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Posts from the ‘Art’ Category

Revisiting Fukushima: responses to an ongoing disaster

Fukushima exclusion zone, film still from Project Fukushima by Hikaru Fujii (2011)

Fukushima exclusion zone, film still from Project Fukushima by Hikaru Fujii 

I visited Fukushima in 2014. Fukushima. The word – like Chernobyl or Three Mile Island – is synonymous with nuclear disaster, with the release of radionuclides into the atmosphere. It is an ongoing disaster that began in March 2011, when the reactor cores at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant over-heated and exploded, releasing a catastrophic amount of radiation over a vast area of Fukushima precinct, formerly one of the largest farming regions in Japan and a travel destination with many beautiful landscapes. More than 100,000 people were displaced from their homes by the disaster. Today, those people are faced with tough choices: whether to return home (those who lived in areas that are now deemed “safe” by the government) and live with radiological risk, or to try to integrate in – sometimes hostile – host communities without government assistance, or to attempt to resettle elsewhere in Japan, far from friends and family.

Fukushima was – is – vital to Tokyo’s prosperity, as Arts Catalyst’s recent visitor, social critic and activist Sabu Khoso explained. Fukushima supplied Tokyo with food, electricity and cheap day labourers. The pressure to revive, repopulate and restore Fukushima, despite this ongoing disaster, is immense. Thus, there is no assistance offered to those who don’t want to return to their homes because of the risk.

View of the Fukushima exclusion zone Courtesy of Don’t Follow the Wind

View of the Fukushima exclusion zone. Courtesy of Don’t Follow the Wind

Fukushima was a manmade disaster, caused by the negligence of Tepco (the private company running the Daiichi power plant) and poor regulation on the part of the industry watchdog and the government. Tepco failed to develop the most basic safety requirements in the case of a tsunami, despite warnings going as far back as 2006 that a such an event could cause a blackout at the plant or worse. Now it is everyone’s problem, for radiation is uncontainable and uncontrollable once released into the environment. Tepco, who profited from the production of radiation (an expensive and – clearly – risky way to heat water to create electricity), disowned the radiation after its release. It was, it claimed, no longer its responsibility. The radiation became, to use Sabu Kohso’s phrase, a “masterless object”, one that has no owner, that became part of the commons, or, rather, a negative commons: the responsibility of us all. Spread over the hills, fields, villages and cities of Fukishima, trodden and distributed regionally by departing feet and cars, inhaled, eaten and drunk, then urinated, defecated and breathed out across Japan, spread around the country in a deliberate policy of using low-level contaminated material in road works, blown into the high atmosphere, and deliberately released in vast quantities into the Pacific Ocean, to be distributed by currents and through the food chain around the Pacific basin.

Curatorial team on a site visit in the Fukushima exclusion zone. Courtesy of Don’t Follow the Wind

Arts Catalyst’s current programme, Real Lives Half Lives: Fukushima, is a season exploring artistic, cultural and societal responses to disaster, displacement and poisoned lands through the example of Fukushima. It asks what can art do in such an ongoing catastrophe and how citizens respond to a situation that forces tens of thousands of people out of their homes, land, and communities.

Map of Fukushima exclusion zones, as at September 2015

The two solo exhibitions we are showing, by the curatorial collective Don’t Follow the Wind and the artist Hikaru Fujii, have involved collaboration with displaced people in Fukushima.

One of the most unsettling aspects of radiation contamination is its invisibility and undetectability (without specialist equipment), along with the uncertainty around its distribution and effects. Don’t Follow the Wind (Chim↑Pom, Kenji Kubota, Eva and Franco Mattes, Jason Waite) highlighted this invisibility and uncertainty by setting up an exhibition inside the evacuated area surrounding the power plant, in sites lent by former residents, including a warehouse, a farm and a recreation centre. The exhibition opened in 2015, but remains unseen. It will continue to unvisitable for years, even decades. In their exhibition, A Walk in Fukushima, visitors don special headsets made by the former residents to watch an immersive 360-degree video which takes them on a walk through the inaccessible radioactive area.

A Walk in Fukushima, Don’t Follow the Wind, Installation shot, 2017. Headsets made by three generations of the Fukushima family of artist Bontaro Dokuyama, who live just outside of the zone in a contaminated area deemed “safe to live” by the government. 

Another response to the ongoing disaster was the setting up of the Fukushima! Festival by a group of artists and musicians. The first festival took place in Fukushima City, which is situated outside the designated exclusion zone but was still radiologically contaminated and subject to a major clean up, just five months after the disaster started. Artist Hikaru Fujii’s documentary film Project Fukushima! follows the preparations for a festival, as the organisers tussle with questions around the ethics of bringing people to Fukushima, and whether the festival should be an attempt to “rebrand” Fukushima in a more positive light or take a more critical stance. In the end, the film is both hopeful and profoundly unsettling.

