No matter how often i go to The Museum of Photography in Antwerp, i never seem to find any fault with their exhibitions. American Documents is no exception. While writing a report about it this afternoon, i realized that one of the body of works i discovered at FoMu deserved its own post.
In American Power, Mitch Epstein explores and questions the 'power' that lays at the core of the United States. 'Power' in this case stands for both strength and energy. Over the course of 5 years he traveled through 25 states to photograph nuclear reactors, oil refineries, mines, rigs, abandoned gas pumps, wind parks, pipelines as well as their environs.
The project started in 2003 when a magazine commissioned Epstein to photograph a town called Cheshire, Ohio, where American Electric Power Company owns one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the country. In a bid to ward off lawsuits caused by environmental issues with the plant's emissions, the company decided to buy out all of the residents.
Fascinated by interconnections between energy production, the community living there and consuming that same energy, between industrial corporatism and environmental issues, the photographer decided to broaden his research and investigate how the transformation of the American landscape reflects social order.
As he moved from site to site, Epstein quickly attracted the attention of Homeland Security agents. As he explained in an interview with BOMB magazine: Soon, though, I was facing harassment from local and federal law enforcement agents whenever I went to shoot in the vicinity of a corporate energy production site, despite being on public property. This got me pretty angry. I was suddenly subjected to national paranoia, not just reading about it in liberal magazines. Cops or the FBI threw me out of town and inspected my pictures. Their actions were illegal under the Constitution as I knew it, before the Patriot Act. The fury I felt about losing my freedom as an artist fueled a desire to keep working and get the better of the system; it made me want to make pictures that would express the tension and fear I felt contending with that system. So, yes, the project began about energy, but quickly became about power in all its dimensions--not only voltage power, but governmental and corporate power.
The project is documented in the book American Power (available on Amazon UK and USA) but Epstein didn't want to turn his back on the issue right after the publication. Along with his wife editor Susan Bell, he has since been working on a public art project which turns some of his pictures into billboards and transportation posters in order to raise passersby's awareness on environmental issues. The accompanying website, which reproduces many of his magnificent and bleak photos but also details the environmental facts behind them, invites people to join the discussion about energy production and consumption.
In the mountain of ludicrously overdue posts that prevent me from getting the sleep of the righteous is a report on the first chapter of Herbologies/Foraging Networks which took place at the Kiasma museum during Pixelache Helsinki in March.
Told you that was so long and cold ago...
Herbologies/Foraging Networks is a series of workshops, seminars and expeditions that explores the connection between traditional knowledge of herbs, edible and medicinal plants and media networked culture. The result of the Helsinki chapter of H/FN was a wonderful and eye-opening fusion of hydroponic technologies, vodka-making workshop, fermentation sermon, DNA isolation experiments and lectures on herbs and berries.
The conference was particularly good. We snacked on apples that had been foraged during a Dumpster diving trip through the bins of Helsinki and heard about topics as different as biopiracy, urban beekeeping, and the best plants to eat when you suffer from poor circulation.
Here's a few highlights from the two days i spent in the company of the Herbologies/Foraging Networks crowd:
The participants that completely blew me away were the members of KULTIVATOR, an experimental cooperation of organic farming and visual art practice located in the village Dyestad, on the island Öland, Sweden. Founded in 2005 by 3 artists and 2 farmers, Kultivator is a platform for art and agriculture that involves an organic farm with cows, sheep, vegetables, forestry but also residences for foreign artists, exhibitions and screenings on site on Öland or internationally.
Over its 5 years of existence, Kultivator has been harvesting potatoes and milking cows but they have also been busy installing rapeseed oil press in art foundations, building a chicken house with students, inviting foreign artists to leave their mark on the landscape of Dyestad, wondering how the open source philosophy can be applied to farming, producing a Glocal guide for an old walking trail from Dyestad to a nearby ancient ceremonial ruin and organizing a dinner with ruminants.
Publik.dk has a great interview with KULTIVATOR.
Another high point of the seminar was Christina Stadlbauer's presentation of her experiences in beekeeping on urban rooftops. She installed 3 honey bee hives in Brussels, one of them at NADINE, another at OKNO and the last one on a private rooftop. She observes the hives, how their weight fluctuate over time, how well they can cope in urban environment, etc. The bees' behaviour and the honey they produce act as monitors of natural processes in the city.
