Slowly reaching the end of my reports from the symposium Positions in flux: On the changing role of the artist and institution in the networked society (see previous posts) that the The Netherlands Media Art Institute had organized at Trouw Amsterdam a few days ago.
I'm going to be as prolix as i've been for the first panel. In fact, i'll just write down bits and pieces. Not that the other presentations were not excellent as well, it's just that i have my pet subjects, matters i like or simply understand better than others.
The panel New territories and cultures of the digital looked at the geographical shift that media culture currently undergoes. Europe, North America and Japan used to be at the forefront of digital production, design, art and technological research. Now that technologies become available at lower prices and spread more widely on the globe, new initiatives and bottom-up organisations are burgeoning in East Europe, the Middle East, Africa and South America.
Marcus Neustetter, gave a fantastic overview of what cooks up in South Africa. Neustetter is a media artist, curator and co-founder of the Museum of Dead Media (MODM) and of the Trinity Session, an organization that brings together practices to share resources, facilitates art production and find new audiences.
In Johannesburg, the industry takes advantage of the 'have-nots' as much as of the others with, for example, the free 'call me back' service. Also distress calls free of charge that taps into people's fear of a society riddled by crime. Neustetter showed us videos of commercials for swanky mobile phones which in fact target only a small fraction of South Africa population.
But the industry also comes up with fantastic examples of how to use technology in order to facilitate a change in society. South African bank Nedbank installed a solar powered billboard with the slogan "Power To The People" in a deprived area of Johannesburg. The 10 solar panels of the billboard provide energy for a kitchen that supplies 1100 hot meals a day, saving the school R2300 a month in electricity charges. The billboard's solar-powered batteries also provide the electricity to light it up at night.
He also mentioned the School of Vigitalart in Zimbabwe (Vigital is a contraction of digital and visual) led by his friend Saki Mafundikwa. Saki once called him from Jo'burg airport to tell him he had to take a plane there just to send some urgent files online. Zimbabwe was without internet access for 4 weeks. Power cuts in Africa amre sporadic and people have to get innovative to get their work done.
Another remarkably interesting speaker in this panel was. Nat Muller. She's an independent curator and critic with a specific focus on (new) media and art in the Middle East, media and politics and the intersections of aesthetics. She braved a bad flu and the formidable task of delivering a talk on a subject as broad and complex as new media art in the Middle East, a region often mediated through bad news. Her talk focused on the countries she had studied more closely: Palestine, Lebanon and Egypt.
Here's a few artists she mentioned:
In 1968 and 1969 Farah took photos of the capital for the Beirut tourist authority intended to promote the city. The resulting postcards depicted an idealized Lebanon in the 1960s. The postcards are still on sale nowadays , although most of the places they represent were destroyed during the Lebanese civil war. In the Autumn of 1975, Farah started damaging the negatives of his postcards, burning them according to the destruction of the buildings he saw disappearing because of bombings and street battles. But is this postcard story a fact or a fiction?
Ever since the Nakba, Palestinians are not allowed to move freely, especially not inside what remains of their country. Due to Israeli controls, artists are often unable to see each other's show. Internet provided a solution. Birzeit University (West Bank)'s Paltel Virtual Gallery, which serves as an Internet portal for Birzeit students, Palestinians, and anyone else interested in Palestinian art, will also feature academic courses on Palestinian, Arab, and contemporary international art. In addition to highlighting a different Palestinian artist each month, the bilingual Paltel Virtual Gallery intend to serve both those curious about Palestinian art, as well as Palestinians thirsting for more exposure to international art, which doesn't enjoy a high priority in Palestinian schools.
Palestine doesn't have money to support the art, art fundings often come from foreign organizations.
In Egypt, there is a rift between institutions founded by the government and independent ones. Art students are advised not to attend the art events organized by independent art institutions and galleries. Videos and photography is not even taught.
Previous stories on this panel: Positions in Flux - Panel 1: Art goes politics - Hans Bernhard from UBERMORGEN.COM and Positions in Flux - Panel 1: Art goes politics - Wafaa Bilal.
Geert Lovink has already reviewed the whole panel on his blog: Political Work in the Aftermath of the New Media Arts Crisis.
The third person to take the stage was Christian Huebler from Knowbotic Research who are also artist in residence at NIMk this year. Knowbotic Research (Yvonne Wilhelm, Christian Hübler, Alexander Tuchacek) was established in 1991, and has experimented with formations of information, interface and networked agencies.
Ok, now this will sound weird but Knowbotic Research happens to be one of the art groups i find most interesting today. And that's in spite of the fact that i don't understand fully what their work is about. But now was my chance to get a better idea of what they are doing.
