Tokyo correspondent Vicente Gutierrez paid a visit to the Yokohama Museum of Art last month to check the exhibition Goth - Reality of the Departed World . Here's what he has to say about it:

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Dr. Lakra, Untitled (Muscidae and Tea), 2007. Courtesy of the Artist and Kurimanzutto, Mexico City

Unmistakably, Goth-culture has emerged from centuries ago back into the fore of 21st century life. While the noir-drenched subculture's origins are rooted in the aesthetics of the "gothic" art movement which permeated Europe from the 12th to 16th centuries, Goth imagery and iconography and fashion we see today is more connected to the 19th century British revival movement which entertained a longing for medieval times.

The Goth culture of today, found in movies, music, fashion and literature, is influenced more by the revival movement and hinges on darker, yet familiar, concepts of death, darkness or night, abnormality, insanity and just about anything that is opposed to a healthy and conservatively-perceived status quo. And so, the youth, pop-culture as well as contemporary art have been infected with notions of Goth. Whether it be Marylyn Manson's baroque stadium tours, a noir-revival in film or artists who explore death, deformation of the body or self-identity, these attempts break through the norm of the status quo.

The exhibit at the Yokohama Museum of Art featured approximately 250 works of contemporary sculpture, painting, video and photography by six internationally active artists to cite a new working definition of 'Goth' in a contemporary setting.

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Ricky Swallow, Younger Than Yesterday, 2006
Collection of Ms.Tiqui Atencio Demirdjian

Shown in Japan for the first time, the detailed, wooden sculptures of Ricky Swallow [Australia] juxtapose vanity and death with the use of skull iconography in this work. Even though skull iconography seems to be everywhere as of late, Swallow also displayed a delicately wood carved skeleton with so much invested work that it seemed human. Each bone, while carved and pieced together delicately to replicate the raw, natural human form, echoed of [human] flaws. The composed, docile macabre posed in the center of the room, with an enigmatic chagrin. In addition to his woodcarvings, Swallow's sculpture of a bronzed vintage boom box further expressed the artist's concern with the flow of time, whether in cyclical or standstill. To preserve what we love despite beauty's transience, knowing it will ultimately die, reminds us of the brevity of life and the tragically comforting adage, that nothing lasts forever.

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Pyuupiru, Selfportrait #02 A 12-year-old Boy Bearing Scars, 2005-07

Spanning the wall of the exhibit space were Pyuupiru's collection of self-portraits which featured the artist with a variety of dramatic, mutilated poses. Appearing androgynous at times, self mutilation and modification were the tools the artist has taken to find her true self in hopes of actualizing her value as a person- psychologically and physically. With the progression of photographs, perhaps Pyuupiru is awaiting a final metamorphoses. How long? Remains a question for the viewer and artist alike. Here, the photos are said to present the process of transformation from man to woman and from a monster to a total self. The incision, modification and mutilation of her physical self seem not to deflect her bold and persistent gaze at the camera- what appears fragile on the surface is not. Rather, in exploring her self identity, her search for true-self is nihilist although a longing for a perfect love of self is detectable.

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Dr. Lakra, Untitled (Love, Christiane Martell), 2007
Courtesy of the Artist and Kurimanzutto, Mexico City

Comfortable in his technique, tattoo artist Dr. Lakra [Mexico] used vintage Mexican magazine covers (featuring pin up girls and wrestlers) as canvas for his permanent ink. While some of his exhibited works were completed during his residency at the Yokohama Museum of Art Common, Lakra's concerns with death led him to rely on dark iconography such as demons, bats, insects, spiders and gothic patterns which are intertwined with the beautification of the very figures he draws upon. The darker image of Lakra maintains as beautiful literally overwrites original perceptions of these vintage cover models; shunning the original conventions. Lakra's subversive obsession with kitsch beauty and death is perhaps strongly correlated to his up brining in Catholic-heavy Mexico, where such conservative ideas pervade. Continuing to mix the sacred and the secular, Lakra's resistance to an overarching conservatism is clear.

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Masayuki Yoshinaga, Goth-Loli (Gothic Lolita), 2006

Masayuki Yoshinaga's [Japan] massive archive of street photos of modern day Goth youth, reveal the culture's current vitality. In this collection of photos, Goth iconography is seen translated in a variety of ways- the lolita dresses pervade, as does heavy, aesthetically-driven make up in addition to teeth actually sharpened into a set of fangs. Another stronger body modification, for the truly committed goth, were triangle slits into tongues for a vampire or serpent effect. Yoshinaga's lens focuses on the more colorful and vibrant tangent off the Goth tradition- youth who's obsessive concentration on their subculture suggests a darker, clouded periphery. That is, all else, i.e. values of the status quo, are meaningless. In order to capture such vanity, Yoshinaga elects subjects who wear their heart on their sleeve, no matter how dark it may be.

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IngridMwangiRobertHutter, Performance of Doubt, 2007

For this exhibition, a new video installation was created around the theme of human life, which the artists symbolized through birth, maturity and aging. One video, focused on multiple angles of an infant, simply laying on a cold, tiled floor unable to move or walk. In its peril, the infant managed roll over, all the while crying, for some kind of salavation. Is there something beautiful in this or do we file it under morbid? Concerned with conditions of human existence, IngridMwangiRobertHutter's videos provide introspection into moments we opt, and opt not, to remember or avoid confronting but nevertheless expected in our life span. Moreover, how do we deal with the violence, injustice and consequent endemic suffering in our world? Other projected clips focused on an older individual going through suffering, as if surviving a failed suicide attempt from a buildling as well as an elder patient anxiously awaiting in a clinical room.

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Tabaimo, Ginyo-ru(guignoller), 2005
Courtesy of the Artist and Gallery Koyanagi. Photo: Ufer! Art Documentary

In a darker room, Tabaimo's large format 360 degree video installation, raised to the ceiling, presented an inner imaginative world where severed hands and feet floated in an interstitial space within the circular canvas. The looped animated sequence revealed a fluid morphing and mutilation of body parts into and out of each other. More fascinating than disturbing, closer attention to the enigmatic evolution of the floating limbs, garnered Tabaimo's individual aesthetic as an animator.

From this collection of contemporary works, Goth is clearly moving onto a wider platform. It is not only the style or the fashion, but rather a means to communicate profound ideas of life, whether those be painful or sorrowful or morbid, they are messages with the same importance and relevance of those found in pop art, or other avenues of pop culture. And on such a platform, these contemporary artists will continue their reflections on birth, death and the transformations that come in between.

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Masayuki Yoshinaga (more images)

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Today people will look down on you if your art space doesn't have an exhibition dedicated to ecological issues on its agenda. Unsurprisingly, Milan still hasn't organized anything worth mentioning but her little neighbour, the enlightened and chilly Turin, did. The show is called Greenwashing. Environment, Perils, Promises and Perplexities and is on view at the Fondazione Rebaudengo until May 11, 2008.

Here's the premise: The diverse practices represented in the exhibition do not just point the finger at the degradation of our planet, they also make more tangible the contradictions and responsibilities that we encounter personally and as a society. Art here does not necessarily proclaim a 'correct' ethical or green choice, but allows the possibility for broadening and analysing our perceptions and actions.

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Ettore Favini, Green is the Color of Money, 2007

The 25 artists and groups selected not only engage with emissions' offsetting, food miles, environmental marketing, ecological footprints, and other eco-conscious issues but they also bring attention to their political and social consequences. Many of the works selected are extremely good at making environmental issues less abstract and remote from our daily reach. I'm glad i had the opportunity to see all these pieces in one go. That's what thematic exhibitions are for, right? However, i couldn't see much past the simple gathering of works, they have this environmental streak to keep them together but there is something missing in the curatorial vision. I don't know the secret to curating an exhibition with a scope and breath which will go beyond the sum of all the works it gangs around but it sure is puzzling when the multiplier symbol is missing.

Still, this exhibition provides enough food for thought for people who are naive enough to believe that they can sleep soundly in their organic cotton bed linen just because they recycle glass, never print any paper unless they have no other choice and always bring their own bags to the supermarket.

0aareduceartfl.jpgI, for one, can say proudly that i only drive bikes (i don't have a driving license anyway) but when i saw the posters of RAF / Reduce Art Flights i could only laugh out loud at my own candor. I might not own a Hummer but i take an awful lot of planes for my work.

Initiated by Gustav Metzger, the RAF campaign upholds that the art world - artists, curators, critics, gallerists, collectors, museum directors, and art bloggers too i guess - could or should swap planes for less carbon dioxide-emitting transports.

The RAF acronym deliberately echoes the Royal Air Force - the aerial warfare branch of the British military - as well as the militant left-wing group known as the Red Army Faction. The message is communicated by mass-produced leaflets first distributed during Sculpture Projects Münster last Summer. The Turin version of the leaflet is available in art galleries and inserted into international mailings in connection with the exhibition.

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View of Beyond Pastoral (Shroud of Turin) at the Rebaudengo

BP's environmental record is pretty appalling. In 2000, British Petroleum changed its name to BP (Beyond Petroleum) and chose a yellow and green sunflower-like as its logo in a bid to highlight its interest in alternative and environmentally friendly fuels. Nevertheless BP was named one of the "ten worst corporations" in both 2001 and 2005 based on its environmental and human rights records.

The Bruce High Quality Foundation's installation Beyond Pastoral (Shroud of Turin) grows out of a project that the BHQF initiated for an exhibition in New York in 2007, which consisted of a 1/5 scale model of the BP petrol station located opposite the gallery, underneath which thousands of lemons and limes were arranged in the form of the BP logo.

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Installation in New York. Photo Oto Gillen

Each fruit was wired with electrodes and together they generated enough electrical current to illuminate the model. The irony of this seemingly earnest demonstration of an alternative energy source lies in the fact that the citruses quickly started to rot, posing a health hazard. Besides, transporting the fruit had required hundreds of liters of fuel. The Turin version of the work presented only the beautifully parched carpet of lemons and videos documenting the New York installation.

Beyond Pastoral exploit the power of faith, images and advertising in the new found religion of 'green' to further test the sustainability, credibility and authenticity of both corporate critique and supposedly miraculous technological promises.

A few weeks ago, i was in a museum bar in New York and almost fell of my chair when i was served a bottle of San Pellegrino, a water that (i think) comes from Lombardy in Italy. Minerva Cuevas's installation in Turin echoes our absurd and eco-damaging fetishism for "exotic" waters.

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Égalité (2003) also involves the sabotaging of a corporate graphic identity. Owned by the Danone group, Evian is probably the world's best-known bottled water. Considering that the global market for bottled water multiplied more than 1000 times in the last decade - its average price is more than that of petrol - Cuevas has kept the shape and design of the bottle intact. Bar one detail: she replaced the familiar brand's lettering by Égalité, as in France's motto, 'Liberté, égalité, fraternité' (Liberty, equality, fraternity), subtly pointing out political issues linked to water throughout the world nowadays.

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There is little equality as far as access to water is concerned, and those who have a seemingly unlimited access to it would rather pay ridiculous prices for something that comes almost freely from a tap.

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Wilfredo Prieto's Estanque installation is a congregation of crude oil barrels choreographed to look like an idyllic lily pond habitat complete with water puddles and a live frog (which had left the building when i visited the show).

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I'm the little frog on the oil pond!

Petroleum oil, which is itself an organic substance, is converted by the sheer iconic power of its container into a symbol of all of the ills of our fossil-fuel dependency. Yet the sculpture inevitably suggests the prospect of eco-advertising, as if its graphic visual summary of apparent amphibian-petroleum harmony could perfectly lend itself to an audacious company marketing department in a bid to demonstrate their 'green' industrial principles.

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Simon Starling's ironic C.A.M. Crassulacean Acid Metabolism belongs to the artist's fascinating series of "cactus works." This installation is made of functioning cast iron radiators shaped like cacti and connected to a boiler with copper piping. The title of the work comes from a biochemical pathway that is a complex variation of photosynthesis, whereby some plants acquire carbon dioxide during the hours of darkness, minimizing thus eco-physiological stress and water loss from their leaves by avoiding gas exchange during the hot part of the day. C.A.M. opposes the supremely efficient and economical cactus strategy with the slightly ludicrous man-made radiators that expel heat into the exhibition space.

Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, whose life-sized clay hippopotamus had charmed me so much at the Venice Biennale in 2005, presented photos that document a participatory performance event they staged on the island of Vieques in March 2003 together with local residents and activist groups protesting against the U.S Military occupation of the island. The U.S had bought the land from the Puerto Rican government and had been using it for military exercises, and as a firing range and testing ground for bombs, missiles, and other weapons. The military experiments brought together with them severe ecological damage.

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Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla, Land Mark (Foot prints) #2, Set II, 2001-2004

Allora & Calzadilla designed rubber shoe soles to be worn during actions of protest. When activists illegally entered the bombing range, they left behind indented messages for the US military staff. The imprints were a way of reclaiming the disputed territory, giving new power to the term "landmark."

Today the contested territory, though still contaminated and debated, is a wildlife reserve under the protection of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Verdict: Greenwashing is a moving exhibition worth taking the train for if you ever come to Milan this month for the Salone del Mobile. I'm sure there will be some inspiring projects and gadgets presented this year at the international furniture fair. I wonder if any of them will have the strength of most of the artworks i discovered at the Fondazione Rebaudengo the other day.

I went camera-crazy again.

GREENWASHING will run at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo centre for contemporary art in Turin, Italy through 11 May 2008.

Related: Book review: Worldchanging: A Users Guide for the 21st Century; Ecological Strategies in Today's Art (part 1 and 2).

Previously at the Fondazione Re Rebaudengo: Murakami exhibition in Turin.

Image on the homepage: Amy Balkin, Public Smog, 2004.

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.

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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:

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Ant Farm, Space Cowboy Meets Plastic Businessman, 1969. Performance at Alley Theater, Houston

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.

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50x50 Foot Pillow, used as a medical pavilion at the Rolling Stones free concert at Altamont in 1969

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.

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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.

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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.

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House of the Century, 1972

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.

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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.

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Image wikipedia

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.

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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).

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Short video and a 26 minute one.

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.

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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.

Video:

More images.

The exhibition of Ant Farm's work is on view at the CAAC in Sevilla, Spain, until June 8, 2008.

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.

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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.

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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.

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Suzanne Anker, The Sum of All Fears (detail). Image courtesy of the Exit Art gallery

Although the use of Rorschach inkblots is controversial in psychology, the images are widely recognized among the public.

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Crab, 2005

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."

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Gossipers, 2005 (more images)

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.

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Suzanne Anker, MRI Butterfly (detail). Image courtesy of the Exit Art gallery

Another work i found really moving and riveting was a video installation by Phil Buehler, a photographer, fascinated by "haunted ruins" of abandoned Psychiatric Hospitals.

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Buehler, Windows of the Soul. Image courtesy of the Exit Art gallery

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.

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Dustin Wenzel's brass sculptures are brain-cavity castings of Great Whales from the New Brunswick Museum collection.

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Dustin Wenzel, (front) Sperm Whale Endocranial Cast, (back) Right Whale Endocranial Cast. Image courtesy of Exit Art Gallery

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:

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Jamie O'Shea, Alvin (image courtesy of Exit Art gallery)

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.

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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.

Swarm, by David Bowen (whom i interviewed a year ago), is an autonomous roaming device whose movements are determined by houseflies housed inside the device itself.

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David Bowen, Swarm (detail). Image courtesy of Exit Art Gallery

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.

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David Bowen, Swarm. Image courtesy of Exit Art Gallery

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.

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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!

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Photo indymedia

On Saturday March 8, i was walking on a cloud telling myself what a lucky person i was to present a FrictiesSalon with the masked and magnificent guys of the Billboard Liberation Front.

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."

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"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.

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Photo by Gina Gayle for the SF gate

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.

Client portfolio

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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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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:

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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.

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1996. Am I dead yet? Technically more elaborate as they had to sub-contract an electrician and a neon guy.

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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.

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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".
Ironically the stock market crashed right after this action.

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.

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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,
- Less is more. The best improvements are those that require only to alter a single letter to change the whole meaning of the campaign.
- Expose what is hidden. Some advertisers are too shy about what they really mean, BLF will help them make their message clearer. Case in point: the 2005 improvement of Johnny Walker where "Drink responsibly" became "Drink yourself blind".

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- 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.
- Document your action with some Before and After images.
- A careful planning is essential: Don't get caught, don't get hurt. The larger the billboard, the higher you'll fall.
- Minimize property damage and respect the sign men. BLF make modification which are easy to remove and always leave some beer or liquor for the men who have to come and clean their "improvements."
- You don't have to be in San Francisco to make and see billboard improvements. Make yours with the help of BLF's The Art & Science of Billboard Improvement guide (PDF).

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!
Boingboing tv has recently video documented BLF's latest adventures in the world of "subvertising."

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.

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Critical Art Ensemble, Immolation. Image courtesy of the artists

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.

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Critical Art Ensemble, Immolation

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).

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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.

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Scopolamine, an ingredient used in truth serums (image courtesy of Neil White)

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.

More information to participate.

My pictures and FACT pictures.

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.

Related: They make art not bioterrorism, Jens Hauser's presentation in Aix en Provence (part 1 and 2.)

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