Living as Form - Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011, edited by Nato Thompson, with essays by Claire Bishop, Maria Lind, Teddy Cruz, Carol Becker, Brian Holmes and Shannon Jackson.
Publisher The MIT Press says: Over the past twenty years, an abundance of art forms have emerged that use aesthetics to affect social dynamics. These works are often produced by collectives or come out of a community context; they emphasize participation, dialogue, and action, and appear in situations ranging from theater to activism to urban planning to visual art to health care. Engaged with the texture of living, these art works often blur the line between art and life. This book offers the first global portrait of a complex and exciting mode of cultural production--one that has virtually redefined contemporary art practice.
Living as Form grew out of a major exhibition at Creative Time in New York City. Like the exhibition, the book is a landmark survey of more than 100 projects selected by a thirty-person curatorial advisory team; each project is documented by a selection of color images. The artists include the Danish collective Superflex, who empower communities to challenge corporate interest; Turner Prize nominee Jeremy Deller, creator of socially and politically charged performance works; Women on Waves, who provide abortion services and information to women in regions where the procedure is illegal; and Santiágo Cirugeda, an architect who builds temporary structures to solve housing problems.
Living as Form contains commissioned essays from noted critics and theorists who look at this phenomenon from a global perspective and broaden the range of what constitutes this form.
I've reviewed a few books about socially-engaged art in the past: Art & Agenda - Political Art and Activism, a monography of Krzysztof Wodiczko's works, Goodbye to London - Radical Art and Politics in the Seventies, Experimental Geography: Radical Approaches to Landscape, Cartography, and Urbanism, An Atlas of Radical Cartography, and Art & Activism in the Age of Globalization which is probably my favourite. Living as Form demonstrates that i still had a lot to discover on the subject.
The projects selected for Living as Form are often explicitly local, long term and community-based which sets them apart from many 'activist' projects that sound more like media coups than real, thoughtful attempts to improve a social issues. Many of the works documented in the book are probably not well-known (unless you've visited the exhibition that took place last year in New York) and i actually couldn't always find good photos to illustrate some of the interventions i found most compelling. Unsurprisingly, some of these socially-engaged projects come from the usual suspects: Europe and North America. Many however, were born in Africa, Latin America, Asia and were selected by international curators (I wonder if anyone was covering the Middle East?)
The projects might not be the most spectacular you've heard about. Maybe because the varnish of subversion has faded over the years, or maybe because the artists didn't necessarily go for the shock tactic, the loud nor the dramatic but their works serve a precise need, competently and with humility.
The book contains some 150 pages describing projects or outlining the career of artists involved in socially engaged practices such as Voina, The Bureau of Piracy (Piratbyrån) or Neue Slowenische Kunst.
Nato Thompson explains in his introductory essay that the reason why the starting point for book is the year 1991 is that he wanted to cover the period that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall. The event opened the gates to a new neoliberal order which gave a huge boost to the private sector and debilitated the role of public and State functions in protecting and supporting citizens. Given the state of politics in Europe right now, the relevance and importance of the projects described in the book isn't likely to dwindle any time soon.
Just a few works from Living as Form:
A few years ago, Minerva Cuevas set up web-based nonprofit corporation that distributes for free products and services. Mejor Vida Corp provides anyone who might need them with a recommendation letter, a Mexico City subway ticket, a self stamped envelope, a student ID card or cheaper barcode stickers for fruit and vegetables.
The Patriot Library, by Finishing School, is a nomadic library that provides users access to books, periodicals, and other media that may be considered "dangerous" by the US Federal government once the Patriot Act took affect after September 11, 2001. Believing that the pursuit of knowledge is not dangerous in itself, the Library makes publications that range from Aviation Training to Bomb Making, Chemistry to Tourist Information available to the public without questioning the motivation of the individual user.
Thousand Kites is a USA-wide project uses performance, video, online strategies, radio and low-cost media tools to work toward prison reform through grassroots power.
The project emerged in 1998, when Nick Szuberla, host of a rural Appalachian region's hip-hop radio program, began to receive letters from inmates recently transferred into two local SuperMax prisons. The letters described racism and human rights violations, and Szuberla responded first by playing a game of chess with the prisoners over the air and through the mail. Thousand Kites soon became more ambitious and branched into a series of national and local campaigns, artistic projects, and dedicated radio programs.
