Having a bit of a hectic week. Too many events to check out, too little access to internet. On Saturday i'll be back to HQ (alas!) and have far more time to spend on blogging business. In the meantime, please forgive the lazy service.
On Sunday i went to the 28th edition of the contemporary art fair Art Brussels. It didn't start too well. The lady at the press office was absolutely appalled and disgusted that obnoxious bloggers had the nerve to present themselves at her office and require a press pass. She told me "Blogs are not press! Anyone can open a blog these days! I've heard that journalists write a blog for their newspaper but otherwise i doubt any of those bloggers can be taken seriously!" I'll spare you the rest. It's true that anyone can open a blog but maybe discarding every single blogger on the sole basis of a rather old school prejudice might not be the smartest way to ensure that the art fair gets a relevant coverage. How about opening a laptop lady and checking who's kosher and who's a fraud?
Anyway, got my press pass (but only because i write for paper magazines too) and as soon as i'm back to faster internet bliss i will write to Art Brussels and invite them cordially to join the 21st century. I'm going to post a couple of reports about the art fair soon-ish (i keep writing that, euh?) Here's my first impressions from the events: paintings, paintings, paintings! Not a word you'd often see me write. Yet, that's painting that enchanted me the most.
Starting with Tatjana Gerhard's quirky little characters.
Damien Deroubaix's large-scale street art-ish paintings.
Dawn Mellor's glamorous celebrities get a blasphemous zombie treatment:
The irreverent Erik Thor Sandberg.
To be continued...
Designer Tuur Van Balen is currently working on a very intriguing project called Pigeon d'Or ("golden pigeon"). From the information i found online, i understood that Pigeon d'Or involves manipulating the metabolism of pigeons and turning them from urban nuisance to winged dispensers of a soap-like substance that would contribute to making cities spic-and-span. If you're in Brussels you can check out the work in progress at Feel Home, an exhibition at CC Strombeek that builds a bridge between design and contemporary art. Tuur's work is in good company there (Rem Koolhaas, Gordon Matta-Clark, Mario Merz, Jacques Charlier, Donald Judd, Liam Gillick, Luc Deleu, etc.) and I hope to report from the show if our friend Eyjafjallajökull allows me to fly there.
Just before the opening of Feel Home, Tuur Van Balen was showing another of his most recent projects, Synthetic Immune System, at the Impact! exhibition at the Royal College of Art in London. The project harnesses Synthetic Biology's potential to turn us into our own doctors and pharmacists. Our immune system would be externalized, metabolic processes would be outsourced to external micro-organisms, such as yeasts, that would sense and diagnose anomalies in our body to produce and deliver chemicals accordingly.
That gave me a double opportunity to catch up with Tuur:
First, the cleaning pigeons! Can you tell us what your new project, Pigeon d'Or, is about?
'Pigeon d'Or - Urban Metabolisms part 2' is a project I'm currently working on. I'm exploring how pigeons can serve as a (open source) platform and interface for synthetic biology in an urban environment. By modifying the metabolism of pigeons, and specifically the bacteria that live in their gut, synthetic biology might allow us to add new functionality to what is by many seen as flying rats. This would happen through feeding the pigeons special bacteria and would be as harmless to them as eating yoghurt is to us.
In the 'Feel Home' exhibition in Brussels, I'm showing work-in-progress of this project. I've designed a contraption that would allow these pigeons to become part of your house, part of the architecture. This pigeon house is attached to your windowsill and allows you to feed the pigeons, separate and select them and direct them through different exits.
Further on in the project, I will continue to explore pigeon-metabolisms and attempting to create bacteria that would allow a pigeon to defecate biological soap.
I'm working with pigeon fanciers (the English word for people who breed and keep pigeons for racing or other competitions), both in Belgium and in London. I'm also being advised by scientists from the Centre for Synthetic Biology at Imperial College London, with whom I've been working on various projects over the past couple of years. It's interesting to see the overlaps between two fields that might at first sight not seem to have much in common.
The project came out of earlier explorations of the idea of urban metabolisms: a brewery that catches wild yeasts in the middle of Brussels, and my earlier project My City = My Body. I like to think of a city as this vast and incredibly complex metabolism of which the human species is the tiniest of fractions: tiny yet intensely linked into an intricate organic embroidery beyond our understanding. It is in this hugely complex fabric that (future) biotechnologies will end up.
