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'Imagining a win'. Photo: Flickr/Joe Lafferty (via)

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Photos from Arts Action Academy at PSU's Social Practice Arts program

The Center for Creative Activism is a place to explore, analyze, and strengthen connections between social activism and artistic practice. For the past few years, CAA's founders Steve Lambert and Stephen Duncombe have been traveling around the U.S. (and increasingly Europe) to train grassroot activists to think more like artists and artists to think more like activists. The objective isn't to replace traditional strategies with unbridled inventiveness but to use creativity as an additional tool that will help them gain more attention, make activism more approachable and that will, ultimately, make campaigns more effective.

Stephen is an Associate Professor of Media and Politics at New York University. He has received numerous recognitions and awards for his work as a teacher, organiser of activist groups and events. He widely publishes about culture and politics and is the author and editor of six books, including Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy and the Cultural Resistance Reader. Duncombe is currently working on a book on the art of propaganda during the New Deal.

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Steve Lambert, Capitalism Works for Me, True/False

Steve is an artist and activist whose art aims to be relevant, engaging and visible outside the traditional gallery setting. His works are imbued with humour and subtle commentaries on current political and social issues.

The New York Times Special Edition, Capitalism Works For Me! True/False, Add-Art (a Firefox add-on that replaces advertising banners with art) and The Anti-Advertising Agency.
He is currently Assistant Professor of New Media at SUNY Purchase

I've never had the chance to attend any of their workshops but i've been following CCA's tweets and reading their blog posts with great enthusiasm (i would particularly recommend having a look at An open letter to critics writing about political art, whether you are an art critic, a 'socially-engaged' artist or someone interested in political art.) From where i am standing, these two guys are among the most interesting, thought-provoking thinkers. I was eager to pick their brains....

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Hi Steve and Stephen! In Europe at least, 'socially-engaged' exhibitions seem to have become very trendy. Is there any way an artist or curator can engage with meaningful artistic activism inside an art gallery or a museum?

This is a good question, but it can never be answered to any asker's satisfaction.

Definitively saying something is or isn't possible would be a mistake. With artistic activism, like anything in the realm of art, there are few concrete and lasting rules. This is why we have no specific "way" we are prescribing. We're offering an articulated approach and a method for thinking through more effective and further reaching work.

Can you engage in meaningful artistic activism from inside an art institution? Sure. Anything is possible. It depends on the goals of the work. Are you planning the violent overthrow of the government? Because creating an exhibit in a museum is probably not the smartest step in reaching that goal. Are you "interested in attempting to re-examine the notions of the institutions role in blah blah blah" then yeah, a museum or a gallery is a great place to start.

Whether or not something is meaningful or effective has far more to do with the artist(s) intention. The forms this work can take are so open that they present few limitations to efficacy - you have so many choices. The trick is keeping your focus on impacting power through culture. In some cases that path may lead you through a museum, in others not.

If the artists intention and goal does lead them to a gallery or through a museum, they need to be aware of the context of their practice. Galleries and art museums are, by and large, set up to display works of art that are then looked at or watched by others. This encourages a social relationship of spectatorship, with all its attendant political ramifications. It also can tends to "reify," politics be it social problems or social struggles. In these cases politics becomes an object for contemplation, or - perversely - appreciation, rather than action. As we like to say, political art is not necessarily art about politics, but art that acts politically in the world.

This does not mean that one should avoid art institutions, only that these institutions - like all settings - have their own dynamics and to be aware of and work with, or against, and work through.

The tragedy here is that a majority of the shortcomings of this work are not put in place by institutions attempting to support the work, but by the artists themselves in underestimating their ability, their role in culture, and not fully leveraging their strengths. Crudely, we could say that many artists are plagued by deep seated self-esteem issues that result in us aiming too low. We simply feel that we can't have a great impact outside of the small and insulated worlds of art, so we don't engage on a larger terrain.

This is not to say that institutional support, or lack of it, is not an issue. There is a chicken-or-egg problem here in that the training provided to artists and many of the established ways they are supported through the market and states are profoundly disempowering to artists. The power artists have in shifting culture is rarely acknowledged and popular myths about us as starving, insane, misunderstood outcasts are deeply rooted. In subtle ways these institutions can perpetuate disempowerment and support these myths.

That said, the recent uptick in support for this kind of work is a good thing in many ways. It acknowledges that art is not sequestered to traditional media and sacred institutions, and a recognition that art has tremendous power when it's not decoration for the wealthy or academic navel gazing. And institutions can shift, change, and grow, so who knows what could happen.

This is a very long way of saying we can't answer your question, other than to say that if we are serious about using art, culture and creativity to change the world then no setting should be off limits.

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One of the projects run by the CAA is the School for Creative Activism, a training program for grassroots activists. Could you tell us about those workshop? What can activists expect from them?

The School for Creative Activism is a two and a half day weekend workshop. It starts on a Friday evening at a modest retreat center we'll find just outside whatever city we're working in. On Friday we give an overview of what artistic activism is and isn't and cover contemporary examples. Saturday we go through the history of this work - usually going back 2000 years or more with some big gaps along the way. The rest of the day is a mix of lecture, discussion, and activities around cultural, cognitive, and mass communication theory. Sunday is hands-on practice where we put all we've learned into play on a sample campaign.

We're both professors and teachers. Duncombe has a doctorate in sociology and has extensive activist roots and Lambert brings his expertise in communications and fine art. We take all this information, condense it, and make it relevant and useful for working activists. We also get a few artists in the room to add perspective.

