To be honest, i'd take any excuse to hop on a train and go to Brighton. Two Saturdays ago, it was sunny, i needed a break from the Frieze art fair and the 5th edition of the Brighton Photo Biennial had the kind of theme that makes me buy a train/plane/bus ticket, Agents of Change: Photography and the Politics of Space.
BPB12 explores how space is constructed, controlled and contested, how photography is implicated in these processes, and the tensions and possibilities this dialogue involves. This year's Biennial provides a critical space to think about relationships between the political occupation of physical sites and the production and dissemination of images.
Agents of Change is a theme that belongs to the moments of economic and political uncertainty we are experiencing today. The exhibitions are at times dark and disturbing but they also demonstrate the role that photography can play in servicing a cause, an agenda, a belief. Whether it is the one of a corporation advertising its products, of a government attempting to enforce new measures or the one of grassroot activists struggling to give another view of a contentious or under-discussed issue.
The most compelling work in the biennial for me was Omer Fast's video about drone surveillance and warfare.
The film is based on two meetings with the operator of a Predator drone sensor. The operator had been based in the desert outside of Las Vegas for 6 years while he was working for the U.S. military. The artist met him in Vegas where he was looking for a job as a casino security guard.
But Fast's film is not a documentary with news footage and testimonies from real protagonists of the events. Instead, the stories are told by an actor cast as the drone operator. His narration is moving, informative and sometimes even humorous.
The operator is sitting in a nondescript hotel room. He unenthusiastically recalls his missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan, unsure that the audience will ever understand what he went through. The soldier never set foot in the countries where the unmanned plane he piloted fired at civilians and militia from the optimum height of 5000 feet.
At times, the ex-soldier seems to ramble, using unrelated stories as metaphors. The most striking of the anecdotes he recalls is the one of an American family that takes the road for 'a long drive' (see the video below.) To leave town, they have to go through security checkpoints and present documents to the "occupying forces," which are depicted as Asians. It's a complete reversal of the situation in which Americans get to see how much a war in their own turf would affect daily life. Except that the U.S. is at war too but for most citizens, only from a distance. The drone operator never leaves the material comfort of his own country to fight in foreign countries, most of the American population never gets bombed or fired at by drones.
The dark world of the U.S. military goes far beyond the drones and bombings as Geographies of Seeing, the show on view at The Lighthouse, convincingly demonstrates. But I'm going to try to keep this one short because i seem to be unable to let a month pass without writing about the work of artist and geographer Trevor Paglen.
The exhibition is focused on two series of photos that document the secret activities of the U.S. military and intelligence agencies. The first one is The Other Night Sky which tracks and documents classified American satellites in Earth orbit. With the help of a network of amateur "satellite observers" and of a specially designed software model able to describe the orbital motion of classified spacecraft, Paglen calculated the position and timing of overhead reconnaissance satellite transits. He then photographed their passage using telescopes and large-format cameras.
The second body of work shown at The Lighthouse is Limit Telephotography. For this series, Paglen used high powered telescopes to picture the "black" sites, a series of secret locations operated by the CIA. Often outside of U.S. territory and legal jurisdiction, these locations do not officially exist, they range from American torture camps in Afghanistan to front companies running airlines whose purpose is to covertly move suspects around.
Well, that wasn't so short but i do have to confess that i merely copy/pasted texts i wrote about Paglen's work a few months ago.
A couple of years ago, Edmund Clark traveled to Guantanamo to document three experiences of home: the home of the American community at the naval base; the camp complex where the detainees have been held; and the homes where former detainees, never charged with any crime, find themselves trying to rebuild lives.
With the body of work presented at the Biennial, Clark pursues further his interest in structures of control and incarceration. In December 2011, the photographer was the first artist to be granted access to a house in which a person suspected of terrorist related activity had been placed under what the UK calls 'a Control Order.'
The 2005 Prevention of Terrorism Act granted the Home Office the power to relocate any controlled person to a house in an alien town or city and impose restrictions and conditions, similar to house-arrest. So far, 48 people have been made subject to a Control Order.
Clark could not reveal the identity of the controlled person nor the location of their house. He also had to pre-register all digital equipment and to accept restrictions on how the equipment could be used. All his photos were then screened by the Home Office and the controlled person's lawyers.
