Sudden Justice: America's Secret Drone Wars

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Published on : 2015-07-01 12:03:42

Sudden Justice: America's Secret Drone Wars, by investigative journalist Chris Woods.

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Available on amazon USA and UK.

Publisher Oxford University Press writes: In Sudden Justice, award-winning investigative journalist Chris Woods explores the secretive history of the United States' use of armed drones and their key role not only on today's battlefields, but also in a covert targeted killing project that has led to the deaths of thousands. The CIA nurtured and developed drones before the War on Terror ever began, seeking a platform from which it could monitor its targets and act lethally and instantly on the intelligence it gathered. Since then, remotely piloted aircraft have played a critical role in America's global counter-terrorism operations and have been deployed to devastating effect in conventional wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Drone crews, analysts, intelligence officials and military commanders all speak frankly to the author about how armed drones revolutionized warfare--and the unexpected costs to some of those involved.

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A US Reaper drone at Kandahar airfield. Credit: Jack Sanders/US Air Force (via BIJ)

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A US Air Force drone in a hangar in Iraq, August 2011. Photo: US Air Force/Master Sgt. Ricardo (via BIJ)

Sudden Justice is probably the most talked about drone book of the year. It is also the most detailed, the most thorough study of the evolution of weaponised drone warfare you can find. The author, Chris Woods, is an investigative journalist who specializes in conflict and national security issues. He was awarded the Martha Gellhorn Journalism Prize for his investigations into covert U.S. drone strikes with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. He also contributes to The Guardian.

In preparation to this book and as part of his work as a journalist, Woods has interviewed former drone operators and mission controllers, retired intelligence commanders, senior Air Force officials and psychologists, US Navy veterans, diplomats, parents of young people killed during the strikes, survivors of attacks, etc. In short, anyone who had any (voluntary or not) role to play in this new form of asymmetrical warfare is bringing their own view about the issue.

The use of weaponized drones outside of the battlefields is one of the most worrying characteristics of our times. At the time Woods was writing the book, drones had already killed 3000 people. Some of them civilians, not militants. The author reminds us, for example, that when Obama's presidency was just 72h old, he had already authorized a secret action that accidentally killed 14 civilians.

By acting as judge, jury and executioner, the U.S. is not only setting a worrying template for the future of warfare, its is also antagonizing the populations targeted (drone strikes have apparently become a recruiting tool and a motivator for jihadists), creating a new generation of operators so stressed that psychologists still have to invent a word that would describe their condition, and alienating allied countries that believe (rightly) that the targeted killing practice is illegal.

There's no sign of a slowdown. Since 2010, the US Air Force has been training more drone pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined. And the Obama administration intends to keep on eschewing any request for transparency and accountability.

A Theory of the Drone, by philosopher Grégoire Chamayou, is undoubtedly my favourite drone book but it follows also a very different perspective. While Chamayou analyzes how drones have irremediably remodeled the laws of war , Sudden Justice compiles facts, quotes and numbers, clinically and masterfully charting the history of drone use by the CIA and by US (and also Israeli) military, the escalation of targeted killing as well as the evolution of militants' tactics and procedures.

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For Ever Amber, ennobling working class and marginalized communities

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Published on : 2015-06-26 11:39:01

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Tish Murtha, Youth Unemployment, 1981

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Amber Films, Launch (still), 1973

My interest for photography, working class culture and marginal communities is fairly well documented on this blog. Hence my enthusiasm when learning about the upcoming For Ever Amber exhibition.

The Amber Collective was born in the late 1960s when a group of students at Regent Street Polytechnic in London realized that their education drove them away from their working class background. Resolving to reconnect with their origins and document working class culture in photos and videos, they moved to the North East of England in 1969 and in 1977 opened Side Gallery.

Over the past 45 years, the members of the collective have been documenting the industrial and post-industrial communities living along the river Tyne, the fishermen, the shipbuilders, the people working in the coal and steel industry, but also their families, the unemployed and the marginalized communities. The result is a vast archive of photos and films that present both both artistic and historical value.

In parallel with Amber's own film & photographic production, the collective has also been collecting and presenting to the broad public a series of classic and contemporary international documentary works, presenting similar socially-engaged concerns.

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Jindrich Streit, The Village is a Global World, 1995

Hopefully, i'll get an opportunity to visit the show in Newcastle before it closes. In the meantime, i had a chance to chat with author Graeme Rigby, one of the founding members of the Amber Collective. Here's a transcript with the brief exchange we had over skype:

Hi Graeme! Why is this a good time for an Amber retrospective? Does the timing reflect a particular social moment for example?

There's never a time in this country when an exhibition of this kind isn't relevant!

For Ever Amber is actually part of a programme of works funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England to redevelop the gallery, do some digitalisation and make the works more accessible to people.

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Amber Films, Shooting Magpies (poster), 2005

The work of the Amber Collective is rooted in social documentary, built around long term engagements with working class and marginalized communities in the North of England. I'm curious about the situation of the working class. How has it evolved over the 45 years of Amber's existence?

That changes constantly. A lot has happened over the last 45 years because in the North East of England (and elsewhere but particularly in the North East of England) many of the industries that shaped the identity of the working class communities have closed. When these industries shut down, people send the message out that these industries are not important, that they should be eradicated.

The sense of their identity has changed considerably. This week, members of the Amber Collective worked in a school in Easington. Children there didn't know anything about coal miners even though there is a miner banner hanging in the school hall. It is interesting and important to help children and others find their sense of identity, even if this is an entirely new identity. But having your sense of identity is important. The nature of these communities have changed. It was quite late before you saw widespread immigration in the North East of England. As a result, many of the communities were still overwhelmingly white working class but that has changed since the 2000s.

Whether they are white working class, or marginalised communities, these are people have a lot in common and their voices are denied by the mainstream.

The early members of Amber came themselves from a very working class background and felt that their education pushed them away from the places where they grew up. Instead, they wanted to celebrate their origins and the people who, so far, had mostly been used as material for jokes in films and on tv.

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Peter Fryer, The Arab Boarding House, South Shields, 2006

What about the cultural value of the work done by Amber photographers? The photos seem to resonate not just with people living in the North East of England but also with the rest of the country and i think i can also say that they are interesting far beyond the UK borders.

We find that the work resonates enormously with people from other countries. When you go to countries like Spain, France or Germany, you find that people immediately connect with these images. People see that the images depict lives and streets that are not so dissimilar from their own. It's actually much more the case in Europe than it is in some parts of the UK.

In this country, especially in the cultural world, there is a resistance to document these marginalized worlds. The UK has a few difficulties with documentary. I'm not talking about the audience but about curators and funding bodies. They show some interest in documenting the 1930s and the 1940s up until the 1980s but they don't seem to be interested in documentaries about the present days.

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Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Byker, 1974

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Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Byker Revisited, 2008

Konttinen explained to The Guardian why the photo above is her "best shot."

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Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Byker Revisited, 2008

Do you think that television is doing a better job at representing the working class then?

No, with TV, we've even gone backwards. We are going back to a situation in which the working class is there to provide cheap laughs. But these things come in circles and we need another movement to challenge the current situation.

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Peter Fryer, Peaceable Kingdoms, 1992

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Julian Germaine, Steel Works, Phileas Fogg Snacks, 1989

I was reading a letter published in The Guardian this morning. The street photographer was from Birmingham and he explained that he was often stopped in public and private spaces. Security spots him on CCTV and ask him to stop shooting. I haven't photographed children playing in a public space for many years, and the work of people such as Vivian Maier and Shirley Baker would be impossible these days. It seems to me, from a photographic point of view, that the public space has become privatised, with CCTV everywhere and the lone photographer increasingly unwelcome. Is this something Amber members have noticed as well? Are people still comfortable with being photographed nowadays? Or are they reluctant because of privacy or other concerns?

Yes, when Amber began, street photography was very much a part of what documentary photographers did. But things have changed in a number of ways. Nowadays, people are suspicious that the photographer might be a pedophile for example. Then there is also the issue that part of the public space has been privatized. Almost everyone has a camera phone so, in a way, there is now more street photography than ever. But people are more suspicious than in the past when they see a camera. All of the photographers responded to the challenge in their own way. By negotiating access to people's life, for example, and by making certain that people were genuinely inviting them into their life. If people were not happy with the photo, the photographer would not use it. This in turn enables the photographer to go further and opens up new areas.

In any case, we've lost a significant amount of what is happening in the street. In terms of photography, a lot of questions have been raised as to what is legitimate for a photo to portray.

