Survival Mosque is a kit containing elements for the self protection of Muslims living in the USA today: an American-flag pattern that communicates patriotism, an umbrella that surveys one’s back, washing solution for ablution and for cleaning when a Muslim get spit on, ear plugs against insults, American constitution proofing rights of American Muslims, a loud-speaker with speech on tolerance held by President George W. Bush, educative books, communication devices, etc. The mosque is self-sufficient; the prayer rug is supplying its own energy source via photo-voltaic solar cells. The Survival Mosque can be transformed and camouflaged into bags, which communicate with each other via bluetooth. The bag-speakers reflect paranoia spreading messages regarding terrorism, but they can also function as muezzins; calling for prayer at prayer times. The kit challenges the way diverse prejudices and fears to Muslims could be reversed.

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Survival Mosque

Survival Mosque is only one of the many projects developed by Azra Akšamija to explore ways of negotiating spatial relationships of Islamic religious practices and identities in a secular and contemporary context. Born in Sarajevo, Azra is an Austrian artist and architect based in Cambridge, USA. Since fall 2004 she is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Architecture (History Theory and Criticism Section / Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture) at MIT. She is currently researching her dissertation on contemporary mosque architecture in post-socialist Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Azra Akšamija´s mosque projects address states and needs of a cosmopolitan generation of Muslims, and provide a reinterpretation of the underlying histories and cultural traditions. Whether they take the form of a landscape of prayer-rugs installed in public space or the form of a series of Wearable Mosques, her projects reveal the variable typology of the mosque, which can adapt itself to the different contexts and cultures. One of Akšamija´s aims is to shift the focus from the biased and politicized representations of Islam in favor of the beauty of artifacts from Islamic aesthetic culture.

I found so many fascinating elements in each of her works (attention to details, crucial contemporary issues and originality in the way she engages with them, references to both traditional and modern culture, etc.) that i had to bother her with my many questions:

Do you see the items of clothing related to your Nomadic Mosque project as garments that could be really used and worn or more as a mean to trigger discussion?

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The Nomadic Mosque, clothes that can be transformed into prayer-rugs

The “wearable mosques? are meant both to provoke discussions and to be used for prayer. My intention was to question and deconstruct the established categories that define mosque architecture, which, as a form of representation, designates Islamic cultures. If I call a suit or a jacket a mosque, I had to design them to fulfill liturgical necessities, as well as other important social functions that mosques usually provide. Otherwise, these objects could not be called mosques. However, these clothes also show that mosques do not have to be designed as buildings. Different kinds of spaces, such as apartments or sports halls, can also be reused to become mosques and provide prayer space and social services. By designing wearable mosques I not only investigate formal limits of the mosque architecture, but also propose a novel way of communicating Islamic presence and identity on an individual level.

0adindllllr.jpgThe Dirndl, a traditional Austrian dress inspired the Dirndlmoschee which can be transformed into an Islamic prayer environment that provides a prayer space for 3 people

How did people from various religious beliefs react to them? Which kind of discussion do these works give rise to?

The wearable mosques function as communicators with and between Muslims and non-Muslims. My first interaction involving these clothes happened on the beach in Boston, when I was filming a video about prayer and ablution at different places. I coincidentally met a passerby Muslim woman there, whom asked to pray with me. Unexpectedly, she was not even surprised my proposal, and she agreed to help me with the video. The nicest moment during this action was that she started helping me to unfold the clothes, and this, for me, represented an act of bonding through the mosque itself.

Since then, I have been showing the wearable mosques to varied people, such as the students of the Muslim Student Association at MIT, high school children, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as mixed art audiences at various venues. Once, I was also invited to talk to children at a Unitarian Church in Boston as a part of their religious education, and we laughed the fact that a mosque came to visit a church, literally. In all these cases, people reacted to my projects very positively. Themes that come up in such events and discussions regard the position of religion and spirituality within secular contexts, understanding of the mosque as ephemeral space, necessity of domes and minarets for mosques, gendered spaces in Islam and position of women in the mosque, as well as issues of cultural identity.

