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Posts tagged ‘Asia’

Dispatches from the Republic of the Moon

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Leonid Tiskov, Private Moon

An artist hand-rears a flock of moon geese as future astronauts; a man meets the moon and stays with her for the rest of his life; the word SHE mysteriously floats across the lunar surface; Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata bounces off the moon in morse code; artists organise a protest against moon colonisation …

REPUBLIC OF THE MOON
Agnes Meyer-Brandis | Katie Paterson | Liliane Lijn | Leonid Tishkov | WE COLONISED THE MOON | Moon Vehicle

Opening: Thursday 9 January 2014, 6:30-8:30pm
Exhibition: 10 January-2 February 2014, open daily 11am-6pm
Bargehouse, Oxo Tower Wharf, South Bank, London SE1 9PH
Events, including Kosmica Full Moon Party and family workshops, throughout the run. Book now!

Today, China claimed success in landing its ‘Jade Rabbit’ robotic rover on the Moon, the first soft landing there for 37 years. Now China wants to send a human to the Moon. Does this and India’s Mars plans herald the start of a new Asian space race? Back in 2006, NASA announced it would establish a base on the Moon, but this plan was shelved when Obama took over from Bush. Japan and Russia also announced similar plans at the same time.

But why send humans back to the Moon? One argument is that it would be valuable for science, enabling us to study the geology and other conditions of our natural satellite. It’s also been suggested that the Moon could be a valuable base for studying the universe, providing a site for astronomy. Another argument is that the Moon can help to provide the Earth with solar and nuclear power: developing large areas of the Moon into solar farms might enable energy to be beamed back to Earth, or Helium-3 could be mined to use in nuclear fusion. But most arguments for returning to the Moon hinge on its potential use as a ‘launch’ site for expeditions to Mars and beyond, ultimately providing the potential for humankind to leave an endangered Earth.

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Moon Vehicle workshops, Bangalore, India

Many have waded into the debate for and against colonising the Moon, but what have artists to say on the matter? From earliest times, artists and writers have imagined journeying to the Moon, although the topic did not become popular until the 17th century with the invention of the telescope. One of the earliest of these stories is by the English science fiction writer Francis Godwin, whose The Man in the Moone (1638) imagines a man flying to the Moon using a contraption pulled by geese. But it was Jules Verne’s visions in his novels From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and its sequel Around the Moon (1870) that directly inspired the Russian space visionary Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and the American Robert Goddard who created and built the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket.

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Agnes Meyer Brandis, Moon Goose Colony (2011)

Now that a new space age is dawning, with a new geopolitical dimension, The Arts Catalyst is bringing together a group of artists to re-imagine our relationship with the Moon.

The exhibition ‘Republic of the Moon’, which launches The Arts Catalyst’s 20th anniversary year, will transform the Bargehouse on London’s South Bank into a lunar embassy on Earth, filled with artists’ fantastical imaginings  and playful protests against lunar exploitation. With works by artists from across the globe including Liliane Lijn, Leonid Tishkov, Agnes Meyer Brandis, Katie Paterson, and WE COLONISED THE MOON, and contributions by artists, scientists and space experts, the exhibition mingles personal encounters, DIY space plans, imaginary expeditions, and new myths for the next space age.

Declaring a temporary autonomous zone of the Moon in a small part of London, the Arts Catalyst invites people to come and reflect on the future of the Moon and our relationship with this celestial body that has, for 45 years, held a dual role in our imagination – both as a romantic silvery disc and site of dreams, and as a place of rocks and dust and strategic and scientific possibility. Animating the exhibition and enabling interaction, there will be talks, debates, workshops, a Kosmica full moon party, a pop-up moon shop, and playful protests against lunar exploitation. Hope to see you there.

The first version of Republic of the Moon was co-commissioned and presented by The Arts Catalyst and FACT, Liverpool, in 2011.

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Sue Corke and Hagen Betzweiser (We Colonised The Moon): Back in 5 Minutes (2009)

Some responses to War at the speed of light …

James Bridle, Dronestagram, 2012

A couple of recent interesting blog posts have picked up on my War at the Speed of Light: artists and drone warfare post a few weeks ago, which reviewed Omer Fast and Trevor Paglen’s works at the Brighton Photo Biennial.

Geographer Dr Alan Ingram, in his post Making geopolitics creepy and cool with art, fascinatingly analyses the use of particular words in the comments books at Fast and Paglen’s exhibitions: ‘stunning’, ‘cool’, ‘creepy’, ‘ugh’, ‘*shudders*, ‘oh no…’, ‘weird’, ‘wow’, ‘huh?’, by way of François Debrix, JJ Charlesworth, and neuropolitics (more please, Alan, this is a fantastic subject!). Ingram’s excellent blog Art and War is part of an academic research project exploring the responses of artists and art institutions in the UK to the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq,

Meanwhile, Honor Harger’s Drone’s Eye View: a Look at How Artists Are Revealing the Killing Fields, whose venue Lighthouse in Brighton hosted the Paglen show, introduces James Bridle’s significant body of work on drone warfare. Bridle’s Drone Shadow is an ongoing investigation into the shadow of the drone, in which one-to-one representations of the MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) are drawn to scale on urban landscapes, while his new project Dronestagram, launched this month, is a social media project on TwitterInstagram and Tumblr which posts a drone’s-eye-view of strike locations.

Thanks to both!

Also, in case you’ve missed it, I draw your attention to Culture+Conflict, a UK-based not-for-profit agency, founded in 2011 by Michaela Crimmon, Peter Jenkinson and Jemima Montagu, which focuses on the role of the arts and culture within conflict and post conflict situations across the world.

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

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


Terra Infirma: finding the ‘geo’ in geopolitics

a smoke-filled domestic living room with a model volcano in the centre

Nelly Ben Hayoun, The Other Volcano

‘Terra Infirma – experimenting with geo-political practices
’ was an academic workshop which was held in The Arts Catalyst’s Clerkenwell space. The organisers (UCL Department of Geography) proposed the question: What does the ‘geo’ in ‘geo-politics’ actually do? to spark an enquiry around the interplay between human politics and physical geography in a time of climate change and resource shortages.

The philosopher Michel Serres, wrote workshop convenor Angela Last in her introduction to the workshop, has proposed to rethink geo-political relations through the term ‘Biogée’ (from Greek ‘bios’ – life; ‘gē’ – earth), attempting to re-connect the separated spheres of ‘life’ and ‘earth’ to form a ‘contemporary global state’. One of the areas that the workshop sought to explore were links or parallels between the ‘biopolitical’ and the ‘geopolitical’. The day opened with some theoretical provocations by Nigel Clark, whose recent work looks at ethical and political responses to the disasters of abrupt climate change, Kathryn Yusoff, who introduced the deep time perspective that, as humans, we’re only one step away from being fossils (a strata in the landscape), and Joanne Sharp, whose paper attempted to reconnect the ‘bio’ and ‘geo’ in the geopolitics of Africa.

In the following session, “experience designer” Nelly Ben Hayoun, in a presentation with disaster management geographer Carina Fearnly, livened things up by setting off a volcano in the Arts Catalyst space. Not wishing to trigger the smoke alarms in the space, the volcano preparation was placed on an outside windowsill. We naively hoped the eruption would be small and disperse quickly outside. Great clouds of smoke promptly filled the room, and Rob and I raced around fanning the smoke clouds and desperately sticking plastic bags over the smoke alarms. It was certainly an effective demonstration of the unpredictability and potential for devastation of geophysical events.

cross section diagram of land and sea showing geoengineering proposals

Hack the Planet. Image: Kathleen Smith/LLNL

After that interlude, I confess I did not take in much of Angela Last’s presentation, as we were cleaning up, but I tuned in again for Bron Szerszynski’s fascinating presentation on ‘Making Climates’, a theoretical discussion around geoengineering, in which he discussed the question “What is a ‘made’ climate?” by considering different notions of ‘making’: producing (trying to recreate existing forms), educing (bringing out latent forms from nature) and creating (designing new forms), and how we might apply these concepts to the approaches to the architecture of climate.

Remains of a bombed car in an art gallery

Jeremy Deller, Iraq car bomb remains

The final session covered experimental geopolitics with presentations by Andrew Barry and Alan Ingram. Ingram’s current research surveys artists whose work addresses the Iraq War, spanning contemporary artists such as Jeremy Deller and Mark Wallinger, official war artists, and artists and curators from Iraq and the surrounding region.

The day felt incredibly broad in its topics, but it certainly opened up some interesting ideas and avenues of enquiry (as well as potential arguments that clearly were to be continued in the pub afterwards).

It is interesting to me – both as a cultural producer who initiates investigational art projects to open up new exchanges between disciplines and publics, and as a former student of geography – how popular contemporary art has suddenly become with geographers these days. This interest is in art both as an area of research, and as alternative modes of geographical knowledge-making and dissemination for a more ‘public’ geography.

Science diplomacy 1: International cooperation to neo-functionalism

Photo by Carlesmari

This week I’ve been at the Royal Society’s international meeting on science diplomacy.

