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.

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Theaster Gates, My Labor is My Protest, 2012. Photo: Ben Westoby, Courtesy White Cube

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.

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Theaster Gates, Installation photograph (South Gallery I, White Cube Bermondsey), 2012. Photo: Ben Westoby, Courtesy White Cube

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On Black Foundations (detail), 2012

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.

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Theaster Gates, Raising Goliath, 2012. Photo: Ben Westoby, Courtesy White Cube

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.

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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.

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If you think that the ongoing edition of the Manifesta biennale is not enough to lure you to the Limburg region of Belgium, how about an exhibition about the work of 30 artists who are looking for gaps in the ruling systems and structures?

Mind the System, Find the Gap is this year's Summer exhibition at Z33 and the concept of the show has been applied literally to the Z33 space. The artworks occupy every space available: they are in the usual exhibition spaces of course but also in the garden, in the reception area, and inside the little Beguinage houses.

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Atelier Van Lieshout, Autocraat (part of Insect Farm), 2012. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Ahmet Ögüt, Strategic Diagram for Non-hierarchical Participatory Radical Democracy, 2011. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

Our society is governed by all sorts of systems and structures. No system, however, whether political, judicial, economical, socio-cultural or spatial, can comprise life in its entirety. Every system has loopholes, leaks and ambiguities.

The exhibition is uplifting and timely. In these moments of social inequality, austerity, cuts in culture budgets, low social mobility, loss of privacy, recession, it is reassuring to discover that the systems that govern our existences have flaws and spaces that we can infiltrate. Even if this form of resistance is often more symbolic than truly power-challenging.

Some of the participating artists merely reveal and document these gaps while others go further and demonstrate how to take advantage of them. The artworks are organized according to themes: political systems, spatial systems and socio-cultural systems with of course much overlap since many of the artworks confront several systems at the same time.

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Pablo Valbuena, Re-Flex [Z33], 2012. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

The clearest and probably most amusing introduction to the show has to be Matthieu Laurette's project. For 8 years, the artist ate, shaved, dressed and showered for free thanks to Moneyback Products, a method of shopping that pushed to the extreme the marketing system of the major food corporations which offer their product with a "Satisfied or your money back" or "Money back on first purchase" label. Similarly, Laurette's home was always equipped with brand new electrical goods which he sent back before the end of the guarantee - to replace them with brand new ones.

The strategy requires to be extremely well organised. Because most manufacturers ask you to send back a separate till receipts before they will refund items, you need to pay separately for each product.

Moneyback Products was an art project but also a life style that leaked beyond the walls of art galleries. Laurette became indeed a celebrity in the French media, he was invited to popular talk shows and his project appeared on the cover of mainstream magazines.

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The freebie king, Daily record (UK)(detail), Friday December 8 2000. © Matthieu Laurette

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Matthieu Laurette, Mobile Information Stand For Moneyback Products, 1999. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

In Identity4You, Heath Bunting creates off-the-shelf new legal identities built up from a portfolio of unique legal relationships. The work - a continuation of Identity Bureau and the Status Project - draws on the fact that as a human being one can have several legal identities. These identities are constructed through a network of registrations: loyalty cards, bank accounts, phone cards, bills, government correspondence and other person related data. The vaster the network, the stronger the legal identity. Identity4You demonstrates that an identity depends mainly upon administrative systems, rather than personality or even a physical body.

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Heath Bunting, Identity4you, 2012. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

The animation film What Shall We Do Next is presented as an "archive of gestures to come". The gestures refer to the patents for the invention of new devices taken out from the USPTO (United States Patent and Trademark Office) from 2006 to 2011. The functioning of upcoming tablets, smartphones, laptops, game consoles, medical instruments and other devices involves gestures that are defined and copyrighted even though the interface does not yet exist. In the video, the artist appropriates the gestures and separates them from their utilitarian function, letting them float in the air and follow a choreographic abstraction.

The work not only explores how technology shapes our behaviour but also questions the privatization of something as basic as a human gesture.

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Julien Prévieux, What Shall We Do Next?, 2006-2011. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

For her performance Bag Lady, Pilvi Takala spent one week in a shopping mall in Berlin, carrying a lot of cash in a transparent plastic bag. As soon as they spotted the content of her bag, sales personnel, security staff, shop owners as well as fellow customers, looked uncomfortable and unsure how to react. Although she behaved like a normal customer, Takala was both a security threat and a subject of protection. This slight intervention sheds controversial light on the fragility of the social order, where private property in the form of money or product is such a holy cow, that it is under constant intuitive public control.

