I'm drowning in really good books this year. Unsurprisingly, half of them are photography books. And because i'm short on time and these publications deserve a review, i'm going to take the lazy road: a sweeping and speedy overview of 5 of my favourite photo books of the moment. In one post.
Here we go...
The Earth is a living organism. Our escalating energy demands are interfering with the carbon and nitrogen cycles and altered the metabolic balance of the planet. Authored by two photographers and a scientist, the book uses images and essays to investigate the landscape in relationship to sources & sites of energy, energy extraction, energy use and climate control.
Gina Glover's work exploits atmospheric weather and ambient lighting conditions to draw attention to such energetic places and artefacts as coalfields in the Arctic, nuclear installations in France and hydraulic fracturing sites in the USA; Jessica Rayner observes how theories of the sun have varied according to the symbolic or scientific precepts of the day, drawing comparison between manufacturing, properties of the sun and changing theories of energy; and Geof Rayner constructs an accompanying textual narrative which shows how the energy transition has profound evolutionary consequences, not only for external nature, but how we see and interpret the landscape.
Next is Some Things are Quieter than Other by a young Polish photographer called Jacek Fota.
Fota made several trips to the U.S.A. between 2012 and 2013, consciously avoiding the mega cities and landscapes we are already too familiar with. Instead, he turned his lens to the 'peripheries of civilisation' and condensed his personal experience of the big country into a small travel diary.
His photos show the U.S. but on a less grandiloquent, less cliché and more mundane angle than we might be used to. His images look effortless, they are both dream-like and very real, very down to earth.
Over a year ago, i saw Donovan Wylie: Vision as Power at the Imperial Warm Museum in London. The photo exhibition brought together five geographical locations that are interconnected through the apparatus of military surveillance.
Steidl has collected into one slipcase three of these photo series. British Watchtowers (2007) studies the surveillance architecture built at the height of The Troubles. The network of watchtowers and observation posts was erected by the British army to control cross-border smuggling and paramilitary attacks but also to maintain an intimidating presence. The watchtowers were dismantled between 2005 and 2007, as part of the Northern Ireland Peace Process. As Whyle documented their final days in the countryside, British troops were deploying to Afghanistan, taking with them elements of these Northern Ireland watchtowers.
The second book, Outposts (2011), charts NATO observation posts in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. Built on natural promontories, the outposts offer a fascinating parallel with the British Watchtower, as both networks ensured oppression and control in the name of a "war" against terrorists.
The last book in the set, North Warning System looks at a radar station that is surveying a less clearly defined threat. The extreme environment of the Canadian Arctic is home to cyber radar stations unmanned and operated electronically to detect any presence seeking out lucrative natural resources along Canada's Arctic frontier made more fragile by global warming and the new routes though the Northwest Passage it enabled.
Happy Famous Artists beat me to the review.
The term "PIGS" was coined by the financial press as a shorthand for Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain . Never doubting the suitability of reducing over 100 million people to a bunch of clichés, the neoconservatives and the mainstream media quickly adopted the acronym.
Photographer Carlos Spottorno attempted to portrays "Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain through the eyes of the economists". The parody starts right with the design of the Pigs: the book cover is modeled on the front page of The Economist, and even the back page of the publication features a fake advertisement for WTF Bank.
Spottorno's photographs show European countries squeezed between a glorious past and far less glamorous contemporary realities.
I'll always have time for war photography. And since i enjoyed the exhibition Conflict, Time, Photography so much, i had to get my greedy hands on the catalogue of the show. The show (and thus the catalogue as well) looks at over 150 years of conflict around the world, since the invention of photography. Instead of organizing the photos according to themes, geographical area or chronology, the curator orchestrated them according to the length of time that elapsed between the conflict and the moment the photographs were taken. The result is fascinating. You start with images taken almost straight after a disaster occurred and as you proceed, the duration between image and event grows into days, weeks, months, years and decades. One of the last series was shot almost 100 years after the start of WWI. Chloe Dewe Mathews photographed some of the exact spots where British, French and Belgian soldiers were executed for cowardice and desertion between 1914 and 1918.
I'd definitely recommend the book if you can't make it on time to see the show.
I finally made it to the PAV - Parco Arte Vivente (park of living art) in Turin and visited Vegetation as a Political Agent. The exhibition charts a history of the plant world, by looking beyond the biological and exploring the political and social implications of vegetation. And it is pretty much as exciting as i had hoped.
Plants are not as neutral and powerless as we might think. For example, they played a particularly important role in the 17th and 18th centuries, when navigators and 'explorers' sent to discover the world ended up annexing the land, colonizing populations and looking for ways to exploit the financial potential of new plant species (culminating in the spice trade.)
At the other end of the spectrum are individuals and communities which, from the 1970s on, have been using plants to resist, revolt and defy. The exhibition tells their story through documents that date back to the first ecological revolutions, specially commissioned projects and contemporary artworks.
The show opens with the mural Zapantera Negra in which Emory Douglas (Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party from 1967 until the 1980s when the group disbanded) brings together the Black Panther movement and the Escuelita Zapatista supporting the rural working-classes in Chiapas. Douglas modified one of his famous posters Afro-American solidarity with the oppressed people of the world (1969) by turning a rifle into a corn plant, symbol of Mexican populations.
By placing plants in the context of territorial control in colonial and postcolonial periods, RozO's When vegetation is not decoration is perhaps the work that best encapsulates the exhbition. On a larger-scale, vegetation can become a tool to manage a territory or, conversely to support resistance against foreign control. The installation, made of archive material housed inside a temporary architecture of bamboo and palm leaves, illustrates contrasting uses of vegetation in history:
First, black and white photos taken by the French army in the mid-1950s show the French army harvesting wheat in Algeria. They are protected by elite soldiers and armored units.
These images clearly depict the exploitation of land for the benefit of the coloniser. Aside from the word "Algeria" written on the grain sacks, it seems that we are witnessing a French cereal farming region. Here vegetation is clearly used to assimilate and acculturate. Vegetation is employed by the attacker and coloniser of a country or region, to deterritorialize its inhabitants. Rendering the natives foreigners in their own land was a technique that frequently used by colonisers. In the 20th Century, following the invasion of Poland, Nazi Germany implemented a wide-reaching process of "Germanisation" of the territory, to render it German.
On the other side are stills from Chien thang Tay Bac (North West Victory), a documentary filmed in 1952 by the Viet Minh military forces during the war against French occupation. The images demonstrate how Vietnam fighters used topography and vegetation as a weapon. Instead of traveling through the road infrastructure, the soldiers used pathways that allow them to avoid detection by the French occupiers and instead of using the traditional bamboo rafts to cross rivers, they built bamboo bridges that were almost impossible to detect as they were positioned 10 centimetres under the surface of the water.
Roundup Ready Crops are genetically engineered crops that have had their DNA altered to allow them to withstand the active ingredient of Monsanto's herbicide Roundup. Farmers who plant these seeds must use Roundup to keep other weeds from growing in their fields.
Members of Critical Art Ensemble prepared an artificial plot of land with RR herbicide, and challenged people to try and grow something in the enriched soil. The result of their efforts is depressing, it illustrates better than any essay the reason why the herbicide's nickname is 'killer exterminator'.
The most fascinating work in the show for me was Adelita Husni-Bey's timeline of English 'green' movements between 1987 and 2004 as seen through the radical and underground zines they published. Before the widespread use of the internet, zines and magazines were the only way to spread counter-information, controversial ideas and research.
Dan Halter planted a colony of Mesembryanthemum, a flower originally from southern Africa which is considered an alien species in many other parts of the world. Once in full bloom, the plant forms the famous icon of the Space Invaders video game, suggesting thus a very literal take on the idea of invasion. Excepts that this time, the colonization is upside down: it's African invaders that are about to colonize Europe.
Fernando Garcia-Dory brings to our attention George Chan's models of Integrated Farming and Waste Management System. The IFWMS involves a closed sustainable cycle in which matter and energy flow within the productive unit, increasing yields to meet the demands in food and energy of local populations while at the same time guaranteeing the sustainability of the ecosystem.
This revolutionary model, called Dream Farms, is as yet largely unknown.
Claire Pentecost's series of postcards document the artist's research in Mexico where she discovered that transgenic maize is illegally cultivated. Working with grassroots organizations in Sierra Juarez di Oaxaca, she catalogs the OGM plants and portrays them on postcards that are then distributed to Mexican farmers in the hope that they will help stop the contamination.
More images from the exhibition:
Vegetation as a Political Agent was curated by Marco Scotini. It is on view at the PAV - Parco Arte Vivente in Turin until 11 January 2014.
For over 60 years, scientists have been deliberately exposing plants and seeds to radiation in order to mix up their genetic material and speed up mutations. The results are unpredictable and only the mutated plants that show useful or otherwise desirable attributes (stronger, tastier, bigger, more resistant to disease, etc.) are reproduced, creating a mutant variety from the original one.
The technology is called radiation breeding. It emerged in the early 1950s, as part of Atoms for Peace, a program to develop "peaceful" uses of fission energy after WWII. So-called Gamma gardens were planted in laboratories in the US, parts of the former USSR, India, Japan and even in GMO-phobic Europe. A number of plant varieties were commercialized and some of their offspring can now be found in your local supermarket.
The Center for Genomic Gastronomy, an art think tank that investigates food controversies and prototypes 'alternative culinary futures', was concerned by the lack of research on radiation-bred edible plants and their possible impact on our health and on the environment. CGG founders Zack Denfeld & Cat Kramer worked with Heather Julius to create a barbecue sauce that contains some of the most common radiation-bred ingredients: Rio Red Grapefruit, Milns Golden Promise Barley, Todd's Mitcham Peppermint, Calrose 76 Rice and Soy.
The peppermint is a mutation of Mentha piperita, it is able to resist a particularly nasty fungal disease and can be found in chewing-gum, candies and toothpaste. The modified barley is used to make beer and whiskey. As for the grapefruit, it was developed to produce the deepest red. Hundreds of mutation-bred varieties of soy and rice have been registered in the International Atomic Energy Agency database. Now the name of the sauce is a reference to Cobalt-60, the radioactive source gamma gardens are submitted to.
Cobalt 60 Sauce is part of the exhibition Matter Of Life: Growing new Bio Art and Design at MU in Eindhoven. A big sauce dispenser is at the disposal of visitor who'd like to taste the recipe. It's very dark, very yummy and a bit sweet.
Matter of Life | Growing Bio Art & Design exhibition at MU, Strijp S, in Eindhoven. The show remains open until 22nd February 2015.
This week, i'm talking with French artist Benjamin Pothier who is currently frost-bound for an ARS BIO ARCTICA residency organized by the Finnish Bio Art Society at Kilpisjarvi Biological Station in Lapland.
Pothier is in the region to shoot videos and make sound recordings but because he a PhD researcher in Arts, Anthropology and Architecture at the CAIIA Hub of the Planetary Collegium, University of Plymouth, he is also investigating nomadic architecture, drawing lessons from the way nomadic cultures live in symbiosis with the environment and more generally exploring issues of global warming which are felt so acutely in circumpolar regions.
The artist had previously attended the FIELD_NOTES laboratory at Kilpisjarvi Biological Station and last year he had been invited as an artist to participate to the Arctic Circle Residency 2013, in the international territory of Svalbard.
I'm catching up with Benjamin while he is still in the Arctic and before he flies to South Africa to show his photos of icebergs in Johannesburg....
Benjamin Pothier, 8KNOT Trailer
Hi Benjamin! The ARS BIO ARCTICA residency has an emphasis on the Arctic environment and art and science collaboration. Are you working with scientists over there? How?
Well, I am not working with scientists right now as there are no scientists at the station at the time, I mean apart from me! What is specific to my work is that I am actually an artist AND a researcher. I am a researcher in anthropology, which is usually classified as a "Social Science". But of course anthropology means much more than that for me. I have been driven to anthropology researches for intellectual and artistic reasons. I think the perspective on society one can gain through anthropological studies or research is quite similar to the position of the artist in our societies, and maybe even in traditional societies, as long as you consider the role of the shaman, which in my opinion is connected in many ways to the role of the artist in contemporary societies. But this is probably more an artist statement than an academic point of view.
As an artist i'm connecting to the site, the landscape, the nature and surroundings, through Photography and documentary film direction, but it is really a way to connect to the site. because all of this also include long walks, or staying still under snow or strong wind near an arctic lake shore, for example, to do video or sound recording. And the body is as much an interface with the landscape as the camera or the microphone.
Then as a researcher I try, and sometimes manage, to get an overview about theses experiences, mainly life in the arctic circle for this residency, in order to widen the frame of reference for my research.
What brought you there? Because surely there must be art residency in more hospitable parts of the world?
I'm actually a PhD candidate at the CAIIA the Center for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts, in the program of the Planetary Collegium, which is supervised by the professor and artist Roy Ascott, and my research is focused on Circumpolar North Arctic and Subarctic Tribes... that's probably one of the reason! But I would love to visit... hum... Vancouver or San Francisco for example ! I am also passionate about the art and craft of the Haida people of Pacific Northwest Coast of North America for example...
Well last year I've been selected for the Arctic Circle residency, organized by The FARM,INC, a NYC based cultural organization. And we went up to 20° from the North Pole. I find this kind of residencies challenging. And I like it. For the Arctic circle residency we had to take a zodiac boat every morning to go to the shore, protected by three armed guide against potential polar bears attacks, and it's an "interesting" way to do film direction or photography. For me it was also a way to gain "field knowledge" on contemporary ways to "survive" in the arctic, through discussions with the arctic guide and a study of their gears and behavior.
As an artist I am also interested by that kind of harsh environments because it questions the place of humans on Earth... it's connected to some of my pursuits, I am quite interested by the work of Survival research laboratories, for example, or the Makrolab created by Marko Peljhan, or Angelo Vermeulen's Seeker projects. I'm honestly a die hard fan of "old school Cyberpunk", science fiction at large as well as bio-regionalism and vegan cooking... and to deal with rugged, waterproof or foldable technologies in this harsh environment, or to cook my vegan bolognaise with dried soy chunks in the station kitchen, all of these are experiences that fits with all those pursuits.
And well, of course the Arctic is NOT Antarctica, but I'm a big fan of the movies The Thing, the John Carpenter's one and the quite recent prequel as well. So some of the experiences I'm living there are materials for future art projects, who knows? Art installations, short sci-fi movies or novels, but with strong first-hand field experiences as background. And some like photographing the landscape or directing a cross media project here are very concrete art experiences with a result in the short term.
The Arctic is the perfect place to engage into those kind of life and art experiences. I like being in a place where I can feel that nature is stronger than me, even if it is always a very calculated risk, I'm very cautious and I have a kind of "preppers" mindset. But in a "philosophical" point of view, when I'm saying that "Nature is stronger than me", it's probably because "I" like when "I" becomes "Nature" and there is no more "me" for a few minutes. that's the reward. It's a Zen type experience. I am really not the first human nor artist talking about that!
This is not the first time you are at the Kilpisjarvi research station. You first went there in 2011 for the Finnish Bioart Society's Field_Notes workshop. So is this residency a continuation of the previous one? Or are you working on something entirely different?
