Tomorrow FACT in Liverpool is opening Science Fiction: New Death, an exhibition which explores how advances in technology are making everyday lives feel increasingly similar to universes so far heralded by science-fiction.
One of the works in the show is a spectacularly seducing short film by Larissa Sansour. Nation Estate proposes a vertical solution to Palestinian statehood. Instead of navigating their currently heavily fragmented and controlled territory through dispiriting screening processes and check points, Palestinians living in an undetermined future would be housed inside a colossal high-tech skyscraper. Each city (Jerusalem, Nablus, Ramallah, etc.) would have its own floor. The building is surrounded by concrete walls but its inhabitants would be able to travel in and out of their country using a highly efficient subway system and go from one Palestinian city to another using an elevator.
Nation Estate (clip)
As i wrote above, the images in the film are very seducing. Their sleek aesthetics is full of irony and humour but the dystopian scenario also alludes to the absurdity and complexity of every day life for Palestinians.
Conceived in the wake of the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations in 2011, the work comments on the shrinking territory of the Palestinian state and the difficulty for its inhabitant to move from one city to another. In 2011, the work was nominated for a prized sponsored by Lacoste at the Musée de l'Elysée in Lausanne. The nomination was then revoked as the sponsor found that the work was "too pro-Palestinian." Furthermore, Sansour was asked her to sign an agreement saying that she had chosen to withdraw herself from the competition.
The censorship attracted the attention of the press and the museum eventually took the decision to side with the artist, breaking off their relationship with Lacoste.
What makes Nation Estate so powerful is that you can very well imagine that the whole Palestinian population might one day be confined to a sole high-rise building. And what makes Nation Estate even more powerful is that you can just well imagine that they won't even be allowed to do that. At least, not on what is left of their own land.
Born in Jerusalem, Larissa Sansour studied Fine Art in Copenhagen, London, New York. Her work is interdisciplinary, immersed in the current political dialogue and utilises video, photography, installation, the book form and the internet. I'm thrilled that she accepted to answer my questions about her work:
Hi Larissa! Why did you decide to give Nation Estate a sci-fi, futuristic treatment? What does sci-fi and a dystopic approach bring to your work that a setting in a realistic present wouldn't allow?
I feel that Palestinians are currently living through a stretch of post apocalyptic history. Politics on the ground is so surreal, that it is sometimes hard to comment on what is going on there in just a straight forward way. Sci-fi often predicts humanity's future and future concerns. The world that sci-fi films and literature usually build, reflects our unease with progress and technology and its clash with organic matter in the world. In the same way, I think Palestine has been undergoing a very harsh and fast shift in their reality under the rational modernist Construct of the Israeli State and all of the calamities that that entailed for Palestinians. As the international community is still struggling to reinforce the law on the expanding Israeli settlements and other violations of human rights by the state of Israel, the Palestinian people have been pushed to living under subhuman and often very surreal conditions. It only feels appropriate to reflect that reality in a visual language that matches that other worldliness lived by Palestinians.
I saw an extract of Nation Estate a few weeks ago during a talk you gave at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. I was particularly interested in the transport system the film portrayed. Could you explain how the subway and elevators work? And why you have people move underground or vertically?
Nation Estate posits and imagines a Palestinian state in the future. As it becoming harder and harder to understand what a viable Palestinian state would look like, seeing that Israeli settlements are slowly eating away at what is left of Palestinian territory, the film suggests that the only way we can imagine a feasible Palestine is in vertical form rather than horizontal, due to there being no more land left for Palestinians. Nation Estate is a highly futuristic technically advanced skyscraper that houses the entire Palestinian population. Each floor represents a different Palestinian town, Ramallah on the 3rd floor, Jenin on the 5th, Jerusalem on the 7th, Bethlehem on the 21st and so on. So, trips between towns that at present are very hard to make due to Israeli checkpoints would become so easy, as they are made by way of an elevator. The building also features a great development for Palestinians and that is the ease of movement between Jordan and Nation Estate.
Palestinians are currently not allowed to use the Israeli airport, which would make trips from and to the outside world easier. Instead all Palestinians have to enter Palestine through Jordan which makes it a much longer journey. In Nation Estate, a new line between Amman and Palestine is constructed, the Amman express underground, which only takes 15 min.
During that same presentation you also mentioned the fact that, as a Palestinian artist, you had to deal a lot with attention fatigue. Could you expand on this?
I think the world has grown weary to news footage that is coming out of the Middle East and especially to news coming out of Israel and Palestine. The problem at hand is more than 60 years old and it is most often than not represented as a conflict, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So, people get the impression that it is a conflict between two equal powers that just can't get along and the reasons are most often ascribed to religion, whereas in reality what is happening in Palestine is another form of colonialism. Not coming to terms with that unfortunately only feeds the desperation for any solution to be found and continues the cycle of blaming the two sides, while the stronger side keeps getting stronger and the tragedy just keeps getting worse. And I think audiences from outside of Palestine have grown immune to any information coming out of that region as all the news seems repetitive and the situation at hand seems to be futile and beyond help.
I would also expect that, once again as a Palestinian artist, you meet with politically-motivated pressure. The Lacoste sponsorship is the obvious example but could you give more examples of this sort of censorship?
What was disturbing about the Lacoste sponsorship is how blatant the censorship was. I was basically told, we decided to remove your name from the 8 nominees list. Also, what made it even more sinister is that I was asked the next day, to sign a paper saying that I left the competition according to my own personal decision to seek other opportunities. It is was very clear that Lacoste did not think that an artist has any power to battle such a giant fashion company like themselves. Fortunately, things did not go according to their plan.
But I did experience other forms of censorship. I guess one cannot call them censorship as such as it is more subtle than that. But many Palestinian artists are just simply not selected, or subjected to systematic silencing. Several times, I was asked to change the titles of my shows because they sounded too problematic, politically speaking. Several years ago, a group show I was in in the US, nearly closed down before opening night, simply because it featured too many Palestinian artists. The show was finally allowed to open on the condition that the catalogues that accompanied the show were not made public. So, these various forms of silencing unfortunately happen often.
