This Will Have Been: Art, Love, and Politics in the 1980s, by Helen Molesworth, chief curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) Boston.
Publisher Yale University Press writes: Art of the 1980s oscillated between radical and conservative, capricious and political, socially engaged and art historically aware. Published in association with the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, this fascinating book chronicles canonical as well as nearly forgotten works of the 1980s, arguing that what has often been dismissed as cynical or ironic should be viewed as a struggle on the part of artists to articulate their needs and desires in an increasingly commodified world. The major developments of the decade--the rise of the commercial art market, the politicization of the AIDS crisis, the increased visibility of women and gay artists and artists of color, and the ascension of new media--are illuminated in works by Sophie Calle, Nan Goldin, Mike Kelley, Jeff Koons, Sherrie Levine, and Lorna Simpson, among others. Essays by leading scholars provide unique perspectives on the decade's competing factions and seemingly contradictory elements, from counterculture to the mainstream, radicalism to democracy and historical awareness, conservatism to feminist politics.
Unlike the fashion of that decade, the art of the 1980s never really benefited from a revival. It generally remains overlooked and unbeloved. Yet, while reading through this book, i realized that just like today's artists, the artists of the '80s had plenty to fight for and fight against.
Many factors contribute to make the 1980s a fascinating period: the HIV/AIDS crisis, Ronald Reagan elected twice as the President of the U.S.A., the secrecy surrounding gay and lesbian life (Molesworth argues that the 1980s began with feminism and ended with queerness), queerness itself which i think is a very 80s word, the return to figurative imagery, a world that became increasingly media-saturated (and indeed the artists represented in This Will Have Been belong to the first generation to have grown up with a television in the home), etc.
But the 1980s are also hold mirror to our times. Think of the ongoing resurgence of feminism, the current debate about footballers ashamed to 'get out of the closet', the Occupy movement which has so much in common in form and force with the ACT UP actions against a governmental lack of concern for the AIDS pandemic, the global economic recession, etc. Are we as combative, as revolted, as inspired as they were in the '80s? Is there anything today's socially-engaged artists can learn from a previous generation?
This Will Have Been is the catalogue of an exhibition of the same name. It is only one of the many possible retrospectives of art in the 1980s. First of all, because it is very U.S.A.-centric but also because it looks at the artistic production of that decade through the lens of desire.
This Will Have Been is divided into four non-hermetical sections that each explores a specific issue/desire.
"The End Is Near" is about the desire to break with the past. The 1980s was characterized by debates about the end of painting, the end of the counterculture, the end of history, the end of modernism.
"Democracy" addresses political desires under the conservative governments of Reagan and Thatcher, and in particular the renewed interest in the street as a site for public intervention, the increasing awareness of the importance of the mass media, the growing prominence of South and Central American artists and artists of color, and the pervasive commitment to the political that shaped the period.
"Gender Trouble" elaborates on the implications of the 1970s feminist movement by gathering works that interrogate and ultimately expand our sense of the social construction of gender roles.
In "Desire and Longing" artists working with appropriation techniques are held in relation to the emergence of queer visibility brought on by the AIDS crisis.
Peter Hujar's portray of members of the gay subculture in New York's East Village were often part document, part theater--collaborative performances between himself and the person in front of the camera.
Formed in 1982 and dissolved in 1998, the seven-person Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC) explored Britain's emerging multicultural society, combining a montage aesthetic with personal reflection to invent a new genre of moving image that challenged traditions of British documentary and drama, and profoundly influenced contemporary avant-garde film-makers and theorists.
The painting of a blond and blue-eyed Reverend Jesse Jackson's was originally installed in Washington, DC, near the National Portrait Gallery which displayed no portraits of blacks at the time. Misinterpreting the work as racist, local African American youths smashed the piece with sledgehammers. The painting was moved into a traditional gallery and David Hammons subsequently added a row of upside-down hammers as a reference to the incident.
Marlon Rigg's Tongues Untied mixes documentary footage with personal account and fiction to address the specificity and difficulty of being both black and gay in North America.
