Last month, i visited the Liverpool Biennial. It was boring (BO-RING) but it was still worth the trip. One: because I love Liverpool and i'm happy as long as people around me have that cute accent. Two: because of the show at the Open Eye Gallery. It is part of the official programme of the biennial but it was one of the few shows in town that made me think and reflect upon the art world and the way it is represented/represent itself.
Not All Documents Are Records: Photographing Exhibitions as an Art Form looks at photographic works that bring a critical and artistic gaze on some of the most important art events in the world and asks the question: "Can photography be the site where the history of an exhibition is produced and still retain its independent artistic autonomy, thus overcoming pure documentation?"
Four bodies of works are brought together to make us reflect on this question. Two are contemporary, they are by Cristina De Middel of the Afronauts fame and by Ira Lombardia. The other two, by Ugo Mulas and Hans Haacke respectively, are historical.
I'm going to start with Ugo Mulas' take on the Venice biennale of 1968. I knew the photographer's work for his portraits of the superstars of the art world in the 1960s. But the photos exhibited at the Open Eye Gallery are miles away from the glamour you might expect from the Venice event.
Mulas had been covering each edition of the Venice biennial since 1954. The images in the gallery date from 1968, a year marked by social uprisings around the world (Mai 68 in France, anti-Vietnam war demos, etc.) The art biennial, which naturally echoes changes in society, experienced similar turmoils. Students and intellectuals took to the street to protest against the establishment represented by the Venice Biennale, brandishing banners that denounced the "policed biennial of the bourgeoisie" (policemen were indeed guarding the entrance of the Giardini) and claiming that 'La Biennale è fascista.'
They also questioned the institution itself on matters such as freedom of speech and vilified it for its sales department, accusing the biennial of being a capitalist playground for the rich. The biennale's board subsequently dismantled the sales office.
In solidarity, some of the participating artists covered up their works, withdrew their work, turned them over or wrote over "in these conditions i'm not working."
Mulas photographed the most salient moments of the opening: the protests, the curators carelessly drinking spritz on Piazza San Marco, the police crackdown against demonstrators, etc.
The context of Hans Haacke's photos of the second edition of Documenta in Kassel is very different from the one of the 1968 biennial. Founded in 1895, the Venice biennial is the oldest exhibition of its kind. Documenta was created 60 years later as a means for bringing Germany up to speed with the most modern and contemporary art forms that had been banned under Nazi's politics of artistic obscurantism and censorship.
Haacke, still a student at the Art Academy in Kassel in 1959, worked as an exhibition guard for the second edition of Documenta. In his free time, he independently took on the task of visually 'documenting Documenta'. The 26 black and white images hanging on the walls of the Open Eye Gallery are witty and full of humour. Instead of being strictly about the art exhibited, the images display Haacke's interest into the rituals and peculiarities of an art event. They show how absurd the dialogue between artworks and viewers can be. A family attempts to find some relationship between a description in the catalogue and the work hanging on the wall. A young boy is far more interested in mickey magazine than in the Kandinski hanging behind his back. Other photos gives us a glimpse of what happens behind the curtains of the art world: cleaning ladies doing their job, a Moore sculpture waiting next to a pile of bricks to be carried to the exhibition room.
Nowadays, most of us have seen images of the kind. The museum photos of Thomas Struth or Martin Parr's sneaky portraits of collectors at Dubai Art Fair, for example. In 1959, photographers' sociological explorations of the art world were pretty unusual.
Cristina De Middel was invited by the gallery to imagine what the future edition of the Liverpool Biennial would be like. The commission came as the preparations for the event were underway.
Instead of going into wild speculations, the photographers looked for evidence in the archives of photography and press cuttings that documented past editions of the event. She then used and remixed the images and headlines in prints that cover the walls of the first room of the gallery.
To create her collage, she contacted both the photographers who had made the original images and the artists whose work appear in the photo. The photographers gave her the permission to use and rework their images. Many of the artists, to my great surprise, refused. So while artists have been constantly borrowing and re-appropriating other artists works to create new ones, they negate photographers the possibility to do so. Does that mean that a photographer is not an artist? That they can only produce images that document? To meet their censorship, De Middel painted over the artworks appearing in the photos, blurring and often even distorting their contour. Her new body of work interrogates thus the authenticity of photography (something she had done previously with the Afronauts, a series that charted the 1964 Zambian space programme which never actually came to its full realization) and highlights the tension between creativity and documentation that the photographic medium encompasses.
Upstairs, i almost missed the work of Ira Lombardía. During her visit of the last edition of Documenta, the artist saw a light phenomenon on the floor of one of the exhibition gallery. She mistook it for an authentic work of art (such confusions happen to the best of us when dealing with contemporary art.) Lombardía took a photo of it and went on to create a whole narrative around it. She invented an artist and a description for the artwork that never was. She then copied faithfully the catalogue of the Documenta exhibition and substituted one of the artworks by her photo of the light phenomenon and added the bio of her fictitious artist. She later wrote a letter of apology to the artist whose name and work she had removed from the catalogue.
Not All Documents Are Records: Photographing Exhibitions as an Art Form, curated by Lorenzo Fusi, remains open until 19 October 2014 at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool.
The weather, that once innocent topic of conversation, now comes the bearer of fears and dark scenarios. Hurricanes, typhoons, flooding and heatwaves are more violent and frequent than ever and climate change has transformed our good old weather into 'extreme' weather.
One of the rooms in the gallery hosts a Tornado Diverter, a device built by artists Bigert & Bergström to intercept and stop a tornado. The sculptural machine radiates 100,000 negative volts and has the power to repel the positive charge of the tornado that causes twisters to touch down.
The artists first read about such machine in a Wired magazine interview with Russian weather-modification scientist Vladimir Pudov. Bigert & Bergström met Pudov in 2007. He had then retired from his position at the the Institute for Experimental Meteorology and no longer had the means to develop his invention. The artists decided to step in, improve the scientist's drawings of the machine and "build it for him.'
In May 2011, the artists mounted the Tornado Diverter machine on a custom built trailer and, accompanied by Canadian meteorologist and storm chaser Mark Robinson, they traveled to the Midwest in the US to hunt down a tornado and place The Tornado Stopper in front of the approaching twister.
The Science Gallery is also screening The Weather War, a film in which the duo documents the increasingly hostile weather patterns and man's attempts to control them. I couldn't watch it until the end alas (i needed to take the bus to the airport) but 20 minutes of it were enough to convince me that the film is simply brilliant.
The documentary takes us on a historical and geographical journey into climate-management. The artists look at how the science of meteorology has advanced in line with military goals throughout history. They also interview people who build concrete shelters that can protect up to 50 (squeezed) people from violent tornadoes, Chinese scientists from the Beijing Weather Modification Office who fired rockets into the sky to seed clouds and make sure that it wouldn't rain over the 2008 Olympic opening ceremony, etc.
What makes the work so fascinating is that it gives a vision of how scientists are now attempting to control the weather. Should we put our trust into their hands? Or should such experiments be undertaken by governments? Are we sure they can also control the socio-political consequences of their experiments in climate control? Are we even entitled to modify the weather? And in the background of these questions lies the issue of global climate change:
How do we behave to meet those challenges? Do we adapt? Or do we wage war against increasingly aggressive weather phenomena? Bangladesh is building protective walls against coming floods. China shoots rockets into threatening clouds. And in Italy, anti-hail cannons are fired to protect the year's wine harvest.
Yet another post about a work i discovered in RIga when i visited Fields - patterns of social, scientific, and technological transformations, a (fantastic and still open) exhibition featuring works by artists who have adopted an engaged, critical and active role in society.
Sketches for an Earth Computer is an ongoing series of living "laboratory" studies that explore the links between the earth, code and the human psyche of the viewer.
Over the past few years, Martin Howse has been investigating the possibility to build a computational device that would not only be constructed solely from the earth but would also be embedded within the earth as a critical monument to human technology.
The computer enters a feedback loop with the environment itself as geophysical, biological and electro-chemical elements can both encode and be modified by the computational structures.
Questions to Martin Howse:
Hi Martin! Could you explain the setting of the installation at the FIELDS exhibition?
As background it's important to understand that all of these elements are simply fragments of sketches towards the working out of what could be described an earth computer. The images in the background show elements of the installation operating within a forest environment in Germany. So the elements of the installation are designed as pointers towards these functional aspects of the earth computer, which may or may not operate correctly within an exhibition environment.
For example, the hanging sealed earth container references the potential recoding of electrochemical earth elements using a primitive solar cell constructed between copper, copper oxide plates and forest earth.
The large, floor-situated earth container (using forest earth dug one hour away from Riga in the "magic forest", and gypsum from a nearby quarry), refers to potential chemical changes in the earth induced by water passing through this stack of minerals above the earth. At the same time all of these containers draw attention to the drawing of a boundary for the earth, and the disconnection from the deep forest setting for which the earth computer is intended.
The last, most complex earth computer demonstrates several parts of the earth computing system; a display based on early telegraphy technology, the mirror galvanometer, transduces and makes visible signals from the earth using a moving mirror, fixed coil and small laser light beam. This is the interface to the earth computer. Forest earth in this container is also seeded with oyster mushroom mycelium and doped with silver nitrate, attempting to form over time a processor for the earth computer.
You developed an earthboot that 'enables almost any computer to boot straight from the earth'. How reliable is the system exactly?
The system is far from reliable, given that the earth has no interest or intention in correctly coding an operating system. Most of the time the computer crashes silently; a blank unresponsive interface. In perhaps one out of twenty sessions there are more colourful (see image on: http://www.1010.co.uk/org/earthcode.html)
Would any kind of earth do? or is it like a plant, responding better to certain types of earth (drier, more acidic, etc.) than to other?
Dry earth presents more problems for the flow of signals so is not so well suited for the earthboot device. I also prefer to use more active soils, with plenty of mycelial or insect/worm action. I modified the earthboot device towards the production of worm coded sound performance and worm poetry recitals. This came directly from work with Shu Lea Cheang focusing on links between code or data and the composting process.
The project puts the computer in direct contact with the Earth which at first doesn't sound very eco-friendly. What about all the mercury and other polluting chemical elements leaking into the soil?
Well the earthboot operates on a very small scale and there are no polluting chemicals directly in contact with the earth or soil, but other projects such as The Crystal World with Jonathan Kemp and Ryan Jordan have explored the techno-ecological cycle of extraction (of minerals) and return of polluting elements to the earth. I'm very interested in less direct parallels between such cycles and computation itself.
In an interview with Motherboard, you say: "One question I'm very interested in which you could say fuels my research is to ask where exactly software executes. In other words, where exactly do these seemingly abstract coded processes which seriously effects our lives, where do these take place?" Could you explain in more details what you mean by that and how the earth fits into this?
Software is viewed as a more or less invisible, obscured or blackboxed process which is situated, if at all, in computer hardware. Yet the exact place of the transition from physical, material flows or changes to symbolic structure is hard to pin down. So I was interested in speculating where that place of transition might be located, also in moving it away from this black-boxed laptop, phone or PC. These new locations I viewed as sites of execution, of where that thing called software enacts on the physical. One site could be the earth, as code runs predominantly on silicon substrates which have been synthesised from sand/earth.
And concerning the literal impacting of software on humans, I considered skin as another potential site of execution, relating this to computer virus and pornography. I also created a work called Pain Registers which explored very literally this connection; in this piece minute software changes operating under the interface surface of say an app like Firefox are literally painstakingly translated (by code) into the movement of a needle tattooing the hand of the user.
The work in the FIELDS exhibition is called Sketches for an earth computer', does it mean that this is just the beginning, that you are going to push the project further?
