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."

Sponsored by:





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.)

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.

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ANOUK KRUITHOF, no title, from the series « We are the blue people », 2007

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".

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Brigitte Grignet, Nablus, West Bank, June 2005, from the series Palestine, Unfortunately It Was Paradise

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.

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View of the Ancienne Eglise Saint-Antoine

Political Territory

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.

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Yann Mingard and Alban Kakulya, from the series «East of a New Eden», 2001-2002

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.

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Yann Mingard and Alban Kakulya, N 43° 44' 32 3'' - E 28° 34' 43 9'', from the
series «East of a New Eden», 2001-2002

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.

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Yann Mingard and Alban Kakulya, N 55° 05' 33 3'' - E 21° 53' 49 6'', from the
series «East of a New Eden», 2001-2002 (c-print 100x100cm)

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?

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Yann Mingard and Alban Kakulya, from the series «East of a New Eden», 2001-2002

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.

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Rip Hopkins, from the series Déplacés, 2002

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

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Rip Hopkins, from the series Déplacés, 2002

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.

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Laetitia Tura, Lumière inquisitrice 7, Colonie Libertad, Tijuana, Mexique, 2005

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.

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Jérôme Brézillon, Souverains, Indiens des Plaines

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.

Mutating Territory

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View of the Musée de l'Art wallon

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.

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Joël Tettamanti, Qaqortoq_1781

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Joel Tettamanti, from the series Maloting, Lesotho, 2004

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.

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E. Burtynsky, Oil Refineries No. 14, Saint John, New Brunswick 1999

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E. Burtynsky, Manufacturing 16, Bird Mobile, Ningbo Province, China 2005

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.

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Xavier Delory, from the series Habitat

Mental Territory

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.

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Marrie Bot, Liesbeth (76) and Cor (70), Geliefden-Timeless Love, 2004

Territoires, the 6th Biennial of Photography and Visual Arts is on view at several venues in Liège until March 30.

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Mathias Nouel, Iris, 2004

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Patrick Messina, from the series «Ma petite Amérique», Courtesy of Label Expositions, Paris

Last month, i went to Florence to visit Emotional Systems, the inaugural exhibition of the brand new Strozzina.

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.

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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.

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Palazzo Strozzi (image)

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.

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Christian Nold, Emotional Mapping Greenwich, 2005

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:

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Teresa Margolles, Aire, 2003

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.

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Image from an other work of the artist: Muerte sin fin

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".

0aawatercol.jpgThe 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.

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Bill Viola, Observance, 2002. Photo credit Kira Perov

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.

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The device monitors four types of waves generated by the human brain:

0aaledevicebrain.jpgalpha 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.

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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.

More images on flickr and CCCS.

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Yves Netzhammer, The Subjectivisation of Repetition, 2007

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Christian Nold, Emotional Mapping San Francisco, 2007

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I'm just back from the IxDA Interaction 08 conference organized by the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. My favourite talk was Strategic Boredom by Molly or how two visionaries from the '50s and '60s could teach us something about introducing boredom into interaction.

0aamolly.jpgMolly Wright Steenson is a PHD student in architecture at Princeton University and an interaction designer.

When i realized that Molly posted most of her talk on her new blog Conceptual Device, i thought i could just add it to my del.icio.us links but then it would be lost for most of my readers. So i'm going to let you read the intro on her site and take over with what i wrote down during her talk, from the moment when she focused on Gordon Pask and Cedric Price. Not sure it makes much sense but it does make me happy. This blog was born out of a need to archive what could serve my own enlightenment after all.

Martin Heidegger studied boredom in Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics as part of his continual exploration of existence. At some point he suggested an interesting strategy when facing boredom: "not to resist straightaway but to let resonate... only by not being opposed to it, but letting it approach us and tell us what it wants, what is going on with it."

The idea of exploring boredom took an interesting turn with cybernetics,

Louis Kauffman, President of the American Society for Cybernetics, defines cybernetics as "the study of systems and processes that interact with themselves and produce themselves from themselves".

There is first order cybernetics (not much interaction here) and second order cybernetics (an organism or social system is an agent in its own right, interacting with another agent, the observer.)

Gordon Pask was interested in Second Order Cybernetic. Pask had a PHD in psychology and was particularly interested in learning and conversations.

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Gordon Pask (Photo by Harry Kerr/BIPs/Getty Images)

In 1953, Pask created the Musicolour machine. The machine was inspired by the concept of synesthesia and aimed at exploring what happens when music and light interact with each other. He's the only one nor the first to work on such idea but what makes the Musicolour interesting is that Pask introduced the notion of boredom in the equation.

The work held a "conversation" with the performer. The musician would respond to visual queues, the machine in turn would build an understanding of what the musician was playing, and, when it detects that the musician is repeating a same sequence too often, the system would "get bored" and challenge the musician to find new ways to re-engage the system.

The idea of building upon boredom reappears with Cedric Price's Generator. Just like Archigram, Price didn't build much but his radical ideas had a huge influence on contemporary architecture. At the core of Price's practice was the belief that new technology could enable the public to gain control over their environment, resulting in a building which could be responsive to visitors' needs and the many activities intended to take place there.

The Fun Palace, probably his most influential projects, was never realized but it nevertheless inspired the Centre Georges Pompidou that Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano built ten years later in Paris.

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Fun Palace, an unrealised project for East London, 1960-1961

Price became also famous for his project of a mobile university on rails, the Potteries Thinkbelt (1965). He proposed the conversion of declining industrial zone into a huge High Tech think-tank, with mobile classrooms and laboratories mounted on the rail lines, moving from place to place, from housing to library to factory to computer center.

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Plan for Potteries Thinkbelt, Staffordshire, England, 1965

Price was not interested in formalism but in conditions that would change people behaviour through their interaction with architecture.

The idea reappears in Price's Generator (1976-79, not built). This series of cubes, screens, walkways and catwalks could be moved around by a mobile crane on the site to meet visitors' needs and desires. Price's collaborator John Frazer, proposed that the cubes be outfitted with sensors that would report on the use of the components. If the pieces of Generator weren't moved enough, they would grow bored and design their own layouts, which in turn would be handed off to the mobile crane operator to put into place.

0acedricprice.jpgIn an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Price declared:

In defining architecture, you don't necessarily define the consumption of it. All the designs we did for Generator [Florida, 1966] were written as menus, and then we would draw the menu, and because I like bacon and eggs for breakfast, it was all related to that bit of bacon and that bit of egg. They were all drawn, however cartoon-like, in the same order - not in the order the chef or cook would arrange them on your plate, but in the order in which the consumer would eat them. And that is related to the consumption or usefulness of architecture, not to the dispenser of it.

Generator would also have the task to surprise its users. In collaboration with programmer-architects John and Julia Frazer, he imagined that each element of Generator would become "intelligent" by being outfitted with a microchip. The sensors would interact with four computer programs that performed a variety of tasks, including keeping inventory, aiding Generator's users to design different layouts, and most powerfully and importantly, getting bored. The boredom routine would run if people did not request changes of Generator frequently enough, or if the parts were not aptly used. It would draw up new plans for Generator, which would be handed off to the social elements of the project.

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John and Julia Frazer, Generator Electronic Model

In the correspondence between Price and his system research consultants Julia & John Frazer, Molly encountered this thought-provoking sentence: "If you kick a system the very least you would expect is for them to kick you back."

What interested Price was not to design the perfectly controlled system but to create a Generator which would make things that neither the architect nor the users expect, a system that gets involved and plays an active role once it gets bored. That was his idea of interaction: a troublesome system that bites back, that engages in a conversation and do things you wouldn't have thought about, no matter how carefully you have devised that system.

Previously: Paskian Environments.

0aamanamachine8.jpgLast week (or was it two weeks ago already?) i was in beautiful Stockholm to visit the Man Machine 2 exhibition, produced at the Interactive Institute and curated by Björn Norberg.

What makes the show particularly interesting was the whole production process. It all started from scratch, only a few months before the opening of the exhibition, with a brainstorming where contemporary artists Matti Kallioinen, Ebba Matz and Christian Partos shared views and experience with engineers. The questions the discussion focused on revolved around the way we use the machine and how the human mind and body have interplayed with the machine historically and how man and machine will interact in the future.

After that the artists got the opportunity to have a peak inside the National Museum of Science and Technology's storage facility (usually closed to the public). Going from shelf to shelf the artists got to know the story of some of the artefacts belonging to the Museum's collection and were invited to position this technological cultural heritage in relation to their own artistic expression. Throughout the process the artists were in constant dialog with engineers, the Interacting Institute and the curators from the National Museum of Science and Technology.

Which brings me to another peculiarity of the show: it takes place inside a museum of technology. Not an art gallery, nor a contemporary art museum. This situation reflects one of the Interactive Institute's missions: to bring media art and interactive pieces outside of its usual territory and give it a broader audience.

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Photo Truls Nord

The artists were asked to choose one artefact each out of the collection. Partos chose a pacemaker, Kallioinen a wooden bellows and Matz a perpetuum mobile.

What i also found worth noting is that. if Christian Partos is used to work with technology Kallioinen and Matz were less familiar with it.

"One important thing with the "Man Machine concept" has been to create a platform where artist and engineer meet, exchange ideas and solve problem together," Björn Norberg, the curator of Man Machine 2, told me. "There's a lot of inspiration from E.A.T. and Billy Klüver, the pool that matches engineers and artists. When I was given the chance for both Man Machine and Man Machine 2 and decided to take the opportunity to work with artists that I hadn't been working with before but also to create a mix in between them, both as artists and in the knowledge about technology and the age of them."

"If the artists are just open minded, are used to work in different materials and have a lot of ideas there will always be interesting to let them play around with technology and let them meet engineers. The knowledge about technology is then less important."

0aabeathearttt9.jpgThe first clinical implantation into a human of a fully implantable pacemaker was in 1958 in Solna, Sweden, using a pacemaker designed by dr Rune Elmqvist . Christian Partos' installation has the same role as the pacemaker: it keeps a heart beating.

The griffins were created for the roof of the building of the national telegraph board that was located in central Stockholm but had somehow found their way to the museum's back yard. Partos rescued them and trusted them with a display case filled with shiny objects taken from the museum's collections. Each creature is holding a plate with a glass bell jar, one containing an ancient clock and one containing what appears to be a beating human heart. When the heart beats, is squirts out a red liquid from a tube. The liquid pours down into a small plastic funnel and from there back into the heart.

The accompanying soundscape evokes slow heart beats. It is actually made by picking up the sounds from the room and looping them back.

Video of the installation.

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Photo Erik Sjödin

Matti Kallioinen had an idea of working with air in some way. He liked the idea that air needs to be enclosed before you can use it as a power. His choice was a wooden bellows of the type used in the old iron factories.

In his installation The Food chain and Dream World of the Organism the audience and a sophisticated sensor controlled fan construction function as bellows. Erik Sjödin has some amazing images from the installation and a performance.

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Photo Truls Nord

Visitors can pick up their own tube of plastic and use it to blow up a whole landscape of shapes in just a few seconds (ventilation fans are there to make it much easier and swifter). The landscape acts like an organism, it respond to breath by shifting in color, emitting sounds and by growing in size. After a few seconds, eerie ghost-like figures appear on the surface of the structure.

Erik Sjödin, who has worked on the installation together with the artist explains how it works:

The sound scape that surround the installation, the color of the bodies and the rate at which the colors shifts is determined by the growth of the installation and the airflow measured in the tube. The growth of the installation is monitored by five ultrasonic range sensors, its color is set by sixteen green and red lamps who illuminate the bodies from their insides. A video projection with accompanying sound fades in and out on the center sphere as it is inflated and deflated. When no one is interacting with the installation it emits ambient sounds and slowly shifts color while occasionally inflating itself slightly. A spotlight illuminates the umbilical cord so as to invite people to grab it and start interacting with the installation.

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Photo Truls Nord

The performance and costumes of the ghosts were created specifically for the installation (videos from the event which took place in New York 1 and 2.)

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Photo Truls Nord

Swedish inventor P J Hoffring built perpetuum mobile and called it "Paradox", alas! it hardly ever worked. His struggle to fight against the laws of nature inspired Ebba Matz' dome in the exhibition.

Matz' dome takes you to a journey inside a kaleidoscope. The inside is covered of mirrors and when you move inside you are surrounded by images of yourself in an endless repeat.

But the mirrors are not just mirrors. Images leaks in from the outside and are mixed with the reflection of the mirror. The mirror is not just a reflecting surface but also the boundary between outside and inside and the connection between what happens inside and what is projected from the outside.

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Image by Ingvar Sjöberg

Right after the pendulum, the artist`s inspiration was the Pepsi Pavilion created for the Expo '70 in Osaka. The Pavilion's interior dome immersed visitors in 3D images generated by mirror reflections and in spatialized electronic music.

The original structure of the pavilion consisted of a Buckminster Fuller-style geodesic dome. With some of his projects, and in particular his Dymaxion House, Buckminster Fuller was dreaming of solving the energy and housing problems for ever. Hoffring´s pendulum was also looking for the eternal solution, the one of never-ending movement.

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E.A.T. - Experiments in Art and Technology, «Pepsi Pavilion for the Expo '70», 1970
Photograph: Fujiko Nakaya | ©


All the works were built in few weeks using open source technology: Processing, Arduino, Open Framework.

My images.
The Physical Interaction Lab has some more info and videos.

Until April 28, at the Museum of Science and Technology in Stockholm. Man Machine is a part of the node.stockholm festival which runs until February 15 throughout the city.

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