Ruben Pater is, imho, one of the 10 most interesting designers to follow at the moment. You might have encountered his name already. He's behind the Drone Survival Guide that enables anyone to spot and recognize the most commonly used drones. More interestingly, the guide also provides information on how to hack, hides from and dazzle the machines. The guide has been translated in dozens of languages and can be downloaded over here.
Pater has a mission to create visual narratives about complex political issues. He is not only interested in flying machines of death but also in disaster floods caused by global warming, Dutch sweets that evoke everyday racism, fishermen vs oil tankers, citizen journalism in countries with censorship, digital surveillance, etc. Any complex issue that grabs his attention is turned into an impeccably well-researched, elegantly designed and intelligently communicated work. His calls his projects 'untold stories' because of the way they weave new connections between journalism and design.
Pater studied graphic design in Breda, and later at the graphic design master programme of the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam. He is exhibiting his work, lecturing internationally and is teaching at the communication department of the Design Academy in Eindhoven, at the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam and also at the Royal Academy of Art (KABK) in the Hague. I'm glad he has accepted to answer my questions:
Hi Ruben! You create visual narratives about complex political issues. Why do you think it is important that design approaches political topics? And why do you feel that design is an adequate medium for public discussion?
Discussing topics of political or public interest happens everywhere. Whether we categorize it as art, journalism, or film is not really relevant. The label of design works for me because designing visual communication means creating a dialogue beyond your immediate reach, and therefore a work can only achieve its goal when it reaches an wide audience. When addressing issues which are of public interest, this is for me an important aspect of a work. The nature of (graphic) design expects designers to be empathetic towards a diverse audience, because their clients are different all the time, and so is the receiver of the message. That skill gives designers the potency of have a more meaningful role in communicating the important issues of our time to a larger audience.
I was particularly fascinated by the project Behind the Blue Screen, an experiment in 'sneaker journalism' that you developed with the help of director Jaap van Heusden and the complicity of people living in Iran. What can we, as European, learn from the stories and tactics of the people who shared their stories for the project?
My ideas about Iran have definitely changed, not in the least because news coverage on Iran is so one-dimensional and hyperbolic. Through watching more than 100 video stories, my image of Iran has become much more nuanced.
It's funny that the more you learn about another culture, the more you learn about your own. For instance with media censorship, we tend to rate Western Europe as much more 'free' than a country like Iran. This is true in the sense of journalists being jailed and the internet being restricted. But in Western Europe we have a different kind of self-censorship which is equally invasive. Our dominant ideology of multinational capitalism with Christian values is hardly questioned. Although it is criticized in the margins, the media reaffirms this ideology and promotes it actively through its advertisements and reporting. We do not even regard it as propaganda anymore, but as a simple fact.
The question is if it is really that much different than the way the media is controlled in a country like Iran, where there are blogs and underground media that pose opposite and alternative views.
And more generally, do you feel that we might also want to watch our back and worry about surveillance?
Always watch your back, or in this case, your browser.
Your page about Double Standards of Somali Piracy is a fascinating and very informative read. Could you give us more details about the work you did with the flags? Explaining the choices you made when you transformed them?
If we send warships and soldiers to protect a national maritime fleet far away, that is an act of war by a sovereign state. When this merchant fleet has sold its nationality in favor of 'cheap' nationalities like Panama or the Bahamas to dodge taxes and underpay its workers, this stands in stark contrast to the military sent to protect them. This paradoxical reality of global capitalism is something that I felt was best visualized by buying all these flags and cutting them up by hand. By violating these national symbols, I felt like this was more appropriate representation then when I would create new flags, or new realities.
Double Standards of Somali Piracy was developed in 2012. Do you still follow the issue? Has the situation much evolved since you last worked on it?
Recently I worked with a filmmaker on a documentary about Double Standards. That was challenging because piracy around Somalia has basically disappeared almost completely since then, and when something is not in the news, people simply lose interest. Even though Somalia still has many problems, and the illegality and problems in the shipping industry remain. I think a follow-up on the project would focus more on life of crews that work in the maritime industry, who are basically doing slave labor for super-rich shipping tycoons.
And similarly, i was wondering whether you were 'haunted' by the projects once you've finished them? Do you keep on following closely the news or do you rather dive head down into the next project and try not to be too distracted?
A consequence of the way I work is that I have to keep track of the news happening on different topics. There are dozens of 'sleeping topics' that are not projects yet but are waiting for an opportunity. They could turn into a project, or not, so I need to keep collecting information on them.
You trained as a graphic designer but i noticed that you also write a lot. Each of your project is detailed in a long essay. So how do you keep the balance between text and graphic design? Do you feel that a project like Twenty-first Century Birdwatching, for example, can be fully understood without the text? Just by looking at the Guide with the bird silhouette?
18 months ago someone asked me to write an essay about the Drone Survival Guide, and I decided to do that with all my larger projects. It complements my work because it pushes me to reflect on the context beyond its immediate effect. I think during a design process many interesting things happen that are as interesting as the result, even if they are invisible in the end. I try to avoid using the essay to inflate my work, just to as an invitation to the reader in the way I work. That gives me parameters. When projects are too small for an essay format, they do not go on my website. Outside of the website, all of my works are meant to function without any additional text, especially in the case of the Drone Survival Guide. All my projects should work without explanation, although sometimes that turns out to be more difficult than others, for instance my Double Standards project which needs a bit more time from the viewer.
I'm from Belgium so i immediately connected with your work A Taste of Dutch Colonialism. Both our countries are quite fond of Zwarte Piet. I grew up with that figure and never thought much about it until i found myself in Eindhoven in early December and saw how shocked artists from other countries were when they met blond people dressed as Zwarte Piet in the streets. How did people reacted to your work about Dutch Sweets? Do you feel that our cultures are ready to leave behind all these traditions based on old (and embarrassing) racial stereotypes?
Currently the colonial heritage of 'Zwart Piet' is heavily debated in Holland. It is shameful to see that so many people, including the Dutch prime minister, do not understand even the most rudimentary concept of racism. In general, what we need is a better understanding of our colonial past in Western European countries, and we are still far away from that. Dutch Sweets, and the book I am writing now about design in different cultures, hopefully help this discussion forward. I am hopeful for the future because there are some very brave artists, activists, and writers out there who are at the forefront of this civil rights protest and their numbers are growing. Now they are threatened, arrested, and ridiculed, but I am certain they will eventually be recognized as heroes.
You are teaching at the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam and will also be lecturing at the Royal Academy of Art (KABK) in the Hague. What are you teaching there? Does it relate to your attempts to narrate geopolitical issues? What are you teaching there? Does it relate to your attempts to narrate geopolitical issues?
As a teacher I try to ask students to think about how their work relates to the political and social realities. It is not that they have to make work about political subjects, or become politically active, I want them to realize all the choices they make are political, whether they intended it or not. With the research of my new book that is coming out next year, I am getting more into postcolonialism and designing across cultures. This element of graphic design is often overlooked. I would like students to think about hidden cultural contexts of their work and how they can communicate to different audiences, not just their peers.
I think design has the tendency to become entertainment for the elite; expensive, exclusive, and abstract. Designers will be taken more seriously if they reach a wider audience, and become more inclusive.
What are the 'untold stories' that you think deserve to be told at the moment?
