I liked 'The Rest of Now', the Bolzano section of the Manifesta biennale so much that i fear that i'll end up forgetting about the other exhibitions i saw at the Biennale this week. Two of the participating artists/architects took very literally the questions put forward by The Raqs Media Collective who curated the exhibition: What gets left behind when everything is taken away? What can be retrieved, and what can be remembered? How can the residual become the engine of meaning?
Over time, parasitic micro-organisms such as cyanobacterias and the Cladosporium genus of fungi, have occupied and taken over the walls of the abandoned Alumix factory. The restoration of the ex-factory means that the building is loosing its value as habitat for the organisms.
Architects Stangeland and Kropf decided to engage with this transitional state. The Naked Garden is generated by the mediation of different modes: biological propagation, mathematical abstraction and technological execution. A robot, programmed with the rules by which the fungi grow, engraves and perforates the wall already inhabited by fungi, thereby allowing light, water and wind to enter and to facilitate the basic conditions of life.
Jorge Otero-Pailos is an architect and theorist specialized in experimental forms of preservation. His contribution to Manifesta is The Ethics of Dust, an installation intended to preserve pollution and the dust that has to be swept away from the building during the renovation process. Pollution has negative connotation. Yet, it can tell fascinating stories about our social, cultural and industrial past.
During two weeks, Otero-Pailos and his team of architectural conservators coated in latex an entire wall of the a wall inside the ex-Alumix factory in order to trap the dust and any trace of air pollution that have accumulated over decades. The architect then peeled the latex off, displaying it like a semi-transparent and precious shroud.
Following the tradition of nineteenth-century archeologists, who made plaster casts of the world's monuments so that European academics could study the architecture of distant cultures, Otero-Pailos suggests a new way of looking at architecture and our history.
Manifesta 7 - the European Biennial of Contemporary Art runs until November 2, 2008 in Trento, Fortezza, Rovereto and Bolzano.
From what i can learn from the press we are living in food mayhem: yesterday morning a nutritionist was complaining on French tv that because the country had turned its back on the usual bread and jam breakfast in favour of American-style fat and sugar-loaded cereals, the population was at risk of fattening. In the afternoon, i was reading in La Repubblica that the soaring costs of pasta, bread, fruit and vegetables are making Mediterranean diet harder to afford. Italians are eating more cheap processed foods high in fat, sugar and salt (via WSJ.) The whole continent is complaining about the food crisis. Meanwhile, bananas are dying, eating local might not always be that energy-efficient after all and a livestock meltdown is under way across Africa, Asia and Latin America. An alarming report states that native breeds are increasingly being supplanted by Western farm animals, which may be less well able to adapt to their new environment in times of drought or disease. In Europe, some 98 per cent of vegetable varieties have disappeared over the past century and EU regulations are hastening the decline.
Mind you, researchers have devised new but rather unappealing ways to have us enjoy food like never before: fish are being trained to catch themselves, we'll be able to choose between meat from cloned animals and in vitro meat and encouraged to get better proteins by snacking on insects.
Matias Viegener and David Burns have added the corn issue on the table.
Back in 2004, Matias and David worked on an installation which i discovered only recently. That year, Fritz Haeg (of the Edible Estates fame) and Francois Perrin produced and curated the GardenLAb experiment. Set in a 1942 supersonic wind tunnel, the event explored the relationship Los Angeles residents have with their environment by experimenting and speculating on current and future ecologies.
Corn Study humourously addresses the future of human food production and the ongoing consequences of issues that range from the latest developments in genetic manipulation, mistreatment of plants and animal species, corporate control and profit motivation, diminishing genetic diversity, modification of our ecosystem, privatization of ownership of plant's genome, etc.
One of Corn Study's objectives was to develop a new relationship with the corn species.
While great effort has been put into the human understanding of plants, very little has been expended to educate the corn and teaching it about the humans that control its fate. The project creates a school for corn with an experimental curriculum to educate the corn in human psychology and sociology, the economics of commerce, important languages, current events and the history of colonialism.
Through the use of audio and autosuggestion the artists deployed Aldous Huxley's theories of hypnopedia: the most powerful educational device being unconscious suggestion to the embryo to maximize its developmental potential.
The school is set up on ten tabletops with different learning stations, with the corn seeds learning through audio speakers as well as by the use of electric fans behind a row of books, which carry knowledge through the air like pollen. In this program of accelerated learning, the individual kernel is not expected to learn everything -- the species as a whole will absorb the knowledge collectively. The variety of knowledge bases is hoped to heighten the corn's wisdom, especially since despite their enormous acquisition of knowledge, humans have acquired so little wisdom.
As the artists conclude in their presentation of the project: While it may take many generations before the outcome of our experiment can be demonstrated, we are hoping for positive mutations and raised consciousness in the corn, to be passed along to other species. At this stage of global development, humans can no longer be entrusted with full stewardship of the environment. Perhaps if other species can intervene, they will do a better job.
I asked Matias and David to tell me more about the school for corn species:
We've been hearing and reading about genetic manipulation for years now. I sometimes think that consumers got used to it, accepted the idea and wouldn't mind buying and eating GMO (or even cloned meat when it lands in our supermarket fridges.)
While we were interested in genetic manipulation we wanted to work away from it. The basis of Corn Study was the idea that corn had been studied and manipulated more than any other plant than perhaps soybeans. While we're disinclined to GM foods, it seems clear that all our agricultural foods have been manipulated for millennia. So we wanted to refocus the question of GM foods into the broader question of how humans have studied and changed our foods without any seeming consideration for the nature (or the education) of the foods themselves. What if we could give the corn some agency of its own, educating it about its human hosts. Our ironic goal was to find a way for the corn to gain some power over its own fate, to "speak out" if it could, by learning more about us and both the good and the bad of the human universe.
What does corn education involves exactly? Could you guide us through the whole curriculum?
While there was a lot of specific material, there was no defined curriculum for the corn school. Or maybe a better way to say this is that we could have endlessly kept adding educational material to the school. Here's a quote from the original text that was distributed to visitors:
"The curriculum is composed of texts, lectures and readings in political science, history, psychology, philosophy, foreign languages and cultural studies; we have tried to select materials that help outline the background of our global socioeconomic, political and environmental circumstances. For the student's personal growth we include tapes on self-actualization, meditation, hypno-suggestion, and personal dynamics. The songs are mostly pop music from the 60's and 70's, chosen to reflect the optimism of a time now fallen by the wayside. Included in our coursework are Noam Chomsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Marxist theory, Mahatma Ghandi, Winston Churchill, Neil Armstrong, Machiavelli, Plato, Immanuel Kant, Abraham Lincoln, Anthony Robbins, Brian Tracy, Zig Ziglar, Lao Tzu, Gloria Steinem, Elizabeth Vandiver, greek myths, Howard Zinn, Ken Wilber, Malcolm x, Michael Moore, Ralph Nader, Lyndon B. Johnson, Al Sharpton, Terence McKenna, Aldous Huxley, Paul Scheele, Michael Pollan, Henry Thoreau, various international Pimsleur language audiobooks, The New Christie Minstrels, Melanie, Paul Williams, Ray Charles, The Carpenters, Cher, Three Dog Night, The 5th Dimension, Donovan, Bread, Dolly Parton, Jefferson Airplane, Sly and the Family Stone, the Doors, and John Denver."
Do you welcome both "natural" and modified corns in your classes? Is there any segregation?
We welcomed all corn to the school, including GM corn. We tried for a good mix of modern hybrids and ancient or "heirloom" corn varieties. We don't think one group is in any way superior to the others. The idea was to empower the species as a whole to make collective decisions and perhaps take actions to both improve their lot in the world and deflect any more human mismanagement of it. Halfway through the design we realized that all seeds of all species should be welcomed to the school, without distinction between crops and weeds, the good or the bad, which are all values that come from humans and not from nature itself.
Why did you choose to work with corn? Wouldn't animals seem like a more natural and rewarding choice?
We worked with corn because of the place it holds in American culture. Americans consume more corn products than any other nationality (and in recent years corn has been blamed for a host of our health problems.) We love animals but this sort of project was hard enough to mount with the immobile corn plants... it's hard to think how we would have done it with a herd of cattle.
I read that plants communicate. Do you expect your corn students to spread their newly acquired knowledge to their companions?
It's certainly possible for plants to communicate, and perhaps we succeeded in communicating with them, and that our ideas got passed along the botanical spectrum. Of course the real audience for Corn Study was human. We felt that in addressing the corn, the humans might consider seeing the universe from a less human-centric position. Just as we have no preconception about how these ideas would flow through to the plants, we were very open to how they might arrive to the human spectator. A key to our work here is the use of play combined with what we think of as vital issues of our times. Much of our work plays on corniness as a way to be serious, on the relation between pure, purposeful aesthetic or cultural ideas and the low, foolhardy kitsch of the ordinary world. We're not interested in art that's pedantic, but we do care about conveying ideas and questioning values. We're not especially interested in art that creates objects either, but we are invested in the way in which artmaking expands the variety of containers for ideas (and can make things in general look nicer).
Thanks Matias and David!
All images are from the installation at GardenLAb.
For the past ten years, Brandon Ballengée's work has been the observation of amphibian declines and deformities.
I find his work deeply moving for many reasons. One of them has to do with the way he communicates his work. He produces not only amazingly beautiful images of these deformed amphibians but also takes his discourse out of the white walls of art galleries (where aonly a certain category of people will ever get to see them) by taking people to field trips and let them experience first hand what his happening in their own backyards.
The Arts Catalyst has just released a video that documents the project to date:
Consolation prize for everyone who missed the sk-interface conference. The videos of the talks -which took place at FACT in Liverpool on February 8 & 9 as part of the sk-interfaces exhibition - have been made available online. Yeah!
I'm quoting curator Jens Hauser:
This international conference examined the aesthetic, philosophical and biomedical issues raised in the exhibition. Specialists from a wide range of disciplines and artists of international renown discussed past and future roles of skin, shifts in the concept of interfaces, the emergence of 'biofacts' in philosophy, as well as the most contemporary practices of artists using new technologies, biomedia and their own bodies.
