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Posts from the ‘Reviews’ Category

War at the speed of light: artists and drone warfare

Omer Fast, 5000 Feet Is the Best, 2011, digital film stills © Omer Fast

“We call it in, and we’re given all the clearances that are necessary, all the approvals and everything else, and then we do something called the Light of God – the Marines like to call it the Light of God. It’s a laser targeting marker. We just send out a beam of laser and when the troops put on their night vision goggles they’ll just see this light that looks like it’s coming from heaven. Right on the spot, coming out of nowhere, from the sky. It’s quite beautiful.”
– quote from Omer Fast’s 5000 Is the Best, 2011.

Paul Virilio, in his 1998 book ‘The Vision Machine’, predicted a machine that “will be capable of seeing and perceiving in our place”. A key concept in Virilio’s writing is dromology, or the logic of speed. The one and simple rule of technology development has been that of ever-increasing speed, and this rule seems to define fundamental aspects of warfare and society. Real space has been supplanted by real time because we can receive information from everywhere on the globe in real-time, reducing human perception to a kind of ‘polar inertia’.

Last week, US immigration officials’ detention and interrogation of Pakistan politician Imran Kahn – a vehement critic of US drone attacks in Pakistan – as he boarded a flight from Canada to New York, threw a spotlight on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in warfare. UAVs, or drones, are aircraft either controlled by ‘pilots’ from the ground or autonomously following a pre-programmed mission. They basically fall into two categories: those used for reconnaissance and surveillance, and those armed with missiles and bombs. Although British and US Reaper and Predator drones are physically in Afghanistan and Iraq, control is via satellite from a USAF base outside Las Vegas, Nevada. Ground crews launch drones from the conflict zone, then operation is handed over to controllers at video screens. Armed drones were first used in the Balkans war, but their use has dramatically escalated in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

Angel Nevarez and Alex Rivera, LowDrone

Contemporary artists have increasingly vigorously engaged with the subject of war and its consequences over the last decade, since the commencement of Bush’s global “war on terror” and the Iraq War. Unsurprisingly, there have been a string of recent artists’ project exploring the rapidly escalating use and impact of drones in surveillance and warfare, such as Angel Nevarez and Alex Rivera’s remote-controlled “low-rider” spy drone, positioned at the United States-Mexico border and controllable by anyone with an Internet connection, and photojournalist Noor Behram’s brave documentation of the human toll of drone strikes in Pakistan.

Trevor Paglen, Reaper Drone (Indian Springs, NV Distance – 2 miles), 2012

Two artists’ exhibitions in the recent Brighton Photo Biennial, whose theme was ‘Agents of Change’, address the subject of remote warfare and surveillance through works that at the same time unpick the role of the photograph or video in the propagation of ideas, and question the assumption of the documentary as truth-telling.

Trevor Paglen is known for his meticulously researched documentation of “black sites” of secret government activity, which he photographs using specialized equipment. His show at Lighthouse, Brighton, featured photographic works drawn from two series: Limit Telephotography, in which the artist adapted astronomy telescopes to reveal classified, covert US military installations, including drone bases, in remote parts of south-west USA, and The Other Night Sky, his photographs of classified American surveillance satellites. Paglen’s photographs are an uneasy blend of abstract allure, art-historical references, and disquieting subject matter. They draw our attention not only to the geography of covert operations – the remote sites, and the militarisation of sky and space – but also to the mechanisation of vision and its implications in a global arena of political tension and warfare. His distant photographs of partially visible airplane hangers, drone aircraft and strange installations are blurred, the images of spy satellites use long exposure to show the bright arcs of satellite paths. The exhibition also includes Paglen’s 2010 video work Drone Vision, a stream of unencrypted video intercepted by an amateur satellite hacker.

Trevor Paglen, Keyhole Improved Crystal from Glacier Point (Optical Reconnaissance Satellite; USA 186), 2008

Omer Fast’s latest chilling narrative film work 5000 Feet Is the Best explores remote warfare and its psychological impact on a drone pilot. Fast’s unsettling video-works construct contemporary stories through a masterly grasp of storytelling, reworking time, facts and personal perspective, exposing of the problematic assumptions of objectivity and truth. He often presents his films in a looped structure, with no obvious start or end point, and challenges our absorption in the tale by revealing its construction – showing the actor auditioning for a part, for example, or repeating a section but altering it.

5000 Feet Is the Best is based on conversations that the artist had with a former Predator drone aerial unmanned vehicle operator with post traumatic stress disorder, now working as a Las Vegas casino security guard. As I enter the space, the film shows an overhead shot of a boy on a bike cycling across an arid landscape towards a settlement. The voiceover is of an interview with a former drone operator explaining the detail that he could see when the drone is at 5000 feet or above: “the kind of shoes a person was wearing, if they were smoking a cigarette, their posture”.

Omer Fast, 5000 Feet is the Best, screen shot, 2011

The film interweaves and blurs reality and fiction. It is structured around three dramatized sequences. Each starts in the same way, in dark hotel room, the pilot (an actor) sitting on the bed facing his interviewer, presumably Fast. Each time Fast asks: “What’s the difference between you and someone actually in an airplane?”, and the pilot answers, “Nothing, we’re doing the same thing”, to which Fast replies “But you’re not a real pilot”, provoking each time a different outburst from the drone operator, who then falls into telling a story, sometimes seemingly unrelated, which we watch dramatised unfold on the screen. One story is about a man who poses as a train driver, operates the train smoothly for an entire day, but is arrested that night breaking into his own home (having left his keys in his borrowed uniform). The interviewer asks: “Was the man in this story someone in your unit?” The drone pilot replies shortly: “No. It’s a metaphor.” A second story is of a couple in a casino who engage in a seduction scam to rob casino customers. The last story is of a family – personified as a white, American family – who abandon their home to avoid some unknown trouble, only to meet a tragedy on the road. “Mom, Dad, Johnny, and little Zoe” pack their belongings into a station wagon. On a lonely dirt road, they see a group of men planting an improvised explosive device. The image cuts to the view from a drone. The family’s car drives slowly towards the men. There is a humming noise from the sky …

The stories are interspersed with the audio of the interview, where the drone pilot talks of his work and of his psychological trauma over his responsibility for killing: “You see a lot of death … doing this. You had to think there is so much loss of life that is a direct result of me.”

Remote warfare aims to distance the public, as well as the operators of the drones, from the people “over there”. Paglen’s work exposes the covertness and mechanics of such warfare technologies, while Fast attempts to remake the perceptual connections between “us and them” to show that, despite Virilio’s prediction that such technologies will lead to the ‘automation of perception’, killing is still a personal and human experience, even when mediated by speed-of-light telepresence.

Omer Fast, 5000 Feet is the Best, screen shot, 2011

Machine wilderness: personal highlights from ISEA2012 Albuquerque

Very Large Array, New Mexico

This is a snapshot of personal highlights from ISEA2012 Albuquerque: Machine Wilderness. ISEA (the International Symposium on Electronic Arts) is an international gathering of artists, technologists and crossover types taking place each year in a different location. The 18thsymposium centered on Albuquerque, New Mexico, with offshoots in El Paso, Taos and Santa Fe. This huge event covered multiple sites. Its exhibitions and programme continue to December.

The term “machine wilderness” was originally coined by cultural geographer Ronald Horvath in the 1960s to describe the impact of the automobile on the landscape of the American Southwest. ISEA2012 reclaimed the phrase to represent the co-existence of humans, technology and environment, particularly in the context of New Mexico as a region of technological innovation and experimentation across vast expanses of land, much of it desert or semi-arid.

Historically, much of New Mexico’s technological development has been federally funded; the state is home to three air force bases, the White Sands Missile Range, and the federal research laboratories Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories. During World War II, the first atomic bombs were designed and manufactured at Los Alamos and the first tested in the White Sands desert. Today, technological innovation continues with injections of private money adding to federal funds, for example, Spaceport America is being built to host Virgin Galactic’s planned space tourism flights. New Mexico is also home to the Very Large Array, a huge radio astronomy observatory consisting of 27 independent antennas. This beautiful and contested technological landscape, many areas being sacred Native American lands, was a fascinating setting for ISEA2012 and the context was reflected in the sub-themes of the conference: The Cosmos, Transportation, Power, Creative Economies and Wildlife.

Marina Zurkow and Christie Leece, Gila 2.0: Warding Off the Wolf

The main ISEA2012 symposium took place from the 19-24 September. It explored the themes through talks, lectures, workshops, performances, exhibitions, film screenings and events. Highlights included archivist Rick Prelinger’s superb home movies-based keynote on the networks that connect us, astronomer Roger Malina’s keynote lecture, which I discussed in the blog post Art in the age of big data, and the Radical Cosmologies panel, also mentioned earlier.

The Latin American forum was a highpoint, showcasing many exceptional artists from south of the border. The forum included a lecture by Navajo code talker Bill Toledo. The Navajo code talkers were a small group of young men who transmitted secret communications on the battlefields of World War Two, encrypted in a code created from the ancient language of their people. You can read more here http://www.navajocodetalkers.org/. Here’s a Marine battle hymn sung in Navajo by Bill Toledo recorded by Robert Matney.

Navajo Code Talkers

ISEA2012’s exhibitions were spread across several sites, focused on 516 ARTS and the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History. Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene (Mexico) displayed their SEFT-1 vehicle in the Albuquerque Museum, its activities also appearing in the 516 exhibition. SEFT-1 is a space-age looking vehicle, which travels on roads and abandoned railways to discover remote areas of Mexico. Puig and Domene drove it from Mexico, across the border, where my colleague Rob La Frenais met it in El Paso. Rob and the artists then traveled in it across the New Mexico desert, understandably attracting crowds wherever they stopped.

Ivan Puig and Andres Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 at White Sands National Memorial. Photo: Rob La Frenais

Passengers (not Rob!) in Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene’s SEFT-1, Mexico. Photo: Puig and Domene

I had fun on Steve Gibson, Justin Love and Jim Olson’s Grand Theft Bicycle. You get on a (real) bicycle and set off, riding through a 3D recreation of a desert city, shooting up the bad guys (well, they might be), leaping over banks to make your escape, and careering into walls – the steering is an art. Hacked from closed source software, it was (apparently) a bit of nightmare to develop. Well worth while.

Steve Gibson, Justin Love and Jim Olson, Grand Theft Bicycle

D Bryon Darby’s effective 
Seventy Flights in Ninety Minutes, Phoenix, Arizona
 is a digital composite photograph of every airplane flying into Phoenix airport in an hour and a half.

D Bryon Darby, Seventy Flights in Ninety Minutes, Phoenix, Arizona

Chirping on trees, Neil Mendoza and Anthony Goh’s Escape features moving, tweeting birds, made from disposable unwanted mobile phones. A magical work.

Neil Mendoza & Anthony Goh, Escape

Stephanie Rothenberg

’s impressive The Secret of Eternal Levitation enticed me to build my own “space island”, drawing on water, labour, resources and energy from the Earth (or possibly meteor-mining). Within its sci-fi setting and aesthetic, it made pithy points about the parts of the world we exploit for grand developments of our aspiring culture.

Stephanie Rothenberg

, The Secret of Eternal Levitation

A gala evening for ISEA2012 was held at the eccentric, delightful Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum (where else in the world could you find a museum devoted to ballooning?), where delegates watched performances, listened to bands, and saw art installations and exhibits.

Balloon Gala, Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum

In a live, interactive performance, Tweets in Space, artists Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern sent Twitter messages contributed by participants towards an exoplanet twenty light years away, that might be able to support extraterrestrial life. Miwa Matreyekl’s Myth and Infrastructure was a captivating performance combining digital animation and live shadow performance.

Miwa Matreyekl, Myth and Infrastructure

Also at the balloon museum is an exhibition by Juan José Díaz Infante and the Mexican Space Collective, who are building a satellite called Ulises I. Their installation shows the satellite itself as well as prototype projects by the contributing artists.

Mexican Space Collective, Ulises I

The Albuquerque section of the symposium culminated with a public block party on Central Avenue, better known as the historic Route 66, in downtown Albuquerque. Among the music, installations, street performances, and technological gizmos was a fantastically quirky balletic performance by a jumping, honking, revving gathering of low rider cars. Symphony 505 was a collaboration between the Down Low Car Club and artists Christopher Marianetti and Mary Margaret Moore.

ISEA2012 Downtown block party

Down Low Car Club, Christopher Marianetti and Mary Margaret Moore, Symphony 505

Overall, ISEA2012 was a stimulating combination of electronic art, creative technology, critical discourse, desert landscapes, epic skies, awesome engineering, layered histories, shimmering heat … and those salty, sour margaritas!

Bionic people: enhancement, bioethics and the politics of disability

Woman as half-cheetah half-human with prosthetics legs

Aimee Mullens in Matthew Barney’s CREMASTER 3 (2002). Superhuman exhibition.

Two current exhibitions, a workshop we recently organised at DaDaFest, and the ongoing controversy around “bladerunner” Oscar Pistorius’ inclusion in the Olympics have got me thinking about developments in human enhancement technologies and the impact on disability politics.

The athletic success of double-amputee runner Oscar Pistorius has propelled this discourse into the mainstream. Some say the blades he runs on give him an unfair advantage, allowing him to push off the ground more efficiently than a normal human ankle. This discussion of whether Pistorius, until now regarded as a “disabled” athlete, is in fact an “enhanced” athlete is an extraordinary development, and represents a major milestone in the development of prosthetics technology. Some writers, such as bioethicist Andy Miah, have pointed out that it has an even greater significance:  “… the rise of technological enhancements means that prosthetics can overtake the capacities of biological body parts and what we consider today to be optimal may, tomorrow, seem inefficient.” It is easily conceivable that different prosthetics and enhancements may give other Paralympics athletes advantages to the extent that they begin to produce faster, further, stronger, more accurate performances than athletes in the non-enhanced Olympics.

Athlete with prosthetic 'blade' legs

Oscar Pistorius, Olympic athlete

Some of the historical background to this type of speculation is explored in the Wellcome Trust’s ‘Superhuman’ exhibition, which opened in London recently and runs to October. It suggests that “scientific developments point to a future where cognitive enhancers and medical nanorobots will be widespread as we seek to augment our beauty, intelligence and health”, and does so through displaying medical, scientific and cultural artefacts which humans have used to make themselves better from early times, from an Egyptian prosthetic toe and a nose prosthetic for a 19th century syphilis victim, to modern cosmetic surgery, i-Limbs and futuristic promises of nano- and biotechnology.

Yet the vision of a bionic future jars with the reminder, in another part of the exhibition, of the artificial limbs used to “normalise” – but certainly not to enhance – thalidomide children. While there may be a gradual trend to more functional prosthetics adapted for the individual, in reality many disabled people’s experience of prosthetics is still uncomfortable, limiting and frustrating.

The notion of enhancement, of making ‘superhumans’ of disabled people, presents problems for what has been the prevailing discourse in disability politics in the English-speaking west, which centres on the social versus medical models of disability. In this discourse, there is a “medical model of disability” which sees the disabled person as a problem, to be adapted, cured or shut away. Against this, the “social model of disability” considers disablement to be created by the way that society and the physical environment have been structured, and to have little to do with impairment itself. Using this model, the ‘cure’ to the problem of disability lies in the restructuring of society. This position became increasingly rigid in the UK during the 80s and 90s, with corresponding suspicion – indeed hostility – directed at health and medical science professionals, who might wish to cure or prevent those impairments that are part of a person’s identity.

In 2006, sociologist and disability activist Tom Shakespeare suggested in his book ‘Disability Rights and Wrongs’ that the disabled people’s movement needed to move on from this polarised position. He proposed an alternative account of disability, which takes into account the interplay of individual and contextual factors. In other words, he argues that people are disabled by society and by their bodies, and therefore that it is important both to prevent impairment and to support the rights of disabled people.

A table with thousands of pills

Pharmacopoeia, Cradle to Grave II (2003). Niet Normaal.

An exhibition currently showing at Bluecoats Gallery, Liverpool, as part of DaDaFest, makes an interesting contribution to this more nuanced approach to disability, exploring themes of technological enhancement, conformity, and normality. ‘Niet Normaal’ is a new version of an international exhibition that explores the questions ‘What is normal?’ and ‘Who decides?’ through the work of contemporary artists. The Liverpool version, curated by Ine Gevers and Garry Robson, recognises that technology is generating new opportunities for people of all sorts, shapes and sizes, but sets this against the striving to become ever more uniform, ever more ‘perfect’.

Javier Tellez’s film Caligari und der Schlafwandler (Caligari and the Sleepwalker) is a delightful homage to Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), a film that has been interpreted as a commentary on the German people’s somnambulist response to the rise of the Nazis. In Tellez’s version, psychiatric patients play the characters. The story of the doctor’s “discovery” of a sleepwalking alien is beautifully produced and raises questions about what we perceive as mental illness and how we communicate our complex internal worlds. Don’t we all hear voices some of the time?

Film still (black and white) of a man holding a blackboard on which some German words are chalked, the translation is "You have to sign this form"

Javier Tellez, Caligari und der Schlafwandler (2008). Niet Normaal.

In the next gallery, a vast glass-covered table holds a collection of 14,000 pills. Pharmacopoeia’s Cradle to Grave II is the outcome of a study into the use of medicines by the average Dutch person, but is bordered by photographs and objects from daily lives. If these are the “normal” relatively healthy people, what does this vast intake of powerful medication imply for how we understand our own wellness?

Imogen Stidworthy’s video installation focuses on the speech therapy of photographer Edward Woodward, who lost his voice in an accident. The strain of his production of words is felt through vibrations on a bench. The fact that the words he is struggling to pronounce are those in the title of the piece, I Hate, suggests his anger at his debilitating situation.

As someone with a fair amount of titanium in her body, I was entertained by Floris Kaayk’s video Metalosis Maligna, a mockumentary about a disease that affects patients with metal-based implants, eating away the human tissue as the metal takes over the body. The CGT work is impressive and there are some very comic moments. It’s also showing in the Superhuman exhibition.

A man in a hospital bed, his flesh being replaced by metai

Floris Kaayk, Metalosis Maligna (2006). Niet Normaal & Superhuman.

I was at DaDaFest for the fourth project of an Arts Catalyst programme strand, Specimens to Superhumans, a collaborative project with Shape, a disability-led arts organisation. Specimens to Superhumans aims to provide a series of creative spaces for disabled artists to engage with contemporary issues around biomedical science and ethics. The activities have included artists’ commissions, panel discussions and practical creative workshops.

At DaDaFest, we organised a 2-day film-making workshop for disabled artists and film-makers, led by writer/director John Williams. The intent of the workshop was to create short films that imaginatively addressed themes of disability, bioethics and prosthetics. John Williams’ films combine live action, animation and visual effects, engagingly dealing with highly sensitive subjects. His award-winning film Robots – The Animated Docu-Soap (2000) tells the story of three redundant robots who, having acquired disabilities or mental illness, attempt to reassert meaning to their lives, while in Paraphernalia (2009) a young boy gets annoyed with the little robot that follows him everywhere, but the robot is more than just a toy and turns out to be the object on which his life depends.

The two short films produced by the participants in less than two days – Side Effects and The Experiment – will be showcased at DaDaFest Film Shorts on 21 August 2012, at FACT, starting at 5pm. We also hope to put them online – so watch this space.

John Williams, Robots – The Animated Docu-Soap (2000)

John Williams, Paraphernalia (2009)

Ruins, conflict, culture and science: dOCUMENTA (13)

Kader Attia, The Repair of the Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, 2012

Many adjectives have already been wielded to describe this year’s documenta, “earnest”, “grim”, “despondent” and “concept-less” among them. Certainly, there are few laughs in this year’s documenta (the 13th since its founding in 1955 by an artist banned by the Nazis), but in all it’s a deeply satisfying experience.

Many of the works by 300 artists – mostly new commissions – are site-specific, installed in railway stations, disused shops, hotels, cinemas, old hospitals, the natural history museum, and scattered throughout Karlsaue park. I appreciated the serious-minded intent behind the works, and the internationalism of the exhibition both in content and representation, with artists from fifty-six countries including many from Africa and Asia.

A large number of the works mark significant events or occurrences, including varied perspectives on recent upheavals in Egypt, the Middle East and Afghanistan. The works in the main exhibition in the Fridericianum have a particular focus on conflict, catastrophe, ruin, trauma, survival and repair across many historical events, as though such events and restorations were on an endless loop. There are many absorbing works here, but I spent a particularly long time in Kader Attia’s disturbing, fascinating installation, The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, a maze of repaired African artefacts, vintage colonialist texts and wood-carved busts of disfigured faces, and a slideshow of facially injured World War I soldiers provocatively juxtaposed with mended African masks.

Many powerful works are sited in and around the Hauptbahnhof railway station, among them William Kentridge’s stunning video and sound work The Refusal of Time (which elicited a round of applause), Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s augmented reality audio tour of the station linking it to a darker past, Clemens von Wedemeyer’s three-screen multiple histories of a monastery in Germany: from concentration camp to girls reformatory to psychiatric clinic, and Lara Favaretto’s vast pile of industrial debris.

Lara Favaretto, Momentary Monument IV (Kassel), 2012

William Kentridge, The Refusal of Time, 2012

dOCUMENTA (13) has been called “genre-busting”. Its curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev stated that she wanted to broaden documenta’s focus from the visual arts to culture at large. This has been largely done through the mode of the artist’s enquiry, but there are also non-artists involved, including physicists, biologists and social scientists, and a scattering of historical artefacts.

The role of science in this “culture at large” is most prominently represented by the Austrian physicist Anton Zeileger’s Quanta Now, a series of five important quantum physics experiments installed in the Fridericianum, including the double slit experiment and quantum entanglement of photon pairs. There is also an installation in the same building of Russian biologist Alexander Tarakhovsky’s work on epigenetics, and the Bavarian priest and artist Korbinian Aigner’s multiple paintings of the new strains of apples he created while in Dachau concentration camp.

Meanwhile, Donna Haraway’s writings on multi-species co-evolution inspired the artist Tue Greenfort to compile and present an archive of artists’ materials, texts, books, videos and documentation of artworks dealing with the relationship between human and non-human species (including Rachel Mayeri’s Primate Cinema, an Arts Catalyst commission).

Anton Zeilinger, Quanta Now (installation detail of the experiment on quantum entanglement of photon pairs), 2012

Korbinian Aigner, Apples, 1912–1960s

Ecological themes are very present, in the process-based projects by Pratchaya Phinthong, whose simple installation – two dead tsetse flies, one female carrying the deadly disease sleeping sickness and her sterile consort – is underpinned by a research project, in which Phinthong has been traveling in Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Zambia and providing locals with inexpensive traps to help control the tsetse fly populations, and Amy Balkin, who has been trying to get the Earth’s atmosphere included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Ecology is closely tied closely to politics in the beautiful and coherent exhibition in the Ottoneum, Kassel’s natural history museum, with Amar Kanwar’s moving installation The Sovereign Forest tackling the forcible displacements of indigenous communities and peasants in Odisha (Orissa), India, by commercial interests, Claire Pentecost’s elegant and thoughtful installation Soil-Erg, in which she proposes a new system of value based on living soil, and Maria Thereza Alves’ installation on five centuries of damage done to Lake Chalco in Mexico and the people who live there.

Pratchaya Phinthong, Sleeping Sickness, 2012

Claire Pentecost, Soil-Erg, 2012

Elsewhere, the politics of nuclear energy are presented both in Mika Taanila’s stylish 3-screen video work The Most Electrified Town in Finland and the Otolith Group’s film Radiant, which explores Japan’s fated love affair with the unstable atom which culminated in the Fukushima reactor meltdown.

In documenta-Halle, Thomas Bayrle’s car engine prayer-machines and collaged airplane suggest our very dreams rely on carbon-burning technologies, while Yan Lei has hung a room with 360 paintings, produced one per day over a year, inspired by internet images. During dOCUMENTA (13), the paintings will be gradually removed, spray painted in the local Volkswagen car factory, and then returned to the exhibition.

Mika Taanila, The Most Electrified Town in Finland, 2012

Thomas Bayrle installation, dOCUMENTA (13), 2012

Yan Lei, Limited Art Project, 2012

Karlsaue park is the site for many intriguing works, both in the landscape and installed in small buildings. Standouts for me are Omer Fast’s extraordinary tale of a couple’s disturbed, unsettling response to the death of their soldier son in Afganistan (confirming my art crush on this remarkable artist), CAMP’s gentle reflections on maritime life and the informal economy across the Indian Ocean, and Sam Durant’s alluring playground-gallows.

Omer Fast, Continuity, 2012

Sam Durant, Scaffold, 2012

Two real “conflicts” disturbed the civilised art-going days of the dOCUMENTA (13) previews. First, the failure of dOCUMENTA (13)’s aim to transport the El Chaco meteorite, a 37-ton, 4,000-year-old lump of space rock, from aboriginal land in Argentina to Kassel, as proposed by artists Guillermo Faivovich and Nicolas Goldberg, continued to stir debate during the opening week. It was a controversial proposal, strongly and successfully protested by indigenous Argentians.

Indigenous Argentinians protesting the removal of the El Chaco meteorite for inclusion in documenta 13

And then, on preview day, above the peaceful sunlit Karlsaue park, rose Critical Art Ensemble (CAE)’s shatteringly–loud helicopter, rising and sinking several times an hour, audible – and frequently visible – across the town, invading art-going experience and drowning conversations. In A Public Misery Project: A Temporary Monument to Global Economic Inequality, CAE raised a huge bar graph depicting wealth disparity across the world. 99% of the world’s incomes fitted onto the banner, but the globe’s richest 1% required a helicopter to soar 250 meters up in the sky. Exclusive €300 tickets were purchased by an irony-unencumbered fifty people, only twelve of whom showed up on the day to be escorted down a red carpet for their flight. The 99%, meanwhile, could buy a lottery ticket and the chance to win a ride.

Some of the reason for this economic disparity, as well perhaps as the mechanics for the endless cycle of manmade disasters, are revealed in Mark Lombardi’s obsessive mapping of corruption, politics and finance, that make visible the hidden connections between political and economic processes, corporation, and individuals.

Critical Art Ensemble, A Public Misery Project: A Temporary Monument to Global Economic Inequality, 2012


AV Festival: unfolding installations, incremental car crashes and unhurried soundscapes

A small white car in a gallery, its front end against the wall, car bonnet beginning to buckle

Jonathan Schipper, Slow Motion Car Crash, 2012

I had 24 hours of frantic slowness at the terrific AV festival last weekend. This year, the theme of this excellent festival of art, technology, music and film was As Slow As Possible. As I spent much time with our own contribution, Agnes Meyer Brandis’ Moon Goose Analogue, at the Great North Museum (formerly Hancock), and only saw perhaps half of the visual and sound art works – leaving almost unsampled an enticing programme of film and music – I can hardly review it, but I will just note a few highlights from my own small sampling:

Torsten Lauschmann‘s delightful exhibition at the Laing Gallery, Newcastle: standing enchanted waiting for a piano to play by itself, slide projectors to come to clattering life, waiting for snow to fall …

John Gerrard’s large-scale projection Cuban School (Sancti Spiritu), a transfixing slow-moving portrait of an existing school sited in the countryside in Cuba. The work is a virtual representation of the building, its 1960s Soviet-inspired architecture incongruous against tropical trees and light. The scene unfolds in real-time, panning slowly around the school, recreating the light conditions of each day. The scene was empty of people, although I read that a caretaker occasionally appears to switch on the lights. I never saw them.

Image of a large school-type building in a landscape

John Gerrard, Cuban School (Sancti Spiritu) 2011

Yoshi Wada‘s wonderful sound installation in the dramatic architecture of the Discovery Museum’s Great Hall, alternating calm and thunder with foghorns, alarm bells, a ship’s ventilator, and the clang of metal. It felt like a raucous if tuneful way to go down with one’s ship.

My sneak preview of the gorgeous sound sculpture, Flow, on the River Tyne, created by Owl Project (Antony Hall, Steve Simons & Simon Blackmore) with Ed Carter. This floating, wooden waterwheel-powered organ and dynamic sculpture. Hall and Simons explained to me, combines traditional and new technologies to circulate and process water from the river, analyse it, and transform it into energy and sound. It opens later this month and I’ll write more on it nearer that time.

A modern wooden waterwheel and mill on the River Tyne

Owl Project & Ed Carter, Flow, 2012

Imperceptibly edging towards inevitable disaster, Jonathan Schipper’s small car in a shop, moving steadily at 7mm per hour towards its doom. At the opening, the bumper had made contact with the wall of the shop in which it is installed. Since then, its front end has started to crumple.

The rumbling sounds of Jem Finer’s slowed record player, Bob Levene’s leisurely boat trip between Finnish islands as the light fades, On Kawara’s reading of a million years at the Baltic, Benedict Drew’s hallucinogenic walk-through installation … just some of many wonderful artworks, too fleetingly viewed and experienced when I should have been going as slow as possible.

A seascape at sunset with islands

Bob Levene, Inertial Frame, 2009

Fringe technology and grey science (thoughts on the Samsung Art+ Prize)

Radio Mania: An Abandoned Work (still) by Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard

The UK might be thought rather tardy in recognising the digital arts, given that the Samsung Art+ prize claims to be the UK’s first digital media art competition. But perhaps it’s simply that the appeal of certain media or thematics in the arts naturally ebbs and wanes over periods of five to ten years. (There’s a parallel revival of interest in ‘art and science’ at the moment.) What sparks these periodic surges of fascination – for media art, or art that engages with science – is never entirely clear. A European colleague thinks it’s purely the search for funds that is making arts organisations chase after science and technology. UK and US colleagues in academia have suggested the arts are searching for research legitimacy by association. Obviously, in general I have a far less cynical take on it. But it’s true that culture minister Ed Vaizey’s call for arts organisations to exploit “the possibilities and revenue streams that new technologies offer” met with a swift response from the Arts Council, which teamed up with the BBC and NESTA to launch various digital funds. And now we have Samsung’s initiative.

Anyway, the show at the BFI is welcome mainstream recognition for a very broad field of work that’s been around for a long time. And the show has some really good work in it. There were some old favourites, beautifully installed in the BFI’s gallery, as well as some treats new to me.

I’ve long been a fan of Semiconductor’s skill and vision as artists working with moving image. Joe Gerhardt and Ruth Jarman’s work is represented here by a 3D version of ‘20HZ’ (2011) and the spectacular three-screen ‘Worlds in the Making’ (2011), made after a visit by the artists to the Galapagos Islands.

Worlds in the Making – preview by Semiconductor

Jon Thomson & Alison Craighead beautifully crafted their ‘A Short Film about War’  (2009) from material found online and uploaded under Creative Commons license. The 2-screen film takes the viewer around the globe to war zones captured through Flickr photos and testimony from both military and civilian bloggers. The images appear on one screen, while the other logs the sources of the sourced images, blogs and GPS locations.

A Short Film About War (still) by Thomson & Craighead

I was also fascinated by Doug Fishbone’s ‘Hypno Project’ (2009), another two-screen work, which demonstrates how people react to stimuli under hypnosis and examines how we form our beliefs. On the right screen, an entertaining cynical narrative about the nature of belief and cultural conditioning is set to a fast succession of almost subliminal images, while on the left, twelve people watching the video have been hypnotized to respond in specific ways to certain images, fascinating as we don’t know exactly what they’re responding too as they shout, clap, wave or make noises. A neat juxtaposition of ideas.

Hypno Project by Doug Fishbone

It was also great to see the recent work of Hiraki Sawa, as I remember being incredibly impressed by his work ‘Dwelling’ (2002), when I believe he was barely out of art college.

Dwelling by Hiraki Sawa

The standout work for my visit was Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s remarkable and utterly absorbing ‘Radio Mania: An Abandoned Work’ (2009), which I hadn’t caught in its earlier showing at BFI. It’s a 3D video installation inspired by The Man from M.A.R.S. – one of the earliest 3D films ever produced (in 1922) – which transports the viewer into the centre of a rehearsal for an adaptation of a film. Because of the 3D and the small screen, it gives the weird sense that one is watching the Borrowers. And the 3D sound had me taking my headphones off to see if it was coming from somewhere else. Delightful.

Forsyth and Pollard have long experimented widely with re-enactments of cultural works, but a fascination for fringe technology and grey science has been apparent in recent works. Last year, I greatly enjoyed their sound project/radio play, ROMEO ECHO DELTA, at AND Festival. It was broadcast by BBC Radio Merseyside on Halloween, accompanied by an ominous red light in the night sky above Birkenhead. The transmission began with the arrival of a studio guest, their interview then being interrupted with the breaking news of the unexplained red light. It recalled Orson Welles’ radio play of H.G Well’s science fiction novel War of the Worlds broadcast for Halloween in 1938, which sparked panic, and in fact the BBC rejected the first version of Pollard & Forsyth’s play for being “too realistic and likely to induce panic in their listeners”. The artists produced a revised version which was then aired.

Other artists in the show are Torsten Laschmann, Neil Cummings, Aura Satz, Erika Tan, and LuckyPDF, all showing interesting works.

The Samsung Art+ prize exhibition is well worth an hour or two (two if you want to watch it all, as I did). It’s only on to the 29 January. I only hope the artists in it get as much profile as the sponsoring company in this heavily-branded show.

Lunar dreamers: occupy the moon!

Leonid Tishkov, Private Moon

In Tony White’s new short story, Occupy the Moon, commissioned by The Arts Catalyst to mark the opening of our latest exhibition, Republic of the Moon, at FACT in Liverpool, the author contemplates a remonstration against privatisation of the moon, and reflects on “the importance of wit and play in exploration”.

For Republic of the Moon, we invited a number of international artists to create and show works reimagining our relationship with the moon in a new era of aspirations to return humans to the moon.

Liliane Lijn, Moonmeme

Liliane Lijn’s Moonmeme tracks the moon’s phase, with the letters S-H-E projected on its surface. During the run of the show, as the moon’s phase changes, the word will transform according to the relative motions of Moon, Earth and Sun. Lijn’s work references the many female lunar deities through history, and reminds us that it was twelve men who walked on the moon (our forthcoming Kosmica in Liverpool has all-female line-up).

Agnes Meyer-Brandis, Moon Goose Analogue, 2011

In a major new commission, Agnes Meyer-Brandis’ ambitious, enchanting Moon Goose Analogue: Lunar Birds Migration Facility connects us to eleven future astronauts: Neil, Svetlana, Gonzales, Valentina, Friede, Juri, Buzz, Kaguya-Anousheh, Irena, Rakesh and Konstantin-Hermann. These are specially trained “moon geese”, destined to fly to the moon. We meet them via a large complex, control room live-linked to cameras in the geese’s “moon analogue”, a mock lunar landscape and lunar capsule control room set up on the farm in Italy where the birds live. Through captivating film, photographs and installations, the birds’ life story and mission unfolds.

Meyer-Brandis’ piece is inspired by a science fiction story by the 17th century English bishop Francis Godwin, “The Man in the Moone”, about a man who flew to the moon on a chariot pulled by trained geese. Can this tale be real and can it be made in the present day?, wondered Meyer-Brandis. She sourced the eggs of a rare breed of geese from a specialist breeder, incubated them, and imprinted herself on the eleven goslings that hatched as their ‘mother’ and devoted herself completely to them, living with them day and night (even a trip to the toilet by their “mum” triggered much distressed honking), and training them to walk, swim and fly, as well as giving them lessons on space travel. The healthy, well-bonded geese now live in their moon facility in Pollinaria, Italy, awaiting their mission to the moon – or at least expanding their colony. There is an interview with the artist about this work in the Liverpool Daily Post.

Leonid Tishkov, Private Moon

Leonid Tishkov’s charming and luminous photographs, poetry and video work are from his ongoing Private Moon project, a visual poem that tells the story of a man who met the Moon and stayed with her for the rest of his life. Tishkov and his glowing moon have travelled his native Russia and the world together for almost ten years and he dreams of flying with her to the Moon:

“In the upper world, in the attic of his house, he saw the Moon which had fallen from the sky. At first she was hiding from the sun in a dark, damp tunnel and was constantly frightened by the passing trains. Then she came to the house of the man. Wrapping the moon in a thick blanket, he gives her autumn apples and drinks tea with her. When she finally recovers he puts her on a boat and carries her across a dark river to a high bank, where moon pine-trees grow. He descends to the lower world wearing the clothes of his deceased father and then returns, illuminating the way with his private moon. Transcending the borders between worlds via narrow bridges, sinking into sleep, taking care of the heavenly body, man turns into a mythological being living in the real world like in a fantastic fairy-tale.” – Tishkov

The artist keeps his own Private Moon blog which he updates with poetry and images about his travels with his moon.

In Sharon Houkema’s installation M3, the artist uses a simple overhead projector and a bucket of water to conjure a shimmering moon, as if seen through water or hazy cloud.

Andy Gracie, The Quest for Drosophila Titanus

Andy Gracie’s ambitious DIY-astrobiology experiment, an attempt to breed a strain of fruit fly that could survive on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, is documented in The Quest for Drosophila Titanus. Gracie discussed his process with New Scientist, and the broader ideas he is exploring in the work. He explained his aim to set up “a metaphorical, speculative artistic project by following a completely rigorously scientific process”. As well, his experiment raises questions about what we will consider to be the “right stuff” for future star travellers.

We Colonised the Moon, Enter at Own Risk. Photo: Drew Hemment

Artist duo We Colonised the Moon’s work Enter At Own Risk is an installation and performance piece, with a slightly sinister Apollo astronaut working away spraying rocks with a specially synthesised smell of the moon, commissioned by the artists Hagen Betzwieser and Sue Corke from industrial chemists. Astronaut Charlie Duke likened the smell of the moon to gunpowder (although I prefer cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev’s description of the smell of space which he said “smelled like two stones being struck together”).

At the artists’ breakfast event yesterday morning, attended by all the artists (with the sole exception of Houkema), American-born Lijn and Russian-born Tishkov called for the artists to issue a manifesto on the future of the moon, reclaiming it from the aspirations of privatisers or the military, since the major space-faring nations – including the US, UK, EU, Russia, China, Japan and India – have so far refused to sign up to the UN’s protective Moon Treaty.

This may be a ‘romantic’ exhibition, as a member of audience said, but as all the artists said without hesitation that they would travel to the moon given the opportunity, this is a romantic imaginary that embraces space technology and exploration.

‘Republic of the Moon’ runs until 26 February at FACT, Liverpool. Commissioned and curated by The Arts Catalyst and FACT.

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