There are so many interesting and important topics, but unfortunately my time is limited. I soon hope to start working on a project about a more humanistic representation of cyberwar, which is still not available. Even though it is talked about a lot, it is always visualized in the same visual vocabulary security nerddom and military propaganda. Another topic is the role of raw materials in our economy as an literal and metaphoric underground foundation of our capitalist system. Thirdly Data discrimination. It is already being discussed quite widely, but nonetheless a very important topic, perhaps one of the most important topics of the coming years.
Moritz Simon Geist is a classical musician and a robotics engineer who builds his own musical instruments and seems to genuinely and tirelessly have fun in the process. The most famous of his creations is the MR-808, an oversized replica of the TR-808 produced by Roland to reproduce drum sounds. This 1980s electronic drum machine imitated the drum so inadequately that it actually created its own sound. The distinctive 'thump thump' became an integral part of hip hop music, gained iconic status with Marvin Gaye's Sexual Healing and reached such a cult position within the music industry that even Kayne West paid tribute to the machine in his hit album 808s and Heartbreak.
Geist's TR-808 opens up MR-808's guts and allows us to see how the sounds are mechanically produced. The installation recreates 11 sounds of the TR-808 using mechanical actuators and physical tone generators and displays them inside an oversized wooden replica of the original instrument.
The artist went further with the installation MR-808 Interactive that invites the audience to collectively program the instrument using a touchpad.
His most intriguing creation however is probably the Glitch Robot which uses small robots to move, beat, hit and produce acoustic sounds, emphasizing thus the origin of the sound in a way no conventional medium of electronic music production is able to.
Moritz Simon Geist and his Sonic Robots will be performing at the Rokolective festival in Bucharest on 11th and 12th of September. The weekend of performances is part of SHAPE, a European platform for innovative music and audiovisual art. I thought i'd take the event as an excuse to get in touch with the artist and discover more about his robots, ambitions and passions:
Hi Moritz! First, i've got to ask about the Roland TR-808. What attracted you to the instrument and made you want to develop a work based on it? Did you have one before making robots, for example?
Unfortunately, I never owned an 808, although it was invented in the year of my birth! I started dealing with electronics and robotics when I was quiet young. I started playing guitar at 14 and building my own guitar effects. From there I somehow got to robotics - now you would call it sound art - hacking the vinyl and tape recorder of my parents (the were not amused!). Years later I continued with robotic sound experiments. And then one day - I suppose it was in a bar or under the shower - I had the idea to give all these experiments a "frame" and to take the most famous drum machine of all time was kind of obvious after that. Actually during the building process I was obsessed for some time that somebody might come up with that project before me. Well .. it didn't so happen, maybe the idea wasn't that SO obvious.
You are a musician and the musical instruments you create are visually very striking. They are both elegant and playful. What guides the aesthetically choices you make while developing a new machine? And how important is the visual aspect of the robot?
I never studied Design or Arts, so in the beginning I wasn't used to all these fancy design processes, mood boards and the like, and I did most of it just by "well-that feels good / that doesn't".
Still the visual aspect is probably 50% of music robots. If an art piece doesn't convince visually, it loses a lot of its power. People can get an "image" so much easier, where you would need five sentences in text to describe the idea, and attention is the most hard-fought currency.
One might have the best concept and the best idea but in the end it needs an image to get that direct contact to the audience' attention. So design is definitely super important.
When I start building a new machine I try to get an overall picture of what I want. In general in robotics big movements are good. You can see something good when it's moving a lot. But on the other hand this is the most difficult to do - big motors, heavy equipment, long latencies. So you ask yourself: How shall it look like on stage? How can I videotape it? What time shall it refer too (70s, retro futurism, steam punk ..)? Then you can get example pictures and you get an overall idea of how things shall be and you start to design.
Still, in the end, time always runs out and you are hunted by pragmatism, leaving all your design aspects aside. Music Robotics is such a big field - mechanics, electronics, programming, music - so all theses things come before the design when the piece has to be released in two weeks.
I'm very intrigued by MR-808 interactive where the MR-808 is programmed live by the audience. Could you tell us how it works? How can people collaboratively control a robot drum machine without the whole experience turning in to a cacophony?
The idea is that you can make a rhythm (with a step sequencer). But you don't do it alone, it's an open system where everybody can collaborate. Like GoogleDocs for music. Let's jam together - on a big drum robot! Actually you could drive any drum computer with this system it doesn't have to be the MR-808.
Technically speaking its a Node.js server which renders a website that interacts with a SuperCollider Sequencer which spits out midi. We are big fans of open source, you can find the code here https://github.com/Sonicrobots/MR-808
In theory you can interact with as many people as you like. But at our exhibitions only 2 people can play with the robot. For a good reason: Once, I was working with an art group and they developed a simple sketch board where you can write and paint stuff with a projector and it gets displayed in public. We let the people paint for hours, but after less than one hour somebody always would write something obscene of offensive. We called that "Mean Time To Dick". Roughly 30 minutes. So this always happens. Call it cacophony or Media arts vandalism. If you are standing beside the installation for 2-3h you will see that it moves like a wave: at one hour people create something beautiful, then a small group comes in and it gets totally annoying. Than beautiful again.
So in MR-808 interactive, the robot does the music, the audience controls it. What's your role in there?
Actually - yes! There is not much to do but explaining and fixing if something is broken. And that's actually the idea with robots isn't it? They shall do the work, not me!
I was reading in your bio that you are giving talks about the progression of robotics and society. So what's your take on the role that robots will play in our society? nowadays they seem to be used mostly in entertainment or industrial contexts.
Actually, the progression in the field of artificial intelligence and machine learning (the "brain" of robotics) is quite fast these days. Google bought several robotic and robot intelligence companies including DeepMind and BostonDynamics, which resulted in fascinating to frightening results. The singularity (when machines reach the consciousness of humans) might be decades away, but a lot of steps have already been taken. You can take random science fiction literature to conceive how the world would look then. Maybe its a dystopia - or humanity will finally listen, when big machines tells them to stop the suicidal party we are currently holding on our planet.
I don't associate robots with fallibility. I thought they were supposed to perform simple tasks impeccably. Yet, you say that with your robots you are interested in introducing more "error" into the music. Could you comment on that? Why are errors so fascinating to you?
And could you give us some example of these errors that the robots made that surprised, inspired or delighted you? (if that's possible to explain in words!)
That's many questions! One big topic is that industrial robots cannot be compared with the "experimental" DIY robots that I am building. Industrial robots are good and well tested and rarely fail. Experimental robots are - experimental! They do stuff you don't plan them to do. They are not tested. They are hacked together from trash and kitchen equipment.
It appears when you play with them. The robotic stick doesn't always hit in the right moment - like a drunken drummer. The piezo microfon moves and suddenly you have a crazy humming on the record. You have sudden and unexpected sound crosstalk. If you play two instruments at a same time a third one will trigger because the electronics is acting weird. A midi note hangs and the whole system is skipping or looping for one second. It's not predictable.
And this is one of the things that I like: Digital art (digital music) is predictable and well calculated. Music robots aren't. The concept behind this is, that if you have a predefined and strict set of creative tools and functions it always gets you to the same result.
Which artists or figures from the music, robotics or art worlds do you find inspiring?
