A couple of weeks ago i spent yet another fruitful afternoon in Brighton for the Critical Exploits. Interrogating Infrastructure event.
The day was part of The Lighthouse's ongoing exploration of the social and political implications of technological infrastructures. The curatorial research started in 2012 with the exhibition Invisible Fields in Barcelona and continued at The Lighthouse with exhibitions by James Bridle, Mariele Neudecker, Trevor Paglen, etc.) The last event brought together artists and critical engineers Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev, critical designer Tobias Revell, and activists from the Open Rights Group for a day of talks and workshops.
Critical Exploits showed how a new generation of artists, designers and engineers are taking a highly critical approach to the development and use of the engineered systems and infrastructures that we increasingly rely on for daily life.
This post is going to focus mostly on Oliver and Vasiliev's presentation which looked at black boxes in the context of infrastructures. The talk is already on youtube but i thought i'd sum up some of the observations that the artists made and add links to the artworks and documents they mentioned while they were in Brighton.
Their presentation started with a quote from Bruno Latour. Talking about blackboxing, the sociologist wrote that When a machine runs efficiently, when a matter of fact is settled, one need focus only on its inputs and outputs and not on its internal complexity. Thus, paradoxically, the more science and technology succeed, the more opaque and obscure they become.
Typical modern devices and infrastructures function (and actually also look) like black boxes, they are far more opaque than they are transparent.
If you look at a gramophone, you'll notice that its inner working is displayed externally. An iPod nano is at the other end of the spectrum, it is completely opaque. We can't actually explain what the many parts inside the device do. And maybe even what they do behind out back. As these devices get smaller, we get even less clue about their inner working. We cannot say we know the devices inside our pockets.
Our understanding of internet infrastructure is similarly foggy. Most of the time, our contact with it is clustered around firefox, safari, explorer, etc. Most users cannot see beyond their web browser. And there is indeed much misconception about the internet. Julian Oliver mentioned a quote he heard at the Chaos Communication Congress where someone said that the only people who talk about 'users' are drug dealers and software developers.
Very few people can actually give an intelligible answer to the question "What is a computer network?" Most people have no problem describing how a postcard goes from its sender to recipient but they are at a loss when it comes to explaining how emails are exchanged. In fact, the Oliver and Vasiliev described the Internet as a deeply misunderstood technology upon which we increasingly depend. Even the terminology used makes our understanding literally nebulous. Take the concept of 'the cloud'. A survey showed that the majority of Americans believe that cloud computing was affected by bad weather.
Another interesting fact their talk mentioned is that the net doesn't belong to the people as it is often assumed. If you have a look at the Submarine Cable Map, you quickly realize that most of these cables are privatized.
Vasiliev and Oliver take their distances from a traditional definition that sees engineering as the practical application of science to commerce or industry. Instead, they wrote, together with Gordan Savičić, a critical engineering manifesto which they regard as a frame for applied research and development that positions Engineering, rather than Art or Design, as primary within the creative and critical process.
The rest of their talk illustrates the manifesto using works of critical engineering. I'm going to simply write their titles down and link to the project pages but i'd encourage you to watch the video of the artists/critical engineers talk to get more background and comments on each work.
Don't miss the video documenting the other talk of the afternoon. Tobias Revell's talk portrayed current practices within critical design and the way the discipline can be used as an antagonist tool for provoking conflicts between set narratives, beliefs and ideologies for awareness, debate and alternate interpretation. The result is a lively and carefully curated inventory of all things Design Interactions at RCA.
This week i'm interviewing Oliver Walker on the blog. I discovered his work a few days (or was it weeks??) ago while visiting Time & Motion: Redefining Working Life, a FACT Liverpool exhibition exploring how the working day has evolved from the time of the industrial age to our current service and knowledge economy.
Walker's One Pound installation at FACT lined up 6 videos. Each of them 'lasts as long as it takes the person depicted to earn £1, varying in length from several hours for the some of the lowest paid agricultural workers in the world, down to several seconds for well paid workers in finance, with one film little over a second long.' The idea was ultra simple and the result is striking for the way it exposes vast disparities in working patterns.
Some of his projects involved outsourcing the production of a written constitution for the UK to China and having 1,000 dolls voice it, using the price of an African financial index to control lighting in a Berlin art center, testing certain hypotheses about social behaviour in a dinner party. And building an outdoors spiral staircase for cats.
Here how my online conversation with the artist went...
Hi Oliver! Let's start with One Pound, the video installation which i discovered a few days ago in the exhibition Time & Motion in Liverpool. I've been quite unlucky in my visit because when I entered the room there was only one screen on with a man working in a field. On the other hand seeing him work all alone on his screen made the impact of the artwork even more powerful for me. Who were these 6 workers you contacted? What were their job?
