Make+ is a Shanghai-based programme that stimulates collaborations between creativity, technology and science. Its main motivation is to 'make ideas happen'.
The recipe is quite simple: an individual comes with an idea, a team forms around it, mentors join in and guide the team along the way. At the end of the process, the idea is made reality. Participants come with all types of backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. They can be fashion designers, hardware engineers or painters.
The experimental and not-for-profit organisation also organizes educational workshops, talks and exhibitions that further encourage exchanges and raise public awareness about the kind of creativity that emerges when people from different professions meet and share ideas.
I met Sophia Lin, the Director of Make+, a few weeks ago. We were both giving a talk at the same moment at the latest edition of the Lift Conference in Geneva. Sophia is also the co-founder of Basement 6 Collective, a studio and community space located in an old bunker and dedicated to promoting the arts in Shanghai.
Since i missed Sophia's presentation in Switzerland, i thought that the best way to catch up with the activities of Make+ would be to interview her:
Hi Sophia! How big is Make+? How many people are working on the program?
Make+ is supported by volunteers only. We have roughly 9 core volunteers, and 30+ volunteers who help out whenever it's needed.
The Make+ program encourages cross-disciplinary collaboration. How do you make these cross-disciplinary collaborations happen? Is it by acting as a go-between? By making resources available? etc.
We do a lot of things to encourage these collaborations happen. We host events where professionals and students from different professions can meet and collaborate, we act as a resource database for those who need to reach the other end. We have also started a research project on methods of crossover collaboration.
Are there like-minded people, institutions organizations in Shanghai and in the rest of China? Who does Make+ collaborate with? Who are its allies?
We are seeing more and more institutions especially the universities opening their doors to these kind of experiments by having collaborative courses and programs. Make+ collaborates with art museums, galleries, makerspaces, libraries, hardware companies and foundations.
You told me in a previous conversation that Make+ doesn't have its own space. So how do you manage to organize meetings, workshops, exhibitions?
We usually host our events in our partners' spaces. We work hard.
And apart from having your own space, what are the biggest challenges that the program encounters?
Having a steady funding is our biggest challenge. Our currently method is to offset our cost by charging the event. But in reality, the income usually only pays for the materials and instructor, but never the organizers.
You also told me that you work with artists who might have a fairly classical view on art and with science & tech people who are not so used to working with artists. What makes these two worlds dialogue and collaborate? And does their perspective on their own discipline change after one of your Make+ events?
Yes, this is a very challenging problem. People have to really WANT to collaborate with the others to make it work. We learned from our experience that a forged relationship without a strong motive is hardworking and tiring. However, the participants who have had a successful collaborations often goes on to try more.
In 2013, our creative camp incubate a fresh team that consists of designers, artists and engineer. They do not know each other at the beginning, and have never collaborate with other discipline before. After some very challenging weeks, they built a "emotion" room that responded to people's brainwave. The room would try to make you angry if you are calm, and try to calm you down if you are agitated. The team members became best friend and went on to collaborate on many projects.
Last year in 2014, we incubate a long-term not for profit project, where artists, designers and scientists would lead people to research trips to China's old villages to see if there anything they can help with.
What's next for Make+?
In 2015, apart from our regular programming and incubator programs, we have started a long-term research project on methods for a successful crossover collaborations. We feel that we need to learn from the successful teams and projects around the world about how to initiate a successful collaborations.
This week (or rather semester since i so seldom do proper interview nowadays), I'm talking with Svenja Kratz , an interdisciplinary artist who combines art practice with cell and tissue cultures to investigate the creative and critical dimensions of biotechnologies as well as their impacts on concepts of identity, life, and death.
Svenja has a background in art but she also holds a PhD in Contemporary Art and Biotechnology from Queensland University of Technology and worked at the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovationin Brisbane, where she completed a PhD in bio-media art.
So far, the artist has worked with media as diverse as fetal calf cells, human blood, maggots, multi-component 3D Human Skin Equivalent (HSE) models or taxidermied insects. She is currently participating to Experimenta Recharge biennial of media art with an ever-changing face mask that uses DNA from Saos-2, a cell line that originally came from the bone cancer lesion of an 11 year old girl who most likely died in 1973 due to the aggressive nature of the cancer. The cells of the little Alice can now be found in science laboratories around the world. Their presence in an art installation highlights the transformative capabilities of Alice's cells but also the oddity of using living fragments of a human body that died 40 years ago.
The work is called The Contamination of Alice: Instance #8 and since i can't travel to Melbourne to see it, I thought the next best thing would be to write Svenja and interview her via email:
Hi Svenja! Your work Afterlife "looks at the ethical ambiguities and challenges that accompany the use and manipulation of organisms, in particular the use of Fetal Bovine Serum (FBS) in cell and tissue culture." What are those ethical ambiguities and challenges? And how does the work addresses them?
The work Afterlife was a starting point for the development of The Immortalisation of Kira and Rama, a project researched and developed during a three month residency at SymbioticA in 2010. The work developed from my engagement with cells and tissues and particularly the materials that are used in biotechnology such as FBS - a protein rich nutrient supplement used in the media to sustain cells in culture. The serum is derived from the blood of fetal cows. While the idea of draining unborn calves of their blood may sound horrifying, the calves are essentially a bi-product of meat production and while their blood is harvested to produce serum, their bodies are discarded, deemed unfit for consumption.
This work does not aim to demonise the meat industry or the use of FBS, but rather comments that there are victims at every level of consumption, and that the boundaries between good and bad are always blurred. For example, the common practice of slaughtering pregnant cows, and subsequent availability of fetal calf blood, has enabled great advancements in cell and tissue culture and contributed to the development of new medical technologies and treatments for humans and other organisms. This is the same for many cell lines, such the HeLa cell line, isolated from Henrietta Lacks in 1951. Establishment of this, the first human cell line, was a medical breakthrough, contributing significantly to the development of vaccines and scientific research. However, the HeLa line also caused significant distress to the donor family, as the cells were used without the knowledge or consent of Mrs Lacks.
My work aims to draw attention to the often unseen donors or victims of processes of consumption and advancement, but also the shifting boundaries between how we understand life and death. I feel we need to understand that that there are always positives and negatives, and that our technologies and attitudes often reflect current cultural values.
You work with living matter. What are challenges of exhibiting your works? How do you keep them alive for the whole duration of a show for example?
One of the most demanding aspects of working across art and science, and particularly preparing living work for exhibition, are the ethics, biosafety and risk assessments that must be completed to ensure that the work follows ethical guidelines, all risks are minimised and the work is non-hazardous for viewers and installation staff.
You also work with fairly sophisticated technologies. How do you manage to communicate both artistic ideas and scientific innovations that are not that well-known to the public without overwhelming them with complex explanations?
In trying to communicate my ideas, I often focus on storytelling, interweaving scientific concepts with personal experiences and observation, cultural narratives and philosophical ideas. However, this is something I need to continuously work on. When I first started working across art and science, I think I was actually much better at communicating underlying scientific ideas, as my understanding was limited and I was only familiar with lay language. As my knowledge has developed, I sometimes include scientific terms without thinking. Consequently, I often ask my arts colleagues to read my work to ensure the key ideas are clear and understandable, and that I have not included too much superfluous jargon.
You are showing Contamination of Alice #8 at the Experimenta Recharge biennial of media art. For this piece you used human DNA to explore the transformative capabilities of cancer cells. Could you explain us what this involves exactly?
The Contamination of Alice, refers collectively to a series of individual works originally inspired by the experience of my Saos-2 cell (bone cancer cell line originally isolated from an 11 year old. girl, Alice) cultures becoming contaminated by a fungus when I was working in the laboratory at IHBI in 2009. While this resulted in the required disposal of the cultures, to minimise the risk of further infection - something that was initially devastating - it really got me thinking about how different organisms take advantage of environmental opportunities, as well as the difficulty of maintaining ongoing containment and control over nature. The loss of the cell cultures also encouraged me to consider the creative potential of the experience and how contamination could be perceived positively as unexpected growth and discovery, rather than something unclean or unwanted. The contamination of the cells was actually a trigger to start exploring microbiology.
The latest instance within the series which was commissioned for Experimenta forms part of this ongoing exploration and connects to Alice's cells, my lab experiences and notions of becoming, transformation and the interconnections between organism and environment. Through the inclusion of Alice's DNA (isolated from her cultured cells), the work also starts to engage with genetics and the fact that DNA is not a fixed code, but subject to environmental influence through gene switching. While all Agar faces are made of the same material, the display of the work at a new location will result in different bacterial and fungal colonies, based on the microbes in the new environment.
How did you get to work with the Tissue Repair and Regeneration Group at Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation at the Queensland University of Technology?
I started working with the TRR group as part of my PhD research which aimed to explore the creative and critical potentials of cross art-science practice. I was very fortunate in finding a scientific supervisor willing to take me on, train me and fully integrate me into her research group. The support from my supervisor and the entire TRR team enabled me to complete my own lab work and gain first-hand insight into biotechnologies, particularly cell culture and tissue engineering.
I read that in 2013 you undertook a 5-month residency at Leiden University and the Art and Genomics Centre in The Netherlands to explore mutagenesis and bioengineering for future energy production. Could you tell us about this research?
Thanks to the Premiere's 2012 New Media Scholarship from QAG/GOMA, I had the opportunity to complete a six-month residency at Gorlaeus Laboratories at Leiden University in The Netherlands from July to December 2013. The residency formed part of the large-scale Biosolar Cells research programme, which focuses on the potential of solar energy for long term sustainable energy production. While the programme encompasses a variety of research areas, I was integrated into the Solid State NMR group led by Professor Huub de Groot under the supervision of Professor Wim de Grip and PhD candidate Srividya Ganapathy. The project I worked on aims to increase the absorbance spectrum of light powered protein pumps, which are proteins used by Archaea (single-celled microorganisms) to convert sunlight into chemical energy. If successful, the increase in absorbance spectrum enable the proteins to use more of light spectrum to create energy with strong implications for biofuel production. During the residency, I was fortunate to take part in site-specific mutagenesis experiments in which we made highly specific changes to the DNA sequence of the protein in order to induce a shift in absorbance spectrum. I am one of the few artists that can legitimately claim: "I helped make a mutant".
Why do you think it is important for an artist to get in close contact with science like you do?
I personally have found that working closely with research scientists and engaging with new and emerging biotechnologies has enriched my practice and understanding of biology, new and emerging biotechnologies and the complex ethical issues involved in working with living organisms. Being able to work closely with research scientists has also challenged many of my own assumptions and revealed that artists and scientists, despite governed by different objectives and methodologies, rely on tacit knowledge and understand that discovery is emergent and requires an openness to the unexpected. The combination of art and science is also important as it enables the subjective to enter into scientific discourse and research arenas traditionally dominated by a search for 'objective truth'. By drawing on, and incorporating, personal experiences, speculative potentials and historical events, the work makes room for multiplicity and can help reveal the way in which knowledge is always situated, provisional, and intimately connected to personal, social, and cultural values.
What's next? What are you working on right now?
At the moment I am developing a series of holographic display chambers in collaboration with micro-electronics engineer Michael Maggs, based on my 2013 residency in The Netherlands, that engage with ideas surrounding real and imaginary biotech mutants. I am also working on a series of individual works that operate as thought experiments regarding the idea of genetic legacy, and how, as single woman in my 30s, I might use biotechnologies to ensure my genetic line continues without having children. I am also interested in exploring the emerging field bio-fabrication and am hoping to secure funds to create responsive 'bio-robots' using 3D bio-printing techniques. What can I say...the future is exciting!
Experimenta Recharge, the sixth international biennial of media art, remains open until Saturday 21 February 2015. In Melbourne.
Erik Berglin is a young Swedish artist whose practice spans from interventions in urban environments to fact/fictional storytelling about forgotten stories to appropriation of images found online. Recent works have been exploring the possibilities to generate images with the help of computer algorithms.
Berglin graduated from the University of Photography in Gothenburg only 4 years ago. Yet, he mostly works with photos others people have made and uploaded online. Many of these photos have been roaming from flickr to forums, from tumblr to google image pages before the artist encountered them. There's something very nonchalant about the way Berglin watches the world go by through his computer screen. It is nonchalant but it is also consistently good and very contemporary in the sense that he is a contemporary artist who is young enough to be perfectly at ease with the internet and who brings his own artistic sensitive and critical point of view to it (whereas i often feel that most artists nowadays are either 'traditional' artists who work 'with the internet' because this is the thing to do indeed or they are media artist who strive to modify their portfolio so that it will be more appealing to the art market.)
In any case, the art that Berglin masters to perfection is the good old art of appropriation. He picks up an image, modifies it or not, brings it into a new contexts and gives it a new meaning. The result is a portfolio full of humour, poetry, and absurd comments on our absurd society.
Here's my interview with the artist:
Hi Erik! You been installing life size photos of birds on the streets since 2006. The series, called Birds, is an homage to John James Audubon who worked 12 years (1827-1838) on his book Birds of America. What made you want to make a homage to Audubon's and his work?
I usually start of new projects without thinking to much about why, if I would be concerned about that I would probably not make any art at all. Therefore I also start a lot of projects that in the end are not very interesting but I think it is important to follow your instinct and try ideas before questioning weather they are good or bad.
A teacher once told me the importance of letting yourself be "after hand inspired" (does not translate very well to english) finding reasons once the project is moving. This is very much the case with BIRDS. It started during my first year at art school together with my friend John Skoog. It started of as a 2 week performance piece, we slept in the gallery during the opening hours and put up birds (in scale 1:1) around the city at night. In the gallery we left small traces of our activity, like bird books and maps with indications of where we´d been, etc. We put up around 1000 images of birds and in a small city like Gothenburg it was quite noticeable.
At this time I did not know about Audubon's project but I thought is was so much fun that I kept putting up images of birds wherever I travelled. I also started doing research about interesting stories involving birds in art history, technology, popular culture, etc for another show (Archaeopteryx and other birds).
In an old bookstore in Brooklyn in 2008 I found a reprint of Audubon's Birds of America. I knew instantly that I wanted to make a similar book with the documentation from BIRDS project but first I had to keep it up 12 years - just like Audubon.
You mention on your website that it is 'really hard to keep something up for 12 years'. Why so? Is it because it gets boring? Because you get caught in new projects?
I think I wrote that on my page to keep it real somehow. I am a very restless person, so to work on the same project for 12 years is not really something I should be doing. It can get boring from time to time but of course I don´t work with this project full time. Now it´s only 3 years left so it´s becoming real in a way. I am really excited about making the book and showing it in world wide exhibition tour!
How do you decide which bird will end up where? Is it completely random?
Oh no, it´s absolutely not randomly. I can walk around for hours without putting up a single bird. It feels very important that the birds fits in its surroundings, in terms of color but also shape. If the birds is sitting on a branch for example it all have to make sense on that spot. I only make 1-3 images of each bird, cutting them out by hand and there quite expensive to make - so it´s important that it looks good on the wall. I try to make them look natural, so that one might think, at least for a second that they´re real!
I'm curious about the source of the images you use in some of your works. In Blinded By The Light, for example, you use found (and truly superb) images made by automatic cameras placed in the woods by hunters to locate prey. Where exactly did you get hold of these photos? On hunting forums? And how did you discover their existence?
I am interested in images that are forgotten or lost (kinda like things one can find in a flea market). The last years my artistic practice has therefore made me explore the internet as a public space full of lost and forgotten things. The images of deers in the forest are a result of that. The web is flooded with images, only on social medias there are millions of pictures uploaded each day. I think this vast material is interesting to explore. With the trail cam pictures I also thought is was amazing that the images where made without a decisive moment and in complete lack of human thoughts or esthetics. It was as if the deers where taking self portraits since their movement triggered the exposure.
When I first saw these images I thought it was the most sublime thing I´d seen. I got extremely obsessed, I wanted to see more and more, without planing to make a project about it. I started collecting thousands of images from hundreds of different sites and forums for hunters around the world. For them the images are not beautiful, there just proof that it´s time to go hunting. In that sense I consider this material lost and I try to give them a new meaning.
How about the images you collected for the hunting trophies series? Where do they come from?
This project actually came just before Blinded by the light and they are definitely related, I worked on them simultaneously and sometime found material on the same sites. But with that project I had a clear vision with how I wanted to use the material - erasing the hunters from their images.
Did you work on those to highlight that hunting is bad? Or do you take an absolutely neutral stance?
In general I want to be an observer, I guess that could also mean I´m neutral. I want to present things that I´ve noticed or found peculiar, but it´s up to the viewer how they want to interpret the work. I always try to have a fine balance between content and esthetics, I think both are important in order to make interesting art.
I don´t think hunting is bad, on the contrary, game meat is by far a better option if you wanna eat meat. However I definitely think trophy hunting is outrageous and Surrounding Camouflage is definitely an attempt to highlight the absurdity with killing animals without intention of using the meat. During the time I was working with these image I became very fascinated in the esthetics in these images, there seemed to be very strict conventions about how they should look.
Don't you ever get into trouble for using found images?
No. I think it´s fair use and also part of our contemporary society. And for at least the last 100 years artist have been using found objects to make art that reflects our times and I think that approach is even more valid today. But who knows, maybe I end up in prison.
My collection is a mess, that´s why I would never refer to it as an archive, it´s just thousands of random images. I guess it started of as a folder with images that inspired me, I´m sure everyone has a folder like that. When talking about art it´s quite common to start talking about other artworks with more or less resembles. I am just the same and since I am a nerd I always think of art when seeing other images made by anonymous people. I started arranging famous artworks with random pics from my collection which I associated together.
And what makes you want to repurpose some of your found images and place them into an art context? If we look at a series such as Planking Piece, all the images are made by someone who is not you and show an individual performing a plank. Again, the individual is not you. So how would you define or even justify your intervention as an artist?
In the planking images I was fascinated that a meaningless activity of laying flat on the ground could become such a viral success. People all over the world without regards of age, income or ethnicity were doing it. I instantly thought of documentations of performances from the 60 and 70 that I love. Richard Long, Vito Acconci and especially Charles Ray and his work Plank Piece (from who I stole the title).
It seemed obvious to me that planking was an instructional performance piece that could be performed by anyone, anywhere. I wish I had come up with these instructions from the beginning but planking is just another "meme" which origin no one really knows. But the images of people planking has a great quality in terms of contemporary art, they spoke to me and had a profound impact. The seemingly dead bodies, the meaninglessness of the act, the lack of faces in the images, it appealing.
Sometimes the work of an artist is merrily to recognize the potential in our everyday life arranged this in an interesting way. My collection and my selection of planks is a document of this phenomena and a historical document. As an artwork it will probably make more sense in a hundred years from now, when planking is long forgotten.
Have you ever thought about what your work might be like if internet hadn't been invented yet?
I love subjective documentaries (Werner Herzog, etc) so maybe I would be doing that kinda stuff if I was not doing what I am doing now. But before I started working with material found online I was doing interventions in urban and public spaces with found objects so maybe I would have kept doing that. However I think the internet and public spaces are very similar and in many ways I have the same approach to things I find online or in streets.
I was reading an interview of you in which you explain that you were working on a project called The Lions Den. The story behind it is incredible and sad (a man who goes to great lengths to find the lion what will kill him.) What happened to the project?
That project is still in progress, I´ve been collecting some materials but not had time to finish it. I work on most on my projects for many years and In The Lions Den is part of a bigger work which includes sad and forgotten stories about people who died under strange circumstances. Stories Concerning Eldfell is the first chapter in this work, In the Lions Den will be nr 2 and then I want to follow up on a story about a woman in Ghana.
Hahaha sorry but I´m not sure I want this in the interview since I will not be able to make anything out if this until a few years from now.. but I can tell you shortly that it is about a voodoo woman that lay a curse on the construction of a huge dame (a the time the biggest in the world). The construction would put the most fertile part of Ghana under water and force a lot of people to move, but it would also generate electricity for the hole country + a huge American steal factory. Because of the scale of the hole operation, the voodoo woman knew that in order to give the curse validity she had to make a huge sacrifice. So she drowned her self in the river... but I will not tell you what happen after.
Any upcoming research, work, event, exhibition you'd like to share with us?
I have projects for the next 20 years, the problem is only to know which one to do first.
Last year I did 20 shows and this spring 8, so actually right now I decided to not have too many shows for a while and focus on finishing new projects. But it´s really hard for me because doing shows is what I enjoy most. Because of money and time I think my next show will be a miniature museum: The Museum 1:10. The visitor will be able to walk around a model of a space an look at miniature versions of my new work. This way I can show lots of things in any space. The show will have an audio guide and a comprehensive catalogue. Maybe I build the miniature as a replica of Moma and just make it to a huge retrospective in miniature...
(And huge thanks to Geraldine who introduced me to Erik's work!)
The Center for Creative Activism is a place to explore, analyze, and strengthen connections between social activism and artistic practice. For the past few years, CAA's founders Steve Lambert and Stephen Duncombe have been traveling around the U.S. (and increasingly Europe) to train grassroot activists to think more like artists and artists to think more like activists. The objective isn't to replace traditional strategies with unbridled inventiveness but to use creativity as an additional tool that will help them gain more attention, make activism more approachable and that will, ultimately, make campaigns more effective.
Stephen is an Associate Professor of Media and Politics at New York University. He has received numerous recognitions and awards for his work as a teacher, organiser of activist groups and events. He widely publishes about culture and politics and is the author and editor of six books, including Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy and the Cultural Resistance Reader. Duncombe is currently working on a book on the art of propaganda during the New Deal.
Steve is an artist and activist whose art aims to be relevant, engaging and visible outside the traditional gallery setting. His works are imbued with humour and subtle commentaries on current political and social issues.
The New York Times Special Edition, Capitalism Works For Me! True/False, Add-Art (a Firefox add-on that replaces advertising banners with art) and The Anti-Advertising Agency.
I've never had the chance to attend any of their workshops but i've been following CCA's tweets and reading their blog posts with great enthusiasm (i would particularly recommend having a look at An open letter to critics writing about political art, whether you are an art critic, a 'socially-engaged' artist or someone interested in political art.) From where i am standing, these two guys are among the most interesting, thought-provoking thinkers. I was eager to pick their brains....
Hi Steve and Stephen! In Europe at least, 'socially-engaged' exhibitions seem to have become very trendy. Is there any way an artist or curator can engage with meaningful artistic activism inside an art gallery or a museum?
This is a good question, but it can never be answered to any asker's satisfaction.
Definitively saying something is or isn't possible would be a mistake. With artistic activism, like anything in the realm of art, there are few concrete and lasting rules. This is why we have no specific "way" we are prescribing. We're offering an articulated approach and a method for thinking through more effective and further reaching work.
