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...
The artist walked around the Conflux area with his Vertical Bed in a suitcase, found himself a nice spot, anchored his prostheses above subway vents or other rigid contact points and stayed there sleeping in an upright position for 40 minute intervals several times in a day.
Concealed harnesses ensure that Jamie didn't fall over. He also wore noise canceling headphones and double-mirrored sunglasses, padded with little cusions to keep his eyelid closed. In case of bad weather, an umbrella clips in the infrastructure for shelter.
The project is designed for the visual performance of an alternate way of occupying urban space, born partly out of fantasies of minimal need and elegant futurism, and partly out of fears of the dehumanization of space. Occupants will absorb the vertical structure of urban architecture into their bodies. The vertical sleeper is in a constant state of readiness, never succumbing to collapse. Homelessness is most often marked by the forbidden act of lying down on the sidewalk, an act that the vertical bed circumvents.
A tidbit from the recent This Happened in London, where Semitransparent Design from Japan, Matt Jones and Russell Davies, Simon Oliver and Brendan Walker gave some insights in the inner workings of their recent projects.
Brendan calls himself a thrill researcher and engineer, and his design practice Aerial is "specialising in the creation of tailored emotional experience". This might sound a bit like standard lingo at first, but they actually mean it, since they're not looking at aesthetic pleasure from glitzy bathrooms or glossy interfaces, they're talking death-defying experiences, screams and cold sweat. This is an interesting subject for design since we are living in a time where often the emotional aspects of an object can be as important as the item itself, with people attributing cuteness to robots and such.
Originally trained as an aircraft engineer, he soon realized that there's more to flying than just getting from A to B. Especially fairground or theme park-rides often aim to produce the same feeling that you had when that jet you were on suddenly dropped a few hundred meters. Thrill Laboratories looked at the way roller coasters are created as scripted experiences: people usually undergo a series of feelings when on the ride, which often enough (think of the ones that pretend to be over and then comes the real drop) follow a narrative almost like in a film.
To get a grip on the world of thrills, Walker teamed up with a criminologist from UCLA in Los Angeles to create the Taxonomy of Thrill and Thrilling Designs, two publications which try to formalize the aspects of the experience of being thrilled. And because this is proper research, they even created thrill-equations which include variables like euphoric value, valence polarity or the strong emotion coefficient.
Having that somewhat formalized, Thrill Labs and a gentleman named James Conran teamed up and applied for one of the British Wellcome Trust's grants to create a harness which can be stripped to people on rides and would capture their emotions. "The technology for recording extreme emotions is there, it's just a question of bolting together the right parts". So they did and successfully created a setup which allows to record audio, video and different vital signs like the heart rate of someone on a ride, as well as their current acceleration.
After demoing this device, they were approached by London Science Museum's Dana Centre to create a three-week Fairground show which would include three "classic British fairground rides", the Miami Trip, the Ghost Train and the Booster to their venue in South Kensington. Each ride exploring a slightly different theme (pleasure, frisson and visceral delights), the main challenge was how to convey the subjects' experience on the rides in the yard to the audience inside the Centre. Dressed like Russian engineers in red overalls, Brendan and his colleagues from Shunt created a whole "carnival of experimentation" around the rides. The the images and data from individuals on the rides was streamed into the center (with wi-fi dropouts unintentionally but effectively adding to the drama) where there it was just displayed upstairs and interpreted by an expert downstairs.
Since then, there has been increasing interest in the research of thrill, with the Fairground performance being repeated at the iconic Oblivion ride at Alton Towers, which claims to be the world's first vertical drop roller coaster. There Brendan worked with a team of psychologists to survey 80 riders and collect their data into what became "a real monster of information". This eventually hints at the more serious side of thrills-there is a big market for developing technology and methodology of these extreme experiences. There has been little research so far in that area, especially in terms of design since most of these rides more or less stand upon 100 years of tacit knowledge and not rules and methodology.
The ultimate goal, of course, would be designing a cybernetic ride with actual biofeedback from the individuals on it, always adapting the ride to their emotions and sensations. A little hint of that might be the internet-infamous robo coasters, some of which are already in use at Legoland California.
And, for everyone who wants to have a controlled near-death experience of their own: Brendan and Thrill Laboratories will perform their Airphoria: Terminal 3, a.k.a. The Death Slide, this Friday (11th) evening at Shunt in London, which is located under the arches of London Bridge. Go scream!
