Level 2 Gallery is a small exhibition space that keeps me coming back to Tate Modern in London. Its entrance is hidden by one of the exits of the Tate and if you don't know of its existence you've probably passed by it on your way from the shop to the Millennium Bridge without noticing.
The gallery is now showing Out of Place, an exhibition in which four artists explore the relationship between political forces and personal/collective histories by looking at urban space, architectural structures and the condition of displacement.
Each of the artist is interesting in their own way but i'll focus on only two of them:
Hrair Sarkissian's large prints from the In Between series grab the visitor's attention as soon as they enter the main exhibition room. Sarkissian is a Syrian artist of Armenian origin. He learnt of Armenia through family stories of a great and proud 'Mother Armenia'. But once he actually visited this former republic of the Soviet Union, the artist found it hard to reconcile the ideals of the Armenian diaspora with the landscapes and situations he encountered.
His photos show austere Soviet-style buildings left abandoned in the quiet hills and valleys of rural Armenia.
As Kasia Redzisz wrote in her essay for the exhibition, The incompatibility of his relatives' memories and the physical reality of the ruins of the Soviet empire caused him to experience profound disorientation. In his series In Between 2007, Sarkissian juxtaposes abandoned, monumental constructions and the epic unchanging landscape. The contrast poses a question about the foundations on which national or cultural identity can be built.
Ahlam Shibli takes on an entirely different subject.
Her series Goter looks at the lives of Palestinians of Bedouin descent from al-Naqab (Negev). Local people believe that the word 'goter' is derived from 'go there', a command British soldiers often shouted to Bedouins during the mandate (1920-1948.)
Shibli's images were taken both in townships, constructed by the Israeli administration to coral Palestinians displaced from their lands, and in unrecognised villages inhabited by those who refuse to be relocated, controlled and dispossessed of their traditional land.
The photographer explains in her statement for the series: The remaining half of the Palestinian Bedouin in the Naqab has so far refused to move to these townships, to avoid losing their lands and being subjected to culturally adverse and socially degrading living conditions. They live in more than 100 unrecognized villages, where the laws of the Jewish State prohibit them from building permanent structures, where houses are regularly demolished, fields deemed illegal by the authorities sprayed with toxic chemicals, families evicted from their homes, and where there is no public access to electricity, running water, or public services such as health care, sanitation and education beyond primary school level.
"We should transform the Bedouins into an urban proletariat - in industry, services, construction, and agriculture. 88% of the Israeli population are not farmers, let the Bedouin be like them. Indeed, this will be a radical move which means that the Bedouin would not live on his land with his herds, but would become an urban person who comes home in the afternoon and puts his slippers on. His children will get used to a father who wears pants, without a dagger, and who does not pick out their nits in public. They will go to school, their hair combed and parted. This will be a revolution, but it can be achieved in two generations."
Dayan added, "Without coercion but with governmental direction ... this phenomenon of the Bedouins will disappear."
Shibli is showing a second series at Gallery 2. The Valley explores conditions in the village Arab al-Shibli, where Palestinians living under Israeli jurisdiction face relocation from their land.
Btw, if you're interested in knowing more about the history and current situation of the Bedouins, have a look at Unrecognized. This short doc by Nirah Elyza Shirazipour) chronicles the last 60 years of Bedouin life in the Naqab.
un-titled magazine has a set of photos from the Goter series.
Out of Place is curated by Kasia Redzisz and Ala' Younis and remains open at Tate Modern's Level 2 Gallery until April 17, 2011.
Previously at Level 2 Gallery: The worst condition is to pass under a sword which is not one's own.
Back to the chaotic notes i've been taking during Making Visible The Invisible, a conversational conference about interdisciplinary collaboration, data-visualisation and sustainability, curated by Michael Hohl with the support of the University of Huddersfield, School of Art, Design and Architecture. One of the first keynotes of the conference was given by artist Luke Jerram.