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Pivli Takala, Bag Lady, 2006-2008

We're getting used to read about architectural works that engages with the cracks in urban space. But we tend to forget that they come from a long tradition of 'gap exploration.'

In 1973 and 1974, Gordon Matta-Clark purchased, at New York City auctions, fifteen leftover and unwanted properties. Because these properties were too small or too oddly shaped, they were unusable or inaccessible for development. He got each of them for a few dollars.

Matta-Clark documented these urban voids with an archive of deeds, maps, photographs of every inch of his lands, tax receipts, videotapes and other documents. Unfortunately, Matta-Clark died before he could fully realise his plans, and ownership of the properties reverted to the city (the taxes to pay were too expensive.)

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Reality Properties: Fake Estates, Little Alley Block 2497, Lot 42, 1974

Dutch architect Anne Holtrop based the design of the Trail House not on gaps but on unofficial use of land. The building structure follows Elephant Paths, the shortcuts that people adopt and trace when they go through meadows, parks or city squares. Over time, the tracing of the Elephant Paths appears on the ground which reinforced the informal route. The architect simply shaped a house to further recognize its existence. Z33 shows the model and Bas Princen's always impeccable photos.

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Anne Holtrop, Trail House, 2009. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Anne Holtrop, Trail House, 2009. Photo: Bas Princen

Tadashi Kawamata's Tokyo Project - New Housing Plan explores the possibility to squeeze the home of city dwellers into the overlooked spaces of the Japanese capital: between the fences of construction sites, behind vending machines or even billboards.

Kawamata actually build the houses, each of which was occupied on rotation over a one-week period by the artist and his associates. The inside of the guerrilla houses was surprisingly comfortable with wall-to-wall carpeting, heaters and CD players powered by electricity lifted from external sources such as the vending machines.

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Tadashi Kawamata, Tokyo Project : New Housing Plan, Tokyo, December , 1998, © ANZAÏ

I probably don't understand fully what makes KALENDER a work that looks for 'gaps in the system' but i'm glad i discovered it at Z33.

Between 3 January 2009 and 2 January 2010, Benjamin Verdonck performed more than 150 actions in Antwerp. These actions related to traditional public holidays, the cycle of the seasons, geopolitical shifts and life as it is.

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Benjamin Verdonck, Kalender, 2009-2010. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Benjamin Verdonck, Kalender, 2009-2010. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

I particularly like the procession of oversized toilet sanitizer, lighter, mobile phone and soda can.


Benjamin Verdonck, Kalender, Processie der dingen (Procession of Things), 2009

Also in the show:

In 'Based on a Grid', Esther Stocker creates a spatial system from a series of black painted wooden blocks in the entrance hall of the Z33 exhibition building. The visitor is drawn into the installation, as it were, and is challenged by the system, the grid that is there but not immediately visible. For Stocker, the system is implied as much by its gaps as it is by its contours. But do we want to look for the system or are we happy to loose ourselves in the chaos of scattered elements drifting apart?

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Esther Stocker, Based on a Grid, 2012. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Minouk Lim, International Calling Frequency, 2011. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

Founded in 1998, Mejor Vida Corp. (Better Life Corporation) is a political and art organization that attempts to level social inequalities by injecting guerrilla art operations into capitalist structures. Mejor Vida Corp. provides free products and services such as international student ID cards, subway tickets for the Mexico City network, recommendation letters, fake barcode stickers to reduce the prices on goods sold by supermarket chains, etc.

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Minerva Cuevas, Mejor Vida Corp. (Better Life Corporation), 1998-. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Minerva Cuevas, Mejor Vida Corp. (Better Life Corporation), 1998-. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Minerva Cuevas, Mejor Vida Corp. (Better Life Corporation), 1998-. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Dora García, The Inadequate, 2012. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Dora García, The Inadequate, 2012. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Dora García, The Inadequate, 2012. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Agency, Verzameling / Assembly, 2012 (Commissioned for Mind the System, Find the Gap). Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Carey Young, Obsidian Contract, 2010. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Stephanie Syjuco, Free Texts, 2012. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Leandro Erlich, Window and Ladder Too Late For Help, 2008. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

Z33 has youtubed a series of introductions to the show as well as some interviews with artists participating to it. I'd recommend the one with Benjamin Verdonck because his accent is so lovely.
Z33's flickr set. My questionable flickr set.

Mind the System, Find the Gap is a free exhibition and it is open at Z33 in Hasselt until 30 September 2012.

Previously: Mind the System, Find the Sukima (gap).

