The Hayward Gallery in London has recently opened a fairly eccentric exhibition filled with the works of outlandish inventors, maverick engineers, self-taught architects, and other people whose imagination won't stop at the laws of physics nor at the rules set by society.
Contributors to the exhibition explore fictional identities and design imaginary cities; they build healing machines and record the unseen energy flows of our bodies. They speculate on mysteries of time and space; create devices for time travel and communication with other dimensions; and fashion new letter forms designed to liberate the alphabet from the strictures of Western civilization.
The Alternative Guide to the Universe is never dull nor predictable. And it is as much about artworks, models and speculation as it is about the stories and personalities of the individuals behind them..
Take Jean Perdrizet for example. He was a civil engineer who lost his job because of mental health troubles. Around 1955 he became an "inventor", stretching the limits of physics, drawing and prototyping machines to communicate with ghosts or aliens. He also invented a language, the "sidereal esperanto" that enabled all humans to understand each other but also to communication with extra-terrestrials. His machines are lost, only the intricate drawing, plans and mathematical formulas remain.
Lee Godie is the one who fascinated me the most. Godie was living on the streets of Chicago in the late 1960s. She called herself a French Impressionist and was selling her drawings and paintings on the steps of the Art Institute. So far, so almost normal. What makes Godie a star of the Hayward show are the theatrical self-portraits she was taking inside a photo-booth at the bus station. She'd bring along accessories, bits of fabric and other props to build different personae. She would then add bright colour to her lips or paint her eye brows in a Scouse fashion. Godie was thus doing theatrical self-portraits long before Cindy Sherman did. And long before celebs started invading twitter with 'selfies.'
The romantic in me is charmed by a self-taught photographer who sees his wife as his muse and takes thousands of photos of her dressed as a pin-up, wearing little more than cascades of pearls or donning christmas tree decorations on her head. Preferably against a rococo backdrop. From the early 1940s to the mid-1950s, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein documented the Marie's beauty but even when she is naked, the portraits have more tenderness than kinkiness.
Bodys Isek Kingelez uses cardboard, candy wrappers and other materials found in the streets of Kinshasa to make what he calls Extrêmes maquettes (Extreme Models) of extravagant buildings and utopian cities. They look neither purely African, nor European, even when they bear the name of a European city. I wouldn't say that they are futuristic either. In truth, these buildings can't be assigned to any architectural movement. They are in a league of their own.
Richard Greaves sculpts houses as much as he builds them. Like many of the artists in the exhibition, Greaves is self-taught. He never learnt to be an architect. Yet, his constructions successfully defy the laws of gravity. The cabins and shelters he erects in the middle of the forest in Canada are made from abandoned barns which he takes apart and rebuilds at his whim.
Rammellzee's graffiti and art work are based on his theory of Gothic Futurism. He imagined a world in which letters of the alphabet would arm and liberate themselves from the slavery and corruption of language. Made from found objects and customised skateboards, his Letter Racers are flying armoured vehicles poised for linguistic and galactic warfare. His style is stunning. Why had i never heard of him before?
I guess everybody knows about Wu Yulu's amazing, rural robots. Using rubbish that he finds near his farm, Wu Yulu creates robots that do the cleaning, wash dishes, light cigarettes, or take him to market. The Hayward is showing the small robot that climbs a wall and a child robot that chases people (as Ralph Rugoff, Director of the Gallery and Curator of the show, pertinently noted, it's not a coincidence if a man from the country of the one child policy decided to build himself a little boy.)
I'm going to stop here because unfinished, unpolished, unpublished posts are piling up and i need to move on but in an ideal life, i'll find the time to write about Karl Hans Janke, the man who discovered the 'radiation-free German Atom'; Philip Blackmarr and his theory of "quantum geometry"; or Emery Blagdon who built a 'Healing Machine' from wire, copper, aluminium foil, Christmas tree lights, ribbons, beads, leaves, butterfly wings, magnets and 'earth elements'. I cannot vouch for the scientific soundness of their theories but i'm glad an art gallery has given them a chance to expose them to the public.
If you can't make it to London, i guess that the next best thing is to get your hands on the catalogue The Alternative Guide to the Universe: Mavericks, Outsiders, Visionaries. It's on amazon .co.uk and .com.
A Practical Guide to Squatting is a very adequate title for a book that will teach you the skills of lock picking, show you how to craft a solar oven using a pizza box, grow a community garden, build a swimming pool in an open foundation or avoid arrest after breaking into a building. An adequate and provocative title thus. The handbook, however, will also give readers an opportunity to reflect on a practice that is too often attributed to gangs of drug addicts and anarchists 'stealing people's homes.'
