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Brown Sound Kit. ‘Toilet humour for gallery space’

Fri, 06/24/2016 - 11:27

Because we could all do with a bit of humour today, even if it’s of the Benny Hill kind…

Martin Kersels, Brown Sound Kit, 1994. Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Georges-Philippe and Nathalie Vallois

While preparing a review of black dog publishing‘s book RAVE. Rave and Its Influence on Art and Culture, i encountered this sound art piece which, as the catalogue states, brings ‘some toilet humour to the gallery space.’

Martin Kersels’s sculpture Brown Sound Kit is a piece of sound equipment that emits low frequency infrasound waves, which causes those in its path to release the contents of their bowels—or more colloquially, to “shit themselves”. This kind of sound cannon has its roots in sonic weapons first developed by the Nazis for the purposes of crowd control, and purportedly also by the French authorities during the Paris riots of 1968. Utilising a speaker, an amplifier, an equaliser and an oscillator, all contained with a mobile yellow case, Brown Sound Kit works reflexively of the fact that experiments in weapons technology were also important in the development of sound systems for music.

There seems to be some doubt about how efficient the firing of brown notes can be. In any case, the final sentence in the description of the work will reassure any visitor of an exhibition featuring the work: Brown Sound Kit is presented unplugged within exhibitions. I think Brown Sound Kit is actually part of the show Energy Flash. The Rave Movement at M HKA – Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp. It closes on 25 September. I’ll definitely pop by before that.

Related story: Tanks, drones, rockets and other sound machines. An interview with Nik Nowak.

Categories: New Media News

Art, mathematics and a spider crab at the D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum

Thu, 06/23/2016 - 11:10

Dalziel + Scullion, Primates (detail)

While in Dundee (Scotland), i got a chance to visit The D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum, in the company of Matthew Jarron, Curator of Museum Services at the University of Dundee.

The museum was founded in the late 19th century but was demolished in the 1950s. Parts of its spectacular collection was then sent to other museums, parts of it was lost and although the museum is now showing only a fraction of what it used to archive, it’s still a fantastic place to discover.

The collection was assembled by polymath D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860 – 1948.) He acquired specimens from around the world and used them to teach biology.

D’Arcy was a fascinating character. He studied biology, mathematics but also classics. He took up the first Chair of Biology at the University of Dundee, was a pioneer of mathematical biology (more about that in a bit), had a keen interest in art and was also one of the first scientists who pressed his government to protect endangered animal species. After a trip to the Arctic in 1896-97, he recommended protection for the seal populations (decimated by the fur industry) and also brought attention to other species at risk, including whales and the sea otter.

He is mostly known for his book On Growth and Form which pioneered a new science called bio-mathematics or mathematical biology, proposing that the growth and form of living organisms are subject to fundamental laws of physics and mathematics.

Page 754 and an inserted page from D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s personal copy of On Growth and Form. Image via Echoes from the Vault

The book raised controversy for several reasons. One of them is the chapter Theory of Transformations which appeared to contradict the Darwinian theory of evolution. In reality, the chapter wasn’t a refutation of Darwin’s ideas, it merely pointed out that there were some limitations to Darwin’s tendency to explain everything by natural selection. While his predecessor believed in a slow, gradual evolution, D’Arcy argued that one species could be transformed into another through sudden, mathematical processes.

Interestingly, a number of scientists supported D’Arcy’s views: biologists Julian Huxley and C. H. Waddington but also everyone’s favourite: Alan Turing. D’Arcy’s ideas had an impact on other scientific disciplines: mathematics, anthropology, geography, forensics, cybernetics and artificial intelligence. Besides, his writings about the mathematical beauty of nature went on to influence artists and architects such as Henry Moore, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier.

The current museum of zoology was open to the public in 2008. In spite of the loss of a large part of its collection, the museum remains a wonderful place to visit. For the historical, zoological specimens of course but also for a number of artefacts that are interesting from an artistic point of view. The teaching charts and models for example:

Teaching chart showing the anatomy and external characteristics of the Common Frog. From a series created by Dr Paul Pfurtscheller, 1902-1926

Models of animals and human hearts

But what makes the museum unique is that it’s not just biology students who use the collection, artists are also invited to come and respond to the specimens on view. The museum has acquired a number of artworks that draw on D’Arcy’s work and thanks to a grant from the Art Fund, they have been able to commission new works and organize residencies for artists.

And that’s it for my intro. I’m now going to leave you with lots of images and a few comments:

Chimpanzee received in 1886

American iguana

Matthew Jarron, Curator of Museum Services at the University of Dundee with the Emperor Penguin. Photo Dundee University Museum

The Emperor Penguin specimen first appeared on a photograph taken at the D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum in the early 1900s. The bird disappeared after the demolition of the museum in the 1950s and turned up in the ‘70s, when it accompanied students of the Dundee University Biology Society to bars and parties. He then went awol for 3 decades, until it was discovered in The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum collection in April 2014. The dusty creature was restored and returned to its former glory.

It is very likely that the specimen was taken by members of the Dundee Antarctic expedition of 1892/3. Which makes it one of the oldest emperor penguins in the world.

Sean Dooley, Huia (extinct) at the D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum

The Huia was a species of wattle bird found in New Zealand. The male and the female had differently shaped bills. Working together to feed on wood-burrowing larvae, the male would chisel the bark from trees, while the female removed exposed grubs with her long, curved beak. The arrival of European settlers led to the loss of habitat, the introduction of new predators and the mass killing of the birds in 1901 when their feathers sparked a fashion craze on the old continent. The last officially recorded Huia was seen in 1907.

Sean Dooley, Pesquet’s Parrot (Vulnerable) at the D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum

King Penguin brought back from the Antarctic by Ernest Shackleton after his 1907-9 expedition

The museum presents a fair number of rather distressing bird heads:

Albatros Head

Herring Gull. Larus argentatus

One of the artworks displayed alongside the historical items pays homage to extinct animals:

Rachel Nesbitt, Steller’s Sea Cow, part of a series of soft toys (Dead and Gone)

Japanese Spider Crab (Macrocheira kaempferi)

For more background about D’Arcy, the museum and its collection, check out this video of a lecture that Matthew Jarron, Curator of Museum Services at the University, gave at the Slade School of Fine Arts.

Matthew Jarron – Slade Contemporary Art Lecture Series 2013/14

The Zoology Museum is open to the public on Friday afternoons during the Summer vacation as well as occasional open days such as Easter and Doors Open Day. Open by appointment at other times.

Both the Zoology Museum and LifeSpace (a collaboration between the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design and researchers from the School of Life Sciences) make Dundee an interesting place to check out for anyone interested in the connections between art and science.
More images in my Dundee album and on D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s facebook page.
Previously: Open source estrogens and other hormonal tales at LifeSpace.

Categories: New Media News

Grayson Perry. Flying penises, rude vases and teddy bears

Mon, 06/20/2016 - 11:17

Grayson Perry, Motorbike

Grayson Perry (together with the architect firm FAT), A House for Essex. Photo: Jack Hobhouse. Via we heart

Earlier this month, during the Week of New Maastricht, i visited the exhibition Grayson Perry. Hold Your Beliefs Lightly at the Bonnefantenmuseum. I liked it very VERY much. Not just for the works on show but also for the atmosphere.

There were ladies of a certain age taking photos of a ceramic penis with their mobile phone. There were families discussing life inside a kind of Taj Mahal built for a mythical woman called Julie Cope. There were academic types trying their best to intellectualize the omnipresence of a teddy bear called Alan Measles in Perry’s work. And then there were people who resented being towed through rooms of pots, flamboyant tapestries, extravagant frocks, intricate maps, and un-PC sculptures created by ‘an Essex transvestite potter’ (that’s actually the way the artist ironically defines himself.)

Grayson Perry, Tomb Guardian, 2011

Perry is a cross dresser, a Turner Prize winner, a “conceptual artist who works as a craftsman” but he is also an artist who deserves so much more than easy generalization.

He can be a bit rude but he’s never vulgar. He observes and satirizes British society, its classes, tastes and rituals but he does so with kindness. His vases look traditional but as you go nearer, you realize that they bear crude images and cheap tabloid headlines. He does tapestries and pots, has a flamboyant alter-ego called Claire but he’s never twee, i doubt any woman would object to his own take on feminity. He’s just in a category of his own. Not least for his very inclusive way of communicating contemporary art.

There is so much more to say about Perry and about each of his small and major artworks but i’m sure you all know his work very well already. I’m just going to leave you with some images of the works exhibited in Maastricht and soon in Aarhus where the exhibition is traveling:

The High Priestess Cape (detail), 2007

Grayson Perry wearing The High Priestess Cape

Grayson Perry, The Adoration of the Cage Fighters, 2012. From The Vanity of Small Differences

Grayson Perry, The Upper Class at Bay, 2012. From The Vanity of Small Differences

Grayson Perry, The Vanity of Small Differences

Grayson Perry, Hold Your Beliefs Lightly, 2011. Collection the artist

Grayson Perry, Map of Nowhere, 2008

Grayson Perry, Motorbike (detail.) Image by the vintagent

Grayson Perry (together with the architect firm FAT), A House for Essex

Grayson Perry (together with the architect firm FAT), A House for Essex

Grayson Perry (together with the architect firm FAT), A House for Essex. Photo: Jack Hobhouse. Via we heart

Grayson Perry as Julie Cope outside A House For Essex

Grayson Perry, The Walthamstow Tapestry, 2009

Grayson Perry, Assembling a Motorcycle from Memory, 2004

Grayson Perry, Wise Alan, 2007

Grayson Perry, Flight From Masculinity, 2005

Grayson Perry, Land Rovers, 2005

Grayson Perry, Angel of the South, 2005

Grayson Perry – Hold Your Beliefs Lightly. View of the exhibition rooms at the Bonnefantenmuseum Maastricht

Grayson Perry – Hold Your Beliefs Lightly. View of the exhibition rooms at the Bonnefantenmuseum Maastricht

Grayson Perry, Claire at Tate Gallery, 1999. Photo Rob Weiss. Courtesy GP & Victoria Miro, London

The solo show at the Bonnefantenmuseum is closed but it has already moved to the ARoS Museum in Aarhus and will open this Friday 25 June.

Still on view in Maastricht: The Next Big Thing is Not a Thing.

Categories: New Media News

The Politics of Design. A (Not So) Global Manual for Visual Communication

Fri, 06/17/2016 - 12:17

The Politics of Design. A (Not So) Global Manual for Visual Communication, by Ruben Pater.

BIS Publishers write: Many designs that appear in today’s society will circulate and encounter audiences of many different cultures and languages. With communication comes responsibility; are designers aware of the meaning and impact of their work? An image or symbol that is acceptable in one culture can be offensive or even harmful in the next. A typeface or colour in a design might appear to be neutral, but its meaning is always culturally dependent. If designers learn to be aware of global cultural contexts, we can avoid stereotyping and help improve mutual understanding between people.

Politics of Design is a collection of visual examples from around the world. Using ideas from anthropology and sociology, it creates surprising and educational insight in contemporary visual communication. The examples relate to the daily practice of both online and offline visual communication: typography, images, colour, symbols, and information.

Politics of Design shows the importance of visual literacy when communicating beyond borders and cultures. It explores the cultural meaning behind the symbols, maps, photography, typography, and colours that are used every day. It is a practical guide for design and communication professionals and students to create more effective and responsible visual communication.

Lena Söderberg, the playmate who became the standard for online imaging tools

One of the sport teams that appropriate the Native American image for their mascot

I can’t remember the last time i had such an entertaining, witty and informative publication to review.

The Politics of Design is a compact little book packed with little-known anecdotes, historical facts, pieces of advice and lessons learnt from real and often embarrassing communication design experiences.

The author (and the many contributors invited to share their wisdom and insights) draws attention to issues that should be obvious but are too often overlooked by designers: the ethnic stereotypes that should have died decades ago, the graphics that misinform, the cultural appropriations that ransack marginalized communities, the icons that pigeonhole groups of people (not all disabled people are in a wheelchair, not all parents in need of changing their baby’s nappy are women), the domain names that required more careful scrutiny (www.therapistfinder.com, www.budget.co.ck or www.kidsexchange.com), the technologies that betray cultural bias and assumptions (a worrying fact in our age of surveillance and data gathering), etc.

Nothing, not even a colour or a typeface, is as neutral and as innocent as we’d like to believe. And even their meaning, once identified, may change over time and across cultures. In fact, pretty much everything, even time, can be politicized. Two years ago, the clock on the facade of the Bolivia congress in La Paz was de-colonized and altered to turn anti-clockwise.

The author of the book is Ruben Pater (you already know how much i admire his work if you’ve read the interview i had with him last year: Drones, pirates, everyday racism. An interview with graphic designer Ruben Pater.) He is a designer, a researcher from Amsterdam and as ‘Untold Stories’ he works on projects between journalism and graphic design and creates visual narratives about complex political issues.

The Politics of Design should be put into the hands of everyone working in communication design. And also probably in the hands of everyone else since none of us can elude the work of designers.

Random examples of what you can discover inside the book:

New Humanitarian Daily Ration and Old Humanitarian Daily Ration (image)

In 2001, the United States dropped emergency food parcels over Afghanistan. However, from a distance it was tricky to distinguish them from unexploded cluster bombs. The bags had the exact same yellow hue as the bombs.The U.S. government soon changed the colour of the food parcels to pink.

Yazan Khalili, Colour Correction – Camp Series, 2007 – 2010

Yazan Khalili added colour to photos of Al-Amari Refugee camp, located inside/beside/outside Ramallah city as a symbolic act to fill the loss -like a child filling a coloring book- and produce the possibility of hope. Here I’m attempting to appropriate an urban landscape that reminds us of the tragedy -of their existence and our disappearance- in order to subvert memory into a desired future.

Ryan Hunter and Taige Jensen, Coloring For Grown-Ups: The Adult Activity Book, 2012-2015

Ryan Hunter and Taige Jensen’s coloring book “Coloring For Grown-Ups: The Adult Activity Book” shows the potentially subversive power of colours.

The original version of the 2010 Ikea catalogue and the censored version circulated in Saudi Arabia

Digital manipulation makes it easy to create diversity, rejuvenate politicians, wipe out political opponents, and of course fix women’s unsightly bits (whether they are deemed too flat, too fat, too wobbly, too spotty, too wrinkly, too sexy or not sexy enough.) Unless you prefer to erase women entirely! In 2010, the IKEA catalogue for Saudi Arabia airbrushed women out of pictures. The company later apologised.

Unknown Ammassalik, Inuit, Carved wooden coastal charts carried in their kayaks by Greenland Inuit. Courtesy of the Greenland National Museum & Archives

The most used map, the Mercator was drawn in 1569 and showing all the prejudices that pertain to its age, the one of colonialism and Euro-centrism: Africa and South America look far too small, Australia is even smaller than Greenland, Europe appears larger than it really is.

A map of Crimea on google.com

Even contemporary maps should be approached with caution. Because it obeys to local laws, Google map shows differences in borders according to the country you’re accessing the map from. Visitors to the Ukrainian google.com.ua, will find a map of Crimea displaying unmarked border with Russia and a clear internal boundary with the rest of Ukraine. On the other hand, Russian visitors to Google will find the area marked as a separate country from wider Ukraine. Everywhere else, Google uses its legend for disputed borders between mainland Ukraine and Crimea.

Taylor Swift Chinese clothing line with ‘TS’ and the date ‘1989’ was interpreted by the Chinese as a political reference to the Tiananmen Square massacre

Previously: Drones, pirates, everyday racism. An interview with graphic designer Ruben Pater.
Image on the homepage: Censorship In the Republic. How foreign media are filtered in Iran.

Categories: New Media News

House Guests: where even plugs and bread crumbs have a mind of their own

Wed, 06/15/2016 - 11:50

Another of my long overdue festival reports….

Image Share Festival

Automato, Politics of Power. Image Share Festival

This year, the Share festival in Turin shed its new media art skin and became a festival resolutely centered on design. The event was all about technology and creativity but this time in their most domesticated forms.

Quite fittingly, Share took place inside an apartment. You might have heard about it already, it’s called Casa Jasmina and it’s a kind of home of the future that showcases what it means to share a dwelling with “the Internet of Things” things. Located inside a large industrial building (one that’s shared with Fablab Torino, the Italian hub of Arduino and a co-working space), Casa Jasmina hosts not only all kinds of smart gizmos but also residencies, workshops and discussions.

Each of the entries selected for the Share Prize was installed in the room they would naturally occupy inside a house. There were multi-plugs fighting for supremacy in the corridor, a coffee machine that moonlights as CCTV in the kitchen, plates laser-engraved with ‘personal crumb data’ lined up on a dinner table, etc.

Now anyone who’s ever met me will tell you that i’m not keen on design (to say it with as much diplomacy as i’m capable of) but even i had to admit that this spotlight on all things homely and interactive gave the festival a strong personality in a sea of art&tech festivals that strive to differentiate themselves from each other. It also meant that while media art festivals are usually jovial affairs that draw a very specific type of crowd*, Share seemed to attract people of all ages and backgrounds, eager to see and hold into their hands objects that have the right balance of “familiar” and “slightly futuristic.”

Plus, there were a couple of gems worth blogging. Such as this one:

Automato installation, where lightbulbs have to engage in political struggle in order to get any “power”. Photo by Bruce Sterling

Automato, Politics of Power

Automato, Politics of Power. Image Share Festival

Politics of Power, by the Automato collective (aka Simone Rebaudengo, Matthieu Cherubini and Saurabh Datta), politicizes your household electrical network.

Three multi-plugs – Model D, M and T – are designed to look and behave based on different ideologies and structures, allowing people to experience the hidden politics of networks.

Model D distributes its actors in a circle. When multiple devices are plugged in, the outlets periodically vote to delegate a leader, who gains a greater share of the electricity until the next election. The system is the most egalitarian, every outlet has a chance to be in charge.

Model T has established a more authoritarian rule. The one plug at the top always gets all the electricity, and it either magnanimously sends a trickle of current down to its subjects, or it monopolizes everything. The citizen outlets periodically rebel, throwing the distribution into chaos until the tyrant can reestablish order. But if the top spot is left vacant for a while, the citizens will settle into an egalitarian mode like the Model D…until the head honcho is plugged in again.

