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.
I don't know why i didn't visit Suzanne Treister 's solo show at Annely Juda in London as soon as it opened. I guess i've been lazy and since the lazy is always rewarded, the show has been extended till 22 January, giving me another chance to see it.
In pure Treister fashion, In The Name Of Art and other recent works unwraps the extremely dense networks that tie together secret detention facilities run by the CIA, government control, mass surveillance technologies, military intelligence and counter-intelligence, drone operations that kill and drone operations that entertain the gallery-going crowd. You want to dismiss it as conspiracy theories but Snowden, Wikileaks, and human rights reports urge you to pay attention. At the risk of making you uncomfortable.
Much of Treister's recent work maps ways that human intelligence and military intelligence currently interact and work on each other. She explores how in a world increasingly determined by pervasive technologies and the demands of the military and security arms of government and state, new relations between the observer and the observed have been established and new subjectivities formed.
The work The Drone that Filmed the Opening of its own Exhibition did exactly what its title says. Treister brought a drone at the opening to film the exhibition and its visitors, highlighting the expanding role of UAVs in both military and civil life. The catalogue-newspaper accompanying the exhibition reminds us that the performance is far from being purely entertaining and anecdotic as military drones have killed between 3,500 and 5,000 people (and not all of them were 'combatants' as we know) since 2002.
Camouflage was probably the work that intrigued me the most. Treister sourced documents related to the U.S. Department of Defense's GIG and the NSA's PRISM surveillance programmes. Both programmes are for use in times of war, in crisis and in peace. Treister further obstructed the content of leaked graphics from internal power-point presentations about PRISM by painting patterns over them.
The abstract black shapes of CIA Black Sites are supposed to silhouette secret CIA interrogation centres. The drawings directly reference Malevich's Suprematism compositions to evoke the CIA's support of abstract art in the 1950s while the title of the work alludes to the secret prisons where terrorism suspects are held, interrogated and kept out of the view of the public and the law.
The KGB works in the ART FOR OLIGARCHS series (a series which also includes a stunning STASI Wallpaper that recall the ubiquity of pre-digital surveillance and which i was silly enough not to photograph) points to the overlap between people who were powerful in the security agencies of the USSR and the new turbo-capitalist powerbrokers and the Post-Soviet oligarchy that the Western contemporary art market has become so dependent on.
In each orchis militaris flower, the sepals and side petals are gathered together to form a pointed "helmet" (whence it gets its name). By this point you will probably see evil and machination everywhere, so please do let your imagination run wild.
emeyefive looks at the life of Stella Rimington, the first head of the British Intelligence agency MI5 whose name was made known to the general public. The name of the director of the agency had so far been regarded as a state secret but an investigative campaign by the New Statesman and The Independent newspaper published photos of her, forcing MI5 to roll out on a new programme of transparency.
Suzanne Treister, In The Name Of Art and other recent works is open until 22 January 2014 at Annely Juda Fine Art in London. DON'T MISS IT!
Previous post about Treister's work: HEXEN.
Top Secret: Images from the Stasi Archives, by Simon Menner.
Publisher Hatje Cantz writes: First publication of pictures from the archives of the Stasi, the East German secret police
Almost 300,000 people worked for the East German secret police, per capita far more than were employed by agencies such as the CIA or the KGB. Not quite fifty years after the Berlin Wall was built, Simon Menner (*1978 in Emmendingen) discovered spectacular photographs in the Stasi archives that document the agency's surveillance work. Formerly secret, highly official photographs show officers and employees putting on professional uniforms, gluing on fake beards, or signaling to each other with their hands. Today, the sight of them is almost ridiculous, although the laughter sticks in the viewer's throat. This publication can be regarded as a visual processing of German history and an examination of current surveillance issues, yet it is extremely amusing at the same time. The fact that the doors of the opposite side--the British or German intelligence services, for example--remained closed to the artist lends the theme an explosive force as well as a tinge of absurdity.
Simon Menner has one of the most peculiar portfolios i've ever encountered. Snipers hidden among the trees, soldiers posing with corpses, Boobytraps and "Unconventional Warfare Devices and Techniques" from the 1960s, weapons used to murder people, views of WWI from both sides of the conflict, etc. Even the photos of Happy People have been selected for some very dark reason.
The Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (Department of State Security) of the former German Democratic Republic was one of the largest surveillance apparatuses in history and its record of citizens' intimate life was thorough and sinister. The story and practices of the Stasi have been fairly well documented. Until this book however, we still lacked a clear visual account of the methods, tactics and props used by the spying agents.
The publication presents a selection of images documenting many of the Stasi operations: the spying accoutrement of Stasi personnel, the techniques employed to shadow or arrest a suspect, the signs used to convey secret messages, the packages sent via mail and confiscated by the secret police, etc.
The most baffling photos were taken during seminars in which Stasi employees learnt the art of disguise.
The props are amateurish, the poses are awkward and the result is grotesque beyond words. Yet, the intentions were serious: repression, control, surveillance.
The award for most disturbing photos go to Polaroids of unmade beds, (Western-made) coffee machines and rows of shoes. The photos were taken by Stasi agents when they secretly searched peoples' houses on the hunt for evidence they might be betraying the communist state. Photos of the rooms and furniture were taken upon arrival and used by the agents to be able afterwards to put everything back as if nothing had been touched.
The photos below were taken at the birthday party of a high-ranking Stasi official. The party guests were asked to come dressed as members of demographic groups under Stasi surveillance such as athletes, dancers, academics, peace activists, and religious figures.
Spies of the western Allied Forces photographed Stasi spies and Stasi spies photographed their Western counterparts. "Sometimes they met, both sides were absolutely aware that the other side was there, but nevertheless both sides took photos, showing that both East and West lived in pretty much the same state of mind," the artist explained. So far, however, Menner hasn't been granted access to the correspondent photos from the British or Federal German secret services.
I love the necklace, very Tatty Devine!
The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, London's favourite radio art station, is aired this Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.
My guest tomorrow will be writer, artist, publisher and technologist James Bridle. I'm sure many of you have heard of him. Either because he coined and formulated the concept of New Aesthetic which quickly gave rise to worldwide debate and creative work. Or because you're interested in drone warfare. A few months ago, Bridle launched Dronestagram on Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr. The project uses Google Earth images and data collected by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism to document systematically the locations of deadly U.S. drone strikes. Bridle has also been traveling from Istanbul to Brighton to Washington DC to paint crime scene-style outlines of drones and give passersby a more physical representation of the size and power of the unmanned aerial vehicles.
One of the artist's latest projects, A Quiet Disposition is an intelligence-gathering system that scans the internet for news articles and other sources of information about drones, and drone-related technologies, including the Disposition Matrix. When it finds relevant texts, it analyses them, cataloguing names, objects, terminologies, and the relationships between them. From these relationships it draws its own conclusions, connecting pairs of names linked through the information it has gathered.
The show will be aired this Wednesday 10th of July at 16:00, London time. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am (I know...) If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.
Previously: Under the Shadow of the Drone.
The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, London's favourite radio art station, is aired this Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.
My guest tomorrow will be Ilona Gaynor and she'll be talking to us about forensic science, police reconstructions and the not so technically sophisticated (but very smart) way to rob a bank in broad day light on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. Ilona is a young artist and designer who got the attention of the press - from blogs to the Financial Times- in 2011 for her RCA graduation project Everything Ends in Chaos. The work explored economics, finance, global markets, risk management, insurance and mathematics.
Over the past 2 years, however, Ilona has been working on Under Black Carpets. The research project is a thorough investigation and planning of the robbery of 5 of the richest banks located in downtown LA. Posing as a LAPD officer, Ilona has researched not only how to 'investigate, intervene and be forceful' but also how to efficiently rob banks.
Ilona Gaynor also runs the design and research practice The Department of No.
HMPark Life was triggered by the reaction to last Summer's England Riots: the public wanted to see the looters severely punished, courts were advised to hand out tough sentences, the Daily Mail suggested that incarceration might not be enough since -they wrote- prisons are little more than 'holiday camps' and the government stepped in with the proposal to subject inmates to 40-hour working weeks.
