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Posts tagged ‘critique’

Do Not Lick: MadLab’s DIY biology residency at Arts Catalyst

Shoestring Lab workshop, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Shoestring Biotech: build your own lab, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

DIY Biology is a growing global network of individuals that aims to promote citizen science and access to biotechnology. Participants may call themselves biohackers, biotweakers, bioartists (or simply artists), citizen scientists or amateur/independent biologists, depending on their approach and background. Interests of DIY (do-it-yourself) biologists include building their own low cost lab equipment and running experiments that would typically be done in an academic or commercial environment.

Bioluminescence workshop, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Bioluminescence workshop, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Manchester’s MadLab (Asa Calow and Rachael Turner) was invited to be The Arts Catalyst’s first “institution in residence”. They took up their residency with us for two hectic weeks of Lab Easy in March. The residency offered both a professional development opportunity for MadLab, and the chance to run a series of workshops to engage a wider London public in the methodologies and ideas of DIY biotechnology. Ambitiously, Lab Easy held almost daily public workshops: from culturing bioluminescent bacteria to DNA extraction, cellular gastronomy to genetic modification. There was also a family day, an evening DIYBio salon and a peripatetic market foodlab in Deptford Market.

Cocktails and canapes, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Cocktails and canapes, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Gjino Sutic's live mechatronic heart

Gjino Sutic’s live mechatronic heart

The residency attracted an extraordinary international gathering of artists, biohackers, designers and scientists, many of whom helped to devise and run the workshops. Not a day went by when someone from another DIYBio space across the globe turned up with a rucksack and unpacked various experiments. They included Dr Mark Dusseiller of Hackteria and Biotehna, Gjino Šutić from Zagreb, Ellen Jorgensen from GenSpace New York, Cathal Garvey from Cork, Thomas Landrain from La Paillasse Paris, Brian Degger from of Maker Space Newcastle, Kristijan Tkalec from Biotehna Llubljana, and Martin Malthe Borch from Copenhagen. MadLab and collaborators filled the Arts Catalyst space with wonderful conversation and strange experiments – as well as piles of petri dishes, boxes of pipettes, biotech kits, bits of electronics, soldering irons, trays of soil, jars of pond water, live fish, dead squid, bits of lego, a live biomechatronic heart, and in one corner a plastic cupboard area marked ‘Do Not Lick’, containing the outputs – I believe – from the self-cloning bacteria workshop (AKA genetic modification for beginners).

Bioluminescence, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Bioluminescence, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Deptford Market Food Lab, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Deptford Market Food Lab, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

The Arts Catalyst’s involvement with amateur biology largely stems from its collaborations with Critical Art Ensemble, SymbioticA, and other artists and art groups since the early 2000s. Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) is a US art collective of tactical media practitioners who appropriated scientific knowledge and practices with the aim of bringing biotech into the public domain for critical examination, a tactic they called “contestational biology”. Arts Catalyst presented CAE’s GenTerra in London and Oldham, and collaborated on Marching Plague, projects which contributed to CAE member Steve Kurtz’s 4-year hounding by the FBI on unfounded suspicions of bioterrorism – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Kurtz. In partnership with SymbioticA, a biological arts centre from Western Australia, we have run a number of ‘biotech art’ workshops, introducing artists and creative practitioners to hands-on experiences and critical and ethical discussion around biotechnology practices, including the BioArt Workshop in 2005  and Synthesis workshop in 2011. We have also worked extensively with the ecological artist Brandon Ballengee, whose practice incorporates primary biological research, largely into amphibians, and whose interests include the effective role that public volunteers (citizen scientists) can play in amphibian conservation efforts. We are interested in both the critical interrogation that artists can bring to advanced biology, as well as their playful, experimental and participatory approaches to art and research into living systems.

DIY Microscopy & Water Bear Hunting, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

DIY Microscopy & Water Bear Hunting, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Coincidentally Claire Pentecost, an artist and a long-term collaborator with Critical Art Ensemble, who was centrally involved in campaigning against the FBI’s case against Steve Kurtz, was London during the residency researching a new project on soil science, and called in to visit. It was a fascinating meeting of two generations of practitioners involved in DIY Bio and a moment of realisation of how the Kurtz case altered the amateur biology landscape at least in the US. Whereas, in 2004, FBI agents invaded Kurtz’s house in hazmat suits, arrested him and saddled him with mail fraud charges that took him four years to clear, in 2012 the FBI invited and flew 60 or so of the most prominent members of the DIYBio movement – from across the US, Europe and Asia – to a 3-day FBI organized conference in California. How times change.

