Techno-Ecologies II. Acoustic Space #12, edited by Rasa Smite, Armin Medosch and Raitis Smits.

(available on amazon USA or by ordering directly from RIXC via e-mail: rixc @ rixc.lv.)

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Publishers RIXC Center for New Media Culture and MPLab, Art Research Lab of Liepaja University write: Techno-ecological perspectives have become now one of the key directions in contemporary discourses and are part of a larger paradigm shift from new media to post-media art. A range of practices which were once subsumed under terms such as media art, digital art, art and technology or art and science, have experienced such growth and diversification that no single term can work as as a label any more. Traditionally separated domains are brought together to become contextual seedbeds for ideas and practices that aim to overcome the crisis of the present and to invent new avenues for future developments.

This is the 2nd volume in the Acoustic Space series that continues to build a 'techno-ecological' perspective whereby new artistic practices are discussed that combine ecological, social, scientific and artistic inquiries. Edited and published in the context of the exhibition Fields, it makes a perspective its own that sees art as a catalyst for change and transformations.

This 300+ page publication is a collection of papers by artists, curators and academics. The texts are mapping contemporary practices in art & technology but they also had the specific function of providing a framework to the Fields exhibition that took place in Riga last Summer. The show investigated the place of contemporary art practices in society and the role artists can take not just as generators of new aesthetics but also as catalysts of active involvement in social, scientific, and technological transformations. The publication is as deep and as wide-ranging as the Riga show was. Its content also echoes many of the current conversations that makes media art such an exciting field to follow: DIY culture vs 'black box' technology, digital archiving, continued influence of early locative art, funding models for the digital culture, reconciliation between sciences and humanities, etc.

Here's a far from exhaustive list of essays i've enjoyed reading:

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Graham Harwood and Matsuko Yokokoji, Coal Fired Computers, 2010. Photo by Marc Wathieu

In Slow Media Art - Seeing through Speed in Critiques of Modernity, Kevin Hamilton and Katja Kwastek applied the ideas of the slow food to Media Art. The slow media art works they presented share a 'deep engagement with sensation, duration, and speed.' I like the concept because it proves media art detractors that there is more to media art than the quest for innovation and sparkly spectacle. The examples of the genre selected by the authors of the paper include YoHa's magnificent coal-fired computers and Esther Polak's Milk Project.

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Kuai Shen Auson, 0h!m1gas

In Stridulation Amplified: An Artistic Research of the Bioacoustic Phenomena of Leaf-cutter Ants Using the Turntable, artist Kuai Shen Auson shares what he learnt from 5 years working on and exhibiting 0h!m1gas , an installation that harnesses the relentless activity of an ant colony into a DJ scratching performance.

In Ars Bioarctica. Five Years of Art & Science Work by the Finnish Society of Bioart at Kilpisjärvi Biological Station, Erich Berger and Laura Beloff draw lessons from their five years of experience organizing art&science collaborations in sub-Arctic environment

Michel Bauwens's essay Evolving Towards a Partner State in an Ethical Economy looks at the free software industry and defends the idea that society can learn something from the politics of this value creation model and that of a 'P2P' state might emerge from these social practices.

In Contestation and the Sustainability of the Digital Commons, Eric Kluitenberg reflects on the outcomes of the Economies of the Commons, a series of conferences that focused on how sustainable models could be identified for creating and maintaining public online media culture and knowledge resources. The final part of his paper charts various revenue models that can sustain commons based initiatives in the digital domain.

I learned about the existence of anticartographism in Gavin MacDonald's text Moving Bodies and the Map: Relational and Absolute Conceptions of Space in GPS-based Art in which he walks us through the short history of the use of GPS as an artistic medium.


Bug Music: David Rothenberg's Insect Choir

In Bird, Whale, Bug: The Reasons for an Interspecies Music, composer David Rothenberg tells about his experience of working with bird song neuroscientists, playing music with animals and even bugs and his findings about how a musical approach might lead to better understanding and respect for 'natural' sounds.

About the FIELDS exhibition: FIELDS, positive visions for the future, Ghostradio, the device that produces real random numbers, Sketches for an Earth Computer, POLSPRUNG (POLE SHIFT) - Devastating Experimental Set-ups, On the interplay between a snail and an algorithm.

Image on the homepage: a performance by Cécile Babiole at the FIELDS exhibition.

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Anthony Clair Wagner. Photo: Fanny Carinasdotter

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Umeå Skafferi / Umeå Pantry at Pilgatan 16 (photo)

It's almost 2015 and i still have to write reviews of a couple of festivals i've visited over the Autumn. The first one that was languishing in my draft is the very smart, very socially-engaged and exciting Survival Kit festival in Umeå, Sweden. The event explored the theme of local and global survival through the lenses of visual art, music, food, discussions and lectures.

How can we look at issues such as ecology, economy and human survival at large? And on a more personal level: how can I navigate as an individual in this new and complex world?

Wherever we look, there is a feeling how being disconnected, of living in the midst of uncertainties regarding our economic and political systems, social structures, and ecological future. The Survival Kit Festival looked at what can be done to regain some control. The artists and activists selected don't stop at denouncing what is wrong with society and the world at large, they also document or implement small, practical solutions that might ensure our survival. These experiments go from building a biodome with an aquaponic system for fish and vegetable cultivation to converting a parking lot into a collective garden. From proposing a new currencies for culture to inviting the public to a cup of chaga mushroom tea.

I had never been to Umea. It's a small city and it was pissing rain all along. Yet, i found that place amazing: strong leftie values, free wifi on public buses, a culture of veganism and cheerful cut-out figures greeting you at the entrance of supermarkets:

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Also i slept inside a prison cell. So what was not to love?

Here's a small selection of the works i discovered at the festival:

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Joost Conijn, Wood Car, 2002

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Joost Conijn, Wood Car, 2002

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Joost Conijn, Wood Car, 2002

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View of Joost Conijn video installation inside John Söderberg's caravan, at Verkligheten. Photo: Fanny Carinasdotter

In 2001 Joost Conijn spent the Summer riding a car he had built himself through Eastern European countries. The car is made out of wood, it runs on wood and because the world economically runs on oil, the artist wasn't going from petrol station to petrol station (like we normally would) but from rural area to rural area with no specific destination nor itinerary.

His objective was to use the plywood-clad vehicle as a ploy to generate unexpected situations and meetings across the road. The film of his expedition shows people in small villages guiding him to local saw-mills, offering him spare wood and inviting him to a picnic.

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John Söderberg at Verkligheten. Photo: Fanny Carinasdotter

Conijn's film is screened inside John Ola Söderberg's caravan. I really REALLY like that one, it is simply a caravan made out of a caravan.

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Siri Hermansen, Chernobyl Mon Amour, 2012 (video still)

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Siri Hermansen, Chernobyl Mon Amour, 2012 (video still)


Chernobyl Mon Amour, 2012 (Extracts)

Siri Hermansen's films shows what might emerge from complete despair and devastation. The festival was screening two videos that document the survival strategies developed by local communities and individuals who have chosen to live in Chernobyl and Detroit.

In Chernobyl Mon Amour, the artist follows two state-employed guides who take catastrophe tourists, journalists and scientists to the exclusion zone of Pripyat, a city built for the families of power plant workers and evacuated at the time of the disaster in 1986.

In the interview, they talk about their fondness of the area. One of them even describes how he believes that his body is now accustomed to the radioactivity and how, after five years in the zone, his body actually gets ill when he enters the normal world. They both stay longer and longer periods in Chernobyl, ignoring the breaks their doctors advise.

They add that if you look around, it appears as if the whole nature is thriving in this radioactive environment. More and more animals are moving into it and vegetation grows unrestrained.

To them the zone offers a unique situation of hope, freedom and possibility within the hardships of Ukrainian society, and they describe Chernobyl as their "paradise".

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Siri Hermansen, Land of Freedom, 2012

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Siri Hermansen at Verkligheten. Photo: Fanny Carinasdotter

In the other film shown in the gallery, Land of Freedom, Hermansen follows the members of The Yes Farm, an artistic/activist community that moved from San Francisco to Detroit where they repaired and settled in one of the city's many abandoned buildings. The members of the collective see Detroit as an opportunity to explore new ways to live a more sustainable and socially-conscious life, through farming, gardening and a return to skills that the Fordist economy made obsolete.

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Gunilla Bandolin, Bi installation at Verkligheten. Photo: Fanny Carinasdotter

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Gunilla Bandolin, Bi installation at Verkligheten. Photo: Fanny Carinasdotter

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Gunilla Bandolin, Bi installation at Verkligheten. Photo: Fanny Carinasdotter

If the earth was destroyed, Gunilla Bandolin would start building up the whole survival process with a bee-hive. Bee hives provide you with honey and pollen, the bees would pollinate the few plants that subsisted and new crops would grow. A beehive also produces surplus warmth, and thus cheap, retrievable energy.

It is a prototype like this, or the beginning of it, that I have tried to create in this exhibition. I want the bee-hives to be made in a transparent material and preferable place them in a shopping centre to remind people of the conditions of our existence. It is calculated that about 70% of what we have on our daily plates is dependent on pollinating insects.

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Kaspars Lielgalvis, Non-convertible culture currencies

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Kaspars Lielgalvis, Non-convertible Culture Currencies in Trailer Gallery, at Umeå University. Photo: Fanny Carinasdotter

Artist and art manager Kaspars Lielgalvis proposes the use of a new culture currencies as a possible solution to the situation of funding culture which has suffered greatly from the ongoing financial crisis.

This new medium of exchange, called Non-convertible Culture Currencies, would be used only in the cultural context. The first Culture currency - Dobžiks is already in use since March 2012 as a valid payment for entering events at the Totaldobže Art Center in Riga. There is a plan to create a worldwide network of those organizations that will accept Culture currencies and use Culture currencies as a payment for work which is done in cultural field and in most cases is paid too less.

Other works and images from the festival:

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Anthony Clair Wagner. Photo: Fanny Carinasdotter

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Anthony Clair Wagner. Photo: Fanny Carinasdotter

Isabelle Fremeaux, John Jordan and Kypros Kyprianou, Paths Through Utopias (trailer)

Isabelle Fremeaux, John Jordan and Kypros Kyprianou spent seven months on the road visiting eleven Utopian communities across Europe, documenting a parallel universe where money is worthless and private property has been abolished.

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Antti Laitinen at Verkligheten. Photo: Fanny Carinasdotter

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Lisa Busby. Photo: Fanny Carinasdotter

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Emma-Lina Ericson, I Still Have an Other-Ache at Kungsgatan 92. Photo: Fanny Carinasdotter

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Atsuko Otsuka's photo showing animals living in the "no-go zone" in Fukushima. Photo: Fanny Carinasdotter

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Erik Sjodin, installation with aquaponics system

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Erik Mikael Gudrunsson's work

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Chto Delat, The Tower

The festival, which ran in collaboration with Survival Kit 6 in Riga, was organised by Verkligheten, a non-commercial and artist-run gallery that explores various kinds of art expressions.

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Photo: English Disco Lovers

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Photo: English Disco Lovers

For most people, EDL is the acronym of the English Defense League, a far-right group that regularly and vehemently protests in the street against what it considers to be a spread of Islamism and Sharia in the United Kingdom. Over the past two years however, a number of UK residents have started to associate EDL with another movement: the English Disco Lovers. The story started as a joke when art student Chris Alton decided to reclaim the acronym and google bomb EDL so that English Disco Lovers would appear on top of the results for the search 'EDL' and the three letters would, over time, be associated with tolerance, multiculturalism and equality. Another key strategy of English Disco Lovers consists in participating to counter-English Defence League demonstrations across the UK, wearing garish shirts, dancing to disco music and singing "Go! Walk out the door! Turn around now 'cause you're not welcome anymore!" to the members of the islamophobic group.

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Photo: English Disco Lovers

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The English Disco Lovers manifesto

As the popularity of its online and offline presence demonstrates, English Disco Lovers has grown into a socially-engaged project that is far more powerful than what its initiators had initially envisioned. I talked online with Chris Alton about the EDL adventures, the wrath of the original EDL, the positive changes a humorous campaign can yield and how English Disco Lovers fits into the history of disco music.

Hi Chris! Who's Alex Jones? i keep finding his name rather than yours in all EDL interviews. he seems to have had a Quaker upbringing as well.

Alex Jones is my pseudonym. At first it was a safety precaution, as the English Disco Lovers email account had been receiving death threats from EDLers who were none to pleased about my cheeky acronym-pinching antics. I didn't fancy a bunch of heavies turning up on my doorstep, so I did the sensible thing and used a fake name. If you look at my TEDxYouth@Hackney talk I'm even wearing a mirrorball mask. The name and mask ultimately became a license to 'perform' Alex Jones. I see him as an idealised aspect of myself, given form and amplification.


A new meaning for disco beats: Alex Jones at TEDxYouth@Hackney

When i first read about your EDL project, i assumed it was just great fun and pleasant anti-racism but then i read in an interview that some of you actually attempt to discuss with members of the English Defense League? Do you manage to achieve something by engaging in conversations with them? Because they look pretty scary and some might be very annoyed by your own take on the acronym...

Yeah, through running the project that dialogue opened up. I'd get the odd message from an English Defence League member, one said, "hate the idea, but love the badge". He was referring to our logo, so I offered to send him a badge with it on. Those messages would become inroads, which allowed me to speak to them on a one-to-one basis about why I was doing what I was doing and why they were doing what they were doing. On mass they're a pretty scary bunch, but over social media there's (unsurprisingly) less to fear. In some cases the discussions led nowhere, but in others I found that the English Defence League members opened up to the possibility that their EDL could be causing an increase in the radicalisation of young Muslims, a few even left the organisation (or so they told me).

You wrote me that one of your sources of inspiration was your Quaker upbringing. What has the Quaker education taught you that helped you set up and run the EDL?

Since a young age I've been around people who are more actively engaged in changing the world than most. Quakerism exposed me to countless individuals and groups campaigning in various ways for numerous causes. At the age of 14 I met a woman who'd canoed out to the Trident Submarines in Faslane, planted potatoes onboard, then tried to make her getaway before being surrounded by vessels far superior to her tiny canoe. She was in her 60s at the time and at 17, I was present at the British Yearly Meeting where Quakers made the decision to allow same sex marriages and to lobby the government to legalise them.

Those are two examples among many, both of which exemplify the commitment of Quakers to peace, equality, simplicity and truth (the Quaker testimonies), despite the approaches being so different.

I think it's clear that some of the testimonies mentioned above manifest themselves in English Disco Lovers. It's a peaceful alternative to the English Defence League, which supports equality and togetherness over the divisions the other EDL capitalise upon and exacerbate.

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Photo: English Disco Lovers

You've been working on EDL for two years now. What have been the most surprising moments in the life of EDL?

As you can imagine there have been many! Getting it off the ground was certainly a surprise. When I made the Facebook page I never imagined the idea would move beyond my friendship group. However, after less than 6 months of using social media to generate interest in the idea, I got an email from Dorian Lynskey, a writer at The Guardian. He asked me a few questions via email and wrote a piece on English Disco Lovers, which was featured in The Guardian's G2 in February 2013.

Then in April 2013 I went down to Brighton for a counter-English Defence League demo. I was surprised to find a mass English Disco Lovers presence opposing the EDL march, bedecked in disco gear (I'm talking wigs, sequinned shirts, flares, the lot) and singing along to disco classics like Chic's "I Want Your Love". When they launched into Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" and told the English Defence League to, "Go! Walk out the door! Turn around now 'cause you're not welcome anymore!" the surrounding protesters joined in and danced along. I surprised that people felt so strongly about an idea that I'd brought into the world, and that they were willing to spend their afternoons embodying it!


Clips of the English Disco Lovers (EDL) at the counter-MfE demonstration on 21/04/2013


Chic, I Want Your Love

Why did you chose disco rather than any other type of music?

The choice of disco is fundamental to the ideology of English Disco Lovers, not only because of the genre's positive sound, but due to the history of disco. In the 1970s discotheques were havens for minorities, they brought together people of every colour and sexuality to listen to music that celebrated unity and self-expression. In 1979 there was an anti-disco rally called Disco Demolition Night, which involved the destruction of disco records. It has been said that the event had racist and homophobic undertones and that it played a significant role in the decline of disco's popularity.

It's also significant that, the word discotheque comes from Nazi occupied France, where jazz music was banned, as it was seen as a potential music of revolution. As live performances were deemed to be too obvious, citizens began to opt for underground bars where they could listen to recordings. These places became known as record libraries, which translates into French as 'discotheque'.

I wanted to redeploy this history in opposition to contemporary intolerance and the recent rise of right-wing extremism in the UK. The English Disco Lovers' motto is "Unus Mundas, Una Gens, Unus Disco", so it's also worth mentioning that, in Latin, disco could be understood to mean 'I learn', 'I learn to know', 'I become acquainted with'.

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Photo: English Disco Lovers

Apart from google bombing the far-right group, what do you hope to achieve with EDL?

Well, English Disco Lovers has already achieved many things beyond google bombing the English Defence League. For example we've been holding disco nights for about a year and a half, where the profits are donated to charities that tackle issues such as racism, HIV and hate-crime. We've held nights in London, Brighton, Bristol and Manchester, so I hope that these nights continue to grow in popularity and that we can continue spreading the "Don't Hate! Gyrate!" message.

What is next for EDL? any upcoming performance or meeting?

Well I'm heading down to Brighton in early January to meet with two stalwart English Disco Lovers about this very question, what next? I intend to step away from the project for a while and focus on new work, so the future of English Disco Lovers is a little uncertain at the moment. We have a few DJ sets booked in the coming months, which will be posted up on our website and social media, but in terms of big plans and aims, we'll all have to wait and see.

Thanks Chris!

English Disco Lovers is part of an exhibition at the Collyer Bristow Gallery in London. The show remains open until Jan 28th, 2014.

Come Together. The Rise of Cooperative Art and Design, by writer, artist and cultural historian Francesco Spampinato

(available on amazon USA and UK.)

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Publisher Princeton Architectural Press writes: The past twenty years have seen a new generation of artists working together in small groups and large collectives to explore new avenues of art, design, performance, and commerce. In Come Together, author and visual artist Francesco Spampinato assembles an international roster of forty of today's most exciting and influential collectives, from design studios like Project Projects and political performance artists The Yes Men to flash mob provocateurs Improv Everywhere and the multimedia artists Assume Vivid Astro Focus. Alongside visual portfolios of their best work are in-depth interviews addressing each group's unique motivations, processes, and objectives. What emerges is a shared desire to turn viewers into producers and to use commercial mass-media strategies to challenge prevailing social, political, and cultural power structures. Come Together is an essential resource and inspiration for students, art lovers, and anyone interested in the cutting edge of visual culture.

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Ivan's Dogs, We Provide The Smiles, 2006

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ruangrupa, Poster for the OK. International Video Festival

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PSJM, Capitalismo 1712-2010, R.I.P

Come Together offers a collection of interviews with dozens of art collectives that work with society, rather than as mere observers of society. The groups selected use graphic design, fashion, performances or publications to question economic structures, brands, mass media, the police and other state institutions. Their strategies and objectives might differ but what brings many of them together is the way they leave a space for the public to take an active role in their actions.

Each collective is given its own chapter in the book. They are introduced by a brief data sheet that includes key words summing up their activities, a list of the members (when known) and a reference to a publication that focuses on their work. But the main content is an interview with the collective. Each of these groups are asked the same questions. They range from "why work collaboratively?" to "Does your engagement with one another translates into an engagement with the public? How so?"

Since i love discovering artists with a political agenda, i'm pretty happy with my copy of Come Together and i can only applaud the fact that the author has looked beyond the usual U.S. and the European Union and included groups from Jakarta, Tokyo, Buenos Aires in his selection. I did however wonder whether an artistic duo that works mostly in a gallery context has indeed its place in the book (i won't give names, unless you ask politely.)

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The Space Hijackers comment on the absurdity of the legalese of the Olympics (image via buzzfeed)

The brilliant Space Hijackers define themselves as "an international band of anarchitects who battle to save our streets, towns and cities from the evils of urban planners, architects, multinationals and other hoodlums".

The group's many activities aims to underline and fight peacefully the destructive influence that corporations have in society. Some of their interventions have included being anointed the "Official Protesters Of The London 2012 Olympic Games", rolling out a guerrilla benching operation (restoring public benches that had been removed and bolting them to the ground), and inviting coffee drinkers and others to use games in order to protest against Starbucks, this "neo liberal global capitalist thug".

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Billboard Bustcards

SH made billboard-sized versions of the bustcard flyers they were already handing out at demonstrations, to inform protestors of their legal rights, in the event that should they be arrested or stopped and searched.

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Superflex, Copyshop

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Superflex, Copyshop

Superflex makes 'Tools', proposals that invite people to participate in and communicate the development of experimental models that alter the economic production conditions. These tools are developed for people to use, replicate and modify.

Their Copyshop worked as both a shop that sold products challenging intellectual property and as an information forum that investigate the phenomena of copying. The goods on sale were modified originals, improved copies, political anti-brands - or a Supercopy as the new original.

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

The Center for Tactical Magic is another favourite of mine. The group aims to engage communities into political thinking and acts of positive social transformation.

Their Tactical Ice Cream Unit is designed to operate and look like a police force's mobile command center. On board are high-tech devices (including a video surveillance system, acoustic amplifiers, GPS, satellite internet, emergency gas masks, and a media transmission studio capable of disseminating live audio/video) and ice cream. It not only monitors police action at a demonstration but can also offer protection to protesters.The TICU operators also hand out free cones along with receive printed information developed by local progressive groups.

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Friends With You Parade, Art Basel, 2006. Photo: Joel Mangrum

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Friends With You Parade, Art Basel, 2006 (photo via flavorwire)

And now for something completely different...

FriendsWithYou make plush and wood toys, immersive (and often inflatable) art installations, sculpture and painting, playgrounds, and performance pieces that entertain the public.

FriendsWithYou opened the 2006 edition of Art Basel Miami with a Skywalkers parade staring balloons, ranging from 5 to 60 feet, to celebrate the solar system's "formal acceptance into the universe."

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Improv Everywhere, the NYC No Pants Subway Ride, 2012. MOREimages: Andrzej Liguz

Improv Everywhere is at the origin of numerous pranks. The most famous of them is probably the No Pants Subway Ride. The first one took place on the NYc subway in 2002 with seven participants. The movement has since spread to countries around the world and is now a cultural phenomenon.


Paper Rad, P-UNIT-1 !!PART ONE!!


Beginning of the Paper Rad - Trash Talking DVD

Paper Rad makes comics, zines, video art, net art, MIDI files, paintings, installations, and music. Its style is called "Dogman 99", a direct reference to Danish filmmaking movement Dogme 95. Paper Rad's rules are: "No Wacom tablet, no scanning, pure RGB colors only, only fake tweening, and as many alpha tricks as possible".

Paper Rad often recycles or appropriates sounds and images from all kinds of sources: old cartoons, commercials, late-night television, video games, etc.


Made in L.A. 2012- Welcome to Slanguage Studio

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Custom Sneaker and Shoe Workshop, 2009

Founded by Karla Diaz and Mario Ybarra, Jr. in 2002, Slanguage uses art education and exhibition to discuss meaning and value of contemporary art in the community of in Wilmington, a harbor area of Los Angeles where they both grew up. Before it closed, Slanguage Studio had grown into a gallery, a site for workshops and events open to the local community, as well as an artist residency.

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Zulf (brunette), 2014. Courtesy Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin

Slavs and Tatars has the best name ever and explores a shared sphere of influence between Slavs, Caucasians and Central Asians.

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The Immortalisation of Kira and Rama: The Temporary Resurrection and Second Death of Kira, 2011

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Svenja Kratz. Photograph: Dan Cole (via)

This week (or rather semester since i so seldom do proper interview nowadays), I'm talking with Svenja Kratz , an interdisciplinary artist who combines art practice with cell and tissue cultures to investigate the creative and critical dimensions of biotechnologies as well as their impacts on concepts of identity, life, and death.

Svenja has a background in art but she also holds a PhD in Contemporary Art and Biotechnology from Queensland University of Technology and worked at the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovationin Brisbane, where she completed a PhD in bio-media art.

So far, the artist has worked with media as diverse as fetal calf cells, human blood, maggots, multi-component 3D Human Skin Equivalent (HSE) models or taxidermied insects. She is currently participating to Experimenta Recharge biennial of media art with an ever-changing face mask that uses DNA from Saos-2, a cell line that originally came from the bone cancer lesion of an 11 year old girl who most likely died in 1973 due to the aggressive nature of the cancer. The cells of the little Alice can now be found in science laboratories around the world. Their presence in an art installation highlights the transformative capabilities of Alice's cells but also the oddity of using living fragments of a human body that died 40 years ago.

The work is called The Contamination of Alice: Instance #8 and since i can't travel to Melbourne to see it, I thought the next best thing would be to write Svenja and interview her via email:

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The Contamination of Alice #8

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Transition Piece #2, 2008


Hi Svenja! Your work Afterlife "looks at the ethical ambiguities and challenges that accompany the use and manipulation of organisms, in particular the use of Fetal Bovine Serum (FBS) in cell and tissue culture." What are those ethical ambiguities and challenges? And how does the work addresses them?

The work Afterlife was a starting point for the development of The Immortalisation of Kira and Rama, a project researched and developed during a three month residency at SymbioticA in 2010. The work developed from my engagement with cells and tissues and particularly the materials that are used in biotechnology such as FBS - a protein rich nutrient supplement used in the media to sustain cells in culture. The serum is derived from the blood of fetal cows. While the idea of draining unborn calves of their blood may sound horrifying, the calves are essentially a bi-product of meat production and while their blood is harvested to produce serum, their bodies are discarded, deemed unfit for consumption.

This work does not aim to demonise the meat industry or the use of FBS, but rather comments that there are victims at every level of consumption, and that the boundaries between good and bad are always blurred. For example, the common practice of slaughtering pregnant cows, and subsequent availability of fetal calf blood, has enabled great advancements in cell and tissue culture and contributed to the development of new medical technologies and treatments for humans and other organisms. This is the same for many cell lines, such the HeLa cell line, isolated from Henrietta Lacks in 1951. Establishment of this, the first human cell line, was a medical breakthrough, contributing significantly to the development of vaccines and scientific research. However, the HeLa line also caused significant distress to the donor family, as the cells were used without the knowledge or consent of Mrs Lacks.

My work aims to draw attention to the often unseen donors or victims of processes of consumption and advancement, but also the shifting boundaries between how we understand life and death. I feel we need to understand that that there are always positives and negatives, and that our technologies and attitudes often reflect current cultural values.


Svenja Johni Kratz, Afterlife. The Immortalisation of Kira and Rama

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The Immortalisation of Kira and Rama: The Temporary Resurrection and Second Death of Kira, 2011


You work with living matter. What are challenges of exhibiting your works? How do you keep them alive for the whole duration of a show for example?

One of the most demanding aspects of working across art and science, and particularly preparing living work for exhibition, are the ethics, biosafety and risk assessments that must be completed to ensure that the work follows ethical guidelines, all risks are minimised and the work is non-hazardous for viewers and installation staff.
Maintaining organisms is also a challenge and relies on careful planning including consulting with scientists, designing the support system and then testing all components to ensure the environmental parameters are appropriate to sustain the organisms for the duration of the exhibition.


You also work with fairly sophisticated technologies. How do you manage to communicate both artistic ideas and scientific innovations that are not that well-known to the public without overwhelming them with complex explanations? 

In trying to communicate my ideas, I often focus on storytelling, interweaving scientific concepts with personal experiences and observation, cultural narratives and philosophical ideas. However, this is something I need to continuously work on. When I first started working across art and science, I think I was actually much better at communicating underlying scientific ideas, as my understanding was limited and I was only familiar with lay language. As my knowledge has developed, I sometimes include scientific terms without thinking. Consequently, I often ask my arts colleagues to read my work to ensure the key ideas are clear and understandable, and that I have not included too much superfluous jargon.

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Working in the laboratory

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Contamination of Alice #8


You are showing Contamination of Alice #8 at the Experimenta Recharge biennial of media art. For this piece you used human DNA to explore the transformative capabilities of cancer cells. Could you explain us what this involves exactly?

The Contamination of Alice, refers collectively to a series of individual works originally inspired by the experience of my Saos-2 cell (bone cancer cell line originally isolated from an 11 year old. girl, Alice) cultures becoming contaminated by a fungus when I was working in the laboratory at IHBI in 2009. While this resulted in the required disposal of the cultures, to minimise the risk of further infection - something that was initially devastating - it really got me thinking about how different organisms take advantage of environmental opportunities, as well as the difficulty of maintaining ongoing containment and control over nature. The loss of the cell cultures also encouraged me to consider the creative potential of the experience and how contamination could be perceived positively as unexpected growth and discovery, rather than something unclean or unwanted. The contamination of the cells was actually a trigger to start exploring microbiology.

The latest instance within the series which was commissioned for Experimenta forms part of this ongoing exploration and connects to Alice's cells, my lab experiences and notions of becoming, transformation and the interconnections between organism and environment. Through the inclusion of Alice's DNA (isolated from her cultured cells), the work also starts to engage with genetics and the fact that DNA is not a fixed code, but subject to environmental influence through gene switching. While all Agar faces are made of the same material, the display of the work at a new location will result in different bacterial and fungal colonies, based on the microbes in the new environment.

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Transition Piece #3, 2008

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Algernon Becomes a Bird: Maggot Box, 2011


How did you get to work with the Tissue Repair and Regeneration Group at Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation at the Queensland University of Technology?


I started working with the TRR group as part of my PhD research which aimed to explore the creative and critical potentials of cross art-science practice. I was very fortunate in finding a scientific supervisor willing to take me on, train me and fully integrate me into her research group. The support from my supervisor and the entire TRR team enabled me to complete my own lab work and gain first-hand insight into biotechnologies, particularly cell culture and tissue engineering.

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Untitled Insects - Detail

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Untitled Insects - Installation View


I read that in 2013 you undertook a 5-month residency at Leiden University and the Art and Genomics Centre in The Netherlands to explore mutagenesis and bioengineering for future energy production. Could you tell us about this research?

Thanks to the Premiere's 2012 New Media Scholarship from QAG/GOMA, I had the opportunity to complete a six-month residency at Gorlaeus Laboratories at Leiden University in The Netherlands from July to December 2013. The residency formed part of the large-scale Biosolar Cells research programme, which focuses on the potential of solar energy for long term sustainable energy production. While the programme encompasses a variety of research areas, I was integrated into the Solid State NMR group led by Professor Huub de Groot under the supervision of Professor Wim de Grip and PhD candidate Srividya Ganapathy. The project I worked on aims to increase the absorbance spectrum of light powered protein pumps, which are proteins used by Archaea (single-celled microorganisms) to convert sunlight into chemical energy. If successful, the increase in absorbance spectrum enable the proteins to use more of light spectrum to create energy with strong implications for biofuel production. During the residency, I was fortunate to take part in site-specific mutagenesis experiments in which we made highly specific changes to the DNA sequence of the protein in order to induce a shift in absorbance spectrum. I am one of the few artists that can legitimately claim: "I helped make a mutant".


Why do you think it is important for an artist to get in close contact with science like you do?

I personally have found that working closely with research scientists and engaging with new and emerging biotechnologies has enriched my practice and understanding of biology, new and emerging biotechnologies and the complex ethical issues involved in working with living organisms. Being able to work closely with research scientists has also challenged many of my own assumptions and revealed that artists and scientists, despite governed by different objectives and methodologies, rely on tacit knowledge and understand that discovery is emergent and requires an openness to the unexpected. The combination of art and science is also important as it enables the subjective to enter into scientific discourse and research arenas traditionally dominated by a search for 'objective truth'. By drawing on, and incorporating, personal experiences, speculative potentials and historical events, the work makes room for multiplicity and can help reveal the way in which knowledge is always situated, provisional, and intimately connected to personal, social, and cultural values.



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Working with E.coli bacterial in the laboratory in Leiden

What's next? What are you working on right now?

At the moment I am developing a series of holographic display chambers in collaboration with micro-electronics engineer Michael Maggs, based on my 2013 residency in The Netherlands, that engage with ideas surrounding real and imaginary biotech mutants. I am also working on a series of individual works that operate as thought experiments regarding the idea of genetic legacy, and how, as single woman in my 30s, I might use biotechnologies to ensure my genetic line continues without having children. I am also interested in exploring the emerging field bio-fabrication and am hoping to secure funds to create responsive 'bio-robots' using 3D bio-printing techniques. What can I say...the future is exciting!

Thanks Svenja!

Experimenta Recharge, the sixth international biennial of media art, remains open until Saturday 21 February 2015. In Melbourne.

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