Simon Faithfull's exhibition Gravity Sucks and his recent talk at the British Film Institute focuses largely around his examination of that most elementary of forces we experience. What Wikipedia calls a "consequence of the curvature of spacetime which governs the motion of inertial objects" and what we call gravity.
In what has come to be sometimes called Gravity Art, there is actually a couple of artists who have chosen to use it as their medium, often in somewhat beautiful yet futile actions, "heroic failures". Among these however, there's different directions of movement, namely down (submission) and up (escape).
The most relevant of the down-camp would probably be the late Dutch-Californian artist Bas Jan Ader whose body of work only contains a few pieces but who has significantly gained in importance as people have been re-discovering him over the last few years. Ader's gravity-related work focuses on the "The artist's body [and the way that] gravity makes itself its master" as he put it when his films Fall I (Los Angeles) and Fall II (Amsterdam) were being shown in Düsseldorf in 1971. He used the most basic elements - an omnipresent force and his own body.
His work, however, as his friend Rene Daalder's documentary Here Is Always Somewhere Else convincingly shows, is seeded with references to his family history and his personal confusion that might have resulted from that and which peaked in his mysterious disappearance at sea during his final piece In Search of the Miraculous in 1975. In Fall 1 (Los Angeles) we see him on the roof of the house he and his wife were living in, sitting on a chair. Like in another performance, which refers to the night when Nazi soldiers forced his family out of their house in the Netherlands, a piece of the domestic environment becomes part of the performance. Ader leans over, loses balance, tumbles across the roof and crashes into the bushes in front of the porch while the chair comes to a halt still on the roof.
Chairs it seems, have a special significance in relation to Gravity Art, possibly because they are a device which in a way suspends us in mid-fall, in a pose we call sitting. They also represent a highly familiar artifact and thus create a link between the universal force of gravity and the utterly domestic.
In the work of Simon Faithfull, who perfectly represents the opposite direction of movement, they play an even more obvious role as he explicitly uses them as a means for both him and the audience to project themselves into what he calls Escape Vehicles. He says the vehicles allow "[to] imagine occupancy of the seat while at the same time acknowledging that it is incapable of the pronouncement made within its title." He has built a series of them since the mid-1990s, the most recent being no.6 which was commissioned by Arts Catalyst in 2004.
This latest one, which the accompanying text to the exhibition at the BFI calls an "alarming" success, partly takes its inspiration from the famous flight of Lawnchair Larry. In the summer of 1982, because "a man can't just sit around", Walters attached a great number of weather balloons to a chair and - somewhat accidentally - shot off to an altitude of 11,000 feet and into the controlled airspace of LAX. (Don't miss the original NBC news coverage) Equipped with a pellet gun, sandwiches, beer and having dropped his glasses. His often-ridiculed trip could well be called the ultimate combination of the everyday and the heroic aspiration to "lose the shackles of gravity".
In the case of Escape Vehicle no.6, the chair is empty, but the experiment is not any less successful, it rose to an altitude of 30 kilometers - the edge of space. The setup consisted of a weather balloon, and a jigsaw-like structure which had the chair on one side and a camera, a transmitter (built by an expert in ham video) and a GPS unit which submitted the vehicle's position using the video's audio track. One mainly sees the chair as it quickly gains altitude until the curvature of the Earth is clearly visible and the metal parts of the chair reflect brilliant sunlight. The temperature is -60º Celsius or lower and there is no air.
Faithfull says "the chilling nature of the film is that the empty chair invites the audience to imagine taking a journey to an uninhabitable realm where it is impossible to breathe". Suddenly the balloon bursts because of the low pressure which caused the air inside to vastly expand and everything attached starts a violent descent to the ground. The chair gets tangled up and bangs against parts of the structure, a leg comes off, then the backrest.
A few minutes into the descent, the transmission ends and the chair of course was never recovered. According to the GPS data, somewhere over Kent, gravity won.
Gravity Sucks, until September 20th at the British Film Institute South Bank Gallery, London SE1 8XT
Related chair in space: Nelly Ben Hayoun's Soyouz Chair
Previous stories on this panel: Positions in Flux - Panel 1: Art goes politics - Hans Bernhard from UBERMORGEN.COM and Positions in Flux - Panel 1: Art goes politics - Wafaa Bilal.
Geert Lovink has already reviewed the whole panel on his blog: Political Work in the Aftermath of the New Media Arts Crisis.
The third person to take the stage was Christian Huebler from Knowbotic Research who are also artist in residence at NIMk this year. Knowbotic Research (Yvonne Wilhelm, Christian Hübler, Alexander Tuchacek) was established in 1991, and has experimented with formations of information, interface and networked agencies.
Ok, now this will sound weird but Knowbotic Research happens to be one of the art groups i find most interesting today. And that's in spite of the fact that i don't understand fully what their work is about. But now was my chance to get a better idea of what they are doing.
Huebler's presentation focused on BlackBenz Race (BBR), a semi-fictitious car race of black Mercedes from Zurich to Pristina (Kosovo) and back to Zurich. The project refers to the big Kosovo-Albanian community that migrate to Western Europe with Zurich as a node. The aim of BBR is to make visible the translocal space produced by Kosovo-Albanian migration across Europe. BBR explores the intersection of public spheres and migrant networks by using the metaphor of the race. The 'Black Benz' represents both a status symbol, and a symbol of the mobility that is inherent in migrant culture. The site of that mobility is the corridor along which the cars travel, from Pristina and Tirana to Zurich, Rotterdam, or London. The Black Benz is both a tool and a symbol, a vehicle for trading and trafficking of people and goods, as well as a sign of economic success. Knowbotic Research was using a discrimination platform to hack into the space.
Unfortunately, the city of Zurich (which had commissioned the project to KR) was not ready to accept their idea. It would have been an interesting experience for Albanians living in Zurich as they feel alienated both in Switzerland and in their home country. KR doesn't work with participants but provide a framework for them to get involved. Certain stages of the races nevertheless took place. The artists managed to get the authorization to organize a race in front of the United Nations headquarters in Pristina. They pretended they were shooting a film and got the city blocked for the ghost race from 3 am to 6 am. While in Pristina they discovered there was also a burnout party going on. A group of men would block a car that a driver brings into full gear until the tyres totally dissolve and no one can see anything because of the fume.
NEWBORN - undeliverable? is the second project of Knowbotic Research that engages with translocal spaces and Kosovarian migration. It took place in Zurich but this time the artists didn't ask for any permission. The idea was inspired by a photo (see below) the group saw in NYT article about Kosovo declaring its independence from Serbia.
Knowbotic Research copied the sign and paraded it on a truck around Zurich.
Obviously the reference to the historical event was evident mostly to migrants from the Balkans. KR invited a rapper form Kosovo who had migrated to Switzerland to use the sign as a starting point to explain what it means to be 'newborn' in a political space. Besides the circulation of the NEWBORN sign through Zürich coincided with the kick off of the EURO2008. Because the public and imaginary space was monopolized by commercialism, people who do not belong to the Kosovo Albanian community probably assumed that the NEWBORN circulating through the streets was just another advertisement signage on its way to be installed somewhere in the city.
The Project NEWBORN -- Undeliverable? conducts research into the constitution and interaction of multiple, parallel publics within the local space of Zurich shaped by the dynamics of translocal migration, national identity and globalized commercialism. Such a research endeavor needs to take place in the public space itself. Only by intervening directly the latent, often invisible dynamics can be brought to the surface. Activating existing and triggering new dynamics is an essential part of the approach.
One of the battle cries of KR is that they want to see the development of new zones of intransparency in which people can fully experiment and circulate, where one is neither representable nor identifiable. A bit like the character (some kind of Cousin Itt alter-ego) that appears in their projects macghilie - just a void. What would happen if we fight surveillance society with transparency?
The project tiger_stealth explored in a more tangible and direct way this idea of navigating through space without being detected. Together with with Peter Sandbichler, the group re-engineered a stealth boat as depicted in a propaganda video of the Tamil Tigers, the Tamil liberation army based in northern Sri Lanka. The boat (which appears in an online video) seems to be a formal adaptation of the stealth bomber F117 Nighthawk, a myth of invisibility.
KR's stealth boat cannot be detected by radar and other modern technology. It appears to be unmanned, but a person is hidden inside the boat. Equipped with a silent electrical engine it stays invisible for a radar station positioned on the river bank. The boat can be purchased online. It is thus fed back into a commercial public context where its technical invisibility becomes a good that must be shown.
Back in October 2007, Rob O' Copp was fined £30 by a Police Community Support Officer (PCSO), for cycling a short distance across the pavement towards a cycle stand in Nottingham City Centre, in England.
Although their uniform is deceivingly similar to that of police officers, PCSO do not belong to the Police Federation, the staff association for all police officers. Their powers are very limited but citizens might not know it. For example, PCSOs have the same powers of arrest as other ordinary citizens. They cannot detain any 'offender' for more than 30 minutes. Their job is to deal with low-level disorder and anti-social behaviour, leaving regular police officers to concentrate on more serious crimes. More generally, PCSOs patrol the street to reassure communities by their high-visibility presence.
His mis-adventure with a PCSO inspired Rob O'Copp to set up PCSO Watch project. Along with a fellow undercover agent, he gave us a glorious and entertaining presentation of their activities at the Radiator festival a couple of days ago (proper report will follow, at least that's the plan) .
PCSO Watch project has declared that 'We are all Police now' and launched the The Office of Community Sousveillance operation. 'Sousveillance officers' have spent several weeks collecting information, data, and stories about PCSOs and the Community Protection Officer (CPO). During the Radiator festival , they are operating from a mobile field unit placed temporarily in hotspots around the city. The unit is in fact a caravan stationed legally in the center of Nottingham. Wearing a fluorescent jacket similar to the one PCSOs and COPs don and occasionally putting on a mask in the shape of a CCTV camera, they patrol the streets of Nottingham keeping an eye on the ones who keep an eye on the whole city.
The Office of Community Sousveillance is asking for your help in contributing your stories about PCSOs and their Community Protection Officer (CPO) colleagues, stories will be added to their blog.
Members of the public who would like to be interviewed anonymously or wearing a disguise for a video archive are invited to contact: Officer Rob O'Copp at The Office of Community Sousveillance
On view at Surface Gallery and in the streets of Nottingham through January 24, 2009.
All i knew about Jordi Colomer before entering his solo show at Le Jeu de Paume in Paris was his Anarchitekton series, i was prepared for the absurd. I didn't know the absurd could make so much sense.
Colomer's video installations focus on the contemporary city and in particular on the influence of urbanism on human behaviour. They toy with fake actors in real situations, fictions set in barren landscapes, artificial spaces, urban simulacra and architectural narratives. Behind their humour and irony, his productions never fail to reveal us something about the sociological and psychological dimensions of his subjects.
Colomer's aesthetics and architectural explorations pervade the whole exhibition. The videos are screened onto wooden panels, or in some makeshift structures, there is a battered trailer in the middle of one of the exhibition rooms and a mix-match of what looks like second-hand chairs are aligned against the walls.
Pozo Almonte, a body of works which was produced for the Paris exhibition, is a moving trip to one of the few surviving mining towns exploiting saltpetre (potassium nitrate) in the Atacama desert in Chile. Instead of documenting what was left of the mining activity, the artist went to the cemetery and photographed its constructions. Each of them looks like a small house that redresses the builders' meagre resources with inventiveness and personal creativity. Architecture without architects at its best. As Colomer explains: The cemetery is a sort of parallel city, well and truly alive, and full of thoroughly terrestrial little houses. It is an area shared by the living and the dead, where the latter seem to be merely on holiday. And yet this family architecture also looks like the decor of another world...
The Pope's protective vehicle, the Popemobile, is an icon that has traveled all over the world. Says Colomer: I wanted to put this highly meaningful image back into the street − in three-dimensional form but disencumbered of its Vatican pomp, with the nakedness of a prototype − so as to record the reactions of passers-by. The Popemobile's sacred dimension being already somewhat slight, it was chiefly a matter of desecrating its spectacular side and leaving only the bare bones. It was first and foremost a pretext for portraying a heterogeneous group of people, conjuring up a setting, creating a situation and just letting things happen... What kind of people were going past at noon on that summer day in 2005 in the fast-evolving area of Barcelona that lies along Diagonal Avenue in the Poble Nou district?
En la Pampa is an attempt to find whether there is a place on earth that can 'resist fiction'. A man and a woman, chosen because they are not actors, are left free to perform all sorts of activities and discussions in the Atacama desert in Chile. Viewers quickly realize that the mere presence of the camera turns the experiment into a fiction that contaminates the desert itself.
Anarchitekton is a series of videos produced over two years and starring a quizzical personage called Idroj Sanicne. The films shows him cavorting around Barcelona, Brasilia, Osaka and Bucharest, brandishing cardboard models of buildings that are visible in the background. By doing so he stretches the boundaries of architecture, highlights its 'backdrop' character, drags reality into fiction and gains the attention of passersby in the process. Sanicne's performance evokes moments of angry protests, popular parades but also religious processions.
Shoot An Iraqi, Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun, by Wafaa Bilal, an Iraqi American artist currently an assistant professor at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York Universit and author and journalist Kari Lydersen (Amazon UK and USA.)
Publisher City Lights says: Wafaa Bilal's childhood in Iraq was defined by the horrific rule of Saddam Hussein, two wars, a bloody uprising, and time spent interned in chaotic refugee camps in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Bilal eventually made it to the U.S. to become a professor and a successful artist, but when his brother was killed at a U.S. checkpoint in 2005, he decided to use his art to confront those in the comfort zone with the realities of life in a conflict zone. Thus the creation and staging of Domestic Tension, an unsettling interactive performance piece: for one month, Bilal lived alone in a prison cell-sized room in the line of fire of a remote-controlled paintball gun and a camera that connected him to internet viewers around the world. Visitors to the gallery and a virtual audience that grew by the thousands could shoot at him 24 hours a day. The project received overwhelming worldwide attention, garnering the praise of the Chicago Tribune, which called it "one of the sharpest works of political art to be seen in a long time," and Newsweek's assessment "breathtaking." It spawned provocative online debates and ultimately, Bilal was awarded the Chicago Tribune's Artist of the Year Award.
Soot an Iraqi is a tale that walks you through refugee camps and experiments in interactive art. It is both a biography of artist Wafaa Bilal and the chronicle of his one-month experience as a paintball target at Flatfile Galleries. The book pertains to the political, the art, the activist fields. It is not a novel but it reads like one.
Defining the book is no straightforward enterprise and things do not get any more clean-cut when ones decides to focus on the performance at the center of the book. Domestic Tension is a playful and provocative online game, a cathartic performance that went further than the artist expected, a reflection on the impact that a seemingly innocent online gesture can have in the physical world, an invitation to dialog -no matter how contentiously- about war in Iraq. The artwork attracted the attention and most enthusiastic comments from art critics but it also appealed to the geeky type who'd define conceptual art a pretentious bore. And even there, one should stear clear of any hasty judgment, the experience taught the Bilal (and now its readers) that people you wouldn't expect to have much sympathy for Iraq's plight or for conceptual art turned out to be more supportive than expected. Shoot an Iraqi has a lesson for everyone, even for those who 'know better.' I just wish all lesson-bearing books could be as devoid of self-pity, regrets, anger or hauteur as one is.
City Lights also uploaded a video in which Wafaa Bilal discusses the motivation behind Domestic Tension:
Photo on homepage by Shawn Lawson. Copyright: Wafaa Bilal, 2007. More images in Universe in Universe.
I had almost decided to be disappointed with Conflux, the art and tech festival for the creative exploration of urban public space. They had left arty Brooklyn for sleek Soho, Manhattan. You know that old whig who preaches that you should stick to the good old habit no matter what? That was me. But 5 minutes into the festival convinced me that the event is as good as ever. Just different. I did miss the Brooklyn location, it works better for free explorations of the urban grid and also for performances in the street. Plus there was no possibility to do a BBQ in the street which used to be a great and pretty relevant way to wrap up the festival. Ha! And the police had to come and take down a swing which was entertaining passersby. However, the quality of the projects performed and shown at Conflux was amazing. I'll brush over the two first days of the festival as i was still in Seoul trying unsuccessfully to overcome jetlag.
I arrived at Conflux HQ (the neat, elegant but a bit stiff Center for Architecture) to see a performance by the Apparatus for Orchestral Knitting. Laure Drogoul had invited everyone to knit and become a part of a musical knitting orchestra, based on an instrument that amplifies the sound of their knitting, mixed it and played it back live.
You're given an armband with a mounted camera and pedometer. Off you go walking outside to create your own short experimental animation. The pedometer acts as a trigger for the camera and an image of whatever is above you is taken every time a step is made. Nothing to do, just walk and the device does the rest.
Once you're back from wherever your steps led you to, the images are transferred from the camera's memory into a program that create a frame-by-frame animation and an accompanying soundtrack. When the program completes the animation, you get your DVD.
Bingxia Yu had installed inside the gallery a display offering Ugly New York postcards: the unsightly spaces are sometimes located right next to favorite tourists' spots, the back of Time Square under construction, the down under of Brooklyn Bridge, the recovering Lower Manhattan in progress, etc. The project also involves a range of keychains, magnets and other tourist souvenirs which will soon be available for sale online.
As the artist wrote: We believe that ugly spaces - ugly in a sense that they will never make a perfect postcard are more valuable for city experiences.
Silence in urban spaces is never really devoid of the echo of receding sirens, crowd mumblings, door buzzings and other noises. 7 Urban Silences invites visitors to done headphones and mix the relative silences recorded by artists and musicians in cities as different as Paris and Dakar.
To be continued...