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.

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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.

The brain behind the concept and curating of Tag ties & affective spies is Daphne Dragona (who co-curated Homo Ludens Ludens at LABoral in Gijon a year ago.)

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.

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L'Attente - The Waiting, by Grégory Chatonsky

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.

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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.

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We Feel Fine, by Jonathan Harris & Sep Kamvar

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.

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Folded-in, by Personal Cinema and The Erasers

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.

Thanks Daphne!

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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."

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Elisabeth Heyert's Travelers

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.

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The Graveyard

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.

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Anuschka Linse's ideal coffin

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.

More photos.

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).

Muchas gracias.

Photo on the homepage shows the new Ars Electronica Center. Found on magrolino flickr stream.

Yesterday i met with the other members of the jury for the fifth edition of the ARCO Beep Award. The aim of this Award is to promote the research, production, and exhibition of art linked to new technologies, or new media art. The art pieces are submitted by commercial galleries participating to the Madrid Contemporary Art Fair ARCO.

It was a real pleasure to discuss with the other members of the jury: curator and art critic Domenico Quaranta, Fernando Castro from the Reina Sofía National Museum, the mythical art critic Arnau Puig and the charming artist Marie-France Veyrat. It was the fastest jury deliberation i had ever attended in my life. Although most entries were of remarkable quality, the work that stood out was a triptych part of the EKMRZ-Trilogy, by UBERMORGEN.COM.

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Presented for the first time as a single installation on view until the end of the art fair at the booth of Fabio Paris Gallery, this "e-commerce trilogy" is the outcome of almost four years of work which i'm sure most of you are quite familiar with. Its episodes are called:

- GWEI - Google Will Eat Itself, an operation aiming at buying Google with Google's own money (in collaboration with Alessandro Ludovico and Paolo Cirio)
- Amazon Noir - The Big Book Crime steals books from Amazon and distribute them free on the web (in collaboration with Alessandro Ludovico and Paolo Cirio)
- and The Sound of eBay which generates music using eBay user data.

Fabio Paris Gallery had made a rather audacious challenge in choosing to present the EKMRZ-Trilogy and i'm delighted to see that audacity pays once in a while. The ARCO installation presents the iconography and mythology of the trilogy by means of prints, a google cheque, projections, music, animations, etc. You can visit it at the Pavilion 6 of ARCO, it is part of Expanded Box, the section dedicated to the intertwining of technologies and art.

On occasion of the event, FPEditions is publishing the book UBERMORGEN.COM.

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And if you live in the area of Milan, you might want to check out the Fabio Paris Art Gallery itself which is showing the world preview of the Austrian duo's latest project Superenhanced, which is dedicated to the issue of torture.

Spaces showing and/or supporting contemporary art which engages with digital and electronic media have started to pop up all over Europe. Very. Slowly.

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[plug.in] is one of them but i see at least two reasons that makes [plug.in] stand out from the thin crowd of media art spaces.

First, the Basel gallery exists for much longer than most (it opened in 2000). Second, and more interestingly, its programme is one of the most appealing i've ever seen in the field. [plug.in] exhibits and often commissions new internet, sound, interactive and software art; organizes events on media art and digital culture; offers visitor a library and a bar.

So far i had been following their programme through the newsletter, but when i read that [plug.in] was hosting the first solo exhibition in Europe of Tokyo-based artists Exonemo, i decided it was high time to go up North and visit the gallery.

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2008, [plug.in] Basel, Foto: Stefan Holenstein

The main piece is an installation which unfolds over two floors:

UN-DEAD-LINK explores questions of digitized and symbolized death between the physical and virtual world. The audience can see, feel and hear the effects that a symbolic death in a computer game can have in the physical exhibition space.

You're welcome in the gallery by a bunch of objects the artists found on flea markets in Basel. An old sewing machine, a piano, reading lamps, a paper shredder on top of a mountain of paper ribbons, a turntable with a plastic dog sleeping on a spinning disk, an old recorder playing crap music, etc. Each of them is animated by an invisible actor.

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2008, [plug.in] Basel, Foto: Stefan Holenstein

0aaplugutooton.jpgThe explanation lurks downstairs in a dark room. There, soldiers on a screen do what they are supposed to do: they run after each other, they shoot and sometimes they kill. Each time one of them is killed, its death is given an almost tangible echo upstairs by one of the devices: more paper is shred, a light goes on, the sewing machine makes a few stitches. When visitors push the red button in front of the screen, all the avatars die and upstairs every single device seem to 'scream.'

Sembo Kensuke and Yae Akaiwa from Exonemo modified the game Half-Life2 and connected the mod to the piano upstairs. The electrical objects are connected by midi/dmx (protocol) with custom devices.

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2008, [plug.in] Basel, Foto: Stefan Holenstein

The work is extremely uncanny: Seeing and hearing the 'consequences' of a virtual death in the real world gives them a sinister weight. It's more disturbing then seeing a real war massacre on television, probably because today tv death seems almost as virtual as the death of an avatar.

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2008, [plug.in] Basel, Foto: Stefan Holenstein

[plug.in] is also showing DanmatsuMouse, a sort of geeky snuff movie in which computer mouses (or should i write 'computer mice'?) are happily destroyed using all sorts of tools on hand: the mouse gets fried in a pan, another one is swirled and crushed in a blender, etc. But something subsists beyond the death of the plastic mouse: its cadaver (a couple of tortured mice were exhibited in the gallery) and the cursor, or rather the data. The motions of the mouse and the cursor were recorded simultaneously by a video camera and a computer programme.

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A DVD, available in the gallery space (did i mention that they also have a shop selling artists' editions and electronic gadgets), allows you to play back the sinister event: the movie of the mouse murder unfolds in parallel with the movements of its cursor that takes over the ones of the cursor on your own desktop.

exonemo - UN-DEAD-LINK is on view until September 14 at [plug.in] in Basel, Switzerland.

Previously on exonemo channel: Interview with Exonemo, MobLab presentation - Transmediale, Origami bus pattern, their installation at Synthetic Times, Ryota Kuwakubo, exonemo and ressentiment in Liverpool, etc.

You might remember that a year ago Marc Owens designed the Avatar Machine, a system which replicates the aesthetics and visuals of third person gaming, allowing the user to view themselves as a virtual character in real space via a head mounted interface.

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His reflections on identity and gaming didn't stop there, during the Royal College of Art Summer show, the Platform 11 graduate was exhibiting his latest game-inspired works.

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A study by psychologists at Nottingham Trent University has found that 54 percent of all males and 68 percent of all females "gender swap"--or create online personas of their opposite sex.

A real life manifestation of that practice, the Virtual Transgender Suit replicates the aesthetics of the typical virtual female form and catapults them within a real world context. The piece was specifically designed for men to wear in the real world, creating a bridge between real (where cross-dressing is not really socially accepted) and virtual.

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Another of Owens' projects, Sabre & Mace - Second Death, was concerned more specifically with the online environment Second Life.

Collaborating with Tony Mullin, he created SABRE & MACE, a company that offers virtual characters the opportunity to experience death as a way to close their user account permanently. The project examines the notion of feeling sentimental toward a virtual character and examines the link between sentimentality and tangibility.

While researching the project, the designers discovered that a great deal of second life residents have multiple avatars, some stay in favour for a long time while others lose their interest. One guy who they spoke to had 14. He said that he used a many of them as platforms for different sides of his real life personality, and for others he invented entirely new fantasy personalities. However he admitted that some of his created avatars had fallen by the wayside and he no longer used them.

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The service works as follows: Having discovered the Sabre&Mace site on-line (unfortunately the website had to be taken down after the show) or through one of the virtual adverts in Second Life, the prospective customer teleports to the company headquarters.

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There, the client meets a manager who explains the full process and guides him or her through the signing of two contacts. Contract 1 - states that at some point (completely random) in their second life the avatar will be collected by a Sabre & Mace officer and taken back to the headquarters for termination.

Contract 2 is in fact the client's 'Last will and Testament' where he or she outlines how they wish their virtual moneys, land and assests to be distributed once they have been terminated.

The client continues to live their second life until one day, a Sabre & Mace officer appears and informs them that the final proceedings are about to begin. The client is collected and taken to the Sabre & Mace HQ.

The client meets again with the client manager, to discuss the final process. At this point the client reveals their 'account password', which is the means by which the avatar is terminated.

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The client is led through the cryogenic chamber, where the virtual physical forms of past clients are stored. Upon arrival at the 'Termination Room', the client is instructed to walk through the 'white noise' door. Once he crosses the threshold of the door his Second Life game crashes, giving a Sabre & Mace member of staff time to change the clients password - effectively terminating the character.

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The client's former avatar is immortalised as a golden statue. Information about the avatar can be read on the plaque which sits on the monument. Should the client visit the Sabre & Mace memorial gardens he would see his own statue as well as the monuments of previous clients.

Images courtesy of Marc Owens (except the shot of his works at the RCA show.)

Related stories: Mourning and digital culture.

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