The Transparency Grenade! A name like that was bound to get my attention.

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It might look like a Soviet F1 Hand Grenade, but what the Transparency Grenade contains is 'just' a tiny computer, a microphone and a powerful wireless antenna. No explosive then! Except maybe the information that the device is capable of blasting to the world. The Transparency Grenade fights against the lack of corporate and governmental transparency. It captures network traffic and audio at the site of closed meetings and anonymously streams the data to a dedicated server where email fragments, HTML pages, images and voice are extracted and displayed on an online map.

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Browser-based map interface to Transparency Detonations

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Browser-based map interface to Transparency Detonations

The device was created by Critical Engineer and artist Julian Oliver, author of works such as a modified analog colour television able to capture and screen images downloaded by people on local wireless hotspots, a wall plug that messes with the news read by other people on wireless hotspots and a software platform for replacing billboard advertisements with art in real-time. Now i'm left wondering why i didn't try and interview him for the blog before...

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Hi Julian! What strikes me with your latest project is the way it looks. It is miles away from the 'bastard in beige' newstweek. Why did you decide to give the work such a threatening design?

I gave the Transparency Grenade this design to signify some of the conversation around cyber warfare, 'information weapons' and the Cyber Soldier divisions marching out from national defense budgets worldwide. It can be considered a functional weapon in a symbolically representative container.

We've seen the transformative power of network-leveraged leaking in the last decade, first with the incumbent Cryptome and then much more recently with Wikileaks. The very idea of an immaterial explosion with the power to shake the walls of institutions, businesses and political cultures - moving matter and people in its wake - is naturally attractive, not only in the conceptual sense.

The volatility of information in networked, digital contexts itself frames a precedent for clamouring (and often unrealistic) attempts to contain it. One could even say it's this desperate fear of the leak that produces images like my grenade, images that will continue to take violent forms in popular culture, journalism and Presidential speeches in time. In fact the metaphor of a Transparency Grenade is itself not new, first used publicly by Mike Taylor in the Observer, a few months after I drew up this project. A timely coincidence.

Most importantly however it is the hyperbole and fear around containing these volatile records, of the cyber burglary, that increasingly yields assumptive logics that ultimately shape how we use networks and think about the right to information. Just as record companies claim billions in losses due to file sharing, the fear of the leak is being actively exploited by law makers to afford organisations greater opacity and thus control.

This anxiety, this 'network insecurity', impacts not just upon the freedom of speech but the felt instinct to speak at all. All of a sudden letting public know what's going on inside a publicly funded organisation is somehow 'wrong' -Bradley Manning a sacrificial lamb to that effect. Meanwhile civil servants and publicly-owned companies continue to make decisions behind guarded doors that impact the lives of many, whether human or other animal.

All we have left from the Bin Laden assassination, for instance, is that photo from The Situation Room, a bunch of contradictory reports of what actually happened and a body being eaten by sea lice somewhere in the Indian Ocean - or was it the Indian Ocean? How much did that assassination cost American tax payers? Of course we wonder what was said in that room! Somehow such a significant event has now been reduced to a little black box and scrapbook..

I believe quality journalism has never been so important as it is today yet at the same it's never been so threatened, both in and out of a democratic context. Given great reductions to the freedom of the press recently it's only natural that we see them adopt guerilla tactics - especially given new discovery vectors opened up by digital communications. It should come as no surprise many of their tactics will be technically illegal or even ethically corrupt!

As we saw with the News of the World scandal, they are competing within an economy where news has capital value, itself a deep and driving flaw. Under such conditions, and baited with possibility, news corporations will increasingly look for points of exploit with exit strategies (and/or apologies) prepared.

With the Transparency Grenade I wanted to capture these important tensions in an iconic, hand-held package.

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Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev, Newstweek, 2011

Has anyone tested it in some corporate or governmental place? Is this something you plan to do one day?

Even if I planned to I certainly wouldn't mention it here!