How do Palestinian people react to this vision of the future nation that your film gives?
I am happy that Palestinians usually respond really well to my work. I think Palestinians can identify quickly with the surreal and dystopic elements in my films since we all had to deal with the surreal and absurd realities that the Israeli occupation has imposed on us.
A Space Exodus
I also saw Palestinauts at Cornerhouse in Manchester two years ago. It was part of an exhibition called Subversion in the Arab Art world. Both Nation Estate and Palestinauts are set in the future and what strikes me is that neither of the work contain any direct reference to Isreal. Why is Israel absent from the films?
Even though Israel is never mentioned directly, it is completely present in its absence. These apocalyptic conditions that are imposed on the Palestinian people, whether in the form of outer space or architectural displacement, are all a direct result of the Israeli occupation. And since that is very obvious, I would only be resorting to direct documentary style form if I am to reiterate that. I think having Israel absent reinforces the fact that the films are projected. They function as parallel universes, rather than solutions. They address our concerns as a humanity in general, a universal angst for the future.
What do you think can be the impact of art on political issues? Which place does it have in a political dialogue? Whether we are talking about Palestine or other political issues.
It is always difficult for an artist, I think, to find a balance between the two, politics and art. I often find it uncomfortable to be put in the position of a political spokesperson devoid from the artistic context. The mere fact that my artistic work is immersed in politics should not mean that I have to resort to the same political discourse outside of art. There is a potency to art that should be preserved as unique and its impact on the political dialogue cannot be underestimated. That is why it is a difficult act for me to juggle all these positions.
Nation Estate, for example, does not propose any course of action, nor does it in any simple terms suggest any kind of right or just solution to the problems at hand. It merely responds to a completely unacceptable state of affairs and attempts to take one possible surreal, absurd and radical set of consequences of accepting the status quo.
What is next for you? What are you working on?
The project that I am working on now, is a performative counter-measure to the unearthing of artifacts in order to justify further confiscation of Palestinian lands and erasure of Palestinian heritage. In the absence of any real peace process, archeology has become the latest battleground for settling land disputes. Unearthed history is used as arguments for rightful ownership of the land today. In this project, 2-300 pieces of elaborate porcelain - suggested to belong to a future nation of hi-tech, highly sophisticated, yet entirely fictional Palestinians - are buried deep into the ground in the West Bank, for future archeologists to excavate. Once unearthed possibly hundreds of years from now, this tableware will provide physical evidence supporting the myth of the historical hi-tech people, thus justifying future Palestinian claims to their land.
The project stretches the very idea of fiction beyond its natural boundaries by not just fabricating a myth of a future hi-tech nation, but rather physically constructing evidence for this myth as informed by real events, hence providing the tools for the myth to present itself essentially as a non-fiction. The work itself becomes a historical and narrative intervention - de facto creating a nation.
The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on Resonance104.4fm, London's favourite radio art station, is aired tomorrow Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.
This week i will be talking about beautiful but also politically-revealing data mapping with Burak Arikan, a New York and Istanbul based artist working with complex networks. Burak runs social, economic, and political issues through an abstract machinery, which generates network maps and algorithmic interfaces and draws up predictions that render inherent power relationships visible, thus discussable. Arikan's software, prints, installations, and performances have been featured in numerous exhibitions internationally. Arikan is the founder of Graph Commons, a platform dedicated to providing "network intelligence" for everyone.
I met Burak at the opening of the Datascape exhibition at Laboral in Gijón (Spain) where he was showing Monovacation. In this episode we will talk about the ultimate cliché holiday but also about the Networks of Dispossession, the collective mapping of data about the relations of capital and power within urban transformation in Turkey. I also had plenty of questions about Graph Commons which seems to be a brilliant tool for reporters, researchers, activists, etc.
The Center for Creative Activism is a place to explore, analyze, and strengthen connections between social activism and artistic practice. For the past few years, CAA's founders Steve Lambert and Stephen Duncombe have been traveling around the U.S. (and increasingly Europe) to train grassroot activists to think more like artists and artists to think more like activists. The objective isn't to replace traditional strategies with unbridled inventiveness but to use creativity as an additional tool that will help them gain more attention, make activism more approachable and that will, ultimately, make campaigns more effective.
Stephen is an Associate Professor of Media and Politics at New York University. He has received numerous recognitions and awards for his work as a teacher, organiser of activist groups and events. He widely publishes about culture and politics and is the author and editor of six books, including Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy and the Cultural Resistance Reader. Duncombe is currently working on a book on the art of propaganda during the New Deal.
Steve is an artist and activist whose art aims to be relevant, engaging and visible outside the traditional gallery setting. His works are imbued with humour and subtle commentaries on current political and social issues.
The New York Times Special Edition, Capitalism Works For Me! True/False, Add-Art (a Firefox add-on that replaces advertising banners with art) and The Anti-Advertising Agency.
I've never had the chance to attend any of their workshops but i've been following CCA's tweets and reading their blog posts with great enthusiasm (i would particularly recommend having a look at An open letter to critics writing about political art, whether you are an art critic, a 'socially-engaged' artist or someone interested in political art.) From where i am standing, these two guys are among the most interesting, thought-provoking thinkers. I was eager to pick their brains....
Hi Steve and Stephen! In Europe at least, 'socially-engaged' exhibitions seem to have become very trendy. Is there any way an artist or curator can engage with meaningful artistic activism inside an art gallery or a museum?
This is a good question, but it can never be answered to any asker's satisfaction.
Definitively saying something is or isn't possible would be a mistake. With artistic activism, like anything in the realm of art, there are few concrete and lasting rules. This is why we have no specific "way" we are prescribing. We're offering an articulated approach and a method for thinking through more effective and further reaching work.
Can you engage in meaningful artistic activism from inside an art institution? Sure. Anything is possible. It depends on the goals of the work. Are you planning the violent overthrow of the government? Because creating an exhibit in a museum is probably not the smartest step in reaching that goal. Are you "interested in attempting to re-examine the notions of the institutions role in blah blah blah" then yeah, a museum or a gallery is a great place to start.
