A couple of weeks ago, MU in Eindhoven invited the public to a 2 day long immersion into all things bio art and bio design. The Body of Matter / BAD Award Special weekend lined up a series talk, panels, workshops and performances and explored how the techniques and challenges of life sciences are embraced by contemporary artists and designers. There’s more details in the first part of the report. Head this way if you haven’t read A weekend of bio art and bio design at MU in Eindhoven (part 1.)
Isaac Monté, The Art of Deception (Heart of Stone)
But before i proceed with the final part of my report from the weekend, I need to say something about Eindhoven. Several years ago, i wrote about an exhibition in Eindhoven. I can’t remember what exhibition i was reviewing at the time but i do remember that i wrote that the city looked ‘as dull as dishwater.’ I’ve had a change of heart. Eindhoven always had the Design Academy, the fantastic Van Abbemuseum, the MU art center and various other interesting cultural spaces. But now they have Strijp S, a 27 hectare huge area attracting a dynamic crowd of artists, designers, concept stores, juice bars, a communal vegetable garden and organizations. Strijp S used to be the industrial site of the company Philips. It’s a mere 15 minute walk away from the city center and that’s where MU is now located. And Baltan Laboratories. And the BioArt Laboratories. And more. Each time i go to Strijp, there’s something new, thrilling and stylish to discover.
End of the parenthesis. Let’s get back to Body of Matter and to the artists’ talks, shall we?
Hongjie Yang‘s Human Tissue Vase is made of human kidney cells that have been grown on a 3D vase-shaped scaffold. I first dismissed his work, thinking that Tissue Culture and Art Project had been there before with their Victimless Leather jacket. But Yang’s piece has a different focus.
It’s less about the ethics and politics of using tissue culture and more about exploring the place that biotechnology can occupy in the history of design techniques and aesthetics. Furthermore, the designer was also intrigued by the kind of relationship we might develop with artifacts that share genetic information with us. Would we care more for an object made using our own cells? Will human-derived objects blur the distinction between person and object, between alive and inanimate?
The designer is particularly interested in examining the influence that human progress has on aesthetics. New technologies can be seen as disrupting any idea we might have about aesthetics and about the sublime. They create the conditions for new objects and aesthetics to develop. The chisel was disruptive, it enabled for a finer shaping of wood or stone. The Industrial Revolution in England was also aesthetically disruptive because it led to the invention of bone china. We could multiply the examples. But now that we are entering the Post Natural Age, what will the new chisel be? Will we see the emergence of lab-grown china? Will biotech innovations transfer into new aesthetics?
Floris Kaayk! I had almost forgotten how impressive his work is. I remember seeing Metalosis Maligna for the first time, it was clearly a mockumentary but i was still tempted to believe that the story it narrated was true. Shot in the style of a documentary, the video informed the public about a disease that affects patients with medical implants. Metal implants get infected and start growing inside the body until they sprout out of it, start eating the flesh away and turn human patients into half-organic, half-mechanical beings.
Kaayk creates fictional films, interactive projects and online fictions. He takes a well-known media format and subverts it by replacing existing events with fictional stories. In 2012 his online media project Human Birdwings was all over the press. Told through a series of short youtube videos, the work chronicled the successful adventure of a man building a set of wings that allowed him to fly. Most major news outlet fell for it. Until Kaayk revealed that the inventor and the story were purely fictitious.
Floris Kaayk, The Modular Body, 2014
Floris Kaayk, The Modular Body, 2014
Kaayk is now working on a new internet story called The Modular Body. The work is inspired by 3D-printed organs and the media format adopted is the one of kickstarter pitch videos. The artist was interested in the gap between what the science can actually do and the way the media presents it. If you read the press, you get the felling that human kidneys, hearts and noses are routinely printed and implanted. But the implementation of 3D printed technology in medicine is still years away from now. The Modular Body fictionalizes this 3D printed body and presents it as the solution to our outdated bodies. Kaayk envisions that in the future we’d have 3D printed body parts that work like detachable modules. We’d be able to combine, plug and connect them to each other according to our needs. We could replace any part that doesn’t function optimally and adapt it to whichever situation we might face. The Modular Body is still a work in progress and it will take the form of a series of footage fragment. The Body of Matter exhibition showed extracts of the final work. It’s pretty gruesome. There are raw bits of flesh crawling over a table.
Charlotte Jarvis invited Dr. Reinout Raijmakers to join her in a conversation about art & science because he is the scientist she turns to whenever she has an idea for a new project but doesn’t know whether it is feasible, which field of science might help her give a tangible form to her projects, etc.
She briefly explained one of her latest works, Et In Arcadia Ego. Part of the MU exhibition, the piece was Jarvis’ attempt to confront her own mortality head on. She worked with Prof. Hans Clevers and Dr Jarno Drost at the Hubrecht Institute to grow gut cancer tumour from her own cells. The project started with a rectoscopy to collect colon tissue. The samples were then grown in vitro and then submitted to mutations that made them cancerous.
Jarvis also talked about Music of the Sphere, a collaboration with Dr. Nick Goldman, the molecular biologist who stored Shakespeare’s Sonnets and other data into synthetic DNA. The artist used Goldman’s technology to encode a new musical recording by the Kreutzer Quartet into DNA. The DNA has been suspended in soap solution and broadcast on the audience with soap bubbles. The ‘recording’ fills the air, pops on visitors skin and literally bathes the audience in music.
The moment i almost dropped my pen and paper was when she talked about her desire to work with scientists on a new project that would consist in encapsulating and recreating the smell of her husband. She could make a fortune if she managed to patent the process! I wouldn’t mind packing a little flask of my boyfriend’s smell whenever i have to travel. Jarvis’ idea actually sparked some animated discussions in the public about perfumes, hormones, pheromones, sexual attraction, Putin body odour and all kinds of notions more or less related to the smell of people we love or loathe.
Isaac Monté talked to me about his project a few months ago (see Can organs be objects of design?) but the show allowed me to finally get to see the final 21 decellularized and modified pig hearts. They are incredibly beautiful and moving. The hearts and their story deserve to tour widely in exhibitions across the world.
The designer worked with Professor Toby Kiers (Free University Amsterdam) to decellularize pig hearts and manipulate each of them as if they were blank canvases that could be tattooed, embroidered, stained, dressed up with precious materials, filled with with concrete, etc. The decellularization process involves stripping organs of their cellular contents, leaving behind a scaffold that can be repopulated with stemcells. Isaac had invited 2 scientists to join him and discuss how far scientists but also artists or designers can go when it comes to manipulating organs. One of the scientists explained how they use decellularization technique in order to respond to the lack of organ donations. Her work consists in exploring how we can turn an unhealthy liver into a liver that can safely be transplanted. They would get rid of the cells in the liver and then fill the empty matrix with good cells.
The designer documented the whole research and creation process in The Art of Deception book.
That’s it for my report from the Body of Matter weekend. May the event inspire other places around Europe to set up new initiatives, commissions and competitions that will help artists and designers dialogue with scientists.
Previously: Plastic trash, rotting rubber & wonky skeleton. Maarten Vanden Eynde’s lecture at the Body of Matter / BAD Award weekend, A weekend of bio art and bio design at MU in Eindhoven (part 1), Matter of Life. Growing new Bio Art & Design
Kristin Neidlinger, Wearable garments that give you goosebumps when someone thinks about you. Kristin Neidlinger, Body of Matter – Body based bio art & design, MU Eindhoven, 2015. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer
At the end of January, the MU art space in Eindhoven dedicated 2 days to bio art and bio design. The Body of Matter / BAD Award Special weekend invited the public to take part in talk, panels, workshops and performances and explore how the techniques and challenges of life sciences are embraced by contemporary artists and designers. The event followed the theme of the ongoing exhibition Body of Matter which explores (until tonight!) how biotechnology can modify the body and the perception we have of it. What will the ‘normal’ body look like in 5, 10, 20 years time? How will our identity and sense of self change with body modification? Should we impose limits to the way science is going to shape bodies, both on the inside and from the outside? Will science expand our understanding of ‘alive’ and ‘dead’? What role can aesthetics play in discussions about body enhancement?
The weekend was also an opportunity to reflect on the outcome of the Bio Art & Design award which, each year, offers artists and designers a total of 75 000 euros and the opportunity to collaborate with researchers and develop ambitious works that engage with life sciences.
My plan was to wrap up the whole event in one big post but the weekend was so dense in new ideas, food for thought and speculations that i had to write separate stories. First there was Maarten Vanden Eynde’s lecture which was so stimulating and smart that i decided to dedicate a full post to it. And now i’m going to split the rest of the weekend into two stories. Today, i’ll be sharing my notes from Friday. Tomorrow, i’ll post the ones i took on Saturday.
Body of Matter – Body based bio art and design. Video MU
The first speaker who took the floor was the co-curator of the Body of Matter exhibition. William Myers is a teacher, a curator and an author. In 2014, he published Biodesign: Nature + Science + Creativity and a few months ago, he looked at the more artistic side of creative works that explore life sciences in his book Bio Art: Altered Realities (i reviewed it last year.) In this publication, Myers argues that bioart doesn’t just encompass the art that engages hands-on with living materials but it can also define works by artists who use more traditional media to respond to shifting definitions of identity, nature and life brought about by the latest advances in life sciences. To him, bioart includes thus art that uses biology as a medium and art that uses biology as a subject. A good example of this broadening of the definition of bioart is Vincent Fournier‘s ongoing series Post-Natural History. At first sight, the photos look like typical animal portraits. Until you realize that there is something off… The species are ‘newcomers’, they have been modified using synthetic biology either to enable them to conform to man’s own needs and desires, or to help them adjust to the biological changes our planet is going through: extreme temperatures, rising pollution levels, etc.
I interviewed Emma Dorothy Conley a couple of months ago when her project MSA: The Microbiome Security Agency was announced as one of the winners of the BAD Award competition. Her presentation in Eindhoven refreshed my memory about all things MSA and microbiome. The human microbiome is the collection of microbes that colonize the human body and they do so in such quantity that they outnumber our own cells ten to one. They live inside our body and on our skin and because these bacteria can vary considerably based on our age, diet, habits, geographic location and overall health, scientists believe that they can be used as a unique identifier, much like fingerprints.
Because we shed bacterial cells wherever we go, we might soon see emerge the use of microbiome sequencing in criminal investigations or for commercial or surveillance purposes. Emma’s project explores how we can protect our bioprivacy from these intrusions. The most promising of the strategies she investigated seems to be an obscuration solution that we could spray on our body. The blend mixes all kinds of revolting ingredients such as fermented food and zoo poo to create additional noise and hide the bacterial information that your body carries.
Conley imagined that you could donate a sample of poo or other bacteria-rich bits to an MSA bank. The sample would be added to a pool of bacteria that would be used to make a solution that people would apply on their skin to make their bionome anonymous.
Orion Maxted is a performance artist and curator who investigates theatre in relation to systems and algorithms. More specifically he tries to makes machines out of people.
An example of artworks that interest him in that respect is Douglas Gordon’s 1993 video 24 Hour Psycho which, as its title clearly indicates, is a video installation showing Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic slowed down so that it lasts for 24 hours. The piece contains the instruction to reproduce it in infinite variations: 24 hour Star Wars, 66 hour Jaws, etc. A work like that one made Maxted think about machines and about mass producing copies of an artwork.
Maxted works with improvisers whom he defines as ‘persons trained to process information in real time.’ He brings them together to ‘form a single thinking system.” Improvisation, according to him, is key to the process because it is full of algorithms, feedback process, etc.
He and his improvisers performed 2 works during the Body of Matter / BAD Award Special weekend. The first one was The Machine. Completely improvised using algorithms and patterns, the show explores our relationship to machines and the development of language. The actors reproduce and modify each other’s words and gestures according to an algorithm, creating a continually evolving feedback loop. The result is puzzling and entertaining, you sometimes wonder whether the human participants are obeying and serving the system or mischievously generating glitches.
