We Make Money Not Art

17 Jan. 2023

Last November, a former crematorium turned cultural hub in Berlin’s Wedding district hosted a three-day event centred around seven prototypes for survival as organic beings on this planet.

Driving the Human. Photo by Camille Blake

Driving the Human. Photo by Camille Blake

The Driving the Human prototypes are being developed over the course of a three-year duration process. I discovered them after they had gone through two waves of selection. 1,000 proposals responded to the call for submissions in 2020. Last year, 21 concepts were presented in Berlin. The final seven projects shown in November have emerged from regular discussions between artists, designers, scientists and engineers.

Driving the Human. Photo by Camille Blake

Focusing on prototypes rather than on finished products means questioning the “quick fix” design culture. Some designers tend to present ready-made technological objects and services as direct responses to deep-rooted, multi-faceted problems. As if technology and science could efficiently address social or environmental problems on their own. The methodology adopted by Driving the Human, on the other hand, leaves space for risk-taking, error-making and deeper connections with science institutions while opening up the development process to other disciplines and, as the festival demonstrated, to the public.

In a sense, Driving the Human‘s bold and responsible approach reflects the urgency society is facing. Wherever we look, it seems that the world is crumbling before our eyes: sea levels are rising, biodiversity is collapsing, antibiotic resistance and cyber warfare are looming, plastic invasion is growing, maniacs and megalomaniacs are presiding over the future of entire countries, etc. Very few people still believe that the answer to these challenges simply lies in a geoengineering proposal or a “greener” architectural project.

The second element that, in my view, made Driving the Human unusual was how easy the organisers made it for the public to engage with the work. You could simply have a look at the works or you could explore their ideas and genesis deeper through a program of workshops, music performances, debates and even guided tours with a microbiologist, an ornithologist, an architect, a philosopher and other experts who engage with different aspects of the prototypes and interpret them based on their own competences. A broader, more considerate and sensitive approach is crucial.

Here’s an overview of the seven prototypes that, each in their own way, address the disconnect between our deep concern for humanity’s survival and our current, reckless way of inhabiting the Earth.

alternaA (Andra Pop-Jurj and Lena Geerts Danau), Monsters and Ghosts of the Far North, 2022

alternaA (Andra Pop-Jurj and Lena Geerts Danau), Monsters and Ghosts of the Far North, 2022

alternaA (Andra Pop-Jurj and Lena Geerts Danau), Monsters and Ghosts of the Far North, 2022. Driving the Human. Photo by Camille Blake

alternaA (Andra Pop-Jurj and Lena Geerts Danau), Monsters and Ghosts of the Far North, 2022. Driving the Human. Photo by Camille Blake

alternaA (Andra Pop-Jurj and Lena Geerts Danau), Monsters and Ghosts of the Far North, 2022. Driving the Human. Photo by Camille Blake

This map contains some excerpts of the research related to the habitat of methanogens such as Methanosarcina Soligelidii or Candidatus Methanoflorens Stordalenmirensis, which are the most abundant species in permafrost soils. Photo: alternaA (Andra Pop-Jurj and Lena Geerts Danau)

The Arctic is heating up three times faster than the global average. Recent data even suggest that the alarming rates of global heating in some regions of the Arctic might be up to seven times faster than the rest of the world.

For some, it’s brilliant news. Tourism agencies are now offering luxury “last chance to seecruises to witness a disappearing territory. The melting sea ice also opens up new shipping routes and opportunities to extract natural resources, in particular deposits of gas and oil below the seabed. As a result of the rapidly warming landscape, the Arctic has turned into one of the most contested territories on this planet.

However, as Andra Pop-Jurj and Lena Geerts Danau‘s prototype makes clear, questions of sovereignty, national borders and man-made regulations do not mean anything for the non-human life that inhabits the Arctic.

The duo are using a game engine to help us navigate the Artic through the perspective of characters as diverse as a microorganism, a bird, a fish, a caribou or the shrinking ice sheet. Each of these characters occupies a specific territory, moves at a different speed, experiences different timeframes, scales and sensorial realities and encounters different manifestations of human geopolitics.

The Arctic cod, for example, is on a mission to avoid the fishing nets to ensure repopulation. As the sea ice becomes thinner and its edges retreat northward, the increasing sunlight and flow of fresh meltwater offers nutrients to phytoplankton that lie at the base of the Arctic food web and thus boosts Arctic cod populations. The Arctic tern, on the other hand, is looking for fresh fish and breeding spots. While flying over the Arctic, the bird notices more and more machines that scan the territory, building infrastructures on sea and land, creating mess in the process. As for the caribou, its population appears to be in sharp decline across the Tundra. Its mission is to secure lichen and breed in order to sustain its collective migratory behaviour.

This exercise in changing perspectives enables a more nuanced understanding of how our geopolitical, environmental and industrial priorities impact the different agents inhabiting the Arctic landscape.

Monsters and Ghosts of the Far North is a game but it is also an experiment in unlearning, in de-centring the human and in thinking outside of our usual paradigms. While interacting with the game, the player can uncover different layers of data as well as a range of future predictions from CMIP6 environmental models. The game narrative is thus grounded in scientific research emerging from different fields of expertise that usually coexist in isolation. However, the artists chose to interpret that data in order to make it easier for the audience to understand and relate to the challenges, entanglements and dynamics at play in the region.

Monsters and Ghosts of the Far North also aims to challenge the traditional forms of cartography that are not only anthropocentric and colonialist but that also reduce the complexities of a place down to two-dimensional borderlines.

The title of the work is inspired by Anna Tsing’s publication Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene. Perhaps, the main ghost is the ice that is melting and will most likely be just a souvenir by the year 2100. And perhaps, the monsters are the politico-industrial choices that unleash their violence on the Arctic landscape and beyond.

Akwasi Bediako Afrane, TRONS ‘R’ US, 2022. Driving the Human. Photo by Camille Blake

Akwasi Bediako Afrane, TRONS ‘R’ US, 2022. Driving the Human. Photo by Camille Blake

Akwasi Bediako Afrane, TRONS ‘R’ US

Akwasi Bediako Afrane building a TRON with kids from the “No Limits” foster home in Accra, Ghana

Akwasi Bediako Afrane (on the right) with a few of the workshop participants and their TRON

Akwasi Bediako Afrane, TRONS ‘R’ US

With TRONS ‘R’ US, Akwasi Bediako Afrane investigates the confused relationship between humans, technology and the environment.

The project uses discarded electronics hacked and reassembled to present us with a more honest and comprehensive portrayal of the life cycle of electronic objects, making visible the various processes at work behind their afterlife.

Akwasi Bediako Afrane started by identifying the main agents involved in electronics. The first group of tech actors take an active role in the life of electronics. They are the miners, the manufacturers, the distributors and the consumers. Then the second group steps in to ensure that what most of us regard as “e-waste” is given an afterlife. They are the second-hand dealers, the repairers, the scrap dealers and the recyclers.

The artist wanted to include members of these 8 groups in a discussion that explored how they interact with electronics and how responsible they feel towards the environment. Unfortunately, some (the mining companies and the manufacturers in particular) were not particularly keen on the idea.

He then invited repairers, scrap dealers and consumers to workshops (some took place in Ghana, others at ZKM in Germany) where they tore apart disused pieces of electronics, opening up the ‘black box’ of technology. They were also shown how to repurpose the pieces and build their own version of gadgets.

Afrane is also working on a documentary that shows how people in Ghana reappropriate the devices. The country doesn’t produce electronics. However, Ghanaians get access to all the components that Western countries dump on them in the form of e-waste. They use them as raw materials, recycling some of the components to repair electronic goods in the local community, reappropriating the condensers in fridges, melting aluminium to make cooking tools, sourcing aluminium, copper and even sometimes a little bit of gold from old tv sets, etc. In the process, they not only create value from waste but they also develop skills, know-how and an intimate understanding of electronics. Occupying a space between craft and engineering, their practice plays an important role in the circular economy and would deserve more recognition.

The prototype presented in Berlin takes the form of a huge installation made of discarded electronics and VR goggles that have been rewired to work together. Old car seats have been placed around the TRONS ‘R’ US installation. Turned away from it, they symbolise the disconnections between the electronics industry and the users. The use of VR also suggests a technology that literally blindfolds you. However, both the hacking process and the final installation reconnect humans to their machines and make more visible the kind of prosthetic role they play in human existence.

TRONS ‘R’ US is not just an exercise in upcycling, it is a springboard to get people to discuss the life cycle of products and the capitalist-induced technological overproduction. The work asks us to question our drive to constantly “innovate” and “improve”. How much more definition of an image do most of us really need? How much data do we really need to produce and amass, especially when storage has such a heavy carbon footprint? How much do we really (want to) know about the way our gadgets are being mined, manufactured and disposed of? Hacking might not have the answer to all these questions but it is certainly part of a solution to a sustainable future

Eliana Otta, Virtual Sanctuary for Fertilizing Mourning, 2022. Driving the Human. Photo by Camille Blake

Eliana Otta, Virtual Sanctuary for Fertilizing Mourning, 2022. Driving the Human. Photo by Camille Blake

Eliana Otta, Virtual Sanctuary for Fertilizing Mourning (Research trips in Peru)

Eliana Otta, Virtual Sanctuary for Fertilizing Mourning (Cristian Java)

The most moving work for me was Virtual Sanctuary for Fertilizing Mourning because it gives a face, a history and a dignity to the eco-activists who risk their lives in the Peruvian rainforest to preserve biodiversity, wildlife and a certain way to exist within nature. They are at the forefront of a fight that matters immensely to the whole planet. Yet, we know so little about these protectors of the rainforest.

The project commemorates the deaths of indigenous leaders and environmental activists assassinated in recent years in Peru while defending their territories from deforestation, mining and drug trafficking.

Over the course of a year and a half, Eliana Otta worked together with the families and communities of the assassinated eco-activists to create virtual tours of the areas they strove to protect. Oral histories, memories, songs and all the information that the communities found suitable to share, contribute to sharing fragments of the universe they inhabit.

The digital memorial was accompanied in Berlin by objects, seeds, feathers, portraits and stories related to these communities. They reveal an important dimension often left out from the police documents and news stories that reports on these crimes: the leaders killed in unclear circumstances were not just victims, they were also passionate human beings with families, stories and ethics.

The work also reminds us that the killing of indigenous activists is only one latest episodes from a long history of oppression, displacement and other forms of violence that are taking place in the region since the colonisation of the Americas.

More photos and projects from Driving the Human:

Hyeseon Jeong and Seongmin Yuk, The Backpack of Wings: Modern Mythology, 2022. Driving the Human. Photo by Camille Blake

Hyeseon Jeong and Seongmin Yuk, The Backpack of Wings: Modern Mythology, 2022. Driving the Human. Photo by Camille Blake

Hyeseon Jeong and Seongmin Yuk, The Backpack of Wings: Modern Mythology, 2022. Driving the Human. Photo by Camille Blake

The Backpack of Wings: Modern Mythology draws from both scientific uses of bio-geo tracking technology for wild animals and the belief that animals “sense” incoming seisms and other natural disasters. As wildlife tracking techniques evolve, animal behaviour data might make it possible to forecast natural catastrophes in the near future. Are we going to develop new appreciation of other animals in the process? Will techniques of forecast based on animal “instinct” give way to new relationships with wildlife?

Vincent Rumahloine and Mang Dian, Sedekah Benih, 2022. Driving the Human. Photo by Camille Blake

Vincent Rumahloine and Mang Dian, Sedekah Benih, 2022. Driving the Human. Photo by Camille Blake

‘Sedekah’ is a term derived from the Arabic word sadakah, an act of voluntary giving by Muslims without limitations in time or amount. ‘Benih’ means seeds.

Indonesian artist Vincent Rumahloine researches the traditional ecological knowledge that is passed down in society from generation to generation. At the root of the project is the belief that traditional knowledge can be treasured, developed and shared to empower local communities and help solve issues such as lack of resilience, biodiversity crisis and a general disregard for rural expertise. Teaming up with Mang Dian, Rumahloine uses seed sharing as a vehicle to develop a common language between science and society and between communities from different backgrounds and geographical origins.

Xiaoyu Iris Qu, Do AIs Dream of Climate Chaos: Symbiotic AI, 2022. Driving the Human. Photo by Camille Blake

Xiaoyu Iris Qu, Do AIs Dream of Climate Chaos: Symbiotic AI, 2022. Driving the Human. Photo by Camille Blake

Xiaoyu Iris Qu’s prototype, Do AIs Dream of Climate Chaos: Symbiotic AI, imagines a world where machine intelligence interacts not with the intelligence of humans but with the intelligence of butterflies, oak trees, lichen, hedgehogs, etc. The project explores the impact of AI on a local level, the kind of storytelling that emerges from this nature-AI interaction and what other species’ perspectives can add to the human one. An oak tree, for example, has a more long-term perspective than a human.

Anne-Sofie Belling, Bea Delgado Corrales, Romy Kaiser and Paula Nerlich, Human-Bacteria Interfaces, 2022. Driving the Human. Photo by Camille Blake

Human-Bacteria Interfaces looks at the possibility of designing microbes to become living sensors that can respond to stimuli based on their genetic design. Ultimately, the work invites us to build more meaningful relationships with microorganisms because of what they already do for us and what they could also do with us.

Driving the Human. Photo by Camille Blake

Driving the Human. Photo by Camille Blake

Driving the Human. Photo by Camille Blake

Driving the Human is supported by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment. The cooperation is coordinated by four institutions: acatech – National Academy of Science and Engineering, the international mentoring program Forecast, the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design and ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe. Curator and design critic Vera Sacchetti was the Program Coordinator and Freo Majer, the artistic director.

The next episodes of the Driving the Human adventures include the presentation of the seven prototypes in conjunction with the exhibition Renaissance 3.0 (March 25 – October 8 2023) at ZKM, as well as the launch of the Driving the Human publication with Mousse publishers, in Spring 2023.

9 Jan. 2023

A review of Censored Art Today, by journalist and Chief Contributing Editor of The Art Newspaper Gareth Harris. Published by Lund Humphries.

Cleon Peterson, MAGA Republicans Want to Control Your Body, 2022. Billboard Companies Have Censored Artists’ ‘Inflammatory’ Designs for a Pro-Voting Campaign in Georgia

Emin Alper, Burning Days (Kurak Günler), 2022. Photo

In March 2022, Russian artist Sasha Skochilenko swapped price tags in a supermarket in Saint Petersburg with little paper labels containing information about the invasion of Ukraine. She was arrested and remains in custody, facing a 10 year sentence. More recently, Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism demanded that filmmaker Emin Alper pay back the funds the ministry had given to support the film — with interest. The film is Kurak Günler (Burning days) and the spurious pretext for the governmental request is that the film is an “LGBTQ propaganda film.”

Unfortunately, Skochilenko and Alper are not the only artists who have been punished for expressing their views or simply for tackling issues that some authorities find unpalatable. A growing number of creative practitioners across the world have been censored, attacked, arrested or otherwise silenced in recent years. In its State of Artistic Freedom Report 2022 (PDF of the report), Freemuse, an international NGO advocating for freedom of artistic expression and cultural diversity, details the extent of oppression and violations of artistic freedom.

In 2021, more than 1,200 violations of creative freedom were documented. Among them is a record number of 39 artists who were reportedly killed that year. More than 500 artists faced legal consequences for challenging the authorities, public figures and religious and traditional values. Women, the LGBTQIA+ community and artists of a minority ethnic background are disproportionately victims of this deterioration of artistic freedom.

Why is censorship on the rise? What forms does it take? Who are the censors and who are their targets? What are the consequences of blacklisting art?

In Censored Art Today, Gareth Harris attempts to explore some of these questions. His research concentrates on 5 main areas: political censorship in China, Cuba and the Middle East; the suppression of LGBTQ+ artists in ‘illiberal democracies’; the algorithms policing art online; Western museums and ‘cancel culture’; and the narratives around ‘problematic’ monuments.

Wang Xingwei New Beijing, 2001. One of the paintings removed from an exhibition at M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong

Chapter 1 looks at the rising subjugation of artists and museums in Hong Kong and Cuba just as their inhabitants had been experiencing wider freedom both physically and virtually. In Hong Kong, the Chinese Communist Party is not only clamping down on freedom of expression but also is also intent on rewriting history. In Cuba, the government of Miguel Díaz-Canel has passed Decree 349 and Decree 370. The first one prohibits artists, including collectives, musicians and performers, from operating in public or private spaces without prior approval by the Ministry of Culture. The second curbs communications on social media.

Instead of silencing artists, conservative, autocratic and oil-rich Middle Eastern states are adopting a more insidious approach. In order to boost their soft power credentials, they deploy cultural institutions for political ends, ‘artwash’ their national brands and detract attention from human rights issues.

Elżbieta Podleśna, Black Madonna of Częstochowa with rainbow halos, 2019

Dorota Nieznalska, Pasja/Passion, 2001 (photo)

The work “Banners from Plac Wilsona – 30.10.2020” by Krzysztof Powierza consisted of banners from protests against the tightening of the abortion law in Poland was censored for being too politically-charged (photo)

The chapter dedicated to the Suppression of LGBTQ+ Artists in ‘Illiberal Democracies” examines how governments and religious groups in Turkey, Brazil and Poland use legislation and other tactics to quash LGBTQ+ artists and art institutions hosting shows focused on gender, sexuality and anti-racist themes.

Instagram eventually decided to override its nudity ban for a poster designed by Javier Jaén to promote Pedro Almodóvar’s film, Madres Paralelas. Unfortunately, says The National Coalition Against Censorship, “most artists are not Pedro Almodóvar”

Vienna strips on OnlyFans. Vienna museums open adult-only OnlyFans account to display nudes

“Cultural capital, or the soft power of art, seems to hold little currency among companies such as Facebook and YouTube, whose appeals procedures have become only slightly more transparent over time,” writes Harris in chapter 3. That section of the book attempts to make sense of the pervasiveness of censorship on social media, a space where artists build critical profiles and where art institutions promote their programmes. Unfortunately, social media are also rife with technological flaws and with ambiguous, if not downright opaque and shifting, community guidelines.

Just like what happens with the forms of censorship described in previous chapters: artists often have to self-censor by carefully filtering and modifying their works.

Philip Guston, Riding Around, 1969. More background in Artists Speak against the Postponement of ‘Philip Guston Now’

A legal smear campaign against Alistair Hudson, the museum director of the Whitworth art gallery in Manchester after he refused to remove a statement of solidarity displayed in Cloud Studies, a show by Forensic Architecture

Imaginary portrait of Genghis Khan (14th century), National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan. Genghis Khan exhibition in France postponed after Chinese authorities demand words including ‘Genghis Khan’, ‘Empire’ and ‘Mongol’ be removed from the show

The chapter about Western Museums and ‘Cancel Culture’ gives a critical overview of the dilemmas and pressures that public institutions face today. Museums are expected to act as platforms for artists, enabling creative practitioners to express themselves freely without external constraints. They should also respect a series of diversity and inclusion imperatives, be more sensitive to the concerns of an increasingly engaged activist audience and keep an eye on the necessity to retain public and private funding.

Harris gives examples of institutions that manage to navigate the various challenges and expectations. In 2018, for example, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia kept an exhibition of Chuck Close photographs open in spite of allegations of sexual misconduct against him. Instead of shunning debate, PAFA added a parallel show of acclaimed women artists called The Art World We Want and invited the public to share their opinions about the necessary steps that would lead to a more equitable and diverse art world.

The statue of Bristol slave trader Edward Colston, which was retrieved from the water after being toppled during a Black Lives Matter protest, is on view at the M Shed museum in Bristol

The final section, The Narratives around ‘Problematic’ Monuments, explores the tensions between what constitutes, for some people, a source of national pride and what remains, for others, a cruel reminder of colonialism and a testimony to the continuity between the injustices of the past and the present.

The movement to tear down controversial historical monuments presents a reversal of the power dynamic discussed in earlier chapters. Statues do not fall because those in power say so. They fall because citizens take the initiative. The other difference is that removing monuments do not necessarily amount to censoring. The request to remove a monument is accompanied by debates on how and whether it should be moved elsewhere, put in a broader context or accompanied with nuanced narratives.

Monster Chetwynd, A Monument to the Unstuffy and Anti-Bureaucratic, 2019, from Testament at Goldsmiths CCA. Photo: Rob Harris

Censored Art Today is insightful, easy to read and packed with analyses of episodes of art suppression from all over the world. I particularly welcomed the balanced/careful perspective in the evaluation of the examples studied in chapters 5 and 6.

Censored Art Today is both disheartening and comforting. The silencing of artistic expression results not only in loss of professional opportunities for artists but also in widespread self-censoring. On the bright side, audiences seem to be more attuned than ever to the concerns behind the artworks or exhibitions judged by some to be contentious. Many of the challenges that artists encounter today are also relayed in online art publications, and in particular blogs like Hyperallergic or Harris’ own Trigger Warning. I’d also recommend anyone interested in the issue to follow the work of Artists at Risk Connection, an organisation that safeguards the right to artistic freedom of expression and shares the stories of persecuted artists.

