Terrazza: Artists, Histories, Places in Italy in the 2000s, by Laura Barreca, Andrea Lissoni, Luca Lo Pinto and Costanza Paissan
You can find it on amazon USA
Publisher RIzzoli writes: What's hot and what will be hot in contemporary art in Italy. This book explores various aspects of art in Italy from 2000 through 2010: production centers, benchmark exhibitions, the major artistic developments that often contributed to extending if not shifting the domains of art, and the leading Italian artists in recent generations. The story is mainly told through images. In the first part of the book, they describe the more vital energies in artistic culture in Italy. The second part is devoted instead to the analysis of the work of sixty artists who have emerged during the last ten years or have in some way shaped and informed the development of art through their work.The Quadriennale di Roma has selected some of the most brilliant young curators in Italy as contributors: Laura Barreca, Andrea Lissoni, Luca Lo Pinto, and Costanza Paissan. The choice reflects a vision that starts from the phenomena that affected the production of art in Italy in recent years, and then moves on to the individual artists.
Terrazza starts with the transcript of a fascinating chat between the 4 editors of the volume in which they attempt to delineate the challenges, flaws and idiosyncrasies of the Italian art scene: the political interference in the running of museums, the dynamism of cultural actors who chose to bypass the usual institutions and open non-profit and self-run spaces, the important role played by magazines in Italy, the pitiful interest for new media art, etc. This definitely sound like the Italy i know!
Right after that come some 200 pages that map out over 150 organizations and realities that produce, present and use art: the fondazioni, the galleries, the magazines, online networks, artist run space, collective workshop, research groups, festivals, museums, grants, awards, education centers, milestone exhibitions, non-profit organisations, free press publications, art residency projects, cultural production centers, etc. The origin, activity and essence of each 'place' is summed up efficiently into a single paragraph. The chapter is dense and informative.
The last part is dedicated to 60 artists who, due to the continuity and quality of their work, appear to embody the new impulses, directions and submovements in young Italian art (some of these artists were born in the 1970s so don't take the adjective 'young' too literally.) Like most of you, i've seen my fair share of young Italian art (and maybe a bit more since i'm based in Italy at the moment) and it is exciting to see some of its most engaging protagonists presented together in a book. You start to detect threads and trends: the fresh perspective on the traumas of the country's most recent history (the mafia, the violence of the Years of Lead, etc.), the quiet sense of humour, the desire to produce more action than political rhetoric, the new methods, etc.
Terrazza is a brave book. Mostly because of the challenge of pinpointing the most important and interesting artists of a decade that is still so close in time. It is a brave but also an energizing and necessary book. You will or will not agree with the selection of artists (i for one am VERY happy with it) but i think that the authors did a great job at communicating their enthusiasm for young Italian art.
I also very much liked the design of the book. It evokes the one of a magazine that wants to be a bit less didactic and a bit more chaotic. With lots of photos, simple typography and a text that goes straight to the point (though i did spot a bit of art speak lingo here and there.)
I wrote above that i was pretty satisfied with the selection of artists. A quick look at the works below will help you understand why:
Biennale.py is a computer virus Eva and Franco Mattes created - with hackers group Epidemic - released on the night of the opening of the 49th Venice Biennale.
Laboratorio Saccardi organized a group exhibition at the former residence of the Sicilian Mafia boss Don Tano Badalamenti in Cinisi, near Palermo.
Badalamenti was one of the mafiosi behind the Pizza Connection, a drug traffic scheme that distributed heroin and cocaine in the United States, and then laundered the cash using pizza parlors before sending it back to the suppliers in Sicily. Don Tano is also remembered for having ordered the murder of Giuseppe Impastato, a young activist who criticised local mafiosi and denounced their business on the free radio RADIO AUT. Badalamenti died in 2004 and his house is now owned by the state. It is empty and it remains an important symbol for Cinisi, Sicily and Italy. Laboratorio Saccardi used art as an instrument to breathe new life into the house and to signal the will to fight ignorance and oppression.
As often, Rossella Biscotti used archive material to investigate the relationship between artistic creation and historical context. During her research at the EUR in Rome, the artist discovered five bronze busts of Vittorio Emanuele III and Benito Mussolini, made for the 1942 World's Fair which was cancelled because of WWII. As a consequence, the heads were never shown. Biscotti exhibited the head for the first time ever at the Nomas Foundation.
