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.
It was time i'd interview Niklas Roy! Jonah Brucker-Cohen had a fantastic talk with him for gizmodo but that was 4 years ago. And there are video portraits about Niklas Roy online but there are in a language i can't quite master. Niklas is one of the most facetious characters of the 'new media art' world. His dance machine without 'annoying Dj", moving curtain, 'distributed' fountains, white cube gallery in a box, physical teapot inside a Commodore cabinet or his electromechanical version of the game Pong are certainly witty, absurd and at times, even hilarious. But don't let the jesting fool you. Behind the playfulness of Roy's machines, lay much irony and lucidity about the world of art & tech he belongs to.
Hi, Niklas! Why do you feel the need to invent 'useless things'?
Well, I guess that engineers and designers which usually invent machines and devices mainly do that in order to solve a problem with their inventions. Or they want to make an existing process more efficient with the help of technology. But such efficiency-driven approaches exclude a vast field of possible inventions. I find it very interesting to explore this field as it promises to be very free.
Do you really believe that your works are useless?
Somehow, my creations often end up in art exhibitions. So the question is, how useless is art? I strongly believe that art is useful for the health of society in some sort of balancing way. From that point of view, my machines might be a bit useful.
It is a bit daunting to interview you. I'm not sure i can trust any of your answers. Especially after having had a look at the WIA < > WIA project for which a fictitious African artist set up an installation that consisted of a public toilet in Linz, that appeared to be hooked up via Internet to an African village's well. Why did you chose to trick ars electronica? Was it really a spoof? Surely they must have known there was something fishy in the work?
Ars Electronica is the leading Media Arts institution. Their pole position makes them define trends and create hypes. Unfortunately, I often cannot agree to those hypes - which feeds the rebel in me.
Melissa's - let's call it 'performance' - started when Ars Electronica released a 'call for proposals' for an exhibition as part of Linz' culture capital program. This open call was more or less a very clear wish list of what they'd like to show. This open call would have made a good briefing for companies which focus on designing interactive installations. But it was not suitable to address artists which should stimulate the society by expressing their own positions. My application as African artist Melissa Fatoumata Touré began as a little fun experiment. I submitted precisely what Ars Electronica asked for and spiced it up with some toilet humour. I wanted to know how they'd react to such a rather ridiculous submission. It worked out far better than I thought: As I heard later, Melissa's toilet project was the first that got accepted by the jury - and they were even a bit sad that the other submissions didn't even come close to the 'quality' of Melissas proposal. Well, this is what the jury said.
To answer your last two questions: As far as I know, the organizers really had no clue what was going on until Melissa presented her work via Skype and with a live video broadcast from her uncle's internetcafé in Africa. That happened about three weeks after the opening of the exhibition, as far as I remember. But you should not forget that they've never seen Melissa before this presentation. It was all organized just via email and phone calls. There was a lot of imagination involved. On both sides actually: I also could just imagine what the organizers in Linz would think about Melissa. And during the long process of preparing the exhibition and the installation, I often had the feeling that Ars Electronica wouldn't believe Melissa's identity anymore and that they're already playing with me.
I like your explanation of why Melissa is 'the perfect dream of every new media curator.' And i couldn't help but smirk at 'her ideas are distilled media art mainstream.' Could you elaborate on this? What are 'distilled media art mainstream' ideas? Do i perceive a certain disenchantment/fatigue with media art theories and ideas? Or am i completely wrong?
I'm not even sure if ideas and theory play such a big role if you want to become successful in this field. Here are some simple lessons that I've learned so far:
1st: Don't be an artist. You should be an architect or have a background in biology, or something else more or less unrelated. Melissa was actually a computer scientist. Talking about Melissa: Your gender also plays a role. Being a woman beats being a man, as women are extremely underrepresented in this field.
2nd: No matter what you're really up to, I can recommend you to also make some experimental electronic music. This adds an interesting layer to your personality. Your level of musicality doesn't matter as that's the point where the experimental part starts.
3rd: Buzzwords and -topics are your friends and your source of inspiration. You might consider to become active in the fields of biotech, sustainability or, of course, Facebook.
You explain that you created the Vektron modular because sometimes you need to listen to some strange zoundz. That sounds (to me at least) like a lot of work just for the sake of listening to some strange zoundz. I was wondering how often you create a work just for your own amusement. How much are you influenced by the possible feedback from public, the future reaction of the audience during the creative process? Do you give it much importance when you are developing a new work?