The hierarchy of Model M is pyramidal. The greatest share of electricity goes to the “monarch” outlet at the top, middling shares go to the “support” tier, while the “plebian” outlets at the bottom get the weakest share. The distribution of electricity remains stable without a monarch, but if all of the middle managers are removed then the current starts to fluctuate wildly.

Automato, Politics of Power

“Politics of Power” uses thus the most mundane product, a multi-plug, to explore on a micro-scale how political or economic ideologies can be embedded into design, especially technological design. The ‘black-boxing’ of consumer electronics, would be a good example of that. Or planned obsolescence. Being conscious of the hidden logic and rules of mass-manufactured products is particularly important when these are networked as it is increasingly the case in the age of the IoT. But what i liked the most about the work is not just the questions it explores so humorously, it is also the way it looks. The cables fall elegantly to the ground, the light bulbs glow softly, it’s a piece that insidiously soothes, comforts and makes you oblivious of the decisions taken in the back room.

Tobias Zimmer, Food-Data, 2015. Image Share Festival

Tobias Zimmer, Food-Data (Detail of the laser-engraved plate), 2015

Tobias Zimmer, Food-Data, 2015

Food-Data, another of the works selected for the Share Prize, elegantly brings data tracking onto your dinner plate. The position and shape of crumbs left on the plates are analyzed by a software and used to create generative artworks. The algorithmically developed graphics are then engraved onto ceramic plates with a laser cutter.

Food-Data illustrates, almost to the point of absurdity, that absolutely anything, no matter how insignificant, can be harnessed for surveillance and data gathering.

Christoph Laimer, 3DPrinted Tourbillon Watch. Image Share Festival

Christoph Laimer, 3DPrinted Tourbillon Watch. Image Share Festival

Christoph Laimer, 3DPrinted Tourbillon Watch

Swiss watchmaker Christoph Laimer took his venerable expertise and artistry to the world of open-source hardware and 3D printing.

3DPrinted Tourbillon Watch was the winner of the Share Prize. The timepiece is a fully functional Swiss clock that has been entirely printed from plastic, apart from a few screws and pins.

The entire 3d-model is published and downloadable on Thingiverse.

Other works selected for the Share Prize:

Carlo Galli, SafeCoffee. Photo: Share Festival. Photo: Piemonte Share Festival

Carlo Galli, Safe Coffee. Photo: Piemonte Share Festival

Safe Coffee, a coffee machine that invites surveillance into the family setting; a Body Instruments II, Kinect-controlled music installation by Jean-Michel Rolland and Follower, a social-media stalking service by Lauren McCarthy.

Pante. Photo: Piemonte Share Festival

The Share Festival closed a couple of weeks ago. Its jury included MoMA design curator Paola Antonelli, festival director and celebrated cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling, Internet activist Jasmina Tesanovic, astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, as well as festival co-founder Chiara Garibaldi.

My photos on flickr. Share festival ones are on fb.

* (you know the kind, they are either a bit geeky and ask about programming language and electronics toolkit or they are art bores like me who try to hide their enthusiasm and complain about the lack of art commitment.)

Categories: New Media News

Biometric Capitalism

Mon, 06/13/2016 - 10:38

ATMs fingerprint-based biometric technology in Malawi. Photo via African Business

Back in April, i was in Berlin for the Anthropocene Curriculum and very much looking forward to Truth Measures, an evening of talks and performances at Haus der Kulturen der Welt which examined the techniques and technologies for gathering data, truth, evidence and how they produce what is true and what isn’t. Unfortunately, right before that i had attended a fantastically informative workshop that involved walking for hours under the pouring rain and i had to chose between either going back to the studio i was renting and getting dry or getting the flu or whatever people get sick of when their brand new creepers make squishy squishy sounds with their every step. I thus missed the evening and the morning after everyone was telling me about this talk i would have loved.

It was called Biometric Capitalism: Infrastructures of Identification and Credit Risk on the African Continent in the 21st Century. I ended up meeting its author, Keith Breckenridge, a couple of days later. We were supposed to have a conversation but i ended up pestering him with questions about his work. Breckenridge is a historian, a Professor and Deputy Director at WITS Institute for Social and Economic Research in Johannesburg. My invasive cross-examination of him was one of the most exciting moments of my week in Berlin. HKW has recently uploaded on youtube the video of the presentation i had missed. Whoopee! Whoopee!

Biometric Capitalism: Infrastructures of Identification and Credit Risk on the African Continent in the 21st Century. Presentation by Keith Breckenridge

In this short presentation, Breckenridge explores what biometrics means in African countries, how it is used and by who, how it is affecting the poorest people in the world, how it fails, etc. And most importantly why we should be concerned about it.

Here’s the abstract:

A new and distinctive variety of capitalism is currently taking form on the African continent. States are being remade under the pressures of rapid demographic growth, intractable conflicts over boundaries, domestic and international security demands, and the offerings of multi-lateral donors and international data-processing corporations. Much of this turns to enhanced forms of state surveillance that is common to societies across the globe, but the economic and institutional forms on the African continent are unusual. Automated biometric identification systems present former colonial states with apparently simple and cost-effective alternatives to the difficult and expensive projects of civil registration. In many African countries, commercial banks are offering to bear the costs of building centralized biometric population registers, explicitly having in mind the development of a national identification database and commercial credit risk scoring apparatus, a combination that aims to transform all citizens into appropriate subjects for automated debt appraisal.

And here’s a few notes i wrote down while watching this video. I’m only adding them here in case anyone in this audience absolutely hates watching video….

For most of the last century, vastly more people in Africa have been involved in agriculture than in trade. The form of capitalism and the institutions that capitalism depended upon have been dependent on mining and on mineral extractions and in particular in the last 10 years on oil. That’s what dominated investments, state revenues, company revenues, individuals incomes especially property forms, etc.

George Osodi, from the series Oil Rich Niger Delta, 2003-2007

It is well established now that there are many different kinds of capitalism. So what is biometric capitalism?

Biometric Capitalism is a system of economy activity organised around the centralised unity database of biometrically ordered populations registration where the identification is done on the basis of people’s fingerprints or some other iris that can allow for unique identification (or close to unique identification.) It is justified morally and politically by the politics and the technologies of cash transfers.

In South Africa, 40% of the population receives a monthly cash transfer payment from the state through a biometric system. There are many attempts of similar basic income grants on the African continent for people who are locked out of formal work. Banks are often the ones who are funding the development of these population registers and they are developing shared infrastructures for credit surveillance that are derived from the original FICO scores.

The FICO algorithm has spread very widely around the world and it has been adopted very enthusiastically in the last 5 years. Non-governments and governments are pushing the development of tracking systems around cash transfer schemes and student loans. Last year, the big complaint of students in South Africa was that the debt that they have to cover their subsistence while studying at university is handed over to the banks. If they don’t service the loans they are blackmarked very quickly. That is the first thing an employer will query when a graduate goes and applies for work. If you haven’t been servicing your debts, you don’t get shortlisted for an interview. You thus lose your ability to pay back the loan. Those loan schemes exist in almost all countries on the continent. These systems are heavily influenced by infrastructures of biometrics, government and banking that were first developed in South Africa over the course of the last century. It’s important to understand that biometric capitalism confronts two fundamental problems about the nature of the state and the economy on the African continent:

The first problem is that unlike the conventional barbarian and Foucauldian understanding of power knowledge, states on the African continent have limited knowledge about their population. Most births and most deaths are still not recorded. Even South Africa has only started recording the majority of births in 2002.

Unlike India, African colonial states did not count their population. They had no interest really in anyone, except the white people who lived in the cities.

Hundred years ago already, the colonial officials said “Don’t listen to Africans, they lie about who they are. The only way you can know for sure is if you record their fingerprints.” And much the same juxtaposition exists today.

Projections of human populations to 2100, per continent

The second problem is demography. Most African states have experienced dramatic increases in population over the last generation, going from comparatively low densities to some the highest ever recorded. The current estimate is that in 20150 it will be between 2 and 2.5 billion and that by the end of the century there will be between 4 and 6 billion people on the continent.

Most states are scrambling to build bureaucratic mechanisms to get a grip on it. In each case we can see a convergence towards an administrative architecture that emerged first in South Africa. It’s radically centralised biometric identity registration, with privatised biometric cash transfers, universal credit histories, credit histories that come to serve as instruments of moralisation. So if nothing else really works, we can at least identify what kind of person you are by looking at your credit history.

I could have illustrated the ID project in India with a more relevant image but i just love that this dog in Madhya Pradesh got an Aadhaar card for itself

There are other examples throughout the world, the most important is UID project in India.
Two things stand out:
1. It’s not a card, it’s a number. The government only gives you a number. It’s intangible. People have demanded a card, some have laminated the paper receipts.
2. A billion people have been registered in the last 5 years which makes it by far the most successful registration project ever attempted.

Screenshot from Breckenridge presentation

Pictures of how this works in South Africa:

The first large-scale application of fingerprint-based digital biometrics was in the delivery of pension benefits in the former KwaZulu homeland in the late 1980s. Incidentally, this was the first trial of sound recognition and officials say they couldn’t get the people to be calm enough about it. They were initially reluctant to use fingerprint, thinking that people would associate it with the Apartheid state. But in the end they used fingerprint simply because that was a technique that everybody understood, the subjects and the officials.

The kits used in the 1990s were the same standardised equipment you can find today. It’s essentially ATM machines that are hooked up to a little biometric device.

Screenshot from Breckenridge presentation

Net1 UEPS, ‘the anti-bank’, is a private company that is now the direct agent of the South African model of biometric government. It has contracts for government grants and pensions in Namibia, Botswana, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Ghana, etc. This company is explicitly targeting offline, illiterate bank customers, what are called ‘unbanked populations’. The company has been subject to many legal disputes, but there’s no mistaking its momentum in Southern Africa and around the world. There are 22 million people inside the Net1 database itself. This is a separate system, it’s not the same one used by the government. Their business model involves providing a banking infrastructure so they are lending to the people who are paid grants by the government and of course they have access to all the income these people earn so they can lend to them without any risk at all. Last week, the World Bank bought 10% of the company for a hundred million dollars.

These biometric systems in South Africa are connected very closely to credit surveillance which didn’t really exist in the country in 1990. Between 1990 and 2016, we’ve seen the extension of the American system of automated information about your credit: not only what you borrow but also what you pay off on your utility bills as a means of gathering information about your suitability as a bank customer. The credit reference bureau collects your name, your identity number, your address, who your employer is, your debts and payments on your telephone account, your cable tv, cell phone contract, your utility bills, your credit cards and mortgages. This is a model used everywhere now. The distinction is that in South Africa, the state uses it as a moralising instrument. If i am an employee of a local municipality, i will decide whether you are a virtuous tenant by looking at your credit history. There are something like 20 million individual profiles in the system in South Africa and 50% of them are what we would call blacklisted customers. They can’t get access to credit, they can’t typically get access to any of the things that they are asking for, whether it’s access to a rent or the opportunity for employment.

Over the last 5 years, this system has started to move rapidly around the continent.

The fantasy of capturing the unbanked lays behind the first system of biometric cash or biometric money ever implemented on the planet. In 2007, Net1 was contracted by the central bank of Ghana for a national banking switch (the E-Zwich) that requires all bank transactions to be biometrically authenticated (in theory because it didn’t work like that in practice.) So you put your fingerprint on the reader, somebody else has to do the same in order to move money from one account to another. The scheme has been a dismal failure: the machines don’t work very well, they don’t access the cellular network and generally people have been very reluctant to use it. Ghanians haven’t taken very kindly to the idea that they should be submitted to a different technology to the one that they would use when they are in London. So there has been resistance from the rich and as for the poor, they don’t have any money.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan looks at the replica of his electronic identity card during the launching of the cards in Abuja

MasterCard-branded National Identity Smart Cards with electronic payment capability

The most outrageous of these schemes was the announcement in 2013 that MasterCard would be issuing the Federal Republic of Nigeria identity card. It sets in place an astonishing precedent and there is very little legal apparatus to deal with it.

Of course many of these things don’t work as flawlessly as scheduled.

A group of youths display their disfigured fingerprints at Maili Saba quarry in Bahati, Nakuru. More than 40 youths working at the quarry have no Identification Cards. Photo: Kipsang Joseph/Standard

People working manually, like bricklayers, often present damaged fingerprints and they are never going to be biometrically captured. There isn’t currently a way to deal with this

Then there’s the problem of efficiency: after a decade of issuing identity cards, Nigeria have only issued them to 10 million people. There are 180 million Nigerians…

The model, however, remains in place. There’s no sign in other word of official hesitation or of remorse.

Breckenridge then read this article about the biometric registration of Kenyans. The process will involve scanning of existing identification documents, facial scans and taking of finger prints. Children under 12 years will have their irises scanned. The register will also capture land details, assets and registered companies, with a view of enlisting those within the tax bracket who are not paying duty.

So what is Biometric Capitalism and where is it happening?

Banks and states are now in an intimate embrace, funding each others’ work. Global corporations, donors, kit manufacturers all act together in a network.

Laura Mann has recently finished her PhD on this topic, focusing on Kenya. She describes an industrial policy that favours the creation, accumulation and sharing of data (currently without meaningful privacy limits); hinged on the creation of biometric national population registers that are hooked into the credit history system.

This apparatus is antagonistic to the strategies of subsistence and accumulation that have dominated on the continent to this date: resource extraction.

There are some sinister and in fact distressing new forms of coercively imposed civic virtue that will require people to act as individualised entities and be preoccupied with their algorithmically generated reputation.

Personal debts, debt service and the risks around the servicing of those debts are becoming the dominant forms of property and profit on the continent. In an economic landscape where mineral titles have long predominated. This is capitalism in a world with very weak states, where growth is demographic and where personal debt is the most valuable resource.

Videos from the same evening:
Truth Measures | Technosphere Truth?,
Truth Measures | The Common Sense,
Truth Measures | Contra Diction: Speech Against Itself.

Related stories: Confessions of a Data Broker and other tales of a quantified society, MSA: The Microbiome Security Agency, Obfuscation. A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest, etc.

Categories: New Media News

The Next Big Thing is Not a Thing

Thu, 06/09/2016 - 11:17

Entrance to the exhibition The Next Big Thing is Not a Thing. Photo: Pauline Doutreluingne

Last week i was in The Netherlands for the Week of New Maastricht, an event organised by Maastricht-LAB to look at innovative ways to repurpose neglected areas and abandoned buildings (especially with those with monumental value.) Local examples of innovative urban overhaul include: an ex fire-house turned restaurant, ex-army barracks filled with working spaces for designers and a brasserie, a 13th century church that houses a bookshop, a 15th-century monastery that is now a hotel.

One of the areas slated for similar rehabilitation and revamp is the Sphinxkwartier. The place takes its name from a toilet factory. The ceramic bathroom seats are now gone but in a couple of years, they will be replaced by concert halls, student spaces, lofts, bars, etc. What made me bike faster to the Sphinxkwartier, however, is the fact that Bureau Europa has already relocated there. Bureau Europa explores the field of architecture, urbanism, and design. In a critical and often avant-garde way. I love what they do.

On top of the now closed Koninklijke Sphinx factory

Their ongoing exhibition The Next Big Thing is Not a Thing is a bit overwhelming but it is also as good as i was hoping. It investigates how the field of design is increasingly influenced by the science of anthropology, how it is becoming more critical, more involved in society and more curious about new fields of knowledge.

Using the gaze as a metaphor, the exhibition surveys the evolution of the design discipline and examines new fields of knowledge and critical practices. The exhibition questions the underlying myths within design, deconstructs its emerging signs, and examines how technology determines the future landscape of design.

The Next Big Thing is Not a Thing displays the works of more than 50 international visual artists, designers, and anthropologists. The show is articulated into several chapters. It is however so dense and the works on show are so different from each other in intention, practice and meanings, that it might at times seem like a mere accumulation of super interesting projects.

!Mediengruppe Bitnik, Random Darknet Shopper, 2014-ongoing. Installation view at Bureau Europa. Photo: Moniek Wegdam for Bureau Europa

Defense Distributed, The Liberator at the exhibition The Next Big Thing is Not a Thing. Photo: Pauline Doutreluingne

Some of the works question our Western-centric vision of culture, our faith in ‘modernity’ and our understanding of ‘progress.’ Others explore how the design discipline attempts to bring together two fields that Western history and culture have separated: episteme (the domain of theory or knowledge) and techne (the material and practical application of art and craft.) Another part of the exhibition looks at how designers grapple with the world’s biggest problems, in particular environmental ones. A last group of works explores the role of design in political issues: warfare, border control, economy, public accountability, etc.

The Next Big Thing is Not a Thing is packed with information, food for thought and judicious parallels. I’d recommend taking an hour or two to visit it. But if you can’t make it to Maastricht before the show closes in July, check out the catalogue of the exhibition. It is available as a PDF online.

A quick walk through some of the works on show:

Emma Charles, Fragments on Machines, 2013

Emma Charles, Fragments on Machines (production still), 2013

The internet is a very material space. There are server farms to be built, fibre-optic cables to be laid under the ground or sea, ventilation systems to be maintained.

Emma Charles’s documentary Fragments On Machines lays bare the physical structure of the internet. She takes her camera to a series of 19th and 20th century buildings in New York City and explores how urban architecture is now hosting the material nodes and connectors that comprise the physical manifestation of the “virtual” world. In addition, the film shows how the Internet is connected to the wider economy via such phenomenon as high-frequency trading (HFT). HFT firms have indeed moved to be as close as possible to the Internet’s infrastructure. The physically closer these firms are, the faster their algorithms can trade.

TeYosh (Sofija Stanković and Teodora Stojković), Dictionary of Online Behavior, 2013-ongoing

The internet is also a space that is constantly re-shaping the way we act in society. Think of #FRAP, Instameet, Sudden Mutual Linking, etc. These words don’t have any equivalent offline but online communication calls for new words to define new situations and behaviours. The always expanding Dictionary of Online Behavior helps us understand the way technology is shaping human expressions and norms.

Geert Mul, Match of the Day, 2004-ongoing

Another important aspects of our online life is made of artificial intelligence and the way its understanding of the world differs from ours.

Geert Mul‘s computer records, at random intervals, images from about thirty international satellite television channels. An image-recognition software compares the recorded image with every other single image stored in the computer and looks for the images that make a good visual match. Mul then looks at the result and selects the images matches he finds most interesting.

