Suzanne Treister's art exhibition weaves together the threads that link the rise of mass intelligence, the history of the internet, the occult and the counterculture into dense maps and diagrams, a hand-coloured deck of 78 Tarot cards and the eerie b&w video of a cybernetic séance.
The body of works is based on an impressive congregation of actual events, historical figures and fields of knowledge but its main anchor is the Macy Conferences, a set of meetings held in New York right after the Second World War to investigate and set the foundations for a general science of the human mind.
The conferences gathered researchers from various fields and spawn breakthroughs in systems theory, cybernetics, and what would later be called cognitive science. Some of the participants of the conferences later went on to do government funded research on the psychological effects of LSD, and its potential as a tool for interrogation and psychological manipulation.
HEXEN 2.0 is set to unleash a storm in your head. The Tarot part is particularly compelling. It's not every day that you get H.P. Lovecraft, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Unabomber, Ada Lovelace, William Blake, Alan Turing, William Gibson together in the same room (or Tarot deck) as internet communities, Google, menacing drones and the Summer of Love.
Whether you follow Treister's web of connections or weave your own, sometimes uncomfortable, narratives, you're bound to doubt, speculate and feel challenged.
Suzanne Treister - Hexen 2.0 continues until April 29, 2012 at the Science Museum in London. Another chapter of this body of works, HEXEN2.0/Literature will be shown in an exhibition that opens at the end of the week at WORK.
If you can't make it to London to see the exhibitions, you can see all the works in the HEXEN 2.0 book and HEXEN2.0 Tarot cards of which i'm now a big fan. Both are published by Black Dog Publishing and i'll review them next week (or the one after, you know i'm not exactly the fastest blogger under the sun.)
Yesterday evening i went to Foto8 in London again for the screening of How to Start a Revolution, a documentary tracing the global influence exercised by the work of Gene Sharp, the world leading expert in nonviolent struggle. Investigative journalist Ruaridh Arrow who directed the movie was there to introduce the film and later on to answer our questions. He was accompanied in the Q&A by Jamila Raqib. She's Sharp's close collaborator and the executive director at the Albert Einstein Institution, a non-profit organisation Sharp founded in 1983 to study strategic non-violent resistance.
Although the American academic's seminal essay From Dictatorship to Democracy: A conceptual framework for liberation has toured the countries living under dictatorship for decades now, i only got to know his work last Summer when Willem Velthoven told me about it on a day i was visiting Mediamatic in Amsterdam.
Sharp believes that non-violent struggle has a greater chance of success than violent resistance, because violence is typically the most powerful weapon used tyrannical regimes and they will always have the upper hand. His booklet From Dictatorship to Democracy (which you can download as a PDF) provide a list of 198 "non-violent weapons", including mock awards, alternative communication system, wearing of symbols, pray-in, boycott of elections, withdrawal of bank deposits, consumers' boycott, renouncing honours, etc.
The book was first published in 1993 to support the opposition movement in Burma and was circulated among dissidents. Anyone seen carrying the book around was sentenced to seven-year prison terms by the regime. This kind of manual for toppling dictators has since inspired opponents of oppression in places as far apart as Thailand, Ukraine, Serbia, Estonia, Iran, China, Indonesia, Zimbabwe, and more recently in Syria, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Sharp's work which is committed to the defense of freedom, democracy, and the reduction of political violence doesn't always receive the praise one would think they deserve. Some regimes have accused him of being a CIA agent and the Albert Einstein Institution he founded struggles to find funding.
The film How to Start a Revolution uses extended interviews with Gene Sharp. Now in his mid-eighties, Sharp hardly ever leaves Boston where he runs the non-profit Albert Einstein Institution and dedicates his free time to orchids. There are also long contributions from his assistant Jamila Raqib, and from Robert Helvey, a retired US army colonel with whom Sharp worked in Burma and who has remained his ally since, training activists in various parts of the world to practice peaceful resistance. The film also includes testimony from key players in the Serbian revolution and activists involved in non-violent unrest in the Middle East.
How to Start a Revolution has been described as the unofficial film of the Occupy movement and was shown in Occupy camps in cities all over the world. In an Q&A with Aljazeera, Gene Sharp's reaction to the question What advice would you give to the Occupy movement? was the following:
I think they need to study how they can actually change the things they don't like, because simply sitting or staying in a certain place will not change or improve the economic or political system.
