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Bodily Matters: Human Biomatter in Art (part 2. At the morgue)

Thu, 07/21/2016 - 10:51

Previously: Bodily Matters: Human Biomatter in Art (part 1. The blood session).

Part two of the notes i took during Bodily Matters: Human Biomatter in Art. Materials / Aesthetics / Ethics, a symposium that took place a couple of weeks ago at University College London. The impeccably curated event explored how artists use the human body not merely as the subject of their works, but also as their substance.

The second session of the opening day of the symposium was titled Blood & Bone: Post-mortem Afterlives, Trauma & Ethics. And it involved many uncomfortable trips to the autopsy room. Rough notes taken during the presentation of the papers:

Autorretratos en la morgue (Self portraits in the morgue) (1998), photographic series, by Teresa Margolles and SEMEFO. Courtesy of Galería Labor, Mexico City, Mexico. Image via Cranium Corporation

In his paper Abstract Materialities: The Anonymous Corpse in the Work of Teresa Margolles, Edward Bacal (University of Toronto, Department of Art) explored the work of one of Mexico’s most famous contemporary artists.

“Margolles aims to open new perceptions of death and new experiences of loss within a public sphere where such relations to anonyomous bodies are typically foreclosed,” Bacal wrote in his abstract. “Meanwhile, by putting viewers in uneasy proximity to mortality, bodily abjection, and violence, Margolles illustrates how the body’s materiality (and equally, the materialization of the body) is contingent upon the bio- and thanato-political management of life and death, vis-a-vis the conditions by which bodies enter, and become legible in, the social realm.”

Margolles is not only an artist, she also has a diploma in forensic medicine and works at a morgue in Mexico City. Many of the bodies she sees there are victims of violence, drug abuse or more generally of social exclusion. The corpses often come to her unidentified and thus unclaimed.

Her works make theses anonymous dead bodies almost palpable, yet invisible. Several strategies ensure their physical presence in the exhibition space:

Teresa Margolles, Aire. Photo Strozzina

In the installation En el aire (In the Air) soap bubbles float around the room and burst onto the walls. The water in the soap bubbles was the one used to clean dead bodies before autopsy at a morgue in Mexico City.

Aire is a variation on the same theme, except that this time the morgue water is in the air humidifying system.

Teresa Margolles, ¿De qué otra cosa podríamos hablar? (Cleaning), 2009

Teresa Margolles, Bandera (Flag), 2009

Margolles represented her country at the 2009 edition of the Venice Art Biennale. Titled ¿De qué otra cosa podríamos hablar? (What Else Could We Talk About?), the pavilion used blood, shattered glass and other items collected at the scene of murders in Mexico. One of the works in the pavilion consisted in cleaning the floors with a mixture of water and blood from murdered people. Meanwhile, a grubby-looking flag was hanging on the façade of the palazzo. It had been impregnated with blood collected from executions on the north border of Mexico.

What makes these works particularly upsetting is that they place the viewers in uncomfortable proximity to an ‘abjection’ that can’t be located nor identified with precision. The human body is rescued from oblivion and its presence is pervasive but only as an abstract sensation.

Théodore Géricault, Le radeau de la Méduse, 1818–1819

Bacal drew parallels between Margolles’ work and two 19th century painters who used abject body parts as symbols for barbarism, corruption and the collapse of the state.

Théodore Géricault, for example, visited the Paris morgue in preparation to the painting of The Raft of the Medusa, as one can see in his studies with limbs and raw flesh. His work was an an icon of Romanticism but also a critique of ultra-royalism and of the decline of the governing class integrity. Around the same time but in Spain, Goya’s work was depicting political violence and corruption in his country.

People visiting the morgue in Paris to view the cadavers. A crowd gathers to view the grisly sight of the bodies, including a mother and her young son, 1829?. Photo Wellcome

But while the Paris morgue that Géricault visited was then a site of mass entertainment, Margolles’s work does the opposite: it brings the morgue to the public.

Margolles’ works call for a recognition of the dead. In particular, the anonymous victims of violence who can’t be identified but deserve to be mourned. Their sad fate is the result of a series of socio-political conditions: poverty, state violence, gang activity, militarized war on drugs, etc. Ultimately, her works reminds us that to be a political subject means to be the subject of violence, whether it’s gun violence or guillotine.

The Vrolik Musuem; Amsterdam. Photo via Morbid Anatomy

Dr. Gemma Angel (UCL Institute of Advanced Studies) was the organizer of the whole symposium. Her paper Art Imitating Death Imitating Art. Contemporary Art and the Medical Museum: Ethics, Conflict & Controversy explored the changes in perception and practices when dealing with human remains.

Whilst anatomical dissection and artistic practice have gone hand-in-hand for centuries, contemporary relationships between medical institutions and artists seeking to access their collections, such as Hirst and Anthony Noel Kelly, have been marked by conflict, controversy and a disjuncture between professional medical codes of ethics, and artistic intentions.

Both Hirst’s With Dead Head and Noel-Kelly’s Guilded Man raised ethical questions about access, ownership, treatment, display and visibility of human body parts in both the medical museum and in art practice.

The great sensibility towards the use of human remains in the UK can in part be explained by the scandal of the retention of hearts and organs from hundreds of children in Liverpool hospitals. The organs had been stripped without permission from babies who died at the hospital between 1988-1996. As a consequence of the scandal, new laws were passed that detailed how human material can be donated and displayed. Museums such as the Wellcome Collection or medical and pathological museums need to have a licence to exhibit human materials. However, collections of human remains often belong to universities where they are mostly used for teaching. Since not all universities have a public display license, access to the collections is usually restricted to the research community and medical students.

When public visits of the collections are allowed, visitors might or might not take photos of the human remains on show. It is a grey area that often depends on the decision of the museum staff. The Royal College of Surgeons has a strict no photo policy. Whereas at University College London, visitors can take photos and do what they want with the images.

Museums produce their own guidelines on how remains should be handled. But what happens when artists challenge this medical regime of what can or cannot be seen in medical collections?

Damien Hirst, With Dead Head, 1991

In 1981, Damien Hirst was 16 and on an art school visit at the Leeds Anatomy School. Usually surgeons and medical staff cover the head of the body that they are observing and dissecting. However, a severed head had been left on a table and Hirst asked a friend to take a quick photo. The artist later explained that although he was smiling, he was actually terrified. 10 years later, the image was exhibited as art at the Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin in Paris. It was also shown in Warsaw. The photos didn’t attract much comments in either of these cities. But an exhibition of that same photo in the UK sparked a debate about the appropriateness of displaying it. The man had not given his consent to be photographed so the shot was seen as a betrayal of trust. Besides, the image could potentially cause distress to his family. The face was not identified but it was still recognizable by anyone who had known him.

What made the conversation around the photo even more complex was that Hirst was little more than a child at the time and his photo was the result of a spontaneous act.

Anthony Noel-Kelly, Guilded Man, 1997

Another artist who notoriously worked with human remains without asking for consent was Anthony-Noel Kelly. In the 1990s, the artist smuggled anatomical specimens from the Royal College of Surgeons in London to his studio where he used them to make gilded plaster casts (which made the original useless for teaching.)

He was sentenced to nine months imprisonment in 1998, and the case raised issues of the ethics of art and the legal status of body parts used for medical research. Besides, his conviction for theft overturned hundreds of years of legal precedent that had ruled that a corpse was not property and couldn’t therefore be owned or stolen.

Damien Hirst, For the Love of God, 2007

Gemma Angel also noted that in his much discussed For the Love of God, Hist not only used diamonds and platinum but also human teeth.

In her paper The Phoenix effect; body art arising from the ashes, clinician & independent scholar Linda Miller investigated the production of glass works from human ashes. A now well-accepted example of this practice is the ‘cremains’ in the U.S. where people give the ashes of their loved ones to glass artists who turn them into memorials to keep at home.

The whole topic of cremation was incredibly interesting. For example, I was very surprised to learn that many cremation remains are not collected and funeral directors are not required to follow any standard regulation regarding the handling and dispersion of the ashes. Another interesting point raised by Miller is that cremation is not eco-friendly at all. Not only does it produce considerable amount of greenhouse gas emissions, cremation is also responsible for 16% of the UK’s mercury pollution (via dental fillings.) In the Lake District, the scattering of ashes of pets and relatives is now so widespread that the Lake District National Park Authority is asking people to respect the landscape and not abandon the box or urn in nature.

Jorge Otero-Pailos, The Ethics of Dust. Installation in Westminster hall, London. Photography: Houses of Parliament

Miller also noted the significance of the process of converting “dirty” ash into “sanitized” glass: this could be a symptom of society’s attitude to death. While the Victorians had an unambiguous relation to death and surrounded themselves with memento mori composed of human tissues, contemporary society prefers to observe a certain distance from death, the memento mori is still present but it takes the form of elegant glass objects.

