Top Secret: Images from the Stasi Archives, by Simon Menner.
Publisher Hatje Cantz writes: First publication of pictures from the archives of the Stasi, the East German secret police
Almost 300,000 people worked for the East German secret police, per capita far more than were employed by agencies such as the CIA or the KGB. Not quite fifty years after the Berlin Wall was built, Simon Menner (*1978 in Emmendingen) discovered spectacular photographs in the Stasi archives that document the agency's surveillance work. Formerly secret, highly official photographs show officers and employees putting on professional uniforms, gluing on fake beards, or signaling to each other with their hands. Today, the sight of them is almost ridiculous, although the laughter sticks in the viewer's throat. This publication can be regarded as a visual processing of German history and an examination of current surveillance issues, yet it is extremely amusing at the same time. The fact that the doors of the opposite side--the British or German intelligence services, for example--remained closed to the artist lends the theme an explosive force as well as a tinge of absurdity.
Simon Menner has one of the most peculiar portfolios i've ever encountered. Snipers hidden among the trees, soldiers posing with corpses, Boobytraps and "Unconventional Warfare Devices and Techniques" from the 1960s, weapons used to murder people, views of WWI from both sides of the conflict, etc. Even the photos of Happy People have been selected for some very dark reason.
The Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (Department of State Security) of the former German Democratic Republic was one of the largest surveillance apparatuses in history and its record of citizens' intimate life was thorough and sinister. The story and practices of the Stasi have been fairly well documented. Until this book however, we still lacked a clear visual account of the methods, tactics and props used by the spying agents.
The publication presents a selection of images documenting many of the Stasi operations: the spying accoutrement of Stasi personnel, the techniques employed to shadow or arrest a suspect, the signs used to convey secret messages, the packages sent via mail and confiscated by the secret police, etc.
The most baffling photos were taken during seminars in which Stasi employees learnt the art of disguise.
The props are amateurish, the poses are awkward and the result is grotesque beyond words. Yet, the intentions were serious: repression, control, surveillance.
The award for most disturbing photos go to Polaroids of unmade beds, (Western-made) coffee machines and rows of shoes. The photos were taken by Stasi agents when they secretly searched peoples' houses on the hunt for evidence they might be betraying the communist state. Photos of the rooms and furniture were taken upon arrival and used by the agents to be able afterwards to put everything back as if nothing had been touched.
The photos below were taken at the birthday party of a high-ranking Stasi official. The party guests were asked to come dressed as members of demographic groups under Stasi surveillance such as athletes, dancers, academics, peace activists, and religious figures.
Spies of the western Allied Forces photographed Stasi spies and Stasi spies photographed their Western counterparts. "Sometimes they met, both sides were absolutely aware that the other side was there, but nevertheless both sides took photos, showing that both East and West lived in pretty much the same state of mind," the artist explained. So far, however, Menner hasn't been granted access to the correspondent photos from the British or Federal German secret services.
I love the necklace, very Tatty Devine!
Walk the Line: The Art of Drawing, by Marc Valli, co-founder of Magma and of magazines Graphic and Elephant, and by Ana Ibarra, editor of Elephant.
Publisher Laurence King writes: Drawing has always been a fundamental skill and good drawing skills allowed artists to grasp the reality around them. At the turn of the millennium, however, the general impression was that with the wide availability of computers, scanners, digital cameras and image software, drawing would dwindle into a marginal activity. In fact, the opposite happened: the enthusiasm for digital imagery died down and the ability to draw has become a treasured skill.
In the art world, attitudes to drawing have also changed. Drawing became a way of making a statement as an artist, of showing masterly skill - something that up to then had been most commonly associated with painting. After centuries in the shadow of its more illustrious fine art relatives, drawing started to be appreciated for its own sake, as an art discipline, an end in itself, an art form.
Walk the Line: The Art of Drawing includes interviews with the international selection of artists, as well as examples of their work. It will appeal to anyone interested in contemporary art and illustration.
I'm going to keep my review of this book so short, it's not even going to be a review. I loved this book. When everyone can take hi-def photos with their phone and photoshop them to perfection (or absurdity), this renewed enthusiasm for drawing is refreshing. Or maybe the enthusiasm for drawing had never faltered, i just noticed that i've spent more time staring at drawings displayed at art fairs in recent years.
The introduction of the book charts the 'trends' in drawing (large scale drawings executed as a performance was the one that got all my attention), the rest is just page after page of absorbing drawings, mostly in black and white.
Drawing seem to be made for humour and tenderness as the images discovered in the book demonstrate:
Views inside the book:
Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City by Bradley Garrett, an ethnographer from the School of Geography and the Environment at University of Oxford working within the global Urban Explorer community.
Publisher Verso writes: It is assumed that every inch of the world has been explored and charted; that there is nowhere new to go. But perhaps it is the everyday places around us--the cities we live in--that need to be rediscovered. What does it feel like to find the city's edge, to explore its forgotten tunnels and scale unfinished skyscrapers high above the metropolis? Explore Everything reclaims the city, recasting it as a place for endless adventure.
Plotting expeditions from London, Paris, Berlin, Detroit, Chicago, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, Bradley L. Garrett has evaded urban security in order to experience the city in ways beyond the boundaries of conventional life. He calls it 'place hacking': the recoding of closed, secret, hidden and forgotten urban space to make them realms of opportunity.
Explore Everything is an account of the author's escapades with the London Consolidation Crew, an urban exploration collective.
The book is also a manifesto, combining philosophy, politics and adventure, on our rights to the city and how to understand the twenty-first century metropolis.
Like almost everybody else i guess, i'd like to be Bradley Garrett in my next life... Minus the troubles with the Transport for London, of course.
Bradley is a writer, photographer and researcher at the University of Oxford. He is also part of a group of urban explorers who trespass into derelict industrial buildings, sewer mazes, construction sites, deep shelters, drains, transportation networks, skyscrapers and other tall structures (mostly for the unique perspective they offer on the city below), and even in the (then) under-construction 2012 Olympic stadium. Urban explorers enter where they are not supposed to set foot, they avoid security guards and often operate at night. They never, however, willingly cause damage nor commit criminal offences. Bradley compares urban explorers to computer hackers: both groups assist in strengthening security by exposing systems' weaknesses through benign exploration.
The reason why Bradley's name might be familiar to some of you is that he is part of the London Consolidation Crew. The group were all over the English newspapers last year when they entered, one after the other, London's 'ghost' tube stations. They had already gained access to a number of them when, 4 days before 'the royal wedding', they tried to get to the British Museum Tube Station, starting at Russel Square station, running across the platform, down the piccadilly line, then switching to the central line tracks. They were caught but the British Transport Police let them off with a caution but Transport for London issued an ASBO forbidding them to talk to one another for 10 years, or to carry any equipment that could be used for exploration after dark.
They've also infiltrated many other fascinating locations (some of which we will never see, no matter how much we are ready to pay.) They climbed on foot the 76 stories of the Shard when it was still under contruction. Or Burlington, Britain's Secret Subterrean City, the place where the British government was to be rebuilt in case of a nuclear attack. They also visited several of the 33,000 derelict buildings in Detroit. The took photos from the roof of the closed down Sahara casino in Las Vegas. They climbed up the wings of the Angel in Gateshead to wrap a scarf around its neck. The played with the London Rail Mail, a miniature underground railway used by the Post Office to move mail between sorting offices. They walked around the unglamorous but rather interesting London sewerage system designed by Joseph Bazalgette in the 19th century. And they managed to move around unnoticed in the spectacular plane graveyard of the George Air Force Base (The Southern California Logistics Airport).
In his book, Bradley narrates the many expeditions of the LCC in London, in the rest of Europe and in the United States. It does sound dangerous (and indeed it often is) but, as he explains, UrbEx is not just about adrenaline. It is also about exploring the fractures in the city, working together as a group, gaining a deeper understanding and awareness of the city and more importantly experiencing the world in non-scripted, non-normative, non-capitalist ways.
The pages also come with the reflections and lessons that each expedition brought about: the social exclusion felt by urban explorers who become unable to connect with people living a 'normal' life, the direct experience of the authoritarian state, the realization that the city is built vertically as well as horizontally.
Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City is a lively book. One moment, you're exploring the architectural remains of the Soviet Union. Next, you are wondering along with the author whether or not it is ethical to visit drains when you know you might be disturbing the homeless who live there (as it happened in Last Vegas a city of 580,000 inhabitants that count 14,000 homeless people)?
