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Posts tagged ‘performance’

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”.

Performance, theatre and science

A woman lying face down with video projection in background

Curious Directive, Your Last Breath, 2012

Last week, I went to Curious Directive’s show Your Last Breath. Curious Directive create devised theatre works incorporating scientific ideas, and this piece tells the story of an extreme skiing accident that led to the discovery of suspended animation, a story interwoven with three others, taking place at different times over 150 years, and told through spoken word, movement, music and video.

I thought the piece was very strong and it made me think about science in theatre, and Arts Catalyst’s involvement in theatre and performance over the years. Setting up Arts Catalyst 18 years ago, I wanted to explore and develop new types of engagement between artists and scientists to see if it was possible to create more symbiotic relationships between the two fields. I was also interested in seeking out artists whose work might express both the form and content of an interdisciplinary engagement. Some of our early work (around 1994-96) included theatre workshops and commissions. I didn’t consciously move away from theatre, but the playwright Diane Samuels, who attended our 1997 Eye of the Storm art and science conference at the Royal Institution, noted that the speakers were mainly visual artists (as well as scientists), and not theatre practitioners, and it led her to wonder: “Is there a playwright who has truly collaborated with a scientist rather than used scientific material to feed their work? Is such a thing possible?

It was a question that Samuels went on to explore in her playwriting, while the Arts Catalyst has continued to work with artists across a broad spectrum of visual arts and contemporary performance practices. We have worked with artists who would describe themselves as live artists, sound artists, musicians, video artists, media artists, choreographers, dancers, bioartists, sculptors, writers, painters, conceptual designers, and others, so we tend just to use the terms “contemporary art” and “artists”.

Our curatorial vision has been to enable experimental and critical artistic engagements with contemporary science. Over the years, we have experimented with many forms of engagement, including multidisciplinary labs and field trips, research clusters, etc. While much of our commissioned work is shown in galleries, we tend towards a process-based, performative approach, and we often present work in experiential or event-based forms. We’ve commissioned works from several live artists, including Laurie Anderson, Marcel.li Antunez Roca, Aaron Williamson, Anne Bean, Ansuman Biswas, and Kira O’Reilly, as well as Critical Art Ensemble’s “participatory theatre”, which I wrote about in an essay ‘Performative Science: The case of Critical Art Ensemble’ for ‘Interfaces of Performance’, a publication exploring contemporary performance incorporating state-of-the-art technologies. So I’d say our curatorial door is certainly open to theatre practitioners, and we have included several writers, performance artists and theatre makers in our various workshops and field trips. But we’ve not been involved in the scripted form of theatre for many years.

Actors on a circular stage seen from above (black and white)

Michael Frayn's Copenhagen at the National Theatre, 1998

Of course, there have been great plays that interweave themes of science in their stories – Bertolt Brecht’s marvellous The Life of Galileo (1937), Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists (1961), and George Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma (1906), which – unsurprisingly, given its contemporary relevance – is about to have a re-staging at the National Theatre. There have also been successful mainstream plays that experimented with weaving science into the dramatic form of the play, such as Michael Frayn’s skillful Copenhagen (1998), and Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood (1988).

Lately, just as there is an explosion of visual artists engaging with science, there seems to be a huge increase in theatre shows that incorporate scientific ideas. Of course, no one goes to the theatre or to an art gallery to find out about science. At least, I don’t think so – there are surely better ways to find out about science. They go for an experience that will be social, transformative, uplifting, challenging, entertaining. So the issue is always: is the work good? Does it uplift, unsettle, move, provoke or fascinate?

After being unmoved by a succession of plays engaging with scientific ideas, in 2010 the US theatre critic Alexis Soloski asked: “Why does theatre plus science equal poor plays?” In the UK last year, critics were generally unimpressed by the National Theatre’s multi-authored climate change play Greenland, Paul Callan in the Express calling it “two solid … hours of hectoring and statistics”. Were these indicators of the danger of becoming so enthralled by the science that the playwright/artist neglects the art? Or were they just unsuccessful plays that happened to have science in them? Any play can fail.

Increasingly, I’ve become aware (certainly in the UK) that there is some exciting stuff around by contemporary theatre makers, who are intrigued by science and its cultural and societal implications, and incorporating it into their work; many of whom are also experimental in their processes and form. Curious DirectiveThird Angel, Unlimited, and Reckless Sleepers have been brought to my attention. The arts journalist Honour Bayes wrote in the Guardian last year that (far from “poor”) the results of the engagement between theatre and science were “exciting, explosive and unexpected”.

I’m deeply interested in the construction of stories, myths and metaphors and how these influence, and are influenced by, the direction of science and technology in a society. Clearly, theatre has an important role in this.