A work such as Jorge Otero-Pailos‘s The Ethics of Dust (the latest piece in this series can currently be seen at Westminster Hall) similarly questions the low value we assign to dust.

Previously: Bodily Matters: Human Biomatter in Art (part 1. The blood session).

Categories: New Media News

Extra Fantômes. The real, the fake, the uncertain

Mon, 07/18/2016 - 11:07

While in Paris a few weeks ago, i visited Extra Fantômes. The real, the fake, the uncertain, an exhibition at La Gaîté Lyrique that explores the interweaving of the technological and the uncanny.

Extra Fantômes. View of the exhibition space at Gaîté Lyrique. Photo: © Vinciane Verguethen/voyez-vous

Karolina Sobecka, All the Universe is Full of the Lives of Perfect Creatures. Exhibition view at Gaîté Lyrique. Photo: © Vinciane Verguethen/voyez-vous

Nils Völker, Seventeen, 2016. Extra Fantômes, exhibition view. Photo © vinciane verguethen/voyez-vous

I thought it would be a light and amusing way to fill a rainy afternoon. And amusing it certainly was. At least at the start of the exhibition, when you find yourself plunged inside dark spaces and Lynch-inspired red room dedicated to the occult. There is a Oui Ja table, a mirror haunted by animals, a phone that puts you in contact with ghosts, a clique of translucent cushions that breathe over your heads. But the exhibition goes way beyond the mystical and the supernatural…

In a world where scientific rationalism rules, interest is on the rise for alternative forms of relating to the world and to others.

The exponential development of technology is paradoxically a time there is a surge in attention and demand for magical, unexplained and mythological phenomena.

After the first two rooms of fun and phantasms, the ride gets darker and the paranormal gets worryingly normal. The specters, spirits and impersonators become pervasive, intrusive, you can ignore them if you so wish but you can’t hide from them. They are made of the data we generate. They are our disembodied doppelgängers, our digital shadow and they relentlessly shed information about our opinions, routines, sexual preferences and working habits. Unsurprisingly, these last few rooms were the ones where i spent the longest time.

Extra Fantômes. View of the exhibition space at Gaîté Lyrique. Photo: © Vinciane Verguethen/voyez-vous

The first one presents itself like a Control Room that enables the visitors to discover the immaterial energies and invisible forces that inhabit the same spaces as us. These forces are not esoteric anymore. They are real, they are the ones that inevitably accompany our technology-mediated existence.

onformative, Google Faces, 2013

onformative, Google Faces – Google Earth Flight Animation

Google Faces was my favourite piece in the room because of the way it ties up the uncanny atmosphere of the previous rooms with the reality of the current technological world.

Google Faces tirelessly travels through Google Maps’s satellite images and uses a face detection algorithm to detect portraits hidden in the topography of our planet. The images would look nothing like faces were it not for pareidolia, a psychological phenomenon wherein the mind perceives a familiar pattern of a face, animal, object, message or other where none actually exists. “Unprejudiced” technology meets human subjectivity.

Tobias Zimmer and David Ebner, Database, 2014. Exhibition view at Gaîté Lyrique. Photo: © Vinciane Verguethen/voyez-vous

The cameras of the Database installation record the faces of visitors as they enter the room, a recognition algorithm analyzes them and the resulting data is sent to a printer, which automatically prints the little portraits along with data about the time of the visitor’s passage in the gallery. The process is super fast. Every hour though, the intrusive work acknowledges the right to privacy by blending all the faces into a composite portrait and displaying it on the installation’s website, while all other digital records are deleted. As for the ridiculously voluminous prints, they get shredded.

Database publicly documents the nuts and bolts of facial recognition—which governments and large corporations keep behind closed doors—and also refuses to catalog or monetize the information accumulation, in stark contrast with other entities that collect big data.

Semiconductor, Magnetic Movie, 2007

In Semiconductor’s Magnetic Movie, physicists from NASA’s Space Sciences Laboratory at UC Berkeley describe their experiments about magnetic fields while images visualize this invisible phenomenon in the form of hectic, ever-changing geometries.

Extra Fantômes. Exhibition view at Gaîté Lyrique. Photo: © Vinciane Verguethen/voyez-vous

The last room in the exhibition bears the inauspicious title of ‘the Bunker.’ There’s nothing oppressive about it though. The space is filled with ideas and strategies deployed by artists to fight back against data collecting, machine scrutiny and other forms of control. They make us disappear and even turn us into ghosts in the eyes of the machines.

There’s a very straightforward way to make yourself untraceable. Head over to the website of LessEMF and get a maternity camisole, sleeping bag or poncho that will protect you from electro-magnetic fields. My personal choice would be this fetching upper body shield which might come in handy next time i fancy a bit of jousting.

Extra Fantômes. Exhibition view at Gaîté Lyrique. Photo: © Vinciane Verguethen/voyez-vous

Adam Harvey, Stealth Wear

Adam Harvey, Stealth Wear

Adam Harvey designed a range of fashionable thermal evasion garments that protect their wearer from the eyes of the drones and other heat sensing machines.

Extra Fantômes. Exhibition view at Gaîté Lyrique. Photo: © Vinciane Verguethen/voyez-vous

The artist and researcher is also famous for CV Dazzle, a sly make up and hair fashion technique that covers the face with bold patterns. By breaking apart the expected features targeted by computer vision algorithms, CV Dazzle makes you immune to CCTV scrutiny.

Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Invisible

Finally, Heather Dewey-Hagborg has been exploring the next frontier in surveillance: biological surveillance. Her Invisible kit ensure your genetic privacy by obliterating any DNA trace you leave behind.

Catalogue Extra Fantômes

Catalogue Extra Fantômes

The catalogue of the exhibition is published by Gaîté Éditions and Lienart. It contains plenty of great essays by the like of James Bridle, Finn Brunton, Vinciane Despret, Marie Lechner, Elliot Woods (Kimchi and Chips), Mushon Zer-Aviv, etc. Only available in french, i’m afraid.

More images from the exhibition:

Karolina Sobecka, All the Universe is Full of the Lives of Perfect Creatures. Exhibition view at Gaîté Lyrique. Photo: © Vinciane Verguethen/voyez-vous

Mathieu Schmitt, Oui Ja, 2013

Mathieu Schmitt, Oui Ja, 2013. Exhibition view at Gaîté Lyrique. Photo: © Vinciane Verguethen/voyez-vous

Malte Martin, Spectres, 2014

Exhibition view at Gaîté Lyrique. Photo: © Vinciane Verguethen/voyez-vous

Extra Fantômes. Exhibition view at Gaîté Lyrique. Photo: © Vinciane Verguethen/voyez-vous

Extra Fantômes. The real, the fake, the uncertain was curated by Daily tous les jours. The show remains open at Gaîté Lyrique in Paris until July 17th 2016.

Categories: New Media News

Bodily Matters: Human Biomatter in Art (part 1. The blood session)

Thu, 07/14/2016 - 11:22

Croix Gagnon and Frank Schott, Project 12:31

Semen, cell cultures, urine, feaces, tears, blood, hair, skin– the human body has been used not merely as the subject of art works, but also as their substance.
Last week, the Institute of Advanced Studies at University College London held a symposium that explored the use of “biomaterial” in modern and contemporary art practices.

Human bodily materials are frequently invested with highly symbolic cultural power and complex visceral and emotional entanglements, thus the use of human biomatter as art medium opens up an intriguing cultural space to reflect critically upon the relationships between materiality, aesthetics, affective response, ethics and the production of cultural meaning.

Bodily Matters: Human Biomatter in Art. Materials / Aesthetics / Ethics was a remarkably interesting and enlightening symposium. Almost every speaker was reading their paper which would normally make me want to pack my bag and sneak out of the room but the content of the papers was so fascinating that i stayed glued to my chair. What surprised me the most over the course of the sessions is that the art discussed was actually good. There was none of that sciart malarkey. These were works with artistic/aesthetical/critical value, rather than works which sole claim to substance is that they dally with scientific innovations.

My notebook is now full of scribblings and I’ll try and blog whatever is decipherable in the coming days. Taking it chronologically. Today, my notes will be covering the first morning. The session was called What Remains: Traces, Transitionary & Fluid Matters and revolved around a lot of blood, crimes and corpses.

Angela Strassheim, Evidence No. 2, 2009

Angela Strassheim, Evidence No. 13, 2009

Angela Strassheim, Evidence (pitchfork), 2009

Dr Elinor Cleghorn (University of Oxford, Ruskin School of Art) kicked off the day by presenting Light remains: Alchemical affect in Angela Strassheim’s ‘Evidence’.

Artist Angela Strassheim used to be a forensic and biomedical photographer but later studied for an MFA in photography at Yale University. In 2008 and 2009, she visited homes where familial homicides had occurred. There was nothing left to see in the rooms where the crimes had taken place. The spaces had been scrubbed clean, some of the walls had been repainted and new families had moved into the houses.

