Project Nimbus is the outcome of several years of collaborative research by artist and inventor Dave Lynch together with physicist Mike Nix and maker Aaron Nielson. Using off-the-shelf technology, the team built an experimental device that projects bright moving images onto clouds. Onto pretty much anything cloudy actually: clouds of course but also vapour from cooling towers or urban vents. A difference with a work like HeHe's Nuage Vert and other projecting cloud projection pieces is that, with Project Nimbus, the technology is invisible to the audience. They don't see the beam as it is flying in a plane a mile high above the ground. The illusion is total and probably also a bit unsettling.
Project Nimbus is based on the zoopraxiscope developed by Eadweard Muybridge in 1879 and regarded as the first movie projector. The zoopraxiscope projected sequences of images from rotating glass discs and was devised in order to prove the validity of Muybridge's animal in motion research. Lynch team customized the device by using laser as a light source but they kept the image of a galloping horse, as a tribute to the photographic pioneer.
Interestingly, the project was also inspired by a US military paper about 'non-lethal weapons' (PDF) in which the author suggested projecting holograms to scare a target. The scenarios he gives to demonstrate the soundness of the idea include: projecting the 'ghost' hologram of the dead rival of a drug lord with a weak heart; screening images of troupes to confuse the enemy and make them think that you came in large numbers (which sounds very Ghost Army of WWII); or projecting the image of an ancient god over an enemy capitol whose public communications have been seized (what a condescending plan!)
I first heard of the project a few months ago (big thanks to John O'Shea!), couldn't find enough details about the work for my liking and thus contacted Dave Lynch to ask him my many questions. He kindly involved physicist Mike Nix in the conversation:
Hi Dave! Your motivations for the project state that you don't intend to deceive and you don't even want to exploit the project commercially. Project Nimbus is an 'open source cloud projector to share with artists and activists as a means for creative expression.' Did you receive some offers to use the work in commercial contexts?
You could see it a mile away, that glint in eye of the enlightened business mind, if I'm honest, I'm amazed we got there first. It would have been crushing for the pioneering act to be attached to the transient agendas of advertising, I partially fund my art practice though working in the commercial playground on large scale installations for international brands, commonly losing creative autonomy and artistic quality due to time and budgetary constraints, all underpinned by the necessity to focus purely on spectacle. The inspiration, process and model of collaboration that are fundamental to this project are rooted in artistic enquiry.
In 2007, I realised the potential of the projected image, the original idea was to project a symbol of hope, an Angel, taking stimulus from childhood archetypes in mass media and religion to create an ubiquitous icon in direct response to the US military's strategy of fear. By projecting the image from the air, the projection beam had no earthly location, appearing to make the technology invisible and increase the power of both illusion and audience impact. The more I explored this concept, the notion of mis-interpretation i.e. an Angel of death, ignited the potential power of the image without media anchorage. How would this potential manifest if the idea for image was left open to originate from the people engaged in the journey and process?
This lead me to focus on the technological development, the idea of creating a non-lethal weapon of mass communication became the sharing of the device's blueprints and subsequent methodology through open source structures. This was underpinned by the decision to keep the spectacle of the final image open for debate with collaborators and audiences to explore elements such as; our human relationship to the image, ownership of the sky and clouds, image saturation though advertising and potential use for creative expression as a mass media communication device.
Whilst we had multiple requests to project logos and all manner of social media concoctions throughout the 3 years, including a prime time mainstream Saturday night TV show aiming to project the images of the audience onto clouds! With all of these, we were hot to point out; the experimental nature of their ideas, the dangers associated with such activities and how this could be 'disastrous' for a brands reputation if (alluding more to when) it went wrong.
Although largely self-funded, with the exception of a little seed money from arts festivals, the project often fell on tight times and I'd be lying if I said the commercial side didn't cross my mind in these dark times as it felt that multiple agencies were about to realise our dream. Yet key to the process of Nimbus was to honour the time, shared ideas and actions of all the collaborators who had given time in good faith, this currency transcended the commercial appeal. We were all on this adventure, it was intoxicating, chasing what many thought impossible, we were breaking new ground and certainly not going to fall to commercial temptation just to achieve a world first.
This kept the project rooted in collaboration, between experts in their respective fields, artists, scientists, makers, pilots, film makers, cinematic historians and more working together in search of something beyond the spectacle, the real success is in the model of the genuine collaborative act. The influx of money from commercial sources would have certainly muddied and potentially destroyed the collaboration, there was no measure on peoples time, as soon as what we did have a price, it would have removed us from the experiential process. In keeping the first projections on clouds from aircraft true to artistic endeavour is a testament to our process, we hope that our actions will inspire others; that we can all make big things happen thorough collaboration, alternative currencies and belief.
The team behind PN is made of an artist (Dave Lynch), physicist and laser expert (Mike Nix) and a maker (Aaron Nielsen.) What was the working process like? Did each of you have a specific role or task to perform, for example?
Dave Lynch: It was the foresight of Aaron to start prototyping from scratch upon presenting the Mk1 Laser Zoopraxiscope and asking for help to build a cinematic shutter. This radically altered the potential for the design process whilst opening up ways for anyone to recreate our work through sharing. Upon seeking advice on the nature and dangers of lasers with Mike and Prof. Ben Whitaker at their chemical physics lab in Leeds University, we realised we shared a common ancestor through the work of photography and projection pioneer Eadweard Muybridge. For me, Muybridge's projection work of animal locomotion (a series of photographs in quick succession depicting the movement of an animal) has been a cornerstone of research for my work projecting animations from moving vehicles.
Mike Nix: It turns out that the field of ultrafast laser spectroscopy, which aims to 'freeze-frame' molecular motion, also draws analogy from Muybridge. Nobel prize winner Ahmed Zewail even referred to the same horse projection we used in his prize acceptance speech.
Dave Lynch: After a brief discussion about the pursuit to rediscover how Muybridge's projector mechanism worked, we had the laser cut prototype zoopraxiscope Mk2 on the lab's laser table, I was pushed to one side as Mike and Ben proceeded to 'experiment' or destroy the first prototype whilst suggesting ways the original could have worked. At this point we had a cyclic prototype process, through scientific experimentation and understanding of the zoopraxiscope's mechanism through the physics of light, we could move the design process forward. With this knowledge, we could work with Aaron to construct the next prototype, which then returned back to the physicists for further experimentation. This was the catalyst for collaboration, it wasn't long before we were all in one space.
Our process allowed each discipline to grow through genuine collaboration, to some degree, we all became artists, scientists and makers. In addition to our intuitive, creative aptitudes from the natures of each disciplines became our shared process. The ideologies associated with making enabled us to rapidly prototype ideas through; testing, construction and re-appropriation of other technology or methods. Science gave the knowledge, although rudimentary to science, it enabled the pioneering optics of the laser zoopraxiscope through physics by calculation. The art gave us a vision, focusing on the production of wider project and an umbrella to discuss the image's social engagement potential in the spheres of both art, science and make, opening the doors to commonalities of how information is controlled, disseminated and scapegoated.
Our languages merged, whenever we became locked throughout the process of design or strategy, the natural approaches of enquiry from each discipline provided either direct knowledge or more often, inspiration from a radically different and sometimes absurd view point. This ability to inspire each other through our merged knowledge and languages gave rise to the projects progression across the board. There were no questions too ridiculous and no judgement when asking as could potentially be expected in our own professions or social circles.