The idea of this project partly originated when working with Imperial College's iGEM team (International Genetically Engineered Machine competition), which I've been doing for the past two summers. The team of undergraduate students came up with an method of delivering medicines to the human gut (getting it past the acidity of the stomach) using bacteria for protein production and delivery. When refined, this technology might have incredible advantages over today's medication. However, I was interested in exploring the potential implications of modifying such metabolisms on a larger scale.
Why pigeons, you might wonder?
To me feral pigeons present themselves as the ideal platform and interface for open-source biotechnology. While seen by many as venom, one could argue they're actually a product of biotechnology as their ancestors were designed to deliver post, spy during the war, race, tumble of just look pretty. He might not have phrased it that way, but that is one of the reasons Charles Darwin became a pigeon fancier. (And so is the Queen of England, in fact, the British Royal Family first became involved with pigeon racing when being given pigeons by King Leopold II of Belgium, in another trans-channel pigeon project). Mostly though, it is the rich culture around pigeon racing that was so inspiring for this project: from the refined pigeon-psychology to the social and economical practices.
Now let's get to Synthetic Immune System. The text of the project says "Synthetic Biology's potential to make healthcare more personal and participatory might turn us into our own doctors and pharmacists". Do you think it is likely that more power will be into our own hands? i have the feeling that the trend might be to give us less control in almost all aspects of our life.
You might be right, perhaps it is more likely that people will be given less control in many aspects of life, including interactions with their own body. But I'm not really interested in what is likely. I think the interesting questions come from what is possible. And it is very possible that synthetic biology might empower people to practice healthcare in entirely different ways. Cheaper sequencing could allow medicine to become more personal, tailored to one's genetic predisposition. Homemade biosensors might give more people the ability to detect infections or certain diseases. And bio-synthesis of drugs might make medicines more specific and their production cheaper and on a smaller (even domestic) scale, not just done by big pharmaceutical companies. However likely that is, it is possible and therefore relevant to think whether we like it or not.
The synthetic immune system need feeding every evening to produce for the person's needs overnight. i didn't understand where the different remedies would come from.
The different remedies are being produced by a variety of tailored yeasts. Yeasts are one of the chassis used in synthetic biology, together with various bacteria. The yeasts in the synthetic immune system would be specifically designed for that person, to monitor for anomalies according to his or her genetic predisposition and lifestyle: e.g. if you're vegetarian, one of your yeasts can monitor for vitamin B12 deficiency and when it detects you don't have enough, the yeast produces the vitamins for you. Because yeast is alive, it needs to be fed with water and sugar.
I choose yeast because people have a long history of interacting with yeast in the making bread or beer. When researching for this project, I visited the Cantillon Brewery in Brussels, where they still make Lambic and Geuze beers exactly as they did over 100 years ago, using wild yeast. (photos.) Part of the brewing process is exposing the boiled wort to the air of Brussels for one night, to catch the wild yeasts. As I was standing there, seeing the beer being pumped into the giant copper cooling tun in a draughty attic, I couldn't help but wondering if my breath and sweat were influencing the beer?
The device looks pretty scary. Was it a design choice or necessity?
You think? I'm sure the world of medicine has produced scarier devices. No seriously, I'm hoping it looks intriguing enough to take you into the story and make you imagine what it would be like to interact with your body in such a way. My intention is not to sell synthetic biology, neither to paint a dystopian scenario; maybe that explains the ambiguous aftertaste?
All images courtesy Tuur Van Balen.
Previous works by Tuur Van Balen: Goodnight/Good-bye, London Biotopes: Exploring potential City - Body ecologies and My City = My Body - Biological Interactions with and in the City.
BOZAR - Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels was the first cultural centre of its kind to be constructed in Europe. Its exterior is gloomy but not quite as much as its neighbours the Central Station, the awful shopping gallery nearby and the Royal Palace. The inside though is luminous, amazingly intricate, and art deco. It was designed by Victor Horta. The programme is far from being the most adventurous and exciting in the world but there are little gems of exhibitions once in a while.
