I never do event announcements on this blog. I guess that would make some people happy but i can't find the time to blog about every single event i'd like to share with you. I'm not even sure my blog is the best place for that so i'd rather make exceptions to my "no call no announcement" rule once in a blue moon. Here's this semester's exception.

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You might remember that back in May i was throwing seedballs all over Amsterdam along with Adam Zaretsky, the Waag society and other eco-enthusiast.

The VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics Ltd. comes back to town in September and this time the focus will be biology and bacterial transformation. VASTAL is a temporary research and education institute that Zaretsky has created in Amsterdam following an invitation by the Waag Society. The lectures and workshops aim to show the public what it means to work both artistically and scientifically with living organisms and materials. VASTAL also aims to make this form of art-science accessible for a broader audience and invite them to discuss the ethical and aesthetic issues at stake.

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(image)

Sadly i can only attend the September 15 sessions but i hope you'll overcrowd the school. Here's some details that Adam Zaretsky kindly forwarded to me:

Friday 11 September - Alt-Biology: Solar Transgenics, Synthetic Biology, Nanotech Biomimicry, Post-Natural History and Green Biofuel
Lecture with Huub de Groot and Rich Pell

Huub de Groot is a Professor of Biophysical Organic Chemistry at Gorlaeus Laboratories, Leiden University. His research on producing Solar Biofuels from Microorganisms has consistently been focused on appropriate and sustainable hi-tech replacement of fossil fuels. By engineering green bacteria whom can collect sunlight with high efficiency conversion to chemical energy, we may have a source of cheap, clean and ubiquitous energy. While working with plants and algae Huub is also interested in engineering carbon nanotube latticeworks of super bio-solar battery structures which mimic the very efficient light harvesting 'antennas in disarray' found in green bacteria. As a possible infection/effect of Huub's continued collaborations with Rob Zwijnenberg (art-philosopher) of The Arts and Genomic Centre and the artists in residence, which his lab welcomes, Huub has proposed a Genetically Modified Solar Transgenic Art-Sci fish project intended for collaboration and future research.

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PostNatural Organism of the Month: E. coli x1776

Richard Pell, a professor of art at Carnegie Mellon is one of the founding members of the Center for PostNatural History. Rich will speak about the Center's investigations into the geographic placement of transgenic plants and animals and the cultural and ecological effect on their cartographic areas through such museum displays as Transgenic Organisms of New York State and Strategies in Genetic Copy Prevention. Rich will also speak about Synthetic Biology and his role as a iGEM Judge.

Tuesday 15 September - Tissue Culture Lab
Lab with Oron Catts

What does it mean to grow disembodied cells from a former organism? Why do people want to keep samples and parts of beings well fed and free from contamination? How is a cell line kept alive and healthy after isolation from the living or the dead? This is a hands-on wet lab for public practical and experiential tissue culture technique. We will isolate primary tissues (bone marrow, scar tissue, muscle and, possibly, embryonic stems cells) in a sterile hood and then incubate them separately from their original corporeal context. The emphasis is on zombie fetish rites versus the general living rights of the undead vampiric matrix.

Growing Politics: Tissue Culture and Art meets Urbanibalism
Lecture with Oron Catts and Matteo Pasquinelli

Oron Catts is co-founder and director of SymbioticA will speak about the politics of tissue cultured artworks also known as semi-living extended body artworks. With such challenging projects as Victimless Leather, Semi-Living Worry Dolls and Disembodied Cuisine, Oron continues to challenge conventional readings of tissue culture as well as the general culture of eating, using and explaining life politics.

Matteo Pasquinelli is a writer, curator and researcher at Queen Mary University of London. He wrote the book Animal Spirits: A Bestiary of the Commons (2008) and edited the collections Media Activism (2002) and C'Lick Me: A Netporn Studies Reader (2007). He writes frequently at the cross of French philosophy, media culture and Italian post-operaismo. His current project is a book about the history of the notion of surplus from biology to knowledge economy and the environmental discourse. In Amsterdam, together with Katrien Jacobs and the Institute of Network Cultures, he organized the Art and Politics of Netporn conference (2005) and the C'Lick Me festival (2007).

Matteo will be presenting "Parasitic life, fermenting yeasts and cybernetic DNA: The art of living matter versus biodigitalism." Before the discovery of DNA, chromosomes were considered containers for an obscure fermentation activity. Today biotech hobbyists have reduced 'life' to a predictable copy-and-paste of numeric codes. How does the so-called bioart cover the parasitic and decaying process at the basis of life and the negative entropy of the cell that was discussed by Erwin Schrödinger in 1944 together with his prophetic hypothesis of a genetic code? Matteo Pasquinelli shows how there is more know-how in the most ancient practice of fermenting ambrosia than in contemporary bioart.

