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Paradise not yet lost
10 years of the Biomuseo, simple formats and niche AI
One last blast of culture and technology from Central America! Other assorted sparkly things also included.
Panama City feels a little like the Dubai of Central America; steel and glass rising from jungle rather than sand, a sweet old town surrounded by bland business districts.
My favourite spot was Biomuseo, a colourful, angular building straddling a thin spit of land that juts out from the shoreline. It’s flanked by distant skyscrapers on one side and queuing cargo ships on the other. Since opening in 2014, this Frank Gehry building has been quietly going about the work of explaining the region’s spectacular biodiversity, what happened when Panama rose from the water, dividing an ocean in two, and then how it brought them together again with a monumental piece of engineering.
An aside about the canal, most of which Morgan Freeman told me in a 45-minute IMAX show. The French first tried it in the 19th century under the direction of the chap that built the Suez canal. Aside from the unfathomable volume of jungle and mountains that had to be chewed through, the endeavour (and 22,000 workers!) ultimately fell victim to mosquitos. Some time later, the Americans, having solved the malaria / yellow fever issue, took a different approach. Rather than excavate coast to coast at sea level, they dammed a river to create a lake and built water ladders on either side. The locks still required an awful lot of digging and dying (officially 5,609…) but it’s OK because it transformed global trade and a lot of white people got rich.
A new lane recently opened, which recycles 60% of the fresh water needed to send a boat through, where previously every drinkable drop was lost to the ocean. The largest vessel, carrying some 15,000 containers, paid a record $1.3 million for transit. That’s just one boat. I could talk more about canals, water shortages, global trade and poorly designed, very expensive visitor centres, but let’s get back to the lovely Biomuseo.
Panamarama is the immersive showpiece, a beautiful six-minute soundscape and film projected onto the ceiling, walls and floor. That it holds up after almost a decade is testament to the enduring beauty of nature rather than the technology. This unfussy precursor to the modern glut of immersive shows may not have their pixel density, their edgeless screens or haptic feedback, but it has good old fashioned audio-visuals that capture Panama’s mountains, jungles, rivers and contrasting coastlines.
Life-size renders of long lost and living animals fill the next exhibition space, their pure white forms frozen in a spiralling stampede. Touch screens provide useful context, but the experience of moving amongst the animals is far more memorable.
An open-air atrium at ground level is abuzz with visitors browsing a series of graphic pillars telling the grand, historical story of this region. I could nitpick — pillar numbers should be visible on every face, not just one — but this space is another example of the principle that has made a success of other exhibitions in the building: simple things, done well. If it feels too complicated during planning, it definitely is. If it feels too simple, it’s probably about right.
A good example is the “Oceans Divided” gallery. Before Panama, there was one ocean whose warm water circled the equator. When north and south crunched together, the ocean was divided and warm currents came to Europe (thank you, Panama). East, in Caribbean waters, the coral is plentiful and the fish are bright. Meanwhile in the murky Pacific, fish wear humble scales of grey, turning their energy instead to speed and size rather than waste it on decoration that won’t be seen. We swipe the screens, comparing the oceans side by side. This binary format is simple and surprisingly engrossing.
The mission space is theoretically the most playful and game-like but it’s frustrating on a number of levels. Tellart’s work is so often impressive that I’m surprised how slow and unresponsive the game feels. People move faster than technology, their imaginations shifting, zipping and straying, so perhaps it is forgivable for decade-old tech, but the underlying pledge-making principle feels so hackneyed!
Every climate brief I’ve known calls for a takeaway of some sort, which invariably becomes pledge-making. Only after seeing the concept in its 2014 form do I realise how old the trope is. I might be wrong; pledges made in an emotionally engaging, social context might be motivating for some but my suspicion is that they’re merely convenient devices to bookmark a museum trip. We live in a world of instant gratification and real-time streams so modern exhibits should be similarly dynamic, creative and interconnected.
Get in touch to talk about what teens in America have been telling us.
Paradise not yet lost
Panama’s San Blas islands are the archetypal sun-sea-sand paradise, boasting an island for every day of the year. It is truly magical and yet nappies lap at the pristine shoreline, flip flops tangle in tree roots and bottle tops collect in colourful mounds. A burned-out fridge-freezer rusts into the sand. We walk the shores, picking up plastic, feeling a little helpless.
Many factors have placed the archipelago on a precipice, from reef damage and rising seas to endless plastic and intensive development. Our captain takes us to a cluster of once thriving islands reduced to a few leafless palm trunks on shrinking slabs of sand. The contrast of such beauty and such fragility is overwhelming.
Life continues: deserted islands with nothing but a BBQ spot for passing catamarans sit alongside islands almost entirely covered in concrete where the indigenous Guna Yala play basketball after school. Surly men sell vegetables from hollowed tree trunks that float a few inches shy of submersion. Gasoline is traded in jerry cans from slumping wooden piers. It’s special to experience a native culture that survived the Spanish but their precarious existence is plain to see.
A world away, on the 21-24 April, I’ll be joining thousands of others in London to politely ask our politicians to get on with it. Policy change can feel out of reach as an individual but it’s thrilling and uplifting when everyone takes to the street together. Come along, there’s lots to be done!
Mark Rober is an ex Nasa engineer who makes brilliantly energetic videos. On a trip to Rwanda he profiles Zipline, a company that delivers urgent medical supplies nationwide. Aside from the thrilling engineering on view, my heart melts at the local children inspired to pitch their own inventions at the factory gate. Worth every one of the 21 minutes.
A brief bit on AI because “it’s more fun to play with this technology than it is to sit on the sidelines worrying that everything is fucked.” Rob Manuel has been briefing his bots to write jokes. The ChatGPT-created webapp is surprisingly endearing and his matter-of-fact writing, including prompts, is a well worked-through example of AI-wrangling.
The sort of lighthearted AI activism I can get behind: an excellent bit of Tory-baiting (Boris as a bathroom attendant, Rishi as Deliveroo driver etc) and a Twitter bot that calls out the glaring pay gaps of companies piously tweet-spamming on #WomensDay. So simple, so satisfying.
Bias in AI can be filed alongside the other shitty facts of life. This article neatly shows the alarming Western hegemony built into modern technology. Smiles mean different things in different cultures but image generation software, typically built on American models, will splash smiles onto rendered faces irrespective of their background. We used to judge machines on how well they operate within the simple ruleset of chess, so it’s no surprise they struggle with the infinite nuance of human experience.
Seb Chan ruminated on a shift from current cloud-based AI to on-device processing, in part due to privacy concerns. The Guardian also noted the value of niche, localised datasets in this great long read. Te Hiku, a New Zealand non-profit media hub, gamified the crowdsourcing of a Māori Large Language Model — cash prizes for submitting the most audio! — to train software for transcribing their 30-year audio archive. The model is owned by the community that built it and has helped preserve languages at risk of extinction. Datasets that train most AI brains are inordinately larger but their homogeneously Western, corporate cliches make them seem small in comparison.
For more warming reading, Phoenix Perry has been exploring how her students use ChatGPT to support their learning rather than just cheat.
Museum Role Call from National Museums Scotland is a lovely antidote to fever-pitch AI-mongering. An innocent video series about museum people, borrowing from Vogue’s great ‘73 Questions’ format.
I discovered We Make Stuff Happen recently – no doubt a fun firm to work with. Who doesn’t want to make REAL stuff happen?
Enjoy a few seconds of this nine-minute video: 100 winners of an animation competition have had their sequences edited into a mesmerising endless race (the thumbnail doesn’t touch on the sheer range of styles on offer)
Daffodils, snow drops and fighting with DropBox. Hitting delete, whether cleansing your wardrobe or inbox, is remarkably freeing.
I’m back in Blighty, back to work and looking forward to seeing as many of you in person as possible. My tan won’t last forever.
PS - Wes Anderson’s new film has a pleasingly polished, throwback aesthetic:
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