Strassheim often found it difficult to access the spaces where the murders had taken place. She visited some 140 homes but only 18 families allowed her to take photos. Once granted permission to access the room of the murder, the artist used techniques usually reserved for police forensics to unveil the hidden residues of violent murder. The “Blue Star” solution she uses contains luminol, a chemical that reveals residual DNA protein at crime scenes, as it reacts with the iron in haemoglobin.

In order to obtain the images of the rooms, Strassheim closed doors and curtains to keep light to a minimum and then shot long exposures of between 10 minutes and an hour.

In the photos, blood that is otherwise invisible to unaided human perception appears as bright flecks and splatters. The images almost haptically reactivate the physical memory of an act of violence and revive the biomaterial traces left behind by the deceased.

None of the image is accompanied with a text that details what happened in these rooms. However, the title of the photos showing the outside of the houses lists the murder weapons used while the images of the rooms suggest a whole narrative embedded in stillness.

Angela Strassheim, Evidence No. 8, 2009

Cleghorn told us a few words about the story behind Evidence 8. This is one of the very few houses where the family had remained after the murder of a teenage girl by her step-father. The mother had cleaned the room. The luminol shows the blood spillage but it also records the bleach and thus the attempts to hide the crime.

Bust of San Gennaro, 1304-1305. Photo via Napoli x quartiere

Liquefaction of San Gennaro’s blood. Photo via Napoli fanpage

In her paper Blood Heads. From San Gennaro to Marc Quinn, Dr. Jeanette Kohl (University of California, Riverside, Department of Art History) brought side by side ‘portrait and anti-portrait’, blood relic from the Middle Ages and contemporary artworks.

Medieval reliquaries are not only containers partaking in the spiritual power of the holy body materials they hold. They also use biomaterials. Examples include the tongue of Saint Anthony displayed in a gold reliquary in Padua or the bust reliquary of Saint Fina in San Gimignano, an object covered with leather to evoke the skin of the 13th century girl.

Kohl’s talk focused on the silver bust reliquary of Saint Januarius (or San Gennaro) in Naples. The sculpture contains the head of the martyr decapitated in the 4th century AD. Two glass vials kept separately from the head contains his blood.

Three times a year, a religious ceremony brings the head in close proximity with the blood vials, while the public prays for the miraculous liquefaction of the blood. It is said that the blood ‘recognizes’ the relic and becomes liquid again. However, if the blood remains coagulated, it is seen as a bad omen for the city. The catholic church doesn’t allow scientist analysis but a couple of theories attempt to explain the ‘miracle.’

This kind of reliquary displays the presence of the immaterial divine into material objects. The biomaterials kept in reliquaries also stand for the dead person. They constitute a portrait that fills in the gap left after the disappearance of the human body.

Marc Quinn, Self 2006, 2006

Paradoxically, the pars-pro-toto of body part reliquaries implies the indivisible nature of the individual represented, an idea also reflected in Marc Quinn’s Selfs (Blood Heads) series. The frozen sculptures of Quinn’s head are made from 9 litres of the artist’s own blood. The artist makes a new version of Self every five years, each of which documents his own physical deterioration.

Quinn’s self-portraits stands against the traditions of blood and bone reliquaries as well as secular bust portraits. His portrays are brutally material, they are made of blood that is uncontained by skin or other protective layer. The portrays are made of biomaterial matter but they coexist with the person they are portraying.

Interestingly, one of Kohl’s final remarks was that Quinn’s blood heads suggest the vampirism of the art word that ‘sucks blood and life’ out of artists.

Source Data for Photography/12:31

On the 5th of August 1993, at 12.31 precisely, 38-year-old Texas murderer Joseph Paul Jernigan was executed by lethal injection. Before his death, he had agreed to donate his body for scientific research or medical use. Little did he know that his cadaver would be frozen, sectioned and photographed for the Visible Human Project, an effort to create an anatomically detailed data set of cross-sectional photographs of the human body, in order to facilitate anatomy visualization applications.

Jernigan was a tall man. His corpse was sliced into 1,871 milimeter-thick segments and photographed by scientists.

In her talk A Wisp of Sensation, A Slice of Life, Dr. Maria Hynes (Australian National University, School of Sociology) examined Project 12:31, a ‘reanimation’ by artists Croix Gagnon and Frank Schott of the corpse through the scientific images made in the early 1990s.

Croix Gagnon and Frank Schott, Project 12:31

Croix Gagnon and Frank Schott, Project 12:31

Each image was created by combining night photography and long-exposure photographs of the segments of the corpse on a laptop screen. The stop-motion animation of the sliced body was played fullscreen on a computer, which was moved around while being photographed in a dark environment. The resulting ‘light paintings’ show a contorted, translucent corpse that seems to glide through landscapes and evoke Francis Bacon’s works.

Hynes writes in her abstract: The images of the Visible Human Project and Project 1231, I suggest, provide different perspectives on what should be read, not as a moral claim, but as a fact about the nature of bodies; namely, that bodies are irreducible to brute matter, but also to representation and figuration, because they are the site of spiritual repetitions and the differential distribution of rhythms. Drawing parallels with Francis Bacon’s paintings, in which flesh is violently deformed by the forces that traverse it and escape from it, I suggest that the ‘immobile’ body of stasis, or even death, merely amplifies the incorporeal forces that make bodies the site of events. What these events might be is a problem that, thankfully, is never solvable by scientific knowledge, though I argue that experiments at the nexus of science and art might open up productive ways of envisaging their potentials.

Zane Cerpina, Body Fluids

Zane Cerpina, visual artist (PNEK, Production Network for Electronic Art) presented her performative art project Body Fluids. The work consists of a collection of jewelry objects made from frozen human bodily liquids, such as menstrual blood, semen and breast milk. The first performance in Cerpina’s series, “Woman’s Red”, saw performers wear necklaces and earrings made out of their menstrual blood frozen into diamond shapes.

The work explores how the human body breaks boundaries over the course of the day by urinating, sweating, salivating, crying, menstruating, ejaculating, etc. Our bodies are mostly made of fluids. Yet, body fluids are seen as repulsive and artists who use body fluids in their work are often called transgressive: Andres Serrano’s Semen and Blood photos, Franko B’s I Miss You performance, Kira O’Reilly‘s Wet Cup performance, etc.

“These works have a tendency to produce extreme reactions from the audience,” the artist writes in her abstract. “Yet these reactions stem more from culturally conditioned aversions more than a somaesthetic approach. In somaesthetics body fluids carry a much higher embodied value.”

Categories: New Media News

Oscillations. Or the grace of unpredictability

Mon, 07/11/2016 - 10:45

Joris Strijbos, Axon, 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME Gallery

Joris Strijbos‘s kinetic light sculptures are elegant, ingenious and almost minimalist. Under the deceivingly simple appearance of the works, lay systems that delve into the laws of cybernetics, play with the architecture of the space, mimic biological systems and surprise their creator with their intrinsic unpredictability.

The artist is currently showing two of his latest works in a solo show at the NOME gallery in Berlin. The first of them, Homeostase, is made of group of luminous elements that communicate with each other and devise a generative choreography based on principles found in cellular automaton and swarm intelligence. The second installation, called Axon, consists of a trio of rotating arms that explore the idea of machine synesthesia and generate their own audiovisual composition.

The two installations are composed of a series of identical elements, connected in a network and exchanging information between one another through electric signals. The collective behavior of the actuators and sensors create unpredictable patterns, as though a system of living organisms with their own variable program. A moving scene emerges, where the borders between a ‘natural’ order of things and the mechanical constructions of humans are tested.

Joris Strijbos, Homeostase, 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME Gallery

Opening | Oscillations by Joris Strijbos. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME Gallery

Strijbos is part of Macular collective, a group of artists interested in art, science, technology, and perception (do have a look at their website when you have a moment, there’s tons of talent in there) and is also an 2015 alumnus of SHAPE, a platform for innovative music and audiovisual art from Europe. I caught up with the artist right before its solo show opened in Berlin:

Hi Joris! Some of your work is inspired by early cybernetics. Why do you think it is important and relevant today to pay closer attention to early cybernetics? What can the cybernetics approach teach us about machines, living systems, intelligence, etc?

For me early cybernetics is mostly an inspiration. I like the idea that complexity can emerge from simple rule-sets and feedback loops. The fluctuating outcome of these kind of systems make me think of social interaction processes within groups of living organisms.

The works you are showing at NOME start from a set of parameters that you established and then they take a life of their own. Has this element of unpredictability ever surprised you? Do the installations sometimes behave in ways you wouldn’t have expected for example?

They definitely behave in ways that I could not have predicted, especially in the beginning of programming the installations. I start with some very simple feedback loops and see what kind of behaviour the installation performs. From there on the programming becomes more of an interaction between me and the machine. I try to provoke a certain interesting and emergent behaviour in which there is a balance between unpredictable complexity and the opportunity for the spectator to “read” the rules of the system.

