It's hard to believe that it took me so many years to finally email Mogens Jacobsen and ask him for an interview. I've been following his projects since the very beginning of the blog (which was 8 years ago, in case you were wondering.)
Jacobsen is a media artist based in Copenhagen and an Adjunct Professor in Digital Culture and Mobile Communication at IT University, Copenhagen. His artistic work either closely follows social, political and ethical questions or sabotages technology, by mix-matching new and old media or by inviting web users to subvert web banners.
Some of his most acclaimed works include Crime Scene, two computers swapping copyrighted material in full view of the public; Power of Mind 3 Dissociative Defense, an installation powered by potatoes and hosting a report on human rights in Denmark; and TurntablistPC, a series of vintage turntables that spin their record according to visits to certain websites.
One of his most recent pieces, OECDlab comments on the cult for data and more precisely the instrumentalization of statistics by politicians, academics and economists. By manipulating the levers, dials, and knobs of three retro-looking lab-instruments, people can adjust parameters like percentage of women in parliament, distribution of income, military expenditure and see how these alterations are influencing other factors in society. The countries remain anonymous but all the data used is real data supplied by OECD, the WorldBank and UN.
I was curious to know more about OECDlab and that was the excuse i needed to finally get in touch with Mogens Jacobsen and discover if he could possibly be wittier than his own artworks:
Your work often responds to current social and cultural issues: human rights in Denmark, the rise of surveillance, file sharing, interactivity/reactivity, etc. What do you think are the themes that should be urgently addressed right now? Either by you or by other artists? Do you think that artists have any impact on ethical, cultural or social issues? Can they change the way a problem or situation is perceived and handled?
I'm sad to say this - but I wouldn't overestimate the impact done by artists at the moment. I wish more media artist would deal with real-world, everyday political issues. There seem to be a rather dominating escapist interest in phenomenology and the individual spectator. A problem I personally blame on the "experience economy" focus some years back. Now the "money" economy has crashed and experience economy has become unfashionable, it might be a good time to make art relevant outside the safe haven of the established art spaces again.
By turning the knobs of the OECDlab instruments, people can manipulate different parameters such as the percentage of women in parliament, distribution of income (the GINI index), military expenditure, etc. and then see how the alterations are influencing other factors in society. Can the manipulation ever lead to a satisfactory situation? One with maximum freedom of the press, one without shocking income inequality, etc.
One of the things that surprised me was the chaotic behavior of the instruments. Naively I thought there might be some correspondence between parameters such as freedom of press and distribution of wealth. But not so.
The OCEDlab lets you explore the world as it is - according to statistics at least, not construct a personal utopia. On one of the instruments, the one titled "Qui magistratum obeunt mundum credunt sibi subiectum esse ut ad suam voluntatem flectatur", you will never be shown the name of the country as you try to combine parameters. So it is not a travel/emigration-guide, but more a disrupting guide through your own beliefs of social-economic politics.
Have you thought of making an online version of the OECDlab?
I have thought of an online version. But of course I won't do it. I am really trying to avoid screens and fancy visuals at the moment. It like a personal struggle to be in the "media arts" and not revert to amazingly colorful pixels on a screen. Ten years ago I said Flash spoiled net.art by pulling the attention towards the surface. So now I really try hard to avoid the screen altogether.
And basically all data of the OECDlab is already available online on the website of the OCED, the Worldbank, UN and a couple of other sites. So you can easily access the data, which was what I did as I started on the project.
I'm also interested in the reason why you gave the instrument such a retro look. Why not present them with fancy touch screens and spectacular infographics?
The project OECDlab is deliberately looking quite old - like the apparatus of science, at a time when science was thought to be objective, when science was trusted and thus allowed to control society without anyone questioning the facts.
So OECDlab looks like the nostalgic technical tools of objective power. Like test-equipment in a lab or instruments from the science lab of a school: Dark polished wood, analogue meters and large knobs.
Have you tested the Democratic Dazzler or the Oplyser (two devices that disrupt surveillance systems and transmits by Morse code article 1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights) on security cameras in public space? How did it go? Did you get any reaction? Either from passersby or from the people who are monitoring the surveillance cameras?
The Dazzler project started when I was invited the Danish gallery "Torpedo 18", which is a gallery for "inaccessible art". What a freedom to get invited to do something inaccessible! As the first version of Dazzler was working, I wanted to do a small presentation of the project. So I arranged an event in front of the Danish Supreme Court one evening at 8 PM. Only a very few friends showed up at this event. But as the clock struck 8, I thought I needed to do some sort of welcome. So I stepped up a small staircase, raised the Dazzler and was getting ready to speak. Then the door behind me opened and the - at that time - Danish prime minister Anders Fog Rasmussen (now Secretary General of NATO) stepped with his security guards. Everybody - including myself - were quite baffled. The prime minister quickly got in this limo and drove off. Sadly nobody took a photo.
Your work Crime Scene (in which two computers exchange copyrighted works) is illegal to show in Denmark. What happened? Did you get into legal troubles because of the installation?
At the time I was working in a small ground with some people from museums and cultural institutions around Denmark. And all were really scared of showing digital art due to unsolved questions regarding intellectual rights. I really tried to understand the Danish copyright laws but was baffled. And nobody was really capable of answering my questions.
So instead I made this piece, not as a provocation or protest, but more as my way of stating a question. I was approached by some lawyers from the ministry of culture, who thought it was an interesting question. And they asked me if they could investigate it as a legal case (and they guarantied me I would not get into trouble). Well, the case ended by stating the piece was legal for me to produce - referring to artistic freedom and freedom of speech. But a museum wanting to exhibit the piece might get into trouble.
So far, the Crime Scene has been shown in Sweden, Spain and France. But it has never been shown in Denmark.
You define yourself as a media artist. Is this a 'label' you find important? Would it be just the same to you to say you're a 'contemporary artist'?