Sketches forms the background of a range of works and performances over the years and definitely the central idea of an earth computer or earth interpreter (in the software sense) will be pushed further. I'm interested now in looking at how software processes coded by the earth instead of being simply observed can equally re-code or impact on the earth. Parallels could be established with certain mining practices and I've recently explored these possibilities with Jonathan Kemp during our Stack, Frame, Heap residency in Lueneburg which also aimed to see how this exploration can mesh with historical land art, or large-scale alterations to the landscape.
Check out Sketches for an Earth Computer at the Fields exhibition, produced by RIXC and curated by Raitis Smits, Rasa Smite and Armin Medosch. The show remains open at Arsenals Exhibition Hall of the Latvian National Arts Museum (LNAM) in Riga until August 3, 2014.
Other posts about the Fields exhibition: Ghostradio, the device that produces real random numbers, On the interplay between a snail and an algorithm and FIELDS, positive visions for the future.
A few months ago, Ben White gave a wonderfully eloquent lecture at Amnesty International in London. The event celebrated the new edition of the journalist's book, Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner's Guide (published by Pluto and available on amazon USA and UK.)
The lecture was in March and the reason why i blog about it today is that while children (125 so far) and other innocent civilians are being terrorized and murdered right now in Gaza, people are still accused of anti-semitism simply because they believe that the basic human rights of the Palestinians should be respected. I fear there is still a lot of disinformation and misunderstanding about what is happening in Israel/Palestine. I would certainly never claim that i understand precisely the situation but i do think that Ben White's book and his talks are well documented, engaging and worth a few minutes of your time.
Sadly, there is no video of the evening but some of Ben White's videos are on youtube. Here's one of them:
White starts his lecture by explaining the relevance of the word 'apartheid' in the Israeli context. Apartheid does not apply solely to South Africa. Nowadays, apartheid is outlawed and defined in international law independently of the country where it takes place. In 2012, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination itself has used the term to condemn Israeli policies. Numerous international, Israeli NGOs, Palestinian NOGs and human rights observers have done the same.
The author goes on by giving a series of examples of ethnocratic Israeli policies that have been affecting Palestinians for over 6 decades, both inside what people call "Israel proper" and in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
White also exposes clearly that the main problem for Palestinians is not just the occupation but the issue of their forced expulsion in 1948. One day after the date Israel has chosen to celebrate its independence is Nakba Day for Palestinians, the day they were expelled from their home, the day their land was confiscated, the day they were forbidden to come back home.
I'm going to close this post with a photo by Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin. The image is part of a series that depicts forests planted by the Israeli to cover and erase the very existence of former Palestinian villages that were evacuated and destroyed at various times since 1948. Each razed village has since been planted with stands of pine trees that gradually colonize the reclaimed lands and obscure their histories of devastation.
Erik Berglin is a young Swedish artist whose practice spans from interventions in urban environments to fact/fictional storytelling about forgotten stories to appropriation of images found online. Recent works have been exploring the possibilities to generate images with the help of computer algorithms.
Berglin graduated from the University of Photography in Gothenburg only 4 years ago. Yet, he mostly works with photos others people have made and uploaded online. Many of these photos have been roaming from flickr to forums, from tumblr to google image pages before the artist encountered them. There's something very nonchalant about the way Berglin watches the world go by through his computer screen. It is nonchalant but it is also consistently good and very contemporary in the sense that he is a contemporary artist who is young enough to be perfectly at ease with the internet and who brings his own artistic sensitive and critical point of view to it (whereas i often feel that most artists nowadays are either 'traditional' artists who work 'with the internet' because this is the thing to do indeed or they are media artist who strive to modify their portfolio so that it will be more appealing to the art market.)
In any case, the art that Berglin masters to perfection is the good old art of appropriation. He picks up an image, modifies it or not, brings it into a new contexts and gives it a new meaning. The result is a portfolio full of humour, poetry, and absurd comments on our absurd society.
Here's my interview with the artist:
Hi Erik! You been installing life size photos of birds on the streets since 2006. The series, called Birds, is an homage to John James Audubon who worked 12 years (1827-1838) on his book Birds of America. What made you want to make a homage to Audubon's and his work?
I usually start of new projects without thinking to much about why, if I would be concerned about that I would probably not make any art at all. Therefore I also start a lot of projects that in the end are not very interesting but I think it is important to follow your instinct and try ideas before questioning weather they are good or bad.
A teacher once told me the importance of letting yourself be "after hand inspired" (does not translate very well to english) finding reasons once the project is moving. This is very much the case with BIRDS. It started during my first year at art school together with my friend John Skoog. It started of as a 2 week performance piece, we slept in the gallery during the opening hours and put up birds (in scale 1:1) around the city at night. In the gallery we left small traces of our activity, like bird books and maps with indications of where we´d been, etc. We put up around 1000 images of birds and in a small city like Gothenburg it was quite noticeable.
At this time I did not know about Audubon's project but I thought is was so much fun that I kept putting up images of birds wherever I travelled. I also started doing research about interesting stories involving birds in art history, technology, popular culture, etc for another show (Archaeopteryx and other birds).
In an old bookstore in Brooklyn in 2008 I found a reprint of Audubon's Birds of America. I knew instantly that I wanted to make a similar book with the documentation from BIRDS project but first I had to keep it up 12 years - just like Audubon.
You mention on your website that it is 'really hard to keep something up for 12 years'. Why so? Is it because it gets boring? Because you get caught in new projects?
I think I wrote that on my page to keep it real somehow. I am a very restless person, so to work on the same project for 12 years is not really something I should be doing. It can get boring from time to time but of course I don´t work with this project full time. Now it´s only 3 years left so it´s becoming real in a way. I am really excited about making the book and showing it in world wide exhibition tour!
How do you decide which bird will end up where? Is it completely random?
Oh no, it´s absolutely not randomly. I can walk around for hours without putting up a single bird. It feels very important that the birds fits in its surroundings, in terms of color but also shape. If the birds is sitting on a branch for example it all have to make sense on that spot. I only make 1-3 images of each bird, cutting them out by hand and there quite expensive to make - so it´s important that it looks good on the wall. I try to make them look natural, so that one might think, at least for a second that they´re real!
I'm curious about the source of the images you use in some of your works. In Blinded By The Light, for example, you use found (and truly superb) images made by automatic cameras placed in the woods by hunters to locate prey. Where exactly did you get hold of these photos? On hunting forums? And how did you discover their existence?
I am interested in images that are forgotten or lost (kinda like things one can find in a flea market). The last years my artistic practice has therefore made me explore the internet as a public space full of lost and forgotten things. The images of deers in the forest are a result of that. The web is flooded with images, only on social medias there are millions of pictures uploaded each day. I think this vast material is interesting to explore. With the trail cam pictures I also thought is was amazing that the images where made without a decisive moment and in complete lack of human thoughts or esthetics. It was as if the deers where taking self portraits since their movement triggered the exposure.
When I first saw these images I thought it was the most sublime thing I´d seen. I got extremely obsessed, I wanted to see more and more, without planing to make a project about it. I started collecting thousands of images from hundreds of different sites and forums for hunters around the world. For them the images are not beautiful, there just proof that it´s time to go hunting. In that sense I consider this material lost and I try to give them a new meaning.
How about the images you collected for the hunting trophies series? Where do they come from?
This project actually came just before Blinded by the light and they are definitely related, I worked on them simultaneously and sometime found material on the same sites. But with that project I had a clear vision with how I wanted to use the material - erasing the hunters from their images.
Did you work on those to highlight that hunting is bad? Or do you take an absolutely neutral stance?
In general I want to be an observer, I guess that could also mean I´m neutral. I want to present things that I´ve noticed or found peculiar, but it´s up to the viewer how they want to interpret the work. I always try to have a fine balance between content and esthetics, I think both are important in order to make interesting art.
I don´t think hunting is bad, on the contrary, game meat is by far a better option if you wanna eat meat. However I definitely think trophy hunting is outrageous and Surrounding Camouflage is definitely an attempt to highlight the absurdity with killing animals without intention of using the meat. During the time I was working with these image I became very fascinated in the esthetics in these images, there seemed to be very strict conventions about how they should look.
