Previous post on this panel: Positions in Flux - Panel 1: Art goes politics - Hans Bernhard from UBERMORGEN.COM
Art goes politics, the first panel of Positions in Flux, discussed how/whether media art has the potential to contribute to global and local problems such as religious and territorial conflicts, environmental or social crisis.
One of the three artists invited to participate to the discussion is Wafaa Bilal. Born in Iraq, Bilal gained worldwide fame in 2007 with his performance Domestic Tension (aka. Shoot an Iraqi) which enabled web users around the world to control a paintball gun and shoot at him 24 hours a day. For a whole month. His works are being exhibited and discussed internationally and he is currently Assistant Arts Professor at Tisch School of Arts, NYU.
The artist presentation was articulated around his artworks:
How can artists today make images mean something, stimulate people and provoke them? Problems that political art face: disengagement of the issue and tendency of some artists to express the issues at stake through aesthetic pain rather than aesthetic pleasure. Bilal grew up in an oppressed society and didn't have the leisure to meditate on aesthetic alone. He therefore works with both aesthetic pain and aesthetic pleasure.
On May 4, 2007, Bilal set up his living and working quarters in a Chicago art gallery to perform Domestic Tension - Shoot an Iraqi. The project was a way for him to deal with the grief over the death of his brother in his hometown back in 2004. Bilal realized that he lives a comfortable life in the USA while his family is still in Iraq. Americans have been relatively shielded of the pain and suffering people experience in Iraq in their name. What kind of ethical consequence would seeing the consequences of war trigger? Would it humanize the issue? How can an artist go beyond a mere street protest (which alienates people most of the time anyway)?
Bilal found out that internet enables an artist to enter the safety zone of people's house whether they like it or not. Domestic Tension ended up exposing more complex issues than the artist had imagined at first. It was also a bigger success than he had hoped for. By the end of the one month performance in the gallery, the Domestic Tension website had received 80 million hits. The results of the work were both healing and disturbing for him. Some took control of the paintball gun in a very aggressive way, hacking the system so that the gun would shoot non-stop but by day 21, Bilal noticed that the gun was going right and left, not aiming at him. It turned out that a group of 39 people had united force to prevent people from shooting at the artist. They called themselves 'the virtual human shield.'
On day 14 of Domestic Tension, a link to the project was posted on Digg.com and Bilal was bombarded non stop, he couldn't fill the paintball fast enough to keep up with the demand.
The themes Domestic Tension explored:
Domestic Tension embedded the horror in the experience and allowed webusers to participate. People invested their own narrative and integrated the one of the artist.
After Domestic Tension
In 2008, while he was in residence at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Wafaa created Dog or Iraqi, asking people to vote who -- a dog named "Buddy," or an Iraqi, himself -- would be submitted to waterboarding, a form of torture that consists in immobilizing the victim and pouring water into the breathing passages to have them experience drowning. PETA obviously went mad about the idea that a dog would be harmed in the project, they were quite undisturbed by the fate of the Iraqi. Bilal lost to the dog and was submitted to waterboarding.
The next project was Night of Bush Capturing: Virtual Jihadi, a modified version of the first person shooter video game Quest for Bush, itself a "hacked" version of the commercial video game Quest for Saddam. In Bilal's version the artist inserted his personal narrative by casting himself as a suicide bomber who gets sent on a mission to assassinate President George W. Bush. He was intrigued by the idea that a terrorist organization had released a free game to recruit people. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute had to cancel the show after governmental pressures. At the time, the College Republicans called the RPI's Arts department "a safe haven for terrorists" on their blog. A second exhibition of the project had to be shut down due to the fact that the gallery didn't comply with some regulation about the size of its doors.
The objectives of the game were many:
For Bilal, new media art and interactivity presuppose the active involvement of a public whose function was once limited to viewing only. If the audience takes an interest in the work, they are more likely to engage in a dialogue that might, in the best cases, be revolutionary.
I would, once again, like to recommend Waffa Bilal's book Shoot An Iraqi, Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun to get to know more about his experience and art work. Previously: A few words with Wafaa Bilal and When interactive art becomes bored with you.
The first panel of Positions in Flux, a symposium organized by the Netherlands Institute of Media Art in Amsterdam last Saturday, was Art goes politics. The presentations and following discussion explored the artistic practices that turn their back on the assumption that art is something purely aesthetic, distant and contemplative. Instead, art can bite and get people involved in political, social or ethical issues: Does art have the potential to contribute to global and local problems such as religious conflicts, environmental or social crisis? Or is art constrained to raising awareness only? Should art become an agency for political and social affairs at all? How to successfully implement and conduct art projects in zones of crisis? How far do these projects benefit from the dubious attention of the mass media?
Some artists choose to stay outside conflict zones and reflect on the issues at stake, others step right inside the fight and either try to come up with possible solutions or subvert dominant systems.
The three speakers of the panel were Wafaa Bilal, Hans Bernhard from UBERMORGEN.COM and Christian Huebler from Knowbotic Research. It was fascinating to see that there's no such thing as 'just activism'. Each of them had a different view on the role and meaning of artists' involvement in burning issues.
I took notes from Hans Bernhard's talk but because i found his statement truly thought-provoking, i begged him to get his text. He was kind enough to upload it online. One of the points that i find most striking in his talk is when Bernhard explains that UBERMORGEN.COM are not, as most of us would lazily assume, activists but rather actionists in the Viennese Actionism tradition. Just go and read the manifesto, it speaks of their view on all sorts of media outlets, the real life (e.g. legal) impact and side-products of their online actions, and the group's lack of political agenda. But most of all, even if it is not written by self-declared activists, the text has nevertheless a deep relevance on the Art Goes Politics front.
If you're interested in going beyond the manifesto, i would recommend two recent books dedicated to the Austrian duo. The first one is UM.BOOK, UBERMORGEN.COM - MEDIA HACKING VS. CONCEPTUAL ART by HANS BERNHARD and LIZVLX (no worries, the text is all in english), a book compiling texts by critics, curators and artists and celebrating the 10th anniversary of UBERMORGEN.COM. The other book is UBERMORGEN.COM which provides an overview of work and features contributions by the art critics Inke Arns and Domenico Quaranta and the net.art duo Jodi.org.
Image on the homepage: Superenhanced Familiarization: S2E2, Fabio Paris Gallery.
The Netherlands Media Art Institute has re-located part of its brain power to Trouw Amsterdam for the symposium Positions in flux: On the changing role of the artist and institution in the networked society. The symposium is part of the Here we are - There we go programme which celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Netherlands Media Art Institute (NIMK). The institute opened its doors during the weekend and visitors could experience some of the artworks the NIMK has been supporting over the past three decades.
One of them, Adad Hannah & Niklas Roy's International Dance Party, made me laugh out loud for its way to bring interactivity to its more extreme and absurd. This 'party in a box' looks like an ordinary and closed 'flightcase' until you get nearer and start moving. The more you jump around and dance, the more the system will deliver: powerful dance music, laser and light effects and even (but i didn't dance wild enough to experience it) fog.
The symposium focused on three of the most relevant topics of current media art practice: the relevance and involvement of new media art on the political and social sphere; new geographies in media art; the possibilities and challenges that the open source movement is proposing to the production of artworks or exhibitions.
Given my total and shameful laziness i probably won't have/take the time to blog everything but the Netherlands Media Art Institute will upload the videos of the talks online in the future and i'll be sure to update this blog post when this happens.
Susanne Jaschko, who curated and organized the conference, made a couple of very timely and interesting remarks in her introduction to the symposium. And that's where i'll start:
There are some traces of an acceptance of new media art from the institutional art world. Last year, two exhibitions have highlighted this tendency: Deep Screen - Art in Digital Culture at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, a show organized with a double objective: getting a sample of contemporary media artists living in The Netherlands and buying some artworks to be added in the permanent collection. The second exhibition, Holy Fire at iMAL in Brussels, had the so far very unusual purpose to explore how new media art, bypassing all the stereotypes connected with its presumed immateriality and difficulties of maintenance, was able to enter the art market.
Media art has come a long way since the NIMK opened. Which does not mean that the self-conception of the whole field is not as cloudy as ever: some say that new media art has never become mature, others believe that it has reached its peak in the '90s, others would add that new media art will never integrate concepts of contemporary art, etc. Not only is the Netherlands Media Art Institute celebrating its 30th anniversary, but Transmediale has just turned 20 and Ars Electronica is going to be 30 this year, it's time to take a critical look at where we are now and which directions we want to take.
There was a time when cultural funding bodies set the course but things started to take another turn when, in 2003, the Walker Art Center decided to reduce its media art programme to a minimum and last year the whole media art community was shocked by the news that the Institute of Contemporary Art in London was closing its performance and new media program. Artistic Director Ekow Eshun justified the decision as follows:
As an institution dedicated to the contemporary moment it is important that we continually review the timeliness and relevance of our activities and at times make decisions on that basis.
New media based arts practice continues to have its place within the arts sector. However it's my consideration that, in the main, the art form lacks the depth and cultural urgency to justify the ICA's continued and significant investment in a Live & Media Arts department. Following discussion with the ICA Council and the Arts Council - and agreement from both bodies - I have decided to close the department.
At the other end of the spectrum, LABoral Art and Industrial Creation Centre, which opened in 2007, has proved over and again that it is possible to fill its gigantic white space with new media art exhibitions of great quality. And, once again, the exhibition Deep Screen at the Stedelijk has shown that some contemporary art institutions see the relevance of new media art.
So what does it mean today to be an artist in a networked society? Artists, curators and institutions today work on grounds that are increasingly loose, they struggle to define themselves. Technology -though it has lost much of its fascination- has the potential to enrich art, culture and society. It is one of the driving forces of today's society and culture, it has brought important discussions about public domain, commitment, open source, etc.
More about the symposium soon...
It might come as a surprise to some of you but it's not everyday that a major contemporary art institution in Europe dedicates some space and energy to look into one of the most prominent characteristics of today's culture: the social web. The National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens is doing just that with an exhibition bearing one of the most evocative and imaginative titles i've ever read: Tag ties & affective spies. The online works selected for the show comment on the aspects of the web 2.0 and evoke more particularly the controversies that have animated its short but intense life.
Exploring the functioning modes of the social networks and the ways users interact within them, a new form of artistic practice is being formed that comments, critisizes and subverts their structures by altering their semiology and formalism. Posing questions, and approaching the social media in a playful way, the works presented aim to raise awareness about the different possibilities that are now opened up to the users.
Daphne is an Athens-based media arts curator and organiser. The exhibitions and events she's been involved in over the last few years have focused on the notion of play and its merging with art as a form of networking and resistance. She is a also PhD candidate in the Faculty of Mass Media & Communication of the University in Athens conducting a research on social media. I asked her to give us more details about the why and how of the exhibition.
Tag ties and affective spies is part of a series of online exhibitions featuring works conceived for the Web. Does the exhibition appear only online or is there an installation or anything else inside the actual museum that points to its existence? Would it make sense to you to mirror this exhibition in 'real' space like it is done sometimes with online exhibitions?
Tag ties & affective spies is presented online in the museum's media lounge area, where computers are available for visitors to explore the works.
We have not created a specially built environment or installation particularly for this exhibition. Really, there wasn't need for an additional structure. The natural environment of these works is the internet, wherever this is : at the computers in the users' homes or offices, at their mobile phones or at the computer screens provided in public spaces - such as those in the museum.
But, yes I do believe that it is very important for museums to mirror online exhibitions in the real space so that net based art can be further supported. Visitors might not spend hours to view all works. In reality, they usually have a glimpse of the exhibition and then they visit it again at their own places and leisure. But museums need to support the opportunity for this first acquaintance in order to spread the information. Also, let us not forget that visitors mostly go in a contemporary art museum, to see contemporary art works. Most of them would not look at net based art on their own because they are not accustomed with this form of creativity. An institution though, can help to attract their attention towards a new direction.
In reality, net based art cannot become institutionalized. This is its charm but also its handicap because it cannot support itself easily. Net based art is about works that usually cannot be sold and consequently cannot offer money to their creators. It is about works that bring different kinds of challenges to institutions.
Projects based on social media bring into mind the issues net art was facing back in the nineties. Issues to do with what can be bought, what can be preserved and what can be owned. Instead of bringing to light these discussions again I think, we should look for ways to support these forms of art, to assist in conveying their messages and making them known to a wider public. Therefore, mounting an exhibition like the "tag ties & affective spies" in an institution is meaningful to me.
The exhibition is a critical approach on the social media of our times. Could you tell us how you got the idea for this show? What motivated its existence?
Well, I find that it is a field with an amazing interest as it is also controversial; both full of promises and restrictions; a genuine product of our times based on connectivity, affection, and surveillance. I think, what intrigues me most is the fact that most people share, communicate, and participate without realizing the story behind or without thinking about how this constant aggregation of information from their profiles works for the market. I believe creativity can play a role here as it speaks for the medium using the medium itself, a fact that I consider to be very interesting. While forms of creativity based on the social media platforms might be difficult to attract an art audience that is not technologically savvy, on the other hand, they can turn up to be of an interest for a wider audience that might not be art savvy but partly lives in this virtual dimension.
Speaking from a more personal point of view, this exhibition also expresses my need to share the first bit of knowledge I have gained from my PhD, which I have just started on social media and art. I wanted to see how the audience would react to such an entity of works, how the press would respond, and how local artists would experience it. I looks it is going well so far... Greece is not an easy country. My experience, during the last decade, tells me that things are moving slowly in the field of media arts. Budget is usually tight and the audience is usually reserved. Some of the media art festivals happening in the country in the past have now ceased to exist. It is somewhat difficult to take big risks. But, organising events of a smaller scale, like an online exhibition, that thematically refer to contexts and issues the people are familiar with, could be a safer path and a transitional stage for a wider opening to the media arts.
Did it change anything in the way of curating the exhibition to know that the exhibition was organized by one of the major art institutions in the country? This probably implied that the exhibition would receive a different, maybe broader exposure. Did you approach the subject differently than you would have done if you had worked again for a more media art-oriented institution like, say, LABoral?
No it did not. I did not modify or alter any of my ideas because the exhibition was organised by a museum. I must say that the museum was very positive and did not have any hesitations regarding the concept and the selection. So, all went very smoothly. Context and content would have been the same even if I was to do this privately somehow. I was thinking anyway of an exhibition that would be viewed, hopefully, not only by people from athens but by internet users from different parts of world. There is no locality on the web. What locally exists, is the support of institutions to net based projects as well as their presentation to new audiences. For instance, now, the exhibition will also be presented in the context of the Enter festival in Prague. This support can attract attention, bring discussions and open new roads for collaboration among art and other disciplines.
A comparison with the work in LABoral is difficult because the exhibitions were very different from one another. But, as institutions they are not that different. LABoral is more media art oriented but it does have a strong interest also towards contemporary art. Additionally, every institution does have particularities that connect to the structures of the country it belongs. In general, I think it is the feeling of trust and mutual appreciation that is essential for collaborations between artists, curators and institutions. When there is such ground, fruitful collaborations do happen.
Having a look at your selection of artworks i had the feeling that it provides a good snapshot of the current issues and debates that surrounds social media. The title itself reflects quite accurately and poetically the appealing and appalling aspects of contemporary social media. Do you feel that the general trend is heading towards more "surveillance and exploitation" or is the big picture much more optimistic? Which trend(s) does the now ueber-popular Twitter embodies best for example? subjectivity - collectivity - production - consumption - exposure - surveillance - affection - exploitation - participation - resistance...all of them at the same time?
I think that the moment web 2.0 embodies all these notions. Each platform might have some features stronger than others depending on the possibilities it offers. Twitter is a lot about announcing feelings and moments. Exposure, affection, and a kind of surveillance are definitely involved. I don't like to be negative for the future. I hope that we are not going towards a model that involves more surveillance and exploitation. I believe that as the "mainstream" social media evolve, so do the creative and critical stances. The great number of people using the social media will soon bring a new situation on stage. More and more social platforms should soon appear that would allow groups of people to connect and form networks for different purposes based on open source models and these do not need to be controlled or be accessible by the market. Connectivity is an incredible feature of our times - we don't need to get lost on the way.
Last weekend, I had the chance to check out the current exhibition called Ik R.I.P. at Mediamatic Amsterdam, which has recently relocated to a very central spot in a former bank on Vijzelstraat, escalators and all. Like the two previous 'Ik'-shows, this one revolves around the idea of self-representation on the internet, but this time it's all about death.
"...not a happy topic, but it is important nonetheless. Besides arranging your funeral, obtaining a life insurance and drafting your will it can be useful to think about what you leave behind in the online world. You may have a profile on Mediamatic.net and other networks, perhaps you write a blog or chat with people who live on the other side of the world. What happens to all those affairs if you suddenly pass away?"
Tackling these issues are a range of artists, most prominently in the space The Travelers by Elisabeth Heyert. A series of portraits "taken after death in Harlem New York. Photographed against a black background, using the techniques of making formal portraits of the living, these photographs explore what qualities make us seem human before and after death."
Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn aka Tale of Tales are showing a game called The Graveyard in the darkened basement, in which the player walks an old lady through a cemetery and eventually sits her down on a bench to access a Dutch song, which is actually a quite sad experience. They describe 'The Graveyard' not as a game as such, "but as an interactive painting". I'd say it clearly is a game, but one which hits a somber note that is fairly hard to achieve in this medium.
Upstairs, in a brightly lit small room there's a wonderful selection of incredible Ghanaian coffins, one of which has been custom-crafted by a gentleman called Eric Adotey Naah after a sketch of Mediamatic graphic designer Anuschka Linse's "ideal coffin" and then shipped to Amsterdam. It's quite an incredible and well-documented story and the coffin looks like a crazy bear.
Further projects include a coffin where you can test-die and have your picture taken using their ever-evolving RFID projects, coffin-making workshops and more.
On March 12th eBoy will lecture about their Mission Eternity and on the 13th they will host a Digital Stowaway Workshop which will "ensure that your digital remains will be safely stored for eternity."
Ik R.I.P. runs through April 12th.
Hello, hello! It seems that i'll be part of the ars electronica jury this year in the Digital Communities category. As such i'm invited to recommend projects. I might have a couple of ideas but i thought that some of you could help me out with better suggestions.
Deadline is soon-ish, it's March 6, 2009. All the details are here. Please do send your tips to my email address, as a comment to this message or as a del.icio.us link ( using /for:regine).
Photo on the homepage shows the new Ars Electronica Center. Found on magrolino flickr stream.