A few weeks ago i was in Brussels for The Digital Now, the first thematic exhibition of a series produced by Cimatics, that explores relevant artifacts within the current artistic context and media art related discourse.

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HC Gilje, Wind-up birds, 2008

The first chapter in this series, 'Drones / Birds: Princes of Ubiquity', looks into autonomous technology through the lens of birds as objects reflecting our contemporary relation with technology.

The bird has long been seen as a symbol of freedom, communication, transborder mobility but also as an indicator of environmental change. However, much of the bird physical and spiritual significance has been lost on the way to and from the industrial revolution. But according to Bram Crevits, curator of 'Drones / Birds: Princes of Ubiquity', digital culture has brought birds back to the fore. Or maybe it's the birds which have forced their way into our techno-mediated world. Think Twitter of course. And birds incorporating ringtones into their repertoire so effortlessly that Richard Schneider of the NABU bird conservation centre in Germany suggested that, in the interests of ecology, mobile phone users convert their tones to pop songs which are too complex to be mimicked by the birds. Woodpeckers attacking CCTV cameras. Or confused birds trapped into the twin columns of light shot into the sky each year on September 11 in New York. The bright memorial short circuits some of the cues that birds use when they are migrating at night. And then there's drone watching as the new bird watching. And drones counting birds.

The relevance of drones -or Unmanned Arial Vehicles- in relation to birds is more than purely formal or anecdotal. Another source of inspiration for the exhibition is indeed the New Aesthetic and the focus on the ways we experience our digital condition: always on, always there. Drones have been related to this New Aesthetic debate ever since it started.

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Christoph De Boeck & Patricia Portela, Hortus, 2012

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Christoph De Boeck & Patricia Portela, Hortus, 2012

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Part of the exhibition was located at the Botanique. Christoph De Boeck & Patricia Portela installed invisible birds inside the greenhouse. Sensors measure the dynamics of wind and light harvested by the plants during their photosynthetic process, and translates it into bird sounds. When there is human movement in the garden a financial algorithm (similar to the ones used in a speculation economic market) interprets the variation of the received data and transforms and remaps the natural garden soundscape to which plants seem most profitable in that split second.

However, most of the works were in a gallery hidden inside a tunnel. It took me ages and a couple of panicked phone calls to find it. The show was pretty exciting though because instead of showing only artworks and building up the usual art&tech discourse around it, the curator chose to insert the works into a broader context that included the political and the downright popular.

For example, two videos demonstrated the impact that unmanned aerial vehicles have on every day life in Pakistan.

On the one hand, a video shot by Noor Behram outside his house in North Waziristan, the footage shows a reaper drone flying over Waziristan. For more than five years, Behram has been documenting drone attacks in Pakistan's tribal areas, the hub of the CIA's remote assassination program.

Trevor Paglen interviewed Behram a while ago: "[The few places where I have been able to reach right after the attack were a terrible sight" he explains, "One such place was filled with human body parts lying around and a strong smell of burnt human flesh. Poverty and the meagre living standards of inhabitants is another common thing at the attack sites." Behram's photographs are miles away from official American reports that deny civilian casualties from drone attacks: "I have come across some horrendous visions where human body parts would be scattered around without distinction, those of children, women, and elderly."

Pop song Za Kaom Pa Stargo Stargo Drone Hamla" (My gaze is as fatal as a drone attack) shows the other hand of the spectrum, where the increasing appearance of unmanned vehicles over the skies of Pakistan (see data viz Drone war: every attack in Pakistan visualised for more details) inspires little more than the lyrics of a song:


Sitara Younis, Za Kaom Pa Stargo Stargo Drone Hamla" (My gaze is as fatal as a drone attack)

'Drones / Birds: Princes of Ubiquity' was thus full of contrasts. One moment, you were reflecting on surveillance technologies, next you were laughing (the suitors of the frantic singer are peerless.)

I'm now going to revert to my usual "throw as many images and projects in their face" mode and leave you with a few works i've (re) discovered in the show:

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Dries Depoorter, Subtwitter

Subtwitter is a free application that scans subtitle-files (.srt) of a film and replaces them with similar tweets. The application uses the original subtitle-file of a movie or series of your choice, then looks into each separate sentence of the subtitle and crawls the twittyverse for a similar tweets. The result are --sometimes absurd and sometimes witty- subtitles that consist of computationally associated tweets.

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Zimoun, Woodworms, 2009-2012

A microphone picks up and amplifies the sound of woodworms eating their way through a piece of wood. Temperature, humidity and other environmental qualities determine how the wood worms dig their tunnels and 'play' the piece of wood.

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Addie Wagenknecht , Pussy Drones, 2013

The Pussy Drones gifs trigger a new form of discourse between the web­based experience (lolzcat, memes, gifs) and historically closed systems of the patriarchal structures which control the physical world. That is to suggest drones are merely 'unmaned' cocks controlled by (finding) pussy.