Over the past three years we have trained activists working on school desegregation in Mebane NC, prison reform in Houston TX, state budgets in Austin TX, immigration justice in San Antonio TX, tax fairness in Boston MA, and police surveillance of Muslims in New York City. We've worked with faith-based organizers in rural Connecticut and Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans in Chicago IL. We just finished a weekend with The Portland State University Social Practice Arts program. Overseas we've trained East African health activists in Nairobi and Scottish democracy advocates outside of Glasgow. In March of 2014 we are scheduled to work with health care activists in Skopje, Macedonia.

Because of the wildly different geographic and social makeup of these groups, our curriculum really has to work as a framework that can be adapted locally. You can't drop-in to Kenya or Texas or Scotland and use a one-size-fits-all model. Culture is the resource, the raw material, we work with and culture is local. We can't tell people what will work in their area and with the populations they want to organize, they need to tell us what the dominant signs, symbols and stories are, what media outlets they have access to and what creative resources they can muster. This is what makes this work so exciting for us: the activists and artist we work with are the experts in their cultural terrain so we are forever learning new things.

Creativity taps into an expertise that many people possess, but don't think of applying to the "serious business" of politics. Even if most people don't think of themselves as "artists," they don't compose symphonies or paint majestic landscapes, they sing at churches, rap with friend on a street corner, upload videos to YouTube, assemble scrapbooks, of even just know how to throw a kicking party. "I'm not political," is a phrase one hears often; it's a rare person, however, that doesn't identify with some form of culture and creativity. Culture lowers barriers to entry. As something already embraced, it has the capacity to act as an access point which organizers can use to approach and engage people otherwise alienated from typical civic activity and community organization. In fact, cultural creativity is often the possession of those - youth, the poor, people of color - that are most marginalized from formal spheres of politics, law, and education.
How can art help them organize more successful campaigns?

We have a motto at the CAA: "The first rule of guerilla warfare is to know your terrain and use it to your advantage." The political topography of today is one of signs and symbols, stories and spectacles. And for all the limitations of traditional artistic training, it is artists who are the best adapted to working on this political landscape. In order to be a good activist you need to learn to think like an artist.

One of the problems with much of activist work is that it's based in a faulty understanding of political motivation. We do an exercise at the beginning of every training: We ask participants to introduce themselves and give a brief account of what they are working on and tell us about the moment they became politicized. After everyone is done we go back and point out that no one mentioned they became interested in affecting change in the world through signing a petition, reading a factsheet, giving a donation, or even going to a march or rally. Yet that is exactly these means that activists use to approach others to have them "get involved." The politicization experiences people do describe in this exercise are vivid, visceral, and emotional experiences. Dreams, fantasies, emotions. Moments felt rather than just thought. Affective experiences. Well, this is the domain of art.

Unfortunately there's a pressure to do things that are sure to work. With activists especially, the stakes are high. When we're working with healthcare advocates in Eastern Africa, if they take a risk that doesn't work people may literally die. We don't ever advise that people should abandon the standard tactics of activism: the marches, the rallies, the petitions, the knocking on doors and lobbying politicians. What we are suggesting is that artistic activism provides another tool for the activist's tool box. But as any carpenter can tell you, once you have a new tool it opens up possibilities of new jobs to work on.

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Members of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) staged military operations in the United States to give fellow Americans a glimpse of the day-to-day realities of the war (Photo: IndyBay/Ian Paul)

Do you have a couple of examples of workshops that lead to particularly fruitful actions?

We were sitting in a restaurant a few weeks ago getting lunch and one of our former workshop attendees happened to be at another table. We asked what he was working on, and he mentioned he was organizing fast food workers. He then told us. "Oh you know, we're using a lot of what we talked about in the workshop in the Fast Food Workers Strike." What impressed us was two things: one, that some of what we were teaching had some impact on this amazing, high-profile campaign that we had admired from afar; and two, that we would have never known without this chance meeting.

If we've been successful, when we're done with the workshop the participants have a feeling of ownership over the method. When they put it to use they don't often consciously think "Now we're using artistic activism!" Instead they find ideas and methods which resonate and feel true, so they use them. Which is exactly as it should be - part of an overall skill set that activists can tap into and employ when and where it's useful.

It reminds us of what Lao Tzu once wrote:

As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence.... But when the best leaders' work is done, the people say 'we did it ourselves'

We think the same is true for teachers too.

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Reverend Billy leading mass exorcism in Tate Modern Turbine Hall over BP sponsorship

Which brings me to the question you ask to the artists you interview: "How do you know if it works?" What are the criteria that help you establish whether a work has had any social or political impact?

This is what everyone, including us, wants to know. What is the formula? Is there a checklist to run through? Are there singular and universal right answers to this? And of course, there is not.

While it's helpful to have measureable objectives - a change that is visible - often it's similar to answering the question "what makes a good artwork?" because there's part of artistic activism that has no objective standard and the most important outcomes may be immeasurable.

The first question to ask is "What was the artist trying to do?" If an artist set out to be successful in the art market, there's no real sense in being critical of their lack of political impact because that wasn't their intention. Better questions are, did they succeed in what they set out to do? And were those goals ambitious enough?