Danilo Correale asked an Indian palm reader to decipher the personalities of six leading chairmen of banks. The palm reader had to use pictures of their hands, which had been shot while they were taking an oath during a public trial - a sardonic twist on philosopher and economist Adam Smith's metaphor for the self-regulation of markets (the 'invisible hands') as well as on the limits of interpretation.
On 27 June 1980, the Bologna-Palermo place DC-9 Flavio Favelli fell into the sea causing the death of 81 passengers. The disaster led to numerous investigations and to much speculation. Two years ago, Italy's top criminal court ruled that there was "abundantly" clear evidence that the flight was brought down by a 'stray' missile. Flavio Favelli commemorated the event (which also caused the end of private Italian airline Itavia) with an Airtex cloth that would have wrapped the plane as if it were still brand new. The work was exhibited on piazza Maggiore and on piazza VIII Agosto in Bologna in June 2010 to mark the 30th anniversary of the tragic event.
3,24 mq is a 1:1 scale reproduction of the cell where former Prime Minister of Italy Aldo Moro spent the last fifty-five days of his life as a prisoner of the Brigate Rosse in 1978.
Photo on the homepage: Arcangelo Sassolino, Elisa, 2012.
Bio Art. Altered Realities, by writer, teacher, and curator William Myers.
Publisher Thames & Hudson writes: In an era of fast-paced technological progress and with the impact of humans on the environment increasing, the concept of "nature" itself seems called into question. Bio Art explores the work of "bio artists," those who work with living organisms and life processes to address the possibilities and dangers posed by biotechnological advancement.
A contextual introduction traces the roots of bio artistic practice, followed by four thematic chapters: Altering Nature, Experimental Identity and Mediums, Visualizing Scale and Scope, and Redefining Life. The chapters cover the key areas in which biotechnology has had an impact on today's world, including ecology, biomedicine, designer genomes, and changing approaches to evolutionary theory, and include profiles of the work of sixty artists, collectives, and organizations from around the world. Interviews with eight leading bio artists and technologists provide deeper insight into the ideas and methods of this new breed of creative practitioners.
Bioart* is an umbrella term that covers a host of practices. For Myers, not all of them involve 'getting your hands dirty' by doing tissue culture or using synthetic biology to create glow-in-the-dark plants and other novel biological systems. Bioart practices have often been reduced to the medium and this book liberates them from the use of living material by arguing that bio artists are the ones who use biology either as a medium or as a subject in order to investigate how science is shifting cultural perceptions of identity, nature, life, and environment. Artists can do so by reverse engineering genetically modified flowers or organizing competitions between two people's white blood cells duel but also by using more 'traditional' practices such as manipulating photography, sculpting grotesque life forms in silicone or speculating on the ecological soundness of reducing the human populations to 50 cm high individuals. You might agree or totally reject this expansion of the field but the idea is certainly worth a debate.
Because they cover a series of art practices but also scientific innovations and their ethical dilemmas, books about bioart often excel in either the art or the science part. Bio Art. Altered Realities shines at both: bioart's place in art history, its significance and challenges are skilfully presented and scientific concepts such as epigenetic, synthetic biology, or bacteriology are explained with clarity and efficiency.
One thing i found less pertinent is that the name of each artist is immediately followed by their nationality. I would also have given more than an ultra brief mention to SymbioticA as i think their work and ideas have inspired pretty much any bio artist or designer.
Other than that, Go! Get that book. Make some space in your life for an art field which i believe has great cultural significance. The author often compares bio artists to the surrealists who, during the first half of the 20th century, tapped the unconscious mind and attempted to explore the traumas of wars. Bio artists are similarly interested in engaging with the contradictions and dramas of their times. It is an art that challenges our understanding of what it means to be alive but more importantly, it is an art that is often firmly rooted into the Anthropocene. And i don't think that there are many issues more dramatic nowadays than humanity's harmful impact on the planet.
Some of the works i discovered (or rediscovered) in the book:
Water and Bonsai is an aquarium containing a piece of Sabina chinensis deadwood that has had java moss attached to it to look like the tiny tree foliage of a bonsai. A closed ecosystem made of filtration pumps, LED lights and CO2 emissions is created in order to recreate the photosynthesis.
