According to Ida Lissner, Nicole Jonasson and Majken Overgaard, technology is “hard”. For four days in Denmark, the artists and curator hosted the annual Catch Summer Camp to learn, meet, exchange and imagine a world where technology is welcoming. A bit of softness in a world of (techno) brutes.
In A Rant About “Technology”, the science-fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin responds zealously to an anonymous reviewer of her book Changing Planes. The Argentinean reviewer asserts that “as Le Guin isn’t a hard science fiction writer, […] technology is carefully avoided”. She retorts: “’Hard’ sf is all about technology, and ‘soft’ sf doesn’t have any technology, right? And my books don’t have technology in them, because I am only interested in psychology and emotions and squashy stuff like that, right? Not right.”
The author then proceeds to challenge the commonly accepted perimeter of what we call “technology”: “We have been so desensitized by a hundred and fifty years of ceaselessly expanding technical prowess that we think nothing less complex and showy than a computer or a jet bomber deserves to be called ‘technology’ at all.” She goes to remind us that paper, ink, wheels, knives, clocks, chairs and aspirin pills are not natural objects, but the result of human ingenuity.
For Majken Overgaard, curator of Catch, it’s a foundation text. “At Catch we’re always trying to bring in different perspectives on technology. We question who creates it, who should create it, and how we can apprehend it from an artistic point of view.” It’s a step aside that can already “change the discourse and the conversation,” says Majken. The artists she invites “aim to develop alternative realities”.
Relearning to learn
This summer at Catch, a center for art, design and technology near Copenhagen, Denmark, the curator invited Softer, a designer duo committed to softening technology. “Technology is hard,” Ida Lissner and Nicole Jonasson begin. “When you look at visuals around tech, digital media or 3D design, it’s a ‘hard tech’ esthetic, with 95% of tutorials given by guys speaking a technical language, very fast, to teach you how to make fire, smoke or dragons. There’s a whole esthetic around learning that addresses an audience in which we don’t see ourselves.”
With their abstract, colorful and felted esthetic, Ida Lissner and Nicole Jonasson create their own space. In order to encourage a more fluid approach to 3D design, they begin where they themselves started: tutorials. “We want to create a space where people can get involved more gently,” they say, showing simple software programs that are capable of making pretty things, such as their digital garden. Above all, they are not afraid of showing their doubts and errors: “That was our line: Leave room for errors and vulnerabilities. You don’t need to be perfect, either to teach or to learn something.”
At Catch, they build this real-world space, using the physical presence of bodies to create bonds through shared meals and swimming sessions in natural settings. “At the Summer Camp, what’s important is not to learn things, but to build confidence, to meet people with similar visions, to realize that we’re not alone and explore.” The designers talk about desirable futures and how to build a feminist and ecological world, or the politics of softness. They project a future “of radical optimism” – a rare sentiment these days, which is all the more appreciated. “Everyone goes away optimistic, reinvigorated,” say the artists. “You see these people who are doing great things, it inspires us collectively to create initiatives that can change things.”
“I didn’t think the conversations would be so deep”
That’s when Majken Overgaard opens the doors to the public, to present what was created, talk and connect the public’s individual stories of technology to the exhibition. “The conversations that we had were amazing,” she says. “Lots of people present worked with technology, or had family who worked in the field, and felt excluded – because they didn’t speak the right language, or didn’t speak it well enough. We also talked a lot about children, how to raise them so that they feel that they’re an active part of this technological future. All these doubts, these emotions linked to technology, it was amazing.” Exchanges that were both intimate and universal, according to Majken: “Our conversations influenced the perspectives of several participants, because deep down, many had formed these thoughts without expressing them.”
Thus, the definition of technology was rethought, reopened. As Ursula K. Le Guin wrote: “I don’t know how to build and power a refrigerator, or program a computer, but I don’t know how to make a fishhook or a pair of shoes, either. I could learn. We all can learn. That’s the neat thing about technologies. They’re what we can learn to do.” As long as there is softness.
Catch is part of the Feral Labs network and Rewilding Cultures, co-funded by the Creative Europe programme of the European Union.