Karl Philips is a Belgian (h)activist, performance and conceptual artist. I discovered his work a couple of years ago when i visited the exhibition Mind the System, Find the Gap at Z33 in Hasselt (BE.) But i really took the time to click around his portfolio when my favourite blog selected him for its watchlist.
Philips casts a critical but always witty glance at society, paying particular attention to cracks in consumerism, town planning, advertising, and turning upside-down their logic. He is also one of those artists who understand that, to have any impact, activist art is best deployed in the street, not just inside the white walls of a museum or gallery.
Some of his projects involve hacking a street lantern to provide passersby and local inhabitants with free wifi and power, dressing like a train seat to cross Belgium by train, screening movies streamed from Youtube in a drive-in movie theater set up under a bridge, substituting ads on billboards with a map detailing how survive in the city of Hasselt without any financial expenses, etc. Pretty simple and pretty brilliant.
Hand Pump Car, 2014
Philips has a couple of exhibitions up right now. He's part two group shows. One at the gallery Dauwens & Beernaert in Brussels. The other in Rotterdam. Hopefully, i'll get a chance to be in Antwerp (lots of exciting shows coming up at the Photo Museum!) to check out the sculpture he'll be premiering next week for the group exhibition A Belgian Politician at Marion de Cannière Art Space. In the meantime, i got on my laptop and asked him for an interview:
Hi Karl! Your About page talks about "a mild kind of activism" that is inextricably linked to your work. What is mild activism? How does it manifest itself? And can a mild form of activism have an impact too?
I 'm convinced that real change or influence only manifests itself indirectly. In the long run I think it's better to do so through art or culture than through direct radical activism. I think the term "mild activism" indicates a different tone.
I'd be interested to know more about Mia, the homeless woman who came to live inside one of your structures. Did she spontaneously come to live in the structure? How did you get to know each other? Did she give you any kind of 'feedback' about Concierge or your work in general?
Another work involving temporary homes is Good/Bad/Ugly. Could you explain us the whole process? The financial transactions?
Good/Bad/Ugly consisted of three mobile living units. On the outside of the units were several advertisements. For every advertisement we received 500 € per month. That's 1000 € per month, per unit. This money (3000 €/month in total) was used for the performance: providing a living for the inhabitants. We travelled around to different locations. In theory it is illegal in Belgium to put this kind of advertising i, but it is allowed for local businesses. We created some sort of alternative community with it.
I really liked the idea of a Youtube drive-in movie theater. Could you explain us how it worked exactly? Did you select yourself the videos that were screened?
It was a video projection under a bridge. It was a costless drive in movie theater where movies were streamed from youtube. I selected the videos but the last day we screened movies suggested by the public. The project was improvised on the spot so birds were flying around during the screening and car sounds or other sounds of the environment interfered with the audio of the movies.
Do you ask for permit for the various interventions in public space?
Sometimes we do, sometimes we don't. We try to stretch the gap between the real world and our artistic interventions as far as we can. I think I have learned that public space has lost it's political function. Public space used to be where people got together and where politics originated but nowadays everything is controlled. That makes it harder or even impossible to rethink the function of public space and of politics.
I'm also very interested to know more about the story of your studio. It is an antique fairground attraction called Jacky. What did it look like before? Where do you buy fairground attractions? and where did you install it? In a garden? inside a bigger building?
It was a mobile game hall, like an arcade for fairs. It was based on a circus wagon that travelled around for thirty years. Without the games it is now a space of 85 square meters, it is my laboratory. It is a mobile artists studio, it has no foundations or a postal address.
Who are the emerging (or not so emerging) artists whose work you find inspiring right now?
Gordon Matta-Clark, Gilbert & George, Claude Lelouche.
Retrospective / Introspective. Group show, Dauwens & Beernaert, Brussels, 15.01 - 13.03.2015.
no walls. Group show, Fenixloods, Rotterdam (NL), 17.01 - 17.02.2015
A Belgian Politician . Group show, Marion de Cannière Art Space, Antwerp, 20.02 - 21.03.2015
Karl Philips - Daan Gielis - Tasya Krougovykh & Vassiliy Bo. Group show, W139, Amsterdam, June 2015
Phlogiston. Group show, (location to be determined), Split (Croatia) in July 2015.
I've known for a while that Manchester is far cooler than London. The Northern Quarter, the art festivals (FutureEverything, Abandon Normal Devices), affordable vegan places, genuine love of alternative culture, etc. Even its National Football Museum has a pretty decent art programme. I can now add a new entry to the list: Ancoats.
I had never heard of Ancoats before i went to the Politika event a few days ago. Ancoats is a few minutes (well, rather 20 minutes) walk from the Northern Quarter. The area has been called "the world's first industrial suburb" and nowadays its canals and former mills and glass factories are being turned into spaces for artists and, inevitably, fancy lofts for moneyed office gents and ladies.
Upper Space, a group of 'insurgent arts activists' which engage with social and environmental justice issues, took up the renovated engine room of a former cotton mill in Ancoats to organize a series of exhibition, workshops, screenings, talks and public interventions. Each of the selected works and discussions invited citizens of Greater Manchester to reflect on possible alternative and resistance to consumerism and the disempowerment that it represents. The events explored themes related to the Ancoats community, social network structures used for activism, people's relationship to capitalism, sustainability in urban context, and campaigning effectively for social change.
I wish i could have spent more time at Politika's workshops and other events but i did have a good look around the exhibition and i'd say that the selection of works was really REALLY good. Most of the installations, videos and objects documented actions that were brave, witty and happened in the public space.
Here's a far too short selection:
Robin Hood Minor Asset Management Cooperative (RHMAM) is an asset management cooperative whose mission is to bend the financialization of economy into the advantage of precarious workers. RHMAM developed what they called a Parasite Algorithm that hooks to the brains of the financial elite at Wall Street and puts their knowledge to work for the cooperative. Profits are then shared with "Robin Hood Projects," including "grants for creative work, no interest loans, or anything else," to be determined by the members of the cooperative. I'm going to investigate that one further because it sounds brilliant. But no need to wait for my follow-up post, just sign up and become a member!
In May of 2014, Francisco Tapia - aka 'Papas Fritas', burned $500 million of student loans contracts from the Universidad del Mar, and freed students from their debt. The private, run-for-profit university is a notorious money laundering society for various real estate companies. The Chilean artist and activist sneaked into a vault at the university, removed tuition records and then burned the documents, rendering it nearly impossible for the Universidad del Mar to call in its debt. He later exhibited the ashes inside a camper van as an art show.
As part of Politika, Upper Space collaborated with Steve Lambert and drove the artist's gigantic Capitalism sign on a truck tour to the Labour party conference in Manchester on September 21st. We wanted to engage citizens of Manchester by taking the elephant out of the room, and down to the conference to generate discussion, debate and conversations about our relationships with the 'C' word - Capitalism.
The little truck trip was a great idea because if there's one place where this work belongs it's outside of an art gallery.
Shift//Delete's Act of Parliament projection is as silly as it is spot on. He turned the Gherkin, the iconic building of London's financial district, into the world's biggest penis. And the bankers into wankers.
One of the members of Chim Pom worked undercover at the Fukushima nuclear plant and photographed himself dressed wearing a radiation protection suit and holding up a red card in front of the destroyed plant.
Why don't we ever see anything like that in London? Why the apathy (please, feel free to contradict me, you'd actually do me a favour)? It's not as if capitalism doesn't give us enough reasons to cry over here, right?
Politika was the starting point of a 4 year community-led project and it is part of a broader reflection involving local residents about the issues that include the loss identity (and place) of the traditionally working class, regeneration policies in the area, the community relationship to wider socio-political ideologies, etc. I'm definitely looking forward to Upper Space's upcoming moves.
More images from Politika:
Check out also Politika: Art & Local Power In Manchester, UK on Important Cool.
One of the themes of the BIO 50 design Biennial which opened last week in Ljubljana looked at the simple act of walking in the city. Several designers explored walking under various guises and lenses but i was particularly interested in the street markings, research and performances of Giuditta Vendrame and Paolo Patelli from design and research studio La Jetée.
The designers logged into a Friction Atlas some of the rules and constraints that regulate the circulation of citizens within urban space. For example, any reading or picnic gathering over 20 persons in one of New York city parks requires a special event permit. In Sweden, you need to apply for a permit to dance in public. In Cairo you're allowed to spontaneously discuss public matters only if you are fewer that 10 people.
Giuditta and Paolo drew 1:1 diagrams onto the pavement to illustrate rules that control the use of public spaces in cities such as Genoa, Cairo, Washington, Stockholm, Sydney, etc. They then invited the public to perform staged choreographies while discussing issues of public space, law and legibility.
Friction Atlas addresses the issue of legibility of public space, its programs, and the laws that regulate its uses. Many regulations discretize human behavior, tending to be algorithmic, quantitative and invisible. Sometimes they are rigorous and mathematical, other times loose and under-defined. They are textual, prone to contested interpretations. Friction Atlas aims to make regulations - that are always implicitly present in any public space - explicit and visible, through graphical devices.
I can't resist a project that makes the dynamics of authority not only visually but also physically discernible, so i contacted the designers to discuss their work for the BIO 50 biennial (proper report on the event will be on your desk. One day):
Hi Giuditta and Paolo! Could you explain what you mean when you talk about the algorithmic quality of these regulations that govern the use of public space?
Regulations are nothing but symbols, conventions, but they have the power of persuading human beings to act. When they are put to work, they make things happen. They are sets of instructions that incorporate power, while responding to internal and external conditions. They are a kind of invisible structural force that plays through into everyday life.
In the context of public space, a number of legal prescription can generate differences in the displacement, mobility and assembly of bodies. Citizens perform in their everyday a synchronized routine of elaborate moves on public surfaces. We recognize, in such patterns, a choreography.
Assembling in public space to discuss, demonstrate either support or opposition, publicize a cause, mark or commemorate an event is both an individual and a group activity. Figures and routines involve interplay and sometime synchronization. The use of public space is choreographed not only to the organizer's intentions, but also to abstract regulations. As sets of instructions, algorithms are rules. They are abstract, but always implicitly present in any public space. These prescriptions extend way beyond exceptional events, and pervade our everyday urban experience thoroughly. Regulative rules exist for picnicking in a park in New York City, for group dancing in Sweden, for kids to return home in Iceland. For example, it is not uncommon to see in the media demonstrators keeping their march to one line, standing on the sidewalk, always fewer than fifty, in front of the White House.
The idea of making such instructions legible on public ground, came to us last April, while we were in Cairo. We were greeting a group of Egyptian friends, just outside a bar in Talaat Harb, Downtown. Suddenly, one of them grinned, realizing that - according the recently introduced Egyptian anti-protest law - we were being illegal. Giuditta and I immediately thought of what it means to be a group of ten people. How do you define it? How do you recognize it? Where are the thresholds to be found in our mutual interactions? Of course such relations extend to our online presences.
Indeed, in recent Cultural and Media Studies, as in the writings of Scott Lash and Alexander Galloway, the phrasing "algorithmic rules" has been associated to new forms of power, that reside in the networks, computers, information, and data, rather than being exerted from above by legitimate institutions. Paolo Gerbaudo used the expression "choreography of assembly" while analyzing the online organizational structures and process of the recent urban revolutions in Egypt, USA and Spain.
Our project is more basic. It is on the ground perhaps that a wide range of phenomena can be recognized at their maximum degree of visibility.
How do you (and citizens living in a particular city) find out about these regulations?
We started asking friends who are living in different cities and countries if they were aware of legal prescriptions that regulate the use of public spaces. Sometimes they would tell us anecdotes or they would suggest us to look for specific events on the news. For example Marko Peterlin recalled of a protest in Koper, which couldn't take place because the Slovenian law states that the organizers of any public event must always have with them a written agreement with the owner of the land where they want to assemble. In that case, protesters meant to express their disagreement with a local policy, through a demonstration on public ground. The problem then was that "public" means owned by the Municipality and managed by the local government. This resulted in a weird short-circuit, which we also tried to visualize.
We subsequently met with NGOs, with lawyers, we had meetings with the local police, and with public officials. While collecting anecdotes, listing procedures, and saving titles from the local news, we also started looking into the actual codes. We photocopied and downloaded when possible City Ordinances, Public Order Acts, Police Regulations, Park Regulations, even Children Protection Acts, from different cities and countries. Across these documents, we searched for numbers, quantities, distances, conditions, predicates. We searched for the abstractions that shape our public behaviors, to represent them visually.
Paolo, i read on your online page that you worked with Urban Sensing. That project relies a lot on digital technologies and is generally quite sophisticated. Friction Atlas, on the other hand, is pretty low tech: diagrams on the floor and walks. Why did you make the project so 'tangible', instead of having an app for example?
In code as much as in regulative rules, objects - even people - are abstracted. They cannot be known in themselves or in their being. Things are only known through their predicates, their "quantified" qualities. Citizens, as individuals or groups, are measured for their number, the noise they make, the age they have, the distance they keep, the money they have paid. Against the abstract, the mathematical, it is the real that embodies resistance. The materiality of the street, and of walking, are the natural media for making this tension tangible. They are also the best sites for opening a discussion which needed to be im-mediated. The street, in fact, afforded unexpected interactions of the public with our graphic devices, beyond what we had planned and designed.
We wanted to turn the physical context into an open playing field, or a loose game board, and keep the experience ambiguous. We posed an invitation to play, while valuing the uncertainty of the status of the performance as game. Taking part to a choreographed debate about regulative rules on the use of public space, by enacting such rules in a real public space, raises questions: Is this a game? Are we playing? Which role am I playing?
In the street, the boundary between being in and out of the game is blurred, and so are the social boundaries between who is playing and who is not. Our diagrams represent strollers, as well as protesters and policemen, but the player identity and the normal everyday identity always somehow overlap.
The sort of game we propose, at the same time playful, ironic and highly serious, has no goal - only rules, which without context, interpretation and the active participation of the visitors would exist only as static code, as ready-made, found predicates.