Building this synthesizer was actually an attempt to add an interesting layer to my personality. But I didn't want to write it so clear on my webpage, as this would have caused the reverse effect. Ok, now serious: I regard the development of things like this experimental Synthesizer as both, spare time fun and hands on research. I do that as often as possible as it often leads me to new ideas. The hard thing is actually to organize life an a way that you have so much spare time where you can work really free.
I was very impressed by the little video documenting the Reinventing Television workshop you headed a the Valand Art School in Gothenburg. Can you take us through a couple of projects that turned old tv sets into 'storytelling machines'?
This was really a nice workshop. Anna Kindvall, one of the directors of Malmö's Electrohype biennial was teacher there at that time and invited me. The idea was to take old TV's and build new machines inside or with them. I often built TV's out of cardboard boxes when I was a child and don't get me wrong, now, but I think when something was a lot of fun to do in childhood, it's always nice to make the same things with art students.
My Little Piece of Privacy is a curtain that moves along your studio window to protect you from the gaze of passersby and achieves precisely the opposite. I have the feeling that it is also the kind of idea that the 'creatives' in advertising and communication agencies would love to steal for their clients. Has anything like that ever happened to you? Have people from advertising ever approached you with a request to adapt one of your projects for their client? Is it something you'd be happy to do?
This installation is indeed an amazing attention-magnet. But the installation makes so much sense because it is just about a little hyperactive curtain. If the curtain would be replaced by a moving advertisement, it would be just poor. Maybe the 'creatives' which wanted to steal the idea also realized that. At least they didn't contact me and I haven't heard of any spin-offs, yet.
I guess the previous question calls for the upcoming one: The first time i saw your work was at Transmediale where you were showing Pongmechanik. You were still a student at the udk in Berlin at the time. As far as i can see you're still a happy independent artist doing exactly what takes his fancy. How do you do that? Do you have any advice for talented media art students who would like to actually have a career as media artist and not as 'creative' doing websites for an 'interactive design' company?
I think I answered that already in two different ways: My personal trick is mainly to organize life in a way that I have a lot of time (and at least enough money) to work on things that I find interesting. Working in a company will not really help, as this takes too much time.
How did you start being involved in media art? What attracted you in this field?
It was actually many years ago, when a friend took me for my first time to the Transmediale. I was working in the film business at that time, creating visual effects for feature films. This Transmediale visit caused two things: On the one hand, I've never seen so many interesting installations at one place before. I loved the way how technology was used in this very creative way. And on the other hand, I saw that there's plenty of space to make even more interesting things with technology. That's why I started to get involved in this field.
I saw the International Dance Party once in an exhibition in Amsterdam. i was alone in the room and could afford to throw away any kind of inhibition. But you must have witnessed the effect it has on a group of people. How do people react to it usually? Are they very self-conscious? Or rather extrovert?
Like the curtain, the IDP works amazingly well. But of course, there's a little bit of chain reaction involved. If one person starts to dance, it doesn't take long until the whole room takes off. The sad thing about this is, that I really like how the machine opens and closes and how it transforms its shape. People which are just dancing don't recognize that, as the installation always stays in full party mode. If that's the case, I sometimes try to convince the people to stop dancing. First they don't approve my suggestion, but if they do, they love the installation even more afterwards.
Has anyone ever bought the Beginner Set "Junior IDP"?
That's my main income!
Any upcoming project or exhibition that you'd like to share with us?
Yes, there's this exhibition in Barcelona's DHUB opening soon. The vernissage is on June 21st.
And then, there's another exhibition, called 'Paranoia' which is still going on in Lille's Gare St. Sauveur. Charles Carcopino curated this really great show. I can 100% recommend it and it's still running until 15th of August.
Photography used on the homepage is by Martin W. Maier.
If you want to see a penguin, you go to the zoo. If you're curious about dinosaurs and dodos, any natural history museum will enlighten you. But where do you go if you want to learn about spider silk-producing goats, anti-malarial mosquitoes, fluorescent zebrafish or the terminator gene?
Right now, you can only rely on good old internet. But in June, the Center for PostNatural History will finally open its doors to anyone interested in genetically engineered life forms. This public outreach organization is dedicated to collecting, documenting and exhibiting life forms that have been intentionally altered by people through processes such as selective breeding and genetic engineering.
The center maintains a collection of living species when it's possible. Otherwise they welcome the dead bodies of organisms of postnatural origin and in the absence of postnatural corpses, they present video and photography.
Along with its permanent exhibition and research facility for PostNatural studies, the center organizes traveling exhibitions that address the PostNatural through thematic and regional perspectives.
The center wasn't open yet when we visited Pell. All the images below were taken in the temporary studio where the collection is stored until the grand opening.
Hi, Rich! The Center for Postnatural History (CPNH) looks pretty unique to me but do you know if there are any center, organization or groups doing something similar anywhere else in the world?
We wouldn't want to stake our merit on claims of being first. There are in fact several natural history museums that have mounted exhibits that address issues of postnatural interest, such as the origins of domesticated Horses exhibit produced by the American Natural History Museum in NYC, or domesticated crops, such as the Seeds of Change exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, or the transgenic bull Herman, who is on display at the Naturalis in the Netherlands. However, these are the exceptions to the rule. None of these museums are actively collecting, or interested in collecting, domesticated or otherwise genetically modified organisms. The evolutionary history that begins with the dawn of agriculture and the domestication of animals and continues on towards genetic engineering and synthetic biology is documented in bits and pieces, but not in any central location. To our knowledge there are no other museums that take as their mission to collect and exhibit the lifeforms that have been intentionally altered by humans.
It's easy to understand why one can be fascinated by these modified organism but what made you decide to open a Center for Postnatural History? It's a huge commitment.
Around seven years ago I was introduced to the emerging field of synthetic biology by Chris Voigt. At the same time, I was researching evolutionary biology and was struck by the fact that there is such resources devoted to documenting the natural world, but that the participation of humans in altering that living world is so rarely presented to the public. When I began looking at the collections of natural history museums I noticed that newly engineered organisms were not only absent from the collections, but that there was little interest in collecting them. The rare exceptions of Herman the Bull in the Netherlands, or Dolly the Sheep in Scotland, both point to the symbolic roll that these organisms can often play as icons, while the vast multitude of genetically engineered organisms remain undocumented. This seems like a significant blind spot in the public consciousness worth addressing.
When you start reading about the Roundup ready corn, the Triploidy Atlantic Salmon or other modified plants or insects, it is hard not to be judgmental. Some of the modifications are quite positive of course such as the mosquito that doesn't transmit malaria. Still, i didn't detect criticism in your discourse so far. So what is your position/strategy? Do you plan to be as neutral as possible in your presentation of the information and let the public join the dots?
We take it as our mission to allow for people to have the experience of arriving at an idea on their own. Personal discovery can be an incredibly transformative experience. Language that comes with a predefined worldview can get in the way of a person finding their own language and framework of understanding. As a strategy we make an attempt to describe the postnatural world without using the language of industry, academia or activism. In practice, this is not always possible, but it remains the ideal goal. Forming one's own opinion can be a frustrating experience. We are sometimes contacted by people, months after coming across one of our exhibits, who are still wrestling with an issue. For us, this is encouraging. The issues are too important and too complicated not to be questioning our own assumptions and re-framing our own ideas in new ways.
When i visited what is going to be the Center in Pittsburgh, i noticed a short presentation of the CPNH hanging on the wall the text ended with the names of some of the people who helped you set up the exhibit at some point. I recognized a few names of artists. What is the role of artists in Postnatural History? Which place will you give to their work in the center?
Artists on the whole play a similar role in the creation of a postnatural history museum as they do in natural history. There are experiences to be created, things that must be documented, stories to be told. The difference is that some artists are also altering the living world as a part of the artwork that they make. In some of these cases, if the changes they are making are heritable and thus "in-play" evolutionarily speaking, then specimens of these lifeforms may be collected by the CPNH and cataloged alongside the organisms produced by universities, corporations and other individuals.
How would you define your own role at the CPNH? Is still the one of an artist? Or rather a curator?
The word "curator" is commonly used in natural history museums to refer to the people who manage the various collections of the museum, such as "Curator of Mammals", "Curator of Mollusks" and so forth. Until such time as the collection becomes large enough to require more than one curator, I will hold the title of Curator of PostNatural Organisms.
I discovered your center at the Alter Nature exhibition at Z33 in Hasselt. I took with me some of the cards and they are colour-coded. 'green' is for 'transgenic', lila is for 'mutant', orange is for 'hybrid', etc. can you explain us the distinctions briefly? some are clear, others are more confusing to me...
These distinctions are significant, but not always separate or exclusive. Some may occupy more than one category. Some new categories may be added. Transgenic refers to a genetically engineered organism that has had DNA from one or more different species intentionally inserted into its genome. This kind of alteration is not possible with traditional breeding and was developed in the mid-1970's. A mutant has had its DNA altered through the use of chemicals or radiation to induce largely random changes to its genome. Mutations occur all the time in nature, but are sometimes artificially selected for or induced by people. Most of the traditional vegetables we eat are very different in appearance and taste from anything we find in nature. These are the result of spontaneous mutations that were selected for by people over many generations, in the case of corn, thousands of years.
Did you talk about the Center for Postnatural History to more 'traditional' natural history museums? How is the reaction of the curators and conservators over there about your own center? Would they invite you to set up a temporary exhibition in their space for example?
The response from natural history museums has been quite welcoming. We have been invited to meet with several of the largest natural history museums in the world. A common response from them is, "Why isn't anyone else doing this?" However, none are willing to devote their own limited resources towards this area. Generally speaking, the biologists who curate natural history museums have a strong interest in natural ecology and the environment. The idea of studying the human-created habitat of an organism that has been raised in captivity is generally seen as profoundly boring by them. However, we have received invitations to exhibit specimens from our collection within their museum and are currently in negotiations regarding this.
The Centre will have a permanent exhibition as well as temporary shows. What will the opening temporary show be about?
Our first temporary exhibit will be a regional survey entitled, "Cultivated, Invasive and Engineered: PostNatural Plants of the Appalachian Region". This will feature three themes. Indigenous medicinal and food plants that were cultivated by Native Americans and European settlers which have been collectively shared over time, such as Ginseng, Black Cohosh and Wild Yam, the direct ancestor of modern hormonal birth control. Secondly, invasive or "opportunistic" plants such as Kudzu, which was brought to North America as an ornamental plant from Japan at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and is now, lacking necessary predators, spreading rapidly across the continent. And lastly, newly engineered crops that are nearly ubiquitous in the US, but are highly controlled by the private corporations that own their intellectual property rights.
Are there specific safety regulations you need to comply with to open the center?
We follow the law. There is nothing within our collection that requires any kind of special permit. We have no special access as compared to anyone else. There are many things we might like to exhibit in their living form but are unable to do so. We see this however as an opportunity, and find ways of exhibiting the absence of the subject as a way of building a discourse around the issues of regulation, containment, secrecy and intellectual property.
Are you free to show any kind of modified species?
Newly engineered transgenic organisms must pass a regulatory process maintained by the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service before they can leave the lab. As a result we are limited in what living organisms we are able to exhibit. For instance, the only transgenic vertebrate which we are able to exhibit are the commercially produced GloFish™ that expressed green, red and yellow fluorescent protein and thus glow under black light. These however can be purchased in many pet stores. We are however able to exhibit genetically engineered organisms that are dead. These were killed while at the lab with the support of the researcher in charge. Preserved specimens are not considered a contamination risk and are therefore not regulated by the US Department of Agriculture.
I was reading through the blog that documents your Smithsonian Research Fellowship and read this: 'There appears to be an interesting relationship between military incursion and specimen acquisition. Particularly amongst the rodent collection, one can see the location and approximate start and end dates of most of the major American military projects of the 20th and 21st centuries. Reasons for this appear to be numerous and will be explored further during our stay here at the Smithsonian.' Can you give us more details about this?
What makes the Smithsonian unique among museums, is that it is The National Museum of the United States of America. In some respects, the National Museum of Natural History is the biological memory of the State itself. One of the first things I noticed while there, was that there was a strong bias within the rodent collection towards places that our military has had a presence. The sites of wars, occupations and military exercises are all thoroughly represented. The reasons for this are many. In some cases they are collected by the military when they enter a new environment and are concerned about potential disease vectors, and the specimens eventually find their way into the National collection. But in other cases they are collected by Smithsonian researchers who are working in coordination with the military. Some of the larger collections of animals are from these situations and include: Fish and small mammals collected during the Operation Crossroads atomic tests at Bikini Atoll in 1946; A large assessment of biological diversity at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site following the suspension of atmospheric bombing in 1964; And a large collection of birds and mice collected during the Project SHAD germ warfare tests at Johnston Atoll in the mid-60's. There are also a number of white lab mice and rats that were donated to the Smithsonian by the Walter Reed Medical Center and the National Cancer Institute who were developing them as model organisms to study the effects of radiation in the 1940's. These specimens all quietly tell stories of the movements, fears and aspirations of the United States. They serve as examples of how deeply intertwined our cultural history is with our natural history and are reminders of how the project of science is never divorced from the cultural context in which it is conducted.
The Center for PostNatural History will open its permanent space in June 2011 at 4913 Penn Ave. in Pittsburgh, PA.
* In case anyone was wondering, the book's not ready yet, apparently it takes more time to proof read it than to write it.