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Engineering Critically

Dazed speaks to a workspace uncovering the influence of new technologies on everyday life

Julian Oliver[JO], Danja Vasiliev[DV] and Gordan Savičić established Studio Weise7 as a place where their complementary interests in interrogating technology could be housed beneath the one roof. From there these computational instigators drafted the Critical Engineering Manifesto, a call to arms that advocates unveiling the influence of technology through dissecting the discourse and practice of engineering. That manifesto has struck a nerve: it’s been translated into 15 languages, adorns the walls of many hack spaces and sparks discussions in art schools and computer science departments alike. The inaugural Weise7 exhibition produced works covering data distortion, Internet independency, and information obfuscation. Their exhibitions and artworks are accompanied by workshops that empower participants to comprehend their networking environment and transform their understanding of the internet. We spoke to Julian [JO] and Danja [DV] about the need for Critical Engineering.

Engineering, particularly engineered infrastructure, is part of our environment, influencing the way we move, communicate, eat, heal and think.

DV: A deep engagement with technology can not be revoked: while living an urban life it's hardly possible to isolate oneself from the effects of technological influence and thus the critical attitude towards it can be continuously exercised.

JO: Unless we develop a basic understanding of the many systems that comprise our environment, we can't critically engage the world we live in.

Critical Engineers continue, and expand upon, the responsibilities of the artist

JO: An important role of the artist within a culture has been to antagonise, remodel and re-describe the world we live in. Engineering therefore must be part of the contemporary artist's palette if they are to engage many of the tensions, ideologies, territories and machinery at work in our world and our own makeup as social and political creatures. A Critical Engineer positions engineering as a vital and volatile context for exploration, to the ends of cracking open opaque systems & machines (AKA black boxes).

Critical Engineering != () Hacking

JO: Critical Engineering is a frame for any person engaging the engineered world, in its many forms, outside of service to science or industry. It needs to be considered separately from a 'hacker', or hacking, as we think those terms have become loaded and lost in common parlance. Hacking tools and strategies, are used often in our own critical engineering work, however. We also reserve the right to name works by artists, scientists, researchers and 'hackers' as works of Critical Engineering.

Works of Critical Engineering are concerned with directly engaging the black box.

JO: The more a technology is depended upon, the more it presents a potential threat. Performing the opening of a black box as an exploit - whether that be in the form of physical interventions upon an object or manipulations of wireless networks and their content - characterises a work of critical engineering.

A narrow computer science education can be its own cage, a black box in itself.

JO: A great deal of computer science departments are solely concerned with pushing out employable students and not those that might explore less strictly economically rational outcomes for their work.

DV: To some extent computer literacy is going to help us make better decisions and avoid privacy abduction. We also need to become much more technologically uncompromising and dare to reject tainted technologies, despite their convenience.

NETWORKshops seed constructive paranoia and impart working skill sets.

DV: The Internet as we knew it is not to stay there forever and it is vital to (at least) understand how else we will be able to swap data and inter-connect digitally. If not now, when is it the time to learn how to make our own networks?

JO: Our work is both pedagogical and aesthetic. Education is an innate continued expression of the act of exploiting a machine or system: opening it up for study, manipulation and creative exploration.

The exploit is the most desirable form of exposure.

JO: To openly exploit an otherwise closed system is a highly productive and transformative act. Firstly, it reveals the political intent of control or closure, implemented in the design of that opaque system. Secondly it reveals the unknowns of its inner workings, helping us to understand what it is we're depending on.

DV: Through having to exploit her or his near environment one becomes fully aware of its internal workings. How else but by breaking an opaque object would we learn what's inside of it?

JO:To find a point of exploit -an entry point- in a black box is to produce knowledge. Sometimes this also reveals how we are being exploited by that black box.