Blood Oil. Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules That Run the World by Leif Wenar, Chair of Ethics at King's College London.

On amazon USA and UK.

Publisher Oxford University Press writes: Throughout the world, resource-rich countries are plagued by tyranny, violence, and corruption. With precious few exceptions, the political elites in such nations control natural resources, which are often the primary--and sometimes the only--source of wealth generation, and do not need to rely on popular support to maintain their rule. Their wealth comes from selling the resource overseas, which in turn gives them the income they need to buy off the military, the police, and the business sector. Oppressive, corrupt autocracies are the all-too-frequent result, and such regimes have been the source of many--perhaps most--US foreign policy headaches over the last fifty years. Yet despite their pariah-like status, these regimes continue to exist and even prosper-especially oil-powered regimes. For all of the criticism directed at resource-rich autocracies by Western critics, Western consumers remain reliant on them for the materials that fuel their cars and comprise their computers.

The book is fascinating exploration of the curse of natural resources, aka the paradox of plenty, experienced by countries and regions which have an abundance of natural resources (especially raw materials like petroleum, metals and gems) but tend to have less economic growth and worse development outcomes than countries with fewer natural resources.

As its title suggests, the book focuses on oil and explains how many oil states either do not grow richer (Gabon, Irak, Angola, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, etc.) or else go insanely whealthy without their population significantly benefiting from it socially and economically (Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, etc.)

The first part of the book is engrossing, the author lists governments' mismanagement of resources, abuses of power, extensive corruption and quotes a series of astonishing statistics such as the one that indicates that oil states are 50% more likely to be ruled by authoritarian government and twice as likely to experience civil war as non-oil states.

The second part highlights our complicity with the petrocrats. Not just at governmental levels but also at consumer level. Every time we buy gasoline, clothes, perfumes, vitamin, water magazines, tablets, toothpaste, corn flakes, we send money to dictators.

Making parallels with the Atlantic slave trade -which end once seemed unimaginable, Wenar believes that social justice can be implemented by adopting of a set of foreign policy measures such as an internationally signed Clean Trade Act.


Poetics and Politics of Data, edited by Sabine Himmelsbach and Claudia Mareis.

Publisher Merian Verlag writes: ‹Poetics and Politics of Data› reflects life in a world increasingly controlled by data and presents artistic positions that aim to make continuous streams of data visible - whether using Internet-based installations or graphic data visualizations. The participating artists question the relevance and place of the individual in a technologically connected society in which every day, each of us generates a nearly incomprehensible amount of data: Our every move on the Internet leaves behind a digital trace. In critical essays, Orit Halpern, Sabine Himmelsbach, Lev Manovich, Claudia Mareis, Ramón Reichert and Roberto Simanowski explore the phenomena of ‹Big Data› and ‹Data Mining› and pose critical questions about the ambivalence of life in a «datified» world.

Written in both English and German, this book is the catalogue of an exhibition at Haus der elektronischen Künste about data. Not just big data staged to look stylish. Or data to decypher and make sense of the world. But data that controls, watches over, and generates fortunes out of our desires to 'share.' Or as Evgeny Morozov said more eloquently while talking about the commodification of personal data it's possible to capture and monetize every moment we spend awake (and, it seems, also asleep).

Participating works are explained in depth (none of that 'let's just copy/paste the text from the artist's website' laziness) and the essays commissioned give insightful information about data in contexts that go from health monitoring to the prevalence of data collecting over theory, to cloud computing, to Edward Snowden. Right now, i can't think of any other book that pinpoints in such a wide-ranging and critical way the topic of politics and data. This is a solid publication that goes beyond its simple role of being an art catalogue.


After the Agreement. Contemporary Photography in Northern Ireland, edited by Sarah Tuck.

On amazon UK and USA.

Publisher Black Dog Publishing writes: After the Agreement is an exploration and critical analysis of contemporary photography in Belfast after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, and its relationship to a duty of memory, and ideas of justice and betrayal.

The book draws on a series of practitioner-led talks by the photographers John Duncan, Mary McIntyre, Malcolm Craig Gilbert, Paul Seawright, Kai Olaf Hesse and David Farrell, providing a discursive space that is part academy, part community activism and part cultural practice. These were intended to enable an exploration of contemporary photography in analytical proximity to what is going on currently across a range of disciplines: urbanism and the regeneration of the city, curatorial practices, the arts academy, community activism and photographic practice. Through placing contemporary photography in dialogue with other disciplines and the contested histories of the city, the series explored the centrality and complexity of meaning as an intersection of the social, political and aesthetic.

The Good Friday Agreement , signed in 1998, brought to an end the 30 years of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland known as 'The Troubles'. You don't need to be a history enthusiast to enjoy the book. It relies on the words of photographers rather than on critics or historians' essays. The conversations (which involved the photographers but also researchers and experts in various disciplines) reproduced in the pages are thus beautifully subjective and illuminating. I can't think of a more engrossing and intelligent background for the photos. Here's a couple i discovered while reading the book:

Mary McIntyre, The Underpass I, 2003

David Farrell, Oristown, 2000 from Innocent Landscapes

In his series Sectarian Murder, Paul Seawright photographed the locations where sectarian murders took place the 1970's. The perspective of each image is the one of a victim laying on the floor, allowing viewers to put themselves in the victim's place. Most of the images are fairly mundane until you read the brief texts that accompany them, they are taken from newspaper reports at the time and document the murders of civilians, killed for their religion.