Developed in close collaboration with a team of scientists, BIOBASE: 45° 53' 28.20"N, 15° 36' 9.18"E explores the issue of invasive species in Europe and in particular a crayfish featuring an unusual mutation that allows it to reproduce asexually. Because i can multiply rapidly, they threaten ecosystems wherever they are introduced. Smrekar has choreographed and recorded encounters of the new species with the more "natural" crayfish. This sort of interaction may be one that we humans will repeat in a far-off future when we compete and conflict with dramatically mutated versions of humans adapted to new environments.
Biolace is located in a future where all grown food is 'enhanced' and where sustainable manufacturing is compulsory for an overpopulated planet. 'Biolace' proposes to use synthetic biology to reprogram plants into multi-purpose factories. Plants would grow in hydroponic organic greenhouses and become living machines. In this scenario, we would harvest fruits and fabrics at the same time from the same plants.
Homo Stupidus Stupidus is a human skeleton taken apart and put back together again in a different way, disregarding our knowledge of human anatomy.
Since 2004, Rachel Sussman has been researching the history of the planet through the photos of living organisms that are at least 2,000 years old.
The Rhythm of Life investigates the potential of sensory data experiences. Participants are offered the possibility to listen in on the electro-chemical messages transmitted by their own bodies, in exchange for donating their personal biodata to scientific research.
Metabodies visualizes aspects of the microbiome of a subject at three distinct times: after sex, after a shower, and after an athletic activity. The artist used E. coli to visualize the communication that occurs in the bacterial populations through chemical signaling.
In the most recent stage of Corrupted C#n#m# , Madagascar hissing cockroaches were transformed into 'cyberinsects' capable of disrupting video data.
Views from inside the book:
If you are in London on Thursday 26 November, Bio Art author William Myers and artist Anna Dumitriu will be at Tate Modern to discuss 'the ethics and aesthetics of artists working with living organisms and life processes.'
Image on the homepage: Angelo Vermeulen, Corrupted C#n#m# (Entomograph).
*Sorry i like to write bioart in one word.
Publisher Verso writes: Scientists tell us that the Earth has entered a new epoch: the Anthropocene. We are not facing simply an environmental crisis, but a geological revolution of human origin. In two centuries, our planet has tipped into a state unknown for millions of years. How did we get to this point?
Refuting the convenient view of a "human species" that upset the Earth system unaware of what it was doing, this book proposes a new account of modernity that shakes up many accepted ideas: on the supposedly recent date of "environmental awareness," on previous challenges to industrialism, on the manufacture of consumerism and the energy "transition," as well as on the role of the military in environmental destruction.
Through a dialogue between science and history, the authors draw an ecological balance sheet of a developmental model that has become unsustainable, and explore paths for living and acting politically in the Anthropocene.
The Anthropocene is a proposed new geological epoch that recognizes that humanity's imprint on global environment rivals some of the greatest forces of nature. The authors suggest that the Anthropocene started with James Watt's improved steam engine designs in the late 18th century which kicked off the industrial revolution and thus the 'carbonification' of our atmosphere. From that time on, human activities started to have a significantly damaging impact on the Earth's ecosystems: high levels of air pollution, ocean acidification, out of control climate, mass extinctions of plant and animal species, modification of continental water cycle, etc. As the authors note, the Anthropocene is a sign of both our power and our impotence.
The book attempts to comprehend this new epoch but also to dispel a few misconceptions. I found particularly interesting the one about the sudden 'awakening' to our responsibility in climate change and the one that claims that only scientists possess the knowledge and wisdom necessary to save the planet.
The Anthropocene is often presented as an 'awakening' as if we were the first generations that realized the damage that burning fossil fuels, overfishing and other human activities have done to the earth atmosphere. But as the authors easily demonstrate, men knew what they were doing 200 years ago and environmentally damaging actions regularly met with criticism, challenge and struggle right from the beginning of the Anthropocene.
The book also states that today's scientific knowledge is put on a pedestal. On the one side is a small elite of scientists who appear as the spokespeople for the Earth. On the other is the uninformed mass of the world population awaiting to be saved or at least shepherded in the right direction. If we believe the experts, serious solutions can only emerge from further innovations in the labs, rather than from alternative political experiments in society as a whole. Besides, as the authors write, to position humanity (or just its elite) as a pilot means that the earth is little more than a cybernetic machine that can be dominated from the outside. They conclude that what we need right now is not a rescue plan made of geo-engineering prowess but more narratives, types of knowledge, a variety of civic initiatives and popular alternatives which explores the outlines of living better with less.
The book also demonstrate convincingly that the responsibility for the Anthropocene doesn't rest on the shoulders of every single human beings. Fressoz and Bonneuil explain at length the role that the military, capitalism and two hegemonic powers (Great Britain in the 19th century and the U.S. in the 20th Century) play in the Anthropocene. Some thinkers even used the word 'Oliganthropocene' to define a geological epoch caused by a small fraction of humanity.
The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us is well written, impeccably researched (the authors quote all the relevant thinkers you might imagine from Marx to Piketty, from Gandhi to Hannah Arendt) and its discourse brings the Anthropocene into a wide historical and societal context. But above all, it is a book that shows that in the time of the Anthropocene, the entire functioning of the Earth becomes a matter of past, present and coming political choices. Even though people running the political sphere seem to royally ignore that fact. I've always found it a bit strange to see how low ecological concerns and promises figured in electoral campaigns.
One of the most important lessons the book has to offer is that we should probably all stop talking about an ecological 'crisis'. It's too late for that. A crisis can be overcome, the anthropocene can't. We've reached a point of no return.
Photo on the home page by Marco Gualazzini, Coltan mining from R.D. Congo- The War of Minerals.
Publisher Oxford University Press writes: Throughout the world, resource-rich countries are plagued by tyranny, violence, and corruption. With precious few exceptions, the political elites in such nations control natural resources, which are often the primary--and sometimes the only--source of wealth generation, and do not need to rely on popular support to maintain their rule. Their wealth comes from selling the resource overseas, which in turn gives them the income they need to buy off the military, the police, and the business sector. Oppressive, corrupt autocracies are the all-too-frequent result, and such regimes have been the source of many--perhaps most--US foreign policy headaches over the last fifty years. Yet despite their pariah-like status, these regimes continue to exist and even prosper-especially oil-powered regimes. For all of the criticism directed at resource-rich autocracies by Western critics, Western consumers remain reliant on them for the materials that fuel their cars and comprise their computers.
The book is fascinating exploration of the curse of natural resources, aka the paradox of plenty, experienced by countries and regions which have an abundance of natural resources (especially raw materials like petroleum, metals and gems) but tend to have less economic growth and worse development outcomes than countries with fewer natural resources.
As its title suggests, the book focuses on oil and explains how many oil states either do not grow richer (Gabon, Irak, Angola, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, etc.) or else go insanely whealthy without their population significantly benefiting from it socially and economically (Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, etc.)
The first part of the book is engrossing, the author lists governments' mismanagement of resources, abuses of power, extensive corruption and quotes a series of astonishing statistics such as the one that indicates that oil states are 50% more likely to be ruled by authoritarian government and twice as likely to experience civil war as non-oil states.
The second part highlights our complicity with the petrocrats. Not just at governmental levels but also at consumer level. Every time we buy gasoline, clothes, perfumes, vitamin, water magazines, tablets, toothpaste, corn flakes, we send money to dictators.
Making parallels with the Atlantic slave trade -which end once seemed unimaginable, Wenar believes that social justice can be implemented by adopting of a set of foreign policy measures such as an internationally signed Clean Trade Act.
Publisher Merian Verlag writes: ‹Poetics and Politics of Data› reflects life in a world increasingly controlled by data and presents artistic positions that aim to make continuous streams of data visible - whether using Internet-based installations or graphic data visualizations. The participating artists question the relevance and place of the individual in a technologically connected society in which every day, each of us generates a nearly incomprehensible amount of data: Our every move on the Internet leaves behind a digital trace. In critical essays, Orit Halpern, Sabine Himmelsbach, Lev Manovich, Claudia Mareis, Ramón Reichert and Roberto Simanowski explore the phenomena of ‹Big Data› and ‹Data Mining› and pose critical questions about the ambivalence of life in a «datified» world.
Written in both English and German, this book is the catalogue of an exhibition at Haus der elektronischen Künste about data. Not just big data staged to look stylish. Or data to decypher and make sense of the world. But data that controls, watches over, and generates fortunes out of our desires to 'share.' Or as Evgeny Morozov said more eloquently while talking about the commodification of personal data it's possible to capture and monetize every moment we spend awake (and, it seems, also asleep).
Participating works are explained in depth (none of that 'let's just copy/paste the text from the artist's website' laziness) and the essays commissioned give insightful information about data in contexts that go from health monitoring to the prevalence of data collecting over theory, to cloud computing, to Edward Snowden. Right now, i can't think of any other book that pinpoints in such a wide-ranging and critical way the topic of politics and data. This is a solid publication that goes beyond its simple role of being an art catalogue.
After the Agreement. Contemporary Photography in Northern Ireland, edited by Sarah Tuck.
Publisher Black Dog Publishing writes: After the Agreement is an exploration and critical analysis of contemporary photography in Belfast after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, and its relationship to a duty of memory, and ideas of justice and betrayal.
The book draws on a series of practitioner-led talks by the photographers John Duncan, Mary McIntyre, Malcolm Craig Gilbert, Paul Seawright, Kai Olaf Hesse and David Farrell, providing a discursive space that is part academy, part community activism and part cultural practice. These were intended to enable an exploration of contemporary photography in analytical proximity to what is going on currently across a range of disciplines: urbanism and the regeneration of the city, curatorial practices, the arts academy, community activism and photographic practice. Through placing contemporary photography in dialogue with other disciplines and the contested histories of the city, the series explored the centrality and complexity of meaning as an intersection of the social, political and aesthetic.
The Good Friday Agreement , signed in 1998, brought to an end the 30 years of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland known as 'The Troubles'. You don't need to be a history enthusiast to enjoy the book. It relies on the words of photographers rather than on critics or historians' essays. The conversations (which involved the photographers but also researchers and experts in various disciplines) reproduced in the pages are thus beautifully subjective and illuminating. I can't think of a more engrossing and intelligent background for the photos. Here's a couple i discovered while reading the book:
In his series Sectarian Murder, Paul Seawright photographed the locations where sectarian murders took place the 1970's. The perspective of each image is the one of a victim laying on the floor, allowing viewers to put themselves in the victim's place. Most of the images are fairly mundane until you read the brief texts that accompany them, they are taken from newspaper reports at the time and document the murders of civilians, killed for their religion.
Seawright returned to Belfast during the early stages of the ceasefire to document local defensive architecture on the edges of housing projects.
Uncommon Grounds. New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East, edited by Anthony Downey.
Ibraaz Publishing and I.B. Tauris write: In this groundbreaking book, a range of internationally renowned and emerging academics, writers, artists, curators, activists and filmmakers critically reflect on the ways in which visual culture has appropriated and developed new media across North Africa and the Middle East. Examining the opportunities presented by the real-time generation of new, relatively unregulated content online, Uncommon Grounds evaluates the prominent role that new media has come to play in artistic practices - and social movements - in the Arab world today. Analysing alternative forms of creating, broadcasting, publishing, distributing and consuming digital images, this book also enquires into a broader global concern: does new media offer a 'democratization' of - and a productive engagement with - visual culture, or merely capitalize upon the effect of immediacy at the expense of depth?
Books about new media art don't usually venture beyond the borders of Europe and the U.S.A. Some might be brave enough to attempt excursions to Japan, Korea, or Australia but other parts of the world remain mostly uncharted and unrecalled. That's why i welcomed Uncommon Grounds with open arms.
The book is nor a mere presentation of new media art in North Africa and the Middle East, of who made this or that installation and exhibited where. Instead, new media is placed into a broader, more social context. One made of citizens reporting, protesting, reappropriating images, offering counter-narratives to governmental media, exploring the role of the war on terror in entertainment, etc. And doing the kind of things media artist do so well: subverting, glitching, or offering counter-narratives to governmental media.
