I suspect that there are very few places left on this planet that haven't been discovered by intrepid explorers. Yet, Trevor Paglen has found and investigated territories that still need to be documented and exposed to the world. If you've never seen his photographs, i suggest you swing by the Z33 House for Contemporary Art Center in Hasselt, Belgium. They are part of Architecture of Fear, an exhibition that examines how feelings of fear pervade our daily life.
For his Limit Telephotography 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.
Paradoxically Paglen's images deepen the secrecy of their subject rather than uncover it. Limit-telephotography most closely resembles astrophotography, a technique that astronomers use to photograph objects that might be trillions of miles from Earth. Paglen's subjects are much closer but also even more difficult to photograph. To physical distance, one has indeed to add the obstacle of informational concealment.
The other photos the artist is showing at Z33 are part of 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 could calculate the position and timing of overhead reconnaissance satellite transits. He would then photograph their passage using telescopes and large-format cameras .
I've seen his works in numerous contexts, from new media art festivals to activist conferences and contemporary art exhibitions. However, the more you see Paglen's work, the more questions you want to ask him. I've finally decided to catch up with him and interviewed him via skype for the upcoming Z33 catalogue:
How does you desire to document and reveal coexist with the need to express yourself as an artist? How does your formation as a geographer feeds your art practice and vice-versa?
I guess it's all mixed-up. For me it's difficult to dissociate what is geography from what is art or journalism in my practice. Art has its own methods and the same is true for geography and journalism. Each field can give you ways to ask questions and communicate that other fields can't give you. What i've tried to do is make things a bit more complicated. There are artists pretending to be anthropologists or scientists but i've asked myself "What happens if art is not some sort of degraded, diluted form of pseudo social science or geography but if it is actually also geography or social science in its own right?" I've always been an artist but ten years ago i started studying geography and social science and i'm trying to be as good at it as someone for whom this is the main profession.
Isn't all this government secrecy a bit disheartening sometimes? It seems to have no boundaries nor end, it even appears to keep on growing. Do you ever feel like it's time to close the chapter and dedicate your time to a subject that is easier to circumvent? What keeps you going?
Nothing is particularly easy to understand. People have tried for thousands of years to understand flowers.
In my case the question is about secrecy and i'm interested in the aesthetics of it as much as i'm interested in politics. How does the State look like now? And looking at secrecy is part of who we are now.
I'm also interested in the history behind the individual images of "Limit Telephotography". How much time, energy does it typically take to get one of those images? How much research do you have to make, miles to go, people to contact?
It's different from one image to another. Each of them has taken enormous time to make. The places they picture are very remote and it takes a long time to get there. I often travel from the Bay Area and it can take a 10 hour-drive to get to my destination. After that i have to hike with my telescope and heavy backpacking.
The other thing is that photographs don't look very good the first time so i have to come back time and time again. One photo took me six years. I went to the location twice every year until i got the image i wanted. That can happen not only because the conditions are not what i want but also because i learn a lot in the process, i learn how to see the place. I need some time before i can understand how a place should look like in photo.
Both Limit Telephotography and The Other Night Sky have received wide coverage in the press. Did this attention to 'the black world' have some consequence in the access you had to information?
It's easier now! People get in touch with me because they've heard of who i am and because of that too, it's easier to stay out of trouble.
We have this idea that secrecy is this perfectly oiled machine but the secrecy system is not all that organized. Also we imagine that there is one single brain orchestrating secrecy behind the whole State but this is not the case. Lots of things are contradicting each other. The secrecy system is internally inconsistent but also incoherent.
Who contacts you exactly? People from the military?
Yes, but i'd rather not go into details about who they are.
But now that your books and photos have put the spotlight on what should not be revealed, have you ever heard of bases that had to be closed or covert activities that had to be re-scheduled because of the attention you brought to them?
Yes! A lot of the infrastructure of the rendition program had to be modified because of the way journalists, human right activists and researchers have turned it into a political issue and made it public. But now we have the drone assassination programs which are a kind of version 3.0. of the rendition program.
What should the Black World matter to us beyond the anecdote and the fascination for the hidden? Why should we fear? We are not terrorists after all...
Well, I can only talk from an American perspective. The Black World is a State that is inside the State and it works differently. It's monarchic in the sense that it's not a democracy. It is run by generals and ultimately by the President. There's very little overview of it by other parts of the government and obviously by the people. It has a tendency to change everything around it to its own image.
For example, if you want to build a secret plane then you need first a secret factory to build it. Thousands of workers and managers will be working in that plane factory, they have to swear secrecy and you have to ensure that they will indeed keep the secret. That means that social engineering will also have to be organized. All this will require a lot of money which you obviously can't get from the congress. So you have to find ways to fund your project without ever telling anyone how you're going to use that money. Once you have the planes, you need a secret airbase. But how do you create a place on the surface of the Earth that will remain secret? So you build that place and claim that it doesn't exist. Everything you do is outside of the court system so you also need to set up new laws which are actually not even laws since they haven't been voted by the congress. So you start to create your own laws and legislation. Over time, the rest of the State starts to look more and more like the secret part of the State. It's that structural organization that people should be concerned about, because illegal things are bound to happen where there is no oversight. That's what happened with the rendition flights and torture program and recently with the drone assassination program.
Architecture of Fear remains open at Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium through December 31, 2011. Entrance is free.
Wodiczko is best known for his large-scale and video projections on buildings and monuments. Since the 1980s, he has been transforming the facades of official buildings and historical monuments into temporary spaces for critical reflection and public protest.
Krzysztof Wodiczko covers 40 years of the artist's extensive, and often controversial, body of work using contemporary technologies to form a commentary on politics, ethics, social responsibility and the urban experience. Comprising a collection of writing by some of the most critically acclaimed art historians, cultural theorists and commentators working today, along with both previously published and unpublished texts by Wodiczko himself, this book is the definitive study of the artist's work. Richly illustrated, the book includes a diverse selection of images, ranging from digital montages and preliminary visualisations to sketches and photographs.
If there's one artist whose innovative and socially-engaged work never ceases to impress me it's Krzysztof Wodiczko. Not even his 'oldest' pieces have suffered from the passage of time. They are still as relevant as ever, even if the context has changed. His 1969 Personal Instrument, for example, consisted of a microphone, worn on the forehead, which retrieved sound from the environment while photo-receivers in gloves filtered the sound through the movement of the hand: closing the hands suppresses the sound, turning the hands to face the light opens up the sound channel, the photoreceivers on the right hand control the low-pitch filter and the ones on the left hand control the high-pitch. The resulting sound was perceived by the artist only through his headphones. By emphasizing selective listening, vital to a Polish citizen's survival at the time, Wodiczko intimated the prevalence of censored speech, registering "dissent of a system that fostered only one-directional critical thinking - listening over speech." (Source: wikipedia.)
Wodiczko's projections and instruments reinstate the city as a space for discussion, relentless questioning and debate. Therefore Krzysztof Wodiczko is not only a monograph on the artist's work, it is also a book that offers readers the opportunity to reflect upon the unresolved and under-discussed issues that the artist's projects engages with: post-war trauma, plight of illegal immigrants, exclusion of homeless people from society, industrial pollution, profit-making real-estate redevelopment that forces poor residents to move away, gun violence, etc. It is also one of the rare books i feel like recommending to artists, activists and designers alike.
Presentations of the artist's individual artworks alternate with essays by Professors of Art History, Contemporary Art, of Architectural Theory as well as art critiques and curators that focus on particular aspects of Wodiczko's work and life: the political and artistic context of Poland from the 1950s till the 1980s, New York's urban redevelopment programme which involved raise in property value and displacement of the lower income population, urban guerrilla warfare, issues of identity, etc. Along with the texts by the various contributors, the study contains also excerpts from conversation the artist had with art critiques or homeless people, a selection of his own essays, chapters from exhibition catalogues and other original documents.