This is Ruaridh Arrow's first documentary and it has already received numerous awards. It's easy to understand why: we are in critical need to hear more about Sharp's thinking and the film traces the impact of his work with clarity. It's an energizing movie, it gives hope in a time when newspapers deride any attempt at optimism. However, the film isn't flawless. The music was a bit too emphatic, with trumpets and pathos to highlight the moments when tyranny hits the dirt. The images didn't need added drama. Neither did i need to witness anyone's parking skills at length. It would have been helpful to be able to read on the screen for more than 2 seconds the names of the interviewees. But these are minor grudges. I wish How to Start a Revolution was available online. Like Sharp's booklet, it should be distributed widely.
Lambert's study explores the power of architecture as a political weapon through history, from the wide 'boulevards' designed by Haussmann to allow for an easy movement of the artillery and cavalry in Paris to the mobile fences deployed by police forces during the G8 in Genoa to control mass demonstrations.
However, the core of his research looks into a very precise situation: the impact of the Isreali occupation on the Palestinian built environment, in particular in the West Bank where the movements of people and goods are strictly conditioned and governed by colonial apparatuses such as separation barriers, checkpoints that hinder Palestinian movements on their land, militarized destruction of Palestinian homes, Israeli civilian settlements within the West Bank, limits imposed on the natural extension of Palestinian villages, segregated transport infrastructures.
In Léopold's own words:
In fact, the State of Israel masters the elaboration of territorial and architectural colonial apparatuses that act directly on Palestinian daily lives. In this regard, it is crucial to observe that 63% of the West Bank is under total control of the Israeli Defense Forces in regards to security, movement, planning and construction.
Lambert's project doesn't stop at the analysis of colonial architecture in Palestine. His study goes further by 'dramatizing' a Palestinian active resistance to the occupation.
The 'Architectural Disobedience' Lambert suggests takes the form of a covert Palestinian shelter which would serve both Palestinian farmers and the Bedouins population. The 'Qsar' would allow onsite agricultural production and function as a caravansary for the Bedouins and their flocks.
The Weaponized Architecture research will be published in the coming days by dpr-barcelona. I'll come back with a review of the book and an interview with Ethel Baraona Pohl and César Reyes Nájera from dpr-barcelona as soon as the volume is out. In the meantime, i asked Léopold Lambert for an interview. And so did Ahmad Barclay who interviewed him as well. The themes and ideas their discussion touches upon in Arena of Speculation are fairly different from the ones i'm focusing on in this post so i'd recommend checking out both interviews.
Hi Léopold! It is difficult to remain indifferent and cold when reading the reality described in the first half of the book -in which you establish the power of architecture as a political weapon in Palestine. Do you think it is possible to write about the situation endured by Palestinians and remain neutral and impartial? I was interested in the way you describe the Western vision of the Palestinian situation because you've experienced it from a European as well as a US point of view. Whereas i've only observed it as a European living and working in Europe and i was under the impression that in Europe we are fairly more sympathetic (although irritatingly impotent) to the Palestinian cause. Reading the post you wrote after having seen a debate on French TV made me realize I might be very wrong in assuming this European 'solidarity'. What's your view on this? Are we so blind in Europe?
The first question about neutrality and impartiality reveals indeed the way people think in Europe. In the difference of American policies in this matter which clearly support Israel, Europe tries to be more neutral in their decisions. However, this neutrality is the real trap. Neutrality is what maintains the status quo since 1967 by considering that both nations, Israelis and Palestinians are equally belligerent and should become more reasonable. I don't think that a lot of people who went there with an open minded approach share this vision of things.
The facts are that, at the exception of considering that (Jewish) divine law is the prevailing form of territorial justice, there is an objective and daily transgression of the international law by the State of Israel. Whether you consider this region of the world as one country hosting both people, or if you consider that there should be two states for two different populations, the legal problem reaches the same conclusion. In the former case, we can evoke a civil situation comparable to the South African one during the Apartheid (1948-1994), and in the latter case, we can observe, with the presence of about 500 000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, a violation of the article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949) which stipulates that the Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.
This illegality throws the bases of the indignation that indeed prevents and should prevent a lot of people to remain neutral. In order to enter in resistance to act against what appears as clearly antagonist to our personal -or collective- ethics, we have to "choose a side". It does not necessarily mean that people of this "side" need to agree on every topic that are involved here -and there are a lot- but that this group of people are in solidarity to resist against what their ethics interprets as oppressive.
This is the difference between justice and resistance. Justice has to tend indeed towards impartiality and neutrality. Resistance begins with the absence of justice and engages into the concerned antagonism as a pure necessity. In other words, resistance appears to the one who is caught in this process as the only thing to do in accordance to his (her) personal system of interpretation of the world.
The Jewish people, citizens of Israel know very well this process as they have been persecuted in the worst way the human kind has ever been. However, when they constituted a State and an army -let us not forget that the three years long military service is compulsory for every male and female citizen of Israel- they became the dominant body that pathologically abuse of its power over another. What Gilles Deleuze calls the becoming (devenir) revolutionary is therefore allowed to them only if they also enter in resistance against this dominant power along with the Palestinian people and the rest of us.
The second part of the book describes a Disobedient work of architecture for two Palestinian populations. The proposal is extremely ingenious with its set of tents that camouflages the underneath dwellings and construction site. Could you describe it to us briefly?
I will begin by describing what this particular architecture is disobeying. The 1993 Oslo Accords signed secretly by the Palestine Liberation Organization -which was pretty much transformed into the current Palestinian Authority- with Israel, organized the West Bank in three areas. Area A -and Area B to some extents- that includes the biggest Palestinian cities -except Hebron- allows the Palestinian Authority a relative territorial autonomy while Area C, on the contrary is entirely under the Israeli Army control which does not allow any form of Palestinian construction. Area A and Area B constitute islands of territory on which the Palestinians have a relative autonomy. This territory is indeed made of islands as Area C occupies 63% of the West Bank and surrounds the two former areas, thus constituting what can be called metaphorically the Palestinian Archipelago.
The concrete consequences that result from this territorial repartition is that Palestinians of the West Bank cannot build and live on most of the territory that has been attributed to them by the 1949 Armistice Agreements. In addition of that, it is often difficult for them to circulate between those islands as their movement is filtered by various apparatuses of control that the Israeli State has been developing.
Those apparatuses are actually the most expressive examples of my thesis which claims that architecture is inherently political and can be either conceived or instrumentalized in order to be used as a political weapon. In the book, I establish an inventory of what I have been calling colonial apparatuses that Israel has been designing and using and still uses in order to control the Palestinian daily lives. This inventory is something that I present a little bit like a reportage but really, nobody describes them better than Eyal Weizman in his book Hollow Land.
I am approaching little by little the project here, but I still need to precise who this architecture is involving. I distinguished indeed two parts of the Palestinian population that suffer particularly from the Israeli occupation and those apparatuses I just talked about. The first one is constituted by those who live thanks to agriculture and whose land has been mostly confiscated or who cannot access it; and the second one is the nomadic ethnicity of the Bedouins who are very limited in their movement.
The program of this disobedient architecture, built in the Area C near the Palestinian city of Salfit and the very large Israeli settlement of Ariel, is therefore a small agricultural platform associated with a caravansary for the Bedouins. The architecture of this building recounts its combinative strategy of camouflage and reclaim of the land. It is constituted by three layers that have different levels of fragility: a set of tents on the outside that give to the building an aspect of fragile Bedouin settlement, a concrete based agricultural platform on the land and finally an underground dwelling connected to Area A by a tunnel.
Your scenario also involves the discovery of the Qasr by the Israeli Defense Force. Why is it important to build the Qasr if it's likely to be left in ruins eventually?
This part of the scenario is useful for me to state that this building was not designed as a solution to the conflict. I don't believe that architecture can be considered in any way as a vector of resolution. Only the application of the law can veritably brings something that can be called a solution to the conflict. Architecture can be used to resist but cannot really solve problems in depth. That is what I mean by stating that architecture is systematically a weapon.
Let's go back to the project's scenario though. The first layer of tents would indeed be very easily destroyed by the Israeli army in case of invasion. The two others layers, however, are spatially and materially built in such a way that it would actually require a very substantial amount of energy for the I.D.F. to veritably demolish them completely. The building would therefore remain in the state of a ruin, slowly invaded by the rocks, dust and plants of the land and the children of Salfit would probably find in it a stimulating playground. In 1949, after the Nakba, the very new state of Israel destroyed systematically and absolutely all the former Arab villages on its territory in a symptomatic form of erasing the Palestinian mark on the land. Having this building remaining as a ruin is therefore a resistance to this architectural eradication and constitutes in itself a certain victory by reclaiming a piece of land.
Have you identified other existing strategies of Palestinian disobedience related to architecture and urban planning?
In terms of disobedience relative to a practice of space, the first example that comes to my mind is the Sarhats (walks) regularly accomplished by Raja Shehadeh in Ramallah's hills within Area C. Raja is a lawyer who works particularly within the Israeli legal system to resist against the expropriations of the Palestinian land. I interviewed him for the book about this matter. He is also an author and wrote a book entitled Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape that recounts how he practices his freedom of movement by walking in those hills. This approach is very interesting as it is de facto non-violent yet resolutely transgressive as it escapes from most apparatuses of control.
Two other examples I can think of, which are not disobedient as such but register more in the domain of architectural resistance, both in their own way. The first one is well known to any architect who got interested in this conflict in the last decade: Decolonizing Architecture initiated and operated by architects Alessandro Petti, Sandi Hilal and Eyal Weizman have been conducted several projects and exhibition that question the role architecture can have to participate to the creation of a Palestinian state in the hypothesis of its emergence. Among other projects, they developed strategies of re-occupation of the Israeli settlements that would have been emptied by either a justice decision or the potential (unlikely) result of negotiations.
The second example in that matter is brought by the association Riwaq that started in 1994 to elaborate a National Register of Historic Buildings. This inventory, although it may look that is focused on the past, really organizes a present resistance to the Israeli effort to destroy Palestinian buildings but also constitutes a common heritage to the Palestinian people, and therefore something to unite about.
Do you see your book as a kind of 'weapon' as well?
Yes, definitely. Although it might then be not more powerful as the small hand catapults that consisted most of the weapons the Palestinians were ever able to use against the Israeli Defense Force's tanks and bulldozers, it still constitutes a form of resistance in itself, a refusal to submission, and therefore a contribution to the construction of a collective identity.
Related entries: Book review: Atlas of the Conflict. Israel-Palestine, Open City: Designing Coexistence - Part 2, Refuge, Decolonizing Architecture - Scenarios for the transformation of Israeli settlements and Welcome to Hebron.
On Tuesday evening, George Osodi gave a talk at Foto8 in London then had a public conversation with Julian Stallabrass. I discovered Osodi's amazing photos at the last edition of Documenta and there was no way i'd miss his presentation.
The Nigerian photographer is one of those rare photo-reporters whose work is shown in newspapers as well as in art galleries around the world (you can check his photos right now in the Oil Show at HMKV in Dortmund). He was in London to discuss the Oil Rich Niger Delta series and his new book Delta Nigeria - The Rape of Paradise on the oil exploitation in the Delta region of his country.
Nigeria is West Africa's largest producer of crude oil but years of corruption and poor governance has left the southern Niger Delta desperately poor, its environment devastated by oil spills and gas flares and other environmental hazards as a result of activities of the oil companies in the region.
The story of Oil Rich Niger Delta started almost 10 years ago when Osodi decided to leave his well-paid job as a banker to buy a camera and teach himself photography. It didn't start too well. First of all, no one in Nigeria, he said, takes photography seriously and he received no encouragement from neither his friends nor his family.
To him, the Delta region, where he grew up is an endless source of wonder and stories of pollution, conflicts, greed, danger but also hope. However, no matter how hard he looked, every piece of documentation about it had been made by foreigners. He thought that the fact that he grew up 'inside' those issues would give him a perspective no foreigner could have.
The beginnings were hard. He worked with films and all his money was spent on materials, he didn't have internet at the time and would stay for hours in cafés and do research about photography online. At first, people recoiled in horror when they saw his photos. They were too harsh, too disturbing and raw. But bit by bit, he learnt to "make beautiful the most difficult issues." He worked on the aesthetics of his photos so that the onlooker would first see the beauty of the images before realizing they were portraying important and uncomfortable issues.
Taking these photos is risky. Oil companies and their security forces don't him to document the impact that oil exploitation has on the environment and on the inhabitants of the region. He's been arrested several times and has even been kidnapped by Delta militants who thought he might be a spy.
Despite the dramatic situations he encounters, Osodi has hope for the Delta region which he says is one of the most beautiful on the planet and has a lot more than oil to offer. The photographer also expressed his faith in the ordinary people he meets, "they are not passive victims, all they need is a fair ground to realize their potential but right now it's still difficult."
Ultimately, he hopes that his photos will make us think about the origin of the oil we consume without even paying much attention.
The book Delta Nigeria - The Rape of Paradise by George Osodi is published by Trolley Books. For more than five centuries the fortunes of the Niger Delta have been closely tied to that of the global economy. For its slave ports, then palm oil industry, and most recently, through the discovery of crude oil in the 1950s. Oil multinationals soon came to the fore, working in alliance with a local elite to strip the region of its wealth and despoil it. At the receiving end are the region's impoverished inhabitants: left with a poisoned environment, faced with a government that never cares and victims of rival armed militant groups laying claim to territories.
The WORK gallery is currently showing two of Krzysztof Wodiczko's works that invite the public to reconsider their understanding of the impact of war on veterans who have fought (or worked as medics) in Iraq and Afghanistan.
My admiration for Wodiczko's work knows no boundaries so i was delighted to meet him in London for an interview while he was installing the show a few weeks ago.
Throughout his practice Wodiczko has explored social and political marginalisation, and the creation of suitable platforms for alienated and excluded communities to "develop their shattered abilities to communicate" and testify about their personal experiences.
The work that brought him to my attention a few years ago was the Homeless Vehicle. The vehicle is a powerful communication tool that answered the basic necessities (sleeping, washing, as well as collecting and reselling cans and bottles) of homeless people living in New York and gave them and passersby the opportunity to engage in a dialogue.
The London show is not about homeless people. At least not literally. The show is dedicated to war veterans and for Wodiczko, the veterans are homeless too. They might go back to a house after the war, they might have a roof over their head but it doesn't feel like home anymore. They are traumatized to various degrees and feel like they've become strangers to the place where they used to live. They don't function like they used to. They have been conditioned to be constantly on alert, to react on the spot to any unexpected light, move, noise, etc. It is difficult for them to turn off that aggressive instinct once they are back to civilian life.
Rates of suicide among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are extremely high, as is homelessness. Some veterans can't communicate with their family anymore and go away, preferring to protect their family from the person they have become. Furthermore, they return to countries where most civilians are fiercely anti-war and express little sympathy for their plight. If you're a physically wounded soldier, people might understand that you've gone through hardship. If all the damage is inside, then society -even if we have all heard of "post-traumatic stress disorder"- has no mean to see how much combat stress has hurt you.
Wodiczko's project helps the veterans open up and bridge the gap that separates them from those who don't know what war is.
His War Veteran Vehicle is a ex-military vehicle complete with missile launcher converted into a mobile video projector with loudspeakers. Words, coming from interviews with homeless veterans were magnified and projected from the vehicle in buildings and monuments in Liverpool two years ago (a year before, a military Humvee had screened the words of American veterans on the facade of a homeless shelter and of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts during the Democratic National Convention.)
Watching the videos and listening to the testimonies of veterans is deeply moving. Some apologize to their son for having abandoned their family, others warn young men never to trust army recruiters, etc. They sound like people trapped in a never-ending nightmare.
The words are fired hard and sharp like projectiles, they are accompanied by the sound of cannon fire.
The War Veteran Vehicle is shown at WORK together with another of Wodiczko's works, The Flame, which shows a candle flame moving to the voices of veterans sharing accounts of war in Iraq and Afghanistan an the impact it had on their life.
The title of the exhibition, The Abolition of War, takes its name from Wodiczko's recent proposal to transform the Arc de Triomphe in Paris into the Arc de Triomphe--World Institute for the Abolition of War, thus reframing the traditional war monument as a site of education, critical discourse and proactive work towards peace.
Previously: Book review - Krzysztof Wodiczko.
While in Amsterdam last weekend, i went to see The Art of Hacking at the New Media Art Institute. The exhibition presents art projects that subvert, improve on or circumnavigate 'official' systems and practices and offer alternatives. I first thought of writing a report about the whole show but the work Identity Bureau ended up grabbing all my attention. That's what happens when Heath Bunting has a project in a collective exhibition.
Identity Bureau builds upon The Status Project (2004-2008), an inquiry into the construction of our 'official identity', as a collection of data and how it influences the way we can move around in social space, the internet and private or governmental databases.
One day Heath Bunting realized that in the UK it is legal to have several identities, if they are not for criminal purposes.
He set up an 'Identity Bureau' to allow ordinary people to buy new, official and legal UK identities at reasonable cost (500 euros.) It might start with something as banal as a supermarket loyalty card and from there, a new identity builds up that gets more and more coherent. The identity is based both on intangible and tangible materials. Bunting hands the ready-to-use identity inside a suitcase where the buyer can find supermarket loyalty cards, transportation cards, a mobile phone number, letters sent by governmental departments to an address in the UK, etc. The identity also exists in a less tangible way as the new person is inserted inside a web of shopping, library or transportation cards, bills, government correspondence, and other "personal" data. The person also belongs to a network made of other people, organizations, and institutions. The new identity allows you to have a bank account, free health care and a social security number in the country.
Identity Bureau challenges the idea of personhood by showing how materially produced an identity is.
See also the conversation between UK barrister Bob Colover and Heath Bunting.