You developed Project Nimbus over a period of 3 years (if i understood correctly). What was/were the biggest challenge(s) you encountered while working on the project?
Nimbus has overcome many challenges in both practical and technical terms, this is largely due to coincidental good fortune of the people and festivals we met on our journey. The project sat on the shelf since the original conception in 2007 until a seed residency from Abandon Normal Devices and the Octopus Collective back in 2012, Initially I was very lucky finding Mike, Ben and Aaron as collaborators in re-designing the zoopraxiscope. Thinking it would be straight forward, its arguably the first ever photographic projection device from 1887, so it couldn't be that hard to figure out with two physicists, cinematic and engineering experts; could it?
We quickly had the mechanics of two rotating discs; one, the shutter disc compromising of 14 vertical slits, the second, an image disc holding a series of 14 frames of 16mm film with images of a sequential loop of Muybridge's horse in motion. The laser light passes though the shutter disc, creating a flash on the image disc, thus creating a succession of flashing images that we see as animated motion, simple! Yet one key bit of information eluded us all, the rotation ratio between the two discs. It wasn't till around 6 months later, we were introduced to Stephen Herbert, a cinematic historian who had worked on several zoopraxiscope replicas, he had the formula for the ratio.
1 : -1 - They rotate at the same speed in opposite directions. A week later, we had the zoopraxiscope Mk3 and soon witnessed the running horse in the lab for the first time, it felt like we were stepping in Muybridge's footprints, It must have been quite something when he saw his horse in motion projected for the first time, for us it was truly magical until we realised we had to face our biggest challenge yet.
With the current laser, a 2W 405nm blue laser from Ebay, you could just about see the horse in the pitch black, instantly Mike wanted to try a 'proper laser'. The Millennium is 5W of 532nm green laser used in the lab for experiments, this produced a clear bright image of the running horse, caught easily on camera in the dark, yet not bright enough for the clouds and besides having a cooling system the size of a fridge, it costs £20k. Prof. Ben Whitaker pointed out that the blue 405nm laser is at the lowest part of the human spectrum of vision. The lab laser of 532nm green is at the top for human vision so it was unlikely that it was ever going to work with this setup. We called it a day and I seriously pondered if this was the end of this part in the adventure. A few days later, I received a phone call from Mike stating that he had an idea to make it work...
His idea was brilliant; As the light passes through the slits in the first wheel, this is where we lose most of the light, so by replacing the slit wheel with wheel of 14 hemispherical lenses we could achieve a 90% brightness increase. But to test this theory, we would need to spend a £1k on laser grade specially cut lenses! This coincided with a residency at the Full of Noises festival in Cumbria, offering us £1k to research the project further, we took it as a sign and went for it, without this fortuitous coincidence and deadline to present our findings that summer, its hard to say if we would have continued down this path. After the residency, the project was quickly leaving the realms of the ideal low cost approach, we had come so far at this point that I decided to take a loan to buy a 2w 532nm green laser to give us the best chance possible in the skies. We had the best projector our money could buy, it was literally make or break from here on in.
We were fortunate with the pilots, they are an inspiration to work with, calm, calculated and incredibly skilled at what they do, getting hold of a plane on the other hand isn't always that easy. To begin with we had a great airfield and access to planes but there were no landing lights, so we couldn't fly at night. Landing at major airports was way out of our budget and nothing happened for a year. Even though we found airports with landing lights which were in budget, we then had the issue of finding a pilot / plane owner who was happy for us to carry out our activity at that airfield. Luckily the pilot from our early attempts came across a plane in an airfield near Nottingham.
The other major challenge was getting everything in the right place at the right time, predicting the weather is one thing, predicting cloud cover over a specific area at a specific height is another, essentially its mark one eye ball. The cloud conditions we needed happened every 6 weeks or so, in addition, we had to align the plane, pilot, second passenger to operate the zoopraxiscope. Multiple times, we would arrive and the clouds would dissipate before our eyes as darkness fell.
When you finally get airborne, you have no idea of a clouds size or relative distance, many a time we would head towards a bank of clouds only for it to disappear due to; weather conditions, a change in altitude, it becoming too dark so you loose sight in the dark soup or the clouds were so vast in the first place, that you are no nearer after 20 minutes of flying.
When we finally found them, the pilots flight agility required for us to capture the images was second to none, circling round whilst weaving in and out. Filming a mile above the ground, with a horizon at 45 degrees, hanging out of an open window going 100mph with the parallax motion of multiple depths of cloud layers has to go up there as one of the challenges. It certainly gives adrenaline a run for its money.
And could you briefly explain how it works? Because i suspect that it is more complicated than just bringing a projector on a plane.
I'm particularly curious about how you operate the projector once you are on the plane? Does it screen the animation through the plane window? Would any plane do? And do you need special authorizations to project from a plane?
We have the zoopraxiscope mounted on a tripod strapped down inside the plane, power for the laser and drill which powers the projectors mechanism comes from a marine battery and inverter tied down in the back. As we approach the cloud, the cue for turning on the laser is when the person in the front opens the window, after a 7 second safety delay the whole projector comes into life, its watched over by the person in the back in case of any issues. Our methodology has been honed over several years, through the design and multiple installations in the aircraft both on the ground and in the air, we have the install down to about 20 minutes, its a tight squeeze. The zoopraxiscope points our of an open the window, this removes the potentially dangerous back scatter from the laser being reflected back into the plane and due to the divergence of the beam, the projector is safe to look back at after 30m away. If were less than 30m away from another aircraft, we have other problems to worry about! Essentially, the light on the front of the plane is brighter than the laser projector.
What's next for Project Nimbus? Are you planning to develop the work further? Exhibit it?
Following a small grant from the Arts Council England, we have been working with Mike Stubbs at FACT Liverpool on potential next steps. As part of the ACE app, we plan to write up the process and collaborative model with the aim to publish in a journal & finalise/ release the zoopraxiscope designs through open means. Following the success of the article and hilarious conspiracy theories, we're planning a lecture tour and small bookwork from the 3 years of extensive documentation of the project and have some exhibitions planned in Yorkshire this autumn as part of the British Art Show.
As for getting back into the clouds, we aim to return to the skies with the zoopraxiscope later in the year for a piece with the discovery channel. Other plans include a large scale digital installation, which brings yet more R&D requiring serious flight time and here in lies a dilemma. Whilst we are looking at funding streams to push the boundaries in this kind of practice, we will likely require partnerships with commercial entities for in production. Finding a respectable, forward thinking partner or brand who is not solely about the exploitation of the idea now becomes part of the challenge. We can utilise this powerful form of mass communication for meaningful issues facing environment, society and culture, but in doing so we risk opening the door to what the project has fought against since its inception.
Simon Farid is a visual artist interested in the relationship between administrative identity and the body it purports to codify and represent. In practice, this means that the artist is 'squatting' identities that have been constructed by other people for surveillance, marketing or institutional purposes and then discarded.
Farid notoriously 'inhabited' the identity of an undercover police officer and the one of a politician who moonlighted as a web marketing guru.
The first identity was the one discarded by Mark Kennedy, an undercover Metropolitan Police officer who spent almost 8 years pretending to be an environmental activist called Mark Stone. To settle into the life of what the UK calls a "domestic extremist," Stone traveled under a fake passport and used a driving licence and bank cards bearing his borrowed name. But once Kennedy's cover was blown however, Stone was nothing but an empty shell. That's when Farid steps in. The artist reactivated Stone's email address, started collecting library and store cards, opened a bank account and amassed a number of other identity articles under the name of Mark Stone. By doing so, Farid effectively 'occupied' the identity that the police officer had abandoned.
His second action involved How To Corp, a "marketing" company fronted by a multi-millionaire called Michael Green. Green's scheme guaranteed his customers that they would earn '$20,000 in 20 days,' provided that they first shelled out hundreds of dollars to buy one of his 'Stinking Rich' (that was the name!) guides. It turned out that Rt. Hon Grant Shapps MP, a British Conservative Party politician, was actually hiding behind the get-rich-quick businessman.
In a performance bearing the irresistible title of Don't Hate The Rich - Be One Of Them!, Farid reconstructed HowToCorp's old website which had hastily been wiped out when Green's activities came to light, built a social media presence and organised performances in which he presented himself as marketing guru 'Michael Green'.
And because a lot of his artistic work evokes espionage practices, Farid also leads workshops in which participants are invited to impersonate a plain clothes police officer, adopt alternative identities or analyse MI5 job adverts to conjecture on their surveillance practices.
In investigating identity-generation processes, the artist demonstrates that identities are not ours. Identities can be easily hacked, stolen, and sold for peanuts. Much of Farid's work is thus thought-provoking and slightly disturbing. It is also often quite hilarious. There was no way i would have missed the opportunity to interview him:
Hi Simon! With your Identity Squatting practice, you look for pre-constructed unoccupied identities that you then infiltrate and reanimate. Could you take us through the steps that needs to be undertaken for a successful infiltration?
For my identity squatting work I set myself the task of occupying the found constructed identity to the extent it had previously existed. This varies depending on the type of identity I'm looking at. A discarded undercover police identity will have had an array of identity articles, while the alter ego of a Conservative MP may only have had an image, website and testimonies to its existence. A nice current example I'm looking at could be Sarah and Zac, fictions created and controlled by an, as yet, anonymous DWP worker. A squatting of Sarah may only need use of an image and DWP endorsement. Sarah and Zac turning up to claim sickness benefit after all might be fun...
After identifying the parameters of the target 'identity', much of this process is just about gathering information. This can be pretty lo-fi, making use of agencies and resources that have their roots in times past; Electoral Registers at public libraries, the Land Registry, General Register Office etc. There is then a degree of blagging required to gain a foothold in the identity.
After this initial jump, piecing together a discarded identity becomes easier as one progresses. The more information and testimonies one collects, the easier it is to leverage this knowledge to acquire more. Through these processes I have come to see institutional identity increasingly as knowledge; have enough knowledge about someone and systems will begin to understand you as that someone.
With the more detailed squattings, a degree of luck is required. This is of course made much easier by focusing on identities that have spent some time in the public eye.
What are the biggest challenges you usually encounter when 'resetting' an identity?
The biggest challenge is an ethical one. With politically motivated work like this, the unoccupied constructed identities tend to have previously been used for nefarious purposes (to put it lightly). When putting such identities back together, I am very conscious of their re-appearance being directed at the authority that initially constructed them, rather than their victims. This means careful consideration at every step of the process to re-open these entities only in an institutional sense, rather than a social one. In our increasingly interconnected world, this can be difficult.
Can you really get a bank card without showing a passport or ID card in the UK?
What does it feel like to squat another identity? To walk around town under another name?
For me this is far more interesting than the technical and procedural aspects of acquiring use of a shell identity - of course there are many fraudsters doing this first part!
Walking around a city while registering under another identity is a surprisingly affecting experience. It begins with an initial feeling of illicitness, the excitement of doing something one is not supposed to. But past this, there is a deeper feeling of liberation. Doing this has really highlighted for me the number of identity checks one is subject to all the time and how affecting these can be; a constant series of re-confirmations, like Simon Farid is always in question. To trick these systems (maybe not all of them, but some, sometimes) really does feel like a weight off one's shoulders.
The thing I can best liken it to is my experience of the London riots in summer 2011. As Hackney burned, I walked the streets alone to stay at a friend's flat in Dalston. Walking through the wild streets, streets that felt abandoned by authority, was scary yes, but also kind of euphoric. Shaking off Simon Farid feels a bit like this, a riot of one.
Does it affect your behavior in any way?
This is quite funny - outwardly I think one would struggle to notice any difference in my behavior at all. I was still sitting in coffee shops, buying things, looking. These identity shells could be tools to radically alter one's actions, but for my purposes here, for these identities to re-emerge in different institutional systems, sipping frappe lattes felt like a revolution. I am very interested in these invisible subversions that outwardly look like nothing, but are in some respects quite challenging. In the end, does this mean something?
Or your own sense of identity (as Simon Farid)?
One thing I have noticed when looking back at these experiences was a lack of engagement with the 'who' of my new shell identity. In practice, these new institutional identities acted as an anonymising tool, rather than any feeling that I had actually lost Simon Farid and emerged as this new person - hence the feeling of illicitness, rather than comfort.
Maybe this would be different in a more prolonged experience? The longest I operated as another was a few days. There may also be an element of not identifying with the shell identities because these identities are not sympathetic characters - for example, I have no desire to be Michael Green!
These are open questions my work is still dealing with.
Operating as 'other people' that actually never really existed. Is there any law against that? What happens if you get caught?
Yes the law is always a worry, and while I don't feel like I ever cross it, there are risks associated with pushing up against the boundaries, especially where precedent is not so clear.
Looking at powerful institutions and figures can sometimes offer a level of insurance against pushback though. Security services have a rule to 'never confirm or deny' undercover identities - this can work in one's favour when working with these identities. Similarly, while one may risk libel laws through operating as someone else, it would usually be in the claimant's favour to leave me alone - that way my work only appears in high-end art blogs rather than the Guardian. Working with these tensions and obstructive rules can be a fruitful tactic.
Nonetheless, I have to be very careful of my security, and speaking openly about this work here still feels a little uncomfortable.
Why did you start squatting identities? Did you dream of being Cindy Crawford when you were young (i was!), for example?
Trying to be other people is a big part of childhood play of course - I remember often being Duncan Ferguson while playing in the park, though 'cops and robbers' may be more instructive here!
More concretely, this work emerged out of an interest in role-play and performativity in everyday life. I am very interested in the hundreds of small performances we present each day in different institutional and social situations. Investigating figures that had taken these performances to an extreme, codified level seemed like a logical next step.
Powerful people and institutions are very adept at being different people at different times. An aspect of this work is to explore whether such tactics can be useful from below too.
The workshop centred on looking at an MI5 job advert for a 'Mobile Surveillance Officer'. These adverts are publicly viewable here: https://recruitmentservices.applicationtrack.com/vx/lang-en-GB/mobile-0/appcentre-a18/candidate/jobboard/vacancy/1.
The adverts themselves are really interesting documents. Of course, they can't be too revealing - this is MI5! And yet, they still need to offer some kind of indication of the job on offer. The result is a strangely opaque document, but one that may offer some small insight into a very secretive organisation.
In the workshop the participants and I, after some discussions about the types of surveillance we partake in, analysed an MI5 job advert to see if we could identify any aspects of the job that might be worth trying out. I had purposely selected the Mobile Surveillance Officer advert for the workshop as this looks like a very interesting, following-based job, unlike most of the jobs that, as you can see, are computer-based.
Through this process we were able to develop a kind of game based on following apparent members of the public, live-reporting our positions using compass points and following coded directions. The outcome was something that approached a mindfulness exercise, looking closely at one's body in relation to space and time, while heightening awareness of the range of surveillances one's body is subjected to in urban spaces.
Do you realise that MI5 should probably hire you?
I assume you assume I don't already work for MI5? I am within the right height restrictions (males need to be shorter than 6'1) and suitably untattooed.
All their adverts warn of a pretty in depth background check though. I hope I wouldn't pass it!
With this question you do hit upon an important question about artist-infiltrators. It is something we discuss in all my workshops; I would be surprised if they have never been attended by a security worker keeping an eye on things. We have seen evidence of CIA involvement in Abstract Expressionism. I expect the arts are a heavily monitored, if not infiltrated, area. Is there anyone you suspect?
No one so far but from now on i'll be more vigilant.
Working in these areas has meant I have had to be very conscious of online security at times. Post-Snowden, I think it has become apparent that communicating online is never reliably safe, secure and secret. As such, I would like to communicate on the internet as little as possible - but obviously if I want funding and interviews like this one, I have to be relatively open and visible online (this is one of the ways they get you, this false choice). So for me it has become more a matter of selection; if I ever want to communicate securely I don't do it online. Otherwise, hi GCHQ!
I laughed when i read the title of one of your workshops: How To Impersonate A Plain Clothes Police Officer. Is that really so hard to do?
Well this workshop did start as a kind of one-line joke, the committing of a crime (impersonating a police officer) that was so invisible as to be non-action; look around you, maybe everyone is impersonating PCPOs?
But the more I thought about plain-clothes surveillance, the more I began to see nuance. Covert surveillance workers have many potential identifying signs; operating in twos, being more observant than your average commuter, not hurrying to a destination etc.
So this workshop developed more into a 'How To Spot Covert Surveillance Workers' workshop. And, as with a lot of my work, I find the best way to learn something is to try it out for oneself.
What's next? Any upcoming work, exhibition, workshop or research you'd like to share with us?
Next up for me is a workshop for Live Art Development Agency's DIY12 called Nothing To See Here. In this workshop I'll be pulling together a lot of these undercover experiments to look more directly at whether covert tactics can form the basis of a meaningful performance practice.
Otherwise, on the back of the MI5 Mobile Surveillance Officer workshop I've started a project trying to map out the departmental structure of MI5 using the job adverts. In many of the adverts they mention other job titles that the advertised job works with/under/over. By looking at a large number of these adverts, I hope to be able to eventually map out the whole structure of MI5 and get a better sense of the organisation's scale. I've written about the beginnings of this process here - http://simonfaridblog.tumblr.com.
Thee artist will also participate to the Warrington Contemporary Arts Festival with Nothing To See Here, a workshop that will explore what arts performers can learn from covert and surveillance workers.
I only went once to the festival TodaysArt in The Netherlands. It was a long time ago, i was in The Hague for a totally unrelated conference and decided to spend the evening walking around the city. Everywhere i looked there were projections on buildings, performances in shop windows and sound pieces. The one installation that blew me away turned a long shopping street into an airport landing strip. The author of the work, Mike Rijnierse, was using controllable lights and loud speakers to recreate the experience of airplanes landing in the middle of the shopping area.
Rijnierse has since become a regular of TodaysArt. He even once used the whole train station -building, travelers, trams and trains- for a sound performance. For this year's edition of the festival, the artist has decided to submit a 100 kg church bell to regular sessions of bungee jumping. The sounding bell will drop from a bungee jump tower at the Scheveningse Pier near The Hague and its sixty meter fall will cause a Doppler effect, a change in frequency and wavelength for an observer moving relative to its source. The classical example of the phenomenon is the siren of the ambulance or police car. You hear the high pitch of the siren of the vehicle as it is approaching but its pitch seems to suddenly drops as it passes you. Similarly, the sound experience of the falling bell will vary as the object approaches, passes, and recedes from the audience.
I won't be able to make it to the festival this year (alas!), but i was so curious to know more about KLOK and Mike Rijnierse's practice that i contacted him for a quick online interview:
Hi Mike! During the TodaysArt festival, you will be throwing a 100 kg church bell from the bungee jump. That sounds tricky. Does a 100 kg bell behave exactly like a 100 kg human body when thrown from above?
A 100 kg of bronze behaves very different than a living body. The good thing is that the bell is made to do only one thing and that is to sound, so I don't need to explain the bell what to do.
Are there special precautions you need to observe in order to ensure that the performance goes as planned?
Apart from some practical issues, for example how to transport the bell safely or how to prepare the bell for the fall, I needed quite some luck too. I had to communicate with a lot of people in order to realize this project, so that all parties I depended on would support the project. And so far I've been very lucky.
The project started by reading in a local newspaper that the Bungy Scheveningen wanted to return to the pier after having been closed down. Knowing that TodaysArt was planning to use the pier as their venue for the 2015 edition, the news about the Bungy Scheveningen immediately triggered my focus. I guess the plan of dropping a church bell from the bungee tower was already constructed in my subconscious and came to the surface in a split second, like a puzzle that falls together. When I started proposing the concept to the organisation of TodaysArt, they first told me to be patient before starting the production.
After a week I couldn't wait anymore and I started calling the Royal Eijsbouts Bell Foundry, the world's largest manufacturer of cast bronze bells, carillons, swinging bells and clock towers. While contacting them for asking whether they wanted to contribute to the project, and explaining it to Joep van Brussel (project manager of the Royal Eijsbouts), he asked if he had understood it correctly: "So, it is like cycling towards a church with the speed of 60 km per hour?". The answer lies in the question. Joep immediately understood what was the concept of KLOK.After one meeting with Mirte Koeleman (manager of Bungy Scheveningen), I had a project. I was just damn lucky that everyone was 100% supportive.
As for the performance itself, I had to study the ways the bell would fall from the tower and make the best of it in order to create the sound experience, namely the doppler effect. Together with the crew of Bungy Scheveningen we've tested different qualities of elastics and different ways of releasing the bell in the air. Everything worked surprisingly smoothly and that made me a lot more confident.
Is the bell modified in any way to create a particular sound? Or will you be working with a 'normal' cast bronze bell?
Together with Joep van Brussel (from the bell foundry Royal Eijsbouts) I considered modifying the construction of the clapper. But after the tests we've decided to leave the bell as it is.
I read you want to create a doppler effect. Could you tell us more about the sound experience? Is there an optimal position where the audience will have to stand in order to fully enjoy the performance, for example?
The doppler effect is not something I want to create but to experience. It is a physical phenomenon that occurs between a sound object and the observer, while either one of them is in motion. The location of 'Bungy Scheveningen' is quite unique. They're located in the tower of the pier. The length of the fall is 60 meters above the surface of the North Sea. The water level varies a lot because of the tides. That will probably make a difference in experiencing KLOK from the beach. We've already tested the installation and I experienced it from the tower. From this position you will be the closest to the bell. Now I'm curious to observe the installation from different places!
I'm also curious about the duration of KLOK. Is this going to be just a one off? that will last just a few seconds?
We are planning to drop the bell every hour, so that the public has the opportunity to hear the installation from different angles. So every hour you'll have a unique 20 second composition.
I'm very impressed by the way you 'use' a city as a vast playground and field for sound experiments. That is the case with other works such as Station to Station, THX_The Hague INT'L (where you had to close down the street lights as I heard in the video of your talk at Sonica!), etc. Are there other ambitious sound projects you would dream of making in urban spaces but never got the necessary authorisation/money/time to do so far?
It is fascinating what happens in the process of executing these projects. The first time I played with a multi loudspeaker setting in the central street of The Hague in 2005, I was playing with this setup from 12:00 AM till 12:00 PM for two days in a row. After the performance I wrapped my equipment and went to a bar at the main square for some drinks. What I noticed then was that my audition had adapted to long distance reflections of the city, I could hear the sounds hitting the different surfaces of the buildings and at the same time I was not able to engage in short range, ordinary conversations. It was as if my brain had learned from those sonic experiences after a few days of work and I couldn't follow what people were saying very close to me any more.
A project I am working at the moment derived from this echolocation experience. It is a large relief that offers a range of sound reflections produced by a single source. So I want to give my echolocation experience back to the audience. Maybe RELIEF will result in another project. I have some other plans and ideas for playing with sound reflection. So... Yes!
Still in that same video of your talk at Sonica, you explain that recording the sound of an airplane was too tricky so you ended up recording the sound of your hoover. That reminded me the sound effects used in cinema. Are there other particular 'tricks' and 'cheats' you've used to convey a particular sound or experience in any of your other projects?
Sure, in fact it is theater. The THX_The Hague INT' L derives from the installation PAN which I made for the Kröller Müller Museum, in August 2005 in collaboration with Detlef Tividor Villerius. In the sculpture garden of the museum we amplified a corridor with loudspeakers identical to the landing strip. I used all kinds of recordings such as the sound of frying potatoes. By processing those sounds I turned them into a 'pandemoniac' soundscape along the 16 channel speaker corridor through the forest. During TodaysArt 2005 I performed this piece in a slightly different setting, in the same street where THX_The Hague INT'L took place in 2007.
What were the biggest challenges you encountered with Station to Station? Because it looks so sophisticated logistically. How did you manage to choreograph something so complex?
Again I was lucky to count on so many people and other artists willing to make that happen. I came with the plan of using the train tracks as soundtracks to be recorded in real time and generate a live composition. The Hague central station is an end station. From top view it has many similarities with a sound mixer. Somehow this analogy convinced all parties. We started researching the trains themselves and found out that we could use the overpressure of the compressors. We managed to use the typhoons of the trains. And for each track we had a person catching sounds with a wireless microphone. This instrumentation in combination with the regular timetable of the trains became our score.
What is next for you? Any upcoming performance, work or event you could share with us?
During TodaysArt 2015 on september 25 and 26 I will present two works: KLOK and Countdown. At the moment I am also performing in the music theater play Peloton with Rosa Ensemble. And my new light installation CUBE will be exhibited in some places in the Netherlands soon. With Rosa Ensemble we are preparing a new piece called AKASHA which will premiere in spring 2016.
I've been dreaming of interviewing The Center for Tactical Magic ever since i read about the existence of this activist art collective in one of my favourite art catalogues ever: The Interventionists. Users' Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life.
Lucky me, last week, i finally got to talk over Skype with Aaron Gach, the founder of the Center for Tactical Magic and a professor at the California College of the Arts. Gach is an artist with the most unusual background. As part of his artistic training, he decided to study with 3 people who have their own understanding of power: a magician, a ninja, and a private investigator and there is a bit of the strategies deployed by each of these figures in the work of the CTM. The work of the group is further enriched by the expertise brought about by the individuals and communities CTM collaborates with: hypnotists, biologists, engineers, nurses, military intelligence officers, radical ecologists, former bank robbers, security experts, etc.
The Center for Tactical Magic uses any craft and scheme available, from the most magical to the most pragmatic, to address issues of power relations and self-empowerment. At the CTM we are committed to achieving the Great Work of Tactical Magic through community-based projects, daily interdiction, and the activation of latent energies toward positive social transformation.
CTM's work combines appealing aesthetics, humour and language with actions that invite people to think, question and reclaim their civil rights. Their most famous project is the Tactical Ice Cream Unit, a truck distributing free ice cream along with propaganda developed by local progressive groups. Another of their initiative saw them launch a bank heist contest. And a year before that, they responded to New York's stop-and-frisk policy by screening Linking & Unlinking on a digital billboard in Manhattan. The billboard showed amateur footage demonstrating how to pick a pair of handcuffs, magicians performing a classic magic trick called "linking rings", while a text from the American Civil Liberties Union was scrolling down and explaining passersby what their rights were if they were stopped by the police. In 2013, they set up big Witches' Cradles that evoke the Inquisition and enveloped people into an altered state (of consciousness, or an altered political state). Most recently, Gach directed and performed a radical magic show which drew parallels between magic acts and contemporary issues such as economic manipulation, political deception, vanishing resources, and social transformation.
Hi Aaron! The Tactical Ice Cream Unit is probably one of my favorite works ever. I first heard about it almost 10 years ago. The vehicle combines 'a number of successful activist strategies (Food-Not-Bombs, Copwatch, Indymedia, infoshops, etc) into one mega-mobile", and comes with high-tech surveillance devices. Are you still using it?
Yes, still using it! Not as much as when it was launched but it does still make it out occasionally. So it's definitely not an everyday operation, it's kind of a labour of love.
When do you use it? When there's something happening and you feel it would be right to intervene? Or more when you're invited by a museum or festival for example?
All of the above. Sometimes it's an invitation to do something with it. Sometimes there's an event happening or an issue where it seems like it would make sense to bring it out.
Recently, and for the first time, there was a protest event where i actually felt like it was inappropriate to bring it out. We've been having a lot of racial tensions in the U.S. and there were a number of protests in Oakland around police brutality. We've done police accountability protests with the Tactical Ice Cream Unit in the past. The TICU always brings with it a sort of levity or lightheartedness or a little bit of the carnival along with the serious critique. But because of how grave and serious these racial issues are, there was a sense that bringing the ice cream unit out to those protests could potentially give the wrong impression.
Have you found that you had to update or modify in any way your tools and strategies over the 10 years you've had the van?
Of course a lot has changed since we've launched it. At the end of 2004, there were not many mobile food trucks, it was not really a phenomenon at the time. The TICU turned heads a lot more than it does now in terms of its general appearance. But at the same time it also functions now as some kind of camouflage that didn't exist then. So in terms of masking ourselves, in some ways it got easier since it makes less of a visual impact.
As for the technology, when we first launched it we were using a mobile wifi transmitter and making it a mobile wifi hotspot. At the time, it wasn't that common at all. It was also expensive to do and it worked most of the time but the speeds for access were really slow. Most people now have access to the internet on their smartphone. The surveillance on the vehicle is still functional and the amount that we can record has increased. In the beginning, our whole hard drive system was something like 200 gigabytes and that has certainly grown. Even then, the way that we had the system up made it possible to record quite a lot. We had to do a tremendous amount of research to set up the power system. The vehicle was running on a gasoline combustion engine. We also had a generator, a battery bank that was being charged by solar panels and at the same time we were running something called phantom power which is a way of silently powering the electronics. This was essential because we wanted to make sure that the surveillance could be running even when the vehicle was turned off. This was more done as a theoretical design process, we wanted to see whether we could accomplish that goal. And there had been rumours floating around the internet of primarily military technologies that were able to do this and sure enough we were able to work with an engineer and designer whose main clients were the military and oil companies. Oil companies would run phantom power at remote sites where they didn't have power lines but they wanted to monitor oil fields. So we designed a system able to do that too for the vehicle. What is interesting is that, when we were in Indiana, the police illegally searched the TIU without our knowledge and they were caught on camera doing that. They didn't know it because the vehicle was turned off and there was no indication that there was power running.
Did you do something about it?
At the time we contacted lawyers and asked what we could do about it but they informed us that there wasn't much that we could do. We thought about publicizing the video footage. But at the time the TICU wasn't heavily used and we thought that making that footage available would potentially prevent that capability being used in the future. We didn't do much with it, it's in the archive. Maybe at some point, we'll break it out.
The ice cream truck driver hands out 'food for thoughts' leaflets along with the ice creams. What kind of 'propaganda flavors' can customers chose from? What's the content of the leaflets? Is it always the same or does it adapt to the events?
It changes all the time. At this point, we've distributed 200 to 250 different pieces of information. Some of it we select or curate. And some of it is selected by the organizations that contact us and send us material to distribute. The idea with leaflets was, on the one hand, to look at models of distribution that exist in community activism, models of distribution where people come together and act on campaigns that they might otherwise not hear or read about. On the other hand, we were looking at the structure of distribution. People are often reluctant to take a leaflet from an activist who is standing in front of them but there are different ways to get people to accept the information. For example, if you go to a restaurant, and you get handed a menu, you don't resent the waiter for asking you to make a selection. You tend not to select in the menu an item that you are put off by. You look at the options and decide on something that is appealing to you. So we were thinking of the menu as a structure for distribution as well. Our 'propaganda' menu exists side by side with different flavours of ice cream and people can pick and choose. There is no direct correlation between a chocolate ice cream and anarchism, for example. People can mix and match what flavours they want. The actual topics of information found on the leaflets go from alternative energy to guerrilla gardening to social justice, to gender justice, to war, war on poverty, class issues, feminism, post-feminism, etc. We also have a few historical items such as the Black Panthers Ten Point Plan. And we have information that is specifically created for children about Greenpeace, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, civil liberties, surveillance, etc. It's a huge range of information.
Of course, i have to ask you about magic. I always dismissed the magic dimension of your work simply because i don't take magic seriously at all. But i realize that you do take magic seriously. Reading your interviews, i found that you are not only well versed in magic but you are also very specific about it. You said in an interview with the Center for Artistic Activism: "I'm definitely situated within the spectrum of stage magic and theatrical performance on one end, and occult and metaphysics, kind of ritual magic, supernatural phenomena on the other end." That surprised me because words like 'occult', 'ritual' and 'supernatural' are a bit dark, aren't they? How does occultism for example apply to your artistic practice? And can i engage with your work while keeping on ignoring any reference to magic?
I hope so. I think one of the strategies and challenges when building this kind of work is to always incorporate multiple points of access. Within the work, there has to be different moments that appeal to different people. We're trying to develop projects that are multilayered so magic itself itself exists at multiple levels. What i mean by that is that everyone understands that word 'magic' but they imagine completely different things when they hear the word 'magic.' We use the same language and assume an understanding but this understanding is vastly different on a subjective level and you can even add on a collective subjective level. When we use the term 'magic' both in the name and the realization of a project, there is a realization that there is going to be an explosion of meanings and at the same time a sort of dismissal. This dismissal is historically a way in which magic sometimes alienates itself, sometimes protects itself, sometimes separates itself and that can be as a survival strategy, as an escapist notion, etc. But i think that's where the power of that idea of magic exists.
In the Center for Tactical Magic, there is usually a concerted effort to try and balance out or explore the range of possibilities which typically get book ended between tricks on the one hand and some degree of spirituality on the other hand. When i began this investigation, my thinking was that magic existed only as tricks as a stage magician. The magician i worked with felt very differently. He thought that his understanding of illusionist magic would help in differentiating between the spookier sides of magic. And that opened up a lot of different interpretations and possibilities for me. Since then that exploration has become pivotal within the development for the Center for Tactical Magic.
How was it pivotal?
What i mean by that is that it seems like a fixed position from which you can rotate in any direction. From a position of acting, it means that you have multiple options and directions that you can move from. It's a formal strategy, it's a discursive strategy, it's also a performative strategy for acting in the world. And some of that is informed by studying within martial arts where i learnt that you don't ever want to be stuck in a place where your options are very limited. For me it's not about being ambiguous or evasive just for the sake of being ambiguous or evasive. But you open up options, different ways of addressing an issue, a topic, an event or a situation as it is unfolding.
I'd like to go back to the darker side of magic. In the interview mentioned above you talk about occultism. Does it apply to your practice?
The word 'occult' literally means 'hidden.' When we think about what is hidden then all of a sudden what we might consider occult enters into that same conversation. So we look at things like military black budgets, or laws that are not transparent in terms of how they affect people's life. Or even the degree to which we understand technologies or how technologies operate or function, both in a physical sense -what is exactly happening inside the phone mechanically or electronically- but also in the sense of how does the functioning of a technology impacts us in ways that we don't see. And this can include things like the fact that it relies on invisible signals, it relies on the electromagnetic spectrum which our eyes cannot detect without other devices. But it also determines our social relations or economic relations because it impacts the way we communicate. Once we are open to those associations, we start to backtrack and look at how the history of occultism is very directly tied to our present condition. What i mean by that is the history of occultism is not simply people behaving in 'dark ways'. You need to banish this false dichotomy of light and dark, good and evil. There are certainly colonial overtones to that association of dark as evil and making those connections simplifies what it is that we are talking about. Most of the claims historically of occultism in a huge varieties of areas is -to one degree or another- about empowerment and i think in 'darker' instances, empowerment means power over others but in the more positive instances, it also means communal power or coming to power together, or avoiding situations where abuse of power by others is taking place.
How can we bring more magic to our life? And should we?
I would go back one moment and say: i think you should take magic seriously but also not too seriously. I would say the same thing about government business. I think you should take government and business seriously but also not too seriously?
Why not too seriously?
I think because you have to approach it critically. You have to approach it rigorously. You have to be engaged.
There is also power in play. There is magic that happens when you approach something with a degree of levity, with this idea that there are rules to any game. And once you understand the game, there are ways to bend those rules or figure out how to interact in ways that might be unexpected. So it's not that we dismiss corporations or governments or that we disregard their power in the world but at the same time, if we take them too seriously and only too seriously we miss out on opportunities to subvert or circumvent what it is that they are doing in the world.
Maybe the shorter version would be to say that i think government and corporations are invested in shaping reality and shaping reality is an inherently creative process and playing is also a way to engaging creative process to shape alternative realities.
But let's get back to your earlier question which was about making the world more magical. I understand that when we develop projects that are magic related, people might be dismissive towards either that name 'magic' or the idea of magic. It is sometimes a barrier to entry but the hope is also that once people realize that their assumptions were false or misguided or oversimplified, there is an opening up in terms of what the possibilities are. Magic is all about constantly redirecting people's assumptions or perceptions about the world. So one thing you can do to have a magical outlook is to always question things like use value, status quo, associations for either materials or relationships and realize they are not fixed. Once you understand the ability to morph those relationships or associations, all of a sudden everything starts to become more magical.
The Center for Tactical Magic seems to be quite successful at engaging the audience, at making them part of the experiences. Including people who might otherwise not be particularly responsive to the kind of social, political or economical issues your projects raise. How do you manage that? Are there some rules? Special tricks?
We use a pop aesthetic at times and we try and draw from cultural themes and expressions that people can relate to but there is this uncanny element to all the projects: people will see something that they are familiar with but presented in an unfamiliar way. In that moment, a recalibration takes place, people start to consider their understanding of the familiar part with respect to the unfamiliar part. When it's done really well, it forces new cognitive categories to form. All of a sudden people have to create a new category and if that new category is potent enough it will also infect all future associations.
To go back to the Ice Cream Unit for example, people understand ice cream truck and they understand propaganda but when they have the two things together, it changes their associations with both and in the future there is a moment where they encounter another ice cream truck or another model of distribution and it will connect back to the experience that they had with the TICU and potentially it informs their future relations to other things that are connected. Maybe that is expecting too much from a project but that's the hope in the way these projects are constructed.
Most of the work of the Center is quite political. Have you ever faced any legal retaliation? or problems with the police? for the Linking & Unlinking - Know Your Rights screening, for example? Or for any other work?
It happens on a semi regular basis. There haven't been huge entanglement. Knock on wood! Most of the time, it's some sort of confrontation and it usually more or less resolves itself quietly. There was a standoff with the police with the TICU in Vancouver, Canada, that lasted quite a long time. With the Cricket-Activated Defense System, there were some interesting correspondence, communications and interviews that seemed to come from law enforcement. Strangely enough, the police tried to prevent the kite project (that we did at Huntington Beach in California) from happening and when it did happen they flew a helicopter over the event to monitor it.
It happens from time to time but we do consult with lawyers around our projects, we are generally pretty good at making sure that the conversation with law enforcement doesn't get us into hotter water than need be. I'm trying to be very careful with my language there. There have been some tough times. There's been some times when we have attracted attention that was problematic.
So you're not actively encouraging confrontation or censorship as a part of your artistic strategy? As a way to generate more attention about a given issue?
No. Projects that court confrontation often strengthen polemic and thinking in those binary systems. Even in projects where we are addressing things like police and protester dynamics, we are not trying to diffuse those situations, we are trying to figure out the approach or the position from which you can have the most productive outcome. A confrontation where you are doing something potentially illegal and then you get a police response does not produce a ripple through a greater discourse. What might become a productive moment is when someone is actually practicing their civil or legal rights within a certain context and that person makes visible the power dynamics that might suppress those rights.
I'm curious about The Light & Dark Arts: A Radical Magic Show that ended a few weeks ago at UC Davis' Main Theater. What was the show like?
It was the first time that i had ever worked into a theatre context. I was writing and directing. Two weeks before the first show, the lead actor broke his hand. He happened to be a student that i was training as a magician. I ended up having to step in as the lead, as the magician. I ended up writing, directing and acting for this first theatre production. So it was unexpected and a bit wild but the audience response was fantastic. People seemed to love it.
Any other upcoming works, research, events you'd like to share with us?
There's two shows coming up. One is an art show in New Mexico that is specifically oriented around the police state and surveillance. And then there's an event in Atlanta, Georgia. A public arts festival with tens of thousands of people that come out for a single night event. We have a new project in the works for that event but it's still very much in development.
Karl Philips is a Belgian (h)activist, performance and conceptual artist. I discovered his work a couple of years ago when i visited the exhibition Mind the System, Find the Gap at Z33 in Hasselt (BE.) But i really took the time to click around his portfolio when my favourite blog selected him for its watchlist.
Philips casts a critical but always witty glance at society, paying particular attention to cracks in consumerism, town planning, advertising, and turning upside-down their logic. He is also one of those artists who understand that, to have any impact, activist art is best deployed in the street, not just inside the white walls of a museum or gallery.
Some of his projects involve hacking a street lantern to provide passersby and local inhabitants with free wifi and power, dressing like a train seat to cross Belgium by train, screening movies streamed from Youtube in a drive-in movie theater set up under a bridge, substituting ads on billboards with a map detailing how survive in the city of Hasselt without any financial expenses, etc. Pretty simple and pretty brilliant.
Hand Pump Car, 2014
Philips has a couple of exhibitions up right now. He's part two group shows. One at the gallery Dauwens & Beernaert in Brussels. The other in Rotterdam. Hopefully, i'll get a chance to be in Antwerp (lots of exciting shows coming up at the Photo Museum!) to check out the sculpture he'll be premiering next week for the group exhibition A Belgian Politician at Marion de Cannière Art Space. In the meantime, i got on my laptop and asked him for an interview:
Hi Karl! Your About page talks about "a mild kind of activism" that is inextricably linked to your work. What is mild activism? How does it manifest itself? And can a mild form of activism have an impact too?
I 'm convinced that real change or influence only manifests itself indirectly. In the long run I think it's better to do so through art or culture than through direct radical activism. I think the term "mild activism" indicates a different tone.
I'd be interested to know more about Mia, the homeless woman who came to live inside one of your structures. Did she spontaneously come to live in the structure? How did you get to know each other? Did she give you any kind of 'feedback' about Concierge or your work in general?
Another work involving temporary homes is Good/Bad/Ugly. Could you explain us the whole process? The financial transactions?
Good/Bad/Ugly consisted of three mobile living units. On the outside of the units were several advertisements. For every advertisement we received 500 € per month. That's 1000 € per month, per unit. This money (3000 €/month in total) was used for the performance: providing a living for the inhabitants. We travelled around to different locations. In theory it is illegal in Belgium to put this kind of advertising i, but it is allowed for local businesses. We created some sort of alternative community with it.
I really liked the idea of a Youtube drive-in movie theater. Could you explain us how it worked exactly? Did you select yourself the videos that were screened?
It was a video projection under a bridge. It was a costless drive in movie theater where movies were streamed from youtube. I selected the videos but the last day we screened movies suggested by the public. The project was improvised on the spot so birds were flying around during the screening and car sounds or other sounds of the environment interfered with the audio of the movies.
Do you ask for permit for the various interventions in public space?
Sometimes we do, sometimes we don't. We try to stretch the gap between the real world and our artistic interventions as far as we can. I think I have learned that public space has lost it's political function. Public space used to be where people got together and where politics originated but nowadays everything is controlled. That makes it harder or even impossible to rethink the function of public space and of politics.
I'm also very interested to know more about the story of your studio. It is an antique fairground attraction called Jacky. What did it look like before? Where do you buy fairground attractions? and where did you install it? In a garden? inside a bigger building?
It was a mobile game hall, like an arcade for fairs. It was based on a circus wagon that travelled around for thirty years. Without the games it is now a space of 85 square meters, it is my laboratory. It is a mobile artists studio, it has no foundations or a postal address.
Who are the emerging (or not so emerging) artists whose work you find inspiring right now?
Gordon Matta-Clark, Gilbert & George, Claude Lelouche.
Retrospective / Introspective. Group show, Dauwens & Beernaert, Brussels, 15.01 - 13.03.2015.
no walls. Group show, Fenixloods, Rotterdam (NL), 17.01 - 17.02.2015
A Belgian Politician . Group show, Marion de Cannière Art Space, Antwerp, 20.02 - 21.03.2015
Karl Philips - Daan Gielis - Tasya Krougovykh & Vassiliy Bo. Group show, W139, Amsterdam, June 2015
Phlogiston. Group show, (location to be determined), Split (Croatia) in July 2015.
Karla Diaz is an activist, artist, writer and one of the founders of the artist group Slanguage Studio. A couple of years ago, she got interested in the prison food system in California and in particular in the prisoners' ingenious strategies to overcome the culinary flaws of the CDCR cafeterias.
It turns out that prisoners create their own recipes using the limited list of ingredients they can buy either from the jail commissary or the vending machines. The men also design kitchen tools using whatever is available to them and make some unconventional mixtures of ingredients to create their own unique flavours.
Diaz asked friends serving time in prisons in California to send her their own food recipes and collected them for a print on demand book called Prison Gourmet.
On a documentary and curiosity level, Prison Gourmet is a kind of culinary version of Prisoners Inventions. But Prison Gourmet is also a performance in which the artist addresses the politics of food and incarceration by reproducing prison recipes devised by inmates.
I contacted Karla Diaz and she kindly accepted to answer my questions about Prison Gourmet:
Hi Karla! How did you get the idea to make prison recipes?
This idea first came in a meeting I had with my mentor, Manuel "Manazar" Gamboa who was an L.A. poet and playwright. He died in 2001. Manazar spent 17 years of his life in a California prison and after being released from prison, he dedicated the rest of his life writing and teaching writing to others. One day, he shared with me one of his favorite prison recipes-- a tuna casserole with potato chips and dipped pickles. I was so intrigued by the taste of this recipe, the combination of flavors, the process, and Manazar's story. I wanted to recreate this recipe and share it with others. It was not until 2010, that I had the opportunity to do so. My brother had gone to prison and I became more actively involved in the prison food system. I was amazed on the limited choices of food-packages that prisoners could eat. They are saturated with salt, oil and high cholesterol. There had been a few food strikes by prisoners demanding better food conditions. At the same time, I became aware of alternative food recipes that prisoners were eating. These recipes are made from food items that prisoners get to choose from their commissary food items. It's not the cafeteria food. They choose these food items and combine them to make their own recipes. I also learned that some of these recipes are done collaboratively. In a prison system, that tends to isolate and segregate people by race. I was so intrigued by the idea that food recipes were a means of unity. I decided to make this performance called prison gourmet, emphasizing the term "gourmet" and giving value to the prisoners as self-taught chefs.
What does (or did) the Prison Gourmet performance look like exactly?
In 2010, I was asked to participate in "Let Them Eat LACMA" a one-day event of collective performances organized by the art collective Fallen Fruit, that happened at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Prison Gourmet was originally a three-hour, one-day performance recreating recipes from California prisoners. The performance not only gave audiences free-samples of the recipes but also guided audiences through the process of which the food was made. This process is very important because prisoners make these recipes with limited cooking tools for instance, some prisoners use plastic bags, towels and t-shirts instead of pots and pans. The original Prison Gourmet also included a notebook with some of the letters with the recipes and general information on the California prison food. In 2014, Prison Gourmet was part of the exhibition "Around the Table: Food, Creativity, Community " at the San Jose museum of Art. I was glad to expand on the performance and make a full-length video of the recipes, a book documenting some of the recipes, a performance recreating one of the recipes and answering audience questions, and an installation.
How did you get prisoners to share these recipes with you?
I asked prisoners that I had a relationship with or friends that had a loved one in prison. Looking back, I don't think I would have gotten much response if I approached the prison institution officials. I've tried that approach before and have gotten a lot of paperwork, delay, red tape, censorship and no response. Also, you have to understand that prisoners have a different relationship to the police authorities and the amount of information they share with police. From what prisoners have told me, sometimes information whether it be written or in images can be used against them. It could be a simple letter or phone number, or an image that can be used against them. Prisoners had to trust me. And that is a very big responsibility as an artist. To keep that trust. Working with many different communities in my work, I've learned that this is one of the first most important things to build.
I'm also curious to know more about prisoners' cooking experiences: what kind of ingredients and cooking tools do they have at their disposal? And do you know where they cook? In their cell or do they have access to a kitchen?
I think I answered this a little bit earlier. The prisoners use limited tools at their disposal--essentially what they have available to them in their cell or what they can trade or access without permission from the kitchen. Cooling pans and pots take the place of trash bags and bath towels or t-shirts.
Could you give us some examples of creative uses of prison ingredients?
Yes, of course. One example of an interesting creative use of an ingredient is strawberry jelly. For example, in a recipe for orange chicken, a prisoner uses strawberry jelly with sugar, water and the powder drink Kool-Aid to make the orange sauce. Prisoners use pork rinds as a substitute for chicken. It's incredible how visually the strawberry jelly looks the same as the orange chicken sauce.
I suspect that Prison Gourmet is about more than just food. So which kind of issues are you exploring during the performance, how do you manage to engage the public into the discussion?
Yes, Prison Gourmet is more than just about food politics. Its about human creativity, even in the most limited of conditions. It's also about freedom. What I mean by this is that for prisoners, food consumption is not about taste. One day, I wrote to a prisoner asking him why he had made this recipe for orange chicken. I thought he really liked the taste of it. He replied that it wasn't so much the taste of these ingredients put together but that it was the memory that this created for him. Every time he made it, he remembered being home with his daughter. It meant freedom. It meant being home with his family. I also think about the impact this has on food culture, health and its context. You look at the prisons in the united states and there is a high rate and disproportionate rate of people of color (young men in particular) that are currently incarcerated...they are making alternative food practices that they learned from their culture from their memories living in their neighborhoods.
What now seems like a hipster food to eat like Korean-tacos, prisoners have already invented long ago. Taste is about remixing and remembering who they are on the outside world. It means tasting that bit of freedom....
By no means is my intention to comment on prisoners' crime or punishment. I am no one to judge this or is interested in that. I say this because there have been many audiences that have made comments that prisoners deserve to eat bad food. I try to engage audiences throughout the performance by allowing them to ask questions. To facilitate dialogue and exchange, I also keep a journal for audiences who want to comment on the recipes directly to the prisoners.
Prison Gourmet is also a book. Do you sell it? Where?
Yes, Prison Gourmet is also a book. I have self-published a limited edition of these and they are published on demand by emailing my studio website at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please make sure you write Prison Gourmet on the subject line. The first edition was published with the help of the Mexican consulate via the facilitation of the San Jose Museum of Art.