Jerram credits the fact that he is colour-blind for his interest in perception. This interest takes many forms: a kinetic sound installation controlled by the movements of the Moon and Sun, a miracle toaster, an engagement ring etched with a 20 second recorded message that can be played back with a miniature record player, street pianos left for the public to play in parks and squares, laundrettes, bus shelters and train stations, across the world, etc. His most spectacular and also perhaps most well-known exploration into perception is Sky Orchestra, a series of performances in which hot air balloons fly over a city at dawn and broadcast music designed to turn the dreams of the sleeping public into an artistic experience. The idea was fine-tuned with the Dream Concert experiment and the Dream Director installation. There is a lot to like and write about in his portfolio but i'll just focus on two of his most recent projects: Glass Microbiology and Aeolus - Acoustic Wind Pavilion.
Glass Microbiology is a growing series of glass sculptures of viruses and bacteria. He worked with Dr Andrew Davidson from the University of Bristol to create accurate representation of HIV, E. coli, SARS, H1N1 and even imaginary viruses.
The result is radically different from the images of a virus we get in scientific publications. Science papers and articles are usually illustrated with colourful images of viruses. A virus, however, is far too small to have any colour. Although Jerram's sculptures are approximately one million times larger than the viruses they represent, their transparency makes them closer to reality.
The Genetics Science Learning Center, University of Utah, has made a neat animation that illustrates how tiny E. coli bacterium, HIV, influenza virus are compared to other objects such as a coffee bean:
The artist recently sold one of his glass microbe to the Wellcome Trust. Interestingly, the foundation decided to add colours to the photos of the transparent sculpture they sent to the press to inform them about the artwork.
Unsurprisingly, Jerram's sculptures sparkled the interest of the scientific community. Many scientific publications used images of the glass sculptures to illustrate articles about viruses. One of them asked Jerram if they could use a photo of one of his viruses to illustrate an article about HIV. Curiously, they didn't use the sculpture of the HIV virus. Instead, they chose an image of the swine flu virus because, they argued, it made for a more 'striking' cover.
Smallpox is one of the two infectious diseases to have been eradicated, the other being rinderpest, which was officially declared eradicated this year. Smallpox has killed more humans than any other virus in human history. It is estimated that disease was responsible for the death of 300-500 million people during the 20th century.
In 2007, Jerram was visiting Iran when he discovered some strange-looking mole hills spread across the landscape. The hills are the ventilation shafts of the qanats, ancient underground aqueducts that provide water to human settlements and for irrigation. While talking with a well digger, Jerram was told that the wind makes these ventilation shafts 'sing.'
The phenomenon gave the artist the inspiration for one of his ongoing projects. He wants to create buildings that sing in the wind! He is currently working with engineers at ARUP to develop the Aeolus - Acoustic Wind Pavilion. One of the most interesting comments he made about the project is:
"The reason why i like working with analog technology is that it leave plenty of space for nature to inject some surprises. You never know what you're going to get exactly at the end of the experiments."
One of the surprises he referred to is that the sound produce by his experiment evokes the landing of an UFO:
Aeolus is an acoustic and optical pavilion shaped like an arch. Once inside, a viewer can look out through a field of 310 internally polished stainless steel tubes simultaneously, each of which draws the landscape of light through the structure whilst humming at a series of low frequencies. These light pipes act to frame, invert and magnify the landscape around the pavilion enabling the viewer to contemplate an ever changing landscape of light. As the clouds and sun move across the sky throughout the day, the visual experience for the public will dramatically alter minute by minute, hour by hour.
Listening to the landscape of wind. Aeolus is designed to resonate and sing with the wind without any electrical power or amplification. Aeolus will sonify the three dimensional landscape of wind, using a web of Aeolian harps. Almost like cats' whiskers sensitive to the slightest touch, the stings register the shifting landscape of wind around the artwork will be heard by visitors.
Once completed, the artwork will tour the UK. Its first stop will be in Liverpool for the art biennial.
Also part of the conference: Andrea Polli - "Who Owns The Air?"
Warning! This is a rather messy attempt to review two books in one go!