I'm sure many of you are familiar with his work but for my own pleasure, here's a couple of works i discovered or re-discovered in the book:
Homeless Vehicle Project provides homeless people with a mobile tool that responds to their basic needs (living, sleeping and washing) but also assists them in their 'daily job' as collectors and resellers of discarded cans and bottles. The vehicle was not designed as a solution to their housing problem, but it rendered visible to passersby the invisible: the hundred of people compelled to 'sleep rough' on the streets of New York City.
While he was in London for a commissioned projection in Trafalgar Square, Wodiczko decided to react to what he was reading in the newspapers: racial violence in South Africa and Thatcher government's refusal to apply economic sanctions against apartheid. Since the South Africa House, was mere steps away from the Nelson Column, the artist projected a Nazi swastika on the facade of the building, establishing an uncomfortable parallel between the racist policies of South Africa and that of Hitler's Germany.
South African officials contacted the police who put a stop to the projection after only two hours.
The projection of a cruise missile on the cliffs above Bow Falls, in Banff National Park in Alberta echoed protests that rose across Canada when it emerged that Alberta had been selected as a location for testing U.S. cruise missiles in the country.
Black Dog Publishing also has an art gallery by King's Cross St Pancras' station. They have recently opened the exhibition Krzysztof Wodiczko: The Abolition of War. It will remain on view at the WORK Gallery in London though 14 January 2012.
Sorry for being so slow with the updates on the blog this week. This morning i left London unimpressed by the Frieze art fair and took the train to Manchester. The lady at the hotel reception manages to wear two sets of fake eyelashes on top of each other, the weather is lovely and i'm following Creative Tourist's recommendation to embark on a Manchester Weekender, three days of celebration of art, literature, music and performances.
One of the exhibitions i was most eager to visit was On The March - An Exhibition of banners Made by Ed Hall at the People's History Museum.
Ed Hall makes the most amazing, colourful handcrafted banners i've ever seen. Before discovering his work at an exhibition curated by Jeremy Deller for the Palais de Tokyo in Paris a few years ago, I had no idea you could still commission someone to design, paint, embroider and stitch protest banners.
Hall used to be an architect but he was also a trade union rep when Thatcher came into power. In the '80s, he started drawing banners and posters to support Lambeth Council's protest campaign against government restrictions on the amount of tax councils could charge. That was his first foray into protest art. Nowadays, he's the UK's foremost trade union and campaign banner artist.
Hall works mostly for trade union organizations but as years passed he's been increasingly involved in protest raised by grassroot organizations that fight against climate change, violence against women or that defend the rights of the Palestinians and other causes the artist personally believes in. But his first non trade union banners were stitched for Brian Douglas who died in police custody in May 1995. During his arrest in South London, Douglas was hit on the head with a baton. Police claimed that they had acted in self-defense. He was not taken to hospital until 12 hours after injury, where he later died.
333 people died in police custody between the years 1998 and 2010 and Hall's banners are often part of the annual remembrance marches to Downing Street, to inquests and funeral. The banner below was made in memory of Sarah Thomas, a 34 year old student who died on August 1999 in Stoke Newington Police station after being arrested for a public order offence.
Finally, the exhibition also devoted some space to Ed Hall's collaboration with Jeremy Deller, in particular Procession, a mass gathering orchestrated by the artist for the Manchester International Festival two years ago.
Find more about his work in the film made by Platform Films:
On the March - An Exhibition of Banners by Ed Hall remains open at the People's History Museum in Manchester through 30 October 2011.
Every year, the FILE festival invites artists and other people who have a hands-on approach to new media art to share their views, works and ideas with the audience during a 4 afternoon long symposium. One of the most fascinating talks for me this year was the one that Victoria Messi, author of the fantastic blog El Pez Eléctrico, gave about media art projects from Latin America that 'look beyond anti-utopia.'
Titled Anti Anti Utopia: Arte Eletrônica na América Latina / Anti Anti Utopia: Electronic Art in Latin America, the presentation introduced us to four projects by media artists who believe that art still has the power to transform society. I was planning to write a long post that contained her whole presentation but i thought it would be more fruitful to highlight the projects one by one. First of all because each of them is so clever, quirky and fascinating that it should have its own space. Secondly because i've just started The Leopard and as much as i'd like this Jo Nesbø gem to last as long as possible i can't stay away from the book more than it is strictly necessary for my mental well-being.
Shaped like small flying saucers, the Nanodrizas are floating autonomous robots forming a network of wireless sensors, which attempt to interact with biological elements. The robotic prototypes measure, in real time, the environmental conditions (temperature, pH scale, level of humidity, turbidity, etc.) of polluted water surfaces. The data collected is then transmitted via wireless communications for interpretation and analysis. Once to the level and nature of pollution has been identified, the nanodrizas directly intervene by emitting synthesized sound and releasing bacterial and enzymatic remedies in the eco-system that, ultimately, should regulate the quality of the water.
Prototypes of the nanodrizas have been deployed in heavily polluted locations. In particular, in the river going through the city of Puebla in Mexico. Puebla hosts "La Constancia", an ex textile factory which used to be one of the most modern factories in Latin America. La Constancia relied heavily on water to function: water was used to power its turbines and water was where waste was then dispersed. As a consequence, the river is now suffering from high levels of pollution. The mission of the robots is therefore to intervene directly and revert the effect of the pollution in the water.
The Nanodrizas benefit from relatively sophisticated technologies but were made using discarded materials such as children's toys.
The work thus moves beyond other environmental tactical media interventions by making an attempt to be actively therapeutic. The work will also functions to alert and sensitise people to the situations via, in the first location, the sound emissions of the Nanodrizas and second via displays in exhibition centers and online.
The project thus exemplifies an admirably holisitic kind of art practice which is simultaneously technologically well informed and technologically inventive, while being engaged with complex social histories and activist with respect to fundamental problems of our time.
Check out this interview that El Pez Eléctrico had with Constantini about the Nanodrizas fleet. I'd recommend watching it even if you don't understand spanish because you will not only see the nanodrizas in action but you will also be able to listen to the artist's melodious Mexican accent.
Related: Nomadic Plants by Gilberto Esparza.
FILE, the Electronic Language International Festival remains open through August 21, 2011, at the FIESP Cultural Center - Ruth Cardoso, in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Entrance is free.
Last year, stories of families forced to spend their holidays inside Heathrow airport due to bad weather conditions and volcanic ash clouds have made the headlines of newspapers. Inspired by the misery endured by the passengers, Lisa Ma, a graduate from the department of Design Interactions, is now offering stranded travelers the possibility to spend their waiting time in a tour of the area surrounding the transport hub.
Heathrow Heritage is a series of excursions run in cooperation with the activists, historians and residents of the villages around Heathrow. Most of the locations visited typically look like postcard pretty English villages but are threatened by the expansion of the airport. Lisa Ma also enrolled the complicity of the airport deacon who gets in touch with stranded passengers and informs them of the possibility to spend some time outside of the terminals on a bike tour around the ancient villages.
Passengers are first transport on a free bus then hop on a bike to cycle around and learn about Richard Cox, the inventor of the Cox apple, who was buried in the 12th century village church, to see a Medieval barn rumoured to be the oldest and largest in England....
visitors will be told about the astute plan Greenpeace hatched to protest against the Third Runway. The activists bought an acre of land and sold it to 100,000 people around the world for £2 each. The plot is now used as an allotment for locals and protesters.
The Heathrow Heritage activity brings two communities together: disgruntled' travelers passing through the airport on their way to other cities and local residents who are deeply affected by but rarely in direct contact with goings on the other side of the airport fences. The tour leaves entertaining and memorable experiences for the passengers and constitutes a new form of activism for the protesters.
While working on the project Lisa Ma also met Raj the homeless and 'unofficially authorised resident of Terminal 5."
The atmosphere inside the Terminals is miles away from the lovely cottages and pubs located a few minutes away from the airport.
