetwork that could be used both as a safety device transmitting ones location back to the HTO as well as recording environmental conditions, ice conditions, and so forth, through their continued use we see the ability of citizens to be able to build their own database of land use, wildlife and environmental conditions.

DMC: What is next for API?

API: In the near term, we’ll be holding a open-space conference in Dortmund with a really well-rounded group of artists, hunters, theoreticians, and scientists a place where we can all dream together and see what comes out of it. We’ll also be publishing three more cahiers to come out shortly; next up is Geopolitics and Autonomy, edited by Michael Bravo of the Scott Polar Research Institute and Nicola Triscott of The Arts Catalyst, followed by a Technology Issue, edited by Adam Hyde of FLOSS Manuals, and finally an issue we are calling Landscape, edited by Inke Arns, Matthew Biederman and Marko Peljhan that will be again devoted to the direct reflection of our process.

API is working towards getting these systems integrated into the community fabric and to have all of these technologies built and managed by the community in some way. We’ve got plans to design and build a hydroponic unit built into a storage container to be used as a community garden. This garden would provide free fresh vegetables to everyone who took part in the operation of the garden, and would be run from renewable power sources.

Longer term we are investigating ways that we can spread our work out to different regions in the Arctic such as Greenland, Chuktoka among others since our goal is really to connect the entire circumpolar region. All the while we haven’t forgotten the idea of connecting the two poles with their very different cultures. We have a lot of work ahead of us.

Ikiraapik in Ikpik from Matthew Biederman on Vimeo.

The Arctic Perspective Initiative (API) is a non-profit, international group of individuals and organizations whose goal is to promote the creation of open authoring, communications and dissemination infrastructures for the circumpolar region. We aim to empower the North and Arctic peoples through open source technologies and applied education and training. By creating access to these technologies while promoting an open, shared network of communications and data, without a costly overhead, we can allow for further sustainable and continued development of culture, traditional knowledge, science, technology and education opportunities for peoples in the North and Arctic regions.