In theory the democratic nature of the internet should allow everyone to create equally, controlling its code at an open root p2p level. Yet the internet­ net art, the very essence of the web (programming, the code structure itself) is still ruled by men and corporations who control and own it in its entirety. We are not Facebook's customers, we are their product. The web has never been a democratic medium, Mark Zuckerberg said 'There are probably 200 million people who think that Facebook is the internet.' It is easy to include the digital life is not any different than our life away from the keyboard.

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David Bowen, Fly Tweet, 2012

David Bowen's now famous Fly Tweet sends Twitter messages based on the activities of houseflies living inside an acrylic sphere along with a computer keyboard. As a particular key is triggered by the flies, the corresponding character is entered into a Twitter text box. A message is tweeted as soon as 140 characters are reached or when a fly triggers the "enter" key.

More fly thrills at https://twitter.com/@flycolony

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Marcus Coates, The Plover's Wing, 2009

Marcus Coates uses shamanic rituals and his knowledge of the animal world to try and solve problems faced by local (human) communities. In 2009, he visited the mayor of Holon in Israel who asked him how he should handle the problem of the violent youth in the city. Coates first consulted with the animals that he had encountered, and in particular the plover, a bird known for luring predators away from its young by pretending to be injured so as to appear as an easy target for predators. His reading of the meeting with the plover was then explained to the Mayor. According to Coates, The important thing for [Israel] as a nation is, through education, to emphasize shifting identities and an empathy with a different position. It's a fundamental position of resolution within a conflict, to be able to emphasise with your enemy or oppressor.

His solution to Holon's social ills is to teach empathy and recognise that victim status is often used as justification for violent behaviour.

Hi answer left the Mayor very impressed as you can see at the end of the video i've pasted below:


TateShots: Marcus Coates

Erica Scourti's video were among my favourite. Taking her cue from stock video sites corresponding to the key words 'woman', 'nature' and 'alone', the young artist filmed herself performing each action described in the title. The video and title was then uploaded to YouTube, forming a collection of 'rushes' which were used to create the final single channel version. After that, videos started to get a life of their own, with artists and film makers using Scourti's films as another stock library and including then in their own videos.

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Erica Scourti, Woman Nature Alone, 2010

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Erica Scourti, Woman Nature Alone, 2010

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Esther Polak & Ivar van Bekkum, Urban Fruit - Street Wrapper, 2012

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Paolo Cirio, Street Ghosts, 2012

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The Digital Now is produced by Cimatics, a Brussels-based arts organisation which activities includes the production support of audiovisual and digital creations as well as live events, exhibitions, workshops and guest-curations.

All images courtesy Cimatics. Except the ones illustrating the work of Erica Scourti and Marcus Coates,
Image on the homepage: Zimoun, Woodworms, 2009-2012. Photography by Zimoun ©

Sponsored by:





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Pierre-Yves Boisramé, Untitled, 2012. Photo LABoral/Marcos Morilla

Elastic Reality is an exhibition about the internet, about its ubiquity and ability to permeate physical space, it's about the way permanent connectedness has added layers and complexity to the notion of 'reality'. Elastic Reality is not just reality, nor is it simply virtual reality or augmented reality, it is an expanding, ever-morphing reality.

This ever more complex environment blends the virtual and the real, the dataflow with the landscape. Whereas new terms are regularly coined to describe this state of things, none truly encapsulate the multi layered realm we inhabit. Hence, comes the notion of elastic reality, which was inspired by the works on display in this exhibition. The participating artists not only play with these distortions of the "real", but also pioneer new ways to interact with their work. The formal exploration of new interfaces is as much part of their preoccupation, as is the content of their work, and the kind of commentary on the current state of reality we live in.

Elastic Reality was co-produced with Le Fresnoy, Studio des Arts Contemporains, a post-graduate art school and audio-visual research and production centre, where young artists are invited to produce new work under the mentorship of guest artist-professors. The exhibition is a selection of the works produced in the course of last academic year (ending in June 2012.)

Some of the works are openly political, others are of the 'move around and interact' kind, some invite to introspection, others are made to dazzle. There were good surprises (notably Tarnac, Chaos and Grace.) and a few fresh ideas but I must say that half of the description texts drove me CRA-ZY. Do french-speaking people really have to write in such a convoluted way? Does being arcane equal being smart?

Anyway, here's a couple of works i found particularly interesting:

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Vincent Ciciliato, Tempo Scaduto, 2012

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Vincent Ciciliato, Tempo Scaduto, 2012

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Vincent Ciciliato, Tempo Scaduto, 2012. Photo LABoral/Marcos Morilla

The Tempo Scaduto game is set in the Palermo of the 1980s, when magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino began a campaign of arrests, trials and convictions of members of the Cosa Nostra.

The Mafia's retaliation was brutal. Bombings, murders, attacks on touristic spots and other demonstrations of violence. Vincent Ciciliato grew up against that background and the game he has developed unfolds in six different locations in Palermo, some of which are the stage of a murder. Players have to re-enact the murders and fire at moving targets inspired by real murders but they don't actually know if the person is an innocent passerby or the specific person who has to be eliminated. The identity of the victim is revealed only after they have been shot (to kill people, players have to do the well-known gesture of holding a handgun up and then aiming and firing with the finger.) The executor becomes the witness when the shot is followed by a series of archives documents that reveal the murder that took place at that exact spot some 30 years ago.