Make your way to the FACT archive.
Videos are encoded in H.264 format - you need a recent Flash player.
Dear friends and readers living in New York, i'm going to hit your turf soon for a panel rhizome has kindly asked me to set up at the New Museum in Manhattan. If you know me a tiny bit you might have guessed that my first thought was for biotech art. I wasn't sure my proposal would be accepted as the topic is far less popular than interactive screens in public spaces or "sustainable" gadgetry. It's a bit more risky as well. But they said yes and i'd love to meet you on Friday 14, at the New Museum theater, 235 Bowery (map).
The Media Art in the Age of Transgenics, Cloning, and Genomics panel is scheduled at 7,30 pm. There will be the cream of biotech art: Caitlin Berrigan, Adam Zaretsky, Brandon Ballengee, and Kathy High.
Image on top left by Brandon Ballengee: Cleared and Stained Multi-limbed Pacific Tree frog, Aptos, California. Digital imaging courtesy The Institute for Electronic Arts, School of Art and Design NYSCC at Alfred University, Alfred, New York.
Last week i flew to one of my favourite cities, Liverpool, to visit the Sk-interfaces exhibition at the FACT art center. The show, curated by Jens Hauser, explores, materially and metaphorically, the concept of skin as a technological interface.
A controversial new exhibition on display in Liverpool showcases real skin tissue in sculptures wrote the BBC news website. Yet every single person i spoke with during the 2 days i spent in the city didn't seem to find the show controversial. Interesting, surprising, fascinating, challenging, thought-provoking, worth bringing my mum, etc. That's what i heard but no one i talked to seemed overly shocked nor disturbed.
There is material to cause quite a stir in sk-interfaces but Liverpudlians seemed to be more concerned by the issues brought to light by the artists than by the potentially seditious or "freaky" character of the works on show.
I'll start the blog visit of this multi-disciplinary exhibition by walking to the second floor of FACT.
Immolation is a video installation concerned with the subject of the use of incendiary weapons on civilians after the Geneva Convention and the Protocol on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Incendiary Weapons of 1980. The USA have refused to sign the convention and they make regular use of firebombs in the Middle East. Not because these bombs are the most efficient (they are not), but because they act as moral crushers, tapping on people's visceral fear of being burned alive.
This video chronicles the major war crimes of the United States involving these weapons on a ( macro) landscape level, and contrasts it with the damage done to the body on the (micro) cellular level.
To accomplish this task, the Critical Art Ensemble (a collective of tactical media practitioners who explore the intersections between art, critical theory, technology, and political activism) grew human tissue at SymbioticA last year, and using high-end microscopy shot the micro footage of skin cells dying by either exploding or imploding. In parallel, CAE shows film footage of present and past wars that have used immolation against civilian targets as a strategic choice for the sole purpose of terrorizing entire populations.
The result is a video where war crime are shown at both the micro and macro level but which skips the human level. Yet you still manage to view your own body in the narrative. The video is made even more unsettling by the absence of sound, it's just silence and destruction.
The goal is to provide a different way of imaging, viewing, and interpreting the human costs of these war crimes, in contrast to the barrage of media imagery to which we have become so desensitised. The video portrays what CAE calls an "ecology of crime."
CAE felt that as long as warfare would be at the center of the Bush agenda, they had to come up with new connections and find venues to show their work (since the arrest of Steve Kurtz some US administrations are feeling the pressure).
Right next to Immolation, is Truth Serum, a work that responds to the lawsuit against Steve Kurtz and their persecution of Critical Art Ensemble in the USA, which marks an ever-increasing creep of the security state into the nervous system of culture.
For Truth Serum, The Office of Experiments, initiated by Neal White, follows research on serums used historically by official authorities in interrogation processes as a means to obtain information without using torture. The effects of truth drugs were first examined in the 1920's, and heavily used by the CIA during the Cold War. The present artwork echoes the debate around art's freedom in the fear and increasing security regime that has emerged after 9/11, while drawing on the cultural history of so-called truth drugs and recent discussions about their use in the interrogation of suspected terrorists.
The use of truth serums is actually illegal but after 9/11 there have been talks (mostly in the press) of using the method again during interrogations by the FBI and the CIA, even though truth serums are more an art than a science.
The installation at FACT combines a space concealed behind a white door and a series of video works that reflect on the aesthetics of terrorist messages, using a dark clown as an anonymous spokesman who reflects on the possibility of carrying out mass self-experimentation with truth drugs as a form of self-defence.
On 29 March 2008, volunteers will be able to participate to the performative part of the Truth Serum installation in support of freedom from artistic censorship.
In a central (and still secret) Liverpool location, participants will willingly submit themselves to a short psychological experiment based on substantiating Truth lasting around 10 minutes. The aim is to probe an atmosphere of paranoia spreading since 9/11.
sk-interfaces is on view until March 30 and launches FACT's Human Futures programme which includes 3 sections - My Body (SK-Interfaces), My Mind and My World, each one hosting a major exhibition, conference and research focus. You can follow its development through Human Futures blog.