Huebler's presentation focused on BlackBenz Race (BBR), a semi-fictitious car race of black Mercedes from Zurich to Pristina (Kosovo) and back to Zurich. The project refers to the big Kosovo-Albanian community that migrate to Western Europe with Zurich as a node. The aim of BBR is to make visible the translocal space produced by Kosovo-Albanian migration across Europe. BBR explores the intersection of public spheres and migrant networks by using the metaphor of the race. The 'Black Benz' represents both a status symbol, and a symbol of the mobility that is inherent in migrant culture. The site of that mobility is the corridor along which the cars travel, from Pristina and Tirana to Zurich, Rotterdam, or London. The Black Benz is both a tool and a symbol, a vehicle for trading and trafficking of people and goods, as well as a sign of economic success. Knowbotic Research was using a discrimination platform to hack into the space.
Unfortunately, the city of Zurich (which had commissioned the project to KR) was not ready to accept their idea. It would have been an interesting experience for Albanians living in Zurich as they feel alienated both in Switzerland and in their home country. KR doesn't work with participants but provide a framework for them to get involved. Certain stages of the races nevertheless took place. The artists managed to get the authorization to organize a race in front of the United Nations headquarters in Pristina. They pretended they were shooting a film and got the city blocked for the ghost race from 3 am to 6 am. While in Pristina they discovered there was also a burnout party going on. A group of men would block a car that a driver brings into full gear until the tyres totally dissolve and no one can see anything because of the fume.
NEWBORN - undeliverable? is the second project of Knowbotic Research that engages with translocal spaces and Kosovarian migration. It took place in Zurich but this time the artists didn't ask for any permission. The idea was inspired by a photo (see below) the group saw in NYT article about Kosovo declaring its independence from Serbia.
Knowbotic Research copied the sign and paraded it on a truck around Zurich.
Obviously the reference to the historical event was evident mostly to migrants from the Balkans. KR invited a rapper form Kosovo who had migrated to Switzerland to use the sign as a starting point to explain what it means to be 'newborn' in a political space. Besides the circulation of the NEWBORN sign through Zürich coincided with the kick off of the EURO2008. Because the public and imaginary space was monopolized by commercialism, people who do not belong to the Kosovo Albanian community probably assumed that the NEWBORN circulating through the streets was just another advertisement signage on its way to be installed somewhere in the city.
The Project NEWBORN -- Undeliverable? conducts research into the constitution and interaction of multiple, parallel publics within the local space of Zurich shaped by the dynamics of translocal migration, national identity and globalized commercialism. Such a research endeavor needs to take place in the public space itself. Only by intervening directly the latent, often invisible dynamics can be brought to the surface. Activating existing and triggering new dynamics is an essential part of the approach.
One of the battle cries of KR is that they want to see the development of new zones of intransparency in which people can fully experiment and circulate, where one is neither representable nor identifiable. A bit like the character (some kind of Cousin Itt alter-ego) that appears in their projects macghilie - just a void. What would happen if we fight surveillance society with transparency?
The project tiger_stealth explored in a more tangible and direct way this idea of navigating through space without being detected. Together with with Peter Sandbichler, the group re-engineered a stealth boat as depicted in a propaganda video of the Tamil Tigers, the Tamil liberation army based in northern Sri Lanka. The boat (which appears in an online video) seems to be a formal adaptation of the stealth bomber F117 Nighthawk, a myth of invisibility.
KR's stealth boat cannot be detected by radar and other modern technology. It appears to be unmanned, but a person is hidden inside the boat. Equipped with a silent electrical engine it stays invisible for a radar station positioned on the river bank. The boat can be purchased online. It is thus fed back into a commercial public context where its technical invisibility becomes a good that must be shown.
Previous post on this panel: Positions in Flux - Panel 1: Art goes politics - Hans Bernhard from UBERMORGEN.COM
Art goes politics, the first panel of Positions in Flux, discussed how/whether media art has the potential to contribute to global and local problems such as religious and territorial conflicts, environmental or social crisis.
One of the three artists invited to participate to the discussion is Wafaa Bilal. Born in Iraq, Bilal gained worldwide fame in 2007 with his performance Domestic Tension (aka. Shoot an Iraqi) which enabled web users around the world to control a paintball gun and shoot at him 24 hours a day. For a whole month. His works are being exhibited and discussed internationally and he is currently Assistant Arts Professor at Tisch School of Arts, NYU.
