Subtle Technologies Festival 2010. A review by Joseph Ingoldsby

The use of the word ‘Festival’ versus ‘Conference’ or ‘Symposium’ for the
Subtle Technologies Festival, which was held in Toronto June 4-6, explained
that this was a public celebration.  This 13th anniversary of the Subtle
Technologies Festival was focused on Sustainability. Artists, scientists,
inventors, architects, linguists, writers engaged the future with vision and
optimism.

Native Anishinabe, Deborah McGregor spoke of Indigenous knowledge, the cycle
of life, rebirth and renewal and the need for an earth ethic to influence
political decision-making. She stressed that the European model of land as
commodity and the corporate use of indigenous knowledge as extraction for
patents was not sustainable. Native treaties as Dish with One Spoon and
Pachymama- the Rights of Nature speak of our responsibility to preserve and
protect Mother Earth for future generations as our gift to all of Creation.
This Earth ethic is currently being brought to the table with the Water
Project on the Great Lakes.

The Native Water Project was contrasted with ‘The City in a glass of water:
urbanized water and sustainability’ of Zainub Verjee and ‘The Way Forward:
Building Social and Ecological Resilience through Social Innovation’ by
Francis Westley from the Waterloo Institute for Complexity and Innovation.
The later programs outlined natural resources as infrastructure and
financial instruments for entrepreneurial innovations and initiatives. “The
goals of the WICI are to develop a common, trans-disciplinary language and
methodology and an integrated, coherent theory for the study and pedagogy of
complex adaptive systems; and apply these tools to stimulate rapid and
beneficial innovation that will increase the resilience of complex adaptive
systems worldwide – including social, political, economic, and ecological
systems – that are currently under threat.”

K. David Harrison presented ‘The Linguists’. Languages reflecting
disappearing cultures are dying out with the elderly populations of Bolivia,
India, Serbia and Siberia by attrition, government pogroms and indifference.
However, there is hope that with the continuation of traditional medicine,
which passes on the language with the rituals as in Bolivia and the use of
new technologies to record the languages in Serbia and Siberia, that the
living languages and cultures will be preserved for another generation.
Language has a dynamic and robust ability to adapt and evolve with change.
New Media is often used as a means of engaging the often isolated and
fragmented populations to give legitimacy to the culture by a media savvy
new generation, who adapt the technologies for broadcast.

This was the case with ‘Digital narratives and eco-media: An artistic
experimentation in coastal communities’ by Karla Brunet and Juan Freire.
Here teenagers from coastal Garapua, Brazil were trained in GPS and video
and audio transmission. Armed with a mission to map their coastline and
document the landscape and people, they returned to their communities and
recorded the stories of the elders. For the first time, the grandchildren
sat and listened to their grandparents and recorded the memory of their
culture. In doing so, they developed an appreciation for their culture and
now will keep the culture alive. In the process, the teenagers learned about
their landscape and culture including the importance of the mangrove swamps
to sustainable fisheries and storm damage.

The loss of the natural and cultural landscapes and biodiversity were the
focus of ‘Requiem for a Drowning Landscape’ by Joseph Ingoldsby. I presented
the case for a historic loss of landscapes and species in America. Since
colonization, America has lost 98% of the plains and prairies, 99% of
savannas, nearly 100% of the virgin forests east of the Rockies and 50% of
the wetlands in America. What remains exists in a fragmented state. Iconic
species as the American bison are ecologically extinct and genetically
threatened. This story of broken trophic cascades plays itself out on the
Atlantic coast, where rising seas and warming ocean temperatures flood the
high marshes and bring southern invasive species to the coastal landscapes.
Art and technology can be used to translate science and illuminate the
issues for the public and bring policy changes.

Dr. T. Ryan Gregory spoke of Microbes and meteors: putting the human
experience in a biological context. Life has existed on Earth for 4 billion
years. Homo sapiens have roamed Earth for 100,000 years. We are now within
the Sixth extinction cycle called the Holocene Extinction. The UN warns us
that biodiversity losses are accelerating as ecosystems approach their
tipping points. Scientists around the world are submitting species
documentation for a data bank on life, as we know it. The project initiated
by world renowned biologist, E.O. Wilson will compile all knowledge on the
1.8 million known species and shall be accessible online by 2020.

In this dark period of turmoil, what can we do to slow the loss of landscape
and species? Speakers at the Sustainability Conference urged accessible
technology, green product design and fabrication, rethinking agriculture,
expanding green networks to allow for species migration and policy change.
The United Nations warns that without “radical and creative action” to
conserve the biodiversity of life on Earth, natural systems that support
lives and livelihoods are at risk of collapsing.  We are running out of
time.

Joseph Ingoldsby writes and exhibits about Biodiversity.