I can't remember having ever been disappointed by any of the exhibitions on show at Fotomuseum in Antwerp. The current shows are particularly worth the trip to the city (one of my favourite places in the world and it's a mere 30 minute ride from ugly Brussels.) The main exhibition is dedicated to photographers who capture the past, another one is about young Belgian photographers, a third show explores subjectivity through history and on the top floor is a fascinating installation by Zoe Beloff. The work took as its point of departure America's longest running comic strip to explore the influence of cinema on the movement of the body and the mind. I might come back to these exhibitions in the coming days.
Beloff's exhibition contains a number of historical documents. Some of them show chronocyclegraphs of sportsmen and factory workers. I had never heard of the chronocyclegraph before.
The technique was developed by Frank Gilbreth and his wife, Lillian in the early 20th century to improve work methods. The couple employed time-lapse photography to reduce a complete work cycle to the shortest and most efficient sequence of gestures.
To look for this optimal "relationship of human effort to the volume of work that the effort accomplishes", they attached a camera to a timing device and photographed workers performing various tasks. The motion paths were traced by small lamps fastened to the worker's hands or fingers.
They called the essential elements of their subjects' movements therbligs.
The Gilbreths later built wire sculptures based on the trail of light created by the movement of the worker's hand.
The objective of the research was to minimize arm movement and hence speed and ease manual work. Gilbreth's findings were used in assembly lines but they also found their way into other contexts: Gilbreth was the first to propose that a nurse would assist the surgeon, by handing them surgical instruments as called for. He also devised the standard techniques used around the world to teach army recruits how to rapidly disassemble and reassemble their weapons even when blindfolded.
More images: Frank B. Gilbreth Motion Study Photographs (1913-1917) at Kheel Center Labor Photos.
One of the many (very many) reasons why i wouldn't want to be a man is because the way they have to dress is so uneventful. Last Summer's most flamboyant sensation was the 'mankle'. Poor lads! On the other hand i wish i were a man so that i could dress head to toe in Walter Van Beirendonck. I do have a lovely paper dress staring a portrait of Van Beirendonck sitting naked on the back of a bear and little grey penises near the hem but nowadays he doesn't design much for women.
I love his work so much i almost made cartwheels a few days ago in an art gallery where i found a leaflet promoting his solo show at the Fashion Museum in Antwerp. I spent 4 hours in public transports to get to Antwerp, walked under the rain until somewhere between the Martin Margiela boutique and the sublime Dries Van Noten store, i found myself in front of transparent doors adorned with the naked red silhouette of WVB.
More than just a showcase of the designer's most extravagant pieces of archive,
But there are also toys everywhere. Vintage, Japanese, Mexican toys, etc.
Masks and ritual objects from Papua New Guinea, Austria, North America.
And works by artists with whom the designer shares concerns and ideas: Ai Weiwei for his political engagement, Robert Mapplethorpe for his documentation of the S&M world, but also the Chapman Brothers, Mike Kelley, Erwin Wurm and Grayson Perry.
Isn't he cute?
The exhibition echoes the main interests of the designer. There's obviously his relentless search for alternative ideas of beauty and representations of the body. This preoccupation is reflected in the models he sends on the catwalk. Some are bodybuilders, others are chubby 'bears' (a characteristic type in the gay community), or they can be thin, fragile boys.
He puts them on stilts, wraps them in latex, has them wear T-shirts with prints of preoperative drawings for plastic surgery, sends them on the runway with gas masks, corsets, prosthetic horns or with the face adorned with stick-on latex interpretations of Maori facial tattoos, etc.
Van Beirendonck's collections might seem whimsical and outlandish but many of them are instilled with controversial themes and political commentaries: AIDS, the burqa debate, censorship, gender issues, mass consumerism, ecology, war, capitalism, etc.
Finally, a spectacular room was entirely left to Walter van Beirendonck's collaboration with fashion photographer Nick Knight/SHOWstudio.com and stylist Simon Foxton. Their photography and video project brings into a new light the most memorable pieces from his archive:
So ladies, you know where to drag your man in need of sartorial inspiration this weekend! Walter Van Beirendonck: Dream the world awake runs at the Fashion Museum in Antwerp, Belgium, until February 19th, 2012.
Niewsblad.be has a photo set on flickr. Mine will come later, when i finally get back to wifi-wonderland.
The Killifish lives in puddles, sometimes in the middle of a road, where trucks drive through. These habitats provide little competition for food, and are disregarded by predators, especially since water is brown and unclear. The obvious disadvantage is that puddles are highly unstable habitats. One of the strategies killifishes have developed to cope with this is to jump out of the puddle, maybe landing in a new one. Many don't make it.
Because puddles are different, the populations evolve into new species rather quickly. The kamikaze behaviour and the multitude of subspecies have triggered the interest of a community of killifish collectors, who travel to puddles in the tropics, collect live specimens and bring them home where they will breed the fish with a self imposed ethic: the killifish must stay exactly as they were found in the puddle, and not change between generations.
For artist Mateusz Herczka, the killifish behaviour and culture reveal a new relationship between nature and people, as if the killifish have infiltrated culture, and are now part of the cultural evolution rather than the biological. He followed the example of the killifish and infiltrated the killifish keepers community, learning, exchanging information and tactics.
Because the way killifish jumps from one puddle to another remained to be properly documented, Herczka flooded his studio and captured this spontaneous jumping in HD video. The video material shows jumps under various conditions and still frames have been composited to show the jumping technique and the trajectory. The fish always jump in the middle of the night when nobody is around.
To understand how fish can survive in a puddle with trucks driving through it, the artist set up a digital simulation using software which simulates liquid, and rolled a virtual tire through a virtual puddle. Finally, an ambitious reconstruction of the puddle is being built at the Verbeke Foundation, to be completed in the next coming months. Unsurprisingly, recreating a South American puddle in an unheated Belgian space was quite a technical challenge. The huge cube of glass and metal contains a reconstruction of a puddle found in the middle of a road in Guyana, with a truck wheel rolling through it.
The Verbeke Foundation isn't easy to reach if you don't own a car but the result of Mateusz Herczka's research is documented and presented with plenty of visual material and also aquariums containing fish, worms, artemia and springtails in the exhibition Puddle Drive-Through Simulation currently open at the Verbeke Gallery in Antwerp (BE).
I hope to be able to visit the show when i'm in Belgium next month. In the meantime, i asked Mateusz to answer my many questions:
How did you first encounter the Killifish? But even more importantly, what made you want to spend more than 3 years working with them?
There is a two-floor basement near my studio in Stockholm. The upper floor was a club for mini-z model car racing. A steel door leading to the lower floor says "Södermalms Akvarieaffär, kom in och titta", (South-side's aquarium shop, come in and have a look). One day I needed glass and thought maybe they could sell me some. Upon entering, I realized this is not a regular aquarium shop. The atmosphere was somewhere in between a laboratory, and a computer club I belonged to as a teenager. Passing a few normal looking aquariums and some merchandise, I turned a corner and saw rows of murky aquariums with carefully written labels showing Latin names and some kind of codes. The fish didn't look like any I had seen in other shops. Homemade devices, bubbling liquids in plastic bottles, cultures of little worms and jumping things.
I was approached by a guy who said "Amazing, isn't it? Janne only works with nature forms." He indicated the owner, Jan Wester, who turned out to be an architect devoting his life to killifish, a warm and friendly guy who loves to talk about killifish and keeping techniques. His strict ethic of fish origin and his refusal to stock more popular "plastic fish" turns a lot of customers away. The shop is his "fishroom". I visited him several times and listened to his stories. Later, I met other killi keepers around Europe, and found a rich scene on the internet.
What intrigued me was the complexity and level of involvement with what appears to be an insignificant fish species. Then I found the Jim's Basement Floor anecdote, and started to remember fragments of literature I read. A story by Polish SciFi writer Stanislaw Lem, describing a planet where the government decided that the fish was the most noble state of being, so the water level is raised a little every year. Or various books where someone travels to the jungle, it starts to rain, and "suddenly there are fish on the ground".
I started to wonder if these fish are quietly infiltrating culture - on a grassroots level in people's basements, in stories suggesting a merging of people/fish habitats. This links to the discussion of a possible end of biological evolution - the new evolution being cultural, the new fitness parameter being adaptability in culture. I was wondering if I, an artist, could bring something new to the killifish scene, but also infiltrate the killifish scene into the art community, to push the killifish even further into the realms of culture, using strategies from both science and art.
I was also intrigued by the existence of a killikeeper community. Who are they? Is there anything that sets them apart from other fish hobbyists? Did they give you any feedback about your Killifish art projects?
The people I met are all professionals in different fields. They are spread around the globe, communicate via internet, send eggs to each other via airmail, and sometimes meet at conventions. Some of them make field trips to the tropics, looking for fish in puddles, ditches, etc. Specimens are brought home for breeding and preservation in the fishroom. This requires dedication and ingenuity - the fish are quirky, jump out of the aquarium, some subspecies are very short-lived and lay eggs that need to be dried and re-hydrated several times. The community is bristling with clever technical DIY solutions that enables maintenance of a large aquarium count, live food culture in the everyday home environment, ecological "balanced" aquaria, automation, etc. A major contrast to domesticated species from the aquarium shop.
After speaking to several killifish keepers, and observing their interaction with the fish, I get an impression of a special kind of relationship with nature. Not keeping animals as pets, decoration, utility or food, but bringing content and meaning to your free time by actively interacting with an animal population, shunning commercial products in lieu of Do It Yourself methodology. It is especially interesting to note their killifish breeding ethic, to preserve the population as close as possible to the nature form, the exact look and behaviour of the original fish in the puddle. The community arranges regular contests where keepers show fish which are judged specifically on the nature form criteria. In the case of some subspecies, the original habitats are gone. The preservation ethic allows such populations to continue their existence in somebody's fishroom.
I have received a lot of help and feedback from the killi community. When showing Laboratory to Ascertain Plausibility of Jim's Basement Floor Anecdote, local killi keepers helped to arrange fish and care for them, and the installation became something of a meeting place. Many are intrigued by my video films showing the killifish jumping behavior, which was common knowledge but never properly documented. These films attract attention from the art community, but also bring something new to the killi keepers.
The introductory text of the catalogue, written by Simon Delobel, explains that you gave your aquariums and fish to a shop because "keeping killifishes at home or in his studio would have meant losing the artistic aspect of his creative activity." Can you tell us the reason for that?
When working with a project, my artistic strategies are based on theoretical research, but most importantly to "walk the walk and talk the talk". In this case, I had to learn the methods of killikeeping by maintaining some populations in my studio, their way. I discovered that it was extremely interesting, and found myself wanting to try some new killifish species, different methods, contacting some guy i Canada to get eggs from a rare Rivulus type...
After about a year, my studio was filling up with aquariums - I was "bitten by the bug". This is very relevant to the whole story - the killifish seem to combine just the right elements of complexity and accessibility to create and maintain interest with almost anybody. After an exhibition in Spain, I heard that one of the personnel had started to keep killifish. So one side effect of this project has been to promote a specific and positive model of interaction between people and nature. But as an artist I need to retain objectivity, and so I gave all my killifish away.
Like some of your other works, this installation navigates between art and science. You asked for the advice of experts in various disciplines, read numerous articles and watched scientific videos in order to make your own as scientific as possible. Nowadays many people see art and science as two radically different fields. But what do they have in common for you? Why do you find that they can be intertwined? What does this intimate flirting with science (or amateur science) brings to your art practice?
There are many answers, not always coherent. In art school, I learned how to make things look like art, and art theory as an analysis tool for the work - there were no new media or art/science programs at the time. But artistic practice for me has always kept one leg in the process of discovery, both digital and wetware. In the 90's I participated in the generative graphics scene, which consisted of people publishing strange quicktime videos on the budding internet, projecting live graphics from laptops in artsy clubs, hacking video games to crash in an interesting way etc. This was very exciting and relevant stuff but the art world had no idea what to do with it, there were no proper contexts, and most of the material is gone today, the computers outdated, the operating systems deprecated.
I decided to abandon art theory as an anaysis tool for my work, and started to look for alternative artistic strategies. Having studied with conceptual artist Dick Raaijmakers in Den Haag, I started formulating projects that provided some kind of answer to questions. This in contrast to the common saying that "science provides answers, art provides questions". To provide answers, you have to look for them, which means genuinely trying to understand certain literature, formulating and recreating experiments, careful documentation and so on. And when embarking on a research journey, the mind has to be open for what comes out - the semiotics of the work don't always look like art.
Another strong component is Do It Yourself - I know scientists as discussion partners, but I prefer to work in such a way that I can do most of the initial work myself. This is one reason for plugging into communities, which often accumulate large bodies of informal knowledge of very high quality. Lately, I'm looking for ways to bring the DIY aspect to the audience as well. I'm increasingly considering the DIY aspect to be crucial to survival not only of art, but of the post-technological society, because it breaks down peoples dissociation with nature, science and technology, and connects them to the artistic experience.
For example, my Open Out Of Body Experience project uses recent science to let people experience an artificially induced OOBE, video game style, in a DIY format. The discussions that come from these sessions show an urgent need for problematization of the avatar concept, which recently cemented itself in our culture but whose morality has never really been discussed at street level. Or to take the point even further - if there was a DIY nuclear plant, Fukushima would have looked different today.
The art & science moniker is a buzzword that goes around right now, and I'm not sure what to make of it. I am an artist who tries to understand things going on right now in the real world, using methods which can also be found in the scientific tradition. The process of understanding leaves a trail of images, objects, videos and ideas, which I call art. I get the question all the time: is your work art or science? Good question, but I don't have a good answer without engaging into a long discussion about semiotics....
Does this project mark the end of your artistic relationship with killifishes or do you think you haven't quite finished exploring their world?
Returning to the nature form preservation concept of the killifish community, there is a tendency of aquarium bred species to become more beautiful. Not because of selective breeding by keeper (actually the keepers are very selective to prevent this). It's a principle in any species that relies on display for sexual selection - the more beautiful, the more visible for predators - which increases overall fitness. I'm planning a project inspired by the citizen science model which documents such change over several generations. Interestingly, a specific population from one subspecies of killifish seems to have abandoned display selection for another principle - forced copulation. Basically a rapist killifish. Further research is necessary to fully ascertain what's going on. But it's not certain if the research will lead me elsewhere. We'll see.
A few months before the 50th anniversary of Congolese independence from Belgium, Extra City --an Antwerp-based platform for the production, presentation and debate of artistic practices-- is showing one of Tillim's recent series: Avenue Patrice Lumumba. The work examines modern history in Africa against the backdrop of its colonial and post-colonial architectural heritage.
The series reflects on the architecture of colonial and post-colonial Africa, looking at the many city streets named after Patrice Lumumba, one of the first elected African leaders of modern times. Lumumba became the first Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1960 after he helped his country win independence from Belgium.
Only ten weeks after his speech at the independence celebrations in Léopoldville in which he militated against the West's idea of neo-colonial order in the presence of the Belgian King Baudouin, Lumumba's government was deposed in a coup. He was imprisoned, beaten and murdered in circumstances that strongly suggest the complicity of Belgium and the CIA. The country quickly fell into the totalitarian regime of charismatic and greedy Mobutu.
Streets that bear the name of Lumumba in Mozambique, Angola and The Democratic Republic of Congo have come to represent both the idealism and decay of an African dream.
"These photographs are not collapsed histories of post-colonial African states or a meditation on aspects of late-modernist colonial structures, but a walk through avenues of dreams. Patrice Lumumba's dream, his nationalism, is discernible in the structures, if one reads certain clues, as is the death of his dream, in these de facto monuments. How strange that modernism, which eschewed monument and past for nature and future, should carry such memory so well." Guy Tillim
It was a fascinating exhibition for me. My school teachers in Belgium were not big on telling us what exactly happened in Congo, except that we got tremendously rich thanks to the rubber, diamonds, copper and other minerals of our ex-colony. My eyes opened when i went to study in England and my class mates were happy to provide me with gruesome details of the atrocities done the Belgian over there. Check out Mobutu King of Zaire too (i downloaded an english version of the documentary recently but it was so badly translated i'd recommend the original version in french.)
A few words about the most fascinating book i read this Summer...
Photojournalist Geert van Kesteren covered Operation Desert Fox (the code-name for a four-day bombing campaign on Iraq in December 1998) for the Dutch weekly Vrij Nederland. On his second visit to the region he managed to get an exclusive interview with Uday Hussein, Saddam's son (who was killed a few years during a brief gunfight in Mosul). He returned to Iraq in April 2003 and spent several months working on assignments for international newspapers and gathering images and information for Why mister, Why?, a photography book that aligns clues to help us understand what went wrong during the American occupation.
His more recent volume, Baghdad Calling documents the lives of Iraqi refugees living in Jordan, Syria, and Turkey. After a few weeks taking pictures, Van Kesteren realized they didn't manage to convey the sufferings he was witnessing. However, he quickly found that many refugees had used their camera phones to collect images of the homeland they knew they would have to leave.
Besides his own professionally shot images, the book presents hundreds of the photographs that Iraqi citizens had accumulated on their mobile phones and digital cameras. The images often reveal places where journalists dare not tread for reasons of personal safety. Since 20 March 2003, Iraq has indeed been the deadliest country in the world for the press. More than 180 journalists and media support workers have been killed. Nowadays, photographers and journalists have to stay within Baghdad's Green Zone, lest they are kidnapped or killed.
Besides van Kesteren's own photos and the amateur snapshots, the book contains many interviews with refugees. For once, the principals protagonists take control over the narrative. Their first-hand accounts of the horrors that have befallen them makes a compelling reading. Unfortunately, these very short stories do not seem to have any happy ending in sigh. There's no morale. Not even romance. Coupled with images of corpses laying in the streets, family celebrations, exploded cars, desert squares in broad day light, empty schools and demolished infrastructure, the testimonies of displaced families creates one the most engrossing forms of photojournalism i ever came upon.
Baghdad Calling is an appeal to those countries of the Western coalition to shoulder their responsibilities and afford the Iraqis some hope of a better future.
Brigitte Lardinois, who used to be Cultural Director at Magnum Photos London wrote in her forewords to the book: "Van Kesteren collected data. This book is therefore a new departure in photojournalism. Many photographers are looking for ways to enhance the power of their message. They are forced to do this by a dearth of editorial outlets in the West. Assignments from magazines and newspapers seem to be dwindling, challenged by the new media offering interesting means of telling stories and conveying information.
"It is notable that photographic books can be seen as a medium that is heading in new directions. Now that magazines are showing less interest in probing stories, photographers are turning to autonomous production of a medium tailored to their personal wishes and vision. A book is a wonderful medium for this, as are websites and multimedia. There is agreater leeway to explore stories in depth, to add nuance, broach aspects for which no space is available in conventional media such as a magazines and newspapers."
More goodies from the exhibition Theatres of the Real - Contemporary British Photography which opens until September 13 at the Museum of Photography in Antwerp.
Photographer Danny Treacy recovers discarded clothing he finds lying around in streets, car parks and waste ground. He then stitches the garments together into uncanny suits, which he wears in life-sized portraits to become Them.
Looming out of the black background the faceless figures evoke urban warriors, mythical beasts, distorted creatures. It seem that something that happened to its former owner emanates from each piece of fabric, making the attire all the more haunting.
See also Thorsten Brinkmann´s self-portraits.