The performance of the final evening worked in a similar fashion, except that it used systems biology computation to generate performance parameters for actors.
Špela Petrič, Miserable Machines: Soot-o-mat
The elegant patterns of Špela Petrič‘s vases are drawn by mussels. More precisely by tiny muscles removed from the molluscs body and then attached to an electro-stimulated design apparatus. The muscles are kept ‘alive’ by being repeatedly washed with water and shocked so that each tiny spasm of energy they produce is used to scratch lines onto the object. Because the contractions happen only once every 20 minutes or so, the design process takes several hours. The work is both absurd and poignant. A creature is killed in service to the machine, the design, and the product. The work speaks of the commodification of life and the ruthless exploitation of living systems, but it also symbolizes us, the mass of humans actors entrapped in the machine of capitalism.
That’s it for part one! See you tomorrow same time, same place for my notes from Body of Matter / BAD Award Special Day 2.
My images from the Bioart weekend are on flickr.
The latest in a series of interviews with artists who have a significant body of work that makes use of or responds to network culture and digital technologies.
You’re working on Hudson Valley Ruins (2016), your forthcoming machinima film produced in the life simulation game, The Sims. What prompted you to start using The Sims as a tool to make your work?
I started using The Sims out of a desire to work in 3D before I had learned any modeling. After a decade-long hiatus from the game, I had a serendipitous experience as I unearthed a forgotten toolkit of customizable assets and building tools.
I played the first iteration of The Sims obsessively between 2000-2003, aged ten to thirteen. The Sims was my window onto an inaccessible realm, a fantasy theater for enacting my imagined late teen years and early adulthood–a world without school where you could drive, sleep at a man’s house, or try out his heart-shaped hot tub. I would frequently role play as older women that I wanted to emulate, an amalgamation of various movie and book characters and cool teens that I would see at high school. I envisioned adulthood as a world of intrigue and possibility, a release from the ensnarement of a middle school nightmare. Real life could only disappoint these optimistic projections.
Jacky Connolly, Hudson Valley Ruins Teaser: Afterschool (2016)
I am no longer enacting an imagined future, but reenacting the traumas of earlier life stages. In my scenes, the nightmares of childhood and the traumas of adolescence serve as an anteroom to hell. Anxious and foreboding nights spent in a suburban bedroom have shifted from being the context in which I was playing (as a preteen) to the subject of my film scenes. As an adult, I can now use this world for my own private film production. This is how the intrigue and possibility of the game lives on, in the sandbox world's potential for mastery through reenactment.
We spoke about The Sims 1’s oppressively tedious structure—without cheats your Sims age, commute to work every single day, and have to perform routine tasks such as sleeping, eating, and cleaning. You are working in The Sims 3, where there is more freedom to input your own designs and reconfigure the game so that the season is permanently autumn or that your Sims don’t have to go to school or use the bathroom during a take. Even though The Sims 3 offers more flexibility, the enclosed suburban environment of the game seems to be central to your work. I was wondering if you could discuss how the environmental and structural limitations of The Sims are important for you, as opposed to the reality of an open virtual world such as Second Life?
The game franchise demands that its participants to simulate the "rat race," earning Simoleons, remodeling their homes, and buying properties. More expensive items improve the Sims’ moods. There are hardly enough hours in the day for Sims to do anything in a leisurely way; they are perpetually struggling and dissatisfied. The intended game-play is worlds away from the utopic playground of Second Life. The Sims is closed off and hermetic, the player is a master of puppets in a virtual world local to their desktop. Sims neighborhoods are not uncanny landscapes with impossible architecture. Rooms have four walls and houses are built on a foundation, the setting is plastic and suburban. The familiar, imprisoning domestic interiors of this game engine are pertinent to the quiet terrors and awkward social encounters of my suburban-horror film scenes.
The Sims 3 allows for cheat codes that override most of the game's built-in nuisances. One thing that cannot be "cheated" is the time of day. If I am shooting a scene during the golden hour and the sun goes down, I have to wait for another game day to pass to continue filming. I enjoy this constraint, as it heightens my own temporal disorientation. I spend thousands of hours sitting at my desktop, virtual hours melting into real hours of my life passing by.
Jacky Connolly, The Rosh Hashanah Room/The October Anteroom (from Basement Puzzles/Rune Rooms) (2014)
The Sims is designed to include instances of unreality within its stereotypical suburban narrative; A genie can be summoned by cleaning the antique lamp and the Grim Reaper appears to take Sims on the edge of death. Your films seem to relate to this, interspersing the mundane with macabre and fantasy. In Hudson Valley Ruins, some of the architecture is based on abandoned resorts in the Hudson Valley Borscht Belt. You also mentioned, towards the end of the film, that he characters access another reality connected to your earlier vignettes from Basement Puzzles/Rune Rooms (2014) through a portal. I am interested in how you work with real historical and geographical elements and instances of the surreal, absurd, or supernatural, and how these different realms intersect within the world of The Sims.
In the original version of The Sims, the supernatural and macabre elements were an afterthought, only introduced in later expansion packs for the game. The Sims: Makin’ Magic introduced a hole-in-the-ground portal to Magic Town, an autumnal neighborhood with circus folk, witches, faeries and magicians. Basement Puzzles/Rune Rooms and the Fawn’s Leap, NY videos definitely connect to this afterthought, the intrusion or re-insertion of fantasy and the supernatural into a more coherent environment. I am interested in portals in the psychoanalytic sense, moving to "another scene" or a virtual theater where fantasies are played out.
The main reason I use the third Sims iteration is the way that the landscape is rendered in this release. The toxic purple sunsets, rhythmically swaying branches and falling orange leaves introduce a more haunting, evanescent ambiance. Hudson Valley Ruins’ title is taken from a website of the same name, a catalog of the region’s forgotten architectural landmarks. I am drawn to the past lives of the Hudson Valley and its ruined remnants, which are now being demolished one by one. Instead of ruined buildings, this film contains ruined people who seek refuge in imaginary/disappearing places.
Jacky Connolly, Forever Alone Calzone (excerpt) (2015)
Without dialog between characters, sounds, such as the wind, pizza dough crackling in an oven or a toy choo-choo train, set the tone and pace in your films. For your exhibition, Fawn’s Leap, NY with Flannery Silva, the surround sound on Hudson Valley Rock Chick (2015) and Forever Alone Calzone (2015) permeated the gallery space. Working outside of a cinematic linear plot, how do you consider sound and its connection to narration?
The algorithmic weather patterns, animal noises, and wind intensity sounds are omnipresent while playing the game, and are exaggerated by the absence of Simlish voices. The repetition and variation of sound creates a sensory experience, when a storm comes the rain and thunder is overpowering. This was especially effective with the surround speakers in Fawn’s Leap, NY. So far, I am only using in-game sounds, music and Foley/sound effects included. I sometimes use cheats to control the weather while I am filming, so that a storm is brewing in climactic moments. I edit my scenes to the pace of the diegetic sound. Hudson Valley Rock Chick / Forever Alone Calzone are my most successful use of sound to date. The repetition of certain noises (the train) and the in-game guitar playing become recurrent musical themes that highlight significant moments of action.
Along with your art masters, you are getting a dual degree in library science, which essentially deals with the science and methods of collecting and organizing information. When watching your vignettes Basement Puzzles/Rune Rooms (2014), there is a feeling of walking through someone's memory palace—artifacts put in unfamiliar places in order to derive new meaning as elusive or personal signifiers. Would you say there is any correlation between organizing information and the idiosyncratic logic to some scenes, such as a a grey-haired girl floating in an indoor carpeted pool or the same character inhabiting a windowless room adorned with blue velvet and Chagall paintings?
Creating an elaborate collection of virtual homes and rooms, I have definitely been informed by my LIS education. For Basement Puzzles/Rune Rooms, I initially created a database diagram of rooms and the virtual objects contained therein. My dual-degrees have often connected in this way, I was learning about database models while studying Lev Manovich’s database cinema. If you envision virtual places and sites of action as a cinematic database, a film moves away from a traditional, linear narrative structure: relational databases contain a large list of items with no imposed order.
Cabinets of curiosities/memory theaters have also served as an inspiration. The basement rooms were envisioned as microcosms of the surrounding Hudson Valley, containing plants and ornaments from the surrounding landscape. These relics are enigmatic copies of real world phenomena, simple meshes and textures assembled by the game to evoke memory. The placement of apparently unrelated Sims ephemera in a room stimulates curiosity by hinting at unseen interconnections and associations.
How long have you been working creatively with technology? How did you start?
When I was 6 or 7, I would use Kid Pix Studio to create gif mise-en-scènes. A few years later, I used American Girls Premiere, a game for creating animated stage plays using American Girl cutout dolls.
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
I went to Bard College at Simon’s Rock, an early college in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, where I studied Photography and Art History. I am currently finishing my MFA in Digital Art and MS in Library and Information Science at Pratt Institute.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously? Do you think this work relates to your art practice in a significant way?
I am studying to work in the library and information field. I have been a babysitter for the past three years, which keeps me up to date on video game trends and actively engaged in the realm of childhood.
What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots please!)
Alex Taylor's 3GTV is on the front page of rhizome.org through Monday, February 8.
In a modern-day world dominated by iPhones and Androids, images of Paris Hilton flaunting a pink RAZR flip phone have long been filed in the digital pop culture archives. Despite Anna Wintour and Rihanna’s outlier attempts to bring back in style the outdated flip phone for a few paparazzi snaps in 2014, the cellular landscape has since shifted.
During the 3G era, camera phones allowed users to record and play back short videos in a file format called 3GP. With Apple’s introduction of ios9 software, iPhones lost the ability to play back this format, making these videos as obsolete as the phones they were recorded on.
For his new project 3GTV, awarded a 2015 Rhizome micro-commission, Alex Taylor culls 3GP videos from YouTube, re-presenting them in a CGI interface that simulates the experience of a 3D smartphone. Users are able to view an endless loop of randomized 3GP video clips that were harvested from YouTube. If you’re lucky, you may run into a video of a boy dancing to Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean or Jersey Shore’s DJ Pauly D introducing Pitbull during an MTV Spring Break special from 2011. 3GTV harnesses the present day cultural phenomenon of binge watching, but in a format that reminds us of what used to be, allowing us to see the content and aesthetics these videos have in common.
The project isn't only about a nostalgic aesthetic, though. The prevalence of what seem to be recent international videos suggests that while many users in the US have to set down their 4G smartphones and transition to our computers in order to visit this digital exhibition, less privileged users in West Africa, Southeast Asia, and even the United States are still using 3G mobile devices years after a style became outdated. Our digital past is still here, it's just unevenly distributed.
Culling its name from the 1999 satirical film directed by Mike Judge, the group show "Office Space" at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco focuses on the soft power and absurdity inherent in the alienating strategies and the sometimes-productive ambiguity of the modern workspace.
Entering the exhibition, the two computers in Cory Arcangel's Permanent Vacation (2007) emit across the first room the pinging of incoming and, possibly, permanently recurring "out of the office" emails that bounce back and forth from one computer to another. This room also features the paintings of Joel Holmberg, which structure their compositions according to a content management system's template designs. As these templates are often employed for the landing pages of Web 2.0 businesses, in these works, an evocative image serves to only support a company's primarily textual message. This is best demonstrated in the painting We Can't Know Precisely What we Mean Until we are Forced to Symbolize It, (2015) in which the work's title is emblazoned over a replica of the painting The Jolly Flatboatmen (1846) by George Caleb Bingham, gesturing towards the nature of the freelance laborers depicted in the painting as well as a meta-commentary of the future uses and networked existence of Holmberg's own paintings.