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Amber Films, High Row, 1973

I was also curious about Coke to Coke, a series of photographs you worked on together with Peter Fryer. The photos were taken in the 1980s and follow the closure of Derwenthaugh coking plant and the opening of the nearby Metro Centre shopping mall. What was the mood of the people then? Where they angry or sad about the end of an era or optimistic of what the new shopping mail represented?

You can't generalize of course but i think that when i accompanied Peter to photograph the opening of the Metro Center, we had a sense of people being dazed by it. It was all bright and artificial and protected from the weather. It was like a place to visit. It gave you a sense of the 'new world.' And it still does because it is so artificial. People loved it. In the States, it was nothing new but it was the first out of town shopping mall in the UK. There was a fun fair aspect to it, with people looking at the shop as if they were at the fair.

At the time, i had just moved to the Derwenthaugh Valley. Derwenthaugh Coke Works was a vision of Dante's Inferno at the end of the Valley. One place was closing, another one was opening. It was a symbol of time changing. That's why we looked at it.

People working at Derwenthaugh Cokeworks were sad but they were also starting to realize that they worked in a cancerogenic atmosphere. Looking back at the '80s, that's when people started to think about the environmental impact of fossil fuels. Before that, these issues were not really discussed.

The opening of the Metro Center was a moment in time. The steel making town was closing its steel factory, the miner strikes had failed and Thatcher's programme of closures was accelerating.

Thanks Graeme!

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Bruce Rae, Shipbuilding on the Tyne, 1981

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Nick Hedges, Fishing Industry, 1981

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Amber Films, Seacoal (poster), 1985

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Simon Norfolk, Goaf, Dalton Park, 2005

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Amber Films, T Dan Smith, 1987

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Amber Films, The Scar, 1997

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Amber Films, In Fading Light (still), 1989

For Ever Amber opens at the Laing Gallery in Newcastle on 27 June and runs until 19 September, bringing together over 150 original photographs and film clips capturing over 40 years of cultural, political and economic shifts in North East England.

'For Ever Amber' is a partnership between Amber Film and Photography Collective and Laing Art Gallery, with support from Tyne & Wear Museums and Archive. The exhibition has been supported by Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England.

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Out of Play: Technology & Football

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Published on : 2015-06-18 08:29:20

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Malik Thomas, Football Engineering Images

This Friday, the National Football Museum in Manchester is opening a new season of commissions, artists residencies and artefacts. One of the highlights of the programme is Out of Play: Technology & Football, an exhibition that explores the impact that new technologies have in the development of the game but also on the way it is experienced by fans around the world.

Out of Play: Technology & Football brings together works by designers, artists, scientists and fans who explore and demonstrate how football and new technology overlap in today's society.

The works on show range from a robotic soccer robot to the Soccket energy generating football, from the ever irresistible and painful Leg Shocker to the world premier of Jer Thorp's immersive installation The Time of the Game. The result is an interactive exhibition that brings into a highly popular museum an entertaining but also critical and provocative view of the impact that technology has on 'the beautiful game.'

The show opens tomorrow and i'm looking forward to visiting it in a couple of weeks. But in the meantime i caught up with curator John O'Shea. You might remember John from his work as an artist. When he isn't busy growing Pigs Bladder Football from living animal cells and developing his other artworks, John is the Art Curator and Head of visual art programme at the NFM. He has spent the past two years embedded in the museum with the goal of establishing an art and technology exhibiting and learning programme from scratch.

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Uppies and Downies. Image credit ©stuartroyclarke @homesoffootball

Hi John! First of all what can technology do for football? How does it impact the game itself on the football pitch? Excuse my very boring remark but it's always the same game of men running after a ball after all...

Over the past few years, some interesting questions related to technology and football have emerged. For example, during last year's world cup, goal-line technology was introduced following many debates around whether or not football should remain this 'primitive' game or whether technology should intervene on the field.

Connecting with these concerns, last year, the National Football Museum commissioned James Bridle to write a piece about it. In his essay, Spectacular Sports Visualisations, Bridle analyzes football and computer vision technology.

We also collaborated with the festival FutureEverything on a body of works that looks at the intersection of data and football. The commissioned work was the Winning Formula futuristic newspaper by the Near Future Laboratory.

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Near Future Laboratory, Winning Formula newspaper. Photo by Fabien Girardin

But even data and computer vision fit a conventional story of technology, it's about control, about making the game more consistent.

The exhibition Out of Play is different, it's not about showcasing the latest advances of technology but about looking at the more unusual points where technology and football are intersecting. And the outcomes are often weird, unfamiliar.

The Time of The Game is the major new commission which will be presented within the museum's immersive, 180 degree wrap-around, cinema space. Developed by Jer Thorp with Teju Cole and Mario Klingemann, the work brings together almost 2000 photos made by football fans at the same time as they were watching last year's World Cup. The images show private spaces, public spaces, pubs, etc. Most were taken inside people's homes. What they show is a communal moment shared by people from Nigeria, Brazil, England.... Smartphones equipped with cameras are now almost ubiquitous, you find them everywhere even in poorer countries and it's that technology that makes it possible to represent this moment shared globally by football fans.

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Teju Cole, Jer Thorp & Mario Klingemann, The Time of the Game - a synchronized global view of the World Cup final

There is also a lot of humor in the show. We sometimes forget that football is fun. During our exchange of emails you mentioned the rather unpleasant coverage that FIFA is having at the moment. Do you think this will somehow reflect on the exhibition? (no need to answer this one if you feel the question is irrelevant)

The National Football Museum is an independent museum that tells the story of football in England from the perspective of the fans. The scrutiny FIFA is coming under is not really a surprise for fans as many have been dissatisfied with the federation for years. And this crisis only highlights the poignancy of a work like The Time of the Game.

The reason for this title is that we are looking for a common ground between art and football. (There aren't many!) But one of them is that both football and art have origins in play, they're both about introducing play into something. And in football, just like in art, it is important sometimes to remember not to take things too seriously.

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Jason Eppink, We Tripped El Hadji Diouf (Yabanjin, Feb 06, 2011 07:46)

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Jason Eppink, We Tripped El Hadji Diouf (Shmorky, Feb 07, 2011 23:17)

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Jason Eppink, We Tripped El Hadji Diouf (Kieselguhr Kid, Feb 06, 2011 06:28)

The Humanoid Soccer Robots?! You're going to show them? a whole team? Will they be playing?

With the art programme, we want to broaden the scope of what the museum displays and collects so we've been developing new collaborations and partnerships for the future. Plymouth University is one of those partners. They are the leader in the UK in humanoid soccer robots and participate to the competition organised by the Federation of International Robot-soccer Association (FIRA) since 1997. The robots might look a bit basic but the ultimate goal of the competition is to have them challenge a team of human football champions by 2050. This might sound outlandish but if you think about it, Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov in 1997. No one would have imagine it was possible 35 years before the chess match.

For the exhibition, we will have one of the robots on display and the Plymouth robotic team will come and do a demo (no precise date yet.)

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Humanoid robot team made by Plymouth University

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Humanoid robot footballer made by Plymouth University. Image courtesy the National Football Museum

The robot will actually be shown in the same display as Soccket and Leg Shocker. So that's science, art and design, all in the same display. The energy generating ball might look a bit silly but the premise is interesting. Imagine it used in refugee camps for example. Children would play and generate electricity through kinetic action. The third work in the display is Fur's art piece. By new media standards, Leg Shocker is almost an antique. As a museum, we want to be able to collect new media works related to football. As we go along with the art programme, the team here is learning a lot: how to maintain these media works, what role they play as provocative objects, etc.


Fur, Legshocker. Enhanced PlayStation2 Controller, 2002

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Fur, Legshocker. Enhanced PlayStation2 Controller, 2002

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Uncharted Play, Soccket

Could you talk to us about World Scratch day, a series of football-based computing activities aimed at introducing children to code. How does it work? How exactly do kids use football to learn code?

Scratch is a programming language developed by MIT. We used the World Scratch Day to enable visitors and communities to get hands-on with technology and make computer games.

Over the course of the day, 80 children in groups of 6 or 7 came to the museum and were able to create simple animation works related to football, make simple games or work with Sonic Pi software to make their own version of the match of the day theme song. It was like a little hackathon for kinds. Ultimately, what we'd like to do is see groups come and use the museum over the weekends to learn some coding.

