Sun Thinking is a group exhibition that brings together artists, writers, and researchers to explore the qualities and logics of solar power and solar powered computing networks. It presents a collection of network-based artworks, games, texts, and interviews and is the first exhibition project to be hosted on the Solar Protocol network.
In 2019 we (Tega Brain, Alex Nathanson, and Benedetta Piantella, all New York City-based artists, designers, and researchers) began talking about whether we could design a computer network that was not only powered by the sun, but also programmed by it. Could we subvert modernist dreams of designing machines to control our environments and instead let our environments control our machines? Could we design in a way that lets the intelligence of the world steer or even automate decision making in our technological systems rather than the other way around?
With these nascent questions in mind, we began working on Solar Protocol, an artwork in the form of a network of solar powered web servers that together host this web platform and all the projects in this show. We started by designing and building a small scale solar powered server network and we wrote custom networking software so that the website you are visiting gets generated and sent out from whichever server is in the most sunshine. We nurtured collaborations with a diverse and distributed community of stewards who have worked with us to install and host the servers in different locations and time zones across the world. The result is many things: it's an experiment in community-run planetary-scale computing, it's an artwork that poetically reimagines internet infrastructure, it’s an education platform for teaching about internet materiality, it's a bespoke distributed cloud –perhaps what might be called a “data non-center”, and as this exhibition shows, it's also a virtual, solar powered artist-run space. Solar Protocol (like every community-based, underfunded project) is as much a social experiment as it is an art and technology project. The number and location of servers that make up the network fluctuate based on both unusual and mundane factors. This includes geopolitical issues of internet access, the digital divide, and internet freedom; interoffice politics and the mercurial nature of IT departments; the availability of institutional support; stewards’ living situations and, on at least two occasions, the status of their romantic relationships.
The Sun Thinking exhibition began with an open call launched in 2022 from which we commissioned several new works as well as invited the contribution of relevant existing projects and texts. The works included in the show range widely in both media type and conceptual focus. The diversity of interlocking questions and concerns that are grappled with here reflects the unruly, messy, and transdisciplinary nature of the Solar Protocol project itself.These include works and texts that ask questions of intelligence and reveal that what counts as intelligence has never been fixed and is therefore open for reconsideration. Many of the texts and interviews consider the practices and politics of community networks and challenges of self hosting infrastructure, many also draw attention to the materiality and situatedness of data and computing and how to design and live within planetary limits and boundaries. Finally, many projects, as well as the design of the exhibition site itself, explore small data aesthetics or work with the rhythms and cyclical nature of solar energy and in doing so probe the characteristics and qualities of working with solar powered computing. You also might notice that the exhibition website changes colors at different times of the day; this occurs because the site is generated with parameters specific to each of the physical servers, which have been set by each of the Solar Protocol stewards. Like the environments we share, the design of this website is ever changing and reflects the dynamism of the places where it is situated.
Please see the full exhibition credits here.
– Tega Brain, Alex Nathanson, and Benedetta Piantella
“Peckish” is the name of this generative browser-based animation, in which a range of urban birds inhabit procedurally generated environments on different servers, and occasionally seek nourishment from objects and organisms they encounter. True to its name, the work scrimps on energy expenditure by enforcing a no-media approach to web design inspired by the resilience and resourcefulness of city-dwelling birds.
Kristin Lucas’s (USA) experimental media and performance works explore a web of entanglements between art and life within everyday systems and paradigms. Lucas studied art at The Cooper Union and Stanford University, and she serves as art faculty at University of Texas at Austin.
Joe McKay (USA) is a digital media artist who creates alternative games, interfaces, and experiences with technology. McKay studied art at NSCAD and UC Berkeley and is an alumnus of the Whitney Independent Study Program. He serves as faculty of New Media at SUNY Purchase College.
In northern Ghanaian oral literature, the blacksmith plays a central role in shaping the relationship between natural resources and technological advancements. Hakeem Adam’s audio essay “The Cult of the Blacksmith” reanimates the rich mythology surrounding this figure, with a keen eye toward how the stories may resonate with contemporary hopes for solar power.
Hakeem Adam (GH) is a Ghanaian digital artist and freelance arts and culture writer exploring the power of narrative. He is the founder and creative director of DANDANO, a Pan-African cultural platform for African film and music criticism and documentation. Hakeem has exhibited internationally and has completed a master's in Digital Media from the University of the Arts, Bremen.
“Drift Mine Satellite” invites viewers into an interactive game about a fictional repair technician living in an underground limestone mine. The project features the daily maintenance required of the ad hoc communication network connecting the occupants of vacation vehicles overwintering there.