Project Fukushima!, Hikaru Fujii, installation, the flooring was stitched for the Fukushima festival by Fukushima City residents and has been loaned for the Arts Catalyst exhibition.

Alongside these two exhibitions, a series of talks, events and activities are exploring the social, cultural and political impact of Fukushima in Japan and the lessons we may learn. These include the acts of mass protest that were held countrywide in the years following the disaster, the citizen science movement that sprang up in response to the slow release (some claimed withholding) of radiation data by the authorities, and the legal challenges and petitions against nuclear power in Japan. Despite these actions, our visitor Sabu Khoso was pessimistic that any real change in power relations or attitudes had been effected in Japanese society.

Real Lives Half Lives: Fukushima continues until July 2017. Upcoming events include a series of screenings of artists’ films about Fukushima, programmed and introduced by Kodwo Eshun of the Otolith Group; a film-making workshop using the surrealist game of Consequences to make a collaborative film; talks by curators and artists; and a workshop exploring ways of working with displaced and peripheral communities.

New edited book: ARIEL GUZIK – HOLOTURIAN

Holoturian, Ariel Guzik. Underwater test, 2017.

Arts Catalyst followers will know that we recently published this small book, which I have edited, to mark the planned launch of Ariel Guzik’s Holoturian in the Gulf of California in 2017 , following extensive underwater tests in a water tank.

For the last 10 years, artist Ariel Guzik has searched for a way to communicate with whales and dolphins. Guzik’s project has encompassed the creation of underwater instruments, expeditions to contact whales and dolphins off the coasts of Baja California, Costa Rica and Scotland, and sound recordings of these remarkable encounters.

In 2015, Arts Catalyst commissioned Guzik to create his Holoturian, an underwater resonance instrument designed to communicate with whales and dolphins in the deep seas. Holoturian was shown as an installation at Edinburgh Art Festival, commissioned by the festival and Arts Catalyst. It incorporated the instrument, which filled the evocative venue with resonant sound, together with objects, drawings and films from the artist’s decade-long research project, which included a field trip by the artist and his team with Arts Catalyst to the Moray Firth in the North of Scotland to encounter the population of bottlenose dolphins that live there.

The book comprises images of the research and installation with texts by me, in which I discuss Guzik’s research to date and examine what recent research has to say about whether cetaceans  can be said to use language or have culture, and by marine scientist and conservationist Mark Simmonds OBE on the challenges facing these intelligent creatures in our threatened sound-filled oceans today.

The book is available as an eBook ( downloadable on .pdf or on Issuu) and as a print book by print-on-demand (£6).

PUBLICATION DETAILS

Ariel Guzik – Holoturian
ISBN 978-0-9927776-8-5
Edited by Nicola Triscott
Published by Arts Catalyst, March 2017 in UK
Designed by Margherita Huntley
Pages 44

PRINT VERSION
Binding Perfect-bound Paperback
Weight 0.11 kg
Dimensions (centimetres) 14.81 wide x 20.98 tall
Black & white inside
Full colour cover

Conflict Minerals: extractive capitalism and its costs

Grasberg mine, West Papua

Extractive capitalism has spread over our world with a rapacious force.  From the mineral-rich Congo to mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia, USA, from deep-sea seismic oil surveys in the melting Arctic ocean to the vast fracking fields of Pennsylvania, there is nowhere remote, forbidding or beautiful enough to keep out the insatiable propagation of the minerals and fossil fuel industries, fuelled by our energy-hungry, networked, consumer-focused, waste-generating lifestyles.

Conflict Minerals is a month-long exhibition and inquiry, taking place at Arts Catalyst’s centre in King’s Cross, into the human and environmental impacts of extractive capitalism, specifically the mining and minerals trade. It continues my long-standing interest in the planetary commons as an underlying conceptual framework for artists’ engagement with stewardship of the earth’s natural resources and governance of transnational domains (such as the deep seas, polar regions and outer space), and considers whether we can usefully speak of a geological commons.

Centering on two artists’ projects by Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway and by Nabil Ahmed, each at a different stage of development, and through a programme of discussions and workshops, Conflict Minerals looks at how the extractive industries affect people and ecologies in areas where mines are sited, and considers more broadly how the mining industry and minerals trade are materially and economically intertwined with our own technologised, networked lives. Against concerns about the destructive aspects of mining are arguments for the industry as a path to broader development, but what are the benefits and what are the payoffs for people living in those regions and communities where concentrations of natural “critical materials” are found?

While the term “conflict minerals” is usually associated with the situation in Congo, where the mining of valuable minerals fuels violence and armed conflict, the artists’ works and research in this exhibition reveal that, across the globe, different scales of conflict and tension are unfolding in countries and communities that are inextricably connected to the extraction of geological resources. Through the exhibition and programme of events, we will explore the different ways in which artists approach these subjects – including methods of inquiry, aesthetics, exposure, and tactics of resistance – and how their work can help to build our understanding of how geopolitical and Anthropocenic forces manifest on a local level: in environments, communities, and between people.

Film still, Kuannersuit; Kvanefjeld (2016), Lise Autogena & Joshua Portway

Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway’s film Kuannersuit; Kvanefjeld (2016) is a work-in-progress, forming the first part of the artists’ long-term investigation into the conflicts facing the small, mostly indigenous, community of Narsaq in southern Greenland. Narsaq is located next to the pristine Kvanefjeld mountain, the site of one of the richest rare earth mineral resources deposits in the world, and one of the largest sources of uranium. The film offers glimpses of the painful community divisions that can occur when people are swept up in forces beyond their experience, in this case the decision being taken whether to allow a multinational mining company to begin mining in Kvanefjeld. Greenland Minerals and Energy (an Australian-owned company) propose to create an open-pit mine, expected to process over 100 million tons of ore in the coming decades. The mine would be the fifth-largest uranium mine and second-biggest rare earth extraction operation in the world.

Film still, Kuannersuit; Kvanefjeld (2016), Lise Autogena & Joshua Portway

Greenland is a former colony of Denmark, an island of 56,000 people living across an area of 2.1 million square kilometres. Since the 1960s a movement of anti-colonialist nationalism has grown in the country and it is now recognised as an “autonomous administrative division” of Denmark, supported economically by the Danish state. Many people see exploitation of mineral deposits as the only viable route to full independence for the country. For generations, the farming near Kvanefjeld has been Greenland’s only agricultural industry. This way of life will be profoundly changed should the mine go ahead, transforming the local area, its culture and landscape. Autogena and Portway’s film portrays a community divided on the issue of uranium mining, and speaks to people in the community struggling with painful emotions that they find difficult to express in a culture that is non-confrontational. It explores the difficult decisions and trade-offs faced by a culture seeking to escape a colonial past and define its own identity in a globalised world.

Autogena and Portway’s position at the start of their inquiry echoes the Greenlandic people’s situation at the beginning of an uncertain social, political and environmental experiment. Artist and researcher Nabil Ahmed, by contrast, presents “spatial evidence” from his research into a situation that has evolved over decades: the conflicts around the Grasberg mine in Papua. Here, the conflicts manifest as violent confrontations between the mine’s Indonesian security forces and local Papuans, direct attacks on the mine’s workers, and anger – both local and international – towards the mine’s immense damage to this rich, bio diverse environment.

Installation (detail), INTERPRT (2017), Nabil Ahmed

Ahmed initiated The Inter-Pacific Ring Tribunal (INTERPRT), a collective commission of inquiry, whose long-term goal is to support legal processes taken by people of the Pacific Rim against environmental destruction by corporations and governments, by gathering spatial evidence and hosting a series of alternative tribunals to debate and test “ecocide” (the deliberate destruction of the natural environment) as a viable legal instrument. In the research exhibition for Conflict Minerals, INTERPRT presents visually powerful spatial evidence – maps, animation, drawings, models, and archival material – gathered over three years on the case of ecocide in West Papua, a militarised territory, the site of a long-term conflict between Indonesia and Papuans seeking self-determination. Central to the conflict is the Grasberg mine, which contains the planet’s largest combined reserve of copper and gold. Since the late 1970s, Freeport, the transnational company that operates the mine, has been dumping as much as 200,000 tonnes of mine waste, known as tailings, every day directly into the Aikwa delta. The practice has devastated the environment, turning thousands of hectares of forest and mangroves into wasteland. The company has controversial security arrangements with the Indonesian military, which commits severe human rights violations and suppresses political free speech. International journalists, humanitarian workers, and researchers face restricted movement in the region, requiring remote methods of visualising and reporting on the conflict.

LANDSAT 8 false colour composite display, Grasberg mine tailings contamination of river system, INTERPRT

INTERPRT’s analysis of the spatial evidence is based on human rights reports, corporate financial data, and freely available remote sensing imagery, oriented towards building a case of ecocide committed by Freeport and potentially the Indonesian state, that demonstrates the deliberate destruction of Papuan social, cultural, and natural environments.

Through a programme of events during Conflict Minerals *, we will draw out themes of conflict and culture, mining and demonology, and the geology of media, as well as progressing the artists’ projects, both of which are process-based and long-term, and developing discourse with other artists, curators and researchers from different fields around conflict, geological extraction and artistic practice.

Time permitting, I plan to update with a further blogpost later in the inquiry.

Conflict Minerals runs from 23 March – 22 April, open Thu – Sat, 12-6pm, at Arts Catalyst’s Centre for Art, Science & Technology, 74-76 Cromer Street, London WC1H 8DR.

Kuannersuit; Kvanefjeld was commissioned by Arts Catalyst as part of the Nuclear Culture research programme, led by Associate Curator Ele Carpenter, a partnership with Goldsmiths College London.

INTERNT collaborators and supporters: Nabil Ahmed, Olga Lucko, Michael Alonzo, Jamon van den Hoek, Sandor Mulsow, Linz Wilbur, International Lawyers for West Papua (Netherlands branch), Akademie Schloss Solitude, Forensic Architecture, OCA Norway and TBA21 Academy.

CONFLICT MINERALS EVENTS PROGRAMME

Conflict, Culture and Song: Jack Tan, Lise Autogena & Joshua Portway
Fri 24 March 2017, 6:30-8:30pm (Doors open 6pm). £5, booking essential

Artist Jack Tan’s project Karaoke Court is a legally-binding karaoke dispute resolution process that draws on Greenlandic Inuit traditions of song duels, used to settle disputes. Tan will be in conversation with Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway.

Metallurgy, Demonology & Materiality: Melanie Jackson & Angus Cameron
Sat 1 April 2017, 2-3:30pm. Free, booking essential

Artist Melanie Jackson and writer Angus Cameron discuss the demons that have populated the shafts and galleries of mines around the world through history.

Conflict Minerals and Artistic Practice – A Workshop
Wed 5 April 2017, 2-6pm. Free, booking essential

In this workshop, we will explore different ways in which artistic and cultural practices contribute to our understanding of the relationship between geological natural resources (their extraction and distribution) and conflict. Artists, curators and researchers who would like to present their research and work as part of this workshop should email a brief outline with a biography to director@artscatalyst.org by Wednesday 29 March.

The Geology of Media: Jussi Parikka 
Wed 19 April 2017, 6:30-7:30pm (Doors open 6pm). £5, booking essential.

Exploring the resource depletion and material resourcing required for us to use our devices to live networked lives, media theorist Parikka argues that, to adequately understand contemporary media culture, we must set out from material realities that precede media – Earth’s history, geological formations, minerals, and energy.

Open Meeting: Inter-Pacific Ring Tribunal (INTERPRT)
22/23 April – More details to be announced

 

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Graveyard of Lost Species: a monument for a changing estuary

Boat with engraved letter on its hull on a marsh.

Graveyard of Lost Species, 2016. Photo: Simon Fowler

A few weeks ago, Arts Catalyst launched the Graveyard of Lost Species, a public monument by artists YoHa (Graham Harwood and Matsuko Yokokoji) and Critical Art Ensemble in partnership with Arts Catalyst.

Graveyard of Lost Species is an outcome from an ambitious 3-year collaborative inquiry with people of Leigh-on-Sea and Southend on the Thames Estuary. Created from a Thames bawley fishing boat, rescued from the estuary mud by the partners, the names of lost species gathered through research with local people in Leigh-on-Sea and Southend, including fishermen, amateur ecologists, divers, walkers, artists, sailors and others, have been laser cut onto its hull and decks. These lost species include not just wildlife and fauna but also – recognising the inter-connections of ecology, industry, society and culture – traditional industries and occupations that have declined or disappeared, as well as objects, words and phrases associated with these. The artwork is dedicated to the people of Leigh and Southend-on-Sea.

The trigger for the collaborative project (its overall title being Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone) was YoHa artist Graham Harwood’s observations of the vast industrial infrastructures being constructed along the Thames estuary, where he lives in Leigh-on-Sea, their impact on local people, traditional industries and the estuary’s ecology, and the lack of local voices in these processes.

Traditional marine based industries (such as fishing, cockling and boat building) have for centuries provided employment for communities along the estuary. However, this heritage is rapidly declining. The government and large corporations have devised new schemes for the area, including the London Gateway, the largest deepwater port in the UK, which was under construction when we began the project. Such rapidly changing situations and intense economic interests in the area greatly concern people in local communities, but they feel they have had little or no say. Harwood, Steve Kurtz (Critical Art Ensemble) and I, drawing on their artistic practices and my curatorial interest in developing collaborative inquiries that combine art and citizen science, decided to initiate a new project. We wanted to explore whether, by using art as a critical and investigatory tool and working with a growing group of local people, we might be able to make a difference to how people think about the estuary and how it might survive the pressures that face it.

Interior of boat with carved words visible

Graveyard of Lost Species (interior).

From 2013, we have led a set of enquiries with people in Leigh-on-Sea and Southend to gather local knowledge of and expertise about what is being lost or is disappearing and what changes are taking places in the area. These began with consultation workshop to ask local people what their concerns were in respect to the new wave of industrialisation of the estuary and the impact on local culture and estuarine ecology. Much of the discussion focused on local concerns about the impact of the super port dredging activity on fish stocks, diversity and the cockle beds, and potential impact of the port’s activity on estuary wildlife, including migrating birds. Another area of discussion was the nature reserve of Two Tree Island, where many local people walk their dogs and forage for blackberries, which is built on a former landfill site that has no records of what was dumped there (as there were no regulations in force at the time).

Two main strands for our inquiry emerged. One was to uncover and highlight local knowledge about the changing ecology, society and industry of the Thames estuary by collecting stories of lost and declining species, and then to create an appropriate public monument to Leigh’s past and future. Kurtz asks: “How do you make a monument that, rather than creating a smooth ideological space in which all people are expected to feel and believe in the same way, instead accounts for difference and allows for the contradictions and conflict of history, that lets all the different voices speak out? It might be a community but there is not unity of story – there are vastly indifferent interpretations of what’s going on.” The artists’ answer was to create an ‘anti-monument’, one that would come apart, like the memories it marked, over time, and return back into the mud.

A second strand of inquiry was to investigate Two Tree Island to try to build up a picture of what might lie under the nature reserve and how toxic it might be, through speaking with people who worked there and by running citizen science workshops, and to develop creative responses to the relationship between people, soil, water and what grows in a polluted environment.

Boat on marsh

Graveyard of Lost Species in situ. Photo: Steve Barnes.

During 2014, with little funding confirmed, the team decided to run some public activities and workshops for local people to get things going, raise awareness of the project and attract participants and contributors. We set up an event at Leigh on Sea Marine Festival at which YoHa and Claudia Lastra with artists Andy Freeman and Fran Gallardo invited visitors to “eat, small and taste the Thames estuary”: tasting estuary vapours through e-cigs, smelling distilled oils from local fauna, and eating delicacies made from foraged and prepared foods from Two Tree Island. Alongside this, Freeman presented several proposed citizen science and monitoring initiatives. Following this event, we offered a series of free public exploratory workshops focused on Two Tree Island. These included a mud walk led by local amateur biologist Paul Huxster, studying eelgrass and cordgrass spatial fluctuations across the tidelands, a digital mapping workshop led by Freeman, introducing participants to a range of citizen science tools and techniques, and a wild eating and foraging workshop led by YoHa and Gallardo, guiding participants through the potential hazards of eating wild herbs, plants and fruits on this former landfill site.

Man sniffing something in the hand of smiling woman

Wrecked team at the Leigh Maritime Festival, 2014

With some funding secured from Arts Council England and the Wellcome Trust, activities and investigations were able to unfold in a more structured way in 2015. We invited Critical Art Ensemble to the UK for a month-long residency. Two local artists – Warren Harper and Stuart Bowditch – joined the team as researchers, conducting research with local people, connecting stories and examples of the ‘species’ that once flourished in the Estuary and are now disappearing. Harwood identified a local wreck – the ‘Souvenir’, a 40ft 12-ton Thames bawley grounded on the estuary mudflats. Over the summer, Harwood and Stuart Mchardy cleaned and reconfigured the boat. They sailed it ashore, siting it for its preparation and engraving in a prominent public setting by the shore on Belton Way, the main thoroughfare between Leigh station and the old town, with a large noticeboard outlining the nature of the project and the monument to lost species. The Souvenir attracted the attention of hundreds of interested passers-by, many of whom stopped to share their memories and stories with the artists and researchers.

Gallardo, YoHa, Freeman and Arts Catalyst, supported by the expertise of environmental chemist and food scientist Mark Scrimshaw, led the Two Tree inquiry. We organised a series of public events involving local foods, their source, preparation and consumption, to explore environmental change. Alongside these tastings, citizen science workshops further investigated the traces of waste disposal on Two Tree Island.

This intertwining of contemporary art practice, expert scientific knowledge, citizen science techniques and various forms of local situated knowledge has co-produced, and continues to generate, a significant new knowledge archive about the estuary, as well as generating a public conversation around the many changes to the ecology and community of Leigh on Sea. We are collecting the knowledge archive on a website – http://wrecked.artscatalyst.org/, which includes transcripts of interviews, photographs and short films.

This collective knowledge is now also taking physical and visual form, giving voice to the contributors and giving back to the community, through the public monument Graveyard to Lost Species and a soon-to-be published ecopolitical book of recipes from the local area, co-authored by Gallardo and Claudia Lastra. As the project moves forward, we are looking at other ways in which local views can be creatively expressed and heard in the governance of the estuary.

This summer, with planning permission granted from Southend Council and Natural England for its siting and installation, the Graveyard to Lost Species was sailed back onto Leigh Marshes to become part of the local landscape. With the names of many lost species carved into the boat’s hull, decks and interior, the artwork is visible to the public from the shore, and publicly accessible by foot at low tide, so that visitors can read the text on and inside the boat. It will gradually decay over many years back into the mud.

I hope that you will feel inspired to visit the monument, which is sited a short walk from the road as you enter Two Tree Island coming from Leigh-on-Sea station. Ordnance survey grid reference is TQ 82738 85478.

Further outputs, writing and discourse will continue to unfold over the coming year.

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Critical art and outer space: examining space as a global commons

Illuminated globe outline with two people visible behind

Joanna Griffin & Alejo Duque, Bogota Declaration

The ‘Critical Issues in Outer Space’ session at the Association of American Geographers’ huge Annual Meeting in San Francisco last week was scheduled in the daunting 8am slot on the final day. Nonetheless, a good audience gathered, perhaps indicating the rising interest in the topic of outer space within geography.

Julie Klinger, convener of the session, gave a stimulating presentation on the new challenges to international outer space treaties (that designate outer space as a common heritage of all humankind) from state and private sector interests in off-Earth mining *, particularly looking at mining interests on the Moon.

Danny Bednar’s paper considered the complex landscape of actors and interests involved in today’s outer space activities – from use of orbits, exploration of the solar system, to proposed colonization and exploitation. He proposed that concepts of ‘governance’ from the social sciences, which emphasize the shift in the processes of politics away from purely state actors to numerous private interests, can make a useful contribution to understanding current space issues.

My paper – which you can listen to below – discussed some of the critical strategies employed by curators and artists to engage with the political and spatial nature of outer space as a global commons, including Marko Peljhan’s Makrolab, Joanna Griffin’s Satellite Stories and, in collaboration with Alejo Duque, Bogota Declaration, my own work with the European Space Agency and International Astronautical Federation and the ITACCUS committee, and Arts Catalyst’s exhibition ‘Republic of the Moon’. I argued that critical artistic and curatorial practices can contribute to our understanding of outer space as a dynamic and socially constructed space, and help to shape the social imaginary of the region around our planet as an important global commons.


(apologies for poor audio quality)

The session included by a Skype presentation by James Ormrod, presenting the book that he has co-edited with Peter Dickens ‘The Palgrave Handbook of Society, Culture and Outer Space’, a strong collection of texts from many disciplines, showing the compelling contribution being made to our understanding of outer space issues by the social sciences, arts and humanities. I’ll try to review this book in a later blog post, but in the meantime I’m thoroughly enjoying read the essays in it. I should add the proviso that art is represented in the book by a chapter that I have written, in which I chart the construction of a ‘space imaginary’ through the visual arts.

* Four months ago, the US Senate passed the Space Act of 2015, which grants U.S. citizens or corporations the right to legally claim non-living natural resources — including water and minerals — mined in outer space. This law directly conflicts with international law. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, to which the US is a signatory, states: “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” Legally, the US cannot give rights to claim off-planet resources to which it does not have ownership.

 

Acronyms, bat caves and sentient architecture: February update from Washington DC

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Dense mass of bats within a passageway in Carlsbad Cavern using thermal imaging camera (c) Nickolay Hristov / Louise Allen

So here I am, back in Washington DC on Super Tuesday (writing this the day before I post), observing a racist litigious pathological liar, serial bankrupt and (it almost goes without saying) climate change denier head towards the Republican nomination. Anyhoo, I’d better get this blog updated on my February DC art-science activities before House of Cards Season 4 starts on Friday, because that’s going to wipe out this weekend.

February started strategically with a meeting of SEAD (The Network for Sciences, Engineering, Arts and Design) Working Group hosted by the National Academy of Sciences. The group shared and discussed trends that have emerged in the last few years since the network’s White Papers initiative in 2012, the outcome of which was published by MIT Press as ‘Steps to an Ecology of Networked Knowledge and Innovation‘. I was asked to present to the meeting on the international context for art, science and technology – a wide brief for a fifteen minute presentation! Luis Girao from the EU was also present for part of the day and spoke about the EU’s STARTS initiative.  The meeting follows the recent National Academies launch of the planning phase of a project to examine the value of incorporating curricula and experiences in the arts and humanities into college and university STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and workforce training programs, as well as integrating more STEM into the academic programs of students who are majoring in the humanities, arts and related disciplines.

Fields to Freedom, Desert Art Lab (c) Desert Art Lab

Fields to Freedom, Desert Art Lab (c) Desert Art Lab

From strategy to academia, I dived straight into the massive College Art Association annual conference, this year in Washington DC, which included a panel discussion on ‘Cultivating an Ecology of Networked Knowledge & Innovation thru Collaboration among Sciences, Engineering, Arts & Design’, moderated by Leonardo Executive Editor Roger Malina. Malina noted that the current enthusiasm for “STEAM” – the introduction of art into science and technology teaching – is driven and shaped by the desire to attract and retain more scientists and engineers, rather than for having more science/technology-informed artists. I would say this is true on both sides of the Atlantic. Panel member Nettrice Gaskins gave an inspiring presentation on the art/science programme she runs at the Boston Arts Academy, and noted that she had found it easier to get artists to engage with science, than to get scientists to engage with the arts. There was also a great talk by biologist Nickolay Hristov about his work at the Center for Design Innovation (CDI) in North Carolina, where he studies bats and develops new techniques for filming and visualising bats.

In the overwhelming number of sessions, panels and talks at the CAA conference, one of my standouts was the ‘Ecologies of Creative Activism’ session, organised by the New Media Caucus, where I found much potential fodder for the Arte Util archive, including the work of ecoarttech – a delightful project on goat keeping and Desert Art Lab‘s community cactus gardens.

Amazing to catch up with some wonderful artists from different parts of the world converged on DC for the CAA meet, including Jane Prophet, Marta de Menezes and Armin Medosch. Fantastic conversations.

Sentient Chamber, Philip Beesley (c) The Artist

Sentient Chamber, Philip Beesley (c) The Artist

During the month, I also enjoyed the latest edition of DASER (DC Art Science Evening Rendezvous), again at the National Academy of Science, which had some cracking talks, including Richard Foster’s illuminating reflections on creativity, a subject which usually makes me nod off, and architect Philip Beesley’s talk on his fascination with non-repeating geometries and living architecture: his idea of a new approach to shelter that is gentle and responsive to nature, rather than rigidly repelling natural forces. Video of the talks here.

Beesley’s Sentient Chamber,  created by a group of architects, engineers, scientists, and artists in his Living Architecture Systems Group at the University of Waterloo, Canada, was installed upstairs from the DASER salon as a site-specific interactive work in the National Academy of Sciences’ spectacular building on Constitution Avenue. This experimental and delightful work incorporates new lightweight structures, interactive robotics, and ideas from synthetic biology to pursue an architecture as close to being alive. In form, the artwork is a suspended translucent artificial forest that reacts to your presence with changing light and murmuring sounds.

Both the exhibition and the DASER series are organized by CPNAS – the National Academy of Sciences’ Cultural Program – which is led and championed by curator JD Talasek, who attracts my huge admiration for the quality, breadth and boldness of the contemporary art program that he has introduced and sustained at the NAS for several years.

Trust and the taste of flesh: the ethics of Martin O’Brien’s zombie performance

Naked man on a chain leans towards laughing woman as if to bit her

Martin O’Brien, Taste of Flesh / Bite Me, I’m Yours, London, April 2015 (c) Martin O’Brien. Photo: Arts Catalyst

The first three articles from the Trust Me, I’m an Artist project (funded by Creative Europe) have just been published online, which gives me an excuse to reflect back on the subject of all three texts – Martin O’Brien’s Taste of Flesh / Bite Me, I’m Yours, which Arts Catalyst commissioned earlier this year, curated by Jareh Das.

The series Trust Me I’m an Artist seeks to address the isolation of artistic activities from the regulatory frameworks that both contain science, medicine and biotechnology but also provide guidance and clarity for activities in those fields. The conventions and understanding that scientists bring to their work concerning safe or ethical practices are formed during their training and research within institutional settings over years. Artists who engage with the methods, materials and technologies of science are generally unlikely to share these norms and rules because of their different training, knowledge and culture.

A pilot series of Trust Me I’m an Artist events, which included Neal White’s The Void at Arts Catalyst, placed artists in front of an ‘ethics committees’ to present their proposals and allow the committee to discuss them, which could then approve or reject the proposal, or – in the case of White’s The Void – decide that their remit did not enable them to reach a decision. In the Creative Europe funded series, the format is more flexible, enabling broader questions to be raised around issues of risk and audience consent, the interplay of fiction and factual accuracy in relation to science, the responsibility of the curator (to artist and audience), and the different institutional frameworks and cultures of art and science, as discussed in an introductory text to the project by artist Anna Dumitriu, biomedical ethicist Professor Bobbie Farsides and curator Annick Bureaud.

Main in straightjacket and rubber mask smears green paint with his head while people look on

Martin O’Brien, Taste of Flesh / Bite Me, I’m Yours, London, April 2015 (c) Martin O’Brien. Photo: Arts Catalyst

Martin O’Brien’s performance emerged, as does much of his work, from his experience of living with cystic fibrosis, the impact of the medical interventions he receives and the reactions from others towards his illness and symptoms. In this new durational live art work, he turned his attention to the fear of contamination associated with the sick body, playing with depictions of the zombie in popular culture and highlighting recent public anxiety around the risk of infection, which O’Brien discusses beautifully in his text Flesh-Eaters: Notes Towards a Zombie Methodology

The three-hour durational performance took place at the White Building, London. The staging was reminiscent of an emergency medical tent or quarantine centre. Clear plastic was stretched over a wooden frame creating a room within a room. As people arrived, they were briefed on the nature of the performances, and invited to put on protective wear for their clothes. Upon entering the performance area, one met small groups of people huddled in the corners of the space. All watched intently as the artist, wearing a straitjacket and mask, chained to a pole in the centre of the space, struggled on his hands and knees to dip his head in a bowl of green paint and then arduously paint a spiral around the enclosure. As the length of chain increased, the spiral enlarged moving the artist further from the centre and closer to the audience and eventually forcing them to move away to avoid being painted. Over the course of the next four hours, Martin undertook a series of actions which explored interaction and changing power relationships between performer and audience, focusing on the idea of contagion, all the time chained to the pole and semi-naked, often circling the room, making people move around to avoid him and the moving chain. These actions included coughing up mucus and blowing bubbles from the mucus in people’s faces, piercing his lips with a needle drawing blood, and biting members of the audience (with their complicity, as it was easy to move away) and inviting the audience to bite him in return. Over the course of the performance, the audience’s reactions moved from discomfort, disgust, pain, concern and awkwardness to laughter, participation and relaxation, and back again.

Chained man bites laughing woman

Martin O’Brien, Taste of Flesh / Bite Me, I’m Yours, London, April 2015 (c) Martin O’Brien. Photo: Arts Catalyst

The Arts Catalyst team conducted exit interviews with audience members. Many of the responses centred on the act of watching and participating in the performance, and commented on the shift of mood during the performance, from seriousness and unease to laughter, empathy and connection, even a sense of camaraderie. Several spoke of their feeling of the artist’s generosity in sharing and enduring pain or hardship.

The performance was following by a discussion event, which featured a specially convened ethics committee of Professor Karen Lowton, Dr Gianna Bouchard, and Lois Keidan, director of the Live Art Development Agency, chaired by Professor Bobbie Farsides. Issues discussed included audience consent, particularly around the biting, the power of the performer in this situation and how this related to the participation of the audience.

As a commissioner of the work, as well as obvious health and safety issues that had to be addressed before the performance – from paint fumes in an enclosed space to a whirling chain, to the risks of the artist letting blood and potentially being in contact with audience members (1) – there were many other issues of concern for me in terms of both the artist and the audience’s safety and well-being. While I felt a lot of trust in the artist as a highly experienced performer, he was placing himself in a position of both vulnerability and power during the performance. Given the actions, in particular the act of biting, I was concerned about the impact on and reaction from audience members. In her text, the curator of the work Jareh Das reflects on the ethics of extreme live art, addressing the limits of ‘watchability’, ‘bearability’ and what ‘informed consent’ means in terms of audience members and how much information can and should be given to them in advance.

In the past, I have shied away from commissioning live art performances in which the artist hurts or causes injury to themselves (piercing, etc), not from any sense of disapproval or lack of interest in the artform, but because of the ethical dilemma – for me – of commissioning (i.e. paying) someone to commit these acts on themselves. I have also learned that, in the act of performance, the frameworks and restrictions that you have put in place may not work, or may sometimes be transgressed, and then the question of whether or not to intervene.

With the long tradition of live art, these are not new ethical considerations and dilemmas and they have been extensively discussed in that arena. However, it is useful to situate what are often represented as ‘new’ ethical dilemmas of emerging art practices (i.e. those engaging with science and medicine) within art historical contexts that have long addressed complex ethical and social issues and learn from them.

Trust Me I’m an Artist is an ongoing series of projects aimed at investigating the new ethical issues arising from art and science collaboration and consider the roles and responsibilities of the artists, scientists and institutions. involved. Institutional partners are: Waag Society Amsterdam, Arts Catalyst London, Capsula Helsinki, Ciant Prague, Kapelica Gallery Ljubliana, Leonardo Olats Paris and Medical Museion Copenhagen.

 

  1. We were careful to alert people to this aspect of the performance, so that those with compromised immune systems or who had cystic fibrosis did not come into the performance, however there remained an element of risk.

 

Man paints spiral of green paint with his head in enclosed performance space

Martin O’Brien, Taste of Flesh / Bite Me, I’m Yours, London, April 2015 (c) Martin O’Brien. Photo: Arts Catalyst

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