One of the artworks i discovered at STILL LIFE is Moving Rainbow.
In 1998 Xiong Wenyun started a 3 year project that would see her covering trucks with plastic tarpaulins painted in the seven colours of the rainbow. The vehicles followed the route that connects Bejing with the Tibetan plateau. On the way, she illuminated the doorways of roadside cabins with the same red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple colours. The same colours one can find on the prayer flags drivers and travelers have left alongside the highways they traveled on. According to the artist, Tibetans see rainbows as god's ladders that bridge the earthly sphere with the celestial.
The Moving Rainbows performances and installations were documented with photography and videos.
Wenyun's concern is more environmental than political. Jonathan Goodman commented her work in art critical: Her grand action is undertaken with a true spirit of humility, something that China has lacked in its assumption that Tibet must be modernized at all costs. What is needed, more than anything else, is Xiong's sense that the interaction between people and landscape is something sacred, and not an excuse for raw profit or environmental exploitation.
Last Friday, it was sunny, i took the old tram number 44 from Brussels center through the forest of Tervuren and to the Royal Museum for Central Africa. This ethnographical and natural history museum was built to show off King Leopold II's Congo Free State (a rather cynical way to name his personal colony) for the 1897 World Exhibition. The museum was conceived as a window that would demonstrate Belgium's role in "bringing civilization" to its colony and show investors the economic potential of an unknown territory. Plundering and sufferings shadow the creation of the museum. Congo was after all defined by Rudyard Kipling as a territory "where there are no 10 commandments".
The layout and design of the museum is in dire need of modernization (that's on its way i was told) but it's a fantastic place to visit. Especially until early January as the RMCA is running a spectacular exhibition dedicated to masks.
Persona. Ritual Masks and Contemporary Art features 180 ritual masks brought side by side with contemporary works by African artists or African diaspora members, which explore the question of identity, self-respect and representation of the Other.
I was so impressed by the masks that i hardly paid any attention to the contemporary art pieces. Except one.
Yonka Shonibare's Un Ballo in Maschera (a Masked Ball) presents the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden in 1792. The video is actually about Iraq. When the invasion of Iraq was first announced, Shonibare was doing a residency in Sweden. He explained his work to Richard Lacayo: Gustav III was fighting wars with Denmark and Russia. Things were not great at home, but he had these expansionist ambitions. So I was thinking about America and expansionist ideas and the cost. Gustav spent a lot of public money on this useless project, his wars, ambitions that weren't going anywhere.
Dancers wear masks and costumes which are styled like European ones but made in wax, a fabric worn by African women and originally manufactured by the Dutch. They were designed for the Indonesian market but ended up in Central and West Africa. Africans embraced the fabrics and made them part and parcel of their own culture.
Un Ballo in Maschera (a Masked Ball) introduces perfectly Persona, a show that explores theme of identity, a mask's capacity to both hide or reveal.
In Latin, Persona referred to the actor's mask...In a very general way, the persona is the mask worn by each person in order to respond to the demands of life in society' (Encyclopaedia Universalis).
Many of the ritual masks were brought to Europe by missionaries, military officials, colonial administrators who had set foot in Africa convinced they would bring civilization to grateful tribes. Most of them accumulated masks as if they were mere trophies without taking the trouble to inquire about nor document their context. Zoologist Gaston-François De Witte (1897-1980), however, had enough good sense and genuine interest to carefully record each mask name and ask their wearer to pose in front of his camera, in full-length, three-quarter and profile poses.
The masks are arranged in 18 thematic groups: religious uses, witchcraft, communication with supernatural entities, funeral rituals, secret societies, mockery, masks representing female beauty, fertility, animals, etc.
It is almost always men who are responsible for masks, even when they represent women. Men sculpt and wear the masks and organize their related activities. One exception exists in Liberia and Sierra Leone, where women have a secret society within which they themselves manage the performances of the Sowei (wooden helmet masks). These objects, always sculpted by men, are worn by female members. They evoke a primordial ancestor, and the series of ancestors who are supposed to facilitate fertility. The Sowei appear especially to assist young girls during excision.