Cellular Gastronomy, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Cellular Gastronomy,
MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

At the DIYBio Salon, Claire asked about the politics and critical stance of the new generation of DIYBio practitioners as represented at Lab Easy. Ellen Jorgensen from Genspace felt that DIY Bio was a movement of individuals with some unifying principles – freedom of expression, freedom of speech – but a spectrum of politics: some saw a DIY biology lab as a political statement, while others just want to do some science; some wanted to push boundaries, while others wished to operate within the regulations of established science. Cathal Garvey (a trained geneticist with a Class 1 licensed lab in his spare bedroom) spoke out passionately against patenting: “Most of you are not aware that you do not own your own DNA”; and Marc Dusseiller (nanoscientist and co-founder of Hackteria) spoke of a gradual movement towards a world without patents, as more people and companies, particularly in the developing world, are becoming involved. He felt that DIY Biology plays a role in a cultural shift towards openness: part of a pattern of movements including open democracy, open access to publications, open data, and open science.

More pics below …

PS. Interesting blog post (in Danish) about LabEasy from one of the collaborators, Martin Malthe Borch.

 

Deptford Market Food Lab, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Deptford Market Food Lab, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Deptford Market Food Lab, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Deptford Market Food Lab, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Cocktails and Canapes: the genetics of taste, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Cocktails and Canapes: the genetics of taste, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Bioeletronics, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Bioelectronics, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Cellular Gastronomy, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Cellular Gastronomy, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Deptford Market Food Lab, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Deptford Market Food Lab,
MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

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

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)

Wasted debates: using human remains in art

Illuminated translucent sculpture

Gina Czarnecki, Palace (2011). Photo: Sam Meech

Recently, I took part in a round table discussion on the use of human remains in art. The discussion participants included ethics experts, scientists, artists and curators. It was impressive in its breadth and depth of expertise. The round table was part of a series of events connected with Gina Czarnecki’s exhibition at Bluecoats, Liverpool, which includes a series of works from her Wasted series, which use donated human tissue (from living donors).

The topic relates to some of my interests in ethics in art and the display of human remains, and the discussion has sparked a lot of further thought. I would like to explain a little of the specific context in which this event took place, and give a brief summary of the discussion (you can also watch the full discussion online). In a later post, I want to suggest a possible way forward in terms of ethical reviews of artists’ projects.

I’ve known Gina Czarnecki for several years and had the privilege to work with her in 2002, when Arts Catalyst commissioned her work Silvers Alter for our exhibition CleanRooms. Most of her works in the exhibition at Bluecoats are film and interactive installations. Czarnecki has a striking and distinctive aesthetic working with image of the human body. However, one room displays her new body of work, which represents a new departure, shifting from moving image to the sculptural form and a preoccupation with the material. These works all incorporate ‘discarded’ body parts such as children’s milk teeth, and bones and fat from living, consenting donors, and explore the significance of these parts in relation to to history, mythology and science, as well as raising issues of consent and donation.

Image of a human being prone against a dark background

Gina Czarnecki, Infected (2009)

At the opening of the round table, Gina Czarnecki explained that her father was a concentration camp survivor, and this family history influences her work. She also explained her long-term exploration of biotechnology and its impact on the human image. I felt that this context was important in understanding her work.

People specifically donated their body fat and bones to her Wasted projects via a surgeon. (Children directly donate their milk teeth). But the surgeon was later advised that his involvement in the project might compromise his license to practice, not because of any ethical transgression, but because of “bad press”. Czarnecki voluntarily returned the bones.

Czarnecki, and her collaborating scientists, Sara Rankin and Rod Dillon, had a series of similarly disheartening experiences: approaching institutional collaborators to collaborate, who would at first be interested and then balk because of the lack of “ethical approval” (Rod Dillon outlines some of this process in his blog post).

In fact, there is no legal need for an artist to have ethical approval for the display of human tissues from living people, if they have given their consent. Nonetheless the institutions were nervous. But even were there a need for ethical approval for some procedure as part of an artist’s project, no body exists to give such approval. So there is a Catch 22, which is causing problems for increasing numbers of artists. Also, as Gina pointed out, quite apart from just allaying collaborators’ and funders’ concerns, many artists would like to have ethical approval for what they are doing, as well as sound advice on biosafety. A number of experts on the committee thought it was very strange that no one was prepared to say that this work was “ethical”.