Identity Bureau, transferable synthetic British natural person.

A few months ago, i interviewed Léopold Lambert about Weaponized Architecture, an architectural project and research that explores the power of architecture as a political weapon. The concept is illustrated by historical precedents, interviews and essays but it is also exemplified by a very precise situation: the impact of the Isreali occupation on the Palestinian built environment, in particular in the West Bank.

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At the time of our conversation, Léopold was about to turn his research into a book. The publication is finally out (both in paperback and as an expanded mobile book) and its title is Weaponized Architecture: The Impossibility of Innocence.

It's a lovely book and one that constantly surprises the reader by the depth of the research, the thought-provoking facts and ideas brought to light, by the photos, the maps and by the graphic novel that closes the book.

I'm not going to review it. Instead, i'll take the fact that it recently landed inside my -always grateful- letterbox as an excuse to talk to Ethel Baraona Pohl and César Reyes Nájera who are both architects, bloggers and heads of dpr-Barcelona, the publishing house for Weaponized Architecture.

dpr-barcelona specializes in architecture and design books. Each of their publication is the result of a creative exchange between publisher, author or designer and the collaboration of academic experts that make most complete the overview about each project. Showing a clear innovative way to bring the contents to the public, our projects transcend the boundaries between time and space from conventional publications, approaching to those which are probably the titles of architecture in the future.

What i most admire in dpr-barcelona is that the publishing house is never afraid to question architecture, expand debates nor take risks with the way their books are presented and enjoyed.

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I'm copy pasting below some extracts from my online conversation with Ethel and César, it took place just before the book was out, hence the use of the future tense:

What i most admire about dpr-Barcelona is that you don't seem to avoid politically challenging subjects. For example, when you chose to publish Situation Room, Weaponized Architecture, Un Atlas de Cartografías Radicales (the Spanish edition of An Atlas of Radical Cartography.) How do you select the books you are publishing and in some cases even translating? Do you pick up just what interest you as architects at a particular moment or do look for 'gaps' in the market?

We prefer to refer to them as gaps in the thinking. As architects we have been mostly educated through images more than ideas. Our task attempts to revert this situation by the contents we share and by the way we spread them. Coincidentally most of key issues we're facing now as civilization deals with political and economical challenging subjects. Under this scenario architects, liberated from their aesthetics constrains, could genuinely learn and collaborate with socially useful projects and ideas. We build our editorial task in that direction.

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Situation Room, by Pablo de Soto and hackitectura

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Un Atlas de Cartografías Radicales by Lize Mogel & Alexis Bhagat

Why did you chose to publish Léopold Lambert's thesis for example? How did you come across his research?

Our relation started as most of the connections done in the "network": We noticed and follow Leopold's work since he was editing the blog Boiteaoutils. We found quite interesting mostly all of the issues he deals at the blog and finally we got in touch in 2009 to publish his project Kili No Nara in our blog. From there our connection was going beyond the blogroll, so when we published Lost in the Line, we realized that it was part of a bigger project: Weaponized Architecture.

While exploring the research done by Léopold, we realized that it was a job worth spreading to a different level. Placing its research and proposal in the West Bank, Lambert expands politically the field of architecture narratives, integrating design as a weapon within the scene of the Palestinian struggle. Here we see an act of architectural disobedience, a way to resist an establishment using architecture as a weapon with all its political implications.

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How did you turn a thesis into a book? Does this involve a lot of editing, reformulating, reformating? Or did you manage to stick as closely as possible to the original text?

Even its origin is a thesis, when you go into the research and the structure proposed by Léopold, then you realize that naming it "a thesis" is just a formalism. Lambert shows in this work a clear intention of going further and works on the subject as an author committed to the subject studied. That is a sort of implication that goes beyond the limits of Academia.

So, our intervention as publishers has been minimum given that both the contents and the complete layout has been done by the author. We have done minor format adaptation for printing purposes and our main task was focused in supplementing with a publishing strategy aimed to expand the message as wider as possible by means of mobile-book version and the addition of Augmented Reality experience to some contents of the printed version facilitating multi-platform interaction to make more powerful [if possible] Léopold's commitment.

The book will have a free expanded-mobile version, which means that almost all the contents, but adapted to the logic of mobile devices (enhancing immediacy, brevity, and simplicity) will be published for free under a CC license expanding the content of the physical book. The interaction with Augmented Reality will be part of this mobile-book.

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The book includes interviews with blogger Bryan Finoki and with Palestinian lawyer, novelist and political activist Raja Shehadeh and will be published both in paperback and as an expanded mobile book, with Augmented Reality [AR] interaction, so the content itself will be expanded through mobile devices.

