Blood oil, Poetics and Politics of Data, Ghost Army of World War II and other book reviews


Blood Oil. Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules That Run the World by Leif Wenar, Chair of Ethics at King’s College London.

On amazon USA and UK.

Publisher Oxford University Press writes: Throughout the world, resource-rich countries are plagued by tyranny, violence, and corruption. With precious few exceptions, the political elites in such nations control natural resources, which are often the primary–and sometimes the only–source of wealth generation, and do not need to rely on popular support to maintain their rule. Their wealth comes from selling the resource overseas, which in turn gives them the income they need to buy off the military, the police, and the business sector. Oppressive, corrupt autocracies are the all-too-frequent result, and such regimes have been the source of many–perhaps most–US foreign policy headaches over the last fifty years. Yet despite their pariah-like status, these regimes continue to exist and even prosper-especially oil-powered regimes. For all of the criticism directed at resource-rich autocracies by Western critics, Western consumers remain reliant on them for the materials that fuel their cars and comprise their computers.

The book is fascinating exploration of the curse of natural resources, aka the paradox of plenty, experienced by countries and regions which have an abundance of natural resources (especially raw materials like petroleum, metals and gems) but tend to have less economic growth and worse development outcomes than countries with fewer natural resources.

As its title suggests, the book focuses on oil and explains how many oil states either do not grow richer (Gabon, Irak, Angola, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, etc.) or else go insanely whealthy without their population significantly benefiting from it socially and economically (Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, etc.)

The first part of the book is engrossing, the author lists governments’ mismanagement of resources, abuses of power, extensive corruption and quotes a series of astonishing statistics such as the one that indicates that oil states are 50% more likely to be ruled by authoritarian government and twice as likely to experience civil war as non-oil states.

The second part highlights our complicity with the petrocrats. Not just at governmental levels but also at consumer level. Every time we buy gasoline, clothes, perfumes, vitamin, water magazines, tablets, toothpaste, corn flakes, we send money to dictators.

Making parallels with the Atlantic slave trade -which end once seemed unimaginable, Wenar believes that social justice can be implemented by adopting of a set of foreign policy measures such as an internationally signed Clean Trade Act.


Poetics and Politics of Data, edited by Sabine Himmelsbach and Claudia Mareis.

Publisher Merian Verlag writes: ‹Poetics and Politics of Data› reflects life in a world increasingly controlled by data and presents artistic positions that aim to make continuous streams of data visible – whether using Internet-based installations or graphic data visualizations. The participating artists question the relevance and place of the individual in a technologically connected society in which every day, each of us generates a nearly incomprehensible amount of data: Our every move on the Internet leaves behind a digital trace. In critical essays, Orit Halpern, Sabine Himmelsbach, Lev Manovich, Claudia Mareis, Ramón Reichert and Roberto Simanowski explore the phenomena of ‹Big Data› and ‹Data Mining› and pose critical questions about the ambivalence of life in a «datified» world.

Written in both English and German, this book is the catalogue of an exhibition at Haus der elektronischen Künste about data. Not just big data staged to look stylish. Or data to decypher and make sense of the world. But data that controls, watches over, and generates fortunes out of our desires to ‘share.’ Or as Evgeny Morozov said more eloquently while talking about the commodification of personal data it’s possible to capture and monetize every moment we spend awake (and, it seems, also asleep).

Participating works are explained in depth (none of that ‘let’s just copy/paste the text from the artist’s website’ laziness) and the essays commissioned give insightful information about data in contexts that go from health monitoring to the prevalence of data collecting over theory, to cloud computing, to Edward Snowden. Right now, i can’t think of any other book that pinpoints in such a wide-ranging and critical way the topic of politics and data. This is a solid publication that goes beyond its simple role of being an art catalogue.


After the Agreement. Contemporary Photography in Northern Ireland, edited by Sarah Tuck.

On amazon UK and USA.

