There's an exhibition featuring sci-fi, history, video games, sexuality, soap operas, censorship and a powerful sense of humour at Cornerhouse in Manchester right now. The show is called Subversion and it questions and knocks around whatever assumption you might have about an homogenous 'Arab world', whatever image politicians and the media might have given you about its culture and identity.
Curator Omar Kholeif explained in an interview with Film International: I worked with artists [...] who wanted to dissent, poke fun, critique and re-define themselves as artists of the imagination, and not of any specific social or political condition. Together they reference a deep culture of subversion that traces back to the 1940s and 50s with the work of the Egyptian trickster, Ismail Yassin, whose slapstick film performances poked fun at the roles that many Arabs had to play under a militarised social condition. With Subversion we bring this narrative up to date for the good of our artists and our audiences.
The show opens on the video of a Palestinian astronaut landing on the moon. Given the fact that the Nakba has been going on for 64 years now, one wouldn't be surprised to hear that one day, the empty celestial body might become yet another place of refuge for the uprooted population. Larissa Sansour's A Space Exodus propels a Palestinian astronaut into an adaptation of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Referencing Neil Armstrong's moon landing, a voice can be heard saying that this was 'a small step for a Palestinian, a giant leap for mankind'.
Meanwhile, small Palestinauts are quietly invading the exhibition floor....
Upstairs, Sansour is showing another project, the preview of The Nation Estate, a work conceived in the wake of the Palestinian bid for nationhood at the UN. The Nation Estate gained fame after Lacoste attempted to censor it by withdrawing its sponsorship for a photo prize to which the young artist had been shortlisted.
In this sci-fi photo series (which will later be accompanied by a video), Palestinians have finally been conceded their own state in the form of a single skyscraper. Erected outside the city of Jerusalem and unsurprisingly surrounded by concrete walls, the building of 'the Nation Estate' houses the entire Palestinian population. Each city has its own floor: Jerusalem is on the third floor; Ramallah, fourth floor; Bethleem, fifth floor; Nablus, sixth floor; Gaza, seventh floor, etc. Intercity trips previously hindered by checkpoints and soldiers are now made by elevator.
Tarzan and Arab live in Gaza (i was going to write 'come from' but that would suppose that they are allowed to get freely in and out of the territory), a region that has not had a functioning cinema since the 1980s. The artists didn't go to a film school either. Everything they learnt about cinema, they learnt through practice and by watching movies on satellite TV and illegal DVD copies. In 2003, they founded a media production company: Gazawood. Since then, their works have won awards, been banned by Hamas and shown in Europe and the U.S.
Cornerhouse is showing Colourful Journey, a short film set in a bombed-out Gaza building, and a series of posters that pastiche the Hollywood war movie genre. The title of each film sounds as action movie as it is possible: Summer Rain, Autumn Clouds, Defensive Shield, Sea Breeze, Cast Lead, etc. The cruel irony is that each of them is also the name of a Israeli military operation against Palestinians.
Wafaa Bilal is showing a video documenting the furore that surrounded the exhibition of Virtual Jihadi. The video is mounted on the wall of a rundown internet café where visitors are also invited to sit down and play the game.
Wafaa is from Iraq and, as is sometimes the case in his work, he plays with the way Western media portrays people from his home country.
Virtual Jihadi can be traced back to a military computer game called The Quest for Saddam that involved players fighting stereotypical Iraqi enemies and trying to kill the ex-Iraqi leader. The game in turn inspired an al-Qaida-produced spin-off called The Night of Bush Capturing with the ex- U.S. president as the target. For his piece, Bilal hacked into the al-Qaida game and inserted himself as a converted suicide bomber, who joins al-Qaida after learning that his brother has been murdered by US forces.
Bilal's version brings the attention to the personal sories and dilemmas experienced by civilians caught in a conflict zone. It also demonstrates that games of this kind, no matter who is writing them, leave little space for moral choices and subtlety. In fact, both were made to teach hate.
In March 2008, as he had just released Virtual Jihadi, Bilal gave a talk at the Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute (the video is available online) and an exhibition of Virtual Jihadi opened the same night... to be closed the day after.
Wafaa Bilal's installation re-opened a few days later in another gallery. Unfortunately, one day after the second opening the City of Troy censored the work again and closed the gallery due to "code volition."
In I've heard stories - part 1, Marwa Arsanios attempts to piece together rumors surrounding the now demolished Hotel Carlton. The hotel was a popular meeting place for gay men living in Beirut, Lebanon where homosexual acts are considered illegal. In its time (1973 to 1993), the hotel was also the setting of three murders that might or might not have been related to the sexual encounters. Among the victim of these (probably) passionate crimes was Lebanese politician and businessman Henri Pharaoun. The nature of the murders went unreported and Arsanios' reconstruction of the event blends drawings and videos, gossips and facts, in an effort to give the crime a place in the history of the city.
Subversion is on show in Galleries 1, 2 & 3 until Tue 5 June.
Previously: A few words with Wafaa Bilal.
There's only one week left to head to Newcastle, Sunderland, Gateshead and Middlesbrough and visit AV Festival, a biennial of contemporary art, music and film which main theme this year is As Slow As Possible.
One of the works on show is the extremely long-term project that sees Agnes Meyer-Brandis training a flock of young geese to fly to the moon. The whole training started last Spring and according to her schedule, the birds will go on their first unmanned flight to the satellite in 2024. However, the artist plans to accompany them on a later flight, most probably in 2027.
Meyer-Brandis' scientific experiment is inspired by The Man in the Moone, a story written in the early 17th century by English bishop Francis Godwin, a believer in the Copernican heliocentric system and of the latest theories in magnetism and astronomy. The book tells how Domingo Gonsales flies to the moon and gets to meet an advanced lunar civilization. The adventurer managed to escape the 'magnetic attraction of the earth' by harnessing a flock of birds called gansas, specifically trained for the purpose. Some critics regard the story as the first work of science fiction in English.
Since it has become so difficult to locate moon geese, Meyer-Brandis breeds her own moon geese. She acquired the eggs last April, named each of them after an astronaut, placed them in an incubator, watched over them, witnessed the hatching and imprinted herself on to them as their stand-in mother, just like Konrad Lorenz did with greylag geese.
The surrogate mother had to spend the weeks following the hatching in close contact with the eleven geese. The astronaut training started almost immediately, the young birds were encouraged to walk in a V-shape --the formation used to tow Godwin's chariot-- taken on expeditions into the mountains for high altitude training, taught how to use morse code devices for improved interspecies communication, and given lectures about astronomy and navigation.
The birds are currently continuing their training at Pollinaria (Italy), in an analogue that simulates the conditions of the Moon. Visitors of the show The Moon Goose Analogue: Lunar Migration Bird Facility in Newcastle can see a scaled model of the remote analogue site, admire the portraits of the astronauts, watch a documentary of the experiment and follow the birds daily life through the screens in the control room at the back of the gallery.
Documentation of the project and installation The Moon Goose Analogue:
Agnes Meyer-Brandis: The Moon Goose Analogue: Lunar Migration Bird Facility is part of the AV Festival and you can see the film and installation at the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle through 31 March, 2012.
Also on view at the AV Festival: Slow Motion Car Crash.
Sorry i've been a bit slow coming up with the last chapter of Estación experimental [Experimental Station]. Opened a few weeks ago at Laboral Art and Industrial Creation Centre, the exhibition looks at the way artists are inspired by scientific research.
The Lost in Space section of the exhibition explores the outer space, that part of the universe that excites the imagination of scientists and artists alike. Because of its high percentage of science fiction, enigma and political undertones, that was the part of the show i liked the best.
Kiluanji Kia Henda's project Icarus13 documents with photos, a model and a text the preparation for the first ever expedition to the sun led by the Angola government. The photos of the space station buildings and astronomy center are pretty impressive:
Only bummer is that everything about the Angolan sun mission is fiction and irony. The technical experts we see getting the Icarus 13 machinery ready for take off are in fact construction workers in Luanda that the artist photographed during raids work. And most of the buildings that look so perfect for a space mission are in fact vestiges from Angola's colonial history: Icarus 13 is an unfinished mausoleum left by the Russians in Angola. "The Centre for Astronomy" is a cinema that decolonization left unfinished. The images showing the lights on the departure of the ship were taken during the celebrations of the trip Angolan Black Antelopes' to the World Cup 2006, etc.
The name of the mission himself, Icarus 13, dooms any enterprise of the kind to failure: Icarus was after all that young man who, in Greek mythology, fell to his death while flying too close to the sun.
Maybe Jan Tichy's mysterious astronomic observatory is also planning an outer space trip.
Installation No. 4 (Towers) is part video, part architecture where light and darkness very slowly move over the models as if they were submitted to the rotation of the planets. However no one knows whether the buildings really belong to an astronomic observatory, or what the source of the light is. In fact, i suspect their purpose is a dark and disquieting one. What are these towers controlling, communicating or monitoring? We watch the whole subtle and slow transition from light to darkness, punctuated by clouds with troubling shades but we are nowhere near understanding what what is at stake in the work.
In his work, Tichy has often explored architecture and its political impact. This installation evokes a power that we see at work but have no means of stopping or influencing.
Lyn Hagan is the only artist in the show who physically engaged with space, more precisely with zero gravity. She took a cat and a mouse with her at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Moscow and filmed the way the animals experienced 10 parabolas of weightless (23 seconds each of zero gravity). The aim of the artist was to confirm whether the feline instinct remains in the absence of gravity. The slow motion film shows that the cat is too busy swinging around to pursue its prey. According to the catalogue (which you can download in PDF form), Hagan is currently working on the possibility of producing and filming a choreography that would be carried out by a robot on the surface of Mars.
Paloma Polo's The Path of Totality is a slide show of images of the bizarre eclipse observatories built from the mid-19th to the early 20th century in the USA, France, Germany and Italy, countries that invested in astrophysical research.
The catalogue grew through the artist's exchange with experts in astrophysics, who guided her search through libraries and archives at observatories and astronomical institutes.
The structures are precarious, erected in places strategically chosen for optimum observation of the phenomenon. Their only aim was to provide the best possible shelter for the instruments to study the astrophysical phenomenon.
The resulting catalogued archive of specific structures reflects the race for political and economic power by the countries that were vying against each other to prove their progress - also in the field of scientific research. All of them had extensive colonial territories spread throughout the planet, although, curiously, Spain was left out because, like Portugal, it had already fallen behind.
But Polo actually uses these images to lead us into the slippery subject of science instrumentalised by power, a recurring debate throughout history that repeatedly crops up in both art and science.
Image on the homepage: Lyn Hagan, Cat in zero gravity, 2008.
Back from a quick visit to the Royal College of Art Summer Show in London. I stayed 3 hours there and only managed to speak to 5 students, that's how ridiculously inefficient i am.
Because they spend most of their time in an artificially lit environment, city dwellers have long stopped paying attention to those natural night lights coming from billions of light years away: the stars.
With his project Urban Stargazing, Oscar Lhermitte attempts to have us raise our head again up to the stars in the city sky by adding new constellations that narrate contemporary myths about London. Twelve groups of stars have been designed and installed guerrilla-style at different locations in the city. They can only be observed by the naked eye at night time and from the ground they look so uncannily like the old constellations that you might never notice that any change has occurred. Each of these new constellations have a story that is directly relevant to the Londoner.
Take the V2 for example. This constellation refers to the bombing of London during the Second World War. During 'the Blitz', V-2 rockets were hitting London over a period of several months, destroying over a million of houses and killing around 20,000 civilians. Bethnal Green tube station was used as an air-raid shelter but on 3rd March 1943, after a false alert, 172 people died of suffocation while rushing into the shelter. The V2 constellation now shines above Bethnal Green.
Lhermitte told me the fascinating story behind the Mosquito constellation. It has recently been discovered that the London underground houses its own peculiar species of mosquito. Apparently, they mutated from the bird-biting form that colonised the underground when it was built in the last century to a variety that nips rats, mice and maintenance workers. Underground mosquitoes are reluctant to mate with their outdoor cousins, indicating that they have become a separate species -- a process that normally takes thousands of years rather than decades. These underground mosquitoes naturally deserved to get their own constellation.
Each constellation is a triangulated structure made out of clear ø 0.6mm nylon line, ø 0.2mm polyethylene braid, ø 0.75mm fibre optic and a solar powered LED. During the day, the battery is being recharged by the solar panel and the circuit switches ON the LED when it is dark enough to observe stars.
Check out the google maps that points to each constellation with their corresponding coordinates.
Just back from London where i managed to catch up with up to 7 exhibitions in a day and try out a bottle of baffling dandelion and burdock syrup. The most magnificent moments of my stay in town were spent in the dark rooms of the Serpentine watching Parreno's videos. The feast closes next week: run, readers, run to Kensington Gardens if you haven't seen the show yet.
As the artist stated: "As with all my series, the leading argument is the variation on portrait. I had the sensation that I could try to either make portraits of mankind, or of individuals. I liked the idea of having a connection between the individual and space, (in this case the prominent figure of Galileo), and with suits in a more abstract sense, as you can only imagine a human figure in the astronaut suit, but you cannot see it. It is anonymous.
I think the astronaut suit is a metaphor for human beings. Through them I am able in a visual and simple way to show that I believe we are all astronauts. We are all alone, we are isolated from each other. And we are all trying by verbal and non-verbal communication to get in contact with each other. To not feel alone. Each individual is a space with its own rules, materials, history and relations to the space outside of itself."
I spent a few minutes watching the multi-paneled works, trying to catch a glimpse of the men hidden behind it until i read the press release and realized that the suits were empty.
Matthias Schaller - Disportraits runs at Ben Brown Fine Arts in London until March 4, 2011.
Despite many a primary school drawing or text book illustration, a true scale model of our Solar System is unfeasible on paper.
Over the Summer, Louise O'Connor gave Londoners a chance to walk the Solar System and get a sense of its true vastness.
A walkable scale model has been installed along the road which begins at Kingsland Road in Dalston and finishes in Stamford Hill. During last Summer, local shopkeepers at appropriate points on the route have been acting as guardians to the planets - hosting models represented by everyday objects, at their correct sizes on this 3.1 km scale.
Passersby were invited to enter the shops and ask "the planetary guardians" to be shown the planet.
Although her project challenges school books representation of the solar system, Louise didn't have the heart to deprive Pluto from its planet prestige. "Pluto was actually demoted from planet status along in 2006 and is now classified as a dwarf or minor planet along with Eris and Ceres," Louise told me. "However, after growing up with Pluto as a planet, the model just didn't seem right without it..."
How did you get interested in the solar system and its physical representation at a more human scale?
Louise: Much of current design practice increasingly contains speculations borne from more and more complex and abstracted scientific developments, and fascinating as they are, (and I sincerely mean that!) I wondered whether, against this complex background, we can truly comprehend even the 'simple' things? And recognize that these 'simple' things can be truly wonderful and inspiring in themselves.
So in terms of the Solar System, the simplicity and almost prosaic nature of it as a concept, coupled with a typical lack of true conceivability of the scale in physical form, made it a good candidate and a very evocative thing to connect to and experience physically.
Personally, I remember particularly my own primary school solar system project, drawing similar 'scales' as I mentioned before in class, and then later that day, looking at the sunset in my grandma's garden, trying to imagine this thing called 'space', with such a massive sense of awe, which I haven't forgotten!
In terms of my wider practice, I am interested in how physical experience, and re - presentation (of both the 'everyday' and intangible concepts) can be used as playful tools for debate, engagement and shifting perspectives, as well as 'human' and hence absurd yet genuine ways in which we can attempt to connect to natural phenomena outside our physical experience.
And so over the course of the year, as a project, this has included many investigations into ways we may experience a variety of fascinating phenomena from different scales more physically and intuitively; incorporating singing, listening, animating, wearing, and of course dancing, and so this particular outcome came also as a natural development from these.
Why did you decide that the solar system walk would follow a straight line? Why not distribute the planets over a non-linear walk that would reflect the fact that some planet are on the east of others, etc. not sure if my question makes sense though...
Louise: Yes that definitely makes sense and is a good question!
Well, there were a few of reasons:
Firstly, despite the fact that the planets very rarely all truly align, the diagrams we typically draw as children or see around us predominantly show this image, so I wanted to reference that, and expand it into reality. It also demonstrates how even at their closest - if they were aligned - just how very far apart they still are, so of course usually they are much further!
Secondly, on a practical and experiential level, I felt it would be more fluid to connect and feel the distances through a straight (ish) line, as in, if people had to navigate around blocks etc, they might get lost, or take longer routes than needed. Similarly, my choice of using everyday objects rather than abstract spherical models came from similar reasoning - that it would be a more graspable idea if it were based on a size we already roughly know.
Lastly, I really like the idea of these historic routes of transit in the City, and repurposing them for my own absurd ends! The road this walk takes place on is part of what was Ermine Street or Earninga Straete (in 1012), one of Britain's major Roman Roads, going from London to York.
Saying that though I have been thinking about future scale walks (for other 'un-draw-able on paper 'scales) and I think that they certainly wouldn't have to always be in a line, perhaps the planets orbiting and moving location will be my next step!
Walk the Solar System is part of the Psychomythic Nature Quest series which aims at finding ways of representing and physically experiencing scientific knowledge and in particular the most unimaginable aspects of the natural world.