Whether or not something is meaningful or effective has far more to do with the artist(s) intention. The forms this work can take are so open that they present few limitations to efficacy - you have so many choices. The trick is keeping your focus on impacting power through culture. In some cases that path may lead you through a museum, in others not.
If the artists intention and goal does lead them to a gallery or through a museum, they need to be aware of the context of their practice. Galleries and art museums are, by and large, set up to display works of art that are then looked at or watched by others. This encourages a social relationship of spectatorship, with all its attendant political ramifications. It also can tends to "reify," politics be it social problems or social struggles. In these cases politics becomes an object for contemplation, or - perversely - appreciation, rather than action. As we like to say, political art is not necessarily art about politics, but art that acts politically in the world.
This does not mean that one should avoid art institutions, only that these institutions - like all settings - have their own dynamics and to be aware of and work with, or against, and work through.
The tragedy here is that a majority of the shortcomings of this work are not put in place by institutions attempting to support the work, but by the artists themselves in underestimating their ability, their role in culture, and not fully leveraging their strengths. Crudely, we could say that many artists are plagued by deep seated self-esteem issues that result in us aiming too low. We simply feel that we can't have a great impact outside of the small and insulated worlds of art, so we don't engage on a larger terrain.
This is not to say that institutional support, or lack of it, is not an issue. There is a chicken-or-egg problem here in that the training provided to artists and many of the established ways they are supported through the market and states are profoundly disempowering to artists. The power artists have in shifting culture is rarely acknowledged and popular myths about us as starving, insane, misunderstood outcasts are deeply rooted. In subtle ways these institutions can perpetuate disempowerment and support these myths.
That said, the recent uptick in support for this kind of work is a good thing in many ways. It acknowledges that art is not sequestered to traditional media and sacred institutions, and a recognition that art has tremendous power when it's not decoration for the wealthy or academic navel gazing. And institutions can shift, change, and grow, so who knows what could happen.
This is a very long way of saying we can't answer your question, other than to say that if we are serious about using art, culture and creativity to change the world then no setting should be off limits.
One of the projects run by the CAA is the School for Creative Activism, a training program for grassroots activists. Could you tell us about those workshop? What can activists expect from them?
The School for Creative Activism is a two and a half day weekend workshop. It starts on a Friday evening at a modest retreat center we'll find just outside whatever city we're working in. On Friday we give an overview of what artistic activism is and isn't and cover contemporary examples. Saturday we go through the history of this work - usually going back 2000 years or more with some big gaps along the way. The rest of the day is a mix of lecture, discussion, and activities around cultural, cognitive, and mass communication theory. Sunday is hands-on practice where we put all we've learned into play on a sample campaign.
We're both professors and teachers. Duncombe has a doctorate in sociology and has extensive activist roots and Lambert brings his expertise in communications and fine art. We take all this information, condense it, and make it relevant and useful for working activists. We also get a few artists in the room to add perspective.
Over the past three years we have trained activists working on school desegregation in Mebane NC, prison reform in Houston TX, state budgets in Austin TX, immigration justice in San Antonio TX, tax fairness in Boston MA, and police surveillance of Muslims in New York City. We've worked with faith-based organizers in rural Connecticut and Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans in Chicago IL. We just finished a weekend with The Portland State University Social Practice Arts program. Overseas we've trained East African health activists in Nairobi and Scottish democracy advocates outside of Glasgow. In March of 2014 we are scheduled to work with health care activists in Skopje, Macedonia.
Because of the wildly different geographic and social makeup of these groups, our curriculum really has to work as a framework that can be adapted locally. You can't drop-in to Kenya or Texas or Scotland and use a one-size-fits-all model. Culture is the resource, the raw material, we work with and culture is local. We can't tell people what will work in their area and with the populations they want to organize, they need to tell us what the dominant signs, symbols and stories are, what media outlets they have access to and what creative resources they can muster. This is what makes this work so exciting for us: the activists and artist we work with are the experts in their cultural terrain so we are forever learning new things.
Creativity taps into an expertise that many people possess, but don't think of applying to the "serious business" of politics. Even if most people don't think of themselves as "artists," they don't compose symphonies or paint majestic landscapes, they sing at churches, rap with friend on a street corner, upload videos to YouTube, assemble scrapbooks, of even just know how to throw a kicking party. "I'm not political," is a phrase one hears often; it's a rare person, however, that doesn't identify with some form of culture and creativity. Culture lowers barriers to entry. As something already embraced, it has the capacity to act as an access point which organizers can use to approach and engage people otherwise alienated from typical civic activity and community organization. In fact, cultural creativity is often the possession of those - youth, the poor, people of color - that are most marginalized from formal spheres of politics, law, and education.
We have a motto at the CAA: "The first rule of guerilla warfare is to know your terrain and use it to your advantage." The political topography of today is one of signs and symbols, stories and spectacles. And for all the limitations of traditional artistic training, it is artists who are the best adapted to working on this political landscape. In order to be a good activist you need to learn to think like an artist.
One of the problems with much of activist work is that it's based in a faulty understanding of political motivation. We do an exercise at the beginning of every training: We ask participants to introduce themselves and give a brief account of what they are working on and tell us about the moment they became politicized. After everyone is done we go back and point out that no one mentioned they became interested in affecting change in the world through signing a petition, reading a factsheet, giving a donation, or even going to a march or rally. Yet that is exactly these means that activists use to approach others to have them "get involved." The politicization experiences people do describe in this exercise are vivid, visceral, and emotional experiences. Dreams, fantasies, emotions. Moments felt rather than just thought. Affective experiences. Well, this is the domain of art.
Unfortunately there's a pressure to do things that are sure to work. With activists especially, the stakes are high. When we're working with healthcare advocates in Eastern Africa, if they take a risk that doesn't work people may literally die. We don't ever advise that people should abandon the standard tactics of activism: the marches, the rallies, the petitions, the knocking on doors and lobbying politicians. What we are suggesting is that artistic activism provides another tool for the activist's tool box. But as any carpenter can tell you, once you have a new tool it opens up possibilities of new jobs to work on.