Publisher Black Dog Publishing writes: After the Agreement is an exploration and critical analysis of contemporary photography in Belfast after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, and its relationship to a duty of memory, and ideas of justice and betrayal.

The book draws on a series of practitioner-led talks by the photographers John Duncan, Mary McIntyre, Malcolm Craig Gilbert, Paul Seawright, Kai Olaf Hesse and David Farrell, providing a discursive space that is part academy, part community activism and part cultural practice. These were intended to enable an exploration of contemporary photography in analytical proximity to what is going on currently across a range of disciplines: urbanism and the regeneration of the city, curatorial practices, the arts academy, community activism and photographic practice. Through placing contemporary photography in dialogue with other disciplines and the contested histories of the city, the series explored the centrality and complexity of meaning as an intersection of the social, political and aesthetic.

The Good Friday Agreement , signed in 1998, brought to an end the 30 years of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland known as ‘The Troubles’. You don’t need to be a history enthusiast to enjoy the book. It relies on the words of photographers rather than on critics or historians’ essays. The conversations (which involved the photographers but also researchers and experts in various disciplines) reproduced in the pages are thus beautifully subjective and illuminating. I can’t think of a more engrossing and intelligent background for the photos. Here’s a couple i discovered while reading the book:


Mary McIntyre, The Underpass I, 2003


David Farrell, Oristown, 2000 from Innocent Landscapes

In his series Sectarian Murder, Paul Seawright photographed the locations where sectarian murders took place the 1970’s. The perspective of each image is the one of a victim laying on the floor, allowing viewers to put themselves in the victim’s place. Most of the images are fairly mundane until you read the brief texts that accompany them, they are taken from newspaper reports at the time and document the murders of civilians, killed for their religion.


Paul Seawright, Sectarian Murder


Paul Seawright, Sectarian Murder


Paul Seawright, Sectarian Murder

Seawright returned to Belfast during the early stages of the ceasefire to document local defensive architecture on the edges of housing projects.


Paul Seawright, Cage, Belfast


Uncommon Grounds. New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East, edited by Anthony Downey.

On amazon USA and UK.

Ibraaz Publishing and I.B. Tauris write: In this groundbreaking book, a range of internationally renowned and emerging academics, writers, artists, curators, activists and filmmakers critically reflect on the ways in which visual culture has appropriated and developed new media across North Africa and the Middle East. Examining the opportunities presented by the real-time generation of new, relatively unregulated content online, Uncommon Grounds evaluates the prominent role that new media has come to play in artistic practices – and social movements – in the Arab world today. Analysing alternative forms of creating, broadcasting, publishing, distributing and consuming digital images, this book also enquires into a broader global concern: does new media offer a ‘democratization’ of – and a productive engagement with – visual culture, or merely capitalize upon the effect of immediacy at the expense of depth?


Cardboard Khomeini, a photoshop meme based on an Iranian state ceremony that used a cardboard effigy of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to celebrate his 1979 return to Tehran

Books about new media art don’t usually venture beyond the borders of Europe and the U.S.A. Some might be brave enough to attempt excursions to Japan, Korea, or Australia but other parts of the world remain mostly uncharted and unrecalled. That’s why i welcomed Uncommon Grounds with open arms.

The book is nor a mere presentation of new media art in North Africa and the Middle East, of who made this or that installation and exhibited where. Instead, new media is placed into a broader, more social context. One made of citizens reporting, protesting, reappropriating images, offering counter-narratives to governmental media, exploring the role of the war on terror in entertainment, etc. And doing the kind of things media artist do so well: subverting, glitching, or offering counter-narratives to governmental media.

The essays in the book leave space for a few artists’ inserts that focus on particular works by artists i already knew about (Wafaa Bilal, Tarzan and Arab) and by talents i was yet to discover (Sarah Abu Abdallah, Fayçal Baghriche, Rahib Mroué, Ganzeer, etc.)


Ganzeer working in Cairo. Photo: TMK1 Studios (via)

Sarah Abu Abdallah, Saudi Automobile


The Ghost Army of World War II. How One Top-Secret Unit Deceived the Enemy with Inflatable Tanks, Sound Effects, and Other Audacious Fakery , by documentary filmmaker and author Rick Beyer and illustrator Elizabeth Sayles.

It’s on amazon USA and UK.

Publisher Princeton Architectural Press writes: In the summer of 1944, a handpicked group of young GIs that included such future luminaries as Bill Blass, Ellsworth Kelly, Arthur Singer, Victor Dowd, Art Kane, and Jack Masey landed in France to conduct a secret mission. Armed with truckloads of inflatable tanks, a massive collection of sound-effects records, and more than a few tricks up their sleeves, their job was to create a traveling road show of deception on the battlefields of Europe, with the German Army as their audience. From Normandy to the Rhine, the 1,100 men of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, known as the Ghost Army, conjured up phony convoys, phantom divisions, and make-believe headquarters to fool the enemy about the strength and location of American units. Between missions the artists filled their duffel bags with drawings and paintings and dragged them across Europe. Every move they made was top secret and their story was hushed up for decades after the war’s end.

If you read pretty much any blog, you’ve heard of the Ghost Army, a tactical deception unit composed of actors, artists, and sound experts whose mission involved devising inflatable tanks and airplanes, trucks blasting off sounds of armored and infantry units, fake radio transmissions and other tricks to mislead the German Army.

This is the ultimate and most complete book about a unit which existence was long kept a secret. It’s one of those impressively heavy coffee table book. Lots of images, impeccable graphic design. However, i felt that the content, though great, was sometimesa bit ‘diluted’ as it was less about the art of tricking the enemy and more about the individual artists and their experience of war.


Dummy M4 Sherman tank, part of the ‘Ghost Army’ Photo: BARCROFT


Speakers mounted on Army jeeps broadcast phony troop movements. Credit: Rick Beyer/Ghost Army


The 500-pound speakers played a collection of sound effects carefully designed to fool enemy troops. Credit: Rick Beyer/Ghost Army


Aerial photograph of 23rd Headquarters Special Troops’ dummies lined up in the Anrath-Dulken area as part of Operation Viersen in March of 1945. Note the fake tank tracks that have been scored in the fields


Inflated rubber airplane

Diagram for inflating M4 dummy tank


Ghost army operations map


Photo iii (in case you thought these were my arms)

No Patent Pending, self-made performative media, edited by Matteo Marangoni.

On amazon UK.

Publisher iii writes: How to convey ephemeral, performative practices based around unique and inventive media within the fixed and standardized format of a book?

This publication by iii presents itself as a large pack of cards that the reader is invited to explore. The cards are shuffled at random, forcing intruders to reverse engineer its sorting algorithm. Each individual copy of the book was manually assembled following a procedural score composed by Lars Kynde and performed by iii.

Contributions range from theoretical essays to poetic exercises with text and image reflecting a wide range of practices seeking radically subjective approaches to media in performance. DIY media technologies, avant-garde music rituals, artistic-scientific hybrids, idiosyncratic new instruments, speculative business approaches, phenomenological investigations, open-source and feminist perspectives on digital culture are all present here as part of a cut-up treatise on media less traveled.

To explore ‘self-made performative media’ (me neither), the book adopts the artist-run platform iii‘s approach of designing and constructing a medium from the ground up. As far as i can judge, the content of the book is excellent, eclectic, smart and full of surprises.

I’m not sure about the idea of playing with the format of the book. Actually, no, i’m quite sure i find it irritating. The pages are not bound together. They are rigid sheets of paper that you first have to mix, swap, collect and rearrange. It’s supposed to be a ‘playful challenge.’ I’ve no patience. Jose Luis Espejo Díaz, who’s clearly a more open-minded and tolerant reader than i am, enjoyed the exercise and reviewed the book for the excellent Mediateletipos. Do check his own review of the publication.