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World Scratch Day at NFM. Photo National Football Museum

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World Scratch Day at NFM. Photo National Football Museum

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World Scratch Day at NFM. Photo National Football Museum

Next, i saw that artists are in residency at the NFM. Can you already tell us about their work there? What makes the robot lawnmower an artwork rather than just a robot lawnmower, for example?

We commissioned 4 artistic residencies that enable artists to develop works related to football clubs or to the communities around football. So far, artists were (unsurprisingly) more interested in working with more unusual communities than with football clubs.

Matthew Plummer Fernandez was curious about lawn mowers with computerized systems to design patterns on football pitches. Forest Green FC already has a robotic lawnmower which has its own algorithm for cutting the grass, it 'decides' which areas need to be cut more, which ones need to be cut less. It creates its own version of a field. Matthew wants to understand better the algorithm on board o the lawnmower and then create an online identity for this lawnmower and make it 'the 12th man' of the team.

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Matthew Plummer Fernandez with robot lawnmower. Image courtesy of the National Football Museum

The other residency has Jen Southern and Chris Speed were interested work with Workington Uppies and Downies. Uppies and Downies is an ancient version of football - a game with no rules. Thousands of men try to move the ball in a scrum up the hill or down to the harbour. The artists placed GPS trackers on some of the men and will be making work based on the data obtained.

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Uppies and Downies. Image credit ©stuartroyclarke @homesoffootball

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Uppies and Downies. Image credit ©stuartroyclarke @homesoffootball

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Uppies and Downies. Image credit ©stuartroyclarke @homesoffootball

Now i'm also curious about your own work at the museum. You head a rather edgy art program in an institution that doesn't usually cater for the traditional art crowd. I think this is a great opportunity you have there! i'm quite jealous. But how do you navigate the desire to show good art and the need to please the 30,000 visitors the museum welcomes each month?

Certain languages, certain conventions are used in established art institutions. At the National Football Museum we have our own etiquette: Interactivity is a given, for example. You can touch things. And the museum is not a white wall space. So the question for me was "How should art fit into this environment?" The challenge here is to exhibit art in a way that is sensitive to both the work and the environment.

The National Football Museum has some challenging displays such as one dedicated to the weapons of hooligans, or football disasters. It also raises critical questions, like the Football Association ban of women playing football on its premises until 1971.

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Hooligan knives at the NFM. Photo by Zachary Kaplan

There is sometimes this assumption that making bold statements in an art museum context is going to have a huge impact but often artists are just making a gestures to people already informed about the issue they're trying to address. Basically, the established art community is often just talking to itself. The National Football Museum, I feel belongs more to the public realm and the works in the show have the potential to influence anyone among our visitors, not just a self-selected audience.

Thanks John!

Out of Play opens on 19 June at the National Football Museum, Manchester, UK. It remains open until 19 July 2015.

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Politics and Practices of Secrecy (part 2)

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Published on : 2015-06-15 09:44:12

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Liberty Crossing is a complex for 1,700 federal workers and 1,200 contractors. Photo by Michael S. Williamson / The Washington Post

Previously: Politics and Practices of Secrecy (part 1).

And this is part 2 of the notes i took during the Politics and Practices of Secrecy symposium which took place at King's College in London last month. My reports do not follow the schedule of the panels, nor do they cover all the talks. I'm just cherry picking the more interesting moments of the day. Part 1 focused on the art projects. This post is less uniform in its theme. Two of the presentations i enjoyed covered the representation of intelligence agencies in films and tv fiction. Another was about the influence that new forms of surveillance are having on the rise of home-grown ('home' being the U.S.A., the symposium was organised by the Institute of North American Studies) white extremist groups. And a fourth talk wondered if transparency could fix our democracy.

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The Top Secret Network of Government and its Contractors

Let's start with Timothy Melley, Professor Affiliate of American Studies at Miami University and author of The Covert Sphere. Secrecy, Fiction, and the National Security State and of Empire of Conspiracy. The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America.

In his talk, 'The Democratic Security State: Operating Between Secrecy and Publicity', Melley listed up a few numbers:

This secret world costs 8 billion dollars per year.

According to 2010 Washington Post analysis:

50,000 intelligence reports are written each year. Their volume is so large that most are never read.

The intelligence hides out in the open:
In Washington D.C., 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work have been built (or are being built) since September 2001. Their total surface is equal to 22 U.S. Capitols.
Similar buildings can be found in 10,000 other locations across the U.S.A.

The complexity of this system defies description Lt Gen. (Ret.) John R. Vines

The U.S. covert state is a growing industry. It handles a huge number of secrets all over the country. It relies on democratic structures but acts like a shadow state that has its own territory and laws. It also support some film makers by lending helicopters needed for films that publicize the covert world. The reason for that is that the secret programme needs public approval.

What we know about the CIA comes from leaks but also from fiction. Our screens are awash with what Melley calls 'terror melodrama." One of his presentations slides even listed those films. Covert CIA operations are celebrated in books, films, games, tv series, etc. Earlier this year, the CIA, pleased with the way it is portrayed in "Homeland", invited the show's cast and producers to visit its headquarters in Virginia and have a discussion. Another example is when Michelle Obama presented the 2013 Best Picture award to Ben Affleck's Argo, a film adapted from CIA operative Tony Mendez's book The Master of Disguise and the 2007 Wired article The Great Escape: How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran.

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An exit marker points to the National Security Agency. Photo by Michael S. Williamson / The Washington Post

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The N.S.A. properties in Maryland total 8.6 million square feet of office space, 1.3 times as big as the Pentagon. Photo by Sandra McConnell, N.S.A.

Keeping with the spy in entertainment theme, Matt Potolsky, Professor of English at University of Utah, looked at the representation of the NSA on tv and in cinema.

Fiction and films are often the only way the public can picture and judge for themselves the activities of intelligence agencies. FBI, KGB, CIA have often been presented in films. How about the NSA? According to Potolsky, the NSA never turned into real fictional tropes.

The 2009 movie Echelon Conspiracy features NSA agents and the signals intelligence collection system Echelon.

There have been more recent attempts to depict the activity of the massive NSA:
- Citizenfour by Laura Poitras, of course.
- but also "Let Go, Let Gov" a South Park episode that satirizes the 2013 mass surveillance revelations, and casts Eric Cartman in the role of a whistleblower, in which he infiltrates the NSA in protest of the agency's surveillance of American citizens. In the episode, NSA agents appear as little more than anonymous cogs working behind desks. This obviously is very different from the 'Men in Black' style description of CIA agents. The NSA agents look like they are working for a multinational corporation rather than for a spy agency.


South Park, Let Go Let Gov

Mark Fenster, Professor at the Levin College of Law (University of Florida) and author of the book Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture. His talk was titled 'Secrecy and the Hypothetical State Archive.'

Fenster started by reminding us of a whistleblower of the early 1970s. Daniel Ellsberg was employed by the RAND Corporation when he not only read classified documents he wasn't supposed to open but also photocopied and released them to The New York Times and other newspapers. The Pentagon Papers, officially titled United States - Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense, were top-secret documents that charted the US' political-military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967.

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In June 1971 the New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers (image)

There is now a trust in 'transparency' but, Fenster asks, Can transparency fix our democracy? Obama was elected to end Bush's secrecy. But the secrecy is now as deep as ever. If not deeper.

But Fenster says, information leaks. Sometimes from the top, sometimes from the bottom. Sometimes drop by drop, sometimes it flows.

It is particularly tricky to control State information. If you think about the model of communication Sender-Message-Receiver, the Sender would be the State, the Message is state information and the Receiver is the public.

The state is organizationally complex, it is spatially deployed, it is enclosed in buildings, offices. In truth, it is a mess that is difficult to keep shut.

State information is difficult to perceive clearly, it is a vast amount of information, it is hard to archive and to control its release. Sometimes state information can leak by mistake.

The public is made of individuals and they will have their own interpretation of any information released.

In brief, information cannot be controlled, on any level.

According to Fenster, the revelation of a secret often offers marginal gains. It certainly doesn't lead necessarily to a reformed democracy.

Another talk i found very informative was the one by Hugh Urban, professor of religious studies at Ohio State University and author of The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion

His talk, 'The Silent Brotherhood: Secrecy, Violence, and Surveillance from the Brüder Schweigen to the War on Terror' looked at the white males' belief that they are the victims of racial oppression. In their view, white males are persecuted by women, Black people, Muslims, Jews, etc. That's what Urban calls the "white man falling" syndrome.

0abrotherhbslarge.jpgBrüder Schweigen or Silent Brotherhood, was a white nationalist revolutionary organization active in the United States between September 1983 and December 1984. Its founder Robert Jay Mathews wanted to create an elite vanguard of Aryan warriors to save the white race. The Silent Brotherhood group was responsible for a number of violent crimes: robberies, bombings, murders, counterfeiting operations, etc.

Nowadays, much of the anti-terrorist attention focuses on radical Islam, neglecting home-grown white extremist groups. Figures show that the number of patriot groups in the U.S. is growing very rapidly. The reasons for that are many: bad economic conditions, black president but also the rise of surveillance which augments these people's distrust of the FBI, NSA and other governmental agents.

Urban's conclusions were that:

1. Secrecy is both the explanation and the radical solution for the 'white man falling' syndrome.

2. New forms of surveillance play into, feed and reinforce the narratives of such radical groups.

Politics and Practices of Secrecy was organized by the Institute of North American Studies at King's College London, on 14-15 May, 2015.

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Experiments in sound and perception. An interview with Aernoudt Jacobs

Feed : we make money not art
Published on : 2015-06-11 11:56:53

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Aernoudt Jacobs, Induction #4, 2014. Photo Kristof Vrancken for Z33

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Aernoudt Jacobs, photophon #1

Aernoudt Jacobs is an artist fascinated with sound in all its forms and possible expressions. He collects fields recordings around the world but he also creates installations based on Bell's photoacoustic effect that reveals the sonority of any material hit with a strong beam of light, builds sound microscope that magnifies the freezing and melting process of water or suspends coils, magnets and 1000 tin cans into the air to play with the laws of electromagnetic induction and generate tiny vibrations that produce sounds. It is as if everything in the visible and the invisible world provides him with endless opportunities for sound exploration.

Like most of his other installations, Jacob's latest work is half scientific experiment, half art piece. It involves using a membrane made of electroactive polymers as a sort of "living" speaker to autonomously manipulate the playback of a recording he made in a Romanian forest. Which might sound a bit confusing in words but gets instantly clearer if you take a look at the video that documents it:


Aernoudt Jacobs, Color of Noise

Under their peaceful, impeccably engineered and elegant appearances, Jacob's installations evoke phenomena that pertain to perception, psychoacoustics, physics and scientific processes. Alluring as they are on youtube and on the pages of his website, his works gain all their dimensions when experienced in situ. Sadly, i never got that chance. Hence my desire to interview the artist:

Hi Aernoudt! I was expecting you to have trained as an artist or musician but i discovered in your bio that you studied Architecture in St. Lukas Ghent. How did you get to go from architecture to sound? How is your architectural training helping you approach your work with sound?

First there was sound/music then I discovered architecture and after that I came back to music/sound again in a professional way. Sound never really left me. I needed more freedom, the kind of freedom you rarely find in architecture. I left the studies after 4 years because real creativity is only a very small part of the job. Anyway that is how I perceived it. But the study itself is extremely broad and it gives a lot of insight. So I never build anything, I did a few years of assistance.

In a way, making sounds/installation is a very architectural process. And a lot of elements of the studies just came back in my actual work (like technological research, using 3D software, material science, philosophy, anthropology, ...) I'm very glad with that background. I just regret that the aspects of acoustics in architecture or even aural architecture was not developed at all in the courses at that time. I think my path would have been completely different if I would have started the studies today. I hear and read that a lot has changed in this regard. Also much more research and publications have been done in the field of building acoustics. There has been an exponential increase in knowledge during last 25 years. And still yet too many buildings have awful acoustics, even spaces where acoustics should be a primordial preoccupation.

There is no sound without space, that is the link between sound and architecture. And I think it is also the main reason why you find a lot of composers who studied architecture.


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Aernoudt Jacobs, Permafrost, 2009

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Aernoudt Jacobs, Permafrost, 2009

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Aernoudt Jacobs, Permafrost, 2009


You are sound artist. But your installations are visually very elegant. Could you talk to us about the visual aspect of your work? How important is it to you? And how does it complement the sound work?

I am an artist that works primarily with the medium of sound. The seed of any work starts with a sonic aspect, and so to speak it progresses from that in a visual way. In general I never disconnect the sonic from the visual in my installations. They are always in tandem. Only a few times I was commissioned to make a 'speaker or headphone' installation because of certain limiting situations (like a public space or imposed infrastructure, ...) and even then the sound was indirectly evoking images.

The visual is also quite important because I tend to work on the transition between what you hear and what you see. The visual is a kind of an interface that brings the medium into motion, into the space, or into something that you can listen to. This interface can be highly technological because I am interested in phenomena, science, experimentation. Or it can be low-fi because I'm an autodidact mostly interested in carrying out research by myself, interested in the first hand experiences of phenomena. In fact, I see it a bit of prolongation of my field recording work where I hunt for sounds or when I try to grasp the origins of sounds.
Neither of my installations are loud, that is another reason why the audible elements shifts easily into the visual because the balance has been carefully weighted.


A couple of your works investigate the photoacoustic effect, a discovery made by Alexander Graham Bell. The technique consisted in creating sound by exposing certain materials to focused beams of light. Light creating sound! That's pretty fascinating. Do you know if there are applications of this effect in non-artistic contexts? Have you ever dreamt of everyday life applications of the photoacoustic effect?

Actually there are a couple of applications that came from Bell's photoacoustic research: fiber-optic communication and the CD player. But those inventions came only definitively through many years later when lasers were invented. 



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Aernoudt Jacobs, The Photophon Principle

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Aernoudt Jacobs, The Photophon Principle

I was reading the description of The Photophon Principle. It says that with the work you were trying to  provide a certain kind of musicality: "but in the form of an installation, not of a playable instrument". Why was it important to underline that this is not about making music?

The research around the photoacoustic effect has multiple facets. And at that stage of writing I was primarily interested in presenting a work about a transformation process. Making a composition would ruin the perception of that installation. But just recently I had to make acoustic measurements on Photophon in an anechoic chamber. It would be very interesting to develop a composition in these conditions, then I would definitely treat it as an instrument. Sonically I was very much triggered by the digital sound that Photophon produces.

Making installation work or making a compositions are very different things. A composition is final once it has been published. It has a definite time factor. An installation is not. It is more flexible and it can evolve according to a different factors (space, situation, time, perceptive scope of the visitor, process of development). An installation will never be presented the same way twice. 



Do you think it is best to understand the techy/scientific background of some of your pieces to appreciate them? Or can they be enjoyed purely for their sound and the experience they transmit?

The sound and the research of perception in my installations are certainly more important than the technology they use. That said the installations are part of a long process, I'm not interested in hiding completely the technology either. Technology and knowledge is a medium, it is a tool for research.

It also depends on what or how I want to present something. It is more a matter of focus.

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Induction #4, 2014. Photo Kristof Vrancken


Induction series #4, at the exhibition Sense of Sound, Z33, Hasselt


Could you tell us about Overtoon which you co-direct with Christoph De Boeck? The objective of this platform and production facility is to 'support artists and give new impulses to the field of sound and media art.' How do you do that? I thought it was already difficult for young artists to support themselves so how do you manage to help other artists as well? And which kind of support do you provide them with?

Overtoon operates since 2013 as a platform for sound art and media art with a strong connection to sound. The platform has major a focus on production, research, residencies, distribution, sharing. Overtoon gives the possibility to develop further our own works, and it also offers yearly long-term residencies to artists with the aim to produce their works; they can also participate in our structure and benefit fully from our facilities. We are currently situated in a high-rise in the centre of Brussels.

They get a studio for one year and can work at their own pace on a specific production that we agreed on. During that year we follow-up the process, we hold regular meetings and we look out for possible partners or presentations. On a parallel level, Overtoon is also supporting the ongoing experiments of other artists; this is more short-time (weeks to couple of months) and depends mostly on request we get and the spaces we have available.
We are actively distributing the works that we produce too, we are organising exhibitions, or we are in contact with venues to discuss the distributions of these works, we facilitate between the artists and the organiser, we develop exhibition contexts. For example we are presenting productions during 4 periods in France in 2015 and 2016. It is a form of two double presentations in Rennes at Le Bon Acceuil (and festival Maintenant) and festival Interstices in Caen. Four different productions are being presented during the interval of 2 years. Last year we also organised a bigger exhibition Sense of Sound with eight works in Z33.

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Christoph De Boeck, Black Box, part of the Sense of Sound exhibition at Z33 in Hasselt. Photo (c) Kristof Vrancken

Besides this we organise lectures or presentation relating to the works we produce but it can also be anything touching the field of sound art (producing, presenting, curating, research, science, networks, history, expertise, future developments,  ...) In the frame of the exhibition at Z33 we organised a symposium.

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Aernoudt Jacobs, Sikuvalliajuq

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Aernoudt Jacobs, Sikuvalliajuq


I also had a look at the list of artists who undertook a residency with Overtoon and their work is pretty impressive. Each of them has a really strong portfolio. How do you come upon and select the artists to support?

Indeed we are very glad with the responses and productions we have so far. Past yearly residents artists were Jeroen Uyttendaele, Jeroen Vandesande, Gert Aertsen and Stijn Demeulenaere. And this year we have Erik Nerinckx and Katerina Undo.

We don't write out calls. But we organise regular meetings with artist whose works we follow-up. We are open to propositions, and we are also in contact with curators. Sometimes these meetings evolve in time into specific projects, production or residencies.

Now i have a bit of a tricky question (and you can ignore it if you like). In general, our society is very 'visual'. I sometimes feel that it is not so simple to write about sound art. It's quite easy to just fall back onto a technical description of the piece, for example. If i look at the art section of mainstream newspapers, they are full of 'visual art' and 'music'. And sound art falls back somewhere in the middle. Do you feel that sound artists have a disadvantage compare to visual artists?

Not really, sound art has been evolving nicely past decades. I just find it a bit sad that the term sound art exists as a category, it is easy for theoreticians but it is not that interesting for the arts to have categories

On the other hand, as I see it, it is a great way to say that anything can be done with sound.
You are right to say that our society is visually driven, furthermore I would say that sound has no image, does not need it. Sound can trigger the visual cortex, the visual imagination and give you information about a space..

But I want quote Max Neuhaus (who coined the term sound installation in the sixties):
"Our perception of space depends as much
 on what we hear as on what we see."



Any other upcoming exhibition, research or project you could share with us? I'm particularly curious about the work that appears on your homepage:

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Color of Noise

That work has been featured in Science magazine. While still in a research phase, the prototype has been presented during the exhibition KONTINUUM in Vienna which was organised by Roman Kirschner's Liquid Things. The development was in collaboration with EMPA, Angewandte and Liquid Things. I don't have any specific dates yet for final presentations.

There is a solo exhibition in Kristiansand Kunsthall, Norway that I'm preparing for early September. It is a big exhibition with one in situ work and different other works. It has already a nice title 'Once also this was a mutation' and many of the works deal with the idea of transformation. The exhibition is also part of the PUNKT festival and will feature live performances in the installations by Nils Christian Moe-Repstad, Espen Reinertsen and Marcus Schmickler. The exhibition is curated by Kjell Bjorgeengen.

Heliophone, based on the photoacoustic effect, will be presented in STUK, Leuven at the end of September. This will be accompanied with a small exhibition that lays out the complete photoacoustic research. 



Thanks Aernoudt!

Image on the homepage by Kristof Vrancken.

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Book review: Futures. Science Fiction, Space Travel, and Postwar Art of the Americas

Feed : we make money not art
Published on : 2015-06-08 03:38:57

Past Futures. Science Fiction, Space Travel, and Postwar Art of the Americas, edited by curator Sarah J. Montross.

(available on amazon USA and UK.)

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Publisher MIT Press writes: From the 1940s to the 1970s, visionary artists from across the Americas reimagined themes from science fiction and space travel. They mapped extraterrestrial terrain, created dystopian scenarios amid fears of nuclear annihilation, and ingeniously deployed scientific and technological subjects and motifs. This book offers a sumptuously illustrated exploration of how artists from the United States and Latin America visualized the future. Inspired variously by the "golden age" of science fiction, the Cold War, the space race, and the counterculture, these artists expressed both optimism and pessimism about humanity's prospects.

Past Futures showcases work by more than a dozen artists, including the biomorphic cosmic spaces and hybrid alien-totemic figures painted by the Chilean artist Roberto Matta (1911-2002); the utopian Hydrospatial City envisioned by Argentine Gyula Kosice (1924-); and Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan, in which Robert Smithson (1938-1973) layered tropes of time travel atop Mayan ruins. The artists respond to science fiction in film and literature and the media coverage of the space race; link myths of Europeans' first encounters with the New World to contemporary space exploration; and project futures both idealized and dystopian.

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Poster for the film 'Conquistador de la luna (Conqueror of the moon), Mexico, 1960

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Henrique Alvim Corrêa, illustration for H G Wells "La guerre des mondes", 1906

Once in a while, i like a good catalogue. Especially when they educate me about a topic i know little about: retro futurism in the Americas. Past Futures. Science Fiction, Space Travel, and Postwar Art of the Americas is the catalogue of an exhibition of the same name at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. The book explains in 4 essays and many many images how artists of the period that goes from 1940s to 1970s imagined the future.

The context is exciting enough: it's the time of the Cold War, of the growing popularity of the science fiction genre, of a faith in the power of science to transform society and the human condition. Artists were more than ever stimulated to imagine what the future would be like.

Times were full of hope but they weren't, however, all naivety and science worship. First, people were afraid of nuclear extermination. And believe it or not, they were also already worried about government surveillance. Or about the disruption that technology would bring to the social fabric. And, for some artists from Latin America, space control evoked unpleasant memories of a colonial past.

The first essay, by curator Sarah J. Montross, explores the impact that space travel and science fiction had across the Americas and also the tensions between the promises of the present and a rich cultural past.

Miguel Angel Fernandez Delgado looks at Latin America's long tradition of studying the cosmos (which dates back to the Mayas, the Incas and the Aztec) and presents the work of artists whose work is related to astronomic phenomena and utopian ideals.

Rodrigo Alonso's essay on the influence of science fiction over art in Argentine in the 1960s shows how much artists also had to contend with a political atmosphere that oscillated between a transition into democracy and surges of repression and censorship.

Rory O'Dea explored the influence that science fiction had on the work of land artist Robert Smithson.

Unsurprisingly, i was more interested in reading about art from Latin America and discovering how they questioned the nature of progress. I found some real gems in the book, works by artists involved in scientific inquiries, building robots, walking through a desert that evokes a lunar terrain, or expressing a critical ambivalence towards technology. Too bad i couldn't find images for some of these works online. I managed to dig up a few though:

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Enrique Castro-Cid, Anthropomorphicals I and II. 1964 (image via cyberneticzoo)

Enrique Castro-Cid's automata lack any human shell but reproduce our bodily functions.

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Gyula Kosice, La ciudad hidroespacial (The Hydrospatial City), 1946-72

Tired of the housing models proposed by Bauhaus, Le Corbusier and functional architecture, Gyula Kosice plexiglass maquettes and drawing of dwellings 5000 feet above the surface of the earth. The Hydrospatial City, which finds some echoes in the cloud cities of Tomas Saraceno, responds to fear of ecological degradation and overpopulation.

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Peter Hutchinson, Paricutin Project, 1971

In 1970, Peter Hutchinson climbed the Paricutin volcano in Mexico. Upon reaching the summit, he spread 450 pounds of bread along its rim. After 6 days of high humidity and intense heat at the crater's edge, the bread began to sprout spores of luminous orange mould. Life grew in a place thought as lifeless.

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Luis Fernando Benedit, Laberinto para hormigas A, 1974

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Luis Fernando Benedit, Hábitat para caracoles, 1970

Luis Fernando Benedit built dwellings for snails, ants and other tiny creatures in order to observe the behavioral conditioning in an artificial, enclosed environment.

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Luis Fernando Benedit, Biotrón, 1970

The artist participated to the Venice Biennale 1970 with an installation that included a beehive with live bees, and a garden of artificial flowers that supplied nectar.

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SEFT-1, Los Ferronautas

SEFT-1 is resolutely contemporary but the curators of Past Futures found some resonances of Past Futures in Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene's half car half spaceship hybrid called SEFT-1 (the Sonda de Exploración Ferroviaria Tripulada, in english Manned Railway Exploration Probe.) The artists traveled along the ruins of the Mexican passenger railway system, which was left to rot after privatization in the 1990s, and investigated the remains of what they consider a misuse of common resources and therefore a political issue.

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Rufino Tamayo, Terror Cosmico, 1954

This post might suggest that the book is all about early forms of media art in the Americas. It's not. Plenty of paintings in there as well.

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Thomas Struth. Sites of scientific and material progress

Feed : we make money not art
Published on : 2015-06-04 13:13:20

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Thomas Struth, Research Vehicle, Armstrong Flight Research Center, Edwards, 2014

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Thomas Struth, Z-Pinch Plasma Lab, Weizmann Institute, Rehovot, 2011

If you're in London, drop by the Marian Goodman Gallery (and do it asap because the show closes in a couple of days.) They have a spectacular exhibition of new works by Thomas Struth.

There are two different bodies of work on show. One is the photo series made in Israel and Palestine as part of This Place, the other uncovers places of scientific and technological research in California. I'm not going to surprise anyone if i write that i entered the show to see the Palestine/Israel photos. However, the images left me a bit cold. They are definitely not tourism board material and are impressively made but they have a sense of déjà vu.

Which left me with the six photographs of scientific research spaces. The large format images are mesmerizing. They convey the fascination we have for instruments that embody scientific and material innovation but distract us from the calls for social and political progress.

Struth said: It is clear that the contemporary human imagination is more easily fired by the pyrotechnics of science and technology rather than by the difficult, and perhaps now historically discredited, negotiation of political ideals. I wanted to open the doors to some of these unseen places in order to scrutinize what our contemporary world--what we--create, depicting plasmaphysics and chemistry, ship- and oil rig-building, space shuttle repair, architecture, etc., as what our minds have materialized and transformed into sculpture.

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Thomas Struth, GREAT, Armstrong Hangar 703, Palmdale

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Thomas Struth, Polymer Head, JPL, Pasadena

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Thomas Struth, Epitaxy, JPL, Pasadena, 2014

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Thomas Struth, High Harmonic Generation Spectrometer, Weizmann Institute, Rehovot, 2009

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Thomas Struth, Installation view, Marian Goodman Gallery, London

The following images are not part of the London exhibition, but i'm on a tech porn roll and see no reason to stop half way:

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Thomas Struth, Blowout Preventer, Mountrail County, North Dakota, 2010

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Thomas Struth, Figure, Charité , Berlin, 2012

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Thomas Struth, Table 1, Georgia Tech, Atlanta, 2013

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Thomas Struth, Measuring, Helmholtz-Zentrum, Berlin, 2012

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Thomas Struth, Golems Playground, Georgia Tech, Atlanta, 2013

Thomas Struth's photos are at Marian Goodman Gallery, London until 6 June 2015.

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Politics and Practices of Secrecy (part 1)

Feed : we make money not art
Published on : 2015-06-02 12:56:27

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Richard Misrach, Atomic Bomb Loading Pit, Wendover Air Force Base, Utah, 1989

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Trevor Paglen, Headquarters of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in Springfield, Virginia

I've been strangely busy ('strangely' because believe me it's not my style at all to be a busy person) over the past couple of weeks and i never got a chance to sit down and write a small report of the Politics and Practices of Secrecy symposium which took place at King's College in London last month. Here's the blurb that lured me into spending a whole day in a lecture hall:

In the wake of the Snowden revelations about the surveillance capabilities of intelligence agencies, this interdisciplinary symposium gathers experts to discuss the place and implications of secrecy in contemporary culture and politics.

0mg223-2_1500.jpgThe event started with a keynote by Jamie Bartlett about the Secrets of the Dark Net. It was entertaining and more about the dark sides of the internet in general than strictly speaking about the Silk Road. The journalist talked us through his adventures online and offline with sex cam ladies, neo-nazis, drug sellers and anorexic girls. If you're curious about the content of the talk, then i advise you to check out his book The Dark Net.

The symposium itself looked at how the relationships between citizens and government have changed since the Snowden revelation, the impact of secrecy on society and the place of the subject in a world that keeps us under close surveillance and doesn't regard us as fully-formed political agents. The angle was very much American. Not because the USA is the only nation that uses and abuses of secrecy (although they are making a name for themselves in that field) but because the symposium was organized by the Institute of North American Studies at King's College.

I won't cover all the symposium presentations. I'm just going to do a pick and mix of what i heard there. This first post about the event might still be fairly coherent though because it will focus on the arty Roundtable 2: Aesthetics of the Secret. And since he is an artist and an artist who has some valuable ideas to share about secrecy, discrimination and control, i'm also adding to this post Zach Blas' talk (which was part of another series of talks that zoomed in on Opacity and Openness.)

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Zach Blas, Facial Weaponization for Queer Opacity at LA Pride, reclaim:pride / ONE Archives

Let's start with Zach Blas. He is an artist, writer and Assistant Professor in the Department of Art at the University at Buffalo. The title of his talk 'Informatic Opacity' is also the one of his upcoming book.

The idea of informatic opacity is explored in two of Blas' artworks. The first one, Facial Weaponization Suite, is a series of workshops in U.S. and Mexico that looked at biometric facial recognition. The artist worked with members of specific minority communities (queers, black people, etc.) to create masks that are modeled from the aggregated facial data of participants. The amorphous and slightly sinister masks are then worn in public performances. The masks represent each individual but cannot be detected as human faces by biometric facial recognition technologies. The work is a dark critique of the silent and gradual rise of the use of biometric facial recognition software by governments to monitor citizens. The symbol of the mask is also important. Pussy Riot, members of the Black Bloc and the Zapatistas wear masks to hide their face but also because masks make them visible.

For Blas, the main motivation behind the work wasn't so much privacy and transparency. His first interest laid in highlighting a technology that standardizes identity globally in order to create templates that can calculate identity and can be applied around the world.

The standards of face recognition technology are rigid and they can break down. As the two examples below demonstrates, these technologies are routinely accused of not recognizing non-Caucasian faces:

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'When camera facial recognition fails' (via)

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Are Face-Detection Cameras Racist? (via)

Not being recognized by biometric machines makes some people more vulnerable to discrimination and criminalization.

Édouard Glissant called for the right to opacity. For him opacity was protecting anyone who is 'diverse'. Blas book takes Glissant's idea of opacity and puts it into the context of informatics. Information opacity, he says, resists forms of globalization and standardization.

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Zach Blas, Face Cage #2, portrait

The second work Blas mentioned is his Face Cages series which focuses on biometrics as a form of capture.

Face Cages is a dramatization of the abstract violence of the biometric diagram. Diagrams are fabricated as three-dimensional metal objects, evoking a material resonance with handcuffs, prison bars, and torture devices used during slavery in the US and the Medieval period. The virtual biometric diagram, a supposedly perfect measuring and accounting of the face, once materialized as a physical object, transforms into a cage that does not easily fit the human head, that is extremely painful to wear. These cages exaggerate and perform the irreconcilability of the standardized, neoliberal biometric diagram with the materiality of the human face itself-and the violence that occurs when the two are forced to coincide.

Now to Roundtable 2, Aesthetics of the Secret which was, unsurprisingly, the one i was most looking forward to listen to.

John Beck, Director of the Institute for Modern and Contemporary Culture at the University of Westminster, kicked of the session with 'Photography's Open Secret.'

The talk explored the desert landscape in the South West of the U.S., one of the most photographed regions in the world, but also one that hosts a vast amount of secrecy.

The desert is a space where there is nothing and where therefore anything can be done and left: military bases, weapon testing facilities, nuclear waste, etc. It can be used as a dump space where unnecessary leftovers of power can be placed. It is a space where secrets are literally left into the open.

The medium of photography echoes the ambiguous characteristic of the desert. Photography is an instrument for revealing, unveiling, documenting and exposing. But it can also be used to hide, by leaving things out of the frame, by staging or doctoring evidence. Photography is at once a medium of transparency and a medium of opacity. And that makes it difficult to regard photography as a source of reliable evidence.

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Richard Misrach, Bomb Crater, Wendover Air Force Base, Utah, 1989

Richard Misrach photographed places that are now less restricted than they were during the Cold War but that were used to conduct secret programs and operations.

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Trevor Paglen, Chemical and Biological Weapons Proving Ground / Dugway, UT; Distance ~ 42 miles; 10:51 a.m., 2006

After 9/11, Trevor Paglen has taken up the role of photographer/investigator of sites of secrecy. Using limit telephotography, he documents black sites and other secret spaces and programs of the USA. Some of his photos, however, move toward abstractions and as such, embody the skepticism that photography can provide us with straightforward representations of the world.

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Laura Kurgan, Monochrome Landscapes, 2004

Laura Kurgan bought hi-res satellite images showing four vulnerable landscapes: a desert in Iraq, the rain forest in Cameroon, the tundra in Alaska, and the Atlantic Ocean. Seen from afar, the images evoke monochromatic Minimalism, but a closer investigation reveal traces of geopolitical issues such as illegal logging or helicopters flying over the desert during "Operation Iraqi Freedom."

