During the AND festival, Heiko Hansen and Helen Evans from HeHe were inviting people to ride their autonomous vehicle, the 'M-blem', on a track that made history in 1830 as the world's 'first recognisably modern inter-city railway,' the Liverpool and Manchester.
The experience starts at the original station building of the Manchester to Liverpool line (now part of the Museum of Science and Industry) where you get a ticket and are escorted upstairs to the track. You remove your shoes and hop inside the lightweight, transparent vehicle for 2. You press the red button and off you go. You're sitting almost at ground level and there's nothing between you and the landscape. Very pleasant, very very childish.
The project is inspired by ARAMIS, a research project for the development of a network of on-demand, non-stop, automated cars to carry up to 4 people along guided rails around Paris. Aramis was a fiasco, much like many of the Personal Rapid Transport projects that emerged in the second half of the 20th century. PRT research projects proposed an alternative to both cars and collective transportation by operating small automated vehicles for 1 to 6 persons on specially built guide ways. Bruno Latour for example, reflected on the Aramis fiasco in Aramis, or the Love of Technology.
M-blem shares the fascination for a personal automated travel experience but it piggybacks on existing transport infrastructures. So did the previous versions of the artists' transportation system in other cities:
A second version took the form of a battery-powered Flying Carpet driven on the tram track that runs along Istiklal, a pedestrian shopping street in the western part of Istanbul.
Michel de Broin hung a gigantic disco-ball over Paris, threw 12 tons of asphalt on the road to create a absurdly twisted bike lane in Montreal, rode his polluting bicycle in parks, knitted New Orleans street lamps into a satellite-shaped structure, silenced an alarm bell under a vacuum system and famously got his pedal-powered 86' Buick Regal car pulled over by the police.
Michel de Broin lives between Berlin and Montreal. I've seen his work in Spain, Belgium, Germany. I read about it in catalogues and other books about urban art and public art. The more i saw of his work, the more i wanted to interview him. Hence the following Q&A:
I'm very curious about the way you work. You graduated in visual art at Université du Québec, in Montréal. But looking closer at your artworks, it appears that they require the kind of knowledge that most art program do not teach such as a knowledge of mechanics and engineering.
I've never seen an artist succeed at simply applying knowledge learnt from school. Ideally art schools are not simply technical; you don't learn a skill in art school. But each student develops specific skills from their interests. You learn to learn, and you discuss a lot. Like many others, I was not good at high school and I was kicked out of 2 before attending art school where things changed and I began to be successful because you are asked to think for yourself and make your own work.
When I was a kid, I was doing mechanics and electronics and a lot of funny things playing with found objects in the garbage. I hated high school so much, but I was not a problem at home because I was helping my father, who was handicapped, round the house; doing a lot of things at a very young age like using power tools and fixing appliances. So I inherited all these tools from my father, and I was then able to build tree houses, go carts and caves. My older brother was studying mathematics and was playing with electronics. Nothing fancy, but I remember we installed an alarm system in our bedroom to prevent adults from getting in. I don't remember learning anything; I was just looking outside and playing with what was around me. I was hostile to institutions, schools and adults in general, and so I was more inclined to do things by myself.
So how do you handle the crafting/building/hacking/engineering of each of your projects?
I've been growing since then, and I now do big things with serious people. When it is a public commission I need an engineer to sign my drawings, I prefer to work with an engineer who lets me do my work and does not get stressed about the consequences. But you normally need good insurance to play outside, and fortunately I have worked with some very helpful people.
Do you rely on the expertise of other people, like Carsten Holler or Takashi Murakami do?
I'm not working at the same scale. But still there is sometime friends, technicians, and collaborators working or answering my questions. The most difficult is not the technical aspect of the project but to have a project interesting enough to keep my attention for the duration, generate the resources involved, and also to induce the will to make it happen.
Or do you do have a more hands-on approach, acquiring the expertise yourself and experimenting?
I like to learn new skills when I'm experimenting, and refuse to rely on experts. But I'm very grateful to experts from whom I can learn something or share some knowledge with. Making art is more difficult than solving problems, but problems are generative and can contribute to creating new thought.
And why this choice (relying on other experts vs going through the trouble of DIY)?
It is part of the process to work through problems, I need a confrontation with the world to be able to create an outcome. But it doesn't need to be technical; it can be emotional, social, philosophical... It depends on where I address my work. Most of the time I use devices that were made by others. I sometime question how it would be if I was making all the objects that surround me. Making a light bulb seems like very hard work, I would guess it could take me almost a year to make one functional light bulb, and only if I could have access to existing technology. But if I had to go mining for the tungsten, and make everything from scratch, I don't think a whole lifetime would be enough to create a light bulb.
Few artists make their own canvases, collect their pigments from plants, or collect the silicone to power the microprocessor of their computer. Duchamp would say that we are all doing readymade, applying a very low level of transformation to the manufactured object of our appropriation. It is as true for the images, the language, and the tools we are using, they were developed over time and I arrived afterwards. Most things already exist before we figure them out, and being able to draw an image doesn't mean it belongs to us. The origin is very far behind and very difficult to claim.
Some of your work deals with a progress and progression that goes awry: stairs that are supposed to lead you up but end up leading you to your point of departure, road signals that confuse you, roads that go nowhere, etc. Do these works translate a cynical or pessimistic vision of where the world is going? Or are they about something else?
This is your interpretation, I'm trying to not have any moral value about how things should or should not be. For more than ten years, I have been building stairs as infinite paths of circulation, extracted from architecture and stripped from all functionality. I think they raise the question of progress by showing how things rise and fall in a continuous cycle, like living species, bringing my understanding of natural processes against a dated modern belief in progress.
In Entanglement 2001, I created a cycle path inspired by abstract gesture, but represented at the scale of the urban landscape. The freehand drawing defies the rationality of the public planning. It is not about confusion but about having a different experience other than rationalism in the public space. I'm optimistic, even in my pessimistic vision, because I need to believe in something to make it work in reality.
Works such as Shared Propulsion Car, Reparations and Keep on Smoking take art outside of the museums and into the streets. Is that so just because of the nature of the work or because you want to engage with the public in a different way? or with a public that might otherwise not enter a museum or art gallery?
The public is not my concern; I'm interested in art. Sometimes it is fun to please the public, but it is different to making something that makes sense in art. My public interventions were not 'spectacles' where the public was invited. It was more a kind of experience of the outside, a test for the object itself that could be perceived as a gentle act of terrorism. I didn't ask permission, but I didn't break the law. No one was invited. They were isolated acts, documented and carefully collected and presented by galleries and museums.
It is on site that an opportunity of making sense appears. Then those occurrences can be brought into a studio, sampled, edited, deconstructed and transformed into works of art.
How did people react to Keep on Smoking?
Some people love it, some people hate it. There is a good articale from Bernard Schutze, available online at this address http://www.micheldebroin.org/text/2006_schutze_en.html
The Shared Propulsion Car went through some misadventures. It was pulled over by the police in Toronto. Did the brush off with the law go any further?
This car seems wrong from a normative point of view. The police were fooled by the successful illusion I created. There is noting against pedaling a car in the law, there was no reason for the arrest. For the police it is illegal to modify a car, but what happens when you modify it until it is not a car anymore? A car is defined by its engine, with no engine there is no car, and there is no cause. I knew this before taking it out onto the road, but I also knew that there were some risks, luckily the judge could see clearly in this case.
Have you driven the vehicle in other cities?
New York (USA), Toronto (Canada), Montreal (Canada), Poitier (France) now it is part of a French collection in Angoulême.
And were you expecting or maybe even hoping for the police to stop you? Maybe to appear in the newspaper and get a discussion going about car culture?
If an object creates new perception it risks creating problems and misunderstanding. I like to try to make the impossible possible, because it is a sign of the presence of the art for me. When we look at history we see that some of the good art confronts the mind and takes time to be accepted.I got a lot of attention from media, there were 15 journalists in the courtroom, and it was interesting to see how an art project can create a discussion outside of the art world. But I got tired of answering questions from journalists that made no research and were misinformed. It is very boring to deal with the mainstream media.
Reciprocal Energy is a fascinating work. The project speculates that the automobile could acquire its energy directly from the body fat of its driver. It looks like an ambitious scientific research verging into dystopian territory. What was the inspiration for it? Is it pure imagination or are elements of it based on some scientific research?
The human body can be compared to a machine that transforms ingested food into energy. If a surplus of food is ingested, the energy is stored in the form of fats in the adipose tissue beneath the skin. However fats can be transformed into fuel through an chemical process. The procedure consists of removing the suspended water in order to trigger a chemical reaction known as transesterification, which entails the extraction of glycerine. A chemical reaction is obtained through the conveyance of methanol alcohol (CH4O) and caustic soda (NaOH). The resulting fuel is comparable to diesel fuel.
Why not recuperate the stored fat extracted in liposuction clinics in order to transform it into biodiesel and use it as a fuel? The conversion of the fat into fuel would make it possible to recover the potential energy, which is otherwise merely incinerated or dumped into the environment.
This project seeks to draw attention to a particular problem: the fact that automobile drivers and their automobiles are not yet sufficiently well assembled. In effect, when the human body uses a machine, it economises a certain quantity of energy. The energy provided by the ingestion of food is then stored in the form of fats. At the same time as the automobile driver stores energy and accumulates fat, the automobile consumes fossil fuel and wastes energy resources. Why not couple man and machine in order to resolve both the problem of obesity and the energy crisis, while also providing an ecological alternative?
This coupling would make possible an intimate reciprocity between man and machine. Moreover, the use of fat as a fuel would contribute to resolving the problem of which it is itself a symptom by maintaining the resource both renewable and accessible.
Any upcoming works, exhibitions, projects, or events you could share with us?
Retrospective at the Musée d'art contemporain of Montreal, summer 2013 (with a Catalogue)
Installation of a permanent public sculpture in Berlin in the German parliament in 2014.
Installation of a permanent public sculpture at the National Gallery of Canada.
On Monday i went all the way to the Royal College of Art's new Battersea buildings to check out the graduation show of Design Interactions. As i'm sure you know by now, the department is exploring design in relationship to the latest technology and scientific developments. This year, however, several projects are dealing with what they call 'big design'. Big design gets to grip with complex systems and large contexts such as global finance and geopolitics. If you remember how much i liked one of the projects from last year, Everything Ends in Chaos by Ilona Gaynor, you'll understand how excited i am to see how ambitious political and socio-economic themes can be approached from a critical design perspective.
Which brings me to this year's 'project from hell'. It's one of my favourite works but it took me ages to half grasp its ramifications and elaborate structure. Tobias Revell has spent the year drawing up a timeline that starts at the end of the Roman Empire and closes in the early 22nd century. The timeline unravels the history of power in whatever form it takes. Most historical timelines will only highlight the financial crashes, the wars, the major upheavals, the groundbreaking innovations and the revolutions but Revell also takes into account the minor events that might take decades to manifest themselves into something more noticeable.
One of the works Revell is showing at the graduation show illustrates the timeline by zooming on one event of our not-so-distant future. The event is seen at the time as fairly insignificant but it will have huge consequence on the history of the European Union. In fact, it will be one of the motors of its dissolution.
The event takes place in the early 2040s, when an ex-Soviet Arktika class, one of the nuclear powered icebreakers traditionally used for clearing shipping lanes north of Siberia as well as for scientific and recreational expeditions to the Arctic, is recommissioned to host a barely legal experiment in global finance.
The icebreaker would be entirely refitted to welcome highly qualified traders on board and would circle at 88.7 degrees latitude - the heart of the arctic sea. By circumnavigating the world in twenty-four hours, the ship would thus stay in constant contact with trading zones throughout the world.
Such practice would undoubtedly be highly efficient and in Revell's scenario it is indeed a phenomenal success. The Arktika proved that growth in trade could be sustained beyond state regulation with lower risk due to its detachment from public and welfare infrastructure. In doing so it had brought support to the idea of a hyper-libertarian Europe.
The sheer volume of trade made possible by the continuous, rapid and deregulated system of the Arktika's movements and its elite traders invalidated economic theories of zero-sum growth in the eyes of the Equestrian Councils and business leaders - encouraging decades of power shifts throughout the financially developed world.
In September 2048, after almost a decade of transitional process, the European Equestrian Council was granted the control over European Parliamentary directives and began the process of turning Europe into a successful transnational business entity and away from historic national divisions. The Arktika was seen as a key component in this process. By 2055 - when China collapsed - there were no sovereign currencies or indeed Euros left in the European Equestrian Union.
At this stage, dear reader, i suspect that you've either left the building in horror at the third paragraph or have at least as many questions as i have for Tobias:
Hi Tobias! Your project 88.7 is set in the early 2040, just before the European Union and its nation-states are dissolved and become a uniform 'European Equestrian Union". Could you briefly sum up how the Equestrian Council comes into existence?
The original Equestrian Councils were a short-lived institution of the Roman republic - a council of business leaders with the right to influence and even veto government policy if it was felt it might damage merchant interests. In the not-too-distant future, Europe faces a continued dialectic struggle between the nature of high-finance and national economies so in 2025 Italy re-establishes its own Equestrian Council. Italy and notably Austria have uniquely insular economies, they're pretty self-sustainable but also economically jealous so I see them as a potential flashpoint for future economic progression.
The idea of the Equestrian Council begins the end of nation-states as global actors. I was inspired by something I read around 2008 about how states are the worst bodies to be put in charge of economies because they only know how to spend money, not make it and so there's no way to sustain growth if something that is expert in gathering rolling debt is in charge of regulating the flow of money. Not that I fully buy into that.
What i'd need more explanation about is how the right to trade has changed? You told me that right now, one has to be registered in a particular nation and only trade within that nation, right? So how has the scenario changed at the time of 88.7? Why is it allowed to trade 'transnationally'? And to do so in the Arctic?
I don't see it as a big change. It would be something infinitesimal, slipped under the mat at late-night sessions of senates and parliaments in a process that takes place over years. There are very few huge events that are themselves 'turning points' in history, more often they come after the fact. For example, the fall of the Berlin Wall was endemic of the crumbling power structure in the USSR, not the other way round. This legal shift was again inspired by real life events such as the relatively silent repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 that led to an explosion of complex high-risk instruments and the 2008 crisis.
So I see it as a loophole, it would be something that maybe no-one would explicitly legalise or even consider. There was a great defence from Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs when the whole Vodafone tax-avoidance thing surfaced. HMRC pointed out that Vodafone had hundreds of world-class high paid tax-law experts on their team while HMRC was headed by a couple of guys with classics degrees from Oxford. So, it's a thin screen. In legal terms, between now and then, and no-one will notice when it's broken through until long after it has happened.
How has the boat been retrofitted? With special technology for trading or just with space, comfort and entertainment for traders?
Actually, that's one of the most thorough things and one of the least noticeable. I rigorously re-designed the ship based on real plans of the original Arktika fleet. Of course, it has a trading floor and server space, which is very high-tech since the entire operation is about brevity and intensity of trade, but the traders don't live in comfort. To me, this is an industrial operation.
In social terms I can see traders and bankers as our new livestock (and populist scapegoats.) But again, the 'greed' and brutality of high finance is not symptomatic of itself. It's like that because in the seventies and eighties, we - or our parents - wanted credit, growth, houses, holidays and cars we couldn't afford without paying the labour cost. So, the traders are a resource for this growth, just like an oil well or a herd of cattle and the ship treats them like that, they have little space, are intensely 'milked' for their risk-taking abilities and then are shipped off - back to pasture in the real world until they're called in again. They might not sleep for weeks and they willingly subject their bodies and minds to colossal amounts of strain because they get a hit from the trade in neuro-biological terms and the boat makes money.
Now North Korea remains under the same regime, right? Except this time it is with the benediction of the UNESCO that calls it a World Intangible Heritage. Why would the traders on the Arktika be such fans of the Arirang Mass Games, the yearly festival of giga-choreography dedicated to the regime?
It's an ideological clash. I suppose this is quite a personal part - I'm fascinated by 'alternate' regimes, especially socialist autocracies but I am especially deeply obsessed by North Korea. In 'western' or developed social economies we suffer from a resource shortage in attention. There are so many disparate demands on our attention - attention that represents both purchasing and labour power that we're nearly at a ceiling beyond which there is no more economic acting an individual can physically perform in their lives. Of course, making processes faster such as transactions and digitising product is helping but ultimately there are just too many things to do and look at. North Korea is the total opposite, in a way it's much like the Roman Empire in social economic terms, in that it is everything. A resident of North Korea only has one body to answer to, work for and gain from and that is the state.
So, in a world where states are beginning to or have already dissolved, where individual competitiveness is encouraged and we answer to less and less socially higher powers I imagine the idea of seeing two million perfectly choreographed performers in devotion (staged or genuine) to a common cause to be hypnotising - much like a flotilla of boats on the Thames, military parades, even ballets.
The traders on the Arktika are the peak of the hyper-libertarian Equestrian ideology while North Korea represents its opposite - the national project, the common homogeny, social harmony, etc. Even if it is forced at gunpoint. In the scenario investment from Japanese and South Korean media companies build the stadium and broadcast the games, much as is already happening in their exclusive economic zones and the Egyptian hotel construction work.
In which currency are they trading?
They're on the cusp of the changeover of currency. Currency is just a measure of trust or creditability, so it could be anything. The dissolution of states begins the collapse of the idea of sovereign currency - trust in nations - and it turns to the alternative global construct that guarantees growth overall which could be futures. So they use futures contracts which are derivatives of potential 'things that might happen' as a currency - if you want to call it that.
Your text mentions the intensity of risk undertaken by traders on board. Which risks are they taking that today's traders are not taking?
The same risks are faster, greater in value and more intense. Just like growing industrialisation - same product but more, faster, better. Technology can ramp up trade to the speed of light but it can't take risks. Trade needs the human factor - the intuition and guile that involves making trades. Computers can calculate perfectly but that, in fact, makes machines poor traders. The traders on the Arktika deal with a greater torrent of activity enabled by activity, they take more risks, with greater consequences more regularly. This the only way to guarantee growth, the one thing every human economy is obsessed with.
Finally, i'm very curious about the way you chose to present the work, using texts that detail the life and feelings of various characters involved at various levels in this transnational trading. Why did you chose to present the project through their voices? Did you write the texts yourself?
I wrote everything myself, I'm very comfortable with writing and all the stories as well as more intensive expositions on the economic theories were all written in parallel with the research and development of the project over the last year or more.
It's very hard to present huge, complex systems. In the mind or in the pub over a few drinks they can be beautiful and elegant as well as easy to explain, but communicating that without just standing and talking is very hard. I was talking with Ilona Gaynor, a graduate from last year who had a similar problem with presenting and a similar admiration of systems and we agreed that anyone who understood the financial crisis of 2008 would never criticise it because it was so elegant. But how can anyone present that understanding quickly and simply without talking it through step-by-step? Presenting such an intuitive understanding of the levels and dimensions of these events, their precursors and their systems is very hard.
I think by starting at the individual level, you can begin to draw strands from how one person sees and acts in this system and begin to thread it through the other artefacts, perhaps encouraging understanding of their place in them. When we talk about things like economics and finance we tend to nod to systems and constructs and then scapegoat individuals or point the finger. But the system and the individuals are not mutually exclusive.
Aesthetically, the stories lend the project a literary edge which makes it feel more real to me. When a character is talking about the way steam curls off above the ice from vents on the ship it's more real to me than any rendering and I think a much more powerful way of engaging with these huge ideas than often charts and diagrams can be.
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.
You know how survivors of a car crash sometimes say that they experienced the few seconds before and during the collision as a stretched period of time and how cinema often depicts road accidents in slow motion? You might experience a similar feeling in Newcastle right now. The main difference is that the car crash is taking place over the course of a whole month.
A white VW Golf is currently hitting the wall of a shop painted entirely in white at the pace of seven millimetres per hour. So slowly you don't really notice that anything is taking place. You can enter and see the collision from up close during the opening times of the shop/gallery or watch the crash 24/7 from the street.
The car was emptied of any fuel that might spark an explosion and installed on hydraulic tracks that push and crush its front end against the wall.
The piece is a perfect match for the ongoing AV Festival which theme this year is As Slow As Possible. I'll blog a full report of the festival as soon as i've received more images from the press office. The ones i took are unfortunately as lame as usual. Besides i've deleted half of them by mistake. Hurray!
Time lapse footage of the first week of the collision:
Slow Motion Car Crash was commissioned by Locus+, a Newcastle-based art production agency for the AV Festival that takes place in Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Gateshead and Sunderland throughout the month.
Tim Miller has devised 101 ways to use a trailer. Yes, a trailer, that mundane, strictly utilitarian object no one would ever waste a glance on. The designer, however, sees the trailer as a blank canvas that has the potential to become a tool for the realization of collective as well as individual dreams. You can use trailers for anything, you can reinterpret them, you can use them to manipulate the world around you or better said you can 'pervert' trailers according to your desires and needs.
Miller has already put some of its 101 ways to use a trailer to the test:
- Trailers are routinely used as a rapid deployment devices that generate a zone of exclusion or control. The police turn trailers into mobile surveillance tools by mounting them with CCTV cameras. The military uses them as walls. Inspired by these practices, Tim Miller designed a trailer that emits a pink light that would deter teenagers from any area where the object is left. The choice of colour is not arbitrary. Pink lights have already been used in a Nottinghamshire housing estate because the colour is seen as 'uncool', emphasizes acne and as such rely on any personal insecurities young people might have.
- A film screened at RCA's work in progress exhibition showed another function for the trailer: the vehicle was used to simulate and film car driving in a similar way to the studios of Hollywood.
Pervert Trailer was exhibited at the Work in Progress show a few weeks ago at the Royal College of Art in London. Only 99 more ways to use a trailer to go!
Pervert Trailers was developed at Platform 13, in the Design Product department. The platform, which is by far my favourite in the whole department, is headed by Onkar Kular and Sebastien Noel. Together they look at how design can contribute to alternative models of living and production by engaging with, commenting on, and addressing issues currently beyond the usual scope of design - political, social, technological or ecological.