I have severe vertigo and a reluctance to spend the night in a cold, humid bunker. But i'm grateful to Bradley for giving me an opportunity to live vicariously and comfortably through some of the episodes of his breakneck adventures.
Crack The Surface - Episode I, short documentary focusing on the culture of Urban Exploring
This Will Have Been: Art, Love, and Politics in the 1980s, by Helen Molesworth, chief curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) Boston.
Publisher Yale University Press writes: Art of the 1980s oscillated between radical and conservative, capricious and political, socially engaged and art historically aware. Published in association with the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, this fascinating book chronicles canonical as well as nearly forgotten works of the 1980s, arguing that what has often been dismissed as cynical or ironic should be viewed as a struggle on the part of artists to articulate their needs and desires in an increasingly commodified world. The major developments of the decade--the rise of the commercial art market, the politicization of the AIDS crisis, the increased visibility of women and gay artists and artists of color, and the ascension of new media--are illuminated in works by Sophie Calle, Nan Goldin, Mike Kelley, Jeff Koons, Sherrie Levine, and Lorna Simpson, among others. Essays by leading scholars provide unique perspectives on the decade's competing factions and seemingly contradictory elements, from counterculture to the mainstream, radicalism to democracy and historical awareness, conservatism to feminist politics.
Unlike the fashion of that decade, the art of the 1980s never really benefited from a revival. It generally remains overlooked and unbeloved. Yet, while reading through this book, i realized that just like today's artists, the artists of the '80s had plenty to fight for and fight against.
Many factors contribute to make the 1980s a fascinating period: the HIV/AIDS crisis, Ronald Reagan elected twice as the President of the U.S.A., the secrecy surrounding gay and lesbian life (Molesworth argues that the 1980s began with feminism and ended with queerness), queerness itself which i think is a very 80s word, the return to figurative imagery, a world that became increasingly media-saturated (and indeed the artists represented in This Will Have Been belong to the first generation to have grown up with a television in the home), etc.
But the 1980s are also hold mirror to our times. Think of the ongoing resurgence of feminism, the current debate about footballers ashamed to 'get out of the closet', the Occupy movement which has so much in common in form and force with the ACT UP actions against a governmental lack of concern for the AIDS pandemic, the global economic recession, etc. Are we as combative, as revolted, as inspired as they were in the '80s? Is there anything today's socially-engaged artists can learn from a previous generation?
This Will Have Been is the catalogue of an exhibition of the same name. It is only one of the many possible retrospectives of art in the 1980s. First of all, because it is very U.S.A.-centric but also because it looks at the artistic production of that decade through the lens of desire.
This Will Have Been is divided into four non-hermetical sections that each explores a specific issue/desire.
"The End Is Near" is about the desire to break with the past. The 1980s was characterized by debates about the end of painting, the end of the counterculture, the end of history, the end of modernism.
"Democracy" addresses political desires under the conservative governments of Reagan and Thatcher, and in particular the renewed interest in the street as a site for public intervention, the increasing awareness of the importance of the mass media, the growing prominence of South and Central American artists and artists of color, and the pervasive commitment to the political that shaped the period.
"Gender Trouble" elaborates on the implications of the 1970s feminist movement by gathering works that interrogate and ultimately expand our sense of the social construction of gender roles.
In "Desire and Longing" artists working with appropriation techniques are held in relation to the emergence of queer visibility brought on by the AIDS crisis.
Peter Hujar's portray of members of the gay subculture in New York's East Village were often part document, part theater--collaborative performances between himself and the person in front of the camera.
Formed in 1982 and dissolved in 1998, the seven-person Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC) explored Britain's emerging multicultural society, combining a montage aesthetic with personal reflection to invent a new genre of moving image that challenged traditions of British documentary and drama, and profoundly influenced contemporary avant-garde film-makers and theorists.
The painting of a blond and blue-eyed Reverend Jesse Jackson's was originally installed in Washington, DC, near the National Portrait Gallery which displayed no portraits of blacks at the time. Misinterpreting the work as racist, local African American youths smashed the piece with sledgehammers. The painting was moved into a traditional gallery and David Hammons subsequently added a row of upside-down hammers as a reference to the incident.
Marlon Rigg's Tongues Untied mixes documentary footage with personal account and fiction to address the specificity and difficulty of being both black and gay in North America.
Richard Hamilton's Treatment Room, where a video of Thatcher giving a speech plays over a hospital bed in a bleak room, was an urgent response to the assault on the National Health Service.
The design of the catalogue (by Scott Reinhard Co. with James Goggin) is particularly stunning, simple and efficient.
Abominable Science!: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids, by writer, illustrator, and skeptic Daniel Loxton and paleontologist, geologist, and author Donald R. Prothero; Foreword by science writer and historian of science Michael Shermer.
Publisher Columbia University Press writes: Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero have written an entertaining, educational, and definitive text on cryptids, presenting the arguments both for and against their existence and systematically challenging the pseudoscience that perpetuates their myths. After examining the nature of science and pseudoscience and their relation to cryptozoology, Loxton and Prothero take on Bigfoot; the Yeti, or Abominable Snowman, and its cross-cultural incarnations; the Loch Ness monster and its highly publicized sightings; the evolution of the Great Sea Serpent; and Mokele Mbembe, or the Congo dinosaur. They conclude with an analysis of the psychology behind the persistent belief in paranormal phenomena, identifying the major players in cryptozoology, discussing the character of its subculture, and considering the challenge it poses to clear and critical thinking in our increasingly complex world.
Abominable Science! was supposed to be a harmless, laid-back and jolly lecture. I knew nothing of the Great Sea Serpent, the Mokele Mbembe, i had barely heard of Bigfoot and the Yeti but i'm quite the fan of Nessie. So surely, this book should have been an inoffensive ride. No one believe in those monsters, right?
Wrong! Daniel Loxton reveals that when asked "Do you think Bigfoot (also known as Sasquatch) is real?" in a 2012 poll, 7 percent of American respondents answered that Bigfoot "Definitely is real," and 22% said Bigfoot "Probably is real." Don't snort! i just found out that 24% readers of The Guardian (at least the ones who bothered to participate to the poll) believe in the existence of the creature.
I grew even more uncomfortable when i read in the book that Young Earth creationists are actively looking for surviving dinosaurs in the hope that the discovery of an Apatosaurous-like animal in Congo will bring the definite proof that the theory of evolution is a big fantasy.
Abominable Science! is as much about absurd creatures as it is about pseudoscientists making radical claims about the world, writing off evidence-based research and undermining the teaching of science in the process.
In an interview about the book, Donald R. Prothero said: "To me, the sad aspect of cryptozoology is that they practice "sham science": they adopt the trappings of science (fancy cameras and sound recording equipment, night-vision goggles, camera traps, sonar, other devices) without following the methods of science, especially the idea of testing and shooting down hypotheses that have failed, and getting rid of ideas when they have been decisively debunked. This indeed reflects badly on the scientific literacy of Americans, since they don't understand that science is not about white lab coats and bubbling beakers. It is about the methods you use to investigate claims, and the willingness to admit you're wrong and throw out bad ideas when they fail."
The press isn't doing a great job for the advance of science and human progress either when they cover stories such as the one that made the headlines a few years ago when a policeman and a former corrections officer claimed that they had discovered the body of Bigfoot. Media outlets, from CNN to BBC, reported the news which, unsurprisingly, was a hoax.
Prothero wrote some of the chapters in the books. Loxton wrote the rest. The scientist is inflexible in his belief that giving too much credit to the existence of those monsters does more harm than good. Loxton, however, is more tolerant. He has learnt that these fantastical creatures do not exist but he is still much seduced by the stories that surround them.
And indeed the book contains plenty of interesting stories:
This famous photograph of the monster of the Loch Ness was taken by Colonel Robert Wilson in April, 1934. He later admitted that he had built a small model monster around a toy submarine.
There have been plenty of Nessie "sightings: throughout history. One of my favourite is the one that 'shows' Nessie on Google Earth. But the more sophisticated the technology, the less evidence was found of the existence of those monsters. In 1987, for example, Operation Deepscan took place. Twenty-four boats equipped with echosounder equipment were deployed across the whole width of the loch and they simultaneously sent out acoustic waves.
