Invasive. What if your tax money was used to kill animals?

At first sight, there's something inherently funny in a headline that claims: Warning as alien mussels found near Heathrow airport. But it turns out that these molluscs not only sit on top of native mussels and smother them to death, they also threaten thousands of other native animals and habitats. If that were not enough, they are also accused of disrupting water supplies by blocking pipes and causing flooding.

These mussels are only one of the many invasive species that are identified by environmental departments as posing danger to biodiversity. These invasive plants and animals are often eradicated using drastic measures. Authorities can infect them with a virus, for example. Or they can use chemicals, hunting, fires, birth control, etc. These measures are expensive and they also create a dilemma for citizens who are caught between a desire to preserve the eco-system and a reluctance to kill animals.

Lisa Ma identified and fleshed out this dilemma in her work Invasive. The project brought her to Ghent in meat-loving Belgium. Ghent is often called the "Vegetarian Capital of Europe." In 2009, it became the first city in the world to adopt a weekly vegetarian day. Restaurants now offer at least one vegetarian menu item, every Thursdays (the city "vegetarian day") schools serve entirely vegetarian meals and maps listing the places selling fries fried in vegetable oil circulate (that might not seem extraordinary to you but as a Belgian i grew up eating fries cooked in beef fat.)

Ghent prides itself on being animal-friendly thus. Yet, Lisa soon discovered that the city is spending tax payers' money to kill thousands of invasive Canadian geese every year. The animals have taken advantage of the well-preserved ecology of the city and of the absence of competition or predators. The heavy birds constantly push the soil into Ghent's canals and literally blocking a city already below the sea level.

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Rounding up geese. Photo courtesy of Karel Van Moer - Rato

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Collecting Canadian geese eggs. Photo by Lisa Ma

The city deals with 'the problem' by eradicating the Canada geese at great cost. The animals are round up, individually injected with poison and incinerated. People would also take eggs from the nests and throw them in the river. They make sure to keep one egg though. They shake it and put it back in the nest, so that goose parents would continue to nest the 'dud' egg all summer instead of starting a new batch.

Collaborating with cultural organisations Timelab, FoAM, Vooruit, the newly formed food council and a series of local experts, Lisa Ma suggested that the citizens of Ghent ate the invasive animals, rather than leave them for governments to poison at huge public costs.

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Serving mayor Daniël Termont a plate of Canadian goose. Image by Tom Callemin

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Canadian Geese paté. Photograph © Fred Debrock

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Photo by Tom Callemin

Unsurprisingly, the idea spurred an intense debate in the media. But it also led to some pretty unusual experiences: volunteers jumping into rivers to fish out freshly thrown eggs, vegetarian chefs crying when they cooked their first gosling pie, making feather plucking machines from cement mixers, etc.

The Invasive project also attempted to tackle the notoriously invasive Japanese Knotweed. A local cake store used the plant (which tastes like rhubarb 'without the laxative effects') to bake cheesecakes. Invasive grew into a real movement that even launched the first ever food council in the city.

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'Weed-pick' the invasive Japanese knotweed. Photograph © Fred Debrock

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Cake made using Japanese knotweed paste. Photograph © Fred Debrock

These last two paragraphs which sum up some of the lessons learnt in the process were written by Lisa:

The project also addressed a new shift in our believes and values. Vegetarianism used to be a form of activism, what now when it's become a status quo and no longer addressing the dilemma between our believes and our values?

There is no such thing as perfect solutions, even this story of eating invasive animals has its potential pitfalls. Equilibrium doesn't last forever, so activism must be iterative to reassess it's relevance to the dilemma. This project is a real-life case of how even the most aspirational of political communities have a need to further challenge a status quo, even when it had become the pride of their own city.

Image on the homepage: Edward Vercruysse.

Imagine Architecture. Artistic Visions of the Urban Realm, by Lukas Feireiss and Robert Klanten.

Available on amazon UK and USA

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Publisher Gestalten writes: Contemporary developments in the visual arts are often reflected in urban landscapes. Imagine Architecture explores the ways in which visual culture develops in public spaces and how it shapes those spaces. This book focuses on the fruitful exchange between visual culture and architecture and follows up on the themes introduced in our previous release Beyond Architecture. It compiles experimental projects and creative perspectives from the fields of illustration, painting, collage, sculpture, photography, installation, and design.

A young generation of creatives sees the urban landscape as the starting point for their work. When these illustrators, sculptors, or photographers engage with architecture, their art overrules conventional doctrines on the use of space. They use buildings as a medium for their ideas, breaking norms and triggering new tensions. Whether they make sculptures that are created within the context of a given structure or street art whose forms and colors impact its surrounding architecture, all of the featured projects interpret and reflect their spatial settings in compelling ways. In the process, these visionary concepts are playfully expanding the definition of architecture. Their creativity has the potential to breathe new life into public spaces and promote the evolution of our cities.

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Fredrik Raddum, Climbing the Clouds, Skatt-Øst, Oslo, 2009

Imagine Architecture follows Gestalten magical recipe: a theme which will catch everyone's imagination, a straightforward introduction, a brief description of each work and lots of very big images. The formula works every time.

It's not my favourite book from Gestalten though. It's still a brilliant one but i opened it with the assumption that artists exploring architecture were always going to be far more thought-provoking than architects expressing the radical or outlandish ideas you'd expect from an artist. I looked back at architecture titles i've reviewed in the past (in particular the two i've just linked to) and realize that i was wrong, i shouldn't dismiss architects' creativity.

Now to what i like about the book: the title and content might be catchy but that doesn't reduce the Imagine Architecture to a catalogue of what was cool and trendy on design and art blogs these past couple of years. The editors have brought to light gems from exhibitions and portfolios that haven't reached the mainstream yet. Some of the works are deeply political. Others have no other ambition than be poetical. Some are paper models of an imaginary city that, like a real one, is ever growing, ever-evolving. Others are typographic experiments that attempt to dialogue with architecture. Some explore architecture through the introspective lens of the home. Others look at the arrogance of men who hope to control and dominate from the height of the towers they've built.

Right, i can see now that my arid review hasn't probably done justice to the book, let the images speak then:

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Tom Sachs, The Island

Tom Sachs' The Island is a modified model of the radar tower of the USS Enterprise CVN-65, "The world's first and finest nuclear powered aircraft carrier." It's also one of my favourite works ever.

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Bertrand Lamarche, The Fog Factory, 2005-2011

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Bertrand Lamarche, The Fog Factory, 2005-2011

The Fog Factory is the model of the area around the train station in Nancy, France. Fog, which creeps over the streets, constitutes the architecture, an artificial copy of a meteorological phenomenon, mechanically produced but randomly distributed and imponderable.

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Beth Dow, Ruins

Beth Dow looks at the American environments, and its penchant for fake antiquities. My pictures of faked antiquities are an attempt to evoke nostalgia for inaccurate history, to wrestle with ideas of authenticity, and to question the value we place on classical ideals.

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Laurent Chechere, Flying Houses

Laurent Chehere looks for understated and overlooked examples of architecture in Paris. From caravans to circus tents to sex shops. He photographs them and then sends them high up in the air from his digital manipulation room.

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El Ultimo Grito, Mine Schaft, from the series Collapscapes

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El Ultimo Grito, Chemical Plant, from the series Collapscapes

Collapscapes are fictitious industrial spaces made of glass. Called Chemical Plant, Mine Shaft, Super Collider and Gas Depot, the objects look at industrial architecture and the contraction (or collapse) of industrial sites that follows increasingly mechanised production.

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Dietrich Wegner, Playhouse

A synthetic cotton treehouse for children in the shape of a mushroom cloud.

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Darryl Chen, New [Socialist] Village, 2013

Daryl Chen's New Socialist Village explores what the UK can learn about planning from the community living in the village of Caochangdi, an atypical 'new socialist village' outside of Beijing. In the space created by the Chinese government's evolving planning laws, the village's growth is driven by the instincts of local peasants and the bohemian opportunism of artists who have established a set of unstated rules governing urban form.

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Jiang Pengyi, Unregistered Cities

Jiang Pengyi creates Unregistered Cities, miniature abandoned cities. He then places them in the historic abandoned houses that Beijing's hunger for "excessive urbanization, redevelopment and demolition" has left to rot.

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Vangelis Vlahos, Athens Tower (Tenants Lists 1974-2004), 2004

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Judith Hoffman, The Soap Factory.

Views inside the book:

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Eye Catcher

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Behind the Wall a UR Robot running IAL's own "Scorpion" Software puppeteers the frame

A few weeks ago, i visited the graduation show of The interactive Architecture Lab, a research group and Masters Programme at the Bartlett School of Architecture headed by Ruairi Glynn, Christopher Leung and William Bondin. And it was, just like last year (remember the Candy Cloud Machine and the architectural creatures that behave like slime mould?), packed with very good surprises. I'll report on a couple of them in the coming days.

I'll start nice and easy today with the Eye Catcher, by Lin Zhang and Ran Xie, because if you've missed the work at the Bartlett show, you'll get another chance to discover it from tomorrow on at the Kinetica Art Fair in London.


Eye Catcher

The most banal-looking wooden frame takes thus a life of its own as soon as you come near it. It quickly positions itself in front of you, spots your eyes and starts expressing 'emotions' based on your own. Eye Catcher uses the arm of an industrial robot, high power magnets, a hidden pinhole camera, ferrofluid and emotion recognition algorithms to explore novel interactive interfaces based on the mimicry and exchange of expressions.

A few words with Lin Zhang:

Hi Lin! I think what i like about the frame is that it is so discreet and unassuming. You can pass by it and not even notice it. So why did you chose to make it so quiet and 'normal' looking?

Yes exactly, it's a really normal static object, which exists in everyone's daily life, so the magic happens the moment it begins to move. I was inspired by my tutor's art work finding "life in motion" - not all motion can provide wonder and pleasure in the observer, but playing with the perception of animacy in objects often does. There are many digital interfaces that have the appearance of advanced technologies and compete for our attention, but I think it is better to develop interfaces that rather than standing out, can sit within our normal daily lives and then come to life at the right moment whether for functional or playful purposes.

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Magnetic Puppeteer that manipulates the frame from behind the wall

How does the frame respond to and communicate emotions? How does it work?

To start with, the height of passers-by is calculated by ultrasonic Sensors embedded in the ceiling. This is remapped to the robotic arm (controlled using the Lab's opensource controller Scorpion) hidden behind the wall which magnetically drives the frame to align "face to face" with onlookers. A wireless pinhole camera in the frame transmits the video footage of onlookers back to our software (built in Processing and using face-OSC) which analyses 12 values of facial expression such as width of the mouth, the height of the eye-brow, the height of eye-ball etc. That information then drives the reciprocal expressions of the frames fluid "eyes", controlled by four servo/magnets manipulating ferrofluid.

Do you see The Eye Catcher is mainly a work that aims to entertain and amuse or is there something else behind the work? Some novel interfaces, interactions or mechanisms you wanted to explore?

The Eye Catcher project is a method to examine my research question, which is to explore the possibilities for building non-verbal interaction between observers and objects through mimicry of specific anthropomorphic characteristics. It asks to what extend can such mimicry be deployed, specifically utilising eye-like stimuli, for establishing novel expressive interactive interfaces. We found that humans perceive dots, specifically eye-like stimuli, automatically as almost a hardwired ability, which develops at a very early stage of human life. By the age of 2 months, infants show a preference for looking at the eyes over the rest of regions of the face, and by the age of 4 months, they get the ability to discriminate between direct and averted gaze. Therefore, the eye is the foundation of human interaction upon which we build more complex social interactions.

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Eye Catcher moves along the wall to approach a visitor

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Ferrofluid "Eyes" puppeteered magnetically

What was the biggest challenge(s) you encountered while developing the work?

The biggest challenge is how to make the frame and two dots more animate - to not appear robotic but rather more natural. So we were really exploring how long reactions should take, how to select a suitable behaviour in response to peoples expressions, and how to provide continual unpredictable interaction to keep observers' attention.There's still a lot of questions to be explored, and even though its only ultimately 2 dots we're animating, the limitations are a useful constraint to work within.

Will you modify or upgrade The Eye Catcher for Kinetica?

Yes, we're working on it now for Kinetica Art Fair. We've already built a new frame that moves faster and more quietly. We've updated it with new Wi-Fi camera which provides more reliable facial recognition and smoother behaviour on the wall. The film you've seen is really only a prototype so its exciting to see how the new iteration will perform. We've switched round some behaviour too, to see how the public reacts. For example, at Kinetica we've programmed it to prefer to interact with children which should get them excited when it drops down to see them. In the future we'd like to build a more permanent piece using a 2 axis rail system rather than a robot arm. In theory the frame could then work on a much longer wall which would allow all sorts of new types of interaction.

Thanks Lin!


The Making of Eye Catcher

Check out the Eye Catcher at the KINETICA ART FAIR on 16th - 19th October 2014 at the Old Truman Brewery in London.
The project also references works such as Omnivisu, Opto-Isolator and All eyes on you.

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Last year, news emerged that Russia's agency responsible for the Kremlin security was buying electric typewriters and "expanding the practice of creating paper documents" in a bid to prevent leaks from computer hardware. A few months later, The Guardian was forced to destroy the computer equipment that stored the NSA files provided by Edward Snowden. Diego Trujillo Pisanty saw reminiscence of the Cold War in these two stories and in other current news related to state espionage.

His This Tape Will Self Destruct machine prints self destructing documents. The documents merge images and texts extracted from Cold War fictions with excerpts from current secret documents. A short amount of time after they've left the machine, these documents burst into fire and their content is gone forever.

This Tape will Self Destruct from Diego Trujillo on Vimeo.

What is the paper made of? How come it 'auto-combusts'?

The paper is normal thermal paper used in receipt printers. As the document is printed it is treated with glycerol and a potassium salt. When these two substances mix at the end of the process they react exothermically to produce fire, this reaction ignites the paper and the heat also blackens any unburnt parts of the document as it is printed on thermal paper. The chemistry behind this is actually a common GCSE demonstration so it's nothing too complicated.

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i'd also like to understand how the documents are generated. They are "a mixture of images and texts extracted from Cold War fictions paired up with excerpts from current secret documents". Are they generated randomly? do you design them yourself?

I designed (or more accurately curated) the documents myself based on relationships I saw between images and texts. For example one of the documents contains the famous Mission: Impossible (1966) phrase:

"As always, should you or any of your IM force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions."

Presented next to an excerpt from an NSA leaked document reading:
"All publicly available information regarding work on this contract at Mangfall Kaserne will be sanitized so that no association with NSA will be made. This will entail removal of references to Maiyland Procurement Office/MPO, N S A-r elated DODAICs, NSA civilian/military affiliate names, NSA phone numbers, etc. (This is not an all-inclusive list.)"

Other documents focused more on visual aesthetics of devices and architecture, for example the parallel between the circular composition of the war room in Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove and the GCHQ 'doughnut' building.

Where do these images and texts from Cold War fictions come from? And where do you find the current secret ones?

The images and texts from Cold War fiction come from watching many hours of (usually very bad) Cold War film and television and manually curating extracts that relate to previously revised contemporary secret documents. Most of the extracts come from the early 007 films (Dr. No, You Only Live Twice, Moonraker), the Mission: Impossible 1960s television series, Macgyver as well as other fiction films of the era such as The Conversation and Dr. Strangelove.

I initially intended to work with the original files leaked by Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning but even after they have been covered in the news it is very hard to find the primary sources for them. The current secret documents I used come from different places, mainly non-government organizations and news agencies. Many came from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and their repository of NSA primary sources (https://www.eff.org/nsa-spying/nsadocs). Some others came from The Guardian and their similar list of U.S. embassy cables summaries (now taken down but formerly http://www.theguardian.com/world/series/us-embassy-cables-the-documents) and The Intercept (https://firstlook.org/theintercept/documents/). Other documents were found throughout the web from all sorts of sources and forums with varying degrees of credibility.

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Why did you decide to work with Cold War fictions documents instead of actual CW documents?

I did for a while focus on Cold War declassified documents, for example I did some reading around the STASI archive and even some pre-Cold war sources such as the recently disclosed Manhattan District History (https://www.osti.gov/opennet/manhattan_district.jsp). However most of these documents did not seem as relevant as some of the things discussed in fiction. I think that in the Cold War way of thinking an omniscient machine capable of spying on everyone seemed like a holy grail. This comes across in discussions of satellite imagery and long distance radio networks in many films and television series.

I also find it interesting to think that the rhetoric in these fictions could have done some of the ideological groundwork that led to mass online surveillance. It seems that in many of these franchises (007, Mission: Impossible, Macgyver, etc.) it's fine for the government to spy, impersonate and assassinate local and foreign citizens if they have reason to believe that they are suspicious. The 'good guys' in these series overthrow governments, kill criminals without trial and have no regards for international agreements and human rights, but they do it all for the sake of national security so it becomes justifiable. This is where I see a real link between the fiction and a reality in which citizens are prepared to accept that unregulated surveillance is good because it will stop 'the bad guys'.

Do you see relationship with the 300 Years Time Bomb? because news and secrets are explosive in their own way too..

I see a link in the popular culture that both of these projects take from, I would say that action cinema was very relevant to my generation and that this ends up showing in my work. I also see a relationship in the way I explored the way we assign value to things based on their lifespan. The 300 Year Time Bomb gained historical value by existing 300 years whereas a self destructing document gains value by existing for a very short amount of time, meaning that only a privileged person will be able to read it.

I hadn't actively thought of the secret as explosive but I think it is implicit when I say that "The release of the NSA files will likely be part of this decade's history". I think that Snowden's leaked documents have caused a sort of explosion resulting in an accelerated process of questioning the ethics around online technologies, digital democracies and personal rights online.

Thanks Diego!

I've known for a while that Manchester is far cooler than London. The Northern Quarter, the art festivals (FutureEverything, Abandon Normal Devices), affordable vegan places, genuine love of alternative culture, etc. Even its National Football Museum has a pretty decent art programme. I can now add a new entry to the list: Ancoats.

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Shift//Delete, Suspect Package at Politika. Photo Upper Space

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Politika Crypto Party. Photo Upper Space

I had never heard of Ancoats before i went to the Politika event a few days ago. Ancoats is a few minutes (well, rather 20 minutes) walk from the Northern Quarter. The area has been called "the world's first industrial suburb" and nowadays its canals and former mills and glass factories are being turned into spaces for artists and, inevitably, fancy lofts for moneyed office gents and ladies.

Upper Space, a group of 'insurgent arts activists' which engage with social and environmental justice issues, took up the renovated engine room of a former cotton mill in Ancoats to organize a series of exhibition, workshops, screenings, talks and public interventions. Each of the selected works and discussions invited citizens of Greater Manchester to reflect on possible alternative and resistance to consumerism and the disempowerment that it represents. The events explored themes related to the Ancoats community, social network structures used for activism, people's relationship to capitalism, sustainability in urban context, and campaigning effectively for social change.

I wish i could have spent more time at Politika's workshops and other events but i did have a good look around the exhibition and i'd say that the selection of works was really REALLY good. Most of the installations, videos and objects documented actions that were brave, witty and happened in the public space.

Here's a far too short selection:

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Robin Hood Minor Asset Management Cooperative representatives at the launch of Politika. Photo Upper Space

Robin Hood Minor Asset Management Cooperative (RHMAM) is an asset management cooperative whose mission is to bend the financialization of economy into the advantage of precarious workers. RHMAM developed what they called a Parasite Algorithm that hooks to the brains of the financial elite at Wall Street and puts their knowledge to work for the cooperative. Profits are then shared with "Robin Hood Projects," including "grants for creative work, no interest loans, or anything else," to be determined by the members of the cooperative. I'm going to investigate that one further because it sounds brilliant. But no need to wait for my follow-up post, just sign up and become a member!

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Francisco Tapas (aka Papas Fritas), Ash coins at Politika. Photo Upper Space

In May of 2014, Francisco Tapia - aka 'Papas Fritas', burned $500 million of student loans contracts from the Universidad del Mar, and freed students from their debt. The private, run-for-profit university is a notorious money laundering society for various real estate companies. The Chilean artist and activist sneaked into a vault at the university, removed tuition records and then burned the documents, rendering it nearly impossible for the Universidad del Mar to call in its debt. He later exhibited the ashes inside a camper van as an art show.

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Steve Lambert, Capitalism Works for Me. Politika. Photo Upper Space


Intervention at Labour Party Conference, Manchester 2014

As part of Politika, Upper Space collaborated with Steve Lambert and drove the artist's gigantic Capitalism sign on a truck tour to the Labour party conference in Manchester on September 21st. We wanted to engage citizens of Manchester by taking the elephant out of the room, and down to the conference to generate discussion, debate and conversations about our relationships with the 'C' word - Capitalism.

The little truck trip was a great idea because if there's one place where this work belongs it's outside of an art gallery.


Shift//Delete, Act of Parliament

Shift//Delete's Act of Parliament projection is as silly as it is spot on. He turned the Gherkin, the iconic building of London's financial district, into the world's biggest penis. And the bankers into wankers.

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Chim Pom, Red Card, 2011

One of the members of Chim Pom worked undercover at the Fukushima nuclear plant and photographed himself dressed wearing a radiation protection suit and holding up a red card in front of the destroyed plant.

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Exhibition view (the engine room) of Politika. Photo Upper Space

Why don't we ever see anything like that in London? Why the apathy (please, feel free to contradict me, you'd actually do me a favour)? It's not as if capitalism doesn't give us enough reasons to cry over here, right?

Politika was the starting point of a 4 year community-led project and it is part of a broader reflection involving local residents about the issues that include the loss identity (and place) of the traditionally working class, regeneration policies in the area, the community relationship to wider socio-political ideologies, etc. I'm definitely looking forward to Upper Space's upcoming moves.

More images from Politika:

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Politika. Photo Upper Space

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Politika launch. Photo Upper Space

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Politika launch. Photo Upper Space

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Chim Pom at Politika. Photo Upper Space

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Urban Foraging for Politika. Photo Upper Space

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Workshop outside for Politika. Photo Upper Space

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Politika workshop. Photo Upper Space

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Politika workshop. Photo Upper Space

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Check out also Politika: Art & Local Power In Manchester, UK on Important Cool.

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