You might remember that a few weeks ago, i was in Ghent, Belgium, for Almost Cinema. The festival was not only featuring artworks, concerts and performances which subverted, reinvented or repositioned the ordinary cinema experience, it also dedicated a whole day to a symposium where artists and theorists interrogated the ambiguous relationships between documentary film and reality.
To what extent can a reel of film capture reality--if this is possible at all--and when can we say that it calls a new reality into being? Do not most films oscillate between 'document' and 'argument'; that is, between representing, rewriting and creating reality? Moreover, what strategies do artists use to document our daily lives? Is the detour through alienation and animation perhaps the proper way to make an outright and truthful work? Do new developments in technological media provide new opportunities for documentary artists? Finally, how do these artistic experiments and their problems represent the culture we live in?
The Documentary Real was probably the most satisfying conference i attended this year. I had planned to write down my notes from some of my favourite talks when Robrecht Vanderbeeken from KASK (the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent) informed me that the videos of the symposium were online. I'll particularly recommend the talk of Curator Katerina Gregos who gave a fascinating overview of what she calls 'the Elastic Documentary", artist Jasper Rigole showed us the charming videos he makes using movies he found on flea markets, researcher and curator Edwin Carels shared some fascinating insights about animation and Duncan Speakman explained how mobile media can help shape new documentary practices.
The Documentary Real was an initiative of Robrecht Vanderbeeken, KASK (Faculty of Fine Arts, University College Ghent) in collaboration with Vooruit and Filmfestival Ghent with the support of VAF Flanders Image.
Previously: 'Statics' at the Almost Cinema festival in Ghent
As i mentioned yesterday, i'm just back from Ghent where i visited Almost Cinema. Each year, the festival demonstrates that the cinema experience doesn't have to stop at films, that it can be conveyed through performances, concerts and art installations. Curated by Eva de Groote, the exibition was particularly noteworthy.
Most of the show took place in the stunning Vooruit building. Built between 1911 and 1914 by the Ghent labor movement, the building is named after the socialist cooperative aimed at protecting workers against the instability of capitalism. It was the place where workers would go to dance, drink and enjoy culture at low rates. Today Vooruit dedicates its concert hall, theater hall, ballrooms and other spaces to progressive arts.
To see the installations part of Almost Cinema, visitors had to follow a red thread along corridors, stairs and passages.
Almost Cinema made me discover the work of the young and talented Bram Vreven. His piece Spin unfolds over two spaces separated by a wall.
In the first room, a row of 9 screens display spirals spinning at varying speeds.
It's only as you enter the second room that you understand that what looked like an animated movie is in fact the real time video of a mechanical ballet of 9 small white balls.
Circles and dots are drawn on the balls which rotate around an x-and y-axis. Above them hang as many cameras.
As critic Pieter Van Bogaert observed, Spin is reminiscent of Anémic Cinéma but while the 2D images of the Dada surrealist are endowed with new depth, Spin's 3D balls appear to flatten down dramatically in the process.
Zimoun -whose delightfully simple sound installations never fail to charm- has filled a room of Vooruit with 186 prepared dc-motors, cardboard boxes, a sound installation emanating from heaps of cardboard boxes. Each box is hit by a tiny engine, which produces all sorts of sounds and vibrations. Each of the boxes constitutes a small brick in a complex sound structure.
Almost Cinema spread its wings outside of the Vooruit building as well.
On a nearby square, passersby were invited to try on Ief Spincemaille's Reversed Blinking. This kind of photo camera wraps around your head and looks like a bulky pair of glasses. Except that they leave you in the dark. Only when the shutter (two tiny flaps at the front) opens and closes, can you see the world in a flash. The shutter (which the user can control) moves so fast that nothing has time to move. Everything where you point your gaze at, becomes like a photograph.
Reversed Blinking is part of a series of works, where I'm trying to add video and photographical effects to our natural way of seeing. Where virtual reality goggles are trying to make us believe that the IMAGES we see are REAL, Reversed Blinking does the opposite. They manipulate vision such that the REAL environment around us looks utterly unreal, as it was a photograph or an IMAGE. Doing this, it shows us a frightening character of our by images dominated society. The world has become an image, an the image became real.
To be continued...
Reinout Hiel has some wonderful images on flickr.
It won't be a surprise to anyone following this blog if i say that i'm in love with Ghent in Belgium. The city is not only remarkably postcard pretty, it is also the first city in the world to have established an 'official' weekly vegetarian day. With the help of the veggie street map, i've been touring the veggie fries joints (in Belgium, potatoes are usually fried in lard.) However, what brings me to Ghent several times a year is neither tofu burgers nor the Gravensteen but its cultural life. This time i was in town to check out the Almost Cinema festival at the Vooruit art center.
Organized in collaboration with Filmfestival Gent, Almost Cinema invites theatre makers, musicians, media artists, visual artists, architects -but not film makers- to show works that deal with cinematographic experience.
Don't expect video art and quiet screenings. The festivals is made of performances, concerts, debates and of an exhibition which takes place in and out of the Vooruit building.
Full report will come soon-ish but as usually i'll procrastinate by singling out just one work i discovered at Almost Cinema.
Wim Janssen's Statics is a surface made of 43000 handmade "pixels" that look unremarkable as one enters the room. However, as soon as the visitor steps behind a rotating colour filter and watches the surface through it, it instantly turns into a tv screen covered with snow.
In this work Wim Janssen cuts polarization filter into small rectangles of one cm, in random orientations, like large pixels. These little squares are fixed between two large rectangular pieces of plexiglass.(...) In front of this screen stands a slowly rotating disc, also made of polarization filter. When the screen is seen through this disc, it changes into a half transparent field of video noise.
This phenomenon occurs because lightwaves, besides their frequency and amplitude, also have an orientation. Polarization filter let light pass in only one direction. When you look through a piece of this filter, it's perfectly transparent, just a bit darker than normal plexi or glass. When you look through the filter at an other piece of this material which is rotated 90°, the second piece becomes an opaque black surface, because the light passing through the first filter, can't pass through the second filter. Every other orientation gives a different degree of opacity.
Image on the homepage by Reinout Hiel.
Previously: What is American Power?
1950, Robert Frank published the seminal book The Americans in the United States. The photos showed a country that his peers had mostly overlooked so far: workers in a Detroit assembly line, an exhausted waitress in Hollywood, an empty barbershop, transvestites in NYc, shabby corners of a department store, gas station, black passengers on a segregated trolley in New Orleans, onlookers at a movie premiere, etc. Images that we take for granted now, At the time, however, critiques were horrified by their style and subject.
1975, the George Eastman House (Rochester, NY) opens the influential New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape. 8 young American photographers + Bernd and Hilla Becher presented their dispassionate appraisal of landscape, focusing on "eyesores" of the built environment such as industrial landscapes, suburban sprawl, cheap motels, trailer parks, parking lots.
As New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape has been reprogrammed for an international tour, American Documents, a major exhibition at FotoMuseum in Antwerp, is offering a brief and efficient panorama of the documentary trends in the U.S. from the 1970 until now.
Extract from the press release:
The photographers point to a social issue that is still relevant nowadays. Rampant industrialization and urbanization fed by an excessive consumption drive left a profound mark on both the American landscape and American society during the second half of the previous century. At the same time, these developments formed the breeding-ground for a critical countermovement. A new photographic picture language developed that abruptly abandoned the idealizing views of previous generations and confronted the audience in a critical manner with key social and political issues. Thanks to its serial approach and clear formulation, this type of photography fit in perfectly with the then conceptual and minimalist trends in plastic arts.
Homeland addresses the issue of illegal immigration near the US border. The title is a reference to the US Department of Homeland Security.
Sultan hired Mexican day laborers whom he found waiting outside a strip mall to be picked up for hourly work. Sultan directed them to create vignettes that fuse his own memories of home life with an interpretation of their experiences as exiles. The result is a series of postcard photos of American suburbs charged with oddity, unease and hope.
In the '70s photographers Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel spent 3 years sifting through the files and archives of over one hundred American government agencies, educational institutions, and corporations, such as the U.S. Department of the Interior, Stanford Research Institute, General Atomic Company, Jet Propulsion Laboratories, the various Police Department and the United States Department of the Interior. They were looking for original photographs that were made and used as evidence.
Mandel and Sultan assembled a sequence of 50 to 85 pictures (depending on the website where i found information about the project) out of the hundreds of thousands they had seen. Pictures that once served a functional purpose in the world, when stripped of their explanatory captions and sources and then exhibited in an art show, acquired a new dimension. The photos of the Evidence book and exhibition were not objective instruments anymore, they became expressive, puzzling, ambiguous artefacts from the mid-20th century. More images in Mike Mandel's flickr set.
Uncommon Places is the result of a series of cross-country trips that Stephen Shore made through American and Canadian towns and landscapes. The series pioneered the use of colour outside of advertising and fashion.
More recently, Lee Friedlander drove across the US and, sitting in his rental car, documented the landscape and cityscape of his country. The method not only reflects how much the American landscape is framed by the US car culture, it also allows for surprising juxtapositions.
For Our Lives and Our Children: Photographs Taken Near the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, Robert Adams concealed his camera behind a grocery bag to snap portraits of families who lived near the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant outside Denver. The facility processed plutonium, a radioactive chemical element that ignites spontaneously in contact with moist air and caused many fires at the plant, threatening all those living in the area.
Adams' clandestine method of portraying anonymous figures is reminiscent of Walker Evans's work. For the 1930s series Subway Portrait, Evans kept his camera hidden under his coat and captured the person opposite unobserved. 15 years later, Evans stationed himself at a corner of a street, opposite a blind wall and shot anonymous figures as they were moving through space.
American Documents is on view until September 5, 2010 at FotoMuseum in Antwerp, Belgium.
Last week i was in Belgium with a long list of exhibitions to see but the Summer & sun-phobic that i am chickened out, hid in a cave and saw only a couple of them. One was in Antwerp, city of art and creativity but also major European harbour which makes it the idea place to show Allan Sekula's subtle and engaging commentary on flows of goods, globalization and conditions of the invisible workers in the maritime industry.