Amusingly, some theories propose that the monster is actually a camel able to stay for long periods of time in and under water.
Other believe that Nessie is a survivant variant of the Plesiosaurus. Just like the Zuiyo-maru creature, a carcass caught by the Japanese fishing trawler Zuiyō Maru off the coast of New Zealand in 1977. Analysis later indicated it was most likely the decomposed carcass of a basking shark.
I also liked to follow the hunt for the Mokele-mbembe which Americans and Europeans have been searching for in Congo, often to the dismay of local populations. The creature is believed to be a surviving brontosaurus.
Interview with the authors.
Last Launch. Discovery, Endeavour, Atlantis, by photographer Dan Winters.
Publisher University of Texas Press writes: Americans have been driven to explore beyond the horizon ever since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. In the twentieth century, that drive took us to the moon and inspired dreams of setting foot on other planets and voyaging among the stars. The vehicle we built to launch those far journeys was the space shuttle--Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. This fleet of reusable spacecraft was designed to be our taxi to earth orbit, where we would board spaceships heading for strange new worlds. While the shuttle program never accomplished that goal, its 135 missions sent more than 350 people on a courageous journey into the unknown.
Last Launch is a stunning photographic tribute to America's space shuttle program. Dan Winters was one of only a handful of photographers to whom NASA gave close-range access to photograph the last launches of Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. Positioning automatically controlled cameras at strategic points around the launch pad--some as close as seven hundred feet--he recorded images of take-offs that capture the incredible power and transcendent beauty of the blast that sends the shuttle hurtling into space. Winters also takes us on a visual tour of the shuttle as a marvel of technology--from the crew spaces with their complex instrumentation, to the massive engines that propelled the shuttle, to the enormous vehicle assembly building where the shuttles were prepared for flight.
Dan Winters has a passion that's completely alien to me: he is fascinated by the NASA space program. U.S. space exploration never made me dream nor even bat an eyelid. Yet, when i read a 3 line-long review of his book in a free men's magazine in London, i knew i needed to get a review copy. Because i might not be into astronauts and giant leaps for mankind but photography is something i respond to. And Last Launch is all about that: jaw dropping images of engineering marvels and explosive lift off. Even the black and sepia archive photos (not by Winters) that illustrate the introduction texts are magnificent.
Speaking of introduction! The photo book starts with a series of essays. One by the photographer who tells of a long love for space adventures that started as a kid watching the Apollo 11 launch broacast live on the family's new tv set on July 16, 1969. The second essay was written by Al Reinert, director and producer of For All Mankind, a 1989 Award-winning documentary about NASA's Apollo program. The film maker charts the successful and unsuccessful episodes that make the history of the transport system that propels Earth-bound humans into low orbit. Some of the anecdotes he shares are dramatic, others are slightly laughable such as the Coke-Pepsi taste test that took place on board of the Challenger in 1985 to determine which beverage taste more like itself in zero gravity. Coke won, Reinert explains, because they manufactured a zero-gravity soda can. Pepsi didn't bother.
A third text is the rather short and moving account by former astronaut Mark Kelly of the few moments before the take off of STS-134 (one of the very last missions of NASA's Space Shuttle program) on May 16, 2011.
A final text at the back of the book brings an answer to the question i've been asking myself while flipping through the pages. How does he make it? How can he get so close to the spectacular liftoffs?
Dan Winters was one of only a handful of photographers to whom NASA gave close-range access to photograph the last launches of Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. "Close-range" shouldn't be taken too literally though. When they launch, space shuttles are surrounded by an evacuation zone that stretched up to three miles (almost 5 km) in all directions.
The cameras had to be remotely activated. The day before lift-off, Winters places them, up to 9 at a time, around the launchpad, the closest located 700 feet (213 m) from the shuttle itself. Winters calculates the type of photo to shoot according to shuttle's path, he sets the frame, checks the focus point, attaches to the cameras custom-made electronic triggers that are sensitive to sound and fire at five frames per second in response to the rockets igniting. He also has to use sandbags to minimize camera shake, and cover the equipment with plastic to protect it from the rain.
If there's one person who might finally get me interested in the NASA adventures, it's Dan Winters. Pity the Space Shuttle was retired from service two years ago.