A few days ago i was in Athens and found less time than i had hoped to visit galleries. I nevertheless managed to see a fantastic exhibition at theDESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art.
Established as a nonprofit foundation by art collector Dakis Joannou, DESTE is located in a former socks factory building, in the lovely Nea Ionia suburb, north of Athens.
See? Lovely area, even under the rain:
The old factory has been completely re-vamped. The main entrance to the gallery, designed by the architects of divercity, is particularly spectacular. You enter the building through a wooden crate that evokes the ones used for the transportation of art pieces.
Each year, a show at DESTE focuses on the collection of Dakis Joannou, the industrialist who established the foundation in 1983. New acquisitions are standing side by side with older pieces, making emerge new meanings and relationships between the artworks.
This years' exhibition A Guest + A Host = A Ghost borrows its title from one of Marcel Duchamp's mixed-media works. The play on words was inscribed on candy wrappers that were handed out during an opening in Paris in 1953.
The show is conceived as a series of solo exhibitions by some of today's most popular artists: Pawel Althamer, Maurizio Cattelan, Paul Chan, Nathalie Djurberg, Urs Fischer, Robert Gober, Jeff Koons, Paul McCarthy, Seth Price, Kiki Smith, Kara Walker, Andro Wekua, etc. You might know all the names and you might even like some of them but that won't prevent you from being surprised by the exhibition. It's an exciting show. Both provocative and satisfying.
"Over the past few years, the exhibitions displayed at DESTE have been the result of many people getting together. They are not thematic in the traditional sense. But one could say that the latest exhibition looks like a compilation of solo displays by the specific artists who are represented in the collection by many works. Creations by other artists have been placed within these 'sub-groups,' hence creating parasitic relations between the exhibits," explained curator Massimiliano Gioni.
I'm just going to highlight a couple of works:
One of the most eye-catching pieces on the ground floor is a sinister structure that cuts through the ceiling. Once you walk upstairs, you discover that the cast aluminum structure is actually a grave being dug up. Urs Fischer's overwhelming Untitled (Hole) takes the whole room, leaving only little space to walk around and admire Kara Walker's gouache on paper works.
Now i almost got knocked down the stairs on my way to the first floor. As i raised my head i was unsettled by Maurizio Cattelan's Ave Maria. Translated as Hail Mary, the title refers to the catholic tradition of revering the Virgin Mary. The right-armed salute is nowadays synonymous with right-wing or extremist political movements. The image brought to my mind the little plastic statues of Benito Mussolini one can sometimes find in Italian highway shops and the content face of Gaetano Saya. And then there's the 'legendary' grip that the Catholic church is said to have on the whole country. So, yes, i smiled broadly when i saw Ave Maria then i remembered that Europe is not always that open-minded, democratic, cultivated place that i love so much. Anyway, I'm probably seeing way more politics here in there than i should.
In the adjacent room, Paweł Althamer (people in Milan might remember the inflatable giant that floated above the Parco Sempione) had some stunning dolls, spineless leather-clad mannequins and a self-portrait as an old man.
Cattelan followed in the next room, this time with a self-portrait sticking his head through a hole in the floor (yes, another one). The figure is staring at Paul Chan's charcoal portraits of the members of the U.S. Supreme Court, My Laws Are My Whores that hints at the relationship between sex and law.
The best part for me was on the top floor. A fantastic series of sculptures by Urs Fischer, including a Ghost Chair:
I took pictures for you!
A Guest + A Host = A Ghost - Works from the Dakis Joannou Collection is on view at DESTE Foundation until December 31st 2009. New Museum curator Massimiliano Gioni acted as curatorial advisor with the collaboration of Maurizio Cattelan, Urs Fischer and Cecilia Alemani.