For the readers who haven't seen the work, I feel I should describe it a little more. The six films are displayed on six adjacent screens, with all six starting simultaneously and not re-starting until all six have played through. This means that the shortest, one second long, plays just once every one hour and seventeen minutes (the duration of the longest). The films have a 'hours:minutes:seconds' timecode burnt into the bottom right corner, which pauses when the films end.
To the side of the 6 screens were six label-sized photographic stills from the videos, there to give the viewer a visual idea of who wasn't currently visible. I chose not, however, to include too much contextual information about the protagonists in the gallery itself, hopefully leaving some space for viewers to project their ideas and experiences about who and where they might be. Having said this, the five you missed were; someone working in a cotton processing plant (35 minutes), someone driving a digger constructing a new road (12 minutes), a carpenter (4 minutes), digital media worker (1 minute), and a CEO (1 second).
The original idea for the piece was to show it in a space in which people repeatedly spend time, such as a busy commuter platform, factory canteen or large office foyer, but this wasn't possible on this occasion. The idea would be that viewers would build up a kind of cumulative viewing of all six films. With a few minutes a day over three months, for example, a viewer would see all six films in their entirety, despite the shortest only running for one second every one hour twenty minutes.
The stills mounted adjacent to the video screens function as kind of visual labels. Between these still images and the timecode built into the videos, viewers could understand the relationship proposed by the piece between between time, money and occupation. I almost always make work that needs some basic explanation (usually text), but I'm happy if it then becomes somehow autonomous (whilst not perplexing) beyond this.
And how did you select who or which type of work would appear in your videos?
Essentially the people and jobs featured can be from any working environment, but certain criteria did develop along the way. These criteria may be quite self explanatory; they tend to be people who can be isolated for filming (though not exclusively), so those who work alone; and who I can approach fairly directly in their place of work; and people whose work you can understand visually.
After some time working on the project I also developed a kind of rationale to link all the protagonists. Although it is not explicitly mentioned in the exhibition text, this rationale is that everyone filmed is, however indirectly, related to my morning shower. So there are people working with cotton (to produce a towel), infrastructure (to get that towel to me), carpentry (to produce a bathroom door), advertising (funded by advertising on shower products), and the CEO of a company that makes shampoo. I am also interested in developing the project and filming further protagonists, perhaps for further exhibition contexts, or just to develop the work. I often considered featuring just one industry, such as coffee, and this too would have been very quotidian. However, I felt this would have then been a study of that particular industry, and it should be broader than this. The shower is something quotidian (in highly industrialised parts of the world), but still fairly unbranded, and less loaded than the tea or coffee industries which have their own histories.
Incidentally, I filmed myself first, but discarded this.
Which kind of ideas, conclusions and reflections about the labour market did working on this project trigger?
Although I started with the basic premise of wage inequality across the world, the project is not intended simply as a didactic essay on wage inequality. Clearly, it may offer reflection on these staggering inequalities, and this political position is ultimately not left ambiguous. However, the relationship between labour and money is transformed into a more subjective medium - time. Periods of time are not as easily compared with one another as pieces of graphical information, for instance. With video, the timescale is embedded into the medium (unlike photography, graphics or text).
Another way it should offer complexity is by inviting some 'cross' comparisons of inequality - between farm workers and factory workers both in the global south for example, or between well paid creative economy workers and astronomically wealthy bankers. This picks up on something I had observed over several years. On the occasions I had spent time in poorer countries (such as Paraguay), I noticed that there was a tendency to over simplify both the wealth and poverty that existed in the global south and north (though perhaps I'm doing this by using the word 'both', but bear with me).
There can be tendency to think the streets are paved with gold in Western Europe (for example), and not understand the poverty that exists in the global north too. At the same time, to try to explain for example the extent to which the National Health Service in the UK offers all people in the country, regardless of income, world class quality healthcare free at the point of delivery, might well be unimaginable to many (although this isn't confined to those from poorer countries). Likewise, growing up in western Europe, I think it was difficult to comprehend both the extreme poverty existent in developing countries (hence the TV programmes and campaigns to help us), and the extent to which everything, such infrastructure, education and government, does function much as it does in western Europe. Perhaps this is just me, because I grew up when Live Aid was rocking, though I think little has changed.
I think it's a constant struggle to understand this complexity - to keep talking about the extreme inequality and poverty that exists in poorer countries, without stereotyping. My work, not for the first time, sails close to the wind when it comes to stereotypes. I have used very simple (perhaps over simple, certainly flawed) measures, but the breadth of examples of labour, and the choice of images, should leave some space for these issues.
I had no idea that the UK is one of only three countries in the world without a written constitution. So what was the constitution you outsourced to China for the Mr Democracy project like? Standard constitution mixing other, existing constitutions? Something entirely original? A simple writing down of the laws and principles that already govern the UK?