It seems that the wearable mosques allow for discussion of these themes in a novel way. Most recently, I have also been contemplating about them becoming a product. My intention is to create an online shop for wearable mosques and other religious equipment, which would bring together designers, producers and consumers from different cultures and age groups with an economic concept. “Mosque as a product? could fulfill various charitable functions, give work to unemployed women, and act as a social binder across cultural, political, and geographic boundaries.

Your garments --such as the Dirndlmoschee dress or the Frontier Vest, seem to be very carefully designed and crafted, yet your background is not in fashion design but in architecture. Which kind of relationship do you perceive between architecture and fashion design?

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The Frontier Vest hybridizes different religious equipment and a contemporary vest design

My projects show that fashion design can also be understood as wearable architecture. The mosque could be described by the space a worshipper occupies while praying towards Mecca. This means, that the minimal volume of the mosque is actually defined by the human body. In that sense , my wearable mosques represent customized architectural expressions of an individual identities. Although they are clothes, I consider them not only as fashion, but as “statements to wear?.

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The Frontier Vest

Did you have to get some help from a fashion designer or follow some fashion courses?

I do occasionally get professional help with the more complicated garment parts or if I have no time for sewing. However, I prefer to produce all the prototypes myself, because the very process of making clothes involves conceptual decision making. I have learned to saw when I was 12 years old. I took a basic sewing course for factory workers in Sarajevo, where I come from, where I learned to take sew from sewing patterns. I mostly take patterns from magazines or from existing clothes and then change and appropriate these according to my own sketches and ideas.

There's a strong sense of humor in Survival Mosque. How much do you think that humor can stimulate or hinder the understanding of a critical art work?

I think humor could be very stimulating to the understanding of a critical art work, it can also help avoid moralizing, which allows for a better receptivity on the part of the viewer. However, there is a fine line between being funny and being humorous, but taken seriously. That is why I invest a lot of time in developing my projects, adding ideas and taking them out again, until I feel I have reached the right balance. For me it is important that the project remains respectful to the viewer and to its subject matter, and this can be achieved by communicating depth of knowledge about the subject and allowing for its multiple readings.

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Dirndlmoschee [Dirndl Dress Mosque]

Several designers, artists and architects have worked on the idea of wearable architecture. Is there anyone in particular whose work in that field you admire or who has influenced your own research?

Krzysztof Wodiczko’s interventionist art projects, and Lucy Orta’s transformable clothes have informed my work. They are among artists who I highly admire and see as teachers. Krzysztof Wodiczko was my professor at MIT and I developed my fist prototype for the “Nomadic Mosque? within his class “Interrogative Design Workshop? that dealt with the notion “fearless speech? in public space. Prof. Wodiczko and my classmates have greatly contributed to the development of my projects.

Thanks Azra!

The work of Azra Aksamija is part of the group show Encounters which runs at the Stadsgalerij Heerlen (NL) through November 11, 2007. The works presented in Encounters examine the tension between the dominant visual culture, often confirmed by the ‘official’ media, and possible alternative visions. They function as a starting point for people to ask questions about themes such as democratisation, emancipation, and globalisation.

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0lafilelenrue.jpgI'm sometimes asked what my favourite "new media art"/interaction design projects are. The answer varies according to my mood that day. But i can say that in my own private Top 10, there's Christian Nold's Biomapping which i discovered back in 2004 at the Futuresonic conference. Bio Mapping monitors a person's emotional arousal in conjunction with his or her geographical location. People are sent in the streets with a BioMapping device that records their Galvanic Skin Response. Using Google Earth, the system plots a map that highlights point of high and low arousal. By sharing this data maps can be created that visualise where we as a community feel stressed and excited.

Urban Sonar, by ITP students Kati London, Sai Sriskandarajah and Kate Hartman, does something similar. The personal space monitoring system allows users to analyze spatial experience by recording their heartrate, but also the amount of empty space around them, for review at a later time.

The Urban Sonar jacket has four ultrasonic sensors that measure the individual's proximity to other people and objects to the left, right, front and back. The sensors communicate via Bluetooth with a Java-enabled mobile phone, which records these four proximity values along with the user’s heartrate which is monitored through conductive sensors attached to two fingers on each hand.

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The data can then be uploaded to a server for playback at a later time, allowing the user to consider, with a degree of critical distance, his/her spatial experience over the course of fixed period of time. Playback consists of an accelerated visual representation, from a birds-eye view, of a constantly shifting geometric representation of the user’s space as it fluctuated during the recorded period.

Check out the work at the ITP Winter Show, on December 17 and 18, 721 Broadway at Waverly Place 4th Floor South Elevators New York.

Other projects that deal with the space around us in urban environment: Ann de Gersem's Life dress and the Space dress by Teresa Almeida.

Related: Net_Dérive, the city as instrument; Sonic City, a wearable piece that enables people to compose music in real time by walking through the city; headphones that turn urban noise into music.

Australian performance artist Stelarc is to present three of his latest works Partial Head, Walking Head & Extra Ear on Saturday 13 at Trondheim Matchmaking, a festival for electronic arts and new technology to be held next week in Norway.

The EXTRA EAR, a work developed in collaboration with the Tissue Culture & Art Project, has now been added on the artist's left arm. Excess skin was created with an implanted skin expander in the forearm. By injecting saline solution into a subcutaneous port, the silicon implant stretched the skin, forming a pocket of excess skin that was used in surgically constructing the ear.

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Visualization

When electronically complete the ear will form part of a distributed bluetooth headset, enabling Stelarc to speak to the remote person through the Extra Ear. I'll quote the artist's text as i'm not sure to understand what's going on here: "I will hear the sound of the person speaking to me in my mouth. If my mouth is closed only I will be able to hear them. If I open my mouth and someone is close by, they will hear the sound of the remote person from within my mouth."

Have a look at the festival's page to know more about the other projects, all of them aim to explore alternate anatomical architectures that incorporate physiologically plausible structures and re-wirings. They also postulate hybrids of biology and technology and actual-virtual chimeras. Operational and living systems as mixed and augmented realities.

Thanks to Ken Rinaldo for letting me know about the festival.

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Finland- and UK-based artist-researchers Loca were running their project in downtown San Jose. They had molded hollow concrete objects which they attached to various lamps, traffic lights and signposts. Being made of gray concrete makes them effectively invisible which is important because they contain sneaky cargo: inside, there's a mobile phone and a power source which lasts around a week. Using a custom software, the phone will continuously scan for devices that have bluetooth enabled and set to discoverable. Every occasion of a tracked device will be sent to the central database and archived there. At their booth they would print out a receipt-style list of the places you've been to which in my case was approximately 2 meters long, others were gigantic. Now here comes the fun part: Loca not only collects your data but also tries to combine it with the context of the "urban semantics" it is operating in and tries to draw conclusions from that. Having checked out a few shops and the park for instance, you would suddenly get the message: "You were in a flower shop and spent 30 minutes in the park; are you in love?�?.

Another thing that Loca do is the tagging of photos according to the electromagnetic context of the device at the time they were taken, i.e. the identities of the nearby bluetooth devices. The pictures they have been uploading to Flickr for some time now contain information about the presence of other's cameras, which already represents quite a history of social encounters, opening a wide field of possibilities for mining and combining the data. There was another work called BlueStates which apparently works in the same direction.

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IN[ ]EX is a project by a Canadian art group which acts as a nice low-tech approach to the spread of digital information. Their piece consist of a shipping container with (initially) 3000 wooden blocks of various sizes attached to it with tiny magnets. There are also a few bigger ones that actually contain sensors for the smaller blocks. The setup has two functions: a sound installation inside the container which is being generated and influenced through the way that the small blocks are attached to the wall of the container and around the bigger, sensitive blocks. The other part is actually participatory since the artists ask visitors to pick a block and take it with them. Ideally, they should attach it to another metal surface in the city, spreading the installation all over the place. IN[ ]EX is meant to "explore the migration of capital, goods, and people through the ports and public spaces of Vancouver and San Jose", and the Canadian wood did migrate quite a lot. By the time this photo was taken, almost 1000 pieces were already gone and you would see them in the most absurd places, some people get really ambitious with these things.

The exhibition-space at South Hall in San Jose, being a giant temporary tent-like structure, was a bit remindful of the Cargolifter hangar close to Berlin, blimp and blimpsters included!

