New year, new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM.
The guest of this episode is artist and critical engineer Julian Oliver whose award-winning software and hardware works include a wall plug that manipulates the news appearing on other people's screens, a pair of augmented-reality binoculars that replace advertisements in public spaces with artworks in real-time, but also a Transparency Grenade able to capture network traffic and audio at the site of secret corporate or governmental meetings and to anonymously stream the data to a dedicated server where it is mined for information. Julian Oliver's projects might be provocative and entertaining but their ultimate aim is to make us question the technologies we use every day: who really owns them? Who made them and to what purpose? How much do they shape our behavior? Do these technologies service us as much as we service them?
During the show, however, we're not going to talk about Julian's exciting projects. Instead, i wanted to focus on the Critical Engineering Manifesto that Julian wrote a year ago together with Gordan Savičić and Danja Vasiliev. Expect explanations about why Engineering is the most transformative language of our time, questions about how to adopt the critical engineering ethos if you have next to zero technical skills, and details about Julian Oliver's upcoming projects.
I wouldn't normally review a zine that's ridiculously hard to get your hands on but the purpose, production and spirit of Critical Making are so meaningful and pertinent to today's culture that i had to make an exception. Critical Making is series of small booklets that look at the political, social, activist and even historical dimensions of the DIY culture:
A handmade book project by Garnet Hertz in the field of critical technical practice and critically-engaged maker culture. Critical making is defined by Ratto as exploring how hands-on productive work - making - can supplement and extend critical reflection on the relations between digital technologies and society. It also can be thought of as an appeal to makers to be critically engaged with culture, history and society.
Releasing Critical Making must have been an exhausting experience. It's a hand-made zine and Garnet Hertz played the role of the chief editor of course but he also had to print the texts and images, fold the pages, trim them, get blisters while relentlessly stapling the booklets together, craft a parcel, add the address and ship the zines. That's hundreds of stacks of booklets that had to be sent to hundreds of people across the world. I know i'm going to treasure my copy as if it were an artwork (which it probably is.) He's not even selling the zines, nor is he earning money from ads because the pages are rigorously ad free.
Critical Making might look all punky and crafty but the content is solid. Contributions started pouring in after Hertz asked people on social networks to respond to the concept of critical making. And because he knows some of the most interesting people in the art & tech world, the line-up is pretty spectacular: from an essay by Carl DiSalvo on adversarial design to cuttings of vintage magazines that explain you how to build a poultry feeder that doubles as a rat trap, from Rafael Lozano-Hemmer revealing How to Make Very Large Projects to interviews with Alex Galloway or Natalie Jeremijenko. I'll stop the list here because the table of content is on the webpage of the project.
But Critical Making is also a courageous project. While acknowledging the role and importance of O'Reilly and Make Magazine in popularizing the DIY culture, the publication asks us to look at aspects of the DIY culture that go beyond buying an Arduino, getting a MakerBot and reducing DIY to a weekend hobby. Critical Making embraces thus social issues, the history of technology, activism and politics. The project stems also from a disappointment. A year ago, Make received a grant from DARPA to create "makerspaces" for teenagers. Everyone who, so far, had assumed that a culture built on openness was antithetic to the murkiness that surrounds the military world was bitterly disheartened. CM is not the anti-Make Magazine, it is simply an alternative, a forum for electronic DIY practice to discuss hacking, making, kludging, DIYing in a less sanitized, mass-market way. One of the CM booklets (aptly titled MAKE) brings side by side Dale Dougherty's defense of the grant (Makerspaces in Education and DARPA) and an essay by Mitch Altman who asks Do Funding Sources Matter? Further discussion about the controversy in the video DARPA Funding for Hackers, Hackerspaces, and Education: A Good Thing? with Mitch Altman, Psytek, Willow Brugh, Fiacre O'Duinn, Matt Joyce)
Ultimately, what Garnet Hertz is now wondering is what he should do with Critical Making: Should he turn the zine into a book people would be able to buy? Release it for free online? Should he hand-make more copies?
I love the format, the physical effort, the limited-edition aspect of Critical Making. On the other hand, i believe that a critical discussion in art and tech deserves a more popular platform (a book, a blog, a PDF, etc.) especially when it is presented in such a pleasant and intelligent way. If you have any suggestion, you know where to reach him (plus, he might have a few extra copy to send out.)
Until CM can be mass-marketed, we'll have to make do with two videos in which Garnet Hertz explains the context and motivations behind the creation of the Critical Making zines: Critical Making: Moving Beyond Arduinos and MakerBots (lovely shirt, Garnet! very Isabel Marant) and Crunch Lunch with Garnet Hertz:
Previously: Interview with Garnet Hertz.
