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Scenography for 'Medée / Vivez comme vous voulez' (performance with Naomi Velissariou)

Karl Philips is a Belgian (h)activist, performance and conceptual artist. I discovered his work a couple of years ago when i visited the exhibition Mind the System, Find the Gap at Z33 in Hasselt (BE.) But i really took the time to click around his portfolio when my favourite blog selected him for its watchlist.

Philips casts a critical but always witty glance at society, paying particular attention to cracks in consumerism, town planning, advertising, and turning upside-down their logic. He is also one of those artists who understand that, to have any impact, activist art is best deployed in the street, not just inside the white walls of a museum or gallery.

Some of his projects involve hacking a street lantern to provide passersby and local inhabitants with free wifi and power, dressing like a train seat to cross Belgium by train, screening movies streamed from Youtube in a drive-in movie theater set up under a bridge, substituting ads on billboards with a map detailing how survive in the city of Hasselt without any financial expenses, etc. Pretty simple and pretty brilliant.

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Genk-Blankenberge-Genk, 2014

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Hand Pump Car

Hand Pump Car, 2014

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Shed, 2011

Philips has a couple of exhibitions up right now. He's part two group shows. One at the gallery Dauwens & Beernaert in Brussels. The other in Rotterdam. Hopefully, i'll get a chance to be in Antwerp (lots of exciting shows coming up at the Photo Museum!) to check out the sculpture he'll be premiering next week for the group exhibition A Belgian Politician
 at Marion de Cannière Art Space. In the meantime, i got on my laptop and asked him for an interview:

Hi Karl! Your About page talks about "a mild kind of activism" that is inextricably linked to your work. What is mild activism? How does it manifest itself? And can a mild form of activism have an impact too?

I 'm convinced that real change or influence only manifests itself indirectly. In the long run I think it's better to do so through art or culture than through direct radical activism. I think the term "mild activism" indicates a different tone.

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Concierge, 2010

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Concierge, 2010

I'd be interested to know more about Mia, the homeless woman who came to live inside one of your structures. Did she spontaneously come to live in the structure? How did you get to know each other? Did she give you any kind of 'feedback' about Concierge or your work in general?

I got to know her when I was thirteen years old. Once every year she passed by at a artist's place where I went after school since I was eleven. A couple of years ago, when she was visiting, I showed her the first designs I made. She proposed herself to represent and become a part the work. This was the first time, in my practice, that such a healthy distance was maintained between the artist and the artwork. From a neutral point of view, she talked to the people who were visiting the artwork. So while rolling a cigarette and making coffee she could easily welcome visitors, artists, curators... Due to the media attention we generated she was offered social housing. She accepted this when we were finishing "Concierge" but a month later she hit the road again.

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Good/Bad/Ugly, 2012. Photography: Stef Langmans

Another work involving temporary homes is Good/Bad/Ugly. Could you explain us the whole process? The financial transactions?

Good/Bad/Ugly consisted of three mobile living units. On the outside of the units were several advertisements. For every advertisement we received 500 € per month. That's 1000 € per month, per unit. This money (3000 €/month in total) was used for the performance: providing a living for the inhabitants. We travelled around to different locations. In theory it is illegal in Belgium to put this kind of advertising i, but it is allowed for local businesses. We created some sort of alternative community with it.

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Drive-inn You Tube

I really liked the idea of a Youtube drive-in movie theater. Could you explain us how it worked exactly? Did you select yourself the videos that were screened?

It was a video projection under a bridge. It was a costless drive in movie theater where movies were streamed from youtube. I selected the videos but the last day we screened movies suggested by the public. The project was improvised on the spot so birds were flying around during the screening and car sounds or other sounds of the environment interfered with the audio of the movies.

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24 hours / 1 meter, 2009

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Wedge, 2014

Do you ask for permit for the various interventions in public space?
And whether you've asked for permission or not, what does working in public space have taught you about the way our space is used, managed and controlled?

Sometimes we do, sometimes we don't. We try to stretch the gap between the real world and our artistic interventions as far as we can. I think I have learned that public space has lost it's political function. Public space used to be where people got together and where politics originated but nowadays everything is controlled. That makes it harder or even impossible to rethink the function of public space and of politics.

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Atelier (interior). Photography: Pauline Niks

I'm also very interested to know more about the story of your studio. It is an antique fairground attraction called Jacky. What did it look like before? Where do you buy fairground attractions? and where did you install it? In a garden? inside a bigger building?

It was a mobile game hall, like an arcade for fairs. It was based on a circus wagon that travelled around for thirty years. Without the games it is now a space of 85 square meters, it is my laboratory. It is a mobile artists studio, it has no foundations or a postal address.

Who are the emerging (or not so emerging) artists whose work you find inspiring right now?

