The Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo in Sevilla is currently running an exhibition dedicated to Ant Farm, a group of experimental architects and critical artists active mostly in the '70s. The exhibition includes videos, models, original drawings, inflatables and all the quiet you can expect in a cultural center located inside a stunning monastry on the bank of the Guadalquivir River, the Monasterio de la Cartuja de Santa María de Las Cuevas.
Founded in San Francisco in 1969 Ant Farm could be regarded today as a very effective mix between Archigram, the Rolling Stones and The Yes Men. Ant Farm embraced the latest technologies at the same time as they hit American culture on the head with their social and political comments and their highly critical (up to being in some cases destructive) approach to mass media. Their projects do not stop at the work of art itself, they also encompass the mass media rendering of that work of art.
All i knew about them was their rusty Cadillac Ranch installation which i do not like very much but the rest of their practice impressed me beyond words. I can't think of any artistic group playing a similarly brilliant, innovative and multidisciplinary work today. Here's a shortcut to their works:
Ant Farm deployed their conceptual world through videos, manifestos, spectacular performances and installations until 1978, when they disbanded following a studio fire. Most of the slide and video documentation was saved, but very little else survived.
Ant Farm started their career as evangelists of inflatable structures. Cheap and easy to assemble, they challenged the American consumerism culture and fitted perfectly a nomadic, communal lifestyle, in total contrast with the Brutalist architecture prevalent in the United States during the 1960s.
In 1971, they took the road abroad their Media Van, a customised Chevrolet van turned into a mobile studio to share information and images with the public while they toured the country to give talks and organize public happenings. The van not only transported the material necessary to build their ICE 9 inflatables but its motor was also used to generate the energy indispensable to blow up the structure.
In 1972 the group built in Texas the House of the Century, a ferro-cement weekend residence with organic shapes that remind the inflatable structure that Ant Farm had realized a few years earlier, in particular their ICE 9 prototype.
Video showing what the House was like before its decay:
The Dolphin Embassy was a never realized sea station in Australia which engaged with interspecies communication using the new video technologies. The structure would sail with the help of a solar mechanism.
In 1974, Ant Farm created their most famous pieces in Amarillo, Texas, Cadillac Ranch. They half-buried a row of used and junk Cadillac automobiles dating from 1949 to 1963, nose-first in the ground, at an angle corresponding to that of the Great Pyramid of Giza. To add to the outrage done to the iconic vehicle, the public is very welcome to graffiti the cars.
The installation was originally located in a wheat field, but was later moved 3 kilometers to the west, to a cow pasture in order to place it further from the limits of the growing city.
A year later Ant Farm staged the performance Media Burn. Dressed as astronauts, they drove at full speed a 1959 Cadillac into a wall of burning television sets. Media Burn critiqued American ideals of heroics and technological superiority, and offered an affront to the television media who were the only one invited to attend the event.
Their video of the performance is styled after news coverage of a space launch, including melodramatic pre-stunt interviews with the artists and a speech by "JFK" (impersonated by Doug Hall).
Media Burn was not their first attack of the media, in 1972 they collaborated with the video collective Raindance to launch the guerrilla Top Value Television (TVTV) to provide alternative coverage of the political conventions of that year.
Let's close the post with The Eternal Frame, a 1975 reenactment of the John F. Kennedy assassination. Part of it plays on America's obsession with the media, but the video demonstrates also that the sacred images of the assassination cannot be mocked. The work can be read as a commentary on the pervasive media culture in America, as it explores how the Kennedy assassination itself became a new type of media event.
Actar has just released Ant Farm - Living Archive 7. Felicity D. Scott has collected archival material to illustrate the early trajectory of the collective, including its architecture, inflatables, performance, multimedia, and video work.
Nice, nice. I've lost my connecting flight and now i'm stuck in Madrid Barajas waiting for the next flight to Sevilla. It's an 8 hour wait but i'm on my way to ZEMOS98 so i am still cheerful.
Anyway, gives me plenty of time to catch up with the emails and the long overdue posts. So back to New York where i was a few days ago and the Exit Art gallery. I'm still wondering how this place managed to escape my radar so far.