It's back! After a Summer/early Autumn break, #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present ResonanceFM is on air again. Starting today Tuesday 6th November at 4:00 pm. There will be a repeat on Thursday 8th November 10:30 pm. You can catch it online if you don't live in London.
My guest this week is Neal White. Neal is Associate Professor of Art and Media at Bournemouth University and the Director of Emerge - Experimental Media Research Group, a practice-based initiative which is developing critical, creative and technical experiments in media. But the reason why i invited him to the studio of Resonance FM is his activity at the Office of Experiments, a structure that explores, maps and records the advanced labs and facilities that are - on purpose or not - concealed from public view. You can find these records on a website evocatively called Dark Places.
I interviewed Neal White a few months ago already so our radio conversation focuses on what happened a couple of months ago when The Office of Experiments and The Arts Catalyst took members of the public on a 'critical excursion' to discover and study these Dark Places from up close. Called Experimental Ruins: West Edition, the event invited Londoners to discover little-known places of scientific secrecy and technology in the West London corridor.
We will be talking declassified materials, underground bunker housing alternative Cabinet War rooms, cold war archive footage, Atomic Weapons Establishment, sites used by the UK Nuclear peace protestors, etc. I'd tune in if i were you.
Previously: Dark Places and experimental geography - Interview with Neal White. Image on the homepage via Dark Places.
Between the Frieze art fair, the Brighton Photo Biennial, and various commitments i had in town, mid-October was a marathon to see as many shows as possible. The one that left its marks on my brain is The Individual and the Organisation: Artist Placement Group 1966-79 at Raven Row. The retrospective of the pioneering artists' organisation is thought-provoking, informative, surprising and it confirmed what i was starting to suspect: the art scene of the 1970s was intimidatingly radical and exciting.
Artist Placement Group, or APG, was established by Barbara Steveni and John Latham in 1966. They were joined Barry Flanagan, David Hall, Anna Ridley and Jeffrey Shaw, among others. Its aim was to widen the social context of artists' work by finding them 'residencies' in the private and public sectors.
Between 1966 and the turn of the 1980s, APG negotiated approximately fifteen placements for artists lasting from a few weeks to several years; first within industries (often large corporations such as British Steel and ICI) and later within UK government departments such as the Department of Health and the Scottish Office.
APG arranged that artists would work to an 'open brief', whereby their placements were not required to produce tangible results, but that the engagement itself could potentially benefit both host organisations as well as the artists in the long-term.
Instead of commissioning art works, the host organizations were asked to pay the artist wages and in exchange, they would benefit from the artist's reports, ideas and insights.
Unsurprisingly, few organizations were enthusiastic about APG's ideas. Many flatly refused to welcome the experiment, others only opened their doors after several meetings and exchanges of letters.
Some placements were more successful than others (whether we look at them as artworks per se or as the result of a mutually fruitful exchange between radical art and industry.) I found David Hall's work for Scottish Television absolutely brilliant. In 1971 Hall made ten "Interruptions" broadcast intentionally unannounced and uncredited on Scottish Television. Seven of these works were later distributed on video as TV Interruptions (7 TV Pieces), and are regarded as a landmark of British video art.
Garth Evans took a fellowship at the British Steel Corporation. The photos he took as part of his observational notes were published in a book produced by BSC. He also made steel sculptures similar to the constructions made by apprentice welders.
After a traffic accident, John Latham found himself in the Intensive Care of Clare Hall Hospital with broken ribs, torn muscles and puncturated lungs. He soon found out that by rotating his body in bed he could clear his throat of lung tissues without having to endure the pain of coughing. The X-rays documenting his rapid convalescence lend credence to the artist's claim that his technique was an improvement over usual procedures.
APG pioneered the shift in art practice from studio and conventional art system to more active and processed-based forms of social engagement. It bears similarities with Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), an organization established to develop collaborations between artists and engineers but APG's agenda was more deeply anchored in political and social concerns.
The residencies are also different from the ones that predominate nowadays (where the artist might sometimes seem to be at the service of the commissioning corporation or governmental body), the ones initiated by APG fostered a two-way communication between artists and industrialists or politicians.
While researching the APG, i found this trailer for a short documentary by Laurie Yule & Calum Mackenzie:
The Raven Row show is mostly based on archives: films, photographs, reports written by artists during their placement and exchanges of letters between artists and host companies and sometimes in art objects.
