Over the past few months, artist Paolo Cirio has been quietly collecting pictures of high-ranking U.S. intelligence officials on social media. He then blew the photos up using High Definition Stencils (an OS graffiti technique he invented), spray-painted the reproductions of the misappropriated photos and plastered the copies onto the streets of cities like New York, Paris or London.
The individuals targeted in the Overexposed series are some of the officials responsible for programs of mass surveillance or for misleading the public about them. Their names are: Keith Alexander (NSA), John Brennan (CIA), Michael Hayden (NSA), Michael Rogers (NSA), James Comey (FBI), James Clapper (NSA), David Petraeus (CIA), Caitlin Hayden (NSC), and Avril Haines (NSA).
Cirio tracked down these portraits through open-source intelligence (OSINT), an information-gathering method that uses the internet, including social media, as an investigative tool. OSINT is used by government agencies, law enforcement, corporations and people involved in marketing. But activists and journalists are also routinely relying on it for their research. The portraits brought to light by Cirio are photographs and selfies of government officials taken in informal situations by civilians or lower ranking officers.
By making private portraits of members of the CIA and NSA part of the public domain, both through his street interventions and the detailed documentation of the research he published on his website, the artist invaded the private life of these government officials (though not as much as they might invade ours) and literally gave a face to U.S. intelligence services. The work holds a satirizing mirror to the people participating to operations of mass surveillance, commenting on the need for public accountability and pushing to its most uncomfortable limits the trends for 'overly mediated political personas.'
Cirio's political satire reverses the contemporary means of propaganda, exposing the extent to which a public image can be captured on camera and exploited by the very same systems that intelligence officials seek to control. Overexposed derides the watchers with embarrassing pictures over which they have lost control, effectively turning the tables on them and their advocacy of mass surveillance and lax privacy practices.
An exhibition of Overexposed is opening tomorrow at the NOME gallery in Berlin (keep your eyes peeled for their programme in the future because they work with some of the most thought-provoking artists engaging with digital technologies) so i contacted the artist to get more details about the series:
Hi Paolo! To be honest, when i first read the description of the project, i was expecting some blurry portraits and no name at all. But in the series you go full on: the individuals are very recognizable and their identity is given. Do you expect to get into trouble with this work?
The legal question is not really about the officials because they are public figure, so the use of their photos fall under parody laws and free expression. The controversy is actually about the ownership of those photos and from where they were obtained, in most of the cases the selfies were taken by civilians, random people or acquaintances of the intelligence officials. On my website you can find the original photos where you have the individuals together with officials in the snapshot taken with smartphones and uploaded directly on the social media. I think so far they still don't know that their pictures ended up on public walls around the world. I don't know how they will react yet, the project was published just a few weeks ago.
And since you actually have a history of getting into trouble with your work, could you explain us which part these (mis)adventures, legal threats, cease & desist play into your work?
It's not just about getting in troubles, instead it's about generating legal reactions that reveal contradictions on the inadequacy or abuse of the laws that I want to criticize. In same cases, confronting the subjects of my performances on the legal terrain lets everyone understand which are the actual power structures that generate particular social conditions.
According to the press release, you used your HD Stencils graffiti technique and spray-painted hi-re reproductions of the photos onto public walls. How do you select the locations for these street interventions?
I paste these reproduction of photos mainly in popular street art locations, where people often take pictures that end up on the social media again. This exposes these officials even more through having their pictures in recirculation on the social network with the glamour of the street art.
And how do you go from street graffiti to art gallery? Do you feel that your work, and these stencils in particular, gets another meaning or has to be framed in another way when you change the exhibition context from public space to white wall space?
Beyond the public art interventions made for a wider public, I'm interested in formalizing the pieces as pop art and appropriation art, bringing them in the realm of the art world, which for me it is also a distribution system. Eventually they became historical portraits of figures that mark our time of expansion of cyber-warfare and astonishing programs of mass surveillance, which hopefully we will only remember as an awful war against civil society of the past. Also my technique HD Stencils offers very particular aesthetic qualities that can be fully appreciated with maximum perfection of the works made for the art gallery.
