The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, London's brilliant radio art station, is aired this Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.

My guest today is Atau Tanaka, a composer and performer whose practice bridges the fields of media art, experimental music, and research. During the show we will be talking about the relationship between art & tech and how it has evolved over the past few years, about reenacting one of John Cage's performances, about the space and place for (new) media art in the contemporary art world, etc.

This episode of #A.I.L is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking. But back to Atau Tanaka's bio:

Atau creates sensor-based musical instruments for performance and exhibition, and is known for his work with biosignal interfaces and his research into collective musical creativity in mobile environments.

Atau was born in Tokyo, educated in the States but I first met him 7 or 8 years ago when he was a researcher at Sony Computer Science Laboratory in Paris. He has been working all over Europe ever since: he has been mentor at NESTA, Artistic Co-Director of STEIM in Amsterdam, Director of Culture Lab Newcastle, and is currently Professor of Media Computing at Goldsmiths, University of London.


Atau Tanaka, Global String, 2000

The show will be aired this Wednesday 26th of June at 16:00, London time. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am (I know...) If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.

Image on the homepage: NIME New Interfaces for Musical Expression, Media Lab Europe, Dublin, Ireland, May 24-26 2002.

Sponsored by:





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Photo credit: Amy Scaife

Oil City is a piece of site specific theatre by Platform that interweaves real ecological scandal and fiction to make you better understand the key role that the City of London plays in the operation of the global oil industry.

During one hour approximately, small groups of people are asked to investigate the part that the UK's banking sector -with help from British government officials - is playing in one of the world˙s biggest ecological disasters.

Around you the financial sector shimmers in high-rise office blocks. Behind closed doors deals are being made and oil projects are finding finance with few questions asked. Meanwhile vast swathes of Alberta, Canada, teeter on the brink of ecological disaster, as the struggle to stop tar sands mining of First Nations' Treaty lands fights on.


Trailer for Oil City

I took part in one of the performances on Monday. The day before, i received an email from The Lawyer asking participants to 'be dressed to impress, business interview attire' because we will need to 'blend in' as we will be running around London's financial district. He also gives us appointment at the café at Toynbee Studio 'beside the dark flowers and oily black tablecloth.'

Once we've all arrived, he drives us to Liverpool Street Station, while briefing us about our mission, the people we will be meeting or spying on, etc. At the same time, snippets of information emerge about the environmental scandal we have to investigate......

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Tar sands in Alberta, Canada. The Northern Gateway was going to connect the province to the Pacific coast. Photograph: Orjan F Ellingvag/Dagens Naringsliv/Corbis

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Petrol refined from tar sands crude oil has been imported into Europe, Greenpeace study shows. Photograph: Jeff McIntosh/AP

We are given the mission to dig information about the Canadian tar sands ecological scandal. Tar sands, or oil sands, are deposits of sand and clay saturated with bitumen. They lie under 140,000 km2 of forests near Alberta. It is estimated that the tar sands cover a region the size of England. When the bitumen is close to the surface it is excavated in an opencast mine. The process emits four times more carbon dioxide than conventional drilling. It also involves deforestation and heavy use of natural resources: four barrels of water, energy equal to three barrels of oil, and four tons of earth are required to extract one barrel of oil (via Gaia Foundation.)

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Before and after - Aerial view of chopped down Boreal forest near a tar sands mine north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. © Jiri Rezac / WWF-UK (image via Greenpeace and Open Culture)

The extraction process contaminates the Athabasca River and generates enormous toxic tailing ponds. The Tar Sands extraction is having a brutal impact on the wildlife. Each year, thousands of birds die when they migrate and land in waters to rest. As toxins accumulate in the river, mutations, tumours and deformed fish species have begun to appear. Local communities are worried about how the animals they eat and their drinking water are being affected.

"We are seeing a terrifyingly high rate of cancer in Fort Chipewyan where I live. We are convinced that these cancers are linked to the Tar Sands development on our doorstep. It is shortening our lives. That's why we no longer call it 'dirty oil' but 'bloody oil'. The blood of Fort Chipewyan people is on these companies' hands." - George Poitras, former chief of Mikisew Cree First Nation (via Climate camp.)

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Photo credit: Amy Scaife

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Photo credit: Amy Scaife

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Photo credit: Amy Scaife

But back to the Oil City performance. It is an extremely fast-paced and engaging experience. Once our small group is dropped at Liverpool Street Station, we get to meet an investigative journalist who needs tangible proof of wrongdoings otherwise her editor won't run the article about the ecological scandal, she sends us to gather information from whistle blowers, then we have to locate a banker and lawyer in a nearby café and take 'secret' audio recording of their conversation (they are trying to hide the scandal and lobby so that the EU doesn't block the import of oil from Canada.) We also meet an activist from First Nation communities who gives us her side of the story, how the area they live in and their inherent right of self-government are being violated. At some point, we finally get our hands on incriminating evidence from a lady who cleans the offices in The City during the night. She is from Nigeria and tells us how afraid she is afraid that Canada˙s Boreal Forest is becoming the next Niger Delta.

There's a few tickets left for the upcoming performances, i can't recommend the experience enough.

By eavesdropping on business people and seeking out secret documents hidden in dead-drops, you will help piece together a puzzle that interweaves government files with financial deals. But whose truth counts? And what laws apply when lives are on the line but big profits are to be made?

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Photo credit: Amy Scaife

Performances of Oil City take place at 9am, 1pm and 5pm daily on weekdays until 21st June. Bookings this way. The work is part of Artsadmin's Two Degrees festival of arts, climate change, consumerism and community.

"A labourer over the course of an 8-hour day can sustain an average output of about 75 watts." (Marks' Standard Handbook for Mechanical Engineers.)


Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen, 75 Watt, 2013 - trailer

If 75 Watt had to be reduced to a brief paragraph, it would be described as a product designed specially by Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen to be manufactured in China. Its unique function is to choreograph a dance of assembly line workers.

75 Watt seeks to explore the nature of mass-manufacturing products on various scales; from the geo-political context of the labour fragmented into minute, predictable gestures to the bio-political condition of the human body on the assembly line.

Engineering logic has reduced the factory labourer to a man-machine, through scientific management of every single movement. By shifting the purpose of the labourer's actions from the efficient production of objects to the performance of choreographed acts, mechanical movement is reinterpreted into the most human form of motion: dance. What is the value of this artefact that only exists to support the performance of its own creation? And as the product dictates the movement, does it become the subject, rendering the worker the object?

The work references many theoretical essays about capitalism, work management and industrialization. It also directly alludes to Frank and Lilian Gilbreth's use of time lapse photography to study and subsequently cut back on workers' superfluous motions. The images they created in their research are called chronocyclographs. A camera was attached to a timing device and photographs were taken of workers performing various tasks. The motion paths were traced by small lamps fastened to the worker's head, hands and fingers. With the technique, a complete work cycle could be reduced to the shortest and most efficient sequence of gestures.

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From image verso: "Left hand of drill press operator 'Positioning after transportation' (this study resulted in cutting the time in halves)." Machinist with light showing hand movements, circa 1915. Collection: Frank B. Gilbreth Motion Study Photographs (1913-1917). Repository: The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives

The work began with a research trip in September 2011 to study the movements of production in various factories and assembly plants in Shenzhen and Guangzhou. Back in London, Cohen and Van Balen collaborated with dancer and choreographer Alexander Whitley to design the product. All the parts of the final objects were then manufactured in China and early March 2013, Cohen and Van Balen flew back to China to film the assembly/dance in Zhongshan.

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Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen, 75 Watt, 2013

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Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen, 75 Watt, 2013

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Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen, 75 Watt, 2013

And because i never let a good project pass before my eyes without attempting to get at least a quick interview...

Hi Tuur! What drove the shape of the final object? Or is this a random shape meant to evoke modern electronic devices?

The final object's only function is to choreograph its own assembly: all of the dimensions, components and materials are designed to create specific movements when they're put together. The starting point in this process was a research trip in 2011, when we spent time in various factories around Shenzhen and Guangzhou to study the movements of production.

I was surprised to read that you designed the product together with a choreographer in London. How did he contribute to the design of the object?

We worked with choreographer Alexander Whitley to develop the design of the object through multiple iterations of making and dancing. Alexander is a fellow at the Royal Ballet so we were using the ballet studios in the Royal Opera House to test the models we made with ballet dancers. The dance of the assembly inspired the next iteration of the object and vice versa.

We wanted to re-appropriate the processes of mass-manufacturing that dictate the logic with which these products are made. And those are processes we are all inherently connected to, through the products we use every day.

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Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen, 75 Watt, 2013

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Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen, 75 Watt, 2013

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Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen, 75 Watt, 2013

How easy was it to convince the factory managers to let you organize this ballet? How about the people working in the factory line? Were they eager to participate? How did you explain them their role and the reason why you wanted to shoot the film?

Finding the right factory in China where we could perform (and film) the assembly turned out to be one of the biggest challenges of making this work. Exactly because of that logic of mass-manufacturing, every minute on an assembly line is worth a lot of money and in contrast with our budgets. Eventually, we were lucky to find a culturally minded factory manager who after some Chinese business dinner rituals could be convinced to collaborate.

It didn't take much time for the factory labourers to engage with the work. Most of them are young and keen; they didn't necessarily choose to become factory workers, neither will they be all their lives. We used their experience to organise final aspects of the assembly, like aligning the timings of different steps.

I'm also interested in how you made the final film: was it the result of many rehearsal? Or were the workers also half-improvising there some improvisation?

Because all the parts and components are also made in China, we spent a long time preparing the filming. We only had a few days for the actual filming of the assembly, with one day of rehearsal. Alexander, the choreographer, was there too to finalise, teach and oversee the choreography. Mass-manufacturing is no place for improvisation.

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Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen, 75 Watt, 2013

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Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen, 75 Watt, 2013

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Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen, 75 Watt, 2013

75 Watt will be shown in Brussels on the 13 and 14 June, during Working Title Platform #6 at workspacebrussels.

Related activities for the Chinese factories: Cao Fei's Whose Utopia? video fairy-tale, shot at OSRAM China Lighting Ltd. factory in the Pearl River Delta, shows the workers endlessly repeating the same gestures: they insert tiny filaments into delicate light bulbs, they test then pack them into boxes. Then there's Lisa Ma who sent factory workers in strawberry fields and Jeremy Hutchison who asked factory workers to make him faulty goods.

For some reason, i always forget to check the programme of lectures and exhibitions taking place at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. And when i do, it's bliss and joy on every floor. Right now the institution is showing Cultural Hijack, an exhibition which presents a series of provocative interventions which have inserted themselves into the world, demanding attention, interrupting everyday life, hijacking, trespassing, agitating and teasing. Often unannounced and usually anonymous, these artworks have appropriated media channels, hacked into live TV and radio broadcasts, attacked billboards, re-appropriated street furniture, subverted signs, monuments and civic architectures, organised political actions as protest, exposed corporations and tax loopholes and revealed the absurdities of government bureaucracies.

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Ben Parry and Peter McCaughey, Balaclava Road (in collaboration with Lauren O'Farrell), 2013


Tatzu Nishi, Ascending Descendingi as part of Cultural Hijack at the Architectural Association London. 24th / 25th April 2013

Some works are openly political, others are more playful. Some have been designed to be used by people whose needs are otherwise overlooked, others are clever pranks. Cultural Hijack brings art out of the galleries and into the street. Which imho is always a good thing if you want to reach people who are not already convinced and content with your artistic, cultural or political ideas.

Cultural Hijack unfolds over three chapters: a slightly messy and crammed exhibition documenting the artworks in videos, photos, installations and artists' talks; a series of live-interventions around London; and CONTRAvention, a weekend of lectures, symposia, screenings, participatory actions, interventions, dinners and debate that will close the programme later this month. I'm spectacularly annoyed to miss that one as i won't be in town that week.

So let's wipe off a tear and make a quick selection of the works included in the exhibition.

Chicha Muffler Black Cab: yes, that one does exactly what it says on the tin. Instead of rejecting smoke, the modified exhaust of the cab provides a service of mobile hooka.

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BGL, Chicha Muffler Black Cab, London, 2013. Image Ben Parry

My jaw almost dropped to the floor when i saw the description text and the video for Visual Kidnapping. Street artist Zevs cut out a 40ft woman from a Lavazza billboard in Alexanderplatz, Berlin and 'demanded' a 500,000 Euro donation to the Palais de Tokyo art center in Paris for her return. Which he apparently obtained.

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Zevs, Visual Kidnapping, 2002

With the same haircut, twelve members of Ztohoven took a portrait pictures and using the Morphing software they merged every two faces into one. They applied for new Ids with these photos, but each of them used the name of his alter-ego. They lived for 6 months under someone's else identity, voted in the elections, travelled outside of the country, obtained a gun license or one of them even got married. After this period, they revealed theirs secret identities and documented the whole operation in an exhibition in Prague. The police confiscated their ID's and arrested co-founder of Ztohoven Roman Tyc for failing to show his ID card which was at the time part of the exhibition.

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Ztohoven, Obcan K (from Citizen K), 2012

Paolo Cirio is showing the irresistible Loophole for All, a service to democratize offshore business for people who don't want to pay for their riches. It empowers everyone to evade taxes, hide money and debt, and get away with anything by stealing the identities of real offshore companies.

You can buy the identities of offshore companies on the website of the project Loophole4All.com at fairly low costs.

Cirio also interviewed major experts and produced a video documentary investigating offshore centers to expose their costs and to envision solutions to global economic injustice.

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Paolo Cirio, Loophole for All

For his series of Minaret performances, Michael Rakowitz stands on a rooftop at the five designated times of prayer with a megaphone and an alarm clock that plays the entire adhan (the call summoning Muslims to prayer) from an embedded digital chip.

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Michael Rakowitz, Minaret, 2001 - Ongoing (Enver Hoxa Monument (Pyramide), Tirana, Albania 2005)

Electronic Disturbance Theater's Transborder Immigrant Tool hacks cheap GPS mobile-phones to install a device for helping Mexican immigrants cross the U.S.-Mexico border, providing them navigation, poetry, the location of highways, border patrols and water left by Border Angels in the Southern California desert.

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Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0/b.a.n.g. lab, Transborder Immigrant Tool (2007; photo courtesy 319 Scholes)

EPOS 257 crafts oversized bullets that he fills with paints then shoots at commercial billboards and architectures using an extra-long shooting instrument. Each piece is both a unique abstract painting and a gesture of reverse takeover.

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Urban Shoot Painting, Prague and suburbs, winter and spring of 2009

An 'old' one i was ignorant about: The Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army [or CIRCA], an army of professional clowns who protest against corporate globalisation, war and other issues.

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The Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army. Photo Karen Eliot

I'm sure you know this one already. I still find it as charming as ever: Matthias Wermke & Mischa Leinkauf's In Between („Zwischenzeit") used homemade handcars that can be folded into backpacks to sneak into Berlin's U-bahn and navigate it at night.

Matthias Wermke & Mischa Leinkauf, Zwischenzeit Trailer

Cultural Hijack was curated by artists Ben Parry and Peter McCaughey. It runs daily at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, London, until 26th May 2013. The final weekend will be dedicated to CONTRAvention, a series of lectures, symposia, screenings, participatory actions, interventions, dinners and debate.

Today is the last day to witness All Rise, the week-long performance from Liberate Tate at the Tate Modern gallery. Filming devices strapped on to their chest, performers are reading aloud sections of the transcripts of the trial which started in February in New Orleans and sees BP stand accused of gross negligence over the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.

The performance marks the third anniversary of the disaster but it also questions the sponsorship of Tate by the oil multinational. Each day, three different performers are whispering courtroom transcripts from the BP trial. The videos are streamed live for anyone who can't make it to the Turbine Hall and other exhibition rooms of the institution.

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Liberate Tate, All Rise, 2013. Photo credit: Amy Scaife

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Liberate Tate action at Tate Britain, 2011. Photo credit: Amy Scaife

Two years ago Liberate Tate performed Human Cost in the Duveen Gallery in Tate Britain, where a naked man curled up on the floor had oil poured all over him. And last year the group delivered a 16.5 metre wind turbine blade to the gallery, along with documents officially gifting it to the nation as piece of art. '

Strangely enough, Tate itself triggered the artistic protest. Liberate Tate was indeed founded during a workshop in January 2010 on art and activism, commissioned by Tate. When Tate curators tried to censor the workshop from making interventions against Tate sponsors, even though none had been planned, the incensed participants decided to continue their work together beyond the workshop and set up Liberate Tate.

Now the performance interested me for two reasons: the trial against BP isn't receiving the major international coverage i would have expected (even though the damages to human health and the environment are still very much felt, even though the clean-up is far from being finished and even though the local communities are still struggling to recover from the economic devastation.) The second reason is that, like many people working in art, i find it difficult to make up my mind: is it really so bad to take some dirty money to support the art community? Do we really have a choice in these harsh times of cuts in the art funding?

Mel Evans of Liberate Tate has kindly accepted to answer my questions about the performance.

Liberate Tate has been protesting since 2010 but has been achieved so far?

Well, over 300 artists and cultural workers have signed their name to letters calling on Tate to drop BP sponsorship in the press. Over 8000 Tate members and visitors have petitioned Nicholas Serota to end the sponsorship deal with the oil company. And, at the 2012 Tate Members' AGM, a full hour of the session was filled with diverse voices calling for Tate to disclose more information on the sponsorship deal and heed members' perspective on it. For Liberate Tate, their performance interventions are now held in Tate's archive: a mixed response, but a recognition of significance nonetheless. More and more artists have gotten on board with the call for change, including Conrad Atkinson who has numerous works at Tate, and Raoul Martinez, who has been exhibited as part of the National Portrait Award. Beyond this, we regularly hear tell of Tate staff at all levels sharing our concerns with BP sponsorship at Tate.

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Liberate Tate, All Rise, 2013. Photo credit: Amy Scaife

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Liberate Tate, All Rise, 2013. Photo credit: Amy Scaife

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Liberate Tate, All Rise, 2013. Photo credit: Amy Scaife

Because of Liberate Tate, I (and i'm sure many members of the public) am now acutely aware of the sponsorship and entering the exhibition space with a sense of guilt...

Liberate Tate doesn't intend to make anyone or any visitors feel guilty: our slogan is Love Tate Hate Oil.

We want to raise the question, what does a future look like beyond oil? What role does culture have in shaping oil? And what democratic processes are available in a public body such as Tate to question the social legitimacy given to an oil company whose global impacts are devastating lives and livelihoods? We welcome anyone's participation in this questioning, and this gathering of momentum to push for a shift in this cultural sphere. The arts have moved away from tobacco and arms sponsorship; likewise they will shift from oil, we simply insist it is sooner rather than later.

