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Photo credit Reinout Hiel for Vooruit

Setting up an exhibition about today's ecological and economical crisis is a delicate exercise: it seems that everybody has done one such exhibition before you and invited the same artists as you. This year's edition of The Game Is Up! , a festival organized by one of my favourite art centers, the Vooruit in Ghent, Belgium, was brazenly titled How To Save the World in 10 Days.

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The press material warns you right from the start that the festival is not going to provide fail-proof recipes to get us out of this mess. From small interventions to grand utopian visions, from ecological labs to socio-political dystopias. It's a given that this festival won't save the world. But as Marge Simpson once said to her husband Homer : "I do not hate you for failing, I love you for trying."

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As written above, The Game is Up! chose challenging themes, it set out to embark on much trodden tracks and was conscious of it at every step. Yet, the festival's clever mix of low tech, no-tech and high-tech installations, performances, graffiti, workshops and debates managed to amaze and inspire me, even if i only managed to spend two hours there to see the exhibition. There was something likely to appeal to anyone: children, the usual art and tech crowd, the crowd that likes art but doesn't get tech so much, the cynical and the hopeful, passersby who actually never step inside Vooruit, etc. The design of the exhibition was lovely (the fact that Vooruit building is spectacular helps), it was distributed over several floors and featured wooden panels indicating the titles of the works, seats to peruse documentation and watch videos but most of all, there was a fantastic selection of projects:

First there were the cars. A pair of wooden SUVs, the monstrous polluters still popular around Europe, that had crashed into each other right inside the Vooruit cafe. Since 1998 (thus way before ideas of sustainability and recycling became buzz-worthy), Martin Kaltwasser and Folke Köberling have been throwing works made of recycled materials at the face of consumer culture.

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Called Crushed Cayenne, the sculpture mocks the omnipresent car. And so does the other work Kaltwasser & Köberling were showing in the festival exhibition: Autos zu Fahrrädern, two bicycles made out of the material recuperated from one car in one of Graz' squares. The artists brought the vehicles to Ghent by train and rode around the city with the quirky-looking bikes.

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Kaltwasser & Köbberling, Autos zu Fahrrädern

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The street performances of the German duo didn't stop there. They even distributed car condoms in the street. The condom were to be placed on the exhaust pipe of your car to catch exhaust fumes. Video!

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Screenshot from video of Shared Propulsion Car

There ware more cars and bikes stories in the exhibition rooms upstairs where videos documented several of Michel de Broin's projects. Shared Propulsion Car is an '86 Buick Regal stripped of its engine, suspension, transmission and electrical system and outfitted with 4 independent pedal and gear mechanisms for passengers to act as self-propulsion motor. The vehicle retains the illusion of the mass-produced luxury automobile, but is reduced to a shell that now has a top speed of 15km per hour.


The video documents the car in motion, including a surreal encounter with police officers in Toronto

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Michel De Broin, Keep On Smoking

Another video showed De Broin pedaling around a park in Kreuzberg, Berlin, on a bicycle that transforms kinetic energy produced by the cyclist into smoke. As the artist explained, It's the reverse of how ecology is used normally, the smoke produced is not polluting. It's the sign without the effect. Video.

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Image Michel De Broin. Courtesy Vooruit

De Broin created a new work for The Game is Up! Shelter is a post-catastrophe shelter crafted with 36 old Vooruit tables. The legs of the tables point outwards to guard the impenetrable interior of the sculpture against the continuous threat of the outside world. Video of the making, plus interview of the artist.

Because saving the world is best done out there in the streets than between the walls of an art center, the festival had also invited Moose to do some "reverse graffiti" on the backside of the Vooruit building (with the help of Mathias Timmermans and Reinout Hiel.) The patterns drawn into the pollution are both incredibly poetical and alarming as they show the extent of the dirtiness of our streets. Video interview of Moose.

