Shoot An Iraqi, Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun, by Wafaa Bilal, an Iraqi American artist currently an assistant professor at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York Universit and author and journalist Kari Lydersen (Amazon UK and USA.)
Publisher City Lights says: Wafaa Bilal's childhood in Iraq was defined by the horrific rule of Saddam Hussein, two wars, a bloody uprising, and time spent interned in chaotic refugee camps in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Bilal eventually made it to the U.S. to become a professor and a successful artist, but when his brother was killed at a U.S. checkpoint in 2005, he decided to use his art to confront those in the comfort zone with the realities of life in a conflict zone. Thus the creation and staging of Domestic Tension, an unsettling interactive performance piece: for one month, Bilal lived alone in a prison cell-sized room in the line of fire of a remote-controlled paintball gun and a camera that connected him to internet viewers around the world. Visitors to the gallery and a virtual audience that grew by the thousands could shoot at him 24 hours a day. The project received overwhelming worldwide attention, garnering the praise of the Chicago Tribune, which called it "one of the sharpest works of political art to be seen in a long time," and Newsweek's assessment "breathtaking." It spawned provocative online debates and ultimately, Bilal was awarded the Chicago Tribune's Artist of the Year Award.
Soot an Iraqi is a tale that walks you through refugee camps and experiments in interactive art. It is both a biography of artist Wafaa Bilal and the chronicle of his one-month experience as a paintball target at Flatfile Galleries. The book pertains to the political, the art, the activist fields. It is not a novel but it reads like one.
Defining the book is no straightforward enterprise and things do not get any more clean-cut when ones decides to focus on the performance at the center of the book. Domestic Tension is a playful and provocative online game, a cathartic performance that went further than the artist expected, a reflection on the impact that a seemingly innocent online gesture can have in the physical world, an invitation to dialog -no matter how contentiously- about war in Iraq. The artwork attracted the attention and most enthusiastic comments from art critics but it also appealed to the geeky type who'd define conceptual art a pretentious bore. And even there, one should stear clear of any hasty judgment, the experience taught the Bilal (and now its readers) that people you wouldn't expect to have much sympathy for Iraq's plight or for conceptual art turned out to be more supportive than expected. Shoot an Iraqi has a lesson for everyone, even for those who 'know better.' I just wish all lesson-bearing books could be as devoid of self-pity, regrets, anger or hauteur as one is.
City Lights also uploaded a video in which Wafaa Bilal discusses the motivation behind Domestic Tension:
Photo on homepage by Shawn Lawson. Copyright: Wafaa Bilal, 2007. More images in Universe in Universe.
Paulistas much chagrined by the pauperism of this year's São Paulo Biennial pointed me to its Off version, the Paralela '08. They made sure to add "You know this isn't a huge event either but there are a few interesting pieces over there!"
Titled From Near and Far, the event nods to De près et de loin, a book that documents a conversation between philosopher Didier Eribon and anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Curator Rodrigo Moura chose artists who invite us to reflect on the influence of space in their respective works. Although the selection stretches over several continents, most of the pieces are by Brazilian artists.
It's been a challenge to find information and good pictures about the artworks i liked the most so i'm going to highlight just a few of them and end with a slideshow, i added the name of the artwork and its author wherever i could so that you can get a better idea of what the Paralela was like (to see the titles of the pictures, i'm afraid you'll have to click on the images and go straight to clumsy clunky flickr).
By the entrance, the provocative and highly ironic photograph made by Rubens Mano shows the Niemeyer pavilion used for the Biennial since 1957. Empty, like most of the pavilion of the Biennial this year, it suggests the limitless potential of the unfilled site.
Lina Kim's Rooms are also empty but they have reached a stage of total abandonment. The photographer patiently archives rooms that have been abandoned to time. Sometimes, objects and equipment such as cables, tired wallpaper, peeling paint, fire extinguishers or metal cabinets subsist but nothing reveals what the former function of the room. But outside, the vegetation keeps growing.
Sara Ramo explores everyday life. In her photo series, Como aprender o que acontece na normalidade das coisas, Ramo investigates the moment when objects stop making sense in people's life and generate chaotic situations. Like when she has all shampoos, soaps, towels and brushes pulled out of bathroom cupboards and laid on the floor.
That was already it, i'm afraid.
On view until December 7, at the Liceu de Artes e Ofícios, Sao Paulo.
Sorry for the long silence, this visit to Brazil is far more absorbing than i expected. On Sunday, the organizers of arte.mov (the festival for mobile media art) took us for a school trip to the Instituto Cultural Inhotim. An hour drive away from Belo Horizonte, Inhotim is a contemporary art museum, made of pavilions and installations spread over a lush botanical garden.
By garden i mean 600 hectares of natural reserve and a Tropical Park, with 45 hectares of gardens with botanical collections and five ornamental lakes, which together form an area of 3.5 hectares. Part of it was designed following the suggestions of landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. The enormous variety of plants makes it one of the largest botanical collections in the world, with rare tropical species and a forest reserve which is part of the Atlantic Forest biome.
Since its opening in 2005, Inhotim has opened new pavilions to house permanent as well as temporary exhibitions and commissioned new site-specific projects to artists such as Doug Aitken, Matthew Barney, Victor Grippo, Chris Burden and Pipilotti Rist.
It is a breath-taking place. You walk around and think 'Wow! If the Xanadu of art existed it would be this place. Or at least something disturbingly similar.'
There is some 350 works to discover. I'm not sure i managed to track down all of them but here's a brief overview of my favourites:
Chris Burden's work is often reduced to the stunning performances in which he explored personal danger as artistic expression. For Shoot (1971), he had an assistant shoot a bullet in his left arm by an assistant from a distance of about five meters. Why stop there when you can do better? He set fire to himself, nailed himself on a car, had himself cut, starved, drowned, sequestered, etc.
The work on show at Inhotim, Samson, is of a different genre. It is potentially dangerous but not for the artist. The piece consists of a 100 ton jack connected to a gear box and a turnstile. The jack pushes two large timbers against the walls of the gallery. To enter the gallery, visitors must pass through the turnstile and each turn of the turnstile slightly expands the jack. If enough people visit the exhibition, Samson could, theoretically, destroy the building. The installation speaks volume of Burden's opinion of museums and art institutions which the artist identified with "the establishment." By forcing spectators to pass through the turnstile in order to satisfy their curiosity, Burden assigns them equal culpability in the potential destruction of the gallery space.
The work of Adriana Varejão has also been given its own beautiful pavilion, designed by architect Rodrigo Cerviño Lopez. Among the works exhibited, I particularly liked the Panacea phantastica (2003-2007). You don't need to know that the tiles portrays 50 species of hallucinogenic plants from different parts of the world to be slightly troubled when you see it.
John Ahearn's murals are often the outcome of a long immersion by the artist and his frequent collaborator, Rigoberto Torres, into a community. They spend time observing its people, their character, values, and vitality in order, in order to better portray everyday people, who rarely have a say in how they are portrayed.
The protagonists of Inhotim's murals are the people living in Inhotim's surrounding region of Brumadinho. A first mural, Rodoviária de Brumadinho [The Bus Station of Brumadinho] (2005), depicts the bus station of Brumadinho and the people who move through it, a place that is not only a center of transport but of social life as well, as it is also home to popular dances.
The other mural, Abre a Porta [Open the Door] (2006), depicts a solemn and spirited religious procession that takes place every year at the church just behind this mural and uphill from it, that is enacted by the Congado and Moçambique, two branches of a local population of pure African lineage descended from slaves who practice a kind of Catholicism that has absorbed animistic deities.
And of course any collection of contemporary art has its Olafur Eliasson. There's actually more than one at Inhotim. The one i found most engaging is the Viewing Machine.
Looking like a grown-up and luxury version of the kaleidoscope gadgets for kids, the work creates an effect of reflected light with six mirrors forming a hexagonal tube. Visitor can maneuver the machine toward any point of interest. Through superimposed reflections, a myriad of forms is exposed.
More images in my flickr set.
Heartland roughly follows the Mississippi River, taking in an area from New Orleans up to Minneapolis in the north and including Omaha, Kansas City, Detroit and Chicago. The curatorial team, a collaboration between the Van Abbemuseum and the Smart Museum of Art in Chicago, commissioned new pieces and selected existing works by contemporary artists who live in the region or have undertaken residencies there in order to produce new work. The programme includes musical events at the Muziekcentrum Frits Philips, debates, lectures, a photo exhibition, a magazine and publications.
Heartland is a precious exhibition. The U.S. are all over our (European) newspapers because of the upcoming presidential elections. Yet, most of us know very little of the art and culture of the area that lies between the East Coast and the West Coast. And what we think we might know can often be reduced to a bunch of cliches. One of the main objectives of the exhibition is to offer a more penetrating picture of the 'Heartland'. Indeed, each of the works on show engages dynamically with the city and area it comes from, rising issues peculiar to that place and the people who live there . Another aim of Heartland is, as the curators added in their press release, to questions traditional definitions of cultural centers and peripheries.
Alec Soth 's photo series Sleeping by the Mississippi brings you right into the heart of the subject. The result of several years of road trips along the legendary river, the photographic prints capture America's "third coast". While the area appears to be the essence and backbone of the whole country, its landscapes, people and interiors evoke a sense of neglect, loneliness and melancholy.
Marjetica Potrč has spent several months studying the changing landscape of post-Katrina New Orleans. With the help of FutureProof (a sustainable design consultancy), she focused her researches on issues of sustainability, water, and the emergence of new geographic and political territories based on changing ecology.
The 'Shotgun House with Rainwater-Harvesting Tank' builds upon two recent trends in New Orleans: the revival of the local architectural style known as the Shotgun House, and the move toward self-sustainability. Inhabitants have customized this local style by adding elements that allow them to harvest rainwater and solar power. These post-Katrina developments reflect the search for a new social contract for democracy. The two caryatids represent the citizens of New Orleans whom she sees as the 'supporting columns' of the reconstruction of the city.
The drawings and prints that accompanied the installation echo the ways in which infrastructure is created from the bottom up by individuals either in response to political or ecological change or simply to improve their lives. The societies she examines, including New Orleans, have undergone political or climatic changes that have made Modernism's social contracts untenable.
The exhibition presented also independent cultural organizations and artists' platforms whose activities are deeply rooted in their local environment. One of them is the Tree of Heaven Woodshop is a Detroit-based network of specialists, craftspeople, researchers, artists and enthusiasts who work exclusively with wood processed from what the Chinese call the Tree of Heaven. In the Detroit, the tree received also the nickname "ghetto palm" because of the way it populates abandoned lots and deserted factory sites all over the city. The tree survives, even in a polluted area, where there is poor or very little soil as it is often found climbing out of abandoned factories and houses, lamp posts and even sidewalks and concrete structures, make this tree the plant of post-industrial landscapes.
The quantity and height of Tree of Heaven specimen indicate how long a place might have been abandoned. Interested in the ongoing effects of de-industrialisation on communities and environments, the Tree of Heaven Woodshop decided to take advantage of the tree ubiquity. By using existing infrastructure and supporting small local businesses, the Woodshop turn the tree into an agent of communication. Processing trees into raw material for sculptures or furniture might not be regarded as a very sophisticated concept. But in the light of this specific city and the qualities of this specific tree it becomes a demonstration of the possibilities of this place in time.
A whole wall was covered with the comics (more images) of Kerry James Marshall. Marshall used to read a lot of superhero comics as a kid and one day, because all of a sudden the character of the Black Panther appeared in the Fantastic Four, he and many other with him realized that there were no black heroes in comics. Hence this ongoing project, Rythm Monstr, which explores black American culture through its own super heroes. They are the comic, swearing, talking (in both Chinese and english) and jumping version of archaic African sculptures. Each of them subtly summons issues of racial tensions, the civil rights movement, Afro-American traditions and communal solidarity in the 21st century.
The Wexner Center has a nice video interview of the artist.
If you can't make it to Eindhoven, internet comes to your rescue: the curators traveled the whole 'Heartland" to research the exhibition and posted their impressions and photos on the Heartland Research blog.
The videos of Artur Żmijewski are screened in almost all the major collective exhibitions and biennales these days. I caught a glimpse of his video in one such events and thought 'looks interesting' but i passed my way. In front of art cornucopia, video is always the last on my list and it gets my attention only if there's a seat available for me to have nap in the dark.
But on Thursday i took the train to Utrecht to see the solo exhibition of the Polish artist at BAK, basis voor actuele kunst.
The exhibition presents "social studios," social experiments of sorts documented on film in an openly confrontational way. Think reality shows for art galleries. The artist confronts individuals to uncomfortable situations that explore complex moral issues. He then waits and films as the scenes unfold.
In Repetition, 2005, Żmijewski revisits the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, a two-week investigation to respond to the following question: "What happens when you put good people in an evil place?" At the time, 24 undergraduates were selected to play the roles of both guards and prisoners and live in a mock prison. After six days, Philip Zimbardo was forced to end the experiment. The guards took great pleasure in exercising violence, humiliating and torturing the prisoners; the prisoners, too, lost their ability to distinguish what was real and what was simulated.
Żmijewski recreated the experiment despite the fact that contemporary science would regard it too dangerous--and effective--to carry out again. Whether you catch the film right from the beginning or arrive in the middle of it, the scenes of sadism, frustration, humiliation, anger, and especially fear look way too real and instinctual, to be just a game.
Repetition is more than just a mechanical representation of the 1971 undertaking. The artist removes the experiment from its scientific context and the conditions of the time and places it in today's world, to transform it into a "universal manifestation of weakness and moral failure." Besides the 7 inmates and 9 guards (all of them unemployed people without), participants included psychologists responsible of stopping everything if it turned dangerous, a former prison inmate, and a sociologist involved in prison system reforms. The experiment collapsed after only few days as the participants collectively decided to leave the prison. As Maria Hlavajova wrote in her essay for the exhibition, Can this moment of resistance be seen--in a time in which the world struggles to come to terms with Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and the like--as a humble indication that violence, cruelty, brutality, and terror can be expunged as accepted options for creating the conditions for how to live together after all? What is sure is that the artwork raised much controversy and discussion at the time in Poland.
Żmijewski believes that in order for art to regain its value in society, it has to expose societal conflict and disclose the conditions in which social antagonisms are cultivated and maintained by the powers that be. Convinced that the hard-won autonomy of art--in which art is considered independent from the "real" world--has actually disempowered it from acting as an accountable public voice, Żmijewski insistently requires of art that it take responsibility and engage in a dialog with the current social and political reality around us.
Apart from Repetition, several other videos can be viewed at BAK. The one i found most moving is 80064. Its title is the camp number of a 92 years old Auschwitz survivor, Jozef Tarnawa. The tattoo has faded with the years and Zmijewski meets the old man in a tattoo parlor and tries to persuade him to have it 'refreshed'.
The old man is not to be convinced easily. He wants to be left in peace. He is worried that the renewed tattoo will not be 'original.' In the end, Zmijweski gets his way and the poor man submits his arm unwillingly to the tattoo artist. In Zmijweski's own words: 'When I undertook this film experiment with memory, I expected that under the effect of the tattooing the 'doors of memory' would open, that there would be an eruption of remembrance of that time, a stream of images or words describing the painful past. Yet that didn't happen. But another interesting thing happened. Asked whether, while in the camp, he had felt an impulse to revolt, to protest against the way he was treated, Tarnawa replied: 'Protest? What do you mean, protest? Adapt - try and survive.' In the film, suffering, power relationships, and subordination are repeated.
Artur Żmijewski: The Social Studio is on view from 28 September until 16 November 2008. n view until 16 November 2008 at BAK, Lange Nieuwstraat 4, Utrecht, the Netherlands.
A couple days ago, Eyebeam in New York City opened what by some has been called their best show so far. It is titled Untethered, and was curated by visiting fellow Sarah Cook to be "a sculpture garden of everyday objects deprogrammed of their original function, embedded with new intelligence and transformed into surrealist and surprising readymades". Many pieces are from Eyebeam's fellows, residents or affiliated artists while a few external people were invited to participate as well.
The show works well as the open-plan warehouse on Chelsea's 21st Street is being transformed in a wonderland of white plinths with obscure objects on them, many of which invite to be touched, looked at, and discussed about as in all cases, their traditional function has been tampered with in one way or the other.
In Sarah's words: "a show of objects that have been tinkered with, invented, and allowed to be "generative", that is, open to experimentation and other use. Untethered presents a deliberate reference to Jonathan Zittrain's notion of "tethered appliances", technologies, such as iPods, or that contain proprietary software and are tied to single uses or networks."
As the range of modifications is wide, here's a few examples and favorite pieces.
Joe Winter, an Eyebeam alumni, has created a beautiful solar system called Xerox Astronomy and the Nebulous Object-Image Archive, which centers around a photocopier. The piece consists of the machine, sitting in a sort of cubicle and several robotic light sources, moving around it. The machine keeps making copies which somewhat resemble a photo of a night sky. For Joe, "the sculpture at once models the movements of distant bodies and presents itself as the the primary object of observation, creating a self-reflexive, self-imaging media production system". A very interesting take on science as narrative and it's dependency on the frameworks that the production of what we consider to be factual knowledge is happening in.
Kelly Dobson of MIT Media Lab is showing her responsive hacked technologies, including Blendie, Toastie and a vacuum cleaner, all of which are part of her Machine Therapy series. It's a well-known project, but it's still incredibly strong in the way that it establishes a link between an arbitrary appliance and its users (and their bodies). Plus the videos are too hilarious not to be watched again:
Germaine Koh from Vancouver presents a work from her from her Fair Weather Forces series. As Eyebeam is at the tip of 21st street and thus very to the Hudson River, she installed a sensor for the current water-level which is remotely linked to a velvet rope barrier in the gallery. As the water changes, the height of the barrier will almost unnoticeably change and act as an ambient display for the natural surroundings of the built environment. (Especially interesting to watch since there was flooding forecast on the night of the opening.)
Sascha Pohflepp's (disclosure: that's me) Buttons is a camera that, instead of taking a photo, takes a moment. It then connects to the web to find someone else's photo that happened to be taken in the very same instant and displays it. The project aims to comment on photography as an increasingly networked practice and uses our trail of data to to create a connection between two strangers on the basis that they did the same thing simultaneously: press a button.
A highlight for me was Michel de Broin's work. His piece Great Encounters consisting of two refrigerators, joined by a single piece of acrylic, results in "their solitudes uniting, through a canal connecting their inside worlds." His work questions the roles that we attribute to everyday objects and in doing so gives them sort of a new personality. The way in which that happens reminded me a lot of Roger Ibars' concise Self-Made Objects. Another piece from the same series, which kind of became the eye-catcher of Untethered, is his piece Dead Star-a sculpture made from household batteries. All at the end of their life-cycle and previously used in all kinds of appliances, they slowly drain until there is no more energy in them. Although not on show in New York, his Shared Propulsion Car from 2005, a pedal-powered car, is great as well.
And there's more. Jessica Banks created an interesting table as part of her Cubed series which is levitating on a magnetic field, there's Thomson & Craighead's Unprepared Piano that plays random MIDI from the web (and has the Star Wars theme as its Hello World), Paul DeMarinis' hacked metronomes Hypnica, JooYoun Paekʼs bicycle disguise made of garbage bags, a chandelier by Ayah Bdeir and again Jessica Banks, Hans-Christoph Steiner's hacked PDA's, Max Dean's self-erasing clock and Nor_/d's reactive architecture-photos of all of which you can find here.
Show's up through October 25th in New York's Chelsea. For more information about the individual works, Eyebeam have also put interviews with all the artists online.
Related: Interview with Sarah Cook