It is perhaps worth mentioning however that from the software side I haven't implemented anything new. Network packet capture has been around for decades, digital audio streaming for quite some time and TCP stream reconstruction also. Rather, I've wrapped up a variety of command line utilities in scripts that allow for the whole thing to work, both on the device and the server. An upcoming project 'Covert Peripherals' will explore this, as a canvas for productive paranoia. You'll never trust your mouse again..

Because of the simplicity of the design it is relatively trivial for me to port the Transparency Grenade back-end to the Android platform, something I'm working on currently thanks to a generous hardware donation from Australian based developer Scott Robinson. This will allow activists (or those simply sick of the relative opacity of their organisation) to deploy Transparency Grenade like functionality on their rooted Android phone and send the data over an encrypted channel via their GSM provider to a publicly available map, displaying the detonation as data from that site.

I will not offer the public map interface and data mining parts as a service (that'd be illegal, wouldn't it!). I will however provide code for people to install on their servers and or study.

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Who'd be your dream 'target'? Who do you think has secrets worth unveiling?

Governments aside I certainly think we need a great deal more transparency in the Agricultural sector. A lot of effort is being exerted, including laws written, to ensure we don't know where our food comes from, alongside the impact of that food on the environment and our bodies. A year ago Senator Jim Norman of Florida proposed a blanket ban on video or photography of farms, even from the road! We have to wonder why. The meat industry is especially aggressive in this regard, their lobbies very powerful.

The arms industry, the rampant privatisation of publicly owned infrastructure, pharmaceutical industries, are also increasingly opaque in their business dealings. Why are cures, for instance, such highly guarded secrets? Symptom relief is often vastly more profitable.

What has been the reaction to the Transparency Grenade so far? Newstweek garnered much media attention and i suspect the TG, because of its functions but again also because of the way it looks, might distress and worry some people.

I've heard words like 'gorgeous' often enough for fearful responses to not dominate, thankfully! We had around 2000 people to the exhibition opening of our show and I listened in on a lot of responses. Many were a fortunately complex mix of fear and attraction..

I wanted it to look elegant, a bottle of high-class perfume, as much as a weapon. Thanks to Berlin-based Susanne Stauch, who modeled the metal components in high-grade sterling silver, that aesthetic carries across I think, at least when you see it in the flesh.

I'd like to add that my conversations with writer and journalist Marta Peirano greatly nourished my thinking around this project, this interview alongside.

Thank you Julian!

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View of Weise7: the incompatible laboratorium

The Transparency Grenade was created for the Weise7 Studio exhibition, curated by Transmediale 2012 Director, Kristoffer Gansing.. You can visit it at Labor Berlin, Haus Der Kulturen der Welt, until Feb 20, 2012.

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A wire brush spins around randomly, threatening your open-toe sandals. A motion-activated vacuum pump sucks out the air from a gallery space: the longer viewers remain inside, the less air for them to breathe. A cobble stone is rotating on a rope. The sole purpose of that kettle is to spread red acrylic paint on your shoes. An electric fence criss-crosses the path that leads to an art gallery or the bar. Elsewhere a randomly activated tripwire awaits visitors...

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Ben Woodeson, Subservient shoe brush open toed sandals thing, 2010

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Ben Woodeson, Health and Safety Violation number 7, "9/10 of an iceberg is hidden from view", 2009

There is nothing even remotely safe in Ben Woodeson's works. In fact, they purposely run on hazard and liability waiver forms. Sometimes they even require safety helmets. Woodeson is from the United Kingdom, a state notorious for its stringent regulation and enforcement of workplace health, safety and welfare. Almost every artists you'll meet in the UK have their own share of H&S-related misadventures to tell.

Woodeson's work uses everyday objects and materials to deride and confronts head-on these often absurd rules. The pieces in his Health & Safety Violation series entice visitors to be brave and come nearer as much as they repel and unnerve them. In the coming weeks, Woodeson will present new works at transmediale in Berlin and at The Florence Trust in London. The installation he will show at the TM festival is A seemingly innocent sculptural curtain bisects the foyer space obstructing the visitor's default routes. Avoiding the work requires a conscious detour while also engaging with it requires a willingness to take risk - an "interactive" piece that does not pretend to be harmless.