Photos on flickr.
The Individual and the Organisation: Artist Placement Group 1966-79 was curated by Antony Hudek and Alex Sainsbury, in consultation with Barbara Steveni. It remains on view until 16 December 2012 at Raven Row in London.
To be honest, i'd take any excuse to hop on a train and go to Brighton. Two Saturdays ago, it was sunny, i needed a break from the Frieze art fair and the 5th edition of the Brighton Photo Biennial had the kind of theme that makes me buy a train/plane/bus ticket, Agents of Change: Photography and the Politics of Space.
BPB12 explores how space is constructed, controlled and contested, how photography is implicated in these processes, and the tensions and possibilities this dialogue involves. This year's Biennial provides a critical space to think about relationships between the political occupation of physical sites and the production and dissemination of images.
Agents of Change is a theme that belongs to the moments of economic and political uncertainty we are experiencing today. The exhibitions are at times dark and disturbing but they also demonstrate the role that photography can play in servicing a cause, an agenda, a belief. Whether it is the one of a corporation advertising its products, of a government attempting to enforce new measures or the one of grassroot activists struggling to give another view of a contentious or under-discussed issue.
The most compelling work in the biennial for me was Omer Fast's video about drone surveillance and warfare.
The film is based on two meetings with the operator of a Predator drone sensor. The operator had been based in the desert outside of Las Vegas for 6 years while he was working for the U.S. military. The artist met him in Vegas where he was looking for a job as a casino security guard.
But Fast's film is not a documentary with news footage and testimonies from real protagonists of the events. Instead, the stories are told by an actor cast as the drone operator. His narration is moving, informative and sometimes even humorous.
The operator is sitting in a nondescript hotel room. He unenthusiastically recalls his missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan, unsure that the audience will ever understand what he went through. The soldier never set foot in the countries where the unmanned plane he piloted fired at civilians and militia from the optimum height of 5000 feet.
At times, the ex-soldier seems to ramble, using unrelated stories as metaphors. The most striking of the anecdotes he recalls is the one of an American family that takes the road for 'a long drive' (see the video below.) To leave town, they have to go through security checkpoints and present documents to the "occupying forces," which are depicted as Asians. It's a complete reversal of the situation in which Americans get to see how much a war in their own turf would affect daily life. Except that the U.S. is at war too but for most citizens, only from a distance. The drone operator never leaves the material comfort of his own country to fight in foreign countries, most of the American population never gets bombed or fired at by drones.
The dark world of the U.S. military goes far beyond the drones and bombings as Geographies of Seeing, the show on view at The Lighthouse, convincingly demonstrates. But I'm going to try to keep this one short because i seem to be unable to let a month pass without writing about the work of artist and geographer Trevor Paglen.
The exhibition is focused on two series of photos that document the secret activities of the U.S. military and intelligence agencies. The first one is The Other Night Sky which tracks and documents classified American satellites in Earth orbit. With the help of a network of amateur "satellite observers" and of a specially designed software model able to describe the orbital motion of classified spacecraft, Paglen calculated the position and timing of overhead reconnaissance satellite transits. He then photographed their passage using telescopes and large-format cameras.
The second body of work shown at The Lighthouse is Limit Telephotography. For this series, Paglen used high powered telescopes to picture the "black" sites, a series of secret locations operated by the CIA. Often outside of U.S. territory and legal jurisdiction, these locations do not officially exist, they range from American torture camps in Afghanistan to front companies running airlines whose purpose is to covertly move suspects around.
Well, that wasn't so short but i do have to confess that i merely copy/pasted texts i wrote about Paglen's work a few months ago.
A couple of years ago, Edmund Clark traveled to Guantanamo to document three experiences of home: the home of the American community at the naval base; the camp complex where the detainees have been held; and the homes where former detainees, never charged with any crime, find themselves trying to rebuild lives.
With the body of work presented at the Biennial, Clark pursues further his interest in structures of control and incarceration. In December 2011, the photographer was the first artist to be granted access to a house in which a person suspected of terrorist related activity had been placed under what the UK calls 'a Control Order.'
The 2005 Prevention of Terrorism Act granted the Home Office the power to relocate any controlled person to a house in an alien town or city and impose restrictions and conditions, similar to house-arrest. So far, 48 people have been made subject to a Control Order.
Clark could not reveal the identity of the controlled person nor the location of their house. He also had to pre-register all digital equipment and to accept restrictions on how the equipment could be used. All his photos were then screened by the Home Office and the controlled person's lawyers.
