No one dons the moustache like Fernando Llanos. He's a video artist, a musician, a writer, a blogger, a curator, he makes drawings i'd like to steal, he's the über macho-looking Mexican guy who walks around the city with a chihuahua in his bag. He also produces tv shows, works on Animasivo --a festival of animation in Mexico, and the moto of his own radio programme is: "Porque no hace falta hablar de arte para hablar de arte" ("There's no need to talk about art in order to talk about art"). When he's not performing Fernando Llanos is always impeccably dressed. Come to think of it, he's probably the one and only media artist whose sense of style i admire. Fernando is from Mexico city but we met in Brazil. Women were offering him drinks, men were trying to trade shirts with him. We saw each other again a few days ago in Mexico where i was staying for the Transitio_mx festival.
Fernando gained fame with the films and messages he projects over public spaces around the world. He carries all his equipment on his back, on a bike or on a skateboard. His projections are site-specific. For his first video performance, he projected airplanes crashes on the airport of Porto Alegre in Brasil. He built a superhero aura and mythology around his performances. When he screens, he's not Fernando Llanos anymore, he is Videoman. He's got the posters, the figurine, the attire, the cool gadgets, he even has the superpet. As he says: Just like Batman has his robin, Superman has his dog Krypto, Videoman has Chamaco!! Recently Videoman was at the Mapping Festival in Geneva and introduced the crowd to the Videohuahua, a chihuahua screening angry chihuahua barkings outside an art gallery in the center of the Swiss city.
I'm glad i'm gettting back on the interview road (the last one dates back to March) with Fernando Llanos:
I read somewhere that one of your moto is "Se feliz: consume vídeo". Which kind of video could make us happy? And how?
The slogan of my website has been, all along those 9 years BE HAPPY CONSUME VIDEO.
Ten years ago or so, when i was starting to do some widespread cultural spam in order to promote my video exhibitions, i was looking for a sentence that i could identify with and that people would remember easily. There are slogans in Mexican publicity that promote the consumption of vegetables or water (healthy things): "Eat fruit and vegetables", for example. So i decided to create mine, right from the start i wanted it to kick off with two concepts that are important to me: To BE (to be something in life, whatever you like as long as it enables you to exercize your existence) and HAPPINESS (i see myself as a hopeless eudaimonist).
The slogan contains two intentions. The first one is to underline with humour the consumption of what i produce: video, and i do it using the same sentence tone as advertising, at least the one legally handled in here. Here slogans such as "eat fruit and vegetables" can only be part of some advertising campaign.
But the real motivation is also a more complex one, or at least one that is more refined, it is the one i mention in the conclusion of my thesis "Video online: New Spaces, New Narratives" where i summarize the work i made with video and internet. I do it this way:
"The video format online becomes more flexible and participatory, and this concerns as much the artists as the public itself.
I'm looking for new strategies that would connect my production with people, it seems to me that the abyss between the sacred art of the museum and the oi polloi is getting wider. I think that art needs to connect more directly with all kinds of people or at least that art should be looked at with new eyes, and to achieve that we need new, less complacent and less passive strategies.
Mi battle cry has been so far "Be happy, consume video". If the word "video" takes its origins in the first person of the indicative present of the latin verb and means "I see", the proposal is therefore that everyone consumes what they want to see and share online their own iconosphere. Besides, in a country without memory, we should make our own history and show it online to the whole country and to the rest of the world. Let's stop importing references and which medium is more adapted to that than video?
I'm interested in shared reflections. Over the past four years i found confirmation of my belief: over 1000 persons, of any type of profile, from every part of the world, have received video each week by email. And over 3 millions visits on my webpage make me think that there are ways to achieve this.
The future cannot be only for artists, nor can thesis be solely for university graduates or members of ecclesiastical councils."
The funny thing is that i wrote this text just as i was working on the first drafts of Videoman. Somehow i see similar intentions and common grounds.
During one of your presentations at the festival arte.mov in Brazil you defined your video performances as 'urban acupuncture.' Can you explain us what this involves? Do cities really need to be submitted to acupuncture?
What i do is indeed a performance but i would rather call them Video-interventions. They consist in the projection of moving videos in the city. I chose specific location where a dialogue between the space and the screening can take place. I've done over 30 video-interventions in 5 different cities in 3 yeas. Each of them aims to be different from the others, to show a peculiar way to interact with people or with a specific zone, you can watch the videos online.
This is how i describe them in the catalog:
The content of the projections can be linked to the history of the place, to recent events related to it and/or local reflections of popular interest. Involving passersby is part of both the action and the art piece through a 'closed circuit' system (recording of the video, manipulation, editing and projection in real time).
These video-interventions and their recording create new materials that, in their turn, become into the raw material that starts to process, exhibit and broadcast online in order to give way to a shared reflection with people who may or may not be related to the art world.
I called Videoman's video interventions "urban acupuncture" because i thought it was a good metaphor of the way they work in the city. They are short, sometimes they are disturbing and are a bit incisive. I believe that in some way they can help to make public space a "healthier" place through a brief catharsis. This "cure" can be a very subjective apreciación but it seems to me that it can be applied to anyone who works in public space and believe that they can contaminate the public with something of their proposal.
The term was inspired by one of Guillermo Gómez-Peña's performances, the Mad-mex. We met in the Bienal de Mercosul in 2005, when i was presenting the first version of Videoman, he was 'de-colonizing' the body of a woman who was holding the flags of the countries that invaded with acupuncture needles. That's where i first thought of calling my interventions that way.
Let's remember that the original and full name of the project is:
[ vi video ]
Later on, however, the project was more closely related to the terms Videoman and urban acupuncture.
Obviously i believe that cities need this sort of urban acupuncture. Graffiti, sticker guerrilla, radio pirate, etc. Each of these manifestations that co-exist in a city and that take place without asking for the permission of the authorities are, in my view, necessary to the development of a healthy cultural life. If one only relies on the established channels and spaces, where and how can new discourses be inserted that are likely to refresh the existing ones? I believe that our megalopolis needs some kind of participative cure. How can we appropriate spaces and make them ours if everything is left in the hands of the government or of corporate advertising? As i explained in one of my talks, i believe in the sentence of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata: "The Land Belongs to Those Who Work It". That's how public space should be understood, at least as far as people who dedicate their life to art and interested in sharing it with new audiences are concerned.
One takes some actions, even if they scandalize or make people feel uncomfortable, that's a sign that something is happening and it is better than to resign yourself to the indifference or the polite silence of the public who visit museums. I think that the punk voice, the voice of denunciation, of the DIY spirit can help understand the nature of that acupuncture.
Our cities are overwhelmed with visual stimuli: billboards, neon signs, information boards, etc. How do you compete with that and get passersby attention during your video performances?
The starting point is not to regard them as competition, artists use other elements such as physicality or movement to attract the attention. Sometimes even the outfit or the means of transport can be used to leave an indentation in the memory.
We can not discuss in terms of competition because the advertising world always has had much higher budgets. One has to be able to turn things upside down. Unlike publicity, Videoman's video projections are site-specific, they tie in better with their context and exploit scandal better. A publicity is most often visible in many places and they will eventually be replaced by others. The projections i make attempt to attache themselves and explode within a very concrete space.
Besides, as far as attracting the attention is concerned, i have an advantage. I can be politically incorrect and show things that publicity can't show. For example, i can project pornography in the street or a kiss on the prostitutes working in the red district of a city, or the planes that miss their landing in the airport. This is a discursive luxury, not anyone can use it, you have to be cynical and have guts to do something like that. You have to embrace the challenge and very often even risk your body in order to create an action so deeply poetical that it will remain in people's meme, turn into a myth and almost become word of mouth.
The most fascinating characteristic of Videoman for me is all the mythology you build around it: the figurines, bicycle, posters that end up in movie theater, etc. Is this part of a larger strategy?
Exploring this mythification of the character has been extremely fun and constructive, i was able to broaden the imagery of Videoman's field of action. The project is in fact based on highlighting ideas, it's not as if i'd spend my life projecting images. I do the projections and then document them (both on line and off line) and that's what gives a sense to the whole research behind the project, but i've enjoyed very much the possibility to lucubrate and expand myself further in the mythification of a super-hero.
Besides, working along these principles has enabled me to copy marketing strategies that help superheroes maintain their image.
In reality, as i said in the talk, i always wanted to be a superhero. When i was a kid i used to collect the comics of Superman, Batman and Spiderman, my first drawings represented this kind of warriors, a mix between super-heroes, Mad Max and the luchadores. When i was 9, i was selling at school the reproductions of drawings i was making of He-Man and the Transformers. If you analyze Videoman, you will see that he was be as basic as Batman, he's a guy with tools, discipline and a lot of guts.
Therefore i already had the fascination for these stories, those media, those objects when i was just a kid. Expanding the project using objects that respond to this sort of marketing strategy has enabled me to broaden the spectrum of fascination and empathy that the character can generate.
I think that's the reason why people associate the project more with the word VIDEOMAN than with its original name, it is easier to associate the whole project with the images of the character in action than with the interventions themselves.
Or are these declinations of your persona just ideas you get 'on the spur of the moment'? My favourite were the moustache and the figurine episodes. Would you mind elaborating on those two?
As i explained you in the previous question, when i started working on this project, i was convinced that the most important element was the projection of the video in the street, but i gradually realized that the character of VIDEOMAN was taking the lead role, that many of his intentions could be summed up in his harnesses and his equipment, that's how i started thinking i should give way to the desire i had always had to be a superhero. It was very simple, as a kid, i used to read many comics and i always aspired to be a superhero. As time passed i realized that in the art world one can invent whatever they want and as one generate their own bubble and enjoys staying inside it, why shouldn't i create my own superhero?
But that was a slow and gradual process. The first version just coined the name VIDEOMAN, and it fits the postcard quite well. After that i started working more on the idea of a garment and attire that would befit a superhero, borrowing from the strategies of the superheroes i found most interesting: the poster, the figurines, a comic to explain the project, etc. I would like to keep on following along those lines. I'd like to shoot a trailer in 35 mm of a film that doesn't exist and keep on building fiction around the character.
In the beginning, the moustache was a tribute to Felipe Ehrenberg, the first conceptual artist in México, i was curating his 50 year retrospective for the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City and it seemed to me that after 3 years of work, it was high time to come up with an action that would draw attention to the complicity we had together. His moustache is a key characteristic of his personality. I kept it and shaved it only the day after the inauguration.
One day i read that his moustache was a tribute to Emiliano Zapata, then somehow I also felt it had some similarities with the character of Videoman. I therefore decided that for some versions, the character would wear this kind of revolutionary emblem, as the majority of Zapatistas wore moustaches and fought in guerrilla.
The figurines of Videoman that we issed were commissioned to someone whose sole occupation is to make superheroes. He sells them at the exit of Metro stations or on the main square, he has Superman, Batman, but also some Mexican superheroes such as El Santo, Chapulin Colorado, etc. I asked the sculptor to adapt in figurine the pictures in which i appear as Videoman, i loved the way he enlarged my features and misinterpreted concepts. I think that there is some beauty in the way knowledge or concepts can be adulterated. A + B does not always equal C, it can be Ab or aB. I like to see the subtle conceptions that an unofficial expert of heroes can have being reflected in an object that reminds me of the cult we raise to those characters. The ones of Starwars, the Marvel or the Manga. People do not collect figures of saints anymore, nowadays they almost pray to these new icons.
You collaborate also with commercial brands. Can you give us a couple of examples and explain the kind of limit(s) you impose on those collaborations? When do you accept a purely commercial commission and what makes you reject another one?
I do a lot of commercial works, i call them creative exercises, they help me stay in shape. Making a DVD for a client like ABSOLUT requires a rigor and technical ability that i might not look for otherwise. Creating a tv programme that both the producer and the channel will like is a big challenge, because in the art world, people tend to answer only to themselves, no matter how good or bad that can be. I think that making exercises that start with limits is always healthy from a creativity point of view, and the world of advertising is full of those limits, themes and contents.
I have a video production company that allows me to undertake any type of commercial work, designing web pages, shooting video clips or making of for movies. I don't put the Fernando Llanos firm under these works. I don't want to associate any brand or commercial project with my name nor with my artistic projects. Nike wanted to hire me to use Videoman as part of a strategy of guerrilla advertising. I obviously declined. I don't think these things and worlds should mix up. Instead, i sold them a videoclip and everyone was happy.
Of course the main reason why i accept these work is the budget they give me access to. It feels like going to school and being paid huge amounts of money so that i can learn and train. Making this kind of concessions allows me to increase the competence and freedom i have for my own artistic projects. Working one week on a commercial project enables me to live well during 3 months while working full time on my projects as an artist or cultural producer. The most important thing is that you never lose sight of your priorities, that you are aware that your production as an artist is above everything else.
You are preparing a book on Ciudad Satélite. Can you tell us what the book will be like? How you came to be interested in this suburban area?
Satélite, the book (Historias suburbanas de la Ciudad de México - Suburban stories of Mexico City) is a publishing projects that touches upon themes of architectural, artistic and scientific popularization. Its aim is to investigate the destiny of an emblematic suburb for the middle class, a pioneer at its origins but which grew more conservative over time. It seeks to crystallize the history and memory of its people, places, idiosyncrasies and identity. This is illustrated with the collaboration of artists who live in that area.
The publishing projects hopes to contribute to the awareness of an urban phenomenon, the middle class suburb, created as a progressive and modern challenge by one of México's most famous architects. It did however evolved into a serial and uniform city, based on maximizing the rent and on a conservative social project with a dose of political innovation.
It aims to enrich the visual, architectonic and cultural landmark that is the Ciudad Satélite for Mexico City. Ciudad Satélite, almost 50 years after its construction, features a peculiar wealth that has been scarcely identified and valued: its architectural legacy and its complex urban planing, the iconography of the so-called "spatial era" that lead to its foundation, its aesthetic that blends modernism and consumer kitsch.
The idea is to crystallize the memory of the area, through the story and history of the life of its inhabitants, but also the advertisements that promoted the communities at the end of the '50s, as well as the narratives of "external observers" of this new suburban culture. All of that will undoubtedly contribute to the promotion to the enrichment of local cultures.
Eight years ago i decided to propose the realization of an experimental documentary about the Satellite City, as a thesis project, in order to graduate from the Centro Nacional de las Artes in Fine Arts. My interest for the theme was at first to get to know my roots and reconcile myself with my origin. But i was also fascinated by the fact that in a city of something like 20 million inhabitants, one of the biggest on the planet, there is a specific way of being that can be identified, mythified inside and by Mexico City. It is something that, in my view, reveals a cultural contribution that many Chilangos are not ready to acknowledge yet.
I was born in D.F., but from zero to 10 year old i was living in Valle Dorado, a satellite city of Satélite. I grew up, as some say, inside the aegis of the satellite culture. Before i started investigating the issue, satellite was for me a symbol of the promises of development that were never realized (the beginning of the famous post-modernity), exquisite ambassadors of the kitsch and the suburban aesthetics, the part of Mexico City that most aspired to be yankee and the characters with their provincial aura who go through the capital as satellites.
I had a series of abstract beliefs that did not really fit into the picture, the only thing i knew for sure was that inhabitants of Satellite city were among the few easily recognizable people in this big city: the way they dress, talk, even their hair was peculiar, different and identifiable, just like people from Tepito or Coyoacán (other neighbourhoods with a strong personality in DF.) A 'being' distant from the omnivore and homogeneous fauna of Mexico City.
In order to realize the documentary i mentioned i worked on a little book i called "satellite logbook". It's a booklet where i wrote down the information i was gathering: cuttings, drawings, statistics, drafts, ideas that would help me unfold the mysteries of Satellite City. A mere depository of information without any form nor pretense.
I interviewed some personalities living in the region. I managed to get fragments of documentaries and tv programs in which Satellite City appeared. I read in the Hemeroteca Nacional all the Ecos de Satélite (Satellite's Echo), the mythical newspaper of the area. The investigation grew so much that i never shot that video and graduated with another project.
Four years later the start of the investigation i met Uriel Waizel and we founded Satelín Torres, a project of urban renovation using the enhancement of local culture, a space within which unravel and promote everything about Satellite, an initiative which, in some way and 8 years later, has triggered this editorial project.
I must admit that what i admire the most among your artworks are the drawings. Can you select 3 of them and comment briefly each of them?
Thank you Régine, i'm happy that you like the drawings. I've been drawing as far as i can remember and i love to "think with the hands", as Ehrenberg called the act of drawing. Even if i've always drawn, it's only recently (and thanks to the publication of Cursiagridulce) that i've been invited to do exhibitions of drawings and not only of my work on video or online.
I'm going to comment three drawings from two different projects. The first one is a drawing about Videoman, it's called "Mapa mental" (Mental Map), the second and third one are from my book Cursiagridulce, one is called "Corazón" and the last one "Software included".
The first one, Mapa mental, is a drawing that helps me explain what comes into play in the version 4.0. of Videoman, the one i presented at Madrid Abierto. Drawings help me in my projects because i like fluid sketches and diagrams, they help me see all the information in just one look and help me give space to the complexity of the idea to be developed. In this specific case it helps me communicate with the rest of the team with whom i developed the harness. The engineer and the stylist rely on this drawing, it explains the concepts and the functions it should embody and from there they can make a proposal to me.
This drawing has three parts: the central one shows the breakdown of the equipment and the way it connects to its electrical electrical autonomy or dependence. On the left side, at the bottom, there is a proposal about how the system, in particular all the devices, can fit into the bicycle. On the right side are notes related to the outfit over a lucha libre doll.
This version in Videoman is particularly ecological, the electricity is generated by a dynamo activated when i pedal which, in turn, charges the battery. For this and with the intention of engaging further the public, a microphone enables people to talk and an open Bluetooth network enable the sharing of videos, speech and thoughts bubble appear just like in comics.
This is a large format drawing, the first drafts of the project were small but because the booklet had to move to the exhibition space, i decided to give more graphical formality (technically they are more sophisticated than a draft made with more spontaneity) and a larger dimension. In this way, the drawing kept its function, but it looks much better.
The drawing "Corazón" (Heart) is one of the oldest of Cursiagridulce, i made it while i was still at college. I decided that during one year i would stop to use big framed formats, and that i would focus on developing ideas that would work on the format of a book or notebook. It was the beginning of the 13 booklets i made over the course of 7 years and from which the book Cursiagridulce was born.
The blue and green marks are the impression of my nipples. Therefore the representation of the heart aims to be more or less at the 1:1 level. That would be the real size of my heart and above my breast-notebook float the women whom, until that day, i had loved the most. These are very synthetical drawings that where lights are contrasting on their faces and profiles.
Finally "Software included" is a drawing in which Ana Lucía is seen sleeping, she is the woman i have loved the most in my life, i was in love with her for 9 years, in a series of ups and downs i kidnapped her in France (where she was living with her boyfriend) and brought her to Barcelona to spend Christmas with me and then New Year's Eve in París, it was in 2001. The drawing represents a moment when she is sleeping and i feel deeply in love. I could not stop looking at her, i could spend hours watching her. I think that my way of misunderstanding love, the act of never being tired of contemplating is a ritual goes further than the intellect and it brings us up to the most basic of the world of encounters. The divine perception, in the communion with the other, and the unexplainable surprise they arise in us, a suspended sigh.
Because the theme of love and sex is a constant in my work, Ana Lucía appears in probably 70% of my works, not only in the Cursiagridulce drawings, but also in the videos of Videomails and Videoviajes. I should add that i immediately apply ink, without ever making any draft with a pencil. What is in the process of being built exists. That's why i like it, it's like video, raw, without rehearsal. Life doesn't allow a second take.
Your project Videoman has toured the world, not only because you were invited to show your work in many prestigious museums and cultural venues around the world but also because Videoman has inspired other works. Could you tell us something about the projects that owe so much to Videoman? Do not omit the naked version of your performances, please, please!
I like to share. The reason for that is very simple: i feel like i'm the result of other people who have shared with me. While growing up, i believe i acquired moral debts to other personalities and i'll probably never repay them enough. When i made the Videomails in 2000 several artists copied the model and referred to me in their websites.
With the Videoman project several artists did indeed ask for our advice, others just copied the model, not only the model of the device but also the structure deployed when selecting some spaces (as in the case of the Spanish naked "Videoman", see the newspaper cover below). We uploaded online right from the start all the information about the way to prepare the harness and how it works. Several people suggested i should patent or copyright it, but i always thought that the best thing that could happen would be that other people would copy and improve the model. After all, what matters isn't mostly the technological novelty but rather to be able to make the most of technological goodies that are already there. My contribution or stamp had more to do with the situations and contents generated than with the equipment only.
Mexico city is North America's oldest city. Nowadays, foreigners like me associate it with lucha libre, pulquerías, the Metropolitan Cathedral, traffic jams, etc. But why should we put the city on the new media art map? Can you name us a couple of events, galleries, institutions that support media art?
DF has a very vibrant life in terms of creation just like in any other megalópolis on the planet. The reality is that we have to fight for every square centimeter with the effect that the production has maintained a remarkable vitality. I'd say that as far as media art is concerned, we have key actors who keep on raising interests well beyond our frontiers. Arcangel Constantini has just been awarded the support of VIDA, Gilberto Esparza obtained it last year. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and Manuel de Landa are other examples of key figures in new media, they are Mexican but have spread their wings in other countries.
There are spaces such as Laboratorio Arte Alameda that weaves wonderful links with other latitudes (for example the Video Game exhibition that Laura Baigorri curated for Laboral), and it acts as a space to get to know the local scene.
The Festival TRANSITIO is the strongest event of art and technology that we have and it seems to me that it is growing and improving with each editiion, let's see what they will propose us in 2010.
But most of all what i would like to highlight is that in general the technological discourse of the peripheries seems to be more critical and intertwined with real necessities of protest or almost survival, because one starts with lack, rather than with the excess. To give you an examples, Arcangel Constantini's famous Atari-noise which won the Festival Interference in France in 2001.
And more importantly can you think of other artists (using technology or not) from Mexico that i should add to my 'interview candidates' list?
Arcangel Constantini. Our most famous net artist.
Hector Falcón. Excellent multidisciplinary artist who works mostly with his body.
Rogelio Sosa. Great sound artist who likes noise.
Ivan Abreu. Cubano-Mexican artist who works fantastically with data and cables.
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. You already know him, maybe you've even interviewed him. You can't go wrong with him :-P
Any upcoming project you could share with us?