I really adore the work of Julian Oliver. His artistic and theoretic concepts make so much sense together and I am a big fan of the Critical Engineering manifesto. For some time I was also a big fan of Bre Pettis (Founder of makerbot) but he really disappointed everybody, including me. Apart from that - of course - my friends Andi and Jan from Mouse On Mars who taught me a lot about bass, error and how to deal with sound and the mystery of sound in general. Wizard geniuses, both of them!
You are going to participate to Rokolectiv festival in Bucharest this September. What will you be performing/showing there?
I will perform with the MR-808 Robot and some hacked music gear like a game boy and some modded and self build sound sculptures. We have the interactive MR-808 installations but initially it was meant to be an instrument on stage.
Don't miss Moritz Simon Geist from Sonic Robots at the Rokolective festival which will take place inside the Halele Carol former power station in Bucharest on 11th and 12th of September. The event is part of SHAPE, a dynamic European platform for innovative music and audiovisual art.
Along with Geist's presentation and performance, the festival will also feature sound performances and DJ sets by Raze de Soare, Lorenzo Senni, Sergiu Doroftei, Low Jack, DJ Nigga Fox, RSS Boys, Borusiade and Cote.
More photos of Sonic Robots in action on flickr.
I've been dreaming of interviewing The Center for Tactical Magic ever since i read about the existence of this activist art collective in one of my favourite art catalogues ever: The Interventionists. Users' Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life.
Lucky me, last week, i finally got to talk over Skype with Aaron Gach, the founder of the Center for Tactical Magic and a professor at the California College of the Arts. Gach is an artist with the most unusual background. As part of his artistic training, he decided to study with 3 people who have their own understanding of power: a magician, a ninja, and a private investigator and there is a bit of the strategies deployed by each of these figures in the work of the CTM. The work of the group is further enriched by the expertise brought about by the individuals and communities CTM collaborates with: hypnotists, biologists, engineers, nurses, military intelligence officers, radical ecologists, former bank robbers, security experts, etc.
The Center for Tactical Magic uses any craft and scheme available, from the most magical to the most pragmatic, to address issues of power relations and self-empowerment. At the CTM we are committed to achieving the Great Work of Tactical Magic through community-based projects, daily interdiction, and the activation of latent energies toward positive social transformation.
CTM's work combines appealing aesthetics, humour and language with actions that invite people to think, question and reclaim their civil rights. Their most famous project is the Tactical Ice Cream Unit, a truck distributing free ice cream along with propaganda developed by local progressive groups. Another of their initiative saw them launch a bank heist contest. And a year before that, they responded to New York's stop-and-frisk policy by screening Linking & Unlinking on a digital billboard in Manhattan. The billboard showed amateur footage demonstrating how to pick a pair of handcuffs, magicians performing a classic magic trick called "linking rings", while a text from the American Civil Liberties Union was scrolling down and explaining passersby what their rights were if they were stopped by the police. In 2013, they set up big Witches' Cradles that evoke the Inquisition and enveloped people into an altered state (of consciousness, or an altered political state). Most recently, Gach directed and performed a radical magic show which drew parallels between magic acts and contemporary issues such as economic manipulation, political deception, vanishing resources, and social transformation.
Hi Aaron! The Tactical Ice Cream Unit is probably one of my favorite works ever. I first heard about it almost 10 years ago. The vehicle combines 'a number of successful activist strategies (Food-Not-Bombs, Copwatch, Indymedia, infoshops, etc) into one mega-mobile", and comes with high-tech surveillance devices. Are you still using it?
Yes, still using it! Not as much as when it was launched but it does still make it out occasionally. So it's definitely not an everyday operation, it's kind of a labour of love.
When do you use it? When there's something happening and you feel it would be right to intervene? Or more when you're invited by a museum or festival for example?
All of the above. Sometimes it's an invitation to do something with it. Sometimes there's an event happening or an issue where it seems like it would make sense to bring it out.
Recently, and for the first time, there was a protest event where i actually felt like it was inappropriate to bring it out. We've been having a lot of racial tensions in the U.S. and there were a number of protests in Oakland around police brutality. We've done police accountability protests with the Tactical Ice Cream Unit in the past. The TICU always brings with it a sort of levity or lightheartedness or a little bit of the carnival along with the serious critique. But because of how grave and serious these racial issues are, there was a sense that bringing the ice cream unit out to those protests could potentially give the wrong impression.
Have you found that you had to update or modify in any way your tools and strategies over the 10 years you've had the van?
Of course a lot has changed since we've launched it. At the end of 2004, there were not many mobile food trucks, it was not really a phenomenon at the time. The TICU turned heads a lot more than it does now in terms of its general appearance. But at the same time it also functions now as some kind of camouflage that didn't exist then. So in terms of masking ourselves, in some ways it got easier since it makes less of a visual impact.
As for the technology, when we first launched it we were using a mobile wifi transmitter and making it a mobile wifi hotspot. At the time, it wasn't that common at all. It was also expensive to do and it worked most of the time but the speeds for access were really slow. Most people now have access to the internet on their smartphone. The surveillance on the vehicle is still functional and the amount that we can record has increased. In the beginning, our whole hard drive system was something like 200 gigabytes and that has certainly grown. Even then, the way that we had the system up made it possible to record quite a lot. We had to do a tremendous amount of research to set up the power system. The vehicle was running on a gasoline combustion engine. We also had a generator, a battery bank that was being charged by solar panels and at the same time we were running something called phantom power which is a way of silently powering the electronics. This was essential because we wanted to make sure that the surveillance could be running even when the vehicle was turned off. This was more done as a theoretical design process, we wanted to see whether we could accomplish that goal. And there had been rumours floating around the internet of primarily military technologies that were able to do this and sure enough we were able to work with an engineer and designer whose main clients were the military and oil companies. Oil companies would run phantom power at remote sites where they didn't have power lines but they wanted to monitor oil fields. So we designed a system able to do that too for the vehicle. What is interesting is that, when we were in Indiana, the police illegally searched the TIU without our knowledge and they were caught on camera doing that. They didn't know it because the vehicle was turned off and there was no indication that there was power running.
Did you do something about it?
At the time we contacted lawyers and asked what we could do about it but they informed us that there wasn't much that we could do. We thought about publicizing the video footage. But at the time the TICU wasn't heavily used and we thought that making that footage available would potentially prevent that capability being used in the future. We didn't do much with it, it's in the archive. Maybe at some point, we'll break it out.
The ice cream truck driver hands out 'food for thoughts' leaflets along with the ice creams. What kind of 'propaganda flavors' can customers chose from? What's the content of the leaflets? Is it always the same or does it adapt to the events?
It changes all the time. At this point, we've distributed 200 to 250 different pieces of information. Some of it we select or curate. And some of it is selected by the organizations that contact us and send us material to distribute. The idea with leaflets was, on the one hand, to look at models of distribution that exist in community activism, models of distribution where people come together and act on campaigns that they might otherwise not hear or read about. On the other hand, we were looking at the structure of distribution. People are often reluctant to take a leaflet from an activist who is standing in front of them but there are different ways to get people to accept the information. For example, if you go to a restaurant, and you get handed a menu, you don't resent the waiter for asking you to make a selection. You tend not to select in the menu an item that you are put off by. You look at the options and decide on something that is appealing to you. So we were thinking of the menu as a structure for distribution as well. Our 'propaganda' menu exists side by side with different flavours of ice cream and people can pick and choose. There is no direct correlation between a chocolate ice cream and anarchism, for example. People can mix and match what flavours they want. The actual topics of information found on the leaflets go from alternative energy to guerrilla gardening to social justice, to gender justice, to war, war on poverty, class issues, feminism, post-feminism, etc. We also have a few historical items such as the Black Panthers Ten Point Plan. And we have information that is specifically created for children about Greenpeace, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, civil liberties, surveillance, etc. It's a huge range of information.