The series is still a work in progress and i wish i could be in England on Thursday, 1 November 2012 because the photographer will be discussing his work at The Lighthouse.
The images screened on Thomson & Craighead's October installation are brutally shocking. Maybe because even when the videos were shot at the other end of the world, they echo the social and economic inequalities we are experiencing in Europe (or wherever you're living right now.) The film installation creates a portray of the Occupy protests by drawing on amateur footage that the activists uploaded on YouTube. Below the video screen is a luminous compass that points to the locations where the videos were originally filmed, adding the precise distance of the location of the footage from the viewers. The piece examines the relationship between geographical space and the Internet: the role online organisation plays in shaping offline activism.
The exhibition of photographer, journalist, researcher and political activist John "Hoppy" Hopkins also document peace marches, protests and underground movements from the inside but this time in and around London in the 1960s. Some 50 years are separating the Occupy videos from Hopkins' photos but both show the power of the image when it comes to telling the activists' side of a news story.
There's so much more to say about this biennial. There are many other exhibitions i don't have the space to mention here. And talks, tours, workshops. I'll close my superficial review of the biennial with random photos of the shows and of the city.
I forgot to mention Whose Streets?, an outdoor show located on one of the city's public square that looks at the archive of local newspaper The Argus, to extract images that depict Brighton as a contested political space for protest. From the late 70s to the present.
The 2012 Brighton Photo Biennial is curated by Photoworks Head of Programme, Celia Davies and Programme Curator, Ben Burbridge. Brighton Photo Biennial is free and it is up all over the city of Brighton until 4 November 2012.
My sincere apologies for this belated (but enthusiastic) report from the AND Festival, a festival of new cinema, digital culture and art that takes place annually in Liverpool or Manchester with an extended regional programme.
Finally! An art & tech festival that makes sense. A festival that resonates with the media art expert and the casual passerby alike. An event that values art above in-your-face tech prowess. It was my first visit to an AND festival. I found it witty, surprising, often thought-provoking and enlightening.
Exhibitions, performances, open air cinema and workshops were free and distributed all over the city. My first stop was for the CUBE which was showing two works dealing with biotechnology. Pigs Bladder Football by John O'Shea and Reproductive Futures by Zoe Papadopoulou.
Pigs Bladder Football looks back at the time when football balls were made from pig bladders but instead of using an existing organ, the project tissue engineered small balls from animal cells harvested from abattoir waste. The artist was showing a video, a DIY incubator case as well as prototype of bladder muscle cell growing on 3D-printed polymer scaffold.
Zoe's exhibition was charting the history of assisted reproductive technology, putting the spotlight on landmarks such as the first premature baby wards in the US which used to be part of freak shows, the first test-tube baby, the first orphan who had more than 2 genetic parents, artificial wombs and the possibility to be the 'ultimate solo parent' one day. Reproductive Futures particularly explores one of the many cultural implications of these breakthrough: how are we going to explain children how babies are made? And will the techniques themselves have the potential to fundamentally change the way we perceive parenthood and reproduction?
I'll talk about these two works in more details in the future. Zoe is going to have a show of the final project this Fall in London and an interview with John O'Shea and Professor John Hunt is coming up next month on my art&science radio series for Resonance FM.
The AND festival had also given caravans to artists (London Fieldworks, Hellicar & Lewis, The Center for Genomic Gastronomy, Bureau A, Julian Oliver and Designers Republic) for them to customize, turn into micro art spaces and form a Mobile Republic.
Julian Oliver is perhaps the artist that made the most congruous use of the caravan with a work of "dislocative media." Boarder Bumping highlights the fact that as we traverse borders our cellular devices hop from network to network across neighbouring territories, often before or after we ourselves have arrived. These moments, of our device operating in one territory whilst our body continues in another, can be seen to produce a new and contradictory terrain for action. A free custom-made app on your phone checks for discrepancies between location data and mobile phone towers, thus between where you actually are and where your network says you are. The Border Bumping server then redraws accordingly the map of the national borders you are crossing.
One of the most stunning works i saw at the festival was a duo of videos by Jan Peter Hammer: The Anarchist Banker and Monarchs and Men. They were part of What have I done to (de)serve this? at Blankspace. The show presented works that reflect on the current global financial crisis and explore alternative economic systems.
The protagonist of Pessoa's story was inspired by Artur Alves dos Reis, a fraudster who mounted a scam so big, it shook the credibility of the Portuguese currency, the Escudo. The repercussions on the economy and politics of the country were considerable: the escudo lost much of its credibility and so did the Portuguese government. The crisis enabled the military coup d'état of the 28th of May 1926 and eventually brought the dictatorship of Salazar who stayed in power until 1968.
In Hammer's film, the dialogue between Pessoa's protagonists has been adapted to reflect upon the financial practices of neo-liberalism and the current credit crunch. It is set as a tv talk show in which a banker with a ruthless logic is interviewed in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.
The other film, Monarchs and Men, is a sequel of The Anarchist Banker. The same banker is back on screen with a similar panegyric of 'rational egoism' and individualism. This time the scenario is based on an imaginary conversation between Leon Tolstoy and John Davidson Rockefeller, published in 1913 by Maximilian Harden. Hammer sets the scene at the opening of an art exhibition at a gallery supported by the banker.
The films are brilliantly frustrating. The banker is the star of both. Anyone watching it will detest his brutal point of view and be irritated by the way he invariably defeats any argument opposed to his dogma. But it is also impossible not to admire his eloquence, firm beliefs and unflappable logic. Besides, the media usually show us capitalists attempting to defend their practice. There's no apology nor hypocrisy here, just merciless, unadulterated mindset.
The theme of the Blue Crystal Ball exhibition at the Holden Gallery should have repelled me. Well actually it did repel me but i tried not to let my prejudices stop me. The show presented film and video works that explore the ideals and values of the Olympic movement.
The videos were very different from each other and very good. Without any exception. But i've already exhausted my quota of video reviews that aren't accompanied by any extract online for the day so you'll just have to take my word for it alas!
And i'll close with men briefs. Because i couldn't find any reason not to end on this happy note.
There's an exhibition featuring sci-fi, history, video games, sexuality, soap operas, censorship and a powerful sense of humour at Cornerhouse in Manchester right now. The show is called Subversion and it questions and knocks around whatever assumption you might have about an homogenous 'Arab world', whatever image politicians and the media might have given you about its culture and identity.
Curator Omar Kholeif explained in an interview with Film International: I worked with artists [...] who wanted to dissent, poke fun, critique and re-define themselves as artists of the imagination, and not of any specific social or political condition. Together they reference a deep culture of subversion that traces back to the 1940s and 50s with the work of the Egyptian trickster, Ismail Yassin, whose slapstick film performances poked fun at the roles that many Arabs had to play under a militarised social condition. With Subversion we bring this narrative up to date for the good of our artists and our audiences.
The show opens on the video of a Palestinian astronaut landing on the moon. Given the fact that the Nakba has been going on for 64 years now, one wouldn't be surprised to hear that one day, the empty celestial body might become yet another place of refuge for the uprooted population. Larissa Sansour's A Space Exodus propels a Palestinian astronaut into an adaptation of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Referencing Neil Armstrong's moon landing, a voice can be heard saying that this was 'a small step for a Palestinian, a giant leap for mankind'.
Meanwhile, small Palestinauts are quietly invading the exhibition floor....
Upstairs, Sansour is showing another project, the preview of The Nation Estate, a work conceived in the wake of the Palestinian bid for nationhood at the UN. The Nation Estate gained fame after Lacoste attempted to censor it by withdrawing its sponsorship for a photo prize to which the young artist had been shortlisted.
In this sci-fi photo series (which will later be accompanied by a video), Palestinians have finally been conceded their own state in the form of a single skyscraper. Erected outside the city of Jerusalem and unsurprisingly surrounded by concrete walls, the building of 'the Nation Estate' houses the entire Palestinian population. Each city has its own floor: Jerusalem is on the third floor; Ramallah, fourth floor; Bethleem, fifth floor; Nablus, sixth floor; Gaza, seventh floor, etc. Intercity trips previously hindered by checkpoints and soldiers are now made by elevator.
Tarzan and Arab live in Gaza (i was going to write 'come from' but that would suppose that they are allowed to get freely in and out of the territory), a region that has not had a functioning cinema since the 1980s. The artists didn't go to a film school either. Everything they learnt about cinema, they learnt through practice and by watching movies on satellite TV and illegal DVD copies. In 2003, they founded a media production company: Gazawood. Since then, their works have won awards, been banned by Hamas and shown in Europe and the U.S.
Cornerhouse is showing Colourful Journey, a short film set in a bombed-out Gaza building, and a series of posters that pastiche the Hollywood war movie genre. The title of each film sounds as action movie as it is possible: Summer Rain, Autumn Clouds, Defensive Shield, Sea Breeze, Cast Lead, etc. The cruel irony is that each of them is also the name of a Israeli military operation against Palestinians.
Wafaa Bilal is showing a video documenting the furore that surrounded the exhibition of Virtual Jihadi. The video is mounted on the wall of a rundown internet café where visitors are also invited to sit down and play the game.
Wafaa is from Iraq and, as is sometimes the case in his work, he plays with the way Western media portrays people from his home country.
Virtual Jihadi can be traced back to a military computer game called The Quest for Saddam that involved players fighting stereotypical Iraqi enemies and trying to kill the ex-Iraqi leader. The game in turn inspired an al-Qaida-produced spin-off called The Night of Bush Capturing with the ex- U.S. president as the target. For his piece, Bilal hacked into the al-Qaida game and inserted himself as a converted suicide bomber, who joins al-Qaida after learning that his brother has been murdered by US forces.
Bilal's version brings the attention to the personal sories and dilemmas experienced by civilians caught in a conflict zone. It also demonstrates that games of this kind, no matter who is writing them, leave little space for moral choices and subtlety. In fact, both were made to teach hate.
In March 2008, as he had just released Virtual Jihadi, Bilal gave a talk at the Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute (the video is available online) and an exhibition of Virtual Jihadi opened the same night... to be closed the day after.
Wafaa Bilal's installation re-opened a few days later in another gallery. Unfortunately, one day after the second opening the City of Troy censored the work again and closed the gallery due to "code volition."
In I've heard stories - part 1, Marwa Arsanios attempts to piece together rumors surrounding the now demolished Hotel Carlton. The hotel was a popular meeting place for gay men living in Beirut, Lebanon where homosexual acts are considered illegal. In its time (1973 to 1993), the hotel was also the setting of three murders that might or might not have been related to the sexual encounters. Among the victim of these (probably) passionate crimes was Lebanese politician and businessman Henri Pharaoun. The nature of the murders went unreported and Arsanios' reconstruction of the event blends drawings and videos, gossips and facts, in an effort to give the crime a place in the history of the city.
Subversion is on show in Galleries 1, 2 & 3 until Tue 5 June.
Previously: A few words with Wafaa Bilal.
Robots and Avatars invites visitors to imagine what will happen in a -not so distant- future when the advance of technology will bring us in even closer contact with artificial intelligence and machines. Will we have to re-assess what we now define as 'life' and as 'body'? How do we envisage our future relationships with robotic and avatar colleagues and playmates, and what point does this evolution cross our personal boundaries of what it is to be a living, feeling human being?
As a kind of introduction to the issue, the documentary ROBOT WORLD gives the state of the art of robotics by compiling films from university labs, private footage taken at industrial fairs, military archives, corporate videos and extracts from 1930's movies.
But the spectrum of the exhibition's enquiry is much broader than the documentary. Some of the works exhibited demonstrate how much the artificial imitates human life. Others speculate on how radically it might depart from it. The show leads the visitor from Second Life to invisible architecture, from the familiar to the unexpected and even sometimes to foreign territories. From the physical body to the digital body and back again.
The most thought-provoking and exciting work for me was UKI by Shu Lea Cheang. UKI is a sequel to her 2000 cyberpunk movie I.K.U. The film is set in 2030 and explores whether the replicants of Blade Runner have sex. In 2030, the GENOM corporation is selling orgasms on portable devices and sending a shapeshifter coder out into New Tokyo to collect "orgasm data".
UKI is a live coding / live spam performance where software and body viruses are merging but also a viral game that is presented at FACT on two screens.
About the time of the opening of the exhibition, an actor was playing Public Avatar in the streets of Liverpool. People anywhere in the world could login on the website of the project, instruct the avatar to do simple tasks and follow his whereabouts in the city. This project explores the borders between virtual and real and tests the limits of human machine control.
Base 8 is inspired by Pepper's Ghost , a 19th century illusionary technique that makes objects seem to appear or disappear or make one object seem to morph into another. In the version designed by Chris Sugrue however, the illusion is that of a floating colony of small creatures coming to life around and in between your fingers and hands.
More images from the show:
Robots and Avatars remains open at FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology), Liverpool until 27 May 2012. The exhibition will then travel to AltArt, Cluj-Napoca (Romania) and KIBLA (Slovenia) in 2012.
The Robots and Avatars exhibition in the UK is co-produced in the UK by body>data>space and FACT in collaboration with the National Theatre. European co-organisers are KIBLA (Maribor/Slovenia) and AltArt (Cluj Napoca/Romania). With the support of the Culture programme of the European Union, this project was conceived by lead producer body>data>space in association with NESTA.
Last half of my report from the 4th Kinetica Art Fair where some 300 works demonstrated the fascination that artists have for scientific knowledge. The theme this year was "Time, Transformation and Energy", a group of terms that you could apply to almost any work focusing on kinetic, electronic, robotic, sound, light, time-based and multi-disciplinary new media art, science and technology anyway. As i wrote yesterday, Kinetica is a joy. It's surprising, exciting, and its laid-back atmosphere provide plenty of opportunities to discuss with artists, curators and other visitors who are as interested in technology-infused art as you and I might be.
Some of the pieces are candidly whimsical, others explore responsive architecture, pay homage to Jean Tinguely or to Newton's third law, take the form of small models of celestial mechanics, or of experimental music gigs on modified Fisher Price Turntables.
Alex Allmont 's LEGO Plaiting Machine is the epithome of what i was expecting to find at Kinetica. The machine slowly weaves together three yarns of wool through the force of gravity. To regulate its speed the system uses an ornate clock escapement from the late 19th century called a 'flying pendulum'.
Mark Zirpel has been focussing on celestial mechanics, particularly the connections between celestial and terrestrial phenomena. He became fascinated with the antikythera mechanism, recovered from a shipwreck off the coast of Greece in 1901. After decades of being puzzled by its functions, scientists finally determined that it was the first analogue computer. The 2,000-year-old gear mechanism could predict the position of the planets at any point in time. However, some of the models that Zirpel was showing at Kinetica were directly inspired by orreries, mechanical devices that illustrate the relative positions and motions of the planets and moons in the Solar System in a heliocentric model. The first working model of the kind was engineered for the Duke of Orrery back in 1704. Zirpel used discarded materials (from washing machine parts to bicycle components) and intentionally ignored the design of the original orreries so as to create a more personal version of the mechanism. Besides, his delicately-crafted mechanical models of the solar system are powered by the sun.
Green Ray lights spin so fast, their traces produce a spherical form, the work deals with the illusion that the world consists only of solid bodies.
The intelligent canopy, designed during a Summer workshop at the Architectural Association, demonstrates how "intelligent architecture" responds to the immediate environment. The roof consisting of tensegrity structures shrinks and expands kinetically, its artificial muscle moving in response to environmental stimulus and modes of the space. The prototype model exhibited at Kinetica changes its shape where it senses light.
greyworld's 62cm long Tail comes in various patterns and can be clipped to the belt or waistband. Using the remote control you can make it move at various speeds or dance in time to the music. Apparently hordes of people are keen on getting one for themselves.
Acoustic laptops are wooden briefcases containing springs, stones, metal, rubber, string, needles, memorabilia as well as cheap contact mikes (piezos) to amplify their sounds and turn the case into a musical instrument.
Sophie Cullinan's Worn is just a big patchwork doll that you inflate at the press of a button. For some reason, i couldn't stop watching it.
I can't seem to hold their flash website against the Gamerz festival. It remains one of my favourite events of the year.
The 7th edition of GAMERZ took place last November in postcard pretty Aix-en-Provence. As its name suggests, the festival presents video games, interactive works and a playground atmosphere but gaming is more a pretext than the whole raison d'être of GAMERZ. The free exhibitions, performances, concerts and conferences embrace all kinds of art forms that refer to or use digital technology. So yes, Gamerz offers machinima and AR video games but also paintings, light performances and choir singers.