Ben Woodeson, Health & Safety Violation #2 - Shocking, 2009

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Ben Woodeson, Basic rough as fuck spinning spring jump out of your skin hazard, 2010

I've decided not to go to Transmediale this year (first time in 8 years) but i'll be in London to tell you about what he'll be showing at The Florence Trust. In the meantime, a short interview will have to do....

You've exhibited works that involve a very high degree of risk of injury or death to visitors in several art galleries in the UK. How did you avoid the Health and Safety hassle?

Ha! I don't really try to avoid it, it is part of my practice, I think the dialogue between the exhibiting institutions and myself forms a layer of implied meaning within the work. Most of what I do does entail some form of risk, but the Health & Safety Violation's are a specific group of works, where that risk is overtly presented. This is through a clear and obvious physical danger or sometimes via titles that the gallery is forced to acknowledge and negotiate how the works will be presented. Let's face it with titles like Spinning cobblestone (high speed crack your skull open bleed through your ears version) I'm not really hiding the risk, it's right there shouting; they're not coming to me thinking I'm going to show a nice, safe, comforting watercolour...


How many 'no you can't" and "yes maybe but then you'd have to change this and this" have you met with the Health and Safety Violation series? Do you compromise?

Masses! Seriously though, I'm expecting in fact I'd say I was requiring the galleries to compromise so, I'd be a real hypocrite if I wasn't prepared to be flexible. Besides as I mentioned, the dialogue forms a layer of implied meaning within the work. As with any negotiation, there are things that you can or can't compromise on. I'm not prepared to lessen the work by corrupting it or compromising it is such a way that alters the meaning and basic experience that the viewer has. However, within most works there is usually some room for give and take.

As artists I think we become adept at the dialogues with institutions, curators and other artists; the pragmatics about what goes where and all that sort of thing. I'm definitely not a foot stomper or a diva. Things usually come to some form of organic conclusion that fits all concerned. I'd rather pull a work from a show than compromise too far, but, the reality is that the artists, the curator and the gallery all want a show to be as good as possible, the rest is mostly details.

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Ben Woodeson, One Shot Pretty Sculpture, 2011. Matches, fuse and random timer

Do you observe visitors? Does it take long before they leave their role as a viewer and become an 'adventurer' of Health and Safety Violation?

Nice question! I certainly do observe, in fact I often film the openings of the shows. I need to answer in a sideways manner: Quite a lot of the recent works are different from the early Health & Safety Violations in that they have become eventful, previously the works such as Spiral Twist Hazard (featured recently on WMMNA) would randomly activate / deactivate / wait and repeat.

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Ben Woodeson, Health & Safety Violation #15 - Spiral twist hazard, 2011. Image by Marcos Morilla

A lot of the newer works including ones from the new Causality series are still randomly activated but they only trigger once, their activation has become catastrophic. Examples include One Shot Pretty Sculpture where 2000 matches burn and spell out a text or Ball Droppingly Awesome Glass Sculpture where with no fanfare or warning a small mechanism drops a large steel ball into the middle of a sheet of glass. Both works are irrevocably altered by their activation; the resulting debris then forms a kind of sculptural performative afterlife. I used to hold a position that if my works were switched off they were as invalid as for example a switched off video monitor. However, these recent works are made to be experienced in several states and the exhibition(s) therefore evolves depending on the state of the works.

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Ben Woodeson, Ball Droppingly Awesome Glass Sculpture, Ball bearing, glass and random timer, 2011

So, coming back to the question, the viewer is sometimes held in a kind of prolonged anticipation: What is it they are actually seeing? Quite often they've signed a liability waiver at the entrance, so they already have this sense of potential danger and heightened awareness, what they don't have is knowledge of what is or is not safe... The random timing on even the repetitive works means it's hard for them to pigeon hole works as safe, not safe etc. The works often function quite abruptly so rather than there being a sense of things about to happen, there is more a sense of things maybe about to happen but no one is quite sure. The abruptness with it's consequent shock is definitely a fundamental factor in many of the works.

I think there is also a big difference in the adventuresome experience of those present at the opening night and those who visit in quieter circumstances. I do tweak the timings a bit so that some stuff does happen at the openings, and a lot of those people present usually know some of what I do, so in a way as a group they've already crossed over into the adventurer role. By contrast a visitor to a comparatively empty gallery might have little or no prior knowledge of my practice, and there might not be other viewers whose behavior could give clues.

The works are visceral and demanding, their in-your-faceness forces both experienced and inexperienced viewers to physically engage and take the adventure.

Can you tell us about your new Causality series? What is it about?

The Causality series are a new group of works started when I was preparing for my recent show at Elevator Gallery; so far they tend to be less direct. Something happens which then has a result, whereas the Violations switch on and off, there is no direct sense of cause and effect. The Causality works are no less challenging and dangerous, but somehow as I mentioned earlier, becoming more of a specific event rather than a repeating one.

In A Perilous Environment Positively Oozing With Pain and Suffering twelve panes of glass are held angled by fishing twine, a computer randomly selects one of the twelve and ignites a wire wool fuse. The fuse burns the twine causing the glass to crash to the floor. I think the difference between the two groups of works is quite organic; they're all confrontational, challenging and possibly a wee bit dangerous, some just seem to intuitively belong to one or the other series.

I'm definitely still working on the Health & Safety Violations for example I'm just finishing a big new piece called Health & Safety Violation #36 - Bite you on your ass and kiss your socks goodbye for Transmediale in Berlin at the end of January. I'm also concurrently working on the Causality series some of which I hope will be ready to show at the Florence Trust open weekend.

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Ben Woodeson, A Perilous Environment Positively Oozing With Pain and Suffering, Glass, wire wool fuses and random timer, 2011

You are a Florence Trust resident this year, what are you planning to work on during this residency?

The Florence Trust residencies are really pretty special, time is whizzing by, we're about half way through, in fact the Winter Open is the weekend of 3rd February (PV on the Friday night). For me it has been an interesting time in that I had planned to develop new works that while still clearly fitting within my interests would maybe be more versatile and flexible. However ironically 90% of the new works I've made have been just as difficult and confrontational as ever and so far I don't see any signs of that shifting. I work quite intuitively; balancing concept, material and activity, and maybe it's the church or whatever, but versatile and flexible suddenly seems far less interesting and engaging when compared to fear, fire, gravity, electricity, breaking glass and general sculptural carnage; in other words all the usual stuff that floats my boat.

Thanks Ben!

Previously: Experimental Station - Part 1, In the Laboratory.

The title of Club Transmediale's exhibition, Alles, was Sie über Chemie wissen müssen (Everything You Need to Know about Chemistry), is based on a notebook with blank pages, published by an international science publisher.

An intriguing and cheeky enough opening for me.

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Martin Howse and Martin Kuentz, remains of the Substrate performance

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No matter how much I love exhibitions at new media art festivals, i often find myself suspecting that the curatorial vision behind many of them is little more than an after-thought. This was certainly not the case with Alles, was Sie über Chemie wissen müssen and i can't praise curators Hicham Khalidi and Suzanne Wallinga enough for their exquisite, intelligent contribution to Club Transmediale.

The show wasn't afraid to call upon works from the early '70s to dialogue with new pieces on a theme that others than Khalidi and Wallinga might have been explored in a fairly lazy way: the physical interaction between people and things. To be honest, the description of the exhibition theme was a bit intimidating, the show attempts to convey an experience of Befindlichkeit (existential orientation), of the physical interaction between people and things, as described, for example, by Gernot Böhme: a primary experience of atmosphere, of "moods" that can be encountered in human and natural surroundings, in which there is no sharp distinction between person and thing. In Alles, was Sie über Chemie wissen müssen, the experience of winds, of feeling, of substance occurs through different manners of physical presence. The relationship between body and medium leads, either through the creation or perception of work, to the experience of a mental space where alternative ways of understanding the body may arise.

