Here's one last post about a work i discovered at BIO50, the 24th Biennial of Design that closed in Ljubljana a few days ago (at the bottom of this post, you'll find links to stories i wrote about some of the projects developed for the biennial.)
One of the eleven themes explored at BIO50 brought design into the realm of life sciences. I was thus expecting one of those futuristic, speculative and over-serious projects that explore scenarios of a life mediated by biotechnology. However, what designers Dimitris Stamatis, Pei-Ying Lin, Jasmina Weiss, and Špela Petrič came up with didn't meet my expectations at all. And that's always a good thing.
Their Plant Sex Consultancy is exactly what its title suggests: a series of design interventions aimed at 'augmenting' the sex life of plants, through long discussions with 'plant clients.'
Take the cyclamen, for example. The particular species of bees that pollinate the flower by shaking it with a specific frequency has gone extinct. PSX designed a vibrating pod with a sensor that gently grasps the flower. When triggered by an insect, the pod shakes with the exact frequency needed to release the pollen onto the insect. PSX has devised a total of six gadgets that meet the specific sexual needs of plants. Some flowers were outfitted with a vanity lace to prevent the spread of STDs, others were given an algae-containing dildo or a vibrator.
By applying human-centered design methodologies onto plant life, PSX ends up serving its own agenda, creating objects that are familiar to the human and that bear a meaning to the human only. Not the plant.
Besides, the legitimacy of intentional anthropomorphism depends on the viewer's cultural context. The method is effective if the designer employing it subscribes to the Eastern philosophy, which grants an equivalent status to all entities, living and inanimate, but irrationally unpalatable to designers stemming from the Western Cartesian tradition, which ascribes true individuality and sentience solely to human beings. The inherent antagonism, absurdity and humor apparent in the augmentations also manifest themselves in the design process, which stems from West, but is in this context more congruent with the Eastern world view.
What made you want to design artifact for the sexuality of plants?
Within the framework of this year's BIO50, intended to test the limits of incidental interdisciplinary collaboration while taking a critical stance towards contemporary design practices, we (Dimitris Stamatis, Pei-Ying Lin, Jasmina Weiss, and Špela Petrič) wanted to push the envelope by proposing a project that wilfully transgresses common sense, good taste, and the purpose of design as a branch of applied art with utility at its core.
For all empathic and philosophical purposes, plants are the incomprehensible aliens living amongst us, which we experience daily but perceive through their ubiquity, their slow pace, immobility, at best as a source of food and their potential applicability to reduce our detrimental environmental impact. We see, taste, smell and touch the otherness of plants, but spend very little time daydreaming to comprehend it. And even if we did, we'd hardly find a point of identification, of justifiable commonality between humans and plants that would spark a comparison, which would release plant agencies from the murky bottom of the anthropocentric valorization of living beings.
Then, there is sex. In the abstract realm of biological sciences, which seeks commonality in processes across the living world, sexual reproduction stands out as a staple principle of natural selection. Using a gastronomy facsimile, sex results in genetic cocktails of individuals. It is one of the crucial steps in the recipes of species under pressure to suit the changing taste of the environment. This applies to all organisms, from bacteria to humans and, of course, plants.
We recognized the uncanniness of likening plant and human sexual reproduction as an agora to juxtapose conceptions of "unique" human cultural practices to cross-species biological necessities, and the design process, promoted (by BIO50 amongst others) as a widely applicable approach, to the limits of its meaningfulness.
Prosthetics to enhance the 'natural reproductive strategies' of plants! Even the term 'consultancy' sounds ironic because it implies having an actual face to face conversation with a plant. The whole project actually doesn't sound very serious, more like a parody of design project. However, while i was listening to your presentation of the project in Ljubljana, i was surprised by how much 'sense' these little sex toys and gadgets might have. They are a bit ridiculous but they also respond to a perceived need or shortcoming of the plant reproduction system (for example: a bee going extinct.) So how do balance the credible and the fanciful? How seriously should we take the project and the various problems these plants have when it comes to reproduction?
The PSX Consultancy presents a hybrid manifestation of tongue-in-cheek discourse stemming from established concepts; it is conceived using artistic and design approaches in response to a body of knowledge provided by science. The identified reproductive problems of plants and the proposed solutions are as serious as they can be, but are coined using a methodological twist during the process.
The PSX's research of reproductive problems of the plants is based on scientific papers, meticulously interpreted by the team, two members of which have a scientific background, one of them a biologist with a PhD. We applied the scientific reference overview towards the construction of a "profile" for each plant, which included their adaptation to indigenous habitats and the issues they face during their ongoing evolution and introduction to non-native bioregions, all from the perspective of plant reproduction. We then synthesized the background knowledge gathered around each "client" in the design process and by doing so considered the factual biological elements in a cultural way. Solving the interactions of elements (criteria or issues) led the PSX Consultancy to an original but miniscule fraction of all possible answers to the reported problems of particular plants. Freed from design's usual imperative of utility, we found ourselves facing an abyss of options. To collect a wide spectrum from meaningful to meaningless augmentations, we purposefully decided on a very flexible criterion for acceptability - the proposals had to poses bio-logic and preferably allude to human sexual practices.