For example, we often hear political artists say things like "I'm interested in raising awareness about issues around immigration." This statement is so vague it could also serve as a mission statement for a Nazi propaganda office. Consciousness raising is only useful as a means directed towards something larger. Not addressing a specific, distant goal is a strategic error. Unfortunately merely political content is often what passes for political art, while it has little political impact. If the artist were to be more ambitious and more specific, "I will create a more accepting culture around immigration through my art work" they'd probably be more successful because they'd have a clearer idea of what they were trying to do.

When we work with artists directly, as we do through our Arts Action Academy, we really push artists to think about what they want to have happen through their work. Many will initially say something like "I want to raise awareness of X" or "I want to start a discussion about Y." Fine and good. But then we ask, if you succeed in raising awareness or starting a conversation, what then do you want to have happen as a result? Most of the times there are grander motivations underlying these tame aspirations. It often turns out that the artist doesn't just want to raise awareness or start a conversation about immigration, they want that awareness or conversation to lead someplace: to help stop some particularly heinous law that punishes immigrants and open up the borders between people and nations. Being aware of this helps us sharpen our thinking about our art and its impact, and it also helps us determine whether we've done what we've set out to do.

This thought process also helps us think about creative work as a piece of a extensive campaign. An artwork that raises awareness or starts a conversation is just one tactic; a tactic to be followed by others: perhaps art that aims to empower immigrant communities or embarrass right wing demagogues or pressure lawmakers. And all of this fitting together in a larger strategy aimed toward an ultimate goal of a more humane society. Without this greater strategic understanding there is a disconnect between the action and the, often unacknowledged, desired result. This tends to lead to either delusion: "My piece will change everything!" or depression: "My piece changed nothing." Both are debilitating.

We could go on addressing "what works, and how do we know it does?" forever because we are obsessed with this topic, but of your readers are curious, we've written more in our Open Letter to Critics on Writing About Political Art following the 2012 Creative Time Summit in NYC, and in a short essay, Activist Art: Does it Work? we wrote for the Dutch journal Open.

Oh! I loved that Open Letter, I found it so useful.

Have artists and activists the same definition of what constitutes a successful action?

No. That's both the problem and the promise of artistic activism.

Activism tends to be very instrumental: the goal is to change power relationships and you have clear objectives that result in demonstrable change in the "real world."

Art tends to be expressive, interested in making something new and unique. It's a practice concerned with shifting perspectives and creating spaces for this to happen, what Jacques Rancière calls the "redistribution of the sensible." With art there are indirect results, or perhaps no instrumental result at all. And most art is experienced outside of the "real world," in special refuges like museums and galleries.

These are often at cross purposes to one another. They are often hard to reconcile. It's not easy! It is an art. But when you can do it, it makes for powerful activism (and profound art)

I'm also very curious about the Art Action Academy, a workshop to help socially engaged artists become more politically efficacious. What are the skills necessary for political action that no art academy ever teaches you?

Well, schools could teach these things, they just don't. Programs have popped up and they have begun to try. But activism and organizing are real skills - just like painting or dramaturgy - and there are lessons to be learned. Lessons like:

Thinking about audience, particularly audiences unlike yourself
Long term collaboration with groups and institutions
History and theory of social movements
Processes of behavioral change past "awareness."
Research in kindred fields like sociology, psychology, cognition science, and social marketing
Power mapping: knowing who holds what power to effect change
Campaign planning with tactics, strategy, objectives, and goals.

Because we believe in the democratic ideal of the every-day active citizen we tend to downplay the fact that activism is a demanding practice that requires particular skills and substantial practice. Ideally, we will all one day have those skills and practice, and we will live in a world where everyone is an activist (as well as an artist) but until then it is necessary to learn - and to teach.

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Rosa Parks sits in the front of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation illegal on the city's bus system. Behind Parks is Nicholas C. Chriss, a UPI reporter covering the event

Now say i'm an artist and i'm interested in political action but i cannot afford to travel to the U.S. to attend one of your workshops, where should i start? Do you have any book, video or other tool to recommend?

We both hold down paying jobs as university professors so we can't do as much, and go as many places, as we'd like. In recent years we've expanded our workshops out of the borders of the US to Europe and Africa and we plan to do more of this. That said, we're only two people with limited time and resources so we can't be everywhere and do everything we'd like. Recognizing our limitations we are working on a book that will take the research we've done and the lessons and exercises from our workshops and make them accessible to more people.

We also have resources for artistic activists on our website: a reading list of texts that we've found useful, and Actipedia.org, an open-access, user-generated database of global artistic activism case studies that we created with The Yes Men.

Are there any relevant yet overlooked issues you think activists and artists should approach today?

There's plenty of relevant issues and we come across new ones all the time. Nearly all of them are overlooked in the grand scheme of things.

If you're asking if there are topics we feel artists should be working on, we think it's always best to pick whatever compels you the most. There's always work to be done and if we tried to pick out what was most important, we'd probably be wrong anyway. We're all in it together, so everyone needs to work their hardest on the things they care about most...and support one another

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Do you have any plan of coming to Europe by any chance? I think we'd love to have the CAA here.

We were just in Scotland. This Spring we'll be running a five day School for Creative Activism workshop in Macedonia working with health care activists, and it looks like we'll be hosting Art Action Academies in Sweden and Russia too.

While our time is limited, we really enjoy meeting and working with activists and artists working on campaigns and in contexts that are new to us. It's how we lean and grow too. If people are interested in bringing us to Europe - or elsewhere - they can always contact us trough the center at manager@artisticativism.org.

We're definitely open to it.

And more generally what is next for the Center for Artistic Activism?

We'll continue working with as many activists and artists as we can through our workshops while finishing our book so we can reach even more.

Thanks Stephen and Steve!

Check out also the video of the talk that Stephen Duncombe delivered in Copenhagen on January 23rd, 2013, for activists and NGO workers affiliated with Action Aid Denmark.

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Jealous Gallery

Art14 is "London's global art fair." It took place a couple of weekends ago and it is my favourite art fair in London. Not that i'm a big fan of fairs but, you know, "In the country of the blind," blablabla. Art14 changes its name every year. Last year was its first edition and it was called, you guessed it, Art13. If i had to compare it to Frieze i'd say that catering is far better at Art14 (which for me means "WOW! there's a juice bar, here!"), the public is much younger and the art is more accessible and not just financially. Last but not least, there's no Jeff Koons inflated glitter in sight. I did see too many Botero though. At least one.

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Thorsten Brinkmann, Karl Schrank von Gaul, 2008

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Installation view of Art14 London, Photography: Written Light

The reason why Art14 defines itself as "London's global art fair" is that the 180 participating galleries come from all over the world. Europe of course but also Asia, the Middle East, Africa and South America. 38 different countries in total.

What follows is a long series of images of works i discovered at the fair. Most of them are photography because that was the medium that stood out at the fair for me.

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Jason Larkin, Pressurised Water, Krugersdorp, Johannesburg, 2013. Flowers Gallery

Johannesburg was founded on the wealth that came flooding in from a gold rush beginning in 1886. The mines didn't just create the fortunes, they also generated six billion tonnes of waste dumped outside the city's poorer areas. Some 400,000 people now live surrounded by these mountains of waste.

In his series Tales From the City of Gold, Jason Larkin documents life in these impoverished areas.

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Hirohito Nomoto, Facade Pachinko, 2013. Tezukayama Gallery

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Hirohito Nomoto, Façade 05 (ed.7) 2011

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Hirohito Nomoto, Façade 02 (ed.7) 2011

This series records some of the structures damaged by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Hirohito Nomoto explains: The photographs of the facade of each building were taken using techniques of architecture photography that allowed me to keep my emotions at bay, in order to depict the scene as naturally as possible. The aim of this work was to present the viewer an image of what happened there on the day. Most of the buildings in the series were pulled down and do not exist anymore.

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Ohad Matalon, Tower, Egypt-Israel Border, 2011-2013. Podbielski Contemporary

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Ohad Matalon, Tower, Egypt-Israel Border, 2011-2013. Podbielski Contemporary

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Ohad Matalon. Podbielski Contemporary

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Ohad Matalon, P.o.v., Jaffa, 2007

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Shen Chao-Liang, STAGE #97, 2011. AKI Gallery

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Shen Chao-Liang, STAGE #14, 2011. AKI Gallery

Shen Chao-Liang photographed the extravagant stage trucks employed by cabarets and other performers to travel across Taiwan. In less than an hour, the stages turn from mundane vehicles into 50-foot sensory spectacles complete with powerful sound systems, neon lights, and splashing painted stage sets. And back into trucks again until their next destination.

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Francesco Jodice, Capri #3, 2013

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Jeff Liao, Luna Park (Coney Island series), 2010. Crane Kalman Brighton

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Helene Schmitz, Alabama Fields

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Hazem Harb, We Used to Fly on Water, 2014. ATHR GALLERY

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Albert Renger-Patzsch, Schubert & Salzer factory, Ingolstadt, Germany, 1950. Kleinschmidt Fine Photographs

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Albert Renger-Patzsch, Schubert & Salzer factory (Blow room machine, Cotton Mill Machine. Untitled), Ingolstadt, Germany, 1950 (Blow room machine, Cotton Mill Machine. Untitled)

Bauhaus artist Albert Renger-Patzsch looked for beauty and dignity of prosaic industrial machines.

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Nelli Palomäki, Baawo at 30, 2011. Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire

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Michael Ormerod, Child with Mask, Hillrose, Colorado, 1989. Crane Kalman

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Abdul Abdullah, You see monsters, 2014. Fehily Contemporary

Abdul Abdullah's Siege refers to the 'siege mentality'; a state of mind in which one feels under attack. Abdullah feels this is a condition suffered by many minorities and marginalized groups, particularly young Muslims who live in traditionally 'Western' societies. Growing up in the post 9/11 era, Abdullah has stated that he believes that if there is a 'bad guy' in the popular imagination, it would be Muslims, and as a Muslim he has felt obligated to defend his position.

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Ramune Pigagaite, Feuerwehrmann (Menscher meiner Stadt), 2004. Kleinschmidt Fine Photographs

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Ramune Pigagaite, Fischer III (Menscher meiner Stadt), 2001. Kleinschmidt Fine Photographs

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Ramune Pigagaite, Bahnwärterin, (Menscher meiner Stadt), 2000. Kleinschmidt Fine Photographs

Ramune Pigagaite was born in Varena, a small town in Lithuania. People of my Town is a series of forty small sized colour photographic portraits of people from Varena. Their professions seem antiquated, strange and curious: baker, beekeeper and poet.

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Hugh Holland, Stacy Peralta in the Valley, 1977. Crane Kalman

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Hugh Holland, Skate Shooter, Kenter Canyon Elementary, Brentwood, 1976. Crane Kalman

Hugh Holland documented the early days of the skating culture in California. The young people he photographed in the 1970's became legendary names of the sport.