Fifth project seen at the graduation show of the IDII in Milan last week.

Note to Self by Dana Gordon is a collection of objects for daily use. They invite us to focus on ourselves, without isolating us from our environment.

Scuba is an audio device that allows you to change the soundscape from the external environment to your breath. Compatible with an mp3 player, it creates a very intimate soundscape that invites you to slow down and follow your inner rythm. There are three main elements: headphones, a squeezing device and a necklace. The sound of your breathings is captured by the microphone contained in the necklace, it is then amplified and played through the headphones. A soft handheld device controls the ANR (active noise reduction) providing another level isolation according to the pressure applied on it.

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Jean-Baptiste Labrune and an anomymous testing the Scuba

The Scuba was designed to allow the redefinition of one’s private space by increasing the existing inner sound to the dominant on one’s mind. Squeezing the device (which was soft and felt like a plush toy) enhances the physical reaction in stressful situations and provides sense of control and dynamic sound experience. The gesture can be very discreet as the device can be hidden in your pocket, and therefore is not limited by the presence of people around you. Besides, the Scuba doesn't totally isolates you but provides a progressive experience. The action of pressing and squeezing let indeed the energy out and gives in the same time a very protective feeling, as in the child security blanket.

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I was a bit puzzled by the idea before testing it but when i tried it i immediately felt the need to lower my eyes and focus on what i was feeling and hearing, the surrounding became a mere background for the experience.

The second object is a hand held mirror that can visually reflect your state of being. Called the Narciscope, it collects biofeedback data from your hand, the image reflected in the mirror sharpens or blurs depending on how relaxed and tense you are. It is composed of a 7? LCD screen and a web camera embedded within the frame. On the handle, where the fingers are situated, there are Galvanic Skin Response biofeedback sensors.

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Maya Lotan of the Urbanseeder fame with the Narciscope

The sharpness of your reflection in the mirror is a metaphor of the level of focus you can have towards yourself. Since looking in a mirror is a very common practice, the idea is also to consider the usage of this device as a repetitive practice. The sharpness of the image or the blur effect not only provides instant feedback on your internal state but also challenges and hopefully improves your proprioceptive skills.

The last object is the Koobeton, a private notebook with special dedicated space for the owner’s secret self-expression. It can be used from the front to write down regular notes. However, as the name suggests, you can also use it backwards, from the backside of the book. The sketches, secrets and private messages on the last pages can be kept as digital files and later transferred (via Bluetooth) to a computer.

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Dana and her Koobeton

The physical page with its content can be destroyed but the message or drawing is safely and digitally kept in a safe folder on your personal computer. With time the back pages are disappearing leaving only traces of the missing documents from the book.

The back cover of the book contains a touch panel that captures the writing. Each page has a mild decoration on the corner that indicate the borders of the active space of the panel. On the right bottom corner there’s a different ornamentation hinting the ‘check box’ that must be marked in order to save the page. Once it is done, the software (processing) is notified that it has to record a digital snapshot of the page.

Images of Dana Gordon's project at the IDII show. More info on her thesis blog.

Danish based Imity gave a good speak at Where 2.0 about their mobile community software. Imity are not interested in Where 2.0 but Here 2.0 as Co-Founder Claus Dahl explained. By using the Bluetooth capabilities in mobile phones Imity want to create a user generated community in your present location hence Here 2.0.

They showed a scan of every Bluetooth device at the conference on a slide and stating that information for the persons behind the T-610’s and 6230’s mobile phones is currently not available.

The Imity software can utilize the Bluetooth signal to establish a list of people within a 10 meter radius, so social interaction becomes possible within a place. You can message people using the same software within the vicinity and hereby allow you to meet people in a new way.

And even if you have your phone kept away, a plugin feature for MySpace or OpenBC among others saves the data of people passing by, so the next time browsing MySpace you can be lucky to get a notification that you have passed this person at this place and when.

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The UI allows you to view who’s in the room right now and the personal history of each person you have met, so you can see when you had the last interaction with a certain person or you could make a note of the situation or a person by bookmaking.

They are signing beta testers right now, so hurry up if you want it.

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