The essays in the book leave space for a few artists' inserts that focus on particular works by artists i already knew about (Wafaa Bilal, Tarzan and Arab) and by talents i was yet to discover (Sarah Abu Abdallah, Fayçal Baghriche, Rahib Mroué, Ganzeer, etc.)
The Ghost Army of World War II. How One Top-Secret Unit Deceived the Enemy with Inflatable Tanks, Sound Effects, and Other Audacious Fakery , by documentary filmmaker and author Rick Beyer and illustrator Elizabeth Sayles.
Publisher Princeton Architectural Press writes: In the summer of 1944, a handpicked group of young GIs that included such future luminaries as Bill Blass, Ellsworth Kelly, Arthur Singer, Victor Dowd, Art Kane, and Jack Masey landed in France to conduct a secret mission. Armed with truckloads of inflatable tanks, a massive collection of sound-effects records, and more than a few tricks up their sleeves, their job was to create a traveling road show of deception on the battlefields of Europe, with the German Army as their audience. From Normandy to the Rhine, the 1,100 men of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, known as the Ghost Army, conjured up phony convoys, phantom divisions, and make-believe headquarters to fool the enemy about the strength and location of American units. Between missions the artists filled their duffel bags with drawings and paintings and dragged them across Europe. Every move they made was top secret and their story was hushed up for decades after the war's end.
If you read pretty much any blog, you've heard of the Ghost Army, a tactical deception unit composed of actors, artists, and sound experts whose mission involved devising inflatable tanks and airplanes, trucks blasting off sounds of armored and infantry units, fake radio transmissions and other tricks to mislead the German Army.
This is the ultimate and most complete book about a unit which existence was long kept a secret. It's one of those impressively heavy coffee table book. Lots of images, impeccable graphic design. However, i felt that the content, though great, was sometimesa bit 'diluted' as it was less about the art of tricking the enemy and more about the individual artists and their experience of war.
On amazon UK.
Publisher iii writes: How to convey ephemeral, performative practices based around unique and inventive media within the fixed and standardized format of a book?
This publication by iii presents itself as a large pack of cards that the reader is invited to explore. The cards are shuffled at random, forcing intruders to reverse engineer its sorting algorithm. Each individual copy of the book was manually assembled following a procedural score composed by Lars Kynde and performed by iii.
Contributions range from theoretical essays to poetic exercises with text and image reflecting a wide range of practices seeking radically subjective approaches to media in performance. DIY media technologies, avant-garde music rituals, artistic-scientific hybrids, idiosyncratic new instruments, speculative business approaches, phenomenological investigations, open-source and feminist perspectives on digital culture are all present here as part of a cut-up treatise on media less traveled.
To explore 'self-made performative media' (me neither), the book adopts the artist-run platform iii's approach of designing and constructing a medium from the ground up. As far as i can judge, the content of the book is excellent, eclectic, smart and full of surprises.
I'm not sure about the idea of playing with the format of the book. Actually, no, i'm quite sure i find it irritating. The pages are not bound together. They are rigid sheets of paper that you first have to mix, swap, collect and rearrange. It's supposed to be a 'playful challenge.' I've no patience. Jose Luis Espejo Díaz, who's clearly a more open-minded and tolerant reader than i am, enjoyed the exercise and reviewed the book for the excellent Mediateletipos. Do check his own review of the publication.
Publisher OR Books writes: On Saadiyat Island, just off the coast of Abu Dhabi, branches of iconic cultural institutions, including the Louvre, the Guggenheim, the British Museum and New York University, are taking shape to the designs of starchitects such as Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid, and Norman Foster. In this way, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) seeks to burnish its reputation as a sophisticated destination for wealthy visitors and residents.
Beneath the glossy veneer of the Saadiyat real estate plan, however, lies a tawdry reality. Those laboring on the construction sites are migrant workers who arrive from poor countries heavily indebted as a result of recruitment and transit fees. Once in the UAE the sponsoring employer takes their passports, houses them in sub-standard labor camps, pays much less than they were promised, and enforces a punishing work regimen. If they protest publicly, they risk arrest, beatings, and deportation.
For five years, the Gulf Labor Coalition, a cosmopolitan group of artists and writers, has been pressuring Saadiyat's Western cultural brands to ensure worker protections. Gulf Labor has coordinated a boycott of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and pioneered innovative direct action that has involved several spectacular museum occupations. As part of a year-long initiative, an array of artists, writers, and activists submitted a work, a text, or an action.
Some 15 million migrant workers, mostly from South Asia, form the vast majority of the labor force in most Gulf states. In the UAE and Qatar, 90 percent of the work force and the population are migrant workers (both white collar and blue collar.) No matter how many years they have lived and worked there, or even if they were born there, these people have no voting, representation, or association rights. Thousands of them are currently working on construction sites to create Saadiyat Island ("Island of Happiness"), a £17bn cultural hub in Abu Dhabi that will soon host the new premises of international cultural institutions such as New York University, the Louvre and the Guggenheim.
The men constructing the architectural 'icons' designed by the likes of Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid (aka the It's not my duty as an architect to look at it lady) and Tadao Ando, are trapped there since their passports have been confiscated, they receive lower than expected wages, are confined to substandard housing, are submitted to 10pm curfew, poor food as well as segregation in the official labour camp, etc.
Because of the notoriously low wages they receive, migrant labourers often have to work for years before they manage to pay off the debt they contracted to cover the recruitment and travel fees to the UAE. This recruitment debt is central to the system. No one would labor under such conditions unless they had to pay it off.
If they protest against the poor living/working conditions or unpaid wages, the workers get punished or deported.
And anyone who speaks in their favour isn't welcome in the country...
The editor of the book, Andrew Ross, is a professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, and a social activist. Earlier this year, he wanted to do some research on labor issues at Abu Dhabi, where a campus of his university is located but he was informed at JFK Airport that he could not enter the country. Similar rebukes awaited other members of the Gulf Labor Coalition. Artist Ashok Sukumaran was denied a visa to travel to the UAE. Walid Raad was turned back at the Dubai airport.
The artist group Gulf Labor Coalition has spent the past few years investigating and denouncing migrant worker abuse. But while the UAE and other Gulf governments can largely ignore the group's calls, the European and American cultural institutions who will be present on Saadiyat Island need to protect their 'brand' and the values they stand for. As Paula Chakravartty and Nitasha Dhillon write in their essay for the book: it remains urgent to continue to use our leverage as artists and scholars to hold US and European museums and universities accountable in their home countries for the abuses against human dignity of workers thousands of miles away.
The Gulf. High Culture/Hard Labor charters Gulf Labor's fight in a series of texts written by members of the coalition.
Some of the authors explore Western institutions complicity in migrant worker abuse on Saadiyat, other analyse the place of construction workers in the building process, report on visits and interviews with deported workers, look at the artists who have engaged in direct political action, draw lessons from examples of art and activism in the global stage, document performances organised inside the Guggenheim Museum in New York by G.U.L.F. (Global Ultra Luxury Faction, a 'Gulf Labor spinoff devoted to direct action' Global Ultra Luxury Faction, etc.
The Gulf. High Culture/Hard Labor is lively, opinionated and eye-opening book. It is an important publication because of the realities it reveals and investigates. But it does more than that. The essays it contains can be read as a series of lessons for anyone, journalists, artists or activists, who want to take a stand, protest and challenge every complicit element leading to a situation of abuse and injustice.
Because things might be slow to change but that doesn't mean protesting is useless. As Sarah Leah Whitson notes in the foreword:
The efforts of Gulf Labor have prevented these world-class institutions from sweeping their complicity in the exploitation of migrant workers under Abu Dhabi's desert sands.
Most significantly, these efforts have produced concrete results, with the private institutions and businesses involved in Saadiyat Island agreeing to a minimum set of commitments to protect worker rights, including the right to change jobs, an end to passport confiscation, and the refunding of recruiting fees.
And the campaign has even led the UAE grudgingly to adopt some legislative reforms, including electronic payment of wages, changes to the sponsorship system that allow workers to switch jobs under limited circumstances, and greater supervision of work conditions by a vastly expanded pool of government inspectors.
By the way, Hyperallergic is doing a great job at keeping up with Gulf Labor latest actions.
Past Futures. Science Fiction, Space Travel, and Postwar Art of the Americas, edited by curator Sarah J. Montross.