Within half an hour of being relocated on the Brussels rooftops (with the authorization of the neighbours), Christina's bees had understood where they were and set out to find food over the city (they can fly up to 3 km to find flowers.) The flora of a city is much more diverse than one would expect. In cities, bees can feast on wild flowers growing in abandoned parking lots, tulips in backyard gardens, tomatoes cultivated on small balconies, etc. Besides, there might be a lot of pollution in cities but there's also less pesticides on the flowers. The honey that city bees produce has therefore a totally different flavour. In city, there's also less competition for food and the good season lasts longer as it's warmer there than in the countryside. The successful Ginza Honey Bee Project, which has hundreds of thousands of Western and Japanese honeybees living on the roof of a 11-story building in downtown Tokyo, demonstrates that bees can thrive in urban settings.
Unfortunately, many of Christina's bees didn't wake up from Brussels' Winter.
Next, Andrew Gryf Paterson gave a fascinating presentation of foraging culture. Among the projects he mentioned, was Kayle Brandon and Heath Bunting's The Keepers. Since 2005, they've been mapping edible plants that can be found in public places in Bristol. Each plant is assigned a Keeper whose mission is to learn by heart the locations, uses, histories and biology of the plant, committing to share their knowledge when requested.
Keeping and sharing the knowledge about food that can be foraged is important.
That evening, Adam Zaretsky gave a popular and lively workshop on how to extract DNA using everyday households. I'm not going to blog about it since i've covered a couple of Adam's workshops in the past. What i can say, however, is that each time i meet Adam he does something totally unexpected, not to say utterly bizarre. This time he found horse poo on the street of Helsinki, brought it to the workshop and added it to the ingredients he mixed to obtain the juice we extracted DNA from.
The morning after, we met at Kiasma again, this time to harvest some plants that had grown on the Windowfarms installed in February in the museum. Right after that, we moved to the botanical garden for a series of workshops.
The vodka tincture-making workshop was inspired by one of SERDE's research about the instruments people have at home to brew their own vodka. Although it is illegal in Latvia*, moonshining is still alive and part of the intangible cultural heritage of the country. The alcohol produced by homebrewing can be turned into curative herb tinctures that are later used for internal use and external application. Ironically, SERDE organized workshops on Moonshining in Latvia with the blessing of local authorities and even won a State award for their contribution in 'innovation in tradition.'
Turns out that making your own alcohol is much easier than i expected. You just need simple kitchen tools, fermented apples or fermented jam and bread.
The second half of the programme took place a few weeks ago in the Kurzeme region, Latvia. I'm so sorry i had to miss it. Kultivator wrote a small report and there's some more information on Herbologies/Foraging Networks facebook page.
* Andrew Gryf Paterson just informed me that 'Since april this year, Latvian government have apparently changed the law so that farmers (who have surplus produce such as apples) are legally allowed to make homemade alcohol (i guess for small to medium -scale sales and use).'
Gilberto Esparza first appeared in the radar of bloggers a couple of years ago when he started colonizing Mexico City with Urban Parasites. Made of recycled consumer goods, the small robotic creatures explore the urban space in search of any source of energy they can feed on. Under its quirky, amusing side, the project also had the objective of providing a basis for a critical exploration of the role that technology plays in cities.
Gilberto Esparza is currently showing one of his latest projects, Nomadic Plants, at Laboral Art and Industrial Creation Centre in Gijón. Just like Urban Parasites, this new work is part of a series of experiments that aim to stimulate a critical discussion about the ambiguous forces wielded by technology.
Vegetation and microorganisms live in symbiosis inside the body of the Nomadic Plants robot. Whenever its bacteria require nourishment, the self-sufficient robot will move towards a contaminated river and 'drink' water from it. Through a process of microbial fuel cell, the elements contained in the water are decomposed and turned into energy that can feed the brain circuits of the robot. The surplus is then used to create life, enabling plants to complete their own life cycle. As Gilberto wrote in our email conversation, "The nomadic plant is a portray of our own species. It also deals with the alienated transformation of this new hybrid species that fights for its survival in a deteriorated environment."
I'll quote the artist again, this time from a text included in the press material for the exhibition:
The fact that a new species, the by-product of those alienating processes, appears -merely by coexisting- in those areas of ecological disaster represents a manifestation pointing to the serious social and environmental impacts on communities that once depended on rivers, now the source of their ailments. At this point, it is important to highlight the ambiguous potential of the transforming power of the human species, due to its ability to destroy but also to restore. For that reason, what is required is a new way of thinking, which would position us as antibodies on the planet, and a proper understanding of the importance of living in symbiosis with our planet and with all species.
Extracts from our online conversation:
When i first read about Plantas Nomadas, i immediately thought about Archigram's Walking City because of the nomadic and self-sufficient qualities of Plantas Nomadas. But what was your actual inspiration? Sci-fi novels and movies? Ongoing research in laboratories exploring the possibilities of microbial fuel cells in robotics?
I have been researching and building autonomous robots that can survive in urban space, stealing the energy that the city itself generates. Later on, i found online some publications about research projects using microbial fuel cell. I was immediately inspired to develop a project that would engage with the issue of pollution in rivers. I visited El Salto Jalísco, a community very affected by this problem. I was therefore interested in making it the location of the intervention.
Can you tell us which kind of plants and micro-organisms cohabit inside the body of your machine?
The microorganisms that live inside the robots are identical to the ones you can find in the river. I prefer to use the plants that used to be native to the river before it became so polluted.
How has the public reacted to your work so far? Both in Mexico and in Spain?
People liked it a lot because the project opens many doors on issues such as our relationship with nature, the thin line that separates the inert and the living and also the directions taken by scientific research which, very often, respond to the interests of the current economic system.
The installation at Laboral features the robot but also a video of the process of its creation, a documentary showing the robot in action in the river Santiago, El Salto, Jalisco (Mexico), a series of photos taken by the artist and computers showing the project's webpage.
Plantas Nomadas is on view at Laboral, Gijón (Spain) until June, 7, 2010.
The new issue of Neural magazine is out for a couple of months now but there's still some copies available. The theme of Neural 33 is Scripting Green and you can get all the details of what's inside over here.
The Maison Européenne de la Photographiein Paris is currently hosting the 10th edition of the Festival @rt Outsiders. (Un)Inhabitable? - Art of Extreme Environments explores the meaning of living in extreme environments.
These environments are either those that were, until recently, uninhabited by human beings and that contemporary science and technology is turning into "inhabitable" places (Antarctica, underwater world, outer space, deserts); or they are those that the consequences of man's actions have ruined and made "uninhabitable" for himself but also for other species.
It seems that every single European city is coming up with its own global warming-infused exhibition. @rt Outsiders was smart enough to narrow the focus of its show and to present a couple of artworks that stand out for their complexity, beauty and sense of involvement with the subject.
One of them is Sounds from Dangerous Places, Chernobyl, by sound artist Peter Cusack. Since the nuclear catastrophe of April 26, 1986 nature at Chernobyl seems to be thriving. As humans were evacuated from the exclusion zone around the nuclear power station over 20 years ago, animals moved in. Existing populations multiplied and species not seen for decades began to return (although not every scientist agrees with the statement that the benefits for wildlife from the lack of human activity outweigh the risks of low-level radiation.)
Sounds from Dangerous Places, Chernobyl is part of a broader project by Cusack to collect sounds from sites which have sustained major environmental damage. Impressed by the natural sounds of springtime in the Ukrainian city --dawn chorus, nighttime concert as well as frogs and nightingales-- the artist coupled photographs taken at and around Chernobyl with sound recordings. The sound of birds singing, the view of lovely old houses and wild flowers contrast with the sinister image we have of dilapidated buildings and the invisible radioactivity crackling through Geiger counters. This is one of the most striking works in the show as it's one of the rare artworks that explores Chernobyl without stopping at its potential for spectacularity and drama. As Cusack writes:
There is, often, an extreme dichotomy between an aesthetic response and knowledge of the 'danger', whether it is pollution, social injustice, military or geopolitical. The project asks, "What can we learn by listening to the sounds of dangerous places?"
The project also provides us with a further opportunity to reflect on some governments and industry suggestion that nuclear power is one of the greenest fuels available right now and that it would allow us to cut carbon dioxide emissions and keep climate change at a tolerable level.
Audios of Chernobyl Dawn and Chernobyl Frogs.
Howard Boland & Laura Cinti presented a new version of The Martian Rose, an experiment about life on Mars. A series of roses were exposed to Martian conditions using a planetary simulation chamber specifically built for Mars.
The fragile floweres were placed inside a biochamber that simulates most of the extreme conditions found on Mars. The low pressure, the hard penetrating UV-light and the chilling temperature.
The roses emerged, dark red, frozen, their shape intact. The project reminds us that no matter how many spaceships we build and launch into outerspace, no matter how much we want to adapt and explore new planets, space is still a pretty unhospitable place for men.
EPO4 Dewey's Forest, by Shiro Matsui, was inspired by Silent Running, a sci-fi movie that depicts a future in which all plant life on Earth has been made extinct, except for a few specimens preserved in a fleet of space-borne freight ships. The artist designed a garden for weightlessness. An experiment of the garden should be sent to the International Space Station during the Autumn 2009, in collaboration with JAXA, the Japanese Space Agency. The garden looked fit and healthy when i visited the show. I'd be curious to see what the plants look like in a month or two.
Plants are locked in a rotating machine, behind a porthole and thus unreachable, allowing the vegetation to grow in all directions, like in weightlessness. A camera is filming the garden from inside, capturing the audience looking at it. Visitors cannot enter the garden anymore that astronauts can go outside.
If a garden can thrive in space? How about art?
In 2003, while he was an artist in residence at the Australian Antarctic Base of Davis, Stephen Eastaugh created a sculpture garden between the meteorology building, a usually-frozen sea and a public mostly made of penguins. The sculptures look like small totems. Inspired by a wooden head planted in a pile of rocks years ago by an unknown explorer, they compete with the antennas, flagpoles and windsocks distributed around the station.
The 10th edition of the Festival @rt Outsiders, curated by Annick Bureaud and Jean-Luc Soret, runs until October 11, 2009 at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris. If you're in Paris on Wednesday don't miss the conference and debate that will focus on the economic and political challenges in the Arctic territories, an area coveted for its reserves of oil, gas and other materials buried deep under the
The Golden Institute, by Sascha Pohflepp, not only explores the energy issue through the lens of an alternate history of the USA, but also attempts to examine how visions of the future are being created and how they can make us reflect on contemporary issues. What would the world be like today if we could go back to the decade that followed the 1973 oil crisis? To paraphrase a title of an article published on Worldchanging over a year ago: Where would the U.S. (and thus the rest of the world) be now on climate if Carter had won the election of 1980?
As Pohflepp explained in an essay he shared with me, technological progress is often the outcome of very specific interests and decisions, mostly economical or strategic. Networked computers are a perfect example for that, not only because of their obvious history in military use but also the much more subtle opportunities that libertarian free-market advocates saw in the emerging Internet which lead to gigantic investments in these technologies (see Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture and Langdon Winner, The Whale and the Reactor). Other examples are the Manhattan project which lead to the development of the atomic bomb, or NASA's Apollo program.
Pohflepp's alternate history scenario zooms in a moment in the United States history when the fate of energy technologies could have taken a radically different turn. The neuralgic point in time is the US Presidential election of 1980 in which Jimmy Carter lost against his republican opponent Ronald Reagan. While he was governing the country, Carter implemented policies that focused on the quest for clean energy. He established generous tax incentives for solar energy and gasohol. He turned down the heating system in his office and wore sweaters. He even installed solar panels on the roof of the White House. On the day he presented the 32 panels to the press, the President declared: "A generation from now, this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people."
After he won the election, Reagan almost immediately changed the nation's course on clean energy matters. The National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) in Golden, Colorado lost about 95% of its funding and the solar panels got dismantled soon after.
What if the road heralded by the solar panels had been taken?
Its scope ranged from planetary engineering to the enabling of individual participation and profit from the creation of electricity. Notable projects include the development of the state of Nevada into a weather experimentation zone and the new gold rush in the form of lightning-harvesters that followed, or major modifications made to the national infrastructure in an attempt to use freeways as a power plants.
The project asks how visions like these are being created in the public imagination but also how they are being reflected by the economy and by individuals. In the case of weather modification, people are modifying their cars into lightning harvesters to participate in the experiments, both scientifically and commercially. The car presented in the model below is a modified Chevrolet El Camino that has been fitted with a lightning rod and various electrical equipment like variable resistors and capacitor banks to store the electricity from a lightning strike. Drivers are then able to sell the stored electricity at any one of the drive-through energy exchanges, which have opened around the zone.
The Golden Institute found a way to modify freeways and harness the energy which would otherwise be lost through braking when a vehicle exits the freeway at a velocity of about 55 miles per hour. Now, vehicles are equipped with magnets. As they exit the freeway at high-speed, the cars are gradually slowed down employing the Lorentz force as they pass through a series of induction-coils. The coils are typically operated by a franchise like Chuck's Café and if used effectively can get the driver a discount on a cup of coffee.
The projects presented in this rewriting of history offers an exaggerated yet serious view on current challenges which in scale may be considerably greater than the mega-scale projects of the past (see Saul Griffith, "Climate Change Recalculated": book and video).
What logic lies behind major technological pushes of the past and how could it apply to future projects and what could we learn from the visions of an American past that never happened?
The Golden Institute for Energy is a vehicle for further investigation and new material will constantly be added. For example a running collaboration with Rick Guidice who was responsible for painting NASA's space settlements or interviews with various thinkers about the promise of unlimited power.
Check out this six-minute corporate-style video in which senior strategist Douglas Arnd (played by Stuart Packer) explains the mission and the ambition of the Institute: