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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


Extreme citizen science: rainforests, urban jungles and the arctic perspective …

A group of young Congalese men in a forest, one with a handheld device

Baka people from Mang-Kako geomap the sacred Moabi tree, 2007. Photo: Jerome Lewis

Last week I attended the London Citizen Cyberscience Summit with Lisa Haskel, Arts Catalyst’s resident research engineer, to catch up and connect with latest developments, and to present our Arctic Perspective Initiative.

Although the notion of the amateur scientist is ages old, the term “citizen science” is generally used for the systematic collection and analysis of data by networks of volunteers. The most familiar are perhaps volunteer distributed computing projects, such as SETI@home, ClimatePrediction.net, and CERN’s LHC@home, in which people sign up the spare processing capacity of their home computers. A recent wave of projects more creatively engages people in basic research: in Galaxy Zoo, for example, people classify images of galaxies, while the Evolution Megalab recruits volunteers to survey snail shell bands.

Day 1 of the summit was presented largely from the professional scientist’s perspective. There was a lot of rhetoric about citizen participation in science, but most discussion focused how to “harness” the power of many minds to help science, how to recruit and incentivise citizens to “generate high quality data” (the phrase “Pavlov’s dogs” was disconcertingly used by one contributor).With a few exceptions, such as iSpot, an online nature community, most projects neglected the value of people’s own expertise and ideas. Surely there are other ways to involve people in science using online technologies other than just crowdsourcing or crowd computing. A few of the presenters began to raise this as an issue, Francois Taddei asking the critical question: who benefits from these projects?

A man is presenting in front of a powerpoint screen

Ngoni Munyaradzi presenting the project ‘Transcription of bushman historical text’ at the London Citizen Cyberscience Summit, 2012

The afternoon introduced citizen science projects from around the globe, some of the standard data collection model, others more engaging. I particularly liked Ngoni Munyaradzi’s project to crowd source translating notebooks and art that contain Bushman culture, and the initiative by the Jane Goodall Institute which trains local people to monitor chimpanzee habitats in Tanzania and Uganda using smartphones.

Two young Tanzanian women work on a map

Monitoring ape habitats. Photo: Jane Goodall Institute

I was very excited by Jerome Lewis’ work with indigenous people in Congo and Rwanda. In 2009, Lewis developed an icon-based interface on a hand-held device that could be used by forest-dwelling people to geotag trees important to their way of life, the mapped information being communicated to logging companies and policy holders. The method has spread like wildfire, Lewis noted, because it’s so effective, allowing peaceful communication via maps. Critically, Lewis noted, the communities themselves have to decide what the benefits are to their participation in such a project. There are no payments or gimmicks to incentivise participation.

Lewis then outlined his “Hackfest” challenge: to design a new portable device, specifically requested by local people in Congo to monitor poaching, a device that can meet specific requirements, such as accurate geo-referencing under rainforest canopy, withstanding heat and humidity, able to tolerate a week without charge, and updatability. Lewis also wants to work with hackers to create sensors that can enable long-term monitoring of changes caused by mining concessions and climate change. He articulated passionately how important it is to develop accessible analytic tools for use by local people to visualise and analyse results themselves, and that this needs to include the largely excluded: rural people, semi/non-literate people, women, and the urban poor. You can watch Lewis’s presentation here.

Lewis’ UCL collaborator Muki Haklay then launched their new Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) initiative, and outlined what they meant by extreme citizen science: firstly, everyone can participate, not just educated people; secondly, extreme citizen science moves the location of citizen science from populated, wealthy parts of the planet to everywhere, and thirdly, it transforms people’s roles in projects from just data collection and entry to shaping the problem and analysing data, participating in problem definition and the entire process of science.

A group of people help to fill a red weather balloon

Lisa helps with the PLOTS balloon

The second day of the summit combined presentations with a hands-on hackday. A greater proportion of the discourse felt more in tune with my own interests in co-creation or a bottom-up approach to citizen science. The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS), for example, is an activist-led US group developing low-cost DIY open source environmental and health tools to research and monitor their own environments. PLOTS demonstrated a mapping kit using a red weather balloon, plastic bottles, and a camera hacked to take infrared digital photos, to which the noise monitoring folk also attached a device.

Aerial photo over UCL with balloon sized coloured dots

Data gathered by noise monitoring app on PLOTS balloon

Lisa Haskel and I presented the Arctic Perspective Initiative (API), which follows a similar open source community-centred ethos. The API comprises an international group
of individuals and non-profit organisations, including Arts Catalyst. Founded by artists Marko Peljhan and Matthew Biederman, its goal is to promote the creation of open source communications, sensing and dissemination infrastructures for the circumpolar region. API is a collaboration with the community of Igloolik and other small settlements in Canada’s High Arctic.

A group of Inuit people gather around a portable device

Igloolik community members study aerial images, API Foxe Basin field trip. Photo: API

As Dr Michael Bravo writes in ‘Arctic Geopolitics & Autonomy‘, the API project has developed as a collaborative artistic and technological response to Igloolik’s own considerable arts and media history. Igloolik hosts a permanent population of only 1500 people, but it has for centuries been a crossroads and meeting place for Inuit peoples, traditionally known for regrouping, resting, eating, socialising. Today, it is the home of IsumaTV, an independent interactive network of Inuit and indigenous filmmakers and media workers, and ArtCirq, a community-based circus and multimedia company. Peljhan came to Igloolik with a history of having explored how autonomy can be performed through technological experiments that have traveled to different extreme environments.

One of API’s evolving projects is to build mobile, habitable living and working units to enable people to live on the land away from settlements (as many Inuit like to do), all the while remaining connected through communications technologies such as live video streaming and data connections. The units will be powered solely with renewable energy sources. Through these units a number of activities can be pursued: scientific monitoring, filmmaking and editing, sustainability hunting, environmental assessment, and technology research.

Inuit man using electronic telescope

Herve Paniaq searches for holes in the pack ice while navigating in Foxe Basin, August 2009. Photo: API

I presented the history, social context and collaborative approach of API, and Lisa Haskel discussed the sensor network that API is developing for use by local people for a variety of their own purposes, and the data gathering interface that she is working on. You can watch our presentation here and read more about Arctic Perspective Initiative on the Arts Catalyst’s website and the project’s own site.

Lisa stayed on for the practical workshops on Day 3, which I didn’t attend, but my mind was buzzing with possibilities and connections.

Two Inuit and two other men in a makeshift blue tent

Makeshift medialab, Foxe Basin field trip, August 2009. Photo: API

2012: autonomous infrastructures, uneasy energies, and the machine wilderness …

Yahoo. 2012! What’s coming up this year in the art/science world? Here’s a highly subjective list of things I’m looking forward to.

Melanie Jackson, still from new work (in progress), 2012

Arts Catalyst’s Republic of the Moon exhibition is currently running at FACT, Liverpool, to 26 February, and there’ll also be a Kosmica event at FACT at the end of the month. In March, Agnes Meyer-Brandis’ Moon Goose Analogue tours to the Great North Museum, Newcastle, as part of AV Festival.

Later this month, we’ll announce a call for an exciting artist’s fellowship at a major science facility in Europe (details to come). We’ll also be launching a new series of workshops and commissions in our Autonomous Artists’ Infrastructures strand, following on from the Planetary Breakdown event at BALTIC, including new work by Hehe.

We’ll be busy all year round in our Clerkenwell space in London with a new series of Kosmicas and other events, exhibitions and workshops, beginning with ‘Trust Me, I’m an Artist’, exploring the ethics of art/science collaborations. Later this Spring, I’m greatly looking forward to showing our new commission from Melanie Jackson, a new essay film that takes us from the botanical garden to the synthetic biology laboratory in the artist’s ongoing investigation into the impulse for form, informed by her participation in our Synthesis workshop last year.

Throughout the year, we’ll unveil a number of other artists’ projects currently in development at different venues across the UK. I’m also planning to trail Alec Finlay when I can around the northernmost parts of Scotland for his investigations into small-scale wind power. And we’ll continue our involvement in the Arctic Perspective Initiative.

Illustration from E. W. Golding's The Generation of Electricity by Wind Power (1955). From Alec Finlay’s http://skying-blog.blogspot.com/

Beyond Arts Catalyst, Berlin’s wintry transmediale is always a good get-together for people inhabiting the art-tech-politics end of the art and science spectrum. This year, the festival takes the theme of ‘in/compatible’. Its exhibition ‘Dark Drives – Uneasy Energies in technological times’ promises “works of art and artefacts of everyday culture that direct our attention to the dark side of our technologised lives”, including a series of photographs by environmental scientists Vibek Raj Maurya and Jack Caravanos of the overwhelming amounts of electronic waste deposited in developing world.

Vibek Raj Maurya, e-waste series, Accra, Ghana

In June, back to Germany as documenta finally rolls around again. Will there be much engagement with science in this 5-yearly massive survey of contemporary art?  How could there not be, if it plans at all to consider art in relationship to contemporary existence, given the currency of environmental issues and 2011′s scientific excitements, which have included glimpses of the Higg’s boson, Einstein-defying neutrinos, and the discovery of Earth’s “twin”? We know, at least, that Amy Balkin’s ongoing Public Smog project will be part of documenta (13), relocating her park in the atmosphere and intelligent discourse over governance of the skies to Kassel.

Amy Balkin, Public Smog (2004 ongoing). Part of documenta (13)

Of the UK’s Cultural Olympiad offerings this year, I’m keen to see Owl Project’s FLOW, an environmentally sustainable watermill on the River Tyne, come to fruition after all their hard work, and I’d like to hop onto Alex Hartley’s Arctic nowhereisland, navigating the South-West of England coast. Meanwhile, Film and Video Umbrella is commissioning a series of moving image artworks that reflect that transient period when an athlete attains a heightened state of performance, generated by four artist-scientist partnerships: Dryden Goodwin and Elsa Bradley; Cornford and Cross and Dr Richard Ramsey; Susan Pui San, Tali Sharot and Nicky Clayton; and Roderick Buchanan and Dr David Shearer. All four new works will be shown at De la Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, in summer 2012.

Come Autumn/Fall, I’m already very excited about ISEA 2012, taking place this year in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA, and glorying in the title ‘Machine Wilderness’. The themes are very much up our street: The Cosmos, Wildlife, Transportation, Power. New Mexico: it’s got deserts, it’s got mountains, it’s got art, and it’s even got a dropzone. What’s not to love?

Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1, Sonda de Exploración Ferroviaria Tripulada, Manned Railway Exploration Probe. Showing at ISEA 2012.

Back from ISEA in September, I may pay a visit to the small market town of Grantham in Lincolnshire, birthplace of Isaac Newton, where they’re planning a “major art and science festival”. (It’s also the birthplace of Maggie Thatcher, but let’s not go there)

What have I left out? Let me know your art and science highlights for 2012, particularly in other parts of the globe.

Meanwhile, in Rwanda …

This is what I’m up to at the moment over on my other blog, teaching street dance to street kids in Rwanda:

www.catalystrwanda.org

So sorry for the quietness on this blog. I’m back towards the end of this month.

Street dance for street kids – Catalyst Rwanda

Smiling Rwandan boys

Former street children at Les Enfants de Dieu

I’m gearing up for our first Catalyst Rwanda project, starting on the 10th November. A team of hip hop educators will deliver breakdancing workshops with 130 boys aged 6–18 at Les Enfants de Dieu, a visionary residential rehabilitation centre for street children in Kigali, Rwanda. Catalyst Rwanda is commissioning UK hip hop dance pioneer Pervez to lead the ten-day teaching residency with the boys, all of whom come from incredibly difficult backgrounds. The boys love hip hop and when I was at the centre in January told me how much they would love to learn breakdancing from professional teachers. We’ll also be running masterclasses for local professional dancers, with Ishyo Arts Centre, and working too with Kwetu Film Institute to make a short film of the project.

If you’d like to follow the project more closely, Catalyst Rwanda has its own blog at www.catalystrwanda.org. If you’d like to help the project grow and develop long-term, you can give securely using the donate button below.

Zimbabwe in Venice

Misheck Masamvu, Sacred Verse (2011) oil/canvas.

In a deliciously candid symposium at Iniva yesterday, Raphael Chikukwa, curator of the Zimbabwe Pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year, confessed with a twinkle that – through lack of knowledge of procedures – they’d messed up on signage at the start: “We can say that at first 35000 people walked past the Zimbabwe pavilion – and a few hundred came in!”. Chikukwa’s unlikely collaborator and sponsor, Francois Larini of the Nouveau Musee National de Monaco, was similarly frank. His brand new art museum decided to back Zimbabwe’s pavilion because of their interest in African art – and because they did not feel art in Monaco itself could support a pavilion. “There was a Monaco pavilion a few years ago,” Larini said cheerfully, “It was a disaster”.

Now Zimbabwe is offering advice sessions to other African countries wishing to tackle Venice, where the continent is extremely underrepresented. Chikukwa’s choice of artists was certainly skilful, selecting Zimbabwean artists “who were engaging with international arts discourse”. He left out Zimbabwean stone sculpture, preferring artists whose work in photography, film, installation and painting was more likely to appeal to the Biennale opening week crowd.

I loved Misheck Masamvu’s emotional and powerful paintings and was glad to hear him talk about his work, something he said he rarely does. Incorporating animals as symbols into his paintings took me back to conversations with sculptors in the Zimbabwean village where I worked 18 years ago, as the artists there grappled to combine traditional and contemporary beliefs and ideas, often using animal totems. But Masamvu’s descriptions also reminded me of artists in Tehran speaking about their work, in which critique was deeply coded through symbols, making it hard for censors to ‘read’.

The Government of Zimbabwe also financed the pavilion, though a remarkable piece of negotiation by the National Gallery of Zimbabwe. Gallery director Doreen Sibanda noted that officialdom is starting to see the positive side of visual arts, because of the success of Zimbabwean stone sculpture. Quizzed about the level of freedom allowed to artists by the government, she countered: “Some of the work we’ve shown over the last 10-15 years has been really ‘out there’ and has raised eyebrows”. She did not mention that the authorities have arrested several Zimbabwean artists this year, and arrested Owen Maseko last year for an exhibition at the National Gallery’s branch in Bulawayo, which chronicled the Matabeleland atrocities carried out by President Mugabe. Life for artists in Zimbabwe continues to be very difficult, economically and politically.

Owen Maseko

Installation by Owen Maskeko from his exhibition 'Sibathontisele' (2010)

Realities and dreams: Africa in space

A stunning and detailed black and white image of Africa from space

Mosaic of high-res images of Africa captured by Canada's RADARSAT-1 satellite

Today is the last day of the 62nd International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Cape Town, South Africa. The IAC is a vast annual meeting of the space world, organized by the International Astronautical Federation, attended by the heads and senior executives of the world’s space agencies, astronomers, space lawyers, engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs and astronauts. This is the first time it has taken place in an African country.

What is the relevance of space exploration to African countries? African astronomy has a long history, as explored in the excellent documentary Cosmic Africa, made in 2003 with South African astronomer Thebe Medupe. South Africa has been involved in a limited way in space activities since the 1960s. Today, several African nations are emerging as participants in the space technology race. Nigeria, South Africa, Algeria and Egypt have launched their own satellites. A few years ago, Nigeria announced an intention to send the first Nigerian astronaut into space. South Africa already has its own astronaut, Mark Shuttleworth, the second self-funded space `’tourist`’. South Africa is also competing with Australia to host the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), the world’s largest radiotelescope.

Bright projection of a globe apparently onto a transparent screen or floating, behind which a man and woman are seen

Alejo Duque & Joanna Griffin: Bogota Declaration

Economic benefits are obviously the driving force for space technology development in Africa. But there are cultural and political issues around the management and exploitation of space, in which African people should have a voice. The contentious issue of geostationary orbits is one example. A geostationary orbit is where satellites orbit the earth above the equator, such that they appear to be stationary from the earth. Geostationary satellites have revolutionised global communications, and have important defense and intelligence applications. Naturally, early on the United States and the Soviet Union occupied the most valuable and coveted spots in geostationary orbit. In 1976, eight equatorial countries, including Kenya, Congo and Uganda, claimed sovereignty over the geostationary orbit, in the Bogotá Declaration, drawing attention to the inequity of orbital allocations. The Bogotá Declaration is the subject of a project by artists Alejo Duque and Joanna Griffin exploring the poetics of the declaration as well as the “inequalities in technological power, the physics of orbit and its contested spaces”.

The goal of the International Astronautical Federation’s technical activities committee on the cultural utilization of space (ITACCUS), of which I’m co-chair, is to promote a self-reflective space culture that promotes the peaceful use of space. It would be great to see African artists develop a cultural response to the new space drive as it develops. We welcome nominations for new ITACCUS members from African countries who can be liaisons to both African space and cultural organisations.

Picture of installation of paintings and sculpture depicting space themes merging contemporary and traditional Burkina Faso art styles

Work by Marco Boggio Sella and unnamed artist/s from Burkino Faso in the exhibition: Dreams and Nightmares of the African Astronauts

Man standing in desert looking at ancient arrangement of stones on the ground

Calendar circle in the Sahara desert visited by Thebe Medupe in Cosmic Africa

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