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.
Daniel Canogar is a media artist living between Spain and Canada. He's also the Artistic Director of VIDA, an international competition on art & artificial life. Launched 10 years ago by Fundación Telefónica, the prize rewards works of art produced with and commenting on artificial life technologies.
Previous winners include projects as different as a robot that sweats, a table that follows you around, robotic dogs suffering from the mad cow disease, solar-powered devices which modify their own instruction code in response to environmental changes, autonomous non-violent protest agents, a mobile cemetery tank, a Universal Whistling Machine, etc. What these artworks have in common is that they engage with emerging behaviours, which evolve over time, react with their environment and seem to have a life of their own.
The dozens of projects which have received an award over the past ten years form a unique collection documenting the evolution of electronic art in one of its most significant aspects. The looming deadline to submit projects (6th of October 2008) is the excuse i took to interview Daniel Canogar about the competition.
Last year the VIDA competition celebrated its 10th anniversary. How did it evolve over the course of the years? Did it get more ambitious? Set itself new goals? Opened its scope to new territories? i'm thinking about last year's winner, NoArk by Symbiotica, which is not based on electronics but on biotechnology.
When VIDA began, A-Life as a discipline was still very recent, a little over 10 years old. So as usually happens with young disciplines, there has been an evolution in the field, which has been reflected in VIDA. A couple of years ago there was a heated discussion amongst jury members if VIDA should be open to biotechnology art projects. The origins of A-Life are in computer simulation, not biotech, so this was quite a controversial issue. In the end, we did decide to include biotechnology projects, as they are closely related to A-Life concerns. The important thing, in my view, is not to remain faithful to categories, but to keep VIDA alive with the kind of art projects that are relevant to our times.
I guess this will sound like a silly question but do you see trends in the entries the prize has received over the years? For example, artificial life of animals being abandoned at some point because the trend is more in artificial life at a nano-level? How closely do the entries reflect the changes occurring in our society and in research more particularly?
It's not art's mission to be a direct mirror of what is going on in research labs. A-Life art has taken some of the evolutionary concepts of the field, and in a sense created a totally new field that is much closer to the general public. But more importantly, these projects are not so concerned with specific technologies generated in research labs. They are extremely concerned with concepts, ideas, questions about how technology has changed the way we feel about ourselves, about notions of what it means to be alive, or dead, etc. It is exactly the kind of conceptual questioning that is often so lacking in research labs. VIDA submissions do not come out of A-Life lab research, though their contribution to the field is extremely valuable. In fact, I hope scientists working in the field of A-Life take note of VIDA art projects, and take some of the serious questioning that occurs at a sociological and cultural level back to the lab.
VIDA rewards works of art developed with artificial life technologies and related disciplines. How much of this artificial life has already moved away from research labs and artists workshops to crawl into our everyday life?
A-Life research is present in everyday consumer products, such as children's electronic pets (Tamagotchi, Dogz, Catz and many more), video games with characters that evolve over time, or in intelligent interfaces for mobile telephones and other electronic devices which "learn" about the user, including search engines. No doubt, in coming years such technologies will become a staple of our quotidian life.
Fundación Telefónica exhibited the winners of VIDA 10.0 at the ARCO art fair in Madrid last April. Has FT always done that? I found so far that very few art fairs actually give space to art practices engaged with technology. Why is the presence of VIDA in the commercial context of an art fair so important?
Fundación Telefónica has always exhibited VIDA winners at ARCO. First of all, it is important to give ARCO, Madrid's art fair, a little bit of context. ARCO is not like any other fair, it is a fundamental cultural phenomenon in Spain. It transcends contemporary art, arousing interest from every creative field, and people from all walks of live, young and old, rich and not so wealthy, high-school students and major art collectors. Every year about 200.000 people visit the fair. So VIDA's presence in ARCO is a fantastic way of getting the public to learn about the award.
But beyond visibility of VIDA, there is also the art market issue. New media artists need to find alternative ways of circulating and distributing their work beyond the rather small circuit of specialized festivals and conferences. Funding of technologically driven artwork is expensive, and artists need to find ways of financing their projects. There have actually been VIDA awarded projects that have sold at the fair, and of course, the sale goes directly to the artist.
This is very encouraging. It's a very daring thing for the Fundación Telefónica to present this kind of technological work in the context of the art fair, and through the years, Fundación Telefónica's booth has been one of the most successful at the fair.
VIDA is also involved in a series of workshops taking place in Latin America. Can you tell us something about these workshops? How do they go? What is their objective? What happens there?
Latin America is a region where artists have a hard time funding their new media projects. Fundación Telefónica has exhibition spaces and programs in Lima, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, Santiago de Chile and Mexico City, so VIDA's projects in Latin America grow out of this preexisting network. Certain places have a lively new media scene, such as Buenos Aires. In other cities, the scene is practically non-existant. Funding for VIDA workshops is conceived as seed money for potential VIDA award candidates. We want to tap into the tremendous creative talent that exists in Latin America, and also help create a context for the emergence of A-Life art. For this reason we ask VIDA award recipients to develop workshops for Fundación Telefónica's centers in Latin America. This year Gilberto Esparza, a fantastic Mexican artist that won a VIDA award last year, has directed workshops in Buenos Aires, Lima, Santiago and Mexico City. It's a way of creating a community of artists helping other artists create new work. This is an exciting development for VIDA.
The Incentive for Iberoamerican productions award helps artistic projects that still have not been produced. How difficult is it to judge the validity of a work which doesn't really exist yet? How far must the artists be in the advancement of the project?
When the artist has a conceptually clear idea of what he/she wants to do with his/her art project, it usually comes through in the actual proposal. The technical description of how the work is going to get made is also important and very revealing. Many members of the jury are very savvy about both software and hardware and can usually figure out if the work can get built as described. Past work by the artist also gives the proposal more context, so we often look at dossiers or webpages. Its always really exciting to see these works actually materialized having seeing them in their infancy as proposals. And what really prides the jury members more than anything else is when we begin to see some of these art pieces circulate in exhibitions and festivals.
Were it not for VIDA and a few other initiatives i, and i'm sure many people in Europe, would know almost nothing about Iberoamerican art projects developed using artificial life technologies, electronics, robotics, etc. Do you have some advice for people curious about what is going on over there?
Well, for starters, it may be interesting to look at VIDA's webpage with documentation of selected past projects: many of them are from Latin America. Another fantastic source of new media art made in this region is the exhibition Emergentes. Curated by Jose Carlos Mariátegui, it is one of the first exhibitions focused on Latin American new media art. This is a traveling show which opened in Laboral, the center for new media art in Gijón, northern Spain. The catalogue is a good source for references, understanding of the cultural specificity and historical background of the emergence of new media art in Latin America.
Can you tell us something about the project of Fundación Telefónica Virtual Museum? When will it go live? What will web users find there?
It should be available early next year. The Virtual Museum wants to be a didactic tool, the best source for A Life Art on the web, where you will not only see documentation of VIDA awards, but you will actually be able to experience some pieces first hand with web-based projects. It will also document the history of A Life art, and show many landmark projects that have significantly contributed to the field. The interface will allow for a very intuitive and seamless navigation through all this documentation. It's a large project, one that will require constant updating to make it really alive, and hopefully become a significant reference in the new media art scene.
Over the years the competition has gained fame and visibility. How does it translate in terms of number of entries? And do you tend to receive more entries from Spain, Iberoamerica and Portugal?
Last year we received close to 200 entries from 25 different countries. There has been a steady increase of submitted projects through the years, a real accomplishment if you bear in mind how specialized the award is. Every year three projects get awards, plus 7 projects are selected as honorary mentions. That means that on VIDA's web page, you can study an archive of over 100 art works related to A Life. About 30% of submitted projects are from Spain, Portugal and Latin America. Contributions from the US and Canada form another 30%, European projects comprise approximately 30 % and the remaining 10% are submissions from Asian countries. One of our objectives for the close future is to reach out to Japan, Korea and China, where significant A Life art has taken place in the last few years. There is always room to improve! VIDA is a unique award, the only one in the world specialized in A Life and Robotic art. I am now hoping for another 10 years of growth, enabling more artists to realize their life-like creations all around the globe.
Riitta Ikonen is one very talented Finnish graduate from the Communication Art & Design department at the Royal College of Art in London. I discovered her work at the Summer show last June and fell in love with her costume projects. I wasn't the only one. She received an Helen Hamlyn Design for our Future Selves award for her project Commuter Thrival, a communication campaign that aims to raise awareness of the issues surrounding public transport in London through posters visualising people's emotions with quirky costumes.
The description of her work is delightful: My work is concerned with the performance of images, through photography and costume design. Certain items, usually small and insignificant, excite me to the point where I have to wear them and then document that process. The super- garments I make open up new experiences. In my costumes tremendous things happen - to me and to the people I work with. Today I exploded an egg in the microwave. Next, I want to make an egg costume.
How could i not interview her?
Many of your works involve costumes, so one would hastily assume that you are a fashion graduate. In reality, you graduated in Communication Art and Design. Why didn't choose a career in fashion? And why do you often choose costume as a medium to transmit your messages, concerns and ideas?
There was a sewing machine in my bedroom when I grew up, and I learned to use it from a very early age. I still like the illusion that I can maintain and make ANYTHING with the skills from my hands. I'm by nature curious about this potential, and think my hands still hold the most decision making power in me.
I never rejected the chance of my work being fashion, but thought a fashion degree would have been too narrow for what I wanted to figure out. I wanted to embrace the vernacular through the carefully constructed images in which the outfits form only a part of the story. In a way I did choose fashion, the outfits are vital for the work, just not the pinnacle of it.
Communication Art and Design course didn't tie me down to anything too specific and offered seemingly boundaryless opportunities. (Before the RCA I did BA in Illustration in Brighton celebrating the invention of all things Nylon as my final project.) At the moment I do some live commission work, but I feel most at ease printed and mounted quietly on the wall.
Commuter Thrival is a 'communication campaign that aims to raise awareness of the issues surrounding public transport through a series of posters visualizing people's emotions with custom-made costumes'.
Did you work on this project with the sole aim to visualize the issues at stake or did you think that these costumes could actually have some therapeutic or cathartic quality on commuters seeing them?
As usual, the costumes were made to communicate the issue in the image and not as a live piece. I wanted to visualize the issue to an extent. Eliminating mental space harassment in the Underground is vital. The campaign is meant to be shown on a London Underground platform completely stripped from any extra information/ adverts etc. I wanted to leave enough space for people's own interpretation. In terms of how the posters are situated I tried to give people what they were lacking. The commuters are doing pretty well in the absurdity of the rush hour tunnels, so the campaign is an ode and appreciation to the performers of this daily operation.
Could you describe us which elements in the costumes you design correspond to the 3 issues you wanted to engage with?
I wanted the images to have a silent potential, giving people headspace in the lack of physical space/ mental cool in the heat of the moment morning rushing.
After some tests the heat costume kept the fiery hot colour and the stiff basic shape, but got much simpler cut and colouring. It is an abstract version of what it used to be- a winged slouch like structure with brightly multi coloured outside.
Daydreaming is solid place to seek solace from when your head is squished into a stranger's armpit in the tube. I thought this would not be a bad place to be instead. An image for fantasizing the journey away.
Most people I interviewed said they weren't keen on making contact with their fellow passengers, which is an awful waste of casual face to face socializing. I was looking into animal shields, scares, warning systems and colours for ways to attract and also repel (you wouldn't want to look too attractive waiting for the night bus in back end of Brixton). A frilled lizard has an excellent collar which I borrowed for this image. It can spread it out for scaring or keep flat for inconspicuous look. The slippery suit is for slick crowd movements (- how smooth it would be if everybody wore them!)
Your practice also involves photography. How much staging and preparation did the Commuter Thrival project require? Could you explain us how you selected the location, the model, the light and other elements which played an important role in your photos?
The project started with an in depth user research investigation with interviews and involvement all of which provided the starting point for the project.
As I'm usually in front of the camera (only for the heat image for this project though) I work with a trusted photographer, who has quite a strong say on the final images. Most things to do with the image happen before the shoot of course: research, material hunting, costume making, fittings, sketches and location scouting. I wanted the images for this campaign to have nothing to do with the tube, but anything outside it- life, nature etc. Altogether four leaves were sitting in the tree at one point of the shoot, (I had selected a colourful mix of men and women), once again, less was more, and Hitomi on her own in the tree spoke loudest for the lack of space. She is great in front of the camera -perfect stern look.
We were lucky on the day of the shoot, especially for the heat we managed to hit on a great sunset in Hyde Park. A lot depends on scheduling, weather and luck when working on low budget. Working on film we can't see the images on the spot, so if things are not right the whole team gets to travel back and forth. (I'm amazed I still have friends with all I've put them through...)
Apart from colour adjustments and cropping, I don't photoshop the costumes on the images, they need to be just right on film or we shoot again. For a project called Bird and Leaf we have been traveling to the same location for over a year now with the photographer to get the perfect image for the series... finally, earlier this year it snowed one day when we were all set:
Looking at your portfolio, i had the feeling that humour is important to you. What part does humour play in your work? How does it help communicating an issue?
Humour is vital. My work is quite telling of my character. A little humour is very compelling and has access to such a broad audience beyond language barriers. Perhaps humour with my work has a bit to do with being overseas and not quite part of this team here, I'm nearly seeing it like everybody else. Very almost. For more murky issues like global warming the message can cut through a lot of fluff if the humour is done well.
I read somewhere that you received an Helen Hamlyn award for Commuter Thrival. Is it true? Does it mean that you are going to push the project further or that you have other plans for it?
It is true, Anja Schaffner, Valerio Di Lucente and I received a Michael Peters award for interdisciplinary collaboration for Commuter Thrival. The project will go public hopefully soon, I'm in talks with the transport for London to get it to the tube in its full glory. It would be very exciting to see it go ahead.
All images courtesy of the artist.
A few months ago, i bought a lovely baby blue summer dress with the face of Karl Marx printed all over it. I was made slightly uncomfortable by the irony of acting like a victim of capitalism in the face of and to the detriment of the father of anti-capitalism. I also had the feeling that, somewhere, a bunch of cynical and astute artists were making fun of me. Because that's exactly what happened. The provocative brand has a slogan 'Be Like Us, Be Different', and a shop, located at the time in an art exhibition room, right inside LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial in Gijon. Gallery visitors could buy jeans carrying the MARX® logo, boys short-sleeve shirts with the same pattern as the said blue dress and some very expensive MARX® shoes. The shop has now moved to another museum, the CAAM in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain.
The artists/company who designed and market the dress are Berlin-based art collective PSJM, made up of Pablo San José and Cynthia Viera. PSJM acts as an trademark of happening art addressing issues of the artwork in the market, communication with consumers, or function as an artistic quality, using communication resources borrowed from capitalism of the spectacle to underscore the paradoxes produced by its unbridled development.
Having googled the name of the artists i found a series of interviews, statement texts and essays so interesting that i immediately thought that it would be foolish of me to stop my enthusiasm at the cuteness of a blue dress. Hence this interview (the original version of PSJM's answers is in spanish, i pasted it at the bottom of this post):
PSJM is made of artist Pablo San José and management graduate Cynthia Viera. Excuse the banality of my prejudice but how can people with such a different background manage to dialog? What brought you together? Did Cynthia's mindset and knowledge influence Pablo's artistic practice and view of the contemporary art landscape? And vice-versa, have Cynthia's management skills been "affected" by her collaboration with an artist?
In reality we do not have such different backgrounds. At some point during his artistic career, Pablo worked for some years as a creative for a big corporation of the advertisement sector, creating campaigns and brand images for international companies. In 1998, and in parallel to his work in publicity, Pablo decided that his artistic signature would become a brand. He was interested by the promotion processes of artistic brands and its parallelism with other commercial brands. He then started a work that continues today, a project that builds itself with each work realized. "The artist is the brand, the work is the product" became the slogan of the PSJM brand. In 2003, Cynthia, a graduate in Direction of International Commerce and Marketing, and until then working as the Head of Marketing Services for a major telecommunication company, joined the project. With her arrival, the theoretical objectives to work under the same structures as a company and to legally establish the team as a commercial brand became reality. We work as a team in which the point of view of each of us affects without a doubt the work of the other one. However, we both use the same language. Pablo doesn't correspond to the typical romantic idea of the artist more than Cynthia fits the usual profile of an executive who puts the quest for maximum benefits above social or aesthetic commitments.
One of the striking elements of the MARX® brand is the price. All the garments, be they jeans or dress, carry the same price tag (220,40 euros), while the one and only shoe available costs way more than most people could afford. What were the motivations behind the price tags?
While the main objective of marketing is to satisfy the client in exchange of economic benefits, we use marketing as a critical tool that enables us to provide consumers with an aesthetic or intellectual gratification. We use the "4 Ps" of the Marketing Mix (Product, Price, Promotion and Placement) to interweave a strategy of meaning where each of these
With MARX® we have used once again the price as a poetic license and vehicle of meaning. The fact that garments exhibited have a high price tag creates some kind of reflective impotence in the mind of the visitor who has finally the opportunity to act as a consumer in the museum space but is inhibited by the aspect of the aspect of exclusivity of the goods. In any case and in order to keep the work alive and continue creating meanings and mixing reality and fiction, and because the next exhibition of the garments will be at the CAAM in July, they will be on sale. Let's see what happens.
I don't know if you've read about the fight that the daughter of Che Guevara is putting to protect her father's image.
How did you deal with the thought that some people might come up and criticize you for using Marx' figure in a way that they consider to "be an affront to his dignity"? And did you at any moment think that you'd encounter a censorship similar to the one you experienced with one of your previous works, Project Asia?
The experimental aspect of our projects involves a certain dose of uncertainty once we are launching the work. Even if you try to direct the work towards a certain meaning you never know the kind of reaction you're going to encounter. All along our career we had to face anything from censorships from brands, complains from right-wing to passionate critiques, either negative or favorable.
For example, with the public intervention that took the shape of a promotional campaign for the MARX® brand in Gijón, we were expecting some forms of violent reaction to the association of the name of the father of communism with the aesthetic of fashion, especially if we take into account the revolutionary tradition of Asturias. But to our surprise the public is so used to the absurdity of the paradoxical messages emerging from the market that the work got totally diluted into the reality.
On the other hand, in this case, it would be difficult for any brand to censor us, as Adidas did with the Asia Project. The first conceptual and practical step of the MARX® project consisted in registering the brand MARX®, and it is this action which really supports the main axis of the artwork, the rest can only be seen as its natural development.
The MARX® project was accompanied with a promotional campaign in the streets of Gijon. The promo posters looked like any other posters designed by mainstream fashion brand. The general public, whether they wanted it or not, was thus in direct contact with your project. How much do you value their look and reaction to your work? Do you give it more credit and importance than you would give to an art critic or to anyone familiar with artistic discourses?
For us it is crucial that our proposals should not remain exclusively at the reach of the cultural elite. The commitment to open up our discourse to a broader public is at the basis of our work, we strive to create pieces which have two levels of lectures and try to unite experimentation and communication. We call this difficult operation " the dilemma of Mayakovsky", as it was a theme that kept the Russian poet awake at night. To achieve this we use the media and the strategies of mass culture. The broad public understands perfectly its language and this provides us with a space for experimenting while generating various meanings. However, we also have the objective of placing our proposals inside the theoretical discourse of contemporary art, all our projects involve a text which we write ourselves and which constitutes and additional element of the art piece. Our work can be situated between reality and the art institution, both spheres are important to us.
You obviously don't share Takashi Murakami's bulldozer and very mercantile approach. However, MARX® and other projects of yours evoke (to me at least and under certain aspects) the Japanese artist's exploration of the merging between consumer goods and artwork, art fetishism, the demythification of the concept of art work as a one-off, etc. Am i writing a total heresy or do you somehow see some similarities between his approach and yours?
Who are the other artists you feel close to?
There are indeed many aspects in Murakami's work which makes us feel quite close to his line of work but also many others which sets us apart from it. The ones that connect us to his way of producing art are the ones that you enumerated. Those that distance us from Murakami are his lack of critique and his ideological positioning regarding the establishment. Murakami follows the trail of Warhol and Koons, but he doesn't go further, let's say that it's a development of apolitical Pop. Murakami's main concern is to make money. His is a very nationalist position, and we find that totally outdated and dangerously conservative. However, our peculiarity is that we combine spheres which seem to be antagonistic and shortcircuit meanings. Our vision of artistic production, organized in the same way as a company where the creator is presented as professional with a defined social function, follows the tracks of thinkers such as Proudhon or Benjamin, who reject the figure of the 'artist as a genius' and propose the one of the 'artist as a worker', a position that the Russian Productivists made their best to put into practice all the while enjoying the support from the Party. Just as Modernity gave way to postmodernity and production lost its importance in the favour of consumption, the company became brand. This conversion of the company into brand recovered in a sense the mythologico-symbolical value of genius to give way to an apparently paradoxical artist-brand which behaviour is strategically planned, scientifically programmed. On the one hand the elitist and godlike figure of the romantic artist is de-mythified. On the other hand, a new myth is created, and this time it is coldly designed under the rules of marketing applied to the world of art. The paradox, the blending of antagonist and irreconcilable forces constantly underpins the way we make art.
We don't really find any artist whose line of work corresponds to ours, but if we had to give a couple of names it would be the Spanish group Democracia and the artistic corporation Etoy. We admire their work a lot.
Many of your works have a very strong provocative element to them which makes them very appealing for the media. How much is the "shock tactic" important in your practice?
Our work owes much to the Dadaist and Constructivist tradition and to its commitment to merge art with life. Today, reality is built by the media and if we want to be involved in reality we have to step into the media.
Any upcoming project you could share with us?
We are currently working on two projects which will be presented in 2009, in various galleries and institutions. Unfortunately we cannot reveal their content as we are still at the creative and production stage, but we can tell you that in one of the projects we will be using a traditional technique: painting. Our subject focuses on merchandise and painting is still the number one merchandise in the world of art.
The MARX® shop at LABoral has now closed. If people want to buy one of those shirts and jeans, is there any other gallery (or shop?) they should turn to?
The MARX® project was produced by LABoral in collaboration with CAAM (Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno) in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Canary Islands. That's where they will travel from July to October. We are also working on its international distribution, but it is still to early to reveal the name of the possible spaces.
Thanks Cynthia and Pablo!
Spanish version of the interview:
PSJM is made of artist Pablo San José and management graduate Cynthia Viera. Excuse the banality of my prejudice but how can people with such a different background manage to dialog? What brought you together? Did Cynthia's mindset and knowledge influence Pablo's artistic practice and view of the contemporary art landscape? And vice-versa, have Cynthia's management skills been "affected" by her collaboration with an artist?
En realidad no tenemos backgrounds tan diferentes. En una etapa de su carrera artística Pablo trabajó bastantes años como creativo publicitario en una gran multinacional del sector creando anuncios e imagen de marca para empresas internacionales. Paralelamente a su labor como creativo publicitario, en 1998 Pablo decidió que su firma artística se convertiría en marca. Le interesaban los procesos de promoción de las firmas artísticas y su paralelismo con el resto de firmas comerciales y comenzó un trabajo que aún continúa, un proyecto que se construye con cada obra realizada. "El artista es la marca, la obra es el producto" pasó a ser el slogan de la marca PSJM. En 2003 Cynthia, licenciada en Dirección de Comercio Internacional y Marketing, y hasta esa fecha Responsable de Servicios de Marketing de una gran compañía de telecomunicaciones, se incorpora al proyecto haciendo realidad las intenciones teóricas de trabajar bajo las estructuras propias de la empresa y formalizar legalmente el equipo como una marca comercial. Desarrollamos un trabajo en equipo donde los puntos de vista de uno afectan sin lugar a dudas al trabajo del otro, pero ambos utilizamos el mismo lenguaje. Ni Pablo se corresponde con la imagen típica del artista romántico, ni Cynthia encaja con el perfil típico de una ejecutiva que persiga el máximo beneficio por encima de compromisos sociales o estéticos.
One of the striking element of the MARX® brand is the price. All the garments, be they jeans or dress, carry the same price tag (220,40 euros), while the one and only shoe available costs way more than most people could afford. What were the motivations behind the price tags?
Mientras que el marketing consiste en proporcionar satisfacción al cliente obteniendo un beneficio económico a cambio de ello como principal objetivo, nosotros utilizamos el marketing como una herramienta crítica que pueda proporcionar una satisfacción estética o intelectual al consumidor. Las "4 Ps" del Marketing Mix (product, price, promotion y placement) nos sirven para entretejer una estrategia de significación en la que cada una de estas "Ps" es tomada como una oportunidad creativa, cada "P" es utilizada como licencia poética. De este modo el producto constituye obra, el precio constituye obra, la promoción se presenta como obra y la distribución (placement) es también una parte integrante de la obra. Nos gusta llamar Marketing experimental a este proceso de experimentación de índole representacional.
Con MARX® una vez más hemos utilizado el precio como licencia poética y vehículo de significación, el hecho de que las prendas que se exhiben tengan un precio alto, crea una cierta sensación de impotencia reflexiva en el espectador, que por fin puede consumir en un museo pero se ve coartado por el carácter exclusivo de la mercancía. En todo caso y para mantener la pieza viva, seguir creando significado y entremezclando la realidad con la ficción, ya que la exposición en el CAAM comienza en julio, se harán rebajas. Veremos qué pasa.
I don't know if you've read about the fight that the daughter of Che Guevara is putting to protect her father's image.
How did you deal with the thought that some people might come up and criticize you for using Marx' figure in a way that they consider to "be an affront to his dignity"? And did you at any moment think that you'd encounter a censorship similar to the one you experienced with your Asia project?
El carácter experimental de nuestros proyectos conlleva también una cierta incertidumbre una vez que "lanzas" la obra, aunque intentes dirigirla hacia una significación determinada nunca sabes con qué tipo de reacción te vas a encontrar. A o largo de nuestra carrera hemos tenido desde censuras de marcas, pasando por quejas de vecinos derechistas a críticas fervorosas, tanto negativas como favorables. Por ejemplo, con la intervención pública en forma de campaña publicitaria de MARX® en Gijón, a priori esperábamos algún tipo de reacción violenta al ver asociado el nombre del padre del comunismo con la estética de la moda, tanto más si tenemos en cuenta la tradición revolucionaria de Asturias, pero para nuestra sorpresa el público ya está tan acostumbrado al absurdo de los mensajes paradójicos del mercado que la pieza se diluyó en la realidad al completo. Por otro lado, en este caso difícilmente una marca nos puede censurar, como sucedió con Adidas en Proyecto Asia, ya que el primer paso conceptual y práctico del proyecto MARX® consistió en registrar la marca MARX®, y es realmente esta acción lo que supone el eje primordial de la obra, el resto únicamente puede ser visto como su desarrollo natural.
Para nosotros es primordial que nuestras propuestas no se queden exclusivamente en el terreno de la elite cultural, en la base de nuestro trabajo subyace el empeño de ampliar el discurso a un público más amplio, nos afanamos en crear obras con dos niveles de lectura intentando hermanar experimentación y comunicación. A esta difícil empresa la llamamos "el dilema de Maiakovski", ya que este tema le quitaba el sueño al poeta ruso. Para conseguir esto nos servimos de los medios y estrategias de la cultura de masas, el público medio comprende este lenguaje a la perfección y nos brinda un campo con el que poder experimentar generando significados distintos. Sin embargo también tenemos como objetivo instalar nuestras propuestas en el seno del discurso teórico del arte contemporáneo, todos nuestros proyectos incluyen un texto redactado por nosotros que consideramos un elemento más de la obra total. Ciertamente nuestro trabajo se mueve entre la realidad y la institución arte, ambas esferas son importantes para nosotros.
You obviously don't share Takashi Murakami' bulldozer and very mercantile approach. However, MARX® and other projects of yours evoke (to me at least and under certain aspects) the Japanese artist's exploration of the merging between consumer goods and artwork, art fetishism, the demythification of the concept of art work as a one-off, etc. Am i writing a total heresy or do you somehow see some similarities between his approach and yours?
Who are the other artists you feel close to?
Efectivamente hay muchos aspectos de la obra de Murakami que nos acercan a su línea de trabajo y muchos otros que nos separan de él. Los que nos vinculan a su modo de producir arte tú misma los has expuesto. Lo que nos distancia de Murakami es su falta de crítica y su posicionamiento ideológico cercano al stablishment. Murakami sigue la estela de Warhol y Koons, pero no va más allá, digamos que es un desarrollo del Pop apolítico. A Murakami le interesa hacer dinero como principal objetivo. Él tiene además un fuerte posicionamiento nacionalista, algo que a nosotros nos resulta totalmente desfasado y peligrosamente conservador. Sin embargo nuestra singularidad es que combinamos mundos aparentemente irreconciliables para crear cortocircuitos de sentido. Nuestra visión de la producción artística organizada al modo de una empresa, en la que el creador aparece como un profesional con una función social definida, sigue la estela trazada por pensadores como Proudhon o Benjamin, que rechazan la figura del artista-genio y proponen aquella otra del artista-obrero, postura que también los productivistas rusos se encargaron de llevar a la práctica mientras gozaron del apoyo del aparato del Partido. Sin embargo, del mismo modo que la modernidad dejó paso a la postmodernidad y la producción cedió su importancia al consumo, la empresa devino marca. Con lo que esta conversión de la empresa en marca recupera de algún modo el valor mitológico-simbólico del genio para configurar un aparentemente contradictorio artista-marca cuyo comportamiento es estratégicamente planificado, científicamente programado. Así que mientras por un lado se desmitifica la imagen elitista y endiosada del artista romántico, por otro se genera un nuevo mito, esta vez fríamente diseñado bajo los presupuestos de la mercadotecnia aplicada al mundo del arte. Lo paradójico, la conjunción de fuerzas opuestas e irreconciliables sobrevuela constantemente nuestro modo de hacer arte.
Realmente no encontramos ningún artista que coincida con esta línea de trabajo, pero si tuviéramos que apuntar un par de nombres serían el grupo español Democracia y la corporación artística Etoy. El trabajo de ambos grupos nos interesa y nos produce una gran admiración.
Many of your works have a very strong provocative element to them which makes them very appealing for the media. How much is the "shock tactic" important in your practice?
Nuestro trabajo está en deuda con la tradición dadaista y constructivista y su compromiso de fundir arte y vida. Hoy la realidad la construyen los medios de comunicación, si queremos intervenir en la realidad debemos introducirnos en los medios.
Any upcoming project you could share with us?
Estamos ahora preparando dos proyectos que se presentarán en el 2009, en diferentes galerías e instituciones. Por desgracia no podemos desvelar su contenido ya que aún nos encontramos en proceso de creación y producción, pero sí te podemos adelantar que en uno de ellos se utilizará la técnica tradicional de pintura. Nuestro discurso está centrado en la mercancía y la pintura sigue siendo la mercancía reina en el mundo del arte.
The MARX® shop at LABoral has now closed. If people want to buy one of those shirts and jeans, is there any other gallery (or shop?) they should turn to?
El proyecto MARX® ha sido producido por la LABoral en colaboración con el CAAM (Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno) de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria en la Isla Canarias. Allí viajará en julio y permanecerá hasta octubre. También estamos trabajando en su difusión internacional aunque aún es pronto para adelantar el nombre de los posibles espacios.