Larraine Henning, the author of the handbook, reminds us that, in many cases, a squat is an emergency shelter, an habitat in a derelict building that has to be fixed, lacks electricity, insulation and proper drainage system. Just for the sake of my own enlightenment i had a look at the housing crisis in the country where i'm currently living and it appears that homelessness rates are rising. Meanwhile the Empty Homes Agency estimates that the number of empty properties in Wales and England amounts to over 930,000.
Yet, it is now an offence to squat in a residential building in England and Wales and no other sustainable alternative(s) has been offered in exchange. The situation isn't much rosier in the rest of Europe as the fate of an icon such as Tacheles, Berlin's art squat demonstrated.
My intention is not to become an apostle of squatting but just to put the practice into a broader perspective. In addition, squatting can go beyond the simple need to put a roof over one's head when it extends to experiments in socialism, architecture, and community. Think of the Open City in Chile, Paolo Scoleri's Arcosanti in the Arizona desert, Christiania in Copenhagen or the Grow Heathow community outside of London.
With A Practical Guide to Squatting, the author -who trained as an architect- also reminds readers that architecture is not only practiced by an arguably elitist sect of educated professionals, but also by the disenfranchised, the layman, the individual and the collective.
I've asked Larraine Henning, a 'former architect turned fruit picker / illustrator / squatter / cattle musterer', if she could talk to us about the book and her own squatting experiences:
Hi Larraine! How long did it take you to gather this very detailed information?
I worked on my Master thesis for nearly a year. The first half of my thesis was a research component where I investigated informal architecture, alternative communities, temporary building and squatting.
The the final product of my thesis was the handbook "A Practical Guide to Squatting"
And how much of it stems from personal experience?
Prior to attending UBC in Vancouver I lived and worked as an architect in Rotterdam. For a short time I lived with my boyfriend in an anti-squat, which is a legal and registered version of squatting in the Netherlands.
We shared half a floor of a large office building in the center of the city built in the 70's. The toilets were the former public washrooms for the building, we had the men's washroom and the other lady we shared the floor with had the ladies'. We had no hot water on our floor and had to do all our dishes in cold water. There was one shower for the whole building (6 floors), which was rigged up to the only hot water source, that we all shared. No one paid typical rent, but paid the building owner only for basic utilities. Eventually everyone was evicted as the building was slated for demolition.
Since living in Australia this last year, I have occasionally lived in tent communities with fellow agricultural workers. This was not full on squatting, but it was on land that started out as a tenting squat until the woman who owned it organised a more set up campground.
As a young person I would often break-into abandoned buildings simply for the thrill of exploration. I loved to stumble around the wreckage of forgotten urban relics. I would do this in the city and in the countryside, and once slept the night in an abandoned cabin below a caved in roof in the middle of winter in the Prairies of Canada.
I was also wondering how you deal with the legislation? I don't know about the (anti-)squatting laws in Australia where you now live or in Canada, the country you're from but i know that anti-squatting legislation is getting increasingly strict in some parts of Europe. For example, the UK law now criminalizes squatting in residential premises, even if hundreds of thousands of properties are now sitting empty across the country.
Squatting is not really legal anywhere, however some countries choose to accept it more than others.The constitution of Sweden upholds something called allemansrätten, translated as "freedom to roam" or "everyman's right". Its decree claims that every person shall have access to private or public land for the purpose of recreation. The UK and Holland have a loaded history of squatting and typically condoned such living. Over the year their progressive attitude has dampened and it is becoming less and less acceptable. The laws in most countries however have loop-holes. Squatting really isn't a matter for the police, but rather it is usually the job of the actual property owner to press charges against trespassers. Not until that happens do the police actually have the authority to take legal measures on squatters. Not only that but every country seems to have a different rule regarding abandoned property. In Canada a property needs to stand vacant for 50 years before it can be acquired by someone else and legally taken over. In Australia it is only 7 years, and provided you have not trashed the place but begun steps to set up camp after those 7 years you can apply to the crown to have the title put in your name, for free.
Can you conduct a family and professional life while being a squatter? Is it compatible with, say, getting electricity and running water installed?
Absolutely. Many squatters are working professionals and participate in everyday life just like anyone else. The place I lived at in Rotterdam was full of students, professional architects and the like.
You trained as an architect. Do you believe that architects should dedicate a greater amount of their knowledge and skills to squatting and other so-called 'alternative homes"?
I think that people who worked in restaurants tend to be better tippers, just like people who lived without luxury tent to appreciate those small luxuries more.
All images courtesy Larraine Henning.
Related story: Goodbye to London - Radical Art and Politics in the Seventies.
While looking through the programme of the ongoing Sight and Sound Festival, i found out about The Pirate Cinema, an installation that makes use of a data interception software of the same name to reveal in real time the hidden activity and the geography of peer-to-peer file sharing but also the aesthetic dimension of P2P architectures.
The video installation relies on an automated system that downloads continually the most popular torrents. The intercepted data is immediately projected onto a screen before being discarded.
The flows appearing on the screens constitute a sort of 'surveillance' of the peers as fragments of the files that they are exchanging can be visualized during the transmission or the reception. The remote users are, unknowingly, composing an endless collage determined by what they chose to download.
Nicolas Maigret, THE PIRATE CINEMA, 2013
Hi Nicolas! The description of the work says "In the context of omnipresent telecommunications surveillance, "The Pirate Cinema" makes visible the invisible activity and geography of the peer to peer sharing network." Could you explain with more details?
The geographical aspect of the project is key in activating the imagination, but also in developing a critical view of consumption areas by file. A text indicating both the geographical origin of the peer who issued this fragment, and the geographical destination of the peer who received it is overlaid on each video excerpt.
When the system focuses on a single file, we obtain a kind of portrait of the file through its geographic distribution. We could almost speak of following the geographical spreading of "cultural" products. Or in the case of a TV series like "Homeland", we could speak of following the diffusion of ideological propaganda.
For an exhibition like this one, which is based on the most traded torrents, the vision is voluntarily an ultra-reducing one, it is a form of "greatest common denominator" of media on a world scale. We can, in some ways, navigate through what is consumed at a particular moment.
Are images appearing randomly? How does the system work?
This version monitors exchanges of The Pirate Bay's top 100. Each computer selects a few torrents from this list and monitors them for a minute, before switching to new file.
To present the project clearly, I often talk about the context, the imaginary and the functioning of the P2P architecture.
In the '80s, VHS brought cinema into the living room. Today, P2P and Internet bring it into personal computers and mobile phones. Through these modes of distribution, a wide-ranging reflection opens up about the media, the medium and what it specifically vehicles.
The P2P sharing protocol is based on the fragmentation of the files in small samples, it is an exchange unit. This fragmentation loosens the exchanges to different recipients. A file can then be recomposed sample by sample until it is complete, from snippets emanating from separate users and in a disorderly manner.
From a cinematic perspective this preliminary fragmentation of the media is also a fragmentation of the film material and of the narration. These "broadcasting mechanics" come with specific formal opportunities: mashup cinema, random editing, weaving together different films frame by frame, glitches and merging of different fragments.
This installation suggests a way to perceive the digital filmic medium as a stream, or rather as streams distributed on a global scale. In other words, The Pirate Cinema intends to re-explore films through the logic of cables, which is unique to each connection and location.
Since you're French, i can't help asking you about the French legislation, they have the reputation of being pretty intolerant towards P2P culture...
In France since 2004, the year of the first conviction for illegal download, P2P has been systematically associated with piracy. Many legal devices were then invented (such as Hadopi and Loppsi), that led to a massive criminalization of internet users, a legitimation of the monitoring processes carried out by some states (DPI), and the setting up by providers of systems to filter and block access to Internet.
I've just opened a twitter account to aggregate the news related to this issue.
Is this something that you and Brendan Howell (who is from the U.S. if i'm correct) kept in mind while working on the project?
We saw it as a kind of game. Ever since the beginning of the project, we anticipated the operating modes of the system so that we could be presentable regardless of the different ongoing pieces of legislation. For example, an encrypted connection to Sweden (Ipredator / the Pirate Bay) is used to anonymize each machine used in the project. Fragments of the files are encoded and remain on our machine only temporarily.
Didn't you fear that you might get into trouble?
We thought about it, we were particularly concerned about the exhibition spaces, but the legal aspects are very schizophrenic. It is obvious that the peer-to-peer structures have positive cultural impacts and also often positive social ones. The same questions were asked with the arrival of photocopiers, audio cassettes, VHS, etc.. The main stumbling blocks remain the obsolete structures of film and music production.
Several studies have demonstrated that the biggest downloaders are also among those who spend the most on culture (cinema, concerts, dvd, etc.), the company that produces the torrent download software Vuze is also boasting similar survey conclusions.
Teachers will find on torrents content for their classes that their local libraries can't provide. Recently, a list of the files downloaded by employees FBI leaked online.
With the hyper connected generation, a change is taking place and this change is obviously not just a technological one. In this regard, Michel Bauwens and the P2P Foundation study and communicate the alternatives in this field. They also explore transformative potential of P2P on the social, political, economic, cultural, educational levels. This is a pretty serious ideological trend that could take a growing part in the current debates.
The relationship to property and copyright has long been null and void. The past 15 years however (from Napster to EMule, Limewire or Mega) have blown up this contradiction in the digital domain. The right to exchange, share, re-appropriate or pool have become a space for a real prospective research. Russian artist Dimitry Kleiner has recently worked on a license, the Copyfarleft, that attempts to circumvent some limitations of the creative commons licenses and other copyleft approaches.
Is the work also a comment on the way p2p exchanges are vilified by the cinema industry?
Yes, the legal aspect is obviously closely linked to the film industry and to blockbusters. The Pirate Bays' top 100 reflects the issue quite accurately.
These past few years, download has even influenced the film industry and the production choices of big studios. In addition to blockbusters in 3D, they now design films made specifically to be seen inside cinema theaters and during films events. And these lose some of their appeal when they are viewed on Laptop / Home theater.
The Pirate Cinema goes beyond copyright, though. It is at the crossroads of many territories (social, legal, political, aesthetic), it leaves room for many versions and sequels to come.
Did anything surprise you about the images displayed on the screen? For example, do the same faces of famous actors in blockbuster movies keep appearing on the screen?
When you look at the installation over a long period of time, you start to notice many things about many things about the mass media distributed on P2P:
- For example, one can clearly identify the formal leveling between all the TV series (framing, casting, expressions, etc.)
- The aesthetic similarity between porn and video clips (explicit content) is also quite striking.
- At times, you can also see multiple versions of the same films, screeners captured in cinema theatres using different material and framing.
Is Sight and Sound the first place where you're showing The Pirate Cinema?
I started toying with the idea in early 2012 without knowing whether or not it would be fully realizable. We developed a first proof of concept during the Summer of 2012 with Labomedia in Orléans by modifying an existing Torrent client software. Around the same period Julian Oliver introduced me to Brendan Howell and we started experimenting with the concept. Brendan has gradually developed a specific "python" program. It took us almost a year to finalize a functional and stable version. I presented the work in workshops and conferences in the meantime, but Sight and Sound is the first to exhibit the project as an installation. We are currently working on a second version of The Pirate Cinema which will take the form of a live performance.
You can see The Pirate CInema during the fifth edition of Sight & Sound, a festival produced by Eastern Bloc. Sight & Sound has kicked off a few days ago, it remains open until 29 May in Montreal, Canada.
The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, is aired today at 4pm (London time.)
Today we will be talking with Marcos García who, together with Laura Fernandez, is responsible for the cultural program of the Medialab Prado in Madrid.
If you're a curator or an artist involved in art and technology you've probably heard about Medialab Prado. Chances are, you've even been there for one of their workshops. Medialab Prado is conceived as a citizen laboratory for the production, research and dissemination of cultural projects that explore collaborative forms of experimentation and learning that have emerged from digital networks.
So far, the lab mostly organized seminars and workshops dealing with topics as different as garage science, magic and technology, obsolete technologies of the future, data visualization, the theory of the Commons, or digital facades. The way the workshops are organized is pretty unique to MLP: they publish a call, select the projects that will be developed and invite collaborators from all backgrounds to join the artists over a 2 week period to develop a working prototype. The sessions are intense but the results are usually pretty spectacular.
Last week, however, MLP inaugurated its new headquarters. Same address but this time the space is at least 10 to 15 times bigger which means that the workshops will still be central to the activities of the lab but they will also be accompanied by permanent research projects, exhibitions, artist residencies and so on.
Unfortunately for us, Marcos Garcia is not in the studio in London with us today. Fortunately for me, he invited me over at MLP for the launch of the new space and for a series of events dedicated to Free, Open Source Tools for Graphic designers.
In this episode of #A.I.L., we will be talking interactivity, Open Source in times of precarity, the inspiration behind the Medialab Prado model and the future plans for the lab.
I'm just back from a few days in Madrid where i visited the jaw-dropping vast new headquarters of Medialab Prado. More about that soon. I did however find some time to visit a couple of exhibitions in town. Including Anonymization at La Casa Encendida.
In this photo series, Robert Harding Pittman acutely documents the exportation of the Los Angeles-style model of urban development to other countries such as Spain, France, Germany, Greece, United Arab Emirates and South Korea.
Anonymization presents under an implacable light a landscape of anonymity made of shopping malls, vast parking lots, arrays of unfinished houses that look exactly the same, green golf courses in the middle of desert areas, etc.
The photos highlight that urban sprawl has no soul, character nor regard for the cultural, social, ecological or even meteorological context. The absence of any human figure in the photos render the alienation even more striking.
In all of places that I photographed, developers almost always feel that they need to build a golf course in their development in order to attract homebuyers, the photographer told Fototazo. Even though many residents do not play golf, it provides them with a feeling of luxury, leisure and well-being, just as does the palm tree. Not only is the green golf course crucial, but so is the green lawn around one's house, even if one lives in a desert. Obviously water problems are thus also universal in sprawl built in sunny, arid climates, where much of the building has occurred in the recent future.
The other common element to sprawl all over the world is the dependency on the car and the pollution, the lack of social interaction and the alienation that this creates. Also it results in that those who cannot drive, the youth and many elderly, become immobile.
The exhibition is accompanied by a series of facts and figures related to the issue of urban sprawl and mass construction. Bear with me, the texts exhibited were in spanish. Often translated from english. I couldn't always find the original so i did a reverse translation back to english:
- Dubai is the fastest growing city in the world. Some 20% of the cranes in the world are working there.
- Dubai 2009: " At the airport, hundreds of cars have apparently been abandoned in recent weeks. Keys are left in the ignition and maxed out credit cards and apology letters in the glove box."
United Kingdom, 2006:
Fototazo has an interview with the photographer.
Anonymization is at La Casa Encendida in Madrid through May 26, 2013.
Available on Amazon USA. Sorry, I couldn't find it on amazon UK.
Book Description: The "Unpleasant Design" book is a collection of different research approaches to a phenomenon experienced by all of us. Unpleasant design is a global fashion with many examples to be found across cities worldwide, manifested in the form of "silent agents" that take care of behaviour in public space, without the explicit presence of authorities. Photographs, essays and case studies of unpleasant urban spaces, urban furniture and communication strategies reveal this pervasive phenomenon. With contributions by Adam Rothstein, Francesco Morace and Heather Stewart Feldman, Vladan Jeremic, Dan Lockton, Yasmine Abbas, Gilles Paté, Adam Harvey and many others, the book is in an attempt to recognise this nascent discipline within contemporary design taxonomies.
Unpleasant Design landed on my doorsteps a few days ago. I opened the envelope, grabbed the book and uttered a loud "Who's the idiot who designed this?!?" because the sleeve around the cover was made of sandpaper. Sandpaper!
I then read the title of the book and had to admit that it was a very clever idea.
Each of us has met examples of unpleasant design as we go through the city. The bench that is uncomfortable to sit on for more than 10 minutes, the trash can specially designed so that you can't sit on it nor stuff big bag of garbage inside, the anti-sticker coating on lamp posts, etc. I guess most of us don't really pay attention but they do coerce us to use the city in a prescribed, restricted way. And then there's unpleasant design for the unhappy few: benches with armrests in the middle so that the homeless can't lay down and sleep on it, blue lights in bathrooms and tunnels preventing drug users to spot their veins, an aluminium bar with spikes on it found in corners of buildings and alleys that is angled so that pee would end on your feet (a popular design in The Netherlands apparently), structures to remind pigeons that they are not welcome in town, or CCTV cameras that target specific race and age groups. And of course, there's that notorious mosquito device.
Unpleasant Design dresses the portraits of bullying urban furniture, looks at the specific strategies behind its design, comments on the use and control of public and semi-public spaces. After having had the book in your sandpapered hands, you won't look at your city with the same eyes, i'm sure.
The book documents and casts a critical eye on design motivated by policies of exclusion but, and that's what makes the book such an inspiring lecture, it also looks at how individuals, artists, activists are responding to urban unpleasantness.
Authors Gordan Savicic and Selena Savic have spent over a year researching forms of social unpleasantness, taking photos wherever they went, writing down ideas and talking with people who are also denouncing and resisting unpleasant design. The resulting essays and interviews are enclosed in the book. Among my favourite are: Survival Group's photos and comments about Anti-Sites (the spaces designed to prevent homeless people or simply weary passersby to sit down and have a rest), Vladan Jeremic's look at the hidden politics of garbage removal in Belgrade, an interview with the insightful and witty urban hacktivist Florian Rivière, a discussion with 'neo-nomad' Yasmine Abbas, another one with Dan Lockton of Design with Intent, the interview with Gilles Paté, the 'fakir' of urban spaces, etc. Add to that, plenty of case studies, examples of artistic devices and ideas that create and fight unpleasant design but also the outcome of a competition about unpleasant design.
Two of the winning projects of the Unpleasant Design competition:
A maze lock for public toilets, bars and restaurants to avoid drunkards entering the toilet and passing out or damaging the property.
SI8DO is a social-integration urban furniture designed to improve the working conditions of immigrants who work at the traffic lights selling tissues.