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Sofia Borges

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Sebastiao Salgado, Church Gate Station, Western Railroad Line, Bombay India, 1995. Sundaram Tagore Gallery

It would be unfair to reduce the fair to photography:

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Dominic Harris, Ruffled. Privatekollektie Contemporary Art

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He An. Tang Contemporary, Beijing

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Anton Goldenstein, Rocket Summer. Coates and Scarry

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Anton Goldenstein, There Will Come Soft Rains. Coates and Scarry

Anton's works are a cultural fusion of African/European cultural references and phenomena. Influenced by his family's history with tales of deterritorialisation, migration, displacement and assimilation his practice is multiplicitous, presenting an ongoing exploration, a type of meta-anthropology, a broad sweep of culture(s), conglomerations of many themes, histories and ideas (from natural/world/art histories, language and media).

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Linus BILL, Weniger Jugend, mehr Polizei, 2011. Christophe Gute Galerie

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Penny Byrne, Gaddafi's Girl Guards, 2011. Fehily contemporary


Ding Chien Chung, Église Vide (幽蕩之堂). Galerie Grand Siecle

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At Jealous Gallery

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At Jack Bell Gallery

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Photography: Written Light

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Photography: Written Light

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Yinka Shonibare, Cannonball Heaven

The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on Resonance104.4fm, London's favourite radio art station, is aired tomorrow Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.

My guest in the studio will be James Auger, a designer, researcher and lecturer operating at the intersection of art and industrial design. He is a tutor at the RCA: Design Interactions and visiting professor at the Haute école d'art et de design (HEAD) in Geneva. Together with Jimmy Loizeau, James runs Auger-Loizeau, a design studio that explores what it means to exist in a technology rich environment both today and in the near future.

In this episodes we're going to talk about James' PHD thesis Why Robots? which uses the robot as a vehicle to study how technology be domesticated. But the designer will also discuss preferable futures and electronic devices that know more about your partner's emotional state than you do.

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Flypaper Robotic Clock

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Smell+

The radio show will be aired this Wednesday 12 March at 16:00, London time. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am. If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud one day.

Check out also James Auger's essay in the Journal of Human-Robot Interaction: Living With Robots: A Speculative Design Approach.

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In the early 1920s, painter and photographer László Moholy-Nagy started creating artworks through instructions he gave over the phone:

In 1922 I ordered by telephone from a sign factory five paintings in porcelain enamel. I had the factory's color chart before me and I sketched my paintings on graph paper. At the other end of the telephone the factory supervisor had the same kind of paper, divided into squares. He took down the dictated shapes in the correct position. (It was like playing chess by correspondence.) One of the pictures was delivered in three different sizes, so that I could study the subtle differences in the color relations caused by the enlargement and reduction. (via)

With this series of paintings, Moholy-Nagy presents the artist as a producer of ideas rather than objects.

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László Moholy-Nagy

Jamie Allen and Bernhard Garnicnig were inspired by Moholy-Nagy's telephone pictures. They are using the internet this time but also the gaps in communications that happen via electronic media. The title of the work itself is the result of a misunderstanding: Austrian artist Bernhard mis-hearing of the name Moholy-Nagy when it was pronounced with a Canadian accent by Jamie in a noisy pub in Northern England.

That's how Moholy-Nagy became My Holy Nacho. In this work in progress, a single object is traveling to manufacturers and workshops to have various physical fabrication 'processes' applied to it via online services. Each process is chosen, in secret and in turn, by the collaborating artists, Jamie Allen and Bernhard Garnicnig. After 10 processes, the final sculptural object -- whatever it turns out to look like -- will be exhibited, alongside the documentation of process and dialog with manufacturers and shipment companies.

The piece reveals the materiality of networks and the power of information infrastructures to enact physical change.

What exactly is it that happens when you click the 'submit' button on a browser? Will a factory worker be set to action in distant land? Will a power outage be caused in a small town near a datacenter? Will the global economies be affected? Will it make someone smile? Will a long-lost friend come and visit? There is so much power in the action of a 'click', to move people, money, mountains, art.

For MHN, a single object was sent to different manufacturers and workshops to have various 'processes' applied to it. Each process is chosen, in secret and in turn, by Jamie Allen and Bernhard Garnicnig. What is the object like now? And what did it look like at the beginning of the project? Did you chose that original object at least?

No one involved with initiating the project has much idea what the object is like right now, actually. What we think we need to know, but do not know and can not know, is one of the things we are learning about as we work on My Holy Nacho. The title, in fact comes from a moment of cracked communication between us, when we were tired, shiftless and in a noisy pub in the UK. I was attempting to say something smart about famed Bauhaus professor Moholy-Nagy, in mumbled north american English, to Bernhard. So Bernhard's misheard citation created this weird, divine mexican corn snack -- a stand in for all the things we think we know, but don't, in language, collaboration, fabrication and exhibition.

Anyway, the beginning of the project involved the selection of three objects by each artist, and the actual starting point was chosen by the project administrator, so neither Bernhard nor I know what the precise starting point was. In this aspect the work shows our love for Moholy-Nagy's telephone paintings, where he called in instructions to a sign fabricator of how to make one of his works. The starting point is more the entire framework and network of digitally-available, material-industrial, process available at the click of a mouse.

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It's a work you developed almost completely in the dark and had no control over, right? So how can you say you collaborated on it once the idea of how the work would evolve was established? it could have been Jamie working with a random person met on the street or Bernhard with a random cat met on the same street?

There are inherent contradiction in trying to control any process. The more noise there is, in a sense, the more predictable something is: It will always be noise. And processes you think you have complete control over are always the ones that bite back hardest, generating more "WTF" moments and leaving people wondering how someone could not have understood something the way they do. So the process -- this kind of ping-pong of process selection that we have embarked on -- is in one sense highly specific, and in another sense entirely outside of our control.

Actual collaboration is in many ways impossible. Collaboration is more about the love of misunderstanding and the impossibility of knowing than most people think. It's not about feedback, but pushing each others ideas and intuitions forward, developing unique things together. Imagine two people cooking together, for example, discussing each condiment and about whether now is a good moment to stir -- that's not really how it works. Someone nudges ideas and materials this way or that, and then someone else comes along and nudges it some other way. That's just how bodies, brains and time work. So the "artwork" or object in My Holy Nacho is not what's being collaborated on, but there are ideas and processes set in motion, suggesting a whole bunch of gaps innate to (particularly digital) collaborations: The gap between actuality and language, the gap between idea and implementation, and the gap between people in collaboration. The work is "about" those gaps as much as anything else. And yes, we could each have collaborated with a random person on the street, but there seems to be something about our (Bernhard and I's) ways of communicating that lend themselves to productive misunderstandings.

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Engraving machine

The top entry of http://myholynacho.tumblr.com/ is legible but i don't understand a word of what comes below it. what are these texts? How were they generated?

We've been trying to develop ways of communicating a piece that essentially all process, without disclosing any information about the object or the processes. So one of the things you'll see on the project website is a realtime feed of messages sent between the administrator and the contractors, automatically garbled by a trivial word replacement algorithm that keeps us (amongst others) from understanding what's actually going on. There are also images that we come across in our research and other links, all designed to abstractly represent the potential transformations that an object can undergo via online order form, but without disclosing anything about what might be happening to the object, or what it might look like *right now*. We occasionally ask our administrator for a screenshot (appropriately sensored) of the building that the physical piece might find itself in, just to pique curiosity and emphasize where (not what) fabrication is taking place.

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László Moholy-Nagy, Telephone Picture EM 3, 1922

How did the manufacturers and workshops react to the instructions you sent? Did you document the exchange of messages?

All of the contact and coordination correspondence and ordering "paperwork" (it's all electronic) are part of the project. The whole archive (consisting of emails between the project administrator and industrial manufacturers and each of the artists communication with the administrator) will be included in exhibitions that take place once ten processes have been completed.

Our administrator reports that even though you would think that a project like this would generate questions and commentary from the people doing the various steps, that actually they're quite happy to participate, and interpret what must seem like a rather strange request however they see fit -- as long as they are paid as normal for these services. The details of how different people react is unknown to both of us, and they will see the documentation of these interactions at the opening of the upcoming exhibition, along with everyone else.

If i remember well, an 'administrator' was following the whole process and he/she was the only person who knew what was going on, is that correct? Was his/her role only one of control and management or did it go beyond that?

At the beginning of the project it became obvious that we'd need someone to move the project along, and keep anyone involved from knowing anything about the object or prior processes. We couldn't necessarily entrust the various manufacturers with shipping the object to the next stage, so our administrator is taking care of that. Beyond that the assistant also selected the initial object from the object each one of the artists proposed.

The role of the project administrator became essential rather early on, is to ensure that neither one of us is aware of the processes of the other, and that the processes are completed, the object shipped to the next location.

The project 'uses the gaps in communications via electronic media to create an artwork.' What characterize the gaps in communications via electronic media? How different are they from other gaps in communication?

The gaps we are looking at are inherent to an increasingly common, and particularly Internetty workflow. The process of the todays artistic practices of creating and exhibiting work globally involves a lot more email, digital document creating and coordination than people like to admit. So, as well as artistic reception occurring mostly online these days (trolling for images of artworks and exhibition photos on tumblr), works are also themselves also created at-a-distance: involving 'ordering', production processes, tools for fabrication. So the artistic medium actually looks more and more like an abstract software specification, where in some ways the artistic 'practice' is specification and coordination itself.

And, as mentioned this retains always a double-bind: Asking someone to perform what might seem highly specific actions (e.g.: coat this object with chrome) actually highlights the many, many potentials for ambiguity that exist. In a culture of technical documents, the assumptions and interpretations required become greater, not less, in many instances. My Holy Nacho tries to exacerbate the situation, maximizing and highlighting these "uhm what the fuck?" and "oh, you did it like THAT..." moments.

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Artists like Takashi Murakami and Damien Hirst are famous for not painting or sculpting themselves, they have staff who do that following their instructions. Did you have in mind to do something similar, only pushed to the extreme?

These kinds of investor-artists were not really what we were thinking about at the outset, but of course when you highlight gaps between idea and realisation, you're also pointing out the people that exist at either end. Some person specifies, and some other person makes, according to specification. This is a power relation, as much as it is a kind and often generous relation of intense trust, endearment and mutual admiration. The artists you mention are notable partially because they frustrate certain romantic notions of the artist-as-artisan, but they are more of an effect of an industrialised potential than they are the cause of any particular creative or artistic impulse. There are very few things you cannot get made or done if you have the resources to pay for it. Without all the layers of standardization, specification and abstraction that industrial (and now digital and algorithmic) culture has allowed, phenomena like Murakami and Hirst could not exist. The kind of art they make is somewhat about this historical, and developmental, contingency, despite most people thinking its still about sculpture or objects or something. This is something My Holy Nacho shares with their work, I suppose.

But we are not trying to make the point that "artists should make their own work" by hand, or whatever, but that the perceived abstractions allowed for via the online culture make this action at a distance something we take for granted.

The processes were secret but how about the manufacturers? How did you select them? What were the criteria?

The agreed upon rules for the piece stipulate that the processes must be available via "online order." This sometimes devolves to coordinating via email, but the initial research and information about each process always takes place through web and online research. Otherwise the selection is completely up to us, individually, and something that gets even more meaning through its arbitrariness.

As we're not aware of the process that came before, we suppose that the processes will get ever-more ridiculous and hard to interpret. Amongst other things (the object will likely get larger in size, for example) the physical piece itself will gain a kind of troublesome complexity, there may be issues with chemical decomposition or temperature and structural integrity... as well as the more fundamental problems of someone we've ordered a process from understanding why any of this would be going on in the first place. On this point it should be said that oftentimes the manufacturers choose us, as we have compiled a much longer list of potential processes we want to have applied, but receive no replies from people who think the whole thing is a scam or something. But once they agree to it, the work seems to get done without too many questions, oddly enough.

Anything coming up for MHN?

In a few months, the finalised object will be shipped right to the gallery -- just in time for a vernissage, so we can involve the deliveryperson somewhat -- where we will stage an "unboxing" (inspired by this fantastically strange phenomenon of online unboxing videos people make after something gets delivered).

Right now the process, as a whole, is more or less at its middle stage and we're discussing different possible places for this unboxing ceremony to place in the Autumn of 2014. There's a main project site at http://myholynacho.net, and you can track progress and activity on the project tumblr at http://myholynacho.tumblr.com.

Thanks Jamie and Bernhard!

Related stories: Err (or the creativity of the factory worker), a conversation with Jeremy Hutchison and AUTO. SUEÑO Y MATERIA - Manufacturing cars.

Photography: A Cultural History (Fourth Edition), by Mary Warner Marien.

Available on Amazon USA and UK.

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Publisher Laurence King writes: Mary Warner Marien discusses photography from a truly global viewpoint and looks at a wide-ranging collection of images through the lenses of art, science, travel, war, fashion, the mass media and individual photographers. In addition to representing the established canon of Europe and the United States, key work from Latin America, Africa, India, Russia, China and Japan is also included. Professional, amateur and art photographers are all discussed, with 'Portrait' boxes devoted to highlighting important individuals and 'Focus' boxes charting particular cultural debates. New additions to this fourth edition include an overview of photography's involvement in conceptual art, a detailed review of the photographic work of artist Ed Ruscha and new material on European Worker Photography during the 1920s and 30s. Many new pictures have been added throughout the book, including superior versions of historical photographs and recent images from contemporary photographers, including Walead Beshty, Youssef Nabil, Lalla Essaydi and Ryan McGinley. A rich and vivid account of the history of photography placed in an essential cultural context, this indispensable book shows how photography has charted, shaped and sharpened our perception of the world.

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Richard Billingham, Ray's A Laugh, 1996

Mary Warner Marien is Emeritus Professor at Syracuse Uni­versity and this publication started as a textbook for her students. Don't let that detail alarm you, this is by far the most engaging, exciting and informative book on photography i've ever read (and i've read quite a few).

The author examines the story of photography, the technical innovations and the key figures of the rather brief story of the medium but she also looks at the impact it had on society and culture. And vice versa. Photography is indeed a powerful weapon. From its early days until its current guise, it has been equally used to denounce social injustice and to function as an instrument of political propaganda.

By explaining the historical and cultural contexts in which photographers worked, Warner Marien shows us how to research, interpret, understand and ultimately look at a photography. A skill we often overlook in our age of image overload.

Photography. A Cultural History is also a very entertaining book. It will take you from the early days of tabloids to the heyday of Kodak, from racial profiling to documenting public executions, from social documentary to the history of medical experiments.

Have a look at some of the works, ideas and facts i discovered in the book:

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Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne performing facial electrostimulus experiments on "The Old Man"

French neurologist Duchenne de Boulogne used electrical currents to stimulate facial expressions. The newly invented photography offered him a tool to capture the resulting expressions of his subjects.

His monograph The Mechanism of Human Physiognomy was the first publication on the expression of human emotions to be illustrated with actual photographs.

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John Thomson, The Crawlers, London, 1876-1877

John Thomson collaborated with journalist Adolphe Smith to produce the monthly magazine, Street Life in London, from 1876 to 1877. This early type of photojournalism documented in photographs and text the lives of the street people of London.

The "Crawlers" lived in the street and whenever they had enough cash to buy tea leaves then they would "crawl" to a pub for hot water.

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Photographer Unknown, Corporal Samuel Thummam, 1865

Photographs of American Civil War veterans were circulated to teaching hospitals in an effort to improve battlefield care, recovery and prosthetics

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Lewis Hine, Child in Carolina Cotton Mill, 1908

Lewis Hine, photographer for the National Child Labor Committee, recorded the lives and work of hundreds of children in the United States in the first decades of the twentieth century. His pictures were instruments of persuasion. He believed that if the public could see for themselves the abuses of child labor, they would demand laws to end it.

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Clara Sheldon Smith, Claude F. Hankins. Caption reads: "In 1904 Claude Hankins , aged 14, was convicted of murder and paroled after serving four years."

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Tom Howard, Dead! (Execution of Ruth Snyder in New York's electric chair. Front page of the New York Daily News (January 13 1928)

Ruth Snyder was sentenced to death for killing her husband. Her execution, in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison was captured in a well-known photograph.

Because photographers are not permitted into executions in the United States, the New York Daily News commissioned a man no one at the prison knew to document the moment. Tom Howard strapped a miniature camera to his ankle and linked he photographic plate by cable to the shutter release concealed within his jacket.

The next day, the photograph made the front page of the paper. For many years afterwards witnesses to executions were searched and asked to hold up their hands so they could not operate hidden cameras.

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Imogen Cunningham, Irene Bobbie Libarry, 1976

Imogen Cunningham was one of the first photographer to portray older people in a way that reflected their individuality. She was 92 when she started working on After Ninety, a series of photos of elderly people. The photo above sows tattooed circus attraction Irene "Bobbie" Libarry (83) in a nursing home.

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Lee Miller, Buchenwald, April 1945

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Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dessau. A young Belgian woman and former Gestapo informer, being identified as she tried to hide in the crowd © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photo

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Ralph Amdursky and Charles Baker, Colorama. © 2009 Kodak

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Colorama by Kodak

From 1950 until 1990, Kodak's gigantic Colorama photographs dominated the east wall of Grand Central's Main Concourse. The photographers employed used the company's innovative technology to print oversize and meticulously staged photos that portrayed an idealized view of American life.

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Charles Lee Moore, Firefighters hose demonstrators, Birmingham, 1963

Charles Lee Moore documented the American civil rights era.

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Philip Jones Griffiths, Napalm Victim, Vietnam, 1967

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Vo An Khanh, Vietcong Improvised Operating Room, U Minh Forest, 1970

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Yves Klein, Harry Shunk, and Jean Kender, Leap into the Void, 1960

The famous photography Leap into the Void is also a famous photomontage. Harry Shunk first photographed the street empty except for the cyclist. Then, Klein "climbed to the top of a wall and dived off it a dozen times--onto a pile of mats assembled by the members of his judo school across the road. The two elements were then melded to create the desired illusion." (via)

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Catherine Chalmers, Praying Mantis Eating a Caterpillar from Food Chain, 1994-1996

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Catherine Chalmers, Frog eating a Praying Mantis from Food Chain, 1994-1996

Catherine Chalmers portray predatory insects and animals snacking on other living, wriggling creatures.

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Chris Killip, Youth on Wall, Jarrow, Tyneside

Chris Killip spent two decades in the industrial communities of the North East of England. His gritty images attest the impact that the decline of industries and the detrimental economic policy had on British working class.

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Susan Meiselas, Street fighter, Managua, Nicaragua, 1979

Susan Meiselas is best known for her coverage of the insurrection in Nicaragua and her documentation of human rights issues in Latin America.

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The Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University has scanned more than 10,000 photographic images pertaining to various aspects of gross human rights violations under the Khmer Rouge regime. In this preliminary release of data from our existing archive, we focus on the victims of the Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, the notorious "S-21" extermination center.

More than 5,000 photographs were taken of prisoners being processed into the facility for interrogation and execution.

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Peter Dunn and Loraine Leeson, Health Cuts Can Kill. Campaign to Save Bethnal Green Hospital, 1978

A2 poster produced and distributed through the hospital campaign committee over 30 years ago. Still painfully relevant.

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Piss Christ, with partial damage. Photograph: Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters

Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, a "photograph of the crucifix submerged in the artist's urine"), was made in 1987 and wherever and whenever it was exhibited the work met with controversy, protest or vandalism. In 1989, Sen. Alfonse D'Amato used it as an example of art that ought not to be supported by state funding.

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Tim Head, Toxic Lagoon, 1987

Tim Head created brash, seductive compositions using discarded mass-produced materials.

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Richard Billingham, Ray's A Laugh, 1996

Ray's a Laugh is probably one of my favourite photo series ever (together with Pieter Hugo The Hyena & Other Men.) In this work, Richard Billingham portrays the domestic life of his alcoholic father Ray, and chain-smoking, tattoo-covered mother, Liz. The wonky framing and approximative focus gives the series sincerity and authenticity. It is brash and unforgiving but in the process Billingham managed to make his parents perfectly lovable.

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Larry Sultan, Pictures from Home

Larry Sultan photographed his father and family over a ten year period spanning the 70s and 80s as part of an elaborate project that included his parents own photos, home movies and statements.
Larry Sultan's project Pictures From Home was inspired after watching some old family films and looking through old albums that they had not seen in years. He looked through the old reels of films and albums and studied how they represented his family and their connection to history, memory and time.
Using the old images as inspiration Larry Sultan took photographs of his parents in their retirement home

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Richard Misrach, Bomb Crater and Destroyed Convoy, Bravo 20 Bombing Range, Nevada, 1986

In 1952, the U.S. Navy began illegally testing high-explosive bombs on an enormous expanse of public land near Fallon, in Nevada. Richard Misrach's photographs capture both the natural beauty and the man-made devastation of the land.

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Ron Haviv, Blood and Honey: A Balkan War Journal, 1992

Blood and Honey: A Balkan War Journal chronicles the horrors that the Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, and Kosovar Albanians perpetrated against each other. The image above shows a young Serb militiaman about to kick a woman in the head.

Views inside the book:

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