One of the reasons why i go through the trouble of taking one bus and two trains in order to get to Z33 in Hasselt is that the Contemporary Art Center regularly identifies and confronts phenomena, ideas and flows that characterize or affect contemporary culture. Their new exhibition, Architecture of Fear, examines how feelings of fear pervade our daily life.
The show explores how fear has moved from being an immediate emotional strategy for survival, the result of a personal experience, to becoming a constant, more abstract, low level feeling that paves the way for new infrastructures based on security, prevention and 'risk-managemen't. Without ever judging nor pointing the finger, Architecture of Fear asks visitors to put their anxieties into a broader perspective. Are threats of terrorism, viral diseases, pollution and financial crisis entirely unbiased and valid? Have some of them been surreptitiously fashioned by politicians and the media? Are CCTVs in the metro making me feel more secure or in danger, for example?
As Frank Furedi, author of Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right, explained in an article for Spiked, "The prominent role of fear today merely indicates that it serves as a framework through which we interpret a variety of experiences."
Architecture of Fear has invited international artists and designers to investigate how fear as a mental construction can be built up through language and images. I've already mentioned the work of Charlotte Lybeer and Jill Magid. I'll come back with an interview with Trevor Paglen soon-ish. In the meantime, here's a quick walk through some of the works in the exhibition.
In Museum of Nature, photographer Ilkka Halso articulates his fear of a world where nature will be confined to museums, private amusements parks and performance spaces. The buildings will not only allow the inhabitants of the Earth to see what forests, lakes and rivers look like, they will also protects these last fragments of flora from threats of pollution and from actions of man himself.
The works shown by Laurent Grasso in the exhibition are equally compelling and sinister but they are also more complex and allude to conspiracy theories and ambiguous military researches. The title of Grasso's video 1619 refers to the year when Galileo Galilei first used the term "aurora borealis" in his writings.
Nikola Tesla looked into the aurora borealis almost three centuries after the Italian scientist but he was more interested in its capacity to reflect electromagnetic waves. Inspired by Tesla's research, the American military set up the "High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program" or HAARP, a research program specialized in the application of high frequencies to the "aurora borealis" in Alaska. HAARP is studying the transmission of electricity in the uppermost portion of the atmosphere. But because of its military funding and the fears associated with electromagnetism, HAARP is surrounded by controversy. Its forest of antennas have been accused of beaming electromagnetic waves that are extremely hazardous to human health, of disrupting climate, of having all sorts of influence on human behaviour and of being weapons able to disrupt communications over large portions of the planet.
Grasso's video artificially reproduces the color vibrations of this luminous phenomena in an environment where one can discern a geodesic sphere.
Visitors of the exhibition will find a model of that very sphere in the adjacent room. Bathed in pink light, the sculpture leads to more worrying stories, conspiracy theories and mystery.
The geodesic sphere, directly inspired by Buckminster Fuller's model, refers to the shape of the receiving stations of the Echelon network, an ambitious listening programme created in in 1947 and operated on behalf of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK, and the US. ECHELON was reportedly created to monitor communications between the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. Since the end of the Cold War, it is believed to search for terrorist plots, drug dealers' plans, and political and diplomatic intelligence. Some even claim that ECHELON is also used for large-scale commercial theft, international economic espionage and invasion of privacy.
Rather than researching, explaining or interpreting what lies exactly behind military uses of natural phenomena and global surveillance systems, the works by Laurent Grasso open up even more speculations, conjectures and ambiguities.
Tsang Kin-Wah's The Second Seal refers to the Seven Seals of the Apocalypse. In the video installation, words that seem to be made of fire descend slowly from the ceiling and snake down the walls of the gallery space. Written by the artist, the text talks of war, violence, evil, vengeance, power, death. The words attempt to articulate the complexities of our society with its many doom scenarios, its dilemmas and anxieties.
Designer Susanna Hertrich's Risk charts bring us back with our feet firmly on the ground. The posters confront a series of risks (terrorist attacks, plane crash, car accident, cancer, etc) as they are perceived by the public with the actual hazard they represent.
The charts are accompanied by the Alertness Enhancing Device and other Prostheses for Instincts that aim to awaken human beings' long lost natural instinct for the real dangers of life, as opposed to the above-mentioned perceived risks that often cause a public outrage.
Through electronic simulation, some prostheses are able to create physical and mental sensations (goose bumps, shivers down the spine, hair standing up on your neck) similar to the ones we experience in instinctive fear responses.
Global Anxiety Monitor, by De Geuzen, investigates reasons for paranoia as well but brings them into a different perspective. The work looks for anxiety buzzwords on Google image and shows side by side the results obtained in several languages. Sometimes the google image angle on pollution, torture, recession, future or unemployment coincide in all the languages investigated, sometimes they are at odds with each other and reveal cultural biases and local tensions.
More details about Architecture of Fear in the mini catalogue available online for free:
Architecture of Fear remains open at Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium through December 31, 2011. Entrance is free.
Sorry for being so slow with the updates on the blog this week. This morning i left London unimpressed by the Frieze art fair and took the train to Manchester. The lady at the hotel reception manages to wear two sets of fake eyelashes on top of each other, the weather is lovely and i'm following Creative Tourist's recommendation to embark on a Manchester Weekender, three days of celebration of art, literature, music and performances.
One of the exhibitions i was most eager to visit was On The March - An Exhibition of banners Made by Ed Hall at the People's History Museum.
Ed Hall makes the most amazing, colourful handcrafted banners i've ever seen. Before discovering his work at an exhibition curated by Jeremy Deller for the Palais de Tokyo in Paris a few years ago, I had no idea you could still commission someone to design, paint, embroider and stitch protest banners.
Hall used to be an architect but he was also a trade union rep when Thatcher came into power. In the '80s, he started drawing banners and posters to support Lambeth Council's protest campaign against government restrictions on the amount of tax councils could charge. That was his first foray into protest art. Nowadays, he's the UK's foremost trade union and campaign banner artist.
Hall works mostly for trade union organizations but as years passed he's been increasingly involved in protest raised by grassroot organizations that fight against climate change, violence against women or that defend the rights of the Palestinians and other causes the artist personally believes in. But his first non trade union banners were stitched for Brian Douglas who died in police custody in May 1995. During his arrest in South London, Douglas was hit on the head with a baton. Police claimed that they had acted in self-defense. He was not taken to hospital until 12 hours after injury, where he later died.
333 people died in police custody between the years 1998 and 2010 and Hall's banners are often part of the annual remembrance marches to Downing Street, to inquests and funeral. The banner below was made in memory of Sarah Thomas, a 34 year old student who died on August 1999 in Stoke Newington Police station after being arrested for a public order offence.
Finally, the exhibition also devoted some space to Ed Hall's collaboration with Jeremy Deller, in particular Procession, a mass gathering orchestrated by the artist for the Manchester International Festival two years ago.
Find more about his work in the film made by Platform Films:
On the March - An Exhibition of Banners by Ed Hall remains open at the People's History Museum in Manchester through 30 October 2011.
Z33 House of Contemporary Art in Hasselt, Belgium, has just opened an exhibition with a very promising title. Architecture of Fear explores how feelings of fear pervade daily life in the contemporary media society.
I'm going to visit it on Thursday but in the meantime i thought i'd ask one of the participating artists, Jill Magid, to tell us about the work she is showing at Z33 and more generally about her experience with impersonal power structures (police, intelligence agencies, security systems, etc.) which, whether they contribute to it or fight it, are part of this 'architecture of fear.'