Can you engage in meaningful artistic activism from inside an art institution? Sure. Anything is possible. It depends on the goals of the work. Are you planning the violent overthrow of the government? Because creating an exhibit in a museum is probably not the smartest step in reaching that goal. Are you "interested in attempting to re-examine the notions of the institutions role in blah blah blah" then yeah, a museum or a gallery is a great place to start.
Whether or not something is meaningful or effective has far more to do with the artist(s) intention. The forms this work can take are so open that they present few limitations to efficacy - you have so many choices. The trick is keeping your focus on impacting power through culture. In some cases that path may lead you through a museum, in others not.
If the artists intention and goal does lead them to a gallery or through a museum, they need to be aware of the context of their practice. Galleries and art museums are, by and large, set up to display works of art that are then looked at or watched by others. This encourages a social relationship of spectatorship, with all its attendant political ramifications. It also can tends to "reify," politics be it social problems or social struggles. In these cases politics becomes an object for contemplation, or - perversely - appreciation, rather than action. As we like to say, political art is not necessarily art about politics, but art that acts politically in the world.
This does not mean that one should avoid art institutions, only that these institutions - like all settings - have their own dynamics and to be aware of and work with, or against, and work through.
The tragedy here is that a majority of the shortcomings of this work are not put in place by institutions attempting to support the work, but by the artists themselves in underestimating their ability, their role in culture, and not fully leveraging their strengths. Crudely, we could say that many artists are plagued by deep seated self-esteem issues that result in us aiming too low. We simply feel that we can't have a great impact outside of the small and insulated worlds of art, so we don't engage on a larger terrain.
This is not to say that institutional support, or lack of it, is not an issue. There is a chicken-or-egg problem here in that the training provided to artists and many of the established ways they are supported through the market and states are profoundly disempowering to artists. The power artists have in shifting culture is rarely acknowledged and popular myths about us as starving, insane, misunderstood outcasts are deeply rooted. In subtle ways these institutions can perpetuate disempowerment and support these myths.
That said, the recent uptick in support for this kind of work is a good thing in many ways. It acknowledges that art is not sequestered to traditional media and sacred institutions, and a recognition that art has tremendous power when it's not decoration for the wealthy or academic navel gazing. And institutions can shift, change, and grow, so who knows what could happen.
This is a very long way of saying we can't answer your question, other than to say that if we are serious about using art, culture and creativity to change the world then no setting should be off limits.
One of the projects run by the CAA is the School for Creative Activism, a training program for grassroots activists. Could you tell us about those workshop? What can activists expect from them?
The School for Creative Activism is a two and a half day weekend workshop. It starts on a Friday evening at a modest retreat center we'll find just outside whatever city we're working in. On Friday we give an overview of what artistic activism is and isn't and cover contemporary examples. Saturday we go through the history of this work - usually going back 2000 years or more with some big gaps along the way. The rest of the day is a mix of lecture, discussion, and activities around cultural, cognitive, and mass communication theory. Sunday is hands-on practice where we put all we've learned into play on a sample campaign.
We're both professors and teachers. Duncombe has a doctorate in sociology and has extensive activist roots and Lambert brings his expertise in communications and fine art. We take all this information, condense it, and make it relevant and useful for working activists. We also get a few artists in the room to add perspective.
Over the past three years we have trained activists working on school desegregation in Mebane NC, prison reform in Houston TX, state budgets in Austin TX, immigration justice in San Antonio TX, tax fairness in Boston MA, and police surveillance of Muslims in New York City. We've worked with faith-based organizers in rural Connecticut and Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans in Chicago IL. We just finished a weekend with The Portland State University Social Practice Arts program. Overseas we've trained East African health activists in Nairobi and Scottish democracy advocates outside of Glasgow. In March of 2014 we are scheduled to work with health care activists in Skopje, Macedonia.
Because of the wildly different geographic and social makeup of these groups, our curriculum really has to work as a framework that can be adapted locally. You can't drop-in to Kenya or Texas or Scotland and use a one-size-fits-all model. Culture is the resource, the raw material, we work with and culture is local. We can't tell people what will work in their area and with the populations they want to organize, they need to tell us what the dominant signs, symbols and stories are, what media outlets they have access to and what creative resources they can muster. This is what makes this work so exciting for us: the activists and artist we work with are the experts in their cultural terrain so we are forever learning new things.
Creativity taps into an expertise that many people possess, but don't think of applying to the "serious business" of politics. Even if most people don't think of themselves as "artists," they don't compose symphonies or paint majestic landscapes, they sing at churches, rap with friend on a street corner, upload videos to YouTube, assemble scrapbooks, of even just know how to throw a kicking party. "I'm not political," is a phrase one hears often; it's a rare person, however, that doesn't identify with some form of culture and creativity. Culture lowers barriers to entry. As something already embraced, it has the capacity to act as an access point which organizers can use to approach and engage people otherwise alienated from typical civic activity and community organization. In fact, cultural creativity is often the possession of those - youth, the poor, people of color - that are most marginalized from formal spheres of politics, law, and education.
We have a motto at the CAA: "The first rule of guerilla warfare is to know your terrain and use it to your advantage." The political topography of today is one of signs and symbols, stories and spectacles. And for all the limitations of traditional artistic training, it is artists who are the best adapted to working on this political landscape. In order to be a good activist you need to learn to think like an artist.
One of the problems with much of activist work is that it's based in a faulty understanding of political motivation. We do an exercise at the beginning of every training: We ask participants to introduce themselves and give a brief account of what they are working on and tell us about the moment they became politicized. After everyone is done we go back and point out that no one mentioned they became interested in affecting change in the world through signing a petition, reading a factsheet, giving a donation, or even going to a march or rally. Yet that is exactly these means that activists use to approach others to have them "get involved." The politicization experiences people do describe in this exercise are vivid, visceral, and emotional experiences. Dreams, fantasies, emotions. Moments felt rather than just thought. Affective experiences. Well, this is the domain of art.
Unfortunately there's a pressure to do things that are sure to work. With activists especially, the stakes are high. When we're working with healthcare advocates in Eastern Africa, if they take a risk that doesn't work people may literally die. We don't ever advise that people should abandon the standard tactics of activism: the marches, the rallies, the petitions, the knocking on doors and lobbying politicians. What we are suggesting is that artistic activism provides another tool for the activist's tool box. But as any carpenter can tell you, once you have a new tool it opens up possibilities of new jobs to work on.
Do you have a couple of examples of workshops that lead to particularly fruitful actions?
We were sitting in a restaurant a few weeks ago getting lunch and one of our former workshop attendees happened to be at another table. We asked what he was working on, and he mentioned he was organizing fast food workers. He then told us. "Oh you know, we're using a lot of what we talked about in the workshop in the Fast Food Workers Strike." What impressed us was two things: one, that some of what we were teaching had some impact on this amazing, high-profile campaign that we had admired from afar; and two, that we would have never known without this chance meeting.
If we've been successful, when we're done with the workshop the participants have a feeling of ownership over the method. When they put it to use they don't often consciously think "Now we're using artistic activism!" Instead they find ideas and methods which resonate and feel true, so they use them. Which is exactly as it should be - part of an overall skill set that activists can tap into and employ when and where it's useful.
It reminds us of what Lao Tzu once wrote:
As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence.... But when the best leaders' work is done, the people say 'we did it ourselves'
We think the same is true for teachers too.
Which brings me to the question you ask to the artists you interview: "How do you know if it works?" What are the criteria that help you establish whether a work has had any social or political impact?
This is what everyone, including us, wants to know. What is the formula? Is there a checklist to run through? Are there singular and universal right answers to this? And of course, there is not.