I actually studied this in school, and have been interested in it since then. I was interested in going to China, and started, as I not infrequently do, with some pretty simple interests - in this case lightening fast economic development and the political situation in China. Fortunately, I had this moment of realising I could turn it around, and look at the UK, which I am probably in a better position to make work about. If I get the project right, both the UK and China are criticised.
The constitution is not very revolutionary, sadly, we're still a constitutional monarchy - no republic! The authors initially tried to define more or less how the UK is at the moment, and then did a few tweaks to it. It was originally written in Chinese, and a fourth colleague of theirs translated it in English. Her language register and vocabulary were great, but occasionally she slipped with a few terms - but rightly so. So an early clause starts 'The regime of the United Kingdom is...', while we normally only hear the word 'regime' to define forms of government not currently popular or viewed as democratic by western governments (or 'regimes'!). I invited the authors to refer to other constitutions when drafting the UK's, and they did, and this is common practice when constitutions are written (the US was heavily influenced by the French, for example).
I'm also interested in your experience in finding, selecting and communicating with 3 factories in China which would manufacture the dolls. Is it easy for an individual to commission a thousand dolls to a Chinese factory? Did you require any help for that?
I had never done anything like this, and in some ways China was less accessible than I thought it would be. So many products are manufactured there, yet the process of getting something made isn't easy. It involves lots of long meetings, misunderstandings, and sometimes deception. The doll itself was not commissioned for my project, but the sound chip and electronics were, and it was very unusual to have such a long sound recording - they are usually just 10 seconds, not over 10 minutes!
The British Council were helpful in finding people to help me, so I had an art student as a translator and fixer, though actually he had no more experience in finding a factory than me - he was an art historian. I also spoke a lot to a Chinese designer (Tom Shi) who had studied in the UK, and moved back to Guangzhou to start a design practice, and a family. He let me use his studio for free while I was in Guangzhou, and the two students (Sarah Yin Liu and Jackon Li Yao) helped me way beyond what any assistant should, and we're still friends.
It was all very hands on. I was not doing this in the way most business people presumably do: I visited all the factories, filmed there, and organised the shipping myself -I even went into the ports, which was fascinating.
I think the main person I worked with at the factory that installed the sound chips into the dolls was mainly just interested in meeting me, and of course I wanted to meet him too. There was a funny moment when we were sending the sound file back and forth trying to compress it for the sound chip, and after I had actually agreed to going ahead with it, he called back to tell me that one of the articles was repeated on the sound chip. It was funny to have him read it back to me, as I had always been careful to not talk about the political content of the piece, but as long as it wasn't about China, it wasn't a problem. It was also funny to hear 1000s of dolls in a Chinese factory saying 'The Constitution of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Article One...', as they were being tested.
By the way, why did you chose China and not India? because i suspect that this choice made the working process even more challenging.
China does have a different position with regard to global development than India, but India might have seemed a more obvious choice, historically. China seems more unequivocally a coming super power than India, and is much more symbolic as a place where products are manufactured. Also, the vast majority of toys in the world are made in China, (and of those a large majority in the Pearl River Delta). That China is not considered a Democracy is also important.
I was reading through the blog of the project and found this entry. Could you explain what happened here? How artworks are usually assessed at customs? What is the rule or law? And how it all ended?
When you export/import something, you use a customs agent to organise the customs for you. Mine refused to describe my dolls as artwork, because they were, well, dolls. Artworks attract a lower rate of VAT and no duty, so the difference is huge, as it's a percentage of the value. As the project was funded by the Arts Council England and supported by the British Council, I thought I had a chance of getting them through as an artwork, which of course they are.
I had direct contact with a customs officer, and she explained that Haunch of Venison were currently in a legal battle with the authorities over the import of a complete video installation (with the video equipment), while the customs were insisting it was simply technical equipment. It was a Bill Viola piece. The customs woman conditionally agreed to view my works as artwork after I emailed her photos taken in the factory with me working on the piece, because their definition revolves around working on objects by hand, pretty much ignoring two generations of contemporary art. I was quite impressed with my negotiating skills!
Now let's have a look at another of your projects, Bringing the Market Home. Why did you chose to work with the Dow Jones Africa Titans 50 index? Why select a pan-African index for an installation that was located in Europe?
The piece reverses a tendential direction of influence, with an African share index determining the operation of an aspect of everyday life in a western city, in this case Berlin. Financial markets exercise massive influence, both directly and indirectly over many people's lives over the globe, and this piece makes already existing connections physical, and immediate, while changing the direction of those influences. A blip of speculation on food prices could make a crop unaffordable for thousands of people in one country or region: in this piece, that process is reversed, making financial indicators from Africa ('the 50 leading companies that are headquartered or generate the majority of their revenues in Africa') tangible (cutting the house lighting of the HKW, House of World Cultures, Berlin) in a western city.
Was it on 24/7? Or does the Dow Jones follows 9-to-5 type working schedules?
Yes, it ran 24/7. The first time we got it working it was two in the morning, and we didn't know if the index would be shifting, but it was! We spent ages trying to work out which indices would be working when, but in the end the stocks are traded on multiple exchanges across the world, so several of the indices can change for most of the day, although there are periods when no exchange is open.
So what was the impact that this connection with the DJAT50 had on the lighting circuit in a corridor? Was the light constantly on and off? Or were fluctuations slower to manifest themselves?
Essentially it's pretty erratic. It is read every 30 seconds, and we didn't analyse the data explicitly, but it changes fairly often - sometimes five times in a row, sometimes remaining off for five minutes. This worked well performatively - sometimes meaning viewers didn't notice that there was any change to the system, and then suddenly asking themselves what was happening, why the lights weren't working. This was an important consideration of the project (that you can't see from the documentation) - I really wanted it to be something that was installed in the existing space, that people noticed and asked themselves why this was happening, rather than an autonomous object that people were invited to look at.
Any upcoming project, event, field of research you'd like to share with us?
I'd like to continue working on the One Pound project and Dinner Party. I've also been looking at the relationship between money and happiness, which I started looking at on residency in Paris at the Cité des Arts. I think inequality, mighty fascinating as it is, will come up again soon too, though I don't know how at the moment.
You can see Oliver Walker's video installation One Pound at the exhibition Time & Motion: Redefining Working Life, at FACT in Liverpool until Sunday 9 March 2014.
The title of the show is pretty self-explanatory. Because, yes! The drones are indeed getting closer. Nowadays UAVs aren't just shooting at terror suspects and innocent civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, they also have civilians uses such as monitoring orangutans and other endangered species or helping farmers check the condition of their crops which is obviously valuable and exciting. But drones are also enrolled to increase control and surveillance over our heads: the German railway network is deploying them to combat graffiti-spraying 'gangs' and a European commission document suggests that, in the coming years, drones could be used in crisis management, law enforcement, border control and firefighting. Human right activists are calling for "greater clarity and transparency about when and how these tools are deployed." Eric King of Privacy International also told The Guardian that "the secretive way in which surveillance drones have been put into operation, and the failure of the police to recognise and address the human rights issues involved, has created a huge potential for abuse."
The exhibition addressed these issues with projects that range from the chillingly premonitory Bit Plane by Bureau of Inverse Technology (1997) to Young's most recent research projects. One of them is TELEWAR, a book and video made in collaboration with The Force Of Freedom (the book is available for free in PDF and it makes for a very informative reading about the uses and impacts of new warfare technologies.)
As part of the TELEWAR project, the group of artists were also showing military patches used on drone programmes. You can get some for cheapo on ebay and if you really are into creepy military patches, i can't recommend enough Trevor Paglen's collection of Emblems from the Pentagon's Black World (more in I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to be Destroyed by Me.)
But let's get back to business because the reason why i wanted to interview Dave Young is that a couple of weeks ago he headed the workshop Movable Borders - The Reposition Matrix at the Furtherfield gallery.
Participants were invited to contribute to Movable Borders, Young's ongoing research project that investigates shifts in the permeability of territorial and political boundaries and the role that technology plays in the 'reterritorialisation' of the borderline.
The workshop focused on the use of cybernetic military systems such as remotely piloted aircraft (drones) and the Disposition Matrix, a dynamic database of intelligence that produces protocological kill-lists for the US Department of Defense. Together, participants were challenged to collaborate on developing a cartography of control: a map of the organisations, locations, and trading networks that play a role in the production of military drone technologies.
Since i only had a brief chat with Dave Young at the opening of the Furtherfield show, i decided to ask him a few more questions via email:
Hi Dave! The Reposition Matrix aims to create an "open-access database that geopolitically situates the organisations, locations, and trading networks that play a role in the production of military drone technologies." First of all, i'm curious about the source of the information that you collect through this project. Where do you find it? I guess some of it must be hard to come by? Concealed? supposed to remain out of reach of the public?
The fascinating thing about this project, for me at least, is how one public thread of information begins an almost overwhelming process of unraveling. A mention of a drone crash in a very public news source leads to the military crash report subsequently released under an open government initiative, which then mentions an external non-military public company involved in the piloting of the drone that day, who publishes some information about their involvement in military operations in their annual reports, and so on. The information is perhaps not deliberately concealed as such, but is hidden in the mass of documentation, hyperlinks, and search terms provided on governmental and corporate websites. Past participants have often expressed their surprise at what is deliberately revealed by companies - on their social media profiles, for example. These companies are often proud of their contributions to national defense efforts, and occasionally can be perhaps a little over-generous in the information they volunteer online. In the context of a single Facebook post, a corporate image can seem innocuous, but when cross-referenced with the correct secondary source, you can begin to reveal something otherwise concealed.
And how is the open-access database going to be kept alive? How and who updates it? Where can we read it?
The database is being compiled and added to by me personally at the moment, but I am developing a collaborative framework for use in the workshops which I will test out over the next few weeks. The database will be made available over the Summer (date to be announced!), and will form the basis for future workshops.
Another thing i've been wondering about is the way that you handle the data you find. Most of it i guess is obviously genuine information but how about the data coming from conspiracy theorists, or from people who have an interest at spreading as much dis-information as possible, etc? Is this something you consider?
This is an interesting question, and often leads to a good discussion in the workshops about how to filter sources. Participants have to debate what is important, and what can be considered trustworthy - or indeed if a fabricated theory can indeed be an important part of the map.
Most of the information participants work with is released 'genuinely' - as I said above, through official channels by public companies or governmental open data programmes, although it is important to place these too within the context of an agenda. The trustworthiness of the information we work with is always up for debate, and can be divisive amongst the participants, but in general, what tends to happen is we treat each thread of information as part of a wider network. Curiosities discovered during the workshop will corroborate or conflict with each other. This is where the world map becomes a useful interface for physically aggregating the found information, as participants can immediately begin to see a formalisation of their research, and can ask questions of it as it develops.
The drones and the US kill list seem to be far away from the kind of culture and preoccupations we have in Europe... Or are they? How much impact does the Disposition Matrix (a database that United States officials describe as a "next-generation capture/kill list." ) and drone program have in Europe? Why should it matter to us?
I think for the participants of the workshop it quickly becomes apparent that the production and military use of drones is truly a global issue. Washington quickly has links to London, Berlin, The Hague, Seoul, UAE, Turkey - the list goes on (and on...) What we can see emerging at the moment are the formation of alliances, power blocs that collectively invest in drones and share them and the information they collect as a trans-national resource. It is interesting to attempt to unpack this and examine how such alliances function as a network of power and control.
As for the disposition matrix, the use of an algorithm or protocol to compile a capture/kill list is really something worth having an open and frank discussion about. To me it really speaks of a wider societal shift which I find problematic, specifically these processes of monitoring and individuating populations. Indeed a well-treaded debate with many unresolved fundamental issues, but despite this, it can only be said that it is becoming increasingly embedded in governmental thinking.
Also, it is important to explore how and where these technologies function - while it is unknown for now how much impact the disposition matrix has in Europe, similar protocols are becoming increasingly pervasive here, particularly in countries such as the Netherlands, the UK, Germany, France, to name but a few. They may not be applied to such direct efforts as targeted killing, but they do appear to operate in welfare systems, immigration control, predictive policing, among others.
You recently organized a workshop at Furtherfield in London. Participants were invited to investigate drones and the Disposition Matrix. Can you describe briefly what happened? What the participants managed to achieve?
The workshop opened with a discussion framed around a few specific questions I wanted to put to the participants, as I was keen to encourage a critique of some of the conventional ideas regarding the use of drones that appear regularly in news reports. The participants were very open, willing to engage and question each other which was fantastic. Their backgrounds were quite diverse too, with a mix of artists, academics, social scientists, etc, and the ensuing discussion really reflected this. Following that, the participants formed small groups and began to work together on the world map. Each group worked with their own base document, researching its contents and trying to visualise its geopolitics through this process of mapping.
So, one example is a group who began looking at Wikileaks cables detailing US fears that Iran was using 'proxies' to get components required to build their own drone and evade trade embargoes. They began to draw the trading networks Iran had allegedly built up onto the map, criss-crossing West Asia, North Africa, Europe, and Japan.
What is interesting is where different groups collided on the map - important nodes in the network predictably appear in Washington and the FATA regions of Pakistan. Often some surprising locations pop up too, usually reflective of the backgrounds of the workshop participants as they try to investigate any connections between the drone war and their own politics and places of origin.
I'm also fascinated by the description of Google Boundaries, "a series of images taken by the Google Streetview car as it encounters border checkpoints. The project is an investigation into the geopolitical systems that influence Google's streetview product, re-situating its task of mapping the streets of the world as being an invasive, territorial act." Could you explain what you meant by that? And how you came to investigate border checkpoints through the eyes of the Google Streetview car?
The Google Street View car has famously made the debates about privacy and digital rights visible - people who in the past felt perhaps unthreatened by Google's data-harvesting all of a sudden saw it as an invasive act. They could suddenly see their own houses - perhaps even themselves outside, in all their vulnerability. I became more interested in this idea of Street View as a colonialisation while researching The Reposition Matrix. When you zoom out as much as possible with Google Maps, you can see the territories that have Street View - a strange hierarchical geography revealed by a blue overlay on the map. Recently, Iran have announced they will release their own "Islamic" version of Google Earth as they see Google's services as a threat to their national security, so there are strong territorial politics at play here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/apr/10/iran-plans-islamic-google-earth
I know this is still a work in progress but what have you discovered so far?
I started by trying to "road-trip" across the US-Mexico border control using Streetview. You can't pass through them like you often can in Europe - frequently the Street View car seems to get as close as possible to the border then turn back at the last moment. It is interesting to examine historically contested borders - the Israel 1949 Armistice Borderline shows a border control officer looking straight at the Street View car, gun hanging from his shoulder.
Examining the border crossings begins to illustrate the materiality of Google's task, and the beuraucratic issues operating in the background. Despite Google's omnipresence in the cloud, the Street View car is often caged in by boundary politics. They are regularly adding new Street View data to the map, so I'll be curious to investigate how this changes over time.
Any upcoming projects, areas of investigation or exhibition you want to share with us?
There are some more Reposition Matrix workshops coming up over the following months - Dublin as part of the Glitch Festival on the 15th June, another one at V2 on July 6th, Share conference in Croatia 18-20 July. People are of course very welcome to get in contact and come along to the workshops if they'll be in the right place at the right time! More information available on http://movableborders.com.
There are some more projects that are part of the Movable Borders series, following on with these investigations of alternative territorialisations and geographies. One of them requires some research into the history of cocktails and mixology, which I am particularly excited about...
More images of the workshop at Furtherfield.
It's hard to believe that it took me so many years to finally email Mogens Jacobsen and ask him for an interview. I've been following his projects since the very beginning of the blog (which was 8 years ago, in case you were wondering.)
Jacobsen is a media artist based in Copenhagen and an Adjunct Professor in Digital Culture and Mobile Communication at IT University, Copenhagen. His artistic work either closely follows social, political and ethical questions or sabotages technology, by mix-matching new and old media or by inviting web users to subvert web banners.
Some of his most acclaimed works include Crime Scene, two computers swapping copyrighted material in full view of the public; Power of Mind 3 Dissociative Defense, an installation powered by potatoes and hosting a report on human rights in Denmark; and TurntablistPC, a series of vintage turntables that spin their record according to visits to certain websites.
One of his most recent pieces, OECDlab comments on the cult for data and more precisely the instrumentalization of statistics by politicians, academics and economists. By manipulating the levers, dials, and knobs of three retro-looking lab-instruments, people can adjust parameters like percentage of women in parliament, distribution of income, military expenditure and see how these alterations are influencing other factors in society. The countries remain anonymous but all the data used is real data supplied by OECD, the WorldBank and UN.
I was curious to know more about OECDlab and that was the excuse i needed to finally get in touch with Mogens Jacobsen and discover if he could possibly be wittier than his own artworks:
Your work often responds to current social and cultural issues: human rights in Denmark, the rise of surveillance, file sharing, interactivity/reactivity, etc. What do you think are the themes that should be urgently addressed right now? Either by you or by other artists? Do you think that artists have any impact on ethical, cultural or social issues? Can they change the way a problem or situation is perceived and handled?
I'm sad to say this - but I wouldn't overestimate the impact done by artists at the moment. I wish more media artist would deal with real-world, everyday political issues. There seem to be a rather dominating escapist interest in phenomenology and the individual spectator. A problem I personally blame on the "experience economy" focus some years back. Now the "money" economy has crashed and experience economy has become unfashionable, it might be a good time to make art relevant outside the safe haven of the established art spaces again.
By turning the knobs of the OECDlab instruments, people can manipulate different parameters such as the percentage of women in parliament, distribution of income (the GINI index), military expenditure, etc. and then see how the alterations are influencing other factors in society. Can the manipulation ever lead to a satisfactory situation? One with maximum freedom of the press, one without shocking income inequality, etc.
One of the things that surprised me was the chaotic behavior of the instruments. Naively I thought there might be some correspondence between parameters such as freedom of press and distribution of wealth. But not so.
The OCEDlab lets you explore the world as it is - according to statistics at least, not construct a personal utopia. On one of the instruments, the one titled "Qui magistratum obeunt mundum credunt sibi subiectum esse ut ad suam voluntatem flectatur", you will never be shown the name of the country as you try to combine parameters. So it is not a travel/emigration-guide, but more a disrupting guide through your own beliefs of social-economic politics.
Have you thought of making an online version of the OECDlab?
I have thought of an online version. But of course I won't do it. I am really trying to avoid screens and fancy visuals at the moment. It like a personal struggle to be in the "media arts" and not revert to amazingly colorful pixels on a screen. Ten years ago I said Flash spoiled net.art by pulling the attention towards the surface. So now I really try hard to avoid the screen altogether.
And basically all data of the OECDlab is already available online on the website of the OCED, the Worldbank, UN and a couple of other sites. So you can easily access the data, which was what I did as I started on the project.
I'm also interested in the reason why you gave the instrument such a retro look. Why not present them with fancy touch screens and spectacular infographics?
The project OECDlab is deliberately looking quite old - like the apparatus of science, at a time when science was thought to be objective, when science was trusted and thus allowed to control society without anyone questioning the facts.
So OECDlab looks like the nostalgic technical tools of objective power. Like test-equipment in a lab or instruments from the science lab of a school: Dark polished wood, analogue meters and large knobs.
Have you tested the Democratic Dazzler or the Oplyser (two devices that disrupt surveillance systems and transmits by Morse code article 1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights) on security cameras in public space? How did it go? Did you get any reaction? Either from passersby or from the people who are monitoring the surveillance cameras?
The Dazzler project started when I was invited the Danish gallery "Torpedo 18", which is a gallery for "inaccessible art". What a freedom to get invited to do something inaccessible! As the first version of Dazzler was working, I wanted to do a small presentation of the project. So I arranged an event in front of the Danish Supreme Court one evening at 8 PM. Only a very few friends showed up at this event. But as the clock struck 8, I thought I needed to do some sort of welcome. So I stepped up a small staircase, raised the Dazzler and was getting ready to speak. Then the door behind me opened and the - at that time - Danish prime minister Anders Fog Rasmussen (now Secretary General of NATO) stepped with his security guards. Everybody - including myself - were quite baffled. The prime minister quickly got in this limo and drove off. Sadly nobody took a photo.
Your work Crime Scene (in which two computers exchange copyrighted works) is illegal to show in Denmark. What happened? Did you get into legal troubles because of the installation?
At the time I was working in a small ground with some people from museums and cultural institutions around Denmark. And all were really scared of showing digital art due to unsolved questions regarding intellectual rights. I really tried to understand the Danish copyright laws but was baffled. And nobody was really capable of answering my questions.
So instead I made this piece, not as a provocation or protest, but more as my way of stating a question. I was approached by some lawyers from the ministry of culture, who thought it was an interesting question. And they asked me if they could investigate it as a legal case (and they guarantied me I would not get into trouble). Well, the case ended by stating the piece was legal for me to produce - referring to artistic freedom and freedom of speech. But a museum wanting to exhibit the piece might get into trouble.
So far, the Crime Scene has been shown in Sweden, Spain and France. But it has never been shown in Denmark.
You define yourself as a media artist. Is this a 'label' you find important? Would it be just the same to you to say you're a 'contemporary artist'?
It does matter that much for me. I used the "media" label to put some distance to painting and graphics (even thing happening on a monitor). I would like to get the attention away from the visual imagery. "Media" sort of covered a lot of thing - and as "new media" has grown old, I settled on just using the word "media".
What kind of advice would you give to someone who would like to establish themselves as a media artist as well?
First of all - and very important - get some way of having an income. Artists don't make money. And media artists certainly do not, as nobody is buying media art.
Then secondly: Learn to program. Any programming language: C#, C, Java, processing whatever lingo that fits your needs and abilities. It might sound very old fashioned - focusing on learning the craft. But it gives you a lot more freedom sketching things out in the actual medium, not only working on the conceptual level. And let you experiment without having to beg, bribe or pay somebody else.
Are there any upcoming projects you could share with us?
I have some things coming up. A new piece for a group show with the theme "money". This might end up with another apparatus in the style of OECDlab. Also I will be showing some works at the exhibition Audio Art - Sound as Medium for the Arts at ZKM in Germany. The exhibition opens on March 16th. And one of my contributions is a new piece which I'm really busy making right now. The working title is Pairs - Conversation Piece from 1965. It is based on a note from one meeting between several Danish artists in 1965. Each artist will be represented by an old wooden chair, and rearranging the chairs you will be navigating between their discussions.
'The Intel - Cyprus Merger' showed how the world's first merger of a country and a corporation might be possible, and advantageous for both parties. Moreover through the execution of due diligence, stakeholder engagement and communication, how such a merger could be enacted responsibly, and in the best interests of both, or how at least it might appear so.
At first sight, Zoe Papadopoulou''s new project is challenging and absurd, but dig deeper and you'll see how thought provoking it is. This is especially true, in the light of impending economic bailout measures being forced upon Greece, and how the Greek government has indeed found itself looking to corporations to buy assets from the State.
Merger was born in February 2008, in response to a brief at the Royal College of Art on 'The Future of Money' sponsored by Intel's People and Practices Research Group. Zoe reappraised the project for the ongoing Paris Design Week.
Merger, is told through a video in which a fictional character, Anna Rodgers, the director of overseas acquisitions at Mackenzie M&A, presents an overview of how and why the Merger came to be to other interested parties. She also describes how the merged corporation and country have generated economic and democratic benefits to both parties and turned around the fortunes of a nation. The project allows the viewer to ask why Intel might see an opportunity in Cyprus - a small island-state, with strong historic links to Greece, but with a separate economy.
Cyprus decided to take advantage of the EU precedent created by UK's Olympic and Paralympic Act in 2006, which made the words "London 2012" and "2012" protected trademarks, along with the name of the official LOCOG website, and "various derivatives". The Olympics were created in Greece, so Cyprus starts to protect the revenue made from products and services borne out of the inventions of the ancient Greeks.
That's where Intel, which built their revenue in no small part through protecting the Intellectual Property of their developments, intervenes. In this scenario, Intel would bring their expertise and lawyers, and look at every single aspect of modern life (from architecture to urban planning, from language to technological inventions) that borrow from Greek inventions, and claim a bounty from each. In so doing they create a sustained income stream that sees the Cypriots be the exemplar of economic growth, at odds with the fortunes of the rest of Europe.
By highlighting the ease with which the UK Government and the International Olympic Association use their power to protect something that originated in Greece, this project asks, with Intel's might, if the Island of Cyprus could challenge and regain their past glory and wealth.
Not content with protecting revenue, Merger also aims to revisit and update one of the Greek's most widely-adopted inventions - democracy.
Merger highlights the current lack of trust in politicians and in Governments too slow to tackle adequately the significant challenges that countries and their populations face. Surely this lack of responsiveness would not be tolerated in the corporate world. The lady in the video explains that Cypriots didn't want a Prime Minister or a President. They wanted a CEO, a businessman that would run the country like a successful company. I bet the Italians who now have a 'successful businessman' as their head of State would beg Cyprus to be very cautious about their choice.
Merger proposes a Real Time Democracy model that allows Cypriots to track how their Government is doing 24/7 - on a collection of metrics including the share price of Intel - which they now all, each, own a share in. One man, one vote becomes 'one man, one share.'
In the three years since Merger, this project proposed that the Cypriots and Intel have built the world's biggest monument to commemorate their union. The Antikytheran Monument, in the centre of the capital city Nicosia, recognises another Greek invention - the Antikythera Mechanism; the world's first computer designed between 150 and 100 BC to calculate astronomical positions.
This also reveals why Intel has gone to all the effort of merging with a country, that they could buy piece by piece if they had chosen to. In this brave new world, Intel owns the rights to all computers - their entire supply chain and competitors.
With this project, Zoe Papadopoulou questioned, via the power Intel and Cyprus yield as a result, what might be the implications of a "merger" of a corporation and a state. She also invites the public to question if this one day might be possible, or if by stealth it was an inevitable part of our futures.
Finally, the future of this project will be to curate an exhibition based on the evolution of this new national entity that further explores the changes it is likely to undertake in the next 20, 30 or 50 years. This will not only be considered from a design perspective but also a philosophical one with the help of Greek Cultural theorist and essayist Elia Ntaousani.
The Brussels Biennial has opened its first edition a few weeks ago. The programme is good. A bit severe but really good. However, the whole experience is laborious. The first venue we visited was so cold i almost took no picture afraid as i was to remove my gloves (Brussels i love you and that derelict Post Sorting Center was charming but if you can't afford to heat the place do consider to biennial us in the Summer next time, ok?) The second one was remarkably well hidden. Number three was a bit gloomy and the fourth venue was indicated on the Biennial map as 'the Central Station', easy peasy to locate the station but this is a big train station and where the artworks to see actually were remains a mystery to me.
It will be my pleasure to moan and curse in another post but let's focus this one on an art piece that got my attention.
At the beginning of 2001 Silke Wagner bought a Volkswagen-van.
During one year, the artist drove her Bürgersteig (Pavement) project to three German cities. Her budget for the project was left at the disposal of local socio-political groups to customize the vehicle according to their needs and set up various projects in public.
The third stop of the van was Frankfurt am Main. There, Wagner cooperated with the Hanau activist group kein mensch ist illegal (no-one is illegal) to comment on the practice of deporting refugees and immigrants living illegally in Germany and examine it in the framework of the process of European integration (see Lufthansa Deportation Class brochure). Lufthansa is deeply involved in the deportation process. Germany deports between 30,000 and 35,000 people each year and more than one third are taking off from Frankfurt, making it the country number one airport for deportation.
The van was repainted to resemble a Lufthansa van marked with the words "Deportation Class". Different events were carried out in the bus, focusing on the deportation of refugees carried out with the help by the German airline: protests, handling of information leaflets, performances in the street, at the airport but also at a major cultural event such as the Frankfurt Book Fair. The only feature of the project brought to Brussels is the onboard radio that broadcasts the audio documentation of the project.
Lufthansa sued the artist to obtain that they stopped using the van but the airline company lost its case.
The Brussels Biennial runs until January 4, 2009.