The computer cannot ‘understand’ the images, it just applies pixel statistics. For the human eye visual similarity is something else than pixel statistics. We attach ‘meaning’ to everything we see. This becomes especially evident when similar images appear to have a contrary meaning.

Monobanda and Dus Architects, 3RD (Trailer)

Monobanda and Dus Architects, 3RD. Image by Pauline Doutreluingne

3RD are sculptures you put on like helmets. Inside is a video screen that shows the wearer as if they saw themselves from a distance, their movements captured and broadcast by a camera surveying the exhibition space. As if they were featured inside their favourite games. This creates a surreal sensation where reality starts to feel like a digital game environment.

Not a new idea but it deserves a mention for it elegant and suggestive design. Plus, the DIY instructions to make your own can be downloaded for free.

Lalage Snow, We Are the Not Dead, Returning by the Road We Came, 2012

Lalage Snow, We Are the Not Dead, Returning by the Road We Came (Private Jo Yavala, 28), 2012. Installation view at Bureau Europa. Photo: Johannes Schwartz for Bureau Europa

Lalage Snow shot portraits of British soldiers over a period of 7 months. Before, during and after their deployment to Afghanistan on Op Herrick 12.

Theo Deutinger and Stefanos Filippas, Walls and Fences, 2015

Theo Deutinger and Stefanos Filippas, Walls and Fences, 2015. Photo: Moniek Wegdam for Bureau Europa

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain a quarter century ago, the world has been busy building barriers at an unprecedented rate: about 10,000 km of wire, concrete, steel, sand, stone and mesh has been employed to keep people out or in. Paradoxically enough, this avalanche of obstacles is accelerating even as we experience the age of free trade agreements, free movement of global capital, and the increased mobility of instant communication.

Opening night of The Next Big Thing is Not a Thing. Photo: Moniek Wegdam for Bureau Europa

The Yes Men, Total Terrorism Solution, 2016

With the complicity of Greek MEP Stelios Kouloglou, Andy Bichlbaum of the Yes Men posed as a “defense and security consultant” at the European Parliament in Brussels to present an “industrial solution to terrorism”.

The “solution” is the re-purposed Halliburton´s survivaball. This cushiony orb might make you look like Gérard Depardieu but it will also enable you, if you’re one of the happy few who can afford it, to comfortably survive any terrorist attack.

Gudrun F. Widlok, Adopted, 2012-ongoing. Photo: Pauline Doutreluingne

Gudrun F. Widlok organizes adoption of lonely Europeans adults by families in Africa.

Hiroaki Kani, The Kowloon Walled City (detail), 1997

Kowloon Walled City was a largely ungoverned settlement in Kowloon City, Hong Kong. Kowloon used to be the most densely populated place on Earth, with 50,000 people crammed into only a few blocks of interconnected high-rise buildings that were built ‘organically’ without the help of architect or city planner.

The Hong Kong government demolished the walled city over a two year period, in 1993 and 1994. A group of Japanese architects, engineers, city planners and researchers, led by historian and cultural anthropologist Hiroaki Kani, documented the city right until the bulldozers arrived. Their notes and illustrated cross sections of the buildings were published into a book a few years later.

Mikhail Kalashnikov, AK-47

The AK-47 (aka the Kalashnikov) was designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov in 1946. 70 years later, it is the world’s most popular firearm. Favoured by guerrillas, terrorists and soldiers of many armies, the weapon has brought death all over the world but it is also regarded as one of the best designs of the 20th century.

Marc Bijl, Group Mechanism, 2015. Photo: Pauline Doutreluingne

Marc Bijl on the left and Heather Dewey-Hagborg on the right. Installation view at Bureau Europa. Photo: Johannes Schwartz for Bureau Europa

Ten showroom dummies dressed up with leather jackets that the artist spray-painted with single letters composing the word INDIVIDUAL. While the faceless dummies are meant to be anonymous, the leather jackets are symbols of rebellion and individual freedom. Group Mechanism exposes thus the fundamental contradiction of consumer culture (and of fashion in particular): individuality can be mass produced.

Philippe Stark, Teddy Bear Band, 2005

Philippe Stark, Teddy Bear Band, 2005. Installation view at Bureau Europa. Photo: Johannes Schwartz for Bureau Europa

The TeddyBearBand was created for children who like to hop from one toy to another. Stark’s TeddyBearBand is a teddy bear but also a stuffed dog, a rabbit and possibly a sheep.

More photos from the exhibition:

Opening night of The Next Big Thing is Not a Thing. Photo: Moniek Wegdam for Bureau Europa

Installation view at Bureau Europa. Photo: Johannes Schwartz for Bureau Europa

Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Stranger Vision, 2012-2013. Installation view at Bureau Europa. Photo: Johannes Schwartz for Bureau Europa

Julien Prévieux, What Shall We Do Next (Séquence 2). Photo: Pauline Doutreluingne

The exhibition The Next Big Thing is Not a Thing is at Bureau Europa Platform for Design and Architecture, Maastricht, The Netherlands, until 10 July 2016. It was curated by Pauline Doutreluingne.

My photos from the exhibition.

Previously at Bureau Europa: ZOO, or the letter Z, just after Zionism, Clip/Stamp/Fold – The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines 196X-197X and Rien Ne Va Plus at Bureau Europa in Maastricht.

Categories: New Media News

Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter

Mon, 06/06/2016 - 11:07

Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter, edited by Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton.

On amazon USA and UK.

Publisher Verso writes: Combining firsthand accounts from activists with the research of scholars and reflections from artists, Policing the Planet traces the global spread of the broken-windows policing strategy, first established in New York City under Police Commissioner William Bratton. It’s a doctrine that has vastly broadened police power the world over—to deadly effect.

With contributions from #BlackLivesMatter cofounder Patrisse Cullors, Ferguson activist and Law Professor Justin Hansford, Director of New York–based Communities United for Police Reform Joo-Hyun Kang, poet Martín Espada, and journalist Anjali Kamat, as well as articles from leading scholars Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Robin D. G. Kelley, Naomi Murakawa, Vijay Prashad, and more, Policing the Planet describes ongoing struggles from New York to Baltimore to Los Angeles, London, San Juan, San Salvador, and beyond.

A SWAT robot, a remote-controlled small tank-like vehicle with a shield for officers, is demonstrated for the media in Sanford, Maine on April 18, 2013. AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty via Business Insider

The backdrop of Policing the Planet is the Ferguson protests, the Black Lives Matter movement and the way police around the world -but mostly in the U.S.– are killing civilians. However the book is less about premature loss of life by the hands of law enforcement and more about the way that some people, vulnerable because of their poverty and/or the colour of their skin, are monitored and marginalized throughout their entire life. It’s also about how police, prison and other forms of state violence are seen as the only way to deal with people who are homeless or suffering from mental illness or drug addiction.

In a nutshell, what the authors of the book want to challenge is routine policing, not just the ‘exceptional abuses’ of policing.

It seems that everything started with the best intentions back in the 1990s when the “community-minded” broken windows theory was adopted by the police. It was an easy and logical idea: nipping any form of anti social behaviour in the bud would naturally curb down urban disorder and vandalism in neighbourhoods.

Unfortunately, the broken windows policing often led to increased militarization of the police, school-to-prison pipeline, residential segregation, mass incarceration, mass surveillance and mass criminalization of the black working class, of Native Americans and more generally of poor people.

The authors of the book are social movement organizers, scholar-activists, journalists and artists. Together, they challenge the role and legitimacy of the police, reflect on alternatives to the most aggressive forms of policing and denounce the over-funding of the police force to the detriment of the social security net, job creation, rent control programs, basic public services like health care and transportation, etc.

Each of the essay or interview in the book explores a different case study: ‘anti-Indianism’ in New Mexico, influence of Israeli policing structures on the LAPD, New York city’s strategy to rely more on invasive policing than on mass incarceration, LA Skid Row as a testing ground for police practices that will be exported to the world, links between criminalization of poverty and real estate speculation, state violence and gentrification in El Salvador, etc.

Broken store windows remain as members of the Anne Arundel County Police guard the intersection of North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue, on April 29, 2015, in Baltimore. Patrick Semansky—AP, via Time

Advocacy groups are calling for a reduction in the use of police officers in schools. Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images, via The AP

Policing the Planet is a powerful book. I often found it hard to believe what i was reading. Surely people cannot face that much discrimination just because they are poor, black or Muslim? Surely, the police is here to protect us? But my incredulity can be explained by the fact that i’m white, living in a nice, quiet area of a mid-sized city and spending a lot of time with Harry Hole, D.I. John Rebus or Sergeant Logan McRae. Some of my friend back home are Arabs, Latinos or otherwise not very Belgian-looking and they often told me how they are routinely stopped, searched and threatened by the police under the most flimsy pretexts.

And don’t go thinking that Policing the Planet is ‘just’ about police in the U.S. because, as we all know, the American model often ends up being exported to other countries.

I’d recommend Policing the Planet to pretty much everyone. I learnt a lot from this book. Others (less naive and ignorant than i am), will appreciate the importance of exchanging these stories, experiences and lessons learnt.

Police officers try to disperse a crowd Monday in Ferguson, Missouri. Via Business Insider

Police wearing riot gear walk toward a man with his hands raised in Ferguson, Missouri. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images/AFP, via the Tico Times

The Clash, Guns Of Brixton

Categories: New Media News

Performance-driven Fabrication

Mon, 05/30/2016 - 04:37

Syuko Kato and Vincent Huyghe, Fabricating Performance

Syuko Kato and Vincent Huyghe, Fabricating Performance

Syuko Kato and Vincent Huyghe from the Interactive Architecture Lab have designed a robotic system that turns dance into architectural forms.

Fabricating Performance could maybe also be called Performing Fabrication because of the way the dancing and the building processes inform and respond to each other. The design proposal aims to explore the potential of digitalised notation for implementing fabrication of physical space from imagery of dance movement.

A circularity of human body-gesture and computer machine-gesture leads to the construction of notational spatial artefacts. Driven by the motivation of a participating performer/designer, body movement is tracked, analysed and translated into tool paths for fabrication by a robotic armature and an industrial CNC pipe bending machine. Discrete construction elements are fabricated in response to the dancer/designers performance. ’Fabricating Performance’ qualifies movement in space and raises questions of how these qualitative motion segments can be articulated in a quantitatively physical.

The videos documenting the project are mesmerizing. They reminded me a bit of Lillian and Frank Gilbreths’ chronocyclegraphs. In the early 20th century, the couple employed time-lapse photography to pare a complete factory work cycle down to the shortest and most efficient sequence of gestures. They attached a camera to a timing device and photographed workers performing various tasks. The motion paths traced by small lamps fastened to the worker’s hands or fingers were then turned into wire sculptures.

Interactive Architecture Lab, Fabricating Performance

Syuko Kato, Fabricating Performance

If you’re interested in performance, interactivity and architecture, then you might want to keep your eyes peeled for the projects that will come out of MArch Design for Performance and Interaction, a new masters programme at The Bartlett School of Architecture. I’m already looking forward to see how creatively future students and graduates will use the latest innovations in fabrication and in networked and responsive technologies.

In the meantime, i’ve had a quick chat with Syuko Kato and Vincent Huyghe about their project. The interview even features special guest appearances of Interactive Architecture Lab director Ruairi Glynn.

Hi Syuko and Vincent! What were the biggest challenges you encountered while developing this work?

Syuko: Once we’d managed to capture live movement, the question was how do we translate it into a notion that describes paths and intent with a simple line. We wanted those translations to also start to describe habitable spaces so there’s a lot of filtering and rationalisation in the software. We began with a very analogue dance investigation. Movements were described through terms such as weight, flow, speed, length and then we built it up from there.

Vincent: The bigger, longer term challenge is how do you fabricate notional elements quickly enough to create on continuous performance. We need an array of robots and bending machines if we wanted the fabrication to keep pace with a dancer. So at the moment working with just one robot, there’s a mismatch between dance and fabrication but it’s a gap we’re tightening every day.

Bending system whole view

Does FP leave any space for the involvement of a human choreographer (other than the dancer)?

Ruairi: That’s an interesting question, we haven’t got that far with this project but that’s certainly something we’re expecting to do. Having choreographers work in a team on an interaction project is always interesting because typically a choreography is linear. Here however the spatial notation is emergent out of a back and forth process we can’t fully control or predict. So every dance, and every space it creates is unique. Luckily in the past we’ve been able to work with great choreographers like Shobana Jeyasingh & the RAMS team from YCAM who embrace this non-linearity.

Syuko: This kind of tool invites people from all sorts of disciplines to explore movement and design. It doesn’t have to be a staged dance performance. It could be about our every day movements. It would be interesting to see it used to design a bus stop or to allow children to design a playground. If dance and movement can convey a design intent, it opens up people’s ability to express themselves spatially.

Fabricating Performance also made me think about the growing role of algorithms and robots in creativity. The works of some visual artists, for example, relies heavily on the ‘creativity’ and actions of algorithms. What do you think about this increasing space that algorithms and robots are taking in creativity?

Syuko: Dance has been codifying movement algorithmically for a very long time. Laban’s notional system for example has its own rules (or algorithms) that inspired a lot of our early discussions on how to analyze movement.

The translations of complex movement to simplified geometries is a translation where a lot of information gets lost but rather than see that as a negative thing we think it opens up room for individual interpretation, play and creativity. So the emergent properties of the system is where the creativity springs out of this in a way that leaves you as a dancer feeling like you’re dancing with a partner rather than on your own.

Ruairi: We now have 10 industrial robots arms at the Bartlett, and dozens of Makerbots. Its extraordinary how robotics is changing the way we think about design and making architecture but the typical approach is to treat the robot as the end of a linear process of design to fabrication. Basically big dumb blind machines doing what we tell them to do. So what we’re interested in is challenging that model moving from linear to circular feedback processes of production. Interaction in fabrication is a really rich untapped territory.

Syuko Kato and Vincent Huyghe, Fabricating Performance

Syuko Kato and Vincent Huyghe, Fabricating Performance

Syuko, you are also a dancer. So what did Fabricating Performance teach you as a dancer? About movement, human body, choreography or other?

Syuko: At each stage of the research process, I developed more understandings toward the design space in relation to my body. I’ve watched the software’s evaluation of the movement data a lot, and this helped me to decide how I would move to try and develop a space I had in my mind. Once the space starts to build up, you stop thinking about your original idea and respond more to what is around you. As I gained more experience, it became more of a free flowing and creative process.

Thanks Syuko, Vincent and Ruairi!

Categories: New Media News

Open source estrogens and other hormonal tales

Sat, 05/28/2016 - 05:23

Artefacts from the University of Dundee’s Collections

Egstrogen Farms, 2015

The term ‘hormonal’ is sometimes used as an insult. It is always (ALWAYS!) hurled at women to criticize any behaviour deemed ‘hysterical’ or irrational. Hormones, however, aren’t women’s monopoly. They are chemical messengers that regulate most major bodily functions, from breathing to digesting, to sleeping, reproducing or controlling the mood.

Oestrogen, the primary female sex hormone, is one of the most prescribed hormones. Mostly for contraception and in hormone replacement therapy to alleviate unpleasant symptoms associated with the menopause.

The difference between oestrogen (top) and testosterone (bottom). Courtesy of the School of Life

As the drawing above shows, estrogen is not very different, at the molecular scale, from testosterone, the so-called male sex hormone. The amounts our bodies produce naturally is different, at various stages in our lives, and they also play different roles in our development.

The exhibition Hormonal at LifeSpace Gallery at the University of Dundee brings together work by three women artists who, each in their own witty way, reflect on the hormone oestrogen and how it is understood socially, politically, technologically and environmentally.

The show is not only informative (there is after all so much misunderstanding about hormones around), it also offers a chance to open up a discussion about chemical compounds found in our environment and the impact they have on gender and on behaviour. But it also offered a moment to reflect on the way women are perceived in art and in science, the role they play, the discrimination they still face.

The exhibition closes today but LifeSpace’s curator Sarah Cook has some great exhibitions lined up so keep your eyes peeled as i intend to go and visit the space again in the near future. But back to the current one…

The Guerrilla Girls, the Estrogen Bomb poster

Guerrilla Girls, Oestrogen Bomb, 2008/2016. Photo: Kathryn Rattray

Screened at the exhibition: The Guerrilla Girls’s lecture titled ‘Estrogen Bombing’

The Guerrilla Girls have been fighting gender and race discrimination since the 1980s.

Their Estrogen Bomb stickers and posters invites those on hormone replacement therapy to send any extra oestrogen pills to world leaders as a way of getting them to tone down their testosterone-fuelled foreign policy.

Their first campaign was launched in 2002 and targeted George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, as the group felt that the politicians’ aggressive interventions in Iraq were in need of a bit of feminization.

The background of the work was the scandal related to the possible toxicity of the synthetic estrogens prescribed for post menopausal women. The number of prescriptions dropped, women stopped taking the pills or turned to alternatives and suddenly there were lots of estrogen no one wanted to take anymore.

The project was updated in 2008 for “the 1% trying to take over the world”.

Mary Maggic & Byron Rich, Open Source Estrogen: Housewives Making Drugs, 2015

Mary Maggic & Byron Rich, Open Source Estrogen

Artist and biological scientist Mary ‘Maggic’ Tsang proposed that women (including those transitioning from male to female) start to DIY their own oestrogen drugs in their kitchen. Open Source Estrogen (Housewives Making Drugs) explores not only the possibility of establishing a DIY estrogen protocol that could be replicated by women ‘in the comfort of their own home,’ it also aims to question how access to hormonal estrogen is currently controlled by governments and by the pharmaceutical industry.

Egstrogen Farms, 2015

Installation view of Mary ‘Maggic’ Tsang’s work in Hormonal. Photo Kathryn Rattray

Tsang is also showing Egstrogen Farms, a fictional company that produces genetically modified chickens that produce a cocktail of gonadotropins in their egg whites. These Egstro-eggs would be sold in the traditional egg cartons, as routinely as the now mainstream omega 3-enriched eggs. Because gonadotropins stimulate the production of estrogen by the ovaries, these eggs are marketed towards women who are trying to ovulate more frequently, whether they’ve been trying to get pregnant, or make a living as egg donors for the fertility industry.