Paul Seawright, Sectarian Murder

Paul Seawright, Sectarian Murder

Paul Seawright, Sectarian Murder

Seawright returned to Belfast during the early stages of the ceasefire to document local defensive architecture on the edges of housing projects.

Paul Seawright, Cage, Belfast


Uncommon Grounds. New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East, edited by Anthony Downey.

On amazon USA and UK.

Ibraaz Publishing and I.B. Tauris write: In this groundbreaking book, a range of internationally renowned and emerging academics, writers, artists, curators, activists and filmmakers critically reflect on the ways in which visual culture has appropriated and developed new media across North Africa and the Middle East. Examining the opportunities presented by the real-time generation of new, relatively unregulated content online, Uncommon Grounds evaluates the prominent role that new media has come to play in artistic practices - and social movements - in the Arab world today. Analysing alternative forms of creating, broadcasting, publishing, distributing and consuming digital images, this book also enquires into a broader global concern: does new media offer a 'democratization' of - and a productive engagement with - visual culture, or merely capitalize upon the effect of immediacy at the expense of depth?

Cardboard Khomeini, a photoshop meme based on an Iranian state ceremony that used a cardboard effigy of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to celebrate his 1979 return to Tehran

Books about new media art don't usually venture beyond the borders of Europe and the U.S.A. Some might be brave enough to attempt excursions to Japan, Korea, or Australia but other parts of the world remain mostly uncharted and unrecalled. That's why i welcomed Uncommon Grounds with open arms.

The book is nor a mere presentation of new media art in North Africa and the Middle East, of who made this or that installation and exhibited where. Instead, new media is placed into a broader, more social context. One made of citizens reporting, protesting, reappropriating images, offering counter-narratives to governmental media, exploring the role of the war on terror in entertainment, etc. And doing the kind of things media artist do so well: subverting, glitching, or offering counter-narratives to governmental media.

The essays in the book leave space for a few artists' inserts that focus on particular works by artists i already knew about (Wafaa Bilal, Tarzan and Arab) and by talents i was yet to discover (Sarah Abu Abdallah, Fayçal Baghriche, Rahib Mroué, Ganzeer, etc.)

Ganzeer working in Cairo. Photo: TMK1 Studios (via)

Sarah Abu Abdallah, Saudi Automobile


The Ghost Army of World War II. How One Top-Secret Unit Deceived the Enemy with Inflatable Tanks, Sound Effects, and Other Audacious Fakery , by documentary filmmaker and author Rick Beyer and illustrator Elizabeth Sayles.

It's on amazon USA and UK.

Publisher Princeton Architectural Press writes: In the summer of 1944, a handpicked group of young GIs that included such future luminaries as Bill Blass, Ellsworth Kelly, Arthur Singer, Victor Dowd, Art Kane, and Jack Masey landed in France to conduct a secret mission. Armed with truckloads of inflatable tanks, a massive collection of sound-effects records, and more than a few tricks up their sleeves, their job was to create a traveling road show of deception on the battlefields of Europe, with the German Army as their audience. From Normandy to the Rhine, the 1,100 men of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, known as the Ghost Army, conjured up phony convoys, phantom divisions, and make-believe headquarters to fool the enemy about the strength and location of American units. Between missions the artists filled their duffel bags with drawings and paintings and dragged them across Europe. Every move they made was top secret and their story was hushed up for decades after the war's end.

If you read pretty much any blog, you've heard of the Ghost Army, a tactical deception unit composed of actors, artists, and sound experts whose mission involved devising inflatable tanks and airplanes, trucks blasting off sounds of armored and infantry units, fake radio transmissions and other tricks to mislead the German Army.

This is the ultimate and most complete book about a unit which existence was long kept a secret. It's one of those impressively heavy coffee table book. Lots of images, impeccable graphic design. However, i felt that the content, though great, was sometimesa bit 'diluted' as it was less about the art of tricking the enemy and more about the individual artists and their experience of war.

Dummy M4 Sherman tank, part of the 'Ghost Army' Photo: BARCROFT

Speakers mounted on Army jeeps broadcast phony troop movements. Credit: Rick Beyer/Ghost Army

The 500-pound speakers played a collection of sound effects carefully designed to fool enemy troops. Credit: Rick Beyer/Ghost Army

Aerial photograph of 23rd Headquarters Special Troops' dummies lined up in the Anrath-Dulken area as part of Operation Viersen in March of 1945. Note the fake tank tracks that have been scored in the fields

Inflated rubber airplane

Diagram for inflating M4 dummy tank

Ghost army operations map


Photo iii (in case you thought these were my arms)

No Patent Pending, self-made performative media, edited by Matteo Marangoni.

On amazon UK.

Publisher iii writes: How to convey ephemeral, performative practices based around unique and inventive media within the fixed and standardized format of a book?

This publication by iii presents itself as a large pack of cards that the reader is invited to explore. The cards are shuffled at random, forcing intruders to reverse engineer its sorting algorithm. Each individual copy of the book was manually assembled following a procedural score composed by Lars Kynde and performed by iii.

Contributions range from theoretical essays to poetic exercises with text and image reflecting a wide range of practices seeking radically subjective approaches to media in performance. DIY media technologies, avant-garde music rituals, artistic-scientific hybrids, idiosyncratic new instruments, speculative business approaches, phenomenological investigations, open-source and feminist perspectives on digital culture are all present here as part of a cut-up treatise on media less traveled.

To explore 'self-made performative media' (me neither), the book adopts the artist-run platform iii's approach of designing and constructing a medium from the ground up. As far as i can judge, the content of the book is excellent, eclectic, smart and full of surprises.

I'm not sure about the idea of playing with the format of the book. Actually, no, i'm quite sure i find it irritating. The pages are not bound together. They are rigid sheets of paper that you first have to mix, swap, collect and rearrange. It's supposed to be a 'playful challenge.' I've no patience. Jose Luis Espejo Díaz, who's clearly a more open-minded and tolerant reader than i am, enjoyed the exercise and reviewed the book for the excellent Mediateletipos. Do check his own review of the publication.


THE FUNAMBULIST is a bimestrial printed and digital magazine complemented with a blog and a podcast (Archipelago) edited by Léopold Lambert. Its subtitle, "Politics of Space and Bodies," expresses it ambition to bridge the world of design (architecture, urbanism, industrial and fashion design) with the world of the humanities (philosophy, anthropology, history, geography, etc.) through critical articles written by long-time collaborators as well as new ones.

Over the past few years, i've been following Lambert's investigation into how the built environment is used as a political weapon. Much of the content the architect produces is free. But because Lambert's work is of high quality and pretty unique for the grounds it covers and the rigorous way it approaches it, it felt natural to me to just click on 'buy' as soon as i found out he was publishing a magazine.

Example of a New York Police Department SkyWatch foldable tower, 2008

An Israeli military checkpoint in the old city in Hebron, West Bank. Getty Images, via Aljazeera

The Funambulist magazine is bilingual french and english. This first issue looks at the violence of military organization in the city and postulates that the violence is not necessarily something that come from the outside. In many cases, the architecture of the city contains this very violence within itself.

The first part of the books analyzes in depth 5 specific case studies: Beirut, Lahore, Jerusalem, Cairo, and Oakland.

Since 2009, Mona Fawaz, Mona Harb & Ahmad Gharbieh have been mapping security in Beirut. The temporary checkpoints, security cameras, screening measures in large department stores, barbed wires, speed bumps, sand bags, tanks, and other physical elements of the security apparatus not only condition the way inhabitants navigate the streets everyday, they also install a segregation that shelters politicians and "high income city dwellers" inside their own bubble. More importantly, these security measures create a visible architecture of fear that affects every citizen's experience of the city.

In her research covering bomb blasts in Lahore, Sadia Shirazi calls this Pakistani city one of the greatest unacknowledged casualties of the United States' "war on terror." She demonstrates convincingly how security apparatuses delineate boundaries, reduces public space and restrict movements and experiences of the city. The result is a city that looks more threatening than secure.

Mohamed Elshahed focuses on the multiple forms that the militarization of Cairo has been taking since 2011.

Oakland. Image via The Archipelago

Oakland. Image via The Archipelago

The Demilit group (Javier Arbona, Bryan Finoki & Nick Sowers) takes a bunkered telecom hotel tower as a symbol of how the city of Oakland is being vacuumed by a consortium of public and private security agencies.

Finally Nora Akawi uses the poster designed for Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design's 2015 graduate exhibition as a starting point to explores Jerusalem and the Zionist's fantasy of an empty land, open to be inhabited and built upon. While denying Palestinians the possibility to plan for the future

The rest of the publication is equally engrossing. It features an interview with Philippe Theophanidis about the legal and logistic processes that govern a 'state of exception' such as the one that characterized the manhunt of Boston in April 2013 when 2,500 police officers were deployed in the city to arrest Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for his participation in the Boston Marathon bombings 4 years earlier

Next comes an astonishing photo series showing Jerusalem from above. The most striking feature of the photos is the wall. Not the ones that attract tourists from all over the world but the 500 km wall started in 2002 by Ariel Sharon.

The magazine closes on a series of projects by students in architecture that further speculate and investigate these Politics of Space and Bodies.

A Lebanese Army Security checkpoint. Photo via alalam

I highly recommend that you either download or get the paper version The Funambulist. The pages make for an interesting and informative read that stay with you long after you've closed the magazine. The essays, photos and discussions invite readers to look at their own city in a more critical and inquisitive way, making it hard not to question every barrier, new 'security' measure, parking interdiction, private security booth and other, more subtle way to control the flow of citizens.

You can still get plenty of free content on The Funambulist blog and on the Archipelago podcasts but this first issue of the printed/digital magazine is so good that Lambert's work is definitely worth a very affordable subscription.

Related: an interview i did in 2012 with Léopold Lambert about his book Weaponized Architecture.

The quality of groundwater is heavily affected by modern life: industrial discharges, urban activities, waste disposal and other human activities contaminate drinking and irrigation water with undesirable pollutants.

Looking for innovative ways to supply agricultural fields with clean water, artist Rihards Vitols is currently experimenting with a new type of agronomy that relies on "cloud-farming". In his scenario, farmers will raise thousands of helium balloons above their land to collect water from the cloud. Demonstration in the video below:

Rihards Vitols (artistic concept, video editing) and Janis Jankevics (video)

akA is part of the Transformative Ecologies exhibition which will open this week at the Maison du Design gallery in Mons, Belgium. The show features the result of the "techno-ecological" researches initiated by Latvian and Belgian artists who are exploring sustainable food and energy futures.

Right before the show opens, i caught up with the Vitols to get more details about his first prototypes and experiments:



Launching the first balloon to collect data (with Eva Bukevica)

Launching the first balloon to collect data

Hi Rihards! How did you get the idea for the project?

In the beginning the project was about clouds. I wanted to collect and archive data from clouds over my great-grandparents land, which I did using weather balloons and attaching humidity and temperature sensors to them. After a while I started to notice that balloons are slowly losing height. I took one of them down to check if there was a leak. But instead I noticed that small water drops are all over the balloon surface. Then the winter came and I had some time to think about how I could work with this process. During the Autumn a lot of people around me were talking about the future of water and then the idea about akA and Cloud Farming came into my head.

I was surprised at how low-tech the mechanism was. It looks so simple. But are there tricks and secrets to ensure that the system works as efficiently as possible? Or challenges you had to overcome while developing the project?

It is simple. But it is not fast. You need to wait while the water lands on the balloon and it can take some time. One of the challenges is the wind. If it's windy it's harder to get it up in the sky. Wind is just blowing it away diagonally. The second challenge is to launch multiple balloons in one field. I am still thinking about methods so that they would not get entangled with each other. Water collecting is still in progress and I am looking for the best solution. I used a sponge but obviously it`s not the best way, because some part of the water stays in it. At the moment those are all only ideas and i will be doing some further testing next spring.

Sketch for farming

Sketch for farming

Sketch for farming

Could you walk us through the ideal scenario for akA? it would have to be implemented at large scale with thousands of balloons, right? But what is the process like on a large scale? Would the balloons have to be operative non-stop? Or just be deployed when there is a need for more water? How would a farmer use it exactly?

Farm size depends on the land size. But the ideal would be 1000+ balloons of 3 meters in diameter. All balloons would be lifted at once and connected in a network so they stay in place. Water gathering would need to be automated and at the moment I'm thinking about using a waterproof paper material to create a funnel which then would be attached to the balloon. I'm also considering using a lightweight tube from funnel to farm so that water can safely make its way to the purification station. A daily task of the farmer would be to check if all of the balloons are okay, also to fill the balloons with helium at least once every 2 weeks, fill bottles with water and send them out to shops or private buyers. I would like to automate it so far that all of the work takes only 2-4 days per month. One of best things is that the ground under the balloons can still be used for other things.

View of the prototype at the Virtuous exhibition at the RIXC gallery in Riga

View of the prototype at the Virtuous exhibition at the RIXC gallery in Riga

View of the prototype at the Virtuous exhibition at the RIXC gallery in Riga

Is the water from the clouds really as pure as it should be? Aren't clouds submitted to industrial pollution as well?

During the winter kids are eating snow - during the summer they are running around with their mouth open trying to catch the falling rain, at least in Latvia they do so. No one has gotten sick of it. Of course in a larger amount and in a bigger concentration it may not be so healthy. So all of the water needs to be checked before selling it further.

Sketch for data collecting

You have started to collect moist and temperature data about the sky over your land. Could you tell us what you found out?

Data collecting helped me to find the moistest place and time around the property. All data collection was before the water collection and at that moment there was no reason to find out something just to get data. Now I can use this data to show how fertile the sky over my property is for the potential cloud farmers who would like to rent my land for water collecting, if I would choose to stop collecting it by myself.

What's next for the project?

Together with a designer Reinis Nalivaiko I`m building a webpage about the project. All information on the project will be available in the webpage, along with the data about the sky where the water and its analysis are being collected from. The concepts of the water collection systems will be also there along with the documentation from their appliance.

Next spring I want to get the cloud water tested and compare this data with tap water, rain water and borehole water. And then based on these data I would be able to find out what kind of purification system I need for the farm.

With a help of an architect Ivars Veinbergs that would allow me to make an architectural project and maybe in the next 2 years I will be able to create the first Cloud Farm.

Thanks Rihards!

Rihards Vitols holds a master's degree in new media art from Liepaja University where he is now teaching. And in a few weeks the artist will start a second masters degree at KHM (Academy of Media Arts Cologne).

Check out akA at the Transformative Ecologies exhibition on 19 to 30 August at Maison du Design in Mons, Belgium. The show is curated by Rasa Smite and Raitis Smits from RIXC Center for New Media Culture and is accompanied by a 3D BioLab symposium on August 20th and 21st in Cafe Europa.

Center for Tactical Magic, The Tactical Ice Cream Unit, 2005

Center for Tactical Magic, The Tactical Ice Cream Unit, 2005

I've been dreaming of interviewing The Center for Tactical Magic ever since i read about the existence of this activist art collective in one of my favourite art catalogues ever: The Interventionists. Users' Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life.

Lucky me, last week, i finally got to talk over Skype with Aaron Gach, the founder of the Center for Tactical Magic and a professor at the California College of the Arts. Gach is an artist with the most unusual background. As part of his artistic training, he decided to study with 3 people who have their own understanding of power: a magician, a ninja, and a private investigator and there is a bit of the strategies deployed by each of these figures in the work of the CTM. The work of the group is further enriched by the expertise brought about by the individuals and communities CTM collaborates with: hypnotists, biologists, engineers, nurses, military intelligence officers, radical ecologists, former bank robbers, security experts, etc.

Center for Tactical Magic, The Ultimate Jacket

Center for Tactical Magic, Witches' Cradles, Toronto, Canada

The Center for Tactical Magic uses any craft and scheme available, from the most magical to the most pragmatic, to address issues of power relations and self-empowerment. At the CTM we are committed to achieving the Great Work of Tactical Magic through community-based projects, daily interdiction, and the activation of latent energies toward positive social transformation.

CTM's work combines appealing aesthetics, humour and language with actions that invite people to think, question and reclaim their civil rights. Their most famous project is the Tactical Ice Cream Unit, a truck distributing free ice cream along with propaganda developed by local progressive groups. Another of their initiative saw them launch a bank heist contest. And a year before that, they responded to New York's stop-and-frisk policy by screening Linking & Unlinking on a digital billboard in Manhattan. The billboard showed amateur footage demonstrating how to pick a pair of handcuffs, magicians performing a classic magic trick called "linking rings", while a text from the American Civil Liberties Union was scrolling down and explaining passersby what their rights were if they were stopped by the police. In 2013, they set up big Witches' Cradles that evoke the Inquisition and enveloped people into an altered state (of consciousness, or an altered political state). Most recently, Gach directed and performed a radical magic show which drew parallels between magic acts and contemporary issues such as economic manipulation, political deception, vanishing resources, and social transformation.

Hi Aaron! The Tactical Ice Cream Unit is probably one of my favorite works ever. I first heard about it almost 10 years ago. The vehicle combines 'a number of successful activist strategies (Food-Not-Bombs, Copwatch, Indymedia, infoshops, etc) into one mega-mobile", and comes with high-tech surveillance devices. Are you still using it?

Yes, still using it! Not as much as when it was launched but it does still make it out occasionally. So it's definitely not an everyday operation, it's kind of a labour of love.

Center for Tactical Magic, The Tactical Ice Cream Unit, 2005

Center for Tactical Magic, The Tactical Ice Cream Unit, 2005

When do you use it? When there's something happening and you feel it would be right to intervene? Or more when you're invited by a museum or festival for example?

All of the above. Sometimes it's an invitation to do something with it. Sometimes there's an event happening or an issue where it seems like it would make sense to bring it out.

Recently, and for the first time, there was a protest event where i actually felt like it was inappropriate to bring it out. We've been having a lot of racial tensions in the U.S. and there were a number of protests in Oakland around police brutality. We've done police accountability protests with the Tactical Ice Cream Unit in the past. The TICU always brings with it a sort of levity or lightheartedness or a little bit of the carnival along with the serious critique. But because of how grave and serious these racial issues are, there was a sense that bringing the ice cream unit out to those protests could potentially give the wrong impression.

Have you found that you had to update or modify in any way your tools and strategies over the 10 years you've had the van?

Of course a lot has changed since we've launched it. At the end of 2004, there were not many mobile food trucks, it was not really a phenomenon at the time. The TICU turned heads a lot more than it does now in terms of its general appearance. But at the same time it also functions now as some kind of camouflage that didn't exist then. So in terms of masking ourselves, in some ways it got easier since it makes less of a visual impact.

As for the technology, when we first launched it we were using a mobile wifi transmitter and making it a mobile wifi hotspot. At the time, it wasn't that common at all. It was also expensive to do and it worked most of the time but the speeds for access were really slow. Most people now have access to the internet on their smartphone. The surveillance on the vehicle is still functional and the amount that we can record has increased. In the beginning, our whole hard drive system was something like 200 gigabytes and that has certainly grown. Even then, the way that we had the system up made it possible to record quite a lot. We had to do a tremendous amount of research to set up the power system. The vehicle was running on a gasoline combustion engine. We also had a generator, a battery bank that was being charged by solar panels and at the same time we were running something called phantom power which is a way of silently powering the electronics. This was essential because we wanted to make sure that the surveillance could be running even when the vehicle was turned off. This was more done as a theoretical design process, we wanted to see whether we could accomplish that goal. And there had been rumours floating around the internet of primarily military technologies that were able to do this and sure enough we were able to work with an engineer and designer whose main clients were the military and oil companies. Oil companies would run phantom power at remote sites where they didn't have power lines but they wanted to monitor oil fields. So we designed a system able to do that too for the vehicle. What is interesting is that, when we were in Indiana, the police illegally searched the TIU without our knowledge and they were caught on camera doing that. They didn't know it because the vehicle was turned off and there was no indication that there was power running.

Center for Tactical Magic, The Tactical Ice Cream Unit, 2005

Center for Tactical Magic, The Tactical Ice Cream Unit, 2005

Did you do something about it?

At the time we contacted lawyers and asked what we could do about it but they informed us that there wasn't much that we could do. We thought about publicizing the video footage. But at the time the TICU wasn't heavily used and we thought that making that footage available would potentially prevent that capability being used in the future. We didn't do much with it, it's in the archive. Maybe at some point, we'll break it out.

The ice cream truck driver hands out 'food for thoughts' leaflets along with the ice creams. What kind of 'propaganda flavors' can customers chose from? What's the content of the leaflets? Is it always the same or does it adapt to the events?

It changes all the time. At this point, we've distributed 200 to 250 different pieces of information. Some of it we select or curate. And some of it is selected by the organizations that contact us and send us material to distribute. The idea with leaflets was, on the one hand, to look at models of distribution that exist in community activism, models of distribution where people come together and act on campaigns that they might otherwise not hear or read about. On the other hand, we were looking at the structure of distribution. People are often reluctant to take a leaflet from an activist who is standing in front of them but there are different ways to get people to accept the information. For example, if you go to a restaurant, and you get handed a menu, you don't resent the waiter for asking you to make a selection. You tend not to select in the menu an item that you are put off by. You look at the options and decide on something that is appealing to you. So we were thinking of the menu as a structure for distribution as well. Our 'propaganda' menu exists side by side with different flavours of ice cream and people can pick and choose. There is no direct correlation between a chocolate ice cream and anarchism, for example. People can mix and match what flavours they want. The actual topics of information found on the leaflets go from alternative energy to guerrilla gardening to social justice, to gender justice, to war, war on poverty, class issues, feminism, post-feminism, etc. We also have a few historical items such as the Black Panthers Ten Point Plan. And we have information that is specifically created for children about Greenpeace, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, civil liberties, surveillance, etc. It's a huge range of information.

0Ghost Machine Moabit sm.jpg
Center for Tactical Magic, Ghost Machine

Of course, i have to ask you about magic. I always dismissed the magic dimension of your work simply because i don't take magic seriously at all. But i realize that you do take magic seriously. Reading your interviews, i found that you are not only well versed in magic but you are also very specific about it. You said in an interview with the Center for Artistic Activism: "I'm definitely situated within the spectrum of stage magic and theatrical performance on one end, and occult and metaphysics, kind of ritual magic, supernatural phenomena on the other end." That surprised me because words like 'occult', 'ritual' and 'supernatural' are a bit dark, aren't they? How does occultism for example apply to your artistic practice? And can i engage with your work while keeping on ignoring any reference to magic?

I hope so. I think one of the strategies and challenges when building this kind of work is to always incorporate multiple points of access. Within the work, there has to be different moments that appeal to different people. We're trying to develop projects that are multilayered so magic itself itself exists at multiple levels. What i mean by that is that everyone understands that word 'magic' but they imagine completely different things when they hear the word 'magic.' We use the same language and assume an understanding but this understanding is vastly different on a subjective level and you can even add on a collective subjective level. When we use the term 'magic' both in the name and the realization of a project, there is a realization that there is going to be an explosion of meanings and at the same time a sort of dismissal. This dismissal is historically a way in which magic sometimes alienates itself, sometimes protects itself, sometimes separates itself and that can be as a survival strategy, as an escapist notion, etc. But i think that's where the power of that idea of magic exists.

In the Center for Tactical Magic, there is usually a concerted effort to try and balance out or explore the range of possibilities which typically get book ended between tricks on the one hand and some degree of spirituality on the other hand. When i began this investigation, my thinking was that magic existed only as tricks as a stage magician. The magician i worked with felt very differently. He thought that his understanding of illusionist magic would help in differentiating between the spookier sides of magic. And that opened up a lot of different interpretations and possibilities for me. Since then that exploration has become pivotal within the development for the Center for Tactical Magic.

Center for Tactical Magic, Uprising!

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Center for Tactical Magic, FUBAR Magic Show

How was it pivotal?

What i mean by that is that it seems like a fixed position from which you can rotate in any direction. From a position of acting, it means that you have multiple options and directions that you can move from. It's a formal strategy, it's a discursive strategy, it's also a performative strategy for acting in the world. And some of that is informed by studying within martial arts where i learnt that you don't ever want to be stuck in a place where your options are very limited. For me it's not about being ambiguous or evasive just for the sake of being ambiguous or evasive. But you open up options, different ways of addressing an issue, a topic, an event or a situation as it is unfolding.

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Center for Tactical Magic, Transporter. A Social Witches' Cradle

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Center for Tactical Magic, Witches' Cradles. In Search of an Altered State

I'd like to go back to the darker side of magic. In the interview mentioned above you talk about occultism. Does it apply to your practice?

The word 'occult' literally means 'hidden.' When we think about what is hidden then all of a sudden what we might consider occult enters into that same conversation. So we look at things like military black budgets, or laws that are not transparent in terms of how they affect people's life. Or even the degree to which we understand technologies or how technologies operate or function, both in a physical sense -what is exactly happening inside the phone mechanically or electronically- but also in the sense of how does the functioning of a technology impacts us in ways that we don't see. And this can include things like the fact that it relies on invisible signals, it relies on the electromagnetic spectrum which our eyes cannot detect without other devices. But it also determines our social relations or economic relations because it impacts the way we communicate. Once we are open to those associations, we start to backtrack and look at how the history of occultism is very directly tied to our present condition. What i mean by that is the history of occultism is not simply people behaving in 'dark ways'. You need to banish this false dichotomy of light and dark, good and evil. There are certainly colonial overtones to that association of dark as evil and making those connections simplifies what it is that we are talking about. Most of the claims historically of occultism in a huge varieties of areas is -to one degree or another- about empowerment and i think in 'darker' instances, empowerment means power over others but in the more positive instances, it also means communal power or coming to power together, or avoiding situations where abuse of power by others is taking place.

How can we bring more magic to our life? And should we?

I would go back one moment and say: i think you should take magic seriously but also not too seriously. I would say the same thing about government business. I think you should take government and business seriously but also not too seriously?

Why not too seriously?

I think because you have to approach it critically. You have to approach it rigorously. You have to be engaged.

There is also power in play. There is magic that happens when you approach something with a degree of levity, with this idea that there are rules to any game. And once you understand the game, there are ways to bend those rules or figure out how to interact in ways that might be unexpected. So it's not that we dismiss corporations or governments or that we disregard their power in the world but at the same time, if we take them too seriously and only too seriously we miss out on opportunities to subvert or circumvent what it is that they are doing in the world.

Maybe the shorter version would be to say that i think government and corporations are invested in shaping reality and shaping reality is an inherently creative process and playing is also a way to engaging creative process to shape alternative realities.

But let's get back to your earlier question which was about making the world more magical. I understand that when we develop projects that are magic related, people might be dismissive towards either that name 'magic' or the idea of magic. It is sometimes a barrier to entry but the hope is also that once people realize that their assumptions were false or misguided or oversimplified, there is an opening up in terms of what the possibilities are. Magic is all about constantly redirecting people's assumptions or perceptions about the world. So one thing you can do to have a magical outlook is to always question things like use value, status quo, associations for either materials or relationships and realize they are not fixed. Once you understand the ability to morph those relationships or associations, all of a sudden everything starts to become more magical.

The Center for Tactical Magic seems to be quite successful at engaging the audience, at making them part of the experiences. Including people who might otherwise not be particularly responsive to the kind of social, political or economical issues your projects raise. How do you manage that? Are there some rules? Special tricks?

We use a pop aesthetic at times and we try and draw from cultural themes and expressions that people can relate to but there is this uncanny element to all the projects: people will see something that they are familiar with but presented in an unfamiliar way. In that moment, a recalibration takes place, people start to consider their understanding of the familiar part with respect to the unfamiliar part. When it's done really well, it forces new cognitive categories to form. All of a sudden people have to create a new category and if that new category is potent enough it will also infect all future associations.

To go back to the Ice Cream Unit for example, people understand ice cream truck and they understand propaganda but when they have the two things together, it changes their associations with both and in the future there is a moment where they encounter another ice cream truck or another model of distribution and it will connect back to the experience that they had with the TICU and potentially it informs their future relations to other things that are connected. Maybe that is expecting too much from a project but that's the hope in the way these projects are constructed.

Center for Tactical Magic, Linking & Unlinking (a.k.a. - Know Your Rights)

Most of the work of the Center is quite political. Have you ever faced any legal retaliation? or problems with the police? for the Linking & Unlinking - Know Your Rights screening, for example? Or for any other work?

It happens on a semi regular basis. There haven't been huge entanglement. Knock on wood! Most of the time, it's some sort of confrontation and it usually more or less resolves itself quietly. There was a standoff with the police with the TICU in Vancouver, Canada, that lasted quite a long time. With the Cricket-Activated Defense System, there were some interesting correspondence, communications and interviews that seemed to come from law enforcement. Strangely enough, the police tried to prevent the kite project (that we did at Huntington Beach in California) from happening and when it did happen they flew a helicopter over the event to monitor it.

It happens from time to time but we do consult with lawyers around our projects, we are generally pretty good at making sure that the conversation with law enforcement doesn't get us into hotter water than need be. I'm trying to be very careful with my language there. There have been some tough times. There's been some times when we have attracted attention that was problematic.

Center for Tactical Magic, Cricket-Activated Defense System, 2000

Center for Tactical Magic, Cricket-Activated Defense System, 2000

So you're not actively encouraging confrontation or censorship as a part of your artistic strategy? As a way to generate more attention about a given issue?

No. Projects that court confrontation often strengthen polemic and thinking in those binary systems. Even in projects where we are addressing things like police and protester dynamics, we are not trying to diffuse those situations, we are trying to figure out the approach or the position from which you can have the most productive outcome. A confrontation where you are doing something potentially illegal and then you get a police response does not produce a ripple through a greater discourse. What might become a productive moment is when someone is actually practicing their civil or legal rights within a certain context and that person makes visible the power dynamics that might suppress those rights.

Daniel Ferrer (Lucifer), left, and Aaron Gach (Magician) perform in "The Light and Dark Arts: A Radical Magic Show," opening May 28 at UC Davis. Huan Yu/Courtesy photo

I'm curious about The Light & Dark Arts: A Radical Magic Show that ended a few weeks ago at UC Davis' Main Theater. What was the show like?

It was the first time that i had ever worked into a theatre context. I was writing and directing. Two weeks before the first show, the lead actor broke his hand. He happened to be a student that i was training as a magician. I ended up having to step in as the lead, as the magician. I ended up writing, directing and acting for this first theatre production. So it was unexpected and a bit wild but the audience response was fantastic. People seemed to love it.

Any other upcoming works, research, events you'd like to share with us?

There's two shows coming up. One is an art show in New Mexico that is specifically oriented around the police state and surveillance. And then there's an event in Atlanta, Georgia. A public arts festival with tens of thousands of people that come out for a single night event. We have a new project in the works for that event but it's still very much in development.

Thanks Aaron!

The Gulf. High Culture/Hard Labor, edited by Andrew Ross for Gulf Labor. With a foreword by Sarah Leah Whitson from Human Rights Watch.


Publisher OR Books writes: On Saadiyat Island, just off the coast of Abu Dhabi, branches of iconic cultural institutions, including the Louvre, the Guggenheim, the British Museum and New York University, are taking shape to the designs of starchitects such as Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid, and Norman Foster. In this way, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) seeks to burnish its reputation as a sophisticated destination for wealthy visitors and residents.

Beneath the glossy veneer of the Saadiyat real estate plan, however, lies a tawdry reality. Those laboring on the construction sites are migrant workers who arrive from poor countries heavily indebted as a result of recruitment and transit fees. Once in the UAE the sponsoring employer takes their passports, houses them in sub-standard labor camps, pays much less than they were promised, and enforces a punishing work regimen. If they protest publicly, they risk arrest, beatings, and deportation.

For five years, the Gulf Labor Coalition, a cosmopolitan group of artists and writers, has been pressuring Saadiyat's Western cultural brands to ensure worker protections. Gulf Labor has coordinated a boycott of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and pioneered innovative direct action that has involved several spectacular museum occupations. As part of a year-long initiative, an array of artists, writers, and activists submitted a work, a text, or an action.

Workers at an NYU Abu Dhabi construction site. Sergey Ponomarev / New York Times. Via Jacobin mag

Hans Haacke, Saadiyat Island, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, 2011. More images from the series on Ibraaz

Photo: Mussafah camp, home to New York University Abu Dhabi workers, courtesy Gulf Labor. Via art info

Some 15 million migrant workers, mostly from South Asia, form the vast majority of the labor force in most Gulf states. In the UAE and Qatar, 90 percent of the work force and the population are migrant workers (both white collar and blue collar.) No matter how many years they have lived and worked there, or even if they were born there, these people have no voting, representation, or association rights. Thousands of them are currently working on construction sites to create Saadiyat Island ("Island of Happiness"), a £17bn cultural hub in Abu Dhabi that will soon host the new premises of international cultural institutions such as New York University, the Louvre and the Guggenheim.

Gregory Sholette, Saadiyat Island

Hans Haacke, Saadiyat Island, Museum Construction Site, 2011. More images from the series on Ibraaz

Better quality video at The Guardian

The men constructing the architectural 'icons' designed by the likes of Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid (aka the It's not my duty as an architect to look at it lady) and Tadao Ando, are trapped there since their passports have been confiscated, they receive lower than expected wages, are confined to substandard housing, are submitted to 10pm curfew, poor food as well as segregation in the official labour camp, etc.

Because of the notoriously low wages they receive, migrant labourers often have to work for years before they manage to pay off the debt they contracted to cover the recruitment and travel fees to the UAE. This recruitment debt is central to the system. No one would labor under such conditions unless they had to pay it off.

If they protest against the poor living/working conditions or unpaid wages, the workers get punished or deported.

And anyone who speaks in their favour isn't welcome in the country...

The editor of the book, Andrew Ross, is a professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, and a social activist. Earlier this year, he wanted to do some research on labor issues at Abu Dhabi, where a campus of his university is located but he was informed at JFK Airport that he could not enter the country. Similar rebukes awaited other members of the Gulf Labor Coalition. Artist Ashok Sukumaran was denied a visa to travel to the UAE. Walid Raad was turned back at the Dubai airport.

Migrant workers, in their tiny apartment in Abu Dhabi, earn as little as $272 a month while building a campus for New York University. Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Laborers nap on pieces of empty cardboard boxes during their midday break at the Dragon Mart Phase 2 construction site in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Photo AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili (The Associated Press), via ABQJournal

The artist group Gulf Labor Coalition has spent the past few years investigating and denouncing migrant worker abuse. But while the UAE and other Gulf governments can largely ignore the group's calls, the European and American cultural institutions who will be present on Saadiyat Island need to protect their 'brand' and the values they stand for. As Paula Chakravartty and Nitasha Dhillon write in their essay for the book: it remains urgent to continue to use our leverage as artists and scholars to hold US and European museums and universities accountable in their home countries for the abuses against human dignity of workers thousands of miles away.

The Gulf. High Culture/Hard Labor charters Gulf Labor's fight in a series of texts written by members of the coalition.

Some of the authors explore Western institutions complicity in migrant worker abuse on Saadiyat, other analyse the place of construction workers in the building process, report on visits and interviews with deported workers, look at the artists who have engaged in direct political action, draw lessons from examples of art and activism in the global stage, document performances organised inside the Guggenheim Museum in New York by G.U.L.F. (Global Ultra Luxury Faction, a 'Gulf Labor spinoff devoted to direct action' Global Ultra Luxury Faction, etc.

Guggenheim petro-dollars rain down, March 2014. Image Hyperallergic

The Gulf. High Culture/Hard Labor is lively, opinionated and eye-opening book. It is an important publication because of the realities it reveals and investigates. But it does more than that. The essays it contains can be read as a series of lessons for anyone, journalists, artists or activists, who want to take a stand, protest and challenge every complicit element leading to a situation of abuse and injustice.

Because things might be slow to change but that doesn't mean protesting is useless. As Sarah Leah Whitson notes in the foreword:

The efforts of Gulf Labor have prevented these world-class institutions from sweeping their complicity in the exploitation of migrant workers under Abu Dhabi's desert sands.

Most significantly, these efforts have produced concrete results, with the private institutions and businesses involved in Saadiyat Island agreeing to a minimum set of commitments to protect worker rights, including the right to change jobs, an end to passport confiscation, and the refunding of recruiting fees.

And the campaign has even led the UAE grudgingly to adopt some legislative reforms, including electronic payment of wages, changes to the sponsorship system that allow workers to switch jobs under limited circumstances, and greater supervision of work conditions by a vastly expanded pool of government inspectors.

Migrant workers from Bangladesh in the apartment in Abu Dhabi that they share. The labor force on N.Y.U.'s new campus numbered 6,000 at its peak. Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Shift labourers on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi. ©Samer Muscati, 2011. Via Blouin art info

By the way, Hyperallergic is doing a great job at keeping up with Gulf Labor latest actions.

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