We met four times in the spring, the first meeting took an entire day and the next three were around two hours each. For each meeting attendance was open, which meant that sometimes there were new people for later meetings, or others did not come, however there was a very good number of members continuing through all four meetings, which made the group more cohesive as time went on.
We met in informal settings and tried to keep the study material brief and simple. This allowed for wide-ranging discussions with focused topics. Each meeting was accompanied by dinner, and we thank Skogen for arranging that for us.
Our first meeting was a day-long forest excursion where we got lost on purpose. The second meeting introduced the system of chaotic feedback used by the Norbert Wiener Memorial Feedback Orchestra, and the third meeting offered a chance to perform on it in front of an audience. For the fourth meeting, we took a sauna.
Group leaders were: Valter Nordqvist, Barrie James Sutcliffe, and Richard Widerberg.
First Meeting, April 19: The Harmony Group Gets Lost in a Forest
Our first meeting was intended as a “kick off” of sorts, for everyone in the group to get to know each other but also to face a complex situation head on. New members from the public were solicited via Skogen’s website. We ended up with a group of ten people, some were friends from before and some were new to us. Members knew we were taking a long forest walk, but not where. Some days before the meeting, members were mailed a series of questions to think about in regards to the walk:
What is your relationship with the forest?
What does control mean to you?
How do you use your senses to navigate?
What conditions make you feel harmony, and how do you respond to them?
We met early at the Gothenburg central train station on a Sunday morning on, luckily, the first sunny and hot day of the year. The group leaders then guided the group through the appropriate public transit steps and we eventually ended up in the countryside after spending some time on the bus getting to know each other.
The forest we were aiming for was the same we visited for “Silence, Noise, and Collapse.” Our destination was the fireplace we built deep in the valley there. From the bus stop, up the hill, through the forest, and into the valley, the group was led in silence to the fireplace.
Once reaching the fireplace, we broke the silence and had a bit of a break. The group leaders announced that up to this point, we known where we were going, but from there we would continue into the forest without a clear sense of direction. Lacking mobile phone reception in the wilderness, we only had a poor quality map and a basic compass. The group had thus shifted from being controlled to being on quite equal footing with each other, with a common task to solve.
From that point, the group proceeded to plough through the forest, which was a combination of bog, thick wooded areas, and rugged rocky hills. It was beautiful but more difficult than we had expected, giving us real resistance. The hills and valleys also made it hard to navigate. Ultimately the piloting/steering of the group came down to spotty GPS information but mostly was guided by the compass, up and down valleys until a farming community was finally reached some hours later. The group almost fanned out like a herd at times but it was interesting to notice how technology took the lead.
In the middle of this, we had lunch and our first discussion, which in retrospect should have taken place immediately after the silent walk. Some interesting observations were made, but it was clear that we were all within a certain task that occupied the majority of our attention, and that deep discussion was difficult—it was easier to talk about some historical examples of control and organization, rather than actually interpreting the subject.
In the end the openness of the group made for a great day together, and we returned by bus to Skogen for dinner together and more discussion.
Second Meeting, May 6: The Harmony Group Showers in Feedback
For this meeting the group met at Barrie’s studio in Lindholmen, a post-industrial district in Gothenburg. The studio is in a building that used to be the shower and change rooms for the thousands of men who used to work in the wharf at Götaverken, a shipbuilding and repair company that was among the main industries of Gothenburg during its manufacturing and shipping era. Art studios and technology companies are common uses of post-industrial space and this was no different.
The group was to watch and develop some questions about the second episode of Adam Curtis’ essay series “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” entitled “The Use And Abuse Of Vegetational Concepts.” We met in the main level of the studio and had a great discussion about this film after having dinner together. Members raised excellent points which would later lead to the development of our study focus. Topics covered the question of harmony in nature, autocratic power structures, the attraction of conspiracy theories, communes, representational democracy, and more. In general, how different structures of power use or limit the ability of others to feedback into them, enabling change.
