The show to see and experience in London at the moment is Carsten Höller: Decision.
Carsten Höller likes to unsettle, upset, delight and surprise. You get out of one of his shows and feel like you've lived through 'something' new and totally unexpected. The Hayward retrospective is an experiment, from the perspective of the artist but also from the one of the visitor, in perception and decision-taking: are you going to enter through the doors on the right or on the left? Will you dare to be harnessed to a flying machine? Will you ingest one of those curious little pills that are dropped from the ceiling? Or will you just watch and see what other people chose? And in the end, will you conclude that this was fun but a bit shallow or that it was thought-provoking and enlightening? Is this art or just entertainment?
The exhibition is what you would call a crowd-pleaser (although the £15.00 entrance ticket is definitely not crowd-pleasing.) Which in conservative art speak is a bit of an insult. It shouldn't be. Because art doesn't need more snobs and because if gigantic slides, bouncy Stonehenge and rain rooms are what it takes to get everyone to experience and discuss contemporary art, that's good enough for me.
The first decision you take is whether to access the show by the entrance on the right or the one on the left. I chose the left one and very quickly regretted it. I found myself in the darkness of a long, a very very long steel corridor. It sometimes goes up, sometimes down, it bends to the right or to the left. With each step, i was wondering whether i should keep on walking or whether i should just hurry back to where i came from and take the other entrance (which takes you to a similarly awful corridor if i understood correctly.)
Now of course i find it funny so i'd recommend the experience to anyone because one day, i promise, you finally reach the end of the tunnel and find yourself in a room inhabited by huge hallucinogenic mushrooms. They are mounted on a mobile and you're invited to push them around. And every single adult but me thought it was jolly good fun to push a bar and make the mushrooms turn.
Right after the red and white mushrooms, you encounter a growing pile of red and white little pills. Every three seconds, a little capsule drops from the ceiling. You're actually free to pop one with water from the nearby mini sink. There's no information about what is inside the pills. That's part of the experiment, of course, it's another decision you have to take.
People were queuing to try the Upside Down Goggles. The goggles are based on an experiment carried out by George Stratton in the 1890s. While studying the perception in vision, the psychologist wore special glasses which inverted images up and down and left and right. He found that after 4 days wearing them continuously, his brain started to compensate, and he could see the world the right way up again.
Höller's perception-altering goggles are very disorientating. You feel a bit seasick and unsure of your steps.
More queuing! This time to be harnessed to one of the Two Flying Machines. You can pretend you're Icarus flying over the Waterloo Bridge. Except that you're just dangling from a big arm and slowly rotating while other visitors and the odd guy on the top the double deckers are pointing at you.
The top floor of the Hayward also houses Half Mirror Room, a room with floor-to-ceiling mirrors positioned at 90-degree angles to one another, another disorienting experience. How big is this room really? Are these mirrors or is this another of Höller's tricks to play with our perception? In the middle of the room is a super big dice. Instead of black dots, it has holes for children to crawl through.
Meanwhile, two self-navigating robotic beds are quietly gliding around one of the gallery spaces. The beds move in relation to each other, using radio beacons and a laser. During the day, a big sign informs you that you shouldn't touch them but if you have £300 to spare, the beds are yours to sleep in at night. I read that for that price, you also get "dream-enhancing toothpaste."
Höller's shiny Isometric Slides are a very efficient marketing ploy to lure you into the building. They are also the last episode of your journey into the exhibition. You get to climb to the top of the space with a fabric bag and then merrily slide all the way back to normal life.
The catalogue is pure Höller. It takes the form of two books wrapped in glossy white paper. Two because it forces you to decide which one to read first. One of the books contains new short stories by six writers - Naomi Alderman, Jenni Fagan, Jonathan Lethem, Deborah Levy, Helen Oyeyemi and Ali Smith - responding to the theme of decision-making. The other one focuses on the show itself with a photographic interpretation of the multiple ways of experiencing Höller's immersive exhibition and an interview in which the artist talks to curator Ralph Rugoff about participatory art, proprioception, machines for meditation, and aphid's non-sexual mode of reproduction. I haven't looked at the short stories yet but i greatly enjoyed reading the interview.