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Zahra Poonawala, Tutti, 2012. Photo LABoral/Marcos Morilla

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Luigi Russolo (left) and his assistant Ugo Piatti with the Intonarumori

Zahra Poonawala's Tutti installation made me think of Futurist composer Luigi Russolo's magnificent Intonarumori but the reference was actually the acousmonium or loudspeaker orchestra, a set of 80 loudspeakers of various sizes and shapes designed by Francois Bayle for tape playback.

Tutti invites visitors to a dynamic experience of listening by walking around the components of the orchestra. The characters each have their own volume, register and a different personality. In front of this background the soloists stand out, isolated loudspeakers that are mobile because they react to the movement of the spectator who is incited to move to make them react. The different layers of sound intensify this spatial organisation. From a fundamentally complex chord which forms a base, the reaction to the spectators' movements determines the changes of intensity, ignites solos which stand out from the sound mass.

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Ryoichi Kurokawa, Mol, 2012. Photo LABoral/Marcos Morilla

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Ryoichi Kurokawa, Mol, 2012. Photo LABoral/Marcos Morilla

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Ryoichi Kurokawa, Mol, 2012. Photo LABoral/Marcos Morilla

Ryoichi Kurokawa was one of the mentors of the students at Le Fresnoy in 2012 and as such, he was invited to develop his own work during his stay in Northern France. As can be expected from the über-talented artist, the result is jaw-dropping.

Mol is a two-screen audiovisual installation where gigantic holographic projections adopt highly synthetic forms that shape, explode, and move in an organic way.

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Theodora Barat, Dead End, 2012. Photo LABoral/Marcos Morilla

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Théodora Barat, Dead End, 2012. Photo: Olivier Anselot

Dead End is a charismatic metallic sculpture inspired by abandoned industrial monuments and futurist constructions, the start of fantastic progress of the edification of a modernist mirage; hybrid architecture striving to rise up but also to deconstruct, to gradually deteriorate.

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Véronique Béland, This is Major Tom to Ground Control, 2012. Photo LABoral/Marcos Morilla

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Véronique Béland, This is Major Tom to Ground Control, 2012. Photo LABoral/Marcos Morilla

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Véronique Béland, This is Major Tom to Ground Control, 2012. Photo LABoral/Marcos Morilla

"The void of distance is nowhere else."
(First sentence produced by the random text generator, March 2012)

Véronique Béland's installation attempts to listen to radio waves that civilizations living on other planets might broadcast. This is exactly what the SETI program has been doing with very little success since the beginning of the 1960s as part of its mission to find intelligent extraterrestrial life.

The young artist, however, proposes to capture «non intelligent» radio broadcasts and process it through an automatic generator of random texts. The data is captured by radio-telescopes from the Paris Observatory, the algorithm turns it into a text and a synthesized voice articulates it in the exhibition space in real time.

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Pierre-Yves Boisramé, Untitled, 2012. Photo LABoral/Marcos Morilla

More descriptions, details and essays in the press kit.

Previously: Tarnac, Chaos and Grace.

Elastic Reality. Beyond the Exhibition: New Interfaces for Contemporary Art in Europe was curated by Benjamin Weil. The exhibition remains open at LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial (Art and Industrial Creation Centre) in Gijón, Spain, until 8 September 2013.

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Figurante, 2010

I discovered the work of Arcangelo Sassolino in 2008 at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. He was showing a nitrogen-powered sculpture that shot empty beer bottles against a wall at 600km/hr inside a zoo-like metal cage. 5 years later, i'm listening to the podcast of a presentation that the artist made at CCC Strozzina in Florence. the podcast gave me the opportunity to 1. get to know his work better 2. write a quick post about it and 3. advise you to check out Strozzina's archive of podcasts because, as i mentioned on twitter the other day, they contain real gems (quick selection at the end of this post.) Some are conversations between the artist and a moderator from Strozzina. Others are more akin to 'proper' lectures. Most are in italian though.

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Afasia1, 2008

Here's the gist of Sassolino's talk:

At the time of this presentation, Sassolino was showing a new commissioned (and untitled) piece at CCC Strozzina for the exhibition Francis Bacon and the Existential Condition in Contemporary Art.

A heavy industrial piston is linked to an oil hydraulic system and set up following the longitudinal direction of the room. Another component of the work is a thick rope which traverses the entire length of the room at the height of the visitors' eyes. The rope passes through the piston and its ends are tied around two thick wooden beams anchored between the stone doorposts of the two entrances at opposite ends of the room.

Without warning and at irregular intervals the hydraulic system is activated and starts up the action of the piston that gradually pulls the rope taut. The traction is increased slowly until breaking point is reached, but just before the irreparable happens the piston eases the tension causing the entire system to return to a state of precarious calm.

That's the kind of work that Sassolino makes. It has danger, mechanical tension, darkness and makes the spectator vaguely uneasy ("Is this going to break? Will i be hurt? Shouldn't it take one step back?") In fact, Sassolino also explained that the beams vibrate but they hold the pressure. The system actually gets in motion when a visitor gets closer to the work. And that's when, as the artist puts it, a kind of Sadomasochistic moment emerges: the visitor would like to see some dramatic collapse of the wooden structure but doesn't dare to get too close to it.

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Arcangelo Sassolino. Exhibition view "Francis Bacon and the Existential Condition in Contemporary Art". CCC Strozzina, Firenze. Photo credit: Martino Margheri

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Arcangelo Sassolino. Exhibition view "Francis Bacon and the Existential Condition in Contemporary Art". CCC Strozzina, Firenze. Photo credit: Martino Margheri

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Arcangelo Sassolino. Exhibition view "Francis Bacon and the Existential Condition in Contemporary Art". CCC Strozzina, Firenze. Photo credit: Martino Margheri

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Arcangelo Sassolino. Exhibition view "Francis Bacon and the Existential Condition in Contemporary Art". CCC Strozzina, Firenze. Photo credit: Martino Margheri

In his talk, Sassolino explains that what he likes is to take a material 'by the neck' and torture it in order to make it scream and admit the truth.

A "variation on the same theme" --as he puts it-- is another work without title that made a piece of wood moan until it split.

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Untitled (Spaccalegno), 2008. Courtesy Gallery Feinkost

As the video below demonstrates, sound is an important dimension of Sassolino's work:

The artist is generally less interested in bringing a completed art work in a gallery than in showing a material, be it a piece of wood or marble, that will gradually be stripped of its 'flesh' and maybe reach the point of collapse.

The most literal example of this would be Figurante.

The powerful jaw crushes a femur bone over 3 hours. The work references the sterilized war images we see on tv. They never include the sound of people suffering.

Another work discussed was Elisa, a sculpture assembled from four mechanical digger parts and hydraulically animated by a random generator. The digger arm moves with spasms like a big animal slowly dying.

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Arcangelo Sassolino, Elisa, 2012. Photo Art and the City (video)

A couple more image, mostly for my own pleasure:

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Arcangelo Sassolino, Untitled, 2006-2007. Photo: Fausto Caliari and Federico Perezzani

Dilatazione pneumatica di una forza viva (Pneumatic Expansion of a Living Force) features a bullet-proof glass structure enclosing a glass bottle, which is set on a tube attached to nitrogen cylinders. The gas slowly fills the bottle, which explodes with a shatter of glass when its maximum capacity has been reached. After every explosion the glass bottle is replaced.

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Dilatazione pneumatica di una forza viva (Pneumatic Expansion of a Living Force), 2010. Exhibition view at Centro di Cultura Contemporanea Strozzina, Firenze
Photo: Valentina Muscedra

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Afasia2, 2008

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Macroscopico e domestico, 2008

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Arcangelo Sassolino. Exhibition view "Francis Bacon and the Existential Condition in Contemporary Art". CCC Strozzina, Firenze. Photo credit: Martino Margheri

In case you're dying to see Sassolino speak about his work in english, here's his comment on Time Tomb, a sculpture he installed at Z33 back in 2010.

More podcasts i'm looking forward to listening to: Loris Cecchini talks about his work, Domenico Quaranta explores art and identity online, Gianfranco Pecchinenda discusses Video games and the production of the American imagination, Vito Campanelli talks Process flow and Web, Fabio Chiusi's lecture is about Transparency and freedom of expression after Wikileaks, Emiliano Ilardi imagines A modernity without catastrophe, etc.

The latest exhibition of the Hayward Gallery is quite hard to resist. If you're into scientific experiments and geeky installations, you're bound to find something that will excite your senses and curiosity. But the exhibition is also a joy to visit if all you're asking for is pure entertainment, disco and thrills.

The Light Show displays the works of artists from the 1960s to the present day who have used artificial light as a medium.

With all the word plays about light at their disposal (the journalists certainly had a field day writing about "stepping into the light", a "dazzling show", the "light at the end of the tunnel", etc.), the curators chose the simplest title at their disposal and I decided to borrow their minimal approach and visited the show without even reading the texts explaining the works. That was a first for me, and also probably a very dumb idea as i've missed most of the references and dimensions of the works. But i only realized it when i went back home and flipped through the catalogue (a little gem that one!)

Here's just a couple of my favourite works:

Ann Veronica Janssens' Rose is a room filled with fake mist that makes the intersecting beams of light appears as if they formed a luminous, tangible star.

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Ann Veronica Janssens, Rose, 2007. Photo Linda Nylind for the Hayward Gallery

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Ann Veronica Janssens, Rose, 2007.Image Happy Famous Artists

Katie Paterson never puts a wrong foot. I discovered her work only a couple of years ago and she keeps amazing me with each new piece. Paterson plays with moonlight, melting glaciers, dead stars, grains of sand and Gamma Ray Bursts. Light Bulb to Simulate Moonlight is a specially manufactured lightbulb that softly illuminates a small exhibition room with artificial moonlight, a light that, due to increasing light pollution, is almost never experienced in urban settings.