Of course, i have to ask you about magic. I always dismissed the magic dimension of your work simply because i don't take magic seriously at all. But i realize that you do take magic seriously. Reading your interviews, i found that you are not only well versed in magic but you are also very specific about it. You said in an interview with the Center for Artistic Activism: "I'm definitely situated within the spectrum of stage magic and theatrical performance on one end, and occult and metaphysics, kind of ritual magic, supernatural phenomena on the other end." That surprised me because words like 'occult', 'ritual' and 'supernatural' are a bit dark, aren't they? How does occultism for example apply to your artistic practice? And can i engage with your work while keeping on ignoring any reference to magic?
I hope so. I think one of the strategies and challenges when building this kind of work is to always incorporate multiple points of access. Within the work, there has to be different moments that appeal to different people. We're trying to develop projects that are multilayered so magic itself itself exists at multiple levels. What i mean by that is that everyone understands that word 'magic' but they imagine completely different things when they hear the word 'magic.' We use the same language and assume an understanding but this understanding is vastly different on a subjective level and you can even add on a collective subjective level. When we use the term 'magic' both in the name and the realization of a project, there is a realization that there is going to be an explosion of meanings and at the same time a sort of dismissal. This dismissal is historically a way in which magic sometimes alienates itself, sometimes protects itself, sometimes separates itself and that can be as a survival strategy, as an escapist notion, etc. But i think that's where the power of that idea of magic exists.
In the Center for Tactical Magic, there is usually a concerted effort to try and balance out or explore the range of possibilities which typically get book ended between tricks on the one hand and some degree of spirituality on the other hand. When i began this investigation, my thinking was that magic existed only as tricks as a stage magician. The magician i worked with felt very differently. He thought that his understanding of illusionist magic would help in differentiating between the spookier sides of magic. And that opened up a lot of different interpretations and possibilities for me. Since then that exploration has become pivotal within the development for the Center for Tactical Magic.
How was it pivotal?
What i mean by that is that it seems like a fixed position from which you can rotate in any direction. From a position of acting, it means that you have multiple options and directions that you can move from. It's a formal strategy, it's a discursive strategy, it's also a performative strategy for acting in the world. And some of that is informed by studying within martial arts where i learnt that you don't ever want to be stuck in a place where your options are very limited. For me it's not about being ambiguous or evasive just for the sake of being ambiguous or evasive. But you open up options, different ways of addressing an issue, a topic, an event or a situation as it is unfolding.
I'd like to go back to the darker side of magic. In the interview mentioned above you talk about occultism. Does it apply to your practice?
The word 'occult' literally means 'hidden.' When we think about what is hidden then all of a sudden what we might consider occult enters into that same conversation. So we look at things like military black budgets, or laws that are not transparent in terms of how they affect people's life. Or even the degree to which we understand technologies or how technologies operate or function, both in a physical sense -what is exactly happening inside the phone mechanically or electronically- but also in the sense of how does the functioning of a technology impacts us in ways that we don't see. And this can include things like the fact that it relies on invisible signals, it relies on the electromagnetic spectrum which our eyes cannot detect without other devices. But it also determines our social relations or economic relations because it impacts the way we communicate. Once we are open to those associations, we start to backtrack and look at how the history of occultism is very directly tied to our present condition. What i mean by that is the history of occultism is not simply people behaving in 'dark ways'. You need to banish this false dichotomy of light and dark, good and evil. There are certainly colonial overtones to that association of dark as evil and making those connections simplifies what it is that we are talking about. Most of the claims historically of occultism in a huge varieties of areas is -to one degree or another- about empowerment and i think in 'darker' instances, empowerment means power over others but in the more positive instances, it also means communal power or coming to power together, or avoiding situations where abuse of power by others is taking place.
How can we bring more magic to our life? And should we?
I would go back one moment and say: i think you should take magic seriously but also not too seriously. I would say the same thing about government business. I think you should take government and business seriously but also not too seriously?
Why not too seriously?
I think because you have to approach it critically. You have to approach it rigorously. You have to be engaged.
There is also power in play. There is magic that happens when you approach something with a degree of levity, with this idea that there are rules to any game. And once you understand the game, there are ways to bend those rules or figure out how to interact in ways that might be unexpected. So it's not that we dismiss corporations or governments or that we disregard their power in the world but at the same time, if we take them too seriously and only too seriously we miss out on opportunities to subvert or circumvent what it is that they are doing in the world.
Maybe the shorter version would be to say that i think government and corporations are invested in shaping reality and shaping reality is an inherently creative process and playing is also a way to engaging creative process to shape alternative realities.
But let's get back to your earlier question which was about making the world more magical. I understand that when we develop projects that are magic related, people might be dismissive towards either that name 'magic' or the idea of magic. It is sometimes a barrier to entry but the hope is also that once people realize that their assumptions were false or misguided or oversimplified, there is an opening up in terms of what the possibilities are. Magic is all about constantly redirecting people's assumptions or perceptions about the world. So one thing you can do to have a magical outlook is to always question things like use value, status quo, associations for either materials or relationships and realize they are not fixed. Once you understand the ability to morph those relationships or associations, all of a sudden everything starts to become more magical.
The Center for Tactical Magic seems to be quite successful at engaging the audience, at making them part of the experiences. Including people who might otherwise not be particularly responsive to the kind of social, political or economical issues your projects raise. How do you manage that? Are there some rules? Special tricks?
We use a pop aesthetic at times and we try and draw from cultural themes and expressions that people can relate to but there is this uncanny element to all the projects: people will see something that they are familiar with but presented in an unfamiliar way. In that moment, a recalibration takes place, people start to consider their understanding of the familiar part with respect to the unfamiliar part. When it's done really well, it forces new cognitive categories to form. All of a sudden people have to create a new category and if that new category is potent enough it will also infect all future associations.
To go back to the Ice Cream Unit for example, people understand ice cream truck and they understand propaganda but when they have the two things together, it changes their associations with both and in the future there is a moment where they encounter another ice cream truck or another model of distribution and it will connect back to the experience that they had with the TICU and potentially it informs their future relations to other things that are connected. Maybe that is expecting too much from a project but that's the hope in the way these projects are constructed.
Most of the work of the Center is quite political. Have you ever faced any legal retaliation? or problems with the police? for the Linking & Unlinking - Know Your Rights screening, for example? Or for any other work?
It happens on a semi regular basis. There haven't been huge entanglement. Knock on wood! Most of the time, it's some sort of confrontation and it usually more or less resolves itself quietly. There was a standoff with the police with the TICU in Vancouver, Canada, that lasted quite a long time. With the Cricket-Activated Defense System, there were some interesting correspondence, communications and interviews that seemed to come from law enforcement. Strangely enough, the police tried to prevent the kite project (that we did at Huntington Beach in California) from happening and when it did happen they flew a helicopter over the event to monitor it.
