The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has recently opened an exhibition that "examines the powerful role of objects in movements for social change." It is called Disobedient Objects. That's the kind of title that chic and cheerful designers would use to describe how their work is 'subversive' but, thankfully, this is probably the most un-designy show the V&A has ever organised (except for the whole communication and setting which was orchestrated by the studio of Jonathan Barnbrook.) Disobedient Objects is not one of those fashionable activist art exhibitions either. This is a show about activism with a capital A, a show inhabited by artefacts that had never graced the venerable rooms of a museum or art gallery until now.
Many of the items exhibited are often mundane objects that were either given a new purpose or modified in haste in answer to an emergency situation. As modest as they might seem, these artifacts show the resourcefulness and ingenuity of people. They testify of their courage as well. Confronted with the sophisticated (except maybe in London where our good Mayor favours cut-price water cannons that are being phased out in Germany amid concerns about their safety) and potentially harmful equipment used by security forces, these artefacts look almost pitiful. But that doesn't make them less efficient.
Disobedient Objects focuses on the period from the late 1970s to now, a time that has brought new technologies and political challenges. The items displayed range from the very rudimentary to the sophisticated, from a slingshot made from a Palestinian child's shoe to mobile phone-powered drones for filming demonstrations or the police, from textiles sewn by women to communicate the atrocities they have experienced under the Pinochet regime in Chile, in particular the 'disappearance of their children to a robot that spray paint slogans on the pavement.
I entered the show ready to sneer at V&A's grand attempts to glamourize popular protests and turn evidences of genuine and at times violent dissent into food for cool hunters. My fighting mood quickly vanished. Disobedient Objects is a show that invites visitors to get out and raise their heads, to be inspired and fight for their rights. And that's what matters to me.
As the curators wrote: "Peaceful disobedience only works when protesters have cultural visibility and the government acknowledges their right to protest. Without this, struggles for freedom can sometimes take other forms."
Here's a very small overview of the stories you can discover in this ridiculously crammed with visitors but invigorating exhibition:
As usual, I bow (me saco el sombrero?) to Spanish wittiness. No one does protests as eloquently and astutely as they do these days. TAF! and Enmedio worked with Plataforma de Artefactos por la Hipoteca (a platform for mortgage debt victims) against dehumanizing media representations of people affected by Spain's mortgage crisis. The group pasted portraits of evicted homeowners on the facades of banks responsible, showing evicted people, not statistics.
The inflatable cobblestones were rolled across the streets in Berlin and Barcelona to confuse police and generate sympathetic media attention.
When many people run the program FloodNet (1998) together, they can target and overload websites. The Java applet was created in response to the massacre of 45 peaceful supporters of the Zapatistas in Mexico. Ten thousand protestors disturbed the website of the Mexican presidency and the Pentagon. FloodNet has since been adopted by many groups and movements.
The first Bike Bloc was part of the mass civil disobedience organised during the 2009 Climate Summit in Copenhagen. Moving in swarms, bikes helped protesters breach the summit's security cordon and hold an alternative People's Assembly. The leading bike carried a sound system and pirate radio antennae. It broadcasted via other bikes around it with independent speakers, each on a separate channel. The sound could jump between bikes inside the crowd, and change in tone to respond to different situations.
The banner was made for the 2009 Climate Camp at Blackheath, London. It identified capitalism as the source of climate chaos and as an ongoing crisis of inequality and injustice.
One of the banners hanging over the exhibition space was designed and hand-stitched by Ed Hall (whose name appears in almost every single post i've written about Jeremy Deller's work.) Hall has been making banners used by union groups for over 30 years. This one was used in a protest march in support of the NHS in Manchester in 2013. It features the Thatcher quote 'Still the enemy within', which is surrounded by iconography referencing the miners' strike, poll tax rebellion and welfare cuts.
Andy Dao and Ivan Cash circulated dollar bills stamped with fact-based infographics that communicate the widening economic disparity in the U.S.A. The designs were also released on the Internet enabling anyone to participate.
The artists/advertising experts were commissioned by the museum to design stamps about the UK's wealth disparity on the £5 note: in 2011, 1% of the UK population earned £922,433 while 90% earned £12,933. Any visitor can use the stamp to make their money a bit more riotous.
There is a long, long tradition of bank notes used for protest. The show also reminded that in 1990, a Burmese currency designer very subtly painted the face of Aung San Suu Kyi onto a new note after she had been democratically elected then placed under house arrest by the military junta. The designer softened the features of Gen. Aung San (the father of Aung San Suu Kyi) so that his face resembles the one of his daughter. People could thus hold up their bank notes to the light and see a hidden portrait of the opposition leader.
In 2013, the Turkish government used record amounts of tear gas against people protesting against the redevelopment of the Gezi Park in Istanbul. Protesters devised their own makeshift gas mask using plastic bottle, surgical face mask, foam and rubber bands.
Greek protesters adopted an equally cunning strategy. People resisting government austerity discovered that a solution of antacid and water sprayed onto the face offered relief from the burn of tear gas. However, it left a white residue that market protesters out.
The protest shields painted to look like books were first made in Italy, in November 2010. Students were protesting against the drastic cuts to the public university system. The oversize books were held up at the front of demonstrations so that when the police hit the students with sticks, it looked as if they were attacking literature.
Students in London produced their own book shields after they saw videos of the actions online. The tactic quickly spread to other parts of the world.
A couple of artworks did sneak into the exhibition. I guess that the Graffiti Writer doesn't need any introduction....
The gallery also featured Molleindustria's Phone Story, a free game app that players win by forcing children to mine coltan in the Congo, preventing worker protest-suicide in China, managing rabid consumers in the West and disposing of electronic waste unsafely in Pakistan. The game was banned from Apple's iTunes store four days after its release.
The Guerrilla Girls was formed in 1985 to protest against the ridiculously low number of works by female artists in the most prestigious galleries and museums of New York. Their fight is as relevant as ever today (and not just in NYc obviously.)
More images from the show:
The museum has PDF guides to DIY some of the objects exhibited.
Disobedient Objects was curated by Gavin Grindon and Catherine Flood. The show is at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, until 1 February 2015.
I'm one day late (how lame!) for my wrap-up of the exhibitions i enjoyed in London in July.
Starting obviously with the favourite one. Men y Men by TrujilloPaumier at New Art Projects. Joaquin Trujillo and Brian Paumier went to Oxaca to portray two communities who communicate radically different ideas of masculinity. Paumier's Moros are cowboys standing next to their horses, while Trujillo's Muxes shows a community of mixed gender people living in the indigenous Zapotec culture of Oaxaca.
Trujillo Paumier: Men y Men closed on 20 July.
British Folk Art at Tate Britain is bizarre, quirky but thankfully never condescending. Instead of wasting time speculating on is it art/is it not art?, the exhibition celebrates people's creativity and resourcefulness. Expect gigantic boots that served as tradesmen's signs, a cockerel made by prisoners from the Napoleonic Wars out of mutton bones, imposing ship figureheads, embroidered remakes of classic paintings, etc. I'd be more enthusiastic if folks didn't have to pay £13.10 to enter.
The show is up until 31 August 2014. Happy Famous Artists has a great flickr set.
One of the most interesting galleries in London, Calvert22, is showing the work of photographers and video artists who explore identity and place in early 21st century Russia alongside the pre-revolutionary works of Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky.
I liked the work of Alexander Gronsky a lot. Especially the series Pastoral, which looks at the desolate spaces where the urban and the rural meet.
Close and Far: Russian Photography Now is at Calvert22 until 17 August.
I also went to the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill, London. The building and botanical gardens opened in 1901 to host the collection of a business man who traveled the world to gather objects related to world culture, natural history and music. Among the 350,000 objects, there are lots of stuffed animals, a Spanish Inquisition torture chair and a charming little Merman (the husband of the mermaid?)
I never found the merman, alas! But i discovered doublepreps: half the animal is shown as taxidermy, the other half is stripped to its skeleton.
One of the Horniman galleries has a fascinating photo exhibition that documents the lives of indigenous peoples in the Russian Arctic. The photos were taken by British photographer Bryan Alexander who has been travelling to the Arctic since 1971.