Decisions is at the Hayward Gallery in London until 6 September.
As usual, i took some pretty bad photos at the show.
Previously: Politics and Practices of Secrecy (part 1).
And this is part 2 of the notes i took during the Politics and Practices of Secrecy symposium which took place at King's College in London last month. My reports do not follow the schedule of the panels, nor do they cover all the talks. I'm just cherry picking the more interesting moments of the day. Part 1 focused on the art projects. This post is less uniform in its theme. Two of the presentations i enjoyed covered the representation of intelligence agencies in films and tv fiction. Another was about the influence that new forms of surveillance are having on the rise of home-grown ('home' being the U.S.A., the symposium was organised by the Institute of North American Studies) white extremist groups. And a fourth talk wondered if transparency could fix our democracy.
Let's start with Timothy Melley, Professor Affiliate of American Studies at Miami University and author of The Covert Sphere. Secrecy, Fiction, and the National Security State and of Empire of Conspiracy. The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America.
In his talk, 'The Democratic Security State: Operating Between Secrecy and Publicity', Melley listed up a few numbers:
This secret world costs 8 billion dollars per year.
50,000 intelligence reports are written each year. Their volume is so large that most are never read.
The intelligence hides out in the open:
The complexity of this system defies description Lt Gen. (Ret.) John R. Vines
The U.S. covert state is a growing industry. It handles a huge number of secrets all over the country. It relies on democratic structures but acts like a shadow state that has its own territory and laws. It also support some film makers by lending helicopters needed for films that publicize the covert world. The reason for that is that the secret programme needs public approval.
What we know about the CIA comes from leaks but also from fiction. Our screens are awash with what Melley calls 'terror melodrama." One of his presentations slides even listed those films. Covert CIA operations are celebrated in books, films, games, tv series, etc. Earlier this year, the CIA, pleased with the way it is portrayed in "Homeland", invited the show's cast and producers to visit its headquarters in Virginia and have a discussion. Another example is when Michelle Obama presented the 2013 Best Picture award to Ben Affleck's Argo, a film adapted from CIA operative Tony Mendez's book The Master of Disguise and the 2007 Wired article The Great Escape: How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran.
Keeping with the spy in entertainment theme, Matt Potolsky, Professor of English at University of Utah, looked at the representation of the NSA on tv and in cinema.
Fiction and films are often the only way the public can picture and judge for themselves the activities of intelligence agencies. FBI, KGB, CIA have often been presented in films. How about the NSA? According to Potolsky, the NSA never turned into real fictional tropes.
There have been more recent attempts to depict the activity of the massive NSA:
Mark Fenster, Professor at the Levin College of Law (University of Florida) and author of the book Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture. His talk was titled 'Secrecy and the Hypothetical State Archive.'
Fenster started by reminding us of a whistleblower of the early 1970s. Daniel Ellsberg was employed by the RAND Corporation when he not only read classified documents he wasn't supposed to open but also photocopied and released them to The New York Times and other newspapers. The Pentagon Papers, officially titled United States - Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense, were top-secret documents that charted the US' political-military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967.
There is now a trust in 'transparency' but, Fenster asks, Can transparency fix our democracy? Obama was elected to end Bush's secrecy. But the secrecy is now as deep as ever. If not deeper.
But Fenster says, information leaks. Sometimes from the top, sometimes from the bottom. Sometimes drop by drop, sometimes it flows.
It is particularly tricky to control State information. If you think about the model of communication Sender-Message-Receiver, the Sender would be the State, the Message is state information and the Receiver is the public.
The state is organizationally complex, it is spatially deployed, it is enclosed in buildings, offices. In truth, it is a mess that is difficult to keep shut.
State information is difficult to perceive clearly, it is a vast amount of information, it is hard to archive and to control its release. Sometimes state information can leak by mistake.
The public is made of individuals and they will have their own interpretation of any information released.
In brief, information cannot be controlled, on any level.
According to Fenster, the revelation of a secret often offers marginal gains. It certainly doesn't lead necessarily to a reformed democracy.