The series is still a work in progress and i wish i could be in England on Thursday, 1 November 2012 because the photographer will be discussing his work at The Lighthouse.
The images screened on Thomson & Craighead's October installation are brutally shocking. Maybe because even when the videos were shot at the other end of the world, they echo the social and economic inequalities we are experiencing in Europe (or wherever you're living right now.) The film installation creates a portray of the Occupy protests by drawing on amateur footage that the activists uploaded on YouTube. Below the video screen is a luminous compass that points to the locations where the videos were originally filmed, adding the precise distance of the location of the footage from the viewers. The piece examines the relationship between geographical space and the Internet: the role online organisation plays in shaping offline activism.
The exhibition of photographer, journalist, researcher and political activist John "Hoppy" Hopkins also document peace marches, protests and underground movements from the inside but this time in and around London in the 1960s. Some 50 years are separating the Occupy videos from Hopkins' photos but both show the power of the image when it comes to telling the activists' side of a news story.
There's so much more to say about this biennial. There are many other exhibitions i don't have the space to mention here. And talks, tours, workshops. I'll close my superficial review of the biennial with random photos of the shows and of the city.
I forgot to mention Whose Streets?, an outdoor show located on one of the city's public square that looks at the archive of local newspaper The Argus, to extract images that depict Brighton as a contested political space for protest. From the late 70s to the present.
The 2012 Brighton Photo Biennial is curated by Photoworks Head of Programme, Celia Davies and Programme Curator, Ben Burbridge. Brighton Photo Biennial is free and it is up all over the city of Brighton until 4 November 2012.
Some artists comment on real estate, some real estate developers are interested in art but i doubt that many people can be both artists and real estate developers. Actually i only know of one: Theaster Gates. He is an urban planner, a visual artist, a musician, a curator and an activist.
Gates is as interested in urban regeneration as much as he is passionate about creating communities in deprived areas of Chicago. He renovated a two-storey house and turned it into an archive and library, used a former candy store as an event and performance space, has recently persuaded the city of Chicago not to demolish an abandoned bank and is now planning to convert the building into a cultural hub and library. If you're intrigued by his work, and find yourself in London right now, you're in luck because Gates has a spectacular solo show at White Cube Bermondsey right now.
And by spectacular i mean fire trucks hanging on the ceiling and an entire library of books about black American culture.
The books are part of the collection of John H. Johnson, the founder of Ebony and Jet, two magazines for the African-American market. You can pick up books ("Black Mathematicians and their Works", "Negroes and Jobs", "14 Africans vs. one American", etc.), browse, read, flip through them but you can not take any picture. Not even of the book shelves. No one could tell me why. Anyway, i spent more time than i intended inside the temporary library. I missed the first weeks of the show when gallery visitors were also offered make-up sessions.
Now back to the fire trucks. The first one is outside, in front of the gallery. It is beautiful and incongruous like a giant American toy and is soiled by big spots of tar on its otherwise bright yellow bodywork.
A video inside the space documents the almost ritualistic performance when the artist, accompanied by the music of his band 'The Black Monks of Mississippi', used a mop to dab hot tar and mark the fire truck. Apparently, the gesture was inspired by Gates' father who tarred roofs for a living as an alternative form of protest during the 1968 Chicago riots.
Another truck is part of the show: Raising Goliath. The red 1967 Ford 850 is suspended with theatrical pulleys from the ceiling of the gallery. Gates counterbalanced the vehicle with a stack of fire department hoses and leather bound issues of African American magazines, all neatly housed inside a metal frame. Gates describes the work as a way to 'hoist the history of the Civil Rights out of view, making it both weightless and invisible...' and to highlight 'the way things change and remain the same'.
There are many symbols and metaphors in the exhibitions. Some are a bit superficial (the paintings covered in tar and matted roofing paper to represent black skin and afro hair are not very subtle), others run deep into the Civil Rights Movement and black culture. The decommissioned fire hoses, for example, allude to the use of fire hoses to disperse people campaigning for African-American Civil Rights in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.
The gallery is also screening the 15 minute commercial The Secret of Selling the Negro Market. Made in 1954 by Johnson Publishing Company, the film attempted to encourage advertisers to promote their products and services in the African American media.
Well, that's a show i'd recommend you to see if you're in town for a few after Frieze day. Tomorrow i'm going to try the Multiplied art fair. I'm hoping that one will be almost affordable.
Theaster Gates, My Labor Is My Protest is open through 11 November 2012 at White Cube Bermondsey in London.