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Walter Van Beirendonck, 'Revolution', A/W 2001-2002. Photography: Elisabeth Broekaert

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.

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Walter Van Beirendonck A/W86-87, Bad Baby Boys. Photography by Patrick Robyn

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W.&L.T. S/S96, Killer/Astral Travel/4D-Hi-D. Photography by Ronald Stoops

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(image: Reflecting in my sunglasses)

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.

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More than just a showcase of the designer's most extravagant pieces of archive,
Walter Van Beirendonck: Dream the world awake invites visitors to nose dive into his universe. Of course there are the clothes and accessories worn by mannequins gyrating on a pedestal....

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Image Courtesy of MoMU (c) Photography: Ronald Stoops

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Image Courtesy of MoMU (c) Photography: Ronald Stoops

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Walter Van Beirendonck, Stephen Jones: The Bee, Sex Clown collection, 2008

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But there are also toys everywhere. Vintage, Japanese, Mexican toys, etc.

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Image Courtesy of MoMU. (c) Photography: Ronald Stoops

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Masks and ritual objects from Papua New Guinea, Austria, North America.

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Mask, Iroquois, North America

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Dolls from Papua New Guinea

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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.

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Robert Mapplethorpe, Man in Polyester Suit, 1980

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Mike Kelley, Double Figure (Hairy), 1990

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Van Beirendonck standing in front of costumes he designed especially for Erwin Wurm's exhibition Wear Me Out at the Middelheim Museum in Antwerp (image De wereld morgen)

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.

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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.

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Image Courtesy of MoMU. (c) Photography: Ronald Stoops

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Image Courtesy of MoMU. (c) Photography: Ronald Stoops

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:

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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.

Sponsored by:





I was planning to post this interview next week but because Ivan Henriques's action plant is yet another brilliant work on show at ArtBots Gent this weekend, i thought it would be silly to wait and not promote the event with a timely post.

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Photo by Katherine Cuningham, during the graduation preview show at Hoop Gallery in Den Haag, May 2011

Ivan Henriques worked with professor Bert van Duijn (Biology University and Hortus Botanicus in Leiden) on a research into the "action potential" of the Mimosa Pudica. The result of their collaboration is Jurema Action Plant, a machine which interfaces a sensitive plant (Mimosa Pudica), enabling it to enjoy technologies similar to the ones humans use. The project also explores new ways of communication and co-relation between machines, humans, and other living organism.

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Plants don't have nerves, wires nor cables but much like humans, animals and machines, they have an electrical signal traveling inside their cells. The plant is fitted with electrodes and placed on a robotic structure. A signal amplifier reads the differences in the electromagnetic field around the plant to determine when it is being touched. Any variation triggers movement of the robotic structure by means of a custom-made circuit board. Touching any part of the plant is enough to make it move away from the person touching it. One of the most common names given to that plant after all is 'touch-me-not.'

If the plants can fell the touch and this signal travels inside the plant and be can be measured in any part, does it means that plants have memory, consciousness?

Imagine if we could communicate with plants and work together. Is it possible to reshape and redefine our tools to be coherent with the environment? Would we keep on destroying the few existent plants/animals and forests?

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Hi Ivan! How did you get the idea and why did you want to build this plant-machine and give some power to the plants?

The main idea of empowering the plant comes from a range of work that I am developing called Oritur (Oritur is also the title of the book which is a compilation of texts from myself and invited artists and researchers from different countries - it will be published soon by Verbeke Foundation).

Jurema Action Plant (JAP) is a hacked wheelchair and an electronic board of communication with the Mimosa -- acting as an interface of communication between the bio-machine and us. In order to realize this work I thought about three aspects: biodiversity, plant intelligence and machine intelligence. 1) Creating a new kind of specimen, an assemblage of a plant and a machine -- a hybrid; 2) A simple movement of a finger towards the plant leaves makes it move away after the touch; 3) The plant triggers the hacked machine via the electronic board of communication into movement. While developing this work at the Summer Residency at V2_ Institute for the Unstable Media in Rotterdam/NL, it raised some questions:

Are the mechanics found in some plants species an intelligence? Do plants feel? How do they respond to the environment? Are plants considered in a lower level than us because they don't move and communicate in the same timescale as ours? My position in Jurema Action Plant is to explore plant behavior, research this intelligence to find possibilities for direct interaction and create a work which makes people think about our future.

You're going to spend several months at the Verbeke Foundation for a residency. What are you going to work on there?

At the moment I am rebuilding a piece called Three Seconds which will be part of Verbeke's collection. It is composed of a closed circuit where a video camera, which faces and captures images from a rectangular aquarium containing a live Goldfish, the image is transmitted to a monitor, which has the same proportions of the aquarium and also faces it. Between the camera and the monitor there is an apparatus, which gives a three second delay to the live image. In this way the fish, which as we know has a three second memory-span, can see its recent past, which it would otherwise not be able to reach.

I am very exited to start the residency at Verbeke foundation (which will complete two weeks October 11th) and I have several ideas which are in a cloud of concepts such as architecture, recycle, interaction, biology, evolution, utopia, movement, kinetics and living organisms.

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You worked with professor Bert van Duijn from the Biology University and the Hortus Botanicus, in Leiden, to develop the action plant. How was the collaboration going? Do you find it easy as an artist to communicate with a scientist? Do you use the same language, for example? Do you have to adjust to each other's way of working and thinking about nature?

While researching about plants mechanics, physiology and biodynamics, I had the opportunity to meet professor Bert van Duijn who uses a technique called action potential to measure electrical signals that travels inside the plant for agricultural purposes. Through professor van Duijn I met the organization from Hortus Botanicus Leiden which opened their doors to my research about this specific plant and helped me seed the Mimosas. We had to adjust our vocabulary and tools all the time and the whole team had different perspectives and goals when working with nature.

Can you also tell us something about the rhythm of the plant? Sometimes it rests, it doesn't react as fast as the machines we are used to (from toaster to robot)... Do you think humans are ready to accept and respect this 'slowness' of the machine?

Much like humans, animals and machines, plants have an electrical signal traveling inside them, but they do not have nerves like humans and animals; nor wires and cables like machines. Plants are completely independent and can exist without humans, but humans and animals need plants to survive. They are also moving, to extend their territory, but on a very different timescale to ours. Jurema Action Plant has its own time, it is an equalization of ourselves, machines and plants. In my opinion we have to re-think about the machines we develop and the concept of bio-sensors. There are plenty of machines in the world and we keep on making them. Do you know where these electronic components comes from, how they are made and in which conditions? Why not re-use? The machines we create are coherent within themselves but I think that our machines could be much more coherent to the environment. JAP is a prototype of machines for our future, where we can communicate with all the specimens at the same level to achieve a common evolution. Even if we have signs of a catastrophe in the next future due to global warming, war, deforestation, population growth and a very strong economical difference from place to place, I believe in a good future. The problem is not the technological development, but who is in charge of researches, innovations and changes.

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Estúdio Móvel Experimental. RJ - Brasil, 2009. Photo by Silvia Leal

What are you doing when you're not working on Jurema Action Plant?

I have some projects going on and I'm preparing new ones, making drawings, graphics, researching about kinetic architectures and motors that run with very low voltage and current. I am also preparing the third edition of EME - Estúdio Móvel Experimental (first edition 2009 and second in 2010), a mobile residency in Rio de Janeiro that works as a platform for artists and researchers to explore and create public artworks/workshops in the natural and urban environment in Rio.

Thanks Ivan!

This year's ArtBots is organised by timelab Gent, in cooperation with ArtBots US, Ugent and Foam. It's open only over the upcoming weekend in Ghent, Belgium.
Also at ArtBots: The Noisolation Headphones.

If you miss ArtBots, Jurema Action Plant is also exhibited at the Verbeke Foundation and it will travel to Leiden in October for the Scheltema festival.

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Z33 House of Contemporary Art in Hasselt, Belgium, has just opened an exhibition with a very promising title. Architecture of Fear explores how feelings of fear pervade daily life in the contemporary media society.

I'm going to visit it on Thursday but in the meantime i thought i'd ask one of the participating artists, Jill Magid, to tell us about the work she is showing at Z33 and more generally about her experience with impersonal power structures (police, intelligence agencies, security systems, etc.) which, whether they contribute to it or fight it, are part of this 'architecture of fear.'

One of Magid's most ironic works is System Azure. In 2003, the artist introduced herself to the Amsterdam Police as a "Security Ornamentation Professional" working for a fictitious company. Magid's proposal to embellish police cameras was accepted and she was hired to hand-glued rhinestones to security cameras at the Amsterdam Headquarters of Police, a work that had previously been rejected when she had first presented it as an art project.

