There's so much more i'd like to write regarding the PHotoEspaña festival which runs in Madrid until July 28. Time has come to cover other exhibitions and artistic events i've visited more recently. However, i can't turn the page without mentioning this little fellow playing as ghetto policeman. Almost every mainstream Spanish newspaper selected this image among those offered by the press kit to illustrate their coverage of the festival.

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The portrait was made by Henryk Ross, a Polish Jewish photographer who was employed by the Department of Statistics for the Jewish Council within the Lodz ghetto during the Holocaust. Ross documented everyday life in the ghetto while staying officially in the good graces of the German occupier. Before the closure of the ghetto in 1944, Ross buried his negatives in the hope to leave a record of the martyrdom.

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I found this edition of the PHotoEspaña festival amazingly good. One of the most thought-provoking shows, Committed Places, Topography and the Present, displays the work of ten photographers who use the genre of topography photography as a medium to go beyond the representation of physical places and reflect on a series of social, historical or political issue. These photographers know how to work their public: first you grab their attention with a spectacular or intriguing image then you tell them the story that lurks behind the print. Some of the participating artists were familiar to me (Geert Goiris , Walter Niedermayr and Taryn Simon) but i discovered other photographers worth a mention and some praise:

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Beate Gütschow, S #22

The show opens with Beate Gütschow's puzzling B&W S series (the S is short for Stadt, or "city"). What looks like vaguely familiar, yet slightly post-apocalyptic, urban spaces are in fact digital assemblages of details from the artist's archive of images of buildings, people, and concrete structures seen in Chicago, Los Angeles, Sarajevo, Kyoto and other urban environments.

The depressing urbanscapes are inhabited by small human figures who are actually the only element we recognize: they are mostly tourists, homeless people or drug addicts.

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From the series 3.16

On March 16, 2003, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George W. Bush met in The Azores (Portugal) to reconfirm their intention to continue the war on terror that took a stern turn after 9/11. The distressing images of the New York tragedy have been broadcast over and over again on TV in all their spectacularity and pathos. This stress put on the importance of the deaths occurred in New York is somewhat at odds with the abstract images of fireworks diffused by the same tv stations to illustrate the Gulf War. Augusto Alves da Silva went to the Azores and shot eleven photographies between 7 am and 7 pm. 3 as each of the planes of Blair, Aznar then Bush landed, the others were taken before and after. As in 1991, the massacre that was decided on this meeting is not shown. Instead we have the idyllic images of the Azorean landscape.

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Simon Starling: One Ton II, 2005; installation view, Turner Prize 2005, Tate Britain

I almost missed what is probably the most fascinating piece of the exhibition: a series of 5 identical medium-size images. Simon Starling's One Ton, II aims to raise our awareness on energy consumption and in particular the huge amounts of energy used to produce tiny quantities of platinum.

Both the subject matter and its mode of production strikingly allude to the fact that one ton of ore, mined from the South African open cast mine pictured in the images, was needed to produce Starling's five platinum prints.

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One Ton, II suggests also that art cannot be totally dissociated from the complex networks of historical, economic, and geopolitical forces that bring it into existence.

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The Borgo Pass, 3. From the series The Travel of Jonathan Harker

Themain (albeit invisible) protagonist of Joachim Koester's pictures is Count Dracula. The photographer embarked on a trip to the Bargau Valley (Transylvania), the very location where Bram Stoker situated Dracula's Castle, Jonathan Harker's ride against the wolves and the final crumbling to dust of the nasty vampire. Stoker never visited Transylvania, he researched the setting of his novel in the comfy environment of the reading rooms of the British Museum.

0aminidraculal.jpg The Borgo Pass, 2. From the series The Travel of Jonathan Harker

Koester's photos invite us to a journey that roughly follows the steps of Jonathan Harker but has more to do with suburban sprawls and kitsch tourist industry than ghoulish "undeads". Instead of the "bewildering mass of fruit blossoms" described in the novel, what can be find at the outskirts of Bistrita is more like a blossoming of big suburban houses, not much different than the ones you can see anywhere else in the world. The photographer proceeded to Borgo Pass where he met with decaying remains of the Communist era and ended the trip at the Hotel Castle Dracula located where the Count's castle is in the novel and built in the '80s to tap on the touristic appeal of the region's most illustrious inhabitant. At the time of Koester's trip the area was "haunted" by scandals involving illegal loggings which were plaguing even the most remote mountaintops and leaving treeless spots in the landscape. A situation which obviously hints less to any evocation of a fictitious characters than to the transformation of the environment by the forces of market economy.

An at least equally sinister place, The Barker Ranch, located inside the Death Valley National Park in California, was caught by the lens of Joachim Koester. The isolated place gained fame for being the last hideout of Charles Manson and his "family" during and after the Los Angeles murder spree which saw the death of 8 people, including Roman Polanski's wife Sharon Tate.

The exhibition text explains that when the "family" was not roaming the desert in dune buggies, they would look for an entrance to a subterranean world that would serve as their shelter during the upcoming apocalypse. The photographer evokes the connections between the Family's dwellings and western-style sceneries. The Spahn Ranch, where Manson and his group of followers lived before Barker, was a ramshackle movie set for westerns. In fact most of the Family meals were prepared and eaten in the former prison. As for the Barker Ranch, it was a classic hideout in a region which used to be populated by prospectors, gold seekers, scientologists and ghost towns. Most of the film rumoured to have been shot during the Family stay at Barker Ranch has disappeared

The dilapidated site has been left vacant since the departure of the Family.

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29 Palms: Security and Stabilization Operations, Graffiti

In 2003, An-My Lê was granted permission to photograph U.S. military training exercises in preparation for deployment to Afghanistan and Iraq. The series 29 Palms takes its name from the Marine base in southern California's Mojave Desert where Lê photographed, in her distanced documentary style, American soldiers both rehearsing their own roles and playing the parts of their adversaries. Their practice includes dressing as Iraqi police and tagging former military housing with mock anti-American graffiti.

Found this video about her work on you tube:

Peter Piller collects images he finds in the filing cabinets of regional newspapers, police archives or other more-or-less public sources. By rearranging them in series and displaying them in frames he gives them a new purpose and a new meaning.

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Autowäsche 7

Von Erde schöner, the series he is showing in Madrid, has its origins in the archives of a company which, in the 1980´s, was seeking to commercially exploit the pride of German house owners. Colour aerial photographs of single family homes and the surrounding property were taken and offered, neatly framed, to the respective owners. In 2002, Piller came into the possession of 20,000 negatives of the pictures.

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Unlike the company that often offered just a larger detail of the photo, avoiding unattractive things in the surroundings to make the house appear more attractive, Piller always uses the entire picture of the negative. By refraining from intervening in the image, interesting details emerge. Excavation or the foundations of another house under construction can be seen, for example.

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Verbindungsbilder 1, 2002-04

Piller arranged the aerial photographs according to the various criteria: some have shut Venetian blinds and other features indicating that the occupants are not home, others come with swimming pool, or show a person in front of house, birds are flying another series, etc. Of course, none of these elements played a role when the photos were originally taken.

At the Museo de Colecciones ICO in Madrid, until August 24.

I must be the most frustrated blogger i know. Well, i don't know that many bloggers but i can tell you that being in China is both an endless source of surprises and enthusiasm and an extremely upsetting experience, courtesy of the Great Firewall of China. Yesterday i could still painfully access my blogging platform through a proxy. Today it's over and after having cried on my favourite puppet shoulder, i had to resort to some complicated solution to put this text online. Enough moaning!

One of the best discoveries of PHotoEspaña was Descubrimientos PHE, the Festival's portfolio review and launching platform for new talents in international photography. This year the exhibition highlighted 70 photographs coming from 42 countries. There were some amazing photos. One thing i noticed is that the interest for desolated interiors of ex-Soviet countries and China speedy urbanization landscapes is far from fading away.

A selection:

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Roc Herms's photo series El Opio del Pueblo

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México, it has been said, means "City of the Messiah", others believe that its origins are in the name of the god Mecitli. From the symbol of its capital (an angel), to the thousands of messages plastered on lighters, tshirts, key holders or hats, the country, believes the photographer, has been taken over by a form of "religious pop art".

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In To Russia With Love, Monica Menez tells the story of two twin living dolls on a trip to a postcard Russia.

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Involved in programs which support children living in Chernobyl, Quino Castro traveled to Belarus to photograph the ultimate fromtier.

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Claudio Rasano went to Georgia to shoot Living in Tbilisi.

Let's go further East with Ferit Kuyas

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In City of Ambition, we follow the photographer on a trip to one of the largest cities in the world, yet one we might never have heard of: Chongqing. The booming economy lead to the mushrooming of construction sites and cranes everywhere. Kuyas parallels this situation to the one that Manhattan lived in the very beginning of the 20th century - when it was being built. That's how the photo series came to be named after a 1910 photograph of the young skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan by Alfred Stieglifz, City of Ambition.

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The photographer writes: The immense size of the city, heat, humidity, fog, dust and traffic turned this project into an adventure. Using a 4x5 inch view camera forced me to work slowly. Travel logistics required me to limit my equipment. I worked with color negative film and restricted myself to one exposure per image. After developing the film and making contactsheets I scanned all selected material. I like to work hybrid because it gives me more control over the result.

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Sabrina Jung dedicated a photo series to stage model structures.

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And now for something totally different, Ingo Taubhorn started to explore life of men wearing Die Kleider meiner Mutter (My mother's clothing) in the '90s.

The winner of Descubrimientos PHE is rewarded with a solo show at the next edition of PHotoEspaña. Last year's winner, Harri Pälviranta, was presenting Battered upstairs. The disturbing photo documentary, inspired by crime-scene photography (all the way to WeeGee) and police pictures, focuses on the physical marks left on the face and body of men who have engaged into a bit of a fight in public space.

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Battery and street fights are every night activities during the weekends in Finland. People have a strong tendency to get intoxicated whilst partying and, once drunk, people are released from their inhibitions. Aggression turns into physical acts, to direct violence.

There is a social awareness of this topic in Finland, the issue is recognized and is considered to be a severe social problem. However, the discussion has mainly literal dimensions; it appears in news headlines and is discussed in seminars. But there are no images of these events.

Too brutal for squeamish me.

Descubrimientos runs until July 27 at Complejo el Aguila.

The Helga de Alvear gallery in Madrid is currently running a (very timely) exhibition on the controversial topic of Extraordinary Rendition. The expression was coined by the Bush administration to define new legal measures designed to sidestep the existing Human Rights system and deprive some individuals from its protection in the name of the fight against terrorism.

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Detainees at Camp X-Ray, at Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

The Patriot Act, for example, expands the authority of US law enforcement agencies for "terrorism investigation." It limits -when it does not completely abolish it- citizens' right to privacy or freedom of expression, allows for kidnapping and confinement of persons without charges, without trial or a detention period as has been happening in Guantanamo since 2002.

The gallery invited four renowned artists to reflect on the issue.

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Elmgreen and Dragset, Phone Home, 2008

Phone Home (2003), by Elmgreen & Dragset, is the only work on exhibit that has not been created specifically for the show. The installation looks at the loss of the right to privacy in communications. Five telephone cabins are lined up in the gallery. A note informs visitors that they can call anyone they want in the world for free. Of course there's a trick: the conversation you are planning to have will be broadcast in the gallery, recorded and a table with audio players and headphones will enable future visitors to listen to what you said.

Under the new rules of extraordinary rendition, physical and psychological torture is justified. Spanish Inquisition-like methods of torture get toned down but that's because some of them are given new names, like waterboarding, in an attempt to disguise their true meaning.