Quick questions to Lisa:
How did the airport authorities react to your project? After all, it's both a lovely way to handle stranded passengers but it is also potentially annoying for them if you let activists point to the problems involved in the expansion of the airport.
You are absolutely right, we are very careful about approaching the airport authorities in case the project becomes prohibited or subverted. If BAA should take on the project, it would be under their campaign of being "committed to being a good neighbour".
Can you tell me again the story of the bank robber? How did you get in touch with him?
The bank robber is one of my favourite characters. When K first approached me at the squat site he asked if I was Japanese and wore leather jackets because he was following the instructions from a fortune cookie. I was terrified when I heard about his experience initially. But he's very sweet and lives in deep regret, even though everyone now thinks of him as a super hero in the recession. He is the drunken tour guide's best friend. With silvering hair a posture that looks like he should be on a Miami beach, K is a charmer with a philosophical approach. I hugged him the last time I saw him.
Is the project still ongoing? how many tours have taken place already?
The tours are dependent on me at the moment, so are pausing whilst I am exhibiting at the RCA show. I'm hoping to record the responses and prove to the activists that what the project is strong enough for them to take over and have a life of its own beyond my direction.
We've been aiming for at least 2-3 tours a week so that all the stakeholders could become accustomed to the routine. Some of the tour numbers are smaller than we expected -we were about the only people in the airport wishing for volcanic ashes to stay for longer. I've spent so long with the activists that they've asked me to look after their site when they left it to make hanging baskets in the village!
All images courtesy of Lisa Ma.
Art & Agenda - Political Art and Activism, edited by Robert Klanten, Matthias Hübner, Alain Bieber, Pedro Alonzo, Gregor Jansen. With essays by Pedro Alonzo, Alain Bieber, Silke Krohn (available on amazon USAand UK.)
Publisher Gestalten writes: Life has become significantly more political in the new millennium, especially in the aftermath of worldwide financial crisis. Art is both driving and documenting this upheaval. Increasingly, new visual concepts and commentaries are being used to represent and communicate emotionally charged topics, thereby bringing them onto local political and social agendas in a way far more powerful than words alone.
This book explores the current interrelationship between art, activism, and politics. It presents new visual concepts and commentaries that are being used to represent and communicate emotionally charged topics, thereby bringing them onto local political and social agendas in a way far more powerful than words alone. It looks at how art is not only reflecting and setting agendas, but also how it is influencing political reaction. Consequently, Art & Agenda is not only a perceptive documentation of current urban interventions, installations, performances, sculptures, and paintings by more than 100 young and established artists, but also points to future forms of political discourse.
Art & Agenda - Political Art and Activism is just one in a long list of books that demonstrate that, among all the publishers focusing on visual culture, Gestalten is probably the fastest at identifying and catching trends.
The artists represented in the book all have some kind of social commentary about the world that surrounds them. Their work conveys a message, a critique, an opinion. Sometimes also a provocation. Their work is socially-engaged art but i would not always define it as activism.
As much as i admire the work Maurizio Cattelan, Elmgreen & Dragset, Tom Sachs, or Kara Walker, i had never associated it with activism. What they do is ballsy, it's socially-engaged and adequately thought-provoking but i'm not sure i find it as efficient as the work of Packard Jennings, Lisa Anne Auerbach, Conflict Kitchen, The Yes Men, Superflex, or Ai Weiwei who seem to engage more closely with the public. They operate outside institutions when needed, take risks and are actively involved in trying to bring social change. I see them as the real agitators, the activists with a capital A.
All i can advise is to get your hands on the book and see for yourself. I wouldn't mind being contradicted on this topic.
One of the main strengths of the book is the incredibly broad array of political art it showcases, from the poetical and subtle urban interventions of Roland Ross to The Yes Men's media hacks, from Tom Sachs' stunning works for white cube galleries to JR's street interventions.
The other force of the book is a series of long essays by curators and art critics such as Alain Bieber (author of one of my favourite blogs, rebel:art and project manager of ARTE creative) and Boston-based curator Pedro Alonzo.