Publisher MIT Press writes: From the 1940s to the 1970s, visionary artists from across the Americas reimagined themes from science fiction and space travel. They mapped extraterrestrial terrain, created dystopian scenarios amid fears of nuclear annihilation, and ingeniously deployed scientific and technological subjects and motifs. This book offers a sumptuously illustrated exploration of how artists from the United States and Latin America visualized the future. Inspired variously by the "golden age" of science fiction, the Cold War, the space race, and the counterculture, these artists expressed both optimism and pessimism about humanity's prospects.
Past Futures showcases work by more than a dozen artists, including the biomorphic cosmic spaces and hybrid alien-totemic figures painted by the Chilean artist Roberto Matta (1911-2002); the utopian Hydrospatial City envisioned by Argentine Gyula Kosice (1924-); and Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan, in which Robert Smithson (1938-1973) layered tropes of time travel atop Mayan ruins. The artists respond to science fiction in film and literature and the media coverage of the space race; link myths of Europeans' first encounters with the New World to contemporary space exploration; and project futures both idealized and dystopian.
Once in a while, i like a good catalogue. Especially when they educate me about a topic i know little about: retro futurism in the Americas. Past Futures. Science Fiction, Space Travel, and Postwar Art of the Americas is the catalogue of an exhibition of the same name at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. The book explains in 4 essays and many many images how artists of the period that goes from 1940s to 1970s imagined the future.
The context is exciting enough: it's the time of the Cold War, of the growing popularity of the science fiction genre, of a faith in the power of science to transform society and the human condition. Artists were more than ever stimulated to imagine what the future would be like.
Times were full of hope but they weren't, however, all naivety and science worship. First, people were afraid of nuclear extermination. And believe it or not, they were also already worried about government surveillance. Or about the disruption that technology would bring to the social fabric. And, for some artists from Latin America, space control evoked unpleasant memories of a colonial past.
The first essay, by curator Sarah J. Montross, explores the impact that space travel and science fiction had across the Americas and also the tensions between the promises of the present and a rich cultural past.
Miguel Angel Fernandez Delgado looks at Latin America's long tradition of studying the cosmos (which dates back to the Mayas, the Incas and the Aztec) and presents the work of artists whose work is related to astronomic phenomena and utopian ideals.
Rodrigo Alonso's essay on the influence of science fiction over art in Argentine in the 1960s shows how much artists also had to contend with a political atmosphere that oscillated between a transition into democracy and surges of repression and censorship.
Rory O'Dea explored the influence that science fiction had on the work of land artist Robert Smithson.
Unsurprisingly, i was more interested in reading about art from Latin America and discovering how they questioned the nature of progress. I found some real gems in the book, works by artists involved in scientific inquiries, building robots, walking through a desert that evokes a lunar terrain, or expressing a critical ambivalence towards technology. Too bad i couldn't find images for some of these works online. I managed to dig up a few though:
Tired of the housing models proposed by Bauhaus, Le Corbusier and functional architecture, Gyula Kosice plexiglass maquettes and drawing of dwellings 5000 feet above the surface of the earth. The Hydrospatial City, which finds some echoes in the cloud cities of Tomas Saraceno, responds to fear of ecological degradation and overpopulation.
In 1970, Peter Hutchinson climbed the Paricutin volcano in Mexico. Upon reaching the summit, he spread 450 pounds of bread along its rim. After 6 days of high humidity and intense heat at the crater's edge, the bread began to sprout spores of luminous orange mould. Life grew in a place thought as lifeless.
Luis Fernando Benedit built dwellings for snails, ants and other tiny creatures in order to observe the behavioral conditioning in an artificial, enclosed environment.
The artist participated to the Venice Biennale 1970 with an installation that included a beehive with live bees, and a garden of artificial flowers that supplied nectar.
SEFT-1 is resolutely contemporary but the curators of Past Futures found some resonances of Past Futures in Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene's half car half spaceship hybrid called SEFT-1 (the Sonda de Exploración Ferroviaria Tripulada, in english Manned Railway Exploration Probe.) The artists traveled along the ruins of the Mexican passenger railway system, which was left to rot after privatization in the 1990s, and investigated the remains of what they consider a misuse of common resources and therefore a political issue.
This post might suggest that the book is all about early forms of media art in the Americas. It's not. Plenty of paintings in there as well.