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
The events aims to reflect on the place that media art has taken into contemporary art. Each in their own way, the works selected for the exhibitions bring a fragment of answer to fundamental questions such as: What is media art? What is different from the conventional art? What changes have been made by that in the field of art? and what influences could come from now?
In order to ensure a broader and more informed coverage of these issues, Park Il-ho, exhibition director, professor at Ewha Womans University and main curator of media_city Seoul surrounded himself with four international curators: Maarten Bertheux from the Stedelijk Museum, independent art curator and critic Raul Zamudio, curator of Tokyo's National Museum of Modern Art Tohru Matsumoto and art historian and curator Andreas Broeckmann.
I had the opportunity to attend a talk in which Broeckmann shared with the audience his point of view on some of the questions raised by the media art biennale: What can be defined as media art today?
Most of you probably know Andreas Broeckmann as the artistic director of the transmediale festival (2000-2007) and the co-director of the media arts lab TESLA in Berlin (2005-2007). The curator and art historian recently co-chaired the re:place 2007 interdisciplinary science and art history conference and is currently working on the next edition of ISEA which will take place in the Ruhr area (Dortmund, Essen, Duisburg, a. o.) in August 2010.
Below are my (fairly rough) notes from the talk.
10 years ago it was easier to define what media art was, any artist using computer, video or the net in his creative practice was qualified as a media artist. In the Netherlands they call it 'art with a plug'. The idea of what constitutes media art has evolved over the past few years and it no longer makes sense to focus solely on the technical media in use.
Questions such as What does it mean to speak of media art today? or What is the territory of media art today? have given rise to many ongoing discussions and are even the core subject of a couple of exhibitions (such as media_city Seoul). One of these exhibitions closed yesterday at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Deep Screen - Art in Digital Culture. Proposal for Municipal Art Acquisitions 2008 was organized with the objective of getting a sample of contemporary media artists living in The Netherlands. The Stedelijk plans to select a few artworks from the sample and buy them for its permanent collection. The questions they museum asked right from the start was 'How can we bring this recent art, with its own aesthetics and thematics into the collection?'
Broeckmann's conviction is that in fact not much of it is really new for the Stedelijk. After all, they have been buying such artworks for 40 years now: Fluxus works, videos by Abramovic, Bill Viola, etc. Media art shouldn't be reduced to technology, some media art pieces are just good examples of conceptual art and have other strong connections with modern and post-modern art.
We are now living a historical time when digital technology is used everywhere everyday. We don't have to think about it anymore. It just became so natural. Only a tiny minority of people had a mobile phone 10 years ago. Today we all have one. Being connected is easy and that's the way we expect it to be. Yet people keep seeing media art as something different, a genre which puts a heavy emphasis on technology and when we speak about art, it mostly refers to art creation that uses analog media.
In the past, when technologies were news, artists were engaging with it in a free and often very explorative way. Now that they have mastered the technology the focus is mostly on making good art. Of course some artists are still developing complicated art pieces but we are seeing much more work using easy, hand-on technology.
An important question to raise is: What happens to art when it has reached the phase beyond digital technology novelty? We used to be fascinated by technology and now it is so much part of our life that we don't have to think about it anymore.
Many people have the feeling that we still describe something when we say 'media art'. Which role does media art has in contemporary art? Are there particular themes, ideas or fields that media art references?
One of the works shown at media_city Seoul illustrates a possible answers. At first look, Julien Maire's Exploding Camera is a heap of electronics on a table. The bits and pieces belong to a video camera which, although it was disassembled, is still perfectly functioning. The lens has been taken out. Instead, external light coupled with LEDs and laser produce video images by direct illumination of the camera's CCD (light sensor). A transparent disc containing photographic positives is placed between the lights and the CCD. The pictures are projected onto the CCD when a light is turned on. Because of the different position of the lights, movement in the same picture can be created. Large lights and the laser create explosions (they trigger a sound that overlays the backing soundtrack).