Do you have a couple of examples of workshops that lead to particularly fruitful actions?
We were sitting in a restaurant a few weeks ago getting lunch and one of our former workshop attendees happened to be at another table. We asked what he was working on, and he mentioned he was organizing fast food workers. He then told us. "Oh you know, we're using a lot of what we talked about in the workshop in the Fast Food Workers Strike." What impressed us was two things: one, that some of what we were teaching had some impact on this amazing, high-profile campaign that we had admired from afar; and two, that we would have never known without this chance meeting.
If we've been successful, when we're done with the workshop the participants have a feeling of ownership over the method. When they put it to use they don't often consciously think "Now we're using artistic activism!" Instead they find ideas and methods which resonate and feel true, so they use them. Which is exactly as it should be - part of an overall skill set that activists can tap into and employ when and where it's useful.
It reminds us of what Lao Tzu once wrote:
As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence.... But when the best leaders' work is done, the people say 'we did it ourselves'
We think the same is true for teachers too.
Which brings me to the question you ask to the artists you interview: "How do you know if it works?" What are the criteria that help you establish whether a work has had any social or political impact?
This is what everyone, including us, wants to know. What is the formula? Is there a checklist to run through? Are there singular and universal right answers to this? And of course, there is not.
While it's helpful to have measureable objectives - a change that is visible - often it's similar to answering the question "what makes a good artwork?" because there's part of artistic activism that has no objective standard and the most important outcomes may be immeasurable.
The first question to ask is "What was the artist trying to do?" If an artist set out to be successful in the art market, there's no real sense in being critical of their lack of political impact because that wasn't their intention. Better questions are, did they succeed in what they set out to do? And were those goals ambitious enough?
For example, we often hear political artists say things like "I'm interested in raising awareness about issues around immigration." This statement is so vague it could also serve as a mission statement for a Nazi propaganda office. Consciousness raising is only useful as a means directed towards something larger. Not addressing a specific, distant goal is a strategic error. Unfortunately merely political content is often what passes for political art, while it has little political impact. If the artist were to be more ambitious and more specific, "I will create a more accepting culture around immigration through my art work" they'd probably be more successful because they'd have a clearer idea of what they were trying to do.
When we work with artists directly, as we do through our Arts Action Academy, we really push artists to think about what they want to have happen through their work. Many will initially say something like "I want to raise awareness of X" or "I want to start a discussion about Y." Fine and good. But then we ask, if you succeed in raising awareness or starting a conversation, what then do you want to have happen as a result? Most of the times there are grander motivations underlying these tame aspirations. It often turns out that the artist doesn't just want to raise awareness or start a conversation about immigration, they want that awareness or conversation to lead someplace: to help stop some particularly heinous law that punishes immigrants and open up the borders between people and nations. Being aware of this helps us sharpen our thinking about our art and its impact, and it also helps us determine whether we've done what we've set out to do.
This thought process also helps us think about creative work as a piece of a extensive campaign. An artwork that raises awareness or starts a conversation is just one tactic; a tactic to be followed by others: perhaps art that aims to empower immigrant communities or embarrass right wing demagogues or pressure lawmakers. And all of this fitting together in a larger strategy aimed toward an ultimate goal of a more humane society. Without this greater strategic understanding there is a disconnect between the action and the, often unacknowledged, desired result. This tends to lead to either delusion: "My piece will change everything!" or depression: "My piece changed nothing." Both are debilitating.
We could go on addressing "what works, and how do we know it does?" forever because we are obsessed with this topic, but of your readers are curious, we've written more in our Open Letter to Critics on Writing About Political Art following the 2012 Creative Time Summit in NYC, and in a short essay, Activist Art: Does it Work? we wrote for the Dutch journal Open.
Oh! I loved that Open Letter, I found it so useful.
Have artists and activists the same definition of what constitutes a successful action?
No. That's both the problem and the promise of artistic activism.
Activism tends to be very instrumental: the goal is to change power relationships and you have clear objectives that result in demonstrable change in the "real world."
Art tends to be expressive, interested in making something new and unique. It's a practice concerned with shifting perspectives and creating spaces for this to happen, what Jacques Rancière calls the "redistribution of the sensible." With art there are indirect results, or perhaps no instrumental result at all. And most art is experienced outside of the "real world," in special refuges like museums and galleries.
These are often at cross purposes to one another. They are often hard to reconcile. It's not easy! It is an art. But when you can do it, it makes for powerful activism (and profound art)
I'm also very curious about the Art Action Academy, a workshop to help socially engaged artists become more politically efficacious. What are the skills necessary for political action that no art academy ever teaches you?
Well, schools could teach these things, they just don't. Programs have popped up and they have begun to try. But activism and organizing are real skills - just like painting or dramaturgy - and there are lessons to be learned. Lessons like:
Thinking about audience, particularly audiences unlike yourself
Because we believe in the democratic ideal of the every-day active citizen we tend to downplay the fact that activism is a demanding practice that requires particular skills and substantial practice. Ideally, we will all one day have those skills and practice, and we will live in a world where everyone is an activist (as well as an artist) but until then it is necessary to learn - and to teach.
Now say i'm an artist and i'm interested in political action but i cannot afford to travel to the U.S. to attend one of your workshops, where should i start? Do you have any book, video or other tool to recommend?
We both hold down paying jobs as university professors so we can't do as much, and go as many places, as we'd like. In recent years we've expanded our workshops out of the borders of the US to Europe and Africa and we plan to do more of this. That said, we're only two people with limited time and resources so we can't be everywhere and do everything we'd like. Recognizing our limitations we are working on a book that will take the research we've done and the lessons and exercises from our workshops and make them accessible to more people.
We also have resources for artistic activists on our website: a reading list of texts that we've found useful, and Actipedia.org, an open-access, user-generated database of global artistic activism case studies that we created with The Yes Men.
Are there any relevant yet overlooked issues you think activists and artists should approach today?
There's plenty of relevant issues and we come across new ones all the time. Nearly all of them are overlooked in the grand scheme of things.
If you're asking if there are topics we feel artists should be working on, we think it's always best to pick whatever compels you the most. There's always work to be done and if we tried to pick out what was most important, we'd probably be wrong anyway. We're all in it together, so everyone needs to work their hardest on the things they care about most...and support one another
Do you have any plan of coming to Europe by any chance? I think we'd love to have the CAA here.
We were just in Scotland. This Spring we'll be running a five day School for Creative Activism workshop in Macedonia working with health care activists, and it looks like we'll be hosting Art Action Academies in Sweden and Russia too.
While our time is limited, we really enjoy meeting and working with activists and artists working on campaigns and in contexts that are new to us. It's how we lean and grow too. If people are interested in bringing us to Europe - or elsewhere - they can always contact us trough the center at email@example.com.
We're definitely open to it.
And more generally what is next for the Center for Artistic Activism?
We'll continue working with as many activists and artists as we can through our workshops while finishing our book so we can reach even more.
Thanks Stephen and Steve!
Check out also the video of the talk that Stephen Duncombe delivered in Copenhagen on January 23rd, 2013, for activists and NGO workers affiliated with Action Aid Denmark.
A couple of weeks ago i spent yet another fruitful afternoon in Brighton for the Critical Exploits. Interrogating Infrastructure event.
The day was part of The Lighthouse's ongoing exploration of the social and political implications of technological infrastructures. The curatorial research started in 2012 with the exhibition Invisible Fields in Barcelona and continued at The Lighthouse with exhibitions by James Bridle, Mariele Neudecker, Trevor Paglen, etc.) The last event brought together artists and critical engineers Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev, critical designer Tobias Revell, and activists from the Open Rights Group for a day of talks and workshops.
Critical Exploits showed how a new generation of artists, designers and engineers are taking a highly critical approach to the development and use of the engineered systems and infrastructures that we increasingly rely on for daily life.
This post is going to focus mostly on Oliver and Vasiliev's presentation which looked at black boxes in the context of infrastructures. The talk is already on youtube but i thought i'd sum up some of the observations that the artists made and add links to the artworks and documents they mentioned while they were in Brighton.
Their presentation started with a quote from Bruno Latour. Talking about blackboxing, the sociologist wrote that When a machine runs efficiently, when a matter of fact is settled, one need focus only on its inputs and outputs and not on its internal complexity. Thus, paradoxically, the more science and technology succeed, the more opaque and obscure they become.
Typical modern devices and infrastructures function (and actually also look) like black boxes, they are far more opaque than they are transparent.
If you look at a gramophone, you'll notice that its inner working is displayed externally. An iPod nano is at the other end of the spectrum, it is completely opaque. We can't actually explain what the many parts inside the device do. And maybe even what they do behind out back. As these devices get smaller, we get even less clue about their inner working. We cannot say we know the devices inside our pockets.
Our understanding of internet infrastructure is similarly foggy. Most of the time, our contact with it is clustered around firefox, safari, explorer, etc. Most users cannot see beyond their web browser. And there is indeed much misconception about the internet. Julian Oliver mentioned a quote he heard at the Chaos Communication Congress where someone said that the only people who talk about 'users' are drug dealers and software developers.
Very few people can actually give an intelligible answer to the question "What is a computer network?" Most people have no problem describing how a postcard goes from its sender to recipient but they are at a loss when it comes to explaining how emails are exchanged. In fact, the Oliver and Vasiliev described the Internet as a deeply misunderstood technology upon which we increasingly depend. Even the terminology used makes our understanding literally nebulous. Take the concept of 'the cloud'. A survey showed that the majority of Americans believe that cloud computing was affected by bad weather.
Another interesting fact their talk mentioned is that the net doesn't belong to the people as it is often assumed. If you have a look at the Submarine Cable Map, you quickly realize that most of these cables are privatized.
Vasiliev and Oliver take their distances from a traditional definition that sees engineering as the practical application of science to commerce or industry. Instead, they wrote, together with Gordan Savičić, a critical engineering manifesto which they regard as a frame for applied research and development that positions Engineering, rather than Art or Design, as primary within the creative and critical process.
The rest of their talk illustrates the manifesto using works of critical engineering. I'm going to simply write their titles down and link to the project pages but i'd encourage you to watch the video of the artists/critical engineers talk to get more background and comments on each work.
Don't miss the video documenting the other talk of the afternoon. Tobias Revell's talk portrayed current practices within critical design and the way the discipline can be used as an antagonist tool for provoking conflicts between set narratives, beliefs and ideologies for awareness, debate and alternate interpretation. The result is a lively and carefully curated inventory of all things Design Interactions at RCA.
This week i'm interviewing Oliver Walker on the blog. I discovered his work a few days (or was it weeks??) ago while visiting Time & Motion: Redefining Working Life, a FACT Liverpool exhibition exploring how the working day has evolved from the time of the industrial age to our current service and knowledge economy.
Walker's One Pound installation at FACT lined up 6 videos. Each of them 'lasts as long as it takes the person depicted to earn £1, varying in length from several hours for the some of the lowest paid agricultural workers in the world, down to several seconds for well paid workers in finance, with one film little over a second long.' The idea was ultra simple and the result is striking for the way it exposes vast disparities in working patterns.
Some of his projects involved outsourcing the production of a written constitution for the UK to China and having 1,000 dolls voice it, using the price of an African financial index to control lighting in a Berlin art center, testing certain hypotheses about social behaviour in a dinner party. And building an outdoors spiral staircase for cats.
Here how my online conversation with the artist went...
Hi Oliver! Let's start with One Pound, the video installation which i discovered a few days ago in the exhibition Time & Motion in Liverpool. I've been quite unlucky in my visit because when I entered the room there was only one screen on with a man working in a field. On the other hand seeing him work all alone on his screen made the impact of the artwork even more powerful for me. Who were these 6 workers you contacted? What were their job?
For the readers who haven't seen the work, I feel I should describe it a little more. The six films are displayed on six adjacent screens, with all six starting simultaneously and not re-starting until all six have played through. This means that the shortest, one second long, plays just once every one hour and seventeen minutes (the duration of the longest). The films have a 'hours:minutes:seconds' timecode burnt into the bottom right corner, which pauses when the films end.
To the side of the 6 screens were six label-sized photographic stills from the videos, there to give the viewer a visual idea of who wasn't currently visible. I chose not, however, to include too much contextual information about the protagonists in the gallery itself, hopefully leaving some space for viewers to project their ideas and experiences about who and where they might be. Having said this, the five you missed were; someone working in a cotton processing plant (35 minutes), someone driving a digger constructing a new road (12 minutes), a carpenter (4 minutes), digital media worker (1 minute), and a CEO (1 second).
The original idea for the piece was to show it in a space in which people repeatedly spend time, such as a busy commuter platform, factory canteen or large office foyer, but this wasn't possible on this occasion. The idea would be that viewers would build up a kind of cumulative viewing of all six films. With a few minutes a day over three months, for example, a viewer would see all six films in their entirety, despite the shortest only running for one second every one hour twenty minutes.
The stills mounted adjacent to the video screens function as kind of visual labels. Between these still images and the timecode built into the videos, viewers could understand the relationship proposed by the piece between between time, money and occupation. I almost always make work that needs some basic explanation (usually text), but I'm happy if it then becomes somehow autonomous (whilst not perplexing) beyond this.
And how did you select who or which type of work would appear in your videos?
Essentially the people and jobs featured can be from any working environment, but certain criteria did develop along the way. These criteria may be quite self explanatory; they tend to be people who can be isolated for filming (though not exclusively), so those who work alone; and who I can approach fairly directly in their place of work; and people whose work you can understand visually.
After some time working on the project I also developed a kind of rationale to link all the protagonists. Although it is not explicitly mentioned in the exhibition text, this rationale is that everyone filmed is, however indirectly, related to my morning shower. So there are people working with cotton (to produce a towel), infrastructure (to get that towel to me), carpentry (to produce a bathroom door), advertising (funded by advertising on shower products), and the CEO of a company that makes shampoo. I am also interested in developing the project and filming further protagonists, perhaps for further exhibition contexts, or just to develop the work. I often considered featuring just one industry, such as coffee, and this too would have been very quotidian. However, I felt this would have then been a study of that particular industry, and it should be broader than this. The shower is something quotidian (in highly industrialised parts of the world), but still fairly unbranded, and less loaded than the tea or coffee industries which have their own histories.
Incidentally, I filmed myself first, but discarded this.
Which kind of ideas, conclusions and reflections about the labour market did working on this project trigger?
Although I started with the basic premise of wage inequality across the world, the project is not intended simply as a didactic essay on wage inequality. Clearly, it may offer reflection on these staggering inequalities, and this political position is ultimately not left ambiguous. However, the relationship between labour and money is transformed into a more subjective medium - time. Periods of time are not as easily compared with one another as pieces of graphical information, for instance. With video, the timescale is embedded into the medium (unlike photography, graphics or text).
Another way it should offer complexity is by inviting some 'cross' comparisons of inequality - between farm workers and factory workers both in the global south for example, or between well paid creative economy workers and astronomically wealthy bankers. This picks up on something I had observed over several years. On the occasions I had spent time in poorer countries (such as Paraguay), I noticed that there was a tendency to over simplify both the wealth and poverty that existed in the global south and north (though perhaps I'm doing this by using the word 'both', but bear with me).
There can be tendency to think the streets are paved with gold in Western Europe (for example), and not understand the poverty that exists in the global north too. At the same time, to try to explain for example the extent to which the National Health Service in the UK offers all people in the country, regardless of income, world class quality healthcare free at the point of delivery, might well be unimaginable to many (although this isn't confined to those from poorer countries). Likewise, growing up in western Europe, I think it was difficult to comprehend both the extreme poverty existent in developing countries (hence the TV programmes and campaigns to help us), and the extent to which everything, such infrastructure, education and government, does function much as it does in western Europe. Perhaps this is just me, because I grew up when Live Aid was rocking, though I think little has changed.
I think it's a constant struggle to understand this complexity - to keep talking about the extreme inequality and poverty that exists in poorer countries, without stereotyping. My work, not for the first time, sails close to the wind when it comes to stereotypes. I have used very simple (perhaps over simple, certainly flawed) measures, but the breadth of examples of labour, and the choice of images, should leave some space for these issues.
I had no idea that the UK is one of only three countries in the world without a written constitution. So what was the constitution you outsourced to China for the Mr Democracy project like? Standard constitution mixing other, existing constitutions? Something entirely original? A simple writing down of the laws and principles that already govern the UK?
I actually studied this in school, and have been interested in it since then. I was interested in going to China, and started, as I not infrequently do, with some pretty simple interests - in this case lightening fast economic development and the political situation in China. Fortunately, I had this moment of realising I could turn it around, and look at the UK, which I am probably in a better position to make work about. If I get the project right, both the UK and China are criticised.
The constitution is not very revolutionary, sadly, we're still a constitutional monarchy - no republic! The authors initially tried to define more or less how the UK is at the moment, and then did a few tweaks to it. It was originally written in Chinese, and a fourth colleague of theirs translated it in English. Her language register and vocabulary were great, but occasionally she slipped with a few terms - but rightly so. So an early clause starts 'The regime of the United Kingdom is...', while we normally only hear the word 'regime' to define forms of government not currently popular or viewed as democratic by western governments (or 'regimes'!). I invited the authors to refer to other constitutions when drafting the UK's, and they did, and this is common practice when constitutions are written (the US was heavily influenced by the French, for example).
I'm also interested in your experience in finding, selecting and communicating with 3 factories in China which would manufacture the dolls. Is it easy for an individual to commission a thousand dolls to a Chinese factory? Did you require any help for that?
