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.
NAI Publishers says: Should artists be activists? Is activist art one of an artist's primary responsibilities or a pointless sideshow on the fringes of serious politics? The philosopher, writer and art historian Lieven de Cauter, Ruben de Roo and Karel Vanhaesebrouck explore this theme in collaboration with other thinkers and doers in his new book Art and Activism in the Age of Globalization.
In a time of globalization, populism, hypercapitalism, migration, War on Terror, and global warming, artistic engagement is vital. Art and Activism in the Age of Globalization takes the measure of contemporary activist art. What is the role of art and activism in the polarized, populist society of the spectacle? Art & Activism examines both the criticism of engagement as a mere pose and the need for cultural activism in today's society. Urban activism and activism by anonymous networks are also investigated. Special attention is devoted to the effects of the War on Terror on activism in practice. The book concludes with a theoretical framework for contemporary activism and an impassioned plea for genuinely political art.
It is traditional in the blogosphere (is anyone still using this word?) to close the year with a 'best of' post listing the 10 most popular stories, the best exhibitions seen, the gadgets that have changed our life. I wish i could do it, it's excellent for traffic. Alas! i have the memory of a mongoose and i'm too lazy to go through the archives of the blog. But i can safely declare that the best book i've read in 2011 was Art & Activism in the Age of Globalization.
A number of books about art and activism have landed on my doorstep over the past few years but this is the first one that takes as its premise the fact that activism, protest, subversion, disruption, criticism, community, resistance, etc. have become little more than buzzwords. Punk has lost its bite and essence and is now little more than a fashion trend. Che Guevara is more famous for the t-shirts his face sells than for the role he played in the Cuban Revolution. Subversion has been the cornerstone of Madonna's rise to pop power for decades. The discursive fringe has reached the mainstream. Resistance is hip! Subversion is cool!
The popularity of these terms have depleted them from any meaning or strength. Well almost... Today you can land a commission or assignment from public institutions and private sponsors by writing application that claims that your 'subversive' artwork will raise 'a healthy debate in the community'.
The editors of the book have therefore found it necessary to come up with a new word to define a powerful strategy that connects art and political engagement: subversivity. Subversivity is a disruptive attitude that tries to create openings, possibilities in the 'closedness' of a system.
The quality of the book extends way beyond its premise. Art & Activism in the Age of Globalization is composed of 30 essays by artists, art historians, philosophers, cultural critics, social scientists, curators, theatre directors, etc. I expected at least one or two of these texts to be bland, too scholarly, or cliché. But all i read was solid and relevant. There were a few repetitions but i never grew tired of the thoughts, experiments and ideas shared in the book.
The texts jumped from one discipline to another: visual art, theatre, architecture, hacktivism, urbanism, performances. They discussed artistic and activist practice in Europe and North America of course but also in Syria (exploring the form activism can take in a country where public activity is closely monitored by the State), South Africa, Argentina and other countries which ought to appear more often on the contemporary art map.
Unlike many books i review on the blog, this one contains very few images. Two to be precise and that includes the one on the cover. I didn't really miss the images and discovered a few artistic/activist projects that would have deserved an individual post:
Ruben De Roo takes Renzo Martens' film Enjoy Poverty as a platform to explore how artists can stimulate the political consciousness of the consumers of tragedies that we ('Western' audiences) are. A few years ago, Martens went to the Democratic Republic of Congo to launch a two-year project that examined the exploitation of one of Africa's major exports: images of poverty and suffering. The artist traveled with a blue neon billboard that read ENJOY POVERTY and worked with Congolese photographers, teaching them how to sell images of suffering to Western media and aid agencies.