The results are feasible to varying degrees. For example, the Cyclamen vibrator is quite rooted in reality, as a similar device is agriculturally used in the pollination of tomato plants, which have a mechanism of pollination analogous to the Cyclamen. On the other hand, the carnation's vanity lace preventing the spread of STDs, or the helium balloon-assisted mutation of turmeric roots, primarily outline lesser-known facts about plant reproduction but are "a bit of a stretch" when it comes to their applicability.
In the context of BIO50's challenge to designers, artists, architects, and scientists to collaboratively undertake "Designing Life", the credible and the fanciful continue to wade in the "punny" cesspool delineated by the curators of the biennial. The plant sex toys' uncertain and obscured position in relation to fact and fiction hopefully stimulates the viewer's critical perspective on the design process at hand, which can be applied to many similar endeavors undertaken and advertised as truthfully applicable. It seems that the message was successfully transmitted, winning the project an honorary mention at the biennial.
Once you outfitted the plants with these little devices, did you observe how they reacted? What happened? Did the plant accept the devices, were they useful to the reproduction and well-being of the plants?
We found it oddly effortless to transfer the human experience and sexualize the prototypes we envisioned for the plants. Our first test was the insertion of the "algae-containing" dildo into the carnivorous leaf of the pitcher plant. It's difficult to describe the awkwardness of the anthropomorphic projection the moment the dildo slid into the pitcher. Mounting the other devices provoked a similar estrangement, even producing giggles of embarrassment. We succeeded in materializing a cross-species taboo that never existed; because of their assumed soullessness, sex with plants, unlike bestiality, was never in the milieu of cultural debauchery. Does the instigated proximity of human and plant reproduction facilitated by these devices fetishize plant reproduction, banalise human sexuality, or does it incite an association quickly disregarded as obscure?
Keeping in mind the project is currently in its conceptual phase and that the prototypes produced thus far were plastic, non-functioning proposals, the augmentations were innocuous to the plants. If we were to progress to technology-enabled functioning gadgets, we are confident the sex toys would have surprising (favorable or detrimental) effects, which are impossible to predict without actually trying them out.
How did you select the plants you worked for?
After the initial sweep of candidates based on personal preference, oddity/familiarity, scientific interest, and general popularity, we had to pragmatically narrow our selection based on plant availability in Slovenia and the timely expression of their reproductive organs during the biennial from September till December. Further, we focused on plants with unique reproduction issues, which resulted in most of the clients being species originating from the tropics and making do in temporal climates, often due to human intervention. Humans indirectly caused many of the problems the PSX consultancy is attempting to fix.
What is next? Are you planning to push the project any further?
Since in the context of an exhibition, the legibility of individual augmentations depends on the presence, traditional use and symbolism of a particular plant species in the specific cultural environment, we hope to expand the collection by conceiving augmentations for different locally important plants, reaching a wider audience. In the process we also realized the project somehow mirrors the differences between the Western (European) / Eastern (North East Asian) mentalities, making it an interesting point of conflict and resolution to culturally dependent artistic practices.
Thanks Spela and Pei-Ying!
The Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool is probably the most exciting photo gallery in England (especially now that Foto8 has closed.) On 22 February they will open a show dedicated to Letizia Battaglia's chronicle of the brutal anni di piombo in Sicily. And right now they have a show that brings together self-taught photographer Alvin Baltrop and 'anarchitect' Gordon Matta-Clark.
I went to see Alvin Baltrop and Gordon Matta-Clark: The Piers From Here a couple of weeks ago. I had never heard of Alvin Baltrop before. His photography met with very little artistic appreciation until after his death when art institutions finally started paying attention to his portrayal of emerging gay subculture in New York.
At first glance, Matta-Clark and Baltrop seem to have very little in common. In fact, the two men probably never met. But they both turned their artistic interest to the Piers of New York City during the mid 1970s.
They found Manhattan's West Side piers abandoned and decaying as a consequence of the oil crisis that reconfigured the geography of the city along with the international trading system. Left to rot, the vast industrial space on the outskirts of the city was soon occupied by people living at the fringe of society: graffiti writers, artists, drug addicts, prostitutes. the homeless, etc.
Pier 52 is the site of one of Matta-Clark's famous building cuts. In 1975, the artist made large cuts into the floor, ceiling and sides of a derelict metal hangar, exposing the Hudson River and sky, creating a sculpture brought to life by the rotation of the sun. Matta-Clark argued that he had created an indoor park. He called it Day's End out of a decrepit space. However, visitors were afraid to cross the large lacerations, the police shut down the opening event and the artist faced an arrest warrant for trespassing and defacing property.
Matta-Clark described the piers as being completely overrun by the gays. So much so that the piers became the site of at least two pornographic films, Arch Brown's Pier Groups (1979) and Steve Scott's Non-Stop (1983). And while Matta-Clark was seesawing his architectural installation, Alvin Baltrop was documenting men having sex, cruising or sunbathing there. Or corpses dredged up from the river.
Most of the time, Baltrop was hiding from his subject, hanging from steel girders, shooting from afar, capturing the freedom these crumbling spaces gave to their occupants. The images are voyeuristic but, perhaps paradoxically, they are never pornographic.
Baltrop photographed the piers and their residents from 1975 to 1986, right up to the moment they were razed. The result is an archive of thousands of photographs that hover between raw passion, violence, furtiveness and tenderness.
Gordon Matta-Clark believed that art could be used as a tool for urban regeneration and the exhibition offers an opportunity to reflect on that very topic but also on the gentrification of (sub)urban areas that usually comes with the dissolution of underground culture.
Both the Piers in New York and the docks in Liverpool experienced a similar process of transformation during the 1970s. Dispossessed of their industrial activity, the areas were gradually reclaimed by people living at the margins of society (from prostitutes and drug dealers to visual artists, performers and film-makers.) I've never been to what is left of the New York piers but Liverpool's docks, where Open Eye is situated, has now left place to office buildings and luxury apartments.
Alvin Baltrop and Gordon Matta-Clark: The Piers From Here is up at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool until 9 Feb 2014.
And now for something completely different....
Last Thursday, i stopped at the British Museum to see Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art. I thought that Thursday would be a good day for a quiet visit. Wrong! It was the kind of crowd in which you have to stretch your neck in unnatural directions to read the descriptions of the works and wait patiently behind several people before you can actually approach a print. When finally you're in front of the work and have had a good look, you want to turn and walk to the next window but you're blocked by the people waiting and staring behind you. And no, they won't move lest they loose their spot in the queue.
My visit was thus laborious but i liked the show so much i'll have another try (a Tuesday morning when the doors open? a lunch time?)
Produced in Japan from 1600 to 1900, Shunga (or "picture of spring", spring being an euphemism for sex) are erotic paintings, prints and books that were used for personal stimulation and for the education of young lovers.
Make no mistake: this was art, not what we'd now call "pornography". In fact, the works were regarded as a suitable gift to brides on the eve of their wedding or to official foreign visitors. Unaffected by the inhibited sexual attitudes of Christianity or Islam, Shunga presented a fantasy world of sexual delight enjoyed by both sexes. The sense of sin didn't have a place in shunga. But female pleasure, tenderness and beauty did.
The genre flourished even when it was officially banned and many works were in fact produced by some of the country's most distinguished artists. The decline of shunga is attributed to the arrival of Western culture and technologies at the end of the 19th century and in particular the importation of photoreproduction techniques. How could Shunga compete with erotic photography?
In Japan, however, the influence of shunga can still be seen in manga, anime, tattoo art and other popular cultural forms.
I got the following photos from the British Museum press office. Unsurprisingly (but disappointingly), the ones i received were quite tame compared to most of what you can see in the show:
Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art is at the British Museum, until 5 January 2014.
Keep Your Timber Limber (Works on Paper) explores how artists since the 1940s to the present day have used drawing to address ideas critical and current to their time, ranging from the politics of gender and sexuality, to feminist issues, war and censorship.
As the title implies, there's nothing sheepish nor restrained in this show. It displays male superheroes ready to spring into action while wearing restrictive feminine outfits, muscular cavemen ogling one another and men of religion ejaculating on themselves. The appropriate opening for the exhibition is thus Fucked by Numbers, a 8 metre long graffiti of a penis firing a US flag. Numbers being scribbled around the phallus to details the statistics of the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. How many died, how many refugees, how many dollars spent, how many US army veteran suicides, etc.
Judith Bernstein's work is a contemporary version of an image she first made in 1967, to protest the war in Vietnam.
In case the Brits feel left out by the artist's disapproval, the Union Jack-Off Flag, with the words 'Jack-off on US policy in Vietnam' awaits the visitor on the other side of the wall.
If Bernstein's drawings bring the spotlight on male urges to display power and to destroy, Cary Kwok's work looks at male vulnerability at the moment of orgasm.
I was amazed by Kwok's blue biro drawings. But i can't remember having ever been so felt so embarrassed when watching some artworks.
The drawings of Touko Laaksonen, aka Tom of Finland, played an important role in popularizing gay culture. His depictions of homosexual encounters are jolly, humorous and carefree and that's precisely what made them revolutionary. Before him, homosexuals were represented as sad, pervert, dirty and clandestine men. Tom of Finland clad them into police or sailor uniforms, leather outfits and lumberjack attires -that would later be seen on the member of the disco group Village People- and let them frolic in woods and changing rooms.
In an interview with Charlie Porter, Curator Sarah McCrory says that Marlene McCarty has been looking at women who work with primates and their relationships that have broken beyond ethical and moral boundaries. Women who have been looking after apes and let them sleep in their marital bed, either as if they were children or in different ways. She's looking at confusion within sexual roles.
"My hominid images are all also based on true-life narratives of intense relationships between humans and apes", the artist further explained. "I'm interested in the idea of hybridization (a term used in the study of evolution to indicate those gray areas where one 'species' interbred with another). The process of evolution has been cleaned up for our basically Calvinist/Puritan Western thinking. We uphold very clear distinctions of various species (especially our own) as they've developed from one another, but what doesn't really get talked about is that sometimes one species would begin to appear alongside another and there was most probably interspecies breeding. (Example: Homo neanderthalensis more than likely bred with Homo sapiens, although most schoolbooks would simply present them as one following the other.)"
Keep Your Timber Limber might well be one of my favourite shows in town this Summer. I will however agree with the ever grumpy Adrien Searle when he writes that some of the artists don't quite fit into the show. The fashion illustration of Antonio Lopez seemed a bit meek in the exhibition context and i couldn't quite see the point of adding one drawing by George Grosz that shows over-fed members of the bourgeoisie followed around by skinny figures.
The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM is aired tonight.
Zoe Papadopoulou is an artist whose work looks at emergent technologies and speculates on their future uses to help the public imagine and discuss what these innovations might hold for us in the coming years. In the past, Zoe has baked nuclear cakes, sold ice cream flavoured clouds and drafted the merger between the island of Cyprus and Intel corporation.
But the work we are going to focus on today is called Reproductive Futures. Zoe has spent the past year on a project sponsored by the Wellcome Trust exploring the scientific and technological developments in Artificial Reproductive Technologies. She particularly looked at questions such as "Will the techniques themselves have the potential to fundamentally change the way we perceive parenthood and reproduction? How will the stories we tell children evolve?" Her research will take the form of 3 books that address different scenarios of future reproduction through children's stories.
In the show, we will be talking artificial uterus, the orphan child who had 5 parents, artificial gametes, and premature babies exhibited in freak shows.
The show will be aired today Thursday 31st January at 19:30. The repeat is next Tuesday at 6.30 am (yes, a.m!) If you don't live in London, you can catch the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.
All images courtesy of the artist.
Ledare is famous for being one of the very few contemporary artists who still manages to shock and break taboos. His most famous series was shot over a period of 8 years and stars Tina Peterson, his own mother. Posing gleefully for him in négligé, naked or in fur hat. In sickness and in health. Flirting with the camera (or maybe the man behind it), masturbating, having sex with men the same age as her son, etc. One moment she is defiant, powerful and utterly stunning. The next, she's chubbier and wearing a brace around her neck.
The opening work of the exhibition doesn't pull any punch. Right at the entrance, there is Alma, a very L'origine du monde portrait of the mother laying on her bed, all porcelaine skin and spread legs. Alma is the name of the 3 year old girl who was given the photo to scribble over. Being so young, the child was deemed too innocent to read anything suggestive in the photo.
The photos are accompanied by hand written lists of the kind of men his mother met through personal ads in newspapers (the "Gonzo porn king", "the horni rabi", "the feisty fireman", etc.) or of the "Gifts mom has been showered with". Each list along with the letters, videos, souvenirs, vintage photo sinks further into the intimacy of the woman.
The mother seems to be present in other series, even when she doesn't appear on the image. For The Collector's Commissions, Ledare contacted collectors and asked them to photograph him, in the setting of their choice. But the photographer adopts the position that his mother would normally take on those portraits.
In the series Personal Commissions, Ledare answered personal ads from women whose desires echoed those of his mother's, and paid them to photograph him in their apartments, he lets them direct him and chose the scenario. Ledare doesn't see these works as portraits of himself but rather as individuals portray of the ladies who photographed him. Just like he regards people's interpretation of his relationship with his mother as telling more about the spectator than about himself.
The show contains more series than i'm covering here: works by Larry Clark and other friends of Ledare, portraits of Ledare'ex-wife by both himself and her new husband, portraits of an anonymous wealthy lady who hired him as her 'erotic photographer', etc.
These distinct but related bodies of work are studies not only of their visible subjects, but also of photography itself: how it mediates identity, relationships, love, loss, and, perhaps above all, human vulnerability. They are also indexes of the relationships of the artist with others - mother, family members, ex-lover, collectors, anonymous patrons, etc. - which, from the start, have played a central role in Ledare's work.
Previously: Leigh Ledare at Guido Costa Projects in Turin.