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Photo credit Reinout Hiel for Vooruit

Perhaps the most meaningful project for me was the hands-on Seedballing workshop that FoAM Brussels & Foamlab Amsterdam had organized for children and families during the festival. Seedballing is a practice that aims to return native and often vanished flora species to cities and suburbia. The most eco-friendly version of seedball, developed by Masanobu Fukuoka, consists in mud-and-clay balls that contain a mixture of organic compost and different seed species meant to complement each other.

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After the workshop, seedballs containing seeds of plants that used to grow around Ghent, but have died out were scattered on appropriate sites during a guerrilla gardening walk. When the rains come, the mud and clay break apart, exposing the seeds to elements that lead to their growth. In each location whichever seeds are best suited thrive in their protected mud starter-home.

The seedballed sites were then mapped and added to google maps of urban edibles.

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Photo credit Reinout Hiel for Vooruit

Natalie Jeremijenko installed her Environmental Health Clinic in the middle of a noisy and very polluted roundabout in Ghent. Anyone could take an appointment and tell her about their environmental anxieties during the consultation. She'd listen and instead of handing out a prescription, she will advise concrete actions to improve the environmental factors in patients' own neighbourhood. Check out Vooruit's video:

And if you speak dutch, you might want to watch the video of two patients explaining their environmental concern and the suggestion that Natalie gave them over' the consultation.

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Photo credit Reinout Hiel for Vooruit

Annemie Maes, from the So-on collective, covered a wall with pictures, texts, magazines (which you can download as PDF), videos, and interviews that documented her field research at Barefoot College. In this Indian community, illiterate grown-up women are technically trained so they can take their fate in their own hands and provide their village with sustainable energy. The collective believes that their knowledge and experience could inspire the rest of the world to find solutions for climate and environmental issues.

After their visit at Vooruit, members of the public and artists alike could take a taxifiets (taxibike) to be driven home safely.

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Photo on the right, credit Reinout Hiel for Vooruit

Ah! also worth noting, Antoine Schmitt had installed an LED version of Time Slip in the cafe. The news ticker manipulates incoming news by transferring it to the future. Thus, "A plane crash in Madrid killed 153 people" becomes the even more direful "A plane crash in Madrid will kill 153 people". Schmitt confronts the viewer with the control - or lack thereof - over his own fate in a universe where time and cause have become unstable concepts.

All my images:

Credit photo on the homepage: Reinout Hiel for Vooruit

Previously at The Game is Up!: Billboard Liberation Front's talk at Vooruit, Ghent.

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10 days ago, i was in Ghent for the festival The Game is Up! at the Vooruit. Artists who study the relationship between art and consumerism were invited to perform, and present their work to explore this year's theme: Art for Sale.

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Vending machines, installed all around Vooruit magnificent 1913 building, were packed with surprise objects made by the artists who participated to the exhibition: t-shirts, 5 euro banknotes inside blank envelopes, badges, crazy eyeglasses to see what is happening behind your back, etc.

Eva De Groote had invited me to moderate a couple of Fricties Salons. That's how i finally got to have dinner with one of my heroes, Heath Bunting, saw a performance of Reverend Billy from the Church of Stop Shopping, had drinks and a lot of laughs with the smart and hilarious Christophe Bruno and the guy who resuscitated net.art Carlos Katastrofky. Definitely one of the most exciting events of this year for me (so far). Bliss-a-lujah!

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Photo indymedia

On Saturday March 8, i was walking on a cloud telling myself what a lucky person i was to present a FrictiesSalon with the masked and magnificent guys of the Billboard Liberation Front.

Not that it has been a piece of cake. How do you introduce people who should not be introduced? Who have to keep their identity secret in order to be able to keep on doing their own activities? All i could find in the press were stories about the CIA or Mafia like secrecy that surrounds them and implies that "Spouses and friends do not know that the members are in the organization."

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"Improving outdoor advertising since 1977" is the catchphrase of the Billboard Liberation Front. The idea is simple: by making small adjustments to billboards, the BLF creates ironic and often highly critical street marketing campaigns. By changing just a few or sometimes only one letters, they turn upside down the clean and seemingly well-controlled facade of an entire company.

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Photo by Gina Gayle for the SF gate

BLF has several sets of presentations. They could have gone for the "terrorist" version but given the theme of the festival, they chose the "corporate" one.