Related story: Thrill Laboratory.
Heidi Kumao's art pieces explore ordinary social interactions in order to reveal what lies beneath them: psychological states, emotions, compulsions, thinking patterns, and dreams. She is currently teaching animation, video, experimental television production, and electronic and conceptual art at the School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. For 2007-08, she has been awarded a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship from the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation.
A few years ago i discovered her set of female kinetic sculptures "Misbehaving: Media Machines Act Out," and classified her work under robotics and kinetics. Then i stumbled upon the performative techno-enhanced series of clothing she had developed and here i was trying to fit her work inside the "wearable" category. A closer look on her portfolio revealed household objects sabotaged to become cinema machines, overtly activist projects and the geekiest wedding cake i had ever seen. The experience taught me that any attempt to classify of her work would be pure folly unless i'd try to trick her into giving me a helping hand:
You first graduated in photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. How did you come to work with kinetic installations, RFID activist projects and quirky wedding cakes? What made you broaden the scope of your artistic practice?
This is a big question, so I'll answer it in sections as a way to answer the larger issue of shifts in artistic practice. How I get from here to there to there to there...
Re: transition from photography to sculpture
The Art Institute had a very interdisciplinary photo department at the time and we were really encouraged to "go outside the box" of photography, to mix photography with other media, to be artists who USE photography rather than pure photographers. In the 80's and 90's, photography was exploding in 100 different directions and open to a variety of approaches. Everything was possible. Everything could be photographic in some way.
When I entered graduate school as a photographer I was already starting to work with sequential imagery. I was driven by a need to animate physical gestures and behaviors as indicators of psychological states. Simultaneously, I was collecting domestic objects and record players and researching pre-cinema devices and the 19th century creation of spectacle, Emile Reynaud's praxinoscope from the 1880's, in particular. My first kinetic works were homemade-looking zoetropes that projected a sequential loop of 12 images: a child being spoon-fed, a woman's legs curtseying, a woman frantically sweeping. Like a memory that can't be repressed, each animated sequence repeated endlessly and mechanically. In this way, each object seemed to be speaking with its images, a visual and mechanical voice replacing text. Much like the girls' legs I made much later, they were an artificial life form, a stand-in for a real person that I could construct and bring life to. These "cinema machines" (as I called them) allowed me to combine all of my interests (photography, performance, sculptural assemblage and the psychology of everyday life), into one art form. I loved working this way and continued to create cinema machines for several years.
While much of my work could be categorized as "kinetic installation," a more accurate descriptor might be "animated tableau." I tend to think of myself as a theater director, staging events for the viewer. A lot of my art practice is about creating a situation for something to unfold over time. This grew organically out of my experience staging photographs. It seems to be a mode of art making to which I am intuitively drawn.
Each tableau intentionally uses recognizable objects that suggest a possible scenario from everyday life. As I craft each piece, I am very conscious of the psychological experience that is created for the viewer. Can the space of each tableau imply both a physical site and a psychological state? How can I make the viewer re-examine seemingly ordinary events such as childhood play, family dynamics, television news or even the wearing of clothes?
RE: RFID Activist projects
I worked on Zapped! a multi-part project about the mass implementation of RFID technology with Preemptive Media in 2005. I met the members of Preemptive Media (Beatriz da Costa , Jamie Schulte, and Brooke Singer at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA where I was a Microsoft Artist-in-Residence Fellowship for 1999-2000. Besides being a great school for robotics, computing, AI, engineering and art, Pittsburgh happened to be an amazing hub for art collectives, tactical media practitioners, and technological art at that time. I was surrounded by tons of brilliant people including folks from Critical Art Ensemble, Institute for Applied Autonomy, and Subrosa, to name a few. Just being in this environment made me rethink my artistic process completely, and motivated me to learn how to incorporate electronics, microprocessors, computing, and digital imagery into my work.
Before we ever did Zapped! a few of us had collaborated on a project (Nomadika) about data-veillance and wireless technologies for the 2001 Sculpture Conference in Pittsburgh. We educated and informed the public about the future of data mining by opening a storefront for our fake marketing firm. Researching data mining and privacy loss in our contemporary era later led Preemptive Media to the project on RFID, which seemed to be (at the time) yet another way in which corporations and the government would invade citizens' privacy. As someone who creates and teaches animation and video, my primary role in the collaboration was to make the educational video from all of the research and information we had unearthed as a result of this project.