In the same way that lighting manufacturers created the standard incandescent 'daylight' bulb, Paterson worked with a lighting engineer to produce its opposite: a bulb that replicates the light emitted when the moon is in opposition with the sun. The finished artwork consists of a single, lit bulb together with a sufficient quantity of spare bulbs to provide a lifetime's supply of moonlight.

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Katie Paterson, Light bulb to Simulate Moonlight, 2008. Image Happy Famous Artists

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Katie Paterson, Light bulb to Simulate Moonlight, 2008. Image Happy Famous Artists

Carlos Cruz-Diez's neon-lit installation, Chromosaturation, gave me an almost physical understanding of the expression 'solid colours'. You walk from one red room to a green one, to a blue one. A few geometric shapes interrupt the monochromatic environment.

'Since the retina usually perceives a wide range of colours simultaneously,' Cruz-Diez explains, 'experiencing these monochromatic situations causes disturbances. This activates and awakens notions of colour in the viewer, who becomes aware of colour's material and physical existence. Colour becomes a situation happening in space.'

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Carlos Cruz-Diez, Chromosaturation, 1965-2013. Photo Linda Nylind for the Hayward Gallery

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Carlos Cruz-Diez, Chromosaturation, 1965-2013. Photo Linda Nylind for the Hayward Gallery

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Carlos Cruez-Diez, Image Happy Famous Artists

Ceal Floyer casually threw a puddle of light on the floor.

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Ceal Floyer, Throw, 1997. Photo: Linda Nylind

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Ceal Floyer, Throw, 1997. Image Happy Famous Artists

Bill Culbert's Bulb Box Reflection II easily tricked me. It looks like an incandescent light bulb and its reflection in a mirror but it's actually the opposite. The bulb's reflection is alight while the actual bulb itself is not.

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Bill Culbert, Bulb Box Reflection II, 1975. Photo Linda Nylind

The exhibition isn't overly socially-engaged, it is mostly sheer distraction from the grey London February. However, one of the works on the top floor is a huge stock exchange-style display of LED texts taken from declassified US government documents exposing the operations, interrogations and abuse that took place at Guantánamo.

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Jenny Holzer, Monument, 2008

Another politically charged piece is Reality Show. Iván Navarro invites visitors to step inside a phone box. Once you've closed the door behind you, you discover that the illuminated space above and below you seems to go on for ever. The sides have one way mirrors and when your eyes try to escape the vortex below and the one above, all they can find is your own face in the mirror. It's disturbing, with this infinite space that makes you feel isolated from the rest of the world. The work is a reference to the interrogation rooms and disappearances that characterized the brutal regime of Pinochet in Chile, where the artist grew up.

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Ivan Navarro, Reality Show. Photo Linda Nylind for the Hayward Gallery

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Ivan Navarro, Reality Show. Image Happy Famous Artists

A couple more images and i'll close shop for the day:

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Philippe Parreno, Marquee, 2008. Image Happy Famous Artists

Just for the title:

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Cerith Wyn Evans, S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E ('TRACE ME BACK TO SOME LOUD, SHALLOW, CHILL, UNDERLYING MOTIVE'S OVERSPILL...')

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Leo Villareal, Cylinder II, 2012. Photo Linda Nylind for the Hayward Gallery

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Ivan Navarro, Burden. Image Happy Famous Artists

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Conrad Shawcross, Slow Arc Inside a Cube IV, 2009. Image Happy Famous Artists

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Anthony McCall. Image Happy Famous Artists

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Carlos Cruez-Diez. Image Happy Famous Artists

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Brigitte Kowanz, Light Steps, 1990. Image Happy Famous Artists

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Jim Campbell, Exploded View, 2011. Photo Linda Nylind for the Hayward Gallery

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Image Happy Famous Artists

Light Show is at the Hayward Gallery in London until Sunday 28 April 2013.

Previously: The Magic Hour.
See also: Ann Veronica Janssens at the EACC in Castellon, Spain.

This way for the photo set. But Happy Famous Artists has a much better one.

Today i'm stuck in Turin, it's been snowing all day long. I'm not complaining but i don't feel like venturing outside to see exhibitions so i'm going to point you to an online exhibition over at dARTboard, a digital art space that the Vilcek Foundation created to 'celebrate the accomplishments of foreign-born artists living in the United States and working in the realm of digital art.' This year's featured artist is Marc Böhlen who's showing two works that investigate the relationship between people and automated systems.

The first work is WaterBar, an installation that geoengineers water in response to news on global water crises. The liquid is first filtered to be perfectly clean and then remineralized using a filter bank which releases traces of magnesium, iron, calcium and other elements in proportion to the intensity of related problems found in pertinent realtime online news.