The exhibition Overexposed opens at the NOME gallery in Berlin on 22 May and remains on view until 20 July.
A detailed catalogue of the show is available for download (PDF.)
Previous mentions of Paolo Cirio's work on the blog: Unstable Territory. Borders and identity in contemporary art, Cultural Hijack, Notes from WJ-Spots Brussels, History and future of artistic creation on the Internet and The Digital Now - 'Drones / Birds: Princes of Ubiquity'.
Last week, i was in Berlin for the talks and screenings organized by the Disruption Network Lab, a platform of events and research focused on art, hacktivism and disruption. DNL opened its program with Eyes from a Distance. On Drone-Systems and their Strategies, a conference that explored the politics and the regime of power beyond drone-systems. A couple of the talks have already been uploaded online. They will all be there eventually and in the meantime i'm going to dutifully post my notes from the conference.
Starting with the brilliant panel of the first evening. The Grey Zone. On the (il)legitimacy of targeted killing by drones, moderated by journalist Laura Lucchini, explored drone strikes under the perspectives of an investigative journalist, a criminal law researcher, an activist and a blogger/journalist who lives in Gaza under the constant surveillance of the Israeli drones (more about her in a later post but go ahead if you're curious...)
The grey zone is of course the dangerous, blurry area where drone attacks operate. The practice of targeted killing by drones raises many questions: "How many civilians have been killed as collateral damage during these strikes?" "And even if we're talking about militants, how can the killings be justified when there has been judicial supervision? "If these drones can reach their targets anywhere, then how is the battlefield defined?" "87 countries (and counting) are now equipped with military drones, which they use mostly for surveillance. Only 3 countries use drones for targeted killings: the U.S., Israel and the UK. Where will this stop?" "And if these targeted killings are illegal, why does Europe keep silent?"
The first panelist was John Goetz, an American investigative journalist and author based in Berlin. He wrote, together with Christian Fuchs, the book Geheimer Krieg (Secret War) which reveals how the war on terror is secretly conducted from covert U.S. bases in Germany.
Goetz's presentation attempted to reconstruct one day of a drone attack in Somalia and as the narrative unfolded, we got to hear about Germany's involvement into these military operations, the way the U.S. gather intelligence in foreign territories and how innocents end up being caught in the line, if not directly targeted due to inaccurate information.
As he explained at the conference (and as an article in The Intercept further confirmed), drone strikes wouldn't be possible without the support of Germany. The Germans might not launch the attacks themselves but they provide intelligence and they coordinate the strikes that target suspected terrorists in Africa and the Middle East, but that also kill civilians.
The U.S. drone war in Africa is controlled from U.S. bases in Germany, namely Ramstein and Stuttgart. Germany is also responsible for gathering human intelligence. There are many Somali immigrants and asylum seekers in Germany and as they arrive, they are asked about streets, shops, location of members of Al-Shabaab, etc. Any information that could be used by the "War on Terror" is immediately relayed to U.S. intelligence officers.
The second speaker was Chantal Meloni, a criminal lawyer and the author of Is there a Court for Gaza? A Test Bench for International Justice, a book about the crimes perpetrated during the Operation Cast Lead against the Gaza Strip.
Meloni put the issue of targeted killing by drones into a legal framework.
Since 2004, up to 5,500 people have been killed by drone strikes in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. These are countries the U.S. is not officially at war with.
Killing has supplanted capture as the centerpiece of the U.S. counter terrorism strategy. Opposition to drone killing is growing but it is not as effective as the opposition to torture was. A reason for that might be that the legal framework for drone strikes is more complex.
Drone strikes have escalated under the Obama administration and they are characterized by a lack of transparency: states don't disclose who has been killed, why and who are the collateral casualties. Obama doesn't disclose the identity of the people on the kill list. There is no public presentation of evidence, nor any judicial oversight. The level of opacity is actually ridiculous. The little information we have is provided by media reports, leaks or testimonies.
An analysis by the human rights organization Reprieve found that US operators targeting 41 men have killed an estimated 1,147 people. So who are the 1,106 individuals? We don't know, most of them remain unnamed. What is sure is that the collateral damage shows that drones are not as 'surgically precise' as the U.S. claims.
Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown professor and former Pentagon official under President Obama, sums up the situation: "Right now we have the executive branch making a claim that it has the right to kill anyone, anywhere on Earth, at any time, for secret reasons based on secret evidence, in a secret process undertaken by unidentified officials."
We associate the start of the drone attacks with the U.S. and their post-9/11 counter-terrorist strategy but the military use of drones started long before that, in Israel, a country that has the longest track record for targeted killing (aka "targeted prevention") of Palestinians. Targeted killings can be defined as the state-sponsored practice of eliminating enemies outside the territory.
Nowadays, most of the drones sold around the world are used for surveillance purposes but it has been forecast that in 10 years every country will have armed drones.
60% of the world export of drones come from Israel. Israeli manufacturer Elbit is producing the best selling model: the Hermes drone which was used in the latest attacks on Gaza. 37% of the killings that occurred during the attacks on Gaza can be attributed to drones.
One can see the appeal of drones for governments and policy makers: they are relatively cheap, they are claimed to be 'surgically precise', they make it easy to kill without any risk and they allow the army to reach their target in areas that would otherwise be difficult to reach. But do their use comply with the martial law?
Targeted killings are generally unlawful under international laws.
The laws under war time are more permissible regarding the use of lethal forces. However, the right to use armed force is not unlimited. Civilians, for example, need to be protected from direct attacks.
States have thus expanded the concept of war on the battlefield as to include situations that should in fact be regulated by law enforcement agencies. The 'war on terror' is a total war for which no end nor boundaries is conceived. The number of enemies is infinite too. Governments justify the use of lethal forces by claiming that this is 'anticipatory self-defense' but, under the laws applicable under war time, the self-defense argument allows killing only when all other solutions, such as capture, have been exhausted. Most targeted killings outside the battlefield constitute thus premeditated deprivations of life, violations of the right to life.
When killings cannot be justified they constitute war crimes and other states have the duty to investigate and not leave dormant this huge accountability vacuum.
Tactical Technology Collective, Unseen War (Exposing the Invisible)
The final speaker was Marek Tuszynski, the co-founder of Tactical Tech, an organization 'dedicated to the use of information in activism.'
Tuszynski's talk focused on a series of short documentaries called Exposing the Invisible. The films look at the investigative work of journalists, artists, reporters, activists and technologists who explore publicly accessible data in order counter mainstream reports and go further than traditional journalistic investigations. One of the documentaries, Unseen War examines the physical, moral and political invisibility of US drone strikes in Pakistan.
He argued that counter powers should build their own intelligence practice.
The operations in Pakistan might be located far away but they concern us because
But there's no reason to be passive, we need to protect ourselves because surveillance doesn't require machines flying above our heads, we are already providing a vast quantity of valuable indormation when we use social media and that data can be used to analyse our digital behaviour. To protect yourself from intrusion to privacy, check out Tactical Tech's Security in-a-Box website.
Image on the homepage via BBC.
Berlin-based artists Christoph Wachter & Mathias Jud have installed WLAN / WiFi mesh network with can antennas on the roofs of the Academy of Arts and the Swiss Embassy, both located in the heart of "NSA's Secret Spy Hub" in the city. The network is at the disposal of passersby who would like to communicate anonymously and even send messages to operatives of the NSA and GCHQ intelligence who might lurk inside the nearby British Embassy and Embassy of the United States.
The installation is a direct reference to Edward Snowden's revelations that the U.S.' NSA, the UK's GCHQ and other key partners were operating a network of electronic spy posts hidden within the fabric of diplomatic buildings around the world.
Wachter and Jud's DIY can antennas don't hide themselves. They stand in plain sight between the camouflaged US and British listening posts and their network stretches over the administrative district of Berlin.
At the point at which the interception of Angela Merkel's cell phone occurred, the open network of anonymous communication options now unfolds as a legal and legitimate response to rigid restrictions on our freedoms and hidden, secret surveillance.
Messages can be sent to the intelligence agencies on the frequencies that are intercepted by the NSA and GCHQ. These personal messages include activist and political contributions, ironic disclosure of embarrassing intimacy, and calls for resistance. Many appeals are aimed directly at the surveillance operatives asking them to switch sides and become whistleblowers.
Mathias Jud was kind enough to answer my questions about the installation:
Hi Mathias! How did you get the authorizations to install the antennas? By the way, did you ask for authorisations?
The whole region is under special protection as it is next to the Parliament and the German Federal Chancellery. Surveillance, Police and Security are omnipresent. During our build up of the antenna tower a special Police helicopter with a pivoting surveillance cam was circling above us.
We also asked the Academy of Arts that is located next to the US embassy at the Brandenburg Gate. (The Academy of Arts is not an university, but an international 'master' academy of artists that was funded by a former Prussian king, and an art museum and collection.) Klaus Staeck, the President of the Academy and himself an active political graphic designer was very fond of the idea and promoted it together with Birgit Hein, the chief of the section Visual Arts.
In the last year we spent a lot of time discussing this project to be able to realise it. It is completely legal, and has the approval of the Swiss ambassador, the Swiss foreign office. The members of the Academy of the Arts discussed this project in their annual meeting and voted in favour of it. The German Federal Chancellery has been informed by the Swiss embassy.
Although our constitutional rights are restricted in the non-protest zone in the government district, there is no restriction of digital communication. With our qaul.net network that is the technological basis of the "Can you hear me?" installation we can experience a completely user-based network without any service provider as gate keeper and regulatory force in the network.
You organize guided tours. What do you show people exactly?
Guided tours are a possibility to discuss the project with us and to experience the special rules in the government district and the restricted zones in front of the embassies. We experience together the mesh network, and the area. We show how we built the antennas, discuss the network, the artwork and the philosophy behind it.
You also encourage people to send messages to operatives of the NSA and GCHQ intelligence, is that correct? how do you know how to reach them?
There is a special veneered wall at the US embassy, clearly discovered by infrared cameras where, according to the Snowden files, the listening post of the NSA is located. The GCHQ has a white radome where, according to the Snowden files, the listening post of the British is located.
Our antenna-tower on the roof of the Academy of the Arts is right in the middle of these listening posts and has a clear connection to them.
All messages in the WIFI mesh network are sent unencrypted to all participants in the network.
See also: Julian Oliver and Daniil Vasiliev's PRISM: The Beacon Frame. Speculative NSA Network Surveillance Equipment which was swiftly censored.)
Notes about A screaming comes across the sky. Drones, mass surveillance and invisible wars , Laboral's new exhibition that addresses the ethical and legal ambiguity of drones, mass surveillance and war at a distance.
Drones are very much part of today's culture. You can buy one on amazon and fly it as if it were a sophisticated kite. You also probably read how they are (or will be) used to deliver urgent medical supplies, shoot movies, monitor crops, track wildlife or gather information after a natural or manmade disaster.