I like GAMERZ because it's eclectic, because it makes me discover plenty of artists i had never heard about before but also because it reminds me that festivals should be left more often in the hands of artists. They take risk, follow their whim, trust other artists barely out of the academy, and care little about sticking to genres and formulas.
Talking about taking risks....
One of the most popular pieces in the exhibition was Paul Destieu's Fade-Out, a video that records the progressive burying of a drum set under gravels. The gravel hitting the percussion parts produces a rhythm section, which rapidly turns into a sound and visual chocking. I watched the video a first time for the images and came back to it, just to take the sound in. The sequence shot proposes experimentation around the technical state of Fade-out, by materializing the decrease of sound and visual signal, until a complete silence and disappearance.
Monsieur Moo's Meule 2 Foin (french for haystack) is a big hay ball that emits loud sound when you push it. To turn the loud noise into a melody, visitors have to keep a certain, equal pace. It looks like the most elementary way to 'interact' with an artwork: you just have to roll it around. In fact, the work's sole ambition is to cheer up visitors. However, once you're in front of the ball, you realize it's not going to be a piece of cake. First of all the hay ball is ultra heavy and you might need some help in order to get it rolling. Add to that that the surface around the hay ball is slippery and you're in for a good sweat moving that damn ball around.
Mr Moo imposes a forced walk that illustrates his mocking analysis of mobility and interactivity issues in contemporary art.
Le Faussiare (The Forger) by artists' collective Dardex-Mort2Faim (Quentin Destieu, Romain Senatore, Sylvain Huguet and Stephane Kyles) is a robotic arm that counterfeits the autograph of famous artists. The work is intended to satisfy an audience that has elevated famous artists to the rank of major rock stars but also to set the artists themselves free from any unwanted social obligation towards the public. So far the robotic device only fakes Andy Warhol's autograph but it will soon offer art fans a databank of famous artists' signatures to chose from.
Antonin Fourneau was showing the work in progress version of Oterp, a mobile phone game using a GPS sensor to manipulate music in real time, depending on the player's position on Earth. Players have to locate and capture sounds in their surrounding, the more sound creatures they catch, the more sophisticated the music becomes. I played with Oterp at the exhibition opening. It was fun to be that rude girl walking through groups of people having conversation and frustrating not to be able to catch a creature because that would have implied jumping into a pond. What makes Oterp stand from similar dérive-like games is the quality of its design. The music was created by Jankenpopp and Thomas Michalak aka T M. The graphic designer is Syclo. They all did such an outstanding job that players tend to stick to the game longer than they would normally.
Dipterous experience is an archaic visual process combined with a micrographic device paying tribute to flies... some fruit burst open so that you may enjoy it better. No idea how to explain this one clearly, i guess you just have to pop your head into Servovalve's Dipterous Experience.
ELIZA meets an old Olivetti typewriter in Gauthier Le Rouzic's TypeWriterBot. Ask the typewriter a question and it will engage in a conversation with you, greeting you with a 'hello, night bird!' if it's late, asking you about your hopes for the national elections if there's a political election running at the moment and answering your most stupid questions with humour and astuteness. Reading through the printed conversations, it immediately appears that the typewriter is far wittier than the humans.
Isabelle Arvers curated a Machinima exhibition for GAMERZ. All the details can be found on her webpage so i'll only highlight Josh Bricker's Post Newtonianism, a two channel video that shows side by side images from the video game Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and actual war footage taken from cameras mounted on American military aircraft during the first Gulf War in 1991 as well as during the recent occupation of Iraq. There are bombing of vehicles, military targets, shooting of insurgents and oppositional forces. The sound track mixes the audio from the video game with the sound of a classified material released in 2010 by Wikileaks showing Apache helicopters killing two Reuters reporters and attacking, wounding or killing other targets on dubious grounds.
The pictures from both sources are disturbingly similar. Josh Bricker's experiment is a simple but effective analysis of why images should be watched with a certain suspicion. The documentary value of this film is not only on what we see, but on how incapable we are to recognize the origin of the images our own society produces.
I wanted to embed directly the video in this post but YouTube first asked me to login to 'verify' that i'm 18 or older and when i tried to do so, the page said that "YouTube is not available for wmmna.com". But here's the link to the video and my blog will make do with the comment from the artist:
And with that i'm wishing you all a happy 2012!