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Léopold Lambert's "Lost in the Line" visual essay, part of the book WEAPONIZED ARCHITECTURE: The Impossibility of Innocence

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.

Alternative and Activist New Media, by Leah Lievrouw.

Available on Amazon USAand UK.

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Publisher Politi writes: Alternative and Activist New Media provides a rich and accessible overview of the ways in which activists, artists, and citizen groups around the world use new media and information technologies to gain visibility and voice, present alternative or marginal views, share their own DIY information systems and content, and otherwise resist, talk back to, or confront dominant media culture. Today, a lively and contentious cycle of capture, cooptation, and subversion of information, content, and system design marks the relationship between the mainstream 'center' and the interactive, participatory 'edges' of media culture.

Five principal forms of alternative and activist new media projects are introduced, including the characteristics that make them different from more conventional media forms and content. The book traces the historical roots of these projects in alternative media, social movements, and activist art, including analyses of key case studies and links to relevant electronic resources. Alternative and Activist New Media will be a useful addition to any course on new media and society, and essential for readers interested in new media activism.


®TMark, The Barbie Liberation Organization, 1993

I might have covered many books and exhibitions that demonstrate how artists use technology to protest, campaign, challenge institutions, or express social and political concerns but i still had to review a book that studied alternative and activist new media from an 'Information Studies' or purely social point of view. This one was written by a professor in the Department of Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles and it has the (rare) merit of including contemporary art practices in its field of investigation.

Leah Lievrouw looks at what she calls the five basic genres of contemporary alternative and activist new media: Culture Jamming (think of the Billboard Liberation Front or ®TMark), Alternative Computing (hacking), Participatory Journalism (e.g. Indymedia, blogs), Mediated Mobilization (the Arab Spring) and Commons Knowledge (Wikipedia). She goes from defining elementary concepts (such as "what makes new media 'new'") to detailing recent theories and observations in a seamless and impeccable way.

She describes Alternative and Activist New Media, traces back their antecedents, weights their strengths and weaknesses in, pits them against their mainstream/institutionalized equivalent, analyzes their rise from fringe to (almost) mainstream, sums up the debates surrounding this 'new media ecology', and illustrates each 'genre' with a case study.

Alternative and Activist New Media is a book for students. Of media, new media, communication, sociology, media art. This is also a book for people like you and me. People who've been using wikipedia for years, who blog, who know about The Yes Men's "identity correction" performances. People who are familiar with the language and concepts of Alternative and Activist New Media. But does that mean that our insight doesn't need more structure and a solid historical background?

Elvis, my young Staffie, was a equally enthusiastic about the book (or maybe equally unimpressed by the design of its cover) ....

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Image on the homepage: The Yes Men's golden skeleton.

Living as Form - Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011, edited by Nato Thompson, with essays by Claire Bishop, Maria Lind, Teddy Cruz, Carol Becker, Brian Holmes and Shannon Jackson.

(available on amazon USA and UK.)

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Publisher The MIT Press says: Over the past twenty years, an abundance of art forms have emerged that use aesthetics to affect social dynamics. These works are often produced by collectives or come out of a community context; they emphasize participation, dialogue, and action, and appear in situations ranging from theater to activism to urban planning to visual art to health care. Engaged with the texture of living, these art works often blur the line between art and life. This book offers the first global portrait of a complex and exciting mode of cultural production--one that has virtually redefined contemporary art practice.

Living as Form grew out of a major exhibition at Creative Time in New York City. Like the exhibition, the book is a landmark survey of more than 100 projects selected by a thirty-person curatorial advisory team; each project is documented by a selection of color images. The artists include the Danish collective Superflex, who empower communities to challenge corporate interest; Turner Prize nominee Jeremy Deller, creator of socially and politically charged performance works; Women on Waves, who provide abortion services and information to women in regions where the procedure is illegal; and Santiágo Cirugeda, an architect who builds temporary structures to solve housing problems.

Living as Form contains commissioned essays from noted critics and theorists who look at this phenomenon from a global perspective and broaden the range of what constitutes this form.

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Voina

I've reviewed a few books about socially-engaged art in the past: Art & Agenda - Political Art and Activism, a monography of Krzysztof Wodiczko's works, Goodbye to London - Radical Art and Politics in the Seventies, Experimental Geography: Radical Approaches to Landscape, Cartography, and Urbanism, An Atlas of Radical Cartography, and Art & Activism in the Age of Globalization which is probably my favourite. Living as Form demonstrates that i still had a lot to discover on the subject.

The projects selected for Living as Form are often explicitly local, long term and community-based which sets them apart from many 'activist' projects that sound more like media coups than real, thoughtful attempts to improve a social issues. Many of the works documented in the book are probably not well-known (unless you've visited the exhibition that took place last year in New York) and i actually couldn't always find good photos to illustrate some of the interventions i found most compelling. Unsurprisingly, some of these socially-engaged projects come from the usual suspects: Europe and North America. Many however, were born in Africa, Latin America, Asia and were selected by international curators (I wonder if anyone was covering the Middle East?)

The projects might not be the most spectacular you've heard about. Maybe because the varnish of subversion has faded over the years, or maybe because the artists didn't necessarily go for the shock tactic, the loud nor the dramatic but their works serve a precise need, competently and with humility.

The book contains some 150 pages describing projects or outlining the career of artists involved in socially engaged practices such as Voina, The Bureau of Piracy (Piratbyrån) or Neue Slowenische Kunst.

Nato Thompson explains in his introductory essay that the reason why the starting point for book is the year 1991 is that he wanted to cover the period that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall. The event opened the gates to a new neoliberal order which gave a huge boost to the private sector and debilitated the role of public and State functions in protecting and supporting citizens. Given the state of politics in Europe right now, the relevance and importance of the projects described in the book isn't likely to dwindle any time soon.

Just a few works from Living as Form:

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A few years ago, Minerva Cuevas set up web-based nonprofit corporation that distributes for free products and services. Mejor Vida Corp provides anyone who might need them with a recommendation letter, a Mexico City subway ticket, a self stamped envelope, a student ID card or cheaper barcode stickers for fruit and vegetables.

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Finishing School with Christy Thomas, The Patriot Library, 2003. Lucky Tackle, Oakland, CA. Photo Finishing School

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Finishing School with Christy Thomas, The Patriot Library, 2003. Lucky Tackle, Oakland, CA. Photo Finishing School

The Patriot Library, by Finishing School, is a nomadic library that provides users access to books, periodicals, and other media that may be considered "dangerous" by the US Federal government once the Patriot Act took affect after September 11, 2001. Believing that the pursuit of knowledge is not dangerous in itself, the Library makes publications that range from Aviation Training to Bomb Making, Chemistry to Tourist Information available to the public without questioning the motivation of the individual user.

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Image from the documentary film Up the Ridge

Thousand Kites is a USA-wide project uses performance, video, online strategies, radio and low-cost media tools to work toward prison reform through grassroots power.

The project emerged in 1998, when Nick Szuberla, host of a rural Appalachian region's hip-hop radio program, began to receive letters from inmates recently transferred into two local SuperMax prisons. The letters described racism and human rights violations, and Szuberla responded first by playing a game of chess with the prisoners over the air and through the mail. Thousand Kites soon became more ambitious and branched into a series of national and local campaigns, artistic projects, and dedicated radio programs.

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Ai Weiwei, Fairytale, 2007

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Ai Weiwei, Fairytale, 2007

In 2007, Ai Weiwei invited 1001 Chinese, from farmers to factory workers, from students to minority people, to travel to Kassel and visit the Documenta exhibition as audience. The people he selected were "those who are not able to travel overseas under normal conditions, or those to whom traveling overseas has a very important meaning." Once in Kassel they were hosted in a temporary hostel and visited the area. The guests were both tourists and subjects of art. 1,001 antique chairs were placed throughout the exhibition to represent the visitors.

Image on the homepage from the project Women on Waves.

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OECDlab, Qui magistratum obeunt mundum credunt sibi subiectum esse ut ad suam voluntatem flectatur (Interior)

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.

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Power of Mind 3 Dissociative Defense

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:

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Mogens Jacobsen in his workshop (photo courtesy of the artist)

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.



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OECDlab, The "Qui magistratum obeunt mundum credunt sibi subiectum esse ut ad suam voluntatem flectatur" instrument (Detail)

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OECDlab, The "Qui magistratum obeunt mundum credunt sibi subiectum esse ut ad suam voluntatem flectatur" instrument

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.

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OECDlab, The "Manda mihi officinam et mundum levabo" instrument

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OECDlab, The "Pluralitatem sine unitate animo concipere non licet" instrument

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.




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The Democratic Dazzler. Image Black Box Gallery

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.

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Crime Scene

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.

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Pairs - Conversation Piece from 1965. Installation view at ZKM (in progress)

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.

Thanks Mogens!

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