The artist presentation was articulated around his artworks:
How can artists today make images mean something, stimulate people and provoke them? Problems that political art face: disengagement of the issue and tendency of some artists to express the issues at stake through aesthetic pain rather than aesthetic pleasure. Bilal grew up in an oppressed society and didn't have the leisure to meditate on aesthetic alone. He therefore works with both aesthetic pain and aesthetic pleasure.
On May 4, 2007, Bilal set up his living and working quarters in a Chicago art gallery to perform Domestic Tension - Shoot an Iraqi. The project was a way for him to deal with the grief over the death of his brother in his hometown back in 2004. Bilal realized that he lives a comfortable life in the USA while his family is still in Iraq. Americans have been relatively shielded of the pain and suffering people experience in Iraq in their name. What kind of ethical consequence would seeing the consequences of war trigger? Would it humanize the issue? How can an artist go beyond a mere street protest (which alienates people most of the time anyway)?
Bilal found out that internet enables an artist to enter the safety zone of people's house whether they like it or not. Domestic Tension ended up exposing more complex issues than the artist had imagined at first. It was also a bigger success than he had hoped for. By the end of the one month performance in the gallery, the Domestic Tension website had received 80 million hits. The results of the work were both healing and disturbing for him. Some took control of the paintball gun in a very aggressive way, hacking the system so that the gun would shoot non-stop but by day 21, Bilal noticed that the gun was going right and left, not aiming at him. It turned out that a group of 39 people had united force to prevent people from shooting at the artist. They called themselves 'the virtual human shield.'
On day 14 of Domestic Tension, a link to the project was posted on Digg.com and Bilal was bombarded non stop, he couldn't fill the paintball fast enough to keep up with the demand.
The themes Domestic Tension explored:
Domestic Tension embedded the horror in the experience and allowed webusers to participate. People invested their own narrative and integrated the one of the artist.
After Domestic Tension
In 2008, while he was in residence at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Wafaa created Dog or Iraqi, asking people to vote who -- a dog named "Buddy," or an Iraqi, himself -- would be submitted to waterboarding, a form of torture that consists in immobilizing the victim and pouring water into the breathing passages to have them experience drowning. PETA obviously went mad about the idea that a dog would be harmed in the project, they were quite undisturbed by the fate of the Iraqi. Bilal lost to the dog and was submitted to waterboarding.
The next project was Night of Bush Capturing: Virtual Jihadi, a modified version of the first person shooter video game Quest for Bush, itself a "hacked" version of the commercial video game Quest for Saddam. In Bilal's version the artist inserted his personal narrative by casting himself as a suicide bomber who gets sent on a mission to assassinate President George W. Bush. He was intrigued by the idea that a terrorist organization had released a free game to recruit people. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute had to cancel the show after governmental pressures. At the time, the College Republicans called the RPI's Arts department "a safe haven for terrorists" on their blog. A second exhibition of the project had to be shut down due to the fact that the gallery didn't comply with some regulation about the size of its doors.
The objectives of the game were many:
For Bilal, new media art and interactivity presuppose the active involvement of a public whose function was once limited to viewing only. If the audience takes an interest in the work, they are more likely to engage in a dialogue that might, in the best cases, be revolutionary.
I would, once again, like to recommend Waffa Bilal's book Shoot An Iraqi, Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun to get to know more about his experience and art work. Previously: A few words with Wafaa Bilal and When interactive art becomes bored with you.
The first panel of Positions in Flux, a symposium organized by the Netherlands Institute of Media Art in Amsterdam last Saturday, was Art goes politics. The presentations and following discussion explored the artistic practices that turn their back on the assumption that art is something purely aesthetic, distant and contemplative. Instead, art can bite and get people involved in political, social or ethical issues: Does art have the potential to contribute to global and local problems such as religious conflicts, environmental or social crisis? Or is art constrained to raising awareness only? Should art become an agency for political and social affairs at all? How to successfully implement and conduct art projects in zones of crisis? How far do these projects benefit from the dubious attention of the mass media?
Some artists choose to stay outside conflict zones and reflect on the issues at stake, others step right inside the fight and either try to come up with possible solutions or subvert dominant systems.
The three speakers of the panel were Wafaa Bilal, Hans Bernhard from UBERMORGEN.COM and Christian Huebler from Knowbotic Research. It was fascinating to see that there's no such thing as 'just activism'. Each of them had a different view on the role and meaning of artists' involvement in burning issues.