Arctic Perspective Cahier No. 1 - Architecture, edited by Andreas Müller (available at amazon USA and UK) + Cahier No. 2: Arctic Geopolitics and Autonomy, edited by Michael Bravo, Nicola Triscott, texts by Michael Bravo, Lassi Heininen, Katarina Soukup, Nicola Triscott, David Turnbull (available at amazon USA and UK.)
Publisher Hatje Cantz Verlag writes about both books: Involving HMKV (Germany), Projekt Atol (Slovenia), the Arts Catalyst (United Kingdom), C-TASC (Canada), and Lorna (Iceland), this collaboration focuses on the global, cultural, and ecological significance of the polar regions. These zones are causing current geopolitical and territorial conflicts, while at the same time posing opportunities for transnational and intercultural cooperation. Arctic Perspective uses media art and the research of artists to investigate the complicated, global, cultural, and ecological interrelations in the Arctic, and to develop concepts for constructing tactical communications systems and a mobile, eco-friendly research station, which will support interdisciplinary and intercultural collaborations. Scheduled to run over a period of years, this project will involve workshops, field work in the Arctic, publications, exhibitions, and a conference.
While volume 1 focuses on the challenges of inhabiting the Arctic, volume two takes up geopolitical issues in the region. Upcoming Cahiers will explore questions of technology and landscape.
Both publications stem from the Arctic Perspective Initiative , an international media arts partnership that attempted to provide the public with alternative insights into the Arctic as a living environment and a critical marker of global change. The API approached Arctic as a complex and compelling cultural territory, instead of a mere object of political, military, commercial and economic interests.
Cahier No. 1 documented the result of an open design competition to create a modular research unit that had to be easy to transport and assemble but also have a negligible impact on the environment. The presentation of the winning architectural designs by Richard Carbonnier, Catherine Rannou and Giuseppe Mecca is accompanied by a series of essays that put the competition and the whole API architectural experiment into context. The first one is by Marilyn Walker who provides an overview of shelter forms and functions in the far North (includes tips on how to build a long-lasting igloo!). Carsten Krohn pens the mandatory essay on Buckminster Fuller's dynamic architecture. Jérémie Michael McGowan invites readers to question the status of Arctic architect hero that Ralph Erskine has been enjoying for decades.
The third part of the book brings side by side 2 very different perspectives on an exploration trip to the Arctic. Captain John Ross's extract from A voyage of discovery, made under the orders of the Admiralty, in His Majesty's ships Isabella and Alexander, for the purpose of exploring Baffin's Bay, and inquiring into the probability of a north-west passage dates back to 1819. Matthew Biederman and Marko Peljhan's Fieldwork journal was written in August 2009 to chronicle their arrival at Igloolik, their moves from campsite to campsite, experiments at fishing, cooking caribou and communicating locally and globally under antagonistic weather.
Now the most fascinating book for me was Cahier No. 2: Arctic Geopolitics and Autonomy which demonstrates with brio that the Arctic territory is far more than a reserve of oil and natural gas energy, more than a space to build military bases and meteorological research centers, more than a world of commercial opportunities ripe to be seized as soon as the dwindling ice sea will have completely melted and opened up new Northern sea routes. The book sets aside geopolitical interests and calls for independent, intellectual conversations between artists, journalists, scholars and the people who are actually living in the Arctic. As the introduction to the book states:
Counteracting historical amnesia and contemporary self-interest and indifference goes to the heart of these essays. Together with the Arctic Perspective Initiative, they aim to ground perspectives on politics and art in technological interventions (that include broadband communications, environmental monitoring, satellite observation, video documentary -and writing) by making them embodied, geographically anchored to a specific strategic indigenous place, and politically self-aware.
In her essay, Nicola Triscott from The Arts Catalyst, looks at how the cultural and political characteristics of technology in the Arctic need to extend beyond strategic interests and commercial exploitation and take into account the needs of the people living in that part of the world or the challenges presented by climate change. I discovered some amazing works in Triscott's review of artists who have recognized the complexity of the Arctic situation. I'm particularly curious about On the Third Planet from the Sun. This documentary, by Pavel Medvedev, follows inhabitants of the Arctic region of Arkhangelsk 45 years after the test of the H-bomb, who recycle the remains of fallen space rockets that were launched from a nearby base.
Michael Bravo's contribution brings light on how outsider focus on Inuit's traditional craft knowledge tends to perpetuate clichés about populations who, just like you and me, enjoy high-tech gadgets. His experience shows that Arctic communities are more than ready to collaborate with international labs and produce new knowledge and designs that meet their own needs.
The three remaining essays reflect further on the necessity to discard simplistic perspectives on the Arctic region: Katarina Soukup wrote about Inuits' artistic appropriation of new technologies. David Turnbull sums up observations about human movement through time. Finally, Lassi Heininen encourages us to see northern indigenous people as credible political actors, both on a regional and international level.
Arctic Perspective was not only an expedition, it was also a series of workshops, conferences and exhibitions (such as a show of the same name at HMKV in Dortmund.) I missed every single one of them. The first two cahiers of Arctic Perspective allowed me catch up with the experience. I'm now looking forward to reading the upcoming books in the series.
If you've seen the movie Gomorrah, you won't have any difficulty recognizing the location of Tobias Zielony's photos: Le Vele (The Sails) in Naples. Denatured by modifications to the original plans, obstructed by management failures, excessive housing density and insufficient services facilities, the monumental buildings are to be demolished. Three of them have already been razed to the ground. The remaining four "sails" are in an advanced state of degradation. Only about a hundred families still live in buildings which have now been reduced to ghostlike ruins (via.)
Zielony, whose images i discovered at the Artissima art fair 2 months ago, spent several weeks studying and documenting how adolescents "kill time" in Naples suburbia.
Let's not move away from the 'deteriorating architectural heritage' chapter immediately, shall we? This morning i read in The Guardian that UK's largest surviving estate of postwar prefab houses is set to be bulldozed. Only six of the 187 bungalows, erected from factory-built panels by German and Italian prisoners of war in 1945 and 1946, will be saved. The remainder of the Excalibur estate in Catford, south-east London, will be demolished, along with its tin-roofed prefab church, St Mark's.*
The story brought back to my mind another project i noticed at the Artissima art fair in November. Over a year ago, artists Lara Almarcegui came across a patchy assortment of cottages, classrooms and villas on the outskirts of Wellington, New Zealand. The houses are moved there from different places and remain on display until they are sold. The result is a ghost-town like street with empty buildings, some in state of disrepair, others in almost pristine condition.
For the One Day Sculpture project, Almarcegui traced the roots and individual stories of each building and communicated it through a tour and a catalogue which was published as an insert in Wellington's daily newspaper, the Dominion Post.
Caught between a distant history shared with an almost forgotten owner and their future reinstatement to another site, each house seems to be out of context.
There might not have been as many photographic works as in the previous editions of Artissima, but the ones i saw certainly made it worth the trip.
Thank you McCaffrey Fine Art for bringing Hitoshi Nomura to the art fair. Nomura gained fame in the late sixties with huge works created out of cardboard or dry ice, that he photographed to record their change in shape and aspect over time, thereby manifesting invisible concepts, such as 'gravity' or 'time'. For his Tardiology series (1969/2009), the artist constructed high cardboard towers that he then left to the mercy of gravity, time and weather. He photographed them as they started to sag, bend, and finally toppled. Simple and effective demonstration of the power of gravity over time.
The film observes the method and practice of the Modernist architects who rebuilt London after World War Two. It shows how they revolutionised life in the city in the wake of destruction from war and the poor living conditions inherited from the Industrial Revolution. This film is their story. Utopia London travels through the recent history of the city where the film maker grew up. He finds the architects who designed it and reunites them with the buildings they created.
These young idealists were once united around a vision of using science and art to create a city of equal citizens. Their architecture fused William Morris with urban high-rise; ancient parkland with concrete.
Utopia London examines the, social and political agendas of the time in which the city was rebuilt. The story goes on to explore how the meaning of these transformative buildings has been radically manipulated over subsequent decades. Inspired by the optimism of the past it poses the question; where do we go from here and now?