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Evidence Locker, 2004

In Evidence Locker, Magid developed a personal relationship with the operators of Liverpool's citywide video surveillance cameras. Dressed in red, she had them follow her every steps as she moved across the city. Back in New York, she managed to gain the trust of a police officer and infiltrate his professional (and personal) world. Magid pushed even further her enquiries into the personality of the human beings hidden behind the faceless instruments of power and surveillance in 2005, when she met with employees of the Dutch secret service, the AIVD, and almost turned into an agent herself for a commission by the AIVD itself to create an artwork that would help them improve upon their public persona and provide them 'with a human face'.

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A Reasonable Man in a Box, 2011. View of the installation during the opening Architecture of Fear. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

The work Magid is showing at Z33 this Fall, A Reasonable Man in a Box, was inspired by the "Bybee Memo", a 2002 document signed by Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee. The document considered the use of mental and physical torment and stated that acts widely regarded as torture might be legally permissible under an expansive interpretation of Presidential authority during the "War on Terror." The memos were declassified by President Obama in 2009. One of the acceptable methods of "enhanced interrogation" described in the document involved the use of a confinement box. The prisoner would be confined inside this box with insects which would not harm them. The people in charge would know that the insect or the animal is innocuous but would leave the prisoner in the dark about it.

Magid's take on the interrogation technique is a room where the silhouette of a big hissing scorpion is projected wall. Every once and a while a pair of tweezers appears on screen to catch the animal by the tail.

Hi Jill! I''ve been following and admiring your work ever since i started blogging. So far i associated you with performative works in which you put yourself on the front line (Lincoln Ocean Victor Eddy, Lobby 7 or Evidence Locker for example.) There's no visible trace of you in "A Reasonable Man in a Box".  How do you decide whether you are going to be so visibly involved and present in a new work or when you are going to step back?

The Spy Project-- in which I am the main protagonist, finished just before I began the research that led to A Reasonable Man in a Box. The Spy Project involved the censorship of my novel by the Dutch secret service about my experience working with it. This redacted manuscript got me to thinking about other government-censored documents. Simultaneously I was researching torture as it is used by democracies, and how these practices are hidden from public view or scrutiny. Both paths led me to the Bybee Memo. As the document was already complete and therefore no longer open to change, I did not feel I could not enter into it as a protagonist. I found a different way to engage it.

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A Reasonable Man in a Box. Installed at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 2010 (entrance)

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A Reasonable Man in a Box. Installed at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 2010

I saw images  and read descriptions of the installation at the Whitney Museum. The room where the film was screened seemed to be spacious, with a visible entrance/exit. From what i gathered it still made quite an impact on visitors. But why didn't you chose to take a more extreme road and show the video in a claustrophobic space or in one that looked more like a cell or in a room you couldn't exit until the end of the video?
Would it have been too literal?
Will the setting of the work at Z33 be similar to the one at the Whitney?

I was not trying to make the viewer the tortured victim inside the box (i.e. gallery); rather, I wanted the viewer to consider the fundamental questions at the heart of the memo: what is reasonable; and what is a reasonable man in a box? The install is creepy, uncomfortable, and simple. The gallery becomes a shadow box: the shadow of the scorpion in the gallery is proportional to 'the stinging insect' in a confinement box. The shadow, as projected in both the Whitney and at Z33, is larger than life, as the rooms in which they are installed are of course bigger than a confinement box, which is only the size of a person sitting or standing. The fragment of the Bybee Memo discussing the enhanced interrogation practice of placing a man in a box with a stinging insect is also enlarged to scale. This enlargement is a kind of highlighting. Through it, the language has been made physical, enterable. Under these conditions, the memo and the questions it provokes can be examined and experienced on a personal level.

The installation was inspired by the "Bybee Memo". I had never heard of it before. In Europe we are familiar with stories about the kind of music played to drive prisoners crazy, rendition flights (which couldn't have been carried out without the complicity of European governments anyway), etc. But i think that the "Bybee Memo" is less well-know here. Is that the same in the USA? Did the installation play with something that the audience was familiar with or did it reveal the existence of that "Bybee Memo" as well?

There seem to be varying degrees of awareness about The Torture Memos (the common name for the Bybee memos), and the CIA's Enhanced Interrogation program. (Most notably in the press was the detailed practice of waterboarding, a type of enhanced interrogation practiced that simulates drowning.) Regardless, I felt 1. That it was an important document to (re)consider, and 2. That the installation was self-contained and therefore, did not rest upon a prior knowledge.

The practice of placing a man in a confinement box with an insect was detailed in the Bybee Memo that was released in 2009 when President Obama came to office. I'd heard of the memo before working on this project, but I'd never actually read it (It's 18 pages of legalese). I have not yet met more than a few people who have. When I in fact did read it, I was shocked-- more by its language and (absurdist) 'empirical' logic than even by the practices it invoked and legalized.

I'm interested in things that appear to be obvious or known, but aren't. I wanted to slow down the memo, focus and enlarge it, so that I could really look at it. The Bybee memo successfully changed the definition of torture in the United States for half a year, making acts that under the Geneva Convention were considered torture, legal.

A Reasonable Man is one of a series of projects that deal with secret services. In previous works you explored the Dutch secret service and engaged with a number of intimate relationships with members of the AIVD. The purpose of these meetings was "to collect personal data of the agents and to use this information to find the organization's face." So how were these people like? Is secret service all James Bond, exciting adventures and fearless clean-shaved men?

What I find most intriguing about my engagements with government institutions is that in entering them I find that they are far more fantastic than I could have imagined, and rarely resemble what I have seen in films. I never cease to be surprised as to what I find and what I cannot find, and how both of these things affect me. The people I have engaged with are as varied and complex inside the service as they are outside of it.

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I Can Burn Your Face, part of the Spy Project

While working on A Reasonable Man, how much information did you manage to find about the "enhanced interrogation" of high-level Al Qaeda operatives? Did you contact anyone? Meet? Found other pieces of information? How close did you manage to get to the issue?

I focused on the memo and understanding it. I was also interested in the memo as to what was visible and what was missing due to redaction, and how my understanding of the former was influenced by the latter. The idea of the shadow-- of not being able to see the real but only its ghost, had much to do with this schism of visible/hidden.

When I had questions about the memo, I did have some people to turn to. I was in contact with an investigative reporter (who has both a military and intelligence background) that had been embedded with the US army in both Iraq and Afghanistan and had visited Abu Ghraib (He is a protagonist in my current project), and a PhD student at NYU studying torture, law and the media. I also read about torture and democracy in books and in the news. These contacts and this research helped me approach and re-approach the memo with a continually deeper understanding.

Are secret services a theme you're going to keep on exploring?

I never know where the work is going from project to project, as my process is organic. That being said, secret services will no doubt continue to interest me. They epitomize many of my interests (secrecy, intimacy, power, legal and coded language), and they are inexhaustible. I still find myself drawn to any story on intelligence matters in the paper. I'm still a little hurt the CIA has never contacted me; )

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System Azure | Rhinestoning Headquarters

I'm curious about something else... What happened to the rhinestone-studded surveillance cameras you installed in Amsterdam?

They are still there, in full glamour (perhaps with a little city dirt and grime) on the headquarters of the police in Amsterdam. Check them out. They're permanent.

Thanks Jill!

Architecture of Fear remains open at Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium through December 31, 2011.

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NET at Z33, 2011. Image Numen / For Use

There is only one week left for you to run to the House for Contemporary Art Z33 in Hasselt and bounce around the amazing work that Numen / For Use has created especially for the art center.

This is the second time this year that i've encountered the work of the design collective. I discovered their work in Spring when i was attending a press conference at CCCS - Strozzina in Florence. Sven Jonke, Christoph Katzler and Nikola Radeljkovic had wrapped transparent tape all over the courtyard of the venerable Palazzo Strozzi to shape a self-supporting cocoon for people to crawl inside. For Z33, they've left the gaffer tape in Vienna and Zagreb (where they are based) and used nets to turn the whole exhibition space into a giant playground that can be explored horizontally as well as vertically. The idea might look incredibly simple but the result evokes floating architecture and flexible, aerial "landscape" as much as jungle gym.

I was beyond happy when Nikola and Christoph accepted to discuss their work with me. The interview focuses mostly on the Net at Z33 and on the Tape walk-in installation i saw in Florence but the Numen/ For Use website will, i'm sure, give you many more reasons to admire their work.

