2 03 2009


For the last few decades foresighting has been used in private and public organizations to understand and respond to the changing contexts that they could find themselves in. Whereas this was a predominantly reactive stance, foresighting techniques are playing an increasingly active and formative role in forging desired futures. It can be a particularly helpful tool for artists, scientists and business strategists and designers in guiding curiosity and situating innovation in a meaningful socially-aware seat. For example, we can look at the expertise and projects at SMARTlab, University of East London and how these draw upon emerging trends to capitalize on them and direct us to a better, future world.

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22 02 2009


Our cultural concept of Mars has historically been entrenched with its possibilities of life since Lowell gazed at Schiaparelli’s canali over a century ago. Perhaps a small misinterpretation of language, an optical illusion or the dream of an optimist unlocked the myth of a war torn planet where unrivalled irrigation skills implied markings of intelligent creatures (Lowell, 1909). With new discoveries and development of technological tools, Mars has become reduced from inhabiting man-like creatures to worms, plants and gradually only a potentiality of microbes. Indeed, many scientists shared this disappointment as the Mariner orbiters first laid their eyes on a hostile planet engulfed in dust. Beginning with the Viking mission, the raging dust storms’ settled and its two Landers unravelled for the first time the alien world of Mars – a dry rocky desert covered in iron oxide yielding the ochre-red hue as well as its name, the red planet. Hitherto the only set of tests for carbon life probing Martian soil showed incomplete but daunting results. Its controversy sparked a complete re-thinking of ‘what life is’ and ‘where we can find it’. The robotic invasion of Mars has since re-awoken its potential, catalyzing a range of new research disciplines drawn to the possibilities of finding life. The red planet remains a frontier for life through its history both as a cultural and scientific space. Our engagement attempts to open artistic areas in primarily scientific spaces and to address cultural aspects and experiences that also take place. The Martian Rose is an artistic investigation into boundary conditions of life beyond terrestrial settings.

The Martian Rose developed from a previous work that provocatively examined notions of culture and nature by introducing genetically modified plants into pristine wilderness. A journey deep into Mexico opened a hyperreal and bioinvasive exploration aimed at investigating genetically altered living systems and their interaction with our culture and ecosystem. Thereby, challenging frontiers surrounding constructions of nature, belonging and otherness. Keeping within this bearing, we turned our attention to more recent frontiers and production of life in these realms. This led us to a world beyond our own, researching possibilities of life outside Earth. Mars is often referred to as our final frontier because it evokes a sense of wonder and mystery that science fiction valiantly tries to capture (De Goursac, 2005).

Whilst scientific research has become increasingly sensitive to questions of ‘what life is’ and ‘where can we find it’ by probing new chemical and atmospheric configurations; interdisciplinary fields combining genetics, space- and nanotechnology have emerged posing a challenge to the search path for life and consequently to trajectories of an extraterrestrial dream. The question ‘of life’ in this context is all of a sudden reconfigured to: Can we create life outside of Earth?

Our interest started with the long leaping idea of creating life for Mars.

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15 01 2009


Since the Second World War, the world has been progressively transformed into a full scale laboratory. The model of a “laboratory world” has been added to the model of a “factory world”. This developing laboratory-world promotes the manipulation of the living according to the doctrine of “acceptable risk”. The radicalisation of competition and the “short-falls” in planned investments result in tests in “real-life conditions”: pharmaceutical researchers carry out experiments on entire populations in Africa and elsewhere; the dissemination of Genetically Modified Organisms is encouraged by all possible means, before the advent of Atomically Modified Organisms; wireless technologies marketed without prior public studies turn their users into guinea-pigs in large-scale experiments in real time ; the development of convergent technologies (bio-, nano-, cogno-, info-, robo-, sociotech) as the magic circle in which biological and mechanical species emerge from the laboratory and from new periodic tables.


The laboratory-world test in scale 1 and disseminate all kind of new technologies, hidden behing the dubious laws of « acceptable risks », but in the meantime extend more and more the society of control and security because of the potentiality of dual-usage of those same technologies. How to test in « real conditions » pharmaceutical researches and GMOs, rfid tags, nanotechnologies, without disseminating hazardous results ? What are the deception methods to do such researches without alarming the public opinion ? How to use such technologies on large markets without losing control on their dissemination ?

The apocalyptic scenarios prophesising the end of our over-populated world justify the demiurgic experimentation of a world that has become a laboratory. The rational organisation of this laboratory-world thus becomes an irrational extropian organisation threatening those who have created it. What can be done with the immense, autonomous machine that has now taken on a momentum of its own? Can we redirect the fate and the orientation of a laboratory whose creation none of us, or so few, has agreed to? Can we take leave of a future traced by others? In other words, can we still act freely? Neither extropians, nor primitivists, few contemporary tactical media artists question today the antagonist position of the so-called « agent of dissemination ». We will discuss here some of their driving philosophies, strategies and positions.

We know since the Cold War that “for the respect and balance of democracy”, the military have to convert certain technologies for civilian use (like the military precision of the GPS given to civilian use in the nineties). But the difficulty for the states then is more in the politics of control of the exportation of sensible goods and technologies. It’s a big problem to actually know the use, civilian or military, of many of those items. It is then delicate to stop the dissemination of those technologies because they have this potential « dual-use ».

From 1985 onwards, the “Australia Group” has imposed a regime of security checks, attempting to keep watch on their exports of chemical and biological products as well as their factories and equipment which produce dual-use products, to ensure that they did not contribute to the proliferation of chemical and biological arms (CBA). By that time, it had been proved that chemical arms had been used in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. Iraq had notably obtained a large amount of the material for its chemical weapon programme from the international chemical industry.

In 1995, the Sarin gas bomb in the Tokyo metro showed the obsolete nature of the cold war proliferation regulations. It was at the same moment as the signature of the « Wassenaar Agreement », the successor of the Cold War CoCom. (Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls). The objective of the new agreement was to associate national controls for the exportation of conventional arms and technologies and goods of dual usage in order to contribute to the reinforcement of security and regional and international stability. The main instrument of the “Wassenaar Agreement” was a list of products or substances as well as directives concerning their exportation to non-member countries. But since the range of goods and technologies of so called dual-use has revealed itself to be too large, it has therefore been restricted to goods which are sensitive to particular political, strategic and security purposes: components, production or test equipment, software and know how, used or that could contribute to the development, production, manipulation, functioning, maintenance, storage, detection, identification or dissemination of chemical, biological, nuclear or other nuclear explosives, or the development, production, maintenance or storage of missiles which can be used as vectors for such arms.  In principal, this definition doesn’t include goods and technologies from the ‘public domain’, fundamental research, the provision of services or the movement of people. But the Abdul Qader Khan affair, the Pakistani agent accused to have disseminated the technology of the nuclear bomb (to North Korea, Lybia or Iran), encouraged the nation states that control access to such armaments to look for new security guarantees to close the loopholes.

Since 9/11 and under the Patriot Act, the US government, for example, are trying to exert greater control over this spin-off, as Steve Kurtz and the Critical Art Ensemble have unfortunately learnt first hand. For those who do not know the story, one night in 2004, professor and artist Steve Kurtz member of the Critical Art Ensemble lost his wife by natural death. In the morning he called for assistance and when the rescue team arrived at his home, they found the body but also all his biological equipments, bacterial cultures and all the materials denouncing the patenting of the biosphere and the transgenic contamination of food products by corporations. They immediately decided to call the bio-terrorism FBI office and put the house area in quarantine. Kurtz was endited by the US government as a bio-terrorist, and is still now threatened with a twenty year prison sentence for having shipped very simple biological samples for so-called “non-peaceful purposes”. Because they were used for contestational biology purposes, CAE are now seen as « agents of dissemination ». An art collective is put on a strange list of « NGOs of dissemination » that goes from the Aum sect to Al Quaida.

In their last book (CAE, 2007), “The Marching Plague”, CAE states (p.37) :

Based on experience, as opposed to nightmare scenarios dreamed up by those who desire a fully militarized state, germ warfare is a waste, a burning excess that in the end does little more than terrorize a nation’s own citizenry. Is it surprising that even the U.S. declared “madman” Saddam Hussein did not use biological weapons (if indeed he had them) during either of the Gulf Wars? Obviously not. For nations and other territorialized groups, biological weapons are more of a burden and a sign of threat that is easily erased.

Lynn Hershman Leeson has recently directed « Strange Culture », a documentary film on the case (Leeson, 2007).


By a quick look to standard dictionaries we can read that « dissemination » comes from latin word « disseminatio », or from the verb dis- seminare, to sow (from semen, semin-, seed; see  se- in Indo-European roots). We can also note that the english word seems to come from the french word « dissémination », a word coined in the 17 century. The Académie Française dictionary considere that the word does not really apply to information and recommands the use of « dissémination » for things that are spread around without being able to control them, the academia use the examples of rural habitats, army troops, nuclear weapons, seeds, germs, viruses or cancer cells. But we generally get 2 meanings :

1. To scatter widely, as in sowing seed.

2. To spread abroad; promulgate: disseminate information.

Jacques Derrida, in his book « Dissemination » published in 1972, writes that the word dissemination implies a link between the wasteful dispersal of semantic meaning, and semen. Dissemination ‘is’ a scattering of semen, seeds, but also semes, semantic features. We are playing on the fortuitous resemblance … of seme and semen. There is no communication of meaning between them. And yet, by this floating, purely exterior collusion, accident produces a kind of semantic mirage. Dissemination refers then to a fertile dispersal of meanings, but also to the dissipation or the loss of meaning.

Dissemination is really a key to our times and the global politics in the laboratory-world becomes really a « virtualism » when it manifests itself in the mass medias as a strange trivial pursuit of deterence, deception and loss of meaning. To illustrate how media disseminations deal with biological dissemination we can examine the methodology of the English firm « Strategic Communications Laboratories » specialized in « operations of influences » of « psychological warfare » that went « mainstream » at the London 2005 Defence Systems & Equipment International Exhibition. Main attraction was a counterpart on scale 1 of one of its « ops center », presenting simulations going from the natural disasters, chemical catastrophes to the coups d’etat. What thus leads the firm to desinform the public for the account of any State, to deliberately supporting the dissemination of false information, handling the public and the history, for dubious « assumptions » on « acceptable risks ».

To illustrate their offer, the SCL develloped in the exhibition an interesting example of a possible scenario :

Let’s imagine that over the past 24 hours, seven people have checked into London hospitals with telltale symptoms. Rashes, vomiting, high temperature, and cramps: the classic signs of smallpox. Once thought wiped out, the disease is back and threatening a pandemic of epic proportions. The government faces a dilemma: It needs people to stay home, but if the news breaks, mass panic might ensue as people flee the city, carrying the virus with them.

What the shadowy media firm propose is to step in to help orchestrate a sophisticated campaign of mass deception. Rather than alert the public to the smallpox threat, the company sets up a high-tech “ops center” to convince the public that an accident at a chemical plant threatens London. As the fictitious toxic cloud approaches the city, TV news outlets are provided graphic visuals charting the path of the invisible toxins. Londoners stay indoors, glued to the telly, convinced that even a short walk into the streets could be fatal. While Londoners fret over fictitious toxins, the government works to contain the smallpox outbreak. The final result, according to SCL’s calculations, is that only thousands perish, rather than the 10 million originally projected.

The company, which describes itself as the first private-sector provider of psychological operations (or « psyops »), has been around since 1993. But its previous work was limited to civil operations, and it now wants to expand to military customers. “If your definition of propaganda is framing communications to do something that’s going to save lives, that’s fine,” says Mark Broughton, SCL’s public affairs director. “That’s not a word I would use for that.” (Weinberger, 2005).

Propaganda dissemination has become as well the expertise of the art and activist collective « The Yes Men », known for their « identity corrections » actions at conferences, television or on the street. They « impersonate big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them. Targets are leaders and big corporations who put profits ahead of everything else ». Despite the fact that lot of people know them nowadays – there has even been a movie in cinemas – their actions are still not immediately demasked. And since this movie was released, they’ve engaged a series of action against Dow Chemical including one invasion in 2004 at BBC World as a false Dow chemical and Union Carbide representative that was declaring that the public company was taking full responsability for Bhopal (India) catastrophy. Later on, at a London banking conference to which they had accidentally been invited because of their satirical website, “Dow representative” “Erastus Hamm” unveiled “Acceptable Risk,” a Dow industry standard for determining how many deaths are acceptable when achieving large profits. The bankers enthusiastically applauded the lecture, which described several industrial crimes, including IBM’s sale of technology to the Nazis for use in identifying Jews, as “golden skeletons” – i.e. skeletons in the closet, but lucrative and therefore acceptable ones. Several of the bankers in attendance then signed up for licenses for the “Acceptable Risk Calculator” and even posed with Acceptable Risk mascot “Gilda, the golden skeleton in the closet,” for photos.


The exercise was intended to illustrate the absurdity of depending on “Corporate Social Responsibility” (CSR) to set limits to corporate behavior. If corporations were completely free to behave as the market demands – the logical extreme of CSR – then industrial catastrophes of huge magnitude, such as Bhopal, would not necessarily be disadvised.

To illustrate again the dual-use of the word « dissemination », just think of a farmer who shares his experience with other farmers, let’s say about a certain seeding, weeding or tilling practice, for instance, he engages in a dual dissemination question. So when we hear in mass media about dissemination of Genetically Modified Organisms, we undestrand that some of them can really be destabilised. 10 years ago in France, the Farmers Confederation took quickly the decision to adopt a strategy of destructions of fields, that could give them the ability to devellop conditions of big media campaigns behind a leader, José Bové. But after some years of actions and several periods in prison, the question is still not solved and the debate in the organisation turned about the ambiguous position of José Bové who became a big media character in France who was even lately competing for the presidential elections. Not so much cooperative, René Riesel, the second person to be enprisoned in this affair, has never reached the statut of Bové in the media. René Riesel used to be part of the artistic and activist avant-garde Situationist International in the late sixties. He moved then to a peasant life in the south of France. In the nineties he founded with José Bové the French Farmers’ Confederation, and as Bové was put in jail several times for illegal destruction of GMO’s fields. But, because of the media career of Bové and the “citizen” positions adopted consequently by the Confederation, Riesel left the organisation.

Riesel, as Bové, was for luddite direct action. Certain technologies hurt “the Commonality” (as they used to say in the early 19th century). The Luddites took their sledgehammers to machinery that they felt harmed to the common good. But Riesel refers also to Theodore Kazinski, the Unabomber who was sending postal bombs to deforestation industrials in the 90s and who forced a major newspaper to publish his pamphlet « the industrial society and its future ». For Riesel, the dominant phenomenon of the times is “the continuing artificialization of life, at work now for a century”, a process in which science and the economy, each supporting the other, have invaded the entire social spectrum. The Industrial Society prevents other types of knowledge and social relations from finding expression, creating a technological system that has become autonomous to the detriment of life and liberty. This domination leads as much to the ruin of nature as it does to the alienation of human beings. For Riesel, the world where we live is furiously experimental. With the acceleration of the Market competition and the so-called “natural limits of the planet”, new experimental technologies have now to be tested in “real conditions”. Being ironic of how the arts help the R&D, he says “It’s a world where everybody can be artist or creative, a world full of situationnists ideas that became crazy”.  (Riesel, 2003)

After several sojourns in Prison, José Bové and its followers have embraced a new and less violent strategy, pointing even more clearly the dissemination in question. In july 2007, 500 anti-GMO activists organised an operation of « pollination » of a GMO corn field, meaning that they spread some pollen of traditionnal corn close to a GMO corn field, making then the GMO seeds unusable. By this action, they limitate their responsability, having found a « legal » strategy where they don’t need to enter the field but just shake corn near it, giving the dissemination role to the wind and the insects. The company responsible for the field, Limagrain, is nevertheless pursuing the activits for this new form of « sabotage » (AFP, 2007). If shaking corn is sabotage, then we will have difficuties soon to blow flowers in the air…

The arrival of convergent technologies or NBIC (Nano, Bio, Info, Cogno-technologies) into the military arsenal, opens new fields of operation for military supremacy and leaves little doubt as to the emergence of new forms of international destabilisation (Nordmann, 2004). The potential of NBIC is to create an unprecedented proficiency in surveillance whilst deliberately violating private life, to reinforce the capability of « biological » soldiers and to develop autonomous killing machines, and to remotely manipulate the cognitive activity of individuals. Already, one has a premonition of even more dangerous applications: nanoparticles could be disguised as substances pertaining to be medicines and cross the blood-brain barrier with disabling agents; technologies developed for individual treatment could be used for making chemical or biological arms that are selective (for example, according to genetic code); nano-composites open the way to firearms made entirely from plastic, undetectable, probably causing an intensification of security checks for material movement and knowledge dissemination; progress made in robotics and the electronic control of animals may lead to the remote manipulation of soldiers bodies. It could be, that the development of dual-use convergent technologies give rise to export regulations entirely based on digitisation, cryptography and universal traceability (of knowledge, resources and individuals) to control the technology at source of the process of manufacture. This sounds like bad news for the Open Source movement.

The vain attempts to control dissemination, uncontrollable by definition, add even more chaos to the immaterial war of today. A war full of contradictions where borders between civil and military are more and more hazy. A war where leading laboratory states impose hard Intellectual Property policies and strict controls of dual-use technologies, and where developing countries and civil society movements reclaim the shift towards a society of open knowledge and creative sharing, a society of dissemination of knowledges.


  5. Critical Art Ensemble (2007). The Marching Plague, New York, USA: Autonomedia
  6. Leeson L.H.(director). 2007. Strange Culture (Motion Picture), USA: S. Beer, L. Swenson, L. H. Leeson,
  7. Jacques Derrida (1972). La dissémination, Paris, France: Editions du Seuil
  9. Weinberger S. (2005, sept. 19). You can’t handle the Truth, Slate. Retrieved September 15, 2007 from
  11. René Riesel (2003), Du progrès dans la domestication, Paris, France: Editions de l’Encyclopédie des Nuisances
  12. with AFP (July 26, 2007), Nouvelle action de José Bové et de militants anti-OGM, 20 Minutes. Retrieved September 14, 2007 from
  13. Nordmann A. (2004). « Converging Technologies : shaping the Future of European Societies »:  HLEG report 2004, Luxembourg: European Commission, retrieved on September 14, 2007 from EU archive.