Another talk i found very informative was the one by Hugh Urban, professor of religious studies at Ohio State University and author of The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion
His talk, 'The Silent Brotherhood: Secrecy, Violence, and Surveillance from the Brüder Schweigen to the War on Terror' looked at the white males' belief that they are the victims of racial oppression. In their view, white males are persecuted by women, Black people, Muslims, Jews, etc. That's what Urban calls the "white man falling" syndrome.
Brüder Schweigen or Silent Brotherhood, was a white nationalist revolutionary organization active in the United States between September 1983 and December 1984. Its founder Robert Jay Mathews wanted to create an elite vanguard of Aryan warriors to save the white race. The Silent Brotherhood group was responsible for a number of violent crimes: robberies, bombings, murders, counterfeiting operations, etc.
Nowadays, much of the anti-terrorist attention focuses on radical Islam, neglecting home-grown white extremist groups. Figures show that the number of patriot groups in the U.S. is growing very rapidly. The reasons for that are many: bad economic conditions, black president but also the rise of surveillance which augments these people's distrust of the FBI, NSA and other governmental agents.
Urban's conclusions were that:
1. Secrecy is both the explanation and the radical solution for the 'white man falling' syndrome.
2. New forms of surveillance play into, feed and reinforce the narratives of such radical groups.
Politics and Practices of Secrecy was organized by the Institute of North American Studies at King's College London, on 14-15 May, 2015.
There are two different bodies of work on show. One is the photo series made in Israel and Palestine as part of This Place, the other uncovers places of scientific and technological research in California. I'm not going to surprise anyone if i write that i entered the show to see the Palestine/Israel photos. However, the images left me a bit cold. They are definitely not tourism board material and are impressively made but they have a sense of déjà vu.
Which left me with the six photographs of scientific research spaces. The large format images are mesmerizing. They convey the fascination we have for instruments that embody scientific and material innovation but distract us from the calls for social and political progress.
Struth said: It is clear that the contemporary human imagination is more easily fired by the pyrotechnics of science and technology rather than by the difficult, and perhaps now historically discredited, negotiation of political ideals. I wanted to open the doors to some of these unseen places in order to scrutinize what our contemporary world--what we--create, depicting plasmaphysics and chemistry, ship- and oil rig-building, space shuttle repair, architecture, etc., as what our minds have materialized and transformed into sculpture.
The following images are not part of the London exhibition, but i'm on a tech porn roll and see no reason to stop half way:
Thomas Struth's photos are at Marian Goodman Gallery, London until 6 June 2015.
I've been strangely busy ('strangely' because believe me it's not my style at all to be a busy person) over the past couple of weeks and i never got a chance to sit down and write a small report of the Politics and Practices of Secrecy symposium which took place at King's College in London last month. Here's the blurb that lured me into spending a whole day in a lecture hall:
In the wake of the Snowden revelations about the surveillance capabilities of intelligence agencies, this interdisciplinary symposium gathers experts to discuss the place and implications of secrecy in contemporary culture and politics.
The event started with a keynote by Jamie Bartlett about the Secrets of the Dark Net. It was entertaining and more about the dark sides of the internet in general than strictly speaking about the Silk Road. The journalist talked us through his adventures online and offline with sex cam ladies, neo-nazis, drug sellers and anorexic girls. If you're curious about the content of the talk, then i advise you to check out his book The Dark Net.
The symposium itself looked at how the relationships between citizens and government have changed since the Snowden revelation, the impact of secrecy on society and the place of the subject in a world that keeps us under close surveillance and doesn't regard us as fully-formed political agents. The angle was very much American. Not because the USA is the only nation that uses and abuses of secrecy (although they are making a name for themselves in that field) but because the symposium was organized by the Institute of North American Studies at King's College.
I won't cover all the symposium presentations. I'm just going to do a pick and mix of what i heard there. This first post about the event might still be fairly coherent though because it will focus on the arty Roundtable 2: Aesthetics of the Secret. And since he is an artist and an artist who has some valuable ideas to share about secrecy, discrimination and control, i'm also adding to this post Zach Blas' talk (which was part of another series of talks that zoomed in on Opacity and Openness.)
Let's start with Zach Blas. He is an artist, writer and Assistant Professor in the Department of Art at the University at Buffalo. The title of his talk 'Informatic Opacity' is also the one of his upcoming book.
The idea of informatic opacity is explored in two of Blas' artworks. The first one, Facial Weaponization Suite, is a series of workshops in U.S. and Mexico that looked at biometric facial recognition. The artist worked with members of specific minority communities (queers, black people, etc.) to create masks that are modeled from the aggregated facial data of participants. The amorphous and slightly sinister masks are then worn in public performances. The masks represent each individual but cannot be detected as human faces by biometric facial recognition technologies. The work is a dark critique of the silent and gradual rise of the use of biometric facial recognition software by governments to monitor citizens. The symbol of the mask is also important. Pussy Riot, members of the Black Bloc and the Zapatistas wear masks to hide their face but also because masks make them visible.
For Blas, the main motivation behind the work wasn't so much privacy and transparency. His first interest laid in highlighting a technology that standardizes identity globally in order to create templates that can calculate identity and can be applied around the world.
The standards of face recognition technology are rigid and they can break down. As the two examples below demonstrates, these technologies are routinely accused of not recognizing non-Caucasian faces:
Not being recognized by biometric machines makes some people more vulnerable to discrimination and criminalization.
Édouard Glissant called for the right to opacity. For him opacity was protecting anyone who is 'diverse'. Blas book takes Glissant's idea of opacity and puts it into the context of informatics. Information opacity, he says, resists forms of globalization and standardization.
The second work Blas mentioned is his Face Cages series which focuses on biometrics as a form of capture.
Face Cages is a dramatization of the abstract violence of the biometric diagram. Diagrams are fabricated as three-dimensional metal objects, evoking a material resonance with handcuffs, prison bars, and torture devices used during slavery in the US and the Medieval period. The virtual biometric diagram, a supposedly perfect measuring and accounting of the face, once materialized as a physical object, transforms into a cage that does not easily fit the human head, that is extremely painful to wear. These cages exaggerate and perform the irreconcilability of the standardized, neoliberal biometric diagram with the materiality of the human face itself-and the violence that occurs when the two are forced to coincide.
Now to Roundtable 2, Aesthetics of the Secret which was, unsurprisingly, the one i was most looking forward to listen to.
John Beck, Director of the Institute for Modern and Contemporary Culture at the University of Westminster, kicked of the session with 'Photography's Open Secret.'
The talk explored the desert landscape in the South West of the U.S., one of the most photographed regions in the world, but also one that hosts a vast amount of secrecy.
The desert is a space where there is nothing and where therefore anything can be done and left: military bases, weapon testing facilities, nuclear waste, etc. It can be used as a dump space where unnecessary leftovers of power can be placed. It is a space where secrets are literally left into the open.
The medium of photography echoes the ambiguous characteristic of the desert. Photography is an instrument for revealing, unveiling, documenting and exposing. But it can also be used to hide, by leaving things out of the frame, by staging or doctoring evidence. Photography is at once a medium of transparency and a medium of opacity. And that makes it difficult to regard photography as a source of reliable evidence.
Richard Misrach photographed places that are now less restricted than they were during the Cold War but that were used to conduct secret programs and operations.
After 9/11, Trevor Paglen has taken up the role of photographer/investigator of sites of secrecy. Using limit telephotography, he documents black sites and other secret spaces and programs of the USA. Some of his photos, however, move toward abstractions and as such, embody the skepticism that photography can provide us with straightforward representations of the world.
Laura Kurgan bought hi-res satellite images showing four vulnerable landscapes: a desert in Iraq, the rain forest in Cameroon, the tundra in Alaska, and the Atlantic Ocean. Seen from afar, the images evoke monochromatic Minimalism, but a closer investigation reveal traces of geopolitical issues such as illegal logging or helicopters flying over the desert during "Operation Iraqi Freedom."
When Google launched its satellite imagery service in 2005, some governments attempted to censor sites deemed vital to national security. The Netherlands, for example, hid hundreds of significant sites including royal palaces, fuel depots and army barracks behind stylist multi-coloured polygons. Ironically, it made the censored sites even more conspicuous. The country has since adopted a less distinctive method of visual censorship.
The second speaker of the roundtable was Neal White, artist, Associate Professor in Art and Media Practice at Bournemouth University, he is also Director of Emerge - Experimental Media Research Group.
His talk, Secrecy and Art in Practice, looked at the various methods art employs to reflect on the practice of secrecy.
He mentioned the Critical Art Ensemble's tactical biopolitic works, Taryn Simon's photo series An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, Trevor Paglen (but then almost every single speaker spoke about Paglen's work), Charles Stankievech's Counterintelligence, etc.
White also talked briefly about the works he is involved in with the Office of Experiments. I've blogged in the past about The Overt Research Projects which combine field observation, alternative knowledge gathering and experimental geography techniques with other research methods to archive and geo-map spaces related to techno-scientific and industrial /military research in the UK.
I was also surprised to learn about The Mike Kenner Archive which was donated to the Office of Experiments in 2009 so that they can show the archived material to the public. Mike Kenner's collection of thousands of documents were obtained following over thirty years of research and FOI (Freedom of Information) requests into the activities at the Biochemical Research Centre at Porton Down, Wiltshire (referred to as MRE) and other sensitive research establishments. The documentation contains photographs, de-classified but restricted secret and top-secret documents, cabinet office and official correspondence, experimental data, images, diagrams , analysis, video, photographs, newspaper cuttings etc. Many of these highlight experiments that had a significant impact in the region of Weymouth in the UK, with experiment conducted on the public using live pathogens, largely through around Lyme Bay. Far from being historic research alone, Kenner's work points to controversy generated by what may well be ongoing scientific trials and experiments, continuing to this day often concealed from the public in plain sight.
The last speaker of the roundtable wasn't an artist but a Senior Lecturer at King's College and the curator of the whole event. Clare Birchall explored how artists are using the materiality of secrecy in their practice. Unsurprisingly, she discussed Paglen and mentioned his keynote at last year's edition of Transmediale. Which i'm copy/pasting below:
Birchall also spoke in details about Jill Magid's work at the AIVD, the Dutch secret service.
In 2005, AIVD asked her to create a work for its new headquarters. They were hoping that the commission would help improve its public persona by providing "'the AIVD with a human face."
Magid spent the following three years meeting with eighteen employees of AIVD in "non-descript public places." AIVD restricted the artist from using recording equipment, so she had to write down her notes. She never disclosed the identity of her contact but compiled the information she had collected during the interviews into a collective persona that she referred to as "The Organization."
When AIVD agents visited the first exhibition of the project in 2008, they confiscated several works and censored the draft of Magid's report.
The artist "protested against the censorship of her own memories," prompting AIVD to suggest that she "'present the manuscript as a visual work of art in a one-time-only exhibition, after which it would become the property of the Dutch government and not be published.'" Magid's 2009/10 exhibition at Tate Modern, Authority to Remove, marked the fulfillment of this request: the uncensored report sat securely behind glass. In its penultimate state, the project thus expressed "what it means to have a secret but not the autonomy to share it." (via)
In the playhouse, as in the courtroom, an event already completed is re-enacted in a sequence which allows its meaning to be searched out. [...] The courtroom is, or should be, a theatrical space, one which evokes expectations of the uncommon. [...] Theatrical effects are such dominant factors in the physical identification of a courtroom that their absence may raise doubts about whether a court which lacks a properly theatrical aspect is really a court at all.
Milner S. Ball, Caldwell Professor of Constitutional Law, University of Georgia
Lawyers learn their lines before their performance, witnesses are given advice about how to play their roles, the judge intervenes when the rules (or should we say the script) are not respected. Meanwhile, the audience sits on the side to enjoy the show.
The architecture of modern courtrooms brings justice and fiction drama even closer to each other. The International Crime Court in The Hague, for example, is equipped with cameras, microphones and sound proof sheets of glass that separates the audience from the main protagonists of the trial. In doing so, the choreographic structures of the court are becoming separated and externalised through the medium of video feeds shot from multiple sight lines, artificial viewpoints and mechanical movements.
Objection!!!, the latest work of artist, writer and film-maker Ilona Gaynor, pushes the court strategies and dramatizations to their most cinematographic limits. Using a series of models, objects, images and a fictionalized case in which a tv National Lottery draw is fixed, Gaynor exposes how the language of film-making manipulates the way a case is presented to the court and how it is understood by it. According to the whim of the team that scripts, shoots then edit the trial, the unfolding of a court case could thus be made to look comical, suspenseful, romantic, tragic or even satirical.
Among the pieces on show is a courtroom diorama the director would use to plan the filmic direction of the trial, a green Chroma Key Set designed to be positioned as needed and edited out in post-production, a show reel that illustrates cinematographic courtroom drama, an elaborate drawing that maps out the location of the cameras, dolly tracks and people required for the shooting length of a real time testimonial deposition, etc.
I particularly liked the photographic 'documentation' of a lawyer practicing persuasive gestures in preparation for a trial. The images are inspired by 1925 photos showing Adolf Hitler rehearsing his oratory.
Objection!!! is part of Designers in Residence 2014: Disruption, an exhibition that showcases the work developed by young designers during their residency at the Design Museum in London. I interviewed Ilona a few weeks after the opening of the show:
Hi Ilona! The starting point of the project is the new courtrooms built by architects where the jury is seated in a separate room. Is that already happening? And what motivates the change in architecture?
It is to an extent, with jurors becoming separated by glass and mirrors with live camera feeds and sound to accompany them. There was a surge in European courts that were being retrofitted into pre-existing office buildings, to save resources (and sometimes for safety of civil unrest) during late 90's and, the use of camera's, audio/video feeds is now becoming common practice and is considered state of the art.
The international Criminal Court, in the Hague operates as a very bizarre enclosure, scattered with cameras, positioned at varying heights around the room, their lenses sight and proximity fixed upon on the faces and edges of tables, glasses, mirrors and reflections all screening on live fed monitors to the both the prosecution and defence. These cameras intercut each other at moments pivotal of play, documenting the dialogue and sequence of events from much higher heights then those of eye level.
The piece that attracts the most attention in the museum show is probably the elaborate diorama. Could you describe it, what happens there?
The diorama depicts the redesign of a courtroom, the UK crown court to be exact. The geometry of the courtroom was redesigned with the audience in mind; the imagined viewing sightlines to be much more acute then they would normally be; the seats would be positioned as ascending podium steps (the kinds that you see at sports stadiums) to enhance the viewing experience.
The model was designed to be self-assembled, by easy slotting conjoining walls and furniture.
It also comes with a kit of parts that consist of prefabbed folding camera equipment such as: camera's, dolly rigs, tripods, microphone stands, audience participation signs such as "boo" and "applause" and a set of dramatically posed lawyers and corresponding court room furniture.
I'm quite curious about the fact that you chose to explain the work using objects. That's not unusual in a design museum of course but you are openly influenced by cinema, your work often refers to it, you hired an actor and there are indeed films in the show but they are not yours. So why didn't you just make a video to explain Objection?
I've got a strong aversion to films that's sole purpose is to explain a work. For some reason it's becoming common practice in design (especially when referring to objects) that the designer needs to reveal the 'imagined' interactivity of the 'objects', in some candidly scarce scenario.
For me, I actually tend to get accidentally commissioned to make objects; I don't even really value objects and often find objects hard to engage with, because somehow they tend to lack rhythm or sequential value. I see my work as studies, or compositions that try and allude to a balancing act of arguments or sequential chapters as you may have noticed I often index the 'objects' or give them a sort of taxonomy or textual story with which to engage with.
Cinema for me is a common ground with which the fantasies of popular culture are often revealed in much more interesting ways then most other mediums, films allow us freely to wonder around the unimaginable in ways that are contextually and textually rich. My work is often tiptoeing along the edge of this medium because I believe the interrelations between cinema and topics I often pivot around are inextricably linked: aesthetically, contextually and culturally. I am actually this year moving my practice much more into the film going forward, both professionally and personally.
The films that you are referring to in 'Objection!!!' are a series of edited clips taken from TV dramas and films that depict the courtroom on screen as a scene or sequence, spanning across the last century of TV and cinema. The purpose of this film is to put my argument into a broadly understood context... the collectively memorised experience of the courtroom, which for most of us, has been experienced through a series of lenses rather then first hand. The film of edited sequences also reveals to the audience the stylistic differentiations between filmic genres, revealing how hard it becomes to remain objective as a pervasive viewer (in this projects case, the jury) when a sequence of camera cuts, pans, soundtracks intertwine. It would be very disturbing to witness (or watch) a case dealing with violence or rape depicted accidentally or not as a comedy for instance; the viewer's perception and adjudication could sit solely on the head of a deft handed technician. Of course this is an extreme example, but we are much more conditioned to filmic languages, no matter how subtle they are, than we think. A fast zoom to face shot for example is a classic attribute to comedy filmmaking.
I was reading the interview you did with Shona Kitchen for the Designers in Residence catalogue. I really liked the way you define your work as designing 'ruses'. Could you explain what you meant by that (since not everyone has the catalogue in their hands)?
I suppose what I meant by that (although actually not so much in this project) is that I'm interested in taking pre-existing functioning models or systems that often serve to exploit the misfortune of others (legally or sometimes illegally), in some form of monetary or political bargaining and use them in ways to turn it inwards on itself. For example the only way to counteract a trap; is to use another trap, which triggers the setting of a 3rd trap, then a 4th and so on.
It is within these terms that I define my practice of design. I would say that I design 'ruses' as a stratagem to plot, to plan, to scheme, as ways to imagine the conceivably unachievable but very logistically possible.
My work often uses design as a vehicle to manoeuvre the arrangement of material in space and over time to pursue an examination of the mechanisms of risk assessment, financial calculation, and rather more literal, legal forms of judgement, in order to generate new situations events or moments to invoke an aesthetic of precision, by really obsessing over narrowing margins of space and time, where exactness matters and becomes a force (I define as design) in its own right.
Also my work often takes form as an anticipation of another form, as a pretext often constructed to allow something else to happen or to be imagined.
My commercial work under my company name The Department of No, uses this practice in much more commercial spheres such as law enforcement, legal planning, crime prevention and script plausibility studies. The ruses directly relate when cross contaminating commercial work with exhibitions and consultancy, they all amalgamate, the fiction feeds the real world and vice versa.
For example I'm currently setting up a practice of licenced Private Investigators to operate in an office located in West Hollywood in Los Angeles, to investigate civil disputes across the city that repeatedly plays itself. The pretext being to write and direct a play of experiences and cases (individuals case plaintiffs unrevealed of course), but we will be operating as a real firm with real clients, attesting to real legal cases.
We live in a time of state control, secrecy and surveillance. But by turning a trial into entertainment, you remove some of the gravitas of the justice system and leave the procedures and interpretation of a trial into the subjective hands of a film director. I've just been reading articles from last year about the introduction of television cameras into UK courts to film the sentencing of serious criminals. There was a lot of debate around losing some of the 'mystique' of the courtroom vs helping "the public re-engage with the criminal justice system". Is that something you'd like to comment on?
I'm not sure the 'mystique' of the courtroom has ever really entered the minds of most, I say this though however because we have been conditioned to the action of the court, its demeanour, atmosphere and so on through television, film etc. Of course these are highly dramatized, with little or no legal references alluding to the true nature of the law but oddly, legal dramas are some of the highest rated shows on television... the sexed up Ally McBeal was supposedly responsible for a boost of people studying law during the early 00's.
I think there's a really odd disconnect between the perceivable "public re-engaging with the criminal justice system" and actual engagement with the issues that ensue due to pervasive camera's in the courts. The Oscar Pistorius trial was undoubtedly entertaining, however the engagement was only of merely entertainment mixed with a public lust for blood of a 'murderer' to be brought to 'justice' at the viewing onslaught of a booing crowd. It seems to be taking form as a contemporary Roman games, I'm not sure how to feel about that, it requires both a smirk and a exhale of disgust. But I think the 'vs' in the articles you were reading were perhaps in the wrong place. The more concerning question is how the cameras will inevitably affect the trial and veracity of testimony itself rather then jog the public's perception.
Ilona Gaynor is an artist, writer and film-maker. She is also the founder of research studio The Department of No and teaches digital + media students "how to tell better stories" at Rhode Island School of Design.
Designers in Residence 2014: Disruption is at the Design Museum in London until 8 March 2015.
Conflict, Time, Photography, an exhibition which opened in November at Tate Modern, looks at over 150 years of conflict around the world, since the invention of photography. It could have been one of those shows that organizes the photos according to themes, geographical area or chronology. The curator, however, orchestrated the exhibition according to the length of time that elapsed between the conflict and the moment the photographs were taken.
The first room in the show, "Moments Later", contains thus images taken almost straight after a disaster occurred. The most compelling example of it is the mushroom cloud photographed 20 minutes after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Toshio Fukada was then a 17-year-old student. He always carried a camera with him and took the images from his window, 2.7 km from the hypocenter.
As you walk through the exhibition rooms, the duration between image and event grows into days, weeks, months, years and decades.
The last gallery shows the series i found most moving. Almost 100 years after the start of WWI, Chloe Dewe Mathews photographed some of the exact spots where British, French and Belgian soldiers were executed for cowardice and desertion between 1914 and 1918. The photos of Shot at Dawn were also taken at approximately the same time of year the men were killed.
The quiet landscapes evoke incidents which memory has been suppressed for decades. Although there is no visible trace of what happened in these locations, the photographer managed to convey the sadness and anxiety these young men must have experienced in those early mornings.
I've seen countless books and exhibitions of images taken by photojournalists reporting from the battle fields. Some of the images were truly frightful and depressing. Yet, frequent exposure to war photography have almost numbed my feelings. I go from one image to the next one and, at best, only a fleeting memory of what i've just seen remains. Conflict, Time, Photography revitalized a sense of horror and dismay that war images (should) provoke. By forcing me to reflect on the impact that conflicts have on people, culture and places over time, this show will haunt me for years to come.
Conflict, Time, Photography is an intense and powerful show. I wish i could mention every single work i saw there but i'll just stop at this brief selection:
Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin have a couple of works in the exhibition. One of them is People In Trouble Laughing Pushed To The Ground which uses fragments of images of Belfast Exposed, a collection of images taken by professional photo-journalists and 'civilian' photographers who documented life under the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Whenever someone selected an image in the archive for use, it was market by a red, yellow or blue sticker. Broomberg and Chanarin enlarged and reprinted the area beneath the dots, revealing puzzling, romantic, amusing or brutal fragments of life under the Troubles.
70 years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, Luc Delahaye photographed the forensic exhumation of a mass grave containing the bodies of Republican fighters executed during the Spanish civil war.
In October 2012, Ursula Schulz-Dornburg had the opportunity to photograph the former USSR nuclear weapons test site near the city of Kurchatov in Kazakhstan. The photographs depict the pitiful remnants of a megalomaniacal arms race.
Nick Waplington captured drawings and words left on the walls by the prisoners of a war camp in South Wales where the low and mid level SS where kept before being sent to Nuremburg for trail.
Sophie Ristelhueber traveled to Kuwait months after the end of the First Gulf War to record the physical traces of the conflict. The aerial and ground-level photos depict bombed out terrains, mangled machinery, still-burning oil fields, tank tracks and other "scars" left on the landscape.
Stephen Shore met Ukrainian holocaust survivors in their houses. There are a few portraits but most of the images detail their belongings. From baby pink plastic radio to ordinary kitchen corners.
In the months after the end of the first world war, architect Pierre Anthony-Thouret documented the destruction of the city of Reims.
In one of the pieces of the series A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I - XVIII , Taryn Simon looked for the survivors of the Srebrenica massacre and built up their family trees. Most of the photos show women and children. Missing members are represented by blanks or by dental fragments found in mass graves.
I'll end with a photo that hangs in one of the rooms titled Moments After. Don McCullin's portrait of a shell shocked marine was taken just minutes after he had been engaged in a bloody battle in Vietnam.
"McCullin's picture is very important for us because it's the kind of picture we very rarely see in the era of embedded photographers, it is very hard to take and show this kind of image," curator Simon Baker told The Guardian. "It's taken moments after this marine has been engaged in an extremely serious engagement and you see him completely traumatised, completely frozen by what's happened to him."
Conflict, Time, Photography is at Tate Modern until 15 March 2015.