Meet iii Virtual Resident Peter Flemming

Peter Flemming is a full-time artist, part-time professor and curator in Montréal who exhibits and works internationally. Research interests include ad hoc architecture, intuitive physics, informal engineering, neuromimes, solar power, waste harvest, and saunas.

For his virtual residency at iii he led a workshop on how to a build free-power AM crystal radio that works without batteries or needing to be plugged in, because have you ever worried that your dependence on computers to think and work for you has weakened your technological ingenuity and lowered your chances of surviving the apocalypse?


Zoom Crystal Radio Workshop

Cybil Scott- What is your background?

Peter Flemming- I’m an artist through and through. I went to the Ontario College of Art in Toronto that taught electronics, performance, robotics, and sound and studied with Norman White, Johanna Householder, Rita McKeough, Nobuo Kubota. Currently I teach creative electronics at Concordia University in Montréal.

What is it about the pattern or metaphor of the “network” that fascinates you?

I’d broaden this to talk about the pattern / metaphor of ‘technology’ or ‘systems.’ These very human constructs are like texts, eg. it is possible to read a machine or a piece of technology as a material index of desire, hubris, neuroses etc. It’s like taking a core sample from say, layers of trash in a landfill over centuries to give an index on how people were behaving over time. The technological instruments of our highly individualized western white society are metaphors for the world, reflecting greed and selfish pursuits of the individual- among other things. We are still stuck in a mechanistic world view of interlocking parts, where trees are made of wood and the ground has metal. We self-interpret as machines or systems.. An overarching thread is to compartmentalize our thinking into manageable chunks, but there is a paradigm shift happening I think. There’s many artists, thinkers, scientists, activists working with holistic systems that blur borders and narratives and think critically about how these forces are predicting, controlling, and killing us. I work with and also against that at the same time. It’s a negotiation if you’re working with tech, walking a similar kind of tightrope using meta-awareness and looking at it with a critical eye.


Meet iii Virtual Resident Peter Flemming
Neuromimes 2014 - current collaborative open-source hardware research project photo credit: Peter Flemming

What are some of your own artistic or personal habits that are reliable systems for you? 

I’ve always struggled with developing reliable and systematic habits (eg. waking up at 5am and working 10 hours every day). I do tend to be quite focused on a subject when I am interested, so perhaps this helps the process somewhat. Overall, the most reliable things in my life are my community, circle of peers, friends, and family. A mutually caring and supportive network of people is something I could not do without. But I’m a binge and purge kind of a person. I’ll work on something for hours, days, weeks obsessively and then rest for a long while, or shift to something else. I’m into the mess when things blur over and fall apart and overlap in weird ways that you weren’t anticipating and when mistakes happen. Instead of fighting mistakes, it can be helpful to view them as signposts that can open up unexpected and interesting areas of exploration. I tend to keep my studio organized since I am sort of a pack rat, I have to know where things are, to access the vocabulary so I can take it out and make a mess. For me, taking an afternoon to organize a box of components or a bunch of cables is as close as it gets to meditation. I need these touch posts of having organization and clarity and then losing it again.

Meet iii Virtual Resident Peter Flemming
spiderlogic (i) 2016 in-situ improvised kinetic / sound installation photo credit: Peter Flemming

At which point do you no longer “understand” the system which you’ve constructed, does it go beyond your control?

A tension between control/lack of control; understand/not-understanding (at my own limits) is likely present from the start. Usually, when I start to think about just about anything in any detail for any length of time, I realize how much I actually do not understand. It’s important to not worry about working on a goal oriented path towards an intended outcome- not just with technology but material in general- limitations or behaviors of materials do interesting things like collapse, run amok, or just stop.

Meet iii Virtual Resident Peter Flemming
Low Places 2019 - current slow process kinetic installation photo credit: Peter Flemming

Is there something spooky about building a device (Crystal Radio) that eventually picks up information? Where is the magic located for you?

The device of a crystal radio is an index of history, geology, geography etc. I think that all of the bizarre and mysterious signals that one picks up are too well documented to be truly spooky, but still it is absolutely magical. The magic is in the ordinary-ness and earthi-ness of the materials involved (rocks and minerals) and their incredulous ability to somehow pluck sound from air from far away. There is a sense of wonder and curiosity using simple materials. The key components for the radio receiver are a germanium diode (the crystal) and a handmade tuning coil. I taught a workshop in Sackville, New Brunswick next to the Radio Canada shortwave towers that used to be there. Simply holding a germanium diode in the air and letting your body become an antenna would get a signal. Someone else used a slinky as a tuning coil. Amazing. The funny thing is though, that much of the information you get is very non-magical, it’s often religious talk radio or classic rock on the AM band, nobody is interested in that.

Is radio one of the most reliable inventions humans have come up with? 