In many people's minds, hobbyist and civilian uses of UAVs have overtaken the military role and origins of drones. No surprise here as what governments are doing with drones, who they are killing and how is a mystery for the public. And even often for government officials, as this video shown by curator Juha van' t Zelfde during Laboral's drone conference illustrates:
Drones have been operating and killing since the early 2000s. Yet, we still have fairly few or no statistics regarding civilian casualties. The Bureau of Investigative Journalist does a great job at counting strikes and casualties in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. Data gets blurry when it comes to attacks in other countries such as Afghanistan. And a lack of transparency goes hand in hand with a lack of accountability. The wars are fought in remote countries by invisible technologies operated in the name of people who have only a very limited knowledge of what is happening 'on the war front' and this situation contrasts with the ability that satellite images have given us to see and explore the world. The irony is illustrated by James Bridle's ongoing series of aerial photographs of military surveillance drones, found via online maps accessible to everyone.
The title A screaming comes across the sky is taken from Thomas Pynchon's novel, Gravity's Rainbow, which explores the social and political context behind the development of the V-2 rocket, the first long-range ballistic missile and the first man-made object to enter the fringes of space. The rocket was developed by the German military during World War II to attack Allied cities as a form of retaliation for the ever-increasing Allied bombings against German cities. Today's technologies of war, such as the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones, and their laser-guided Hellfire missiles, bear resemblance to the V-2 in their ability to operate unseen and to strike without warning.
In the post-PRISM age of mass surveillance and invisible war, artists, alongside journalists, whistleblowers and activists, reveal the technological infrastructures that enable events like drone-strikes to occur.
I've now seen quite a few exhibitions that explored the politics, ethics and meanings of drones. A screaming comes across the sky manages to bring a fresh and compelling perspective on the issue by taking sometimes a more oblique, metaphorical approach to drones. While the curator selected some of the most iconic works dealing directly with drones today, he also looked at artists who are interested in questions of surveillance and control but in a rather poetical, symbolic or even sometimes humourous way.
Martha Rosler's Theater of Drones is a great introduction to the subject of drone warfare. The banner installation was first exhibited in Charlottesville, the first city in the United States to pass a law restricting the use of drones in its airspace
Talking about the drones, Rosler said: "They appear to make war invisible, but of course in the countries that we're bombing, and where people are being killed, they are a terror fact of everyday life. They don't terrorize us, because we have this classic split, which we also had during the Vietnam War of over here and over there are two different worlds, and they're not really connected."
The banners list a series of chilling facts about drones: "The Air Force has plotted the drone future to 2047. The Pentagon plans to increase funding by 700% over the next decade." "Since 2004, drone strikes have killed an estimated 3,115 people in Pakistan. Fewer than 2 percent of the victims are high-profile targets. The rest are civilians, and alleged combatants. " And this little gem of a quote by a Pentagon official:
"They don't get hungry. They're not afraid. They don't forget their orders. They don't care if the guy next to them has just been shot. Will they do a better job than humans? Yes."
The same room also showed works developed by fabLAB Asturias. The prototypes, platforms and maps bring the drone issue into a context closer to citizens' daily interests and experiences (a dedicated post about fabLAB's drone experiments is coming up!) Their projects also remind the public that the U.S> military doesn't have the monopoly of questionable use of drones. Using them for surveillance, border control and in military contexts is very much part of the European agenda as well.
Quick tour of the other works on show:
As part of his ongoing research on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Lot Amoros placed posters around Egypt to inform people how to protect themselves from Israel's Heron drones. Israel is the world's leading exporter of military drones. As this video shows, Israeli drones and other weapons meet with great success on the international market as they have been repeatedly tried and tested on Palestinians.
The instructions of the Dronism document were directly quoted from real Al-Qaida drone documents. All al-Qaida references or aggressive languages were removed and replaced with peaceful instructions for the sole purpose of offering innocent civilians a series of tools to protect themselves from unmanned aerial vehicles, using common materials and trash to construct frequency inhibitors, camera blinders, etc.
Amoros also intended to send the instructions to Palestine on board a tiny DIY drone. It turned out that flying the quadcopter over the border into Palestinian territory was too dangerous. The artist and activist did however succeed to send the instructions via underground tunnels.
I was so glad to get another chance to see Grasso's wonderful On Air again. , The film, shot in 2009 in The United Arab Emirates, looks at traditional hawk hunting. The bird in the movie is equipped with light and sophisticated surveillance equipment. Once let to roam free above the land, it becomes a spying tool, recording every dune and village it flies over. The images are fascinating but they are also threatening.
The movie and its paranoia-inducing music reminds us that a technique to use pigeons for aerial photography of enemy lines during wars was developed as early as 1907. The practice might not have vanished completely. A few years ago, articles reported that Iranian security forces had captured a pair of "spy pigeons," not far from one of the country's nuclear processing plants.
Which brings us nicely to Alicia Framis's History of Drones. Her taxidermied work presents the pigeon as the predecessor of today's drones. In 1908, German apothecary Julius Neubronner patented aerial photography by means of a pigeon photographer. The invention was tried out for military air surveillance in the First World War and later.
Besides actually being used in military contexts as a means of surveillance and collecting intelligence, they were indeed unmanned aerial instruments, which might had a different historical importance if it wasn't for the quick and strong progress in the field of aviation. In this new work, Framis creates a light-hearted reminder of the evolution of aerial espionage.
MQ1 Predator Drone Shadow
Check out the video below for more details about Bridle's interest in drones:
The talk is available in spanish as well.
Really like this work. I wrote about it Here.
A video showing 56 remote-controlled toy helicopters taking to the sky to great chaos.
A screaming comes across the sky. Drones, mass surveillance and invisible wars is at LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial (Art and Industrial Creation Centre) until 12 April 2015. In collaboration with Lighthouse.
Related stories: Flone, The Flying Phone, A dystopian performance for drones, KGB, CIA black sites and drone performance. This must be an exhibition by Suzanne Treister, Under the Shadow of the Drone and The Digital Now - 'Drones / Birds: Princes of Ubiquity'.
Mishka Henner has a solo show at the Carroll/Fletcher gallery right now. How come i never paid more attention to his work so far? Just like Edward Burtynsky, he looks at how industries shape landscapes. Like Trevor Paglen and Omer Fast, he is interested in (overt and covert) sites that the U.S. military deploys outside of its own borders. Just like Michael Wolf and Jon Rafman, he is a photographer using google mapping instruments instead of a camera. Yet, comparing his work to the one of some of the artists i admire the most is pointless. Henner is his own man slash artist. He uses contemporary technology to give a new twist on artistic appropriation and redefines the role of the photographer, the meaning of the photography medium and the representation of the landscape. Without ever using a photo camera.
The Black Diamond exhibition brings together four series of work, based on the collection and mediation of publicly available information sourced through the internet. Henner explains: 'I'm exploiting loopholes in the vast archives of data, imagery and information that are now accessible to us, connecting the dots to reveal things that surround us but which we rarely see or don't want to see.'
Feedlots are cattle-feeding operations used in factory farming to 'finish off' livestock. Almost all the beef consumed in the United States will have been finished on a feedlot where up to 100,000 steers at a time spend the last months of their lives gaining up to 4 pounds a day on a diet of corn, protein supplements, and antibiotics. Everything on these farms is calculated to maximise meat yield; from the mixture in cattle's feed to the size of run-off channels carrying the animal's waste into giant toxic lagoons.
In certain parts of the USA, natural features have long been supplanted by man-made marks and structures reflecting the complex infrastructural logic of oil exploration, extraction and distribution. The result is stunning. The prints look fake, painted over and heavily retouched. The exhibition essay compares the images to the work of abstract expressionists.
Fifty-One US Military Outposts presents overt and covert military outposts used by the United States in 51 countries across the world. Once again, the sites were gathered and located using data which exists in the public domain, including official US military and veterans' websites, news articles, and both leaked and official government documents and reports.
"The internet is full of loopholes and leaks," the artist said. "I remember one day Hilary Clinton had categorically stated: 'we have no US military presence in Honduras.' However, the next day I was on Panoramio and was looking around pictures from Honduras - sure enough there was a photograph of a native Honduran worker with his arm around a sergeant major from the US cavalry regiment. The Honduran had even written to all his mates talking about how happy was to have got a job on this US military base. So the internet is full of these really simple leaks that completely contradict statements made by very powerful organisations."
The prints are displayed on plinths filling the rear gallery space, allowing visitors to walk around and watch the images from above, as if we were satellites. Or drones.
The walls of the space downstairs are covered with Henner's ongoing Scam Baiters series. Scam baiters are internet vigilantes who pose as a potential victims in order to waste scammer's time and potentially expose their identity,. They respond to their email, pretend to go along with the scammer's demands in exchange for time-consuming requests supposed to ensure that the money transaction will be successful. Henner is showing cardboard signs that various scammers were asked to make as a result of email conversations, negotiation of fraudulent documents and bogus websites. One case involved an almost four-month long correspondence between Henner's associate, 'Condo Rice' and a trio of scammers spread across Libya and the United Arab Emirates. In one of his final message, the scam baiter asks the scammer for proof of identity. He asks for a photo containing a U.S. flag held on a stick, a sign with SKAMMERZ ISHU, and 'to be absolutely certain this is a genuine photograph", the scammer has to wear an Obama mask.
Sound recordings of the scammers singing popular songs permeate the space.
Henner is currently shortlisted for Consumption, the Fifth Prix Pictet Award. The exhibition of finalists will be on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London in May 2014, where Henner will show a selection of works from his "Oil Fields" and "Feedlots" series.
Science Fiction: New Death seeks to provoke the question - have the Sci Fi visions we once imagined of the future since become a reality? I guess we all know the answer to that one.
Because i write mostly about art and science/technology, i've seen my fair share of exhibitions that reference scifi. However, FACT's latest show is the first one i've visited that is entirely dedicated to science-fiction and visual arts. And in this instance, science fiction isn't explored as the ultimate future forecaster, it is rather the starting point of a reflection on our current condition, an invitation to explore how our relationship with technology has made our everyday lives increasingly look like it is set against the backdrop of a science fiction novel.
Inspired by the work of J.G. Ballard, our story looks to the bleak, man-made landscapes of the future and asks: What happens when virtual environments become indistinguishable from reality? Will our global culture allow us to choose where to live, and who will stop us? What will we do with knowledge that becomes freely available to all? With social platforms acting as camera, how will 'selfies' develop and what new forms of narcissism will thrive? What is it that we need to preserve, and what do we need to change? These questions are explored through intense visualisations of electronic communication, dystopian domestic interiors, and re-enactments of historical revolutionary moments.
New Death, a title which comes from a text that fantasy writer China Miéville wrote for the exhibition, is ominous but so are the glimpses that the participating artists give into the techno-mediated we've built ourselves: conditions of intensified surveillance and repression, border control, loss of citizenship, etc. Not everything is bleak and joyless in the show though. You can bounce off a trampoline and pretend you're an astronaut, meet intelligent robots that attempt to avoid boredom at all costs, you can even participate to the exhibition by writing a story describing a dystopian near future. I don't know what a sci-fi fan would make of the exhibition but i found it smart, provocative and thought-provoking.
Quick overview of the show:
Accomplice is a small clique of social autonomous robots hidden behind one of FACT's gallery walls. Because these machines are curious, they attempt to discover their environment and the first step to live new adventures is to break down the wall. Their mechanical arm relentlessly punches against the wall. In the process, they not only make holes, they are also acquiring knowledge: how the wall react to their poking, how to best expand their horizon and what it is like out there, on the other side of the wall.
As the wall disappears, the robots discover other creatures: the gallery visitors. The more they can see and hear, the more excited and active these robots are getting. Their behaviour, however, isn't predictable and linear. As soon as the movements and noises made by the visitors or the colours and patterns they are wearing have become too familiar, the robots become bored. In a sense, the roles usually taken by the audience and the robots or the artefacts and the visitors are reversed: the robots are the spectators and the gallery goers perform for them.
I had a chance to talk with Rob Saunders at the press view. I scribbled our conversation on a bit of paper, lost it so i'm going to point you to this Robots Podcast: Curious & creative in which he talks about being inspired by Gordon Pask's conversation theory, designing curious systems, the laws of novelty and the social structure that might evolve from them.
The bits and pieces of walls laying unceremoniously on the floor and the unpredictable attitude of the Accomplice robots echo the exhibition experience that Venya Krutikov & Michael Lill of The Kazimier have designed for Science Fiction: New Death. They turned the FACT building into a disordered, stern and slightly disquieting space to navigate. Your movements inside the gallery might or might not be filmed. That poorly-lit corridor might be off limit. That door over there might open on another artworks or maybe it's a dead end.
Before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon in 1969, the NASA elaborated various exercises to understand how man would move in microgravity. The experiments were not just simulations but "pre-enactments" of a new set of rules that we were about to enter, providing a window into the future through which NASA researchers collected not only data but also visual impressions. One such experiment was conducted at Stanford University in the mid-1960s by Thomas R. Kane. The applied mechanics professor had studied the ability of cats to spin their body mid-air so that they could securely land on their four paws. Kane would film a cat bouncing on a trampoline, study its movements, and then a gymnast in a spacesuit would try to reproduce the cat's movements on the trampoline.
Sascha Pohflepp's Camera Futura enables visitors to replicate the experiment. You are invited to wear a light space suit and jump on the trampoline while a camera captures your moves.
The energy stored in the trampoline's springs amplifies the power of our muscles, so that we can briefly launch ourselves and experience an instant of relative weightlessness when falling back to Earth. Camera Futura captures images from that very instant. These photos allow for a glimpse of our brief moment in a post-gravity world. In a sense, they are impressions of ourselves from one of many futures.
The Infinity Burial Project is an art project with an aim to help us accept the reality of our own death. It is also a very bold and practical alternative to current burial system. Once buried or cremated, our bodies do not just decompose and vanish, they also contribute to the deterioration of the environment by releasing the toxic pollutants that our bodies have accumulated over the course of the years: pesticides, preservatives and heavy metals such as lead and mercury.
Jae Rhim Lee has thus developed the Mushroom Death Suit, a burial suit infused with mushroom spores to assist the decomposition of human corpses. The outfit comes with capsules that contain infinity mushroom spores and other elements that speed decomposition and toxin remediation. Besides, an open source burial container, and a membership society devoted to the promotion of death awareness and acceptance and the practice of decompiculture (the cultivation of decomposing organisms).
Facial Weaponization Suite is a playful but also dark critique of the silent and gradual rise of the use of biometric facial recognition software by governments to monitor citizens.
Masks remain an effective tool to prevent identification technologies from capturing, analyzing, archiving and identifying our face. The use of mask also refers to social movements that use masks as a sign of protests. From the Zapatista rebels, to Pussy Riot, Anonymous, etc.
Brad Butler and Karen Mirza are presenting Deep State, a film scripted by science fiction author China Miéville. The film takes its title from the Turkish term "Derin Devlet," meaning "state within the state," and tells a story about the representation of political struggle, moments of crisis, solidarity, schisms and oppression.
The whole film, which overlays archive protest footage and performed interludes, is online:
At first, i wasn't sure what to make of it but, as the images rolled on, i started connecting them to what was going on in Ukraine at the time of the press view of the show and i realized that at this very moment, maybe we still have a choice: we can be the people who raise their heads, protest and attempt to take some control back or we can be the people who are blindly herded into a society of control.
Also part of the show: Nation Estate, a "vertical solution to Palestinian statehood."