A book about the visual identity of some of the world's main terrorist organizations wasn't going to remain unnoticed. When it was published by MERRELL last year, every single design blog and magazine wrote about it. Yet, i only discovered the existence of Branding Terror last month, when i had a ridiculously great time at the Graphic Design Festival in Breda (NL.)
In a similar way to what happens with consumer goods, the name, slogans, and visual codes of a terrorist group are not only key manifestations of its identity, they also contribute to the reach and influence of the organization. An anecdote that appears in Artur Beifuss' introduction to the book illustrates the importance and impact of this visual communication. A few years ago, an Italian amateur league football club adopted for its players' shirts the logo of the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, changing its name to 'Zassbollah' (a combination of 'Hezbollah' and the name of the team's captain, Luigi Zasso) in the process.
The book is authored by graphic designer and creative director Francesco Trivini Bellini and by writer and (ex)counter-terrorism analyst Artur Beifuss. Which means that the publication is obviously carefully designed but also that the information about the history, imagery, attacks, ideologies and capabilities of each of the 65 organizations has been meticulously researched.
The authors of the book are conscious that they are dealing with a delicate topic. They approached it in an almost clinical way while acknowledging the suffering of the victims of terrorism.
In his foreword to the book, Steven Heller, a design writer and former Art Director at the New York Times, wrote: The extreme violence committed in the name of these logos makes writing about them in terms of aesthetics or production values seem silly and irrelevant. Yet these terrorist groups are all brands, and are given a certain viability through branding methods. Branding is a tool that has no conscience or morality - it can be used for good or bad, and sometimes for both in tandem.
I contacted Artur Beifuss as soon as i came back from Breda and he was kind enough to answer my questions:
Hi Artur! Are there logos that stand out from the others? Which ones do you think are the most imaginative, the most efficient (strictly from a design point of view of course)? and why?
Yes, there are some good ones, the Hezbollah logo for example. It perfectly reflects the organizations history and ideology. It is interesting to compare the Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards logo. Allegedly the Iranian's founded and trained the group that later became to be Hezbollah. Both logos use the same elements to convey its ideological message. I think the Hezbollah logo is very powerful because it is memorable and easily recognizable.
But more important than the logo is what people will do with this logo. In the digital age, logos can go viral modified and used for all kinds of contexts. It is not uncommon to see fashionably dressed women and men wearing t-shirt with Hezbollah logos. Just google 'hezbollah' and 'girls' to understand what I am talking about. Seeing the logo in such a context tells the recipient that Hezbollah's ideology is indeed applicable in contemporary society. At least more than watching bearded men talking to a camera somewhere in the mountains of Waziristan.
And on the opposite hand, which one do you think is the worst conveyor of ideology?
All of the logos analyzed in Branding Terror make some kind of ideological reference. None of them really misses the point. However, there are some logos that are completely overloaded with references and elements, the logo of the Islamic Organization of Uzbekistan is a good example. It has so much Arabic text in it that one does not know where to look first. Also, this particular logo would be lost on all recipients that can't understand Arabic.
Does branding a terrorist organization has to respond to the same rules and requirements than branding any commercial product? Or do you find that other 'laws' are playing?
In a way it has to respond to the same rules, yes. People have to know what you stand for, and the logo should be easily recognizable. However, terrorism means violence and death in most of the times. Even terrorist groups find it difficult to advertise for that. In the letters from Abbottabad for example Al-Qaeda media advisors recommended Bin Laden to keep a distance to the Al-Qaeda branch in Iraq because they started beheading people. This is not something that Al-Qaeda central - if you want to call it like this - wants to be associated with. They were losing followers over that.
You used to be a counter-terrorism analyst? Now that sounds really interesting. What did the work involve? And how did you use that background while working on the book? when did it come helpful?
My position involved searching and analyzing information about terrorism in five languages. Through this job I acquired a good understanding of transnational terrorism. This did help me to make the content of the book multilayered. Also, I knew how to find information that gets as close to the primarily source as possible and how to correctly assess them.
I read that you used the official lists of "designated foreign terrorist organisations" of five governments: Australia, India, Russia, United States and the European Union. First of all do the list overlap? Or do they have different definition of what a terrorist organization is?
The definitions slightly differ. And the lists overlap to some degree. But governments tend to put groups on their list that are of relevance to their own geopolitical position. For example many separatist groups from India you will not find on the list of the United States. Globally active groups like Al-Qaeda are listed as a terrorist organization on most of the lists.
After the book was finished, did you get emails from people sending you other logos? And do you now find yourself in front of a long list of logos you wish you could have included? Could you imagine publishing a second edition of the book for example or do you think that what had to be told has already been communicated in the book?
Yes, some people approached us with their own projects and ideas. And we are always happy to get in touch and exchange ideas. Branding Terror was exhaustive as it is at the time of publishing. All organizations that are on the designated foreign terrorist list of which it was possible to track down the logo are included in the book. Branding Terror was set out as an encyclopedia, a branding manual and a collectible item. We like to see it as a work in progress. There are always new groups emerging and designated as a terrorist organization. It would be nice to have the logos of these groups all in one place, preferably in a nicely designed book series.
Terrorism is a bit of a tricky subject. It is associated with subversion and violence and that often get people's attention. And it must be difficult not to pass any judgment, political or moral when dealing with the topic of terrorism. How did you approach the topic? Did you struggle to stay neutral? How did you manage that?
Branding Terror is based on information found in Open Sources. It is a technical analysis of the visual communication of terrorist and insurgent groups. The logo is the unit of analysis. Of course many so-called facts can be considered biased since they were collected and collated by people with a certain political and moral agenda in mind. These people can be ELN members in Colombia or Analysts in a Washington think tank. I used analytical techniques I learned in my profession to approach the topic. But of course it is not easy to read over hundreds of dead bodies every day. But I was not there to judge, just to simply collect, collate and analyze the information.
Have you ever received any feedback from any of the organizations you mention in the book?
No, I have not received such feedback.
What are you both working on now? Any new projects you could share with us?
Francesco is taking a creative break at the moment. In the meantime I speak on conferences, in design schools and advice marketing companies about what can be learned from Branding Terror. And yes, coming back to your questions earlier, I do systematically collect logos on the side. The next project is trend research, especially analyzing countercultures of the future.
Views inside the book:
HOLO - a magazine about emerging trajectories in art, science, and technology.
Published twice per year, and weighing in at more than 200 pages, each issue of HOLO provides intimate views into fascinating studios, workshops, and institutions around the world, as seen through the eyes of stellar photographers and talented writers. The pace, depth, and sensibility of print allows us to invest heavily in each story, and draw on months of travel, research, and conversation to craft nuanced portraits that you won't find anywhere else.
HOLO is what happens when enthusiastic minds meet and decide they'd like to use a paper publication to share their passion about creativity and digital technology. The magazine is ambitious, elegantly curated, impeccably illustrated and intelligent. It also manages to convey a feeling of warmth. HOLO opens the door to artists and designer's studios for in-depth conversations and intimate moments. I loved seeing a photo of some of the trophies won by David O'Reilly, dozens of them are casually crammed up on a closet shelf in his L.A. flat. And HOLO is full of little, human touches like that. The content and tone of the interviews in HOLO are not the ones you'd find in your run-of-the-mill interviews. They are incredible conversations between people who have a lot of respect and understanding for each other's work. I love reading about the working life and ideas of David O'Reilly (who wouldn't?), Semiconductor, Zimoun, Philip Beesley, Raquel Meyers. And Wolf Lieser! The founder of DAM, a Berlin gallery selling and championing digital art, has quite a few eye-opening comments on the relationship between digital artworks & the art market.
HOLO also contains essays, called 'Perspectives', that look at the 'emerging representational and perceptual paradigms'. I particularly enjoyed reading an essay on surveillance by James Bridle who manage to give a new twist on an already much discussed issue, and a text in which Greog Borenstein details 'debug view art'.
HOLO closes its over 200 pages on a brilliant and witty "Stream' that charts the most interesting moments of the Summer/Fall 2013, reminding us in the process that we're so absorbed by the now and the next that we've forgotten how exciting our near past has been. The time line mentions lab-grown burgers, discussion on conservation in the computer age, royal pardon for Alan Turing, a robotic petting zoo, etc.
So there you are! HOLO is a beautiful world inhabited by talented and enthusiastic people and I spent a great time immersed into HOLO but it's not my world. Which is both criticism and praise...