Until April 19 they are running a fascinating exhibition on artistic explorations of the current advancements in neurological research. The works shown in BRAINWAVE: Common Senses encourage visitors to consider the brain not only as the center of human activity but as a site for interpretation, for scientific and philosophical debates, for examining our relationship to the world - and for questioning our common sense.
I am usually not very excited by media art works which engage with the little grey cells. Blame it on the BrainBar, when i discovered it i somehow felt that had seen it all. Well, maybe not... I went to Exit Art to see Fernando Orellana and Brendan Burns' robot that "plays back dreams" which was twice as fantastic as i expected but i also discovered 2 or 3 outstanding works.
Suzanne Anker's fascinating and elegant The Butterfly in the Brain uses three-dimensional Rorschach inkblot tests, brain scans and images of butterfly wings to explores the imagery of the symmetrical (or virtually symmetrical) structures of butterflies, the brain, and chromosomes.
I somehow can't get the black hovering butterfly bat she painted on the wall out of my mind. "By taking the butterfly bat image out of a textbook, scaling it up to a large size, and putting it in a site-specific environment, one turns the image into an entirely new and other kind of affective entity," she explained.
Although the use of Rorschach inkblots is controversial in psychology, the images are widely recognized among the public.
Anker used a computer program to convert an inkblot into 3D structure so intricate they could probably not be re-created using traditional sculpture. After which a machine produces the object using plaster and resin. "Looking in 3-D," Anker argued, "one begins to assess new meanings: bones, sea creatures, body parts. These are surrogates for the imagination itself, opening up a dialog between the mind and body. What happens when you can pick up a psychology test in your hand? The mind essentially has been embodied."
She also transposed butterfly wings onto MRI scans, drawing a parallel between genetic patterns in nature and advanced imaging technologies. Like constellations in the sky, butterfly shapes may be found in neurological maps as well as charts of urban sprawl.
Windows of the Soul, asks whether or not one can read madness in another's eyes. 300 b&w mug shot photographs of mental patients, taken in the '50s when they were admitted in the hospital. The eyes of the individuals are projected on a canvas hanging from the ceiling. The rest of the face lays on the floor. Every 5 seconds, another pair of eyes and a face take their place on the split screen. Riveting and disturbing.
Dustin Wenzel's brass sculptures are brain-cavity castings of Great Whales from the New Brunswick Museum collection.
It has recently been discovered that some humpback whales have spindle neurons, a type of brain cell previously considered to exist only in dolphins, humans and other primates, which may indicate a high capacity for intelligence. Although white males possess the largest physical brain of any animals (Wenzel's castings were indeed impressively big), there is no scientific consensus about the nature, magnitude or even existence of cetacean intelligence.
And now for the gizmos:
Artificial neural networks are often used in voice recognition systems and IA research. They consist in mathematical computations that mimic the neural network patterns of the nervous system. Jamie O'Shea's Alvin is a realization of an interactive and electronic neural network constructed with physical hardware. When left alone Alvin is dormant, but if you the lay your hand on the interface provided, you will set an electronic neural-like network in motion.
Alvin is a cellular automaton organized around eight cells which produce sound. The sound one cell produces is determined by what sound the other cells are making. This interrelated input and output scheme is an artificial neural network; a simulation of a brain. The imitation of life goes even further, because Alvin's sound circuits are built and destroyed by one another, rather than just turned on or off.
The chamber where they live contains food, water and light to keep them warm but also sensors that detect the changing light patterns produced by their movements. The sensors send the light data to an on-board microcontroller, which in turn activate the motors moving the device in relation to the movements of the flies.
Oh, look! i took all those little images.
BRAINWAVE: Common Senses is on view until April 19, 2008 at Exit Art Gallery in New York. This exhibition is part of Exit Art's Unknown Territories series of exhibitions that explore the impact of scientific advances on contemporary culture and examine in particular how contemporary artists interpret and interact with the new knowledge and possibilities created by technological innovation in the 21st century.
10 days ago, i was in Ghent for the festival The Game is Up! at the Vooruit. Artists who study the relationship between art and consumerism were invited to perform, and present their work to explore this year's theme: Art for Sale.
Vending machines, installed all around Vooruit magnificent 1913 building, were packed with surprise objects made by the artists who participated to the exhibition: t-shirts, 5 euro banknotes inside blank envelopes, badges, crazy eyeglasses to see what is happening behind your back, etc.