Well I was working on something quite different at that time, an interactive documentary Installation about Computer History that I presented at the Computer Art Conference #4 CAC#4 in Rio de Janeiro in September, the project is called Maiitsoh: I've interviewed various people from William Gibson to Noam Chomsky, or John Cale, about topics dealing with computer history, consciousness and creativity, and I was working on that project at the time of the Field_Notes workshop. Maiitsoh is the Navajo word or more precisely the Dineh world because the so-called "Navajo" call themselves Dineh... And it's more than time to give some recognition to the indigenous people. So it's the Dineh word for the Wolf. It's a direct homage to the code talkers during World War II, at that time the Dineh language was used by the Allies as an "analog" cyphering technique, while the Axis Countries where using a mechanical cyphering machine, the Enigma machine. The first ever modern computer ever built, Colossus, was actually built to break the Enigma machine code. It's a part of history quite well known in the computer community. There is also a not that good movie directed by John Woo about the Dineh code talkers. I used the name Maiitsoh as a tribute to the Code Talkers, but also for it's similarities with Macintosh. Maiitsoh is made of wood, like the first computer mouse or the first Apple computer... it's really a multi scalar project. It's about creativity, it's a 3 or 4 dimensional Nodal point, in the Gibsonian perspective. it's a wooden computer and it's an icon of computer recent History. Forget about plastic, the first computers owe things to the wood!
Nowadays i'm very focused on my PhD research, which is a study of the patterns of the Ainu people, the aboriginal people of North Japan. It's for me one of the most beautiful form of craft on this planet. This is a very subjective comment. As an artist, I just love the shape of their patterns.
But the subject is a bit wider. I am questioning the origins of arts and craft on this planet, basically. Why did the human species started to draw, to do sculptures, embroidery ? That is the question! I never take for granted anything that exists on this planet. Why do people wear pants made with denim fabric for example ? And why don't we embroider our clothing nowadays ? What is an object ? Why do human grow those kind of vegetables in the area, and not other ones ? To get perspective is always a good way to make a daily fresh start and enhance your human experience.
You brought a bike in the Arctic? Is it a very practical mode of moving around up there? What's the story of the bike?
Yes, I brought a foldable bike there, a Brompton. For various reasons. First, It's an artistic and activist statement, here in the Arctic which is of course one of the first region exposed to global warming. I am really pro-biking, I was even close to people from Critical Mass at a time. I am proud about that past. It's a shame to see that people are so unconscious of environmental problems. Last year in Svalbard, at 20° from the North pole, we saw styrofoam on the shore. In that incredible landscape... and of course the invisible pollution is also quite dramatic... Species are disappearing , the arctic is melting, and I guess nobody forgot Sandy Superstorm... well , I don't have a short term memory and I remember being already aware of those increasing problems in the 90ies... And you can really make eco-friendly businesses and make money. So come on! Humanity is a teenager trashing its room.
So it is in a way an homage to old friends from the activists community, to bring a bike here in the Arctic, and to use it to circulate around the station, or to go to the grocery store few kilometers from here, despite the wind and snow... But there is also something related to artistic performance, to use that quite "urban Bike" which is in a way the "Rolls Royce" of folding bikes, and to use it on hard snowy roads in the Arctic Circle. I also applied a kind of "artistic protocol" to the use of the Bike, which is a direct homage to Joseph Beuys piece I Like America and America Likes Me.
The bike never actually circulated nor touched the ground on a road before I took it out of its rugged case, here at the station. The same way Beuys didn't touch the U.S. soil before being brought to that room with a live coyote... It was an homage to the political situation of "Native Americans", and here in the North of Finland there are still Sami people, northern Europe's last hunters and gatherers. So the title could be "I like Finland and Finland Likes me", maybe ! hahaha!
I don't personally know them but I have seen some work by a collective called Suohpanterror, they do street art and art related projects dealing with the Sami identity. They are probably much more reliable than me to talk about the Sami question. What I can give as an artist is some visibility about the question. And of course for the bike performance itself, there are some unconscious parts I can't myself explain. It's like making a collage, but in 4 dimension and in real life, with an Arctic logistic, and a study of the possible ways to bring that bike to a research station. It's very useful here for me, and it's of course a bit burlesque to bring it here. I like that mix. It's a very serious and complicated project, it's suddenly completely absurd, and then it becomes really serious again.
I honestly thought that it would be a bit more challenging than that to use the bike. The Brompton works quite well on Sapmi's roads...
And then of course the Brompton itself is a very amazing object. it's manga like and also almost Steampunk . But it's quite Beat-Punk for me. It's a super contemporary object with that 1950ies or 60ies taste and quality. And I'm actually NOT paid to say that.
You've also been invited for a training session with people who use Drones for Search and rescue for the Norwegian Red Cross in the High Arctic. Can you describe the experience? Are you planning to apply to your work what you learnt there?
It was honestly a fascinating experience... As a researcher I have a kind of "classical anthropology " approach, but as an artist I am more interested by digital anthropology or the anthropology of technology. Honestly i've been baffled to meet those people in Tromsø. I was missing some spare parts to make my drone works here in the Arctic, so I looked for forums in Norway on the internet, and two days later I was in contact with those people. And they are very skill full experts on that domain. Their practices are connected to many of my pursuits. I've been invited last year by European Union's oldest program for collaboration in Science and technology to deliver a talk about the future of 3D printing. And then one year later, in Tromsø, on a rest area in a mountainous road I've met this guy who actually makes homemade and huge Octocopters, with 3D printed part that he designed himself.
I remember when there was no mobile phone, that's something I always remember when I want to get some perspectives about the mutations of western societies, or the world at large. I don't take technical progress for granted. It's an organic process in perpetual evolution. It's fascinating to realize what we can do in our ages with technology. People tend to forget about that. I never complain when Skype is slow... I'm always amazed to be able to talk in video with someone in California when i'm in Paris.
And well, for the experience of Drone and FPV, which stand for First Person View. It's way more fascinating than what I imagined. It's actually a physical experience to see through a camera which is flying 200 meters above yourself or at 1 kilometer from you... it's a bit trance-like, or even techno-shamanic like. The only similarity I can find is when i used a 360° camera during a training at the SAT Society for Arts and Technology in Montreal in 2013, and when I was able to see my recording in the 360 dome theatre at SAT, the Satosphere. I had the same weird physical experience challenging my perspective on vision, the body, etc... very impressive!
And of course there is this satisfaction to realize that this technology is used to rescue people, to bring two ways radios or first aid kit to people stuck in mountains.
FPV in the Arctic is definitely an amazing experience. There is that contrast that I really like, I talked about that previously. To be in the middle of that impressive nature, and to be able to use the most up to date technology. So, yes, I will clearly apply to my work what I have learnt there, probably in the form of an installation, might be a short movie also, but it's a bit too early now, I still have to integrate the process and the experience. I am really thankful to those people, and particularly people from FPV.no, Hi Kristian! :)
From what you told me by email about your residency, meeting people is an important part of your work. You're also in contact with the Sami people, for example. How do they fit into your research there?
I am actually in a region that can be defined in many ways... I'm in North Finland, i'm in the Arctic Circle, but I am much more clearly in Sapmi, which is the proper name to describe this region, usually called Lappland. I prefer to use the word Sapmi, the land of Sami people. Lappland comes from Lapp which means rag in swedish. Honestly the Sami people are not the Indigenous people I know the most, I mean in terms of anthropology or basic contemporary History. I'm mostly here to do a comparative study of their decorative patterns. Well for me the residency is much more about feeling the landscape and the ways of living in the arctic.
Next month I am invited as a visiting scholar in Anthropology at the Center for Sami studies, at the University of Tromsø, in Norway. it is actually the northernmost university on earth, and the SESAME, center for Sami studies is at the forefront of Sami and Indigenous studies. They actually deliver masters in peace studies and in indigenous studies... quite an amazing place! There, I will meet Sami people and some colleagues from various countries in order to discuss my research.
What's next, after the ARS BIO ARCTICA residency?
Well in the short term, I will exhibit my series of photographs taken at 20° from the North Pole in Svalbard last year at Kalashnikovv Gallery, in Johannesburg, South Africa in December. The exhibition is organized in collaboration with the IFAS, the French Institute in South Africa. It's really a great opportunity for me to be able to exhibit this Arctic related work in Johannesburg. And it will be another opportunity to talk about the arctic situation and the globalized aspect of the Climate question. I am very thankful to the IFAS for their support as well as to MJ Turpin, one of the owner of the gallery for the invitation. I think he definitely understand my work, which is something rare. He is also an artist and I really like some of his printed work and performances. South Africa is a very specific country, there is a very active art scene, as far as I know through discussions with my South African colleagues, and I had a glimpse of South African creativity last year at the Gaité Lyrique in Paris.
I'm really thrilled to be given the opportunity to exhibit my work in Johannesburg. Then I'm definitely looking for other residency opportunities, as well as planning a trip to Japan in the coming two years for my PhD research.
All images by Benjamin Pothier.
Related story: Field_Notes: From Landscape to Laboratory.
What might sound like an ecological abomination is actually the start of a process that will create a new eco-system beneath the sea: an artificial reef. The sunken boat will provide a hard surface to which algae and invertebrates adhere, providing food for fish.
The artist bought the boat off eBay for 75 pounds. It was called Brioney Victoria and had been rotting for decade at a Canvey Island yard. He emptied it, added a concrete wheelhouse to make it look like a working boat and then stripped it of anything that could potentially be harmful.
Once ready, the small fishing vessel was towed out to sea. Faithfull set it alight, opened the seacocks, let water into the boat and dove off as it started sinking.
Five cameras were mounted on board to record the boat's descent and they are still monitoring its transformation, transmitting images via a dedicated website and relaying them to exhibitions. The first one is at Fabrica, a former chapel turned art gallery in Brighton. The show, which is part of the Brighton Photo Biennial, will later move to Calais and Caen.
In the Brighton gallery, a big overhead screen show the boat smoking and very slowly sinking beneath the waves. A series of monitors at ground level broadcast the images from the drowned boat.
Faithfull was interested in investigating how an ordinary object at the end of its existence is given a new, almost eternal life.
Like some of the artist's previous works, REEF documents the plight of a camera exposed to extreme elements or sent on a journey from which they might never come back. In 2003, for example, Faithfull sent a video camera attached to a weather balloon into the stratosphere.
Simon Faithfull Interview for REEF Project
Simon Faithfull will be giving a talk at Lighthouse on Tue 21 Oct 7- 8.15pm. And if you miss the evening, check out REEF at Fabrica in Brigton as part of the Brighton Photo Biennial. The show is open until 23 November 2014.
Also part of the Biennial: Amore e piombo: The Photography of extremes in 1970s Italy.
Visual artist Melle Smets and researcher Joost van Onna followed the travel of discarded cars from Europe to Ghana and ended up at Suame Magazine, near the town of Kumasi, in Ghana. In this area, 200,000 artisans are working in 12,000 workshops, stores and factories to repair and give a new life to European disused vehicles.
Smets and van Onna then collaborated with local craftsmen and mechanics to build a African concept car in three months. The vehicle is called SMATI Turtle. SMATI because it is the acronym for the Suame Magazine Automatics Technical Institute, an engineering training centre for the artisans. And Turtle because the vehicle is strong and sturdy like the reptile.
The completed car was even inaugurated by Otumfuo Nana Osei Tutu II, King Asantehene of the Kingdom of Ashanti.
The show opens on October 8 and i caught up with project leader Melle Smets to have him talk about his adventures in African mechanics.
Hi Melle! The text describing the project mentions the Buafo. Was this pickup truck prototype at the origin of your project? Where did the idea for the Turtle 1 come from exactly?
The Buafo was a car from the 70ies. From this vehicle we extracted a lot of essential idea's of what a African car should be. The existence of this car was unknown to us until a old mechanic from the neighborhood told us this story. Then we started to look for it and found one around the corner of our workshop. The reason we searched for this vehicle was the fact that we don't know anything about cars, and needed a lead to start working from.
And once you had the idea for the Turtle 1, what happened? You and Joost van Onna just turned up in Ghana and put your project into a full working prototype?
The idea to build a car came much earlier. We wanted to research the potential of a society without formal structures. Suame Magazine looked like the most incredible example of a city which was also a working car plant. Something we could hardly imagine as we thought car assembling is a very high tech business. Because the place is very hectic we thought of a narrative to tell the story of the informal car assembly line. This is how the idea came to built a car from scratch and go from workshop to workshop to learn the process and tell the story.
How did you navigate the Suame Magazine and find the right people to work with?
We went there a year earlier to scout the area and try to find a partner. This became Suame Magazine Industrial Devellopment Organisation. They liked the idea as a PR stunt for their NGO. They are a umbrella organisation for all guilds.
Apart from being skilled and resourceful, what did local people bring to the project in terms of creativity, ideas?
The car is developed by the whole neighborhood in terms of storytelling, throwing idea's, bringing in their networks and their labor. We tried not to take the lead in design and organised every step in the proces as a communal decision. For example the car design is done by wooden sticks. On the other hand people started to use the project to draw the attention on SMIDO by the media. This free publicity was good for the project but also good for growing the network of SMIDO members. In terms of work, we had to pay people to actually do the job.
And conversely, what did you bring that the Ghana craftsmen needed? They were already repurposing car parts after all....
The most lucrative thing we brought them is a story. The Turtle became a National story which they used to get access in the highest networks of the country. And this is where the real business is done. Wright now they are making contracts with Danida (Danish devellopment organisation from Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark) for over 2 million dollars to set up a new land for a car production fascility.
The project involved building a car in 12 weeks. Why was this timeframe important to you?
Do you think it would make sense for western consumers to have a car culture driven by the moto "let's make things simple"?
We need to seriously start thinking in terms of what we really need and want, instead of try to build a paradise of things around us.
Of course our infrastructure is evolved in a way we need sophisticated cars to be save driving 140 KM/hour. But it would be healthy to keep rethinking the whole concept of traveling. There are a thousand ways we can go from A to B. Why we make ourselves dependent on this system? The concept of a highway is a hundred years old and in the time they made it up there were fantastic idea's to get from A to B in total different way. We would like to remind people on this freedom of choice but also responsibility to give meaning to our environment.
And is there any commercial interest for the prototype (or an adapted version of it) outside of Africa?
Not that I know of. But we also never put energy in this. I envision a car production future where every continent has its own species of cars. The climate, economy and landscape demand certain needs to a vehicle. Technology will make it possible to manufacture more on demand and more specific adjustments.
Turtle 1 is part of a broader project that looks at "the stream of discarded cars to Ghana in order to document their hitherto unknown destination." So which kind of images, videos and discourses do you bring to European destinations where you show the Turtle prototype?
We do lectures to governments, sit in advisory boards, work with industry on new idea's. Next to this we did some exhibitions on car shows, art festivals to show drawings, photo's and video's. Every member of the team had it's own medium. You will see on the exhibition. There was also a lot of media coverage on television, news papers and magazines in Germany and the Netherlands.
The prototype is called Turtle 1. Does it mean that there will be new and improved models of the Turtle? More generally, what's next for the project?
We are now working together with the Dutch car industry on a vocational training program. The ambition is to start this program in Suame Magazine next year. In the Dutch Design week we organise workshops around this businesses case. See Word doc for more detailed concept.
Check out the vehicle at the DISNOVATION exhibition, on October 8th- December 6th, at Le Bel Ordinaire, Billière, France. The 14th edition of the festival itself will run November 13th -16th, 2014, at Le Bel Ordinaire + associated venues in Pau & around. Programme curated by Nicolas Maigret and Bertrand Grimault.