Gordon Matta-Clark, Gilbert & George, Claude Lelouche.

Thanks Karl!

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No Title, 2014

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Colruyt, 2014

Retrospective / Introspective. Group show, Dauwens & Beernaert, Brussels, 15.01 - 13.03.2015.

no walls. Group show, Fenixloods, Rotterdam (NL), 17.01 - 17.02.2015

A Belgian Politician
. Group show, Marion de Cannière Art Space, Antwerp, 20.02 - 21.03.2015

Karl Philips - Daan Gielis - Tasya Krougovykh & Vassiliy Bo. Group show, W139, Amsterdam, June 2015

Phlogiston. Group show, (location to be determined), Split (Croatia) in July 2015.
Karl Philips, Solo show, Braennen, Berlin in September 2015.

Sponsored by:





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Karla Diaz is an activist, artist, writer and one of the founders of the artist group Slanguage Studio. A couple of years ago, she got interested in the prison food system in California and in particular in the prisoners' ingenious strategies to overcome the culinary flaws of the CDCR cafeterias.

It turns out that prisoners create their own recipes using the limited list of ingredients they can buy either from the jail commissary or the vending machines. The men also design kitchen tools using whatever is available to them and make some unconventional mixtures of ingredients to create their own unique flavours.

Diaz asked friends serving time in prisons in California to send her their own food recipes and collected them for a print on demand book called Prison Gourmet.

On a documentary and curiosity level, Prison Gourmet is a kind of culinary version of Prisoners Inventions. But Prison Gourmet is also a performance in which the artist addresses the politics of food and incarceration by reproducing prison recipes devised by inmates.

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I contacted Karla Diaz and she kindly accepted to answer my questions about Prison Gourmet:

Hi Karla! How did you get the idea to make prison recipes?

This idea first came in a meeting I had with my mentor, Manuel "Manazar" Gamboa who was an L.A. poet and playwright. He died in 2001. Manazar spent 17 years of his life in a California prison and after being released from prison, he dedicated the rest of his life writing and teaching writing to others. One day, he shared with me one of his favorite prison recipes-- a tuna casserole with potato chips and dipped pickles. I was so intrigued by the taste of this recipe, the combination of flavors, the process, and Manazar's story. I wanted to recreate this recipe and share it with others. It was not until 2010, that I had the opportunity to do so. My brother had gone to prison and I became more actively involved in the prison food system. I was amazed on the limited choices of food-packages that prisoners could eat. They are saturated with salt, oil and high cholesterol. There had been a few food strikes by prisoners demanding better food conditions. At the same time, I became aware of alternative food recipes that prisoners were eating. These recipes are made from food items that prisoners get to choose from their commissary food items. It's not the cafeteria food. They choose these food items and combine them to make their own recipes. I also learned that some of these recipes are done collaboratively. In a prison system, that tends to isolate and segregate people by race. I was so intrigued by the idea that food recipes were a means of unity. I decided to make this performance called prison gourmet, emphasizing the term "gourmet" and giving value to the prisoners as self-taught chefs.

What does (or did) the Prison Gourmet performance look like exactly?

In 2010, I was asked to participate in "Let Them Eat LACMA" a one-day event of collective performances organized by the art collective Fallen Fruit, that happened at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Prison Gourmet was originally a three-hour, one-day performance recreating recipes from California prisoners. The performance not only gave audiences free-samples of the recipes but also guided audiences through the process of which the food was made. This process is very important because prisoners make these recipes with limited cooking tools for instance, some prisoners use plastic bags, towels and t-shirts instead of pots and pans. The original Prison Gourmet also included a notebook with some of the letters with the recipes and general information on the California prison food. In 2014, Prison Gourmet was part of the exhibition "Around the Table: Food, Creativity, Community " at the San Jose museum of Art. I was glad to expand on the performance and make a full-length video of the recipes, a book documenting some of the recipes, a performance recreating one of the recipes and answering audience questions, and an installation.

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Karla Diaz, Prison Gourmet. Around the Table, San Jose Museum of Art, November 9, 2013 - April 20 2014. Photo Aperture Priority

How did you get prisoners to share these recipes with you?

I asked prisoners that I had a relationship with or friends that had a loved one in prison. Looking back, I don't think I would have gotten much response if I approached the prison institution officials. I've tried that approach before and have gotten a lot of paperwork, delay, red tape, censorship and no response. Also, you have to understand that prisoners have a different relationship to the police authorities and the amount of information they share with police. From what prisoners have told me, sometimes information whether it be written or in images can be used against them. It could be a simple letter or phone number, or an image that can be used against them. Prisoners had to trust me. And that is a very big responsibility as an artist. To keep that trust. Working with many different communities in my work, I've learned that this is one of the first most important things to build.