It happens from time to time but we do consult with lawyers around our projects, we are generally pretty good at making sure that the conversation with law enforcement doesn't get us into hotter water than need be. I'm trying to be very careful with my language there. There have been some tough times. There's been some times when we have attracted attention that was problematic.
So you're not actively encouraging confrontation or censorship as a part of your artistic strategy? As a way to generate more attention about a given issue?
No. Projects that court confrontation often strengthen polemic and thinking in those binary systems. Even in projects where we are addressing things like police and protester dynamics, we are not trying to diffuse those situations, we are trying to figure out the approach or the position from which you can have the most productive outcome. A confrontation where you are doing something potentially illegal and then you get a police response does not produce a ripple through a greater discourse. What might become a productive moment is when someone is actually practicing their civil or legal rights within a certain context and that person makes visible the power dynamics that might suppress those rights.
I'm curious about The Light & Dark Arts: A Radical Magic Show that ended a few weeks ago at UC Davis' Main Theater. What was the show like?
It was the first time that i had ever worked into a theatre context. I was writing and directing. Two weeks before the first show, the lead actor broke his hand. He happened to be a student that i was training as a magician. I ended up having to step in as the lead, as the magician. I ended up writing, directing and acting for this first theatre production. So it was unexpected and a bit wild but the audience response was fantastic. People seemed to love it.
Any other upcoming works, research, events you'd like to share with us?
There's two shows coming up. One is an art show in New Mexico that is specifically oriented around the police state and surveillance. And then there's an event in Atlanta, Georgia. A public arts festival with tens of thousands of people that come out for a single night event. We have a new project in the works for that event but it's still very much in development.
Aernoudt Jacobs is an artist fascinated with sound in all its forms and possible expressions. He collects fields recordings around the world but he also creates installations based on Bell's photoacoustic effect that reveals the sonority of any material hit with a strong beam of light, builds sound microscope that magnifies the freezing and melting process of water or suspends coils, magnets and 1000 tin cans into the air to play with the laws of electromagnetic induction and generate tiny vibrations that produce sounds. It is as if everything in the visible and the invisible world provides him with endless opportunities for sound exploration.
Like most of his other installations, Jacob's latest work is half scientific experiment, half art piece. It involves using a membrane made of electroactive polymers as a sort of "living" speaker to autonomously manipulate the playback of a recording he made in a Romanian forest. Which might sound a bit confusing in words but gets instantly clearer if you take a look at the video that documents it:
Under their peaceful, impeccably engineered and elegant appearances, Jacob's installations evoke phenomena that pertain to perception, psychoacoustics, physics and scientific processes. Alluring as they are on youtube and on the pages of his website, his works gain all their dimensions when experienced in situ. Sadly, i never got that chance. Hence my desire to interview the artist:
Hi Aernoudt! I was expecting you to have trained as an artist or musician but i discovered in your bio that you studied Architecture in St. Lukas Ghent. How did you get to go from architecture to sound? How is your architectural training helping you approach your work with sound?
First there was sound/music then I discovered architecture and after that I came back to music/sound again in a professional way. Sound never really left me. I needed more freedom, the kind of freedom you rarely find in architecture. I left the studies after 4 years because real creativity is only a very small part of the job. Anyway that is how I perceived it. But the study itself is extremely broad and it gives a lot of insight. So I never build anything, I did a few years of assistance.
In a way, making sounds/installation is a very architectural process. And a lot of elements of the studies just came back in my actual work (like technological research, using 3D software, material science, philosophy, anthropology, ...) I'm very glad with that background. I just regret that the aspects of acoustics in architecture or even aural architecture was not developed at all in the courses at that time. I think my path would have been completely different if I would have started the studies today. I hear and read that a lot has changed in this regard. Also much more research and publications have been done in the field of building acoustics. There has been an exponential increase in knowledge during last 25 years. And still yet too many buildings have awful acoustics, even spaces where acoustics should be a primordial preoccupation.
There is no sound without space, that is the link between sound and architecture. And I think it is also the main reason why you find a lot of composers who studied architecture.
You are sound artist. But your installations are visually very elegant. Could you talk to us about the visual aspect of your work? How important is it to you? And how does it complement the sound work?
I am an artist that works primarily with the medium of sound. The seed of any work starts with a sonic aspect, and so to speak it progresses from that in a visual way. In general I never disconnect the sonic from the visual in my installations. They are always in tandem. Only a few times I was commissioned to make a 'speaker or headphone' installation because of certain limiting situations (like a public space or imposed infrastructure, ...) and even then the sound was indirectly evoking images.
The visual is also quite important because I tend to work on the transition between what you hear and what you see. The visual is a kind of an interface that brings the medium into motion, into the space, or into something that you can listen to. This interface can be highly technological because I am interested in phenomena, science, experimentation. Or it can be low-fi because I'm an autodidact mostly interested in carrying out research by myself, interested in the first hand experiences of phenomena. In fact, I see it a bit of prolongation of my field recording work where I hunt for sounds or when I try to grasp the origins of sounds.
A couple of your works investigate the photoacoustic effect, a discovery made by Alexander Graham Bell. The technique consisted in creating sound by exposing certain materials to focused beams of light. Light creating sound! That's pretty fascinating. Do you know if there are applications of this effect in non-artistic contexts? Have you ever dreamt of everyday life applications of the photoacoustic effect?
Actually there are a couple of applications that came from Bell's photoacoustic research: fiber-optic communication and the CD player. But those inventions came only definitively through many years later when lasers were invented.
I was reading the description of The Photophon Principle. It says that with the work you were trying to provide a certain kind of musicality: "but in the form of an installation, not of a playable instrument". Why was it important to underline that this is not about making music?
The research around the photoacoustic effect has multiple facets. And at that stage of writing I was primarily interested in presenting a work about a transformation process. Making a composition would ruin the perception of that installation. But just recently I had to make acoustic measurements on Photophon in an anechoic chamber. It would be very interesting to develop a composition in these conditions, then I would definitely treat it as an instrument. Sonically I was very much triggered by the digital sound that Photophon produces.
Making installation work or making a compositions are very different things. A composition is final once it has been published. It has a definite time factor. An installation is not. It is more flexible and it can evolve according to a different factors (space, situation, time, perceptive scope of the visitor, process of development). An installation will never be presented the same way twice.
Do you think it is best to understand the techy/scientific background of some of your pieces to appreciate them? Or can they be enjoyed purely for their sound and the experience they transmit?
The sound and the research of perception in my installations are certainly more important than the technology they use. That said the installations are part of a long process, I'm not interested in hiding completely the technology either. Technology and knowledge is a medium, it is a tool for research.
It also depends on what or how I want to present something. It is more a matter of focus.
Could you tell us about Overtoon which you co-direct with Christoph De Boeck? The objective of this platform and production facility is to 'support artists and give new impulses to the field of sound and media art.' How do you do that? I thought it was already difficult for young artists to support themselves so how do you manage to help other artists as well? And which kind of support do you provide them with?
Overtoon operates since 2013 as a platform for sound art and media art with a strong connection to sound. The platform has major a focus on production, research, residencies, distribution, sharing. Overtoon gives the possibility to develop further our own works, and it also offers yearly long-term residencies to artists with the aim to produce their works; they can also participate in our structure and benefit fully from our facilities. We are currently situated in a high-rise in the centre of Brussels.