It does matter that much for me. I used the "media" label to put some distance to painting and graphics (even thing happening on a monitor). I would like to get the attention away from the visual imagery. "Media" sort of covered a lot of thing - and as "new media" has grown old, I settled on just using the word "media".
What kind of advice would you give to someone who would like to establish themselves as a media artist as well?
First of all - and very important - get some way of having an income. Artists don't make money. And media artists certainly do not, as nobody is buying media art.
Then secondly: Learn to program. Any programming language: C#, C, Java, processing whatever lingo that fits your needs and abilities. It might sound very old fashioned - focusing on learning the craft. But it gives you a lot more freedom sketching things out in the actual medium, not only working on the conceptual level. And let you experiment without having to beg, bribe or pay somebody else.
Are there any upcoming projects you could share with us?
I have some things coming up. A new piece for a group show with the theme "money". This might end up with another apparatus in the style of OECDlab. Also I will be showing some works at the exhibition Audio Art - Sound as Medium for the Arts at ZKM in Germany. The exhibition opens on March 16th. And one of my contributions is a new piece which I'm really busy making right now. The working title is Pairs - Conversation Piece from 1965. It is based on a note from one meeting between several Danish artists in 1965. Each artist will be represented by an old wooden chair, and rearranging the chairs you will be navigating between their discussions.
Malin Vrijman, one of the founding members of Kultivator, was kind enough to answer my many questions:
In an interview for publik.dk, you said that there are many similarities between the way you live and work as artists and how an organic farmer live and work. Could you give us more details about this?
When we came to live close to the farm, we discovered that both we as artists and the organic farmer were struggling with "companies", or enterprises, that are based on cultural resp., ecological calculations as well as the usual economical one, and that this sometimes clashes. For example, when the EU farm subsidies suddenly changes and the farm has to adapt (or just suffer), or the art money gets directed differently and we must adapt (or just suffer). We both have offices full of unwanted paperwork... And we both always go for this cultural and ecological conviction in the end anyway because it´s the only thing that makes sense. Since the reason that we are publicly funded must be that we take responsibility for those two things first.
Another parallel that we've talked about is like a shared frustration over being exclusive, when we rather would like to be accessible, mainstream, or whatever you call it. Like in the organic farm shop where people come from the city and they buy two peppers, and one small melon, instead of 10 kilos of potatoes. Or in a museum art show that only a certain small crowd visits. As if art and good food are luxury things, when they should belong to everybody. Another similarity is that most people have their own idea about what a farmer does, and also what an artist does, and it's usually very far from today's reality. Both occupations are in fact alienated from people as it is now.
But even more interestingly, what did you bring to each other? I can easily imagine that it's handy to have an organic farm nearby for an artist studio but what does the agriculture community get from having artists on their land? Which form(s) take(s) your collaboration/cohabitation?
OK, it is right that for the artists-residency, it is ideal to be able to produce the food for everyone, and for visiting artists to use the farm and farmers as inspiration and information source.
But the benefit is not one way - when we get this question (and we often do) Henric's answer is always the same;"The good thing is, that there are people around". It may seem like a small thing, but I think it is not. When Henric's grandparents ran the farm, five families lived and worked on it. And there were six farms like that in the village. Now Henric's (Kultivators) is one out of two, and the owner of the other farm lives elsewhere. Last year alone something like 30 artists have stayed here, for longer or shorter periods, plus visitors and schools, parents of the kids, etc. It gives life and energy to the agricultural community that in our part of the world is getting almost dangerously lonely.
So when the cows escape, when a calf is stuck, when there is slaughter or harvest or forest work, there is always helping hands nearby. Collecting and preparing food is an incorporated part of living here, and this means helping out. Of course, parties, dancing, evenings discussing world politics by the fire is enjoyed from both sides...
This was also the reason why we arranged the marriage between art and agriculture last year. We want the discussion of what would be the future of agriculture, ethical concerns when it comes to keeping animals and exploiting land, etc, to go on not only between farmers and intellectuals separately, but in meetings between the two. This is the direct way, here in the village. In more general way, we have been asked to sit on the cultural board of the Swedish farmers union, LRF, that has as objective to support quality culture in rural areas, and to make farmers and farms visible and present in the cultural life as a whole. This corresponds of course very well with what we want, and what we think is beneficial both for the farming and the rest of society.
Kultivator offers residencies to artists but also works with the local community such as schools. Which kind of activities do you organize with or for people living in the area?
We always invite public to come and meet and see results from the visiting artists at the end of their stay. Once a year, at the Harvestfeast, we make like a summing up of the year, and stay open all night. Then we have also made a few projects directly addressing the nearby area, like the Souvenir of Öland competition, where we asked people to imagine and produce a new souvenir for the island, and the Glocalguide, were we restored an ancient walking path and made an online guide to it, with local stories and facts from people in the neighbourhood.
With schools we always have very hands on work, which often stays as part of our "place". It can be to build a mobile chicken house, construct an outdoor shower, make a picnic place, etc. We have had very nice nature walks with students and immigrants recently arrived to Sweden, where students give an introduction to Swedish right of public access to nature, and what berries and mushrooms you can pick and so on.
What are the 'post (r)evolutionary exercises'? For whom are they intended? I'm also curious about their design. Does the particular aesthetics refer to past movements?
The post (r)evolutionary exercises are the outcome of a meeting/friendship/project that started in summer 2010, when we took part in "Goings on" seminar in Beirut, Lebanon. In this seminar, curated by Cecilia Andersson, Scandinavian and Middle east art groups were invited to meet and learn about each others practices. That's what we did, we got along really well, and we started at once to think of ways to do something together again. After the seminar, The Danish group rum46 applied for money to get everyone to Denmark and Sweden in summer 2011, in a project called Camp.