While it's helpful to have measureable objectives - a change that is visible - often it's similar to answering the question "what makes a good artwork?" because there's part of artistic activism that has no objective standard and the most important outcomes may be immeasurable.
The first question to ask is "What was the artist trying to do?" If an artist set out to be successful in the art market, there's no real sense in being critical of their lack of political impact because that wasn't their intention. Better questions are, did they succeed in what they set out to do? And were those goals ambitious enough?
For example, we often hear political artists say things like "I'm interested in raising awareness about issues around immigration." This statement is so vague it could also serve as a mission statement for a Nazi propaganda office. Consciousness raising is only useful as a means directed towards something larger. Not addressing a specific, distant goal is a strategic error. Unfortunately merely political content is often what passes for political art, while it has little political impact. If the artist were to be more ambitious and more specific, "I will create a more accepting culture around immigration through my art work" they'd probably be more successful because they'd have a clearer idea of what they were trying to do.
When we work with artists directly, as we do through our Arts Action Academy, we really push artists to think about what they want to have happen through their work. Many will initially say something like "I want to raise awareness of X" or "I want to start a discussion about Y." Fine and good. But then we ask, if you succeed in raising awareness or starting a conversation, what then do you want to have happen as a result? Most of the times there are grander motivations underlying these tame aspirations. It often turns out that the artist doesn't just want to raise awareness or start a conversation about immigration, they want that awareness or conversation to lead someplace: to help stop some particularly heinous law that punishes immigrants and open up the borders between people and nations. Being aware of this helps us sharpen our thinking about our art and its impact, and it also helps us determine whether we've done what we've set out to do.
This thought process also helps us think about creative work as a piece of a extensive campaign. An artwork that raises awareness or starts a conversation is just one tactic; a tactic to be followed by others: perhaps art that aims to empower immigrant communities or embarrass right wing demagogues or pressure lawmakers. And all of this fitting together in a larger strategy aimed toward an ultimate goal of a more humane society. Without this greater strategic understanding there is a disconnect between the action and the, often unacknowledged, desired result. This tends to lead to either delusion: "My piece will change everything!" or depression: "My piece changed nothing." Both are debilitating.
We could go on addressing "what works, and how do we know it does?" forever because we are obsessed with this topic, but of your readers are curious, we've written more in our Open Letter to Critics on Writing About Political Art following the 2012 Creative Time Summit in NYC, and in a short essay, Activist Art: Does it Work? we wrote for the Dutch journal Open.
Oh! I loved that Open Letter, I found it so useful.
Have artists and activists the same definition of what constitutes a successful action?
No. That's both the problem and the promise of artistic activism.
Activism tends to be very instrumental: the goal is to change power relationships and you have clear objectives that result in demonstrable change in the "real world."
Art tends to be expressive, interested in making something new and unique. It's a practice concerned with shifting perspectives and creating spaces for this to happen, what Jacques Rancière calls the "redistribution of the sensible." With art there are indirect results, or perhaps no instrumental result at all. And most art is experienced outside of the "real world," in special refuges like museums and galleries.
These are often at cross purposes to one another. They are often hard to reconcile. It's not easy! It is an art. But when you can do it, it makes for powerful activism (and profound art)
I'm also very curious about the Art Action Academy, a workshop to help socially engaged artists become more politically efficacious. What are the skills necessary for political action that no art academy ever teaches you?
Well, schools could teach these things, they just don't. Programs have popped up and they have begun to try. But activism and organizing are real skills - just like painting or dramaturgy - and there are lessons to be learned. Lessons like:
Thinking about audience, particularly audiences unlike yourself
Because we believe in the democratic ideal of the every-day active citizen we tend to downplay the fact that activism is a demanding practice that requires particular skills and substantial practice. Ideally, we will all one day have those skills and practice, and we will live in a world where everyone is an activist (as well as an artist) but until then it is necessary to learn - and to teach.
Now say i'm an artist and i'm interested in political action but i cannot afford to travel to the U.S. to attend one of your workshops, where should i start? Do you have any book, video or other tool to recommend?
We both hold down paying jobs as university professors so we can't do as much, and go as many places, as we'd like. In recent years we've expanded our workshops out of the borders of the US to Europe and Africa and we plan to do more of this. That said, we're only two people with limited time and resources so we can't be everywhere and do everything we'd like. Recognizing our limitations we are working on a book that will take the research we've done and the lessons and exercises from our workshops and make them accessible to more people.
We also have resources for artistic activists on our website: a reading list of texts that we've found useful, and Actipedia.org, an open-access, user-generated database of global artistic activism case studies that we created with The Yes Men.
Are there any relevant yet overlooked issues you think activists and artists should approach today?
There's plenty of relevant issues and we come across new ones all the time. Nearly all of them are overlooked in the grand scheme of things.
If you're asking if there are topics we feel artists should be working on, we think it's always best to pick whatever compels you the most. There's always work to be done and if we tried to pick out what was most important, we'd probably be wrong anyway. We're all in it together, so everyone needs to work their hardest on the things they care about most...and support one another
Do you have any plan of coming to Europe by any chance? I think we'd love to have the CAA here.
We were just in Scotland. This Spring we'll be running a five day School for Creative Activism workshop in Macedonia working with health care activists, and it looks like we'll be hosting Art Action Academies in Sweden and Russia too.
While our time is limited, we really enjoy meeting and working with activists and artists working on campaigns and in contexts that are new to us. It's how we lean and grow too. If people are interested in bringing us to Europe - or elsewhere - they can always contact us trough the center at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We're definitely open to it.
And more generally what is next for the Center for Artistic Activism?
We'll continue working with as many activists and artists as we can through our workshops while finishing our book so we can reach even more.
Thanks Stephen and Steve!
Check out also the video of the talk that Stephen Duncombe delivered in Copenhagen on January 23rd, 2013, for activists and NGO workers affiliated with Action Aid Denmark.
It would be convenient but unfair to reduce the work of Frederik de Wilde to its award-winning ultra dark, nano-engineered black painting. Just like Yves Klein collaborated with chemists to create the now iconic International Klein Blue, de Wilde worked with scientists in both Europe and the U.S.A. to nano engineer a material so dark that it absorbs all visible light as well as some invisible like infrared light. Quite aptly, the artwork is called Hostage.
De Wilde further expanded his research into spectral behaviour and innovation at the atomic level with M1NE #1, a 3D sculpture so dark that it appears as if it were devoid of any volume. The artwork translates classified data gathered from Belgian coal mines into a structure that hides political dossiers and possibly commercial interests into abstract forms.
Frederik de Wilde in collaboration with Frederik Vanhoutte, SoN01R 1.0
In fact, de Wilde's investigations don't stop at nanotechnology, he also explores biotechnology, data networks, or any other scientific fields of research in order to uncover new frontiers of the intangible, inaudible, invisible. I was particularly intrigued by SoN01R for example. The work is a real-time visualization of true random numbers generated from a quantum mechanical system.
All of the above might sound abstract and highly conceptual but as the interview with the artist will demonstrate research into elusive energy measurements and other barely perceptible phenomena quickly gives rise to reflections about politics, art history, economic emergency, universe hacking and very practical innovations in 'clean' energy.
Hi Frederik! What makes nanotechnology a valuable field of experimentation for an artist?
Let's debunk some myths first. Nanotechnology is not new on itself. The Mayans used nano particles in their pottery, the Romans in glass, and so on. A great example is the Lycurgus cup made from translucent glass containing colloidal gold and silver particles dispersed in the glass matrix in certain proportions so that the glass has the property of displaying a particular transmitted colour and a completely different reflected colour, as certain wavelengths of light either pass through or are reflected. This is called surface plasmon resonance where photons interact with electrons. It's like a dance on subatomic level. It connects colour theorists like Da Vinci with Isaac Newton, Cézanne, Kandinsky, ...
In my case i most interested in creating a black body, an idealised body that absorbs all incident electromagnetic radiation, regardless of frequency or angle of incidence. The first artistic result was the artwork entitled "Hostage p.t.1" which won the Ars Electronica Next Idea Grant in 2010.
What changed dramatically is the level of control in the nano tech praxis. It's unprecedented and still evolving rapidly. Let's take a step back into time to make things more clear.
One of the seminal events in the history of nanotechnology is -ever jittery- physicist Richard Feynman's lecture entitled "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom" at Caltech on December 29, 1959. Feynman considered the possibility of direct manipulation of individual atoms as a more powerful form of synthetic chemistry than those used at the time. Let's not forget John Von Neumann, one of the founding figures in computer science, concept of the universal constructor in his theoretical and mathematical frameworks of self-replication. This clearly inspired Feynman to suggest the possibility of self-replication from atomic level onwards.
The concept led also to dystopian projections and hypothetical end-of-the-world scenarios, out-of-control self-replication (nano-)robots consuming all matter on Earth leaving nothing but a ''gray goo'', a term coined by nanotechnology pioneer Eric Drexler in his book Engines of Creation (1986).
As an artist i am not only interested in the history of science -or connecting it to an art historical perspective, a source of inspiration, a practical tool, the technological innovation potential, and so on ..., but also, and this has been less exposed until now, from a societal point-of-view. We are in a time of fundamental transition(-s), great turbulence, ... our contemporary society (read also 'old' world) is crumbling, it's fundaments are shaking profoundly.
Nanotechnology offers me a context to reflect upon the idea of building up a society anew from scratch -or 'personalise' it by the level of individual control-, atom by atom sort of speaking ((I am well aware that we've heard this story before (e.g. Futurist Manifesto ;), but where governments currently overload us with rules, regulations and restrictions we should bend it to possibilities, personalisation, et al. If not anticipated in the future we'll be confronted with a higher frequency of massive upheavals, strikes, civil unrest and revolts. This time from the proletarians AND the middle class. That's the 99%.
Multinationals and corporations have the leverage to make governments change their agenda, but they won't as long as there is no economic urgency and clear business model. This model will need to grow from inside and from the bottom of the pyramid. This will take time but one can see this slowly happening.
But what's in it for the scientists you collaborated with (i read you worked with NASA, the University of Hasselt and Rice University)? What made your research into ultra black valuable for them?
It's layered. Most valuable is bringing together a group of passionate inter- and transdisciplinary individuals. As an artist you are a free electron. I don't have to align myself so easily with rules and regulations, institutes, ... i can be 'wild' and that's a quality that is generally accepted and respected. This stimulates and facilitates cross linking, confrontations with different ways of seeing, other ways of experimentation, getting out of the comfort zone.
In the case of the Nano Black research it depends. Currently i am challenging my collaborators at NASA to grow CNT's on a three dimensional matrix, which is not easy to accomplish. The concrete result of this first experiment in this direction is M1NE#1. The sculpture is made by direct laser sintering of micro particles titanium. The artwork is based on highly sensitive (political and economic) data of the coal mines in Belgium, seven mines in total. After a half a year of lobbying, and signing documents, i finally achieved to get a hold of the data. The main restriction was not to represent the actual data but only 'subjective' data, whether it's a sculpture, painting didn't matter.
This said; it's all about challenging, maintaining and accelerating dynamics, growing connections: stimulating growth. Maybe i am also used as an excuse for failure, haha :).
Whereas the scientific world is still too much compartmented, an artist can add a more personal, holistic, ... approach. I am interested in models, whether it's mathematics, art, society, ... it doesn't really matter. That's the bigger picture i am interested in and scientists are very eager to discuss these matters but preferably in a well defined -and controlled- context. I think that's a pity, and also scientist should participate more in societal issues. It's one of my ambition to create more space for this issue by the means of setting up art, science and technology projects. This is a gradual process. Most of the time it ends up with a demonstrator but that's not enough for me. The next step is deduct or grow a model from it with a deeper impact on more societal levels and give it a shape.
I also read about potential industrial applications: photovoltaic systems, invisible airplanes (oh, please no!), telescopes coating, etc. Do you want to give more details about it?
When you have a material that absorbs all visible light, and even some spectra of the invisible light like infrared and UV light, it's logical to think about photovoltaic cells. If one can improve the efficiency of a solar panel then that's a real good thing. Participating in the clean energy discourse makes me feel good, having potential solutions imbedded in an artistic and crossover project is even better. Making objects 'invisible' or three dimensional objects appear flat like a cutout, augmenting a canvas or substrate, a three dimensional matrix or sculpture with an enhanced topography or nano coating that can act as a photovoltaic cell is certainly interesting from artistic, scientific and industrial applications point-of-view. Innovation thrives not only on single innovations but also combining and recombining ideas, techniques and technologies.
The artwork entitled ''NASABlck-Crcl #1'' makes clear reference to Duchamp's readymades.
It's the most complete black body to date only applied in one telescope in space. This allows for less stray light which results in a sharper image. Yes, it would make a very good camera obscura.
The projects Quantum Objects, Quantum Foam and SoN01R explore true random numbers. Can you briefly explain what these true random numbers are? And what drew you to randomness?
Generating true random numbers is rather exceptional. Most random number generators are based on computer algorithms. Once the input conditions are known, one can reverse-engineer such algorithms which suggests a reproducible outcome. To be able to generate truly random numbers one would need a routine that can break the causality law, an observation of a source that acts without any or any knowable cause.
I've always been interested in the concept and notions of 'noise', again from different points-of-view (astrophysics, music, art, mathematics, societal, ...). The installation αTown #Lead Angels 1.0 is a fine example. Here i use uranium glass aka vaseline glass or Great Depression glass as a source for generation true random numbers. In the case of Quantum Objects, Quantum Foam and SoN01R i use quantum vacuum noise to generate true random numbers. It's hacking, or tuning into, the substrate of the universe.
Reliable and unbiased random numbers are needed for a range of applications spanning from numerical modelling to cryptographic communications. It use will become more and more important in our contemporary society. For instance equations used at stock markets like the Black-Scholes equation should incorporate more noise, more randomness. That's why i developed the idea of social algorithms. Currently i am collaborating with Post-doctoral researcher Vincenzo De Florio to develop an art and science project that will demonstrate the application of such an algorithm. For the record; i am not a scientist or mathematician, but i do my best in trying to understand the big picture and specificities related to a certain research topic.
How did you go from exploring the super small to investigating the vacuum? Was it something logical for you?
I guess by getting lost, and connecting the pieces step-by-step. It's intuitive as much as logical.
One of my main sources of inspiration is the 'Powers of Ten' (1977), a cinematic scientific film essay by Charles and Ray Eames. In short; a set of pictures of two picnickers in a park, with the area of each frame one-tenth the size of the one before. Starting from a view of the entire known universe, the camera gradually zooms in until we are viewing the subatomic particles on a man's hand. I am trying to insert a less materialistic point-of-view in science by the means of art. It's not that i have a perfect marriage with science :)
You've collaborated with various research departments in universities across Europe and the United States. Which form did the collaboration take? Was this you bringing the ideas, explaining scientists exactly what you wanted them to achieve for you and then they worked in their lab behind closed door? Or do you, in some way, take a more active role in the lab processes?
Collaboration is a format, a template but at finer resolution it can take many shapes. I see also similarities but also differences in approach depending on the country etc. Sometimes it's a question, an idea or an image that pops up in my mind when confronted with scientific research that i resonate with. The next step is to get in contact with the scientist and pose your question, communicate your idea. Generally I include some reference projects so the scientist has a better idea of your approach, potential outcomes, ...but most of all that you are able to bridge the gap between art and science. This is crucial. You have to do your research and do your hours :)
In the best case i am invited for a residency, this enables me to stay for a longer time, get to know the people, daily routines but most of all getting hands on experiences and go deeper into the subject. You have to be in an ecology to understand it, get a feel of it. Blowing things up is a part of that too ;). This reminds me of Jean-Jacques Cousteau whom was asked in an interview why he blew up a part of coral reef when he was young. He answered that it was the only way to understand how a coral reef regenerates. Anyway, i wanted to produce the blackest artwork in the universe and i knew that Rice was and is the heimat of nanotechnology. In the case of developing the ''Hostage p.t.1" i went to Rice University in Texas Houston several times and collaborated with Prof. Pulickel, Robert and Daniel in the chemistry lab. They were already researching CNT's so that was a perfect match. Sometimes you have to be lucky too. The next step was to grow the array of vertical aligned CNT's uniformly and on a large enough substrate. The latter is very difficult as the ion sputtering rooms and chemical vapour depositing don't allow large samples. So for that time being we focused on creating a mosaic and going as black as we could. It's obvious that initially i was not allowed to be in the lab alone, hence i was accompanied by Daniel, a very promising scientist and entrepreneur, to help me out.
Ultimately i'm amazed at how brave you are to tackle such complex scientific fields. Science today seems to get increasingly compartmentalized with researchers specializing in various sub-disciplines. How can an artist approach these intimidating scientific fields? Is there a steep learning curve?
Forget being an artist, or pretend to be one. Be a person that is very interested in what the scientists do, be curious, make semantic connections, share you thoughts, ideas and feelings.
The more open you are the more chance you have to find like-minded people, they will help and guide you through topics that are hard to wrap your brain around. Sometimes making a sketch or drawing of the topic helps a lot. Knowing your limits is very important too.
I'm quite familiar with art and science initiatives, commissions, programmes and funding organizations in the UK but i know very little of what is at the disposal of an artist living in other European countries and wanting to work with scientists. What exists in Belgium where you live for example? Is this common for an artist to find funding and opportunities to work with research institutes?
Unfortunately our ministry of culture doesn't support yet artistic crossover with research and development. Which is a real pity. As the financial envelope for the arts becomes smaller and smaller i notice some conservative tendencies. That is very corrosive for the arts, which thrives on the niche, and is maybe a niche on itself. Stigmatising it is like stigmatising art itself. To come back to your questions; generally I am invited by a University, sometimes I co-invest myself to make the project and collaboration possible. With the University of Hasselt (UH) i have a long term commitment, this is often due to long term friendships like with Prof. Jean Manca from the UH. Currently i am also involved in some EU funded projects, most of them have a crossover DNA. Funny enough the initiative for crossover projects isn't an arts initiative but an initiative from the ministry of innovation, science and technology and Flanders DC. It's called CiCi and supports crossover projects.
More info here: http://www.flandersdc.be/en/cici-call
Also iMINDS offers an ART&D call.
More info here: http://www.iminds.be/en/research/start-a-project/artd-program
This week i'm interviewing Oliver Walker on the blog. I discovered his work a few days (or was it weeks??) ago while visiting Time & Motion: Redefining Working Life, a FACT Liverpool exhibition exploring how the working day has evolved from the time of the industrial age to our current service and knowledge economy.
Walker's One Pound installation at FACT lined up 6 videos. Each of them 'lasts as long as it takes the person depicted to earn £1, varying in length from several hours for the some of the lowest paid agricultural workers in the world, down to several seconds for well paid workers in finance, with one film little over a second long.' The idea was ultra simple and the result is striking for the way it exposes vast disparities in working patterns.
Some of his projects involved outsourcing the production of a written constitution for the UK to China and having 1,000 dolls voice it, using the price of an African financial index to control lighting in a Berlin art center, testing certain hypotheses about social behaviour in a dinner party. And building an outdoors spiral staircase for cats.
Here how my online conversation with the artist went...
Hi Oliver! Let's start with One Pound, the video installation which i discovered a few days ago in the exhibition Time & Motion in Liverpool. I've been quite unlucky in my visit because when I entered the room there was only one screen on with a man working in a field. On the other hand seeing him work all alone on his screen made the impact of the artwork even more powerful for me. Who were these 6 workers you contacted? What were their job?
For the readers who haven't seen the work, I feel I should describe it a little more. The six films are displayed on six adjacent screens, with all six starting simultaneously and not re-starting until all six have played through. This means that the shortest, one second long, plays just once every one hour and seventeen minutes (the duration of the longest). The films have a 'hours:minutes:seconds' timecode burnt into the bottom right corner, which pauses when the films end.
To the side of the 6 screens were six label-sized photographic stills from the videos, there to give the viewer a visual idea of who wasn't currently visible. I chose not, however, to include too much contextual information about the protagonists in the gallery itself, hopefully leaving some space for viewers to project their ideas and experiences about who and where they might be. Having said this, the five you missed were; someone working in a cotton processing plant (35 minutes), someone driving a digger constructing a new road (12 minutes), a carpenter (4 minutes), digital media worker (1 minute), and a CEO (1 second).
The original idea for the piece was to show it in a space in which people repeatedly spend time, such as a busy commuter platform, factory canteen or large office foyer, but this wasn't possible on this occasion. The idea would be that viewers would build up a kind of cumulative viewing of all six films. With a few minutes a day over three months, for example, a viewer would see all six films in their entirety, despite the shortest only running for one second every one hour twenty minutes.
The stills mounted adjacent to the video screens function as kind of visual labels. Between these still images and the timecode built into the videos, viewers could understand the relationship proposed by the piece between between time, money and occupation. I almost always make work that needs some basic explanation (usually text), but I'm happy if it then becomes somehow autonomous (whilst not perplexing) beyond this.
And how did you select who or which type of work would appear in your videos?
Essentially the people and jobs featured can be from any working environment, but certain criteria did develop along the way. These criteria may be quite self explanatory; they tend to be people who can be isolated for filming (though not exclusively), so those who work alone; and who I can approach fairly directly in their place of work; and people whose work you can understand visually.
After some time working on the project I also developed a kind of rationale to link all the protagonists. Although it is not explicitly mentioned in the exhibition text, this rationale is that everyone filmed is, however indirectly, related to my morning shower. So there are people working with cotton (to produce a towel), infrastructure (to get that towel to me), carpentry (to produce a bathroom door), advertising (funded by advertising on shower products), and the CEO of a company that makes shampoo. I am also interested in developing the project and filming further protagonists, perhaps for further exhibition contexts, or just to develop the work. I often considered featuring just one industry, such as coffee, and this too would have been very quotidian. However, I felt this would have then been a study of that particular industry, and it should be broader than this. The shower is something quotidian (in highly industrialised parts of the world), but still fairly unbranded, and less loaded than the tea or coffee industries which have their own histories.
Incidentally, I filmed myself first, but discarded this.
Which kind of ideas, conclusions and reflections about the labour market did working on this project trigger?
Although I started with the basic premise of wage inequality across the world, the project is not intended simply as a didactic essay on wage inequality. Clearly, it may offer reflection on these staggering inequalities, and this political position is ultimately not left ambiguous. However, the relationship between labour and money is transformed into a more subjective medium - time. Periods of time are not as easily compared with one another as pieces of graphical information, for instance. With video, the timescale is embedded into the medium (unlike photography, graphics or text).
Another way it should offer complexity is by inviting some 'cross' comparisons of inequality - between farm workers and factory workers both in the global south for example, or between well paid creative economy workers and astronomically wealthy bankers. This picks up on something I had observed over several years. On the occasions I had spent time in poorer countries (such as Paraguay), I noticed that there was a tendency to over simplify both the wealth and poverty that existed in the global south and north (though perhaps I'm doing this by using the word 'both', but bear with me).
There can be tendency to think the streets are paved with gold in Western Europe (for example), and not understand the poverty that exists in the global north too. At the same time, to try to explain for example the extent to which the National Health Service in the UK offers all people in the country, regardless of income, world class quality healthcare free at the point of delivery, might well be unimaginable to many (although this isn't confined to those from poorer countries). Likewise, growing up in western Europe, I think it was difficult to comprehend both the extreme poverty existent in developing countries (hence the TV programmes and campaigns to help us), and the extent to which everything, such infrastructure, education and government, does function much as it does in western Europe. Perhaps this is just me, because I grew up when Live Aid was rocking, though I think little has changed.
I think it's a constant struggle to understand this complexity - to keep talking about the extreme inequality and poverty that exists in poorer countries, without stereotyping. My work, not for the first time, sails close to the wind when it comes to stereotypes. I have used very simple (perhaps over simple, certainly flawed) measures, but the breadth of examples of labour, and the choice of images, should leave some space for these issues.
I had no idea that the UK is one of only three countries in the world without a written constitution. So what was the constitution you outsourced to China for the Mr Democracy project like? Standard constitution mixing other, existing constitutions? Something entirely original? A simple writing down of the laws and principles that already govern the UK?
I actually studied this in school, and have been interested in it since then. I was interested in going to China, and started, as I not infrequently do, with some pretty simple interests - in this case lightening fast economic development and the political situation in China. Fortunately, I had this moment of realising I could turn it around, and look at the UK, which I am probably in a better position to make work about. If I get the project right, both the UK and China are criticised.
The constitution is not very revolutionary, sadly, we're still a constitutional monarchy - no republic! The authors initially tried to define more or less how the UK is at the moment, and then did a few tweaks to it. It was originally written in Chinese, and a fourth colleague of theirs translated it in English. Her language register and vocabulary were great, but occasionally she slipped with a few terms - but rightly so. So an early clause starts 'The regime of the United Kingdom is...', while we normally only hear the word 'regime' to define forms of government not currently popular or viewed as democratic by western governments (or 'regimes'!). I invited the authors to refer to other constitutions when drafting the UK's, and they did, and this is common practice when constitutions are written (the US was heavily influenced by the French, for example).
I'm also interested in your experience in finding, selecting and communicating with 3 factories in China which would manufacture the dolls. Is it easy for an individual to commission a thousand dolls to a Chinese factory? Did you require any help for that?
I had never done anything like this, and in some ways China was less accessible than I thought it would be. So many products are manufactured there, yet the process of getting something made isn't easy. It involves lots of long meetings, misunderstandings, and sometimes deception. The doll itself was not commissioned for my project, but the sound chip and electronics were, and it was very unusual to have such a long sound recording - they are usually just 10 seconds, not over 10 minutes!
The British Council were helpful in finding people to help me, so I had an art student as a translator and fixer, though actually he had no more experience in finding a factory than me - he was an art historian. I also spoke a lot to a Chinese designer (Tom Shi) who had studied in the UK, and moved back to Guangzhou to start a design practice, and a family. He let me use his studio for free while I was in Guangzhou, and the two students (Sarah Yin Liu and Jackon Li Yao) helped me way beyond what any assistant should, and we're still friends.
It was all very hands on. I was not doing this in the way most business people presumably do: I visited all the factories, filmed there, and organised the shipping myself -I even went into the ports, which was fascinating.
I think the main person I worked with at the factory that installed the sound chips into the dolls was mainly just interested in meeting me, and of course I wanted to meet him too. There was a funny moment when we were sending the sound file back and forth trying to compress it for the sound chip, and after I had actually agreed to going ahead with it, he called back to tell me that one of the articles was repeated on the sound chip. It was funny to have him read it back to me, as I had always been careful to not talk about the political content of the piece, but as long as it wasn't about China, it wasn't a problem. It was also funny to hear 1000s of dolls in a Chinese factory saying 'The Constitution of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Article One...', as they were being tested.
By the way, why did you chose China and not India? because i suspect that this choice made the working process even more challenging.
China does have a different position with regard to global development than India, but India might have seemed a more obvious choice, historically. China seems more unequivocally a coming super power than India, and is much more symbolic as a place where products are manufactured. Also, the vast majority of toys in the world are made in China, (and of those a large majority in the Pearl River Delta). That China is not considered a Democracy is also important.
I was reading through the blog of the project and found this entry. Could you explain what happened here? How artworks are usually assessed at customs? What is the rule or law? And how it all ended?
When you export/import something, you use a customs agent to organise the customs for you. Mine refused to describe my dolls as artwork, because they were, well, dolls. Artworks attract a lower rate of VAT and no duty, so the difference is huge, as it's a percentage of the value. As the project was funded by the Arts Council England and supported by the British Council, I thought I had a chance of getting them through as an artwork, which of course they are.
I had direct contact with a customs officer, and she explained that Haunch of Venison were currently in a legal battle with the authorities over the import of a complete video installation (with the video equipment), while the customs were insisting it was simply technical equipment. It was a Bill Viola piece. The customs woman conditionally agreed to view my works as artwork after I emailed her photos taken in the factory with me working on the piece, because their definition revolves around working on objects by hand, pretty much ignoring two generations of contemporary art. I was quite impressed with my negotiating skills!
Now let's have a look at another of your projects, Bringing the Market Home. Why did you chose to work with the Dow Jones Africa Titans 50 index? Why select a pan-African index for an installation that was located in Europe?
The piece reverses a tendential direction of influence, with an African share index determining the operation of an aspect of everyday life in a western city, in this case Berlin. Financial markets exercise massive influence, both directly and indirectly over many people's lives over the globe, and this piece makes already existing connections physical, and immediate, while changing the direction of those influences. A blip of speculation on food prices could make a crop unaffordable for thousands of people in one country or region: in this piece, that process is reversed, making financial indicators from Africa ('the 50 leading companies that are headquartered or generate the majority of their revenues in Africa') tangible (cutting the house lighting of the HKW, House of World Cultures, Berlin) in a western city.
Was it on 24/7? Or does the Dow Jones follows 9-to-5 type working schedules?
Yes, it ran 24/7. The first time we got it working it was two in the morning, and we didn't know if the index would be shifting, but it was! We spent ages trying to work out which indices would be working when, but in the end the stocks are traded on multiple exchanges across the world, so several of the indices can change for most of the day, although there are periods when no exchange is open.
So what was the impact that this connection with the DJAT50 had on the lighting circuit in a corridor? Was the light constantly on and off? Or were fluctuations slower to manifest themselves?
Essentially it's pretty erratic. It is read every 30 seconds, and we didn't analyse the data explicitly, but it changes fairly often - sometimes five times in a row, sometimes remaining off for five minutes. This worked well performatively - sometimes meaning viewers didn't notice that there was any change to the system, and then suddenly asking themselves what was happening, why the lights weren't working. This was an important consideration of the project (that you can't see from the documentation) - I really wanted it to be something that was installed in the existing space, that people noticed and asked themselves why this was happening, rather than an autonomous object that people were invited to look at.
Any upcoming project, event, field of research you'd like to share with us?
I'd like to continue working on the One Pound project and Dinner Party. I've also been looking at the relationship between money and happiness, which I started looking at on residency in Paris at the Cité des Arts. I think inequality, mighty fascinating as it is, will come up again soon too, though I don't know how at the moment.
You can see Oliver Walker's video installation One Pound at the exhibition Time & Motion: Redefining Working Life, at FACT in Liverpool until Sunday 9 March 2014.