It seems that capitalism, unfortunately, is the most reliable system we have.

Crystal Radio
Meet iii Virtual Resident Peter Flemming

Do you like building reliable systems?

I find observing collapse to be a more impressive teacher.

What is about the meeting of the logical and intuitive that fascinates you? 

Tension between supposedly contrary forces is always fascinating. Also, the realization that compartments break and blur very quickly. Star-trek notwithstanding, gut feelings have definitely been disregarded. We like to pretend we’re all logical and rational because the type of intelligences that are valued tend to be the scientific, and supposedly objective but the other types of intelligences (emotional or intuitive) are dismissed.

If anything is left on it’s own long enough, will it naturally start to build a system?

How should I know? 😉

At my core I don’t really believe in an ordered mechanistic universe which is totally predictable and traditional. Maybe I’m more nihilistic or a believer in the random, or the void. I’m working towards accepting there’s not a reason for everything. There’s no underlying structure or set of rules. Everything we do is flying in the face of that. I’m a conscientious nihilist however, so it doesn’t mean we should roll over and let it happen.

Meet iii Virtual Resident Peter Flemming
Sourbodies 2019 - current ongoing series of 25+ timelapse video of fermentation processes photo credit: Peter Flemming

Is nature the best engineer?

I don’t think it is the best idea to interpret nature in such human-centric terms.

What inspires you? Books, artworks, music, tv, etc? 

All of the above, and more so conversation. Especially with the folks in the peer network I mentioned above.

The workshop was definitely one of the funnest things I’ve done lately, and the people I met through it. It was my first time doing a workshop online, so it’s good practice for what’s going to happen in the future and for teaching, because I’m working on how to deliver online courses in the fall.

What kind of materials do you prefer to use? 

This has changed over time. I usually gravitate to things that are cheap, readily available, recycled… but not always. I like things that can be sensuous somehow. Sensuous-ness can be at odds with appearance/aesthetics. I mean that in a broad way, something you can know or apprehend in a bodily way- body scale, body presence and experience. The materials facilitate that connection one way or another- for example, I’ve always wanted to work with charcoal, it’s very powdery and messy with an attractive texture, weight and density. I want to bite it or put it in my mouth! Carbon is a fundamental element, so there’s something primal about it. It’s behaviour is sensual somehow. Like the crystal radio, between air and information and signals, it’s this unlikely and ugly little arrangement of wire and a toilet paper tube. It’s not just an aesthetic but it’s also a behavior. The things that draw connections in more than a logical rational way, create attraction somehow. I’m perpetually fascinated by the basics, and for me thinking like a beginner is fine. I use the basics over and over again. Maybe I’m like a four trick pony; using different combinations while using tech that could have been built in the 60’s or 70’s.

Do you consider yourself a minimalist?

Nope. I have a lot of respect for people who can stop at a certain point. It can be really brave.

NKD research - Char 2016 artist residency research, prototype, improvised charcoal oven and charcoal photo credit: Peter Flemming
Manual 2006 kinetic installation photo credit: Isaac Appelbaum

Can you describe what you mean by intuitive physics?

I do not have formal training and rarely use math, but I feel like I have a lot to talk about with physicists. I’m not necessarily guided by math and formula, but intuition and artistic reference. Sometimes there seems to be hostility towards arts and artists with the perception that they take whatever they want from other disciplines, but it doesn’t need to be a disrespectful type of process; it can be thoughtful, critical and respectful at the same time. I don’t need to build a bridge that won’t collapse or a house that needs to be lived in. We have to realize we are borrowing from the world, and when it is okay to do so. Everything has its own culture, even science and physics.

Does the crystal radio studio/project have a different vibe during coronavirus?

Everything does! I’m missing out on the physical network. The author Heather Davis, (whose writing I love) writes a lot about the Anthropocene and brings up how plastic is the ultimate prophylactic against death, preserving, and cementing borders, instead of permitting porosity. Suddenly there’s a pandemic and plastic becomes our friend again, we like borders. The world is full of your tiny little invisible enemy and you have to defend yourself against it. It’s a strange place to be. I’m still processing the future of COVID-19.

Coming Up-

Currently I’m working on a book that is part-monograph, part catalogue. The working title is Sourbodies + Low Places, and it will be the first major international publication on my artistic practice. Mikhel Proulx is the managing editor and the design is by Studio Katja Gretzinger in Berlin. There will be texts in French and English by Heather Davis, Michele Kasprzak, and Martin Howse. The book will focus on two new works produced for a solo exhibition in Berlin in 2019; while I was at Québec Arts & Letters artist-in-residence at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien, contextualising them in relationship to 25 years of my previous work, and to broader socio-political issues (fermentation, microbiopolitics, geopolitics of resource/extractivist logic, climate crisis).