What is science diplomacy? Most people here seem to have been discussing it as international collaborations to solve global problems and do joint research, but some have asked during the day whether this habit of cooperation can contribute to better relations between governments.

On Monday (I’ll blog this in two parts), we had perspectives from Europe, Brazil, India, Japan, China and the Islamic world. Some nice stories emerged. Raghunath Mashelkar reminisced about a collaborative agreement signed between India and Pakistan HEI scientists at a time of heightened tensions. Luis Davidovich from the Brazilian Academy of Science told the tale of how the Brazilian Physical Society and the Argentinian Physics Society scuppered any real hope of a nuclear arms race between the two countries by signing a declaration of scientific openness. Less convincingly, James Smith, the Chair of Shell UK, played the big-corporation-contributes-to-solutions-to-climate-change card, but at least didn’t pretend Shell is investing in renewables. I felt Smith got off extremely lightly, deflecting most questions by saying Shell has to answer to its shareholders, the government should “cause them to compete”, and we should all be looking at carbon absorption.

In an absorbing session on new partnerships with Islamic countries, Naser Faruqui from the Canadian International Development Research Centre asked whether, in cases when arguments incorporating religious perspectives can carry the day, why not use them when discussing issues of science with imams? He cited the value of incorporate Islam perspectives in discussions about water management and breastfeeding. Razley Mohd Nordon, from the OIC (Organisation of the Islamic Conference), introduced the term ‘neo-functionalism’, by which he means the impact of cooperation in ‘low politics’ (economic, social and cultural) on ‘high politics’, i.e. relations between governments, and ultimately to a more peaceful world.

Tehran (Part 2)

Tehran blog – Sunday, Monday, Tuesday

The other curators went home early on Sunday morning, leaving me with three days to pursue my own interests. They suggested some artists whom they thought I might find interesting to meet – a useful edit function enabled by my late arrival in Tehran.

It was good to spend a few days meeting artists on a 1:1 basis, and I seemed to get around vast, traffic-laden Tehran well enough, flagging down taxis and waving bits of paper with addresses in Farsi at the drivers. I had made my presentation about our work on Saturday evening with some trepidation. Only having been there for two days, I did not know whether the Tehran artistic community would relate to Arts Catalyst’s concerns with science-society issues and to the type of art we commission – often ephemeral and performative, experimental and process-based. But the response was warm, knowledgeable and enthusiastic, both for experimental works (such as Tomas Saraceno’s solar dome) and for relevant themes, like the Nuclear exhibition. Although I was frequently told that there was nothing like our work in Iran, I could clearly see potential for collaborative projects. One artist I met with, for example, did not initially understand why I would be interested in his work, but by the end of our meeting we had found several points of intersection and he showed me some early sketches for machine-works touching on highly controversial themes, including a torture machine and another belching oil.

One of my most interesting meetings was with the architect Kianoosh Vahadi, whose new group IOAA (Interdisciplinary Office of Art & Architecture) is a network of artists, architects, writers and thinkers, developing collaborative projects particularly focusing in issues relating to the urban environment. We discussed the changes that mass communication – the internet, satellite television (although the latter is officially illegal) – has brought to Iran, and our conversation also meandered across science, doubt, prison design, earthquakes and other subjects. Another memorable meeting was with Bita Fayyazi, an established international artist, at her studio. Fayyazi obsessively makes large numbers of objects and beings; famous works include her film Road Kill in which150 terracotta run-over dogs were buried in a mass grave, and installations using 2000 plus ceramic cockroaches that she made.

I spent a lovely evening at the home of the painter Khosrow Hassanzadehand his wife, the photographer Eugenie Dolberg. Khosrow’s warm gentle nature belies his dramatic biography: from Islamic militant and war soldier to fruit bazaar vendor to an international career in the arts. We spent the evening discussing Tehran life, Iranian politics and art. I was very tempted to go out with Khosrow the following day to his ‘factory’ well outside Tehran where he is building a number of large domes for his latest project, but felt I should stick to my schedule of meeting Tehran artists.

Tehran is a fascinating place, full of contradictions and contrasts. By the end of my stay, I was tired of the pollution and would have loved to have got out to see more of Iran, but it was a first trip and hopefully we will find reason to return, building on the relationships started.

Tehran (Part 1)

Tehran blog – Friday and Saturday

My Iranian visa came very late, so the others – this is a visit by a group of UK curators – had been here for 3 days by the time I arrived in Tehran. In the two days I’ve had with them, we have visited a number of small galleries and artists’ studios, and attended artists’ gatherings and a couple of openings. Tehran is vast and teeming, and the traffic insane, so we seem to be late for everything. Legendary Iranian hospitality shows in the warm welcomes we receive from artists and curators to their homes and studios. The realisation that many such encounters break at least two or three laws highlights the contradictions of modern Iran and the dramatic contrast between public and private space. Of course, for Iranians this is just one of the many stresses of life here.

Additional stress for the artistic community is the new legislation that requires every exhibition (and every single artwork) for public display to be pre-approved by the Ministry of Culture. If an artwork is barred, the artist is summoned to explain their work. If summoned 2 or 3 times, the artist can be permanently banned from exhibiting their work. Artworks for international shows and export also need Ministry approval. One gallery owner mentioned taking work rolled up in tubes in personal luggage, but this is becoming more risky. If an Iranian artist does get unapproved work out or makes the work abroad, representatives from the consulate in that country will often go to see the work. We were told that a couple of artists in the current Saatchi show will need to remain abroad for some time.

Consequently, a lot of the art we have seen has been underground. The spirit of dissent is certainly alive here in the Tehran artists’ community. Some artists are explicitly subversive, but even a lot of the shown and approved work is highly coded, masking its criticality. Interpretation and text are conspicuously lacking, and artists will only “own up” to any critical intent in private.

We had dinner one night at the home of B, who screened his new documentary film ‘Sculptures of Iran’, an extraordinary tale of public sculpture in modern Iran. One story followed the fate of a large abstract figurative sculpture removed from display. The museum director interviewed claimed it had suffered accidental damage being moved. The film the cut to a museum employee (somehow they gained access to the collection now kept in the vaults) unwrapping this sculpture and showing the complete removal of the arms, which would clearly have taken a tool that can cut through inch-thick metal. By contrast, the film also followed the story of a regime-commissioned frieze, a large and hideous public artwork, knocked down to build a metro station, and the poignant anguish of the sculptor as he attempted to find out what had become of it. It was a complex film, full of insight, contradictions, humour and lies, about the profound loss of cultural understanding in the modern Iranian state.

When we visited the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, it was not showing any contemporary art. Its huge collection of international contemporary art is locked in the basement.

We ended our first two days giving individual presentations of our work to a large gathering of artists at a gallery in central Tehran.

A history of forgetting

Pavel Medvedev, On the Third Planet from the Sun (still)

Harvard scholar Sheila Jasanoff is regarded as a leading light in the field of science and technology studies. Her calls for ‘technologies of humility’ in policy-making in science and her careful analyses of the role of political culture in policy-making in the field of biotechnology are hugely important, yet have not had the impact they should. Yesterday, in her keynote lecture at Transmediale, she gently challenged the festival’s rhetoric of the need for a paradigm shift of thinking in relation to climate change and more general talk of discontinuities in this respect, and outlined her skepticism of claims that the world has been changed forever. In an eloquent, clear and engaging talk, structured around a number of stories and images to highlight the role of social and cultural imagination in how our present understanding has been shaped, Jasanoff made a powerful plea for history. How we deal with our current situation depends on our ability to learn, not from disaster, but by building on what is to what is to come. We must not forget all we have learned before. She suggested that the resources that can help us to learn are the scientific spirit itself, common law and human history. All provide incremental approaches to learning, rather than radical paradigm shifts or discontinuities. The heart of science, Jasanoff reminded us – if left to its own devices – is incremental, provisional and skeptical.

Media artist Atteqa Malik from the Karachi collective Mauj had, the day before, pointed out that most people in Pakistan will not respond to calls for action for a notion of ‘climate change’ when what they are experiencing are more immediate problems of water shortages. Whether these are partly linked or not  – and in many parts of the world water shortages are as much to do with political and commercial structures and misguided decisions around technological systems – the point she was making is that we have to look at what people’s life concerns are. The way to engage people, as Jasanoff said, is not by talk about survival but by talking about life and living.

Other highlights of my visit to Transmediale were Petko Dourmana‘s Post Global Warming Survival Kit, which entailed entering a pitch-black room with a handheld night vision device, at first thinking the room is occupied only by an old caravan and then gradually discovering the landscape around, in fact a rather optimistic take on a post-apocalyptic vision, because clearly we are still living; and the film On the Third Planet from the Sun by Russian film-maker Pavel Medvedev, which followed people living in the Arkhangelsk region of Northern Russia 45 years after the test of the hydrogen bomb there, who live hard but cheerful lives, recycling the remains of fallen space rockets that were launched from a nearby base. Middle-aged men scavenge for space junk in the swamps, and teenagers gather debris and turn it into disco balls and strobe lights for their parties. Third Planet is a striking visual exploration of environmental destruction and the rebirth of a community.

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