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Prison Gourmet, Sweet & Sour Chicken. Image courtesy of Karla Diaz

I'm also curious to know more about prisoners' cooking experiences: what kind of ingredients and cooking tools do they have at their disposal? And do you know where they cook? In their cell or do they have access to a kitchen?

I think I answered this a little bit earlier. The prisoners use limited tools at their disposal--essentially what they have available to them in their cell or what they can trade or access without permission from the kitchen. Cooling pans and pots take the place of trash bags and bath towels or t-shirts.

Could you give us some examples of creative uses of prison ingredients?

Yes, of course. One example of an interesting creative use of an ingredient is strawberry jelly. For example, in a recipe for orange chicken, a prisoner uses strawberry jelly with sugar, water and the powder drink Kool-Aid to make the orange sauce. Prisoners use pork rinds as a substitute for chicken. It's incredible how visually the strawberry jelly looks the same as the orange chicken sauce.

I suspect that Prison Gourmet is about more than just food. So which kind of issues are you exploring during the performance, how do you manage to engage the public into the discussion?

Yes, Prison Gourmet is more than just about food politics. Its about human creativity, even in the most limited of conditions. It's also about freedom. What I mean by this is that for prisoners, food consumption is not about taste. One day, I wrote to a prisoner asking him why he had made this recipe for orange chicken. I thought he really liked the taste of it. He replied that it wasn't so much the taste of these ingredients put together but that it was the memory that this created for him. Every time he made it, he remembered being home with his daughter. It meant freedom. It meant being home with his family. I also think about the impact this has on food culture, health and its context. You look at the prisons in the united states and there is a high rate and disproportionate rate of people of color (young men in particular) that are currently incarcerated...they are making alternative food practices that they learned from their culture from their memories living in their neighborhoods.

What now seems like a hipster food to eat like Korean-tacos, prisoners have already invented long ago. Taste is about remixing and remembering who they are on the outside world. It means tasting that bit of freedom....

By no means is my intention to comment on prisoners' crime or punishment. I am no one to judge this or is interested in that. I say this because there have been many audiences that have made comments that prisoners deserve to eat bad food. I try to engage audiences throughout the performance by allowing them to ask questions. To facilitate dialogue and exchange, I also keep a journal for audiences who want to comment on the recipes directly to the prisoners.

Prison Gourmet is also a book. Do you sell it? Where?

Yes, Prison Gourmet is also a book. I have self-published a limited edition of these and they are published on demand by emailing my studio website at info@slanguagestudio.com. Please make sure you write Prison Gourmet on the subject line. The first edition was published with the help of the Mexican consulate via the facilitation of the San Jose Museum of Art.

Thanks Karla!

I finally made it to the PAV - Parco Arte Vivente (park of living art) in Turin and visited Vegetation as a Political Agent. The exhibition charts a history of the plant world, by looking beyond the biological and exploring the political and social implications of vegetation. And it is pretty much as exciting as i had hoped.

Plants are not as neutral and powerless as we might think. For example, they played a particularly important role in the 17th and 18th centuries, when navigators and 'explorers' sent to discover the world ended up annexing the land, colonizing populations and looking for ways to exploit the financial potential of new plant species (culminating in the spice trade.)

At the other end of the spectrum are individuals and communities which, from the 1970s on, have been using plants to resist, revolt and defy. The exhibition tells their story through documents that date back to the first ecological revolutions, specially commissioned projects and contemporary artworks.

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Emory Douglas, Zapantera Negra. Wall painting, variable dimensions. Courtesy the artist, painted by Pietro Perotti. Photo PAV

The show opens with the mural Zapantera Negra in which Emory Douglas (Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party from 1967 until the 1980s when the group disbanded) brings together the Black Panther movement and the Escuelita Zapatista supporting the rural working-classes in Chiapas. Douglas modified one of his famous posters Afro-American solidarity with the oppressed people of the world (1969) by turning a rifle into a corn plant, symbol of Mexican populations.

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RozO (Philippe Zourgane and Severine Roussel), When vegetation is not decoration, 2014. Photo PAV

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By placing plants in the context of territorial control in colonial and postcolonial periods, RozO's When vegetation is not decoration is perhaps the work that best encapsulates the exhbition. On a larger-scale, vegetation can become a tool to manage a territory or, conversely to support resistance against foreign control. The installation, made of archive material housed inside a temporary architecture of bamboo and palm leaves, illustrates contrasting uses of vegetation in history:

First, black and white photos taken by the French army in the mid-1950s show the French army harvesting wheat in Algeria. They are protected by elite soldiers and armored units.