Eva De Groote had invited me to moderate a couple of Fricties Salons. That's how i finally got to have dinner with one of my heroes, Heath Bunting, saw a performance of Reverend Billy from the Church of Stop Shopping, had drinks and a lot of laughs with the smart and hilarious Christophe Bruno and the guy who resuscitated net.art Carlos Katastrofky. Definitely one of the most exciting events of this year for me (so far). Bliss-a-lujah!
Not that it has been a piece of cake. How do you introduce people who should not be introduced? Who have to keep their identity secret in order to be able to keep on doing their own activities? All i could find in the press were stories about the CIA or Mafia like secrecy that surrounds them and implies that "Spouses and friends do not know that the members are in the organization."
"Improving outdoor advertising since 1977" is the catchphrase of the Billboard Liberation Front. The idea is simple: by making small adjustments to billboards, the BLF creates ironic and often highly critical street marketing campaigns. By changing just a few or sometimes only one letters, they turn upside down the clean and seemingly well-controlled facade of an entire company.
BLF has several sets of presentations. They could have gone for the "terrorist" version but given the theme of the festival, they chose the "corporate" one.
First, we were given a tour of the Fundamentals of the organization, its clients and the opportunities.
They started their actions 30 years ago. At the time, there was no internet, no mobile phone, no blogs, etc. It was also a time when advertisement communication just went one way. Consumers received it and didn't have anyway to hit back through blogs or forums. There has been dozens of members over the years, some have gone, others have arrived more recently.
In 77 a "bunch of freaks" in San Francisco called the San Francisco Suicide Club had vowed to live each day like it was the last one. 27 of them (including ten members wearing gorilla suits) were blindfolded and taken up to a roof. They were faced with two Max Factor billboard and some paint. Unfortunately they were a bit drunk, a bit conspicuous because of the gorilla suits and they started arguing about what should be done with the billboard. Some neighbour called the police and SF Suicide Club learned the message the hard way: be prepared, don't get drunk, don't wear stupid suits.
1980. Marlbore instead of Marlboro. It was the first time that the prank was interpreted as a real message from the tobacco company while in fact BLF wanted to comment on the lack of originality of the billboard.
1989. Kant, probably done by a student intern. "Actually it was probably a European intern as no one in the U.S. has ever heard of Kant."
1994. an ad for the the Hillsdale Mall. Very straighforward operation, all they had to do was turn a couple of lights off and just keep the central letters: LSD.
Only a few months after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, one of the most devastating man-made environmental disasters ever to occur at sea which occured in Alaska in 1989, the BLF turned HITS HAPPEN -- NEW X-100 into SHIT HAPPENS -- NEW EXXON
Then they became more ambitious:
1997. Alteration of a Levi's billboard overlooking a major highway. BLF issued a press release in which they introduced Charles Manson, a figure who didn't need any introduction, as the new corporate spokesman of the jeans' company. This historic collaboration between two of most potent iconic forces of the 1960's taps into a frothy zeitgeist of manipulative nostalgia.
1996. Am I dead yet? Technically more elaborate as they had to sub-contract an electrician and a neon guy.
1989. The "Think Different" campaign of Apple became "Think desillusioned". The company had appropriated the image of famous dead guys or exiled ones like the Dalai Lama. Bulletins are the biggest and the most expensive.
The clients this time were technology companies, with a sector focus on the "dot-coms". Large-format warning labels were added to the billboards, in the style of a standard computer error message, bearing the bold copy: "FATAL ERROR - Invalid Stock Value Abort/Retry/Fail".
A billboard manipulation can take from a few hours to a few weeks for the most ambitious actions.
Much effort is deployed to make sure that the members of BLF never get arrested. Very few members of BLF climb onto the billboards themselves. Down there on ground level, other members keep an eye on the street, communicating with walkie talkies and checking if they are not getting too much attention from, say, the police. Ground crews posing as drunks, French TV crew, beautiful babes, couples about to engage in a heated argument to divert attention from the billboard in case anything turns wrong.
Even before the improvement action takes place there is a careful preparation. The area surrounding the billboard is mapped, looking for the best ways of quick escape, ideal positions for ground crews, etc.
BLF has to go more and more tech-savvy, just like the industry does. Today you get talking billboards, talks of billboards in space, billboards activated by motion sensors, etc.
In 2005, they collaborated with artist Ron English for their first animatronic billboard alteration. The background is an original 12' x 22' painting by English. At the foreground the animatronic of Ronald McDonald feeding a fat kid his daily dose of Big Macs. The improvement took place in broad day light at a busy cross road in San Francisco while 15 persons where on the ground, dressed up like McDonald and acting crazy.
Some of the key rules of their billboard improvement actions:
- Make alterations that will make people smile not something that will make them angry,
- Send the press some media releases to better disseminate the action. A modified billboard might remain only one hour in the street before it is removed but its traces remain forever online.
And just like Rev. Billy did in a local shopping center, BLF made their own billboard improvement in the streets of Ghent.
More images of their actions.
New and improved!
Last week i flew to one of my favourite cities, Liverpool, to visit the Sk-interfaces exhibition at the FACT art center. The show, curated by Jens Hauser, explores, materially and metaphorically, the concept of skin as a technological interface.
A controversial new exhibition on display in Liverpool showcases real skin tissue in sculptures wrote the BBC news website. Yet every single person i spoke with during the 2 days i spent in the city didn't seem to find the show controversial. Interesting, surprising, fascinating, challenging, thought-provoking, worth bringing my mum, etc. That's what i heard but no one i talked to seemed overly shocked nor disturbed.
There is material to cause quite a stir in sk-interfaces but Liverpudlians seemed to be more concerned by the issues brought to light by the artists than by the potentially seditious or "freaky" character of the works on show.
I'll start the blog visit of this multi-disciplinary exhibition by walking to the second floor of FACT.
Immolation is a video installation concerned with the subject of the use of incendiary weapons on civilians after the Geneva Convention and the Protocol on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Incendiary Weapons of 1980. The USA have refused to sign the convention and they make regular use of firebombs in the Middle East. Not because these bombs are the most efficient (they are not), but because they act as moral crushers, tapping on people's visceral fear of being burned alive.
This video chronicles the major war crimes of the United States involving these weapons on a ( macro) landscape level, and contrasts it with the damage done to the body on the (micro) cellular level.
To accomplish this task, the Critical Art Ensemble (a collective of tactical media practitioners who explore the intersections between art, critical theory, technology, and political activism) grew human tissue at SymbioticA last year, and using high-end microscopy shot the micro footage of skin cells dying by either exploding or imploding. In parallel, CAE shows film footage of present and past wars that have used immolation against civilian targets as a strategic choice for the sole purpose of terrorizing entire populations.
The result is a video where war crime are shown at both the micro and macro level but which skips the human level. Yet you still manage to view your own body in the narrative. The video is made even more unsettling by the absence of sound, it's just silence and destruction.
The goal is to provide a different way of imaging, viewing, and interpreting the human costs of these war crimes, in contrast to the barrage of media imagery to which we have become so desensitised. The video portrays what CAE calls an "ecology of crime."
CAE felt that as long as warfare would be at the center of the Bush agenda, they had to come up with new connections and find venues to show their work (since the arrest of Steve Kurtz some US administrations are feeling the pressure).
Right next to Immolation, is Truth Serum, a work that responds to the lawsuit against Steve Kurtz and their persecution of Critical Art Ensemble in the USA, which marks an ever-increasing creep of the security state into the nervous system of culture.
For Truth Serum, The Office of Experiments, initiated by Neal White, follows research on serums used historically by official authorities in interrogation processes as a means to obtain information without using torture. The effects of truth drugs were first examined in the 1920's, and heavily used by the CIA during the Cold War. The present artwork echoes the debate around art's freedom in the fear and increasing security regime that has emerged after 9/11, while drawing on the cultural history of so-called truth drugs and recent discussions about their use in the interrogation of suspected terrorists.
The use of truth serums is actually illegal but after 9/11 there have been talks (mostly in the press) of using the method again during interrogations by the FBI and the CIA, even though truth serums are more an art than a science.
The installation at FACT combines a space concealed behind a white door and a series of video works that reflect on the aesthetics of terrorist messages, using a dark clown as an anonymous spokesman who reflects on the possibility of carrying out mass self-experimentation with truth drugs as a form of self-defence.