In 2007, Ai Weiwei invited 1001 Chinese, from farmers to factory workers, from students to minority people, to travel to Kassel and visit the Documenta exhibition as audience. The people he selected were "those who are not able to travel overseas under normal conditions, or those to whom traveling overseas has a very important meaning." Once in Kassel they were hosted in a temporary hostel and visited the area. The guests were both tourists and subjects of art. 1,001 antique chairs were placed throughout the exhibition to represent the visitors.
Publisher Hatje Cantz writes: Utopia has become a controversial concept, spanning the field between the belief in an ideal society and the dystopian nightmare. Within the last decade, the contemporary art scene has witnessed a return of utopia and utopian thinking. Whether detectable as an impulse, critically reassessed as a concept, or cautiously or daringly articulated in a specific vision--utopia continues to matter. This publication investigates the meanings of utopia in contemporary art. Theorists, critics, and curators discuss the different ways of thinking and performing utopia in contemporary art from a broad range of angles. The essays explore the current relevance of utopia as well as how people in different societies live, think, act, and imagine.
The two parts, Utopia Revisited and Utopian Positions, provide both a theoretical backdrop for the reformulations of utopia in contemporary art as well as examinations of specific utopian stances in connection with the three-year utopia project at ARKEN Museum of Modern Art and solo shows by Qiu Anxiong, Katharina Grosse, and Olafur Eliasson.
Utopia & Contemporary Art is a collection of essays by curators, art critics, academics and art historians who explore the meaning and place that the concept of utopia has taken in art. The first part "Utopia Revisited" illustrates the resurgence of utopia in contemporary art. Although utopia as a governmental precept has fallen from grace after a series of misguided attempts to put it into practice in the 20th century, the art world is now welcoming the concept back into its critical discourse. Utopia as a mode of thinking can inspire us to take a break from reality and think beyond what is already existing. 'Utopian' artworks do not necessarily require from us to take their ideas literally. Their objective is rather to elicit a moment of reflexion and inner questioning "to which extent could the art proposal work?" "how does it compare to the world i live in?" etc.
Because the book is a collection of essays about the topic, there are some repetitions in the Utopia Revisited part, with most authors feeling they have to remind us of Thomas More. Each text, however, bring a different outlook and perspective on utopia in art.
Richard Noble's contribution kept on bringing issues that are otherwise often ignored by enthusiastic artists, curators and critics: how most utopian art is made by artists from bourgeois background, paid for by rich collectors or state institutions and how it has virtually no impact on society nor the political world. How difficult it is to make a political work or art that is effective as an artwork or as a political act or both. Or how to distinguish between an utopian artwork from a political artwork. How the impact of a political artwork is influenced by the context (Noble gave the example of the reason behind Ai Weiwei's arrest for tax evasion: a project that involved displaying publicly the list of the names and ages of the victims of the Szechuan earthquake, an information that Chines authorities had suppressed.)
Another essay worth mentioning is the one by Jacob Wamberg in which he maps the utopian tendencies of modern art movements depending on whether they are located in 'virtual' space (the one of autonomous consciousness, think Kandinsky), the 'real' space (the one that directly engages with architecture and design, think Bauhaus) or in between (in the social sphere, think Situationism, Fluxus, Dada, etc.)
The second part of the book, Artists Projects, is pure joy. It opens with a selection of Unrealized Art Projects that Hans Ulrich-Obrist has been collecting since 1990. He has amassed thousands of texts, drawings, and correspondence that documents projects which, for some reason, never saw the light of the day.
Things get even better in the third and last part of the book, Utopian Positions. In The Claim for New Territories, Ildiko Dao and Simon Lamunière, look at communities founded by artists. From Yoko Ono and John Lennon's Nutopia to micro-nations, to a borderless city built on Second Life, up to the more viable The Land, a self-sustaining and transdisciplinary project created by Rirkrit Tiravanija and Kamin Letchaiprasert.
And perhaps because each culture has its own idea (or perhaps experience) of what constitutes an utopia, the final essays examine artists' utopian projects in different territories: Rachel Weiss considers the form and role of utopia in Cuban art, Inke Arns gives a tour the Utopian in Eastern Europe, and Hou Hanru explores the Chinese contemporary artists' reaction to the rise of the consumerist society in their country.