The documentary goes through the history of a dozen modernist buildings. The objective is not to brush a history of architecture in London but to remind us of a British society that had faith in social utopian ideology. The first comments and images of the film look at a panorama of London at a time when the city was built for God. Nowadays, the London skyline evokes finance. The Modernist movement broke the timeline that went from churches to banks with a series of architectural landmarks designed to achieve social good, not through charity, but by the hands of both socially-conscious architects and an accountable municipal authority.
The first construction we're introduced to is the Finsbury Health Centre, designed by Berthold Lubetkin and completed in 1938. Lubetkin was a Russian émigré, he brought with him the dogma of Soviet socialist thinking and revolutionary Constructivist design. The center is a landmark of the early Modern Movement in Britain. It was designed to be adaptable to the ever evolving requirements of healthcare. The centre also had a preventive mission, encouraging people to live healthier lives in a light, airy environment. A solarium gave the children (who spent much of their days in thick smog) a chance to feel the benefits of sunlight.
The Second World War broke soon after the opening of Finsbury Health Centre. As the poster above shows, the health center became a beacon for hope rising from what used to be London slums. Unfortunately, its icon status, radical architecture and social commitment don't seem to be enough to impress today's authorities.
War bombings had destroyed hundreds of thousands of dwellings, leaving almost one and a half million people homeless. After the war, town planning academic Patrick Abercrombie and architect John Forshaw were hired to design the future London. They dreamed up urban spaces where the various classes of London's society would meet and mingle. The South Bank was at the heart of their egalitarian plans, they hoped it would provide a shared space for all Londoners to spend their free time and enjoy art and culture.
The sequences about council estates were probably the most enlightening for me. I know of council estates through Shameless, British tv crime fictions or just the crime pages of Brit newspapers. They evoked little more than dysfunctionality and bleakness to me. Yet, they were built with the best intentions. "We wanted to build Heaven on Earth" declared architect Oliver Cox who was part of the team that built Alton East. Indeed, when the camera follows the architects inside the apartments or eavesdrops on their conversations with the residents, life looks almost cheerful in a council estate. They were designed with plenty of space, nice views overlooking the city, green and recreational areas. They were built in a time of optimism and faith in what the future would bring to society.
The concrete that used to stand for progress and modernity quickly became a symbol of the welfare state. Even worse it came to emblematize Britain's continued class division. The film exemplifies Modernism's fall from grace by reminding us that Truffaut's 1966 film Fahrenheit 451 takes place amidst Modernist buildings, in particular the Alton housing estate in Roehampton, South London. The movie is set in a dystopian future where the main role of firemen is to burn all books. Modernist architecture is used in the movie to carry a sense of uniformity, not humanity.
In the '70s, big social housing schemes were scrapped. In the '80s, dreams of a brighter, more egalitarian future were eclipsed by Margaret Thatcher's politics which saw market forces as the main makers and shapers of society. Among Thatcher's advisors was Prof. Alice Coleman who blamed post-war social housing developments for 'social malaise'. Her team paralleled the amount of litter, vandalism, graffiti, the presence of excrement, etc. with design features such as number of storeys, number of entrances and flats in a block etc. to suggest that the architecture of council estates turned their residents into criminals. The findings published in 1985 under the name Utopia on trial were controversial, let alone because the study ignored the impact of poverty.
Today, despite their striking volumes and place in the history of architecture, Modernist and Brutalist buildings remain unloved. Pimlico School has disappeared and Robin Hood Gardens might meet the same fate. Even when a Grade II listing is granted, the building could still face demolition. Grade II listings can be ignored on the grounds of the economic or social benefit of redevelopment.
Utopia London takes a very clear stand, one in favour of the respect and preservation of buildings erected in a time of utopia and hope. From the beautiful shots of the buildings at night to the very moving walks that the architects take in the buildings they designed, one feels the same twinge of envy that the documentary director confesses for a time when society believed that good design and planning could lead to a brighter future.
Despite my admiration for Brutalism and socially embedded architecture, i sometimes wished that Cordell had given more space for its detractors to express their views. Utopia London would still have been a very moving film. It is a documentary for Londoners and also for tourists whose love for London goes beyond Portobello market and the Tate turbine hall. Its attention to details charmed me right from the start: the opening sequence has elegant, clean infographics; the text is catchy; archive materials provide moments of irony and humour (did i recognize an extract from Zéro de Conduite?), etc. The accent of the director as he does the voice-over was particularly well-suited, it screamed 'London!' clearer than any beefeater or Piccadilly Circus could do. But best of all, the documentary - just like the architecture it champions- focuses on people. Meeting the architects who had designed the buildings was a rare treat. So was hearing the confidence of Prof. Alice Coleman 25 years after her study condemned Modernist social housing. And then there were briefs moments with Dorrit Dekk. Can anyone not fall in love with Dorrit Dekk?
Image on the homepage: Alton East Estate. © Utopia London.
Herman Joshua Wallace has spent the past 38 years in Solitary Confinement (or closed cell restriction) in Louisiana's State Prison System. For a minimum of 23 hours a day, he is shut up in a six-foot-by-nine-foot (2m x 3m) cell. It is very likely that Wallace didn't commit the crime he has been sentenced for.
Along with Robert Hillary King and Albert Woodfox, Wallace is part of The Angola 3. It is believed that the men were framed for trying to speak out against inhumane treatment and racial segregation on the prison. Using non-violent protests, they were trying to draw attention to the corruption, discrimination and abuse reigning in the biggest prison in the US, Angola, an 18,000 acre former slave plantation which got its name from the country most of the slaves traveled from. On a page listing a few facts about the prison, one learns that every physically able prisoner (78% of whom are black) is required to work for 4 to 20 cents an hour a minimum of 40 hours a week. Inmates work fields of sugar cane, soybeans, cotton and corn, they also look after a 1,500 cattle beef herd. They even built a 11,300 seat arena which houses the annual Angola Prison Rodeo. The Louisiana's State Prison provides more jobs than the local nuclear power plant and paper mill combined. Even more surprising, Angola boosts a Prison View Golf Course on its grounds.
Wallace was originally imprisoned for robbery but he, Woodfox and King (who was freed in 2001) have been confined to solitary after being convicted of stabbing to death prison guard Brent Miller in 1972 during their protests. The circumstances of their trial was so suspect that there are no doubts among their supporters that the men are innocent. Even the victim's widow, Teenie Verret, doesn't believe in their guilt.
In 2003 artist Jackie Sumell contacted Herman Wallace and asked him: "What kind of house does a man who has lived in a 6' X 9' box for over 30 years dream of?"
I discovered their project, The House That Herman Built, during a presentation the artist gave a few weeks ago at the International Design Biennial in Saint-Etienne, France. Through exchanges of hundreds of letters, phone calls, and numerous visits to the prison, Wallace and Sumell have been sketching and designing the dream house together.
The construction of the house is currently being funded by a network of activists, artists, architects and other concerned individuals.
Hopefully, the House will one day be a place for Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox to comfortably retire. But until Herman is able to win his legal battle, the house will be maintained by a network of volunteers.
Practically Herman has asked that the house be used as a community space that is committed to youth education and drug prevention. The house is design to be a open space that encourages the exchange of ideas, art and activism- a space to live and dream, and for anyone to visit.
Jackie Sumell's objective with this project is not only to bring Herman Wallace's story to the public attention but also to raise awareness about oppression, institutionalized racism and injustice in the United States.
A documentary of the same name was directed by independent film maker Angad Bhalla.
The Angola 3 are the subject of 2010 documentary In the Land of the Free, directed by Vadim Jean and narrated by Samuel L Jackson. They were also the subject of a 2006 documentary film 3 Black Panthers and the Last Slave Plantation and of a music video produced by Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics.
Download PDF from the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3.
Related stories: YOUprison, Some thoughts on the limitation of space and freedom, America's Family Prison, Lyon Biennale - Pedro Reyes, Artur Żmijewski: The Social Studio, Trapped: Mental Illness in America's Prisons, etc.