A few examples of the works you'll meet in the book:
Julien Berthier's Love Love sinking boat. The artist actually cut a sailboat in half, sealed it with fiberglass, fitted it with two motors and a new keel which make it fully functional. I'm not sure i understand what's political in this work but i'm glad i discovered it in the book.
Russia's culture minister didn't appreciate the "political provocation" of Blue Noses Group's Kissing Policemen (An Epoch of Clemency). The Banksi-inspired photo was banned from traveling to Paris for an exhibition of contemporary Russian art.
During two years, Roland Roos repaired broken, displaced or damaged things he encountered in public space. He took before and after photos of the unsolicited repairs and sold them for 320CHF each which is the average amount of money that is spent for one repair (materials and labor).
GUARANA POWER is a soft drink developed by a farming cooperative in Maues, Brazil in collaboration with the Superflex collective. The drink contains guarana, a plant native to the Amazon whose fruit has long been harvested by indigenous communities for its medicinal and invigorating properties. The farmers have had to organize themselves against a cartel of corporation whose monopoly on purchase of the raw material has driven the price paid for guaraná seeds down by 80% while the cost of their products to the consumer has risen. Besides, the beverage these companies sells is only a sugary, diluted energy drink. GUARANÁ POWER attempts to use the strategies of global brands as raw material for a counter-economic position, to preserve local economy and the livelihoods of the farmers and to reclaim the original use of the Maués guaraná plant as a powerful natural tonic.
Gregor Schneider's cells on Sydney's famous Bondi Beach questions "the ideal of a casual, egalitarian leisure-loving society", while evoking strongly another famous location by the ocean: Guantanamo Bay.
For one of their most recent radical performances, Palace Revolution, members of the Voina collective overturned seven police cars, some of them with officers inside, at St Petersburg's Palace Square. They called it an 'art installation.' Russian authorities were not impressed and arrested two of them. They were released on bail after but the charges still stand.
Parking For White Cars Only! The title of Helmut Smits' piece says it all. A guard made sure that the best parking-spots were accessible to white cars only.
The artist pushed the provocation even further with Photo Tip , an installation which allows people to be portrayed as a hostage flanked by threatening terrorists.
Czech guerrilla artist collective Ztohoven gained fame in June 2007 when they hacked into a weather forecast on national tv and inserted a digital image of a nuclear explosion on a live panoramic shot of the Krkonoše Mountains. Their intention was to point to the distorted view of reality in the media. Several members of the collective were prosecuted for scaremongering and spreading false information but the judge dismissed the scaremongering charges against the artists, citing public amusement rather than public unrest.
More recently, the artists altered photos of themselves using morphing and applied for new ID cards using these fake pictures. Over the course of six months they used the IDs to travel abroad and vote, and one of them even got married. The whole project was presented at a gallery in Prague under the name Občan K. ("Citizen K.") The performance was a critique of the misuse of personal data and of constant surveillance that sometimes leads to a loss of identity that reduces individuals to numbers. This time again, the action led members of Ztohoven to deep troubles with the police. They were accused of breaching paragraph 181 of the criminal code that states that anybody who damages another person's rights by deliberately misleading them faces up to two years in prison or a ban on their work activity.
kennardphillipps was created in 2002 to produce art in response to the invasion of Iraq. It has evolved to confront power and war across the globe. The photomontage above points to proposals for a third runway and a sixth terminal at Heathrow, a plan pushed forward by Gordon Brown and opposed by Greenpeace.
The Three Gorges Dam project in China is the world's largest capacity hydroelectric power station with a total generating capacity of 18,200 MW. However, its construction flooded archaeological and cultural sites and displaced some 1.3 million people, and is causing significant ecological changes.
Artist Yang Yi went to his hometown just before it was completely submerged and documented the remaining scenery before it disappeared. Using both photography and digital techniques, Yang Yi's Uprooted series depict a ghost town engulfed by water, whose inhabitants go about their daily lives wearing snorkels.
Views inside the book: