High ideals and low technology

Computing for the masses, not for corporations! The Redundant Technology Initiative transforms old machines into installation art and cheap, powerful creative tools. Join the revolution
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The Independent Online

It has all the makings of a Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster to rival the The Matrix or Terminator. Big bad corporate computers are running the world, free-thinking humans are a thing of the past, and an underground army of cyber-punks line up to save the planet from eco-self-destruction. The heroic fight back is led by a hippy-style rocker cum antihero (conveniently armed with the ability to throw in the right sound bite and emotive rallying cry when the scene demands).

It has all the makings of a Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster to rival the The Matrix or Terminator. Big bad corporate computers are running the world, free-thinking humans are a thing of the past, and an underground army of cyber-punks line up to save the planet from eco-self-destruction. The heroic fight back is led by a hippy-style rocker cum antihero (conveniently armed with the ability to throw in the right sound bite and emotive rallying cry when the scene demands).

And where else to foment the uprising, that has already gone on to kick-start and influence similar movements in Croatia, Amsterdam, Berlin and the US, than Sheffield, a city noted for its resourcefulness in the face of adversity? Remember The Full Monty?

We're talking about the Redundant Technology Initiative, which, at first glance anyway, doesn't look capable of causing the likes of Bill Gates any loss of sleep. The project's headquarters is a vision of what life could be like after a third world war, a bunker-style hive of activity turning long-forgotten techno gizmos into powerful internet communicators capable of co-ordinating a global uprising. Weighty Philips 2000 video recorders that were seen off by VHS in the early 1980s inhabit the floor, brick-sized mobile phones adorn rusting art work on the walls, and mountains of grubby-looking hard-drives dating back to the days of the once-mighty Amstrad are stacked high as far as the eye can see.

The concept of turning trash technology into art, and reanimating digital zombies into worldwide information disseminators was kicked off in 1997 by a Sheffield art student, James Wallbank, who produced his first low-tech installation for less than £100 after scouring the pages of Exchange & Mart for his ideal specimens. From such humble beginnings, RTI has now grown into a group of ecologically aware artists moulding techno-waste into ground-breaking work, which has already been exhibited in venues throughout the UK and Europe, to highlight the estimated £4m of computers thrown out by British businesses every day.

RTI will be installing a wall of PC monitors at London's Tate Britain in March. James Wallbank says: "This is not a highfalutin' arts mindset, this is using art to raise people's awareness to the madness going on. Some 2,700 PCs a day are chucked into skips by British business - that's more than a million a year. Most of them are ground up and put into landfills, causing horrendous environmental problems. This is the stuff of madness.

"We said, let's try to gain the expertise and make it our business to use all that technology that's being chucked in the bin or left to clog up office storerooms."

These days, RTI don't pay anything for their materials; more than 1,000 PCs have been donated to date, more than enough to supply whole banks of fully operational and networked machines spreading the green technology message. James Wallbank believes that a basic grasp of technology, coupled with some creative thinking and the nous to harness a free and legal operating system developed by a Finnish student - Linux - can pull the shutters on the Microsoft Windows monopoly.

Linux is already used by both the Chinese and Indian governments and, closer to home, has enabled James Wallbank to set up Sheffield's Access Space, run in parallel to RTI. They run dirt-cheap internet classes, and reckon that everyone, given the right training, could be designing web pages within two hours. Set in the city centre's Cultural Industries Quarter - the area that's home to recording studios frequented by the likes of Robbie Williams, Billie Piper and Spice Girls members, clubs like Gatecrasher and The Leadmill, the art-house cinema The Showroom, top film-makers, pioneering crafts people, and some of the city's best industrial architecture - the project is part-drop-in centre, part-education facility, and almost-gallery to various art installations.

RTI's underground notoriety has spread far and wide: Wallbank has preached the trash technology around Europe and the US. And a few minutes' demo of him knocking together html-style state-of-the-art visuals on the same model of computer you binned a few years back makes you realise he might be on to something. The fact that he didn't even have to buy the software to make it possible makes you sick at the thought of the £1,500 you just invested in a new system. He never tires of bemoaning the "upgrade or replace" culture that makes people lazy, with no impetus to harness what they've already got.

"By constantly increasing the specification of new PCs, then equipping them with more resource-demanding software, the industry continues to sell "entry level" systems for around £600 in the UK. So, empowered and well-financed business people continue to gain the further empowerment of IT, while the disenfranchised are marginalised even further.

"How come we need 32 megabytes to write a letter now when we didn't before? It's because people aren't familiar with technology that they get drawn into this never-ending cycle. We can run a whole global communications camp here, based on a machine deemed to be trash."

All a far cry from your average web-design centre. Forget the sleek workstations and power suits; the prevalent fashion here is dreadlocks, while the constant tapping of keyboards is accompanied by the tweeting of robot birds that spin around up above - another RTI installation.

"This is Britain's first trash technology lab," explains James Wallbank, before going to answer the door and sign for another donated computer. RTI unveils its new exhibition, "Know Future", as part of CIQ On Show, a major Sheffield inner-city festival to showcase the wealth, creativity and talent in this regeneration zone. CIQ On Show also offers heritage trails around the area's old industrial buildings and workshops that have been earmarked for up to £4m of funding. The festival will include a market, displaying the area's still-thriving traditional industries like cutlery-making and silverware, and exhibitions of sculpture, photography and fine art.

A recruitment fair for the creative and cultural industries will also highlight the employment and training facilities on offer in Sheffield, with advice shops and seminars from industry experts. The weekend is run in tandem with the music-outside-the-mainstream conference and showcase, Modal, which attracts hundreds of delegates to debate, discuss and party in the name of the UK's burgeoning independent scene. More than 60 live performances will introduce the public to some of the best new talent on the scene. Most of CIQ On Show and Modal live-music events are free and under cover.

More information on Access Space or Redundant Technology Initiative on 0114 249 5522; or: www.lowtech.org

CIQ On Show and Modal 2001 runs from noon, Feb 23, to midnight, Feb 25. More information on 0114 221 1900; or: www.ciq.org.uk/onshow

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