The first panel of Positions in Flux, a symposium organized by the Netherlands Institute of Media Art in Amsterdam last Saturday, was Art goes politics. The presentations and following discussion explored the artistic practices that turn their back on the assumption that art is something purely aesthetic, distant and contemplative. Instead, art can bite and get people involved in political, social or ethical issues: Does art have the potential to contribute to global and local problems such as religious conflicts, environmental or social crisis? Or is art constrained to raising awareness only? Should art become an agency for political and social affairs at all? How to successfully implement and conduct art projects in zones of crisis? How far do these projects benefit from the dubious attention of the mass media?
Some artists choose to stay outside conflict zones and reflect on the issues at stake, others step right inside the fight and either try to come up with possible solutions or subvert dominant systems.
The three speakers of the panel were Wafaa Bilal, Hans Bernhard from UBERMORGEN.COM and Christian Huebler from Knowbotic Research. It was fascinating to see that there's no such thing as 'just activism'. Each of them had a different view on the role and meaning of artists' involvement in burning issues.
I took notes from Hans Bernhard's talk but because i found his statement truly thought-provoking, i begged him to get his text. He was kind enough to upload it online. One of the points that i find most striking in his talk is when Bernhard explains that UBERMORGEN.COM are not, as most of us would lazily assume, activists but rather actionists in the Viennese Actionism tradition. Just go and read the manifesto, it speaks of their view on all sorts of media outlets, the real life (e.g. legal) impact and side-products of their online actions, and the group's lack of political agenda. But most of all, even if it is not written by self-declared activists, the text has nevertheless a deep relevance on the Art Goes Politics front.
If you're interested in going beyond the manifesto, i would recommend two recent books dedicated to the Austrian duo. The first one is UM.BOOK, UBERMORGEN.COM - MEDIA HACKING VS. CONCEPTUAL ART by HANS BERNHARD and LIZVLX (no worries, the text is all in english), a book compiling texts by critics, curators and artists and celebrating the 10th anniversary of UBERMORGEN.COM. The other book is UBERMORGEN.COM which provides an overview of work and features contributions by the art critics Inke Arns and Domenico Quaranta and the net.art duo Jodi.org.
Image on the homepage: Superenhanced Familiarization: S2E2, Fabio Paris Gallery.
The Netherlands Media Art Institute has re-located part of its brain power to Trouw Amsterdam for the symposium Positions in flux: On the changing role of the artist and institution in the networked society. The symposium is part of the Here we are - There we go programme which celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Netherlands Media Art Institute (NIMK). The institute opened its doors during the weekend and visitors could experience some of the artworks the NIMK has been supporting over the past three decades.
One of them, Adad Hannah & Niklas Roy's International Dance Party, made me laugh out loud for its way to bring interactivity to its more extreme and absurd. This 'party in a box' looks like an ordinary and closed 'flightcase' until you get nearer and start moving. The more you jump around and dance, the more the system will deliver: powerful dance music, laser and light effects and even (but i didn't dance wild enough to experience it) fog.
The symposium focused on three of the most relevant topics of current media art practice: the relevance and involvement of new media art on the political and social sphere; new geographies in media art; the possibilities and challenges that the open source movement is proposing to the production of artworks or exhibitions.
Given my total and shameful laziness i probably won't have/take the time to blog everything but the Netherlands Media Art Institute will upload the videos of the talks online in the future and i'll be sure to update this blog post when this happens.
Susanne Jaschko, who curated and organized the conference, made a couple of very timely and interesting remarks in her introduction to the symposium. And that's where i'll start:
There are some traces of an acceptance of new media art from the institutional art world. Last year, two exhibitions have highlighted this tendency: Deep Screen - Art in Digital Culture at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, a show organized with a double objective: getting a sample of contemporary media artists living in The Netherlands and buying some artworks to be added in the permanent collection. The second exhibition, Holy Fire at iMAL in Brussels, had the so far very unusual purpose to explore how new media art, bypassing all the stereotypes connected with its presumed immateriality and difficulties of maintenance, was able to enter the art market.
Media art has come a long way since the NIMK opened. Which does not mean that the self-conception of the whole field is not as cloudy as ever: some say that new media art has never become mature, others believe that it has reached its peak in the '90s, others would add that new media art will never integrate concepts of contemporary art, etc. Not only is the Netherlands Media Art Institute celebrating its 30th anniversary, but Transmediale has just turned 20 and Ars Electronica is going to be 30 this year, it's time to take a critical look at where we are now and which directions we want to take.
There was a time when cultural funding bodies set the course but things started to take another turn when, in 2003, the Walker Art Center decided to reduce its media art programme to a minimum and last year the whole media art community was shocked by the news that the Institute of Contemporary Art in London was closing its performance and new media program. Artistic Director Ekow Eshun justified the decision as follows:
As an institution dedicated to the contemporary moment it is important that we continually review the timeliness and relevance of our activities and at times make decisions on that basis.
New media based arts practice continues to have its place within the arts sector. However it's my consideration that, in the main, the art form lacks the depth and cultural urgency to justify the ICA's continued and significant investment in a Live & Media Arts department. Following discussion with the ICA Council and the Arts Council - and agreement from both bodies - I have decided to close the department.
At the other end of the spectrum, LABoral Art and Industrial Creation Centre, which opened in 2007, has proved over and again that it is possible to fill its gigantic white space with new media art exhibitions of great quality. And, once again, the exhibition Deep Screen at the Stedelijk has shown that some contemporary art institutions see the relevance of new media art.
So what does it mean today to be an artist in a networked society? Artists, curators and institutions today work on grounds that are increasingly loose, they struggle to define themselves. Technology -though it has lost much of its fascination- has the potential to enrich art, culture and society. It is one of the driving forces of today's society and culture, it has brought important discussions about public domain, commitment, open source, etc.
More about the symposium soon...
One year after the Brussels' exhibition Holy Fire. Art of the Digital Age, Yves Bernard from iMAL and Domenico Quaranta curate a show that, once again, puts a magnifying lens on new media art pieces that have found a place on the contemporary art market.
Just like Holy Fire paid an homage to Bruce Sterling's 1996 sci-fi novel, KIOSK alludes to Kiosk, a more recent novel about a Serbian wounded veteran who runs a kiosk where he sells the products of 'the fabricator', a rapid prototyping machine that creates cult objects for a niche of consumers. The title of the show plays therefore with the "collectible" nature of the artworks exhibited. Most of the pieces deserve a write-up but i selected only a few of them. Starting with works that playfully drive viewers back and forth through the digital and the analog worlds.
Jim Campbell is one of those rare artists whose works are at ease with both the media art crowd and those who've never heard of its existence. Case in point with Home Movie. This curtain of 300 LEDs transforms film footage into an abstract and blurry pixilated imagery that is turned away from the viewer, toward the wall. Yet, because of its ability to interpret abstract data and "fill in" the gaps in the information needed to complete an idea, the brain of visitors reconstructs a moving image.
Erwin Driessens and Maria Verstappen's sculptures provide another engaging take on the theme of the transition from digital to analog. A computer program uses artificial evolution to grow very detailed bronze sculptures that represent virtual mathematical models. The purpose of each growth is to generate by cell division from a single cell a detailed form that can be materialised. On the basis of selection and mutation a code is gradually developed that best fulfills this "fitness" criterion and thus yields a workable form. The virtual designs become tangible artefacts through 3D printing techniques.
Sakurako Shimizu must be the only jewelry maker who makes accessories that would delight both the girls and their geekiest boyfriends. Her creations laser-cuts digital icons into jewels. The 1981 ATARI Ring is a man's ring featuring a precise cast of the original Atari computer chip out of 18 karat gold; the Waveform Series is the laser-cut shapes of the waveform of the sound in sound editing software environment. The sounds are human sound such as yawn, atchoum, giggle, wow, and the sound of church bell.
Siebren Versteeg's software art taps into online data streams and news feeds and visualizes them in the style of corporate brands that pervade information. Dynamic Ribbon Device transforms the real time world news feed from press agency AP news into Coke's white typography that slowly passes through a red plasma screen covered by the same droplets you'd find on a can of soda fresh from the fridge.
Grid Distortion, by Marius Watz, is a series of laser cut plywoods showing orderly grids that have been gradually distorted until the lines cracked and bent. Under pressure, the two dimensions become three, the lattice looking like bubbles as they emerge towards the viewer.
Mark Napier has created algorithms that read The Old Testament as if it were a stream of zeroes and ones. The artwork, called Sacred Code, literally translates the stream of bits into motion: two calligraphic marks, one black and one white, chase one another in a seemingly endless dance on screen, leaving behind faint trails. In the process, a binary world is represented as a cloud of shifting shades of gray. The work is presented on a wood podium as if it were only waiting for a priest to come and read out loud the digital Bible to the congregation.
Somewhat different from the other pieces, Björn Schülke Supersonic #2 looks like a mysterious navel from outer-space and indeed emits the kind of low frequency sounds often associated with '50s science-fiction movies. The dark glossy object houses a theremin which responds to the proximity of a viewer, emitting a range of bass frequency notes.
Last weekend, I had the chance to check out the current exhibition called Ik R.I.P. at Mediamatic Amsterdam, which has recently relocated to a very central spot in a former bank on Vijzelstraat, escalators and all. Like the two previous 'Ik'-shows, this one revolves around the idea of self-representation on the internet, but this time it's all about death.
"...not a happy topic, but it is important nonetheless. Besides arranging your funeral, obtaining a life insurance and drafting your will it can be useful to think about what you leave behind in the online world. You may have a profile on Mediamatic.net and other networks, perhaps you write a blog or chat with people who live on the other side of the world. What happens to all those affairs if you suddenly pass away?"
Tackling these issues are a range of artists, most prominently in the space The Travelers by Elisabeth Heyert. A series of portraits "taken after death in Harlem New York. Photographed against a black background, using the techniques of making formal portraits of the living, these photographs explore what qualities make us seem human before and after death."
Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn aka Tale of Tales are showing a game called The Graveyard in the darkened basement, in which the player walks an old lady through a cemetery and eventually sits her down on a bench to access a Dutch song, which is actually a quite sad experience. They describe 'The Graveyard' not as a game as such, "but as an interactive painting". I'd say it clearly is a game, but one which hits a somber note that is fairly hard to achieve in this medium.
Upstairs, in a brightly lit small room there's a wonderful selection of incredible Ghanaian coffins, one of which has been custom-crafted by a gentleman called Eric Adotey Naah after a sketch of Mediamatic graphic designer Anuschka Linse's "ideal coffin" and then shipped to Amsterdam. It's quite an incredible and well-documented story and the coffin looks like a crazy bear.
Further projects include a coffin where you can test-die and have your picture taken using their ever-evolving RFID projects, coffin-making workshops and more.
On March 12th eBoy will lecture about their Mission Eternity and on the 13th they will host a Digital Stowaway Workshop which will "ensure that your digital remains will be safely stored for eternity."
Ik R.I.P. runs through April 12th.
This year, the Radiator exhibition, part of the festival which just ended in Nottingham, put the emphasis on the theme of the urban networked environment and its effect on our day to day lives and commissioned artists to develop projects that investigate and challenge the dominant forces at work in an increasingly hybrid and ever-changing urban environment.
The result where displayed until January 24 at Surface Gallery in Nottingham where an exhibition titled Exploits in the Wireless City displayed the work of the commissioned artists along with others whose work engage with similar issues.
I already mentioned The Office of Community Sousveillance so let's move to a couple more projects:
As it has been often written, British people are the most surveilled citizens on the planet. Folke Köbberling & Martin Kaltwasser carefully measured and mapped the spaces throughout Nottingham city that escape the gaze of CCTV cameras. The surveillance-free areas, much smaller than what the artists expected, were marked as 'blind spots'. Each of these spots became the floor plan of a small wooden structure available 24/7 to anyone as a room for "un-determined acts".
The structures were built from materials thrown away and found in the direct environment of the CCTV-free zones.
The work is an act of resistance to reclaim a space and change its meaning, encouraging people everywhere to resist the powers that create the surveillance state.
At the same time, the work mirrors the socio-economic aspect of the city - the city as a resource, the materiality of the city, the free material of a city.
Danish art collective N55 are working as the N55 INTELLIGENCE AGENCY [NIA], an entity dedicated to gathering information about concentrations of power with the ultimate purpose of uncovering the plans, strategies and tactics of such organizations (urban planning offices, building industries, banks, etc). Once they have spotted the organization, they try to infiltrate it and make suggestions that promote alternative ways of dealing with real estate, finance, etc.
During their Radiator operation, the NIA have focused their activities on the Meadows Gateway, an urban regeneration project on the south side of the city. NIA has been told the development will offer 70,000 sq m of swanky flooring space housing offices, a hotel, leisure facilities, shops, student accommodation, car parking and, most controversially, a twelve storey tower for luxury apartments. Included in this scheme is a budget to improve facilities and smarten up the Meadows estate. The result will be the kind of glass and steel development that looks impressive on paper but that lacks soul. It is very unlikely that the local community which has had no say at all in the development so far will feel at home and take responsibility for the area.
Taking their cue from the famous Christiania, a partially self-governing neighbourhood of about 850 residents located in the borough of Christianshavn in Copenhagen, NIA suggests another kind of revamping for the Meadows.
When the military moved out of the Christiania area in the early '70s, hippies and anarchists settled in and created a society with its won rules and laws. Christiania has established semi-legal status as an independent community, but has been a source of controversy since its creation. Free as they were of any kind of regulations, inhabitants had free reign to build the houses they wanted to live in. This freedom has given rise to some unusual and highly creative dwellings.
NIA proposes to build with a similar spirit. Inhabitants of Nottingham should be able to rent the area and build whichever house they would be happy in. They would get the help of architects and city planners to realize their dream.
Along with these DYOH (design your own house) schemes, N55 also suggest the use of what they call MICRO architectures - architecture deriving from pre-existing communities under threat: Micro Dwellings, the Snail Shell System, and of course the magnificent Walking House.
NIA, in their investigations, have brought together material from planners meetings and local residents from Nottingham and compared it with notes from other cities. To these files, they added bits and pieces of Christiana and also some examples of MICRO architectures. They mixed everything together and made a long, horizontal collage that forms NIA's own new development board.
For Radiator, Glenn Davidson from Artstation has researched the use and possible abuse of ON/OFF buttons. The ON/OFF button has become so ubiquitous in our lives we have ceased to think of or even notice them. Davidson explores how the use of the humble ON /OFF buttons and switches draws us to consume more energy. Today's electronic systems have for, the most part, divorced us from the ability to fully shut down a system pandering to the needs for instant operability. Manufacturers prefer to give us control of a 'pause' or standby state rather than a full shut down.
Most people aren't aware that standby mode actually uses enough energy to release about 800,000 tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year in the UK alone. In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy has estimated that by 2010, the portion of each utility customer's bill consumed by appliances in standby mode will reach 20%.
For the exhibition at Surface Gallery, Davidson has created a series of switch boards (in the sense of boards covered with switches), one of them had some 100 switches that you had to put on OFF position one after the other to switch off the board, reflecting a phenomenon we have lost touch with: the slow process of electricity before the generalization of
ON/OFF (button research) will also be part of FACT's exhibition 'Climate for Change' at FACT Liverpool in March 2009.