Richard Hamilton's Treatment Room, where a video of Thatcher giving a speech plays over a hospital bed in a bleak room, was an urgent response to the assault on the National Health Service.
The design of the catalogue (by Scott Reinhard Co. with James Goggin) is particularly stunning, simple and efficient.
Disobedience Archive is a video collection which explores four decades of social disobedience: from the uprising in Italy in 1977 to the anti-globalization protests and to the insurrections in the Middle East.
The Castello di Rivoli is a stunning contemporary art museum a few kilometers away from Turin. The exhibition had a theme i'm particularly interested in. The works brought together were worth the trip to Rivoli. So far so good. Except that Disobedience Archive (The Republic) was an extremely frustrating exhibition. Videos that were made to inspire people to question, contest and discuss suffer from being hosted into a grand castle located in a provincial town. Rivoli might be one of the most prestigious contemporary art centers in Europe but the well-earned title is not enough to attract the crowds. When i visited the show, on a Saturday afternoon, the rooms were almost empty.
Still, splendid castle to spend an afternoon:
This one is part of the collection of the museum. It has nothing to do with Disobedience Archive but how could i resist adding it:
But let's get back to my grievances about the exhibition. The whole setting was as unappealing as possible: aside from a stern broadsheet at the entrance of the show, there is no information to give context and meaning to the works. The chairs to view the videos -some of which are over an hour long- are remarkably uncomfortable. There are too many videos to see in one visit and i'm not sure many people are ready to shell out 6.50 euros each time they want to come back and watch the films they had missed on their first visit.
There is a website for the video archive. It contains no video at all.
A frustrating exhibition thus. I would have liked everybody to spend hours watching the videos but i can't blame anyone for not doing so. This was a show that only the 'intellectual elite' would have seen. It shouldn't have been. Still, i'm glad i fancied myself as being part of that 'cultural elite' because the content was exceptional.
The archive is divided into nine sections: 1977 The Italian Exit looks at the revolutionary movements in Italy in the 1970s, with a focus on 1977, year of large-scale violent confrontations with a reactionary state. Protesting Capitalist Globalization documents or comments on the new social wave against globalization. Reclaim the Streets presents proposals to create autonomous social spaces through experimental forms of education, community, urbanism and architecture. Bioresistence and Society of Control refers to Foucault's analysis of the ways the operations of power extend beyond the institutions of state. Argentina Fabrica Social explores the political and economic crisis that stretched from the 2001 uprising to the election of Néstor Kirchner. Disobedience East brings together videos of political and activist art from post-communist Europe. Disobedience University shows alternative practices and strategies in which consumption is seen as a form of co-realization and collaboration. The Arab Dissent tries to raise questions about changes and antagonism in the Middle East. Gender Politics suggest the destruction of gender identity.
The show counts 57 videos. I wish i could link to all of them but only a handful can be viewed online. Here's my very subjective selection.
Unsurprisingly i made a beeline for the section entitled Bioresistence and Society of Control as it focused on issues encountered within prisons and asylum centers, on bacteriological experiments in warfare programmes and on other strategies deployed in the modern state to regulate and control life.
The Critical Art Ensemble had 3 films in the show. One of them was GenTerra, a collaboration with Beatriz da Costa. The video documents a participatory "theater" performance that gave the public an opportunity to get a more critical and hands-on understanding of transgenic organisms in relation to environmental and health exposure.
No video for Ashley Hunt's work, alas! In Corrections, the artist investigated the privatization of the prison system in the United States, exposing the role of the penal institution in preserving racial and economic divisions within society.
Angela Melitopoulos filmed three interviews with sociologist and philosopher Antonio Negri. The first in 1997 while he was in exile in Paris, the second in 1998 in the cell of Rebibbia prison in Rome, and the final one in 2003 in Rome, after his release.
Negri's report on his life as a prisoner describes new forms of control in the penal system, the psyche and mentality of prisoners, and forms of resistance with which he was able to retain "the freedom of his spirit".
Videograms of a Revolution uses -professional and amateur- video archives to examine the role of television in the infolding and understanding of the 1989 Romanian revolution. 'Demonstrators occupied the tv station in Bucharest and broadcast continuously for 120 hours, thereby establishing the tv studio as a new historical site.'
Half of the videos in the section The Arab Dissent were dedicated to the occupation of Palestine.
Khaled Jarrar, Infiltrators (Trailer), 2012
Khaled Jarrar's Infiltrators follows individuals and groups as they are looking for gaps in the seven meter high wall that separates the Palestinian territories from Israel.
I only saw one film in the Disobedience University selection and i think i struck gold with that one:
According to professor Yeshyahu Leibowitz, "the honest man should know that he should never respect the law too closely". Israeli filmmaker and critic Eyal Sivan sat down with the philosopher and listened to him talk about ethics, science, values, but also about State, religion, law and human responsibility.
Even though Leibowitz took part of in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, he openly criticized the politics of the State of Israel, in the name of a Jewish tradition of responsibility and divine law. During the conversation, the philosopher expresses his support and solidarity with the Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories.
The 57 videos were accompanied by two thematic rooms. The opening one contained artworks and archive documents related to the student and workers protests in the Italy of the 1970s. Again, a bit of context and explanations would have been welcome.
The final room amassed books, props and other objects associated with political and social dissent in first decade of the 21st century. Works by Nomeda & Gediminas Urbonas, Superflex, Journal of Aesthetics & Protest, Oliver Ressler, Arseniy Zhilyaev, Critical Art Ensemble, etc. It should have been a fascinating, informative and inspiring display. Alas, and I'm going to repeat myself, short texts about their meaning and significance would not have been superfluous (the ones in the broadsheet/guide of the exhibition were a bit too general.)
The Weather Underground -also called the Weathermen- were a 1970s American radical left organization characterized by positions that included the opposition to the Vietnam War, the achievement of a classless world, a marked sympathy for the radical Black Panthers, etc. Their strategies included active recruitment in schools and violent militancy.
The Weather Underground inspired The New Weathermen, a fictional group of activists at the center of David Benque's investigation into the interrelationship between ideology and science. The New Weathermen are equally dissatisfied with the state of the world but the focus of their demands is climate crises rather than capitalism and racial privileges. Their weapon is not the bomb but Synthetic Biology.
Their ideas to achieve radical environmental change are neither the ones of the Bio-Conservatives who argue for a curbing of consumption, a return to an unadulterated Nature and are suspicious of new technologies. Nor are they the ideas of the Techno-Progressives who enthusiastically embrace progress, and see technological and scientific developments as the solution to modern problems.
Instead, The New Weathermen are looking into possible alternatives for the relationship between environmentalism and science. Among these are the DIYBIO or Biopunk movements and the campaign for open access to science, as well as efficient, headless and cell-based networks of activists such as Anonymous.
Challenging the borders between activism and crime, The New Weathermen's actions aim to disrupt the status quo and propagate an ambitious vision for the greater good. Deliberately radical and ambiguous, they provide a starting point for discussion about our existing beliefs and ideologies.
The whole ethos of the New Weathermen is based on the idea of the symbiosis (see the PDF of their manifesto):
The New Weathermen's ambitions are represented in their testing rigs and small scale experiments that reflect much more radical ambitions and are designed to make people aware of the group's larger mission. Their plans are slightly delusional (some are very seducing though.) Here are 3 of them:
The first one is The Pirate Pollen Club which targets the perfectly manicured lawn of the suburbs and golf courses. The New Weathermen would use Open Source GMO weed able to remove the gene responsible for the grass resistance to herbicide and ultimately outcompete it.
The action makes use of TALENs Transcription activator-like effector nuclease which uses enzymes for genome editing in situ, cutting DNA strands at a specific sequence when they are introduced into cells.