The goal of the project is to draw a connection between women and chickens as raw commodities for the biotech industry, as well as perform ways in which women are targeted for bio-consumerism. (…) As avian transgenic technologies become further researched, is it possible to imagine a confluence of the chicken-agro industry and the pharmaceutical industry? In the commercial, farm product language such as”farm-fresh, all-natural” and pharmaceutical caution language such as “this product does not protect against HIV and STDs” are combined together. Egstro-eggs may cause ovarian cancer, but at least they come from happy, healthy, cage-free chickens.

Juliette Bonneviot, Xenoestrogens Series, 2015. Photo Kathryn Rattray

Juliette Bonneviot is showing three of her Xenoestrogen monochrome paintings. Bonneviot’s works look like your average minimalist work until you read the list of the components used to make them. The pigments were created by the artist from elements found in the environment: soy beans, recycled plastic, silicone, soft PVC, linen fabric, contraceptive pills, personal care products, pesticides, food colouring, lacquer, recycled plastic, etc. What these organic, synthetic or mineral ‘ingredients’ have in common is that they all contain xenoestrogens, a group of chemicals which mimics oestrogen. Bonneviot sorted them by colour, grounded them into a powder, mixed them with PVC and silicone and poured the blend onto canvas.

Xenoestrogens are believed to disrupt the endocrine systems of mammals by mimicking the effects of oestrogens, potentially influencing gender and behaviour. Male fish, for example, are showing signs of being feminized due to the increased presence of xenoestrogens in the environment.

The materiality of the paintings is almost anecdotal once you consider the many biological, cultural and philosophical implications of xenoestrogens. If these now ubiquitous hormone disruptors can indeed affect gender and behaviour, it means that we, human and non-human animals, are shaped not only by nature and culture but also by factors such as the industrial production.

That’s probably nothing totally new for women who have been chemically altering their biological make-up since they started taking the pills in the 1960’s.

Artefacts from the University of Dundee’s Collections

Artefact from the University of Dundee’s Collection selected by Juliette Bonneviot. Tayside Medical History Museum Collection, DUNUC 4385

The exhibition also brings the issue of oestrogens into a broader, more historical context. Juliette Bonneviot selected a few artefacts from the University of Dundee Museum Services to accompany her paintings. One of them is a collection of sections of tumours kept inside a biscuit tin and individually labelled by Alan C. Lendrum, Professor of Pathology 1947-72.

Artefacts from the University of Dundee’s Collections

Another series of objects paid homage to Dundee obstetrician Dr. Margaret Fairlie (1891–1963).

Fairlie, who spent most of her career working at Dundee Royal Infirmary and teaching at the medical school at University College, was one of the pioneers in the treatment of ovarian cancers.

Inspired by her visit of the Marie Curie Foundation in Paris in 1926, she started looking into the clinical applications of radium. She used it in the treatment of malignant gynaecological diseases and thus pioneered its clinical use in Scotland.

Fairlie is also an important figure in the history of women and science because in 1940, and despite the reluctance of some (male) members of the academic community, she became the first woman to hold a professorial chair in Scotland.

Professor Elaine Shemilt, Scales of Life on the facade of the building

General view of the exhibition at LifeSpace

Hormonal was curated by Sarah Cook. The show runs at LifeSpace in Dundee, Scotland, until May 28th. The gallery is open every Saturday from 11am-5pm or by appointment.

LifeSpace is a research-driven gallery space and programme that seeks to engage artists and scientists in dialogues and communicate the broad spectrum of life sciences research. This gallery space is curated as a collaborative partnership between researchers from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design and researchers from the School of Life Sciences.

Categories: New Media News

Tanks, drones, rockets and other sound machines. An interview with Nik Nowak

Fri, 05/20/2016 - 10:52

Booster 2.13, 2013. Courtesy Hubertus von Hohenlohe

Es Kommt Nicht Immer Eine Grille Geflogen, 2015. Installation view: Alexander Levy

Es Kommt Nicht Immer Eine Grille Geflogen, 2015

This week, i’m interviewing an artist, curator and musician who builds formidable and robust military tanks, drones, rockets and other weapon-looking instruments. Nik Nowak‘s riotous and dangerous toys for big boys investigate how military technologies can invade our everyday life. They pump out powerful sound, spy on your private conversations, turn electromagnetic waves from cell phones and tablets into audible phenomena, and explore how sound can take control over crowds and public space.

One of Nowak’s recent mobile sound sculptures, Echo, uses small tank drones that detect human presence and roll toward it. One of the drones snoops on visitors’ conversations and uses a parametric speaker to send the words directly back to them. Meanwhile, the second vehicle further invades people’s privacy by amplifying these sounds through large speakers.

Nik Nowak is one of the artists represented by SHAPE, a platform for innovative music and audiovisual art from Europe. I got in touch with Nik while he was working on a series of events and on a new album with his band SCHOCKGLATZE. Despite his busy schedule, the artist still found a moment to answer my questions:

Portrait of Nik Nowak. Photo: Benjamin Kahlmeyer

Hi Nik! By their aspect and the technologies involved (drones or tanks for example), some of your work evoke military weapons. And because of that i think they might also evoke experiments in sonic warfare. So what is the place or influence of warfare in your work, if there’s any?

I grew up in the 80s in Mainz, a town in west Germany in the Rhein-Main region which was heavily occupied by American military. In Mainz for example was the largest American tank factory based outside of the USA. It was the end/post cold war time and the beginning of the first Iraq war. Nuclear weapons were based between Mainz and Frankfurt and tanks were shipped from Mainz to the desert of Saudi Arabia and brought back there after their missions leaving the desert sand on the streets in front of our schools and kindergartens.

At the time, the generation of my parents was actively involved in peace and anti nuclear energy movements. It felt like a climate of development into a more ecological and peaceful future although the industry showed a different face. We see the results today. War zones spread over the planet and we face the climate change. The impression of the controversy of the civil ideological movements and the reality of politics and industry left a mark that can be found all over my work. With the American occupation, Hip Hop music brought by the GIs and American radio stations had a big influence on me as a child and youth. Further on music became a medium which allowed me more freedom and space for considering my identity than anything else

But your piece do not just look martial or threatening, there’s also something very playful about them. They often look like big toys for boys and also i read that club culture was a big influence on your work. So how important is this playful element, this desire to maybe entertain with your seducing machines?

My sound system machines today fulfill a function which only club culture could give me in my youth and early adult years. I could say i grew up between speaker stacks. The club functioned as a black box, a temporary autonomous zone in which it was possible to disappear and calibrate oneself without the normative rules of society and state. Even though the objects i build are art pieces they also have the potential and the functionality of a sound system. They are not just exhibition pieces. I use them in the Studio and on the street to make music and to create interactions with the environment. It’s not entertainment though, it’s a practice i love and need and which can be clashing or be shared with others.

You seem to experiment a lot with frequencies and volumes. Is it only for the ears or do you want to stimulate the body and other senses of the audience in other ways?

Sound can be used in many ways to create an musical experience. My understanding of Music goes further than melody and rhythm. Its loudness, psychoacoustics, noise, silence and time.

I read online that the starting point of your work with sound was a gun shot near your right ear that prevents you from hearing high frequencies. Could you briefly explain that? You don’t hear high frequencies from one ear but the other hears them fine? And how does this trauma translate into your practice?

Yes, my right ear can’t hear above 7 or 8 Khz which is slightly above human speech. In daily life it’s hardly recognizable because the left ear takes over the work for the right ear in the missing frequencies. Although if the surrounding soundscape is too noisy this doesn’t work well any more and can become very tiring. Also when i close my left ear, everything sounds quite muddy on the right side and high tones, like the sound of crickets for example, are completely missing.

By recognizing that my hearing is not normal i started to become more interested in the limitation of the human perception in general and focused on frequency spectrums that are not in the focus of our perception and more a subtle side effect although with a massive influence on our psychology and body functions.

When i started to produce electronic music i recognized that i’m very much focused on low frequency ranges and high tones. The middle range were usually voice and melody are set did t interest me to much.

Echo. Installation view Berlinische Galerie

Berlinische Galerie: Nik Nowak, Echo. GASAG Art Prize 2014

Echo looks like a more political work. Because of the drones and also because of the way they occupy the space and seemed to intrude on the privacy of the gallery visitors. Could you comment on that? What were you trying to communicate with this work?

Echo is mainly about the change of privacy and publicity in the age of digital globalization. I was fascinated by the fact that through social networks and forums of all kind everybody can have world wide publicity any time anywhere. Before the internet that has been depending on mass media. On the other hand privacy is something that has never been more threatened than it is these days. The Echo installation played with issues of monitoring and self monitoring. One drone plays a directional echo back to the visitor the other amplifies the sounds of the visitors through a sound system in the exhibition hall. Both drones are autonomous systems and interact with the visitor.

Till and Nik Nowak, Souvenirs, 2007

Could you explain how the sculptural form of your works relate to the sound they produce? For example, do you start with an idea about the kind of sound experience you want to create and the sculpture emerges from that? Or is it the other way round?

Mostly it starts with an Idea, with a vision or a question wich leads to a concept for a self experiment. the Machines are mostly tools for a experimental setup wich is suppose to formulate something i can t describe in a another way. Everything happens very intuitively.

Panzer, 2011

Nik Nowak vs. Ultramoodem live @ CTM 2012. Video: Schockglatze

How did you actually built Panzer? Because to me, it looks like there’s an old farm tractor hidden under that armor…

Yes, Panzer is a Japanese mini dumper which i’ve bought on eBay. I’ve cut everything off i didn’t needed and built the sound system onto the leftover of the original track vehicle. I did every thing by my self and needed 3 years to get it done. I like working on my own which makes everything slow. Therefore i can work out things perfectly how i mean them without too much explanation upfront.

You’ve been working as an artist for over 10 years if i understood correctly. So how has your practice evolved since you started?

It’s still the same and always different.

Rakete, 2010

Rakete, 2010

An upcoming exhibition, research, project you could share with us?

After i realized the second Panzerparade in Berlin with Ikonika and Scratcha DVA last week as a march against weapon exportation into crises areas.

I’m back in the studio working on a new Sound Panzer Sound System. Beside that my band Schockglatze is releasing an EP titled Warlord with e-label Throughmyspeakers.

We present the project at Music Tech Fest live on the 27th at Funkhaus Ost.

Thanks Nik!

Categories: New Media News

Persona. Or how objects become human

Wed, 05/18/2016 - 10:29

Wang Zi Won, Mechanical Avalokitesvara, 2015

Ghost Hunter suitcase and alphabet for ouija, 1926-1940 Surnatéum, Bruxelles. Photo Claude Germain

Kenji Yanobe, Sweet Harmonizer II , 1995

The Musée du Quai Branly in Paris is probably one of the few places in the world where you can see post-apocalyptic outfits, ghost hunter instruments, divination robots, Nigerian monoliths bearing minimal human features, Mezcala anthropomorphic figurines, the egg of a titanosaurus, Japanese Bunraku puppets and other historical or contemporary artifacts in the same exhibition.

Persona. Strangely Human lines up over 200 objects and videos to probe how ancient and contemporary cultures infuse life and persona into things.

Many objects have a status more similar to that of a person or a creature than that of a simple object. Works of art – Western or non-Western, popular or contemporary –, or high-tech products – robots, machines, etc. – are regularly endowed, in their use, with unexpected capacities for action, which render them almost people. Like a child devoted to its cuddly toy or someone who curses their computer or mobile accusing it of being incompetent or stubborn. Like the shaman who calls on the spirits through a statuette resembling the gods.

The backdrop of the exhibition is of course the ongoing debates regarding transhumanism, artificial intelligence and the increasingly blurry borders that separate humans from machines. But what makes the exhibition of the Musée du Quai Branly original and different from the shows i usually cover is that its approach is mostly anthropological. The curators are anthropologist Emmanuel Grimaud, ethnologist Anne-Christine Taylor-Descola, anthropologist Denis Vidal and art historian Thierry Dufrêne. Together they gather artifacts from all over the world to explore questions such as: How does the inanimate become animate? How do people establish an unusual or intimate relationship with objects?

Persona, Étrangement humain (trailer)

The exhibition investigates the human in the non-human through 4 different paths.

The first one looks at ‘unidentified presences’, the ones that we think we can detect in a vague shape, or an unexpected sound. It seems that, as humans, we are ‘wired’ to anthropomorphise, to identify life where there is objectively only a bunch of abstract shapes.

In 1944, psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel showed to subjects a short animation of independently moving geometric shapes. They found that most people couldn’t help but attribute intentional movements, personalities and goal-directed interactions to the shapes. The attribution takes place in the absence of common social cues like body language, facial expressions or speech. The experiment shows how humans have a spontaneous tendency to attribute feelings and thoughts to barely anthropomorphic shapes.

Fritz Heider & Marianne Simmel, Experimental study of apparent behavior, 1944

In 2008, the BBC re-created a controversial sensory deprivation experiment. Six people were taken to a nuclear bunker and left alone for 48 hours. Three subjects were left alone in dark, sound-proofed rooms, while the other three are given goggles and foam cuffs, while white noise is piped into their ears. The volunteers suffered anxiety, extreme emotions, paranoia and significant deterioration in their mental functioning. They also hallucinated and thought they could see or hear thousands of empty oyster shells, a snake, zebras, tiny cars, the room taking off, mosquitoes, fighter planes buzzing around.

BBC, 48 Hours of Total Isolation (The volunteers begin to hallucinate)

Meanwhile in Thailand, people adopt Kuman Thong, or “Gold Baby.” The little household effigy contains the spirit of a mythical child. Its owner has to care for it as if it were a real child, show it affection and talk to it every day. A bit like you would do with a tamagotchi.

Kuman Thong

A second section of the show explores the persons that you might want to ‘detect’ and communicate with: the ghosts, the spirits, the apparitions, etc.

I wasn’t expecting to find Thomas Edison there. At the end of his life, the famous inventor was said to have been working on a device for communicating with the dead. The “spirit phone” or telephone to the Dead would have enabled paranormal researchers to work ‘in a strictly scientific way.’

The idea for the device came through a correspondence between Edison and Sir William Crookes. The British inventor claimed to have captured images of spirits on photographs. These images allegedly encouraged Edison. The machine never saw the light of the day. Hence the skepticism that surrounds it.

Image via unreal facts

William Crookes, Photos with Katie King

The divination apparatus below appears to have been developed in response to sudden changes in Pende culture, in particular the arrival of colonialists in the region. These changes in society fueled demands for new tools that might afford insight into unfamiliar experiences.

During consultation, the diviner would lay the instrument on his knees with the head facing up while names of individuals suspected of crimes were recited. The galukoji‘s head would spring upward when the culprit’s name was uttered.

Galukoji, Divinatory instrument, Pende region, Congo, 1920 – 1950. Photo Claude Germain

Divination statue (Kafigeledio), Ivory Coast, XIX-early XXTH century. These effigies oracle were manipulated by members of secret societies to detect who was lying

Spirit hand Martinka and Memento mori ring, late XIX and XVIIth century

Used during the cohoba ritual, the tool was used to help the participant vomit before the ceremony and thus helped them purify their body. The participant would then inhale a potent hallucinogen, putting them in a trance that facilitates contact with supernatural beings.

Vomit-inducing spatula, Martinique, circa 1200 – 1492. Photo Patrick Gries

The third chapter in the exhibition studied what robotics professor Masahiro Mori called the Uncanny Valley, the thin line that is crossed by things that appear so human that they end up repelling us. Instead of trying to replicate exactly the human appearance, Mori actually suggested that designers explore zoomorphism or draw inspiration from other art forms (Bunraku theatre, religious statuary, etc.) to produce effects of empathy, attachment and even hypnosis.

This section features Vanuatu marionnettes, prosthesis, mommies that all evoke the human form and seem to both attract and repel the viewer.

Human skull covered with human hair, animal teeth and tinted animal skin. The death raises here a feeling of “uncanny strangeness”.

Anthropomorphic crest, Cross River (Africa.) Photo Thierry Olivier, Michel Urtado

Mummy, undated parched head of Mundurucu Indian, Brazil

Jean Dupuy’s dust sculpture comes to life as soon as it is connected to the heart beats of the visitors. The dust is actually an extremely low-density red pigment called Lithol Rubin that has the ability to remain suspended in air for long periods.

Jean Dupuy, Cone Pyramid (Heart beats dust), 1968 (photo)

Performance of the piece at the exhibition Für Augen un Ohren, Akademie der Künst, Berlin, 1980 (photo)

Automata of the gods are displayed during religious feasts today in India. The figures are used to capture attention, tell myths or accompany rituals. Their slow and hypnotic gestures put people in a state that prepares to devotion.

Matsya automaton, avatar of the god Vishnu. Conception Ankush Bhaikar for “Persona. Strangely Human.” Photo Emmanuel Grimaud

Vanuatu marionnette. Photo Gautier Deblonde © musée du quai Branly

The final part of the exhibition, “Show Home”, invites you to enter a dwelling and meet the interfaces, devices and robots that might one day be part of our family. How shall we cohabit with them?

Some of the pieces on show are the ones you expect to see there: robots, life-like love dolls but you will also discover a collection of phallic amulets and anthropomorphic spoons.

Stan Wannet‘s electro-mechanical installation features a pair of baboons playing a classic gambling trick. The work is a direct reference to both Wolfgang Von Kempelen’s Chess Playing Turk and Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Conjurer ‘in an attempt to blur the artificial borders between our rational, polite and slightly ambitions selves on the one hand and the more primal, greedy and curious us on the other.’

Stan Wannet, Civilized Aspirations in Art, Monkeys and small time Entrepreneurs

Divinatory robots such as the one below were popular in Mumbai in the 1990s. They were made using discarded Japanese toys. From the sanskrit Bhavishya (“destiny, future”), the robot is an interface to divination, it predicts the future in 3 languages in exchange of a few coins.

Bhaishyavani, Robot de divination, End of XXth century. Photo Claude Germain

The little sculptures below are made using kitchen tools. They are designed as “real incarnations of gods.” They assist users in their everyday lives, but they can also turn against them.

Two Haitian sculptures from the nineteenth century representing the Ogou loa. Photo Claude Germain

Danny Van Ryswyk, Strange Days Have Found Us

Danny Van Ryswyk, Return of the Venusian, 2015

Some of the images i took during my visit of the exhibition are on flickr.

Persona. Strangely Human remains open at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris until 13 November 2016.