Whisper of the Stars: Traditional Life in Arctic Siberia is at the Horniman Museum until 07 September 2014. Interview with the photographer. More photos in The Guardian.
I'll end with An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition at the Wellcome Collection. The exhibition offers a selection of some of Henry Wellcome's objects, medical artefacts, paintings, photographs and sculptures, along with a couple of contemporary artworks.
I wasn't as impressed as every single journalist who published glowing reviews of the show in their newspapers but i did enjoy some of the artefacts. Such as this photo of rubber beauty masks that removed wrinkles and blemishes.
Or this fetching corrective ear-cap, patented by Adelaide Claxton in 1945 to wear at night in order to 'correct and prevent the disfigurement of outstanding ears'.
The exhibition is up until 12 October 2014.
I entered the PEER gallery a bit by chance and quickly realized that the exhibition involves one artist whose work i admire, an interesting-sounding organization called Archive of Modern Conflict and a photographer who has won numerous awards for his work on AIDS in Uganda, the conflict in Kosovo, the war in Lebanon, anti-terrorism in Algeria, etc.
The artist is Fionna Banner and the photographer is Paolo Pellegrin. Banner asked the photo reporter to explore the City of London and to reflect its activities, behaviours, customs and costume through the lens of conflict photography.
The photos are every bit as good as you would expect from Pellegrin and the way Banner has orchestrated them in the exhibition only adds depth, humour and an extra layer of information. Hundreds of the images are sequenced in a short and gripping film, accompanied by a mixed soundtrack of open cry trading at the London Metal Exchange, melded with a persuasive and hypnotic drumbeat. The other photos are either displayed in museum-type vitrines or inside frames hanging on the walls of a second gallery. Floor to ceiling graphite drawings magnify traditional City pinstripe suits to the point that they become overbearing (or maybe it's just me who's uncomfortable with having a drawing of a banker's crotch at eye level.) The iconic pattern of the financial district even finds itself, absurdly, turned into nail art design. An amusing juxtaposition if you think that the financial sector in London has been relentlessly accused of being sexist.
Speaking of sexy sex, i had to smile in front of the map that shows how strip bars are surrounding the Square Mile. The City of London Corporation has its own electoral system and its own laws. One of them forbids the presence of strip bars in the City. :
The title of the show is Mistah Kurtz--he not dead. Mistah Kurtz is a character from Joseph Conrad's book Heart of Darkness. Kurz is a shrewd and corrupt ivory trader in Africa who has managed to turn himself into a demigod of all the tribes surrounding his station. Towards the end of the book, the death of Kurts is announced by a 'manager boy' with the words 'Mistah Kurtz - he dead.' The City culture of excess, greed and aloofness from society offers indeed parallels to Conrad's narrative.
It is not the first time that Banner references Heart of Darkness. Two years ago, she organised a performance of Orson Welles' screenplay Heart of Darkness, based on Conrad's story. It would have been Welles' first film but it was rejected. He made Citizen Kane instead.
Mistah Kurtz - He Not Dead, 2014, High definition digital film projection and mixed media wall drawing, 6.19 minutes, 2014. Image Fiona Banner
Mistah Kurtz--he not dead is at PEER in London until 26 July 2014:
Previously: Fiona Banner at Tate Britain.
I see far more exhibitions than i can blog (i could but i'm fairly lazy, you see.) So this morning, i went through all the photos i took in London galleries and museum in June and threw them hastily in this almost laconic post in case you're in town and bored. Being bored in London seems to be my latest obsession but that's another story.
Here we go...
The ever fabulous Science Museum has a small show about the work of scientist and inventor James Lovelock. I spotted this apparatus to test if a detector would work on Mars. Lovelock built it in his home lab in the 1960s while working on NASA's Viking Mission to Mars. It is made with an ordinary kitchen jar and lid. The detector was sealed inside the jar and air was removed via the valve on the left to replicate Martian atmospheric pressure.
Check out the Exponential Horn while you're in the building.
Speaking of wild inventions. I caught the very last day of the Paul Granjon exhibition at Watermans. It was called Is Technology Eating My Brain? and it was very very funny. It's not every day that i laugh my face off all alone in an art gallery. The show was the result of the artist's residency in the art center. He had a couple of works in the gallery (including a magnificently visitor-unfriendly Biting Machine), the rest were works made by participants of Granjon's Wrekshop. They included a slicing photo booth and a geranium survival kit.
I spent far too long watching the videos of Granjon's fancy inventions and performances:
I watched this one three times:
And I now need this book: Hand-Made Machines [Includes DVD]
The show's already closed alas! but here's a few images. And a video.
The Victoria and Albert museum was showing the short listed artists and the winner of the Prix Pictet. The theme was Consumption in all its disastrous relationship to environmental sustainability.
Abraham Oghobase photographed hand scribbled texts advertising the various informal services offered by people living in Lagos, a city of over ten million inhabitants and the commercial capital of Nigeria.
In Lebensmittel, Michael Schmidt portrayed the mechanized, industrialized food system of contemporary Western culture. From pigs standing skin to skin in a factory farm to piles of discarded food. Seeing the images one next to the other up on the wall was both shaming and mesmerizing. No wonder the series won the prize.
The exhibition closed a couple of weeks ago.
Talking in the context of her Post-Surveillance Art series, she said that: "What has altered for me post Snowden, is not an awareness and negotiation of a changed condition, but the knowledge that now almost everybody else knows something which was clear as day if you did a bit of research, and it's great to no longer be called a conspiracy theorist."
I have no time for design products, except when they come with a Soviet aura. The GRAD: Gallery for Russian Arts and Design is showing all kinds of plastic toys, a dial-less Telephone, red velvet flags, retro futuristic vacuum cleaners, etc.
Work and Play Behind the Iron Curtain is at the GRAD: Gallery for Russian Arts and Design until 24 August.
I also visited The Human Factor: The Figure in Contemporary Sculpture during the press view. I can't say that was the show of my life. AT ALL! But there were a couple of works i was glad to see again....
The Human Factor: The Figure in Contemporary Sculpture is at the Hayward until 7 September.
Gun Architects's rainforest-inspired pavilion at Bedford Square for the 2014 London Festival of Architecture.
Photojournalist Nick Danziger visited North Korea in 2013. He recorded the everyday life in the DPRK and was given rare access to cities outside Pyongyang. The story behind each photo is probably more interesting than the photos themselves. The subjects are doing very ordinary things (getting their hair done at the hairdresser, sunbathing by the sea with their kids, etc.) only it does look like the photos were taken in the past.
According to the British Council the exhibition is "the first cultural engagement of its kind" between the UK and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The Guardian adds that it opened in London with no advance publicity, for fear that the dire relations between North Korea and the west might sink the first cultural project of its kind.
Above the Line: People and Places in the DPRK (North Korea) is open at the British Council HQ in London until 25 July.
I spotted this one in the street.
In the second half of the 19th century, the Mexican government partnered with British companies to built the railway line that would connect Mexico City with the Atlantic Ocean. This iconic railway infrastructure now lies in ruins, much of it abandoned due to the privatisation of the railway system in 1995, when it was decided that transporting people was simply not profitable enough. Many passenger train lines were thus cut off, the infrastructure was left to rot and communities became geographically and economically isolated as a consequence.
Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, aka Los Ferronautas (from ferrocarriles which means railway in spanish), wanted to travel along the ruins of the passenger railway system and investigate the remains of what they consider a misuse of common resources and therefore a political issue.
But to drive around the rusty lines, they needed to build their own light vehicle. The result is a half car half spaceship hybrid called SEFT-1 (the Sonda de Exploración Ferroviaria Tripulada, in english Manned Railway Exploration Probe). But SEFT-1 is much more than a vehicle. Los Ferronautas call it a research tool because it allows them to investigate notions and promises of progress. The vehicle is also a transmitter of non-eletronic stories, it enabled the duo to visit and interview communities which the privatization of the railway has been left behind.
As they traveled through the country in 2010 and 2011, the artists shared their discoveries online, mapping their trajectory, archiving objects found by the tracks, writing down anecdotes, uploading photos and interviews with the people they met along the way.
I've been following the work of Los Ferronautas ever since i read an article about them in the always excellent blog Arte en la Edad del Silicio so i'm really happy that they finally have their first London exhibition, SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe: Modern Ruins 1:220, thanks to The Arts Catalyst and Furtherfield Gallery.
The show opens tomorrow 20 June between 6 and 8pm and there's a tour of the exhibition with the artist on Saturday. The vehicle will be on show of course but there will be more:
For this new exhibition, the artists are inviting British expert model railway constructors to collaborate by creating scale reproductions of specific Mexican railway ruins, originally built by British companies, exactly as they are now. One gallery becomes a space for the process of model ruin construction. The room's walls will show the pictures, documents, plans and other materials used as reference for the meticulously elaborated ruin construction. With this action a dystopian time tunnel is created.
I'm really looking forward to discovering what Los Ferronautas will do in collaboration with the model makers. Already, they have reproduced in photo and using their own vehicle a scene painted by José María Velasco in 1881. During a presentation they gave on Saturday at a London LASER04 session, they announced that the whole landscape would be recreated by British model enthusiasts.
SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe
SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe: Modern Ruins 1:220 is at Furtherfield in Finsbury Park from 20 June until 27 July 2014.
I know you're not supposed to ever be tired of London but if you feel like a change of atmosphere, there's some rather spectacular disused wind tunnels to gape at in Farnborough, a mere 35 minute train ride from Waterloo station.
The Wind Tunnel project filled with site-specific commissions two wind tunnels buildings, known as R52 and Q121, that were built to test planes, from Spitfires to Concorde. These buildings were decommissioned after the 1960s and have remained closed to the public ever since.
Opened in 1935, Q121 is the largest wind tunnel in Great Britain. Inside, two gigantic holes face each other. One is a powerful fan with 600kg blades which would drag air fast and furious across the space between them to test complete planes and sections of bigger airplanes.
R52 was built in 1917. It is now an empty hangar but it used to house one of the world's earliest aerodynamic testing facilities.
McIntyre-Burnie's sound pieces makes use of archive materials from the BBC to fill the impressive Q121.
The basis of his sound work is an outside recording made by the BBC of the song of a nightingale in 1942 in a garden in Surrey. It was a yearly broadcast since 1924 but this year, the microphone accidentally picked up the sound of RAF bombers flying overhead on their way to Germany. The program had to be interrupted, for fear it would have tipped off Germany about the upcoming bombing attack.
McIntyre-Burnie's new composition fills the wind tunnel. It doesn't try and compete with the impressive structure (that would be foolish.) In fact, it make the whole experience of going through the historical space even more awe-inspiring.
One of Bridle's works, Rainbow Plane 001, also paid homage to the history of the site. The installation outlines the silhouette of a Miles M.52, an experimental supersonic aircraft developed in secret to break the sound barrier at Farnborough in the early 1940s.
The contour is shown as if distorted by the pansharpening effect of satellite photography, as if viewed, in flight, from space. There never was any original photography of that Miles M.52 in flight. First of all because, the aircraft never flew. It was a research project that was cancelled in 1946 even though its aerodynamics had been successfully demonstrated by a scale model. Besides, satellites don't take 'photos' of what lays below them. Instead, they use sensors to look down onto the earth and acquire information about its surface and atmosphere.
Rainbow Plane 001 is ducted tapped under the site's portable airship hangar. The structure was one of the 6 airship sheds in the UK at the outset of WWI and it probably isn't as 'portable' as its name suggests. It is estimated that it would take 50 men ten days to dismantle the structure, 7 to load it onto railway and 2 to 3 weeks to reassemble it.
The Wind Tunnel Project was organised by Artliner and curated by Salma Tuqan. I must say that the website of the project is one of the most frustratingly dysfunctional i've ever visited. Anyway, you can see the tunnels and artworks in Farnborough until the 20th of July. A shuttle service is helpfully available outside the Farnborough railway station.
More images from the wind tunnel (I also posted a photo set from the opening on flickr, if ever you're interested):