Joel Holmberg, We Can't Know Precisely What we Mean Until we are Forced to Symbolize It (2015, courtesy the artist)
A work somewhat antithetical to the routine malaise often associated with office spaces, The Mouse Mandala (2006–2015) by Joseph Delappe brings together computer mice (that the artist found in second-hand stores across Silicon Valley) in a large mandala in tribute to the weavers whose work was displaced by the first Industrial Revolution. The use of the imagery of the mandala is at once indicative of the new-age ideology that often underpins strategies for personal and organizational optimization, and at the same time appears like a pile of well-curated e-waste, until one becomes aware of the intricacy of the work’s weaving. Though mandalas are meant to be representative of the universe as centered around the dwelling place of Buddha, the work instead brings this cosmological diagram into the history of Western technological development. The use of Eastern iconography alongside second-hand technology thus becomes more reminiscent of the various invocations of tidying guru Marie Kondo who, as of late, is seemingly on everyone’s lips in Silicon Valley: specifically of the mysterious voice that told her, after a tidying-induced nervous breakdown, to look at the things that she threw away more closely.
On either side of the mandala are two paintings by Alex Dordoy, The Man in the White Suit I & II and The Man in the White Suit V &VI (both 2014), which utilize the gallery walls to make each painting appear as if they were images being scrolled through on a phone. Taken in mind with the circular mandala, the juxtaposition produces an anxiety-induced dizziness; the flattening effect of the works’ color palette furthers the banality of their depiction of generic office environments. In one piece’s boardroom with an American flag and in the other’s similar boardroom with a declining stock market graph, there is the phantom presence of the titular man in a white suit within the white walls of the space that foregrounds the absence of a distinct focal point in both works, implying a viewership that is immersed rather than contemplative, but just as easily disconnected.
Joseph DeLappe, The Mouse Mandala (2006–15
, courtesy the artist and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts)
Alex Dordoy, The Man in the White Suit I & II (2014, courtesy the artist and Grimm Gallery, Amsterdam)
The inclusion of Soul and Feelings of a Worker, Whitechapel version (1978) by KP Brehmer, an artist often associated with Capitalist Realism, makes explicit the role of mood regulation in the workplace. Magnifying the graphed data from a 1932 study of the emotions of workers to an almost human scale, the two canvases that comprise the work stretch across the exhibition wall, both nailed directly onto the plaster to be held in place and painted in a way that resembles Fortran punch cards. In front of this work, Julien Prévieux's What Shall We Do Next? (Sequence #1) (2006–2011) displays a set of cartoon hands cycling through a series of patented gestures used on touch screens. The work is displayed using an overhead projector in lieu of a digital one, exemplifying the pattern by which new technologies are integrated into the work place, and often forced into the hierarchies of a preexisting bureaucracy. Comparing the former work’s enlargement and the latter’s animated cartoon depiction, both pieces work with the scalability of users and employees, and in each piece's representation, the tactics become absurd in their reduction or privatization. Considering the divorce of emotions and of gesture from their subjects, these two works are suggestive of a management based on complete hyper-individuation, on one end to track and evaluate, and on the other, to replicate.
KP Brehmer, Soul and Feelings of a Worker, Whitechapel version (1978)
Julien Prévieux, What Shall We Do Next? (Séquence #1), (2006-2011)
In Pilvi Takala’s The Trainee (2008), the artist performs a refusal of labor while working as a marketing intern for the international company Deloitte. First at a desk, then in a hall, and lastly in an elevator, Takala’s character Joanna is always at work on her thesis while gradually moving to the periphery of her environment. Though, for some, a neutral and detached subjectivity can be seen as an ideal of both cognitive labor and conceptual art, Takala/Joanna's performance of "brain work" is so far detached from her coworkers' expectations that for them it does not constitute work. What bothers her coworkers is that she is not performing her work the way they are; in one instance, this results in a staff member bringing her a laptop computer. In a way, Joanna performs both physical and cognitive labor—she performs the office habits of any other employee to an extreme while performing cognitive labor for her character’s thesis; arguably, the piece can function as a way to further market Deloitte, as many of Takala’s superiors were in favor of her performance. But because this work is not immediately identifiable or accessible by her coworkers, it becomes suspect.
Pilvi Takala, The Trainee (2008, courtesy the artist and Carlos/Ishikawa, London)
This aspect of refusal is done to great effect in Wages for Facebook (2013) by Laurel Ptak, a remixing of Silvia Federici’s famous manifesto demanding wages for housework and Office Voodoo (2010) by Haegue Yang in their presentation of modern labor's domestic aspects. Rather than representing a collapse of the distinction between leisure and work, Office Voodoo illustrates that for many, leisure time is never spent in a leisurely manner. In the work, two drying racks attached by plastic ties are interwoven with an obsolete headset, cloth-covered powering cords for five dangling light bulbs, a security camera, iridescent CD-Rs, and a thin golden chain; navigating this piece at first felt like a chore due to the crossing wires and the intersecting grids of the drying rack. However, what remains clear in the piece is that objects for private and practical uses dangle on a dependent structural level as objects for surveillance and labor within an object reflective of one’s noncompulsory weekly routine. The title Office Voodoo makes the assemblage resemble the silhouette of an enlarged Voodoo doll, and the sculpture is indeed the framework of a figure, formed and informed by the histories and uses its viewers bring to its constituent parts. Instead of a harbinger of a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare, the office space detritus appears as another part of a routine of personal maintenance. Despite its complexity, the sculpture neither exorcises nor completely represents the conditions and power structures of the modern work place, but instead presents these parts as something one reflectively and privately pinpricks.
To believe that there is an omnipresent workplace hierarchy to critique or within which to succumb often gives more credit to management strategies than they might deserve, as these strategies can have comparatively shorter life spans than pre-existing structures of affective labor. Ptak and Yang show how the soft power of the workplace is constantly inculcated by exterior power structures, as much as these power structures are—and already have been, in turn—informed by the dispersal of capital. But honestly, who is really still capable of leaving their work at work?
Exhibition view, “Office Space.” Foreground: Haegue Yang, Office Voodoo (2010).
Top image: Bea Fremderman, Kafka Office (2013, courtesy the artist)
Plastic trash, rotting rubber & wonky skeleton. Maarten Vanden Eynde’s lecture at the Body of Matter / BAD Award weekend
Maarten Vanden Eynde, Homo Stupidus Stupidus
A few days ago, the MU art center in Eindhoven organized a Body of Matter / BAD Award weekend of talks, masterclasses, panels and performances. The event accompanied Body of Matter exhibition, an exhibition that looks at how biotechnology might in the near future modify the shape, functions and even our perception of the body. The show also offers the opportunity to discover the winners of Bio Art and Design Award which each years enables young artists and designers to develop collaborate with prominent Dutch science centers and develop ambitious projects related to the latest developments in art sciences.
A lot happened during that weekend and I’ll come back with more details about it later on. Today, i thought i should dedicate a full post to Maarten Vanden Eynde‘s brilliant lecture on the first evening. He talked about how the fish, the beaches and even ourselves are chocking on plastic, about King Leopold II of Belgium and his brutal exploitation of Congo, and about the Homo Sapiens, a species so presumptuous it gives itself the title of ‘doubly wise.’
Maarten Vanden Eynde, Homo Stupidus Stupidus, part of the Body of Matter exhibition. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer for MU Eindhoven
Vanden Eynde doesn’t define himself as a bioartist. What interests him is the Genetology (The Science of First Things), Eschatology (The Science of Last Things) and how these two relate. As a result, his work hovers between past and future. His talk zoomed in on the piece he is showing in the Body of Matter exhibition as well as on 3 other works related to the body and to the evolution of our planet:
Homo Stupidus Stupidus is a human skeleton taken apart and put back together as if the person who assembled the bones had no knowledge of human anatomy. The name of the piece refers to the mistakes done in attempting to reconstructing the skeleton but it also mocks the arrogance of our own species which define itself as Homo Sapiens Sapiens. Given the unethical way in which we behave towards the environment, other species or between ourselves, the title of Sapiens Sapiens is unquestionably inappropriate.
Maarten Vanden Eynde’s lecture during the Body of Matter special weekend, 22 January 2016. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer for MU Eindhoven
Vanden Eynde also took us through another of his work that is directly related to the body: The Invisible Hand, a rubber copy of the right hand of Leopold II of Belgium. The artist made it at night by climbing on the equestrian statue of king in Brussels.
The Invisible Hand, Art Brussels 2015, Belgium
The Invisible Hand (making-of), Brussels, Belgium
The Invisible Hand (making-of), Brussels, Belgium
From 1877 until his death in 1909, Leopold II, had an unprecedented influence on the current Democratic Republic of Congo. He was the founder and private owner of the Congo Free State, a territory he was eventually forced to cede to Belgium in 1908. The Congo Free State then became a Belgian colony under parliamentary control.
Although the king never set foot in the country, he changed, exploited and shaped it so fundamentally that the result is still visibly present today. The Invisible Hand refers thus to Adam Smith‘s 1759 theory of the same name. The concept could be summed up as follows: individuals’ efforts to pursue their own interest and profit may frequently benefit society and the entire economy more than if their actions had been directly intended to achieve the greater good. Of course few attained that more unwillingly than Leopold II whose reign is marked by the atrocities that Belgians committed in Congo. With the chief goal of ruthlessly exploiting the natural resources of the African country, Leopold II’s politics nevertheless instigated a local economic growth, but at a high price. More than 10 million people are estimated to have died as a consequence of Leopolds ‘Invisible Hand’.
Nsala looking at the severed hand and foot of his five-year-old daughter, Boali, a victim of the Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company (A.B.I.R.) militia, 1904
The name ‘The Invisible Hand’ doesn’t just refer to Smith’s theory of an unobservable market force, it also alludes to the custom of chopping the hands of enslaved people who didn’t work hard enough.
The Invisible Hand (making-of), Ngel Ikwok, Kasai-Occidental, Democratic Republic of Congo
The Invisible Hand (making-of), Ngel Ikwok, Kasai-Occidental, Democratic Republic of Congo
The Invisible Hand, Art Brussels 2015, Belgium
But let’s get back to the artwork, Vanden Eynde went to the Democratic Republic of Congo with the copy of the hand of the ruler who had never traveled to his ‘own’ colony. The artist brought the mould to an abandoned rubber plantation in Kasai-Occidental and filled it up with natural rubber. Strangely enough, the rubber reacted to oxygen and decayed quite rapidly, the white rubber hand turned into a black one that smelled atrociously.
The hand traveled back to Belgium where it was presented inside an old Victorian vitrine at the art fair Art Brussels, completing the problematic circle of colonial treasure hunting in relation to historical fetishisation.
Plastic Reef, Manifesta9, Genk, Belgium, 2012
Hordaland Art Center, Bergen, Norway, 2013
Glendale College Art Gallery, Los Angeles, US, 2009
Fish caught in a plastic containers.Its teeth seem to fit the bitemarks on the plastic debris. Photo
Beach trash in Montevideo. Photo
Plastic flocks together with patches of sargassum seaweed floating in the North Atlantic Gyre. Photo
Next, the artist talked about Plastic Reef, a work that explores the longevity of plastic trash that floats around our oceans, litters our land, is buried underground and might very well outlive our species. Plastic doesn’t decompose, it shrinks down through friction and light into ever smaller pieces. These tiny plastic particles are called “mermaid tears” and in some parts of the ocean, their masses can be even greater than plankton. Some sea creatures mistake the particles for food, putting them directly into the food chain and thus potentially onto our plates.
Today there isn’t a single cubic meter of sea water that is free of plastic particles. By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea and according to Captain Charles Moore, we can’t even see all of it because plastic is present up to 100 meters below the surface of the sea. Entire gyres have taken shape in our oceans in which plastic trash is being washed around by the currents and form what looks like islands of rubbish. The biggest water-based plastic trash aggregation, called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is estimated to be about the size of Central Europe.
Al Jazeera, Micro-plastics fill world’s oceans
Peanut the turtle before being rescued from the plastic ring of a six-pack holder. Photo Missouri Department of Conservation, via The Dodo
The artist visited ocean gyres around the world and collected hundreds of kilos of plastic debris from each place. He then melted the trash to form a sculpture that grows in size and weight each time it is exhibited, reflecting how the material is relentlessly invading our planet and damaging its fauna and flora.
The trash became beautiful again and seemed to solve two problems at the same time: the plastic in the ocean and the disappearing of coral reefs world wide, the artist writes
1000 Miles Away From Home, Hordaland Art Center, Bergen, Norway, 2013
The final work that the artist presented are five snow globes that symbolize the five main oceanic gyres. The globes contain water and bits of plastic debris Vanden Eynde collected in the North and South Atlantic, the North and South Pacific and the Indian Ocean. The snow globe is like a time capsule for the future. When it is shaken the water creates a micro gyre making the plastic swirl around.
I really want one of those snow globes….
The latest in a series of interviews with artists who have a significant body of work that makes use of or responds to network culture and digital technologies.
AH: Your recent exhibition "eStamina" at Import Projects looked at smart drugs and "nootropics" as potential human enhancement technologies (HETs). You used the visual language of advertising and stock photography to mirror a kind of over-the-top commercial placidity, while the gallery space was infused with fog that contained nicotine—like a giant e-cigarette. Can you expand on your interest in these health technologies, which seem to sanitize otherwise unhealthy pastimes (smoking, partying, etc.)?
BxS: Health is a tricky topic. Its definitions are laden with subjectivity and often rely on some really dodgy ideas of normalcy. A lot of the time it seems as if the term gets used comparatively—like the way vaping is marketed as "healthy," as in, healthier than smoking tobacco. The position overlooks the most rational solution—to quit, or never start in the first place.
BLUNTxSKENSVED, TeraTear (2016)
Our interest in HETs came from looking at the questionable ways that perceived problems are supposedly "solved" through technological means. There were, for example, several chapters in "eStamina" that focused on cognitive enhancers—from caffeine and nicotine to transcranial direct-current stimulators. Although these products can be effective short-term remedies for curing sluggishness and increasing concentration, the impetus to take a drug rather than a nap may evidence unhealthy or destructive perceptions of productivity and a tendency to treat the symptoms rather than the disease.
"eStamina" had a certain aesthetic texture that referenced the glossy 3D-rendered images of tech advertising. The piece had a lot to do with sincerity—with perceptions of who one should or shouldn’t trust. We wanted the visuals to provoke a feeling of unease—like the forced smile of a salesperson. We used this polished visual language to unify the chapters, but the narrations themselves—coming from 26 different contributors—held varied, nuanced, and sometimes conflicting projections of the future. One common thread, however, was the probing of a certain fatalistic or defeatist mentality that suggests individuals are incapable of real change—a position that often results in responsibility being deferred to abstract external forces like science or technology. The implications of how this deferral can shape the future is massive—from vague promises of bioprinted meat to outlandish carbon-capture schemes; a mentality of "why care today when technology will save us tomorrow" prevails.
BLUNTxSKENSVED, "eStamina," exhibition view at Import Projects (2015)
AH: You also do curatorial work. The latest—"Swimminal Poolitics"—was conceived in Greece and took place online. The aesthetic of the swimming pool, transposed online and with this quintessential commercial vibe, again creates a placid, almost heavenly angle on branding and technology. What is your aim in further pacifying these insidious marketing tactics?
BxS: We decided to put together this underwater show while doing a curatorial residency on a Greek island near the Turkish coast. The idea came to us after noticing the juxtaposition of the locale’s luxurious pleasure-driven tourism industry with the nation's dire economic situation and the unfolding refugee crisis. Picture, for example, wealthy northern European tourists sunbathing on a beach littered with freshly discarded refugee life jackets; it made for a very jarring sight. Working with the pool provided a way of referencing the aesthetic syntax of holiday tourism. We wanted the show to feel like the kind of ads designed to lure people to luxurious island locales bathed in sunlight. The intention was in part to investigate how our ideas of place are actually shaped by these images. The end result did indeed reflect this commercial language—a series of sleek and unnaturally blue-hued documentation photos on a slick interactive website. The images also had a somewhat analogous quality due in large part to the visual intensity of the underwater environment. The individual works, though, touched on a wide range of subjects—from less thematic positions to overt economic and political metaphors.
BLUNTxSKENSVED, Humiliation Tactics (2015)
AH: Where does your fascination with skin—"Second Skin," "Deep Skin," DermaPads—come from?
BxS: Perhaps our initial fixation with skin began with a series of UV-reactive collages we made based on contemporary "tribal" tattoos. We were fascinated by the generic pan-cultural exotisicm that these tattoos embody and what tendencies their quasi "back-to-nature" appeal reflects. Also, these works were produced by layering acrylic on a removable plastic surface in order to create a thick "skin" of paint from which the motifs were cut out and then collaged onto a support.
"Deep Skin" took place in a very specific environment—a class 2000 clean lab, which had very strict cleanliness protocols. We asked the artists involved to consider this extreme location in relation to the idea of the human body as a carrier of dirt, pathogens, microorganisms, DNA, etc. The show was also 2.1 km underground, so on some level the "skin" in question partly referred to the Earth’s crust.
BLUNTxSKENSVED, Deep Skin (2015)
DermaPads (perhaps the most literal incarnation of the theme) was a series of soft silicone mouse pads we made that resemble puddles of human skin. With these, we had Cronenberg's 1999 film eXistenZ in mind, where tools for gaming are integrated into the human body or vice versa. We found that the tactile sensation of sliding the mouse over something that looks and feels like human flesh felt nice, weird, and strangely sensual. It simulates body to body contact whilst the user is engaged in the disembodied environment of the digital realm.
AH: How does language or poetry factor into your work? In particular, pieces like Carnal Craving Crude in the "Anger Management" show at Komplot Brussels.
BxS: Carnal Craving Crude is part of a series of lava-like "3D poems" whereby digitally animated words morph from one into the next. In this particular piece, the words were rendered to look like fire, which lends the piece a hypnotic quality akin to watching a yule-log video. As the flames take on the form of words, a series of crude sexual innuendoes emerge, making links between meat and perceptions of masculinity: "salami saliva slap," "sausage sizzle squirt," and so on.
Text is a common element throughout much of our work. There’s something we find attractive about the ability of written language to conjure up vivid imagery and a host of connotations in the viewer’s mind. With our 3D poems, the symbolic potential of the words is affected by an interplay between text and image, as they are ornamented with color, font, texture, and so on. As they flow from one configuration into the next, a juxtaposition is also created between the relentless stream of information and the minimal, static visual composition, comprised of a single word isolated on a flat background. On some level, this reflects our experience of the internet—an endless scroll of data presented within a constant navigable structure.
BLUNTxSKENSVED, Carnal Craving Crude (2015)
AH: As collaborators, what is your process like? How do you best envision your work being shown, online or off?
BxS: We spend a lot of time talking about art and tossing ideas back and forth—a conversation that’s been on-going since we were seventeen. When we finally agree on what to make, we then go into a kind of "production mode," which usually entails zoning out in front of our screens for extended periods of time until we get the work done.
About the on/offline divide, we don’t really make a distinction. There are some different protocols for dealing with physical versus virtual space—some ideas translate and others don’t—but those are just nuances or technicalities. Also, since physical objects usually get documented and disseminated online, even "offline" events often occur simultaneously online. Overall though, it seems like we tend to present "virtual" work (like video) in physical spaces, whereas our purely online exhibitions have consisted mainly of photographic documentation of physical objects.
BLUNTxSKENSVED, ◑‿◐ or ◉‿◉ (2015)
We’ve been living mostly in Berlin for the last 8 years, but we’re always travelling around—especially to our former home of Toronto or to escape winter in Southern Florida. As of late, we’ve been seriously considering a more permanent move to Athens.
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?
Technology is ubiquitous. It shapes our bodies and minds, and without it, we probably wouldn’t be here. But that aside, we got acquainted with html coding and 3D animation circa 2005.
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
We met in high school and bonded by making matching latex rave outfits together. We then studied Drawing and Painting in Toronto and Renaissance Art History in Florence at OCAD University. From there we went directly into an MFA program at the University of Waterloo, which included internships in New York and in Berlin, where we decided to stay.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously?
Floral designer, pharmacy cashier, selling flowers at Mövenpick, teaching ESL, construction, and artist assistant jobs. But all this work felt exploitive and underpaid, so now we try to avoid working for other people altogether.
What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots please!)
"Somehow I got tenure for all of it and got into trouble for all of it at the same time." Throughout a long and varied career, Ricardo Dominguez has made artistic and poetic gestures that trouble and confuse the powers that be. Now an Associate Professor at UCSD, Dominguez recently sat down with Ash Eliza Smith for a conversation about his life's work so far, the power of critical aesthetics, and why the FBI is looking for Walter Benjamin.
AES: As a part of activist media art collective Critical Art Ensemble in Tallahassee, Florida in the late 1980s, what prompted you to move to New York in 1992?
RD: When I moved to New York City my main focus was to try to get access to infrastructure and computers. In the '80s with Critical Art Ensemble, even though we had theorized electronic civil disobedience, electronic disturbance, and the performative matrix of data bodies and real bodies, we didn't really have computers in Tallahassee, Florida and so I thought that in New York City there would be a greater opportunity to meet communities that had access to this kind of infrastructure.1
Critical Art Ensemble, L-R: Steve Barnes, Ricardo Dominguez, Hope Kurtz, Steve Kurtz, and Dorian Burr, Tallahassee, FL, (1987)
AES: How did you get involved with the net art scene that was happening in New York in the early '90s? How did you meet people?
RD: Part of the early work was that I would roam around SoHo and read The Village Voice to see if anybody mentioned anything that had to do with computers and art. One day I was walking along and I saw a poster for Sandra Gering Gallery in SoHo that had a MOO space address [a text-based virtual world] and I thought, "there seems to be something about technology, so I'll go to the show." It turned out it was an exhibition by Jordan Crandall and there was nobody there except Jordan, so I went up to introduce myself and told him that I was from Critical Art Ensemble. I was interested in these questions of the digital and the performative matrix and I thought his show seemed to indicate a kind of exploration of that emerging territory. We had a really good conversation. Some of Jordan's work at that time was around trying to expand the definition of object, text, and publication forms when they encountered new modalities of distribution. He was doing a project called Blast, which was an experimental publishing form that explored these kinds of digital encounters between object and text. There were very beautiful boxes of artworks created by multiple artists, and there were also discussions in these MOO spaces. Jordan invited me to come visit him at Blast, which was in the East Village, where he introduced me to Wolfgang Staehle who ran the thing.net, an Internet Service Provider (ISP) for artists and activists that started in 1991.
Wolfgang Staehle was not only an important figure, but also a visionary in thinking about infrastructure as social sculpture a la Joseph Beuys. Staehle had made his money in the '80s as a conceptual artist, and so it was very difficult for many of his peers to understand why he had a bunch of modems down in the basement and what that had to do with art production. The great thing about Wolfgang was that he didn't really care about what you were doing as long as you were doing something, so he basically left me alone and said: "Here's how you get people online, here are the books, and here are the machines" and so I would just go hang out and teach myself how to be a systems administrator.
Exhibition flyer for "In the Flow" (1996)
AES: Were you still active with Critical Art Ensemble at the time?
RD: To a certain degree. I left CAE around '94-'95 once I started to develop [activist performance art group] Electronic Disturbance Theater and started working with the Zapatistas in '94, because that really shifted the way we conceived of electronic civil disobedience; it was no longer just a cadre of high tech figures who would develop this stuff. The Zapatistas really taught me to think otherwise, that one could be transparent, poetic and create disturbances that were not really based on any kind of quality of technology.
In 1993, Mosaic [the first widely used web browser] came along, then NAFTA occurred, and with the beginning of 1994 at one minute after midnight, the (Digital) Zapatistas emerged. The next day at [NYC cultural center] ABC No Rio, we started the new Committee for Democracy in Mexico and the New York Zapatistas because we were all getting emails all night long from midnight to 6am. The Zapatistas basically sent emails like a machine all night long. It was glorious. The New York Times said that with this event, the first postmodern revolution had occurred.
AES: How did being a systems administrator at the thing.net inform or change your art practice?
RD: As a systems administrator, people would call me up to get online and I would go through the elements they needed: a modem, encryption…in those days it was not easy and sometimes it might take two-three weeks to get online. We had a thing Berlin, a thing Vienna, a thing Amsterdam, New York, Cuba, la Cosa Argentina, so it was quite a large system and a great training ground where we were then able to establish HTML conceptualism with the browser.2 I was also an editor for Blast 5 (part of a series of experimental gestures initiated by artist Jordan Crandall in 1990), and at the same time I was meeting a lot of different communities of artists and critics as a part of the Williamsburg scene in the '90s.
AES: Who were some of the art collectives that you worked with during this period?
RD: Well we would hang out at the Void, one of the first underground digital clubs, right off of Houston. There, performing in the club, I met the group Floating Point Unit, who were doing a lot of early body scanning, improvisation, music, and immersive digital gestures. We worked together to do a series of public TV episodes around the question of data bodies. There are like 12 episodes that aired on public TV. I also started working with the McCoys (Jennifer and Kevin McCoy) and they would do things like put headphones on me and have me watch a Starsky & Hutch episode. People would gather around me and I would interpret what I was seeing to them. I also worked with [anti-shopping performance artist] Reverend Billy, [early online broadcasting platform] pseudo.com, and [net artist] Robbin Murphy and others to do these kind of crazy early streaming radio shows. Robbin Murphy curated PORT at MIT via his platform a r t n e t w e b , and he was also part of Art Dirt the online radio show where I did Rabinal Achi/Zapatista Port Action at MIT with artist Ron Rocco.
I would perform an extant Mayan play about the battle between the Rain King and the Corn God, and I would use that as a space to have conversations globally about the Zapatistas initiating electronic civil disobedience. That’s how I met the artists who would then become Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT). I met Brett Stalbaum, who was a new media artist in San Jose, and Carmen Karasic because she was running the servers at MIT, and I had read Stefan Wray’s thesis on the drug war/information war in Mexico. Floating Point Unit became [audiovisual performance project] fakeshop.com, and that's when I met [author and philsopher] Eugene Thacker. We would do huge installations and early science fiction shows like Fahrenheit 451 or Coma State in Williamsburg. There were these large immersive environmental digital gestures that often no one ever went to, but they were occurring there in Williamsburg. All these different elements came together, which would become the emerging New York city-based net art communities.
Later in 2000, we did the Warhol hijack where Yael Kanarek convinced Josh Harris and Tanya Corrin to turn over their luxury loft to our group (Yael, Jennifer Crowe, Tina LaPorta, G.H.Hovagimyan, Diane Ludin, McCoys, Robin Murphy, Cary Peppermint, MTAA). Harris was the guy from the movie We Live In Public and there were cameras all over his house—surveillance devices that we were able to use for the weekend to do a show.
Warhol hijack (2000)
AES: Were you also collaborating with net artists in other places around the world?
RD: Yeah, I started working with [cyberfeminist artist] Francesca de la Rimini (gashgirl) while she was swimming in a pool in Japan and I was at a party in New York. Akke Wagenaar (Radikal Playgirls) wrote The Women I LOVE After Dark and had made one of the first websites about women who were doing early porn and post-porn stuff. Francesca was one of them, as a founding member of VNS matrix, the founders of cyber-feminism in Austria. I decided that I would interview everyone on the site, and shortly after that Francesca and I began a public transparent electronic love affair project. The project was called Hauntings, and in it she became Doll Yoko. The site contained all of our email exchanges and it had early sound. I haven't changed my website since the very first browser so there a lot of things that don't even function anymore. There's another one that Doll, Diane Ludin, I and a number of others did entitled los días y las noches de los muertos (a ghost work) by los fantasmas. It is using early kind of frame stuff and was much more political. This was during the alter-globalization action in Italy when a young man was killed—it's just early HTML stuff. Doll Yoko was the core artist and code scrapper. I used to write a lot of reviews under different names. I started writing stuff about the Zapatistas under my own name around that time.
AES: Do any shows really stand out for you?
RD: There was one show, "Teleport Diner" where this guy came to us at Diner in Williamsburg, where we always hung out at the time, and said: "Hey, I'm going to take this entire diner to Stockholm." They told us to meet at Diner and they would pick us up in limos and fly us to Stockholm for something like 24 hours. So we were like, “Sure let's do it!” And sure enough we found ourselves in a contemporary art space with plexiglass all around us in a recreation of Diner in Brooklyn. It was our job to just hang out and do what we did at Diner. For 24 hours we were drinking, eating, making shows up, but at the same time it was a weird space because someone told us people were suffering from Sun Madness (too much daylight). When we were heading to the airport, our bus started going backwards against traffic and then someone on the bus told us that the pilot had jumped from the plane and run into the forest. They would have to divide all of us up and send us on different planes back to the US. Unfortunately this meant that we got back to Newark at one o'clock in the morning with no money because we were internet artists. Finally we talked a family into driving us back to Diner in Williamsburg so that we could pay them.
Flyer for "Teleport Diner" (2000)
AES: What were some of the ways in which your involvement in the New York internet art scene coalesced with your work with the Zapatistas?
RD: I'd already theorized with CAE about electronic civil disobedience, and the real question was how to do it or how to put it into practice. The Zapatistas said to do it poetically, and so it made sense to function within the net art scene because that would then create the kind of aesthetic confusion that would make it very difficult for the powers-that-be to stop anything. Which was the case because basically they would ask: "Who’s hosting this virtual sit-in?" And the answer would be: "MIT or Rhizome," which was confusing. I was doing EDT as my own thing because I was the only one [of the collective] in New York, but at the same time I was working with these different net art communities of which Rhizome was one community among many layers of communities. Williamsburg was open territory because it wasn't congested at that moment, and it allowed us to play there.
We launched Disturbance Developers Kit [a software tool used for electronic civil disobedience] one minute after midnight in 1999 from a Fakeshop show. These kinds of informal situations allowed for the amplification of each other’s work within the nested projects of things that were occurring. The most important aspect of the encounter with Rhizome and all of the net artists was that it was a part of nested series of cultural spaces; many of the same artists were moving through those territories and sometimes there were arguments, but in the end but all of those moments came together to create a larger scene where things were amplified in wider ways.
Ron Rocco and Ricardo Dominguez, Rabinal Achi/Zapatista Port Action (1997)
AES: So how did you put electronic civil disobedience into practice with EDT and the Zapatistas?
RD: Well, It's not like the Zapatistas marched down from Lacandon and said: "Ah! We are going to rip into the electronic fabric of cyberspace and become an intergalactic network of struggle and resistance." They were a Maoist-Leninist group armed and ready to die in the tradition of Latin America, but they very quickly understood that something else had occurred when they ripped into the electronic fabric on January 1, 1994 and that civil society was now reconfiguring how they themselves imagined encountering the Mexican government – as war machine, as opposed to distributed data-bodies: Zapatistas in Cyberspace. There were ten days of battle and then they marched backwards into cyberspace. I thought "this is where electronic civil disobedience should occur"; I felt that the Zapatistas had pointed to this kind of nexus that we needed to focus on.
AES: Were you still working out of thing.net still, or how did you pull off the work with the Zapatistas?
RD: I had become the CEO of a company called Star Media Broadband and I had a huge loft on 5th Ave and 10th/11th. I had servers all over Latin America and we used that against the Mexican government. The company was all vaporware. We had a conference at nettime that was a special critical theory gathering and we knew that it was all vaporware…that it was all going to blow up. It was interesting to participate in multiple scales of cultures because Silicon Alley was not too far from thing.net and so we were all there in the same location. In '99 the toy war happened, etoy, the Information war happened, the battle with the Department of Defense happened with EDT and we were on the front pages of the NYT. It was a constellation of cultural encounters and explosions but still a small scene.
AES: So how have the ideas of embodiment and networks shifted in your work as you have moved through these different kinds of roles and scales from CEO to system administrator to artivist with CAE?
RD: Well, I think one of the elements that emerged out of the Critical Art Ensemble is that in the '80s we began to speculate that there would be a growing relationship (and not always in a positive way) between data bodies and real bodies, and that data bodies would be the indexical authenticator of value as opposed to what we might call the "real body," and that as virtual capitalisms became integrated in the early nineties through the ascension of infrastructure, networks and code, that we needed to instantiate forms of artistic practice that would disturb the conditions of rapid integration of value of the data body.
The Therapeutic State, edited by Critical Art Ensemble (1994)
There had to be other ways to encounter, conduct and re-configure protocols that would allow for new forms of embodiment, of being, of becoming, of enunciating, and of coding. The Zapatistas and Digital Zapatismo really articulated in a clear and direct manner how one could create a network, how one could establish infrastructure, how one could pre-configure or reconfigure code and the data body in relation to other embodied "social relationships" and "information systems" that were not bound to virtual capitalisms. In fact, we are/were naming the sites of deletion against what the Zapatistas called "the neoliberal world." I had never heard of neoliberalism until the Zapatistas clearly spoke about it.
For us it was NAFTA and the utopian integration of free trade (which is another form of virtual capitalism), but the Zapatistas also brought to the fore that it was a new re-definition of political ideology; at the same time, the Zapatistas really allowed us to be able to think—at least in terms of the community that I was involved with, of a type of critical aesthetics that could be constructed and manifested in ways that the imagined social infrastructure of virtual capitalisms couldn't respond to coherently or directly because it was somewhat outside of their field of understanding.
AES: Can you expand on what you mean by critical aesthetics here?
RD: That is in order to do these sorts of things you needed to have deep technological knowledge. (No, you didn't.) You needed to have the aggregation of a specialized semantic discourse—that is, you needed to know software. (No you didn't.) That you needed to have electricity, telephoning, computing in order to activate networks. (No, you didn't.) That's what the Zapatistas very quickly enunciated. So EDT for me was a way then to take the simplest conditions: HTML code and the public agora of the browser reload function. It's not like you're trying to establish a whole new protocol, you're just hitting the button over and over and you're using 404 files—files not found—which is already part of the integration of browser culture and was already under investigation by net.art or net (without a dot) art. You had groups like jodi.org who were investigating 404 files in a Dadaist way. Then it was easy for EDT to code switch the Dadaist modality of the 404 that jodi.org was doing towards this kind of critical aesthetic. Does justice exist at the government website?
Our practices of net art and the emergence of new forms of critical theory were about establishing gestures, vocabularies, and poetics against the kind of neoliberalism that the Zapatistas spoke about. All those things occurred, and perhaps the difference was the rapidity of being able to access all of these conditions from the very local of Williamsburg to the very global networks, to the critical poetics structures of the Zapatistas to sort of triangulate a kind of global condition—whether it was global or not is another question, but it certainly carried an imaginary that my email could have a conversation with somebody in Adelaide Australia so that I could communicate the issues of what I was doing there. Not that everybody was ideologically coherent in being a Zapatista, but they weren't necessarily antagonistic against it. They might not directly manifest electronic civil disobedience, but they weren't antagonistic to it because they saw it as part of this wider territory of net art or network arts, however you play it out.
I think that you see this to some degree in etoy’s Toywar gathering of late 1999 [Toywar was a coordinated effort to reduce the stock price of etoys.com after the company successfully sued the Vienna-based art collective eToy in a California courtroom for the rights to their domain name]—all of the things coming together, the communities of net art, electronic civil disobedience, redefining the politics of infrastructure and what art had to do as an activation that sort of ripped into the fabric and altered forms.
AES: So after this first period, which seems focused around electronic civil disobedience, what directions did your work take? How did your work move into projects dealing with toxicology?
RD: The '80s were an important space for navigating and articulating ways of thinking, and doing and showing that the nineties allowed us to put into practice. In 1986/87, three sort of categories of critical aesthetics became important: 1) Virtual Capitalism, 2) Electronic Civil Disobedience, and 3) community research initiatives, which came out of our work with ACT UP Tallahassee. The human genome project also started in the mid-'80s, so there was a sense that there was a recombinant power and that clone capitalism was going to be manifested in a clear way in the '90s. So we thought that community research initiatives a la ACT UP would be useful to disturb this enclosure of the genetic levels of the body. In the days to come we would see the valuation of data bodies above real bodies. So yes, your authentic body had value for the corporation when they owned your disease, your alcoholism, your cancer; so we thought that we needed to do work in that area.
Hope Kurtz and Steve Kurtz of CAE were focused on clone capitalism, and they of course got into horrific trouble with Homeland Security who accused them of being bioterrorists. Hope Kurtz passed away unexpectedly and this led to the investigation that this initiated. Steve just wanted medical support for Hope and the medical team reported that Steve had a potential "bio-weapon" in his living room—that in fact was an artivist project being prepared for an exhibition, The Interventionists. Steve Kurtz had to go through four years of legal hell and ultimately they won, but that particular trajectory comes from an earlier period and the emergence of wider hacktivism.
Right after we released the disturbance developers kit I really felt that I wanted to focus on particle capitalism, which meant that I needed access to atomic force microscopes, etc. The Warhol Foundation did not want to give any money for that, and the military didn't want to give me access to nanotechnology, and corporations didn't either, so I was in a bit of a state of consternation and concern as to how to move forward. I had gone to New York with a particular vision and process, and now I was at the next stage; I needed a different sort of infrastructure and support.
AES: So is this need for nanotech infrastructure was what brought you to the research institution/UCSD?
RD: In 2004, [artist and UCSD professor] Sheldon Brown called me and said we have this new trans-disciplinary space called Calit2, and so I went to propose a plan of research. The main part of my ten-year research plan would consist of three things.
One, Electronic Civil Disobedience and hacktivism; with this, the two main questions were: What does it mean to use UC computer systems against nation states, corporations, and social entities that we feel need to be disturbed via electronic civil disobedience or hacktivism? And I thought an even more important question would be the history of social critique, institutional critique, so I was interested in what would happen when I used the UC computer systems against the UC system itself. And so that would really be the core of the research. What would everyone say or do when that occurred?
Two, the next level of research would be border disturbance technology. There's a long history of border art in San Diego/Tijuana. I knew some of that history, and I thought that I would want to participate in it. I knew that there would be technology involved but the border would also be involved, and it would be about disturbance.
And three, the other area of research would be nano-poetics and interventions into nanotoxicology. I was interested in the way particle capitalism had removed the focus of nanotechnology away from everyday, unregulated use towards the utopian idea that we're going to cure cancer—the way that technology is always sold—or the apocalyptic, that the military is going to weaponize it. I have nothing against utopian therapeutics and there's not much I can do against weaponization, but we could focus on the everyday use. That is, Whole Foods wraps its food using nano-silver to keep it fresh... the products are just growing in terms of nanoscale technology—it's not high-end, it’s not artificial, it's just there, using nano-scale silver and nano-scale gold in socks. Hugo Boss said "Nano is the New Black" because he can create socks, pants and shirts that you would never have to wash because they have nano-silver. But the question was, why weren't there long term studies of nanotoxicology being done?
And so out of that came the Particle Group which was Dr. Amy Sara Carroll, artist Diane Ludin (who I had worked with in Williamsburg) and Nina Waisman who was in the MFA in the visual arts program. We were able to create a series of tales of the matter market that focused on intervention into the nano-technology labs themselves. These speculative poetics are aggregated at the Hemispheric Institute, which has all the projects that we did from 2007-2012.
AES: How did Transborder Immigrant Tool emerge within your focus of border disturbance technology?
Transborder Immigrant Tool concept showing working tool and screenshot from Nokia e71 (2000)
RD: My long term collaborator Brett Stalbaum and his partner Paula Poole lived out in the desert and liked go on very long, dangerous hikes, so they created a virtual hiker, an artificial system that pre-fabricated a Virtual Hiker using GPS.
In 2000, the military released GPS to civil society and with it came a lot of locative media art projects that I've never found particularly interesting—they were all mostly urban-based or tell narratives or stories, but I thought that Brett’s gesture was dislocated into this other territory. So that afternoon I asked if we could turn it into a GPS to deal with immigrants crossing the desert, and he said "well we have to find a cheap platform;" I went home and wrote the Transborder Immigrant Tool Manifesto and in it I stated that poetry should be a part of the project. Poetry has always been a part of all of the work I have done. I had worked with Dr. Amy Sarah Carroll who is not only a scholar of the border but is also an experimental poet. I asked if she wanted to write poetry for this machine, and that really helped us move away from the positions of locative media projects based on GPS to a geo-poetic system about sustenance and experiments of geo-aesthetics for the refugees and immigrants who are often seen as live zombies that cross the border to take a job and who have no cultural understanding of poetry or sense of cultural experimentation. I thought that I would code switch those things.
The project blossomed very quickly and we won an award in Mexico. After I did an article with Vice, within 48 hours we came under investigation by Congress, Fox News, and the FBI. All of these things aggregated to become the Transborder Immigrant Tool performative matrix between chaos and art.
AES: Glenn Beck said in 2010 that the Transborder Immigrant Tool was a gesture that potentially "dissolved" the U.S. border with its poetry. You’ve mentioned code-switching, scientific narratives, and the importance of disturbing through language and poetics. It seems that in everything that you've done, language has been very important.
RD: The notion of critical aesthetics has been the core conceptual driver for all the gestures and collaborations that I've been a part of; while they carry activism, artivism or the language of social engagement, it’s always been produced—with very rare exceptions—from a collaboration between artists. To me that becomes the manner which we can then begin to think about, "What does art do, that activism or engineering or design do not?" or "how does art move into the territory with a different set of questions and processes?" For me the consistent, coherent way to develop work is the notion that art is a type of thinking, doing, saying, and showing which is manifestly different from other territories of saying, showing, doing, and constructing. This gives us a way to establish different territories of dialogue and measurements of power that are not easy for power and its various institutional guises to shut down.
AES: Can you give an example of how this works?
RD: With the Transborder Immigrant Tool we thought, "well, what is the first thing the FBI would ask?" "Who has used this to cross the US-Mexico border?" So we were in Spain at an electronic poetry conference and we were wandering around in the middle of the night. We encountered Walter Benjamin Park, and we thought, "what if we went to Portbou where Walter Benjamin had committed suicide because he wasn't allowed into Spain from France?" We thought, "what if we go there with the Transborder Immigrant Tool and imagine the tool as a way to suck back the spirit, take him into Spain and then into Mexico (because he was supposed to go to Mexico) and then up to LA to meet Adorno and Horkheimer?" So when the FBI asked, "who has used the TBIT?" we said, "Walter Benjamin" and they wrote it down. So there you have a kind of poetic gesture where you can clearly say that somebody used it to cross the border and it was this person that they wrote down. I would imagine that the FBI is looking for Walter Benjamin at this very moment for having used the tool to cross.
So one establishes a kind of dis-temporality—a dislocated media that enunciates an aesthetic condition that disallows power from establishing its conversation in the manner that makes sense to it. "You hacked into a telephone, that’s illegal"—but suddenly they end up having to read poetry. “Is the poetry encrypted?” All poetry is encrypted as far as I know. They have to end up discussing "What is Duchamp?" "What is queer theory?" "What does the trans have to do with anything?" It is here that you detour power into conversations that it's not prepared to have or doesn't want to have, and so they become aesthetically confused. For me that's how that performative matrix works. If we were activists, or cracktivists, or engineers, then the focus would be on establishing that this tool functions in an effective utilitarian manner that goes in a linear direction. But our approach is, "that's not the way to do the work."
AES: But you also simultaneously do the reverse in terms of arti-scientist thinking about the simulation of the laboratory to become the artist laboratory space.
RD: Yes, this goes back to community research initiatives. The "Science of the Oppressed" that I took from Monique Wittig, the feminist philosopher and science fiction writer, means we can create community research initiatives that imagine effective processes of research, but always attached to that effective process of research as affect. And so, as one scholar has pointed out to me, the work that we do joins the A and E together so you get aeffect, in that the tool does indeed work.
AES: Like with the Transborder Immigrant Tool, for example?
RD: Yes, because NGOs such as Water Stations and Border Angels would not allow us access to the water cache locative waypoints if we didn't show up. The virtual sit-in does function, but it functions in ways that don't necessarily anchor themselves to that functioning as the primary condition by which one defines the work.3 So code and poetry for us are one and the same. The aeffect of the poetry is equal to the aeffect of the code. So you can’t say only that the code is effected and that the poetry is affected because it's actually a melded kind of condition. One can imagine the notion of the laboratory to be reconfigured towards ends other than what one imagines the research laboratory to develop. I do think that part of our job is to reconfigure the way art is being produced within a certain kind of loci. I've been lucky enough to work in multiple highly intelligent, collaborative situations and I think that has been a guiding element in the work that I've done.
Zapatistas' strike on the steps of the New York Public Library, 5th Ave at 42nd St, New York, across from the Mexican Consulate (1994)
Ricardo Dominguez at the Zapatistas' strike (1994).
AES: So what’s next on the horizon?
RD: I think if you had talked to many of the people in the early days, they would have thought that it was the strangest thing, but somehow I got tenure for all of it and got into trouble for all of it at the same time. At this particular point, I am really trying to figure out what it means to try to imagine another ten years of research, and you know, I'm not quite sure. Part of the impulse is to wrap up all of this stuff into some kind of book. Also, one of the things I was interested in was activating how drones function. We did a show about two years ago at Calit2, a year-long exhibition called "Drones At Home," and one idea I had was to develop the Palindrone which would chase Homeland Security drones on the border and sing to them. Like the words from Gloria Anzaldúa, and Nortec. Because we can imagine that the drone pilot sitting in Las Vegas might not know the culture, the voices and the history, and they might be bored; and so this might be one way. The Palindrone would be a singing drone that would exchange and share through multiple signals the life and experience, culturally and experimentally, of the border and border culture. [Theorist] Gloria Anzaldúa would be a core voice there.
The other area that I'm interested in is synthetic biology. It's kind of attached to this question of nano biotechnology, but synthetic biology has with it a protocol of creating completely new forms of biological life, which is both seductive in terms of a speculative fiction but at the same time (having read Frankenstein) it's rather horrifying. But I'm not quite sure how to enter into that particular space. The third area is immersive technologies like Oculus Rift and how that might be disturbed or dislocated—but again these are sort of tentative bases for consideration.
AES: The Palindrone project reminds me of the paper airplanes that the Zapatistas launched at the soldiers across enemy lines.
RD: Oh yeah, I think you're right. I think that it carries a pattern of how the work is done and that is using a platform to connect with the signal that exchanges messages, usually aesthetically driven messages. So yeah, I think there's a direct echo of the Zapatista Air Force involved and all of that, and you can see the same sort of thing, some sort of aesthetic reiteration.
AES: And I'm even thinking about your recent work with flight facilitation.
RD: Because of the Transborder Immigrant Tool, the question of borders has come to the fore, especially with the last few years of the Guatemala crisis and now the refugee and immigrant crisis in Europe because of the wars and climate change and what have you that's been building up for a while. Recently I had a flight facilitators' gathering and an open borders conference in Munich where we looked at the histories and valuation of flight facilitation which here on this border we call "coyote culture." So individuals who did flight facilitation from the GDR to Berlin during the Cold War are seen as heroines, yet at other times flight facilitation is seen as bad or illegal. In the crisis right now in Europe, everyday community members who put refugees in their cars to drive them from Hungary to the German border have been looked at as illegal and traitorous to the sort of nature of the EU. So the question that clearly manifests itself is about the figuration of the immigrant; the refugee is not really bound to the qualities of legal precedent and consideration and honoring of flight facilitation, but somehow a refugee and an immigrant are seen as outside of the normative values of a Euro-centric space.
Ricardo Dominguez and unknown U.S. Border Patrol (Mexico/U.S. border near Mexicali, 2007; un-staged photograph by Brett Stalbaum, co-founder of Electronic Disturbance Theater 1.0/2.0.)
AES: In Digital Zapatistas, Jill Lane questioned whether more people would find themselves criminalized as "illegal" aliens by those who guarded legitimate access to nation-states, and whether such maps would be reproduced in cyberspace. Do you think that the same kinds of questions you were thinking about with early net art and the Zapatistas are still just as important now?
RD: I feel that they are, in that the work has always dealt with the nature of borders. The internet allowed us to teleport across borders to route around, to go under, to go below or above what is a barrier; I see that kind of space as a potentiality but at the same time the consistent ontological cut of the border has been the reduction of bodies to wanted or unwanted labor, gendered femicide, and dreams of mass deportation, and again they tend to be consistent in the work in terms of the way it articulates itself.
One of the aspects of critical aesthetics asks if we can manifest alter networks, alter code, alter protocols, alter ways of discourse that will enable or disable the mimicking or the reification of borders in digital culture. I would say to a certain degree, with the rise of web 2.0, that hasn't been the case, but at the same time there has been a growth of do-it-yourself culture alter forms of infrastructures—other modalities of communication that I think continue that tradition—and that raises the question, can we re-organize the way these networks amplify borders and disallow them from doing that? I think that's still an important consideration. At times it might be about speed, and at times it might be about an inertia, and at times it might be about exiting, escaping that culture; or deleting it, or at other times it might be about leaks. Leakism is certainly a continuing manner in which we can de-stabilize the way governance is manifested, whether it was the Pentagon Papers or COINTELPRO up to WikiLeaks and Snowden. I think Leakism is another sort of alter protocol. I still tend to be an anti-anti-utopian in my sensibilities and I'm always happy about the victories great and small that we have as artists, and so until it's a bone that I'm not willing to let go of, yes, the way that Jill articulated it is still a core question.
Ricardo Dominguez, Critical Virus VI (performance as a member of Critical Art Ensemble, 1988)
AES: How many times have you been under investigation for your work?
RD: Well I get into trouble all the time. Another core interest of mine is performance, performance art and performativity. I always imagine and think of any gesture that I do as functioning within performance art. I feel that part of the aesthetic of performance art is liminality, and that performance pieces or gestures are about articulating a space that is somehow neither here nor there but somewhere in between. It’s transgressive—it tends to cross the boundaries of what is what might be socially acceptable, it carries with it a kind of personal risk often historically, and its traditional form right from Chris Burden being shot to Marina Abramovic whipping herself. The body in its simplest condition has been a core way of making things. The work that I've been involved in, whether its electronic new media or nanotechnology, has always had that sort of impulse at play. Because of these tendencies, I also get a great deal of trouble with institutions about the question of the body and its relationship to these issues. I guess that's to be expected if one is involved in performance and that certain questions will arise like "what is the necessity of this sort of work?" When you have painting, sculpture or video, you sort of have a clear articulation of frame, distance, control.
AES: What are some of the things that haven't been understood as performances?
Ricardo Dominguez, Mayan Technology (Root Festival, Hull, UK, 2000)
RD: Well Electronic Civil Disobedience is often seen as an activist work, but it's also a performance. For instance, when we did a performance for the NSA I wore my Zapatista mask and told stories about Mayan technology and they would ask, "Why are you doing that?" "What does that have to do with any of these things that we are worried about?" Well because at the core of all this is a performance, and performances bring questions about the body, about simulation, about the articulation of affect and the ephemerality of things and so that disturbs the way that people want to articulate what is occurring.
There is an old play called My Country Cousin about a Daniel Boone-like character who's invited by his big city cousins to Philadelphia. They all go to the theater, and halfway through the first act the Daniel Boone character runs on stage, hits the bad guys, and saves the Virgin. Everyone’s going, "Oh my god, you don't understand that this is a simulation—that is not a bad guy, that is not a virgin, this is a simulation!" So often the DoD, the NSA, my University, UCOP, Glenn Beck, and activists are sort of like the country cousin because they actually think that because they're seeing something, because they're feeling something, because something is occurring, that it is real; and I think that that's what performance art does. It is a real body, but again it's playing in liminal spaces and its transgressing those kinds of questions, so is it documentation or non-documentation? Is it real or is it Memorex? Is it simulation or is it non-simulation? As Rancière says, "The Real must be fictionalized in order to be thought." The histories of performance art are around the trickster, the shaman, la bruja, ritual, magic, all of those things come into play. So often power gets angry. They want to situate it, to articulate it—but at the end they are the country cousin and they think because they see it, because they feel it, because it articulates itself within the realm of the real that it is real, but they haven't taken the pill.
AES: What’s the pill? Are you working on it inside your laboratory?
UCSD and UCOP (University of California Office of the President) attempted to de-tenure Dominguez for doing a VR Sit-in on the UCOP website in support of the statewide protest by California students against the fee hikes in 2011, and also for creating the Transborder Immigrant Tool. UCSD students, faculty, and others supported Dominguez with a march as he walked to meet UCSD campus authorities investigating these gestures (2010).
Ash Eliza Smith is a multimedia artist and writer. She has produced work exploring ficto-criticism, technology and the body for Vice, Motherboard and the Creator’s Project and curated and written for the New Media Caucus and Media-N journal. Smith has collaborated with the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination to curate large-scale science fiction and speculative design events, Edgeland Futurism and ARE WE ALONE ARE WE ALIEN?, which have received awards from the UC Institute for the Research in the Arts. Smith is the current Director for Art and Technology in the Culture, Art, and Technology Program at the University of California of San Diego.
1. This theoretical framework is set out in Critical Art Ensemble's 1994 book The Electronic Disturbance. Dominguez later wrote, "For Critical Art Ensemble, it was clear that cyberspace, as it was called then, was the next stage of struggle. The activist reply to this change was to teleport the system of trespass and blockage that was historically anchored to civil disobedience to this new phase of economic flows in the age of networks."
2. Hauntings (1997), by Dominguez, Francesca da Rimini, and Michael Grimm, is an example of HTML conceptualism, an artistic gesture originally made for users with a browser and a dialup connection.
3. The "virtual sit-in" is a form of activism in which protestors occupy a website with the intention of slowing it down.
I first discovered Maja Smrekar‘s work at FIELDS. The exhibition was part of the Art+Communication Festival in Riga and turned out to be one of the most consistently excellent events i saw in 2014. During the show, Maja was presenting the Maya Yoghurt (aka Hu.M.C.C.), a dairy containing her own enzymes. What looked a first sight like some facetious art prank was in fact a thoughtful reflection on the impact of biotechnology over the food industry, a resolutely contemporary take on Marx’s critique of capitalist modes of production and a comment on the marketing of food trends.
Maja has also devised equipment enabling biological survival in apocalyptic situations, built an installation ‘infused’ with the serotonin of the both herself and her dog Byron and explored the problem of invasive species with the help of native and tropical crayfish.
Her multidisciplinary projects may seem to be fairly different from each other but they are all characterized by a rigorous research-based approach, a deep respect for nature and a keen understanding of the issues she explores.
The artist is now in Berlin, getting ready for a weekend of performance at the Freies Museum Berlin. She will be presenting K-9_topology: HYBRID FAMILY, a new piece which is part of a body of works that investigates the parallel evolution of man and dog as well as the cultural intersections between the human and the animal.
Maja has been on my radar since 2014 and i really don’t know what took me so long to ask her for an interview.
Maja Smrekar and Manuel Vason collaboration, K-9_topology: Hybrid Family, Berlin 2016, produced by Zavod Praksa, Ljubljana, Slovenia, 2015/2016
Hi Maja! You graduated from the Sculpture Department of Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Ljubljana, Slovenia. How did you go from what sounds like a ‘traditional’ art education to complex pieces developed in collaboration with scientists?
Some 15 years ago, in my early twenties, my interests have been dwelling in the phenomenology of perception of space, concept of life and all that jazz. At that time, i was interested in those phenomenons from a modernistic perspective, and this led me to think about different relationships in space, whether these would be colours and shapes or a (human) subject within. Eventually I started to research the 20th century references. And of course came to the concepts of Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Beuys, Louise Bourgeois, even the pre-assemblage phase of Picasso and Braque have been quite influential. These references allowed me to grasp how to perceive space in a very multidisciplinary way. I have also been doing lots of live video editing in clubs, running a radio show on contemporary art, working as an art director in a video game company, composing a futuristic FPS demo … I was interested in movies, scenography and costumography, especially experimental theatre, being influenced by philosophies of Antonin Artaud and Adolphe Appia, Russian constructivism … seen some live works of Marina Abramović, Robert Wilson, Jan Fabre, Marko Peljhan, Matew Barney etc. At that time, i was collaborating in different theatre performances and actually finished my bachelor diploma writing about the phenomenon of perception on live act in different space arrangements, based on my own work. Involving into all these different media was intentional since i wanted to get as much experience as possible by building my own artistic evolution in order to eventually find my own artistic thought.
After finishing my diploma within the Department of Sculpture at the Academy of Fine Art and Design in Ljubljana, i applied for the Master at the Video and New Media department. We had to do a lot of practical work, which had to be interactive and connected with technology. Hence I executed some collaborations with students at the Faculty of Computer and Information Science. That’s how it started.
Besides, being from Ljubljana with its strong tradition of avant-garde, contemporary thinking and very ambitious projects developed in the art & science field, has as well made its strong influence towards my artistic path. Even when i was young and naive, i knew i wanted to be executing multidisciplinary projects. So I have been training myself towards a specific direction from the very beginning.
Basically sculpture was my first entrance into the interdisciplinary. For me it was the way of thinking about the phenomenology of life in the widest possible sense, since space can be a body, an animal, a petri dish, a molecule, hardware, software, online, offline, nature, culture, public, private, mental, fictional, light, sound, smell, ideology, etc.
You were talking about Ljubljana and its strong tradition of art&science project. Is this situation the result of some official support, like governmental funding and official programmes? Or is it because there is a community in Ljubljana that grew around something they are independently genuinely interested in?
For sure both. In Slovenia, there have always been strong avant-garde movements, especially in the 20s, 60s and 80s (of the 20th century), as well as at this very moment. There are countries that have been supporting this kind of art better, but neither is Slovenia the very last in supporting the so-called intermedia art. Although we have to fight to keep it since, like in every administrative system, cases of huge misunderstandings of the field and production dynamics are occurring, to say the least. Consequently there is less money but the sensibility within the art scene is very much present.
I’m also interested in the way your collaborations with scientists unfold. What are the dynamics of these interactions? Do you mostly ask them a question or give them something to develop for you and then sit back and wait till they’ve developed what you need for your work? Or do you a have a more hands-on approach and participate directly in the scientific process?
I always want to participate directly, since I want to get to know the medium as much as possible. I’m not a scientist, and therefore i would not delusion myself that i could have the same knowledge for the field that scientists have. And vice versa: scientists who want to become artists have a long way ahead in order to be able to execute mature artistic works. However, it´s all about the interdisciplinarity and the exchange of inspirational knowledge between both parties. Some of my collaborators from the field of natural sciences very much enjoyed my working approach they would not otherwise been able to engage in, within the framework of the institution they´ve been working for.
However, it is not always possible to be fully involved because of the legislation. Nevertheless, since my work is very much research-based, I have to get to know the medium in order to be able to develop a fruitful artistic concept. This kind of approach is a part of my professional ethics.
You kind of touched upon this in your previous answers but what can scientists get from a collaboration with an artist? It often seems that an artist needs the scientist more than a scientist needs the artist…
I guess this would be a question to ask scientists. They are usually so focused on their research, that if they were not interested in collaboration, they wouldn’t do it, I´m sure. Sometimes it is even problematic for them to organise the collaboration around their work, especially when the collaboration is not directly related to their usual work within a specific institution. So there must be some added value for them.
The main point i have in common with scientists i’ve been fruitfully collaborating with, is the ultimate passion for the research, accompanied with this almost childlike curiosity for the field we are dwelling on. It´s a win-win combination, if you have that in common with your collaborators. These are my experiences.
Of course; I also met scientists who would probably not have enjoyed working with me. Mental and intellectual transfer need to occur, especially in cases when the official institutional agreements have not been established, which has been, unfortunately, happening all too often.
K-9_topology: Ecce Canis. Photo by Borut Peterlin
Maya Yoghurt. Design by Boris Balant / HUMAN1ST
The last time i saw you, you were making yogurt using human lactic acid. I also saw a piece in Ljubljana where you showed a furry installation that allowed visitors to experience the smell of the serotonin isolated from your own platelets and the ones of your (very cute) dog. Now you seem to be investigating invasive species. Is there anything that, for you, binds all these projects together?
In general, for the last few years, i’ve been exploring two main topics: one is the sixth species extinction, the other focuses on the research of the parallel evolution between the relationship wolf-human-dog.
At the first glance, these two topics don’t seem to have much in common, however, I find the connection within the perspective of the old artistic questions: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
I don’t believe in ecology as it has been applied into the ideology of the first world. System is getting more and more rigid regarding sustainability. We are forced to worry about putting the trash into the correct trash can while in the third world, there is so much trash that it has even created an artificial island! The ideology is obviously working in the name of different marketing tactics. I also don’t believe that this is a problem that should be approached globally, since every little biotope is a very complex unique specific system. It is not something that could be generalised. Globalistic approach is only connected with the liberal capitalism approach – ecology as ideology, not even close within the reality of ecology as a scientific field of biology as a science.
On the other hand, we have been severely exhausting our resources of oil and gas, food and water. Homo sapiens is the biggest invasive species on the planet at the moment, the predator dwelling on the survival niches of many organisms, not at all embedding within the ecosystem dynamics, but erasing more and more species.
The other problem (which also covers one of the key parameters for the establishment of the invasive species) is that the human population has been growing exponentially. When i think about the ongoing refugee crisis i’m feeling overwhelmed: on the one hand, we have been (re)producing so much since there is so many of us already; on the other hand, we are emotionally not able to take care of each other anymore. I think that at this moment, the most humanistic and responsible thing to do would be that we stop reproducing for a while. I know this is easy to say but not even near as easy to apply, since reproducing has been imprinted all over our genetic code, as it is in every species for that matter. Not to mention the emotional and cultural dynamics connected with the need to reproduce. It is my personal frustration around the issue being a female who will in a few years not be able to biologically reproduce anymore. I’m also wondering whether it would really be ethical towards my child to introduce her / him into the world I just described. Nevertheless, it is difficult to surpass the powerful myth of motherhood and family as an ultimate individual capital with all its social pressures which have been very much present in the collective memory and emotions.
Dwelling on that, one of my next works will connect the two topics i’ve been researching for the last few years: in my fourth project within the K-9_topology series, I am suggesting to inoculate in-vitro my eggs with dog sperm in order to eventually make a new species which would have better chances to survive in the very unpredictable nature of the future. Since wolves decided in the past they wanted to stay with humans, dogs and humans have been evolving together, among other selection pressures, by a diet of starch and meat. Humans and dogs have adapted to a common biological niche by physiologically starting to be able to digest starch. Wolves still cannot digest starch. The hybrid i propose would be a herbivorous werewolf, able to digest starch as the most viable polysaccharide on Earth, but it would at the same time be able to survive by treating nature more humanely than humans do. Without ideology. This is the poetics within which the two fields of research connect.
People are going to be so shocked!
You think so? It would be only in-vitro. :)
But can you do it? Are there laws? Is it ethical? Would you have to kill it after a while?
Technologically, it could, of course, only be a proof of concept, since the cell would theoretically divide twice, maybe three times. After the inoculation, I would immediately sink it within the liquid nitrogen into cryosleep. To exist in suspense. Until the legislation is open enough and until biomedicine has evolved enough to make it possible to impregnate a human and maybe also a dog.
The inoculation of human and canine material is not legal in EU, even if both parties agree. So much on owning our own bodies. So here´s another huge problem, since I am not interested into executing the project as an illegal action. From this perspective the concept, among others, raises some biopolitical questions about why only the rich and hence privileged individuals, such as Walt Disney for example, who froze his head in order to be reanimated in the future, would be able to execute such „edgy“ actions? Are only the rich able to be the owners and not just the inhabitants of their bodies? This is, of course, a rhetorical question.
In BIOBASE, you built an experimental chamber to monitor what would happen if/when a native crayfish and an invasive red crayfish meet. So what happened during this experiment? Did one eat the others? What were the conclusions of the work?
In Slovenia (ironically at the Schengen border), there is a thermal lake (up to 32 degree celsius). It’s a kind of a tropical ecosystem niche in the central European climate, a potential one where the tropical crayfish could survive. The subtropical Australian red claw crayfish arrived to the lake from a few hundred meters away, where an entrepreneur had started an exotic crayfish farm a few years ago. Apparently, they are a delicious so he wanted to sell the crayfish over the Italian and Croatian food market. When he started running the farm, an environmental agency came to inspect the parameters which should satisfy the regulations. It turned out that the filter system was just a bit to rarely spaced, however he was told that since these were tropical species, they would never survive in the cold water environment such as the continental climate of that area in Slovenia, if ever they escaped anyway. However, the fertilized eggs somehow got through the filtration system into a little creek, a few hundred meters from the thermal lake and eventually floated to the lake which led to a huge, exponentially growing population of the red claw crayfish. Less than a kilometre away, there is the river Sava that eventually joins the Danube. What if the crayfish adjusted to the colder climate and migrated to the nearby river? BioBASE was exhibited as a closed, controlled experiment basically exploring that question.
The conclusions were interesting. In one tank there were six invasive, tropical red claw crayfish Cherax quadricarinatus. In the other one, six indigenous ones, now protected Astacus astacus. Both in separate tanks, each with an optimum temperature to their physiology.
Since crayfish are dominant and territorial, both species obviously wanted to explore the other tank. For the first week, the tropical ones would go to the colder water but they would stay there for about maximum six days and then go back. They got too cold. At the beginning of the following week however, the indigenous ones which are bigger, yet slower but used to harsher environment, went to the tropical tank and stayed there for 10 days, until the end of the experiment.
The experiment actually showed us that since the indigenous crayfish felt comfortable in the warmer tank, it might mean that the cold river nearby might not be as cold as it used to be. Recently it has even been officially announced by scientists that all of the waters all over the world became a few degrees warmer.
I find it difficult to make up my mind about invasive species. On the one hand, i love animals and think they should all be protected. On the other hand, i remember growing up with red squirrels in the garden and i haven’t seen any for ages now, they’ve been replaced by invasive grey squirrels so i wish these bastards had never set foot in Europe! Do you ever feel that you need to take a stand in your work about invasive species? And decide whether invasive species are ‘wrong’ or ‘right’?
Human emotional transfer towards the local environment connected with invasive species interests me a lot. The squirrels are a great example and there are many very similar cases. At the beginning, when i knew very little about the topic, i read an article about the harlequin ladybug. There used to be indigenous seven-spot ladybirds in Slovenia and all over Europe, including United Kingdom. I had a strong emotional transfer towards them, since they were charismatic bugs, used as local heroes helping farmers and gardeners as biological control agents in a battle against aphids (their main prey) as well as a national symbol. I was so overwhelmed discovering they have been almost extinct in Europe, because of the harlequin ladybug, i decided to make a project out of the issue. Conversely, I discovered they have outcompeted many native species all over North America. The project ended up focusing on the crayfish, a phenomenon in the area of my birth town.
For the first 5 months, i was having interviews with Dr. Al Vrezec, a biologist working at the Department of Freshwater and Terrestrial Ecosystems at the National Institute of Biology in Ljubljana, Slovenia. I invited him to be a key collaborator. Every week, we would meet for a few hours. I would arrive with fresh questions and we’d discuss the topic. I wanted to grasp what it means when a certain species is getting extinct, not just for the sake of my own emotional transfer, but above all, objectively, why and how is it happening, and last but not least, why is it such a huge issue?
There have always been this kind of phenomenons, since some animals bring non indigenous organisms to another biotope where they don’t have natural predators, and therefore have conditions to exponentially grow in population which also means they eventually need more and more space. They dwell into the ecosystem niche of indigenous species and usually erase them which consequently makes the whole ecosystem crash. The global traffic in the seas for example creates big problems for ecosystems, since big tankers and even small boats carry ballast water which needs to be evacuated in the harbour. Small not indigenous organisms get out that way. Another example is when people buy exotic species in the pet shop and at some point, decide they don’t want, or can´t take care of them anymore so they ‘let them free’.
The problem of the current species extinction is that it remains fairly under the radar, since it´s quite a complex issue of interdependence to fully grasp. If a big ecosystem crashes, for example, the first organisms that adapt are the very simple ones. The more „simple“ an organism, the faster it will adjust to fast and radical environmental changes.
There have already been five distinct extinctions in history of the planet Earth. Each time, the most simple, hence the lowest organisms at the trophic level, survived. More complex organisms need far more evolutionary time to adapt. If the most simple organisms are the first to adapt and mutate that means that viruses will adapt quickly too. You might see new diseases developing much faster and we would be too slow to react. Not to mentions sever allergy reactions. If you take off one element, then everything else around it crashes. It’s like an economy bubble burst.
The other thing, as already mentioned before, is that humans are growing in population very fast, and therefore we are slowly but surely facing the end of food resources. Add climate change on top of that.
I have been having a vision of this Mad Max scenario coming up in the near future! The invasive nature outgrowing the huge old wheels of liberal capitalism system till no return is possible. I think that the revolution we are going to experience in the future is going to come out of nature. This is what is going to disable the liberal capitalism machine, not the internet, real estate, energy, watter – market bubbles.
To tell you the truth, i don’t see the happy ending for this planet as it is. Well, I can actually see a happy ending for this planet but it would involve the extinction of many species. Most probably also humans. That’s why i decided to propose the herbivorous werewolf project.
To finally answer your question, i am not putting myself on any side, i’m just the nihilistic observer of the beginning of the end of a specific biological as well as cultural era.
Any upcoming project, event or research you want to share with us?
I have been finishing the third project within the K-9_topology series in Berlin, titled Hybrid Family. The whole process has been a kind of an embodiment of a becoming – animal discourse with an impact on perspective of the refugee crises and the lack of space (this being told cynically), the myths of motherhood, home and domesticity. Since mid October, I have been living in quite an isolation with my dogs. By submitting myself to a special diet and physiological training, I have consequently succeeded to train my pituitary gland to accumulate prolactin hormone to produce some milk within my breasts, with which I will be feeding a new member of my hybrid family, an Icelandic Spitz called Ada (Lovelace), at the performance starting 29th January. The name combines with (Lord) Byron, my older family member Scottish Border Collie, as they are both my beloved inspiration embodiment of art and science as well as of the post-anthropocentric kinship.
For the last months all three of us have significantly deepen our relationship within our hybrid family, with the aim of raising thoughts on the traditional perspective of motherhood. Social welfare systems have, for example, been very much protecting families with children, married couples as well as single parents, much less a childless and/or single (bi – homo – trans – hetero – sexual) individuals.
More on the background of the project: http://majasmrekar.org/blog
Maja’s works is currently part of the exhibition GLOBALE: Exo-Evolution at ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany. She also has a one year sound installation on the stairs of Kino Šiška Centre for Urban Culture in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
She is also going to spend the weekend at the Freies Museum Berlin performing K-9_topology: HYBRID FAMILY (the studio visit will take place from 29 January to 2 February, by appointment.) The event was co-curated by Jens Hauser and Jurij Krpan and developed with the artistic collaboration of Manuel Vason. It is a co-production between Kapelica Gallery, Praksa (Ljubljana), Freies Museum Berlin.
Maja Smrekar and Manuel Vason collaboration, K-9_topology: Hybrid Family, Berlin 2016, produced by Zavod Praksa, Ljubljana, Slovenia, 2015/2016