Joris Strijbos, Homeostase, 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME Gallery

Joris Strijbos, Homeostase, 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME Gallery

Do you think that it is important for the visitors of the exhibition to understand the functioning of the works in order to enjoy them?

I don’t think it is necessary to have a deeper understanding of the background of these works. They are primarily build as multi sensorial installations that can be experienced in it’s abstract form. They are kinetic light works that perform a choreography which can be seen as some sort of visual music. This can be experienced without knowledge of the idea to work with artificial living systems. What I like is that by observing the works someone can detect the rules behind the actions that take place in the installation.

Joris Strijbos, Homeostase

Joris Strijbos, Homeostase

Joris Strijbos, Homeostase, 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME Gallery

I was looking at the spectacular images of Hemeostase on your website and it seems that each time you exhibited the work, it inhabited the space very differently. How are you planning to install Homeostase at NOME? How will it adapt to the gallery?

Indeed the work was first realised as a modular system that could adapt to every space. It was mainly installed as a horizontal field, either above or in front of the viewer. For NOME I made a new version of the work that gives the spectator more of a topview. The units are placed in a vertical grid which gives a good view of the interactions between the different rotating arms in the system.

Joris Strijbos, Axon, 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME Gallery

Joris Strijbos, Axon, 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME Gallery

Joris Strijbos, Axon, 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME Gallery

Axon seems to be a new work. Could you take a moment to tell us how it works and what you wanted to achieve/show with it?

Axon came forth out of the idea of machine synaestetics. I was reading in John Johnston‘s book, The Allure of Machinic Life where he writes about new forms of nascent life that emerge trough technical interactions within human-constructed environments. At the same time I was doing some research on neural networks and synesthesia. This made me think of how synesthesia could work inside a machine. And so the base for the work comes from the idea to cross sensors and actuators in a robotic community. Technically the work consists of three identical rotating arms, which have a speaker, a sensor and a light attached to it. In the work motion, sound and light are connected in a very direct way and form components for a generative audiovisual composition.

Opening | Oscillations by Joris Strijbos. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME Gallery

Opening | Oscillations by Joris Strijbos. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME Gallery

Both Axon and Homeostase “comprise a robotic community of identical elements, connected in a network and exchanging information between one another through electric signals.” Does the presence of visitor influence in anyway the installations? Or is it some kind of an internal dialogue between the elements?

In both the works there is communication trough light. This means that the units in the works can detect the amount of lumen around them. In theory a visitor could influence the system, but my aim is more on an interaction between the different units in the system instead of one with the audience.

Any upcoming projects, exhibition or research you could share with us?

At the moment I am busy with the Macular collective to set up a lab concentrating on a combination of land art and new media art. It is mainly focused on using green energy sources for kinetic light and sound installations. Furthermore I am working with artist Nicky Assmann on a project focusing on the moiré effect. We are making kinetic sculptures that play with the visual perception of complex grids. There are some exhibitions planned with new works from the project towards the end of the summer.

Thanks Joris!

Opening | Oscillations by Joris Strijbos. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME Gallery

Oscillations by Joris Strijbos opens at NOME Project gallery in Berlin until 30 July 2016.

Categories: New Media News

Entertainment for times of suspicion and uncertainty

Wed, 07/06/2016 - 03:37

Calum Bowden, Calls of Duty, 2016

Calum Bowden, Calls of Duty, 2016

Calum Bowden, Calls of Duty (trailer), 2016

There’s a long tradition of artistic infiltration into the first-person shooter game Counter-Strike. Classical examples include Anne-Marie Schleiner, Joan Leandre and Brody Condon with Velvet Strike, Eva and Franco Mattes with Freedom.

Design Interactions graduate Calum Bowden gave a more choral twist on the practice when he invited young people from the Active Change Foundation (a youth centre and leadership organisation in Walthamstow, East London) to engage in a group performance inside the famous war game. Together, they hijacked its voice channels and opened up a series of discussions with unsuspecting players who might not hold the same views as them. Participants staged their own interventions over a series of workshops. While playing, some of them started reading famous texts, others sang anti-war songs, or read ‘inspirational quotes’ by Albert Einstein or Coco Chanel. The reactions from the other players ranged from hostility to friendliness. The most open players even joined the live experiment by sharing their own messages.

Calum Bowden, Oxygen of Terror, 2016

Calum Bowden, Oxygen of Terror, 2016

Bowden recently presented the result of these intrusions into Counter-Strike at the RCA Graduation Show in London. But the designer also showed another work which uses a radically different entertainment channel to touch upon questions of radicalisation, spying and UK government role in spreading a climate of suspicion.

Oxygen of Terror is a short musical film that tells the story of a boy wrongly accused of being an extremist by his teacher in a London academy. Now i wish i could remain neutral here but i absolutely DETEST musicals. For every possible reason you can imagine. But what makes this one interesting is that Bowden subverts the genre to denounce how teachers and other people working in education are now used by the UK government as gatekeepers whose role involves spotting extremist ideas and identifying children at risk of being drawn into terrorism.

Oxygen of Terror shines the spotlight on the thin veil of liberalism too common in today’s society. The Western liberal ideology fails to even acknowledge the existence of the illiberal domestic and foreign policies it relies on.

I had a quick chat with the young graduate:

Hi Calum! If i understood correctly Calls of Duty started with a series of workshops and performances at a youth centre in Walthamstow in London? Why did you chose that particular youth center and what were you hoping to achieve there?

To date Calls of Duty has taken three different forms. I began by singing a version of the satirical Vietnam war protest song I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin-To-Die-Rag by Country Joe and the Fish that I adapted for the War on Terror, into the games Call of Duty and Counter Strike. The song was first adapted for the Gulf War in 1991 by The Passion Killers.

Then I organised a group occupation, inspired by a project I took part in at the Wysing Arts Centre called A Feminist Chorus by the artist Lucy Reynolds. Her project is about the communal voices of feminist history, and I found the format interesting because it’s not a polished performance, but more like a rehearsal, and participants are invited to bring whatever they like to the events. Each becomes the author of their own performance and a chorus is created as we all read or sing out at the same time and the individual blends into the group. For this first Calls of Duty event I invited a small group of people from a range of backgrounds – a lawyer, a teacher, an academic, a local council member, a scientist, a writer, two activists, and a journalist. Lucy Reynolds took part and gave an introduction to her project, and I invited Zahra Qadir, Social Media Officer at the Active Change Foundation (ACF). I had seen Zahra and ACF’s work in and around social media, in particular the viral #NotInMyName campaign which uses twitter to take a stand against islamophobia.

ACF is a youth centre and leadership organisation in Walthamstow that provides anyone from the area somewhere to go and hang out after school – play video games and ping pong – and then ACF starts discussions about the issues they face and works to counter messages of hatred. I wanted to learn about Zahra’s work and collaborate with ACF because of the ways they subvert the uses of social media without shying away from them. In April 2016 a performance was devised with ACF, part of the Rich Mix Cultural Foundation’s Radical Ideas series, which saw 10 teenagers stage interventions in the game Counter Strike. Over three workshop we discussed our favourite games, game genres, structures, themes, and graphics. I was interested to learn that, while they had played them, none of the people I met liked war games or first person shooters. Too boring and simple. Those on ACF’s Young Leader’s Programme develop individual campaigns which play out on twitter, youtube, instagram and snapchat, and we talked about their work. Together we played Counter Strike, and began intervening in the game ahead of the event at Rich Mix.

Calum Bowden, Calls of Duty, 2016

Calum Bowden, Calls of Duty, 2016

Could you tell us about some of the interventions? What did participants chose to read or sing? What kind of conversations were they hoping to start?

The tone of the interventions varies a lot. I thought it was important to have a sense of humour since we are essentially trolling, but some players really liked the more serious readings. One player was scheming to start a poetry expansion pack that they could sell to other players. It was interesting to see the differences between the first event where I had to give everyone a crash introduction to playing video games, and the event with AFC were everyone was able to intervene in a different way because of familiarity with the game, and ways of speaking while playing.

Here are some of the different contributions people have made:

Which Side Are You On’ from the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp
30 of the Most Inspirational Quotes of All Time
‘Time’ by Ibrahim Issifu (biggie)
The Burning of Paper Instead of Children’ by Adrienne Rich
Gimme Shelter’ by Patti Smith

Calum Bowden, Calls of Duty, 2016

Calum Bowden, Calls of Duty, 2016

​Sushi Lulu, 13 Minutes of Gender Based Sexual Harassment on CSGO

And of course i’m very curious about the response of the other players? From what i’ve seen in Sushi Lulu’s video, I’d expect them to have little sense of humour…

I think the random players are key participants as so much depends on them. There are usually 400,000 – 500,000 people on Counter Strike at any moment. The reactions we get are really varied. The most common response is a bit of swearing and joking. When I’m singing people will often start singing something back to me, choosing their own song, echoing my words, or just making loud noises to block me out. I’ve found that while the texts are a good starting point, people quickly go off book, responding to the reactions they get and having discussions with the players. There’s a feature in the game where players can vote each other out. More often than I expected, people vote for us to stay in the game. One of the best reactions was when someone was reciting a song, and this player turned out to be a Grime artist and started sharing some of his verses with them.

Calum Bowden, Oxygen of Terror, 2016

Calum Bowden, Oxygen of Terror, 2016

Now about Oxygen of Terror. I hope you won’t feel offended but i need to tell you that i absolutely loathe musicals. I just don’t get the charm. First, (and this is probably because i’m not a native english speaker), i don’t understand most of the words they sing in musicals. Then i find it a bit baroque and old-fashioned. I do like your project a lot though. Anyway, while i can see the interest of contrasting the genre and the theme of terrorism, i’m wondering what other reason(s) you might have had to use the musical genre for this project?

Not offended at all! It’s this strangeness, divisiveness and absurdity that I think make musicals interesting as a framework for criticism. It’s a highly ideological genre, which I first saw in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), an anti-opera that satirized the popular and elitist Italian opera of his time for the exact same over the top baroque qualities you talk about. Gay’s musical became the inspiration for Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera (1928), which at its best is a critique of different ways the working classes were controlled in the early 20th century. Song and humor are used to depict a muddy morality where good and bad are entangled. Brecht opposed naturalism and wanted to emotionally distance audiences thinking it would motivate a critical perspective on the construction of reality so that it might be changed. Characters erupting into song added to this distancing.

Golden age Hollywood musicals, produced in the 1930’s through 1950’s, were politically conservative, glamorising traditional family values, sexism, and racism. This was during the era of Joseph Mccarthy (1950-1957) whose witch hunt for communists bares frightening similarities to the contemporary witch hunt for ‘islamic extremists’. This was also the era of the Motion Picture Production Code (1930-1968) that banned interracial sex relationships on screen.

Musicals such as Show Boat (1951), An American In Paris (1951) or Ziegfeld Follies (1945) illustrate a vision of white utopia. In the ‘Color of Entertainment’, Richard Dyer argues that Hollywood musicals depict a reality where eruptions of song and dance break the confines of life, but that emancipation is offered only to white people: “Blackness is contained in the musical, ghettoised, stereotyped, and ‘only entertainment’… the antithesis of the entertainment offered by the musical…Where musicals most disturbingly create a vision of race is where they say that it is only the privilege of whites to be able to do this, and what that says about the white dream of being in the world.”

In Oxygen of Terror, the musical form is used to examine implications of UK government policy on terrorism and extremism with a lightness of touch, to subvert this implicit conservatism.

Calum Bowden, Oxygen of Terror, 2016

Calum Bowden, Oxygen of Terror, 2016

Also could you explain me the title? Why ‘oxygen’? (maybe it’s explained in one of the songs but as i mentioned above, i really struggle to understand the words, not in your musical in particular, all musicals are difficult to understand for me)

The title ‘Oxygen of Terror’ is about questioning what are understood to be the causes of terrorism, and is adapted from a 1985 speech in which Margaret Thatcher blamed the problem of terrorism on media. Ever since there has been international terrorism, Western governments have worked hard to find ways to avoid blaming themselves. Today the British and American governments blame terrorism on ideology.

Thatcher gave her speech in the context of the Irish Republican Army, and instead of acknowledging the direct role British imperialism and the military played in fueling terrorism, she blamed the news: “The hijacker and the terrorist thrive on publicity: without it, their activities and their influence are sharply curtailed…we must try to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity…” Thatcher put this into policy with the British Broadcasting Ban (1988-1994) which saw the voices of those seen by the government to be associated with ‘terrorist’ political parties (Sinn Fein and Gerry Adams) banned from being broadcast on TV. In an absurd twist, BBC journalists found a way of skirting the law by dubbing the interviews with voices of actors.

Thatcher’s broadcasting ban didn’t wipe out the IRA. What it did was further remove Sinn Fein and their legitimate political arguments from the British democratic process. Rather than simply media or ideology breeds terrorism, the tightly controlled mediation of Sinn Fein had the opposite effect of what Thatcher claimed, obscuring their political aims and highlighting their acts of violence. In dehumanising the terrorist other – the Irish republican – there could be no empathy with them, their acts of violence completely irrational and without cause, rather than the expression of an intense political suffocation that the broadcasting ban only intensified.

Thatcher failed to understand that terrorists cannot be starved of publicity because terrorism doesn’t breathe. There is no oxygen of terror, only suffocation. David Cameron’s current campaign against ‘extremism’ focuses on ‘poisonous’ ideologies. Both Thatcher and Cameron avoid blaming terrorism on the British government, failing to acknowledge the interplay between the violent history of British foreign policy, coercive and racist domestic policies such as the Terrorism acts of 2000, 2006 and the Prevent duty, and conflicts between State and non-state actors.

In the project description you say “The Western liberal ideology fails to even acknowledge the existence of the illiberal domestic and foreign policies it relies on.” Could you expand on that?

In my film, Mr Lambourn tells Aquil’s mother Riham, “We need the power to ban extremist organisations that promote hatred and draw people into extremism.” This is the illiberalism implicit in liberalism, and comes out of David Cameron’s Counter-Extremism Strategy (Oct 2015). There’s this belief that free speech – the pillar of ‘British values’ – is valid only up to a point, and that the government has the right to set limits on our freedoms. The UK’s legal codes confuse and create suspicion, amping up fear of the invisible to legitimise racism and racial profiling. Arun Kundnani explains in his book The Muslims Are Coming (2014) how UK terrorism legislation uses coercion to regulate muslim identity.

In the aftermath of Brexit, we have already seen a frightening increase in hate crime and racial abuse. But since 2000, UK terrorism legislation has codified xenophobia and islamophobia, and the Conservative government’s campaign for ‘British Values’ is the most recent example. In the 1984-esque area of pre-crime, the Terrorism Acts of 2000 and 2006 make things like writing poems, downloading PDFs, and posting tweets illegal. Law enforcement agencies are left to determine what exactly makes something ‘terrorist’, and rely on racist Post-911 stereotypes of Al Qaeda and ISIS. As a result, many people have been wrongly accused of terrorism for nothing more than their skin colour, taken through lengthy court proceedings to prove their innocence.

Calum Bowden, Oxygen of Terror (making of), 2016

Calum Bowden, Oxygen of Terror (making of), 2016

Why did you want to tell this story of a young guy wrongly accused of being an extremist?

We as a society claim to be fighting ‘terrorism’ but all the laws and policies do the exact opposite. In July 2015 the Prevent duty became British law, which is a duty on all schools and other social service frontliners to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. The Prevent duty has carried suspicion and fear into schools – which should be the safest of public spaces – putting children under constant surveillance, making them highly aware of whatever Britishness is supposed to be and how they might not satisfy the criteria, and terrifying them of looking like whatever a ‘terrorist’ might look like. Prevent also puts unnecessary pressure on teachers – many young, inexperienced, and from completely different backgrounds than those of their students – turning teachers into government spies and distracting them from actually teaching. In March 2016 the Nation Union of Teachers took a stand against Prevent, rejecting the scheme because of how it causes ‘suspicion in the classroom and confusion in the staff room’. On the other side, ISIS has developed sophisticated propaganda techniques that brand terrorism as something extremely appealing, drawing on the exact same feelings of difference and alienation that the terrorism acts and the Prevent duty continue to amplify.

Do you think that the work has less power/validity because after all, you are a blond English guy, thus not the typical person who’d be suspected to be a terrorist?

I think it definitely has a different validity (Also I was born and grew up in the United States but hold British citizenship). Storytelling is always political – from whose voice, from what perspective, sedimenting what kind of worldview. The stories we choose to tell create realities. For me it’s important to develop an understanding of the society I’m a part of and the privileges I’m given. While we claim to value tolerance, society becomes even more stratified by class and race. Today we are less likely than ever before to encounter people or information we don’t already agree with.

Oxygen of Terror highlights the implications of liberalism and how superficial it is. After the murder of Joe Cox, few initially called the middle-aged white man who attacked her a terrorist, as if his political intentions weren’t clearly heard as he yelled ‘Britain First’ before killing her. After the deadliest mass shooting in US history at the Orlando gay club Pulse, many hid the homophobic nature of the hate-crime behind stereotypes about terrorism and islamic extremism. The issues surrounding what we call terrorism make visible the violence needed to maintain our sense of order and stability. As Nina Power writes, for someone who doesn’t see the violence needed to maintain the Western world order, and its racist and coercive domestic and foreign policies, terrorism seems irrational and random. Terrorism is like a glitch that forces us to confront the mass violence that has replaced legitimate political power in the West. A localised sense of stability, the sense of privilege, denies the disintegration of the whole. Terrorism brings that disintegration to the surface.

Installation view at the RCA Graduation show

Both works you were presenting at the RCA Show deal with violence in one form or another. What else binds them together?

In her essay On Violence, Hannah Arendt argues that the opposite of violence isn’t non-violence, but power, understood as the human ability to act in concert. She says that while violence can destroy power – which are simply social bonds and relationship – it is incapable of creating it.

Calls of Duty and Oxygen of Terror both work to form short circuits that critique relationships between violence and power, and between ideology and action. Both projects work to explore what this kind of power might look like today, the strength of the voice, and ways that power is created in both positive and negative ways: ACF’s community centre, youth leadership programmes, and social media campaigns; Lucy Reynolds’ A Feminist Chorus; or the Hollywood musical that denies black people the freedom to break the confines of life.

What’s next for you? Any upcoming event, field of research, exhibition?

On Thursday 7 July 2016 I will be running Calls of Duty at V2_Institute for the Unstable Media, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, part of their event Test_Lab: The Graduation Edition.

Thanks Calum!

All images courtesy of Calum Bowden.

Categories: New Media News

Self portraits for bank cards investigate money circulation, art ownership and identity

Mon, 07/04/2016 - 10:55

Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša, All About You (detail), 2016. Photo: Katra Petriček

Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša, All About You (stop motion video), 2016

Since 2012, the three Slovenian artists Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša have been exploring concepts related art, identity and finance and how these 3 spheres can connect -quite intimately and literally- on a very mundane piece of plastic most of us carry in our pocket: the credit card. At the time, their ideas might have looked quite far-fetched and speculative. Printing their artworks on credit cards, for example. Or signing with their names the credit cards of other people. In 2013 however, scenarios that the artists were foreseeing seemed to materialize when the United Bank for Africa launched the “All About U” Debit MasterCard, a personalized debit card which can be customized to their customers’ whim. Mastercard and the Nigerian government pushed the experiment even further by introducing the MasterCard-branded National Identity Smart Card, an ID card that comes with electronic payment capability, demographic data as well as biometric data.

anez Janša, Janez Janša, Janez Janša, Troika (installation detail), 2013

Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša, Signatures on Maestro / Triptych / part of CREDITS series

Last year, the Janez Janša collective decided to take advantage of the personalized card service offered by their own bank in Slovenia. Each of the artist magnified the image of his ID card, and divided it into a hundred parts of equal sizes. After that, they individually applied for a new personalized Visa®, Maestro® and MasterCard® every week in the hope that each of them would gradually be able to compose a self portrait made of one hundred customized bank cards.

Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša, All About You (exhibition view), 2016. Photo: Andrej Peunik

Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša, All About You (exhibition view), 2016. Photo: Andrej Peunik

The result is a triptych of puzzles. Two of them incomplete, the blanks corresponding to decisions by bank employees to reject the design for a particular card that one of the artists had sent. Each request for a new bank card was indeed subjected to the approval of bank employees who could accept or deny the image on the basis of the bank’s image guidelines: no word in foreign language, no state symbol, no olympic sign, etc. Each time an image was rejected, the artist attempted to establish a dialogue with the bank, asking the employees to reconsider their decision. Sometimes the artists managed to make them changed their mind. Sometimes they didn’t.

This turned the production into a time-based relational performance where the relation between the artist and the producer coincided with the relation between the bank’s customer and his bank.

The triptych All About You raises issues related to art: new forms of ready-made in the age of mass customization, delegation of the manufacturing of art to others (while Koons, Hirst and Murakami have a team of artists/artisans to paint and sculpt for them, Janez Janša used their bank as some kind of printing facility), etc. The work also deals with money circulation, ownership, identification and citizenship, data collection by private entities, etc. In fact, there is so much to say about the work that i thought it would be better to let the artists say it themselves. So i interviewed them:

Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša, All About You, 2016. Photo: Katra Petriček/Aksioma

Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša, All About You, 2016

Hi Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša! The three of you applied for a new personalized Visa®, Maestro® and MasterCard® every week. How did you convince the bank to print a new card for you each time? Did you say it was an art work? Pretend you had lost the previous one and they had to send a new card again? Didn’t that annoy them?

JJ: There was no need to convince them to produce new cards for us over and over again since the personalized card service is an option offered by our bank. And we are bank’s customers… Nevertheless every single request was subjected to the scrutiny of bank’s employees who could decide to accept or deny the submitted image in accordance with the service’s guidelines.

JJ: We have never staged the loss of a bank card to obtain another. We used their online platform to submit the new image and then waited for their approval. Upon receiving a positive answer we proceeded with the order of another card and then comfortably waited at home for the delivery. Easy.

JJ: In fact banks often promote this service with slogan like “Find an artist in yourself and create unique card from your couch”. And that’s exactly what we did.

JJ: But we never told them it was about an artwork. You don’t necessarily need to tell your printing service about the nature of your print.

JJ: Afterwards all the pieces of the mosaic are also valid Bank Cards and that’s exactly how they understood them: in the way they are used to see them and to deal with them.

Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša, All About You, making of, 2016

Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša, All About You (detail), 2016. Photo: Katra Petriček/Aksioma

But maybe the bank saw your work as a great opportunity to advertise their services? Because it gives them visibility and because they play such a direct and material part of the performance. Was it ever a concern for you that your gesture would somehow be used by the bank to their own advantage?

JJ: I doubt the bank saw in our work an opportunity to advertise their services as this would imply they understood it was an artistic time-based relational performance. There should have been someone at their end capable of having a comprehensive supervision over the whole process, throughout 16 months, the time we spent on it. Instead, as we know, there were several bank’s employees scrutinizing our requests over time and I don’t believe they ever met all together around a table to compare and share all the “mosaic tiles” collected by each one of them to ultimately compose the puzzle and understand what was going on. And if they did, that might have been an excellent diversion to ease the boredom and predictability of a desk job.

JJ: By the way, if they saw that opportunity then they never really took advantage of it. It reminds me of the situation with Janez Janša, the controversial politician we took the name of back in 2007. He could have easily turned our gesture at his advantage but he never did it. If someone embarrasses you by being too supportive, too affirmative, a possible way to deal with it is to love that person back as vehemently as possible and see what happens. Instead the politician decided to go confrontational and play the “character assassination” card.

JJ: The risk of your work being used by corporations, politicians, etc. is something you have to be ready to take if you operate beyond the safe area of the cultural context.

JJ: Our work, especially the name change, has been often criticized in terms of making promotion both for politician Janša and for ourselves. But in fact the more we gained visibility, and supposedly promoted the politician, the less welcomed we were by him, his party and his people. Of course, MasterCard® is not Janez Janša but the risk is there and we consciously embrace it.

Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša, All About You. Signing

Did each of you go through the same, individual and repeated process of asking for a card over and over again? Did your experiences and personal relationships with the bank employees differ?

JJ: Many people see us as a “collective” but mostly of the time, in the work we do together, we are “forced” to operate individually due to the nature of the work itself. For All About You each of us acted independently. After all we did the same for our “common” name change, for the affiliations to the conservative party SDS lead by Janez Janša, and for many other things we did in the past. It wasn’t possible to do otherwise. One cannot apply for a collective name change; neither can he order a personalized bank card on behalf of others.

JJ: We had personal email exchange with several bank employees, especially when a submitted image was rejected. We always asked what the reason for their negative answer was. Most of the time they referred to the bank’s image guidelines published online saying that the submitted image didn’t comply with it.

JJ: We always asked them to point out exactly what article of that document our image didn’t comply with and most of the time we got a precise answer. In their image guidelines, it is stated that the design chosen to create a personalized card must not contain (or refer to):
• Insulting and provocative images, graphics and other materials with religious, racist, hateful, violent or political messages in all forms;
Here our name appearing on the ID card has been understood as a “political” content. We then asked them where they see the difference between the name of the account holder and the very same name printed on the card as personalized design. They never answered that question.
• Photos, images or graphics, state or national symbols;
Our ID cards obviously contain state and national symbols. The graphic in itself is the graphic of a state document.
• Texts in a foreign language or foreign characters;
A Slovenian ID card is bilingual therefore English words (including the word “SEX” used there instead of “gender”) appear on it.

Sometimes at the end of the mail exchange bank’s employees changed their mind and granted us the permission to use the image previously rejected. But that didn’t happen very often. A more effective strategy proved to be applying again and again with the rejected image hoping the request will be received and processed by another, less loyal, or simply more inattentive, employee.

Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša, Trust

Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša, Mt Triglav on Mt Triglav

Another of your work, Trust, similarly deals with credit cards. These two projects unashamedly blur art with money with identity…

JJ: What All About You and Trust have in common is the medium (personalized bank cards) and the “producer” of the artifact (our bank). But they are essentially two very different projects.

In Trust we invited people to approach their banks and to request a personalized card using the image of our action Mt Triglav on Mt Triglav. Then all three of us signed their cards in the signature strip in the reverse side of the card with a permanent black marker providing each “partner in crime” with the Certificate of Authenticity for that newly generated pocket-size artwork by Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša.

JJ: To twist the situation a bit more we subsequently paired participants two by two in random fashion and then asked them to perform an ultimate gesture of trust: to switch cards among themselves and live that way for at least a week. To our big surprise all of them accepted the challenge. Some of them even felt the need to provide the other with his/her card’s PIN code.

Nigerian National Identity Smart Card. Photo: MasterCard

Nigerian National Identity Smart Card. Photo: MasterCard

Why do you feel that this is an issue worth exploring at the moment?

JJ: We have always been interested in identity-related issues, in the relation subject-state, subject-corporation and corporation-state. All About You covers all of these relations commenting on how identity is constructued nowadays. The spark went off in May 2013 while reading the news about the Nigerian National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) announcing the rollout of the National Identity Smart Card, a new multipurpose MasterCard-branded identification document that includes, among many other features, MasterCard’s prepaid payment technology. The enrollment process involved the recording of an individual’s demographic data and biometric data, which would provide the basis for a “National Identity Database.”

JJ: It’s very important to question techniques and technologies for gathering data, to understand the way they are used and by whom. What’s actually happening in many African countries is that private banks and corporations are offering governments to cover costs for the realization of centralized biometric population registers. To see that happening soon in Europe or at the global level it doesn’t seem to me a farfetched scenario.

JJ: BTW, have you noticed the form, the size and the material of ID cards nowadays are often identical to those of bank cards? States are adapting to formats introduced by corporations…

Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša, All About You, 2016

How are you going to exhibit All About You? Is this going to be only a display of the cards or is there also some documentation of the whole process with videos, photos, etc?

JJ: All About You will be displayed as a framed triptych without any additional explanation of sort. We have documented and archived the whole production process including all the emails we exchanged with bank’s employees especially regarding images that have been rejected by them. We don’t think this kind of material can really add something relevant to the project. On the contrary, the risk would be to make it too didactic.

JJ: While explaining the piece to friends and fellow artists we often noticed they couldn’t really get that we got hundreds of personalized cards from our Bank over several months and that we used them to compose the blow-up image of our 3 ID cards. That’s why we decided to produce a short stop-motion video clip. But this video is not the piece in itself. It’s only a dissemination tool and as such it won’t be displayed in the exhibition.

Will you be inviting employees from the Nova Ljubljanska Banka to the opening of the show?

JJ: Yes, we will invite them. Without them All About You would never be done…

Thank you Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša!

Janez Janša, Janez Janša, Janez Janša: All About You is exhibited until 8 July at the Kulturni center Tobačna 001 in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Previously: My Name Is Janez Janša.
Related story: Biometric Capitalism.

Categories: New Media News

RAVE. Rave and Its Influence on Art and Culture

Wed, 06/29/2016 - 12:41

RAVE. Rave and Its Influence on Art and Culture, edited by art curator Nav Haq.

It’s on amazon UK and USA.

black dog publishing writes: Rave: Rave and Its Influence on Art and Culture is one of the first publications to critically engage with the historical rave movement of the 1980s and 1990s as it relates to contemporary art and visual culture.

Following the death of industrial Europe, rave emerged as Europe’s last big youth movement. This book considers the social, political and economic conditions that led to the advent of rave as a ‘counterculture’ across Europe, as well as its aesthetics, ideologies and influence on contemporary art and beyond. Combining specially commissioned texts, interviews and factual material, the book represents a broad range of artistic practices, including the work of Jeremy Deller, Rineke Dijkstra, and Daniel Pflumm, amongst many others.

In addition to artistic contributions, the book features texts by Mark Fisher and Nav Haq, as well as interviews with Walter van Beirendonck, the famous Belgian fashion designer; and Renaat Vandepapeliere and Sabine Maes, who run the legendary R&S Records.

Andreas Gursky, May Day III, 1998

Of course i was going to love this book. It features great artworks and insightful essays, it’s beautifully designed, but it also explores a cultural phenomenon i actually experienced back when i was wearing crazy fluorescent bomber jackets and unflattering combat trousers. (And there goes my pretension to write an objective review…)

Rave, that underground cultural phenomenon from the ‘80s and ‘90s, might feel incredibly distant and dated. Yet, as the publication demonstrates, much of what made and shaped the movement find echoes in today’s post 2008 crash society.

Erik Plenge Jakobsen, Everything is Wrong, 1996

First of all, rave provided an escape for those who felt lost in front of the decline of industrialism, the rise of neoliberalism and the erosion of state welfare, it gave them a sense of togetherness, of belonging to an open culture, of eluding formal structures of control.

Then of course there’s the key role played by technology. Rave music explored emerging and existing technologies, at a time when instruments became more affordable, more portable and easier to master without the need of a traditional music education. Technology also gave way to new sounds, new beats, new cut&paste and samplings and even new experiments in subverting historical sonic weapon technology in order to bring people together. Last but not least, the period saw the birth of the internet.

Unfortunately, raves were also the object of police crackdown and governmental attempts to criminalise them (making them even more appealing to young people obviously.) The Mariani Law in France, for example, linked raves to terrorism. Curator and book editor Nav Haq writes that the rave movement was not a political one. Instead, it was politicised through its criminalization by the state.

A Glossary of Rave, as illustrated by graphic designer Jelle Maréchal

As the editor of the book notes, rave remains a fairly under-explored youth movement (it’s been less dissected in studies, exhibitions and literature than punk, for example.) It is both familiar and a bit foreign. The chapter titled “Glossary of Rave” illustrates this point quite easily when it brings together words i wasn’t expecting to find gathered in the same chapter. Some are mainstream today, others are a bit forgotten, all have left marks on contemporary culture: Kraftwerk, Gabber, Haçienda, Belgian Hoover, KLF, Accelerationism, Relational Aethetics, Sonic Weapons, Sonic Weapons, Wolfgang Tillmans, etc.

It probably doesn’t matter whether you raved or whether your mum and dad fell in love and conceived you after yet another rave party, you’re bound to find RAVE. Rave and Its Influence on Art and Culture surprising, informative and highly entertaining.

Quick look at some of the works i discovered in the publication:

Irene de Andrés, FESTIVAL CLUB. Where Nothing Happens, 2013

Festival Club was an unsuccessful big entertainment complex with two stages in Ibiza. After it officially closed, the site was used for clandestine raves in the 80s and early 90s. In 2013, Irene de Andrés went back to Festival Club, found only weeds and rumble and invited one of the most famous DJs of Ibiza’s 1980s nightlife to perform a set of balearic and house with only the decaying structure as his audience.

Cory Arcangel, The AUDMCRS Underground Dance Music Collection of Recorded Sound, 2011-12

From 2011 to 2012, Cory Arcangel’s studio archived almost 900 trance LPs that had been purchased from a 1990s trance DJ. Visitors can listen to the LPS in The AUDMCRS Underground Dance Music Collection of Recorded Sound and read through a booklet containing all relevant data (format, size, speed, generation, etc.) about each record. The project underlines the personal obsession often involved with collecting, as well as Arcangel’s own interest in preserving a cultural history that relates to his work and life. “It is said that the music we hear as teenagers is, and will always be, the most important music for the rest of our lives. For me, this music is techno – the cheap, voiceless, machine-age disco that became popular in the clubs of Chicago in the late 1980s and from there quickly spread throughout the globe” (Arcangel, 2011).

Jeremy Deller, Acid Brass, 1997. Band members warming up on the South Bank, London

The Williams Fairey Band, Acid Brass – What Time Is Love

Jeremy Deller, The History of the World, 1997 (image)

“I drew this diagram about the social, political and musical connections between house music and brass bands – it shows a thought process in action,’ said Jeremy Deller. “It was also about Britain and British history in the twentieth century and how the country had changed from being industrial to post-industrial. It was the visual justification for Acid Brass. Without this diagram, the musical project Acid Brass would not have a conceptual backbone.”

Denicolai & Provoost, Nothing, 2005

In 2005, Denicolai & Provoost arranged for police vehicles, fire engines and ambulances to drive around the SMAK museum in Ghent, all siren blasting. The artists were inside the museum, organizing a rave party ‘providing the sense of an illicit event whilst surrounded by the sound of the authorities.’

Mark Leckey, Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, 1999

Matt Stokes, MASS, Exhibition View at De Hallen, Haarlem, 2011, Photo Gert van Rooij, M HKA Archive

MASS is a sound system that grows in size thanks to donations of speakers and other components from the public. The work is reconfigured differently whenever it is exhibited, acting as a sculptural metaphor for the people brought together in congregation.

Walter Van Beirendonck, Hard Beat collection, 1989-1990 (Exhibition view.) Photo M HKA

Walter Van Beirendonck‘s Hard Beat collection from Autumn/Winter 1989 took inspiration from the Belgian new beat phenomenon and made use of innovative industrial fabrics from the worlds of sport and safety, such as reflective material. Some of the designs in the collection incorporate the Sony Walkman, the 80s symbol of mobile music.

RAVE. Rave and Its Influence on Art and Culture is the catalogue of ENERGY FLASH. The Rave Movement, an exhibition on view at M HKA in Antwerp until 25 September 2016.
Also in the show: Brown Sound Kit. ‘Toilet humour for gallery space’.

I’ve been shouting my love for Walter Van Beirendonck before: Walter Van Beirendonck: Dream the world awake, The Art of Fashion: Installing Allusions (Part 2).

Categories: New Media News

Sounds from bridges, ventilation systems and other industrial spaces. An interview with Jonas Gruska

Mon, 06/27/2016 - 11:21

Jonáš Gruska, Vzduchotechnika

Jonáš Gruska. Photo by Gabriela Zigova

When Jonáš Gruska is not busy giving workshops on urban sonification, creating his own recording instruments, rehearsing with orchestras, making electromagnetic fields audible, producing compositions for an unused metallic door, or organizing a solar-powered (experimental) music festival called ZVUK, you’ll find him under bridges, inside bridges, in ventilation systems or near oil refineries exploring the surprising psychoacoustic properties of spaces and materials we might otherwise ignore.

If all these activities and achievements were not enough, the artist has also set up LOM, a music label for East/Central European experimental art and music.

Prototype instrument developed by the artist. Photo by Jonáš Gruska

Gruska was born in Czechoslovakia, he studied at the Institute of Sonology in The Hague and at the Music Academy in Kraków. This year, he is one of the super talented artists supported by SHAPE, a European platform that aims to promote innovative musicians and interdisciplinary artists with an interest in sound. I caught up with the sound prodigy over email a few days ago:

Hi Jonas! Your bio page says that one of your main focus are chaotic rhythms. These two terms are not often put together. Could you tell us what you mean by chaotic rhythms and also give some examples of it?

We’re surrounded by rhythms all the time – banging of the rain on the metallic roof, repetitive dripping of liquids in the fridge mechanism or just simple footsteps of a person in the apartment above. None of these rhythms can be defined in the terms of classic tempo notation, but we still sometimes feel their groove and they can strike our imagination or musical taste/ pattern recognition in interesting ways. The unpredictability is chaos, yet the time separated serie of “clicks” is a rhythm.

Site Specific Resonances V.

Site Specific Resonances V., a site-specific sound installation located in an abandoned post office building in Vienna, used a ventilation system as if it were a speaker. Could you describe us how you manage to ‘extract’ so many different sounds from something that looks as ‘boring’ and simple as a ventilation system?

Metallic constructions are fascinating to me because they resonate a lot, in many interesting ways. It is usually the weak points of the construction which moan and squeal the most. I love finding and exploiting these imperfections – I compose for them on the spot, treating them as very special instruments. Usually it is enough to play pure, simple sine wave through the system at very exact frequency and the whole thing starts to rattle and click, resonate. Basic input, beautifully complex output.

Jonáš Gruska, Kolokoly, 2013. Performance for bells at Kamenné square, Bratislava, Slovakia

You’ve created several works for specific places and each of them seems to either highlight or even modify the atmosphere of the places you engaged with. How do you select these places?

These places usually select me. I am being invited to create works and so far I have been very lucky and always found a way to interact with the site. I carry my custom “sound installation suitcase” assembled over last few years and it allows me to be very flexible with what I create.
Generally I believe it is next to impossible to make sound installations without caring about the site, since there is no standard of a sonic “white wall gallery”. I personally cannot imagine creating a installation which is not site-specific.

Inside a bridge in Bradislava. Photo by Angakok Thoth

And are there any dream locations you’d like to get access to in order to create new sound installations/recordings?

Recently I’ve been blessed with a permit to record inside one of the old soviet bridges in Bratislava, Slovakia. The recordings will be part of my “bridge” album which I am assembling.
One of my dreams is to record various slovak caves, but it is quite hard to get there alone and in silence (since every little noise gets drastically amplified, it is quite difficult to achieve good recording conditions in nonsolitary groups).

Vzduchotechnika. Photo by Jonas Gruska

Jonáš Gruska, Vzduchotechnika (teaser)

I like “Vzduchotechnika” a lot. The series of field recordings was taken from publicly inaccessible ventilation system machinery. How did you get access to it? Does the history of the place translates into the recordings?

At the time I was preparing a site-specific performance using the outer part of the ventilation – huge tubes at the side of the building, similar to the ones next to Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. The facilitators of the whole thing pointed out that the “innards” might be just as interesting… So I packed my recording gear and spent several hours surrounded by huge ventilation machinery. At the first glance it sounded quite dull, but upon closer examination I discovered that the place is full of small rhythms, squeals and squeaks. And I really love those. I wouldn’t say there is anything more behind it – it is just a collection of very cute and peculiar sounds, from a seemingly boring place.

I’m also curious about the sound recordings and the way you work with them. How do you decide how/when you need to modify the existing sound and when you need to keep them raw?

Generally most of my public field recording works are 90 to 100% raw, I rarely do any heavy equalization or compression. I generally try to record only when I am really happy with the sound already on the spot and don’t think about postprocessing. Obviously, it involves a lot of trying and listening, and usually takes a lot of time.

Something i noticed is that you seem to select places that are also visually interesting. Is this deliberate? Is the visual component of a space an important element of each work?

It is mostly accidental… I was lucky. My primary focus is sound.

Testing a prototype device. Photo by Acidmilk

You also make your own music instruments and microphones. Why did you feel there was a need to develop more instruments and microphones? What do they enable you to achieve that you wouldn’t be able to achieve with already existing instruments?

In the beginning it was mostly about limited resources. I was working on a budget, yet had a nerdy desire to do recordings with as little noise as possible and high fidelity. So I looked into DIY solutions for field recordists, and realized it can be actually quite interesting.

Since I was able to make affordable, good sounding mics, I was also less afraid to experiment. Like when I found a hole in the ground, I wasn’t afraid to drop my mic in it, even though I had no idea what sort of environement will it be confronted with.
Having a replacable mic helps a lot when you feel like trying new things. I even did a short piece where the mic is hidden in a croissant and it is being “uncovered” by pigeons – I would be quite scared to do that with expensive microphone.

Jonáš Gruska, Holuby, 2015. How it sounds to be eaten when you are a bread roll

Secondly, the market is surprisingly still quite limited when it comes to the field recording I am after. And the same goes for instruments, none of the available solutions didn’t really satisfy me or match my style of work. For my musical performances, I program my own synthesizers in languages such as Supercollider or Max, because there is nothing ready-made I could use. It is a lot of work, but liberating. And somewhat more satisfying.

Rúry, 2014. Photo by Jonas Gruska

Jonáš Gruska, Rúry, 2014

Rúry seemed to draw in a crowd of fascinated and curious passersby. Could you tell us about the reaction of the public to this piece and to your site-specific work in general?

Rúry is actually piece from the other side of Vzduchotechnika – the tubes are the other end of the ventillation machinery I was recording.

Generally the audience is full of people which know what they are up for, or at least they can guess. People are generally perplexed by the new context created… sometimes annoyed as well. The other day I did a live performance in a trolleybus in Bratislava. It consisted of me carrying a huge speakers on my back and doing live sonification of the trolleybus electromagnetic fields. The sounds were quite intense and there were moments when I confronted unsuspicious audience – some of the people were shocked, some were laughing, some were complaining but generally people loved it. It just broke their usual perception of the vehicle and how a sound performance can be done. And I love breaking stereotypes and creating new, challenging situations.

Do you feel that people understand and appreciate sound art as much as visual art?

I think it is slowly coming there. There is a slight overlap with the people appreciating visual art, but generally it seems like a completely different world.
I quite like the raise of ASMR art on youtube. It isn’t exactly good art (in my opinion), but bring a lot of focus on sound, time and sound quality. It feels refreshing.

I don’t know much about the contemporary art scene in Slovakia unfortunately. Are there artists and musicians whose work you’d recommend us to look at? Whether they work with computers and electronics like you or not.

I would recommend checking labels such as Exitab and Proto sites. Some interesting stuff going on there, slightly less experimental then the label I am involved with, LOM (which is obviously also worth checking out!). My most favorite Slovak band is probably Amen Tma, which is an incredible psychedelic polyrhythmic techno.

Any upcoming project, field of research or event you could share with us?

Currently I am on a residency in Czech Republic, recording sounds of contemporary village. With all the noise pollution there is. Later this year I will be finishing a field recording album of the Bratislava’s bridges and my music album “Spevy”. In the meantime probably developing some new electromagnetic devices… Lot of plans!

Thanks Jonas!

Check out this other interview with a SHAPE artist: Tanks, drones, rockets and other sound machines. An interview with Nik Nowak.

Categories: New Media News

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