These images clearly depict the exploitation of land for the benefit of the coloniser. Aside from the word "Algeria" written on the grain sacks, it seems that we are witnessing a French cereal farming region. Here vegetation is clearly used to assimilate and acculturate. Vegetation is employed by the attacker and coloniser of a country or region, to deterritorialize its inhabitants. Rendering the natives foreigners in their own land was a technique that frequently used by colonisers. In the 20th Century, following the invasion of Poland, Nazi Germany implemented a wide-reaching process of "Germanisation" of the territory, to render it German.

On the other side are stills from Chien thang Tay Bac (North West Victory), a documentary filmed in 1952 by the Viet Minh military forces during the war against French occupation. The images demonstrate how Vietnam fighters used topography and vegetation as a weapon. Instead of traveling through the road infrastructure, the soldiers used pathways that allow them to avoid detection by the French occupiers and instead of using the traditional bamboo rafts to cross rivers, they built bamboo bridges that were almost impossible to detect as they were positioned 10 centimetres under the surface of the water.

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Critical Art Ensemble, Sterile Field, 2014. Photo PAV

Roundup Ready Crops are genetically engineered crops that have had their DNA altered to allow them to withstand the active ingredient of Monsanto's herbicide Roundup. Farmers who plant these seeds must use Roundup to keep other weeds from growing in their fields.

Members of Critical Art Ensemble prepared an artificial plot of land with RR herbicide, and challenged people to try and grow something in the enriched soil. The result of their efforts is depressing, it illustrates better than any essay the reason why the herbicide's nickname is 'killer exterminator'.

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Adelita Husni-Bey, Part of chronicle of zines about the English radical environmental movement (details)

The most fascinating work in the show for me was Adelita Husni-Bey's timeline of English 'green' movements between 1987 and 2004 as seen through the radical and underground zines they published. Before the widespread use of the internet, zines and magazines were the only way to spread counter-information, controversial ideas and research.

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Dan Halter, Mesembryanthemum Space Invader, 2014. Delosperma cooperi. Photo PAV

Dan Halter planted a colony of Mesembryanthemum, a flower originally from southern Africa which is considered an alien species in many other parts of the world. Once in full bloom, the plant forms the famous icon of the Space Invaders video game, suggesting thus a very literal take on the idea of invasion. Excepts that this time, the colonization is upside down: it's African invaders that are about to colonize Europe.

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Fernando García-Dory, Dream Farms The Lost Path: Learning from George Chan's Legacy, 2009-2014. Photo PAV

Fernando Garcia-Dory brings to our attention George Chan's models of Integrated Farming and Waste Management System. The IFWMS involves a closed sustainable cycle in which matter and energy flow within the productive unit, increasing yields to meet the demands in food and energy of local populations while at the same time guaranteeing the sustainability of the ecosystem.

This revolutionary model, called Dream Farms, is as yet largely unknown.

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Claire Pentecost, Greetings from the Cornbelt, 2012. Series of five postcards, poster, archival envelope Courtesy the artist. Photo PAV

Claire Pentecost's series of postcards document the artist's research in Mexico where she discovered that transgenic maize is illegally cultivated. Working with grassroots organizations in Sierra Juarez di Oaxaca, she catalogs the OGM plants and portrays them on postcards that are then distributed to Mexican farmers in the hope that they will help stop the contamination.

More images from the exhibition:

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Imre Bukta, In The Cemetary Of Farm Wagons, 1976. Photo PAV

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Imre Bukta. Photo PAV

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Piero Gilardi, O.G.M. Free [G.M.O. Free], 2014. Costumes for political animation, painted expanded polyurethane, cloth and mannequins. Photo PAV

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Adelita Husni-Bey, Story of the Heavens and Our Planet, Archetype I, 2008-2009 (installation view.) Photo PAV

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Amilcar Cabral. Photo PAV

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View of one of the exhibition rooms. Photo PAV

Vegetation as a Political Agent was curated by Marco Scotini. It is on view at the PAV - Parco Arte Vivente in Turin until 11 January 2014.

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Anthony Clair Wagner. Photo: Fanny Carinasdotter

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Umeå Skafferi / Umeå Pantry at Pilgatan 16 (photo)

It's almost 2015 and i still have to write reviews of a couple of festivals i've visited over the Autumn. The first one that was languishing in my draft is the very smart, very socially-engaged and exciting Survival Kit festival in Umeå, Sweden. The event explored the theme of local and global survival through the lenses of visual art, music, food, discussions and lectures.

How can we look at issues such as ecology, economy and human survival at large? And on a more personal level: how can I navigate as an individual in this new and complex world?

Wherever we look, there is a feeling how being disconnected, of living in the midst of uncertainties regarding our economic and political systems, social structures, and ecological future. The Survival Kit Festival looked at what can be done to regain some control. The artists and activists selected don't stop at denouncing what is wrong with society and the world at large, they also document or implement small, practical solutions that might ensure our survival. These experiments go from building a biodome with an aquaponic system for fish and vegetable cultivation to converting a parking lot into a collective garden. From proposing a new currencies for culture to inviting the public to a cup of chaga mushroom tea.

I had never been to Umea. It's a small city and it was pissing rain all along. Yet, i found that place amazing: strong leftie values, free wifi on public buses, a culture of veganism and cheerful cut-out figures greeting you at the entrance of supermarkets:

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Also i slept inside a prison cell. So what was not to love?

Here's a small selection of the works i discovered at the festival:

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Joost Conijn, Wood Car, 2002

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Joost Conijn, Wood Car, 2002

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Joost Conijn, Wood Car, 2002

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View of Joost Conijn video installation inside John Söderberg's caravan, at Verkligheten. Photo: Fanny Carinasdotter

In 2001 Joost Conijn spent the Summer riding a car he had built himself through Eastern European countries. The car is made out of wood, it runs on wood and because the world economically runs on oil, the artist wasn't going from petrol station to petrol station (like we normally would) but from rural area to rural area with no specific destination nor itinerary.

His objective was to use the plywood-clad vehicle as a ploy to generate unexpected situations and meetings across the road. The film of his expedition shows people in small villages guiding him to local saw-mills, offering him spare wood and inviting him to a picnic.

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John Söderberg at Verkligheten. Photo: Fanny Carinasdotter

Conijn's film is screened inside John Ola Söderberg's caravan. I really REALLY like that one, it is simply a caravan made out of a caravan.

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Siri Hermansen, Chernobyl Mon Amour, 2012 (video still)

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Siri Hermansen, Chernobyl Mon Amour, 2012 (video still)


Chernobyl Mon Amour, 2012 (Extracts)

Siri Hermansen's films shows what might emerge from complete despair and devastation. The festival was screening two videos that document the survival strategies developed by local communities and individuals who have chosen to live in Chernobyl and Detroit.

In Chernobyl Mon Amour, the artist follows two state-employed guides who take catastrophe tourists, journalists and scientists to the exclusion zone of Pripyat, a city built for the families of power plant workers and evacuated at the time of the disaster in 1986.

In the interview, they talk about their fondness of the area. One of them even describes how he believes that his body is now accustomed to the radioactivity and how, after five years in the zone, his body actually gets ill when he enters the normal world. They both stay longer and longer periods in Chernobyl, ignoring the breaks their doctors advise.

They add that if you look around, it appears as if the whole nature is thriving in this radioactive environment. More and more animals are moving into it and vegetation grows unrestrained.

To them the zone offers a unique situation of hope, freedom and possibility within the hardships of Ukrainian society, and they describe Chernobyl as their "paradise".

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Siri Hermansen, Land of Freedom, 2012

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Siri Hermansen at Verkligheten. Photo: Fanny Carinasdotter

In the other film shown in the gallery, Land of Freedom, Hermansen follows the members of The Yes Farm, an artistic/activist community that moved from San Francisco to Detroit where they repaired and settled in one of the city's many abandoned buildings. The members of the collective see Detroit as an opportunity to explore new ways to live a more sustainable and socially-conscious life, through farming, gardening and a return to skills that the Fordist economy made obsolete.

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Gunilla Bandolin, Bi installation at Verkligheten. Photo: Fanny Carinasdotter

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Gunilla Bandolin, Bi installation at Verkligheten. Photo: Fanny Carinasdotter

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Gunilla Bandolin, Bi installation at Verkligheten. Photo: Fanny Carinasdotter

If the earth was destroyed, Gunilla Bandolin would start building up the whole survival process with a bee-hive. Bee hives provide you with honey and pollen, the bees would pollinate the few plants that subsisted and new crops would grow. A beehive also produces surplus warmth, and thus cheap, retrievable energy.

It is a prototype like this, or the beginning of it, that I have tried to create in this exhibition. I want the bee-hives to be made in a transparent material and preferable place them in a shopping centre to remind people of the conditions of our existence. It is calculated that about 70% of what we have on our daily plates is dependent on pollinating insects.

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Kaspars Lielgalvis, Non-convertible culture currencies

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Kaspars Lielgalvis, Non-convertible Culture Currencies in Trailer Gallery, at Umeå University. Photo: Fanny Carinasdotter

Artist and art manager Kaspars Lielgalvis proposes the use of a new culture currencies as a possible solution to the situation of funding culture which has suffered greatly from the ongoing financial crisis.

This new medium of exchange, called Non-convertible Culture Currencies, would be used only in the cultural context. The first Culture currency - Dobžiks is already in use since March 2012 as a valid payment for entering events at the Totaldobže Art Center in Riga. There is a plan to create a worldwide network of those organizations that will accept Culture currencies and use Culture currencies as a payment for work which is done in cultural field and in most cases is paid too less.

Other works and images from the festival:

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Anthony Clair Wagner. Photo: Fanny Carinasdotter

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Anthony Clair Wagner. Photo: Fanny Carinasdotter

Isabelle Fremeaux, John Jordan and Kypros Kyprianou, Paths Through Utopias (trailer)

Isabelle Fremeaux, John Jordan and Kypros Kyprianou spent seven months on the road visiting eleven Utopian communities across Europe, documenting a parallel universe where money is worthless and private property has been abolished.

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Antti Laitinen at Verkligheten. Photo: Fanny Carinasdotter

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Lisa Busby. Photo: Fanny Carinasdotter

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Emma-Lina Ericson, I Still Have an Other-Ache at Kungsgatan 92. Photo: Fanny Carinasdotter

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Atsuko Otsuka's photo showing animals living in the "no-go zone" in Fukushima. Photo: Fanny Carinasdotter

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Erik Sjodin, installation with aquaponics system

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Erik Mikael Gudrunsson's work

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Chto Delat, The Tower

The festival, which ran in collaboration with Survival Kit 6 in Riga, was organised by Verkligheten, a non-commercial and artist-run gallery that explores various kinds of art expressions.

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Photo: English Disco Lovers

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Photo: English Disco Lovers

For most people, EDL is the acronym of the English Defense League, a far-right group that regularly and vehemently protests in the street against what it considers to be a spread of Islamism and Sharia in the United Kingdom. Over the past two years however, a number of UK residents have started to associate EDL with another movement: the English Disco Lovers. The story started as a joke when art student Chris Alton decided to reclaim the acronym and google bomb EDL so that English Disco Lovers would appear on top of the results for the search 'EDL' and the three letters would, over time, be associated with tolerance, multiculturalism and equality. Another key strategy of English Disco Lovers consists in participating to counter-English Defence League demonstrations across the UK, wearing garish shirts, dancing to disco music and singing "Go! Walk out the door! Turn around now 'cause you're not welcome anymore!" to the members of the islamophobic group.

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Photo: English Disco Lovers

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The English Disco Lovers manifesto

As the popularity of its online and offline presence demonstrates, English Disco Lovers has grown into a socially-engaged project that is far more powerful than what its initiators had initially envisioned. I talked online with Chris Alton about the EDL adventures, the wrath of the original EDL, the positive changes a humorous campaign can yield and how English Disco Lovers fits into the history of disco music.

Hi Chris! Who's Alex Jones? i keep finding his name rather than yours in all EDL interviews. he seems to have had a Quaker upbringing as well.

Alex Jones is my pseudonym. At first it was a safety precaution, as the English Disco Lovers email account had been receiving death threats from EDLers who were none to pleased about my cheeky acronym-pinching antics. I didn't fancy a bunch of heavies turning up on my doorstep, so I did the sensible thing and used a fake name. If you look at my TEDxYouth@Hackney talk I'm even wearing a mirrorball mask. The name and mask ultimately became a license to 'perform' Alex Jones. I see him as an idealised aspect of myself, given form and amplification.


A new meaning for disco beats: Alex Jones at TEDxYouth@Hackney

When i first read about your EDL project, i assumed it was just great fun and pleasant anti-racism but then i read in an interview that some of you actually attempt to discuss with members of the English Defense League? Do you manage to achieve something by engaging in conversations with them? Because they look pretty scary and some might be very annoyed by your own take on the acronym...

Yeah, through running the project that dialogue opened up. I'd get the odd message from an English Defence League member, one said, "hate the idea, but love the badge". He was referring to our logo, so I offered to send him a badge with it on. Those messages would become inroads, which allowed me to speak to them on a one-to-one basis about why I was doing what I was doing and why they were doing what they were doing. On mass they're a pretty scary bunch, but over social media there's (unsurprisingly) less to fear. In some cases the discussions led nowhere, but in others I found that the English Defence League members opened up to the possibility that their EDL could be causing an increase in the radicalisation of young Muslims, a few even left the organisation (or so they told me).

You wrote me that one of your sources of inspiration was your Quaker upbringing. What has the Quaker education taught you that helped you set up and run the EDL?

Since a young age I've been around people who are more actively engaged in changing the world than most. Quakerism exposed me to countless individuals and groups campaigning in various ways for numerous causes. At the age of 14 I met a woman who'd canoed out to the Trident Submarines in Faslane, planted potatoes onboard, then tried to make her getaway before being surrounded by vessels far superior to her tiny canoe. She was in her 60s at the time and at 17, I was present at the British Yearly Meeting where Quakers made the decision to allow same sex marriages and to lobby the government to legalise them.

Those are two examples among many, both of which exemplify the commitment of Quakers to peace, equality, simplicity and truth (the Quaker testimonies), despite the approaches being so different.

I think it's clear that some of the testimonies mentioned above manifest themselves in English Disco Lovers. It's a peaceful alternative to the English Defence League, which supports equality and togetherness over the divisions the other EDL capitalise upon and exacerbate.

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Photo: English Disco Lovers

You've been working on EDL for two years now. What have been the most surprising moments in the life of EDL?

As you can imagine there have been many! Getting it off the ground was certainly a surprise. When I made the Facebook page I never imagined the idea would move beyond my friendship group. However, after less than 6 months of using social media to generate interest in the idea, I got an email from Dorian Lynskey, a writer at The Guardian. He asked me a few questions via email and wrote a piece on English Disco Lovers, which was featured in The Guardian's G2 in February 2013.

Then in April 2013 I went down to Brighton for a counter-English Defence League demo. I was surprised to find a mass English Disco Lovers presence opposing the EDL march, bedecked in disco gear (I'm talking wigs, sequinned shirts, flares, the lot) and singing along to disco classics like Chic's "I Want Your Love". When they launched into Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" and told the English Defence League to, "Go! Walk out the door! Turn around now 'cause you're not welcome anymore!" the surrounding protesters joined in and danced along. I surprised that people felt so strongly about an idea that I'd brought into the world, and that they were willing to spend their afternoons embodying it!


Clips of the English Disco Lovers (EDL) at the counter-MfE demonstration on 21/04/2013


Chic, I Want Your Love

Why did you chose disco rather than any other type of music?

The choice of disco is fundamental to the ideology of English Disco Lovers, not only because of the genre's positive sound, but due to the history of disco. In the 1970s discotheques were havens for minorities, they brought together people of every colour and sexuality to listen to music that celebrated unity and self-expression. In 1979 there was an anti-disco rally called Disco Demolition Night, which involved the destruction of disco records. It has been said that the event had racist and homophobic undertones and that it played a significant role in the decline of disco's popularity.

It's also significant that, the word discotheque comes from Nazi occupied France, where jazz music was banned, as it was seen as a potential music of revolution. As live performances were deemed to be too obvious, citizens began to opt for underground bars where they could listen to recordings. These places became known as record libraries, which translates into French as 'discotheque'.

I wanted to redeploy this history in opposition to contemporary intolerance and the recent rise of right-wing extremism in the UK. The English Disco Lovers' motto is "Unus Mundas, Una Gens, Unus Disco", so it's also worth mentioning that, in Latin, disco could be understood to mean 'I learn', 'I learn to know', 'I become acquainted with'.

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Photo: English Disco Lovers

Apart from google bombing the far-right group, what do you hope to achieve with EDL?

Well, English Disco Lovers has already achieved many things beyond google bombing the English Defence League. For example we've been holding disco nights for about a year and a half, where the profits are donated to charities that tackle issues such as racism, HIV and hate-crime. We've held nights in London, Brighton, Bristol and Manchester, so I hope that these nights continue to grow in popularity and that we can continue spreading the "Don't Hate! Gyrate!" message.

What is next for EDL? any upcoming performance or meeting?

Well I'm heading down to Brighton in early January to meet with two stalwart English Disco Lovers about this very question, what next? I intend to step away from the project for a while and focus on new work, so the future of English Disco Lovers is a little uncertain at the moment. We have a few DJ sets booked in the coming months, which will be posted up on our website and social media, but in terms of big plans and aims, we'll all have to wait and see.

Thanks Chris!

English Disco Lovers is part of an exhibition at the Collyer Bristow Gallery in London. The show remains open until Jan 28th, 2014.

Come Together. The Rise of Cooperative Art and Design, by writer, artist and cultural historian Francesco Spampinato

(available on amazon USA and UK.)

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Publisher Princeton Architectural Press writes: The past twenty years have seen a new generation of artists working together in small groups and large collectives to explore new avenues of art, design, performance, and commerce. In Come Together, author and visual artist Francesco Spampinato assembles an international roster of forty of today's most exciting and influential collectives, from design studios like Project Projects and political performance artists The Yes Men to flash mob provocateurs Improv Everywhere and the multimedia artists Assume Vivid Astro Focus. Alongside visual portfolios of their best work are in-depth interviews addressing each group's unique motivations, processes, and objectives. What emerges is a shared desire to turn viewers into producers and to use commercial mass-media strategies to challenge prevailing social, political, and cultural power structures. Come Together is an essential resource and inspiration for students, art lovers, and anyone interested in the cutting edge of visual culture.

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Ivan's Dogs, We Provide The Smiles, 2006

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ruangrupa, Poster for the OK. International Video Festival

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PSJM, Capitalismo 1712-2010, R.I.P

Come Together offers a collection of interviews with dozens of art collectives that work with society, rather than as mere observers of society. The groups selected use graphic design, fashion, performances or publications to question economic structures, brands, mass media, the police and other state institutions. Their strategies and objectives might differ but what brings many of them together is the way they leave a space for the public to take an active role in their actions.

Each collective is given its own chapter in the book. They are introduced by a brief data sheet that includes key words summing up their activities, a list of the members (when known) and a reference to a publication that focuses on their work. But the main content is an interview with the collective. Each of these groups are asked the same questions. They range from "why work collaboratively?" to "Does your engagement with one another translates into an engagement with the public? How so?"

Since i love discovering artists with a political agenda, i'm pretty happy with my copy of Come Together and i can only applaud the fact that the author has looked beyond the usual U.S. and the European Union and included groups from Jakarta, Tokyo, Buenos Aires in his selection. I did however wonder whether an artistic duo that works mostly in a gallery context has indeed its place in the book (i won't give names, unless you ask politely.)

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The Space Hijackers comment on the absurdity of the legalese of the Olympics (image via buzzfeed)

The brilliant Space Hijackers define themselves as "an international band of anarchitects who battle to save our streets, towns and cities from the evils of urban planners, architects, multinationals and other hoodlums".

The group's many activities aims to underline and fight peacefully the destructive influence that corporations have in society. Some of their interventions have included being anointed the "Official Protesters Of The London 2012 Olympic Games", rolling out a guerrilla benching operation (restoring public benches that had been removed and bolting them to the ground), and inviting coffee drinkers and others to use games in order to protest against Starbucks, this "neo liberal global capitalist thug".

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Billboard Bustcards

SH made billboard-sized versions of the bustcard flyers they were already handing out at demonstrations, to inform protestors of their legal rights, in the event that should they be arrested or stopped and searched.

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Superflex, Copyshop

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Superflex, Copyshop

Superflex makes 'Tools', proposals that invite people to participate in and communicate the development of experimental models that alter the economic production conditions. These tools are developed for people to use, replicate and modify.

Their Copyshop worked as both a shop that sold products challenging intellectual property and as an information forum that investigate the phenomena of copying. The goods on sale were modified originals, improved copies, political anti-brands - or a Supercopy as the new original.

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Center for Tactical Magic, The Tactical Ice Cream Unit, 2005

The Center for Tactical Magic is another favourite of mine. The group aims to engage communities into political thinking and acts of positive social transformation.

Their Tactical Ice Cream Unit is designed to operate and look like a police force's mobile command center. On board are high-tech devices (including a video surveillance system, acoustic amplifiers, GPS, satellite internet, emergency gas masks, and a media transmission studio capable of disseminating live audio/video) and ice cream. It not only monitors police action at a demonstration but can also offer protection to protesters.The TICU operators also hand out free cones along with receive printed information developed by local progressive groups.

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Friends With You Parade, Art Basel, 2006. Photo: Joel Mangrum

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Friends With You Parade, Art Basel, 2006 (photo via flavorwire)

And now for something completely different...

FriendsWithYou make plush and wood toys, immersive (and often inflatable) art installations, sculpture and painting, playgrounds, and performance pieces that entertain the public.

FriendsWithYou opened the 2006 edition of Art Basel Miami with a Skywalkers parade staring balloons, ranging from 5 to 60 feet, to celebrate the solar system's "formal acceptance into the universe."

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Improv Everywhere, the NYC No Pants Subway Ride, 2012. MOREimages: Andrzej Liguz

Improv Everywhere is at the origin of numerous pranks. The most famous of them is probably the No Pants Subway Ride. The first one took place on the NYc subway in 2002 with seven participants. The movement has since spread to countries around the world and is now a cultural phenomenon.


Paper Rad, P-UNIT-1 !!PART ONE!!


Beginning of the Paper Rad - Trash Talking DVD

Paper Rad makes comics, zines, video art, net art, MIDI files, paintings, installations, and music. Its style is called "Dogman 99", a direct reference to Danish filmmaking movement Dogme 95. Paper Rad's rules are: "No Wacom tablet, no scanning, pure RGB colors only, only fake tweening, and as many alpha tricks as possible".

Paper Rad often recycles or appropriates sounds and images from all kinds of sources: old cartoons, commercials, late-night television, video games, etc.


Made in L.A. 2012- Welcome to Slanguage Studio

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Custom Sneaker and Shoe Workshop, 2009

Founded by Karla Diaz and Mario Ybarra, Jr. in 2002, Slanguage uses art education and exhibition to discuss meaning and value of contemporary art in the community of in Wilmington, a harbor area of Los Angeles where they both grew up. Before it closed, Slanguage Studio had grown into a gallery, a site for workshops and events open to the local community, as well as an artist residency.

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Zulf (brunette), 2014. Courtesy Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin

Slavs and Tatars has the best name ever and explores a shared sphere of influence between Slavs, Caucasians and Central Asians.

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