Then in between, as we know, the Arabic uprising came - our new friends stood on the Tehrir square, or struggling in Damascus and so on, and we felt that when they came to us, that is what we wanted to talk about; What now? What do you do after the revolution? We wanted some kind of physical outcome of the talks, and choose posters, also so that we could distribute them to the people taking part afterwards. And then finally, in August 2011, when everybody (except sadly, the Syrian group that did not dare to travel because of the violence in Damascus) had arrived and were gathered on the farm, we all as usual began to do "the farm things", (like slaughtering, fencing, milking, etc,) someone came up with that "this is actually what you must do after the revolution"; building up again. So we discussed, and sketched, and identified these "exercises". Intended for anyone who hopes to live through a revolution. They are illustrated with pictures from projects we have made, some from the actual meeting that summer with the Middle East art groups, and some from previous events taking place on the farm.
And yes, we took the design from a manuscript of William Morris, the radical frontiers person of the Arts and crafts movement in the late 19th century in England. Nowadays, these patterns are popular interior decorative, but then they represented a criticism on industrialisation and its enslavement of the masses. It had nothing to do with bourgeoisie or elitism, just like we don't believe that art or farming should be elitist, or conservative. I suppose the design kind of underlines this contradiction on the surface, to be radical and yet traditional. We like to play with that.
Could you tell us about some of the most exciting works developed during artist residencies at Kultivator?
Well...this is hard to choose. One piece here on site that has meant a lot for us is the Cambuche, an installation by Colombian/Namibian/Norwegian group el Parche, members Olga Robayo, Herman Mbamba, Marius Wang. They build up this favela housing structure here, from farm waste, and provided it with visual kind of street art stories of the Robert Mugabe land reform act and the USA/Monsanto war on drugs (and small farmers) in Colombia. It became a place here on the farm to reflect on "another side of farming", that can be easily forgotten in our idyllic countryside. For us it has been an important part of the communal thinking that has shaped our practice into what it is, or heading towards.
Another very exciting work we have been happy to host is Super Meal by Erik Sjödin that investigated the Asian water fern Azolla. The plant had been explored by NASA, as a possible future space crops, due to its enormous growth and great nutrition value. Erik planted it here in our biopool, that cleans water from the farms up streams, and it really did grow enormously, (by this cleaning the polluted water) and was eaten with great appetite by our pigs and chickens, and used as fertilizer in the raised beds of the garden. For the Wedding between art and agriculture, Erik also cooked it, and served together with his fascinating story of the might-be-saver-of-the-planet plant.
Others, like French/Indian dancer and martial arts performer Keity Anjoure came with their own poetic research, in her case over the relation between people and trees, that resulted in a video of her climbing our big old oaks with a soft, ten meters-high silage plastic ladder.
I must also mention the work for the Android smartphone app "boskoi", made by Theun Karelse this Summer. He biked around and mapped out more than 60 different wild apple trees in the surrounding of our farm. They can now be found with the help of the boskoi app, which is a world wide communal inventory of edible plants.
I'm very interested in the Wedding between Art and Agriculture which took place in 2010. A year and a half after the happy day, would you say that this is a happy, fruitful marriage?
It is a happy, fruitful marriage, but more than that, it is serious.... When we arranged it, we called it a re- marriage, and meant that these two human activities had been very closely connected back in history, and only recently been separated. For everybody´s best they needed to go back to each other again. Something in the time we live in wants this, there is a lot of initiatives that shows that. Like people who are developing creative, poetic farming, look at Detroit, or the rise and organisation of small farmers in Africa and the Campesinos in South America. And I also mean all the interest in farming projects from the urban art world. I have seen big exhibition projects every year over the last years in every big city that deals with food production and farming in some way. This was certainly not the case seven or five years ago.
Maybe one could say that this going back together at this point is not really happening out of love, but out of necessity, pure survival. It is a good old fashioned arranged marriage. Then again, what comes first, love or need?
In Europe at the moment we are experiencing recession, all sorts of crisis and there is a sense of fear for what tomorrow will bring. What has the Kultivator experience and projects like 'Imagine Farm' taught you that might be applied to the time we are living? I wondered if you had lessons to share about for example, self-sufficiency, relationship to nature, other living creatures, sharing, etc?
What it has taught us...This is a question that can have so many answers. To begin with, the Kultivator initiative comes out of a wish for something less catastrophic than today's society... We try all the time in what we do to promote, or discuss ways to achieve a sustainable, creative and social way of living. This is what we start with. The big learning experience from working with the projects we have been doing, that we took up and elaborated in Imagine farm, is that cooperation, sharing and discussing visions are crucial things to improve if we want to reach this.
The whole Imagine farm project was an attempt to create a communication tool/situation, where it was possible for kids to play with the future, and show others, over generation borders, what they were thinking and what they wished for. All imaginations of the future that we worked with were from a positive point of view, only focus on what the kids wanted, not what they were afraid of. This we had asked especially for, to avoid the usual guilt and sacrifice carousel that we too often put our kids and ourselves in when talking about the future.
I can't say that the futures the kids visualized were a surprise. They wanted, not unexpectedly, and also not unreasonably, a peaceful, just, and clean world. It is stating the obvious, but that should be like the most heavyweight policy document that there is. Not one thing of all the things we think that it is OK to compromise peace, or justice, or cleanness for, was on their list. And, (again stating the obvious) they are the ones, not us, that will live the future.
We have in general, by all our practical experiments, realized that it is much easier to collaborate than we are brought up to believe. In the present western individualist worldview, the cooperation between for example the farmer and the artist is hopeless, since the practicality of the first will kill the poetry of the latter, and the other way around. But what we experience again and again is that these two aspects together takes ideas and progress further than if they were alone and specialized. Working with more than a hundred children, like in Imagine farm, also showed that if we only put some effort in creative systems to work and think together, we can do almost impossible co operations. Maybe naively we think that the relation with the rest of the ecosystem will work out fine, if we manage to have fair and fruitful relations to each other.
