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Railways, ruins and modernity: artists’ explore Mexico’s abandoned rail network

 

Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 over Metlac Bridge

Our latest exhibition, Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene’s ‘SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe – Modern Ruins 1:220‘ has already been featured in several blogs around the world. Even Jonathan Jones at the Guardian wrote a very nice piece about it. However, there is still much to say about this remarkable project, not to mention the stunning pictures and video. The exhibition, commissioned by The Arts Catalyst and presented in partnership with Furtherfield Gallery, at the heart of Finsbury Park in London – ends next weekend (27 July). Do catch it if you haven’t yet.

I’ll start with a video which nicely captures the concept of this ambitious and delightful project, in which the artists designed and built their own silver road-rail exploration probe SEFT-1 (which they call a “spaceship”) and set out to travel the forgotten passenger railways of Mexico and visit the communities isolated when Mexico abruptly discontinued its passenger services after privatisation in 1995.

For five years (between 2006 and 2011), Puig and Domene travelled in the SEFT-1 (Sonda de Exploración Ferroviaria Tripulada or Manned Railway Exploration Probe), recording the landscapes and infrastructure between cities, interviewing people they met, taking photographs and videos, and sharing their findings online, at www.seft1.com (more pictures at the bottom of this page).

On their journeys, they encountered hundreds of “modern ruins” – places and systems deserted quite recently, not because they weren’t functional, but because political and economical priorities changed. Their photographs show remote, derelict stretches of track slowly decaying back into forest or desert landscapes, presenting an eerie image of the past that is also a dystopian vision of an abandoned future.

Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 with Citlaltépetl in the background

As Professor Malcolm Miles noted in his talk at the opening of the exhibition, ruins hold an allure for us, provoking a different emotional response from the pristine. In the case of modern ruins, they may make us to dwell on the waste and decay of industrial economies; if we look around, such ruins are everywhere in our urban environment. Power leaks, declines and becomes derelict, noted Miles, a notion encapsulated in Shelley’s famous sonnet ‘Ozymandias’, but, he felt, in an age of climate change it is easy just to dismiss industry as well as modernity, and perhaps ruins can tell us also about survival. Modernism and industry, he argued, brought us many benefits. It’s hard to look back at that idea now, as it predicted where we are, even if this isn’t the world we wanted.

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Railways are an icon of modern industrialisation, part of our identity in the UK. It was British companies who partnered with the Mexican government in the second half of the 19th century to build the iconic railway line that connected Mexico City with the Atlantic Ocean, a line that now lies in ruins. In the UK, in 1963, Beeching closed many tracks, and since then the rail network has continued to suffer from disinvestment and prioritisation of road transport by successive governments.

Recognising the historical links between Britain and Mexico’s railways, for this new exhibition, the artists invited British expert model railway constructor Neville Reid to collaborate by creating a scale diorama and model of the ruined viaduct spanning the Metlac gorge in Mexico. One gallery has become a space for the process of model ruin construction. All details – down to the vegetation – have been meticulously researched and reconstructed.

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The SEFT-1 exploration probe  and exhibition are still open this weekend and next (11am-6pm): 18–20 July and 25–27 July 2014.

Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 in La Loma station, Durango

Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 interior of cabinIvan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 under the stars of Taviche

SEFT-1 in Mars

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

Is there any poetic meaning in Baumgartner’s fall to Earth?

The feet of Felix Baumgartner, just before jumping. 14 October 2012

Yesterday, nearly 8 million of us watched another human being jump off a narrow ledge 24 miles above the Earth.

As Felix Baumgartner’s capsule rose into the air, attached to an astonishing piece of balloon engineering, viewing figures rose, those watching communicating the tension and excitement to others. Baumgartner’s face, perhaps, added to the tension. A professional daredevil, his greatest difficulty with the project was his claustrophobia within the spacesuit. Humans are so good at reading other humans’ faces that perhaps we picked up on this, without realizing its underlying cause. But as we watched Baumgartner ascend, go through his pre-jump checks, open the door, and tentatively step onto the narrow ledge above the void, the thrill that we experienced was rather a collective act of imagination: a perception of danger and uncertainty, embodied by Baumgartner, which triggered our brains to release a flood of stress hormones and emotion, despite ourselves being on solid ground.

It has been said that the Red Bull promotion – its endless logo display, the glossy animated video of the jump – removed any poetry from the occasion and any role for the imagination. But clearly our imaginations did kick in, and it is our ability to imagine, and for our bodies to react powerfully to the products of our imagination, that forms one part of the intense experience of art.

Simon Faithfull, Escape Vehicle No. 6, video still (2004)

When the Arts Catalyst commissioned Simon Faithfull’s Escape Vehicle No. 6, we had a demonstration of a similar act of imagination at work in the audience’s experience. Originally a live event in the first Artists’ Airshow, the audience witnessed the launch of a vast weather balloon with an office chair dangling beneath it. Once the apparatus had disappeared into the sky, they rushed indoors to watch, on a giant screen, a live video relay from the weather balloon as it journeyed from the ground to the edge of space (30km up). Watching the film of the chair rushing away from the fields, roads and buildings, it is impossible not to imagine yourself carried by it as it ascends through the clouds, twitching vulnerably, until it finally arrives in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, where the curved horizon of the planet can be seen and the sky turns into the blackness of space, oxygen runs out and the temperature drops to minus 60 degrees. Suddenly there’s a violent spasm, a leg hurtles off into the void, and the chair disintegrates:

One could argue that it is modern telecommunications media – the ability to relay images from the event, whether Faithfull’s chair, Baumgartner’s capsule, or before this Joe Kittinger’s jump from space in 1960 or Neal Armstrong stepping onto the Moon – that is a requirement in this experience, that the medium is the essential component. But artists have for centuries sought to convey the aesthetic, emotion and meaning of the fall through more conventional media and means. This can be traced as far back as representations of myths of flying in ancient cultures, which almost always incorporated the fall, as a warning to those who aspired to join the gods (humanity’s place was on the earth).

Contemporary artists have often explored and expressed humankind’s dream of levitation, and its nemesis, falling. Yves Klein’s iconic photograph Saut dans le vide (Leap into the void) (1960) apparently shows him hurling himself off a high wall, arms outstretched, towards the pavement. This was the same year as Joe Kittinger’s original space jump, more than fifty years ago but just 25,000 feet lower than Baumgartner’s.

Yves Klein, Le Saut dans Le Vide (1960)

Joe Kittinger jumps from 103000 feet in 1960

As the space age dawned, artists joined the space dream. In 1959, the artist Takis organised an event in Paris entitled L’Impossible, Un Homme Dans L’Espace (The Impossible, A Man in Space). Wearing a ‘space suit’ designed by Takis, a man was “launched” across a gallery into a safety net.

Today, post ‘space age’, with its triumphs but also its disasters such as Columbia and Challenger, and post 9/11, the image of a falling person takes on new meanings and cultural resonances. Photographer Denis Darzacq’s 2006 series La Chute (The Fall) features impassive 20-year-olds seemingly about to hit the ground at high speed. It was in part a response to the horror of the twin towers attack, but mostly a depiction of the alienation of a generation of French young people. Darzacq felt that France was a place where someone could tumble from the sky and no one would bat an eyelid.

Denis Darzacq, La Chute N° 15 (2006)

For the Chinese artist Xu Zhen, his performance/installation In just a blink of an eye is a “manifestation” of the globalized market where Chinese workers are symbolically and literally suspended in a state of falling: frozen in a fragment of time. The models are recruited from the local Chinese population of the city in which the work is shown.

Xu Zhen, In Just a Blink of an Eye (2005-07)

Perhaps there is little poetry in Baumgartner’s action, although the team is keen to point out its potential usefulness for developing emergency escape procedures for returning astronauts, but it adds to the store of meaning that we construct around the falling body, and to our perceptions of space, fragility and risk.

The view of the Earth from above is familiar these days, from cameras sent up on satellites, balloons and other aerial vehicles. But the image of Baumgartner’s feet suspended above the Earth’s surface embodied for us the feelings expressed by Apollo astronauts when they looked back at their home planet from the Moon. As Baumgartner stood on his ledge, 128000 feet above the Earth, he recounted afterwards: “You don’t think about records any more, you don’t think about gaining scientific data, the only thing is you want to come back alive”. His last words before stepping into the vacuum were “I’m coming home”.

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)

Higgs: its cultural significance

4 photos of a man walking through CERN's underground tunnel

Gianni Motti, Walking for Arts Sake, 2005. Artist Gianni Motti walks the 27 km underground ring at CERN.

“If we combine the Z-Z and the Gamma-Gamma,this is what we get: they line up extremely well, and in the region of 125 GeV. They combine to give us a significance of five standard deviations.”
- Joe Incandela, CMS spokesman, 4 July 2012

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
- Stephen Crane, poet (1871-1900)

The excitement in the physics world about CERN’s discovery of a Higgs boson is still intense. But what is its cultural significance?

I’ll start briefly with science itself, but in a historical context. The quest to understand what matter is made of is ancient. In 5BC, a philosopher called Democritus suggested that if you keep dividing an object, eventually you would come to the smallest unit of stuff that couldn’t be divided. He called this unit an “atom”. The ancient Nyaya and Vaisheshika schools in India also developed theories of atomism and how atoms combined into more complex objects. In Islamic Asharite atomism, atoms are the only perpetual, material things in existence, and all else in the world is “accidental”, meaning something that lasts for only an instant. During the 19th century, scientists discovered the atom, particularly through the work of John Dalton, but soon realised that the atom was made up from smaller particles: a nucleus of protons and neutrons with electrons around it. Scientists continued trying to find out what atoms were made of by smashing up protons, but instead of making things simpler, they uncovered many different sub-atomic particles, which were labeled the “particle zoo”.

Many great scientists applied their minds to understanding how these particles interact with each other. During the 20th Century, scientists developed a theory to explain how all these particles behave called the standard model of quantum mechanics, an immensely powerful model which has enabled scientists to relate all the other forces of nature under a common set of equations. But the model couldn’t explain how particles acquired mass, without which the universe would fly apart. A theoretical model proposed in the 1960s by British physicist Peter Higgs, called the Higgs mechanism, explained how fundamental particles acquire mass. In Higgs’ model, as elementary particles pass through a field called a Higgs field, they acquire mass (the Higgs boson is the particle of the Higgs field). Here’s a simple explanation of the Higgs boson.

The search for Higgs became the Holy Grail of physics. It has gone on for decades, in the Tetravon, Illinois, USA, and then – after the US cancelled its Superconducting Super Collider – at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Finding it finally confirms a vital part of the standard model of particle physics, and opens up fascinating new arenas for physicists to explore.

Does the discovery of Higgs validate “Big Science”? Big Science is a term coined to describe the large-scale scientific projects, which emerged after the Second World War, funded by national governments or groups of governments. This way of doing science has often been criticized for elitism and for undermining the scientific method (difficult to replicate and validate findings), as well as for the enormous amount of funds they need – and the sources of those funds, often military or tied to commercial interests, which also affect the objectivity of science. However, CERN has been careful to validate its findings, with separate experimental teams and equipment running in the facility. But the emergence of Big Science is in itself a cultural phenomena in modern society. They are often staggering feats of engineering. Alvin Weinberg and others have argued that it is one of the wonders of the modern age:

“When history looks at the 20th century, she will see science and technology as its theme; she will find in the monuments of Big Science—the huge rockets, the high-energy accelerators, the high-flux research reactors—symbols of our time just as surely as she finds in Notre Dame a symbol of the Middle Ages. … We build our monuments in the name of scientific truth, they built theirs in the name of religious truth.” – Alvin Weinberg

Inside of a vast neutrino detector with tiny boat at bottom. Artwork by Andreas Gursky

Andreas Gursky, Kamiokande (2007), detector tank at Super-Kamioka Nucleon Decay Experiments, underground neutrino observatory, Japan

There may, of course, ultimately be practical benefits from this discovery. New physics invariably leads to understanding previously unknown phenomena, and to new potential technological applications. Without the understanding enabled by quantum mechanics, for example, there would be no transistors, and hence no personal computers and no lasers (although the scientists who developed quantum mechanics weren’t trying to make anything, simply trying to understand how atoms behave).

More than anything, however,for me Higgs represents a story of human curiosity, on an international scale and over a duration that has rarely – if ever – been matched. It is a remarkable expression of the human aspiration to find stuff out, which is an almost spiritual commitment by our species. And although the vastness and complexity of the universe may remind us of our insignificance, at the same time we should be astonished that we are even aware of the universe’s scale and complexity, and grateful to those physicists who have revealed some of its extraordinary workings.

It is worth remembering at the same time that science cannot answer all questions, and that curiosity takes many forms. Semiconductor’s delightful film “Do You Think Science …?” (2006) reveals that many (though not all) scientists realise that their work is not designed to understand everything. There are many questions that need different forms of investigation, to which we can all contribute: Why do human beings sometimes behave so appallingly; how do we decide how they should behave; how can we deal with mental turmoil? These are questions that science cannot tackle.

The Higgs boson may explain how the universe is glued together, but the significance of the discovery – after decades of dedicated searching by many scientists – should be to remind us to remain curious, to keep asking questions, and that astonishing things are achievable …

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