I can't recommend the visit of Persona. Ritual masks and contemporary art enough. First, there's the museum, its colonial-era hauteur is so un-PC, it sometimes made me cringe but it needs to be experienced before the place is renovated to a modern, polite and friction-proof version of itself. The Persona exhibition itself presents the most breathtaking collection of masks i've ever seen. Anne-Marie Bouttiaux, the curator of Persona, gives more details about the exhibition in an essay you can read over here.
Related story: Tarzan, the Leopard Men and the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris.
Data mining, the ultimate tool to make emerge patterns and information from a shapeless mass of data, is increasingly used in a wide range of fields, including marketing, surveillance, fraud detection, scientific discovery and even human resources (in this case to help companies assess the value of each employee.)
What would happen if the system could be hijacked and geared towards what could be called Antidatamining? Stock Overflow, an exhibition and series of conferences, proposed by French collective RYBN at Imal in Brussels, takes data mining on a ride to lay bare various socio-economic phenomena.
The main agents of economy (companies, groups and holdings, stock exchanges, banks and investment funds) as well as their interactions (capital relationships, geographic deployments, structuralization on market places) are digested by data mining softwares and given a simple, elegant, yet uncompromising face with the help of a series of visualizations.
As the press material explains: The work is based exclusively on Internet recoverable data. Internet is then compared to a gigantic database, a "datawarehouse". The type of recovered data are : geographical, ecological, social, economic, financial and geopolitical. Data are stored in a large database, then processed using DM genetic algorithms. This method allows to establish several « meaningful » - or particularly important - cross correlations.
The wide range of used datas, defines the project's multiple investigation fields, including sociological, geopolitical and economic fields. The multiple extent of this project requires various multifolded skills from external contributors : artists, programmers, economists, journalists, cartographers... Meetings, exchanges and collective work, feed the project - confronting it to many several thinking systems - and allow to engage a transverse analysis, going beyond specialized fields.
The exhibition is surprisingly accessible. Not only did the artists make sure that the visualizations are comprehensible without having to resort to any additional caption or leaflet, they are also hanging around the exhibition space should you have any question. Apart from the projections of the visualizations, a series of screens display the online chats that experts of finance from around the world are having right here right now. The live chatrooms give the whole project a surprisingly human and almost tangible dimension.
The best moment to visit the exhibition is probably during one of the series of lectures that have been scheduled throughout the exhibition.
Upcoming lectures - which you can follow online:
Previously: Brussels Biennial: Lufthansa Deportation Class.
Why a biennial in Brussels in 2008? Lazy answer: because every country has an art biennial so why shouldn't Belgium have one?
The a first reason is geographical: Brussels is positioned in the deeply urbanized region encompassing a large part of North-Western Europe which Rem Koolhaas calls the Hollocore.
As AMO explains: While Europe was once the birthplace of the metropolis, the future of the modern city is now being defined in the developing world. (...) Where the cities in the developing world explode into bigger, less containable metropolitan areas, urban Europe is in a state of entropy. No longer energized by growth, cities and towns drift off into a muddle of provincial sameness, leaving an urban vacuum. But, of course, modernity abhors a vacuum, and an infinite multiplicity of new forms of urbanity emerges to take the place of what has become redundant.
The HOLLOCORE© is emblematic of Europe's new urbanity -- the amorphous super-region that links Brussels, Amsterdam, and the Ruhr Valley is urban Europe's non-event: it houses 32 Million inhabitants or 9% of Europe's population, yet has no city larger than one million inhabitants. Two thirds of its population lives in cities smaller then 200,000 inhabitants -- in places no one has ever heard of.
This contemporary urban landscape is a territorial metaphor of the European project: with no dominant cultural identity, devoid of a major city center and with no overarching governance.
A second motivation for the event is the birthday of Brussels Expo '58, which closed its doors almost exactly 50 years before the Brussels Biennial opened. For many people the Expo '58 introduced the notion of 'modernity.'
Despite all its claims to be a truly multi-cultural and international city, Brussels cannot abstract itself from the national context. Which brings me to the third reason for the Biennial: as with all things Belgian, there is a political purpose (the event is "An initiative of the Flemish Community"). But that's a long story that passionates only the most Belgians among us and i must admit that my inability to take a clear stand puts me in the shoes of a second-class Belgian.