Views inside the book:
Publisher Gestalten says: Visual storytelling uses graphic design, infographics, illustration, and photography to convey information in the most elegant, entertaining, and informative way. Today, the creative scope of existing visual storytelling techniques is being expanded to meet the formidable challenge of extracting valuable news, surprising findings, and relevant stories from a daily flood of data head on. Visual Storytelling is the first book to focus solely on contemporary and experimental manifestations of visual forms that can be classified as such. The rich selection of cutting-edge examples featured here is put into context with text features by Andrew Losowsky and interviews with experts including the New York Times, Francesco Franchi, and Golden Section Graphics.
Visual Storytelling was the big surprise of the last batch of books that Gestalten kindly shipped to me. I thought that volume would be merely lightweight and amusing but it turned out to be far more striking and informing than expected. Hundreds of works are presented in the book. Yet, there's no redundancy, no boredom, no weakness. It's a perfectly well curated collection of some of the projects that have spread over countless design/graphic design/interaction design blogs over the past couple of years. Some of the works presented are more narrative than others but page after page have brought me revelation and wonder. I must confess that i don't read many design blogs (up to zero actually) so it's probably not much of a challenge to amaze me.
In his introduction, magazine editor and journalist Andrew Losowsky defines 'visual storytelling' as a combination of narrative information and emotional reaction, he charts its history, explains its challenges, its ability to substitute data complexity with order and clarity and rejoices in its total absence of universally accepted rules.
The first part of the book contains interviews with a few creative studios: DensityDesign, Les Graphiquants, Steve Duenes, Antoine Corbineau, Carl Kleiner, Peter Grundy, Jan Schwochow and Francesco Franchi. Franchi is the art director for IL-Intelligence in Lifestyle, the monthly magazine of Il Sole 24 ORE, and his work is particularly arresting. Gestalten TV interviewed him recently:
The second part of the book is entirely left to images and short descriptions. The works range from graphic design to software pieces to installations to wall paintings and they are distributed over 5 themes: News, Science, Geography, Modern World and Sport.
Now for a quick selection of some of the works i discovered in Visual Storytelling:
Roland Loesslein's installation, Digging in the Crates, uses modified turntables to navigate dynamic data visualization. The works also uses info graphics and sounds to allow the public to explore Sampling as a production technology of music.
Lang/Bauman gave an urban edge to a traditional village in Switzerland by painting lines on the streets that evoke a subway map.
Kali Arulpragasam's oversized necklaces pay homage to conflict-torn countries.
Views inside the book (Images: Gestalten):
Related book reviews: Visual Complexity, Mapping Patterns of Information and Data Flow 2: Visualizing Information in Graphic Design.
Publisher The University of Chicago Press Books writes: There is nowhere else in the world quite like Chungking Mansions, a dilapidated seventeen-story commercial and residential structure in the heart of Hong Kong's tourist district. A remarkably motley group of people call the building home; Pakistani phone stall operators, Chinese guesthouse workers, Nepalese heroin addicts, Indonesian sex workers, and traders and asylum seekers from all over Asia and Africa live and work there--even backpacking tourists rent rooms. In short, it is possibly the most globalized spot on the planet.
But as Ghetto at the Center of the World shows us, a trip to Chungking Mansions reveals a far less glamorous side of globalization. A world away from the gleaming headquarters of multinational corporations, Chungking Mansions is emblematic of the way globalization actually works for most of the world's people.
Gordon Mathews's compendium of riveting stories enthralls and instructs in equal measure, making Ghetto at the Center of the World not just a fascinating tour of a singular place but also a peek into the future of life on our shrinking planet.
Chungking Mansions inspired Wong Kar Wai's Chunking Express movie. It is also where my literary idol of the moment, Harry Hole, is found smoking opium at the beginning of The Leopard. Chungking Mansions is a derelict 17 storeys high building located in one of the busiest areas of Hong Kong. It offers dirt cheap accommodation for tourists and traders, shops selling clothes, souvenirs or small electronics (copies and originals), curry restaurants, foreign exchange offices and other services. Mathews calls it "an island of otherness in Hong Kong." A place that Chinese people find to seedy to enter, where the lingua franca is english and an informal gathering place for ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, particularly South Asians and Africans in search of a better (or rather richer) life.
The book gives a perspective on globalization i had never heard about before. Not only because it talks about globalization from an anthropologist's point of view but also because it focuses on what Matthews calls "low-end globalisation" of which Chungking Mansions is a central node. The protagonists of low-end globalisation are relatively small fry compared to the corporations we usually associate with the word 'globalization.' They are traders coming from Sub-Sahara African countries who carry in their suitcases the goods they buy from Chinese manufacturers (the author calculated that a trader can fit 250 to 300 mobile phone within an airline baggage allowance), hoping to make a big profit from it back in their home country, once they have paid the necessary taxes and bribes at customs. Or they are young people from Kidderpore in Kolkota who land in Hong Kong because the ticket fare to the city is cheaper than any other destination where they could find work. They arrive with sari and basmati rice in their suitcase, stay on extended tourist visa, work for pitiful wages in a curry house and go back home with clothes to sell in their neighbourhood. In Hong Kong, these traders and illegal workers struggle to buy a Cup Noodle at the nearest 7-Eleven. Back in their home country, they are regarded as successful members of the middle-class or upper-class.
In "low-end globalisation", people still use cash and favour face-to-face business.
Whether they are traders, shop owners, asylum seekers, prostitutes, or temporary workers, these people end up in Chungking Mansions because it offers cheap accommodation, because it is located in a city-state that doesn't have strict visa rules and because Hong Kong is a gateway towards Southern China where mobile phones and textiles are manufactured at low prices.
Matthews explores the building through its history and location, the groups of people living there, the goods that pass through it, the laws that govern (with much laxity) the transactions taking place in the building. The final chapter speculates on the future of Chungking Mansions.
Matthews's passion for Chungking Mansions and the people that inhabit it is contagious. I read the book from cover to cover over the weekend. His writing is clear, entertaining, and it never verges on the intimidatingly academic. The personal stories collected from the traders, shopkeepers, asylum-seekers and other people who pass through the building make the book even more engaging.
Design Act - Socially and Politically Engaged Design Today. Critical Roles and Emerging Tactics, edited by Magnus Ericson and Ramia Mazé, the founders of the DESIGN ACT project (available on amazon USAand UK.)
Publishers IASPIS and Sternberg Press write: Design Act: Socially and Politically Engaged Design Today--Critical Roles and Emerging Tactics is a project that presents and discusses contemporary design practices that engage with political and societal issues. Since 2009, the Iaspis project Design Act has been highlighting and discussing practices in which designers have been engaging critically as well as practically in such issues. Itself an example of applied critical thinking and experimental tactics, the process behind the Design Act project is considered as a curatorial, participatory and open-ended activity. Design Act has developed through an online archive, public events, and an international network.
The book is thus putting the spotlight on 'Socially and Politically Engaged Design'. Design! With a bit of architecture thrown in. If you're into activist, socially engaged art, you might find that many of the projects presented in this book are very reasonable and appropriate. They have less bite than the work of, say, Santiago Sierra (more about him tomorrow) but that shouldn't be held against them. Because these designers are smart. And levelheaded enough to look for practical, witty solutions to very circumscribed issues. There's no 'Design will save the world!' here.
The publication attempts to answer three groups of questions:
This book is the conclusion and digest of the ambitious DESIGN ACT programme produced by Iaspis, the Swedish Arts Grants Committee's International Programme for Visual Arts. It took the form of a series of panels, interviews, an online archive and a research that offered a platform for practitioners and members of the public to discuss how design practices are engaging with political and societal issues.
The undeniable strength of the book is the interviews. Every single one of them contains invaluable insights and reflections. Especially the ones with Doina Petrescu, the co-founder of atelier d'architecture autogérée (aaa) (studio for self-managed architecture), an interdisciplinary network that develops "strategies" and "tactics" for research and intervention into city; with Pelin Derviş, an architect, editor and curator who used to head the Garanti Gallery, one of the most forward-thinking cultural spaces in Europe; Joseph Grima, editor in chief of Domus and former director of Storefront for Art and Architecture; Ou Ning, a Beijing-based curator, artist, documentary filmmaker, activist, designer, and director of the Shao Foundation; Yanki Lee, a young designer interested in methodology for participation and social innovation; designer, resercher and hacktivist Otto von Busch; architect and urbanist Mauricio Corbalan who co-founded m7red, a research platform dedicated to exploring the interactions between information technologies, urban ecologies and public policies; and architect Tor Lindstrand, one half of the brilliant International Festival and of Economy.
The experts interviewed share their opinion, experiences, talk about the difficulties encountered when starting a project and keeping it alive afterwards and questioning the role of design and architecture. Their conversation with the editors touch upon more specific dilemmas and concerns as well. Such as why they chose to operate inside or outside the academia, to put forward self-initiated projects rather than rely on commissions, where they find funding, how they manage to maintain a balanced relationship with sponsors, how to involve local communities, how to put traditional craftsmen in touch with young designers, reach out to various audiences, why they developed ideas in Europe but put them into practice in Asia or the USA, how to express a political position within a collective exhibition or a biennale.
And of course, i had to give you a few examples of what i meant when i wrote that many of the projects in the book are smart and rational:
Raumlabor turned a neglected and regularly vandalized metro station into an opera house.
Telemegaphone Dale stands seven metres tall on a mountain overlooking the Dalsfjord in Norway. When you dial Telemegaphone's number the sound of your voice is broadcast across the fjord, the valley and the village of Dale below.
m7red designed a board game that projects disaster scenarios and lets players try their own hand at instant urban planning.
PeopleProducts123 brings consumers the most up-to-date information on the people who make the products we use every day in the form of easy-to-use package labels and stickers. The improved packaging shows images and stories about the workers who make them and is 'shopdropped' in stores.
The Dale Sko Hack workshop built bridges between designer and producer in an effort to evolve small scale production methods, save work places and develop skills within small scale shoe production.
Before closing the review, i need to add something about the design of the book: it is not even remotely practical. You keep getting numbers in red telling you to flip back and forth in the book to see pictures or just a description of a project discussed in a paragraph. It quickly gets tiring.
Related book reviews: Book Review - Art & Activism in the Age of Globalization, Art & Agenda - Political Art and Activism.
The Critical Dictionary goes from Algeria to ZG. Through interviews with artists and historians, essays, quotations and photos with or without texts, the anthology uses the alphabet as a starting point to look for meanings, shake up definitions and tell readers something -but not everything- about appropriation art, borders, war monuments built in Serbia in 1946-2000, forest, overt research, etc. It comments on 'thing' and on ostranenie. In case you were wondering, ostranenie is the artistic technique of forcing the audience to see common things in an unfamiliar or strange way, in order to enhance perception of the familiar. And ostranenie is a practice Critical Dictionary is particularly good at. In the book, images and words are juxtaposed, they collide and challenge each other. The results often have political undertones, a sense of humour and the witticism one has come to expect from visual art.
Demonstration in this excerpt from an interview the author had with The Huffington Post: To define a forest as a large area with a thick growth of trees isn't wrong, exactly, but is limited. It says nothing about the forest as a pervasive symbol in Romanticism, an international movement of the early 19th century that challenged the Enlightenment by confronting light and transparency with darkness and opacity. Or why from 1948 onwards, Israelis were keen to plant trees on demolished Arab villages, presenting the resulting forests as pure nature. Such issues are raised, I hope, by 'F for Forest' in the book Critical Dictionary.
Critical Dictionary was created by David Evans, a writer and picture editor who lectures at the Arts University College in Bournemouth. He was inspired by Georges Bataille's short essays in the Surrealist art magazine Documents and by Bertold Brecht War Primer, photos of war he cut in newspapers and magazines, and accompanied with four-line poems.
The Critical Dictionary started as an online art magazine, it then became a book, and it is now an exhibition at WORK Gallery. I can't remember having seen anything like Critical Dictionary before. You can open it at any page and it will wake up your brain immediately. There isn't even an introductory essay to bring any method or order to the experience. And i can't remember either having encountered such exercise of translating a website into a book into an exhibition.
The exhibition of the same name will be on until 25 February 2012 at WORK gallery in London.
All images courtesy the artists and WORK gallery.