Keeping a 1:1 scalar ratio with the human body is central to affording this interplay and to really make the rules legible on the ground. It also helps maintaining different levels or engagement, from the superficial interaction of kids and cyclists, to the concerned reading of students and people with a bit more time.
Do you see Friction Atlas as a continuation of Urban Sensing, or is that a totally different approach to the urban environment?
We are getting accustomed to seeing the behavior of the citizens - users, customers, consumers - of any given city represented through spectacular real-time maps and data visualizations.
Our attempt this time was to look through our transparent society to try to visualize the other side. Rather than in a bird's view on the city, we were interested in looking to what's above it.
I certainly see Friction Atlas as a reflexive continuation of the work I have done in Urban Sensing, and at MIT's Senseable City Lab. As other projects and prototypes developed in the last couple of years - from my research residency at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design, to a number of workshops, including at SALT Institute in Istanbul, and at Strelka Institute in Moscow - it shows a more critical edge. Central to all of them, anyway, is the transformation of data into fully visible (or sometimes audible) agents, in order to provide a possible model for opening up to new forms of civic and aesthetic engagement with hidden or abstract layers of the city. Even when - to say it again with Scott Lash - information is not *in* society or related *to* society, but it *is* society, and vice versa, the focus on space offers a tangible - and therefore debatable - representation and an embodiment of such immaterialities as code or law. The city is a mirror of the current society and culture.
Finally, but very importantly, in the case of Friction Atlas, Giuditta and I have worked together as "La Jetée". She has an encompassing fascination for invisible borders and flows, and has worked in the recent past with legal loopholes and related paradoxes. We believe that design has a lot of space for experimentation in these areas. How can it cope with invisible things? Sometimes ideas can be expressed very simply.
I'm also interested in the term 'friction' in the title? Where do you locate this friction?
The friction we wish to represent in our atlas is to be found in space, on the ground. Within the contemporary city, a plurality of processes and logics converge in the same sites. The sites extend to our own lives, to our desires and perspectives.
Densely weaved dispositions - more or less integrated, more or less coordinated - inhabit the same space we live in. Our everyday experience of the urban cannot be understood but in relation to other processes, other dimensional scales. The encounter between these different logics happens on contended ground, hence the friction. The security paradigm followed by many cities worldwide is inscribed in space, the commodification of our historical heritage is inscribed in space, the media bubble that surround global events is inscribed in space. The visibility of the battlegrounds, of the exceptional event - as argued among others by Andrea Mubi Brighenti - shows and proves the importance of the infra-ordinary in its invisibility. We don't sample from different cities in order to show specific conflicts, but because we are interested in the pervasivity of minor and daily frictions.
Is this an ongoing archive? or will Friction Atlas end with the biennial?
The diagrams represent cases from different cities, including Cairo, Genoa, London, Ljubljana, New York City, Rome, Stockholm, Sydney, Washington. We definitely want to continue with this research, add more cities, involve more people, expand the discourse. Comparisons between cities, countries are particularly enlightening: try with Singapore and Egypt, or with USA and Iceland. You would be very surprised. The installation in Ljubljana, together with an edited collection of comments, short interviews, excerpts from articles and public acts, constitute our notes towards a critical atlas.
We set up a tumblr, to start collecting external contributions: do you have any anecdote, article, or thought that you would like to share?
You can do it on the beta version of the Friction Atlas archive: http://frictionatlas.net/
We would also like to bring our research further by moving beyond prescriptive rules, and including other formal strategies that define "a priori" the possibilities - and the impossibilities - of movement (e.g. public transportation trajectories). Making tangible the invisible text of such implicit rules - which are biopolitical rather then disciplinary - would define - in the words of Andrea Mubi Bringhenti - subjective environments, or horizons, rather than traces and routes.
This is a big challenge, as we really want to keep all the levels of engagement present, especially the most playful.
Thanks Giuditta and Paolo!
Also part of BIO 50: Engine Block. Or how to turn a moped into a boat or a concrete mixer.
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has recently opened an exhibition that "examines the powerful role of objects in movements for social change." It is called Disobedient Objects. That's the kind of title that chic and cheerful designers would use to describe how their work is 'subversive' but, thankfully, this is probably the most un-designy show the V&A has ever organised (except for the whole communication and setting which was orchestrated by the studio of Jonathan Barnbrook.) Disobedient Objects is not one of those fashionable activist art exhibitions either. This is a show about activism with a capital A, a show inhabited by artefacts that had never graced the venerable rooms of a museum or art gallery until now.
Many of the items exhibited are often mundane objects that were either given a new purpose or modified in haste in answer to an emergency situation. As modest as they might seem, these artifacts show the resourcefulness and ingenuity of people. They testify of their courage as well. Confronted with the sophisticated (except maybe in London where our good Mayor favours cut-price water cannons that are being phased out in Germany amid concerns about their safety) and potentially harmful equipment used by security forces, these artefacts look almost pitiful. But that doesn't make them less efficient.
Disobedient Objects focuses on the period from the late 1970s to now, a time that has brought new technologies and political challenges. The items displayed range from the very rudimentary to the sophisticated, from a slingshot made from a Palestinian child's shoe to mobile phone-powered drones for filming demonstrations or the police, from textiles sewn by women to communicate the atrocities they have experienced under the Pinochet regime in Chile, in particular the 'disappearance of their children to a robot that spray paint slogans on the pavement.
I entered the show ready to sneer at V&A's grand attempts to glamourize popular protests and turn evidences of genuine and at times violent dissent into food for cool hunters. My fighting mood quickly vanished. Disobedient Objects is a show that invites visitors to get out and raise their heads, to be inspired and fight for their rights. And that's what matters to me.
As the curators wrote: "Peaceful disobedience only works when protesters have cultural visibility and the government acknowledges their right to protest. Without this, struggles for freedom can sometimes take other forms."
Here's a very small overview of the stories you can discover in this ridiculously crammed with visitors but invigorating exhibition:
As usual, I bow (me saco el sombrero?) to Spanish wittiness. No one does protests as eloquently and astutely as they do these days. TAF! and Enmedio worked with Plataforma de Artefactos por la Hipoteca (a platform for mortgage debt victims) against dehumanizing media representations of people affected by Spain's mortgage crisis. The group pasted portraits of evicted homeowners on the facades of banks responsible, showing evicted people, not statistics.
The inflatable cobblestones were rolled across the streets in Berlin and Barcelona to confuse police and generate sympathetic media attention.
When many people run the program FloodNet (1998) together, they can target and overload websites. The Java applet was created in response to the massacre of 45 peaceful supporters of the Zapatistas in Mexico. Ten thousand protestors disturbed the website of the Mexican presidency and the Pentagon. FloodNet has since been adopted by many groups and movements.
The first Bike Bloc was part of the mass civil disobedience organised during the 2009 Climate Summit in Copenhagen. Moving in swarms, bikes helped protesters breach the summit's security cordon and hold an alternative People's Assembly. The leading bike carried a sound system and pirate radio antennae. It broadcasted via other bikes around it with independent speakers, each on a separate channel. The sound could jump between bikes inside the crowd, and change in tone to respond to different situations.
The banner was made for the 2009 Climate Camp at Blackheath, London. It identified capitalism as the source of climate chaos and as an ongoing crisis of inequality and injustice.
One of the banners hanging over the exhibition space was designed and hand-stitched by Ed Hall (whose name appears in almost every single post i've written about Jeremy Deller's work.) Hall has been making banners used by union groups for over 30 years. This one was used in a protest march in support of the NHS in Manchester in 2013. It features the Thatcher quote 'Still the enemy within', which is surrounded by iconography referencing the miners' strike, poll tax rebellion and welfare cuts.
Andy Dao and Ivan Cash circulated dollar bills stamped with fact-based infographics that communicate the widening economic disparity in the U.S.A. The designs were also released on the Internet enabling anyone to participate.
The artists/advertising experts were commissioned by the museum to design stamps about the UK's wealth disparity on the £5 note: in 2011, 1% of the UK population earned £922,433 while 90% earned £12,933. Any visitor can use the stamp to make their money a bit more riotous.
There is a long, long tradition of bank notes used for protest. The show also reminded that in 1990, a Burmese currency designer very subtly painted the face of Aung San Suu Kyi onto a new note after she had been democratically elected then placed under house arrest by the military junta. The designer softened the features of Gen. Aung San (the father of Aung San Suu Kyi) so that his face resembles the one of his daughter. People could thus hold up their bank notes to the light and see a hidden portrait of the opposition leader.
In 2013, the Turkish government used record amounts of tear gas against people protesting against the redevelopment of the Gezi Park in Istanbul. Protesters devised their own makeshift gas mask using plastic bottle, surgical face mask, foam and rubber bands.
Greek protesters adopted an equally cunning strategy. People resisting government austerity discovered that a solution of antacid and water sprayed onto the face offered relief from the burn of tear gas. However, it left a white residue that market protesters out.
The protest shields painted to look like books were first made in Italy, in November 2010. Students were protesting against the drastic cuts to the public university system. The oversize books were held up at the front of demonstrations so that when the police hit the students with sticks, it looked as if they were attacking literature.
Students in London produced their own book shields after they saw videos of the actions online. The tactic quickly spread to other parts of the world.
A couple of artworks did sneak into the exhibition. I guess that the Graffiti Writer doesn't need any introduction....
The gallery also featured Molleindustria's Phone Story, a free game app that players win by forcing children to mine coltan in the Congo, preventing worker protest-suicide in China, managing rabid consumers in the West and disposing of electronic waste unsafely in Pakistan. The game was banned from Apple's iTunes store four days after its release.
The Guerrilla Girls was formed in 1985 to protest against the ridiculously low number of works by female artists in the most prestigious galleries and museums of New York. Their fight is as relevant as ever today (and not just in NYc obviously.)
More images from the show:
The museum has PDF guides to DIY some of the objects exhibited.
Disobedient Objects was curated by Gavin Grindon and Catherine Flood. The show is at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, until 1 February 2015.
Erik Berglin is a young Swedish artist whose practice spans from interventions in urban environments to fact/fictional storytelling about forgotten stories to appropriation of images found online. Recent works have been exploring the possibilities to generate images with the help of computer algorithms.
Berglin graduated from the University of Photography in Gothenburg only 4 years ago. Yet, he mostly works with photos others people have made and uploaded online. Many of these photos have been roaming from flickr to forums, from tumblr to google image pages before the artist encountered them. There's something very nonchalant about the way Berglin watches the world go by through his computer screen. It is nonchalant but it is also consistently good and very contemporary in the sense that he is a contemporary artist who is young enough to be perfectly at ease with the internet and who brings his own artistic sensitive and critical point of view to it (whereas i often feel that most artists nowadays are either 'traditional' artists who work 'with the internet' because this is the thing to do indeed or they are media artist who strive to modify their portfolio so that it will be more appealing to the art market.)
In any case, the art that Berglin masters to perfection is the good old art of appropriation. He picks up an image, modifies it or not, brings it into a new contexts and gives it a new meaning. The result is a portfolio full of humour, poetry, and absurd comments on our absurd society.
Here's my interview with the artist:
Hi Erik! You been installing life size photos of birds on the streets since 2006. The series, called Birds, is an homage to John James Audubon who worked 12 years (1827-1838) on his book Birds of America. What made you want to make a homage to Audubon's and his work?
I usually start of new projects without thinking to much about why, if I would be concerned about that I would probably not make any art at all. Therefore I also start a lot of projects that in the end are not very interesting but I think it is important to follow your instinct and try ideas before questioning weather they are good or bad.
A teacher once told me the importance of letting yourself be "after hand inspired" (does not translate very well to english) finding reasons once the project is moving. This is very much the case with BIRDS. It started during my first year at art school together with my friend John Skoog. It started of as a 2 week performance piece, we slept in the gallery during the opening hours and put up birds (in scale 1:1) around the city at night. In the gallery we left small traces of our activity, like bird books and maps with indications of where we´d been, etc. We put up around 1000 images of birds and in a small city like Gothenburg it was quite noticeable.
At this time I did not know about Audubon's project but I thought is was so much fun that I kept putting up images of birds wherever I travelled. I also started doing research about interesting stories involving birds in art history, technology, popular culture, etc for another show (Archaeopteryx and other birds).
In an old bookstore in Brooklyn in 2008 I found a reprint of Audubon's Birds of America. I knew instantly that I wanted to make a similar book with the documentation from BIRDS project but first I had to keep it up 12 years - just like Audubon.
You mention on your website that it is 'really hard to keep something up for 12 years'. Why so? Is it because it gets boring? Because you get caught in new projects?
I think I wrote that on my page to keep it real somehow. I am a very restless person, so to work on the same project for 12 years is not really something I should be doing. It can get boring from time to time but of course I don´t work with this project full time. Now it´s only 3 years left so it´s becoming real in a way. I am really excited about making the book and showing it in world wide exhibition tour!
How do you decide which bird will end up where? Is it completely random?
Oh no, it´s absolutely not randomly. I can walk around for hours without putting up a single bird. It feels very important that the birds fits in its surroundings, in terms of color but also shape. If the birds is sitting on a branch for example it all have to make sense on that spot. I only make 1-3 images of each bird, cutting them out by hand and there quite expensive to make - so it´s important that it looks good on the wall. I try to make them look natural, so that one might think, at least for a second that they´re real!
I'm curious about the source of the images you use in some of your works. In Blinded By The Light, for example, you use found (and truly superb) images made by automatic cameras placed in the woods by hunters to locate prey. Where exactly did you get hold of these photos? On hunting forums? And how did you discover their existence?
I am interested in images that are forgotten or lost (kinda like things one can find in a flea market). The last years my artistic practice has therefore made me explore the internet as a public space full of lost and forgotten things. The images of deers in the forest are a result of that. The web is flooded with images, only on social medias there are millions of pictures uploaded each day. I think this vast material is interesting to explore. With the trail cam pictures I also thought is was amazing that the images where made without a decisive moment and in complete lack of human thoughts or esthetics. It was as if the deers where taking self portraits since their movement triggered the exposure.
When I first saw these images I thought it was the most sublime thing I´d seen. I got extremely obsessed, I wanted to see more and more, without planing to make a project about it. I started collecting thousands of images from hundreds of different sites and forums for hunters around the world. For them the images are not beautiful, there just proof that it´s time to go hunting. In that sense I consider this material lost and I try to give them a new meaning.
How about the images you collected for the hunting trophies series? Where do they come from?
This project actually came just before Blinded by the light and they are definitely related, I worked on them simultaneously and sometime found material on the same sites. But with that project I had a clear vision with how I wanted to use the material - erasing the hunters from their images.
Did you work on those to highlight that hunting is bad? Or do you take an absolutely neutral stance?
In general I want to be an observer, I guess that could also mean I´m neutral. I want to present things that I´ve noticed or found peculiar, but it´s up to the viewer how they want to interpret the work. I always try to have a fine balance between content and esthetics, I think both are important in order to make interesting art.
I don´t think hunting is bad, on the contrary, game meat is by far a better option if you wanna eat meat. However I definitely think trophy hunting is outrageous and Surrounding Camouflage is definitely an attempt to highlight the absurdity with killing animals without intention of using the meat. During the time I was working with these image I became very fascinated in the esthetics in these images, there seemed to be very strict conventions about how they should look.
Don't you ever get into trouble for using found images?
No. I think it´s fair use and also part of our contemporary society. And for at least the last 100 years artist have been using found objects to make art that reflects our times and I think that approach is even more valid today. But who knows, maybe I end up in prison.
My collection is a mess, that´s why I would never refer to it as an archive, it´s just thousands of random images. I guess it started of as a folder with images that inspired me, I´m sure everyone has a folder like that. When talking about art it´s quite common to start talking about other artworks with more or less resembles. I am just the same and since I am a nerd I always think of art when seeing other images made by anonymous people. I started arranging famous artworks with random pics from my collection which I associated together.
And what makes you want to repurpose some of your found images and place them into an art context? If we look at a series such as Planking Piece, all the images are made by someone who is not you and show an individual performing a plank. Again, the individual is not you. So how would you define or even justify your intervention as an artist?
In the planking images I was fascinated that a meaningless activity of laying flat on the ground could become such a viral success. People all over the world without regards of age, income or ethnicity were doing it. I instantly thought of documentations of performances from the 60 and 70 that I love. Richard Long, Vito Acconci and especially Charles Ray and his work Plank Piece (from who I stole the title).
It seemed obvious to me that planking was an instructional performance piece that could be performed by anyone, anywhere. I wish I had come up with these instructions from the beginning but planking is just another "meme" which origin no one really knows. But the images of people planking has a great quality in terms of contemporary art, they spoke to me and had a profound impact. The seemingly dead bodies, the meaninglessness of the act, the lack of faces in the images, it appealing.
Sometimes the work of an artist is merrily to recognize the potential in our everyday life arranged this in an interesting way. My collection and my selection of planks is a document of this phenomena and a historical document. As an artwork it will probably make more sense in a hundred years from now, when planking is long forgotten.
Have you ever thought about what your work might be like if internet hadn't been invented yet?
I love subjective documentaries (Werner Herzog, etc) so maybe I would be doing that kinda stuff if I was not doing what I am doing now. But before I started working with material found online I was doing interventions in urban and public spaces with found objects so maybe I would have kept doing that. However I think the internet and public spaces are very similar and in many ways I have the same approach to things I find online or in streets.
I was reading an interview of you in which you explain that you were working on a project called The Lions Den. The story behind it is incredible and sad (a man who goes to great lengths to find the lion what will kill him.) What happened to the project?
That project is still in progress, I´ve been collecting some materials but not had time to finish it. I work on most on my projects for many years and In The Lions Den is part of a bigger work which includes sad and forgotten stories about people who died under strange circumstances. Stories Concerning Eldfell is the first chapter in this work, In the Lions Den will be nr 2 and then I want to follow up on a story about a woman in Ghana.
Hahaha sorry but I´m not sure I want this in the interview since I will not be able to make anything out if this until a few years from now.. but I can tell you shortly that it is about a voodoo woman that lay a curse on the construction of a huge dame (a the time the biggest in the world). The construction would put the most fertile part of Ghana under water and force a lot of people to move, but it would also generate electricity for the hole country + a huge American steal factory. Because of the scale of the hole operation, the voodoo woman knew that in order to give the curse validity she had to make a huge sacrifice. So she drowned her self in the river... but I will not tell you what happen after.
Any upcoming research, work, event, exhibition you'd like to share with us?
I have projects for the next 20 years, the problem is only to know which one to do first.
Last year I did 20 shows and this spring 8, so actually right now I decided to not have too many shows for a while and focus on finishing new projects. But it´s really hard for me because doing shows is what I enjoy most. Because of money and time I think my next show will be a miniature museum: The Museum 1:10. The visitor will be able to walk around a model of a space an look at miniature versions of my new work. This way I can show lots of things in any space. The show will have an audio guide and a comprehensive catalogue. Maybe I build the miniature as a replica of Moma and just make it to a huge retrospective in miniature...
(And huge thanks to Geraldine who introduced me to Erik's work!)
A couple of weeks ago, i was in Derry/Londonderry. It was my first trip to Northern Ireland. Beautiful landscapes as i'm sure everybody knows, super friendly people, vegan-approved yummy food at the Legenderry Warehouse, some stunning socially-engages exhibitions i'll tell you about later and a city-wide event called Lumiere. Lumiere is a festival of 17 projections and installations that lit up as the night came onto the city. It is a crowd-magnet, a place to bring your family and marvel at what artists and designers can do with light. But don't be mistaken: some of the works had depth and bite.
Here's some of my favourite:
I don't think i would have been that impressed had i seen Change Your Stripes by Ann Cleary and Denis Connolly inside a gallery. But in the street of Derry, when evening is coming and people are out to walk the dog and stumble upon the installation, it gains a touch of magic. The artwork only comes to life as you walk past.
The huge ondulating black and white stripes are projected on the facade of the Derry Credit Union. They move as people walk by it. Passersby silhouettes are multiplied and distorted in a fluid, dancing stream like in a living version of a fairground Hall of Mirrors.
At this point, i feel like i should add a few words about Derry/Londonderry's political context. First of all because i found the installation to be absolutely brilliant but far less fascinating than the surrounding Bogside murals. And second because it is difficult to avoid mentioning politics when you find yourself in a city which carries political tensions in its very name(s). Please skip the coming paragraph if, unlike me, you are not crassly ignorant about the local history.
The Free Derry Corner might be a good introduction to the whole Derry or Londonderry issue. It was painted in 1969, shortly after the Battle of the Bogside, one of the first major confrontations of The Troubles, the 30-ish year old conflict about the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and the relationship between the unionists and loyalists (the mostly Protestant community who wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK) and the Irish nationalists and republicans (the Catholic community who dreamed of a united Ireland.) If you're a nationalist you'll call the city Derry, and if you're a unionists you'll use the name Londonderry.
Now allow me to open a parenthesis. From now on i will refer to Derry/Londonderry as 'the city'. I'm already tired of typing that double name over and over. End of the parenthesis .
The sum up above is a bit rough but that should provide you with some context. The Bogside is also the area where Bloody Sunday took place in 1972.
But let's get back to Lumiere.
Some artists openly engaged with the local context, others didn't. As was to be expected, Krzysztof Wodiczko created a sharp, deeply moving work about local people's perception and memories of the past conflicts and their hopes for the future of the city.
Public Projection for Derry~Londonderry was a series of extracts from interviews the artist had conducted with local people. Their words were screened from an ambulance (a fairly ubiquitous vehicle during The Troubles) onto several facades throughout the city .
Wodiczko talked to a cross-section of people, from ex-police officers to victims of the Troubles, from young people growing up in the aftermath of the conflict to people who had got into troubles for being on the 'wrong' side of the political divide at a certain time.
I saw people with tears in their eyes in the crowd....
Tim Etchells installed a few words that paid homage to Derry-Londonderry's shirt-making industrial past on top of the old Rosemount Shirt Factory.
The work was 23 metre long and 2-metre high making it visible from afar.
And so was Teenage Kicks. By this time, you've figured how much i (and the Lumiere festival) like to see big letters invading a city.
The 30m-long neon sign reading "A teenage dream's so hard to beat" sat on top of the city's BT building. It was inspired by the 1978 pop song of the same name, the greatest hit of Derry band, The Undertones.
"My impetus for this artwork is to celebrate a key moment from the history and culture of Derry," explained Deepa Mann-Kler. "I am an Indian woman who grew up in England, but came to live in Northern Ireland in March 1996. One of my abiding memories while growing up in Leicester, were of Northern Ireland during The Troubles, the TV footage of the army, rioting, and then the music of The Undertones."
Fire Garden by Compagnie Carabosse lit up the whole St. Columb's Park and made you feel like you had just stepped into the set of one of those lavish BBC period drama.
The empty plinth was originally topped by a statue of Governor Walker, until it was bombed (twice) by the IRA in 1973/4. It has remained unadorned since then.
These sound like suitable words to close the post.
A few more images though...
Related: Krzysztof Wodiczko: The Abolition of War.