Two people, faces covered by sheets, face each other over a table

Reckless Sleepers, Schroedinger

Lunar dreamers: occupy the moon!

Leonid Tishkov, Private Moon

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

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

Liliane Lijn, Moonmeme

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

Agnes Meyer-Brandis, Moon Goose Analogue, 2011

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

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

Leonid Tishkov, Private Moon

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

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

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

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

Andy Gracie, The Quest for Drosophila Titanus

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

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

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

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

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

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

Republic of the Moon opens in Liverpool 16 December

Agnes Meyer-Brandis, We Colonised the Moon, Andy Gracie, Leonid Tishkov, Liliane Lijn, Sharon Houkema

FACT, Wood Street, Liverpool
16 December 2011 – 26 February 2012
Open daily (except 24-26 December). Admission free.

As the players in the new 21st century race for the Moon line up – the USA rejoining China, India and Russia and jostling with private corporations interested in exploiting the Moon’s resources – a group of artists are declaring a Republic of the Moon: a ‘micronation’ for alternative visions of lunar life.

The Arts Catalyst and FACT’s new exhibition ‘Republic of the Moon’ challenges utilitarian plans of lunar mines and military bases with artists’ imaginings and interventions. Combining beguiling fantasies, personal encounters, and playful appropriations of space habitats and scientific technologies, Republic of the Moon reclaims the Moon for artists, idealists, and dreamers.

The last race to the Moon was driven by the political impulses of the Cold War, but shaped by extraordinary visions of space created by writers, film-makers, and artists, from Jules Verne, Lucien Rudaux, and Vasily Levshin, to HG Wells, Stanislav Lem and Stanley Kubrick. Can artists’ quixotic visions reconcile our romantic notions of the Moon with its colonised future, and help us to reimagine our relationship with our natural satellite in the new space age?

Curated by The Arts Catalyst and FACT, Republic of the Moon includes major new commissions by Agnes Meyer-Brandis and We Colonised the Moon, and works by Leonid Tishkov, Andy Gracie, Liliane Lijn and Sharon Houkema.

Exhibition webpage

Breakfast with the artists and curators
Friday 16 December, 10.30-12noon, The Box, FACT, Liverpool
Artists Agnes Meyer-Brandis, Leonid Tishkov and Andy Gracie discuss their work with curator Rob La Frenais and FACT’s Mike Stubbs.


man on top of an urban building at  night with his Personal Moon by Leonid Tishkov  portraits of the eleven Moon Geese with their astronaut inspired names  photograph of the projection of the word SHE on the Moon by Liliane Lijnphoto of two Drosophila Titanus flies in front of the moon  artist out on a lake with his private moon, Leonid Tishkov  seated astronaut

Top: Agnes Meyer-Brandis, Moon Goose Experiment, 2010

Bottom (L-R, top to bottom): Leonard Tishkov, Personal Moon, Agnes Meyer-Brandis, Moon Goose Experiment, Liliane Lijn, moonmeme, Andy Gracie, The Quest for Drosophila Titanus, Leonard Tishkov, Personal Moon, We Colonised the Moon, Enter At Own Risk (prototypes & experiments)

Biopoetic investigations – Agnes Meyer Brandis

Moon Goose Colony, Agnes Meyer Brandis, 2011

The work of artist Agnes Meyer-Brandis creates new stories, at the same time fantastical and believable, through the fusion of detailed factual research and enchanting fiction. Her new work The Moon Goose Analogue: Lunar Migration Bird Facility has been commissioned by The Arts Catalyst for our Republic of the Moon exhibition, which opens at FACT, Liverpool, in December.

Meyer-Brandis studied mineralogy at the University of Aachen, before transferring to the Art Academy in Maastricht, Netherlands, to study sculpture and to the Art Academy in Düsseldorf. For many years, her work explored deep in the dark zone below the earth and ice, fascinated by what lay beneath her feet. In her SGM-Iceberg-Probe, she developed an elegant probe that could be lowered into a bore hole from an exploration tent into the deep layers of the Earth, revealing on a monitor and through headphones the moving images and sounds of subterranean life forms and rocks.

SGM Iceberg Probe - field test

SGM Iceberg Probe - screenshot

In 2007, she shifted her poetic-scientific investigations to include the skies, exploring birds, clouds, planets and heavenly bodies. In her project Cloud Core Scanner, she explored the phenomena of cloud cores in weightlessness with the German Space Agency.

The artist in weightlessness

One of my favourite projects was the Public Meteor Watching event that the artist organized outside the National Center For Contemporary Art (NCCA) in Ekaterinburg, Russia, at which hundreds of local people gathered to witness the occurrence and impact of a meteor, predicted from the artist’s calculations, an astonishing demonstration of imagination, organisation and sheer chutzpah.

Public Meteor Watching, Agnes Meyer Brandis

In The Moon Goose Analogue: Lunar Migration Bird Facility, Meyer Brandis develops an ongoing narrative based on the book The Man in the Moone, written by the English bishop Francis Godwin in 1603, in which the protagonist flies to the Moon in a chariot towed by ‘moon geese’. Meyer-Brandis has actualised this concept by raising eleven moon geese from birth within her project Moon Goose Colony at Pollinaria in Italy; giving them astronauts’ names, imprinting them on herself as goose-mother, training them to fly and taking them on expeditions and housing them in a remote Moon analogue habitat.

Below stills from the project and an extract from an interview with the artist.

Moon Goose Colony

Meanwhile, in Rwanda …

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

www.catalystrwanda.org

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

Street dance for street kids – Catalyst Rwanda

Smiling Rwandan boys

Former street children at Les Enfants de Dieu

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

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

A Mexican space opera – Juan Jose Infante

A man stands in front of a launch site in the desert

Juan Jose Diaz Infante, initiator of “Ulises I”, a Mexican artists’ satellite

Mexican artistJuan José Díaz Infante came to visit us in London the other day, to take part in Kosmica and to talk to us about his project to build and launch an artists’ satellite.

You can watch his talk at October’s Kosmica.

In a mid-life crisis, says Juan, some people will buy a Lamborghini, “but I said no, I’m building a satellite”. There have been many satellites launched, but very few launched as an art piece. Juan José’s inspiration was in response also to Mexico’s drug war, which has made everyday life in Mexico very difficult – there have been over 30,000 deaths relating to the drug war. He wanted to make his own reality. The idea of future is different for different generations, he says, and for a child of the 60s, the future had hope, and space was connected to that future.

He read an article in Scientific American on how to make your own satellite, and his talk at Kosmica told us of his achievements, in less than a year, towards making a satellite, and in identifying and securing a launch site for it (he has booked a launch slot at the new Tonga spaceport). He also discussed the satellite as a “poetic experience”. He has put together the Mexican Space Collective – including artists Arcangel Constantini, Iván Puig, Cabezas de Cera, Arturo Márquez, Hugo Solis, Francisco Rivas, Marcela Armas, Gilberto Esparza, Omar Gasca, and Ariel Guzik – who are making works for the satellite. He is using the term ‘opera’ for a new hybrid. The opera will be written as an algorithm, and the satellite designed as a musical instrument to ‘play’ the opera and to interact with the composition.

You can read more about the project here.

Primate Cinema: Apes as Family

Two screen image. On the right, a chimpanzee in a green area near a busy road. On the left, a chimp watches the same image on a TV screen in a zoo enclosure.

Rachel Mayeri's Primate Cinema: Apes as Family (2011). Commissioned by The Arts Catalyst

At The Arts Catalyst, the team is looking forward to the opening of our latest commission, Rachel Mayeri’s Primate Cinema: Apes as Family, showing in our Clerkenwell space in London, from 19 Oct – 13 Nov 2011.

Mayeri’s two-screen video installation juxtaposes a drama enacted by humans in the guise of apes (of a female chimpanzee befriending a group of outsiders) with mesmerising footage of the reactions of its chimpanzee audience at Edinburgh Zoo. As the watchers of the watching chimps, we perceive – or we imagine – fascination, puzzlement, and flashes of anger in their responses. But chimps are not humans, and Mayeri’s artwork says far more about our own reactions and perceptions to what we are watching, than those of the chimps to the film.

To make Primate Cinema: Apes as Family, Rachel Mayeri collaborated with comparative psychologist Dr Sarah-Jane Vick, who studies chimpanzee cognition and behaviour, testing different styles and genres of film to gauge chimps’ responses. DNA sequencing has placed humans firmly within the great apes, so how do our cognitive abilities differ from those of chimpanzees? Do we share basic preferences for novelty and perhaps even form and content with our closest relations? In a symposium, Cinema as Primatology, (4-6pm, Tue 18 October), Rachel Mayeri and Sarah Jane Vick will explore similarities and differences in perception, cognition and socio-emotional behaviour between humans and chimpanzees.

In Mayeri’s film, the intriguing and amusing story-response structure contains dark undercurrents in its contemplation of the lives of our captive close relatives. The Budongo Trail at Edinburgh Zoo is a state-of-the-art facility to provide the best possible conditions for chimpanzees within a zoo environment. But many people are uncomfortable with zoos in any form, and with the idea of making any animal captive.

A fascinating short documentary film about the making of the work will also be shown in the space, which sheds some fascinating light on the chimps’ ambiguous (to us) behaviour.

“Some stimuli do seem to provoke responses … Sex, food, violence – and drumming!” Rachel Mayeri

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