Two al-Qaida suicide bombers posing as journalists killed him with an exploding camera at his camp in Afghanistan's remote Panjshir Valley.
Although the murder is connected with 9/11, it has been almost completely forgotten because of the magnitude of the events a few days later.
The artist wrote: For me, it is as if the destroyed camera used in the attack against Massoud had continued to work and has been filming a war film for the last 6 years.
Just like Persijn Broersen and Margit Lukács' Hinterland #2 series (exhibited at the Stedelijk but not in Seoul), the work deconstructs the technology of audiovisual media in order to better reflect on the way that it works. This theme is often explored in media art and could therefore constitute an element that contribute to its definition.
An other relevant figure to consider is Marko Peljhan, an artist interested in social and political context of technology. He develops works in the Russian constructivist tradition of the 1920. His art projects deal with with technology and offer the public the opportunity to engage with them and talk about technology, scientific research, military developments, etc. The aesthetics of his work is directly inspired by the aesthetics of science and technology while exposing its dark side, the esoteric and sometimes irrational aspects of modern science.
Hello, World!, offers an interesting dialog with mediality by showing the process of the translation from the digital to the analog through copper pipes. The installation, developed by Yunchul Kim, uses acoustic signals to store data. A codified auditory signal (feedback) circulates in a closed system consisting of a computer, a loudspeaker, 246 meters of copper tubing and a microphone. Due to the acoustic delay in the tubing system, it's possible to save data, whereby the rule is: the longer the copper tubing, the longer the time delay and the greater the memory capacity.
Where is the medium in this work? Is it the computer with the hardware which carries the data file? Or is it the software? The electrical signal?
Erwin Driessens & Maria Verstappen's Breed (also included in the Stedelijk exhibition) is a fascinating take on the theme of the transition from digital to analog. A computer program uses artificial evolution to grow very detailed bronze sculptures that represent virtual mathematical models. The purpose of each growth is to generate by cell division from a single cell a detailed form that can be materialised. On the basis of selection and mutation a code is gradually developed that best fulfills this "fitness" criterion and thus yields a workable form. The virtual designs become tangible artefacts through 3D printing techniques.
The whole creation process is left in the 'hands' of the computer, there is no direct artistic decision. The final result is presented in a very traditional way: the print-out structures are cast in bronze and presented in a glass case.
Breed reflects on the relationship between virtuality and materiality but also the relationship human and machine creativity. Belonging both to the software art genre and the sculpture genre, Breed pushes the boundaries of mediality.
The work of Pierre Bastien which engages mostly with mechanical age looks at the degree zero of media. He uses very basic (wind, voice, fans, etc.) media for human expression in a 'post-machinic age' scenario. It doesn't make much sense to talk about new media art in this context but his work is an artistic expression that uses the most ancient media possible. On the other hand, it can be regarded as media art because of the way it reflects on the mediality of its own materiality (and vice-versa?.)
Ironic wink from Alexei Shulgin and Aristarkh Chernyshev with their latest artistico-commercial adventure: Electroboutique, a conceptual project that playfully but intelligently reflects on the status of media art as another product of consumer culture. The Russian artists are exhibiting at media_city Seoul Super-i, a pair of goggles that allow visitors to reverse the virtual/real duality by transforming the "real" world around us into a pixelated one in real time.
Today, many electrical and digital technologies are available to artists, they are free to choose which one best fits their work. That didn't use to be the case. There was a time when these technologies were expensive and not available to the hoi polloi. Nowadays, these technologies have been 'liberated'. In the past, computers would limit what an artist could do, they were 'imprisoned'. Today, an artist can decide freely whether it is software or wood that best correspond to their project. This also constitutes a liberation from the idea that the essence of media art is technology.