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Santiago Sierra, Público iluminado con generador de gasolina, 2008

True to his wam bam approach, Santiago Sierra chose to address torture and one of its most commonly applied methods: the sleep deprivation of detainees for days and months. A huge spotlight operated by a generator are the only elements in Público iluminado con generador de gasolina [Public illuminated by oil generator]. Unfortunately the gallery had run out of oil (another very timely issue) when i went there and the installation was turned off.

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Alicia Framis, Welcome to Guantanamo, 2008. Image courtesy of Galería Helga de Alvear, Madrid

Alicia Framis is presenting the first part of a wider project called Welcome to Guantánamo Museum. The installation documents the key elements that would form this hypothetical museum on the US detention centre in Cuba. Scale models, drawings, prototypes, floor plans and structures are exhibited together with an audio piece created with Enrique Vila Matas and Blixa Bargeld. The project echoes our society's need to museify everything, think of Auschwitz and Alcatraz. Should we recoil at the idea of turning horror into a tourist attraction or should we decide that such museums are not a necessary evil, a way of ensuring that atrocities are not forgotten?

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Alicia Framis, Welcome to Guantanamo, 2008. Image courtesy of Galería Helga de Alvear, Madrid

The proposal for a Guantanamo Museum will include a selection of exhibition objects and merchandising that reflect the museum's theme and motto -- Things to forget. There will be a Le Corbusier chaise longue turned into an electric chair, a non-existent mailbox, shoes which contain inside their heels a system to allow prisoners to commit suicide, a series of orange clothing and objects designed by Framis together with students during workshops, furniture for the museum will be designed and built using the material of inmates' cells, etc. At the same time a sound room will recall the names of all the caged prisoners in Guantanamo.

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James Casebere, Flooded cell #2, 2008

James Casebere made photos of what he calls Flooded Cells. These images conjure up allusions to prisons, claustrophobic and oppressive spaces somehow reminiscent of Piranesi's fictitious and distressing prisons (carceri) yet also referencing the method of torture by simulated drowning.

Extraordinary is part of the Off programme of PhotoEspana. You can see the show until July 19 at the Helga de Alvear gallery in Madrid. My images.

Related stories: Trevor Paglen's talk at Transmediale, Interview with the Institute for Applied Autonomy, They make art not bioterrorism, Tracking the Torture Taxis.

Hola! I'm in Madrid stuffing myself with the sublime tortilla de patatas and checking out the projects developed this month at Medialab Prado as part of the now illustrious Interactivos? workshop. The theme of this edition is Vision Play, the public presentation is tomorrow June 14 at 6.30 pm and it's going to be extremely good.

Meanwhile the Photo Espana Festival is all over the city. Here's just an appetizer from one of the many exhibitions i've seen today:

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Words, 2008

Heart of Gold, Félix Curto's solo show at La Fábrica Galería, takes its title from a song by Neil Young. It features ten photographs taken by the Spanish artist while he was visiting the Mennonite communities in America.

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After the Goldrush, 2008

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Dreamin´man, 2008

From the press release:
The Mennonite communities in America work the land and lead simple lives, with no cars, electricity or any other modern conveniences. All of this is an expression of their understanding of the Christian faith, and they guard their privacy extremely jealously, totally isolated from the outside world. Currently, there are Mennonite communities in 82 countries, with over a million and a half members. The members of this community are, as the artist says, "good people, united by a strong spirituality that is never mentioned and yet is perceived at all times. Life in the community turns mutual respect and assistance into something that is completely normal, routine. They are reserved men and women, but if they empathise with you they will open their hearts to you." The atmosphere in the Mennonite communities, not unlike that of a Western film, is pervaded by the philosophy of non-violence.

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Curto has something of a traditionalist himself. He keeps using the Nikkon 801 AF, 35 milimeters his mother gave him almost 20 years ago. He doesn't use a tripod, nor does he require the help of an assistant. He takes only one picture in each situation. Using a digital camera would therefore make no sense to him.

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Heart of Gold, 2008

Hear of Gold runs until July 19 at La Fábrica Galería in Madrid.

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