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Numen / For Use - NET, 2011, Z33, Hasselt, Belgium (photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33)

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Numen / For Use - NET, 2011, Z33, Hasselt, Belgium (photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33)

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Numen / For Use - NET, 2011, Z33, Hasselt, Belgium (photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33)

Sorry if i'm going to start on a very trivial note but one of the first questions that popped into my mind was "how about security?" I'm sure your installations are perfectly safe and sound but is 'health and safety' ever an issue? Are there any special measure you have to comply with and did they ever get in the way of your creativity?

Christoph: Security and safety is always the thing we fight with. Since we are educated as applied artists and since we do a lot of set design in theatre we are aware of all the problems concerning statics and security.

It is part of every daily reality. Especially when you make something in public space you have to fight with a lot of law issues. But often they are rather idiotic issues. It is bizarre to see how different countries and different organizers are putting weight and importance concerning law on totally different things and how they ignore others totally. But it is also interesting that in art institutions law is very often not seen so super strict like in other fields. This is one reason why I like to work there.

Up to now it was like this that either the ideas went without bigger problems into realization or they stopped very early due to some legal regulations.

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NET at Z33, 2011. Image courtesy of Numen / For Use

How did you get to create The Net for Z33? Did they give you carte blanche or did you work on the idea together with the curator?

Christoph: We said, "we want to try something new." They said, "okay but we need the idea within two weeks", which was rather a short period for us to find something we really like. But the idea came actually easy and fast, which is rather rare, and we all were rather satisfied from the beginning.


Artist talk with Numen / For Use about NET | Z33

In the video interview that you did for Z33, you explain that The Net is a testbed for a public version that could be installed between houses. Have you found a location already? Would you see it as a permanent structure or a nomadic one?

Christoph: YES, we are searching for a nice location in public to realize it there! In the opposite to our other walk-in installation (called Tape) it is much harder to find a location in the public space. Many of my friends would love to have it in there backyard to open the window and to jump inside for a sun-bath or whatever. But I do guess it would be difficult to find a location where all neighbors would give there permission to have "strangers" hanging around in front of there windows.

Another possibility would be to use one of those football-cages where kids are playing and to implant it there. It would be a different situation, but I think it still would work.
Probably it has to be temporary due to the law and safety regulations ; - )

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Numen / For Use, Tape Florence, 30.04.2011 - 20.05.2011. View of installation in the courtyard of Palazzo Strozzi, Firenze. Photo: Martino Margheri

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Numen / For Use, Tape Florence, 30.04.2011 - 20.05.2011. View of installation in the courtyard of Palazzo Strozzi, Firenze. Photo: Martino Margheri

When i saw the Tape installation in the courtyard of Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, it was morning, there was a press conference, and none of the journalists was climbing inside the structure. Actually, i had no idea anyone was allowed to or even that anyone would think of doing it. The public is usually not supposed to climb into sculptures/installations. But somehow, i found the work fascinating enough. What is most important to you, that the public will want to engage physically with your work or that they are visually compelling?

Christoph: For us it is 100% important that the public can go inside and experience these works. Nowadays we write it in our contracts that the public has to be able to go inside during normal opening hours. When people see the installations most of them are curious, they want to go inside. But since you have to take your shoes off and crawl an all four it makes the social borders falling. They are starting to enjoy it together in a very communicative way although they often do not even know each other. This is nice! That's why we like to see it in the public. Maybe it is somehow like in a different world and some rules do not count anymore for a while.

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Numen / For Use, Tape Florence, 30.04.2011 - 20.05.2011. View of installation in the courtyard of Palazzo Strozzi, Firenze. Photo: Martino Margheri

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Numen / For Use, Tape Florence, 30.04.2011 - 20.05.2011. View of installation in the courtyard of Palazzo Strozzi, Firenze. Photo: Martino Margheri

The Tape shapes are very organic (at least to me.) How do they form? Do you have to work on computer models first to explore the sturdiness and elegance? Or is there rather much space for improvisation?

Christoph: We make just a simple model to test somehow the basic shapes not to be totally wrong and the rest we do on spot rather following our intuition. So there is no computer involved at all! We also do not draw or design a lot. It is basically just working, working working, because what ever you do it will always shrink into forms which are geometrically perfect! On spot it is a real rush and chaos, everybody is doing something. So in the beginning we often think we made some mistakes. But now we know that it is just the usual phase. We just go on and it is fine at the end.

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NET at Z33, 2011. Image courtesy of Numen / For Use

You trained as industrial designers, but what you do now seems to be miles away from industrial design. Would you agree with that statement? Or do you feel that your practice evolved in a logical way and that, no matter what you are doing today, you are still true to your roots as industrial designers?

Nikola: It seems but it is not. Industrial design implies a certain awareness of the needs and wishes of the user and we consider the visitors of our installations in that way. Designers are constantly trying to personalize products and production, to humanize mass produced items. On the other hand, we are at the moment seriously working on industrializing our installations, in the sense that we are developing a walk-in installation which can be set over and over again. Our working process and professional ethos are still strongly influenced by our design roots and I find it stimulating to exchange influences and experiences from one field to another. The strict border between art and design is, in my opinion, totally artificial and absurd. Both fields are about visual communication of abstract values, about media and society, both use creative potentials to articulate spatial relations and both constantly refer to one another. It was like this even before pop art and after...

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Numen / For Use - NET, 2011, Z33, Hasselt, Belgium (photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33)

Does For Use still find time to design chairs and other pieces of furniture or have the more artistic projects completely taken over your time and energy?

Christoph: I am at the moment mostly into the experimental projects because I feel much more freedom and I see much more joyful feedback from the audience. But we still deal with design and I do guess we will approach different to that profession in the future and open up our borders.

Nikola: Since Christoph is avoiding design completely, I am probably dealing with design more that ever!-)

Thanks Christoph and Nikola!


Making of NET - Numen / For Use

You have until October 2nd to jump in the NET at the House for Contemporary Art Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium.
This interview is going to be part of a catalogue i'm currently working on with the Z33 team. The book should be out in early 2012 and Z33 has allowed me to publish on the blog a couple of the interviews i had with the artists, architect and designers they have been working with over the past few months.

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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.

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Jump technique composite

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.

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Reconstructing the puddle at the Verbeke Foundation

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.

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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).

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Diving under the puddle platform at the Verbeke Foundation

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.

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Composite from video stills to show the jump trajectory

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.

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Laboratory to Ascertain Plausibility of Jim's Basement Floor Anecdote, 2009

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.

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The Verbeke Gallery in Antwerp

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The Verbeke Foundation

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The Verbeke Gallery in Antwerp

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.

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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....

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A group of visitors checking out the work in progress at the Verbeke Foundation

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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.

Thanks Mateusz!

PDF of the catalogue. More images of the work in progress at the Verbeke Foundation.

You can see Puddle Drive-Through Simulation at the Verbeke Gallery in Antwerp (BE) until 20th October 2011.

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Kris Verdonck, Warehouse of machinery, used in performances / installations, 1995 - present. Part of EXHIBITION #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Kris Verdonck, Warehouse of machinery, used in performances / installations, 1995 - present. Part of EXHIBITION #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

So far the work of Kris Verdonck was mostly a privilege reserved to the aficionados of theater stages but Z33 in Hasselt has invited the theatre-maker and artist to invade its rooms with wonderful machinery, installations, videos and even a metaphorical garden made of some of the most invasive non-native plant and animal species in Belgium. It's the artist's first 'gallery' exhibition. Hence the title of the show.

His works are incredibly invigorating because of their originality and poetry but a few moments spent in their company reveals their dark undertone.

The work of Kris Verdonck (...) focuses on the confusion of man in an estranged world due to technological development. The tension between man and machine, between living species and dead materials creates an atmosphere of Unheimlichkeit or eeriness. This 'current state of the world' - with its environmental problems, ecological disasters and wars - is the central theme through his oeuvre.

In the solo exhibition in Z33, Kris Verdonck focuses on the one hand on the confusion and eeriness of man in his environment. On the other hand, his work is about the confusion of the world itself in which the Apocalypse already took place.

EXHIBITION at #1 is a bold move, the challenge was to prove that Verdonck's pieces, many of which the artist describes as "big installations that are displayed in a theatrical context", were strong enough to stand on their own two feet in a contemporary art gallery. I had never experienced any of his works in theatres before so i had no preconceptions nor expectations. All i saw were absorbing videos, stunning installations and an earnest robot.

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Kris Verdonck, DANCER #3, 2010. Produced for the performance ACTOR #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Kris Verdonck, DANCER #3, 2010. Produced for the performance ACTOR #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

DANCER #3 is one node of ACTOR #1 which explores the metamorphosis from chaos to order. One of the starting points for this work was the history of the creation of the 'homunculus', the artificial miniature human that philosophers, alchemists and scientists have sought over the centuries since Greek Antiquity.

DANCER #3 is a robot trying to stand up straight; he always falls down again, but never gives up. His energy and clumsiness display the optimism of a clown who's always tripping over.

In Box, a glass cube contains the strongest possible light source that can be concentrated on such a small surface. As spectators --equipped with protective glasses-- watch the light, they hear the voice of the actor Johan Leysen who speaks, in German, the apocalyptic texts by dramatist Heiner Müller: Verkommenes Ufer Medeamaterial Landschaft mit Argonauten (Despoiled Shore Medea Material Landscape with Argonauts) (1982-1983.)

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Kris Verdonck, BOX. Part of EXHIBITION #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

Light that normally allows us to see was made so strong by the team of engineers Verdonck collaborated with that it turns us blind. BOX is the second installation in a series of installations that examine "the end of the world" from different points of view. Its light could be the luminous flash of a nuclear explosion, a never ceasing, eye-burning lightning that announces the end of the world.

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Kris Verdonck, Warehouse of machinery, used in performances / installations, 1995 - present. Part of EXHIBITION #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

The most jaw-dropping moment for me was when entered a big room on the first floor of Z33 filled with the appliances and objects developed by the artist for live shows. Most of them would normally be kept behind the scenes. The machines often look like medieval instruments (of torture). At the same time, they are often high-technological objects, that fulfil complex functions. They form a large contrast with the extreme esthetical images that they produce.

The overview of machines by Kris Verdonck addresses the field of tension between man and machine in today's society. What relationship can/must/do people want to enter into with technology? How difficult is the balancing act between human control and submission to machines?

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Kris Verdonck, Warehouse of machinery, used in performances / installations, 1995 - present. Part of EXHIBITION #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Kris Verdonck, Warehouse of machinery, used in performances / installations, 1995 - present. Part of EXHIBITION #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Kris Verdonck, Warehouse of machinery, used in performances / installations, 1995 - present. Part of EXHIBITION #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

For the IN performance, an actress remains motionless for an hour in a transparent cube filled with water. The distortion to her senses caused by the environment she is in makes her go into a trance. The sounds of her breathing and movement are amplified by microphones.

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Kris Verdonck, Warehouse of machinery, used in performances / installations, 1995 - present. Part of EXHIBITION #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Kris Verdonck, IN (image from a performance found on the artist's website)

I wish i'd have time to talk about every single work i saw in the show but i'd better wrap up the asap and hit 'publish' before it's too late for you to drive to Hasselt and see the show which closes on Sunday already so i'll end with two of the most stunning video works:

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Kris Verdonck, MOUSE. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

MOUSE shows - enormously magnified and in extreme slow-motion - a mouse walking into a trap. The trap closes, the iron breaks the small body. A camera with super slow motion (10,000 images/sec) was used to unravel the mechanics of a movement, just like Muybridge did. The technique makes us experience an extremely upsetting emergency situation in the slowest possible way.

We eat meat every day but we don't want to be remembered that animals have to be killed before they land on our plates, and we definitely don't want to be confronted with it visually. MOUSE is an image of our daily hypocrisy turned into a slow motion opera that fills a whole room.

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Kris Verdonck, FRIEZE, 2010. Produced for the 'circuit performance' K, a Society. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

The figures in the large-scale projection FRIEZE look like your typical posh office workers. Neatly dressed, impassible and modern. After a few minutes however, their sharpness starts to crack. No matter how hard they try, the businessmen loose their decorum as their bodies slip, tumble and move awkwardly around the claustrophobic space they are confined to.

The characters in FRIEZE could be considered to be a modern version of the majestuous Greek caryatids. These sculpted female figure were functional as well as ornamental and emanated gravitas. The caryatids in FRIEZE on the other hand, display their vulnerability in the extreme.

The catalogue of the exhibition is available online.

Kris Verdonck - EXIBITION #1 closes this week at Z33 House for Contemporary Art in Hasselt, Belgium.

Previously: EXOTE, an indoor garden for invasive alien species.

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