They get a studio for one year and can work at their own pace on a specific production that we agreed on. During that year we follow-up the process, we hold regular meetings and we look out for possible partners or presentations. On a parallel level, Overtoon is also supporting the ongoing experiments of other artists; this is more short-time (weeks to couple of months) and depends mostly on request we get and the spaces we have available.
Besides this we organise lectures or presentation relating to the works we produce but it can also be anything touching the field of sound art (producing, presenting, curating, research, science, networks, history, expertise, future developments, ...) In the frame of the exhibition at Z33 we organised a symposium.
I also had a look at the list of artists who undertook a residency with Overtoon and their work is pretty impressive. Each of them has a really strong portfolio. How do you come upon and select the artists to support?
Indeed we are very glad with the responses and productions we have so far. Past yearly residents artists were Jeroen Uyttendaele, Jeroen Vandesande, Gert Aertsen and Stijn Demeulenaere. And this year we have Erik Nerinckx and Katerina Undo.
We don't write out calls. But we organise regular meetings with artist whose works we follow-up. We are open to propositions, and we are also in contact with curators. Sometimes these meetings evolve in time into specific projects, production or residencies.
Now i have a bit of a tricky question (and you can ignore it if you like). In general, our society is very 'visual'. I sometimes feel that it is not so simple to write about sound art. It's quite easy to just fall back onto a technical description of the piece, for example. If i look at the art section of mainstream newspapers, they are full of 'visual art' and 'music'. And sound art falls back somewhere in the middle. Do you feel that sound artists have a disadvantage compare to visual artists?
Not really, sound art has been evolving nicely past decades. I just find it a bit sad that the term sound art exists as a category, it is easy for theoreticians but it is not that interesting for the arts to have categories
On the other hand, as I see it, it is a great way to say that anything can be done with sound.
But I want quote Max Neuhaus (who coined the term sound installation in the sixties):
That work has been featured in Science magazine. While still in a research phase, the prototype has been presented during the exhibition KONTINUUM in Vienna which was organised by Roman Kirschner's Liquid Things. The development was in collaboration with EMPA, Angewandte and Liquid Things. I don't have any specific dates yet for final presentations.
There is a solo exhibition in Kristiansand Kunsthall, Norway that I'm preparing for early September. It is a big exhibition with one in situ work and different other works. It has already a nice title 'Once also this was a mutation' and many of the works deal with the idea of transformation. The exhibition is also part of the PUNKT festival and will feature live performances in the installations by Nils Christian Moe-Repstad, Espen Reinertsen and Marcus Schmickler. The exhibition is curated by Kjell Bjorgeengen.
Heliophone, based on the photoacoustic effect, will be presented in STUK, Leuven at the end of September. This will be accompanied with a small exhibition that lays out the complete photoacoustic research.
Image on the homepage by Kristof Vrancken.
In the South of Spain runs a river so red and soalien-looking that the Spain tourism board is marketing it as Mars on Earth. NASA scientists even came to the area to investigate the ecosystem for its similarities to the planet Mars.
Due (mostly) to the intense mining for copper, silver, gold, and other mineral in the area, the Rio Tinto is highly acidic, its water has a low oxygen content and it is made dense by the metals it carries in suspension. Its deep reddish hue is caused by the iron dissolved in the water.
Cecilia Jonsson visited the region to collect some of the wild grass that grows on the borders of the Rio Tinto. The name of that grass is Imperata cylindrica. It is a highly invasive weed and its other particularity is that it is an iron hyperaccumulater, which means that the plant literally drinks up the metal in the soil and stores high levels of it in its leaves, stems and roots.
The artist harvested 24kg of Imperata cylindrica and worked with smiths, scientists, technicians and farmers in order to extract the iron ore from the plants and use it to make an iron ring. The innovative experiment brought together the biological, the industrial, the technological and even craft to create a piece of jewellery that weights 2 grams. The project also suggests a way to reverse the contamination process while at the same time mining iron ore from the damaged environment.
While "green mining" aims for a more ecological approach to mining metals, The Iron Ring explores how contaminated mining grounds may benefit from the mining of metals.
Cecilia Jonsson's mining adventures are detailed in the e-book of the project but i found her investigation into the overlaps between nature and technology so fascinating that i contacted her in the hope that she'd agree to an interview. And lucky me, she did!
Hi Cecilia! I am very curious to know more about the way you, as someone who was primarily trained to be an artist, approach the science/technology side of your projects. Do you typically work with experts to assist you in your research? Or do you just learn the skills and work on your own? Or maybe a bit of both?
My constructions are a combination of hypothesizing outcomes plus trial and error, especially within parameters of biology, physics and technology. Informed by methods used in the natural sciences and empirical material in a site-related context. Mostly they take the form as installation which are the result of intense field work.
The Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier claimed that the great error of the Surrealists was their own lack of faith: they tried to create the marvelous without really believing in it. "Objects" are often a living metaphor of their own history, their formation. To follow their trace through a wide flow of informative perspectives captures a reverberant relation of objective and subjective distinctions in a sort of intermingled morphology. Built on this quantitative data, the cluster eventually starts to web. When the notion of reality shifts into real it has become a concrete term. Which directs me to sites, material, methods and technologies including disseminated collaborations within other disciplines.
The Iron Ring is an incredible project. You extracted iron from plants and made a ring from what you collected. How did you discover the existence of those iron-containing plants?
Since iron is not the most toxic pollutant, has a low economical and symbolic value and can be virtually scooped up from everywhere, it was tricky to apply the idea to the knowledge base of present-day remediation processes. The research started around five years ago, from my interest for iron in its intrinsic qualities and paradoxical changes. I was looking into experiments of electro-culture, plant communication and how plants can be applied as analytical filters, as a mirroring of their own environment. I found some plants that are more tolerant to iron and are able to grow on this type of contaminated soils. But, most coherent plant studies about efficient iron uptake mostly targeted the human perspective in relation to high organic iron content as an effective adjunct in the treatment of iron deficiency and anemia.
The research was conducted for the project The original arrangement was for a solo violin and a string orchestra from 2012. The installation shows an ambiguous process of an iron hyperaccumulating plant taking up magnetized iron particles that have been scraped of from a reel-to-reel tape of Antonio Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. On a later stage the iron was extracted again, glued back to the tape and played, resulting in a reinterpretation of The Four Seasons. This work is a predecessor to The Iron Ring were I was interested in taking a more straight functional and site-specific approach to the grass unique ability to extract and encapsulate iron.
The defined iron hyperaccumulating plant with a minimum required amount of 10000 mg/kg Fe revealed in research articles on plant physiology and biochemistry from the university in Madrid. The constructive study had been conducted on the naturalized weed Imperata cylindrica. Collected from the highly acidic (pH 1.6-2) riverbanks of the Rio Tinto in the mining district Rio Tinto in South-western Spain. That model presented me results and a first equation for the calculations of the Iron Ring.
What was the most challenging aspect in the project? Were there moments you thought it was a mad idea and you'd better give up on it? Or did you know right from the start that everything would go according to plans?
I had actual figures on an expected iron content from the grass in Spain. I knew how to extract iron from organic material and had read about iron reduction and deoxidization processes. It was possible. The next step was to figure out the practical weight of how much bio-ore was actually needed for the process of making a ring of 2 grams. I made some calls to traditionally trained smiths to discuss my idea and I got suggestions on possible processes and an "about" quantity.