Yes, this year i'd like to make a record with my band, mi:reyna. We've been rehearsing for a year and we want to start playing live. It's a challenge because i can't play the guitar and i'm learning how to while we are getting ready and rehearsing the songs. I want to believe that i can build something interesting and nice from my limits. I'd like to end this interview with that because i believe that this profession is full of freedoms and it's both fun and healthy to enjoy them. That's how i jumped from being a painter to being a video artist, that's how i started a book but ended up publishing 3 (two others are scheduled to be published.) I started doing video because it was the medium that joined image and sound and i want to see how far i can go with music. It's going to be one of my creative priorities in 2009.
A couple of years ago, Jiacong "jay" Yan completed his degree at the cradle of young talents that is UCLA Design|Media Arts Department. He lives in Los Angeles where he works as a media artist and designer.
Fresh from UCLA, Jay started exhibiting his installations and videos in galleries in the U.S., in Asia and in Europe as well. Let's see if i manage to get a few words from the most laconic artists i've ever come upon:
I decided to interview you for two reason. The obvious one is that i like your work.
Stealing Art, to put it simply, is my chinese cultural take on John Baltessari's famous piece, Singing Sol LeWitt
I was in Shanghai buying bootleg DVDs from a street vendor and noticed an unpopular movie had pictures of Angelina Jolie on the cover even though she was not in the movie. I asked the mechant why this was there if she was not in the movie, and he said, because her face sells more DVDs. I thought this was hilarious! Not only are they selling bootlegs, but they modify the cover art to popularize the movie.
When I got back to the US, the latest issue then of Art Forum featured a big article on the art market and predictions of the future. One article complained about artists, whose work can easily be duplicated, still limiting their editions to 3 in order to drive up individual prices but this prevents everyone except the economically wealthy to buy such works. Now I'm not trying to destroy the value of these video art pieces, it's more along the lines of how Murakami works. He produces so much toys and t-shirts that he makes very little on (apparently one painting sale is a match to his merchandising profits according to the MOCA curator) but they are still important to popularize his work. So I think of Stealing Art in much the same way. Collectors who always want the original with proof of authenticity will always buy the real work, why would a badly recorded dvd be as interesting to them as a collectable?
I actually intentionally tried to make it as bad as I can. It is the BADNESS of it that makes it something. I've seen projects by others who try to sell bootleg art, either downloaded from the internet or photographs of art, but they all try to pass off as the art work instead of a new art work. In each DVD, I made them in the exact style of a Chinese bootleg DVD you would find on the streets of Shanghai. You see the reflection off the TV of me behind the camera (referencing to the often seen man standing up at the movie theater at the bottom of the screen). The cover art is overly bright colored and with bold 3D letters (I was modeling them off porn DVD covers). The back of the DVDs are filled with non-sense text (Chinese bootlegs are filled with non-sense text to try to make them look more legitimate). I even included the thin plastic wrapping pouch that bootleg DVDs are sold in.
At the day of the opening, I knew two of the artists were going to be present because they were giving small talks, I set up a cardboard stand in front of the space with the bootlegs and people immediately started buying them. One was purchased for Guido van der Werve as a gift from his friend and I think he was kind of shocked because he immediately ran outside. I'm not entirely sure if he comprehended what was going on but he took one look and then went back in, not really talking to me. Marco Schuler was much more cool about it. He came up to me and bought a DVD himself, but complained that since he made the original video, I should give him a discount. He gave me his card telling me to get in touch with him but I'm afraid he wants to sue me. All the DVDs sold out in 30 minutes.
I really want to do this at the Shanghai Biennale actually, I think it would be great. I just don't know a way to get access to the videos they show before the opening...
Surely there must be more to being Chinese than surfing on the wave on the "Chinese art is hot' trend. So how do you navigate between two different countries so different? Do you show your artwork in China? Do you have a strong relationship with the art community over there?
Well, funny things happen when I show work overseas. I work out of the USA, my information is from the USA, but somehow they always find out I'm Chinese, so next to my name it would appear: Jay Yan (USA/CHINA) without me even saying anything.
I am not the expert on Chinese Contemporary Art, 90% of it stems from just long conversations about it with a Collector that likes me, Guan Yi, from Beijing.
Luckily he is one of the top Chinese Collectors with excellent tastes (and I'm not just saying that because he bought my work) and he really introduced me to Chinese Comtemporary Art. As I walked through his private collection, it was a complete history lesson on Chinese avant garde art. He introduced me to my heroes like his friend Ai Wei Wei and the works of Zhang Huan (whom you've written about next to my work, which I was flipping with joy about). He told me about the "China / Avant Garde" show in 1989 that was shut down by the Beijing Police and about how the artist Xiao Lu shot at her own installation. It sounded like an amazing time at which point I told him about this idea I had of graffiting Tian An Men square with time delayed paint so the paint wouldn't show up tills days later. The conversation got a little more serious and I understood the time was still not right for such a daring act.
A cab driver in Beijing once told me "when you are unknown, it's ok to experiment and do crazy things, just not political. When you are somewhat known, it's better to be safe, because they can still make you disappear and no one would care. When you are famous, then you are too well known and you can start doing whatever you want again.... but still be careful of the political stuff."
I do not show my work there as often but I help my friend setup her work in China sometimes and I always pretend to not speak a word of chinese because if you are a foreigner, they treat you better. They get you a translator, which doubles as your assistant, and they are way more willing to help you. The best part is, if they talk in front of me in chinese about how they are going to cut corners on the installation, I can catch them (sadly, this happens more than I would like). It's a weird system, you have to know who to bribe so you get the best work from their staff etc.
I left China at the age of 6 in 1990 so I can not make work about the culture, just make works about the things I find interesting from an outside perspective. Every time I go to Shanghai, I find funny things that the culture does. Like when I was young, I tried to go to a video game arcade in Shanghai and I got yelled at by all the men inside for trying to go to the arcade because children weren't allowed back then.
The installation Whisper looks extremely poetic
...but your description of the project is a bit laconic.
I try to not talk so much in my descriptions so makes interviews like this more interesting
How does it work technically?
I keep my description laconic to avoid people thinking about this question.
It works by placing speakers underneath a vase with flowers. The speaker vibrates the vase and the flower to audible frequencies. The base stand is then soundproofed to block out all sounds except those coming from the flowers. The Calla Lily flower was chosen because it's stiff stem carried the vibrations well, and the trumpet shape of the flower amplified the sound.
Physically, not really, the flowers are easy to replace as long as they are in season. If they are not, it's a nightmare running around the city trying to find them.
Semiotically, flowers have a long history in art. I try to reference both O'Keefe and Mapplethorpe in the piece, these flowers have such a strong context and simple form that it was really hard finding the appropriate sound to play through them.
Apart from flowers you also worked with meat in the past. What exactly attracts you with organic materials?
I wondered what butchers do when they're bored.
I don't think art is about how well you do or make something anymore, it's about how great your idea is and how to execute it in the best possible way.
Do you manage to live from your art?
I wish. Dynamic art requires computers, displays, cameras and the equipment cost for one piece already pushes a work past $5000 and that's before the artist and the dealer's share. Jennifer Steinkamp taught me how to package a work and set it up easily for collectors, but you have to be her to charge an amount that makes sense for everyone.
I help artists create detailed visualizations of their ideas for proposals or for direct art fabrication.
How much do you manage to control the way people interact with your work?
Hiring a pretty girl to come every now and then and interact with the piece.
Which kind of unexpected behaviour have you witnessed with your installations?
The piece "throw your hands up" specifically comments on how funny people interact when you remove the actual installation and place their behavior out of context. Most people just wave their arms in the air because they are too embarrassed in a gallery setting to do anything else really. The "we only come out at night" piece has attracted singing, people offering up their baby and women flashing their breasts at it
For unexpected interesting interaction with your art piece, serve alcohol,
Is there any place in the world where you'd love to project your interactive projections?
On the portrait of Mao @ Tian An Men Square,
Or on anything Pablo Valbuena plans to project onto, I had a great time at the last Today's Art projecting over his piece and we had a good laugh about it. I made a piece that was on wheels allowing me to project all over the city and interact with the people below. I then started projecting on the other art works at the show using my piece to "attack" their pieces. Some people really loved the idea of two projection pieces interacting, but this one girl yelled at me for 10 minutes about how I should be ashamed of myself.
I am now interested in my much more simplistic interactive projection pieces like pieces from the "projections for a large wall" series. I want to find some nice curved spaces, odd shaped walls to divide with 2 colors or a simple colored line that one can manipulate.
I've been friends with Christian Moeller and Casey Reas for almost 6 years now. They introduced me to art and really helped and encouraged me through my career. I went through a Bas Jan Ader phase for 2 years which threw me off because it was such an romantic emotional style of work that I had never done before. I watched Bas Jan Ader's piece "I am too sad to tell you" and thought this was the greatest art piece I have ever seen. Ai Wei Wei keeps me interested in contemporary chinese art. I'm currently on an Ellsworth Kelly kick .
Any upcoming project you could share with us?
I will no longer use the random() function in any of my future pieces.
I have an upcoming show at the new Di Yu Gallery in Shanghai.
I am currently trying to get my hands on a replica of the gun that shot Andy Warhol (the original is locked up at Riker Island in New York). I want to make short line of electronic toy guns that you can point at an art work and Andy Warhol, in his voice, will tell you whether it's art or not. Thus we can have a device that will finally tell us whether something is art or not. It's also kind of a homage to Xiao Lu's performance during the China \ Avant Garde show.
On February 6 to 9, VernissageTV will celebrate the publication of its 1000th video by inviting its fans to a party and a video marathon. The screening will take place online and at its new studio in Basel.
I doubt there are many people in the room who have never heard of VernissageTV. The online channel covers in a very professional and surprisingly fast and elegant way the opening receptions (vernissages) of exhibitions and events and i'm grateful to them for that. I profess an intense dislike for vernissages where people seemed to be more passionate about tepid wine and showing off their mere presence than about the artworks on show.... but that doesn't mean i'm not curious about vernissages. VTV also covers performances, artists talks, interviews artists, architects and designers.
Although he was super busy working on their VTV turns 1000 event, Heinrich Schmidt managed to find some time to answer my questions:
Vernissage TV is covering the cultural scene almost all over the world. Who forms the core of Vernissage TV? How much of the work do you cover yourself? Do you have collaborators all over the world? How does one collaborate with you?
Karolina, Geoff and I form the core of VernissageTV. Karolina is mainly in charge of the financial side of the project and communications, Geoff takes care of the website programming and I'm doing the filming, editing, etc. The three of us cover the most part of the work, but we also have collaborators in Berlin, Munich, and Paris. If someone is interested in collaborating, we send her or him information about the project and check whether we fit together. Then we make a test run with an opening we agree upon to cover and if that was successful, the collaborators work more independently.
Do you 'curate' the videos? For example would you consider bypassing a major exhibition of a world-renowed artist just because you do not like his or her work? Or do you give more space to young talents in the hope that the visibility you give them will boast their career?
What we select is based on intuition. We always say that chance is our best friend. Sometimes we are attracted by a big name, sometimes by an interesting exhibition concept, and sometimes we just run into an opening. If we cover a world-renowned artist, that doesn't mean that we like his or her work - and vice versa.
And a somewhat related question: One of Vernissage TV's main section is No Comment. Aren't you tempted to be polemical, critical, take a stand? Isn't it irresistible sometimes?
Oh yes! Sometimes it's really hard to resist taking a stand. We are not seldom polemic (or enthusiastic) when we drive home after a show. But one of the core concepts of VernissageTV is to stand back and let the audience build their own opinion. That's why people love VernissageTV and we won't deceive them.
What do you think is your place in the contemporary art press? Have you ever found that you get less attention and regard from PR offices because you are 'only' an online media? Do you see an evolution in the credit and respect given to online media?
Apart from two funny experiences we are happy with the regard we get from PR offices. Two years ago we wanted to cover an exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt which was declined because they said that they had an exclusive deal with another internet tv station. And last year we weren't allowed to cover the Murakami show in Frankfurt, because they only wanted national media. But I love such experiences, because they tell a lot about the art industry. Rewarding material for my novel I intend to write when I'm 95 years old. But you are right, we get more attention now than when we started, but I assume this is partly due to the fact that more people know us now. I also saw that some museums actively encourage bloggers to cover their shows, so I think there is an evolution.
Can you name us 5 videos which, for some reason, have played an important part in the history of Vernissage TV? Could you tell us why?
The most important one is definitively the very first one, when we filmed the Zaha Hadid exhibition at the Swiss Architecture Museum in Basel. The experience was such a good one that we thought it would be a great idea to do this more often. Without this video, VernissageTV would never have happened. The second one, Christoph Büchel's show at the Kunsthalle Basel added to this because it was such fun to film this labyrinth he installed there - one had to climb a ladder, creep through holes. With this video, we got addicted. Equally important, because it was the next step, was the coverage of the art fair FIAC in Paris because it was the first location outside Basel. Jonathan Meese's exhibition at Deichtorhallen in Hamburg was one of the largest shows we covered until then. We filmed the exhibition as well as the play Kokain for which Meese did the stage design, and the after show party. That was great fun and everything went so well that it gave us a lot more confidence in our work. Video number 5 is our video number 1000. I'm not a fan of numbers, but when I look back, I can't help to be a little bit proud of it. I only wish I had a little more time to re-watch the videos. That's why we decided to do this non-stop online-screening to celebrate our 1000th video - increases the chance that I'm able to have a look at the videos again...
What is the typical process of a Vernissage TV video? Where do you start, how much preparation and editing is necessary, etc.
After we have decided to cover a show we think about the equipment we use: small or big camera, tripod or not, external mic or not - it depends on whether we shoot a video for our Interview or our No Comment series, on how much equipment we are able or willing to carry. When we stay at a location for several days, like in New York or Berlin, the planning of the schedule begins weeks ahead and is very time consuming - and sometimes the whole schedule gets messed up because we decide on site to cover other or additional events. As for the editing: This can take an hour or several days. When we film, we try to edit in our heads already. For openings, this sometimes works surprisingly well and then we don't have too much work with the editing. For larger exhibitions or performances, like Doug Aitken's Sonic Happening at 303 Gallery it's far more complicated because you have to bring across the atmosphere of an hour of performance to 8 minutes: where do you set the transitions of music and image. This is especially challenging if you have only one camera and not an additional B-roll. But if the result is good, then these are the most rewarding videos.
May i have a photo of your working space for publication? If the answer is yes, do you have any comment about your office (too cluttered? too small? feng-shui designed?)
Our office in Basel: just perfect. It's in an old house (built in 1386) on the bank of the river Rhine. It's pretty relaxing to watch the barges passing by slowly. We love it. We have built a second office in a small town near Basel, which we will use as studio and space for video screenings. It's totally different from the one in Basel city, made of fair-faced concrete and glass and designed by Austrian architects gernergernerplus.
Image on the homepage Harburg Art Channel: Jonathan Meese, Mama Johnny , Deichtorhallen Hamburg.
Last Summer, curatorial research group Capsula embarked on the first of its Curated Expeditions, demonstrating in the process that you don't need an intergalactic spaceship to uncover new territories and make meaningful discoveries. This series of Curated Expeditions are research trips that engage with earthly phenomena through artistic investigation.
The 1st Expedition of Capsula invited 3 artists to observe a total solar eclipse which took place on August 1st over a vast area stretching from Canada, through to Russia, Mongolia and China. The observation location selected is the scientific Zoo in Novosibirsk, the capital of Siberia. Eclipse started in Novosibirsk at 17.45 pm.
The artists, German Agnes Meyer-Brandis, Catalan Mireia C. Saladrigues collaborated with the Zoo personnel and other experts to study the celestial phenomena and its impact on the animals and the visitors of the Zoo while Finnish photographer Tommi Taipale focused his work on the cultural and geographical distance between of Finland and Siberia.
Because Capsula's latest focus is the relation between art and biology and environmental culture, the expeditions go hand in hand with a more leisurely and sometimes old-fashioned Philosophy of Voyage: walking, bob-sleighing, swimming, hitchhiking, rowing, sailing, trains and submarines. The travel from Finland to Novosibirsk took several days: While Tommi chose to hitch-hike, curator Ulla Taipale, Agnes Meyer-Brandis and Mireia C. Saladrigues spent three days to get there by train, taking the romantic-sounding Trans-Siberian Line.
With a background in Environmental Engineering and and Communications, Ulla Taipale is one of the founders and the current head of Capsula. I asked her to give us more details about this first curated expedition to Siberia:
Can you present us Capsula briefly? When and how it was born? What are its objectives?
Capsula was founded by Mónica Bello Bugallo and Ulla Taipale in 2005 in Barcelona. It is a platform that creates cultural content and curatorial projects dealing with art, science and nature. The first project of Capsula was Days of Bioart in 2006. The event was a combination of a bioart seminar and SymbioticA Tissue Engineering and Art - workshop and organized in Centro de Arte Santa Mónica and in a laboratory of faculty of biology of Universidad de Barcelona. The cross-disciplinary approach has been characteristic of Capsula`s work from the beginning. In recent years Capsula has collaborated with cultural institutions such as CCCB (Centre for Contemporary Culture of Barcelona) and Intermediae in El Matadero of Madrid, DRU-Digital Reserch Unit of Huddersfield, among others, and have brought to these events many of the leading creators and researchers in the field of art, science and/or technology, such as Critical Art Ensemble, Tissue Culture & Art Project, Andy Gracie, Natalie Jeremijenko, Vandana Shiva, Jens Hauser, Ramon Guardans and Eugene Thacker, to name a few. The objective is to create interdisciplinary projects related with art&science, with a special attention on the natural and artificial environments.
The last project of Capsula, called Curated Expeditions, was launched almost one year ago. The project is dedicated to observing and experiencing fascinating natural phenomena through the work of artists, scientists and other cultural agents. It also wants to revive leisurely traveling experiences, which have almost been cast aside by the frantic pace of modern day life. The first expedition was carried out last summer in Russia to explore and study the total solar eclipse and animal behaviour during this celestial phenomenon. This was realized through the proposals of German media artist Agnes Meyer-Brandis and Catalonian visual artist Mireia C. Saladrigues. On the other hand the expedition of Finnish photographer Tommi Taipale focused on the cultural and geographical distance between of Finland and Siberia during his journey to the eclipse by hitch-hiking. The project was done in collaboration with Novosibirsk Zoo in Siberia and with several other institutions, mentioned in the end of the interview.
Curated Expeditions is a long-term project. Can you explain what are its long-term goals?
The object is to make a series of expeditions dealing with earthly phenomena in remote and nearby destinations . The aim is to stimulate production and exhibition of multidisciplinary artistic creation related with nature's spectacles. I have many ideas for new expeditions and for the targets of the artistic survey, but these plans are in an early stage and not ready to be published yet.
Through these projects I want to give the protagonism to the natural phenomenon and promote positive emotions that can be experienced in natural and artificial environments. The question is: Could the natural phenomenon and the spectacles of the nature still fascinate a major quantity of people in the modern world, saturated by entertainment like video games and action movies? And, could these splendid and thrilling emotions lived within the nature, shift the attitude of people to more respectful and caring direction concerning their environment? Generally speaking, conservationism and environmentalism seem to be related with obligations and rejections that limit the level of life causing bad conscience. Sustainable way of life is related with low quality life - without luxury. I expect that the outcome of the expeditions - singular artworks, exhibitions, public debates and writings address towards to the enriching experiences reducing a distant and unconcerned attitude when thinking about nature and our relationship with it.
So, to name some of the more tangible goals - maybe in five years and after several expeditions a publication will be made out of these projects. And the new artworks created are to be exhibited in traditional and non-conventional spaces. I would also like to gather interesting people, not necessarily experts, but persons with good ideas to discuss publicly the issues indicated by the expeditions. The idea is to break categorizations and frontiers between different disciplines.
Curated Expeditions explored a phenomenon which lasted 2 minutes and 20 seconds. Yet you deliberately traveled using relatively slow and old-fashioned ways. You, Agnes, and Mireia took an almost 3 day train ride from Helsinki to Novosibirsk, while it took Tommi a whole week to get there by hitch-hiking. Why was it so important to undertake a long journey when (apparently) you didn't have to?
Curated Expeditions wants to revive leisurely traveling experiences that personify the Capsula Philosophy of Voyage. Walking, bob-sleighing, swimming, hitchhiking, rowing, sailing, trains and submarines, just to name a few, are means of transport that permit your soul to arrive to the destiny simultaneously with your body. No matter if the destiny for the artistic exploration of the natural phenomenon is near or far, the participants should be aware of the distance and the differences- cultural and geographical ones - between of the departure and arrival.
We didn´t have to spend three days on the way and also it would have been less expensive and troublesome to take a direct flight to Novosibirsk. Many people warned us telling about uncomfortable and dangerous trains, we were asked several times why not to travel flying, that Russian people were noisy, in the summer the wagons would be hot and in general very inconvenient for three women with a lot of luggage. I have to admit, that I was questioning the decision many times. Also buying the tickets for exact days and routes was not easy at all because of Russian bureaucracy, holiday season and the mass movement of eclipse tourists. But, at the end we were in Helsinki railway-station with our huge luggage - Agnes was carrying 60 kilos on her - and the journey could start.
Once in the train, we did forget our doubts! During the three days between Helsinki and Novosibirsk we were able to learn some Russian, to know Russians, to know each other on a more personal level, converse, read books, watch the changing scenery from the window and while enabled and disconnected from the internet, got slowly into the mood of Capsula Expedition. And once we arrived, we were sad to leave our temporal itinerant home, the Russian co-travelers, the samovar and the rhythmic sound of the train.
Coming to Tommi, he spent two weeks on the road to get to Novosibirsk. As an experienced Russian traveler and wanderer, he could estimate roughly how long time it would take to get from place to another. During the first days he traveled with three friends using recycled bicycles and then alone towards to the tundra by hitch-hiking and using some river-boats. This extra round to the northern part of Russia was his attempt to escape the heat - the summer in Russia was hot, during July - August the daily temperatures rose up to 30ºC almost every day. However, even in Salehard it was sweaty!
Tommi´s photographs reflect his meetings with ordinary people that can be found traveling alone leisurely in a strange territory. He has a basic Russian knowledge that allows him to connect with people who coincide with his fortuitous way that doesn't respect timetables. His pictures open doors to the everyday life of Russians showing what often remains behind of the topics of the country, such as the life habits of the of class of new rich, the alcoholism and poverty, and the country's military and energy power. In these glimpses shown in Tommi´s pictures a grandmother offers a lonely traveler sweet tomatoes or cranberries, a mine worker invites him to take a bath in a banja, Russian sauna or a group of silent men waiting for a river-boat in the dawn.
By the way, is a journey on the Trans-Siberia as romantic as it sounds?
To our surprise it was big pleasure, nicer than we could ever imagine. You can do it more comfortably with a bigger budget in a higher class, having a daily shower and your own toilet, but then you might miss the contact with the co-travelers and a part of the taste of adventure. And the official Russian time, that shows Moscow hour where ever the train is in Russia, makes your daily rhythm disappear - instead of looking at your watch to start eating and sleeping, you let your state of mind or energy levels decide what to do. Our public relations and Russian language rehearsals always got more interesting and intensive the nearer we got to Novosibirsk. During the last hours in the train, Mireia found the first volunteer, a Russian girl to work with her in the project in Novosibirsk. Something very characteristic for Mireia´s work, which is based on her interpersonal skills and communication with people.
Anyway, I have to admit that we three adapt well to tough conditions. Traveling in Russian trains is good as long as you don't except too comfortable a life and are not too prejudiced.
The zoo of Novosibirsk in Siberia seems to be a very intriguing place. How did you get to know about its existence? How did the owners and workers of the zoo welcome a bunch of artists keen on mingling with their animals?
When the decision to start the Curated Expeditions project by investigating a solar eclipse was taken, I started a closer study of the zone of totality, that was a vast area from Alaska, Siberia and Mongolia to China.
In 1999 I experienced my first solar eclipse in Hungary, in a small village of Rapabatona by the Danube, where I cycled from Vienna. I was astonished by the reaction of animals, mostly birds and insects, during the eclipse. So, when I found out that the biggest and oldest Zoological Park of Russia was situated in Novosibirsk, just in the middle of the eclipse zone, I decided to focus the project on the animal behaviour during the eclipse. The negotiations with the Zoo started and after weeks of correspondence and phone calls they agreed to collaborate.
We were made very welcomed. Sveta, the secretary of the Zoo, came to pick us up from the railway-station, and took us to our new home. We were invited to stay in an apartment situated in the Zoo area that is normally used by foreign zoologists and researchers visiting the Zoo. Novosibirsk Zoo Park is huge. The area consists of 53 hectares of pine forest and it is a home for around 12 000 animals and 634 species. Bengal tigers and snow leopards are among the 120 endangered species represented in the Zoo that can be found in the Red Book. Our neighbours and their numerous different ways of sonic communication filled the air with roaring, yelling and howling, especially in the dusk and dawn. Our communication with zoo workers was possible thanks to Sveta and Maria, Siberian English literature students, who were the links between us, the zoo workers and the journalists. English is rarely spoken in Russia, but the young people start to be stronger in languages than their parents who did their studies during the Soviet time.
We presented our intentions to the director Rostislaw Shilo, who runs the Zoo with 40 years of experience. Him and his wife, the scientific director Olga Shilo, are highly liked and respected personalities in Novosibirsk and people from taxi-drivers to biologists have positive things to say about them. In parallel with running the biggest Zoo in Russia and his scientific work, Rostislaw Shilo is also a Siberian eco politician, influencing environmental issues from the parliament of Siberia. Once we explained the goals of the expedition he didn't hesitate in supporting the project. Not only did he offer us nice accommodation for nine days, but also helped us further in achieving rare moon geese for Agnes´ experiment and in gaining visibility in the Siberian media, among other things. We are very grateful for his and the all zoo personnel support, they were very generous and shared their knowledge with pleasure.
Russians are quite reserved and it is hard to know what the animal caretakers and other personnel really thought about our visit, but after breaking the ice they were more than cordial.
Some of the projects, in particular the one of Mireia C. Saladriques involved the participation of the public. How did it go? What happened?
Mireia´s project, called Zoolar Eclipse was fully realized within the installations of the zoo. Zoolar Eclipse investigated animal reactions when the darkness, caused by the total eclipse, suddenly fell into the Zoo. Not only the volunteer zoo visitors participated in her work, but she also got very connected with some of the animal caretakers despite the language barrier. During our stay in the Zoo she was following a daily program to observe and study through drawing the animals selected. The animals were selected following her own intuition and advice given by Dr. Sabater Pi, Catalonian ethologist and primatologist, and the director of the Zoo of Helsinki, Seppo Turunen. The final selection consisted of white-handed gibbon, eagle owl, liger, yellow-throated marten and polar bear. Liger, one of the main crowd-pullers of the Zoo, is a hybrid cross between of male African lion and a tigress. She also participated in animal´s feeding and daily routines with zoo personnel. Mireia woke up with the sun around five or six o´clock in the morning to realise her first walk by the animals with her pens and sketch book, then again between four and six o´clock (the eclipse hour) and the days were completed by the last round at sunset. Through these observations and interviews with the zoo personnel she wanted to learn the habitual behavior of the animals during the different positions of the sun.
At first we were worried about not finding enough people to take part in the survey. These concerns disappeared once in Novosibirsk. On a normal summer day the Zoo counted more than 10 000 visitors. The news about this special opportunity spread also through the seven biggest TV-news of Siberia that interviewed us and the invitation to participate in the project circulated around through television, radio, city forum in internet and by Mireia´s posters in the Zoo.
On the actual eclipse day, Mireia and ten Russian volunteers delivered and recollected the Zoolar Eclipse postcards for and from one hundred zoo visitors, interested in writing their impressions of the effects of the sudden disappearance of the sun. She herself decided to observe the gibbons. In the moment of eclipse, she says, the role of the one that in the zoo normally is observed - the gibbon - changed and these primates were the ones that observed the humans, totally excited, yelling and shouting as apes in a state of climax.
The texts by zoo visitors are now being translated from russian to finnish, english and to spanish and the contents seem to be quite touching and subjective. People have interpreted the behavior of animals in very different ways. The writings describe also strange physiological changes in the observers themselves, such as headache, dizziness, extreme feelings of happiness and even sudden hunger. The texts will be available on the website of Capsula Expeditions once they have been completed in english.
While Mireia´s work took place in semi-artificial surroundings inhabited by wild animals, Agnes moved special Moon Geese to a natural setting to realise her bio-poetic investigation. The Moon Goose Experiment is based on a text by english bishop Francis Godwin and was published first in 1638 in the book called "The Man in the Moone". The geese of Godwin`s novel fly to the Moon instead of heading to the South in autumn. Would that be something that could happen for some species of migrating birds soon, as an consequence of the search for more suitable habitats than a polluted planet Earth, facing the effects of climatic chaos?
To find the required thirteen suitable Moon Geese and a runway for a moon flight in beautiful natural surroundings was an adventure, and only the determination of Agnes made this possible. Despite the fact that geese are protagonists of her work, also here the local people were playing a very important role in helping to carry out the plan. With the collaboration of Novosibirsk assistants we experienced unforgettable moments in a russian datsa, a typical small farmhouse with all kind of domestic animals, and on a sand island that was chosen to be the experiment scenery. This datsa was situated near to the Academgorodok, the Soviet époque's ambitious science city project.
The actual Experiment was brought to fruition on that small sandy island "Sacred Scarabeus" in Ob River, an hours´ drive away from Novosibirsk centre. The Moon Goose Experiment crew arrived there early in the morning, on the 1st of August, to prepare the flight equipment and do all the necessary preparations. At 17.45 local time, we had the chance to witness a historical takeoff by Ljuba, a young Russian astronaut, and her moon flight in the darkness, provoked by the total solar eclipse. You can find a detailed report of the day on Agnes´web page.
What can artists bring to the vision and experience of natural phenomenon which have already been widely studied by scientists?
A scientist follows his/hers paths of research and an artist his/hers, and both can achieve surprising findings in the same object of investigation. In the end, Curated Expeditions is not trying to gain results that would have scientific importance. The objective is to bring together artists and scientists to work at the intersection of different disciplines, but the results are art works and don't have to contribute to scientific studies about natural phenomena. What I would like them to contribute is to the recognition of small and big miracles of nature and consciousness about its extraordinariness.
I like the way that Ian McKeever, the english artist, describes the work of scientific and artistic researcher in his text from "Ikijää - Permafrost" (edited by Marketta Seppälä and Yrjö Haila) :
Scientists, like artists, seem to spend a lot of time just looking and thinking around things, engaged in refreshingly simple observation. There are other parallels, too. Both scientists and artists seem to divide their time between doing field-work and going back to base to do the actual donkey work itself. On the surface it looks like both are moving in the same direction, only on different trains, so to speak.
At the moment all us "expeditioners" are "unzipping" the material gathered during the journey- photographs, drawings, videos, writings, and impressions that we lived during this cross-disciplinary expedition. Little by little the final artworks and the ways to present the fruits of the expedition are taking form, the reflections and ideas get processed in our minds. The three proposals were materialized and they are now in progress, the end is not determined.
Talking about visions, I would be very content, if, inspired by these and future proposals, the audience would let their imagination fly a bit further and travel along the migrating birds in the sky to new, surprising destinies, and, instead of purchasing a low cost flight to do shopping in a nearby European country someone would take his bicycle and see what adventures can be lived in the next village. These are some examples of different thinking that the artists could bring to our techno-scientific society where even natural phenomena is tried to be explained and reasoned.
Now that you are back from these adventures, which conclusions do you draw from the experience? What did you learn from the first curated expedition?
It is extremely hard to work with a tiny budget in a country where you don´t know the language and have to depend on many volunteers help. But it is really rewarding when suddenly you discover a bunch of people who are willing and motivated to help you and share the vision that has inspired you to go so far. We can´t thank enough of all the people who helped us in Novosibirsk and during the year to prepare everything. The success of the project was depending on their collaboration. The next expeditions hopefully have bigger budget, but, at the same time I would love to be able to collaborate with local people where ever these projects will happen. Sometimes big resources cause certain distance to the place where you go, the production is taken care of by a professional crew and personal contacts with ordinary people of the locality are lacking. That can be extremely called "cultural colonialism". I wish to continue Curated Expeditions with the possibility to experience these real meetings with local people.
Despite certain difficulties during the preparation phase of the projects, the artists have shown big talent, imagination and capacity of improvisation to get everything ready for the 1st August when the solar total eclipse happened.
What are Capsula's upcoming projects?
The Moon Goose Experiment, Zoolar Eclipse and The Journey to the Eclipse will be shown for the first time in Helsinki, Finland, in March 2009, in the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma. The show is called "Expedition to the Total Eclipse" and organised as a part of Pixelache09 Festival activities that will consist of an exhibition, (from 6th March until 7th June, 2009), a seminar and some extra activities in the astronomical observatory of URSA. I am invited to stay as a resident in HIAP production residency during February and live in a fortress island Suomenlinna, close to Helsinki centre.
The second Curated Expedition, that will be related to the Baltic Sea, is being maturated at the moment and Capsula is also involved in activities that the Finnish Society of Bioart is organising in Kilpisjärvi Biological Station in Lapland during 2009. Their focus is in arctic biology, climatic and environmental changes and their artistic exploration. The news of Capsula will be published on the website and through the blog.
The next total solar eclipse will occur in India and China in 22nd July, 2009.
Capsula´s Curated Expedition has received support from:
Zoo of Novosibirsk, FRAME Finnish Fund for Art Exchange, AECID (Agencia Española de Cooperación Internacional para el Desarrollo), VR (Finnish Railways), Venäjän ja Itä-Euroopan Instituutti (The Institute for Russia and Eastern Europe), Finnish Embassy in Moscow, Generalkonsulat der Bundesrepublik Deutschland in Nowosibirsk (General Consulate of the Federal Republic of Germany in Novosibirsk), A MINIMA magazine, Agrupación Astronómica de Sabadell (Spain), AirBerlin, Helsinki University - Kilpisjärvi Biological Station (Finland), University of Art & Design, Pori Department (Finland) , ARPI - professional photostore (Barcelona), NCCA Ekaterinburg (National Centre for Contemporanean Art, Russia), Colección Sabater Pi (Barcelona), Korkeasaari Zoo (Helsinki), SAS Royal Hotel (Helsinki), Sodexo Oy / Hostel Satakuntatalo (Helsinki), Antares Ltd (Barcelona), Fire Department Cologne, Tesimax (Germany), HMKV Dortmund
The exhibition "Expedition to the total eclipse" has received support from:
Special thanks for Anneli Ojala from The Institute for Russia and Eastern Europe for translating the Zoolar Eclipse postcards in Finnish!
Material Beliefs is a group of designers based in London. They might create pieces of furniture and accessories but they are not your usual tables and cups. The result of a close collaboration with scientists and engineers, social scientists but also members of the public, their projects take emerging biomedical and cybernetic technology out of labs and into public space. The members of Material Beliefs use design as a tool for public engagement, a mean to stimulate discussion about the value and impact of new technologies which blur the boundaries between our bodies and materials.
Each of the prototypes they develop is the starting point of a fruitful and much needed debate in public space about the relationship between science and society.
Their prototypes are questionable and puzzling. They include a series of extremely cruel and useful Carnivorous Domestic Entertainment Robots (think moth-eating lamps and a robotic coffee table that doubles as a mouse trap) and pastel pink or baby blue Vital Signs monitors (a product of the child surveillance industry, they enable data about the body to be communicated across a mobile phone network.) You can encounter them in venues as different as the Dana Centre in London and LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial in Gijon, Spain.
At the heart of Material Beliefs are Andy Robinson, Elio Caccavale, Tobie Kerridge, Jimmy Loizeau (with James Auger) and Susana Soares, supported by collaborations with Aleksandar Zivanovic, Julian Vincent, Kevin Warwick, Slawomir Nasuto, Ben Whalley, Mark Hammond, Julia Downes, Dimitris Xyda, David Muth, Tony Cass, Olive Murphy, Nick Oliver, Dianne Ford, Luisa Wakeling, Julie Daniels and Anna Harris.
My victim for this interview is designer Tobie Kerridge whom i wanted to talk with ever since i read about about a project he conceived than actually prototyped together with scientist Ian Thompson and designer Nikki Stott: Biojewellery. The project catapults traditional engagement and wedding rings into the world of tissue engineering and biotechnology research by using bone tissue cultured from human cells in order to create bespoke jewellery.
I must admit that i almost regretted to have asked you this interview. While preparing it, i had a long look through the website of Material Beliefs and found it so complete and so well documented that i felt that there was nothing left for me to ask you. I then had the idea of doing a 'designboom style' interview where the designer is asked all sorts of apparently frivolous questions. So now the idea has become irresistible and here's a question i stole from designboom: I assume you notice how women dress. Do you have any preferences?
Then I'm going to be cheeky and and steal someone's answer, Inga Sempé's was nice - "no".
I like the name of the project, Material Beliefs, a lot. Where does it come from and which kind of ideas do you want it to convey?
Ah, this is a long story, and it also shows a lack of imagination under pressure. I was writing the funding proposal for Material Beliefs with Savita Custead, and we had to get the thing submitted. Being a bit stuck for names, the project title came about by co-joining the titles of two beloved projects.
One is Materials Library, run by Mark Miodownik, Zoe Laughlin and Martin Conreen. They operate an archive of materials, and take these artefacts into public spaces by staging performative events. They convened a series at the Tate, and then followed on with events at the Wellcome Collection themed around Flesh and one coming up soon will focus on Hair. Their obsessions create new communities that play across disciplines.
The other was a proposal for funding to the ECRC by Robert Doubleday, Mark Welland, James Wilsdon and Brian Wynne called "Material Imaginations". Their proposal followed on from a project I first read about in See Through Science, a report by DEMOS. Doubleday set up an ethnographic project in Welland's Nanotechnology lab, the aim being to work with scientists to imagine the social outcomes of their nanotechnology research. He said "My role is to help imagine what the social dimensions might be, even though the eventual applications of the science aren't yet clear". This made me think about the role of design as a set of speculative tools for working with science and engineering.
I was a student of Durrell Bishop, Tony Dunne, Bill Gaver, Fiona Raby, and other fine tutors at what's now the Design Interactions course at the Royal College of Art. In this context, my practice emerged through an interrogation of design methods and aims. Material Beliefs is an attempt to make design's association with science and technology more embedded. It takes influence from Doubleday's - and previously Bruno Latour's and Steve Woolgars - encampment in labs. The difference is that the role of that occupation is more than analytical, it attempts to synthesise outcomes - what happens when speculative attitudes to science and technology get located at the site of laboratory research? Well not much sometimes, but other times it works out and you get a fascinating and messy shared practice. Designers and Scientists/Engineers also have to work harder to understand each others roles and offer respect and support - it's difficult and rewarding.
The other aspect is that these collaborations take place in public as much as possible. Taking inspiration from Miodownik, Laughlin and Conreen, it's about doing the work in front of and with audiences. These are not only the audiences you might find at art or design exhibitions. Sometimes the model of public engagement is not top-down, but about getting people into labs and enabling them to do new stuff - making enquiries, building their own prototypes, asking researchers about the ethics of technology, finding out how funding is awarded.
Here design becomes a tool for translating academic knowledge into resources for independent enquiry, and a way of enabling others to access technology. This can be tricky as you have to sneak people into labs, under the radar of public relations departments who might not see the value of access for groups that wont promote the research in a straightforward way. This is not a criticism, it just that some institutions are not yet set up for challenging forms of public engagement. This situation I think is aggravated by an institutional anxiety about campaigning groups, but that is another story.
Finally, when I first Googled "Material Beliefs" it was all about religious practices, and it seemed appropriate, seeing as we were going to be doing so much preaching.
Material Beliefs looks like a unique structure. I suspect that many artists and designers would dream of engaging with emerging biomedical and cybernetic technology in close cooperation with engineers and social scientists. Which kind of advice would you give to artists or designers who might want to set up a design lab like yours? How did you manage to get the ear (and funding) of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in England?
It's a good time to extend design practices that ask questions about our relationship with technology and science. In the UK at least, there is an ongoing discussion about how public engagement of science should be done. This is a discussion at a policy level, about democratising access to the research that will have its outcomes in the products and services we use. So while public engagement of science used to be about persuading the public that science produced a benefit, or where it was a strategy for encouraging a new generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians to keep the nation competitive, it is now also about looking for new ways to involve different groups of people in science. These discussions then filter down into decisions about how funding is awarded. I think Material Beliefs probably benefited from new attitudes about what public engagement of science is allowed to be.
We set out to say that design lets non-specialists respond to science in creative ways, to make their own things out of their curiosities with bioengineering, and to have an active role within the production of research, or at least to play a role in the discussion of what unfinished research might come to mean. Rather than be told that this or that technology is not really risky, or at best being invited into a conversation that decides if a technology is risky, publics can actually have some kind of active role in how technology encountered. That's what design can do, it encourages an active orientation towards materials and processes, it provides a reason to try to do something, rather than sit back passively, then point your finger out of anxiety, for example over the potential effects of biotechnological products and services that suddenly appear on the market - "Where did that come from? Frankenfoods messing up my body, I am even angrier now!". The fact is that science is complex, it is enacted through a relationship between peers and rivals, institutions, markets, funders, politicians, ethics committees. Rather than ignore that, or treat science as monolithic entity, why not try to situate a practice productively somewhere amongst this fascinating network? Material Beliefs is only starting to think about this extended role for design, others have been doing it for some time, and I'm thinking of Natalie Jeremijenko's practice, Symbiotica's lab in Perth, and the thinking that has informed the Design Interactions course.
More generally, how do scientists react to your interests and works? Are they immediately ready to cooperate? Do you have to painfully win them over? How easy is the dialogue with people who seem to have a radically different background?
One thing learnt from this project is to take the invitations very wide initially, and to rapidly make sense of who might want to collaborate. Material Beliefs is lead by the designers, James Auger, Elio Caccavale, Jimmy Loizeau, Susana Soares and myself, and I must say that all of us broke our backs pursuing eminent, exciting but ultimately uninterested scientists and engineers. If people want to do stuff, then run with them. The hardest aspect was articulating our approach, and making it clear what was expected and what we would be doing. Academics are busy, whatever their discipline, and there are not many academics you could expect to spend time doing activities that are outside of there specialism. That is asking a lot.
Luckily, there is some pressure on science and engineering to do public engagement. Being able to show you have done this helps with funding. This was something we could appeal to. I don't think this is being tricksy, it's just a matter of finding a recognisable space in which to hold the stuff you want to do, that makes sense for everyone, even if it is for slightly different reasons. You all need to take risks, the designer needs to be elastic with their focus as a practitioner, and the engineer scientists need to take into account alternative descriptions of their research objects. It's not easy to make sense of a question about the ethics of a technology that you have been developing intensively for two years.
We are, or I hope were, quite naive in the way we approached science, which of course has a different culture to design. I have a particularly painful memory of filming an interview with a researcher, and not making it clear that the interview was to be put online. He was very angry when | sent him a link for approval, particularly as the first clip was me setting up and dropping the camera, and kind of laughing awkwardly. I thought the clip was charming. He thought I was taking the piss, and sent some quite angry emails. Have a look at some of the interviews that did get approved. This was a way for us to read around the research, to get it from the researchers mouths. Their descriptions are imbued with their excitement, and taken down a notch so we can understand. Perfect. Imaging having to orientate your practice to biotechnology through academic papers, or newspapers - the extremes of possible discourses - that leave you respectively bewildered or sour.
"Material Beliefs blur the boundaries between material culture and bioengineering research, designing speculative products that embody emerging technologies." How does one design a speculative product? And how can a product be "speculative"? How do you avoid the label "Art"?
You design something that you don't mean to manufacture. We all used design methods and processes, and built prototypes, but the emphasis was with the interaction between the prototypes and statements about social life, rather than the prototypes and business. If you want to make a product, you will spend more time specifying materials because unit cost is important, or you will be looking for intellectual property opportunities, and talking to distributors. That's fine, but you can't also then ask public questions about the role of technology. You can try, but I'm sure you will be very tired, and loose some friends and alienate your family.
The question about art is important. I think it would have initially made our lives easier to say we were doing a sci-art, both in terms of forming collaborations and finding a descriptive label for the outcomes. The problem with using established relationships is that you also have to deal with a set of associated problems, and limitations. I'm not talking about participating in art exhibitions, or discussing the work within an art theory discourse, this is more about assumptions various people might have about doing a sci-art project. While initially frustrating to say "this is neither art, nor design for innovation" it was liberating to develop our own processes and methods for working with scientists, engineers and publics.
One place that seems to do sci-art well is the residency programme at Peals, Elio did something there. What often seems to happen, is that there is an assumption that art will benefit from science, and science will benefit from art. That's crap, it's like a small dinner party for two couples, both delighted at the company of one another. What Peals does is address the way the collaboration can be enacted through a much wider network of people.
So it's not about a problem with the label of art, just whose label that is, and what they are trying to do with it. It's worth mentioning SymbioticA again here, who have managed to set up a lab that invites and educates arts practitioners. This is proper, it has been developed slowly and carefully, to the point where it is respected and supported for what it does, by people from many different disciplines. Of note in the UK also is Arts Catalyst.
Do you have pictures of MB working studio? Does it look and function more like a lab or your usual design studio?
Material Beliefs is scattered about the place. There is the Interaction Research Studio and design workshop at Goldsmiths, RapidForm and Design Interactions at the RCA, the Institute of Biomedical Engineering at Imperial College, Cybernetics and Pharmacy at Reading University, and the Institute of Ophthalmology at University Collage London. Project activities are based at the most appropriate site, and in some cases need to be run across multiple sites at the same time. The Neuroscope project is noteworthy here, with Julia Downes and Mark Hammond working with cell cultures and server side software, Elio Caccavale desiging CAD prototypes and David Muth writing a client application.
Equally important are the venues where members of the collaborations curate public events. These have included The Dana Centre, the V&A, MoMA, the Design Museum in London, The Royal Institution of Great Britain, the National Theatre, The Stephen Lawrence Centre, LABoral and Selfridges. There's a full list here. These forays into public spaces have acted as a cross between work in progress shows, design crits and think-tanks.
There have also been some smaller scale activities that are really messy, and which have transgressed divisions between labs and publics. There was an event at the Institute of Biomedical Engineering (IBE) called Mind the Loop, that had no clear design outcome, it was just too interesting to neglect. The silicon beta cell is designed to behave like an artificial pancreas, sensing blood sugar levels in the body and applying this biometric data to an algorithm which controls an insulin pump to regulate the blood sugar levels. That's the loop, It's a biological system rendered in silicon. Then around this technology you have different people, including the engineer who is making it work, the person who might use the silicon beta cell, and the doctor who negotiates and implements use. Mind the loop was a conversation between these three people, filmed by Steve Jackman.
Material Beliefs kicked off with a statement about biological and silicon hybrids, looking perhaps for the collaborations to establish a contemporary description of cyborg. The conversation about the silicon beta cell was striking because it showed the model of this hybrid was more extensive, it was more than one person, the technology is not stable, both in terms of its function and meaning and it took on the values of different communities. At the same time, as the collaboration at IBE was being discussed at public events I became aware of lots of discussion about the relationship between biomedical engineering and monitoring, trust and risk. I built Vital Signs to locate this discussion in a product that monitors a child's biometrics. In the UK there's a debate about childhood and risk, Cutting Edges Cotton Wool Kids and the RSA's recent report are examples. The Vital Signs prototypes are not critical of biomedical research, but designed to ask some questions about how technologies reproduce and materialise social relations.
Sorry, that's drifted away from the question a bit! I hope it gives an example of how the collaborations operate across different sites.
I'll ask Andy.
Andy Robinson: My approach to managing the specualtive is to combine the essentials of any project management role, aims and objectives, timescales and milestone etc etc. with a very clear understanding of the particularities of the participants and their ways of working. It is a conversation between participant and the aims set up for the project, where review and redirection are always possible within an agreed, often revised, playing field. The funder is crucial in this in setting up the opportunity for such a project in the first place. This is where the important tone is set, and i try to manage the conversion between participants and this tone. My function therefore is to have an overview, be neutral amongst agendas, but support the initial voice of the projects aims to engage with the participants skills and motivations. Ultimately it is to support creativity to flourish, risks to be taken, the unexpected to be embraced, and speculation to thrive.
I had a huge row with my boyfriend a few years ago. And you're the one to blame. He was totally into doing one of your biojewellery rings and thought i didn't love him enough to sacrifice a bit of wisdom tooth to make one. Where are the rings now? Are you still working on the project? What separates them from mass commercialization? The technology is too expensive? People find the idea hard to stomach?
Ha, sorry to hear about your row! At least you didn't end up with a nasty mouth infection like one of the participants. She was very nice about it, despite the discomfort and having to go on a course of antibiotics. I think the project managed to pay for parking fines she incurred while having the operation, which is some small compensation for a rather frustrating series of events for her.
Though it was not the tooth that provided the sample for the rings. Painful wisdom teeth merely provided a medical reason to have a bit of jaw bone removed, "while we're in there, lets just take a little chip of bone". I'm trivialising something that Ian Thompson did a great deal of work on - an application to a medical ethics committee for permission to run and experiment on the in vitro interaction of osteoblasts with ceramic scaffolds. So growing the rings for the couples also contributed to research about how to culture bone tissue into fairly large volumes.
The real rings are with the couples, and there are various models that tour around. Nikki Stott is setting up an exhibition in Spain shortly, and there have been quite a few shows this year. So it's archived and still active.
Any upcoming projects you could share with us? Either personal or from Material Beliefs?
Carnivorous Domestic Entertainment Robots and Vital Signs are part of the Touch Me festival in Zagreb, so Jimmy Loizeau and I will take some prototypes for exhibition, and I think present Material Beliefs as part of the symposium. The festival theme "arises from the need for artistic and cultural analysis of contemporary forms of violence and systems of control". This is something of a departure from the other weekend, when I was sitting with four year olds in the Royal Institution of Great Britain drawing fly eating robots with felt tips.
I'm then really looking forward to 2009 and getting into my phd, and your questions have given me some things to think about, so thanks for that!
All images courtesy Material Beliefs.
LABoral, the art center we have come to associated with new media art, has recently opened an exhibition dedicated to new, audacious and thought-provoking forms of design. Curated by Roberto Feo and Rosario Hurtado (El Último Grito), Nowhere/Now/Here aims to challenge the perception of design by questioning our relationship with the environment. Taking the viewpoint that our environment has become part of us rather than us being part of it, as its point of departure, Nowhere/Now/ Here encourages us to see design as an integral component of the world-shaping process.
Nowhere/Now/Here features more than 60 works that challenge the conception we might have of design. Some by designers you may have met in these pages before (Dunne & Raby, Troika, Auger-Loizeau, Eelko Moorer, David Bowen, Pablo Valbuena, Marei Wollersberger, Yuri Suzuki, Noam Toran, etc. ) and in many other publications (Tord Boontje, Assa Ashuach, Paul Cocksedge, etc.)
The design of the exhibition itself reflects the explorative approach of Nowhere/Now/Here. Conceived like a 'mental adventure' and relying on colourful graphics on the floor that guide visitors through the space, it was created by Patricia Urquiola studio and the graphic image and vision of Fernando Gutierrez.
The catalogue of the the exhibition Nowhere/Now/Here, Investigating New Lines of Enquiry in Contemporary Design is gorgeous and its cast is stellar: there are interview with Ron Arad, Javier Mariscal and other important figures of design, essays by Marti Guixe, Santiago Cirugeda, Matt Ward, Dunne & Raby, a description of all the participating projects, loads of photos and beautiful graphics. Almost 300 pages, in both spanish and english for a mere 35 euros. The online shop of LABoral seems to be a bit under the water these days, so until the situation is fixed, the easiest way to get your hands on the precious volume is to write LABoral and ask if they can send you a copy.
The curators of the exhibition are Roberto Feo and Rosario Hurtado. Ever since they founded El Último Grito back in 1997, the designers have kept away from preconceived definitions and prescribed design paths. A perspective that didn't prevent them from teaching at the most prestigious colleges of design and working for renowned companies and institutions: Mathmos, Selfridges, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Lavazza, Budweiser, Style, Metalarte, Hugo Boss, Southwark Council, Arturo Alvarez, the Lighthouse, etc.
I caught up with the Berlin/London-based duo to discuss Nowhere/Now/Here:
How did El Último Grito land on the LABoral spaceship? How did two famous designers end up curating an exhibition 'that challenges the perception of design by questioning our relationship with the environment. Taking the viewpoint that our environment has become part of us rather than us being part of it, as its point of departure, Nowhere/Now/ Here encourages us to see design as an integral component of the world-shaping process' ?
LABoral contacted us to curate and exhibition on 'experimental design' (what ever that means) so for us it was a question of trying to define what experimental meant to us.
We explored different areas of work and try to define a strategic approach for each of them, which lead designers to challenging design's status quo. We identify three basic areas with their accompanying strategies
Material_Intervention: projects that explore material innovation and new material applications, new production techniques, technology, genetic engineering, graffiti,...
Cultural_Resistance: Projects and designers that position themselves in confrontation with the dominant culture, both in terms of the design outcomes, but also in terms of practice within the culture of design.
Psychological_Exploration: projects that analyse the psychological and sensorial experience of the object or that act as triggers of emotions and sensations. And psychological objects that carry the essence of the psychological experience.
This worked for us as a starting point, which provided us a basic structure to classify the researched works. But for us it became apparent that were many other connections between the works, and that such a classification would not allow you to understand. When we started recombining the works in a more intuitive way, for us suggested conceptual connections between really different areas of work. We also felt that this allowed the viewer to find his or her own entry points into the exhibition.
Our intent was to present a collection of objects that would allow you to understand the thinking process of the artists behind them. Presenting them as thinkers who can not only reshape their own particular worlds but that show the potential to transform, re-interpret and re-think industries, production processes, communication strategies, political systems, etc. Challenging our preconceptions of what design can do.
What did this curatorial experience teach you?
It has been a very interesting experience. It has given us the chance (or luxury) to dedicate proper time to lo closely to the work of many other peoples, to understand their motivations and their intentions. And interpret them in relation to each other (including our own work). Creating a bigger pictured that talked about the fantastic potential and diversity of design approaches.
That it's why we treated the exhibition as a project itself, rather of plain review of design today. So in a way is not so much an exhibition on experimental design as much as an experimental exhibition on design. We wanted to create a moment where different aspects of design would collide in a space and something would come up from this experiment. Which in a way has already happened among the participating artists and designers, in terms of friendships and collaborations. But above all, the most incredible feeling is one of 'togetherness' and true interest in each others work, which has become unusual in such competitive world. This is very uplifting and makes us believe that something major is happening within the design world.
Also, it was very interesting to work on the edition of the catalogue, in which we collaborated intensively with Fernando Gutierrez who carried out its design. In a way the catalogue becomes almost more important than the exhibition itself, they have a life beyond the exhibition, so we wanted that the catalogue would be a space that you travel like the exhibition. It follows the same structure of the show, with the works presented according to the six groups created from word associations that connect to the works in an intuitive way:
TYPOLOGY / MUNDANE / ANECDOTE / FICTION / MYTH
The works, texts and interviews have been grouped in order to create moments. Images and stories for the visitor/reader to find their own point of access to the ideas around the works. Very much following the idea of a 'trafalmadorian' book, from Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse V:
"Billy couldn't read Trafalmadorian, of course, but he could al least see how the books were laid out- in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars. Billy commented that the clumps might be telegrams. "Exactly", said the voice. "They are telegrams?" "There are no telegrams on Trafalmadore. But you're right: each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message-describing a situation, a scene. We Trafalmadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn't any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time."
The catalogue is an assemblage of works, described by the designers and artists, essays from some of the participating artists, which although often linked to personal projects, are surprisingly useful to understand everyone else's work, and interviews to four of our all time heroes: Ron Arad, Javier Mariscal, Daniel Weil and Gaetano Pesce; which contextualise the work of this younger generation of designers.
You didn't seem to have selected any of your own works for the show. Why not? And if i asked you to point us to the work you developed that best reflects the theme of the exhibition, which one would it be?
Well, for us the exhibition itself is a piece of work, a project that is the result of the collaboration with everybody involved, from the LABoral team, to all the artists, writers and advisors.
There are two video projects that we feel worked well within the themes of NOWHERE/NOW/HERE.
One is 'LINE' which is a video consisting of a horizontal line where words appearing above and bellow. As the words change, your interpretation of what the line is also changes, and as you keep watching you find yourself adjusting your interpretation of the space and the way of seeing it. This is one of the three pieces, dealing with the idea of perception, which we have used as an introduction to the show. There other two are Grao by Pedrita, which reproduces a photographic image using traditional untreated ceramic tiles, to substitute the pixels of the image; and Marc Owens 'Avatar' film, which he reshot as a walkthrough the exhibition, the piece is fantastic as it is always playing with how you perceive reality.
The other video is 'NOWASTEEUR, a laborious poem'. This video is a new direction in terms of documenting our work. We started using video to try to document our installations, as we felt that just by keeping a photographic record of the event, did not reflect our ideas about the nature of the work that we call 'design performance, performing design'. But then we realised that the video itself could even had another narrative which would give it an identity of its own and not just being a document of the work. 'NOWASTEEUR, a laborious poem' was conceived as part of a public sitting commission during ARCO at IFEMA. The idea was to utilise all the packaging materials that are thrown away during the setting up of the fair. We came out with the idea of big bags in the shape of letters that would be filled up with all the waste materials. NOWASTEEUR are the ten letters that you need to write NO WASTE and RE-USE which was the main message that we wanted to put across. After that we elaborated a short poem using those letters (plus M which you get out of turning around the W), which you see forming in the video while all the action of the installation is being recorded:
NO WASTE_RE USE_ANSWER ME_NOT US_USER WON'T_WEST_EAST_RAW WAR_NOTE RUSE_USE ART_STEM NEW_SOME ONE TO STEER_SURE MUST EASE TEARS_MEET TEAM NOW_USE _RE-USE_WASTE NOT.
'NOWASTEEUR, a laborious poem' is shown as part of the film program, which runs at the exhibition's design cinema (the cinema sitting is a commissioned piece by Nic Rysenbry)
David Bowen's Remote Sonar Drawing Device, and Pablo Valbuena's installation Augmented Sculpture Series, have been exhibited in the past in purely artistic contexts. What made you think that they fitted the exhibition's objective to 'encourages us to see design as an integral component of the world-shaping process'?
Design is an integral component of the world-shaping process. Only because design takes many forms, sometimes we 'can't see the forest from the trees'.
In NOWHERE/NOW/HERE we tried to investigate (like the sub title says) 'new lines of enquiry in contemporary design'. Showing a diversity of work, which presented the different ideas and directions that designers are exploring today.
In the case of David Bowen, we find really interesting his work, where both technological research, and robotics collide with the questioning of the nature of drawing. His design translates movement into drawing. He has deliberately chosen make his machine draw 'marks' (like young children when they start drawing and are just interested in leaving their mark) by translating the movement recorded into impulses, which connect with the idea of representation, so central to the idea of drawing. So in fact, is that drawing purely a mark or is it a representation of the circulation of people? Is that drawing artistic or scientific? Is it both? But it not only raises questions in the nature of drawing as a human activity but in the nature of technological research and its applications.
In the exhibition his piece is in conversation with by Javier Mariscal's hand made wooden drawing of a 'VESPA' (2007), one of the surprise little homage's to the 'maestros' object of the interviews in the catalogue.
With Pablo Valbuena, we saw his work at ARCO and we fell in love with it instantly. The way he uses light and video to transform the perception of space and the materiality of the build, it is simply fantastic. In his case, it is obvious that the content of his work comes directly from his training as an architect, and his research into the qualities of space. So his work is very much design, but its materialization and dissemination is through the art market.
These two pieces, like indeed many others within the exhibition are providing a different point of view on how thing are around us. This helps us understand that there is always more than one answer and that by no means we should accept what the market or the designer or the politician or religion or science tell us. There are always alternatives. Most things are not the way they are because of some force of nature that is beyond our control. Things are the way they are because someone decided at one moment that this or that was a good idea, or make them lots of money or be good for humanity or the environment or ... there are no ultimate truths, just proposals that became 'real' and these could and do change.
In the catalogue we refer to Martin Scorsese's film The Departed quoting Frank Costello, the mob boss, who while describing his neighbourhood says 'I do not want to be a product of my environment, I wasn't my environment to be a product of me'. For us this has a resonance within design and acts as a reminder that it is possible to change the rules of the game.
On the other hand some of the works selected openly dialog with the art world (for example The Macguffin Library and cinema). Which are the characteristics that indicate that these works belong strictly to the field of design and not art? And is the difference always strict anyway? Or is there a conscious desire to keep the boundaries as porous as befits the purpose?
We guess that the answer would be in how do you define each one of them. From our point of view everything is design.
A few weeks ago we read a short interview with Vito Acconci where he was asked a similar question regarding the design/art argument and he was saying that a big part of the problem came from the fact that 'art' is the only discipline that is defined by a qualitative appreciation. We share that point of view and we think that the word art would have to be left for any kind of work that excels in whatever area of human activity. Who is to say that the work of Ferran Adria is less art than that of Jeff Koons? Or that a Frank Lloyd Wright building is less or art than an Andreas Gurski photograph? Or that Leonardo's flying machines is less art than his Monalisa?... What are the grounds for comparison and how or why would you do it? This is the eternal argument, from our point of view is easier as we see no boundaries. Maybe this interpretation of design might be confusing or unacceptable for some people who do have a very clear idea of the boundaries of between the two.
The 'McGuffin Library Collection' by Noam Toran and Onkar Kular obviously lives in the edges of what is traditionally accepted as design, and I guess it raise questions in both directions. As they explain, McGuffin is a term invented by Alfred Hitchcock to define an object within a film, which somehow acts as a devise to carry the narrative of the story. In terms of the story, the design of this object becomes, so its conception is a design exercise on its own. For Onkar and Noam this works perfectly well to explore further their ideas around the use of design as a medium that is central to their work. In this case they wrote 14 synopsis for imaginary films for which they designed an object. These objects are primarily talking about the role of objects as mediators in our understanding of the world (in this case of the story). In a second layer, they are talking about the world of technology, production and design. The objects are produced in rapid form directly from 3D computer models. The objects are not unique necessarily unique as they are printed very much like you would do with a computer document. Is that a banal use of technology, design and engineering just because thy are not pursuing 'the grater good' or the commercial enterprise? Would that make it art? For us what makes them good design and good art is exactly the same thing, they are able to broaden and challenge our preconceived ideas of what things are, while being moving and engaging.
Most of the works exhibited in Nowhere/now/here come from Europe. Is that a curatorial choice or is it merely because this way to engage with objects is still confined to our continent?
It was not a particular curatorial choice. We tried to select people and works that we found interesting and that helped us illustrate the ideas behind NOWHERE/NOW/HERE. It is true though, that still Europe is the main centre for design in the world, with some of the most prestigious and influential design schools in the world (RCA, Eindhoven, Domus,...) so it is unavoidable that a lot of the designers (although not necessarily European themselves) who are doing interesting work would come from them.
Like with any other project there are many reasons that contribute to the final decisions and results (most of them are usually quite mundane)
For NOWHERE/NOW/HERE we tried to work with people with whom, despite working in very different areas, we found an affinity and a complicity in pushing the boundaries of what is accepted in design.
Why did you ask Patricia Urquiola to take care of the exhibition design? Why not do it yourself? Did you hand her a list of requirements or did you give her carte blanche? How much did you collaborate and how did her vision of the exhibition influence yours?
With Patricia Urquiola and Martino Berghinz we were very lucky that we could take advantage of their relationship with LABoral, and were very happy when they decided to participate in the project.
We always had the idea that whoever did the exhibition design we would like it to be or feel like one more piece in the exhibition. So our brief was very open, we showed them the six groups of works which we had assembled and asked them to give us six permeable spaces where you could experience the groups as a one thing and at the same time you would be aware or attracted to the works of the other groups, so that the visitor could break away from the structure and find their own way to navigate the show.
Their response was to create a laberynthic exhibition space that creates many small private moments. It broke our idea of being able to experience each group as a whole, but in the other hand, it work very well in the sense that allows you to find your own experience of the show. So we totally respected their proposal and change the concept and create smaller relationships within the pieces rather that the group encounter. For us was important not to step in and allow these and other inputs take their course
And how much do you feel that her intervention reflects the spirit of the exhibition, making it maybe another work in itself that does belong to the show?
We think that their idea of dividing the space from the top by hanging fabrics its a very spatial (and material efficient) solution that multiplies the space by creating a very atmospheric cloud of mini spaces which are all inter-connected.
You are both lecturers in London, Roberto teaches Design Product at the Royal College of Art and Rosario at the Design Department, Goldsmiths College. How much does your teaching practice reflect the concepts and ideas put forward in the exhibition? And more importantly which kind of career awaits students who might want to follow the paths of the designers you've invited to the exhibition? Will they end up working exclusively in the hope that their projects will be shown in art galleries and museums or does the industry realize there is a real need of such visions and will companies therefore welcome them with open arms?
As you mentioned, we have been lecturers at the Royal College of Art and Goldsmith University for the last 10 years, and we are also Research Fellows at Kingston University. For us this experience is central to the development of our own ideas and to understand the concerns and ambitions of new generations of designers.
We would like that the works in NW/N/H are viewed not as the object that you can see at the exhibition, but as the potential that these designers have to translate their knowledge and skill into different outcomes. How these objects are the products of inquisitive minds that give nothing for granted but are also responsible and very thorough in the development of their work.
Many of the designers invited to the exhibition are very successful and work across industries, what they have in common is a non-conformist approach to their practices. These designers are changing the scope of the design practice, elaborating new industries and opening new areas of work. Some of the younger designers are still starting to navigate their way but surly in years to come they will be some of the leading figures in art or design or design-art or art-design or science or film...
At the end the question of where some work lives is purely economical. Today there are more possibilities for designers to find means of commercialisation and dissemination of their work through galleries and exhibitions rather than through the mass market. We have to be aware of the changes to the market and to the industry that we have experience in the last years. And industry is falling behind in attracting talent because it is hard for them to react to new ideas.
We have always worked between the experimental and the commercial, the two running parallel and feeding from each other. This self-feeding process has always been part of our work and we think has enriched it (but we are 'old school' now) and the way we work (or even our drivers) are very different to how our students perceived design today or the kind of work they want to do.
We hope that industry reacts (what ever industry) and tries to be again a leading force in research and creativity. At the end of the day what will determine which avenue designers will follow, or where their work will be show cased is a question of market opportunities and ultimately their cultural influence. At the Design Museum tomorrow, at the V&A in a couple of decade or at the British Museum in a few centuries.
Do you see design meccas like the Salone del Mobile in Milan open up to this kind of discourse?
We do not see why not. There have been times where companies would champion new concepts and ideas. Seeing how markets are evolving industry will have to react and accept that cannot just be playing to an outdated lifestyle ideal.
In Milan you can see lots of the things that are going on right now, but it is hard to see with more than 300 exhibitions in the 'fuori salone'. How would we even know that its even there? In any case, for good or bad, there are many new ways of disseminating design much more economical and accessible.
Is El Ultimo Grito already working on new projects? Could you share them with us?
We are working in a book about our work, which we are looking to publish sometime in April. Apart of our usual combination of self initiated projects and commercial ones, some of which will be presented in Milan next April. A bit of everything, like always.
Thanks Roberto and Rosario!
Image on the homepage: Daniel Charny & Gabriel Klasmer. Sports Furniture.2008, based on a photo version from 2003 (photo Enrique G. Cardenas)
Related stories: If you can't travel to Gijon (there are direct flights from London), i would encourage you to visit Wouldn't It be Nice at Somerset House where some of the designers are exhibiting their works until December 14, 2008.