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While in Barcelona for the LOOP festival, i had the wonderful opportunity to attend a talk by Harun Farocki, an independent filmmaker who has spent the past decades investigating the relationship between technology and our representation and understanding of the world. I only got to discover his work at Documenta XII where 12 screens were showing in real time different views of the 2006 World Cup final (France - Italy), some were surveillance camera footage, some focused on isolated players, others overlaid the game with graphic and statistical analysis of ball direction and player speed. Titled Deep Screen, the installation provided an excellent case of 'too information kills information.'

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Deep Play, 2007 (photo)

Harun Farocki's presentation in Barcelona focused on two of his short experimental documentaries which, each in its own way, explore the status of new technical images.

I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts (video extract) is a two-screen installation. On the first screen are images from the maximum- security prison in Corcoran, California. A surveillance camera shows a concrete yard where the prisoners are allowed to spend half an hour a day. The camera suddenly zooms in on a fight between two prisoners. Those not involved lay flat on the ground, arms over their heads. They know that fires rubber bullets are coming if the convicts ignore the warning calls. If the fight continues, the guard shoots real bullets. The pictures are silent. The camera and the gun are right next to each other. This video also emphasizes the social relationship between the one who fires and the one who films, between the one with force and the one who takes shots. After that, it takes nine minutes before the convict is taken away on a stretcher. Farocki explained that in the course of 10 years, guns went off 2000 times in the prison. Hundreds of inmates were wounded, a few dozen heavily injured, five were shot dead.

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I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts, 2000

The second screen displays found sequences, images generated by computers that track shoppers as they move through the aisle of the supermarket.

Unlike the prison sub-genre that the cinema industry produces, the images that surveillance camera churn out are excruciating to watch. There's no artificial condensation of time nor space that even the cheapest tv show can create, no close-up, no director trick that would shorten time, no possibility to re-install the camera, sometimes the images have such a low definition they are hard to read. What these images have however is a high level of authenticity, of believability.

Farocki pointed us to Prison Focus, a Californian organization which, in virtue of the Freedom of Information Act, makes prison surveillance images public.

Check also this interview of Farocki about I Thought I was Seeing Convicts.

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Immersion (2009)

The second film, Farocki discussed was Immersion (2009). He recently attended a workshop where films war veterans undergoing therapy for their Posttraumatic Stress Disorder at the Institute for Creative Technologies, a research centre that develops and uses virtual reality and games to recruit and train the soldiers, but also to treat them. The traumatized soldier has to done a head mounted display and immerse himself into the first person shooter game while a psychotherapist coax them into re-living the most traumatizing moments of their war experience.

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Immersion (2009)

What interested the film maker was the fact that if in the past an image was a direct reference, today it is in competition with images generated by computer science. The computer image have now acquired a higher status of believability because scientists have worked together to tune it and make it as close to the reality as possible. These sophisticated models are now competing with 'the real thing.'

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Just back from LOOP video art festival and fair in Barcelona. The event is for video art lovers only. So what was a video art sceptic like me doing there? Well, i was busy becoming a convert. I'll come back with the why and how in a lengthier post. In the meantime, here's an example of an artwork i discovered (and unsurprisingly liked) at LOOP.

The fair had invited dozens of galleries from all over the world but only a few of them were brave enough to stray from the strictest limits of what video art is or should be. One of them is Virgil de Voldere Gallery (New York) who brought Brody Condon's video game modifications to Barcelona.

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DefaultProperties(); , 2006. Self-Playing Computer Game, Custom Computer

Two of the pieces shown by the gallery belong to a series of re-interpretations of Late Medieval Northern European religious paintings as games that play themselves, just like Condon did with some of his previous works. Most notably my absolute favourite Karma Physics< Elvis.

Brody modified a first person shooter game and exchanged the violent animations with dreamy, otherworldly and elegant scenes. The characters in his artworks seem to be suspended, they are waiting for the player to tell them what to do. Except that there is no way any player can take control of them. There's just a computer and the screening of the scene. No joystick enables visitors to free the characters' gestures from their limbo.

DefaultPropeties(); is a free interpretation of the baptism scene from the Triptych of Jean des Trompes by Gerard David from 1505. This "self-playing" game depicts a man with a horrible skin disease apparently lost in prayer in a Northern European medieval landscape. Right behind him is a man with a flaming sword in his right hand. One doesn't know the intention of the man with a weapon: is he going to harm the other man or perform some sort of knighting? Meanwhile the sky is filling with a swirling extra-dimensional portal from which is emerging a astral being of unknown but seemingly royal nature.

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Resurrection (after Bouts), 2007. Self-Playing Computer Game, Custom Computer

Four nude figures inhabit the second "self-playing" game, Resurrection (after Bouts). A man in the back with red tights and a head of animated hard edged abstraction seems to have a really bad trip, he reels from side to side in a trance; an eerily pale angel slowly performs a yoga tree pose over and over again while two other men idle sit quietly by the fire. Once again the surrounding light has the typical luminosity of medieval paintings. This time, the sun hovers between sunset and sunrise. Resurrection (after Bouts) is inspired by the Resurrection scene by Dirk Bouts from 1455. All the figures from the original paintings are clearly recognizable. Only Christ is represented as the campfire.

Don't miss this 7 part video of Brody Condon's talk at The Influencers. There's also a recent PDF catalog, Brody Condon - Known Planes of Existence, available for download.

Previous post on this panel: Positions in Flux - Panel 1: Art goes politics - Hans Bernhard from UBERMORGEN.COM
Geert Lovink, smart and fast as ever, has already blogged the whole panel, so make your way to his place for a shortcut and an alternative report on the discussion: Political Work in the Aftermath of the New Media Arts Crisis.

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Image credit: NIMK

Art goes politics, the first panel of Positions in Flux, discussed how/whether media art has the potential to contribute to global and local problems such as religious and territorial conflicts, environmental or social crisis.

One of the three artists invited to participate to the discussion is Wafaa Bilal. Born in Iraq, Bilal gained worldwide fame in 2007 with his performance Domestic Tension (aka. Shoot an Iraqi) which enabled web users around the world to control a paintball gun and shoot at him 24 hours a day. For a whole month. His works are being exhibited and discussed internationally and he is currently Assistant Arts Professor at Tisch School of Arts, NYU.

The artist presentation was articulated around his artworks:

Domestic Tension

How can artists today make images mean something, stimulate people and provoke them? Problems that political art face: disengagement of the issue and tendency of some artists to express the issues at stake through aesthetic pain rather than aesthetic pleasure. Bilal grew up in an oppressed society and didn't have the leisure to meditate on aesthetic alone. He therefore works with both aesthetic pain and aesthetic pleasure.

On May 4, 2007, Bilal set up his living and working quarters in a Chicago art gallery to perform Domestic Tension - Shoot an Iraqi. The project was a way for him to deal with the grief over the death of his brother in his hometown back in 2004. Bilal realized that he lives a comfortable life in the USA while his family is still in Iraq. Americans have been relatively shielded of the pain and suffering people experience in Iraq in their name. What kind of ethical consequence would seeing the consequences of war trigger? Would it humanize the issue? How can an artist go beyond a mere street protest (which alienates people most of the time anyway)?

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Bilal found out that internet enables an artist to enter the safety zone of people's house whether they like it or not. Domestic Tension ended up exposing more complex issues than the artist had imagined at first. It was also a bigger success than he had hoped for. By the end of the one month performance in the gallery, the Domestic Tension website had received 80 million hits. The results of the work were both healing and disturbing for him. Some took control of the paintball gun in a very aggressive way, hacking the system so that the gun would shoot non-stop but by day 21, Bilal noticed that the gun was going right and left, not aiming at him. It turned out that a group of 39 people had united force to prevent people from shooting at the artist. They called themselves 'the virtual human shield.'

On day 14 of Domestic Tension, a link to the project was posted on Digg.com and Bilal was bombarded non stop, he couldn't fill the paintball fast enough to keep up with the demand.

The themes Domestic Tension explored:
Conflict Zone vs. Comfort Zone
Aesthetic pleasure vs. Aesthetic pain
Virtual platform and physical platform
The body has its own language
The nature of the medium: interactive (the term is used the wrong way, most interactive work should be labeled responsive because the outcomes are predetermined) vs. dynamic (a platform in which all possible end-states are unknown.)

Domestic Tension embedded the horror in the experience and allowed webusers to participate. People invested their own narrative and integrated the one of the artist.

After Domestic Tension

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In 2008, while he was in residence at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Wafaa created Dog or Iraqi, asking people to vote who -- a dog named "Buddy," or an Iraqi, himself -- would be submitted to waterboarding, a form of torture that consists in immobilizing the victim and pouring water into the breathing passages to have them experience drowning. PETA obviously went mad about the idea that a dog would be harmed in the project, they were quite undisturbed by the fate of the Iraqi. Bilal lost to the dog and was submitted to waterboarding.

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The next project was Night of Bush Capturing: Virtual Jihadi, a modified version of the first person shooter video game Quest for Bush, itself a "hacked" version of the commercial video game Quest for Saddam. In Bilal's version the artist inserted his personal narrative by casting himself as a suicide bomber who gets sent on a mission to assassinate President George W. Bush. He was intrigued by the idea that a terrorist organization had released a free game to recruit people. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute had to cancel the show after governmental pressures. At the time, the College Republicans called the RPI's Arts department "a safe haven for terrorists" on their blog. A second exhibition of the project had to be shut down due to the fact that the gallery didn't comply with some regulation about the size of its doors.

The objectives of the game were many:
- A mirror to expose hypocrisy and racism,
- Reverse the role of hunter and hunted,
- involve people who may not be willing to otherwise engage in a dialogue,
- Address the issue of suicide bombers.

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For Bilal, new media art and interactivity presuppose the active involvement of a public whose function was once limited to viewing only. If the audience takes an interest in the work, they are more likely to engage in a dialogue that might, in the best cases, be revolutionary.

I would, once again, like to recommend Waffa Bilal's book Shoot An Iraqi, Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun to get to know more about his experience and art work. Previously: A few words with Wafaa Bilal and When interactive art becomes bored with you.

Spaces showing and/or supporting contemporary art which engages with digital and electronic media have started to pop up all over Europe. Very. Slowly.

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[plug.in] is one of them but i see at least two reasons that makes [plug.in] stand out from the thin crowd of media art spaces.

First, the Basel gallery exists for much longer than most (it opened in 2000). Second, and more interestingly, its programme is one of the most appealing i've ever seen in the field. [plug.in] exhibits and often commissions new internet, sound, interactive and software art; organizes events on media art and digital culture; offers visitor a library and a bar.

So far i had been following their programme through the newsletter, but when i read that [plug.in] was hosting the first solo exhibition in Europe of Tokyo-based artists Exonemo, i decided it was high time to go up North and visit the gallery.

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2008, [plug.in] Basel, Foto: Stefan Holenstein

The main piece is an installation which unfolds over two floors:

UN-DEAD-LINK explores questions of digitized and symbolized death between the physical and virtual world. The audience can see, feel and hear the effects that a symbolic death in a computer game can have in the physical exhibition space.

You're welcome in the gallery by a bunch of objects the artists found on flea markets in Basel. An old sewing machine, a piano, reading lamps, a paper shredder on top of a mountain of paper ribbons, a turntable with a plastic dog sleeping on a spinning disk, an old recorder playing crap music, etc. Each of them is animated by an invisible actor.

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2008, [plug.in] Basel, Foto: Stefan Holenstein

0aaplugutooton.jpgThe explanation lurks downstairs in a dark room. There, soldiers on a screen do what they are supposed to do: they run after each other, they shoot and sometimes they kill. Each time one of them is killed, its death is given an almost tangible echo upstairs by one of the devices: more paper is shred, a light goes on, the sewing machine makes a few stitches. When visitors push the red button in front of the screen, all the avatars die and upstairs every single device seem to 'scream.'

Sembo Kensuke and Yae Akaiwa from Exonemo modified the game Half-Life2 and connected the mod to the piano upstairs. The electrical objects are connected by midi/dmx (protocol) with custom devices.

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2008, [plug.in] Basel, Foto: Stefan Holenstein

The work is extremely uncanny: Seeing and hearing the 'consequences' of a virtual death in the real world gives them a sinister weight. It's more disturbing then seeing a real war massacre on television, probably because today tv death seems almost as virtual as the death of an avatar.

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2008, [plug.in] Basel, Foto: Stefan Holenstein

[plug.in] is also showing DanmatsuMouse, a sort of geeky snuff movie in which computer mouses (or should i write 'computer mice'?) are happily destroyed using all sorts of tools on hand: the mouse gets fried in a pan, another one is swirled and crushed in a blender, etc. But something subsists beyond the death of the plastic mouse: its cadaver (a couple of tortured mice were exhibited in the gallery) and the cursor, or rather the data. The motions of the mouse and the cursor were recorded simultaneously by a video camera and a computer programme.

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A DVD, available in the gallery space (did i mention that they also have a shop selling artists' editions and electronic gadgets), allows you to play back the sinister event: the movie of the mouse murder unfolds in parallel with the movements of its cursor that takes over the ones of the cursor on your own desktop.

exonemo - UN-DEAD-LINK is on view until September 14 at [plug.in] in Basel, Switzerland.

Previously on exonemo channel: Interview with Exonemo, MobLab presentation - Transmediale, Origami bus pattern, their installation at Synthetic Times, Ryota Kuwakubo, exonemo and ressentiment in Liverpool, etc.

You might remember that a year ago Marc Owens designed the Avatar Machine, a system which replicates the aesthetics and visuals of third person gaming, allowing the user to view themselves as a virtual character in real space via a head mounted interface.

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His reflections on identity and gaming didn't stop there, during the Royal College of Art Summer show, the Platform 11 graduate was exhibiting his latest game-inspired works.

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A study by psychologists at Nottingham Trent University has found that 54 percent of all males and 68 percent of all females "gender swap"--or create online personas of their opposite sex.

A real life manifestation of that practice, the Virtual Transgender Suit replicates the aesthetics of the typical virtual female form and catapults them within a real world context. The piece was specifically designed for men to wear in the real world, creating a bridge between real (where cross-dressing is not really socially accepted) and virtual.

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Another of Owens' projects, Sabre & Mace - Second Death, was concerned more specifically with the online environment Second Life.

Collaborating with Tony Mullin, he created SABRE & MACE, a company that offers virtual characters the opportunity to experience death as a way to close their user account permanently. The project examines the notion of feeling sentimental toward a virtual character and examines the link between sentimentality and tangibility.

While researching the project, the designers discovered that a great deal of second life residents have multiple avatars, some stay in favour for a long time while others lose their interest. One guy who they spoke to had 14. He said that he used a many of them as platforms for different sides of his real life personality, and for others he invented entirely new fantasy personalities. However he admitted that some of his created avatars had fallen by the wayside and he no longer used them.

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The service works as follows: Having discovered the Sabre&Mace site on-line (unfortunately the website had to be taken down after the show) or through one of the virtual adverts in Second Life, the prospective customer teleports to the company headquarters.

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There, the client meets a manager who explains the full process and guides him or her through the signing of two contacts. Contract 1 - states that at some point (completely random) in their second life the avatar will be collected by a Sabre & Mace officer and taken back to the headquarters for termination.

Contract 2 is in fact the client's 'Last will and Testament' where he or she outlines how they wish their virtual moneys, land and assests to be distributed once they have been terminated.

The client continues to live their second life until one day, a Sabre & Mace officer appears and informs them that the final proceedings are about to begin. The client is collected and taken to the Sabre & Mace HQ.

The client meets again with the client manager, to discuss the final process. At this point the client reveals their 'account password', which is the means by which the avatar is terminated.

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The client is led through the cryogenic chamber, where the virtual physical forms of past clients are stored. Upon arrival at the 'Termination Room', the client is instructed to walk through the 'white noise' door. Once he crosses the threshold of the door his Second Life game crashes, giving a Sabre & Mace member of staff time to change the clients password - effectively terminating the character.

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The client's former avatar is immortalised as a golden statue. Information about the avatar can be read on the plaque which sits on the monument. Should the client visit the Sabre & Mace memorial gardens he would see his own statue as well as the monuments of previous clients.

Images courtesy of Marc Owens (except the shot of his works at the RCA show.)

Related stories: Mourning and digital culture.

Born 20 years ago, ISEA, the International Symposium on Electronic Art has the objective of discussing and showcasing creative productions that apply new technologies in interactive and digital media. While i'm spending my last hours in quiet and sweaty Turin, Brisbane-based artist Priscilla Bracks is in Singapore because that's where ISEA takes place this year.

She kindly wrote this report from the main exhibition, AIR (Artists In Residence):

The juried show features 16 works arising out of a 3 month residency each selected artist undertook in Singapore, working collaboratively with local organizations.

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Images Priscilla Bracks

Finally, We Hear One Another is a work by Kelly Jaclynn Andres that enables people to experience each other's soundscapes. Collaborating with the Mixed Reality Lab, Kelly made bonnet's fitted with a speaker and an extra 'ear' - a cone at the back of the bonnet that funnels sound to a microphone embedded in the fabric. Signals are transmitted to a speaker in the bonnet of a partner user, via mobile telephone blue tooth. This is a really cute idea that could - for a moment - draw users out of our regular ocular-centric approach to the world (though I would really have like the volume on my speaker to be louder as it was difficult to hear the sounds over the input of my own sonic environment. We can often readily remember things that we see, events that happen, or even the tastes of food, but how often can we recall sounds that we experience, beyond those deliberately injected into the soundscape such as music or words?

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Images Priscilla Bracks

Run Silent; Run Deep by Nigel Helyer (UK/Australia) & Daniel Woo (Australia) collaborating with the Marine Mammal Research Laboratory, provides an 'audio portrait' of Singapore - in particular the area around the harbour. The interface of this work enables you to move through a stylized 'map' of the city, listening to sound recordings made using hydrophones in areas corresponding to coloured circles on the map. Surround sound in the installation space, gives the sense of a 3 dimensional map, and hand drawn images laid over the map gives it cartographic feel.

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Images Priscilla Bracks

To create DIY GORI: seed_1216976400, Jee Hyun Oh (South Korea) collaborated with the Laboratory of Control and Mechatronics. The work focuses on the open source culture of the internet, and experiments with the idea that 'objects exist as evolving pieces of digital data in cyberspace where they are continually remixed by users.' To create the work, the artist selected the word 'Gori' - which in Koean means 'open hook' or the fastening and loosening of human relationships - and planted it as a 'seed' on the internet by posting the word and details of the project on a wiki. The word was then propagated on various sites. The many instances of its use on web pages was then printed on rolled corrugated for display in the gallery. The visual effect of the card is reminiscent of rolls of paper, and more conventional means of storing information.

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Image Priscilla Bracks

Quartet by Tad Ermintano collaborating with HOMEVR at the Institute for Infocomm Research is an interactive quartet of instruments which are played by the audience acting as orchestral conductors. 4 video screens and photo-sensors are mounted above beautifully crafted traditional instruments. An audience member standing in front of the work is seen by photo sensors that trigger the conversion of their movements into sound.

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Image Priscilla Bracks

Aurora Consergens (2008) is a collaboration between Hora Cosmin Samoila, Marie Christine Driesen and the Mixed Reality Lab. Gorgeous patterns are created on a video screen from visualizations of electro-magnetic energy given off by audience members wearing head sensing gear. I spent a long time playing with this artwork and found that the patterns do actually change radically, as I thought of different things. I was told that it works better with two people, so I sat with artist Clea Waites and we tried to think of similar things at the same time. The finer patterns apparently come from detecting the brain's alpha waves, and funnily enough thoughts about the beauty of the patterns, and other beautiful things like trees and sex, seemed to generate clear, defined, unusual patterns, which the attendant remarked he had not yet seen generated by other users of the work. At other times patterns ranged from noise to bigger less defined patterns.

There were a couple of works in the show dealing with water as their subject matter. One might be forgiven for thinking that has something to do with the fact that it rains all the time here, and the assumption is that water must therefore, be plentiful. But in truth water is as scarce here in Singapore as it is an many more arid parts of the world. A huge percentage of the water used is recycled back into drinking water, but much of the new water released into the drinking supply, is imported from Malaysia. Whilst there are a few storage reservoirs, Singapore simply does not have enough room for a centralized water catchment area, and tanks are built into apartments (though I have seen it done in Brisbane where I usually live).

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Images Priscilla Bracks

The Sourcing Water project by Shiho Fukurara, Georg Tremmel and Yousuke Nagao in collaboration with the Singapore-Delft Water Alliance looks at the ancient practice of dowsing to find water across the island. Dowsing is a practice of using a forked rod (usually wooden) to find underground water. A dowser walks around with the rod which responds by tilting up or down if water is present (in response to magnetic energy). In this work the dowsing rods were enhanced with GPS and motion sensors, with a view to collecting data and creating a map of potential water sources. This map, and other interesting visualizations of data relating to Singapore were presented as a video projected map laid over a three dimensional plinth in the shape of Singapore island. However, the artists were not able to make any findings about the scientific validity of dowsing as they discovered that all maps of Singapore's ground water are 'classified' documents which authorities weren't able to release.

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Image Priscilla Bracks

Clea White's The Water Book: An encyclopedia of water, looks at all water's properties both creative and destructive. The artwork is an interactive film installation where words relating to water are projected through a tank of water. This projection changes as people touch the water's surface. The effect is visually beautiful as the light streams through the water and up onto the darkened ceiling above the tank. Even the ripples on the water surface caused by touching can be seen in these reflections, and on a screen projection also in the gallery space. This clever use of light transforms a tank of water - a substance often taken for granted and rarely considered in an aesthetic sense - into a precious object of beauty.

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The Eastwood - Real Time Strategy Group (Vladan Joler and Kristian Lukuc) have created another modification of the commercial version of the game Civilization. In this work, Civilization V, game play centres around the contemporary dream story of building a technology company empire. Players choose their company and instead of warriors and generals, employ CEOs and lawyers to build an army to win the war for market-share dominance.

The work critiques the use of affective labour by gaming companies and social networking sites, to produce profit for shareholders without any real benefit to the creator/user. These concepts are brought to the fore in the games various interface options such as Advisors where you can build your company's proficiency in Folksonomy (the art of classifying people into demographics), Viral Marketing, and Love Bombing (heaping love onto new members of a social group ( a technique most often associated with religious cults that is now used increasingly in social networking web forums.

The underlying code and logic of this game is the same as the original commercial version so the underlying strategy remains essentially the same: find the resources in the economy that make you successful. However unlike the original game these resources go beyond the obvious to include resources of the new economy such as loneliness, depression and boredom, which are a key to the popularity of social networking sites. This version was completed just 11 days ago so it's not yet available for download, but I'm told that it will be available from www.eastwood-gropu.com within a week or so.

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Another great work in the show is Gendered Strategies for Loitering by Shilpa Phadke, Shilpa Ranade and Sameera Khan. This work features dual video screen images, a game and a sound recording of the artists discussing the differences between women's freedom to loiter in Singapore and Mumbai. I felt the sound recording was actually the best part of this work as the artist's discussion prompted me see a gendered approach to being in public space I had never thought about before. Their basic premise was that in Mumbai whilst men regularly loitered in café's, on the street etc, smoking, chatting and enjoying the act of doing nothing, women were generally denied this pleasure because a woman seen to be doing nothing in public was viewed suspiciously, or worse, as a prostitute. This attitude I think speaks volumes of the objectification of women when a women cannot simply 'hang out' without casting doubt upon her respectability. To be in public, women must be seen to be moving with a purpose. Ie she should have some reason for being there. So if a woman is waiting for a friend on the street, she would stand at a bus stop and not on the street corner, to clearly demonstrate she is waiting for something. The artists contrast this with loitering behaviour in Singapore which is apparently gender neutral. The difference in Singapore they say, is that no-one loiters. Everyone must have a purpose and move about the city in a very defined, well regulated way. Extra cold air pours out of ducts above the entrances to railway stations to discourage loitering at the doors. Little footprints painted on paths direct on which side one should walk. Even foreigners living in the city who have a culture of loitering, do so in regulated way - the Indonesians gathering in City Plaza on a Sunday, the Indian and Tamil constructions workers in Little India on a Sunday. I actually experienced this work on a Sunday and went out to Little India to test the theory. Though the streets were a sea of humanity, I was one of only 4 women I saw walking around Little India that evening - an uncomfortable, but revealing experience.

Thanks Priscilla!

AIR (Artists In Residence) runs at the National Museum of Singapore, through 3 August, 2008.

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