I took notes from Hans Bernhard's talk but because i found his statement truly thought-provoking, i begged him to get his text. He was kind enough to upload it online. One of the points that i find most striking in his talk is when Bernhard explains that UBERMORGEN.COM are not, as most of us would lazily assume, activists but rather actionists in the Viennese Actionism tradition. Just go and read the manifesto, it speaks of their view on all sorts of media outlets, the real life (e.g. legal) impact and side-products of their online actions, and the group's lack of political agenda. But most of all, even if it is not written by self-declared activists, the text has nevertheless a deep relevance on the Art Goes Politics front.
If you're interested in going beyond the manifesto, i would recommend two recent books dedicated to the Austrian duo. The first one is UM.BOOK, UBERMORGEN.COM - MEDIA HACKING VS. CONCEPTUAL ART by HANS BERNHARD and LIZVLX (no worries, the text is all in english), a book compiling texts by critics, curators and artists and celebrating the 10th anniversary of UBERMORGEN.COM. The other book is UBERMORGEN.COM which provides an overview of work and features contributions by the art critics Inke Arns and Domenico Quaranta and the net.art duo Jodi.org.
Image on the homepage: Superenhanced Familiarization: S2E2, Fabio Paris Gallery.
The Netherlands Media Art Institute has re-located part of its brain power to Trouw Amsterdam for the symposium Positions in flux: On the changing role of the artist and institution in the networked society. The symposium is part of the Here we are - There we go programme which celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Netherlands Media Art Institute (NIMK). The institute opened its doors during the weekend and visitors could experience some of the artworks the NIMK has been supporting over the past three decades.
One of them, Adad Hannah & Niklas Roy's International Dance Party, made me laugh out loud for its way to bring interactivity to its more extreme and absurd. This 'party in a box' looks like an ordinary and closed 'flightcase' until you get nearer and start moving. The more you jump around and dance, the more the system will deliver: powerful dance music, laser and light effects and even (but i didn't dance wild enough to experience it) fog.
The symposium focused on three of the most relevant topics of current media art practice: the relevance and involvement of new media art on the political and social sphere; new geographies in media art; the possibilities and challenges that the open source movement is proposing to the production of artworks or exhibitions.
Given my total and shameful laziness i probably won't have/take the time to blog everything but the Netherlands Media Art Institute will upload the videos of the talks online in the future and i'll be sure to update this blog post when this happens.
Susanne Jaschko, who curated and organized the conference, made a couple of very timely and interesting remarks in her introduction to the symposium. And that's where i'll start:
There are some traces of an acceptance of new media art from the institutional art world. Last year, two exhibitions have highlighted this tendency: Deep Screen - Art in Digital Culture at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, a show organized with a double objective: getting a sample of contemporary media artists living in The Netherlands and buying some artworks to be added in the permanent collection. The second exhibition, Holy Fire at iMAL in Brussels, had the so far very unusual purpose to explore how new media art, bypassing all the stereotypes connected with its presumed immateriality and difficulties of maintenance, was able to enter the art market.
Media art has come a long way since the NIMK opened. Which does not mean that the self-conception of the whole field is not as cloudy as ever: some say that new media art has never become mature, others believe that it has reached its peak in the '90s, others would add that new media art will never integrate concepts of contemporary art, etc. Not only is the Netherlands Media Art Institute celebrating its 30th anniversary, but Transmediale has just turned 20 and Ars Electronica is going to be 30 this year, it's time to take a critical look at where we are now and which directions we want to take.
There was a time when cultural funding bodies set the course but things started to take another turn when, in 2003, the Walker Art Center decided to reduce its media art programme to a minimum and last year the whole media art community was shocked by the news that the Institute of Contemporary Art in London was closing its performance and new media program. Artistic Director Ekow Eshun justified the decision as follows:
As an institution dedicated to the contemporary moment it is important that we continually review the timeliness and relevance of our activities and at times make decisions on that basis.
New media based arts practice continues to have its place within the arts sector. However it's my consideration that, in the main, the art form lacks the depth and cultural urgency to justify the ICA's continued and significant investment in a Live & Media Arts department. Following discussion with the ICA Council and the Arts Council - and agreement from both bodies - I have decided to close the department.
At the other end of the spectrum, LABoral Art and Industrial Creation Centre, which opened in 2007, has proved over and again that it is possible to fill its gigantic white space with new media art exhibitions of great quality. And, once again, the exhibition Deep Screen at the Stedelijk has shown that some contemporary art institutions see the relevance of new media art.
So what does it mean today to be an artist in a networked society? Artists, curators and institutions today work on grounds that are increasingly loose, they struggle to define themselves. Technology -though it has lost much of its fascination- has the potential to enrich art, culture and society. It is one of the driving forces of today's society and culture, it has brought important discussions about public domain, commitment, open source, etc.