Related (and somewhat related) stories: Nonument, the hidden, abandoned and forgotten monuments of the 20th century (part 1) and (part 2: How artists deal with old monuments that polarise opinions); Whistleblowing for Change. Exposing Systems of Power & Injustice; Global Control And Censorship. A quick tour of the RIXC festival exhibition; János Brückner. Making visible the influence of politics on culture; La Movida. Or the need for countercultural movements; Unauthorized images: when absurd gag laws call for absurd (but witty) artworks, etc.

30 Dec. 2022

A review of the book Becoming Geological, edited by programmer, writer, performer, artist and explorer Martin Howse. Published by V2_Publishing.

Humankind has always been dirty and harshly geological, through intentional incorporation of earthly and thus cosmic elements (as part of medicinal or spiritual practices), and within a direct connection with a slowly changing earthly and cosmic environment. The earth authors us.

Some 2500 years ago, Greek philosopher Empedocles stated that all matter was made of different combinations of four elements: air, fire, wind and earth. Becoming Geological asks the reader to not just focus on our earth component but to become earth and also cosmic and metal. Embracing our geological existence might seem absurd at first but if you think about it, our bodies already contain metal elements, naturally or not: the iron in our blood, the dental fillings, titanium hip replacement, the zinc pills some of us took in the hope that it would ward off the coronavirus, the kidney stones, etc. And then there’s the insidious metal we inhale, the anthropogenic indicators we breathe in and out: the compounds of human-made materials released when forests burn, the isotopes from nuclear testing, the metallic dust from mining sites, etc. Could we extract those metal elements from our own bodies and put them to good use?

Over the course of a series of workshops, the Tiny Mining community attempted to do just that. They explored how to mine precious and rare earth minerals from within their own bodies. The book is inspired by their research, experiences and experiments. It aims to guide us and help us embrace our geological essence and live within new planetary and cosmic techno-cycles.

Hans Baldung Grien, The Bewitched Groom, 1544

Anaïs Tondeur, Mourning the infinite, 2022

I immensely enjoyed this book and wish I could visit the exhibition it accompanies. Even though there is something utterly bizarre about the idea of “becoming metal, becoming earth and becoming cosmic,” I found the thinking exercise so challenging that I now look at life, the world, myself differently. In a way that I never have despite the countless conferences, books and exhibitions I’ve attended that urge us to (re)connect with the living -mostly plants and animals. Perhaps because there is something singularly sincere, intimate and meaningful, something less performative in what I perceive from the Tiny Mining practice. Or perhaps because its ideas and ethics took me so much by surprise when I first heard them that they still haunt me. The main reason why I’d recommend the Becoming Geological book though is the variety of perspectives on Tiny Mining it presents. The editor, Martin Howse, asked philosophers, artists, geologists, anthropologists, volcanologists and other thinkers what becoming geological means for our sense and our ethics. Here are a few words about some of the essays I enjoyed the most:

Reflecting on the Tiny Mining “sweatshop”, Agnieszka Anna Wołodźko, a lecturer and researcher at AKI Academy of Art and Design ArtEZ, notes how, in their narratives, the members presents the human as the radical other to the non-living earth. By doing so, they follow the capitalist logic of the radical difference between what is human and what is considered as Nature, positioning the human outside the logic of co-relation and dependency. However, as the Tiny Mining practice of mapping the co-relation of the moon with their metal harvest suggests, human bodies are objects of planetary manipulations. Observing the movements of planetary bodies will lead to a deeper understanding of human bodies. We don’t need Elon Musk to be a multi-planet species.

Matthäus Merian the Elder, VI. CLAVIS, The sixth key, The Twelve Keys of Basil Valentine, Basil Valentine, 1678

Cecilia Jonsson in collaboration with Dr. Rodrigo Leite de Oliveira, Haem, 2016

Anthropologist Aaron Parkhurst reflected upon the contribution that the Tiny Mining practice offers to debates within anthropology, and medical anthropology more specifically. “When minerals and metals are extracted from the body, how does it change the social constitution of those minerals?”, he asked. “What new ethics does it open upon the people who take part?” His reasoning was based on the Tiny Mining experiments but also on two facts. The first one took place during the Holocaust when Heinrich Himmler gave the SS orders to collect gold teeth from individuals who died in death camps. The gold was melted down and added to national gold stocks, and then traded to the Swiss national bank. The social life of bullion in Europe after the war, Parkhurst concluded, is thus still tainted by the immense tragedy suffered by the unnamed dead and their families. Such social lives of minerals still shape political, cultural and economic relations. The second example he gives about this deep connection between minerals and human life is related to the ISS Urine Processor Assembly which converts human urine and flush water into potable water. The initial operations failed due to the excess calcium excreted by astronauts due to extreme osteopenia associated with microgravity living.

For the anthropologist, Tiny Mining is a thought experiment that speculates on a future ecology that might be tied more intimately to the cycles of consumption and production that sustain the body and the community.

Rosa Whiteley, Pollution Allures

In his essay, Michael Marder, Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country, UPV/EHU, Vitoria-Gasteiz, connected and contrasted two ways of becoming geological today. The first is the gradual decomposition of a corpse into the earth from which it eventually becomes indistinguishable (even though the mysteries of modern life can sometimes slow down the decomposition process.) The second involves the by-products of industrial techno-bodies, encrusted in geological strata, as well as, in the shape of microscopic fragments or nanoparticles, in the lungs and other tissues of all that lives.

Philosopher Patricia MacCormack‘s sharp and perceptive essay denounces our “exclusionary anthropocentrism” and the harm that what Carol Adams calls the ‘arrogant eye’ of human exceptionalism is doing to the other sentient species and to the Earth in general. “We are civilised when it suits us, and biological imperatives when it excuses us,” MacCormack writes.

Tiny Mining, for the philosopher, fits into a scenario in which humans are becoming resources for unknown life, in which we can be utilised as a part of the many strata of the Earth. This willingness to become strata for the Earth, however, does not reverse our power from imperator to ‘victim’.

The six artists who participate in the Becoming Geological exhibition at V2_ also contribute to the book with texts that consider the intimate connections between technological, planetary, cosmic and earthly bodies.

I was particularly fascinated by Alfonso Borragán‘s piece about the enthusiasm, among the elite of the 16th and 17th century, for bezoar stones. They would ingest these body stones for their purported magical and medicinal qualities. Bezoars are enteroliths, mineral concretions or calculus sometimes formed in the gastrointestinal system of ruminants. In order to find only one, sometimes 100 animals had to be killed.

Previously: Tiny Mining. Extracting minerals from our own body, Interview with Cecilia Jonsson, the artist who extracts iron from invasive weeds, An artificial planet made entirely of human bodies.

Becoming Geological, curated by Martin Howse and Florian Weigl, remains open at V2_, Lab for the Unstable Media, in Rotterdam until 8 January 2023 (the exhibition is closed in the period from 24-12-2022 until 4-1-2023.)

23 Dec. 2022

Every day, a flood, a new virus variant, the disappearance of an endemic species or a news story about the extent of plastic pollution across the globe or inside our bodies reminds us of the urgency of decolonising nature, of developing a deeper connection with non-human species and of better understanding the emergence of new ecosystems where the artificial and the natural contaminate each other.

Repairing the Present: REWILD. Installation view at MAXXI. Photo: ©Musacchio, Ianniello, Pasqualini & Fucilla

Repairing the Present: REWILD, an exhibition which opened at the MAXXI Museum in Rome in October, presented the research of artists who have collaborated with science centres and artistic institutions to investigate new connections and engagements with life under our feet or out there in outer space.

The works exhibited were developed within the framework of the S+T+ARTS Residencies which enable creative minds to develop their research in collaboration with innovation centres and art institutions across Europe. Most of the projects were still very much at the work-in-progress stage. Hence the difficulty to assess in which directions they might end up going. The vague and ultra concise description of the works provided by the gallery brochure and wall panels didn’t help me get a clear sense of the quality of each project either. I’m also a bit dubious about the programme’s claim that we could “repair the present.” However, the artists selected are so talented and the themes so compelling that I am looking forward to discovering the final stages of each piece. I’ll come back in the coming days with an interview with Adriana Knouf about her research in speculative satellite construction and space exploration but in the meantime here are a couple of other works that caught my interest while in was in Rome:

Penelope Cain, One and the Care of Many, 2022

Penelope Cain, One and the Care of Many, 2022

Penelope Cain, One and the Care of Many, 2022. Installation view at MAXXI. Photo: ©Musacchio, Ianniello, Pasqualini & Fucilla

With One and the Care of Many, Penelope Cain is developing a series of lichen-centric experimental provocations that would make us reassess and re-configure the relationship between humans and the rest of the living world.

The composition of the lichen inspires the project. Lichens have long been considered as the symbiotic association of a fungus and a partner which can be either green algae or cyanobacteria, or both. The fungus hosts the partner, which provides photosynthetically fixed carbon as an energy source for the system. Other organisms have been gradually discovered within the thallus, such as multiple algal species, yeasts, viruses and even a microbiome, a community of microorganisms living together on the lichen surface and performing a number of functions.

Through the brief to reimagine nature in the city, Penelope Cain looks at lichens as role models for multi-member communities living in symbiosis. Her research draws parallels between lichens and cities. Both are populations that thrive on interspecies collaboration and mutual care.

Another astonishing of lichens is their remarkable resilience. Lichens can grow on almost every type of land surface. Some have adapted to survive in extreme environments such as the arctic tundra, hot dry deserts, rocky coasts and toxic slag heaps. Some lichens are considered to be among the oldest living things on Earth. Artist Rachel Sussman photographed lichens that are over 2,000 years old. Known as the map lichens, Rhizocarpon geographicum, they grow on Greenland.

Penelope Cain, One and the Care of Many (detail), 2022

Referencing the Euro-pagan symbol of the Greenman, Roman mosaics and drawings by botanist Ernst Haeckel, the artist created a face of lichens that symbolises lichens’ many talents: the genus of lichen found to survive in space, the lichen absorbing gamma radiation near the Fukushima nuclear power station and a climate responsive lichen emerging in the warming winters of the Dutch forests on recently re-claimed lands. The mosaic portrait exhibited by Cain on a wall of the MAXXI exemplifies the kind of ultra-adaptable and resistant species we will encounter in the botanical gardens of the late Anthropocene.

If I understood correctly, the mosaic is made using ceramic-like tiles made of geopolymer with design areas for water, dust and lichen.

Olga Kisseleva in collaboration with Liu Bauer, Cities Live Like Trees, 2022

Olga Kisseleva in collaboration with Liu Bauer, Cities Live Like Trees, 2022. Installation view at MAXXI. Photo: ©Musacchio, Ianniello, Pasqualini & Fucilla

Another project that has a lot of potential is Cities Live Like Trees. The research focuses on the analogies and potential for cooperation between trees and cities. Like trees, a city is alive and growing and the map of its streets is somewhat similar to the map of the roots of its trees.

Olga Kisseleva’s research investigates citizens’ behaviours, emotions and tendency to deviate towards certain trees or greener areas as they walk through a city.

The artist and her collaborators on the Roman chapter of the project worked with depersonalised data generated by mobile phones, visualised them as a heat map and analysed how often a tree is on the path of people. The project then identified both the shortest and the greenest journeys within the city and calculates the green index of urban mobility based on the relation between the number of trees of a given greener trip and its equivalent shorter path. The calculation resulting from this investigation was presented at the MAXXI as a mural painting.

By analysing psychogeographical patterns, Cities Live Like Trees aims to address the presence of solastalgia in urban spaces, explore the interconnectedness of human and vegetal realms and make emerge a prospective urban development map that would follow an arborescent structure.

The project could also help citizens consider new ways to improve the role, multiplication and space of trees in city development. Not only because planting more trees would make it easier for urban dwellers to face increasingly high temperatures but also because plants play a crucial role in citizens’ mental wellbeing.

David Shongo and Filip Van Dingenen, Suskewiet Visions, 2022. Installation view at MAXXI. Photo: ©Musacchio, Ianniello, Pasqualini & Fucilla

David Shongo and Filip Van Dingenen, Suskewiet Visions, 2022

David Shongo and Filip Van Dingenen, Suskewiet Visions, 2022

Suskewiet Visions is a project departing from the folkloristic tradition of Suskewiet, a rather cruel competition that consists in trapping a single male finch inside a wooden box while it calls for mates. At a timekeeper’s signal, the observers begin to count the birds’ calls, making tally marks on long wooden sticks. After one hour, the bird that has sung the most calls is the winner.

The project explores how the protocols of a game played by humans using caged birds can become a starting point to develop a universal tool to learn and listen differently to our environment, recontextualising folklore to re-calibrate our relation towards the nonhuman by developing new languages for navigation and orientation in areas critically affected by climate change such as the ones located in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

More artworks and images from the exhibition Repairing the Present: REWILD at MAXXI in Rome:

Samira Benini Allaouat, Geo-llum, 2022. Installation view at MAXXI. Photo: ©Musacchio, Ianniello, Pasqualini & Fucilla

Susi Gutsche, Trace Waste, 2022

Susi Gutsche, Trace Waste, 2022. Installation view at MAXXI. Photo: ©Musacchio, Ianniello, Pasqualini & Fucilla

Susi Gutsche, Trace Waste, 2022. Installation view at MAXXI. Photo: ©Musacchio, Ianniello, Pasqualini & Fucilla

Susi Gutsche, Trace Waste, 2022. Installation view at MAXXI. Photo: ©Musacchio, Ianniello, Pasqualini & Fucilla

Lugh O’Neill, Karst (video still), 2022

Johanna Schmeer & Studio Lapatsch|Unger, Bodies Of Water, 2022

Repairing the Present: REWILD was curated by Manuel Cirauqui. The show is part of the Repairing the Present programme, a triptych of exhibitions and a series of accompanying events presented throughout the fall of 2022 at Ars Electronica (Linz), MEET (Milan), MAXXI (Rome), ZKM (Karlsruhe) and the Cinquantenaire (Brussels).

Previous stories about exhibitions at MAXXI: Re:Humanism. Using AI to question anthropocentrism, REAL_ITALY. A country under the unflinching gaze of its artists, The Street. Where the World Is Made, Bigger than Myself. Heroic Voices from ex-Yugoslavia, etc.

16 Dec. 2022

A few years ago, Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) took venerable auction houses, museums, fairs and other major players of the art world by storm. Many mainstream art magazines hailed NFTs not only as a “great investment”, but also as a godsend for digital artists who can finally be paid for their work. NFTs are also said to be “more democratic” because they make art collecting affordable for people with modest budgets. But what about the astronomical amount of electricity consumed by the technology behind NFTs? The volatility concerns? Or the safety? And, perhaps more interestingly, can you create NFTs while also being critical of its market and infrastructure?

César Escudero Andaluz, METAMANTEROS, Digital activists in Web3, 2022

César Escudero Andaluz, Guerrilla NFT, 2022

When I don’t know what to make of a phenomenon or when I feel that my view of it lacks nuance, I turn to artists. I look for someone whose research and artworks scrutinise the social, political or ethical dimensions of a technology and then I ask them if they have a moment for an interview. César Escudero Andaluz (whom I interviewed in the past) is going to be my Virgil in this descent into the depths of NFT.

Earlier this year, César organised a workshop addressed to those who have some doubts and questions about NFTs, blockchain, the metaverse and digital culture in general. Participants were invited to create an avatar able to sell pirate NFT in Second Life but then they also downloaded NFTs, recorded them on floppies and collaborated in a performance by selling the pirated NFTs in public spaces. The new “business” had the objective to “empower artists to research and develop critical practices that explore the socio-political potential of NFT technology.”

César Escudero Andaluz, Guerrilla NFT workshop, 2022

César Escudero Andaluz, Guerrilla NFT, 2022

The workshop was part of an ongoing art project called Metamanteros, digital activist in Web3. A few words about the name “Metamanteros” first. I won’t insult you with an explanation of Meta. The second part of the word is a reference to the manteros (“blanketmen”), the street vendors who sell counterfeit goods on the street, such as music CDs, bags, video games, clothes, watches, etc. They sell their products on the street on a blanket (manta) and fold the blanket back with all the goods inside and run when they notice the police presence. In Spain, Manteros are migrants from countries such as Senegal and Guinea-Bissau, usually forced by mafias to work.

Metamateros consists in the creation of 3D avatars that act as digital migrants who travel anonymously from metaverse to metaverse, (Mozilla hub, Decentraland, Sandbox, cryptovortex or Zuckerberg’s metaverse) trading data and digital assets.

The Metamanteros series is witty and a bit provocative. Ultimately, however, the works are about artistic precariousness, the price of human labour and the resistance against artificial scarcity, speculation in the art market and what the artist calls the tokenisation of everything.

César Escudero Andaluz is an artist, a researcher and a lecturer at Interface Cultures at University of Arts in Linz. He also organises the annual event Sankt Interface (which starts today at 5pm CET.)

César not only explained to me the many ways that NFTs instrumentalise the infrastructures and processes of digital art creation. He was also generous enough to point me to other artists’ and researchers’ works.

César Escudero Andaluz, Guerrilla NFT, 2022

Hi César! The Guerrilla NFT Workshop was “addressed to those who have concerns with NFTs, blockchain, the metaverse, media Art, digital culture, critical economy and hacktivism.” I follow more or less what happens in contemporary art (and by that I mean the more conventional gallery, collectors and fair type) and I don’t see many people concerned with NFT. So I’m curious about the kind of people that the workshop attracted. Are they just curious people, other artists or potential collectors of NFTs? What motivated people to join the workshop?

Hi Régine, I’m glad you ask me this question, this workshop was one of the outcomes of (Un)sustainable?! art in residency launched in 2022 by mur.at. The intention of this open call was to support artists who explore in their artworks the concept of sustainability in technology. This workshop was presented during the”Worklab” session, also hosted by mur.at together with all the artists who participated in the residency, theorists from the city of Graz and other art production initiatives such as Servus.at, or the Interface Cultures department from the art university of Linz.

In this Guerrilla NFT workshop, I introduced theoretical concepts, examples, artworks and books to understand the world of NFTs and then I proposed the practical part consisting in a collaborative performance by selling pirated NFTs in public spaces, which previously we downloaded and we stored in floppy disks.

But, answering your question… No, this Worklab did not attract anyone related to the art market, galleries, collectors or art fairs, the reason is that they are generally not interested in developing new artistic methodologies or critical thinking and because they generally do not support artists in their first years of career. They are interested in selling artistic products that give them economic benefits. But, art is not only about money, but art is also about society and it is about experiences of learning methodologies and political approaches. Art creates cultural awareness. Art gives consensus to the reality that is not written at the stroke of a chequebook.

César Escudero Andaluz, Guerrilla NFT, 2022

My question will probably sound very naive but could you imagine bringing similar critiques and conversations to a contemporary art fair?

An NFTs fair would be a great context for the Guerrilla NFT performance, to enter into dialogue and place on the table issues that matter to artists, especially the economic ecosystem of emerging artists. But, it is not the only place to bring this discourse, for example the economist and digital policy expert Francesca Bria talks in an interview in the platform The Crypto Syllabus about the need to begin a process of liberating artists from the data extractivist clutches of Spotify, and therefore of the so-called “creator economy”. Bria argues that for the contextualisation of art and culture we need to pay for them as public goods, not as something funded by advertising or data collection or any other “Web3” model.

Continuing with this discourse, the artist and researcher Geraldine Juárez argues that in web3 the assets are not the content, the assets are the object of interest of investors and calls it: a situation of subversive opportunism, in which investors believe they are doing something good and proclaim that artists should participate to create a “slightly better capitalism”. In addition, the art media researcher Martin Zeilinger argues that these platforms have full control not only over information about all sales, prices, artists, etc. but can position artists and give them visibility and the resulting revenues, which can be seen as a form of control that Zeilinger compares to the treatment of creators throughout the history of intellectual property regimes. Contributing to these platforms is therefore not a form of artistic liberation, but a return to regimes of control over creativity. Zeilinger argues that it is important for activists and artists to be treated as professionals whose work performs crucially important tasks in exploring the socio-political, economic and aesthetic potentials of this technology.

César Escudero Andaluz, Guerrilla NFT, 2022

I also wonder about your tactics and tools. First of all, in Guerrilla NFT, you use supports like floppy disks! And in the Metamanteros performance, you try to engage users of Second Life in critical discussions about NFTs. Why did you decide to work with a platform and a support format that have a bit of a vintage aura?

I chose to work with Second Life because, even though it is one of the oldest Metaverses, it is the one that gives users the most freedom to customise avatars. I tried to do the same in other platforms like Decentraland and the possibilities were restricted by an interface that only let you choose between a few predetermined possibilities. Also SL was more active and the users were more interesting.

The reason why I used floppy disks is that after analysing the characteristic of NFTs I concluded that NFTs add layers of complexity to what already exists. It seemed to me that nowadays to find an obsolete floppy disk reader is also adding another degree of difficulty in accessing information.

Your work attempts to resist the “tokenisation of everything.” What do you mean by that?

The tokenisation of everything is one of the threats posed by the model proposed by Zuckerberg in his Metaverse and also in NFT videogames such as Etheremon, or “Fishbank Alpha” based on Ethereum smart contracts. These new metaverses and video games aim to be the result of the experimentations that web3 platforms have made within the art world, producing artificial scarcity, and creating and controlling new markets in which artists and users are treated as consumers of a valuable service. In the words of the professor of Digital Culture and Network Theories Felix Stalder: ”there is an excess of utopian thinking.” In the metaverse, avatars can move and interact with other avatars and other metaverses, but also trade tokenised objects, books, music, movies and other services. Behind the scenes, the intention of all these platforms is to turn digital objects into unique and saleable entities.

You also link NFTs with human labour, artistic precariousness, speculation in the art market, etc. But doesn’t NFT provide artists with an opportunity to subvert/hijack/sabotage and push back against the capitalistic mechanisms your work denounces?

No. The NFTs inhabit the Blockchain, and the Blockchain, as David Golumbia explains in his book The Politics of Bitcoin is a form of cyberlibertarianism, –a system where government and banking currently have no jurisprudence, and the capital has all the power. In this direction, all NFTs platforms are raised with the aim of promoting the creation of digital assets, as well as encouraging the dissemination and trade of digital art objects and the authentication of digital artworks on Blockchain. On the other hand, it is true that some digital creators have been rewarded for their activity. I am happy for them.

Your essay Metattention. Art and economy in the age of behavioural modification explains that Metamanteros are provided with “a manual refusing to work for free and trade in virtual environments through unsustainable NFTs.” That is another issue I keep wondering about. I see tweets by critical digital artists who say they have just created an NFT in a “sustainable way”. Is it possible? Can you really make “green NFTs”?

In early 2021, Martín Nadal and I came up with the idea of creating a manual to dismantle capitalism and to advise and warn artists about the consequences and dangers of playing with NFTs. This idea was developed and presented in the framework of the artist in residency EAE (Experiments in Art & Economics) (Experiments in Art & Economics), which we were invited to participate in by the initiative In4art and the museum of art and new media ZKM. This workshop brought together artists, researchers and economists such as the art collective RYBN, Livia Nolasco-Rozsas, Ludger Brummer, Stefano Puntoni, Rodolfo, Lija Groenewoud van Vliet and more, in a series of online meetings and a final presentation of the results at the ZKM. EAE is an initiative to rethink the economy through artistic experimentation, unfortunately the project is paralysed due to lack of funds.

But, answering your question. Yes, we could talk about several approaches, one is ecological and another is economical. In terms of energy consumption, most of the NFT platforms are powered by the Ethereum blockchain that was Proof of work (PoW) until September 2022, this means that in order to avoid double expending, the system relies on a network of distributed miners, a network where anyone can participate and get a reward in the form of cryptocurrency, but this network of miners (computers) has grown so much that the expenditure of electricity and resources could be compared with a country like Portugal. Additionally, a simple Ethereum transition of a few euros or one NFT is equivalent to the energy consumption of a USA household for 4.51 days, or the equivalent of a carbon footprint of more than 160,000 VISA transactions, or 12,412 hours of watching YouTube.

For this reason some artists such as Memo Akten or Kyle McDonald denounced the situation that Martin Nadal and I have been denouncing since 2016 with our work Bittercoin, the works miner ever. In 2021 Memo Akten, launched his project CryptoArt.wtf, a website that shows in real time the costs of minting, bidding and selling images from NFTs markets in terms of energy use and Co2 emission. The site displayed NFTs and creator’s information, time, transactions and a visualisation of data comparing years of electricity consumption per person, hours of flying and driving, and other normal life actions such as boiling water, using a computer, etc. It is also true that Etherum, after 8 years, has changed to Proof of Stake (PoS) ending any idea of decentralization at the same time.

The second part, the economically unsustainable part, falls on the creator and by this I mean the cost of minting, gas fees, account fees and listing fees which is proportional to the cost of the cryptocurrency. Minting an NFT in Ethereum can vary between $50-$100, depending on the price of ETH. This means that on the web3 artists pay for exhibit and for to try to sell their creations. The ¨Metamanteros¨ and the ¨NFT guerrilla¨ take up these discourses of economic unsustainability when as poor artists they tried to adapt their practices to this new economic model. In their performances, the Metamanteros shows a certificate of fake that collects all the conclusions of my research:

1-. NFTs are not a new paradigm of art.

2-. NFTs add layers of technological complexity and financial speculation to what already exists.

3-. NFT is a contract that does not certify the authenticity of the work.

4-. NFTs market spaces adopt the established rules of the art market.

5-. NFTs are certificates that do not imply exclusive use of an artwork.

6-. NFT market spaces set up economic barriers by requiring artists to invest upfront in the purchase of cryptocurrencies and the minting of NFTs.

7-. NFT platforms can be cheap to start with and can make the price more expensive, making it inaccessible for low income artists.

8-. Some NFT platforms restrict access by invitation (just like the old art market.)

9-. Open access NFT platforms have no quality filter and no expert jury, so they are overcrowded with poor-quality works.

10-. NFTs are usually limited in size and format by the platforms themselves.

11-. An NFT does not ensure that the work is authentic or original.

12-. NFTs aim to generate artificial scarcity through the blockchain.

13-. Once the NFT is minted, artists have to use their own techniques and contacts to sell it.

14-. There is no transparency on NFT data sales. Sometimes sales do not cover the costs of minting.

15-. NFTs can also diminish race, gender and geopolitical inequalities.

16-. Playing with NFTs at the marketplace minting, selling and collecting can provoke addiction.

17-. NFT platforms limit interaction to mint, buy and sell NFTs, they do not give the option to chat between sellers who are forced to migrate to other platforms to do so.

18-. Digital art has been issuing certificates of authenticity for decades without the need for blockchain.

19-. NFT market spaces encourage the creation of content, but deactivate the critical potential of the artist who participates in them.

20-. The metaverse is an experiment in terms of new forms of control and platforming.

21-. The metaverse alters rules, prices and quantities, with and without real-world consequences.

22-. The value of digital assets in the metaverse depends on their success and continuity.

23-. The metaverse is an incentive to capture users’ attention. This is the so-called attention economy.

24-. The intention of all these platforms is to turn digital objects into unique and saleable entities.

25-. In terms of creativity they propose nothing new and the possibilities to interact with them are limited by restrictive interfaces.

26-. In a Dapp there is nothing distributed, they are normal web applications.

27-. NFT platforms and metaverses do not empower artists, but rather serve to finance digital creative practices by restricting the critical potential of digital and potentially non-commercialised artistic production and expression.

28-. Web3 platforms have total control not only over information on all sales, prices, artists, etc.,

29-. Contributing to these platforms is therefore not a form of artistic liberation, but a return to regimes of control over creativity (Zeilinger, 2018.)

30-. NFTs not only produce artificial scarcity, but also aim to create and control new markets in which artists and users are treated as consumers of a valuable service (Zeilinger, 2018.)

Thank you César!

Previously: César Escudero Andaluz. So many ways to mess up with surveillance capitalism, Artists Re:Thinking the Blockchain, Value extraction and the workforce of the cryptocene, etc.

14 Dec. 2022

PLANÈTE B by Gwenola Wagon, an artist and professor in the Art Department of the Université de Paris 8. Published by éditions 369. The book is in French and this review will try and translate its ideas and nightmares.

Starting with the publisher’s presentation of the book: B runs a digital company called “A”. A is about to obtain the monopoly of sales on a planetary scale. It is, in a way, a total company. Along with its sales business, A revives NASA’s fantasies of the 1970s: building colonies and warehouses in space. And B sees himself as the pilot of the Enterprise, the Star Trek spaceship.

Why is the most prominent digital multinational, which controls so many products, secretly whipping up a huge plan to escape to space? A establishes a supernaturally efficient logistical infrastructure that radically transforms our relationship to the world.

In reality, it is not about B as an individual, nor is it about a society whose name starts with the first letter of the alphabet. It is neither about Jeff Bezos nor Amazon. B is no one in particular. A is a symptom.

Planet B is an essay that operates cross-checks and invents metaphors in order to apprehend a rapidly expanding monster. It tells the story of “planet B”, this hypermarket world generated by low resolution and by the speed of information propagation applied to everything. Like an outlet, Gwenola Wagon probes with seriousness and humour a logic which, through its delirious scale, escapes us.

Archizoom Associati, No-Stop City (Scale model), 1969-2001. Photo: © Philippe Magnon

Blue Origin’s coat of arms. Gradatim Ferociter, “Step by Step, Ferociously”

In her book, Gwenola Wagon mixes research, reflections and speculations to narrate the logic and absurdities of Planète B. She unfolds what she calls the “poison system”, a system that spread its tentacles in all directions and generates nefarious consequences at all levels.

We already know a lot about A and B. The mastership in tax evasion, the pavlovian signals the platform sends us, the devouring of smaller companies, etc. When A is not a shop, a provider of data hosting for governments and corporations, the owner of a legendary newspaper, a domestic security provider or the promoter of space tourism, it is a signifier of deplorable labour conditions, hyper profitability, unpaid taxes, hideous utilitarian warehouses, frenzied resource destruction, ransacked urban fabric, etc.

Wagon mentions the scandals and stories that we already know and recalls the ones we’ve forgotten about (that Whiskas Dash Button!) The reason why I’m reviewing her book is that the author also puts the story of A and B in a broader, even more bizarre context, conjuring the ideas of Shoshana Zuboff, Ray Bradbury, Philip K Dick, Rem Koolhaas, Archizoom to make sense (or not) of A’s trajectory and drawing parallels between B and the figures of marketing executive Bernardo Trujillo, analyst and futurologist Herman Kahn, navigator Captain Cook, lemurs and H. Irving Hancock in his fight against “bodily slovenliness.”

Physical training for business men. Basic rules and simple exercises for gaining assured control of the physical self, 1917 by Harrie Irving Hancock

Physical training for business men. Basic rules and simple exercises for gaining assured control of the physical self, 1917 by Harrie Irving Hancock

The book is sharp, funny and even Wagon’s most outrageous speculations appear as perfectly logical if you follow A and B’s itinerary. It is also agonising to see how we (valued A customers) fit into this sad story. In the Jamesbondeification chapter, for example, Wagon shows how a new Jeffy has emerged fitter and richer from the pandemic. The no-frill, beige and boring Jeff of the olden days is now showing off his biceps, baroque fashion taste, beautiful girlfriend and jet ski skills. Meanwhile, his company is demonstrating what trickle-down economics looks like: A’s employees are offered warm-up sessions before starting their working day. As for us, we are given the opportunity to fulfil our dreams of eternal abundance, revelling in drone-dropped Oreos and plastic pet toys from the voluptuous comfort of our own sofa. Any future desire we might have is second-guessed by algorithms. They take care of everything. That is A’s theory at least. As a result of these quick gratifications, we are now surrounded by cheap goods made from cheap non-recyclable materials. Most of them are useless, toxic and damaging to our health and the environment. Wagon writes that we now suffer from syllogomania: Compulsive hoarding. Even though Marie Kondo’s books are among the most popular items in the A catalogue, we still have an irresistible urge to accumulate often useless objects that we are unable to throw away.

Interestingly, B has launched all sorts of services to make our life easier but he never designed any that would help us deal with this overabundance of objects. Probably because he suffers from a different mental disorder. Wagon calls it claustroglobophobia, the syndrome of the globe too narrow, the feeling of being a prisoner of the Earth. He has, of course, a remedy for his ailment: escaping to a new and improved version of the Earth.

His plans and values are at odds with today’s biggest challenges. B’s vision of life in space is based on physicist Gerard O’Neill 1970s grandiose and much-idealised design projects for living in space. The vision not just looks dated, it also disregards the Space Treaty, ignores the physical laws of space and relies on even more extractivism. Just like building more and bigger warehouses means replacing precious soils with tarmac leading to even more resource depletion, building such space colonies means taking ownership of space resources and in particular of the minerals we are now relying on for the digital and energy transition. Not content to accelerate planet destruction by turning it into a giant warehouse, B plans to use the Earth as the take-off runway for his razzle-dazzle space programme.

Stéphane Degoutin and Gwenola Wagon, Atlas of the Cloud, 2021

Floor plans attached to alcohol permits explain a micro fulfilment center in the back of the house. Source: City of Los Angeles, via HNGRY

Gwenola Wagon closes her alarming portrayal of the A universe with a “happy ending”. In a few years, A will start its descent into total chaos. Disgruntled customers, exhausted employees, neglected drivers and a young generation of open-eyed citizens will converge, revolt and start an international court case against A which will lead to its dismantling and atomisation. Planète B certainly demonstrates that the day can’t come too soon.

Spreads from the book:

Related stories: Augmented Exploitation. AI, Automation and workers who fight back, A guided tour of Dublin’s physical Internet infrastructure, The Cost of Free Shipping. Amazon in the Global Economy, Tax Havens: Normalized Grand Theft, Post-Capital. Art and the Economics of the Digital Age, etc.

5 Dec. 2022

22,111 Israeli military aircraft have violated Lebanese airspace over the last 15 years. Their buzz, roaring and exploding sounds form the background of daily life in Lebanon, enveloping the country in “atmospheric violence.”

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Air Pressure (A diary of the sky), 2022

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Air Pressure (A diary of the sky), 2022. Israeli planes in the skies of Lebanon

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Air Pressure (A diary of the sky), 2022. Israeli planes in the skies of Lebanon

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Air Pressure (A Diary of The Sky), 2022. Exhibition view, Fondazione Rebaudengo

The flights of these UAVs, fighter jets, drones, helicopters and other aircraft are carried out in violation of the UN Security Resolution 1701, which was formulated in 2006 at the end of the conflict between Israel and Lebanon known in Lebanon as the July War.

For two years, Lawrence Abu Hamdan gathered and analysed documents reporting the Israeli illegal aerial invasions of Lebanon. Abu Hamdan, an artist who defines himself as a “private ear”, is concerned with the “politics of listening,” using surveillance technologies, sound recordings and archival materials to investigate how sound is used to silence, oppress, discriminate and heal. The documents he collected consisted in 243 letters dating from 2006 to 2021 and addressed to the UN Security Council by the permanent representative of Lebanon. Archived in the United Nations Digital Library System, they include the information detected by radars, such as the time, duration, type and trajectory of each air violation.

Compiling the data was a challenge: “The documents had been uploaded in an unsystematic way, located disparately on the website. The team behind AirPressure.info had to patch all of these documents together and manually transcribe each violation in order to make these numbers accessible and readable,” Abu Hamdan explained. “The Lebanese Ministry of Defense, the UN Security Council and the UN Interim Force in Lebanon monitored and recorded these violations and had clear access and ability to do this work themselves. Instead, by storing the data in a piecemeal and uncoordinated fashion, these institutions have contributed to masking the extent of these crimes.”

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Air Pressure (A diary of the sky), 2022

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Air Pressure (A diary of the sky), 2022

The artist mapped, analysed and shared on AirPressure.info the data about the 22,111 flights that have invaded the Lebanese skies over the past 15 years. The website also presents the recordings he made on the ground as well as crowd-sourced real-time footage. Before Abu Hamdan, no one -not even journalists, the Lebanese government or the UN- had ever documented the illegal flyovers.

The documentation thus assembled feeds the video installation Air Pressure (A Diary of the sky) currently on view at Fondazione Rebaudengo in Turin. The video focuses on a one-year period, from May 2020 to May 2021, linking data from flight records, the investigation process that the artist undertook in the same period and crowdsourced footage.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Air Pressure (A diary of the sky), 2022

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Air Pressure (A diary of the sky), 2022

The video also reveals how the accumulation of these short-lived atmospheric moments of violence acts one long assault of noise, violence and oppression that takes its toll over time. These noisy illegal flyovers, averaging around four and a half hours per day, leave the Lebanese in a perpetual state of psychological distress and uncertainty. This sound “that we tend to ignore, forgetting that it is lethal,” according to Abu Hamdan, produces acoustic frequencies that are physically and psychologically aggressive. On the website, a list of peer-reviewed papers from academic journals exposes the impacts that the noise generated by aircraft has on human physiology. The chronic stress caused by the flights is linked to increased occurrences of high blood pressure and heart disease for some people.

A close observation of the data led to several significant observations. First of all, the overflights cover the whole Lebanese territory, contrary to the narrative that limits Israeli interest to areas associated with the presence of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia Islamist political and paramilitary group. Secondly, the data collected shows only two incidents of fighter jets entering through the Lebanese border and exiting into Syrian territory, contrary to the misconception that most of these flights were en route to bomb Syria. Both findings refute the Israeli discourse that Hezbollah is its sole target, they also challenge the myth of resistance as advocated by Hezbollah which has had more than 22,000 opportunities at least to prove itself.

Finally, most of these operations involve some of the most technically advanced fighter jets or surveillance aircraft in the world, against which the basic Lebanese ground defences are no match. This shows that the operations are on the side of mass surveillance and intimidation. It was quite upsetting to hear the narrator in the video explain that the sky invasion by Israel had briefly paused in March 2021, but only because the military aircraft were busy bombing Gaza.

Air Pressure (A diary of the sky) develops a compelling narration of the concept of atmospheric violence, offering a historical and political reflection on the use of noise as a tool for oppression and control.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Air Pressure (A diary of the sky), curated by Irene Calderoni and Amanda Sroka, is at Fondazione Re Rebaudengo in Turin until 26 February 2023.

Other entries about Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s work: Walled Unwalled. The politics and violence of acoustics, Art in the Age of Anxiety and INFORMATION (Today): Data diktats and human complacency.

Related stories: Big Eye Kabul. Surveillance blimps over Afghanistan, The System of Systems: technology and bureaucracy in the asylum-seeking process in Europe, The Drone Chronicles 2001-2016, Book review: Drone. Remote Control Warfare, Tanks, drones, rockets and other sound machines. An interview with Nik Nowak, A screaming comes across the sky. Drones, mass surveillance and invisible wars, Book review: A Theory of the Drone, Drones, pirates, everyday racism. An interview with graphic designer Ruben Pater, Eyes from a distance. Personal encounters with military drones, The Sounds of Absence and narco-violence, etc.

21 Nov. 2022

Last month, I visited the Venice Biennial, took hundreds of photos and finally found the time to sift through them. Here are my favourite works from the massive exhibition:

Loukia Alavanou, Oedipus in Search of Colonus (still detail), 2022. The Greek Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale

Loukia Alavanou, Oedipus in Search of Colonus (still detail), 2022. The Greek Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale

Loukia Alavanou, Oedipus in Search of Colonus (still detail), 2022. The Greek Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale

Loukia Alavanou, Oedipus in Search of Colonus, 2022. The Greek Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale

Loukia Alavanou’s virtual reality 360° film and installation Oedipus in Search of Colonus links Classical Greece’s culture to the social reality of today, by showing the life of Romani families in Nea Zoi, west of Athens. Like in many other European countries, Romani communities live at the margins of city, often without access basic services such as water and electricity, and often exposed the harassment, threats and discrimination.

In Oedipus in Search of Colonus, Romani people are cast as actors for a Sophocles play and the impoverished outskirts of Athens is the setting of the play.

The work transposes in the present days Sophocles’ almost 2500-year-old drama, Oedipus at Colonus which describes the end of Oedipus’s tragic life. Sophocles set the place of the death of the mythical Greek king at Colonus, a village near Athens and also Sophocles’s own birthplace. In “Oedipus at Colonus”, the now disgraced and blind king is looking for a place that will host him and allow him to die peacefully. He arrives in Colonus but he is repeatedly asked to leave. In Alavanou’s version, the amateur actors living in an area not far from Colonus also struggle against their fate. Often lacking any form of citizenship, they are prevented by the Greek authorities from being able to choose a burial site close to their last place of residence. Talking about Oedipus, Alavanou explains in an interview, “although Creon -his brother in law and ruler of Thebes- is the one who expelled him, he later asks to take Oedipus back, only because he knows that Oedipus’ grave has the supernatural power of saving one’s city from enemies. To put it another way, he is used for political mileage, not unlike refugees today arriving in Europe from the Middle East or Africa. They are treated more like a ‘trading’ pawn between European countries than humans worth aid and support.”

Sidsel Meineche Hansen and Therese Henningsen, Maintenancer (film still), 2018

Sidsel Meineche Hansen and Therese Henningsen, Maintenancer (film still), 2018

Sidsel Meineche Hansen explores a post-human world shaped by the growing role that technology plays in our lives. The works she shows in Venice scrutinises the transformation of sex and bodies and reveals the invisible work performed in the creation of capital.

The film video Maintenancer, made in collaboration with Therese Henningsen, documents the behind the scene life in a German brothel and in particular the labour required to clean, maintain and prepare sex dolls for the next client.

You see a caretaker inserting her arm into each of the doll’s orifices to clean them after use, applying disinfectant products, adding makeup to the doll’s nipples and putting sexy underwear back onto the inanimate body.

You follow Evelyn Schwarz, dominatrix and owner of BorDoll, and her anonymous assistant, as they go about their daily routines and you listen to them as they discuss the skills and personal attributes required to work in a brothel: the cleaning of the rooms, the budgeting and administrative tasks, the preparation of drinks but also the emotional side of taking care of customers.

By the end of the video, it is clear that sex robots will not be able to fully replicate the emotional labour involved in the sex industry.

Sidsel Meineche Hansen, Daddy Mould, 2018

Sidsel Meineche Hansen, Untitled (Sex Robot) 2018. Photo: Frank Sperling

But while the dolls in the film are soft and pliable, Meineche Hansen’s sculptures are stiff. Untitled (Sex Robot) is a strong and articulated servant while Daddy Mould is an empty fibreglass mould of a silicon sex doll. Both reference human physical functionality and commodity status.

Diego Marcon, The Parents’ Room, 2021

Diego Marcon, The Parents’ Room, 2021

Diego Marcon, The Parents’ Room, 2021

Diego Marcon, The Parents’ Room (trailer), 2021

Diego Marcon, The Parents’ Room, 2021. Backstage image. Photo: Lilia Strojec

Diego Marcon’s video The Parents’ Room opens with a computer-generated blackbird singing and swooping down onto a snowy windowsill. The scene moves into a room where a man sits on the edge of an unmade bed, a woman lying beside him. The man begins a choir-backed monologue detailing how he killed his son, his daughter, his wife and how he then shot himself. The victims then enters the scene one-by-one and sing a verse of their own. None of them tells us what caused the tragedy and they all died. The film looks like stop-motion animation. In reality, live actors play all the human roles. They wear synthetic facial prostheses. Only the eyes are theirs, the rest of their face is a thick, pale mask that makes them look bruised and not quite alive anymore.

It is peaceful, unsettling and riveting.

Pilvi Takala, Close Watch, 2021. Multi-channel video installation at La Biennale di Venezia. Photo: Ugo Carmeni / Frame Contemporary Art Finland

Pilvi Takala, Close Watch, 2021. Multi-channel video installation at La Biennale di Venezia. Photo: Ugo Carmeni / Frame Contemporary Art Finland

Pilvi Takala, Close Watch (video still), 2021

Pilvi Takala worked covertly during six months as a fully qualified security guard in one of Finland’s largest shopping centres to research how power is wielded in privatised public spaces through the private security industry.

During her shifts, she witnessed scenes of open racism but also a multitude of subtle and overt strategies for controlling behaviour between guards and members of the public, but also between the guards themselves.

For ethical reasons, Takala could not film the day-to-day experience of guards and members of the public, but she used the six months immersion to record in her notebook issues of concern related to her colleagues but also her own behaviour and attitude. The videos in the exhibition were filmed during a three-day workshop in which she, her ex-colleagues and three actors re-enact and examine incidents that have occurred at work. Together with the participants, she explores power dynamics, ideas of social justice and alternative strategies for situations that can trigger or be triggered by use of excessive force, racist language and toxic behaviour.

Takala worked with the architects Studio LA to adapt the original Alvar Aalto-designed Finnish pavilion and articulate the watched/watcher dynamics across 2 rooms separated by a one-way mirror. The front part of the pavilion reveals the methods used by the artist but obscures what is going on behind. The rear space shares the post-surveillance performances and workshops, but it also allows the audience to observe the people in the front room, who are unaware that they are being watched.

Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, Re-enchanting the World, exhibition view, Polish Pavilion at the Biennale Arte 2022. Photo: Daniel Rumiancew

Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, Re-enchanting the World, exhibition view, Polish Pavilion at the Biennale Arte 2022. Photo: Daniel Rumiancew

Outside view of Re-enchanting the World exhibition, Polish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, 2022. Photo: Daniel Rumiancew

Hall of the Months, Museo Schifanoia, Ferrara. Courtesy Musei di Arte Antica di Ferrara. Photo: Daniel Rumiancew

Malgorzata Mirga-Tas’ work at the Polish Pavilion celebrates both to her own Roma origins and the place of women in society.

“Re-enchanting the World” consist of a patchwork of glued and sewn fabrics reclaimed from women’s clothing. They recreates twelve scenes, each divided into three horizontal sections that echo the Renaissance frescoes of the “Cycle of the Months” in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy. This cycle of the months of Ferrara connects Greek mythology and astrology with scenes of agriculture and everyday life at the court of the Duke of Ferrara. Mirga-Tas’ own version subverts traditional (and decidedly prejudiced) depictions of the arrival of the communities in Europe to regain control over the Romani visual narrative and identity.

The upper section of Mirga-Tas work charts the journeys of Romani communities across Europe. The central section represents the history of Romania from a female perspective. The third, lower section shows scenes from the artist’s contemporary daily life in Polish places close to her heart.

The title is inspired by Silvia Federici’s book, Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons.

Uffe Isolotto, We Walked the Earth, 2022. The Danish Pavilion, Biennale Arte 2022. Photo: Ugo Carmeni

Uffe Isolotto, We Walked the Earth, 2022. The Danish Pavilion, Biennale Arte 2022. Photo: Ugo Carmeni

Uffe Isolotto, We Walked the Earth, 2022. The Danish Pavilion, Biennale Arte 2022. Photo: Ugo Carmeni

Uffe Isolotto talking about “We Walked the Earth”

Uffe Isolotto, We Walked the Earth, 2022. The Danish Pavilion, Biennale Arte 2022. Photo: Ugo Carmeni

Uffe Isolotto, We Walked the Earth, 2022. The Danish Pavilion, Biennale Arte 2022. Photo: Ugo Carmeni

Uffe Isolotto, We Walked the Earth, 2022

No one knows the circumstances that lead to the drama unfolding inside the Danish Pavilion. A centaur just hung himself. He is in the line of sight of his female companion. Laying on the floor in another room, she is giving birth.

The scenes are hyperrealistic. The house is derelict, like a farm that has seen better days. You walk around the rooms like a voyeur, looking at its enigmatic inhabitants, their meagre belongings and working tools. You try to reconstruct their story but the exercise is futile. Are these creatures future humans who have evolved to survive in radically changing world? Are you just observing a scene from the life of mythical creatures from the books you were reading as a child?

Jacob Lillemose, the curator of the exhibition, says, ”We Walked the Earth addresses an experience of being human in a time when human life is becoming more and more integrated into – if not inseparable – from contexts and processes that are both other-than-human and larger-than-human. Does that mean that we need to expand the notion of what it means to be human? That’s the fundamental question the installation asks.”

Jessie Homer French, Oil Platform Fire, 2019

Jessie Homer French brings the American wildlife and pastoral life into a contemporary atmosphere characterised by pollution, wildfires, extractivism, wind farms and other violent forms of human encroachment. The artist has been painting these scenes of challenges to the survival of the planet since the 60s, long before these themes were seen as imperative as they are today.

Francis Alÿs, Untitled, Bamiyan, Afghanistan, 2010

Francis Alÿs, Untitled, Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, 2013,

For the exhibition in the Belgian Pavilion, Francis Alÿs presents a selection of short films shot since 2017 in Hong Kong, Democratic Republic of Congo, Belgium, Mexico, etc. What got my attention, however, was the series of small paintings covering a period from 1994 to 2021 that provide the context in which some of the films were made. From Kabul to Ciudad Juárez, from Jerusalem to Shanghai, children are seen creating joy and entertainment whatever the conflict situation and surrounding they find themselves in.

Ulla Wiggen, Kretsfamilj (Circuit Family), 1964. Photo: Åsa Lundén/Moderna museet

One of the best surprises of the show for me was a series of acrylic and gouache paintings on wood panels portraying the interior circuity of electronic devices. They were made by Ulla Wiggen who, when she was twenty-six years old, took part in the 1968 exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity curated by Jasia Reichardt at the ICA London.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, Missing Person Born 2019, 2021

Miriam Cahn, Part of “Unser süden sommer 2022”, 5.8.2021, 2021

Paula Rego, Gluttony, 2019. From the series Seven Deadly Sins. Photo: Riccardo Bianchini / Inexhibit

Also at the Venice Biennial: Orchidelirium. Colonialism through the lens of botany.

11 Nov. 2022

For its 11th edition, the KIKK in Town exhibition, part of the KIKK festival in Namur (BE), has once again been spreading its installations and uncanny experiences all over the city. In a desacralised church, in schools, at the Museum of Decorative Arts, in a concert hall, etc.

KiKK In Town exhibition. Photo: Quentin Chevrier

Haseeb Ahmed, The Library of the Winds (Werktank & Overtoon showcase), 2022. Photo: KIKK Festival

Shivay La Multiple, Zebola. Photo: Quentin Chevrier

This year, the theme of the event attempts to counterbalance all the doom and gloom that jumps down our throats each time we open a newspaper or our Twitter feed. Asking us to leave behind the darkness of daily news streams, the KIKK festival weaves “tales of togetherness” and spotlights the forces and fictions that bring us together as human beings. The 60 artworks selected for KIKK in Town strike a fine balance between the universal and the individual, between the common communication modes that allow us to communicate even when we speak different languages and the cultures and backgrounds that make each of us different and interesting.

One of the characteristics of the KIKK festival is that it is joyful, bright and friendly. For some 48 hours, while I was there, I forgot that the country were I live is now governed by a far-right coalition, that there’s war in Europe and the sunny sky over Namur was an unsettling abnormality.

The work that embodied the best the theme of KIKK for me was Anouk Kruithof‘s Universal Tongue.

Anouk Kruithof, Universal Tongue, 2018-2021. Photo: Quentin Chevrier

Anouk Kruithof, Universal Tongue, 2018-2021. Photo: Quentin Chevrier

Anouk Kruithof, Universal Tongue, 2018-2021. Photo: Quentin Chevrier

Anouk Kruithof, Preview Universal Tongue Mass

From twerking to Argentinian tango, from voguing to flash mobs, from Cuban abakúa to the Zimbabwean sungura and more. All the dances of the world are on social media. Artist Anouk Kruithof worked with 52 researchers from all over the world to study dance videos on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. Together they compiled 8,800 films and identified 1,000 different dance styles in 196 countries.

These dance styles are brought together in an eight screens installation that features a total of 32 hours of found footage, arranged by rhythm and number of dancers (“solo, duo, group or mass”.) The films are accompanied by a four-hour-long soundtrack compiled from the music found in the film footage. The different choreographies, styles, contexts and modes of expression are united by the same music. What i found almost magical about the installation is that dancers you would normally dismiss such as the fat guys in pink ballet tutus and the skinny guy frolicking in a fluoro green lycra suit look magnificent in this context. You just want to dance and be like them: ecstatic and insouciant.

This visual anthropology of world dance offers a window into the diversity of the world. It shows dance as both a unifying mode of expression and one that is rich in moods and nuances.

Pepa Ivanova, Decay, 2018

Part of the KIKK In Town programme, the Biotopia exhibition extends this year’s festival celebration of both diversity and universality to non-human life. The show “proposes to shift points of view, to immerse ourselves in the heart of non-human societies and to open ourselves to the diversity of ways of being.” Reading the sentence made me wonder why Aki Inomata‘s Why Not Hand Over a ​“Shelter” to Hermit Crabs? was selected for the show. If you do adopt the point of view of a hermit crab, you soon realise that the poor creature doesn’t deserve to be isolated in a small water tank in the company of a few rocks and fancy plastic artefacts, under spotlights and the gaze of visitors. The hermit crab is, unlike its name suggests, a social creature. They live in groups and are probably much more comfortable in the wild than in an exhibition space.

Speaking of sea creatures, there were two other works in that same exhibition that I found particularly interesting:

Jean Painlevé, La pieuvre, 1928. Study of the octopus in its habitat

Jean Painlevé. Photo

I was completely fascinated with Jean Painlevé‘s La pieuvre, a short popular science documentary that described the life and behaviour of an octopus.

A prolific photographer and filmmaker with a solid scientific background, Painlevé shot more than two hundred films between 1925 and 1986. He demonstrated a sense of innovation in both his use of technology and his exploration of the documentary style. For example, in order to shoot scenes underwater, Painlevé strapped to his chest a camera encased in a custom-designed waterproof box fitted with a glass plate for the lens.

Painlevé filmed La Pieuvre in Port Blanc in Brittany. Influenced by the Surrealists, Painlevé developed a filmic visual language that questioned the anthropocentric orientation of scientific documentary films. In short sequential scenes, his images develop a narrative about the anatomy, behaviour and abilities of an octopus, but they also raise awareness of the brutal impact humans exercise on these animals. The film also manages to communicate the magic and intelligence of the octopus with scenes that have a surrealist undertone: when an octopus clasps a human skull in an aquarium or slips down from a tree, or when the camera lingers on the extraordinary eyes of the marine creature.

I loved the dialogue between La Pieuvre and Lia Giraud’s use of photosensitive microalgae:

Lia Giraud, Photosynthèse, Installation Algægraphique, 2021

Lia Giraud, Photosynthèse, Installation Algægraphique, 2021. Photo: Quentin Chevrier

Since the early 2010s, Giraud has been developing a technique that uses light-sensitive microalgae to produce images. She calls this photographic process “Algaeography”.

Photosynthèse, Installation Algægraphique consists of a tubular structure that houses six bioreactors in which micro-algae cultures are growing. On a screen, thousands of objects fished out of the port of Marseille between 2016 and 2020 by the MerTerre association appear like slow-moving ghosts. The film also demonstrates how the microalgae, often used as a marker of pollution, replace the photographic silver “grain” to reveal an image that is alive.

By blurring the frontiers between biological and digital, the installation invites the viewer to reflect on what it means to live in an age deeply shaped by science and technology.

Several other artworks explored the intimate sphere in ways that were either quite sensuous or disturbingly thought-provoking.

Roel Heremans, The NeurRight Arcades (Werktank & Overtoon showcase), 2022. Photo: Quentin Chevrier

Roel Heremans, The NeurRight Arcades, 2022

Roel Heremans, The NeurRight Arcades (Werktank & Overtoon showcase), 2022. Photo: Quentin Chevrier

One of the few critical artworks in the festival, The NeurRight Arcades casts an acute gaze over the ethical implications of neurotechnology.

Neuro-wearables and BCIs (Brain-Computer-Interfaces) will soon be as widespread as other body-worn sensors that track heart rate, sleep-wake cycles and other bodily data. They are currently used for general health monitoring, entertainment or in military contexts. Once they have entered the consumer market, wearable devices that monitor brainwaves will be able to control electronic devices by thought.

As often happens with consumer electronics, innovation is moving faster than legal and ethical frameworks. It is therefore crucial to look critically at the human rights and ethical implications of neurotechnology before it is too late. Researchers at Columbia University have identified five NeuroRights to protect the human rights of all people from the potential misuse or abuse of neurotechnology: the right to Mental Privacy, Personal Identity, Free Will, Equal Access to Mental Augmentation and Protection from Algorithmic Bias.

Roel Heremans has created an installation of five arcade machines that make these NeuroRight more tangible for participants. Wearing a real-time BCI headphones, participants are guided through an aesthetic experience where their mental state is transparent. Each of the arcades offers a unique experience mixing sound, composed introspection and neurofeedback that pushes visitors to realise the need for a legal and ethical framework around the use of Brain-Computer Interface before it is too late.

Teun Vonk, The Physical Mind, 2016. Photo: Trystan Lothaire

Teun Vonk, The Physical Mind, 2016. Photo: Trystan Lothaire

Teun Vonk, The Physical Mind, 2016. Photo: Kat Closon

The Physical Mind installation is like a massive but ultra-light weighted blanket. The pressure of weighted blankets are said to put your autonomic nervous system into “rest” mode, lowering stress and anxiety and providing an overall sense of calm.

Teun Vonk’s own version of this type of deep pressure therapy lets participants experience the relation between their physical and their mental states by applying physical pressure to the body.

You lay down on a deflated white cushion. It then inflates at the same rhythm as a similar cushion on top of you. As you get lifted up, you are gently squeezed between the curves of the two objects. While the lifting creates an unstable feeling, this stressful sensation is soon contrasted with the secure feeling of being gently hugged by two soft objects.

Xavier Machault, Only You. Photo: Quentin Chevrier

Xavier Machault, Only You. Photo: Kat Closon

I’ll end this ultra fast tour of the KIKK In Town exhibition with a work put me in a good mood. Taking its name from the famous O-oHHHH-nly you song by The Platters, Xavier Machault’s installation offered passersby the possibility to take a moment off their daily routine and enjoy a love song broadcast just for them inside a cosy little cabin that doubles as a jukebox.

Visitors can select one track among 16 iconic love songs. They sit down inside and for a few minutes the song is played for their sole pleasure. I love the music selection as most of the songs are either absolutely unbearable (to me), joyful or likely to make you want to throw yourself in the nearby river out of despair and chagrin. The installation made me think about the love songs that I enjoy. Non ironically. I realised I couldn’t think of any. Apart from a couple songs by Serge Reggiani. They are so dark I won’t even name them though.

Many more photos from the KIKK festival:

Agnes Meyer-Brandis, One Tree ID, 2019. Installation view at BIOTOPIA, Pavillon. Photo: Quentin Chevrier

Agnes Meyer-Brandis, One Tree ID, 2019. Installation view at BIOTOPIA, Pavillon. Photo: Kat Closon

Agnes Meyer-Brandis, One Tree ID, 2019. Installation view at BIOTOPIA, Pavillon. Photo: Quentin Chevrier

Lukas De Clerck, AirBag/14Holes (part of Werktank & Overtoon showcase), 2020. Photo: KIKK Festival

Linda Dounia, Spannungsbage, 2022. Photo: Quentin Chevrier

Caroline Robert, Brainstream. Photo: Quentin Chevrier

ECAL / University of Art and Design Lausanne, Playful Lab, 2019-2022. Photo: Quentin Chevrier

Camille Scherrer, In The Wood, 2011. Photo: Quentin Chevrier

KIKK Conference. Photo: Gaëtan Nadin

KIKK Conference. Photo: Gaëtan Nadin

KiKK In Town exhibition. Photo: Quentin Chevrier

Previously: How to become a tree for another tree, ISEA 2022: Porn and ecoporn in digital arts, Bio-fiction Science Art Film Festival. Part 1: short fiction films about neurotechnology, Bio-fiction Science Art Film Festival. The neurotechnology edition (part 2).

4 Nov. 2022

Making Matters. A Vocabulary for Collective Arts, edited by Janneke Wesseling and Florian Cramer. Published by Valiz*.

Making Matters formulates the importance for artists of working as collectives, especially if they hope to address meaningfully crushing ecological and social problems.

Joining a collective often means allying with other disciplines, multiplying tactics and approaches, playing with formats of work, organisation and distribution and taking on multiple identities, such as researcher, community activist, curator, computer hacker or business consultant. In fact, the osmosis between the various roles and outcomes of the collaborations might be such that an art practice becomes almost indistinguishable from a way of living.

Making Matters. A Vocabulary for Collective Arts contains short entries by architects, academics, curators, artists, writers, collectives, art historians, designers who outline experiments, concepts and keywords of contemporay art practices that often mix practical action and theoretical thinking.

Some of the most interesting entries (for me) include the ones below:

Klaas Kuitenbrouwer describes the Zoöp, an organisational model for cooperation between human and other-than-human life. The particularity of the zoöp model is that, in order to better safeguard the interests of all forms of life, it makes the interests of nonhuman life part of organisational decision-making.

Frans-Willem Korsten uses a recent conflict between real estate developers and a collective of citizens as an entry point to discuss the importance of transparency, research and criticality (which he describes as the full awareness of a situation, of what is at stake) when fighting in a forcefield dominated by others.

Kate Rich has an insightful text describing how business is a term that goes unexamined in the arts and humanities. Drawing on the writings of Martin Parker and Matthew Manos, she calls for an insurgent entrepreneurship that could be critical, experimental and refocused towards meaning-making rather than market-based success. An example of such experimental business is her Feral Trade project that operates like an international shipping company but without employees, vans and other traditional facilities. Instead, it functions as an underground freight network that relies on social networks to carry goods from one side of the planet to the other, often in the suitcases of artists returning (or going to) a residency or festival. As she writes, this type of artist-run grocery business is an example of working and living in the cracks and as such, it might better respond to the challenges posed by our troubled planetary relations.

Dani Ploeger‘s essay describes the destructive processes at the core of capitalism. He calls for creative acts and technologies of unmaking that would sabotage the mechanisms of capitalist production and consumption. Hackers and Designers, a collective working with and promoting the use of self-made, appropriated, co-evolving and hacked tools and systems question the term “platform” as most of us use it. Anja Groten reconsiders the workshop format that has been co-opted by innovation labs and creative agencies and turned into yet another nicely packaged product.

The entries in the book are hit-and-miss for me. Some got me very enthusiastic. Others had me stop, ponder and search online for more information. A few left me quite cold. Overall, I do applaud the way some of the authors in the book identify hypes, buzzwords, failures at enacting radical ideas and are generally critical towards art practices that claim to be critical themselves. Robust self-scrutiny shouldn’t be a luxury these days.

* If you don’t know Valiz already, do check out their website. They are an independent international publisher of contemporary art, theory, critique, design and urban affairs. Their catalogue contains a few gems. I reviewed one of them a few months ago: Caps Lock – How Capitalism Took Hold of Graphic Design, and how to Escape from it.

Image on the homepage: ruangrupa (ArtLab division), Lonely Market, 2009, Jakarta.