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Mishka Henner, Staphorst Ammunition Depot, Dutch Landscapes

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Mishka Henner, Paleis Noordeinde, Den Haag, Dutch Landscapes

When Google launched its satellite imagery service in 2005, some governments attempted to censor sites deemed vital to national security. The Netherlands, for example, hid hundreds of significant sites including royal palaces, fuel depots and army barracks behind stylist multi-coloured polygons. Ironically, it made the censored sites even more conspicuous. The country has since adopted a less distinctive method of visual censorship.

The second speaker of the roundtable was Neal White, artist, Associate Professor in Art and Media Practice at Bournemouth University, he is also Director of Emerge - Experimental Media Research Group.

His talk, Secrecy and Art in Practice, looked at the various methods art employs to reflect on the practice of secrecy.

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Taryn Simon, The Central Intelligence Agency, Art CIA Original Headquarters Building, 2003/2007

He mentioned the Critical Art Ensemble's tactical biopolitic works, Taryn Simon's photo series An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, Trevor Paglen (but then almost every single speaker spoke about Paglen's work), Charles Stankievech's Counterintelligence, etc.

White also talked briefly about the works he is involved in with the Office of Experiments. I've blogged in the past about The Overt Research Projects which combine field observation, alternative knowledge gathering and experimental geography techniques with other research methods to archive and geo-map spaces related to techno-scientific and industrial /military research in the UK.

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The Mike Kenner Archive

I was also surprised to learn about The Mike Kenner Archive which was donated to the Office of Experiments in 2009 so that they can show the archived material to the public. Mike Kenner's collection of thousands of documents were obtained following over thirty years of research and FOI (Freedom of Information) requests into the activities at the Biochemical Research Centre at Porton Down, Wiltshire (referred to as MRE) and other sensitive research establishments. The documentation contains photographs, de-classified but restricted secret and top-secret documents, cabinet office and official correspondence, experimental data, images, diagrams , analysis, video, photographs, newspaper cuttings etc. Many of these highlight experiments that had a significant impact in the region of Weymouth in the UK, with experiment conducted on the public using live pathogens, largely through around Lyme Bay. Far from being historic research alone, Kenner's work points to controversy generated by what may well be ongoing scientific trials and experiments, continuing to this day often concealed from the public in plain sight.

The last speaker of the roundtable wasn't an artist but a Senior Lecturer at King's College and the curator of the whole event. Clare Birchall explored how artists are using the materiality of secrecy in their practice. Unsurprisingly, she discussed Paglen and mentioned his keynote at last year's edition of Transmediale. Which i'm copy/pasting below:


Trevor Paglen -- transmediale 2014 keynote: Art as Evidence

Birchall also spoke in details about Jill Magid's work at the AIVD, the Dutch secret service.

In 2005, AIVD asked her to create a work for its new headquarters. They were hoping that the commission would help improve its public persona by providing "'the AIVD with a human face."

Magid spent the following three years meeting with eighteen employees of AIVD in "non-descript public places." AIVD restricted the artist from using recording equipment, so she had to write down her notes. She never disclosed the identity of her contact but compiled the information she had collected during the interviews into a collective persona that she referred to as "The Organization."

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Jill Magid's artwork being confiscated from Tate Modern Monday, January 4, 2010. Photo: ©Amy Dickson (via)

When AIVD agents visited the first exhibition of the project in 2008, they confiscated several works and censored the draft of Magid's report.

The artist "protested against the censorship of her own memories," prompting AIVD to suggest that she "'present the manuscript as a visual work of art in a one-time-only exhibition, after which it would become the property of the Dutch government and not be published.'" Magid's 2009/10 exhibition at Tate Modern, Authority to Remove, marked the fulfillment of this request: the uncensored report sat securely behind glass. In its penultimate state, the project thus expressed "what it means to have a secret but not the autonomy to share it." (via)

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Autophotosynthetic Plants, a hybrid organism powered by sewage

Feed : we make money not art
Published on : 2015-05-26 12:00:28

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Gilberto Esparza, Plantas Autofotosintéticas, 2013-2014

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Gilberto Esparza, Plantas Autofotosintéticas, 2013-2014. Photo: Fundación Telefonica

For a number of years, artist Gilberto Esparza has been using recycled electronics, alternative forms of energy and other modern technologies to investigate the action of human beings on the environment. His Urban Parasites are small robotic insects made of recycled consumer goods. They climb, crawl and hang over the urban space in search of any source of energy they can feed on. In 2010, he developed Nomadic Plants, a robot hosting living plants and microorganisms. Whenever its 'guests' need to be fed, the autonomous robot will move towards a contaminated river and drink water from it. Through a process of microbial fuel cells, the elements contained in the water are transformed into energy that powers its circuits. The cleaned up water is then sprayed onto the plants.

Like Nomadic Plants, but on a larger scale, Esparza's new research project makes use of microbial fuel cells technology to produce electricity and improve the quality of water.

Autophotosynthetic Plants takes the form a hybrid, self-regulating organism. Part machine, part organic ecosystem, it feeds on organisms found into the sewage water of Lima, Peru, in order to create its own light, energy and be self-sufficient.

As any living organism, Autophotosynthetic Plants features a central system where microorganisms, crustaceans and algae live; a digestive system where bacteria feed on polluted water and transform it into cleaner water that can be used for photosynthesis; and a nervous system made of an electronic network that monitors the activities of the organic parts.

The process is probably better explained in the video below:

The modules create hydraulic network that administers bio-filtered water to the central container, creating an optimal environment where producer species and consumer species from different trophic levels (protzoans, crustaceans, micro algae and aquatic plants) can achieve homeostatic equilibrium. The electricity produced by the bacteria is released as intervals of luminous energy, enabling photosynthesis by the plants that inhabit the central container which thereby complete their metabolic processes. When the organic material present in the microbial cells has been entirely consumed, an electronic monitoring networks pumps out the byproducts generated by the species that inhabit the nuclear ecosystem to the modular cells, restoring the cycle.

The ambitious project not only suggests that polluted water can be used as a source of energy but it also stands as a model that could potentially be applied to other cities, communities and industries.

I contacted the artist to know more about the project (Scroll down if you prefer to read the interview in Spanish):

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Gilberto Esparza, Plantas Autofotosintéticas, 2013-2014. Photo: Fundación Telefonica

Hi Gilberto! Where do the electricity-bacteria come from? Did you find them existing already in the contaminated water? Or were there introduced from another source? Are they the same bacterias as in Plantas nomadas?

The bacteria come from the rivers where the samples are taken. One of the bacteria commonly found in organic waste is the Geobacter which has been used in various studies to generate energy by microbial fuel cells. It is the same system that Nomadic Plants is using.

The obvious question is: could the system be implemented on a large scale? Going thus from the scale of an art installation in an exhibition room to a fully functional system used for a whole area of the city?

Yes, all the research centers that are working with this technology have that possibility in mind. The idea is to implement the use of microbial cells in wastewater treatment plants to reduce the power consumption that the plant requires.

Does the system require a lot of maintenance and attention? Or does it pretty much manage itself without any help from you or from scientists?

The installation has analog electronics and multiple sensors that auto-regulate the functioning of the installation. The only maintenance consists in aliment it with wastewater each time a biodegradation cycle ends.

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Gilberto Esparza, Plantas Autofotosintéticas, 2013-2014. Photo: Christian Sánchez

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Gilberto Esparza, Plantas Autofotosintéticas, 2013-2014. Photo: Christian Sánchez

In the video, you explain that you took water from various parts of the city and that each zone of the city had its own level and type of pollution. Could you explain a bit more? How does that translate in the installation? Do the various types of polluted water require different bacteria? produce different intensity or types of energy?

It depends on the area where the samples were taken. In industrial areas, for example, you can find a higher amount of toxic waste that sometimes inhibit bacteria. In other sectors of the city, household waste generate more organic matter. In those waters bacteria feed on this waste and produce more energy and this energy is reflected in the installation in the form in flashes of light that are more intense and that make aquatic plants perform their photosynthetic processes better.

In the video, we see visitors entering the room of Plantas autofotosintéticas wearing a mask. Is it because the installation has a bad smell? Or is dangerous to breathe in? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wyL4jRlqbY

The installation emits bad smells and presents a source of infection for visitors, so we decided to protect them. I find this approach to the work interesting because those same conditions are found in the urban area bordering polluted rivers and their inhabitants are exposed to them all the time.