After working solo for so long, I relished the opportunity to collaborate with others on a project.
RE: quirky wedding cakes
The 6,000 volt wedding cake was a collaborative project with my husband, Michael Flynn, a high school physics teacher and science exhibit designer. As two mechanically minded people, we decided that our cake had to reflect our interests in machines and the project grew from there. It started with the idea to have two cakes cut to look like interlocking gears and progressed to two motorized cakes on gear-run platforms. Michael made two dolls that represented us in our wedding costumes. These dolls were going to stand on the top of each cake and would basically pass one another every time the cakes turned. Eventually, I thought we needed to incorporate an electric "spark" between the dolls, like the "spark" between us (cheesy, I know). This led to the idea of using a Jacob's Ladder to generate a much larger spark. Michael purchased a neon sign transformer and wired the cakes and dolls with opposing charges. When powered on, the cakes turn, and once a turn, the dolls hands meet and a large flaming spark erupts from their meeting hands. It's pretty funny. And like other collaborative projects I've done, it was loads of fun!. Our "how to" article appeared in Make Magazine.
What made you broaden the scope of your artistic practice?
When I look over the various transitions I have made with respect to media
(from photo to cinema machines to kinetic sculptures to animation to collaborative technological projects), I can map those changes onto personal and cultural moments of change. For many years, I made a life as an artistic nomad. I relocated every year or two for jobs, fellowships or other opportunities. This experience of having to re-contextualize and refocus myself in so many different places shaped my art practice in a deep way. Each time I moved, the new school, city or community raised new issues to consider. For example, (like I said earlier) as a research fellow at Carnegie Mellon, I was exposed to art practices that critically engaged technology rather than simply used technology. I had access to people, tools, and resources such as machine shops for the creation of custom parts, computer programmers, robotics labs, video editing equipment, etc. As a result of being at Carnegie Mellon, my work shifted away from more personal themes towards more political issues and cultural critique.
While I had been using technology for many years, my time at CMU caused me to rethink how I used it and why.
Exposure to such a large computing environment had other long-term effects on my art that didn't show up until much later. Researchers in AI, computing, robotics and gaming exposed me to the possibilities of generative artwork, which was a complete paradigm shift from creating "fine art" objects for the art world. I was excited to think about making a dynamic system or a tool as an artwork rather than a fixed object. However, it took me awhile to decide on a project that would best be served by this approach.
Later, when I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, 9-11 and the proliferation of cable news caused me to analyze the visual and conceptual construction of the news broadcast more critically. CNNplusplus, an interactive and dynamic news broadcast, was born a few years later (in collaboration with Chip Jansen.
The short answer to your question is simply new places, new people and A.D.D. or the tendency to get bored easily...
You seem to navigate effortlessly from one discipline to another but are there particular issues or elements that you keep returning to?
Yes! I find that I return to an exploration of ordinary social interactions and their psychological undercurrents, institutional critique (mainstream media, traditional gender roles, others), and performance (creating theatrical spectacle, behaving/acting social roles, performing for a camera). I view performance as an integral part of everyday experience and define it very broadly: as a means to define our identity and sexuality, as an examination of roles we play as employees or family members, and as a tool for self-expression. Every piece has its origins in everyday life: an argument, a memory of childhood, the frustrations of watching television, the act of being a consumer--
My art making process is grounded in these types of experiences.
Combining these three things together has produced two main types of work that are pretty different (at least to me):
1) Work that emphasizes a visceral experience and tells a more personal story: the "cinema machines," the girls' legs, stop-motion animations, and my latest shadow theater pieces
2) interactive projects that are more overtly political and use technology to critique technology: CNNplusplus, Zapped!, Wired Wear
I find I am drawn to the more personal works because they provide an outlet for me to imply/suggest a critique of institutions of power without being so literal. Almost every piece starts with a personal story of some kind and the creation of a tableau is an opportunity to create a visual poem of images and objects together. By exposing the physical apparatus that drives the bodies into action, I draw a parallel between this machinery and the mechanisms of our unconscious: defense mechanisms, sex drives, thinking patterns, self control, dreams, impulses, instincts.
With the public/interactive projects, the emphasis is more educational and/or ironic. Working collaboratively removes the personal emphasis and creates opportunities to address larger cultural issues and their effects on the general public.
Misbehaving is a series of three female "performers" for intimate installations. What is the performative part of the work?
Misbehaving consists of three pairs of aluminum, mechanized legs fitted with girl's shoes: Protest, Resist and Translator. The legs in Protest stomp loudly and unpredictably while standing on a coffee table. In Resist, a pair of girl's legs squirms on the floor in a way that is both sexualized and challenging in response to viewers' speech. The girl in Translator is trapped on a track between two "adult" chairs with video projectors for heads. As viewers hand crank her from one side to the other, she becomes like a child caught between two feuding parents, or a political mediator, whose body/screen reveals/exposes the real text of the conversation through non-verbal gestures.
With these pieces, I was thinking about the performance of gender, especially for little girls. We learn what is appropriate behavior so early that it becomes naturalized, we don't realize that we perform it. In developing these pieces, I wanted to intentionally create girls that perform "badly", act out, misbehave, or act against type. As machines and girls, these works operate in stark contrast to a culture obsessed with "increasing job performance," high performance cars, and athletic performance. Their acts of defiance are small, yet powerful, signs of agency.
The kinetic girls legs have also some feminist (may i use that word?) undertones. Why is it still important to propose a view on feminism today?
YES, you may (and SHOULD) use the word "feminist." I consider myself a feminist and I think the stigma around the word (created by conservative males) has (unfortunately) had its prescribed effect of preventing people from self-identifying as feminists.
Those legs were born out of my experience at Carnegie Mellon where I was surrounded by really macho robots: machines that can fight fires or repair a nuclear reactor, robots for combat, robots for Mars, etc. At the same time, television programs were priming the mainstream public for what I call "performative robotics," including BattleBots and Robo-wars, as vehicles for violent entertainment. With technological art and computing still so male dominated, and the research funding driven by the Defense Department, I do think it's important to remind ourselves that robotics has a range of applications that are social, psychological, poetic, beautiful, and quirky. Are those feminist, or just alternatives to the mainstream?
I think it's important to maintain a vigilant feminist critique of the world in the same way that it's important to be vigilant about racism and economic justice.
Sometimes people forget that feminism has benefited EVERYONE, not just women. Civil Rights legislation in the US has benefited everyone, not just African-Americans. In the developed world, we have this idea that everything has been "accomplished" when really, it's just a way to keep people complacent and apathetic.
A couple of years ago you developed Zapped! together with the other members of Preemptive Media. The work examines the mass deployment of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and its effects on our everyday activities. At the time the website of the project said that "RFID is not yet a household name or a pervasive technology, but Preemptive Media predicts that everyday encounters with this technology (whether known or not) will soon be commonplace." How much has changed ever since? How much is the public aware of the possible downsides of RFID technology?
In October 2006, the US started issuing passports with RFID chips that include a digital photo and all other information currently printed in passports. These passive tags in passports are only a small beginning of all-around use as they can be embedded into nearly everything you buy, wear, read, or drive. At the time we did the piece, there was a common fear of surveillance--that by carrying items with tags, you could be tracked, your personal data could be compromised, etc. The reality is that the tags need to be scanned at such a close proximity (a few millimeters) that it's difficult for someone to scan your item without your knowledge. Plus, if all the tag has is a reference number (for another database) rather than concrete data, there isn't much to gain by secretly scanning...In general, as with so many of these new technologies (GPS, for example), people choose convenience over privacy. In our current climate, you can't have both. We all love the convenience of having a cell phone, even though they all have GPS chips. You don't hear people complaining about the possibility of being located through triangulation of their cell phone chip. At least not yet. I think that data privacy is the new "civil rights" issue of our time--at least in the US where there aren't many data privacy laws.
I've always been fascinated by the story of the roach release. I saw a brief mention of it a newspaper one day. Can you explain us what it was about and in which context it took place? But also, how did the public react to the idea?
The roach release was but one part of the Zapped! project. The multi-part project included the educational video, a school kit for "arming" yourself against RFID surveillance, the roach release station, and educational workshops. Each of these reached a different segment of the population with the goal of not only informing the public about the technology, but also providing them with means with which they might take action against it.