Categories: New Media News

Eulogy for the weeds. An interview with Ellie Irons

Wed, 05/11/2016 - 13:46

Field work in a research meadow at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, Colorado, photo credit Dan Phiffer

Ellie Irons is one of those rare artists whose work opens your eyes to what is just under your nose but remains unnoticed. Some artists bring the spotlight on data collecting, others on corruption, corporate malpractice, or land grabbing. Ellie forces us to consider the value of the wild and often reviled urban ecology that sprouts all around us. She uses galleries to provide asylum to wild and invasive plant species, extracts the pigments from local weeds to paint their map-like portraits, photographs the vigorous life growing inside vacant lots, and is actively collecting the seeds of the most humble but robust plants that mirror population flux in globalized cities.

Irons’s practice is charming because it inspires a new form of romanticism that has the potential to give informal urban green spaces the respect they are due. But it is also a crucial and thought-provoking work that reminds us that the anthropocene is far more than everyone’s favourite buzzword, or a calamity striking people living at the other side of the world. It is a sword of Damocles that sooner or later will force us to make difficult choices and reevaluate our relationship with nature.

Ellie Irons studied art and environmental science in Los Angeles, she is now a multidisciplinary artist and an adjunct professor at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. When she is not busy teaching, doing workshops or preparing exhibitions, she still finds some time to answer my many questions:

The Sanctuary for Weedy Species, 2015, part of Rail Curatorial’s Social Ecologies exhibition in Industry City, curated by Greg Lindquist. Photo credit Ellie Irons

Hi Ellie! You made a Sanctuary for Weedy Species and allowed them grow undisturbed. How do these plants behave when left to thrive? Did you monitor their growth and had to intervene at some point because some were overtaking others?

Yes, that’s right. My Sanctuary for Weedy Species is an ongoing project that got its start as part of the exhibition Social Ecologies. For that show, curator Greg Lindquist offered me the opportunity to “activate” a gallery floor covered with soil (the project has now moved on to the Emergent Ecologies exhibition at Kilory Metal in Fort Greene, Brooklyn).

I decided to base my approach to this opportunity on my interest in spontaneous urban plants (often described as weeds). I gathered more than 200 young wild plants from the edges of construction sites and street tree pits in my then-neighborhood of Bushwick, Brooklyn. I selected plants from places that I knew would soon be “cleaned up” or paved over. I transported these young plants to the gallery and embedded them in the soil covering the gallery floor, where they lived for the next 2.5 months.

Growing tough, weedy plants in a controlled gallery setting is not quite as easy as it might sound. For one thing, plants growing outside have allies that are hard to replicate in a clean, isolated indoor space. Outdoors, predators like lace wings and ladybugs devour herbivorous insects, and regular rainstorms and fluctuations in temperature also help hold their populations in check. In the warm, consistent gallery space, aphids and other plant-hungry insects flourished.

I was lucky to have a very conscientious gallery attendant who took on the role of aphid predator, regularly spraying the plants with neem oil and washing them with water and other organic, insect-deterring solutions. Otherwise the various plants played fairly nicely together, except for a few allelopathic plants (like ailanthus and honey locust) which killed off everything in their vicinity and took over their respective patches. But I didn’t do any “weeding” other than weeding out some of the hungry aphids!

Feral Landscape Typologies. The rise, fall and rise of a lot at the corner of Irving Avenue and Cooper Avenue from May-October 2015. Photo by the artist

I’m fascinated by the ‘invasive species’ discussions. Your work makes a lot of sense to me but i’m wondering how scientists might react to your ideas about invasive species. Have you discussed with some of them? Is the scientific community agreeing on the necessity to eradicate all invasive species because they will lead to environmental damage? Or is there a lot of dilemmas and debates there as well?

The scientific community, as I’m familiar with it, seems to be of many minds when it comes to weedy species. I ask specialists like biologists, ecologists, foresters, and botanists about these issues whenever I get the chance! I’ve found that some don’t even like the term invasive, preferring a to describe species as native or non-native, and only “invasive” in certain, very specific contexts. I like this approach because it gets at the fact that a particular plant can be highly aggressive in a degraded ecosystem in which it has just arrived, but play a perfectly normal, beneficial role in another context.

Some of the plants and creatures we describe as invasive in certain parts of the United States are actually endangered in their home ranges, which may be under threat from sea level rise, unpredictable climate fluctuations, or more direct human impacts like urban development or agriculture. Should we deny these species a niche in a new place when the place they called home has become untenable?

I think the question deserves another look, rather than a knee jerk “no” response. That knee jerk “no” is something I do sometimes encounter when I talk with scientists about these issues. There seems to be a lot of concern around loosening the binary between native and non-native and saying “maybe some non-native plants are ok”. Some seem to feel that thinking this way sends us off down a slippery slope that will lead the devaluing of historic ecosystems, making restoration even more difficult than it already is. My views on this are still evolving, but taking into account the range of perspectives I’ve encountered over the years, I tend to fall on the side of life. The toxic and/or resource intensive methods used to eradicate invasive plants, at least in urban spaces where greenery is often scare, could better be spent in other ways. Especially given the fact that these plants, whether native or not, are still providing basic, valuable ecosystem services like soil stabilization and creation, air quality improvement, habitat for non-human animals, and even health benefits (mental and physical!) for us humans.

The Next Epoch Seed Library at William Paterson University as part of the exhibition Living Together: Nurturing Nature in the Built Environment. Photo credit Anne Percoco

The Next Epoch Seed Library at William Paterson University as part of the exhibition Living Together: Nurturing Nature in the Built Environment. Photo credit Anne Percoco

The Next Epoch Seed Library at William Paterson University as part of the exhibition Living Together: Nurturing Nature in the Built Environment. Photo credit Anne Percoco

Anne Percoco gathering seeds for NESL in a traffic median on Grand Concourse in the Bronx. Photo credit Ellie Irons

Screen shot of the NESL website

I was really charmed by your Next Epoch Seed Library and the way it gives nobility to weeds. Could you tell us what you’re trying to achieve with this work?
How big is the library? Do you accept plants from outside NYC?

The Next Epoch Seed Library (NESL) is one of my newest projects, initiated about a year ago with my collaborator, Anne Percoco, and a range of other artists who have contributed seeds and other ephemera. NESL focuses on collecting, storing and sharing seeds from plants that tend to live in close association with dense human populations or in areas heavily impacted by human activity.

Growing where others can’t or won’t, the species held in our seed library are those best adapted to live in the long shadow humans throw on the landscape. They supply important ecosystem services to humans and nonhumans alike, improving habitat in areas where legacy ecosystems have been disrupted through development and industry. Too often the plants living in these environments are the very plants cities and private landowners pour resources and herbicides into eradicating, “cleaning up” a “messy” life form in favor of the neat and the dead. Recasting these weedy species as companion plants for Anthropocene age, we use NESL as a vehicle for softening the edges of limiting binaries like native/non-native and nature/culture.

Through presentations, workshops, seed-swaps and exhibitions, we encourage viewers and participants to engage with their local habitat and reflect on their own role in the adaptation and success of these plants.

We’re still working out our policies around spreading species that are not yet introduced to a particular location. So far we’ve collected and exchanged only locally, although we do have an open invitation for interested parties to send seeds to us from anywhere. Personally I think I would only be comfortable offering those seeds back out to a community living in an ecosystem where the seeds in question are already naturalized. Certainly we’ll hold any species of seed in our library, but certain species might go in a reserve section temporarily, or only be offered back to people in certain regions. The project is very site-specific, in that we make a special, hyper-local collection of seeds for each location where the project is displayed. We need to do a thorough tally, but at the moment I think we have at least fifty species represented in the library, for a total of maybe 5,000 seeds, although that is always in flux as visitors take out and deposit seeds.

Stills from Flight Lines (Butterflies, Bank of the East River, Gothic, Colorado, 6/23/15, 10:50 am), 2015, created during an residency at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (with Dan Phiffer)

Screen shot of Flight Lines as commissioned by turbulence.org, Ellie Irons and Dan Phiffer, 2015

Screen shot of Flight Lines as commissioned by turbulence.org, Ellie Irons and Dan Phiffer, 2015

Together with Dan Phiffer, you developed Flight Lines, a computer vision project that monitors the sky ecology of the Anthropocene. What have you learnt from these observations?
Where are the cameras located? Why did you chose these locations rather than others?

Flight Lines has taught us that there is a lot be learned about the ecology of the spot you are standing in by looking at the patterns in the sky above. It started when I was lying on my back in my parents’ yard in Northern California, watching dragonflies wheel overhead. They were making these amazing looping lines, and I starting trying to sketch their curves and arcs. I wasn’t satisfied, so took a quick video, then played the video back on my computer, tracing the movement of a single dragonfly frame by frame. I loved the line that emerged, but it was a tedious process. Dan saw me doing it, and realized that some automation might be in line. Soon he’d come up with a Processing script that allowed us to feed video in and get out a frame by frame drawing of what the camera saw passing through the frame.

Since then we’ve deployed Flight Lines in a variety of settings, from the abundant skies of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Colorado to the rooftops of Brooklyn. The “sky signature” of each location is unique, reflecting the activity on the ground. Highly urbanized landscapes are full of lines made by machines piloted by humans, of bit of drifting trash, and of synanthropes like starlings and pigeons. They can be very striking to look at, but are generally more geometric and ordered, and less abundant (although the pigeon fanciers of Brooklyn tip the scales in terms of abundance at certain hours). Landscapes less heavily dominated by human activity often have a higher diversity of lines and shapes, more of them organic. In very remote places at certain times (like the Rockies in early summer) our algorithm couldn’t cope with the abundance of flying creatures- after five minutes the whole screen turned to gray, so Dan developed a new version that cycles through the spectrum and can convey that level of abundance more effectively.

Our newest iteration of the project is a light-weight, raspberry-pi based version that lives on the roofs of New York City and feeds footage into a website commissioned by turbulence.org. This project, which is also part of Jamaica Flux currently, allows us to crowdsource the processing of our footage. Visitors to the site watch a chunk of sky for ten minutes, generating a series of still frames that give us a sense of what transpired in a particular chunk of time. Currently we have cameras in Central Park at the Arsenal Gallery in Manhattan, at the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning in Jamaica Queens, and on the roof of Flux Factory in Queens, although we need to do some maintenance on them! Our camera locations are chosen by where we can get a good view of the sky and (if possible!) an internet connection. We’re interested in just about any chunk of sky we can get our camera pointed at!

The Sanctuary for Weedy Species in progress, December 2015, Photo credit Dyani Sabin

The Sanctuary for Weedy Species, 2015, part of Rail Curatorial’s Social Ecologies exhibition in Industry City, curated by Greg Lindquist. Photo credit Ellie Irons

The Sanctuary for Weedy Species, 2015, part of Rail Curatorial’s Social Ecologies exhibition in Industry City, curated by Greg Lindquist. Photo credit Ellie Irons

A German botanist once told me that there was more biodiversity in his city than in the surrounding countryside. Mostly because rural environment is more controlled by agriculture, use of pesticides, etc. whereas in cities, we don’t really pay much attention to what grows and what doesn’t. Is this something you’ve observed in New York as well?

Interesting concept! I’ve heard something along those lines as well. Theoretical ecologist Sasha Wright is someone I’ve worked with on urban ecology issues, and she described to me how combinations of introduced and native species living together in cities can actually produce higher levels of biodiversity than existed before species introductions. She did acknowledge that these more diverse assemblages of species might be repeated more frequently across the world, which gets at the trend of global homogenization. But biodiverse areas, as I understand it, are much more resilient to difficult conditions than less diverse ones, so given the current challenges, especially for urban dwelling species, it seems that having more types of species is desirable, and since they are already here, we might as well work with what we’ve got.

Herbarium of the Feral Landscape Lobby Brooklyn, NY (FLL)

Reading about your work, i realised that the main strengths of the plants you are studying is their resilience, the way they overcome difficult situations and are able to adapt to various environments. Which of course made me think of the ecological crises we are facing. So what could we, humans, learn from observing these plants?

I think I got at some of this in my answers above, but I do have a little more to say. I certainly admire the resilience of weeds, and their ability to thrive even when we ignore or actively attack them. In a poetic sense, they can be a stand in for many kinds of overlooked and under-appreciated life forms, spaces and places. But I’m not sure that metaphor needs to be extended to encompass humans- it already fits us perfectly! We are also weedy (if you like term, invasive) organisms. Just like the weedy plant species of the world, we are able to disperse widely, live in dense populations, and dominate the landscape at the expense of other species. I guess one metaphor I might like to extend is the one of context: not all humans are equally responsible for the ecological crises we find ourselves in; just like its dangerous to universalize and call all green, spontaneously growing organisms weedy invaders, it’s problematic not to address context, history, and social forces when assigning blame and providing care in the face of the climate crises.

Feral Typologies. Triangular corner lot: Broadway at Dekalb Ave., August 2015 and November 2015

Sandwiched lot: 1291 Dekalb Avenue, May 2015 and August 2015

Feral Typologies. Corner lot: Suydam St. and Central Avenue, May 2015 and July 2015

What could we do with the wild spaces that still exist in urban environments? I think we all agree they shouldn’t be left in the hands of real estate speculators. So should we let them grow wild and in peace? Turn them into community gardens? Or something in between?

All of the above! I think its great for communities to invest in a piece of land and garden it. In this context my beloved weedy species might get pulled out early in the season (and hopefully eaten- so many are edible!) to make way for cultivated crops. But I would love to think there is also room for wild, unplanned landscapes to exist in the midst of the city. I have a little (as yet largely unrealized) project called the Feral Landscape Lobby that advocates for the existence of wild spaces in the city. The logic behind this is that many cities, certainly my corner of Brooklyn, don’t have the resources to manage and maintain large amounts of constructed greenspace. As stated on the project website, the FLL is involved in “Recasting vacant city lots and other undesigned open land as transitory zones for rewilding, emphasizing that these spaces are already functioning ecologically. If properly valued, preserved and stewarded, these ubiquitous “informal greenspaces” can provide a refuge and foothold for nonhuman life while also benefiting local human populations, both ecologically and culturally.” The ultimate goal of the FLL is to create a permanent wild urban park, but for now it mostly consists of temporary interventions, publications and workshops.

I’m trying to be a bit less Euro-centric. It’s difficult because i live in Europe so i tend to be in contact with European artists and organisations. So whose work would you recommend that my readers and i check out in America? Who are the artists doing inspiring works about or with nature?

Oh there are so many, functioning in so many different ways. On one end I love speculative institutions like The Center for Postnatural History, operating out of Pittsburg, or Karolina Sobecka’s in-progress Cloud Services. I also really relate to concrete interventions like Mary Mattingly’s upcoming Swale, and Juanli Carrion’s Outer Seed Shadow. And I so admire the work of artist-activists like Not An Alternative, with their The Natural History Museum, and Brandon Ballengée‘s art and research-based work with endangered amphibians. Finally, being originally from the west coast of the U.S. myself, I’ve long followed the work of California-based artists and organizations like Amy Balkin, Amy Franceschini, Andrea Zittel, the Museum of Jurassic Technology, and The Center for Land Use Interpretation.

An Atlas of Endangered Surfaces, Photo Grid, 2015, digital print, in collaboration with Christopher Kennedy for Chance Ecologies

Any upcoming shows, projects, fields of research you could share with us?

Sure- there are some exciting things on the horizon. The Next Epoch Seed Library is programming an event called “On Weediness: Dance, Movement, Vegetative Life”. Scheduled for May 15th, the event will include a range of movement specialists and artists who use weediness and plant life to explore connections between people, place and nonhuman life (including Corinne Cappelletti and Eva Perrotta, Andrea Haenggi, Christopher Kennedy and Lucia Monge). The event is taking place as part of Emergent Ecologies, a sprawling show in an empty metal ceiling factory with more than eighty artists involved. I helped curate a handful of them, alongside lead curators Eben Kirksey and Lissette Olivares and a swarm of others! I also just opened a two person show that features my ongoing work with plant pigments. Titled Chroma Botanica, it pairs me with Linda Stillman, another artist who uses plant pigments in her work. That show will be up through June 14th at a very enjoyable location: the Arsenal Gallery in Central Park. We’ll be giving tours and demos of our pigment-making processes on May 17th and 24th. Otherwise I’m looking forward to getting out into some wild landscapes this summer, urban and otherwise!

Thanks Ellie!

Categories: New Media News

Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers

Mon, 05/09/2016 - 09:50

Bruce Gilden, Factory in the Midlands, from the series The Black Country, 2014

Evelyn Hofer, Crossing Guard, London, 1962

A man lost in his thoughts in the London underground, a family barely smiling in London’s East End slums, a dog being pampered in a pet salon, an elderly couple standing proudly in their candy shop, children peeking through the window in the Outer Hebrides, the underdogs and the landed gentry, the bankers and the lollipop lady. They are all a bit Strange and Familiar, an exhibition curated by street photographer and society satirist Martin Parr. Some people love his work, others not so much. Not intellectual enough for some. Or maybe too popular. I don’t know, I’m a fan.

Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers is about people but also about key events in the history of the United Kingdom. The 23 photographers selected for the show will take you time traveling through the rise of British corporate culture, the industrial decline in Glasgow, the roadblocks in Northern Ireland under the Troubles, the Swinging Sixties, the anti-War movement, etc.

I’m sure you’ve read about the show here and there but mostly everywhere already. Still, just to make me and my blog happy, i thought i’d whip up a fast, image-heavy but not too wordy overview of the show:

Sergio Larrain, Baker Street underground station, London, 1958-1959. © Sergio Larrain / Magnum Photos

Bruce Gilden’s uncomfortably close-up portraits portraits of the working class in the Black Country and Middlesex are cropped so tightly and lit so unforgivingly that you are confronted with warts, wrinkles, pimples, rogue hair on women’s chin and caked on makeup.

“The basis of this project is to show people who are left behind,” Gilden told Slate. “A lot of these people are invisible and people don’t want to look at them and if you don’t look at them how can you help them? When you pay attention to those who are usually ignored, it makes their day. That’s not why I do it. I’m not claiming to be a humanitarian; I’m a photographer. I always photograph what’s interesting to me and it has always been people who are underdogs because I see myself as an underdog.”

Bruce Gilden, Debbie, West Bromwich, from the series The Black Country, 2014

Bruce Gilden, James, Wolverhampton, 2013

In 1968, Akihiko Okamura moved to Dublin to chronicle the conflict in Northern Ireland. His photos show an everyday life made of barricades, military check points, demonstrations, bombed out streets, but also tea parties with buntings.

Akihiko Okamura, A street with houses destroyed in the clashes, Northern Ireland, c1968

Akihiko Okamura, Troops of the Royal Ulster Constabulary enter the Catholic neighbourhood called Bogside in the Battle of the Bogside.Belfast, Northern Ireland ca. 1969 Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland August, 1969

Jim Dow started photographing British shop windows and interiors in the early 1980s. Many of these family-run businesses have now been replaced by big chains and suburban shopping malls.

Jim Dow, Interior, Fishmonger shop, Norwood, London, England, 1985

Jim Dow, Interior, Cole’s Jubilee Sweet Shop, Leyton, London, England, 1981

Evelyn Hofer, Bus conductress and postman, London, 1977

Evelyn Hofer, Man on Station Vehicle, St Pancras, London, 1962

Edith Tudor-Hart studied at the Bauhaus, was an anti-fascist activist and a spy for the Soviet Union while living in England. She used photography as an instrument to awaken social consciences. Her photos show poverty, unemployment, slum housing and child welfare in London, south Wales and the industrial North East. Photos such as the dog grooming salon below talk about inequality and society’s displaced priorities.

Edith Tudor-Hart, Poodle Parlour, London

Edith Tudor-Hart, Ultraviolet light treatment for children with rickets in a south London hospital (circa 1935)

Edith Tudor-Hart, A child stares into a Whitechapel bakery window (circa 1935)

I have absolutely no interest in football (i only make an exception for anything related to Eric Cantona, his sardines, monobrow, movies and poetry) but Hans van der Meer‘s photos of amateur teams playing in small town fields are striking images i kept in my head long after my visit to the Barbican. I could not understand what made them so special until i read that his photos attempted to return to the old tradition of photography in which a wide view of the action often resulted in elements of the locality being present in the image. Up until the 1950s, there was no close-up of actions in newspapers but mostly zoomed-out views with graphic lines that indicated the movement of the ball to the goal.

Hans van der Meer, Warley, England, 2004

Hans van der Meer, Inerleithen, Scotland, 2001

Hans van der Meer, Mytholmroyd, 30–10–2004 Calder 76 res – Pellon United: 4–3, Halifax & District Association Invitation Cup. Amateurvoetbal. From the series: European Fields

Bruce Davidson, Wales, 1965. © Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos

Bruce Davidson, Man holding a curry sign © Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos

Bruce Davidson, Couple having tea on the beach, Hastings, 1960

Robert Frank, London, 1951. Photo Danziger Gallery

Cas Oorthuys, Oxford, 1962

Views of the exhibition space:

Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers. Installation View at the Barbican Art Gallery. © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers. Installation View at the Barbican Art Gallery. © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers. Installation View at the Barbican Art Gallery. © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers. Installation View at the Barbican Art Gallery. © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers. Installation View at the Barbican Art Gallery. © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers. Installation View at the Barbican Art Gallery. © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers. Installation View at the Barbican Art Gallery. © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers. Installation View at the Barbican Art Gallery. © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Previously: Gloom and broken windows. A time travel to Thatcher-era Glasgow .

Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers, curated by Martin Parr, is at the Barbican Art Gallery in London until 19 June 2016.

Categories: New Media News

Art in the Making. Artists and their Materials from the Studio to Crowdsourcing

Fri, 05/06/2016 - 12:18

Art in the Making. Artists and their Materials from the Studio to Crowdsourcing, by Glenn Adamson, Director of the Museum of Arts and Design (New York), and Julia Bryan-Wilson, Associate Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art at the University of California, Berkeley.

On amazon USA or UK.

Publisher Thames & Hudson writes: From painting to digital technologies to crowdsourcing, over the last few decades the means of making artworks have become more extraordinary and diverse. Yet we rarely consider the implications of how art is made.

In this wide-ranging exploration of methods and media in art since the 1950s Glenn Adamson and Julia Bryan-Wilson take the reader behind the scenes of the studio, the factory, and other sites where art is created. They show how the materials and processes used by artists are vital to considerations of authorship, and to understanding the economic and social contexts from which art emerges.

‘Art in the Making’ focuses on the intersection of thinking and making through chapters focusing on a particular process: painting, woodworking, building, performing, tooling up, cashing in, fabricating, digitizing and crowdsourcing. Discussions of broader themes are woven together with detailed examples and visuals, revealing the logic involved in the choice of techniques and materials.

Rebecca Horn, Handschuhfinger (Finger Gloves), 1972-2000

I wouldn’t say that ‘Art in the Making’ is a guide to understanding contemporary art but it can help you get there. It certainly helped me appreciate a series of contemporary works i had so far dismissed as being superficial, purely formal or dated. The book gives context and depth to artworks by examining the matter of their production and the ideas, ideologies and choices behind it. This focus on the techniques, tools, crafts and materials is apparently quite uncommon in contemporary art, at least in the way it is critiqued, presented and debated today. Quite the opposite of what usually happens with new media art where techno sophistication and materials have precedence over concepts. End of bitchy parenthesis.

This survey of how art is made starts in the 1950s, focuses mostly on artists from the USA and the UK but is otherwise full of very good surprises, unusual suspects and unexpected perspectives. One moment, Frida Kahlo is painting in bed. Next, Aaron Koblin is asking workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to draw him a sheep. I find these juxtapositions illuminating and thought-provoking. The authors draw parallels between Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing and coding, for example. Or trace back the origins of crowdsourcing to grassroot organizing.

There are 8 chapters in the book:
Chapter 1 is about painting and innovative uses of pigments. Two great examples would be Olaf Breuning arranging smoke bombs into grids which he then ignites and photographs as the vibrant pigments evaporate with the smoke. And Niki de Saint Phalle literally shooting on paintings.

Olaf Breuning, Smoke Bombs 2, 2011

Chapter 2 is woodworking. It explores how artists subvert expectations about wood (taking apart the unseen wooden structure at the back of paintings, for example.)

Chapter 3 is about buildings and architectural craft in general. Think Theaster Gates creating multipurpose community center out of abandoned buildings, and marketable artworks out of materials salvaged from derelict sites. Or Rachel Whiteread using concrete to give substance to negative spaces.

Chapter 4 is about performance. As engrossing and interesting as the chapter was, it didn’t reconcile me with the work of Marina Abramović.

Shigeko Kubota, Vagina Painting, 1965

Chapter 5 looks at artists who create or modify tools. The authors note that although the history of art is closely linked to the history of technology, an innovative tool doesn’t have to be a sophisticated one. They illustrate the idea with Shigeko Kubota who attached a paintbrush to her underwear for her vagina paintings. The chapter on tools is a splendid one, it argues that making new tools is potentially a political act, it’s about expressing dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Chapter 6, called Cashing In, explores the relationship between art and value. There’s some great examples of artists subverting the market and the economy but somehow, i’m only going to mention good old Damien Hirst and For the Love of God, a work that suggests that society might be going back to ancient conception of art, as “a brute expression of wealth and power.”

Chapter 7 focuses on fabrication and on artists delegating the production of their works to highly qualified craftsmen, industrial machines and even whole factories. A century after Duchamp, the public still feels cheated if the artist is not the maker. Yet, there’s nothing new in this practice. Renaissance painters orchestrated the work of anonymous little hands to create large scale paintings for example.

Chapter 8 is all about digitalization and how the digital is finally understood by the art world as not being immaterial. I do love Cory Arcangel but i wish that authors of book of contemporary art would venture beyond Super Mario Clouds when they address digital practices.

Chapter 9 took me by surprise. It’s about crowdsourcing, a practice that was called grassroot organizing existed before the internet gave it a hip name.

Here’s a quick succession of works that the book made me discover or see under a new light:

Niki de Saint Phalle shooting on her Autel, 1962 (photo via The Red List)

Niki de Saint Phalle broke out into the male-dominated art world of the 1960s with her series of Tirs (Shooting Paintings). She fitted plastic bags filled with paint behind paintings and sculptures. The bags would burst when she or other participant shot at the works.

Yves Klein, Propositions monochromes (1’02) May 10 – 25, 1957

International Klein Blue collaborated with a Parisian art paint supplier to develop a deep blue hue.

Doris Salcedo, 1550 Chairs Stacked between Two City Buildings, Istanbul, 2003

Doris Salcedo’s staked chairs conjure people who have been displaced, in particular faceless migrants who underpin the working of the global economy.

Santiago Sierra, Cube of 100 cm on each side moved 700 cm, 2002

Santiago Sierra‘s ‘3 Cubes of 100cm on each side moved 700cm’ was performance for a public art institution in Switzerland. Six illegal Albanian refugees without work permits were hired to move, at great physical pain, three large cement cubes from one wall of the gallery to the opposing one.

“Persons are objects of the State and of Capital and are employed as such”, said Sierra. In this work, as in many other of his performances, the artist (who has often been criticized for replicating rather than critiquing inequalities regarding power) uses human beings as if they were any other material.

Zhang Huan, 12 Square Meters, 1994

On a hot Summer day of 1994, Zhang Huan sat in the most unhygienic public restroom he could find in Beijing. His skin was covered with fish oil and honey. Swarms of flies quickly came crawling on his body. His face remained impassible during this 40-minute performance.
Rumour has it that the performance was a tribute to Ai Weiwei’s father Ai Qing, who was made to clean filthy public toilets when he fell out of favour.

Liz Cohen, Bodywork Welder, 2005

Cohen gained fame with Bodywork, a project for which she apprenticed under car technicians to transform an East German 1987 Trabant car into a 1973 Chevrolet El Camino. Cohen submitted her own body to a similar transformation. She worked with a personal trainer and dieted to turn herself into a bikini model for car shows.

Guillermo Gómez-Peña, The Loneliness of the Immigrant, 1979/2011

Talking about his performance The Loneliness of the Immigrant, Guillermo Gómez-Peña said: I decide to spend 24 hours in a public elevator wrapped in batik fabric and rope, a metaphor for a painful birth in a new country, a new identity as “the Chicano,” and a new language, intercultural performance. The response of the people who shared the elevator with him was part of the performance. People kicked him as he laid passive, others ignored or interrogated. A dog urinated on him. Eventually the building’s security guards threw him in a garbage can.

rent-a-negro.com was a satirical web-art-performance created in 2003 by damali ayo. The site offered the possibility rent a black person for their personal entertainment or to advance their business or social reputation. rent-a-negro.com received over 400,000 hits per day in its first month, and attracted much media attention but also so many threats and unpleasant emails that in the end, the artist thought it would be safer to turn the potential performance into a conceptual artwork. The site remained online until 2012.

She wrote a guide of the same title though!

Tim Hawkinson, Signature Chair, 1993

A machine that signs ‘Tim Hawkinson’ onto a roll of paper, chops it off, and throws it onto an ever growing pile. The work was inspired by the autopen that executives used to employ on payday for issuing checks. The piece suggests that art has become synonymous with an artist’s signature to then be repeated endlessly.

Fred Wilson, Metalwork 1793-1880, from ‘Mining the Museum‘, 1992-1993. Image via omgyrak

Fred Wilson’s exhibition project “Mining the Museum” presented Maryland Historical Society’s collection in a new, critical but also often satirical light that excavated American racial history in Maryland.

The installation “Metalwork 1793–1880” brought side by side ornate silver pitchers, flacons, and teacups with a pair of iron slave shackles, highlighting the link between the two kinds of metal works: The production of the one was made possible by the subjugation enforced by the other.

Ai Weiwei, Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds), 2010

Some of the 1,600 highly skilled craftspeople from Jingdezhen hired to create and paint porcelain sunflower seeds. Image via Khan Academy

Ai Weiwei’s 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds covered the floor of Tate Modern in 2010. Each of the seeds had been handcrafted by skilled artisans from Jingdezhen. The work commented on the porcelain tradition in Jingdzhen, as well as on the cheap, fast and anonymous labor that is behind the hard-won and harshly criticised place of China in global economy. Sunflower Seeds also asks us to consider how our consumption of foreign-made goods affects the lives of others across the globe.

Milinda Hernandez drafting Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing 797, 2014

In 1968, LeWitt began to conceive guidelines or simple diagrams for his works drawn on walls. Executed by other people on walls that were most often slated for destruction, the series favours the creative idea that generates a work of art rather than its material existence.

Thomas Ruff, Nudes FJ 23, 2000

Nowadays, the first encounter that people have with contemporary art takes the form of low res thumbnails on google images. Thomas Ruff’s jpegs are monumental but start as such tiny thumbnails. The artist then enlarges them to a gigantic scale, which exaggerates the pixel patterns until they become geometric displays of color.

Cat Mazza, Stitch for Senate, 2007-2008

With Stitch for Senate, Cat Mazza asked knitters to hand knit helmet liners for every United States Senator. The work used the tradition of political organizing within knitting circles as a space for discussion, skill sharing and protest in the lead up to the 2008 senate elections. Every senator received their own helmet liner, mailed on President Obama’s Inaguration. A message accompanied the garment, asking for the return of US troupes from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Categories: New Media News

Pictoplasma focus: Jim Avignon

Thu, 05/05/2016 - 11:21

Jim Avignon, Nachtwache

Jim Avignon, Den Zähnen das Schicksai Zeigen, 2014

Jim Avignon is an illustrator, painter, performer and conceptual artist. His work is witty, pop, cheerful and at times also thoughtful and deep. He works fast, very fast and he has no time for the rules, rhythms and logic of a traditional art career. He delights in using cheap and found materials, laughs at the totally wrong information that circulates about him online and keeps his art affordable and intelligible to everyone.

When he is not painting murals in Latin America, creating coloring books for children living in refugee camps or stealing Berlin’s iconic and kitschy buddy bears, Avignon turns himself into “neoangin”, a performer of electronic music that doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously either.

Plates, part of the Black Market Black Market at ReTramp Gallery

Jim Avignon, his magnificent plates, infinite humour and droll little characters are participating to the Pictoplasma festival this week. He also has a solo show titled Black Market at ReTramp Gallery (be quick because it’s open till Sunday only!)

The artist is as warm and amusing as his little creatures, i’m happy Pictoplasma gave me an excuse to get in touch with him a few weeks ago:

Hi Jim! I saw a video in which you explained that you created a second identity for yourself and called him ‘Neoangin.’ Which relationship do you have with this musical alter-ego? How different is he from yourself? And have you started actually becoming Neoangin after so many years living with him?

He is some kind of weirdo jump and run cartoon character version of me, i am more the nice guy in the background but he doesn’t mind standing on stage being the crazy one, uplifting even in hopeless situations. In a neoangin show there is a high chance that things get out of control in a funny way, and then i need to be neoangin to turn it into something exciting.

neoangin, Party for 1

Neoangin aka. Jim Avignon, I know you from

What about Jim Avignon? Is he a character too?

He is the main guy in my character portfolio and was there from the beginning, long time before i invented neoangin. In school i was always the smallest and youngest in my class and a rather insecure and easy to confuse one. After i finished school i knew by heart that i needed to become somebody else. No wonder Why Can’t I Be You by The Cure was my favorite song at that time. I found out moving to another city and having a new name helped a lot in inventing a new persona.

Jim Avignon, Hypnotist

You’re inspired by daily life. What are the issues and stories that inspire you nowadays?

I am crazy about input (politics, gossip, internet, music, watching people in the subway, hearing strangers talk) and make up my mind to find hidden connections between all this stuff. i mash up all this input and sometimes some interesting images come up. I am interested in how people deal and struggle with the complexity and speed of modern life and i try to find and invent icons and characters that express that dilemma.

You’re known for subverting the rules of the contemporary art market. But are there rules you do follow when it comes to contemporary art but also, more generally, when it comes to creating?

There are no rules apart from the one to be nice to those who are weaker than yourself. I decide by intuition and heart. I don’t believe in perfection and the one big career master plan, in fact i believe in learning by doing and making mistakes is important and sometimes beautiful when it comes to creativity.

I do believe that everything is political: how you plan your career, to whom you sell your painting, how you share your time work/family, the ways you produce and sell.

Jim Avignon, Mural in Athens

Jim Avignon, Cover of the coloring book for children

I read on your website that your new year resolution for 2016 is to do no exhibitions at all this year. That sounds very brave. So how are you spending the year? Publishing books? Doing more street interventions?

Well, that was one nice idea to have a year off, i imagined myself reading up that big pile of books i had bought in the previous years, going to the movies, doing a couple of holidays with my family and sitting in bars with friends and having drinks, but i am afraid i am the guy who can’t relax.

The first thing i did this year was to start to work with kids in refugee camps and then decided to release a coloring in book for them by myself. Now i am in Greece painting a big wall and i just received an invitation to Taiwan to paint life at the art fair. And of course when Pictoplasma asked me to do an exhibition for the festival i didn’t say “Sorry guys, i am having my year off!”

What are you going to present at Pictoplasma?

So far, i have only decided on the title which will be Black Market. In my mind i see some out of control interior design and a giant rocking chair moving mysteriously. I also have this interactive installation called The Perfect Match i did in the last year that tells you who you really are that would fit there in a nice way. I see board games and characters painted on old plates that i just bought in a thrift store and of course there will be some stuff for sale as well at obscure black market prices – and there will be a secret pre-opening party on Tuesday with a friend of mine DJing in a robot costume. If you are already in Berlin then, please come!

Thanks Jim!

Jim Avignon, Binary Hulahoop with Kathi Kaeppel exhibition at Galerie Crystal Ball in Berlin, 2014

Jim Avignon, Guatemala, Guatemala. Photo via Brooklyn street art

Catch up with Jim Avignon today, tomorrow and over the weekend at the 12th Pictoplasma Conference & Festival in Berlin.
Jim Avignon’s exhibition Black Market is open at ReTramp Gallery in Berlin until May 8, from 12 AM to 8 PM.

See also: Pictoplasma focus: Julian Glander and Pictoplasma focus: Mr Bingo, rude postcards and dirty queens.

Categories: New Media News

cellF, the world’s first neural synthesiser

Mon, 05/02/2016 - 09:37

Front View of cellF (neurons are located in the top black box, in the incubator)

Guy Ben-Ary has spent 4 years collaborating with scientists and other artists to develop a musical instrument controlled by a neural network bio-engineered from his own skin cells.

The “brain” of cellF is a biological neural network that started its life on the artist’s arm. Skin cells taken with a biopsy were converted into neural stem cells using Induced Pluripotent Stem cell technology. These neural stem cells were then fully differentiated into neural networks over a Multi-Electrode Array dish.

Frozen vials with neural stem cells sent back to the University of Western Australia

Illustration showing how cellF works

The neural network is now able to play live sessions with human musicians by controlling custom-built synthesizers. The music of the human performer is fed to the neurons as stimulation, and the neurons respond by controlling the analogue synthesizers. Both the human musician and Ben-Ary’s extended brain are thus fully interacting with each other to create improvised sound pieces.

With this work, Ben-Ary continues his investigation into the ethical dilemmas and the future possibilities that bio-technologies can present for our society. CellF addresses my ‘interest in problematising new bio-technologies and contextualizing them within an artistic framework’, he writes. It started with a new materialist question underpinned by the belief that artistic practice can act as a vector for thought: What is the potential for artworks using biological and robotic technologies to evoke responses in regards to shifting perceptions surrounding understandings of “life” and the materiality of the human body?

cellF premiered on October 2015 in Perth, performing a live set with percussionist Darren Moore.

Research has demonstrated that music enhances brain activity. Music lessons, for example, were shown to strengthen certain parts of children’s brain. Ben-Ary and his collaborators will be working with other musicians and musical ensembles to explore how different musical styles might influence cellF’s functional plasticity or ability to play. In the long term, these artistic experiments might help us understand how coherence and plasticity in neural circuits can be induced by rhythmic (and perhaps frequency) dependent inputs, with potential benefits.

Multi Electrode Array (MEA) dishes ‘with bits of’ Ben-Ary in the incubator

cellF performing with Darren Moore

cellF. Video Documentation

The artist kindly accepted to talk to me about absurd scenarios, music and bio-engineered brains:

Hi Guy! First, i was wondering if you can expand on the interaction between the musician Darren Moore and your cells. How responsive are they to each other? How much does the performer feel in control of the music? Or how much does he feel that he is actually collaborating with another entity to create some music?

To me the Human / Non-human communication or interaction is at the heart of the project. A feedback loop that allows their behavior (or in terms of music – their playing) to be influenced from each other.

We created a framework whereas the human musician is communicating directly with the neural networks (or my external brain) and to do that we used a stimulation module titled “FriGate”. This module was developed by Nathan Thompson for one of his own projects but then when we looked for creative solutions that would allow us to send the human music to the neural network as stimulations Nathan and Andrew Fitch realized that with a bit of tweaking we can use it.

FriGate Module is embedded into the cellF synthesizer panel and helped us create a Jam Session Scenario similar to Jazz musicians that improvise on stage.

The Frigate accepts any audio signal (from Human Musicians) and can be tuned to extract audio information dependent on its frequency. This information is directly related to the live musician’s playing style and then can be sent as stimulations to the neurons.

One musician can have multiple FriGates thus multiple controlled stimulations into the neurons on the MEA. Likewise multiple musicians could have one Frigate each and have fine control over when their associated electrode in the MEA sends a stimulation pulse into the neural network. This takes into account also the spatial organization of the neurons over the MEA electrodes.

What we found interesting with this is that we give the human musician a way to really communicate with the neurons via the MEA. They can decide when they send the queue to the neurons – in a similar way that 2 human musician will play and communicate with visual as well as audible queues between them – especially if they improvise.

CellF performing with Darren Moore

Darren is an experimental drummer that spent most of his career playing in improvised settings. He is used to face the unknown when he is playing. But playing with cellF was a new experience for him. When the performance ended he said that it was an incredible experiences. It posed the challenges that improvised musicians usually face but more than that he was aware that it is my neurons that were jamming with him. There was a clear sense in the performance space that the neurons were responsive to the stimulations that Darren chose to send them. On the other hand it was clear that Darren’s playing is considerate of the sound that was produced by the neurons.
These are 2 (of many) examples to that:

Video of the first cellF performance

In the video above, a 4.5 minutes video clip of the performance (Please listen with earphones or good stereo set):

0:15 – 1:00 – It is very easy to hear how the neurons respond to the stimulations that are sent via the symbol.
1:14 – 2:00 – In this part the module that was used with the Synth was one that accumulated Action Potential or neural activity. The more Darren played on the symbols the more stimulations were generated – the more active the neurons were. This was sonified by a module that increased the pitch once the activity increased.

After the performance Darren said that he didn’t feel that he was playing solo. It felt different than playing with a programmed machine. He could sense emergence or responsiveness. But there was also the surreal idea of jamming with a neural network… My neural network. Darren and I are very good friends. We met in 2003 when we shared a house in Perth. We share a very similar musical taste and we used to spend hours listening and talking about music. I always wanted to play with him but … alas … I can’t play. When I conceived the idea of cellF I called him and asked him if he wants to play with me. He was respectfully dismissive until I told him what I’m planning to do. The gig in Perth felt as if Darren and I (well my external brain) Jammed and improvised together and it was great! (My neurons are living my dream ☺).

Biopsy taken from Guy Ben-Ary’s arm

Ben-Ary’s fibroblasts in tissue culture

Ben-Ary working in the lab

Ben-Ary’s pluripotent stem cells

I was also surprised to read that you had shipped the cells to Barcelona. Why didn’t you prepare all the work in Australia? And also what are the challenges of shipping little vials containing human cells?

The scientist that I worked with in Barcelona is Mike Edel. Mike is a Stem Cell Scientist and an expert in iPSc technology (cell reprogramming). I met Mike in 2009 when he visited the school of Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology (where SymbioticA is located). During his visit he gave a talk about his research and it was then that I became familiar with this technology. I approached him after and told him about my ideas (that culminated in 2 projects – In-Potentia and cellF). He was very supportive and we agreed to stay in touch.

When I received the fellowship to developed cellF I decided to do the cell reprogramming part in Barcelona in his lab. I wanted to have the time and the space to interact with Mike and learn from him the iPSc technique. It is quite an enriching experience, for me, to work in different labs and with different scientists. Furthermore, a residency away from home allows the artist, usually, to invest 100% of his/her time in the work. To focus on art. The chemistry between Mike and myself, our conversations and the actual work we did together in the lab was instrumental for the success of cellF.

Characterization of the stem cells

Ben-Ary’s neurons differentiating on a Multi Electrode Array (MEA)

You described the scientific process behind your works as being some kind of biological alchemy and that’s certainly the way it looks to the public i think (at least it does to me). So i can see the enchantment and poetry of having skin cells turned into brain cells and then perform with a musician in front of an audience. But apart from the challenge of creating something totally magical and unexplored before, why did you want to create this work? What were the motivations behind all these efforts?

Indeed my fascination with the “Biological Alchemy” or the transformation of bodies was one of the drivers to the project. I also really like the way you referred to it as “…creating something magical and unexplored before…”

The piece was conceived in 2012 when I was awarded a Creative Australia Fellowship from Australia Council for the Arts to create a new project. I proposed to develop a biological self-portrait, entitled cellF.

cellF started with the ‘new materialist’ question, underpinned by the belief that artistic practice can act as a vector for thought, that has informed all my past projects: What is the potential for artworks using biological and/or robotic technologies to evoke responses in regards to shifting perceptions surrounding understandings of life, death, sentiency, and the materiality of the human body?

However, for the first time in my career, I was also inspired by an ultimately narcissistic desire to re-embody myself. cellF is a progression of the past fifteen years of my research conducted through various projects involving the process of developing robotic bodies whose aesthetics and function are informed by the specificity of each bio-engineered ‘brain’ (Projects such as MEART, Silent Barrage and In-Potentia) and I think that it’s just poetic that it is also my self-portrait. It also continues my interest in problematizing bio-technologies and contextualizing them within an artistic framework via the staging of absurd scenarios.

Essentially, the brain/body entities I have been involved in creating over the last 15 years, have all emerged out of a desire to scramble habitual categories of thought – active versus passive, inert versus animate, political versus ontological, causality versus spontaneity, human versus non-human, forcing the viewer of those entities to think materially as well as ethically about our anthropocentric take on the world. Positioned at the intersection of art, science and society, I have spent many years ‘messing around’ with biological and cybernetic technologies as a means to examine processes involved in the transformation of bodies or living biological material in order to re-evaluate our understanding of “life”, sentiency, and the human body.

Most importantly, the staging of absurd scenarios has been an attempt to critically question and examine how we interact, develop and maintain meaningful connections in a world where we are constantly barraged by information, technologies and idealisations.

In a radio interview, you explain that you used to dream to be a rock star. Did you feel closer to realising your dream after the performance? Because I had the feeling that you act more as a conductor of an orchestra during the performance.

The rock star narrative emerged when I was facing the questions – what sort of self Portrait would I come up with? I spent a lot of time considering the aesthetic of cellF; namely, what was the most compatible kind of robotic body I could give myself? When thinking about what kind of body to design for myself, the idea of working within a humanist anthropocentric paradigm bored me. So whilst I desired a body that worked in synergy with my external brain, including a real time feedback loop the decision to create a sound-producing body was ultimately based on a long-standing passion for music, combined with my naïve childhood dream of being a rock star.
I don’t think that I will ever feel that I am a rock star because… I’m not. But I did have a strange feeling when bits of me were on stage with Darren playing. That was quite an incredible feeling.

Back view of cellF

You are also planning to do other cellF performances with other musicians and in other cities if i understood correctly. So what’s in store for cellF?

We were invited to present cellF and exhibit its development as part of an exhibition titled The Patient in Sydney. Curated by Bec Dean, the exhibition is a major event of contemporary biological and medical arts. It draws focus on new collaborations between scientists and artists and explores the ways in which artists are addressing powerful human experiences in the fields of health, biological sciences and medicine enhancing the discourse on the representation of disease, institutionalized care, personal agency and what it is to be human.

We plan three performances that will take place in the Cell Block Theater in Sydney. Each of these performances will differ from the other
– A duet for piano and cellF. Internationally acclaimed pianist Chris Abrahams (from “the Necks”) –
– A classical duo with cellF. Classically trained, new music innovator, percussionist Claire Edwardes has agreed to team up with one of her colleagues from Ensemble Offspring and improvise with cellF
– Experimental trio with cellF. Clayton Thomas (Double Base), Jon Rose (Violin), Darren Moore (drums). Three of the most exciting voices in the national experimental music scene.

The rationale behind having three performances is based, as well as aesthetics and diversity, on a fundamental question that is at the heart of cellF – Will different musical styles, approaches or ensembles influence cellF‘s functional plasticity or its ability to play in a different way ?

These musicians are some of my favorite Australian experimental artist so having my external brain play with them is definitely realizing a dream. We are currently negotiating performances abroad and I hope that some of these opportunities will eventuate.

Thank you Guy!

CellF is the result of a 4 year research in collaboration with designer and new media artist Nathan Thompson, electrical engineer and synthesiser builder Dr. Andrew Fitch, musician Dr. Darren Moore, Stem cell scientist Dr. Michael Edel, neuro-scientist Dr. Stuart Hodgetts, neuro-engineer Dr. Douglas Bakkum.

See this other interview with Guy Ben-Ary about In-Potentia, from foreskin cells to ‘biological brain’.

Categories: New Media News

Order+Noise, a tug of war for motors, strings and rubber bands

Fri, 04/29/2016 - 11:40

Ralf Baecker, Order+Noise (Interface I), 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME

Ralf Baecker, Order+Noise (Interface I), 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME

I’ve been fascinated by the work of Ralf Baecker ever since i discovered it back in 2009. The way his projects disclose the inner logic and dynamics of machines speaks to the über geek. But you don’t need to be versed in the subtleties of technology to be touched by his installations. Their grace and deceptive simplicity, the way they never quite seem to reveal themselves completely appeal to the aesthete and the amateur of fine craft and enigma.

Order+Noise (Interface I), his latest installation currently on view at the NOME gallery in Berlin, is made of motors, strings and elastic bands set in motion by the random signals of Geiger-Müller tubes which pick up the natural ambient radiation of the earth and add an element of chance to the system.

Motors gently hum and pull coloured strings in opposite directions, like in a tug of war. The patterns designed by the network of threads and rubber bands lay bare the struggles, negotiations and fluctuations of the system.

Here, what underlines the aesthetic experience is the materiality by which action produces knowledge, transforming data space into real space. As observers take in the rules, operations and parameters of the work, they gain insight into their perception. The installation’s mechanical workings and network of strings allow us to explore the poetic potential of technology via its materiality, so that Interface I sits on the boundary between an imaginary field and an epistemological condition.

Ralf Baecker, Teaser: Order+Noise (Interface I)

By isolating and zooming in on the abstract mechanisms and systems that are at the core of digital media and information technology, the work of Baecker reveals their otherwise unsuspected rhythms and noises.

I had a Q&A with the artist right before the opening of his show in Berlin:

Hi Ralf! Order+Noise (Interface I) brings our attention to the ambient radiation of the earth. Why were you interested in exploring a geological phenomenon?

The ambient radiation of the earth is only a minor aspect of this work. In case of Interface I it is one way of feeding a system with entropy (chance) and an external rhythm, caused by the unpredictable radioactive decay of elements. I used these kind of “geological” detectors already in previous works, like Irrational Computing (2011) and Mirage (2014), where I measured the magnetic flux of the earth with a magnetometer. What I’m focusing on is the contrast of clean digital machinery and its operations and the crudeness of the geological minerals they are made of. The social and political issues that are connected to the mining of rare earth materials in many countries do not apply to silicon because it is made from quartz sand, which exists in large amounts on earth. With Irrational Computing I was investigating this material layer of contemporary technologies. I build crude digital elements from semi-conducting minerals, like galena, silicon carbide, etc, in its raw form directly taken from the crust of the earth.

Beside this material stack I am interested in the mathematical foundations of these technologies. A closer look reveals a fully closed deterministic system, that is the result of separating mathematics from the world and our experience of it, in order to create a pure formal system. And these are the systems that reach very deep in our daily lives now. Sure, the devices can produce some kind of pseudo randomness, emergent behaviour and we interact with them, but always in the framework of this strict formal system and their protocols.

I don’t think that the machines become more like us, it is more likely that we adapt to the languages of the machines, to become computable. Over the years I tried different approaches to investigates the logic of the internal structures of these systems on one side, and to break them up with more intuitive models on the other side.

In interface these random impulses are used to stimulate two mechanical systems that interact with each other through a network of strings and elastic bands. So the noise acts like a catalyst. From complexity theory we know the principle of self-organisation or “Order from Noise”. Whereby spontaneous order can arise by random fluctuations, like the flocking of birds or in an economy.

Ralf Baecker, Order+Noise (Interface I), 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME

Ralf Baecker, Order+Noise (Interface I), 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME

Ralf Baecker, Order+Noise (Interface I), 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME

The installation explores the interaction between on the one hand, ambient radiation of the earth and on the other one, a set of motors, strings and elastic bands deployed in the gallery. Did you conceive the work as a metaphor about the way natural elements and our man-made industrial world influence each other?

Maybe you allow me to write a few words about metaphors. I’m struggling with the term. I never explicitly have a metaphor in mind, except maybe in Mirage, because my machines are based on symbolic interactions. Sure I don’t avoid hinting to analogies to other systems in other scales. But digital processes are per se not bound to any medium, silicon is just the most efficient and economic one. But every digital circuit can be translated into any medium, like water, air pressure, mechanics etc. I translate and enlarge these processes into other materials in order to allow a spectator to perceive them on an affective level.

Although many of your artworks deal with revealing the materiality of hidden structures and phenomena, there is also something inherently poetical and mysterious about them. At least, that’s the way i see them. What guides the aesthetics and design of your installations?

The aesthetics is always a result of a long experimental process. Usually it starts with a thought experiment that I strip down to a set of minimal components. For Interface I was trying to imagine the tiny and rapid interactions and transactions of a communication between two separate structures. How do they meet in one point and develop a language and get entangled it some kind of dialog. I tried different mechanical approaches, e.g. a push-based system, that turned out yo be too rough and tended to damage itself. There is always a gap between my imagination of a process, its physicality and its actual performance. I usually need a lot of iterations to find a good representation of my initial thought or even adapt my concept to the physical conditions. I started with this method a couple of years ago with Rechnender Raum (2007), I felt a little lost in working only in software, where I already tried to strip the aesthetics down to the minimum in order to offer a sight at the internal/raw aesthetics of these processes before they appear on a screen. But this did not work out for me me because, I still had the feeling that my practice is encapsulated in the logic of these strictly formal machines.

One thing that I have learned is that, making these processes transparent and open does not help to understand them but makes them even more opaque and mysterious. I became very much interested in “magical thinking” in contrast to a chronological “cause and effect” thinking. This thinking blends pretty good with contemporary complexity theory and “system thinking” where one “effect” can not be traced back to a single “cause”.

If we go back to the roots of such machines we will find metaphysical or ideological machines, like the ones of Ramon Llull ones, that are not tools but epistemological instruments.

Another important point, is that I don’t follow the usual separation between process and output. In most of my machines display and process are one, the display is where the process happens and at the same time it is indicating it. Similar to a combustion process, where a fuel and oxygen react with each other and produce an continuous flickering.

Portrait of Ramon Llull

Ralf Baecker, Order+Noise (Interface I), 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME

The research and experiments necessary to the development of the exhibition were carried out within the framework of your research project Time of Non-Reality at the Graduate School of the University of the Arts Berlin. Could you tell us more about this research? And what is this idea of ‘non reality’?

For me the research project at the Graduate School of the UDK in Berlin is a very subjective/artistic genealogy of the digital and technological images. It acts as framework for me to speculate and to experiment. I’m interested in the fundamental concepts, mechanisms and ideas of the digital and the relations to the signs they produce at the other end (e.g. screen).

I stumbled about a quote by Norbert Wiener, in a transcriptions of one of the famous Macy Conferences: “Every digital device is really an analogical device which distinguishes region of attraction rather than by a direct measurement. In other words, a certain time of non-reality pushed far enough will make any device digital.”

“Time of non-reality” could also be understood as the time an electronically charged electronic component (e.g. transistor), or any bistable element, needs to switch from 0 (0 volts) to 1 (5 volts). Ideally, in our logic, there is nothing in between. But when implemented it into the physical, we have these transitions that appear millions of times per second in a contemporary digital device. The internal state of the machines, and what it represents (e.g. an image, a text or a sound), breaks down for a couple of nanoseconds, just to re-establish in the next stable state. The machines are build to blank these transitions, in order to prevent glitches or even a crash. But I’m using this idea to speculate about possible images in between.

As I tried to described earlier these machines are the result of separating mathematics from any empirical evidence, that took place in the early 20th century. The simple axiom “1+1=2” allows us to forget about the apples that we once counted to realise. But these formal systems are now interacting with the world, they produce reality. So my research also explores the gap between an ideal formalized immaterial system and its re-implementation in the world.

Ralf Baeker, Mirage, 2014. Installation view at Asian Culture Center Gwuangju, for ACT Festival. Photo via Creative Applications

Ralf Baeker, Mirage, 2014. Installation view at Asian Culture Center Gwuangju, for ACT Festival

I was very impressed by Mirage when i saw it at the ACT Festival in Gwangju. I was fascinated by the way the piece is anchored in sophisticated algorithms and Artificial Intelligence but at the same time it speculates about machines that fall asleep and dream. Do you think we should be afraid of machines’ dreams? Doesn’t that make them to freakingly similar to us?

No, I don’t think we have to be afraid. There is still a very big difference between us and artificial intelligence. Most artificial intelligence algorithms are made for one single purpose, they are not universal and their aims and goals are defined by us. What freaks us out is the unpredictability of such systems that arise if their complexity increases. I think this is what we are witnessing right now. We are in the paradox situation that, on one side we are totally excited about the benefits of these technologies and on the other side they evoke a strange feeling of unease. Another kind of sublime, a technological sublime, if we have the enormous world spanning infrastructures in mind they running on.

And because we can’t control our own dreams and hallucinates, i suspect we can’t control the dreams of the machines either. Was it something you experienced while observing Mirage in action? Did the projection and ‘behaviour’ of Mirage surprise you? Did they bring anything unexpected?

The “dreams” or “hallucinations” of the machines are the result of what they have “seen” before. In unsupervised neural networks these “sleep” cycles are used to consolidate the previously learned. They are actually “internal” images, that were not intended to be displayed. Probably everybody knows the images of google’s deep dream. They always include these little puppies, snails or frogs, because these images were part of the training data set. Analogous I can only dream images or things, that I have seen or have imagined before. If a two year old child has never seen or been told about a fox it can not dream it. But the interesting thing is what develops over time, the narration, how our brain constantly tries to make sense of the images that appear and involve them into a plot. Mirage produces plots. It was not trained with static images, it was trained just with a constantly changing one dimensional signal that represents the changes of the magnetic flux of the earth. For earlier experiments, I trained my system with simple sine waves. After a couple of cycles, it was able to recreate sine wave like signals with variations. Mirage recombines the previous sampled data and weaves a new chronology. These idea of machines that create space on time applies to most of my works as well as for Interface.

Thanks Ralf!

Ralf Baecker, Order+Noise (Interface I), 2015. Photo by Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de

More photos!

Order+Noise (Interface I) is on view at NOME, Berlin from 23 April until 18 June 2016.

Ralf Baecker is also having a solo show at Kassler Kunstverein, from 13 May until 3 July 2016.

Categories: New Media News

Confessions of a Data Broker and other tales of a quantified society

Thu, 04/28/2016 - 12:21

The White Room, Opening of Nervous Systems. Photo: © Laura Fiorio/HKW

!Mediengruppe Bitnik, Reconstruction of Julian Assange’s study room at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Opening of Nervous Systems. Photo: © Laura Fiorio/HKW

While in Berlin for the Anthropocene Campus, i visited the one show you shouldn’t miss if you happen to be in town this week and next: Nervous Systems. Quantified Life and the Social Question.

The exhibition smartly enrolled artists, media historians and writers to chart the history and current rise of data-technologies and the world they bring about, exploring and exposing our quantified society and the processes of self-quantification. The food for thought that this show provide is overwhelming. Almost as much as this (partial) review of it!

Nervous Systems was co-curated by Anselm Franke and by Stephanie Hankey and Marek Tuszynski from the Tactical Technology Collective but because pretty much every single artwork and historical artifact in that deserves to be mentioned, i thought it would be better for everyone’s patience and sanity if i focused on one segment of the exhibition only.

The White Room, Opening of Nervous Systems. Photo: © Laura Fiorio/HKW

I picked up the one called The White Room, for the very arbitrary reason that it was curated by Tactical Technology Collective whose brilliant twitter feed i’ve been stalking for months. The other strength of The White Room is its combatant, encouraging and engaged attitude towards rampant quantification, loss of autonomy and demise of privacy. It gives visitors the means to understand their data and devices but it also provides them with the tools necessary to gain more control over their digital life.

The White Room opens up the black box of our daily technological environment, brings to light the links between Silicon Valley’s most successful start-ups and the military-industrial complex, and even uncover the Big Brother that hides behind the benevolent masks of some philanthropic initiatives.

Perhaps the best introduction to The White Room is actually this video that sums a research that Tactical Technology Collective has made into information brokering services:

Tactical Technology Collective, Confessions of a Data Broker

Inspired by David Ogilvy’s book Confessions of an Advertising Man, Confessions of a Data Broker presents results from interviews with and research into data brokers in Europe, North America and Asia, providing insights into how the industry works, who is buying/selling data and what it means for users.

What is worrying is that data brokering is not only unreliable and invasive of your privacy, it is also opaque. It is indeed often very difficult for individuals to find out what data a broker holds on them, how they used it and how long they store it.

James Bridle, Citizen Ex

Citizen Ex is a browser plugin that makes us better understand data gathering. Once installed on your computer, Citizen Ex shows where the websites you are visiting are located geographically. Over time, Citizen Ex builds a user’s algorithmic citizenship based on your browsing habits.

Whether or not you download Bridle’s software, you already have an algorithmic citizenship. Every time you click on a link, every time you visit a website, you leave traces behind. Companies collect this data in order to deliver content and ads better targeted to each individual. But that’s not all! Data gathering is also used for credit rating, insurance, ID verification, health care and fraud detection. And of course, government surveillance agencies like the NSA and GCHQ monitor your data to decide whether to spy on you.

Intelligence Community Watch puts data gathering into the hands of the citizens. ICWatch has mined LinkedIn for résumés posted by people who state that they have worked for the NSA or Intelligence community or for related contractors and programs. ICWatch then compiled these findings into a searchable database of the US intelligence community. Transparency Toolkit, who developed it, say the aim of the site is to “watch the watchers” and better understand surveillance programmes and any human rights abuses associated with them.

Aram Bartholl, Forgot you Password, 2013

In 2012, LinkedIn.com got hacked and passwords for nearly 6.5 million user accounts were stolen. A few months later parts of the decrypted password list appeared on the Internet. Aram Bartholl printed 8 books that list the 4.7 million passwords leaked in alphabetical order. The work reminds us that the safety of our data can never be guaranteed.

Some of the artistic projects selected in the show are using everyday objects and tech devices to demonstrate that the “I have nothing to hide” dismissal of surveillance is unwise now that we are part of a quantified society: Ai Weiwei and Jacob Appelbaum’s stuffed panda (see SAMIZDATA: Evidence of Conspiracy. Talking secrets and pandas with Jacob Appelbaum), Sascha Pohflepp’s Button camera, Danja Vasiliev and Julian Oliver’s sneaky Newstweek… And Un Fitbits:

Tega Brain and Surya Mattu, Unfit Bits

Tega Brain and Surya Mattu, Un Fitbits. GIf via bionymous

Un Fitbits enables you to obfuscate your data traces by generating fake data, while giving you the ability to control and understand your real data. All you have to do is clip the Fitbit bracelet to a metronome, dog, drill, bicycle or pendulum and they’ll get fit and active for you.

The artists were interested in FitBit after noticing that insurance companies were giving away Fitbit to their customers. Wearing the device and walking a certain number steps would earn customers discounts. How do companies benefit from your healthy lifestyle? Can your data be considered ‘yours’ if it can be used against you?

The White Room also presented a series of projects that are decidedly at the most dystopian end of the quantification spectrum:

Sesame Credit. Photo via The Independent

Sesame Credit is a credit-rating system that scores Chinese citizens based on both online and offline data: their spending behaviour, habits, minor traffic violations, fiscal and government information, interests and affiliations. A high score will result in a better chance to find a job, get a date, rent a car without paying a deposit and be deemed ‘trustworthy‘ by the government. The project was approved by the Chinese government as a pilot for a future nationwide database, an individual citizen ‘social credit-rating’ system, planned for nationwide rollout by 2020.

Some projects were labelled “Big Mama” by the curators. Dressed up as care, initiatives such as eye-scanning for refugee aid and facial recognition to monitor attendances in churches look more like Big Mama (“It’s for your own good”) than Big Brother.

Jordan: Iris Scanning Program In Action

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has introduced an iris-scanning technology to verify the identity of Syrian refugees in Jordan. The pilot program allow refugees to withdraw their benefits from ATM machines but also to buy groceries through looking into an iris scanner.

The project is implemented by tech company Iris Guard which sells the same iris-scanning technology for border control, prisons and national ID. Iris Guard has 3 advisory board members: the CEO of a global merchant bank, the former hear of MI6 and the former Homeland Security Advisor to the President of the US.

Electronic databases of personal information raise privacy but also security concerns. Databases are being hacked all the time, and that’s a huge threat to privacy and security. Hacked biometric data is particularly problematic, because unlike credit cards or even social security numbers, the data cannot be modified.

Churchix compares CCTV camera footage of people to a database of congregants of the church. Photo Face-Six via

Churchix is a facial recognition-based ‘event-attendance tracking’ software designed to help churches easily identify members of their congregation, and record their attendance at church and church-related events. Churchix identifies individuals in ‘probe’ photos or videos and then matches them with previously uploaded reference photos. Face-Six, the company behind it uses similar software for products used in casinos, airports, shopping malls and at border control posts. Churches in Indonesia, the US, Portugal, Africa and India have already adopted the system.

The Google Empire (information graphic / wood and acrylic.) Photo La Loma

A table exposed the presence of marketing departments, Washington D.C. expats, lobbyists and Wall Street analysts behind the sleek facade of some of Silicon Valley’s most successful startups. Think of how Google went from the friendly search engine to Alphabet, the owner and developer of self-driving cars, DNA databases, AI and robotics. What used to be a bunch of bespectacled geeks is now a group of powerful companies who have accumulated vast amounts of power, knowledge, and wealth.

The Fertility Chip (simulation / laser cut and engraving.) Photo La Loma

In 2012, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave a grant of 11,316,324 US dollars to MicroCHIPS Biotech to develop a contraceptive chip that can be embedded in a woman’s body for up to 16 years. The technology would enable a remove control of a woman’s hormones, activating her ability to either conceive, or prevent fertilization.

MicroCHIPS hopes to introduce the product in 2018. Note that the technology is intended for women and girls in poorer countries.

Inside Palantir offices. Credit Peter DaSilva for The New York Times

The Shire (model of a office room of the Palantir). Photo La Loma

Data-analysis company Palantir Technologies might keep a lower public profile than Airbnb and Uber but it is one of the Silicon Valleys most powerful start-ups. It has contracts with government groups, including the CIA, NSA, the FBI, the Marine Corps and the Air Force. We know that its software processes huge amounts of disparate data to elaborate predictions and conclusions, enabling fraud detection, data security, consumer behavior study, rapid health care delivery, etc. Rumour has it that it was them who provided the data-analysis skills that located Bin Laden. But little else is known publicly about Palantir.

The exhibition reproduced a model of Palantir’s head office, the Shire, based on photographs for a 2014 New York Times article. The world map is based on the strategy board game Risk: The Game of Global Domination.

Patches that can be purchased online, along with t-shirts, calendars and coffee mugs from the apparel store off Lockheed Martin, America’s largest contractor, making fighter planes, cluster bombs, combat ships and designing nuclear weapons. It is also the largest private intelligence contractor in the world, working in the past on surveillance programs for the Pentagon, CIA, NSA and making biometric identification systems for the FBI

The White Room, Opening of Nervous Systems. Photo: © Laura Fiorio/HKW

The White Room, Opening of Nervous Systems. Photo: © Laura Fiorio/HKW

On Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays, workshops, demos and discussions help visitors understand the devices and interfaces we use every day. White Room workers are also on hand to help visitors navigate an alternative “App Center” that offers tools to regain control over their data and their tech gadgets.

More views of the exhibition Nervous Systems:

Opening of Nervous Systems. Photo: © Laura Fiorio/HKW

Opening of Nervous Systems. Photo: © Laura Fiorio/HKW

Nervous Systems. Quantified Life and the Social Question was co-curated by Stephanie Hankey and Marek Tuszynski from the Tactical Technology Collective and Anselm Franke. The show is at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin until 9 May 2016.

Related stories: Obfuscation. A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest, Sheriff Software: the games that allow you to play traffic cop for real, The Influencers: Former MI5 spy Annie Machon on why we live in a dystopia that even Orwell couldn’t have envisioned, SAMIZDATA: Evidence of Conspiracy. Talking secrets and pandas with Jacob Appelbaum.

Categories: New Media News

Book Review: Out of Now. The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh

Mon, 04/25/2016 - 10:55

Out of Now. The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh (updated edition), by Tehching Hsieh and Adrian Heathfield.

Available on amazon UK and USA.

Publisher MIT Press writes: In the vibrant downtown Manhattan art scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Taiwanese-American artist Tehching Hsieh made a series of extraordinary performance art works. Between September 1978 and July 1986, Hsieh realized five separate one-year-long performance pieces in which he conformed to simple but highly restrictive rules throughout each entire year.

Through the course of these lifeworks, Hsieh moved from a year of solitary confinement in a sealed cell to a year in which he punched a worker’s time clock in his studio every hour on the hour to a year spent living without shelter in Manhattan to a year in which he was tied by an eight-foot rope to the artist Linda Montano and finally to a year of total abstention from all art activities and influences. In 1986 Hsieh announced that he would spend the next thirteen years making art but not showing it publicly. When this “final” lifework—an immense act of self-affirmation and self-erasure—came to a close at the turn of the millennium, he tersely and enigmatically said that during this time he had simply kept himself alive.

After years of near-invisibility, Hsieh collaborated with the British writer and curator Adrian Heathfield to create this meticulous and visually arresting documentary record of the complete body of Tehching Hsieh’s performance projects from 1978 to 1999. This milestone volume is now available again, in a paperback edition featuring the full text and all the illustrations in the hardcover, with an updated list of Hsieh’s exhibitions.

One Year Performance, 1978-1979

There are artworks that keep on haunting me and make me wonder “would i ever have the guts/strength/courage to do the same?” Michael Landy destroying all his possessions is a good example of that. And then there’s Tehching Hsieh. He’s the legend who to wanted to make the process of thinking about art an artwork in its own right. He did so by setting himself some simple but almost inhumanely restrictive rules that he followed, religiously, for one year. He first sat in a cell with no communication for a year. He then punched a time clock every hour on the hour for a year. He lived on the street for a year. He tied himself to a fellow artist for a year. For his last performance, he avoided engaging in any art practice. Again, for a full year.

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance n. 2, Time Clock Piece, 1980-81

The works took place from 1978 to 1986 in New York, a period in which he had to navigate between the growing attention from the public for his work and the necessity to remain under the radar because he was an illegal immigrant from Taiwan. If his year long performances were not radical enough, Tehching Hsieh also announced in 1986 that he would spend the next 13 years making art without showing it publicly. In the art world, this kind of crazy gesture is akin to suicide. In 1999, when he finally emerged from his voluntary cultural exile, all he said was that in that period he had ‘kept himself alive.’

Out of Now is a new and slightly updated edition of a book that’s been out of stock for the past few years. The book collects the visual documentation of the artist’s performances. The photos, maps, artist statements, etc. As well as white pages for the 13 years of artistic silence.

The introduction to the documentation consists in a series of short essays by writer and curator Adrian Heathfield who places Hsieh’s practice into the cultural context of its time while demonstrating how different it is from the ideas and concepts of that same period.

My favourite part of Out of Now is the long interview Adrian Heathfield did with Tehching Hsieh. The conversation is both deep and charming, hopping from topics as diverse as Hsieh’s mother opinion about his work to the various ways in which each piece consumed his life.

The final part of the book compiles texts written by famous and anonymous people who express the impact that Hsieh’s work had on them. There’s Tim Etchells, Santiago Sierra or Marina Abramovic writing about their admiration for his work but there’s also an unsigned letter from someone who thinks that Hsieh’s work brings ‘shame and discredit to the Chinese people”.

Out of Now documents a series of artworks but somehow manages to keep their author shrouded in mystery. Hsieh is interviewed, his work is analyzed, put into images and commented. The more you read, the less you understand the man who has pushed his emotional, physical and psychological endurance to such extreme limits. That’s probably the best homage that a book could pay to a man who is so often described as being a ‘cult figure’ in the art world.

One Year Performance, 1978-1979

Statement for One Year Performance, 1978-1979

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance, 1978-1979. Copyright Tehching Hsieh

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance, 1978-79

For “Cage Piece”, Hsieh constructed a cell inside a loft in TriBeCa. The rules of his solitary confinement were listed in a curt manifesto: “I shall NOT converse, read, write, listen to the radio or watch television until I unseal myself on September 29, 1979.” Every day, a friend would bring him food and take out his waste.

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance n. 2, Time Clock Piece, 1980-81 (still from video)

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance, 1980-81

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance, 1980-81

For the “Time Piece,” the artist essentially denied himself sleep in order to punch a time clock every hour on the hour, twenty four hours a day, for one year. He apparently had to attach multiple alarm clocks to amplifiers to penetrate his foggy brain. Every time he punched the clock a movie camera would take a single movie picture shot of him.

One Year Performance, Outdoor Piece, 1981–1982

One Year Performance, Outdoor Piece, 1981–1982

One Year Performance, Outdoor Piece, 1981–1982

In his third performance piece, Hsieh spent one year living in the street, not entering buildings or shelter of any sort. He walked around New York City with a backpack and a sleeping bag and charted his wanderings on maps.

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance, 1983-1984

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance, 1983-1984

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance, 1983-1984

For his next performance, he tied himself to artist Linda Montano with an 8 foot long rope. While the rope obliged them to do everything together, but any intentional bodily contact was forbidden.

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