Any upcoming projects Kutivator could share with us?
We have a lot of very nice collaborations going on this spring, now in February we travel to Kirkenes and the Barents Spektakel in Norway, to make another Crosscultural Nomadic cheese, with milk from the bordering countries Norway, Russia and Finland. We work with a new kids - future project in Gnesta, Sweden, and some more exhibitions, seminars and residencies. We also work here on our long - term project the farm, of course, with building an earthhouse, and establishing more of a perma culture garden, to in the end go for self sufficiency for us and our visitors.
We also have another big new project, or direction, still in its very beginning, that we call "The Grandmothers University", with inspiration from Vendana Shivas Navdanya center in India. This will be an exploration into concepts of learning and practicing, and what forms an effective exchange between generations could take. We have some very interesting partners for this, but it is a bit early to announce all details. We are just starting up...Hopefully we can come back on that!
All images courtesy Kultivator.
Previously: Herbologies/Foraging Networks at Pixelache Helsinki and Azolla Super Meal.
On January 31, 2010 a life-size statue of Ronald Mc Donald was abducted from a McDonald's fast food joint in central Helsinki. The kidnapping took place in broad day light as the video below demonstrates:
A few days after, the kidnappers, a group of health-food activists called the Food Liberation Army, uploaded a video message on YouTube threatening to 'decapitate' Ronald if the hamburger corporation failed to answer questions about the quality of its food and its work ethics. The only unequivocal the FLA received was a stern warning that the company "does not negotiate with criminals." So poor Ronald was guillotined. Only that it was only a copy of the stolen figurine that lost its head. The 'original' one remained intact.
Somehow, the Finnish police managed to discover the identity of one of the food activists: artist Jani Leinonen. They raided his home, seized mobile phones and computers, threw him in jail for thirty hours and heroically freed Ronald the "hostage".
It wasn't the first time Leinonen's artworks engaged with food products, satirizing and dismantling their symbols and marketing strategies but this action proved too much for the authorities and the fast food chain. As Leinonen explained in an interview "I thought I was just stealing a store decoration, but I must have done something much worse."
I discovered Jani Leinonen's work at the Venice Biennale back in 2009. The cardboard signs he had bought from beggars across the world were framed and gracing the dining room of the Danish and Nordic Pavilions curated by Elmgreen & Dragset. He had actually bought these signs from people asking for charity and i still remember vividly how uneasy their presence at the swanky art event made me feel.
Thanks to the kind help of James Hudson, i got in touch with Jani Leinonen and bombarded him with questions about the beggars signs, his crazy sexed-up versions of cereal boxes for children, experiments with selling contemporary art works by the bulk as if they were vegetables and of course i was curious about the aftermath of the Ronald affair.
What happened after the Ronald affair? I read about the whole ordeal with the police and how the fast food decoration eventually went back to the restaurant. Is the police still looking at you suspiciously? Has McDonald's banned you from its restaurants?
Fortunately I was not banned from McDonald´s restaurants because I do visit them often. I keep telling myself it´s artistic research but I think I am lying even to myself. We just got the final charges via mail a few weeks ago. I and two other FLA members are charged with forgery and fraud, and the trial will be held in June in Helsinki. The prosecutor claims that the repair form of a fictional statue repair company we left at the table at McDonald´s is a forgery. Even more surprisingly he claims we committed a fraud and tried to profit economically by kidnapping Ronald. I am very happy about the chance to make my case in trial. We are planning to invite the best food specialists and art scholars to witness that our action was art and and served a revolutionary purpose.
Of course, there are many things I would have done differently. Then again, there was no way of knowing that, for example, the police would be doing a six man raid at my home just because we took a plastic store decoration. The project happened mostly in the web and media, and the debates it started and the attention it got there, were beyond all my expectations.
How about the Food Liberation Army? Are you planning to do more actions or did the whole army retire?
I created the Food Liberation Army to allow myself to make art both anonymously and without tagging it art immediately. FLA gave people an impression of activism, which I think my art is really close to. My cover was blown when the cops threw me to jail and the press found about it. But before that it was amazing to follow the confusion of people when they had no idea if the kidnapping was the real thing, or a marketing stunt, or art, or what. The most interesting discussions sparkled out of genuine interest in the issues the FLA brought up in the letter of demands. I think FLA will continue its work but I will deny having any part in it.
You seem to be fascinated with branding. Is it a coincidence that many of the brands you target are associated with family and children? Have any of the cereals makers ever reacted to the way you subvert their packaging?
I read a study that the most unhealthy food products are the most dazzling by the appearance, and those are of course kid´s products. The first time I used packages in my art I received a threatening letter from a Finnish company called Raisio. I had painted on their age-old Elovena oat meal packages. There´s a girl in a traditional Finnish national costume in the cover and I had painted her in Niqab, or as a call girl, or a suicide terrorist. Their lawyer wrote in the letter they have a right to claim financial compensations because I have damaged their trademark. They dropped the case after getting a lot of bad publicity which was in those days my only weapon against these giant corporations. That was the first time I realized that these colorful and seemingly innocent images are dangerous.
I remember seeing the Beggar Signs at the 2009 Venice Biennale. The website of the project says "The incomes from selling the installation and all the donations will be spend on raising the awareness of globally rising class-differences and poverty through thought-provoking actions." What happened after Venice? Did you sell some of those signs and used the money to set up actions? Was Hunger King one of those actions?
I sold the whole thing and the money has been waiting for a good use in a high interest bank account. If I recall correctly, the selling price was around 14 000 euros, and the buyer was one of the richest men in Switzerland. I started buying the signs from beggars already in 2006 without knowing what to do with them. The first two I bought with something like 5 dollars in San Antonio, Texas. The more I bought the worse my conscience got, and I started increasing the purchase price. The last ones I bought with about 40 euros. it was not until 2009 I realized the money I payed and got from the process was so integral that I had to use it to help these people who created the work.
I read on your blog that the Left Alliance party office had asked you if you'd design a poster for the presidential campaign of their candidate. Is that something you could do? Would you be interested in becoming the Shepard Fairey of Finland? Why or why not?
I did do the poster, and he did not make it to the second round. Perhaps it was my fault. We had 8 presidential candidates this year, from 8 different parties. The only regret I have is that I got the most brilliant idea too late. I will save it for the next elections in six years.
I admire your attempts at making and showing art outside of the usual art context: Hunger King, Food Liberation Army and Art Super Market for example. How did the Art's Supermarket work go? Where did you get the idea for it? Which kind of customers did it attract? Why didn't you open it for longer than 3 weeks?
I show art outside its usual context because art has a reputation problem. When people realize a certain object or event is art, their attitude changes. To most people art is this weird, all-allowing, bourgeoise peculiarity. That´s why I spend a lot of time hiding the art from my projects. Hunger King, FLA, Art Supermarket, they were all made they way it took people long to realize they were art. Or perhaps they never did. People react so much stronger when they perceive things as real, as something they cannot put in a box right away.
I also think the job of an artist is to make prototypes, create ideas that change the rules of how people think things are. It´s not our job to take these prototypes to mass production. Art Supermarket was a test of an idea. We opened it just to make a point, not to start a profitable business. I don't have the patience to start doing the real work of running the daily tasks of running a supermarket. I was fun to see it work for 3 weeks, that people did come into a supermarket that sold art like sausages and actually bought works. The place looked so real some people actually came shopping food.
Finally, could you tell us about other Finnish artists whose work you admire?
My all time favorite artist happens to be Finnish: Riiko Sakkinen.
A wire brush spins around randomly, threatening your open-toe sandals. A motion-activated vacuum pump sucks out the air from a gallery space: the longer viewers remain inside, the less air for them to breathe. A cobble stone is rotating on a rope. The sole purpose of that kettle is to spread red acrylic paint on your shoes. An electric fence criss-crosses the path that leads to an art gallery or the bar. Elsewhere a randomly activated tripwire awaits visitors...
There is nothing even remotely safe in Ben Woodeson's works. In fact, they purposely run on hazard and liability waiver forms. Sometimes they even require safety helmets. Woodeson is from the United Kingdom, a state notorious for its stringent regulation and enforcement of workplace health, safety and welfare. Almost every artists you'll meet in the UK have their own share of H&S-related misadventures to tell.
Woodeson's work uses everyday objects and materials to deride and confronts head-on these often absurd rules. The pieces in his Health & Safety Violation series entice visitors to be brave and come nearer as much as they repel and unnerve them. In the coming weeks, Woodeson will present new works at transmediale in Berlin and at The Florence Trust in London. The installation he will show at the TM festival is A seemingly innocent sculptural curtain bisects the foyer space obstructing the visitor's default routes. Avoiding the work requires a conscious detour while also engaging with it requires a willingness to take risk - an "interactive" piece that does not pretend to be harmless.
I've decided not to go to Transmediale this year (first time in 8 years) but i'll be in London to tell you about what he'll be showing at The Florence Trust. In the meantime, a short interview will have to do....
You've exhibited works that involve a very high degree of risk of injury or death to visitors in several art galleries in the UK. How did you avoid the Health and Safety hassle?
Ha! I don't really try to avoid it, it is part of my practice, I think the dialogue between the exhibiting institutions and myself forms a layer of implied meaning within the work. Most of what I do does entail some form of risk, but the Health & Safety Violation's are a specific group of works, where that risk is overtly presented. This is through a clear and obvious physical danger or sometimes via titles that the gallery is forced to acknowledge and negotiate how the works will be presented. Let's face it with titles like Spinning cobblestone (high speed crack your skull open bleed through your ears version) I'm not really hiding the risk, it's right there shouting; they're not coming to me thinking I'm going to show a nice, safe, comforting watercolour...
Masses! Seriously though, I'm expecting in fact I'd say I was requiring the galleries to compromise so, I'd be a real hypocrite if I wasn't prepared to be flexible. Besides as I mentioned, the dialogue forms a layer of implied meaning within the work. As with any negotiation, there are things that you can or can't compromise on. I'm not prepared to lessen the work by corrupting it or compromising it is such a way that alters the meaning and basic experience that the viewer has. However, within most works there is usually some room for give and take.
As artists I think we become adept at the dialogues with institutions, curators and other artists; the pragmatics about what goes where and all that sort of thing. I'm definitely not a foot stomper or a diva. Things usually come to some form of organic conclusion that fits all concerned. I'd rather pull a work from a show than compromise too far, but, the reality is that the artists, the curator and the gallery all want a show to be as good as possible, the rest is mostly details.
Do you observe visitors? Does it take long before they leave their role as a viewer and become an 'adventurer' of Health and Safety Violation?
Nice question! I certainly do observe, in fact I often film the openings of the shows. I need to answer in a sideways manner: Quite a lot of the recent works are different from the early Health & Safety Violations in that they have become eventful, previously the works such as Spiral Twist Hazard (featured recently on WMMNA) would randomly activate / deactivate / wait and repeat.
A lot of the newer works including ones from the new Causality series are still randomly activated but they only trigger once, their activation has become catastrophic. Examples include One Shot Pretty Sculpture where 2000 matches burn and spell out a text or Ball Droppingly Awesome Glass Sculpture where with no fanfare or warning a small mechanism drops a large steel ball into the middle of a sheet of glass. Both works are irrevocably altered by their activation; the resulting debris then forms a kind of sculptural performative afterlife. I used to hold a position that if my works were switched off they were as invalid as for example a switched off video monitor. However, these recent works are made to be experienced in several states and the exhibition(s) therefore evolves depending on the state of the works.
So, coming back to the question, the viewer is sometimes held in a kind of prolonged anticipation: What is it they are actually seeing? Quite often they've signed a liability waiver at the entrance, so they already have this sense of potential danger and heightened awareness, what they don't have is knowledge of what is or is not safe... The random timing on even the repetitive works means it's hard for them to pigeon hole works as safe, not safe etc. The works often function quite abruptly so rather than there being a sense of things about to happen, there is more a sense of things maybe about to happen but no one is quite sure. The abruptness with it's consequent shock is definitely a fundamental factor in many of the works.
I think there is also a big difference in the adventuresome experience of those present at the opening night and those who visit in quieter circumstances. I do tweak the timings a bit so that some stuff does happen at the openings, and a lot of those people present usually know some of what I do, so in a way as a group they've already crossed over into the adventurer role. By contrast a visitor to a comparatively empty gallery might have little or no prior knowledge of my practice, and there might not be other viewers whose behavior could give clues.
The works are visceral and demanding, their in-your-faceness forces both experienced and inexperienced viewers to physically engage and take the adventure.
Can you tell us about your new Causality series? What is it about?
The Causality series are a new group of works started when I was preparing for my recent show at Elevator Gallery; so far they tend to be less direct. Something happens which then has a result, whereas the Violations switch on and off, there is no direct sense of cause and effect. The Causality works are no less challenging and dangerous, but somehow as I mentioned earlier, becoming more of a specific event rather than a repeating one.
In A Perilous Environment Positively Oozing With Pain and Suffering twelve panes of glass are held angled by fishing twine, a computer randomly selects one of the twelve and ignites a wire wool fuse. The fuse burns the twine causing the glass to crash to the floor. I think the difference between the two groups of works is quite organic; they're all confrontational, challenging and possibly a wee bit dangerous, some just seem to intuitively belong to one or the other series.
I'm definitely still working on the Health & Safety Violations for example I'm just finishing a big new piece called Health & Safety Violation #36 - Bite you on your ass and kiss your socks goodbye for Transmediale in Berlin at the end of January. I'm also concurrently working on the Causality series some of which I hope will be ready to show at the Florence Trust open weekend.
You are a Florence Trust resident this year, what are you planning to work on during this residency?
The Florence Trust residencies are really pretty special, time is whizzing by, we're about half way through, in fact the Winter Open is the weekend of 3rd February (PV on the Friday night). For me it has been an interesting time in that I had planned to develop new works that while still clearly fitting within my interests would maybe be more versatile and flexible. However ironically 90% of the new works I've made have been just as difficult and confrontational as ever and so far I don't see any signs of that shifting. I work quite intuitively; balancing concept, material and activity, and maybe it's the church or whatever, but versatile and flexible suddenly seems far less interesting and engaging when compared to fear, fire, gravity, electricity, breaking glass and general sculptural carnage; in other words all the usual stuff that floats my boat.
Previously: Experimental Station - Part 1, In the Laboratory.
Earlier this year, Jeremy Hutchison sent emails to manufacturers around the world, asking them to produce a fairly simple and common item. He added a special requirement though: the product had to be imperfect, come with an intentional error. Moreover, the worker was in charge of deciding which kind of error, malfunction or fault he would add to the good. The artist reassured the factory that, whatever the result, he would pay for the faulty object.
The outcome of the experiment is fascinating. Sometimes, the object was shipped in bits and pieces because the worker decided they would simply damage it after fabrication. Most of the time, however, the dysfunctioning good demonstrates the creativity and imagination of men doing repetitive gestures day after day in the factory: a comb without its teeth, a walking stick turned into a nunchaku, a football ball that is anything but round, a pair of sunglasses without the space for the nose, etc. The objects are amusing but they also give their makers/designers a presence and identity we would otherwise not think of giving them.
"[Err is] about creating deliberate miscommunication," Hutchison told Creative Review, "forging a moment of poetry within a hyper-efficient system of digital exchange. It's about an invisible global workforce, and their connection to the relentless regurgitation of stuff. It's about Duchamp and the readymade, but updated to exist within the context of today's globalised economy. It's about the rub between art and design, the mass-produced and unique, the functional and the dysfunctional."
Hutchison kept track of all the email exchanges, all the skype conversations he had with the people working in the factories. At first, the answers he got expressed bafflement and perplexity.
Soon enough though, some kind of conversation emerged...
Jeremy's project toured the blogs and design/art magazines but i finally got to see it in detail a month ago, when i visited New Sensations, a competition and exhibition organized by the Saatchi Gallery and Channel 4 to highlight works made by some of the most talented students graduating from universities and colleges across the UK and Republic of Ireland.
No matter how much i had read and seen about his project, i still wanted to interview Jeremy. Here we go:
Hi Jeremy! One of the most charming parts of the Err project is the exchange of emails and instant messaging conversations you had with employees of the manufacturing companies. I noticed that at some point, they would inform you about the working conditions of the workers. How did these details about TVs in the dinner rooms, women dancing in the park and meal times arise? Was it a question you asked or did the information come spontaneously? Do you feel that they emerged as a kind of self-defense against the assumptions we might have in 'the West' that the workers are treated poorly or are they the result of some personal relationship you managed to created over the exchange of emails?
Well, I set out to develop a personal relationship to the people who make things. Something beyond 'producers' and 'consumers'. I wanted to disrupt a relationship based on a capitalist exchange, where communication operates within strict linguistic codes: price, quantity, customs port. I wanted to introduce a different register into these conversations, to ask what they watched on telly, what music they danced to, what they thought about while they worked.
Obviously this information didn't come spontaneously! But everyone's curious about everyone else. So as our conversations lost their economic anchor and drifted into strange territory, a kind of unspoken permission was given. We talked about Indian cigarettes, Shanghai dragon-boat racing, the Colombian drugs trade. In exchange for pictures of my newborn son, they sent me images of factory dormitories, production lines, workers' canteens. Sometimes they wanted to dispel my Western perceptions. Sometimes they simply wanted something else to talk about. Either way, we exchanged a lot of trust, curiosity, and emoticons.
Were you expecting to struggle so much to get your request understood? The football ball that looks like a football ball but isn't one seems to have caused a lot of trouble for example. Can you also explain us what happened with the ball?
To be honest, I didn't expect a single response. My request was absurd: factories normally take orders of five thousand - not one. And certainly not one with an error. So I guess it came down to finding people who were willing to engage with the absurd, who wanted to know what would happen.
I found a factory in Pakistan that makes 100,000 footballs a month. I made friends with the Sales Director, Waleed. He agreed to make an incorrect football, but without his boss knowing. Every person in the production line made an error: the patches were in the wrong places, the stitching was terrible, the bladder poured out. It was lovely.
But ironically, the error went further. I got a frantic call in the middle of the night: Waleed was at the customs port. The authorities had seized the ball. When he explained than an Englishman had ordered a ball with errors, all hell broke loose. They said it was illegal to fabricate incorrect products, and they would revoke his company's trading licence. I explained that this product wasn't incorrect since it was exactly what I'd ordered. Days passed: nothing. Lost in the bureaucracy of Pakistani customs, I eventually got through to the high commissioner in Islamabad.
She was very apologetic, and explained that 20kg of heroin had recently passed under the radar at Sialkot customs. So everyone was feeling a bit paranoid. She issued a document stating that "the sculpture/artwork looks like a football but in fact is not a football and primarily this object is not for using as a football but is an artwork." But it was too late: someone had destroyed the ball, and it disappeared without a trace. I never quite found out who.
But Waleed and I are still friends.
I was also interested in hearing more about the meaning and narrative that some of the employees injected into the final artifact. For example, the comb that you cannot use to comb even got a name and a whole text justifying its use to 'a completely different section of society its unique something out of this world.'
Well, the comb was made in a small factory in Kolkata. My contact Manoj explained what happened when he relayed my request: 'everyone thought I have gone mad or mis-read your enquiry as everyone in the world strives to improve not to create error.' It seemed like the entire factory was involved in my dysfunctional comb. "We have named it IMPICO because first it was impossible to make and then when we eventually made it, it was impossible to use. So Impossible Comb = IMPICO." Manoj was curious about the market: How would I sell it? Who would buy it? I said I wasn't sure. So I suggested we make a print ad. He wrote the copy, and I did the art direction.
One of Marx's major quarrels with capitalism was the alien relationship it creates between the worker and the product of his work. I'd been wondering about this relationship, and how it might be altered: What if we lived in a world where the factory worker claimed authorship over his creation? What if narrative was injected into the object? How would this affect it?
Perhaps the intellectual activity they were required to perform caused a momentary jolt in their position, inviting them to insert meaning, humour, personality into their work. I think they enjoyed it. Apparently the man who chainsawed the acrylic chair to bits found it rather cathartic: 'The feeling was great after he cut the chair piece to piece... he was happy and enjoyed the process'. He told his boss to thank me, so that was nice.
I don't think it's my job to take a moral stance on things - more to ask energetic questions. So rather than reinforce pre-existing arguments (e.g. capitalism / anti-capitalism), I wanted to see what would happen if you lodged nonsense into the mechanics of a hyper-efficient global machine. To manufacture error.
But this project didn't come out of nowhere. It was triggered by an article I read about the Apple Mac factory in Shenzhen. Consumer hunger for iPads had reached such dizzying heights that life on the Chinese assembly line had become pretty devastating. The management had attached nets around the building, to catch people who were throwing themselves off the roof. One worker told the newspaper that 'he would deliberately drop something on the ground so that he could have a few seconds of rest when picking it up.'
An intentional error is a strange idea - illogical, oxymoronic. And fundamentally human. So in some ways, Err is simply a continuation of this worker's gesture. It's a moment of respite from the endless repetition of the global production line.
Err is a tremendously successful work. It has been exhibited in various venues and was discussed in countless blogs and magazine articles. Are you tempted to come up with a project that somehow continues or Err in the future or explores other sides of goods manufacturing?
Well the simple answer is that Err isn't finished. Next year, the confusion that this project performed in mass-production will belch out as a luxury brand. It'll look like something you know, but somehow everything will be wrong: a marketing platform sabotaged by its own miscommunication.
I want my work to deal with what's out there: mass production, emerging markets, Skype, consumerism, economic meltdown. So I've found manufacturing a useful vehicle to engage with the chaos of the 21st Century. While I want to avoid formula at all costs, I do have a couple more projects that operate in a similar realm. One of these will launch at Paradise Row gallery, and another might materialise this summer as an outdoor sculpture for the Southbank Centre, London.
Finally i was intrigued by the bitter-sweet projects you developed in Palestine and Israel. You seem to have adopted the role of the unlucky and innocent British tourist who puzzles Israeli with labels written in arabic and cycles against separation walls. Is it possible not to take a stand and judge when working in Israel and Palestine and exploring the political and social situation? Were the situation and relationships between people different from what you had expected from what the press tells us?
My experience in Palestine / Israel was transformative. I found two sides shouting different languages over an 8 metre high wall. People crawling through sewage tunnels to see their families. Semites making anti-semitic slurs against other semites. Nothing made sense. So what does a white middle-class English boy do in a conflict zone? He rides into concrete walls, drives around roundabouts, buys milk from shops that aren't selling it. Somewhere in the noise and confusion, I realised a few things. That it's essential to remain impartial - but impossible to do so. That confusion may be more productive than resolution. That things aren't supposed to make sense.
So while it's important to stand by something, to have an opinion, I think its more important to offer an alternative. Because whatever beliefs I hold true, I'd like to hold them lightly, flip them over, even toss them into the wind.
All images courtesy of Jeremy Hutchison.
This is the second time this year that i've encountered the work of the design collective. I discovered their work in Spring when i was attending a press conference at CCCS - Strozzina in Florence. Sven Jonke, Christoph Katzler and Nikola Radeljkovic had wrapped transparent tape all over the courtyard of the venerable Palazzo Strozzi to shape a self-supporting cocoon for people to crawl inside. For Z33, they've left the gaffer tape in Vienna and Zagreb (where they are based) and used nets to turn the whole exhibition space into a giant playground that can be explored horizontally as well as vertically. The idea might look incredibly simple but the result evokes floating architecture and flexible, aerial "landscape" as much as jungle gym.
I was beyond happy when Nikola and Christoph accepted to discuss their work with me. The interview focuses mostly on the Net at Z33 and on the Tape walk-in installation i saw in Florence but the Numen/ For Use website will, i'm sure, give you many more reasons to admire their work.
Sorry if i'm going to start on a very trivial note but one of the first questions that popped into my mind was "how about security?" I'm sure your installations are perfectly safe and sound but is 'health and safety' ever an issue? Are there any special measure you have to comply with and did they ever get in the way of your creativity?
Christoph: Security and safety is always the thing we fight with. Since we are educated as applied artists and since we do a lot of set design in theatre we are aware of all the problems concerning statics and security.
It is part of every daily reality. Especially when you make something in public space you have to fight with a lot of law issues. But often they are rather idiotic issues. It is bizarre to see how different countries and different organizers are putting weight and importance concerning law on totally different things and how they ignore others totally. But it is also interesting that in art institutions law is very often not seen so super strict like in other fields. This is one reason why I like to work there.
Up to now it was like this that either the ideas went without bigger problems into realization or they stopped very early due to some legal regulations.
How did you get to create The Net for Z33? Did they give you carte blanche or did you work on the idea together with the curator?
Christoph: We said, "we want to try something new." They said, "okay but we need the idea within two weeks", which was rather a short period for us to find something we really like. But the idea came actually easy and fast, which is rather rare, and we all were rather satisfied from the beginning.
In the video interview that you did for Z33, you explain that The Net is a testbed for a public version that could be installed between houses. Have you found a location already? Would you see it as a permanent structure or a nomadic one?
Christoph: YES, we are searching for a nice location in public to realize it there! In the opposite to our other walk-in installation (called Tape) it is much harder to find a location in the public space. Many of my friends would love to have it in there backyard to open the window and to jump inside for a sun-bath or whatever. But I do guess it would be difficult to find a location where all neighbors would give there permission to have "strangers" hanging around in front of there windows.
Another possibility would be to use one of those football-cages where kids are playing and to implant it there. It would be a different situation, but I think it still would work.
When i saw the Tape installation in the courtyard of Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, it was morning, there was a press conference, and none of the journalists was climbing inside the structure. Actually, i had no idea anyone was allowed to or even that anyone would think of doing it. The public is usually not supposed to climb into sculptures/installations. But somehow, i found the work fascinating enough. What is most important to you, that the public will want to engage physically with your work or that they are visually compelling?
Christoph: For us it is 100% important that the public can go inside and experience these works. Nowadays we write it in our contracts that the public has to be able to go inside during normal opening hours. When people see the installations most of them are curious, they want to go inside. But since you have to take your shoes off and crawl an all four it makes the social borders falling. They are starting to enjoy it together in a very communicative way although they often do not even know each other. This is nice! That's why we like to see it in the public. Maybe it is somehow like in a different world and some rules do not count anymore for a while.
The Tape shapes are very organic (at least to me.) How do they form? Do you have to work on computer models first to explore the sturdiness and elegance? Or is there rather much space for improvisation?
Christoph: We make just a simple model to test somehow the basic shapes not to be totally wrong and the rest we do on spot rather following our intuition. So there is no computer involved at all! We also do not draw or design a lot. It is basically just working, working working, because what ever you do it will always shrink into forms which are geometrically perfect! On spot it is a real rush and chaos, everybody is doing something. So in the beginning we often think we made some mistakes. But now we know that it is just the usual phase. We just go on and it is fine at the end.
You trained as industrial designers, but what you do now seems to be miles away from industrial design. Would you agree with that statement? Or do you feel that your practice evolved in a logical way and that, no matter what you are doing today, you are still true to your roots as industrial designers?
Nikola: It seems but it is not. Industrial design implies a certain awareness of the needs and wishes of the user and we consider the visitors of our installations in that way. Designers are constantly trying to personalize products and production, to humanize mass produced items. On the other hand, we are at the moment seriously working on industrializing our installations, in the sense that we are developing a walk-in installation which can be set over and over again. Our working process and professional ethos are still strongly influenced by our design roots and I find it stimulating to exchange influences and experiences from one field to another. The strict border between art and design is, in my opinion, totally artificial and absurd. Both fields are about visual communication of abstract values, about media and society, both use creative potentials to articulate spatial relations and both constantly refer to one another. It was like this even before pop art and after...
Does For Use still find time to design chairs and other pieces of furniture or have the more artistic projects completely taken over your time and energy?
Christoph: I am at the moment mostly into the experimental projects because I feel much more freedom and I see much more joyful feedback from the audience. But we still deal with design and I do guess we will approach different to that profession in the future and open up our borders.
Nikola: Since Christoph is avoiding design completely, I am probably dealing with design more that ever!-)
Thanks Christoph and Nikola!
You have until October 2nd to jump in the NET at the House for Contemporary Art Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium.