The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has recently opened an exhibition that "examines the powerful role of objects in movements for social change." It is called Disobedient Objects. That's the kind of title that chic and cheerful designers would use to describe how their work is 'subversive' but, thankfully, this is probably the most un-designy show the V&A has ever organised (except for the whole communication and setting which was orchestrated by the studio of Jonathan Barnbrook.) Disobedient Objects is not one of those fashionable activist art exhibitions either. This is a show about activism with a capital A, a show inhabited by artefacts that had never graced the venerable rooms of a museum or art gallery until now.
Many of the items exhibited are often mundane objects that were either given a new purpose or modified in haste in answer to an emergency situation. As modest as they might seem, these artifacts show the resourcefulness and ingenuity of people. They testify of their courage as well. Confronted with the sophisticated (except maybe in London where our good Mayor favours cut-price water cannons that are being phased out in Germany amid concerns about their safety) and potentially harmful equipment used by security forces, these artefacts look almost pitiful. But that doesn't make them less efficient.
Disobedient Objects focuses on the period from the late 1970s to now, a time that has brought new technologies and political challenges. The items displayed range from the very rudimentary to the sophisticated, from a slingshot made from a Palestinian child's shoe to mobile phone-powered drones for filming demonstrations or the police, from textiles sewn by women to communicate the atrocities they have experienced under the Pinochet regime in Chile, in particular the 'disappearance of their children to a robot that spray paint slogans on the pavement.
I entered the show ready to sneer at V&A's grand attempts to glamourize popular protests and turn evidences of genuine and at times violent dissent into food for cool hunters. My fighting mood quickly vanished. Disobedient Objects is a show that invites visitors to get out and raise their heads, to be inspired and fight for their rights. And that's what matters to me.
As the curators wrote: "Peaceful disobedience only works when protesters have cultural visibility and the government acknowledges their right to protest. Without this, struggles for freedom can sometimes take other forms."
Here's a very small overview of the stories you can discover in this ridiculously crammed with visitors but invigorating exhibition:
As usual, I bow (me saco el sombrero?) to Spanish wittiness. No one does protests as eloquently and astutely as they do these days. TAF! and Enmedio worked with Plataforma de Artefactos por la Hipoteca (a platform for mortgage debt victims) against dehumanizing media representations of people affected by Spain's mortgage crisis. The group pasted portraits of evicted homeowners on the facades of banks responsible, showing evicted people, not statistics.
The inflatable cobblestones were rolled across the streets in Berlin and Barcelona to confuse police and generate sympathetic media attention.
When many people run the program FloodNet (1998) together, they can target and overload websites. The Java applet was created in response to the massacre of 45 peaceful supporters of the Zapatistas in Mexico. Ten thousand protestors disturbed the website of the Mexican presidency and the Pentagon. FloodNet has since been adopted by many groups and movements.
The first Bike Bloc was part of the mass civil disobedience organised during the 2009 Climate Summit in Copenhagen. Moving in swarms, bikes helped protesters breach the summit's security cordon and hold an alternative People's Assembly. The leading bike carried a sound system and pirate radio antennae. It broadcasted via other bikes around it with independent speakers, each on a separate channel. The sound could jump between bikes inside the crowd, and change in tone to respond to different situations.
The banner was made for the 2009 Climate Camp at Blackheath, London. It identified capitalism as the source of climate chaos and as an ongoing crisis of inequality and injustice.
One of the banners hanging over the exhibition space was designed and hand-stitched by Ed Hall (whose name appears in almost every single post i've written about Jeremy Deller's work.) Hall has been making banners used by union groups for over 30 years. This one was used in a protest march in support of the NHS in Manchester in 2013. It features the Thatcher quote 'Still the enemy within', which is surrounded by iconography referencing the miners' strike, poll tax rebellion and welfare cuts.
Andy Dao and Ivan Cash circulated dollar bills stamped with fact-based infographics that communicate the widening economic disparity in the U.S.A. The designs were also released on the Internet enabling anyone to participate.
The artists/advertising experts were commissioned by the museum to design stamps about the UK's wealth disparity on the £5 note: in 2011, 1% of the UK population earned £922,433 while 90% earned £12,933. Any visitor can use the stamp to make their money a bit more riotous.
There is a long, long tradition of bank notes used for protest. The show also reminded that in 1990, a Burmese currency designer very subtly painted the face of Aung San Suu Kyi onto a new note after she had been democratically elected then placed under house arrest by the military junta. The designer softened the features of Gen. Aung San (the father of Aung San Suu Kyi) so that his face resembles the one of his daughter. People could thus hold up their bank notes to the light and see a hidden portrait of the opposition leader.
In 2013, the Turkish government used record amounts of tear gas against people protesting against the redevelopment of the Gezi Park in Istanbul. Protesters devised their own makeshift gas mask using plastic bottle, surgical face mask, foam and rubber bands.
Greek protesters adopted an equally cunning strategy. People resisting government austerity discovered that a solution of antacid and water sprayed onto the face offered relief from the burn of tear gas. However, it left a white residue that market protesters out.
The protest shields painted to look like books were first made in Italy, in November 2010. Students were protesting against the drastic cuts to the public university system. The oversize books were held up at the front of demonstrations so that when the police hit the students with sticks, it looked as if they were attacking literature.
Students in London produced their own book shields after they saw videos of the actions online. The tactic quickly spread to other parts of the world.
A couple of artworks did sneak into the exhibition. I guess that the Graffiti Writer doesn't need any introduction....
The gallery also featured Molleindustria's Phone Story, a free game app that players win by forcing children to mine coltan in the Congo, preventing worker protest-suicide in China, managing rabid consumers in the West and disposing of electronic waste unsafely in Pakistan. The game was banned from Apple's iTunes store four days after its release.
The Guerrilla Girls was formed in 1985 to protest against the ridiculously low number of works by female artists in the most prestigious galleries and museums of New York. Their fight is as relevant as ever today (and not just in NYc obviously.)
More images from the show:
The museum has PDF guides to DIY some of the objects exhibited.
Disobedient Objects was curated by Gavin Grindon and Catherine Flood. The show is at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, until 1 February 2015.
100 Ideas that Changed the Web, by Jim Boulton, curator of Digital Archaeology, an organisation that seeks to document the formative years of digital culture and raise the profile of digital preservation.
Publisher Laurence King writes: This innovative title looks at the history of the Web from its early roots in the research projects of the US government to the interactive online world we know and use today.
Fully illustrated with images of early computing equipment and the inside story of the online world's movers and shakers, the book explains the origins of the Web's key technologies, such as hypertext and mark-up language, the social ideas that underlie its networks, such as open source, and creative commons, and key moments in its development, such as the movement to broadband and the Dotcom Crash. Later ideas look at the origins of social networking and the latest developments on the Web, such as The Cloud and the Semantic Web.
Following the design of the previous titles in the series, this book will be in a new, smaller format. It provides an informed and fascinating illustrated history of our most used and fastest-developing technology.
The book had me at page 8, the one that says "The idea of the internet was born in Belgium.' I was born there too! How thrilling! That idea, thus, was born at the Mundaneum, an institution which Slates calls a 'Proto-Internet made of index cards' and Speigel defines 'an analog version of Google'. Created in 1910, the Mundaneum had the ambition of collecting all human knowledge and classify it according to a system that Belgian lawyer Paul Otlet and Nobel Peace Prize winner Henri LaFontaine called 'Universal Decimal Classification'. While this networked world relied on index cards and telegraph machines, it nonetheless anticipated the hyperlinked structure of today's Web.
100 Ideas that Changed the Web is a thick, compact book that charts the key moments that made and make the Web. The author presents one idea over two pages. One of them being the short essay, the other is the image that illustrates the concept. The book follows a logical and chronological order. The 20 first ideas are about the vanguard that paved the way for the creation of the Web. Ideas 21 to 53 are about the early days of the Web. These were times of experiments and wild dreams. The following 20-ish ideas deal with the pre-social era of the Web, full of ups (PayPal) and downs (that dot-com bubble). Ideas 74 to 98 brings us into the right here, right now of the web. The last two ideas look into the future.
The book is very upbeat and celebratory. It makes me love the fact that i lived from dial-up modems (don't miss understand me: i'd never ever want to go back there) to the era of Big Data. It also reminded me of the importance of ideas i either take for granted nowadays (eBay!! or real-time reporting) or had almost forgotten (The Blair Witch Project, a film that accumulated a series of 'first time ever', one of them being that its promotion relied heavily on a website.)
I think it's a book anyone might enjoy. It sums up efficiently important concepts and allows readers to take a step back and look at how much their lives have changed in a relatively short period of time.
With that said, i feel that the book is glossing over the unpleasant aspects of the web: the trolls, the spam, the scams, the mass-surveillance, the revenge porn, the platforms that are closing themselves, etc. All are corollaries of those magnificent 100 ideas that changed the web.
More views inside the book:
In our collective unconscious the atom bomb is synonymous with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But since 1945 it has been documented that more than 2079 nuclear bombs have been detonated on Earth. Since the end of the Second World War, nuclear power countries have methodically bombed their own lands. Self mutilation in the name of self defense.
Anecdotal Radiations is a series that uncovers the unknown, forgotten and often very strange stories surrounding nuclear armament and testing programs. A couple of the anecdotes are well-known such as the Miss Atomic Bomb pageant or the story of the bikini. Others are downright baffling: the chicken vaporized when a nuclear bomb is dropped by mistake, the taste of a beer after a nuclear explosion, the ultra secret activation code on all American nuclear weapons set to "00000000", etc.
David Fathi has collected archive photos, satellite imagery, packshots and road-trip photos. By adding his own images to the archive documents, the photographer orchestrates a series of baffling, yet true, stories that illustrate the discrepancies that exist between the world we have created and the world we believe we live in.
I discovered the series last month at the festival Photo Ireland and the more i read about these anecdotes on Fathi's website, the more i thought i should get in touch with him and interview him:
Hi David! What inspired you to have a look at some of the 'unfamiliar stories and anecdotes' about nuclear bombing and experiments?
I believe my fascination started a couple of years back with one image.
This is the photo of a nuclear explosion, just a couple of milliseconds after its detonation. At the time, nothing could capture such images, and scientists had to design an entirely new high-speed camera. I was mesmerized by this photo, as it is a scientific document of something terrifying but seems so abstract and beautiful.
We normally have this very clear image of the atomic bomb as a mushroom cloud, and here we have a photo that completely changes our perception of it, by showing its origin.
Last year I finally started researching nuclear testing, and it was like going down the rabbit hole. I knew, just like everybody else, that nuclear testing happened during the cold war. But I had never really stopped to think about what that meant. When I thought about the bomb, Hiroshima and Nagasaki is what came to mind, even though since then, more than two thousand bombs have detonated on earth.
The more I researched, the weirder it got. When trying to deal with the gap between weapons of unfathomable power and the human stories of the men who try to master them it becomes absurd, terrifying and darkly funny.
The series mixes archival photos, satellite imagery, packshots and road-trip photos. How do you combine them? do you start with archive material and then add your own images to fill some gaps, for example?
I start with an anecdote. After enough research, I find this small story that is totally true, but seems unreal. It becomes one of the building blocks around which I start gathering photos.
Then I list the typologies of photos I want to use (satellite imagery, archives, packshots, roadtrip) and try to find how I can illustrate in a literal fashion the story. Once I have gathered enough material, it seems very factual and straightforward. That's when I try to break it up, and find images that are more metaphorical and only tangentially related to the story.
The aim is to create a documentary based on facts, but the result seems like fiction. So it's all about finding a balance between precise documentation and playful deconstruction.
Some of the experiments you selected for the series seem to have been conceived by brazen, unconscious minds. There are also accidental releases of nuclear bombs too. Do you you think the military is more cautious nowadays or are there still some dangerous experiments taking place? How much do you think is still hidden from us?
I'm close to finishing my project, and I'm trying to find a couple of stories that are more recent, so that people remember that nuclear weapons are not just a thing of the past and more probably something we will have to continue dealing with for centuries to come.
- In August 2007, six nuclear warheads were loaded by mistake on a military plane. When it landed, nobody knew the devices were on board. The plane was left unguarded on the tarmac for 36 hours before people realized what was happening.
- In September 2013, the n°2 officer in charge of Nuclear Command was fired for gambling with counterfeit poker chips.
- In December 2013, one of the top generals in command of nuclear armament was fired for an incident in Moscow where he was seen with Russian escort girls drunkenly boasting about what he was in charge of.
- In March 2014, 82 nuclear launch officers were implicated in a cheating scandal on their security exams.
These are just stories uncovered by the press in the USA, as Russian, Chinese, French, British, Israeli, etc. Nuclear programs are very tightly kept under wraps. It's nearly impossible to get relevant data about those.
With all of this in mind, I find it hard to understand how nuclear armament is not more prominent in the news.
Could you pick up some of the images you selected from archives or made yourself and comment what they are about? Explaining why you chose them from archives or why and how you made them? (i started selecting the photos that intrigued me the most but i ended up with so many of them i decided i'd let you chose instead)
This photo is an actual press archive of Spanish minister for information and tourism Manuel Fraga Iribarne and US ambassador Angier Biddle Duke swimming near Palomares, Spain, after the crash of a B-52 bomber and the loss of four nuclear warheads. All to assure the local population that everything is safe and under control.
Speaking of satellite imagery, I printed out photos of nuclear impacts. I then created these sculptures for two reasons. Firstly they seem like rocks & minerals, alluding to the melted rocks you can actually find on sites where nuclear bombs were tested. And secondly to give these images a 3D existence. All these "scars" are visible just by going on Google Earth, but we still don't really know they exist, so maybe by giving them this three-dimensional quality they can appear as more "real".
This photo was taken on the road between Nevada and California. There have been some lawsuits around these regions by communities who claim having been exposed "downwind" from the Nevada Test Site. I took quite a few photos along this path, looking for semi-fictional traces of these stories.
This is a screenshot from the documentary Atomic Café, a great source of information that everybody should watch. The movie has an incredible wealth of obscure archival films of the cold war era. This particular clip is still amazing to me, as I have found no clue to where it came from. It's part of a long list of absurdities you stumble upon when doing research on the subject (like Nuclear War card games, Miss Atom Bomb beauty pageants, etc)
What were your objectives in publishing this series of photos. Was it purely informative and anecdotical or is there a more socially engaged or political motivation behind the series?
My interest in this subject is mainly psychological. The politics of nuclear armament seem pretty easy. Even people in charge of such programs do not see nuclear bombs as a good thing. So how do we deal intellectually with their continuing existence?
There is a huge dissonance between the world we imagine we live in and the one we actually live in. The over-the-top consequences of nuclear bombs are so immense that we naturally shut it out of our minds. My objective is not to say nuclear bombs are bad (that is quite a boring statement and everybody agrees), but more to force people to question everything, entities of power as much as their own selves.
Governments and media have of course their role in keeping out of reach the implications of nuclear weapons, but we as individuals have as much a responsibility in comprehending history, science and human knowledge. In telling these small anecdotes, I try and use humor, terror, and a general playfulness to try to suck in the viewer, and get him or her to question what they think they know.
I hope this series is more about confronting our own way of perceiving the world, and how to think critically of the consequences of our decisions.
In fact the best thing for me would be if people would even call into question my own photos and stories. I'm telling you all this is true, but you'd be better off by doubting and starting your own investigation.
I already mentioned the exhibition Strange Weather: Forecasts from the future in a number of posts (in particular this one which focused on clouds) so i won't bore you with repeating myself too much. The artworks on show invite the public to think about today and tomorrow's weather with the gravity that befits the topic but also with lightness and humour, asking questions such as:
Should human culture be reshaped to fit strange weather or should we reshape weather to fit our strange culture? Who is going to take advantage of climate chaos and how will strange weather benefit me? How will you choose to work, celebrate, live and die when weather gets weird?
Since so many pieces in the shows got my attention, i thought i should write on last post about Strange Weather. This one will include plastic flowers modelled on the alien species that have started to invade the Arctic, an instrument that monitors 'space weather', HazMat Suits for kids and more.
The Raindrop machine works like a mini open wind tunnel and it is both a continuation of the scientists original experiment and an artwork exhibited in a very different cultural context.
Scientists and ecotourists visiting the Arctic are bringing in thousands of seeds that were attached to the sole of their shoes or are falling off from their pockets. It wasn't a problem until a few years ago but temperatures are warming up and the seeds are now taking root, potentially disrupting the ecosystems.
Tania Kitchell 's Occupy II is a representation of alien and invasive plant species that have been sighted in Arctic regions.
In Occupy II the plants are made of ABS plastic that have been formed with 3D modelling software and formed on a 3D printer. Photos were used as references to reproduce plant forms; there is an intentional disregard for a precise likeness as sizes and proportions are not adhered to, but there is a strong connection to the existing plants.
Does this disconnect between perception and reality in any way parallel our misconceptions about the Arctic?
This was one of my favourite works in the show. It is simple and elegant. Yet, there is something slightly disturbing in this assembly of 3Dprinted plants. Even before you even read the text that explains what they represent.
The Solar Wind Aeroscope is another subtle, unassuming but fascinating work.
Jonas Hansen and Lasse Scherffig built an instrument that monitors 'space weather', the environmental conditions created by the Sun and the solar wind and that ultimately influence our own atmosphere.
The system relies on global network of amateur HAM-radio stations known as WSPRnet to measure radio signal range. The signals from this network can travel for thousands of kilometers, by bouncing off of the ionosphere. Because the ionosphere and its reflectivity is affected by the solar wind, the activity of the WSPRnet echoes space weather conditions.
By monitoring radio signals and their origin, the Solar Wind Aeroscope can 'see' the current atmospheric conditions caused by the solar wind. To make these measurements perceptible, the instrument translates the solar wind into actual wind--transforming the gallery into a terrestrial weather station for extraterrestrial weather. The effect is actually very subtle, you need to place your hands on the Aeroscope to perceive the strength of the wind.
Archive of Old and New Events, by Jodi Newcombe and Tega Brain, imagines what festivals and gatherings will be like after climate change has seriously messed up with the seasonal cycles and local climate conditions that were at the origin of these revelries. Strange new cultural phenomena could take their place.
This speculative project, set in 2030, brings side by side two collections; The Collection of Lost Festivals holds materials from events that have fallen into oblivion. The other is The Collection of New Festivals which documents recent cultural phenomena that have emerged in response to new weather and climate.
How could anyone not covet these stunning 'Toboggan shorts' worn by 2028 race winner worn for the 5th Ave Toboggan Race in New York City:
Or this container of dried jellyfish snack that will be a staple of our diet when jellyfish overpopulates seas that are getting increasingly warm.
Creepy children-size mannequins wearing HazMat Suits are loitering around the Science Gallery.
The corporation DuPont patents their Tychem cleanup suits for hazardous materials, these outfits are used in petroleum industry disaster response to mitigate ecological disasters. Cleanups are thus conducted with the same materials that potentially harm us. Marina Zurkow hand-sewn little HazMat suits for children. These suits, however, are sealed to prevent them from ever being worn by a child.
CoClimate invited artists and scientists in STRANGE WEATHER to produce scripts about what weather forecast will be like in the future. And then they had the brilliant idea of installing a fully functional weather forecast set, complete with green screen, teleprompter and camera. Visitors are invited to step in and play the television weatherman, recording the futuristic forecast of their choice and share it on YouTube if they want to.
More images from the show:
Strange Weather: Forecasts from the future was curated by artists Zack Denfeld, Cat Kramer from CoClimate and meteorologist Gerald Fleming. The show is open at the Science Gallery in Dublin until 5 October 2014.
Publisher Leonardo/Olats writes: Artists have opened new avenues in the art world by employing these developments in biotechnology, synthetic biology and Artificial Life; going from inanimate to autonomous objects to living creatures; exploring the thin border between animate and inanimate; confronting the grown, the evolved, the born and the built; and raising aesthetic but also social, political and ethical issues.
New forms of 'exo-life' may not arrive on Earth from outerspace by hitching a ride on a meteorite, but instead come out of the lab, designed by scientists - or perhaps artists - weaving together biology and computing in a petri dish or bioreactor.
Over the last fifty years our ideas about the nature of life have changed dramatically. Revolutionary advances in genetics and molecular biology have given us new insights into how carbon based life on our planet originates and functions. In more recent years the development of synthetic biology has dramatically expanded our ability to design and modify life forms. At the same time, disruptive developments in computing technologies have led to the possibility of generating digitally-based artificial life. And outside traditional institutions, emerging DIY, bio-hacking and citizen science movements have begun to appropriate laboratory technologies, challenging ideas about the governance of the life sciences.
Meta-Life is an anthology of articles published in Leonardo about the living, the non-living and the 'kind of living' in all their forms. There are 45 articles in total, some date back to the 1990s, others are newly commissioned texts. In fact, the whole DIY Biology - BioHacking section is composed of new commissions.
A quick look at the titles of the sections demonstrates the wide-range of themes explored: Between Bio, Silico and Syhtetic: Life and the Arts reflects on how our notions of life and of art are challenged both by computer technology and biotechnologies; Artificial Life and the Arts as well as the section called BioArt contain theoretical and philosophical texts about both fields, Bio - Fiction, Design, Archictecture explores the thin border between reality and fiction; DIY Bio - BioHacking proposes various points of view on the bio DIY movement.
I haven't been through the whole ebook but i've read most of the articles and so far, so very good. To be blunt, I don't trust Leonardo to publish texts that are approachable and engaging. Intelligent, informative and thought-provoking, they do very well but appealing to broad(ish) audiences? I wasn't not so sure. Well, that's where i was very wrong. There is no abstruse language nor complex theories in this ebook. Trust me, I deliberately looked for it.
Here's just a couple of examples of the essays i've enjoyed, in no particular order:
Dr Craig Hilton writes about his collaboration with artists Billy Apple® to create what is simultaneously a subject of art and of scientific endeavor. This project consisted in growing the first biological tissue made available for artists and the first biological tissue for science research made available by an artist as art. The Immortalisation of Billy Apple® is a work of art that lives, multiplies and has the potential to create other works of art ad infinitum, especially because there is no restriction placed on the use of the Billy Apple® 's tissue.
The flamboyant Adam Zaretsky authors a sex-infused manifesto about the utopias surrounding the art (manipulation) of the living.
Following the exhibition GROW YOUR OWN ... Life After Nature, Michael John Gorman offers a coherent and crystal-clear introduction to synthetic biology, in which he also manages to include a few reflections on intellectual property, ethical and regulatory framework, media frenzy, and market interests.
Anna Dumitriu explores the relationship between bacterial and digital communications networks through the lessons she learnt while working on her project Cybernetic Bacteria 2.0.
Steve Tomasula places bio art into the context of the tradition of manipulating nature for aesthetic reason.
Oron Cats investigates the concept of being alive or 'just kind of living.' He makes some important points about the absence of a cultural language that would help audiences deal with tissue culture and other fragments of life. How should we culturally articulate and position lab-grown life when we have no cultural reference that would allow us to relate to it?
David Benqué has an enlightening conversation with independent synthetic biologist Cathal Garvey. The discussion explores the difference between DIY biology and BioHacking, the fear of biotechnology escaping the labs, the cost of creativity in biology, etc.
The first text i ran to was actually Alessandro Delfanti's research about DIY biology and its position in the world of science, the world of the market and the state.
I think i could go on and on. I carried Meta-Life in my e-reader throughout the Summer and enjoyed dipping in and out of it. I think that this collection of texts by illustrious artists, designers, and researchers constitutes a great reference to anyone who has a mild-to-strong interest in how the art world is exploring the synthetic and the aesthetic, the artificial and the new natural, the fictional and the ethical dimensions of life.
Get that one for your Kindle, it's a gem.
Image on the homepage: Brandon Ballengée. Malamp Reliquaries, 1996-ongoing. Unique IRIS prints on water-colour paper. 2003-07.