Karl Philips is a Belgian (h)activist, performance and conceptual artist. I discovered his work a couple of years ago when i visited the exhibition Mind the System, Find the Gap at Z33 in Hasselt (BE.) But i really took the time to click around his portfolio when my favourite blog selected him for its watchlist.
Philips casts a critical but always witty glance at society, paying particular attention to cracks in consumerism, town planning, advertising, and turning upside-down their logic. He is also one of those artists who understand that, to have any impact, activist art is best deployed in the street, not just inside the white walls of a museum or gallery.
Some of his projects involve hacking a street lantern to provide passersby and local inhabitants with free wifi and power, dressing like a train seat to cross Belgium by train, screening movies streamed from Youtube in a drive-in movie theater set up under a bridge, substituting ads on billboards with a map detailing how survive in the city of Hasselt without any financial expenses, etc. Pretty simple and pretty brilliant.
Hand Pump Car, 2014
Philips has a couple of exhibitions up right now. He's part two group shows. One at the gallery Dauwens & Beernaert in Brussels. The other in Rotterdam. Hopefully, i'll get a chance to be in Antwerp (lots of exciting shows coming up at the Photo Museum!) to check out the sculpture he'll be premiering next week for the group exhibition A Belgian Politician at Marion de Cannière Art Space. In the meantime, i got on my laptop and asked him for an interview:
Hi Karl! Your About page talks about "a mild kind of activism" that is inextricably linked to your work. What is mild activism? How does it manifest itself? And can a mild form of activism have an impact too?
I 'm convinced that real change or influence only manifests itself indirectly. In the long run I think it's better to do so through art or culture than through direct radical activism. I think the term "mild activism" indicates a different tone.
I'd be interested to know more about Mia, the homeless woman who came to live inside one of your structures. Did she spontaneously come to live in the structure? How did you get to know each other? Did she give you any kind of 'feedback' about Concierge or your work in general?
Another work involving temporary homes is Good/Bad/Ugly. Could you explain us the whole process? The financial transactions?
Good/Bad/Ugly consisted of three mobile living units. On the outside of the units were several advertisements. For every advertisement we received 500 € per month. That's 1000 € per month, per unit. This money (3000 €/month in total) was used for the performance: providing a living for the inhabitants. We travelled around to different locations. In theory it is illegal in Belgium to put this kind of advertising i, but it is allowed for local businesses. We created some sort of alternative community with it.
I really liked the idea of a Youtube drive-in movie theater. Could you explain us how it worked exactly? Did you select yourself the videos that were screened?
It was a video projection under a bridge. It was a costless drive in movie theater where movies were streamed from youtube. I selected the videos but the last day we screened movies suggested by the public. The project was improvised on the spot so birds were flying around during the screening and car sounds or other sounds of the environment interfered with the audio of the movies.
Do you ask for permit for the various interventions in public space?
Sometimes we do, sometimes we don't. We try to stretch the gap between the real world and our artistic interventions as far as we can. I think I have learned that public space has lost it's political function. Public space used to be where people got together and where politics originated but nowadays everything is controlled. That makes it harder or even impossible to rethink the function of public space and of politics.
I'm also very interested to know more about the story of your studio. It is an antique fairground attraction called Jacky. What did it look like before? Where do you buy fairground attractions? and where did you install it? In a garden? inside a bigger building?
It was a mobile game hall, like an arcade for fairs. It was based on a circus wagon that travelled around for thirty years. Without the games it is now a space of 85 square meters, it is my laboratory. It is a mobile artists studio, it has no foundations or a postal address.
Who are the emerging (or not so emerging) artists whose work you find inspiring right now?
Gordon Matta-Clark, Gilbert & George, Claude Lelouche.
Retrospective / Introspective. Group show, Dauwens & Beernaert, Brussels, 15.01 - 13.03.2015.
no walls. Group show, Fenixloods, Rotterdam (NL), 17.01 - 17.02.2015
A Belgian Politician . Group show, Marion de Cannière Art Space, Antwerp, 20.02 - 21.03.2015
Karl Philips - Daan Gielis - Tasya Krougovykh & Vassiliy Bo. Group show, W139, Amsterdam, June 2015
Phlogiston. Group show, (location to be determined), Split (Croatia) in July 2015.
Panamarenko, the artist and inventor who builds zeppelins, mechanical chickens, flying backpacks, flying saucers, robots, submarines and other machines designed to travel over land, under water and in outer space, is having a big and rather wonderful retrospective at the M HKA, in his home town of Antwerp.
As its name suggests, Panamarenko Universum attempts to cover the full spectrum of his artistic production and mental landscape. Along with many of the vehicles and devices Panamarenko has created between 1965 and 2005, M HKA is also exhibiting drawings, objects, documentations of tv interviews, scientific experiments and performances, models and editions.
It's difficult not to be seduced by Panamarenko's childlike enthusiasm for movement and science, by his inventiveness and by machines which are successful as artworks but often hopeless as vehicles for ocean and space expeditions.
Some of the works i (re)discovered in Antwerp:
A one-man aircraft which construction is based on the flapping movements of birds.
An advanced deep-sea diving apparatus engineered to dive faster. It consisted of a shaft attached to a screw-propeller and two pedals with belts. The device was strapped around the diver's hips, leaving the arms and torso completely free.
'You just have to peddle away with your legs, and it's just like you have a tail. That moved you forward fast, much faster than a swimmer...' - Panamarenko
Panamarenko testing one of his diving contraptions:
A diving suit for walking over the gentle slopes of the seabed. The diving suit has a plastic dome helmet and a small cylinder pump, ten centimetres in diameter, to be worn on the back. The helmet is supplied with oxygen by a cylinder with a piston that goes up and down, a four-litre bladder that serves as an extra lung, and a flexible hose that floats on the water surface.
In the 1970s, to create devices that take off vertically, Panamarenko concentrated his research on rotation speed and lifting power. The artist developed a series of compact but powerful Pastille Motors to power his rucksack helicopters. The name Pastille Motor refers to the round, flat shape reminiscent of a large aspirin. The engine must not weigh more than twelve kg, while five kilos of fuel should be sufficient for twenty minutes' flying.
The propulsion for the Pepto Bismo is powered by short rotor-propellers, each driven by its own motor. The helicopter principal allows the pilot to take-off vertically, controlling the apparatus by body movement.
Panamarenko built flying saucers and other spacecraft, he also researched into the various possibilities of using existing magnetic fields as cosmic highways to travel the solar system. In 1997 his fascination for the cosmos resulted in the final project Ferro Lusto that he describes as a spaceship of 800 meters in length and fit for a crew of 4000. Ferro Lusto would act as the mother ship that carres various smaller crafts, which he calls Bings.
Panamarenko developed Bing of the Ferro Lusto and Bing II as hybrid machines suitable for flying through both the atmosphere and outer space. Bing II was powered using air and has three 4D booster engines developed on the basis of the Toymodel of Space theory. The engine consists of two cylinders set in parallel in a metal block. Four pistons make alternate upward and sideways movements. The drive power develops on the basis of the difference in speed and mass in contrast with the direction of movement of the earth and solar system, boosted by centrifugal force. '
Panamarenko built The Aeromodeller between 1969 and 1971. The basketwork gondola was designed as a living space. Two aircraft engines on top of it are used to steer the imposing airship, which is held aloft by a cigar-shaped balloon, thirty metres long.
Panamarenko designed this machine on insect-like aluminium legs, to enable him to walk around the Swiss mountains more easily. Crooked Leg is powered by a boat engine and is operated using two vertical levers on either side of the device.
The Magnetic Shoes are made with military boots from the former East Block and copper stator coils taken apart from electric motors. He would weld the coils' magnets to a rod and then trapped an electrical charge. The result was amazing! If you then touched a piece of metal to it, you couldn't get it off no matter how hard you pulled! In a green rucksack (where military personnel would keep their walkie-talkies) are the lead batteries to provide the current. By alternatingly turning the current in the magnets on and off, I could hang upside down from a ceiling and walk around. I thought: well, that's a start... a little bit like flying...
Photographer Nick Hannes spent four years traveling around the Mediterranean looking for the traces left by mass tourism, migration, financial crisis, political upheavals and other burning issues. "[The Mediterranean] remains unique on the map of the world: a sea at the intersection of three continents, a relatively short distance from each other," Hannes told Flanders Today. "There's a reason why this region is considered the cradle of our civilisation."
History meets very contemporary troubles in his photos. While touring some 20 countries, the photographer saw tourists dancing on beaches while poverty-stricken people at the other hand of the sea were hoping to board a boat and migrate to richer shores, protests by family members of people who disappeared during the Algerian civil war, Gazans smuggling goods through underground tunnels in an attempt to overcome the severe food shortage imposed by the Israeli blockade, etc.
Hannes' series Mediterranean. The Continuity of Man is currently on view at the Photo Museum in Antwerp. I visited the show a few days ago and here are some of the images i found most striking:
Doing prospection for my Mediterranean Project in the port city of Patras, Greece, I bumped into this weird wedding party. Christos Karalis (44), who married Anna (26), decided to have the party in his petrol station, to save on expenses. "This is how we respond to the crisis", a family member said to me. "Please show these pictures to Merkel. A Greek keeps on laughing and celebrating, even when his money is being taken away."
Mediterranean. The Continuity of Man is at FotoMuseum Antwerp until February 1, 2015.
Check also my post on another FoMu exhibition that features Hannes' work: Red Journey, a photo trip across the former Soviet Union.
Last weekend, i went to Mechelen (Belgium) for Contour, the Biennial of Moving Image. I had loved the 2009 edition of the biennial and the theme this year was rather intriguing: Leisure, Discipline and Punishment. The venues of the exhibition were quite unusual: the prison, the football stadium of KV Mechelen, the Church of Our Lady-across-the-Dyle and the Museum Hof van Busleyden. Places that people enter for pleasure, necessity, belief or by force.
Besides, it was sunny and Mechelen (aka Malines) is a cute little city.
In this edition of Contour, curator Jacob Fabricius wanted to examines social roles and relations within society.
To serve their very specific purposes, prisons, stadiums, churches and museums are governed by specific rules, rhythms, hierarchies and regulations.
The three words of the exhibition title, Leisure, Discipline and Punishment, are also connected, but not to any of the specific venues. Rather, the theme Leisure, Discipline and Punishment is an attempt to tap into these institutions, to examine their possibilities, restraints, social function and relations within society.
Unsurprisingly, the first venue i wanted to visit was the prison but the access was very limited so all i saw was the facade of the prison (obviously) but also the Rules of the Prison, one of the posters that David Shrigley was commissioned and that lists the rules of conduct for the prison. A second one is inside the church. The last one at the entrance of the football stadium.
Off to the main exhibition space then, The Hof van Busleyden (Court of Busleyden.) Built at the beginning of the sixteenth century for ecclesiastical jurist, Maecenas and humanist Hiëronymus van Busleyden, thehe Hof is now the municipal museum.
That's at the Hof, that i finally got my bit of prison lurking with Mark Raidpere's static shots of ten violent criminals posing in front of the camera as they are serving time in a prison in Estonia. They move and grin slowly and the camera moves sometimes too close for the viewer's comfort. But the proximity and the voyeuristic slow motion also invites the viewer to feel empathy for the men: are they vicious criminals or victims of society?
The selection of posters of old films about women in prison is at the opposite spectrum. The women are depicted as sexual and hysterical creatures. The clichés about these women however are still the ones you can see in contemporary tv series about prison (Bad Girls, Orange Is the New Black, etc.) For Prison Score Liz Magic Laser extracted from these films a number of scenes showing inmates making hysterical movements. She then used them for a choreography filmed in Mechelen prison and developed with dancer and choreographer Lisbeth Gruwez which mimics the movements of the film characters.
Sarah Vanhee spent the Summer working with inmates at Mechelen prison. She describes this artistic project: 'For an outsider, the prison building is a warning or a reassurance. The prisoner himself doesn't have a face. He is reduced to legal matter, to government penal policy. Within the prison walls, there is only space for silent, obedient bodies. I Screamed and I Screamed and I Screamed challenges this silent body, and hence the normalizing society. The sterile anonymity of the prison wall is disturbed by the voices of the prison inhabitants. And centrally, in the midst of it all, stands a screaming body.' The video is just a vertical view of a wall and nothing else. Until you pick up the headphones and hear the screams of the inmates.
In Edgardo Aragón Díaz's Hunter an African man takes us on a tour of a Belgian zoo. He sings songs about hunting in his homeland. The artist draws attention to the contrast between the quality of life of immigrants from post-colonial countries and the protected life led by the animals in the zoo.
At this point i should say that most of the works in the Contour biennial are not about prison but more generally about regulated behaviour, institutional structures and society's codes.
My next stop in Mechelen was the Church Of Our Lady-Across-The-Dyle. I've seen my fair share of exhibitions and parties inside desacralized religious buildings but this one is still very much used by the local Roman Catholic community. Here's what greets the visitors:
More views inside the church on Sacred Space.
You actually have to embark on a hunt around the church to see all the works. They are not aligned nicely on blank walls like in most art galleries. Which made the visit a bit challenging but in a pleasant way. At least the space is manageable. I wasn't so lucky at the football stadium. While i was happy to be back in a stadium (the last time i was on a football field i ended up on the national news. Long story... and an embarrassing one at that), i quickly got frustrated in my attempt to locate the videos. I found the Shrigley one (hurray!) but otherwise the place was deserted and the few people i met there had no clue about the artworks shown on the premise.
I was very excited by the theme of the biennial and the locations of the exhibitions but i wouldn't say that my expectations were fully met. Many of the works were a bit too dry and abstract for me and i struggled to engage with half of what i saw. On the other hand, i took the Eurostar back home with a bag full of dark chocolate. When you're a Belgian living in the UK, finding chocolate that lives up to what you're used to is nothing but a depressing crusade.
More images from the biennial:
Contour 2013, the 6th Biennial of Moving Image closes this Sunday 3 November so hurry up!
A new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present ResonanceFM, will be broadcast today Tuesday 4th December at 4:00 pm. There will be a repeat on Thursday 6th December at 10:30 pm. You can catch it online if you don't live in London.
The host of this episode is conceptual artist Koen Vanmechelen who has spent the past 20 years crossbreeding national species of chicken in order to create the ultimate 'Cosmopolitan Chicken Project.' You might or might not know it but each country has cultivated its own peculiar breed of chicken: the French, for example, have the Poulet the Brest. It's white and red with blue feet, the same colours as their flag. Americans like their chicken to be big and powerful. The Chinese have created a chicken covered in silky feathers.
I've been admiring Vanmechelen's work for several years but i only got to meet him a few weeks ago at Z33 House for Contemporary Art in Hasselt. That's where the interview took place. The conversation has moments of humour and moments of deeper reflection. There's something both humble and heroic about Vanmechelen's stories of the incestuous and infertile English Red Cap or of the rooster that underwent surgery to be fitted with a new golden spur. But Koen's research project is not just about chicken and egg. His work encroaches on the fields of science, philosophy and ethics to ask questions about biocultural diversity, identity, evolution and freedom of movement.
For a sneak peek of his work, check out this short video of Koen Vanmechelen summing up the Cosmopolitan Chicken:
Or this other one, showing the artist at work in Venice:
Image on the homepage: Koen Vanmechelen, Mechelse Bresse (M) x English Redcap (F), 2007
Artworks installed in public space might get the approval of local governments but that doesn't mean that they will make a good impression on passersby. Or on people genuinely interested in art. Too many public artworks i come across are bland and sad addition to the city or the landscape. I suspect that some of them 'dialogue' with the surrounding space only in the mind of the artists and/or the commissioners.
Fortunately there are exceptions to the rule (and the future might even get rosier.) Take the province of Limburg in Belgium where Z33, the house for contemporary art has launched pit - art in public space. A few years ago, the art space invited established names and young talents to visit several sites in the region, pick up the one they'd like to work with and then submit a project that would engage with the cultural background of the area and entice passers-by to look differently at the surroundings. The result is pit - art in public space.
Badeend (the Rubber Duck) by Florentijn Hofman kicked off Z33's art in public space programme back in 2008. Since then, the duck has been deflated, inflated again, turned into bright shoulder bags and resuscitated on several occasions. In 2011, pit commissions have spread all over the region of Borgloon-Heers and they might venture even further in the coming years.
The programme's most talked about public artwork is the see-through building of steel built by architects duo Pieterjan Gijs and Arnout Van Vaerenbergh in the middle of Borgloon's corn and apple fields. The 10 metre high structure has the archetypal shape of the churches found in the region. Because it is both almost transparent and highly visible, the construction provides an opportunity to have another look at the landscape. It also attracted tourists who would otherwise have never thought of visiting the area (some of them even came from Japan after the church had made the cover of an architecture magazine.)
The building is smaller than i had thought but it is just as stunning as on the photos above.
Wesley Meuris's Memento is a sculpture built by the Borgloon cemetery. The steel structure, with its peculiar acoustics and sci-fi whiteness, envelops the visitor while giving them a perspective on the sky and slices of the surrounding landscape.
I think it's the first time i entered a cemetery to see a contemporary art work.
Some of the works remain in place for several years, others can be seen for only a short time. Last Summer, Dré Wapenaar hung four tear-shaped tents on trees. People could book a tree and spend the night up there.
Japanese artist Tadashi Kawamata headed a workshop where students in architecture, interior architecture and visual arts designed and built Project Burchtheuvel, a wooden sculpture where people can walk up, observe the landscape and relax. The work also scored brownie points because it almost hid the nearby library, a building which hideousness i'd rather not comment.
Aeneas Wilder built a round construction with a 360º view on the landscape near the Monastery of Colen in Kerniel. Walking around the structure reminds visitors of a meditative promenade in the internal garden of a monastery. Not that everyone uses the space to collect their thoughts. When i visited children were using it to skate and cycle.
And the list goes on...
The artworks are also accompanied by workshops, side activities and public events. The smartest way to see them is to rent a bike and cycle from one to the other.
This post wasn't sponsored in any way by the local tourism office. Maybe next time i'll try and get a gigantic inflatable duck though.