I'm obviously interested in "emerging trajectories in art, science, and technology" (i've been writing about it for 10 years after all) and it is stimulating to see that other people are covering the same areas of creativity from a radically different perspective.
I like everything i find in HOLO: the splendid photos and design, the dense texts, the people involved in the project. I could go on and on. But i do feel that HOLO could engage a bit more with the broader cultural context, it could develop a more critical voice while maintaining much of its contagious enthusiasm for all things digital and interactive. But maybe that's just me, maybe i should stop looking for the potentially worrying political, ethical and social impacts of technology everywhere. We are living maddening times and publications like HOLO allow us to think of something else than crisis, social inequalities, the NSA, speculation on the future of the planet, etc. Both criticism and praise, thus.
I need to add that i did feel a bit uncomfortable when i realized that very few women had been involved in the mag. Gender balance has never been a big concern of mine but i couldn't help but notice that only a handful of women are featured as artists/designers or are part of the editorial team. It would also be good to get outside of our comfortable Northern America/Europe/Japan media art bubble but i guess we all struggle with this.
Anyway, do get a copy. Really. It's ridiculously affordable, smart and entertaining. You'll cherish it for years to come.
In 1880 Alexander Graham Bell Invented the Photophone. While his earlier invention, the telephone, uses electricity to transmit voice communications, the photophone relied on a beam of light to send sound. A person's voice was projected through an instrument toward a mirror. The vibrations of the voice caused vibrations in the mirror. Sunlight was then directed into the mirror, where the vibrations were captured and projected back to the photophone's receiver where they were converted back into sound.
Bell believed that the photophone was "the greatest invention [I have] ever made, greater than the telephone". He might be right, the photophone was a precursor to the fiber-optic communication systems. The reason why the photophone didn't take off during Bell's time is simply that the system was useless whenever the weather was cloudy.
Inspired by Bell's patent for the photophone, artist Arcangel Constantini developed the Phonotube which uses fluorescent tubes and strips of leds as light instruments and sound sequencers for audio and visual performances.
The tubes are covered with negative offset, printed with sound patterns that spin at variable speeds. The oscillation from the light emitted by these patterns is transduced into sound processes by light excitation, through a variety of electronic circuits as pre-amps photo-cells and photodiodes, voltage control oscillators, relays, circuit Filters, 1bit systems.
The Phonotube is part of the program of the Sight + Sound festival which will take place in Montreal next month. And because i've been admiring Arcangel's work from afar on too many occasions, i thought i should take the upcoming festival as an excuse to get in touch and interview him about the work.
Hola Arcangel! Reading through the description of the Phonotube on your website, i had the felling (perhaps wrong) that it relies on a fairly simple technology. Is that correct? How much did you have to tweak.improve/modify the Graham Bell patent for the Photophone?
In reality, it is a very simple technology, the patent is very crude, clever and significant. It is about the transmission of information using vibrating light, Graham Bell state that this was his legacy to human kind and this is true.
We perceive our surroundings because of light oscillations, our retina transmits the perception of the visible spectrum of light to the part of the brain that interpret this light frequencies as images.
Every aspect of reality is on its own frequency, mystics knew this by meditation and contemplation, science by theory and experimentation, all this intermingling knowledge is a legacy, Graham Bell had an intuition on how to manipulate light to integrate information on it, and with this started a revolution. I'm interested in researching this simple perception principles through art practice, in exploring the meanings and implications while experimenting with the process.
Phonotube is part of this research, based on a simple principle, in this case experimenting with fluorescent lights. To energize this kind of lamps, a transformer and electronic circuit are used to generate high voltage in a high frequency energy, the gas inside the lamp is expelled and turns into a light that is vibrating to this energy frequencies. The light produced is a kind of carrier, the repetitive patterns printed in the tube give a new oscillation to this light, small Photocells are transforming light into electrons, this energy is pre-amplified to audible sound, and processed trough filters. Furthermore, a circuit with Photo diodes is used as a variable for Low Fidelity Voltage Controlled Oscillators.
A second sound artifact uses a strip of LED lights inside a transparent Tube. A series of AtTiny85 microcontrollers are programed in 1 bit sound (1, 0) that produce light pulsations on each of these LEDS. Small photocells and a pre-amplifier Circuit transform these pulsations into audible sound. OculO is another instrument involved in the performance, it uses a Joule thief hack from a disposable camera that energizes a 22 watt circular lamp with a 1.5 volt battery. Photocells transform the gaseous light into sound. These energy frequencies and the electromagnetic induction become part of the sound performance of OculO. I also interact directly with my body, canalizing energy by receiving tiny electroshocks in my fingers trough contact with the electrodes and the lamps.
You use the Phonotube in performances but is it an instrument anyone could use? I suspect many people in the audience wouldn't mind to have a go and play a bit with it? is it intuitive or is there a steep learning curve to be able to play the instrument?
Phonotube is still an experiment. I have tested different sound circuits. The intensity of the sound frequencies in its current state are meant for live performance. I included small speakers on it, thinking that it could be used by the public also as an installation, as it is simple and intuitive to use. Now, the speakers are used during the performance to Generate some EVP, Electronic Voice Phenomena using piezoelectrics directly on the speakers, performing it with OculO turn into a spectral portal.
The descriptive text says that the Phonotube was "inspired by visuals experimenters as Norman Mclaren, that used the optical sound of cinema, reversing the process to experiment with it." I looked online but didn't find much information about McLaren's experimentations. Could you tell us what they were about?
Norman is a pioneer of experimental sound and animation. He was artist in residence with the National film Board of Canada, he started to work directly in clear film, drawing, scratching, painting the material to produce abstract Motion films. This lead him to invade the film area dedicated to the optical sound. Fascinated by the abstract Sound Frequencies archived by different visual patterns, and how sound worked in synchronicity to the visuals, he started to produce an Impressive work using this techniques.
The description also said that "In the history of the invention of electronic instruments, the study of light and its behavior as a particle or wave, and its application to sound processes (...) is currently, one of the areas of scientific research with the greatest potential in human communication." Now that sounds really interesting. Do you have examples of how the study of the behaviour lights can lead to innovative means of communication?
Most Telecommunications nowadays are based on light transmission, fiber optic cables crisscross the planet connecting the continents transmitting terabytes of data using laser technology.
There is an important research in the spectrum of visible light to transmit wireless data, instead of electromagnetic radio WiFi. The researchers are using pulsating Led light to transmit data with a huge increment in broadband velocity.
There is also the fantastic research on Quantum teleportation that tries to establish instant communication between photons separated by large distances, the record now is 143 km,
The object looks stunning. I really like its simple and striking design. How important is the visual aspect of the Phonotube in your performances?
Gracias Régine. As i mentioned, the research started as a visual project. Aesthetics become very important in its relation to sound. The tube has an the aura of a partitur. The intensity of the sound frequencies of the Low Fi oscillators are meant for live performance, the plan is to develop the project as an instrument, but as the lamps are no longer on production there is now an obsolete quality to it. The light of the lamps is the only light on stage, and for Sound & Sight performance will explore the use of analog video filming the tube.
Mishka Henner has a solo show at the Carroll/Fletcher gallery right now. How come i never paid more attention to his work so far? Just like Edward Burtynsky, he looks at how industries shape landscapes. Like Trevor Paglen and Omer Fast, he is interested in (overt and covert) sites that the U.S. military deploys outside of its own borders. Just like Michael Wolf and Jon Rafman, he is a photographer using google mapping instruments instead of a camera. Yet, comparing his work to the one of some of the artists i admire the most is pointless. Henner is his own man slash artist. He uses contemporary technology to give a new twist on artistic appropriation and redefines the role of the photographer, the meaning of the photography medium and the representation of the landscape. Without ever using a photo camera.
The Black Diamond exhibition brings together four series of work, based on the collection and mediation of publicly available information sourced through the internet. Henner explains: 'I'm exploiting loopholes in the vast archives of data, imagery and information that are now accessible to us, connecting the dots to reveal things that surround us but which we rarely see or don't want to see.'
Feedlots are cattle-feeding operations used in factory farming to 'finish off' livestock. Almost all the beef consumed in the United States will have been finished on a feedlot where up to 100,000 steers at a time spend the last months of their lives gaining up to 4 pounds a day on a diet of corn, protein supplements, and antibiotics. Everything on these farms is calculated to maximise meat yield; from the mixture in cattle's feed to the size of run-off channels carrying the animal's waste into giant toxic lagoons.
In certain parts of the USA, natural features have long been supplanted by man-made marks and structures reflecting the complex infrastructural logic of oil exploration, extraction and distribution. The result is stunning. The prints look fake, painted over and heavily retouched. The exhibition essay compares the images to the work of abstract expressionists.
Fifty-One US Military Outposts presents overt and covert military outposts used by the United States in 51 countries across the world. Once again, the sites were gathered and located using data which exists in the public domain, including official US military and veterans' websites, news articles, and both leaked and official government documents and reports.
"The internet is full of loopholes and leaks," the artist said. "I remember one day Hilary Clinton had categorically stated: 'we have no US military presence in Honduras.' However, the next day I was on Panoramio and was looking around pictures from Honduras - sure enough there was a photograph of a native Honduran worker with his arm around a sergeant major from the US cavalry regiment. The Honduran had even written to all his mates talking about how happy was to have got a job on this US military base. So the internet is full of these really simple leaks that completely contradict statements made by very powerful organisations."
The prints are displayed on plinths filling the rear gallery space, allowing visitors to walk around and watch the images from above, as if we were satellites. Or drones.
The walls of the space downstairs are covered with Henner's ongoing Scam Baiters series. Scam baiters are internet vigilantes who pose as a potential victims in order to waste scammer's time and potentially expose their identity,. They respond to their email, pretend to go along with the scammer's demands in exchange for time-consuming requests supposed to ensure that the money transaction will be successful. Henner is showing cardboard signs that various scammers were asked to make as a result of email conversations, negotiation of fraudulent documents and bogus websites. One case involved an almost four-month long correspondence between Henner's associate, 'Condo Rice' and a trio of scammers spread across Libya and the United Arab Emirates. In one of his final message, the scam baiter asks the scammer for proof of identity. He asks for a photo containing a U.S. flag held on a stick, a sign with SKAMMERZ ISHU, and 'to be absolutely certain this is a genuine photograph", the scammer has to wear an Obama mask.
Sound recordings of the scammers singing popular songs permeate the space.
Henner is currently shortlisted for Consumption, the Fifth Prix Pictet Award. The exhibition of finalists will be on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London in May 2014, where Henner will show a selection of works from his "Oil Fields" and "Feedlots" series.
Science Fiction: New Death seeks to provoke the question - have the Sci Fi visions we once imagined of the future since become a reality? I guess we all know the answer to that one.
Because i write mostly about art and science/technology, i've seen my fair share of exhibitions that reference scifi. However, FACT's latest show is the first one i've visited that is entirely dedicated to science-fiction and visual arts. And in this instance, science fiction isn't explored as the ultimate future forecaster, it is rather the starting point of a reflection on our current condition, an invitation to explore how our relationship with technology has made our everyday lives increasingly look like it is set against the backdrop of a science fiction novel.
Inspired by the work of J.G. Ballard, our story looks to the bleak, man-made landscapes of the future and asks: What happens when virtual environments become indistinguishable from reality? Will our global culture allow us to choose where to live, and who will stop us? What will we do with knowledge that becomes freely available to all? With social platforms acting as camera, how will 'selfies' develop and what new forms of narcissism will thrive? What is it that we need to preserve, and what do we need to change? These questions are explored through intense visualisations of electronic communication, dystopian domestic interiors, and re-enactments of historical revolutionary moments.
New Death, a title which comes from a text that fantasy writer China Miéville wrote for the exhibition, is ominous but so are the glimpses that the participating artists give into the techno-mediated we've built ourselves: conditions of intensified surveillance and repression, border control, loss of citizenship, etc. Not everything is bleak and joyless in the show though. You can bounce off a trampoline and pretend you're an astronaut, meet intelligent robots that attempt to avoid boredom at all costs, you can even participate to the exhibition by writing a story describing a dystopian near future. I don't know what a sci-fi fan would make of the exhibition but i found it smart, provocative and thought-provoking.
Quick overview of the show:
Accomplice is a small clique of social autonomous robots hidden behind one of FACT's gallery walls. Because these machines are curious, they attempt to discover their environment and the first step to live new adventures is to break down the wall. Their mechanical arm relentlessly punches against the wall. In the process, they not only make holes, they are also acquiring knowledge: how the wall react to their poking, how to best expand their horizon and what it is like out there, on the other side of the wall.
As the wall disappears, the robots discover other creatures: the gallery visitors. The more they can see and hear, the more excited and active these robots are getting. Their behaviour, however, isn't predictable and linear. As soon as the movements and noises made by the visitors or the colours and patterns they are wearing have become too familiar, the robots become bored. In a sense, the roles usually taken by the audience and the robots or the artefacts and the visitors are reversed: the robots are the spectators and the gallery goers perform for them.
I had a chance to talk with Rob Saunders at the press view. I scribbled our conversation on a bit of paper, lost it so i'm going to point you to this Robots Podcast: Curious & creative in which he talks about being inspired by Gordon Pask's conversation theory, designing curious systems, the laws of novelty and the social structure that might evolve from them.
The bits and pieces of walls laying unceremoniously on the floor and the unpredictable attitude of the Accomplice robots echo the exhibition experience that Venya Krutikov & Michael Lill of The Kazimier have designed for Science Fiction: New Death. They turned the FACT building into a disordered, stern and slightly disquieting space to navigate. Your movements inside the gallery might or might not be filmed. That poorly-lit corridor might be off limit. That door over there might open on another artworks or maybe it's a dead end.
Before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon in 1969, the NASA elaborated various exercises to understand how man would move in microgravity. The experiments were not just simulations but "pre-enactments" of a new set of rules that we were about to enter, providing a window into the future through which NASA researchers collected not only data but also visual impressions. One such experiment was conducted at Stanford University in the mid-1960s by Thomas R. Kane. The applied mechanics professor had studied the ability of cats to spin their body mid-air so that they could securely land on their four paws. Kane would film a cat bouncing on a trampoline, study its movements, and then a gymnast in a spacesuit would try to reproduce the cat's movements on the trampoline.
Sascha Pohflepp's Camera Futura enables visitors to replicate the experiment. You are invited to wear a light space suit and jump on the trampoline while a camera captures your moves.
The energy stored in the trampoline's springs amplifies the power of our muscles, so that we can briefly launch ourselves and experience an instant of relative weightlessness when falling back to Earth. Camera Futura captures images from that very instant. These photos allow for a glimpse of our brief moment in a post-gravity world. In a sense, they are impressions of ourselves from one of many futures.
The Infinity Burial Project is an art project with an aim to help us accept the reality of our own death. It is also a very bold and practical alternative to current burial system. Once buried or cremated, our bodies do not just decompose and vanish, they also contribute to the deterioration of the environment by releasing the toxic pollutants that our bodies have accumulated over the course of the years: pesticides, preservatives and heavy metals such as lead and mercury.
Jae Rhim Lee has thus developed the Mushroom Death Suit, a burial suit infused with mushroom spores to assist the decomposition of human corpses. The outfit comes with capsules that contain infinity mushroom spores and other elements that speed decomposition and toxin remediation. Besides, an open source burial container, and a membership society devoted to the promotion of death awareness and acceptance and the practice of decompiculture (the cultivation of decomposing organisms).
Facial Weaponization Suite is a playful but also dark critique of the silent and gradual rise of the use of biometric facial recognition software by governments to monitor citizens.
Masks remain an effective tool to prevent identification technologies from capturing, analyzing, archiving and identifying our face. The use of mask also refers to social movements that use masks as a sign of protests. From the Zapatista rebels, to Pussy Riot, Anonymous, etc.
Brad Butler and Karen Mirza are presenting Deep State, a film scripted by science fiction author China Miéville. The film takes its title from the Turkish term "Derin Devlet," meaning "state within the state," and tells a story about the representation of political struggle, moments of crisis, solidarity, schisms and oppression.
The whole film, which overlays archive protest footage and performed interludes, is online:
At first, i wasn't sure what to make of it but, as the images rolled on, i started connecting them to what was going on in Ukraine at the time of the press view of the show and i realized that at this very moment, maybe we still have a choice: we can be the people who raise their heads, protest and attempt to take some control back or we can be the people who are blindly herded into a society of control.
Also part of the show: Nation Estate, a "vertical solution to Palestinian statehood."