Titled Ship of Fools, the exhibition features the Global Mariner, a converted cargo ship that toured the world between 1998 and 2000, carrying an exhibition denouncing working conditions in the shipping industry and more particularly a practice called Flag of Convenience. This system allows a ship owner to register their vessel in a foreign (and often poor) country either to reduce operating costs or to evade international laws and regulations. Both, most of the time. The system is facing fierce criticisms because it allows shipowners to be legally anonymous and makes it difficult to prosecute in civil and criminal actions. Flag of convenience ships have sometimes been found engaging in arms smuggling, people trafficking, are frequently found offering substandard working conditions, and damaging the environment, primarily through illegal and unregulated fishing. Not to mention some of the most infamous oil spills in history.
In 2009, more than half of the world's merchant ships were registered under flags of convenience. Unfortunately, the system goes hand in hand with globalization. Today, some 90% of non-bulk cargo transits by sea inside containers.
In the video interview below, Sekula explains to Curator Grant Watson that although the maritime industry is a victim of the economic crisis, it is also responsible for two key maritime inventions that made globalization possible. Containers make it possible to move factories anywhere in the world in search of the cheapest labor, opening up new opportunities to globalize the production of goods. Flags of convenience globalized the labor market for seafaring. Containerization and flags of convenience set the machine in motion and we are now living with the consequences.
Sekula traveled with the Global Mariner over intervals, followed their defense of workers' rights and portrayed the crew and its journey in a series of photos. Sekula's portraits of seafarers, dock workers, port cities and their industrial hinterland register the affects of globalisation on people's lives. By presenting this ensemble of work, the artist counters the myth that underpins neoliberal ideology of painless flows of goods and capital that constitute international trade.
Don't miss the PDF of Alla Sekula's essay Ship of Fools.
Ship of Fools is a cooperation between M HKA and the FotoMuseum. It is open until September 4 at the 4th floor of the FotoMuseum in Antwerp. Ship of Fools will then travel to Brazil where it will be part of the 29th São Paulo Biennial.
update_3 | body sound, the third edition of a technological art biennial organized by the Liedts-Meesen Foundation, takes place at Zebrastraat place in Ghent. I saw it totally by chance. I was in town for the Electrified biennial and the ever lovely Eva De Groote from Vooruit suggested i'd drop by Zebrastraat. What were the odds of seeing two very good and strikingly different biennials in the space of two days in a city that counts less than 250 000 inhabitants? So slim i still haven't entirely recovered from the shock.
Curated by Christine Van Assche, Media Arts Curator at the Centre Pompidou, update_3 presents a selection of sound art works from the French museum's Collection of New Media.
The sound exhibition ambitions to go beyond the auditory system and uses echoes, vibrations, timbres, resonances, waves to put the body of the visitor to the test. Through a scenography designed by Bureau des Mésarchitectures, 14 installations invite the public to explore different perceptions of sound through their interactions with the materials, their position when listening and the movement of their body within space.
All along the exhibition, visitors meet with micro-environments. One of the most impressive is Erase Your Head / An Instrument for Blank Architecture which evokes an empty theater occupied only by sound "helmets" perched on tripods and conceived by Didier Faustino as intimate devices for listening to works by Owada / Martin Creed, Mika Vainio and Mike Kelley / Scanner. When entering their head inside the padded helmet, visitors nullify their sense of sight and exacerbate the dimension of sound.
Equipped with a balancing system this type of tripod is generally used by a land surveyor to document landscapes and topographies. This work turns it into an instrument for the exploration of mental landscapes.
The work is a variation of the irresistible Hand Architecture, an earlier work that transforms a megaphone into an intimate medium that whisper a message from one person to another one. The person captured by the device becomes visually and auraly isolated from its surroundings, its only reference being the voice of its interlocutor.
To create Brilliant Noise, Semiconductor (aka Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt), went through hundreds of thousands of computer files to select some of the sun's most spectacular and unseen moments and compose a video animation on the oscillations of the star. Taken by orbiting satellites, the images reveal the energetic particles and solar wind as a rain of white noise.
Through a process of audio data processing, Semiconductor used images to control the fluctuations of sound. The sound varies, crackles, buzzes and falters according to the brightness of the image, highlighting the hidden forces at play upon the solar surface.
I never Dream otherwise than Awake is an 'environment' designed by Emmanuel Lagarrigue. The artist asked people to hum a song of their choice. He then cut the music into slots and reworked them, composing a melody for each one until they became almost unrecognizable. Sounds, melodies, music, are transmitted from small suspended loudspeakers, responding to one another, in a space that confuses the senses and gives the sensation of drowning in an aquarium. Video on the artist's website.
In Schizoframes, Céleste Boursier-Mougenot invites visitors to lounge on a big white sofa stuffed with loudspeakers and meditate in front of a wall of sonorous images, generated by the auditory frequencies in a 180 degree environment. The work explores the possibilities of feedback videos, allowing the sound to vibrate inside the body of the spectator, as well as in the surrounding space. The listener participates in a shared experience.