In their remarkably powerful and compelling essay, members of the collective BAVO call for socially committed artists to abandon "NGO art" (mostly art devoid of any political stand for fear of loosing subsidies) and urged them to be 'really political' by developing strategies and practices of resistances that stretch the limits of their discipline in the direction of radical politics. They gave Christoph Schlingensief's Please Love Austria as a meaningful example of art engaging with politics:
In 2000, shortly after Jörg Haider's far right party became part of the Austrian government, Christoph Schlingensief set up a camp for asylum seekers in a shipping container outside the Vienna Opera House. Twelve asylum seekers lived in the container for 6 days, their lives streamed over the web in a kind of Big Brother show, and the audience were invited to vote their least favourite players to exit the container and be deported to their native country. Decorated with a banner saying Ausländer Raus! ('Foreigners out!'), the container became a flashpoint in Austria's national and racial debate. One of the outcome of the work is that, at the end of the show, antifascist action groups stormed the container and freed the immigrants (who were actually actors.)
The artist installed red light on the Copula of the Marche Bonsecours, a landmark monument in the centre of Montreal. The lights were connected to homeless shelters located 500 yards from the building. When a homeless person entered one of the shelters, they could press the button that would make the top of the building glow red.
Eventually all the shelters for homeless people in Montreal could be wired and connected to the Cupola. This way, a major landmark and historical monument in the city would be acting as a non-stop lighthouse, producing endless, painful distress signals to society. With enough media coverage and public outrage and support triggered by these ongoing distress signals, homelessness could be completely eradicated from Montreal, Jaar explained.
The strategy worked so well that the commissioning authority ended the intervention.
The book ends with the most honest plea: to burn the book (or burn your brain) because subversion (or subversivity) can be undermined by essays, books, intellectual jargon and 'radical' theories.
Image on the homepage: Steven Cohen, Chandelier, 2001. Photo: John Hogg.
Publisher Princeton Architectural Press says: Creativity is no longer the sole territory of the designer. User-driven design has never been easier for the public to generate and distribute. Users of websites such as Flickr, Threadless, WordPress, YouTube, Etsy, and Lulu approach design with the expectation that they will be able to fill in the content. How will such a fundamental shift toward bottom-up creation affect the design industry? Participate considers historical and contemporary models of creation that provide ideas for harnessing user-generated content through participatory design. The authors discuss how designers can lead the new breed of widely distributed amateur creatives rather than be overrun by them.
Nowadays, many of the tools of production and distribution used by graphic designers are available to the broader public. And not only are members of the public turning into amateur designers, they are also invited by professionals to contribute to their creative process. The book addresses the curiosity of the amateur of course but it also talks to professional designers (or artists) who fear that they might be trampled underfoot by distributed amateur creatives.
Participate is a introductory book for anyone who is interested in the impact that networked co-creativity has on design, graphic design but also on other fields such as typography, silk-screening, craft, fashion, advertising, etc.
Chapters are colour-coded: the white pages are for theory and examples of successful participatory design. The yellow pages contain the interviews with designers, programmers, communication 'strategists' and curators. And because the authors of the books are designers but also educators, the blue pages are for exercises that invite readers to experiment with the concepts, projects and the ideas presented in the book.
The theory sections are written with clarity, they do a good job at explaining basics such as how the Open Source ad the Copyleft movements have paved the way for new mindsets, how technology has pushed users to adopt a more active role, what generative design is, etc.
A few projects presented in the book:
For the London Design Festival, Kram/Weisshaar and Reed Kram installed eight industrial robots on Trafalgar Square and let the public take control of them to write personal light messages which were recorded and shared as video files.
Keetra Dean Dixon created a photo booth-like space in which people activate a hidden camera each time they lift a bubble wand and blow a bubble.
For 100 days, Stefan Bucher filmed himself drawings monsters and posted the short clips on his website. He then asked readers to write the story of the monster. His "open Source Monsters" also allows people to submit their own drawings based on the inkblots he provides. The online project lead to a book which had already gathered a public long before it hit the bookshops.
MEBOX is a customizable storage system. Each box has a grid of perforated discs that can be pressed out to create characters. When assembled, the double-thickness construction presents the message against the contrasting colour of the box lining.
