It's hard to believe that it took me so many years to finally email Mogens Jacobsen and ask him for an interview. I've been following his projects since the very beginning of the blog (which was 8 years ago, in case you were wondering.)
Jacobsen is a media artist based in Copenhagen and an Adjunct Professor in Digital Culture and Mobile Communication at IT University, Copenhagen. His artistic work either closely follows social, political and ethical questions or sabotages technology, by mix-matching new and old media or by inviting web users to subvert web banners.
Some of his most acclaimed works include Crime Scene, two computers swapping copyrighted material in full view of the public; Power of Mind 3 Dissociative Defense, an installation powered by potatoes and hosting a report on human rights in Denmark; and TurntablistPC, a series of vintage turntables that spin their record according to visits to certain websites.
One of his most recent pieces, OECDlab comments on the cult for data and more precisely the instrumentalization of statistics by politicians, academics and economists. By manipulating the levers, dials, and knobs of three retro-looking lab-instruments, people can adjust parameters like percentage of women in parliament, distribution of income, military expenditure and see how these alterations are influencing other factors in society. The countries remain anonymous but all the data used is real data supplied by OECD, the WorldBank and UN.
I was curious to know more about OECDlab and that was the excuse i needed to finally get in touch with Mogens Jacobsen and discover if he could possibly be wittier than his own artworks:
Your work often responds to current social and cultural issues: human rights in Denmark, the rise of surveillance, file sharing, interactivity/reactivity, etc. What do you think are the themes that should be urgently addressed right now? Either by you or by other artists? Do you think that artists have any impact on ethical, cultural or social issues? Can they change the way a problem or situation is perceived and handled?
I'm sad to say this - but I wouldn't overestimate the impact done by artists at the moment. I wish more media artist would deal with real-world, everyday political issues. There seem to be a rather dominating escapist interest in phenomenology and the individual spectator. A problem I personally blame on the "experience economy" focus some years back. Now the "money" economy has crashed and experience economy has become unfashionable, it might be a good time to make art relevant outside the safe haven of the established art spaces again.
By turning the knobs of the OECDlab instruments, people can manipulate different parameters such as the percentage of women in parliament, distribution of income (the GINI index), military expenditure, etc. and then see how the alterations are influencing other factors in society. Can the manipulation ever lead to a satisfactory situation? One with maximum freedom of the press, one without shocking income inequality, etc.
One of the things that surprised me was the chaotic behavior of the instruments. Naively I thought there might be some correspondence between parameters such as freedom of press and distribution of wealth. But not so.
The OCEDlab lets you explore the world as it is - according to statistics at least, not construct a personal utopia. On one of the instruments, the one titled "Qui magistratum obeunt mundum credunt sibi subiectum esse ut ad suam voluntatem flectatur", you will never be shown the name of the country as you try to combine parameters. So it is not a travel/emigration-guide, but more a disrupting guide through your own beliefs of social-economic politics.
Have you thought of making an online version of the OECDlab?
I have thought of an online version. But of course I won't do it. I am really trying to avoid screens and fancy visuals at the moment. It like a personal struggle to be in the "media arts" and not revert to amazingly colorful pixels on a screen. Ten years ago I said Flash spoiled net.art by pulling the attention towards the surface. So now I really try hard to avoid the screen altogether.
And basically all data of the OECDlab is already available online on the website of the OCED, the Worldbank, UN and a couple of other sites. So you can easily access the data, which was what I did as I started on the project.
I'm also interested in the reason why you gave the instrument such a retro look. Why not present them with fancy touch screens and spectacular infographics?
The project OECDlab is deliberately looking quite old - like the apparatus of science, at a time when science was thought to be objective, when science was trusted and thus allowed to control society without anyone questioning the facts.
So OECDlab looks like the nostalgic technical tools of objective power. Like test-equipment in a lab or instruments from the science lab of a school: Dark polished wood, analogue meters and large knobs.
Have you tested the Democratic Dazzler or the Oplyser (two devices that disrupt surveillance systems and transmits by Morse code article 1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights) on security cameras in public space? How did it go? Did you get any reaction? Either from passersby or from the people who are monitoring the surveillance cameras?
The Dazzler project started when I was invited the Danish gallery "Torpedo 18", which is a gallery for "inaccessible art". What a freedom to get invited to do something inaccessible! As the first version of Dazzler was working, I wanted to do a small presentation of the project. So I arranged an event in front of the Danish Supreme Court one evening at 8 PM. Only a very few friends showed up at this event. But as the clock struck 8, I thought I needed to do some sort of welcome. So I stepped up a small staircase, raised the Dazzler and was getting ready to speak. Then the door behind me opened and the - at that time - Danish prime minister Anders Fog Rasmussen (now Secretary General of NATO) stepped with his security guards. Everybody - including myself - were quite baffled. The prime minister quickly got in this limo and drove off. Sadly nobody took a photo.
Your work Crime Scene (in which two computers exchange copyrighted works) is illegal to show in Denmark. What happened? Did you get into legal troubles because of the installation?
At the time I was working in a small ground with some people from museums and cultural institutions around Denmark. And all were really scared of showing digital art due to unsolved questions regarding intellectual rights. I really tried to understand the Danish copyright laws but was baffled. And nobody was really capable of answering my questions.
So instead I made this piece, not as a provocation or protest, but more as my way of stating a question. I was approached by some lawyers from the ministry of culture, who thought it was an interesting question. And they asked me if they could investigate it as a legal case (and they guarantied me I would not get into trouble). Well, the case ended by stating the piece was legal for me to produce - referring to artistic freedom and freedom of speech. But a museum wanting to exhibit the piece might get into trouble.
So far, the Crime Scene has been shown in Sweden, Spain and France. But it has never been shown in Denmark.
You define yourself as a media artist. Is this a 'label' you find important? Would it be just the same to you to say you're a 'contemporary artist'?
It does matter that much for me. I used the "media" label to put some distance to painting and graphics (even thing happening on a monitor). I would like to get the attention away from the visual imagery. "Media" sort of covered a lot of thing - and as "new media" has grown old, I settled on just using the word "media".
What kind of advice would you give to someone who would like to establish themselves as a media artist as well?
First of all - and very important - get some way of having an income. Artists don't make money. And media artists certainly do not, as nobody is buying media art.
Then secondly: Learn to program. Any programming language: C#, C, Java, processing whatever lingo that fits your needs and abilities. It might sound very old fashioned - focusing on learning the craft. But it gives you a lot more freedom sketching things out in the actual medium, not only working on the conceptual level. And let you experiment without having to beg, bribe or pay somebody else.
Are there any upcoming projects you could share with us?
I have some things coming up. A new piece for a group show with the theme "money". This might end up with another apparatus in the style of OECDlab. Also I will be showing some works at the exhibition Audio Art - Sound as Medium for the Arts at ZKM in Germany. The exhibition opens on March 16th. And one of my contributions is a new piece which I'm really busy making right now. The working title is Pairs - Conversation Piece from 1965. It is based on a note from one meeting between several Danish artists in 1965. Each artist will be represented by an old wooden chair, and rearranging the chairs you will be navigating between their discussions.
The Transparency Grenade! A name like that was bound to get my attention.
It might look like a Soviet F1 Hand Grenade, but what the Transparency Grenade contains is 'just' a tiny computer, a microphone and a powerful wireless antenna. No explosive then! Except maybe the information that the device is capable of blasting to the world. The Transparency Grenade fights against the lack of corporate and governmental transparency. It captures network traffic and audio at the site of closed meetings and anonymously streams the data to a dedicated server where email fragments, HTML pages, images and voice are extracted and displayed on an online map.
The device was created by Critical Engineer and artist Julian Oliver, author of works such as a modified analog colour television able to capture and screen images downloaded by people on local wireless hotspots, a wall plug that messes with the news read by other people on wireless hotspots and a software platform for replacing billboard advertisements with art in real-time. Now i'm left wondering why i didn't try and interview him for the blog before...
Hi Julian! What strikes me with your latest project is the way it looks. It is miles away from the 'bastard in beige' newstweek. Why did you decide to give the work such a threatening design?
I gave the Transparency Grenade this design to signify some of the conversation around cyber warfare, 'information weapons' and the Cyber Soldier divisions marching out from national defense budgets worldwide. It can be considered a functional weapon in a symbolically representative container.
We've seen the transformative power of network-leveraged leaking in the last decade, first with the incumbent Cryptome and then much more recently with Wikileaks. The very idea of an immaterial explosion with the power to shake the walls of institutions, businesses and political cultures - moving matter and people in its wake - is naturally attractive, not only in the conceptual sense.
The volatility of information in networked, digital contexts itself frames a precedent for clamouring (and often unrealistic) attempts to contain it. One could even say it's this desperate fear of the leak that produces images like my grenade, images that will continue to take violent forms in popular culture, journalism and Presidential speeches in time. In fact the metaphor of a Transparency Grenade is itself not new, first used publicly by Mike Taylor in the Observer, a few months after I drew up this project. A timely coincidence.
Most importantly however it is the hyperbole and fear around containing these volatile records, of the cyber burglary, that increasingly yields assumptive logics that ultimately shape how we use networks and think about the right to information. Just as record companies claim billions in losses due to file sharing, the fear of the leak is being actively exploited by law makers to afford organisations greater opacity and thus control.
This anxiety, this 'network insecurity', impacts not just upon the freedom of speech but the felt instinct to speak at all. All of a sudden letting public know what's going on inside a publicly funded organisation is somehow 'wrong' -Bradley Manning a sacrificial lamb to that effect. Meanwhile civil servants and publicly-owned companies continue to make decisions behind guarded doors that impact the lives of many, whether human or other animal.
All we have left from the Bin Laden assassination, for instance, is that photo from The Situation Room, a bunch of contradictory reports of what actually happened and a body being eaten by sea lice somewhere in the Indian Ocean - or was it the Indian Ocean? How much did that assassination cost American tax payers? Of course we wonder what was said in that room! Somehow such a significant event has now been reduced to a little black box and scrapbook..
I believe quality journalism has never been so important as it is today yet at the same it's never been so threatened, both in and out of a democratic context. Given great reductions to the freedom of the press recently it's only natural that we see them adopt guerilla tactics - especially given new discovery vectors opened up by digital communications. It should come as no surprise many of their tactics will be technically illegal or even ethically corrupt!
As we saw with the News of the World scandal, they are competing within an economy where news has capital value, itself a deep and driving flaw. Under such conditions, and baited with possibility, news corporations will increasingly look for points of exploit with exit strategies (and/or apologies) prepared.
With the Transparency Grenade I wanted to capture these important tensions in an iconic, hand-held package.
Has anyone tested it in some corporate or governmental place? Is this something you plan to do one day?
Even if I planned to I certainly wouldn't mention it here!
It is perhaps worth mentioning however that from the software side I haven't implemented anything new. Network packet capture has been around for decades, digital audio streaming for quite some time and TCP stream reconstruction also. Rather, I've wrapped up a variety of command line utilities in scripts that allow for the whole thing to work, both on the device and the server. An upcoming project 'Covert Peripherals' will explore this, as a canvas for productive paranoia. You'll never trust your mouse again..
Because of the simplicity of the design it is relatively trivial for me to port the Transparency Grenade back-end to the Android platform, something I'm working on currently thanks to a generous hardware donation from Australian based developer Scott Robinson. This will allow activists (or those simply sick of the relative opacity of their organisation) to deploy Transparency Grenade like functionality on their rooted Android phone and send the data over an encrypted channel via their GSM provider to a publicly available map, displaying the detonation as data from that site.
I will not offer the public map interface and data mining parts as a service (that'd be illegal, wouldn't it!). I will however provide code for people to install on their servers and or study.
Who'd be your dream 'target'? Who do you think has secrets worth unveiling?
Governments aside I certainly think we need a great deal more transparency in the Agricultural sector. A lot of effort is being exerted, including laws written, to ensure we don't know where our food comes from, alongside the impact of that food on the environment and our bodies. A year ago Senator Jim Norman of Florida proposed a blanket ban on video or photography of farms, even from the road! We have to wonder why. The meat industry is especially aggressive in this regard, their lobbies very powerful.
The arms industry, the rampant privatisation of publicly owned infrastructure, pharmaceutical industries, are also increasingly opaque in their business dealings. Why are cures, for instance, such highly guarded secrets? Symptom relief is often vastly more profitable.
What has been the reaction to the Transparency Grenade so far? Newstweek garnered much media attention and i suspect the TG, because of its functions but again also because of the way it looks, might distress and worry some people.
I've heard words like 'gorgeous' often enough for fearful responses to not dominate, thankfully! We had around 2000 people to the exhibition opening of our show
I wanted it to look elegant, a bottle of high-class perfume, as much as a weapon. Thanks to Berlin-based Susanne Stauch, who modeled the metal components in high-grade sterling silver, that aesthetic carries across I think, at least when you see it in the flesh.
I'd like to add that my conversations with writer and journalist Marta Peirano greatly nourished my thinking around this project, this interview alongside.
Thank you Julian!
The Transparency Grenade was created for the Weise7 Studio exhibition, curated by Transmediale 2012 Director, Kristoffer Gansing.. You can visit it at Labor Berlin, Haus Der Kulturen der Welt, until Feb 20, 2012.
On January 31, 2010 a life-size statue of Ronald Mc Donald was abducted from a McDonald's fast food joint in central Helsinki. The kidnapping took place in broad day light as the video below demonstrates:
A few days after, the kidnappers, a group of health-food activists called the Food Liberation Army, uploaded a video message on YouTube threatening to 'decapitate' Ronald if the hamburger corporation failed to answer questions about the quality of its food and its work ethics. The only unequivocal the FLA received was a stern warning that the company "does not negotiate with criminals." So poor Ronald was guillotined. Only that it was only a copy of the stolen figurine that lost its head. The 'original' one remained intact.
Somehow, the Finnish police managed to discover the identity of one of the food activists: artist Jani Leinonen. They raided his home, seized mobile phones and computers, threw him in jail for thirty hours and heroically freed Ronald the "hostage".
It wasn't the first time Leinonen's artworks engaged with food products, satirizing and dismantling their symbols and marketing strategies but this action proved too much for the authorities and the fast food chain. As Leinonen explained in an interview "I thought I was just stealing a store decoration, but I must have done something much worse."
I discovered Jani Leinonen's work at the Venice Biennale back in 2009. The cardboard signs he had bought from beggars across the world were framed and gracing the dining room of the Danish and Nordic Pavilions curated by Elmgreen & Dragset. He had actually bought these signs from people asking for charity and i still remember vividly how uneasy their presence at the swanky art event made me feel.
Thanks to the kind help of James Hudson, i got in touch with Jani Leinonen and bombarded him with questions about the beggars signs, his crazy sexed-up versions of cereal boxes for children, experiments with selling contemporary art works by the bulk as if they were vegetables and of course i was curious about the aftermath of the Ronald affair.
What happened after the Ronald affair? I read about the whole ordeal with the police and how the fast food decoration eventually went back to the restaurant. Is the police still looking at you suspiciously? Has McDonald's banned you from its restaurants?
Fortunately I was not banned from McDonald´s restaurants because I do visit them often. I keep telling myself it´s artistic research but I think I am lying even to myself. We just got the final charges via mail a few weeks ago. I and two other FLA members are charged with forgery and fraud, and the trial will be held in June in Helsinki. The prosecutor claims that the repair form of a fictional statue repair company we left at the table at McDonald´s is a forgery. Even more surprisingly he claims we committed a fraud and tried to profit economically by kidnapping Ronald. I am very happy about the chance to make my case in trial. We are planning to invite the best food specialists and art scholars to witness that our action was art and and served a revolutionary purpose.
Of course, there are many things I would have done differently. Then again, there was no way of knowing that, for example, the police would be doing a six man raid at my home just because we took a plastic store decoration. The project happened mostly in the web and media, and the debates it started and the attention it got there, were beyond all my expectations.
How about the Food Liberation Army? Are you planning to do more actions or did the whole army retire?
I created the Food Liberation Army to allow myself to make art both anonymously and without tagging it art immediately. FLA gave people an impression of activism, which I think my art is really close to. My cover was blown when the cops threw me to jail and the press found about it. But before that it was amazing to follow the confusion of people when they had no idea if the kidnapping was the real thing, or a marketing stunt, or art, or what. The most interesting discussions sparkled out of genuine interest in the issues the FLA brought up in the letter of demands. I think FLA will continue its work but I will deny having any part in it.
You seem to be fascinated with branding. Is it a coincidence that many of the brands you target are associated with family and children? Have any of the cereals makers ever reacted to the way you subvert their packaging?
I read a study that the most unhealthy food products are the most dazzling by the appearance, and those are of course kid´s products. The first time I used packages in my art I received a threatening letter from a Finnish company called Raisio. I had painted on their age-old Elovena oat meal packages. There´s a girl in a traditional Finnish national costume in the cover and I had painted her in Niqab, or as a call girl, or a suicide terrorist. Their lawyer wrote in the letter they have a right to claim financial compensations because I have damaged their trademark. They dropped the case after getting a lot of bad publicity which was in those days my only weapon against these giant corporations. That was the first time I realized that these colorful and seemingly innocent images are dangerous.
I remember seeing the Beggar Signs at the 2009 Venice Biennale. The website of the project says "The incomes from selling the installation and all the donations will be spend on raising the awareness of globally rising class-differences and poverty through thought-provoking actions." What happened after Venice? Did you sell some of those signs and used the money to set up actions? Was Hunger King one of those actions?
I sold the whole thing and the money has been waiting for a good use in a high interest bank account. If I recall correctly, the selling price was around 14 000 euros, and the buyer was one of the richest men in Switzerland. I started buying the signs from beggars already in 2006 without knowing what to do with them. The first two I bought with something like 5 dollars in San Antonio, Texas. The more I bought the worse my conscience got, and I started increasing the purchase price. The last ones I bought with about 40 euros. it was not until 2009 I realized the money I payed and got from the process was so integral that I had to use it to help these people who created the work.
I read on your blog that the Left Alliance party office had asked you if you'd design a poster for the presidential campaign of their candidate. Is that something you could do? Would you be interested in becoming the Shepard Fairey of Finland? Why or why not?
I did do the poster, and he did not make it to the second round. Perhaps it was my fault. We had 8 presidential candidates this year, from 8 different parties. The only regret I have is that I got the most brilliant idea too late. I will save it for the next elections in six years.
I admire your attempts at making and showing art outside of the usual art context: Hunger King, Food Liberation Army and Art Super Market for example. How did the Art's Supermarket work go? Where did you get the idea for it? Which kind of customers did it attract? Why didn't you open it for longer than 3 weeks?
I show art outside its usual context because art has a reputation problem. When people realize a certain object or event is art, their attitude changes. To most people art is this weird, all-allowing, bourgeoise peculiarity. That´s why I spend a lot of time hiding the art from my projects. Hunger King, FLA, Art Supermarket, they were all made they way it took people long to realize they were art. Or perhaps they never did. People react so much stronger when they perceive things as real, as something they cannot put in a box right away.
I also think the job of an artist is to make prototypes, create ideas that change the rules of how people think things are. It´s not our job to take these prototypes to mass production. Art Supermarket was a test of an idea. We opened it just to make a point, not to start a profitable business. I don't have the patience to start doing the real work of running the daily tasks of running a supermarket. I was fun to see it work for 3 weeks, that people did come into a supermarket that sold art like sausages and actually bought works. The place looked so real some people actually came shopping food.
Finally, could you tell us about other Finnish artists whose work you admire?
My all time favorite artist happens to be Finnish: Riiko Sakkinen.
Yesterday evening i went to Foto8 in London again for the screening of How to Start a Revolution, a documentary tracing the global influence exercised by the work of Gene Sharp, the world leading expert in nonviolent struggle. Investigative journalist Ruaridh Arrow who directed the movie was there to introduce the film and later on to answer our questions. He was accompanied in the Q&A by Jamila Raqib. She's Sharp's close collaborator and the executive director at the Albert Einstein Institution, a non-profit organisation Sharp founded in 1983 to study strategic non-violent resistance.
Although the American academic's seminal essay From Dictatorship to Democracy: A conceptual framework for liberation has toured the countries living under dictatorship for decades now, i only got to know his work last Summer when Willem Velthoven told me about it on a day i was visiting Mediamatic in Amsterdam.
Sharp believes that non-violent struggle has a greater chance of success than violent resistance, because violence is typically the most powerful weapon used tyrannical regimes and they will always have the upper hand. His booklet From Dictatorship to Democracy (which you can download as a PDF) provide a list of 198 "non-violent weapons", including mock awards, alternative communication system, wearing of symbols, pray-in, boycott of elections, withdrawal of bank deposits, consumers' boycott, renouncing honours, etc.
The book was first published in 1993 to support the opposition movement in Burma and was circulated among dissidents. Anyone seen carrying the book around was sentenced to seven-year prison terms by the regime. This kind of manual for toppling dictators has since inspired opponents of oppression in places as far apart as Thailand, Ukraine, Serbia, Estonia, Iran, China, Indonesia, Zimbabwe, and more recently in Syria, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Sharp's work which is committed to the defense of freedom, democracy, and the reduction of political violence doesn't always receive the praise one would think they deserve. Some regimes have accused him of being a CIA agent and the Albert Einstein Institution he founded struggles to find funding.
The film How to Start a Revolution uses extended interviews with Gene Sharp. Now in his mid-eighties, Sharp hardly ever leaves Boston where he runs the non-profit Albert Einstein Institution and dedicates his free time to orchids. There are also long contributions from his assistant Jamila Raqib, and from Robert Helvey, a retired US army colonel with whom Sharp worked in Burma and who has remained his ally since, training activists in various parts of the world to practice peaceful resistance. The film also includes testimony from key players in the Serbian revolution and activists involved in non-violent unrest in the Middle East.
How to Start a Revolution has been described as the unofficial film of the Occupy movement and was shown in Occupy camps in cities all over the world. In an Q&A with Aljazeera, Gene Sharp's reaction to the question What advice would you give to the Occupy movement? was the following:
I think they need to study how they can actually change the things they don't like, because simply sitting or staying in a certain place will not change or improve the economic or political system.
This is Ruaridh Arrow's first documentary and it has already received numerous awards. It's easy to understand why: we are in critical need to hear more about Sharp's thinking and the film traces the impact of his work with clarity. It's an energizing movie, it gives hope in a time when newspapers deride any attempt at optimism. However, the film isn't flawless. The music was a bit too emphatic, with trumpets and pathos to highlight the moments when tyranny hits the dirt. The images didn't need added drama. Neither did i need to witness anyone's parking skills at length. It would have been helpful to be able to read on the screen for more than 2 seconds the names of the interviewees. But these are minor grudges. I wish How to Start a Revolution was available online. Like Sharp's booklet, it should be distributed widely.
Lambert's study explores the power of architecture as a political weapon through history, from the wide 'boulevards' designed by Haussmann to allow for an easy movement of the artillery and cavalry in Paris to the mobile fences deployed by police forces during the G8 in Genoa to control mass demonstrations.
However, the core of his research looks into a very precise situation: the impact of the Isreali occupation on the Palestinian built environment, in particular in the West Bank where the movements of people and goods are strictly conditioned and governed by colonial apparatuses such as separation barriers, checkpoints that hinder Palestinian movements on their land, militarized destruction of Palestinian homes, Israeli civilian settlements within the West Bank, limits imposed on the natural extension of Palestinian villages, segregated transport infrastructures.
In Léopold's own words:
In fact, the State of Israel masters the elaboration of territorial and architectural colonial apparatuses that act directly on Palestinian daily lives. In this regard, it is crucial to observe that 63% of the West Bank is under total control of the Israeli Defense Forces in regards to security, movement, planning and construction.
Lambert's project doesn't stop at the analysis of colonial architecture in Palestine. His study goes further by 'dramatizing' a Palestinian active resistance to the occupation.
The 'Architectural Disobedience' Lambert suggests takes the form of a covert Palestinian shelter which would serve both Palestinian farmers and the Bedouins population. The 'Qsar' would allow onsite agricultural production and function as a caravansary for the Bedouins and their flocks.
The Weaponized Architecture research will be published in the coming days by dpr-barcelona. I'll come back with a review of the book and an interview with Ethel Baraona Pohl and César Reyes Nájera from dpr-barcelona as soon as the volume is out. In the meantime, i asked Léopold Lambert for an interview. And so did Ahmad Barclay who interviewed him as well. The themes and ideas their discussion touches upon in Arena of Speculation are fairly different from the ones i'm focusing on in this post so i'd recommend checking out both interviews.
Hi Léopold! It is difficult to remain indifferent and cold when reading the reality described in the first half of the book -in which you establish the power of architecture as a political weapon in Palestine. Do you think it is possible to write about the situation endured by Palestinians and remain neutral and impartial? I was interested in the way you describe the Western vision of the Palestinian situation because you've experienced it from a European as well as a US point of view. Whereas i've only observed it as a European living and working in Europe and i was under the impression that in Europe we are fairly more sympathetic (although irritatingly impotent) to the Palestinian cause. Reading the post you wrote after having seen a debate on French TV made me realize I might be very wrong in assuming this European 'solidarity'. What's your view on this? Are we so blind in Europe?
The first question about neutrality and impartiality reveals indeed the way people think in Europe. In the difference of American policies in this matter which clearly support Israel, Europe tries to be more neutral in their decisions. However, this neutrality is the real trap. Neutrality is what maintains the status quo since 1967 by considering that both nations, Israelis and Palestinians are equally belligerent and should become more reasonable. I don't think that a lot of people who went there with an open minded approach share this vision of things.
The facts are that, at the exception of considering that (Jewish) divine law is the prevailing form of territorial justice, there is an objective and daily transgression of the international law by the State of Israel. Whether you consider this region of the world as one country hosting both people, or if you consider that there should be two states for two different populations, the legal problem reaches the same conclusion. In the former case, we can evoke a civil situation comparable to the South African one during the Apartheid (1948-1994), and in the latter case, we can observe, with the presence of about 500 000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, a violation of the article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949) which stipulates that the Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.
This illegality throws the bases of the indignation that indeed prevents and should prevent a lot of people to remain neutral. In order to enter in resistance to act against what appears as clearly antagonist to our personal -or collective- ethics, we have to "choose a side". It does not necessarily mean that people of this "side" need to agree on every topic that are involved here -and there are a lot- but that this group of people are in solidarity to resist against what their ethics interprets as oppressive.
This is the difference between justice and resistance. Justice has to tend indeed towards impartiality and neutrality. Resistance begins with the absence of justice and engages into the concerned antagonism as a pure necessity. In other words, resistance appears to the one who is caught in this process as the only thing to do in accordance to his (her) personal system of interpretation of the world.
The Jewish people, citizens of Israel know very well this process as they have been persecuted in the worst way the human kind has ever been. However, when they constituted a State and an army -let us not forget that the three years long military service is compulsory for every male and female citizen of Israel- they became the dominant body that pathologically abuse of its power over another. What Gilles Deleuze calls the becoming (devenir) revolutionary is therefore allowed to them only if they also enter in resistance against this dominant power along with the Palestinian people and the rest of us.
The second part of the book describes a Disobedient work of architecture for two Palestinian populations. The proposal is extremely ingenious with its set of tents that camouflages the underneath dwellings and construction site. Could you describe it to us briefly?
I will begin by describing what this particular architecture is disobeying. The 1993 Oslo Accords signed secretly by the Palestine Liberation Organization -which was pretty much transformed into the current Palestinian Authority- with Israel, organized the West Bank in three areas. Area A -and Area B to some extents- that includes the biggest Palestinian cities -except Hebron- allows the Palestinian Authority a relative territorial autonomy while Area C, on the contrary is entirely under the Israeli Army control which does not allow any form of Palestinian construction. Area A and Area B constitute islands of territory on which the Palestinians have a relative autonomy. This territory is indeed made of islands as Area C occupies 63% of the West Bank and surrounds the two former areas, thus constituting what can be called metaphorically the Palestinian Archipelago.
The concrete consequences that result from this territorial repartition is that Palestinians of the West Bank cannot build and live on most of the territory that has been attributed to them by the 1949 Armistice Agreements. In addition of that, it is often difficult for them to circulate between those islands as their movement is filtered by various apparatuses of control that the Israeli State has been developing.
Those apparatuses are actually the most expressive examples of my thesis which claims that architecture is inherently political and can be either conceived or instrumentalized in order to be used as a political weapon. In the book, I establish an inventory of what I have been calling colonial apparatuses that Israel has been designing and using and still uses in order to control the Palestinian daily lives. This inventory is something that I present a little bit like a reportage but really, nobody describes them better than Eyal Weizman in his book Hollow Land.
I am approaching little by little the project here, but I still need to precise who this architecture is involving. I distinguished indeed two parts of the Palestinian population that suffer particularly from the Israeli occupation and those apparatuses I just talked about. The first one is constituted by those who live thanks to agriculture and whose land has been mostly confiscated or who cannot access it; and the second one is the nomadic ethnicity of the Bedouins who are very limited in their movement.
The program of this disobedient architecture, built in the Area C near the Palestinian city of Salfit and the very large Israeli settlement of Ariel, is therefore a small agricultural platform associated with a caravansary for the Bedouins. The architecture of this building recounts its combinative strategy of camouflage and reclaim of the land. It is constituted by three layers that have different levels of fragility: a set of tents on the outside that give to the building an aspect of fragile Bedouin settlement, a concrete based agricultural platform on the land and finally an underground dwelling connected to Area A by a tunnel.
Your scenario also involves the discovery of the Qasr by the Israeli Defense Force. Why is it important to build the Qasr if it's likely to be left in ruins eventually?
This part of the scenario is useful for me to state that this building was not designed as a solution to the conflict. I don't believe that architecture can be considered in any way as a vector of resolution. Only the application of the law can veritably brings something that can be called a solution to the conflict. Architecture can be used to resist but cannot really solve problems in depth. That is what I mean by stating that architecture is systematically a weapon.
Let's go back to the project's scenario though. The first layer of tents would indeed be very easily destroyed by the Israeli army in case of invasion. The two others layers, however, are spatially and materially built in such a way that it would actually require a very substantial amount of energy for the I.D.F. to veritably demolish them completely. The building would therefore remain in the state of a ruin, slowly invaded by the rocks, dust and plants of the land and the children of Salfit would probably find in it a stimulating playground. In 1949, after the Nakba, the very new state of Israel destroyed systematically and absolutely all the former Arab villages on its territory in a symptomatic form of erasing the Palestinian mark on the land. Having this building remaining as a ruin is therefore a resistance to this architectural eradication and constitutes in itself a certain victory by reclaiming a piece of land.
Have you identified other existing strategies of Palestinian disobedience related to architecture and urban planning?
In terms of disobedience relative to a practice of space, the first example that comes to my mind is the Sarhats (walks) regularly accomplished by Raja Shehadeh in Ramallah's hills within Area C. Raja is a lawyer who works particularly within the Israeli legal system to resist against the expropriations of the Palestinian land. I interviewed him for the book about this matter. He is also an author and wrote a book entitled Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape that recounts how he practices his freedom of movement by walking in those hills. This approach is very interesting as it is de facto non-violent yet resolutely transgressive as it escapes from most apparatuses of control.
Two other examples I can think of, which are not disobedient as such but register more in the domain of architectural resistance, both in their own way. The first one is well known to any architect who got interested in this conflict in the last decade: Decolonizing Architecture initiated and operated by architects Alessandro Petti, Sandi Hilal and Eyal Weizman have been conducted several projects and exhibition that question the role architecture can have to participate to the creation of a Palestinian state in the hypothesis of its emergence. Among other projects, they developed strategies of re-occupation of the Israeli settlements that would have been emptied by either a justice decision or the potential (unlikely) result of negotiations.
The second example in that matter is brought by the association Riwaq that started in 1994 to elaborate a National Register of Historic Buildings. This inventory, although it may look that is focused on the past, really organizes a present resistance to the Israeli effort to destroy Palestinian buildings but also constitutes a common heritage to the Palestinian people, and therefore something to unite about.
Do you see your book as a kind of 'weapon' as well?
Yes, definitely. Although it might then be not more powerful as the small hand catapults that consisted most of the weapons the Palestinians were ever able to use against the Israeli Defense Force's tanks and bulldozers, it still constitutes a form of resistance in itself, a refusal to submission, and therefore a contribution to the construction of a collective identity.
Related entries: Book review: Atlas of the Conflict. Israel-Palestine, Open City: Designing Coexistence - Part 2, Refuge, Decolonizing Architecture - Scenarios for the transformation of Israeli settlements and Welcome to Hebron.
NAI Publishers says: Should artists be activists? Is activist art one of an artist's primary responsibilities or a pointless sideshow on the fringes of serious politics? The philosopher, writer and art historian Lieven de Cauter, Ruben de Roo and Karel Vanhaesebrouck explore this theme in collaboration with other thinkers and doers in his new book Art and Activism in the Age of Globalization.
In a time of globalization, populism, hypercapitalism, migration, War on Terror, and global warming, artistic engagement is vital. Art and Activism in the Age of Globalization takes the measure of contemporary activist art. What is the role of art and activism in the polarized, populist society of the spectacle? Art & Activism examines both the criticism of engagement as a mere pose and the need for cultural activism in today's society. Urban activism and activism by anonymous networks are also investigated. Special attention is devoted to the effects of the War on Terror on activism in practice. The book concludes with a theoretical framework for contemporary activism and an impassioned plea for genuinely political art.
It is traditional in the blogosphere (is anyone still using this word?) to close the year with a 'best of' post listing the 10 most popular stories, the best exhibitions seen, the gadgets that have changed our life. I wish i could do it, it's excellent for traffic. Alas! i have the memory of a mongoose and i'm too lazy to go through the archives of the blog. But i can safely declare that the best book i've read in 2011 was Art & Activism in the Age of Globalization.
A number of books about art and activism have landed on my doorstep over the past few years but this is the first one that takes as its premise the fact that activism, protest, subversion, disruption, criticism, community, resistance, etc. have become little more than buzzwords. Punk has lost its bite and essence and is now little more than a fashion trend. Che Guevara is more famous for the t-shirts his face sells than for the role he played in the Cuban Revolution. Subversion has been the cornerstone of Madonna's rise to pop power for decades. The discursive fringe has reached the mainstream. Resistance is hip! Subversion is cool!
The popularity of these terms have depleted them from any meaning or strength. Well almost... Today you can land a commission or assignment from public institutions and private sponsors by writing application that claims that your 'subversive' artwork will raise 'a healthy debate in the community'.
The editors of the book have therefore found it necessary to come up with a new word to define a powerful strategy that connects art and political engagement: subversivity. Subversivity is a disruptive attitude that tries to create openings, possibilities in the 'closedness' of a system.
The quality of the book extends way beyond its premise. Art & Activism in the Age of Globalization is composed of 30 essays by artists, art historians, philosophers, cultural critics, social scientists, curators, theatre directors, etc. I expected at least one or two of these texts to be bland, too scholarly, or cliché. But all i read was solid and relevant. There were a few repetitions but i never grew tired of the thoughts, experiments and ideas shared in the book.
The texts jumped from one discipline to another: visual art, theatre, architecture, hacktivism, urbanism, performances. They discussed artistic and activist practice in Europe and North America of course but also in Syria (exploring the form activism can take in a country where public activity is closely monitored by the State), South Africa, Argentina and other countries which ought to appear more often on the contemporary art map.
Unlike many books i review on the blog, this one contains very few images. Two to be precise and that includes the one on the cover. I didn't really miss the images and discovered a few artistic/activist projects that would have deserved an individual post:
Ruben De Roo takes Renzo Martens' film Enjoy Poverty as a platform to explore how artists can stimulate the political consciousness of the consumers of tragedies that we ('Western' audiences) are. A few years ago, Martens went to the Democratic Republic of Congo to launch a two-year project that examined the exploitation of one of Africa's major exports: images of poverty and suffering. The artist traveled with a blue neon billboard that read ENJOY POVERTY and worked with Congolese photographers, teaching them how to sell images of suffering to Western media and aid agencies.
In their remarkably powerful and compelling essay, members of the collective BAVO call for socially committed artists to abandon "NGO art" (mostly art devoid of any political stand for fear of loosing subsidies) and urged them to be 'really political' by developing strategies and practices of resistances that stretch the limits of their discipline in the direction of radical politics. They gave Christoph Schlingensief's Please Love Austria as a meaningful example of art engaging with politics:
In 2000, shortly after Jörg Haider's far right party became part of the Austrian government, Christoph Schlingensief set up a camp for asylum seekers in a shipping container outside the Vienna Opera House. Twelve asylum seekers lived in the container for 6 days, their lives streamed over the web in a kind of Big Brother show, and the audience were invited to vote their least favourite players to exit the container and be deported to their native country. Decorated with a banner saying Ausländer Raus! ('Foreigners out!'), the container became a flashpoint in Austria's national and racial debate. One of the outcome of the work is that, at the end of the show, antifascist action groups stormed the container and freed the immigrants (who were actually actors.)
The artist installed red light on the Copula of the Marche Bonsecours, a landmark monument in the centre of Montreal. The lights were connected to homeless shelters located 500 yards from the building. When a homeless person entered one of the shelters, they could press the button that would make the top of the building glow red.
Eventually all the shelters for homeless people in Montreal could be wired and connected to the Cupola. This way, a major landmark and historical monument in the city would be acting as a non-stop lighthouse, producing endless, painful distress signals to society. With enough media coverage and public outrage and support triggered by these ongoing distress signals, homelessness could be completely eradicated from Montreal, Jaar explained.
The strategy worked so well that the commissioning authority ended the intervention.
The book ends with the most honest plea: to burn the book (or burn your brain) because subversion (or subversivity) can be undermined by essays, books, intellectual jargon and 'radical' theories.
Image on the homepage: Steven Cohen, Chandelier, 2001. Photo: John Hogg.