I had never done anything like this, and in some ways China was less accessible than I thought it would be. So many products are manufactured there, yet the process of getting something made isn't easy. It involves lots of long meetings, misunderstandings, and sometimes deception. The doll itself was not commissioned for my project, but the sound chip and electronics were, and it was very unusual to have such a long sound recording - they are usually just 10 seconds, not over 10 minutes!
The British Council were helpful in finding people to help me, so I had an art student as a translator and fixer, though actually he had no more experience in finding a factory than me - he was an art historian. I also spoke a lot to a Chinese designer (Tom Shi) who had studied in the UK, and moved back to Guangzhou to start a design practice, and a family. He let me use his studio for free while I was in Guangzhou, and the two students (Sarah Yin Liu and Jackon Li Yao) helped me way beyond what any assistant should, and we're still friends.
It was all very hands on. I was not doing this in the way most business people presumably do: I visited all the factories, filmed there, and organised the shipping myself -I even went into the ports, which was fascinating.
I think the main person I worked with at the factory that installed the sound chips into the dolls was mainly just interested in meeting me, and of course I wanted to meet him too. There was a funny moment when we were sending the sound file back and forth trying to compress it for the sound chip, and after I had actually agreed to going ahead with it, he called back to tell me that one of the articles was repeated on the sound chip. It was funny to have him read it back to me, as I had always been careful to not talk about the political content of the piece, but as long as it wasn't about China, it wasn't a problem. It was also funny to hear 1000s of dolls in a Chinese factory saying 'The Constitution of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Article One...', as they were being tested.
By the way, why did you chose China and not India? because i suspect that this choice made the working process even more challenging.
China does have a different position with regard to global development than India, but India might have seemed a more obvious choice, historically. China seems more unequivocally a coming super power than India, and is much more symbolic as a place where products are manufactured. Also, the vast majority of toys in the world are made in China, (and of those a large majority in the Pearl River Delta). That China is not considered a Democracy is also important.
I was reading through the blog of the project and found this entry. Could you explain what happened here? How artworks are usually assessed at customs? What is the rule or law? And how it all ended?
When you export/import something, you use a customs agent to organise the customs for you. Mine refused to describe my dolls as artwork, because they were, well, dolls. Artworks attract a lower rate of VAT and no duty, so the difference is huge, as it's a percentage of the value. As the project was funded by the Arts Council England and supported by the British Council, I thought I had a chance of getting them through as an artwork, which of course they are.
I had direct contact with a customs officer, and she explained that Haunch of Venison were currently in a legal battle with the authorities over the import of a complete video installation (with the video equipment), while the customs were insisting it was simply technical equipment. It was a Bill Viola piece. The customs woman conditionally agreed to view my works as artwork after I emailed her photos taken in the factory with me working on the piece, because their definition revolves around working on objects by hand, pretty much ignoring two generations of contemporary art. I was quite impressed with my negotiating skills!
Now let's have a look at another of your projects, Bringing the Market Home. Why did you chose to work with the Dow Jones Africa Titans 50 index? Why select a pan-African index for an installation that was located in Europe?
The piece reverses a tendential direction of influence, with an African share index determining the operation of an aspect of everyday life in a western city, in this case Berlin. Financial markets exercise massive influence, both directly and indirectly over many people's lives over the globe, and this piece makes already existing connections physical, and immediate, while changing the direction of those influences. A blip of speculation on food prices could make a crop unaffordable for thousands of people in one country or region: in this piece, that process is reversed, making financial indicators from Africa ('the 50 leading companies that are headquartered or generate the majority of their revenues in Africa') tangible (cutting the house lighting of the HKW, House of World Cultures, Berlin) in a western city.
Was it on 24/7? Or does the Dow Jones follows 9-to-5 type working schedules?
Yes, it ran 24/7. The first time we got it working it was two in the morning, and we didn't know if the index would be shifting, but it was! We spent ages trying to work out which indices would be working when, but in the end the stocks are traded on multiple exchanges across the world, so several of the indices can change for most of the day, although there are periods when no exchange is open.
So what was the impact that this connection with the DJAT50 had on the lighting circuit in a corridor? Was the light constantly on and off? Or were fluctuations slower to manifest themselves?
Essentially it's pretty erratic. It is read every 30 seconds, and we didn't analyse the data explicitly, but it changes fairly often - sometimes five times in a row, sometimes remaining off for five minutes. This worked well performatively - sometimes meaning viewers didn't notice that there was any change to the system, and then suddenly asking themselves what was happening, why the lights weren't working. This was an important consideration of the project (that you can't see from the documentation) - I really wanted it to be something that was installed in the existing space, that people noticed and asked themselves why this was happening, rather than an autonomous object that people were invited to look at.
Any upcoming project, event, field of research you'd like to share with us?
I'd like to continue working on the One Pound project and Dinner Party. I've also been looking at the relationship between money and happiness, which I started looking at on residency in Paris at the Cité des Arts. I think inequality, mighty fascinating as it is, will come up again soon too, though I don't know how at the moment.
You can see Oliver Walker's video installation One Pound at the exhibition Time & Motion: Redefining Working Life, at FACT in Liverpool until Sunday 9 March 2014.
Last week i went to the London School of Economics for the LSE Sociology Forum: Bitcoin, alternative currencies reloaded, a panel dedicated to the decentralized, peer-to-peer currency Bitcoin. Historian Garrick Hileman, sociologist Nigel Dodd and financial activist Brett Scott were sitting around a table to reflect on the question:
Is Bitcoin the new gold? Shaking up online and offline worlds, the online currency Bitcoin has increased its 'value' at immense speed in the last year. Being immune from government interference and private manipulations, it has been celebrated as a new alternative currency by some and condemned as source of unpredictable risk by others.
If, like me, you're not sure you perfectly understand the functioning and meaning of Bitcoin, then head to Brett Scott's blog post How to explain Bitcoin to your grandmother .
Going to that conference was probably the best move i made that week. It was engaging, smart and eye-opening. And thanks to the presentations, i think i might even sound slightly less clueless next time The Boyfriend tells me about his Bitcoin adventures.
Interestingly, the room was packed and when one of the speakers asked who among us owned bitcoins, no one raised their hand. I wondered how (if?) different the discussion would have been like if users of Bitcoin had been in the audience.
Garrick Hileman was the first to take the stage. Hileman is an economic historian at the London School of Economics and he talked succinctly and articulately about the history of alternative currencies and why all of them have failed so far.
Why are we so interested in Bitcoin? An obvious reason is that the Bitcoin price index has gone up 56 times in 2013. Another reason is the mystery of Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonym of the person or persons who published the paper Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System in 2008.
With previous digital currencies, there is a risk of double spend, unless you get the help of the bank. Bitcoin makes it more difficult to replicate your currency and double spend it (all transactions are displayed in a public list. The validity of each new transaction is checked by confirming from the list that the digital currency was not used before.) It is a solution without a third party as it bypasses the banks.
Alternative currencies have a long history. They appear at some point (usually during periods when there is a high level of debt), survive for a short period and then they go away. Hileman identified three ways these currencies die: they die by regulation, by technology or by lack of adoption.
An example of death by regulation is Freigeld. Freigeld was started by an Austrian town called Wörgl during the Great Depression to kickstart the economy. You basically paid for owning or holding currency which stimulated spending. The experiment was successful but the Austrian National Bank decided to terminate it for some unknown reason on the 1st of September 1933.
The example of death by technology are the merchant tokens used in London and other British towns because of the failure of parliament to provide sufficient small denomination coinage. Merchants were desperate to get more small change for transactions so they started issuing their own. Merchant tokens were long lived: they were widely used in 17th through 19th century
The third type of death is caused by the lack of adoption (or demand). The example is the UK-based barter system LETS. Started in late 1980s-early 90s following UK leaving European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), the LETS still exist but are in steady decline: 350 in 1995, 303 in 2001, 186 in 2005.
Now Bitcoin faces many challenges:
Regulatory uncertainty leading to:
But it also has many strengths:
Merchants and consumers both benefit from a change to the status quo. Makes for powerful allies.
Check out this video of another of Hileman's presentations
The next speaker was financial activist Brett Scott. He is the author of The Heretic's Guide to Global Finance. Hacking the Future of Money (available on amazon USA and UK) and he's been exploring alternative financial communities, a section of which is alternative currency for a number of years now. You can buy his book with a number of alternative currencies. He's sold 30 copies with bitcoins so far.
Scott reiterated that the figure of Satoshi Nakamoto is indeed important as its mythical character creates an emotional bond with the currency. Which is probably the reason behind the existence of the dogecoin.
The problem of Bitcoin is that the public doesn't understand it. Experts explain it in reference to itself, instead of in relation and contrast to 'ordinary' currencies.
Another important point Scott brought about is that Bitcoin is not as apolitical, neutral and liberal as it is claimed to be. Society is neither apolitical nor neutral so how could Bitcoin be that paragon of liberality? He illustrated the comment with his experience of the Bitcoin Expo where there was a massive gender imbalance. The conference was 90 to 95% male. His talk at the conference was therefore about Bitcoin and gender.
The topic of gender-imbalance reappeared later in the Q&A. Is there something inherently male about Bitcoin that attracts males? Or is there something about Bitcoin that repels women? You can read more about the topic in Scott's blog post Crypto-patriarchy: the problem of Bitcoin's male domination.
The last speaker was Nigel Dodd, an Associate Professor in Sociology at LSE. His new book, The Social Life of Money, will be published by Princeton University Press this year. The main purpose of the book is to reformulate the sociological theory of money in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, focusing on the question of how money can be wrested from the domination of banks and the mismanagement of states and restored to its fundamental position as the 'claim upon society' that Simmel once described in The Philosophy of Money.
Dodd started by stating that he is favour of monetary liberalism and that consequently he is in principle pro-Bitcoin. Except that he thinks that something is weird behind the philosophy of Bitcoin. Bitcoin is sexy but it is also misleading. He added (in reference to one of Garrick Hileman's last points) that if Silicon Valley is involved, it gets even sniffier.
From here my notes are getting a bit messier as this guy thinks and talk brilliantly but also very fast.
We need to see Bitcoin in the context of other monetary systems. There are 72 to 73 other digital currencies so there is a lot going on besides Bitcoin.
The monetary theory is another problem. For all its radical aura, Bitcoin rests on a backward monetary theory. It actually has a lot in common with the politics of austerity that regard money as a 'thing', a commodity. That's something that Bitcoin celebrates too, whether or not it realizes it. There is a limit in the number of Bitcoin that can be generated. Just like there is a limit with gold. Also it's mathematically possible for Bitcoin to be controlled by one computer and because of that it is similar to money.
So what makes Bitcoin different? Usually institutions protect money as if it were a commodity. Bitcoin does the same except that it does away with the intermediary. What makes Bitcoin attractive is that it's managed by a bunch of machines. However, that there are always humans behind the machines.
Money as a claim upon society/social life. All currencies interpret this claim in their own way, whether we're talking about time, gift giving, trust, etc. The claim of Bitcoin is technology of mistrust, you don't need trust with Bitcoin: machine do all the job. But again, there isn't a machine that operate without humans.
According to Dodd, every currency fulfills a different social need but which one Bitcoin fulfills is still unclear.
For Dodd, money is a process, not a 'thing' and Bitcoin is the only currency that doesn't acknowledges money as a process. It's the least sociological form of money we have.
An interesting question that emerged during the Q&A was the possibility to make Bitcoin taxable. Dodd explained that for most regulators, the number one financial obligation is tax. If Bitcoin starts to threaten that, it won't simply evade tax but it might also stop the whole machinery of tax.
The Financial Times crowd has long been skeptical of Bitcoin, mostly because the currency is not regulated. Bloomberg even published an article titled Virtual Bitcoin Mining Is a Real-World Environmental Disaster (a theory which is obviously questionable.)
With tax, Bitcoin would receive a certain legitimacy. Business would find that very seducing. Each regulation could actually help Bitcoin. For Hileman, Bitcoin is actually the best challenge we have to the current financial system.
Photo on the homepage by Rick Bowmer.