The minerals delivered are connected to a number of locations and symbolic significations. For example, increased readings on water conflicts caused by greedy corporations are countered by adding more of the water mineralized with sandstone from La Verna, Italy, where St. Francis cared for the poor. Similarly, increased readings on topics suggesting over confidence in technology, is counterbalanced by adding more water mineralized with quartz-rich granite from Inada by Fukushima, home of the latest devastating high-tech catastrophe. The result is a unique water mix that acts as an 'antidote' to the news of the day.


Marc Böhlen, Waterbar

The second work, MakeLanguage - SyntheticAccents, attempts to overcome the shortcomings of commercial text-to-speech (or TTS) systems which only offer standardized, idealized speeches devoid of any slur or strong accent.

MakeLanguage - SyntheticAccents creates accented Englisch (Frenglisch, Genglisch and Spanglisch accents in limited vocabularies) to speculate upon the imagined lives of these accents without origins.

To be honest, i wasn't particularly impressed by Volcek's "electronic art space" because i can't see how a couple of webpage that reproduce some of the content of the artist's website can be regarded as an online exhibition. I was expecting more curatorial weight, effort, and inventiveness. That said, i'm not only impressed by the Foundation's general aims and missions but i also welcomed the news of this online show as it allowed me to catch up with Marc Böhlen, an artist-engineer whose work i've been admiring almost ever since i started this blog.

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Extracts of our online interview:

Hi Marc! Let's start with WaterBar. The installation is a 'water-well designed for the post-sustainability age when clean water is simply not good enough.'  Can you explain what you mean by post-sustainability age? Is this when we realize that achieving sustainability is impossible? Or when we go to extreme lengths in order to obtain what we regard as 'sustainable'?  

WaterBar is inspired by two different and related ideas.
The first idea is part of an ongoing inquiry into informatics as a way to re-invigorate the public realm and the commons. My interest in this endeavor is the coupling between material processes and information flows. I want to find niches where this exchange can be powerfully experienced. Water management (which should be called water care) is one such arena. Water quality, water quantity, water ownership. The water problem concerns everyone, everywhere.

The second idea is the current fixation on the 'sustainability' model. No doubt, sustainability is of paramount importance in the near and midterm. But one day, we will have solved the sustainability challenge (provided planet earth still exits). And then what? What kind of relationship can we build with resources beyond risk management and damage control?

I just showed WaterBar for one month in Singapore, where industrial level water management delivers clean (as in not risky) water to the entire island. Even waste water is recycled and returned to the drinking water system. The water cycle is complete. From a sustainability perspective, the problem is 'solved'. Interestingly, the exact proportion and timing of the release of this processed water (coined 'new' water) into the public drinking water system is a state secret; details are withheld from the public. The researchers at the Aquatic Science Center I consulted claimed that people simply do not want to know this because of the unresolved relationship to dirty water in general. Similar responses have been reported in San Diego (USA) where a novel waste water processing plant delivers 'clean' drinking water. In short, the water problem is not just a technical, not just a political problem. It is a problem of a 'failed' relationship between people and technology. It is a civilization challenge. Up to now, good water was equated with fresh water. But there is not enough fresh clean water to serve everyone on the planet. The future will require new approaches to this problem. That is one reason geo-engineering is so important. These are the aspects of sustainability WaterBar responds to.

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Aquatic Science Center, Singapore, 2012

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To me, WaterBar sounds a bit like a satire of the fashion for food that will 'heal' us more than feed us, for the new 'superfoods' that keeps being praised in the health pages of newspapers. But of course i might be completely wrong so what motivated this desire to 'improve' the water we drink? 

Well, there is a component of satire, but not in the installation. The WaterBar installation really does produce mineralized water. It adds iron, calcium, magnesium and other minerals in minute but detectable levels.

The satire is in the shelves of supermarkets and restaurants that sell mineral water to health-fashion victims. The improvement, as it were, that WaterBar offers is an improved relationship to water, to the water mix of the day as it is influenced by current water problems occurring all over the world.

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ISEA, Albuquerque, 2012

The remineralized water is offered for public consumption. Are people eager to test them? Do they taste very different from each other?  

WaterBar searches the internet for news on water problems that concern everyone. WaterBar makes in response to this collection of information (usually bad news!) by passing water from its reservoir through the filter banks and mixing it to a 'catch of the day'.

The relationship between the filter banks (of collected rocks and minerals from different parts of the planet) and the news feeds is based on an oppositional mapping scheme. For example, the Inada Granite filtered water is added to the mix when the system finds instances of 'overconfidence in technology'. (This Inada Granite was sourced from a quarry south of Fukushima, home of the latest high tech meets natural resources catastrophe). Anyway, depending on the mix, the water tastes different. You can't taste all the variations - at least I cannot - and it usually has a bit of chalky taste due to the choice of limestone and marble in the filter banks. Some people really enjoy it.

In order to 'mineralize' the water one has to expose the water to the filter materials for a certain time. At about 30C it takes only about 5 hours or so for the filters I have chosen to reach close to saturation level. At colder temperatures it can take longer. I usually fill up the filters 24hrs in advance and refill overnight.

Yes, the mixes are always different, as different as the news feeds describing water problems. News feed change all the time, but luckily water catastrophes have a slower update rate! This is an interesting problem - how do you relate temporal flows of information systems to the temporal flows of geological systems. Anyway, some mixes taste very different from others, some seem hardly different. The variations in chemical properties are far greater than the resultant variation in tastes.

Some people were very eager to taste the water. During the first show in Buffalo, NY, one fellow stopped by the WaterBar every day. At the end of the week, he stopped by with a large canister to get WaterBar water for his cats and plants!

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Buffalo, New York, 2011

Can you also explain us the 'internet-scanning, text-processing control system"? What does the system scan exactly? And how does its search influence the final mixing/mineralizing of the water?  

WaterBar's software contains a module that checks a large list of websites on water resources, including, waterworld.com, circleofblue.org, ecology.com, mondediplo.com and many others. Depending on where WaterBar is operating, I add sites with locally pertinent information. The internet-scanning algorithm checks these sites, dissects the content and maps it onto an 'association matrix' that relates the origins of the filter banks to the web search results. This is where information directly becomes material. I use the simple 'bag of words' approach. For example, the Inada filter (see above) bag of words contains the concept attributes: 'hazard', 'hightech', 'disaster', 'nuclear', 'contingency', 'emergency', 'highrisk', 'failure', 'advanced technology' (with spelling variations). The algorithm creates a normalized distribution map based on frequency of occurrences for all the filter banks and concept attributes. This does not produce an exact representation of the information flow relevant to the filter topic. But the error rate is uniform across all the filters. From an engineering perspective this is not really good enough, and certainly needs some more attention. But even if I spend the next five years perfecting this, there will always be a difference between what I can capture, what is flowing in the internet and what actually happens in the world. I see the current approach more like a fishing expedition.

The catch of the day are fish that were actually in the water at the time you went fishing, but the fish you catch do not necessarily represent all the fish in the ocean. Anyway, the result from the internet scanning algorithm might suggest this kind of distribution: 20% filterA, 35% filterB, 15%filterC and 30%filterD. A second algorithm creates a water mix in this proportion by opening and closing the electronic valves that connect the filter banks to the bottom jar. A third algorithm calculates the effective chemical composition of the resultant water (based on the mix ratios and measurements of the water in the filter banks). E mg/L of iron, F mg/L of calcium, and so on. Just like the descriptions on commercial mineral water bottles. This info is scrolled on the large LED screen at the top of WaterBar. Gravity is the only force moving the water from the top to the bottom.


"MakeLanguage - Synthetic Accents creates accented English to speculate upon the imagined lives of these accents without origins." Listening to these accented TTS, i was immediately transported to place i had been. Accents come with personality and emotions. If i could pick up the accent of my GPS i would be delighted. I'd certainly go for the lovely accent that people from Flanders have when they speak french. How do people react to accented TTS? 

My experience has been that people find these accents mostly humorous. I don't know why! To me they are vehicles of 'Entfremdung'. They sound like humans with a life history but are fake!

To me the weird experience hearing these voices is not unlike the 'uncanny valley' effect coined in robotics that describes the effect of experiencing an almost living/human thing and then all of a sudden realizing that what was thought to be alive is inert (technology). The fall from the initial attraction is augmented by the degree of veracity of the effect. I don't think we have culturally come to terms yet with machines that really sound like we do. Not only because of this direct audible disjoint, but because of the subsequent intuitive step of assuming that what sounds human must be human. Maybe this is as disruptive a step as the introduction of the telephone that undid the notion of presence and voice. Prior to the popularization of the telephone, presence was coincidental with physical proximity. The advent of the telephone changed that, and a 'live' voice could be heard from faraway. It took some time before people could grasp this in daily life.

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Marc Böhlen with JT Rinker, U.W.M., 2003 - 2005

Now this might be a naive and silly question but how did you record these heavy accented sentences? Did you ask a german-speaking person to speak like a computer? Or did you tweak the TTS system instead?

The accented utterances are 100% synthetic! They have never been uttered by a living person, and can be generated on the fly by the system.
Just a few short comments for context. MakeLanguage - Synthetic Accents was the work I did after the Universal Whistling Machines project. That work considered the utopia of a communication system that would combine machines, people and animals. Anyway, after the foray into whistles I became fascinated with text to speech systems that use advanced signal processing to produce utterances that mimic human voices.

Synthetic speech systems use various approaches, but one popular one is based on the unit selection principle by which elementary units of speech (phonemes and diphones) are combined based on language specific rules to larger units such as word and phrases. One starts with a collection of sound bites (a corpus of utterances) made by a specific human being, recorded in a studio. Synthetic speech engineers refer to people whose voices are used as 'voice talent'. Anyway, these utterances are then dissected, rearranged and 'atomized' to elements that can be recombined ad lib, usually in the language model of the native speaker. Whatever such a synthetic voice says will sound as if the original human being said it. Anyway.