The greatest challenge was always the restricted iron quantity to create one ring. The problem isn't the metal but its proportion of mass (quote). The thin ring is a complex form to cast even with industrial produced iron. Cast iron is very susceptible to loss of metallization at high temperatures, such as the melt temperature required for the cast. A consequence of this is that with each new attempt we made there was a continuous formation of slag and an equal loss of iron. The inclusion of even small amounts of some elements can have profound effects. Because of the impurities in cast iron and its crystalline structure, it is a strong material in compression but weak in tension and very brittle. As a result, when it fails, it does so in an explosive manner, with little warning.
The project starts with humble plants and end up with a tiny little ring. But what I found amazing was the amount of craft, heavy industrial processes and knowledge required to go from plant to ring. What have you learnt about the flow of organic matter while working on the project?
From working with iron as material, the matter itself as well as on its interaction with the living. The Iron Ring has really broadened my understanding of the complexity of ecosystems. From the field to the laboratory-scale to craftsmanship and industry, I have had a proper opportunity to build collaborations with proficiency on a wide scale. Their engagement to think out of the box and the connectedness to sort of re-invent and re-discover iron production in our industrial age, has really made a strong impression.
The Iron Ring also highlights the toxic impact of mineral exploitation on the environment. However, you write in the description of the project: "The result is a scenario for iron mining that, instead of furthering destruction, could actually contribute to the environmental rehabilitation of abandoned metal mines." Could you elaborate on this rehabilitation of the abandoned mines? How would that work? What would it be like?
The abandoned mines in Rio Tinto are a no man's land. Apart from tourists who come to visit the unworldly sites, the area continues its forgotten glory to slump and erode. Rio Tinto has a dark, long history of being exploited for ferrous and non-ferrous minerals, copper, gold, silver and lead and due to its historical perspective the rightful ownership of the excavated mess is undefined and beyond present laws of remediation. To stabilize or reduce contamination of sites like Rio Tinto, you first need to analyse the soil and from that result, plant several different types of hyperaccumulating and tolerant green plants.
The project elaborates on this possibility to utilize the cleansing process of the naturalized grass, which overlooked ability is left unutilized. The project proposes to harvest the grass for the purpose of extracting the ore that is inside them. The idea of the ring is to complete the circle, to maintain the clean-up commitment. So that when the soil is stabilized, other native plants can be introduced to restore the biodiversity and help bring back the heritage of flora that was lost through the human activity.
There are many layers behind the "rehabilitation" statement. Which under controlled conditions could include the naturalized grass: Imperata cylindrica in a remediation process where its biomass is utilized for iron production. A larger harvest would also contribute to less complications and a more refined iron production with less slag and more iron in just two steps. Going back to the complexity of ecosystems and my second connotation of the "rehabilitation". Which is to utilize the already inhabited weed to be able to control its spread in the environment. Imperata cylindrica is an aggressive fast-growing perennial grass that can and has become an ecological threat. It's listed as one of the ten worst weeds in the world and is placed on the U.S. Federal Noxious Weed list, which prohibits new plantings. The grass does not survive in cultivated areas but establishes along roadways, in forests and mining areas, where it forms dense mats of thatch that shade and outcompete native plants.
The enigma of use- and exchange-value enchants me as well as the perspectives on precious matter and how it earns its cultural weight. Something that I think Ralph W. Emerson beautifully formulates in What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered. A metal is deemed to be precious if it is rare and on account of its material nature and rarity, the high value is linked to its cost of extraction.
How long did the whole process take? From the moment you found the plants to the final realization of the ring?
From when the first plant community was found in Spain to the ring had become one continuous solid, 5 weeks of intensive work.
Could you explain what we can see in the photos of the installation Stratigrafi? What is the strange metallic sculpture?
Stratigrafi is a work developed in collaboration with colleague Signe Lidén. Thematically, we were exploring cavities, man-made places and fundamental changes of the landscape. Exploring the mine as an in-between space a geographical cavity between nature, ideas and technologies and how history works way through its forms. Signe had been in Kakanj in central Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bytom in Poland to explore coal mines. I had gathered material in relation to iron from re-vegetation institutes and large-scale surface mining in the region of the Iron Quadrangle, southeast Brazil. The installation intertwined our works where one was taken inside and introduced to impressions from these places. Representations, imitations, scent, recordings, objects and photographs from the sites.
The metal sculpture is a propane driven apparatus, a citrus distiller. The steam was forced through the citrus material and transported onward through the condenser where the temperature is lowered and consistently forms refined acidic drops and erosion. In the windows scorched wood were piled up and filling the room with intense scent. A video without sound projected an exotic landscape in one meeting with passing carts filled with iron ore. The light table consisted of oscillating reversal film, archive material, seeds, a small projection and an exhibition text written by Roar Sletteland. The visitor obtained an auditory access to these sceneries by putting their heads into listening boxes.
I'm also fascinated by the work Water extraction, Geneva. The work seems to be about global warming. Could you explain the installation?
Water extraction, Geneva - Rhône: 02.11.2009 / Rain: 02.11.2009 / Arve: 02.11.2009 was a site specific work consisted of three water extracts, three modified found light bulbs and one light sourced bulb. For the installation, the wooden planks in the floor of the exhibition space were removed, uplifted and were then used to create a platform and a bridged island to the work.
The work looks at the impact that climate change is having on the glaciers and the changes it brings with it. A glacier is important for freshwater storage, while glaciers also can be regarded as reservoirs for the production of electricity through their seasonal water flow. The project focuses on the melting of the Rhone Glacier in Switzerland, which over the past ten years has lost 6% of its mass. The raising temperatures in the region have a strong influence on the seasonal runoff regime of the alpine streams. Where the Rhone glacier runoff with the residues it brings with it, is the main water source for the largest freshwater reservoir in Europe, Lake Geneva.
You are currently in Venice for a residency at the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa. What are you working on over there? What is the residency about?
It's a three months residency from February to mid May supported by the Office for Contemporary Art Norway. I'm here to develop a new work, a hydrodynamic analogy that acoustically transcribes an interdependent exchange between external forces and internal positive feedback. The Venice lagoon is a delicately balanced natural system that combines to produce one of the largest wetlands in the Mediterranean. Land and water are intermingled. An urban Lagoon, a natural Venice as Marcel Proust captures the reverberant paradox relationship. The project explores the Venice Lagoon's sedimentary environment, its dynamics and composition and is developed in collaboration with the University of Padova at the Hydrobiological Station in Chioggia in the Veneto region.
After Venice, I will be in Helsinki for a collaborative project on magnetotactic bacteria as part of my participation in a research platform for Art and Synthetic Biology at Biofilia, Alto University. In the fall I will undertake a three-month's residency in Marseille at Triangle France. Let's say there are a few larger research projects under development and works that are more in the making for planned venues.
Two years ago, indigenous and non-indigenous activists started joining forces to stop a UK-based mining company, Beowulf, from carrying out another drilling program in Kallak, in northern Sweden. Local opposition to mining projects is nothing extraordinary. In other parts across the world, people are campaigning against drilling, fracking, mining and other projects that translate short term profit into long-lasting damage to the environment (if you have any doubt about this, check out a story this morning about a Swedish mining town that will have to be moved away or 'risk plunging into the earth.') But what made the fight against the mining company particularly moving is that Kallak is a reindeer winter grazing land and an area of great spiritual and cultural importance to the Sami Peoples.
The Sami live in the the Arctic area of Sápmi, which covers parts of far northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. They are regarded as a minority in these countries but they've inhabited that area for at least 5,000 years, live in close connection with nature and are one of the very few remaining indigenous people in Europe. The right to own their own land, the right to speak their own language or live according to their own culture is dependent on the nation states within which they live. Finland, for example, still has to ratify the ILO Convention No. 169 which would grant rights to the Sami people to their land and give them power in matters that affect their future.
The Swedish government ended up refusing to allow Beowulf to exploit the Kallak area for iron ore but that doesn't mean that the fight is over for the Saami. They inhabit what is probably the last true wilderness of Europe and because this wilderness is rich in precious natural resources, the Sami have to face many other cultural and environmental threats.
So far, we haven't hear Saami people's voice a lot outside of Scandinavia but this will hopefully change thanks to the work of a Sami collective called Suohpanterror. The anonymous group of artists uses wit, iconic images and humour as weapons to comment on the issues their people have to experience on a daily basis: discrimination, racism, marginalisation, colonialism, dam building, logging, military bombing ranges, as well as exploitation by the tourism and energy industries. And of course, climate change.
Suohpanterror reinvents, re-purposes and 'Sami-fies' well-known icons of advertising, art history, cinema, street art and other manifestations of popular culture to striking results. The first time i saw one of their images, i had no idea what it represented exactly but i could sense that there was something powerful and meaningful at stake.
I recently got in touch with Jenni Laiti, a performance artist and spokesperson for Suohpanterror, and she kindly accepted to answer my questions via a skype interview. I wrote down out Q&A:
Hi Jenni! Where does the name Suohpanterror come from?
Suohpan means lasso. The lasso plays an important role in our culture. To catch reindeer, you need a good lasso hand, it´s called Suohpangiehta, Lasso hand. And of course, it also has a deeper meaning. We are very peaceful people. If we had our own army, the lasso would be our weapon of choice.
The posters you make are really striking. But being from Belgium i suspect that i'm not the best person to understand these images. Which kind of reaction do you hope to raise with the posters? Anger, laughter, mere uneasiness?
Outsiders can't read the symbolic the way we do. To us these posters often have a wider symbolic and several layers of meanings. Each member of Suohpanterror has its own idea of what the images convey. Some are meant to make you angry. Others are ironic or satiric. Some have more of a 'feel good' feeling. Others describe the anxiety we are carrying within ourselves. Some makes us feel powerful. Etc. And of course the images will resonate differently according to who you are.
Take the Suohpanterror version of the American We Can Do It poster for example. Every one recognizes the image and where it comes from. It's America, it's feminism. It will have additional meanings for a Sami, a Scandinavian or someone from another part of the world. To us, it conveys an encouraging message, it says "This is who we are and we can do it."
More generally what do you think that images can achieve? Why use posters rather than other forms of action?
One of the main reasons is that there is a lack of this kind of art in Sami culture. So the posters are filling a gap. On the other hand, they make for good communication between us and other people. They are easy to understand and everyone can also perceive the added Sami dimension of these pictures.
But it doesn't stop at images. There are many other revolutionary things going on. I also do performances, for example. We also use cultural jamming, performance, artivism, direct actions, etc. All the strategies are useful to us.
Other members of Suohpanterror prefer to remain anonymous. Is there a reason for that?
Many people are asking "Who is Suohpanterror?" One could answer that question "Who isn´t Suohpanterror?"
We are indigenous people, also a minority and face a lot of racism. It is very difficult to live as a Sami today when your culture is not appreciated, when you and your people are hated and the majority doesn't share the same values. The Sami are little more than 100 000 people and we live in small communities. Some of us want to protect themselves and their families from the physical and psychical violence and threat that we are already experiencing.
Would you mind commenting on some of the images below?
The background of the image is a mine in North Sweden. It's a reference to the touristic marketing campaign Visit Lapland. Our land is the last wilderness in Europe and the state is happy to welcome everyone to visit it but what if all that's left to see one day are just mines?
We are peaceful people. We don't want fight. On the other hand, it's difficult not to get angry at the way companies are treating us. At every stage of any discussion, we have to listen to a monologue (they call it a 'dialogue'.) The only way companies enter in a dialogue is by speaking and not listening to anything we have to say. And then suddenly the meeting is over. So i think what this image says is that both sides need to be involved in the discussion for a real dialogue to emerge. If instead companies continue this deaf monologue, we should just kick them out!
In Finland, both the government and the tourism industry exploit us, sell us without ever asking for our permission. They describe us as cartoon characters, who smile, who are cute but aren't real people. The reality however, is that their policies that do not support our livelihood are killing the reindeer.
The character of this version of Edvard Munch's The Scream is horrified by the many ways our land is exploited. There are wind turbines, hydro power, mining. The sign says "Mining Area. Trespassing Forbidden." This image describes what is really happening in Sápmi, our homeland, which has been colonized and exploited and have been dislocated and disconnected from our land and from each other. This is the reality we are living. Or more, instead of living, we are just surviving.
Sámi rights movement is having this campaign "Show your Sami spirit." And this is one of the symbols for the Sami rights movement. It's quite an aggressive picture. Even the reindeer are carrying bombs on their back. The image is challenging us, calling for a revolution, a mobilization. We need to defend our own country, our people.
This is a reference to an old game popular in Sweden and Finland. Afrikan tähti (the star of Africa). If you superimpose the map that shows the protected zones of Sapmi and the areas for reindeer herding with maps that display active mining areas and areas with a high potential for mining all kinds of resources, you realize that they are in conflict with each other. If you combine touristic infrastructure, logging, hydro power, mining and zones threatened by climate change (that's actually the biggest threat for us), we've got nowhere left to escape. Mining companies are arguing that they will only implement 'sustainable' mining that can coexist with reindeer herding but that's not possible. Mining companies come from Canada and Australia. They arrive, they exploit the land and when they are done, they leave nothing but a big hole behind them. The land never recovers from it. I recently went to visit an area that had been mined 20 years ago. It was supposed to be a 'recovered' area. But the reality is that the land had not recovered at all.
We are living in an Arctic area and the legislation about land recovering from mining is made for southern areas. Regrowth is much slower over here. What we're fighting for is our very existence, our land and our right to use it.
Is it that bad? Do you feel that the threats to your livelihood have worsen over the past few years?
Definitely. Threats have been multiplying over the past few years. The North of Scandinavia has the last wilderness of Europe and there are many governments and corporations interested in taking over everything they can in the Arctic area.
What are the biggest, most urgent issues on top of Suohpanterror's agenda?
There are two main issues:
One is the indigenous rights of the Sami people. Our right to self-determination. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all people have the right of self-determination. And within this self-determination, we want to protect the land so that it can nourish future generations. We live in close contact with the land so protecting nature is very important to us. Finland still hasn't ratified the ILO 169 convention.
And finally, there is climate change. I personally feel that the time is very critical We are going to work more and more on the issue of climate change.
Are you showing your work in galleries or festivals as well?
Yes, we've got quite a few exhibitions lined up in 2015 and 2016.
See also: Under Northern Lights, an Al Jazeera video report about mining in Sápmi; The Saami Manifesto 15: Reconnecting Through Resistance ; and the United Nations Declaration on the. Rights of Indigenous Peoples (PDF.)