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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!
Photography: A Cultural History (Fourth Edition), by Mary Warner Marien.
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.
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.
Have a look at some of the works, ideas and facts i discovered in the book:
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.
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.
Photographs of American Civil War veterans were circulated to teaching hospitals in an effort to improve battlefield care, recovery and prosthetics
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.
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.
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.
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.
Charles Lee Moore documented the American civil rights era.
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)
Catherine Chalmers portray predatory insects and animals snacking on other living, wriggling creatures.
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.
Susan Meiselas is best known for her coverage of the insurrection in Nicaragua and her documentation of human rights issues in Latin America.
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.
A2 poster produced and distributed through the hospital campaign committee over 30 years ago. Still painfully relevant.
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.
Tim Head created brash, seductive compositions using discarded mass-produced materials.
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.
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.
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.
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:
The Phillips Hydraulic Computer (known as Monetary National Income Analogue Computer or MONIAC in the U.S.) was an hydro-mechanical computer created in 1949 by Professor Bill Phillips to model the economic processes of the United Kingdom. The 2 metres tall analogue computer used the movement of coloured water around a system of tanks, pipes, sluices and valves to represent the stocks and flows of a national economy. The flow of water (which symbolized money) between the tanks (which stood for specific national expenses, such as health or education) was determined by economic principles and the settings for various parameters. Different economic parameters, such as tax rates and investment rates, could be entered by setting the valves which controlled the flow of water about the computer. Users could experiment with different settings and note the effect on the model.
Phillips demoed his machine at the London School of Economics in 1949. Copies of the machine were built and sold to universities, companies and banks across the world. A few of them remain but it seems that the only one still working is located at the Faculty of Economics and Politics at Cambridge University.
Economic theories have grown in scale and complexity in the last half a century but many models are still founded on newtonian physics. Inspired by this hubris of correlating human behavior to mechanical equations, Design Interactions student Neil Thomson is attempting to create a Phillips machine based on modern economic models.
The current prototype is the first iteration of this attempt. based on the Euler Equation which describes a consumer's propensity to save or spend in relation to the present and predicted interest rate, it attempts to find a pattern in the movement of the double pendulum that matches the designer's personal economic data.
Neil Thomson was showing the first prototype of the Economic Computer last month during the work in progress exhibition at the Royal College of Art. I contacted him recently to get more details about his project:
Hi Neil! The description of your project says that the machine was created to 'demystify money'? What does it mean 'demystify money'? why would money need to be demystified?
Money systems and economies are a mystery to me and I think most people would say the same. Economists might say otherwise and certainly in politics you have to make categorical claims. I think this is fascinating, this open secret that there's a level of complexity beyond which we can't understand (let alone predict) but I think we need someone who believes they can. I've been told by an economist at the Bank of England that being caretaker of the nation's finances is akin to piloting an oil tanker in total darkness.
Whilst researching economic theory you find that there is in fact a lot of debate within the field about the usefulness of economic models. Why these berated systems are still here, despite all the flaws I think is not only interesting but an urgent question for us all.
The best answer I found to that question so far suggests the things we would think of as flaws - over simplification and generalisation - are in fact the very reason these models are still here: economic equations take numerous (but measurable) variables, process it with seemingly objective mathematics and give a finite answer that is given with certainty. Other fields can't or won't make such claims.
I think it's part of our nature to study systems and look for patterns - that's why I think these systems, especially physical representations of them (such as the Phillips Machine), are so seductive.
Would your own version serve the same demystifying purpose?
That would be the intention but its success is going to be purposefully questionable. What I would like my project to achieve is simply that people think about how and why these systems are conceived and what impact they have. Often they start as diagnosis tools but quickly evolve into a template that then becomes prescriptive and self-fullfilling until the inevitable black swan event comes along and tips everything over the edge.
So what will your machine look like?
I'm still very much in the design process at this stage but I'm going to look at analog mechanisms as Phillip's did which i think is interesting in two ways. Firstly, it exposes the mechanical mathematics behind these models that generalise human behaviour. Secondly, they help to correlate the claimed objectivity of these systems to aesthetic subjectivities, allowing us to see them as questionable.
And how are you going to build it?
Instead of taking on the entire economy I'm going to look at my own finances. I will analyse my personal economic data and look for patterns in my spending behaviour, such as most data analysts and economists would do. Similarly I will have to gloss over or generalise when faced with missing data that may explain my behaviour. I will then try to isolate some of these patterns and develop a device for each creating several smaller machines. These will then combine (and possibly conflict) to create a whole - an economic algorithm of me.
Is your machine really going to focus on the global economy?
Once I have an algorithm that predicts my economic behaviour I can then use it as a 'microfoundation' in a larger economic model. Microfoundations are the name for a relatively recent development in economics; instead of an equation that describes an entire economy, they use algorithms for parts in that economy (e.g. a business or household) and these individual agents are then multiplied and interact in a simulation. Eventually I would like to get to this level to see what en entire economy of me would be like.
How does the Euler Equation come into play here?
An economic Euler Equation (the same name is given to a whole class of general maths equations) describes how much a household or individual will spend / save given the interest rate, their credit limit and current balance. Its based on the idea that people act rationally to maximise their profit. I am basically creating my own version of this equation.
Are you planning to push the project further?
Absolutely, this is the very first step!
Previous posts about this year's RCA work in progress show:
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.
This week I'm going to be talking with Antony Hall. I interviewed Antony many many years ago and his work is as interesting as ever. Antony creates kinetic artworks; sculptures and installations, often using sonic, mechanical, fluidic, electronic or biological elements. But in the show we will focus on Owl Project, the artist collective that Antony forms together with Simon Blackmore and Steve Symons.
Owl Project works with wood and electronics to create musical and sculptural instruments that question human interaction with computer interfaces and our increasing appetite for new and often disposable technologies.
The work of Owl Project goes from simple ironic devices such as the iLog which is a log that thinks it is a music player to large scale installations such as ~Flow, a floating tidal waterwheel powered electro acoustic musical instrument responding to the river Tyne in Newcastle. Owl Project has also toured festivals and events with their rather ingenious Sound Lathe, a musical instrument based on a traditional green wood turning pole lathe that explores the relationship between the crafting of physical objects and the shaping of sound.
Few people would associate the words "English heritage" with car showrooms, repair garages, filling stations, traffic lights, inner ring roads, multi-storey car parks, and drive-through restaurants. Yet, the exhibition Carscapes: How the Motor Car Reshaped England draws our attention to the country's motoring patrimony and shows that the car's impact on the physical environment needn't be reduced to ruthless out pours of concrete and "wayside eyesores".
The first motor cars entered the country in the late 19th Century. New buildings, signage, rules and systems had to be invented for dusty roads that so far had only been crisscrossed by horse traffic. It is only recently that we have started to value the infrastructures that have facilitated their construction, sale and maintenance of cars. "It took the best part of 100 years for the railway infrastructure to be appreciated," argue Kathryn Morrison and John Minnis in the book Carscapes: The Motor Car, Architecture, and Landscape in England, "now it is the turn of the car."
Many of these buildings, road signs and infrastructures have disappeared, others are under threat of being demolished or are decaying beyond repairs but English Heritage has started to list motoring heritage sites in England. The exhibition at Wellington Arch shows archives images, contemporary photos and a series of motoring memorabilia. It also explores the impact that motor car have had on the planning of cities, towns and on the countryside.
Below are some of the most spectacular buildings and road systems i discovered in the exhibition:
Bibendum aka the Michelin Man!! Michelin Building on London's Fulham Road is now a restaurant but it was built to house the first permanent UK headquarters and tyre depot for the Michelin Tyre Company Ltd. It also function as advertisement for the company with its corner domes that resemble sets of tyres and the large stained-glass windows starring the cheerful "Bibendum."
The building opened for business on 20 January 1911.
When the Lex (now NCP) car park opened in Soho in 1928, its architects were catering for the rich men who could afford the luxury of a car. The Art Deco architecture thus also housed a cafe (for car-owners) and a separate canteen for chauffeurs.
The photo above shows one of the earliest filling stations to open in London. It was built by F.D. Huntington in 1922. Each pump was manned by a uniformed attendant.
This was one of the six filling stations built by the Automobile Association in 1919-20, the first to be opened in Great Britain, and originally selling only British-made benzole.
In 2012, English Heritage granted listed status on two 1960s petrol-station canopies - one on the A6 near Leicester (photo on top of the page but check out also this night view) and the other at Markham Moor, Nottingham.
When it opened in 1931, the Ford factory on the banks of the Thames at Dagenham was the largest car factory in Europe. The nearest building in this 1939 photograph is the power station. Behind it, fuel for the power station and furnaces is unloaded from ships via a double-decked jetty.
Coventry Inner Ring Road built between 1962 and 1974 is one of the most highly developed and tightly drawn inner ring roads of any city in England.
The Wellington Arch was built in 1828 but Victorian traffic jams meant that in 1883, the Arch was dismantled and moved some 20 metres to its current location. Between 1958 and 1960, to further ease congestion - this time from motorised transport - Hyde Park Corner was altered and the Arch separated from Constitution Hill by a new roadway.
Metallurgique was a Belgian company which opened the first car showroom on Regent Street in 1913
Carscapes: How the Motor Car Reshaped England is at the Wellington Arch until 6 July 2014.