On 29 March 2008, volunteers will be able to participate to the performative part of the Truth Serum installation in support of freedom from artistic censorship.
In a central (and still secret) Liverpool location, participants will willingly submit themselves to a short psychological experiment based on substantiating Truth lasting around 10 minutes. The aim is to probe an atmosphere of paranoia spreading since 9/11.
sk-interfaces is on view until March 30 and launches FACT's Human Futures programme which includes 3 sections - My Body (SK-Interfaces), My Mind and My World, each one hosting a major exhibition, conference and research focus. You can follow its development through Human Futures blog.
On Saturday, i visited the Biennale de la Photo de Liège. Now you might never have heard of Liège. Good for you! That's where i grew up and i must say that apart from the sticky Sirop de Liège (which i've never really liked but was nevertheless almost forced to eat), a fantastic programme at a couple of independent movie theatres, and Georges Simenon, there is nothing exciting nor even remotely nostalgic i'm ready to say about that city. Pass your way, dear tourist... Unless you happen to be stuck there before March 30.
The concept of Territories is the centre of Liège's 6th International Biennial of Photography and Visual Arts. This theme is explored through different aspects: "Mental Territory", "Political Territory", "Mutating Territory" or the relationship between "Territory and Identities".
The selection is really good but the curators didn't take any risk. I mean you can't go wrong with the likes of Edward Burtynsky, Xavier Delory and Patrick Messina, can you? Several aspects of this biennale looked a bit like a re-load of several exhibitions on the same topic i've seen over the past couple of years (namely BAC! Living in Babylon in Barcelona and Spectacular City in Rotterdam) but, hey, i enjoyed the biennale a lot so i'm going to stop spitting in the soup now. As I applauded some chapters of the biennale much better than others, i'll exercise my right to be a subjective blogger and focus only on what grabbed my interest.
My first stop was at the luminous Ancienne Eglise Saint-Antoine, an ex-church recently restaured with a very profuse helping of white paint. Wars and fights have marked the history of nations but also left stigmas on the landscapes and in the hearts of people. While some of the artists presented in the Political Territory exhibition turned their lens towards the geographical borderline - seen here as either a real or a symbolic delimitation, other photographers reflect on the human and social consequences which inevitably tailgate these geopolitical challenges.
A fascinating place was dedicated to migrants, "unrooted" or displaced persons, all those who move to another land following their own will or obligation and had to somehow adjust and rebuild a new community and identity.
Today, long after the fall of the iron curtain, new reinforcement measures are being put into place. The buffer zone that was formerly made up of the 'sister countries' of the URSS, is slowly becoming the European Union's buffer zone against illegal immigration and illegal traffic.
In 2002, just before some of the Eastern countries would join the European Union Yann Mingard and Alban Kakulya took a GPS and travelled along the length of Europe's new frontier, from the Adriatic to the Baltic to give a snapshop of the state of a border separating the European Union from countries of the ex-Soviet Union.
East of a New Eden raises a series of questions: What is happening today in a zone where people, who have been accustomed to the standards of the Ancient Regime, are suddenly expected to follow the rules of the European Union? Will the iron curtain be replaced by a high tech surveillance barrier?
Rip Hopkins traveled to Uzbekistan, a country very few people could locate on a map but also an artificial country as it was peopled "forcibly" by outcasts from various counties of the former Soviet Union. The Displaced ("From Home and Away") photos are accompanied by a short text which tells the story of one of these Uzbeks who might or might not feel that they really belong there.
Leonid Svertchkov in Tashkent's Geology and Biophysical Institute's conference room. He is 42 years old. He is Ukrainian and works at the Science Institute as an archeologist specialised in Zoroastrian sites in the south of Uzbekistan bordering with Afghanistan. Leonid was born in East Germany and came to work in Uzbekistan in 1982. He will not leave to join his wife and two sons living in Athens, Greece. 30/07/02
Lena Olegovna in the shop Les cadeaux de la Dame Nature in the city centre of Tachkent. Lola Karimova, the elder daughter of President Karimov, owns this shop. Lena is 24. She is an english, russian and ouzbek interpret. Her mother is Tatar and her father is half Russian and half Ouzbek. She want to go to Norway. 03/08/02
With Linewatch - Pasaje en la frontera, Laetitia Tura documents the border areas between the United States and Mexico and in particular the police control systems erected across the accidents of the landscape.
Jérôme Brézillon's series Souverains, Indiens des Plaines is a breathtakingly beautiful and thought-provoking series about the fate of Indian Americans. In 1868 the Treaty of Fort Laramie set the frontiers of the land assigned to the Yanktonai Sioux, Santee Sioux, and Arapaho and stipulates that the land is theirs to use as they deem fit. History showed that their territory was not always respected.
In the Souverains (Sovereigns) series Brézillon juxtaposes a portrait of a Sioux Lakotas with a landscape of Indian reservations. An identity relationship is instantly created. History, myth and ancestry ensure that the intimacy cannot vanish so easily nor be reduced to folklore.
The exhibition Mutating Territory, at the greyer than grey Musée de l'Art wallon, explores how men appropriate a territory and shape it according to their own requirements.
But doesn't this new territory in turn also shape a new humanity?
Joël Tettamanti toured the globe to document the way mankind takes root in the landscape.
Edward Burtynsky collects evidences of man's boundless disregard for the planet: oilfields, polluted ship-breaking beaches, recycling yards, quarries, industrial refineries, etc. He takes images of the colonized landscape but he also enters factories to take sublime shots of intricate industrial constructions or chain workers in the process of loosing any personality.
Xavier Delory didn't have to take any plane to dedicate his attention to the houses "clé sur porte" (key in the door), they are all over Belgium and many other European cities. Manipulating the images to remove any trace of door and window, he leaves us with a soul-less canvas which has no qualm about being in total disharmony with the environment.
I'm going to pretend i haven't visited Territory and Identities and go directly to Mental Territory at the MAMAC. The territory this time is the one of human intimacy, the internal territory mapped by our choices, family, loneliness, etc. Although i tried as hard as i could there was little attention left for anything else than her pictures the moment i saw Marrie Bot's Geliefden. Timeles Love. The series shows elderly having some very intimate moments. Hard not to let your jaw drop and ask your companion "How can they?" "You'll find me so awful when i'm seventy, we will just hold hands and that's it right?" Hard to also not to think that these couples are incredibly lucky to still love each other so much after decades of marriage.
Territoires, the 6th Biennial of Photography and Visual Arts is on view at several venues in Liège until March 30.
You're going to hear about the Centre for Contemporary Culture Strozzina (CCCS) in the coming months i'm sure. The space was created as platform for the different approaches and practices that characterise the production of contemporary art and culture. That doesn't seem much but in a city like Florence which lives and breathes Renaissance there was very little space left for contemporary art so far. Its Project Director Franziska Nori is a curator of new media art (she co-produced and curated produced exhibitions such as I Love You exploring the worlds of hackers and viruses, adonnaM.mp3 devoted to p2p and file-sharing, Digital Origami about the demo scene.) CCCS is not a digital art center though but its mission is to highlight all forms of contemporary culture and this includes media art.
Just to wet your appetite, CCCS's next exhibition CINA CINA CINA !!! will present the work of 15 contemporary Chinese artists whose artistic practice searches for an independent cultural identity free of the restrictive rules of the global market. It opens on March 21 and closes on May 4.
The exhibition space is located in the recently restored spaces under the courtyard of Palazzo Strozzi, an impressive don't-mess-with-me palace in Florence. Its construction begun in 1489 by Benedetto da Maiano, for banker and statesman Filippo Strozzi the Elder, a rival of the Medici who wanted the most magnificent palace as a political statement of his own status. Filippo Strozzi died in 1491, long before the construction's completion in 1538. Duke Cosimo I de Medici confiscated it in the same year, not returning it to the Strozzi family until thirty years later.
The exhibition that launched the center was Emotional Systems - Contemporary Art between Emotion and Reason. Curated by Franziska Nori and phenomenologist Martin Steinhoff, the show invited the audience to reflect on the relationship between the contemporary artist, the artwork and the viewer, in the light of the latest discoveries in the neurological sciences about the human brain and its effects on the emotions.
Each room of the Strozzina is devoted to one artist, each focusing on different aspect of emotion and empathy with the public. All of them are perfectly documented on the exhibition website, but here's a selection:
Teresa Margolles' installation takes you by the guts. The strategy of Air/Aire is as minimalistic as it is powerful, it calls for the immediate reality of experience rather than the power of representation, the whole experience is paradoxicaly triggered not by an image but an absence.
You enter the installation room through a transparent plastic curtain, the kind that you'd expect to find in the workshop of a butcher. The room is completely white and apparently empty apart from a working air-conditioning unit. The air is slightly humidified.
That's it, so you either pass your way thinking that it is just an empty room or spot the exhibition label and start to read the elements used in making the installation: the conditioning system and vaporised water.
Margolles works also as a forensic technician in public mortuaries in Mexico City and that's where the water comes from. It was used to wash the corpses of as yet unidentified people prior to autopsy. Her works is a "memento mori" whose impact is not diminished by the complete absence of any representation of death. The visitor's awareness and their inevitable emotional response of repulsion becomes an essential part of the artistic process.
As a visceral motor reaction, disgust is included together with fear and pain among the primary emotions pinpointed by Italian neuroscientist Professor Giacomo Rizzolatti as underlying the so-called "mirror mechanism".
The active agents of this mechanism are the mirror neurons in the brain, a particular class of neurons characterized by the property of firing not only when the individual performs a particular action but also when he or she sees or simply hears someone else perform it. In short, when someone observes a work of art, this triggers a sort of re-creation in the sense that the viewer does not remain passive but projects his or her 'inner state' onto it.
A good example of this emotional transfer is Bill Viola's video series The Passions in which everyday people perform scenes from the classic Christian iconography. The figures are extrapolated from religious symbology and re-contextualized in a timeless and universally poetic dimension as a metaphor of the essence of the human condition.
Observance draws inspiration from Albrecht Dürer's The Four Apostles (1526), a pair of altar wings depicting the grief shared by the four apostles over the death of Christ. It has sometimes been said that the work can be taken partly as a response to September 11. Actors enter and exit the performance space with their eyes fixed on a set point that remains hidden but seem to be located in the spectator's space.
Although we are not permitted to see the cause of the performers grief, we can guess that death and loss are the reason for their emotion. It's hard not to think of 9/11. The entire action unfolds in silence and extreme slow motion.
The face of most visitors, when entering the room and seeing the video, becomes solemn and almost sad. In neuroscientific terms, Viola's work illustrate how empathy can emerge through visual impact and the triggering of mirror neurons, inducing what can correspond to an involuntary act of "mimesis".
The third work i'd like to highlight is Nomadic Time, an installation, devised by Andrea Ferrara, a.k.a. Ongakuaw, which involves the connecting of a performer to a machine that detects her brainwaves.
The device monitors four types of waves generated by the human brain:
alpha waves which come from the subconscious mind and are generated primarily by the region of the memory, upon which the subconscious is based; beta waves which are born in the conscious mind, and are related to all activities during the awake state when the person is concentrated on external stimuli; theta waves which constitute waves of psychical power together with delta waves; gamma waves which are those of the deep psychical powers, like those of a medium in a trance.
While the performer is closed in the cage like a laboratory animal. She is made to watch a video,while her emotional response in the form of waves emitted by the brain is recorded, codified and digitally sampled by computer.
The video sequence shows 257 still shots of a tree by the River Arno, photographed by the artist in the course of the year.
The number of these shots corresponds to the number of days that Ferrara was actually on the spot to photograph the tree. The days when he could not make it are symbolized by single black image that appears for a fraction of a second on the screen and have only a subliminal impact on the spectator. This absence is also represented by the absence of the performer in the moments when the performance is suspended, leaving just the objects in an empty cage.
The coding is used as a control for an algorithmic compositional strategy of acoustic data. A custom-built software translates the waves recorded into musical sounds broadcast in the exhibition space, and the sound thus generated represents a real-time mapping of the emotions felt by the performer.
I'd also like to recommend the catalog that accompanies the exhibition as a way to explore the subject. It's in fact a carefully selection of essays by neurologists, philosophers, anthropologists, art historian, and the curators who present with the peculiar perspective of their own discipline the rationality of emotions and, in David Freedberg's words, the "relations between the formal aspects of an image and the emotional responses" of the user.