Utopia Forever - Visions of Architecture and Urbanism. An inspirational exploration of utopias and radical approaches to city planning. Edited by Robert Klanten and Lukas Feireiss (available on amazon USAand UK.)
Everything in this book is orderly and rational. Clean and clear design. Project neatly presented: title, name of the architects, envisioned location and envisioned completion date. Followed by a brief summary of the context for the project and a few paragraphs that describe its principles and the way it works.
Five themes govern the selection of projects. Great Scapes examines proposals of living in inhospitable spaces: deserts, caves, online, up in the sky, etc. As its name suggests the chapter Rising Tides is all about projects that responds to rising sea levels. Ecotopia Emerging presents projects that have distinctly (and at times, extreme) eco-conscious ideals. Technology Matters highlights the impact of innovation on the way architects envision utopia. The last section, Sky's the Limit engages with vertical architecture.
The dozens of projects presented in the volume are accompanied by six essays that vary from the pragmatic to the humorous: Dan Wood and Amale Andraos walk us briskly through architectural utopia of the 1960s and 70s while Geoff Manaugh offers a tongue-in-cheek but also remarkably spot-on game that would help you build every possible scenario of utopian architecture.
Everything in this book is orderly and rational. Everything but the subject of the monograph of course. But no matter how 'conceptual' and outlandish the works presented in the book might appear, they come with irony, lucidity and a desire to focus on society/the planet's most pressing needs and as such, they provide valuable food for thought.
Some are mere exercises in speculations while others almost have their feet on the ground. Some are strangely seducing, others will give you nightmares.
Of course you will find in this book what any respectable book about utopian architecture should offer: pods of all sorts, vertical farms a gogo, mobile living spaces, cities built in the air, on the water, in the water and of course flooded cities. But there were also a few scenarios i had never heard about:
David A. Garcia has a couple of exciting projects in the book. My favourite is the Quarantined Library located on a cargo ship. Its mission is to collect infected and radioactive books, a robotic arms that engraves secrets on wooden panels infected by termites, and historically censored books. I couldn't find illustrations online but i did find some for the South Pole living station for 100 visitors with minimum environmental impact. The space would be holed out in a super large iceberg which would eventually melt in 7 to 10 years time.
Mila Studio proposes to build a 1,000m tall faux mountain at the site of the masterpieces that is the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin instead of hotels and sky-high offices. The Berg would be the world's largest man-made mountain, covered with snow from September to March and would serve as a tourist attraction for skiers in the otherwise slope-less city.
London-based NaJa and deOstos office develops speculative, alternative urban concepts. One of the most attention-grabbing is the Hanging Cemetery of Baghdad which explore a possible response to extreme cultural and political challenges such as the crisis in the Middle East. Initiated in 2004, the project envisions "a gigantic presence of a hanging funereal structure [that] extends over the volatile city of Baghdad."
Nicolas Mouret's Phyte is a 380m high tower that would move in natural flow and offer a stark contrast to the city's static skyline. The mechanical energy of the rocking tower would generate enough electricity to supply the building's lighting.
Stéphane Malka's Self Defense hijacks The Grande Arche De La Défense in Paris and turn it into the 'Great arch of fraternity' at the service of the forsaken, the marginalized, refugees, demonstrators, dissenters, hippies, utopians, and the stateless of all kinds.
Where the Grass is Greener by Tomorrow's Thoughts Today envisions a group of Londoners who have chosen to segregate themselves from the rest of society, and has taken up the mantle of sustainability in an extraordinary way. Driven by a set of ethics that places them in sometimes radical opposition to the rest of London, they have adopted a lifestyle that effectively makes them a carbon sink for the remainder of the city.
Saturation City explores the future of Australian urban space in 40 years time. The proposal manufactured a crisis - a rise in sea level of 20m, tested around Melbourne and Port Philip Bay - that would require dramatic urban upheaval. The park/garden, the business district, the suburb and the coastline, are subjected to dramatic densifications in response to the 'flood'.
Views inside the book:
Image on the homepage: NL Architects, Cruise City, City Cruise, 2003.
Publisher Princeton Architectural Press says: "Hello, my name is Thomas Thwaites, and I have made a toaster." So begins The Toaster Project, the author's nine-month-long journey from his local appliance store to remote mines in the UK to his mother's backyard, where he creates a crude foundry. Along the way, he learns that an ordinary toaster is made up of 404 separate parts, that the best way to smelt metal at home is by using a method found in a fifteenth-century treatise, and that plastic is almost impossible to make from scratch. In the end, Thwaites's homemade toaster-- a haunting and strangely beautiful object--cost 250 times more than the toaster he bought at the store and involved close to two thousand miles of travel to some of Britain's remotest locations. The Toaster Project may seem foolish, even insane. Yet, Thwaites's quixotic tale, told with self-deprecating wit, helps us reflect on the costs and perils of our cheap consumer culture, and in so doing reveals much about the organization of the modern world.
A few months ago, i was in Pittsburgh with 3 other authors writing an art&science book in seven days. Luke and Jessica, the designers of the book, were sitting across the table reviewing almost almost in real time the notes and images we were sending them. At some point we all raised our head because the designers had started laughing uncontrollably while saying "brilliant! this is brilliant!" This was the Toaster effect! Thomas Thwaites's project is mocked almost as much as it is admired. The designer has toured the world to show and discuss what is probably the most uncomely toaster that ever was created. It generated so much press, so many questions and such interest that i even suspect that Thwaites wrote the book as a catharsis, a way to get the toaster out of his life. He won't have to tell the story again, it's all there for us to read.
As befits the project, the book is hilarious. I never though reading about iron smelting and descents into mines would be so engrossing. You follow Thomas Thwaites' email correspondence and phone conversations with (mostly baffled) experts, miners and other "jolly nice chaps". Next, he is smelting iron in his mum's microwave, trekking in the highlands of Scotland in search of a mica mine, trying to convince BP to take him on a helicopter ride so that he can collect on an oil rig the crude oil he needs to make the plastic case for his toaster, attempting to cook some plastic using potato starch, 'stealing' water from the Marquis of Anglesey, etc.
With his über-english self-deprecating tone, Thomas takes you from one failure to another. Yet, this accumulation of fiascoes and disappointments, which at times reads like a hybrid between the story of the dodekathlon and the script of a Woody Allen comedy, turned into an extraordinary achievement. Thwaites went through experiences none of us would ever dare to undergo just to fabricate an object that would perform the mundane function of toasting a piece of bread.
And if you prefer taking a shortcut:
You might remember that over 8 months ago i spent 7 days in Pittsburgh for a A/S/T Book Sprint. Together with curator Andrea Grover, art and science writer and pop star Claire L. Evans and architect and designer Pablo Garcia, i spent a whole week locked inside the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University discussing and writing about the intersection of art/science/technology with explorations into maker culture, hacking, artist research, distributed creativity, and technological and speculative design.
Andrea also had the bright idea to involve graphic designers Jessica Young, and Luke Bulman from Thumb in the whole production process. Each evening we would gather around their computer screens and watch how these two talented designers had given shape to our ideas and texts.
The book is finally out! It's called New Art/Science Affinities and you can either buy it on Lulu or download the PDF for free.
Don't expect to read the ultimate compendium of all things art and science (it was written in only 7 days by 4 people after all), it would be more appropriate to see it as a subjective snapshot of what the art&science community is up to right now (or rather 8 months ago). What i can say with certainty is that the book is the result of one of the most exciting moments of my blogger life. So thank you Andrea for inviting us to book sprint, to Golan Levin for hosting us at the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, to Astria Suparak from the Miller Gallery for her continuous support. And a huge thank you to all the artists we've contacted at the very last moment with an urgent request to send us photos or to talk with us on skype.
Views inside the book: