Water in Africa < > Water in Austria

2008 – 2009, commissioned by Ars Electronica

In summer 2009, Ars Electronica carried out the exhibition 80+1 – A Journey around the World. The exhibition presented “WIA < > WIA”, an artwork which was supposed to be made by an African artist, called “Melissa Fatoumata Touré”. The installation consisted of a public toilet in the exhibition space, that appeared to be hooked up via Internet to an African village’s well. Data of the amount of water that is pumped at this particular well was supposed to be sent to the exhibition space, where it would feed the water flush of the toilet with the same amount of water, rising awareness of the different values of water in different areas of the world.

But both, the artist and the entire project were fictions that I invented, and Ars Electronica did not know this fact. Weeks after the exhibition opening and more than half a year after I first contacted Ars Electronica as Melissa Fatoumata Touré, doubts about the real character of the artwork raised on the side of the organizers and eventually, Ars Electronica’s investigations revealed the true background of the work.

80+1 – A Journey around the world

In a public call in 2008, Ars Electronica invited artists around the world to submit proposals for a virtual journey around the world, a medial reinterpretation of the trip protagonist Phileas Fogg took in Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days. The exhibition was part of the official “Linz09” culture capital program.

Within their call for proposals, Ars Electronica published detailed directions for the desired competition entries. Besides very particular technical descriptions, the organizers announced a variety of key-subjects as well as virtual destinations which they wanted to cover with the submitted works. The organizers focused on
important issues that would affect the population of the whole world, like terror, genetic engineering and climate change. Even if I perceived this call for proposals as quite limiting in the means of artistic freedom, I was happy to recognize that “creative hacking [was] encouraged” by the Ars Electronica, as they wrote in their
open call.

I took the journey’s belletristic basis (as specified by Ars Electronica itself) as an occasion to consider an installation that would be played out in the realm of fiction. Just like the novel that gave the whole project its name. The Internet as the filter in the communication between Ars Electronica and me played an essential role in this by effectively concealing my true identity for more than eight months. Inventing and subsequently maintaining a fictional identity by means of digital communication have also simultaneously been the core of my artistic contribution to this exhibition.

For the exhibition, I custom-tailored both, the “WIA < > WIA” installation as well as the fictional artist “Melissa Fatoumata Touré”, to the wishes expressed by the project organizers in their call for submissions.

Melissa Fatoumata Touré and her proposal

Melissa is the perfect dream of every new media curator. With her degree in computer science and her well developed practical electronic skills, she’s able to produce even complex technical setups quick and in a professional way. She has an exotic background, but her ideas are destilled media art mainstream.

cover sheet of melissas proposal

Melissa’s proposed installation “WIA < > WIA” is a classic piece for its field: It consists of two physical interfaces, one mounted on a public well in Mali and one controlling a public toilet in Linz. Both are connected via the Internet. The installation compares the different meaning of water in both countries. While Austria has a lot of water – and even can use it to flush down toilets, Mali is a dry country where clean water is rare and valuable. The core idea of the installation is to provide an Austrian toilet flush in realtime with the same amount of water that is pumped at an African village’s well.
   Since the village has only 200 liters of water per day for disposal (a fictional value which is adjusted to the installation requirements), the exhibition’s toilet runs dry after about twenty toilet flushs. But there’s a clever feedback loop: With the donation of one Euro, exhibition visitors can buy ten liters of water, which is enough for one toilet flush. The donated money is used to subsidize an African well drilling project. (To avoid confusion at this point: Even if the installation was complete fake, the installation raised real money which was really donated to an actual well drilling project.)

Melissa described her project in her own words in this webpage:

Production of the installation

After the project was selected by the jury in October 2008, the actual installation had to be produced. While the Mali side consisted mainly of Photoshop collages which I sent via email to the organizers, the Austrian toilet was built in reality. The whole exhibition space was a temporary building on the Linz main square and the toilet was the core of the building. The architects had the idea to glue a Koulouninko panorama on the toilet’s walls and ceiling, providing the exhibition visitors with the feeling of being on the village’s main square while doing their business. Besides of this Koulouninko panorama image, the only part of the toilet that had to be delivered from Melissa was the valve control electronics:

toilet flush water control board

This device would interface the toilet via the the Internet with Koulouninko’s well. To get the electronics board to Linz was of course one of the most tricky parts of the project, as I did not have any address in Mali from which I could send the device.
But by telling a lovely story of my brother marrying her sister, Melissa introduced me (Niklas) to the project. And in some way, it made sense that I sent another, functioning electronics board from Berlin to Linz, after Melissa’s original board was lost in the African mail. This actually also gave me the strange credit in the exhibition “Supported by: Niklas Roy”.

Exhibition of the installation

The exhibition opened on June 17th. The Austrian public television covered the opening in a short feature:

This gave me the opportunity to see how the toilet looks like, that Ars Electronica has built for Melissa. A server in Berlin was sending random data to the toilet in Linz and everything worked well. The exhibition guards were wondering a little bit, how a village like Koulouninko with its 2000 inhabitants (as it was described in the exhibition) can survive with only 200 liters of water per day. But somehow everyone accepted those facts.

But since the whole exhibition was a highly ambitious project, it did not only showcase installations. Furthermore, there was a vivid program going on. One part of it happened two weeks after the opening: It was a live connection to the Internet café in Koulouninko. Melissa was invited to present her installation via webcam. Afterwards, in a second transmission, Melissa discussed the African water crisis in an expert panel.

Of course, I’m not a woman. And I don’t look like I’d be from Africa. And the Internet café in Koulouninko did not exist at all. So far to the problems, I was confronted with when I received the invitation. Now to the solutions: Within a few weeks, with a lot of paint and some plastic chairs, I turned my workshop into an African Internet café. Or at least my workshop looked like an African Internet café from exactly one perspective. A view through the Internet café’s door, made with a simple rear projection, showed the actual well where the “sensor” was installed. A communication setup that already has proven to work, when the Austrian public radio interviewed me via Skype, was the solution for Melissa’s female voice and appearance:

I was sitting in the room next to my studio. On my laptop, there was running Skype. My headphones were connected to the Laptop and I could see and hear what’s going on in Austria. My voice was transmitted via microphone to the studio, where a fake Melissa actress could hear just me. She was repeating word by word what I said and her voice and image went back into my laptop, being sent to the exhibition in Linz. And well, Melissa’s skin color was achieved with a thick layer of makeup. The image that the organizers and exhibition visitors in Linz received, was on the borderline of believability. And still, Melissa was taken serious.

This all changed a bit, when the discussion became longer and longer. There was a certain point, where it should have became night in Africa, but the sky of the beautiful Koulouninko village was obviously still bright blue.

Now, Ars Electronica started to doubt. They tried to explore the true background of the work that they presented already for quite a while. And since Melissa refused to simply reveal her real identity, this investigations were mainly a brute force research. By browsing thousands of photos in the Internet, Ars Electronica’s director Gerfried Stocker found all the images, that I used to compose the virtual Koulouninko. And even if I thought that the organizers must have known who the real person behind Melissa was (probably the brother of her sister’s husband?), they couldn’t believe that it would be me. For them, this kind of behavior seemed to be too bold. So after further two weeks, I decided to stop hiding and revealed my true identity.

The installation was still running very successful till the end of the exhibition. It raised 1470 Euros which were finally donated to this project.

Ars Electronica reacted very positive on the fake – they invited me to present the project at their festival in September. And even if the exhibition guards were advised to explain the audience the fictional character of the installation, no one really wanted to hear that. The audience mostly preferred to believe Melissa’s [fake] version. Even “Der Standard”, a well recognized newspaper from Vienna reported during the Ars Electronica festival about the project as if it were true. Months after the fake was revealed. It seems that some people rather prefer to believe a hoax than the more complex truth.

Media coverage

[ Ethan Zuckerman about WIA < > WIA ]

[ Zeit Online about the Ars Electronica, featuring WIA < > WIA ]

[ Zeit Online interview with Gerfried Stocker ]

[ about the Ars Electronica Festival and WIA < > WIA ]

[ Stuttgarter Zeitung about the Ars Electronica Festival and WIA < > WIA ]

[ Realtime magazine about the Ars Electronica Festival and WIA < > WIA ]

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