Saturday 19 September - (De)Mystified DNA: Sequencing Lab

Join us for the random creation of a sequence of DNA. This lab is about understanding the Genetic code and the online freeware available to 'read' DNA. Our sequence is arrived at through chance. We will then creatively explore software options like BLAST for finding where the random sequence is already embedded in the genomes of sequenced nature. We will also explore the online tools of plasmid design including DNA text to flesh online ordering and the anatomy of a DNA sequencing machine. As a group we will arrive at a symbolic reading of our chance strand of potential life alteration. Discussion in risk assessment in both chance based and knowledge based systems of hereditary difference production.

(This is not a Wet Lab)

Registration is possible via info at vastal dot eu. There are limited number of places available, so be in time! All courses and lectures will be in English.

Previously: Day 1 at the VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics: Seed broadcasting workshop.

Sponsored by:





0aasportatailll.jpgVASTAL, VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics Ltd., is a temporary research and education institute that Adam Zaretsky has created in Amsterdam following an invitation by the Waag Society. Zaretsky, currently artist in residency at Waag, will give lectures and workshops on Art and Life Sciences. The School was born with the objective of showing the public what it means to work both artistically and scientifically with living organisms and materials. VASTAL also aims to make this form of art-science accessible for a broader audience and invite them to discuss the ethical and aesthetic issues at stake.

The May session are dedicated to EcoArt. September will focus on biology and bacterial transformation in particular. November will tackle embryology, zoology and body art. There will be labs and courses on hybrid DNA isolation, discussions on ethical issues, non-human relation explorations, but also radical food preparations and field trips to the slaughterhouse, the pet store and the zoo.

People tend to divide the world into separate categories: ecology, food, non-human species, body, etc. If you try and mix them together (in practice or theory, for example by asking questions such as "Do plants have feelings? Conscousness?") , people get nervous. Yet the workshop is going to study these five topics one after the other and then mix blend together in the final session of the classes. I could only participate to the first day of the Eco Art session but i do intend to come back in September for the lectures and workshops on bio-ethic, bioart and DNA sequencing.

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Brandon Ballengee, DFA 19, Io
Scanner Photograph of Cleared and Stained Multi-limbed Pacific Tree frog from Aptos, California in Scientific Collaboration with Dr. Stanley K. Sessions. MALAMP titles in collaboration with the poet KuyDelair.
Courtesy the Artist and Archibald Arts, NYC
Private collection, London

Tomorrow Tuesday 26, Andy Gracie and Brandon Ballengée are going to give EcoArt lectures at 20.00 at Waag. This is going to be good, take my word for it.

Adam started the workshop by a lecture, reminding briefly a few points:
- Bio art has only just started existing. There's no manifesto written by bio artists, just a desire to remind us that we are alive;
- Bio artists invite us to look behind the curtain of life;
- Engaging with life never comes without some controversy, whether you are an artist or a scientist;
- We need people who are not scientists, who do not work for corporations but who are creative individuals ready to get their hands 'wet' and dirty and shape their own opinion about the way scientific development is going to leave an imprint on our life.

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Screenshot from a Wired article

Adam recommended the reading of an essay he wrote back in for the CIAC's magazine dedicated to Bioart. See also the Live skype talk he gave at the Retool the Earth conference in Brussels on October 2008.

That's it for the quick intro on bioart. Then came a few words about the topic of this month at VASTAL: EcoArt. EcoArt is just another name for a series of practices that exist for decades. They have also be known as ecovention, land art, earthworks, environmental art, ecological art, etc. A great place to get an idea of the breath of projects that can be labeled as Ecoart is greenmuseum.org. Adam named a few of his favourite projects. One of them is Buster Simpson's Hudson River Purge. The performance addresses the problem of acid rain with giant limestone antacid tablets which neutralize the pH of the Hudson River. The river is like a gigantic human organism suffering acid indigestion, only a big pill will alleviate its pain. However, no matter the size of the pill, the source of the problem persists.

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Hudson River Purge, New Notes, Esquire, November 1983. Photographer Roger Schreiber

0arewildingamnjer.jpgA book Adam found important for the reflection on our relationship to landscape and nature is Rewilding North America by Dave Foreman.

According to the book, the biggest ecological threat of our time is mass extinction of animal species caused by humans. Recent discoveries in conservation biology call for wildlands networks instead of isolated protected areas. The final section describes specific approaches for designing such networks (based on the work of the Wildlands Project.) A first step would be to re-introduce African and Asian megafauna in western North America - that includes lions, elephants, cheetahs, and camels- to create a facsimile of species that disappeared from the continent some 13,000 years ago. These large mammals need to roam and the parks and natural reserves humans have conceded them are clearly not sufficient. They need to get out of the borders. Wildlands Networks proposes to connects the parks together through corridors accessible for non-humans. Areas of shared use by humans and wildlife would have to be implemented as well as animals will inevitably run into shopping malls, golf courses and railways while migrating from one wild areas to another. We need to de-program ourselves from our own culture in order to be able to deal with this new kind of living conditions.

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For the hands-on part of the course, Adam teamed up with Theun Karelse from FoAM & FoAM Lab Amsterdam. Our assignment of the day was to create sculptures made of earth, fertilizer, clay and seeds and distribute them throughout the city of Amsterdam.

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The workshop is in fact inspired by the practice of seedballing that aims to return native and often vanished flora species to cities and suburbia. The most eco-friendly version of seedball, developed by Masanobu Fukuoka, consists in mud-and-clay balls that contain a mixture of organic compost and different seed species meant to complement each other.

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Key ingredients included bone powder and blood flour

We set up our working space right in the middle of the organic market on the Nieuwmarkt.

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Adam, Lucas and Lipika from Waag kicked off their shoes and mixed the clay, fertilizer and seeds with their feet wine stomping-style while the rest of us started making sculptures and rolling little balls. Almost immediately people came to us, asking what we were doing, putting on gloves and helping us shape seed balls.

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Enrolling passersby

Once we had collected enough seed balls we went on a guerrilla gardening walk to spread them in the city in places where they might thrive. The workshop was actually a crash version of seedballing as the balls should be left to dry for a couple of days before being released in the urban wilderness. When the rains come, the mud and clay will break apart, exposing the seeds to elements that lead to their growth. In each location whichever seeds are best suited thrive in their protected mud starter-home.

The 'seedballed' sites will then be mapped by Theun and added to google maps of urban edibles.

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The workshop was a great success, its simplicity attracted all sorts of passersby and the majority of them were happy to go pass the fun of seeing us getting covered in mud and enter a more in-depth and meaningful conversation.

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Here's my flickr set of the event.

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Related stories: How to Save the World in 10 Days at Vooruit in Ghent, Dangerous Liaisons and other stories of transgenic pheasant embryology.

The last session of Positions in flux: On the changing role of the artist and institution in the networked society (see previous posts) discussed the impact of the open source culture on art production and its presentation.

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Jaromil and Marcos Garcia discussing with moderator Josephine Bosma

The open source movement is driven by the idea of collective, process-based, sustainable production and improvement. In software development this strategy has already proven to be valid; however can this model be applied to other products such as artworks or even exhibitions? In how far does the open source model differ from other forms of artistic collaboration? Is there a new role model for both the artist and the curator in the future? Which (economic) value and impact has expertise in open source production? How could institutions and organisations respond to this trend? How could institutions and organisations respond to this trend and create public domains?

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Jaromil. Photo Nimk

Jaromil made my blogger's jpb a piece of cake. I was planning to write down the notes i took during his presentation but, hey! look! he did it all himself and i recommend the lecture. Jaromil gave the lowdown on free software and open source, the way they are (mis)perceived, their strengths/weaknesses and the new challenges ahead.

Denis 'Jaromil' Roio is the main author of the GNU/Linux Live CD Dyne:bolic as well as of a number of audiovisual tools. He is also an artist who has exhibited internationally. Based in Amsterdam, Jaromil is active on open source R&D in art and multimedia for the NIMK, adjunct lecturer (year 2008) for the Media Design MA at PZwart / WDKA in Rotterdam and the Digital Environment Design MA at NABA in Milan.

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Marcos Garcia. Photo Nimk

Hop! Next speaker was Marco Garcia from MediaLab Prado in Madrid. Now most of you have probably heard of the fantastic workshops and talks (btw, have a look at the videos of some of the latest talks: Susanne Jaschko's talk about Fluid Architectures, a round table with Anab Jain, Yashas Shetty (if you have to see just one, fast forward to his talk, it's fantastic), and Sunil Sudhakaran. Plus, if you speak spanish, there's Marta Peirano's presentation of her book El rival de Prometeo (The Rival of Prometeus) and a talk by architect Andrés Jaque) they organize.

Medialab Prado's activities focus on themes such as interactivity, data visualization, the Commons and network culture theory and audio-visual and sound creation.

Marcos started his presentation by mentioning how important Christopher Kelty's book Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software has been important in the shaping of what Medialab Madrid is today. He referred particularly to Kelty's notion of 'recursive publics'--social configurations that realize the Internet's non-hierarchical, ever-evolving, and thus historically attuned logic, creatively updating the types of public spheres previously theorized by Habermas and Michael Warner, among others.

One of the most interesting issues raised was "Should we change old institutions to make them more in tune with the OS mouvement or should we create new ones?"

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Marcos exemplified the spirit of Medialab Prado by detailing Interactivos? This series of production-oriented workshops that question the notion of interactivity and combine production, learning and exhibition in 15 days. There has already been 20 interactivos workshops all over the world (Mexico, New York, Lima, Salamanca, etc.) Artists/designers/creators selected for the workshop come with their project and Medialab Prado helps them realize it. The production is open right from the beginning. The workshop goes beyond the tools (Arduino, Pure Data, Processing, etc.) and make the technology and the whole building process accessible to people who are only beginners. The fact that participants come from so many different backgrounds and culture (Medialab Prado's workshop are held in english and open to people from all over the world) means that there is a unique environment, each one comes with their own way of solving a problem. Workshops are accompanied by group discussions, expert presentations, open debates and each project is documented online.

Joasia Krysa, founder of KURATOR, has a particular interest in an emerging discourse and practice that links curating with software and networks. Some of her most recent curatorial projects include openKURATOR, an open submission and presentation platform developed by KURATOR. She is the editor of Curating Immateriality (Autonomedia, New York 2006) and lecturer/researcher at the AZTEC (Art Science Technology Consortium at the University of Plymouth.

Krysa explained that if curating can be conceptualised as a system with its own underlying code and sets of protocols then OS curating would imply an open access to those protocols. It would also suggest a possibility of development through a collective process. A few exemples of such curating include C@C Computer Aided Curating, 1993 - 1995, Runme.org in 2003, unDEAF in 2007 and softwareKURATOR (v1) in 2009.

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The last speakers were Femke Snelting and Renée Turner from De Geuzen, a foundation for multi-visual research and the collaborative identity. Since 1996 they explore female identity, narratives of the archive and media image ecologies. Exhibitions, workshops and online projects operate as thematic framing devices where the group investigates and tests ideas collectively with different publics. Characterising what they do as research, their work is open-ended, values processes of exchange and promotes critical interrogation. To be honest at that stage i stopped taking notes, i just sat on my chair and enjoyed their presentation.

Some of the projects they discussed: DIY paper dresses, Female Icon Impersonators and a series of works around the ideas of person of Guy Debord.

Image on the homepage: Positions in Flux symposium by Olga Westrate.

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.

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Ismail Farouk, Eviction Carnage, Downtown Johannesburg

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.

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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:

Wonder Beirut, by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige (presented at Transmediale last year), tells the story of a pyromaniac Lebanese photographer named Abdallah Farah.

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Wonder Beirut #21, Beaches in Beirut, 1998-2007

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.

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From the series "Domestic Tourism": Beach. © Maha Maamoun

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.

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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.

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Image yw_krcf

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.

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Image yw_krcf

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.

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People signed the back of a sculpture, reading "Newborn" in English, at its unveiling on Sunday in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo

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?

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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.

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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
Geert Lovink, smart and fast as ever, has already blogged the whole panel, so make your way to his place for a shortcut and an alternative report on the discussion: Political Work in the Aftermath of the New Media Arts Crisis.

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Image credit: NIMK

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:

Domestic Tension

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)?

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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:
Conflict Zone vs. Comfort Zone
Aesthetic pleasure vs. Aesthetic pain
Virtual platform and physical platform
The body has its own language
The nature of the medium: interactive (the term is used the wrong way, most interactive work should be labeled responsive because the outcomes are predetermined) vs. dynamic (a platform in which all possible end-states are unknown.)

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

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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.

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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:
- A mirror to expose hypocrisy and racism,
- Reverse the role of hunter and hunted,
- involve people who may not be willing to otherwise engage in a dialogue,
- Address the issue of suicide bombers.

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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.

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