After this, the group moved upstairs for the activity stage of the meeting. The upstairs of this particular building is a huge, changing and shower room, untouched since the 70s, filled with lockers, sinks, and washing stalls. Barrie had set up several interconnected feedbacking mixers and large speakers used by The Norbert Wiener Memorial Feedback Orchestra. This was meant as a hands-on activity to get to know some aspects of control, feedback and chaos. Barrie and Valter played the system at high volume, while other group members listened and explored the space. Later they explained the general idea of the system and how to use it, handing control over to other members of the group while still providing some guidance about its use—all the while, of course, making an extremely loud racket.
Third Meeting, May 20: The Harmony Group Performs Hierarchy
This meeting was made in conjunction with a book release at Göteborgs Konsthall for “Den Här Datorn/Virtuella Utopier,” an interpretive history of Swedish computer art written by Valter’s brother Joel and Olle Essvik. Valter, Richard, and Barrie would play with The Norbert Wiener Memorial Feedback Orchestra during the book release - possibly joined by some members of the Harmony Group.
The Harmony Group met an hour before the release to have a dense dinner discussion based on three pieces of study material: an excerpt of the poem “Kaninen rymde” (“The rabbit escaped”) by Jonas Modig (2014); an excerpt of the Wikipedia article about negative feedback (a quote from Ross Ashby); and a series of four questions:
What are hierarchies, and what is freedom in and outside of them?
Can you be independent while still adapting to something?
Do you feel more limited by external structures, or by inner limits or self-constraints?
Do you recognize the idea of negative feedback in some aspects of your life experience?
The focus of this discussion indeed revolved around negative feedback—trying to figure out exactly what it is—and hierarchies, what they are, where they appear, and how they affect our lives. Independence from feedback loops was a key question, as well as the oppression of hierarchies and families and ways to manage them without such negative consequences.
After this discussion, the group were given the choice to perform as a part of an ensemble (the Feedback Orchestra) or be part of the audience. To our surprise, many people went for it and wanted to take part. Earlier in the day Valter, Richard, and I had assembled a relatively large feedback system of mixers and speakers in the antechamber of the Konsthallen. We offered to new “pilots” (people operating the Feedback Orchestra) a preset feedback system that they could control easily, and slowly connected them together over the course of the performance—a hierarchy of sorts. In this way we could ensure that nothing completely insane would happen, and the show ended up being excellent thanks to the new members being so into experimenting with their systems.
Fourth Meeting, June 11: The Harmony Group Takes a Sauna
For this last meeting of the season we met at a sports center in a nature reserve on the east side of Gothenburg. Our plan was to have a good sauna as a way to experience the systems within our body adjusting—the process of homeostasis. Sauna provides a good shock to the system when moving from a very hot room to a very cold pool of water, making the body’s circulation run quickly in order to redistribute heat. Sauna also provides a great place to talk, and is traditionally a venue for discussion in the nordic countries, especially Finland. Men and women split up and had their sauna, then we met up after and had a discussion over dinner in the park. In addition to Wikipedia articles on Homeostasis and Self Control, members we asked to consider:
How do you relate “harmony” to your own body and life experiences?
How do you consciously regulate or control your own experiences in the face of external stimuli?
The discussion started from the contrast between this experience and the previous meeting topic: receiving negative feedback in a social context vs. directly experiencing something with the body. We ranged from self control, balancing mental and bodily states, stress relief, self destructiveness, the historical practice of taking baths and healing illness such as neurasthenia, the concept of neurodiversity, and further on discussion the regulation of people in society deemed “sick” or “insane.” The tricky topic here brought up the difficulty in deciding at what point someone with mental illness needs serious help without compromising their individuality and the uniqueness of their thought process.
After this meeting we took a complete break for the summer, to begin again in fall 2015. Discussion notes from the meetings can be found here.