Thanks Gilberto!

And now for the spanish version of the interview:

¿De dónde provienen las bacterias que se alimentan de electricidad? Ya existían en el agua contaminada? O lo habías introducido desde otra parte? ¿Son las mismas bacterias en Plantas nómadas?

Las bacterias provienen de los ríos de donde sacan las muestras, una de las bacterias que es muy común en donde se presentan desechos orgánicos es la Geobacter con las que se han estado haciendo diversos estudios para la generación de energía a través de celdas de combustible microbianas. Es el mismo sistema que utiliza Plantas Nómadas.

¿Se podría llevar a gran escala el sistema? Yendo solo así de la escala de una instalación de arte en una sala de exposiciones a un sistema totalmente funcional utilizada para toda una zona de la ciudad?

Sí, todos los centros de investigación que están trabajando con esta tecnología tienen presente esa posibilidad. La idea es implementar el uso de las celdas microbianas en las plantas de tratamiento de aguas residuales para disminuir el consumo de energía que la planta requiere.

¿El sistema requiere mucha atención, mantenimiento? ¿O más o menos se maneja por sí mismo sin ninguna ayuda de usted o de los científicos?

La instalación tiene una electrónica análoga y múltiples censores que autorregulan el funcionamiento de la instalación, el único mantenimiento es proveerle de aguas residuales cada que termine el ciclo de biodegradación.

En el vídeo, se explica que le "tomó agua de diversas partes de la ciudad y que cada zona de la ciudad tiene su propio nivel y tipo de contaminación. ¿Podría explicar un poco más? ¿Cómo se traduce en la instalación? ¿Los distintos tipos de aguas contaminadas requieren diferentes bacterias? produce diferentes tipos de energía o la intensidad?

Depende de la zona en donde se tomaron las muestras, se presentas distintos contaminantes por ejemplo en las zonas industriales se presentan mas desechos tóxicos que algunas veces inhiben a las bacterias. En otros sectores de la cuidad, se presentan más materia orgánica por desechos domésticos, en esas aguas las bacterias se alimentas de estos desechos y producen más energía y esta energía se manifiesta en la instalación como destellos de luz más intensos que hacen que las plantas acuáticas que habitan en el núcleo realicen mejor sus procesos fotosintéticos.

En el video, vemos a los visitantes que entran en la habitación de las Plantas autofotosintéticas con una máscara. ¿Es porque la instalación tiene un mal olor? ¿O es peligroso para respirar?

La instalación despide malos olores y representa un foco de infección para los espectadores, por eso se decidió protegerlos. Esta aproximación a la obra me interesa porque esas mismas condiciones se encuentran en las zona urbanas que colindan con los ríos contaminados y que sus habitantes están expuestos todo el tiempo.

¡Muchas gracias Gilberto!

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Book review: Photography Visionaries

Feed : we make money not art
Published on : 2015-05-24 11:46:43

5a1oDQ9XvrJL.jpgPhotography Visionaries, by Mary Warner Marien.

Available on amazon UK and USA

Publisher Laurence King writes: Photography Visionaries is an inspiring guide to 75 of the most influential photographers from around 1900 to the present. Entertainingly written by an expert on photography, it provides fascinating insight into the lives and careers of men and women working in a medium which perhaps more than any other in the visual arts has been deeply affected by technological change.

The entries are arranged chronologically, instilling in the reader an understanding of what marks each photographer as a visionary. Each entry is less about providing a full biography of the person and more about creating a sense of excitement regarding their work and the lasting impact that it has had on photography.

With the aid of an arresting selection of photographs, some well-known and others less so, this book offers a unique and engaging perspective on the development of photography through some of its most inventive practitioners.

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Weegee, Charles Sodokoll and Arthur Webber use their top hats to hide their faces, 1942

"A good photograph is like a good hound dog, dumb, but eloquent." Eugène Atget.

Mary Warner Marien knows where to find a quote or anecdote that says more about a photographer's life, career and ethos than a long biography. She found something witty or striking to say about each of the 75 photographic visionaries she selected for the book. Those visionaries are people who experiment, expand the scope and significance of photography and are inspiring to their peers. They work in any field: portraiture, advertising, photo reportage, documentary, fashion or conceptualism.

Each of them gets one page of bio and three pages of images with a timeline charting the most salient moments of their career. There is always also a portrait of the photographers. I thought i didn't care much for artists' portraits until i realized i had never seen a photo of Bernhard and Hilla Becher before. Or one of Cindy Sherman being no one else but Cindy Sherman.

Obviously not everyone is going to be happy with the author's selection. And i'm going to agree with the English reviewers who deplore the absence of Martin Parr. Another reviewer mentioned Hiroshi Sugimoto. Indeed! He should be there as well. I'm going to add Broomberg and Chanarin to the list. What i like in the author's selection, however, is that women and non-Caucasian people do not feature only as subjects. I don't know if there was a conscious effort to include women photographers, black photographers, Chinese photographers, etc. But it feels just that the white male monopoly is somewhat under assault.

Warner Marien is also the author of Photography. A Cultural History, perhaps the most informative, interesting and intelligent photo book i've ever read about photo. Photography Visionaries is very different (i probably shouldn't compare one with the other anyway): it's snappier, shorter and less elaborate. But it's written with the passion and verve that characterizes her style.

And now for some images and (fairly random) comments

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August Sander, Die Boxer, Paul Roderstein, Hein Hesse, 1928

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August Sander, National Socialist, Head of Department of Culture 1938, printed 1990

August Sander's major project, People of the 20th Century, attempted to give an overview of the most archetypal figures of contemporary society, categorizing his subjects by profession or social class. His photos represent types (The Woodcutter, The Farmer, The Sculptress, The Bricklayer, The Bohemian, The Bank Official, etc.), not individuals.

Although there was nothing progressive about this model of society, the Nazis disapproved of Sander's work. In 1936 they confiscated the publisher's copies of Face of our Time (a selection of portraits from his series People of the 20th Century); the printing plates were destroyed and the book was officially banned.

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Liu Zheng, From the series The Chinese, Two Miners, Datong, Shanxi Province, 1996

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Liu Zheng, Convicts Fetching Water, Baoding, Hebei Province, from The Chinese series, 1995

Inspired by Sander's work, Liu Zheng traveled throughout China to portray archetypal Chinese characters from every social stratum: homeless children, transvestite performers, provincial drug traffickers, coal miners, Buddhist monks, prison inmates, Taoist priests, waxwork figures in historical museums, and the dead and dying. The images of The Chinese series depict a country caught between tradition and unprecedented economic upheavals.

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Imogen Cunningham, Irene "Bobby" Libarry, 1976

When she was herself in her early nineties, Imogen Cunningham started working on After 90, a series that portrayed the elderly. One of them was Irene "Bobbie" Libarry who used to be a circus attraction and was living in a nursing home at the time of the photography.

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Edward Weston, Excusado, 1925

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John Heartfield, Und sie bewegt sich doch! (And Yet It Moves!), 1943

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John Heartfield, Self-Portrait with Berlin President of Police, 1929

John Heartfield was one of the first artists to use photomontage, manipulating photographs to satirize the brutality of the Nazi regime.

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Lisette Model, Woman with veil, San Fransisco, 1949

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Lisette Model, Divorcee, Reno, 1949

Lisette Mode never formally studied photography but took it up in the 1930s while living in Paris. Her images are early examples of "street photography," a style which developed after the invention of the hand-held camera, which made impromptu shots possible.

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Walker Evan, Workers Loading Neon "Damaged" Sign into Truck, West Eleventh Street, New York City, 1928-1930

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Margaret Bourke-White, At the Time of the Louisville Flood, 1937

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Henri Cartier-Bresson, Gestapo Informer, Dessau, Germany, April 1945

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Gordon Parks, Colored Entrance, Mobile, Alabama, 1956

Yes, the photo above just made me realize how black and white the book is.

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Nacho López, Hands with cigarettes under cell door, Lecumberri Penitentiary, Mexico City, from the series Prisión de sueños, 1950

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Nacho López, La Venus se va de juerga, 1953

López orchestrated situations in public space and document passersby reactions. In the series "La Venus se va de juerga", for example, a man travels through the crowd carrying a blond mannequin.

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Santu Mofokeng, Democracy is forever, Pimville, 2004

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Eugène Atget, Avenue des Gobelins, 1927

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Frances Benjamin Johnston, Stairway of the Treasurer's Residence: Students at Work from the Hampton, c. 1900

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