The two main venues for the Biennale 're-use' modernity. One is the ex-Post Sorting Centre which re-opened exclusively for the Biennial. The second one was a depressing corridor inside the Anneessens metro station. I might seen to grumble and snivel but i actually liked that biennial a lot. It was surprising, bold and intelligent if a little bit too much on the shambles side.
The start of my visit was fairly bleak. The first exhibition i saw at the ex-Post Sorting Centre was Once is Nothing, made of 'physically absent' artworks. Not that this would put me off, i managed to enjoy the Sao Paulo Biennial after all. Once is Nothing is based on a previous show, 'Individual Systems' part of the 2003 edition of the Venice Biennale . Devoid of any art piece, the room is nevertheless supposed to be 'full of memories and history.' The exhibition is a pertinent comment on the impossibility to replicate exactly one exhibition and on the pointless demand for innovation that characterizes most art biennials.
Things got seriously interesting further on with the Taller Popular de Serigrafia (Popular Silkscreen Workshop), a collective of artists and designers born with the protest movements in the wake of Argentina's economic collapse of December 2001. TPS is part of a long history weaving political activism and graphic arts in Latin America (the collective's name is inspired by the early 20th century Taller de Gráfica Popular in Mexico).
TPS uses silk-screen printing as an affordable type of art to react quickly to political events and collaborate with different social movements. While they take part in acts and demonstrations they draw images on the clothes of the street protesters, create billboards, murals, posters and leaflets. Not only does TPS turn their works into an instrument of social struggle, they also make an act of creativity out of their protests as their creations are preserved after their original use and collected outside of the revolutionary context.
Annette Kelm's series Prefabricated Houses investigates the history of prefab houses, as developed from the late 19th century to the 1930s in Germany. The clichéd 'Swiss' chalets and 'Swedish' villas were designed by different architects and mass produced by factories during a time of housing shortage. The houses were affordable and could be dismantled without too much time nor effort. Intrigued by the high level of ornamentation displayed on each house, Kelm's photographs reveal a transition of industry and craft, functionality and fashion. By bringing together the notion of ready-made sculpture with the utopian ideals of modernist architecture, perhaps Kelm is suggesting the changed, if not compromised, contemporary position of both (via.)
One of the most formidable works on show was the 18,5 m long scale-model 'Vipcity' by Luc Deleu. The architect and urbanist has been working on a half-visionary half-utopian concept of 'Unadapted City' for some 12 years. Since living on the planet earth has become problematic due to a lack of space, urban spaces ought to be used in a more polyvalent manner. Deleu accordingly proposes an interconnected building activity that pervades the entire city and is aimed at offering the greatest possible freedom to individual initiatives at the micro level. The proposed volumes are the result of a study of the necessary surface and infrastructure: an adequate number of cinemas have been planned, but they can also be used as sports hall, mushroom farm or accommodation for hamadryas baboons (no, i don't know either what the baboons are doing here.)
The Crying of Potential Estate is a film developed by Potential Estate from a scenario for a real-time auction. A story written by Potential Estate was cut up into 45 lots and put up for sale in January 2008. After a lot was read from an audio-booth, the bidding started.
As the lots were sold a story gradually unfolded. The story is set partly in the village of Belgium, Wisconsin and features The Indian, the tiny economist and Wally Hope. Wally Hope refers to a man who became an icon of freedom in the mid-70ties. After the auction it emerges that The Crying of Potential Estate is also the mediated version of the above auction. It was screened live from a mini TV-studio Potential Estate had set up in the basement gallery. In fact all visitors present on the evening of the auction shift position from extras in the film to actors playing the role of accomplices to a long-drawn murder.
Potential Estate will offer the film The Crying of Potential Estate as a Gift to the Village of Belgium, WI (USA). The Gift, certified by an attorney at law, will be made possible by a number of private shareholders.
There is much more to say about the Biennale, how i discovered the stunning work of Juliaan Schillemans and how i finally managed to see (and like) Letter to Leopold, Extra City's contribution to the Biennial.
See also Pierre Clemens' video about the Brussels Biennial.
My flickr set.
The Brussels Biennial runs until January 4, 2009.