The scheme reminded me of Heath Bunting's SuperWeed Kit, a DIY kit capable of producing a genetically mutant superweed, designed to be resistant to current herbicides and thus threaten corporate GMO monoculture.
And now for my favourite plan: PalmOPS, an oil press that zeroes in on the increasing use of palm oil in the food and biofuel industries. Although the rush to palm oil is motivated by the necessity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the irony -as Greenpeace writes- is that the effort could make things worse because the growth of the palm industry is often accompanied by deforestation, displacement (without compensation nor consultation) of indigenous people occupying the land, loss of natural habitats for endangered species such as the orangutan and Sumatran tiger, increased greenhouse gas emissions, etc.
The New Weathermen's oil press inserts a lypase inhibitor in the kernel of the palm fruit that will make it impossible for you body to digest the oil.
PalmOPS is inspired by the inky caps, common mushrooms that are edible but become poisonous when consumed with alcohol. Inky caps contain coprine, a chemical which blocks the action of the enzyme that breaks down acetaldehyde in the body, leading to violent hangover symptoms. Coprine was studied by scientists who wanted to use it to make alcoholics averse to drinking.
Finally, Bioccupy Diesel, attempts to sabotage fossil fuel. The project was inspired by an existing bacteria responsible for the diesel bug that creates a biofilm that separates oil from water and and creates waste. Over time, the (existing) bug is responsible for a sediment which forms in the tank. These build-ups will not pass through the filters of the car and can eventually damage the vehicle.
New Weathermen would optimize the bacteria using synthetic biology. The modified bacteria would then contaminate car after car through petrol stations. To be effective, the infection would have to start with just one petrol station. All the cars refueling there would become infected.
Publisher MIT Press write: Political acts are encoded in medial forms--feet marching on a street, punch holes on a card, images on live stream, tweets--that have force, shaping people as subjects and constituting the contours of what is sensible, legible, visible. Thus, these events define the terms of political possibility and create terrain for political actions.
Sensible Politics: The Visual Culture of Nongovernmental Activism considers the constitutive role played by aesthetic and performative techniques in the staging of claims by nongovernmental activists. Attending to political aesthetics means focusing not on a disembodied image that travels under the concept of art or visual culture, nor on a preformed domain of the political that seeks subsequent expression in media form. Instead, it requires bringing the two realms together into the same analytic frame. Drawing on the work of a diverse group of contributors, from art historians, anthropologists, and political theorists to artists, filmmakers, and architects, Sensible Politics situates aesthetic forms within broader activist contexts and networks of circulation and in so doing offers critical insight into the practices of mediation whereby the political becomes manifest.
I left this book untouched for months when i saw that it counted over 650 pages. That wasn't the smartest thing i've done this year. Once i finally opened it, i realized that Sensible Politics was a brilliant series of short essays written by smart people about some of the artists, thinkers and works i admire the most. Think Trevor Paglen, Eyal Weizman, Michael Rakowitz, Allan Sekula, Rebecca Gomperts, etc. There's also Jean-Luc Godard, i'm only mentioning him we're all supposed to worship his work.
Surprisingly, there's no lame duck in these essays. I was expecting to skip through a couple of stodgy or irrelevant texts but all i've read so far is a series of very informative and well-articulated essays.
Here are just a few examples of the scope and pertinence of the essays: Ariella Azoulay discusses how images taken as casual souvenir can quickly become evidence that document a crime (think of the torture of the prisoners held at Abu Ghraib) or conversely, turn an abuse into an act of kindness, Meg Mclagan explains how successful documentaries such as An Inconvenient Truth or Supersize Me have paved the way for socially-engaged documentaries that double as commodities with box office appeal, Carrie Lambert-Beatty analyzes how labeling Women on Waves as an art project enabled the activists to bypass legal hurdles, film maker Kirsten Johnson shares her experience of being an embedded journalist in Guantanamo Bay and talks about the military's restrictions surrounding the prison and the trial of Salim Hamdan, Sam Gregory, Program Director at the human right organization WITNESS talks about the fate of grassroot human right footage in the youtube age, the two editors of the book interview Eyal Weizman about forensic architecture, Fayne Ginsburg raises the story of the virtual appropriation on Second Life of Uluru, a major Arborigenal sacred site where non-Aborigenals are not allowed to take photos or to film.
Sensible Politics. The Visual Culture of Nongovernmental Activism decodes and dissects the multiple interconnections between visual culture and the domain of the political. And it does it in a series of texts that are far-reaching, bold and never predictable. I'll recommend this book for anyone interested in activism, politics, social science, culture or/and visual art.
Image on the homepage: © Oliver Weiken, Germany, Shortlist, Current Affairs, Professional Competition, 2013 Sony World Photography Awards. Image Description: Palestinian morticians prepare the body of a man who died during an Israeli airstrike for his funeral in a morgue in a hospital in the Jabalya refugee camp, north of Gaza City, 21 November 2012.
A few weeks ago, Sight and Sound, a festival produced by Eastern Bloc in Montreal, ran a workshop titled Analyze Dat: TOR Visualization. Headed by someone who presents himself (or herself) as Arthur Heist, the description of the workshop suggested an internet driven by secrecy.
This workshop explored the use of natural language processing tools to analyze the goods, products and services available on online black markets, trying to reveal a faithful cartography of the dark web.
The workshop will begin with an introduction of the tools involved in accessing the Internet's black markets (Tor bundle, Bitcoins). Participants will then process these webpages to extract information from natural language to draw a map of hidden services. These tools allow the user to go from simple word frequency analysis (i.e. cloud tags) to more complex semantic comparison and statistical relationships between those networks. The goal is to be able to visualize this data in order to get a better understanding of the inner, deep feelings society keeps hidden.
I knew about the stateless, encrypted online Bitcoin currency of course, i had heard of the Tor software that enables online anonymity but other than that, i felt that there was precious little i knew about the Deep Web, the vast submersed side of the World Wide Web that countless people are using in perfect anonymity every day to buy goods that neither ebay nor amazon will ever sell you and to exchange services that won't appear when you do a google search.
The more i looked into Tor and the many activities it enabled, the more intrigued i was. I thought that the easiest and fastest way to get a better understanding of the issue would be to interview Arthur Heist:
HI Arthur! How much can one discover about this underground economy ?
It is quite easy to find out about any good or hidden service available on the dark web. One just needs to know the first entry point that keeps track of these peculiar services.
Do you have to be a seasoned hacker, a super smart programmer or can any web user make interesting enough discoveries ?
The first pit stop is to go to the Tor project website and install the Tor browser for your operating system. Once installed, you can launch Tor browser and access any website anonymously. So, no need to be either a hacker or programmer to begin browsing the hidden web. A popular place where a lot hidden services are listed is "The Hidden Wiki". From there, you can even find search engines that specifically target onion websites (those with an cabalistic URL).
And how did you find about it in the first place ?
As a user, I had been using Tor for a few years to enhance my anonymity online. I like the fact that it allows you to bypass some restrictions applied unfairly by companies who want to protects their assets. In a way, Tor gives us back the net neutrality some companies or governments want to put at risk. Concerning the dark web more specifically, this whole economy emerged more recently as a result of the emergence of bitcoin currency approximately 4 years ago. Even though I did not get interested in bitcoin specifically, I was more fascinated by the whole range of services and activities made available by these new technologies.
From a general point of view, I have never thought that the internet was much different or more dangerous than what we can experience in the real world. Let's say you are going to Toronto for the first time and you want to buy some crack cocaïne, where do you go? Who do you get in contact with? In the same manner, if you want to find illegal services on the web, it takes the same effort to know about them.
The general public has been fed what commercial companies want them to know. They have their minds locked in a narrow place for them to consume more easily, in the same way they'd go to Starbucks instead of the local coffee shop because it's not advertised on the same scale.
Were the participants like me, attracted by the description of the workshop but totally unaware of what it entailed? Or did they come prepared and knowing what they would be looking for ?
The nice thing about the participants was that they represented in their interests the whole range of topics discussed during the workshop. Some were more interested in the political issues involved, some more in the use of natural language tools. Most of them had already installed Tor on their computers.
How exactly does this online black market reflect the traditional offline black market ?
As stated above, there are no major differences between what you can find through online or offline black markets. And as a matter of fact, in the offline black market, anonymity is also the rule, going from changing your real name to wearing disguises so as not to be recognized. The main added value that the online black market allows for is the possibility to connect dealers and customers that would not have met otherwise in real life, which is also the main characteristic of online services in general too.
Does it allow for other types of transactions, activities, exchanges of goods and services?
Of course, anonymity brings a wide range of activities that you would not be able to find if it weren't anonymous. Among things you can find through hidden services are the scary contract killers who offer to kill someone, whose prices are set depending on the popularity of the person to kill. A funnier website called Tor University offers you to write any assignment or essay you need to get better grades. Another website offers to set up pranks to your friends; for example, by breaking into their house with a fully equipped SWAT team ...
I read that law enforcement agencies were struggling to deal with online black market. Why is it even more difficult to grasp and fight than, say, traditional drug traffic?
Because of the inner nature or how Tor works, by encrypting the communications being sent, all along the way through each relay (except for the last one), it is not easily possible to track down one specific user or website. Nevertheless, one famous hack was made possible on the Tor network by setting up a few Tor routers, which all relay a lot of information. Most of it is encrypted, but when the router is chosen (by the algorithm itself) to act as the last relay, then the data being transited is sent in the clear. So, if you set up your own relay, you are able to log all data transiting on your node, and thus retrieve information people have not encrypted before sending it through the Tor network. Tor network offers anonymity, not confidentiality! I read there also were some rumors that US governmental agencies may possibly run fake drug websites, so as to be able to get an alarm when some user was buying a too large amount of drugs for it to be his personal consumption.
Can the dark web (the way it operates, protects itself, etc.) teach innocent users of the internet (like me) anything ?
Blatantly, recent news about the US Prism program shows us again that giving up your personal data into the hands of big internet companies is like leaving your luggage in your hotel lobby: how trustworthy is it, you can never be sure it won't be stolen or searched by anyone. And what the Tor network (and as an extension, bitcoins) achieves is the possibility to give us back the power to build the internet as it should, free and open. Of course, mass media like to make us think the use of these tools is evil and unsafe, whereas it is indeed the safest thing to do.
What did the participants achieve during the workshop ?
The workshop was more about awareness, discussion and showing how these various tools work and how to use them in your own practice.
Also part of Sight and Sound, a Montreal festival which, this year, explored the rhizomatic and permeating structures of society's concealed systems: The Pirate Cinema, A Cinematic Collage Generated by P2P Users.
The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, London's favourite radio art station, is aired this Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.
My guest tomorrow will be writer, artist, publisher and technologist James Bridle. I'm sure many of you have heard of him. Either because he coined and formulated the concept of New Aesthetic which quickly gave rise to worldwide debate and creative work. Or because you're interested in drone warfare. A few months ago, Bridle launched Dronestagram on Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr. The project uses Google Earth images and data collected by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism to document systematically the locations of deadly U.S. drone strikes. Bridle has also been traveling from Istanbul to Brighton to Washington DC to paint crime scene-style outlines of drones and give passersby a more physical representation of the size and power of the unmanned aerial vehicles.
One of the artist's latest projects, A Quiet Disposition is an intelligence-gathering system that scans the internet for news articles and other sources of information about drones, and drone-related technologies, including the Disposition Matrix. When it finds relevant texts, it analyses them, cataloguing names, objects, terminologies, and the relationships between them. From these relationships it draws its own conclusions, connecting pairs of names linked through the information it has gathered.
The show will be aired this Wednesday 10th of July at 16:00, London time. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am (I know...) If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.
Previously: Under the Shadow of the Drone.