One of Magid's most ironic works is System Azure. In 2003, the artist introduced herself to the Amsterdam Police as a "Security Ornamentation Professional" working for a fictitious company. Magid's proposal to embellish police cameras was accepted and she was hired to hand-glued rhinestones to security cameras at the Amsterdam Headquarters of Police, a work that had previously been rejected when she had first presented it as an art project.
In Evidence Locker, Magid developed a personal relationship with the operators of Liverpool's citywide video surveillance cameras. Dressed in red, she had them follow her every steps as she moved across the city. Back in New York, she managed to gain the trust of a police officer and infiltrate his professional (and personal) world. Magid pushed even further her enquiries into the personality of the human beings hidden behind the faceless instruments of power and surveillance in 2005, when she met with employees of the Dutch secret service, the AIVD, and almost turned into an agent herself for a commission by the AIVD itself to create an artwork that would help them improve upon their public persona and provide them 'with a human face'.
The work Magid is showing at Z33 this Fall, A Reasonable Man in a Box, was inspired by the "Bybee Memo", a 2002 document signed by Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee. The document considered the use of mental and physical torment and stated that acts widely regarded as torture might be legally permissible under an expansive interpretation of Presidential authority during the "War on Terror." The memos were declassified by President Obama in 2009. One of the acceptable methods of "enhanced interrogation" described in the document involved the use of a confinement box. The prisoner would be confined inside this box with insects which would not harm them. The people in charge would know that the insect or the animal is innocuous but would leave the prisoner in the dark about it.
Magid's take on the interrogation technique is a room where the silhouette of a big hissing scorpion is projected wall. Every once and a while a pair of tweezers appears on screen to catch the animal by the tail.
Hi Jill! I''ve been following and admiring your work ever since i started blogging. So far i associated you with performative works in which you put yourself on the front line (Lincoln Ocean Victor Eddy, Lobby 7 or Evidence Locker for example.) There's no visible trace of you in "A Reasonable Man in a Box". How do you decide whether you are going to be so visibly involved and present in a new work or when you are going to step back?
The Spy Project-- in which I am the main protagonist, finished just before I began the research that led to A Reasonable Man in a Box. The Spy Project involved the censorship of my novel by the Dutch secret service about my experience working with it. This redacted manuscript got me to thinking about other government-censored documents. Simultaneously I was researching torture as it is used by democracies, and how these practices are hidden from public view or scrutiny. Both paths led me to the Bybee Memo. As the document was already complete and therefore no longer open to change, I did not feel I could not enter into it as a protagonist. I found a different way to engage it.
I saw images and read descriptions of the installation at the Whitney Museum. The room where the film was screened seemed to be spacious, with a visible entrance/exit. From what i gathered it still made quite an impact on visitors. But why didn't you chose to take a more extreme road and show the video in a claustrophobic space or in one that looked more like a cell or in a room you couldn't exit until the end of the video?
I was not trying to make the viewer the tortured victim inside the box (i.e. gallery); rather, I wanted the viewer to consider the fundamental questions at the heart of the memo: what is reasonable; and what is a reasonable man in a box? The install is creepy, uncomfortable, and simple. The gallery becomes a shadow box: the shadow of the scorpion in the gallery is proportional to 'the stinging insect' in a confinement box. The shadow, as projected in both the Whitney and at Z33, is larger than life, as the rooms in which they are installed are of course bigger than a confinement box, which is only the size of a person sitting or standing. The fragment of the Bybee Memo discussing the enhanced interrogation practice of placing a man in a box with a stinging insect is also enlarged to scale. This enlargement is a kind of highlighting. Through it, the language has been made physical, enterable. Under these conditions, the memo and the questions it provokes can be examined and experienced on a personal level.
The installation was inspired by the "Bybee Memo". I had never heard of it before. In Europe we are familiar with stories about the kind of music played to drive prisoners crazy, rendition flights (which couldn't have been carried out without the complicity of European governments anyway), etc. But i think that the "Bybee Memo" is less well-know here. Is that the same in the USA? Did the installation play with something that the audience was familiar with or did it reveal the existence of that "Bybee Memo" as well?
There seem to be varying degrees of awareness about The Torture Memos (the common name for the Bybee memos), and the CIA's Enhanced Interrogation program. (Most notably in the press was the detailed practice of waterboarding, a type of enhanced interrogation practiced that simulates drowning.) Regardless, I felt 1. That it was an important document to (re)consider, and 2. That the installation was self-contained and therefore, did not rest upon a prior knowledge.
The practice of placing a man in a confinement box with an insect was detailed in the Bybee Memo that was released in 2009 when President Obama came to office. I'd heard of the memo before working on this project, but I'd never actually read it (It's 18 pages of legalese). I have not yet met more than a few people who have. When I in fact did read it, I was shocked-- more by its language and (absurdist) 'empirical' logic than even by the practices it invoked and legalized.
I'm interested in things that appear to be obvious or known, but aren't. I wanted to slow down the memo, focus and enlarge it, so that I could really look at it. The Bybee memo successfully changed the definition of torture in the United States for half a year, making acts that under the Geneva Convention were considered torture, legal.
A Reasonable Man is one of a series of projects that deal with secret services. In previous works you explored the Dutch secret service and engaged with a number of intimate relationships with members of the AIVD. The purpose of these meetings was "to collect personal data of the agents and to use this information to find the organization's face." So how were these people like? Is secret service all James Bond, exciting adventures and fearless clean-shaved men?
What I find most intriguing about my engagements with government institutions is that in entering them I find that they are far more fantastic than I could have imagined, and rarely resemble what I have seen in films. I never cease to be surprised as to what I find and what I cannot find, and how both of these things affect me. The people I have engaged with are as varied and complex inside the service as they are outside of it.
While working on A Reasonable Man, how much information did you manage to find about the "enhanced interrogation" of high-level Al Qaeda operatives? Did you contact anyone? Meet? Found other pieces of information? How close did you manage to get to the issue?
I focused on the memo and understanding it. I was also interested in the memo as to what was visible and what was missing due to redaction, and how my understanding of the former was influenced by the latter. The idea of the shadow-- of not being able to see the real but only its ghost, had much to do with this schism of visible/hidden.
When I had questions about the memo, I did have some people to turn to. I was in contact with an investigative reporter (who has both a military and intelligence background) that had been embedded with the US army in both Iraq and Afghanistan and had visited Abu Ghraib (He is a protagonist in my current project), and a PhD student at NYU studying torture, law and the media. I also read about torture and democracy in books and in the news. These contacts and this research helped me approach and re-approach the memo with a continually deeper understanding.
Are secret services a theme you're going to keep on exploring?
I never know where the work is going from project to project, as my process is organic. That being said, secret services will no doubt continue to interest me. They epitomize many of my interests (secrecy, intimacy, power, legal and coded language), and they are inexhaustible. I still find myself drawn to any story on intelligence matters in the paper. I'm still a little hurt the CIA has never contacted me; )
I'm curious about something else... What happened to the rhinestone-studded surveillance cameras you installed in Amsterdam?
They are still there, in full glamour (perhaps with a little city dirt and grime) on the headquarters of the police in Amsterdam. Check them out. They're permanent.
'The Intel - Cyprus Merger' showed how the world's first merger of a country and a corporation might be possible, and advantageous for both parties. Moreover through the execution of due diligence, stakeholder engagement and communication, how such a merger could be enacted responsibly, and in the best interests of both, or how at least it might appear so.
At first sight, Zoe Papadopoulou''s new project is challenging and absurd, but dig deeper and you'll see how thought provoking it is. This is especially true, in the light of impending economic bailout measures being forced upon Greece, and how the Greek government has indeed found itself looking to corporations to buy assets from the State.
Merger was born in February 2008, in response to a brief at the Royal College of Art on 'The Future of Money' sponsored by Intel's People and Practices Research Group. Zoe reappraised the project for the ongoing Paris Design Week.
Merger, is told through a video in which a fictional character, Anna Rodgers, the director of overseas acquisitions at Mackenzie M&A, presents an overview of how and why the Merger came to be to other interested parties. She also describes how the merged corporation and country have generated economic and democratic benefits to both parties and turned around the fortunes of a nation. The project allows the viewer to ask why Intel might see an opportunity in Cyprus - a small island-state, with strong historic links to Greece, but with a separate economy.
Cyprus decided to take advantage of the EU precedent created by UK's Olympic and Paralympic Act in 2006, which made the words "London 2012" and "2012" protected trademarks, along with the name of the official LOCOG website, and "various derivatives". The Olympics were created in Greece, so Cyprus starts to protect the revenue made from products and services borne out of the inventions of the ancient Greeks.
That's where Intel, which built their revenue in no small part through protecting the Intellectual Property of their developments, intervenes. In this scenario, Intel would bring their expertise and lawyers, and look at every single aspect of modern life (from architecture to urban planning, from language to technological inventions) that borrow from Greek inventions, and claim a bounty from each. In so doing they create a sustained income stream that sees the Cypriots be the exemplar of economic growth, at odds with the fortunes of the rest of Europe.
By highlighting the ease with which the UK Government and the International Olympic Association use their power to protect something that originated in Greece, this project asks, with Intel's might, if the Island of Cyprus could challenge and regain their past glory and wealth.
Not content with protecting revenue, Merger also aims to revisit and update one of the Greek's most widely-adopted inventions - democracy.
Merger highlights the current lack of trust in politicians and in Governments too slow to tackle adequately the significant challenges that countries and their populations face. Surely this lack of responsiveness would not be tolerated in the corporate world. The lady in the video explains that Cypriots didn't want a Prime Minister or a President. They wanted a CEO, a businessman that would run the country like a successful company. I bet the Italians who now have a 'successful businessman' as their head of State would beg Cyprus to be very cautious about their choice.
Merger proposes a Real Time Democracy model that allows Cypriots to track how their Government is doing 24/7 - on a collection of metrics including the share price of Intel - which they now all, each, own a share in. One man, one vote becomes 'one man, one share.'
In the three years since Merger, this project proposed that the Cypriots and Intel have built the world's biggest monument to commemorate their union. The Antikytheran Monument, in the centre of the capital city Nicosia, recognises another Greek invention - the Antikythera Mechanism; the world's first computer designed between 150 and 100 BC to calculate astronomical positions.
This also reveals why Intel has gone to all the effort of merging with a country, that they could buy piece by piece if they had chosen to. In this brave new world, Intel owns the rights to all computers - their entire supply chain and competitors.
With this project, Zoe Papadopoulou questioned, via the power Intel and Cyprus yield as a result, what might be the implications of a "merger" of a corporation and a state. She also invites the public to question if this one day might be possible, or if by stealth it was an inevitable part of our futures.
Finally, the future of this project will be to curate an exhibition based on the evolution of this new national entity that further explores the changes it is likely to undertake in the next 20, 30 or 50 years. This will not only be considered from a design perspective but also a philosophical one with the help of Greek Cultural theorist and essayist Elia Ntaousani.
While i was in Nottingham for the Making Future Work events, i decided to take the bus to Derby and check out All that Fits: The Aesthetics of Journalism at QUAD. The exhibition postulates that art and journalism are two sides of a unique activity; the production and distribution of images and information.
Whereas journalism provides a view on the world, as it 'really' is, art often presents a view on the view, as an act of reflection.
The first part of the exhibition title, All that Fits, points directly to the New York Times' moto "All the News That's Fit to Print." It asks us to think about what becomes of the information that doesn't fit into the format or the agenda of a media outlet. Some of it is cut and customized to fit, some of it simply vanishes. But the information that doesn't fit can also become the material and topic of artworks. And this is just as well since our faith in the impartiality and reliability of journalism has eroded over the past few years. At the same time, more artists have included activities such as inquiring, reporting and documenting into their portfolio while admitting that they are not bound by the same 'reality' constraints as journalists.
The works selected for the exhibition blend aesthetics and conceptual techniques we expect from artists with the methods and protocols that characterize the journalistic practice. They question the information rather than deliver it.
All that Fits: The Aesthetics of Journalism unfolds over three chapters: The Speaker, The Image and The Militant. The Speaker focused on the speaking subject or author, also in terms of editorial processes and camera angles. What can enable a subject to appear as authentic, authoritative and truthful? The Image examined how images are produced, through framing and positioning, but also how counter-images are created. Despite the claim of neutrality and pragmatism, this chapter proposes an 'aesthetics of journalism'.
The third show opened yesterday. The Militant, continues the strand of counter-images, but by using journalistic means such as exposé and research. These methods often work to uncover what a corporate media industry does not, and thus return to some of reportage's initial claims. Since the three shows overlap in content, with most works participating to 2 of the 3 chapters, i thought i'd fuse the three chapters into one post that looks more generally at the contemporary production of truth.
According to Adam Broomberg, "Photojournalism cannot be radical because it has to work within familiar patterns. It is politically ineffectual. Now museums and galleries are actually the place of radical, political work." Together with Oliver Chanarin, he has been taking a lateral approach to documentary photography and information. For the Chicago series, for example, the duo has chose to stay "away from those immediate, heart-tugging images that suggest social concern" and focused instead on how the mechanism of the state worked.
Chicago is a fake Arab town built in the middle of the Negev desert by the Israeli Defense Force for urban combat training. "Everything that happened happened here first, in rehearsal". All wars led and to be led by Israel in the future are practiced in the streets of Chicago, where the only human traces are photographs of Arab militia used for target practice. During the war in Lebanon, its labyrinth of streets and alleys were adorned with abandoned cars, imitating areas of Beirut. During the first and second intifada its concrete walls were covered with Arabic graffiti reminiscent of Gaza city, and an additional area was constructed to simulate the refugee camps of the occupied territories. During the first Gulf war American Special Forces had their first taste of the Middle East in Chicago in the Israeli desert.
In a carefully staged composition/scene, soldiers are pointing their heavy weapons at civilians, a mother is crying over a child that lays dead in her arms, other dead bodies are scattered around, there are traces of an explosion and tension is everywhere you look. Except maybe right between a menacing soldier and a civilian where a cameraman is quietly recording the scene.
In The Dreadful Details, Eric Baudelaire conveniently juxtaposed all the moments we expect to see in a war photo. The photo documents as much as it fakes a situation of war. Even the set is not genuine. It was created by a designer who has never set a foot in Iraq, his only cues were photographs from Time magazine.
The most puzzling work in the exhibition is Oliver Ressler's video The Fittest Survive. Actually it is not so much the video itself that is bizarre but its subject. The film follows the five-day course Surviving Hostile Regions done in January 2006 in Wales. The instructors, hired by a privately-owned security enterprise, are British ex-special force soldiers. The participants are businessmen, government officials and mainstream journalists who are put through conflict-situations in order to be ready for business in Iraq and other dangerous areas "that might otherwise have been closed to opportunity."
The camera follows the participants as they experience the staged reality of live shell bombardments, an assault by armed guerrillas, the rescue of accident victims, and moving through mine fields.
As curator Elena Sorokina explained during her interview with the artist, The video brings attention to the current militarisation of businesses, and, less directly, to the increasing involvement of private business in warfare.
Unfortunately, i didn't get to see the film Elimina, a totally Ghanaian production that stars the white American artist Douglas Fishbone. The film was scripted and shot by a leading Ghanaian production team, with a cast of Ghanaian celebrities. No reference is ever made of the fact that the artist clearly doesn't belong in the movie. The project continues Fishbone's investigation into the relativity of perception and understanding, pushing what audiences expect as the acceptable limits of role and representation in film.
The film will be released as a low-cost mass-market DVD and VCD in Africa and on African immigrant markets, The rest of us will be able to buy it as a limited edition in the art world.
Fishbone talks about his new Elimina to Tate.
At the entrance of the exhibition, right by the ticket office, the curators have hung Insurance.AES256 by Michael Takeo Magruder, a project reflecting on issues of information freedom and secrecy in today's media landscape. insurance.aes256 is the name of an insurance file released by WikiLeaks last year in connection with the Afghan War Diary disclosure. The insurance file was 20 times larger than the 77,000 secret U.S. military documents about Afghanistan that the non-profit organization had already published. The file generated considerable speculation and debate as no official explanation was given about its contents or purpose. Moreover, cryptographers declared that the file was virtually impossible to crack.
Alejandro Vidal's Somewhere in a Great Country is a series of video-captures found on the internet. Because they are devoid of any human presence and feature explosions, we are led to believe that the images document car bombings, acts of sabotage, war scenes, etc. In reality, they only record the moment when fireworks are used during celebrations of independence, festivals and political rallies.
Art & Agenda - Political Art and Activism, edited by Robert Klanten, Matthias Hübner, Alain Bieber, Pedro Alonzo, Gregor Jansen. With essays by Pedro Alonzo, Alain Bieber, Silke Krohn (available on amazon USAand UK.)
Publisher Gestalten writes: Life has become significantly more political in the new millennium, especially in the aftermath of worldwide financial crisis. Art is both driving and documenting this upheaval. Increasingly, new visual concepts and commentaries are being used to represent and communicate emotionally charged topics, thereby bringing them onto local political and social agendas in a way far more powerful than words alone.
This book explores the current interrelationship between art, activism, and politics. It presents new visual concepts and commentaries that are being used to represent and communicate emotionally charged topics, thereby bringing them onto local political and social agendas in a way far more powerful than words alone. It looks at how art is not only reflecting and setting agendas, but also how it is influencing political reaction. Consequently, Art & Agenda is not only a perceptive documentation of current urban interventions, installations, performances, sculptures, and paintings by more than 100 young and established artists, but also points to future forms of political discourse.
Art & Agenda - Political Art and Activism is just one in a long list of books that demonstrate that, among all the publishers focusing on visual culture, Gestalten is probably the fastest at identifying and catching trends.
The artists represented in the book all have some kind of social commentary about the world that surrounds them. Their work conveys a message, a critique, an opinion. Sometimes also a provocation. Their work is socially-engaged art but i would not always define it as activism.
As much as i admire the work Maurizio Cattelan, Elmgreen & Dragset, Tom Sachs, or Kara Walker, i had never associated it with activism. What they do is ballsy, it's socially-engaged and adequately thought-provoking but i'm not sure i find it as efficient as the work of Packard Jennings, Lisa Anne Auerbach, Conflict Kitchen, The Yes Men, Superflex, or Ai Weiwei who seem to engage more closely with the public. They operate outside institutions when needed, take risks and are actively involved in trying to bring social change. I see them as the real agitators, the activists with a capital A.
All i can advise is to get your hands on the book and see for yourself. I wouldn't mind being contradicted on this topic.
One of the main strengths of the book is the incredibly broad array of political art it showcases, from the poetical and subtle urban interventions of Roland Ross to The Yes Men's media hacks, from Tom Sachs' stunning works for white cube galleries to JR's street interventions.
The other force of the book is a series of long essays by curators and art critics such as Alain Bieber (author of one of my favourite blogs, rebel:art and project manager of ARTE creative) and Boston-based curator Pedro Alonzo.
A few examples of the works you'll meet in the book:
Julien Berthier's Love Love sinking boat. The artist actually cut a sailboat in half, sealed it with fiberglass, fitted it with two motors and a new keel which make it fully functional. I'm not sure i understand what's political in this work but i'm glad i discovered it in the book.
Russia's culture minister didn't appreciate the "political provocation" of Blue Noses Group's Kissing Policemen (An Epoch of Clemency). The Banksi-inspired photo was banned from traveling to Paris for an exhibition of contemporary Russian art.
During two years, Roland Roos repaired broken, displaced or damaged things he encountered in public space. He took before and after photos of the unsolicited repairs and sold them for 320CHF each which is the average amount of money that is spent for one repair (materials and labor).
GUARANA POWER is a soft drink developed by a farming cooperative in Maues, Brazil in collaboration with the Superflex collective. The drink contains guarana, a plant native to the Amazon whose fruit has long been harvested by indigenous communities for its medicinal and invigorating properties. The farmers have had to organize themselves against a cartel of corporation whose monopoly on purchase of the raw material has driven the price paid for guaraná seeds down by 80% while the cost of their products to the consumer has risen. Besides, the beverage these companies sells is only a sugary, diluted energy drink. GUARANÁ POWER attempts to use the strategies of global brands as raw material for a counter-economic position, to preserve local economy and the livelihoods of the farmers and to reclaim the original use of the Maués guaraná plant as a powerful natural tonic.
Gregor Schneider's cells on Sydney's famous Bondi Beach questions "the ideal of a casual, egalitarian leisure-loving society", while evoking strongly another famous location by the ocean: Guantanamo Bay.
For one of their most recent radical performances, Palace Revolution, members of the Voina collective overturned seven police cars, some of them with officers inside, at St Petersburg's Palace Square. They called it an 'art installation.' Russian authorities were not impressed and arrested two of them. They were released on bail after but the charges still stand.
Parking For White Cars Only! The title of Helmut Smits' piece says it all. A guard made sure that the best parking-spots were accessible to white cars only.
The artist pushed the provocation even further with Photo Tip , an installation which allows people to be portrayed as a hostage flanked by threatening terrorists.
Czech guerrilla artist collective Ztohoven gained fame in June 2007 when they hacked into a weather forecast on national tv and inserted a digital image of a nuclear explosion on a live panoramic shot of the Krkonoše Mountains. Their intention was to point to the distorted view of reality in the media. Several members of the collective were prosecuted for scaremongering and spreading false information but the judge dismissed the scaremongering charges against the artists, citing public amusement rather than public unrest.
More recently, the artists altered photos of themselves using morphing and applied for new ID cards using these fake pictures. Over the course of six months they used the IDs to travel abroad and vote, and one of them even got married. The whole project was presented at a gallery in Prague under the name Občan K. ("Citizen K.") The performance was a critique of the misuse of personal data and of constant surveillance that sometimes leads to a loss of identity that reduces individuals to numbers. This time again, the action led members of Ztohoven to deep troubles with the police. They were accused of breaching paragraph 181 of the criminal code that states that anybody who damages another person's rights by deliberately misleading them faces up to two years in prison or a ban on their work activity.
kennardphillipps was created in 2002 to produce art in response to the invasion of Iraq. It has evolved to confront power and war across the globe. The photomontage above points to proposals for a third runway and a sixth terminal at Heathrow, a plan pushed forward by Gordon Brown and opposed by Greenpeace.
The Three Gorges Dam project in China is the world's largest capacity hydroelectric power station with a total generating capacity of 18,200 MW. However, its construction flooded archaeological and cultural sites and displaced some 1.3 million people, and is causing significant ecological changes.
Artist Yang Yi went to his hometown just before it was completely submerged and documented the remaining scenery before it disappeared. Using both photography and digital techniques, Yang Yi's Uprooted series depict a ghost town engulfed by water, whose inhabitants go about their daily lives wearing snorkels.
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