Don't you ever get into trouble for using found images?
No. I think it´s fair use and also part of our contemporary society. And for at least the last 100 years artist have been using found objects to make art that reflects our times and I think that approach is even more valid today. But who knows, maybe I end up in prison.
My collection is a mess, that´s why I would never refer to it as an archive, it´s just thousands of random images. I guess it started of as a folder with images that inspired me, I´m sure everyone has a folder like that. When talking about art it´s quite common to start talking about other artworks with more or less resembles. I am just the same and since I am a nerd I always think of art when seeing other images made by anonymous people. I started arranging famous artworks with random pics from my collection which I associated together.
And what makes you want to repurpose some of your found images and place them into an art context? If we look at a series such as Planking Piece, all the images are made by someone who is not you and show an individual performing a plank. Again, the individual is not you. So how would you define or even justify your intervention as an artist?
In the planking images I was fascinated that a meaningless activity of laying flat on the ground could become such a viral success. People all over the world without regards of age, income or ethnicity were doing it. I instantly thought of documentations of performances from the 60 and 70 that I love. Richard Long, Vito Acconci and especially Charles Ray and his work Plank Piece (from who I stole the title).
It seemed obvious to me that planking was an instructional performance piece that could be performed by anyone, anywhere. I wish I had come up with these instructions from the beginning but planking is just another "meme" which origin no one really knows. But the images of people planking has a great quality in terms of contemporary art, they spoke to me and had a profound impact. The seemingly dead bodies, the meaninglessness of the act, the lack of faces in the images, it appealing.
Sometimes the work of an artist is merrily to recognize the potential in our everyday life arranged this in an interesting way. My collection and my selection of planks is a document of this phenomena and a historical document. As an artwork it will probably make more sense in a hundred years from now, when planking is long forgotten.
Have you ever thought about what your work might be like if internet hadn't been invented yet?
I love subjective documentaries (Werner Herzog, etc) so maybe I would be doing that kinda stuff if I was not doing what I am doing now. But before I started working with material found online I was doing interventions in urban and public spaces with found objects so maybe I would have kept doing that. However I think the internet and public spaces are very similar and in many ways I have the same approach to things I find online or in streets.
I was reading an interview of you in which you explain that you were working on a project called The Lions Den. The story behind it is incredible and sad (a man who goes to great lengths to find the lion what will kill him.) What happened to the project?
That project is still in progress, I´ve been collecting some materials but not had time to finish it. I work on most on my projects for many years and In The Lions Den is part of a bigger work which includes sad and forgotten stories about people who died under strange circumstances. Stories Concerning Eldfell is the first chapter in this work, In the Lions Den will be nr 2 and then I want to follow up on a story about a woman in Ghana.
Hahaha sorry but I´m not sure I want this in the interview since I will not be able to make anything out if this until a few years from now.. but I can tell you shortly that it is about a voodoo woman that lay a curse on the construction of a huge dame (a the time the biggest in the world). The construction would put the most fertile part of Ghana under water and force a lot of people to move, but it would also generate electricity for the hole country + a huge American steal factory. Because of the scale of the hole operation, the voodoo woman knew that in order to give the curse validity she had to make a huge sacrifice. So she drowned her self in the river... but I will not tell you what happen after.
Any upcoming research, work, event, exhibition you'd like to share with us?
I have projects for the next 20 years, the problem is only to know which one to do first.
Last year I did 20 shows and this spring 8, so actually right now I decided to not have too many shows for a while and focus on finishing new projects. But it´s really hard for me because doing shows is what I enjoy most. Because of money and time I think my next show will be a miniature museum: The Museum 1:10. The visitor will be able to walk around a model of a space an look at miniature versions of my new work. This way I can show lots of things in any space. The show will have an audio guide and a comprehensive catalogue. Maybe I build the miniature as a replica of Moma and just make it to a huge retrospective in miniature...
(And huge thanks to Geraldine who introduced me to Erik's work!)