But it is not a sense a guilt we wish to generate, but rather one of possibility - often this is the question the arts often ask, how do we understand the world, how might we understand it differently, and what might we make possible. Just because oil is a feature of our every day lives does not mean we cannot question it - in fact it is when something is so pervasive that we must consider it more.

In these times of cuts in public funding, corporate sponsorship seems to be a reasonable option. What right do we have to judge Tate and decide where they can and cannot take the money to produce and exhibit contemporary art?

Pressure on arts institutions to make deals with corporations is certainly premised by the Tory-Lib Dem government as justification for the cuts. The opportunity for sponsorship and the impact of the cuts is felt very differently according to organisations sizes however: smaller arts organisations have lost everything through the ACE cuts, and have little opportunity for corporate sponsorship, because business is only interested in the notoriety of allegiances with big name institutions. With Tate as the key example, all of their corporate income from events and sponsorship amounts to a minimal percentage of their overall income. Tate has refused to dispose figures on the BP deal, but we estimate it to be £500,000 - a minuscule slice of Tate's budget. From Tate's own figures we know they still receive about 35% state funding, and raise almost half via Tate Enterprises in their shops, cafes and restaurants. The picture of the corporate knight in shining armour saving the flailing arts institutions is a total misnomer. It is in fact the CEO of Tate Enterprises Laura Wright who has led the way in securing Tate's financial stability.

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The tip of a turbine blade is carried over the Thames from St Paul's Cathedral by Liberate Tate for the artwork The Gift in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall 7 July 2012 Credit: Martin LeSanto-Smith

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The Gift performance by Liberate Tate Tate Modern 7 July 2012. Credit: Ian Buswell

Last year, Tate wasn't too pleased about the wind turbine blade that you offered them as a gift. How is Tate reacting to this year's performance?

The Gift was probably our most confrontational performance to date. It was certainly the largest! Over a hundred people and a 16.5 metre wind turbine blade...It feels good to go in absolutely the other direction with All Rise, and make a work that is quiet, small, unobtrusive. All Rise is really about the ripples a performance can make. Over this week we've drawn in audiences from around the world who can watch the three performers move around Tate Modern via live stream every day 3-4pm GMT+1. On the first day Tate staff questioned what we were doing, but now we have been told no-one will interfere. Visitors notice us and ask questions as performers pass them in the gallery, or stop and listen to the legalistic text of the trial whispered by the performers, but we're not obstructing anyone in any way, so I think there's little grounds to ask us to leave. Tate might also be aware that should they eject us, we have news media on speed dial. Overall, allowing this piece to grow into the space has been great, and unlike The Gift, we're able to bring our questions back to the terrible harm still being felt since the BP Gulf of Mexico disaster, at the same time as inviting Tate visitors, members and staff into a conversation with us.

What do you say when people claim that BP has no influence about what is exhibited in the galleries anyway?

It's very hard for us or them to make an absolute measure on BP's curatorial influence. The presence of a sponsor can censor silently even if not directly - any cases of which would be surely fiercely hidden from view. Several artists note numerous cases in which they have seen BP related censorship take place. Liberate Tate was itself founded during a workshop at Tate in which BP sponsorship was raised when staff sent an email to the organiser stating "to be aware that we cannot host any activism directed against Tate and its sponsors". Beyond that. I see the question also being about, what impact does BP have on Tate by its presence and association? What does Tate become, despite presenting itself as a politically savvy, progressive institution, by association with BP?

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And what can we, general public, do to help 'liberate Tate'?

Go to Tate and raise the questions. Write to Tate. Make art about BP at Tate. Speak to Tate staff you know and ask them what they think. This is an art movement for change that affects us all as artists on some level - we have a stake in the values that influential contemporary art institutions uphold, and it is for us to shape those values in our work. See you in the gallery, challenging the presence of BP in whatever creative way you see fit, be it on feedback forms or something more adventurous! And get in touch at liberatetate [at] gmail.com or @LiberateTate on Twitter if you want to connect with us and what we're trying to do.

Thanks Mel!

If you've missed All Rise, i'd recommend that you check out Tate à Tate, Lib­er­ate Tate's altern­at­ive audio tour of the Lon­don Tate gal­ler­ies.
Also check out Platform London's book The Oil Road - Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London, it's available on Amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

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Mammoth Imperator, -4,5M years ago, Installation view - Photo credit: Stuart Bailes

More than 2 years ago, i was interviewing young designer Marguerite Humeau about her attempt to bring back to life the voice of extinct creatures by reconstructing their voice box. The idea is even bolder than it sounds because the lungs, trachea, larynx + vocal folds, mouth and nose are made of soft tissue, and therefore don't fossilize. Marguerite started by giving her voice back to Lucy (aka Australopithecus Afarensis), one of the first hominids who used to live 3,85 to 2,95 million years ago.

Since then, Marguerite's work has gathered awards, been presented in several exhibitions and discussed in conferences. But even more interestingly, the resuscitation endeavour has expanded to more extinct animals. A mammoth and two ultra ugly and fearsome creatures, the Walking Whale and the Terminator Pig, have now joined the loud party.

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The Opera of Prehistoric Creatures. Left to right: Entelodont, "Hell Pig", -25M years ago; Ambulocetus, "Walking Whale", -50M years ago; Mammoth Imperator, -4,5M years ago. Photo credit: Dirk van den Heuvel, March 2013

To re-create the vocal tract of the animals, the designer met with paleontologists, elephant vocalization specialists, explorers, engineers and other experts. The process of reconstruction involved shaping 3D models of the soft tissue from MRI scans and/or fossil data. Sending air through the resulting prototypes triggers a sound that might be similar to the sound the prehistoric creatures made when they were alive.

Marguerite presented the animals in the Politique-Fiction exhibition in Saint-Etienne. Check out the audio recording. More recently, the prehistoric creatures where in Eindhoven for the STRP biennial where they performed live for the first time together with Dutch musician and DJ Jameszoo. If you're curious about the result of the encounter, just click on the images at the bottom of this page.

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Entelodont, "Hell Pig", -25M years ago - Photo credit: Dirk van den Heuvel - March 2013

Sadly, i missed the prehistoric creatures' performance in Eindhoven. Which gave me a good excuse to contact Marguerite and get more details about her work:

Hi Marguerite! I first interviewed you during the work in progress show at RCA. You were starting to work on 'bringing back to life' the vocal chords of Lucy (Australopithecus Afarensis) who used to live 3,85 to 2,95 million years ago. Your new opera features 3 prehistoric creatures. An Ambulocetus, an Entelodont, and a Mammoth. Can you tell us why you chose these 3 creatures? And what they are exactly?

We talked at the very beginning of my epic quest to resuscitate the sound of prehistoric creatures by reconstructing their vocal tracts.

'The opera of prehistoric creatures' now features three beasts namely an Ambulocetus aka 'Walking Whale' (which used to live 50 to 48 million years ago), an Entelodont aka 'Terminator Pig' (which used to live 38 to 16 million years ago), and a Mammoth Imperator (which used to live 4,5 million years ago). All three pieces are realised on a 1/1 scale and standing on trestles at the height of each original animal.

I first started to work on Lucy, one of the first hominid. Lucy is now part of the MoMA permanent collection and touring as part of a show curated by Mark Leckey for the Hayward Gallery (Hayward Touring program) called The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things. The show deals with our contemporary animistic relationship to the objects around us. As Mark Leckey explains, "as modern technology becomes more pervasive objects appear to communicate with us". This seems to bring us back "an archaic state of being, to aboriginal landscapes of fabulous hybrid creatures, where images are endowed with divine powers, and even rocks and trees have names".

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Ambulocetus, "Walking Whale", -50M years ago, Installation view - Photo credit: Felipe Ribon

The three large pieces - Entelodont, Ambulocetus, and Mammoth Imperator - are hypothetical reconstructions of the beasts vocal tracts. Because the vocal tract (larynx, vocal chords, trachea, lungs, resonance cavities) is made of soft tissue, it does not fossilise. This was problematic from a scientific perspective. But as a designer, solving this enigma was really exciting. I would have to redesign all these inner parts, using different areas of science, but also, and most important, other tools like speculation, design, rumours, collective imaginary.

My work of reenactment was therefore made difficult. The project questions the way we talk about prehistory - and about our history. How can we talk about something that has entirely disappeared? All the attempts to tell this story will only be one version amongst many different versions of the original story.

This was made very clear in the process of the project. We have a lot of clues on how Woolly Mammoth used to look like, to sound like, where they used to live, etc. Also, as we talked about last time, there are a few Woolly Mammoths which have been found in the Siberian permafrost. We have much less clues on how the Mammoth Imperator used to be like. This is why I was really interested in it.

The plot thickens with the Walking Whale, a terrestrial mammal which started to swim. I speculated on its vocal tract. It might have been somewhere between a larynx (like terrestrial mammals) and a sonar (like dolphins).


Ambulocetus, from the BBC series Walking with Beasts

There are equally very few fossils of the Terminator Pig. I therefore even had to recreate a fictional skull of this creature so I could base my research on something tangible.

The beasts are now revived. They are semi-real, synthetic ruins.

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Setting-up the performance

The 3 beasts are performing in an opera which premiered at the STRP biennial a few weeks ago. I couldn't be there for the performance but i did see the beasts in the exhibition. How did you animate them? What was the performance like?

The beasts perform an opera. Each of them produces a sound as their vocal chords vibrate. The sound is controlled by a 'brain' which was designed by Julien Bloit. We had long conversations together with Julien Bloit and our sound collaborator Charles Goyard on how this brain should be constructed. We looked into Claude Levi-Strauss research and were especially inspired by this quote: «Humanity is constantly struggling with two contradictory processes. One of these tends to promote unification, while the other aims at maintaining or re-establishing diversification».

We were interested in the idea of creating a fictitious cycle for a speculated rebirth. We also looked into Oudeyer's research on the evolution of speech.

Instead of starting from a parent (single) call, and then get more and more complex like most languages; we would reverse the process so the beasts would get born as complex beings and tend towards simplification and unification.

Each performance lasts for 1H30.

For STRP we tried a new experiment. We asked local dubstep musician Mitchel van Dinther (aka Jameszoo) to tell the beasts a story in 3 acts. For the performance, I asked Mitchel to face the beasts, so it was a battle between himself (the maestro) and the three creatures. As if he was persuading them to reveal something. Mitchel was challenging them to react to the story, trying to find the right notes and attempting to have an impossible conversation.

PERFORMANCE

Synopsis
No reenactment is possible without destroying the original versions of the extinct and unknown creatures that we are trying to resuscitate. We soon realised that, in the absence of evidentiary material, we would have to pillage past and present times. We don't copy, and we don't remix, but what we do is recreate. We clone beasts and we clone beats. The soundtrack is dark and exhilarating, creating an electronic ceremony for semi-real animals. We are the tour guides of this post-prehistoric jungle.

Act I - Extinction - 3"
This act shows the creatures' last days and their fight against extinction. The last descendants of each of these species have disappeared and the circumstances of their extinction remain unknown. This first act is a reenactment of the process of extinction which took place millions of years ago.

Act II - Prehistoric cryogenics - 7"
Millions of years later surprising discoveries are made around the Taymyr Peninsula in Siberia. In 2007 the body of a 37,000 year old baby mammoth is found frozen and perfectly preserved. This baby mammoth, Lyuba, is now the oldest baby on Earth. The sleeping beauty has now awoken and its genes will be used to clone a synthetic woolly mammoth. Similar processes will be used to clone a 'terminator pig' and a 'walking whale'. This act also relays the story of a modern Professor, Frankenstein, whose ambition is to grow prehistoric vocal cords. At the end of this act the beasts are brought back to life and the first semi-real roars can be heard.

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The carcass of the world's most well-preserved baby mammoth, named Lyuba, is displayed in Hong Kong on April 10, 2012. Photo credit: Aaron Tam / AFP - Getty Images

Act III - Reverse evolution - 4"
The beasts are semi-real and suddenly they roar in a non-macabre but spectacular pandemonium. The beasts are alive, but while their voices and their linguistic skills evolve they face complex challenges. Claude Levi-Strauss wrote that humanity was constantly facing two contradictory processes; the beasts are struggling with similar evolutionary contradictions. While one process promotes unification, the beasts will also try to maintain and reaffirm diversification. It is not known whether the beasts will embrace a unique, primal sound or if they will succeed in their quest to become complex and ever-evolving creatures.

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Walking Whale in Politique Fiction exhibition curated by Alexandra Midal, installation view. Image credit: Felipe Ribon

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Mammoth Imperator. Larynx with vocal cords, 2012

A text describing the opera says that the performance "sets up the rebirth of three cloned prehistoric creatures, showing their wanderings and their epic journey through time. They are seeking to evolve in our contemporary era." How do you see them evolving in our era? Surely, there is no place for them now?

The opera is an ambiguous piece of work. On one hand, the revived creatures and their sounds are fascinating and exhilarating. On the other hand, one might think: "How far will we go with cloning technologies? Is this really what we want?".

Proposal for Resuscitating Prehistoric Creatures- Installation trailer (Video: Ben Penna, Sound: Association Phonotonic)

Are you planning to do something else with these creatures? Or are they happy staring in an opera only?

"Proposal for Resuscitating Prehistoric Creatures" is now comprised of a trailer directed by Benjamin Penaguin; a book called "The Infinite Odyssey" gathering all my documents and correspondence; an 'Épopée' in 14 chapters which has been published in TAR Magazine Issue n.9.
There is the large-scale installation with the three creatures, and Lucy ... Then the performance with Mitchel van Dinther accompanied by a libretto.

I am very interested in the idea of an infinite, never-ending project, a project that always renews itself and comes back to life in different forms.

This project is the first chapter of the 'design trilogy' I am currently working on, which deals with attempting to communicate with unreachable, extinct or unknown forms of life.

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The Infinite Odyssey - correspondance et documents -- 38 X 26.5 CM - Edition of 10- Collection: MoMA, New York, 2011

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Tar Magazine
"Epopée" written and designed by Marguerite Humeau with extracts from book designed by Ghazaal Vojdani - 32.5 X 35 CM - April 2013

I'm also intrigued by the people you collaborated with in order to create the opera. Namely, Jameszoo, Julien Bloit and Ben Penna. How did you get to work with them? Is it easy to convince other artists to work on an opera for prehistoric creatures?

In June 2011, I completed the Mammoth Imperator for my final show at the Royal College of Art. I was then commissioned by curator Alexandra Midal to complete my opera for the exhibition Politique-Fiction at the Cité du design in Saint-Etienne.

I started then to work with Julien Bloit who is a research engineer and musician; and engineer/inventor Charles Goyard whom I worked with to refine the design of the larynges and vocal cords. Working together was truly fantastic. We would spend days experimenting in Charles' studio in Montreuil, discussing about the project on a more conceptual level, building and testing prototypes.

The project is like a science-fiction adventure film made for real. I was also interested in using strategies from the film industry to exhibit the project, as an installation, online, as a printed story, and so on.

I have been discussing about this project from the very beginning with art director/graphic designer Benjamin Penaguin . We then developed the idea of a trailer together and I gave him "Carte blanche". We now work and discuss a lot together. Benjamin also designed the libretto for the performance Beasts Back Saga with Mitchel van Dinther.

I discovered Mitchel's music recently. I immediately became a big fan of his EP Faaveelaa. He mixes the sound of his chicken (which lives in his kitchen) and of his parrot to create very strange and interesting beats. I wrote a story in three acts and asked him to create a track for each chapter. It was also a "Carte Blanche".

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The Opera of Prehistoric Creatures. Installation view 
in Politique Fiction exhibition
. Curator: Alexandra Midal. Image credit: Felipe Ribon

Any upcoming project, field of investigation, or exhibition you'd like to share with us? Do you want to talk about the letters to the (almost) Aliens?

I am working on the second chapter of my design trilogy for my upcoming solo show.

With 'The Opera of Prehistoric Creatures' project, I wanted to explore the use of design as a catalyst of supernatural events and miracles, as a producer of real-time science-fictions and as the prosthetics of parallel worlds. These are topics I have been investigating since my Master dissertation at the Royal College of Art.

In this second chapter I will explore the idea of the 'designer-illusionist' further.

This new project is an epistolary novel relating my attempt to communicate with the possible 'almost-alien' inhabitants of the Vostok Lake in Antarctica.

The Vostok Lake is one lake amongst four hundreds subglacial lakes in Antarctica which are covered with kilometres of ice. The Vostok lake has been isolated under three kilometers of ice from the rest of the world for more than fifteen million years.

A dilemma emerges from this situation. Drilling through the ice and reaching the lake (like what the Russian scientific team has been doing in the past years) means altering its 'alien' character. But if we choose not to enter this lake we are left with a complete mystery.

This situation also occurs in Fellini's film Roma. While building the Roman subway, the workers reach a wall. They have to drill through this wall in order to pursue the construction of the subway. They discover behind this wall a magnificent roman villa covered with beautiful frescoes. These paintings had been isolated from the rest of the world for thousand of years.
The hole is drilled. Immediately, the paintings start vanishing. Exposing them to modern air triggers their instant destruction.


Fellini, Roma, 1972

How could I find an alternative way to communicate with these 'almost-aliens' without penetrating the lake pristine waters? And how could I convince them to reveal their identity and tell us more about what is hidden under the ice? How could my "letters" to them look like?

Maybe I could trick them into thinking that we know who they are... using illusions, mimicry, or camouflage, building dummies in order to trigger a response.

I am really inspired by the work of illusionist Jasper Maskelyne who was hired by the British Army during the Second World War. He and his "Magic Gang" used magic tricks on a large-scale: they made Alexandria disappear, created a dummy army with fake tanks and soldiers and so on.

This project could also refer to Ettore Sottsass "Ceramics of Darkness" designed in 1963.

I am currently being advised by glaciologists, illusionists, psychologists, conspiracy theorists, telepathy practitioners and even dowsers.
The piece will be unveiled in a solo exhibition curated by Alexandra Midal in the Design Project Room, at the HEAD in Geneva in November 2013.

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Mammoth Imperator, -4,5M years ago, Installation view. Photo credit: Dirk van den Heuvel, March 2013

Merci Marguerite!

The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things curated by Mark Leckey is at Nottingham Contemporary until 20 Oct 2013. I think i might go....

Previously: The rebirth of prehistoric creatures and STRP Biennial, a walk through the city of cyborgs.

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