At the time, WalMart was setting the standards for RFID implementation by requiring its top manufacturers to embed tags into the cases and pallets of merchandise. As the largest retailer in the world, its protocol affects the business practice of nearly everyone in merchandising. WalMart pushed for this change touting its increased inventory efficiency. At this point, we speculated that if a WalMart had RFID readers and a corresponding database, they would all be located in the loading dock/storage area of the store. We discussed different ways to use or subvert the signal of the WalMart RFID reader- for passive tags, it sends a small signal in order to read the information on the tag and puts that information into a database. As we went round and round with ideas for tricking/toying with this Goliath, the idea boiled down to creating a small interruption in/jamming the WalMart RFID database. If WE couldn't gain access to the loading dock and the readers, perhaps we could send a robot, or, as Beatriz da Costa suggested, a rodent or insect in our place. The final solution was to send a cockroach (with an preprogrammed RFID tag glued to its back) into the store's loading dock area. The RFID tag was programmed with a small text message of resistance--and would definitely cause a "hiccup" in a database that was accustomed to standardized product information. In the video, we gave instructions on how to do a "roach release," and in Houston (at Diverseworks), we gave away all the Zapped! roaches. I am not at liberties to say anything about the actual release. The public loved the idea and the roach became the project's mascot.
Any other Wal-Mart action?
Not with that piece.
What was the impetus for the audio-activated DRESS? How do you exhibit it (or any of your other wearable pieces for that matter)? As part of a performance? As a static piece in a gallery? As a garment you can lend to gallery-goers?
The wearables started as an idea for a fun Halloween costume. I was initially inspired by the humor that could result from providing visual feedback, especially on a woman's body. The lights on the dress light up incrementally, starting at the bottom when the sound is softer, and lighting up the entire column when it becomes very loud. When I wear the dress, I become a walking audio-meter which is really an absurd (and poetic?) image. These pieces are custom made to fit my body, and I use them in humorous video performances. The project is less about the objects and more about what I can do with them. So far, I have exhibited them as objects on mannequins with a video that shows them in use. In the end, the final product is really the short videos. There are many more places I can take them...
You seem to be attracted by the idea of "intimacy". Which one of your works expresses the idea better and why?
As an artist, I use machines, projected imagery, and animation because they offer me a visually compelling way to investigate what is unseen: psychological states, emotions, compulsions, neuroses, desires, dreams. I find that I naturally gravitate towards work that examines everyday behavior and personal issues. I've called my work "intimate installation" because of its scale (human sized objects), its content (domestic and interpersonal issues) and its viewer experience (dark or dimly-lit rooms). With a minimum of objects, each tableau recreates a private ritual or occurrence for the viewer. I use the word "intimate" to describe the spaces I create and to draw a distinction between my domestic theaters and other large-scale environments.
"Letter Never Sent" is a good example of this. In this piece, video footage captured under a dissection microscope is projected onto the space of the typewriter page. Sounds of a woman weeping, a doorbell ringing, and someone knocking on the door are juxtaposed with black ink creeping up the page and fading, and turbulent, dirty water which seems to spit out from the base of the typewriter. With this piece, I was trying to describe one woman's difficult experience of writing a letter that is erased or never sent because it is too harsh, too truthful. Rather than use words, I used fluids, like emotions, to wash over the page like a wave. The page is filled and emptied again and again, similar to how one might write and edit oneself in pursuit of the perfect correspondence. Even though the work explores one person's intimate experience, I think we can all relate to written communication, self-censorship and the strong emotions that result.
Yet another video:
You are also teaching at the University of Michigan School of Art and Design. What are your courses about? Can you give us a few examples of your students' projects?
At this University, I am mostly teaching animation, video and various conceptual classes (this fall, an introductory class on TIME!). The most enjoyable courses focus on creating material for "experimental television broadcasts," and rethinking the space of the television as an art gallery for time-based work. I know it seems like an old idea since video art first emerged as an alternative to mainstream television, but here at the University of Michigan, we have a unique collaboration with our local PBS station, WFUM. PLAY is a "collaborative project from the University of Michigan School of Art & Design and Michigan Public Media, transforming the gallery space for time-based media." This project features time-based work (video, animation, documentary, performance, other experimental forms) by faculty and students in the School of Art and Design. Selected pieces air on television as interstitials-in between programs at the top of the hour, say between "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" and "Antique Roadshow," while all submissions are viewable on the web. In my class, "Animation for Broadcast," students get real-world experience producing fun promotional pieces as well as content (under 3 min.) for this gallery space we call a television. You can see some of their promo animations here. They were encouraged to think about the concept behind PLAY Gallery (an online, virtual place for art, television as gallery space) and play (the activity). They were given the PLAY logo and could do just about anything with it.
I think it's a really great moment in history to reconsider what television and broadcast can be, do, say: with the YouTube-ization of the world, everyone's a performer, everyone's a filmmaker. How does that impact what we make and produce?
Any upcoming project you could tell us about?
I'm working on some totally new and different works. "Timed Release" is a series of performative portraits focusing on people who have developed a creative mental space to survive physical confinement. Paper cutouts and small kinetic sculptures contained in bell jars or other containers are brought to life through video projection to create illusionary shadow theater. It's an engaging hybrid of image and object...
The reason for my presence at etech08 this year was the "art fest" that i set up with the super nice and super smart Kati London, an itp graduate who currently works as a senior producer at area/code in New York and as an artist responsible for projects such as Botanicalls Twitter DIY and You Are Not Here.
Brady Forrest had the idea to organize this first ETech Emerging Arts Fest and we are infinitely grateful to him. We had our friendly debates and doubts but he is the first person who listened to our complains that artists should be given a voice in all those big technology conferences. The theme of the event was "Awareness" and we selected works that bridged the gap between perception and understanding. In retrospect i realize that Brady selected the geekiest pieces, Kati (who actually did most of the work) chose the playful ones and i went for information visualization.
Kati and i invited Brooke Singer to join us for a panel which attempted to illustrate the whole idea of awareness to the conference attendees. Because i'm never really interested in writing about my own presentations and because i've covered the work of Brooke several times (and will keep on doing so in the future), i'll just focus on Kati's talk.
She gave me the authorization to publish her slides so here they are:
She compared artists to hackers, they are the one giving the one finger salute to mainstream technology, they have ideas, go against the grain and keep on pushing their own inspiration forward no matter the resistance.
Today, we have more and more tools which empower people: OS hardware and software, library, there's also a revival of the DIY culture, Arduino and Processing are increasingly successful, etc. Suddenly being creative with technology becomes possible for a larger number of people. How does this spirit translate when we think about "awareness"?
Kati then focused on several projects which, according to her, best embody the idea of awareness.
1. Invisible: Waste processes
What happens when we think of our bodies as their own ecosystems? Are they open or closed ecosystems? Where do we draw the boundaries? Before we take medication, do we ask ourselves how it will affect our internal organs, our friendly bacteria? What is our medication's future, beyond our bodies, in the sewage system and out in the waterways we swim in and eventually drink? What are the possible futures of our personal waste? What do sentient ecosystems eat and drink?
Human urine is actually sterile (unlike faeces, it is bacteria-free) and it can be a rich food source if it gets into the right part of the right ecosystem. Now, most human urine travels untreated into the waterways and is a significant cause of eutrophication, a toxic condition caused by harmful algae blooms, in the oceans. The excess nitrogen and phosphorus in our urine overfeeds algae and suffocates fish.
However, a biological waste treatment process developed at EAWAG Aquatic Research in Switzerland can extract this phosphorus & nitrogen for use as a fertilizer, leaving the rest of urine almost harmless to aquatic life. This kit gives users the opportunity to replicate the technique at home and fertilize their plants with their own pee.
2. Invisible: Animal Behavior Patterns
Joshua Klein built a vending machine that teaches crows to deposit coins in exchange for peanuts. Crows are surprisingly (for me) intelligent. Their brain/body weight ratios are similar to chimpanzees. Look at the image below, seagulls don't get the vending machines but those smart little crows seem to understand that there's something worth their attention there.
Once he has fine-tuned the vending machine training, his plan is to train crows for search and rescue, picking up trash, and other mutually beneficial tasks (via boing boing). The machine is only the first step in his quest for "interspecies harmony."
3. Invisible: Social Connections
Generative Social Networking, by Andrew Schneider and Christian Croft, uncovers the dark sides of social networks by exposing their vulnerability. The software uses bluesnarfing to open the mobile phonebooks of people using security loophole-laden Bluetooth devices. This phonebook data is then fed through the GSN System. Unbeknownst to the phone owner, the device betrays its list of phone numbers to a laptop. An Asterisk phone server will then generate a "conversation" with each number in the list. The first number on the list is called and receiver's response recorded. The next number on the list is called, the first number's initial response is played back to the new number, and the new number's response to the old number's prompt is recorded. This continues for however many phone numbers are in the contact list.
More fun with the video.