Everest Pipkin (USA) is a game developer, writer, and artist from central Texas who lives and works on a sheep farm in southern New Mexico. Their work both in the studio and in the garden follows themes of ecology, tool making, and collective care during collapse. When not at the computer in the heat of the day, you can find them in the hills spending time with their neighbors — both human and non-human.
Rory Gillen and Anna Madeleine Raupach put an expiration date on SpaceX satellites in this web based work. Orbital Decay explores the planned obsolescence of satellite technology by tracking their movements and estimating the date of their downfall. Knowing that the average life expectancy of an individual Starlink module is only about five years before it de-orbits and burns up, this work visualizes the condensed lifespans of the digital hardware we launch into space.
Rory Gillen(AU) is an emerging Australian contemporary artist and researcher based in Ngunnawal and Ngambri land, Australia. His practice focuses on the politics of the networked image, utilizing installations that serve as complex systems. Often using hacked technologies and processes, his practice aims to focus on the ‘cyber-physical membrane’ and the discourses that flow through it.
Anna Madeleine Raupach (AU) is a multidisciplinary artist based on Ngunnawal and Ngambri land, Canberra, Australia, and a Lecturer at the Australian National University School of Art & Design. Her practice spans physical and digital forms to explore how human and machine expression recursively evolves, and to examine how technology shapes our interpretation and expression of climate change.
“Rhythm of Access” mirrors the natural rhythms of daylight by turning itself on and off with the sun. Whether the artwork is available to view—and the experience of the viewer as a result—ebbs and flows with the state of the Swarthmore Solar server, which is geographically closest to the artist's physical location. By bending the work to the conditions of nature, instead of forcing nature to abide by the human demand for 24/7 access, Vasudevan denounces the indiscriminate, unending pursuit of scale and novelty, proffering instead a space for a more patient, contemplative, and localized relationship with technology.
Roopa Vasudevan (USA) is a South Asian-American media artist, computer programmer, and researcher, currently based in the part of Lenapehoking now known as Philadelphia. Through a varied creative toolkit that includes data collection practices, systems design, web development, and remix, she seeks to emphasize personal and human experiences, often on an individual or local level, in a time of Big Data and surveillance capitalism.
"Solar Data Explorer" responds directly to the Solar Protocol project by creating a longitudinal data visualization of the network. The work is optimized for low energy computing, utilizing open source front end and server tools.
Brian Sutherland (CA) is researching how the confluence of new, low power sensing computers, short and long range Wi-Fi networks, and sustainable energy systems have the potential to “hybridize” objects and environments and so change the way we interact with information. Brian's PhD thesis is a history of energy harvesting (solar) consumer devices and he is an experienced system administrator, programmer, and sustainable hardware builder.
“Solar Powered Dawn Poems” is a solar-powered poetry generator that only constructs poems about the sun. Its radically limited language model runs on a low-power microcontroller that only operates when drawing sufficient energy from solar panels. By exploring the temporality of solar-powered computing, this work attends to the significant energy costs of statistic forms of intelligence.
Allison Parrish (USA) is a computer programmer, poet, and game designer whose teaching and practice address the unusual phenomena that blossom when language and computers meet. She is an Assistant Arts Professor at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program. Allison is the co-creator of the board game Rewordable (Clarkson Potter, 2017) and author of several books. Allison is originally from West Bountiful, Utah and currently lives in Brooklyn.
Should data expire? In this essay, honor ash explores entropy and permanence in digital landscapes. How have our personal relationships to data changed as storage has shifted from the physical to the digital realm?
honor ash (UK) is an artist living and working in norwich, england. their practice centres around communication, power, language, community, and alienation through the lens of the internet. currently they are focusing on interrogating the relationship between communities and scale in both online and offline contexts, as well as imagining kind and liberated futures and building sustainable ways for their irl community to engage with experimental music and performance.
This piece addresses the intermittency of network infrastructures in southeast Louisiana. Using the lens of repair and maintenance, the text examines the work of restoring networks after increasingly intense and frequent storms along the coast.
Jen Liu (USA) is a researcher, designer, and artist. Her work investigates the ecological, social, and political implications of computing technologies and infrastructures. She uses ethnographic and design methods to understand these challenges and build alternatives for livable and equitable futures. Jen’s recent research is on the impact of climate change on Internet infrastructures in southeast Louisiana. She is currently a PhD student in Information Science at Cornell University.
In this essay, computer historian Stephanie Dick examines the history of artificial intelligence. By revisiting some key moments in the field, she considers how it has always been characterized by an ever changing definition of intelligence.