You didn't have to read Heidegger to find the show entirely enjoyable though.

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One of the works that best concretized the theme of the exhibition is Aura by Joyce Hinterding, an artist whose practice investigates energetic forces, in particular acoustic and electromagnetic phenomena. Aura is made of graphite and gold drawings which, when connected to a sound system, become fractal antennas. As soon as i took off my camera to take a picture, i realized that the drawings made audible the presence of electromagnetic fields within the gallery. A text about the work explains that tracing one's finger over Hinterding's lines produces electrical sounds akin to those emitted by a theremin" but since i'm still not used to manipulating artworks, unless specifically invited to do so, i didn't dare touch the drawings. Besides, there was a guard in the room.

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Rik Smits, Scorpoda Capita

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Rik Smits, Scorpoda Capital, model, 2011

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Rik Smits, Scorpoda Capital, 2009-2010

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Rik Smits, Scorpoda Capital, 2009-2010(image)

Rik Smits's ballpoint drawing Scorpoda Capital is a fascinating, slightly fearsome city driven by a taste for Dubai-worthy architecture, self-importance and luxury. Add to those, hints to the darkest chapters from the Old Testament (but that might just be my imagination) and an eerie absence of visible human beings.

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Jelle Feringa, Analemma

Jelle Feringa's Analemma was probably the most insidiously fascinating piece in the show. In astronomy, an analemma (from a Greek word that meant "pedestal of a sundial") is a figure of eight-like curved traced in the sky when the position of the Sun is plotted at the same time each day over a calendar year from a particular location on Earth.

Feringa's Analemma defies the earth's 29.783 km/sec velocity by casting a perfectly circular shadow on the ground. No matter the time of the day, the day in the year, the latitude.

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Jorinde Voigt, Grammatik, 2010

Jorinde Voigt's Grammatik combines several parameters, such as spinning aeroplane propellers, writing on the propellers (64 grammatical possibilities, declination of the personal pronouns, who loves who, who doesn't love who) and the size of the blades (the first person singular corresponds to the biggest blade. The third person plural corresponds to the smallest blade). Next to that, the installation defines the grammatical system even more precise by the declination of the rotation speed, 0 to maximum, individually controllable speed (the artist does not specify how fast each blade has to turn; every speed within the possible range is correct) and the declination of the direction of rotation: turning to the left or to the right. Technically, this corresponds to whether the blade turns away from or towards the observer.

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Loved the show, took tons of pictures.

I'm not sure how much i can cover from Transmediale this year since i could only attended the two first days, missing the crowd, the friends and some of the most exciting performances and presentations of the long weekend. I can tell you something about the seven transmediale Award nominees though. They were as different from each other as it is humanely possible and that's a sight i always welcome in a festival.

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View of the project in exhibition space

I didn't have a clear favourite this year but MACHT GESCHENKE: Das Kapital - Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie had the merit of making me smile.

Every single day since 25 May 2009, Christin Lahr is giving 1 cent to the German Federal Ministry of Finance via an online bank transfer. She fills in the 108 characters of the 'reason for payment' box with a few words from Karl Marx's CAPITAL - A Critique of Political Economy. It will take 43 years and 15 709 cents to transcribe the 1 696 500 characters of the book.

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CAPITAL PRESENTS, money transfer form, 1 Cent

The increase in capital value by interest rates, the amount of work, life duration and cultural and symbolic capital have not been taken into account. The work is Lahr's gift to the people, appointed to the budget of the Federal Republic of Germany, securely kept in the archive and administrated by voted representatives.

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Screenshot of a money transfer

If it were possible to freeze the present German financial deficit of € 1 746 599 197 210, Lahr's gift would cancel out this amount in approximately 300 years due to the exponential effects of inflation and compound interest rates.

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Lahr's project received a Distinction from the jury. The winning project was Intelligent Bacteria - Saccharomyces cerevisiae, an acoustic and performative installation but also a research project developed by HONF - The House Of Natural Fiber in collaboration with scientists from the Gadjah Mada University (UGM) in Indonesia. The work explores the field of microbiology and biotechnology from an art and science perspective, using DIY and open source technologies.

Intelligent Bacteria - Saccharomyces cerevisiae borrows part of its name from a species of budding yeast used since ancient times in brewing. Alcohol is indeed at the heart of the project. Because the consumption of alcohol is forbidden by religion in the country and its price has sharply increased last Spring due to a new governmental regulation, Indonesians have started to produce their own booze. However, most people have little understanding of the proper fermentation process and many have died or been poisoned in their attempt to make alcohol.

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HONF teamed with the UGM researchers to develop and distribute a nontoxic fermentation technology that anyone can try at home. They hope that their method will be used by Indonesians to produce alcohol that is both affordable and safe for consumption. The group even had a bacteria performance on the closing night of the festival but as hinted above, i couldn't be there.

Another nominated work i need to mention is Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern's Wikipedia Art. The conceptual work was launched two years ago on Wikipedia as a conventional Wikipedia page, requiring thus art editors to abide by Wikipedia's standards of quality and verifiability, Any changes to the art had therefore to be published on, and cited from, 'credible' external sources from 'trustworthy' media outlets. Wikipedia Art blossomed this as a collaborative performance that kept on transforming itself through its editors discussions.

15 hours after its creation the page was deleted. Jimmy Wales called Kildall a troll. The artists were sued for trademark infringement by the Wikipedia Foundation, when they set up wikipediaart.org to archive their project.

The art world was not so supercilious. The project was even included in the Internet Pavilion of the Venice Biennale for 2009. In an interview to myartspace the author of the project explained that "one of the problems we discovered is that a huge demographic of very young people (ages 16-23) dominates the Wikipedia culture, ethos and information trade. The result is a bigger emphasis on pop culture and esoteric geek factoids, while topics like art movements and artists get sidelined. Try looking up something like "Warlock (Dungeons & Dragons)" as compared to, say, digital art star Cory Arcangel, who is currently on the cover of Art Forum. The standards for the two are completely opposing! The D&D page only uses online sources far from the mainstream, while the Cory Arcangel page references some of the most important museums in existence today. Despite this, the D&D page actually calls for "expansion," while the Arcangel page is prefaced with a disclaimer that its citations are insufficient."

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Paul Vanouse and Kerry Sheehan working at the Suspect Inversion Center. Photo: Axel Heise

While the reliability of ballistic, bite-mark and even fingerprint analysis can sometimes be questioned in courtrooms, genetic evidence is still widely regarded as the forensic gold standard.

Unfortunately, accidents happen. Remember the fiasco of the DNA evidence brought forward at the trial of O. J. Simpson?

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Mug shot of O. J. Simpson

Or the deep embarrassment of European police when they found out that a mysterious serial killer known as the The Woman Without a Face had in fact never existed? The only clues that the criminal had left behind at 40 different crime scenes were DNA traces. These were collected on cotton swabs and supplied to the police in a number of European countries. The police later discovered that the DNA had very probably been left by a woman working for the German medical company supplying the swabs, who had inadvertently contaminated them.

There's more in the case against the fail-proof quality of DNA evidence. Three years ago, a crime lab analyst found out that DNA "matches" are not always as trustworthy as one might believe. While a person's genetic makeup is unique, his or her genetic profile -- just a tiny sliver of the full genome -- may not be. Siblings often share genetic markers at several locations, and even unrelated people can share some by coincidence.

And in Israel, scientists have demonstrated that DNA evidence can be fabricated. "You can just engineer a crime scene," said Dan Frumkin, lead author of a paper published in 2009. "Any biology undergraduate could perform this."

Paul Vanouse is doing just that with his latest work, the Suspect Inversion Center. Together with his assistant Kerry Sheehan, the biomedia artist set up an operational laboratory at the Ernst Schering Foundation in Berlin. Using equipment anyone can buy on the internet as well as Vanouse's own DNA, they (re)create in front of the public identical "genetic fingerprints" of criminals and celebrities.

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Latent Figure Protocol

The solo exhibition features two other biological artworks by the American artist: a series of Latent Figure Protocol lightboxes and Relative Velocity Inscription Device, a cynical molecular race reflecting on biologically legitimized racism, in which bits of DNA, instead of bodies, compete by testing their "genetic fitness". The work uses DNA samples from Vanouse family and directly references Charles Davenport's book Race Crossing in Jamaica (1929), which attempted to provide statistical evidence for biological and cultural degradation following interbreeding between white and black populations.

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Relative Velocity Inscription Device (detail of the installation)

The press release for the exhibition says:

Vanouse's biotechnological installations do not only challenge the codes and images of contemporary knowledge production but also question the methods behind (natural) scientific findings in general: What do uncritically accepted commonplace catchwords such as "genetic fingerprint" conceal? To what extend does the technical construction of alleged naturalness notarize clichés and prejudices? Vanouse diverts biotechnologies and scientific imaging techniques from their intended uses, and amalgamates auratic iconography with technical images. Employing gel electrophoresis as artistic medium, he intentionally applies a method that bears analogies to photography: while photography allowed viewers to draw seemingly objective conclusions about human qualities based on physiognomic characteristics of the body, today, increasingly questionable social conclusions are derived from ontologized body fragments such as genes.

Curated by Jens Hauser, Paul Vanouse: Fingerprints... remains open at the Ernst Schering Foundation (google map) until March 26, 2011. The foundation, which aims to promote science and art, was showing the wonderful work of Agnes Meyer-Brandis last year: Cloud Core Scanner - an artistic experiment in zero gravity.

More posts featuring the work of Paul Vanouse: Wetware Hackers Day 2 and Hybrid Art awards.

Transmediale - Part 1, the Future Obscura exhibition

I'm not used to writing this about a media art festival but the best part of Transmediale for me this year was the performances and video programme. I missed about a half of the festival so i can only report on a few key moments:

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The most exhausting performance of the festival must be the 9 hour-long Long Conversion by Sosolimited. The art and design collective had been nominated for the TM award with their performance project ReConstitution, a new format of live remix of broadcast television, originally devised for the 2008 presidential elections in the US. They adapted the work to the experimental discussion Futurity Long Conversation that was taking place simultaneously in the big auditorium. During 9 hours 21 artists, designers, theorists, journalists and media interventionists relayed each other to discuss utopias, ideas and technologies crucial for the ways in which we conceive the future today. Well at least that's what should have happened. Sometimes it worked admirably, sometimes, the discussions were a bit bumpy. Definitely a format worth exploring again, especially in a time when almost everyone around me seems to question the format of conferences.

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On a separate stage at the opposite end of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Sosolimited were busy turning the conversation into bits and pieces of data.

Typists were transcribing the words of the speakers and sending the text streams to an analysis software created by Sosolimited. The datavisualisation tool can extract video, audio, and closed captioned text from live broadcasts and transform this data into a whimsical narrative by cataloguing the utterings and movements of the people on screen. The words of the Long Conversation speakers were thus matched to lexical databases, and sorted by topic, tense, and certitude. Realtime statistics of all the speakers were passed through different filters and projected on a screen behind the typists.

As Sosolimited writes: The participants were supposed to be talking about the future, so we felt it would be nice to track their verb tense usage and see if they did. Hardly anyone actually talked in the future tense, preferring the present tense by a wide margin. 17 of the 21 speakers' favorite word was 'I'.

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(images courtesy of the artists)

The closing evening borrowed its title, Myths Of The Near Future, from a short story by J. G. Ballard. The focus was media art from China.

Zhang Jian from FM3_Zhang and aaaijiao (Xu Wenkai) gave us a very meditative visual and audio performance. Zhang Jian is a pioneer of electronic music and also one of the creators of the Buddha Machine, the musical loop player that looks like a small radio transistor. aaajiao (Xu Wenkai) is a media artist and computer visuals programmer whose installations and performances have been touring the world over the past few years. He is also the power machine behind we-need-money-not-art.com, a blog that not only translates some of the posts of we-make-money-not-art into chinese but also covers media art events in the country. Through his work with and outside of the blog, aaajiao is acting as one of the main catalysts for the diffusion of media art and free culture practices in China.

The evening was curated by Li Zhenhua, the founder of Laboratory Art Beijing and one of the most talented and informed curators from China. Smart as he is, he knew that he also had to bring an established name on stage. Enters Feng Mengbo. He played live on stage with his customized game software Game Over: Long March which saw a Red Army soldier engage in various battles and challenges that speeds through China's recent history, culture and the influences from abroad (think Great Wall of China meets Coca Cola!)

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I'm taking the solemn oath that for the next edition of the Transmediale festival i will spend less time talking nonsense to everyone i meet at the bar and follow much more closely the video screenings. Because this year's Fim & Video program was stunning.

Curated by Marcel Schwierin, the selection echoes the FUTURITY NOW! theme in terms of failed utopias. The 11 sections illuminate various sub-topics such as the role of the media, the future human body or the post-socialist era.

I didn't see all the movies, alas! But here's a quick pick of what was on offer:

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Dear Adviser by Vincent Meessen, 2009

In Vincent Meessen's Dear Adviser is part of the Media Personification selection. The film wanders around Chandigarh, the city designed by Le Corbusier in the 1950s as a symbol of the new, progressive nation of India who had just emerged from its colonial past. Nowadays, Chandigarh stands as to the failure of modernist ideas. The Capitol, the inner city with government buildings and the focus of Meessen's film, is eerily still and hardly accessible to the public for security concerns, because of the ethnic and religious tensions in the region.

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Kurt Maetzig, Der Schweigende Stern (First Spaceship on Venus), 1959

Fitting perfectly in the Futurity theme, the first science fiction film coming out of the GDR - Der Schweigende Stern (First Spaceship on Venus) - was screened in the big auditorium on Sunday.

The 1960 movie was based on the novel The Astronauts by Stanisław Lem, a Polish writer whose work put forward a vision of the future that incorporates technological, social as well as psychological criteria. Shot in Total Vision (the East German wide screen equivalent of the American Cinemascope), the movie was dealing with dystopia, presenting thus a negative warning of the future

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Reynold Reynolds, Secret Machine 2009

Secret Machine, by Reynold Reynolds, participated to the Future Bodies selection which confronts unstoppable technological progress with a fairly immutable human body. The protagonist of the film encounters an antagonist that is studying her, measuring her body reactions and resistance before comparing her to units of space and time. The scenes are inspired by Muybridge's motion studies of humans and animals.

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Taysir Batnji, Transit, 2004

Guest curated by Rasha Salti, Agit-Prop, Punks and Poets: Digital Media between Film, Video and Activism in the Arab World exposed the ways digital media are used to challenge dominant media emissions in situations of political crises or violence. The programme was accompanied by a presentation of Arabshorts.net, an online platform showcasing film programmes curated by nine curators from 9 different countries of the Middle East and North Africa.

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Bouchra Khalili, Straight Stories, Part 1, 2006

Straight Stories, by Bouchra Khalil, is an ongoing work about wanderings in ambiguous frontier zones where physical geography and the geography of the imagination become indistinguishable. In Straight Stories - Part 1, youngsters on both sides of the border between Spain and Morocco dream about life on the other side. Landscapes look similar, but migration between the first and third worlds is hampered by legal, social, cultural and political complications.

Palestine Note has a report of the presentation given by Rasha Salti at Transmediale.

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