HMPark Life is a radically new type of prison that would be built in the middle of London. The project questions this drive to turn a prison population into a cheap labour force - one that works not just to provide skills to inmates in the name of 'rehabilitation' but forces offenders to be both visibly productive and punished to quench the public's ever-present blood thirst for justice.
The prison is modeled on the concentric circles of Hell in Dante's Inferno: the higher the offense, the harsher the punishment and the deeper within the Earth the sinner is sent.
At HMPark Life, the gradation of current UK prison security categories reflect this gradual increase in offense and need for security. The architecture of the prison pushes the analogy even further: it is built deep into the ground, with the most dangerous offenders finding themselves at the bottom of the structure. But the project also introduces an element of spectacle with the possibility for the public to come during their leisure time and gape at the prisoners.
With high security at the deepest point climbing up to an open prison at the surface of the offender-made canyon, this seeping of the prison into the well-healed high street of Herne Hill provides moments of inmate / outsider interaction in the form of a theatre, library and workshops. A public viewing platform perched on the prison main's circulation core provides an ideal point from which to survey the throng of productive inmates, leaving the public with the sense of satisfaction. This is the new panopticon.
I had to interview the young architect who brought Dante Alighieri and the Daily Mail in such close contact:
Hi Alexis! The project seems to be a reaction to last year's riots. Did any other event, piece of news, aspect of social or political life inspire the project?
While writing my dissertation, investigating the physical implications of Michel Foucault's 'Heterotopias', which are a series of principles that define the nature of what creates deviant/ synchronised/ paradoxical/ time based/ exclusive or inclusive and illusory spaces; I came across the essay Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard with the statement,
"The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth - it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true."
As a Londoner, watching the riots unfold on the rolling news from the safety of my suburban family home. I was not only astonished at the randomness of the violence, but also the erratic reactions to it. Passers-by, "social commentators", politicians, all had their own over-simplified and unsurprising takes on the events blaming education, the benefits system, bankers' bonuses and the X Factor. But as statistics started to emerge that a majority of the perpetrators had previous criminal convictions, everybody knew there was going to be some kind of reactionary policy making by the Conservative lead coalition Government. I didn't have to wait long.
The Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke announced less than a month after the events sweeping changes to the way offenders were to be reformed in Prisons. The phrases "providing skills", "rehabilitation through purposeful work" several weeks later turned into "offenders shall 'earn their keep'". Working a full 40hr week doing menial tasks like laundry or gluing light bulbs together and getting paid up to £10 per week.
This apparent confusion over the purpose of skilling-up offenders or work as punishment is what inspired me to create HMPark Life. Rehabilitation was no longer for the benefit of the offender, but was a tool for the state to either reassure the liberal section of society that offenders were being offered skills to better themselves and the more conservative amongst us that offenders were being put to work as punishment.
Could you describe exactly how HMPark Life works? Its structure/architecture? In particular Dante's Inferno and the circles of Hell.
Dante's Inferno, the first part to the epic poem 'The Divine Comedy' acted not just as an allegory for the horrors and turmoils of hell but also for its clear programatic and spatial organisation. Throughout history there have been many versions of diagrams explaining the descending rings of hell and all follow the poem's stepped, conical canyon description bellow the surface of the earth, with Lucifer and a frozen lake at its deepest point. The lower you descend the more heinous the sin one had committed. This logic seemed appropriate for a prison.
Dante's Inferno also worked as a way of planning the views to depict parts of the project. The poem is divided into 34 Cantos or chapters, each describing Dante's journey further into the depths. The Canto numbers on the views relate to the points within the poem that are identical to parts of the prison; for example Canto III describes the 'Lost forest' and the entrance to Hell, which in HMPark Life has become a woodland littered with trees disguising columns and the library/ visitor centre. Some of which function as light funnels for the prison workshops bellow and provide perches for CCTV cameras. Canto IX is the point at which Dante looks back at where he had come from, Canto V is where judgement of sins are passed deciding on the level of inferno, so here I show the public observation tower. Canto XXXIV is the lowest point depicting the worst sinners' accommodation with cells of category A.
Why did you locate the prison in Brockwell Park?
Brockwell Park is just south of Brixton, where some of the worst rioting occurred. It acts as a barrier between the affluent neighbourhood of Herne Hill to the East and a large council estate to the West and contains the must have pleasant park facilities such as a restored 1920's lido, an organic community garden and tennis courts. It is also half a mile from the existing HMP Brixton.
During my Research I discovered HMP Brixton to be the worst in terms of the Prison system's own ratings. No outdoor space, offenders spend up to 23hrs a day in their cells designed for one in the 19thC but now accommodating up to 4, unsanitary conditions, rat infested and the building is Grade II* listed so updating the facilities is bizarrely out of the question. By placing the prison in the park I'm merely following current legislation to its extreme.
"Prisons should be built within close proximity to communities in order to form close links and aid integrating offenders back into the community" planning guidelines state.
London's inner city prisons such as Pentonville and Brixton occur in the midst of residential areas, behind high walls barely sign posted they almost disappear into the urban fabric. It was important to the project that opportunities were borne out of program conflicts with the context: Pleasure/ Punishment, Play/ Work, Freedom/ Enclosure.
Finally with prisons being so over crowded, and London's prisons lacking in the legally required space then London's parks become an ideal site, especially since the prison is to be our prison and become part of our leisure time experience.
Also i was wondering about the kind of people who would want to watch the inmates working. I suspect, like you probably did, that among them we'd find mostly readers of the Daily Mail. In my view, most readers of the DM are far more dangerous than prisoners. So what would protect the inmates from the public?
I did draw a lot of inspiration from the Daily Mail. It is always useful to look at something so opposed to your own opinions in order to draw something out of yourself. The headline "Prison is a Holiday Camp" popped up a few times in the Daily Mail, citing inmates' ability to access TV (for a fee) and table football. Though if you asked the inmates of HMP Brixton i'm sure their opinions would differ.
There is a viewing platform for each level of security as you descend the tower. I imagined the more casual park passer by might take their children as a warning for misbehaving and perhaps the lower one goes you might come across characters like Jeremy Kyle, or a demonstration by 'Parents Against Pedophiles'. Now i'm thinking Gordon Ramsay would happily sit there with the Daily Mail crowd. I caught 5 minutes of his new series where he's getting some inmates of HMP Brixton to make fairy cakes, when I heard the tagline "Gordon Ramsay thinks it's time Britain's prisoners paid their way." I had to switch it off. For a man arrested for 'gross indecency' in a male public toilet you'd think he'd want to distance himself from this issue of public humiliation as a form of punishment, unless this is a long overdue part of his community service.
HMPark Life would host different categories of prisoners. Do they mirror the already existing categories?
The categories of prison exist already. But only in a few instances do prisons of differing categories occur on the same site and they never share facilities. For example, Belmarsh Prison (Category A) is the UK's highest security Prison where those charged (or not quite charged) of terrorism are held. But next door is a male juvenile detention centre.
Finally, i had a look into the publication that accompanied the exhibition at RCA. One of the chapter is "precedency study" and it features works by Herzog & de Meuron, Lina Bo Bardi's Sesc Pompeia, the prisons of Piranesi. Could you explain briefly how you draw inspiration from them?
References are important in trying to develop a language that informs the project whilst at the same time being sympathetic to the way I like to draw and depict. CaixaForum Madrid by Herzog & de Meuron was mainly a formal reference. The perforations and it's 'cragginess' being conducive in a way to design the caged exercise spaces of the inmates, with differing perforation densities in accordance to the level of punishment/ prison category. In Lina Bo Bardi's amazing Sesc Pompeia in Sao Paulo I was looking at the system of exposed circulation and the ruthlessly efficient series of walkways that jut between its two monolithic towers. The most immediately obvious precedence I drew from was Piranesi's Carceri d'invenzione (imaginary prisons) etchings. HMPark Life's 4 'Cantos' used the same techniques of awkward angled view points and constricting the image inside the frame as well as a disorientating sense of scale. In Piranesi's etchings it is quite hard to judge how big this world is until he places a crumpled figure somewhere in the foreground.