More about the symposium soon...
Ground-up City. Play as a Design Tool, edited by Liane Lefaivre and Döll.
010 publishers says: Ground-up City. Play as a Design Tool maps the continuing history of an urban design strategy for play in the city. Liane Lefaivre has developed a theoretical model for tackling playgrounds as an urban strategy. She steps off from a historical overview of play and the ludic in art, architecture and urban design, focusing particularly on the post-war playgrounds realized in Amsterdam as joint ventures between Aldo van Eyck, Cornelis van Eesteren and Jakoba Mulder.
Ground-up City places the playground high on the agenda as an urban design challenge. It also shows how specifying a generic, academic model for a particular situation can lead to a practically applicable design resource.
The first interesting aspect of the book is that it was written by a theorist and an architecture firm both very keen on exploring the potential of playgrounds as a means to connect people together, to increase a sense of community and to improve the integration of immigrants into the city.
Liane Lefaivre is Professor and Chair of History and Theory of Architecture, University of Applied Art, Vienna, and Research Associate at the Technical University of Delft. The architecture firm Döll - Atelier voor Bouwkunst has developed a practice where creativity and innovation are deployed in order to tackle the design task in an undogmatic way.
Lefaivre has been investigating playgrounds for years, tracking the archive of urban playgrounds Aldo van Eyck had told her about before he died, setting up an exhibition about playgrounds and design for children at the Stedelijk museum in 2002, and writing numerous books on architecture, playgrounds and van Eyck.
The legacy of Van Eyck pervades the book. The Dutch architect is famous for having designed the playgrounds that almost everyone who grew up in Amsterdam during the '50s, '60s and '70s have played in.
In 1947, the young architect was asked to design a small public playground for Bertelmanplein, a residential area in the Dutch capital. Van Eyck designed a sandpit bordered by a wide rim. He adeed four round stones and a structure of tumbling bars. Bordering the square were trees and five benches. Van Eyck also designed the playground equipment with the objective that it could stimulate the minds of children. The first playground was a success. Many playground commissions followed and Van Eyck adapted his compositional techniques to each site.
Of the 700 playgrounds realised by van Eyck between 1947 and 1978, 90 still maintained their original layout in 2001, though sometimes equipment designed by others had been added. With the playgrounds, he had the opportunity to put the needs of the child and neighbourhood democracy at the centre of town-planning and urban renewal.
Playgrounds are hardly ever taken seriously in urban projects, at least not as much as car parking or street density for example. Besides, the emphasis is usually on safety rather than spontaneity and creativity.
In their chapter about "The Nature of Play", Döll explains that There is a need for an inspiring alternative that cultivates the potential of homo ludens in an urban context. They set out to demonstrate that the city is already full of playful opportunities by listing some of the most inspiring examples of the re-appropriation of public space by city dwellers: Ingo Vetter's exploration of Urban Agriculture, free-running, urban golf, street football, rockabilly fans gathering for dance sessions in Tokyo parks on Sunday afternoons, Stadtlounge in St Gallen by Pipilotti Rist and Carlos Martinez, a blue house, Pink Ghost in Paris by Périphériques Architectes, etc.
Lefaivre then kicked in again with a long and fascinating chapter on the place of play, in particular in the art world, from XVIthe century Dutch paintings to Carsten Höller's Test Site at Tate Modern. Another focus of the chapter is the history of post-war playgrounds, in particular in Amsterdam.
Lefaivre and Döll had the opportunity to apply their ideal of top-down (driven by the citizens themselves) playground design in a study they realized in two urban redevelopment areas in Rotterdam. Oude Westen in the inner city and Meeuwenplaat in Hoogvliet, both defined as "multicultural neighbourhoods" experiencing social problems. They asked children to give them a tour of their neighbourhood, to take pictures of anything in their area on which they had a positive or negative opinion and to report on how and where they play. See Döll, Work / The World is My Playground.
The study has received much interest in the field of public space and play but its materialization into policy and practice is still accompanied by a big question mark.
An interesting appendix is the one made of the interviews carried out by Lefaivre with 2 artists and a curator whose practice involves a particular attention to play: Dan Graham, Erwin Wurm, Jerome Sans.
I picked up that book without thinking too much while i was in my favourite Berlin bookshop, it followed me reluctantly in my suitcase and i only opened it the other day because i was stuck in a hotel room without internet. It might have been one of the very first times that i said "thank you" to the evil and capricious spirits that govern internet connections. Ground-up City is an inspiring little book.
And one for the road: