I finally made it to the Venice Bienniale this week. I hadn't set foot there for years. My number one preoccupation, as soon as i had dropped my bag at the hotel, was to locate the Pavilion of the Indonesian Republic. It's at the Arsenale, I had seen a photo of it. Some kind of rusty dinosaur with angels flying around it.
It turns out there was no dinosaur but a cross between the Trojan Horse and a Komodo dragon, a large species of lizard found in Indonesia. Called "Trokomod", this 4 meter tall and 7.5 meter long amphibious vessel was created by Heri Dono to explore the place of his country in a globalized world. "Indonesia has for most of the time been a blank spot on the world map, he said, now is the time to speak up."
Visitors can enter the Trokomod, play with a submarine-like periscope and look through telescopes that reveal mysterious scenes of European culture: faces of people wearing eighteenth-century curly wigs, a prosthetic leg used in the First World War, a copy of Karl Marx's Capital, etc. They are presented as exotic pieces in an ethnographic museum. Which makes for an amusing reversal of the roles as it is usually Western museums that collect and interpret 'exotic' artefacts found in distant countries.
Dono's critical vision of the Western world doesn't end there. His installation also denounces Western hegemony of the global contemporary art, the way it dictates its rules, codes and important protagonists.
His creatures are made out of scrap metal collected in the junkyards of Bandung and Yogyakarta, they were crafted in collaboration with architects and local artisans from Indonesia.
As for the silver flying vessels, they are described in the curatorial text as follows: Angels derived from stories when he was a kid had nothing to do with religion, rather he was inspired by Flash Gordon comic strip, as he asserts that it arrived on the moon before Neil Armstrong, meaning that imagination is faster than reality. Angles became an early metaphor for freedom and dreams. "Angels are free to fly wherever they want". But his angels, made of wood with flapping wings, a low-tech device and gender genitalia that were first created at a time of hopeful freedom, were soon flying in a cocoon, followed by a series caught in a trap and even broken in the next series, and recently facing the future, all in parallel with the social and political situation of the country.
The pavilion of the Indonesian Republic turned out to be far more interesting than i had expected. It presents an art that is capable of being visually attractive to the broad public, an art that has some humour, understands its role in society, is critical of the status quo and attempts to challenge it.
I took lots of photos.
The Venice Art Biennale 2015 is open at the Giardini and Arsenale in Venice until 22 November 2015.
Project Nimbus is the outcome of several years of collaborative research by artist and inventor Dave Lynch together with physicist Mike Nix and maker Aaron Nielson. Using off-the-shelf technology, the team built an experimental device that projects bright moving images onto clouds. Onto pretty much anything cloudy actually: clouds of course but also vapour from cooling towers or urban vents. A difference with a work like HeHe's Nuage Vert and other projecting cloud projection pieces is that, with Project Nimbus, the technology is invisible to the audience. They don't see the beam as it is flying in a plane a mile high above the ground. The illusion is total and probably also a bit unsettling.
Project Nimbus is based on the zoopraxiscope developed by Eadweard Muybridge in 1879 and regarded as the first movie projector. The zoopraxiscope projected sequences of images from rotating glass discs and was devised in order to prove the validity of Muybridge's animal in motion research. Lynch team customized the device by using laser as a light source but they kept the image of a galloping horse, as a tribute to the photographic pioneer.
Interestingly, the project was also inspired by a US military paper about 'non-lethal weapons' (PDF) in which the author suggested projecting holograms to scare a target. The scenarios he gives to demonstrate the soundness of the idea include: projecting the 'ghost' hologram of the dead rival of a drug lord with a weak heart; screening images of troupes to confuse the enemy and make them think that you came in large numbers (which sounds very Ghost Army of WWII); or projecting the image of an ancient god over an enemy capitol whose public communications have been seized (what a condescending plan!)
I first heard of the project a few months ago (big thanks to John O'Shea!), couldn't find enough details about the work for my liking and thus contacted Dave Lynch to ask him my many questions. He kindly involved physicist Mike Nix in the conversation:
Hi Dave! Your motivations for the project state that you don't intend to deceive and you don't even want to exploit the project commercially. Project Nimbus is an 'open source cloud projector to share with artists and activists as a means for creative expression.' Did you receive some offers to use the work in commercial contexts?
You could see it a mile away, that glint in eye of the enlightened business mind, if I'm honest, I'm amazed we got there first. It would have been crushing for the pioneering act to be attached to the transient agendas of advertising, I partially fund my art practice though working in the commercial playground on large scale installations for international brands, commonly losing creative autonomy and artistic quality due to time and budgetary constraints, all underpinned by the necessity to focus purely on spectacle. The inspiration, process and model of collaboration that are fundamental to this project are rooted in artistic enquiry.
In 2007, I realised the potential of the projected image, the original idea was to project a symbol of hope, an Angel, taking stimulus from childhood archetypes in mass media and religion to create an ubiquitous icon in direct response to the US military's strategy of fear. By projecting the image from the air, the projection beam had no earthly location, appearing to make the technology invisible and increase the power of both illusion and audience impact. The more I explored this concept, the notion of mis-interpretation i.e. an Angel of death, ignited the potential power of the image without media anchorage. How would this potential manifest if the idea for image was left open to originate from the people engaged in the journey and process?
This lead me to focus on the technological development, the idea of creating a non-lethal weapon of mass communication became the sharing of the device's blueprints and subsequent methodology through open source structures. This was underpinned by the decision to keep the spectacle of the final image open for debate with collaborators and audiences to explore elements such as; our human relationship to the image, ownership of the sky and clouds, image saturation though advertising and potential use for creative expression as a mass media communication device.
Whilst we had multiple requests to project logos and all manner of social media concoctions throughout the 3 years, including a prime time mainstream Saturday night TV show aiming to project the images of the audience onto clouds! With all of these, we were hot to point out; the experimental nature of their ideas, the dangers associated with such activities and how this could be 'disastrous' for a brands reputation if (alluding more to when) it went wrong.
Although largely self-funded, with the exception of a little seed money from arts festivals, the project often fell on tight times and I'd be lying if I said the commercial side didn't cross my mind in these dark times as it felt that multiple agencies were about to realise our dream. Yet key to the process of Nimbus was to honour the time, shared ideas and actions of all the collaborators who had given time in good faith, this currency transcended the commercial appeal. We were all on this adventure, it was intoxicating, chasing what many thought impossible, we were breaking new ground and certainly not going to fall to commercial temptation just to achieve a world first.
This kept the project rooted in collaboration, between experts in their respective fields, artists, scientists, makers, pilots, film makers, cinematic historians and more working together in search of something beyond the spectacle, the real success is in the model of the genuine collaborative act. The influx of money from commercial sources would have certainly muddied and potentially destroyed the collaboration, there was no measure on peoples time, as soon as what we did have a price, it would have removed us from the experiential process. In keeping the first projections on clouds from aircraft true to artistic endeavour is a testament to our process, we hope that our actions will inspire others; that we can all make big things happen thorough collaboration, alternative currencies and belief.
The team behind PN is made of an artist (Dave Lynch), physicist and laser expert (Mike Nix) and a maker (Aaron Nielsen.) What was the working process like? Did each of you have a specific role or task to perform, for example?
Dave Lynch: It was the foresight of Aaron to start prototyping from scratch upon presenting the Mk1 Laser Zoopraxiscope and asking for help to build a cinematic shutter. This radically altered the potential for the design process whilst opening up ways for anyone to recreate our work through sharing. Upon seeking advice on the nature and dangers of lasers with Mike and Prof. Ben Whitaker at their chemical physics lab in Leeds University, we realised we shared a common ancestor through the work of photography and projection pioneer Eadweard Muybridge. For me, Muybridge's projection work of animal locomotion (a series of photographs in quick succession depicting the movement of an animal) has been a cornerstone of research for my work projecting animations from moving vehicles.
Mike Nix: It turns out that the field of ultrafast laser spectroscopy, which aims to 'freeze-frame' molecular motion, also draws analogy from Muybridge. Nobel prize winner Ahmed Zewail even referred to the same horse projection we used in his prize acceptance speech.
Dave Lynch: After a brief discussion about the pursuit to rediscover how Muybridge's projector mechanism worked, we had the laser cut prototype zoopraxiscope Mk2 on the lab's laser table, I was pushed to one side as Mike and Ben proceeded to 'experiment' or destroy the first prototype whilst suggesting ways the original could have worked. At this point we had a cyclic prototype process, through scientific experimentation and understanding of the zoopraxiscope's mechanism through the physics of light, we could move the design process forward. With this knowledge, we could work with Aaron to construct the next prototype, which then returned back to the physicists for further experimentation. This was the catalyst for collaboration, it wasn't long before we were all in one space.
Our process allowed each discipline to grow through genuine collaboration, to some degree, we all became artists, scientists and makers. In addition to our intuitive, creative aptitudes from the natures of each disciplines became our shared process. The ideologies associated with making enabled us to rapidly prototype ideas through; testing, construction and re-appropriation of other technology or methods. Science gave the knowledge, although rudimentary to science, it enabled the pioneering optics of the laser zoopraxiscope through physics by calculation. The art gave us a vision, focusing on the production of wider project and an umbrella to discuss the image's social engagement potential in the spheres of both art, science and make, opening the doors to commonalities of how information is controlled, disseminated and scapegoated.
Our languages merged, whenever we became locked throughout the process of design or strategy, the natural approaches of enquiry from each discipline provided either direct knowledge or more often, inspiration from a radically different and sometimes absurd view point. This ability to inspire each other through our merged knowledge and languages gave rise to the projects progression across the board. There were no questions too ridiculous and no judgement when asking as could potentially be expected in our own professions or social circles.
You developed Project Nimbus over a period of 3 years (if i understood correctly). What was/were the biggest challenge(s) you encountered while working on the project?
Nimbus has overcome many challenges in both practical and technical terms, this is largely due to coincidental good fortune of the people and festivals we met on our journey. The project sat on the shelf since the original conception in 2007 until a seed residency from Abandon Normal Devices and the Octopus Collective back in 2012, Initially I was very lucky finding Mike, Ben and Aaron as collaborators in re-designing the zoopraxiscope. Thinking it would be straight forward, its arguably the first ever photographic projection device from 1887, so it couldn't be that hard to figure out with two physicists, cinematic and engineering experts; could it?
We quickly had the mechanics of two rotating discs; one, the shutter disc compromising of 14 vertical slits, the second, an image disc holding a series of 14 frames of 16mm film with images of a sequential loop of Muybridge's horse in motion. The laser light passes though the shutter disc, creating a flash on the image disc, thus creating a succession of flashing images that we see as animated motion, simple! Yet one key bit of information eluded us all, the rotation ratio between the two discs. It wasn't till around 6 months later, we were introduced to Stephen Herbert, a cinematic historian who had worked on several zoopraxiscope replicas, he had the formula for the ratio.
1 : -1 - They rotate at the same speed in opposite directions. A week later, we had the zoopraxiscope Mk3 and soon witnessed the running horse in the lab for the first time, it felt like we were stepping in Muybridge's footprints, It must have been quite something when he saw his horse in motion projected for the first time, for us it was truly magical until we realised we had to face our biggest challenge yet.
With the current laser, a 2W 405nm blue laser from Ebay, you could just about see the horse in the pitch black, instantly Mike wanted to try a 'proper laser'. The Millennium is 5W of 532nm green laser used in the lab for experiments, this produced a clear bright image of the running horse, caught easily on camera in the dark, yet not bright enough for the clouds and besides having a cooling system the size of a fridge, it costs £20k. Prof. Ben Whitaker pointed out that the blue 405nm laser is at the lowest part of the human spectrum of vision. The lab laser of 532nm green is at the top for human vision so it was unlikely that it was ever going to work with this setup. We called it a day and I seriously pondered if this was the end of this part in the adventure. A few days later, I received a phone call from Mike stating that he had an idea to make it work...
His idea was brilliant; As the light passes through the slits in the first wheel, this is where we lose most of the light, so by replacing the slit wheel with wheel of 14 hemispherical lenses we could achieve a 90% brightness increase. But to test this theory, we would need to spend a £1k on laser grade specially cut lenses! This coincided with a residency at the Full of Noises festival in Cumbria, offering us £1k to research the project further, we took it as a sign and went for it, without this fortuitous coincidence and deadline to present our findings that summer, its hard to say if we would have continued down this path. After the residency, the project was quickly leaving the realms of the ideal low cost approach, we had come so far at this point that I decided to take a loan to buy a 2w 532nm green laser to give us the best chance possible in the skies. We had the best projector our money could buy, it was literally make or break from here on in.
We were fortunate with the pilots, they are an inspiration to work with, calm, calculated and incredibly skilled at what they do, getting hold of a plane on the other hand isn't always that easy. To begin with we had a great airfield and access to planes but there were no landing lights, so we couldn't fly at night. Landing at major airports was way out of our budget and nothing happened for a year. Even though we found airports with landing lights which were in budget, we then had the issue of finding a pilot / plane owner who was happy for us to carry out our activity at that airfield. Luckily the pilot from our early attempts came across a plane in an airfield near Nottingham.
The other major challenge was getting everything in the right place at the right time, predicting the weather is one thing, predicting cloud cover over a specific area at a specific height is another, essentially its mark one eye ball. The cloud conditions we needed happened every 6 weeks or so, in addition, we had to align the plane, pilot, second passenger to operate the zoopraxiscope. Multiple times, we would arrive and the clouds would dissipate before our eyes as darkness fell.
When you finally get airborne, you have no idea of a clouds size or relative distance, many a time we would head towards a bank of clouds only for it to disappear due to; weather conditions, a change in altitude, it becoming too dark so you loose sight in the dark soup or the clouds were so vast in the first place, that you are no nearer after 20 minutes of flying.
When we finally found them, the pilots flight agility required for us to capture the images was second to none, circling round whilst weaving in and out. Filming a mile above the ground, with a horizon at 45 degrees, hanging out of an open window going 100mph with the parallax motion of multiple depths of cloud layers has to go up there as one of the challenges. It certainly gives adrenaline a run for its money.
And could you briefly explain how it works? Because i suspect that it is more complicated than just bringing a projector on a plane.
I'm particularly curious about how you operate the projector once you are on the plane? Does it screen the animation through the plane window? Would any plane do? And do you need special authorizations to project from a plane?
We have the zoopraxiscope mounted on a tripod strapped down inside the plane, power for the laser and drill which powers the projectors mechanism comes from a marine battery and inverter tied down in the back. As we approach the cloud, the cue for turning on the laser is when the person in the front opens the window, after a 7 second safety delay the whole projector comes into life, its watched over by the person in the back in case of any issues. Our methodology has been honed over several years, through the design and multiple installations in the aircraft both on the ground and in the air, we have the install down to about 20 minutes, its a tight squeeze. The zoopraxiscope points our of an open the window, this removes the potentially dangerous back scatter from the laser being reflected back into the plane and due to the divergence of the beam, the projector is safe to look back at after 30m away. If were less than 30m away from another aircraft, we have other problems to worry about! Essentially, the light on the front of the plane is brighter than the laser projector.
What's next for Project Nimbus? Are you planning to develop the work further? Exhibit it?
Following a small grant from the Arts Council England, we have been working with Mike Stubbs at FACT Liverpool on potential next steps. As part of the ACE app, we plan to write up the process and collaborative model with the aim to publish in a journal & finalise/ release the zoopraxiscope designs through open means. Following the success of the article and hilarious conspiracy theories, we're planning a lecture tour and small bookwork from the 3 years of extensive documentation of the project and have some exhibitions planned in Yorkshire this autumn as part of the British Art Show.
As for getting back into the clouds, we aim to return to the skies with the zoopraxiscope later in the year for a piece with the discovery channel. Other plans include a large scale digital installation, which brings yet more R&D requiring serious flight time and here in lies a dilemma. Whilst we are looking at funding streams to push the boundaries in this kind of practice, we will likely require partnerships with commercial entities for in production. Finding a respectable, forward thinking partner or brand who is not solely about the exploitation of the idea now becomes part of the challenge. We can utilise this powerful form of mass communication for meaningful issues facing environment, society and culture, but in doing so we risk opening the door to what the project has fought against since its inception.
Bio Art. Altered Realities, by writer, teacher, and curator William Myers.
Publisher Thames & Hudson writes: In an era of fast-paced technological progress and with the impact of humans on the environment increasing, the concept of "nature" itself seems called into question. Bio Art explores the work of "bio artists," those who work with living organisms and life processes to address the possibilities and dangers posed by biotechnological advancement.
A contextual introduction traces the roots of bio artistic practice, followed by four thematic chapters: Altering Nature, Experimental Identity and Mediums, Visualizing Scale and Scope, and Redefining Life. The chapters cover the key areas in which biotechnology has had an impact on today's world, including ecology, biomedicine, designer genomes, and changing approaches to evolutionary theory, and include profiles of the work of sixty artists, collectives, and organizations from around the world. Interviews with eight leading bio artists and technologists provide deeper insight into the ideas and methods of this new breed of creative practitioners.
Bioart* is an umbrella term that covers a host of practices. For Myers, not all of them involve 'getting your hands dirty' by doing tissue culture or using synthetic biology to create glow-in-the-dark plants and other novel biological systems. Bioart practices have often been reduced to the medium and this book liberates them from the use of living material by arguing that bio artists are the ones who use biology either as a medium or as a subject in order to investigate how science is shifting cultural perceptions of identity, nature, life, and environment. Artists can do so by reverse engineering genetically modified flowers or organizing competitions between two people's white blood cells duel but also by using more 'traditional' practices such as manipulating photography, sculpting grotesque life forms in silicone or speculating on the ecological soundness of reducing the human populations to 50 cm high individuals. You might agree or totally reject this expansion of the field but the idea is certainly worth a debate.
Because they cover a series of art practices but also scientific innovations and their ethical dilemmas, books about bioart often excel in either the art or the science part. Bio Art. Altered Realities shines at both: bioart's place in art history, its significance and challenges are skilfully presented and scientific concepts such as epigenetic, synthetic biology, or bacteriology are explained with clarity and efficiency.
One thing i found less pertinent is that the name of each artist is immediately followed by their nationality. I would also have given more than an ultra brief mention to SymbioticA as i think their work and ideas have inspired pretty much any bio artist or designer.
Other than that, Go! Get that book. Make some space in your life for an art field which i believe has great cultural significance. The author often compares bio artists to the surrealists who, during the first half of the 20th century, tapped the unconscious mind and attempted to explore the traumas of wars. Bio artists are similarly interested in engaging with the contradictions and dramas of their times. It is an art that challenges our understanding of what it means to be alive but more importantly, it is an art that is often firmly rooted into the Anthropocene. And i don't think that there are many issues more dramatic nowadays than humanity's harmful impact on the planet.
Some of the works i discovered (or rediscovered) in the book:
Water and Bonsai is an aquarium containing a piece of Sabina chinensis deadwood that has had java moss attached to it to look like the tiny tree foliage of a bonsai. A closed ecosystem made of filtration pumps, LED lights and CO2 emissions is created in order to recreate the photosynthesis.
Developed in close collaboration with a team of scientists, BIOBASE: 45° 53' 28.20"N, 15° 36' 9.18"E explores the issue of invasive species in Europe and in particular a crayfish featuring an unusual mutation that allows it to reproduce asexually. Because i can multiply rapidly, they threaten ecosystems wherever they are introduced. Smrekar has choreographed and recorded encounters of the new species with the more "natural" crayfish. This sort of interaction may be one that we humans will repeat in a far-off future when we compete and conflict with dramatically mutated versions of humans adapted to new environments.
Biolace is located in a future where all grown food is 'enhanced' and where sustainable manufacturing is compulsory for an overpopulated planet. 'Biolace' proposes to use synthetic biology to reprogram plants into multi-purpose factories. Plants would grow in hydroponic organic greenhouses and become living machines. In this scenario, we would harvest fruits and fabrics at the same time from the same plants.
Homo Stupidus Stupidus is a human skeleton taken apart and put back together again in a different way, disregarding our knowledge of human anatomy.
Since 2004, Rachel Sussman has been researching the history of the planet through the photos of living organisms that are at least 2,000 years old.
The Rhythm of Life investigates the potential of sensory data experiences. Participants are offered the possibility to listen in on the electro-chemical messages transmitted by their own bodies, in exchange for donating their personal biodata to scientific research.
Metabodies visualizes aspects of the microbiome of a subject at three distinct times: after sex, after a shower, and after an athletic activity. The artist used E. coli to visualize the communication that occurs in the bacterial populations through chemical signaling.
In the most recent stage of Corrupted C#n#m# , Madagascar hissing cockroaches were transformed into 'cyberinsects' capable of disrupting video data.
Views from inside the book:
If you are in London on Thursday 26 November, Bio Art author William Myers and artist Anna Dumitriu will be at Tate Modern to discuss 'the ethics and aesthetics of artists working with living organisms and life processes.'
Image on the homepage: Angelo Vermeulen, Corrupted C#n#m# (Entomograph).
*Sorry i like to write bioart in one word.
Oil industry and artists with a conscience don't usually make for happy pairings. Liberate Tate ambitions to free Tate (and other BP-sponsored art museums) from dirty sponsorship. The Yes Men posed as ExxonMobil executives at Canada's largest oil conference and promised to "keep fuel flowing" by recycling dead human bodies into oil. The security team threw them off stage before the end of their presentation. Sometimes, however, oil companies don't seem to realize when an artist critique is on them.
Ask Matt Kenyon who is currently showing his work Supermajor at the Petrosains Science Centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The piece, which is critical of global oil cartels, has been 'nationalized' by Malaysian oil and gas company Petronas.
Supermajor is a rack of small vintage oil barrels bearing the logos of some of the biggest publicly owned oil companies (aka the supermajors): Exxon, Shell, BP, and Mobil. Oil seems to leak from one of the cans, flowing out in a seemingly never-ending trickle and cascading onto a golden-brown pool. However, thanks to a specialized lighting system and a special system of pumps, the oil appears to be flowing upwards, defying gravity.
Although the work is quite clearly a critique of the oil industry and the perception that oil, gas and other resources are infinite, the local gallery staff secretly changed the Exxon, Shell, BP, and Mobil oil labels of the installation to Petronas labels. Overnight and without the artist's permission or even knowledge.
They have nationalized the work, then tried to cover it up, says Kenyon reacting to the label swap. This has left me in an awkward spot as far as documenting this new version of Supermajor. I've been told that the work was returned to its proper form, but the images from the opening show otherwise!
I've thought of this artwork as selectively deploying a cheap illusion to point out the larger most costly 'necessary' illusions used everyday by companies like BP, Exon and Shell to maintain their markets and influence. There is a long strange history of national oil companies like Petronas buying influence and spreading corruption.
Supermajor is part of a series of SWAMP works that looks into oil and gas extraction culture. Another fully developed work is Puddle and the artist is also currently working on a piece called TAP which will explore fracking.
The installation is part of a touring show titled Illusion that opened on Sept 10th in the Petrosains Science Centre located in the Petronas Towers. The artist also told me that Science Gallery, who organized the exhibition, has been very supportive and even sent staff from Dublin to Kuala Lumpur in order to sort out the situation.
I asked the artist to help me understand how this could have happened:
Hi Matt! I still can't wrap my head around what happened to your work. The last thing you wanted to do with this work was validating the oil industry, right?
I grew up in Louisiana, a state rich with deposits oil and gas and all of the corporations and corruption that comes with it.
Immediately following the Exxon Valdez oil spill, I was in grade school at the time, each student was given a tray of water, a feather, table spoon of oil and a squirt of dish soap. It was part of a Exxon sponsored science lesson on how effective Dawn ™ dish soap was in cleaning oil off of bird feathers. In reality, what Exxon was trying to teach us kids was that the heinous oil spill off of Alaska with its oil covered birds and coastal beaches could simply be cleaned up with something as familiar as dish soap. Such bullshit.
The last thing I want is to validate companies such as Exxon, BP, Shell and Petronas extractionist activities. Perhaps for Petronas the image of the oil flowing into the re-branded oil can is a dream come true. To me, the slow motion impossibility of the oil flowing endlessly against gravity back into the can is a spacial kind of nightmare. Clearly they did not understand the work. Perhaps the logos of their competitors cause a sort of corporate autoimmune response.
The labels on the oil cans reference back to the Seven Sisters, the original oil cartel. The National oil companies (NOCs) account for 75% of the global oil production and controlled 90% of proven oil reserves in comparison to the International Oil Companies (IOCs), such as ExxonMobil, BP, or Royal Dutch Shell. NOCs are also increasingly investing outside their national borders (see the recent situation in Canada).
Also do you feel that your work as an artist has been violated? once you had finished laughing at their action, did you in any way feel angry, uncomfortable or annoyed?
My first reaction to the news that they forced the changes to the work was anger. Who did they think they were? Just because they are a wealthy company (45 % Malaysian GDP) does not give them the right to modify the artwork. Such an action is an injustice and a violation of the exhibition agreement. Being on the other side of the world, I was left with few options. I decided that if they (Petronas) want so much to be part of the work (a work they clearly didn't understand) I would oblige them.
Ruben Pater is, imho, one of the 10 most interesting designers to follow at the moment. You might have encountered his name already. He's behind the Drone Survival Guide that enables anyone to spot and recognize the most commonly used drones. More interestingly, the guide also provides information on how to hack, hides from and dazzle the machines. The guide has been translated in dozens of languages and can be downloaded over here.
Pater has a mission to create visual narratives about complex political issues. He is not only interested in flying machines of death but also in disaster floods caused by global warming, Dutch sweets that evoke everyday racism, fishermen vs oil tankers, citizen journalism in countries with censorship, digital surveillance, etc. Any complex issue that grabs his attention is turned into an impeccably well-researched, elegantly designed and intelligently communicated work. His calls his projects 'untold stories' because of the way they weave new connections between journalism and design.
Pater studied graphic design in Breda, and later at the graphic design master programme of the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam. He is exhibiting his work, lecturing internationally and is teaching at the communication department of the Design Academy in Eindhoven, at the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam and also at the Royal Academy of Art (KABK) in the Hague. I'm glad he has accepted to answer my questions:
Hi Ruben! You create visual narratives about complex political issues. Why do you think it is important that design approaches political topics? And why do you feel that design is an adequate medium for public discussion?
Discussing topics of political or public interest happens everywhere. Whether we categorize it as art, journalism, or film is not really relevant. The label of design works for me because designing visual communication means creating a dialogue beyond your immediate reach, and therefore a work can only achieve its goal when it reaches an wide audience. When addressing issues which are of public interest, this is for me an important aspect of a work. The nature of (graphic) design expects designers to be empathetic towards a diverse audience, because their clients are different all the time, and so is the receiver of the message. That skill gives designers the potency of have a more meaningful role in communicating the important issues of our time to a larger audience.
I was particularly fascinated by the project Behind the Blue Screen, an experiment in 'sneaker journalism' that you developed with the help of director Jaap van Heusden and the complicity of people living in Iran. What can we, as European, learn from the stories and tactics of the people who shared their stories for the project?
My ideas about Iran have definitely changed, not in the least because news coverage on Iran is so one-dimensional and hyperbolic. Through watching more than 100 video stories, my image of Iran has become much more nuanced.
It's funny that the more you learn about another culture, the more you learn about your own. For instance with media censorship, we tend to rate Western Europe as much more 'free' than a country like Iran. This is true in the sense of journalists being jailed and the internet being restricted. But in Western Europe we have a different kind of self-censorship which is equally invasive. Our dominant ideology of multinational capitalism with Christian values is hardly questioned. Although it is criticized in the margins, the media reaffirms this ideology and promotes it actively through its advertisements and reporting. We do not even regard it as propaganda anymore, but as a simple fact.
The question is if it is really that much different than the way the media is controlled in a country like Iran, where there are blogs and underground media that pose opposite and alternative views.
And more generally, do you feel that we might also want to watch our back and worry about surveillance?
Always watch your back, or in this case, your browser.
Your page about Double Standards of Somali Piracy is a fascinating and very informative read. Could you give us more details about the work you did with the flags? Explaining the choices you made when you transformed them?
If we send warships and soldiers to protect a national maritime fleet far away, that is an act of war by a sovereign state. When this merchant fleet has sold its nationality in favor of 'cheap' nationalities like Panama or the Bahamas to dodge taxes and underpay its workers, this stands in stark contrast to the military sent to protect them. This paradoxical reality of global capitalism is something that I felt was best visualized by buying all these flags and cutting them up by hand. By violating these national symbols, I felt like this was more appropriate representation then when I would create new flags, or new realities.
Double Standards of Somali Piracy was developed in 2012. Do you still follow the issue? Has the situation much evolved since you last worked on it?
Recently I worked with a filmmaker on a documentary about Double Standards. That was challenging because piracy around Somalia has basically disappeared almost completely since then, and when something is not in the news, people simply lose interest. Even though Somalia still has many problems, and the illegality and problems in the shipping industry remain. I think a follow-up on the project would focus more on life of crews that work in the maritime industry, who are basically doing slave labor for super-rich shipping tycoons.
And similarly, i was wondering whether you were 'haunted' by the projects once you've finished them? Do you keep on following closely the news or do you rather dive head down into the next project and try not to be too distracted?
A consequence of the way I work is that I have to keep track of the news happening on different topics. There are dozens of 'sleeping topics' that are not projects yet but are waiting for an opportunity. They could turn into a project, or not, so I need to keep collecting information on them.
You trained as a graphic designer but i noticed that you also write a lot. Each of your project is detailed in a long essay. So how do you keep the balance between text and graphic design? Do you feel that a project like Twenty-first Century Birdwatching, for example, can be fully understood without the text? Just by looking at the Guide with the bird silhouette?
18 months ago someone asked me to write an essay about the Drone Survival Guide, and I decided to do that with all my larger projects. It complements my work because it pushes me to reflect on the context beyond its immediate effect. I think during a design process many interesting things happen that are as interesting as the result, even if they are invisible in the end. I try to avoid using the essay to inflate my work, just to as an invitation to the reader in the way I work. That gives me parameters. When projects are too small for an essay format, they do not go on my website. Outside of the website, all of my works are meant to function without any additional text, especially in the case of the Drone Survival Guide. All my projects should work without explanation, although sometimes that turns out to be more difficult than others, for instance my Double Standards project which needs a bit more time from the viewer.
I'm from Belgium so i immediately connected with your work A Taste of Dutch Colonialism. Both our countries are quite fond of Zwarte Piet. I grew up with that figure and never thought much about it until i found myself in Eindhoven in early December and saw how shocked artists from other countries were when they met blond people dressed as Zwarte Piet in the streets. How did people reacted to your work about Dutch Sweets? Do you feel that our cultures are ready to leave behind all these traditions based on old (and embarrassing) racial stereotypes?
Currently the colonial heritage of 'Zwart Piet' is heavily debated in Holland. It is shameful to see that so many people, including the Dutch prime minister, do not understand even the most rudimentary concept of racism. In general, what we need is a better understanding of our colonial past in Western European countries, and we are still far away from that. Dutch Sweets, and the book I am writing now about design in different cultures, hopefully help this discussion forward. I am hopeful for the future because there are some very brave artists, activists, and writers out there who are at the forefront of this civil rights protest and their numbers are growing. Now they are threatened, arrested, and ridiculed, but I am certain they will eventually be recognized as heroes.
You are teaching at the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam and will also be lecturing at the Royal Academy of Art (KABK) in the Hague. What are you teaching there? Does it relate to your attempts to narrate geopolitical issues? What are you teaching there? Does it relate to your attempts to narrate geopolitical issues?
As a teacher I try to ask students to think about how their work relates to the political and social realities. It is not that they have to make work about political subjects, or become politically active, I want them to realize all the choices they make are political, whether they intended it or not. With the research of my new book that is coming out next year, I am getting more into postcolonialism and designing across cultures. This element of graphic design is often overlooked. I would like students to think about hidden cultural contexts of their work and how they can communicate to different audiences, not just their peers.
I think design has the tendency to become entertainment for the elite; expensive, exclusive, and abstract. Designers will be taken more seriously if they reach a wider audience, and become more inclusive.
What are the 'untold stories' that you think deserve to be told at the moment?
There are so many interesting and important topics, but unfortunately my time is limited. I soon hope to start working on a project about a more humanistic representation of cyberwar, which is still not available. Even though it is talked about a lot, it is always visualized in the same visual vocabulary security nerddom and military propaganda. Another topic is the role of raw materials in our economy as an literal and metaphoric underground foundation of our capitalist system. Thirdly Data discrimination. It is already being discussed quite widely, but nonetheless a very important topic, perhaps one of the most important topics of the coming years.