Back in 2005 I approached a startup company (SVOX, no longer operating..) that had, in my view, an excellent synthetic speech engine and asked them if I might experiment with the system, promising 'interesting results'. Luckily I received access to the software. It would have been almost impossible to do this project having to build all the software from scratch.

My very simple but effective approach was to selectively mix units of speech from one language with language models from another. This in itself did not produce good results, so I added some 'accent rules' to address the problem of intonation. Even that did not work well. I had to make lots of special rules, and the system got rather unwieldy. I was not able to create a general purpose accent generator (as I hoped for in wild dreams) but a system that would work with a few languages for limited vocabularies. One rather weird part was the testing. Who do you test on? How do you know when the fake accents sound 'right'? So I concentrated on language mixes I am familiar with through my own history and background and tested the strange voices on myself. Once I was ok with the basic sounds, the question of content moved front and center. What should/could these voices say? Some very weird conversations between the voices and me ensued, as you might imagine. Amway, I ended up mostly in the service industry (hotels, airports) and played with the kind of phrases you hear in those impersonal settings. It felt so right in a very wrong way.

What does an exhibition on the online platform dARTboard, bring to your practice? Do you think that an online exhibition has as much strength as one in a brick and mortar museum? In terms of audience, recognition and also ability to engage with an artwork?

I do prefer brick and mortar for installations like WaterBar. I really do want people to drink the water. The installation has a powerful presence, I think. Video documentation is a compromised replacement. Plus you don't get to see people's reactions.

The synthetic voices from the MakeLanguage trilogy are a different matter. I don't think they lose much by being online. Maybe that is the only place they can really be at home after all.

Thanks Marc!

Related: Interview of Marc Böhlen and When a machine picks a fight.

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Alexandre Burton, Impacts, 2012. Interactive Installation at FACT. Photographer: Brian Slater

The Winter Sparks show at FACT Liverpool is small and efficient. Three large-scale installations that experiment with scientific phenomena and pay homage to Nikola Tesla. The works can be experienced without mediation but each of them also conveys several layers of meanings and readings, whether you're intrigued by the technical description or by the sheer beauty of the sparks, lightening bolts, and sonic properties of the works. Each piece in the exhibition also functions as both an art installation and a musical instrument that the artists played during the opening night of Winter Sparks.

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Alexandre Burton, Impacts, 2012

I already told you about the Evolving Spark Network installation yesterday so let's move on to Alexandre Burton's Impacts, a work that demonstrates convincingly that you can still stun and amaze the crowd using a technology that was invented around 1891. The installation uses Tesla coil and a quick look at its wikipedia entry taught me that the electrical resonant transformer circuit is so popular that its enthusiasts show off their home-made Tesla coils at "coiling" conventions, that Björk used a Tesla coil as the main instrument in the song Thunderbolt, and that others use coils to play Mario Bros theme song.

Right before we approach the installation, we are advised that it's better not to go too close to the work -actually "Do not to touch!" is a better way to describe the warning, not to enter the room with a pacemaker, nor to let unaccompanied children in. Even mobile phones are not invited to the party as "there is a chance that the electromagnetic field emitted by the tesla coils could corrupt the flash or damage the memory of your mobile device or crash running programs."

The Tesla coils are activate by the presence of the visitors. As you go near, arcs of electricity of variable intensities come crashing against a glass pane. The violent flashes of light and sound are dramatic and fascinating, because of the lightning bolt patterns formed of course but also because you have the feeling of being in close proximity to danger.

Impacts from artificiel on Vimeo.

With this new work, Alexandre Burton proposes the use of plasma (loosely defined as an electrically neutral medium of positive and negative particles) as matter and medium itself, circumscribed by a defined frame and articulated through unique programming. In this way, IMPACTS serves as a reminder of the danger and muscle of this marvel while capturing its sublime beauty and rhythmic potential.

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Alexandre Burton, Impacts, 2012. Interactive Installation at FACT. Photographer: Brian Slater

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Alexandre Burton, Impacts, 2012. Interactive Installation at FACT. Photographer: Brian Slater

The last work in the exhibition, Wilberforces, is the outcome of Bosch & Simons's research into unpredictable systems.

Part physics experiment and part art work, the installation takes its cue from the Wilberforce pendulum, a spring hung on the ceiling with central and eccentric weights that alternate between two oscillation modes. Once calibrated, vertical and circular movements alternate even without additional external energy. It is an example of a coupled mechanical oscillator.

Bosch & Simons equipped the springs with audiovisual equipment that documents everything around the FACT Atrium. The video camera, microphone and loudspeakers capture sounds in the environment and in turn, generate visual and audio data that visitors can experience on a screen located in a dark room nearby.

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Peter Bosch & Simone Simons, Wilberforces, 2012. Interactive Installation at FACT. Photographer: Brian Slater

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Peter Bosch & Simone Simons, Wilberforces, 2012. Interactive Installation at FACT. Photographer: Brian Slater

Winter Sparks remains open at FACT in Liverpool until 24 February 2013.
Related story: GAKONA at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.

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