Stephanie Dick (USA) is an Assistant Professor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. Her research and teaching are informed by her background in STS and History of Science, with a focus on computing, mathematics, and artificial intelligence since the Second World War. She is the co-editor, with Janet Abbate, of Abstractions and Embodiments: New Histories of Computing and Society, published by Johns Hopkins University Press.
In this essay, media scholar Anne Pasek discusses the carbon implications of online research and cultural practices. As so many workers suffer from Zoom exhaustion and laptop induced carpal tunnel syndrome, how should we be thinking about the carbon footprint of our online gatherings and practices? How have recent experiments with low-carbon infrastructure, such as Solar Protocol, illuminated this question in different ways?
Anne Pasek (CA) is an interdisciplinary researcher working at the intersections of climate communication, the environmental humanities, and science and technology studies. She studies how carbon becomes communicable in different communities and media forms, to different political and material effects. She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Cultural Studies and the School of the Environment at Trent University, as well as the Canada Research Chair in Media, Culture and the Environment.
Rosa's Ecofeminist Dictionary (RED) is a network of people, practices, and terms, the result of many conversations with those who have logged in and out of a server called 'rosa' in the past year. rosa was the protagonist of the project 'A Traversal Network of Feminist Servers,' which de Valk participated in to find out what the practices around feminist servers reveal about creating a smaller environmental footprint, and to find out if there is such a thing as an ecofeminist server.
Marloes de Valk (NL) is a software artist and writer in the post-despair stage of coping with the threat of global warming and being spied on by the devices surrounding her. She is a PhD researcher at the Centre for the Study of the Networked Image at London South Bank University, in collaboration with The Photographer's Gallery, and a thesis supervisor at the master Experimental Publishing at Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam.
Open Garden is a video work that documents a durational participatory performance by Alice Yuan Zhang. Streaming on solar power through the decentralized web, a garden plot awaits visitors. The public was then invited to add and negotiate requests for the garden with others online, to be implemented live by the artist each Sunday.
Alice Yuan Zhang 张元 (USA) is a socially-engaged media artist based in Los Angeles. Along the peripheries of colonialist imagination, she works to bring technology down to earth by devising participatory experiments in interspecies pedagogy, ancestral remembering, and networked solidarity. Alice is a co-founder of the virtual care lab and currently teaches Solidarity Infrastructures at SFPC.
This project consists of a series of conversations with artists and technologists experimenting with self-hosted servers. These texts explore the implications of these trans-local nodes and discuss community-owned networks, bespoke hardware, and digital sovereignty.
Mark Anthony Hernandez Motaghy (USA) is an artist and cultural worker. They were previously a researcher at The Poetic Justice Group at MIT Media Lab, where Mark investigated decentralized story-telling models and community-driven sculptures. Mark is also the compiler of the zine-book Rehearsing Solidarity: Learning from Mutual Aid, published by Thick Press.
Since early 2020, Lenz has been running a self-hosted and solar-powered server. These infrastructures, which take planetary boundaries and conditions as their reference for operation, also develop their own quirks as they demand the navigation of personal relationships and domestic intimacies. This text explores some of these idiosyncrasies and the forms of care that are necessary to build and sustain solar-powered servers.
Felix Lenz (AT) is a research-led artist, designer, and filmmaker based in Vienna, Austria. His analytic investigations in geopolitical, ecological, and technological matters translate in meticulous visual outcomes, installations, and strategies. His works have been exhibited and honored internationally. He is currently finishing his masters at the University of Applied Arts Vienna. More can be found on his solar-powered website.
As part of our ongoing collaboration on Solar Protocol, a planetary network of servers harnessing solar energy to route Internet traffic, two server stewards, Benedetta (Hells Gate server, Queens, NY, USA, @40.762855,-73.9088269) and Denzel (Solar Power for Hackers, Nairobi, Kenya, @-1.303209,36.8473969) recently chatted in an interview about their insights and experiences with stewardship and shared thoughts on the future directions of the project. Both stewards have been actively engaged in caring for and maintaining this solar-powered infrastructure, serving as custodians of nodes and contributing to the network operation over the course of several months.
Denzel Wamburu’s (KE) background is in Mechatronics Engineering, specializing in data and backend engineering. Currently, he is working with a local startup that builds software infrastructure for next-generation entertainment. He has an overwhelming interest in building intelligent systems that get better at decision making over time. Outside work, he loves playing and designing card games, camping, gardening, as well as researching how academic freedom influences innovation.