At one point, the conversation became – as it often does in cross-disciplinary dialogues – bogged down in whether or not some of the participants liked or understood Czarnecki’s work. But to me the point, in terms of a discussion on ethics, is not whether someone likes Czarnecki’s Palace artistically or not, or whether it conveys clear ideas (about the science it engages with, for example). As Bronac Ferran noted at the meeting, art’s function isn’t necessarily to be aesthetically pleasing or to increase understanding, but often it is precisely to disrupt, confuse, and provoke. The point rather, in terms of ethics, is whether, at an early enough stage in the works’ development, the artist has informed herself and considered the ethical (and legal) implications of the work in detail, has an understanding of the possible implications, and can discuss how these might be addressed in the process and presentation of her work and any long-term consequences.

There is, of course, the thorny issue of “benefit”. Scientific ethics committees work by considering whether the potential benefits of a piece of research outweigh the risks (assuming that there are risks). I assume that it is not always straightforward to see the potential benefits of a piece of scientific research, let alone a work of art. I suppose there are both practical benefits to society – in art, perhaps this is the showing of the work publicly – and less tangible ones, in contributing to the “body of knowledge” of art (in the same way that science can contribute to knowledge as well as to technology or medical applications). In which case, perhaps the only way to assess the likely “benefit” of an artwork, if this is necessary in the context of risk, is to look at the track record of the artist, rather than relying on a subjective response to a specific proposal.

In a forthcoming blog post, I’ll try to outline a proposal for how we might practically approach this “grey area” in dealing with ethics between artists’ practice and the institution.

Two people (seen from the back) watch a video installation on which are naked people

Gina Czarnecki, Silvers Alter (2002)

Let’s experiment with ourselves

An artist in a respiratory air mask sits in a plastic tent. Test tubes and bottles on a table in front of him.

Neal White, The Void. Image: Office of Experiments

Self-Experimentation and the Ethics Committee of 1

A report on the event ‘Trust Me, I’m an Artist: Towards an Ethics of Art and Science Collaboration

Artist: Neal White
Ethics committee: Professor Bobbie Farsides (Chair), Professor Michael Parker, Professor Bob Brecher, Dr Julian Sheather, Professor Richard Faragher, Helen Sloan 

Last week, Arts Catalyst hosted ‘Trust Me, I’m An Artist’ one of a series of events taking place around Europe, created by Anna Dumitriu, investigating ethical issues arising in some art and science collaboration and considering the roles and responsibilities of artists, scientists and institutions. At each event, an internationally known artist proposes an artwork to a specially convened ethics committee, in front of an audience. The committee, following the rules of ethics committees they serve on, discusses the proposal and reach a decision. The panel then informs the artist of the decision and, with the audience, discusses the result with the committee.

Artist Neal White gave a fascinating, provocative presentation about his project: The Void, in which he recreated Yves Klein‘s “blue urine” experiment. In May 1959, on the opening of Yves Klein’s exhibition Le Vide (The Void) in Paris, Klein served special blue cocktail, containing Methylene blue. As Klein intended, the cocktails caused the urine of drinkers to turn blue for about a week. Since this event took place in 1959, Methylene blue as a stain has been established as toxic. However, it is also a component in several medications, is used to reduce symptoms of cystitis, and in other forms for treating methemoglobinemia.

Blue liquid falling in a stream

Neal White, The Void. Image: Office of Experiments

In 2004, White proposed a research experiment whilst artist in residence at the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR). He proposed to re-stage Klein’s event as an experiment to establish what were the safest, or least toxic, dosage of Methylene blue in an alcoholic cocktail required to turn urine blue. Visitors would be faced with a choice: either to consume an artwork that contained the ingredients of Methylene blue, with only the clinical information provided, or to keep the artwork they were given (the pill and information) as an intact form, signed by the artist.

The artist intended the experiment to be both a cultural experiment which utilized a clinical trial under closely monitored conditions, and a challenge to the limits of artistic practice in its engagement with science, and specifically in its engagement with the politics of consent and belief, and the institutions themselves (White’s practice incorporates a strong current of institutional critique). His aim, he explained to the committee, was also to question the physical site of an artwork and our willingness to participate, beyond a visual experience, in an embodied experience of art, and join the ranks of the “self-experimenters”.

White’s presentation was impressive, and raised interesting issues not only around the nature of an artwork, and the fascinating ethics raised by medical self-experimentation (which has a long history), but also how we perceive authority and expertise, the limits of autonomous decision-making, and the nature of the ethics committee itself. White explained that the NIMR ethics committee had turned down his original proposal, but that he had performed the art experiment in an art gallery setting instead. However, he did not explain to the panel the reasons for that committee’s decision.

The structure of the event was that the artist then left the space for half an hour while the ethics committee discussed his proposal.

Because of their brief – that they follow the rules and procedures typical of the host country – the ethics committee (a highly-qualified and experienced group of experts) struggled for half an hour to find a way to engage coherently with the proposal. Bob Brecher asked whether the proposal was for an artwork or art research, because ethics committees only deal with research. This uncertainty about how to categorise the proposal was rather a shame, as it meant the conversation continued to return to this basic issue and thus to stall, which reduced the opportunity to explore some of the interesting ethics. The audience didn’t get to see the artist’s completed ethics form, which had clearly confused members of the committee. Richard Faragher, who throughout seemed most opposed to the proposed, noted: “To stand before an ethics committee you are making a claim that the benefits (of your research) outweigh the risks”. Faragher could not see the ‘benefits’ of the ‘research’ at all. Helen Sloan, the arts curator on the committee, challenged the concept of ‘benefit’ in respect of art. Professor Michael Parker commented with characteristic common sense: “My view is this is an interesting artwork, relatively low risk. The problem is the (nature of an) ethics committee”. Julian Sheather wondered whether the artist was playing a joke on the committee. “If so” he mused, “it’s rather a good one.” The audience was clearly desperate to jump in to the debate, but that wasn’t to be allowed until after the decision was given to the artist.

Glasses and dishes on a table, rubber gloves, a sheet of paper with 'Menu for the Void'

Neal White, The Void. Image: Office of Experiments

When Neal White returned to the room, Bobbie Farsides gave the overall verdict of the committee: “A low risk artwork, but possibly not within the remit of an ethics committee to decide on”. Faragher disagreed strongly and said that he would not give his permission to the experiment to go ahead.

In the lively discussion that followed with the artist and audience, the audience joined in enthusiastically. Some were disappointed that the committee had not engaged with the breadth and subtlety of Neal’s presentation. But perhaps that was in the nature of the brief that they were given. White explained that when the NIMR had turned down the proposal, they had done so not on the basis of the harm it might do the participants, but because they did not want any potential “bad” publicity at the time.

The discussion continued about the “benefit” of his work, Sheather complaining that artists seem to set out to shock and so it was difficult sometimes to see the benefits. It always saddens me to hear this, first because it only applies to some artists, and – if you press the person who says this – it’s almost always the same names cited (Chapmans, Emin, Hirst, and the Sensation exhibition). And, frankly, I’ve been far more profoundly shocked by things that have taken place under the umbrella of science than any art I’ve encountered, but I wouldn’t make judgements on all scientists based on that.

Neal White had the last word when he quoted the late artist John Latham on the ‘benefits’ of art: “The contribution of art to society is art”.

A series of newspapers, each titled 'The Self-Experimenter'

Neal White, The Self-Experimenter. Image: Office of Experiments

Human specimens: a labyrinth of morality, science and law

Aaron Williamson, Specimen Mirror, performance, with the skeleton of Charles Byrne, Hunterian Museum, 2011

I was interested to see this debate come up in the media just before Christmas:

Royal College of Surgeons rejects call to bury skeleton of ‘Irish giant’

The authors of a paper in the British Medical Journal called for the skeletal remains of a man called Charles Byrne, the so-called ‘Irish Giant’, on display in the Royal College of Surgeon’s Hunterian Museum in London, to be buried at sea. Byrne, who lived in the 18th century and was 7′ 7″ tall, was an object of curiosity for the  famous surgeon and anatomist Sir John Hunter. Byrne became so afraid that doctors would dissect his corpse after his death that he left specific instructions for his body to be buried at sea. But when he died, aged just 22, Hunter bribed a member of the funeral party and stole the body. Byrne’s skeleton has been on public display ever since. The BMJ paper’s authors claimed that all possible medical insights from the skeleton have now been gleaned and Byrne’s remains should be buried according to his wishes, but the Hunterian Museum rejected this call, saying that it considers that the educational and research benefits merit retaining Byrne’s remains.

This story has a particular interest for me because, in May last year, we co-organised an event with the disability arts group Shape at the Hunterian Museum. Titled ‘Labyrinth of Living Exhibits’, the event addressed the issue of human specimens in such collections.

The Hunterian is little known, central yet tucked away upstairs at the Royal College of Surgeons on Lincoln’s Inn Fields. There are thousands of specimens on display, the remains of the once vast collection made by Hunter. Many still carry his classification as either ‘morbid’ or ‘normal’. The unsettling collection contains many human parts, including whole skeletons and human foetuses. The focus of Hunter’s collecting was clearly biased towards ‘the different’ – extreme cases of growth, “abnormality” and disease.

In the Labyrinth of Living Exhibits, artist Aaron Williamson curated four simultaneous, specially commissioned, site-specific performances, which infiltrated and responded to the collection, performed simultaneously by disabled artists Aaron Williamson, Sinéad O’Donnell, Brian Catling and Katherine Araniello.

Katherine Araniello, BiPAP 1 (Living Experiment), photo Royal College of Surgeons, 2011

In Araniello’s work, she took on the guise of a guinea pig escaped from a laboratory in a dark, slow and subversive performance. Brian Catling’s performance Out of Its Depth, in fact, began at the Hunterian in 1979 in response to a “specimen” which the Museum housed until recently: the body of a one-eyed child (now locked away out of public view). Wearing a latex, one-eyed mask, Catling walked through the collections or stood by a pillar, peering through his fingers and making faces, mirroring the audience’s curiosity. In Williamson’s own performance, Specimen Mirror, he distorted his own facial features by pressing them against the glass cases of the collections, in response to the flattened suspended specimens.

Brian Catling, Out Of Its Depth, photo Royal College of Surgeons, 2011

A lively panel discussion followed the performances. Aaron Williamson opened the discussion by describing the impetus for each of the performances, explaining his curatorial interest in the responses of artists who are “set apart from the norm” through illness or medical prognosis.

The museum’s director, Sam Alberti, then gave an honest exposition of the Hunterian’s collections of “disabled people as objects”. He explained that the museum was set up in the 18th and developed in the 19th century, and that in those centuries museums were in the business of “classifying” difference. Human remains that came into museums were classified against the “norm”, which at that time, he said, was male, heterosexual, white and European. Anyone else was pathologised. The Hunterian Museum, Alberti explained, is not a medical museum, but a medical history museum, and what it displays are the legacies of prejudice. Alberti said that he felt very passionately that it was important to understand and show to the public the representation and construction of difference, and that the display had to be seen through this historical lens. Araniello disagreed with Alberti and said she didn’t feel that it was helpful at all to have such images and specimens on display for the public, and that it did more harm than good in continuing to objectify and pathologies people.

You can watch video recordings of the full panel discussion here.

Panel discussion of Labyrinth Living Exhibits, photo Royal College of Surgeons, 2011

So I found it fascinating to see the debate about Charles Byrne’s remains raised again in the media, quoting Alberti saying “The Royal College of Surgeons believes that the value of Charles Byrne’s remains, to living and future communities, currently outweighs the benefits of carrying out Byrne’s apparent request to dispose of his remains at sea.”

It is a complex debate between science, education and morality, complicated by a man’s dying wishes and a nasty case of corpse robbing.

But there is also a wider context for this debate in the claims on human remains in all other museum collections. Since the late 1970s, human remains in museum collections have been subject to claims and controversies, such as demands for repatriation by indigenous groups who suffered under colonization. These requests have often been contested by the museums and by scientists who research the material and consider it unique evidence, echoing the Hunterian’s arguments over Byrne’s remains.

This is a topic that has interested me for several years. At one point, I was involved in some very early stage discussions with another London museum about an exhibition on such a theme. Whilst the exhibition never developed, there has been much progress in this area over the last decade. Increasingly, many museums are removing human remains from their collections, sometimes returning them to their countries of origin, often for reburial. One sticking point was legislation that prevented most national museums from removing items from their collections, but this changed in 2004 (under Section 47 of the Human Tissue Act), and nine national museums now have the power to deaccession human remains under 1000 years old held in their collections. In 2011, for example, the Natural History Museum returned 19 ancestral remains to the Torres Strait Island community. There is an interesting video about the return on the museum’s site.

But in a book published last year, Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections, the sociologist Tiffany Jenkins argued that museums were being “over-sensitive” to demands for greater “respect” for human remains, and removing specimens from public display that were valued by museum-goers.

It is an interesting and ongoing debate. Do you have examples of other art projects or exhibitions that have explored these issues? I’d be interested to hear.

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.

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)

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