First, we were given a tour of the Fundamentals of the organization, its clients and the opportunities.

They started their actions 30 years ago. At the time, there was no internet, no mobile phone, no blogs, etc. It was also a time when advertisement communication just went one way. Consumers received it and didn't have anyway to hit back through blogs or forums. There has been dozens of members over the years, some have gone, others have arrived more recently.

Client portfolio

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In 77 a "bunch of freaks" in San Francisco called the San Francisco Suicide Club had vowed to live each day like it was the last one. 27 of them (including ten members wearing gorilla suits) were blindfolded and taken up to a roof. They were faced with two Max Factor billboard and some paint. Unfortunately they were a bit drunk, a bit conspicuous because of the gorilla suits and they started arguing about what should be done with the billboard. Some neighbour called the police and SF Suicide Club learned the message the hard way: be prepared, don't get drunk, don't wear stupid suits.

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1980. Marlbore instead of Marlboro. It was the first time that the prank was interpreted as a real message from the tobacco company while in fact BLF wanted to comment on the lack of originality of the billboard.

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1989. Kant, probably done by a student intern. "Actually it was probably a European intern as no one in the U.S. has ever heard of Kant."

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1994. an ad for the the Hillsdale Mall. Very straighforward operation, all they had to do was turn a couple of lights off and just keep the central letters: LSD.

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Only a few months after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, one of the most devastating man-made environmental disasters ever to occur at sea which occured in Alaska in 1989, the BLF turned HITS HAPPEN -- NEW X-100 into SHIT HAPPENS -- NEW EXXON

Then they became more ambitious:

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1997. Alteration of a Levi's billboard overlooking a major highway. BLF issued a press release in which they introduced Charles Manson, a figure who didn't need any introduction, as the new corporate spokesman of the jeans' company. This historic collaboration between two of most potent iconic forces of the 1960's taps into a frothy zeitgeist of manipulative nostalgia.

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1996. Am I dead yet? Technically more elaborate as they had to sub-contract an electrician and a neon guy.

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1989. The "Think Different" campaign of Apple became "Think desillusioned". The company had appropriated the image of famous dead guys or exiled ones like the Dalai Lama. Bulletins are the biggest and the most expensive.

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The clients this time were technology companies, with a sector focus on the "dot-coms". Large-format warning labels were added to the billboards, in the style of a standard computer error message, bearing the bold copy: "FATAL ERROR - Invalid Stock Value Abort/Retry/Fail".
Ironically the stock market crashed right after this action.

A billboard manipulation can take from a few hours to a few weeks for the most ambitious actions.

Much effort is deployed to make sure that the members of BLF never get arrested. Very few members of BLF climb onto the billboards themselves. Down there on ground level, other members keep an eye on the street, communicating with walkie talkies and checking if they are not getting too much attention from, say, the police. Ground crews posing as drunks, French TV crew, beautiful babes, couples about to engage in a heated argument to divert attention from the billboard in case anything turns wrong.

Even before the improvement action takes place there is a careful preparation. The area surrounding the billboard is mapped, looking for the best ways of quick escape, ideal positions for ground crews, etc.

BLF has to go more and more tech-savvy, just like the industry does. Today you get talking billboards, talks of billboards in space, billboards activated by motion sensors, etc.

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In 2005, they collaborated with artist Ron English for their first animatronic billboard alteration. The background is an original 12' x 22' painting by English. At the foreground the animatronic of Ronald McDonald feeding a fat kid his daily dose of Big Macs. The improvement took place in broad day light at a busy cross road in San Francisco while 15 persons where on the ground, dressed up like McDonald and acting crazy.

Some of the key rules of their billboard improvement actions:

- Make alterations that will make people smile not something that will make them angry,
- Less is more. The best improvements are those that require only to alter a single letter to change the whole meaning of the campaign.
- Expose what is hidden. Some advertisers are too shy about what they really mean, BLF will help them make their message clearer. Case in point: the 2005 improvement of Johnny Walker where "Drink responsibly" became "Drink yourself blind".

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- Send the press some media releases to better disseminate the action. A modified billboard might remain only one hour in the street before it is removed but its traces remain forever online.
- Document your action with some Before and After images.
- A careful planning is essential: Don't get caught, don't get hurt. The larger the billboard, the higher you'll fall.
- Minimize property damage and respect the sign men. BLF make modification which are easy to remove and always leave some beer or liquor for the men who have to come and clean their "improvements."
- You don't have to be in San Francisco to make and see billboard improvements. Make yours with the help of BLF's The Art & Science of Billboard Improvement guide (PDF).

And just like Rev. Billy did in a local shopping center, BLF made their own billboard improvement in the streets of Ghent.

More images of their actions.

New and improved!
Boingboing tv has recently video documented BLF's latest adventures in the world of "subvertising."

Workspace Unlimited's latest work IMPLANT is both a networked virtual world and a physical installation situated at the Vooruit, a performance venue in Ghent (Belgium). IMPLANT will be networked with two other virtual world installation EXTENSION at the Society for Art & Technology in Montreal and DEVMAP at V2_Institute in Rotterdam (more about these projects.)

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Users will be able to access a 3D version of the building and its surrounding on computers from inside Vooruit and simultaneously from the SAT and V2_.

Once logged into IMPLANT, visitors can navigate through two architectures: a simulation of the real Vooruit, a maze of theater spaces, cafes, meeting rooms, and offices which can be traversed in much the same way we move through physical space. And a hidden hyperlinked architecture that emerges as users interact with the simulation's walls and ceilings. This secondary architecture is an almost liquid space that can lead us to continuously shifting destinations within Vooruit according to the position of the visitor; virtual cameras allow us to secretly follow other visitors and project their journeys and activities onto walls; and we can walk through the projection and join them in the same space.

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Outside on the real street, passersby will peer into Vooruit's lobby and see a projected simulation of the same lobby seamlessly integrated within Vooruit's fa�?ade. Instead of theatergoers purchasing tickets, viewers will see the goings-on of avatars of actual people in Vooruit co-mingling and exploring the same simulated space with their counterparts from Montreal and Rotterdam. A web cam outside Vooruit captures the scene on the street, projecting the performances of everyday life back into the virtual world for those inside Vooruit, V2_ and SAT to witness.

The longer visitors explore IMPLANT, the more layers they encounter. Embedded throughout the virtual world, users might encounter video and sound documentation from Breaking the Game, an online symposium that brought together theorists and practitioners to reflect on computer gaming, immersive technologies, and new possibilities for artistic practice and experience.

Video intro.

IMPLANT opens on September 15, 8:00pm - midnight. Talking about cool stuff going on at the Vooruit, Lawrence Malstaf will be showing Compass and Paul Granjon's Sexed Robots will be waiting for you there at the end of this month as they are part of the Homo Futurist event, on September 27-30. Granjon will also give a performance on Sept. 28 The Heart and the Chip.

Valérie Lamontagne is working on Peau d'Ane, three dresses that will translate the qualities of the sky, moon and sun within various geographical locations at all times of the day.

Utilizing wireless and solar-powered energy sources, the patterns on the interactive costumes will morph according to information transmitted from a wireless weathervane to a computer chip implanted in the fabric. I have already written about the Sky dress that changes structure and emits sounds based on the wind and clouds in sky.

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Here's a few details, photos and sketches about the Sun dress. The garment will display lights in motion based on changes in the sun. A checkerboard of LEDs on the dress will be set in motion based on UV and sun intensity readings. The greater the intensity of the sun, the brighter the dress will glow. The more UV rays outside, the more the dress' LEDs will flash, like a warning/danger sign. The changing patterns of the fully addressable LEDs will also permit to graphically represent the rising and setting sun (the LEDs will gradually turn on / off in a horizontal fashion) as well as the changing direction of the sunrays.

Valerie Lamontagne will show her work at Say it now! focuses on speech and the presentation of speech. At the Vooruit, Ghent, Belgium, February 17 - 25.

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