The Cage, by Tania Ruiz Gutiérrez, tries to re-create the experience of being incarcerated. The projection shows an image of a tiger kept prisoner in a zoo. The image is always the same, yet the tiger moves around his cage. The artist explains that the movement is in fact determined by the relative sizes of tiger and cage, such that his movements are optimized to the only possible path given the tight space available. Given that both the duration and the distance are repeated, one can imagine that in the tiger's brain there exists a double incarceration, both spatial and temporal. Moreover, the tiger's path traces over and over the sign of infinity. I would like to make visible the passing of a suspended time and give this installation both a reflexive and hypnotic character.
Pneuma Monoxyd, by Thomas Köner, is a visual metaphor of how time and memory intersect into our mind. The video installation merges in a dark blur surveillance images of a German shopping street and a Balkan marketplace.
These last works show how media art offer us new possibilities to look at the world in a different way.
Mark Hansen's 2 channel video Other People's Feelings Are Also My Own No.3 shows the artist in a similar outfit and facial expression as those of the man, woman or child in the picture next to his. The work explores notions of ego, subjectivity and identity but it also looks into the mediality of the human face and how much it can be used as a screen.
Herwig Weiser's sound sculpture Death Before Disko is a self-absorbed machine, it is a medium that could be qualified as 'autistic'. It appears to be busy with itself and communicates as little as possible to the outside. 'Death Before Disko' uses an online data stream from space observation and translates it into sound and light events. With the proliferation of digital technologies, users have become more and more distant from the physical hardware of their laptop or hi-fi units. 'Death Before Disko' aims to return to the foundations of the hardware, and shows how our relationship towards technology is more often emotional than rational.
Broeckmann's view is that it is getting less and less important to have specific media biennales and festivals. If a 'media art' piece is a good art piece it will survive as contemporary art.
Further reading: Deep Screen - Art in Digital Culture. An Introduction by Andreas Broeckmann.
Back in June, LABoral Art and Industrial Creation Centre in Gijón was opening Banquete_nodos y redes, Interactions Between Art, Science, Technology and Society in Spain's Digital Culture. The exhibition presents more than 30 digital and interactive works that critically and creatively explore the notion of Network as a shared matrix, not just from a technological perspective but also from a socio-cultural perspective.
I wrote a few stories about the show at the time (Sightseeing telescope reveals open wifi networks in urban space, The Bank of Common Knowledge and Vacuum Virtual Machine) but as Banquete runs until November, 03, i thought it would leave me plenty of space to come back with more details on the exhibition.
This exhibition is almost god-sent for me. I don't know why but in the course of my work i'm asked again and again the same question: 'which country is the most dynamic in terms of new media art?' Spain always comes on the top of my list, but while i have no difficulties in naming some particularly active organizations, events, competitions and institutions which support media art, i struggle to enumerate Spanish media artists, i only seem to come up with those active in the field of activism. The works exhibited at banquete have all been developed in Spain and they are demonstrating how much broader and energetic the media art scene is in the country.
Karin Ohlenschläger, who curated the show and has worked for many years in Spain, knows it better than anyone. She is a critic and exhibit curator specializing in contemporary art and new technologies. She is a founding member of the Fundación Banquete and has curated numerous art exhibits related to new media. From 2002 to 2006, she was the co-director of the MediaLabMadrid programme.
I asked her to tell us more about her experiences with banquete, the exhibition in Gijon and the media art community in Spain:
Banquete is an international network of conversations and actions among artists, scientists, technologists, and other producers of knowledge. Would you mind telling us briefly how the project started (15 years ago already?) and how it came to take the form of an exhibition?
Banquete started 15 years ago on a Mediterranean island, in a kitchen, around a table, and during a intense conversation about art and life. Since then, the idea evolved steadily from kitchen to kitchen and from table to table. More and more people became involved until, in 2003, the project materialized in Barcelona (Palau de la Virreina), Karlsruhe (ZKM) and Madrid (MediaLabMadrid/Centro Cultural Conde Duque). Since then, banquete has brought together scientists, artists, activists and others from all over, to expose and explore the complex relationships between biological, social, technological and cultural systems. The theoretical contributions and participation of Roger Bartra, Lynn Margulis, Dorion Sagan, Aminata Traoré, Vandana Shiva and many others have been as important as some of the historical projects by Joseph Beuys, Gordon Matta-Clark and Lygia Clark from the 70's, or the current proposals from Antoni Abad, Eduardo Kac or Technologies To The People. You can find the contents of the banquet_editions of 2003 and 2005 in www.banquete.org, as well as 2008.
You have been working with and observing closely the Spanish new media art community for a while. Since the late '80s if i'm not wrong. I've been following them for only a few years (and certainly not as closely as you did) and i found, for example, that there is a lot of maturity and intelligence in their activism discourse. I also noted their keen interest for free software and free culture. Would you agree with me? And more generally, do you think that Spanish new media artists have something that makes them stand out from new media art communities of other countries? Is there any characteristic which could be regarded as peculiar of their approach to the intersection between art and technology? And more particularly their approach of the concept of network?
Karin: I came to Spain in 1985, founding the video art department at the Museo Español de Arte Contemporáneo (MEAC) in 1986 and collaborating at the same time with one of the very few independent artist spaces in Madrid in the 80´s, called Espacio 'P'. So I have participated and observed Spanish media art closely for more than 20 years.
On the other hand, artists like Marcel.li Antúnez>, Alvaro Castro or Águeda Simó and groups such as Kònic Thtr or Laboratorio de Luz have conceived and developed their projects through close dialogues and collaborations with scientists and research centres . But it is difficult to point out something specific related to the Spanish. Some of the pioneer media artists like Muntadas or Francesc Torres developed an important part of their projects in the United States, and other outstanding artists of the younger generation here in Spain are originally from Colombia, Brasil, Austria or Germany.
In 2009, the show Banquete_nodos y redes will move to ZKM. Did this trip outside of the country influence your curatorial choices in any way? Do you expect the German audience to engage with the work in a different way as in Gijon? Or do you feel that, as the works on show reflect the networked society we live in, they will transcend cultures?
My curatorial choices don´t depend on the venue, but on the ideas and concepts behind an exhibition project. Concerning the audience in Gijon, people of all ages are enjoying and participating in the different proposals. For example, the open, collective production workshop by Escoitar was such a success, that people asked LABoral to continue creating the soundmap of the city. Other local groups, such as disabled associations will be actively involved in the workshop sessions with Evru in October. Whether or not nodes and networks can be generated through the exhibition project will depend on each venue and on the on-line and off-line visitors and participants.
As regards the German audience, I suppose that it is as diverse as the Spanish audience and hopefully, visitors will embrace the works in different ways. On the website of Platoniq's The bank of common knowledge, for example, you can see how different or similar people interact and participate with the same project held in Barcelona, Lisbon or Casablanca.
Generally, the works in the exhibition are addressing an idea of network society characterized by diversity and plurality and the challenge is not how to transcend cultures, but how to connect, communicate and evolve under this bright umbrella of a diversity of cultures.
The exposure of Spanish new media art in the country is having a rather enthusiastic moment. There is the Reina Sofia show, Maquinas y Almas, and also The Discreet Charm of Technology Arts at the MEIAC.
The coincidence of the three exhibitions you mention, is first of all a sign of normalisation and acceptance of 'new' formats and practices in contemporary art institutions. If you want to talk about 'enthusiastic moments', you should also take into account the increasing number of photo festivals and exhibitions, or the increasing interest on performance events in Spain. I would say that we are sharing a moment of maturity and diversity of concepts and practices related to current art and new media. Proof of this are the exhibitions at LABoral, MEIAC and MNCARS, which are, at the same time, quite different in nature. Maquinas y Almas (Machines and Souls) is an international project about the aesthetics and the techniques of current media art. The Discreet Charm of Technology is an anthology, with special emphasis on video art and installations.
Meanwhile banquete_nodos y redes is a work in progress, part of a trilogy and yet an ongoing project, based on the dialogue between art, science, technology and society. The first edition metabolism and communication dealt with the transformation of matter, energy and information. The second edition dealt with biological, technological, social and cultural communication systems and processes; and the present edition analyzes structures, from neural patterns to network society. None of these three banquet?s deal with new media art in itself, but rather with the use of technology in the construction and perception of reality, identity and relationships.
Some of the pieces exhibited result from the collaboration between artists and scientific research centers. How widespread is this idea of having art meet science in the country? Are there organizations and programmes which foster such collaborations?
When we founded MediaLabMadrid in 2002, we generated one of the first permanent platforms for an open dialogue between art, science, technology and social dynamics in Spain. MediaLabMadrid connected research, training, production and exhibition in such an open and dynamic setting that from that moment on, the link between art, science and society became more than just an idea of having art meet science. It became reality through a widespread programme of activities and productions which inspired similar iniciatives and programmes all over the country. So, six years later we can observe a growth in art and science projects, discussions and platforms here in Spain. Some of these initiatives are on the banquet website and one of the founding member of the historical art, science and technology programme at the Centro de Cálculo de la Universidad de Madrid (1968-1972), Ernesto García Camarero, is also a member and adviser of the current banquete project.
Banquete_nodos y redes runs at LAboral Art and Industrial Creation Centre in Gijón, Spain, until November, 03, 2008. The exhibition will then travel to the ZKM | Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, March-July 2009.
Ant Farm - Living Archive 7, by Felicity Scott, an Assistant Professor of Architecture at Columbia University and a founding editor of the Grey Room quarterly (amazon USA and UK.)
Ever since i saw that magnificent retrospective about Ant Farm at the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo in Sevilla, i've been looking for the Ant Farm 'bible', THE book among the many books dedicated to the experimental architecture and performance group. This one is as close as it can get to being the best monograph i've found so far about the avant-garde architects, activists and performers (granted that i wouldn't call myself an expert in Ant Farm matters.)
Ant Farm - Living Archive 7 demonstrates the relevance of Ant Farm's work by situating it within the context of contemporary events and culture. It is incredibly well documented and illustrated with pictures, sketches, and other historical images. I found the illustrations so amazing that i'm going to shut my mouth, leave you with this little video i made to show you what's inside the book and spend some time with that wii fit i finally managed to snatch in a little shop over there in sleepy Namur!
Just spent 3 days in Rome to check out FotoGrafia, the 7th edition of international festival of photography which runs until May 25th in several venues throughout the city.
In a time when most photo festivals focus on urbanity, chaos or sustainability, the theme chosen by FotoGrafia this year is very brave: "Seeing normality. Photography portrays daily life".
First stop was the Palazzo delle Esposizioni there were several shows by young photographers but one of the photo series was so striking (and so far away from what you and i would regard as "normality"), i spent the rest of my stay in the Italian capital obsessing about it. Chinese Wild West, a collaboration between photographer Paolo Woods and journalist Serge Michel, follows China's industrial neo-colonialism in African lands.
As they explain: To quench its thirst for oil, its hunger for copper, uranium and wood, Beijing has sent out its state companies and its adventurous entrepreneurs to conquer Africa.
For the 500.000 Chinese who have emigrated to the 'dark continent' there is the promise of a 21st century Wild West. Some have struck gold and run large conglomerates that span whole regions of Africa, others are still selling their cheap goods on the burning hot roadsides of the poorest countries in the world.
For the Africans, the arrival of the Chinese is perhaps the most important event of the forty years of independence. The Chinese do not look like the former colonialists. They build roads, dams and hospitals and win over the people. They speak neither of democracy nor transparency and they win over the dictators.
Woods and Michel conclude their presentation of the work with these words: These are rare images: Beijing wants to keep a low profile for its conquest. But though it remains largely unexposed these photographs portray a phenomenon, a new dimension of globalization, that threatens to leave the West behind.
The amazing photos are accompanied by a short explanatory text. A selection: