A couple of weeks ago i spent the day at the Dana Center in London for First Person Plural: The cult of the photographer and the culture of social media, a symposium hosted by The Science Museum in collaboration with Film and Video Umbrella.
First Person Plural accompanied the final days of Only in England: Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr, the first exhibition of the Science Museum's brand new Media Space. The conference briefly paid homage to the legacy of Tony Ray-Jones, who chronicled the social rituals of the English in the 1960s, which he feared were at risk of disappearing with Americanisation.
In the increasingly globalised world of the early 21st century, are there equivalent expressions of cultural identity, or equally idiosyncratic social rituals and behaviours, that modern life seems to be passing by - and who are the contemporary artists and photographers who are recording them? Or, taking our cue from new technology, should we turn this question the other way round? In the age of the 'selfie' and social media, might it be the figure of the Photographer, as observer and recorder of social change, that is becoming passé, destined to be replaced by a new type of collective 'portrait' formed from the aggregation and analysis of big data?
The symposium looked at the impact that current technologies and social media have on the roles, image and identity of the photographer. Some of the highlights of the day included Natasha Caruana explaining how she met with married men in search of an extra-marital affair and documented fragments of their restaurant encounters using a disposable camera, writer and lecturer Julian Stallabrass reminding me how much i love Martin Parr's work (though i'm pretty sure that wasn't Stallabrass' objective) and a talk by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin whose work i've been following with enthusiasm since i discovered it At Strozzina in Florence a few years ago.
My notes from the events are going to be limited to Broomberg & Chanarin's talk because they highlighted valid points about notions of authorship, about the perception that technology is 'neutral', but they also exposed how representation is complicit in events, not only documenting them but being actually involved in them.
One of the first projects they discussed what the Afterlife series which reconsiders a photograph taken in Iran on 6 August 1979 by a very young Iranian photographer called Jahangir Razmi. Taken just months after the revolution, the image records the execution of 11 blindfolded Kurdish prisoners by a firing squad. This is the kind of photo that wins prestigious awards, like the World Press photo prize. And indeed it won the Pulitzer Prize award. But why is an image like this so beautiful and alluring? Broomberg and Chanarin found and met Razmi and discovered that he had taken many more pictures of the dramatic moment. They looked at Razmi's 27 other frames and dissected them in an attempt to deconstruct the moment. For example, each time the prisoner blinded appeared on an image, they isolated him and included him in a collage which aim was to stop the emotional response triggered by the original image. The collage revealed also the mechanical movement of the photographer around that event.
The deconstruction and reconstruction of the image was inspired by Razmi's answer to the question "What is your favorite film?" He answered that his favourite film was a film that hasn't been made: a film of the assassination of Kennedy but taken from multiple angles.
Next, Broomberg and Chanarin also explained the importance of chance in photo reportage. For example, Robert Capa's iconic photo of The Falling Soldier was an accident. Capa didn't even look through the lens, he held the camera up and clicked on the shutter. It truly was an accidental image.
B&C illustrated chance in photography with the project The Day Nobody Died, a work made while they were embedded within the British army in Afghanistan. Once there, they turned a military vehicle into a dark room. Each time an important event happened, the duo took up photographic paper and exposed it to light and then put it back in the box. The result doesn't reflect in a figurative way the events that Broomberg & Chanarin were supposed to document in Afghanistan.
The works questions the viewer's expectation from the proxy, the photographer who goes off to the war or to the scene of natural disasters to act as a witness, record and show it to to the public. How much do the images he produces have to be figurative to act as a piece of evidence of the events?
The piece of photographic paper they took to Afghanistan was there. It did go on a journey and, abstract or not, it stands in for this notion of the witness.
A fascinating point the photographers made was to question the assumption that there is an inherent neutrality to the technology of photography. They illustrated it with a couple of projects. The first responds to the photo of a woman called Shirley. When employees of professional photo laboratories calibrate the printing machine every day, a piece of paper comes out and it comes with various shades of grey to black, then the picture of a lama appears and finally, the picture of a woman. The woman is Shirley. In the beginning of colour films, the Kodak corporation photographed one of the workers, Shirley, and sent the picture out with the word 'normal' as the normal print for caucasian skin. Jean-Luc Godard refused to use Kodak, he called it racist.
Right after the end of segregation in the USA, black and white children started to sit side by side in the same class. Kodak's range was so limited that it was at the time impossible to take a photo of a black and white child in the same frame. It was just a basic limitation of way film had evolved and that's what Godard regarded as racist. Kodak didn't respond to the problem until 2 of their biggest clients, the furniture industry and confectionary industry complained and lobbied Kodak because they were unable to photograph the various nuances of wood and chocolate.
When Broomberg and Chanarin were invited to a ludicrous mission to document Gabon for two weeks, they went on bay and collected unprocessed 'racist' films which they used in Gabon. They only produced one picture. It is pink (because the green pigment is more stable.)
From there, the photographers became increasingly interested in the idea that a camera or a piece of films could somehow embody ethical ideas, that a piece of technology wasn't ethically neutral. The collaboration of Polaroid with South Africa's Apartheid State is a clear evidence of this.
Polaroid developed for the apartheid government the ID-2 camera that was used to produce the pass book picture that all Africans had to carry around with them. The camera has two lenses so that you can make the portrait and the profile in same sheet of paper. There is also a special button at the back of the device that has been especially designed for black skin. By pressing it, you increase the flash power by 42 percent.
Two Afro American employees of Kodak ("Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement") campaign to convince Polaroid to retire from South Africa. They were fired but the Head of Polaroid eventually sent a delegation in the country and subsequently withdrew all Polaroid products closely linked to end of Apartheid.
Again, B&C went online, bought one of those cameras and traveled to South Africa to take pictures that turned on its head the toxic use of the camera. They decided to ignore the rules they found in the guide book that comes with the camera and proceeded to photograph the flora and fauna of South Africa.
The last work they mentioned is their ongoing curatorial project Shtik Fleisch Mit Tzvei Eigen, a Yiddish insult that means "A piece of meat with two eyes".
Once again, the work emerged from what the photographers call a 'ludicrous' commission. When the G20 met in Saint Petersbourg, one photographer from each of the G20 countries was invited to come and create a piece of work about Russia. B&C discovered a small Russian company at the avant-garde of surveillance software. Their cameras are invisible and can be placed anywhere. They capture data as you pass through and make marking of your face. The result is not a photograph but a 'data double', an algorithmic map of the face, a structure of your bone. The machine doesn't need the image to portray and identify a person. This technology heralds the breakdown of the photographer and the collapse of camera. At the same time, it announced the advent of software and computer.
The developers of the software said that the biggest challenge was developing a camera that could operate in a non collaborative mode. We are thus entering a new era of non collaborative portraiture, the subject does not even need to be aware that their face is being scanned in 3 dimensions, that can later be rotated and scrutinized. The technology totally substitute the meaning of the face with the mathematics of the face.
Some of the presentations are on soundcloud.
Previously: Only in England: Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr.
The Center for Creative Activism is a place to explore, analyze, and strengthen connections between social activism and artistic practice. For the past few years, CAA's founders Steve Lambert and Stephen Duncombe have been traveling around the U.S. (and increasingly Europe) to train grassroot activists to think more like artists and artists to think more like activists. The objective isn't to replace traditional strategies with unbridled inventiveness but to use creativity as an additional tool that will help them gain more attention, make activism more approachable and that will, ultimately, make campaigns more effective.
Stephen is an Associate Professor of Media and Politics at New York University. He has received numerous recognitions and awards for his work as a teacher, organiser of activist groups and events. He widely publishes about culture and politics and is the author and editor of six books, including Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy and the Cultural Resistance Reader. Duncombe is currently working on a book on the art of propaganda during the New Deal.
Steve is an artist and activist whose art aims to be relevant, engaging and visible outside the traditional gallery setting. His works are imbued with humour and subtle commentaries on current political and social issues.
The New York Times Special Edition, Capitalism Works For Me! True/False, Add-Art (a Firefox add-on that replaces advertising banners with art) and The Anti-Advertising Agency.
I've never had the chance to attend any of their workshops but i've been following CCA's tweets and reading their blog posts with great enthusiasm (i would particularly recommend having a look at An open letter to critics writing about political art, whether you are an art critic, a 'socially-engaged' artist or someone interested in political art.) From where i am standing, these two guys are among the most interesting, thought-provoking thinkers. I was eager to pick their brains....
Hi Steve and Stephen! In Europe at least, 'socially-engaged' exhibitions seem to have become very trendy. Is there any way an artist or curator can engage with meaningful artistic activism inside an art gallery or a museum?
This is a good question, but it can never be answered to any asker's satisfaction.
Definitively saying something is or isn't possible would be a mistake. With artistic activism, like anything in the realm of art, there are few concrete and lasting rules. This is why we have no specific "way" we are prescribing. We're offering an articulated approach and a method for thinking through more effective and further reaching work.
Can you engage in meaningful artistic activism from inside an art institution? Sure. Anything is possible. It depends on the goals of the work. Are you planning the violent overthrow of the government? Because creating an exhibit in a museum is probably not the smartest step in reaching that goal. Are you "interested in attempting to re-examine the notions of the institutions role in blah blah blah" then yeah, a museum or a gallery is a great place to start.
Whether or not something is meaningful or effective has far more to do with the artist(s) intention. The forms this work can take are so open that they present few limitations to efficacy - you have so many choices. The trick is keeping your focus on impacting power through culture. In some cases that path may lead you through a museum, in others not.
If the artists intention and goal does lead them to a gallery or through a museum, they need to be aware of the context of their practice. Galleries and art museums are, by and large, set up to display works of art that are then looked at or watched by others. This encourages a social relationship of spectatorship, with all its attendant political ramifications. It also can tends to "reify," politics be it social problems or social struggles. In these cases politics becomes an object for contemplation, or - perversely - appreciation, rather than action. As we like to say, political art is not necessarily art about politics, but art that acts politically in the world.
This does not mean that one should avoid art institutions, only that these institutions - like all settings - have their own dynamics and to be aware of and work with, or against, and work through.
The tragedy here is that a majority of the shortcomings of this work are not put in place by institutions attempting to support the work, but by the artists themselves in underestimating their ability, their role in culture, and not fully leveraging their strengths. Crudely, we could say that many artists are plagued by deep seated self-esteem issues that result in us aiming too low. We simply feel that we can't have a great impact outside of the small and insulated worlds of art, so we don't engage on a larger terrain.
This is not to say that institutional support, or lack of it, is not an issue. There is a chicken-or-egg problem here in that the training provided to artists and many of the established ways they are supported through the market and states are profoundly disempowering to artists. The power artists have in shifting culture is rarely acknowledged and popular myths about us as starving, insane, misunderstood outcasts are deeply rooted. In subtle ways these institutions can perpetuate disempowerment and support these myths.
That said, the recent uptick in support for this kind of work is a good thing in many ways. It acknowledges that art is not sequestered to traditional media and sacred institutions, and a recognition that art has tremendous power when it's not decoration for the wealthy or academic navel gazing. And institutions can shift, change, and grow, so who knows what could happen.
This is a very long way of saying we can't answer your question, other than to say that if we are serious about using art, culture and creativity to change the world then no setting should be off limits.
One of the projects run by the CAA is the School for Creative Activism, a training program for grassroots activists. Could you tell us about those workshop? What can activists expect from them?
The School for Creative Activism is a two and a half day weekend workshop. It starts on a Friday evening at a modest retreat center we'll find just outside whatever city we're working in. On Friday we give an overview of what artistic activism is and isn't and cover contemporary examples. Saturday we go through the history of this work - usually going back 2000 years or more with some big gaps along the way. The rest of the day is a mix of lecture, discussion, and activities around cultural, cognitive, and mass communication theory. Sunday is hands-on practice where we put all we've learned into play on a sample campaign.
We're both professors and teachers. Duncombe has a doctorate in sociology and has extensive activist roots and Lambert brings his expertise in communications and fine art. We take all this information, condense it, and make it relevant and useful for working activists. We also get a few artists in the room to add perspective.
Over the past three years we have trained activists working on school desegregation in Mebane NC, prison reform in Houston TX, state budgets in Austin TX, immigration justice in San Antonio TX, tax fairness in Boston MA, and police surveillance of Muslims in New York City. We've worked with faith-based organizers in rural Connecticut and Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans in Chicago IL. We just finished a weekend with The Portland State University Social Practice Arts program. Overseas we've trained East African health activists in Nairobi and Scottish democracy advocates outside of Glasgow. In March of 2014 we are scheduled to work with health care activists in Skopje, Macedonia.
Because of the wildly different geographic and social makeup of these groups, our curriculum really has to work as a framework that can be adapted locally. You can't drop-in to Kenya or Texas or Scotland and use a one-size-fits-all model. Culture is the resource, the raw material, we work with and culture is local. We can't tell people what will work in their area and with the populations they want to organize, they need to tell us what the dominant signs, symbols and stories are, what media outlets they have access to and what creative resources they can muster. This is what makes this work so exciting for us: the activists and artist we work with are the experts in their cultural terrain so we are forever learning new things.
Creativity taps into an expertise that many people possess, but don't think of applying to the "serious business" of politics. Even if most people don't think of themselves as "artists," they don't compose symphonies or paint majestic landscapes, they sing at churches, rap with friend on a street corner, upload videos to YouTube, assemble scrapbooks, of even just know how to throw a kicking party. "I'm not political," is a phrase one hears often; it's a rare person, however, that doesn't identify with some form of culture and creativity. Culture lowers barriers to entry. As something already embraced, it has the capacity to act as an access point which organizers can use to approach and engage people otherwise alienated from typical civic activity and community organization. In fact, cultural creativity is often the possession of those - youth, the poor, people of color - that are most marginalized from formal spheres of politics, law, and education.
We have a motto at the CAA: "The first rule of guerilla warfare is to know your terrain and use it to your advantage." The political topography of today is one of signs and symbols, stories and spectacles. And for all the limitations of traditional artistic training, it is artists who are the best adapted to working on this political landscape. In order to be a good activist you need to learn to think like an artist.
One of the problems with much of activist work is that it's based in a faulty understanding of political motivation. We do an exercise at the beginning of every training: We ask participants to introduce themselves and give a brief account of what they are working on and tell us about the moment they became politicized. After everyone is done we go back and point out that no one mentioned they became interested in affecting change in the world through signing a petition, reading a factsheet, giving a donation, or even going to a march or rally. Yet that is exactly these means that activists use to approach others to have them "get involved." The politicization experiences people do describe in this exercise are vivid, visceral, and emotional experiences. Dreams, fantasies, emotions. Moments felt rather than just thought. Affective experiences. Well, this is the domain of art.
Unfortunately there's a pressure to do things that are sure to work. With activists especially, the stakes are high. When we're working with healthcare advocates in Eastern Africa, if they take a risk that doesn't work people may literally die. We don't ever advise that people should abandon the standard tactics of activism: the marches, the rallies, the petitions, the knocking on doors and lobbying politicians. What we are suggesting is that artistic activism provides another tool for the activist's tool box. But as any carpenter can tell you, once you have a new tool it opens up possibilities of new jobs to work on.
Do you have a couple of examples of workshops that lead to particularly fruitful actions?
We were sitting in a restaurant a few weeks ago getting lunch and one of our former workshop attendees happened to be at another table. We asked what he was working on, and he mentioned he was organizing fast food workers. He then told us. "Oh you know, we're using a lot of what we talked about in the workshop in the Fast Food Workers Strike." What impressed us was two things: one, that some of what we were teaching had some impact on this amazing, high-profile campaign that we had admired from afar; and two, that we would have never known without this chance meeting.
If we've been successful, when we're done with the workshop the participants have a feeling of ownership over the method. When they put it to use they don't often consciously think "Now we're using artistic activism!" Instead they find ideas and methods which resonate and feel true, so they use them. Which is exactly as it should be - part of an overall skill set that activists can tap into and employ when and where it's useful.
It reminds us of what Lao Tzu once wrote:
As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence.... But when the best leaders' work is done, the people say 'we did it ourselves'
We think the same is true for teachers too.
Which brings me to the question you ask to the artists you interview: "How do you know if it works?" What are the criteria that help you establish whether a work has had any social or political impact?
This is what everyone, including us, wants to know. What is the formula? Is there a checklist to run through? Are there singular and universal right answers to this? And of course, there is not.
While it's helpful to have measureable objectives - a change that is visible - often it's similar to answering the question "what makes a good artwork?" because there's part of artistic activism that has no objective standard and the most important outcomes may be immeasurable.
The first question to ask is "What was the artist trying to do?" If an artist set out to be successful in the art market, there's no real sense in being critical of their lack of political impact because that wasn't their intention. Better questions are, did they succeed in what they set out to do? And were those goals ambitious enough?
For example, we often hear political artists say things like "I'm interested in raising awareness about issues around immigration." This statement is so vague it could also serve as a mission statement for a Nazi propaganda office. Consciousness raising is only useful as a means directed towards something larger. Not addressing a specific, distant goal is a strategic error. Unfortunately merely political content is often what passes for political art, while it has little political impact. If the artist were to be more ambitious and more specific, "I will create a more accepting culture around immigration through my art work" they'd probably be more successful because they'd have a clearer idea of what they were trying to do.
When we work with artists directly, as we do through our Arts Action Academy, we really push artists to think about what they want to have happen through their work. Many will initially say something like "I want to raise awareness of X" or "I want to start a discussion about Y." Fine and good. But then we ask, if you succeed in raising awareness or starting a conversation, what then do you want to have happen as a result? Most of the times there are grander motivations underlying these tame aspirations. It often turns out that the artist doesn't just want to raise awareness or start a conversation about immigration, they want that awareness or conversation to lead someplace: to help stop some particularly heinous law that punishes immigrants and open up the borders between people and nations. Being aware of this helps us sharpen our thinking about our art and its impact, and it also helps us determine whether we've done what we've set out to do.
This thought process also helps us think about creative work as a piece of a extensive campaign. An artwork that raises awareness or starts a conversation is just one tactic; a tactic to be followed by others: perhaps art that aims to empower immigrant communities or embarrass right wing demagogues or pressure lawmakers. And all of this fitting together in a larger strategy aimed toward an ultimate goal of a more humane society. Without this greater strategic understanding there is a disconnect between the action and the, often unacknowledged, desired result. This tends to lead to either delusion: "My piece will change everything!" or depression: "My piece changed nothing." Both are debilitating.
We could go on addressing "what works, and how do we know it does?" forever because we are obsessed with this topic, but of your readers are curious, we've written more in our Open Letter to Critics on Writing About Political Art following the 2012 Creative Time Summit in NYC, and in a short essay, Activist Art: Does it Work? we wrote for the Dutch journal Open.
Oh! I loved that Open Letter, I found it so useful.
Have artists and activists the same definition of what constitutes a successful action?
No. That's both the problem and the promise of artistic activism.
Activism tends to be very instrumental: the goal is to change power relationships and you have clear objectives that result in demonstrable change in the "real world."
Art tends to be expressive, interested in making something new and unique. It's a practice concerned with shifting perspectives and creating spaces for this to happen, what Jacques Rancière calls the "redistribution of the sensible." With art there are indirect results, or perhaps no instrumental result at all. And most art is experienced outside of the "real world," in special refuges like museums and galleries.
These are often at cross purposes to one another. They are often hard to reconcile. It's not easy! It is an art. But when you can do it, it makes for powerful activism (and profound art)
I'm also very curious about the Art Action Academy, a workshop to help socially engaged artists become more politically efficacious. What are the skills necessary for political action that no art academy ever teaches you?
Well, schools could teach these things, they just don't. Programs have popped up and they have begun to try. But activism and organizing are real skills - just like painting or dramaturgy - and there are lessons to be learned. Lessons like:
Thinking about audience, particularly audiences unlike yourself
Because we believe in the democratic ideal of the every-day active citizen we tend to downplay the fact that activism is a demanding practice that requires particular skills and substantial practice. Ideally, we will all one day have those skills and practice, and we will live in a world where everyone is an activist (as well as an artist) but until then it is necessary to learn - and to teach.
Now say i'm an artist and i'm interested in political action but i cannot afford to travel to the U.S. to attend one of your workshops, where should i start? Do you have any book, video or other tool to recommend?
We both hold down paying jobs as university professors so we can't do as much, and go as many places, as we'd like. In recent years we've expanded our workshops out of the borders of the US to Europe and Africa and we plan to do more of this. That said, we're only two people with limited time and resources so we can't be everywhere and do everything we'd like. Recognizing our limitations we are working on a book that will take the research we've done and the lessons and exercises from our workshops and make them accessible to more people.
We also have resources for artistic activists on our website: a reading list of texts that we've found useful, and Actipedia.org, an open-access, user-generated database of global artistic activism case studies that we created with The Yes Men.
Are there any relevant yet overlooked issues you think activists and artists should approach today?
There's plenty of relevant issues and we come across new ones all the time. Nearly all of them are overlooked in the grand scheme of things.
If you're asking if there are topics we feel artists should be working on, we think it's always best to pick whatever compels you the most. There's always work to be done and if we tried to pick out what was most important, we'd probably be wrong anyway. We're all in it together, so everyone needs to work their hardest on the things they care about most...and support one another
Do you have any plan of coming to Europe by any chance? I think we'd love to have the CAA here.
We were just in Scotland. This Spring we'll be running a five day School for Creative Activism workshop in Macedonia working with health care activists, and it looks like we'll be hosting Art Action Academies in Sweden and Russia too.
While our time is limited, we really enjoy meeting and working with activists and artists working on campaigns and in contexts that are new to us. It's how we lean and grow too. If people are interested in bringing us to Europe - or elsewhere - they can always contact us trough the center at email@example.com.
We're definitely open to it.
And more generally what is next for the Center for Artistic Activism?
We'll continue working with as many activists and artists as we can through our workshops while finishing our book so we can reach even more.
Thanks Stephen and Steve!
Check out also the video of the talk that Stephen Duncombe delivered in Copenhagen on January 23rd, 2013, for activists and NGO workers affiliated with Action Aid Denmark.
Art14 is "London's global art fair." It took place a couple of weekends ago and it is my favourite art fair in London. Not that i'm a big fan of fairs but, you know, "In the country of the blind," blablabla. Art14 changes its name every year. Last year was its first edition and it was called, you guessed it, Art13. If i had to compare it to Frieze i'd say that catering is far better at Art14 (which for me means "WOW! there's a juice bar, here!"), the public is much younger and the art is more accessible and not just financially. Last but not least, there's no Jeff Koons inflated glitter in sight. I did see too many Botero though. At least one.
The reason why Art14 defines itself as "London's global art fair" is that the 180 participating galleries come from all over the world. Europe of course but also Asia, the Middle East, Africa and South America. 38 different countries in total.
What follows is a long series of images of works i discovered at the fair. Most of them are photography because that was the medium that stood out at the fair for me.
Johannesburg was founded on the wealth that came flooding in from a gold rush beginning in 1886. The mines didn't just create the fortunes, they also generated six billion tonnes of waste dumped outside the city's poorer areas. Some 400,000 people now live surrounded by these mountains of waste.
This series records some of the structures damaged by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Hirohito Nomoto explains: The photographs of the facade of each building were taken using techniques of architecture photography that allowed me to keep my emotions at bay, in order to depict the scene as naturally as possible. The aim of this work was to present the viewer an image of what happened there on the day. Most of the buildings in the series were pulled down and do not exist anymore.
Shen Chao-Liang photographed the extravagant stage trucks employed by cabarets and other performers to travel across Taiwan. In less than an hour, the stages turn from mundane vehicles into 50-foot sensory spectacles complete with powerful sound systems, neon lights, and splashing painted stage sets. And back into trucks again until their next destination.
Bauhaus artist Albert Renger-Patzsch looked for beauty and dignity of prosaic industrial machines.
Abdul Abdullah's Siege refers to the 'siege mentality'; a state of mind in which one feels under attack. Abdullah feels this is a condition suffered by many minorities and marginalized groups, particularly young Muslims who live in traditionally 'Western' societies. Growing up in the post 9/11 era, Abdullah has stated that he believes that if there is a 'bad guy' in the popular imagination, it would be Muslims, and as a Muslim he has felt obligated to defend his position.
Ramune Pigagaite was born in Varena, a small town in Lithuania. People of my Town is a series of forty small sized colour photographic portraits of people from Varena. Their professions seem antiquated, strange and curious: baker, beekeeper and poet.
Hugh Holland documented the early days of the skating culture in California. The young people he photographed in the 1970's became legendary names of the sport.
It would be unfair to reduce the fair to photography:
Anton's works are a cultural fusion of African/European cultural references and phenomena. Influenced by his family's history with tales of deterritorialisation, migration, displacement and assimilation his practice is multiplicitous, presenting an ongoing exploration, a type of meta-anthropology, a broad sweep of culture(s), conglomerations of many themes, histories and ideas (from natural/world/art histories, language and media).
The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on Resonance104.4fm, London's favourite radio art station, is aired tomorrow Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.
My guest in the studio will be James Auger, a designer, researcher and lecturer operating at the intersection of art and industrial design. He is a tutor at the RCA: Design Interactions and visiting professor at the Haute école d'art et de design (HEAD) in Geneva. Together with Jimmy Loizeau, James runs Auger-Loizeau, a design studio that explores what it means to exist in a technology rich environment both today and in the near future.
In this episodes we're going to talk about James' PHD thesis Why Robots? which uses the robot as a vehicle to study how technology be domesticated. But the designer will also discuss preferable futures and electronic devices that know more about your partner's emotional state than you do.
The radio show will be aired this Wednesday 12 March at 16:00, London time. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am. If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud one day.
Check out also James Auger's essay in the Journal of Human-Robot Interaction: Living With Robots: A Speculative Design Approach.
In the early 1920s, painter and photographer László Moholy-Nagy started creating artworks through instructions he gave over the phone:
In 1922 I ordered by telephone from a sign factory five paintings in porcelain enamel. I had the factory's color chart before me and I sketched my paintings on graph paper. At the other end of the telephone the factory supervisor had the same kind of paper, divided into squares. He took down the dictated shapes in the correct position. (It was like playing chess by correspondence.) One of the pictures was delivered in three different sizes, so that I could study the subtle differences in the color relations caused by the enlargement and reduction. (via)
With this series of paintings, Moholy-Nagy presents the artist as a producer of ideas rather than objects.
Jamie Allen and Bernhard Garnicnig were inspired by Moholy-Nagy's telephone pictures. They are using the internet this time but also the gaps in communications that happen via electronic media. The title of the work itself is the result of a misunderstanding: Austrian artist Bernhard mis-hearing of the name Moholy-Nagy when it was pronounced with a Canadian accent by Jamie in a noisy pub in Northern England.
That's how Moholy-Nagy became My Holy Nacho. In this work in progress, a single object is traveling to manufacturers and workshops to have various physical fabrication 'processes' applied to it via online services. Each process is chosen, in secret and in turn, by the collaborating artists, Jamie Allen and Bernhard Garnicnig. After 10 processes, the final sculptural object -- whatever it turns out to look like -- will be exhibited, alongside the documentation of process and dialog with manufacturers and shipment companies.
The piece reveals the materiality of networks and the power of information infrastructures to enact physical change.
What exactly is it that happens when you click the 'submit' button on a browser? Will a factory worker be set to action in distant land? Will a power outage be caused in a small town near a datacenter? Will the global economies be affected? Will it make someone smile? Will a long-lost friend come and visit? There is so much power in the action of a 'click', to move people, money, mountains, art.
For MHN, a single object was sent to different manufacturers and workshops to have various 'processes' applied to it. Each process is chosen, in secret and in turn, by Jamie Allen and Bernhard Garnicnig. What is the object like now? And what did it look like at the beginning of the project? Did you chose that original object at least?
No one involved with initiating the project has much idea what the object is like right now, actually. What we think we need to know, but do not know and can not know, is one of the things we are learning about as we work on My Holy Nacho. The title, in fact comes from a moment of cracked communication between us, when we were tired, shiftless and in a noisy pub in the UK. I was attempting to say something smart about famed Bauhaus professor Moholy-Nagy, in mumbled north american English, to Bernhard. So Bernhard's misheard citation created this weird, divine mexican corn snack -- a stand in for all the things we think we know, but don't, in language, collaboration, fabrication and exhibition.
Anyway, the beginning of the project involved the selection of three objects by each artist, and the actual starting point was chosen by the project administrator, so neither Bernhard nor I know what the precise starting point was. In this aspect the work shows our love for Moholy-Nagy's telephone paintings, where he called in instructions to a sign fabricator of how to make one of his works. The starting point is more the entire framework and network of digitally-available, material-industrial, process available at the click of a mouse.
It's a work you developed almost completely in the dark and had no control over, right? So how can you say you collaborated on it once the idea of how the work would evolve was established? it could have been Jamie working with a random person met on the street or Bernhard with a random cat met on the same street?
There are inherent contradiction in trying to control any process. The more noise there is, in a sense, the more predictable something is: It will always be noise. And processes you think you have complete control over are always the ones that bite back hardest, generating more "WTF" moments and leaving people wondering how someone could not have understood something the way they do. So the process -- this kind of ping-pong of process selection that we have embarked on -- is in one sense highly specific, and in another sense entirely outside of our control.
Actual collaboration is in many ways impossible. Collaboration is more about the love of misunderstanding and the impossibility of knowing than most people think. It's not about feedback, but pushing each others ideas and intuitions forward, developing unique things together. Imagine two people cooking together, for example, discussing each condiment and about whether now is a good moment to stir -- that's not really how it works. Someone nudges ideas and materials this way or that, and then someone else comes along and nudges it some other way. That's just how bodies, brains and time work. So the "artwork" or object in My Holy Nacho is not what's being collaborated on, but there are ideas and processes set in motion, suggesting a whole bunch of gaps innate to (particularly digital) collaborations: The gap between actuality and language, the gap between idea and implementation, and the gap between people in collaboration. The work is "about" those gaps as much as anything else. And yes, we could each have collaborated with a random person on the street, but there seems to be something about our (Bernhard and I's) ways of communicating that lend themselves to productive misunderstandings.
The top entry of http://myholynacho.tumblr.com/ is legible but i don't understand a word of what comes below it. what are these texts? How were they generated?
We've been trying to develop ways of communicating a piece that essentially all process, without disclosing any information about the object or the processes. So one of the things you'll see on the project website is a realtime feed of messages sent between the administrator and the contractors, automatically garbled by a trivial word replacement algorithm that keeps us (amongst others) from understanding what's actually going on. There are also images that we come across in our research and other links, all designed to abstractly represent the potential transformations that an object can undergo via online order form, but without disclosing anything about what might be happening to the object, or what it might look like *right now*. We occasionally ask our administrator for a screenshot (appropriately sensored) of the building that the physical piece might find itself in, just to pique curiosity and emphasize where (not what) fabrication is taking place.
How did the manufacturers and workshops react to the instructions you sent? Did you document the exchange of messages?
All of the contact and coordination correspondence and ordering "paperwork" (it's all electronic) are part of the project. The whole archive (consisting of emails between the project administrator and industrial manufacturers and each of the artists communication with the administrator) will be included in exhibitions that take place once ten processes have been completed.
Our administrator reports that even though you would think that a project like this would generate questions and commentary from the people doing the various steps, that actually they're quite happy to participate, and interpret what must seem like a rather strange request however they see fit -- as long as they are paid as normal for these services. The details of how different people react is unknown to both of us, and they will see the documentation of these interactions at the opening of the upcoming exhibition, along with everyone else.
If i remember well, an 'administrator' was following the whole process and he/she was the only person who knew what was going on, is that correct? Was his/her role only one of control and management or did it go beyond that?
At the beginning of the project it became obvious that we'd need someone to move the project along, and keep anyone involved from knowing anything about the object or prior processes. We couldn't necessarily entrust the various manufacturers with shipping the object to the next stage, so our administrator is taking care of that. Beyond that the assistant also selected the initial object from the object each one of the artists proposed.
The role of the project administrator became essential rather early on, is to ensure that neither one of us is aware of the processes of the other, and that the processes are completed, the object shipped to the next location.
The project 'uses the gaps in communications via electronic media to create an artwork.' What characterize the gaps in communications via electronic media? How different are they from other gaps in communication?
The gaps we are looking at are inherent to an increasingly common, and particularly Internetty workflow. The process of the todays artistic practices of creating and exhibiting work globally involves a lot more email, digital document creating and coordination than people like to admit. So, as well as artistic reception occurring mostly online these days (trolling for images of artworks and exhibition photos on tumblr), works are also themselves also created at-a-distance: involving 'ordering', production processes, tools for fabrication. So the artistic medium actually looks more and more like an abstract software specification, where in some ways the artistic 'practice' is specification and coordination itself.
And, as mentioned this retains always a double-bind: Asking someone to perform what might seem highly specific actions (e.g.: coat this object with chrome) actually highlights the many, many potentials for ambiguity that exist. In a culture of technical documents, the assumptions and interpretations required become greater, not less, in many instances. My Holy Nacho tries to exacerbate the situation, maximizing and highlighting these "uhm what the fuck?" and "oh, you did it like THAT..." moments.
Artists like Takashi Murakami and Damien Hirst are famous for not painting or sculpting themselves, they have staff who do that following their instructions. Did you have in mind to do something similar, only pushed to the extreme?
These kinds of investor-artists were not really what we were thinking about at the outset, but of course when you highlight gaps between idea and realisation, you're also pointing out the people that exist at either end. Some person specifies, and some other person makes, according to specification. This is a power relation, as much as it is a kind and often generous relation of intense trust, endearment and mutual admiration. The artists you mention are notable partially because they frustrate certain romantic notions of the artist-as-artisan, but they are more of an effect of an industrialised potential than they are the cause of any particular creative or artistic impulse. There are very few things you cannot get made or done if you have the resources to pay for it. Without all the layers of standardization, specification and abstraction that industrial (and now digital and algorithmic) culture has allowed, phenomena like Murakami and Hirst could not exist. The kind of art they make is somewhat about this historical, and developmental, contingency, despite most people thinking its still about sculpture or objects or something. This is something My Holy Nacho shares with their work, I suppose.
But we are not trying to make the point that "artists should make their own work" by hand, or whatever, but that the perceived abstractions allowed for via the online culture make this action at a distance something we take for granted.
The agreed upon rules for the piece stipulate that the processes must be available via "online order." This sometimes devolves to coordinating via email, but the initial research and information about each process always takes place through web and online research. Otherwise the selection is completely up to us, individually, and something that gets even more meaning through its arbitrariness.
As we're not aware of the process that came before, we suppose that the processes will get ever-more ridiculous and hard to interpret. Amongst other things (the object will likely get larger in size, for example) the physical piece itself will gain a kind of troublesome complexity, there may be issues with chemical decomposition or temperature and structural integrity... as well as the more fundamental problems of someone we've ordered a process from understanding why any of this would be going on in the first place. On this point it should be said that oftentimes the manufacturers choose us, as we have compiled a much longer list of potential processes we want to have applied, but receive no replies from people who think the whole thing is a scam or something. But once they agree to it, the work seems to get done without too many questions, oddly enough.
Anything coming up for MHN?
In a few months, the finalised object will be shipped right to the gallery -- just in time for a vernissage, so we can involve the deliveryperson somewhat -- where we will stage an "unboxing" (inspired by this fantastically strange phenomenon of online unboxing videos people make after something gets delivered).
Right now the process, as a whole, is more or less at its middle stage and we're discussing different possible places for this unboxing ceremony to place in the Autumn of 2014. There's a main project site at http://myholynacho.net, and you can track progress and activity on the project tumblr at http://myholynacho.tumblr.com.
Thanks Jamie and Bernhard!