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Fire Up a Wifi Router Hidden Inside a Rock

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Aram Bartholl, “Keepalive” (2015) at Springhornhof Neuenkirchen, comissioned by Center of Digital Cultures Leuphana University (all photos courtesy the artist)

Unless you notice the little plaque marking it as art, you might easily miss Aram Bartholl’s newest work, which debuts on Sunday and blends seamlessly into its surroundings in the wilderness of Germany. “Keepalive” (2015) takes the form of a modified 1.5-ton boulder that lies in a forest clearing next to a small creek, on the grounds of the Springhornhof, a museum of site-specific outdoor sculpture. Unlike an actual rock, however, “Keepalive” houses a fire-powered wifi router that, once activated, connects users through their phones to a list of downloadable survival guides — transforming the boulder into a hard drive of stone. Permanently installed, the piece has a sturdy structure meant to stand the test of time. It contemplates the amount of value we place on data and the types of survival tools we may require in a tech-driven world.

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Aram Bartholl, “Keepalive” (2015) at Springhornhof Neuenkirchen, comissioned by Center of Digital Cultures Leuphana University (click to enlarge)

Bartholl, a Berlin-based media artist, has created public data-sharing sites before: his series of dead drops, which dates to 2010, consists of USB drives embedded in public walls and invited people to upload and download files of their choosing. While those drives were lodged in the sides of buildings in New York City, “Keepalive” sits in a remote area. A visit demands motivation and effort.

“It’s not about easy access,” Bartholl told Hyperallergic. “It has a whole dystopian idea to it, like, will we need something like this in the future? Or somebody finding this in a hundred years — is it still working and they figure something out and they make a fire, or is there going to be a moment where we’re going to need to make fire again to get access to the data?”

The title, “Keepalive,” comes from the technical term for a message that confirms the continuity of a network between devices, speaking to the vitalness of connectivity today. Like Bartholl’s data drops, this boulder installation is interactive, requiring visitors to build a fire themselves — which further probes the question of what survival means and will mean in years to come.

On one hand, the installation requires age-old technology: lighting a fire. On the other, it relies on modern-day “survival skills,” such as the instinct and know-how to connect to a network. Once sparked, the flames create energy through a metal plate that Bartholl fitted with thermoelectric generators and screwed onto the rock, thus powering the wifi router to grant people access to the files. The network runs on Piratebox, a DIY-software that creates offline wireless networks; the files are stored on a USB drive, which, like the router, is embedded in a bored-out section of the rock.

A sample list of PDFs available to download from "Keepalive"
A sample list of PDFs available to download from “Keepalive” (click to enlarge)

The downloadable files, which appear as a list on the visitor’s screen, are PDFs of survival guides offering a mixture of advice. In a dark joke, or perhaps a punishment for our data-hungry society, some are helpful (guides for nuclear war, cyber security, working with the media), but most would be useless in the case of a future doomsday. Among the less practical offerings: “Digital Signature Instructions,” “Single Woman’s Sassy Survival Guide,” “Boy Basics 101: A Survival Guide for Parenting Male Tweens,” and the apt “How to Survive Data Overload.” Visitors may also upload their own survival guides, so that the accumulation of content over time becomes a measure of what we consider vital. Absurd as they are, most of Bartholl’s guides center on software and social networking skills, suggesting a future in which we’re treading water, trying to avoid submersion in a technological flux.

The inspiration to meld these primitive and modern survival instincts came from photographs Bartholl saw of people selling BioLite stoves during Hurricane Sandy. The flame-powered stoves, like his boulder, allow people to power their devices and remain on the grid even without electricity — a situation he found bizarre.

“It was funny — the power goes out, and people would buy these little stoves and make a fire to charge their phone,” he said.

Since “Keepalive” involves fire, the museum has to implement a hazard-prevention system, so that visitors must schedule an appointment with the landowner. Of course, this setup ruins the possibility of stumbling upon the work, but the mechanics of “Keepalive” still depend on being able to starting a fire — a survival skill that may ultimately endure as the most important of them all.

“All the options without fire make this piece kind of useless,” Bartholl said. “It needs fire. That’s the whole point.”

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Aram Bartholl, “Keepalive” (2015) at Springhornhof Neuenkirchen, comissioned by Center of Digital Cultures Leuphana University
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“Keepalive” in the studio

Aram Bartholl’s “Keepalive” opens at Kunstverein & Stiftung Springhornhof (Tiefe Str. 4, Neuenkirchen, Germany) on August 30.

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